How did Lacan define transference?

Lacan, like Freud before him, addressed the transference in a number of different ways through the development of his theoretical work. How did Lacan define transference and counter-transference?

With transference, which is spoken about in terms of ‘having a transference’ to another person, it is as if the other person knows better than you yourself what you ‘really really want’ in some respect. With counter-transference, it is as if the person on the receiving-end of another person’s transference can know something of what that other person wants through the way s/he feels her- or himself to be responding. So therapists will speak about ‘using the counter-transference’ in how they respond to their patients.

There is an identification implicit in this transference/counter-transference dynamic in the sense that with transference there is a transferring of an identification onto the other person. This transference, involving the other ‘knowing better’, is the second of three kinds of identification named by Freud, in which the identification is with a way of thinking. This contrasts with the first kind of identification, in which it is as if the person with the transference wants to be the other person as they perceive them. Here there is a wish for a direct emotional tie to the other person. A therapist will need to avoid their patients falling in love with them in this literal sense if s/he is to be able to work with the way the patient knows her- or himself.

Lacan placed an emphasis on Freud’s third kind of (transferring of) identification. This differed from the other two because it was not to another person but to a situation that evoked particular feelings. A YouTube video going viral exemplifies this third kind of identification, as does the shared sense of solidarity surrounding a social cause such as #MeToo. Lacan spoke of this third kind of identification in terms of a transference to ‘the work’ (as in when we make ‘a work’ of our work). A metaphor for this used by a colleague was of Michelangelo’s relation to the block of marble he was working with, in which Michelangelo related to the block of marble as if it knew what it wanted to become.

What makes this third kind of identification important is the way it disrupts a person’s existing ways of knowing associated with the second kind of identification. A distinctive characteristic of a Lacanian way of working is not to go along with a patient’s existing ways of knowing that a transference/counter-transference dynamic reinforces in order to make room for new possibilities. The ‘work’ in a Lacanian analysis thus takes place between sessions, not within the session itself.

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