Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jeanine Vivona - Loewald: Language as the Bridge to Lived Experience

"Hans Loewald (1978) heralded a new psychoanalytic era with his theory of the nature of language and its operation in treatment and in life. For Loewald, language "ties together human beings and self and object world, and it binds abstract thought with the bodily concrete-ness and power of life" (p. 204). In Loewald's view of development, the infant is "embedded in a flow of speech that is part and parcel of a global experience within the mother-child field" (p. 185). From the beginning of life, language, especially the mother's speech, surrounds the child as part of the sensual, lived world. As the child begins to understand the semantic meanings of the words, the realms of lived experience and language come to be differentiated, so that the child is able to interact with the world and within the self in two distinct yet interconnected and mutually enriching modes, primary process and secondary process. Throughout life, these two modes are bridged by language: "In the word primary process and secondary process are reconciled" (p. 204). For Loewald, then, there is no strain of human experience that is purely nonverbal, even during infancy. Language becomes increasingly semantic as development progresses.


Importantly, for Loewald the process of differentiating words and experiences in infancy is an interpersonal one. "The emotional relationship to the person from whom the word is learned plays a significant, in fact crucial, part in how alive the link between thing and word turns out to be" (p. 197). Hence, not only can words summon their interpersonal sensorimotor histories; the interpersonal relationships within which language is learned animate the connections between words and the things they signify. In these ways, the feeling of that early relationship, its aliveness or its deadness, is memorialized in language. Speaking and listening, understanding and being understood, are inherently interpersonal processes potentiated by, through, and in language. Language, then, in both semantics and structure, offers a connection to lived experience in the present and embodies memories of relationships in the past, including the early maternal relationship.

Loewald went beyond recognizing that speech is action, that speech has both semantic and sensorimotor qualities, that speech potentiates connections within oneself and between people. Loewald's vision was that semantic language develops out of an initial sensorimotor-linguistic unity comprising words and lived experience and consequently maintains potential connections to sensorimotor experiences, present and past. Interestingly, the developmental process he proposed is analogous to Winnicott's contemporaneous vision (1951) that a self develops out of an initial mother-baby unity. In both views, two entities begin as an undifferentiated one and over time, under the right conditions, within the right kind of interpersonal relationship, become differentiated, while remaining connected. If conditions are not right, then either the entities do not become differentiated or their connection is severed. In terms of language, the failure to differentiate leads to psychotic or otherwise regressive speech, in which the distance between thing and word is collapsed, such that words are mere things and speaking is mere action. At the other extreme, intellectualized speech results when the connection between thing and word is severed; then words take on a life of their own, disconnected from the experiences they signify and might otherwise evoke. Winnicott (1967) wrote that the differentiation of baby and mother "is not a separation but a form of union" (p. 98). In Loewald's view, language, too, is a form of union.

Loewald (1970, 1978) proposed that psychoanalytic talking can be transformational because language is a conduit to lived experience, because it is infused with affective interpersonal relationships, and because it joins human beings to one another. In psychoanalytic treatment the task of the analyst is to mobilize the power of language to reinstate an adaptive balance of primary process and secondary process, either by reactivating sensorimotor states, especially as experienced in the therapeutic relationship, or by quieting them with reflective, secondary process thought. An effective interpretation, in particular, evokes lived experience via the words contained within it, potentiating new ways of being. Loewald (1978) quoted Paul Valéry to articulate the "essential function" of language: "It enjoins upon us to come into being much more than it stimulates us to understand" (p. 204); being happens in and by virtue of language, particularly during the psychoanalytic hour.

Certainly Loewald's developmental theory infused his clinical theory, as evidenced in his elaborations of the similar developmental contributions of mothers and analysts. Yet Loewald (1970) remained cognizant of the limitations of such metaphors, including the unavoidable risk of leaving important aspects of a complex problem unarticu-lated. In other words, he did not take his metaphor literally. He did not confuse the analyst for the mother; on the contrary, he emphasized that, to be transformational, the therapeutic relationship must have "the substantiality and the evanescence of a play" (1977, p. 373) as opposed to actuality. And he did not confuse the patient for the baby; on the contrary, he asserted that "psychoanalysis is an adult undertaking" (1977, p. 380), impossible in the absence of the patient's adult capabilities for verbalization, ref lection, frustration tolerance, and restraint. Thus, Loewald evoked development not to explain, but to give form to previously unformed notions, to draw attention to neglected phenomena by giving them a familiar face....
" (pp. 881-883)

"As Daniel Stern's developmental model is invoked to explain the therapeutic action of psychoanalytic treatment with adults, two related false assumptions about language are imported into psychoanalysis: that language is primarily abstract, linear, disembodied, and thus inadequate for understanding lived experiences of self and relationships with others; and that nonverbal aspects of adults' lived interpersonal experiences are organized without language and thus are largely inaccessible to language, including the language of the psychoanalytic conversation. Stern's conceptualizations of verbal and nonverbal experience underestimate the potential power of language in treatment and in life, including the life of the infant. Because these conceptualizations limit the extent to which we may nurture or notice the integration of words and lived experience in psychoanalytic treatment, they have necessitated a search for nonverbal treatment mechanisms to access the presumedly separate nonverbal realm, fueling debates over therapeutic action within psychoanalysis.

If psychoanalysis moves toward embracing developmental models 899 such as Stern's, we accept a shrinking role for language in the talking cure. We risk ignoring important verbal and nonverbal contributions of talking. We risk limiting or even sacrificing the therapeutic power of language. Hans Loewald illuminated the fact that language offers us the capacity to integrate lived experience and verbal understanding, to bring self and other together in meaningful conversation. If we remember and use these capacities of language to bridge both separate individuals and separate inner states, we more fully mobilize the therapeutic potentials at the heart of psychoanalysis." (p. 899)

Jeanine M. Vivona (2006). From Developmental Metaphor to Developmental Model: The Shrinking Role of Language in the Talking Cure, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 54, pp. 877-902

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