W R D Fairbairn tells us that 'bad internal objects' come about through introjective identification, and that this introjection is defensive. So: I experience my mother as cruel, rejecting, unloving, hateful. This is unbearable to me. Attachment theory tells us why. The human infant is so embarrassingly helpless (compared with mammalian cousins) on exiting the womb that it stands no chance by itself. So the greatest terror is of abandonment. By becoming the cruel mother, introjecting all that is bad, I deplete the perception of the external object of its bad properties. A negative hallucination (scotomisation) results. As a consequence I can feel safer, feel that I live once again in a world of objects who love me, have my interests at heart.
But - like - how does this work? What's it all about? Of course we have a ready clinical appreciation of this, and can feel the pull to describe things thus. But how can we understand it theoretically? In particular, if we stick with a mentalistic container model of the mind (which the bodily metaphors around which the notions of mind are constructed suggest so readily to us - when we forget that they are indeed conceptual metaphors) then it all looks rather impossible. Our basic question is this: Why would identification lead to scotomisation?
In this post I want to suggest that the matter of apt theorisation becomes far more tractable if we take up an existential rather than a mentalistic conception of the self and its boundary. I have approached the issue before on the blog (especially from the projective rather than introjective end), but it is worth revisiting it, to see if I can state the basic ideas more clearly.
On the mentalistic conception the self has a pre-formed boundary (like the skin of the body). There is no ontologically significant question as to what occurs without and what within - only an epistemological question - are the qualities and attributes perceived to be in the places they really are in?
On an existential conception, however, the self-boundary is understood as something constructed through experience. It is not constructed on the basis of experience - we don't draw a boundary around ourselves on the basis of our experience of what belongs to self and what to other. (That presupposes the very issue: what does belong to self and what to other?) Selfhood is not experienced, it is not in experience, it does not arise as a construction out of it. But experience itself amounts to a registering of what is not of the self. Experience is difference, experience is differentiation, experience is relation. Selfhood and experienced Other always arise together as two poles of the intentional field. The self is what is not experienced. Self, perceived other, and intentional field arise together as three equiprimordial moments of intentionality.
Selfhood may well be a transcendental precondition for the possibility of experience, but it is essential to understand that this does not mean that it is necessarily constituted prior to any experiential act. That conflates an empirical (temporal) with a metaphysical concern. Selfhood is in fact constituted in an ongoing way throughout life - with some particularly dramatic changes occurring in toddlers and late adolescents. The possibilities of discrimination of the other increase dramatically at these times. The intentional field widens and differentiates, the possibilities of experience greatly expand (now I come to see my parents as existing independently from me, as having a relationship with each other; now I come to see them as having moral culpability...), the constitution of the self develops (my moral agency increases; I become able to think for myself; I experience a greater and more discriminating range of object-relating feelings (jealousy, envy); I gain a sense of moral culpability and non-culpability; who is responsible for what becomes much more articulated (and the typical childhood rows about 'fairness' get endlessly articulated too...)).
So let us suppose that we are confronted by the 'bad [unideal aspects of the] mother'. I'm terrified - so what happens? Either I acknowledge them, and stay terrified but, to the extent that I can after the acknowledgement, hold it together at all, I remain sane and intact. Or the intentional field is just shut down (autistic retreat). Or ... I 'introject the bad object'. What this means is that the self-other delineation and consequent possibility of (painful) relation is avoided for certain aspects of the potential relationship. She cannot hurt me because I and she are one. This is no mere passing hallucination, but rather a structural feature (or lack of a structural feature) of the self. We cannot see what is not other to us.
None of this answers the question as to how this is possible. Clearly a certain amount of splitting will be required - a lack of integration in one's experience of the other (and consequently, of the self too). But the key problem seems to be as follows: In order to defend against terror, I need to experience it. The differentiation between self and other needs first to be drawn. Yet then again we shouldn't just suppose that the mind cannot attack itself (Bion). Perhaps there is a nascent awareness of something which is then deflected through the use of powerfully regressive defense mechanisms. Recall that self boundary, experience, and intentional field all arise together as mutually constitutive moments of any interaction. What we are imagining here is just that, with a nascent awareness of the terrorising other, the distinction between self and other is not made, that it is drawn instead further 'into' the other, splitting and disturbing the natural object.