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In psychoanalysis, the term intergenerational refers to a process allowing for the recognition of the modalities of conflict that situate a human being in relation to the generations that preceded that individual's birth. The specifically psychoanalytic meaning of this notion has to do with its articulation with the essential psychoanalytic concepts and methodological conditions that made possible the discovery of the unconscious. To avoid reification of this concept, it is preferable to use the word only as an adjective.

This term is a derivative of transgenerational, a term that came out of family systems therapy (Boszormenyi-Nagy, Ivan, 1973); it appeared in France around 1985 in connection with the notions of inheritance, transmission, and genealogy (Guyotat, Jean, and Fédida, Pierre, 1985; Eiguer, Alberto, 1987).

In the heterogeneity of its uses, this word served as a catalyst for the recognition of a problematic that numerous psychoanalysts had been working on for years: the presence of ideas coming from an "other" who from the outset participates with his or her own unconscious psyche in the constitution of the subject's psychic apparatus.

It is not sufficient to observe empirically the involvement of three generations to speak of intergenerational phenomena from a psychoanalytic point of view. In fact, this notion involves a parental and grandparental intrapsychic agency that is distinct from the real, material parents and grandparents and that can hinder recognition of the differences between generations, sexual difference, and otherness.

By way of a precursor to this notion, let us recall Sigmund Freud's statement, in "New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis" (1933a [1932]): "Thus a child's super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents' super-ego; the contents which fill it are the same and it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation" (p. 67). It is precisely this parental agency that is revealed in the process of reconstruction.

To the extent that there is revealed "a third party of the other" situated in the generation of a grandparent (or an ancestor), it is possible to study the way in which the history that preceded the subject's conception comes into play in the formation and development of the psyche. Thus, for example, René Kaës (1993) examined Freud's work in terms of inheritance and transmission, and attributed to the group the role of mediator. Jean Guillaumin, for his part, studied the object loss in Freud's work (1984, 1988).

This whole problematic presupposes the sequence genealogy/transmission/transference/reconstruction of unconscious ideas. This is why the term intergenerational is preferable to transgenerational (see also Alain de Mijolla, 1999, 2004). The operation that best exemplifies the link among generations is that of unconscious identification. The concept of unconscious identification is articulated together with other, complementary psychoanalytic notions and must be situated in the specific context of each author.

Among the works that are precursors to this problematic, the following can be cited: Sándor Ferenczi's work (1932) on the confusion of tongues and Jean Laplanche (1984) on the enigmatic signifier, in relation to the theme of the adult's message to the child; around the theme of the mirror, Jacques Lacan's foundational article on the mirror stage (1949), Donald Winnicott on the mother's mirroring role (1967), and André Green on the dead mother (1983); and lastly, focusing in the conditions of the appearance of psychotic thinking, Enrique Pichon-Rivière's work on internalization of the social bond and the psychotic as word-bearer of the family (1957-1962); Wilfred R. Bion's formulations on the functions of containment and transformation (1963-1965); the concept of blank psychosis (Jean-Luc Donnet and André Green, 1973); and Piera Aulagnier's work on failures in the maternal function as word-bearer and the prohibition imposed against thinking (1964, 1975, 1984).

A great many authors have approached the "inter-generational" (or "transgenerational") from different perspectives, even though for the most part they have not used this term. The following contributions can be considered as coming out of this problematic: on the three generations of man in religious myth and genealogy (Guy Rosolato, 1967); on phantoms, the crypt, and the unavowable secret (Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, 1961-1975, 1978); on identification fantasies (Rimbaud and Freud) and the genealogy of fantasies (Alain de Mijolla, 1975, 1981, 1985, 2004); on confusion between birth/death and narcissistic lines of descent in psychopathology (Jean Guyotat, 1980, 1991, 1995); on alienating narcissistic unconscious identifications and the telescoping of generations (Haydée Faimberg, 1981, 1985, 1988); and on delusional inheritance (Micheline Enriques, 1984, 1986, 1987) as a consequence of the prohibition against thinking.

Continuing the line of inquiry in the work of Abraham and Torok, Serge Tisseron (1985, 1990, 1992, 1997) studied the creation of images as witnesses to family secrets, and Cl. Nachin studied the pathology of mourning (1981, 1989). Jean-José Baranès (1984, 1986, 1993) examined the possibility of formulating a "transgenerational metapsychology." Alberto Eiguer (1987, 1997) conceptualized the "transgenerational object" in family therapy. With reference to observation of early relationships, Serge Lebovici (1980, 1995) spoke of a "transgenerational mandate."

Other authors have studied the transmission of traumas in historical contexts: the Shoah (M. Bergman and M. Jucovy, 1982) and the assignment of names (Y. Gampel, 1982, 1986); vampire identifications (Pérel Wilgowicz, 1991); and Armenian genocide (Jeanine Altounian, 1991).

The terms intergenerational and transgenerational appeared relatively recently. The concept they cover can be applied to a variety of different theoretical domains. The psychoanalytic relevance of this concept can be put to the test through a retroactive reexamination of studies that made it possible to think the relationship among generations, even if it potentially means having to change or make more precise the term itself. It is thus possible to envision comparing it with the two Freudian models of the unconscious: the unconscious as a specific agency, or as the consequence of a primal repression in which an "other" takes part.

Analytic experience was the basis for the following definition, proposed by Faimberg in "Á l'écoute du télescopage des générations: pertinence psychanalytique du concept" (1988; Listening to the telescoping of generations: psychoanalytic relevance of the concept): The intergenerational relationship refers to a process of (re)construction that brings the primal into existence through deferred action, in the history of the transference. This primal, always fragmentary and hypothetical, then becomes the condition of possibility for initiating a process of historicizing the subject in relation to two or more previous generations. This process of links among generations can be mediated by means of an unconscious identification that is revealed in the same process of reconstruction.

This conceptualization of the intergenerational relationship does not aim to find out whether it is necessary to go back ever earlier in time. It is centered around the transference, the process of listening to the anachronisms of the unconscious, and (re)constructing historical truths. Accordingly, to avoid the risk of finding only material that had already been put there, it does not aim to anticipate, based on known events, what might be brought to light through the analytic process. Further, the "intergenerational" concepts that result from the necessary work of transformation linked to the transferential situation can by no means be substituted for it without becoming univocal explanatory schemes. Only by avoiding any such reification is it possible to listen to the unconscious there where it speaks: in a place where neither the analysand nor the analyst expected it.

HaydÉe Faimberg

See also: Family.


Eiger, Alberto. (1987). La Parenté fantasmatique, Paris: Dunod.

Faimberg, Haydée. (1985). Le télescopage des générations, à propos de la généalogie de certaines identifications. Revista de Psicoanánalisis, 42, 5, 1043-1056.

Guyotat, Jean, and Fédida, Pierre. (1985).Événement et psychopathologie. Lyon: Simep.

Kaës, René; Faimberg, Haydée; Enriquez, Micheline; et al. (1993). Transmission de la vie psychique entre generations. Paris: Dunod.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1987). Unconscious identification fantasies and family prehistory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 68, 397-403.

. (2004). Préhistoires de famille. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Tisseron, Serge, et al. (1995). Le psychismeà l'épreuve des générations: clinique du fantôme. Paris: Dunod.