Michael Kinnucan

The Beginning of No


Grete Stern, Love without Illusion, 1951

Morality and Negation

Consider the following passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

What is compelling in this oft-quoted account of moral development is the moral repurposing of the concept of stupidity. The immorality into which we are all born is not sin but fatuous bluntness; the childishly immoral person is poor in world. For her there is only one object, and even that object is merely her again, her self reflected, insubstantial except insofar as it serves. The development of morality is the birth of a world of subtly differentiated objects, each retaining a solidity which does not depend on the needs of the self. The care which the good person takes is an effort of attentiveness, and care is a kind of understanding. All this, however—the knowledge as well as the care—requires a certain self-denial: to comprehend the world one must renounce one’s claims on it.

In what follows I will analyze Freud’s 1925 essay “Negation,” in which he traces the origin and development of this renunciation in early childhood. I recommend that you read the essay now—it’s only four pages, and it’s full of good things. Here Freud attempts to explain how it happens that a being for whom the world is a teat can come to see it otherwise. For Freud as for Eliot this renunciation is first of all ethical.

The essay is quite simple in structure: Freud begins from the observation that, in analysis, when a patient denies a particular association (“At that moment I certainly wasn’t thinking about my mother”) the analyst can be sure that the association did occur, but that the patient would prefer to repress it. He notes that affirmation and denial are functions of the faculty of intellectual judgment and argues that the way denial works in analysis may provide a clue to the psychological origin of the intellect. He then suggests that this function is double, and arises in human infants in two stages. At first the function of judgment affirms what is or ought to be inside the child, and denies what is or ought to be expelled; later, it negates what is merely in the child (psychological representations of objects which aren’t really there) and affirms the real, which is outside. The opposition between “yes” and “no” operates at the border between self and other, but the opposition changes sides: at first the “no” is the other, later it is the self.

Denial in Analysis

Freud’s claim that if a patient denies an association it must have occurred—later he even claims that there is “no stronger evidence” of a significant association than this denial—might seem like a typical sophistry of analysis, a game in which the analyst always wins. If you affirm, you have associated; if you deny, all the more so. But consider: when a patient claims that the person in his dream was not his mother, what does he have in mind? His non-mother? No such being exists; being is not a predicate. Manifestly, his mother came to his mind and was then denied.

Compare the two statements: “My mother was not in my dream,” “My mother was not in her room.” If someone made the latter statement in ordinary circumstances, we would not be inclined to think he was lying. We might infer that he went to his mother’s room thinking of her, expecting to find her, and did not. (He does not list the thousand other things that were not in the room, only the one he sought there.) His mother was not in the room, but she was in his mind. A psychoanalyst makes basically the same inference concerning the first statement above: “My mother was not in my dream.” “Then you sought her there? You wondered? Very well, that’s all I wanted to know.” Psychoanalysis is in this respect a very strange inquiry, a strange use of language: it interrogates thoughts without reference to objects, seeking the purely immanent network they form among themselves.

Is the patient’s “no” then simply meaningless in analysis? In a sense things look this way: if the patient had said “my mother was there, but her face was blue” (or her name was Laura, or she laughed unceasingly), each of these attributes would invite further analytic interpretation. Why blue or Laura in particular? The “no” doesn’t invite interpretation in the same way: one simply drops it from the statement to discover the statement’s truth. Yet Freud tells us that the “no” is by no means irrelevant to interpretation: it is “the strongest evidence” of interpretation’s success. The “no” says nothing at all about the object, but it says a great deal about the subject’s relation to the object: “To negate something in a judgment is, at bottom, to say: ‘This is something which I should prefer to repress.’” Note that this analysis applies just as much to the judgment “My mother is not in her room” as to analytic denial: Here denial speaks of a disappointed expectation and the acceptance of that disappointment. To be sure, “repression” here likely does not carry its full analytic weight—if the mother’s absence from her room indicates merely that she’s running errands, and if the speaker is old enough to sustain disappointment and a temporary delay without bursting into tears—but denial here still entails taking cognizance of an unpleasant fact, one contrary to expectations. And of course if the mother is not in her room because she died two weeks ago, it may take some mental effort to take cognizance of that fact.

“My mother was not in my dream”—this statement is already progress over repression. What was once unthinkable is now thinkable insofar as it’s denied. One who represses, say, Oedipal anger against his father, certainly does not deny that he wishes to kill his father; to represent such a wish, even under the sign of denial, would be impossibly horrifying. Everything which even reminds him of this wish causes unbearable anxiety; it is literally unthinkable. Denial knows precisely what it denies; repression is flight. Denial closes the matter, repression is an eternal task. For this reason denial is a freedom: “With the help of the symbol of negation, thinking frees itself from the restrictions of repression and enriches itself with material that is indispensable for its proper functioning.” An object must be known and understood to be denied, and according to Freud, certain objects can be known at first only under the sign of denial. Denial suspends the negated object between being and non-being, takes a good look at it, and shakes its head. (With the help of a symbol—we’ll get to that.) In a sense this sort of denial is the only thing that psychoanalysis promises. After all, what, in the end, can one do with the desires (to murder one’s siblings, fuck one’s father, and so forth) which analysis uncovers so laboriously? It’s not as though these desires are liberated! One simply goes on living with them, still unsatisfied but now understood. Analysis works simply because it requires less effort and less suffering to know the impossible than to evade the unknown. Consciously denying the desire’s existence is the first step toward consciously refusing its fulfillment.

Judgment in General

Freud points out that negation and its opposite, affirmation, are the province of the intellectual function of judgment. Let us recall that judgment is not identical to thought: “Judging is the intellectual action which decides the choice of motor action, which puts an end to the postponement due to thought and which leads over from thinking to acting.” The term is of course a juridical metaphor: judgment is the moment when a general law finds its application in a particular case, the moment when a sentence is passed. The judge deliberates, observes the accused criminal to discover whether he is a case for the general rule; then he decides, and his decision is an act. Given facts are prior to judgment; judgment decides what to do with them.

Freud pursues his inquiry into judgment by adopting from philosophy a distinction which goes back at least to Plato: “The function of judgment is concerned in the main with two sorts of decisions. It affirms or disaffirms the possession by a thing of a particular attribute; and it asserts or disputes that a presentation has an existence in reality.” Judgment links a noun either to an adjective or to being. Its object Freud calls either a thing (presumed to be given in reality) or a presentation (given first of all only in the mind).

The Degree Zero of Negation

Freud traces the function of judgment back to its origin. But in his view there is a time before the origin of negation: the womb. (The womb as physical location or as limit-concept or as myth, let’s leave the question open.) In the womb, the infant’s every desire is adequately fulfilled, which is to say that he has no desire. Like Spinoza’s God, the child does nothing for an end. Also like Spinoza’s God, he encounters no limit, no beyond to himself. The world as a whole is as responsive to his needs as if it were but an extension of himself; as far as he is concerned, it is an extension of himself. The infant in the womb undergoes no suffering in the modern sense of unpleasantness, but it’s more than that: he undergoes no suffering in the old sense, πάσχω, in which to suffer means simply to undergo. He is nowhere passive, there is no distinction between passivity and activity. For this reason he has something in common with Kant’s God, too, the productive understanding for whom nothing would be simply given, who would produce the object of his knowledge in knowing it, for whom thought and the real, possibility and actuality would be identical (i.e. unknowable). Freud is quite wrong to identify existence in the womb with religious feeling in The Future of an Illusion; what psychoanalysis finds in the womb is not the God of revelation and religion but the God of the philosophers, the rigorous negation of finitude.

The First Judgment: Negation of an Attribute

This autistic idyll must of course come to an end; the world will stake its claim, and it does so through the encounter with the unpleasant.

“The attribute to be decided about may originally have been good or bad, useful or harmful. Expressed in the language of the oldest—the oral—instinctual impulses, the judgement is: ‘I should like to eat this’, or ‘I should like to spit it out’; and, 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’... What is bad, what is alien to the ego and what is external are, to begin with, identical.”

This passage seems to contain an ambiguity. Is the original distinction between the external and the internal (what is and what is not inside) or between the good (what ought to be inside) and the bad (what ought to be elsewhere)? To resolve this difficulty we must ask what draws the infant out of the unity of the womb. The infant encounters something she does not want, and this alone is enough to mark it as originating elsewhere: it is not of her. It ought to return whence it came. The distinction between self and other is at first coextensive with, indeed identical to, the distinction between good and bad. But for this reason the distinction between self and other emerges as already breached: the self is that which has been invaded, the other is posited as origin of an invasion. The self emerges as a border to be policed.

What is there in the child’s world besides this border? Freud claims that at this stage the child judges of “the possession by a thing of a particular attribute”—but are there really things here, or only feelings? It is essential to the concept of a thing (a substance) that it can possess more than one attribute; otherwise the substance would simply be its attribute. (To say that a man is pale is not to say that he is paleness.) Doesn’t the child experience not things but feelings, variations in sensation with no relation to what’s outside himself? The feeling of pleasure or displeasure is not the same as the attribution of a property to a thing, it does not automatically refer to a thing which causes pleasure. Here again, though, matters are clarified when we recall that the first negated object is an object out of place, an object which ought to be elsewhere: the infant is in possession not of a single property and its opposite (pleasure and pain), but of two linked properties: here and elsewhere, pleasure and pain. That which is painful is here and ought to be elsewhere; that which is pleasant is perhaps elsewhere but ought to be here. “That which”—the first objects.

Aristotle points out that every judgment is at once analytic and synthetic, a distinction and a link: The judgment “the apple is sweet” distinguishes between the apple and sweetness even as it connects them. The judgments of Freud’s first stage are likewise analytic and synthetic: that which ought to be eaten is not-me and yet of-me, that which ought to be spit out is in-me and yet not-me. Significantly, though, these judgments are not cognitive but practical: they demand analysis (spitting) and synthesis (eating) as acts.

For this reason these judgments contain no reference at all to non-being. The first “no” is a refusal, not a denial. Nothing here is in thought but absent from the world; the distinction does not yet exist. We might say that the patients Freud discusses in the beginning of the article, those who deny that their dream reminded them of their mothers, practice this sort of judgment (my mother is not wanted here) but confuse it with another kind (my mother is not here at all).

The Second Judgment: The Absent Object

The first form of judgment is not a thought but an action. Only in the second form does knowledge begin, and it begins through a reversal. At first the judgment condemned and exiled the stranger; now it condemns what is (merely) self. Self/other becomes subjective/objective, unreal/real:

The antithesis between subjective and objective does not exist from the first. It only comes into being from the fact that thinking possesses the capacity to bring before the mind once more something that has once been perceived, by reproducing it as a presentation without the external object having still to be there.

Thinking begins when this “capacity” of the mind—its spontaneity, its ability to produce as well as perceive—is recognized as a threat, indeed the greatest threat, to the child’s existence. The child learns that his control over things has limits—only now does he distinguish between what is seen and what is. Thinking is the ascetic interrogation of pleasurable hallucinations; it aims to discover which of them represents something real.

The second form of judgment is born of humility. The self depends on the existence of a thing, a thing which it cannot produce itself but must seek elsewhere; therefore the value of a representation (its truth) depends on the object it purports to represent. The pleasure principle, which would repeat the same beautiful dream over and over again, runs up against the dire threat of the world. The will to truth is the will to expel empty dreams, and it is always born in a conflict of values: the true is judged to be worth more than the good.

An obvious problem arises here: how could a being with no concept of the true (no idea that esse is not percipi) ever develop such a concept? Wouldn’t a baby capable of producing pleasant hallucinations simply go on doing so until he starved to death? The question is a difficult one, but perhaps we may find an answer if we ask how the second stage of judgment develops out of the first. In the first stage, the child has already discovered that there is a power elsewhere, a capacity to produce which is not his; he has invented the topology of self and other, the circle which must be preserved. Perhaps what occurs in the second stage is simply that this other power becomes more threatening. The suffering from without comes to carry more weight than what can be maintained within. To develop a will to truth the child must subject himself to the weight of the world.

This subjection—the victory of truth over pleasure—is not as absolute as it may seem. “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.” The search for knowledge takes place under the sign of a pleasure which has been lost. The full presence of the object always comes first, and knowledge (even when it denies all illusions) is always an effort to get back there.

“With the help of a symbol”

The patient says “no,” and it means nothing, but also two things. First: Let that be expelled from me and destroyed. Second: That thought is merely me, it is not in the elsewhere on which I depend, as a deceiving thought it must be destroyed. Denial in the broad sense means at first destruction of objects, later suppression of thoughts. In the latter use, the “no” places the object in suspension—present and absent, present but denied being, hence bearable. To sustain this status—to interrogate representations not in their relation to the real but in the half-light of their own internal logic prior to the weight of the world—is the Freudian epoché, the method of psychoanalysis. Hence the “no,” pure sign of a difference which can’t be pictured—the difference between the world in our language and the world as it is—is the strongest sign of its success.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.