Symbolization, Process of

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The term symbolization is hardly discussed by Freud, although the process is fundamental to mental activity. We can define symbolization as the operation by which something comes to represent something else for someone. While it may appear as the substitution of one object for another, it is primarily the result of a process that assumes both the ability to represent an absent object and a subject capable of knowing that the symbol is not the symbolized object.

In this sense it promotes the ability to fantasize and the organization of mental space. From this point of view it is primarily a mechanism enabling the subject to fight against the depression associated with object loss and to limit the flow of affects.

Aside from allowing one term to substitute for another, symbolization designates back and forth flow of meaning between subject and object, between mental reality and external reality, between past and present. This is the effect of the symbolization process, which makes possible a system of intra- and intersubjective exchanges. This can be verified in analytic therapy, which, in the standard model, assumes a relation between two centers of meaning, the analyst and the patient, whose work is possible only on condition that it is referred to an outside agency, which is the "frame" of analysis. The analytic situation thereby appears as both symbolic and symbolizing, in that its mode of operation is based on a structure with three points of reference.

The experience of satisfactionthat of the infant at the breast, as described by Freud in terms of images and memory tracesis a prototypical model that delimits the scope of the symbolization process in the transition from need to drive. Freud defined the drive as a borderline concept between the psychic and the somatic, formed by reworking the hallucination of satisfaction at the breast, and whose constant thrust (as distinct from the momentary or periodic nature of the satisfaction of organic need) relates to the permanence of the object during perception of the total object.

It is, as we know, a postulate also found in the experience of the dream and unverifiable by experience, according to which hallucination is a form of satisfaction. Into this Freud introduced a temporal dimension by distinguishing the period during which the sexual drives are attached to functions of self-preservation (corresponding to the hallucination of satisfaction and the increase in automatic traumatic anxiety) from the period of object-formation, and hallucination of the object, when the mother is perceived as a total object. The structure so described occurs in two stages, which the anaclisis or propping of the drive on organic self-preservation enables us to comprehend as a retroactive reorganization. The symbolization process thus emerges during the split between the framework of need (ingesting milk) and the framework of the drive (incorporating the breast). It is this difference that Jean Laplanche (1980) described in great detail, noting that the displacement from need to drive was simultaneously metonymic with respect to the object (from milk to breast) and metaphoric with respect to the aim (from ingesting to incorporating).

Between narcissistic cathexis (I am the breast) and object cathexis (I have it, that is, I am not it) the dimensions of a psychic spacea topological spaceand time are organized. Psychic time evolves through acceptance of a delay, a waiting period, the succession from the time of being to, as Freud himself said, only after the fact, the time of having. Beneath these abstractions, at a more concrete level, we find analyses of symbolic assimilation (Melanie Klein), symbolic equation (Hanna Segal), and pathological projective identification.

From this viewpoint the hallucinatory experience of satisfaction designates the dialectic between the nonoptative (I am) and the optative (I want, I am not), which is articulated only on condition that enough time is allocated to the non-optative dimension. This is probably one of the major contributions of Donald Winnicott (1951), namely, to have insisted on the importance of duration during this period of nonoptative illusion so that the optative period, the period of disillusion, might become possible.

Thus the experience of object loss results in different outcomes for symbolization given the possibility of forming a dialectic between the time of being and the time of having. This essential difference and the dialectic it involves can be terminated by the illusory wish to unite, at the "same time," subject and object, memory and perception, in the effort to exclude the object as well as the effort intended to include it.

In this way different modalities of symbolization are designated. The symbolic assimilation controlled by the search for sameness seeks to implicate projection, leaving nothing but the search for immediate satisfaction through action and degrading the symbol, which represents the object, to the status of a signal. Symbolic assimilation can, on the contrary, seek to include the object in the act of projection, which, although it dehumanizes the world by transforming it into abstract entities, nevertheless maintains a link to a universe of indexical signs, where the categories of certainty, foreseeability, and univocity prevail. There are, therefore, two different economies which, depending on the use of the object, can lead in one case to a repression of affects and a splitting of the body through the exclusion of all symbolization (this is the register of non-delusional psychoses and psychosomatic disorganization); and in the other to the preservation of those affects in the psyche through symbolic efflorescence, which, although it seeks to eliminate difference and distance, nonetheless indicates an attempt at a solution through representation (as shown by delusional psychoses). As Wilfred Bion noted (1970), we cannot say that the psychotic patient is incapable of symbol formation, but that he symbolizes excessively and prevents himself from learning through knowledge of the world.

From this point of view the interiorization of psychic bisexuality becomes the source of unfettered symbolization and creativity. The essential point is to be able to confront maternal invisibility and the terror of the unlimited or the infinite. This assumes the organization of the dialectic of conservation and loss inherent in anal eroticism, which contributes to the differentiation of the inside and outside of the body and ensures that the control of mental activity and sphincter control are cathected in the same way.

The fort-da game (Freud, 1920g) is often considered to be the key experience revealing the formation of symbolization. However, this activity of symbolic substitution through gestures and speech that bear witness to the development of object loss, assumes the manipulation of a simultaneously preserved and expelled internal object, which defines anal eroticism. The experience of mastery demonstrates that the anxiety of destruction by the object associated with orality (to consume or be consumed) is here contained within limits through a third possibility, the external object.

The fault lines in this mediatory function of the third object determine the recourse to variant techniques (face-to-face psychotherapy, psychoanalytic psychodrama) compared to the usual therapeutic situation on the couch. From this viewpoint the analytic framework can be considered a genuine "intermediate region of experience," to use Winnicott's phrase, the crucible or matrix of all symbolization, which triggers the operation of the intermediary intrapsychic region known as the preconscious. The movement is of course asymptotic.

Accordingly, the semantic function of the symbol as content is inseparable from its mediatory function, intra- and intersubjective, providing we realize it is less a universal and univocal function (the archetype for Carl G. Jung or the symbolic order for Jacques Lacan) than a personal and polysemic one, making possible processes of sublimation and creation. Rather than being enclosed in a private dimension, true symbolization reveals, on the contrary, as Bion (1970) suggested, its essentially social dimension. This assumes symbolization is capable of being instructed by the body and the world so it is able to produce other figures, while leaving room for the indeterminate, the uncertain, and the unexpected.

Alain Gibeault

See also: Act, action; Alcoholism; Asthma; Cäcilie M., case of; Dream symbolism; Disavowal; Displacement; Ethology and psychoanalysis; Hysteria; Object; Representation; Somatic compliance; Suffering; Symbol; Symptom formation; Working through.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.

Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

Laplanche, Jean. (1980). Problématiques III, la sublimation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Blum, Harold P. (1978). Symbolic processes and symbol formation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 59, 455-472.

Bucci, Wilma. (1997). Symptoms and symbols: A multiple code theory of somatization. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 17, 151-172.

Coen, Stanley. (2000). Affect, somatisation and symbolisation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 81, 159-161.

Kubie, Lawrence S. (1978). Distortion of the symbolic process in neurosis and psychosis. Psychological Issues, 44, 87-114.

Slade, Arietta. (1999). Representation, symbolization, affect regulation, mother and child. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 19, 797-830.