How are we to distinguish a ‘repressed unconscious’ from a ‘radically unconscious’?

by Philip Boxer

Here is Freud’s introduction to ‘The Unconscious’:

“We have learnt from psychoanalysis that the essence of the process of repression lies, not in putting an end to, in annihilating, the idea which represents an instinct, but in preventing it from becoming conscious. When this happens we say of the idea that it is in a state of being `unconscious’,[1] and we can produce good evidence to show that even when it is unconscious it can produce effects, even including some which finally reach consciousness. Everything that is repressed must remain unconscious; but let us state at the very outset that the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious. The unconscious has the wider compass: the repressed is a part of the unconscious.” (Freud 1957c: p166)

Here he makes the point that there is the conscious, the repressed that must remain unconscious, and that which is unconscious that is not covered by the repressed: a three made up of the conscious, the repressed and an unconscious ‘beyond’ the repressed, which I referred to as the radically unconscious. As we will see, the relation to this ‘beyond’ of the unconscious remains obscure, implicit in the relation to drive.

In this second quote, Freud distinguishes the system Ucs, the repressed “that must remain unconscious”, and the system Cs, being that which passes “a kind of testing” qua censorship1:

“Proceeding now to an account of the positive findings of psycho-analysis, we may say that in general a psychical act goes through two phases as regards its state, between which is interposed a kind of testing (censorship). In the first phase the psychical act is unconscious and belongs to the system Ucs.; if, on testing, it is rejected by the censorship, it is not allowed to pass into the second phase; it is then said to be `repressed’ and must remain unconscious. If, however, it passes this testing, it enters the second phase and thenceforth belongs to the second system, which we will call the system Cs.”(Freud 1957c: p172)

This gives us two layers: the unconscious that does not get past “the rigorous” censorship1 (i.e., the repressed unconscious) and that which does (i.e. the conscious). Freud then makes a further distinction, however, between the conscious and that which has a “capacity for becoming conscious” between which “a certain censorship also plays a part”, which I well refer to as censorship2:

But the fact that it belongs to that system does not yet unequivocally determine its relation to consciousness. It is not yet conscious, but it is certainly capable of becoming conscious (to use Breuer’s expression)[2] —that is, it can now, given certain conditions, become an object of consciousness without any special resistance. In consideration of this capacity for becoming conscious we also call the system Cs. the `preconscious’. If it should turn out that a certain censorship also plays a part in determining whether the preconscious becomes conscious, we shall discriminate more sharply between the systems Pcs. and Cs. [Cf. p. 191 f.]. For the present let it suffice us to bear in mind that the system Pcs. shares the characteristics of the system Cs. and that the rigorous censorship exercises its office at the point of transition from the Ucs. to the Pcs. (Or Cs.).” (Freud 1957c: p173)

The “two (or three) psychical systems” below refer therefore to the two systems of the conscious Cs and the unconscious Ucs, between which we have censorship1, three systems emerging if, within the system Cs we make the further distinction between the conscious Cs and the preconscious Pcs, separated by censorship2. The descriptive ‘below-the-surface’ thus separates the Cs from the Pcs and Ucs:

“By accepting the existence of these two (or three) psychical systems, psycho-analysis has departed a step further from the descriptive `psychology of consciousness’ and has raised new problems and acquired a new content. Up till now, it has differed from that psychology mainly by reason of its dynamic view of mental processes; now in addition it seems to take account of psychical topography as well, and to indicate in respect of any given mental act within what system or between what systems it takes place. On account of this attempt, too, it has been given the name of `depth-ρsychology’.[3]We shall hear that it can be further enriched by taking yet another point of view into account. [Cf. p. 181.]” (Freud 1957c: p173)

Freud goes on to elaborate on an economic point of view, distinct from the dynamic and topographical points of view, in order to account for the relation between the Pcs and the Ucs in terms of censorship1 processes of anticathexis (“the sole mechanism of primary repression”) and the censorship2 processes of withdrawal of Pcs cathexis (“repression proper”):

“What we require, therefore, is another process which maintains the repression in the first case [i.e. the case of after-pressure] and, in the second [i.e. that of primal repression], ensures its being established as well as continued. This other process can only be found in the assumption of an anticathexis, by means of which the system Pcs. protects itself from the pressure upon it of the unconscious idea. We shall see from clinical examples how such an anticathexís, operating in the system Pcs., manifests itself. It is this which represents the permanent expenditure [of energy] of a primal repression, and which also guarantees the permanence of that repression. Anticathexís is the sole mechanism of primal repression; in the case of repression proper (`after-pressure’) there is in addition withdrawal of the Pcs. cathexis. It is very possible that it is precisely the cathexis which is withdrawn from the idea that is used for anticathexís.” (Freud 1957c: p181)

This economic point of view distinguishes three psychical systems separated by primal repression (censorship1) and repression proper (censorship2) (Freud 1957b: p148). In doing so, however, it “endeavours to follow out the vicissitudes of amounts of excitation”, excitation that is excitation of neural pathways. The relation to the radically unconscious emerges, therefore, in Freud’s approach to instinctual excitation. What is taken up in the system Ucs is “the idea that represents the instinct” aka “the ideational representative”:

I am in fact of the opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious is not applicable to instincts. Αn instinct can never become an object of consciousness—only the idea that represents the instinct can. Even in the unconscious, moreover, an instinct cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea. If the instinct did not attach itself to an idea or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it. When we nevertheless speak of an unconscious instinctual impulse or of a repressed instinctual impulse, the looseness of phraseology is a harmless one. We can only mean an instinctual impulse the ideational representative of which is unconscious, for nothing else comes into consideration.[4] (Freud 1957c: p177)

This is where Lacan goes further than Freud, disagreeing with Strachey’s translation, in which he equates the idea with vorstellung. Here is Strachey in his editor’s note to Instincts and their Vicissitudes:

There is, however, an ambiguity in Freud’s use of the term ‘Trieb’ (‘instinct’) and ‘Triebrepräsentanz’ (‘instinctual representative’) to which, for the sake of clearer understanding, attention must be drawn. On pp. 121-2 he describes an instinct as ‘a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, … the psychical representative[5] of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind’. He had twice before given descriptions in almost the same words. Some years earlier, towards the end of Section III of his discussion of the case of Schreber (1911c), he wrote of instinct as ‘the concept on the frontier between the somatic and the mental …, the psychical representative of organic forces’. And again, in a passage probably written a few months before the present paper and added to the third edition (published in 1915, but with a preface dated ‘October 1914’) of his Three Essays (1905d), Standard Ed., 7, 168, he wrote of instinct as ‘the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation … a concept lying on the frontier between the mental and the physical’. These three accounts seem to make it plain that Freud was drawing no distinction between an instinct and its ‘psychical representative’. He was apparently regarding the instinct itself as the psychical representative of somatic forces. If now, however, we turn to the later papers in this series, we seem to find him drawing a very sharp distinction between the instinct and its psychical representative.”(Freud 1957a: p111)

“Idea” was Strachey’s translation of representative, equating it with vorstellung in line with Freud’s earlier thinking.  Lacan picks up on Freud’s later thinking, however, to read this distinction between the instinct and the idea that represents it as the distinction between the radically unconscious vorstellungen and the vorstellungrepräsentanzen, their ‘ideational representatives’ in the system Ucs.

“Freud […] held that what is repressed is what he called the Vorstellungrepräsentanzen, commonly translated into English as ideational representatives. On the basis of the German philosophical tradition underlying Freud’s work and a close study of Freud’s texts themselves, Lacan translated it into French as représentants de la représentation, representatives of (the) representation, and concludes that these representatives can be equated with what are referred to in linguistics as signifiers.” (Fink 1995: p8)

This brings us to the whole issue of Strachey’s translation of ‘drive’ (trieb) as instinct and the loss of Freud’s structural characterisation of the relation to drive in terms of pressure (drang), aim (ziel), object (object) and source (quelle):

“We are now in a position to discuss certain terms which are used in reference to the concept of an instinct—for example, its ‘pressure’, its ‘aim’, its ‘object’ and its ‘source’. By the pressure [Drang] of an instinct we understand its motor factor, the amount of force or the measure of the demand for work which it represents. […] The aim [Ziel] of an instinct is in every instance satisfaction, which can only be obtained by removing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct. […] The object [Objekt] of an instinct is the thing in regard to which or through which the instinct is able to achieve its aim. It is what is most variable about an instinct and is not originally connected with it, but becomes assigned to it only in consequence of being peculiarly fitted to make satisfaction possible. […] By the source [Quelle] of an instinct is meant the somatic process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct. […] The study of the sources of instincts lies outside the scope of psychology. Although instincts are wholly determined by their origin in a somatic source, in mental life we know them only by their aims. An exact knowledge of the sources of an instinct is not invariably necessary for purposes of psychological investigation; sometimes its source may be inferred from its aim.” (Freud 1957a: pp122-23)

The point here is that the drives per se remain radically unconscious, “outside the scope of psychology”, being taken up by the unconscious through their ‘ideational representatives’ in a relation to the radically unconscious that has the four-part structural characteristics of pressure, aim, object and source.

In Lacan’s work, these Vorstellungsrepräsentanzen are signifiers that allow drives to be represented:

“Lacan proposes that we equate these representatives with signifiers standing in for drives (i.e., acting as the representatives of drives) at the ideational level: the level of representation or thought.” (Fink 1995: p74)

Of particular note here is Fink’s footnote, in which he points out the radical implications of abandoning Freud’s implicitly spherical model:

“In this way, Lacan implicitly eliminates an element of Freud’s thinking that remains tied, in a sense, to ancient cosmology: the notion of concentric spheres, one Sphere being embedded within another. Freud’s term Vorstellungrepräsentanz, which Lacan first translates as représentant de la représentation, representative of (the) (re)presentation, suggests that there is, first, a level or sphere of thought or representation (which is, no doubt, closest to reality, the phenomenon, or the thing-in-itself) and, secondarily, a level or sphere of ideational (re)presentations thereof. […] Freud’s term might be more usefully understood in terms of the distinction between the signifier (representative) and the signified ((re)presentation), but it nevertheless suggests some kind of radical distinction between the two, as if the signified were not, somehow, (itself) made up of or constituted by the signifier.”(Fink 1995: footnote pp187-88)

In this relation of a signifying unconscious to a radically unconscious is the relation between the signifier and the signified, separated by the radical bar: signifier/signified (Lacan 2002[1996]). We can thus also express this as the relation across the bar of Vorstellungrepräsentanz/Vorstellung in which metaphor is a ‘fixing’ of the relation across the bar while metonymy is a sliding of the relation.

One last thing (linking back to the synoptic comments on Lacan)

Having said all that, it remains critical, however, to maintain a separation between uses of S1, S2, $ and a at the level of the system Cs and at the level of the system Ucs, a separation that becomes explicit in the quarter-turn rotations in the structure of the discourses between the S1, S2, $ and a quadripod and the agent, work, ‘truth’ and production quadripod (Lacan 2007[1969-70]: p29). It is for this reason that I refer to the system Cs, including the system Pcs, as the autonoetic, the object-relating system Ucs as the noetic, and the radically unconscious source of the drives as the anoetic.


Fink, B. 1995. The Lacanian Subject: between language and jouissance (Princeton University Press).

Freud, S. 1957a. ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915).’ in, translated and edited by J. Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIV (1914-1916) (The Hogarth Press: London).

———. 1957b. ‘Repression (1915).’ in J. Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIV (1914-1916) (The Hogarth Press: London).

———. 1957c. ‘The Unconscious (1915).’ in, translated and edited by J. Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIV (1914-1916) (Hogarth Press: London).

Lacan, J. 2002[1996]. ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious.’ in, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (W.W. Norton & Company: New York).

———. 2007[1969-70]. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Book XVII (W.W. Norton & Company: New York).

[1] [See Editor’s Note, p. 165 footnote.]

[2] [See Studies on Hysteria, Breuer and Freud (1895), Standard Ed., 2, 225.]

[3] [By Bleuler (1914). See the `History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement’ (1914d), above, p. 41.]

[4] [Cf. the Editor’s Note to ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, p. 111 ff. above.]

[5] The German word here and in the Schreber quotation is ‘Repräsentant’, a particularly formal word used mainly in legal or constitutional language. In all the other quotations which follow, as well as almost invariably later, Freud writes ‘Repräsentanz’, which is a more abstract form and would be better rendered by ‘representance’ if it existed, or by ‘representation’ if it were not so exceedingly ambiguous. (‘Vertretung’, the ordinary German word for ‘representation’, appears in a parallel passage in the original text of Freud’s Encyclopaedia Britannica article, 1926f.) In many places Freud uses the compound ‘Triebrepräsentanz’, which means ‘representative of an instinct’ but is usually abbreviated here into ‘instinctual representative’.

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