The New "Maternal" Analyst: Containing, Desiring, and Caring for the Other



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The New “Maternal” Analyst: Containing, Desiring, and Caring for the Other

To be read/discussed with the Vermont Psychoanalytic Group

Mitchell Wilson, MD

Submitted: September 30, 2014

1. Introduction

The so-called “feminization” of psychoanalysis has been an ever-evolving fact since Karen Horney (1967) challenged central tenets of Freudian dogma regarding the differences between the sexes nearly eighty years ago. Seminal analytic thinkers on fundamental questions regarding female development, gender, and sexuality, such as Chodorow (1978), Mitchell (2000), and chroniclers of the history of ideas about women in psychoanalysis (Strouse, 1974; Bernheimer and Kahane, 1990) blazed previously unimagined trails and asked us to confront untested assertions (as well as their often untoward clinical consequences). Patriarchal biases inherent in the building blocks of philosophical and psychoanalytic discourse were called into question (Iragaray, 1985); similar biases were unearthed regarding the psychoanalytic understanding of moral development of women (Gilligan, 1982). Mothering, in both its psychological and sociological aspects, in which everything from the subtleties of mothering practices to the stresses of role strain for the working mother, was an important piece of this emerging picture (DeMarneffe, 2005). Together, this gradual feminization of psychoanalysis informed the psychoanalyst’s appreciation of the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the subjective experiences of women.

The overall effort was descriptive and conceptual scholarly work about female development informed by psychoanalytic thinking. Little thought was given to the ways in which the maternal trope—and its evolving meanings independent of orthodox Freudian theory—had implications for the analyst’s working self, her position and ongoing engagement in the analytic task.1

Over the past two decades a picture of a central aspect of maternal functioning has been applied, by way of analogy, to the analytic situation. I am not referring to the important work on infant-parent observation of Stern (1985), or that of attachment researchers such as Ainsworth and Bowlby (1965), Main (1993), and Hesse and Main (2000), work that, for better or worse, tends to be viewed as non-psychoanalytic. I am referring, instead, to the contemporary preoccupation with questions about the nature of thinking and symbolization. Within this copious literature, inspired by Bion, and to a lesser extent Winnicott, the mother is seen as central to the emergence of this thinking capacity. She is a manager and processor of emotional experience–hers and the infant’s–through her symbolic capacities. The analyst, by direct analogy, is figured as inhabiting this basic maternal position and providing these essential functions.2

In this paper I argue that the now-typical rendering of maternal functioning–and by extension analytic functioning–as containing and symbolizing the child’s (patient’s) unconscious projections, is but one aspect (important though it may be) of a “multi-verse” (Kristeva, 2014) of maternal/analyst experience. If the mother is conceptualized as at the center of things, most descriptions leave her a cipher, a subjectless figure that provides necessary “functions,” but whose interiority–desire, passion, and what I call the important unknown–is left relatively unimagined. In this light, I want to question the “functioning” trope, and the specific signifier, “function.” The containing function, and the mother-who-is-containing, only make sense, and only can happen-in-action, if the mother is not self-sufficient, and is, therefore, a subject of desire. Containing is part of a lived, on-the-ground field of interaction and caretaking that houses within it a fundamentally dialectical, recursive component. I will use Kristeva’s (2014) maternal reliance/eroticism as a way in to a dense portrait of maternal subjectivity. I hope to articulate, then, a dynamic picture of the mother-as-desiring-subject, in which lack and excess, passion and desire together describe the first-person, interior experience of the mother.

This fuller, denser picture of maternal subjectivity has direct ethical implications for the working analyst. Following the recent efforts of Chetrit-Vatine (2014), I will describe a mother-of-desire who turns that desire into responsibility: she is able to wonder, question, and retain an orientation of curiosity towards the other, and, when necessary, towards herself. The psychoanalyst, likewise, is involved in care-for-the-other. This phrase, care-for-the-other, has meaning on multiple registers. The other (following Laplanche, 1999) refers not only to the “other” as person, but also and more importantly to the otherness in, or about–surrounding–each person, in that each of us is embedded in an unconscious.3 Each of us is subject to and the subject of aspects of psychic life that are potentially important to us precisely because we are unaware of them. They are other. Consequently, an ethics-of-care for the other suggests an attitude of fundamental respect for the unconscious in, or about, both the mother/analyst and the child/patient.

I want to say that without a fuller picture of the workings of the mother and the workings of the analyst, psychoanalysis risks becoming a sophisticated form of cognitive therapy.
2. The Psychoanalytic Mother as Site, Function, and Cipher

Melanie Klein placed the mother at the center of human experience, both for the child and as the basic way to conceptualize the psychoanalytic task. For Klein the mother is a site, a place into which the epistemophilic child--the child whose given need to know is fueled by phantasy—imagines scenes of damage and repair. The “actual” mother is secondary to the child’s imaginary experience. Bowlby’s ongoing debate with Klein and her followers speaks to this difference.

Winnicott offered an evolving picture of the mother’s facilitating the growth of the child along several dimensions: primary maternal preoccupation leads to the creation of a holding environment, and, later, a transitional space. The capacity for play and the emergence of the object-as-other comes to be. Winnicott’s focus is the development of the young child in toto, especially the imaginative elaboration of feelings and functions, and the integration of psyche and soma.

Of significance for what follows is that this view, however descriptively rich, focuses on the self-preservative axis of life. The axis of sexuality, desire, and the unconscious is not figured here. The mother is minimally recognized as a subject of desire beyond her role in providing necessary provisions (nutritional, emotional, interactive). Thus, for example, Ogden (2004) writes of primary maternal preoccupation: “Primary maternal preoccupation is a subjectless state” (p. 1350). While Winnicott (1949) boldly alerted us to “hate in the counter-transference,” thereby suggesting not only something about the internal world of the analyst but also, by extension, the internal world of the mother, we are left with a relatively obscure picture of this interiority beyond the sacrifices the analyst/mother has to endure.

Bion’s work sends us further in the desired direction of the mother’s internal world, but only a certain distance. His interest is not so much on the developing child in toto as on the developing mind of the child. How does a mind—an apparatus for thinking thoughts—come to be? Bion (1962a, 1962b) centers his analysis on the question of frustration: can it be tolerated, or is it evaded by the infant? Frustration is not only inevitable; it is the motor for the development of thinking, if the mother engages the infant in ways, both minute and large, that facilitate this growth.4

Frustration is a kind of social bond, faulty though that bond might be. Laplanche and Pontalis make clear in their Vocabulaire (1973) that translating the German versagung into the English word frustration puts misleading emphasis on the subject as “passively frustrated” (p. 175). Instead, based on the German root sagen, which means “to say,” a more complex view of frustration emerges:

“[Frustration] designates not only an empirical datum but also a relation implying a refusal…on the part of the agent and a requirement more or less formulated as a demand on the part of the subject” (p. 175, emphasis added).
An intimate relation obtains between the state of the external object (the “agent” in the quotation above) and the specific requirements of libidinal satisfaction on the part of the subject.5




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