The context – a lack of theoretical work on affects by the post-Freudians

Most Lacanian writers commenting on affect note the fact that Lacan is often criticised by other theorists and schools for neglecting the dimension of affects.

The issue of whether Lacan has a theory of affects – or gives enough place to affects in his theory – has to be separated from the critique Lacan makes of the use of affect by analysts of his time.

Lacan finds it strange that analysts seem so willing to fall back on affects in their clinical practice when there is so little written about them from a theoretical point of view. As he says in Seminar VI:

“You can count on the fingers of one hand the articles in analysis devoted to the question of affect, even though psychoanalysts are always full of it when they are talking about a clinical observation, because of course they always have recourse to affect” (Seminar VI, unpublished, 26.11.58).

Lacan is not alone in having lamented this paucity, and even though he is speaking almost twenty years after Freud’s death, his comments are not just indicative of the literature available to him at that time. Edith Jacobson echoes his sentiments much later, writing much later in 1971 that post-Freudian attempts to advance the theory of affects post-Freud are few and far between:

“When we search for further analytic papers on this subject, however, we are amazed to find how few analysts have dared to tackle this challenging but intricate problem and to carry further Freud’s work in this area” (Edith Jacobson, ‘The Psychoanalytic Theory of Affects’ in her Depression, International Universities Press, 1971, p.4).

Even Andre Green, despite bemoaning what he sees as Lacan’s ‘neglect’ of the affective dimension writes in 1973 that:

“When one considers the work of the psychoanalysts of the first generation, one cannot but be struck by the solitary character of Freud’s reflection on the affect” (Green, The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, 1973, p.73).

Did Lacan neglect affects?

Perhaps the most famous criticism of Lacan’s alleged neglect of affects comes from his one-time follower, Jean Laplanche. Like many who have criticised Lacan’s treatment of affect, Laplanche’s essential concern is that it takes second place conceptually to the signifier. In 1977 he writes:

“In Lacanianism, unfortunately, this dissociation [between representation and affect] leads to the rejection of one of the two terms, and to an absolute priority being accorded to representation, to the primacy of the ‘signifier’, adopting the term used by Lacan. You do not need to read many Lacanian texts to be convinced that the Freudian distinction between affect and representation has become – in Lacanianism – a real rejection, sometimes scornful, of the affective and of lived experience, which moreover, are usually affected by signs of irony or inverted commas” (Laplanche, The Unconscious and the Id, Rebus, 1999, p.18).

Another famous critic who is critical of the status he believes Lacan gives affects is Andre Green. Like Laplanche he does not merely accuse Lacan of neglecting affects but of rejecting their importance:

“Lacan’s work is exemplary in this regard, not only because affect has no place in it, but also because it is explicitly excluded from it” (Green,  The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, 1973, p.99).

Green however goes further by suggesting that Lacan is responsible for what he sees as the lack of work done on the question of affects by French analysts:

“The situation in France has been dominated by the controversy around Lacan’s theories, which has no doubt distorted the examination of the problem of affect” (Green,  The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, p.103).

Recalling the reasons for his rejection of the Lacanian approach, Green gives a key place to what he calls the ‘forgetting’ of affects on the part of Lacan and his school:

“However great the attraction exerted on me by Lacan’s theory, and however eloquent his defence of it, it seemed to me, even then, that the Lacanian project could not be accepted without serious reservations. The starting point, which was declared to be a ‘return to Freud’ or rather, to be more precise, ‘the discovery of Freud by Lacan’ (Lacan) eventually led to a destination that seemed more like a Freudian cover for Lacan. Was it Lacan discovering Freud’s work, or Freud’s work, amputated of at least half its substance, that provided Lacan with his passport? The second interpretation seemed to me more likely. When I set out in search of that missing half, it soon became evident to me that Lacanian theory was based on an exclusion, a ‘forgetting’ of the affect” (Green,  The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, 1973, p.xv).

Green picks out a passage in the ‘Subversion of the Subject’ paper in the Ecrits as indicative of Lacan’s contempt for the affects. To quote the passage Green cites:

“In the Freudian field, the words notwithstanding, consciousness is a characteristic that is as obsolete to us in grounding the unconscious – for we cannot ground it on the negation of consciousness (that unconscious dates back to Saint Thomas Aquinas) – as affect is unsuited to play the role of the protopathic [primitive, primary] subject, since it is a function without a functionary” (Ecrits, 799):

Commenting on this passage, Green asks, “How indeed are we to reconcile this affirmation with the subject’s relation to jouissance and even with the concept of the drive?” (Green,  The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, 1973, p.102). Green’s issue seems to be that he does not believe Lacan can have a theory of jouissance or the drive without reference to affect. Lacan, he thinks, wants to get the signifier or ‘language’ to do the whole psychical job.

The changing theory of affects in Freud’s work

In what follows we will look at the changes in Freud’s thinking on affect and what Lacan has to say about them. So a quick summary of these changes might be useful:

• First theory, late 1890s – affect is taken to refer to emotional states in general. Affects are capable of being separated from ideas, hence the theory of ‘strangulated’ affect of the early hysterics, whereby treatment entails verbalising the pathogenic trauma.

• Second theory, 1915 – The metapsychological presentation of affects. Along with the representation or idea, affects are theorised as representatives of the drive. They are a qualitative expression (manifested as a feeling, for example) of the quantitative energy of the drive.

•  Impact of new theory of anxiety, 1926 – with the publication of Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, that anxiety comes from the ego in the face of situations of danger. This is in contrast to the view Freud presented in the metapsychological papers that anxiety is the universal currency for all transformations of affect. To quote from the 1926 work: “We may legitimately hold firmly to the idea that the ego is the actual seat of anxiety and give up our earlier view that the cathectic energy of the repressed impulse is automatically turned into anxiety” (SE XX, 93).

Before going into Lacan’s comments on Freud’s theory of affects, we can note the insufficiency with which we find the very concept of affect itself defined. Surveying the usage of the term affect, Quinodoz writes in 2004 that,

“Though the idea of affect is much wider in scope than the simple energy-based meaning comprised in the term ‘quota of affect’, it remains relatively ill-defined even in contemporary psychoanalytic theory” (Quinodoz, Reading Freud, Routledge, 2004, p.142)

Take for example this overly simplistic representation from the Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis by Charles Rycroft, from a psychoanalytic dictionary first published in 1968:

“Affect: General term for feeling and emotions” (A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Charles Rycroft, Penguin, 1995, p.4).

Lacan’s intervention on the metapsychological place of affects in Freud’s theory

Lacan’s pronouncements on the theory of affects in the fifties and sixties focuses heavily on a reading of the presentation Freud gives of the metapsychological place of affects in the 1915 papers on repression and the unconscious. These are perhaps Freud’s most clear and well-known attempt to give affects a place in the theory of psychoanalysis.

The main point Lacan draws his audience’s attention to is the fact that affects are not repressed. As such, there are no such things as unconscious feelings, emotions, affects. What happens is rather that the link between the affect and the repressed idea is broken and the affect re-attaches itself to a new idea that is not repressed.

In the third part of the metapsychological paper on the unconscious Freud asks whether it makes sense to talk about unconscious feelings like love, hate and anger. This is what he says:

“In the first place it may happen that an affective or emotional impulse is perceived but misconstrued. Owing to the repression of its proper representative it has been forced to become connected with another idea, and is now regarded by consciousness as the manifestation of that idea. If we restore the true connection, we call the original affective impulse an ‘unconscious’ one. Yet its affect was never unconscious; all that had happened was that its idea had undergone repression.” (SE XIV 177-178).

Affect is therefore unhinged from a representation (for which Lacanians read: signifier) and has another destiny. This means we might be conscious of our affects but not of the link between affect and representation (or idea). In Seminar VI Lacan comments on this passage in Freud’s paper in the following way:

“Affect, as in talking about an unconscious affect, this means that it is perceived, but known; but known in what way? In its attachments, but not that it is unconscious, because it is always perceived, he tells us, simply it has gone and attached itself to another representation, which is not repressed. In other words, it had to accommodate itself to the context existing in the preconsciousness, which allows it to be considered by consciousness, which on occasion is not difficult, as a manifestation of its last context” (Seminar VI, unpublished, 26.11.58).

A few years later in Seminar X Lacan restates this view:

“What on the contrary I did say about affect, is that it is not repressed; and that is something that Freud says just like me. It is unmoored, it goes with the drift. One finds it displaced, mad, inverted, metabolised, but it is not repressed. What is repressed are the signifiers which moor it” (Seminar X, unpublished, 14.11.62., p.10).

Given that what is repressed is unconscious, and despite this unequivocal expression from Lacan that affects are not unconscious, we still find some Lacanians insisting that, “For Lacan affects and signifiers are inextricably interwoven in the unconscious” (Véronique Voruz, ‘Affect (Lacan)’, in The Edinburgh International Encyclopaedia of Psychoanalysis, Edinburgh University Press, 2009, p.10). What we find in Freud in 1915, and picked up on by Lacan in the fifties and sixties, is a more considered and elaborated treatment of the issue of affects.

Indeed, it is this central Freudian distinction between affects and ideas or representations that Lacan refers to when defending himself against the charge of neglecting affect. Years later, in Seminar XVII he argues again for the difference between the two to be observed:

“I have simply given its [the question’s] full importance, in the determinism of die Verneinung [negation], to what Freud has explicitly stated, that it’s not affect that is repressed. Freud has recourse to this famous Repräsentanz which I translate as représentant de la représentation, and which others, and moreover not without some basis, persist in calling représentant-représentatif, which absolutely does not mean the same thing. In one case the representative is not a representation, in the other case the representative is just one representation among others. These translations are radically different from one another. My translation implies that affect, through the fact of displacement, is effectively displaced, unidentified, broken off from its roots – it eludes us.

  “This is what is essential in repression. It’s not that the affect is suppressed, it’s that it is displaced and unrecognisable” ( Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.144).

We can sum up Lacan’s argument both in the late fifties and late sixties to practitioners who privilege affects as being essentially this: what is the point in focussing so intently on an affect that has been dislocated from the thing that would give it sense?

For Freud, there are two psychical representatives of the drive here: the idea and the affect. With regards to the affect, Freud uses the term ‘quota of affect’ (SE XIV, 152), saying in the metapsychological paper on repression,

“It corresponds to the instinct in so far as the latter has become detached from the idea and finds expression, proportionate to its quantity, in processes which are sensed as affects. From this point on, in describing a case of repression, we shall have to follow up separately what, as the result of repression, becomes of the idea, and what becomes of the instinctual energy linked to it” (SE XIV, 152).

Affect thereby moves to a substitutive representation to find expression when the original representation to which it was connected undergoes repression. Fink describes what this looks like clinically:

“The analysand is angry but does not know why, or vividly remembers an incident from his childhood but recalls no feelings he had at the time…. Affects can serve as a lure as well: the analysand might feel sad but is secretly ecstatic, or may act upbeat when he is actually mourning the loss of an unacknowledged love object” (Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.131, n6).

Schneiderman gives a clinical vignette of a common case where a patient demands affection:

“Her first demand was for affection; she had, she declared, enormous affective needs which, when they were not ministered to or administered to, had a tendency to erupt in crises, constantly, as it happens, because no ministrations or administrations were truly sufficient…. When she got around to directing this demand for affection to me, I answered simply that there was no such things as a need for affection, that the problem was elsewhere. Which is one of the ways that we get the reputation for being insensitive to affect” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

This ‘elsewhere’ is an example of how the idea or vorstellungen has been disconnected from the affect. The woman rationalises her affect as a need for affection, the affect having been displaced for an unconscious idea.

To take one more example of this mechanism from Freud’s own practice, specifically the Dora case:

“Another time Dora came to me in the worst of tempers after having been uniformly cheerful for several days. She could give no explanation of this. She felt so contrary to-day, she said; it was her uncle’s birthday, and she could not bring herself to congratulate him, she did not know why…. I let her go on talking, and she suddenly recollected that it was Herr K.’s birthday too” (SE VII, 59).

So what is the difference between affects on the one hand, and unconscious ideas or representations on the other? Are there such things as ‘unconscious emotions’?

Darian Leader puts an answer to this nicely: “There’s no such thing as an ‘unexpressed’ emotion – feelings tend to slip through. So we may show anger to our boss when really we’re angry with a parent. It’s not the anger that gets repressed but the link between thoughts; understanding what we’re really angry about” (Darian Leader, interview with Emma Cook, Psychologies magazine, 2008).

And here is what Freud had to say when he posed himself the same question in 1915:

“… In comparison with unconscious ideas there is the important difference that unconscious ideas continue to exist after repression as actual structures in the system Ucs., whereas all that corresponds in that system to unconscious affects is a potential beginning which is prevented from developing…. The whole difference arises from the fact that ideas are cathexes – basically of memory-traces – whilst affects and emotions correspond to processes of discharge, the final manifestations of which are perceived as feelings. In the present state of our knowledge of affects and emotions we cannot express this difference more clearly” (SE XIV 178).

So even if affects on the one hand, and  ideas or representations on the other, are the two parts of psychical life, accorded equal importance by Freud as ways in which the drive or instinct expresses itself; and even if in a sense affects can be said to be unconscious; affects and ideas nevertheless do not sit side by side in the unconscious, on an equal level. Ideas or representations – which in Lacanian terms we might look upon as signifiers – form the basis for the structure of the unconscious. It is in this way that Lacan reads the quotation immediately above from Freud’s paper on the unconscious.

Three elements of a metapsychology – the topographical, the economic and the dynamic

What Freud is presenting here in metapsychological terms is a model of the psyche with qualitative (experiential) and quantitative (dynamic or economic) aspects. In their authoritative psychoanalytic dictionary Laplanche and Pontalis define affect as “the qualitative expression of the quantity of instinctual energy and of fluctuations” (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, 2004, p.13). So on this definition we can take the ‘qualitative expression’ to refer to the sensation given rise to by the expression of the affect – manifested in the end as a feeling – and the ‘quantity of instinctual energy’ to refer to the drive, and with it a dynamic-economic theory of quantities of cathexis or investment.

To explain these terms a bit more: in Freud’s metapsychology (or depth psychology) he gives three ways of viewing psychical life: the dynamic, the economic and the topographical.

The dynamic corresponds to the interplay of forces: affects are the representative of the drive (or instinct, if you prefer) holding a quota of investment or ‘charge’:

“All of these forces are originally in the nature of instincts; thus they have an organic origin. They are characterised by possessing an immense (somatic) store of power (‘the compulsion to repeat‘); and they are represented mentally as images or ideas with an affective charge” (SE XX, 265).

The economic aspect of psychical life corresponds to how this affective charge is handled:

“From the economic standpoint psycho-analysis supposes that the mental representatives of the instincts have a charge (cathexis) of definite quantities of energy, and that it is the purpose of the mental apparatus to hinder any damming-up of these energies and to keep as low as possible the total amount of the excitations with which it is loaded” (SE XX, 265-266).

The topographical view divides up the psyche into tripartite regions so that the whole thing functions as a system: the so-called ‘first’ topography being that of the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious; the ‘second’ topography that of the id, ego and superego.

Lacan’s reading of Freud in the late fifties acknowledges, and perhaps endorses this model. In Seminar VI he gives what is more or less a summary of it:  

“… The affect refers to the quantitative factor of the drive, the one in which he [Freud] understands that it is not just movable, mobile, but subject to the variable which constitutes this factor, and he again articulates it precisely in saying that its fate can be threefold” (Seminar VI, unpublished, 26.11.58).

To pick up the relevant passage in Freud where the fate of affect is discussed:

“We know that three such vicissitudes are possible: either the affect remains, wholly or in part, as it is; or it is transformed into a qualitatively different quota of affect, above all into anxiety [a view Freud gives up in 1926 in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety – see SE XX, 93]; or it is suppressed, i.e., it is prevented from developing at all” (SE XIV, 178).

Here the ‘quota’ of affect would refer to the quantitative level, whilst the qualitative level would refer to the different character of expression of this quota in the process of discharge, experienced as a feeling. A couple of years after the metapsychological papers are written, in 1917, Freud provides a dynamic definition of affect:

“And what is an affect in the dynamic sense? It is in any case something highly composite. An affect includes in the first place particular motor innervations or discharges and secondly certain feelings; the latter are of two kinds – perceptions of the motor actions that have occurred and the direct feelings of pleasure and unpleasure which, as we say, give the affect its keynote” (SE XVI, 395).

Affects and psychical energy

If we understand affects as part of a psychical economy, in which a quota of affect is just the  “subjective transposition of the quantity of instinctual energy” (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, 2004, p.14), then it becomes clear that experiential affects – feelings – cannot be our guide in analytic work. Lacan’s problem is not with affects per se, but with the way that he believes them to be elevated in the practice of some of his contemporary analysts to a status beyond that accorded to them in Freud’s metapsychology. We should see behind the quota of affects the drive, and behind ideas the structure of the unconscious as a network of signifiers. In Seminar VII he says,

“As far as the psychology of affects is concerned, Freud always manages to give in passing significant and suggestive hints. He always insists on their conventional and artificial character, on their character not as signifiers but as signals, to which in the last analysis they may be reduced. This character also explains their displaceable significance, and, from the economic point of view, presents a certain number of necessities, such as irreducibility. But affects do not throw light on the economic or even dynamic essence which is sought at the horizon or limit from an analytical perspective. That is something more opaque, more obscure, namely, analytical metaphysic’s notions concerning energy” (Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton, 1992, p.102).

There is an energetics of the drive or instinct at work, at a ‘deeper level’ or beyond, we might say, than at the level of affect. This would correspond to the way that Laplanche and Pontalis define affect, as “the qualitative expression of the quantity of instinctual energy and of fluctuations” (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, 2004, p.13).

Affects in themselves are just the means by which the drive or instinct discharges itself. As Freud tells us,

“In general, the use of the terms ‘unconscious affect’ and ‘unconscious emotion’ has reference to the vicissitudes undergone, in consequence of repression, by the quantitative factor in the instinctual impulse” (SE XIV 178).

A change in Freud’s theory of affects – the reconceptualisation of anxiety

However, by 1917 Freud is giving a significantly new twist to the theory of affects. The view he presented a couple of years earlier is not the whole story. He suggests that there is a genetic or phylogenetic basis to certain affects, making them in some way primordial:

“But I do not think that with this enumeration we have arrived at the essence of an affect. We seem to see deeper in the case of some affects [this passage comes in the middle of a commentary on anxiety] and to recognise that the core which holds the combination we have described together is the repetition of some particular significant experience. This experience could only be a very early impression of a very general nature, placed in the prehistory not of the individual but of the species. To make myself more intelligible – an affective state would be constructed in the same way as a hysterical attack and, like it, would be the precipitate of a reminiscence. A hysterical attack may thus be likened to a freshly constructed individual affect, and a normal affect to the expression of a general hysteria which has become a heritage” (SE XVI, 395-396).

This is a line he advances almost a decade later, in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety from 1926:

“Affective states have become incorporated in the mind as precipitates of primaeval traumatic experiences, and when a similar situation occurs they are revived like mnemic symbols. I do not think I have been wrong in likening them to the more recent and individually acquired hysterical attack and in regarding them as its normal prototypes…. But, while acknowledging this connection, we must not lay undue stress on it nor overlook the fact that biological necessity demands that a situation of danger should have an affective symbol, so that a symbol of this kind would have to be created in any case” (SE XX, 93-94).

So we can see that Freud’s view of affects seems to change with the reconceptualisation of anxiety post-1915. It is interesting to note that in the two quotations above, despite the gap in years between the Introductory Lectures and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, he uses the same argument in the same context of a discussion about anxiety and with the same example of hysterical attacks.

Anxiety – the affect that Lacan does not ‘ignore’

It is clear form this that in spite its different formulations in Freud’s work anxiety has a privileged place amongst the affects. Both Lacan and Laplanche point to anxiety as being a special affect, in line with Freud’s assertion at the time of the metapsychological papers that anxiety is the affect “for which all ‘repressed’ affects are exchanged” (SE XIV, 179). Anxiety is, at least pre-1926, a universal currency for all transformations of affect:

“If repression amounts to making affect and representation independent of each other in the unconscious, how are we to conceive of what affect becomes at that point, if not an absolutely non-specific energy, to the extent that it is no longer fixed to a particular scenario which lends it tonality. This element, repressed into the unconscious but in a form which is henceforth purely energetic, would then only re-emerge in the form of anxiety – that is to say, of the affect which itself is also the least specific” (Laplanche, The Unconscious and the Id, Rebus, 1999, p.167, my italics).

Lacan too agrees that anxiety is an affect in the same sense, that it has not transformed from an affect to a feeling or emotion. In his seminar on anxiety given between 1962 and 1963 he asks:

“What is anxiety? We have ruled out its being an emotion. And to introduce it, I would say: it is an affect” (Seminar X, unpublished, 14.11.62., p.10).

Recalling this seminar eight years later Lacan gives even more weight to anxiety and its special place amongst the affects:

“Someone whose intentions I don’t need to describe is doing an entire report, to be published in two days time, so as to denounce in a note the fact that I put affect in the background, that I ignore it. It’s a mistake to think I neglect affects – as if already everyone’s behaviour was not enough to affect me. My entire seminar that year was, on the contrary, structured around anxiety, insofar as it is the central affect, the one around which everything is organised. Since I was able to introduce anxiety as the fundamental affect, it was a good thing all the same that already, for a good length of time, I had not been neglecting affects” (Seminar XVII, Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.144).

Freud however, whilst saying that anxiety is an affect, surprising us by saying as late as 1926 that he is still no closer to adequately defining it.

“Anxiety, then, is in the first place something that is felt. We call it an affective state, although we are also ignorant of what an affect is” (SE XX, 132).

What does Lacan do with affects?

So what can we say so far by way of review in terms of Lacan’s take on the Freudian theorisation of affects?

Lacan’s view is that what we term affects in psychoanalysis are only manifestations of the energy of the drive in the process of discharge. He appears to base this on Freud’s assertion that, “the use of the terms ‘unconscious affect’ and ‘unconscious emotion’ has reference to the vicissitudes undergone, in consequence of repression, by the quantitative factor in the instinctual impulse” (SE XIV, 178). Insofar as affects are perceived as feelings in their final form, Lacan does not believe that this should be given too much credence clinically because, with the exception of anxiety, the affects are all deceptive. As Lacan’s famous maxim goes, anxiety is the only affect that does not deceive (Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Karnac, London, 2004, p.41). So why do the other affects? Again, because the representatives that they were linked to remain repressed, and so the affect is displaced from the original representation onto something else. Thus the reason for your crying might not be the reason you think you are crying. It is repressed representations or signifiers which form structures in the unconscious.

It is difficult to accuse Lacan of being anything other that rigorously Freudian here, given that all this is in Freud’s metapsychological papers. The important point is that Lacan’s interest lies not in the affect but in the structure of signifiers or representatives that are repressed. As Lacan reminds his audience in 1960, “Affects do not throw light on the economic or even dynamic essence which is sought at the horizon or limit from an analytical perspective” (Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton, 1992, p.102). The importance given to affects should not be in the fact that they manifest themselves as feelings, but in that they refer to something at a deeper level, namely, the drive. As Jacobson reminds us, “It is important to distinguish between the affect, an expression of psychic drives, and the drive itself, and to study their relations” (Edith Jacobson, ‘The Psychoanalytic Theory of Affects’ in her Depression, International Universities Press, 1971, p.8). Now Lacan certainly cannot be accused of not having a theory of the drive; indeed, he takes pains to  theorise the drive separately from affect. Those who criticise Lacan for his lack of interest in affects only do so because have neglected to see how his theory of the drive answers the questions that are raised in Freud’s metapsychology about what lies behind affects; or those who have taken the affects too seriously and neglect the drive that lies behind them.

Affects can be dealt with using a discourse without words

On a practical, clinical level, Schneiderman suggests that rather than just ignoring affects as they manifested themselves in his practice, Lacan dealt with affects by using what he referred to as a “discourse without speech” ( Seminar XVII, Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.12):

“The way to deal with them is not very difficult to understand; one does so using a mode of discourse that Lacan said he preferred and which he used with exceptional effectiveness in his practice. And that was what he called a discourse without words, through the language of gesture, movement, tone of voice, different types of looks and salutations, different ways of ending the session, basically through variations in almost every element of the situation of the psychoanalytic session” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

Some analysts have criticised Lacan for this, believing that this practice amounted to a kind of theatrics in front of his patients. Indeed, Lacan is often mocked by his critics for his ostentatiousness. Schneiderman notes wryly that,

“Lacan was often accused of being too intellectual in his theory, in not giving enough play to emotion and affect. It is no small irony that many of those who preached the virtues of affect were the first to condemn Lacan for acting emotionally, for exposing his affects” (Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, Harvard University Press, 1983, p.12).

In any case, if Schneiderman is right, Lacan’s method of handling affects was not necessarily to verbalise them. Lacan was trying to find different ways of altering the meaning a patient gave to their feelings, their manifestations of affect. The non-verbal response they got from Lacan was perhaps not the response they expected to get to the feeling they were exhibiting during the session. If affects need to be given a signification in order for them to be ‘felt’ as feelings, this signification does not have to come via a putting into words.

 One of the consequences of the independence of affect from its representation is that affect will always be waiting for it to be given a signification or meaning so that it can be ‘felt’ as a feeling of this or that. This is why Fink believes that “the symbol is imminent in affect” (Fink, Lacan to the Letter, University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p.52):

“Affect is essentially amorphous – an amorphous quantity or substance, we might say metaphorically. It is common to hear patients say that it was only on Monday that they realised they had spent the entire weekend in some sort of depressed state, indicating thereby that the signifier ‘depressed’ was only added to the state or attached to it three days into it. The state itself, if we can even speak in such a way, is often indefinable, indeterminate, and it does not come with a present label” (Fink, Lacan to the Letter, University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p.51).

Lacan clearly does not see it as the job of the analyst to verbalise his patients’ affects. The analyst does not need to respond to the manifestations of the patient’s affects by shoving words in his mouth. As he says in Seminar XVII, discourse is different from language. Discourse relies on language in that it is through language that discourse is constructed; but discourse cannot be reduced to speech. Instead discourse refers to the way our relations to each other, including that of analyst and analysand, are organised. Therefore, verbalisation is just a form of discourse, hence why Lacan prefers to respond to affects using a discourse without words:

“The fact is that, in truth, discourse can clearly subsist without words. It subsists in certain fundamental relations which would literally not be able to be maintained without language. Through the instrument of language a number of stable relations are established, inside which something that is much larger and goes much further than actual utterances [énonciations] can, of course, be inscribed.” (Seminar XVII, Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.13).

Later in Seminar XVII in 1970, Lacan adds to this, telling his students that there is really only one affect – the affect that makes the subject into an object:

“In effect, from the perspective of this discourse [psychoanalytic discourse], there is only one affect, which is, namely, the product of the speaking being’s capture in a discourse, where this discourse determines its [the subject’s] status as object….

 “What object is it that results from this effect of a certain discourse? We know nothing about this object, except that it is the cause of desire, that is to say that strictly speaking it manifests itself as want-to-be. There is therefore no being that is thereby determined” (Seminar XVII, Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Translated by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton, 2007, p.151-152).

Lacan goes on to add that it is the analyst who should occupy this place of cause of desire.

Later, in Seminar XIX, Lacan claims that affects exist between the body and discourse, the way in which the body is caught up in a discourse. As an example he appears to imply that jurisprudence, deontology, or following the law of the master, produces a good feeling:

“… At the level at which discourse functions which is not analytic discourse, the question is posed of how this discourse has succeeded in catching hold of bodies.

   “… At the level of the discourse of the master, from which you are as a body, moulded… this is what I will call feelings and very precisely good feelings. Between the body and discourse, there is what the analysts gargle on about in pretentiously calling it affects…. Good feelings, what were they made with? Well then one is forced to get to this, at the level of the discourse of the master, it is clear, they are made by jurisprudence. It is all the same a good thing not to forget at the moment that I am speaking, where I am the guest of the Law Faculty, not to fail to recognise that it is jurisprudence and nothing else that grounds good feelings” (Seminar XIX, unpublished, 21.06.72., p.6).

Affects can be dealt with using the ‘antics’ of the analyst

In his paper on Lacan’s handling of affects Schneiderman takes the view that any analysis that focuses too heavily on affects falls into the trap of introspection. This is precisely the kind of narcissism that the analyst has to get the analysand to break. In practical terms Schneiderman suggests that one can avoid this by employing what he refers to as the ‘antics’ of the analyst:

“So, how do you deal with narcissism? Simply, by acting strange and weird. You want to present to the patient something that is not his mirror image, something that he must question and interpret and even analyse. You want him to see what’s going on outside of himself. If however you should tell him to introspect and then wonder why you are not getting anywhere with his narcissism, this is nothing more than a sign of not recognising the extent to which you are sustaining the problem precisely as you denounce it” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

However, Schneiderman holds fast to the idea that what the analyst should want that the patient do is to speak. The ‘desire of the analyst’ in this respect can be summed up as simply the desire for more material from the analysand, in place of receiving their affects:

“With someone who is depressed you obviously cannot sit back and wait for the person to talk, nor do you want the patient to emote ad infinitum. Here the point is that the analyst ought, as Lacan once said, to signify his desire, and this desire is not addressed to and does not concern a being who is a bundle of affects. At the least it is a desire to listen to something, a desire for the patient to talk” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

Affects are not a metalanguage

In simple terms, the reason why affects cannot be taken as some kind of  ‘metalanguage’ is because of Lacan’s privileging of desire over affects. To argue that affects are not a metalanguage is to assert that we cannot rely on the way that affects manifest themselves – as happiness or sadness, for example – as an indicator of how the analysis is going. As Lacan says:

“This conception, which urges analysis down strange paths, is puerile. The slightest peculiar, even strange, feeling that the subject professes to in the text of the session is taken to be a spectacular success. That is what follows from this fundamental misunderstanding.

    The affective is not like a special density which would escape an intellectual accounting. It is not to be found in a mythical beyond of the production of the symbol which would precede the discursive formulation. Only this can allow us from the start, I won’t say to locate, but to apprehend what the full realisation of speech consists in” (Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, W.W. Norton, 1988, p.57).

In Seminar VII, we find him restating this view:

“I don’t need to do more than remind you of the confused nature of the recourse to affectivity…. Of course, it is not a matter of denying the importance of affects. But it is important not to confuse them with the substance of that which we are seeking in the Real-Ich, beyond signifying articulation of the kind we artists of analytical speech are capable of handling” (Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton, 1992, p.102).

As Schneiderman puts it, for the analysts that Lacan criticises,

“It is as though the affect was called upon to provide an unassailable meaning, a meaning worthy of conviction, a meaning that could be known directly without any intermediary, without the introduction of an intellectual operation like reading, and without the uncertainty that such a dialectical activity necessarily entails” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

Lacan is completely opposed to treating affects as some kind of window on the soul, as this quote from Seminar X attests:

“On occasion, I have tried to say what affect is not: it is not Being given in its immediacy, nor is it the subject in some sort of raw form. It is not, to say the word, protopathic [primitive, primary] in any case. My occasional remarks on affect mean nothing other than this” (Seminar X, unpublished 14.11.62., p.10).

Speech is not just the putting of affects into words, because “it is not the structure of speech to be simply expressions of interior realities” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005). We might even venture to add that  a focus on affects is perhaps indicative of a disavowal of the unconscious on the part of some analysts. The affect is all too often taken to be the truth of what is going on, whereas it is unconscious desire that the analyst should be listening for:

“The unconscious desire that the patient is attempting to gain access to is present in his speech as well as in his dreams and symptoms. And the only way to gain access to whatever is encoded in dreams and symptoms is through the language that structured them in the first place” (Scheiderman, Affects, republished in The Symptom, no.6, online journal at, 2005).

An analysis of affects comes at the expense of an attention to the patient’s signifiers which is the key to unconscious thoughts, desires and fantasies. This attention to signifying formulations on the part of the analyst is what Lacan means when he says that the subject receives his message in inverted form from the Other. In practice, this entails equivocation. The words that the analysand has used are fed back to them in a way that allows them to hear more than a single meaning, more than the meaning they intended to be heard.

Communicating more than we feel

In Seminar I, Lacan says that our speech is responsible for communicating far more than we actually feel. The very fact that affects can have different destinies is due to their processing by, or moulding through, the symbolic order:

“Each time that we find ourselves within the order of speech, everything which founds another reality in reality, at the limit, only acquires its meaning and its edge in relation to this same order. If the emotion can be displaced, inverted, inhibited, if it is engaged in a dialectic, it is due to its being taken up into the symbolic order, in accordance with which the other orders, the imaginary and the real, find their place and their disposition” (Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, W.W. Norton, 1988, p.239).

Lacan tells a little story to illustrate this idea that verbalising something (if not, in this instance speaking) can communicate something more than what can be manifested as feelings. In the Ancient Greek myth, Odysseus’s fellow adventurers were turned into pigs. Lacan imagines that they grunt to one another about missing Odysseus, even though they recognise that he might be responsible for the mess they are in.

“On this occasion there really does exist what we call, in the order of emotions and feelings, ambivalence. Because, for his companions, Odysseus is somewhat of a liability as a guide. However, once changed into swine, they no doubt have grounds for missing his presence. From whence the doubt about what they are communicating. This dimension is not to be overlooked. But is it enough to turn a grunt into speech? No, because the emotional ambivalence of the grunt is a reality, in its essence unconstituted.” (Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, W.W. Norton, 1988, p.240).

In other words, the grunts can be taken to express the ambivalence of feeling as a grunt. A grunt does not have to be speech for it to communicate something. It’s not clear, from the very fact that it is a grunt, what it is communicating. The pigs themselves might not be able to express their ambivalence to Odysseus in speech – they might not be able to articulate how they feel (something called alexithymia) – but their grunts do it for them by virtue of being grunts. This dimension of ambivalence to a grunt cannot be avoided – it is inherent in the noise itself.

But what separates these animal grunts from human speech is, Lacan suggests, the demand for recognition that speech entails. For Lacan, speech has the primary function to bear witness; it is its hallmark:

“Speech is essentially the means of gaining recognition. It is there before anything lying behind [an affect, for example?]. And, on account of that, it is ambivalent, and absolutely unfathomable. What it says – is it true? Is it not true? It is a mirage. It is this initial mirage which guarantees that you are in the domain of speech.” (Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, W.W. Norton, 1988, p.240).

Speech does not communicate a feeling; it seeks recognition from the other, the listener, the interlocutor. For Lacan, speech is not simply a way of representing affects.

 Affects and the symbolic

In Seminar VI Lacan refers to “positional affects” that relate to the being of the subject, listing love, hate and ignorance as such affects (Seminar VI, unpublished, 14.01.59, p.8). Affect is not a “beyond of discourse” but is what happens, in the most intense affective outbursts, when the real erupts into the symbolic. Affect “represents an extremely deranging eruption of the real within this symbolic”, he says, using anger as an example:

“And it is very difficult not to perceive that a fundamental affect like that of anger, is nothing other than that: the real which arrives at the moment that we have constructed a very nice symbolic framework, where everything is going well, order, law, our merit and our goodwill. One notices all of a sudden that things do not hang together. This is the normal operation of the affect of anger” (Seminar VI, unpublished, 14.01.59, p.8).

In Seminar VI, Lacan says that affect is a connotation of the subject under the envelopment of the signifier:

“But affect is essentially, and as such, at least for a whole fundamental category of affects, a connotation characteristic of a position of the subject… with respect to the necessary lines that are imposed on him, as such, by his envelopment in the signifier” (Seminar VI, unpublished, 14.01.59, p.8).

This seems to imply a secondary place affects take in relation to the signifier or the symbolic order. In Seminar XI he picks up this theme, pointing to an unbridgeable gap between the word or signifier and that which in the body the affects are a product of (by implication, the drives):

“From the moment man puts his affects into words, he makes them into something else; through the word he transforms them into a means of communication causing them to enter into the field of relationship and of intention-ality [sic]. The word renders communicable what was lived at the level of the body, which in itself, in the last analysis, remains non-verbal. We all know that to say one loves someone has only a slight connection to what is meant by this love as experienced bodily. Lacan [sic] reminds us that to tell someone you desire him is to include him in your fundamental fantasy. It is also undoubtedly to bear witness to this fact, the witness of one’s own signifier. Whatever may be said on this topic everything indicates a gap which exists between affect as interiorised bodily emotion, as something which has its own profound source,  in that which by definition cannot be expressed in words, I speak of phantasy, and the word which thus appears in its function as metaphor” (Seminar IX, unpublished, 02.05.62., p.3).

The process of putting something “lived at the level of the body” into signifiers is thus semi-tragic. By putting things into words we can make them communicable and thereby we ourselves and others can bear witness to them. But the “profound source” of the drive or psychical energy that Lacan refers to cannot be transmuted into signifiers: the drives remain silent. Whence the common experience of feeling something intensely but being unable to articulate it (alexithymia).

Lacan gives a quite enigmatic but tantalising remark in an address on French TV in 1973 which echoes this semi-tragic aspect of affect in relation to a body that might be said to endure it:

“Affect, therefore, befalls a body whose essence it is said is to dwell in language … affect, I repeat, befalls it on account of its not finding dwelling-room, at least not to its taste. This we call moroseness, or equally, moodiness. Is this a sin, a grain of madness, or a true touch of the real?” (Television, edited by Joan Copjec, W.W. Norton, 1990, p.23-24).

What might Lacan have meant by this? Perhaps that affect is that which does not fit in the body that is caught in the signifying chains of language. It is not therefore that Lacan doesn’t find a place for affect in his theory, but that his theory is that affect doesn’t find a place in the body as such.

By Owen Hewitson,

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