Mind the Gap

by Robert Silhol

January 1, 2004


Nobel-winning neuroscientist Erik Kandel, in two influential articles (1998, 1999) called for a scientific basis for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, he said, is an attractive hypothesis but empty discourse unless verified. Despite the "reasonableness" of this request, one must recall the nature of Freud's original discovery. Positivism does not help in the "human sciences" where the relative and the paradoxical are the rule. The "bar" of psychoanalysis, representing what separates "Cs" from "Ucs," requires that we distinguish truth from knowledge. The Ucs points not only to what can only be reconstructed afterwards, but also to something we do not desire to know. One must therefore distinguish causes from effects. The history of the subject was first inscribed in the brain, it is but no longer the only cause. Recognizing this opens a debate on "representation"and metaphor and to questions psychoanalysis can ask the neuro-sciences.

  "Mind the gap," London Underground warning.

"Le savant qui fait la science est bien un sujet lui aussi . . . "

" . . . les conditions d’une science ne sauraient être l’empirisme. "

--J. Lacan," Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir" (1960).

    In two long articles 1 both published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, one in 1998, and a second in 1999, Eric Kandel, looking at psychoanalysis, gave a very sympathetic and critical view of it, with the generous intention of helping it to acquire a really scientific status at last. The enterprise is stimulating and intelligent, and it certainly deserves our attention.

    Briefly, what Kandel--who no doubt has a first-hand knowledge of psychoanalysis, I must insist on this--reproaches it with is that it lacks a scientific basis, reproaches it with not having a "scientific culture."

    Conscious, I think, of all the progress in knowledge psychoanalysis once represented, he regrets that it should now be lagging behind, unable, in fact, to fulfill the promises one may have thought it held.

    The link between a poor "methodology" and what he considers the comparative failure of psychoanalysis today, to Kandel is obvious; what he would like to see is more rationality, more "rigor" on the part of the theorists of psychoanalysis. To put it in my own words: however attractive an hypothesis, it just amounts to empty discourse if it cannot be verified.

    Kandel's request, then, seems very "reasonable" and one cannot but sympathize with him when he expresses the wish that one should be able to test the results of psychoanalysis.

    Such a criticism--even though it has been levelled at psychoanalysis many times--we can understand, and we can also understand that Kandel should be led to advocate, for the very good of psychoanalysis, a recourse to neurobiology. Obviously, whatever assistance can come from neurobiology is welcome, and we remember that Freud himself predicted that some of the problems he was up against would, perhaps, be solved by neuro-science.
Before examining how such an association could be profitable, however, we must make sure we are dealing with the same object, make sure, in other words, that our conceptions of psychoanalysis do coincide.

    Unfortunately, such does not seem the case. I know the distinction between what is objective and what is subjective is not a new one; we could easily find it in the works of the Greek thinkers, and it is in Kant in any case. Eric Kandel is aware of this, of course, and towards the end of his second article, mentioning Kaplan-Solms and Solms, he agrees that "subjective phenomena do not easily lend themselves to objective empirical analyses" (p. 74).

    But to appraise the difficulty may not be sufficient, and however epistemologically dangerous it may seem, one must go a step further and accept that Freud's discovery inaugurated the entry into a new scientific age and introduced us to a mode of thinking that was, and is, radically different from what preceded it, namely, cartesian thinking. And there is no need to get excited about Freud and Lacan as I do, since we know it all started in the eighteenth century with phenomenology (not to mention Plato)! Which does not mean we have to do away with positive science, certainly not, but simply implies that we accept that there are fields, and one field at least, where more caution is needed. To put it mildly.

    Indeed, what Freud discovered in 1900 is simply that we are not masters in our own house! Psychoanalysis heralds the birth of what we call the "human sciences," "les sciences humaines," and calls for a new methodology. Objectivity, there, is much more difficult to attain, if at all, and one speaks today of "conjectural sciences." The whole work of Lacan is devoted to this defence of relativity, and one text of his, at least, can indeed be considered as a reply,"before the letter," to neuro-science: "Subversion du sujet et dialectique du dČsir" (1960). 2

    (And do not think at this point that my attitude is at all "religious" or of the same nature as that of the Idealist in philosophy--the subject would deserve a long debate, and perhaps weeks of discussion. As will be seen, I hope, my position is strongly and simply and staunchly materialistic.)

    Whatever our materialistic convictions, however, we have to admit that, today, the tools of positivism are not of much help in our pursuit of knowledge, la Connaissance, le Savoir. This is what I meant when I said that Freud had inaugurated a new era. His "discovery" can be summed up in a single word (or in four, if we want to be precise): the concept of "unconscious." The remark is not new, I know, and yet I feel I must insist in my attempt to clarify our debate. For this concept, in fact the idea it carries, is not acceptable to us. I am of course referring to the gap that separates knowledge and the truth which is indeed the major argument in Lacan's philosophical position regarding knowledge:

Yet if the historical birth of science is still a sufficiently burning question for us to be aware that at the frontier [between knowledge and truth] a shift took place, it is perhaps there that psychoanalysis is marked out to represent an earthquake yet to come. (Ecrits, 797; English translation: Ecrits. A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1977, 296)
In short, the bar--again, a representation of "what" separates what is conscious from what is unconscious in me, and this quite corresponds to the abyss, to the void, between me and the world out there, bČance--the bar forces us to invent new models which can no longer be those of psychology.

    We get an inkling of this if we re-read (I say re-read because the new reading I advocate is done with the help of what we have learnt from Freud by now) Freud's paper on "The Unconscious" or on "Repression" (1915). In these texts, in which by the way the word "metapsychology" appears for the first time, probably, we can follow him trying to define what the "new" method will be. And perhaps we are not so surprised to see how he hesitates, how, in many passages, he almost comes back on his first steps, as if frightened by the very radicality of what he has discovered.

    Frightening, yes, unacceptable, tragic indeed, and yet representing a considerable progress in knowledge. Knowledge, not the truth, knowledge of a gap, of a break between the two. For if it is the knowledge that we no longer have any certainty--in the realm of what we call the psyche, at least--it is also the condition of a better and fuller knowledge of ourselves. In the end, psychoanalysis represents the only way of diminishing our fundamental uncertainty.

    The "methodology," of course, will have to be new, will have to be different. And to begin with, we shall never forget that our "object," the Unconscious, which in any case is a concept, is opaque, impervious. Or, to be more specific still, and this is well known: the "content" this concept refers to, latent thoughts said Freud, can only be known "afterwards," nachtr”glich, dans l'aprËs-coup. Always, the material for our research will be the effects of this unconscious dimension in us, not the "real thing," never! --only a representation of it. Thus it follows that one of the precautions we shall have to take will be not to mistake effects for causes.

    And it follows also that, considering the brain and its materiality, one will have to distinguish what is genetic and hereditary from what takes place in this same brain and comes from "outside." In this case, the brain, no longer a cause, will simply be the locus, the place receiving, bearing the inscriptions which, for psychoanalysis, define the subject. Effects, thus, will not be mistaken for causes. Kandel is aware of this, naturally, and he is very careful to disinguish what is genetic from what is "environmental." But if we make, with him, this distinction, we must neverthelss pursue our line of reasoning and bear in mind the imperviousness of the bar. The very nature of the psychic system as Freud has designed it forces us to admit--accept!--that we are now working on effects the causes of which may never be known with certainty. Or rather, for I must not exaggerate for the sake of my demonstration, or rather, that there will always be in our psychoanalytic conclusions a certain amount of uncertainty. And such uncertainty, indeed, is a good representation of "the bar." But then, how can the efficiency of psychoanalysis ever be proven? How can it be tested? I could reply that I don't know, or, with Lacan, that "the success of the cure will only be offered on top of the bargain, as an extra bonus: "(la guČrison ne vient que par dessus le marchČ), but I shall be more optimistic. Yes, it is true that only "cured" patients are the ones who can say whether psychoanalysis "works "or not! There is no other test, and I realize my discourse here, and the one of some lucky patients of psychoanalysis, very much resembles the discourse of religious zealots! Is my "conviction" to be judged as the conviction of the scientist in front of his results, or have I simply joined a sect whose gurus are Freud and Lacan (and you can add Winnicott and Dolto)? What I claim, of course, is that my conviction is "scientific," but scientific with a difference, as I am trying to show, since we know that the object of my search is unattainable. Again, I am referring to the "bar" and to the Unconscious as a concept. What is certain--in the midst of so much uncertainty--is that some people do change, even if it takes years, as it generally does, and even if the transformation they undergo is the result of a long and painful search into a past one is never sure about. A psychoanalysis is the reconstruction of an uncertain past, a search for "causes, "and the only test we can apply to the method inaugurated by Freud is that sometimes it works. Now, if there are so few "lucky" patients, and if we ourselves often doubt so much, it may be because we are not practising the right kind of psychoanalysis, that is to say, and this is quite paradoxical, for the reason that we expect too much from our reason! Yes, because we do not doubt enough, which is another way of saying that we are too naturally eager for certainty.

    And here comes the question of mourning. We all know this, I think: a successful psychoanalyis--even if, absolutely, there is no such thing--implies successful mourning. Not of "everything" of course, and certainly not of life, and I am not "preaching" for the renunciation of noble goals or ideals; but we must ackowledge that it is one of the roles of psychoanalysis to help us analyze what could be destructive in some of the goals we pursue. And it also should help us to recognize what is unrealistic in some of our pursuits: we remember Freud's early distinction betwen pleasure principle and reality principle. I know it is quite a difficult task to set the scales in equilibrium between what is "reasonable" and what is not, but this is what I meant when I introduced the word "relative" as part of a possible definition of psychoanalysis as a conjectural science. We are indeed dealing with uncertain certainties and must accept this.

    So that in the end, to ask of psychoanalysis that it become more rational, more "testable" reveals a--very human and understandable--desire to do away with the "bar." And it is also a refusal to admit we are cleft, separated from the world, estranged, in a word, from the objects that we desire. True, one is never quite reconciled with the idea that the subject is not an object, but at least we can try, asymptotically, to arrive at such a reconciliation. This is the successful mourning I was alluding to, impossible, absolutely, but which can be attempted.

    Which brings us back to effects. Not the "thing," the ultimate cause, and not the "One" of ideal fusion, of course, but what we can seriously work upon. It is in studying effects that Freud constructed his first and revolutionary model: Cs/Ucs. The dream--what one remembers of it--is an effect, and the slip of the tongue is an effect, as are the very words I speak, for if we are cleft from top to toe and strangers to ourselves we are also inhabited by a symbolical dimension. This is--among other things--what Lacan means when he speaks of "signifiers."

    And what psychoanalysis is saying, mainly, is that we can become somewhat better acquainted with that stranger in us. I realize this may sound too naively optimistic, for, in the end, what we have learnt so far is that we are tragically and ironically prisoners of that stranger! But what is new now, is that we have the possibility to acknowledge that we are kept in bondage. Such knowledge is only relative, I agree, and it calls for prudence and doubt, paradoxically indeed, but it represents a progress in history, all the same. What is tragic, we all know this, is that "it" all takes place in the subject, and that although "blind," he or she will never accept to be led. Never accept, that is, unless he or she has decided to do so. And "accept" or "decided" are not the appropriate terms, since the whole process is unconscious. In the end, what I am simply saying is that a psychoanalysis will only have a chance of succeeding if it is urgently, earnestly, requested, asked for. And even then we know that in most cases what the therapist is asked is that nothing should change and that "things" should stay as they are. Things, that is to say our lives: we want to change , . . but we don't really want to change. Yes, we ask for the symptom to be removed, but unconsciously we insist that it to be maintained or, at best, that it to be replaced by another symptom which will carry the task of the first.

    This is where I bring history into our discussion: what I consider a hopeful sign of the time is that neurobiologists such as Eril Kandel should show themselves anxious about the future of psychoanalysis, should attempt to provide psychoanalysis with a better status, and ask the questions they do. History produced Freud. We, too, are the products, objects/subjects of history, the search continues , . . Endlessly.

    Let me conclude this first part of our debate: what should be pointed out is not so much that psychoanalysis lacks a scientific foundation as the fact that with Freud's discovery a new and particular field has appeared which renders a new conception of science possible.

    This is no doubt what Eric Kandel had in mind when he explained, toward the end of his second article, that one cannot reduce "psychoanalytic concepts" to those of neurobiology: "Such a reduction is not only undesirable, it is impossible" (p. 72).


     Dangling between the Yes and the No, then, such is my personal position. It is the position of the sceptic , . . or that of the modern scientist , . . I hope. For between the No and the Yes I have a preference for the Yes. Indeed, aware of the weight and force of the No, I choose to work (to fight?) for the victory of the Yes! And this, as I have just pointed out, because of History.

     Which conveniently reminds us of the "fort/da" and opens the way for a discussion of Representation.

    For each of us is alone, split and "blind," but endowed with a characteristic which defines us as humans. We represent, and we do so in a way that is not to be found in animals, however trained and "clever" they may be, however domesticated. Let me repeat this: humans speak. In two words, we have here one of the main principles taught us by Lacan, yes, "Áa parle."

    This characteristic is to be understood as an element in a general structure and is in relation with the bar, the abyss which I have just discussed at length. I take this simple structure to define humans:

Separated from the world out there, and this includes my own image, I represent. Quite simply, the only relationship I can have with the world is a representation. (Affects, emotions, do not belong to this category. It is as a subject that I experience them, but then I remain unaware of their--original-- cause: it hurts because I have burnt myself, but I do not know why I have done so. Thus what I can consciously explain, and what appears to me as an immediate cause is only an intermediary, a mediation.) And of course, however correct and testable the results of positive science--for rockets do fly to the moon--, they were founded on an hypothesis in the first place, on calculations or theories that had the structure of the metaphor. I can therefore safely repeat this plain phenomenological rule: my relationship to the world is (only) metaphorical.

    Naturally, one can always object that animals, which obviously have a given perception of the world and a memory--they have a brain, as we have--, do represent also, and that the characteristic I am alluding to is not sufficient to define humans.

    The answer to this is simple: animals do perceive, 3 but do not go any further than this. The ape, the cat and the dog do construct an image of things in their brain and even have the memory of what they have seen or heard, the memory of tactile, olfactory, and gustatory impressions, but these perceptions and the memory of the objects from which they came are represented as they were perceived by their senses. The "image"in their brain is an identical reproduction of what they have experienced (which may not even be an "exact"image of the object as we perceive it), and the point I wish to make is that they only have a signified at their disposal . (To a certain extent, they may well be able to conceive categories, general ideas--a particular animal or thing leading to the construct of a class--, in a word concepts, and they do have a memory, but what seems certain to me is that the result of such a mental operation would still be (or is) a non-linguistic sign, something like the signified of a sign without the signifier ever at hand. Now that this signified can also be considered as a signifiant, in the sense Lacan gives the word is obvious, but then we are no longer speaking of the linguistic sign proper.)4)

    Human language is defined by the aptitude to set in relation a given signified, the image of a tree, say, its "idea,"and a signifier, that is to say a sound or, more specifically, the memory of it. In a way, dogs and cats are pre-saussurian beings!

    Humans, then, replace things with words, and this operation can best be illustrated--represented--by a diagram which applies to representation in general:
This corresponds not only to the structure of our relationship to the world out there, but also to the structure of language, of the dream, of the slip of the tongue, of parapraxis, and perhaps even of conversion hysteria. 5 In one word, it is the structure of the metaphor.

     Men and women may be separated from the world--as subject is from object--, but they are also inhabited by the structure of the metaphor. Such is indeed our response to separation, 6 it is our fort/da.

     Humans, then, have a specific relationship to the world--"Áa parle"--, and at this point I am reminded of the "schematic picture"of the mind Freud gives us in the final part of The Interpretation of dreams ("The Psychology of the Dream-processes," B, Regression):

The vertical lines stand for memory traces 7, the result, or remains, of early experiences. The cortex does integrate whatever information comes its way, but this cannot be restricted to the information we can consciously remember or, at least, "easily" reconstruct. Another information, of which we remain unconscious, precedes, or is inscribed alongside, what can be remembered, and influences--in fact "decides" how the "subject" will treat what is signified to "it." Freud explains:

At this point I will interpolate a remark of a general nature which may perhaps have important implications. It is the Pcpt. system, which is without the capacity to retain modifications and is thus without memory, that provides our consciousness with the whole multiplicity of sensory qualities. On the other hand, our memories--not excepting those which are most deeply stamped on our minds--are in themselves unconscious. They can be made conscious; but there can be no doubt that they can produce all their effects while in an unconscious condition. What we describe as our `character' is based on the memory-traces of our impressions, and, moreover, the impressions which have had the greatest effect on us--those of our earliest youth--are precisely the ones which scarcely ever become conscious (539-540).

It is these memory traces which influence, or perhaps concur in building what will appear on the "level," on the "screen," of consciousness. These traces act as so many filters upon which our relationship to the world depends. All this is well known, and I only mention Freud's model because I think it can be used as a starting point for a reflection on the "mind."

    I suggest we can re-design or, rather, complexify Freud's model (I am referring to the one above only, for Freud never confused unconscious and non-conscious as will be seen below) by taking into consideration what differentiates what is instinctual, that is to say genetic or hereditary, from what is unconscious, dynamically, I mean. Indeed, what is instinctual, and naturally non-conscious, must not be confused with what psychoanalysis calls "unconscious." Kandel, who wonders "where is the other unconscious" (37), is of course aware of the necessity for a distinction and asks: "To what extent is the biological process determined by genetic and by developmental factors?" (37). 8 I conceive the unconscious (the signified of the sign Unconscious) as the force which impels me to behave as I do, and, for instance, to speak as I do. I consider my behavior to be the "effect" of this "cause" always so difficult to analyze and which was unknown as a driving force until Freud established the concept. If I wish to represent--metaphorically--all the factors which I think account for my actions this includes what is genetic (instinctual forces) and hereditary (in the simple, usual sense of the word), and also what psychoanalysis calls determinations which remain unconscious.

    Concluding his long case history,"From the History of an Infantile Neurosis"(1918), the "Wolf Man"case, Freud, conscious of the problem--the distinction between "instinct" and what he has unearthed as "the Unconscious"-- speaks of a "correct order of precedence" and carefully distinguishes "the hereditary, phylogenetically acquired factor in mental life" from what would be more directly responsible for our neurotic states and that we have come to call "unconscious desire."

    I am aware that expression has been given in many quarters to thoughts like these, which emphasize the hereditary, phylogenetically acquired factor in mental life. In fact, I am of opinion that people have been far too ready to find room for them and ascribe importance to them in psychoanalysis. I consider that they are only admissible when psychoanalysis strictly observes the correct order of precedence, and, after forcing its way through the strata of what has been acquired by the individual, comes at last upon traces of what has been inherited. (Std. Ed., 5: 604-605).

    The whole of this chapter indeed bears on the problem we are here dealing with. Philippe Van Haute discusses this issue with great clarity:

    Animal instinct implies a sort of "knowledge" of reality, inscribed in the genetic material; instinct belongs to the natural capacity for survival with which the living being is equipped. Instinct thus must be thought of in terms of a minimal coadaptation between the living being and nature. Human desire, by contrast, cannot be thought of in terms of adaptation to nature, for it has no object to which it could adapt itself. (Against Adaptation, 125).

     The quotation from Lacan's Ecrits which follows the above explanation quite rounds up the question: "[ , . . ] I take up the challenge that is offered to me when what Freud calls Trieb is translated as `instinct.' "Drive" would seem to translate the German word quite well in English [ , . . ] In French, my last resort would be `dČrive,' if I were unable to give the bastard term `pulsion' the necessary forcefulness" (803; A Selection, 301).

     Here is my own diagram, then:

A - represents what is instinctual, proper to an animal species and showing little variation between individuals, it is non-conscious,

B - represents what is unconscious and specific to the life of each individual, an effect--or effects--of his or her personal and unique history, "traces" of this history,

C - represents what is, or can normally become, conscious; it includes what we learn (consciously), what we acquire from experience.

    Each "box" is the seat of an inscription (memory trace) which constitutes what can be called "filters," the filters through which all perceptions, events, will have to go to be consciously apprehended at the end of the whole process. We can still speak of memory, naturally, with the difference that in the "box" housing what is unconscious, what has been inscribed is not readily and easily attainable, quite on the contrary! And at this point I am reminded of Freud's seminal papers, in his "Metapsychology" : "The Unconscious" and "Repression." Today, a re-reading of these important essays really seems necessary, if only because we are now in a better position to appraise what Freud was then (1915) finding, and this precisely thanks to what we have since learnt from him. This task of re-reading Freud's papers will be dealt with in another article, but it seems we can now answer some of the questions he was at the time battling with.

    In the same way, the three compartments in my drawing--simply a metaphor, I repeat, a representation--may answer some of Eric Kandel's questions about memory. No doubt, the distinction between declarative (explicit) and procedural (implicit) memory is very helpful for cognitive psychologists dealing with learning processes or with experience, but the distinction is of no help when we discuss what is unconscious in us, accidents you might say, what, in a word, happens in spite of experience. Experience, as is well known and as the "Chinese proverb" will have it, is a lantern which lights us in the back. Indeed, as I am trying to show, unconscious memory traces which form the "filters" I have just mentioned obviously modify other memory-traces, they correspond to a new "factor" which has to be taken into consideration. Perhaps a new diagram (strongly reminiscent of Freud's third picture in The Interpretation of Dreams, Std. Ed. 5: 541) is now needed to illustrate division in the "subject"and emphasize the unavoidable unconscious determinations to which our "new" human subject is heir:

The new diagram simply tries to illustrate how the relationship between perception and consciousness cannot be conceived as a "straight" line which nothing comes to interrupt; this emphasizes the unavoidable unconscious determinations to which the human "subject" is submitted. (Am I being too naive in insisting as I do on this our duality? And yet, I know we so "naturally" resist accepting the evidence, the facts, yes, that I cannot help doing so. Peine perdue, no doubt, since one never convinces anyone who is not already convinced , at least partly. A waste of time then perhaps , . . For it is true also that the analyst should remain silent , . . Well , . . !)

    Perhaps it is now clear, in any case, that, for the psychoanalyst, well aware of all the double meanings and double dealings we are capable of, a better understanding of psychic determinism cannot be attained if we do not include in our preliminary principles the acceptance of the double nature of our relationship to the world. 9 Indeed, we cannot content ourselves with calling our duality (Cs/Ucs) an hypothesis only, since the existence of man's unconscious "dimension" can easily be verified, even though it may not always be understood, because we naturally "resist" understanding the signals this unconscious dimension sends or produces (and in fact they are not "signals" sent to a subject, but simply manifestations to which the subject, thanks to psychoanalysis, can give meaning and read as signals).

    What we should be interested in is not so much what is openly said, or represented, at the end of the process, as what is borne by the whole representation and which is not readily accessible. Again, let us remember that discourse," la parole," at once carries and hides meaning,"porte/masque," and that it is the concealed part that is responsible for the whole architecture, for the final product: works of art, speech or behavior. In brief, let us not lose sight of the fact that we perceive the world through "filters" , some of which, symbolically, distort more than necessary what we apprenhend.

    But of course all this is inscribed somewhere in the brain, in our cells, and it is on this field that psychoanalysis can join hands with neuroscience. Indeed, all this takes place in the body, yes, within the limits of our skin.

    At this point, I can provide a second diagram, one that may serve as an hypothesis on the way the "middle box," the box designed to represent the Unconscious, functions. It is an hypothesis meant to illustrate what determines a "subject," S. Such determination takes place in the early days of our life when, as infants, we ask for "love" (food, warmth, protection, human contact, life in a word, and Lacan speaks here of "need"), and address our "demand" to the person(s) in our immediate environment, the mother generally 10, a demand referring to much more than the above and amounting, I think, to fusion. The mother, then, but I think we can also say the parents, always so present in most psychoanalytic cases. (In fact, the determination I am alluding to may already be there a few months before the baby's birth.)

     You remember the void, the abyss between me and the world I started out with.

Now, because such distance, such "bČance," is unbearable, unacceptable, as a human being, I adopt the solution of representing, that is to say of dreaming, that is to say of fantasizing that such "unbreachable" space can be sutured, bridged. This, again, is the structure of language: unable to have, to absorb, the things around me, I "speak" them, give them a name so that I can play with them--with them in representation--, handle them as I wish. This is true of all of us unless we are psychotics, for in this case, unfortunately, our relationship to the world is somewhat different.

    And also, we must never lose sight of the fact that this "bridging" is only "imaginary. " There is no suturing of the abyss, the only thing we can do is pretend, hallucinate, if you like, that, as subjects, we are not separated from the real. This imaginary "bridging of the gap" , if it universally obeys the principle of representation (as witnessed in dreaming , . . and language), is specific to each subject, as this is suggested by so many cases we know of. It is this specificity which defines the subject for psychoanalysis. Each of us symbolizes according to a particular law (and there is no need to reduce this law to Lacan's paternal metaphor, though obviously it is one of the factors that must be taken into consideration). The obvious, and in fact well known, conclusion is that the law to which I am (is) submitted has its origin in my (the subject) personal "environment," and more precisely in what this environment was in my early years. The remark is far from original, and yet it has to be made because I think we naturally tend to forget what actually happened to us. The child, the infant, is an object for the parents. 11 In the unconscious exchange between infant and parents, what is replied to the child's request for love is an order to fulfil a role designed by the parents' unconscious desire; to the child, a particular "place" is signified. The idea of such an exchange is present in Freud's concept of the superego; it can also be found in Lacan's theory of the Other. 12

    As I am trying to show, the Other is--in the first place, I think--the object of the child's demand, but it is also--and this is fundamental--an instance which dictates "its" own law (according to its unconscious desire), a law to which the child is therefore subjected, which makes him or her become the object of the Other's desire. In 1, the law is given, "spoken," and 2 represents the enactment of the law by the subject, the law as original "filter," if you like. This is how I read Lacan's phrase: "Man is inhabited by the Symbolic." There is nothing complicated or mysterious in such a structure; in fact, it is amazingly simple. And yet we have great difficulties in accepting it. For all this is not conscious or, to coin a very banal phrase: between child and environment the exchange takes place on an unconscious "level." And this, of course, is what baffles us: the order given and received, the place assigned , signified to the child does (must?) remain hidden to conscious thinking. 13 Let me repeat this: the complexity which faces psychoanalysis does not come from the structure Freud's discovery has enabled us to design, but from the fact that the "exchange" between infant and environment is not conscious. This will help me to formulate one of my questions to neurobiology.

    I am well aware, of course, that some will consider the structure of exchange I have chosen to illustrate as an oversimplification, a reduction of a reality which is far more complex, and that others will explain that the years when parents were blamed for everything are behind us, but observation still obstinately confronts us with the fact that the child, at first, is an object for its environment, an object of desire, a symbolical object.

    As a subject, then, I am the effect of the desire of an Other, and what is very positive in the matter is that this desire, after all, has enabled me to come to life and to go on living. Yes, this desire of the Other has endowed me with an (unconscious) identity--not the one in the mirror, which, although necessary, belongs to the "Imaginaire" --, a series of filters which will design what my life is to be. At least, these filters, since there are so many other determinants, will have a role to play in my "destiny," and what we must never forget and should be stressed is that this parameter escapes consciousness. Naturally, the desire of the Other (14 may be more or less constructive or more or less destructive; what our neuroses symbolically represent is to be sought in this direction. No doubt, the intuition which led Freud to think of a Todestrieb in man, a "death instinct," could find a development in this direction. I take "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" to be a fundamental turning point in psychoanalytical theory.

     All these remarks, again, should help us to put our questions to neurobiology.


    Here, then, are the three structures we have ended up with: first, our three "boxes," or series of filters, one of which represents unconscious processes in us, second, the structure of the metaphor (a structure which emphasizes the existence of a necessary deflection when we represent), and finally a diagram which I would like to be a specific illustration of the way unconscious desire works (the middle box) and which is designed to point out the interaction between Subject and object-Other. I do not know whether the questions that come to mind at this point can be of any interest for the neurobiologist, but what I know is that they constitute important interrogations for the researcher in psychoanalysis.

    The first question is about repetition and resistance which characterize human behavior so well. Can neurobiology tell us something about our reluctance to change? In footnote 13, as an hypothesis, I have given a first reason for our resistance to change: when it first comes into the world, the human baby has nothing to lean upon and, literally, has "to make do" with what is presented him or her as a law, (and our subject also has to make do with the models presented him or her; see the question about identification, further down). This is simple, and almost sociological in conception. On the other hand, from the point of neurobiology, couldn't there be in us, in our brain or cells, a principle of invariability,"something" which would explain our preference for the status quo? We know that Freud, working on what he first called a "death instinct," spoke of a principle of inertia; could there be a neurobiological interpretation of this?

    But there is a subsidiary part to the question, and it may be of more interest for us than the question itself: we do not wish to change, and yet there are cases when a transformation has proved possible (the successful cure), cases when the compulsion to repeat has been defeated. Could this interruption of an endless cycle of repetitions be explained in neurobiological terms?

    The second question is about unconscious desire, which is the result of an inscription coming from the "environment," the "desire of the Other," which is the meaning I give the phrase. This is the one point, at least, where there could be some cooperation between psychoanalysis and neurobiology. For it is true that desire, "motivation," whatever we like to call our drive to act and behave as we do, corresponds to an inscription in the flesh, in the brain if you like. Yes, it all takes place in the body, within the limits of the skin, in every cell that constitutes me, in my "feet" perhaps, but also, naturally, in the brain.

    This is where my three "boxes" may be useful to explain what I mean: about the brain, and about the inscription it has received, genetically or from the environment, is it possible to make a distinction between two modes of inscription or imprints? Two modes, since from the point of view of psychoanalysis what is unconscious--and dynamically active in our lives--cannot be confused with what I have simply called "non-conscious" (instinctual, genetic or even hereditary) but which of course also controls our life or actions. Don't we have here two different kinds of activity, two different modes of functioning, two different "boxes"? As I have tried to point out in my diagram, it seems clear that the distinction between declarative (implicit) and procedural (explicit) memories is of no avail when we want to account for the way memory functions in a psychoanalysis. However valid and interesting that other distinction (declarative/procedural) may be for the psychologist, it does not help the psychoanalyst.

    Here, it seems that the concept of "memory," at least in its relationship with the field represented by psychoanalysis, needs some clarification. Starting from Freud's notion of "repression" (1915), which implied the existence of a "repressive" force at work, we now give the concept a more general and permanent meaning, understanding what it represents as a dynamic force at work in all humans. In a word, the conception of a repression which may have occurred in certain isolated cases is now replaced by the conception which sees all humans as "split" (the case is not so much that some particular wish is repressed as the fact that a whole part of our psyche escapes consciousness). Let me repeat this: we can still use the notion of repression to describe a particular event which took place in the life history of a subject and which may then have had an effect on this given subject, yes, but the concept of unconscious now covers a much wider "area" and must be given a more general meaning: it corresponds to what constitutes our "symbolical" dimension, the way each of us acts, which is, as we know, at least partly symbolical. What is unconscious doesn't need to have been repressed, it is there, inscribed from the first days, or months, or years of your life, imprinted. And while the memory of these first days, months or years shall never be completely or even accurately revived, some fragments of this past do come back to us and may be used as information, provided we are able to treat them as signs and give them meaning. This is the reason why, further up, I have insisted on a necessary distinction between cause and effect: I take what is happening in my brain when I reason or solve a difficult problem (I might even do this while I sleep, discovering the solution when I wake up!) and which of course remains completely out of reach of consciousness, to be different from what I call my "symbolical dimension." Obviously, what I remember in a psychoanalysis is a reconstruction, and it can even be wrong or entirely imagined, but Freud has nevertheless left us a method of interpretation which, handled with prudence and insight, often gives coherence and meaning to the said fragments and may lead to positive results. A psychoanalysis, we all know this, is an anamnesis.

    Hence my question: is it possible to make a concrete distinction between the two modes of inscription I have tried to describe?

    The inquiry could make use of the classification we have drawn from Freud's model and which I repeat here (the "three boxes"): 1) Before memory, or out of its reach: the purely instinctual. 2) A past whose fragments can, on certain conditions, be made to "reappear": anamnesis. 3) Memory of past events consciously registered or (non-conscious) memory of what one has learnt and which is instinctually available (riding a bicycle).

    There are other questions, about the way identification works, for instance, or about the transference--which I see as strongly related to identification--but these questions may simply form part of a wider interrogation of the "desire of the Other" and on the conditions of its inscription. What seems more urgent to me, or central, at the present moment, is a general question on representation. I have already given my point of view on this particular problem (we represent because we are separated), so, here, I shall just ask neurobiologists whether such a reflection on representation is of any interest to them.

    We shall call this my third question. It has to do with the structure of the metaphor:

Such a structure illustrates our double activity, conscious and unconscious, and stresses the relationship between the two. An unconscious desire manifests itself, but in a way that is not directly accessible to consciousness. In his paper "The Unconscious," Freud spoke of a "circulation" between Cs and Ucs ("Der Verkehr der beiden Systeme"), and in a way started from a question not unlike that of Eric Kandel: "Between unconscious and conscious, how does it work?" (p. ). 15 As I have remarked earlier, it is because we have no direct access to the real, because we are subjects and not objects, that we must content ourselves with a representation of the world out there. Can this--the structure of the metaphor--have any sense for a neurobiologist? To what could this stratagem of unconscious desire to signify itself while remaining secret, veiled, correspond in neurobiology?

    And this incites me to amend my third question, or, better, to formulate a fourth one. Indeed, while it is psychoanalytically "wise" to insist on the separateness and loneliness of the "subject," thus protecting the said subject from falling a prey to the damaging illusion that, somehow, a suturing of the "gap" is possible, the basic structure we have been studying--of Subject, Object and Gap--does account for the way humans deal with their tragic isolation: men and women dream, speak, and produce works of art , in a word act symbolically, especially in their work. And what they produce is, or can be, a great source of pleasure. 16 This production of "discourse" (parole) and art--has naturally been studied linguistically by Saussure. It is by looking more closely at the way this imaginary closing of the gap functions that we discern a new question for the neurobiologist. As we have learnt, when I speak I join--I throw a bridge between--a sound or the memory of it and a mental image, thus producing a sign:

Without this creation, repetition of something learnt, the sound would remain a senseless noise, would not be transformed into a word or a thought. Hence the question: would there be in the brain some particular place where this throwing of a bridge, or the absence of it, could be witnessed? What neurobiological interpretation could there be of Saussure's two little arrows, which "unite" signified and signifier (in spite of the fact that they are separated and form for the linguist two different entities) in order to produce a sign? 17

    Naturally, there exists the possibility that between neurology's specific field and ours there is no possible correspondence, if only because our objects are so different. But at least we shall have tried. In the end, perhaps it was not necessary to write such a long article and one or two sentences could have been sufficient, something like: "The Unconscious does exist, I have come across it," or better still: "The Unconscious does exist, I, in hallucination, have come across it."


1 American Journal of Psychiatry 155 (1998): 457-69, and 156 (1999): 505-24. Back to text.

2In his Against Adaptation (New York: Other Press, 2002), Philippe Van Haute gives a "close reading" of Lacan's text. In his "Introduction," I note: "According to Lacan, [psychoanalysis as a `Copernician revolution'] implies that psychoanalysis has introduced a decisive break in the way in which the scientific and philosophical tradition has up until now thematized the subject and subjectivity" (xxxiii). Back to text.

3 Some will even apply this to plants, and why not. Back to text.

4 HervČ Morin, in an article in Le Monde of june 12, 2004, reports the case of a dog which can understand over 200 words. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Leipzig believe Rico has the same learning ability as a three-year-old child. In the journal Science of june 11, Juliane Kaminski and her colleagues explain that Rico can bring back a great number of objects, toys, etc, to its mistress when they are named. In short, the dog can memorize words with a "disconcerting facility." For the German scientists, Rico's ability shows that some of the perceptive and cognitive mechanisms which might play a role in the way we understand languages were already in place before the first humans began to speak.
   But Paul Bloom, from Yale, wonders, among other things, whether Rico could act so sucessfully with somebody other than its mistress, and also execute other actions than the one of "bringing back" . And he could have added that understanding or reacting to an order is only the first part of the operation of representation: indeed, the dog does not reproduce the words attached to the objects, it only recognizes them. The linguistic distinction between "competence" and "performance" is particularly helpful here. The dog may have a child's "competence" (limited to some 200 signs), but is unable to "perform" , shows no ability as far as performance is concerned. The case perfectly illustrates an animal way of representing, and certainly not a human one. Back to text.

5 See Robert Silhol, "C'est ý quel sujet?," Le Sens, Cahiers Charles V, UniversitČ Paris VII, 1993, 179-193. Back to text.

6 Separation,"la bČance," may then be read as "castration" , lack, etc. , even though Freud always insisted that the word castration should be reserved for a very specific fear. More simply, we can speak of the subject's incompleteness as opposed to the completeness of the object. Back to text.

7 "We shall suppose that a system in the very front of the apparatus receives the perceptual stimuli but retains no trace of them and thus has no memory, while behind it there lies a second system which transforms the momentary excitation of the first system into permanent traces." (The Interpretation of Dreams, Std. Ed.," 5: 538). Back to text.

8 He also says, quite rightly again, that each brain finds itself modified in a particular way (p.31) Back to text.

9 And of language, of course. See Lacan's imaginaire, symbolique and rČel, and also the way he articulates need, demand and desire. Back to text.

10 Kandel has some very good passages about "attachment" and naturally mentions Bowlby. Back to text.

11 I hope it is understood the remark entails no direct moral judgment: the relationship between child and parent I am alluding to is unconscious in the strict sense of the word. Back to text.

12 Although, as is frequent with Lacan, the term "Autre" can be given several definitions. Back to text.

13 "Must" may not be the best way of representing the process of inscription to which I am alluding and probably reflects the force of the "superego" in me too much. Very likely, because the "inscription" (of the Other's unconscious desire) takes place at a time when the infant has nothing else to rely upon, has nothing else to construct itself, blank page, empty slate, this subject, then, coming to life thus cannot easily disregard the "order" given and may remain for ever reluctant to question it, let alone transgress it. Accordingly, psychoanalysis can be understood as the "questioning" of what went into the making of the "subject." Back to text.

14 As I understand the phrase, for we know that Lacan, in his long search through the years, gave it several other meanings. Briefly, then, it was first just another term for what was unconscious, then it referred to the other person, the person I desired or by whom I wanted to be loved, then it became an allusion to the "other sex" --and in several texts still carries this meaning. Finally, but not always very clearly, it came to refer to parents and/or to the mother. Back to text.

15 This is no doubt one of the questions Bion asked himself in his Learning from Experience (New York: Basic, 1962). His "alpha-function" constitutes the starting point of an inquiry into our thinking process, while his "contact barrier" is not without correspondence with the "bar" I have spoken of at length. (See Robert Silhol,"The Golden Arrow: Bion and Lacan," Literature and Psychoanalysis, Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Literature and Psychoanalysis, Lisbon: I.S.P.A., 1992, 47-54.) Back to text.

16 No doubt, such a debate should include a discussion of our capacity to mourn the loss of absolutes, and a discussion also of the necessary and delicate balance between desire and goals. I think Freud's superb article "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937) opens the way to such a debate. Back to text.

17 Signified and signifier, needless to say, have nothing to do with Conscious and Unconscious. The remark is not new but should always be kept in mind, I think: the relationship between the Freudian model and that of the linguist is only one of homology. There is no identity between the two. Back to text.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "Mind the Gap". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/silhol-mind_the_gap. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2004, Published: January 1, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Robert Silhol