How does ‘sophisticated’ group mentality relate to basic assumption behaviour?

The previous blog examined how the process of symbol formation could be read using a 4-term relation between subject, ego, object-signifier and signified-object. In this translation, the ego was a particular organisation of object-relating.  It raised the question of how Bion understood a sophisticated relation between individual and group mentality, concluding that we needed a better understanding of the relation of these mentalities to Bion’s ‘container’ in order to understand the subject’s double subjection both to the unconscious and to the social. Why should we care? Because we want to understand how unconscious valencies can give us a way of understanding the effects of libidinal investment in particular organisations of object-relating and the ‘unintentional errors’ that they can give rise to.

The relation between mentalities and ‘containing’
Bion defined group mentality as “the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions. It is thus a machinery of intercommunication that is designed to ensure that group life is in accordance with the basic assumptions“. His definition of group culture followed as “a function of the conflict between the individual’s desires and the group mentality“. He therefore defined the problem facing a group leader to be “how to mobilize emotions associated with the basic assumptions without endangering the sophisticated structure that appears to secure to the individual his freedom to be an individual while remaining a member of the group.”[1],p56

Organization and structure were the sophisticated product of co-operation between members of the group, while a group acting on a basic assumption needed no organization or co-operation, individual distinctiveness being “no part of life in a group acting on the basic assumptions[1],p122. Bion used the word ‘valency’ to refer to this “capacity for spontaneous instinctive co-operation in the basic assumptions“, using it to refer to the readiness of an individual “to enter into combination with a group in making and acting on the basic assumptions“.[1],p103 The counterpart in the basic-assumption group of sophisticated co-operation was therefore valency, “a spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man“.[1],p122 Group mentality was therefore manifest as an organisation of object-relating, its sophistication reflecting its independence from taking spontaneous, instinctual forms.

Bion further defined the proto-mental system as “one in which physical and psychological or mental are undifferentiated“, a matrix “from which spring the phenomena which at first appear to be discrete feelings only loosely associated with one another“, and from which “emotions proper to the basic assumption flow to reinforce, pervade, and, on occasion, to dominate the mental life of the group“. Inoperative basic assumptions were confined within this proto-mental system, “victims of a conspiracy between the sophisticated group and the operating basic assumption“. [1],p89-90 In advancing this concept of the proto-mental system, Bion was trying to account for “the solidity with which all the emotions of one basic assumption seemed to be welded together, and at the same time to provide a concept that would account for the whereabouts of inoperative basic assumptions that were obviously felt by a group to be potentially active, and must therefore be considered to be ‘somewhere’.”[1],p91

The individual’s relation to the proto-mental system was therefore a relation to his or her unconscious, with the strength of valency describing the extent to which particular organisations of object-relating gave expression to particular ways of being in relation to the unconscious. The progression from basic-assumption to sophisticated group behavior was thus conceptually equivalent to the progression in individual mentality from symbolic equation to the creative use of symbolisation. How are we to think about this organisation of object-relating?

Such a progression in group behavior also demanded that the individual mentality be capable of ‘containing’ the group dynamics from a depressive rather than a paranoid-schizoid position.  As Hanna Segal observed in a 1979 postscript to her paper on symbol formation (my additions to reflect a 4-term reading in red):

Since writing this paper, and largely under the influence of Bion’s work on the relationship between the container and the contained, I have come to think that it is not projective identification per se that leads to concretization. One has to take into account the particular relationship between the projected part (the signified) and the object projected into (the signified-object operating as a signifier): the container (the signifier) and the contained (the signified).[2],p60

The “object projected into” in the form of the mother was able to give meaning to the projected part (of the infant).  This mother-as-able-to-give-meaning was operating as a ‘container’ that the infant, to the extent that s/he was able to introject it as an object-signifier, ultimately provided a mental space within which the infant could ‘contain’ anxiety for himself or herself.  Except that what is being introjected is an organisation of object-relating.

Hanna Segal later addresses this introjected organisation of object-relating in writing bout the function of dreams – a relationship within the infant between the introjected object-signifier of mother-as-container and the signified-objects ‘contained’ by it:

The infant deals with discomfort and anxiety by projecting it into the mother (the signified-object operating as a signifier). This is not only a phantasy operation. A good mother responds to the infant’s anxiety. A mother capable of containing projective identifications can transform the projections in her own unconscious and respond appropriately, thereby lessening the anxiety and giving meaning to it. In this situation, the infant introjects the maternal object (i.e. the ability to give meaning to signified-objects operating as signifiers) as a mother-container capable of containing anxiety, conflict, etc. and elaborating it meaningfully. This internalized mother-container provides a mental space… [3],p93

The function of this mother-container, being the ability to give meaning to signified-objects operating as signifiers, involves organising the relationships between signifiers-in-relation-to-signifieds in a way that is particular to the embodied situation of the infant.  We encountered it in the previous two blogs on the missing subject-ego relation and reading a 4-term relation as corresponding to the place of the ego in the relation between subject, ego, object-signifier and signified-object. To follow Bion, therefore, this introjected mother-container establishes a capacity for a mental space capable of exhibiting mentality in the way it ‘contains’, becoming manifest as a particular way of organising the relationships between object-signifiers and between organisations of object-signifiers and signified-objects.

To understand how there can be an unconscious valency for this unconscious organisation as well as for particular forms of symbolic equation within it, we need to look more closely at its relation to the notions of ‘superego’ and ‘ego ideal’.  In particular we are looking at an organisation of relationships between object-signifiers implicit in the mother’s containing.  Thus alongside the gradual loosening of symbolic equation between object-signifiers and signified-objects, there may also be a loosening of an introjected organisation of the relations between object-signifiers which nevertheless may remain subject to some degree of unconscious constraint.[4] Understood in this way, we are dealing with two axes of ‘loosening’.[5]

I next consider how these two axes of ‘loosening’ get taken up in Bion’s understanding of the work group.[6]

[1] Bion, W. R. (1959). Experiences in Groups. London, Tavistock Publications.
[2] Segal, H. (1986[1957]). Notes on Symbol Formation. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association Books.
[3] Segal, H. (1986). The Function of Dreams. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association.
[4] For further elaboration on this, see ‘The Archaic Maternal Superego‘ by Leonardo Rodriguez Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research Vol 7 Summer 1996.
[5] These two axes correspond to the two axes of anxiety – performance and difficulty – discussed in anxiety and innovation.
[6] In doing this, I am picking up on the work done by Barry Palmer in Grouping, published in French, R. and Vince, R (1999) Group Relations, Management and Organization, Oxford University Press.  Barry was developing a reflexive framework within which to consider different understandings of what a group ‘was’.  In what follows, I articulate a reading of Freud that shows the reflexive nature of his theory, in terms of which such a reflexive use of a framework may be understood.

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