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Number 10: Spring 2015

Variations on a Theme: Handling Transference from Freud to Laplanche

Paul Kellett van Leer

Theory and practice

The issue of handling transference generates questions of both a theoretical and practical nature regarding the conceptualisation of, and intervention in the transference respectively. How might we begin to consider such questions? The multiplicity of psychoanalytic models and far-reaching impact of contemporary philosophical critique precludes the establishment of an over-arching blueprint for a comprehensive theory and strategy in this regard. To coin a post-modernist paradox, any attempt at a meta-narrative – privileging one account over others – is doomed to become entangled in authorative claims to illusory knowledge and power (Fairfield, et al., 2002) within the multi–dimensional collision of a plurality of paradigms that offer contrasting – if not incompatible – perspectives (Lyotard, 1979). If Freud’s theories offer but one particular lensing of human nature (one, that is, with its own flaws and resulting interferences) then later developments and models are like sets of variations, each elaborating this theme in such a way as to produce a distinct if related piece. There are, then, many variations on the theme of transference, each with their own harmonies and rhythms.

The notion of language games (Wittgenstein, 1953) offers one way in which we can think about this complex polyphony in order to trace the differing developmental melodies within. From the vantage point of this perspective, the nature of theorising within psychoanalysis can itself be viewed as an emergent aspect of practice; a culturally-embedded activity that forms a living and lived aspect of the identity and practise of a psychoanalyst. Freud’s account of transference thus represents a narrative situated within a particular socio-historical culture – with all its attendant meanings and values – as do the varying developments of the notion of transference since Freud. From the very start of Freud’s project, of course, the notion of language itself was accorded the status of an important theme. As the vicissitudes of translation have revealed time and again, the transference of terms across languages, between tongues, itself results in variations that fundamentally transform the words and concepts at play, the variation infusing the theme with a flavour that may sweeten or sour, spice or cool depending on one’s taste. In this regard, one such variation on the Germanic theme of transference is that which Sechaud (2008) has identified as ‘French’. Sechaud does not suggest that such a category comprises a unified approach to theory and practice – for, indeed, none do – but rather illustrates how one way to think about French psychoanalytic traditions can be characterised as ‘thinking with Freud’ (2008:1011, italics added). Certainly, this was the claim of France’s most notorious psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and the technique of making a close reading of Freudian texts and subjecting these to logical and philosophical critique in the light of contemporary knowledge and experience is a hallmark of other French psychoanalysts.

Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ reconceptualises fundamental Freudian concepts in such a way as to redefine notions of the unconscious, the drives, fantasy and subjectivity, the position of the analyst, his or her desire, and the dynamics of relating; all of which have significant implications for the conceptualisation of transference. This paradigm in turn represents a dominant theme within French psychoanalysis, scaffolding the theory and practice of other variations, such as the line of development associated with Laplanche. This latter variation offers similarities as well as differences with respect to the more dominant Lacanian theme, acting then as a counterpoint both to Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalytic narratives. And so, out of the many possible trajectories along which the notion of transference has travelled since Freud, I have chosen to trace a Laplanchian path. Why? Because I find its melodies, harmonies and rhythms evocative, because I find its flavours enjoyable.

In order to draw out the development of the theme of transference from Freud to Laplanche I first outline some points of interest in Freud’s construction of the notion of transference, drawing largely on his most comprehensive account as this is propounded in his 1912 paper ‘The Dynamics of Transference’. These points are organised according to issues regarding the causes of transference, its manifestation in analysis and its handling with regard to interpretation and cure; issues which, in turn, form the focus of a Laplanchian deconstruction; one that, as we shall see, reformulates the notion of transference and traces the consequences of this reformulation for analytic practice.