November 2008/ February 2010
We need to consider that psychoanalysis has different languages or systems of notation to describe experience. Psychoanalysis also has different "models", as Bion points out. So, we have a huge question to wrestle with in terms of how to define the terms we use. Even apparently ordinary terms like "language", "communication", "experience", or "reality" can be become unintentionally obscured.
Here is a starting point for exploration:
Each model develops its own language for experience. The model is part of a larger network of ideas. Psychoanalytic models have a lineage, a tradition, and to some degree are all in “conversation” with Freud’s models.
But, a problem is immediately evident. If I am interested in an experience like “mind” or “emotion” or “attention” or “memory” or “motivation” or “consciousness”, then these are areas of human and even non-human experience explored by many relevant disciplines.
So, for example, to be interested in emotion might mean reading Darwin’s work on this subject while being interested in memory might mean reading Eric Kandel or even Saint Augustine. The major challenge for psychoanalysis in this new era of neuroscience is how to build interdisciplinary bridges between different truth claims about the experiences we are interested in.
We must become familiar with the concepts of the particular model in order to approach communicating clearly. Bion was deeply sensitive to the hazards of communication, how difficult it is to comprehend each other for myriad reasons. The concepts within any model cannot be exchanged without clarifying what they seek to describe. This is most obviously true, for example, with the concept of “transference”.
Transference, as Ferro has pointed out, is not the same concept for Freud, for Klein, for Bion, or for Meltzer. In fact, in order to speak about “transference” one must remember that there is no such “thing” as transference. The concept of “transference” is meant to describe an experience. Today one might say it is meant to describe “a process”. A complex process, in fact. I have often said that there is no such thing as “the transference”. Rather, we must speak about “transference processes” or “levels and kinds of transferences”. Meltzer used the lovely image of “gathering the strands of the transference”.
To demonstrate Ferro’s point, he nicely describes how Freud’s view of the transference is a temporal one, involving the displacement of the past into the present. He describes Klein’s view of the transference as a spatial one, involving the projection of an inner situation into an outer one. Already, if you can picture this shift in perspective, you can get a feel for how much more complex Klein’s model makes “working in the transference”.
Where Freud describes the “playground” of transference admitting certain feelings from the past into the present via the neutrality of the analyst, Klein describes how “total situations” are transferred, meaning aspects of the self, object, and emotional situation.
Bion certainly does not disagree with either “picture” but deepens the complexity of the situation still further. By looking at transference as a two-person situation, meaning that the flow of experience and emotion can not be just one way, from patient to analyst, Bion radicalizes the experience of transference by describing a container/contained situation.
There is a way, I think, that the container/contained model has been deeply misunderstood. It is folded into a one person psychology as if the container was unchanged by contact with the contained. It has also been reified so that people mistakenly think that it is only the analyst who contains the patient. In fact, Bion’s double arrow between PS <-> D is equally important in comprehending the dynamism of the two way container-contained relationship.
Bion’s view evolves to investigate the analyst’s own mind and the way in which he or she “observes” an unobservable situation. One cannot see the transference in the way one can see a flower in a vase or a basketball or a bottle of wine. Bion examines the kinds of “transformations” that are involved in “intuiting” the psychoanalytic object, which, paradoxically, is not an object, but an ephemeral and invisible process which he describes as being discernable in the realms of sense, myth, and passion.
Bion’s language moves beyond the language of transference into the description of transformations. There is much yet to comprehend about this paradigm shift --which I believe has hardly been recognized in terms of its potential implications.
Meltzer’s view of the process of transference is an important development that indicates the fruition of his encounter with both Klein and Bion. I have also thought that Meltzer’s notion of the infantile transference is widely misunderstood. One is not going back in time to either rescue or reconstruct an actual baby. Rather, I like in particular how Jim Grotstein speaks of the virtual infant, and the “once and forever” infant within, whose aspects of the patient’s self experience are forever seeking adequate contact with maternal and paternal encouragement and conditions to risk further growth and development.
Models must have tangible links to lived experience. To reiterate, words and concepts do not describe “things in themselves” but are, instead, meant to describe “processes” at various levels of abstraction. A model provides a “tool for thinking”. It does not generate answers; rather, it helps to provide a method for exploring a question. Models cannot be employed hapharzardly, as often is the case when people are promiscuous with concepts. One must understand the integrity of the model in order to properly use it as an aid to investigation.
The problems are many and varied. Freud’s model was very complex, changing as it did over many decades, with many evolutions and modifications. But I shall try to characterize, very crudely and partially, examples of differences between models to begin to wrestle with these points.
For example, Freud thought about primary process and secondary process, the pleasure principle and the reality principle. He was interested in how a subject comes to perceive "reality" in a less distorted more objective way as a function of survival and adaptation. As the subject matures, he felt it might be possible to achieve a perception less colored by the primitive conflicts and the transferences. Thus, Freud’s theory has in many ways an important developmental dimension. The issue of what drives meant to Freud is important here, but much too difficult to characterize in detail.
Klein takes the problem a step further, raising, implicitly, the nature of an inner reality which colors everything. In other words, in Klein’s psychology we can never step outside the influence of the inner world (internal object relations) and the way this inner world colors the process of perceiving. Freud’s "real" world is thus transformed into Klein’s “outer world”. Where Freud tried to move between imagination and reality, Klein moves between “inner” and “outer” aspects of a larger more enigmatic reality. In this way, we might say that Klein is working in the shadow of Kant, whether realizing this or not. The issue that unites Klein and Freud is the elusive notion of symbol formation and symbolization.
Bion goes a step further, asking how it is that we think we know what we know. How do we learn? How do we construct experience socially? Bion was deeply concerned by the influence of the external group as well as the internal group (the object relations). He has a very deep, in my view, curiosity about the nature of how we call forth different worlds of perception according to the structure created out of our individual experiences. If one understands his abstract terms like the transformation of beta elements into alpha elements, the role of reverie, the role of preconceptions, the role of the Grid in symbol formation and thinking, then, one has a sense of how visionary Bion was in anticipating the complex epigenetic models of development which are firmly rooted in complexity. In this view, the symbol will always be autonomous, never simply a shared cultural product.
Now, what seems apparent to me is that each of these thinkers is wrestling with questions which are much larger than the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. They are, in their own ways, implicitly or explicitly rehearsing questions as old as the western tradition of philosophy, including issues of ontology and epistemology. It is Bion goes so far as to deals more directly with the issue of “absolute reality”.
Bion raises the issue of that which cannot be symbolized, which he denotes O, absolute reality. Lacan calls this domain of experience "The real". Buddhism has different traditions but in the Tibetan tradition we have language like Dharmakaya and Rigpa to designate ultimate reality. One of the major questions that Bion raises is about the possibility of direct experience. In the Klein model, direct experience is impossible. One can never go beyond the filtering system of unconscious phantasy. The question, I think, for Bion, is if there are moment of direct experience, which are "beyond concept". If there are experiences before concept, which there must be, are there experience beyond concept?
Bion's complex model of symbolization goes beyond Klein's model of unconscious phantasy. His ideas, I think, support the framework that not everything makes it into unconscious phantasy. Thus, there are areas of experience that are undigested, unsymbolized, even unborn.
For the most part, psychoanalysis had avoided issues of “being” and “knowing”. For a long time psychoanalysis lacked a coherent theory of learning and thinking, (with notable exceptions of Rappaport, G. Klein, and S. Greenspan).
One can link the question of how we learn to a hypothetical outer limit – that being some kind of direct perception of ultimate reality. This tends toward an explicitly mystical point of view, but one that can be approached within both scientific and religious traditions.
A more modest question becomes, from a Bionion point of view, how rudimentary awareness, which Bion says is without meaning, simply registering sensation, becomes transformed, intersubjectively, through the mother's alpha function, into something called "consciousness". By consciousness Bion means Freud’s definition: "a sense organ for registering psychic qualities".
I would say, from carefully reading Bion, that evolution has equipted each human baby with the built in capacity for rudimentary awareness (with the exception of severe brain injury, etc). But it is a great open question the degree to which each individual will develop and expand or extend the potential of "consciousness".
To state this again, there is an important differentiation between awareness, which extends to sensation, motion in time, and various forms of experience; and consciousness, which is the awareness of inner experience, generated by those same sensations, motions, and emotions.
Psychoanalysis can be seen, through the lens of Bion, as basically a consciousness raising adventure. This focus on consciousness implies an interest in unconscious processes too. The mutual influence of consciousness and unconsciousnes has been described by James Grotstein as a kind of siamese twinship, separated by the dynamic complexity of the expanding contact barrier (Bion). In this regard, Bion’s interest can now be extended to a great deal of cognitive neuroscience including, in particular, the work of people like Damasio and Edelman.
We can also look at Tibetan traditions, like Madhyamika, that says that we all live within a 'relative' reality which is emotionally real. It is, at the same time, impermanent, with no lasting essence or fixed reality. Each individual has “seeds” of Dharmakaya and Buddha nature within which can be realized through certain forms of fortunate experience. This view gives us glimpses of O, the Real, or the absolute nature of unfabricated primoridal pure creativity and generativity.
Glimpsing this kind of view, we can, following the Tibetan master Garab Dorje, seek to stablize our realization until it becomes the consistent fruition of action at the levels of body, speech, and mind.
In this tradition, we might recognize that everything that unfolds within the relative domain is an illusion. But that does not mean it is without meaning. Rather, experience is put into a vastly larger context. This new context measures time in terms of the creation of universes rather than individual lives.
To the extent that we never approach this kind of realization our own habits of clinging, aversion, and ignorance continue to generate karma which obscures the absolute view and perpetuates suffering. The absolute view, in each of these systems, cannot be spoken about directly in language. In Bion's terms, you can become at-one with O and then the transformation O -->K is a necessary fictionalization of the experience which, like a dream, can only be re-presented, never shown as a thing in itself.