Metaphors for unconscious life: house, home, traffic

In their seminal contribution to relational psychoanalysis, Stolorow and Atwood (1992) offer a building metaphor with which to encapsulate their proposed "three realms of the unconscious" (dynamic unconscious, pre-reflective unconscious, and the unvalidated unconscious). They incorporate the Freudian, dynamic unconscious (associated with repressed, intolerable impulses, etc.) below ground within the dwelling, consistent with an original psychoanalytic image of mind as rooms within a house, locating the unconscious, as one might expect, in the basement. The pre-reflective unconscious, by contrast, has no physical place in Stolorow and Atwood's metaphor, but corresponds to something like the "architect's plan" from which the building has been erected. As organising principles, they inform the construction of the building and the relationship between the various parts of the building, so whilst not "seen", their manifestations are all around. In this regard, the Stolorow metaphor is already an improvement on Freud's, in so far as the house is not a once and for all structure, but involves an ongoing process (design, building, improvement, etc.). The unvalidated unconscious is represented by the "bricks, lumber, and other unused materials" left lying around, "materials which were never made part of the construction but that could have been" (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, p. 35). In psychological terms, the latter are not (to date) articulated or integrated into mainstream psychic life, but might be so at some future stage; they represent potential, possibility, future horizons.

Does the building or house metaphor need further modification to incorporate subsequent insights of relational psychoanalysis and group-analysis? Perhaps we can no longer see the house, representing mind, as a detached dwelling, separate from its neighbourhood (or, indeed, as inspired by a lone architect). In philosophical terms, to displace the detached house image corresponds to displacing the detached Cartesian subject, the independent, "punctual" self (Taylor, 1989). In similar vein, Foulkes (1974) argued that mind is not simply a quality "inside the person as an individual" (p. 277). Theorising a "multipersonal" dimension, Foulkes (1974) said that there cannot be a "conventional, sharp differentiation between inside and outside . What is inside is always also outside, and what is outside is inside as well" (p. 280). One solution therefore, is to see the dwelling as terrace house within a street, within a neighbourhood, and so on.[1]

Foulkes (1975b) proposed a traffic analogy of psychic and social life, consistent perhaps with the analogy of terrace house within a street, within a town, with a region, within a country, and so on. Emphasising notions of interconnection, network, and transpersonal process, Foulkes pointed out the "The traffic (i.e., 'transpersonal processes') is not an isolated fact and closed system"; there are other towns, many road users, and routes in and out.

Retaining, but expanding upon Stolorow's notion of the "architect's plan" (pre-reflective unconscious), we can posit an architectural team whose influence is exerted at different stages of construction; it takes a village (or neighbourhood) to raise a child. Development is crucial. So too, a house begins with one idea, until it is modified by one builder, downsized by another, extended after five years, and so on; behind every person is a group; human development is a continuing affair. This sense of movement and potential, Stolorow's unvalidated unconscious, is imaginatively analogised by his image of the unused materials lying around the site.

The group analytic concept of "social unconscious" traverses the repressed unconscious, the pre-reflective unconscious, and the invalidated unconscious, in so far as these can be separated at all; it constitutes the kind of transpersonal "traffic" through which individuality is formed, maintained, and transformed. At the same time, it does not deny the importance of singularity or creative reinterpretation of one's conditions of existence.


This chapter describes the emergent paradigm of "relational" thinking as it occurs within psychoanalysis and group analysis. This is contrasted with the classical framework of psychoanalysis, which exercised considerable influence on the formation of Freudian and post-Freudian orthodoxies, including much of early group analysis. Intersubjective perspectives offer exciting possibilities for reconceptualising our practice, as does the group analytic insistence on the spirit of "no-closure" (see Foulkes quotation at start of chapter) and the value of evaluated, reciprocal dialogue.

It is to related concepts of dialogue, historicity, and the role of personal/cultural horizons that we now turn.

  • [1] Bachelard's (1964) "topoanalysis" uses house as metaphor for the self, replete with its "nooks and corners of solitude". He notes the balance of security and precariousness that homes represent, with home conceived as cradle, the place where we start from, rather than fixed container.
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