On the Question of the Future of Psychoanalysis: Some Reflections on Jacques Lacan


Psychoanalysis seems to have become increasingly concerned with the question of its future. What does it mean to speculate about the future, to be anxious about it, to assess the present on the basis of anticipation of it? Jacques Lacan was someone for whom the future was a critical psychoanalytic concept. Perhaps most famously, his retranslation of Freud’s ‘wo Es war, soll Ich werden’ as ‘Where it was, there shall I become’, gives a sense of Lacan’s desire to effect a certain kind of displacement forward. In this paper I’d like to situate Lacan’s theory of desire in relation to the question of the future of psychoanalysis. Further, Lacan’s critique of the notion of progress is crucial to understanding this anxiety about the future. I will also give a reading of how Freud dealt with these themes, contrasting his 1910 paper, ‘The Future Prospects of Psychoanalytic Therapy’, and his 1919 paper, ‘Lines of Advance in Psychoanalytic Therapy’. My hope is that this will provide an opening in an apprehension that, above all else, burdens the next generation of psychoanalysts.

A question is haunting psychoanalysis: the question of the future of psychoanalysis. Why this increasing concern with the future of psychoanalysis? Why this unending discourse on its death or rebirth? While I understand that this question becomes a part of many debates, in academia and otherwise, there does seem something particular to psychoanalysis that invokes the call to declare it dying, dead, obsolete, finished, or on the flipside, continuing, relevant, alive, resurrected. What does it mean to speculate about the future, to be anxious about it, to assess the present on the basis of anticipation of it? It is important to ask a question about this question concerning the future of psychoanalysis.

To take a step back, if one surveys the field, the questions range from the practical – what to do about the future, our institutes, changing times, changing demands of patients, indeed changing patients – to the more general concerns with the discipline as a whole (see, e.g. Wallerstein 1988; Dufresne 2005; Bernardi 2005; Chessick 2007; Jurist and Safran 2009; Wagner 2009; Stepansky 2009). The latter encompasses, but is by no means limited to, questions about our place in the sciences, the university, the hypothetical unification of the field, or its perturbing fragmentation. These debates typically end with a plea for emendations to either theory or practice or both, based on some supposed conclusions drawn from these questions. In this cycle of anxious assessment and recommendation there hardly seems room to ask, ‘why are we asking this question to begin with?’

For Lacan the question of time and temporality is paramount. There are few analysts who take up this question of time and, for this reason, we must delineate what Lacan has said about the future. To state the matter bluntly: the question about the future is, simply put, a symptom. It is a particular symptom, as Lacan deduces it, of the notion of progress, a notion he situates on the border of history and psyche. For Lacan the notion of progress is related to a particular turn-of-the-century anxiety characteristic of the modern subject.

Anxiety, Lacan has said, is not without an object. So what then is this object of progress that is causing us so much grief? Well, the object of anxiety for Lacan is something like a ghost; something that has come where it should not, where there should in fact be an absence.


Lacan’s Anti-Progressivism

Trying to situate oneself in the present can ease an anxiety that tends to construct the experience of time with various shades. It is no easy task. Time, despite its obvious regularity, has an evanescent and capricious character. Time as catastrophic, for example, or time as paradise regained, is a timeless time or a time that seems to break out of time. This encompasses the extreme range of feelings from the oceanic, to the sense of eternity, to something like President Schreber’s apocalyptic twilight state – living in what he called ‘end times.’ There is also the feeling of being stuck in time – the time of stasis, of waiting, of anxious apprehension. These times are burdened by the sensation of being too thick or too thin, too concrete or too excitable. Procrastination, ennui, languor, anticipation, impatience, frenzy and mania all come to mind.

My sense of many of these modalities is that they are an attempt to fix time, to apprehend time, here in both meanings of the word – arrest and understand. The attempt to say, ‘I am here and that will (or will not) be there’, gives a feeling of time as a linear construction. You can place yourself on a point on a line. Even in catastrophic time, for example, you have the sense of a line culminating at an endpoint – indeed, it is an attempt to precipitate that end rather than remain where one is. There is an effort at orientation, despite how delirious that orientation might become.

Lacan, while recognizing this phenomenology of time (particularly in relation to neurosis and psychoanalytic treatment), emphasized the imaginary aspects of this way of thinking. For example, what is operative is often something like the projection of wish. The oceanic feeling, as Freud points out, is the wish for a return to the protection of omnipotent parental love and the attempt to experience a kind of boundless narcissism. Procrastination, Lacan points out, is a kind of anal relationship to time where omnipotence is retained through a refusal of time. Time can take on a phantasmatic quality.

For Lacan, there is also a time that stands in opposition to these more ‘imaginary’ times. This time is closer to a conception of time that is rhythmic rather than linear; a time that stresses return, repetition, breaks, openings and closings, and not endless progression or progression to an end. It is closer to the movements of unconscious desire and the different order of time that Freud marked when writing about the unconscious.

Lacan emphasizes the importance of a differentiation in these registers of time, particularly when reflecting on the moment when psychoanalysis comes into being. He reminds us that the turn of the century is a juncture of history when the idea of ‘progress’ was slowly becoming the dominant model. Progress, he reminds us, is a new concept – not more than 100 years old – tied to the modern subject of science. There is an illusion of timelessness that the idea of progress gives off despite this rather recent birthright, and psychoanalysis, he felt, was a challenge to this linear ordering.

How can we think of anything without thinking of progress? On first reflection, it seems almost impossible. Progress appears as an uncontestable good. One must progress. What else is there? Progress sets an intrinsic value on human civilization. Trying to think outside of this Weltanschauung, however, is intrinsic to Freud and his method of thought. His cautious final remarks in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) are quite close to Lacan’s fundamental anti-progressivism:

It is very far from my intention to express an opinion upon the value of human civilization. I have endeavored to guard myself again the enthusiastic prejudice which holds that our civilization is the most precious thing we possess or could acquire and that its path will necessarily lead to heights of unimaginable perfection… One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wish for happiness – that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments (SE, XXI, p. 144–145).

Lacan holds to this criticism of progress, the conceit of an unquestionable value placed on the present of civilization.

Lacan, in his work from the 1930s to the1960s, was immersed in the paradoxes of the enlightenment; not least of reasons being the end of World War II. I think Lacan cannot be understood outside of this mid-century reaction to WWII and a suspicion of ‘progress’ that for him united technology, science, capitalism and militarism.[1] One of the lines of thought that Lacan pursued throughout his life was a disentangling of Freud from enlightenment rationalism.

For Lacan, the belief in God is just one among many beliefs in an absolute that takes on a variety of forms contemporaneously: from nationalism, to absolute knowledge, the supremacy of reason, the authority of science, the cult of progress, and the myth of the autonomous individual.[2] These absolutes were bound to attempts to purge anything that threatens that absolute. Imagined future fulfillment or imagined mastery – what Freud called above ‘the heights of unimagined perfection’ – is allied to that part of culture that seeks to deny the implications of the unconscious.

History in the psychoanalytic vein of thought is neither linear, nor modeled on the approach to perfection, nor bound up with mastery or fulfillment – anything but. History for psychoanalysis happens rather in fits and starts, in a series of formative crises and their resolution, ‘in breaks, in a succession of trials and openings that have at every stage deluded us into thinking that we could launch into a totality’ (Lacan 2008, p. 95). History is a drawn out confrontation between man and his illusions, disappointments, and an impossible relation to satisfaction.

Lacan reads this as an ethical standpoint inherent to Freud’s project and a critical one to maintain. He states:

Whether people are civilized or not, enlightened or not, they are capable of the same collective enthusiasms, the same passions. They are always at a level that there is no reason to describe as higher or lower, as affective, passionate, or supposedly intellectual, or developed, as they say. The same choices are available to all of them, and they can translate into the same successes or the same aberrations. This message that Freud brings is definitely not discordant with what has happened since his day, and that should inspire us to take a much more modest view of the possibility of progress in thought. Anyone who takes the trouble to try to get back to the level where this message has some effect is sure to be closer to what is singular in psychoanalysis (Lacan 2008, p. 105).

The ideal of progress forces one to try and anxiously hold the future captive which runs the risk of abandoning a modesty singular to psychoanalysis.

Modesty is a modus operandi that has its foundation in the workings of any psychoanalytic clinical encounter. For myself, what I am in the ‘progress of’ or, the supposed ‘progress’ of a patient, progress notes and all, having to stand before what is called the ‘progression committee’, is in no way self evident. More often than not, as we know, it is best not to make assumptions. Nevertheless, progress is an unquestioned presence in every sector of our work. The future, Lacan reminds us again and again, belongs to no one.


Desire is Oriented Towards, but not on, the Future

What is singular in psychoanalysis for Lacan is the discovery of the unconscious, in particular, the discovery of unconscious desire. If one hears about Lacan, one hears about desire. While Lacan has popularized the idea of desire, what is so fascinating and distinct about this category is easily lost, much I suppose, like desire it-self. Abiding by the old Freudian opposition between ego-libido and object-libido, narcissism and desire, the death and life drives, Lacan’s claim is that what psychoanalysis does is ‘give us back our desire‘. Furthermore, this desire is oriented towards, but not on, the future. Desire is the antidote, in a manner of speaking, to any anxiety about the future.

It is important to understand that for Lacan desire cannot be taken on the model of a biological need or a conscious wish, as in the wish for a new car or a girlfriend or a bagel. To say that desire is unconscious, tied into an unconscious network of wishes, is just the starting point. If I say, I wish you would love meI wish you would see meI wish I could take possession of you – here we are a little closer to what Lacan is talking about. When I say I love you, or I wish you would love me, rather than any of these statements being some kind of incarnation, as in an end expressionist theory of desire, they are only the beginning. Love me how? See me in what way? Possession? Really? What did you have in mind?

What this brings to bear is not the satisfaction of desire, but its impossible, never total, only partial satisfaction, the pursuit of which creates our subjectivity and our world. The elaboration of desire brings the subject into relief, rather than relieves some tension in a pre-ordained subject. What Lacan will stress is that this involves neither the adaptation of desire to the world, a kind of taming of it, nor of the world to our desire, a kind of domination of the outside, but an alignment of the subject with his or her unknown desire. That, which he says, is ‘in you more than you’ (see Lacan 1960/1992).

Likewise, the psychoanalyst in the consulting room abides by this model – think of what happens when a patient wants to logically progress in a session with his thoughts. Never to us, strangely, do they sound worse. The reason? It is a strategy to avoid unconscious desire. As Phillip Rieff (1979) puts it: if the demands of efficiency in the modern world turn all time into money, psychoanalysis does the reverse, elevating inefficiency and turning money back into time. If our future is increasingly hemmed in by the demands of contemporary life, psychoanalysis demands that it re-open, even if only in the space of an hour.

This fundamental break that psychoanalysis creates is always, for Lacan, related to what is radical and nuanced about this category of the sexual in the unconscious; in other words, the dialectic between drive and desire. The movements of desire displace an implicit trend towards mastery, totality, unification, and essentialism; and so desire continues to be an open site of investigation and possibility, or, to put it more strongly, it is the open site par excellence.

Perhaps most famously, one can see this in Lacan’s retranslation of Freud’s Wo Es WarSol Ich Werden, as, ‘where it was, there shall I become’. He pointed out that Freud didn’t use das Es or das Ich, and moreover, that werden always means ‘to become’. Our translation, ‘where id was, there shall ego be’, is much too static for Lacan, instantly pitting ego against id, one good, one bad, one higher, one lower.

From a selective angle, Lacan emphasizes desire, not its object which, as we know since Freud’s Three Essays (1905), is its most variable aspect constructed by a subject’s unconscious desire-life. The anti-progressive Lacan can also be thought of as an anti-utilitarian with respect to desire. Pathology is emphasized only in light of the varied failures of libido, its withdrawal and stagnation inward – what used to be implied by the narcissistic neuroses or fixation, for example.

Perhaps this emphasis on movement, time, as tied to desire, is one reason I’ve taken up this burden of the question of the future of psychoanalysis – these seem to me inextricably linked. The gift of time in psychoanalysis is also the gift of desire, and it seems as if psychoanalysis has lost sight of this gift in an anxiety that runs counter to its offer. Perhaps in getting closer to desire, we may free psychoanalysis from what has come to feel like its loudly ticking clock.

So the question of this paper is a question concerning the telos of psychoanalysis, the future of psychoanalysis not as a question of ends, as in means to an end, or progress to the end – as the point where it either dies, realizes itself, or knows itself in full – but its raison d’être, its reason for being. In other words, the message psychoanalysis has with respect to desire. What psychoanalysis can demonstrate is how, with great difficulty, it brings about new ways of living with unconscious desire, how symptoms can inform a mode of passionate subjectivity. For myself, I would like to pare down progress, the conception of the future of our field, to the force, to these lines of desire. I see this as Lacan’s Freudian project.


A Young Freud on the Future of Psychoanalysis

I would like to give some sense of the use this concept of desire can have in reading Freud and elaborating on this question of the future of psychoanalysis. One of the less touted components of Lacan’s teaching was aimed at separating this truth that emerged, the discovery of psychoanalysis, from the unavoidable phantasmatic or imaginary portion of Freud’s desire. I will engage in just such an analysis by turning to a few papers by Freud where he discusses the progress and future of psychoanalytic knowledge, in particular his 1910 paper The Future Prospects of Psychoanalytic Therapy and his 1919 paper Lines of Advance in Psychoanalytic Therapy.

A young and zealous Freud addresses the second Psycho-Analytical Congress in 1910 on The Future Prospects of Psychoanalytic Therapy. He would like the audience to know, straight off, that ‘we have by no means come to the end of our resources for combating the neuroses’ (SE, XI, p. 141). One can’t help but notice an anxiety concerning ‘ends’ arising before he’s even begun. He continues, ‘reinforcement will come… from three directions: 1) From Internal Progress 2) From Increased Authority and 3) From the General Effect of our Work’ (ibid.).

With respect to the first, internal progress, Freud means to address analytic knowledge and technique. The assistance of the analyst, he says, has become clear: we plant a seed and wait for it to come to fruition, what he calls a conscious anticipatory idea, given by the analyst, which the patient can then find in himself, and the analyst can await confirmation. You can imagine this little game of anticipating future certainty. We already know that Freud never went on to write the definitive work on technique, The General Methodology of Psychoanalysis. At the very least this abandoned project poses questions about this articulation of internal progress.

Freud continues. He says he ‘hopes’ that the audience will form an impression ‘that when we know all that we now only suspect and when we have carried out all the improvements in technique to which deeper observation of our patients is bound to lead us, our medical procedure will reach a degree of precision and certainty of success’ (ibid., p. 146). Success that he models after the ‘obstetrician’ who need only examine a ‘placenta to know whether it has been completely expelled or whether noxious fragments of it still remain’ (ibid.). Like the obstetrician, the analyst shall be able to know whether his work has been ‘definitively successful.’ This ends his first future prospect.

It’s not the naïveté of Freud that I’d like to point out here, I find it quite charming really, but this dream of progress. Here, with Freud, we encounter this strange metaphor of the analyst as an obstetrician, the after-birth of a symptom, and the patient who must be a woman, and I suppose a pregnant one at that. The imagined viability of psychoanalysis, its projected completion, is an arousal of a desire that impels the use of a metaphor, that is, to say the least, pregnant with meaning. I’d like to mark that for now and keep reading.

With respect to his second category, the progress of authority, Freud says that nothing is more pressing than the craving for authority since the waning of the power of the religions – what he calls the father complex. While he doesn’t seem to include himself or psychoanalysis in its lineaments, what is important for Freud at this point in the article is that patients crave it. Freud feels that an increase in the authority of the psychoanalyst must be forthcoming or work with these patients is bound to fail. Not one or two looked at his modest office and thought to themselves, and you promise me such a cure?

Society, Freud complains, is not in a hurry to grant this authority since psychoanalysis destroys its illusions and exposes its injurious effects. With this reversal of the object of attack – first Freud by patients, now society by Freud – he says that he hopes that ‘intellect’ will overcome self-interest and emotion when they have exhausted their fury. He continues,

to estimate the increase in our therapeutic prospects when we have received general recognition, you should think of the position of a gynecologist in Turkey and in the West. In Turkey, all he may do is feel the pulse of an arm stretched out to him through a hole in the wall: and his medical achievements are in proportion to the inaccessibility of their object. But now that the force of social suggestion drives sick women to the gynecologist, he has become their helper and savior’ (ibid., p. 147).

Another metaphor; I’ll come back to the gynecologist as well.

Freud’s third reinforcement comes from what he calls the general effect of our work. Freud states that, when the riddle that the instinct presents is solved, these diseases cease to be able to exist – like revealing the name of an evil spirit that has long been kept secret. Naming destroys a spirit’s power. So, if we put society in the place of the individual, what has to be attacked is the secondary gain from illness that is granted externally. If this seems Utopian, he reminds us that it has already taken place – there are now, thanks to the birth of psychiatry, less visions of the Virgin Mary since these women no longer create believers or have chapels built in their honor, they bring round the doctors.

For a smaller example, Freud says, imagine a number of ladies have arranged among themselves that when they have to relieve a natural need during a picnic they will state that they are going to pick flowers. If someone exposes this pretense, no lady will think of availing herself of this flowery pretext and will instead admit her natural needs to which no one will object. He concludes:

The energies which are to-day consumed in the production of neurotic symptoms […] will […] help to strengthen the clamor for the changes in our civilization through which alone we can look for the well-being of future generations… you are contributing your share to the enlightenment of the community from which we expect to achieve the most radical prophylaxis against neurotic disorders along the indirect path of social authority (ibid., p. 150–151).

I do love this essay. It’s absolutely wild. What on earth is going on? With each reinforcement of the future prospects of psychoanalysis, we end up encountering a host of sexual associations whose central metaphor is pregnancy and paternity – seed planting, obstetrics, placentas, gynecological exams, visions of the Virgin, women’s secrets, naming of evil spirits, flower picking, and prophylaxis. The aim, in the end, is the increasing availability of the feminine object.

What seems important is not so much these associations as a problematic intrusion, but what they signal in terms of what will be worked through by Freud as he moves forward from this juncture. This essay is a jumping off point for Freud. Whatever this is, embedded in the question of him as the father of psychoanalysis, will be a source of work that will transform his ideas of both psychoanalytic technique and his conception of the future of the field.


The Birth of Psychoanalysis

Allow me to take a detour in order to elaborate on this early essay and its peculiar metaphors. Many have noted that early on Freud seems to equate the unconscious with a woman, and a very resistant one at that (see e.g. Lacan 1982; Appignanesi and Forrester 2001; Verhaeghe 1997). If Freud takes the unconscious as a woman, then it makes sense that the future prospects of psychoanalysis depend on a kind of obstetric and gynecological mastery, the central struggle for Freud being one between a knowing doctor, as authority, and a resistant woman patient, as object of investigation.

 Historical and clinical scholarship on Studies on Hysteria (1895) and the Dora case (1905), as well as many feminist critiques of psychoanalysis (see, e.g. Lacan 1982; Chodorow 1989; Benjamin 1988; Butler 2006), have covered this ground extensively. For the purposes of this paper I’d like to show that there is in this early Freud something more than merely a struggle between the sexes. There is something of a critical encounter with desire and its limits.

In Erik Erikson’s seminal paper from 1954, The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis, he analyzes Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection. This is the dream that stands at the beginning of the birth of psychoanalysis as it allows Freud to conclude in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that the dream is a wish. The uncanny similarity of the dream with many of the metaphors in the foregoing 1910 paper can be of some use.

Just to recount, the scene involves Irma, a female patient of Freud’s who was resistant to treatment. Freud, in the dream, is frustrated and guilty having been admonished by a colleague the day before the dream for not having cured her completely. The dream – where first he and then an authority, and then a series of colleagues, examine an abscess in Irma’s mouth – is designed to exonerate Freud. Irma’s resistance and Otto’s dirty injection of the infamous imaginary formula of Trimethylamin, caused her infection, not Freud’s failed psychoanalysis.

Erikson beautifully analyzes the dream looking closely at its linguistic construction and the situation of Freud at the time it was dreamt, particularly on the cusp of discovery. The dream, he points out, begins as a birthday reception in a great Hall where Freud receives guests, already foreshadowing this idea of a birth. Erikson links the German empfangen to its two roots – conception and reception. There is thus a link in the dream between the intellectual, medical, and sexual in the notion of conceptualizing, reception and germination of ideas, and a wished for fruition. It is, in a word, ‘an imaginary scene of conception’.

Furthermore, the dream for Erikson moves from frustration, vagueness as to what plagues Irma, non-sense formulas and diagnoses, to what he calls an ‘immediacy of conviction’ in harmony with the authorities that are brought in. A fraternal and paternal pact is formed that ‘clarifies the past and unburdens the present.’ This, he says, should be seen, in an opposition between the masculine precision of a bold formula, the one he sees clearly before him, and the murky, unyielding, veiled, and resistant, woman. Pushing this, Erikson states,

the dream then, is just another haughty woman, wrapped in too many mystifying covers and putting on airs. Freud’s letter to Fliess spoke of an ‘unveiling’ of the mystery of the dream when he subjected the Irma dream to ‘exhaustive analysis’. In the last analysis, then, the dream itself, may be a mother image; she is the one, as the Bible would say, to be known (Erikson, 1954, p.45–46).

In Freud’s Women, Appignanesi and Forrester (2001) quote Freud speaking about the dream in a letter to Karl Abraham from 1908: ‘Sexual megalomania is hidden behind it, the three women, Mathilda, Sophie, and Anna, are my daughter’s three godmothers, and I have all of them.’ We now know that the dream anticipates the birth of Anna who will grow up to be her father’s protector. Freud, in the dream, wants all the women. Even further, the desire is for the object to completely give way, stop putting on ‘airs’, and give him recourse for the sake of future generations, for the sake of progress, for the sake of the authority of the analyst!

The authors of Freud’s Women also point out that the Irma dream is logically tied to the non vixit dream whose principle figure is Joseph Paneth, the fiancée of Sophie Paneth – the woman whom Freud associates to in the Irma Dream as a much better psychoanalytic prospect than the recalcitrant Irma. In the non vixit dream, death and immortality, ambition and murderous rivalry, are the pressing themes. Again, children – in particular daughters – and professional success are the key to immortality.

Freud notes that a particularly infantile wish makes its appearance in the dream – the logic being one he remembers from his childhood of quid pro quo, ‘an eye for an eye’. Within this logical system the dimension of speech seems paralyzed because of the recourse to aggressive action. This is, somewhat uncannily, the logic of Lacan’s mirror stage (see Lacan 1991/2007): captured by the image of the other as a rival ego that collapses into an imaginary battle without mediation. The structure of narcissism is transitivistic – the easily exchangeable place of dyadic identification, you-me, subject-object – which makes a third presence (desire) difficult. In the non vixit dream Freud vanquishes his rival, Joseph, and is ecstatic to have found himself in ‘full possession of the field […]’.

Lacan, in Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (1968–1969), boldly states: there is no such thing as ‘all the women’. For Lacan this is the meaning of castration, of the limits imposed upon our narcissism, the impossibility of total satisfaction and possession – either of self or of others. Lacan reads Freud’s much misunderstood work, Totem and Taboo (1917)as an allegory of this dilemma. At the dawn of civilization the father is murdered by his sons, transforming the object, i.e. the women, into one that must enter an economy of exchange. The father loses his exclusive reign over the object, but contra Oedipus, so do the sons as well. The primal father is a myth of prehistory that we retain in the form of our omnipotent fantasies.

So while Erikson leaves off with his analysis of the father of psychoanalysis, ironically to substantiate his own theory, I’d like to push his line of thought a bit further. The crucial question seems to me to be one concerning the relationship between desire and its object. If the idea is that desire meets with an object that offers satisfaction, can we escape this struggle for authority, the struggle around knowledge, the imaginary battle with a rival, taken in different way, as a struggle between the sexes? Or does Freud, in imagining that he is giving birth, that he is at the beginning of a long trajectory or progressive movement, driven by a fantasy of immortality, show the seeds of a confrontation with an inevitable gap, a limit, an impossibility inherent to desire?

In the struggle, there is a victor (Freud) and a loser (Irma, Otto, Joseph Paneth, and the like). But, Freud cannot remain solely on the side of the victor. In fact, the bodily kernel of the dream that evokes the most anxiety happens in identification with the victim – when he palpates Irma and eventually looks into her mouth and sees, as Lacan calls it, this horrific sight, an inside-out head, similar to when Freud watches Joseph Paneth completely dissolve as an effect of his gaze. What I mean to point out by this is that desire shouldn’t be taken merely as a selfish desire to win, to kill, to possess, to conquer, but what in fact transcends these in so far as desire articulates its own limits, or, as Lacan would put it, desire carries within it the confrontation with the lack, that piece of the real, from which it springs.

For Lacan, psychoanalysis is about the ethical and transformative implications of cultivating this work with desire. If Freud was radically inhibited in reality, bereft of his desire, it is the work with these dreams, his self-analysis, which enables him to push forward and to take up his desire beyond the sticky and inhibiting grasp of his narcissistic wishes. This, for Lacan, has more to do with the side of desire that brings the message of ‘castration’ or ‘impossibility’ and uniquely, singularly, symbolizes that constraint for a subject. There is more to be said about this and Freud’s desire.


Reading Freud’s Desire

Serge Leclaire, in his book Psychoanalyzing: On the Order of the Unconscious and the Practice of the Letter, originally published in French in 1968, follows this trail of Freud’s desire. In this work, he reads Freud’s desire with careful attention to the imagery, language, and the formal mechanisms inherent in Freud’s dreams. He uses the essay on screen memories, which we know to be autobiographical, along with the biographical material of Freud’s life that follows his self-analysis – particularly that which comes to the fore in the letters with Fliess.

Leclaire, going back over the early Freud, charts out the subtleties of his desire using its linguistic and, what he calls, its phantasmatic or Oedipal components. He notes the closeness of the word loaf [laib] in his screen memory to the word body [leib] in German, acoustically indistinguishable; the image of the people with bird beaks that carry his mother, an image from the bible his father gave him, her face the image of both death and beatitude, whose cause, he says, Freud no doubt imagines himself to be. It is, he says, the mother who smiles, or fails to smile, on her hero son. He follows the centrality of the book torn to shreds at the bidding of Freud’s father in the dream of the Botanical Monograph, much like the flowers he ripped from his first love’s hands, Pauline, in the screen memory, and the devouring of his favorite flower, the artichoke.

Leclaire finds circulating again and again the formula of Freud’s desire – to rip, tear, reveal, pick, pluck. We can see the intricate relation: book and woman; dream and woman; leaf – flower – pages – petals – defoliation – picking – eating – plucking – tearing. If Freud wanted to tear or rip the veil off the secret of dreams, the phantasmatic portion of that desire – by which I mean the impossible image of its Oedipal satisfaction, the one that holds out the promise of fulfillment and mastery notably in an act of devouring/ripping into the object – suggests that we cannot follow Freud there.

What Leclaire wants to underscore is that Freud reveals to us the secret of dreams as unconscious desire, which, taken in itself is not necessarily equivalent to a haste towards the object, or, revealing as in lying open like a book to be torn apart, what Leclaire calls the substitute that Freud’s father offered to Freud for his Oedipal phantasm. We know the difficulty with books Freud got into in adolescence. Leclaire will say that what psychoanalysis teaches us is that desire in its purest formal sense is a desire for transgression, for a movement that goes beyond, even its object, but which it cannot. So one must pass through the castration complex, reconcile oneself with a desire that cannot completely accommodate itself to this object that seems to hold it captive. There is desire, and there is the object that causes desire.

If psychoanalysis is making manifest the truth of desire, it is the tragic truth of the asymmetrical relation between desire and the object. For Leclaire, psychoanalysis must shift its fascination with the object of desire to desire itself, in order to proceed psychoanalytically. It must give up the phantasmatic object that it believes will satisfy, gratify, or suture desire, as some imaginary end point – the illusion of the object that will make it whole. Following this, there is no truth for us beyond unconscious desire; beyond it is only an unknown, a navel, a floor, which causes desire to be constantly reborn.

It is to this desire that the subject accommodates him or herself, not vice-versa. We accommodate the subject to desire, not desire to the subject. Progress, as Freud imagines it in the early essay on the future, means the latter, which forces the metaphor of an obstetric struggle. The appearance of the transgressive object seems to offer unsurpassed satisfaction, mastery, and authority, like an infantile love for little Gisela that brings Freud’s desire to its highest pitch. We know it was this love that made Freud fall into his first depression. It implies, among other things, the necessity of mourning and working through. Perhaps, in this line of thought, psychoanalysis still has a work of mourning to do, not necessarily for Freud as many claim, but for the consequences of this barrier to the object.


Freudian Endings

There is something of a kind of working through that can be located in Freud – an encounter and work with desire and its limits. It changes his relationship to the future, in particular, to the future of psychoanalysis. When tracing how Freud’s model changes from the 1910 paper onward, a radical shift can be seen. I did a little study of all other uses of the word future in Freud and I think you will not find another paper like the one on the Future Prospects. The next time Freud takes up the subject is in his 1919 paper, Lines of Advance in Psychoanalytic Therapy, given in Budapest at the end of the World War I and after what he calls a ‘long and difficult separation’ (SE, XVIII, p. 157). He says he feels ‘drawn to review the position of our therapeutic procedure’ (ibid.). To say the least, his tone has changed.

He begins, ‘we have never prided ourselves in the completeness and finality of our knowledge and capacity’ (ibid.). The ethic he will introduce in this lecture, interestingly, is one of abstinence. Like an Oedipal prohibition it seems to mark some fundamental boundary setting up the conditions of privation and neutrality as essential to psychoanalytic practice. While he is speaking of technique, one must hear this in light of the Oedipal object which haunts his work in Future Prospects and which Leclaire frames in his analysis of Freud’s desire.

Parenthetically, we can imagine that the response of the field to this ethic of abstinence – from flagrant dis-obedience, à la Ferenczi and Jung, or, on the flip-side the rigid distant coldness that many interpreted it to decree, both of which have caused such a severe backlash over recent decades – has something to do with this Oedipal phantasm which Freud was in the processes of working through. The next generation of psychoanalysts respond with disregard or mechanical distance – too close, too far.

Freud states very forcefully,

we refused most emphatically to turn a patient who puts himself into our hands in search of help into our private property, to decide his fate for him, to force our own ideals upon him and with the pride of a Creator to form him in our own image and see that it is good. I still adhere to this refusal (SE, XVIII, p. 164–165).

Concluding, he says that he will allow himself to ‘cast a glance’ at a situation which belongs to the future. As many of you may know, he hopes that psychoanalysis will at some point adapt itself to work with the poor. It might mean some changes, but these will always take their most effective means from a ‘strict and untendentious’ psychoanalysis (ibid.).

I cannot help but hear in this Freud’s having taken the desire for creation out of the equation, its violence, the pregnancy fantasy. The desire to look behind the veil is reduced to an ethic of abstinence, which is, contrary to what many claim – most notably relational analysts – predicated on the fall of the authority of the analyst, the fall of his desire for mastery. In this essay, Freud, at most, allows himself to cast a glance at those who are certainly without much of a future rather than his and his disciples imagined future glory. This substitution is not something of the order of a fullness of knowledge, authority, or the progressive movements of any army of psychoanalysts. You no longer hear about the authority of the analyst, only the authority of the unconscious, of the work in the direction of elaborating unconscious desire in its dimension of singularity.

The implication is the one I’ve learned from Lacan – namely, that the unconscious is not simply what is not conscious, and even what might be made conscious, a kind of annexing of alien territory, female or conceptual, but something more radical. The bar is drawn. Mastery, as in sexual mastery or any other, is a fantasy. That fantasy, as in analysis, has the possibility of revealing to us our desire in a singular fashion and is at the heart of psychoanalytic working through. I feel as if I can palpably hear it: the mention of the long difficult separation, the negation of pride, stress on incompleteness, transience, the poor.

The change that takes place between Future Prospects and Lines of Advance is not of the order of the linear progress of knowledge, but rather, should be seen as a shift in Freud’s subjective position with respect to unconscious desire; a shift that takes place precisely because of a deepened work with the notion of fantasy; bowing, as he says in the 1919 essay, before the superior forces of the unconscious. In its way, it constitutes a reckoning with the castration complex in the Lacanian sense of traversing the phantasm and a work of mourning with respect to the object.

Further, the work done by Freud between these two essays, between 1910 and 1919, can be seen as his way of tackling the relationship between desire and the object. In the summer after the 1910 essay, Freud finishes his work A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men, and after that, The Universal Tendency Towards Debasement in the Sphere of Love, which will be published in 1912. He’ll finish the third essay in the series on The Psychology of Love, The Taboo of Virginity, in 1917, as if he had to do the work on the object choice of men before he could speak about the thing herself.

As well, the themes of orality, incorporation, identification, narcissism, the father complex, working through, and mourning, will arise with force between 1913 and 1915 (before the Taboo of Virginity), seen in such works as Totem and Taboo (1912–13), Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (1914), On Narcissism (1914) and Mourning and Melancholia (1917). After the 1919 essay and the end of WWI, we know the great shift that takes place in his work towards the beyond of the pleasure principle and the problems of unconscious masochism and guilt, signaling a deepening of the work with unconscious phantasm, in particular, the concern with the death drive, repetition, and trauma. But would that have been possible without the preceding transformation with respect to Freud’s desire as outlined here? I’ll leave that question open.

Remarkably, there is only one other work than that of Future Prospects with the word Future in the title, Freud’s 1927 The Future of an Illusion. Without wanting to be too cheeky, I have to wonder if we could hear its reversal, ‘the illusion of a future’ (a title Oskar Pfister gave to his paper contesting Freud). It perhaps wouldn’t be too far off, given what he says in his late 1937 paper Constructions in Analysis, ‘we conduct ourselves on the model of a familiar figure in one of Nestroy’s farces – the manservant who has a single answer on his lips to every question or objection: “It will all become clear in the course of future developments”’.

To conclude with Freud, I know that we all know the value of openness, the point is one that is familiar, but I hope I have drawn a picture of its place as a specific psychoanalytic truth that has formidable bearing on this anxiety about the future. Progress can become an ideology marked by an implicit failure to work with unconscious desire. As Terry Eagleton says in his recently published Yale lectures, Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009, p. 89–90):

An excess of light, as Edmund Burke knew, can result in darkness; a surplus of reason can become a species of madness. A form of rationality which detaches itself from the life of the body and the affections will fail to shape this subjective domain from the inside… The ideology of progress, for which the past is so much puerile stuff to be banished to the primeval forests of prehistory, plunders us of our historical legacies, and thus of some of our most precious resources for the future.

Eagleton goes on to quote Theodor Adorno who, much in the same vein as Freud, states, ‘it would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies’ (ibid., 91). Lacan understood this in a powerful way.


Back to the Future

To end, I’d like to quote Walter Benjamin (1955/1968) whom I still think has the most powerful critique of the notion of progress. He states in Theses on the Philosophy of History: ‘Leave the historicist in the brothel to be drained by the whore called, once upon a time’. We need a different relation to time, charged with the time of now, blasted open. He would like the future to be nourished on the model of enslaved ancestors not liberated grandchildren. If the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future, they were instead instructed in the art of remembrance, something that could strip the future of its magic spell, the spell of the fantasy of progress (see Benjamin, 1968, p. 258–264). Against the model of progress, Benjamin’s angel of history moves into the future with her back turned to it. She walks towards what she can neither see nor know.[3]

The philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, comments on Benjamin’s essay in his 2009 book The Signature of All Things: On Method. He was the Italian translator of Benjamin. What Benjamin, Lacan and Agamben share is the importance of thinking through questions of temporality while remaining critical of the notion of progress. While Benjamin doesn’t explicitly link his thought to psychoanalysis, Agamben picks up this crucial thread. Quoting Foucault’s Introduction to Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, Agamben states:

The essential point of the dream is not so much that it resuscitates the past as that it announces the future. It foretells and announces the moment in which the patient will finally reveal to the analyst the secret [he or she] does not yet know, which is nevertheless the heaviest burden of [his or her] present… the dream anticipates the moment of freedom (Agamben 2009, p. 106).

This accent on the future stresses the freedom of the moment of the future anterior or future perfect. This movement is an act of unburdening the present – the ‘will have been, will have heard,’ that Agamben says, ‘clears away the ghosts of the unconscious and the tight-knit fabric of tradition which block access to history’ (ibid.). This clearing of ghosts has always been thought of as the ghosts of the past (see, for example Loewald 1989), and it is important to see these as ghosts that can come to haunt the future as well.

Benjamin, writing in 1939 and Agamben in 2009, before and after Lacan, present a picture of a temporal structure that is deduced precisely on the model of desire as it was elaborated by Freud. It is a model that opens up the future rather than closing it down in an anxious haste towards mastery. It is a model that abides by the ethics of the psychoanalyst and his or her love for the unconscious. It follows the movements of desire freed from the constraints of any phantasmatic groping towards an object; and it is a relation to desire that acts as an encounter with freedom. For the sake of psychoanalysis, for the next generation of psychoanalysts, I hope that we learn to encounter this moment of freedom once again.


Agamben, G. (2008/2009) The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. by L. D’Isanto with K. Attell (New York: Zone Books).


Appignanesi, L. & Forrester, J. (2001) Freud’s Women (New York: Other Press).


Benjamin, W. (1955/1968) Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt) (New York: Schocken Books).


Bernardi, R. (2005) ‘What After Pluralism? Ulysses Still on the Road’. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 25:654-666.


Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1975)  The Ego Ideal: A Psychoanalytic Essay on the Malady of the Ideal, trans. by P. Barrows (New York: Norton, 1985).


Chessick, R. (2007) The Future of Psychoanalysis (New York: SUNY Press).


Claussen, D. (2008) Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).


Dufresne, T. (2003) Killing Freud (New York and London: Continuum Books).


Eagleton, T. (2009) Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).


Erikson, E. (1954). ‘The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2:5–56.


Freud, S.:

– (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, SE, 4 (First Part), pp. ix–627.

– (1905) ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, SE,  7 (1901–1905), pp. 123–246.

– (1910) ‘The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy’, SE, 11, pp. 139–152.

– (1919) ‘Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Therapy’, SE, 17 (1917–1919), pp. 157–168.

– (1927) The Future of an IllusionSE, 21, pp1–56.

– (1930) Civilization and its DiscontentsSE, 21, pp. 57–146.

– (1937) ‘Constructions in Analysis’, SE, 23, pp. 25–270.


Heidegger, M. (1993) Basic Writings, David Krell, ed. (San Francisco: Harper Collins).


Lacan, J. (1982):

– (1982) Feminine Sexuality, J. Mitchell & J. Rose, eds.  (New York: Norton).

– (2009) My Teaching, trans. by D. Macey (New York: Verso).

– (1992) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–1960) (New York: Norton)  (original work published in 1982).

– (2006) Ecrits, trans. by B. Fink (New York: Norton) (original work published in 1966).

– (2007) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of

Psychoanalysis (1968-1969)  (New York: Norton) (original work published in 1991).

– (2009) My Teaching, trans. by D. Macey (New York: Verso).


Leclaire, S. (1968/1998) Psychoanalyzing: On the Order of the Unconscious and the Practice of the Letter, trans. by P. Kampf (Stanford: Stanford University Press).


Löwald, H. (1989) Papers on Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press).


Rieff, P. (1979) Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (Chicago: University of Chicago).


Safran, J. & Jurist, E. (2009) ‘Introduction to a New Series of Interviews on the Future of Psychoanalysis’, Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26: 97–98.


Stepansky, P. (2009) Psychoanalysis at the Margins (New York: Other Press).


Verhaeghe, P. (1996/1997) Does the Woman Exist? From Freud’s Hysteric to Lacan’s Feminine, trans. by M. du Ry (New York: Other Press).


Wagner, J. (2009) ‘Psychoanalysis and its Place in the Evolutionary Chain of Academic Disciplines’, Int. J. Psycho-Analysis, 90: 1097–1101.


Wallerstein, R. S. (1988) ‘One Psychoanalysis or Many?’, Int. J. Psycho-Analysis, 69: 5–21.


[1] The important point of reference here is Martin Heidegger. The suspicion of progress and technology in Heidegger can be found in On the Question Concerning Technology (1954/1993).


[2] Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel concludes her work The Ego Ideal (1975), with a similar speculation: ‘[there] seems to me to be an increasing level of impatience, as if man can no longer adjust himself to life’s natural rhythms but has begun to function on the model of the machines he has himself created. Thus science itself, paradoxically, appears to function as a powerful activator of illusion’ (p. 218).


[3] While I would like readers to contrast this image of the angel who walk with her back to the future, with what Benjamin labels, ‘the whore called once upon a time’, it seems necessary in light of so much of the earlier work on Freud’s metaphors to point out that once again, when it is a question of the future, female sexuality crowds in as a odd point of contention. Perhaps it is enough to remember that when Freud wrote Analysis Terminable and Interminable, certainly looking at a question of time, the bedrock of analysis was described as that of castration, of a repudiation of femininity.


Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York City; she teaches at The New School, is a founding member of Das Unbehagen, and a graduate of The Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.  Her first book is The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2011).  She is also co-author of Stay Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013).  She has written for “Apology”, “Cabinet”, “The Guardian”, “The New York Times”, “Playboy”, and many psychoanalytic publications. [jamieson.websterphd@gmail.com]

Publication Date:

January 18, 2014

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