Laplanche and metapsychology
Laplanche navigates these circumstances by carefully tracing the lineaments of the enigmatic core of psychological life, emphasizing the role of the other in the development of subjectivity. The study of his ideas regarding the enigma of the other, as seen in the transference and in the discourse of analysis, provides a unique perspective that is invaluable in clinical work. One feels the excitement of an original, learned mind on a quest—whose perspective enlarges and enlivens one’s own.
Now in his eighties, Laplanche studied under Merleau-Ponty, starting his career as a phenomenological philosopher. He then became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Originally associated with Lacan, he later developed his own version of analytic theory and practice. In his university-based psychoanalytic school in Paris, the Association Psychanalytique de France or APF, work with analysts of any school was encouraged. At the time, this openness was unique in analytic institutes. While remaining part of the International Psychoanalytic Association he also made major changes, such as not adopting the training analyst hierarchy, in the organization of his institute (Laplanche 1991; Kritzman 2006, pp. 99–100).
His theories integrate psychoanalytic tradition with important trends in contemporary thought. While acknowledging the basic need to put experiences into words, he points out that our attempts are always incomplete because our efforts are limited by an enigmatic element stemming from an original helplessness and dependence upon an adult other—an other whose messages are partially enigmatic to both the child and the adult ‘sender’.
He refers to his view of the decentred self as a ‘Copernican Revolution’. According to Laplanche, we are born into a ‘Copernican’ world in which our ‘centre’ originally develops only in relation to an ‘other’, like the earth circling the sun. Later we become ‘Ptolemaic’, as the ego spins narcissistic illusions of ‘centrality’, ‘wholeness’ and self-sufficiency, defending against the ‘signifying stress’ of the other’s messages (Santner 2006, p. 33). The sun once again orbits the earth! That, according to Laplanche, is the view of ego psychology. Finally, through analysis or life experience we may return to the Copernican perspective, realizing that indeed we are decentred subjects, dependent on the enigmatic otherness of unconscious and ‘world’ in the Heideggerian sense (Laplanche 1999, pp. 52–84).
Primal repression is, for Laplanche, the very condition for the establishment of subjectivity. Freud first developed this idea in his early writings (1900, p. 603): ‘…in consequence of the belated appearance of the secondary processes, the core of our being, consisting of unconscious wishful impulses, remains inaccessible to the understanding and inhibition of the unconscious’. These memories and impulses are like fixations, estranged from later conscious recall and direction. However, they are ‘forgotten’ only in a literal sense; actually they exert a powerful influence on all later mental events through their wishful force (Freud 1915, pp. 141–158; Frank & Muslin 1967, pp. 59– 61). Freud later replaced his idea of primal repression with a biologically-based ‘id’: an upwelling of innate drive forces that must be subdued and directed by a ‘secondary’ repression. This later form of repression, epitomized by the breakup occasioned by the Oedipal complex, subsequently became the main basis for Freud’s elaboration of psychic structure (Elliot 2005, p. 27; Laplanche 1999, pp. 18 & 86). For Laplanche, in contrast, an unconscious ‘otherness in me’ due to primal repression is responsible for a gap between self and other. ‘I’ am ‘other’ to ‘myself’. Subjectivity develops in the face of the otherness that one always already is (Elliot 2005, p. 27).1
1It is interesting to note the resemblance of Sartre’s observation about shame: ‘J’ai honte de moi devant autrui’ (Sartre 1943, p. 337). Or, ‘I am ashamed of myself before the Other’ (Sartre 1956, p. 289). It would be an interesting exercise to tie together shame experience and the enigmatic signifier. Shame indeed became very important in Lacan’s later thought (Copjec 2006).
Laplanche is consistently critical of Freud’s increasingly biological orien- tation, as well as his tendency to reduce the present to the past. He views Klein as even more biased toward innateness, noting in her theories a kind of biological idealism (1999, p. 125). This leaves out the crucial importance of the other—particularly the parental other—as a source of messages. As a result the other becomes, ‘only . . . an abstract protagonist of a scene or a support for projections . . . ’ (ibid, p. 159). In Laplanche’s estimation, Klein never asks the crucial question, ‘what does the breast want?’ (ibid, p. 126).
Laplanche adopts the term ‘enigmatic signifier’ from Lacan, but redefines it to mean the gestures, actions or words of the other—the enigmatic messages of the other—in the situation of what he calls ‘primal seduction’ (ibid, p. 12, n. 13). He was strongly influenced by Lacan, but disagrees with his view of the child as a ‘symptom of the parents’ (ibid, p. 160; p. 160, n. 15). In his opinion, that disregards the creative activity of the nascent subject, ‘the break, the profound reshaping, which occurs . . . and which may be likened to a metabolism that breaks down food into its constituent parts and reassembles them into a completely different entity’ (ibid, p. 160).
The presence of an enigmatic, destabilizing nucleus of experience provokes the development of an ego that seeks to ‘bind’ the over-stimulating inputs. These enigmatic elements have an ongoing, destabilizing effect on personal and cultural structures, and at the extreme may feel like ‘black holes’ (Hinton 2007). The unsayability of those things that are the gaps in our ‘reality’ may evoke a sense of loss and melancholy. However, they are also the basis of our freedom to re-translate or re-imagine them (Butler 2003 & 2005; Frosh 2006; Kristeva 1989; Zizek 2004, p. 78). These imaginative ‘re-translations’ of the enigma create ‘new situations’ in a way that seems akin to what Jung called the transcendent function (Jung 1960, para. 167; Martin-Vallas 2005, pp. 289–90; Miller 2004, pp. 21–22).
Following Freud, Laplanche often employs a German word for the ‘other,’ das Andere, emphasizing the neutral article, the ‘thing-ness