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Number 12: Summer 2016

Transference Anxiety and the Failure of Our Fathers

Paul Verhaeghe

All of this sounds rather negative. Conservatives deplore the loss of traditional values; liberals deplore the loss of individual freedom. Most intellectuals are very critical of this evolution, pointing to the way social media are abused both by ordinary people (hate campaigns), by the government (social control) and the corporate world (targeted publicity). The disappearance of traditional authority is deplored by many; this illustrates how selective our memory is. Patriarchy, in its religious, political and educational versions, proved to be a disaster, because half of the population was excluded; many men did not live up to its precepts, and abused their position for their own benefit.

Without being naïve, we should ask ourselves what is potentially more interesting: a top-down authority, based on an imposed story; or a horizontally operating authority, based on mutual social control. Both the French-American philosopher Michel Serres (2015) and Alessandro Baricco, the Italian writer (2014), are far more positive about the latter. Serres refers explicitly to the hundred millions of dead caused by what he designates ‘the libido of collectivity’. He considers the disappearance of patriarchal society to be a good thing; he prefers what he calls ‘connected collectives’, governed by shifting interests and mutual control. The complicity of patriarchal times, presented as loyalty, gives way to transparency and accountability. Baricco describes in a very convincing way the silent revolution caused by the Internet. It brings far more democracy than we might imagine: a horizontal one, instead of the traditional top-down control. Both of them emphasize that there has never been a ‘democracy of knowledge’—knowledge was for the privileged, looking down on the common people. Today, knowledge is accessible to everyone.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, we should not forget that both Freud and Lacan advocated a surpassing of the Oedipal complex and its submission to the father. It took both of them a long time to come to that conclusion. Especially for Freud, the move was never whole hearted. Lacan laconically summarized his position in one of his last seminars: ‘In that respect, psychoanalysis—if it succeeds—proves that one can go beyond the Name-of-the-Father. One can go beyond on condition that one has used it.’ (My translation. In the original: ‘C’est en cela que la psychanalyse—de réussir—prouve que le Nom-du-Père, on peut aussi bien s’en passer. On peut aussi bien s’en passer à condition de s’en servir.’ (Lacan, J., 1976: 136).

This is the challenge we are facing, and I think that we are living in the middle of history being made. Patriarchy entered our world with the agricultural revolution. It will leave the world with the digital revolution. It is always impossible to make predictions, but a number of changes are already clear. Our contemporary gender relations are totally different from the male dominance of the recent past. The traditional nuclear family is disappearing very fast. Generally speaking, the digital revolution is replacing a vertical patriarchal society with a horizontal ‘big brother’ network. The question is: what form of authority will emerge from this network? As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1954, this is ‘to be confronted anew by the elementary problems of humans living-together’.


Arendt, H. (1954). What is Authority? /330T/350kPEEArendtWhatIsAuthorityTable.pdf.

Baricco, A. (2014). The Barbarians. An Essay on the Mutation of Culture. Ex libris Rizzoli.

Bauman, Z. & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance. A Conversation. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Freud, S. (1978 [1905e]). Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 7 (pp.1-122). London: The Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1978 [1909b]). Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year Old Boy. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 10 (pp. 1-149). London: The Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1978 [1912-13]). Totem and Taboo. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 13 (pp. 1-162). London: The Hogarth Press.