In a continuation of printing older material as I work on my academic work, here is a slightly revised essay on the basic concepts of the psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche. Laplanche is an interesting figure. Originally involved in the radical organization, Socialism or Barbarism, Laplanche went onto work with Jacques Lacan. He was unsatisfied with the approach of Lacan, and went back to the work of Sigmund Freud to establish a new foundation for psychoanalysis. Unlike the Hegelian idealism at the heart of Lacan's project, Laplanche's work is much more in line with a materialist analysis of the unconscious, and is probably the most relevant psychoanalytical thinker for a radical and materialist analysis. Despite the revision to the essay, there are still a number of elements in the analysis that need to be developed and thought through. But here are, in essence, my first thoughts on the question.
What is interesting about Jean Laplanche’s thought, is despite the fact that it comes across fairly clearly in his work, ultimately Laplanche is a concise thinker who is concerned with communicating with an audience, is that it isn’t necessarily easy to reproduce. I think that this comes from the fact that his models and thought processes resist the sort of taxidermic models that structure so much of academic thought. His concepts are so overdetermined and overlapping, that in order to discuss one of them, one inevitably brings up a number of the others. Nonetheless this is the modus operandi of this essay. I will begin with some comments about the relation of Laplanche’s relationship with the overall world of psychoanalytic thought. From there, I will move into the concepts in a more formal, if terse, manner, discussing seduction, translation, and the drive.
Despite the critiques the critiques that Jean Laplanche makes of the concept of the “infant Robinson,” the infant and the genesis of the unconscious is an ideal place to begin a discussion of Laplanche’s engagement with psychoanalysis. His book New Foundations of Psychoanalysis introduces this argument in its most direct form. What we find occurring is the rejection of a whole structure of terms and concepts as the basis of psychoanalysis. The oedipal structure and crisis and the mother’s breast become historically contingent, cultural phenomena. Instead the trans-historical basis for the unconscious can be found within the interaction between the infant and the adult who cares for it. We can see this as both a very radical re-theorization of psychoanalysis and at the same time a movement that can be described as very conservative, defending the trans-historical nature of the unconscious against the assault of post-structuralism and feminism.
This maneuver pushes the trans-historical elements of the unconscious into a very small corner. But this maneuver doesn’t transform Laplanche into an Albert Hourani type figure arguing for a limited space for a primarily obsolete psychoanalysis. Instead, he make an argument for a psychoanalysis that isn’t afraid of ‘culturalism,’ that sees an interdisciplinary engagement as a necessity for its development. He looks to some of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s observations as guide in this. “A philosopher interested in clinical observation, in very concrete experiments involving children, and in the observations of an anthropologist! He could teach a lesson to more than one psychoanalyst. We can learn the same lesson from Freud, who was never afraid to refer to observation, and to anthropological observation in particular…” Laplanche looks to Merleau-Ponty as a useful methodological example, precisely though his willingness to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship. It’s notable that Merleau-Ponty’s engagements, examining the work of clinical observation, philosophy, and anthropology are engagements both taken up by Jacques Lacan, and more significantly, Sigmund Freud himself. At a more level, the study of the unconscious has to be placed into the study of social relations, both at the level of the interpersonal and at the level of social structures.
Laplanche returns to examine Freud’s theory of seduction, which the dominant strains of psychoanalysis argue, was abandoned, and that this abandonment constitutes the genesis of psychoanalysis. This fascination with seduction runs against the current found within Jeffrey Masson’s work. His interest is in the theoretical ramifications of seduction rather than its empirical dimensions. As a matter of fact, he suggests that Freud spent too much time on the actual incidents of abuse, rather than too little. In effect, Masson doesn’t recognize that Freud doesn’t abandon the seduction theory when he begins to beyond a model that poses a one to one relationship between fantasy and reality. Instead, Freud is developing a broader theory of the genesis of sexuality.
Instead he draws up a general theory of seduction, one that can be linked to any number of contingent relationships between an adult and a child.
“I am using, then, using the term primal seduction to describe a fundamental situation in which an adult proffers to a child verbal, non-verbal and even behavioral signifiers which are pregnant with unconscious sexual significations. We do not have to look far to find concrete examples of what I call enigmatic signifiers. Can analytic theory afford to go on ignoring the extent to which women unconsciously and sexually cathect the breast, which appears to be a natural organ for lactation? It is inconceivable that the infant does not notice this sexual cathexis, which might be said to be perverse in the sense that term is defined in the Three Essays. It is impossible to imagine that the infant does not suspect that the cathexis is the source of the nagging question: what does the breast want from me, apart from wanting to suckle me, and, come to that why does it want to suckle me?”
Rather than continually looking for the traumatic origin of sexuality in some form of abuse, Laplanche argues that the introduction of sexuality needs to be understood within the daily activities between infant and mother, more specifically, the act of breast feeding. The act of feeding is then linked to the fact that women conventionally “unconsciously and sexually cathect the breast.” Laplanche then argues that the child undoubtedly picks up on this ‘sexual cathexis,’ which is then offered to the child as an incomprehensible signifiers. In addition to the economy of need that the milk fulfills, there is an additional economy of pleasure, one that exists in relation to the enigmatic signifiers sent by the mother. These signifiers are then engaged with by the child, who, at some level, poses the question, what is does this set of signifiers mean, and what does it have to do with me?
Laplanche uses the breast within this example, but it should be understood that the breast doesn’t take the place of the penis in a re-centered oedipal structure. We are in fact reminded earlier in the book that increasingly children are not being breast fed, and that it may be that in the future most children will not in fact be breast fed. The reason why he make reference to the breast, and Freud makes reference to the care of the mother is that they are still the most common forms of care of the child, but that doesn’t mean that they are essential to the operation. This doesn’t change the enigmatic messages sent through the adult. This can take any number of forms, touching, speech, the gaze of the child, etc.
The enigmatic signifier isn’t simple or untroubled. On asked of its nature, Laplanche responded, “it is conflict-full, conflictual, because it is enigmatic, unknown, hidden, it involves the repressed. It is like the example of parapraxes, slips of the tongues and so on… our conscious messages are infiltrated by unconscious ones which remain unconscious because there is conflict.” The gift that is proffered, perhaps unknowingly, the introduction into human society, is one that is complex and riddled with contradictions and aporias.
The unconscious is in fact produced through the work of translation. Translation is the work of interpreting the message. “The unconscious grows from different types of messages. But metapsychologically, I don’t say that the unconscious is made up of enigmatic signifiers, as such, which would mean that the unconscious of the child is the unconscious of the mother. Instead there is an active part played by the infant which is repression; that is, the infant doesn’t take the whole of the message, but tries to understand it and the parts he understands do not become unconscious. The unconscious grows and grows, not in an organized manner, but side by side with those different types of relationships with the cares are interrelations of self-preservation, but which from the point of view of sexuality are only one-way relations (from the adult to the infant).”
This is a significant point. It shifts away from a concept of the unconscious that can in any sense be linked to a primordial past of any sort. Nor can it be linked to the level of structure. Laplanche insists, “I am not denying the existence of essential stages such as the Oedipus and castration, even though I would claim that they, as opposed to primal seduction, are secondary stages.” The unconscious is defined in terms of repression. Repression operates as a productive structuration, producing both the “I” of the ego and the force of the unconscious. The unconscious instead of being a sort of primordial structure becomes a discontinuous series of thing-like signifiers. It becomes “a un-metabolized trace.” He goes on to say, “It’s not a representation. It’s something that remains from the process. It’s a by-product of the process, a by-product which is continually reactivated.”
This moves us in to the more troubled territory of “propping.” Laplanche retranslates Freud’s term, “Anlehnung” from James Strachey’s translation of the term as “anaclisis.” This literalization of the term serves to redefine and problematize this concept. “Strachey’s use of ‘anaclisis’ as the translation for this has nothing to with the Anlehnung of Freud. The idea of ‘leaning on’ is the idea that sexuality emerges on the basis of self-preservation, it ‘leans on’ that basis, but it’s not just an internal movement.”
Laplanche expands this to connect with the idea of seduction, which had been abandoned in its original formulations. “We have here something resembling an onion with one layer of its skin peeled off or a flower which has lost a petal. And to make the point succinctly, onions do not peel themselves. Seduction peels what might be termed a sexual layer away from the self-preservation. Seduction peels the onion of self-preservation; self-preservation does not split as a result of some indefinable endogenous movement.”
Jean Laplanche links the problem of the drive with a number of fairly significant structural problems. ”Yes with regard to the English-speaking world, this is the main issue, because the English speaking world has been invaded by the mistranslation of Trieb as ‘instinct’. The object relations school, the ego psychology, the Kleinian school – all these schools fail to make a basic distinction between drive and instinct. As a consequence they still have the idea of a biological basis to infantile sexuality, a predetermined basis, expressed in the evolution of sexuality through certain human stages. This is correlated with the concept of in instinct – an instinct that develops through certain stages. Human sexuality is completely reduced to an old biological model. The whole of Freud’s discovery is forgotten. Freud sometimes forgets it too, in fact.”
We can see in here the deconstructive element of Jean Laplanche, the side that finds a certain alliance with Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality. We can see the same modes of deconstruction contained within Freud’s thought there, an attempt to deconstruct the structures of normative sexuality, by showing that they are precisely that, normative cultural structures. Laplanche looks at the way that confusion of the concepts of “Instinkt” and “Trieb” which gets put in the service of a certain type of normative sexuality that places under a concept of a biological one. He also links this to problems with Freud’s thought itself, which often rebels against the implications of his most radical concepts.
The drive also becomes one of the most constructive places for Laplanche’s rethinking of the project of psychoanalysis. “We don’t have meaning, we have the signifier. The signifier, which can have a meaning, but which becomes a force. It is the force of the ‘thing-signifier’. The message forces me to translate. There is a force to translate, a Trieb-a-drive-to translate, which is inside the message itself.” Laplanche frequently refers to this drive, the only real drive it would seem, and as one that ‘perverts’ the limited structures of self-preservation within the young human subject. This perversion is linked to certain unevenness, an “unevenness inside the message.” This unevenness is a clear reference to the uneven capacities between the adult and the child. He then moves on to say. “I would say the message itself contains the enigma.” There seems to be a linkage between the concept of the enigma and the unevenness of force contained within the message.
The concept of Nachtraglichkeit, or ‘afterwardsness’ becomes crucial to understand the relationship of trauma to the structure of the drive and the nature of the enigmatic message. The trauma takes place in the process of ‘afterwardsness.’ The enigmatic message taken in at an earlier place but was placed in the state of unconsciousness. The trauma is only activated in an incident, which allows for the enigmatic signifier to link itself to another incident. This is why Freud links trauma and neurosis with overdetermination, because the ‘thing-like’ signifiers of the unconscious must always link themselves to other signifiers to reach the state of representation.
This single drive can be divided into to two aspects, “the life and death drives.” He points to the work of Klein as good place to define these concepts. “The so-called ‘life’ sexual drive corresponds to a whole and totalizing object; it is bound (in Freud’s sense of continuing to exist in more or less coherent manner, of not being fragmented) because it relates to a totalizing object or to an object than can be totalized.” Laplanche links this with the concept of metaphor. “The death drive, on the other hand, corresponds to a part object which is scarcely an object, as it is, even in Klein’s description, unstable, shapeless and fragmented; it is, therefore, closer to metonymy than metaphor.”
While he schematizes these two drives, he emphasizes their heterogeneous relation to the primary and secondary processes of the drive, “we cannot establish a complete equation between the two, or say that the entire primary process is dominated by the death drive whilst the entire secondary process is dominated by the life drives. We have a complimentary series rather than a real opposition… The absolute primary process and the absolute secondary process are linked by a series which distributes varying degrees of metaphor and metonymy, but there is no point at which we can speak of pure metonymy and pure metaphor.” This once again seems to be linked to a critique of a biologizing concept of the drive. A concept that Klein seems to accept in schematizing the ‘life’ and ‘death drives’ in the manner she does.
Although this brief summary hardly does justice to the thoroughness of Laplanche’s ideas, it does show a thread of continuity. Laplanche as I said before is involved a process that works to both radically transform psychoanalysis and conserve it as an important site of knowledge. What is transformed are the moments that psychoanalysis is used as a device to reinforce and naturalize the contingent structures of culture. But Laplanche doesn’t do this in the more radical form of ‘anti-psychiatry’ or the manner of, say, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. Instead, he finds that they can already be found within Freud’s work itself. Freud’s work, while guilty of the charges above also reads those formations symptomatically and culturally. Laplanche’s work recognizes both within the work, and works to produce something else within them.
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 92
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 126
 Jean Laplanche, “The Kent Seminar”, in Jean Laplanche:Seduction Translation, Drives, Ed. John Fletcher and Martin Stanton (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1992), 23.
 Jean Laplanche, “The Kent Seminar”, in Jean Laplanche:Seduction Translation, Drives, Ed. John Fletcher and Martin Stanton (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1992), 25.
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 149
 Jean Laplanche, “The other within: Rethinking psychoanalysis”
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 145
Jean Laplanche, “The other within: Rethinking psychoanalysis” in Radical Philosophy 102 (2000)
 Jean Laplanche, “The other within: Rethinking psychoanalysis” in Radical Philosophy 102 (2000)
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 146-147.
 Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macy (New York: Blackwell, 1989),147.