On this point, Lacan is emphatic:  repression only bears on representations.  The consequence of this is that affects and drives cannot be repressed.  It belongs to the essence of an affect to affect us or to be felt.  It belongs the essence of drive to, well, drive us.  However, it would be a mistake to take affect as a reliable guide to truth or what the affect is about, for affect is itself a composite structure.  Let us take the Saussurean sign as a model of affect.  On the one hand, we have the signifier.  On the other hand, we have the signified.  In the domain of affect, we can say that the signifier is the felt component of the affect:  it is the way that anger, frustration, joy, excitement, hatred, and all the rest feel.

Stone Marten or Beech Marten (Martes foina), Normandy, France

However, every affect has a representational component as well, which would be the signified dimension of the affect.  While the felt component of the affect cannot be repressed– it will be experienced, as we say, one way or another –the representational component can be repressed.  A feeling and the representation that animates it can be divided or separated from one another, such that the feeling is felt without its “representational animator” being present to thought.  An in being split from its content or signified, from its representational cause, the affect can drift from its true psychic cause to other things.  The affect can displace the feeling from one representation to another.  We see this, above all, in the case of phobias.  In galeophobia, the person experiences intense panic and fear when encountering weasels, even if only in the form a picture of a weasel, or even when hearing the word “weasel”.  “Weasel” is a representational content that accompanies the felt or experienced component of panic and anxiety.

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Yet inevitably we find that the phobia is never about what it appears to be about.  Consciousness believes the panic to be about weasels.  Yet perhaps a psychoanalysis reveals that the phobia is really about something quite different, unrelated to weasels or only tangentially related to weasels.  Indeed, the intense panic the person experiences whenever they encounter weasels, pictures of weasels, or hear of weasels might actually be a sort of defense that protects the person from thinking about what the phobia is really about (the true, and repressed, representation that animates the felt dimension of the experience).  We can think of the repressed representation that animates the phobia as being like radioactive waste.  Just as we bury radioactive waste behind all sorts of walls and safeguards (one hopes!), the phobia buries some other representation that the person does not wish to think about (perhaps some deep trauma or forbidden wish).  The weasel representation is like reinforced, 15 foot thick, concrete liners containing the dangerous chemicals within.  In this regard, the phobia functions like a screen memory.  The trauma or forbidden thought (the repressed representation) has been displaced on to another representation, so as to ensure that one will not have to encounter the originary representation.  As Freud would put it, weasels are not the person’s problem, but their solution.  The person thinks weasels are their problem, but the problem lies elsewhere.

We don’t need to discuss something as dramatic as phobias to see this phenomenon of the splitting of affect at work.  Everyone has experienced this in one form or another.  Perhaps you are going through a particularly anxious and stressful time at work.  The representations that accompany all that is felt in the phenomenon of stress somehow don’t refer us back to thoughts of work.  Rather, perhaps we find our beloved cat irritating after a particular stressful day.  It was work or a disturbing email that occasioned our stress, yet somehow thought experiences the cat as occasioning the stress.  “Why won’t she sit still?”  “Why does she keep walking back and forth on me?”  “Damn it!  Stop knocking things off the table!”  “Quit licking that plastic!”  “Would you stop meowing already?”  Things that would not ordinarily bother us and that we might even find adorable under other circumstances, now bring feelings of intense fury.  It is, of course, not the cat that is causing the fury, but the circumstances with work or the email.  It’s as if the affect searches for something that it can discharge itself on.

The Peircian model of the sign as a triadic structure, perhaps, provides us with a better model for envisioning what is at work here.  Under Peirce’s model of the sign we have the “representamen” which is roughly analogous to what Saussure calls the “signifier”, and what, in our case, I have called the feeling of the affect.  We have the “interpretant”, which is roughly analogous to the signified.  And we have the “semiotic object”.  Let the semiotic object be the true representation that animates the affect, and the interpretant be the representation that it has been displaced on to.  In my example of the cat, the cat would be the interpretant of the fury that I experience, while the semiotic-object would be work (or the email) which is what truly animates my fury.  Work or my email has displaced itself on to my cat.  I experience my cat as cause, rather than the disturbing email or work.  Why?  Perhaps because there’s nothing I can do about the former, but I can do something about the latter (even if it wouldn’t really solve my problem).

If the split nature of affect and its capacity to drift is of such importance conceptually, then this is because it means we can’t take first-person reports of affect at face value.  The true representation that animates an affect can be in quite a different place than the person experiences it to be.  This would above all be the case in politics.  When people express rage against immigrants and minorities, we are right to wonder whether they are the true cause of their rage, or whether their rage has been displaced on to these groups.  After all, it is much easier to target a group than it is a broken or helpless life, or the anonymous forces of economy.

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