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Publications: Book Reviews
Review of The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement

Title: The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement
Author: Aulagnier, Piera
Publisher: Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2001
Reviewed By: Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Fall 2003, pp. 31-34

Although in France Piera Aulagnier’s work in psychoanalytic theory is regarded as of the highest importance (she is viewed as both psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher, as numerous online entries attest), in the United States her work is virtually unknown. Beginning in the 1950’s, Aulagnier (1923-1991), authored numerous articles and several books. Published in France in 1968, The Violence of Interpretation: from Pictogram to Statement has been translated into English (2001) and provided with an excellent new “preface,” actually a lengthy introduction, by Joyce MacDougall and Nathalie Zaltzman. In this review I will intersperse interpretive and critical comments within an outline of some of Aulagnier’s key ideas and insights.

According to the publisher’s blurb, the author puts forth “a theory of psychosis based on children’s early experiences.” This is accurate, but nevertheless distorts the character of Aulagnier’s ideas. Aulagnier indeed was inspired to develop her theories by her desire to understand her psychotic patients. In her view, psychosis results from a derailment of normal processes caused by parental, especially maternal, failure to respond in a meaningful way to the infant from birth. Thus, Aulagnier presents a highly developed theory of normal or optimal development on the basis of which she derives psychotic processes as deviations from the norm. MacDougall and Zaltzman provide the correct emphasis when they say that, “We believe that the prime importance of Aulagnier’s research into the genesis of psychotic thought lay in the exceptional interest and respect she consistently maintained towards the construction of all human thought process” (p. xvi).

The Violence of Interpretation is quite simply a masterpiece. Though Aulagnier rarely refers to other thinkers, grounding in the history of, and current trends in, psychoanalytic thought is essential for comprehension. Additionally, basic knowledge of epistemology, i.e., theories of truth; ontology, i.e., theories of the nature of reality and being; discourse theory and logic; philosophy of science, i.e., realism vs. anti-realism; Kant; phenomenology; etc.—are very helpful in understanding and evaluating Aulagnier’s compelling ideas. Even though Aulagnier does not discourse at length on any of these topics, her work comprises a unique blending of psychoanalytic and philosophical themes. Moreover, her intricate and cool intellectual style notwithstanding, Aulagnier rivals Alice Miller in the intensity of her sense of and concern for inadequately nurtured infants.
At the heart of Aulagnier’s view of both optimal normal and psychotic processes are her notions of 1) primal process; 2) the violence of interpretation; 3) primary delusional thinking and psychosis.

1. THE PRIMAL PROCESS Aulagnier postulates a primal process that is prior to the primary process (in Freud’s sense of the latter). The most salient differentiating factor is that in the primal process, the representation of psychic experience occurs in the form of “pictograms” rather than as primary process fantasies. Pictograms are formed when, prior to awareness of separate psychic spaces of mother, or other, and self, the primal psyche represents to itself a sensory encounter with an object, e.g., mouth-breast. Aulagnier seems to understand “representation,” one of the linch-pins of her theory, as degree of awareness—the primal psyche is aware of, has consciousness of, its sensory experience of mouth-breast. This is a pictogram. Most importantly, the primal process does not construe these experiences in terms of an inner-outer duality: the “I,” a term Aulagnier uses to indicate awareness in the sense of the activity of the psyche, construes the pictographic representation as itself presented to itself and created by itself. Moreover, “every act of representation is coextensive with an act of cathexis, and every act of cathexis is motivated by the psyche’s tendency to preserve or rediscover an experience of pleasure”(p. 7). Where the mouth-breast relation is satisfactory, both mouth, which Aulagnier refers to as a “zone,” and breast, an object, are metabolized, i.e., represented as providing pleasure. This is the pictogram of conjunction. Where the relation is unsatisfactory, the pictogram of rejection is represented. For Aulagnier, all perceptual zones are erogenous zones. However,

The zone-object complementarity and its corollary—that is, the illusion that every zone produces for itself the object that corresponds to it—means that the unpleasure resulting from the absence of the object or of its inadequacy, by excess or by shortcoming, will present itself as the absence, excess or shortcoming of the zone itself. At this stage “the bad object” is inseparable from a “bad zone.” the bad breast from the bad mouth… (p. 27)

Where what is in question is a visual representation of a visual object,

…the object seen may be rejected only by abandoning the visual zone and the activity proper to it. In this mutilation of a zone-function as source of pleasure, we find the archaic prototype of the castration that the primary will have to reshape. In the primal, any organ of pleasure may become what is cut off in order to undo the unpleasure for which it suddenly seems to be responsible. (p. 28)

Aulagnier claims, then, that castration anxiety cannot be understood unless it is related to processes that reflect the embeddedness of the human person in the world in the sense of a primal activity (orig. Fr. processus originaire) of the psyche. Thus, we may say that while primal experiences of absent objects and lack of satisfaction, which give rise to pictograms of rejection, are not the proximal causes of castration anxiety, such experiences, and, even more, the capacity of the human psyche to have such experiences, are a necessary precondition for the formation of castration anxiety and any of its possible harmful effects. In this, we see the immense significance of the primal in Aulagnier’s formulations. We also see that, if Aulagnier is right, then the entire problematic of psychoanalysis needs to be recast through comprehension of the originary processes of the human psyche.

In addition to this, Aulagnier’s uncovering of the primal process and her extensive analysis and understanding of it shows that human existence consists in a prehistory and history of continuous development that occurs in layers that are built upon one another and are always in interaction with one another. Moreover, Aulagnier views human existence as a continuous active creation of a meaningful existence through progressive stages of development that bring about the historical constitution of a stable identity. That is, the three levels of representation that comprise psychic activity—1) primal pictogram; 2) primary process fantasy; and 3) secondary process ideation, are all stages in the continuous creation of a meaningful existence. A meaningful existence is one such that the person’s psychic process is not met with elements that cannot be “metabolized” or assimilated.

Aulagnier’s emphasis on the representational activity of the psyche and the psyche-world complementarity are directly relevant to philosophical considerations of the relation between psyche and world. What is clear is that Aulagnier has neither a representational theory of mind nor a correspondence theory of truth. Rather, Aulagnier’s epistemology is closer to the model of Kant, including a coherence theory of truth. Like Kant, she maintains that the belief that one knows objects-in-themselves is an illusion. However, Aulagnier does not discuss these ideas at length (nor does she mention Kant); rather, she shows through her analysis of the primal process that, “Psyche and world meet and are born with one another and by one another; and they are the result of a state of encounter that is coextensive with the state of living being” (p. 8). In other words, the only world we can know, the only reality we can know, is the phenomenal world of experience (Kant). For Aulagnier, however, the phenomenal world is affectively experienced as pleasurable or painful on every level and in every process from the inception of life.

2. THE VIOLENCE OF INTERPRETATION For Aulagnier, the “violence of interpretation” does not refer only to failures of maternal interpretations of infant behavior and interactions. Rather, “violence” is endemic to interpretations as such. To show this, Aulagnier discusses interpretive violence in two forms: primary violence and secondary violence.

a. Primary Violence Aulagnier views the mother speaking to the infant as the “word-bearer” and as the “speaking I” who is subjected to three preconditions: “the kinship system; the linguistic structure; the effects imposed upon discourse by the affects at work on ‘the other stage’ [Freud]” (p. 11). Owing to these preconditions, primary violence refers to “the difference separating one psychical space, that of the mother…and the psychical organization proper to the infant”(p. 11). Thus, primary violence “denotes what is imposed from the outside on the psychical field at the cost of an initial violence of a space and of an activity that obeys laws heterogeneous to the I….”(p. 12). (Here we see the influence on Aulagnier, who was at one time a member of Lacan’s school but who broke with him, of Lacan’s notion that the unconscious is structured like the language of the other). Aulagnier discusses in intricate detail (p. 72ff) the process whereby, through the activity of the primal psyche, the heterogeneous aspects of the word-bearer’s expressions, marked by repression and the reality principle, and interpretations in the form of expectations and anticipations, are metabolized into that which is homogenous to the primal psyche, itself governed by the pleasure principle and prior to repression. In this process whereby the heterogeneous is converted into the homogeneous, an essential misconstrual takes place that renders the primary violence impossible to unmask in that it “achieves its aim, which is to make the fulfillment of the desire of him who exerts it what will become the object demanded by him who undergoes it” (p. 13). In this way, the infant I begins to form an identity by appropriating meaning from the word-bearer. Aulagnier is clear that primary violence is “to the benefit of the future constitution of the agency called I” (p. 12). This is not so in the case of secondary violence.
b. Secondary Violence Aulagnier states that secondary violence,

…makes its way in the wake of its predecessor of which it represents an excess, usually harmful and never necessary to the functioning of the I, despite its proliferation and diffusion….[secondary violence] is a question of conflict between I’s or of conflict between an I and the diktat of a social discourse...[secondary violence] succeeds in abusively appropriating the qualifications of necessary and natural, the very same that after the event the subject recognizes as proper to the primary violence from which it has emerged (p. 12}.


…in the register of the I there exists a threshold below which the I finds it impossible to acquire, in the register of meaning, that degree of autonomy that is indispensable if he is to appropriate an activity of thinking that allows between subjects a relationship based on linguistic heritage and knowledge of meaning, in which one recognizes that one has equal rights, without which will always be imposed the will and the words of a third party, subject or institution... (p. 13)

Thus, just as castration anxiety has a necessary prehistory on the level of primal process, so, too, does secondary violence, a function of parental failure to be attuned to the infant, have a prehistory in the necessary primary violence on the level of the primal process. In other words, pathological formations are deformed versions of normal and necessary developmental processes.
Aulagnier’s notions of primary and secondary violence have vast implications for the relation of the individual to society on every level of development, and equally vast implications for theories of child development and the practice of child rearing. Moreover, these ideas have implications for philosophical theories of interpretation as well. The point is that cultural transmission is not just a matter of the content of what is transmitted; equally significant is the manner in which cultural practices and ideas are imposed on infants. As Aulagnier points out in the quote above, secondary violence appropriates for itself the meaning of necessary and natural, but it does not have these characteristics in the sense of communications that nurture rather than destroy the independence and equality of the child. Thus, not all interpretations are equal. Aulagnier was not a hermeneutic relativist; rather, she sought to create a scientific foundation for her views based on observation and nearness to experience.

a. Primary Delusional Thinking
Aulagnier maintains that her concept of primary process “remains more or less faithful to the one that we owe to Freud.” In her view, the primary process is activated to deal with recognition of the existence of another body, and therefore another psychical space, separate from one’s own. This recognition is stimulated by the experience of presence and absence; thus, it conflicts with the primal process for which all representations are created by itself and which recognizes only one psychical space. The function of primary process fantasy, is to resolve this conflict. (pp. 40-42). Primary delusional thinking arises when the I is presented with “the discourse of the other” which “has confronted it with a meaningless or inadequate statement”; when, that is, the word-bearer and the father have both “turned out to have failed in their tasks,” i.e., when the I has been subjected to secondary violence. Primary delusional thinking forms, then, when, in order to maintain access to the field of signification, the I creates “a cause that makes sense” of its existence, of its origin and of its history (pp. 134-136).
b. Psychosis Aulagnier places great emphasis on the child’s, the subject’s, need to know of its origin and of the origin of its history. When the answers to these questions are “contradictory with his affective and actual accept the commentary, to take it over as his own, would entail appropriating a history without a subject and a discourse that would deny all truth to sense experience.” For Aulagnier, then, the subject has psychotic potential in that “he must first invent an interpretation that makes a meaning imposed upon him, which he cannot reject, conform to reason, without endangering the foundation of his statements” (p. 136). Aulagnier does not maintain that all subjects with psychotic potential become psychotic, but that the converse is the case. A consequence of the psychotic potential, or primary delusional thinking, is that, in the words of MacDougall and Zaltzman, “because every attempted wish-fulfilling fantasy on the child’s part fails lamentably to deal with its painful experiences…the child is thrown back to primal process thinking—that of the pictogram of rejection which the primary processes will now attempt to relibidinise in order to make the experience livable for the child” (p. xxiii).

CONCLUDING REMARKS Despite the extensive quotations, this review cannot convey the extraordinarily detailed discussions, including case material that Aulagnier provides for all of her formulations. These discussions show a masterful command of the material and make reading and studying the book a powerful learning experience.

My only caveat regarding this book is that almost all of Aulagnier’s descriptions of mother-infant interactions are linguistic. This is in conformity with the Lacanian perspective, though Aulagnier was hardly an orthodox Lacanian. Though Aulagnier died in 1991, I am not aware that her subsequent research was informed by the great advances in non-linguistic infant research made, for example, by Colwyn Trevarthen and Daniel Stern. Since, in my view, Aulagnier’s discovery of the primal process and pictographic representation is one of the greatest discoveries made in psychoanalysis, it would be of great importance to integrate into our understanding of it the findings of recent infant research.

Finally, it seems to me that Aulagnier’s ideas regarding the relation of primal psyche and world and of zone-object correlation invite advancing philosophically beyond Kant to philosophies of intentionality, especially the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. As one trained in both psychoanalysis and Husserlian phenomenology, I hope to develop this relation in future work. Husserl would have loved the discovery of the primal process, for it correlates well with his own ideas regarding the primordial level of lived experience.

Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of the Human Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology . Trans. D. Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology /I>. New York: Basic Books.
Trevarthen, C. (1979) Communication and cooperation in early infancy: A description of primary intersubjectivity. In: Before Speech: The Beginning of Interpersonal Communication . M. Bullowa (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 321- 347.

Marilyn Nissim-Sabat is Professor Emeritus and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Lewis University, and is a clinical social worker in private practice in Chicago.

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