Negative, Work of the

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Contemporary psychoanalytic theory generally uses the term negative in its adjectival form ("negative transference," "negative therapeutic reaction"). Here it is conceptually treated as a substantive. The "work of the negative" is an expression drawn from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), but its application in psychoanalysis is only remotely connected with Hegelian philosophy, except through the work of Jacques Lacan, who quickly dissociated himself from such a connection.

Freud, in his metapsychology, makes implicit use of the negative. The unconscious, for example, does not simply describe what is not conscious, but designates an organization of the psychic apparatus. Later Freud abandoned the unconscious as an agency and replaced it with the id to emphasize that everything we might know of this agency was defined only negatively in relation to the ego. However, the negative is more directly perceptible in what concerns object loss and the work of mourning. In the early stages of Freudian theory, it was just such a structural relation that defined neurosis as the "negative of perversion." More generally, the idea of representation can also be understood from this viewpoint, in comparison with perception. Representation implies the absence of an object from immediate perception; the object was once perceived but no longer needs to be present to the senses in order to be once again accessible to the mind. Moreover, repression, which keeps consciousness at a distance, can only reinforce the repercussions of the psychic reality while making them ineffable. Even the concept of identification, when contrasted with desire, can be included among the meanings of the negative. These remarks should suffice to weaken the idea of the negative as limited to the pathological and to show that very general concepts of mental life, normal and pathological, can be productively interpreted from the negative viewpoint.

The role played by the destructive drives in Freud's final theory of the drives is no less productive a site for exploring the work of the negative, particularly when it is framed in terms of how the psyche is undermined by the repetition compulsion, the maintenance of infantile conflicts, or the nonresolution of the transference neurosis. The last development takes the form of a "relation of non-relation," and all these developments play their parts in the negative therapeutic reaction. This negative tendency in Freud's thought is accentuated by his adherence to the concept of the death drive and by his references to masochism as the origin of other psychopathologies.

It is significant that Freud's article "Negation" (1925h) begins with the use of language in the clinical setting, goes on to argue that negation operates as an intellectual substitute for the repressed, and ends with reference to the oldest instinctual impulses, of which the prototypes, swallowing and spitting, are considered the roots of affirmation and negation. Freud then closes his discussion by evoking the negativism displayed in some cases of psychosis.

André Green has proposed bringing together some of the defense mechanisms discussed by Freud: the prototypical defense of repression, which yet has its own character (Freud designated it first and foremost as having the function of preventing the appearance of displeasure, and so gave it a privileged position with regard to affect, although it is more readily recognizable with respect to representation); splitting or disavowal, which, according to Freud, bears more specifically on perception; foreclosure, which radically rejects the expression of the drives to the point where it is difficult to discern the different modes of representation; and finally, negation, which is essentially involved in the structuring of language and thus is not limited to the pathological but extends as well to the cultural. Green argued for combining these different forms of defense and understanding them as fundamental indices of the work of the negative. They all carry with them the obligation of a yes-or-no decision. Eventually, other defenses might be added to this list, for instance Melanie Klein's projective identification, but this grouping permits one to grasp their coherence, to see the common ground in the clinical treatment of the neuroses and nonneurotic psychic structures, and to examine the modalities of their articulation.

The structural organization of splitting, disavowal, and foreclosure have been most frequently accounted for by conceiving destructiveness as echoing those difficult-to-discern vicissitudes of libido. In this vein, the negative has contributed to a reinterpretation of the controversial death drive. In this theoretical work, narcissism is a key concept. Green proposed reconsidering narcissism as "negative narcissism," where the psyche aspires toward its own destruction after the failure of other solutions. Negative narcissism is a process that tends not toward the One, as narcissism does in its Freudian version, but toward nothing. The negative must be understood here not as the inverse of the positive, but as a return to nothing. This interpretation allows a better understanding of certain aspects of contemporary clinical practice: empty states and decathexis; futility and nonengagement; Pierre Marty's "essential depression"; the impairment of basic drives in eating disorders, suicidal behaviors, and addictionsphenomena that are poorly illuminated by existing theories. While these states are offered here as examples of the concepts presented, the field of the negative is far from limited to them. In corresponding fashion, this approach of deploying the negative might also permit better articulation between the theory of the drives and the theory of object relations.

A fundamental function of psychic life consists in the transformation of drive into object. In other words, object relations cannot be limited to transformations of existing internal and external objects, but must also involve the capacity of the psyche to create objects from the drives and thus contribute to the complexity of psychic investment. This is what Green has called "the objectifying function." Conversely, the activity of the destructive drives does not limit itself to patent destructiveness, but also operates to deobjectify, or undo prior objectification. When the destructive drive deobjectifies a given object, it seeks to renounce whatever is unique or irreplaceable about that object for the subject.

The application of these ideas has permitted a reconsideration of how narcissism obscures alterity (or alienation) and in this way plays a part in primary masochism and negative reactions to therapy. They have also revealed how splitting has privileged application in the negative states of disengagement and indifference frequently found in borderline cases.

The negative has particularly important application with respect to hallucination. Hallucination is at the base of a primary hypothesis on psychic functioning: the hallucinatory realization of desire that connects dreams and hallucination. Negative hallucination, which was so often found in the early texts of psychoanalysis but subsequently disappeared from Freud's writing, reveals itself to be a heuristically rich concept for comprehending certain regressive functioning involving a hallucinatory mode, rather than hallucination itself.

Green's is not the only work in contemporary psychoanalytic theory to attend to the negative. One can find an intuition of the negative in Winnicott's late work on objects and transitional phenomena. In another way and from a different inspiration, a similar intuition can be said to shape Bion's distinction between the "no-thing" and the nothing. These refer to representation and absence, respectively, while the reference to nothingness, or inexistence, could be understood as the result of a projective identification.

AndrÉ Green

See also: Absence; Anality; "Analysis Terminable and Interminable"; Antinarcissism; Dead mother complex; Death instinct (Thanatos); "Negation"; Negative hallucination; Paradox; Suffering; Work (as a psychoanalytic notion).


Freud, Sigmund. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

Green, André. (1999). The work of the negative (Andrew Weller, Trans.). London: Free Association, 1999. (Original work published 1993)