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Unlike meaning (signification ), which unites a signifier, the material manifestation of the sign, to a signified, the concept to which it corresponds, sense (sens ) has an axiological dimension: It is a sense "for" and orders a behavior by linking an object to a desire. Jacques Lacan (1966) and Piera Aulagnier (The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement, 1975/2001) showed that the preverbal infant's manifestations of needs are interpreted by the mother as signs that have a sense. She will consequently respond to them according to her own desire, which will or will not be in agreement with the sense that she has given to the infant's demand. The latter's responses will in turn take on sense and value for her. Sense later corresponds to a need for causality that constitutes, in the realm of thought, the equivalent of a rediscovery of the earliest experience of satisfaction.

In Lacan's work there is a specific theory of sense that will not be treated here. In the work of Sigmund Freud, this issue was essentially addressed in connection with jokes and the pleasure of sense in nonsense. Traces of the issue are nevertheless present elsewhere, particularly in all of the manifestations of the unconscious that the subject takes to be absurd or devoid of sense. However, Freud was much more specific about absurdity in dreams, which is not just a product of its noninterpretation. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he wrote: "A dream is made absurd, then, if a judgement that something 'is absurd' is among the elements included in the dream-thoughtsthat is to say, if any one of the dreamer's unconscious trains of thoughts has criticism or ridicule as its motive. Absurdity is accordingly one of the methods by which the dream-work represents a contradiction. . . . Absurdity in a dream, however, is not to be translated by a simple 'no'; it is intended to reproduce the mood of the dream-thoughts, which combines derision or laughter with the contradiction" (pp. 434-435). This is the laughter of irony, the oedipal game par excellence, for it perverts the identification that is supposedly necessary to the edification of the superego by identifying not with the manifest level of what is given as an example, but with its latent, infantile, and instinctual content. In this, the joke converges with the art of the ellipsis characteristic of ironic persiflage, by actualizing what Freud, in "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" (1905), calls an "omission without a substitute" (p. 77), in which the forbidden representation disappears.

How does nonsense become a joke? The nonsense contained in a joke is in fact a criticism; it imitates a supposedly profound proposition that in reality is ridiculous or a sophistry, and, precisely in doing so, reveals the nonsense behind its respectable appearance. Hence Freud's formulation in "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious": "[I]n jokes nonsense often replaces ridicule and criticism in the thoughts lying behind the joke" (p. 107). However, the tendentious joke also uses a technique characteristic of jokes in general, which is "pleasure in nonsense" (p. 125), a relic of the pleasure of playing with words for their assonance alone, independent of meaning. Children, like adults, give themselves up to this pleasure, fully aware of its absurdity, just for the sake of the attraction of fruit forbidden by reason. Inherent in this is a perspective that goes beyond tendentious wit, since the capacity for rational thought is what is challenged here.

In "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" Freud associated this pleasure of untrammeled nonsense with adolescence, but also with adults in a relaxed state, especially as a result of drinking alcohol. He cited as examples the "cheerful nonsense of the Bierschwefel (a ludicrous speech delivered at a beer party)" and the Kneipzeitung (literally, "tavern newspaper"; a comic set of minutes), and noted: "Under the influence of alcohol the grown man once more becomes a child, who finds pleasure in having the course of his thoughts freely at his disposal without paying regard to the compulsion of logic" (p. 126). Pleasure in nonsense, a challenge to the constraints of reason and a narcissistic claim to being the omnipotent master of meaning, appeared to Freud to be the basis for the "sense in nonsense" factor: "The psycho-genesis of jokes has taught us that the pleasure in a joke is derived from play with words or from the liberation of nonsense, and that the meaning of the joke is merely to protect that pleasure from being done away with by criticism" (p. 131). In the mind, nonsense appears as an end unto itself, and "the intention of recovering the old pleasure in nonsense is one of the joke-work's motives" (p. 176).

However, we can wonder about the function of this challenge, precisely because it allows sense to subsist. More than a destruction, at issue here is a condensation that brings to light contradictions, and this process could be compared to what Freud wrote in "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words," emphasizing, with the linguist Karl Abel, that "our concepts owe their existence to comparison" (p. 157) and in consequence they simultaneously express contradictory images, each of them ensuring its pregnance by its relational dependence on the other.

For sense constitutes a fundamental need, and when the a-sense of psychosis develops, this again involves a sense in revolt against another that has been unduly imposed upon the subject. Aulagnier showed how psychosis does not stem from a revolt of the id against reality, as Freud stated, but rather from "the struggle the infantile psyche puts up each time it is confronted with the powerlessness of the maternal discourse to make sense of lived experience and with the overwhelming power of the mother's desire to appropriate the 'thinking activity' of the child." Aulagnier, like Wilfred Bion (1963), showed how the mother substitutes for the a-sense of the real a reality that is cathected and thought by the mother, who retransmits it to the baby. This work of sense-making is later incumbent upon the I itself, and accordingly, causal explanations are a part of what is necessary for thought. This sense is not abstract, for it is initially a libidinal sense, all acts of knowledge being preceded by an act of cathexis. Constructing sense makes the I's relationship to reality coherent; such, then, is the primary function of the activity of thinking and, accordingly, delusions themselves will have as their function the creation of a meaningful interpretation of the violence undergone by the subject (Mijolla-Mellor).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Abel, Carl; Bulimia; Infans; Jokes; Manifest; Metonymy; Need for causality; "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)"; Remembering.


Aulagnier, Piera. (2001). The violence of interpretation: From pictogram to statement. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). Hove, UK, and Philadelphia: Brunner/Routledge. (Original work published 1975)

Bion, Wilfred. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.

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

. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.

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