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Potentiality of the unconscious and the efficacy of psychoanalysis
Javert Rodrigues

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Psychoanalysts from different schools of psychoanalysis agree that the Unconscious is one of the fundamental concepts that organize the theoretical and practical bases of psychoanalysis. Despite this unanimous agreement, we are surprised with the quite different meanings each school has for apparently the same concept.

Freud himself in his papers had showed ambivalence in the conceptualization of the Unconscious: in one hand he established that the concept of the Unconcious is one of the three traumatic wounds in the narcissistic position of the human being. Displacing man from the world of Consciousness and saying that the ego has the illusion of controlling man’s life, he stated that "The ego is not master in its own house".

A consequence of this is that the psychoanalytic subject (person) structures itself in the permanent interplay of identification processes, and subjectivity must be searched not in the empirical subject, but in the Other world and in the world of Culture in general. Another important consequence is that the psychoanalytic subject is not its own founder nor it is autonomous, and such a thing as an autonomous Ego, doesn't exist. Lacan fought against what he used to call this "theoretical bypass of a therapeutic practice based on the ideology of an Autonomous Ego".

But Freud was loyal to the spirit of the "Auflkärung" (Enlightenment) and had to pay homage to god Logos.

According to Laplanche, the Copernican revolution of Freud seemed sometimes to retreat and take shelter in the Ptolemaic re-centering when he tries to domesticate the Unconcious under the mastery of the Ego, with the famous and controversial phrase: "Wo ES war, soll Ich werden"

This phrase has been translated into English as: "Where the Id was, the ego shall be". It has had great importance in the development of "ego-psychology", this branch of psychoanalysis that has flourished intensely in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Lacan has given a quite different interpretation to this phrase. For him it is not the Ego that will be where the id was; it is the Subject, the subject of the Unconscious. He had always postulated the displacement of consciousness and the mirage of its mastery upon the psychic system.

These differences have great consequences for the theoretical and practical psychoanalytical work.

For some psychoanalysts the unconscious doesn’t change, it is not altered by time or space. For them the unconscious is always the same. It doesn’t matter the geographical localization the culture or the historic moment in the world.

For others the Unconscious is not always the same and it suffers the influence of time and culture. To support this, they say that the symptoms (seen as unconscious formations) appear in close relationship with time, space and culture. For instance, those "exhibitionistic" cases of Hysteria frequently seen in the beginning of the last century are scarcely seen today, except in some primitive cultures.

Differences also exists due to different interpretations of Freud’s ideas, many of them based in theoretical models of physics, chemistry, biology and neuro -physiology of his own time.

Some think the Unconscious prioritizing the positivistic aspects present in Freud’s papers, which aimed and wanted to place psychoanalysis in the field of the Natural Sciences. The biological approach of psychoanalysis is one consequence, the Unconscious seen as structured as a field of forces where conflicts, barriers, repression and liberation of energies are always in action.

There are still others, like Lacan, who think the Unconscious structured as a language, supported by the developments of the Linguistic sciences made by Saussure, and ethnologic advances made by Lévi-Strauss.

For them the Unconscious is not a chaotic, unthinkable or place of mystery. Freud has said, "the unconscious thinks..." Lacan has added, "these thoughts are formed originally by a network of opposing signifiers".

Lacan has demonstrated that the significant function is due to the opposition of signifiers and that these oppositions, (see the example given by Freud of the "Fort-Da") are supported by oppositions seen in the natural world: day-night, tall-short, cold-hot, male-female etc.

The concept of signifier is fundamental to understand the thesis of the Unconscious structured as a language. Saussure has demonstrated the concept of a signifier taking the word tree, saying that it is a linguistic sign. In order to avoid imaginary influences the word tree could arouse, he used the Latin name arbor, to emphasize that it is only a sound: arbor. When one says arbor, we are able to get what this sound means.

. Every word (linguistic sign) has its sound, this sound is called acoustic image and has its concept. When we say tree, we have this sound and the concept of a tree. The acoustic image, the sound devoid of its signification, below or beyond the concept that it represents, is the signifier.

Lacan has made an inversion in the relationship described by Saussure;

  Saussure   Lacan
Arbor   meaning   s   to   Signifier   S  
    Signifier   S       meaning   s  

Lacan does not agree with Saussure about the unity established by the meaning/signifier relationship but he says that the signifier chain is the responsible for the production of signification.

Saussure Lacan
Tree Men Women

Saussure gives importance to the meaning. Lacan in his example shows two identical doors in the place of the meaning and two differents signifiers :"MEN ‘and ‘WOMEN’. He says that is the opposition of the signifiers that will make the differentiation of the meanings

He justifies this saying that the Unconcious is much more interested in the signifiers than in the meanings, because, chains (networks) of signifiers constitute the Unconscious.

We will try now to show an example of the process of creation of signification as we cut the last signifier of a phrase; the effect would be better illustrated if a woman would read it. As she progresses, it will arouse a sexual quality.

Oh, my love in this way we cannot go on living.
Oh, my love in this way we cannot go.
Oh, my love in this way we cannot.
Oh, my love in this way we can.
Oh, my love in this way.
Oh, my love…

Freud discovered that dreams, symptoms, slips of tongue belong to the order of jokes, because they work much more in the field of interplay of signifiers than in the field of meaning.

The signifier is much more important than the meaning in psychoanalytical work. All psychoanalytic process is an experience of signification, that is, to give new meanings to signifiers, events and things that occurred in the subject's life and also to verify the non-signification of some events and things.

During the analytic process, if we are able to listen carefully to the patient's speech, we will have also the possibility of determining the importance of certain signifiers that can be called "chief–signifiers".

These chief-signifiers are like banners with a symbolic inscription that gives direction and guides the patient throughout his existence, limiting his potentiality and his field of choices and decisions.

If we accept that the "Unconscious is structured as a language" the Unconscious then is not a substance, or a "thing" or place.

To say that one representation belongs to the Unconcious means that its laws and syntax are quite different from those of consciousness.

An unconscious representation coexists with contradiction and there is no place for denial. Here rules the primary process with its two main ways of functioning: displacement and condensation.

Freud has stated that it is in the gaps of the conscious speech that we will find the ways to the Unconscious. Dreams, lapses, jests, cracked actions, and symptoms reveal that another subject unknown by consciousness irrupts and imposes his discourse over us.

We can then say that the Unconcious is the discourse of the Other.

Because the Unconscious is structured as a language it will be always capable of bursting without previous warning or hints, demonstrating its endless potentiality.

These psychic manifestations are directed to an analyst who will look for their meanings and make sense for the analysand. This is possible due to transference. Transference is understood here as a question or issue directed to the analyst "supposed to know" about the signification of the unconscious manifestations of the analysand.

We can say that the psychoanalytic process starts as a fraud. The analyst knows nothing about the analysand but in order to put the process in motion he silently keeps this truth for himself. He doesn't reject the assumption made by the analysand that the he is the one who knows the truth and the signification of the symptoms the patient brings to him.

Inviting the analysand to free associate, and pressing him to say everything without any restrictions, the analyst puts in motion the process of psychoanalysis. We analysts know that we are demanding something impossible from the patient, because the discourse of the unconscious is over determined by its own structure.

This process is the key to clarify the desire that underlies each manifestation of the so-called "unconscious formations".

Let us give a clinical example:

Mary was a forty years old woman when she initiated her analysis. Although she had a college degree, she had restrained herself as a submissive housekeeper to a dominant and aggressive husband.

Everything in her showed signs of depression, weakness, low self-esteem and shyness. She was a pretty woman but she seemed to try to hide it by being careless and paying no attention to her feminine attributes.

Her complains were mainly those of incapacity to deal with her life, take care of her house, her sons and husband. She thought herself as someone stupid, coward and without qualities.

As she was telling her life story, I was able to point to her the contradiction of her ideas about herself and the facts of her life. She had been a brilliant student and had received a golden medal as the first student in an important school.

Many of her male colleagues tried to get close to her and they were always saying that she was very pretty, but she always found a way to avoid these potential contacts.

She finished her college studies with excellent grades but failed in her attempts to work as a professional in her field. She could never trust her competence and she was always running away from facing responsibilities in her work.

She was sure that she was not able to accomplish her tasks and a massive feeling of incapacity paralyzed her in many moments of her life.

During her analysis she gradually made progress and began to move herself to a different position in her relational and professional world. She began to face and answer her husband, she went back to study and was approved for a public job.

During her analysis she was finally able to discover the chief signifiers that had organized and controlled her entire life.

She remembered that, when she was a four-year-old girl, her mother taught her to read, and she learned fast.

Few months after this period she was sent to school and her mother ordered her not to tell anybody at school that she was already able to read. Being an obedient girl, she kept this knowledge to herself until one day when the teacher showed the class a picture of an object that had a local name but a different national name that was written under it. When her teacher asked the students the name of the object, she was the only one that answered the national name, denouncing herself as the one who could read.

She realized she had disobeyed her mother. Her mother had ordered her to deny the fact that she knew how to read. Throughout her life she carried this sin, and unconsciously tried never again to disappoint her "beloved mother". She became someone who could never demonstrate or confess that she knew anything.

It could be thought that once the analysand had arrived at this discovery, her symptoms would disappear and the analytic work would come to a happy ending as the consequence of this deciphering work. But the clinical work teaches us that remembering has its limitations.

One can reach the point of fixation in the history through the regression process, the point where the libido is linked to a representation of the Desire of the Other. But, something insists and goes beyond the remembering work and we can say that it imposes itself as a repetition in act. This something can be described as the superego "pleasure" (juissance) intimately related to repetition compulsion.

The consequence is that although the deciphering is necessary it is not sufficient. "You should not show that you can read" as the mother’s order has the same statute of what Freud has called a hidden memory.

Lacan stated that there is a desire that goes beyond this signification. This is the "mother’s desire", the point of her incompleteness and sign of her Castration. This analysand will try to fulfill this point of lack, offering herself as an obturator object, identifying herself to what has been ordered by her mother, imposing on herself the impossible task to make her mother complete, non-Castrated, omnipotent and a phallic-mother.

The patient desires to be the phallus of the mother and by this de-negating her own castration based on the assumption that if the Mother can be complete and not castrated there would be a possibility of she herself escaping the Castration process.

Lacan has stated that it is through the Castration process that we gain access to the symbolic register. In other words it is necessary to go through the Oedipal process to arrive at the Symbolic world, i.e. the world of Language.

The signification that this patient arrived as the guideline of her life, as all significations, belongs to the imaginary register: any content could be the answer to the mother’s desire but the important is the continent, the structure of the subject of the unconscious.

The signification was taken as if it was the perfect truth for this patient but after being deciphered it gains another statute, that of a metaphor. This means that that "truth" can now be replaced and by this it becomes the signifier of the mother’s desire and as we know, any signifier doesn’t signifies nothing, it only represents the subject to another signifier.

As a consequence of this metaphoric process she realizes that she will never be reintegrated into her mother’s body as an object with the power of fulfilling and completing her mother. As we can see this metaphoric process is due to a successful crossing of the Oedipal complex.

Let us return to the point where this phrase of her mother answers for the patient the enigma of the Other's desire:

"What does she want of me? "

"What do I have to do to keep myself as the object of her desire?"

Our patient took this fragment found in the fragments she had heard and seen in the process of remembering and regression from the signifiers- chain of her history, and it was the answer that gave sense to the enigma of her symptoms.

We must state that in order to enter the world of the Culture (Symbolic) a child must have one signification that allows her to enter the Order of the Phallus.

"What must I be or have, to insert myself in this new world? What must I be to enter in the school? Perhaps, I must show that I don’t know..." The mother’s speech becomes an imperative, commanding order, similar or proportional to the structural imperative that one has to insert himself in the phallic order, which is the condition for symbolic existence for the "speaking-being" (human being).

But, this signification is just clothes that the phallus dresses itself with and can be compared with the masks one have to go to a masquerade ball.

As we have already said, the analytic work in a first step will deal with unconscious remembering mainly of traumatic scenes. This work is done at the Oedipal level and promotes the articulation of the "subject" in the signifier chain of his history, normalizing the identifications patterns that had organized his subjectiviness. This kind of work constitutes a border (edge) structure due to the weaving and the chaining of the free associations and the analyst’s interpretations. This work is necessary but it is not enough to accomplish our goal.

Freud has demonstrated in many occasions that we must follow other directions after this first step as he formulated concepts that went beyond the pleasure principle. The death drive (trieb), the navel of the dreams, unheimlich, the castration order, primary repression and many other indications show that the language field must be surpassed.

Let us pay attention to the last words Freud said in his paper "Beyond the Pleasure Principle": "Where we can ’t go flying, we must go limping." We must try to search for the truth in our patients in those things that limps, which lacks, in what falls out of the stream of the speech, as we know that the language structure has holes and gaps in its network.

"The analytic work develops itself in the alternation of two fields that organize the structure of the "subject" (S). At one side the field of representations, where Order prevails under the predominance of the Pleasure Principle, the place of the signifier chain where remembering and return of the repressed can take place.

The other field is the one that is outside the signifier, a place where repetition takes place, under the dominance of the Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and is mainly the field of drives (trieb). In this field there are no shapes but space of emptiness and border space that points to a hole in the structure". Lacan called this as the register of the Real. This hole seems to be the heart of the being (Kern unseres Wesen) as Freud put it.

The analytic work must go beyond the return to the signifier chain and free the speech of the patient from returning to the same and repetitive themes and also free the drive (trieb) from the signifiers that had been attached to it.

To make this possible, the analyst must operate in these two fields: sometimes making his interpretations in the field of language but also interpreting in that field where there are not words at his disposal. Here is the dimension of the "Act" in which he will have to perform in order to make a cut (coupure) that will promote the change of the patient's discourse.

This proposal has the effect of freeing the patient from the repetition of the same and endless issues that he has been always fastened to, changing this walking on circles that usually causes an analysis to extend extremely long in time, and avoiding it from becoming an endless and ineffective exercise.

The theory that sustain this proposals is that in this kind of endless repetition of the "same" there is a strong kind of attachment to a "beyond pleasure" (juissance) which has its roots in masochistic structure in the patient.

This kind of handling of the analytic situation is not free from a amount of uncertainty that must be sustained by the analytic act; the act is not provided by a previous and elaborated rationalistic elaboration, and the consequences of the act is not known in advance.

This risk situation has its support in the analyst own analysis through the experience he has had of his own "want-to-be " (manque à être) and his incompleteness due to the Castration operation.

He will be also be sustained by his analytic knowledge, result of long years of theoretical and practical studies and work.

Dealing alternatively with these two fields may make possible to surpass repetition of the "same" and be able to create new shapes and new formulas.

The efficacy of psychoanalysis will be the result of this step-by-step work that has led patients to change not only in their subjectivity but also mainly in their relational position with the others, with the world and with their own existence.

Singularity and difference may be the trademark of someone that has finished an analytical process.

This is a kind of work that cannot be being put in statistical numbers, it is not possible to measure it and make a universalization of the psychoanalytical results. This procedure would be a complete proof that we were bypassing the fundamental psychoanalytical concepts.


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Revista de Psicoanálisis y Cultura
Número 16 - Diciembre 2002