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The notion of transgression entered psychoanalysis only gradually. In fact, the word already had a well-established meaning in ethnology, a science from which Sigmund Freud drew inspiration. Its definition was to some extent a negative one, in opposition to taboo (a term that was itself borrowed from the Polynesian language), prohibition, and law.

Transgression is anything that involves the contravention of explicit or implicit rules, both in the course of the treatment and in conflictual unconscious functioning, not to mention within the psychoanalytic process itself.

Thus, real and fantasized transgression is at the heart of all psychological mechanisms, as the result, or source, of a conflict. We also encounter it, during a psychoanalytic treatment, in everything that goes against the framework imposed by the fundamental rule. But it is also found, and this time positively, in the wish of Freud and other psychoanalysts to get to the bottom of secrets that seem to be self-evident. This is what drives all scientific research—the longing to understand and master the laws of human functioning, especially when they are obscure.

Thus it is difficult to date the first appearance of the notion, because only a posteriori can its implicit presence can be discerned in Freud's first writings and in his wish to become an extraordinary hero. As early as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a, ch. 3), the idea of transgression is contrasted with that of an unsatisfied desire able to reach satisfaction in spite of everything that might restrain and prohibit it, via the detour of the dream. Like sociologists, psychoanalysts find that every law is accompanied by criminal infractions of that law—infractions which the law highlights and describes. Like ethnologists, psychoanalysts also find that the strictest laws are always accompanied by rituals.

It was perfectly natural that, in a dialectical movement, the interest shown in everything that can prevent a desire from being fulfilled—and in particular the formalized, absolute, and non-negotiable limits represented by laws and taboos—should shift to what can corrupt them, deviate them, or violate them, in other words, to the mechanisms of transgression. It is obvious that, given our need for an order in which ethics would have its proper place, transgression should at first have been experienced and presented in its negative or pathological aspects—even though Freud insisted right from the start on the inescapable complementarity of desire and law, of law and transgression. Clinical discussions of perversion, as a pathological manifestation or as a neurotic outlet, all turn on the moral status of transgression, just as the current socio-cultural malaise gets to be played out in various disciplines, including within the psychoanalytical community, with the focus on ethical debates.

The conflictual model that lies at the basis of psychoanalytical thought can be observed from different points of view. One can focus on the place, whether this be the unconscious scene, the framework of the psychoanalytical session, or the huge wealth of psychoanalytical theory. One can focus on the model of representation chosen, essentially the oedipal model or that of the father's murder. Or one can focus on a given level—on the oscillation between the individual intrapsychic level and the more or less specific collective level that makes the performance of forbidden actions possible within certain defined areas, of which carnivel is one example. Myths have the same role as dreams with regard to internal prohibitive laws. "The legend of Oedipus sprang from some primaeval dream-material" (1900a, p. 263). Finally, we can focus on the model of functioning chosen: pleasure principle against reality principle, life instinct against death drive, or the relative potency of the superego.

Transgression can be found everywhere in the milieu of the unconscious. Psychological functioning is based on the way conflicts between different agencies are dealt with. One's character is formed by rules of behavior that are based on authorizations and prohibitions.

Over the course of each individual's evolution, certain critical moments or moments of transition favor the temptation of transgression. These are the critical periods of one's development; at these times, evolution is rapid, and behavior is particularly active. During early childhood, the anal period, the "age of no," is a stage at which the child is forever defying parental law. During adolescence, or more precisely at certain moments during the slow evolution of adolescence, the sense of expansion, of new power, and the desire for discovery, can lead to provocative behavior and the deliberate violation of moral and social rules.

During every session of psychoanalysis, a conflict is set up and staged between the law of repression on one hand, armed with the patient's resistances and defenses and the law of silence which they entail, and on the other the desire shared by the psychoanalyst and the patient to break through that law. Thus the internal conflict is projected and embodied in the transferential relation.

It can be said that all psychoanalytical thinking is built on a transgressive epistemological curiosity. Psychoanalysis as a scientific corpus comes up against the laws of inner repression, but also against the universal or western ethic of sexual repression, the rejection of aggressive desires and, finally, the norms of a rudimentary and reductive scientific logic.

The oedipal model is the summit of psychoanalytic construction. The child's violent desire for the parent of the opposite sex implies the aggressive wish to take the place of the parent of the same sex. This wish is in its turn strongly repressed, due to the love and fear felt by the child for this same parent. To get beyond this conflict requires a means of transgressing the dual prohibition of incest and rejection. The aggressive violence repressed at the time of the oedipal conflict doubtless has an earlier and more archaic origin: it comes from the wish for the father's murder by the horde of brothers, a wish that aims at possessing, interiorizing, and questioning authoritarian paternal powers, however vague and imaginary they may be.

It goes without saying that the manifestations of transgression in the psychoanalytical sense essentially lie on the individual and intrapsychic level. But Freud saw how important this sector of the structural conflict of human thought is for collective phenomena. From Totem and Taboo (1912-13a) to The Future of an Illusion (1927c) or Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), he shows that there is a constant oscillation between repressive cultural forces and "the dangerous attribute [. . .] the quality of exciting men's ambivalence and tempting them to transgress the prohibition" (1912-13a, p. 32). The more authoritarian society is, the more organized repression impels one to interiorize transgressive yearnings—and Freud remarks that so-called primitive societies make more room for transgressive possibilities, even when these might affect an apparently immutable order, if necessary by organizing festivals at which people can shed their inhibitions.

If the pleasure principle leads to the (potentially repeated) satisfaction of desires, the reality principle opposes it as an obstacle on the path to these satisfactions. From this conflict between the two structures is born a sense of unease: unsatisfied desires seek an outlet. This may be found in dreams, of course, and transgression is there a sort of compromise; these desires may also try to realize themselves to a greater or lesser degree in criminal and perverse acts—at the cost of incurring guilt. In one way, there is transgression whenever there is a refusal to compromise. The idea of conquering reality is a dream of omnipotence which can degenerate into delirium, this in turn explains both the fanatical dedication of scientists and the fascination for taboos.

The same duality (the same intrapsychic duality) is found in the opposition proposed by some theorists between the life instincts and the death drive. Conflict shifts from the need to fulfill desires when faced with obstacles to the need to fulfill contradictory objectives. Ambivalence rules. These two approaches, however, are still dualistic, and they describe a conflict against an authority such that, whatever the result, a sense of guilt is generated. "Thus we know of two origins of the sense of guilt: one arising from fear of an authority, and the other, later on, arising from fear of the superego" (1930a, p. 127), wrote Freud.

In fact, it is with the advent of the superego that the problem of transgression reaches its apogee, even if it was perceptible beforehand. As Freud put it, "Conscience is the internal perception of the rejection of a particular wish operating within us" (1912-13a, p. 68). Forbidden desires are at the center of neurotic patterns of behavior, and the prohibitions against these are all the stronger as they are more powerfully interiorized, inter alia under the influence of culture, and bolstered by family habits and rules.

Whether limits to the emergence of desires impose themselves subtly (as taboos) or whether they are explicit and socially recognized, transgression or the temptation to transgress are part and parcel of the same trend, against which the superego takes shape as an inner law. To see the truth of this, one needs only to recall that the rules of taboos always anticipate a punishment for transgression, and thus anticipate the transgression itself.

Much has been said about the revolution in thought which led to, or accompanied, psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has also been associated—either to support it or to denigrate it—with the so-called sexual revolution, which enabled people to think and say things that, until that period, had been kept in silence or suppressed. Another revolution, less spectacular but just as important, lay in accepting and even giving a positive evaluation to drives that had hitherto been considered as sins, pathological symptoms, or antisocial types of behavior: violence, aggression, and the whole list of transgressions that go with them.

This revolution questions, through the unconscious forces it reveals, the ethical norms of the majority in any given society. Transgression is no longer a residue or a deplorable side effect of psychological functioning. It is an inescapable part of it and, what is more, by favoring inventiveness and complexity of thought, it becomes something positive.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338]]
  • [[Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
  1. ——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  2. ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
  3. ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.