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Nicoli, L. Anastasia, S. Facella, E. (2015). Notes on the Seventeenth National Congress of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society: “The Origin of Psychic Experience: Becoming Subjects”: Milan, Italy; May 22—25, 2014. Psychoanal Q., 84(1):273-284.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: Notes on the Seventeenth National Congress of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society: “The Origin of Psychic Experience: Becoming Subjects”: Milan, Italy; May 22—25, 2014
An early state is primitive when it occurs in the absence of an object that contains it, dreams it, thinks it.
Introduction: “Under the Same Skin”
Is it possible to give a picture of the state of the art of Italian psychoanalysis, with its irreducible complexity, in just a few pages? That is the ambitious goal we have set for ourselves in commenting on the 17th National Congress of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society (SPI), titled “The Origin of Psychic Experience: Becoming Subjects,” that took place May 22-25, 2014, in Milan.
This report is undoubtedly incomplete, especially since our viewpoint is that of three persons-becoming-analysts, each dealing with a different stage of training and belonging to a different scientific center.
1 Quotation from Fabozzi's paper, “Back to the Origins: Unthinkable Angst and Clinical Psychology of Primitive States,” presented at the congress.
Luca Nicoli is a member of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society (Società Italiana Psicoanalitica; SPI). Sergio Anastasia and Elisabetta Facella are candidates at the National Institute of Training of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society.
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It is all but impossible to understand the state of psychoanalysis in Italy without referring to the history of the Italian peninsula, marked by centuries-old splits in independent political realities. Linguistically, to this day, it is not uncommon to hear local dialects that are almost incomprehensible even for people from neighboring areas.
In the course of the congress, the Italian psychoanalytic milieu spoke in several psychoanalytic dialects, expressing different traditions fostered in local centers, such as the Freudian school, the post-Bionian school, philosophical approaches, and neuroscience. These models have long coexisted, albeit often without communicating among themselves. As many reports from plenary meetings and panels at this congress made clear, we now deem it useful and necessary to integrate these models under the same skin.
We turn to this metaphor, inspired by the title of Alessandra Lemma's paper presented at the congress, to suggest that the Italian Psychoanalytical Society acts as a container for divergent thoughts. The purpose of this container is to allow the numerous models that now characterize international psychoanalysis(Wallerstein 1988) to coexist without fear of dissociation or institutional splitting and without being forced to conceal differences. The bodily skin, Bick (e.g., 1986) reminds us, is above all an object of containment within which different parts of oneself—aspects of one's personality not yet explored or differentiated from bodily functions, and thus primitive—can be tied together. Likewise, the institution can function as a container for different models and theories, allowing it to give birth to new approaches and to “think those thoughts” that are still waiting to be thinkable.
This vision of the institution as a container-skin was also visually represented by the choice of a work of street art—Banksy's Girl with a Balloon graffiti—as the visual icon for the congress, as if to signify that psychoanalysis should leave the well-protected areas of psychoanalytic institutes in order to encompass the nonplaces, the areas of exchange described by Marc Augé (1992)—the streets, or, as in the case of this congress's venue, the beautiful Renaissance buildings of the “Statale” University in Milan. The Italian psychoanalytic milieu, represented by over 600 attendees, thus mingled physically with the university students
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walking under the arcades, typical elements of classical architecture representing intermediate areas between inside and outside and traditional locales for conversation, social exchange, and casual strolls. In the course of this event, for the first time, analytic candidates actively participated in the early stages of the congress's organization and were formally a part of the plenary lectures and panels.
Primitive States of Mind
The object of the congress was to invite speakers and listeners to deal with the still-almost-unexplored concept of subjectivation(Cahn 1991), and thus to address the meeting's theme through the most primitive, unknown, and original parts of the individual—that is, anything that has been identified as not (yet) thinkable. We are referring to feelings that can be experienced and subjectified only in contact with another mind that is able to help contain and signify them.
In addressing the congress in his introductory speech, “Untitled: From Freud to Francis Bacon,” the Italian Psychoanalytical Society's president, Antonino Ferro, explained that “the facts, the traumas, the events are silent from a psychoanalytic point of view”; and in order for them to become food for the mind of the individual, they must meet another mind, that of a parent or an analyst, that allows the formation of “an emotional, affective, semantic field that starts the metabolization in pictograms, in narrative, in stories, in dreaming.”
Through the use of clinical vignettes with child and adult patients, Ferro illustrated his interpretation of psychoanalysis, based on transforming clinical facts into a dream, a shared dream. “However,” he stated, “in order for this to happen, the field must get sick with the same sickness as the patient, who only then will be able to dream it [the sickness] and transform it.”
We are here in the realm of a psychoanalysis that deals with the “new trends of pathology”—anorexia, panic attacks, borderline states, psychosomatic dysfunctions—that indicate defects in symbolization, real representational holes, rips in the canvas of the experience of self. It is this new type of patient that leads analysts to deal with primitive states of mind, in Italy and elsewhere.
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What do we mean by primitive? Paolo Fabozzi talked about this in his thoughtful paper, “Back to the Origins: Unthinkable Angst and Clinical Psychology of Primitive States”:
An early state is primitive when it occurs in the absence of an object that contains it, dreams it, thinks it. And it is primitive in the presence of an object that becomes absent, recoils in terror, and thus fails to activate the functions of holding.
In his paper, clearly of Winnicottian origin, Fabozzi recognizes the importance of analytic work in giving meaning to the patient's existence, threatened by the unthinkability of early traumatic experiences. Meaning is interpreted as something different from the “already given” representation, appearing instead as a dynamic concept, created and reinvented in the encounter with the other and with oneself; it is one of the objects of analysis, alongside an experience of the un-self-conscious state of being(Winnicott 1968).
Fabozzi deserves credit for bringing this essential Winnicottian concept to life with dreamlike words:
I try to imagine this by thinking about what you experience when you lose yourself in playing, or in the ability to merge regressively with the other in a sexual relationship, or in the possibility of feeling that you are part of the fourth movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, or of a Springsteen song. I imagine it in the willingness to travel through time in circles, rediscovering the feeling of childhood, letting it transpire in the present, reclaiming it from the standpoint of a different age. I glimpse it in the ability to inhabit a shapeless place, born from the relationship with the other, letting space remain uncertain; or in opening up to the unexpected, even if it risks upsetting what has been established, what you would want and imagine has been established once and for all.
A Bridge to Neuroscience
A highly anticipated event at the congress was the dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience offered by Vittorio Gallese, winner of the Musatti Prize.2 Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons in
2 Named for Cesare Musatti (considered the founder of psychoanalysis in Italy), the Musatti Prize is bestowed annually to a scholar whose research and writing in psychoanalysis and related fields have promoted the development of psychoanalysis and the wider diffusion of its tenets.
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the 1990s, acknowledged the psychoanalytic model as a theory of reference for neuroscience, until now mostly framed within classical cognitivism. In his speech titled “Which Neuroscience? Which Psychoanalysis? Intersubjectivity and Bodily Self: Notes for a Dialogue,” given in a plenary meeting, Gallese acknowledged the limitations of considering a solipsistic mind as an object and, by contrast, the necessity of recognizing intersubjective contributions to the brain's full functionality.
The discovery in the motor areas of the brain of motor neurons—mirror neurons—that are activated by mere observation of the intentional and aimed actions of another person gave rise to the model of embodied simulation. “Embodied simulation,” Gallese maintains, “enables a direct form of understanding others, as intentional attunement achieved through activation of neural systems underlying what we and others do and experience.”
Alongside the detached perception of the other, the subject who observes someone else finds activated within himself the “internal ‘representations,’ nonpropositional and in bodily form, of bodily states associated with observed actions, emotions, and sensations, as if the observer were performing a similar action or experiencing similar emotions or feelings,” notes Gallese. Such a physiological activation seems to provide a neurological foundation for psychoanalytic observations about the human ability to appropriate the internal state of another person through sensory identification. Moreover, it lays the groundwork for new convergences around concepts of great interest to our discipline, such as empathy, unconsciouscommunication, and projective identification.
Looking for a Container
A visit to the Cenacolo (da Vinci's The Last Supper) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie stood out among the cultural activities at the conference. In this fresco, the apostles react to the prophecy of the betrayal of Jesus in discussions among themselves in small groups. Some show strong emotions and facial expressions while others appear more moderate and incredulous; it seems that the master's brush is able to
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capture every single mental motion. All the apostles, though, seem to be trying to restore a lost connection, a containment for the terrible truth disclosed by Christ.
Italian psychoanalysis has added its many languages to the language of painting, all trying to answer the same question: how can one build a container able to weather the storms of human subjectivation? Among the Italian researchers who have tackled this question, Claudio Neri, one of the fathers of the theory of the intersubjective field, deserves mention. In his paper presented at the congress, “Subjectivation and Field Theory,” he utilized a clinical report to demonstrate the difficulty for analytic patients of changing their bonds with others, as if these bonds had a statute of their own, their own independent existence. Neri noted that the analytic field works as a “highlighting apparatus”: it is not just a frame or structure; instead, it allows a highlighting of the extra-frame relational fields into which the patient's daily life is integrated.
Alessandro Bruni, whose philosophical education pervaded his paper suggestively entitled “Ectopic Relations of the Unsaturated Subject,” spoke a completely different language. Using the method of “seeing in imagination” proposed by Bion (1965, p. 91), Bruni seized the audience and carried it away from the usual and predictable with a report notable for its elusiveness. Frequent references to Greek philosophy, biology, Eastern religions, and the Bible—followed by abrupt returns to Freud—intrigued, annoyed, bored, and charmed the attendees; thinking back, we believe this presentation brought to life in the here and now the frustration felt before a continuous flux of wild thoughts not yet tamed.
Among the beta elements in Bruni's lecture that struck us like lightning bolts, we will quote a single fragment that seemingly alludes, obscurely, to the laborious practice of psychoanalysis: “The opposition between disorder and uncertainty, on the one hand, and information and organization, on the other hand, makes sense, then, only by virtue of the bindingpresence of an ‘edge.’”
The conference's distinguished guests from abroad who came to converse with the Italian psychoanalytic milieu pondered the same issue: the search for a signifying container. We will begin this section by mentioning
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Alessandra Lemma, an analyst of Italian heritage who lives in London and is a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society, who read her paper, “Ink, Holes, and Scars,” in flawless Italian tinged with an unmistakable British accent. The author, long concerned with the phenomenology of body modifications, pointed out that, with respect to the context in which these phenomena originate, these behaviors are certainly significant for many people and are not merely dictated by a passing fad.
Lemma, moving from a background drawing on Anzieu and Bick, highlighted the use that many patients make of the skin as a physical representation of the container self. The choice to concretely modify the skin can define a certain distancing from intrusive or symbiotic objects. A comment of hers that felt particularly appropriate to the congress's theme was: “Marking the skin facilitates the experience of giving birth to a ‘new’ self, and may therefore in some cases reveal fulfillment of the fantasy of self-creation.”
Elias Mallet da Rocha Barros, a member of both the Brazilian Society of São Paulo and the British Society, shared the effort, common to many Italian colleagues who present at international conferences, of speaking in a non-native language. In his Portuguese-tinged English, reading the paper titled “Imagination and Reality: The Process of Becoming a Subject,” he highlighted an ongoing change in perspective for international psychoanalysis, which is a movement away from the study of removed contents and toward a focus on processes of thought and continuous identityreconstruction:
In this way, the analysis is transformative insofar as it focuses more on the process through which the patient is acquiring knowledge about himself (including becoming aware of resistances in doing so) than on insight, especially if this is taken in its strict meaning of a source of information about what one is. In other words, the knowledge, through an emotional experience, of what the patient is “being” is much more important to generate transformations than being informed about who he or she is.
The work of Rocha Barros struck us for the clinical details with which he articulated his theoretical thinking in such a way as to enable
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the audience to understand in detail his interpretation of transformative work in analysis. He explained how the evocation of affects or reverie in the analyst following a projective identification causes a disorganization, followed by a reorganization that allows the revelation of new unconscious links between affects, giving life to an emotional experience.
“For an instant, in this moment of disorganization, the analyst becomes part of the experience of the patient, and from that emerges what Ogden … called the analytic third,” observed Rocha Barros. We quote this excerpt because it is one of those uncommon passages in which an author tries to highlight the dynamic value of Ogden's concepts, too often considered in a generic way and thus emptied of their clinical specificity.
A Look to the Future
The presence of foreign guests at this congress, bringing different perspectives from those to which we are accustomed, took the event to an international level and made palpable the existence of a larger container compared to our Italian Society—a common ground trod by different languages but made familiar by the main theoretical references, such as the aforementioned Ogden, Bion, Anzieu, and Bick.
For this reason, we were excited to hear the president of the International Psychoanalytical Association, Stefano Bolognini, talk about the future of psychoanalysis and the function of the IPA. In his speech, “The Analysis to Come: A Look at the (Near) Future of Psychoanalysis in a Changing World,” Bolognini talked about the identifying aspects of the IPA, a macrocontainer with the function of integrating different psychoanalytic models into various geographical realities. In institutional and individual processes of identification, it is inevitable that there will be anxieties about integration and mistrust generated by differences that are a source of conflict but also of potential improvement. The president described how psychoanalysis has approached some areas of the world that currently represent the frontier areas of psychoanalytic thinking, such as China, Iran, Lebanon, and Korea.
Bolognini elaborated on issues related to analytic training: first of all, he reported on the international debate regarding different styles of
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the relationship between candidates and IPA members, closer in some cultures and more distant in others. He then touched on the phenomenon of IPA members who have “disappeared”: analysts who were once associated with the association but who no longer participate in its activities, highlighting the difficulties in maintaining a good relationship between individual and institution.
We found it particularly interesting that the president mentioned the need to support the tripartite model of training (personal analysis, supervision, and didactic seminars) while also adding a fourth dimension: the necessity of the ability to work together. In parallel to the intimate and confidential atmosphere of the analytic office, there is a growing need to provide space for the group dimension offered by the analytic institution.
In closing, the president turned his attention to coming challenges: today we are confronted with new frontiers of resistance to the possibility of wanting or thinking about the analytic experience. The very idea of experiencing an ongoing and prolonged dependence offends a narcissistic attitude that is more prevalent than in the past; therefore, the psychoanalysis of the future will have to understand how to address the younger generations, generally more individualistic and claiming self-reliance.
Subjectivity and Groupality
The issue of the analyst's subjectivity in relation to the patient and to the institution was amply explored by Paolo Boccara in his paper, “In Praise of Fear.” Through a clinical account, the author illustrated how the encounter with the most difficult patients requires of the analyst “the ability to dissociate,” keeping himself in the role of a privileged witness (Bromberg 2006). In other words, Boccara continued, “The key issue seems to be to enable the capacity to achieve within oneself a relationship with the dissociated parts of the patient (and of oneself) and to remain with them in an inner group dimension.”
The formation of an inner groupality allows the analyst to stand in a transitional area between self and other, between more integrated aspects of his own personality and more primitive and distressing aspects
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still waiting to be known and processed, between different theoretical models and between those and unexplored unconscious areas. A professional life that continually oscillates between moments of group sharing—working on teams and in institutions—and moments of individual integration is something that analysts experience from the early stages of training through supervision, meetings, and in peer groups, the latter being essential places of transformation and containment of not-yet-integrated parts of the self arising from the encounter with the other.
The Italian Psychoanalytical Society, in an effort to provide a link between candidates' training experience and life in the Society, scheduled during the course of the congress several open sessions in which the speakers were analysts in training. The European vice-president of the International Psychoanalytical Studies Organization (IPSO) spoke in a plenary, and prearranged participation by candidates occurred during major sessions. Hearing the opinions of those who are still in training and cannot take for granted the state of the art of psychoanalysis prodded speakers to share their conceptualizations—even in the case of those who were not experts in their models of reference—in an effort to pass on theoretical and clinical experiences to new generations of analysts.
When an analyst is supported and accompanied by the group to which he belongs as he continues his training that will never be totally complete, both in theoretical models and in aspects of his own individual life, he becomes able to introject into himself an ever-greater ability to think, even in the face of deep, perceptible lacerations to his body and his psyche. Through this transformative process, the analyst will become truly able to “feed” the patient—through genuinely interested, courageous listening—without living his work in a dimension of loneliness, but rather with the constant support of an outside group that reverberates internally.
Drives and Their Destiny
We would like to close this overview of the congress by turning our attention to where psychoanalysis began, to the drives. It seems interesting that issues related to instinct, desire, and sexuality emerged primarily in clinical sessions, where it was not primitive states of mind that
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were in the foreground, but rather the subjectivity of the patient's daily experience. A colleague pointed out that only in a video component of an artistic presentation was there an appearance of a breast that did not feed but rather seduced—that is, a breast that invited sexuality. Does the contemporary analyst risk becoming a maternal caretaker, one of the wonderful St. Marys depicted in the history of Italian art in the many works entitled Madonna and Child?
Paola Marion, in her paper, “Is ChildSexuality Premature or Deep? Some Considerations on ChildSexuality in the Subjectivation Processes,” reminds us that there is no such thing as “the sacred innocence of the primary narcissistic unit” mentioned by Ogden: the relationship with the mother conveys not only containment and holding, but also pleasure and seduction, or, where these are lacking, depression or the impulse to turn against life. Throughout a lifetime, in fact, the individual is busy translating and fantasizing about bodily impulses, both his own and those stemming from residues of unprocessed parental sexuality.
We conclude with a note on analysts coming to grips with their own instinctual drives—an impulse that one does not want to experience. Simona Lucantoni, a young analyst, reported that she was taken aback by the intense excitement she experienced while listening to a patient's story of child abuse, a scarcely tolerable reaction. She was able to enlist the help of a colleague, Violet Pietrantonio, so that together they could process what evidently went beyond the working-through capabilities of a single mind. The result of their collaboration was the identification of an episode of somatic reverie, worked through at length. Only with the personification of the boogeyman, the pedophile, in the body of the unsuspecting analyst had the patient been able to give voice to a previously inaccessible past.
The resultant coauthored paper, titled “The Invisible Body: A Possible Field Reading,” shows how the analyst may feel drawn to a scene because of projective identifications, and then cannot get out of it without leaving the patient alone. Max Ernst's controversial masterpiece, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926)—which stages irreverent contact between the mother par excellence and the son of God—comes to mind. Every
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mother, real or analytic, is constantly struggling with inevitable violent, difficult-to-contain emotions.
This, too, is an unavoidable part of the continuous, inexhaustible process of becoming subjects that we addressed during the 17th National Congress of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society.
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