The Latin term infans, derived from the Greek phèmi ("I speak"), means "one who does not (or rather, not yet) speak," and refers to the baby before the acquisition of speech that marks the entry into childhood.
A number of authors (notably Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott) used the term to describe those whose mode of communication is situated at a preverbal level. In the work of Jacques Lacan the term infans took on a further dimension in his discussion of language and its relation to the unconscious. Piera Aulagnier elaborated a theory of the mother-infant relation in terms of discourse (with the mother as "word-bearer"). The discussion here will be limited to the specific reference to language implied in the notion of infans.
In French translations of authors like Klein or Winnicott, terms such as bébé (baby), nourrisson (nursling), petit enfant (small/young child), or infans are used. A good many of Klein's texts were originally written in German, and she used the word infans, which was translated in different ways in English and then in French, according to Luis E. Prado de Oliveira. Winnicott commented on the term infant, commonly used in English, in "The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship," originally published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1960. He explicitly referred to the fact that the infant does not yet have the use of verbal symbols or word-presentations. The baby's dependence on the mother's care is therefore more linked to maternal empathy than to any understanding the mother might have of what could be verbally expressed. In the work of Lacan, the "infans stage" precedes the advent of the subject through language. In "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience" (1949/2004), he wrote: "The jubilant assumption of his specular image by the kind of being—still trapped in his motor impotence and nursling dependence—the little man at the infans stage thus seems to me to manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject" (p. 4).
Piera Aulagnier's theory of the infans stage is original in that she did not stop herself with merely noting the preverbal relationship to the mother at this stage, but also emphasizes that the mother plays the role of "word-bearer" in relation to the preverbal infant. This can be understood only in the context of the anticipation of the baby's I by the mother. In The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement (1975/2001), Aulagnier writes: "The mother's words and deeds always anticipate what the infant may know of them" (p. 10).
The idea of the mother as word-bearer draws on Lacan's emphasis on the function of discourse. In The Violence of Interpretation, Aulagnier reminded us that "Every subject is born into a 'speaking space"' and that the I is "an agency constituted by discourse" (p. 71). By "bearing" the word, the mother effects a twofold junction: first, between the infant's manifestations and the outside world, by verbalizing them and giving them meaning; and second, between the world and the infant, since for the baby she serves as the representative of an external order, whose laws and demands she articulates.
Unlike the bodily needs that the newborn, because of its immaturity, cannot meet by itself, the psychic needs involving representation in its primal form (the pictogram) do not depend on intervention by a third party. But the infant does not yet have access to the formation of ideas and naming, and it is thus in this place of lack that the mother as word-bearer is inserted. She fashions the objects that are presented to the infant by endowing them with a libidinal meaning. In Aulagnier's words: "[F]or the senselessness of a real that could have no status in the psyche, it substitutes a reality that is human because it is cathected by the maternal libido, a reality that may be reshaped by the primal and the primary only because of that earlier work" (p. 74).
On this point, which is crucial for thinking the relationship with the world, and which marks the way in which that relationship depends on the relationship to the other—here the mother—Aulagnier simultaneously underscores her indebtedness to Lacan and her proximity to Wilfred Bion, from whom she considered herself to be fairly distant in other respects. With regard to Lacan, she notes: "The contribution of Lacan's theory will be recognized here: indeed it might be said that the object is capable of being metabolized by the infant's psychical activity only if, and as such, the mother's discourse has endowed it with a meaning as evidenced by her naming of it. In this sense 'swallowed' with the object, Lacan was to see the primal introjection of a signifier as the inscription of a unary trait (trait unaire )" (p. 73).
As for Bion, she underscored her similarity to him as regarding the idea of an object that initially resided in the "maternal zone" and is then metabolized by the infant into a pure representation of its own relationship to the world. On the other hand, she diverged from both Lacan and Bion in her analysis of the consequences of this prosthetic function of the mother's psyche in terms of "violence." In this respect, we can assume that this notion that, a priori, seems surprising in the context of mother-child relations, came from another source—specifically, from the other violence that marks the bonds between the mother and the baby who will become psychotic, and specifically the schizophrenic.
In what sense does the mother/word-bearer inflict violence upon the infans ? This necessary, "primary" violence is violence nonetheless, in that the infant feels the imposition of the word-bearer's interpretations of the world. As Aulagnier explained in another work, the mother maintains a "spoken shadow" relationship with the infant, but the infant never completely coincides with this shadow that preexists it. The "violence" is linked to the need to create and hold a subject-place (the spoken shadow) where there are as yet only potentialities. Accordingly, the future subject, the I, will come into being in a space preformed by expectations that are not its own. This is the necessary violence of maternal interpretation. But just as there is no such thing as a developmental tabula rasa, there can be no human subject without this pre-form. It is the discrepancy between the infant and shadow that makes it possible to situate a violence that will only really be violent (secondary violence) if the mother imposes it no longer upon the infant, but upon the I of the child.
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Apprenti-historien et le maítre-sorcier (L'-) [The apprentice historian and the master sorcerer]; Controversial Discussions; Demand; Graph of Desire; Helplessness; I; Ideational representation; Identificatory project; Infant development; Megalomania; Narcissism; Object; Other, the; Primary narcissism; Sense/nonsense; Violence of Interpretation, The: From Pictogram to Statement .
Castoriadis-Aulagnier, Piera (2001). The violence of interpretation: From pictogram to statement. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.).. Hove, U.K., and Philadelphia: Brunner/Routledge. (Original work published 1975)
Aulagnier, Piera. (1984). L'Apprenti-historien et le maître sorcier. Du discours identificant au discours délirant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Lacan, Jacques. (2004). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.).. New York: W. W. Norton (Original work published 1949).
Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1998). Penser la psychose: Une lecture de l'oeuvre de Piera Aulagnier. Paris: Dunod.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41 (6), 585-595.
——. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth.