Seminar II – The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis

1954 – 1955

Chapter XI – Censorship is not Resistance

(All quotations refer to The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954 -1955, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli, with notes by John Forrester, WW Norton: 1991)

Lacan’s focus at this point in the Seminar is on the schemas Freud constructs of the psychical apparatus, first in the Project and then in chapter seven of The Interpretation of Dreams. In his opening remarks in this chapter, Lacan states his belief that this period of Freud’s work corresponds to the emergence of psychoanalysis proper. Importantly however, Lacan does not argue (as is often the received wisdom) that Freud abandons neurological explanations for psychological ones. Instead, Freud’s analysis of dreams and symptoms “puts into play the structure of language in general, more precisely the relation of man to language” (p.123). Indeed, as we will see, at a number of points in this chapter Lacan makes remarks which suggest very strongly that psychoanalysis is not reducible to a form of psychology.

We will leave a discussion of Lacan’s opening remarks about the dream of Irma’s injection for the chapters that he devotes to it later in this Seminar, beginning two chapters ahead of the present one. In this chapter and the next Jean-Paul Valebrega has been asked by Lacan to give a commentary on the seventh chapter of  The Interpretation of Dreams, the chapter in which Freud attempts to provide a metapsychological basis for the dream process, and it is Lacan’s interventions in the course of Valebrega’s presentation that forms the basis for these two chapters.

Lacan’s first point is about how Freud deals with a criticism that might be made to his theory of dreams – how do we tell the difference between the dream as such and our memory of it? Freud raises this problem at the very start of chapter seven of The Interpretation of Dreams in the first section on the forgetting of dreams:

“It has been objected on more than one occasion that we have in fact no knowledge of the dreams that we set out to interpret, or, speaking more correctly, that we have no guarantee that we know them as they actually occurred” (SE V, p.512).

What if we have remembered the dream incorrectly, or forgotten its most important parts? Do we not fill in the bits we have forgotten with constructions that we make up later? In remembering and narrating the dream, do we not lose the actual dream itself through our embellishments and elaborations?

Lacan points to the fact that Freud views all of this as part of the dream material itself, part of its very text, such that there is no distinction between the dream as we have dreamed it and the dream as we remember and recall it. The distortions a dream may undergo are to be taken as part of the text of the dream itself. If distortions are produced by an agency of censorship operating in the dream, these distortions are not random but have an intent:

“Examples could be found in every analysis to show that precisely the most trivial elements of a dream are indispensable to its interpretation…. We have attached no less importance in interpreting dreams to every shade of the form of words in which they were laid before us. And even when it happened that the text of the dream as we had it was meaningless or inadequate – as though the effort to give a correct account of it had been unsuccessful – we have taken this defect into account as well. In short, we have treated as Holy Writ what previous writers have regarded as an arbitrary improvisation, hurriedly patched together in the embarrassment of the moment” (SE V, p.513-514, my italics).

As the English translator of Seminar II notes, the German phrase above rendered in the English by Stratchey as ‘Holy Writ’ is closer in French to the original German. Freud’s term is einen heiligen Text, which in French becomes un texte sacré. Lacan is attentive to this particular description Freud employs because it shows that the dream has a meaning, that is is a message, and that must be respected in its signifying materiality. We do not have to combat the censorship to get to the message of the dream – it is in the trivial details of which you are unsure that the message of the dream resides:

“The distortion, even the forgetting, of the text of the dream is of such minor importance, Freud tells us, that were there to remain only one element, an element one had doubts about, a tiny tit-bit, the shadow of a shadow, we could continue to accord it a meaning. It’s a message” (p.124).

It is in the trivial details about which you are unsure that the meaning of the dream resides. Slavoj Zizek illustrates this point well by contrasting the work of finding the meaning of a dream in the way it is narrated with identifying a suspect in a police investigation. If we are witness to a crime the police might want to interview us a number of times, each time checking the accuracy of our statements by comparing them to one another and looking for the details that do not change. They would want to make sure, for example, that we consistently report the suspect as having dark hair, being six foot tall and carrying a brown bag. However, Freud’s approach is to look for the details that do change – the tiny, contingent elements that are introduced seemingly without reason, and that might only emerge when the dream is re-narrated. For example, that the suspect was carrying a brown bag by the handle. Why, Freud would ask, would the dreamer report this detail that seems unnecessary? It is here that Freud looks for the meaning of the dream.

Lacan also suggests that this is why Freud’s interest is not in the relative strength or impression the dream makes on us (for example, the fear brought by a nightmare), but the text of the dream itself:

“Not everything in dreams interests him, only the semantic element, the transmission of a meaning, an articulated word [parole], what he calls the dream thoughts, Gedanken…. It is the message as interrupted, but insistent, discourse” (p.125).

Lacan relates this insistence of the message to the problem he has looked at earlier in the seminar, that of the beyond of the pleasure principle, and repetition as a form of this insistence. This might help us to understand the famous formulation with which Lacan chooses to end his Seminar on the Purloined Letter that opens the Ecrits – “This is why what the ‘purloined letter’, nay, the ‘letter en souffrance‘ [awaiting delivery or unclaimed], means is that a letter always arrives at its destination” (Ecrits, 41).

What we find in dreams is a message similar to that of the purloined letter. Just as the characters in that story do not know what the letter says, it nonetheless has its effects purely as a message (without us having to understand its meaning); and, in the same way, a dream can be distorted, ciphered and apparently obscure, but nonetheless as a message it succeeds in being transmitted. While its interpretation may suggest a meaning that is unrecognisable or difficult for us to accept, it is enough to recognise that something is being transmitted in the form of a message, and that this has a sense, a meaning. The function of dreams is therefore perhaps not to guard sleep but to pass the message.

Lacan suggests that if we take seriously the idea that the dream is a message that insists, it has the peculiar consequence of dissociating the dream from what we might usually consider our own individual psychology, and gives it an autonomy that is extra-psychological. As Lacan puts it,

“In this text, the word Gedanken cannot take a psychological interpretation. Freud repeats it in three or four different passages, let us not imagine that all of our explanations are already well known in the domain of the psyche, they are phenomena of a completely different order from that of the psychological” (p.125).

This is a view that Lacan reiterates when he comes to discuss the dream of Irma’s injection later in this Seminar:

“You must start from the text, start by treating it, as Freud does and as he recommends, as Holy Writ. The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second…. When it comes to our patients, please give more attention to the text than to the psychology of the author – the entire orientation of my teaching is that” (p.153).

This extra-psychological feature of the dream is precisely why the objection we encountered at the start – whether we have a memory of a dream or the memory of the memory of a dream – does not matter. These are objections that raise problems of a psychological nature (or we might even say concern a philosophy of mind). But as Lacan points out, “That doesn’t bother Freud, that doesn’t matter to him, what he is concerned with isn’t of the order of psychological phenomena” (p.125). Freud does not care about these kinds of questions because what the dream presents is material, what he calls “The plastic representation of words” (SE XV p.170), that shows that something extra-psychological is taking place “ein andere Schauplatz”, on ‘another scene’ (cited in Ecrits, 689).

Lacan advances this idea by putting into question the dreamer himself. If the dream has a meaning, it must mean something to someone – “Who is that someone? That’s the important question” (p.126). If the message of the dream has an autonomy that gives the dream this extra-psychological character, its message is not something the dreamer produces but that the dream produces independently of his or her psychology. In the next session, Lacan will draw attention to a paragraph in The Interpretation of Dreams where Freud raises the very question of whose wish the dream satisfies (p.135). If Freud’s theory of dreams is habitually summarised in the adage that the dream represents a wish fulfilment, Lacan by contrast puts the emphasis on the way that wish is ciphered or encrypted in the text of the dream, a dimension which subverts considerations of an individual’s psychology:

“He [Freud] doesn’t have to go back to childhood memories, nor to think of regression…. Freud is only satisfied, is only sure of his way, he only claims to have shown what he set out to, when he can show us that the dream’s pre-eminent wish is to pass a message” (p.126).

The richness of Lacan’s remarks here leads us to forget that he is only making them in response to Valebrega’s presentation on Freud’s chapter. Valebrega’s full commentary is not reproduced here, which makes it impossible for us to know what he has said to elicit Lacan’s interjections.  Amusingly however, when Valebrega does interrupt Lacan his remarks demonstrate he has not understood Lacan’s point that the forgetting of the dream should be treated as part of the material of the dream itself. Rather, Valebrega believes it is an obstacle to interpretation. Lacan is insistent:

“It isn’t the obstacle, it’s part of the text. Doubt, for instance, in his way of looking at it, is almost an emphasis…. The phenomenon of doubt must be interpreted, Freud says, as a part of the message” (p.126).

In the specific section of The Interpretation of Dreams on which Valebrega is commenting, we find Freud very precisely corroborate Lacan’s reading:

“Distortion is only made possible by a withdrawal of psychical value; it habitually expresses itself by that means and is occasionally content to require nothing more. If, then an indistinct element of a dream’s content is in addition attacked by doubt, we have a sure indication that we are dealing with a comparatively direct derivative of one of the proscribed dream-thoughts.

…. That is why in analysing a dream I insist that the whole scale of estimates of certainty shall be abandoned and that the faintest possibility that something of this or that sort may have occurred in the dream shall be treated as a complete certainty” (SE V, p.516).

Our uncertainty itself is a kind of ‘underlining’ of the dream element, a soulignage in French (p.126). For example, if we find ourselves doubting whether a character in a dream is our friend A or our other friend B, Freud tells us to recognise it as both, a condensation of the two characters, the two being linked by a common thread which this condensation of them both into a single character  serves to emphasise. Freud likens the phenomenon of condensation to a method employed by the  eugenicist Francis Galton (perhaps better known for his eugenics than his photography):

“What I did [in the dream] was to adopt the procedure by means of which Galton produced family portraits: namely by projecting two images on to a single plate, so that certain features common to both are emphasised, while those which fail to fit in with one another cancel one another out and are indistinct in the picture” (SE IV p. 293)

As a counter to Lacan, Valebrega insists that Freud is nevertheless talking about resistance, that is, as he reads it, that “Any obstacle to interpretation stems from psychical resistance” (p.126). But Lacan casts doubt on just how ‘psychical’ we can take this resistance to be. Lacan’s interpretation of Freud’s comments on resistance give it a much wider compass – resistance is simply anything which inhibits the interpretative task:

“We classify everything which stands in the way of interpretation as resistance… whether that facilitates or not the progress of the interpretative task, that is the passage of the message. You must admit that this generalisation of the theme of resistance allows one to think that he doesn’t include it in a psychological process. Resistance only acquires value in relation to work. It isn’t at all considered from the point of view of the subject’s psychical properties” (p.127).

Again we see here Lacan asserting with clarity his belief in the extra-psychological element as being what is important to recognise in analysis, as opposed to the here and now, or the psychosexual history of the patient. Resistance, he tells us, “is not thought of as being internal to the subject, on a psychological level but uniquely in relation to the work of interpretation” (p.127). Resistance does not have to stem from the person, his actions or intentions. It is just anything that stops the production of the message or the flow of material.

In defence of Valebrega, however, we should note that Lacan is giving his own interpretation of Freud’s message rather than just clarifying Freud’s own remarks. In the passage they are commenting on from The Interpretation of Dreams, whilst Freud does allow that resistance can stem from sources other than the individual’s actions, his aim in nuancing his maxim that “whatever interrupts the progress of analytic work is resistance” (SE V p.517) is to make it clear that the individual nonetheless has a choice of how to respond to such unfortunate circumstances as the death of a father or the outbreak of war:

Even if the interrupting event is a real one and independent of the patient, it often depends on him how great an interruption it causes; and resistance shows itself unmistakably in the readiness with which he accepts an occurrence of this kind or the exaggerated use which he makes of it” (SE V p.517).

There then follows a brief debate between Lacan and Valebrega about the difference between censorship and resistance. Valebrega believes that Freud’s Widerstand refers to both censorship and resistance, but Lacan wants to differentiate the two, and tries to do so by introducing a story about the King of England being an idiot to show the character of censorship.

What stops us from saying that the King of England is an idiot? For one, a law that dictates that anyone who says that the King of England is an idiot will have his head cut off. Lacan says that any law like this has “the fundamental possibility of being not understood” (p.128) – you do not actually know why there should be a law against stating that the King is an idiot, because everything might point to the fact that he is, and therefore “this interdiction as such is not understood” (p.129). You may follow the law and remain faithful to it (in the sense that you refrain from pointing out that the King of England is an idiot), but everything else you say will reveal clearly that he is. Your discourse will find its own way to the truth, even if you go to the trouble of censoring from your discourse everything which reveals him to be so.

The point to make is that the law still works even if you know the King of England is an idiot – the law survives and functions even if it is not understood why it should be there, even if it has no rationale. Everyone is still subject to it, even if the truth is recognised and you censor your discourse even if you fully acknowledge the truth. As Lacan says, “no one can understand why one would have one’s head cut off for saying this truth, no one grasps where the very fact of interdiction is located” (p.129). So censorship has a very strange character because it has to function independently of the very rationale that has instated it; it is a law that we cannot trace back to its origins, because its origin is that the King of England is an idiot! This is why Lacan says that there is a,

“Final, unexplained, inexplicable mainspring upon which the existence of the law hangs. The tough thing we encounter in the analytic experience is that there is one, there is a law. And that indeed is what can never be completely brought to completion in the discourse of the law – it is this final term which explains that there is one” (p.129).

In other words, the censorship never justifies itself. We do not understand it because we lack the very answer to why we need a law (which cannot be ‘because the King of England is an idiot’). It is therefore only when the law is not fully articulated or given an articulated justification that it can function.

But then Lacan adds an interesting twist – what if the King of England knows he is an idiot and dreams of having his own head cut off? This shows again how the censorship operates autonomously, independently of whether a subject, even the King, understands why it is there. Even the King is subject to his own law. The censorship ultimately has no justification. It cannot be there to protect the King’s dignity, because the King loses his own head if he himself recognises in his dream that he is an idiot. Lacan goes on to say that censorship corresponds to the law as it is not understood, as the universe of discourse that we are a part of. But how does this help us to distinguish censorship from resistance?

There are some unsatisfactory aspects to the distinction presented here between censorship and resistance. For example, we are left wondering where resistance actually comes from? What is the agent of resistance? Lacan tells us that “resistance is not thought of as being internal to the subject, on a psychological level” (p.127), but on the same page he says that “the subject’s resistance is linked to the ego’s register” (p.127). If the ego is part of a psychological register (as it surely is), are we to understand that resistance come from the ego or not? Is the censorship also at the level of the ego? A few pages further on he tells us that, “Censorship is neither on the level of the subject, nor on that of the individual, but on the level of discourse” (p.130), which would seem to put censorship firmly on an extra-psychological level (that is, not the level of the ego), but this does not help us separate if from resistance if we cannot work out where resistance comes from.

To further complicate this, there is the question of whether censorship is a category of resistance or whether resistance is a category of censorship. Lacan tells us that, “There is a resistance of censorship, just as there is a resistance of transference” (p.131), a view which seems to concur with what Freud says in the Introductory Lectures that censorship persists in the form of resistance, and that “The resistance to interpretation is only a putting into effect of the dream-censorship” (SE XV, p.141). Here, it is censorship which has the wider compass, and resistance which is a product of the censorship. But at the start of the following chapter, by way of review and clarification of the last, Lacan says that, “The resistance is everything which is opposed, in a general sense, to the work of analysis. Censorship is a special qualification of this resistance” (p.134). This implies that resistance is the wider category, encompassing censorship.

How might we go about resolving these impasses? The problem seems to lie in the fact that the concept of resistance is understood in two different ways, corresponding to two different uses of the term in Freud’s work. It is therefore worth looking more closely at what Lacan has to say about resistance in other places in his work, and the changes that it undergoes in Freud’s, so that we can separate resistance and censorship conceptually.

In this Seminar, Lacan appears to recognise these two forms of resistance – one at the level of the material itself and one at the level of the ego. He tells Valebrega, “I am talking about the resistance of the ego, of the resistance tied to the ego, which is only a small part of the resistance” (p.129). And this appears to be a view he still holds ten years later, when he delivers Seminar XI:

“We must distinguish between the resistance of the subject and that first resistance of discourse, when the discourse proceeds towards the condensation around the nucleus. For the expression resistance of the subject too much implies the existence of a supposed ego and it is not certain whether – at the approach of this nucleus – it is something that we can justifiably call an ego” (Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, London:Karnac, 2004, p.68).

Returning to Freud, we find two main explanations of resistance at different times in his work. Firstly, that resistances stem from the pathogenic material itself and become manifest when they are approached in the work of analysis. The closer we come to the pathogenic nucleus, the more resistance we will encounter. In the Studies on Hysteria in 1895, Freud tells us that groups of memories are,

“… Stratified concentrically round the pathogenic nucleus…. The contents of each particular stratum are characterised by an equal degree of resistance, and that degree increases in proportion as the strata are nearer to the nucleus” (SE II, p.289).

Secondly, by the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, we find the idea that resistance stems from the ego (which may even be the same agency as the censorship) and takes the form of a defence, for example as an anticathexis:

“… We must above all get rid of the mistaken notion that what we are dealing with in our struggle against resistances is resistance on the part of the unconscious. The unconscious – that is to say, the ‘repressed’ – offers no resistance whatever to the efforts of the treatment. Indeed, it itself has no other endeavour than to break through the pressure weighing down on it and force its way either to consciousness or to a discharge through some real action. Resistance during treatment arises from the same higher strata and systems of the mind which originally carried out repression” (SE XVIII, p.19).

But Freud does give us room to believe that both explanations might be true, in the sense that even if the ego resists there are still resistances that are not the property of the ego. In Analysis Terminable and Interminable in 1937, he writes,

“If we advance a step further in our analytic experience, we come upon resistances of another kind, which we can no longer localise and which seem to depend on fundamental conditions in the mental apparatus. I can only give a few examples of this type of resistance; the whole field of enquiry is still bewilderingly strange and insufficiently explored” (SE XXIII, p.241).

If nothing else, what we can get from this brief overview is a sense of how simplified the idea of resistance had become by the time Lacan was delivering this seminar. Lacan recognises that it is at Freud’s behest that the analysis of resistances had become a central part of clinical work (Ecrits, 369), but amongst his contemporaries the idea of resistance is often reduced to the belief that the patient is simply being defensive.

After this debate, Valebrega continues his exposition of Freud’s text, though unfortunately it is not recorded at what point in the course of his comments that Lacan makes his next interjection. In the course of a discussion of the degree to which Freud was influenced by Fechner’s psychophysics, Lacan again asserts his position that the working of the dream as Freud perceives it at this point in his work does not imply a psychology. Freud’s interest in Fechner “doesn’t at all stem from the elementary psychologising domain where his [Fechner’s] vulgarisation is to be found” (p.131). Lacan claims that what interested Freud about Fechner’s work was the idea that “the possibility of there being phenomena of consciousness must be extended way beyond animate beings” (p.131). This might remind us of Lacan’s argument earlier in this Seminar, particularly in chapter IV, in which he attempts to show how it is possible to conceptualise the phenomena of consciousness without an ego. Indeed, whether he locates that consciousness in a camera or a small mechanical machine, as John Forrester has argued “Lacan’s use of the term ‘machine’ would have been much clearer if he had made us of, or had available to him, the term ‘Turing machine’ which is pretty much what he was talking about for much of Seminar II” (Forrester, The Seductions of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.133). But specifically on the subject of unconscious phenomena which are the focus of this passage, Lacan is very clear that what is unconscious is extra-psychological. As Freud is at pains to point out when he comes to write his metapsychological paper on the unconscious in 1915, the unconscious is not simply the negative or underside of consciousness but something that works by entirely different rules. And this is the point that Lacan wishes to stress in response to Valebrega’s presentation on the metapsychological chapter in the Interpretation of Dreams:

“This is precisely what I am telling you – the psychic locality in question is not psychic, it is quite simply the symbolic dimension, which is of another order” (p.131).

In his final interjection in this chapter, Lacan raises the question of the place of regression as a concept when considering the psychical apparatus as Freud had theorised it at the time of The Interpretation of Dreams (specifically the diagram Freud constructs for it, SE V p.538). We will look at this in more detail in our discussion of this next chapter, but at this stage let us just note the fact that where Freud asserts that the dream supposes a hallucinatory satisfaction of a biological wish (for example, hunger) he is obliged to introduce the concept of regression to account for it in the schema of the psychical apparatus he uses in this chapter.

Now there is clearly some kind of failure of Freud’s metapsychological theorisation here if we attempt to marry the dual hypotheses of dreams as satisfying hallucinated wishes, and dreams as being a text that expresses a desire. The desire present in dreams only exists in the actual text of the dream – it is not a desire for something, which you lack the having of, just as a repressed desire is not a desire that we cannot admit to ourselves, or something that is incompatible with other claims or intentions. What the dream, as other manifestations of the unconscious, shows us is that there is a message and that message is transmitted autonomously, regardless of whether you know about it or do not want to know about it. Indeed, if what is produced in the dream is extra-psychological, we might wonder in what sense can we think of our desires as being our own?

By Owen Hewitson,

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