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General Theory of Seduction


Sigmund Freud developed the theory of seduction in the years 1895-1897, and then he abandoned it. The theory accounted for the genesis of the psychopathological unconscious on the basis of a complex mechanism that brought two moments into play: a scene in which a child is seduced by an adult, and the "deferred" reactivation of this scene at a later time.

Jean Laplanche has proposed a "general theory of seduction," extending the Freudian seduction theory to the genesis of the unconscious in general, and broadening its foundations to include primacy of the other's enigmatic message and the theory of repression as a partial failure to translate this message.

It has been said, and is incessantly repeated, that Freud abandoned his first theory of the neuroses and announced this to Wilhelm Fliess in his letter dated September 21, 1897 (SE 1, p. 259). Recrudescences and relics of this theory are nonetheless legion in Freud's work. What is perhaps the most surprising fact is that it was effectively tabooed and misrepresented until 1964 (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1964). Even then, when it began to attract a new interest, this was directed not to the highly complex mechanism described by Freud but instead to anecdotes of manifest sexual abuses and to the issue of whether Freud had fled, or "repressed," this reality and taken refuge in the hypothesis of a pure and simple production of fantasies (Masson, 1984).

Freud's original seduction theory was strictly confined to the realm of the psychoneuroses. It is even tempting to think that Freud posited the existence of the unconscious in neurotics alone, and that he nourished the hope that cure might come to mean the elimination of the unconscious.

The theory sought to explain the development of the unconscious by the repression, in the child, of memories of sexual scenes usually experienced while in the charge of an adult. It brought three interconnected levels into play: a temporal dimension, a topographical dimension, and a language-related dimension. The temporal aspect of seduction was bound up with the concept of deferred action (or "afterwardness" [Nachträglichkeit]), which was to survive in Freud's later thought. The thesis was that nothing was inscribed in the human unconscious save by way of the interrelationship between at least two events separated from one another by a period of mutation, a lapse of time that made it possible for the subject to react differently to the memory of the first experience than to the actual experience as lived. Left in suspense, the initial memory became pathogenic and traumatizing when revived by the occurrence of a second scene having some association or resonance with the first.

The topographical aspect involved the theory of an ego in the process of formation, armored against attack from without but not against attack from within. Since what attacked it at the second moment was not an outside event but a memory, this ego was unprotected and could react only by repression.

Lastly, a linguistic aspect of the theory was suggested by Freud's analogy between the barrier separating the two moments of the psychical trauma and a translation, or a partial failure of translation (letter to Fliess of December 6, 1896, SE 1, p. 235).

It is thus apparent just how inadequate a response it is to reduce the seduction theory to the simplistic assertion that the adult's seduction of the child brings on mental disturbance. Freud's first theory was in fact intimately interwoven with the clinical doctrine of the time.

At the close of 1897, Freud undertook a systematic critique of his theory which led him to abandon it, surrendering hysterics to their "seduction fantasies," and those fantasies themselves, ultimately, to a phylogenetic determinism.

The critique of a theoryits "falsification"may have several outcomes: rejection, partial modification, or a reexamination of its foundations. It is the last of these that Jean Laplanche has sought with his "general theory of seduction." In the first place, he argues, the unconscious should not be looked upon as invariably pathological. The unconscious is part of the human condition, and there is therefore no reason to rebuke a theory or a practice for not being able to eliminate it. Secondly, the adult-child relationship ought to be viewed in a way that transcends psychopathological features specific to particular cases of perverse sexual abuse. Generally speaking, there is a basic asymmetry between the infant and the adult, stemming from the fact that adults have already constructed a sexual unconscious for themselves and that their way of addressing themselves to children, in gestures or words, is necessarily shot through by that unconscious. Thirdly, the general theory of seduction aims to bring considerations to the fore that played little part in Freud's thinking. These include: the notion of the message; the priority of the adult other in the message received by the infant; and, lastly, the idea of "translation" as the basis for a model of repression less mechanistic than that of a pure interplay of forces, as set forth in classical psychoanalytic thought.

Jean Laplanche

See also: Anaclisis/anaclictic; Breastfeeding; Deferred action and trauma; Heterosexuality; Masochism; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Object; Ontogenesis; Oral stage; Proton-pseudos; Seduction; Seduction Scenes.


Freud, Sigmund. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Laplanche, Jean. (1989 [1987]). New foundations for psychoanalysis. (David Macey, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1968 [1964]). Fantasy and the origins of sexuality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49, 1-18.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. (1984). The assault on truth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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