The riddle of transference

Transference is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis, and yet at the same time it always seems to present itself as something of a puzzle, a riddle.1  In the world of ‘pop-psychology’ (and, for that matter, pop-psychoanalysis and psychotherapy) transference is often viewed as the patient/client ‘mistaking’ their therapist or another person in a position of power/knowledge/authority as a significant other from their early childhood – usually a parent.

Of course, many institutions take advantage of this situation, especially more established ones such as the church, the armed forces, and in health and education, and many others.  The hierarchical structure of such organisations often strongly resembles that of a ‘traditional’ family, with the priest/senior commander/ doctor/principle as the ‘father’ (even if they happen to a woman), their second-in-command as the ‘mother’ and everyone else as ‘children’ of various ages.

Of course, this is a gross simplification…..or is it?  Why is that many supposedly ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ human beings revert to some form of childlike state when they go to see their GP, their supervisor at university, their boss at work, or, dare I say it, their therapist?  (This might help explain why Lacan came to define transference in terms of the ‘subject supposed to know’, but we can leave that one for the time being.)

Returning to Freud, in the Dora case he refers to transferences (in the plural), and argues that they are:

…new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic for their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician. 2

This seems to chime with the ‘pop-psychology’ view of transference, i.e. of replacing/mistaking the therapist for someone from their early childhood.  However, in his paper The Dynamics of Transference 3 Freud elaborates upon his theory of transference, and especially transference as resistance. He argues that each individual acquires, early on in his or her life, a specific method of conducting their erotic life, and in doing so produces a ‘stereotype plate’, that will be constantly repeated or ‘reprinted’ in their dealings with people throughout their lives. This is likely to happen, argues Freud, if their libidinal impulses have not been fully satisfied in reality, i.e. the external world:

If someone’s need for love is not entirely satisfied by reality, he is bound to approach every new person whom he meets with libidinal anticipatory ideas; and it is highly probable that both portions of his libido, the portion that is capable of becoming conscious as well as the unconscious one, have a share in forming that attitude.4

This suggests that there’s something else going on, rather than a simple ‘replacing’ of the mother/father with the therapist.  The emphasis here is more on how the subject assumes a particular mode of jouissance or enjoyment in their early life and how this then gets played out in the course of their history.  It also raises the question of how the past (the ‘there and then’) relates to the present (the ‘here and now’).   In other words, to what extent is the ‘past’, in the transference, ‘present’?  In which case, can we really describe it as the ‘past’ at all?

Freud emphasises that transference is a very powerful resistance to psychoanalytic treatment. Why, though, does transference appear as resistance in the first place? Freud’s answer is that, in a psychoneuroses, the libido is directed away from external reality and towards the unconscious, which revives the subject’s infantile imagos. The analytic treatment follows this trajectory of the libido, with the aim of making it conscious. However, because the libido is under the influence of unconscious – and pathogenic – complexes, there is resistance on the part of the libido. And as the resistance of the libido, under the sway of unconscious complexes, grows stronger, transference appears. Freud argues that at this point, the next association that the subject makes in the analysis must take account of such a resistance:

When anything in the complexive material (in the subject matter of the complex) is suitable for being transferred onto the figure of the doctor, that transference is carried out; it produces the next association and announces itself by indications of a resistance – by a stoppage for instance. We infer from this experience that the transference-idea has penetrated into consciousness in front of any other possible associations because it satisfies the resistance.5

Transference thus becomes the sphere of conflict for the analytic work.

In his seminar on The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis6 Lacan gives his clearest elaboration of his ideas on transference – and continues his critique of existing approaches that he spelt out in The Direction of the Treatment.7 He acknowledges Freud’s notion that (positive) transference is a form of love – but not a ‘false’ love or a ‘shadow of love’.

Lacan argues that the presence of the analyst is a manifestation of the unconscious, and in turn the unconscious is defined as the effects of speech on the subject. Transference gives access to the unconscious, though in an enigmatic way. This is because transference is essentially resistance, and closes up the unconscious. There appears to be a paradox here, because Lacan also says that in transference there is a transfer of powers from the subject to the Other but he argues that this is not a handing over of power to the unconscious – because transference is resistance.

The Other, the capital Other, is already there in every opening, however fleeting it may be, of the unconscious8

Lacan argues that transference, in so far as it is a relationship based on love, can help ensure that the subject can deceive the Other – persuade the Other that what one says is the truth:

In persuading the other (sic) that he has that which may complement us, we assure ourselves of being able to continue to misunderstand precisely what we lack9

In his commentary on Lacan’s ideas on transference, and especially those elaborated in Seminar XI, Gueguen emphasises that the theory of transference is essentially a theory of false connections, rather than ‘false’ knowledge.10 It involves true knowledge (about the subject’s early history) that is falsely attributed to the Other in the present day:

Lacan emphasizes in “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” (Écrits) that this false connection contains a displacement involving the combination and substitution of signifiers in language. In short, transference, according to both Lacan and Freud, is transference from one signifier to another signifier, from one signification to another signification11

The analysand’s false beliefs (connections) provide the link to the subject’s past.

Gueguen emphasises that transference is an act of interpretation. It is not a case of a subject mistaking the analyst (or another Other) as his or her mother or father; rather, it involves the subject in looking at how his or her imagined past is re-enacted and/or constructed in the analytic relationship, i.e. in the transference, through false connections. Transference is not a ‘shadow’ of a past experience:

On the contrary, the subject, insofar as s/he is subjected to the analyst’s desire, wants to betray the analyst for this subjection by making him or her love the analysand when offering up the duplicity that is love. Transference produces an effect of deception insofar as it is represented in the here and now. It is repetition of that which possesses the same form from another scene. It is not the shadow of the former deception of love12

In other words, transference involves a re-enactment, a re-presentation, in the here-and-now, of something from elsewhere.  A riddle indeed……….

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  1. The title of this post is a slight play on the title of a paper by Lawrence Hughes: Lawrence E. Hedges. “The Riddle of the Psychotic Transference.” Lawrence E Hughes, 2013. []
  2. Freud, S. “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” In The Standard Edition, 1–122. London: Vintage/The Hogarth Press, 1905, p.116 []
  3. Freud, S. “The Dynamics of Transference.” In The Standard Edition, 99–108. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, 1912 []
  4. ibid p.100 []
  5. ibid p.103, emphasis in the original []
  6. Lacan, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin, 1979 []
  7. Lacan, J. “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power.” In Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 489–542. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 2006 []
  8. Four Fundamentals,  p.130 []
  9. ibid p.133 []
  10. Gueguen, P.-G. “Transference as Deception.” In Reading Seminar XI. Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 77–90. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995 []
  11. ibid p.80 []
  12. ibid pp.84-5 []