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The repressed is constituted by the operation of repression, which rejects and maintains in the unconscious representations deemed incompatible with the ego.

The repressed is not directly knowable, since it pertains wholly to the unconscious. It can be known only by its effects and by what it produces through deferred action, in particular "derivatives" of the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud always insisted on the unalterability of the repressed, while at the same time recognizing that it could be rearranged or even modified, especially in the course of psychoanalytic treatment. Initially, Freud considered the notion of the repressed as a correlative to that of an unconscious still distinguished by its dynamic role. In his early works Freud attributed an "intentionality" to the mind that seeks to forget and maintain outside of consciousness a certain number of unpleasurable representations (thoughts, images, memories). He posited that these representations are isolated in a "second psychical group" that is separated from the mainstream of thoughts. The psyche then becomes "dissociated," the unpleasurable idea being relegated to another place, repressed, thus blocking any discharge of the emotion associated with it.

It can be seen that the notion of repression, as originally set forth, is correlative to that of the unconscious. For a long timeuntil he put forward the idea of unconscious ego defensesFreud used the term repressed as a synonym for the unconscious.

However, the term intentionality used by Freud in 1895 must be understood in a nuanced fashion. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis underscored in The Language of Psychoanalysis (1967; trans. 1974), the "splitting of consciousness" is only "initiated" by an intentional act (p. 353). Indeed, as a "separate psychic group" repressed contents escape the subject's control and are governed by the laws of the primary processes. The repressed representation in and of itself is an initial "nucleus of crystallization" capable of attracting other intolerable representations, without the intervention of any conscious intention.

Repression is thus conceived as a dynamic process that involves maintaining a counter-cathexis; it is always susceptible to being thwarted by an unconscious wish seeking to return to consciousness. Freud called this process "the return of the repressed." Repressed wishes are not annihilated in the unconscious; rather, they constantly tend to reappear in consciousness through the intermediary of more or less unrecognizable derivative formations that Freud generically called "derivatives of the unconscious" or "derivatives of the repressed." In "Repression" (1915d), Freud explained that these derivatives can return to consciousness in the form of substitutive formations or symptoms.

The repressed is not directly knowable, since it pertains wholly to the unconscious. Just as only the products of the unconscious can be known, we can only know the derivatives of the repressed, its formations under the effects of deferred action. According to Claude Le Guen in Le Refoulement (1992; Repression): "The repressed is indeed a constituent part of the id, but the only thing that can make it comprehensible to us has to do with the fact that it is a product of the ego."

Freud pointed out in "Repression" that "repression does not hinder the instinctual representative from continuing to exist in the unconscious, from organizing itself further, from putting out derivatives and establishing connections." The instinctual representative "proliferates in the dark . . . and takes on extreme forms of expression" that "not only . . . seem alien" to the neurotic, but "frighten him" (p. 149). The repressed undergoes distortions in and by means of the derivatives that represent it, until, thus disguised, it can elude censorship and gain access to consciousness. The repressed, therefore, is anything but inert. Moreover, it "exercises a continuous pressure in the direction of the conscious, so that this pressure must be balanced by an unceasing counter-pressure. Thus the maintenance of a repression involves an uninterrupted expenditure of force, while its removal results in a saving from an economic point of view" (p. 151). Finally, the repressed that returns is never identical to what was originally repressed, because in the meantime it has been distortedit has "worked." Indeed, such changes are mandatory in order for the censorship to give its authorization.

For a long time Freud privileged the study of the repressed per se. His interest in the repressing agency, the ego, only took shape later. What he described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as "the aim which had been set upthe aim that what was unconscious should become conscious" (1920g, p. 18) proved to be a more difficult task than he had supposed in the early days of interpreting dreams and parapraxes. Analysis ran up against repetition compulsion, and the need for punishment. The repressed could thus not explain everything, and beginning in 1923 Freud shifted his focus toward the repressing agency. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), he wrote: "Alterations in [analytic theory] seemed essential, as our enquiries advanced from the repressed to the repressing forces, from the object-instincts to the ego" (p. 118).

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud posed the problem: "We shall avoid a lack of clarity if we make our contrast not between the conscious and the unconscious but between the coherent ego and the repressed. It is certain that much of the ego itself is unconscious, and notably what we may describe as its nucleus; only a small part of it is covered by the term 'preconscious.' Having replaced a purely descriptive terminology by one which is systematic or dynamic, we can say that the patient's resistance arises from his ego, and we then at once perceive that the compulsion to repeat must be ascribed to the unconscious repressed" (1920g, p.p. 19-20). It is therefore appropriate to analyze the resistances rather than bringing to light the repressed (which always represents the dynamic unconscious). In the words of Claude Le Guen (1992): "The opposition is no longer to be situated between the systems, but rather between the agencies."

Unconscious resistance is thus a product not only of the repressed, but also of the ego, which does not want to eliminate repression. "We may say that repression is the work of this super-ego and that it is carried out either by itself or by the ego in obedience to its orders," wrote Freud in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932], p. 69). The question of the fate of the repressed remains crucial, above all in relation to psychoanalytic treatment and the possibilities for change it promises. Freud always insisted on the "indestructibility" of unconscious contents. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) he described unconscious repressed wishes as being "ever on the alert and, so to say, immortal" (p. 553). The adjective immortal was used again in the lecture "The Decomposition of the Psychical Personality" in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.

In the metapsychological writings of 1915, the derivatives of the repressed are said to continue to become organized, to work, and to undergo distortion in the unconscious, but these transformations in service of the defenses are not real "changes." Freud subsequently envisioned them in terms of the treatment. Returning in the New Introductory Lectures to the problem of the effects of treatment on the repressed, he noted that "in certain cases the repressed instinctual impulse can subsist unaltered in the id, albeit under constant pressure from the ego. In other cases, it seems, it can undergo a complete 'destruction' during which its libido is definitively directed toward other pathways." He had already postulated the "decline" (Untergang ) of the oedipal repressed in "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex" (1924d).

Returning to the question of the effects of treatment on the repressed in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c)], Freud wrote: "Psychoanalysis leads the ego, which has matured and grown stronger, to revise its formerly repressed contents; some are destroyed, while others are recognized but newly constructed out of more solid materials." He spoke here of eliminating, destroying, and rebuilding with more solid materials. Does this not imply true change, rather than a mere distortion? "Despite the explicit repetition of statements about the unalterability of the repressed, the idea of its possible change remains implicitly present," noted Le Guen.

Freud again took up this question of the possibility of modification of the repressed in a footnote in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d): "Since the differentiation of the ego and the id, our interest in the problem of repression, too, was bound to receive a fresh impetus. Up till then we had been content to confine our interest to those aspects of repression which concerned the egothe keeping away from consciousness and from motility, and the formation of substitutes (symptoms). With regard to the repressed instinctual impulses themselves, we assumed that they remained unaltered in the unconscious for an indefinite length of time. But now our interest is turned to the vicissitudes of the repressed and we begin to suspect that it is not self-evident, perhaps not even usual, that those impulses should remain unaltered and unalterable in this way. There is no doubt that the original impulses have been inhibited and deflected from their aim through repression. But has the portion of them in the unconscious maintained itself and been proof against the influences of life that tend to alter and depreciate them? In other words, do the old wishes, about whose former existence analysis tells us, still exist? The answer seems ready to hand and certain. It is that the old, repressed wishes must still be present in the unconscious since we still find their derivatives, the symptoms, in operation. But this answer is not sufficient. It does not enable us to decide between two possibilities: either that the old wish is now operating only through its derivatives, having transferred the whole of its cathectic energy to them, or that it is itself still in existence too. If its fate has been to exhaust itself in cathecting its derivatives, there is yet a third possibility. In the course of the neurosis it may have become re-animated by regression, anachronistic though it may now be" (p. 142n).

In "Le refoulement (les défenses)" (1986), Le Guen gave a long analysis of this footnote and the new metapsychological perspectives it can provide. Only Freud's third hypothesis seemed to Le Guen to correspond to the experience of treatment. The old, repressed wish, having disappeared as such after expending its libidinal energy for the purpose of cathecting its derivatives, can be revived by these derivatives along a regressive pathway. This involves not a meeting up, but instead a reconstruction. By reviving the past, the present acts via deferred action (après-coup ). By organizing the past, deferred action thus serves the function of facilitation, with the most recent derivatives facilitating the older ones.

The question envisioned hereis the repressed subject to modification?and the proposed answerold wishes are "re-animated by regression," with current events reviving and transforming the pastare important, in that both theory and clinical practice are closely related to our views on the fate of the repressed. Is analysis a mere bringing to light of repressed contents (Freud's first hypothesis of a closed, inert system), does it provoke a new, defensive arrangement of them (the second hypothesis of a closed, dynamic system), or does it have a transformative role and aims (the third hypothesis of an open, dynamic system)? These three viewpoints influence the techniques used in treatment. Indeed, they indicate actual practices as well as the implicit theories of the analyst.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Repression.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-625.

. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-58.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Le Guen, Claude. (1992). Le Refoulement. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Le Guen, Claude, et al. (1986). Le refoulement (les défenses). Revue française de psychanalyse, 50,1.