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Rosen, V.H. (1969). Sign Phenomena and their Relationship to Unconscious Meaning. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 50:197-207.

(1969). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 50:197-207

Sign Phenomena and their Relationship to Unconscious Meaning

Victor H. Rosen


If 'meaning' is an ambiguous concept, 'unconscious meaning' is doubly fraught with ambiguity. In this discussion conscious meaning has been defined as the reciprocal evocability of words and things, or, in a more general sense, of symbols and their referents. Freud's concept of word–thing relationships as described in his paper, 'The Unconscious' (1915), is in essential agreement with this concept of meaning borrowed from general semantics. One revision of Freud's formulation has been suggested. Instead of a wordless 'thing presentation', residing in a topographical unconscious, it is proposed that a primary process which uses signal and sign phenomena exists as a subordinate system within the superordinate symbol utilizing secondary process. These primary process 'signal' and 'sign' phenomena are not 'thing presentations' but stand for them—the former by contiguity and the latter by simile. The relationship of signals to the things signalized by contiguity, and the iconic character of signs, make them appear to be 'representations' of so-called 'things in themselves'. Furthermore, it is postulated that this subordinate system operates as a mnemonic resonating device for the evocation of symbolic forms in the superordinate secondary process, especially the evocation of the phonetic, semantic, and syntactic aspects of language symbols. This reciprocity likewise includes an influence of the superordinate system on the signalizing and signifying events in the subordinate system (primary process). When the interaction of the two systems proceeds autonomously, all meaning is felt as if it derived from the word–thing relationships in the secondary process alone, which usually concides with the 'topographic Conscious' system. Clinically we are aware that there are a large number of manifestations of interference in this autonomy which appear to be 'nonsensical' if attempts are made to decode them according to the rules of symbolic systems. A parapraxis, the paradigm of such a disturbance, can occur when there is a voluntary interruption of encoding in the superordinate system which interferes with the functioning of the subordinate one. Alternatively, the same effect may occur when the signal–sign combinations do not find a corresponding representable symbol in the superordinate system. The analyst listening to the process of free association temporarily disregards the semantic and syntactic rules for decoding linguistic symbols and utilizes their simile and metonymy characteristics to decipher the signals and signs from which they arise. An interpretation is a translation and resynthesis in referential language of the signal–sign operations that he infers in the subordinate system. Free association is a kind of replication of the disturbed encoding function which is produced by a disruption of encoding autonomy. This replication is an attempt to find out, under relatively controlled conditions, how the signal–sign–symbol encoding and decoding functions went astray in the first place. The inferences that we draw from this replication are what we call 'unconscious meaning'.

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