Psychotic Potential

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The notion of psychotic potential was created by Piera Aulagnier, who contributed significantly to the study of the sources of psychosis. Opposing the idea of a seed of psychosis that supposedly exists in every person, she explored the necessary conditions for the psychotic "solution" to be "chosen" by the subject. These conditions were necessary, but not sufficient in themselves, to produce an out-and-out psychosis, the latter being dependent on chance happenings in the life of the subject. Meanwhile, the psychosis would be "potential."

The notion of predictability is present on two levels in psychotic potentiality. Firstly, it can be understood as a link between, on the one hand, the history and prehistory of a particular subject (on the level of both reality and fantasy), and, on the other hand, the subject they have become by the time they have been characterized in terms of psychopathology. Potentiality is then understood in the temporal sense: as the relation between a past and a present. It then leads, following the same line of argument, to the question of whether the future is predictable on the basis of the present.

Further, psychotic potentiality can also be understood not just in terms of psychogenesis but also in terms of the Aristotelian opposition between potentiality and act: we can be something potentially without this ever being actualized. The idea of psychotic potential is not the result of a diagnosis made on the basis of observable criteria: it is, first and foremost, a counter-transferential feeling, an extremity or an appeal for help that is felt as strange, even dangerous, by the analyst who is able to empathize. It is particularly important that attention be focused on this dimension, right from the first sessions, for the purpose of forestalling the risk of failure of certain functions linked to the progress of the treatment itself. Aulagnier emphasized the partial character of this process: It is as if the psyche of the patient could function normally, that is to say without being in flagrant contradiction with the common mindset of other subjects in the same culture, while at the same time containing zones of shadow in which a totally different and original kind of functioning operates.

In La Violence de l'interprétation (The Violence of Interpretation ), of 1975, she defined this concept as "the result of the fixation of a primal delirious thought, whose function it is to attempt to reconstruct a fragment missing in the discourse of the other." It seemed then that psychotic potential would constitute a "solution" to a conflict experienced by the subject in childhooda conflict that was too early and intense, causing so much suffering that the psychic work involved in surviving turned into "madness." This is not the only solution. Aulagnier offers three others: the choice of death, in the form of Thanatos triumphant; the development of infantile autism; and the attempt to flee from any thought, any desire which would lead back to the conflict that was the cause of so much suffering. This latter solution is a partial mutilation, but it is not really constructed like a psychotic delirium. Because of this third possibility, the notion of psychotic potential transcends the childhood/age opposition. Rather than harboring, from childhood onwards, such delirious thoughts, the subject can try to whitewash everything that could prompt suffering or conflict. Yet this avoidance itself, which is to say the delirious "solution" itself, which may be understood as preferable to suicide, nonetheless establishes that such deeply troubled thoughts do exist.

Psychotic potential involves not only the setting up of a premature and primal, delirious kind of mentality, which can develop into psychosis in adulthood. It also suggests the idea of a flaw itself created by pushing away the delirious solutiona fault line that constitutes an invitation to delirium anytime the conflict situation is reactivated by events.

The theorization of psychosis by Piera Aulagnier is very different from that of Sigmund Freud, for whom the call to delirium is an attempt at reparation and reconstruction following a rupture between the self and reality (1924b [1923]). This rupture, according to Freud, is based on the "frustration, a non-fulfillment, of one of those childhood wishes which are for ever undefeated" (p. 151). Contrary to neurosis, where the reparation is carried out at the expense of the id, reparation in psychosis occurs at the expense of the relation to reality. For Aulagnier, the conflict generating psychosis is not located on the level of desire, but on the level of the thinkable, that is to say of self-identification.

Behind the conditions of possibility for psychotic potential to be established, whether it turns into open psychosis or not, lies a particular situation that imposes on the subject a prohibition and/or an obligation to think something that contradicts the logic of the discourse of society. It is not society that transmits the contents of such thoughts; they result from a compromise that allows one to continue to cathect with reality, and to love objects. They amount to so many para-decathexes, a term coined by Aulagnier on the model of para-excitations. In extreme cases, the choices are limited: either real death, or psychic death; a decathexis such as the victory of Thanatos, or a delirious reconstruction.

To sum up the essence of psychotic potential, as Aulagnier defined it: at the source of delirious thinking there lies, on the one hand, an intolerable frustration, whose significance is linked to the question of the origin of the subject, the world, pleasure, and so forth; and, on the other hand, an unconquerable desire, which refuses to be reduced to silence and is connected with the identificatory needs proper to the self.

From her earliest texts until her most recent, Aulagnier has emphasized the fundamental quality of this need in these terms: Every self needs to think that its existence makes sense, that it is not, as Shakespeare says, "a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." If such meaning is lacking in the discourse of the one supposed to impart meaning, the father, delirious thinking will, in its primordial way, attempt to accomplish the reconstruction of the missing fragment. This reconstruction will be illusory, but it will be in conformity with the identificatory demands of the self.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also : Apprenti-historien et le maítre-sorcier (L'-) [The apprentice historian and the master sorcerer]; Blank/nondelusional psychoses; Encounter; Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement, The .


Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les destins du plaisir. Aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

. (1984). L'Apprenti-historien et le maître-sorcier. Du discours identifiant au discours délirant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Castoriadis-Aulagnier, Piera. (1975). La violence de l'inter-prétation. Du pictogramme à l'énoncé. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1924b [1923]). Neurosis and psychosis. SE, 19: 147-153.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1998). Penser la psychose. Une lecture de l'oeuvre de Piera Aulagnier. Paris: Dunod.