Ragland - Who is Transferring What to Whom?

Who is Transferring What to Whom?

by Ellie Ragland, Ph.D.


"Who is Transferring What to Whom?", has never been published.  It was presented in oral delivery at an International Conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1985.  The Conference -- "On the Transference" -- was a unique event in the United States.  Lacanian analysts came from many countries to present as featured speakers.  Lacan's editor and successor, Jacques-Alain Miller, presented in North America for a second year in a row, following his first appearance in Canada in 1984.  Students of literature, philosophy, art and psychology, as well as many clinicians, gave papers on the transference.  Allan Bass, a Derridean commentator, presented a Derridean theory of transference, as did Samuel Weber.   Well-known philosophers and theologians who had studied Lacan (such as Wilfried ver Ecke, William Richardson, and others) were featured speakers as well.  The tone and intellectual atmosphere of the debate was one of intense curiosity on the part of those hearing the theory and mode of praxis of Italian, French, Latin American and Israeli Lacanian analysts. There was an awareness among featured speakers and student presenters that something new and different was in the air and that it concerned a redefinition of knowledge.

Finally, Lacan's theory of The Transference (The Seminar, Book VIII, 1960-1961) which has been translated by Bruce Fink, is scheduled to appear in English.   The radical newness of his concept concerns knowledge:  The theory that we transfer our feelings and expectations for help onto another (an analyst) because we think they know something about who we are and who we should become.  One takes the analyst's concept of reality as true and a guarantee of how one is to act or change.   Lacan argued that the analyst does not have the correct reality paradigm to help an analysand with his or her impasses in knowledge and desire.  But, he maintained, the phenomenon itself (including the fact that it includes feelings of love and hate) tells us more about an unstable base for knowledge in being, than it does about who actually has the correct theory.  The analyst's role, then, is to sit in as a silent cause for a desire and knowledge that only the patient knows and that he or she can speak only in the (logical) time it takes to unravel repressed traumata, drop harmful personae, and make new identifications to live by.

Ellie Ragland
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
The University of Missouri


I am aware that the question in the title of this paper may seem naive to some and purely rhetorical to others. But Lacan posed it in the Discourse of Roma in 1953, the year from which he dates his official teaching. Whoever revives this question in 1985 or 1998 in North America may well suppose the answer to be obvious. Surely it is the analysand who is transferring his or her child-to-adult feelings towards the analyst. Or is it the patient transferring her or his hopes, ego ideals, love and suffering onto the idealized doctor? Whatever is being transferred, the neo-Freudian standard of transference in North American clinical practice makes the patient the source of the transference and the analyst its object. Furthermore, the analyst is supposed to know the answers to what will help the patient. Should the analyst reciprocate any feeling towards the patient, he or she is guilty of a countertransference and this indicates he or she should be analyzed anew.  Lacan's critique here addresses only ego psychology and makes no account of the 'uses' of the counter-transference in object-relations theories and praxes.  That is not to say that Lacan did not develop a thorough-going rethinking of the concept of the object as understood in object-relations theories and practices.  He did so in the correspondence he maintained with Donald Winnicott with whom he had a friendship of many years.  Indeed, they exchanged some 70 to 100 letters, as well as visits for lectures.  Although Lacan discussed object-relations theories and the uses made of various concepts of 'the object' in the counter-transference throughout his work-a thinking that is incipient in his discussions with Winnicott-, it is elaborated in the greatest depth in his two major Seminars on 'the object':  Le seminairé, livre IV:  La relation d'objet (On the object relation [1956-1957]) and in Le seminairé, livre XIII:  L'objet de la psychanalyse (On the object of psychoanalysis [1966-1967]).  However, the focus of my article here is on Lacan's view of the practice of ego psychology, not his theories concerning 'the object' or object-relations theories and practices. 1

The Lacanian analyst, on the other hand, places himself or herself in the difficult position of encouraging a "negative" transference in order that an analysand become acquainted with his or her own unconscious structure , and name her or his own Desire. Lacan's model goes in the opposite direction of the ego-psychology paradigm. American neo-Freudians use the reality of transference love to help the patient make over his ego based on the doctor's supposedly healthy, reality ego. A Lacanian model would argue that transference love blocks unconscious truth and leaves the analysand the slave of the Other's Desire. The Lacanian analyst, therefore, presumes to inscribe himself or herself in the action of the transference with the goal of helping the analysand to see her own ego as an object, enslaved to the Desire and language of the Other. For the analysand's suffering does, indeed, come from living in a state of unconscious subjugation and alienation. But as long as the analyst literally takes a patient's transference--positive or negative--to be aimed at her and believe she or he is supposed to respond to the hysteric's demand for love, the obsessional's search for answers, or serve as a stand-in for better parents, the analysand will remain imprisoned.

Lacan's campaign against ego psychology manifests itself throughout his thought. He naturally opposed the idea that there is a whole self that serves as an agent of strength, synthesis, mastery, integration, and adaptation to realistic norms. Lacan perceived partisan analysts pushing analysands toward an ideal of health which merely defined group norms. In his early essays, indeed, he accused the psychoanalytic establishment of having rendered Freud's revolutionary discoveries banal. By prizing technique above the meaning of the unconscious, such analysts believed that Freud's rules themselves provided direct access to truth. But since these rules had evolved into a ceremonial formalism, any questioning of the neo-Freudian canon amounted to heresy. Lacan alleges that Freud's miraculous structures have, therefore, been reduced to the nonconceptual, nonintellectual conformism of social suggestion and psychological superstition (Sheridan, Ecrits, p. 39).

Lacan's particular aversion to psychoanalytic practice in the United States can be partly attributed to cultural differences in intellectual formation. Whereas pragmatism and empiricism have long reigned supreme in Anglo-American investigation, the French academy has given primacy to theoretical conceptualization from at least the time of Descartes. It is not Lacan's concern to thrash out the relative merits of induction or deduction. Nor can Lacan's epistemology be reduced to a deductive methodology. But while his "empirical" data are not those of quanitifiable studies, they are certainly "scientific": those of Jacques Monod's biological theories on perception; mathematical symbolism; ethnological realities; animal behavior; the Real of psychic pain. In a sense, the criticism that Lacan has aimed at the American establishment should be more correctly aimed at nineteenth-century Austria, where psychoanalysis was born, or at England whither it fled during World War II. Freud himself contributed to the image of the analyst as an objective, scientific observer who regarded the patient's behavior as an object of study outside the analyst. One might even call Freud's "scientism" an Anglo-Austrian neopositivism in the wake of Darwinian evolutionary materialism. Freud, like his daughter Anna after him, increasingly stressed the defensive, synthesizing, and adaptive functions of the ego. Lacan has not, however, attacked Freud's implicit Darwinianism so much as the general Anglo-American belief in the possibility of an objectifiable reality ego.

Lacan has unflaggingly insisted that the human subject is neither unified nor unifiable. But because Lacan delimits consciousness and makes consciousness and language themselves defenses against unconscious meaning, he is not generally understood by ego psychologists who place defenses in the ego itself. The Lacanian subject (je/moi) is not unified in consciousness. The ego or moi, however, is intrinsically unified-except in dreams, psychosis, and other unraveling manifestations-and projects itself into consciousness as the principle of individuality. But because it emanates from the unconscious and yet must continually verify itself through the very means of its occultation-consciousness and language-the moi cannot "see" itself as it really is. This is quite a different theory from the popular misconception that the Lacanian "subject" is in a state of permanent fragmentation.

The idea that the ego is whole has led psychoanalysts to analyze what they call "unconscious defenses" in terms of the conscious ego's typical patterns. Partisan analysts then apply their own conceptions of health in an attempt to remodel the patient's defenses. Lacan calls this a surface approach, which muddles psychic truth and reality and allows the unwary analyst to take her or his own unquestioned postulates to be objective viewpoints. The analysand becomes a victim of the analyst's illusions and is unaware that Freud's discovery did not situate truth or reality in the analyst or in technique, but placed "truth" itself in question. Lacan described a typical neo-Freudian concept of cure as the analyst's imposition of her or his own Desires and symptoms on the analysand, thereby infusing him with "reality" and making him more capable of tolerating frustration. Such a procedure is meant to "strengthen" a weak ego. What really occurs, from a Lacanian standpoint, is a deepening of the patient's alienation from the truth of his or her being. The moi has already been alienated in the Other(A) and in language. Subjugating an analysand to the analyst's ideals merely pushes the moi farther in the direction that has already led to the subjugation to the Other(A).

Current Anglo-American psychoanalytic theory has focused much attention on the analysis of a patient's resistance (Widerstand) as well as on transference. Resistance has a negative connotation in standard analytic speech, while transference offers the positive affective means by which to overcome resistance through the "false" love that the patient feels for the doctor. The failure of an analysand to attain a new level of behavior or understanding is labeled resistance. The analyst then aims to liquidate the defenses that cause resistance. But Lacan's elevation of the subject of the unconscious over consciousness sheds new light on the phenomenon of resistance. It is the insistence of an unconscious discourse, which prefers to repeat itself in language and behavior (rather than to know itself), that must be called resistance. So seen, resistance becomes an Imaginary function of the moi. Resistance is not a function of conscious ego defenses, therefore, but a revelation of the fact that moi (being) is different from je (speaking) (Seminairé XI, pp. 148, 246).

Resistance, like transference, is "invisible" proof of an unconscious topology in being. Resistance is not simple passivity or a matter of grandiosity or a dogmatic adhesion to the known. Rather, it takes on a cosmic meaning: that of maintaining a sense of "self" unity over and above the fragmentary and alien nature of the moi. In other words, resistance is not iust a pathological clinging to neurosis (inertia), but the human incapacity to recognize the gaps between being, wanting and speaking (je), and with it the primary Other(A) meanings which condition secondary meaning in a syncopated logic from the past. Je speech provides a mechanism for either rendering or avoiding the moi discourse of identificatory truth. The basis of any Lacanian transference is the analysand's imputing a "subject" to unconscious or repressed knowledge, and mistaking the source or meaning of such knowledge.

Surprisingly, Lacan declares elsewhere that resistance comes from the analyst, not from the analysand. The patient's symptoms--metaphors of unconscious truth--speak loud and clear and insist at the surface of life in language, but also above and beyond consciousness and discourse. Analysts are resisting when they do not understand the symptom or when they believe "interpretation" means pointing out to the analysand that he or she really desires some sexual object. For Lacan, the efficacious action of an analysis occurs when the analysand is brought to the point of naming the Desire which insists beyond his or her awareness. The difficulty confronting the analyst is that the "something" to be recognized does not already exist somewhere, as an entity just waiting to bc coopted. By naming Desire, the subject creates it--gives it conscious form--a new presence in the world (Seminairé II, p. 267). Once named, the Desire can be analyzed. Structurally speaking, it always reveals the "lack" in the Other(A) as it relates to Castration and the Law of the Name-of-the-Father.

Lacan claims that contemporary psychoanalysts fail to understand resistance because they view the patient as a kind of object under observation. This two-body, object-relations analysis takes its model from bastard forms of phenomenology and basks in that mirage of consciousness that believes an ego can be a simple object for the other as subject. Such an assumption also leads to the claim that one ego can substitute itself for another through transference (Seminairé XI, p. 119). The healthy part of the patient's ego is supposed to identify with--or conform to--the analyst's ego in order to achieve "cure" by adapting to reality (Sheridan, Ecrits, pp. 9, 135). The end-point of the analysis--its positive resolution--requires that the patient's ego be identified with the analyst's. In reality, the patient is encouraged to bid masochistically for approval from a master (Sheridan, Ecrits, p. 135). Lacan wonders humorously if a desk might not be an ideal patient? For never having had an ego, it would not resist the substitution of someone else's ego for its own (Sheridan, Ecrits, pp. 135-36). The only object genuinely accessible to the analyst is not a hidden "self" which can be archeologically unearthed, but the link between doctor and patient qua ego in its automatic intersubjectivity (Sheridan, Ecrits, p. 45). Instead of using this link to "understand" the patient, Lacanian analysts must resist their own subjective interpretations of the analysand. The analyst's Desire, indeed, should be to obtain absolute difference: the very opposite of Imaginary identification (Seminairé XI, p. 276). The role of the analyst is not to "understand" the patient, then, but to surprise the liberty which resides in nonsense; to see how the analysand debates with his or her jouissance; to ascertain to what primitive discourse effects the analysand is subjected. The analyst should restitute what is signified or implied in a discourse and banish the Other's jouissance symbolized by the analysand's own body; and, finally, decide not to decide if the "case" should so dictate.

One goal of the neo-Freudian school is to try and frustrate the analysand in order to expose the emotions that hide behind the intellect. For Lacan, frustration forms but the tip of the analytic iceberg, and he is intrigued by the metaphysical plight that makes frustration such a telling response. Analysts know how to induce it, he says, and how to link it to anxiety, aggression, and regression, but they cannot explain its source except as an empirical description of a function. Lacan's explanation of frustration has placed psychoanalysis in the category of the Ur-human science and undermined the illusion that the world is divided into normal and pathological people. Frustration initially arises from the dialectical presence of the moi versus the Other(A) and the je's efforts to deny or convey such "knowledge," although the conflict is always replayed via others. For this reason, Lacan does not see how analysis can proceed toward truth unless aggressiveness is first aimed at the analyst (qua other), so that it can be returned to its source in the Other(A). Aggressiveness, therefore, is the first knot in the analytic drama. The Lacanian analyst uses the transference phenomenon as a way to get the patient to talk about the analyst, so that the moi can be seen in projection and eventually relocated within the Other's Desire on the Imaginary axis wherein varied unconscious components of the Ideal ego are reflected in relations with, and choices of, ego ideals (others).

Lacan never disagreed with Freud's basic discoveries regarding the unconscious. For example, he fully concurred that without transference there could be no psychoanalysis. Certain psychoanalysts have misconstrued Lacan's innovations here. For example, Francois Roustang misinterprets Lacan's statements regarding the liquidation of a transference in analysis (Seminairé XI, p. 267). Roustang's interpretation confuses the idea of liquidating transference with Lacan's play on the concept of the sujet supposé savoir. Lacan argued that the analyst should aim to maintain a rather continuous transference with the goal of liquidating the analysand's Imaginary projections; that is the narcissistic bond that elevate moi fantasies over any knowledge of the Real of unconscious truth. By enabling the analysand to see that the transference with the analyst was based on fiction and illusion, Lacan hoped to teach that the Real transference was the intrasubjective exchange between the analysand's own moi and Other(A) and the je and the Other(A). What is to be liquidated or vaporized, then, is not transference as a phenomenon, nor the unconscious, but the presupposition of a unified relationship bctween analyst and analysand. By clinging to an Imaginary identification with the analyst, the analysand remains blocked by the other from hearing the knowledge contained in the Other(A). When the analyst's actual personhood begins to be grasped because moi fantasies are broken up, a paradox occurs. The subject is no longer subject to illusion, but for that moment has assumed knowledge of his or her unconscious, has assumed subjectivity. By revealing various pitfalls in transference, not the least of which is the analyst's satisfaction at being recognized, Lacan demonstrated how transference could be used to lead both analyst and analysand beyond narcissistic fixations, aiming the analysand toward knowledge of his or her Desire, and away from the personhood of the analyst. Identification with the analyst can never be a final goal, then, since any life is an ever-moving, endlessly unfolding Desire and Law epic (Seminairé XI, p. 133). The analysis forms one fixed moment in the dialectical writing of the analysand's potential life story. In this way psychoanalysis is an apprenticeship in freedom won through locating the roots of the moi and je in an-Other's Desire (Seminairé XI, pp. 108-09). The end of analysis has been described as death's death, which is paid for with a de-being but offers the freedom to live (Schneiderman, Returning, pp. 166-67).

But the standard neo-Freudian transference (Uberträgung) goes in the opposite direction and works by the law of misrecognition (méconnaissance). In such a situation analysands think they are talking directly to the analyst about them- "selves" and solving problems once and for all. In fact, they are merely rephrasing the identity question to yet one more substitute other. Insofar as people take their perceptions to be objective and true, most analysands miss the circular subjectivity of their seemingly linear quest. In reality, both patient and doctor constitute each other subjectively-objectively, each according to the permanent narcissistic (moi) modes that make up their individuality (Sheridan, Ecrits, p. 225ff.). In Seminar Eleven Lacan taught that--through transference--the analysand "acts" out of the reality of the unconscious (p. 158). In the countertransference, the analyst returns the sum of the prejudices, passions, embarrassments, even insufficient information which characterize the analyst at a given moment in the dialectical process (Wilden, Language of the Self, pp. xi-xii).

The analyst, then, is above all a human being, Lacan has said, in constant flux. However much a patient may not wish to recognize that flux, and however much the analyst may succeed by his steadfastness in creating the illusion of fixity, the facts are otherwise. The analyst is not a fixed point more than any other person. In standard neo-Freudian practice the patient's transference is considered a neurosis or distortion, yet also a path along which to reeducate the patient. The analyst, on the other hand, is not supposed to experience countertransference (unless his or her own neuroses remain unresolved). Lacan condemns this static picture of the analyst/analysand interaction as much as he condemns the illusion of an objective therapist and a fantasy-logged patient. Partisan analysts take their own perceptions as the measure of the real and true, even to the point of confusing conscious intuition with an unconscious empathy or "listening" (e.g., Heinz Kohut).

An analysand generally enters analysis with the idea that the analyst is realistic and objective and "knows" the key to her or his problems (Sheridan, Ecrits, p. 94). Lacan iconoclastically subverts the image of the analyst as the one who "knows," but he does not mean thereby that the analyst lacks knowledge or analytic tools. He draws attention instead to the subject who thinks it "knows": the speaking je whose moi fictions and certainties come from the Other(A). A Lacanian analyst proceeds, by separating this Other(A) "knowledge" from the conscious attributions of blame and certainty that dwell at the surface of an analysand's discourse. Such an approach is personal and humble compared with the neopositivistic theoretical derivations, which pigeonhole and categorize neurotic symptoms to the point that a given analyst assumes he "knows" a patient's unconscious from an analysis's inception. For Lacan, the analyst is only a detective who can aid the analysand in finding out about the Other's discourse and Desire.

Standard neo-Freudian practice seeks a patient's truth in fantasy and memory and in events that lie "beyond" the language barrier. Lacan parries this theoretical thrust with the contention that psychoanalysis is not a Wissen (substantive knowledge), but a dialectical space in which the analyst shows the analysands that they talk badly or ignorantly (Seminairé I, p. 306). "Symptom relief" entails the momentary corrections and completions of a discontinuous epic, not unlike the restoration of a defaced painting, into an identity trajectory with its own internal logic. The analysand wishes to know: Who am I? What should I do? The Lacanian analyst sits in the privileged position of representing the other (i.e., all the interlocutors of the patient's past) without being functionally involved.

We conclude, then, by asking who is transferring? The answer comes back from Lacan's teachings: the patient's ego embedded in his speech, the whole distorted by unrecognized input from the Other. What is being transferred? Generally speaking, it is the patient's demand for recognition of his or her own unconscious story, a story which unfortunately is located in the analysand's blind spot. To whom is the analysand transferring? Lacan's answer is to the other who refuses to behave like an other, but preserves the aloofness of the dummy in bridge. For the "whom" is really the Other in the patient's being, and this "whom" is aped by the analyst as simulacrum. In this way, the circularity of the patient's discourse is echoed back to her in audible form.

This new scenario of what should occur in the analyst's office may seem strange and obscure. But this objection has already been ably forestalled by Lacan's mathematical formulations, and the answers embedded in his teachings and writings. Regarding the difficulty of these teachings Helena Schultz-Keil has written: "Prejudice has it that Lacan's teaching is unteachable obscure. The prejudice reflects in inverted form the fact that the question of what is teachable in psychoanalysis was simply not posed before Lacan. Because Lacan attempts to answer that question, his work is precisely not esoteric. It is eminently teachable in that it offers a theory of the analytic situation as such. It lays bare the structures of this situation so that analysts might know from where, for what and to whom they speak, considering that the analytic mode of operation is speech alone" (Letter of May 24, 1984, from the New York Lacan Study Group, p.2).

1.  To obtain further information about the Winnicott/Lacan relationship, one may contact Dr. F.R. Rodman of Los Angeles, California, who was given the Winnicott/Lacan letters by Claire Winnicott after the death of Dr. Winnicott.  Dr. Rodman showed me some of the letters, told me in a letter how many there were, and sent me one very long one to translate.  It has appeared both in French and English, in Ornicar? and in Lacan Study Notes; Lacan's Seminars on "the object" are Le Seminairé, Livre IV, La relation d'objet (1956-1957), ed.  By Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris:  Seuil, 1994) and Le Seminairé, Livre XIII, L'objet de la psychanqualyse (1966-1967), unedited Seminar.

Ellie Ragland is Professor of English and Literary Theory, with an emphasis on psychoanalytic criticism, at The University of Missouri, and is in training to practice Lacanian analysis. She has taught in the Department of Psychoanalysis at The University of Paris, as well. Her books include Rabelais and Panurge: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Literary Character , Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Lacan and the Subject of Language (edited with Mark Bracher) , Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud to Lacan, Critical Essays on Jacques Lacan (edited). She was the editor of the Newsletter of the Freudian Field, a Journal of Lacanian Studies, from 1987 to 1994. Her forthcoming books are: Psychoanalysis and the Evidentiary Force of Disciplinary Knowledge, co-edited with David Metzger, Ladies and Gents: Gender, Sexuation and Sexuality / Oedipus revisited through Freud and Lacan, A Lacanian Aesthetics: Sublimation and Fantasy in Literary Masterpieces (Sophocles’s Antigone, Kleist’s The Marionette Theater, de Sade’s Philosophy in the boudoir, Joyce’s The Exiles and Duras’s Moderato Cantabile), The Structure of Hysteria as discourse, fantasy and differential axis: The Dora Case Revisited. She is author of 100 articles and has lectured worldwide over the last two decades, as well as having founded Lacan Study Groups in various cities.