July 06, 2003

Container and Contained

Make Latona white and tear up the books.

Music from 'Atalanta fugiens' emblem 11

Jean Cocteau: Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem (QTVR pano)

Aleph and Bayt

"The signs and I call the contained and the container. The use of the male and female symbols is deliberate but must not be taken to mean that other than sexual implications are excluded. These signs designate a relationship, between and . The link may be commensal, symbiotic or parasitic."     Bion, Attention and Interpretation, p.107

"I propose provisionally to represent the apparatus for thinking by the sign   ."     Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, p.31

A dot and a circle would have been better choices than     which should be reserved for other usages. Bion used the concept of container-contained to extend, or rather follow to the logical conclusion, Melanie Klein's idea of projective identification. If there is a projection, where does it go? The problem with this is that psychoanalysis has no metapsychology for intersubjective relationships, and simple concepts formulated fifty plus years ago like Klein's projective identification, Bion's container-contained, and Winnicott's holding environment, all milestones on the way to recognizing the reality of relationship, are still met with fierce resistance.

Container-contained is a bigger concept than the sexual conjunction, and so is thinking. Bion seems to be conflating or confusing several ideas -- male/female, active/passive and container/contained which should be differentiated. Containers, for instance, (as he says) can be both active and passive.

Wilfred Ruprecht Bion: Bibliography

Quotes from Arno Leo Goudsmit's via negativa
Towards a negative understanding of psychotherapy, Chapter 11: Some notes on projective identification, which situate the interpersonal concept of container-container in psychoanalytic theory.

"A major theoretical and clinical extension to Klein’s work has been made by Bion (1959, 1962b), himself a Kleinian, when he distinguished two types of projective identification, a malicious one for the sake of ’evacuation’, and a healthy one for the sake of ’communication’. "The difference depends on the degree of violence in the execution of the mechanism" (Hinshelwood, 1991, p. 184). Subsequently a great number of differentiations have been proposed with regard to the various dimensions of projective identification (e.g. Grinberg, 1979, p. 228). Hinshelwood points at the various interpersonal interpretations of the concept of projective identification, as by Ogden (1982), and at the criticism that such interpretations generate in circles of more orthodox object relation theorists.

Several grounds can be found for the existence of the opposition between the ’orthodox’ kleinians, who stuck to understanding projective identification in terms of unconscious phantasies, and others more interested in applying the term to interpersonal behavior patterns. Though the parties agree that projective identification happens within an interpersonal context, the Kleinians prefer to see it as a phenomenon that takes place at the level of "the use to which the analyst is put in being unwittingly drawn into the patient’s phantasy world." (Hinshelwood, 1991, p. 200). In other words, it is a phenomenon that befalls the therapist, in which he is made witness of some experience of his patient, in a way that he does not foresee. According to Hinshelwood (1991, p. 200) the controversy is about incompatible approaches: one may approach the phenomenon by relating it to theory, i.e. by defining it, versus by indicating it in clinical material. Would an opposition between ’descriptive’ versus ’theoretical’ approaches be at the root of the problem? We are reminded of our discussion of psychiatric diagnostic classification, where this same opposition was also believed to be the crux.

The problem is much deeper than a difference between theory and clinical observation. The crux is the psychoanalyst's phantasy that s/he is a psychoanalyst, i.e., a blank slate for the patient's transference of unconscious phantasy.

Greenberg & Mitchell (1983) maintain that the concept of projective identification has been used for "integrating intrapersonal and interpersonal spheres in psychoanalysis, a task too large for one concept.
. . .
Thus, Bion’s model of container-contained was initially helpful in begging the ontological questions on how projective identification could be possible at all.

As we have noted earlier, the history of psychoanalysis, from drive theory through ego psychology, to earlier mental functioning and object relations theory, though transitional space to theories of borderline personality organization and self psychology and framework analysis, is its resistance to the idea of relationship. The concepts of projective identification and container-contained bridge the gap of intersubjectivity between "distinct psychological entities" but open up deeper ontological questions that neither psychoanalytic metapsychology or its extra-psychic extensions are prepared to answer.

As Ogden puts it:
"The relationship of container and contained is non-linear and must not be reduced to a linear, sequential schematization of the following sort: an aspect of the projector in phantasy and through actual interpersonal interaction is induced in the Other; after being altered in the process of being experienced by a ’personality powerful enough to contain them’, these ’metabolized’ aspects of self are made available to the projector who by means of identification becomes more fully able to experience his thoughts and feelings as his own. Such a conception of projective identification obscures the question of the nature of the interplay of subjectivities involved in projective identification by treating the projector and recipient as distinct psychological entities. It is here that the dialectical nature of Bion’s concept of the container and the contained affords the possibility of conceptually moving beyond the mechanical nature of the linear understanding of projective identification just described." (Ogden, 1992b, p. 618)

Notice that Ogden is specifying here how projective identification does not work. Eventually Bion also found himself in need of ontological answers and developed a concept named "O" (cf. Grotstein, 1998a,b), by means of which individual experience was considered to be of a transcendental nature, comparable to the platonic Idea and to the kantian thing in itself. It is to be left as an interesting question, however, whether the kantian thing in itself was really what Bion was after. As Grotstein relates: "’O’ is a dark spot that must be illuminated by blindness," [Bion] stated. Bion liberally translated a letter by Freud to Lou Andreas Salome as "The analyst must cast a beam of intense darkness into the interior of the patient’s associations so that some object that has hitherto been obscured in the light can now glow in that darkness". (Bion, personal communication)". (Grotstein, 1998b, p. 13; italics added) "

We can never find O in the light of structured consciousness. Only in unconscious, unstructured darkness can we find the presence of the Other.

"Next, Grotstein extends Bion’s observation that the "container-contained" relationship presupposes notions of psychic space or "inner space" - the relation between the mind and the contents it houses: "all psychopathology can be thought of as conditions or states in which the patient experiences a sense of being trapped within a psychic space that is characterized as the zero, first, or second dimensions" (p. 84). Grotstein likens the "null" dimension to a single point on a Cartesian, polar-co-ordinated graph. The null dimension of space is infinite and timeless; it correlates to phenomena such as solipsism, fusion, and concretization. The first dimension introduces a basic concept of separation, a self-other distinction that involves time and distance. Grotstein depicts the first dimension as a line on a polar co-ordinated graph. In keeping with the paranoid-schizoid position, the first dimension permits no degrees or margins of ambiguity – the approach of the good mother presupposes the departure of the bad mother and vice versa. If the infant feels depleted and hungry, then mother’s breasts must necessarily be full. The second dimension, a line now extended to a plane, is two-dimensional and depthless. It correlates to the phenomena of flattened states, phenomena such as depression and apathy, tired clichés and lifeless conventionality. Finally, Grotstein refers to a third dimension of depth characterized by a movement into whole object relations, a greater acceptance of separation, an understanding of the multiple origins of causality and an appreciation of symbolism."
Grotstein, James S.: Who is the Dreamer Who Dreams the Dream Reviewed by Keith Haartman

"My hypothesis is that there is a SUCESSION OF THREE RELATIONS between symbolisation and intersubjectivity in Bion's work :

- First symbolisation has a classical form, such as the first freudien topic. But intersubjectivity becomes the field of this process. It corresponds to a period when Bion was working as psychiatrist, then as a group therapist.

- Secondly Bion discovers a new way of symbolizing, a way which is located in intersubjectivity. He introduces new concepts (function alpha, container-contained relation). The model of a mother-baby dyade gives form to this perspective. He was working with psychotics.

- Thirdly symbolisation and intersubjectivity are more closely articulated. So in the field of intersubjectivity we can think about the position of the practitioner with the new concept of transformation and the new definition of attention. The model of this last perspective is groupal and institutional.

Three books mark this evolution : Experiences in groups and others papers, 1961, Learning from experience, 1962, and Attention and Interpretation, 1970. Each one is a stage in the evoltuion of his work."
Symbolization and Intersubjectivity: Three Relations in Bion's Works

"Bion stressed that containing is not a passive function. It involves both partners in an active inter-relationship. He described the varieties of inter-relations that can be found but his accounts (1970) are rather complex. I find helpful in practice to consider three categories. Remember the relationship between the container and the contained is dynamic, a mutual influencing.

In the first variety, the container reacts to the intrusions by becoming rigid and refusing to respond to what has arrived in it, with the result that the contents, the contained, lose form or meaning. Bion described this in clinical practice:

The analytic situation built up in my mind a sense of witnessing an extremely early scene. I felt that the patient had witnessed in infancy a mother who dutifully responded to the infant's emotional displays. The dutiful response had in it the element of impatient "I don't know what's the matter with the child." My deduction was that in order to understand what the child wanted the mother should have treated the infant's cry as more than a demand for her presence (Bion 1959, p. 103).

An infant needs other than duty from a mother. It needs a mother who can feel the disturbance, and to a degree become disturbed herself.

From the infant's point of view she should have taken into her, and thus experienced, the fear that the child was dying. It was this fear that the child could not contain for himself… (Bion 1959, p. 103)

This implies a mother who could react more sensitively.

An understanding mother is able to experience the feeling of dread that this baby was striving to deal with by projective identification, and yet retain a balanced outlook. (Bion 1959, p. 103).

This is a flexible relationship, one in which the contained enters the container and has an impact on it, whilst the container and its shape and function also modify the contained. The knack is to feel the dread and still retain a balance of mind. An on-going process of mutual influence and adaptation survives.

The third type is rather the opposite of the first, in which the contained is so powerful that it overwhelms the container which bursts or in some way looses all its own form and functions. A mother's mind can literally go to pieces, and she panics or even breaks down.

The central dimension of these three categories of container-contained relationship is the ‘balance of mind’. Some mothers cannot keep a balance of mind. Perhaps it would be true to say that all mothers will fail at times - some more than others. But they fail in characteristic ways. And I claim that in failing the mother becomes a container that is either too rigid or to fragile - as I have described above. A rigid mother takes in as Bion describes and utters formal responses, without a real understanding of the infant's distress. A fragile mother will, when confronted by her distressed baby, got to pieces and panic. In either case the infant receives back its own projection with the implicit message that after all, as it feared, its state of mind is not tolerable. It suffers, in Bion's terms, a 'nameless dread' - i.e. a state of mind that is not thinkable."
R. D. Hinshelwood: Countertransference and the Therapeutic Relationship:
Recent Kleinian Developments in Technique

"To preface the discussion on this aspect of organizational life, I will sum up the phenomenon of containment as follows: one can state schematically that "to contain" and "containment" are concepts that describe the capacity of any entity to keep within itself parts that arouse anxiety. Thus we can say that the infant as an entity is unable to contain parts that arouse anxiety in relation to himself and hence projects them via projective identification into another entity - the mother. The mother, in one situation, leaves this part inside her, despite the anxiety it arouses, digests it, or detoxifies it - in Bion’s terms - in order to turn it into an alpha element, and thus contain it; or in another situation, is incapable of containing it, and projects it into another entity with which it is interacting."

"In parallel, I would say that an individual in an organization, a group, a system and an entire organization are all entities which may have inside them anxiety laden and unbearable parts, or into which anxiety-provoking parts can be projected. And like any object at the receiving end of projective identification, these entities can either keep and contain these unbearable parts or get rid of them by projecting them into a sub-entity inside them (a sub-group or sub-system) or into an external entity."
Avi Nutkevitch: The Container and its Containment: A Meeting Space for Psychoanalytic and Open Systems Theories

"Damasio - self and other as embodied intenal objects"
"Affect as cognition of bodily states. Damasio – ‘a feeling [is not] an elusive mental quality attached to an object but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body.'"
Thinking Throught the Body: Embodiment and emotion: A new relationship between neuroscience and psychotherapy

On "Container and Projective Identification" (SEPI Forum, Sep.-Nov. 2000)
Grigoris Vaslamatzis, MD: Conaining a Dead Object
Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion Edited by Robin Anderson Review by Marie Bridge

Posted by psyche at July 6, 2003 06:35 PM