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The term "disavowal" (Verleugnung ), often translated as "denial," denotes a mental act that consists in rejecting the reality of a perception on account of its potentially traumatic associations. The notion of disavowal made its appearance rather late in Freud's work. For years he was content to describe the little boy's refusal to recognize the absence of a penis in a little girl, as observed in clinical practice, without employing a specific term. Thus, in his "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c) and in the case history of "Little Hans" (1909b), he noted the phenomenon and described it in terms of a rejection of perceptual evidence. Little boys, he argued, do not doubt "that a genital like [their] own is to be attributed to everyone [they] know. . . . This conviction is energetically maintained by boys, is obstinately defended against the contradictions which soon result from observation, and is only abandoned after severe internal struggles (the castration complex)." The period concerned, lasting approximately from three to five years of age, Freud dubs the "phallic stage" in view of the narcissistic hypercathexis of the idea of the penis by which it is usually characterizedespecially in the little boy, who finds it unthinkable that anyone worthy of respect should be without a penis, least of all his mother.

The little girl cannot similarly reject the perception of her own lack of a penis. However, in certain young girls, Freud notes "the hope of some day obtaining a penis in spite of everything and so becoming like a man may persist to an incredibly late age and may become a motive for strange and otherwise unaccountable actions."

Freud's first reference to the term was in the "Wolf Man" case history (1918b [1914]; see also 1914a), where he conceived of disavowal as operating between at least two regions of the ego which invalidated one another. Thus one region might accept the symbolic character of castration and sexual difference while the other embraced the all-or-nothing logic of the phallic structure, and everything proceeded as though the two spheres had no influence upon each other at all.

Beginning with the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17a), Freud began systematically using the verb verleugnen to refer to the mental act of rejecting a perception as inconceivablewhich James Strachey translated as "to disavow." The noun formdie Verleugnung (disavowal)was not used to designate the metapsychological concept until a little later (1925h). It was mainly in his late work, in "A Short Account of Psychoanalysis" (1940a [1938]) and "The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defense" (1940e [1938]), that Freud sought to anchor the specificity of disavowal by situating it within the particular topography of the split ego.

In "The Infantile Genital Organization" (1923e), Freud reasserted that only the male organ played a significant role in the mind of the child of either sex around three years of age. The child could understand the absence of a penis only as the result of castration. It was therefore the manner in which the initial disavowal was overcome that determined the castration complex to which the individual would become subject. Returning to this crucial question in "Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes" (1925j), Freud presented castration as a result of a "deferred action," the threatening nature of the possible absence of the penis assuming its full mental force only after a more or less extended period of disavowal.

Freud also noted that the persistence of such disavowal beyond the phallic period, into adolescence and adulthood, could lead to a form of mental illness: "The process I would like to describe as denial [Verleugnung ] . . . appears to be neither rare nor very dangerous for the mental life of the child, but in adults it could lead to psychosis."

Moreover, Freud had published two observations of young men in whom denial of the lack of a penis appeared to determine the outbreak of psychotic symptoms (1914a). The first was the famous "Wolf Man," whom Freud claimed had "dismissed" [verwarf see "Foreclosure"] the "reality [sic] of castration," that he "refused to know anything about it, in the sense of repressing it. He did not actually pass judgment as to whether it existed or not, [castration] but effectively it did not." This rejection, as inconceivable, of the possible absence of the penis was what triggered the patient's returning hallucination of a severed little finger. For Freud, then, the psychotic ego disavowed perceptual reality in a way somewhat akin to the way a neurotic repressed certain instinctual demands.

But Freud subsequently went on to broaden his clinical work on disavowal well beyond the realm of psychosis. In "Fetishism" (1927e) he reported a case of two young men each of whom denied the death of his father. However, Freud notes, neither of them developed a psychosis, even though a "a piece of reality which was undoubtedly important has been disavowed [verleugnet ], just as the unwelcome fact of women's castration is disavowed in fetishists."

He then returned to the notion of the splitting of the ego (already discussed in the Wolf Man case history), presenting it as the topographical corollary of the mechanism of disavowal: the possible juxtaposition in the psyche of at least two incompatible mental attitudes that appeared to have no influence on one another. It was no longer a question, therefore, of treating disavowal as the disavowal "of" something but rather as a mutual disavowal, a disjunction "between" two discrete realms of the split ego. Similar disavowals were common, Freud noted, and not merely among fetishists. In his later works Freud maintained that disavowal was present to varying degrees in psychosis, perversion, and very possibly too in all normal subjects. He offered an instance from his personal experience in a public letter to Romain Roll-and ("A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," 1936a, p. 245).

It was also in his paper on "Fetishism" that Freud showed that disavowal, unlike repression, did not erase the idea or perception in question but only its meaning; this was why he rejected the term "scotomization" proposed by René Laforgue (1927e, pp. 153-54). Disavowal was in fact a suspension of the function of judgment, of that same attributing judgment he felt was decisive in the formation of the ego. As a consequence of his methodological concern more clearly to distinguish disavowal and repression, he ended by suggesting that repression treated the affect as disavowal treated the idea, which may be taken to mean that repression no more eliminates the affect (it is only displaced) than disavowal erases the idea (whose meaning alone remains obscure).

This having been said, it is important to recognize that all the clinical illustrations of disavowal supplied by Freud over a thirty-year period are based on two canonical illustrations: the disavowal of women's lack of a penis and the disavowal of the death of the father. Disavowal is thus always a disavowal of absence, which is why it is so important in the process of symbolization. In fact, Freud specifies as a prerequisite of symbolization the ability to represent the object to oneself as something that can be absent: an object, he says, can only be symbolized in absentia. The disavowal (of absence) therefore constitutes a fundamental obstacle to the very process of constructing psychic reality, and in this it is quite distinct from negation, which operates as the starting point of the (preconscious) mental recognition of something: disavowal and negation are radically different in their logical functions.

Disavowal, as opposed to negation, is a narcissistic expedient whereby the individual seeks to avoid acknowledging absences or shortcomings of key parental figures (castration of the mother, death of the father). In practice, however, it transpires that persistent disavowal hardly allows the subject to overcome the traumatic burden of the representations in question; indeed the potential latent virulence of these representations appears rather to be made permanent by the invalidation of possible symbolic links. Moreover, whatever suffering disavowal and splitting may spare the subject's consciousness is generally proportionately visited upon those around him.

In the treatment of patients afflicted by enduring disavowal, everything suggests that they want to leave the responsibility of thinking what is for them unthinkable, of integrating what they cannot integrate, up to the "other" member in the therapeutic relationship. This occurs primarily through the mechanism of projective identification, which requires considerable psychic expenditure on the part of that other person, often within a very painful experiential realm. This kind of detour through the mental economy of the therapist is seemingly a necessary but not sufficient condition for the subject's successful integration of such elements into a symbolic interplay thanks to which the pleasure principle can again become effective.

Jacques Lacan in his seminar on "Object Relations" (1956-1957), talks about disavowal (he uses the French "démenti ") as a fundamental mechanism of the so-called perverse structure, with its characteristic manner of treating castration: simultaneously rejecting and accepting it. He employs the term "foreclosure" to refer to the mechanism of symbolic denial, which he feels is a key factor in psychosis.

Bernard Penot

See also: Fetishism; Negative, work of the; Repudiation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy ("Little Hans"). SE, 10: 5-147.

. (1914a). Fausse reconnaissance ("déjà raconté") in psychoanalytic treatment. SE, 13: 201-207.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 241-258.

. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.

. (1936a). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. SE, 22: 239-248.

. (1940e [1938]). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.

Lacan, Jacques. (1956-1957). Le séminaire-livre IV, la relation d'objet. Paris: Le Seuil.