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Number 9: Winter 2013

From Leakage to Slippage: The Question of Trauma In Psychosis

Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz

The first logical difficulty stems for the fact that this “first phase of repression”, as Freud presents it, can only be understood retrospectively: for anything to be “denied entrance into the conscious”, there needs to be such a thing as a distinct conscious system. Yet, the process that is being described here is the one that precisely institutes the conscious as distinct from whatever is denied entrance into it (i.e. the unconscious). In other words, and this is quite typical of the logic at work in Freud’s metapsychological thinking, primal repression can only be understood in the light of what comes next: i.e. secondary repression, itself only manifest through the repressed, or rather through the return of the repressed into the conscious. This constitutive moment thus only comes to light après-coup, in afterwardsness. Interestingly, the Freudian model of trauma is predicated on a similar structure: as discussed at length by Jean Laplanche,1 the temporality of trauma as Freud theorizes it involves two stages: an initial stage when trauma occurs but goes somewhat unnoticed, leaving no visible trace and a second stage when a second event reactivates the initial occurrence quite incidentally, leading to the emergence of defenses and symptoms. Just like the postman who always rings twice, trauma requires a double inscription in this model, manifesting itself retroactively, inscribed in a specific kind of temporality characterized by traumatic afterwardsness. This leads me to think that Freud uses the term trauma rather rigourously in his model of primal repression in which the temporality of traumatic afterwardsness is equally involved and implemented.

The second difficulty, I announced, pertains to Freud’s terminology in the aforementioned section from the essay on “Repression”. Freud refers to “the psychic (ideational) representative of the drive” as the repelled entity constitutive of the unconscious. As Laplanche and Pontalis explain in The Language of Psychoanalysis, the ideational representative (Vorstellungsrepräsentant) is the delegate of the drive in the sphere of representations (1973: 203-204). Let us remember that the drive pertains to the somatic sphere strictly. From this perspective, primal repression thus consists in the inaugural inscription of the drive in the psyche through the advent of a representational delegate or primal signifier.2 What is important for us to retain here is that, with primal repression, we are dealing with the foundational exchange between the somatic and the psychic or, as Serge Leclaire sees it,3 with the mythical encounter of the signifier and the biological order, an encounter in which trauma is instrumental. This foundational moment when representations and drives weave their primal links and inscribe them psychically in permanent ink is what I understand as the constitution of the unconscious: a process of primal symbolization, through the advent of a breach, the introduction of difference.


  1. See Laplanche’s seminal reading of the Emma case in Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1976 [1970]: 38-42 especially) and his discussion of the notion of après-coup or afterwardsness (Problématique VI- L’après-coup [2006] which I am currently translating into English as part of the Unconscious in Translation series [New York: International Psychoanalytic Books] and “Notes on Afterwardsness” [1992]). 

  2. I find Strachey’s choice of “ideational” confusing here (“ideational” as opposed to “affective”) and would rather align myself with the French translators of Freud who prefer a term along the lines of “representational” (following the representations vs. affects dichotomy). I especially like Laplanche and Leclaire’s suggestion of “representational representative” as an alternative to ideational representative (Laplanche & Leclaire, 1960). 

  3. See Serge Leclaire’s seminar on repression (1966-1967).