In Seminar 11 Lacan develops a very different account of transference. Under the traditional account, transference is a repetition of past feelings and behaviors towards someone in the present. For example, your boss somehow resembles your father and as a result you end up repeating something like a “behavioral script” with him, defying him as you did your father, interpreting all his actions and words as abusive, seeing him as a protector, and so on. Under this concept of transference, we think the issue is one between ourselves and our boss, we see things as issuing from our boss, when in fact our behavior and interpretations have little to do with our boss at all, but rather are ghostly repetitions of our relationship to a person from our past.
While not discounting these phenomena, Lacan takes a very different approach. For Lacan, transference is not a repetition of a past relationship to another figure in the present, but is instead a relationship between the subject and the Other’s knowledge. An analysand, says Lacan, is in a state of transference when he supposes the analyst to have knowledge. The dimension of supposition is crucial here. It’s not that the analyst has knowledge. It’s not that the analyst has demonstrated his knowledge to the analysand. It’s not that the analysand has seen evidence of the analyst’s knowledge. No, in a transference relation it is instead merely that the analysand supposes the analyst to have knowledge. Despite all evidence to the contrary– analysts are, after all, mostly silent in the clinic –the analysand in a state of transference nonetheless attributes inscrutable knowledge to the analyst.
In this regard, transference is similar to the sublime. In Kant’s account, the sublime is something that exceeds our capacity for representation such as when we look up into the night sky and attempt to imagine the enormity of the universe or when we encounter a massive hurricane. The sublime outpaces our ability to think or know what is presented to us. This is how it is with the analyst’s alleged knowledge from the analysand’s perspective. The analyst is experienced as possessing a mysterious knowledge that is capable of peering into the heart of the analysand. Think, for example, of how many people react when they meet a psychotherapist at a party. Upon being introduced it’s not uncommon for people to say “I better be careful about what I say!” This is an instance of the transference at work. The person supposes that the analyst has a secret knowledge that allows them to lay bare the truth of the subject; and this in the absence of all evidence. It’s that experience of mysteriousness, secretiveness, and inscrutability that is the dimension of the sublime in the person of the analyst.
We can say that from the standpoint of the analysand the knowledge of the analyst is withdrawn, and that it is this very withdrawal, this very mysteriousness, that gives the analyst’s words their efficacy or power. This observation, I think, should give us pause with respect to the concept of withdrawal as it’s been deployed in certain speculative realist circles. For transference is also a principle of power and group relations; it is a central way in which the powerful exercise their power over others, and is also a way in which resistance is formed to certain bodies of thought and practice. More on this in a bit.
For Lacan this supposition of knowledge is what gives efficacy to the words of the analyst. The words of an analyst can have an impact on a subject in a state of transference precisely because the subject believes the analyst to speak from a place of knowledge. Here it’s important to emphasize once again that the analyst need not really have knowledge for his words to have these effects. For example, a patient might be lying there, recounting his day, when the analyst suddenly coughs involuntarily. From the analysand’s perspective, however, the cough is an intervention and has meaning. The paradox, of course, is that it’s not the analyst expressing meaning, but rather the analysand projecting meaning onto the analyst’s cough. The entire time it’s the analysand doing all the work, but this work can only proceed and take place on the condition that the analysand supposes the analyst to have a secret knowledge. This is the key to the analysand’s attachment to the analyst, and where that transference is absent, the analyst’s words can have no effect. This is why nothing can take place in an analysis where there is no transference. For example, a devout Catholic that believes psychoanalysis is heretical nonsense would do better to consult a priest for the transference simply isn’t there.
Transference is pervasive outside the clinic as well. In education, for example, no learning can take place where the student has no transference to her teacher. The teacher’s words will slide off of her like water off the back of a duck. We see it especially in the case of politics. Here we might think of the example of the ardent follower of a leader. The follower sees something sublime in the leader, a superior knowledge of what to do and how to proceed that becomes the principle of the follower’s unflagging attachments. Regardless of what the leader does, regardless of how bungled his actions might appear or how contrary these actions might appear to the interests of the follower, the follower sees nothing but brilliance, “eleventh dimensional chess”, and benign motives behind the leader’s actions. For this reason, the follower becomes immune to persuasion and criticism. In this regard, transference can share some resemblance to paranoia. For the person in the grips of paranoia, evidence contradicting the truth of his delusion lacks any power to undermine the delusion and even functions as evidence for the truth of the delusion. Likewise, for the follower in the grips of transference attachment to the leader or cause is immune to any evidence to the contrary and criticisms, in fact, come to function as support for the heroism of the leader and cause, generating the conclusion that the followers and leader are victims of a conspiracy to undermine their noble aims. It is the very mysteriousness of the leader, the withdrawal of something that is in him more than himself, that functions as the ground of the attachment.
Negative attachment exercises a similar power. Where the ardent follower attributes sublime knowledge and wisdom to the leader, in a negative transference the subject attributes malicious motives to the other group regardless of their actual words and actions. This logic is revealed in a study of republican mindsets (.pdf) recently conducted by Democracy Now. Despite his center-right moderate policy proposals and positions, a plurality of republicans are convinced that Obama is a socialist bent on redistributing wealth, undermining religious freedom, taking away guns, etc. Despite an entire body of evidence to the contrary, republicans just know that this is Obama’s true motives. From this perspective, the more withdrawn his motives are, the less he articulates any set of motives resembling these, the more convinced these subjects are that this is what he’s really up to. Once again, we have the phenomenon of transference structuring social relations.
And isn’t this also how the essence of marginalized others have traditionally been talked about by dominant groups? While it is true that the racist, misogynist, and anti-semite attribute positive characteristics to the group they seek to marginalize, they also always talk of the othered groups as having an inscrutable and mysterious withdrawn essence; a withdrawn essence that is unknowable and inarticulable, but which nonetheless is menacing and dangerous, therefore needing to be controlled and dominated. Think here, for example, of the so-called “feminine mystique”, which functions both as a source of allure and a ground for controlling women and denying them their autonomy and self-determination. In their mystique, the withdrawal of their alleged essence, they’re portrayed as dangerous, menacing, and in need of control and surveillance. It is the mystique, the mysteriousness, the transference, that serves as the defense for their subordination. Far from being emancipatory and cultivating attitudes of respect and care (Sorge), the negative theology of withdrawn essences, no matter how weird or strange, often generates oppressive and destructive relations to other beings. The question is that of how strategies might be devised to break these forms of transference.