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'Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis'

International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) Congress, 1911 Weimer

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Binocular Vision in the Total Situation

Most people are other people. Their thoughts
are someone else’s opinions, their lives
 a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
                                                                           Oscar Wilde


The concept of “the total situation” has not yet attained a central position in clinical psychoanalytic theory, even if a number of highly experienced clinicians frequently make use of it in their work. The purpose of this essay is to study the provenance and the vicissitudes of the concept, as well as its current status within clinical theory – be it in the form of classical individual technique, or specific forms of applied practice like group analysis.

Franz Gall, the inventor of phrenology has claimed, as early as the beginning of the 19th century, that the brain is not a homogenous unity, but an ‘aggregate’ of mental organs, each with its own separate and specific function. Barely a century later, the Zeitgeist has evolved to such a degree that the eminent neurologist Kurt Goldstein could state that : “no finding is to be considered without a reference to the whole organism and the total situation” (Goldstein, 1934) and that is because organic functions observed is isolation appear different from what they actually are in the complexity of their natural functioning. This pendulous movement between on the one hand a romantic individualism, and on the other an attempt to find one’s identity through the collective and the social that characterizes the cultural milieu of the time, finds Freud deeply caught up in it too. This ambivalence and the tension it creates, is abundantly manifest in most of his writings. The newly proposed scientific argument that solitary reflection is not sufficient in order to attain self-knowledge, i.e. that the subject can only know itself through the knowing of the Other, and thus anything that the subject understands as being “I” has been fundamentally shaped by the perception of an Other, is profoundly subversive and undermining of the various theoretical positions held as valid so far. The philosopher M. Cavell formulates it thus: “[psycho]analysis has been caught in a struggle between a view of self as self-contained on the one hand, and on the other as interpersonal in its very constitution.” (p.143)

Freud’s oeuvre is rife with this contradiction. At one end we encounter him as the proponent of individualism, as someone who advocates the primacy of instinctual forces that seek expression and satisfaction. We are faced with a researcher of the human soul who considers the Other (i.e. the ‘object’) as no more than a mere means for the fulfillment of the natural end of the individual/biological aim of the pleasure principle. Given that the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego, any form of socialization, culture, family, the very function of the father, and even at times the primary object itself, is considered as elements of restriction, frustration and therefore a source of displeasure. From this point of view, socialization is nothing but a necessary compromissory capitulation for the sake of survival – a product of ananke. At the other end however, it is the same thinker who states intrepidly that “the individual does actually carry on a twofold existence: one to serve his own purpose, and the other as a link in a chain, which he serves against his will…” (1914, p.78) The claim this time, is that the psychic world is determined unconsciously by both internal and external (of the Other) elements simultaneously. Individual psychology ….is at the same time social psychology as well (1921, p.69), he states, and further on we come across the view that “whenever we succeed in ….freeing an instinctual impulse from one nexus, it does not remain in isolation, but immediately enters into a new one.” (1919, p.161) The picture that emerges from all this, is of a Freud who recognizes and promotes the unavoidably formative character of the framing of all individual elements within a certain network of influences and the constant interaction that such a construction entails. It is surely no coincidence that the eminent sociologist of the time Norbert Elias, makes use of the same metaphor in his writings, particularly when he states that “the individual is part of a social network, a little nodal point as it were of this network and can only artificially be considered in isolation” (Elias, 1937)

Post-freudian conceptualizations attempt to bridge the supposed opposition between the absolute positions by putting forward the view that the primitive Ego is not only (drive) satisfaction-seeking as Freud had once claimed, but is first and foremost object-seeking. In other words object relating is not a means, an indirect ancillary element, but a proper aim in and of itself.

Theoretical positions such as the above, have led to the development of concepts like a) ‘holding’ (viz. there is no such thing as a baby, but only a mother-baby unit) b) ‘containment’ (use of the object’s psychic world in order to provide meaning to the raw experience of the infant and thereby promote the maturation of its own psychic world), c) ‘narcissistic contract’ (a concept formulated by P. Aulagnier that refers to the procrustean formative imposition from without of the Unconscious of the (M)Other on the Unconscious of the infant), etc. These new concepts have revolutionized our understanding of the early stages of development of the infantile psyche. A wide variety of modes of relating, from the conscious gaze-mirroring, all the way to unconscious projections and identifications, bilateral for the most part, which construct the surrounding background unconscious phantasy, as well as the role of symbol formation that springs from nurturant object relating and gives birth to thinking, have gradually gained recognition as the fundamental building blocks of current psychoanalytic theory regarding the development of the early functioning of the human psychic world. We have reached a point where a psychoanalytic theoretician as eminent as Hans Loewald can admit that : “the very character of drives, as well as the character of the emerging individual psyche are determined by the changing characteristics of the mother-infant matrix-field and of its evolution into differentiated but related separate psychic fields.” (1970, p.59)

There is no ambiguity left it seems, as to whether or not we are talking about internally determined instinctual forces simply seeking discharge irrespective if it is through an object or through autoeroticism. The current focus on relating and its vicissitudes, has altered our comprehension of the complex dynamics of transference-countertransference too, and has developed new definitions regarding the nature and evolution of the psychoanalytic situation. M. Klein describes the early relating with the primary object and hence the influence that this might have on the transference thus: “There is a constant interaction between anxieties relating to ‘the external mother’ – as I will call her here in contrast to ‘the internal mother’ – and those relating to the internal mother and the methods used by the ego for dealing with these two sets of anxieties are closely interrelated. In the baby’s mind the internal mother is bound up with the external one of whom she is a double, though one which at once undergoes alterations in his mind through the very process of internalization; that is to say, her image is influenced by his phantasies and by internal stimuli and internal experiences of all kinds.” (1940, p.126) The same distorting transformation during internalization is valid not only for mother or any other object, but also for any experience coming from without. This is confirmed by J.Sandler’s statement that “the internal imago of the mother (and all subsequent objects) is thus not a substitute for an external object relationship, but is itself an indispensable part of the relationship – without it no object relationship in the psychological sense, exists.” (1960, p.148)

As a direct consequence of the above, what we call transference, can be conceptualized as no more than the perception of an actualization in the present external reality, of a particular object relationship that already exists within the unconscious phantasy of the analysand. In other words, we are referring to a total situation that involves affects, defences and well established patterns of relating to the object, as well as ways in which the analysand makes use of the analyst-as-object, and not only his words and discourse. Klein’s formulation is this : “…in unraveling the details of the transference, it is essential to think in terms of total situations transferred from the past into the present as well as emotions, defences and object relationships.” (1952, p.437). Thirty years later her disciple Betty Joseph expands the concept further by commenting on the necessity of focusing not only on the verbal content of the analysand’s input, but equally on the role which he/she pushes the analyst to assume, as externalization of a latent scenario, derivative of the underlying unconscious phantasy. She will also suggest that such a transferential point of view offers a delimiting comprehensiveness as regards the understanding of what is actually taking place within the evolving psychoanalytic process. (Joseph, 1985)

The thinking implied by the term ‘total situation’ as used by Klein more or less contemporaneously with Kurt Goldstein, albeit in a different scientific context, permits H.Racker, working in South America, to state that “the first distortion of truth in the myth of the analytic situation is that psychoanalysis is an interaction between a sick person and a healthy one. The gestalt that is the analytic situation is co-created in ways that make attributions of activity and passivity impossible.” (1957, p.340). Having worked beside him for many years, Willy and Madeleine Baranger go on to develop the concept of a bi-personal analytic field, which resides in and is formed by the shared unconscious phantasies of both analysand and analyst, as they live through the analytic process. It is evident by now, that neither the analysand’s associative discourse, his/her resistances and his/her enactments, nor the form, content and timing of the analyst’s interpretations can be conceived of as being independent of or indeed outside this field i.e. without the total situation. Foulkes makes this claim very succinctly, when he writes “free association is by no means independent of the total situation”. (1948, p.71) Any attempt at a unitary linear perspective, leads unequivocally to a procrustean distortion of the complex actuality of the psychoanalytic situation. Slowly but surely, the so-called rational scientific objectivity – dominant for so long – has given way to alternative perspectives like those of the phenomenological or hermeneutic philosophy, which advocate that meaning can only be attributed within the context of an interpersonal interaction. Given that the act of trying to understand an Other or indeed any communication with an Other, is transformative in itself, there exists an ongoing process of adjusting and re-adjusting perceptions and assumptions for a shared meaning to emerge.(Gadamer, 1976)

Theoretical developments like the above, have inevitably led to the re-evaluation of terms such as ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ and of their rather artificial opposition. Searching through the literature, one comes across the Barangers once again, who state that “nothing which can happen in an analytic treatment may be considered independent of the analytic situation which functions as a relatively permanent background in a relationship to [distinct] changing forms” (1983, p.9). Further on we encounter S.H.Foulkes, who claims that “the mind that is usually called intrapsychic, is a property of the group, and the processes that take place are due to the dynamic interactions in this communicational matrix.” (1974, p.112). Finally we reach Bion, who underscores that “the individual cannot help being a member of a group….. he is a group animal at war, not simply with the group, but with himself for being a group animal and with those aspects of his personality that constitute his groupishness” (1961, p.131)

Comparing these three positions, it is not difficult to ascertain that they are referring to the same phenomenon. The quasi-valid distinction between the individual on the one hand, and the surrounding collective dynamics that influence the individual on the other, as well as the supposed dominance of the introjective over the projective processes or vice versa, are no more than distortions of a unitary gestalt whose very nature involves the continuous alternation of a figure-ground parallax. We can finally legitimately suggest that the idea of the individual psychic world being naturally within a collectivity and the idea of individual and group psychology being one and the same, are foundational tenets of our cultural and hence scientific paradigm which includes psychoanalysis.

Irrespective of whether we think along the Klein/Joseph line and conceptualize the ‘transference as a total situation’ i.e. the combination of content, use and method of communication, or along the Foulkes line, which is based on the concept of ‘the individual as a whole within the total situation’, the central position of unconscious object relationships remains a sine qua non. This holds true for every analytic process, be it between two individuals as in psychoanalysis proper, or amongst many, as the modified technique of group analysis attests.

Before we proceed further one should underscore the dangers to be faced if due vigilance is not maintained and the situation is allowed to transform from one of ‘total situation’ to one of ‘totalitarian perspective’. In other words, one has to remain alert to the possibility that a burgeoning absence of flexibility in thought, can lead to the conviction that everything remains interconnected and somehow acquiring meaning and understanding only from within a (Hegelian-style) system-context, thereby imposing the steady elimination of all potential contradictions. Such an exclusion of the ‘unique’ and the ‘incongruent’, of the ‘uncompromised’, the ‘discontinuous’ and the ‘fragmented’ i.e. the ‘not accommodating’ that will put into question the smooth continuity of a closed system, leads inevitably to a condition known since Adorno as “the total is the untrue” (1981, p.87)

Going back to therapeutic contexts, one could make the claim that the group situation throws into relief the manifold levels of complexity entailed in the concept of total situation, whereas in psychoanalysis proper, these levels could potentially remain mostly latent. At the same time however, the condensed nature of the group situation runs the risk of flooding apperception with its complexity thereby defensively creating either strong tendencies towards simplification or indeed partial scotomata in the visual field, if not even tunnel vision.

A schematic formulation of some of the possible levels of unconscious processes involving transference phenomena within a group could run as follows :

1)    A fundamental level of transference-relating which is paradoxically a non-relating i.e. a non-individuation. It refers to an extension of the Ego, an environment-mother (viz. Winnicott) or a ‘syncretistic socialization’ (viz. Bleger,1970) which, like the ‘setting’ in its unconscious dimension in psychoanalysis proper, is established as the fundamental matrix, the basic structure of all group relating, and is maintained throughout the life of the therapeutic experience. It echoes and represents archaic mental processes and caters to inchoate needs for safety and belonging that will shape the individual’s sense of being. It bears a number of similarities to level 4, that will be described further on.

2)    The specialized transference-relating of each member of the group with the person of the therapist – the so-called perpendicular transference. It clearly emanates from the personal history of each member, but is co-constructed in interaction with the therapist’s unconscious as well as the matrix i.e. the resonances from the unconscious processes of all the other members.

3)    The specialized transference-relating of each member to every other member of the group – the so-called horizontal transferences. Manifold and crisscrossing, they weave the network of conscious and unconscious vital dynamics of the group, and are simultaneously influencing and being influenced by the other levels.

4)    The transference-relating with what Pontalis calls the “group-as-object” (1963) and what Bion, Foulkes, Agazarian and others call the “group-as-a-whole”. The group-as-a-whole is concurrently both object of possession and field of belonging, hence an identity formulator. It can act both as a representation of a maternal presence (good or bad breast) or as a representation of a paternal one (limit-setting third) while constantly functioning as a reference point and a frame at the background of every interpersonal interaction. The group-as-a-whole is a the psychic field enveloping the shared unconscious phantasy, a place where the basic assumptions that permeate every individual unconscious are engendered. It functions as the magma out of which the individual voices will naturally emerge. These individual voices – in themselves compromise formations – express both personal concerns and via projective identificatory mechanisms, concerns attributable to the collective (in other words the group). Kaës refers to this phenomenon as the “phoric (bearer) function” and makes reference to ‘symptom bearers’, ‘dream bearers’, ‘discourse bearers’, ‘guilt bearers’ (scapegoats) as familiar personages of the group experience. (1993) Sandler one suspects, would recognize this as an example of ‘role-responsiveness’. Foulkes on the other hand underscores that the so-called internal processes of a person, are no more than “mirror reactions” stemming from forces energized within the group to which the person belongs. (1948, p.167) . Even as private an affair as reflective consciousness is nowadays deemed to be social in origin and dependant on a shared experiential world and social reflectivity. (Whitehead, 2001) 

5)    Finally there exists the so-called institutional transference dimension, that refers to the latent relating with the hosting institution, the cultural and political milieu, the ideological and intellectual background as well as the pervading forces of inclusion and exclusion. Such invisible prerequisites of the quasi-undisputed external reality inevitably envelop, colour and render possible both the conscious and unconscious processes detected in any group analytic experience.

All of the above levels as well as others not mentioned, coexist and contribute equally to the creation of both the manifest and the latent content of the group experience. Anzieu who has come up with the notion of “the group-as-dream” compares this to the Freud’s notion of ‘dream-work’ in that it is the externalization or the product of the workings of the (collective) unconscious. (Anzieu, 1966)      

Faced with this eventuality the interpreting subject (the analyst in the group setting) inevitably both experiences the reality of the dense unconscious forces that permeate him, and at the same time, tries to maintain a gap for observation and meaning-rendering, that will facilitate the seamless continuation of the ongoing analytic process. This involves a very fine balancing act, whereby the unformulated and mainly perceptual experience – as yet devoid of meaning – can only gain recognition if it is permitted to emerge within the group process, in order to acquire form and meaning through this emergence. The responsibility of the interpreting subject lies in detecting this emerging meaning and putting it into words. Such a transformation is made possible by the initial surrendering of the subject to the totality of the group experience, a certain lifting of resistances and corresponding regression, so that he/she can fully immerse into the currents of the field, even if this entails a temporary loss of the ability for thinking. Recovery of one’s critical faculties will trigger the so-called alpha function which provides meaning and verbalizes deeper layers of internal reality which is both personal and collective, both individual and shared via resonances, with all the other members of the group.

The multi-layered character of the total situation demands an equally multi-layered approach.  Bion uses the highly pertinent term ‘binocular vision’ to refer simultaneously to two related but distinct dimensions that exist in any human encounter, therapeutic or not:

a)     Every time something has light shed on it, something else is left in the dark. Every time something is brought to consciousness via interpretation or other means, something else, equally significant, is allowed to linger outside consciousness, even though its not being made conscious need not, in any way, imply that it has ceased to function, albeit silently. A non-monocular attitude can keep this knowledge constantly in mind.

b)    The space of the Real is not two-dimensional but three-dimensional within time. The triangularity that would permit the playful alternation of prominence of representation seen in the figure-ground parallax, is only possible through the collaboration of two eyes. The notion of the binary inherent in the term binocular vision, strongly enriches the theoretical understanding of the processes, dilemmas, and apparent incongruities encountered in the analytic situation, such as:

-       Conscious and unconscious phenomena

-       External perceptual reality and psychic reality

-       Content vs. use and method of communication

-       Part-objects and whole objects

-       Coexistence of hate and love towards the same person

-       Tolerance of not-knowing, lack of clarity and indeterminacy until the eventual emergence of the ‘selected fact’

-       The past which through the analytic process becomes present to consciousness for the first time, as it becomes consciously past also for the first time

-       The unanswerable dilemma of given or created that defines transitional objects

-       The co-existence in the psyche, of the non-psychotic with the psychotic part of the personality

-       The co-existence of the analyst’s transference (countertransference) side by side with the analysand’s transference

-       The multiple levels of reality that transference entails

-       The shared fear that both analyst and analysand carry as regards the possible loss of their own phantasy omnipotence that the actual use of words (interpretation) entails

-       Words as individualizing and hence differentiating and words as carriers and hence as fusing

-       Focusing on the alternation of projective and introjective processes with a view to giving each its due, in tandem with the interpersonal level, as these processes re-enter into the total situation

-       The participation from within and the observation from without that is expected of the interpreting subject,   etc.


At this point, I would like to present a brief clinical vignette, that I hope will deploy the usefulness of the above mentioned concepts in clinical practice :

It regards an analytic group of seven years’ duration. The group consists of seven members (two men and five women) plus the group analyst (a man). Quite recently an older member has been replaced by a new one. A female member has recently come back from maternity leave of two months’ duration, and often talks about her baby and her feelings and experiences about that (the group has lived through her getting married, the conception, pregnancy etc.) Another member has recently divorced, whereas another is currently going through the process of repeating for the fifth time, an attempt at artificial insemination.  The oldest member of the group, a woman, brings the following dream:
I’m attending a reception with lots of people. The CEO of the company I work for (not my immediate boss), a very attractive middle aged man, notices me from amongst the crowd, comes up to me and asks me if I’d be interested in seeing his watch collection. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me seven watches attached to his forearm. The watches are neither aesthetically pleasing nor of any significant value. I feel disappointed and walk away. I start chatting with others in the room, but every now and then I catch sight of the CEO watching me from afar. I still find him attractive – no one should find this out.  Change of scene. It’s late at night and I’m walking home. I’m stark naked, but I’m neither worried nor afraid. I choose to take a short-cut which I know goes past a club of ill repute. This makes me slightly apprehensive, but I do not stop. As I go past this club – still stark naked – I see a number of men loitering about and drinking. They see me too and start saying things to me. Words of admiration regarding my body as well as sexual teasers that both please and excite me. I don’t feel threatened at all, and continue unperturbed on my way home.

The group spends a lot of time talking about this particular members ‘oedipal issues’ (repeatedly discussed in the past) and appears indifferent to the horizontal group dimensions. The analyst’s comment regarding this avoidance, brings about laughter and sarcasm as they voice the suggestion that it is the analyst’s own narcissism that makes him imagine a similarity between himself and the attractive middle aged CEO. The women on the other hand vehemently deny that there could possibly be, in the group, anything potentially threatening to the female body. The discussion moves back to the individual level. The analyst’s second comment refers to the theme of ambivalence regarding leaving, that can be detected in both images in the dream. Trigger for such a comment were free associations of the analyst regarding a)the fact that this member has been in the group since its inception seven years ago, b) the recent parting of another member recently, and c) the analyst’s ongoing ambivalent prevarication on the issue of this member’s readiness to ‘go home’. The unanswered question would usually take the form ‘Is she ready to go, is the group ready and willing to let her go?’  This second intervention opens up a very rich and productive discussion and leads to the member’s eventual termination of her therapy, some six months later.


What one notices in the above vignette, is the presence of the parallel existence of the individual and the social. Equally manifest is the conscious mutual influencing and the mutual monitoring, in parallel with the unconscious communication that becomes evident through the resonance of the free associations. One also notices the group matrix as it finds its outward expression through the dream-work of one member i.e. the dream bearer. One recognizes the group analyst participating and absorbing the dynamics of the dominant shared anxiety / conflict, whilst at the same time being able to make use of the gap that permits him to observe and render meaning. One perceives the various (at times in tune and at others out of tune) movements of shaping of the ‘clinical fact’ within the ongoing process. One cannot help but be made aware of the necessity for a non-monocular vision, which by incorporating the critical alternation of figure and ground, renders such integrative interpretations mutative.


Summing up we could put forward the assertion that the total situation and its understanding, is a condition both sufficient and necessary for any psychoanalytic situation, be it between two subjects or more. Indispensable vehicle for the achievement of this understanding is a vision that recognizes depth in a three-dimensional setting i.e. is binocular. Artificial severing, for reasons of methodology, of the processes that contribute to the construction of the total situation, which result in monocular focusing on one procedure only (e.g. sexual or aggressive drives, individual transference, specific defence structures, or alternatively collective phenomena or massification that lose sight of the trees in favour of the wood) maintain some validity as long as it is subsequently lifted and the separate elements rejoined within the enveloping total situation. In cases where the segregation acquires a hierarchy-valency, than we are inevitably led to the reduction of the complex to the uni-dimensional. Such a flattening of reality impoverishes and perverts the search for truth.

copyright: Chris Joannidis




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This paper investigates the concept of “total situation” which, even though introduced into psychoanalytic thinking via sister disciplines, has gradually acquired a relatively prominent position in current therapeutic practice. It is used as a metaphor for the envelopment of the unfolding transferential and related events in the analytic process. Irrespective of whether one focuses on the individual analytic condition or the group-analytic one, contemporary psychoanalytic perspectives include both the bi-personal unconscious interactions and the various levels of the total situation in their conceptualizations of the nature of the process. Such a complex approach in conceptualization can only be achieved through the so-called binocular vision of the analyst.

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