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Number 9: Winter 2013

From Leakage to Slippage: The Question of Trauma In Psychosis

Dorothée Bonnigal-Katz

But I would further add that by hearing and reading the metaphors that dwell, oblique and foreclosed, in the statements and reports of my psychotic patients, I might be better equipped to provide an adequate clinical response to their therapeutic needs but I am also “using”, somewhat reappropriating and expropriating this material for my own purpose, even though this purpose is to be of help to them. Schizophrenics often complain about being “used” and, ironically, the only way I can strive to do my job well–always an approximation–is by partaking in this depleting process. This is a wall, a radical limitation that I keep encountering in this kind of work, leading me back to some fundamental impossibility that I find essential to the work itself and which, in my view, must always be borne in mind. Because the depleting threat of the omnipotent expropriating other never ceases to loom on the psychic horizon of the psychotic subject, my job might be to always remain aware of that threat, consistently bound by the radical impossibility it embeds at the heart of the therapeutic relation. Not so much with a view to keep the threat of annihilation at bay but as a constant reminder, rather, that I do not have the power to do so.

But let us now return to the consequences of the disastrous leakage we started this discussion with. Obviously, if the unconscious does not exist as a sealed-off fully separate domain, secondary repression or repression proper as Freud also calls it is necessarily precluded, accounting for the failure of the mechanisms of repression in psychosis. In other words, if the bar–which was introduced through primal repression insofar as primal repression consists in the introduction of difference, through a breach in the system, that would be the initial trauma–if the bar in question is a porous one instead of one that effectively separates the unconscious domain from the preconscious/conscious system, nothing can ever really remain below that bar and the mechanisms of attraction and repulsion that are characteristic of the exchanges between the conscious and unconscious are bound to operate in a kind free-floating way, as they are not anchored in topographical differentiation. Another consequence of this porous bar or lid takes on the form of a kind of linguistic leakage resulting in the permanent slippage of signification I evoked earlier. As you might remember, Freud distinguishes between thing-representations (essentially visual representations derived from things) and word-representations (essentially auditive representations derived from words): “The conscious representation comprises the representation of the thing plus the representation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious representation is the representation of the thing alone” (1915b: 201).7 In the case of psychosis, and schizophrenia more specifically, because of the malfunction of the topographical differentiation, this distinction does not apply: the word is the thing as I already mentioned and as Freud famously demonstrates in section VII of his essay on “The Unconscious” (1915b: 196-204). This implies that, for the psychotic, there is no such thing as a “conscious representation” predicated on a thing/word duality (representation derived from things + representation derived from words). As we can infer from Freud, there is precisely a collapse of the thing/word duality in schizophrenia, leading language to behave like a dream, subjecting all its components to the same “considerations of representability” (Rücksicht auf Darstellbarkeit) as the ones involved in the dreamwork, imposing that all be expressed through images, exclusively.


  1. I am modifying Strachey’s translation deliberately here for the sake of clarity and accuracy.