Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2009, 54, 637–657

The enigmatic signifier and the decentred subject

Ladson Hinton, Seattle, USA

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill . . .
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was grey and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

‘Anecdote of the Jar’ by Wallace Stevens

Abstract: War, genocide, economic upheaval and terrorism have crushed belief in endlessly ‘enlightened’ progress. We more and more doubt the teleological nature of psychological events, including the activity of a Self or centre that guides the development of the subject. There is a growing view of a ‘decentred’ subject that develops in the face of an enigmatic Otherness. Jean Laplanche has created an extensive metapsychology describing this situation, emphasizing the original helplessness of an infant who is bathed in enigmatic messages from its very beginnings. These messages from the adult other are often sexualized, and are partly or largely unconscious to the sender. Laplanche calls this situation ‘primal seduction’. The immature human cannot fully metabolize such adult messages, and through ‘primal repression’ they remain as the unconscious core of subjectivity. They disrupt psychological life, conveying a sense of signifying something to the subject. What they signify is an enigma, like finding a hieroglyph in the desert. The story of relationships and culture is the story of our repeated attempts to translate them, to respond to them. An analytic case illustrates these concepts as they appear in the transference, first as gaps and monsters, and then in the crucial and surprising appearance of transformative laughter. The vicissitudes of the clinical situation illustrate the vital importance of the enigmatic signifier in the development of the subject.

Keywords: enigmatic signifier, enigmatic messages, decentred subject, laughter, primal repression, primal seduction, translation

General introduction

The view that everything should or can be understood or spoken into existence (Frosh 2006, p. 372), and that psychological life could be seen as a teleological or evolutionary process, guided by a strong ego, dominated the early decades of analytic thought and practice. The hope of this modernist viewpoint was illustrated by Freud’s dictum (1933, p. 112; Frosh 2006, p. 364):

to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be: it is a work of culture, much like the draining of the Zuider Zee.

(italics mine)

The human challenge was to tame the wildness of nature and put it to use. Everything could be known, classified, and utilized. This was the ‘Enlightened’ Western ethos (Frie & Orange 2009, pp. 3–6; Elliot 2001, pp. 10–11; Harvey 1990).

World wars, genocides, ecological threats, terrorism, and economic upheaval have put these ambitious and optimistic beliefs in doubt. Such spectacles of useless suffering disrupt our illusions of meaning and coherence, and to subsume it under the rubrics of a ‘higher purpose’ or ‘telos’ seems, at the least, callous (Baumann 1989; Edgar 2007; Levinas 2000, pp. 91–103).

This background has impacted analytic thought and practice. We now know that the communications of both analyst and patient are not ‘pure’, but are invariably influenced by unconscious elements (Ferro 2006, 2009). A postmodern ethos has emerged focusing upon an ‘otherness’ that cannot be finally understood or spoken (Levinas 2000). The ‘subject’ develops out of the ambiguous interface between enigma and our always-incomplete attempts at discursive understanding.

Within analytical psychology, this changed milieu has provoked re-thinking of archetypal theory and the question as to whether the self is ‘found’ or ‘made’ (Zinkin 1991/2008). The classical view of a Self or centre that guides development, and of archetypes as a priori structuring forms, has come into doubt. As a result, with varying degrees of success, there has been a multiplicity of efforts to reconsider Jung’s ideas in the light of developmental theories, cognitive science, dynamic systems theory, neuroscience, and postmodern perspectives (Hauke 2000; Kugler 2005; Colman 2008; Hogenson 2009; Knox 2004, 2009). Giegerich has created a substantial and original work that is heavily influenced by Hegelian concepts (2004, 2007). Whatever its merits, this work has also not been accepted by all (Hillman 1994; Drob 2005).

In psychoanalytic theory, recastings of subjectivity have shifted away from Freud’s ‘Oedipal’ structures and inborn ‘drives’, toward more ambiguous perspectives often termed ‘pre-Oedipal’ or ‘pre-object relations’, and from a Lacanian-inspired theory of the linguistifaction of the subject to a post-Lacanian theory of pre-verbal, imaginary significations (Anzieu 1989; Kristeva 1989; Castoriadis 1997; Elliot & Spezzano 2000; Fairfield, Layton & Stack 2002; Zizek 2004). However, as in analytical psychology, none of these speculations has been universally embraced. As Elliot (2005, pp. 25–26) describes the contemporary situation: ‘these far-reaching investigations have raised afresh the question of human creation, the question of representation and fantasy, and the question of the imaginary constitution of the socio-symbolic world’.

One generally accepted premise that has emerged is that an isolated mind in which development occurs, or in which the self or subject is constructed out of pre-existing contents, is no longer tenable. The developing individual is immersed in an ocean of signification from the beginning, and subjectivity develops from that enigmatic matrix. And yet, the value of reflection and articulating experience—the process of the development of the human subject— remains central to the analytic ethos (Astrachan 2005). We are left with some challenging dilemmas. Jean Laplanche has fully engaged this formidable gap in psychoanalytic theorizing, and created a profound and thought-provoking metapsychology.

Laplanche and metapsychology

Laplanche: introduction

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