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From the Uncanny that Structures

to the Uncanny that Alienates

by Janine Puget



There are some experiences which cannot be avoided. They can be considered as universal, although they have a particular meaning for each individual. But there are others which we tend not to want to think about or which, if we are forced to live through them, we try to ignore, resorting to denial and to various defence mechanisms.

Let us remember what happened when Bettelheim arrived in the United States and tried to recount his recent experience of the concentration camp: no one would believe him, and attempts were even made to use psychiatry to diagnose him as having psychopathological problems, so that such an unbearable reality could more successfully be denied.

We shall not enter here into the details of the political reasons that may have supported the adoption of such a position by the people he spoke to. In any case, these psychic and political reasons are to be found in all situations of social violence and trigger off mental mechanisms such as denial and alienation.

Nevertheless, those who say they have not experienced such extreme suffering could find ways to encounter similar phenomena in their own socio-cultural context. Such phenomena exist in a more or less visible form in all societies, although one must make a considerable effort to recognize the unconscious effects that they produce and to feel affected by them. However, it often seems to people who have lived through such suffering that it can only be understood by others who have also experienced it. We therefore encounter a double difficulty here.

Social violence and its mental representation will be the point of departure for our thinking in the present work, particularly in relation to state terrorism in a Latin American country. Although we concentrate on our own experience, it is easy to see that the social violence that exists throughout the world has points in common with that of Argentina.

When trying to understand the psychological vicissitudes felt during a social catastrophe, people's first response is to confine the problem to a distant geographical or mental region, which may or may not be of concern in the final analysis. The mechanism which consists in trying to get rid of something uncomfortable is inherent to the mental apparatus. Expulsion, projection and self-mutilation are mechanisms recognized by different psychoanalytic theories as primary means used to make possible to bear what would otherwise appear to be an unbearable experience.

Violence perpetrated by the state is the paradigm of social violence, since those who are supposed to protect and enforce the law wield deadly and murderous power. The state also has subtler means of violently imposing its lethal power; these depend on economic policies and international interests. In our case the state used all these methods. We can speak of social violence related to state terrorism, since one aim of the dictatorship was to disband any thinking group of people who might oppose the regime. This is why political leaders were the first to be attacked, then potential leaders, and then anyone at all. Furthermore, the dictatorship actively worked to prevent any political response by implementing an economic policy designed to cause the impoverishment of the greater part of the population. It is well known that people who are starving do not have the capacity to conceive of or organize an opposition movement. It will therefore be necessary to identify certain universal variables in each situation.

The paradoxical task that we have undertaken in the present work is to transmit something whose transmission is difficult and sometimes impossible. We shall try to find the beginnings of a solution to this paradox. For various reasons, psychoanalytic theory does not readily acknowledge the influence of the social context on the mental apparatus and the therapeutic situation, or seek to uncover its mental representation. Several psychoanalysts in Argentina have applied themselves to developing theoretical concepts concerning the psychological effects of the political repression during the dictatorship and are still doing so (Kordon and Edelman, 1983, 1986; and many others). They did not have to wait forty years as was the case with the Nazi phenomenon. We may perhaps have learned from that experience and we owe something to it.


Our Theoretical Past

Certain paths taken by psychoanalytic theory seemm to suggest that it is possible to work with a therapeutic framework which does not take account of the social context, or else that, as psychoanalysts, we do not have the means to approach such a subject.

Is it possible to go on holding such a position without leading our patients into repression or even denial? Psychoanalysis was born under the aegis of a bourgeois ideology dominated by the hypothesis that psychic reality was constructed between the mother, father and child. It was based on a theory of the drives, beside which the social context seemed secondary. Can we really believe that external social reality, the non-ego, has no representation in psychic reality? To answer this question we shall have to observe how the social body and its signs manifest themselves. Social reality will have a status which will enable us to recognize it.

In his reply to Romain Rolland, on the subject of the oceanic feeling described by him as 'a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole', Freud says that he is tempted to say that this feeling is more of an intellectual vision, accompanied of course by an emotional charge, but which is also present in other cognitive acts:

The idea of men's receiving an intimation of their connection with the world around them through an immediate feeling which is from the outset directed to that purpose sounds so strange and fits in so badly with the fabric of our psychology that one is justified in attempting to discover a psycho-analytic - that is, a genetic - explanation of such a feeling (Freud, 1929, p. 65).

A little later, Freud recognizes that 'our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive - indeed, an all-embracing - feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it' (p. 68). In this text Freud outlines the possibility of establishing a primary relation between the ego and the external world linked to a primitive psychic representation. This conceptual procedure leads him to identify this relation of indissoluble communion and to describe it in certain pathological cases and in the state of being in love. With Berenstein (1984), we have attributed the quest for an oceanic feeling and fusion as it is recreated in the state of being in love to the primitive relation with a single and exclusive object.

In his 'social' writings, Freud very subtly identified the characteristics of social phenomena, the behaviour of the masses and their relations with the leader. However he quickly relates this set of problems to the Oedipus complex, castration and parricide.

The problem of the mental representation of the social is a hard one. Our first step is then to separate those theories supporting the view that the social context is irrelevant to the psychoanalyst from those that support the opposite position. In the first case, we must make a subdivision between moments of great social upheaval and the situation that we are describing here, the Argentinian dictatorship; for the exclusion of the social context results not only from a scientific position, but also from the need to take refuge in a disinfected cell. This is how the historico-genetic world monopolizes the mental life of patients and analysts and quite clearly contributes to a mechanism which becomes a defensive bastion.

Another Difficulty of Perception: Superimposed Worlds

One difficulty in conceptualizing the state of social catastrophe and its effect on the psychoanalytic situation springs from the fact that both patients and analysts are immersed in the same social context; they are exposed to the same fears and the same difficulties in perceiving events. When analysts and patients are both simultaneously experiencing the same anxieties or preoccupations arising from the context of their daily lives, we speak of superimposed worlds (Puget and Wender, 1982). In such cases analysts probably do not have the psychic distance and time necessary to enable them to recognize what is similar and what is different, and to establish the analytic relation. When certain traumatic events arising from the same shared world appear in the analytic material, they give rise to distortions and transformations in the analyst's listening and in her or his analytic procedure; they encourage in analysts a particular tendency to participate, to 'share'. This involuntary and inevitable 'sharing', which stimulates or inhibits an ambivalent curiosity, can become secret, substitutive and shameful. In some conditions it is very difficult for us to establish a clear boundary between the field of analysis and the one we can term the 'field of daily life', or 'field of socio-cultural reality'. The therapeutic situation is flooded by both an abundance of information or news and the flagrant omission of things related to the public domain. The world of daily life, which has a high traumatic charge, violates the analytic situation.

These conditions threaten the analyst's own sublimatory mechanisms, on which, in a general way, the possibility and the desire for sharing, recognizing and decoding the secrets of the unconscious are all based. But it is precisely this traumatic aspect of the material and the interest it awakens that contribute to a loss of the mystery which is needed to arouse the analyst's desire to decipher it. The latter takes what he or he hears literally. It is no longer a hieroglyph. In such cases analysts then unconsciously appropriate the anecdotal phenomena, fail to recognize their unconscious sources and lose all interest in the psychoanalytic point of view. They merely seek out other illusory interlocutors, whether themselves or other individuals belonging to the world of their daily lives. The omission of material, which is one possible effect of the patient's denial, leads them to set up a pact of complicity and to 'forget' the outside world. This situation brings to light two fundamental disturbances which will surface later in the analytic process:

1) a traumatic effect. This occurs when something suddenly and unexpectedly interrupts the functioning of the analysis. Although the superimposed world gives an illusion of contact, in reality it distances the analyst from the possibility of 'uncovering' the unconscious. The analytic relation will not provide analysts with the necessary space and time to work through an event which is personal to them and which they cannot resolve within themselves. They are caught in a trap. For obvious semantic and communicatory reasons, analysts cannot speak to their patients without using the very language or words which in fact belong to the latter. But these are precisely the words which belong to the private life of the analyst, which have produced and still produce a traumatic effect in him or her, and which are then superimposed on the private life of the patient. The analyst then suffers from what we have called a traumatic micro-situation, with all the symptoms of unease, anxiety, psychotic destructuring and the reactivation of certain paranoid or confusional anxieties that go with it. In such conditions the analyst may enter a state governed by the sensory order, with suppression of the ability to think and to carry out the analytic function. This unconscious state gradually invades the analytic framework and interpretations; it influences the choice of material. A deaf and dumb area is thus created where the analyst's acting out takes place.

2) A narcissistic disturbance. The 'analytic' narcissism resulting from sublimation is replaced by the ordinary narcissism of everyday life. Analysts feel the desire to be named, loved or satisfied in an immediate and direct way, to increase their prestige and knowledge, both about themselves and the world around them.

The analyst then becomes an object of distress, the patient a protective object. The former tries to meet the ideal requirements supported by her or his primitive demands. This process undergoes various complex vicissitudes. However, we can say that it reactivates primitive functioning, governed by the ideal ego and the ego-ideal, which are projected on to the socio-cultural macro-context and its representative, the analytic institution. The analyst identifies with the 'as ifs' which she or he is offered and transforms them into a mandate. We also know that the identifications stemming from the ego-ideal can trigger off heroic, deadly or delinquent identifications. This process has direct consequences for the analyst's self-esteem, which suffers more every time. If megalomania dominates, the analyst will occupy the place of the omniscient baby in her or his patient's delusion ('She knows everything, she shares everything'); or, if depressive functioning is dominant, the response will be 'she knows nothing and is unaware of everything'.

It is possible that some excesses in interpretation of the transference are due to this functioning. It is also very likely that the theory of narcissistic disturbances due to superimposed worlds can enable us better to understand certain difficulties which psychoanalytic institutions generally suffer from, but which acquire specific characterstics during periods of state violence. For various reasons, the structure of the social macro-context is symmetrically reproduced in the institutions.

Another Difficulty

It is indispensable to the development of the mental apparatus that it be able to recognize stimuli, to receive exact signs and to understand their meaning. Freud identified the capacity for distinguishing the self from the non-self, the internal world from the external world, pleasure from unpleasure and passive from active as essential principles in the formation of the mental apparatus. Thus it is part of the parental function, one of the chain links responsible for transmitting the signifiers of the social context, to give ever more complex and differing meanings to the infant, until the mature ego acquires the capacity to do this for itself. Recognition of external reality is directly related to knowledge and theories that the mental apparatus can formulate for itself, by establishing connections, making judgments, discovering causal relations and using language. In this way individuals increase their ability to symbolize. Initial theories, linked to primitive functions and infantile sexual theories, are refuted as soon as the maturing of the mental apparatus allows. Each subject becomes her or his own epistemologist, working on the elaboration of new theories to account for the facts, which either corroborate or refute them.

We can assume that the baby receives cultural signifiers directly without the intervention of parental images. The social macro-context holds varied information which is gradually decoded by the baby (Puget, 1987).

When the information that is received is clear, or at least accessible, and distortion is due only to political factors, knowledge, discovery and understanding will only suffer from difficulties inherent in the process itself. However, ambiguous, confused parents who give out false messages alter the child's mental functioning. In the same way, social information which is systematically false or biased gives rise to various disturbances in the adult ego, directly depending on the quality of the information, the lethal message which is transmitted and, it would seem, its resonance with primitive mental functioning. I think that social integration is imposed, it includes individuals in a history which precedes and follows them, it has an unconscious quality and it transforms subjects into transmitters and agents in a social organization in which they are active subjects and passive objects. Each individual carries a code which is related to her or his participation in the social structure.

Social reality is that which speaks to us of all the people who exist in a certain context. It is not the same thing as the family, which is one of its manifestations and which I consider cultural. I see the cultural and the social as different. The social field is a whole united by a single language, by tradition, by rules concerning the distribution of work and social classes, by a political and institutional history and by the organization of justice. Culture concerns kinship laws and questions of origins.

Perception of the presence of another subject and the first parental objects springs from the fact that the infant is defenceless; its constitution as a subject within the family depends on the Oedipal configuration. Perception of the social space depends on other factors which psychoanalytic theory has not yet sufficiently understood, but which are probably related to primary questions of belonging and power. I believe Rene Kaës's theory (1984) of multiple anaclisis may open the way to the discovery of the specificity of social representation.

The infant is the subject of the social structure into which it is integrated before it is the subject of its relations with its parents. To make a hypothesis of this type we must first put forward another, which is that the social structure, which creates the species, is the matrix which gives birth to the subject in her or his family structure. (I am not proposing a view of development here, but considering different logical orders.) Social integration does not derive from the structure of the family. The structure of the family, which is marked by the Oedipus complex, and the social structure, which is marked by the social complex, are each governed by their own specific laws. In the first case I consider castration to be the organizing factor and in the second rules and institutions. In the former incest and parricide are prohibited, in the latter anomie and murder of anyone.

I think we should resolve certain questions concerning social conduct and its inclusion within the framework of a psychoanalytic theory. We should also recognize that 'social action' in the different institutions in which the subject has a place produces certain phenomena of whose unconscious roots we are as yet unaware. What is the specific!ty of unconscious social relations? Will we be embarking on a new programme of research if we consider socialization to be the result of a process which is independent of the first parental object relations? To state that social reality is mediated by the superego of the parents is to make a different hypothesis from the one which states that the infant accedes to that reality directly. These two hypotheses are not compatible in the hard core of the theory of a single research programme (Lakatos, 1970).

To work with the second hypothesis we shall have to accept that the subject forms part of a whole of which she or he has a mental representation, and that this whole contains subsystems which each have specific organizing facets. As a result we would suggest that subjects are immersed in a world of stimuli which they can directly perceive without the mediation of the parental objects, and that the latter form only one element of the socio-cultural macro-world. Concentration on the parental objects is brought about through the first loss, that of membership of a whole. This may be the basis of the primitive relation and the origin of the oceanic feeling.

These hypotheses lead me to listen very carefully to what seems to me to be a resurgence of the social belonging of patients and to interpret unconscious accords between the individual and the social macro-context in their specificity.

The discourse of parental figures and the social discourse suggest different dialogues to the ego. We shall be particularly concerned with the social discourse. The identity of the 'individual' depends on this, and the identity of the 'subject' depends on the Oedipal discourse. The latter is based on castration, the former on the rules which protect against anomie (Puget, 1987).


Violence and social violence are two closely related concepts although they belong to different contexts. We shall try to establish a common metapsychological basis for them. We shall also attempt to understand the effects of social violence perpetrated by a dictatorial power structure and in particular by state terrorism. The signifier of this violence was terror. Its denial thus created a 'state of terrorism' with its equivalent in the mental apparatus.

The problems inherent in the relation of the individual to society lie in the relations sealed by unconscious pacts and agreements which, though silent at certain times in life, remain active. It is these which fix the transcendental identity of the human cultural subject (the individual). They can easily give rise to repetitive and corrupt pacts. If we study psychoanalytic literature on the theme of violence, we find formulations which attempt to understand violence as a manifestation of aggression, the death instinct or a different drive, clothed as Eros or Thanatos (Bergeret, 1986). Other conceptual viewpoints link it to narcissism (Green, 1983; Decobert, 1984) or to a mechanism inherent in the defenceless state of the child and its need to receive meanings from a parental prosthetic ego (Aulagnier, 1975-85). Still others are convinced that violence originates in psychical contradiction (Diatkine, 1984) or in paradoxes (Anzieu, 1975; Decobert, 1984).

It seems that all consider a degree of violence to be necessary to and inherent in the human condition. We shall therefore try to identify and conceptualize its excesses, its orchestration and its consequences for the mental apparatus.

Whatever the theory, at the descriptive level social violence is assimilated to a discontinuous manifestation, which tends to establish or to reinforce a link between a protector and a defenceless person, nullifying, or rather annihilating, whoever is or becomes the weaker. As a result the space of relations and socialization is reduced to its smallest point; something strange and foreign is imposing itself on the ego, the desiring subject is nullified, ignored, and the relation becomes one of master and slave. The axes of social membership are disconnected. There is no longer any dilemma or questioning since what is in danger is life itself. Capacity for thought is confined to those areas which affirm existence.

Anyone at any time can become a signifier that must be eliminated. The aim of state terrorism is to annihilate everyone, and some in particular because they might become signs which could be inscribed in the imaginary sphere of the society with the connotation of panic. The annihilated population is part of a 'natural class' which, like that of slaves in Aristotle's eyes, is not human, and therefore has no rights. The results of social violence are death and alienation.

When the paradox, the source of violence, comes from a social context of dictatorship which the analyst and analysand share, the analytic dialogue is disturbed. It is no longer possible to work 'without desire or memory', so the relation becomes more restricted. It seems likely that interpretations based on the principle of genetic continuity become a kind of bastion of defence.


The years of dictatorship have been termed a 'social catastrophe'. We use this concept to define a state whose mental representation is the disarticulation of some of the parameters affecting the 'narcissistic contract' (Aulagnier, 1975) established between the individual and society, which takes place in a context of social violence. Suddenly, or gradually, the rules governing the interdependency of group members in relation to life and death and crime and punishment are no longer recognized. The feeling of guilt loses its historico-genetic causal order and is transformed into social guilt. The social context becomes incoherent.

Incomprehensible and Ungraspable

The authoritarian discourse emanating from the institutions of power adopts a causal logic based on false hypotheses, supported by perverse ethical values which promote corrupt actions. As a result, membership groups either fall apart or, on the contrary, increase their defensive cohesion, and reference groups are lost. We would advance the following hypotheses: A large section of the population enters a state of alienation a concept which we use here in a sense similar to that given to it by Aulagnier (1979). Aulagnier uses it to describe a pathological mode of idealization in relation to social phenomena, triggering off a massive state of alienation, with which the subject identifies using all the strength of the alienating force. Subjects are supported in this by a desire for alienation and become fighters for a 'cause', to which they attribute the delusional power to guarantee truth, supremacy and generosity. From a descriptive point of view, this process is reassuring, it provides certainties forbids 'freedom of thought',

According to the same mechanism and for subjective reasons, others alienate their thinking in a dominant ideology, a sect, a group or a micro-group. Thus we saw a defensive reinforcement of some membership groups with regard to ideologies which avoided conflict with the power structure. In some cases submission to the organs of power released irrational and violent behaviours or led people to turn to mysticism. Another section of the population was able to retain the capacity to think and to perceive the signs of external reality. It paid for this with inner suffering. The tendency to adapt to reality, which resulted from a certain ambivalence, nevertheless remained strong. Another section of the population openly supported the dictatorship without contradiction and identified totally with it.


Here we must first ask the following questions: is alienation necessarily linked to a desire to alienate? Does its strength derive from that desire? Does the individual who may be annihilated receive something uncanny from the social context, which cannot be given meaning? For the perpetrator of the violence, the other is simply an object which must be neutralized, made into a thing. The drive to dominate takes hold in a violent and perverse manner. The actions of state terrorism are defined by violence and perversion. We can identify two levels for analysis:

1) the narcissistic level, in which a structure of relations is established on the model of the Unique Object, with the anaclisis of the drive to dominate (Berenstein and Puget, 1984). What is involved here is a primary structure corresponding to a primary state of distress, which requires the presence of an object as protection from excitation. This is the first structure of object relations and is still impregnated with primary narcissism. The burning desire to recreate this relation could lie at the root of the excess of violence. The desire to preserve life at any price, whatever the conditions, can make it possible to tolerate this excess. We can say that there is an excess of violence when one subject becomes the 'protector-defender' of another and transforms the latter into a weak and defenceless object. Let us recall the megalomaniacal discourse of the dictatorship, which set itself up as the protector of all Argentinian citizens.

We see the excess of violence as that which nullifies the other and transforms him or her into a transparent reflection (psychotic potentiality); it causes separation and breaks down relations. This latter form of violence is based on the model of the birth trauma and the end of symbiosis.

2) The unconscious pacts between the group and the subject who is obliged to take a particular place within it. This imposition is the result of necessary violence, which becomes excessive when the place imposed upon the subject is not dependent on her or his natural integration into the group, but simply meets the needs of authoritarianism to create segregation and scapegoats. Group violence depends on the message which is transmitted and on strength derived from certain types of group functioning, in which the power of emotions, feelings and actions is reinforced. A type of functioning based on fusion is then triggered off, making it hard to distinguish between individual space and the shared space of the group. Another factor which should be considered is the impunity which the membership group confers. Individual members have an anonymity which allows them to evade feelings of responsibility for their actions. All these factors generate an excess of violence and create a relational structure of the protected-weak type.

Membership of a group that represents the whole of the collectivity is a necessary condition of life. There is a binary choice between alliance and exclusion. The second choice is experienced as 'not belonging' to the social structure. The experience of forced emigration is directly linked to a 'loss of belonging'. In conditions of social violence, the alliance contracted depends on paranoid functioning and brings about an experience of 'forced alliance'.

The destructive potential of a group does not result from the sum of its members. It becomes a new entity, in which uncontrollable affects and actions originate. It goes without saying that when a group comes together to destroy, its power increases in a geometric progression. In social violence these two levels of the 'Unique Object' and the unconscious pacts between the individual and the group are interwoven.

To sum up, the axes of distress-protection and anomie-belonging are both strengthened by social violence.


When social violence becomes permanently established, a social state of threat arises. This is a mental condition in which the ego loses the ability to recognize those signs which enable it to perceive and hierarchically to classify dangers from the outside world and to distinguish between imagination and reality, life and death.

When individuals lose this ability they enter a state of confusion or paralysis. They need to identify whether an attack is real or imaginary, but confuse internal and external reality. They face the impossible task of performing actions to protect themselves from likely attack, when their enemy is faceless. Their experience of time is altered: the present depends on a future in which the logic of 'if, then' is no longer operational. Their choice of options is hindered because it is impossible for them to see it in context. The new code and rules of the game are unknown. When this occurs at the macro-social level, the ego feels that the points of certainty on which its social identity is based have been undermined. Uncertainty and its associated anxiety become a state whose disorganizing force attacks those reference points which previously gave consistency to identity and the feeling of belonging. A feeling of dependency is established between the defenceless ego and an unknown other: the group, society. All relations are impregnated with an experience of threat.

When a state of threat is established, it brings about an increase of confusional and paranoid-schizoid anxieties. The mind is taken over by the experience of danger and by circular, repetitive thinking which is associated with serious thoughts about future suffering, or death. In conjunction with this action is inhibited or limited.

When a whole group shares this state it is amplified, leading the group to reactivate irrational processes and their corollary of inhibited thinking. A patient who had 'disappeared' for a certain time and was then declared a prisoner remembered the intervals between each torture session as times of intense mental suffering which he associated with a lack of limits to mental pain. He felt himself taken over by a state of panic in which something which could be given no meaning, something unimaginable and terrifying could happen to him without his knowing either when or why. He felt this uncertainty was enough to drive him mad, whereas during the torture sessions, he tried to defend himself against physical and mental pain, thereby setting a limit to his panic (Puget and Wender, 1986).

The state of threat can encourage a desire to be dead, in order to regain certainty, a limit to all-consuming anxiety. This is comparable to the 'desire not to desire' which is set up as a defence against unbearable pain.

We have observed anxiety of this type in dying patients who were filled with a feeling of helplessness in their fight against illness following a diagnosis of imminent death. They felt an urgent need to recover some signs of certainty with regard to their death, in a maniacal attempt to control it. In these cases it was not so much death that frightened them as uncertainty. When they became convinced that death is a solitary act, accompanied at best by a potential other, they went into a state of great disarray. One prisoner - a missing person - told us that he was able to regain a certain serenity when he managed to give his personal suffering a universal significance. He was no longer alone.

However, there is a difference between these two situations: the dying can receive care and help, their suffering is recognized within their family and social group; whereas the missing person's suffering is caused by other people, and instead of sanctioning, the social environment attacks. For those who live in a state of political threat, suffering is imagined, it is mental, and neither an object-protector nor a mental representation any longer exists. There are no longer any clear signs and unpredictability becomes a feature of everyday life, while the necessary points of certainty disappear. When the social environment justifies and imposes crime and pain on subjects within it, a particular element of distress is added to their suffering. In cases where this same milieu condemns pain and uses its function of protection or support, only the suffering and solitude of extreme situations are left; humiliation and the feelings associated with it do not appear.

On the social stage, the death of a group is represented by a break in relations of belonging and the reduction of membership of the society.

The military dictatorship created a social situation whose model was superimposed on the situation we have just described. The power structure set up an interrelation between domination and social weakness with the aim of annihilating individuals both physically and, since their experience of annihilation could be given no meaning, mentally. Pathogenic effects are probably more serious when they oblige the individual to accept all sorts of restrictions, and more still when thought and the capacity to act are attacked. However, in each social context we need to be able to distinguish those signifiers which may endanger the perceptive apparatus of the ego and thus restrict human relations.

To sum up, and returning to the Argentinian social context, we can say that the dictatorship deliberately acted to generate ignorance; to create false hopes; to reduce to silence any thinking running contrary to the regime; to use fear and panic as tools; to transform information into disinformation or perverse information using paradoxical messages to the maximum. A certain type of language gradually disappeared from everyday vocabulary.

For a psychoanalyst language is of primordial value in transmitting knowledge, clearing up misunderstandings and transforming images and affects into communication. So we can say that we were attacked through our prime tools, those of words, knowledge and thought. I would stress the difference between this and other social catastrophes where it is possible to speak, think and know. I would make an important distinction between social situations which attack language and knowledge and those which make them possible, or at least do not prevent them.

We are used to thinking in terms of the identificatory force of parental discourse, but we know less about the identificatory force of social discourse. The formation of the Self in a dialectical relation with otherness fundamentally depends on these two discourses. This is why we need to look at the identificatory models proposed by the dictatorship and the kind of values it transmitted.

The Mental Registration of the State of Threat

How long can the mental apparatus bear to live in a state of threat without resorting to denial and masochistic submission, abandoning certain values or even adopting the values of the torturing power as its own?

We can see one aspect of the Argentinian social context during the dictatorship in the mental registration of a 'state of threat', whose characteristics we shall describe. We can say that the state of threat:

1) imposes restrictions on the ego for as long as the latter cannot recover a mental space for relations, built on an awareness of the values which will help it establish itself in a social organization;

2) produces inhibitions, obfuscatlons or hyperlucidity. It opens the door to a certain type of images related to the uncanny, to emptiness, to the unthinkable;

3) Gives rise to a disturbance in the functions of prediction and anticipation;

4) fills the mental space with emotions that cannot be translated into words, which are vehicles for an 'unbearable' experience. Primary mechanisms are reactivated;

5) interrupts or suddenly modifies the social relations of belonging and reference. 'Sharing' becomes equivalent to 'danger'.

The state of threat is an extreme situation which can be transformed into something an analyst can observe. The whole population suffered from it in one way or another and of course the psychoanalytic situation did not remain unaffected. The more we acknowledge this, the better able we shall be to preserve our capacity for thought and the less likely to succumb to this type of phenomenon which continues to exist throughout the world.

The Mental Processing of the 'State of Threat'

The mental processing of a threat goes through different stages. In the first stage the mental organization becomes disorganized, giving rise to an experience of panic or terror. In the second stage, the individual tries to find a name or signs which might make it easier to give meaning to the threat, with the illusion of resolving it, avoiding it, or using defensive systems to control or annul it. Then, in the next stage, there is an oscillation between negation and realization with, at best, the re-establishment of an organization appropriate to life, whose illusory axis consists of preventing the threat becoming concrete. Mechanisms of adaptation ensure survival at any cost. It is probably at this point that certain torture victims give themselves over to their torturers in a last hope of saving their skin. This is also the point when bastions of defence and myths are created.

In these extreme situations the ego acquires a representation of future time, the time of intention (Jaques, 1982) that is associated with pain or death. Experienced time grows shorter. The subject enters a state of hyperlucidity or momentary attention with regard to the present which is above all related to an artificial time directly linked in the mind to preserving life. Experiences associated with infinite or unlimited time become relative. Safety that depends on a plan for the future is replaced by another system of beliefs, which is supported by instantaneous, magical thinking. Critical situations and the 'state of threat' give rise to an analogous type of mental functioning.

We shall now try to recognize the effects described above in clinical material taken from various psychoanalytic situations.


The population with which we were concerned can be divided into: 1) group of those directly involved, consisting of the families of the missing, adolescents and students, or people who, rightly or wrongly, believed that they had to take risks. There was an infinite number of reasons for this belief which were sometimes as irrational as the rules of the game;

2) group who were not directly affected, and who can be divided into 'alienated' and 'preoccupied' people.

In spite of everything, we saw various forms of denial of the characteristics of the social context, which involved an order of submission and loss of identificatory reference points. This leads us to consider the following variables which are particularly important in the construction of social structure or of the social corpus; information/disinformation, knowledge/ignorance, law/perversion, remembering/repression, memory/foreclosure.

We shall present material from the analysis of individuals, couples and groups to see if we can discern the effect of the social context in the different situations and identify certain characteristics inherent in them.

It is not easy to identify the mental space in which dramatization was most frequently used, but it is possible to state that family and couple structures were the most damaged, followed by somatic structure. This may result from the fact that group life and the problems inherent in it suddenly had to be avoided.

Individual Analysis

In the analysis of individuals, denial was the most frequently employed mechanism, except of course in the first of the groups we mentioned above, that is, those people who felt directly affected. However, in many cases analysts had to become the memory of their patients in order to retrieve that which remained 'silent', as if external reality did not exist. The analyses proceeded in a 'normal' way, as if nothing strange could come up, and this was the most disturbing thing. In other cases there were sudden reorganizations of transference.

One patient who was at risk in reality tended to set himself up tranferentially as his analyst's protector. He knew how to protect himself, he said, but he thought that his analyst lacked the necessary knowledge. His chaotic experience was transferred on to his relations with his wife, which were permanently characterised by violence, eventually leading to divorce. His wife was running the same risks as himself, but he claimed that she was doing so without ideological conviction and merely out of obedience to group pressure. He shifted quickly from idealization to contempt, seeing her as a heroine at one moment, and the next as a dead loss who was, moreover, a danger to the whole family. Ideological differences which had been ignored when they made the unconscious pacts on which their relationship was based had now become intolerable. They arrived at an agreement to leave the country, although they went separately.

This patient's family was of European origin and had lost most of its members under the Nazis. He felt better prepared than others, and thus better able than his wife, to recognize the threatening signs, but he could not tolerate his wife's 'clumsiness’. The risks and anxiety experienced by his family reinforced the effects of his present risks and consequent anxiety, in a telescoping effect some writers have described (Aulagnier, 1985a; Faimberg, 1985)

Gradually he began to miss sessions, which gave rise to a worried state in the countertransference. He did not usually give any explanation for his absences, with the implication that his secrecy was protective. Interpretation of this behaviour led him to recall a memory of something heard countless times in his childhood, when his parents described the risks they had run during their emigration, with the recommendation to say nothing about what happened to them. For the child this was repeated insofar as his parents also asked him not to tell his school friends what had happened. This mixture of delusion and protection, dominated by the instinct for preservation and reinforced by a myth, was repeated in his analysis. Now it was he who appropriated the command not to speak in order to 'save' his analyst, and thus his family. But not speaking was also an instrument of sadism and torture, silence being one of our enemies.

Another patient, who was schizoid and very quiet, became suddenly active and aggressive when one of his friends disappeared. All the mistrust he habitually showed during his analysis was transformed into a positive transference, which established his analyst as a colluder, based on the tacit understanding that they had the same ideology. But, at the same time, he gradually became tyrannical in relation to his family, and particularly to his wife; for, he said, she was frightened and wanted to take advantage of this to control him and the organization of his time. To avoid this control, he refused to tell her what he was doing and when and took pleasure In going home as late as possible. In the analysis we were able to see that in doing this he was manifesting a double identification: on the one hand with his missing friend and on the others with the torturers, by subjecting his wife to the torture of waiting. At the same time he himself took a number of risks when driving, and during this time he had several car accidents. Until we were able to attribute a particular social cause to his behaviour, we could not reconstruct its history.

In other patients, we found a tendency to take refuge in over-work or excessive frivolity. All their plans were made in the short term. In families with adolescent members, a strong tendency developed, supported by the need to protect them, of not letting them go out or come home alone late in the evening. This was justified on the grounds that 'the police were particularly threatening at night'. Thus life became more focused on the family, and serious difficulties emerged as a result. In other cases, control became tyrannical. We could say that the drive to dominate prevailed, leading to sado-masochistic, tyrannical and perverse behaviours, as well as to paranoid functioning.

Today it seems obvious to me to make the connection between these processes and two opposing behaviours. The first was more difficult to identify and consisted in the construction of an analytic situation which excluded the social context and encouraged a tendency to idealise the analyst. This idealisation was supported by the all-powerful idea that an analyst is 'invulnerable'.

The other consisted in the establishment of certain structures arising from the social context, in which violence appeared in different forms. One example was authoritarianism and its mental equivalents: control, domination, the desire to impose aggressive behaviours and their corollaries, submission and' total dependency. Corruption also prevailed in all its forms. It was part of daily life.

Analyses of Couples

In analyses of couples, ideological differences had an important influence. We analyzed the extent to which minute differences became catastrophic. They had to be given meaning in relation to the context of permanent threat. Interpretation which only took account of the Oedipal structure merely reinforced denial and its consequences.

However, except for those couples who thought themselves at risk, denial was facilitated by the intensity of conflicts within the relationship. Retrospectively we can state that between some couples there was an exacerbation of violence, a climate of permanent irritation, and in other cases the production of an adhesive relationship. Since the new taboo had more to do with political life than with sexuality, the relationship could be analysed without it being possible to uncover the effects of the social context. The couple's narcissistic envelope protected them from this.

One couple undergoing analysis had to take certain urgent decisions. Unease and uncertainty caused by the state of threat which surrounded them rebounded on their relationship in the form of reciprocal attacks, irritation and misunderstandings. This reciprocal aggression had a different quality from that inherent in this type of relation. It prevented their agreeing on a decision concerning their emigration.

They were destroying their relationship because they were submissive in relation to the authoritarian power structure. Because they identified with this structure, they could no longer understand each other. They got the signs confused. Something she saw as a threat would mean nothing to him. Analysis of each of their ideologies gave an image of the confrontation between them on the following lines; one of them had to change her or his beliefs, respecting the authority of the other, who set her or himself up as the holder of the more noble values.

He felt that for him to leave the country would be to repeat the abandonment of the disinherited in order to 'save his skin'. This reactivated a situation from his childhood marked by the death of a brother. The unconscious bargain which sealed the couple's relationship contained the idea of a pact through which he would make reparation to his dead brother by looking after his wife's son from an earlier marriage. This child's father was dead. She, on the other hand, had established herself as the sister of her son, who represented her maternal grandfather. In this way her husband was transformed into a father, which allowed her to continue an endogamous structure. To emigrate under threat meant condemning the pact and changing her role as wife. The threat was against her husband and, through contagion and contact, also menaced her. To leave would mean defending the couple's relationship against a force associated with the rage of her own father - society - at losing his daughter. When he energetically made the decision to leave, she felt for the first time that he was occupying his position of 'husband'. They were able to retrieve their feelings of social membership, which sustained them during their emigration.

The threatening structure of authoritarian power resonated with infantile functioning inherited from parental identifications; it strengthened the misunderstanding which inhibited action and which was preventing them from saving their lives. In the transference the analyst was invested with primitive functioning linked to the capacity to recognize signs, to distinguish between internal and external worlds and to anticipate and make sense of things. Each session could have been the last, and the analysis unfolded in a climate of urgency in the period preceding their emigration.

With other couples it was only long afterwards that we were able to pinpoint the traces of the effects of state violence and the state of menace and to formulate hypotheses which enabled us to understand the unconscious pacts on which their relationships had been based.

Group Psychoanalysis

The influence of the social context was most obvious in group analyses. However, the trend towards silence and denial was also particularly present here. We know that the group is the best place for the articulation of discontinuity and difference. It is the space of intersubjectivity and of functioning based on primary identification. The therapeutic group is the space in which the problems inherent in the social context and in the self of each of its members are played out in the most obvious way.

During this period of social catastrophe, the life of and within groups proved to be the prime force struggling against state terrorism; this is why groups were also most attacked. Everything that could be termed a 'group for thinking or for thinking about oneself' was destroyed and on many occasions psychoanalysts had to give in to this external ban, even though, sometimes, the order to destroy them was not explicit.

The group dramatization of panic manifested itself as a paralysis of interrelation leading to fragmentation, or on the contrary as a need for group unity, or again for outrageous individualism. In one of these groups a patient said: 'What is the point of talking about what is happening, since we can't do anything about it, and we always end up at the same point: being frightened together. What's the point?... and besides, we frighten each other'. Narcissistic withdrawal and the need to transform the external world into an indifferent world bring us back to the hegemony of primitive ego-reality. Could the analyst do anything faced with this state of things? Today I would answer this question in the affirmative. In a group, collective panic is experienced as a loss of boundaries. I consider collective fear to be one of the phenomena which can - and must - be analyzed in groups.

A Group Session: the Creation of a 'Missing Person'

Here we shall discuss a group session during which one of the patients, in a state of great agitation and anxiety, announced that a friend and colleague had been taken from his place of work and there was now no trace of him. In everyday language, he 'had been taken' took on an exact and clear meaning; he had 'disappeared' and he had become 'a missing person'.

The other members of the group were filled with panic as if they did not want to hear this reality spoken of. There was an obvious fear of contagion. Nevertheless, they asked questions, then they tried to show this patient that she 'had nothing to fear since she was different from her friend'. 'He', they said, 'was mixed up in it', a phrase which had become a stereotyped defence mechanism, identified with the language of the authorities. 'Mixed up in it' was interpreted as a first attempt to defend themselves against panic; it established a causal order in the face of an unknown phenomenon, 'disappearance'. She reacted violently, calling them 'cowards and traitors'.

For this patient, the rest of the group had become a signifier which could betray, denounce or abandon her, even kill her. During the following sessions this patient recounted some of the steps she had taken to trace her friend. The group was once again overtaken by panic; she was told to 'do nothing', 'not to get involved', and to convince her, they suggested that she see this type of action as suicidal behaviour on her part; they drew on the defensive support of their knowledge of some historico-genetic mechanisms. Gradually the patient became silent and stayed away, losing interest in everything that represented the daily life of the group. The group demanded her silence and reduced her to silence. The dictatorship also demanded silence and inaction.

For the analyst, it proved impossible to change this type of interaction. She tried to interpret for them the way in which they had transformed the member of the group who represented the social world in which they ail lived into an absent presence. This patient was disappearing. They responded to this in their different ways, saying, for example, that 'it was none of their business and they had nothing to do with this story and that they had more important things to analyse'. Was this a lie or a false hypothesis? They had to suppress a reality that was reducing them to powerlessness and which could moreover make them lose their therapeutic group. They knew that many therapeutic groups had been dissolved for various reasons of a political nature.

Later we asked ourselves whether one of the characteristics of this situation might not be of the order of the unthinkable and the unthought. When we returned to a constitutional regime, under a president who represented democracy, and the facts of the torture began to be uncovered, many patients said 'that they could not think about this reality'. They knew, or had known, but this knowledge was one which did not help them to know. Others said they did not want to know.

Group thinking requires space and time which is conducive to the practice of free association. When this is suddenly prevented, a dramatization of the loss of internal freedom takes place which causes the social state of threat to resonate with the disturbances of thinking which it maintains.

Identification with the torturers made the group actively produce a 'missing person', an excluded member who lost the right to speak. Some wanted to force the patient to come back to the group by breaking off her relationship with her missing friend. To be able to point to this dramatization the analyst would have needed to feel sufficiently free in her approach to interpretation and also to have had access to the level of primary fusion from which the fantasy of emotional contagion stemmed. Had this been the case she would have been able to recover the capacity to understand the state of threat in which each person was living. To transform collective panic requires space and time which are not always available in a period of social commotion.

Another Group Session: 'a Good Citizen'

We shall now discuss another example from a session which took place a few years later and under the democratic government. This will enable us to recognize the difficulty of understanding the differences between the notions of 'murderer' and 'torturers', on the one hand, and, on the other, between an 'aggressive speech' and a 'lie', and the 'difficulty of putting up with ideological differences' and the 'disappointment' mistrust, and 'unease' caused by the present state of the country.

This session took place just after a speech by President Alfonsin, who had become publicly irritated and annoyed, showing his aggression towards a particular left-wing group which tried to interrupt his speech. He said in a threatening tone that they would not be able to 'twist his arm'.

At the beginning of the session, the patients discussed the meaning of this phrase and tried to understand it. Their criticisms reflected a mixture of helplessness and denigration based on despair. The climate of the country was particularly restless and worrying - this speech was made a few days before the declaration of a possible general strike. Repressed panic was beginning to return to the surface. The fear of a new coup d'etat was ever present, without it being clear whether this fear stemmed from a reasonable analysis of the facts or from traumatic repetition, giving a disturbing meaning to the president's weakness.

Juan and Pedro said it was 'shameful, the president is a hypocrite, and moreover he talks about ethics when he has none himself'. Pedro added that although he did not agree with him politically, he still wanted Alfonsin to honour his mandate as president for a long time. He went on, 'We are still in the same position'. Juan said that he was 'deeply disappointed', even though he realized 'that in spite of everything things are better than they were before'.

Then they discussed the economic situation: 'The country is getting poorer and poorer, the newspapers lie, the president lies. It is the beginning of a depression.' Although the government denied that inflation was on the increase, they had noticed 'that chicken is getting more and more expensive'. Maria said that she couldn't even buy it any more. Yolanda agreed. For Juan, the solution was not to buy it any more, unless it could be found for a reasonable price. Not to buy it would be to help the country. This did not seem to convince the others. This type of thinking was linked to an intention neither to collude nor to transgress.

The interpretation tried to show them that they wanted a president who did not get angry and did not lose control, but that it was difficult for them to work out whether affects of that type impoverished or enriched them. They wanted a president from whom they could demand the same type of things as from their analyst (confusion of contexts). Contradictions in political discourse were experienced as a threatening omen.

They returned to the theme of telling lies and wondered what they should do to avoid collusion and to be good citizens. Here it should be remembered that the notion of collusion carried an additional meaning as a result of the dictatorship.

Pedro said that although he was no longer interested in politics - he had been too disappointed - he felt himself to be a patriot because he was working and bringing up his family. (Let us remember that it was he who, at the beginning of the session, mentioned his political disagreement.) From the point of view of work, he had difficulties... Juan thought he was participating in the country's reconstruction by holding prices stable in his shop, not letting himself be tempted by those who did not do the same. He could have made more money, but then the economic crisis could never be overcome.

We should stress that lack of interest in politics was one of the defensive reactions frequently adopted to avoid panic. Many patients rapidly shifted from one position to another. Others replied to Juan that he was still in the same position of submission in relation to authority, repeating his experience with his father, and this was why he could neither make accusations nor put his prices up: he would always be poor. The women gradually fell silent, not really sure what their rights were.

The analyst told them that they had tried to reduce their problems to a father-son relationship because that was a topic they were used to understanding psychoanalytically, but that in reality they did not know how to think about the social dimension. As they had been unable to resolve the question of their social identity, they were waiting for the analyst to bring them back to the topic they knew and were used to. At this point they decided that it was up to the government to organize things and that it was none of their business.

Their disappointment and worry regarding their future reduced their concerns to one of to buy or not to buy.

After a silence which was interpreted as the expression of a difficulty of thinking, they launched into a violent conversation, once more accusing the president of hypocrisy. They wanted to know, once and for all, what his allusion to ethics had meant.

According to Pedro, the only solution was to take up arms. Carmen, had said nothing until then, spoke to Pedro, saying that he would get on well with her soldier brother: they both spoke the same language, they had the same mentality. Pedro became more and more furious and tried to change places, which created tension in the group. He said that Alfonsin and the general and torturer Suarez Mason were both villains and murderers. They were alike.

Juan was furious and retorted to Pedro that if that was how he thought, there was nothing for it, they could no longer remain in the same group. One of them would have to leave. Tense silence.

An interpretation showed them that the only way they could get beyond elucidation of the confusion seemed to be separation. They could not tolerate differences of opinion and so they tried to return to a homogeneous group similar to the kind of thing that the dictatorship had required. Pedro had suggested taking up arms to avoid their conflicts and stop them having to think. We were just emerging from a period where the order was precisely one of not thinking about certain things. A little shamefacedly, Pedro stated that in reality Alfonsin was a villain and a hypocrite, whereas Suarez Mason was a murderer and moreover just as much of a villain. ‘Well that's different’, said Juan. The interpretation aimed to indicate the experience of violence that injustice had imposed on them: until now they had not dared to keep a discussion of this type going for such a long time. They found it hard to recognize what was different from what was similar or identical: 'Of course', they said, 'because before, we were panicking and now we're just frightened'.

Then Juan told how the week before he had had a confrontation with the police, who had wanted to commit a fraud. He had managed to defend himself and came out the winner.

The analyst then interpreted for them that although the men had launched into a violent discussion, in order to acknowledge the fear aroused by the image of an angry president, whom they confused with a torturer, the women had gradually fallen silent as though violent political discussions were entirely men's affair. 'It's cultural', said one of the women, laughing. When the group was leaving one of them said he felt lighter, soothed, although at one point he had been afraid he would lose his group.

This example helps us understand the tendency, produced by the group itself, to reduce interpretations to models of primary identification and to transference onto the analyst. I think it was better first to recognize their inability to bear and overcome ideological differences, and their inhibitions against thinking about their social identity, both of which were remnants from the previous dictatorial regime which had persisted into the present. In the transference it was then possible to find a mental space in which, through an analysis of their own lies and lack of courage, to make them confront what had made them 'twist their thinking' to avoid a conflict which would take a long time to resolve.

Comparisons between the Different Situations and Unconscious Pacts

In the conditions I have just described, certain unconscious pacts with the group were kept silent and unconscious and thus their quality was not questioned. This was the result of action supported by denial, which tended to be transformed into alienation, psychosis or perversion.

So unconscious pacts set the seal on membership of a group. They are brought into being by combination, complementarity or compromise. The pact places subjects in a position of submission and obedience to an authority which transforms them into defenceless and annihilated subjects. The pact leads subjects to accept submission in return for being split off from social events which could endanger the ego and cause a break with the dominant group. The break thus becomes intrapsychic. In this way, the continuity of a dictatorial history is guaranteed without breaks and thus without transformation. The aim is to belong to the group as a direct partial complement.

I start from the hypothesis that human subjects have a relation to the social context from the beginning, on the basis of an unconscious pact of fusion and lack of differentiation. This gives them an unmediated socio-cultural model through the various perceptual stimuli offered to them by the context. The latter becomes a code and support for relations between subjects and their parents, and for their social relations.

Using the familiar psychopathological model, we can for the moment call this first pact (Puget, 1987) narcissistic. A second relational structure is then established on the basis of different modes of unconscious duplication pacts, such as those of persecutor and persecuted, perverter and perverted. This leads to the possibility of subjects establishing pacts in relation to which they can find a place, assuming that they are active subjects of the complex social network and the paradoxes it contains.

These relations are organized by the parameters 'power' and 'membership' or 'belonging'.

Institutions of whatever type are the secondary form of social relation. Social position, organized by rules and the Law, gives the definitive triadic form to the structuring of social relations.

Transference coming from the space of the family has an individual and variable character. That which comes from the social context during traumatic events has a mass character, although it varies according to each person's ideology and the quality of her or his narcissistic contracts. However, there are shared features within all ethnic and social groups.

Wounds increase repetition. Discontinuity in social transubjectivity and intersubjectivity acts as a narcissistic wound from the primary stages onwards and shores up the tendency to repeat. But what is called the authoritarian structure can also be the manifestation of a primitive act of violence by the social context against the human subject. The illusion of a faultless narcissistic contract, whose representative would be ‘everybody', persists throughout life. When the wound is brought about by the social space, subjects tend to seek refuge in the familial space. The opposite also occurs.

The narcissistic wound brought about by the social context is also related to the humiliating and dangerous privation of liberty and of the rights on which beliefs are based. Beliefs become fanatical thoughts or convictions when the context ceases to maintain its function of support and membership.

Perceiving the reality of the social context is already an effect of transference, Lagache would say of projection (1952, p. 95).

Considering the material presented as paradigmatic, we can provisionally systematize the unconscious pacts between the subject and the group, and the ways in which they come up in the different situations we have described. In the individual situation there is a particular concentration on intrapsychic object relations, with no contribution from the ego to the arrangement of fantasies, except in relation to the transference on to the analyst and the situation.

It is harder to identify the effects of the social context. However, these are revealed by analysis of language and certain words taken from the discourse of the authorities. Certain myths may also provide a way of approaching the problem.

The context of treatment has enabled us to recognize when a narcissistic pact with the group is being maintained by silence, which reflects a sort of equivalent to an imperative need to belong. Thus the need to belong is transformed into a narrowing of interests which might endanger the precarious equilibrium. The need for reassurance and its equivalent have repercussions in the field of the analysis, transforming it into a limited and idealized world. There is a taboo on a certain type of thinking. To reach this end, the mental apparatus has to shed some of its perceptions. The analytic situation is perverted in the transference/countertransference, which transforms it into a sacred and protected space, 'outside the world'. We shall call these unconscious pacts narcissistic pacts.

Pacts of silence have two possible origins. One is denial: 'nothing is happening’. The other is complicity: 'if they disappear there must be a reason for it'. The group as a whole demands silence - lack of thought - and forces individuals and groups to turn narcissistically in upon themselves. The external world loses its importance.

The unconscious pacts I call duplication pacts are those which bring in models of identification in which Thanatos predominates. They have been transferred on to another scene. In this case, everything which does not coincide with the ideological or cultural level is split off and denied, since it does not fit with the fantasy of desire which is in power. The daily life of the collectivity becomes partial or restricted, and the need to belong sets the seal on the pact. The transference/countertransference is based on complicity.

Under the dictatorship the collectivity needed everyone's complicity in order to reach its aim and eradicate the law. Transgression was established in all domains. Individuals made the new rules of the game their own. This created perverse pacts. It also set up a paranoid structure in which mistrust occupied a central place. It was impossible to know in whom one could place one's trust. In reaction to this people ceased speaking and separated from certain dangerous groups. Paranoid pacts gave rise to relations dominated by aggression and violence.

In the analysis of the couple, the social context can be identified in the two social representations that set the seal on the relationship. The ethical and ideological aspects underlying the unconscious pacts should be taken into account.

The couple constructed a narcissistic envelope which extended beyond the boundaries of the relationship and became a protection against stimuli from the social context. However, the conflict thus avoided returned in the dynamics of the relationship. The responsibility for maintaining genetic continuity and historicity and for resolving discontinuity were concentrated in the couple relationship. When cracks occurred during a period of state violence, there was a tendency to nullify them or on the contrary to render them insurmountable.

The psychoanalysis of couples has enabled us to recognize the importance of conflicts stemming from ideology, which becomes either a shared ideal or else an insurmountable or shameful difference. Ideology is then equivalent to death, to rupture with the group; it reinforces a paranoid unconscious pact, associated with survival. Idols and ideals are then the place of conflict or of the breakdown of the relationship, since the struggle takes place between familiar (in the double sense of familiar and usual) and unfamiliar unconscious pacts. We regard Kaës's study (1980) of the different meanings of ideology in the formation of the ideal, of idols and ideas, as a valuable contribution to increasing our understanding of unconscious pacts. Here we find unconscious pacts of the narcissistic, duplication, paranoid and perverse types, which are transferred on to the situation in various modes. In some cases the solutions adopted by the group made it possible to question relations with the collectivity.

However, in all cases it was necessary to let some time pass before it was possible retrospectively to analyse the emergence of conflicts which were not able to manifest themselves during the traumatic situation. It goes without saying that unconscious pacts with the group are related to the social and cultural context. Identity stemming from culture is related to the tradition which is passed on to us by certain codes and through the norms according to which familial and extra-familial relationships are organized.

The social sphere is linked to ideological and ethical problems which always retain a contemporary, present and variable aspect. They underlie every individual's political organization and social identity.

In countries where the cultural and social tradition is authoritarian, the transmitted models become more obvious during periods of state terrorism. Unconscious pacts tend to reproduce the conflict between the structure (or that of the authorities) and marginal structures.

We shall need a fairly Iong time to reach a deeper understanding of all the questions raised by this type of event. In this light, we shall now approach the problem of the unthinkable and the unthought.


The Unthinkable

The order of the unthinkable is that of emptiness, of waste, of holes, of wounds (Kaës, 1980). It refers to certain perceptions which can awaken intolerable affects and which cannot be translated into words. They stay in their original state, bound to the concrete, to the void, to the loss of boundaries and to repetition. The production of images may be interrupted. The concept of the unthinkable is a form of the unknowable, which gives rise either to epistemophilia, to transgressive knowledge, or to inhibition of thinking, and triggers off all kinds of disturbances, such as forms of alienation or potential psychosis. We can identify three categories of the unthinkable:

1) The unthinkable of impossible knowledge (Berenstein, Puget and Siquier, 1984): knowing who are one's real parents, or the inside of the maternal body, or reaching enjoyment of the body of the other sex;

2) The unthinkable of non-knowledge, non-experience, one of whose representations is death. This is a region anterior to the formation of images, for which the ego does not yet have a containing structure which would establish the boundaries of the knowable and the thinkable;

3) The unthinkable of knowledge that is possible but unbearable, when thinking is associated with an uncanniness that causes limitless anxiety (Bion's 'nameless dread').

I shall only discuss the last category. In the first place we are here with situations in which the terrifying appearance of reality

is beyond imagination. The torture borne and described by those who have suffered it goes beyond their capacity to tolerate suffering and pain. The vision they reflect to the listener enables suffering to be seen and heard; it is it is associated with the intolerable, it is represented as boundless pain. It is experienced as supreme disorganization, distress and loss of what Anzieu (1985) has called the corporeal envelope. (Let us recall the attack on the body in physical torture.)

The uncanny also appears when certain barbaric actions become a norm for the ego. They are incorporated in their terrifying quality and one learns to live with them. We see this phenomenon in certain catastrophic situations, during wars and other scourges.

A region where chaos and perversion could be contained would enable us to put the unthinkable somewhere. This would be a region where the ego could assume there was always something associated with an experience of horror and catastrophe which was not yet imagined or imaginable. Its place would be that of madness and death where one could be plunged into an unbearable experience. The 'unbearable' is in general associated with a bodily and psychic explosion, a loss of boundaries and the appearance of annihilating mental phenomena. Added to this are feelings of degradation, humiliation, destruction of all the tiniest relations that preserve self-esteem. This is why we avoided certain facts during the period of the dictatorship, for we assumed the less we knew the better should we ourselves disappear and be tortured. In-depth knowledge of what our patients thought could thus have transformed us into bearers of secrets which would become too heavy under the weight of imagined torture (Puget and Wender, 1979).

The Unthought

Some perceptions or ideas can only acquire meaning and be transformed into thoughts when the context allows it. However, they occupy a place in memory; they wait for a body or an object that will live them meaning, an analyst who will make it possible to speak the contents of that region. These are representations looking for words, signifiers and inscription. In order to transform them into experience it is necessary to establish a relation between them and a qualified other so that they can be 'put into thoughts'. It is only with another that the word acquires symbolic meaning. If this does not happen, there is always a residue linked to repetition and to the production of a psychotic, depressive or somatic potentiality in the mind, or a potential for alienation.

During the period we have described, we ignored certain experiences involving denial and repression. The mental apparatus was transformed into a vesicle containing toxic products. This leads us to postulate the existence of an unconscious bodily memory, in which all life events are inscribed and on the basis of which relationships are built. This is a memory supported by the body. But there is also a memory associated with experience of the social corpus which shapes an identificatory model and ideals (Aulagnier's Ideal Subject), and in relation to which the individual is integrated as a social subject.


In the situation that we have studied, silence and silencing were signifiers of social violence. The most loaded symbol was the 'missing person', in whom social violence, defencelessness, the transgression of all values, suffering, torture and mental anaesthesia all came together.

The mental representation of the 'missing person' is an open wound which it is hard to heal and which leaves indelible marks, the wound of emptiness (Dunayevich and Palento, 1985), of self mutilation.

The recovery of material that disappeared from sessions is also of prime importance.

The model of the state of threat with one of its different manifestations - panic - is that of a disjointed body looking for signs which will reorganize it. It is possible that corrective experiences may individuals a feeling of internal assurance and thus help them to overcome terror, fear or horror.

The practice of psychoanalysis in a period of social commotion caused by state terrorism poses some difficulties. I therefore make the following hypothesis: that we eliminated certain representations concerning social reality from the field of perception, which led us to misjudge material associated with this type of representation. In some cases, this was because we declared ourselves powerless, or 'lacking theory' to conceptualize it. In other cases, the failure was directly linked to fear and irrationality. In other cases still, we left this type of material to one side using a certain form of rationalization, which justified our failure, as an excuse.

We know that state terrorism is not the only form of social violence that exists in the world. But by trying to distinguish some of its particular features, we may be able to arrive at a generalization and to identify the signs of other forms of social violence, whose semantic effects have been hard to determine until now. State violence produces a breakdown of all types of social exchange and condemns individuals to isolation and silence. The need to create bastions of defence is in direct proportion to the denial of terror.

It may never be possible to translate some emotional states engendered by threat, torture and sudden disappearance into words. They will thus remain one with the unthinkable. But there are others which, in a favourable context and only then, may find an appropriate setting in which to be transformed and given meaning. This work would probably need to be carried out within a social and group framework in order to recover what had disappeared.

I would put forward the hypothesis that there are two poles which found and constitute the ego: the constitution of the subject is carried out on the basis of narcissism and the bodily ego; the constitution of the ego as a social being is established on the basis of language and certain social actions, representing the socio-cultural macro-context.

The relation to the social corpus is composed of several elements. Some are unconscious, others are silent and others still are conscious. It is on these that integration into the historical continuity, into kinship relations and culture depend. 


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‘The State of Threat and Psychoanalysis: From the Uncanny that Structures to the Uncanny that Alienates’

was originally published in French in a collection with the title

Violence d’etat et psychanalyse. Paris: Bordas, 1989.

This essay is chapter one of the collection.

This translation copyright Trista Selous 1990


Text copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence:

Publisher in Great Britain: Process Press Ltd. under the title

Terror and Psychoanalysis in Argentina

Edited by Janine Puget and René Kaës, who hold the copyright to the collection and introduction.

Copy-edited and scanned by Robert M. Young

Janine Puget is a psychoanalyst working with individuals, couples and groups. She is a Full Member of the Psychoanalytic Association of Buenos Aires and of the Argentine Group Psychotherapy Association. She has published, among others, a book about group psychoanalysis entitled El grupo y sus configuraciones and numerous articles about the influence of the social context of the psychoanalytiuc framework, on narcissism and on couple psychoanalysis. Her article, 'Social Violence and Psychoanalysis in Argentina: the Unthinkable and the Unthought', appeared in Free Associations No. 13, pp. 84-140. There are also essays by her in Nos. 15 (on Marie Langer) and 21 - 'The Social Context: Searching for a Hypothesis'.

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