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Affects: The Absolute Subject

The Letter, Issue 11, Autumn 1997, Pages 98 - 107


Rob Weatherill

According to Michel Henry in his book The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis,[1] affects and affectivity should be the central preoccupation of psychoanalysis. Controversially, he will argue that the unconscious is destructured like an affect, and that psychoanalysis has been side-tracked into an over emphasis on linguistics. This paper attempts to follow Henry in this respect. I will set-out part of his argument.

Firstly, consciousness, in its ontological conception is pure appearance itself in contradistinction to the ontic conception of consciousness which relates to the contents, dreams, symptoms, parapraxes etc. Similarly, the unconscious can be understood ontically as contents: drives and their representatives, unconscious mechanisms, repressed or phylogenetic contents, childhood experience, and so on. Ontologically, the unconscious is simply, what does not appear! Rather than deal in these formal and 'empty' categories consciousness and unconsciousness, Freud opts for the contents of the unconscious, the system Ucs. It is contents that are crucial, not so much whether or not they are conscious or unconscious. The notion of the unconscious has two different meanings: (1) barred consciousness seen only in relation to representational consciousness, as the latter's double, with the two contents being interchangeable and dialectical. In principle, as Henry says: 'Every unconscious content can take on the opposite quality of consciousness and enter the light; every conscious content is destined to leave it and return to the unconscious'.[2] But, there is a totally different conception of the unconscious, (2) that 'secretly refers to life's essence' that can never become known. Hence, Freud's assertion, in Instincts and their Vicissitudes, that not all unconscious contents can surface to consciousness. Freud straddles these two notions of the unconscious.

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