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Full and empty speech within psychoanalytic practice

The Letter, Issue 26, Autumn 2002, Pages 109 - 119


Frédéric Declercq

At the beginning of his teaching, what motivates Lacan is, according to his own saying, 'to clear away the imaginary, which was too prevalent in technique'[1]. Since post-Freudian theory and technique revolve around the axis of the ego and its resistance, Lacan seeks to define the respective domains of the symbolic and the imaginary within analytic practice. One of the crucial topics underlying Lacan's elaboration of the agencies of the ego and the subject of the unconscious throughout his first seminars concerns the question of the way to deal with the ego-defences within clinical practice. To put it bluntly: can one interpret the ego-defences? Following Freud, Lacan demonstrates that the interpretation of the ego defences is a technique that just doesn't work.

The agency of the ego: Freud and Lacan

Picking up and radicalising Freud's work, Lacan splits Freud's concept of the ego in two, into the subject and the ego. Lacan calls the ego the 'mental illness of man,' for it is synonymous with resistance in psychoanalysis.[2] More precisely, the ego functions like a resistance operating against the analysis of the subject of the unconscious. As for the nature of the defence mechanisms, Freud and Lacan found that the ego resists in a rather typical, paranoid way, namely by denial and projection. Lacan's doctoral dissertation was about the link between paranoia and personality. However, after 40 years of clinical practice with neurosis and psychosis, Lacan no longer talks about the link between them; his final statement on the matter is that the ego is paranoia. In this respect, we emphasise again that Lacan's conceptualisation of the ego is different from Freud's. Lacan was fully aware of Freud's inability to define the ego in a consistent way, and his differentiation between the subject of the unconscious and the ego is an attempt to make up for this inability. Indeed, it is obvious that throughout Freud's work, the theory of the ego is full of holes, and is never finished. Even his last paper, published after his death - The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence - produces more questions than answers.

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