An Existential Account of Projective Identification

Melanie Klein
  1. 1. Psychoanalysts theorise the phenomena of projective and introjective identification in a metapsychological way, making them out to be psychological processes. (These phenomena involve one person (call him the patient) either unconsciously taking leave of part of his self and with it certain unpleasant feelings belonging to that part, and then kind of ‘hallucinating’ it in – or tacitly attributing it to – another person (call her the analyst), or taking in part of the personality and affect of another, and attributing it to himself. At least sometimes these curious unconscious processes leave the analyst actually feeling the feelings that have been projected into her, or perhaps feeling depleted. This might all sound a bit mad to someone situated intellectually outside of the clinical encounter (if I’m honest then lots of clinicians of a more empiricist stripe than myself don’t go in for these psychoanalytic concepts either), but: i) Think of cases when one’s having an argument with one’s partner, and at least part of the issue has to do with who is responsible for the bad state of affairs both find themselves in. Maurice Merleau-PontyThe highly charged emotional atmosphere makes it hard to know which intentions belong where, where to attribute agency and responsibility. ii) Think too of psychotic cases where delusional people can’t distinguish between themselves and others, or say that they are others, or say that others are them. Or perhaps they don’t always say this, they just act exactly like it. Lots of good examples of ‘transitivism’ and ‘reversal into the opposite’ occur in the psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature, including in the classic book The Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, and in Louis Sass and Josef Parnas' paper Phenomenology of Self-Disturbances in Schizophrenia).

  2. By ‘psychological processes’ I mean: processes explicable in terms of the beliefs (or other intentional attitudes) of the subject.

  3. I want to propose an alternative ‘ontological’ model. This suggests that the processes are explicable not in terms of how the subject represents the other, but rather in terms of the actual constitution of the subject’s self. In identification we have a failure of constitution.

  4. So: It is not the case (thinking ontologically, rather than ontically (‘empirically’) – since it often is the case in any one contingent instance) that selves pre-exist interpersonal encounters. (This is, I take it, a fairly standard and commonsensical view that I am disagreeing with here.)

  5. Yet neither is it the case (as in an empirical idealism about the self) that selves are constituted out of perceptual acts – reconstructed from experiential data, for example. (Such a view is incoherent since it is forced to posit experiences belonging to no-one in order then to construct (by whom?) the selves in question out of the experiential deliverances (to whom?).)

  6. Rather, a la Merleau-Ponty (as I read him! – in The Visible and the Invisible,), the constitution of the self and the interpersonal encounter – in ontological mode I’ll call it ‘The Conversation’ – are to be thought of as mutually constituting processes.

  7. Similarly, the act of perception and the demarcation of subject from perceptual object are also to be thought of as mutually constitutive.

  8. The way I flesh this out is as follows:

    1. The field of resonance is that field of objects or states of affairs with which I can be in a kind of ‘communion’. This ‘communion’ is characterised empirically as follows. There are identical neurological processes which start up either when I (for example) move past an object, or when an object moves past me. This occurs pretty obviously at the level of retinal stimulation. My claim is that this is an essential and important aspect of perception. (If you are a cognitivist like Chris Frith, then you tend to think that changes in sensory stimulation caused by the perceiver must be somehow ‘subtracted’ from the retinal image in order for an inner perceiver to receive the right kind of stabilised inner perceptual representations that match up to the way the world is. If you are not a cognitivist, like me, and don’t believe in inner perceptual representations, then this kind of ‘resonance’ or ‘communion’ is not a problem to be done away with, but an important precondition for the possibility of experience.) Similar processes occur for so-called mirror neurones, but at a quite different level of ‘abstraction’: we get the same neurons firing regardless of who is doing the moving or the feeling or the perceiving. (In itself, of course, this solves no epistemological problems, so mirror neurones aren’t quite as sexy as many people make out…)

    2. The act of differentiation is the introduction of a kind of ‘cut’ down through the field of resonance. It occurs when the nervous system responds in different ways to resonant stimulation depending on whether the stimulation arose as a result of a change in the perceiver or a change in the perceived.

    3. It is important to note that resonance and differentiation are not intended as psychological processes. They act to constitute the subject and contemporaneously constitute perception – they are not the mental acts of subjects. (I’m a bit concerned however that I want them to play both a subpersonal and an ontological role at the same time, and wonder if I’m just confused here.)

  9. Identification occurs when the ‘cut’ of differentiation is drawn in a different place than people tend to expect, or when we have a simple failure of or at least a partial deficiency in differentiation. So we have resonance but nothing which makes for individuation of a self. Or we have a process in play which seems to get the relevant boundary of the self all wrong.

  10. I think that these processes are often fairly stable and get carried around with subjects. But only get into one of those flotation chambers, or experience other sensory deprivation, or take LSD, or get muddled about whether it’s your own train that’s moving or the one next to it, and we see how they can get confused. Further, when it comes to interpersonal processes, it seems that it helps to borrow from ‘enactivist’ ideas, and to suggest that where the ‘cut’ of differentiation gets drawn is something which is often being tacitly negotiated within the framing assumptions of our ongoing conversations. It gets ‘constructed’ in the narratives that get played out in families and couples and in the workplace. (However it’s important not to read ‘construct’ in a ‘constructivist’ manner, since that means a relapse into empirical idealism.)

  11. So, to return to the main topic of projective and introjective identification: These occur when we have resonance but inadequate and especially skewed differentiation.

  12. Incidentally, it can’t be the case, in the interpersonal case, that the subpersonal process of differentiation must be called on to cut in the ‘right place’. What counts as ‘the right place’ is a function of the ‘cuts’ that are typically made in stable relationships. There is no fact of the matter as to where the cut through the field of resonance – the cut which makes for the emergence of two subjects with their own particular agencies and responsibilities and owned thoughts and owned feelings – ‘should’ be made. To think this would be to imagine that we already had two subjects with their own thoughts and feelings. But the ontological perspective is trying to replace this psychological one. It is looking at the very constitution of the subjects in question.

  13. This final point is similar to Wittgensteinian considerations regarding rule-following (for example). To go on ‘998, 1000, 1002, 1004’ when expanding ‘+2’ is of course correct. But nothing makes it the case that it is correct to go on like this. Rather, this is what is called ‘correctly expanding the rule + 2 after you get to 1000’. There is no rule, or domain of Platonic facts, behind the rule and the expansion to which it is internally related.

  14. So too with primary delusions. They are not irrational in virtue of anything – for example, in virtue of not corresponding to reality in certain ways. They rather eat into the very structure of the subject which allows for the formation of representations which might be held up against, compared with, reality. We can only play the ‘corresponds with’ game if we have a prior ontological embeddedness of a subject in reality; a subject thus embedded may then, out of this embeddedness itself, throw up practices which invoke standards or correctness. However primary delusion result from a failure of the embedding itself.

  15. So too, again, with fundamental processes of projective and introjective identification. They represent a fundamental disturbance in the very constitution of the self – i.e. in the individuation of it as a distinct, bounded entity, now separated from objects or people to which or whom it is now capable of standing in intentional (e.g. perceptual or affective) relations.


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