unconscious (inconscient) Although the term 'unconscious' had been
used by writers prior to Freud, it acquires a completely original meaning in his
work, in which it constitutes the single most important concept.
Freud distinguished between two uses of the term 'unconscious' (Freud,
19l5e). As an adjective, it simply refers to mental processes that are not the
subject of conscious attention at a given moment. As a noun (the unconscious;
das Unbewuﬂte), it designates one of the psychical systems which Freud
described in his first theory of mental structure (the 'topographical model').
According to this theory, the mind is divided into three systems or 'psychical
localities'; the conscious (Cs), the preconscious (Pcs) and the unconscious
(Ucs). The unconscious system is not merely that which is outside the field of
consciousness at a given time, but that which has been radically separated from
consciousness by repression and thus cannot enter the conscious-preconscious
system without distortion.
In Freud's second theory of mental structure (the 'structural theory'), the
omd is divided into the three "agencies' of ego, superego and id. In this model,
no one agency is identical to the unconscious, since even the ego and the
superego have unconscious parts.
Lacan, before 1950, uses the term 'unconscious' principally in its adjectival
form, making his early work seem particularly strange to those who are more
familiar with Freud's writings. In the 1950s, however, as Lacan begins his
.return to Freud', the term appears more frequently as a noun, and Lacan
increasingly emphasises the originality of Freud's concept of the unconscious,
stressing that it is not merely the opposite of consciousness; 'a large number of
psychical effects that are quite legitimately designated as unconscious, in the
sense of excluding the characteristics of consciousness, are nonetheless with-
out any relation whatever to the unconscious in the Freudian sense' (E, 163).
He also insists that the unconscious cannot simply be equated with 'that which
Lacan argues that the concept of the unconscious was badly misunderstood
by most of Freud's followers, who reduced it to being 'merely the seat of the
instincts' (E, 147). Against this biologistic mode of thought, Lacan argues that
'the unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual' (E, 170); it is primarily
linguistic. This is summed up in Lacan's famous formula, 'the unconscious is
structured like a language' (S3, 167; see LANGUAGE, STRUCTURE). Lacan's
analysis of the unconscious in terms of synchronic structure is supplemented
by his idea of the unconscious opening and closing in a temporal pulsation
(S11, 143, 204).
Some psychoanalysts have objected to Lacan's linguistic approach to the
unconscious on the grounds that it is overly restrictive, and on the grounds that
Freud himself excluded word-presentations from the unconscious (S7, 44; for
Lacan's refutation of these objections, see THING). Lacan himself qualifies his
linguistic approach by arguing that the reason why the unconscious is struc-
tured like a language is that 'we only grasp the unconscious finally when it is
explicated, in that part of it which is articulated by passing into words' (S7,
Lacan also describes the unconscious as a discourse: 'The unconscious is the
discourse of the Other' (Ec, 16; see OTHER). This enigmatic formula, which has
become one of Lacan's most famous dictums, can be understood in many
ways. Perhaps the most important meaning is that 'one should see in the
unconscious the effects of speech on the subject' (Sll, 126). More pre-
cisely, the unconscious is the effects of the SIGNIFIER on the subject, in that
the signifier is what is repressed and what returns in the formations of the
unconscious (symptoms, jokes, parapraxes, dreams, etc.).
All the references to language, speech, discourse and signifiers clearly locate
the unconscious in the order of the SYMBOLIc. Indeed, 'the unconscious is
structured as a function of the symbolic' (S7, 12). The unconscious is the
determination of the subject by the symbolic order.
The unconscious is not interior: on the contrary, since speech and language
are intersubjective phenomena, the unconscious is 'transindividual' (E, 49);
the unconscious is, so to speak, 'outside'. 'This exteriority of the symbolic in
relation to man is the very notion of the unconscious' (Ec, 469). If the
unconscious seems interior, this is an effect of the imaginary, which blocks
the relationship between the subject and the Other and which inverts the
message of the Other.
Although the unconscious is especially visible in the formations of the
unconscious, 'the unconscious leaves none of our actions outside its field'
(E, 163). The laws of the unconscious, which are those of repetition and desire,
are as ubiquitous as structure itself. The unconscious is irreducible, so the aim
of analysis cannot be to make conscious the unconscious.
In addition to the various linguistic metaphors which Lacan draws on to
conceptualise the unconscious (discourse, language, speech), he also conceives
of the unconscious in other terms.
g MEMORY The unconscious is also a kind of memory, in the sense of a
symbolic history of the signifiers that have determined the subject in the course
of his life; 'what we teach the subject to recognize as his unconscious is his
history' (E, p. 52).
e KNOWLEDGE Since it is an articulation of signifiers in a signifying chain,
the unconscious is a kind of knowledge (symbolic knowledge, or savoir). More
precisely, it is an 'unknown knowledge'.