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The Writings of Professor Robert M. Young

Mental Space

by Robert M. Young

 

 

| Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Bibliography |

Chapter Seven

AMBIGUOUS SPACE: PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION

In the model for human interrelations I proposed in chapter four, learning was seen to proceed from what we put forth into the world and what comes back. I believe that experience itself is a consequence of projective mechanisms. I now wish to focus on the basic projective mechanism and to suggest that it offers the key to understanding how the primitive integrates with the social. I shall argue that it constitutes that which binds us together for good and ill and that it is not at all easy to separate good from evil at the most primitive level of mental functioning.

I begin by suggesting that projective identification is the most fruitful psychoanalytic concept since the discovery of the unconscious. Of course, as soon as something like that is said, competing claims rush forward to be recognised, for example, the significance of the Oedipus complex. Suffice it to say, then, that it is very important. Elizabeth Spillius describes it more modestly as Klein's most popular concept (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, p. 81), and Donald Meltzer calls it the most fruitful Kleinian concept over the past thirty to forty years (Meltzer, 1991). Hinshelwood suggests that as well as being a, if not the, most fruitful Kleinian concept, it is also the most confused and confusing one (Hinshelwood, 1991, pp. 179-208). However, that does not make it mistaken or useless. That's how important ideas develop - by being fruitfully and metaphorically open to different specifications (see Rorty, 1989, Part I). Similar things can be said about the history of the most fundamental concepts in natural science. 'Gravity', 'affinity' and 'natural selection' were, respectively, the most basic ideas in the development of modern physics, chemistry and biology, and the working out of the ambiguities and contradictory claims made on behalf of those essentially metaphorical concepts formed the subject matter of the formative periods in the natural sciences. I have made a special study of the origins and vicissitudes of Darwin's concept of natural selection, which I've called 'Darwin's metaphor', and the parallels are very interesting and reassuring for the prospects of the concept of projective identification (Young, 1985a, ch. 4). Important new ideas are rich in resonances; when they cease to be so, they become literal and mundane, and their fecundity is exhausted (Rorty, 1989, p. 16).

Before plunging into the complexities of projective identification, I want to pause a moment longer at the level of the history of ideas and say that projective identification can be seen as part of a wide network of fundamental developments in the history, philosophy and social studies of science and related subjects. Positivist and empiricist epistemology is in full retreat. In its place is developing a way of thinking about what we know which is not based on the empiricist sequence, whereby we suffer sensations which lead to perceptions and then to ideas. Rather, as I tried to show in my discussion of countertransference, experience is coming to be seen as constructed from the consequences of what we put forth into the world - what we project. Strikingly similar debates are going on in the history, philosophy and social studies of science, in which it is argued that nature and science are socially constructed in ways which depend fundamentally on what questions, hypotheses and frameworks are brought to bear on our experience of the world. (Haraway, 1989, 1991; Young, 1992a, 1994, 1994a-d). Similarly, human relations are the consequences of how we act toward others and what comes back.

In cybernetics this aspect of the process of knowing and adjusting to experience is called 'negative feedback'; one adjusts or fine-tunes ones thoughts and behaviour on receiving back the response to one's overtures, just as a gunnery officer re-sets his angle of fire depending on whether a given shell falls long or short, or a thermo-stat switches the heat on or off, depending on whether the ambient temperature falls below or above the designated one (Wiener, 1950). This is information theory's analogue to the psychoanalytic concept of reality testing. In learning theory, it is called an 'operant'. We modify our behaviour, depending on whether our spontaneous acts are rewarded or not. Not passive conditioning from stimuli but 'operant conditioning' from the feedback from spontaneous acts (Atkinson et al., 1990, pp. 253-62). In the study of human physiology, research on postural control has indicated that we are constantly making subliminal adjustments, depending on the proprioceptive impulses which result from sensing our last movements. We do not manage to stand or sit up or make complex movements solely by means of internal controls but as a result of feedback loops which are constantly leading our musculature to make tiny adjustments. (The tremor of Parkinsonism is one example of what can go wrong with this subtle muscular control system.) I have sketched these developments to indicate analogies which I believe show that Klein's idea of projective identification is in good company. It is part of an epochal change in how we think about knowledge and about nature, human nature and human relations. These approaches are in resonance with phenomenological and hermeneutic thinking in philosophy (and have analogous in the psychoanalytic writings of Lacan and Laplanche).

Returning to the psychoanalytic claims made on behalf of projective identification, Thomas Ogden presents the ideas of Harold Searles, Robert Langs, A. Malin and James Grotstein and describes projective identification as the essence of the therapeutic relationship. Therapy is said to consist of dealing with it. It is the basic unit of study of the therapeutic interaction (Ogden, 1979, p. 366). He also tells us that Bion 'views projective identification as the most important form of interaction between the patient and therapist in individual therapy, as well as in groups of all types' (p. 365). In 'Attacks on Linking', Bion says, 'Thus the link between patient and analyst, or infant and breast, is the mechanism of projective identification' (Bion, 1967, p. 106). In the course of a careful review of developments of the concept from its initial formulation in 1946, to the present, Hinshelwood says that for Bion it became 'the basic building block for generating thoughts out of experiences and perceptions' (Hinshelwood, 1991, pp. 189-90). At this same level of generality Segal has described projective identification as 'the earliest form of empathy' and 'the basis of the earliest form of symbol-formation' (Segal, 1973, p. 36). Looking to later developments and more broadly, Hinshelwood describes Bion's notion of 'container-contained' as 'an attempt to raise the concept of projective identification to a general theory of human functioning - of the relations between people, and between groups; of the relationships between internal objects; and of the relationships in the symbolic world between thoughts, ideas, theories, experiences, etc.' (p. 191).

These are large claims - very exciting, uplifting, constructive. Yet this same mechanism is seen to be operative at the heart of autism by Meltzer and his co-workers. He also describes it as 'the mechanism of narcissistic identification... and the basis of hypochondria, confusional states, claustrophobia, paranoia, psychotic depression and perhaps some psychosomatic disorders' (Meltzer et al., 1975, p. 228). It is also the sovereign defence against separation anxiety (Grinberg, 1990, p. 64). Relinquishment of excessive projective identification is described as the precondition of achieving a fully-dimensional inner world. (Meltzer et al., 1975, pp. 226-7). As he says in his essay on 'The Relation of Anal Masturbation to Projective Identification', 'The feeling of fraudulence as an adult person, the sexual impotence or pseudo-potency (excited by secret perverse phantasies), the inner loneliness and the basic confusion between good and bad, all create a life of tension and lack of satisfaction, bolstered, or rather compensated, only by the smugness and snobbery which are an inevitable accompaniment of the massive projective identification' (Meltzer, 1966, p. 104). I have mentioned that in his most recent work, Meltzer describes it as central to the most social Darwinist forms of ambitious competitive, survivalist conformism, in his concept of 'the claustrum', in which patients use excessive projective identification as a desperate defence against schizophrenic breakdown (Meltzer, 1992). Another Kleinian, Leslie Sohn, recalls that the original thoughts on projective identification in the British Psycho-Analytical Society conceived of it 'as a defence against intolerable envy and as an outcome of hatred of dependence' (Sandler, 1989, p. 190). As I argued in my discussion of racism and shall consider further below, projective identification (of which splitting is an integral part) is also the basic mechanism in, sectarianism, virulent nationalism, fanatical religiosity and blind obedience to political and gang leaders.

As if all this wasn't problematic enough, Spillius begins her overview of the concept by telling us that 'the term has gradually become the most popular of Klein's concepts, the only one that has been widely accepted and discussed by non-Kleinians - especially in the United States' (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, p. 81). The problem is that she goes on to say that 'it is often discussed in terms that are incompatible with Klein's conception' (ibid.). Hinshelwood draws a similarly disconcerting conclusion when he writes, 'There appears to be no consensus on the value of the term "projective identification" outside the Kleinian conceptual framework' (Hinshelwood, 1991, p. 204). It is in danger of degenerating into what he calls 'a catch-phrase for all interpersonal phenomena' (p. 196), a fate similar to that which befell the concept of object relations at the hands of Greenberg and Mitchell, who mistakenly reduced all objects to people so as to bring Klein into closer affinity with American psychoanalytic ideas and those of Harry Stack Sullivan (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983; cf. Kohon, 1985).

American analysts have taken up the concept with enthusiasm and have written extensively about it. Although the best of this work is interesting and rich in clinical examples, these writers have tended to concentrate largely on the interpersonal form of the mechanism at the expense of the purely intrapsychic one. In my opinion this impoverishes the concept and does not allow sufficient scope and space for the inner world and internal objects (Grotstein, 1981; Ogden, 1982; Scharff, 1992).

The key issue here is whether or not a real, external Other, who has been affected by the projection, is essential to the concept. British Kleinians say no; some American interpreters say yes. Spillius' summary is helpful: 'Considerable controversy has developed over the definition and use of the concept. Whether there is a difference between projection and projective identification is perhaps the most frequently raised question, but others have been important too. Should the term be used only to refer to the patient's unconscious phantasy, regardless of the effect on the recipient, or should it be used only in cases in which the recipient of the projection is emotionally affected by what is being projected into him? Should the term only be used for the projection of aspects of the self, or should it also be used for the projection of internal objects? What about the many possible motives for projective identification; should all be included? Should the term be used only in cases where the patient has lost conscious awareness of the quality and part of the self he has projected, or does it also apply to cases in which such awareness is retained? What about the projection of good qualities and good parts of the self; should the concept be used for these as well, as Klein so clearly thought, or should it be reserved for the projection of bad qualities, which has been the dominant tendency? Is a specific bodily phantasy always involved in the projection, as Klein thought, or is it clarifying enough to speak of the phantasy in mental terms?

'Of these many questions, by far the most discussion has been devoted to the question of whether and how projective identification should be distinguished from projection... In these discussions the most usual basis for the distinction between projection and projective identification is held to be whether or not the recipient of the projection is or is not affected emotionally by the projector's phantasy... But to restrict the term projective identification to such instances greatly diminishes the usefulness of the concept and is in any case totally contrary to what Klein herself meant by it. The English view is that the term is best kept as a general concept broad enough to include both cases in which the recipient is emotionally affected and those in which he is not... The many motives for projective identification - to control the object, to acquire its attributes, to evacuate a bad quality, to protect a good quality, to avoid separation - all are most usefully kept under the general umbrella' (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, pp. 81-3).

Hanna Segal's definition seems to side with those who call for an external object: 'In projective identification parts of the self and internal objects are split off and projected into the external object, which then becomes possessed by, controlled and identified with the projected parts' (Segal, 1973, p. 27). Bion also includes projection 'into an external object' (Bion, 1992, p.159). Unless we assume that they are written from the point of view of the projector's phantasy, these definitions do not embrace both sides of Spillius' broad approach, which allows for projective identification into an internal object as well as into an external one. It is important to emphasise that projective identification can occur wholly inside the unconscious of the projecting person and need not be involved at all with behaviour which is unconsciously designed to elicit a response from another person. The Other can dwell exclusively in the inner world of the person who creates the projective identification and supplies the response from his or her phantasy of the dramatis personae in the mind. In this case it is a relationship between one part of the inner world and another. Where behaviour is involved, the process of eliciting the unconsciously desired resonance from the Other can be very subtle, indeed. Betty Joseph has made the detailed understanding of these interactions an area of special study. In particular, she draws attention to the patient's uncanny ability to 'nudge' the therapist to act out in accordance with the patient's projection - to evoke the disowned feelings from the therapist's repertoire and induce the therapist to experience and perhaps reproject them (Joseph, 1989, esp. chs. 7, 9-12).

There are further elaborations: 'Projective identification has manifold aims: it may be directed towards the ideal object to avoid separation, or it may be directed towards the bad object to gain control of the source of the danger. Various parts of the self may be projected, with various aims: bad parts of the self may be projected in order to get rid of them as well as to attack and destroy the object, good parts may be projected to avoid separation or keep them safe from bad things inside or to improve the external object through a kind of primitive projective reparation. Projective identification starts when the paranoid-schizoid position is first established in relation to the breast, but it persists and very often becomes intensified when the mother is perceived as a whole object and the whole of her body is entered by projective identification' (Segal, 1973, pp. 27-8).

Mutual projective processes are powerfully described in the essay by Tom Main which I quoted at length above (pp. 72-3). He provides excellent analyses of projective mechanisms in individuals, couples and large and small groups. I repeat his conclusion: 'Certain pairs come to live in such locked systems, dominated by mutual projective phantasies with each not truly married to a person, but rather to unwanted, split off and projected parts of themselves. But the husband, dominant and cruel, and the wife, stupidly timid and respectful, may be miserably unhappy with themselves and with each other, yet such marriages, although turbulent, are stable, because each partner needs the other for narcissistic pathological purposes. Forcible projective processes, and especially projective identification, are thus more than an individual matter; they are object-related, and the other will always be affected more or less. The results are a variety of joint personality deplenishments and invasions and interpersonal disturbances' (Main, 1975, pp. 100-01).

None of the above descriptions sufficiently emphasises projective identification into parts of one's own mind, a topic well-expressed (in the context of envy) by Joseph Berke, whose book, The Tyranny of Malice (1989), can be seen as a compendium on splitting and projective identification: 'Projection and projective identification are activities that influence different parts of the self. These, of course, include phantasized or internal representations of actual relationships. Thus a person can indeed feel under attack because he is attacking mental images of his own father or teacher or therapist.

'However, a more ominous reaction occurs when, beset by envy, the envier tries to preserve himself from himself by splitting up and projectively identifying his spite and malice with and into parts of his own mind. Consequently the envier contains a multitude of envious others all threatening to attack him from within. These exist as split off and extremely hostile representations of his own envious self or of envious parents and parental substitutes.' This process leads to an over-severe and envious superego and saps the individual's progressive and creative capacities.

'In order to avoid such a psychic catastrophe, whereby a host of inner enviers assault each other, the afflicted person may utilise projective processes to deflect these enmities outward. The net effect is like picking out a pack of piranhas and throwing them into the air. Because of the action of projective identification, when these vicious little enviers land on something, and they always do, the envious person (fleeing from his own envious selves) inevitably converts elements of external reality (benign people, places, or things) into malevolent entities (witches, evil influences, bad omens). But instead of solving the problem, this manoeuvre compounds it, for the individual feels threatened by malignity emanating from within himself and from without. Thus the envier becomes the envied, and the hunter becomes the hunted' (Berke, 1989, p. 67).

Donald Meltzer's book, The Claustrum, is entirely devoted to projective identification into internal objects. He is at pains to reveal the evolution of his thinking. He had for some years been uncomfortable with a bias in Klein's paper 'On Identification' (1955a) and came to 'discover the real reason for my dissatisfaction: the tendency of Mrs. Klein's paper to continue treating projective identification as a psychotic mechanism and one which operated with external objects, primarily or exclusively' (Meltzer, 1992, p. 13). He emphasises that an important part of mental space is inside internal objects (p. 118) and that entry into projective identification is a 'ubiquitous phenomenon in early childhood' (p. 118). More generally, he concludes that 'the existence of one or another infantile part either living in projective identification or easily provoked to enter the claustrum of internal objects is fairly ubiquitous' (p.134; cf. p. 153).

There is one more aspect of projective identification to which I want to refer before moving onto a broader canvas. I have already stressed the intrapsychic form, where both parts are played inside the inner world. I now want to draw attention to a feature of the process when it occurs between people. In much of the literature on this topic, reference is made to 'projecting into the Other, whether externally or internally. I believe that there is an important distinction which is, as yet, not fully worked out. It concerns putting something into another person as distinct from eliciting something from the repertoire of their responses, exaggerating it and evoking a reprojection of that aspect of their personality. The process is one of the projection finding a home and of unconscious collusion on the part of the person receiving the projection. In my opinion this is by far the most common manifestation of the interpersonal form of the process, as distinct from being invaded by something entirely alien, a strange feeling in oneself. What is strange in the case of evoked and exaggerated feelings is the intensity. The recipient reprojects a degree or strength of feeling that is surprising, but, though an exaggeration or enhancement, it is still his or hers.

The person who has made most of this point is Harold Searles, who is not a Kleinian and does not stress the term. His writings have centred on the honesty required to acknowledge the patient's prescience. In describing his findings in his first paper on the subject, he says of himself that he 'has very regularly been able to find some real basis in himself for those qualities which his patients - all his patients, whether the individual patient be more prominently paranoid, or obsessive-compulsive, or hysterical, and so on - project upon him. It appears that all patients, not merely those with chiefly paranoid adjustments, have the ability to "read the unconscious" of the therapist. This process of reading the unconscious of another person is based, after all, upon nothing more occult that an alertness to minor variations in the other person's posture, facial expression, vocal tone, and so on, of which the other person himself is unaware. All neurotic and psychotic patients, because of their need to adapt themselves to the feelings of the other person, have had to learn as children - usually in association with painfully unpredictable parents - to be alert to such nuances of behavior on the part of the other person' (Searles, 1978-9, pp. 177-78; 1979; Young, 1992).

The patient's hook catches its fish in the analyst's unconscious and reels it in. In my view, much of the striking originality of Searles' work stems from this important insight, one which has been grasped by some Kleinians, for example, Irma Brenman Pick (1985, esp. p. 41), Betty Joseph (1989) and Michael Feldman (1992, pp. 77, 87), but its implications are far from being taken in by most writers on the subject. There is too little awareness of how nearly fully interactive the processes are, and I believe this is a remnant of objectivist attitudes on the part of therapists, who do not grant the fundamental role of the countertransference in therapy, as in the rest of life (see chapter four).

I have, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for my argument, raised rather a lot of possibilities. As I near the end of my review of the concept, I have to add that Segal reports that Klein seems to have defined it almost casually and doubted its value because of the ease with which it could be misused (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, p. 81). That need not worry us: the same could be said of Freud's introduction of countertransference, and look where that has led. Where are we, then? Projective identification is the basis of all relationships, yet the basic mechanism in some of our most alarming mental disorders and some of our worst inhumanities, as well as for the therapeutic process. At the same time, the tacit injunction to our patients - 'Take back the projections' - is a useful way of characterising the goal of helping her or him to dwell as much as possible in the depressive position, and, as we have seen, the effort to shift from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position is, according to Brenman Pick, the aim of every interpretation (Brenman Pick, 1985, p. 37). So - in one Kleinian formulation it is the model for the process, while in another its diminution is the goal of that process.

What sense can we make of all this? First, I have to say that it's all true. There are a number of forms of the process of projective identification, and it would not be fruitful to legislate away any of them. We have to try to live with the mixture in the depressive position and bear the consequences and the anxieties. That sends us back to basics. That's always best, and directs us to what many believe to be Klein's most important single text, 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms', delivered on 4 December in 1946 - a good point in history for taking back projections, you might say, in the wake of the Second World War and at the genocidal dawn of the Atomic Age.

Klein concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows: 'So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element. However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence of oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother's breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother's body of its good contents... The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. [Klein adds a footnote at this crucial point, to the effect that she is describing primitive, pre-verbal processes and that projecting 'into another person' seems to her 'the only way of conveying the unconscious process I am trying to describe'. Much misunderstanding and lampooning of Kleinianism could have been avoided if this point was more widely understood.] These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.

'Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein, 1946, pp. 7-8). Note carefully that we have here the model - the template, the fundamental experience - of all of the aggressive features of human relations. Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: 'I suggest for these processes the term "projective identification"' (ibid.).

She goes on to say that if the infant's impulse is to harm, the mother is experienced as persecuting, and that in psychotic disorders the identification of the object with hated parts of the self 'contributes to the intensity of the hatred directed against other people', that this process weakens the ego, that good parts are also projected and that 'The processes of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them into objects are thus of vital importance for normal development as well as for normal object-relations' (pp. 8-9). In the course of all this, Klein makes it quite clear that the very same processes involve 'anxieties characteristic of psychosis' (p. 2). I am relating these matters in the way that I am in order to make it apparent that the very same mechanisms are at work in a wide range of internal processes.

This leaves me with a painful, rather Aristotelian, point to make here - at the centre or pivotal passage in my argument. What is crazy and murderous and what is essential to all experience and human relations are the same. The same. It is all a matter of degree, and all we can hope to do is attempt to find and hold onto something akin to Aristotle's ethical principle, 'The Golden Mean'. This is contrary to what we are taught in the nosologies of the psychopathologists, where normal and pathological are sharply distinguished and lie on either side of diagnostic dichotomies. As I understand the Kleinian notion of projective identification (as with much else in Kleinian metapsychology), there is no sharp line to be drawn between normal and pathological, between benign as compared to virulent or malignant projective identification. The relevant division concerns points on a continuum representing the force with which the projection is phantasied, along with other criteria which do not arise inside this primitive mechanism. I am not suggesting that good is the same as bad. There are all-important distinctions to be drawn between benign and virulent manifestations of projective identification. They are based on content, motive, situation and moral criteria, but the psychological mechanism involved in all of these is the same.

Tom Main makes the distinction clearly: 'It must be emphasised that externalising defences and fantasies can involve positive as well as negative aspects of the self; and that projection of impulses and projective identification of parts of the self into others are elements in "normal" mental activity. When followed by reality testing, trial externalisation of aspects of the self help an individual to understand himself and others... It is when projective processes are massive and forceful that they are difficult to test or reverse. In malignant projective identification this difficulty arises not only because of the forcefulness of the projection but also because, with the ego impoverished by loss of a major part of the self, reality testing becomes defective. Thus unchecked and uncheckable pathological judgements may now arise about oneself and the other, quasi-irreversible because of the pains of integration. Malignant projective processes are to be found in both neurotic and psychotic patients, and may be temporarily observable also in "normal" people suffering major frustrations.' In the temporary and benign cases, reality testing helps one to get over it. 'By contrast, in malignant projective systems the self is impoverished, reality testing fails, the other is not recognized for what he is but rather as a container of disowned aspects of the self, to be hated, feared, idealized, etc., and relations are unreal and narcissistically intense up to the point of insanity' (Main, 1975, p. 105).

As we have seen, Klein began in earlier papers by attempting to specify fixation points for paranoia and depression (Klein, 1935). She went on to specify developmental points. Bion and others completed the universalization of the paranoid-schizoid (ps) and depressive (d) positions by putting a double-headed arrow between them and emphasising that we move back and forth in the mundane processes of daily and moment-to-moment experience: ps÷d.

Lest you think my position utterly eccentric in lumping all things together and then domesticating them, I can claim that I am not alone in discerning this broad view of projective identification in the literature. After reviewing the development of the concept, Torras de Beà writes, 'These authors consider that projective identification is the basic mechanism of empathy and primitive communication and also of the defence mechanism which consists of dissociating and projecting anxiety in order to be rid of it. I agree with this and think also that what we call projective identification is the active element in every communication from empathy to the most pathological and defensive' (Torras de Beà, 1989, p. 266). He concludes that it is 'the mechanism basic to all human interaction' (p. 272).

Faced with all this conceptual muddle and the close proximity between constructive and destructive aspects of our most basic ways of feeling and relating, what hope is there for sorting out our personal and collective feelings and forms of co-operation and conflict? Not a lot, I have to say, but we are at least in a position to see where the problems lie for individuals and beyond. An important place where they lie for all of us is in the mapping of these mechanisms onto groups, institutions, organisations, customs and nations which legitimate these processes and allow us to experience the virulent as though it is benign and part of the definition of a good social order. Recall that in his reflections on Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud taught us that repression, guilt and sublimation are absolutely essential for the existence of civilization (Freud, 1930; see above, chapter two). Klein, Bion, Elliott Jaques, Isabel Menzies Lyth, Hinshelwood, Berke and others are supplementing this sombre truth with an equally sombre one: the institutionalisation of destructive forces is a result of the need to erect defences against psychotic anxieties (above, chapter five). What we need to be civilised and the ways we organise our incivilities are desperately and distressingly close. Differentiating between them is a matter of degree and of moral criteria which are not intrinsic to this mechanism.

Moving now to groups and institutions, I want to share an initial bewilderment. If you look in the index to a number of important texts in this sphere, you will find no entry for projective identification in, for example, Jaques' classic, The Changing Culture of a Factory (1951), Malcolm Pines' edited collection on Bion and Group Psychotherapy (1985; no mention of 'container-contained', either), Gareth Morgan's highly-regarded Images of Organization (1986), Hinshelwood's excellent What Happens in Groups (1987), Windy Dryden and Mark Aveline's collection on Group Therapy in Britain (1988), Didier Anzieu's The Group and the Unconscious (1984). As recently as the mid-1980s, Leonard Horowitz claimed that the concept of projective identification 'has failed to gain wide currency in either the psychoanalysis or the group psychotherapy literature' and set out to explain this failure, which he largely attributes to conceptual muddle (Horowitz, 1983, pp. 21, 22). As with all separations in the real world, however, the cleavage is not complete. I did find some fleeting references in a couple of S. H. Foulkes' books and many more in the two volumes of the A. K. Rice Series - Group Relations Readers - including Horowitz's musings (references in the 1985 volume are a multiple of those in the 1975 one - Colman and Bexton, 1975; Colman and Geller, 1985).

I am not embarking on a pedant's tour of indexes but emphasising the contrast between very recent literature and the immediate present, where it can rightly be said, as, indeed, it was said by Lise Rafaelsen in the journal, Group Analysis, 'Projective Identification is a fashionable concept. "We see it here, we see it there, we see it everywhere", just like the Scarlet Pimpernel during the French Revolution. However, in spite of its elusiveness, it is one of the few concepts that describes and catches the process in and the relationship between the intrapsychic and the interpersonal' (Rafaelsen, 1992, p. 55).

It could be argued that by seeing projective identification here, there and everywhere, we are spreading the concept so thin that it cannot properly cover anything. I believe that this is potentially a real danger, but I do not think we are yet at the danger point. At a time like the present in the history of a concept, it is often worth while to be permissive and to ask what we can learn from viewing familiar ideas from the point of view of the apparently ubiquitous, promiscuous and all-powerful concept. A number of familial and group phenomena are obvious candidates for consideration in terms of projective identification: the 'designated patient' in a family; the use of a group member as a spokesperson; scapegoating of all kinds; the phenomenon of 'role suction' (see Horowitz, 1983, pp. 29-30).

My purpose, however, is a fundamentally political one. I do not mean 'political' in the party-political sense (partly, in my case, because I have never found a real world party which elicited my enthusiasm). I mean politics in the sense of ways of embodying values in groups, structures, institutions and the distribution of power and resources. Now most people who have turned to psychology with public questions in mind have done so warily, because they have rightly feared that they might fall prey to reductionism. I believe that this wariness is wholly justified. As we have seen, Freud was quite explicitly and unequivocally reductionist in avowing his belief that all social, cultural and political phenomena were only the familiar phenomena of id, ego and superego, along with the Oedipal triangle, operating in a new sphere (Gay, 1988, p. 547). He even avowed that 'Strictly speaking, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and natural science' (Freud, 1933, p. 179). There is, according to Freud, no place for truly social explanations; sociology 'cannot be anything but applied psychology' (ibid.).

Social scientists are prone to tear their hair out at this point, and sociologists of knowledge indulge in a knowing smile. All knowledge is relative to its time, to contending interests, to particular cultures. Freud was, in my view, pretty naive about this, as I have argued elsewhere (Young, 1973; 1988a; above, chapter two). But I do not think that this leaves us marooned or prone to the well-known pitfalls of psychohistory, in which cultures and nations get mapped onto a developmental scheme which would embarrass any half-informed social anthropologist (Lowenberg, 1985; Cocks and Crosby, 1987).

I suggest that two or three things can rescue us. However, before specifying them I need to add an important cautionary note: what we need rescuing from is the erroneous belief that psychoanalysis can or should be sufficient to understand groups, culture, society, nations and other supra-individual phenomena, any more than it is sufficient to understand the individual. The rescue operation is designed to make connections - articulations - between the intrapsychic and the historical, socio-economic and ideological factors that largely constitute our characters, personalities and behaviour in groups. The connections I shall specify are not merely links; they are embeddings.

Now, to revert to the rescue operation. The first helpful notion is one we have encountered before: Victor Wolfenstein's marxist critique of a well-known maxim in political science known as 'Lasswell's Formula' (Lasswell, 1960; Wolfenstein, 1981, pp. 17-18), which states that private interests get projected onto the public realm and then represented as the common good. This is a particularly socially harmful form of rationalisation. The ruthless economic self-interest of a Rockefeller is defended as generating good for all. He used the analogy of competition among roses leading to the American Beauty Rose, his pretty analogy for the competitive success of his firm, Standard Oil, a company which has recently been cosmetically renamed EXXON, presumably in an attempt to refurbish its corporate image, since Standard Oil was associated with ruthless monopolistic practices. (This soon backfired when the Exxon Valdeez oil spill occurred off the coast of Alaska. Another instance of this kind was the renaming of Windscale as Sellafield in a vain attempt to escape some of the opprobrium connected with nuclear pollution.) Versions of this rationalising maxim have been offered throughout history, for example, in the self-assigned civilising missions of colonialists or imperialists. It forms the basis of the self-justifications of factory owners throughout the history of the labour process in industrial capitalism, including, in our own era, Taylorist 'scientific management' and softer versions of it in the 'human relations movement' associated with the work of Elton Mayo. Indeed, as Peter Barham and I have attempted to point out, it provides one way of mounting a critique of some aspects of the group relations movement and the forms of consultancy which grew out of the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations after it ceased to be funded by granting bodies (including, especially, the Rockefeller Foundation), and its consultants became 'guns for hire' in industry (Barham, 1984; Young, 1990b). At the individual level, politicians from time immemorial have rationalised their private interests and represented them as the common good.

What provides us with the perspective of critique with respect to Lasswell's formula is Wolfenstein's important move in starting the story a stage further back. Where did the particular conception of private interests come from before they got rationalised as the public good? This is both a familial and an ideological question. It invites us to look at both the psychoanalytic and the socialising process of development. Freud famously pointed out that the child does not acquire the parents' values but the parents' superego. This has an inherently conservative influence on the personality and provides a significant brake on social change (Freud, 1933, p. 67). Our task is to investigate the microprocesses of how we acquire values in the family. We are greatly aided in doing so by recent research on the transmission of superego in particularly distressing family histories - those of holocaust survivors. Both Haydée Faimberg (1988) and Ilony Kogan (1989) have shown us how direct and coercive these forms of inherited distress are and how they come to be acted out 'unto the seventh generation' - or at least in the generations to which we have so far had analytic access.

The transmission of trauma in holocaust survivors provides a model for how values get implanted in the process of socialisation and passed down through the generations. Psychoanalytic writers of varying degrees of radicalism have essayed about this, basing their own work on attempts to make sense of the rise of Nazism and its aftermath. I am thinking of the classical writings of the liberal Eric Fromm, the anarchic libertarian Wilhelm Reich, and the libertarian marxist Herbert Marcuse. Whatever one may feel about their respective politics and views on specific theoretical issues in psychoanalysis, these men wrote powerfully about how an epoch's values get into the unconscious value systems of people. I am thinking of Fromm's essays (1971) when he was in liaison with the Frankfurt School and his book, Fear of Freedom (called Escape from Freedom in America, 1941); of Reich's essays (1929-34) collected as Sex-Pol (1972) and his masterpiece, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). With respect to Marcuse, I have in mind his remarkable philosophical investigation into Freud, Eros and Civilization (1955, discussed above (pp. 36-9), the companion volume in which he mounts a critique of the ideology of industrial capitalism, One Dimensional Man (1964) and his essays on how conformist pressures are eroding the role of the father, the superego and the family, collected in Five Lectures (1970). Making due allowance for the consequences of their differing views on how change comes about and how refractory human nature is, they share a psychoanalytic perspective on how we come to conform - how consent is organised, how hegemony is instanced in the hearts and minds (especially the unconscious minds) - of human beings. I admire this body of work and have found it consistently illuminating.

But - as many radical critics of the Freudo-Marxist literature have reluctantly concluded - they did not delve deeply enough. This fact brings us back to projective identification by way of Bion and those whose work was inspired by his. I said above that I could think of two or three things which might rescue us from experiencing Freud's reductionism as hopelessly ignorant of the importance of social causation. The first was to look deeper than Lasswell's Formula and investigate how certain public values and structures got into the unconscious before they got projected and rationalised as the public interest. The second reason for hope was adumbrated in a motto of Freud's: 'If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the lower depths' (Freud, 1900, p. ix) . As we saw in chapter five, Bion takes us further into the lowest depths - the most primitive and most refractory defences of all: defences against psychotic anxieties which arise in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. He considers these to be the 'source of the main emotional drives of the group' (Bion, 1961, p. 188) and 'the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' (p. 189). As well as working through the problems posed by family patterns, groups must cope with splitting and projection and the part-object relationships to which they give rise. The move from the individual to the group does not raise new issues about explanation. He says a little further on, 'The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena which appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to using the group' (p. 169).

I want to look again at the work following on from Bion's experiences in groups. Elliott Jaques (1955) and Isabel Menzies Lyth conducted research in various organisations and found the same mechanisms at work, with the defences embodied in the mores and structures of the institutions. I believe that this model is at work in innumerable situations - neighbourhood gang, school, workplace, country club, religion, racial, political and international conflict. When one comes into contact with the group, subculture or institution, the psychic price of admission is to enter into that group's splits and projective identifications.

In her classical paper on 'The Function of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety', Menzies Lyth describes the link as it applies to student nurses: 'Although, following Jaques, I have used the term "social defence system" as a construct to describe certain features of the nursing service as a continuing social institution, I wish to make it clear that I do not imply that the nursing service as an institution operates the defences. Defences are, and can be, operated only by individuals. Their behaviour is the link between their psychic defences and the institution' (Menzies Lyth, 1959, p. 73). There is a complex and subtle interaction, resulting in a matching between the individual's defences and the institution's. The processes 'depend heavily on repeated projection of the psychic defence system into the social defence system and repeated introjection of the social defence system into the psychic defence system. This allows continuous testing of the match and fit as the individual experiences his own and other people's reactions.

'The social defence system of the nursing service has been described as a historical development through collusive interaction between individuals to project and reify relevant elements of their psychic defence systems. However, from the viewpoint of the new entrant to the nursing service, the social defence system at the time of entry is a datum, an aspect of external reality to which she must react and adapt. Fenichel makes a similar point (1946). He states that social institutions arise through the efforts of human beings to satisfy their needs, but that social institutions then become external realities comparatively independent of individuals which affect the structure of the individual' (pp. 73-4). The student nurse has to adapt her defences to those of the institution. The latter are relatively immutable, so she shapes hers until they are congruent with the institution's. The primitive psychic defences from infancy are brought by the individual to the fraught and literally life-threatening setting of the hospital. 'These defences are oriented to the violent, terrifying situations of infancy, and rely heavily on violent splitting [and, I would add, projective identification - R. M. Y.] which dissipates the anxiety. They avoid the experience of anxiety and effectively prevent the individual from confronting it. Thus, the individual cannot bring the content of the phantasy anxiety situations into effective contact with reality. Unrealistic or pathological anxiety cannot be differentiated from realistic anxiety arising from real dangers. Therefore, anxiety tends to remain permanently at a level determined more by the phantasies than by the reality. The forced introjection of the hospital defence system, therefore, perpetuates in the individual a considerable degree of pathological anxiety.

'The enforced introjection and use of such defences also interferes with the capacity for symbol formation... The defences inhibit the capacity for creative, symbolic thought, for abstract thought, and for conceptualization. They inhibit the full development of the individual's understanding, knowledge and skills that enable reality to be handled effectively and pathological anxiety mastered' (pp. 74-5).

I have quoted this passage - one which will be familiar to many - to invite you to reflect on the appropriateness of this description for understanding how a person comes to think and feel not only like a nurse but also like a racist or a virulent nationalist or a member of a street gang or a religious or psychoanalytic sect. I believe that the mechanisms are the same and that the process of taking in the values as 'a given', adapting one's own primitive anxieties to that group's particular version of splitting, projection, stereotyping and scapegoating, leads to the same kind of impoverishment that nurses experience - of the ability to think and feel with moderation and to deal with reality and anxiety. It is projected into the structure or the Other and given back - not detoxified, but - as an injunction to behave inhumanely toward patients, Lacanians, Jews, Armenians, 'the Evil Empire', Bosnians or whomsoever. It is by this means that I became certain, without thinking about it or meeting many, if any, of the people involved, that Germans are sadistic, Japanese cunning, Italians sexist, Mexicans lazy, French romantic, English decent, Scots dour, Canadians boring, Swiss efficient, Dutch tidy, Scandinavians cold, Spaniards romantic, Russians passionate, Turks depraved, Arabs fanatical, Jews avaricious, Hawaiians friendly, Australians gauche, Chinese inscrutable, Africans rhythmic, White South Africans racist and authoritarian. I have been sure of all these things all my conscious life, but, as I indicated at the end of chapter five, I do not recall learning any of them.

How, if at all, does this differ from any other theory of socialisation into a belief system? The answer is two-fold. Most conceptions of socialisation in social psychology, sociology and social anthropology have a civility and blandness, reminiscent of learning theory in psychology, as if to say, 'This is how Dick and Jane learn to be good citizens, members of the tribe, team-players, or whatever'. I believe that it is an implication of fundamental importance that the level of explanation following on from Bion's insistence that Freud missed out 'the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' is that we are dealing with a whole new level of grip. In terms of a domestic analogy the comparison is between the bonding power of a glue stick, on the one hand, and superglue, on the other. The projective identifications of membership are bonded with the unconscious equivalent of superglue - cemented at the most primitive level of feeling that we have. I recall a series of sexual jokes that were popular some years ago. 'Plumbers do it with pipe.' 'Surfers do it with wet suits.' 'Radio hams do it with short waves.' 'Teachers do it with discipline.' 'Psychotherapists do it with insight.' 'Marxists do it with class.' The analogous slogan would be: 'Members do it with projective identification.' I mean members of families, couples, groups, institutions, tribes, cultures, sects, armies and so on.

I have another set of images in mind, which I offer in an attempt to emphasise the grip or adhesiveness or deep registration of these phenomena. Recent work with survivors of catastrophes shows that the trauma acts like a homing device and ransacks or searches out the history of the victim until it finds a congruent, early experience. It latches onto that - tightly- and can only be dislodged with the greatest difficulty (Caroline Garland, personal communication). Another image is of hungry birds in a nest - heads vertical, beaks open, cheeping. You may think that they are only craving, but they are also projecting like mad, and what mother thrusts down their throats on her return goes deep. What is true of worms served up as food for birds is also true of people with respect to prejudices and other deeply held beliefs. They become so deeply implanted or sedimented that they are 'second nature'.

In the context of what I have been saying, I want to ponder a passage from Hanna Segal about the political implications of Klein's views on how hunger gnaws: 'From the beginning the infant forms some object relationships, predominantly in phantasy. In her view, the outward deflection of the death instinct postulated by Freud creates the fantasy of a deathly bad object... First we project our destructiveness into others; then we wish to annihilate them without guilt because they contain all the evil and destructiveness' (Segal, 1988, pp. 50-51). When we read accounts of the genocide of the Conquistadors, the Stalinists, the Germans, the Kampucheans, the Americans or the Iraqis, we must ask what has been projected into these people from the most primitive parts of their tormentors. Similarly, when we see the behaviour of drunken Indians or Esquimos or the fawning of black film actors such as Step'n Fetchit or the behaviour of Mafiosi as represented by Brando, Jews like Dickens' Fagin as played by Alec Guiness or Americans as played by John Wayne - then we must note how such projections take root and evoke stereotypes which people, in society as in fiction, perform so convincingly that they reinforce the projective process and confirm the original degrading depiction.

Once we have adopted this way of thinking about the relationship between the individual and the group process, familiar matters begin to appear in a new light. What are Bion's three basic assumptions which sunder sensible work group functioning - dependence, pairing, fight-flight - but projective identifications? What is the mechanism of becoming a follower, as described in Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), except projective identification of desired parts into the leader, who gives back an identity and frees one from the obligation of being responsible for one's own superego? Wolfenstein gives a moving account of this in his writings about the black American revolutionary, Malcolm X, and his relationship - of protégé, heir apparent and then apostate - with respect to the leader of the Black Muslims, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Wolfenstein, 1981,1991, esp. pp 527-41). What is being a fan of a movie star or a groupie of a rock star other than romantic, idealising projective identification? Main makes just this point: 'Where positive aspects of the self are forcefully projected similar degrees of depersonalization occur, with feelings of personal worthlessness and with dependent worship of the other's contrasting strengths, powers, uncanny sensitivity, marvellous gifts, thoughts, knowledge, undying goodness etc. This is the world of the devotee, cults and hero-promotion' (Main 1975, p. 106). It is also a world in which people will do anything a Bhagwan (Milne, 1986) or a Charles Manson (Sanders, 1972) or a Rev. James Jones or a David Koresh tells them to do - from sexual licence to senseless murder to mass suicide. The same suspension of one's own sense of right and wrong is at work in the followers of L. Ron Hubbard in the Church of Scientiology as in the helter-skelter minds of the devotees of Charles Manson, killing rich Californians, and in the convictions of bombers and perpetrators of sectarian murders in Northern Ireland or terrorists from Lybia, though the ideologies of the respective group leaders may have utterly different apparent or real justifications.

The example of my experience at a group relations conference which I gave at the end of chapter five is of an idealised internal group, with which I was in projective identification of a kind. I now want to speak about another kind of group. You will recall that I have offered two sorts of hope for rescuing us from the charge that psychoanalysis is reductionist with respect to groups and institutions. The first was to look behind Lasswell's Formula about rationalising private interests and claiming that they represent the public good. Following Wolfenstein, we discovered how social forces shaped conceptions of private interests and should be considered as an earlier stage in the process. The second basis for hope lay in looking deeper, with Bion and his successors, into how institutional and group values get imbedded, as if superglued, in the unconscious via projective identification as a way of dealing with psychotic anxieties. I now offer a third way in which groups and group dynamics are at work in the unconscious. I am thinking of recent ideas about the 'institution in the mind'. David Armstrong has developed other notions of Isabel Menzies Lyth's to locate institutional dynamics, whether benign or malign, in the unconscious of the individual (Armstrong, 1991, 1992).

A further group presence in the unconscious is in the notion of 'pathological organisations' in borderline psychotic states, the subject of a burgeoning literature (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, Part 4; Steiner, 1987, 1993; cf. Searles, 1986, who considers these phenomena in different terms). In discussing this, Herbert Rosenfeld explicitly describes the individual as in projective identification with a 'gang in the mind': 'The destructive narcissism of these patients appears often highly organised, as if one were dealing with a powerful gang dominated by a leader, who controls all the members of the gang to see that they support one another in making the criminal destructive work more efficient and powerful. However, the narcissistic organisation not only increases the strength of the destructive narcissism, but it has a defensive purpose to keep itself in power and so maintain the status quo. The main aim seems to be to prevent the weakening of the organisation and to control the members of the gang so that they will not desert the destructive organisation and join the positive parts of the self or betray the secrets of the gang to the police, the protecting superego, standing for the helpful analyst, who might be able to save the patient' (Rosenfeld, 1971, p. 174).

My aim in this chapter has been to look at a variety of conceptions of projective identification, to explore the fecundity of the concept and its operation at a number of levels of individual, group, institutional, cultural, political and international relationships. The examples I have given have, for the most part, been negative ones, and I have underemphasized the positive function of the mechanism. That aspect was emphasized in chapter four, on the special sort of projective identification called countertransference. Rosenfeld remarked that 'It is important to realise that in so far as projective identification is communicative it is a benign process, which means that the object into which projection has taken place is not changed by the projective process' (Rosenfeld, 1987, p. 160). In the container-contained relationship between mother and baby or patient and therapist, the person into whom the projection is put is changed, as is the projection itself, in the process of detoxification. One way of distinguishing benign from virulent projective identification is whether or not it allows experience to be thought about - for its complexity to be borne, for it to feed depressive functioning. Feldman also points out that 'projective identification may also involve good parts of the self - projected in love, or in an attempt to protect something valuable from internal attack' (Feldman, 1992, p. 76). He goes on to make a point similar to mine on the question of degree: 'Up to a point, this process is a normal one, necessary for the satisfactory growth of our relationships, and is the basis, for example, for what we term "empathy". If it is excessive, on the other hand, there is an impoverishment of the ego, and an excessive dependence on the other person who contains all the good parts of the self' (ibid.)

One of the guiding principles in my choice of examples has been to draw attention to crossover points between individual and group processes. Another has been to indicate places where it is perhaps surprising to find the group and social forces: deep in the unconscious of the individual. Finally, I have been concerned to emphasize the primitiveness and the adhesive, binding power of projective identification. Connections, once made, are not easily dislodged. That makes it a profoundly conservative mechanism, hard at work at the heart of human nature - in infants, nominal grown-ups, groups, societies, cultures, nations. It is deeply problematic for any hopes former Soviets may have for a Confederation of Independent States, much less for all the hopes that humankind may entertain for truly a United Nations. No wonder it is so hard to change and no wonder that decades of willed, imposed change, for example, in Eastern Europe, can melt away as soon as military repression is removed. This is a startling example of the return of the suppressed. To revert to a mythological figure I have already mentioned, if we are to make more of benign projective identification, we must set about our task as tirelessly as Sisyphus and perhaps be prepared to accept the satisfactions of what we can accomplish along the way, rather than keeping our eyes fixed on an ultimate goal. 'There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night' (Camus, 1955, p. 91).


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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