Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Andre Green - The Work of the Negative

This passage is offered in memory of Andre Green who died on January 22, 2012.  The excerpt addresses his concept of "The Negative" which is one of his most enduring contributions to the field of psychoanalysis:

"Bion's work has been one of the sources of inspiration of my book published in 1993: Le travail du négatif.1 The work of the negative is an expression borrowed from Hegel but the way I use it for psychoanalytic theory is analogous to the way Bion uses Kant's philosophy for his own thinking. We both give these philosophical concepts a new meaning according to their applications to clinical psychoanalysis. It is impossible to evaluate Bion's own discoveries with precision without starting with Freud and comparing the point of departure to the point of arrival. During a meeting in Lyon where Bion gave one of his thinking improvisations, I went to him when he ended and had a short private exchange with him before the discussion started. I told him: ‘The more I listen to you, the more I see that you quote less Melanie Klein and more Freud’. He replied: ‘Melanie Klein was a contribution, an important contribution but just a contribution’.

I do not wish to evaluate here the respective influence of Freud's and Melanie Klein's work on Bion. What I wish to emphasise is the presence in Freud's work of an unnoticed framework about the concept of negative that has since been developed in many directions, each depending on a different context. For instance, with Lacan (‘The mirror stage’, 1949), Winnicott (Playing and Reality, 1971) and Bion, we have different views of it. It is not so important to raise questions of priority here as these different theoretical contexts did not communicate with each other and did not derive one from the other. It has been my attempt to show that a set of correspondences could be deduced from the confrontation of the different theoretical corpuses. All of them, in fact, derive from Freud, whether they are ready to recognise it or not.

It is important to be aware that the negative is very present in the ‘basic assumptions’ of Freud. Let us think only of the two major central concepts: the unconscious and the id. About the first one, the remark is obvious as the word is forged with the prefix un- that speaks for itself. Concerning the second, Freud says that almost everything we know about the id is of a ‘negative character’ compared to the ego (1933, ). Moreover, if one thinks of the subtractions due to repression, consciousness is, in Freud's view, in the opposite place it has in classical philosophy. It is a very restricted portion of psychical activity. There is no need to recall here the constant struggle of Freud against the equation psychical = conscious. Moreover, the fact that for Freud drives are at the root of psychical activity implies that something is basically in excess, an overload charge on the mind, linked with the bodily exigencies of the drives whose derivatives have to be sent back to the unconscious because their free expression forbids psychic organisation. This is what happens in the building of the ego, more precisely in its conscious part. So, the negative that is at the base of psychic activity is not only normal, it is also a prerequisite for any kind of psychic development. Moreover, it is because of the lack of the object under the pressure of the drives seeking satisfaction that the mind is activated and gives birth to the wish hallucinatory fulfilment that constitutes the most elementary form of psychic activity, at least according to Freud.

Later on, in 1943, Susan Isaacs, during the Freud - Klein Controversies, defended the idea that ‘phantasy’ is the psychic expression of the drives, a well known Kleinian idea that deserves a lot of attention and can raise a reasonable number of criticisms despite its apparent simplicity (Isaacs, 1948). Freud was to discover that his description of repression found in neurosis as well as in normal development was incomplete. This step was taken in his comment on the Schreber case. After having written that repression was at work in the patient's symptomatology, he corrects himself: ‘It was incorrect to say that the perception which was suppressed internally is projected outwards; the truth is rather, as we now see, that what was abolished internally returns from without’ (1911, ).

So, in 1911, Freud added to the mechanism of repression (Verdrängung) the mechanism named foreclosure (Verwerfung) by Lacan, who took notice of this distinction.2 Freud's observation supposes a radical difference between to repress and to abolish. In this last instance, what is ‘abolished’ inside returns from the external world, for instance, as a hallucination or a delusional idea. This sounds like projective identification except that it was stated much earlier by Freud and was left unnoticed. For Lacan, the difference between the two terms could be interpreted as if in repression processes of symbolisation are at work in the unconscious whereas what is going on in the so-called abolition is a failure of symbolisation. One could also think here of Hanna Segal's symbolic equation (1957).

A third move was made by Freud in 1925 with his paper on ‘Negation’ (Verneinung) in which he defends the idea that this linguistic form is an intellectual substitute for repression (1925, ). To end with, in 1927, Freud describes the splitting of the ego (Ich Spaltung) in his paper on ‘Fetishism’ (pp. 152-7). His own conception of splitting is different from Klein's. He describes it as a disavowal of perception giving birth to a duality of mental mechanisms, one admitting the result of perception (the sight of the absence of penis on the mother's body) and the other denying it. It is as if the patient would say: ‘I know it (that women have no penises), but I can't believe it’. Therefore, the fetish will be the displacement, of the missing penis on to a piece of the mother's garments, for example, to struggle against castration anxiety. Freud has always insisted that splitting is not only a mode of denial but also always includes an acknowledgment, though it is contradicted because of its traumatic consequence.

I have proposed gathering together all these related mechanisms: repression, splitting or disavowal, foreclosure or rejection and negation, in the concept of ‘the work of the negative’. This gathering is justified by the fact that all these mechanisms are elaborations of the prototype of repression. All of them imply a judgment of acceptance or refusal: a question whose answer has to be given in terms of yes and no. This question is posed, as we have seen, in many ways, grounded in different contexts, dealing with various materials (instinctual impulses, affects, representations, perceptions, words, etc.) in Freud's conception. Among the various defence mechanisms described by Freud, Anna Freud and Klein (whose contribution includes denial) etc., this group is different from the others because its constituents directly imply this basic choice of acceptance or refusal in consciousness of derivatives that are rooted in the unconscious or the id.

So it is easy to show that Bion's ideas opposing the ‘no thing’ to the ‘nothing’ are deeply justified and can be related to Freud's elaborations even if one may stress the influence of Melanie Klein between them. Anyhow, strictly speaking, Melanie Klein's conception does not care so much about their structural differences. She invokes the ‘psychosis’ that can be found at the beginning of every development. Interpretations will in all cases have to go that far to bring any significant change. At least, this is my reading of her.

In this discussion of Bion's ideas, what is important is to make the distinction between the absence of the breast and the annihilation of the breast. In the first instance—the absence—which is found in normal and neurotic conditions, this situation leads to representations or, in other words, to fantasies. Freud's framework is applicable here. The other case—annihilation—would be more linked to the psychotic part of the personality and deals with a situation predominantly marked with destruction, a more precise form than abolition. This destruction, which can be understood either along Freud's line of foreclosure and rejection or according to Melanie Klein's annihilating anxieties, results not so much in archaic fantasies of destruction but even more, as Winnicott and I have shown, in a destruction of the psychic activity of representation which creates ‘holes’ in the mind, or feelings of void, emptiness etc. When Freud describes Schreber's delusions, he interprets them as processes of restitution after the withdrawal from reality. In other words, patchworks hiding scars or spaces that show some kind of loss of substance. Bion describes similar occurrences but for him the destruction takes the form of the consequence of excessive projective identification that evacuates the unassimilable contents of the mind: the ß-elements.

Of course, there are differences between Freud's early intuitions and Bion's conceptualisation half a century later although the necessity for differentiating between different modes of defences, which are also modes of thinking, is similar in both works. Contemporary psychoanalysis is in great need of structural differentiations in order not to mix up the material coming from different types of patients in a one and only matrix."
(pp. 659-661)

Andre Green (1998). The Primordial Mind and the Work of the Negative. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol. 79, pp. 649-665

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