"I will thus take Verwerfung to be foreclosure of the signifier. At the point at which the Name-of-the-Father is summoned—and we shall see how—a pure and simple hole may answer in the Other; due to the lack of the metaphoric effect, this hole will give rise to a corresponding hole in the place of phallic signification."
The foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father gives rise to the fantasmatic presence (present in the Real) of a malevolent authority, suspected of having intrusive or criminal intentions, desiring to commit sexual abuse or homicide.
Sigmund Freud had introduced the term along with negation (Verneinung) and repression (Verdrängung) as a defense mechanism.
Why does foreclosure come about?
The child has been exposed to a mother who has refused to recognize the law, either because it does not situate her in accordance with her desires, or because it compels her to separate herself from its product.
It may also happen that the real father reveals himself to be incapable of inscribing himself into a symbolic line-age, and consequently invalidates it (cf. Schreber's father in "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia [Dementia Paranoides]," 1911c).
Lacan introduces the term 'foreclosure' to explain the massive and global differences between psychosis and neurosis; neurosis operates by way of repression, while psychosis operates by way of foreclosure. This distinction is complemented by a third category, though arguably less secure and more problematic than the first two, of disavowal, as a mechanism specific to perversion. These three terms which correspond respectively to Freud's Verdrängung,Verwerfung and Verleugnung, along with the three-part division of neurosis, psychosis and perversion, form the basis of what is effectively a differential diagnosis in Lacan's work, one that aspires to being truly psychoanalytic, deriving nothing from psychiatric categories. Thus, underlying the elaboration of the notion of foreclosure is a clear and sharp distinction between three separate subjective structures.
Two features of this psychoanalytic nosology worthy of note are firstly that it assumes a structural unity behind often quite different symptoms that are expressions of the one clinical type and secondly that there is no continuum between the various clinical types uncovered. A corollary is that in the case of psychosis this structure, a quite different structure from that of neurosis, is present even before the psychosis declares itself clinically.
II. Origin of the Term
While 'foreclosure' is a common French legal term, with a meaning very close to its English equivalent, for Lacan's purposes it clearly derives more directly from the work of the French linguists Jacques Damourette and Edouard Pichon. In their Des mots à la pensée: Essai de grammaire de la langue française, these authors speak of 'foreclosure' in certain circumstances when an utterance repudiates facts that are treated as either true or merely possible. 1 In their words, a proposition is 'foreclosed' when 'expelled from the field of possibilities as seen by the speaker,' who thereby 'scotomises' the possibility of something's being the case. 2 They take the presence of certain linguistic elements as an indication of foreclosure, so that when it is said that ' Mr Brooke is not the sort of person who would ever complain' (M. Brooke n'est pas de ceux qui se plaignent jamais), on Damourette and Pichon's analysis, the word 'ever' would flag the foreclosure of the very possibility of Mr Brooke's complaining. That Mr Brooke should complain is 'expelled from the field of possibilities.' 3
Whether this analysis is correct or not is largely irrelevant as far as Lacan is concerned since, although he derives foreclosure from Damourette and Pichon, he puts it to quite a different use. For Lacan, what is foreclosed is not the possibility of an event's coming to pass, but the very signifier, or signifiers, that makes the expression of impossibility possible in the first place. Thus, 'foreclosure' refers not to the fact that a speaker makes a statement which declares something impossible -- a process closer to disavowal -- but to the fact that the speaker lacks the very linguistic means for making the statement at all.
This is where the difference between repression and foreclosure lies. In Lacan's analysis of Freud's classic studies on the unconscious -The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious -- the mechanisms of repression and the return of the repressed are linguistic in nature. 4 Lacan's thesis that the unconscious is structured like a language implies that for something to be repressed it has first of all to be registered in the symbolic. 5 Thus, repression implies the prior recognition of the repressed in the symbolic system or register. In psychosis, on the other hand, the necessary signifiers are lacking and so the recognition required for repression is impossible. However, what is foreclosed does not simply disappear altogether but may return, albeit in a different guise, from outside the subject.
Lacan chooses 'foreclosure' to translate Freud's Verwerfung, a term which is difficult to chart through the Standard Edition because it is not indexed, but is there usually given the more literal translation of 'rejection.' 6 For a number of years Lacan also employed more literal French translations, like rejet or on occasion retranchement. 7 It was not until the very last session of his Seminar III on psychosis in 195556 that he finally opted for the term that has since become so familiar:
I shan't go back over the notion of Verwerfung I began with, and for which, having thought it through, I propose to you definitively to adopt this translation which I believe is the best -- foreclosure. 8
It is reasonable to regard this choice as an acknowledgement that Lacan raised to the level of a concept what in Freud had remained less clear in its meaning and more ambiguous in its employment. Freud does not use only the term Verwerfung in connection with psychosis, since at times, and specially late in his work, he prefers to speak in terms of the disavowal ( Verleugnung) of reality in psychosis. 9 On a number of different occasions Freud appeared to be grasping for a way of characterising different mechanisms underlying neurosis and psychosis, without ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion. It is fair to say that with the work of Lacan the mechanism of foreclosure and the structure of psychosis are understood in a new way, one that has given the psychoanalytic treatment of psychosis a more secure basis.
Indeed, on more than one occasion Lacan declared that psychoanalysts must not back away from psychosis, and the treatment of psychotics is a significant feature of analytic work within the Lacanian orientation. 10 It should be noted, though, that Lacan's remark is not to be taken as an admonition to shoulder fearlessly the clinical burden imposed by the psychotic patient. It rather reflects his belief that the problems the psychotic raises are central to psychoanalysis and not a mere supplement to a supposed primary concern with neurosis.
Lacan observed that Freud's breakthrough in his examination of President Schreber's Memoirs was discovering that the discourse of the psychotic, as well as other bizarre and apparently meaningless phenomena of psychosis, could be deciphered and understood, just as dreams can. 11 Lacan compares the scale of this breakthrough with that obtained in the interpretation of dreams. Indeed, he is inclined to regard it as even more original than dream interpretation, arguing that while Freudian interpretation of dreams has nothing in common with previous interest in the meaning of dreams, the claim that dreams have meaning was itself not new. 12 However, Lacan also indicates that the fact that the psychotic's discourse is just as interpretable as neurotic phenomena such as dreams leaves the two disorders at the same level and fails to account for the major, qualitative differences between them. Therefore, if psychoanalysis is to account for the distinction between the two, it cannot do so on the basis of meaning alone.
It is on this issue of what makes psychosis different from neurosis that Lacan focuses. How are we to explain the massive, qualitative differences between the two disorders? It is because Lacan is convinced that the delusional system and the hallucinations are so invasive for the subject, have such a devastating effect upon his or her relations with the world and with fellow beings, that he regards prior psychoanalytic attempts to explain psychosis, ultimately including Freud's own, as inadequate.
Freud explains psychosis in terms of a repressed homosexual relationship to the father. According to Freud, it was the emergence in Schreber of an erotic homosexual relationship towards his treating doctor, Professor Flechsig, and the conflict this desire produced in him that led in the first instance to the delusion of persecution and ultimately to the fully developed delusional system centred on Schreber's special relationship to God. 13
Freud also compares the mechanisms of neurosis and psychosis in the following terms: in both there is a withdrawal of investment, or object-cathexis, from objects in the world. In the case of neurosis this object-cathexis is retained but invested in fantasized objects within the neurotic's internal world. In the case of psychosis the withdrawn cathexis is invested in the ego. This takes place at the expense of all object-cathexes, even in fantasy, and the turning of libido upon the ego accounts for symptoms such as hypochondria and megalomania. The delusional system, the most striking feature of psychosis, arises in a second stage. Freud characterises the construction of a delusional system as an attempt at recovery, in which the subject re-establishes a new, often very intense relation with the people and things in the world by way of his or her delusions. 14
One can see that despite the differences in detail between the mechanisms of neurosis and psychosis in Freud's account, both still operate essentially by way of repression: withdrawal of libido onto fantasized objects in neurosis, withdrawal of object libido onto the ego in psychosis. It is basically for this reason that Lacan finds it inadequate:
It is difficult to see how it could be purely and simply the suppression of a given [homosexual] tendency, the rejection or repression of some more or less transferential drive he would have felt toward Flechsig, that led President Schreber to construct his enormous delusion. There really must be something more proportionate to the result involved. 15
Foreclosure is thus antithetical to Bejahung (affirmation).
- Castration complex
- Law of the father
- Freud, Sigmund. (1894a) Obsessions and phobias: Their psychical mechanism and their aetiology. SE, 3, 69-82.
- ——. (1911c) Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides). SE, 12, 1-82.
- Lacan, Jacques. (2004). On a question prior to any possible treatment of psychosis.Écrits: A Selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1955-56)