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Representability is a sensory capacity of the psychic apparatus that makes it possible for an object that is absent to be made present in the form of an image. It is active in the process of hallucination, artistic creation, and the dream work, where latent and abstract thoughts are transformed into visual images.

The notion of representability appears in chapter 6 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) titled "The Dream Work," in which Sigmund Freud explores the relationship between manifest content and latent thoughts, and the psychic means used in the selection and transformation of abstract thoughts into visual images. It is also found in chapter 7, "The Psychology of the Dream-Processes," where the focus is on the dream's instinctual force, understood as a wish-fulfillment by means of regression to sensory images.

In the mind's use of representability, abstract thoughts are transformed into pictorial language. Among the means involved are condensation through selection of overdetermined elements, and displacement of psychic intensities along associative chains. The omission of logical and causal relationships that cannot be represented is reminiscent of the plastic arts, but the reduction to condensed terms also resembles the work of poetry, and the ambiguous syntax obtained by plays on words. The aim of this work is to make it possible for free-flowing energy to be attracted to visual images while at the same time satisfying the mind's endopsychic censorship by means of these distortions. Primary representation-compulsion, noted in Herbert Silberer's account of self-symbolization, should not lead us to overlook the aim of this formal regression governed by the primary process: putting an end to internal tension and "re-finding" the sensory trace of the object and the illusion of its presence. In so doing, the dream hallucinatorily fulfills a wish, and the regression is both temporal and topographical insofar as the wish is unconscious and dates from childhood.

In "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1916-17f [1915]), his perspective expanded by metapsychology, Freud delineated the hallucinatory process in its topographical and psycho-pathological dimensions. Representability involves a conscious cathexis of an instinctual demand; a negative hallucination makes it possible to deny the perception of reality.

In "Du langage pictural au langage de l'interprète" (From pictorial language to the language of the interpreter; 1980), with regard to psychosis, Piera Aulagnier returned to the idea that a consideration of representability is necessary for the analyst's interpretation to be dynamically effective, with regard to particular modes of thought that remain fixed to thing-presentations.

The term representability poses the same problems of translation as the term representation, which is used to render two different German terms: Darstellung and Vorstellung. Indeed the English terms do not capture the connotation, inherent in the German Stellung-da, of the presence of the object that is associated with all hallucinatory productions.

Katia Varenne

See also: Dream work; Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Representability, considerations of; Screen memory; Visual.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1980). Du langage pictural au langage de l'interprète. Topique, 26, 29-54.

Botella, César, and Botella, Sára. (2001). La Figurabilité psychique. Lausanne and Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1916-17f [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-35.