Reading ‘symbol formation’ as a 4-term relation

The previous blog on ‘the missing subject-ego relation’ described how a 3-term relation was used by Hanna Segal to describe symbol formation – a relation between ego, object and symbol – while her text[1] speaks of the relation between these three terms and a fourth term – the subject:

The capacity to experience loss and the wish to re-create the object within oneself gives the individual unconscious freedom in the use of symbols. And as the symbol is acknowledged as a creation of the subject, unlike the symbolic equation, it can be freely used by the subject.[1],p56

The focus of ‘symbol formation’ was nevertheless clearly on describing the paranoid-schizoid and depressive relations in terms of object-relations, and the transition from symbolic equation to the subject’s use of fully formed symbols:

The development of the ego and the changes in the ego’s relation to its objects are gradual. Also gradual is the change from the early symbols, which I called symbolic equations, to the fully formed symbols during the depressive position. It is only for the sake of clarity that I make here a very sharp distinction between the ego’s relations in the paranoid-schizoid position and in the depressive position respectively, and an equally sharp distinction between the symbolic equations and the symbols which are formed during and after the depressive position.[1],p54

The 3-term relation fitted her purpose, therefore, even though it used as its authority a quote from a text by Morris about the Foundations of a Theory of Signs[2] that was itself inconsistent with the rest of Morris’ text. Morris was in fact using a 4-term relation between the symbol (the ‘sign-vehicle’ or ‘signifer’), an object (the ‘designatum’ or ‘signified’), the ego (‘behavior’ in relation to the object), and the subject (the ‘interpreter’), even though, as I show below, translating from a 3-term to a 4-term reading of the relations between subject, ego, object and symbol does not affect Segal’s argument . Why make this translation therefore?

The translation introduces a distinction between the-object-as-signifier (the ‘object-signifier’) and the-object-that-is-signified (the ‘signified-object’). This helps clarify how the word “object” slips between referring to signifiers and signifieds, and how the phrase “object-relation” slips between referring to a subject’s object-relating-behavior and organisations-of-object-signifiers.[3]  Making a 4-term relation explicit in this way therefore has consequences for how we understand both Bion’s concept of the ‘container’, and also the concepts of ‘individual mentality’ and ‘group mentality’ in ‘Experiences in Groups’.[4]

The Translation
We start with Segal’s introduction to the relation between the subject, the ego, the object and the symbol in which the ego translates as an organisation of signifier-signifier and signifier-signified relationships[2], equivalent to an organisation of object-relating (in what follows, my additions are in red and my deletions are marked with a strikethrough):

I find it helpful, following Morris (1938) [as amended by (Ducasse 1942)], to consider symbolizing as a threefour-term relation , i.e. a relation between the thing symbolizedto which meaning is attributed (the signified), the thing functioning as a symbol (the signifier by means of which meaning is attributed), and a personsubject for whom the one signifier represents the othersignified. In psychological terms, symbolism would be a relation between a subject (the interpreter), the ego (an organisation of signifier-signifier and signifier-signified relationships[3]), the object (the signified), and the symbol (the signifier).
Symbol formation (aka the attribution of meaning by a signifier to a signified) is a signifying activity of the ego attempting to deal with the anxieties stirred by its relation to the signified-object and is generated primarily by the fear of signified-objects experienced as bad object-signifiers and the fear of the loss or inaccessibility of good object-signifiers. Disturbances in the egosubject‘s relation to signified-objects mediated by the ego are reflected in disturbances of symbol formation (i.e. disturbances in the attribution of meaning by a signifier to a signified as mediated by the ego). In particular, disturbances in differentiation by the subject between ego and signified-object lead to disturbances in differentiation between the symbol (the object-signifier) and the object symbolized (the signified-object) and therefore to the concrete thinking characteristic of psychoses.

Replacing “the ego’s relation to objects” by “the subject’s relation to signified-objects mediated by the ego” unpacks the 3-term reading to a 4-term reading while preserving the original relations between the signifiers. These relations continue to be preserved in the next paragraph:

Symbol formation starts very early, probably as early as object relations, but changes its character and functions with the changes in the character of the ego and object relations. Not only the actual content of the symbol but the very way in which symbols are formed and used seems to reflect precisely the ego’s state of development and its way of dealing with its signified-objects. If symbolism is seen as a threefour-term relation, problems of symbol formation must always be examined in the context of the subject’s relation to the ego’s way of putting signifiers in relation with its signified-objects.[1],p52

Applying a 4-term reading of object-relations
The effect of this 4-term reading is to clarify what was previously an ambiguity in the use of the word ‘object’ in understanding ‘splitting’:

The chief characteristics of the infant’s first object relations are the following. The signifer of the signified-object is seen as split into an ideally good and a wholly bad one. The aim of the ego is total union with the ideal object-signifier and total annihilation of the bad one, as well as of the signifiers of bad parts of the self-as-subject. Omnipotent thinking is paramount and reality sense intermittent and precarious. The concept of absence hardly exists. Whenever the state of union with the ideal object-signifier is not fulfilled, what is experienced is not absence; the ego feels assailed by the counterpart of the good object-signifier—the bad object-signifier, or objects. It is the time of the hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, described by Freud, when the mind creates object-signifiers which are then felt to be available as signified-objects. According to Melanie Klein, it is also the time of the bad hallucinosis when, if the ideal conditions are not fulfilled, the bad signified-object is equally hallucinated and felt as real.[1],p53

It expands on the nature of projective identification:

A leading defense mechanism in this phase is projective identification. In projective identification, the subject in phantasy projects large parts of himself into the signified-object, and the signified-object becomes identified with the parts of the self-as-subject that it is felt to contain. Similarly, internal signified-objects are projected outside and identified with parts of the external world which come to represent them. These first projections and identifications are the beginning of the process of symbol formation.[1],p53

It opens up the question of the subject’s relation to the depressive position:

When the depressive position has been reached, the main characteristic of object relations is that the signified-object is felt as a whole object. In connection with this there is a greater degree of awareness of differentiation and of the separateness between the signifier as mediated by the ego and the signified-object. At the same time, since the signified-object is recognized as a whole, ambivalence is more fully experienced. The ego in this phase is struggling with its (i.e. presenting the subject with the experience of) ambivalence. Its relation to the signified-object is characterized by guilt, fear of loss or actual experience of loss and mourning, and a striving to re-create the relation to the signified-object. At the same time, processes of introjection become more pronounced than those of projection, in keeping with the striving to retain the signified-object inside as well as to repair, restore and re-create it.[1],p55

And from here it is a short step to a consideration of the subject’s relation to the ego’s aggression and possessiveness:

In normal development, after repeated experiences of loss, recovery, and re-creation, a good object-signifier is securely established in the ego. As the ego develops and integrates, these changes in relation to the object-signifier affect fundamentally the ego’s reality sense. With an increased awareness of ambivalence, the lessening of the intensity of projection, and the growing differentiation between the self-as-subject and the signified-object, there is a growing sense of reality both internal and external. The internal world becomes differentiated from the external world. Omnipotent thinking, characteristic of the earlier phase, gradually gives way to more realistic thinking. Simultaneously, and as part of the same process, there is a certain modification of the primary instinctual aims. Earlier on, the aim was to possess the signified-object totally if it was felt as good or to annihilate it totally if it was felt as bad. With the recognition that the good and the bad signified-objects are one (i.e. object-signifiers both identified with the whole signified-object), both these instinctual aims are gradually modified. The ego is increasingly concerned with saving the signified-object from its aggression and possessiveness. And this implies a certain degree of inhibition of the direct instinctual aims, both aggressive and libidinal.[1],p55

And consideration of the subject’s capacity for creating symbols:

This situation is a powerful stimulus for the creation of symbols, and symbols acquire new functions which change their character. The symbol is needed to displace aggression by the ego from the original signified-object and, in that way, to lessen the subject’s guilt and the fear of loss. The aim of the displacement is to save the object-signifier, and the guilt experienced in relation to it is far less than that due to an attack on the original signified-object. Thus, the symbol here is not equivalent to the original signified-object. The symbols are also created in the internal world as object-signifiers, providing the means of restoring, re-creating, recapturing and owning again the original signified-object. But in keeping with the increased reality sense, they are now felt as created by the ego and therefore never completely equated with the original signified-object.[1],p55

From ‘subject of the unconscious’ to ‘double subjection’
In conclusion, this translation works in the way it leads into Segal’s own reference to the subject, but raises the question of how Wilfred Bion, in his ‘Experiences in Groups’[4], understands a “sophisticated” relation between individual and group mentality.   In Bion’s terms, the transition by either a group or an individual mentality from a paranoid-schizoid to a depressive position in its relation to the unconscious is always also partial.  How does this partial transition therefore affect the subject’s relation to these mentalities and to Bion’s ‘container’, and where does this take us in how we understand the subject’s double subjection both to the unconscious and to the social?

[1] Segal, H. (1986[1957]). Notes on Symbol Formation. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association Books.
[2] Morris, C. W. (1955[1938]). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. O. Neurath and R. Carnap. University of Chicago Press. I.
[3] As in the previous blog on the missing subject-ego relation, this ‘organisation of relationships between signifiers’ gets taken up by Lacan as metaphor. See pp218-220 and pp222-230 in Lacan, J. (1993[1981]). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III 1955-1956: The Psychoses. London, Routledge.
[4] Bion, W. R. (1959). Experiences in Groups. London, Tavistock Publications.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.