What is the Unconscious?

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What was Lacan’s contribution to Freud’s second topic? What is referred to as the unconscious in Lacanian orientation? In this article, we will briefly discuss the concept of the unconscious based on Lacan’s work during the 60s and 70s in order to approach the above questions.

Contribution to CFAR public seminar ‘The Unconscious’, held at UCL on Saturday 19th January 2019.

What is the Unconscious?

The Seminar XI in Reverse

The high castle of psychoanalysis was built upon the hill of the unconscious. The gate through to the fortress is transference, which invites the subject of repetition to find her key to open it. Inside the castle, a magnificent fireplace hosts an unruly, untamed flame. This is the heart of the castle: the drive. Someone has shown the subject to the path ending at the gate, but the magic happens once the castle is explored throughout; only then can it be renamed. After the fashion of riddles, we would like to ask: who showed the path to our subject here, and what will the castle ultimately be renamed?

This vision above is outlined in Lacan’s 11th Seminar, of 1964. It is often said that this seminar is his most political seminar, and there is no need to dispute this. However, this is not down to his excommunication – his being expelled from the IPA. Rather, it is that it is the year of his divorce from Freudian psychoanalysis. The seminar might seem – at first glance – a critical revision/re-reading of four concepts fundamental to Freud’s work: the Unconscious, Repetition, Transference and the Drive. However, the more we delve into his discussion of the aforementioned concepts, the more we find ourselves straying away from such an assumption. The whole year’s work gave birth to a new conceptualisation of the subject of the drive. A subject that is neither a Cartesian subject nor the herald of an archaic unconscious.

Lacan’s departure from the mainstream contemporary view had already happened, in his clinical practice. His theoretical attempts, here, were not only towards renaming what Freud had discovered and named as the unconscious. The clinic testified to the agency of a “presence” that manifested momentarily, independently and in suspension from other matters discussed in the consulting room. In other words, the testimony of the clinic was racing past, going beyond all available knowledge in the field with regards to Freudian theories on the unconscious. As such, one could say that if Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is considered as a Freudian bible, Lacan’s 11th Seminar, similarly, bears the foundational theories of all Lacan’s work from that moment on this is where Lacan re-invents psychoanalysis. There are traces in previous seminars that indicate his desire to challenge and establish an ever-changing platform for what is referred to as “psychoanalysis”. There are also a few occasions prior to 1964 when he elaborates on certain concepts, such as the concept of Transference, using the media of linguistics and topology. He had introduced a sort of sign language – never a metalanguage, though – in order to emphasise the impossibility of articulation, of naming absolutely everything. What makes this point in his work significant in 1964 is his break-up and turn away from the Freudian unconscious and repetition. In fact, this title is the opening chapter of the seminar. If the Lacanian subject was already conceptualised to some extent, now, here and throughout this year, this term is first used in exchange for the unconscious. Lacan’s famous phrase: “the unconscious is structured like a language” – used and misinterpreted over and over again, even to this day – pales in contrast to the significance of his re-invention which gave birth to a new idea of the subject. A subject as an effect of language, who goes through alienation and separation; and then forms a desire and enjoys her montage of the drive. As a result of such an effect, according to Lacan, a subject realises her existence as separate from the Other. Therefore, the unconscious, which is and remains an essentially Freudian term, is located by Lacan in the field of the Other.

A few years ago, there was a talk held on the topic of Lacan’s major contributions to psychoanalysis since the time of Freud. It was interesting to notice that while I was outlining the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (and it is certainly Lacan’s conclusion that the concepts are “fundamental” in psychoanalysis, for all the valid reasons we have learned of) I listed three and then could not recall the fourth. After a minute of silence, someone from the audience said aloud: the Unconscious. Oops! Again, on another occasion, my forgetfulness over the name of this concept seemed significant. To figure out what that momentary amnesia was all about, I revisited the 11th Seminar.

It was easy to speculate on why, after a brief reference to the Freudian unconscious, Lacan goes on to the questions of truth and certainty, the object and Gaze transference and then on to the subject and the Other, elaborating on alienation and separation. But where is the Lacanian unconscious found? Even in his much-discussed “subject formation”, without using the term “unconscious” there is already evidence of his departure from what he calls the “primordial”, “archaic” and “instinctual” interpretation of the unconscious. Indeed, the Freudian meaning of the unconscious also departs from the above descriptions. The concept of the unconscious as discovered by Freud was not a philosophical one, nor did it oppose accepted medical views on consciousness/unconsciousness. However, evidence from the clinic of psychoanalysis testifies against the presence of an unconscious that results only from repression. Such an operation is still valid as an explanation in clinical structures today; however, orienting the direction of treatment based on discoveries made in this way results in repetition and resistance in the clinic.

Observing or working with infants and children can show the presence of the subject a bit more clearly. There are moments in which the subject evidences itself. This certainly does not show any requirement for having a sort of developed character, or that one is searching for the means of satisfying one’s essential needs.
There could also be another reason for my amnesia around the fourth concept being the unconscious, in the above vignette. It was not simply an act of repression; it was a precise moment in which the subject spoke out. It manifested itself momentarily in silence. To hear it echo back at me from the audience surprised me. As if it could not be the fourth. I wondered: where is it? Hence, I looked for it.

On the same note, in a session with an analysand, as a response to an “enunciation”, I had just stood up and terminated the session without saying a word. It happened automatically without my giving it a thought. An act – a responsive one – emerged, to the surprise of both of us. An unconscious had made a certain interpretation but where was this unconscious situated?

The speech – in the field of the Other – marked an unconscious existing between two parlêtres. What does this mean? The subject in analysis has an unconscious with a pulsation and inconsistency. Both of the aforementioned vignettes prove the presence of the unconscious somewhere between two parties: the subject and the Other. It ex-sists beyond an inner self, like an onion. Lacan starts from the subject and lands on Parlêtre, taking up Freud’s work on the concept of the unconscious. Surely, such an idea of the unconscious does not forbid us to use the term. However, conducting an analysis based on such an interpretation forbids the subject of the unconscious to get towards the realisation of her desire, and know somewhat of how to deal with the knowledge acquired from her symptom. Once an individual is overwhelmed and caught up in a specific mode of jouissance, he might want to consult a psychoanalyst, who they might initially suppose to be able to offer a fix/repair/solution. Such a mode of jouissance is inferred from the patient’s own symptom, which has gone beyond her use of it anymore, or her ability to handle. The division is again recalled, while the supposed fixer of her/his manqué-a-être has failed the subject.
Where did Lacan sketch his concept of the Unconscious in this seminar and in what topological formation? What happened to the concept of the unconscious, towards the end of his teaching? These questions will be explored as follows.

The Lacanian subject during the swinging sixties

In the early sixties, the subject of the unconscious was represented as one signifier for another signifier. Lacan’s teachings on the unconscious, at this stage, revolve around subject presentation in gaps or splits; the “béance”, where the unconscious is. This idea coincides with the presence of the unconscious in the Other’s discourse having inconsistent “pulsation”. That is exactly the reason for the cut in sessions, resulting in the style of doing analysis at variable length, which became a matter of dispute in the IPA case against Lacan. A cut at the precise moment of pulsation saves and guarantees the continuity of a course of analysis. It is a cut at a béance; not a signal of terminating a session but rather of starting it off. The question here would be, then, when or, to be more precise, from where the analyst should decide upon a cut? It concerns the question of where the cut is done. Lacan’s response in this seminar is to the moments of uncertainty when the unconscious is enunciated. A moment in which the thinking ego fails and the subject of the unconscious manifests.

The target of the analyst’s act is not to return the repressed. The return of the repressed signifies a mark of jouissance on the body. The analyst is the subject who has already worked or is working on the subject of the unconscious in another space, yet again, with another subject of the unconscious. In her own consulting room, she is working with an unconscious action that takes place between her and the Other (as the analysand). As such, what we call “the work” in reference to an analytical work is in fact “the Unconscious”. The analyst does not induce or create it from the position of analyst; but, with the help of transference, she creates a space to make the birth of the unconscious happen. She delivers it.

Freud was not convinced by his first, topological approach to what he had sensed and named as the unconscious, leading him to come up with the second topic. It is from this second topic that Lacan begins. The Lacan of 1964 should be read from the end of his seminar to the beginning – this would perhaps make more sense to his readers. The 11th Seminar is written in reverse order, starting from alienation and separation. One could ask: when is the subject, as the subject of the unconscious, born? From the moment of alienation, followed by separation. According to Lacan, from the union, an alienation takes place. A subject is supposed to choose between bad and worse: your money or your life! The alienation and separation are two operations, which result in the formation of the subject of the unconscious. After alienation, which results in the division of the subject, she has to go through a separation in order to form a desire in relation to a lack. The “objet a” – as the cause of desire – between the subject of the unconscious and its Other. According to Lacan, S1 as “the first signifier” or the “unary signifier” (Lacan 1964, p.218) produced in the mechanism of alienation is replaced by “objet a” in the separation. S1 stands for a loss, while “objet a” stands for a lack in the Other’s discourse, which ultimately causes a desire. In alienation, the divided/“fading” subject is faced with S1 as the first representation of the subject for another signifier in the signifying chain of the Other, while in the operation of separation, the subject comes face-to-face with “the weak point” of the signifying articulation. This “weak point”, in Lacan’s words, is in fact another name for the “objet a”. We could conclude that, while S1 is the signifier of the first loss in the operation of alienation, the “objet a” is the lost object of the Other’s jouissance.

What happens over the course of analysis is to help a subject to find some kind of a solution to such a lack; a lack that results from separation and, in addition, being pushed towards alienation and primary loss. To choose or not choose one’s alienation/division in life is to go in a contrary direction along the earlier path that led to the birth of the subject. The subject’s division – as an effect of language – is fixed through a symptom. In Lacan’s work in the 60s, the symptom as a concept is seen as a fixator for the subject of the unconscious, while towards the end of his teaching, the status of the symptom has evolved through into the realm of the Real jouissance: the sinthome.

With regards to the transference and the unconscious, we could say that the transference is where the unconscious manifests itself. In earlier clinical examples of a cut in the analytic session, this action from the analyst causes a surprise at both ends – for the analyst and for the analysand – and produces a certain knowledge. Such an act is, in fact, a formation of the unconscious as found in an analytical space. Transference is a space where “Lalangue”, the language in which the unconscious is represented and is linked to the body of the subject, manifests its effects. The speaking unconscious is, therefore, nothing more than having or showing effects. This is where Lacan breaks with the concept of the Freudian Unconscious: right at the beginning of the seminar. All the structural elements as signifiers and signifying chain, repression and return of the repressed, a hole and the one; all fade away when faced with the subject of the body. A body, which enjoys. In the clinic, if we do not break up with the knowledge – S2 – or only target other results of the Freudian unconscious, such as jokes and slips of the tongue, or even if we orient our work towards circumscribing the repetitive symptomatic patterns which address only a subject supposed to know – as an Other – for an interpretation, we keep the analysand stuck in her phantasy. It, therefore, requires us to pay close attention to the moments of the unconscious’ pulsation. To the moments where the signifying chain fails, and to the instances when the subject of the unconscious ceases to be a subject rather a “being”.

The Later Lacan’s work on the Unconscious

What did Lacan’s stance towards the Freudian construction of the Unconscious become, after he had proposed a structure like a language for it? In his seminars Encore and Sinthome, the grand finale of Lacan’s work on the concept arrives. Lacan introduces a completely new concept to the subject of the Unconscious: from being the effect of language to a being who is marked bodily; from ciphering and signifier to jouissance at the level of the body, and from the symptom to the sinthome. In this respect, we could wonder about some of the mother tongue’s properties and the events they might leave on the body of an infant.

Lacan, in an interview with a North American university in 1975, equates one possible end of analysis with being psychotic! Lacan, being Lacan, is saying something here that offers more than just serving to surprise his audience and readers. From the testimonials coming from the clinic, it is easy to speculate that the subject of the unconscious who is attentive to the Other’s lack, is full of stories of life missions, enjoys long narratives and intellectualisation of the act of speaking, eventually ends up with a jouissance defining her being. In other words, towards the end – in a similar way to the clinic of psychosis – we deal with manifestations of the jouissance and the drive more than dealing with the division and desire.

The beginning

From a “being” to a “subject”, and from a subject of the unconscious to a speaking being –parlêtre – she has made her own path. Through this journey, she might never become intrigued by the castle on the hill. It could be a passing curiosity, with no urgent need to go up the hill and explore the surroundings. But if she decides to set off along the road of discovery – certainly not a discovery of what Freud referred to as the unconscious and its formations – the effect of such a discovery will only be recognisable as an effect or mark beyond the domain of deciphering/ciphering of the language.

Hence, one possible answer to our earlier riddle can be: it was the symptom who showed the subject the path to the castle; the castle, which can ultimately be renamed to the subject’s own name.


Harari, R. (2004). Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Judith Filc (Trans). New York: Other Press

Lacan, J. (1963-4). The seminar of Jacque Lacan: Book XI: Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Alan Sheridan (Trans). New York & London: Norton

Lacan, J. (1975-6). Le Séminaire Livre XXIII : Le Sinthome. Paris: Seuil

Lacan, J. (1975). Conférences et entretiens dans des universités nord-américaines. p.42. In : Scilicet No 6/7. Paris : Seuil, 1976