From the Skin Ego to the Psychic Envelope: An Introduction to the Work of Didier Anzieu

Marc Lafrance


In works like The Skin Ego, A Skin for Thought, and Psychic Envelopes, French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu presents an unprecedented account of the relationship between mind and body. In this unique approach to human subjectivity, Anzieu sees the body’s surface – its skin – as a crucial constituent of the mind’s structures and functions. As biographer Catherine Chabert (1996) points out, Anzieu’s work on skin and subjectivity has won him widespread recognition as one of France’s most important proponents of psychoanalytic theory and practice. Despite his importance, however, Anzieu is less well-known to Anglo-American cultural theorists than his now legendary predecessor Jacques Lacan. That is, unlike Lacan’s abstract, language-centered theories, Anzieu’s more concrete, body-centered theories are often unfamiliar to or overlooked by those outside the French-speaking world. 1 In what follows, then, I provide a brief introduction to Anzieu’s ‘psychoanalysis of skin’. I begin by contextualizing his work while explaining how it is in many respects a response to Lacan and what became known in late twentieth-century France as le lacanisme. After having situated Anzieu’s work in relation to Lacan’s, I present his notions of the skin ego and the psychic envelope while describing how they make his developmental model a non-dualist and, indeed, a non-deterministic one. By pointing to the range of ways in which Anzieu’s approach allows for a move beyond dualism and determinism, I hope to show that it has the potential to provide contemporary cultural theorists with new tools for thinking human subjectivity as ‘completely psychic, utterly somatic, essentially intersubjective and intercorporeal, constantly changing […] and fundamentally located in space and time’ (Lafrance, 2009, p. 19).

[A] Didier Anzieu and Contemporary Cultural Theory

Cultural theorists have been calling for new approaches to human subjectivity for some time. In her groundbreaking book Volatile Bodies, Elizabeth A. Grosz makes exactly this call and, in doing so, urges cultural theorists to formulate new frameworks for making sense of the self. Grosz writes:

[We] must avoid the impasse posed by dichotomous accounts of the person which divide the subject into the mutually exclusive categories of mind and body. Although within our intellectual heritage there is no language in which to describe such concepts, no terminology that does not succumb to versions of this polarisation, some kind of understanding of embodied subjectivity, of psychical corporeality, needs to be developed. We need an account which refuses reductionism [and] resists dualism. […] The narrow constraints our culture has put on the ways in which our materiality can be thought means that altogether new conceptions of corporeality […] need to be developed. (Grosz, 1994, pp. 21-2)

Grosz suggests that cultural theorists use the model of the moebius strip when attempting to develop ‘some kind of understanding of embodied subjectivity [or] psychical corporeality’. 2 A topological construct, the moebius strip can be described as a three-dimensional figure eight or, put differently, a flat ribbon twisted once and attached end-to-end to form a twisted surface. For Grosz, this construct is useful insofar as it illustrates how insides and outsides are both irreducible to and constitutive of one another. The model of the moebius strip can, therefore, be seen as a non-dualist and non-deterministic way of understanding the soma as completely psychic and the psyche as utterly somatic.

In her award-winning book Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling reiterates the relevance of Grosz’s model, arguing that in order to arrive at a satisfying account of embodied subjectivity, a ‘dual systems’ approach is necessary. For Fausto-Sterling, this approach requires that three principles be kept in view: first, nature and nurture are ‘indivisible’; second, ‘all organisms […] are active beings from fertilisation until death’; and third, ‘no single approach’ can provide us with the ‘truth’ of the human subject (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 235). Like Grosz, then, Fausto-Sterling argues for an approach that sees the terms of mind/body, self/other, and nature/culture as both produced by and productive of one another.

If Grosz and Fausto-Sterling emphasize the importance of frameworks that allow for ‘an understanding of selfhood as constituted equally through a substantive materiality and through an attention to affect, beliefs and values’, then Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey emphasize the range of ways in which these sorts of frameworks are now being forged across the field (Shildrick, 2008, p. 31). In their landmark collection Thinking Through the Skin, Ahmed and Stacey argue that many of those forging these frameworks are doing so – at least in part – to challenge the ‘disembodying’ accounts of subjectivity ‘brought centre-stage by the impact of dominant models of structuralism and poststructuralism, which placed language both literally and metonymically at the centre of theories of culture’ (Ahmed and Stacey, 2001, p. 4). The challenge to structuralist and poststructuralist paradigms has resulted in the arrival of two new figures on the Anglo-American scene: phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu. Indeed, according to Ahmed and Stacey, the work of these two figures opens up new ways of thinking about subjectivity as always already embodied and, in doing so, breaks down the binary oppositions that tend to pervade other accounts. Ultimately, the turn to Merleau-Ponty and Anzieu is, as Ahmed and Stacey put it, ‘symptomatic of a more general move towards a model of embodiment that facilitates an understanding of the processes through which bodies are lived and imagined in more visceral and substantial ways’ (p. 9).

To be sure, neither Merleau-Ponty nor Anzieu is – strictly speaking – new to the Anglo-American scene. In fact, both have been discussed and debated by cultural theorists since at least the early 1990s. And although Merleau-Ponty has, over the course of the last two decades, received more attention than Anzieu, current trends in cultural theory suggest that this might be starting to change (see, for instance, Cataldi, 1993; Matthews, 2002; Olkowski and Morley, 1999; Olkowski and Weiss, 2006; Weiss, 1999). Anzieu’s work has been given a prominent place in a number of recent monographs, including Claudia Benthien’s Skin: On the Cultural Border between Self and the World, Steven Connor’s The Book of Skin, Jay Prosser’s Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (1994), and, above all, Naomi Segal’s Consensuality: Didier Anzieu, Gender and the Sense of Touch (2009). Anzieu’s work has, moreover, been taken up by cultural theorists interested in a wide range of issues such as body image, community relations, fashion, pregnancy, and racial identity (Brain, 2002; Walkerdine, 2010; Pacteau, 1994; Tyler, 2001; Tate, 2005). Yet, despite the fact that Anzieu’s psychoanalysis of skin has been taken up in a number of important ways, no clear and comprehensive introduction to it currently exists. In what follows, then, I endeavour to provide precisely this sort of introduction.

[B] Didier Anzieu and Contemporary French Psychoanalysis

Didier Anzieu is an intriguing figure in contemporary French psychoanalysis. A high-profile critic of Jacques Lacan, Anzieu is remembered by many as ‘the first to confront the master’ (see Petot, 2010).3 The work of the master had, according to Anzieu, become an orthodoxy and – like all orthodoxies – it had become dogmatic. Determined to resist this dogmatism, Anzieu began publicly confronting Lacan in 1953 when, at an international conference, he challenged one of Lacan’s first papers on the role of language in the unconscious. At the end of Lacan’s paper, Anzieu condemned him for having presented language as ‘representative of the totality of the field of psychoanalysis, and of the totality of human praxis’ (Anzieu, 2000b, p. 173).4 Fifteen years later, Anzieu’s condemnation continued in an article entitled ‘Against Lacan’ and published in La Quinzaine littéraire. In the article, Anzieu argues that Lacan’s work is a ‘heresy founded on postulates more philosophical than psychoanalytic’ characterized by a ‘triple deviation of thought, speech and practice’ (Anzieu, 2000a, p. 181).5 Anzieu’s spirited critique of Lacan and his language-driven approach to psychoanalysis reached its peak in the late 1980s when Anzieu was interviewed by fellow psychoanalyst Gilbert Tarrab. Over the course of the interviews, Anzieu argues that he and Lacan differ in two key ways: first, in terms of their models of the unconscious; and second, in terms of their approaches to analytic technique. It is, therefore, to these differences that I now turn.6

According to Anzieu, Lacan’s linguistic model of the unconscious is problematic for a number of reasons. Based on the work of structuralists like Ferdinand de Saussure (1983) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963), this model encourages the analyst to focus on deciphering and dissecting the ‘key signifiers’ of the patient’s free-associations (see Anzieu and Tarrad, 1990, pp. 35-6). Once deciphered and dissected, these signifiers are then used by the analyst to make sense of the patient’s unconscious fantasies. In Anzieu’s view, however, this interpretative approach has little to do with helping the patient resolve the problems associated with his or her mode of mental functioning. Instead, it breeds dependence in the patient and, in doing so, undermines the usefulness of his or her analysis. For Anzieu, then, Lacan’s approach reorients the psychoanalytic project from one based on therapeutic self-exploration to one based on ostentatious and, at times, pernicious linguistic play. As Anzieu puts it:

All too often this consists on the psychoanalyst’s side – but should he still be called a psychoanalyst? – in a pure exercise of linguistic virtuosity. At best he replaces the patient’s word play with his own. At worst, by means of a sort of intellectual terrorism, he arbitrarily covers over the patient’s affective problems with distorting, preconceived knowledge. (Anzieu and Tarrad, 1990, pp. 35-6)

If Anzieu complains about the nature of Lacan’s interpretations, he also complains about their relative infrequency. In his interview with Tarrab, Anzieu argues that Lacan’s technique de silence – or ‘systematic silence’ – is premised on the idea that the analyst must refuse to act as a narcissistic mirror for the patient (pp. 33-60). By refusing to act in this way, the analyst frustrates the patient to the point where he or she regresses and reveals a range of unconscious fantasies. Face to face with these fantasies, the patient is then in a position to be able to make sense of the repressed desires they represent. Yet, according to Anzieu, Lacan’s systematic silence is an aggressive analytic tactic that has the potential to damage the patient; indeed, not only is Lacan’s refusal to interpret a violation of one of the most basic rules of analytic technique as set out by the International Psychoanalytic Association, but it is also, in some situations, what prompts the patient to relive painful primitive traumas. Anzieu explains: ‘We consider that the analyst’s essential tool is interpretation, which must be communicated at the appropriate moment, neither too early nor too late, and with restraint’ (p. 34). Anything else, according to Anzieu, ‘can open the way not to the necessary journey through depression, but to a useless and dangerous [collapse]’ (p. 37).

If, as I mentioned earlier, Anzieu and Lacan differ on analytic technique, then they also differ on how they understand the unconscious. As Anzieu points out: ‘I myself (and this is both what makes me opposed to Lacan and makes me think that I am profoundly Freudian while at the same time being only moderately orthodox with respect to [prevailing] psychoanalytic theories) – I myself would oppose the formula ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ with a formulation that is implicit in Freud ‘the unconscious is the body’’ (p. 43). For Anzieu, Lacan’s model of the unconscious has led to a disproportionate emphasis on language in contemporary psychoanalysis.7 In fact, this emphasis has become so disproportionate that it can, according to Anzieu, be viewed as a kind of determinism. Interestingly, French psychoanalyst Didier Houzel argues that contemporary psychoanalysis has been characterized by not one but two kinds of determinism: a linguistic determinism on the one hand, and a biological determinism on the other. Houzel writes:

We can say, in fact, that psychoanalytic research in our country was more or less divided between, on the one hand, a rigid structuralism that had no place for any process of transformation, or any sort of psychic dynamic, which evacuated all ideas of psychogenesis in order to privilege a pre-established and transcendental structure, and on the other hand a reductionist view that tied psychic development to its biological foundations, that misrecognized the specifically psychic level of organization characteristic of the human being. (Houzel, 2000, p. 170)8

Houzel credits Anzieu’s approach to the body and, more specifically, the skin with having freed French psychoanalysis from these two determinisms. ‘The metaphor of the skin ego or the psychic envelope’, explains Houzel, ‘has […] given the psyche back its corporeal weight, which structuralism had denied it, without at the same time reducing it to the laws of biology’ (p. 170). Indeed if, as Houzel suggests, Anzieu’s work on the skin ego and the psychic envelope has given contemporary French psychoanalysts new tools for thinking beyond dualism and determinism, then I suggest that it can give contemporary cultural theorists the same.

[C] Didier Anzieu and the Psychoanalysis of Skin

‘Since the Renaissance’, remarks Didier Anzieu, ‘Western thought has been obsessed with a particular epistemological conception, whereby the acquisition of knowledge is seen as a process of breaking through an outer shell to reach an inner core’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 9). In this remark, he is pointing to a longstanding tradition in Western knowledge production: that of privileging inside over outside and depth over surface. This tradition is not, however, to be found in Anzieu’s approach to the subject. In fact, for Anzieu, somatic exteriority has all the explanatory power of psychic interiority and should, therefore, be taken seriously. Over the course of my introduction to his notions of the skin ego and the psychic envelope, I discuss how and why Anzieu takes somatic exteriority as seriously as he does.

The Psychogenesis of the Skin Ego

In the first six months of life, the infant finds itself in a state of what Freud calls Hilflosigkeit or ‘helplessness’ (Freud, 2001c, pp. 283-397). In this state, the infant does not yet have a fully-fledged ego; instead, it has what is known as a ‘body ego’. According to Anzieu, the body ego provides the infant with a range of tools for moving beyond its dependence on the nurturing environment. Both elementary and essential, these tools consist of ‘a disposition to integrate diverse sensory data [as well as] a tendency to move outwards towards objects and to develop strategies towards them’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 58). In this way, the body ego provides the infant with the building blocks of a fully-fledged ego.

Anzieu argues that the body ego is always already a skin ego. To understand why he makes this argument, we must turn our attention to what Freud calls the ‘primary processes’, for it is in and through these processes that the body ego, or indeed the skin ego, functions. According to Freud, the primary processes refer to the most primitive way of being in the world – one in which the laws of space and time are unfamiliar and the distinctions of inside/outside, subject/object and self/other are for the most part unknown (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1988a, pp. 339-41). More importantly, however, the primary processes refer to a mode of mental functioning that comes before thought; indeed, for thought to take place, the ego must be reality-adapted. Without a reality-adapted ego and, by extension, the capacity for thought, the infant makes sense of the world around it in the only way it can: through its body.

Anzieu maintains that many of the functions of the body in the pre-ego phase are played out on and through the skin. Taking the functions of containment, protection, and inscription as his three prime examples, he shows that the skin operates as a surrogate ego for the infant, since it is the skin that performs the vital tasks the fully-fledged ego will eventually perform. As one of Anzieu’s colleague’s, British psychoanalyst Esther Bick, puts it: ‘In its most primitive form, the parts of the personality are felt to have no binding force amongst themselves and must therefore be held together in a way that is experienced by them passively, by the skin functioning as a boundary’ (Bick, 1968, p. 484). The infant’s skin can, therefore, be seen as a sort of bodily blueprint for how the fully-fledged ego will construct itself.

According to Anzieu, the skin ego is ‘a mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the early phases of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing psychical contents, on the basis of its experience of the surface of the body’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 61). Put differently, Anzieu defines the skin ego as a mental representation of the experience of the body’s surface used by the infant’s emerging ego in order to construct itself as a container capable of containing psychic contents. The skin ego is not, however, straightforwardly given to the infant; it must be achieved. As one of Anzieu’s key influences, British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, points out: ‘The ego is based on a body ego, but it is only when all goes well that the person of the baby starts to be linked with the body and the body-functions, with the skin as the limiting membrane’ (Winnicott, 1976b, p. 59). To understand how ‘the person of the baby starts to be linked with the body and the body-functions, with the skin as the limiting membrane’, we must look more closely at the infant’s primitive experiences of the skin.

The newborn baby has but a rudimentary understanding of where its own body ends and the body of the other begins. That said, the skin is significant in the life of the newborn insofar as it is the site on and through which its first impressions of both itself and those around it are brought into being. What is more, because the baby functions according to the primary processes, it experiences its skin and the stimuli impinging on it through phantasy.9 As Anzieu explains, the baby’s phantasies relate not only to its own skin, but to the skin of its caregiver. That is, in these early stages of development, when the baby is for the most part unaware of its own bodily boundaries, it perceives the caregiver’s skin as its own; in other words, it experiences what Anzieu calls the phantasy of a ‘shared skin’ (Anzieu, 1989, pp. 41-6, 62-5). The baby, then, does not understand itself as a separate or singular being at this point in its life. Instead, it experiences its own skin as phantasmatically fused with that of its caregiver.

As the baby grows and becomes more mentally mature, it gradually develops a sense of its own bodily space – a sense it gains, first and foremost, from its tactile exchanges with its caregiver. These exchanges enable the infant to understand itself as a three-dimensional container with insides and outsides. With this understanding comes a sense of containment and, by extension, individuality. It is when the infant begins to make sense of its body in individual and, indeed, individuated terms that the phantasy of the shared skin gives way. Anzieu explains: ‘The next stage requires the suppression of this common skin and the recognition that each has his or her own skin, and his or her own ego, a recognition which does not come about without resistance and pain’ (1989, p. 63). The infant’s imagined acquisition of an individual skin is, therefore, accompanied by the imagined rending of a shared skin. For Anzieu, this imagined rending is experienced as a sort of phantasmatic flaying since the infant has, up until this point, experienced the caregiver’s skin as its own.

The rending of the shared skin is a key moment for the infant. It is this moment – when the infant realizes that it has its own skin and, by extension, its own insides and outsides – that marks the infant’s transition from the realm of the shared skin to the realm of the skin ego. More specifically, the acquisition of the skin ego marks the point at which the infant develops the capacity to imagine itself as a three-dimensional being bound and contained by the surface of its skin. In other words, the acquisition of the skin ego marks the point at which the infant is able to transpose its somatic experiences of the skin onto the psychic plane and figure them psychically. Anzieu explains:

The baby has a concrete representation of this envelope which is provided for it by something of which it has frequent sensory experience (a sensory experience intermingled with phantasies) – its skin. It is these cutaneous phantasies which clothe its nascent Ego with a figurative representation, admittedly imaginary, but which mobilizes […] what is most profound in us, our surface. (1989, p. 60)

In brief, the skin ego is a phantasmatic figuration which, given its primitive nature, can be seen as an inner pictogram of the body’s superficial sensations. Once the infant is capable of conjuring up this phantasmatic figuration or inner pictogram, the shared skin has been left behind and the skin ego has been achieved.10

To acquire a skin ego is to acquire both a physical and a mental skin of one’s own – an acquisition that does not take place, however, without the traumatic loss of the shared skin. In fact, if Freud links the most formative developmental traumas to a phantasmatic genital castration, then Anzieu links them to a phantasmatic rending of the shared skin (Freud, 2001a, pp. 136-57; Freud, 2001d, pp. 125-244). By linking the infant’s most formative traumas to primitive experiences of the body and, more specifically, the skin, Anzieu can be seen to displace the centrality of the oedipal complex. Not only does this displacement open up interesting and innovative ways of thinking about how primitive trauma might shape the human being’s relationship to his or her skin across the lifespan, but it also allows for a developmental model that avoids the sexed and gendered essentialisms associated with the Freudian and, by extension, Lacanian approaches (see Irigaray, 1985a & 1985b).11 For these two reasons alone, Anzieu’s psychogenetic model is relevant to contemporary cultural theorists.

Anzieu’s model is, of course, relevant to cultural theorists for a number of other reasons. First, it emphasizes the fact that the infant must learn how to make its skin its own. In this way, his approach provides us with a systematic framework for understanding how human beings are active and agential bodily beings from the very beginning of life. Second, Anzieu highlights the fact that the infant’s relationship to the caregiver’s body is crucially constitutive of its relationship to its own body. As a result, his work gives us a developmental approach that stresses the radically relational nature of embodied experience. Third, Anzieu underscores the fact that the infant’s engagements with both its own body and the body of the other are thoroughly bound up with unconscious phantasy. Consequently, his approach offers us a rigorous way of thinking about the body’s parts and processes as at once concretely somatic and abstractly psychic. In my view, then, Anzieu’s three-part emphasis on agency, relationality, and phantasy corresponds not only with Grosz’s call for ‘some kind of understanding of embodied subjectivity [or] psychical corporeality’ but also with Fausto-Sterling’s call for a ‘dual-systems’ approach that sees the terms of mind/body, self/other, and nature/culture as both produced by and productive of one another.

The Structures and Functions of the Skin Ego

Up to this point, my allusions to the functions of the skin ego have related to those of containment, protection, and inscription. These were the three functions that Anzieu chose to discuss in his first paper, published in 1974, on the phenomenon of the skin ego (Anzieu, 1994, pp. 195-203). When, in 1985, Anzieu published an entire book on this phenomenon, he expanded his list significantly: the skin ego now had nine functions instead of three. This expanded list of functions consisted not only of containment, protection, and inscription, but of maintenance, individuation, intersensoriality, sexualization, recharging, and self-destruction. Anzieu revised his list again in 1995 and included all of the functions mentioned earlier with the exception of the one relating to ‘self-destruction’. Though he continued to discuss it elsewhere, Anzieu eliminated this function as he deemed it to be a product of the death drive or, as he puts it, ‘the work of negative’ (Anzieu, 1995, p. 129),12 rather than a bona fide function of the skin ego.

The principle of anaclisis is a key part of how Anzieu makes sense of the structures and functions of the skin ego. No exact synonym for anaclisis exists in English and no exact translation of the French term étayage exists in English either. Generally speaking, anaclisis refers to the ‘propping’, ‘supporting’, or, to use a skin metaphor, the ‘grafting’ of psychic functions onto somatic functions. Anzieu explains:

Every psychical function develops by supporting itself upon a bodily function whose workings it transposes on to the mental plane. Jean Laplanche recommends that the concept of anaclisis be reserved for the support the sexual drives find in the organic functions of self-preservation, but I want to give it a broader interpretation. The psychical apparatus develops through successive stages of breaking with its biological bases, breaks which on the one hand make it possible to escape from biological laws and, on the other, make it necessary to look for an anaclitic relationship of every psychical to a bodily function. (Anzieu, 1989, p. 96)

Though he himself does not mention it, Anzieu’s emphasis on anaclisis is consistent with what has come to be known as Freud’s ‘psycho-physical parallelism’. This parallelism presupposes ‘a neurophysiological process for every psychic state, but rejects the notion that every property of the mind can be reduced to the properties of the body’ (Panhuysen, 1998, p. 39). Once somatic functions have been transposed onto the psychic plane, they are no longer somatically-specific but psychically-specific; and, once they are psychically-specific, they are propelled more by psychosocial forces than by neurophysiological forces. As both Freud and Anzieu make clear, once organic functions have been transposed onto the psychic plane, they take on a life of their own.

The first function of the skin ego is that of ‘maintenance’. In the same way the skin supports the skeletal and muscular systems, the skin ego supports the psychic systems. This function of the skin ego is achieved through the infant’s introjection of what Winnicott calls ‘holding’; that is, the way in which the caregiver physically supports the baby’s body (Winnicott, 1976c, pp. 37-55). As Anzieu explains: ‘The Skin Ego is a part of the mother – particularly her hands – which has been interiorized and which maintains the psyche in a functional state, at least during waking life, just as the mother maintains the baby’s body in a state of unity and solidity’ (1989, p. 98). For Anzieu, the baby’s experience of having been physically maintained allows it to feel psychically maintained or, put differently, ‘held together’ as it encounters and explores the world around it.

The second function of the skin ego is that of ‘containment’. According to Anzieu, this function of the skin ego is set in motion by the infant’s introjection of what Winnicott calls ‘handling’; that is, by the way in which the caregiver physically manipulates the baby’s body (Winnicott, 1976c, pp. 37-55). In fact, the caregiver’s handling of the baby as it is changed, fed and washed allows it to do two inextricably interrelated things: first, represent its body to itself as sac-like, as a bodily container with bodily contents; and second, represent its ego to itself as sac-like, as a psychic container with psychic contents. The baby’s sense of psychic and somatic containment is, therefore, vitally enabled by its everyday exchanges with its caregiver.

The third function of the skin ego is that of ‘protection’. Just as the epidermis protects the body against physical trauma, the skin ego protects the psyche against psychical trauma. This function, according to Anzieu, is brought into being by the infant’s introjection of the caregiver’s bodily surface. That is, when the infant is in its earliest moments of life and its ego is too undeveloped to perform its own protective functions, the caregiver’s bodily surface serves as the infant’s surrogate shield against excessive stimulation. Through its experience of a protective caregiving skin, then, the infant comes to experience its own skin as a source of security.

The fourth function of the skin ego is that of ‘individuation’. In the same way that no two skins are alike, no two skin egos are alike. This function, as Anzieu explains, ‘allows one to identify […] oneself as an individual having one’s own skin. In a similar fashion, the Skin Ego performs a function of individuating the Self, thus giving the Self a sense of its own uniqueness’ (1989, p. 103). For Anzieu, a strong sense of somatic borders and, by extension, psychic borders allows the individual to distinguish between not only its self and the self of the other, but between what Winnicott calls its ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves (Winnicott, 1976a, pp. 140-52). A well-defined psychic skin is, therefore, necessary for individuation and, ultimately, individuality.

The fifth function of the skin ego is that of ‘intersensoriality’. Where the skin serves as the physical surface that accommodates and arranges the body’s sensations, the skin ego serves as the psychic surface ‘which connects up sensations of various sorts and makes them stand out as figures against the original background’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 103). In other words, the skin ego provides the infant with a feeling of ‘common sense’; that is, the feeling that its sensory organs function in a coordinated, rather than a chaotic, manner. The intersensorial function, then, allows the infant to feel that it can manage its sensory perceptions instead of feeling alienated or overwhelmed by them.

The sixth function of the skin ego is that of ‘sexualization’. While the infant is handled and held by its caregiver, the pleasures of the skin are awakened and the erogenous zones are enlivened. As Freud points out, the pleasures of the skin enable the emergence of auto-eroticism and, by extension, a more mature sexuality (Freud, 2001d, pp. 125-244). Put differently, these primitive pleasures serve as the first and most fundamental support for the development of the sexual drives. In this way, they lay the foundation for the infant’s erogenous potential and, ultimately, its ability to have gratifying sexual relations in later life.

The seventh function of the skin ego is that of ‘recharging’. Just as the constant stimulation of the body by physical stimuli is managed by the skin, the constant stimulation of the mind by mental stimuli is managed by the skin ego. In fact, in the same way the skin is on the border of the body’s inside and outside, the skin ego is on the border of the mind’s inside and outside. As a result, it is the skin ego that organizes and synthesizes the stimuli directed at the mind. The skin ego, then, is that which enables the infant to feel that its mind is neither ‘over-charged’ nor ‘under-charged’ by the stimuli that surround it.

The eighth and final function of the skin ego is that of ‘inscription’. In the same way the skin records the external traces of the infant’s life experiences, the skin ego records the internal traces of these experiences. As Anzieu writes: ‘The Skin Ego is the original parchment which preserves, like a palimpsest, the erased, scratched-out, written-over, first outlines of an ‘original’ pre-verbal writing made up of traces upon the skin’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 105). The infant’s first impressions of the world around it are, therefore, imprinted on its skin ego which, in turn, serves as what Freud compares to a ‘mystic writing pad’ (Freud, 2001b, pp. 227-32).

According to Anzieu (1994), the skin ego is only the first of two structures associated with the fully-fledged ego. For the human being to develop healthily, the skin ego must be superseded by what Anzieu calls the thinking ego for it is the latter, not the former, that allows for the development of symbolic thought and elaboration, language and desire. Yet the fact that the skin ego is superseded by the thinking ego does not make the skin ego any less fundamental. On the contrary: the thinking ego is always already formed and informed by the skin ego; or, put differently, the skin ego is the permanent support and ever-present backdrop of the thinking ego.

By privileging the surfaces of the human being, both psychic and somatic, Anzieu shows that the superficial is at least as important as the profound. Similarly, by bringing into relief the anaclitic relationship between the psychic skin and the physical skin, Anzieu demonstrates that human development is the product of a dynamic relationship between that which is inside and that which is outside. That said, however, Anzieu’s approach to the skin ego’s structures and functions does, at times, appear to have pathologizing propensities. More specifically, contemporary cultural theorists may find that this approach is problematic insofar as it tends to draw a straight line, as it were, between so-called deficient care in early infancy and so-called deviant behavior in later life. For instance, Anzieu argues that when the containment function of the skin ego fails to properly develop due to what is, ostensibly, the caregiver’s neglect, the individual is likely to feel as though he or she could ‘fall apart’ at any moment (Anzieu, 1989, p. 102). To avoid this feeling, the individual may, according to Anzieu, act aggressively on his or her skin in an attempt to reclaim and re-territorialize it and, by extension, force it to contain him or her when the skin ego proves unable to do so. For Anzieu, cutting, piercing, tattooing, and, above all, sado-masochistic sex are prime examples of these aggressive acts – acts which he sees as defensive ‘second skins’ (Bick, 2002, pp. 60-71). While these second skins may be helpful in the short term, they are, according to Anzieu, in need of analytic attention in the long term.

Cultural theorists have shown that Anzieu’s ‘second skins’, along with a number of other skin ego structures and functions, can be critically re-read and re-thought in ways that avoid these pathologizing propensities. Jay Prosser (1994) has, for instance, used Anzieu’s understanding of the containment function to theorise transsexuality; Imogen Tyler (2001) has used it to theorize pregnant embodiment; and, most recently, Valerie Walkerdine (2010) has used it to think about affect in community relations. Similarly, Steven Pile (2009, pp. 134-54) has used Anzieu’s inscription function to theorize representations of memory in film, while Francette Pacteau (1994) has used the intersensoriality function to think about clothing and fashion. All of these authors show that if worked on and over, Anzieu’s work has the potential to give cultural theorists a sustained and suggestive approach to human subjectivity.

The Psychic Envelope

For Anzieu, the skin ego is modelled not only on the experience of the tactile sense organ, but on the experience of the auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and visual sense organs. In fact, all of these organs and the experiences associated with them give rise to what Anzieu calls ‘psychic envelopes’. Put succinctly, psychic envelopes are sensory experiences that have been transposed from the somatic plane onto the psychic plane; once transposed, they are structured like and function as the envelopes, or skins, of the psyche. In other words, the skin of the psyche is not only a tactile skin, but an auditory skin, an olfactory skin, a gustatory skin, and a visual skin. Or, to use a metaphor that Anzieu himself uses, the skin of the psyche is in many ways like the skin of an onion (Anzieu, 1989, p. 215). That is, like the skin of an onion, the skin of the psyche is structured by layers that interlock one with the other. According to Anzieu, then, the senses of sound, smell, taste and sight interlock with the sense of touch to form the skin of the psyche.13

While the skin ego is in many ways a freestanding concept, it gains increased explanatory potential when it is used alongside that of the psychic envelope. In fact, cultural theorists have tended to focus more on the former than they have on the latter and it is for this reason that I consider the latter so closely here (see, for instance, Prosser, 1998; and Tyler, 2001). Before doing so, however, it is worth reflecting on how the models of the skin ego and the psychic envelope differ from one another. Houzel explains: ‘When we go from the skin to the envelope, we jettison a part of the metaphorical meanings contained in the first concept. ‘Envelope’ has a much more general meaning than ‘skin’ and is, in particular, much more independent from its substrate’ (Houzel, 2000, p. 164). Drawing on Houzel, I argue that two things happen when we go from the skin ego to the psychic envelope. First, the literal skin becomes more of a figurative skin; it becomes, in other words, a way of thinking about the experience of the senses – about how they feel – and how this feeling grows out of or, indeed, latches onto the sensations springing from the surface of the body. Second, the literal skin – and particularly the sense of touch with which it is associated – is no longer privileged to the same extent. Instead, Anzieu’s tendency to focus on the sense of touch as the most ‘fundamental’ is replaced by an interest in understanding how the senses operate, each in their own way, as skin-like creatures (see for instance Anzieu, 1989, p. 14). So where Anzieu’s work on the skin ego tends to be bound up in a hierarchy of the senses – one in and through which touch almost always emerges as the master sense – his work on the psychic envelope swaps this hierarchical thinking for lateral thinking. More specifically, Anzieu’s work on the psychic envelope can be seen to add both flexibility and fluidity to his oeuvre on the skin as it points to the range of ways in which the senses are always ‘in dialogue’, as it were, with one another. This emphasis on the interplay of the senses and, by extension, on their ability to overtake one another, stand in for one another and trade places with one another makes Anzieu’s work on the psychic envelope all the more relevant to contemporary theorists given that, as Segal points out, increasing numbers of them are now opting to see the senses in plural, rather than singular, terms. Segal writes:

Contemporary theory sees the senses as a multiplicity – hence the use of terms like ‘sensorium […,] sense ratio’ or ‘sensotypes’. To McLuhan sensing is a kaleidoscope, to Serres a knot or an island, to Howes synaesthesia, the latter defined as a way of ‘short-circuiting the five sense model’. It is the meeting of senses and sensations that most preoccupies current thinking: the ‘pluri-sensorial’, ‘combinatory’, ‘multidirectional […] intersensoriality’. (Segal, 2009, p. 3)

Reading Anzieu’s work on the psychic envelope alongside his work on the skin ego is, therefore, important for at least two reasons: first, because it attributes to the senses a more fluid and, indeed, fluctuating range of structures and functions; and second, because it emphasizes ‘multidirectional intersensoriality’ by showing the extent to which sounds, smells, and tastes can – in some situations – serve as better skins than the skin itself.

The first psychic envelope Anzieu describes in The Skin Ego is the ‘sound envelope’. This envelope is set in motion by the auditory sensations associated with respiration – sensations that enable the infant to experience itself as a container that fills itself and empties itself. Over time, the infant’s experience of itself as a container is reinforced by other auditory sensations – particularly those associated with ingestion and digestion – which combine to make its body into what Anzieu calls a ‘sonorous cavern’ (Anzieu, 1989, p. 163). In order for the sound envelope to be strong and supportive, it must be constituted by an array of both manageable and meaningful sounds – that is, sounds that are neither excessive nor impersonal. If the sounds emitted by the caregiver are excessive, they are more likely to invade than to envelop the infant’s psyche and, as such, are more likely to tear and perforate it. Similarly, if the sounds emitted by the caregiver are impersonal, they are less likely to be experienced as responsive and, as such, are less likely to serve as the foundation of primitive reflexivity. Anzieu posits the sound envelope as the infant’s most primitive experience of reflexivity; that is, when the infant makes noises and these noises are then mimicked in some way by the caregiver, this two-way exchange lays the foundation for the infant’s ability to, quite literally, reflect. In a provocative critique of both Lacan and Winnicott, Anzieu writes:

Referring back to the mirror phase as conceived by Lacan, in which the Ego constitutes itself as other on the model of a mirror image of the whole unified body, D.W. Winnicott has described an earlier phase in which the mother’s face and the reactions of those around her provide the first mirror for the child, who creates his Self according to what she reflects back to him. Like Lacan, however, Winnicott accentuates the visual signals. I should like to demonstrate the existence at even earlier stage of a sound mirror or of an audio-phonic skin, and the role this plays in the acquisition by the psychical apparatus of the capacity to produce meaning, and then to symbolize. (pp. 157-8)

The internal auditory sensations emanating from the infant coupled with the external auditory sensations emanating from the caregiver create what Anzieu refers to as a ‘sound bath’. Insofar as it is more primitive than its tactile counterpart, the sound bath functions in the first instance as a sort of substitute skin ego. This function is revealed in and through a number of Anzieu’s case-studies, particularly the one relating to a middle-aged burn victim named Armand.14 Though his life was no longer in danger, Armand was in a particularly painful phase of physical regeneration and, as a result, required a constant flow of liquid painkillers to keep his agony at bay. Before Anzieu’s assistant began speaking with Armand, he had been complaining about the excruciating pain his burns were causing him. Because Armand was not in the habit of complaining without good reason, the nurse agreed to administer him an additional injection of painkillers, but not before she tended to an emergency in another ward. In the mean time, Anzieu’s assistant struck up a long and involved conversation with Armand – one that pertained to his past life and a number of personal problems that were preoccupying him. When the nurse returned an hour and a half later with the painkillers, Armand refused them, claiming no longer to be in serious pain.

According to Anzieu, Armand’s skin ego had lost its anaclitic support on the skin because the skin was seriously burned and, as a result, could not serve as a continuous and containing tactile envelope. Through his conversation with Anzieu’s assistant, however, this anaclitic support was replaced by the enveloping function of sound. As Anzieu shows throughout his work, words – be they spoken or written – can often have a containing effect on those in distress. And the reason for this relates precisely to the role that words and their sounds play in early infancy, where, as I have already mentioned, they serve as substitute skin egos. As Anzieu’s work with a number of patients makes clear, the ‘skin of sound’ or ‘skin of words’ can function as a substitute psychic envelope when a stronger and more supportive one is, for whatever reason, unavailable. This understanding of sound as a crucial and, indeed, constitutive psychic envelope could prove useful to a wide-range of contemporary theorists – particularly those interested in thinking critically about phenomena like the cultural politics of music or the social implications of noise.

Generally, according to Anzieu, the skin ego is based on psychic envelopes that are primarily tactile and auditory in nature. Yet, as his work with a patient named Gethsemane makes clear, the skin ego can also be based on psychic envelopes that are linked to the olfactory sense. Gethsemane underwent analysis for approximately five years. During the first three years of this analysis, Anzieu spent most of his time interpreting the linguistic material of his patient’s sessions – all of which indicated an extreme aggression at and vindictiveness towards those around him. While Anzieu’s interpretative work was in many ways helpful to Gethsemane, Anzieu felt nonetheless that the core of his patient’s neuroses eluded him. Indeed, it was only after Anzieu began interpreting the bodily material, as opposed to the linguistic material, of his patient’s sessions that he was able to gain a clearer picture of his patient’s psychic and somatic lives. Anzieu explains:

At certain moments, Gethsemane gave off a strong odor, the more unpleasant for being mingled with the scent of toilet water in which he drenched his hair, no doubt, I surmised, to offset the effects of heavy perspiration. I attributed this particular feature of my patient either to his biological make-up or to his social milieu. This was my first counter-transferential resistance, the assumption that the material most insistently present in the sessions has nothing to do with psychoanalysis because it was neither put into words nor had any apparent status as communication. (1989, p. 179)

Determined to make sense of Gethsemane’s perspiration, Anzieu formulated a new interpretation and expressed it to his patient in the following terms: ‘You speak to me more about your emotions than your sensations. It seems you are trying to overcome me not only with your aggressive feelings but also with certain sensory impressions’ (1989, p. 180). Shortly thereafter, Anzieu discovered that Gethsemane had had a difficult birth, and that when he was born his skin was torn and covered in blood. As far as Gethsemane knew, his godmother had saved his life, for she was the one who – by holding him almost constantly against her arms and chest – gave him the skin-to-skin contact that he required in order to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. This godmother, however, occupied a fraught place in Gethsemane’s past for a number of reasons, not the least of which was her own overwhelming odor. Anzieu explains:

His godmother had a reputation for being dirty. A countrywoman by origin, she rarely washed herself, except for her face and hands. She used to let her dirty underwear pile up in the bathroom for several weeks before washing it, and my patient would go in there secretly to breathe in its strong smell, an act which gave him the narcissistically reassuring feeling of being preserved from all harm, even from death. (1989, p. 180)

This fact, combined with a number of others, led Anzieu to interpret that Gethsemane’s psychic and somatic functioning was structured around ‘the underlying phantasy […] of a fusional contact with the godmother’s foul-smelling and protective skin’ (p. 180). Put differently, Gethsemane had not fully acceded to the realm of the skin ego but had, instead, remained in the realm of the shared skin. So while Gethsemane’s skin ego was not completely absent, it was full of holes, for it continued to be phantasmatically fused with the sweaty and, indeed, leaky skin of his godmother.

As Anzieu worked through Gethsemane’s phantasies of a shared, sweaty and leaky skin with his godmother, it became clear that the smell of perspiration had become so anaclitically tied to feelings of wholeness and protectedness that this smell had itself become a sort of olfactory envelope. As a result, whenever Gethsemane needed to feel whole and protected – particularly when confronted with his own aggressive feelings – he started to sweat. In Anzieu’s view, this suggested that Gethsemane’s ego was so tightly fastened to his skin that he operated as though his skin ego had not yet been combined with or restructured by a thinking ego. To solve this problem, Gethsemane’s ego needed to go from being nothing but a skin ego – and a leaky skin ego at that – to being a skin ego overlaid by a thinking ego. In other words, Gethsemane needed to confront his anger, rather than splitting it off and sweating it out through the pores of the skin. For Anzieu, this confrontation could only occur once the patient had learned to begin processing his aggression through his mind, not his body.

Anzieu’s approach to the sense of smell is relevant to contemporary theorists for a number of reasons. As his work with Gethsemane makes clear, the notion of the olfactory envelope allows for a critical approach to issues of body odor and what they mean psychically, somatically, and socially. What is more, Anzieu’s olfactory envelope is amenable to a variety of additional applications, such as the cultural complexities of aroma – be it agreeable or abject – and mass-marketed fragrance. But Anzieu’s notion of the psychic envelope does not begin with sound and end with smell; instead, it involves a host of other sensory events and experiences, such as those relating to taste. In fact, while the gustatory envelope may not be as fundamental as the auditory envelope, or as perceptible as the olfactory envelope, it is nevertheless an important part of what enables the infant to decide what it likes (and therefore accepts) and what it does not like (and therefore rejects). As a result, the gustatory envelope can be seen to enable – at least in part – the infant’s ability to make sense of its inside and outside worlds, and by extension, to form judgements about what is good and bad or right and wrong in those worlds. According to Anzieu, then, the infant’s engagements with the qualities of taste lay the foundation for its engagements with the qualities of the objects that surround it.

The vital importance of the taste envelope is borne out by Anzieu’s work with Rodolphe, a young man who came to analysis suffering from compulsive vomiting and cigarette smoking. After some preliminary session work, Anzieu discovered that throughout Rodolphe’s childhood, sweet-tasting things had been presented to him as bad, while bitter-tasting things had been presented to him as good and forced on him to the point where his body rejected them through the act of vomiting. In Anzieu’s view, this situation resulted in an early and repeated invalidation of Rodolphe’s sense of taste. This confusion of the qualities of taste – or, to put it in Anzieu’s terms, this confusion of the taste envelope – eventually became the anaclitic basis for other forms of confusion, particularly as they relate to thought and communication. When asked about these other forms of confusion, Rodolphe described them in fog-like terms: his dreams often took place in a fog; when he was confused by the questions put to him by others he generated a fog of irrelevant and interminable answers; and finally, he smoked compulsively, which created a barrier-like fog between him and those around him.

When asked to elaborate on his smoking habits, Rodolphe connected them to his eating habits. More specifically, Rodolphe explained how when he smokes, he fills his lungs with smoke and keeps it in without being able to breathe. Similarly, when he eats, he is often unable to keep food down and has a tendency to expel it as he breathes out. What is more, as a child Rodolphe used to swallow air while eating, and often still does. Anzieu interprets Rodolphe’s fraught relationship to the acts of smoking and eating in two ways. On the one hand, Anzieu links this relationship to Rodolphe’s behavior in the analytic session: ‘He so fills up the volume of the sessions’, explains Anzieu, ‘that I can neither have any thoughts, nor ‘get a word in edgeways’, though he is so hungry for my words. He fills himself up with air and disgorges food’ (p. 189). On the other hand, Anzieu links this relationship to what he sees as Rodolphe’s confusion of the respiratory and the digestive tracts. That is, in Anzieu’s view, Rodolphe experiences his body as a two-dimensional surface – rather than as a three-dimensional container – with a single tube passing through it that can accommodate air or food but not both. Rodolphe’s smoking can thus be seen as an unconscious attempt to fill himself up with air in order to give himself depth and substance, since eating has never been able to do so.

Rodolphe’s confusion of the qualities of taste had other consequences for the way he lived his life. For instance, he claimed to enjoy the burning feeling of smoke in his lungs. While Rodolphe acknowledged that this feeling could signal the threat of lung disease, he revelled in it nonetheless for, as Anzieu puts it, ‘it (made) him feel warm inside’ (p. 190). For Anzieu, Rodolphe’s compulsive pleasure in harming himself by means of his own orality is symptomatic of the fact that his taste envelope had been inverted. Because of this inversion, Rodolphe developed a ‘taste’ for what was bad for him and a ‘distaste’ for what was good for him. Because the gustatory distinctions of good and bad, like and dislike, were unclear to Rodolphe, so too were a range of other distinctions tied to the gustatory sense organ, such as those of eating and breathing, and fullness and emptiness.

As Rodolphe’s case makes clear, the notion of the gustatory envelope presents cultural theorists with a variety of interesting tools for thinking critically about the age-old axiom that we are what we eat. That is, over the course of his discussion of Rodolphe’s case, Anzieu shows that the cultural politics of food and eating, or cigarettes and smoking, cannot be considered without keeping a close eye on how they relate to the workings of psychic and somatic life. Indeed, if contemporary cultural theorists appear to be increasingly interested in, as Ahmed and Stacey put it, ‘a model of embodiment that facilitates an understanding of the processes through which bodies are lived and imagined in more visceral and substantial ways’ (Ahmed and Stacey, 2009, p. 9), then it is precisely the ‘visceral’ and the ‘substantive’ that comes so clearly into focus when we consider Anzieu’s work on the psychic envelope. Unlike many structuralist and poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity, Anzieu’s work encourages us to reflect on how the nitty-gritty things about the life of the body quite crucially make us who and what we are. Anzieu’s work can thus be seen to allow us to ‘sustain the body as a literal category’ in ways that the work of many influential structuralists and poststructuralists does not (Prosser, 1998, p. 27). That said, however, there are problems with Anzieu’s notion of the psychic envelope, not the least of which is, as I mentioned earlier, its tendency to narrowly link his patients’ strained relationships to their bodies to what he sees as negligent caregiving in early infancy. Not only is this a reductive way of looking at human development – which is, as Anzieu’s own framework makes clear, complex, and overdetermined – but like many psychoanalytic frameworks, it comes dangerously close to the kind of ‘caregiver-blaming’ that many have long condemned (see Fonagy, 2001). These, in combination with the fact that Anzieu has little to say about how the phenomena of sex, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity might be brought to bear on his work, are definite limitations. These limitations can, however, be overcome. With some careful rereading and rethinking, Anzieu’s notion of the psychic envelope can, as I have already suggested, be most useful to theorists working on a wide range of cultural phenomena.


Both non-dualist and non-determinist, the work of Didier Anzieu can be seen to say at least three key things about human subjectivity. First, it says that subjectivity is at once completely psychic and utterly somatic and, as a result, that mind and body must be viewed as both produced by and productive of one another. Indeed, insides and outsides are seen to be mutually constitutive in Anzieu’s work, which means that not only are body and mind viewed as radically relational, but so too are self and other and nature and culture. Second, Anzieu’s work demonstrates that there are limits to human subjectivity. Unlike those who emphasize fluidity, instability, and malleability in their approaches to subjectivity, Anzieu emphasizes containment, continuity, and integration – showing that, without a secure experience of his or her own skin, the subject quite simply cannot survive and thrive. And finally, Anzieu maintains that, in order to think subjectivity in far-reaching and inclusive terms, we must be alive to questions of pain and suffering as they are played out in the lives of real people. Unlike his ‘great rival’ Jacques Lacan, whose work rarely makes mention of his patients, Anzieu produces what we might call ‘grounded theory’; that is, theory that grows out of his clinical work with those in distress (Rabaté, 2001, pp. 133-4). By endowing subjectivity with embodied specificities without reducing it to them, Anzieu’s work brings to contemporary cultural theorists a firm focus on the human being’s fleshly frailties.



I would like to thank the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Fondation Ricard, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding the research that led to the publication of this paper. I would also like to thank Daphne Briggs and the editors of the collection for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.



  1. While, in English, there is only one book dedicated to the work of Didier Anzieu (see Segal, 2009), there are over a dozen dedicated to the work of Jacques Lacan (see, for example, Grosz, 1990; Lee, 1990; Mitchell and Rose, 1985; Rabaté, 2001; Zizek, 2003).
  1. Here Grosz is drawing on Lacan, who understands the ego’s structure as similar to that of the moebius strip. As we will see, however, Grosz does not appropriate Lacan’s use of the moebius strip without adjusting it as she does so. Indeed, for her, the moebius strip model is useful for thinking not so much about the ego but about the mutually constitutive relationship between inside and outside. This is an important point in a chapter devoted to the work of Didier Anzieu, given that Anzieu rejects the Lacanian view that the ego is always already structured like a moebius strip (Anzieu, 1989, p. 124). That said, like Grosz, Anzieu emphasises the importance of understanding the relationship between inside and outside as a kind of ‘feedback loop’ (p. 57). For this reason, I argue that Grosz’s appropriation of the moebius strip model is useful in the context of an introduction to Anzieu.
  1. This translation is my own.
  1. This translation is my own.
  1. This translation is my own.
  1. A few words of warning before we proceed. To start, it is difficult to avoid sounding inflammatory when presenting an introduction to Anzieu’s critique of Lacan. This is due to the fact that Anzieu’s critique is, by its very nature, inflammatory. As even a cursory glance at his interviews makes clear, there is little in the way of subtlety where Anzieu’s characterizations of Lacan are concerned; they are bold, relentless, and, at times, rather mean-spirited. That said, it would – in my view – be inappropriate to subdue or pass over these characterizations; after all, the chapter is intended to be an introduction to Anzieu’s work, and a key part of this work is his thunderclapping critique of Lacan. For all of these reasons, I present Anzieu’s views of Lacanian psychoanalysis in much the same way he himself does. But this approach is not without its problems. In fact, one of the problems with this approach is that it does not account for the range of ways in which Lacan and the Lacanians might respond to such a critique. But again, because this is an introduction, it would go beyond the scope of the chapter to discuss where Anzieu’s argument is sound and where it is not. Instead, I merely present the argument – in what are, admittedly, simplified terms – and encourage others to engage more heartily with it in the future.
  1. That the body was, at least for a time, abandoned for the sign in France is confirmed by the fact that entries for ‘body’, ‘body ego’, and ‘body image’ are not to be found in Jean Laplanche and Jean-Baptiste Pontalis’s otherwise exhaustive The Language of Psychoanalysis (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1988b). For more on this matter, see ‘The Body’ in Anzieu and Tarrab (1990).
  1. This translation is my own.
  1. According to one of Anzieu’s most important influences, British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, phantasy is the mode of mental functioning characteristic of the primary processes while thought is the mode of mental functioning characteristic of the secondary processes (see Isaacs, 1952).
  1. Anzieu does not explicitly refer to the skin ego as a pictogram, but he does say that Piera Castoriadis Angelergues’s work (see Angelergues, 1975) on the pictogrammatic nature of primitive psychic functioning is one of his guiding influences. When I refer to the skin ego as a pictogram, then, I do so for illustrative purposes only.
  1. It is important to point out that Anzieu’s approach is not ‘anti-oedipal’. It is, however, ‘non-oedipal’ insofar as it relates to that which comes before the oedipal complex. In my view, this non-oedipal approach allows us to think psychoanalytically about embodied subjectivity in general, and embodied trauma in particular, in ways that avoid privileging male bodies and pathologizing female bodies.
  1. This translation is my own.
  1. Anzieu leaves the visual sense organ to one side. In my view, he does so largely because considerations of the visual sense have – up until quite recently – tended to eclipse considerations of the other senses and their role in psychic development. Anzieu, like Irigaray (see Irigaray, 1985a & 1985b), ties this tendency to the dominance of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and their occularcentric orientations. Having said this, however, some followers of Anzieu have used his notions of the skin ego and the psychic envelope to make sense of the primitive structures and functions of visuality (Lavallée, 1993, pp. 87-126).
  1. All names are pseudonyms chosen by Anzieu.



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