Child Sexuality as Mistranslation of the Parental Unconscious: Laplanche’s “Identification-by”

This week’s installment is lengthy, but necessarily so.  I promise your patience in reading it will be rewarded.


Jean Laplanche’s most recently translated collection of work, Freud and the Sexual (2011), follows nicely my detailing last week of a critique of hylomorphism and a positive material role for the child in its generation in John Protevi’s work on Plato’s political physics.  Laplanche’s central concern in these essays is a critique of what could be characterized as a set of dualisms: the psyche-soma divide, the instinct-drive divide, and the attachment-primary narcissism divide in psychoanalytic theories of the child.  At issue, in a larger sense, is the hegemony of teleological, developmental accounts of the relation of infantile sexuality to adult, genital sexuality, as well as naïve celebratory recuperations of infantile polymorphous perversity meant to undo the stability of the latter.  Laplanche is right to point out from the start that a strictly developmental approach is at best a sluggish, willful reading of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, insofar as the relationship between a possible biological genesis of sexuality in the child versus a purely psychological genesis remains a productive, if irreducible, tension within Freud’s work in the Three Essays and beyond:

To be sure, the vague succession of ‘libidinal stages’ can be correlated in a certain way with the progress of rearing (itself determined socially as much as physiologically).  But this also means that nothing permits the postulation of a genetic programming of an infantile libidinal evolution as such (39).

In other words, the strength of psychoanalysis is its disruption of the idea that sexuality is a purely biological affair in humans, regardless of how much Freud’s assignation of the oral, anal, phallic, latent and Oedipal-genital stages to the development of the child into an adult might suggest as much inevitably overrides the social or cultural openness of humans (that is to say, that the conflict between Eros and Thanatos in every organism is fundamental).  The word sexual in the title of this collection of essays is a neologism invisible to English readers; rather than the French term le sexuel that is given to translation as “the sexual” in English, Laplanche uses sexual (italicized by his translators) as an adaptation of the German word spelled the same way, but converted from a compound adjective into a noun.  The sexual refers to the enlarged sense of what constitutes sexuality in psychoanalysis, particularly in that, as we will see, Laplanche argues that whatever sexual “instinct” humans have in a biological or (epi)genetic sense that gets expressed physiologically, it always comes after the intersubjective formation of infantile sexuality out of the repression of the infant’s mistranslation of the communication with and impression of its parents’ or adult caregivers’ sexual unconscious (20-21).

Drive and Instinct

This is to get ahead of myself, however.  I will thus start where Laplanche starts: with an illuminating discussion of terminology.  His central concern is the continued confusion about the difference between what Freud refers to in German as Trieb (drive) and Instinkt (instinct).  The difference between the two words is in fact completely lost in standard English translations, resulting in a single, confused concept of “drive.”  We can think of Trieb (which I will henceforward refer to as “drive,” following Laplanche) as sexuality in the sense of overcoded desire for whole objects and particularly the pursuit of an increase in excitation followed by near-total discharge; in other words, orgasmic, adult and genital sexuality—at the level of ideality, since this sexuality operates in the shadow of erratic and perverse digressions of the afterwardness of infantile sexuality.  Instinkt, or simply instinct, is bound up with the self-preservation impulse, a more homeostatic concept of what the body needs in order to maintain an ideal level of survival.  Instinct is, therefore, intimately bound up with the infant at birth in its search for a good enough part-object. (37)

Laplanche’s target in an early essay in this collection is the school of psychoanalysis that sees narcissism as the primary, or ontologically originary state of the human: the infant as having no objects, but instead erotically invested in itself (which is not isomorphic, but related to, autoeroticism) before it recognizes first the part-object in the mother’s breast, and then later the entire object of the mother, at which point its newfound autoeroticism is first directed outward, a shift from an instinct model of genetically programmed sexuality to a drive-oriented model of sexuality: the ascension to the oral stage.  (We can see how this way of thinking, an original genetic programming of the infant as narcissistic, already implies a developmental teleology the likes of which Laplanche warns us against at the outset.)

In contrast to that model, Laplanche proposes a compelling and careful clarification from revisiting an assemblage of Freud’s work: infantile sexuality is not endogenous; rather, it arises only out of the adult-child relation.  As such, drive precedes (sexual) instinct, even though the biological instinct for survival anthropologically precedes drive, in a wonderfully poignant scrambling of cause, effect, and the body-mind dualism.  The “case in point” of this process, argues Laplanche, is the Oedipus complex (an insight made in passing that resonates interestingly with Deleuze and Guattari’s project in Anti-Oedipus) (23), but I want to focus here on an earlier moment in the infant’s life since it builds on my discussion of the slavewoman-infant relationship of affective attunement from last week.

An infant is born in a relation of what Laplanche translates from Freud as “leaning-on” (Anlehnung: Laplanche’s distaste for the word “anaclisis” is at the root of this modification) the parent, so that attachment is its primary state, not narcissism (32-33).  At first, all that is available is somatic instinct, namely in the need for consumption of milk to resolve an inner tension, but Laplanche takes instinct to be epigenetic instead of a biological program; instinct is adaptive and affected in its expression by environmental factors, including information from the breast and mother (38).  Instinct thus softened in an epigenetic frame, Laplanche then highlghts the “reciprocal communication” between infant and parent, the actual stuff of the infant-adult relation that forms the eventual child, arguing that it is in this processual relation, one he names perhaps too hastily the “fundamental anthropological situation” (99), that drive takes hold as sexuality prior to any sexual instinct per se.  Innate sexual instinct as a physiological phenomenon may become activated at puberty, but not at birth.  Freud’s original explanation for which children are sexual, hence, relied on a seduction-theory of sexuality’s transmission to the infant, a position he later recanted, leaving in its midst the tension between a theory of developmental stages and the messiness of the primal scene.  Laplanche therefore aims to clarify the primacy of the relationality of adult-infant in the genesis of child sexuality, but its complexity, weaving his distinction between drive and instinct, needs lengthy attention, for which I cite Laplanche at length:

You can see how it may be said that “seduction is the truth of ‘leaning-on.’”  Not that I deny the active role of the infant in terms of symbolisation and the creation of fantasy, and within the process of afterwardness [i.e. Nachträglichkeit]. But this activity is brought to bear upon messages that are already compromised by the sexual on the part of the adult other.  It is precisely by virtue of this enigmatic aspect of the adult message that the child is stimulated to develop an unusual activity of ‘translation.’  An exchange of messages that remains purely self-preservative [i.e. instinctual, not allo-sexual] benefits from an ‘attunement’, since the codes used between the adult and the child are largely pre-established […] It is only because the adult’s messages are compromised by his sexual unconscious that, secondarily, the child’s attempts at symbolisation are set in motion, where the child actively works on material that is already sexual (47).

In the primary relational mode of asymmetric attachment—that is, radical dependence of infant upon parent—the infant finds itself attached to the parent at the level of instinct: the intrinsic need for sustenance in order to survive.  This instinct is not, for the infant, in any way yet sexual.  However, in the somatic “attunement” of child and adult that facilitates its sustenance a reciprocal circuit of conscious and preconscious communication is immediately established.  As Laplanche points out, it is within this communication that sexuality in the sense of the drives is impressed upon the infant, as the adult’s messages to the infant are compromised by her sexual unconscious (I am using gendered pronouns intentionally since we are operating in a phallocentric economy of sexuality).  Since the infant does not yet possess language, however, it is unable to “translate” the adult messages, instead absorbing them in a confused way and deferring their meaning for later by repression, resulting in the period of latency before puberty.

This is an asymmetric relation, then: the infant’s somatic communications (crying, etc.) are out of instinctual need to live, and yet are returned with somatic and linguistics messages compromised by the sexual unconscious of the parent (the parent of course does not realize this either, the sexual being unconscious).  The communication inherent to attachment, then, is the vehicle of the transmission of the sexual, which the infant cannot understand and so represses, that repression being its ascension into human sexuality.  Thus, at the same time we can say that the child is from birth sexual (since attachment is immediate and attachment relies on communication in an enlarged sense of semiotics), but that its sexuality is not endogenous, rather the result of the enforced mistranslation of the parental unconscious.  Rather than identification “with” the parent, there is a forced identification “by” the parental unconscious, a process that is always already a mistranslation because the infant has no language skills yet, while the parent’s unconscious is structured linguistically (110-11).  As Laplanche puts it, “identifications are always replacements for [lost] love relationships” via introjection (23).  In the case of the infant, the love relationship motivated by instinct is from birth is compromised and thereby lost because of the contamination of the parental sexual unconscious (composed of drive-sexuality), forcing the infant’s “identification-by” the parental unconscious, its becoming-sexual, before it crosses the linguistic and cognitive thresholds to understand what is happening.  Laplanche summarizes the point thusly:

What matters is the introduction of the sexual element, not from the side of the physiology of the infant but from the side of the messages coming from the adult.  To put it concretely, these messages are located on the side of the breast, the sexual breast of the woman, the inseparable companion of the milk of ‘self-preservation’ (69, emphasis in original).

Sexuality is not endogenous to the child; it comes from the other, in a fundamental relation of asymmetry, dependence, and difference.

Clarifications and Negations: That Elusive Something-Else…

This is not a radical reading of Freud, but the implications of Laplanche’s clarification of the exogamous genesis of infantile sexuality are immense for my essay’s question of the generation of the child.  By way of arriving at those implications, I want to seize on a moment of correspondence between last week’s installment and this one, the question of “attunement,” which Protevi took up in Plato’s discussion of lullabies sung to infants by slavewomen.  In that case, somatic attunement, in its primacy before the ideal impression of logos upon the infant by education, upsets the hylomorphic Platonic body politic, suggesting a positive and primary corporeal contribution to the relational generation of the child by the child’s body itself, some sort of positive capacity (as well as a positive contribution by the slavewoman’s politically devalued artisanal knowledge of lullabies).  In the passage from Laplanche I offered above, he too suggests that the reciprocal communication between infant and adult that results in the mistranslation of the latter’s sexual unconscious is accomplished only because a circuit of somatic attunement is already in place.  That is to say, the infant becomes sexual only by virtue of a somatically prior (even if chronologically contemporaneous, at birth) capacity for somatic attunement to an adult—a kind of positive psychosomatic receptivity.  This is a greatly enlarged concept of semiotics that allows for an asymmetry: the adult can speak, but the child has not entered into language yet (115-131).  Like in Plato, then, there is a disruption of a model of linear development, such that, even if human sexuality for Laplanche is not biological but is transmitted forcefully to the infant at a fundamental anthropological moment, there is something else that enables and potentially eludes capture in this asymmetrical process.

This something else is proof, in other words, that since sexuality is not endogenous to the infant, the infant is not formed only or primarily out of sexuality.  I will return to exactly what that something else is in a moment.  First, we need to consider the full implications of Laplanche’s clarification that the child is not innately sexual.  To be absolutely clear, though, let me specify that the infant is born with instinct, not drives, but that drives are introjected from the parental unconscious immediately, since the attachment relation from birth is its conduit.  Hence, yes, the infant is immediately sexual—this is nothing other than Freud’s most important contribution to a theory of sexuality—but not because of something ontologically innate.  The infant is made to be sexual because of its radical dependency on adults.  This may read as a pretty straightforward account of sexuality as “culturally constructed,” but that’s not exactly what I am building up to.  I do, however, think that the fullest implications of Laplanche’s point that sexuality is not endogenous (full stop) are compatible with Foucault’s concept of sexuality (a question I will address next week) as a deployment of power/knowledge to organ-ize bodies, pleasures, and populations, even if Laplanche himself begins Freud and the Sexual stating that he is “perplexed” by Foucault’s take on Freud (1).

The related conclusion from this reading of Laplanche is, then, that for infants especially and for children in a specific sense, not everything (they do) is sexual.  That is to say, a child’s engagement with the world cannot be reduced to a sexual narrative (which is precisely what the Oedipus complex would have us do).  This has very real consequences for thinking about the contemporary emergence of “gay children” as a kind of subject—the subject of my dissertation.  When a nine year old child, having acquired language after the primary repression of the confused impression of its parents’ unconscious through identification-by, utters the statement “I am gay,” it is deploying gay per a concept of sexuality it was forced to introject as an infant.  Such would be the case for any sexual statement a child makes; there is nothing specific to a gay identification.  Again, this in itself is not revelatory: it is more or less a rehearsal of Foucault by different means.  However, what this suggests for me is that, in thinking the sexuality of children, particularly the recent advent of gay children—children who declare themselves to be gay in the first person—we need to be far more attentive to what is sexual and what is the “something else” both Protevi and Laplanche find in the infantile capacity for somatic attunement.  Elliptically, for all of the recent over-exposure of the bullying of gay kids that has focused on some sort of specificity of their sexuality as the motivation for harassment, often alienating other stakeholders in the debate for whom bullying is experienced in nonsexual ways (i.e., along different stratas of difference like race, body size, personality, popularity, class, clothing, etc.), the sociality of violence that children engage in online or in the schoolyard may not be best viewed only through the optic of sexuality at all if we are asking why it is children bully one another.  To invoke a vocabulary I will arrive at by the end of this series: sexuality is primarily a molar organ-ization of children and so to make it irreducible neglects the molecular capacities of bodies.

To say this slightly differently: while the child is sexual and partially generated through sexuality in the Foucauldian sense, the child in this process is sexual primarily reactively rather than actively (I suspect this would upset much of the work in queer theory on the child and sexuality, but I don’t have the space here to unpack this proposition).  What the child is actively capable of during periods of extreme dependence on adults is the remainder, the supplement to the restricted psychoanalytic economy of sexuality that makes it receptive to the sexual in the first place.  If both Protevi’s reading of Plato and Laplanche’s reading of Freud have indicated that underwriting and undercutting and developmental, teleological account of the genesis of the child is a positive contribution of the child’s body in its first anthropological relation with a caregiver, then it remains to be seen just what that nonsexual “something else” actually is.  As critiques, neither of these two accounts of the generation of the child have been able to do much more than indicate this disruption; Protevi does argue that this is why we need to follow Deleuze’s framework for a positive account of material self-ordering, instead of only poking holes in hegemonic forms of thought, and I fully concur.

Finally, then, what is that elusive, positive “something else”? Both Protevi and Laplanche refer to “attunement” as that somatic relation that trumps sexuality or logos by being its un-thought grounding.  Laplanche also notes, in passing, that one of Freud’s earlier terms for attunement was “affection.”  Freud’s specific theory of affects notwithstanding, I want to pervert this coincidence to make the argument that, in addition to being forcibly sexual from birth, infants and children are also engaged in their own becoming that is not sexual, but concerns affects.  We cannot reduce everything a child does to sexuality (though what a child says may be more obviously sexual), for there is an irreducible element that underwrites its originary receptivity to the forced impression of sexuality via identification-by the parental unconscious.  Laplanche names this irreducibility “instinct,” but I want to suggest it might be better understood as affectivity if we want it to be more than just a negative remainder after sexuality, if we want to understand it on its own active terms.  This is why my essay series builds up to a final entry on what I am terming Deleuze and Guattari’s “infant affects.”  The critical materials I have assembled so far will continue to build accretively next week as I extend and reread these conclusions in light of Foucault.  But it will only be once I can move through Foucault and Irigaray to arrive at Deleuze and Guattari that I will be able to fully account for the positive contribution of the child to its generation.  That is to say, Laplanche can help us point to instinct as the supplement of a restricted economy of sexuality, but he cannot illuminate anything of the positivity of the infant’s nonsexual capacities because he is wedded to a psychoanalytic irreducibility of the sexual as a fundamental anthropology.

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4 Responses to Child Sexuality as Mistranslation of the Parental Unconscious: Laplanche’s “Identification-by”

  1. Pingback: Masturbation and Pedagogization: Foucault’s Genealogy of Child Sexuality | Those Tendencies

  2. Pingback: Born of the Interval: Irigaray’s Ethics of Difference | Those Tendencies

  3. Pingback: Childhood Blocks: Deleuze and Guattari’s Infant Affects | Those Tendencies

  4. Pingback: What are Little Kids Made of, in Theory? | Those Tendencies

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