Sunday, July 29, 2012

Juan Tubert-Oklander - The Nature of the Alpha Function

"So what is the alpha function, after all? Bion did not say it; indeed, he was adamant in his opposition to any premature saturation of the term. I do not claim to have found the "real" meaning of the term, but only a possible one, to be derived from the resonance between psychoanalysis, semiotics, and a theory of development. Of course, if the concept were to resonate with other different points of view, it would be imbued with new meanings.

From this vertex, the alpha function appears as an organizing activity, more specifically, as a classificatory endeavour. The baby's experience is initially an aggregate of disparate elements, which include sensory and organic impressions, as well as those obscure inner motions that adumbrate what later will become the emotions. It is a motley assembly of contrasting items, which cannot be assigned any definite meaning. This is a situation similar to the state of chemical knowledge before Mendeleyev. At that time, a chemist had to memorize the characteristics of every one of the elements, which showed no relation whatsoever among them. It was just a lot of fruitless and dull work. Then came Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, with his love of pattern, and tried to sort them out. He assumed, as an act of faith, that there had to be an order in Nature, and set out to find it in the chemical realm. He ordered the elements sequentially, by their atomic weight, and soon found out that some features seemed to reappear every eight elements; it was something akin to an octave in music. So he placed the elements in tiers, with eight of them in each one, and found that all the elements in each vertical column had a veritable family resemblance. His belief in this rhythmic distribution was so strong that, when some element seemed to be out of place, he asserted that its atomic weigh must have been wrongly calculated, and he was right! He also went as far as to predict that some element yet undiscovered must exist, whenever he was faced with an empty cell in his table, and he was right again. This, of course, resembles the case of another scientist who shared the Russian chemist's belief in pattern and rhythm: Wilfred Ruprecht Bion and his Grid.

Now, the baby, immersed in a state of confusion and ambiguity, is looking for its Mendeleyev, and finds him in its own mother. Her capacity to be in touch with the emotional experiences that her baby induces in her, to think them through in a sensible and meaningful way, and to act accordingly in order to respond to her offspring's needs, puts the latter's world into order, thus initiating the development of an inner "grid," which is the very foundation of thought.

But there is one important difference between this metaphor and the actual process that seems to take place between the baby and its mother. The classificatory activity carried out by Mendeleyev might have been done on a blackboard, a notebook, or on a table, by distributing cards in heaps; in other words, any classification needs a space or surface on which to distribute the items that are being classified. But in the case of the baby, the classificatory space does not exist before the classificatory effort, but is rather created by that very effort. Thus this putting of the baby's experience into order is the beginning of that inner space that is indispensable for thinking, feeling, imagining, dreaming, or acting in a meaningful way (Tubert-Oklander, 1987).

But the story of Mendeleyev and his Table of the Elements may well be something more than a suitable metaphor. Bion warned us against restricting the use of the concept of the alpha function to a single field of inquiry, so that it will not do to conceive it just as a part of a genetic theory of early development, even though it may well be profitably used in that field. The case of Mendeleyev shows that the alpha function may also be used as a hypothesis for understanding the development of science or knowledge in general—i.e., in epistemological research. From such point of view, Mendeleyev's prowess may be conceived as an instance of the alpha function, and not as its analogue.

This is related to a new term I have introduced in the discussion, that of the act of faith. This is another of Bion's concepts, which is rather ambiguous and unsettling, just as is most of his work. In was introduced in his book Attention and Interpretation, in the following terms:

The discipline that I propose for the analyst, namely avoidance of memory and desire … increases his ability to exercise "acts of faith." An "act of faith" is peculiar to scientific procedure and must be distinguished from the religious meaning with which it is invested in conventional usage; it becomes apprehensible when it can be represented in and by thought. It must "evolve" before it can be apprehended and it is apprehended when it is a thought just as the artist's O is apprehensible when it has been transformed into a work of art. (Bion, 1970, pp. )

So the act of faith seems to be a primary intuition, which underlies all scientific thinking and research: the intuition that the world has an order that we are somehow capable of fathoming, in other words, the intuition that truth exists (Tubert-Oklander, 2008b). It was only the intuition that there was some meaning there to be found that kept Mendeleyev working to make sense out of haphazard chemical knowledge, Champollion out of the undecipherable hieroglyphics on the Rosetta stone, and Freud out of the mumbo-jumbo of dreams. It is the very same faith that drives the mother to find a meaning—and, perhaps, also construct a meaning—for her baby's seemingly unrelated expressions. And this capacity for faith may also, perhaps, be the outcome of a good and fruitful experience of being contained, understood, nourished, and loved by a caring mother— an aspect of what Erik Erikson (1987) called "basic trust."

If this were the case, Bion's work and thought might be relevant for a much wider field of knowledge than the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, since it provides the rudiments of a general theory of thought and knowledge, integrated with emotional experience and personal relations. Just as semiotics has evolved from mere linguistics into a wide discipline that studies such apparently dissimilar phenomena as sign language, dressing codes, manners, family and social organization, architectural codes, advertising, the structure of short stories and other narratives, the meaning of objects in everyday life, and heraldry, Bion's theory of thinking may well be carried much further than the ordinary limits of psychoanalysis, into the realms of anthropology, social psychology, political science, episte-mology, and also, of course, semiotics. In the meantime, the concept of the alpha function remains—and most probably shall remain—as unsaturated as Bion bequeathed it to us. From this perspective, my inquiry of the alpha function is no more that that: playing with a conceptual object, to see how it functions and what meanings it generates, when placed and used in a particular context. This awaits for further inquiries in other relevant contexts. But this is the very stuff of interpretation, in a hermeneutical sense: to place a given text in various contexts and determine, from the meanings thus generated, which of these contexts seems to fit better with the fruitfulness of the text (Beuchot, 2005; Tubert-Oklander & Beuchot Puente, 2008)."
(pp. 240-241)

Juan Tubert-Oklander (2008). An Inquiry into the Alpha Function. Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 16, pp. 224-245

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