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The “no” of psychoanalysis

Within the opening sentences of Sigmund Freud’s short text ‘Negation’, it is important to learn that the resistance displayed by the patients “no” is not a reply to a question posed by the analyst, but a reply to a pre-supposed question provided, or projected, by the patient speaking on behalf of the supposed motives or beliefs of the analyst. It is in this way that we can say the presence of negation is an example of the patient themselves, paradoxically, instigating analysis. Paradoxical because at once the negation refers to a refusal of analysis ‘proper’ taking place, that is, by denying the significance of some content and not others in allowing the analyst to help them in all their symptoms (or perhaps the patient preemptively decides for themselves exactly what symptoms are in need of treating) while also initiating the beginning of analysis by being the first to propose an interpretation – we might ask: where, and with whom, does analysis begin?[1]

This double movement is expressed by the patient’s own very first words “you may think that I. . .”. The patient is not in analysis for no reason, so it must attest to their presence within the clinical setting that expectations and assumptions be met. It could be said that the mere entering of the clinic allows for the possibility for patients to encounter their own identity and away from the general psychological solipsism of everyday life by allowing them to recognise themselves self-consciously with, through, against the analyst. This is where the truth in the fortune-cracker wisdom, “happiness begins with yourself”, can emerge, yet only, or especially, aided within the clinic with the help of the analyst. Interpretation is not provided by the analyst, it already exists with the patient. The task is, however, to couch it.

What this brief comment aims to show is that the existence of the No is intimately tied to the question and/or problem of the role of interpretation in the analytic experience, or to make note of the many interpretations of the No as itself a symptom of the multifacetedness of the concept itself that is confronted by Freud throughout his career.

Within this essay, I will comment upon the various interpretations of the No and comparatively analyse the way these interpretations affect the very status of the No itself, and finally, but primarily, explore the differing ways the expression of No subsequently reveals the multiple dimensions of a latent “yes” that lies behind the negation in ways that contradict one another depending on the object of association linked with the negation. This will include Freud on fetishism, Alenka Zupančič on the crack or gap within the unconscious, Martin Heidegger on the self-recognition of Dasein, and Andre Green on displaced desire.

The No begins, Freud notes, as a “rejection by way of projection, of an idea that has just come up (my italics)”. The rejection has its significance via the strength of the idea the patient enforces upon himself that he must expel as quickly as possible, there is nowhere for it to go but out. The by-now classic example Freud gives is of a patient recounting a dream, saying “you ask who this person in the dream can be. It is not my mother!” with Freud replying “then it is your mother”. The reason for this conclusion is that by associating negation with unconscious repressed material, any negation can be said to be the contrary, i.e. it exhibits the workings of the unconscious process. But this is not a simple formula – no means yes –  for it says nothing about the form of the repressed material, which is its condition for emerging, which would otherwise lead us to naively adopting the content of the negation, namely, the object “mother”.

If the content of the repression is not the object “mother” per se, it is because the “mother” reveals the mechanism of unconscious censorship, and brings us to ask for what reason is the patient censoring a content for which presents itself as “mother”. The truthfulness of the negation, then, lies not with the content but with the reality of the “intrusion of the unconscious”, a distortion. This distortion brings to light what Zupančič refers to as the crack or gap within the unconscious where the No is to be thought not as an instrument of the unconscious, patching up the gaps of repression, but as the ground both of itself and the condition of repression as such.[2] This is why Freud must not end but begin with the negation, for the truth in the symptom of the no is not only in its content but also, and importantly, in the form of its expression, the condition of repression.

The method of extracting information, or the truth of their symptom, from a patient has its significance in getting the patient to think the unthinkable, or, to “imagine what is most unlikely”, to reach the farthest depths of the psyche. If the patient falls into this “trap”, Freud believes he will almost always get his answer, namely, the truth as the symptom, albeit only the beginning of thoroughly grounding this truth.

Instead of affirming the opposite of the negation getting the answer we want and see this as a sign of the end of analysis, following Zupančič we say that this is only the very beginning, that is, the point when analysis proper can take place. Like the fetishist, the patient can come to recognise their symptom, but only “intellectually”, yet the (cause of the) symptom still persists, the “negation itself is negated”, and so it is the negating process which must be understood. Jean Hyppolite reminds us that there is no “no” in the unconscious, but its recognition on the part of the ego “demonstrates that the ego is always misrecognition.”[3] This is where the source of denial can be seen to come from. The patient rejects what is otherwise alien from them, reject, and eject, that source of negativity they unconsciously do not want to consume within their ego. As a consequence, an ego is an imaginary ideal by way of what it has negated, the ego is what is left after the rejection of negativity. But such negativity never really goes, instead it remains, but unrecognised by the ego.

What the slip or utterance of the mother reveals with regard to the unconscious mechanism of negation is that it reveals something hidden but only in a way that what we miss is the literality of its existence when we try to apprehend its “latent content”. Paradoxically, what the patient wanted to say is precisely what he did say, because what he said was the direct consequence of the negation itself.[4]

The peculiar uniqueness of the patient’s negation is that the truth of the symptom immediately reveals itself via negativa. As Zupančič nicely summarizes: “every explicit negation, every strongly emphasised distancing from a certain content, strongly indicates the truth of precisely this content”.[5] What Freud understood, and what Lacan emphasises, is that within the analytic setting no utterance is free of significance. Lacan makes the case that there is no reason to exclude the knowledge given by the patient of their own psychical phenomena, even if what they present contradicts what the cause of the symptom is, because it is in analysing this contradiction (the patients’ disavowal) that we can begin to understand the symptom. This means that the analyst no longer chooses among the various psychical reactions which are significant or not, but begins by “no longer choosing”. Lacan calls this the “law of non-omission”.[6] The significance of the discovery of negation is that it reveals a double function of meaning. Although what a patient says may “have no meaning”, it is in their saying to the analyst that it conceals one anyway.

The apparent and literal status of negativity is nicely demonstrated in Todd McGowan’s review of Alenka Zupančič’s book What Is Sex?, highlighting the relationship between Martin Heidegger or existentialism and psychoanalysis. Such a connection rests upon the notion of nothing and its relationship to subjectivity. Like Freud’s negation, the way we relate to or name the nothing, for Heidegger, is through the confrontation and recognition of the anxiety we feel when in contact with the nothing itself. Heidegger says we are accustomed to dismiss, or deny, a possible fright as being really nothing, yet the paradoxical moment is that such a denial correctly identifies, without knowing it, the way we ontically reach the nothing “by way of talking”. It is through this anxious negation that we approach the nothing. When we dismiss something, the object cause of our anxiety, “as nothing”, we “ironically identify the cause correctly”. When we say nothing, we really mean nothing. Compared with Freud’s comments on negation, the patient first arrives at a truth from the last place they look, “the most unlikely imaginable thing” and the “furthest from the mind”, whereas with Heidegger, the nothing is the last thing we arrive at from the first place we look. What they both share is the primary misrecognition of the no-thing. The question is whether we recognise the nothing as nothing upon its dismissal or, as with Freud’s patient, negate this negation. And whether, clinically, we can reconcile this anxiety of the nothing as being the constitutive feature of our subjectivity. The difference between Heidegger and Freud on the role of no-thing is whether what is negated is produced by way of projection (Freud) or what is denied is what already exists (Heidegger). For Freud, negation is constitutive within subjectivity, for Heidegger, the nothing exists alongside or with Dasein. In other words, the difference comes down to the gap (or lack thereof) within the subject. McGowan concludes that if there is anything to be made between psychoanalysis and Heidegger, we have to avoid talk of “authentic being courageously enduring the anxiety of the nothing”, but instead, of “recognising the impossibility of any authenticity”, that “none of us can attain a privileged relation to nothing”.[7] The question remains: how do we recognise this nothing as our nothing? The similarities between Freud and Heidegger does not only concern the denial of the no-thing, but also how the subject responds to this encounter through the affect of fright or anxiety. In his text on fetishsism, Freud draws in a lot of the ideas mentioned above, of negation, denial, anxiety, etc, when confronting the problem of castration and how the subject, or young child (typically male) is provided with the opportunity of developing a fetish as the symptomatic effect of denying the non-existence of his mother’s phallus.

If a patient comes to recognise and accept the contents of what is repressed, they do so through negative judgement. Such a process helps thinking free itself from the restrictions of repression and becomes the indispensable material which allows for the proper function of thinking. The importance of judgement, for Freud, has to do with the way an ego comes to organise its reality, in a yes or no logic, by, first, consuming or internalising everything which it finds pleasurable and spitting out or keeping outside the ego – avoided – that which it finds unpleasurable. This is the function of the pleasure-ego. The second stage of judgement, this time by the reality-ego, is to find these pleasurable objects it has internalised back out into reality. What was once consumed with the ego is now re-presented in reality. The ego repeats reality for itself in a way that complicates two-fold the distinction between inner-subjective and outer-objective. What Freud emphasized about the second stage of the reality-ego is that it refinds these pleasurable objects in reality  so as to convince itself of their continual existence. Reality is re-produced, or mediated, by the ego. From this, we can better understand the role disavowal plays in the castration complex. In the case of fetishism, the child is confronted with a reality, or the non-reality of an object, which it does not like and so denies it by no longer recognising it. But the problem the child now faces is in refinding this object, the mothers phallus, that never existed back out in reality. The child cannot do so by pretending the object continues to exist as he thought he knew it before, but to refind it through substitution of another object. The fetishised object has its significance because, so long as it exists or remains, the trauma of the encounter with the missing phallus can be avoided. A fetish is one way of disavowing trauma of castration. But it is also an affirmation of the trauma itself in a way that the fetish simultaneously conceals and points towards its lack.

Slavoj Žižek further extends the fetishist disavowal by pointing to the way that the confrontation with castration is itself a disavowal of a prior expectation that, in contrast to man, the woman did not simply lose her phallus but never had it to begin with. The question Žižek draws our attention to is why women’s lack of phallus results in castration? Because it is against the background of expectation that the child should see a phallus.[8] It is here that we can re-mention the reality principle of the ego. The child takes cognizance of his own phallus, deems it a source of pleasure and therefore grants it a place in his reality, and then expects to refind it everywhere else. Castration presents itself as a destroyer of reality. Its disavowal is reality protection. Protection is an important concept with regard to disavowal for the reason that, in the case of a child, the way to protect itself from loss is by dominating and mastering it that may take the form either of fetishsim, play, fantasy, etc. Mastery is to take control of one’s own trauma, or death. To play with absence, as Paul Ricoeur says, is to dominate it.[9] This is most fully elaborated in the well-known example provided by Freud of the game fort-da. The reality principle, for Ricoeur, involves mastery insofar as the ego tries to recompense for the absence or loss of the object previously consumed by the pleasure-ego refinding it in reality.[10] When upon the child faced with the mother’s non-phallus the defence against this crucial fright is not to withdraw but to master it in ways that manifest either as substitution, as is the case with fetishsism, or through the repetition of this trauma, as is the case with fort-da.

A fetish may develop when, in the course of the development of the child’s psyche, it is normal that when confronted with his mother’s lack of a phallus he should accept and give this fact up. From the child’s invested belief in the existence of his mother’s phallus, he comes to reject this by refusing to take cognizance of this loss, for “no human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital”.[11] Such refusal relates to how the child’s ego does not want his reality disrupted. The child is then under obligation, as a matter of psychic survival, to be able to do so by substituting this non-phallus for another object, and the fetish exists because it is designed to preserve this loss from extinction. It is important to note that this negation is not a repression, for as Freud says repression relates to affects, but a disavowal of an idea. As such, the child’s belief in his mother’s phallus remains intact, though altered. Under the guise of unconscious thought, the child strikes up a compromise, his mother has got a phallus, in spite of everything, but it is no longer the same as it was before.[12] The negation of one thing has been transferred to the acceptance of another. The fetish remains a “token of triumph” over the threat of castration. What goes into the making of this seeming ‘decision’ of substitution? Perhaps it results from a symbolic swap of the image of the phallus, or perhaps, as Freud preferred, the choice is not altogether arbitrary and is instead a residue of a traumatic memory at the scene of castration. This would explain, for Freud, why so many fetishsits have as their object-choice shoes or feet because the child is at ground level. The ability of the feitishsit to comfortably accept his fetish is because it is not known by others and so cannot either be used against him nor withheld from him, which means no sense of prohibition is felt and thus no reason to deny or reject its existence. And perhaps it would no longer be a fetish if  indeed it did have to be rejected.

The ego of the humorist likewise refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality through the  trivializing of suffering by way of regressing back to a child-like state. The humorist simultaneously adopts the role of both child and adult reflecting what is the internalisation of the superego, which allows for the ego to transpose negativity out onto the superego. In his text Humour, Freud further develops the notion of the superego’s function of prohibition by introducing the temporary lifting of restrictions which gives the ego a small, liberatory, sense of pleasure expressed through humour. Although Freud leaves open the complexity of this new insight of the role of the superego, we can say that its function is now, on the face of it, not an all-consuming No, even if what little comfort it may give to the ego takes place as a narcissistic illusion, but a strategic permissiveness.[13] For the fetishist, the superego remains absent which forces the ego to convert this trauma into a new object, whereas for the humorist, the presence of the superego means that the trauma can be reduced to a trivial illusion.

Andre Green provides a unique case study of the notion of negation in the clinical setting when he shows that every no hides a surreptitious yes, and he calls this a negative affirmation.[14] Although Freud says plainly that every negation reveals an affirmative judgement, he does not go into explaining why negation exists as an effect of prior familial relations between patient and, in most cases, their parents. Instead, he emphasises the fantasmatic dimension of the no in relation to the content of a trauma, without regard for a displaced desire directed towards an object outside the child-parent relation. This is where Green gives further insight provided into negative affirmation by an example of one his case studies of a young woman called ‘Ninon’. As a young girl, Ninon had a troubled relationship with her authoritative mother that resulted in Ninon developing distress, anorexia, selective-mutism towards strangers, and a phobia of going to school for fear of leaving her mothers side. After many failed interventions made by Green in analysis and after many responses by Ninon in the form of “I don’t know” and emphatic “No”’s, Green could not work out the reason for the correlation between these symptoms and Ninon’s resistance, until he picks upon a story remembered by Ninon of the traumatic “tomato-rice dish” episode. After young Ninon refused to eat the dish her mother made, her mother trapped her into a corner and tried to force Ninon to eat a mouthful. When Ninon spat it out, her mother threatened Ninon by sending her to school, dragging her there despite Ninon’s screams and tears. From this scenario we can say that the desire hidden in the ‘no’ of the refusal to eat the food was that Ninon did in fact want to go to school, but her mother’s ambivalence prevented her from doing so, for which the mother was even upset at the prospect that Ninon had done well in school.

Compared with Freud’s example, it is not that upon refusing to eat the food Ninon really did, in fact, want to eat the food because the food itself was not the site of trauma as such but its trigger. The same goes for the patient denying his mothers presence in his dream, in that the real cause of the symptom is not necessarily the object ‘mother’. In the case of Ninon, perhaps we can say that the food was an arbitrary vantage point from which Ninon can reject her mothers wishes in order to fulfill her own (hidden) desires. But the paradox that emerges from this is the fact that Ninon, in later years, suffered with anorexia, in which upon its analysis, we would incorrectly trace this symptom as having been a direct consequence of the tomato-rice dish episode, rather than as an associated illness for which the real cause still remains hidden. Complementing Zupančič’s comment on the truthfulness of negation, Andre Green says that far from being the obstacle of truth, the function of resistance is its lever.[15]

In ‘Negation’, Freud did not go into the details of what exactly the ‘affirmation’ behind the negation amounted to. But through our studies of the various ways the No can conceal an alternative Yes, the status of this ‘yes’ can vastly differ depending on the alternative object associated with or away from the ‘mother’ (as presented in the patients dream).

To conclude, I will briefly recount and provide different possible answers with respect to the thinkers we have discussed. By doing so, the question must be asked: What is the ‘yes’?

For Zupančič, there is no yes’, strictly speaking, instead, what the negation reveals is the very gap that constitutes and conditions the unconscious itself. There is an irreducible and irreparable crack that surfaces as a symptom and works as the structuring of repression itself. The paradoxical conclusion that can emerge from this is that the object ‘mother’ could signify not only ‘not-mother’ but also, and more significantly, a ‘not-not-mother’. This is a crucial and fatalistic insight that views the sources of trauma residing solely within the gaps of the unconscious. For Freud, in the case of fetishism, the ‘yes’ as revealed in the fetish-object is not a prior hidden desire but one that forces its way into existence as a defense mechanism against the trauma of the No. In this way, the ‘yes’ is completely arbitrary yet necessary. What is desired is the preservation of reality made up of objects. For Heidegger, the No encounters itself in the self-recognition of the ‘yes’, that is, the presentation of nothing necessarily allows the subject to regress back to what it always already was, Dasein. For Green, the ‘yes’ is a displaced desire of the No. It is expressed as a kind of fate: “If I can’t do this, then that leaves me no choice but to do this other thing”. Forced choice turns out to be achieving what one already wanted. Such a choice simultaneously lessens the responsibility of saying ‘yes’ while heightening the capacity to enjoy this ‘yes’ as transgressed desire.


[1] We could also extend this idea by speculating on how the patient’s call to begin analysis functions within analysis.

[2] Alenka Zupančič, “Not-Mother: On Freud’s Verneinung”, e-flux #33 (2012)

[3] Jacques Lacan, “Appendix I: A Spoken Commentary on Freud’s “Verneinung” by Jean Hyppolite” in Écrits, ed. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 753

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jacques Lacan, “Beyond the “Reality Principle”” in Écrits, ed. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 66

[7] Todd McGowan, “What Is Nothing?: Alenka Zupančič with Martin Heidegger”, Continental Thought & Theory #2

[8] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a political factor, 2nd ed. (London: Verso Books), 174-5 

[9] Paul Ricoeur, Freud & Philosophy: An Essay On Interpretation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 314

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XXI, ed. Anna Freud, James Strachey (London: Vintage Books 2001), 154

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sigmund Freud, “Humour” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XXI, ed. Anna Freud, James Strachey (London: Vintage Books 2001), 162-6

[14] Andre Green, “Negation and Contradiction” in On Private Madness (London: The Hogarth Press, 1986; repr., London: Karnac Books, 2005), 257

[15] Ibid., 262

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