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Just Say 'No' To Cogito

The Letter, Issue 19, Summer 2000, Pages 50 - 91


Adrian Johnston


The subject the Cartesian subject, is the presupposition of the

unconscious ...

The Other is the dimension required in order for speech to affirm itself as


The unconscious is, between the two of them, their cut in act[1]

Despite its fundamental rule of free association, psychoanalysis is notorious for preventing one particular thing from being said - 'No'. Pinned to a sofa, much like a point de capiton, the analysand can and must say anything at all. However, caught in the matrix of the analyst's interpretive framework, he is unable to deny the accuracy of the remarks of this grande Autre. In the context of the session, yes means yes, but no also means yes. In fact, Freud makes a fundamental clinical rule out of Shakespeare's 'methinks thou doth protest too much'. The more frequent and vigorous the patient's denials are, the closer the analyst presumes to be to unconscious truth.

Critics of psychoanalysis are justifiably alarmed by this facet of its therapeutics. On the one hand, they fear the spectre of pseudo-science due to an absence of falsifiability criteria. On the other hand, they perceive the potential for harmful, authoritarian abuses of patients by analysts. If the analysand's responses all amount to the same affirmation of the analyst's interpretations, then how is it that one can discern the difference between 'good' and 'bad' analytic interventions? Of course, Freud already has several responses to these objections at his disposal. To begin with, it's not just any old 'no' that the analyst listens for (as Lacan later says, there are many forms of negation, which it's misleading to group under a single heading[2]). It's a 'No!' that is distinctively fierce and insistent. Not only is the linguistic content of the act of negation crucial, but also the affective disposition accompanying said act.

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