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Defining Psychoanalysis

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The empirical baseline of today's psychoanalytic vernacular may be inferred from what psychoanalysts read. Contemporary information aggregation provides us with a unique moment in "reading" today's psychoanalytic vernacular. The PEP Archive compiles data on journal articles analogous to radio stations' "hit parades" of contemporary favorites. Defining Psychoanalysis: Achieving a Vernacular Expression provides a close reading of this contemporary assemblage, including three "strong" readings by Winnicott and two by Bion. It pursues the elements generated by these papers as an indication of contemporary psychoanalytic "common sense", our consensual building blocks of theory and practice.

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Chapter One: Expressing Vernacular Psychoanalysis

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Defining psychoanalysis in the present moment, 2014–2015, might seem a relatively simple task. Like most definitional searches in our busy lives, it begins with the one-stop destination of Wikipedia. Once there, the reader is informed that psychoanalysis is “a set of psychological and psychotherapeutic theories and associated techniques” with at least twenty-two different theoretical orientations, after the foundational work of Sigmund Freud (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoanalysis).

Despite this breadth of difference, Wikipedia attributes five common tenets to psychoanalysis. Together, these provide a fairly accurate snapshot; certainly, enough to frame the outline of an undergraduate essay or to fit roughly into what Auden (1940) recognises as the ubiquity of psychoanalytic influence within the modernist “climate of opinion”.

As we will come to see, our Wikipedia definition provides a vernacular expression of psychoanalysis. Its shorthand accessibility provides the information and flexibility adequate for immediate use. Functionally, it achieves what Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1945) calls “satisficing” in that it satisfies the impatience of the casual reader's demand in its economy of expression. It is sufficient, if incomprehensive. It addresses what is partial rather than complete. It is a provision of knowledge compressed to pocket size. Its “satisficing” also corresponds to Potter Stewart's famous statement in defining pornography that

 

Chapter Two: Winnicott's 1949 Expression, “Hate in the Countertransference”

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The universe of psychoanalytic expression exists on a continuum beginning with Freud, referenced by poet W. H. Auden not only as an individual but through his creative thinking, as a “climate of opinion” (1940). From here, the idea of psychoanalysis expands to the popular generalised notions of our unconscious layered complexities reflected in the Wikipedia expression of Chapter One, and onward to the highly technical considerations of practising psychoanalysts. Across this continuum, the discernible levels of definition differentiate between easy comprehension and the complicated range of experience acquired through the emotional, social, and uniquely personal dimensions of training and practice in psychoanalysis. Learning psychoanalysis, both as patient and practitioner, entails a journey sustained by multiple sufficiencies: enough narcissism for the individual to sustain curiosity about oneself; enough hysteria to sustain the introspective attitude necessary to discover one's own variant of psychoanalysis; and enough obsession “to ensure persistence and endurance which the process requires” (Szalita, 1984, p. 4).

 

Chapter Three: Winnicott's 1953 Expression, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”

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Winnicott's 1953 paper, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” begins with a striking ideogram: a picture of the infant's self-absorption in the wonder of his own fingers. It is a tender image of the infant at quiet play, almost immediately doubled in relating the infant's mother's attentions to the child. Winnicott's language is lapidary, directing the reader's attentions surely and swiftly over the heavily contested developmental terrain of psychoanalysis, guided by the same observational brilliance that marked Freud's earlier discernment of a child's “fort da” play with a spool and string (1920g). Winnicott writes:

It is well known that infants as soon as they are born tend to use fist, fingers, thumbs in stimulation of the oral erotogenic zone, in satisfaction of the instincts at that zone, and also in quiet union. It is also well known that after a few months infants of either sex become fond of playing with dolls, and that most mothers allow their infants some special object and expect them to become, as it were, addicted to such objects. (1953, p. 89)

 

Chapter Four: Winnicott's 1960 Expression, “The Theory of the Parent–Infant Relationship”

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In venturing forward from Winnicott 1949 to Winnicott 1960 within the PEP “best-seller” series, the reader turns momentarily from chronological advance to reflect on the journey. The overwhelming feeling is of hopeful affirmation, of enthusiastic moments that reshape the psychoanalytic enterprise; and of optimism in the resolution of that intermediate zone between internal and external worlds, the transitional, into creative engagement with reality. Yet, in reviewing the sections within each paper that build to Winnicott's concluding statements, the processes rather than the arrivals, the reader observes not linear argument but an intensity of focal points that are themselves transitional. Their effect is felt not so much as a sequential chain of events, but as a blur of images and concepts interrupted suddenly through Winnicott's periodic authoritative and concise interpretive assertions of clarity.

Attentive to the rhythms and pacing of these presentations, the reader senses the distinctive patterning of Winnicott's psychoanalytic expression: its indeterminate and transitory change mediated by the reliable, interpretive participations of the psychoanalyst. His descriptions cover a vast terrain from naturalistic, common-sense child observation to sophisticated analogies such as the similarity between a child's phenomenological experience of fingers touching a teddy bear and the transit between the abstract concepts of oral gratification and true object relatedness. Such leaps of conceptual level and category may elude immediate clarity and understanding by the reader. Yet, through Winnicott's insistence, they remain, if vaguely, within the orbit of the reader's registration. Having achieved this level of plausibility, however indistinct and disjointed they appear as conceptions, their provision as the transitional objects of Winnicott's composition is met by their acceptance as transitional objects of the reader's interest. Next, in the persuasive sequence between writing and reading, they achieve momentary cohesion both through their contextual location and through the mediation of Winnicott's periodic interpretive summaries.

 

Chapter Five: Bion's 1962 Expression, “The Psycho-Analytical Study of Thinking”

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Bion's introduction to his 1962 paper, “The Psycho-Analytical Study of Thinking” is aimed at the practising psychoanalyst; yet it begins in a painfully abstracted manner, deploying dense, unsaturated language repellant of the reader's desire to understand. The reader strains to align Bion's references to philosophy and pure mathematics with psychotherapy; and wishes, defensively, to retreat into what now seems in retrospect to be the clear and simple, experience-near world of Winnicottian explanation. But observing this trick of the mind, by which the difficulties in reading Winnicott have been effaced by the even tougher challenges of Bion, such that Winnicott's writings themselves seem tender and bucolic, the reader catches his own feint. Winnicott rather, has taught the necessity of tolerant bearing of frustration; and perhaps, has helped the reader extend a bit his own capacity to withstand the frustrations of understanding psychoanalysis from within its significant texts—now tried by Bion at a more robust level as an outcome of reading PEP's Winnicott triad.

 

Chapter Six: Thinking with Bion on Thinking

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The clarity of Bion's blueprint in “The Psycho-Analytical Study of Thinking” integrates his reading of Freud, Klein, and Kant, in light of clinical emergence. Each of the three thinkers in Bion's conception is given credit: Freud for his 1911 paper on primary and secondary process; Klein for her depiction of object relations; and Kant, drafted into Bion's service in elaboration of Klein, for his idea of the “empty thought”, the philosophical precursor of the Bionian dynamic binary, container-contained, graphically represented by Bion, as if in an ideogram of the mind in his creative “mathematical” extension of the Kleinian process P/S<>D (Klein, 1946), by twinned biological symbols, male and female. Here, Bion's idea of mathematical elements emerges from the same thinking process he outlines in this paper: citing Aristotle, he suggests that the idea of a mathematical element is analogous to his “conception”, itself the product of the thinker's weathering the storm of frustration attendant upon the clash of preconception and realisation.

 

Chapter Seven: Bion's 1959 Expression, “Attacks on Linking”

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Before plunging into the fifth reading generated through PEP readers’ appointment of Winnicott and Bion as iconic interpreters of contemporary psychoanalytic expression, the reader considers a marginal note both in Bion and in Winnicott, linking each to a paper by Freud, written half a century earlier. Each writer credits “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning” as a conceptual anchorage for his writings.

Within our experience of reading, we recognised earlier that Bion and Winnicott both attended to different strands of Freud's larger conceptual whole, an inter-textuality woven through the pulling of earlier conceptual threads to be knitted into new future conceptions. But we left unexamined the idea that such inter-textual commonalities might also reflect unification in an ongoing progression from Freud's theoretical foundation to the expressions of Winnicott and Bion, fifty years later. These themselves become foundational within our 2014–2015 expressions of psychoanalysis, based on our reading and writing, fifty years beyond Winnicott and Bion.

 

Chapter Eight: Discovering One's Own Vernacular

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Today, how do we express the fundamentals of psychoanalysis? We achieve our vernacular expressions at multiple levels. The mile-high view of psychoanalysis, its focus on the unconscious and crediting of the irrational in an age of rationality, is illustrated by the Wikipedia account in Chapter One. Contrasting with this perspective and oriented to addressing the historical changes within clinicians’ conduct of psychoanalysis, another example of vernacular expression is reflected in Gabbard and Westen's orientation to historical dimensions of stasis and change (2003).

Perhaps the most compressed and comprehensive current expression of psychodynamic psychotherapy is achieved by J. Shedler (2010). Elegantly, he lists cardinal categories of psychodynamic inquiry that are familiar conceptually both to practising clinicians and to patients. These include: 1) “focus on affect and expression of emotion”; 2) “exploration of attempts to avoid distressing thoughts and feelings”; 3) “identification of recurring themes and patterns”; 4) “discussion of past experience (developmental focus)”; 5) “focus on interpersonal relations”; 6) “focus on the therapy relationship”, and 7) “exploration of fantasy life” (p. 99).

 

Appendix

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While five papers by Winnicott and Bion reflect a strong 2014–2015 reading of psychoanalysis, the task of generating the salient elements of contemporary psychoanalytic vernacular expression is elaborated by the full offerings of two crowdsourced lists of PEP's statistically significant readings. The first includes the “bestseller” list having the greatest number PEP “hits” in the last year (I). The second includes the list having the greatest number of citations in other psychoanalytic writings (II). Each is up to date as of December 2015.

I

Most popular journal articles

II

Most cited journal articles

 

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