Alpha Function

Alpha Function

Give fire to fire. Mercury to Mercury, and it is enough for you. Music from ‘Atalanta fugiens’
emblem 10

Alchemical Mercury | Mercury | Paracelsus


Aleph and Bayt

Here we map some of Bion’s primary formulations to the Cube of Psychological Space. This requires a revision of PS<->D (paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions), since we can now see that it is really more like P-><-D-><-S. The integrative-depressive work of the psyche is performed between the paranoid (other) and schizoid (self) poles of the existential axis from birth. Bion described the oscillation of developmental position with his double arrow and thought it the basis for psychological growth.We recognize Bion’s trinity of memory, desire and understanding as the life axis of the Cube (future-past) with the work of understanding centered between memory and desire. And the response of alpha function to the presence of beta elements as the axis of experience (sense-perception).

Bion is the most mystical of analytic theorists because he leaves a place for ultimate unknowable reality in his metapsychology.

“The belief that reality is or could be known is mistaken because reality is not something that lends itself to being known … it is impossible to know reality for the same reason that makes it impossible to sing potaoes .. Reality has to be “been”.” Bion, Transformations, 1965, p.148.

Alpha function is associated with awareness but is devoid of meaning. Beta elements are sensory impressions that haven’t been transformed by alpha function (consciousness) and can’t be stored in memory as a dream thoughts subject to recall and re-transcription.

“The term alpha function is, intentionally, devoid of meaning.(…)it is important that it should not be prematurely used to convey meanings, for the premature meanings may be precisely those that it is essential to exclude.”     Bion, 1962, p.3
“Alpha-function operates on the sense impressions, whatever they are, and the emotions, whatever they are, of which the patient is aware. In so far as alpha-function is successful alpha-elements are produced and these elements are suited to storage and the requirements of dream-thoughts. If alpha-function is disturbed, and therefore inoperative, the sense impressions of which the patient is aware and the emotions which he is experiencing remain unchanged. I shall call them beta-elements. In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves. The emotions likewise are objects of sense.”     Bion, 1962, p.6

“Intolerance of frustration could be so pronounced that alpha-function would be forestalled by immediate evacuation of the beta-elements.”     Bion, 1962, p.35

Posted by psyche at July 4, 2003 05:50 PM


Transitional Space

The Stone that Saturn vomited up after having devoured it in place of his son Jupiter, has been placed on the Helicon as a souvenir for the mortals. Music from ‘Atalanta fugiens’ emblem 12


Donald W. Winnicott published Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena in 1951. Transitional space is a condensation of Winnicott’s ideas of potential space and transitional phenomena. Potential space is the overlapping space between two individuals, neither subject nor object but some of both. In this space we find transitional objects and transitional phenomena. Winnicott, writing at mid-last-century, is the major transitional figure in the development of psychoanalytic theory. A pediatrician and child psychiatrist with high-risk trauma survivors, Winnicott had no use for a death instinct or Klein’s projective introjection of a bad (envious, greedy) baby, and instead saw the mirroring interchange of imaginative play in the transitional space between mother and child as the basis of creativity.

Winnicott laid the groundwork for the narcissistic and borderline personality and self-psychology theorists who populated the 1970’s and 80’s.

Mother Holding Handling Object-presenting
Child Integration Personalization Object-relating

Memes: Mirroring. Good-enough mother. Potential space. Transitional phenomena and objects. True and false self. Maturational process. Facilitating environment. Environmental mother. Optimal adaptive failure. Playing and Reality. Squiggles.

Advice for therapists: Keep alive. Keep well. Keep awake.   The Aims of Psychoanalytic Treatment (1962).

“Where Freud saw psychoanalysis as a way of freeing people from illusions, Winnicott emphasized the freedom to create and enjoy illusions. Whereas classical technique centered on the value of interpretations, Winnicott pointed to the value of not interpreting. Where classical theory had explored the infantile fear of being alone, Winnicott spoke of the mature capacity to be alone. Regression, rather than being pathological in that it provides a surfeit of infantile gratification, becomes, in Winnicott’s hands, a process of healing through a search for missing experiences. Psychosomatic illness was not a withdrawal of interest from the outside world, as classical theory claimed, but an attempt to rediscover one’s own body. Within psychoanalysis, Winnicott represented a shift in emphasis from patterns of gratification, frustration, and sublimation to how meaningful and authentic is a person’s experience and expression of himself. As he once remarked to Harry Guntrip: “We disagree with Freud. He was for curing symptoms. We are concerned with whole living and loving persons.” As a result, Winnicott shifted the focus from the way in which people negotiate the family triangle to how individuals gradually acquire personhood as they separate themselves out from, while remaining connected to, mother’s embrace. Put differently: it is the developing person’s relationship to the instinct rather than the development of the instinct within the person that most concerned Winnicott. That is why his work constitutes a turning point.”
D.W. Winnicott by Robert Prince

Dodi Goldman: D.W. Winnicott’s “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development”

“Klein’s biographer reports that until he wrote ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ in 1951, Winnicott considered himself a Kleinian. He wrote it for inclusion in the classical collection of Kleinianism, New Directions in Psycho-Analysis (1955). She wanted him to revise it so as to incorporate her ideas more clearly, and he refused. As far as Klein was concerned, that was the end of their relationship, although he remained committed to certain of her ideas, particularly the depressive position, while disagreeing about the death instinct, the paranoid-schizoid position and innate envy (Grosskurth, 1985, pp. 397-8; cf. pp. 399-400). ”
Robert M Young: Potential Space: Transitional Phenomena A place for the scientific exchange of D. W. Winnicott’s theory
Review: Belief and Imagination: Explorations in Psychoanalysis by Ronald Britton
Sharon Dolin: “Bitter and Delicious Relations”: The Transitional Object in Williams’s Poetry

Posted by psyche at July 10, 2003 08:35 PM

Revisions to PS<->D

This is the dragon which devours its own tail.
Music from ‘Atalanta fugiens’ emblem 14


In Alpha Function we mentioned revising the conception of the classical paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions using the more sophisticated model of human experience provided by the Cube of Psychological Space

In the classical formulation of Melanie Klein, these concepts describe both developmental states in infancy and a metapsychology of of early mental processess and instinctual development. The paranoid-schizoid position is the initial psycho-physical state of the baby, characterized by mechanisms of splitting and projection, omnipotent and destructive phantasies and part-object relationships (good breast/bad breast). The paranoid-schizoid is gradually phased out and replaced with the depressive position, as the baby learns to tolerate frustration and, depending on the amount of death instinct he or she has inherited in the form of excessive greed and envy, moves toward a realm of whole objects through the depressing realization that the world isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Further disappointments lie ahead in the Oedipal stage as whole object relationships are developed and explored, and the ego (and sexual identity) is formed out of renounced object-cathexes (Freud).

Gedo states that previous hypotheses about early childhood have been excessively adultomorphic and pathomorphic and that preverbal children are not comparable to maladaptive adults.   The Evolution of Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice. John Gedo Review by Ian Steinberg

Bion (projective identification) and Winnicott (transitional space) extended these concepts into the intersubjective realm and both recognized “healthy” forms of projective identification, i.e. the persistence of paranoid-schizoid processes as the basis for normal development and creativity.

Psychoanalytic theory, which is the history of its resistance to intersubjectivity, seems to have reached the dead end of an over-extended and out-moded metapsychology of intra-subjective experience. It cannot assimilate its own insights into the therapeutic framework and counter-transference, and has no metapsychological framework for integrating its observations about inter-subjective phenomena.


Here we explore just one axis of the Cube of Space, the vertical or existential axis. The Cube is a diagram or model of the multi-dimensional totality of human psychological experience. The vertical axis, analyzed by George Lakoff in Metaphors We Live By (Orientational Metaphors) and Jacques Chevalier in The Corpus and the Cortex, qualifies our experience of existence as up and down, good and bad, right and wrong, life and death, conscious and unconscious, more and less, rational and emotional (Lakoff) and right and wrong, pleasure and pain, lawful and lawless, levels of attention, judgments and emotions (Chevalier).

We suggest that the root metaphor of up-down is our ex-is-tence as spirit and matter, our standing and place in the world, characterized by the polarities of self and body/other. This metaphor is clearly behind intersubjective psychoanalytic thinking, with its superegos and ids, projectition and splitting, infra and infer alter-egos, mirroring and idealizing transferences.

The problem is that the components of the vertical axis are not clearly distinguished and identified. Klein lumps paranoia and schizoid phenomena together and sees depression as a later development.

P: Paranoia and projection obviously have to do with the other (hysteria is a projection onto the body as other).
S: Schizoid processes are based on splitting aspects of the self.
D: Depression, rather than a development stage or mode of thinking, is the psyche or ego itself, which can only bind (depressively) or free (joyfully) the impersonal energies of the three axes which pass through it.

The psyche/ego mediates between the energies of superinfraalteregoother and
idinferalteregoself, as in the classical and extended one-dimensional models. In other words, between self-energies and representations, and other-energies and representations. As with Freud (genious that he was), the ego has no energy of its own, and can only erect and dissolve defenses against the life of the id/self and the demands of the superego-other.

Now that we can see that P and S are opposite poles of existence united by the D of psyche/ego, PS->D or PSD can be differentiated into PDS. Notice we also differentiate self and object representations from the central ego or psyche and say nothing of consciousness or unconsciousness. Freud’s Id is a narrow definition of the material basis of the self and its developmental (instinctual) goals. It is no more unconscious than any of the other unconscious energies that inform our experience of life in existence. Its direct descendents are seen in the development of the concepts self-objects, mirroring and idealizing transferences and self-psychology.

PS or P<->S is the basic self-object polarity of existence. Pathologies of self relations (splitting, schizoid phenomena) and pathologies of object (why not say “other”?) relations (paranoia, positive and negative idealization) reflect imbalance or damage to either or both sides of the unit.

D aka the psyche or experiencing ego is a position only in its centrality. Its integrative and dissociative functions are operative from birth. Its pathologies are mania and depression, as the central psyche tries to deal with damage to the self-object unit.

P<->D<->S or object-representations <-> psyche <-> self-representations describes both the structure and dynamic of existence, present from birth. Healthy development would minimize trauma and pathology in all three positions. The depressive “position,” supposedly occuring in later infancy and marking the beginning of whole-object relations, would seem to point toward a structuring of the central ego or psyche.

The words themselves, Paranoid, Schizoid and Depressive, are pathological forms and descriptions of normal states of existence, and obscure their true functions in constituting human identity.

For deeper analysis of: Self | Other | Axes.

Kleinian thinking evolved in three stages. As in the above quotation, Klein saw schizoid mechanisms and the paranoid-schizoid position as fixation points, respectively, for schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis. Then the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions became developmental stages. Her terminology included ‘psychotic phases, ‘psychotic positions’ and then ‘positions’ (Klein, 1975, vol. 1, pp. 275n-276n, 279). Thirdly, in the work of Bion and other post-Kleinians, these became economic principles and part of the moment-to-moment vicissitudes of everyday life. The notations ‘ps’ and ‘d’ were connected with a double-headed arrow to indicate how easily and frequently our inner states oscillate from the one to the other and back again (Meltzer, 1978, part 3, p. 22). In Bion’s writings on schizophrenia an ambiguity remained as to whether or not the psychotic part of the personality is ubiquitous or only present in schizophrenics, but Meltzer concludes his exposition of Bion’s schizophrenia papers by referring to the existence of these phenomena in patients of every degree of disturbance, even ‘healthy’ candidates (p.28).
Robert Young: Psychotic Anxieties are Normal


The Melanie Klein Trust
Stephen A. Mitchell: The Origin and Nature of the “Object” in the Theories of Klein and Fairbairn (Return to Memory)
R. D. Hinshelwood: Countertransference and the Therapeutic Relationship: Recent Kleinian Developments in Technique
Robert Oelsner: Review: Belief and Imagination
Laurence J Gould: Correspondences Between Bion’s Basic Assumption Theory and Klein’s Developmental Positions
Projective Identification (Klein quotes)
Klein, Sullivan & Erikson
Kleinian Studies: Useful Links

Posted by psyche at July 24, 2003 08:57 PM


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