Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Group theory

People were always asking me the same question about my course. It was the one I’d have asked me, too, if I weren’t me. It was this: ‘Theoretical?’ As in, why Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies? Does that mean they’re not real studies, only theoretical ones? Some put it less politely.

I’ve always given the same answer — there or thereabouts, anyway. I tell them that it’s theoretical as opposed to clinical. That is, it’s not training to become an analyst or a therapist etc. It’s the study of psychoanalytic theory. Its practice, too, as it happens. But not how to practise it.

Last week, I came up with another answer: a less abstract, more concrete one. It comes in two parts.

Part one. We are sitting in the seminar room. The seminar leader is outlining the work, life and theories of Wilfred Bion, an analyst who helped set up the Tavistock. His notion of ‘containment’ has seeped out into the wider world. Roughly, it’s the idea that the analyst can take a patient’s messy, unhappy emotions, hold them ‘inside’ himself for a bit of processing and return them in slightly better shape. It can sound hippy-dippy but Bion didn’t mean it that way. He was looking to explain how patients could and did get ‘better’.

Bion also did a lot of work on group dynamics. In some accounts, he is the major influence in the early development of studies on how groups function — and dysfunction. This was raised in the seminar. There was, though, only the briefest reference to the fact that we, in the room, were a group — and no attempt to discuss or dissect its dynamics. That’s theoretical for you — a discussion of the practice rather than the practice itself.

Part two. After class one Saturday, I’m having lunch with the other students who, like me, had chosen to do the course over two years. We are discussing this year’s students — the way you do, the way anyone would. We talk about them as individuals and as a group.

Interestingly, we each have quite different views of them — as individuals and as a group. For some of us, they are far more intellectual than the previous year. For others, they like to talk more. For some of us, they are more engaged in the subject. For others, they are less worldly. For some of us, there is a feeling that the course directors thought the previous year’s lot — ie us — were a bit flaky. Others of us thought: whatever.

What we all agreed on, in an unspoken way, was that there was a group, that this year’s intake were a group and that we were a different group — still essentially linked to last year’s students who have now left. How easily and inevitably are groups formed, I thought. And how we look for and mark the things which make our group distinctive. And how small a step it can be from there to marking the things which make our group better — or, at least, we imagine they do. And from there to the eternal tragedy of Freud’s narcissism of small differences.


Lo Jardinier said...

I didn't know about the narcissism of small differences till I read your blog, though it's similar to ideas such as the in-group and the out-group. Like many of the ideas Freud proposed or popularised, it's the sort of idea that stays in the mind, changing our view of life. Maybe it applies to the ever-splitting music genres. Or the equally split non-conformist religious sects: Do you know the Welsh joke about the man on a desert island? When he's rescued after ten years alone on the island, his rescuers are amazed to see he's built two chapels. 'We can understand one, if you're religious, but why build two?'
'Ah' the good Welshman replies 'You see this one here is the chapel I go to, but that one over there is the chapel I WOULD NEVER go to'

Peter Silverton said...

ultimately, what the narcissism of small differences does is enable us to kill our enemies (literally) and there's some excellent pretty recent stuff on the altruistic gene and why it trumps the selfish gene — basically because it allows us to gang up in a smallish group (generally a blood thing ) so we can a) make dinner b) steal our neighbours dinner — when i can find the file/reference, i'll post it

the joke is a wonderful one

there is (of course) a jewish equivalent . . .

two jews, one desert island, how many shuls?

three: one for him, one for him and one that neither of them would ever go to

Lo Jardinier said...

I'd be interested to see your take on the altruistic gene stuff. In general, after 16 years of teaching mind science, one of the things I'd still like to do is a serious critique of (= put the boot in to) evo psycho. Cultural transmission is important too. Parallels between Welsh and Jewish culture would obviously be interesting...yet to hear of the Israeli rugby team tho...An Oxford friend told me this story: meeting his welsh mining family in-laws for the first time, prospective father-in-law invites him up to the allotment shed. 'This is it' my friend thinks 'what do I know about pigeons, or onions?' Once settled in the shed, p f-i-l asks: 'So, Mark, you've been to Oxford, then. Where d'you stand on this chap Spinoza?'
The WEA did a good job in the old days in the S Wales Pits.