The enigmatic signifier and the decentred subject

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17 Scopus citations


War, genocide, economic upheaval and terrorism have crushed belief in endlessly 'enlightened' progress. We more and more doubt the teleological nature of psychological events, including the activity of a Self or centre that guides the development of the subject. There is a growing view of a 'decentred' subject that develops in the face of an enigmatic Otherness. Jean Laplanche has created an extensive metapsychology describing this situation, emphasizing the original helplessness of an infant who is bathed in enigmatic messages from its very beginnings. These messages from the adult other are often sexualized, and are partly or largely unconscious to the sender. Laplanche calls this situation 'primal seduction'. The immature human cannot fully metabolize such adult messages, and through 'primal repression' they remain as the unconscious core of subjectivity. They disrupt psychological life, conveying a sense of signifying something to the subject. What they signify is an enigma, like finding a hieroglyph in the desert. The story of relationships and culture is the story of our repeated attempts to translate them, to respond to them. An analytic case illustrates these concepts as they appear in the transference, first as gaps and monsters, and then in the crucial and surprising appearance of transformative laughter. The vicissitudes of the clinical situation illustrate the vital importance of the enigmatic signifier in the development of the subject.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)637-657
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Analytical Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2009


  • Decentred subject
  • Enigmatic messages
  • Enigmatic signifier
  • Laughter
  • Primal repression
  • Primal seduction
  • Translation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology


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