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In Freud's work, the term 'affect' stands in opposition to the term 'idea'.

The opposition between the affective and the intellectual is one of the oldest themes in philosophy, and made its way into Freud's vocabulary via German psychology.

For Lacan, however, the opposition between the affective and the intellectual is not valid in the psychoanalytic field.

'This opposition is one of the most contrary to analytic experience and most unenlightening when it comes to understanding it' (Sl, 274).

Thus, in response to those who accuse Lacan of being over-intellectual and of neglecting the role of affect, it can be pointed out that this criticism is based on what Lacan saw as a false opposition.

(Lacan also argued that criticisms of being over-intellectual were often merely excuses for sloppy thinking.[1]

Psychoanalytic treatment is based on the symbolic order, which transcends the opposition between affect and intellect.

On the one hand, psychoanalytic experience 'is not that of an affective smoochy-woochy' (Sl, 55).

On the other hand, nor is psychoanalytic treatment an intellectual affair; 'we are not dealing here with an intellectual dimension' (Sl, 274).

The Lacanian psychoanalyst must thus be aware of the ways in which both 'affective smoochy-woochy' and intellectualisation can be resistances to analysis, imaginary lures of the ego.

Anxiety is the only affect that is not deceptive.

Lacan is opposed to those analysts who have taken the affective realm as primary, for the affective is not a separate realm opposed to the intellectual.

'The affective is not like a special density which would escape an intellectual accounting. It is not to be found in a mythical beyond of the production of the symbol which would precede the discursive formulation.'[2]

However, he rejects accusations of neglecting the role of affect, pointing to the fact that a whole year of the seminar is dedicated precisely to discussing anxiety (Lacan, 1973a: 38).

Lacan does not propose a general theory of affects, but only touches on them insofar as they impinge on psychoanalytic treatment.

He insists on the relationship of affect to the symbolic order; affect means that the subject is affected by his relation with the Other.

He argues that affects are not signifiers but signals (S7, 102-3), and emphasises Freud's position that repression does not bear upon the affect (which can only be transformed or displaced) but upon the ideational representative (which is, in Lacan's terms, the signifier) (Ec, 714).

Lacan's comments on the concept of affect have important implications in clinical practice.

Firstly, all the concepts in psychoanalysis which have traditionally been conceived in terms of affects, such as the transference, must be rethought in terms of their symbolic structure, if the analyst is to direct the treatment correctly.

Secondly, the affects are lures which can deceive the analyst, and hence the analyst must be wary of being tricked by his own affects.

This does not mean that the analyst must disregard his own feelings for the patient, but simply that he must know how to make adequate use of them.

Finally, it follows that the aim of psychoanalytic treatment is not the reliving of past experiences, nor the abreaction of affect, but the articulation in speech of the truth about desire.

Another term in Lacan's discourse, related to but distinct from 'affect', is the term 'passion'.

Lacan speaks of the 'three fundamental passions': love, hate and ignorance (Sl, 271); this is a reference to Buddhist thought (E, 94).

These passions are not imaginary phenomena, but located at the junctions between the three orders.

AFFECT word borrowed from the German Affekt.

In nineteenth-century psychology the term is synonymous with emotion or excitement.

Borrowing from that tradition, psychoanalysis defines afect as a quantity of psychic energy or a sum of excitation accompanying events that take place in the life of the psyche.

Affect is not a direct emotional representation of an event, but a trace or residue that is aroused or reactivated through the repetition of that event of by some equivalent to it.

Like libido, affect is quantifiable and both drives and images are therefore said to have a quota of affect.

In Freud's earliest theory of hysteria (the so-called seduction thoery), the blocking of the affect correspodning to a traumatic event has a causal role; because it cannot be expressed or discharged in words, it takes the form of a somatic symptom.

In his later writings Freud consistently makes a distinction between affect and representations, which may be either verbal or visual.

The verbalization of the talking cure thus becomes an intellectualized way of discharging affects relating to childhood experiences.

One of the criticisms levelled at Lacan by certain of his fellow psychoanalysts is that he tends to pay little attention to affect.


Affect :

Ideas, abstract concepts of instinctual wishes ; emotions, motoric and secretary discharges connected with instinctual tension (pleasure-unpleasure principle)

Affect :

Terme général pour exprimer tous les phénomènes de l’affectivité c’est-à-dire toutes les nuances du plaisir et de la douleur.

affect 217 Seminar XI


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.171
  2. Sl, 57