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Not-Mother: On Freud’s Verneinung


At first sight, and considering its length, Freud’s short essay on Verneinung looks like a fleeting comment, a short note of an observation that is mostly, and in spite of its amusing character, of a technical nature: When in analysis we hear the person utter this and that, we can conclude, with great probability, that what is at stake is this and that. Freud’s most famous example is a remark made by a patient, and has since become proverbial: “You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother” (Die Mutter is es nicht). In which case, adds Freud, the question is settled; we can be sure that it is indeed her. Moreover, every explicit negation of this sort, every strongly emphasized distancing from a certain content, strongly indicates the truth of precisely this content. This holds, of course, only in cases when the analysand herself “comes out” with this content or intention, yet accompanies it with a preliminary negation. For example: “Now you’ll think I mean to say something insulting, but really I’ve no such intention.”

Yet the more we advance into Freud’s essay, the more the technical unambiguity of examples remains behind, and what comes to the foreground is a fascinating knot of practically all the key problems of psychoanalysis, organized around the peculiar and evading negativity that is its central focus. For it soon becomes clear that the negativity at work in Freud’s witty examples is in no way reducible to the simple opposite of positivity, or affirmation; it is not reducible to the truthfulness of its opposite, and it becomes clear that by translating “It's not mother” into “It is mother,” we don’t get very far—the symptoms persist, and the real problem, as well as the main part of analytical work, only starts here. What comes to light is a certain crack, or internal interval, that is at work in the relationship between the crucial categorical couples, and that undermines their complementariness and symmetry: inside/outside; pleasure/beyond the pleasure (principle); repression/becoming conscious of the repressed; affective/intellectual; Eros/destructive drive; and so forth.

Apart from this, but also of course related to it, Freud’s paper offers an extremely dense speculation about the very origin of thought, speculation that stupefied the prominent French Hegelian Jean Hippolyte, made apparent in his commentary on the essay, which he delivered upon Lacan’s invitation to his seminar. We are dealing with something like “the birth of thinking out of the spirit of negation” (or rather, from the—signifying—mark of negation). It seems indeed that Freud’s essay on “negation” is also a kind of quilting point between philosophy and psychoanalysis. And this is how we’ll read this essay here: as a way of thinking about the singular and paradoxical negativity outlined, as well as handled, by psychoanalysis, and its relationship to philosophy.

Let’s take Freud’s essays step by step. Without being asked who played part in his dream, the patient rushes forward and volunteers the word “mother,” accompanied by negation. It is as if he has to say it, but at the same time cannot; it is at the same time imperative and impossible. The result is that the word is uttered as denied, and the repression coexists with the thing being consciously spoken out. The first mistake to avoid here is to read this in terms of what this person really saw in his dream, and then, because of a conscious censorship, lied about it in his account to the analyst. Crucial to the understanding not only of Verneinung but also of the Freudian unconscious as such is that what is unconscious in the given case is first and foremost the censorship, and not simply its object, “mother.” The latter is fully present in the statement, and introduced by the subject himself, who could have not mentioned her at all. Here, the unconscious sticks to the distortion itself (the negation), and is not hidden in what the subject supposedly really saw in his dream. It could well be that in the dream there actually appeared another person, known or unknown, yet the story of the unconscious that is relevant for analysis begins with this “not my mother” that takes place in the account of the dream. When mother thus appears in this singular “alloy” composition with negation as “not-mother,” it looks as if both terms have irredeemably contaminated each other. As if the “not” marked the mother with the stamp of unconscious desire (“like Made in Germany stamped on the object,” as Freud puts it), and “mother” no less contaminated the formal purity of the negation with “elements in traces,” to borrow what can sometimes be read on the packaging of certain foods.

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