Will the real Freud please stand up? The distribution of power between the unconscious and the preconscious according to the Traumdeutung.

Image with Will Real Freud

Will the real Freud please stand up?1 

[Penultimate draft of above article]


It is argued that in the Traumdeutung Freud is fundamentally undecided regarding the power of the unconscious and the preconscious relative to each other. The censorship metaphor implies that the unconscious and preconscious relate to each other in a dialectical way. This makes it hard to determine their relative power. However, whoever engages with psychoanalysis cannot but make assumptions, implicit or explicit, concerning the relative strength of these two agencies (or their theoretical successors). Finally it is asked whether perhaps the ambivalent showing/hiding nature of speech under conditions of censorship is not a more fundamental phenomenon than the unconscious and the preconscious between which such speech is supposed to be a compromise.


The polysemia and open-endedness of Freud’s texts has often been noted. The degree of polysemia and open-endedness does not seem to be constant, however. It is for instance less marked in the “Project” (Freud 1950) than in the Traumdeutung (Freud 1900). Because of the greater degree of obscurity, ambiguity and possible contradiction in the Traumdeutung it is harder to reconstruct a complete and coherent model of the psychical apparatus from it than from the “Project”. In the Traumdeutung Freud uses such a variety of terms (often identifiable as clearly metaphorical), which embody such diverse tendencies, that it would be unwise to identify the text with any unambiguous, clearly defined model.


In this paper I focus on Freud’s remarks in the Traumdeutung concerning the relation of the unconscious to the preconscious. He is by no means consistent regarding the degree of power that the unconscious has over the preconscious, or vice versa. In this regard, he makes statements that are sometimes incompatible with each other, and sometimes open to conflicting interpretations. According to our predilections, ego-psychological or otherwise, we can make the unconscious as docile or as ferocious, and the preconscious as powerful or impotent, as we choose.2 Whether the unconscious is our Self or our Other is not clear; nor is the extent to which the preconscious is its master. Freud seems to vacillate between the following three positions, none of which can thus unambiguously be ascribed to him:

    1. In normal people (at the very least) the preconscious is firmly in control, and keeps the unconscious in check. (Column A in the table immediately below)
    2. Who we are, is determined by a compromise between the preconscious and the unconscious; neither has the upper hand. (Column B)
    3. The preconscious is no match for the unconscious; who we are, is basically determined by the unconscious. (Column C)

By way of introducing the rest of this paper, I present an overview, in table form, of the different positions that can be found in (or ascribed to) Freud on a number of issues which together comprise our theme. (In the table, quotes are given telegram style).





Description of the three positions Emphasis on efficacy of Pcs.(Ucs. can basically be kept out of the Pcs.) Empha­sis on compro­mises between Ucs. & Pcs(Neither has upper hand.) Emphasis on efficacy of Ucs(The Pcs. is no match for the Ucs.)
1. How great is role played by Ucs in character? Negligible
“In judging men’s characters actions & consciously expressed opinions are as a rule enough ” (621); Ucs is generally irrelevant.Apparent “monster turns out to be tiny infusorian.” (620-621)
The leading role
(Especially: infantile) memories determine character, & are in themselves ucsUcs“the core of our being” (603)“Always the same man, awake or dreaming.” (309n)
2. Censorship

a. What is effect or action of censorship?

Keeps ucs impulses out of Pcs
Watchman prevents ucs impulses from obtaining control over speech & actions (567-568).
Only allows ucs impulses into Pcs if disguised
 impulses must assume disguises to be able to express themselves.
Stimulates unconscious to be wily so as to circumvent it
2 b. What hap­pens when ucs impulses gain access to Pcs? Alternative to prevention of access: psychosis
When watchman is overpowered, result is psychosisucs impulses gain control over speech & actions.
Alternative to prevention of access: neurosis:Speech & action express compromise between ucs wishes & demands of Pcs. (In psychosisucs impulses gain control over our speech & actions).
2c. Who should we support? Watchman/censor
Watchman should be honoured—guards citadel. (568)
Political writer” — not censoring powers-that-be
2 d. Where does agency lie in speech under conditions of censorship? Censored speech product of active censorship imposing itself upon passive Ucs
Censorship is exercised by Pcs.
Censored speech product of activity of both censorship & Ucs
Confrontation between ucs impulses & censorship usually leads to compromise formations in which both are partly satisfied.
Censored speech largely product of active circumven­tion of censorship by Ucs
Censorship works largely by pre-emptive self-censorship (presumably on part of Ucs?)
3. Where does agency lie in repression? In repression … … Pcs gets upper hand
verdrängen (to replace)
… neither Pcs nor Ucs gets upper hand
verdrängen (to displace); verdrängen—to leave to itself (604)
… Ucs gets upper hand
In repression pcs idea comes under sway of Ucs.
4. What is relative contribution of secondary & primary processes? Secondary processes more or less neutralise primary ones
“secondary processes come to inhibit [i.e., to prevent& to overlay [i.e., to eclipseprimary ones” (603)
Secondary processes interfere with primary ones
“secondary processes come to inhibit [hemmeni.e., to slow down& to over­lay [i.e., to disturbprimary ones” (603)
Secondary processes have basically no influence on primary ones
“core of our being, consisting of ucs wishful impulses, remains inacces­sible to inhibition of Pcs” (603)
5. What is default power relation between Pcs & Ucs? Ucs under control of Pcs
Function of dreaming: to bring“back under control of pcs excitation in Ucs. which has been left free”. (579)
Incomplete control of Ucs by Pcs 
“Even where psychical health perfect, subjugation of 
Ucs.by Pcs.not complete.” (580-581) Suppressed survives & remains active in both normal & abnormal people (608)
Highly restricted role for Pcs, compared to Ucs
“Part played by Pcs restricted to directing along most expedient paths wishful impulses that arise from Ucs. These ucs wishes exercise compelling force upon all later mental trends.” (603-604)
6. How much freedom from the unpleasure principle is possible? Considerable” or “some”
With language “course of ideas less dependent upon” indications of unpleasure. (574)
“Thinking must aim at freeing itself more & more from exclusive regulation by unpleasure principle” (602); “however, that aim seldom attained completely.” (603)
“Course of excitation in psychical apparatus automatically regulated by feelings of pleasure & unpleasure.” (598)


Various strands in Freud’s text thus suggest very different relations between the unconscious and the preconscious. According to some passages (or interpretations3), the preconscious is puny in comparison with the overpowering unconscious even at the best of times; according to others, the preconscious usually has the unconscious firmly under control; while others again suggest that neither has the upper hand, so that mental processes tend to be a compromise between them. In these latter remarks, Freud does not ascribe hegemony to either the unconscious or the preconscious, but emphasises

  • the essential permeability of the boundary between the Ucs. and the Pcs.
  • the interference of the Ucs. with the Pcs.
  • compromises between the Pcs. and the Ucs.

Let us examine these issues in more detail. (The points discussed here may overlap with each other to a greater or lesser extent).


1. How great a role does the unconscious play in character?

Freud is reluctant to commit himself regarding the extent to which the “unconscious impulses brought out by dreams have the importance of real forces in mental life.” (620) However, at one extreme he reassuringly ascribes a negligible role to the unconscious in character, claiming that the unconscious is generally irrelevant for judging character: “Actions and consciously expressed opinions are as a rule enough for practical purposes in judging men’s characters.” (621)

“‘If we look in our consciousness … the monster which we saw under the magnifying glass of analysis [may well] turn … out to be a tiny infusorian.’” (620-621; Freud quotes Hanns Sachs approvingly)


Other remarks show us Freud’s—more distinctive—disquieting side. For instance, he tells us that our memories, which determine character, are in themselves unconscious; more specifically, the “impressions which have had the greatest effect on us—those of our earliest youth—… scarcely ever become conscious.” (539-540) If the unconscious is “the core of our being”, it is hardly surprising that it should be central to our character.


In a note Freud quotes Popper-Linkaeus in assent: “‘for it is always the same man, whether he is awake or dreaming.’” (309n) Given the context of this remark and the predominance of the unconscious in dreaming, it suggests that the unconscious is decisive for our waking character as well.


2. Censorship

I find Freud’s metaphor of the censorship irresistible. To me this metaphor for the relation of the preconscious to the unconscious constitutes the major and most valuable metapsychological innovation of the Traumdeutung.4 A large part of this paper focuses on Freud’s remarks about the censorship in this work. Here there are again some major ambiguities, if not contradictions.


The metaphor of the watchman suggests that either the unconscious is completely prevented access to the preconscious by the watchman (=normality), or that it completely overpowers the watchman, and gains access to the preconscious in naked form (=psychosis). The metaphor of the censor, on the other hand, suggests that the standard case is that of a compromise, in which the contents of the unconscious gain access to the preconscious, but in a disguised form. Neither party thus triumphs, and each is (partly) satisfied. The unconscious, the other of the preconscious, then makes itself felt far more insidiously in mental processes than would have been the case had it been possible to simply exclude the unconscious from the realm of the preconscious.


According to Freud’s formula a dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish.” (160). In the Traumdeutung he basically gives us two (rather independent) accounts of how the disguise in question comes about: one revolving around the notion of “the dream-work”, the other around the metaphor of “the censorship”.


Apropos of the latter, Freud tells us that unconscious wishes constantly strive to gain access to consciousness and motility. Usually, however, the censorship between the unconscious and the preconscious intervenes before this happens. The censorship therefore “deserves to be recognised and respected [ehren: honoured] as the watchman of our mental health.” (567; German: 573)


If the watchman is less vigilant during sleep, this need cause no harm, because the access to motility is then blocked, so that unconscious impulses cannot lead to modifications of the external world. “The state of sleep guarantees the security of the citadel that must be guarded.” (568) The unconscious impulses exhibited by dreams are generally stopped “before they can mature into deeds”. (621)


Without such a block, however, a change in the balance of power between the unconscious forces and the censorship (because of a strengthening of the former or a weakening of the latter) will result in psychosis:

the watchman is overpowered, the unconscious excitations overwhelm the Pcs., and thence obtain control over our speech and actions; or they forcibly bring about hallucinatory regression and direct the course of the apparatus. (568)

Freud introduces the censorship as a metaphor implying that proscribed wishes are only allowed expression in a disguised form:

Where can we find a similar distortion of a psychical act in social life? Only where two persons are concerned, one of whom possesses a certain degree of power which the second is obliged to take into account. In such a case the second person will distort his psychical acts or, as we might put it, will dissimulate. The politeness which I practice every day is to a large extent dissimulation of this kind. (141-142; German: 147)

To account for censorship, one of the central functions in the psychical apparatus, Freud has recourse to a socio-political metaphor, which is a far cry from his earlier ambitions to psychology as a natural science (1950: 295) or the metaphor of the refraction of light when it passes into a new medium (611). The phenomenon of politeness to which Freud also refers, functions as an alternative metaphor to that of censorship—but an equally political one, as the other person’s power is again the only reason cited for heeding one’s words. As emphasised by Brunner (1995), the social and political have penetrated to the very heart of the psychical apparatus. (If such it may still be called). In Freud questions of meaning henceforth cannot be divorced from questions of force (Brunner 1995: 54). (Perhaps Freud needs the metaphor of censorship because the language game around the notion of the dream-work insufficiently accounts for this aspect of force).


Freud continues:

A similar difficulty confronts the political writer who has truths to tell which are disagreeable to those in power. If he presents them undisguised, the authorities will suppress his words …. A writer must beware of the censorship, and on its account he must soften and distort the expression of his opinion. According to the strength and touchiness of the censorship he finds himself compelled either merely to refrain from certain forms of attack, or to speak in allusions in place of direct references, or he must conceal his objectionable pronouncement beneath some apparently innocent disguise … The stricter the censorship, the more far-reaching will be the disguise and the more ingenious too may be the means employed for putting the reader on the scent of the true meaning. (142, slightly modified on the basis of German original: 147-148)


a. What is the effect or action of the censorship?

Censorship partly acts on words directly (post hoc), regardless of whether those whose words are censored change their behaviour, and partly indirectly (teleologically),by inducing a pre-emptive self-censorship in those who know in advance that their words will be subjected to censorship. Freud emphasises the latter.


A further distinction combines with the one just mentioned: censorship or self-censorship can have as its effect that something which would otherwise have been said, is now not said at all, or it can lead to its now still being said, but in a disguised way. Again, it is the latter option which Freud emphasises.


One strand in Freud tells us that the censorship’s task and default action is to prevent unconscious impulses from gaining access to the preconscious. This is the import of his watchman metaphor (as well as his reference to “Russian censorship” in an 1897 letter to Fliess (Freud 1985: 315)).


However, Freud’s further development of the censorship metaphor is very much at odds with the watchman metaphor. The standard action or effect of the censorship is that it does allow unconscious impulses to gain access to the preconscious, but only on condition that they assume a suitable disguise.


b. What happens when unconscious impulses gain access to the preconscious?

What is the alternative to preventing unconscious impulses access to the preconscious? Freud gives us two different answers to this question. In the context of the watchman metaphor, we hear that when the watchman is overpowered, the result is psychosis: the unconscious impulses gain control over our speech and actions. The alternatives (in waking life, at least) seem to be stark: either we have a radical exclusion of the unconscious from the preconscious, or we have psychosis.


Elsewhere, however, and in line with the main thrust of the censorship metaphor, a third option is introduced: neurosis. In neurotic symptoms, speech and action express a compromise between the unconscious wishes and the demands of the preconscious. In a further qualification, Freud admits that even in normality the suppression of the unconscious by the preconscious is incomplete, so that a certain degree of infiltration of the preconscious by the unconscious becomes unavoidable.


c. With which party should our sympathies lie? Which party should we regard as Self, and which as Other?

In the metaphor of the watchman, the Other against whom we must be protected—and generally are, the watchman be praised!—is the unconscious and, in its wake, psychosis. In the metaphor of the censorship, the Other that tries to impose itself on us is the censorship itself, and, thank God!, we are usually witzig (German: 148) enough to evade it.


Given two agencies A and B that are in conflict, there is no a priori reason why we should favour the ascendancy of A or B. Which way our sympathy goes, will depend on rhetoric, including metaphor. More specifically, it will depend on where the metaphors employed situate personhood, or our “self”. Here Freud’s two central metaphors work in opposite directions. In the watchman metaphor, Freud identifies with the watchman: the unconscious is the Other against which the watchman fortunately protects us. That is: he protects our “property”—what is ours—and “the citadel” (568)—an image suggesting the core of our personhood. Moreover, what is prevented is psychosis—that Ur-threat to personhood. The watchman should therefore be honoured. In short: three cheers for the watchman—who wants psychosis?

In the general metaphor of censorship the censor is the Other who forces the Self to assume disguises. Freud’s sympathy seems to lie with the “political writer”, not with those in power (the Machthaber5), as would be more consistent with his injunction to honour the watchman. Whereas students of psychoanalysis and Freud himself generally treat the unconscious as the Other (cf. the metaphor of the watchman)6, the pivotal metaphor of the censorship has opposite connotations. Everything indicates that Freud here identifies with the “political writer”, not with the censoring powers-that-be. If he (sometimes) takes the unconscious as “the core of our being” (603), need it surprise us that Freud does not consistently identify himself (or the self) with the preconscious, but sometimes opts for the unconscious? (As a young man, Freud had considerable sympathy for revolutionary causes, a sympathy echoed in the ‘Count Thun’ dream and his associations to it. (209ff).)7 In short: three cheers for the evasion of censorship—who wants the bearers of subversive truths to be silenced by the whims of the powers that be? (And does Freud not take psychoanalysis itself to be a subversive truth?)


The unconscious would thus be the Self, and the censor the Other. However, in at least one place he also identifies the dreamer with the censor: “A dreamer’s relation to his wishes is a quite peculiar one. He repudiates them and censors them …”. (580) In substituting the “ego”/“repressed” pair for the “conscious”/“unconscious” pair (558), Freud also seems to be making the repressed into the other, and the repressing agency into the “I” [Ich]. Nevertheless, even here Freud does not seem to identify with the censoring ego; we know that he is committed to undoing the censorship/dream-work, that is: to revealing the latent content behind the manifest dream.


The ambiguous status of the unconscious and the preconscious—it is unclear what is Self, and what Other—is compounded by Freud’s contradictory pronouncements regarding the relative efficacy of each. Is it the unconscious (and as Other or as Self?) or the preconscious (and as Self or as Other?) that in the end determines who we are and what we do?


d. Where does agency lie in speech under conditions of censorship?

What do we mean by agency?An agent is something to which we ascribe beliefs and desires, as well as the ability to pursue the satisfaction of those desires by actions demonstrating (at least some degree of) intelligence. Agents are typically things we ascribe moral standing to: entities deserving moral consideration.


At first sight, it seems that Freud here again presents us with three distinct options:

(i) Speech under conditions of censorship is a product of an active censorship imposing itself upon a passive unconscious. Censorship is exercised by the preconscious.8

It seems plausible to suppose that it is the privilege of the second agency to dispose of admission to consciousness. Nothing, it would seem, can reach consciousness from the first system without passing through the second agency; and the second agency allows nothing to pass without exercising its rights and making such modifications as it thinks fit in the thought which is seeking admission to consciousness. (144, modified on the basis of German: 149; my emphases)

(ii) Speech under conditions of censorship is a product of the activity of both the censorship and the unconscious
The confrontation between unconscious impulses and the censorship usually leads to compromise formations in which both are partly satisfied.9

(iii) Speech under conditions of censorship is largely a product of an active circumvention of the censorship by the unconscious
What Freud describes here is to a large extent strategic, pre-emptive self-censorship by the first party, as a way of taking account of the second party’s power to censor. (The italicised words clearly indicate that a non-linear, self-reflexive moment has entered that is basically incompatible with the linear schema dominating most of the metapsychological chapter (Ch. VII) of the Traumdeutung).


On closer inspection, these apparently separate options seem less distinct and mutually exclusive than at first. If self-censorship is induced by external censorship, should it not be ascribed (at least partly) to the action of the latter? However, if the self-censorship is so successful that the censor is effectively circumvented, so that the content of the original message remains essentially intact, it would seem fair to take agency as gravitating back towards the self-censoring agency. In a further dialectical step, we could conclude that if the external censor is satisfied because its aim, too, has been realised (“say what you will, but not too blatantly”), its agency remains unimpaired by the actions of the self-censorship.


3. Where does agency lie in repression?

Freud’s remarks on repression again leave us considerable interpretative leeway as to the relative degree of agency or strength ascribable to the unconscious and the preconscious. We here confine ourselves to a few remarks. The crucial term verdrängen—“to repress”—can be glossed in different ways. If we read it as “to replace,” it suggests that in repression the preconscious gets the upper hand. If we read it as “to displace” or “to leave to itself” (cf. 604), then neither the preconscious or the unconscious is presented as getting the upper hand. Finally, if we go by Freud’s pronouncement that in repression a preconscious idea comes under the sway of the unconscious (562-563; 594), then we are led to believe that in repression the unconscious gets the upper hand.


4. What is the relative contribution of the secondary and primary processes?

Here we again have three options, partly depending on how we interpret certain key terms in the text.

(a) The secondary processes more or less neutralise the primary ones
“The secondary processes … come to inhibit [that is, to prevent] and to overlay [that is, to eclipse] the primary ones” (603)10

(b) The secondary processes interfere with the primary ones
“The secondary processes … come to inhibit [hemmenthat is, to slow downand to overlay [that is, to disturb] the primary ones” (603)

(c) The secondary processes have basically no influence on the primary ones
“The core of our being, consisting of unconscious wishful impulses, remains inaccessible to the … inhibition of the preconscious” (603)


5. What is the default power relation between the preconscious and the unconscious?

Again we have three options, each of which can be supported with quotes from Freud.

(a) Under standard conditions the unconscious is under the control of the preconscious
The function of dreaming is to bring “back under the control of the preconscious the excitation in the Ucs. which has been left free”. (579) If something is said to be brought back to a particular state, that state is thereby presented as the original or standard one.

(b) Incomplete control of the unconscious by the preconscious is normal
“Even where psychical health is perfect, the subjugation of the Ucs.by the Pcs.is not complete; the measure of suppression indicates the degree of our psychical normality.” (580-581)

[W]hatissuppressedcontinuestoexistinnormalpeopleaswellasinabnormal,andremainscapableofpsychicalfunctioning.” (608)

When an idea from the preconscious is drawn into the unconscious, “normal thoughts are submitted to abnormal treatment”. (598)

(c) Even in the ideal case the role of the preconscious remains limited, compared to that of the unconscious
The preconscious sits upon the “core of our being, … the unconscious wishful impulses” (603) as upon the back of a tiger whose nature it cannot comprehend and whose movement it cannot check; it can only fall in with this movement or perhaps deflect it in the direction of aims that count as “higher”:

The part played by [the preconsciousis restricted once and for all to directing along the most expedient paths the wishful impulses that arise from the unconscious. These unconscious wishes exercise a compelling force upon all later mental trends, a force which those trends are obliged to fall in with or which they may perhaps endeavour to divert and direct to higher aims. A further result … is that a wide sphere of mnemic material is inaccessible to preconscious cathexis. (603-604)


6. How much freedom from the unpleasure principle is possible?

Here certain of Freud’s remarks suggest that considerable freedom, or at least some freedom, is possible, while others suggest that no freedom is possible.

(a) “Considerable freedom”. A relatively large degree of freedom from the unpleasure principle is possible and generally available


(b)Some freedom”. The psychical apparatus is not exclusively regulated by the unpleasure principle; some degree of freedom from it is possible
For many of Freud’s remarks, it is not clear whether we should read them as supporting (a), or as supporting (b):

Language allows for “more delicately adjusted performances” in which “the course of ideas [is] less dependent upon” the indications of unpleasure. (574) (“Less dependent” here could mean: “independent to a considerable degree”, or “slightly independent”.)
“Thinking must aim at freeing itself more and more from exclusive regulation by the unpleasure principle” (602). (The word “exclusive” suggests that we never get very far from regulation by the unpleasure principle; at most we cease being regulated by it exclusively.) “[H]owever, that aim is seldom attained completely, even in normal mental life, and our thinking always remains exposed to falsification by interference from the unpleasure principle.” (603) (This formulation suggests that we get quite close to escaping from (exclusive) regulation by the unpleasure principle, without ever quite succeeding).


(c) “No freedom”. The psychical apparatus is simply regulated by the unpleasure principle
“The course of the excitation in [the psychical apparatusis automatically regulated by feelings of pleasure and unpleasure.” (598)


7. A truly dialectical account: working out the deeper implications of Freud’s model.

Freud does not quite work out the implications of the censorship metaphor he himself has introduced. His account of the relation between the wish-constructing agency and the censoring agency in the Traumdeutung insufficiently brings out its dialectical character: two intelligences engaged in a strategic battle to outwit each other, and constantly responding to each other’s latest innovations. A truly dialectical account would have to explicitly take into account the fact that the disguise which fools the censorship in one round is frequently insufficient in the next round, and also take account of the fact that the censorship and the unconscious seldom lag far behind each other as regards their wiliness and flexibility. Think of the way in which the analysand’s dreams tend to become more and more opaque as an analysis progresses:

The very first dreams that … patients bring, before they have learnt anything of the technique of translating dreams … may be described as unsophisticated: they betray a great deal to the listener, like the dreams of so-called healthy people. (Freud 1911: 95)


This is (i.a.) why what Freud offers us in the Traumdeutung cannot satisfactorily be interpreted as a key to decoding (=the work of analysis) messages that have previously been encoded (=the dream-work). Any code can in principle be summarised with the elegance and universality of a formal system, giving us such exact rules of encoding and decoding that any coded sequence is mapped onto a unique decoded sequence, and vice versa. This is clearly not what Freud offers the reader of the Traumdeutung. As he puts it, years later: “this work of interpretation was not to be brought under strict rules and left a great deal of play to the physician’s tact and skill” (Freud 1923: 239). Any rule that he gives us is at most a rule of thumb, unlike the rules for encoding and decoding which exclude countless possibilities. Every pronouncement he makes is provisional; everything depends on context—again in contrast to the context-independence of codes.


8. The problem of power: is our question not miscast?

This question was already broached in the course of developing our previous points. If the relation between unconscious and preconscious is dialectical, any causality becomes distributed, so that we can no longer locate a particular action in one system, or ascribe it to the agency of one system. In the end it is then impossible to say exactly what the relative contribution of each moment in the dialectic is.


The power of the censoring agency can best be resisted, and one’s own aims best achieved, by partially submitting to the censorship it demands. “Disguise” has the interesting ambivalence that it both shows and hides the intended meaning. The disguise is a compromise between what one intends to say and the demands of the censorship. In Freud’s paradigmatic case both the censorship and its evasion are—partially—successful. Both are active, and strategic in their activity. The paradigm case here seems to be a single one: a disguise that realises both the aim of the unconscious impulse (to gain access to consciousness), and the aim of the censorship (not to allow unconscious impulses to parade themselves in the preconscious naked). The conflict between the censoring agency and the unconscious is thus perhaps less stark than it appears at first sight.


If “politeness” boils down to much the same as “censorship”, the questions of power and agency are again shown to be problematic: If I am polite, I can be seen as deferring to the power of the other; however, by being polite, I am better able to achieve my own goals. To be considerate is completely compatible with being strategic, as the latter always requires that I consider the other.


The notion of power found here is the more interesting because it is not a model of absolute power (nor of brute power that disregards the economy of power). Absolute power would not have to negotiate (or enter into a strategic contest) with that which it tries to censor. In fact, Freud’s formulation here is completely compatible with the power of the less powerful party (cf.: “a certain degree of power” (141-142)) also inducing the more powerful party to submitting the expression of his thoughts to (self-)censorship. This is in line with Levine’s claim, referred to by Brunner (1995: 55) that in Freud, censorship can no longer be localised. If censorship occurs wherever there are power relations, and we concede the Nietzschean/Foucauldean point that power is everywhere, then censorship will be everywhere. Censored speech becomes the default mode of speech.


If censorship is purely the activity of a censor who suppresses or modifies someone else’s text, without (in time, as the censor becomes institutionalised) inducing with this action any change in the other person’s production of words (self-censorship, in other words), we remain within the ambit of the classical model of power which Foucault has so incisively criticised. If we take Freud’s emphasis on self-censorship seriously, and think through the dialectical account of power implied by his censorship model, we move to a much more Nietzschean, Foucauldean model of power. Power is here

  • conceived in terms of its effects or outcomes, that by no means all derive only from the more powerful of the two parties locked in a particular struggle, (i.a. because)
  • immediately linked to resistance or counterstrategies on the part of the (apparently) weaker party, which should therefore not be conceived of as the passive victim or plaything of the more powerful party
  • strategic—any actions are based on incomplete knowledge of the other party, and incomplete power over the other party; neither of the parties is capable of simply (predicting and) controlling the other
  • essentially concerned with controlling (claims to) truth or knowledge, which also means:
  • essentially concerned with acting in and upon the medium of language.
  • Finally, like most institutions, the censor does not need to act to exert influence. Self-censorship does not cease every time the censor becomes inactive.


Freud’s model of the censorship constitutes an embryonic theory of how the dialectics of power shape speech. The metaphor of censorship presents a certain social and political relationship as decisive for the very internal structure of the self: that between one person who tries to impose and another who tries to circumvent censorship. If this is the crucial process to be internalised, it must already in itself be a (or perhaps the?) crucial social relationship. In a situation of differential power relations, where neither party has the monopoly on power, both sides—the censor and the one being subjected to censorship—act (speak) strategically so as to achieve as much of their goals as possible.


Our initial question: “what is the relative power of the unconscious and the preconscious? is thus not so easy to answer. Methodical individualism in social science ignores the phenomenon of distributed causality which is typical of complex—or distributed—systems. This is true regardless of whether the phenomenon to be understood is seen as more conflictual or more cooperative. What was Rubens’s contribution to his paintings, and what was contributed by the traditions into which he was born and trained, his worldly success as a painter and diplomat, etc.? Or to return to censorship: What was the contribution of Zinoviev (1980) to his Yawning Heights, if you take away the contribution of Soviet censorship?11


Despite these difficulties, we probably cannot simply see our question as a non-starter. Even if there is no way of measuring or otherwise plumbing the relative strength or importance of unconscious vs. preconscious factors, our tendency to attach more weight to one or the other (or equal weight to both) will have major implications for the practice and theory of psychoanalysis. The more we see the unconscious as capable of being put under the tutelage of the preconscious, the greater will be the area in which psychoanalytic convictions make little difference, and the smaller the area which we won’t be able to tackle if we shun psychoanalysis. The greater the role ascribed to the unconscious in every person’s thoughts and actions, the more important psychoanalysis will by implication be for the assessment of character, the conduct of business and politics, as well as for the object and methodology of the humanities. All this obviously also bears on the question whether a psychoanalytic therapy is something most people can benefit from, or whether it is only relevant for those decidedly abnormal cases where the preconscious does not have hegemony (or near-hegemony) over the unconscious.


9. Freud leaves the boundary between preconscious and unconscious un(der)defined

In the course of our discussion we have tried to demonstrate how hard it is to pin Freud down on the relative agency and strength of the preconscious and the unconscious. While doing so, we have treated the distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious as unproblematic. To further complicate matters, we must now briefly show why this distinction is itself problematic, thus making the question of the relation between the two agencies more problematic still.12


Having established the dualism preconscious/unconscious, Freud softens it in various ways, for instance by reminding the reader that this distinction is not as schematic and clear-cut as some of his formulations may suggest, and by admitting multiple censorships between the unconscious and consciousness.


One of the many points on which Freud vacillates in the Traumdeutung concerns the relation between the preconscious and censorship. We are first told that the preconscious is the censoring agency Freud has spoken of previously in the Traumdeutung; then we hear that it is separated from the unconscious by a censorship; finally we are told that there is also a censorship between the preconscious and consciousness. As the preconscious was previously distinguished from the unconscious by its unimpeded access to consciousness, and Freud does not clarify the difference between the two censorships, the distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious becomes blurred.


If there is no clear or simple boundary between the unconscious and the preconscious, they cannot be conceived of as a dichotomy. This means that the preconscious is never safe from the unconscious as its Other. If alterity typically is that which cannot be unambiguously ascribed either to the self or to the other, this non-dichotomous reading of the relation between the unconscious and the preconscious gives more scope for alterity than dichotomous conceptions of their relations do.


Freud’s spatial representations of the various systems tend to suggest that there is a domain where the primary process reigns, and another where the secondary process reigns. But perhaps Freud’s real discovery is that the unconscious (the primary process) can make itself felt at any moment. (Cf. the countless types of interaction which he specifies, his words on the “main threat” (603), and his supplements to his spatial model). This is the case inter alia because the unconscious and the preconscious can never be clearly distinguished and separated in the first place; they cannot be conceived of as a Self and an Other that are simply exterior to each other. The primary and secondary process do not each have their own separate domain. In this way the alterity of the unconscious, as something that cannot be localised in an Other that is fairly distinct from a Self, comes to permeate mental and social life.


Continuing this reading of Freud, the central Freudian phenomenon becomes neither the unconscious nor the (pre)conscious, but the interface between them—the compromise between showing and hiding—for which he uses the metaphor of censorship.


Speaking under the constraints of censorship” becomes the native mode of speech: a speech that simultaneously masks and reveals. As the alterity of the unconscious was intimately linked to the role of censorship, this generalisation of censorship will mean that speech in general will be characterised by alterity.


The disguised mode of expression, which Freud depicts as the result of a compromise between the striving of unconscious contents to reach the preconscious and the demands of the censorship, in fact becomes the default mode of signification. The preconscious and the unconscious can then be seen as ideal-typical extremes for the way in which mental contents can lean one way (showing)or the other (hiding), rather than positive realities between which a compromise has been reached.



Brunner, J. 1995 Freud and the politics of psychoanalysis. New York & London: Routledge.

Forrester, J. 1997 Truth games: lies, money and psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Freud, S. 1900 The interpretation of dreamsStandard Edition45. (German: Die Traumdeutung. Gesammelte Werke, 2-3. Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer)

Freud, S. 1911 The handling of dream interpretation in psycho-analysis. Standard Edition12 , 89-96.

Freud, S. 1923 Two encyclopaedia articles: A. Psycho-analysis [1922]. Standard Edition18 , 235-254.

Freud, S. 1950 Project for a scientific psychology (1895). Standard Edition1 , 295-397.

Freud, S. 1985 Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer.

Zinoviev, A. 1980 The yawning heights. Gordon Clough (Trans). New York: Vintage.

1 In this paper, numbers in brackets refer to page numbers in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud 1900), unless otherwise indicated. For the sake of brevity I usually refer to this work by its German title, (DieTraumdeutung.Where I refer to pages in the German edition, this is to Vol 2-3 of the Gesammelte Werke.

2 I doubt that this indeterminacy lies wholly in the eye of that postmodern beholder who gleefully professes that every reading is a misreading, and without any trepidation proceeds to read into Freud whatever he wants to. (Thereby robbing Freud’s text of every alterity). This indeterminacy is probably rather the result of deep vacillations in Freud’s own thinking. (Which perhaps indicate that Freud was aware that he had not yet satisfactorily resolved the issues he addresses here).

3 Of course, an exegetical debate is possible about each passage from Freud that I cite in favour of my main claim, viz. that he is deeply undecided about the relative strength of the preconscious and the unconscious. I am confident that the outcome of these smaller debates will not threaten my main claim.

4 Cf. the words of Adam Phillips (“Foreword” to Forrester 1997: x): “In rather a stark sense psychoanalysis depends upon the censor; without the notion of censorship, the theoretical system is unintelligible.”

5 The SE translation “authorities” obscures the fact that the German gives us little reason to identify with those in power—as is also evident in Freud’s initial discussion of “Russian censorship” in his correspondence with Fliess; Russian censorship of course being anathema to Freud as a liberal Viennese Jew.

6 One frequently hears that in Freud the unconscious is conceived of as radical alterity. A close reading of the present text shows that this is not consistently the case. In it, Freud repeatedly represents the psychical apparatus as a plurality. However, he either does not present any of the elements in this plurality as ‘the self’ or ‘the same’, or he wavers on this point.

An example of the first alternative, which I do not discuss in my main text, is Freud’s presentation of self-punishment in symptoms and dreams in terms of “an amalgamation of two people”. (580) In this phrase Freud does not identify either of the parties involved as other (or self). It suggests, rather, that the two parties are other to each other.

7 However, Freud’s revolutionary sympathies never extend as far as the anti-psychiatric celebration of psychosis as the overthrow of law and order; in fact he honours the watchman as exactly preventing the overthrow of law and order with which psychosis is metaphorically equated (567-568).

8 See pt. 9 below, for exegetical qualifications of this statement.

9 Perhaps we should simply say that the censorship is “satisfied” (rather than “partly satisfied”- it is not clear that the censorship demands more than a disguise).

10 Freud uses the word überlagern—to overlay—to describe the relation of the secondary process to the primary process. This is a telling example of the ambiguities in the Traumdeutung. He tells us that although the secondary process is never absent in the apparatus, its later extent and its ability to inhibit and overlay the primary process only develop gradually. (603-604) The term überlagern can have various senses, including: blot out, eclipse, overlap, disturb, disrupt, interfere with [Überlagerung: interference, as of two radio channels]. The various translations suggest various degrees of predominance or lack of it. What überlagert something else, can be anything from a thin veneer disguising the underlying substance while leaving it intact, to something that essentially replaces what is überlagert.

11 Freud’s distinction between manifest and latent presupposes, problematically, that content (pre-censorship) can be disentangled from form (post-censorship). Which would suggest that the unconscious could not contain a wish to circumvent the censorship.

12 To add an even further complication: Freud sometimes speaks as if the strangeness of the unconscious is internal to the unconscious itself, and sometimes as if it is due to the censorship. This leads to the further question whether it is not always misguided to attempt to localise the censorship.