In The Question of Lay Analysis from 1926, Freud imagined himself being asked by an ‘Impartial Person’ whether psychoanalysis is a confession. He imagines the following question being thrown at him:

“‘You assume that every neurotic has something oppressing him, some secret. And by getting him to tell you about it you relieve his oppression and do him good. That, of course, is the principle of Confession, which the Catholic Church has used from time immemorial in order to make sure its dominance over people’s minds.’

We must reply: ‘Yes and no!’ Confession no doubt plays a role in analysis… But it is very far from constituting the essence of analysis or from explaining its effects. In Confession the sinner tells what he knows; in analysis the neurotic has to tell more.” (SE XX, 189)

At a press conference in 1974 Lacan was asked the same question by an Italian journalist. But he replied more emphatically:

“Absolutely not! They are not at all alike. In analysis, we begin by explaining to people that they are not there in order to confess. It is the first step of the art. They are there to talk – to talk about anything”. (The Triumph of Religion, p.63).

We think of a confession or the revelation of a secret as a moment of candour, of sincerity. We imagine that this is rare and that it’s something only done under certain circumstances, like when visiting a priest or a psychoanalyst.

But is this the case? Let’s take two recent, high profile, very public confessions. Firstly, from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong to Oprah Winfrey. Click the link below to view the full interview:

lance armstrong-oprah winfrey
Full interview:

What stands out most from this interview is that, because of the extent of Armstrong’s evasiveness, his biggest confession is not about his doping but rather to tell Winfrey how he is going to lie to her. Of course, Armstrong does not state this outright, but anyone with a Lacanian ear will be able to detect in his ambiguous choice of words a more revealing meaning than he had consciously intended. Time and again in the interview, when Winfrey pushes for more detail about something, he tells her he is lying to her. “Again, I’m gonna tell you what’s true and not true”, he says at 41:00, a turn of phrase that can be read in two ways. Earlier, at 9:33, he says, “If you ask me if it’s true or not I’m going to say ‘It’s true or not’”. This can also be read in two ways, either as “I’m going to say, ‘It’s true or not’”, where the intended meaning was to answer honestly, or it can also be understood as, “I’m going to say, ‘It’s true’, or not” – that is, I’m going to choose whether to tell you the truth. As Freud said, negation is the hallmark of the unconscious (SE XIX, 236).

But perhaps the most revealing indication that Armstrong was guarding a secret can be found in his most famous speech – the one he gave immediately after winning the 2005 Tour de France for a seventh consecutive time. Here as well, from within his own words a meaning is present that exceeds the one he intended. This 30 second, impromptu speech is so rich with unconscious content that it’s worth spending a few paragraphs taking it apart:

In this short excerpt, Armstrong starts by talking about belief. Ostensibly, he’s addressing “The people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the sceptics”. But then he makes a curious turn in his discourse – he apologises twice. Again, ostensibly this is an attack on his critics who can’t “believe” in his victory – but why express it as an apology?

Immediately after, he uses a very odd turn of phrase that can’t help appear out of place: “You should stand around and believe”. This is enough to make a Lacanian’s ear prick up, but it is quickly followed by the oddest statement of all – “I’m a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live and there are no secrets – this is the hardest sporting event and hard work wins it”. And there are no secrets? Why, we might ask, did Armstrong choose to express himself by referring to secrets? Ostensibly he’s referring to the hard work involved in winning the race, and some may argue that it’s over-analysing his words to latch onto the term ‘secrets’. But why state that there are no secrets when he could have said there are no shortcuts, no easy answers, or the dozens of other turns of phrase available to him? As Freud never tires of pointing out, when someone speaks about something we have to treat with respect the words that they use, that it is this word rather than that one that occurred to them at that moment and none other. Armstrong’s statement that there are “no secrets” is the perfect illustration of what Freud meant when he said that negation was the hallmark of the unconscious, “a way of taking cognisance of what is repressed” (SE XIX, 235).


Naturally the focus of most commentators in the media and online has been on the intended topic of Daley’s very admirable and courageous admission. But if – as we saw in the two quotes above – Freud’s idea is that a psychoanalysis involves telling both what you know and what you don’t know, and if Lacan is content to abandon the model of confession entirely, what might have piqued their interest in Daley’s account? Perhaps the odd reference to feeling “safe” that he uses twice when describing his partner, a signifier that evidently has some kind of personal significance that might tickle a Lacanian’s ear (the fact that he has used this same signifier in other interviews about the same subject further suggests this). Or perhaps the remarks about his father which bookend the video point to a connection between these two aspects of his life. Of course, we can’t possibly know what significance they hold without hearing more from Daley himself, and further speculation would be pointless. But as we will now see, for both Freud and Lacan the important lesson is to listen for these sorts of contingent details that stand out in a person’s speech and exceed the bounds of the subject matter being discussed.

Contingencies and redundancies in speech reveal the materiality of the unconscious structured like a language

When Lacan said that the point of a psychoanalysis was not to confess, but to talk about anything, his confidence in this approach stems from his belief that what is of interest psychoanalytically hides in precisely the sorts of the minor details that are, ostensibly, of no interest whatsoever. The subject matter of a confession – like the two very different examples we have just looked at – is not as interesting psychoanalytically as the form that the confession takes, the way in which it is expressed. Indeed, a confession or admission of a secret itself can actually conceal the material which is the most revealing. As Lacan argues,

“… It is through the mark of arbitrariness characteristic of the letter that the extraordinary contingency of accidents that give the unconscious its true face can be explained” (Écrits, 448).

In a similar vein, twice in the Écrits we find Lacan making reference to speech happening on different “staves”, like in a musical score:

“It suffices to listen to poetry… for a polyphony to be heard and for it to become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of a musical score” (Écrits, 503).

“…. Analysis consists in playing on the multiple staves of the score that speech constitutes in the registers of language” (Écrits, 291).

This implies that, like the way we can’t read music except by taking into account the different staves of the score, we also can’t understand someone’s speech without taking into account the different ‘staves’ or resonances that the signifiers they use may harbour. This is a feature of Lacan’s theory of language. For him, language – and speech as an act of language – operates on both a vertical (synchronic) and horizontal (diachronic) level. As we have already seen in a previous article, Lacan teaches us to be alert to the ways that the unconscious expresses itself without using the first person pronoun:

“… The psychoanalyst knows better than anyone else that the point is to figure out [entendre, also ‘to hear’] to which ‘part’ of this discourse the significant term is relegated, and this is how he proceeds in the best of cases: he takes the description of an everyday event as a fable addressed as a word to the wise, a long prosopopeia as a direct interjection, and, contrariwise, a simple slip of the tongue as a highly complex statement, and even the rest of a silence as the whole lyrical development it stands in for” (Écrits, 252).

Another way of looking for these contingencies in a person’s speech that point to unconscious thoughts, ideas or fantasies is to look for what Lacan describes as redundancies. All speech – but admissions, confessions and secrets in particular – are never simply transmissions of a message. In their telling, they contain discreet elements that exceed the topic being discussed. This is what we saw in the testimonies of Armstrong and Daley. Lacan believes that it is these elements that we should foreground in order to divine the unconscious. In the Écrits he writes:

“… It can be observed that the more language’s role is neutralised as language becomes more like information, the more redundancies are attributed to it [Lacan’s own emphasis]. This notion of redundancy originated in research that was all the more precise because a vested interest was involved, having been prompted by the economics of long-distance communication and, in particular, by the possibility of transmitting several conversations on a single telephone line simultaneously. It was observed that a substantial portion of the phonetic medium is superfluous for the communication actually sought to be achieved.

This is highly instructive to us, for what is redundant as far as information is concerned is precisely what plays the part of resonance in speech.” (Écrits, 299).

Lacan is elaborating here on some remarks he made in Seminar II a few years earlier. There, to illustrate this idea of redundancy, he gave an example from the Bell Telephone Co. in the United States. In the early 1950s Bell had a problem. More people wanted to make telephone calls, but Bell didn’t want to shoulder the cost of investing in extra lines to carry them. So they needed to transmit several conversations on a single telephone line simultaneously.

This meant reducing the transmission of the human voice to the barest modulations that still made the message communicated understandable. The meaning of what was being said was, of course, neither here nor there – Bell’s was just a technological solution to an economic problem. As Lacan noted, “It had nothing to do with knowing whether what people tell each other makes any sense…. It is a matter of knowing what are the most economical conditions which enable one to transmit the words people recognise. No one cares about the meaning” (Seminar II, p.82).

The point that Lacan was trying to make with this example was that a psychoanalysis is not about making sense of what someone says, but in treating what they say as signifiers, and then paying attention to the ‘materiality’ of those signifiers. “Doesn’t this underline rather well”, Lacan suggests about his Bell example, “the point which I am emphasising, which one always forgets, namely that language, this language which is the instrument of speech, is something material?” (Seminar II, p.82).

But returning to Armstrong and Daley’s admissions, at a more fundamental level than that of the content of these confessions is the timing of them. Daley for example states at the start of the video that his motivation for making it was due to being “misquoted” in an interview; Armstrong’s is the accusation that he doped even after his return to the sport in 2009.

This gives us a clue to answering an important question – at what point does someone decide to make this sort of declaration? And more specifically, at what point does someone make a demand for a psychoanalysis or turn to a priest? The timing is not arbitrary – it’s an indicator of what is important to that person. As in our examples, we can say that what motivates a confession is the experience of having oneself spoken for. Daley for example was misquoted, an act in which something someone says about you takes the place of your own words. This has the effect of calling upon you, the subject, to make a definitive statement about yourself and have that statement recognised by the other. Having a receiver of this speech that comes from oneself about oneself is a vital element in the revelation of a secret, as much for Daley or Armstrong as it is for those seeking confession with a priest:

“… Man’s desire finds its meaning in the other’s desire, not so much because the other holds the key to the desired object, as because his first object(ive) is to be recognised by the other.” (Ecrits, 268)

“Who will speak if not you?”, as Lacan asked of one of his patients in an anecdote from his practice related in this earlier article. To speak for yourself rather than be spoken for: this is the essence of psychoanalysis, the purest practice of free speech.

The level at which a secret is told is the level from which it is drawn.

Charon, The Ferryman of Hell

At the very start of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is a quote from Virgil that Freud chooses as an inscription to his most important and ambitious work: acheronta movebo, ‘I will move the infernal regions.’

We tend to think of the confession of a secret as being something mined from the deepest parts of our soul. This is what gives a confession its weight, it’s value. We think that someone’s candour is the result of a pained effort of self-expression. And indeed the difficulty of a confession, as Daley testifies to above, would corroborate this assumption.

But as we have seen, Lacan’s idea seems to imply that it’s not ‘from the depths’ that a secret is pulled – rather, it is hidden in plain view. The surface is not the superficial.

There has been a certain historical trend in psychoanalysis which assumes that what Lacan calls “the subject’s division between truth and knowledge” (Écrits, 864) has to be bridged. This means, for many psychoanalysts or psychotherapists, making the unconscious conscious, an infectious idea which has its heritage in Freud’s ambiguous formulation from the New Introductory Lectures that “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” (SE XXII, 80).

But the making of a confession or the admission of a secret is not the same as, and does not necessarily imply, the emergence of unconscious content. In other words, just because you are able to confess or reveal a secret doesn’t mean that that secret is what has previously been unconscious, and that therefore you have been successful in making it conscious.

Certainly there is a cathartic value in being able to make your own words your own, in being able to give an account of your experience. But this is not the end of the story. Being able to put something into your own words does not mean ‘case closed’ – honesty, frankness and candour are not hallmarks of the unconscious.

This important difference constitutes a fundamental point of divergence between Lacanian psychoanalysis and many other psychotherapies, or counselling as a practice. The Lacanian lesson here would be: do not confuse a confession with the unconscious.

The subject-supposed-to-know is the unconscious

Let’s now look not at who makes the confession or reveals the secret, but to whom they do so. This brings us to a second Lacanian lesson: that it is not some power of the psychoanalyst or the psychotherapist that elicits this confession. It is not the context of the analysis or the person of the analyst that matters. Rather, the unconscious always pushes for expression, and it doesn’t only do so in the discretion of the analyst’s consulting room or the priest’s confession booth.

This was something that Lacan warned his pupils about:

“For objectification in psychological matters is subject, at its very core, to a law of misrecognition that governs the subject not only as observed, but also as observer. In other words, it is not about him that you must speak to him, for he can do this well enough himself, and in doing so, it is not even to you that he speaks. While it is to him that you must speak, it is literally about some-thing else – that is, about some-thing other than what is at stake when he speaks of himself – which is the thing that speaks to you. Regardless of what he says, this thing will remain forever inaccessible to him if, being speech addressed to you, it cannot elicit its response in you” (Écrits, 419).

Here we see the relevance of Lacan’s remarks about the ‘staves of discourse’ we quoted earlier. The mode of analytic intervention is to respond to the analysand about some-thing else.

One of the ways in which Lacan described the psychoanalyst’s mistaken mastery of the analytic situation, his or her ability to elicit a ‘deeper truth’ about a patient, was with the term ‘subject supposed-to-know’. A lot has been written on this concept, but a story about Lacan is revealing of his attitude towards it.

A translator of Lacan’s work into Spanish, who suspected that the idea of the ‘subject supposed-to-know’ had previously been mis-translated, once asked Lacan what he meant. Lacan said, “The subject supposed to know, it’s the unconscious” (as related in Jean Allouch, Les Impromptus de Lacan).

This is the most fundamental meaning we can give to Lacan’s enigmatic expression. Now that most Lacanian psychoanalysts have finally disabused themselves of the notion that the ‘subject supposed to know’ means the ‘analyst supposed to know’, Lacan’s works are all the more a guide to the kind of knowledge we are talking about in psychoanalysis. Lacan jokingly said to his audience at the Catholic University of Louvain in 1972 that the idea that the analyst knows something “is not all that widespread” nowadays (18:46 in the video below):

If this knowledge is unconscious, or if, more precisely, the unconscious is a knowledge of which you are unaware, one doesn’t necessarily need a psychoanalysis to express it – the unconscious is that which seeks for expression through any forms of speech, whether that be an interview with Oprah or a YouTube video.

Of course, there will always be shrinks tempted to trade on the allure of a ‘secret knowledge’, a kind of allusive mystique that suits them – and really only them – all too well. Lacan was probably attacking exactly these practitioners with his remarks. But Lacan’s lesson is that the analyst doesn’t have any special powers, that the practice of his or her art is just to be the conduit for unconscious material.

And this, then, is the deepest secret of psychoanalysis: that there really are no secrets. That the truth pushes for expression through contingencies, redundancies, through the discreet and ostensibly unimportant details of a person’s speech. What’s more, the truth of a secret does not necessarily lie in the admission of that secret itself.

By Owen Hewitson,


Creative Commons Licence
All content on is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.