False Memories as Production of the Unconscious

While researching on the psychological notion of ‘False Memories’ for the exhibition of the same name at 1963 Gallery by the Italian painter Skan, a scene of Jacques Rivette’s iconoclast masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) came back to my mind. Following the delightful encounter between Céline and Julie in the form of a pursuit in the streets of Paris, the scene begins when the mythomaniac magician Celine intercepts a phone call from Julie’s childhood fiancé, Gilou, recently arrived in Paris to marry her.




Céline, pretending to be Julie, gives a rendezvous to Gilou in the square St-Vincent. Dressed in white as it had been agreed between the two lovers many years before, and wearing a wig to emphasize the confusion, Celine joins Gilou in the square where he is waiting with a bouquet of flowers. When Gilou starts the conversation by recalling voluptuous events of his childhood with Julie, Celine replies with memories concocted with elements taken from previous conversations with her friend and pure inventions. If Gilou does not react to the first invented memory, he acquiesces the second and even adds details to it, convinced that Celine is the real Julie and that this supposed argument with a farmer’s daughter Celine is suggesting to him has really occurred. If this incongruous dialogue produces a rather poetic encounter between the two characters, it suggests the potential malleability of memory and the intricate relationship it entertains with fantasy and desire. Translated into psychological terms, Gilou experienced a ‘false memory’, that is, the memory of an event that did not occur, or occurred in a very different manner. And beyond the farcical dimension of this dialogue lies a rather serious scientific debate on the reliability of memory, between psychiatrists and psycho-analysts grounding their practices on the potential recoverability of repressed memory within the treatment of traumas, and others rather conscious of the potential fallacy of human memory.



In 1995, following nearly two decades of research on memory distortion, the American cognitive psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, co-writing with Jacqueline E. Pickrell, declared:

“People can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they even can be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them. When these sorts of distortions occur, people are sometimes confident in their distorted or false memories, and often go on to describe the pseudomemories in substantial detail. These findings shed light on the case in which false memories are fervently held – as in when people remember things that are biologically or geographically impossible. The findings do not, however, give us the ability to reliably distinguish between real and false memories, for without independent corroboration, such distinctions are generally not possible.” 1*

Describing false memories as imaginative (re)constructions of events, either in the form of a flashback provoked by a retroactive recognition of a familiar element, such as a sight, a smell or a sound, or throughout the combination of actual memories with suggestions received from others, for instance from analysts, Loftus and Pickle’s research emphasizes the potential inexactness of human memory. Inextricably linked with the Freudian notion of repression – the mechanism of protection through which the mind removes the memory of traumatic events from consciousness to bury them deep into the unconscious – these conclusions contradict, or at least pinpoint the limit of the reliability of ‘recovered memories’, supposedly able to be extracted from patients throughout a psychiatric or psycho-analytical therapy. If Loftus and Pickrell recognize the impossibility to ‘reliably distinguish real from false memories’, the simple fact that memories can sometimes be false weakens the hypothesis on which is founded some clinical and critical practices that consider the human mind in terms of its accuracy and its ability to store and retrieve every occurring event.

In a wider context, the concept of false memories exemplifies the recurring debate between two opposed conceptualization of the human mind: one that considers the unconscious as an incorruptible representational field, legible and subjected to meaningful interpretation, in which memory functions as an archiving storage accessible throughout the discursive analysis, the other rather envisaging the unconscious as a creative machine, constantly producing new desires and drives that exceed the processes of representation and signification, in which memories are thereby constructed throughout an entanglement of actual facts, desires and wishes.

In terms of art production, more specifically in terms of painting, this opposition calls into question the methods of representation and figuration throughout the position given to discourse in relation to the visual field. In this sense, it seems that Skan’s artistic response to the question of false memories, as a production rather than a representation of the unconscious, embraces the second position described, and might thereby be better understood in line with the theoretical reconsiderations of representation and figuration in painting suggested by the philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze.

Opposing psycho-analysis for its systematic attempt to impose signification on the production of the unconscious, considering thereby discourse as the ultimate vector through which analytical interpretation can be formulated, Deleuze, co-writing with Felix Guattari, reconsidered the unconscious as a factory instead of a theatre, a factory permanently producing new lines of flight as invisible forces, such as false memories, expanding beyond meaning and processes of signification *2 .

In this respect, instead of entering the dialectic frame of signifier/signified throughout the representation of linguistically incorporated figurative elements, the painter adopting this position will rather attempt to capture the production of intensities and vibrations throughout expressive patterns and painterly effects that exceed figuration and narration. An ambition Skan seems to pursue throughout his series of paintings and drawings by depicting anonymous portraits in which the faces are geometrically deconstructed as if taken in a process of decomposition or metamorphosis. All his figures are isolated and extracted from monochromatic backgrounds in works that are never titled as if to avoid the production of semiotic and narrative elements. Figurative but going beyond figuration, his series of works rather seek the “figural”, a notion developed by Lyotard for whom the given, what is to be perceived, possesses an inherent character that goes beyond the processes of signification, beyond the “legible, audible, intelligible”3*. The figural, as the figure that transcends signification, implies, therefore, a refusal of representation. As Lyotard explains:

“The position of art is a refutation of the position of discourse. The position of art indicates a function of the figure, which is not signified – a function around and even in the figure. This position indicates that the symbol’s transcendence is the figure, that is, a spatial manifestation that linguistic space cannot incorporate without being shaken, an exteriority it cannot interiorize as signification” *4

This effort to go beyond signification, and beyond representation, is achieved through the depiction of sensations, movements, or in Deleuzian terms, of forces, instead of forms *5. For instance, in Untitled (Fig 1), through the entanglement of body parts and the forces of the ‘defacing’ process operated by the character, or in Untitled (Fig.2), the interior forces deforming the face, propelling bones, rocks, and white lines, outside of the character’s skull. Instead of representing a violent act in itself, it is rather through painterly means that he is attempting to convey the violence of sensations, i.e through the vibrancy and variation of colours and textures, through the still apparent movement of brushes as well as the remaining leaking of spray paint on the canvas. Instead of being preoccupied with the painting of forms, or by the representation of the outlines of a face, Skan attacks the architecture of the human body to make visible the invisible forces at work within the mental space, and portray thereby a subject that is traversed by a multiplicity of desired intensities. As such, the recurring white lines throughout his series of portraits can be seen as the many immanent productions of the unconscious, as well as lines of flights received from the exterior, piercing and traversing the eyes, bones and skull of the characters. This perhaps excessive imagery attempt to grasp and render the intensity of sensation felt within the production, activation or induction of a false memory, an invisible yet certainly extremely violent sensation one might experiment, especially in the case of traumatic recollection. Thus, the invisible nature of false memories implies the elaboration of painting strategies emancipated from representation and pure figuration, to rather privilege the conveying of affects and imperceptible flux, energies and forces. As the sociologist and specialist in criminology, Jane Kilby argues: “ trauma can never enter the representational field as an expression of personal experience since trauma is the very defeat of this possibility.”*6

In this regard, the artistic treatment of false memories of traumatic events can only be substantial throughout the adoption of a position that refutes any interpretative reading of these creation of the mind in favor of a position that acknowledges the blurred boundaries between truth and lie, between reality and fantasy, in human memories and minds that cannot be encompassed within the limitation of representational linguistic fields. If we consider false memories as an example of desiring impulse, of figures-images produced by the unconscious, distorting and wrinkling the chain of signification and discourse, Skan’s particular focus on sensation and effects instead of narratives appears to be a judicious strategy, as in this case, following Lyotard’s argumentation, even recalled and expressed through words, false memories should rather attempted to be ‘seen’ as signs exceeding language than ‘read’ as representation of the mind and the function of painting in treating that topic would exactly become the reversal of the rapport between the figure and the signified to produce and extract elements that are not legible but visible, not linguistic but figural.

Written by Camille Houzé












1* Loftus, E.F. & Pickrell, J.E. (1995) The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 725.
2* For more details on their opposition to psycho-analysis and the development of their schizo-analysis refer to the two seminal essay written during the 1970’s: Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R.Lane, London: The Athlone Press, 1984, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia II, tr. Brian Massumi, London: Continuum International Publishing, 2004
3* Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, tr. Anthony Hudek and Mary Lydon, London, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2011, p.3
4* Ibid, p.7
5* Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, tr. Daniel Smith (London & New York, Continuum, 2003), p. 36: “sensation is that which is transmitted directly, and avoids the detour and boredom of conveying a story…. This is why sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of bodily deformations.”
6* Jane Kilby, ‘Reading Beyond the False Memory Syndrome Debates’, in The Future of Memory, ed. Richard Crownshaw, Jane Kilby and Anthony Rowland, (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p.149