Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dora and thoughts on Freud's "transference"

When Freud encountered unexpected troubles with one of his neurotic female patients, eighteen-year-old Dora, he was forced to revise and reconsider his notion of transference (one of the biggest obstacles encountered by Freud and psychoanalysis in accessing unconscious material). Transference, in this sense, is “a process by which unconscious wishes and impulses show up in a social situation, most notably the analytic situation.”

Freud had interpreted Dora's dreams (unconscious material) as sexually suggestive, thus leading to Dora assigning Freud the same role as she did Mr K, a man Dora was pressured into being intimately involved with by her adulterous father (who was having an affair with Mrs K); but Dora resisted Mr K's incitements, namely by slapping him. Lear argues that the reason the analysis failed was because Freud took this erroneous approach, which led to Dora seeing Freud as sexually invasive – a seducer like Mr K.

According to Lear, Dora incorporates this seducer figure into her subjective world in a unique way. Rather than simply transferring emotional remnants and desires across from the past and into the analytic situation (as Freud saw it), she is treating the elements of her external reality as fixed. By assigning Freud a role, which he inadvertently fills, she can exercise certain anxiety defense mechanisms (anger outbursts) to impede on his attempts at analysing her (just as she did to avoid confronting the anxiety-producing situation brought on by Mr K’s advancements). Dora is unable to cope with the anxiety brought about by such situations; she has never developed this ability, and it remains as it was when she was a child – she merely averts it by reacting angrily.

Lear notes that Dora "quells her own anxiety, calms herself, by experiencing the world in a famliar pattern." So people in her life occupy fixed positions, and thus Freud is experiencing his patient projecting onto him not only single desires and emotions, but an entire paradigmatic and subjective world structure. Freud is now occupying one of those fixed positions, namely that of Mr K. Dora's creation of this "idiosyncratic world", in regards to her psychoanalysis, essentially prevents her having to face her anxieties (note that she abruptly ceased treatment from Freud some months after starting it). Dora is treating Freud in a similar way to Mr K: in response to Mr K's approaches, Dora slaps him, and this parallels Dora's breaking off from Freud's treatment; as soon as anxiety begins to seep into her fixed world, there emerges a certain defence mechanism to subdue it.

The revised form of transference, however, appreciates that an entire network, a defensive minefield for anxiety threats, is at work; and that to help the patient realise this, the analyst must let them discover - through their own associations - that they are seeing the analyst as fulfilling a certain role in their life. When this is realised, the patient brings up their own unconscious material, unimpeded by the prodding of the analyst. Dora is not transferring emotion directly, as Freud originally understood it; she is stepping in and blocking the emotion through childish outbursts, thus not allowing the emotion to emerge at all. The task Lear assigns the analyst in this new light is to incite recognition in the patient that they are in fact creating this approach and these figures, not only in the doctor, but throughout their entire world. This information is then appropriated by the patient.

What of this concept today? Despite Freud's general lack of credibility in the modern age, many of his ideas have been worked through and expanded upon, just as Lear has in his book Freud - it has even been argued that the psychoanalytic approach will eventually become substantiated through the discovery of organic bases to many of its ideas. The notion of a kind of archetypal world, one in which all things play a role assigned to them by the subject, holds some credibility in my view. Isn't stability something humans all over the world strive for? We seem to seek permanence, when there is none (see the Buddhist notion of impermanence), constantly striving to hold still that which cannot help but move. The aforementioned example of Lear's revised transference implies a pathological stabilising of the world via assigning ever-changing figures archetypal roles - roles which fit into a comfortable subjective schema of the world and thus provide a harbinger against anxiety. But this is does not come free of charge. Of course, assigning people roles which one has assigned to others will not work, because they are not this other, no matter how much they think them to be. This is why Dora slaps Mr K, and also why she breaks with Freud. The aim is for the patient to realise this for themselves by eventually seeing their own words and actions as repetitions of their worldly ideals.

Do you ever feel like you're simply filling a role someone has assigned you? Has there ever been a time when you've felt that someone has (perhaps unconsciously) judged you and placed you into a kind of category? If your answer is yes to either of these questions, which I imagine it would be in most cases, then perhaps the concept of transference is alive and kicking today, albeit in a varied form from Freud's traditional concept. By incorporating a pseudo-stable world, are people sating their anxieties, or merely conjuring a world of trouble - or both? "You are this kind of subject in my world," one says - perhaps assigning a father figure, a lover, a teacher. When transference is portrayed in this light, one cannot help but think of Sartre's "Look" from the Other, or even Jung's archetypes - but that opens up a fresh strain of thought, which is perhaps best left for another discussion. In conclusion, I think we can safely conclude that Lear's revision of transference is more feasible than Freud's, with due respect to the original conception, and that it is perhaps still an observable and important phenomenon in psychopathology.


Lear, J, Freud, Routledge, New York and London, 2005

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