Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Daniel Stern - The ‘Pre-Narrative Envelope’: An Alternative View of ‘Unconscious Phantasy’ in Infancy

"This work grows out of a continuing effort to understand the nature of the infant's representational world and, in particular, to imagine how this world is created. Such a creation within the infant's mind would be easier to envision if we had a ‘basic unit’ of subjective, psychic experience of psychodynamic relevance to work with. Such a unit would serve as the building block for constructing the representational world. In psychoanalysis, the ‘basic unit’ of psychic experience is the ‘unconscious phantasy’. This article proposes the ‘pre-narrative envelope’ as an alternative way to view such a basic unit, especially its origin in early infancy.

Why is an alternative view needed, and what directions might it take? The point of reference for the concept of an ‘unconscious phantasy’ is contained in Freud's earlier views of a ‘primal phantasy’ (1916-17) and in the Kleinian view of an ‘unconscious phantasy (Isaacs, 1948). In these conceptions, ‘unconscious phantasies’ are inherited scenarios containing an object, aim and goal.

These scenarios are innate correlates or the psychic content of drive, and exist independently of experience, which only gives them local colour. Stated in that way, this is the clearest, most robust and radical psychoanalytic position on ‘unconscious phantasy’. It is the reference point of which all other positions are modifications. Even though a majority of psychoanalysts may not hold to this position in its pure form, their views are necessarily defined against this point of reference.

The desire to modify this reference point has been strong historically and remains so. The reasons for this are evident. First, the notion of a mental scenario that is inherited is hard to envision or explain. Second, many wish to give interactions with the environment a greater role in the formation of the ‘unconscious phantasy’. And thirdly, if the ‘unconscious phantasy’ is an inherited mental structure, there is little work of mental construction left for our enormous capacities, and the subject of thinking and representing in that case is of little interest, at least as concerns the formation of the basic unit of psychic experience. To be sure, in the traditional psychoanalytic view, ego processes play a crucial and necessary role in bringing the unconscious phantasy into psychic life. Nonetheless, the basic form of the unconscious phantasy is already established for the ego to work upon. Thus, ‘thinking’ and ‘representing’, as ego functions, are allocated a role in the transposition but not the creation of the basic form of the phantasy.

In spite of this interest in modifying the ‘reference position’, it is difficult to do so within the psychoanalytic framework. If one wishes to give a greater formative role to environmental interactions, and to ‘thinking’ and ‘representing’ which construct the mental landscape from these interactions, at least two things are needed. First, one would need a theory of ‘thinking’. However, psychoanalysis has never developed a real and independent theory of ‘thinking’. (Bion is a possible but partial and problematic exception. His work will not be discussed here. ‘Thoughts’ have remained the offspring and handmaidens of drives. In a sense, the pre-formed phantasy takes the place of the creational function of ‘thinking’. That is why psychoanalysis has been so concerned with the dialectic between absence and presence in the emergence of ‘thought’, instead of being interested in the role of ‘thought’ in creating the prior dialectic between non-existence and existence (existence containing both presence and absence).

Secondly, one would need a greater interest in, and a more elaborated perspective on the nature of observable interactions. Psychoanalysis, with its centre of gravity firmly in the intrapsychic, has been unable to do this. (There are of course some grand but individualistic exceptions such as Winnicott.)

Without a theory of ‘thinking’ or a systematic approach to interaction, the possibilities are limited for modification within a strict, traditional psychoanalytic frame. It is with this in mind that I will borrow some concepts of ‘thinking’ from cognitive science, and some infant observational approaches to interaction, and apply them to the psychoanalytic notion of drive. The result is an alternative view of the ‘unconscious phantasy’ which I will call a ‘pre-narrative envelope’ for reasons that will become clear.

Since the major thrust of this article is progressively to assemble the concept of a ‘pre-narrative envelope’ and demonstrate how it can further our understanding of infantile subjective experience, the acquisition of representational worlds, and of ‘thinking’ in infancy, I will summarize here the main features of this unit so the reader will have a clearer picture of where we are headed.

1. The unit must be clinically useful, potentially, and must be appropriate from a developmental perspective.

2. The backbone of the unit is the desire/motive with its goal-directedness. This is an expectable directrix of any psychodynamic unit and of all motivation-centred units of experience. It is certainly at the core of Freud's notions of drive, unconscious phantasy and the purposive ideas (representations-buts). It is interesting in this connection that Darwin in his notebooks muses that motives are the basic unit of the universe in that they are the functional units of evolution.1 From a different perspective, students of narrative structure have found motives and goal-orientation to be crucial narrative aspects (see below). Similarly students of affects (Scherer, 1986; Steiner-Krause, 1992), of motor action (von Cranach et al., 1982), of cybernetics (Céllerier, 1992), of ethology and others, all place goal-directedness at the core of their explanatory concepts.

Goal-directedness alone, however, is not sufficient to make such a unit ‘psychoanalytic’ or psychodynamic. Drives imply a psychic component, a structure of thought, e.g. unconscious phantasies, wishes and desires. I am not leaving these out. They will reappear below - but as indirect products of drive.

The scope of motivations and goals encompassed here is largely that developed by Sandler (1985), and Sandler and Sandler (1992), in which the goals of desires/motives include external and internal states of object-relatedness, affect states, and states of self-esteem and safety, as well as physiological need-satisfaction and consumatory acts in general.

The goal-directed unit of the motive/desire is indeed our ‘basic unit’ for understanding (parsing (découper), explaining and predicting) human behaviour. At the level of comprehending human behaviour psychodynamically or in terms of folk psychologies this unit is not reducible (Bruner, 1990; Dennett, 1978; Whiten, 1991). It is the basic unit and starting point for a subjective phenomenology underlying any clinical science of the mind.

3. The ‘pre-narrative envelope’ is a subjective experience that unfolds in time. It has a temporal structure that provides part of its coherence and meaning. This unit is like a musical phrase that loses its sense when cut up further and like a musical phrase moves, with an inevitability, to an end-state. A temporal dimension is not explicitly present in the concept of an ‘unconscious phantasy’ as it is for the ‘pre-narrative envelope’.

4. The ‘pre-narrative envelope’ has a coherence and meaning by virtue of its narrative-like structure which includes a dramatic line and the basic elements of a proto-plot, such as agent, action, goal, object, context.

5. It is a ‘pre-narrative’ unit because it arises before the emergence of language or narrative-producing abilities, but conforms to most of the structures essential to narrative. It is the unit from which narrative will emerge, transposed.

6. This unit is subject to revision sur-le-coup, après-coup and as transposed into a true narrative communication without losing its basic form.

7. The ‘pre-narrative envelope’ is not an innate structure, or the ego's discovery of such; rather, it results from the infant's own mental construction. This construction emerges from the infant's subjective experience with drives being enacted in an interpersonal context. It is an ‘emergent property’ of mind as currently conceived in the cognitive sciences (Céllerier, 1992; Churchland, 1984; Dennett, 1991; Edelman, 1990; Rummelhart and McClelland, 1986; Maturana and Varela, 1979).
The cognitive-science view of ‘thinking’1, borrowed and applied to the psychoanalytic question, ‘What is an unconscious phantasy in early infancy?’, can be summarized briefly below. In this view, the mind appears to process, in parallel and in partial independence, a large number of simultaneous mental happenings. During an experience, instinctual urgings, visual images, affect shifts, sensations, motor actions, ideas, states of arousal, language, place and space, time, etc., are all processed simultaneously in parallel throughout all ‘centres’ in the mind as well as in specialized ones devoted to processing each (‘Parallel Distributed Processing’ (PDP)). The parallel processing of each element is carried out with lower-level, local, mental operations which are never translatable into subjective experience. These mental processes are operationally unconscious."
(pp. 291-295)

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1 It is not agreed upon nor clear what ‘thinking’ is. I will use the term in quotes to mean different mental operations and processes, some of which would be better called ‘pre-thinking’ - whatever that may be.


Daniel N. Stern (1992). The ‘Pre-Narrative Envelope’: An Alternative View of ‘Unconscious Phantasy’ in Infancy. Bul. Anna Freud Centre, Vol. 15, pp. 291-318

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