On Freud's "Negation"

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Ever since Freud proposed that certain ideas can be permitted to become conscious only in their inverted and negative forms, interest has grown into the entire realm of the presence of absence, so to speak. Or, perhaps, it is better to term such mental contents as the presence in the form of absence. These two ways of conceptualizing Freud's negation have led to a panoply of ideas that include negative hallucination, psychic holes, negative narcissism, selfishly motivated erasure of the Other, and the so-called "work of the negative". This volume elucidates these concepts and refines the distinction between Freud's negation and subsequently described mental mechanisms of denial, repudiation, isolation, and undoing. The book also provides contemporary perspectives on the developmental underpinnings of negation and the technical usefulness of the concept, including its implicit role in negative therapeutic reactions. A thought-provoking and conceptually illuminating volume.

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1: Rejection, refusal, denial: developing capacities for negation

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Bonnie E. Litowitz

In 1925 Freud published a brief paper on negation. This paper has endured as a classic, not because Freud could produce the definitive explanation of this concept in such a few pages, but because he brought to public awareness a fundamental and pervasive aspect of how the mind works. Since its publication, psychoanalytic writers, as well as those from other disciplines, have returned again and again to the paper as a point of departure for their own explorations of its insights.

Coming to psychoanalysis with a background in formal linguistics and developmental psycholinguistics, I was aware of the importance of negation in logic (and therefore in all scientific inquiry). But I was also aware that children are not born with the capacity to negate as Freud described it. A capacity for negation has its own course of development, during which it takes different forms. In a paper published in 1998 (Litowitz, 1998) I explored further logical and developmental implications of Freud’s original insights, a review of which I present below.

 

2: On “Negation”: some reflections following in Freud’s wake

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Jorge Canestri

I should like to begin by saying that I shall be speaking about negation as a psychoanalytic notion—in other words, as a specific defensive mechanism—leaving aside any consideration about the importance of the concept in other fields, as well as any discussion of an etymological or philological nature.

Concepts, especially in our field, are not univocal; but in some particular cases, such as the one we are dealing with, they seem to be pervaded by a disordered polyvalence and changeability. By this I do not mean to say that concepts should not evolve, change, and expand; on the contrary, these processes are part of the elaboration of a concept and are normal and desirable. Could it therefore be argued that the concept of negation as a defence mechanism has undergone this type of elaboration as a result of the progress made during the history of psychoanalysis, and that the original intent of the concept has been changed? A statement such as this is only partially valid when it concerns negation. There are many works that examine this defence mechanism and its consequences, the two most pertinent ones being Ferenczi’s (1913) paper: “Stages in the Development of the Sense of Reality” and Laforgue’s (1926) discussion on scotomization entitled “Verdrängung und Skotomisation”.

 

3: The negative therapeutic reaction: review, update, and clinical illustration

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Brian M. Robertson

In “Negation” (1925h), Freud understands the concept of the negative as a defence against what is repressed. At the same time, the presence of such a defence is acknowledgement of the repressed. As a consequence, “negation” when recognized can represent an intellectual acceptance but not an emotional acceptance or rejection: “the intellectual function is separated from the affective process” (p. 236). Intellectual and emotional acceptance or rejection provides the underpinnings for the concept of the negative therapeutic reaction (NTR). This chapter proposes to trace the Freudian concept, the subsequent development, and the contemporary understanding of NTR.

The negative therapeutic reaction is a clinical concept that Freud first described in The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923b). He used the appearance of the phenomenon in the analyses of certain patients to illuminate the existence of an unconscious guilt in such patients. Further, he used the concept to demonstrate the existence of the superego, as one of the mental agencies making up his new structural theory of the mind. This intimate involvement with the birth of the superego, and the structural theory itself, has lead to the widespread use of the concept in the psycho-analytic literature. However, it has not been the subject of intensive investigation in the literature in spite of its frequent usage in clinical discussions and in papers dealing with other clinical and theoretical topics. This relative absence following Freud’s original contribution was noted by Sandler in 1970 (Sandler, Holder, & Dare, 1970). A recent search on PEP utilizing negative therapeutic reaction in the title revealed some 34 articles and commentaries specific to the concept.

 

4: The work of the negative and hallucinatory activity (negative hallucination)

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André Green

Any proposal to introduce yet another notion into psychoanalytic vocabulary is usually met with reserve. It is feared that such an addition would simply further encumber a theoretical machinery which one would prefer to lighten if anything. This is especially true when the notion proposed can neither claim to be a novelty nor to meet a lack, but seems rather to emerge from the depths of what one thought had been definitively forgotten—a sanction for its unjustified claim of usefulness.

The notion of negative hallucination which I shall examine in this chapter can be traced back to the heyday of hypnotism, before the birth of psychoanalysis even. Nowadays, perhaps, psychoanalysts are less familiar with it than the public who have come across it in books or films, even though the term itself may not be familiar to them. Its posterity was ensured by Maupassant’s Le Horla written in 1887, a work whose literary filiation goes back to Hoffmann, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. We also need to take into account the part played in its conception by the demonstrations of Charcot and Bernheim, great masters in hypnotism, which the author witnessed, as did Freud. Barely three years later, in 1890, Freud mentioned negative hallucination for the first time in an article entitled “Psychical (or Mental) Treatment” (1890a). The hypnotist’s order was sufficient to suppress the perception of an object which “tried to impose itself” on the hypnotized patient’s senses. This was just the first of quite a long series of examples taken from hysterics as well as normal people. Occasionally, Freud cites one of his own experiences, the phenomenon appearing independently of any context of suggestion and in a thoroughly spontaneous manner. What may be surprising is the link established unhesitatingly between hallucination and a phenomenon of negation—since what is involved is the denial of an object’s existence. From the first, it was accepted that it was not enough to compare the observation with normal perception as being a simple lack, but that it should be compared with hallucination as its counterpart. In positive hallucination (“perception without an object”) there is something in excess [l’en plus] which corresponds to what is lacking [l’en moins] in negative hallucination (“non-perception of an object”). One must also note in the initial descriptions the common reference to a force which weighs upon the hypnotic subject from without, having the power to make him see what is not there or coercing him into remaining insensible—in the etymological sense of the term—to what is there. Yet, as we have already seen, the phenomenon can appear without the intervention of this external force. This extraneous will may also be replaced by an internal force which the subject does not recognize as being part of himself. Nor does he realize that it acts against his own will or without his knowing it, but the motive is always the same: to act against what he seems to want consciously. Breuer, who was less scrupulous than Freud with regard to the terms he used, speaks in this connection of a “negative attitude” (Breuer, in Freud, 1895d, p. 26).1 When the force acts from inside the subject there are clues which enable one to infer its existence indirectly—for example, hysterical conversion, which shows that it derives from outside the psyche; obsessive representation, whose content does not appear to account for its obsidian tenacity, leading us to look for the displacement which it was subject to; and, finally, hallucination which designates quite clearly the projection of its offshoots recognized in Freud’s earliest writings. The discovery of this internal force soon makes it clear what it is that resists its manifestation—that is, repression, which now becomes the focus of attention. These first investigations relied on an active investigative method, whether hypnotic or not.

 

5: The Oedipus of the id: the unrepresentable negative and the transformational processes of analysis

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César Botella & Sara Botella

In 1919, Freud discovered the existence of neuroses that had their origin neither in the child’s sexual cathexes nor in the Oedipus complex: these were traumatic neuroses (1919d). At the same time, he had to admit, when his patient the Wolf Man returned to Vienna, that his treatment had failed, even though he had thought of it as a brilliant success when it ended in July 1914 (1918b [1914]).1 In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud put forward the hypothesis of the death drive; then, in The Ego and the Id (1923b), he envisaged a second topography with an agency that he characterized as chaos, the id, thereby recognizing the metapsychological insufficiency of the notion of the system Ucs. of the first topography, consisting in repressed ideas [représentations]. The second topography consists in “instinctual impulses” [Triebregung], whose nature is essentially kinetic, without a psychic ideational representative. The id is “what is non-personal”, whereas the Ucs. is considered throughout Freud’s texts as constituted from the repressed ideas of childhood. This change opens up the possibility of broadening out the theory of analytic practice. We are interested in its repercussions on the notion of the Oedipus complex.2

 

6: The negative in dreams

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Joachim F. Danckwardt

Negation in the analytic situation

“Now you’ll think I mean to say something insulting, but really I’ve no such intention” (Freud, 1925h, p. 235): this is an example of negation in the analytic situation representing a semantic “no”. Of course, there is also the possibility of a performative–actional or gestural “no” in the analytic situationfor instance, in the form of the analysand’s shaking his/her head. But such an example would not conform to Freud’s notion of the content of a repressed image or idea making its way into consciousness on condition that it is negated. Freud’s negation would actually be a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed and thus would imply a specific way of perceiving.

Unlike in the waking state of the analytic situation, there is no semantic negation to be found in dreams, “whereby the subject, while formulating one of these wishes, thoughts or feelings, which have been repressed hitherto, contrives, by disowning it, to continue to defend himself against it” (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973, p. 261). This only applies to negation in the psychoanalytic situation. Negation as it is conceived of by Freud is probably the most common negative therapeutic reaction we meet within the mental frame of the psychoanalytic situation. In this specific state of mind, as a characteristic of the analytic situation, preconscious–imagina-tive thinking prevails, and in this regard it differs principally from any discursive-logical forms of thinking. Terms such as daydream-thinking, daydream-work, and daydream-life may best tally with this state of mind in the analytic situation.

 

7: The effects of negation on the analyst-analysand relationship: the paradoxes of narcissism

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Jorge Luis Maldonado

In his article “Negation” (1925h), Freud explores three important areas: “no” as a linguistic phenomenon; the concept of judgement and its double function (judgement of attribution and judgement of existence); and the relationship between the subject and reality. Although he considers that negation is linked to the linguistic expression and puts forward the hypothesis that “we never discover a ‘no’ in the unconscious” (p. 239), Green (1993) maintains that this does not imply an absence of negativity in the unconscious. Green’s conceptualization takes into account phenomena that go beyond language. Negation is situated within a broader set of notions, together with repression, foreclosure and disavowal, all of which constitute “the work of the negative”.

Despite the impossibility of observing a “no” in the unconscious, the final structuring of the unconscious, which happens as a result of the effects of the Oedipus complex and which culminates in its dissolution, is a consequence of a prohibition that carries an implicit “no”. This is the “no” which prevents the consummation of incest, when the subject is faced with the threat of castration, and which generates the desire for parricide. The effect of the “no” contained within this prohibition is seen not only indirectly through symptoms and unconscious derivatives but also, and essentially, in the expression of anxiety.

 

8: From psychic holes to psychic representations

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Ilany Kogan

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s Jewish Museum for the third time. An architectural masterpiece, the museum is a spectacular structure that has firmly established itself as one of Berlin’s most notable landmarks. The zinc building is unique in that it ties the museum’s themes to its architecture, which is rich in thought-provoking symbolism that makes German–Jewish history palpable.

The museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind, called his conception “Between the Lines”—a name reflecting the tensions of German–Jewish history. In the design of the building, the past takes shape along two lines: one straight, but broken into many fragments, the other winding and open-ended. The intersections of these lines are marked by Voids—empty spaces that slash through the entire structure in a straight line, top to bottom.

The Voids, which are quite separate from the rest of the building, have walls of bare concrete; they are neither heated nor air-conditioned and are largely without artificial lighting. They are an architectural expression of the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. In Libeskind’s words, “A Void is not really a museum space. It represents “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes” (Libeskind, 2000).

 

9: Negation, negative capability, and the work of creativity

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Antonino Ferro

Freud (1925h) argues that negation entails an intellectual acknowledgement of what has been repressed even when the essential part of repression—or in other words, its emotional counterpart—remains. Of course, even stronger defence mechanisms than negation also exist, such as the Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of splitting or “hyperbole” (Bion, 1965) whereby affect is violently expelled and lost “in space”. It goes without saying that the other side to negation is affirmation, whether this comes from the analyst’s interpretive activity or from the patient himself.

In this chapter I consider these defence mechanisms as gradations of the same phenomenon. This is not because I think there is no point in looking at the differences, the specific characteristics, and even their various degrees of seriousness, but because I think it is more useful to offer some reflections on a common antidote to these defence mechanisms: the negative capability of the analyst in Bion’s (1970) understanding of the term taken from Keats’s letter (1817) to his brothers, George and Thomas. The key point of this capability is knowing how to be in a state of doubt without having to saturate it immediately with answers—in Keats’s words, “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Or, in Bion’s terminology, being for a long time in the paranoid-schizoid position but free from persecution.

 



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