The Dialogic Unconscious: psycho-analysis, discursive psychology and the nature of repression *

Michael Billig

Dept of Social Sciences Loughborough University Loughborough
LE11 3TU

To appear: Theory, Culture and Society


This paper explores possible links between discursive psychology and psycho-analytic theory. At first sight, the two approaches would seem to be incompatible. Discursive psychology, in keeping with its Wittgensteinian and conversation analytic background, concentrates upon the social and discursive constitution of psychological phenomena, rather than on supposed inner motivations. However, the notion of the Dialogic Unconscious is introduced in order to suggest how processes of repression can be studied discursively. The argument for the Dialogic Unconscious suggests that conversational interaction can have repressive functions, as well as expressive ones. It is suggested that discursive psychology has tended to overlook this repressive dimension, concentrating upon the presences rather than absences in discourse. However, the conversational devices, which conversation analysts have revealed to be vital for politeness and everyday morality, can also be seen to repress the temptation of rudeness. That being so, repression can be observed to be routinely accomplished by discursive interaction. Moreover, the notion of the Dialogic Unconscious not only suggests that dialogue can be repressive, but also that repression is itself a dialogic, or discursive, process. The implications for both discursive psychology and Freudian psycho-analytic theory are discussed.

* The author is grateful for the continuing support from members of the Discourse and Rhetoric Group at Loughborough University, and, in the present case, is particularly grateful to Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter for their unrepressed, productive disagreement. The author also recognizes the helpful comments of Hélène Joffe, John Shotter, Teun van Dijk and the anonymous reviewers.

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