Selection from Chapter 7 of Mental Space

by Robert M. Young

Moving now to groups and institutions, I want to share an initial bewilderment. If you look in the index to a number of important texts in this sphere, you will find no entry for projective identification in, for example, Jaques' classic, The Changing Culture of a Factory (1951), Malcolm Pines' edited collection on Bion and Group Psychotherapy (1985; no mention of 'container-contained', either), Gareth Morgan's highly-regarded Images of Organization (1986), Hinshelwood's excellent What Happens in Groups (1987), Windy Dryden and Mark Aveline's collection on Group Therapy in Britain (1988), Didier Anzieu's The Group and the Unconscious (1984). As recently as the mid-1980s, Leonard Horowitz claimed that the concept of projective identification 'has failed to gain wide currency in either the psychoanalysis or the group psychotherapy literature' and set out to explain this failure, which he largely attributes to conceptual muddle (Horowitz, 1983, pp. 21, 22). As with all separations in the real world, however, the cleavage is not complete. I did find some fleeting references in a couple of S. H. Foulkes' books and many more in the two volumes of the A. K. Rice Series - Group Relations Readers - including Horowitz's musings (references in the 1985 volume are a multiple of those in the 1975 one - Colman and Bexton, 1975; Colman and Geller, 1985).

I am not embarking on a pedant's tour of indexes but emphasising the contrast between very recent literature and the immediate present, where it can rightly be said, as, indeed, it was said by Lise Rafaelsen in the journal, Group Analysis, 'Projective Identification is a fashionable concept. "We see it here, we see it there, we see it everywhere", just like the Scarlet Pimpernel during the French Revolution. However, in spite of its elusiveness, it is one of the few concepts that describes and catches the process in and the relationship between the intrapsychic and the interpersonal' (Rafaelsen, 1992, p. 55).

It could be argued that by seeing projective identification here, there and everywhere, we are spreading the concept so thin that it cannot properly cover anything. I believe that this is potentially a real danger, but I do not think we are yet at the danger point. At a time like the present in the history of a concept, it is often worth while to be permissive and to ask what we can learn from viewing familiar ideas from the point of view of the apparently ubiquitous, promiscuous and all-powerful concept. A number of familial and group phenomena are obvious candidates for consideration in terms of projective identification: the 'designated patient' in a family; the use of a group member as a spokesperson; scapegoating of all kinds; the phenomenon of 'role suction' (see Horowitz, 1983, pp. 29-30).

My purpose, however, is a fundamentally political one. I do not mean 'political' in the party-political sense (partly, in my case, because I have never found a real world party which elicited my enthusiasm). I mean politics in the sense of ways of embodying values in groups, structures, institutions and the distribution of power and resources. Now most people who have turned to psychology with public questions in mind have done so warily, because they have rightly feared that they might fall prey to reductionism. I believe that this wariness is wholly justified. As we have seen, Freud was quite explicitly and unequivocally reductionist in avowing his belief that all social, cultural and political phenomena were only the familiar phenomena of id, ego and superego, along with the Oedipal triangle, operating in a new sphere (Gay, 1988, p. 547). He even avowed that 'Strictly speaking, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and natural science' (Freud, 1933, p. 179). There is, according to Freud, no place for truly social explanations; sociology 'cannot be anything but applied psychology' (ibid.).

Social scientists are prone to tear their hair out at this point, and sociologists of knowledge indulge in a knowing smile. All knowledge is relative to its time, to contending interests, to particular cultures. Freud was, in my view, pretty naive about this, as I have argued elsewhere (Young, 1973; 1988a; above, chapter two). But I do not think that this leaves us marooned or prone to the well-known pitfalls of psychohistory, in which cultures and nations get mapped onto a developmental scheme which would embarrass any half-informed social anthropologist (Lowenberg, 1985; Cocks and Crosby, 1987).

I suggest that two or three things can rescue us. However, before specifying them I need to add an important cautionary note: what we need rescuing from is the erroneous belief that psychoanalysis can or should be sufficient to understand groups, culture, society, nations and other supra-individual phenomena, any more than it is sufficient to understand the individual. The rescue operation is designed to make connections - articulations - between the intrapsychic and the historical, socio-economic and ideological factors that largely constitute our characters, personalities and behaviour in groups. The connections I shall specify are not merely links; they are embeddings.

Now, to revert to the rescue operation. The first helpful notion is one we have encountered before: Victor Wolfenstein's marxist critique of a well-known maxim in political science known as 'Lasswell's Formula' (Lasswell, 1960; Wolfenstein, 1981, pp. 17-18), which states that private interests get projected onto the public realm and then represented as the common good. This is a particularly socially harmful form of rationalisation. The ruthless economic self-interest of a Rockefeller is defended as generating good for all. He used the analogy of competition among roses leading to the American Beauty Rose, his pretty analogy for the competitive success of his firm, Standard Oil, a company which has recently been cosmetically renamed EXXON, presumably in an attempt to refurbish its corporate image, since Standard Oil was associated with ruthless monopolistic practices. (This soon backfired when the Exxon Valdeez oil spill occurred off the coast of Alaska. Another instance of this kind was the renaming of Windscale as Sellafield in a vain attempt to escape some of the opprobrium connected with nuclear pollution.) Versions of this rationalising maxim have been offered throughout history, for example, in the self-assigned civilising missions of colonialists or imperialists. It forms the basis of the self-justifications of factory owners throughout the history of the labour process in industrial capitalism, including, in our own era, Taylorist 'scientific management' and softer versions of it in the 'human relations movement' associated with the work of Elton Mayo. Indeed, as Peter Barham and I have attempted to point out, it provides one way of mounting a critique of some aspects of the group relations movement and the forms of consultancy which grew out of the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations after it ceased to be funded by granting bodies (including, especially, the Rockefeller Foundation), and its consultants became 'guns for hire' in industry (Barham, 1984; Young, 1990b). At the individual level, politicians from time immemorial have rationalised their private interests and represented them as the common good.

What provides us with the perspective of critique with respect to Lasswell's formula is Wolfenstein's important move in starting the story a stage further back. Where did the particular conception of private interests come from before they got rationalised as the public good? This is both a familial and an ideological question. It invites us to look at both the psychoanalytic and the socialising process of development. Freud famously pointed out that the child does not acquire the parents' values but the parents' superego. This has an inherently conservative influence on the personality and provides a significant brake on social change (Freud, 1933, p. 67). Our task is to investigate the microprocesses of how we acquire values in the family. We are greatly aided in doing so by recent research on the transmission of superego in particularly distressing family histories - those of holocaust survivors. Both Haydée Faimberg (1988) and Ilony Kogan (1989) have shown us how direct and coercive these forms of inherited distress are and how they come to be acted out 'unto the seventh generation' - or at least in the generations to which we have so far had analytic access.

The transmission of trauma in holocaust survivors provides a model for how values get implanted in the process of socialisation and passed down through the generations. Psychoanalytic writers of varying degrees of radicalism have essayed about this, basing their own work on attempts to make sense of the rise of Nazism and its aftermath. I am thinking of the classical writings of the liberal Eric Fromm, the anarchic libertarian Wilhelm Reich, and the libertarian marxist Herbert Marcuse. Whatever one may feel about their respective politics and views on specific theoretical issues in psychoanalysis, these men wrote powerfully about how an epoch's values get into the unconscious value systems of people. I am thinking of Fromm's essays (1971) when he was in liaison with the Frankfurt School and his book, Fear of Freedom (called Escape from Freedom in America, 1941); of Reich's essays (1929-34) collected as Sex-Pol (1972) and his masterpiece, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). With respect to Marcuse, I have in mind his remarkable philosophical investigation into Freud, Eros and Civilization (1955, discussed above (pp. 36-9), the companion volume in which he mounts a critique of the ideology of industrial capitalism, One Dimensional Man (1964) and his essays on how conformist pressures are eroding the role of the father, the superego and the family, collected in Five Lectures (1970). Making due allowance for the consequences of their differing views on how change comes about and how refractory human nature is, they share a psychoanalytic perspective on how we come to conform - how consent is organised, how hegemony is instanced in the hearts and minds (especially the unconscious minds) - of human beings. I admire this body of work and have found it consistently illuminating.

But - as many radical critics of the Freudo-Marxist literature have reluctantly concluded - they did not delve deeply enough. This fact brings us back to projective identification by way of Bion and those whose work was inspired by his. I said above that I could think of two or three things which might rescue us from experiencing Freud's reductionism as hopelessly ignorant of the importance of social causation. The first was to look deeper than Lasswell's Formula and investigate how certain public values and structures got into the unconscious before they got projected and rationalised as the public interest. The second reason for hope was adumbrated in a motto of Freud's: 'If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the lower depths' (Freud, 1900, p. ix) . As we saw in chapter five, Bion takes us further into the lowest depths - the most primitive and most refractory defences of all: defences against psychotic anxieties which arise in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. He considers these to be the 'source of the main emotional drives of the group' (Bion, 1961, p. 188) and 'the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' (p. 189). As well as working through the problems posed by family patterns, groups must cope with splitting and projection and the part-object relationships to which they give rise. The move from the individual to the group does not raise new issues about explanation. He says a little further on, 'The apparent difference between group psychology and individual psychology is an illusion produced by the fact that the group brings into prominence phenomena which appear alien to an observer unaccustomed to using the group' (p. 169).

I want to look again at the work following on from Bion's experiences in groups. Elliott Jaques (1955) and Isabel Menzies Lyth conducted research in various organisations and found the same mechanisms at work, with the defences embodied in the mores and structures of the institutions. I believe that this model is at work in innumerable situations - neighbourhood gang, school, workplace, country club, religion, racial, political and international conflict. When one comes into contact with the group, subculture or institution, the psychic price of admission is to enter into that group's splits and projective identifications.

In her classical paper on 'The Function of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety', Menzies Lyth describes the link as it applies to student nurses: 'Although, following Jaques, I have used the term "social defence system" as a construct to describe certain features of the nursing service as a continuing social institution, I wish to make it clear that I do not imply that the nursing service as an institution operates the defences. Defences are, and can be, operated only by individuals. Their behaviour is the link between their psychic defences and the institution' (Menzies Lyth, 1959, p. 73). There is a complex and subtle interaction, resulting in a matching between the individual's defences and the institution's. The processes 'depend heavily on repeated projection of the psychic defence system into the social defence system and repeated introjection of the social defence system into the psychic defence system. This allows continuous testing of the match and fit as the individual experiences his own and other people's reactions.

'The social defence system of the nursing service has been described as a historical development through collusive interaction between individuals to project and reify relevant elements of their psychic defence systems. However, from the viewpoint of the new entrant to the nursing service, the social defence system at the time of entry is a datum, an aspect of external reality to which she must react and adapt. Fenichel makes a similar point (1946). He states that social institutions arise through the efforts of human beings to satisfy their needs, but that social institutions then become external realities comparatively independent of individuals which affect the structure of the individual' (pp. 73-4). The student nurse has to adapt her defences to those of the institution. The latter are relatively immutable, so she shapes hers until they are congruent with the institution's. The primitive psychic defences from infancy are brought by the individual to the fraught and literally life-threatening setting of the hospital. 'These defences are oriented to the violent, terrifying situations of infancy, and rely heavily on violent splitting [and, I would add, projective identification - R. M. Y.] which dissipates the anxiety. They avoid the experience of anxiety and effectively prevent the individual from confronting it. Thus, the individual cannot bring the content of the phantasy anxiety situations into effective contact with reality. Unrealistic or pathological anxiety cannot be differentiated from realistic anxiety arising from real dangers. Therefore, anxiety tends to remain permanently at a level determined more by the phantasies than by the reality. The forced introjection of the hospital defence system, therefore, perpetuates in the individual a considerable degree of pathological anxiety.

'The enforced introjection and use of such defences also interferes with the capacity for symbol formation... The defences inhibit the capacity for creative, symbolic thought, for abstract thought, and for conceptualization. They inhibit the full development of the individual's understanding, knowledge and skills that enable reality to be handled effectively and pathological anxiety mastered' (pp. 74-5).

I have quoted this passage - one which will be familiar to many - to invite you to reflect on the appropriateness of this description for understanding how a person comes to think and feel not only like a nurse but also like a racist or a virulent nationalist or a member of a street gang or a religious or psychoanalytic sect. I believe that the mechanisms are the same and that the process of taking in the values as 'a given', adapting one's own primitive anxieties to that group's particular version of splitting, projection, stereotyping and scapegoating, leads to the same kind of impoverishment that nurses experience - of the ability to think and feel with moderation and to deal with reality and anxiety. It is projected into the structure or the Other and given back - not detoxified, but - as an injunction to behave inhumanely toward patients, Lacanians, Jews, Armenians, 'the Evil Empire', Bosnians or whomsoever. It is by this means that I became certain, without thinking about it or meeting many, if any, of the people involved, that Germans are sadistic, Japanese cunning, Italians sexist, Mexicans lazy, French romantic, English decent, Scots dour, Canadians boring, Swiss efficient, Dutch tidy, Scandinavians cold, Spaniards romantic, Russians passionate, Turks depraved, Arabs fanatical, Jews avaricious, Hawaiians friendly, Australians gauche, Chinese inscrutable, Africans rhythmic, White South Africans racist and authoritarian. I have been sure of all these things all my conscious life, but, as I indicated at the end of chapter five, I do not recall learning any of them.

How, if at all, does this differ from any other theory of socialisation into a belief system? The answer is two-fold. Most conceptions of socialisation in social psychology, sociology and social anthropology have a civility and blandness, reminiscent of learning theory in psychology, as if to say, 'This is how Dick and Jane learn to be good citizens, members of the tribe, team-players, or whatever'. I believe that it is an implication of fundamental importance that the level of explanation following on from Bion's insistence that Freud missed out 'the ultimate sources of all group behaviour' is that we are dealing with a whole new level of grip. In terms of a domestic analogy the comparison is between the bonding power of a glue stick, on the one hand, and superglue, on the other. The projective identifications of membership are bonded with the unconscious equivalent of superglue - cemented at the most primitive level of feeling that we have. I recall a series of sexual jokes that were popular some years ago. 'Plumbers do it with pipe.' 'Surfers do it with wet suits.' 'Radio hams do it with short waves.' 'Teachers do it with discipline.' 'Psychotherapists do it with insight.' 'Marxists do it with class.' The analogous slogan would be: 'Members do it with projective identification.' I mean members of families, couples, groups, institutions, tribes, cultures, sects, armies and so on.

I have another set of images in mind, which I offer in an attempt to emphasise the grip or adhesiveness or deep registration of these phenomena. Recent work with survivors of catastrophes shows that the trauma acts like a homing device and ransacks or searches out the history of the victim until it finds a congruent, early experience. It latches onto that - tightly- and can only be dislodged with the greatest difficulty (Caroline Garland, personal communication). Another image is of hungry birds in a nest - heads vertical, beaks open, cheeping. You may think that they are only craving, but they are also projecting like mad, and what mother thrusts down their throats on her return goes deep. What is true of worms served up as food for birds is also true of people with respect to prejudices and other deeply held beliefs. They become so deeply implanted or sedimented that they are 'second nature'.

In the context of what I have been saying, I want to ponder a passage from Hanna Segal about the political implications of Klein's views on how hunger gnaws: 'From the beginning the infant forms some object relationships, predominantly in phantasy. In her view, the outward deflection of the death instinct postulated by Freud creates the fantasy of a deathly bad object... First we project our destructiveness into others; then we wish to annihilate them without guilt because they contain all the evil and destructiveness' (Segal, 1988, pp. 50-51). When we read accounts of the genocide of the Conquistadors, the Stalinists, the Germans, the Kampucheans, the Americans or the Iraqis, we must ask what has been projected into these people from the most primitive parts of their tormentors. Similarly, when we see the behaviour of drunken Indians or Esquimos or the fawning of black film actors such as Step'n Fetchit or the behaviour of Mafiosi as represented by Brando, Jews like Dickens' Fagin as played by Alec Guiness or Americans as played by John Wayne - then we must note how such projections take root and evoke stereotypes which people, in society as in fiction, perform so convincingly that they reinforce the projective process and confirm the original degrading depiction.

Once we have adopted this way of thinking about the relationship between the individual and the group process, familiar matters begin to appear in a new light. What are Bion's three basic assumptions which sunder sensible work group functioning - dependence, pairing, fight-flight - but projective identifications? What is the mechanism of becoming a follower, as described in Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), except projective identification of desired parts into the leader, who gives back an identity and frees one from the obligation of being responsible for one's own superego? Wolfenstein gives a moving account of this in his writings about the black American revolutionary, Malcolm X, and his relationship - of protégé, heir apparent and then apostate - with respect to the leader of the Black Muslims, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Wolfenstein, 1981,1991, esp. pp 527-41). What is being a fan of a movie star or a groupie of a rock star other than romantic, idealising projective identification? Main makes just this point: 'Where positive aspects of the self are forcefully projected similar degrees of depersonalization occur, with feelings of personal worthlessness and with dependent worship of the other's contrasting strengths, powers, uncanny sensitivity, marvellous gifts, thoughts, knowledge, undying goodness etc. This is the world of the devotee, cults and hero-promotion' (Main 1975, p. 106). It is also a world in which people will do anything a Bhagwan (Milne, 1986) or a Charles Manson (Sanders, 1972) or a Rev. James Jones or a David Koresh tells them to do - from sexual licence to senseless murder to mass suicide. The same suspension of one's own sense of right and wrong is at work in the followers of L. Ron Hubbard in the Church of Scientiology as in the helter-skelter minds of the devotees of Charles Manson, killing rich Californians, and in the convictions of bombers and perpetrators of sectarian murders in Northern Ireland or terrorists from Lybia, though the ideologies of the respective group leaders may have utterly different apparent or real justifications.

The example of my experience at a group relations conference which I gave at the end of chapter five is of an idealised internal group, with which I was in projective identification of a kind. I now want to speak about another kind of group. You will recall that I have offered two sorts of hope for rescuing us from the charge that psychoanalysis is reductionist with respect to groups and institutions. The first was to look behind Lasswell's Formula about rationalising private interests and claiming that they represent the public good. Following Wolfenstein, we discovered how social forces shaped conceptions of private interests and should be considered as an earlier stage in the process. The second basis for hope lay in looking deeper, with Bion and his successors, into how institutional and group values get imbedded, as if superglued, in the unconscious via projective identification as a way of dealing with psychotic anxieties. I now offer a third way in which groups and group dynamics are at work in the unconscious. I am thinking of recent ideas about the 'institution in the mind'. David Armstrong has developed other notions of Isabel Menzies Lyth's to locate institutional dynamics, whether benign or malign, in the unconscious of the individual (Armstrong, 1991, 1992).

A further group presence in the unconscious is in the notion of 'pathological organisations' in borderline psychotic states, the subject of a burgeoning literature (Spillius, 1988, vol. 1, Part 4; Steiner, 1987, 1993; cf. Searles, 1986, who considers these phenomena in different terms). In discussing this, Herbert Rosenfeld explicitly describes the individual as in projective identification with a 'gang in the mind': 'The destructive narcissism of these patients appears often highly organised, as if one were dealing with a powerful gang dominated by a leader, who controls all the members of the gang to see that they support one another in making the criminal destructive work more efficient and powerful. However, the narcissistic organisation not only increases the strength of the destructive narcissism, but it has a defensive purpose to keep itself in power and so maintain the status quo. The main aim seems to be to prevent the weakening of the organisation and to control the members of the gang so that they will not desert the destructive organisation and join the positive parts of the self or betray the secrets of the gang to the police, the protecting superego, standing for the helpful analyst, who might be able to save the patient' (Rosenfeld, 1971, p. 174).

My aim in this chapter has been to look at a variety of conceptions of projective identification, to explore the fecundity of the concept and its operation at a number of levels of individual, group, institutional, cultural, political and international relationships. The examples I have given have, for the most part, been negative ones, and I have underemphasized the positive function of the mechanism. That aspect was emphasized in chapter four, on the special sort of projective identification called countertransference. Rosenfeld remarked that 'It is important to realise that in so far as projective identification is communicative it is a benign process, which means that the object into which projection has taken place is not changed by the projective process' (Rosenfeld, 1987, p. 160). In the container-contained relationship between mother and baby or patient and therapist, the person into whom the projection is put is changed, as is the projection itself, in the process of detoxification. One way of distinguishing benign from virulent projective identification is whether or not it allows experience to be thought about - for its complexity to be borne, for it to feed depressive functioning. Feldman also points out that 'projective identification may also involve good parts of the self - projected in love, or in an attempt to protect something valuable from internal attack' (Feldman, 1992, p. 76). He goes on to make a point similar to mine on the question of degree: 'Up to a point, this process is a normal one, necessary for the satisfactory growth of our relationships, and is the basis, for example, for what we term "empathy". If it is excessive, on the other hand, there is an impoverishment of the ego, and an excessive dependence on the other person who contains all the good parts of the self' (ibid.)

One of the guiding principles in my choice of examples has been to draw attention to crossover points between individual and group processes. Another has been to indicate places where it is perhaps surprising to find the group and social forces: deep in the unconscious of the individual. Finally, I have been concerned to emphasize the primitiveness and the adhesive, binding power of projective identification. Connections, once made, are not easily dislodged. That makes it a profoundly conservative mechanism, hard at work at the heart of human nature - in infants, nominal grown-ups, groups, societies, cultures, nations. It is deeply problematic for any hopes former Soviets may have for a Confederation of Independent States, much less for all the hopes that humankind may entertain for truly a United Nations. No wonder it is so hard to change and no wonder that decades of willed, imposed change, for example, in Eastern Europe, can melt away as soon as military repression is removed. This is a startling example of the return of the suppressed. To revert to a mythological figure I have already mentioned, if we are to make more of benign projective identification, we must set about our task as tirelessly as Sisyphus and perhaps be prepared to accept the satisfactions of what we can accomplish along the way, rather than keeping our eyes fixed on an ultimate goal. 'There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night' (Camus, 1955, p. 91).