Après Coup: A Comment

I would like to add my observations to this ongoing debate in EJP on après-coup, particularly its relationship to other psychoanalytic concepts, especially those that seem most closely related and to occupy the same ground.  My reflections, in fact, being limited here, aim to stimulate further questions rather than answers, a path to follow rather than the destination.

Après-coup concerns temporality, and raises the question of whether there is a relationship, and what it is, between present and future, but also between future and past, inverting the irreversibility according to the presumed common logic of the temporal flow of events.

But a special defence called “undoing” (retroactive annulment)—while it also concerns temporality—also introduces the possibility of subtracting from a past event not just signification and influence, but its very existence; that is to say, it concerns the possibility of making the event something that did not happen, as with patients suffering from an obsessive neurotic disorder.

So undoing refers to the more general concept of defence, and along the way we discover how it is known, even if at times we don’t notice, that the defence is not a crusade (it does not mobilize an army of whites against blacks or greens etc.), but is itself kneaded with drive, that is to say, it is largely made up of the very material it must contrast.  As Laplanche and Pontalis define it, defence is “marked and permeated by the drive”, that is, by the unconscious motivations it seems to oppose, and by the compromises reached under the impetus of other impulses or aims of the ego.

If we consider temporality in relation to psychic reality, we are referring to the unconscious (where, as we know, there exists a time different from that of the conscious). But we also observe a concrete external reality, of which we are conscious, with determined events: on the one hand those that precede a given time, and on the other those that follow it. It should be borne in mind, however, that for each of the facts perceived consciously, there corresponds an unconscious event whose memory trace is activated or reactivated on the basis of the dynamics of the motivations, and thus of the drives at play with their psychic presentations, and even earlier with the psychic representatives of these.

Clinically, we observe phenomena that are the effect of the colliding and reshaping of opposing instinctual impulses.

The above-mentioned conscious actions correspond to consciously assumed behaviors in the defence, and are marked by instinctual impulses and characteristics thanks to which the subject, orienting himself on the basis of what are considered valid conscious representations, seeks the satisfaction of certain actually unconscious motivations (instinctual impulses), or even, in the defence, the undoing of the same, going even against the logic of current reality. This happens within an overall psychic economy aimed at the safeguarding (from time to time, and according to the different phases of psychoanalytic theorizing or the perspective in which we are placed) of the Ego with its efforts to maintain its integrity and an overall psychic equilibrium, within the framework of the principle of constance, the pleasure principle and the principle of reality, or the conflict of drives against drives of a different if not opposed sign. We know that the defence is at least for the most part unconscious and as such mostly acts, thus also addressing, among other things, the need to differentiate between observable symptomatic behaviors like neuroses—which can be categorized as defences involving the conscious participation of the subject who nevertheless ignores the true unconscious motivation, and which are thus perceived and employed by the subject—and those behaviors instead referable to unobservable but inferable defences.

It suffices for our purposes here to have declared that the defence does exist, and that it exemplifies, even in its specificity, a basis for the functioning of the psychic apparatus, thus showing the possible coexistence within it of contradictions and apparent deficiencies of meaning, and vice versa of an activity capable of synthesis to reach complex psychic goals that cannot be defined in a linear manner.

What is important now is to question how these three functionings—of the defence, of après-coup, and of retroactive annulmentmanifest themselves?  And are there any points of contact, do they share something?

One point seems relevant here: that there exists a condition that initiates mechanisms capable of promoting, starting from a discrete experience, the search for something aimed at finding a perceptual identity (such an identity can also concern negative experiences), or a defence from something whose memory trace can be re-proposed and re-activated, despite the will of the subject obviously, along a path that seems for certain aspects common to what is based on research, and to what is based on the refusal to achieve a perceptual identity. A path, that is, aiming at the search for, or the avoidance of, a perceptual identity between the current experiences and the originary experiences of first pleasure or first pain respectively—concepts that Freud tackled at the beginning of his reflections when drafting his Project for a Scientific Psychology. And, as we know (primarily thanks to the reconstruction of Freudian theory left to us by Jacques Lacan), it is a work wherein—in the relationship of primary importance with the significant adult (the mother, the lost object, the symbol of the Nebenmensch), and essentially thanks to language—das Ding (the Thing) is identified, that is, neuron a, the matricial mold of everything, with neuron b its predicate.

Après-coup and undoing, or retroactive annulment, seemingly two antipodal entities—the first hesitating over the fulfillment of something, an obstacle that, working backwards from the past or on the past, thus becomes decisive for the future event, the other instead turned towards a cancellation not only of the meaning, but of the very existence of a fact—reveal themselves surprisingly as two sides of the same coin, their connection so far never grasped, like the translation into psychic events and corresponding observable behaviors of a powerful activity that revolves around the attainment [1] or the cancellation of a perceptual identity. This identity, in fact, is essential not just because something—the disturbance—can be realized (and in a dynamic that obviously always includes the defence besides the drives and traumas) with all the inherent implications, but also because, without having to bring onto the scene the magic and subversion of common sense, something can be not only denied, but completely eliminated, by defusing what makes it an uncancelled psychic fact, and that in the psychic scenario it is possible to cancel only in the analytic process through the resolution of its link with the unconscious motivation, both in the treatment of hysterical  and obsessive disorders.

But the perhaps aporetic conceptual core of the question lies in the fact that, at least as far as its objective is concerned, in my opinion it is exactly the same thing, namely an avant-coup, that is the perceptual identity, the underlying mechanism implied in both the après-coup and the undoing, or retroactive cancellation. And it seems legitimate to consider that the perceptual identity that, with opposing purposes (discovery or avoidance), is in question, is not necessarily attributable simply to a proto-experience, but is limitlessly multiplied to other experiences during the course of existence. As we know, within the signifiers-signified chain, any event can be traumatic and thus constitute an avant-coup of après-coup and vice versa. In the case of undoing, the avant-coup would reside in the ambivalent conflict underlying the obsessional neurosis, and in the mnestic trace, in its correlated mnestic image that was removed, and that is in this discussion the object of the perceptual identity that the undoing, the retroactive cancellation, rejects.

Any event, be it spontaneous or prompted by psychoanalytic treatment, is in any case capable of initiating a modification of the entire system, without any single predefined direction of the arrow of time, and without the need of finding any predefined order to make sense of events, and if anything, with the task of knowing how to recognize a valid one every time.

In this sense, both Freud’s expression “diphasic” applied to obsessive symptomatology (and in my opinion also applicable to hysteria), as well as the singular referring to the psychic event whether avant-coup or après-coup, should both be reconsidered: the disorder is n-phasic and the avant-coup or après-coup are words which, like adjectives or adverbs, indicate complex, plural events that can actually include a multiplicity of factors and are, in any case, in psychoanalytic terms, involved in a multiple function, and overdetermined.



What can help us in our examination of the psychic function of the après-coup is the fact that in a certain sense we can consider the whole of life as the après-coup of a single and unique avant-coup, which is represented by the lack of a something that in reality we have never had and can never have, an originary delusion not preceded by a phase of Edenic plenitude. This avant-coup, in other words, represents the relationship of desire with the objet (petit) a, (or object-a) namely with the ‘thing’ (das Ding).  Life understood in this way as its après-coup is characterized by the elusiveness and the unheimlich (uncanny) enigmaticness of the object-a, prototype of whatever escapes the possibility of comprehension—that which is unattainable, supremely powerful, attractive, frustrating, and traumatic at the same time. An ambiguous object, the object-a causes distorted vision, that is to say it produces nostalgia without ever having been truly available, without ever having truly existed for the child who confronts the human universe through the language that shapes him/her and marks him/her with the signifier.

This consideration introduces the concept of a trace and of a mnemic image that acts throughout life and delineates a perimeter, a field of an all-absorbing, ubiquitous, and omnipresent force within the temporal dimension, able to cause time itself to breach its moorings. What was the originary experience at a certain point is transformed into an absolute experience, which functions without a temporal or definite historical-existential position, and corresponds to that perception, of which one seeks the identical repetition. It reveals itself rather as a moveable source and a focal point of a centripetal force with respect to itself as a centre. Its action potentially highlights infinite avant-coup events disseminated within the time of an individual biography and integrated within the timeless dimension of the psyche, to which the process reattaches itself in the après-coup. This search and pursuit tension, because it is an unsettling illusion, is born without the originary object, and is destined to remain so. It gradually finds ever-interchangeable objects that are never fully satisfying, within the framework of a permanent sense of lacking that we perceive throughout life.

If this is the underlying tendency which colours the mood and the deep motivations of all psychic events, one ends up nevertheless considering as well, beyond this tendency, the splintered series of events that, in its wake, constellate clinical practice, producing specific complex constructs that we define as symptoms and are characterized by single moments of existence and of unconscious psychic life. These are intensified moments within history and subjective perception, ones that assume particular relevance in relation to a particular agenda of the unconscious (in other words of the signifier/signified chain) which we infer through its visible phenomenal reflections.



The general character of this lack, towards which the life of the subject sets out and advances, accounts for the possibility of explaining in a unitary way the psychic actions and their effects within behaviour, ones which would otherwise appear contradictory or inexplicable, by means of the concept of defence, and the hierarchically superior one of the object’s search, characterized by the pursuit of perceptual identity. In the examples previously given, defences, as for example the defence of retroactive annulment or undoing, are grafted onto the après-coup as the concretization of the general tendency to a return to the originary past, which after becomes absolutized in an acephalous and outside-of-time reference experience. I have chosen this defence as an example because it immediately conveys another way to signify the same temporal dimension and therefore is in line with the discourse around the après coup. But both these psychic processes, the après-coup and the retroactive annulment, reveal themselves after further analysis to be only temporal in appearance, since in reality they do not abate over time. They are classified in relationship to something powerfully appealing, residing behind the symptom. They drive it forward and are once again the stimulus towards perceptual identity, like a key for the resolution of a chain of unconscious events. I believe that the persuasive force of this hypothesis based on the search for perceptual identity may perhaps lie in the fact that it identifies a dynamic unitary explanation, reflected in a generalized tension towards an ultimate psychic goal, which could well be the aim of different motivations and dynamics, articulated together with others and disguised as well in everyday life. One example of these could be represented by negation, which responds to the infantile need to negate the absence of a penis in the female, in order to protect oneself from castration anxiety. The result, as is commonly known, is achieved through a double gratification: the confirmation of a truth without relinquishing repression; the preservation of a protection against castration anxiety and therefore the restoration of a condition of pretraumatic originary relief (in other words preceding the trauma of the recognition of the anatomical differences between the sexes).

But the same origin of this lack, the absent identity and the distance, with respect to the object, which is the cause of desire, and which is the object of infinite nostalgia without there ever having been anything but detachment, difference, and absence, shows us the paradoxical illusory nature, outside of hallucinatory experience, of the possibility of truly finding a perceptual identity. The object—never lost and never found—cannot be recovered. In the reading of Lacan, the unio mystica, the sense of an oceanic union of the primary narcissism of which Freud speaks, suddenly evaporates. There is no apeiron.

We are therefore in a position to attest that the psychic mechanism based on the pursuit of perceptual identity is cut off from real availability, from material presence, and from the real achievement of satisfaction from the object itself, from any object. The mechanism in question is thus totally autonomous and abstracted from any concrete circumstance, even though it applies in a plastic manner to a whole series of events of life and of the unconscious. It would seem that this mechanism shares various attributes with desire, despite its diversity.

I think that this digression gives us an opportunity to see the après-coup no longer only as an isolated moment of psychoanalytic understanding to apply in specific clinical situations, but as the agent of a rereading of theory and of the theory of psychoanalytic technique, thus involving other aspects and processes, and enlarging the fissure opened up by Lacan and evolving out of Freud’s intuition.


Translated from the Italian by Joyce Myerson and Claudia Vaughn


[1] certainly involuntary and triggered in its pathogenicity by the greater maturity and psychic awareness of the past event in the case of Emma’s neurosis.


Pietro Pascarelli [ppiercloud@icloud.com],  psychiatrist, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, lives in Reggio Emilia (Italy).  His interests and publishing activities are expanded to literature (and to poetry, as a special form of knowledge) and to interdisciplinary psychoanalytic, anthropological, literary, and philosophical essays. He has also collaborated / published on Psicoterapia e Scienze UmaneLe parole e le coseDoppiozero, il Manifesto. He has translated into Italian for Edizioni Grenelle collections of poems by Hart Crane, and fiction texts and novels by Henry James, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton and others. He is one of the founders of the Sproni series of essays by Edizioni Grenelle.

Publication Date:

December 2, 2018

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis