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The term "representation" has two meanings in psychoanalysis: sense "A," which is the conscious or pre-conscious evocation in internal mental space of an object or person, even an event in the external world; and sense "B," which refers to one of the two expressions (or "translations") of a drive within psychic processes, the other being the "quota" or charge, of affect.

Sense A is the conventional meaning in philosophy and psychology. It is also found in Freudian metapsychology, a fundamental contribution of which was to describe it according to sense B, which is specific to psychoanalysis. Thus, there are two dimensions to representation, the first focused on the internal/external distinction (internal space of representation/external space of perception and action), the second on psychic topography (whether it involves the first topographical subsystem of conscious/preconscious/unconscious or the second of id/ego/superego, which does not replace the first). A full description of these two "orthogonal" dimensions does entail certain problems, however.

At this point it would be useful to introduce some terminological guidelines.

The term representation translates at least three terms used by Freud, although he never clearly distinguished among them:

  • Vorstellung. This is an everyday word that literally means "that which is placed before, in front of, in the foreground." The implication of the word "representation" is obviously quite different since it can mean that a second presentation is involved (this implication is dominant in sense A, but plays a less obvious role in sense B).
  • Repräsentant. This is a much less common word, derived from Latin, which means "delegate," "representative" (Repräsentantenhaus : "House of Representatives"), and is primarily applied to sense B (the drive "delegates" a representation in psychic life).
  • Idee. The word means idea, conception, thought, and so on. It is the term Freud often used to refer to "dream thoughts."

It is useful to distinguish the various senses of the concept of representation from related concepts such as "figuration" (especially in the dream work but also in the case of many creative activities), "symbol" (sometimes used by Freud as a synonym for "representation"), and "fantasy" (which can be considered as a representation or as a system of representations of a particular kind).

Freud's interest in these distinctions was evident even before the advent of psychoanalysis. In "On Aphasia: A Critical Study" (1891b), he defined aphasic disorders from a structural perspective, as disorders of semantic systems and, consequently, as disorders of representational systemsthe "things" evoked by words. (We can trace the origin of the distinction he made in 1915 between "thing representation" and "word representation" to this essay.)

Freud then transposed these ideas onto the problem of the psychoneuroses. Even in his earliest descriptions of the affects, he emphasized how "irreconcilable ideas [representations]" come to be rejected by morality. But psychoanalysis truly came into being when he referred to this rejection as "repression," an active process that changes the status of representations, now unconscious but potentially active (through the return of the repressed); and when, at the same time, he also distinguished the vicissitudes of the two expressions for drives, representation and affect. Strictly speaking, it is only the representation that is subject to repression. It would be contradictory to speak of unconscious affects, emotions, or feelings, even though Freud subsequently referred to an "unconscious feeling of guilt." For what is unconscious is not the feeling itself, which has disappeared, but the still active mechanisms that generated it.

At this point we are confronted with, on the one hand, "floating" affects that are deprived of representational support and, consequently, are easily converted into anxiety, and, on the other hand, unconscious representations that attempt to return to satisfy the desire, as well as unrepressed conscious representations that in general are not, or only slightly, imbued with affect. It is these last, "suspended representations," that the floating affect will invest (in the military sense of blockading, or investing, a stronghold as well as in the economic sense, the way a fluid fills a container). Through this mechanism, the unconscious representation "delegates" the satisfaction of the desire to a representation or a group of representations that can enter consciousness. These views, which were clearly expressed between 1894 and 1896 (Freud, 1894a, 1895c, 1895d, 1896b), were developed in 1915, especially in "Repression" (1915d) and "The Unconscious" (1915e). André Green (1973) discussed these issues in a remarkable essay.

We see, then, how Freudian metapsychology attempted to differentiate the two senses: the representation carries libidinal impulses that are cathected to it to the extent that it is potentially engaged with the external world, where the satisfaction will necessarily be sought. But this also raises serious problems concerning the relation between psychic reality and the reality of the external worldproblems that Freud continued to struggle with throughout his career.

These problems are related to the activity of perception and memory. When the representation is, in the A sense, the internal "double" of an object, event, or person in the external world, it is assumed that the external reality has already been perceived and some trace of the perception has been retained. It is only under these conditions that the representation, in the B sense, will be able to be invested with a "quantum of affect."

Freud at first followed a rather simplistic theory of perception that was consonant with the empiricist-associationist school that dominated the late nineteenth century: perception functions like a recording device that faithfully transcribes the formal qualities of the perceived object, supplying "raw" material for the associative process. The resulting representations are themselves preserved unchanged in the form of "memory traces." But this raises a rather difficult problem: By what criteria can the subject distinguish a true perception (the German verb for perceiving is wahrnehmen, "to take to be true") from an illusion or hallucination?

Moreover, clinical work soon revealed the extent to which memory traces were manipulated through repression when they reappeared during the return of the repressed, were recathected by an affect, or were used for the disguised fulfillment of a desire. The perception itself, initially subject to psychic conflict, cannot be mistaken for a simple record, or inscription. It took a long time before Freud was able to acknowledge that every perception, every memory trace, and therefore every representation, is "constructed" by the dynamics of the psyche itself and undergoes a constant process of retroactive reworking (Perron, 1995). The controversies that ensued, advanced by "ego psychology," concerning basal cognitive functions conceived as "zones free of conflict," fell within the framework of these problems.

What enabled Freud to escape the empiricism of his early work (rather than associationism) was the awareness of desire. In "A Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c), he states that desire originates with psychic life: under cover of need it reactivates the memory of the satisfaction and "supplies something similar to a perception, in other words, a hallucination" (1950c.). We must learn to distinguish between them and it is at this point that the difficult question of the "reality test" arises. A solution was indicated in a series of Freudian texts, including "Negation" (1925h) and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d).

The difference can be found in the introduction of disappointment, which should be added to the schema of maternal care. While the infant's needs are satisfied by the mother (or her substitute), his desire is associated with an object, an object that will be progressively situated "externally" (and verified as such through its absence). If there is no satisfaction, the need persists (or is reborn, independent of hallucinatory satisfaction), and the child situates the desired object "inside himself." Subject and object come into being together, along with the representation, now defined (as distinct from hallucination) as that which exists here, in me, in my internal space, but (not necessarily) there, in the external world. In this case, the child must determine "if something present in the ego as representation can also be found in the perception (reality). As we have seen this is again a question of outside and inside. The non-real, simply represented, the subjective, is only inside; the other, the real, is also present outside" (1925h).

Based on this information, a number of authors attempted to construct a coherent theory of the "origins of psychic life" (Perron-Borelli, Perron, 1997), including Donald Winnicott (transitional objects and transitional space), Wilfred Bion (the transition from beta elements to alpha elements, the function of the maternal daydream, preconceptions), and Piera Aulagnier (from the pictogram to utterances, primalprimarysecondary succession).

Fundamentally, as we have seen, representation is constituted as a double of the absent object, which it can evoke or cause to exist even when it is absent from the world of perceptions and actions; it is an absent presence. However, the same is true of the symbol. And Freud often used the two terms synonymously. He established a term-for-term correspondence, where the relation between representant and represented was equivalent to the relation between symbol and symbolized. But elsewhere he introduced a completely different approach, onereferred to as "structural" abovein which the material of psychic life consists of "systems" of representations that are more or less cathected by affects. In these systems a representation only assumes meaning and functionality through its connection to other representations. This has analogies with linguistics, especially the work done by Ferdinand de Saussure and extensively employed by structural linguistics. We know, for example, that Jacques Lacan used this as the basis for constructing a profoundly original metapsychology.

It is appropriate at this point to examine the sense of the term "representation" that no longer refers to the product of psychic work but to the work itself, the process of representation. How is it distinguished from the process of symbolization (Gibeault, 1989)? Symbolization can be said to make use of material supplied by the systems of representation, which are themselves constantly changing. This, however, raises questions about the problem of fantasy.

It is difficult, in Freud's writing as well as in the later literature, to differentiate the two concepts. However, by consensus, the following distinctions are generally accepted: Fantasy, much more so than representation, which need not be heavily cathected with affect, is invested with desire and the hallucinatory (or quasi-hallucinatory) satisfaction of this desire. Fantasy, however, cannot simply be characterized as a strongly cathected representation. It would be preferable to treat fantasy as a particular type of representation centered on satisfaction: the typical structure of the fantasy would, therefore, comprises an agent, an action, an object of the action. Transformations of this structure (through agent/object or active/passive reversals, the substitution of agents and objects)a good example of which is provided in Freud's article "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919e)are part of the process of representation (Perron-Borelli, 1997).

The psychoanalytic process is obviously an incessant process of binding and unbinding representations and affects, giving them mobility in place of rigid and repetitive bindings. In therapeutic procedures, like those that make use of children's drawings or psychoanalytic psychodrama, we see how perception, memory traces, figuration, and representation are interrelated. The procedure consists in encouraging the patient to produce figurations (drawings, mimetic actions) as perceptual objects. And it is preferable, to avoid confusion, to use the term "figuration," which is precise where "representation" is ambiguous.

These figurations are based on psychic realities known as representations (and their variant, fantasies). They are present as objects of perception to the therapist and give rise in him to representations that are more or less in line with those of the patient, although not always perfectly aligned with them. These overlapping representations and their constant reworking are the very material of the therapeutic process to the extent that it attempts to remobilize the psychic life of the patient. Donald Winnicott, with his squiggle technique, and Marion Milner after him, have done a remarkable job in describing these processes.

Roger Perron

See also: Psychic representative; Representative.


Freud, Sigmund. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

Gibeault, Alain. (1989). Destins de la symbolisation. Revue Française de Psychanalyse, 53, 6, 1493-1617.

Green, André. (1999). The fabric of affect in the psychoanalytic discourse. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.) London, New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1973)

Perron, Roger. (1995). Théories de la psychogenèse. In Encyclopédie médico-chirurgicale, volume Psychiatrie. Paris: E.M.-C., fasc. 37-810-F-30.

Perron-Borelli, Michèle. (1997). Dynamique du fantasme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Perron-Borelli, Michèle, and Perron, Roger. (1997). Fantasme, action, pensée. Algiers:Éditions de la Société algérienne de psychologie.