need projective identification be unconsciously motivated?

There is a commonplace understanding of projection and projective identification according to which it doesn't make sense to think of them as unmotivated. Why project - why even call it 'projection' - when we don't have to do with the functioning of defence mechanisms?

And that's fair enough. I want to suggest, however, both that some - many? - ersatzes of the phenomena referred to in these ways need not be defensively motivated, and also that, even when defences are brought into play, we can understand the basic process on which the defences are working without essential reference to the motivational dynamics themselves.

The significance of this possibility was only brought home to me after I was asked, following a presentation at the Tavistock, whether I didn't think that projective identification always has to be 'active'. I guess I hadn't noticed an implication of my own account - that perhaps 'it' (or rather - the mechanism at play in the cases I was referring to) need not be motivated.

Providing an account of (what I'm going to, albeit confusingly, insist on still calling) projective identification as not intrinsically motivated would bring it into line with, say, the psychoanalytic theory of phantasy and the primary processes. If I understand the matter correctly, such basic mental processes constitute the functioning of the mind, but are best understood as exploited by, rather than created by, the defences for their own purposes.

So here goes:
  • We start with an existential phenomenological conception of selfhood and it's relation to experience. This involves the following key claims:
  • The self boundary arises neither prior to, nor posterior to experience.
  • It arises equiprimordially with experience.
  • In experience we have arising, all together, a self, an object, and an experiential relation between the two.
  • It may be more helpful to speak of 'aspects of the self' rather than 'the self' per se. It is not that the whole person is reborn in every perceptual act.
  • Rather, that, in perception, I am separated off from this or that object - this perceiving aspect of myself is differentiated from this perceived aspect of my lifeworld.
  • And now that this separation has arisen - or better put: equiprimordially with this separation - we have the possibility of a perceptual relation.
  • Better put still: the separation, and the experience, are of a piece with one another.
  • Sometimes there will be disturbances to this separation/perception process.
  • These disturbances may or may not be motivated. We may nevertheless explain, teleologically, why they arise again and again for someone, inscribed into their character and interactions, by reference to the operation of defences.
  • The disturbances involve a failure of adequate separation of subject from object (i.e. a kind of identification occurs). Either the boundary between self and object (the 'chiasm', as Merleau-Ponty describes it) is placed 'too near' the self, or 'too near' the object.
  • If the former, then what would normally belong to the self is experienced as belonging to the object. Part of what would normally be the self now belongs to the object. In these cases we talk about projective identification or (with Bleuler) 'transitivism'.
  • If the latter, then what would normally belong to the object is experienced as belonging to the self. Here we would speak of 'introjective identification'. Identification with the aggressor might be another example. The object is witnessed as not having some of its essential properties - hence talk of psychological 'scotoma'.
  • There is an essential confusion in this discussion which must not be tidied away too quickly. The confusion concerns the possibility of talking, as I have done, of boundaries being placed 'too near the self' or 'too near the object' when we are talking about a disturbance in the very constitution of the self and of the object-as-perceived. It might seem like I want to have my ontological cake and eat it.
  • I think we just have to acknowledge this confusion. The truth is, there is no better way of describing what is happening in projective or introjective identification.
  • We cannot appeal to what is 'really' the case - where, say, a feeling 'really belongs', or what 'really does or does not' belong to the self. For we are talking about the very constitution of feelings themselves.
  • Neither is it apt to talk of, say, feelings as if they may genuinely transmigrate between people.
  • If we are employing an epistemological attitude, we will find ourselves wanting to say the former, misperception, kind of description of the processes. If we are employing an ontological attitude we will find ourselves wanting to say the latter. In practice we will probably wobble unsteadily between the two, sensing the inadequacies of both.
  • But the truth is that projective and introjective identification involve a disturbance in the very preconditions for the intelligible talk of selves and experiences. What remain are selves and experiences manque. We are drawn to use everyday terms to describe processes that could only, ultimately, receive an intelligible elaboration at the subpersonal level of description.
  • We can however note what people are inclined to say and do. We use an extension of our everyday psychological vocabulary, and talk of primitive mental processes of phantasy, although some of the preconditions for the intelligible application of everyday psychological discourse have been abrogated.
  • To return to the principle theme. To be sure, it may often be that (what I am forced to describe for now as) the displacement of the self boundary, the partial identification of aspect of self with aspect of experienced object, arises, is sustained, repeats itself, under the influence of a defense mechanism. Projection is a way of getting rid of parts of the self that are intolerable; introjection can be (as Fairbairn described) a way of getting rids of parts of the object that are intolerable (their apparent cruelty, for example).
  • But the very same instability in ego boundaries may itself arise for purely biological reasons - as part of the essential vulnerabililty in schizophrenia, for example. It arises in conditions of profound sensory deprivation too. The enactive processes whereby the self-boundary is normally maintained cannot operate so smoothly in such disturbed environmental or internal (neurological) conditions.
  • This is not to say that the disturbances in the self-boundary in schizophrenia might well not too have their motivating factors (defensive origins). With a weakened self boundary constitution, there will be all the more opportunity for defences to succeed in, say, ridding the self of intolerable aspects of itself. And so these primitive defences may have more of a chance of succeeding.
  • But this is not to say that disturbances in the constituting processes must only arise under the influence of a defence. To assert that would seem to be simply a prejudice: what could be its justification?
Postscript (18.2.09): It has occurred to me since writing the above that the question about the 'activity' of projective identification might not have referred at all to its being motivated or not. After all, it's a common enough bit of psychoanalytic understanding that projective and introjective processes are part and parcel of the very means of our emotional communication and empathy, and not simply the materials of defensive offloadings from or accretions to the self. Perhaps what was meant instead was simply the idea of a process of movement from pre-projective to post-projective moments - I start off in a non-identificatory relationship with you, and then move into an identificatory (of whichever sort) relationship, and then back again, in a dynamic pattern of fluid engagments. And these movements might have been what the questioner was getting at. Whereas my account is, admittedly, rather static. On reflection, I am attracted to the idea of such movement. What I suspect, now, is that it is the absence of such movement - back and forth between projective and introjective and non-identificatory moments - that makes for the possibility of normal, healthy, object relations, including the normal and healthy constitution of the self boundary. And that what I was describing was simply instances of 'frozen identification' in which the normal healthy dynamic dialectical motility - the fluid dance of merging and separation - has been lost.


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