Listening to the unconscious through dreams, jokes, and negation



For Freud most of the relevant material of analysis is unconscious; the main reason responsible for this is the mechanism of repression, which in fact is the “cornerstone of psychoanalysis”. The process of the analysis is to produce such knowledge, which is initially unknown to the speaker and indeed, for Freud. However, there are several ways for eluding the censorship of the unconscious, and they are those unintentional phenomena like dreams, jokes, lapsus, mot d’esprit, and slips of tongue that instead reveal a different truth than the speaker claims. Throughout his “Interpretation of dreams” (1900) it is assumed that dreams are a way to overcome the internal resistances and the censorship of the consciousness, which indeed is lowered during sleep; dreams become in fact “the royal road to the unconscious”. The joke-work seems to be much related to the dreams-work (that is to say: condensation, displacement, the representation of a thing by its opposite or by something very small, etc…), and in 1905 Freud writes “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious”, in which he analyzes the different ways humor operates for eluding the censorship and expressing unacceptable thoughts. Freud claimed that there are no innocuous jokes - jokes that have no relation to the people who share the joke, their stories, and of course their resistances and censorships. He reminds us in his later “An Autobiographical Study”, that enjoyment derived from the joke is “due to the momentary suspension of the expenditure of energy upon maintaining repression” (Freud, 1925/a, p.p.63). This is probably the reason why Freud gave so much attention to jokes, and to popular stories in making his theory. Indeed, he never overlooked them as non-scientific material; on the contrary he considered them the best allies for the psychoanalytic listening.

In a later essay, that Freud wrote in 1925 on “Negation”, he makes clear that the “content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed” (Freud, 1925/b, p.236). The manifest meaning, what the patient “means” should not mislead the analyst. However, his truth lays in what the patient says, so it is precisely to the signifiers that the analyst should give attention. Freud takes examples from his practice and how patients bring forward their associations during the work of analysis:

“'Now you'll think I mean to say something insulting, but really I've no such intention.' We realize that this is a rejection, by projection, of an idea that has just come up. Or: 'You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother.' We emend this to: 'So it is his mother.' In our interpretation, we take the liberty of disregarding the negation and of picking out the subject-matter alone of the association” (p.235).

This clearly represents a completely different attitude to listening than how it is generally intended in everyday life. Attention is given to what arises from the unconscious, not just to the conscious intention of the person speaking. For Freud, there are simply no “innocuous” communications that do not refer to another (unconscious) level. He even refutes the idea of an original distinction between subjective and objective. Indeed, there are no communications that can be objectified; all that comes from the analysand can be further analysed and interpreted, everything that is said has value for consideration. The very function of the intellectual judgment, whose task is to affirm or negate the content of thoughts, would be an extension of the mechanism of repression: “A negative judgment is the intellectual substitute for repression; its 'no' is the hall-mark of repression, a certificate of origin […] With the help of the symbol of negation, thinking frees itself from the restrictions of repression and enriches itself with material that is indispensable for its proper functioning.” (Freud, 1925/b, p.237).


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