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The Unconscious is Structured Like a City: Freud, Lacan, and the Project of the Human Sciences

Peter Caws
The George Washington University

In 1966 I had the pleasure, if it could be called that, of being in the audience when Jacques Lacan presented his paper, "Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever," to the Johns Hopkins conference that effectively introduced structuralism, in flesh and blood, to the American academic world. 1966 was the annus mirabilis of structuralism and many of the big guns from France were at the conference – René Girard, Georges Poulet, Lucien Goldmann, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Vernant. What made listening to Lacan a mixed pleasure was the fact that, while all these other speakers sensibly spoke in elegant French, Lacan insisted on speaking in terrible English. The reason he gave for this, typically enough, was so that the non-French-speaking representative of the Ford Foundation, which had funded the conference, could understand him.

The result was that it was very difficult for anyone to understand him—not that he would have minded that, since not being understood was one of the goals of his method: "if you think you have understood me, you are certainly mistaken." But there was one lucid moment, an anecdotal aside that came across with simple clarity. Lacan was staying in a Baltimore hotel, presumably on a high floor, and in his paper he said:

When I prepared this little talk for you, it was early in the morning. I could see Baltimore through the window, and it was a very interesting moment because it was not quite daylight and a neon sign indicated to me every minute the change of time, and naturally there was heavy traffic, and I remarked to myself that exactly all that I could see, except for some trees in the distance, was the result of thoughts, actively thinking thoughts, where the function played by the subjects was not completely obvious. In any case the so-called Dasein, as the definition of the subject, was there in this rather intermittent or fading spectator. The best image to sum up the unconscious is Baltimore in the early morning (Macksie and Donato 1972:189). Now it happens that I am quite often in Baltimore, or rather under it, in the early morning, on a train that worms in through a tunnel to Penn Station and then worms out through more tunnels on its way south to Washington. I doubt whether Lacan could have seen my train from his hotel window; all that he could see was the result of thoughts, but there was also a lot that he could not see. Cities are like that—as is the unconscious. There are lower depths where primary process reigns and where the real appears in its raw state, without benefit of the imaginary or the symbolic. The idea of following up a structural likeness between the unconscious and the city came on me on just such a morning, in the train below the streets and hotels of Baltimore. It proved to be a rich and challenging idea, leading into metaphorical and metonymic complexities some of which I hope to share with you in what follows.

The first association to be followed up in pursuing this theme was, obviously enough, to Freud. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud works out a now celebrated metaphor in which the history of Rome stands for the history of an individual psychic life. The problem he is addressing, as you will remember, is that of the "oceanic feeling" that a friend of his claimed to experience as religious. Freud thinks this must be a memory from the earliest stages of the life of the subject, which has meanwhile gone on to build up and inhabit new psychic structures, rather as cities build new buildings in place of the old. Here is what he says:

. . . in mental life nothing which has been once formed can perish . . . everything is somehow preserved and . . . in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light. Let us try to grasp what this assumption involves by taking an analogy from another field. We will choose as an example the history of the Eternal City . . .

. . . Let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beautiful statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand—without the palazzo having to be removed—the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view of the other . . .

Perhaps we are going too far in this. Perhaps we ought to content ourselves with asserting that what is past in mental life may be preserved and is not necessarily destroyed. It is always possible that even in the mind some of what is old is effaced or absorbed—whether in the normal course of things or as an exception—to such an extent that it cannot be restored or revivified by any means; or that preservation in general is dependent on certain favorable conditions. It is possible, but we know nothing about it. We can only hold fast to the fact that it is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life. Thus we are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the ‘oceanic’ feeling exists in many people, and we are inclined to trace it back to an early phase of ego-feeling (Freud 16-20).

In this passage from Freud it is not the unconscious as such that is compared to a city—rather the city is an image for the whole of mental life. But we are not so far from Lacan, for two reasons: first because it is not always early morning in Baltimore, the city "comes to life," as we say, as the day progresses, rises into consciousness, so that the activities of the early morning, while they do not cease, are lost or forgotten in the general bustle; second because it is quite clear from Freud’s account that much of the history of the Rome of his imagination, while still magically present, is similarly lost or forgotten—preserved, but brought to light again only when "regression goes back far enough." For this losing or forgetting we might use the term "repression."

So there is a lot in cities that we don’t see, or can’t see, or don’t want to see. But it is there just the same, like my train in the tunnel. All of it, not just the early morning activity, is in Lacan’s words "the result of thoughts, actively thinking thoughts," even if not always consciously thinking thoughts. That puts cities squarely in the realm of the human sciences, since as I define them the objects of the human sciences are all and only those things and events among whose causal antecedents are to be found episodes of human intention. Things and events with no such episodes among their antecedents are objects of the natural sciences. Another way of putting this is to say that the objects of the natural sciences would be what and as they are whether or not human beings had ever taken an interest in them, while the objects of the human sciences are constituted as they are precisely because of the interests human beings take and have taken in them. Without human intervention the sites of our cities would still be swamps and forests. This view does not require the objects of the human sciences to be the way any human ever meant them to be; virtually all intentional acts have unintended consequences and many, perhaps most, of the objects of the human sciences fall under that description. The English language is not the result of any plan but it is an object par excellence of the human sciences (though the linguistic competence that allows anyone to speak it may well be an object of the natural sciences).

Since I’ve appealed to Lacan this is perhaps the place to clear up, parenthetically, a confusion that threatens our common understanding of the human sciences, which we are supposed to be re-thinking today. This is in fact a deep and important issue and it has an anecdotal connection with the opening of this paper, the temptation to share which I shall not resist. At the very meeting where I heard Lacan’s invocation of Baltimore as an image for the unconscious I asked him in private for clarification of a passage in something he had written, that had appeared in the first issue of a journal called Cahiers pour l’analyse. He did not answer my question but like the devious analyst he was countered it with another. The first issue of the journal had been mimeographed on large sheets and then re-published by photo-offset on smaller ones, so two versions of that issue were in circulation, in large format and small format, the former being potential collectors’ items, the latter mere reproductions. Lacan wanted to know if I actually had a copy in the original large format; when I told him that I did he said "Gardez-le! gardez-le!" Meanwhile he stroked my arm, sensuously and for what seemed to me an unnecessarily long time.

The details of my question are not relevant here but the passage it was about needs to be dealt with, for in it Lacan had expressed harsh disapproval of the human sciences. "There is no science of man, because the man of science does not exist, but only its subject," he wrote. "Everyone knows my long-standing aversion to the designation of the human sciences, which seems to me a call to slavery itself." Here Lacan is assuming, as so many people do, that the objects of the human sciences are human beings; if that were the case, and if the objective of science were—as in the natural sciences it usually is—not only the understanding but also the mastery of its objects, then it would look as if some people might study the human sciences in order to gain mastery over other people, and the risk of slavery would be real. This is nearer the mark than one might think: for example government research into apartheid in the old Republic of South Africa was carried out under the heading of human sciences. If we take my proposed definition, though, where would the study of human beings fall? Partly to be sure in the natural sciences—there are lots of things about us, even some social and psychological ones, that are as they are in spite of ourselves and would be so if we had never paid attention to them. It is important to us, as we seek to get ourselves under control, as it were, to know these natural-scientific facts about ourselves. Partly, again, in the human sciences, because culturally speaking we have to a certain extent made ourselves, and one another, what we are. But the scope of the human sciences is far, far wider than human beings taken as objects; it includes everything that human beings, as subjects, make and create as their objects, like artifacts, tools, buildings, works of art, etc., that would not exist if human beings had not made them. We might summarize this part of the argument by saying the natural sciences have natural objects and the human sciences human objects—but the human beings who engage in and pursue these sciences are not objects—they are precisely the subjects of the discourses and practices that constitute the sciences.

Are cities physical and perceptual objects or are they intentional objects? Obviously both; they have a physical presence, we can explore them, they are built and may decay, but they also have names and histories and cultures that are not straightforwardly experienced but need to be understood and interpreted. Here is another useful distinction for the human sciences. Some of their objects, once made, endure, becoming elements of what Sartre used to call the "practico-inert"—things we find lying about in the world, as it were, just as if they belonged to nature, even though they are in fact the products of human praxis. Here the line between nature and culture may become quite hard to draw. I grew up, for example, thinking that railways were a part of the landscape, and that steam locomotives were "natural" while diesel ones were unnatural—yet when the railways were built they were considered assaults on nature quite as brutal as the superhighways, malls, and parking lots environmentalists deplore today. But some objects of the human sciences need to be recreated in every episode of their existence: Madam Bovary does not endure but is newly evoked on each reading of Flaubert. There is a sense in which she too may endure, provisionally, as what I sometimes call a non-natural or non-perceptual object of common attention—but only as long as the common attention keeps her aloft, as it were; as soon as we turn to a new object of interest, Harry Potter for example, Madam Bovary begins to wilt and languish. Every academic repeatedly has the experience of drawing attention to some landmark of literature or philosophy only to find that, for his or her hearers, it just isn’t there.

So there are physical and perceptual cities, and intentional ones. The word from which we get the term "city," the Latin civitas (roughly equivalent to the Greek polis), is best understood in the latter sense. Latin has two words for the city, urbs from which we get "urban" and civitas from which we get "civilized." Urbs is the place (originally a walled placed), civitas the community. The connection between city and civilization is direct: we might define civilization as what it takes to live in the city. Civilization is obviously related to, but seems to me deeper than, urbanity—it stands for the citizen as opposed to the "man (or woman) about town," for someone who has a commitment to the city rather than merely taking advantage of it. To be civilized is to be willing to share and to participate in the resources and the defense of the city; anyone who will not participate or who has no need to share cannot be a citizen but must, as Aristotle puts it, be either a beast or a god. When we speak of "civilized countries" we mean that the amenities and the order of the cities, the availability of goods and the protective services and healthcare and communications that were originally their raison d’être, now extend out into the countryside and to the frontiers—everywhere has its zip code and its area code, its police force and its power supply. How well all this takes, how deeply civilization penetrates, is of course a pressing question—at night, far from the city, the protections of civilization sometimes seem fragile.

But of course even in the heart of the city civilization is not guaranteed. I think of London, where I grew up, and of how relatively new it is after all—how recent in terms of evolutionary time is the conquest of the primitive. At the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the interlocutors are on a ship in the Thames estuary and Marlowe meditates on how thin the veneer of civilization is even there: "it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday" (Conrad 9). A brilliant image—but darkness is still here today if we look for it. Civilization has its discontents, and we know what they are: it is purchased at the expense of repression. In Conrad’s Victorian London there were dark streets, and in them on the one hand walked Mr. Gladstone, who used to seek out prostitutes so that he could take them home and speak to them earnestly about their condition, and on the other stalked Jack the Ripper. People are always trying to improve the work of repression and they are always failing. Our own Supreme Court has recently struck another blow for decency in its decision to uphold a ban on nude dancing in the case of City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., but this will not reform the desires of some of the inhabitants of Erie, PA. Is it better to acknowledge the existence of primitive drives and bring their satisfaction into the open, for example by establishing a red light district, as in Amsterdam, where restless streetwalkers become comfortable window-sitters? I do not have an answer to this delicate question, but it is clear that here is a rich field for neurosis. (It is also a rich field for gender studies, given the usual assumption of an asymmetry of desire between the sexes, with its associated dangers of institutionalized domination and exploitation, but this too I must leave aside).

Back then to the city as an image of the unconscious, or rather the city in the early morning as the image of the unconscious and the city in broad daylight as an image of conscious mind in action. More generally, we might extend the inquiry to the idea of mind as place, as St. Augustine, who celebrated the City of God, does in his Confessions. His evocation of memory as "a great field or a spacious palace" in which all he has experienced is stored up and accessible is one of the great passages in the history of the philosophy of mind. "All this goes on inside me, in the vast cloisters of my memory. In it are the sky, the earth, and the sea, ready at my summons, together with everything that I have ever perceived in them by my senses, except the things which I have forgotten. In it I meet myself as well" (Augustine 215). As Augustine describes it the mind becomes not only a great field but also a great storehouse, from which he can retrieve anything at all and deploy it, as it were, on the field. I find this image compelling and am tempted to embellish it. Here are all these storage spaces, caves perhaps, or modules like the ones people rent on the outskirts of cities, into which he can go. Some of them are open but some need keys or codes (think of "open sesame"), some have been walled up, some of the keys have been lost (remember his qualifier "except the things which I have forgotten"). Now think of the city again—what is it, seen from a distance, but a great jumble of boxes, some large and ornate, some small and humble, full of things? And indeed what is inside them? Unimaginable things, monstrous things, wonderful things?

For the last several years I’ve been giving a course on Philosophy and Film, in which I show twelve feature films, representative, you might say, of human experience, and try to draw from them material for philosophical discussion. This turns out to be pretty easy, which is no doubt one reason why I enjoy teaching the course. I have always begun with Casablanca, partly because it is one of the absolutely great films of all time and one of my personal favorites, but partly because it poses a characteristic problem on which argument can throw unexpected light. As we watch the film we are prepared, by the exercise of something like Coleridge’s "willing suspension of disbelief," to find ourselves in Morocco—here are the streets of the souk, there is the minaret, here is Sidney Greenstreet wearing a fez. And yet we know that it was all shot on a back lot at Warner Brothers. So I get the students to admit that facades and props can give a convincing impression of a city—but Washington, where they live and study, is surely a real city? And yet—and this is the point of challenge—might not Washington too, as far as they are concerned, be mostly facades and props? How many of its thousands of buildings have they actually ever been inside? How many rooms in their dormitories and apartment houses? On reflection it seems fair to say that something like 99% of the interior life even of any "real" city is forever hidden from most of its inhabitants.

It is typical of human inhabitants, as of human heads, to be private; for the most part we don’t know what goes on inside them, unless their proprietors tell us or ask us in. One more anecdote here: I used to spend a lot of time in a hilly corner of the Vaucluse in the south of France, and near my house there was a bluff on which one could stand and take in a panorama of fields and woods stretching north towards the Mont Ventoux. I liked to point out to visitors a small stucco villa sitting in the middle of a vineyard in the distance, the sort of unimaginative square construction favored by the local peasants, and to surprise them by telling them that in fact it housed one of the best libraries of seventeenth-century French and English philosophy that I had ever seen. It belonged to a scholar, a researcher at the CNRS and the great French specialist on Hobbes, who had chosen to settle in the country—his wife was a local—and do his work there, going up to Paris no more than was necessary. Not a city house, but an outpost of civilization.

So for most of the time the contents of most of Augustine’s storage spaces, the interiors of most city houses and apartments, are hidden from us, as are most of the things stored in our own minds. We only bring, we can only bring, a few things out at a time for examination, reflection, argument, or enjoyment. Some of this hidden material is really hidden, in the unconscious; some is more or less ready to emerge into consciousness, as in what Freud called the preconscious. What of the rest, when we are not attending to it? For this we need perhaps another term, something like "ex-conscious," out of consciousness. There are many things I might remember, would remember if suitably prompted, but will in fact never remember. So I might as well never have experienced them; they are "out of consciousness" just as thoroughly as everything that was never in consciousness. They join the vast "infinite of my inattention," to borrow Gaston Bachelard’s inspired definition of the universe. Not only will most of the city belong to this category (I might have been there but as a matter of fact I haven’t), but most of everything will. What at the end of my life will have ever come into the light of my consciousness will be an infinitesimal fragment of what’s out there. Consciousness, like Marlowe’s civilization, is a flicker. But it is a flicker that organizes what it alights on, and over time builds: something like a city.

The city as what I have called a "signiferous system"—in which significance or intelligibility is borne or carried in two modes, as laid down and communicated—provides a striking model for the human sciences themselves. For the human sciences are the repository of the theoretical constructions that human beings have devised for the understanding of those objects of their interest, whether perceptual or intentional, that meet the criterion I suggested earlier in this paper. They are interested in natural objects too, and they have their place in relation to the city, as we shall see. Pushing this model, however, leads to some interesting reflections. The city as it has grown historically is a various, miscellaneous sort of place—a place of commodity, of order, of justice, of repose, of worship, of entertainment, of instruction, not to mention the underside we have already discussed. Although there are some internal regionalizations in the city—residential, commercial, etc.—for the most part these functions interpenetrate. The city, we might say, is inter- and multidisciplinary. Of course we don’t have to accept the model, but if we open ourselves to its suggestions it does seem that segregating human interests in disciplinary terms involves a degree of artificiality. The human sciences draw at once on a range of data and methods that in the terms of any of the single disciplines of the humanities or social sciences would seem, well, undisciplined—but just in the way in which a day in the city might take us to the library, the bank, the museum, the market and so on. There is one exception to this rule of mixture, and it helps to reinforce the coherence of the human sciences as over against the natural sciences, as well as to throw light on the history of both. Science and industry, laboratories and factories, tend to cluster on the outskirts, and not to play a part in the daily life of the city—they operate on a different scale. This was not always so, indeed the early industrial cities were built around them. The push away from the center accompanied the rapid development of research and technology, "the rise of modern science" as we sometimes say. But a sufficiently generous conception of the city of the intellect will include them too.

"All that can be found anywhere can be found in Paris," says Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, in a chapter entitled "Ecce Paris, Ecce Homo." Walter Benjamin uses this as an epigraph to his chapter on the flâneur in his extraordinary evocation of the city, The Arcades Project (Benjamin 416). It is what I want to claim, mutatis mutandis, for the city of the human sciences.

The arcades are a special case, glass-covered passages that have their own magic, and Benjamin hangs 900 pages of citation and anecdote on them, a city’s worth of exploration and reflection, almost as heterogenous as Paris itself. He is writing out his encounters with the city, in accordance with a remark that has been attributed to him and that echoes Marlowe on civilization: "knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows." I can’t resist citing here also another exercise in the intelligibility of the city, Paris again, as seen by Roland Barthes in his brilliant short essay on the Eiffel Tower. Besides being a phallic center that dominates—so insistently that Barthes begins his text with an anecdote about Maupassant, who used to each lunch in the tower restaurant, even though he didn’t care that much for the food, because it was the only place in Paris from which he couldn’t see it—the Eiffel Tower also provides a vantage-point for an overview of the city. In so doing it "materializes," says Barthes, an earlier "fantasy of a panoramic vision" found in "the chapter of Notre-Dame de Paris devoted to a bird’s-eye view of Paris, and [in] Michelet’s Tableu chronologigue." And Barthes continues:

Now, what is admirable in these two great inclusive visions, one of Paris, the other of France, is that Hugo and Michelet clearly understood that to the marvelous mitigation of altitude the panoramic vision added an incomparable power of intellection: the bird’s-eye view, which each visitor to the Tower can assume in an instant for his own, gives us the world to read and not only to perceive . . . Paris and France become under Hugo’s pen and Michelet’s (and under the glance of the Tower) intelligible objects, yet without—and this is what is new—losing anything of their materiality; a new category appears, that of concrete abstraction; this, moreover, is the meaning we can give today to the word structure: a corpus of intelligent forms (Barthes 9). In all this I have rather left the unconscious behind, but it is still there, under the roofs and pavements of the city. Back then to Lacan in his hotel room, with his pigeon’s-eye view of Baltimore in the early morning. I have left for last the other obvious Lacanian doctrine: that the unconscious is structured like a language, that it is the discourse of the Other. Two lines of development might follow from this, but I can only sketch them here. The first would complete the syllogism—the unconscious is like the city, the unconscious is like a language, therefore the city is like a language. The second would look in the city for the discourse of the Other, finding in it our own discourse. Remember Augustine, "in it I meet myself as well," and then consider Lacan’s "formula for communication": "Human language constitutes a communication in which the emitter receives from the receiver his own message in an inverted form" (Lacan 329). In the city we are always meeting ourselves; we meet others also, and there I might take off on yet another tangent for which I don’t have time, considering the way in which the city mediates between others in a civilized way, in contrast to the situation of the pre-civilized primitive (in the bush we have to choose between fight or flight, in the city we shake hands).

Possibilities crowd in here, but I must finish. What of the unconscious and language? Just as we saw that the city is a model for more than the unconscious, so we have to realize that the unconscious is not the only thing that is structured like a language. But the prime manifestations of the unconscious in language—dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue—surely have their counterparts in the city. In the arcades and passageways, in the cellars and tunnels, behind closed doors, are surrealistic vistas, grotesque twists of architecture, implausible juxtapositions of signs and inappropriate referents. In the tunnel under Baltimore, in the morning, my train goes backwards—to the child I was, whose attachment to the railway I evoked earlier, that would have seemed like a joke. I do not wish to overburden the image any more than I already have, and yet I’ve only begun to explore it. I invite you to pursue it in the spirit of Samuel Johnson, who echoes for his own city Hugo’s sentiments about Paris (or rather, I should say, anticipates them): "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." Restrict that to the life of the mind (there are some things life affords that you can’t find in the academy) and it might well be said of the human sciences.


Saint Augustine, tr. R. S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 1961).

Roland Barthes, tr. Richard Howard, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1997).

Walter Benjamin, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: W. W. Norton [a Norton Critical Edition], 3rd ed. 1988).

Sigmund Freud, tr. James Strachey, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

Jacques Lacan, tr. Alan Sheridan, Ecrits: A Selection (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977).

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