Discussion Group Psychoanalysis and the Decentered Self Barry Magid March 10th 2018

Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity Of Self And The Psychoanalytic Relationship Philip M. Bromberg, Ph.D. Psychoanalysis and the Decentered Self

In a book entitled More Than Human, written in 1953, Theodore Sturgeon, one of the most creative and visionary science fiction authors of the twentieth century, wrote the following: “Multiplicity is our first characteristic; unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity”. I think it might be interesting to allow Sturgeon's words to remain in your mind, but to now let yourself hear them in the context of a not dissimilar viewpoint offered by someone seemingly unlike Sturgeon, at least in any obvious way—a classical psychoanalyst whose sensibility is more pragmatic than visionary, and whose “professional self,” at least in most of her writing, has embodied a traditionally positivistic approach to the nature of reality. In an article in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Janine Lampl-de Groot (1981) reported being so persuaded by the power of the clinical evidence supporting multiplicity of selfhood, that she advanced the then extraordinary hypothesis that the phenomenon of multiple personality is present in all human beings as a basic phenomenon of mental functioning. Whether or not one agrees with her use of terminology, I think it is fair to say that an increasing number of contemporary analysts now share the clinical observations that led her to this conclusion—that is, even in the most well-functioning individual, normal personality structure is shaped by dissociation as well as by repression and intrapsychic conflict.

Parallel with this development, a discernible shift has been taking place with regard to psychoanalytic understanding of the human mind and the nature of unconscious mental processes—away from the idea of a conscious/preconscious/unconscious distinction per se, toward a view of the self as decentered, and the mind as a configuration of shifting, nonlinear, discontinuous states of consciousness in an ongoing dialectic with the healthy illusion of unitary selfhood. Sherry Turkle (1978), for example, sees Lacan's focus on the decenteredness of selfhood as his most seminal contribution, and writes that “for generations, people have argued about what was revolutionary in Freud's theory and the debate has usually centered on Freud's ideas about sexuality. But Lacan's work underscores that part of Freud's work that is revolutionary for our time. The individual is ‘decentered.’ There is no autonomous self” (p. xxxii).

Over the years, isolated psychoanalytic voices offering different versions of this view have been acknowledged, frequently with interest, but also with wariness. These analysts, often figures influential in their individual domains, were typically clinicians who had chosen to work with patients suffering from severe character pathology, and thus were considered to some degree outside of the psychoanalytic “mainstream.” It could be said that the first voice was in fact pre-analytic, that of Josef Breuer (Breuer & Freud, 1893-1895), who argued that the basis of traumatic hysteria was the existence of hypnoid states of consciousness that had the power to create an amnesia. After the publication of Studies on Hysteria, however, Freud was, for the most part, openly contemptuous about the possible usefulness of theorizing about dissociation, hypnoid phenomena, or states of consciousness, leaving the future of its analytic viability mainly in the hands of Ferenczi.

In succeeding generations, the torch was passed to seminal figures such as Balint, Fairbairn, Laing, Searles, Sullivan, and Winnicott, each of whom, in his own metaphor, accorded the phenomenon of “multiplicity of self” a central position in his work. Sullivan, in fact, made the remark, not widely publicized, that “for all I know every human being has as many personalities as he has interpersonal relations”.

Winnicott's contribution to this area is, I feel, particularly far-reaching. He not only conceptualized primary dissociation as a psychoanalytic phenomenon in it own right, and wrote about it in a manner that brought it directly into the basic psychoanalytic situation (Winnicott, 1949, 1971c), but I would suggest that what we now formulate as psychological “trauma” that leads to the pathological use of dissociation is the essence of what he labeled “impingement.” Although not specifically elaborated by him in terms of dissociated states of consciousness, perhaps most significant of all was his vision of a true and false self (Winnicott, 1960), which emphasized the nonlinear element in psychic structure. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Winnicott's “nonlinear leap” in psychoanalytic theory has been a major factor in encouraging postclassical analytic thinkers to reexamine its model of the unconscious mind in terms of a self that is decentered, and its concept of “growth” as a dialectic rather than a unidirectional process.

In this context, a recent research study by Sorenson discusses the range of theories in which a formerly axiomatic presumption about the nature of human mental functioning is now being rapidly revised—the presumption of a linear, hierarchical, unidirectional model of growth, and that integration is necessarily or continuously superior to disintegration. Using Thomas Ogden's reformulation of Melanie Klein's developmental theory as an example, Sorenson says the following:

"Ogden has argued that Melanie Klein's theory of psychological development from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position is too linear and sequential. Instead of Klein's phases which were developmentally diachronic, he proposed synchronic dimensions of experience in which all components play enduringly vital roles, at once both negating and safeguarding the contexts for one another. Unchecked integration, containment and resolution from the depressive position, for example, leads to stagnation, frozenness, and deadness; unmitigated splitting and fragmentation of the paranoid-schizoid likewise leads to fundamental discontinuities of self-experience and psychic chaos. The paranoid-schizoid position provides the much needed breaking up of a too-frozen integration . . . . I believe we make an error to valorize integration and villainize disintegration, just as Ogden was reluctant to do the same to the depressive and paranoidschizoid positions, respectively.

Another voice speaking to the significance of nonlinear mental states is that of Betty Joseph. Joseph emphasizes, write Spillius and Feldman, “that if one wishes to foster long-term psychic change, it is important that the analyst eschew value judgements about whether the shifts and changes in a session are positive or negative. . . . Nor should we be concerned with change as an achieved state; it is a process, not a state, and is a continuation and development from the ‘constant minute shifts’ in the session”.

Next Talk

Barry Magid March 17th 2018 Normal Multiplicity of Self

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