Where does resistance come from?

The first question we have to ask about resistance is a very simple one: where exactly does resistance come from?

In 1953, at the start of what were to become yearly seminars, Lacan pursues a close reading of Freud’s work on psychoanalytic technique. From the earliest days of his therapeutic clinic, Freud had noted the presence of a resistance to the treatments he undertook with his patients. But the resistance he experienced came not just from his patients’ unwillingness or unreadiness to confront the cause of their suffering but seemed instead to be inherent in the process of speech itself. Resistance seemed to manifest itself when the patient was called upon to speak about the experiences they associated with their suffering.

Freud’s way of first conceptualising this resistance envisaged the patient’s speech to be arranged in concentric layers, wound around a repressed nucleus of pathogenic, often traumatic, material which lay at the root of neurotic symptoms. Resistance occurred, he thought, when the patient approaches this nucleus by penetrating successively the different layers of speech amassed around it (SE II, 288-290). An abstract conceptualisation perhaps, but one which the ‘early’ Freud found serviceable in understanding why his patients found it difficult to talk about experiences they felt as traumatic, and why what they said about their suffering appeared so often to veer off onto other, apparently unconnected, avenues. Reading Freud, Lacan summarises that resistance appears to be met “by approximation in the radial direction as Freud puts it, of the subject’s discourse, when it finds itself closer to the deep formation which Freud calls the pathogenic nucleus.” (Seminar I, p.39.) On this model, resistance is encountered in speech itself, and indeed Lacan states in his reading of Freud’s texts of this time that “Resistance stems from the very process of the discourse, from its approximation” to the pathogenic material (Seminar I, p.39). But here we have to be careful. If speech or discourse is the battlefield on which we meet resistances, that is not to say that resistances are inherent in speech itself. The phenomenon of resistance is not necessarily the same as its cause or point of origin.

In his discussions in Seminar I Lacan describes resistance as,

“… The result of an attempt to move from the external registers towards the centre. From the repressed nucleus a positive repulsive force is exerted, and when one strives to reach the threads of the discourse which are closest to it, you feel resistance. Freud even goes so far as to write… that the strength of the resistance is inversely proportional to one’s distance from the repressed centre” (Seminar I, p.22, my italics).

Lacan’s account here appears to state quite clearly that resistance comes from the repressed nucleus itself. But just moments later he goes on to tell his audience that “He [Freud] would say that one encounters greater and greater resistance the closer the subject comes to a discourse which would be the ultimate one, the right one but one which he absolutely refuses.” (Seminar I, p.22, my italics). These latter remarks, in their privileging of speech, imply that for the patient (and Freud) the problem is not the repressed as such, but the speaking of the repressed. What is at issue psychotherapeutically is the integration of repressed material into a discourse or narrative that the subject can assume. When we attempt to understand what is going on in the phenomenon of resistance therefore we have to ask two different questions: firstly, a metapsychological one about psychical dynamics (in which, on the above hypothesis, the repressed nucleus exerts a repulsive force); and secondly, a therapeutic one (in which what is at stake is the patient’s ability to speak the truth of the cause of his suffering).

It is perhaps this second question that Lacan appears most interested in during the early 1950s. Beginning with the hypothesis that “Resistance is the inflexion the discourse adopts on approaching the nucleus” Lacan believes “we will only be able to resolve the question of resistance by deepening our understanding of what is the meaning of this discourse.” (Seminar I, p.36). But what Lacan finds in Freud is a recognition that resistance can be detected through “its effect in the verbalisation of chains of speech in which the subject constitutes his history.” (‘Variations on the Standard Treatment’, 334, my italics). The implication here is that a psychoanalysis does not operate on the cause of resistance as such – the pathogenic nucleus which persists as an un-analysable kernel of the symptom and is effectively out of reach – but on the discourse or speech through which it can be detected. Whilst this might be seen as a qualification, Lacan gives immense privilege to the act of speech in a psychoanalysis. He appears to believe it has a therapeutic value in and of itself, an almost thaumaturgical status as an act in which the un-analysable core of the symptom can be assumed if not dissolved.

How does speech have this power? Freud’s patients, lying on the coach, doing their best to recount to him the origins of their suffering, speak without knowing what they are saying. The words they use conceals a message of which they are unaware, but which points, in spite of their conscious intentions, to the repressed material that comprises the unconscious nucleus. As Lacan puts it,

“Syntax, of course, is preconscious. But what eludes the subject is the fact that his syntax is in relation with the unconscious reserve. When the subject tells his story, something acts, in a latent way, that governs this syntax and makes it more and more condensed. Condensed in relation to what? In relation to what Freud, at the beginning of his description of psychical resistance, calls a nucleus.” (Seminar XI, p.68).

Metaphorical though they may be, what Lacan finds in Freud’s first descriptions of resistance, “overpoweringly tend to suggest the materialisation of speech, not the mythical materialisation of the neurologists, but a concrete materialisation.” (Seminar I, p.22). The patient’s speech comprises “several threads of discourse…. a stream of parallel words” around the pathogenic nucleus which constitutes the core of neurotic suffering (Seminar I, p.22).

But as we have seen the speech of the patient is marked or tainted by this resistance; the discourse the patient engages in during a psychoanalysis is the site of resistances, the battlefield where they are encountered. If speech is a way of approaching the unconscious kernel in a radial or roundabout direction – through various stratified layers – what, then, is resisting?

In one respect, Freud is very clear on this point: the unconscious does not resist (SE XVIII, 18). Lacan follows Freud’s assertion, telling his Seminar audience in 1955 that, “On the unconscious side of things, there is no resistance, there is only a tendency to repeat.” (Seminar II, p.321): unconscious material ‘insists’, pushing towards expression.

For Lacan, Freud’s clinical experience of resistance and his early metapsychological description of its process give way later to the idea that it is the ego that is responsible for resistance (SE XVIII, 20). Finessing his metapsychological opposition from one of conscious-unconscious to one of ego-repressed, Freud writes in 1915 that “the patient’s resistance arises from his ego” (SE XVIII, 20). Retracing Freud’s steps, Lacan’s believes that Freud’s notion of the ego developed as a response to the therapeutic difficulties Freud was experiencing in confronting his patient’s resistances; that Freud’s initial difficulties conceptualising resistance can be seen as difficulties in forming the concept of the ego. Repeating in his Écrits that “resistance is essentially an ego phenomenon” (‘Introduction to Jean Hypollite’s…’, 374), Lacan states “one realises that the notion of the ego already foreshadows for Freud all the problems that it now presents for us. I would almost say that it is a notion with retroactive effect.” (Seminar I, p.23).

So what is it about the ego that makes it the source of resistance?

Lacan’s answer to this question starts with the situation of the ego in the register he calls ‘imaginary’. This is not imaginary in the sense of make-believe, but rather the realm of images which Lacan believes lure and captivate the subject, freezing him in an alienation that falsely binds his subjectivity to his body-image. Throughout his work in the 1950s, Lacan presents the imaginary register as fundamentally incompatible with the unconscious, which he characterises as radically Other. By its very nature, the imaginary blocks or ‘jams’ the message that ‘insists’ from the unconscious. We can see the ego as the agent of this jamming of repressed material in its push towards consciousness. As Lacan puts it in the Écrits,

“To know what resistance is, one must know what blocks the advent of speech, and it is not some individual disposition, but rather an imaginary interposition which goes beyond the subject’s individuality” (‘The Situation of Psychoanalysis…’, 461).

Rather than being a result of the patient’s own unwillingness to countenance the repressed, resistances in psychoanalysis is inherent to the composition of the ego itself. This resistance cannot therefore be attributed to the intentions of the patient to sabotage his or her psychoanalysis. This view sets Lacan apart from other psychoanalysts of his time, many of whom conceived of resistance as a defence employed by the ego. In contrast, in his Écrits Lacan attacks the view he attributes to the Anna Freudians that “the ego is truly the objectified subject whose defense mechanisms constitute resistance” (‘Variations on the Standard Treatment’, 336). For him, rather than being seen as a defence, resistance should be seen as a fundamental, constitutive quality of the ego as imaginary. With the ego as its agent, resistance itself is a fundamentally imaginary phenomenon:

“… It is in the nature of the ego to integrate itself into the imaginary circuit which determines the interruptions of the fundamental discourse…. For it is in so far as it is imaginary, and not simply in so far as it is carnal existence, that the ego is, in analysis, the mainspring of the interruptions of this discourse, which simply asks to be put into action, into speech” (Seminar II, p.325).

In his Écrits Lacan describes the ego in similar terms, referring to “the imaginary inertias it concentrates against the message of the unconscious” in the subject’s discourse which attempts to find expression (‘The Instance of the Letter’, 520).

This attempted expression is that of a message that carries a meaning about the subject’s history; the job of the psychoanalyst is to enable to subject to produce this message and assume it as part of his history (Écrits, 301-302). Assuming what is ‘Other’ about the unconscious means recognising that the material of the unconscious has a symbolic resonance. What is difficult to realise is not necessarily the material itself, but the fact that this material exists on another scene (eine andere Schauplatz, as Freud put it (SE V, 536)) – in another register, which Lacan calls that of the symbolic. What we experience as resistance is the tension exerted at the junction of the imaginary and the symbolic. The presence of imaginary referents, of which the ego of the patient is one and the ego of the analyst another,

“… may be an obstacle to the progress of the realisation of the subject in the symbolic order…. And that is indeed why we are always faced with some sort of resistance opposing the restitution of the integral text of the symbolic exchange. We are embodied beings, and we always think by means of some imaginary go-between, which halts, stops, clouds up the symbolic mediation. The latter is perpetually ground up, interrupted.” (Seminar II, p.319).

Before examining in closer detail the implications of this tension Lacan identifies between the imaginary and symbolic registers for the handling of resistances in psychoanalysis, we can summarise our conclusions on the question of where the resistances come from. The question should be split into three, separating the origin, effect and agent of resistance. Whilst the origin of the phenomenon of resistance as we experience it in psychoanalysis may be in the unconscious nucleus of pathogenic material, rather than resisting, this material seeks expression. The agent of resistance that jams or impedes the realisation of this expression is the ego insofar as it is an imaginary construction. Finally, the effect of this jamming is felt at the level of discourse, the almost tangible sense – either of inertia or circumlocution – that both the analyst and analysand experience as the latter’s speech approaches the repressed material.

Whose resistance?

Even if we have answered the question of what is resisting, Lacan is careful to discourage his students from being lured into the convenient assumption that it is the ego of the analysand which produces resistance. Instead, he encourages us to ask a deceptively simple question: who is resisting? For Lacan, there is no doubt as to the answer: “There is no other resistance in analysis than that of the analyst” (‘Introduction to Jean Hyppolite’s….’ , p.377). From early on in his work we find Lacan repeating this thesis in almost exactly the same terms, giving it the status of a mantra for his followers (see, for example, ‘Direction of the Treatment’, 595; Seminar II, p.228; Seminar III, p.48). What does he mean by this?

Lacan’s contention is that the way in which the analyst targets his or her interventions against the patient’s resistances can themselves generate resistance. We can highlight three ways in which this might happen.

The first form of the analyst’s resistance is manifested through the analyst’s eagerness to simply reveal, in the form of an interpretation, the analysand’s hidden sexual desire. As Lacan puts it,

“There is only one resistance, the resistance of the analyst. The analyst resists when he doesn’t understand what he is dealing with. He doesn’t understand what he is dealing with when he thinks that interpreting is showing the subject that what he desires is this particular sexual object.” (Seminar II, p.228).

Whilst all his followers should be wary of Lacan’s occasional tendency to allow his rhetoric to mis-represent his fellow analysts’ positions, the practice he describes highlights two pitfalls in the technique of a psychoanalysis. Firstly, to reduce all desire to the search for sexual satisfaction, to lust. It does not take much to imagine how this over-sexualisation can produce resistance, so Lacan is almost stating the obvious when he proclaims that “If the analyst pushes things, forces a sexual explanation on the patient, he will encounter resistance” (Seminar II, p.228). Secondly, the rush to a sexual interpretation petrifies the analysand’s desire by too readily affixing it to an object. Rather than using it as a motor for treatment, something to be explored and questioned in the course of analysis, the analysand’s desire is forestalled, and it is in this sense that the analyst can be said to be introducing resistance into the treatment.

Relatedly, the second way in which resistance can be attributed to the analyst is through his or her appeal for the analysand’s agreement on the ‘correctness’ of the interpretations offered. In the Écrits Lacan bemoans the way in which,

“… psychologizing superstition has such a powerful grip on our minds that people always seek out the phenomenon of well-foundedness in the subject’s assent, entirely overlooking the consequences of what Freud says about Verneinung [negation] as a form of avowal…. This is how theory translates the way in which resistance is engendered in practice. It is also what I am trying to convey when I say that there is no other resistance to analysis than that of the analyst himself.” (‘Direction of the Treatment’, 595).

Finally, resistance can be said to be on the side of the analyst when the latter attempts to challenge it directly. From the outset the psychoanalyst should respect the fact that resistance is there for a reason; attempting to counter it through force of will would be not only be futile but met with an exacerbation. Lacan thus questions the assumption that the removal of resistances should be considered analytic progress.

“It is the subject’s refusal of this meaning [the meaning of his symptoms] that poses a problem for him. This meaning must not be revealed to him, it must be assumed by him. In this respect, psychoanalysis is a technique which respects the person…. It would thus be paradoxical to place in the foreground the idea that analytical technique has as its aim to break down the subject’s resistance.” (Seminar I, p.29).

Challenge the resistance at the level of the ego, Lacan suggests, and the symptom answers back. By way of example, he raises a case of Freud’s in which the latter had attempted to circumvent his patient’s resistance by presenting to her everything he knew about her history, as if the pathogenic kernel of the neurosis were nothing more than a forgotten memory:

“So he [Freud] tells it to the subject, by saying to her – Here is what happened, this is what was done to you. On each occasion, the patient, a hysteric, responded with a little hysterical crisis…. She listened and replied, in her own way, which was her symptom.” (Seminar I, p.36).

Where the analyst proffers a hasty interpretation, even one that he or she believes is accurate or brilliant, resistance is sure to be encountered.“Whosoever applies force provokes resistance”, as Lacan succinctly puts it. (Seminar II, p.211).

With so many potential pitfalls in the handling of resistance we might wonder what point there is in trying to tackle them in the course of a psychotherapy. But at the time Lacan made the majority of his interventions on questions of psychoanalytic technique many analysts were convinced that an ‘analysis of resistances’ was requisite to any successful psychoanalytic therapy. So what does it mean to ‘analyse resistances’?

It had been well-understood by all analysts, from Freud onwards, that the job of the psychoanalyst cannot be simply to reveal to the patient a hidden (almost inevitably sexual) truth that they were presumed to have repressed. The reason for the subject’s seeking analysis – the symptom – was held to be a disguised message revealing this truth. It was therefore considered the analyst’s job, as a skilled practitioner, to provide an interpretation of the symptom that would reveal this message and unmask a truth that the patient could then reconcile himself to. If the patient did not accept the analyst’s interpretation, this was a sign of resistance, and so it was obvious that the resistance itself first had to be analysed. Thus was the rationale for the so-called ‘analysis of resistances’ that so many of Lacan’s contemporaries took to be a necessary first step on the road to treatment, and which Lacan devotes a lot of time to critiquing in his Écrits (see for example, ‘Variations on the Standard Treatment’, 333 and especially ‘Introduction to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s “Verneinung”’, 369-380).

What precisely did Lacan not like about the ‘analysis of resistances’? Firstly, he saw it as suggestion rather than analysis. In simple terms, this suggestion is the result of persuasion. But as Lacan argues in 1954 it is also brought to bear through the imposition of the ego of the analyst as a model on which the patient can refashion himself: “Intervening by substituting oneself for the ego of the subject, which is what is always done in one way of practising the analysis of resistances, is suggestion, not analysis”, he declares (Seminar II, p.43). As we have already discussed, opposing resistance can smother the subject’s desire and thwart its development as a motor to the treatment. As such, “The subject’s resistance, when it opposes suggestion, is but a desire to maintain his desire.” (‘Direction of the Treatment, 636).

Analysis should not be conducted, Lacan thinks, at the level of two egos. Lacan locates all ego-to-ego relations in the register of the imaginary, and all imaginary relations for him are characterised by competition and rivalry. Therefore, any analytic therapy conducted on these lines is bound to produce resistance, turning analysis into a perpetual battle between two egos. This will ultimately end either in deadlock (the abandonment of the treatment) or in submission (the identification of the analysand’s ego to that of the analyst). Deadlock will take the form of what Lacan calls, in his criticisms of the analysis of resistances, a “dyadic complicity” (‘The Freudian Thing’, 434), which he describes as resulting “from this brawl, from this tight embrace which the analysis of resistances produces” (Seminar I, p.286). Equally, submission of either party – the analyst or analysand – will be inevitable due to a striving for mastery intrinsic to imaginary relations which he characterises as “the effects of prestige in which the ego asserts itself” (‘The Freudian Thing, 434).

But Lacan offers psychoanalysts some ideas on how to avoid becoming ensnared in these imaginary traps. The analyst should appear indifferent – even showing disdain – if his patient endeavours to please him with ostensible displays of commitment to the analytic work (‘Function and Field’, 315). Equally, he should remain aloof where he detects that, “the resistance is serving to keep the dialogue at the level of a conversation in which the subject tries to continue seducing the analyst by slipping beyond his reach.” (‘Function and Field’, 291). In one of his later Seminars, Lacan implores analysts to avoid approbation, offering advice, or taking sides with the analysand. These should be “very precisely what the structure of psychoanalysis leaves blank”, he argues (Seminar XV, 24.01.1968., unpublished, but available here). Indeed, at one point Lacan even asserts that the inaction of the analyst should extend to making “death present” in the consulting room. “This means”, for Lacan, “That the analyst concretely intervenes in the dialectic of analysis by “cadaverizing” his position” through his silence (‘The Instance of the Letter’, 528).

To avoid the imaginary battle of egos that can result from the analysis of resistances, Lacan argues that analysis should be conducted in another register: that of the symbolic. Rather than becoming an ego-to-ego affair, a psychoanalysis should focus on the speech of the analysand, addressed to the analyst incarnated in the role of Other. This Other is not another person but a place, which Lacan describes as “the locus in which speech is constituted.” (Seminar III, p.274). The axis ego-ego is thus exchanged for the axis subject-Other (Écrits, 53) so that “The echo of his [the analysand’s] discourse is symmetrical to the specularity of the image.” (Seminar I, p.284.) Practically, this means that instead of the analyst delivering an interpretation akin to an explanation, it is sometimes not necessary for the analyst to do much more than repeat the subject’s speech back to the him in order for its unintended resonances to become clear. In a seminar in the mid-fifties Lacan summarised for his audience what the ‘analysis of resistances’ means and does not mean:

“It doesn’t mean intervening with the subject so that he becomes aware of the manner in which is attachments, his prejudices, the equilibrium of his ego, prevent him from seeing. It doesn’t mean persuading him, which leads pretty quickly to suggestion. It doesn’t mean reinforcing, as they say, the ego of the subject, or to make an ally of its healthy part. It doesn’t mean convincing. What it means is, at every instant of the analytic relation, knowing at what level the answer should be pitched.” (Seminar II, p.42-43).

But at the same time Lacan gives a more general definition of resistance in the analytic setting. He follows Freud in stating that anything that disrupts the analytic work should be considered a resistance (SE V, 517 and Seminar I, p.34); it should be seen as a phenomenon inherent to the work of analysis. This assertion nuances the idea that resistances are attributable to the ego. Lacan ventures the hypothesis that Freud viewed resistance as something of an extra-psychological phenomenon:

“You must admit that this generalisation of the theme of resistance allows one to think that he [Freud] doesn’t include it in a psychological process. Resistance only acquires value in relation to the analytic work. It isn’t at all considered from the point of view of the subject’s psychic properties…. resistance is not thought of as being internal to the subject, on a psychological level, but uniquely in relation to the work of interpretation.” (Seminar II, p.127).

So does a successful psychoanalysis involve the overcoming of resistances? And if not, at what does it aim? Rather than uncovering something that is buried in the depths, towards which we have to fight our way through resistances, Lacan describes psychoanalysis as closer to a process of creation. What psychoanalysis does is “to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring this desire into existence…. If desire doesn’t dare to speak its name, it’s because the subject hasn’t yet caused this name to come forth.” (Seminar II, p.228-229). Lacan describes psychoanalysis variously as a technique through which desire is assumed (Seminar I, p.29), avowed (‘Direction of the Treatment’, 641) or named (Seminar II, p.228).

“But it isn’t a question of recognising something which would be entirely given, ready to be coapted. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world. He introduces presence as such, and by the same token, hollows out absence as such.” (Seminar II, p.228-229).”


By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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