Issue #33 Not-Mother: On Freud’s Verneinung

Not-Mother: On Freud’s Verneinung

Alenka Zupančič

Issue #33
March 2012

At first sight, and considering its length, Freud’s short essay on Verneinung looks like a fleeting comment, a short note of an observation that is mostly, and in spite of its amusing character, of a technical nature: When in analysis we hear the person utter this and that, we can conclude, with great probability, that what is at stake is this and that.1 Freud’s most famous example is a remark made by a patient, and has since become proverbial: “You ask who this person in the dream can be. It’s not my mother” (Die Mutter is es nicht). In which case, adds Freud, the question is settled; we can be sure that it is indeed her. Moreover, every explicit negation of this sort, every strongly emphasized distancing from a certain content, strongly indicates the truth of precisely this content. This holds, of course, only in cases when the analysand herself “comes out” with this content or intention, yet accompanies it with a preliminary negation. For example: “Now you’ll think I mean to say something insulting, but really I’ve no such intention.”

Yet the more we advance into Freud’s essay, the more the technical unambiguity of examples remains behind, and what comes to the foreground is a fascinating knot of practically all the key problems of psychoanalysis, organized around the peculiar and evading negativity that is its central focus. For it soon becomes clear that the negativity at work in Freud’s witty examples is in no way reducible to the simple opposite of positivity, or affirmation; it is not reducible to the truthfulness of its opposite, and it becomes clear that by translating “It’s not mother” into “It is mother,” we don’t get very far—the symptoms persist, and the real problem, as well as the main part of analytical work, only starts here. What comes to light is a certain crack, or internal interval, that is at work in the relationship between the crucial categorical couples, and that undermines their complementariness and symmetry: inside/outside; pleasure/beyond the pleasure (principle); repression/becoming conscious of the repressed; affective/intellectual; Eros/destructive drive; and so forth.

Apart from this, but also of course related to it, Freud’s paper offers an extremely dense speculation about the very origin of thought, speculation that stupefied the prominent French Hegelian Jean Hippolyte, made apparent in his commentary on the essay, which he delivered upon Lacan’s invitation to his seminar. We are dealing with something like “the birth of thinking out of the spirit of negation” (or rather, from the—signifying—mark of negation). It seems indeed that Freud’s essay on “negation” is also a kind of quilting point between philosophy and psychoanalysis. And this is how we’ll read this essay here: as a way of thinking about the singular and paradoxical negativity outlined, as well as handled, by psychoanalysis, and its relationship to philosophy.

James Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, 1871. Oil on canvas.

1. The With-Without

Let’s take Freud’s essays step by step. Without being asked who played part in his dream, the patient rushes forward and volunteers the word “mother,” accompanied by negation. It is as if he has to say it, but at the same time cannot; it is at the same time imperative and impossible. The result is that the word is uttered as denied, and the repression coexists with the thing being consciously spoken out. The first mistake to avoid here is to read this in terms of what this person really saw in his dream, and then, because of a conscious censorship, lied about it in his account to the analyst. Crucial to the understanding not only of Verneinung but also of the Freudian unconscious as such is that what is unconscious in the given case is first and foremost the censorship, and not simply its object, “mother.” The latter is fully present in the statement, and introduced by the subject himself, who could have not mentioned her at all. Here, the unconscious sticks to the distortion itself (the negation), and is not hidden in what the subject supposedly really saw in his dream. It could well be that in the dream there actually appeared another person, known or unknown, yet the story of the unconscious that is relevant for analysis begins with this “not my mother” that takes place in the account of the dream. When mother thus appears in this singular “alloy” composition with negation as “not-mother,” it looks as if both terms have irredeemably contaminated each other. As if the “not” marked the mother with the stamp of unconscious desire (“like Made in Germany stamped on the object,” as Freud puts it), and “mother” no less contaminated the formal purity of the negation with “elements in traces,” to borrow what can sometimes be read on the packaging of certain foods.

In other words, the certainty emphasized by Freud in this context is not simply certainty regarding the given unconscious content (“mother”), but first and foremost certainty regarding the fact that we are indeed dealing with the intrusion of the unconscious. On the other hand, Freud’s conclusion “therefore it is mother” is not the conclusion of analysis of the given situation, but rather its starting point, the point where the real problem of the unconscious begins. As a matter of fact, it is only here that things become really interesting, for Freud goes on to say that even though in analysis we can bring this person to withdraw the “not” and accept the (content of the) repressed, “the repressive process itself is not yet removed by this.”2 The negation itself is negated (we could say that we now get something like, “this is not not-mother”), yet something of it persists—the repression, the symptoms persist beyond becoming conscious of the repressed. Here, we come across one of the crucial (and constitutive) discoveries of psychoanalysis, without which the latter would be little more than a hermeneutics of the unconscious, depending entirely on the (correct) interpretation, or translation, of the text deformed by the unconscious into its full and nondeformed version. Soon after his early enthusiasm that things might indeed work this way, Freud came up against the problem that they actually don’t, that the right interpretation (and its acceptance) doesn’t yet eliminate the symptom, and that the real kernel of the unconscious is not to be situated—in the case of dreams, for example—in the latent content, as opposed to the manifest content, and as “deciphered” from it. For our present purposes, and at this stage, this could be formulated as follows: We can accept the (repressed) content, eliminate it, but we cannot eliminate the structure of the gap, or crack, that generates it. This irreducible crack becomes visible precisely through double negation, as its “indivisible remainder.” For we are dealing precisely with something like, “it is not not-mother,” and this double negation circumscribes something that makes it irreducible to simply “mother” (or her absence). “It is not not-mother” is not the same as “(it is) mother,” a difference that is crucial for psychoanalysis, since the unconscious is to be situated precisely in this odd, fragile dimension. Lacan pointed out the flip side that the term “unconscious” has on account of its being negative, that is, the negative opposite of “conscious.” More importantly, it is because the unconscious is to be situated in this “third” and odd dimension that Lacan says at some point that the status of the unconscious is not ontical but ethical:3 Ontically, the unconscious is the elusive (l’inconscient c’est l’évasif)—“but we are beginning to circumscribe it in a structure, a temporal structure, which, it can be said, has never yet been articulated as such.”4 The unconscious is not an alternative reality into which we could translate the slips and symptoms of our reality. Going back to the discussed example, we could also claim that what the patient wanted to say is precisely what he said. It was neither someone other than mother nor mother; rather, it was the “not-mother,” or “the mother-not.”

There is an excellent joke told at some point in Ernest Lubitsch’s film Ninotchka (1939), which I’ve already used in my paper on “Sexual Difference and Ontology.” Yet it would be difficult to avoid referring to it again here, since there is hardly any better way to get a grip on the singular object “mother-not.”

A guy goes into a restaurant and says to the waiter: “Coffee without cream, please.” The waiter replies: “I am sorry sir, but we are out of cream. Could it be without milk?”

This joke carries a certain real, even a certain truth about the real, which has to do precisely with the singular negativity introduced or discovered by psychoanalysis. A negation of something that is neither pure absence nor pure nothing nor simply the complementary of what it negates. At the moment it is spoken there remains a trace of that which is not. This is a dimension that is introduced (and made possible) by the signifier yet is irreducible to it. It has (or can have) a positive, albeit spectral, quality, which can be formulated in the precise terms of “with without (cream)” as irreducible to both alternatives (cream/no cream).

This has some very interesting consequences for the logic implied in the unconscious, which is neither classical nor (and more surprisingly) simply intuitionist. Let us consider that for a moment. We can say, first, that what is introduced by the Freudian notion of negation is not reducible to the alternative P or non-P (“It is mother”/ “It isn’t mother”). In other words, we are not dealing with negation as it operates in the classical logic, relying on—in addition to the principle of identity— two fundamental principles: 1) The principle of noncontradiction (it is impossible to assert simultaneously, in the same context, the proposition P and the proposition non-P). And 2) The principle of the excluded middle, or the excluded third (if you have a proposition P, P is either true or false; that is, either P is true or non-P is true. We cannot have a third possibility). As a consequence of the excluded middle, there is also the principle of double negation: Negation of negation is equivalent to affirmation. However, the classical negation is not the only logical possibility concerning negation. Philosophically this is evident—it suffices to take not only the “modern” example of Nietzsche, but also the supposedly “classical” example of Hegel, who affirms that negation of negation is not equivalent to the immediate affirmation, and for whom contradiction, far from being excluded, is the very motor of dialectical movement. Within the field of logic itself we have two modern alternatives to classical logic: the intuitionist logic, created by L. E. J. Brouwer and formalized by Arend Heyting (the negation obeys the principle of contradiction, but not the excluded middle); and the paraconsistent logic, created and developed by the Brazilian school, and notably by Newton da Costa (the negation obeys the excluded middle, but not the principle of contradiction). The fourth possibility (the negation obeys neither the excluded middle nor the principle of contradiction) is excluded by logics, on grounds that it amounts to the complete dissolution of all potency of negativity.

But let’s return to Freud and to what the logical frame implied by psychoanalysis might be, that is, if it wants to properly account for this negation that is not reducible to the opposite of affirmation. One could simply say, “Well, Freud seems to be subscribing to the intuitionist logic, as opposed to the classical one.” However—and this is what is most intriguing and far-reaching in the Freudian outline—this is simply not the case. The standard presentation of the intuitionist logic allows for things to exist between the two extremes (or absolutes); between an absolute P and absolute non-P there is the whole world, so to speak, with all kinds of nuances with different shades, or degrees, of intensity. Because it allows for different degrees of intensity, the potency of negation is weaker in this logic than in classical logic. Here is an example of the intuitionist logic presented by Alain Badiou in his paper “The Three Negations”:

So, if the great field of the law is always a concrete world, or a concrete construction, its logic is not classic. If we take “law” in its strict legal sense, we know that perfectly well. If the sentence P is “guilty,” and non-P “innocent,” we have always a great number of intermediate values, like “guilty with attenuating circumstances,” or “innocent because certainly guilty, but with insufficient proof,” and so on … If I say in a concrete world “I am not guilty,” maybe it is true, but it is practically never absolutely true, because everybody is guilty, more or less.5

However, and as we’ve already seen, what is at stake in the Freudian discovery that, when dealing with the unconscious, the alternative “mother/not mother” is not exhaustive (negation of negation doesn’t bring us to the supposedly original affirmation) is something else. It is not a “more or less mother,” nor is it a difference in intensity with regard to two extremes, or absolutes; it is a paradoxical entity of “with-without.” The following is a very important question (and answer) asked by psychoanalysis and brought to the attention of both philosophy and logics: If we admit the non-functioning of the principle of the excluded third, what then is the status of the third that we allow for in this way? Is it something in between, a combination of two, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a nuance with a certain degree of intensity? Or is it effectively something else (that is, precisely something “third”), with its own ontological status, even if the latter turns out to be very paradoxical? The discovery of the unconscious, and its real, brings forth the second possibility. But this could also imply that the logic introduced by the concept of the unconscious is not actually intuitionist, but rather a paradoxical twist of the classical logic itself: The third term (or third possibility), which is included rather then excluded, is nothing other than the very point of the (onto)logical impossibility of the third. In other words, what is included as something (as an entity) receives the very logical impossibility on which the alternative mother/not-mother is based. The fact that it is included doesn’t mean that the impossible now becomes possible (one of the possibilities, as in the intuitionist logic); rather, it is included in its very onto-logical impossibility—hence its spectral character: as included in reality, the impossible-real can only be a specter.

Michaël Borremans, The Skirt, 2005, 40 x 50 cm, oil on canvas. Photo: Peter Cox. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

2. The Birth of Thinking from the Materiality of Negation

Another crucial and related point in Freud’s essay concerns the way in which he links the cut of (the signifier of) negation to the very constitution of thinking (conscious and unconscious). For the not is not only a trick, an instrument, of the unconscious (something that the unconscious “uses” in order to persist side by side with some inadmissible content); it is also its condition, or Grund. It is not only that which, together with other unconscious mechanisms (displacements, condensations …), patches up the gaps of the repression and alerts us to it, but also the condition of the repression as such.

In what is arguably the most intriguing (and highly speculative) part of his essay, Freud develops the hypothesis of the constitution of reality and of the thinking subject as based on the original cut along the lines of appropriation (or, “taking in” as basis of affirmation, Bejahung) and Ausstoßung (“expulsion,” or “pushing out,” as basis of negation). Freud proposes a very dense genealogy of judgment that includes two steps coinciding with the difference between attributive and existential judgments. In the first case, we start with a situation that has pleasure as its only measure, relying on whether what he calls the original Ich takes things in or expels them. “Expressed in the language of the oldest—the oral—drive impulses, the judgement is: ‘I should like to eat this,’ or, ‘I should like to spit it out’; put more generally: ‘I should like to take this into myself and to keep that out.’ That is to say, ‘It shall be inside me’ or ‘it shall be outside me.’ As I have shown elsewhere, the original pleasure-ego wants to introject into itself everything that is good and to eject from itself everything that is bad. What is bad, what is alien to the ego, and what is external are, to begin with, identical.”6

This is then where a first cut is produced, the split between in and out, Innen und Außen, which also and immediately coincides with the dividing lines between good and bad, foreign, or alien, and familiar. In the undoubtedly mythical being (or being of a given theoretical construction) that Freud calls das ursprüngliche Lust-Ich, the original pleasure-ego, these dividing lines simply coincide: the inner–the good–the familiar, on the one side, and the outer–the bad–the alien on the other. But already in the next step things become more complicated and these dividing lines fall out of joint.

“It is now no longer the question of whether what has been perceived (a thing) shall be taken into the ego or not, but of whether something which is in the ego as a presentation can be rediscovered in perception (reality) as well. It is, we see, once more the question of external and internal.”7

In other words, what is at stake here is the famous reality check, or “reality testing,” Realitätsprüfung, based on the presupposition of an original loss of pleasure.8 The crucial aspect of which is the loss of immediacy: From now on, all pleasure will be a found-again-pleasure. The same goes for all objects of reality: As objects of reality (which is thus constituted as objective reality, that is, constituted through the opposition subjective-objective) they are never simply found, but always refound, found again, wiedergefunden.

“The first and immediate aim, therefore, of reality testing is not to find an object in real perception which corresponds to the one presented, but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there.”9

So the moment we begin dealing with thinking and with certain relation to reality, both our pleasure and the existence of things are no longer immediate, but bear the mark of repetition and of the gap the latter implies. The second repartition of the dividing lines doesn’t simply replace the first, however, but adds to it with a twist, resulting in a gap, or a third dimension, that haunts from then on the very consistency of the distinction between inner and outer, and blurs the subject-object division and relation. We could also recapitulate the movement described by Freud like this. The first mythical difference between inside and outside is not yet a real difference, but a process of differentiating the indifferent, or the indistinct, led by the primary process of the pleasure principle. The latter operates, so to speak, with its head on in the indifferent that it separates, but the difference itself, the furrow that it leaves behind, at no point enters its horizon. The Ich only first encounters it in the second step, when it returns in its footsteps, but no longer finds the world as it has been “before.” Now there is difference, the difference between inside and outside, yet it no longer coincides with the difference between good and bad (or pleasant and unpleasant); for the condition of the good, and of experiencing pleasure, is now precisely in finding the object outside (in reality). The object of representation has to be found outside or else it is of no use to us. What has once been inside needs to be found outside. This outside is hence very much subjectively mediated, which is why psychoanalysis situates the real in neither this (subjective) outside nor in the pure inside, but precisely in the impossible space created by their twist and torsion.

We could also say that this first cut into the indifferent does not only produce two slopes of reality (inside/outside) but is itself also material and occupies some space. The metaphor that first comes to mind here is of course that of a crack or gap, separating and connecting the two sides, while at the same time figuring itself as something. (Freud’s key term here, Ausstoßung, or pushing out, suggests an emptying of some space that has already been occupied, and with it the constitution of an empty space in-between.) The cut between inside and outside, between affirmation and negation, does not produce two things but three: 1) affirmation (some positivity); 2) negation (absence, what is not); and 3) the place, or locus, of their difference.10 My point would be that the step from the (mythological) original Lust-Ich, or pleasure-ego, to subjectivity proper (and to the constitution of objective reality) is the step of including, of “taking in”—not simply some exteriority, but precisely the difference (crack or gap) that separates “me” from the outside, from what is not me. In other words: The negativity included in the subject at its very affirmative constitution is not this or that negativity (exteriority), but the very form of negation which reveals here its real structure, namely and precisely that of with-without. The cutting off (of the future outside reality) leaves a mark, a trace, which is precisely what the subject relies upon in its constitution. The constitutive affirmation, Bejahung, (inevitably) also takes in this supplement, the materialization of its own limit. And it is this limit that constitutes that peculiar third dimension, which is neither outside nor inside, neither subject nor object, neither something nor absence; rather, it has the precise structure of the “with-without,” and of the curve that this expression indicates or traces. This is what henceforth curves the given structure or space, magnetizes it.

And this has some bearing for the question of being and of ontology. We could say that all being is (a) being with-without—this is the “hole” referred to before: the hole in the order of being that curves its space. Ontology, or the science of being qua being, corresponds to the gesture of cutting off, or obliterating, the “with-without.” The latter is taken for nothing; it doesn’t count in the ontological space where one nothing (no cream) equals another (no milk). Yet, according to psychoanalysis, this is precisely a nothing that cannot be cut off as if it were nothing—at least not without consequences.

Returning to the questions with which we started this investigation, we can now say: The something (third) that remains between the fingers of the negation of negation (that is, as long as the negation of negation doesn’t simply bring us back to the inaugural affirmation) is nothing other than the constitutive portion of negativity of the inaugural affirmation itself.

Crucial in this respect is another point that Freud quickly makes at the end of the article. As a symbol of negation, and by enabling a certain freedom from repression (and from the limitations it imposes), “no” also enables some freedom from the “compulsion of the pleasure principle.” This is to say, if we sharpen things a bit, it marks the precise place of the death drive and of its constitutive function in thinking. Thanks to this “not,” we can now perform certain mental operations that would be otherwise blocked by the compulsion of the pleasure principle.

One could of course raise the following objection: This might be true, yet this freedom from the compulsion of the pleasure principle remains utterly abstract or de-realized in the discussed case (it remains a kind of mental experiment), which is why repression persists beyond becoming conscious of the repressed. But this is precisely not what is at stake, and this understanding is far too simplistic. For in all its “abstractness,” the symbol of negation effectively contributes to the successful analysis of repression, and it does so in two steps. First, it makes the “symptomatic” formation possible; that is to say, it makes a certain articulation of the repression possible, and hence also its inscription in reality. This is the first step, marked in our case by the statement “It’s not my mother.” It enables the subject to introduce “mother,” without the discomfort of preventing it in a context that strongly resists this introduction. But it s also crucial in the next step, which is beyond the point where “it is not mother” is simply reversed into “it is mother” (which, as we’ve seen, doesn’t bring us very far). As a matter of fact, it is only here that we arrive at the abstraction that befalls the repressed object itself; that is, mother. If the patient accepts this interpretation “intellectually,” but the repression persists, he has accepted the “mother” without that structural negativity that gives her her difficult status in his unconscious (as well as in the symbolic reality as such). For the end of analysis does not consist simply in the subject finally discovering what “personal pathology” is responsible for his having “problems with his mother,” and why the latter functions for him as a problematic figure, demanding repression. What must also be asked is what is it in the mother herself that enables, or generates, her repression. And by this I don’t have in mind this or that characteristic of the mother, but the point of impossibility that determines her in her structural reality.

Returning to Freud’s example we could say that, when it first appears, the “not-mother,” or negation, functions as the stopgap concealing the inconsistency of the entity called mother. At this first level, and with a surprising spin, the “it is not mother” could actually be read to imply not only “it is mother” but also, and more emphatically, “Mother is,” or “there is Mother.” It could be read as affirmation of the ontological fullness of Mother “in herself”—a fullness, or consistency, which, on account of and in comparison with the person appearing in my dream, could obviously not be the Mother, even if it was (my) mother. This could relate back to Freud’s genesis of judgment in its two steps. It enables a reading according to which the second step, the reality testing (in which we are supposed to check whether the object [of former satisfaction] can be found in the outside reality), is not actually about the question of the objective existence of things, but about something far more ambiguous. We could say that the crucial and fundamental problem of this level does not so much concern the objects that are not (or are no longer) to be found in reality; it concerns the fact that, in relation to objects that he or she does find in reality and that do really exist, the subject can only say “this is not it” (in comparison to the presupposed fullness of primary satisfaction). This is key to the Freudian emphasis on refinding, rather than finding, objects in reality.11 In other words, what is at stake is not simply whether the object of my representation also exists in (objective) reality, but rather, the question of the reality of satisfaction that it can give me as object of reality. In this context, the inaugural “this is not mother” contains a (involuntary?) dimension of truth; it indicates that whatever I can refind in reality is never IT. This is the constitutive “subjective distortion”: from the subjective perspective, existence as such is marked by a fundamental lack (or privation): If something exists (in objective reality) it cannot live up to its notion. And we are not speaking about the real thing as opposed to its idealization (nor about the state of full satisfaction being real in any meaningful sense); the point is that the existence of things is marked, for the subject, by a lack of something (which was never there to begin with) that forms (or obliterates) the perspective on what is there. (This would be the Freudian version of the transcendental constitution of reality: It doesn’t involve the a priori forms of sensibility but instead a “speculative” subtraction of something that was never “objectively” there, yet the hole involved in its absence functions as the armature of objective reality.)

One could say that the split of reality between the “appearance” (the phenomena) and the “thing in itself” is the philosophical equivalent of this structure, and if this were so, one could be able to detect a certain dimension of desire (and its eternal this is not IT) at work in this split. Formulated in philosophical terms, the end of analysis would be precisely the abandoning of the thing in itself, while preserving that gap that separates IT from the phenomenal reality, articulating this gap as function of an immanent transcendence. This is the function of the object a in psychoanalysis.

Relating this to Freud we can say that the end of analysis could finally, and indeed, be formulated in terms of “therefore it is mother.” Yet this now refers neither to a simple opposite of mother as denied nor to the emphatic “Mother is” implying her fullness “in herself” beyond her appearance in the world. Instead it refers to what one might formulate as follows: “THIS, and nothing else, is mother.” The accent is thus on the fact that it is precisely this individuum, unequal to its notion, that is the actual notion of mother. In other words, it is not simply that no mother is ever equal to her notion/task, or that we have to reconcile ourselves with this painful split (and inadequacy). We must make one more step and recognize in this configuration precisely that which makes mother mother, that is, what accounts for her being equal to her notion. “THIS, and nothing else, is the notion of mother.”


Sigmund Freud, “Negation,” in On Metapsychology, The Pelican Freud Library, vol.11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 435–442.


Freud, “Negation,” 438.


“The status of the unconscious, which, as I have shown, is so fragile on the ontic plane, is ethical. In his thirst for truth, Freud says, Whatever it is, I must go there, because, somewhere, this unconscious reveals itself.” Jacques Lacan,The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 33.


Ibid., 32.


See .


“Negation,” 439.




“But it is evident that a precondition for the setting up of reality-testing is that objects shall have been lost which once brought real satisfaction.”


“Negation,” 440.


And, by the way, we should recognize in this place of difference the very gap of Urverdrängung (primal repression) as the condition and the lodestar of all subsequent repressions.


“The first and immediate aim, therefore, of reality testing is, not to find an object in real perception which corresponds to the one presented, but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there.”

Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Philosophy
Ontology, Subjectivity, Materialism
Return to Issue #33

Alenka Zupančič (born 1 April 1966) is a Slovenian philosopher whose work focuses on psychoanalysis and continental philosophy. She is currently a full-time researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts and a visiting professor at the European Graduate School. Zupančič belongs to the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis, which is known for its predominantly Lacanian foundations. Her philosophy was strongly influenced by Slovenian Lacanian scholars, especially Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek. Zupančič has written on several topics including ethics, literature, comedy, and love. She is most renowned as a Nietzsche scholar, but Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Henri Bergson and Alain Badiou are also referenced in her work.


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