Getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency

This series of blogs started with a difficulty faced at a research colloquium in addressing the effects of libidinal investment on the way the participants ‘were’ in language.  We were getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of ‘Thirdness’ associated with ‘unconscious defences against anxiety’.  The effects of libidinal investment were to be observed in the way it excluded thoughts and expelled thinking that was in some way inconsistent or problematic for its continuing hegemony, preserving a particular form of relation to an ex-sistent ‘more’ that was valued as much as its ability to include and subsume.[1] Viewed through its expression as political correctness, libidinal investment therefore serves to maintain particular constructions of meaning in the face of potentially contradictory experiences. [2]

The work at understanding the nature of this difficulty started with identifying the missing subject-ego relation in Hanna Segal’s ‘three-term relation’ and continued to consider how Bion’s formulation of sophistication and mentality lost something by narrowing his focus to the work group.  This difficulty was most apparent in the way these formulations were able to address the problematic relation between ‘containing’ and ‘otherness’.  Formulating the missing relation in terms of a relation to ‘Thirdness‘, this blog considers how we might understand getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of ‘Thirdness’ as symptomatic of unconscious valency.

Bion’s Grid
Bion’s grid[3] places the subject’s contact-barrier between the subject’s experience of what-is-going-on (wigo) aka things-in-themselves and the subject’s capacity to give meaning to wigo. In this diagram, the dotted blue line represents the processes by which the subject’s embodied experience gets taken up and contained:
In this schema, the difference between alpha- and beta-elements concerns the way in which experience is taken up in consciousness (words in red referred to later in this blog):

Alpha-function operates on the sense impressions, whatever they are, and the emotions, whatever they are, of which the patient is aware. In so far as alpha-function is successful alpha elements are produced and these elements are suited to storage and the requirements of dream thoughts. If alpha-function is disturbed, and therefore inoperative, the sense impressions of which the patient is aware and the emotions which he is experiencing remain unchanged. I shall call them beta elements. In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves. The emotions likewise are objects of sense.[4]

Bion attributes his use of “contact-barrier” to Freud, identifying it with the functioning of a synapse:

I shall now transfer all that I have said about the establishment of conscious and unconscious and a barrier between them to a supposed entity, that I designate a “contact-barrier”; Freud used this term to describe the neuro-physiological entity subsequently known as a synapse. In conformity with this my statement that the man has to “dream” a current emotional experience whether it occurs in sleep or in waking life is re-formulated thus: The man’s alpha-function whether in sleeping or waking transforms the sense-impressions related to an emotional experience, into alpha-elements, which cohere as they proliferate to form the contact-barrier. This contact-barrier, thus continuously in process of formation, marks the point of contact and separation between conscious and unconscious elements and originates the distinction between them. The nature of the contact-barrier will depend on the nature of the supply of alpha-elements and on the manner of their relationships to each other. They may cohere. They may be agglomerated. They may be ordered sequentially to give the appearance of narrative (at least in the form in which the contact-barrier may reveal itself in a dream). They may be ordered logically. They may be ordered geometrically.[5]

Consciousness in these terms therefore rests on the foundations of alpha-elements that may then be progressively organised, leaving beta-elements that may not. These beta-elements and their associated beta-screen produced effects in the analyst that appeared coherent and purposive while outside the consciousness of the subject:

A small number of patients with whom I have had to deal have presented prominently symptoms of disordered capacity for thought… I tested the supposition that I contained the non-psychotic part of his personality, and then began to be aware that I was supposed to be conscious of what was going on while he was not. I was (contained) his “conscious”… Freud’s theory that consciousness is the sense-organ of psychic quality, allowed an assumption that a separation was being effected between consciousness and psychic quality… Now this situation does not correspond to the theoretical framework I have suggested, the theory, namely, of a contact barrier owing its existence to the proliferation of alpha-elements by alpha-function and serving the function of a membrane which by the nature of its composition and permeability separates mental phenomena into two groups one of which performs the functions of consciousness and the other the functions of unconsciousness… The difference in the two states derives from the differences between a contact barrier composed of alpha-elements and one composed, if that is the right word, of beta-elements. These last, it will be remembered, appear to lack a capacity for linkage to each other… comparison of the beta-element screen with the confused states resembling dream shows the beta-element screen to be coherent and purposive. An interpretation that the patient was pouring out a stream of material intended to destroy the analyst’s psych-analytic potency would not seem out of place. Equally apt would be the interpretation that the patient was concerned to withhold rather than to impart information.[6]

Differences to Freud’s Project
There are important differences with Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology[7] in how Bion formulated the relation of the subject’s consciousness to alpha- and beta-elements.  Freud made a fundamental distinction in his Project between the perceptual -system and an -system of word-presentations, and between word-presentation and thing-presentation.[8]  This latter distinction was between a closed -system organising differences in quality, and a -complex organising quantity (quotas of ‘affect’) distributed across different neuronal pathways as networks of complication.[9]

Fundamental to understanding the differences with Freud’s Project was the role of Q – energy – within the ‘psychic apparatus’. Between Q and Q in the external world were Q-screens, which were impermeable to Q. Two kinds of contact-barrier were then hypothesised: those which were permeable (), offering no resistance to the passage of Q; and those which had some degree of impermeability (), and were therefore capable of holding back the passage of Q. The -system was that which was reached by exogenous stimulation and through which the discharge of Q took place; and the -complex was that which was stimulated by Qas well as by endogenous excitation. Facilitation involved altering the thresholds of impermeability of the contact barriers within the -complex – a “-complex” because of its facilitated complexification of distributions of Q across () contact-barrier pathways. The Pleasure Principle was therefore the distribution of Q across this -complex following a principle of constancy, through the facilitation of distribution and discharge via 
project2The -system was that which conducted the periodicity of stimulation arising at the Q-screen back to the -complex as a path of facilitation, and forward to the Q-screen as attention which anticipated stimulation.  This periodicity of any given stimulation was to be thought of as a complex waveform with its own distinctive signature pattern. Thus, on the one hand there were memory traces – specific configurations of -complexification through distributions of quantity; and on the other there were patterns of quality which were the waveform correlates of these memory traces. This distinction between and became the distinction between thing-presentation and word-presentation,  although it is important to understand these as entangled, so that for every -pattern there is an -signature.   This entanglement became an -complex – an object-presentation as per Appendix C of The Unconscious[10]
Three important differences are to be noted between Bion and Freud therefore:

  1. Bion’s sense-impressions (quality) and emotional experience (quantity) related to both exogenous (waking) and endogenous (sleeping) excitation, whether accessible to consciousness (alpha-elements) or not (beta-elements);
  2. Bion’s contact-barrier was specific to the relation between the conscious and the unconscious, corresponding to the relationship between word-presentation (-signature), where the word-presentation was accessible to consciousness, and thing-presentation (-pattern).  Conscious word-presentations therefore appeared as alpha-elements, while word-presentations that remained unconscious remained as beta-elements; and
  3. Experience for Bion was reducible to its elements, whether alpha-elements or beta-elements.

In summary, whereas for Bion the irreducible elements were alpha- and beta-elements, in Freud’s Project these elements were themselves -signatures of synaptic -patterns within the  -complex .

Structuring elements in the way that words are structured
In Freud’s Project, therefore, the relationships between contact-barriers in the  -complex could combine to form an open-ended variety of possible pathways between synaptic neurones, each pathway distributing quantity (quotas of affect) in a different way. The -system was a source of ‘downwards’ regulation of these distributions of affect through the way it facilitated the transmission of quantity through () contact-barriers in ways that regulated levels of pleasure/unpleasure.  Crucial here were the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ natures of thing-presentations and word-presentations respectively.[11]

This ‘open’ nature of thing-presentation implied that there was an open-ended number of possible pathways between synaptic neurones, the differences between which was a function of their differences as pathways with their associated affect. Using the metaphor of the relation between words and letters, there was an open-ended number of possible ‘words’ in the -system made up of combinations of ‘letters’ in the -complex. The relation of the -system to the -complex was then like the relation between recognised ‘words’ and combinations of ‘letters’.  Not all combinations of ‘letters’ in the -complex were recognised as ‘words’ in the -system, and combinations of ‘letters’ that were recognised in the -system were recognisable through their difference to other recognised combinations of ‘letters’. Thus while the potential number of combinations of ‘letters’ aka synaptic pathways was open, the number of ‘words’ aka word-presentations that were recognised was closed.

Approached in this way, while the word-presentation in the unconscious could equally be an ideogram or phoneme, it could also be complex patterns of relationship between word-presentations.  These recognised word-presentations and patterns of word-presentations acted as the lexicon of signification, while at the same being bathed in the affective medium through their associated synaptic pathways in the unconscious.[12] To be subject to the unconscious was therefore to be subject to this structuring of difference.  This reading of Freud’s Project does not detract from Bion’s rendering of alpha- and beta-elements.  Rather it takes it further by providing an unconscious basis for ‘formations’ in the 4-term relation in a way that Bion’s Grid did not – ‘formations’ being complex patterns of relationship between word-presentations.  In effect, libidinal investment in particular ‘formations’ can be subject to the equivalent of symbolic equation applied to these complex patterns. How can this be recognised in Freud’s structuring of the ‘psychic apparatus’?

Primary and Secondary Stratification
In his letter to Fleiss of the 6th December 1896, Freud postulated the above structural account in terms of a process of primary stratification:

  • W [Wahrnehmungen (perceptions)] were neurones in which perceptions originated , to which consciousness attached, but which in themselves retained no trace of what had happened.
  • Wz [Wahrnehmungszeichen (indications of perception)] were then the first registration of perceptions, arranged according to associations by simultaneity (,
  • Ub [Unbewusstsein (unconsciousness)] was the second registration arranged according to the process of complexification ), and
  • Vb [Vorbewusstsein (preconsciousness)] was the third transcription, attached to word-presentation (the -system).

In thinking about this third transcription in relation to the -system, the -system and the -complex, Freud commented that “the cathexes proceeding from this Vb become conscious according to certain rules; and this secondary thought consciousness is subsequent in time and is probably linked to the hallucinatory activation of word presentations, so that the neurones of consciousness would once again be perceptual neurones and in themselves without memory”. Just as perception led through indication of perception to produce facilitating effects on the -complex, so the “subsequent in time” indicated that the preconsciousness led back through the system to produce effects of attention – a kind of echo. The important point here was that whereas thing-presentations remain anchored in the -complex, the -system acted as a support for word-presentations, and ultimately for consciousness.

This whole  system therefore acted as a substrate to consciousness. In order to consider the unconscious basis of ‘formation’ aka Thirdness, we therefore need a secondary stratification (the W-Wz-Ub-Vb stratification described by Freud being primary) by introducing as a particular organisation aka ‘formation’ of the subject’s relation to the unconscious object-signifiers. This relation to represents a secondary stratification that is an organisation of word-presentations,[13] producing the following:
The dotted line is there because the -system only affects the -complex in ways that are mediated by and the -system, there being no direct relationship between  and . The secondary stratification is that through which the organisation of relationships between word-presentations takes place on the axis of  to .[14] Symbolic equation aka unconscious valency is thus a restricting of the relationship between the -complex and the -system, to which we can now add a second kind of unconscious valency as restricting the relationship between the -complex and .

This now gives us a way to understand getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of ‘formation’ aka Thirdness as symptomatic of unconscious valency. Valency is now understood in terms of the relations between ‘truth’ and three other positions: ‘agent’, ‘work’ and ‘production’, so that Thirdness becomes understood as the effect of these three on the fourth. In the position of ‘truth’ are -system constructions.  The thick black line signifies the difference between these constructions that are accessible to consciousness and the rest of the system.  This ‘truth’ is subject to a -organisation (‘agent’ in the figure below) of the relation between the -system and the -complex.  Symbolic equation is thus to be understood not only in the familiar sense of limiting the articulation of the relation between the -system (the ‘work’ of signifying meaning in the sense of an artist’s work) and the -complex, but also between  and the -complex (the ‘production’ of the relation to the radically unconscious -complex, this radicality also signified by a thick black line).   The effect of symbolic equation is therefore to limit the possible forms of construction of ‘truth’ in both ways.

Consider now how Bion’s Grid is affected by this more complex structuring in which an ‘Other’ axis is formed by the effects of the -complex on mediating the ways in which the -system acts as a support to consciousness. The two sides of the Grid, formulated in terms of the container(♀) and the contained(♂), can now be understood as sophisticated forms of Thirdness and signification respectively freed to some extent from the effects of symbolic equation on both organisations of object-relation and object-relations per se.  The unconscious valency remains there ‘under the surface’ as an ‘Other’ subjection alongside the social forms of subjection associated with inter-subjectively shared forms of Thirdness.[15] 

Our double subjection is now in terms of both the container-contained constructions of the social, and also the -complex unconscious valencies through which these constructions are also constrained (the dotted blue arrow). In this, the indirect effects of symbolic equation are represented by the mediating effects of the solid blue arrow, through which the inter-subjective experience of Thirdness is also made subject to the unconscious organisation of object-relating.[16]


It is this double subjection that is constitutive of the double challenge, the ethics of which may be understood in terms of  a diasporic way associated with journeying at the edge.[17] Why care?  Because by failing to take up this challenge, an organisation stops learning about how to maintain a dynamic alignment with its environments…  many organisations acting in this way creating an impact on their environments that is the corollary to global climate change – vortical environments.

[1] The implications of this ex-sistent ‘more’ are explored in THE environment does not ex-sist and written about in Stavrakakis, Y., The Lacanian Left: psychoanalysis, theory, politics. 2007, New York: SUNY Press, as well as in Zizek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London, Verso.  The ways in which ideology is exercised as a form of Power/Knowledge is written about extensively by Foucault, see footnote [1] in what is happening to ‘boundaries’, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’ and Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Brighton, UK, The Harvester Press. What this analysis adds is the libidinal investment that underpins this way of exercising Power/Knowledge. In the case of the colloquium about ‘defences against anxiety’, it was as if we had more energy for complaining about the ‘management’ of organisations in, for example, the UK’s National Health Service, than we did by seeing such management as a symptom of current ways of understanding it as a given characteristic of organisations within which we took up roles as individuals. At the heart of this exclusion was the hegemony of (the libidinal investment in) ‘open systems’ thinking.  For more on this, see what is happening to ‘boundaries’, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’.
[2] This is the basic thrust of Howie Schwartz’s argument in (for example) Political Correctness and organizational nihilism, Human Relations 55(11) November 2002. In the terms of this blog, the nihilism comes from a passage à l’acte signaling the encounter with the ‘difficulty’ axis of anxiety – a signaling of what is experienced as an impossibility of there being any other way.  This (ab)use of ideology in the service of libidinal investment is also the thrust of Susan Long’s book on the Perverse organisation – Long, S., The Perverse Organisation and its Deadly Sins. 2008, London: Karnac – but see my critique of her use of Lacan in support of her argument.
[3] Bion’s ‘Elements of Psycho-Analysis’ 1963
[4] Chapter 3 from Bion’s ‘Learning from Experience’ 1962
[5] ibid Chapter 8
[6] ibid Chapter 9
[7] Freud, S. (1950[1895]). Project for a Scientific Psychology. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, The Hogarth Press. I (1886-1889): 283-397.
[8] He made a further distinction between two kinds of thing-presentation: sachvorstellung and dingvorstellung. These are crucial to understanding that about a libidinal investment in ideology that values particular forms of exclusion and expulsion, but is beyond the scope of this blog to pursue here.  See anxiety and innovation and an early framing of this issue in the relation to drive structure. Sachvorstellung is the thing-presentation that can act as support to word-presentation, potentially repressed by the ego through negation (Freud, S. (1961[1925]). Negation. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, The Hogarth Press. XIX (1923-1925): 233-239.).  But dingvorstellung is that about the thing that is lost: “the first and immediate aim, therefore, of reality-testing is, not to find an object in real perception which corresponds to the one presented, but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there… The reproduction of a perception as a presentation is not always a faithful one; it may be modified by omissions, or changed by the merging of various elements. In that case, reality-testing has to ascertain how far such distortions go. But it is evident that a precondition for the setting up of reality-testing is that objects shall have been lost which once brought real satisfaction” (ibid p235-236). Das Ding is that about the experience that is lost. In the Project, Freud speaks of this reality-testing as judging, and uses the neighbour (fellow human-being) to emphasise the coexistence of the neighbour-as-known with that-about-the-neighbour-that-is-lost: “the complex of the fellow human-being falls apart into two components, of which one makes an impression by its constant structure and stays together as a thing, while the other can be understood by the activity of memory – that is traced back to information from the subject’s own body” (Freud, S. (1950[1895]). Project for a Scientific Psychology. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, The Hogarth Press. I (1886-1889): p331.
[9] Freud, S. (1950[1895]). Project for a Scientific Psychology. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, The Hogarth Press. I (1886-1889): p315
[10] Freud, S. (1957[1915]a). The Unconscious. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, Hogarth Press. XIV (1914-1916).
[11] It was this difference that led Lacan to propose that the unconscious was structured like a language (was structured): “I say ‘like’ so as not to say that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters” Lacan, J., Ed. (1998 [1972-73]). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge: Book XX Encore 1972-1973, W.W. Norton. p48.
[12] The unconscious was therefore structured like a language is structured in the sense that it was constituted through the articulation of different patterns of distribution of affect, derived from the person’s embodied (and as such affective) experiencing and subject to the particular forms of difference which that experiencing articulated.
[13] These organisations of word-presentation would be through the effects of metaphor and metonymy – condensation and displacement – the structural characteristics of which are taken up in To ‘contain’: signifiers, signified and thirdness.
[14] This is the structure of the ‘quadripod’ which Lacan describes in Savoir (p57-58 – Feb 3rd 1972 Seminar) and which determines the “fundamental topology from which any function of speech derives”.
[15] The curved line below represents the distinction between ‘sach’ and ‘ding’ in footnote [8] above. The curved line to the left represents the distinction between the conscious and the subconscious and/or unconscious, which in Bion is between alpha- and beta-elements.
[16] From here is is a short step to considering as implicit in the relation to the lack of the maternal containing introject, or as explicit in the form of an originating affirmation forming the matrix of identifications within which the paternal metaphor can take its place, but the foreclosure of which characterises psychosis.
[17] From the perspective of this ethic, we see how ‘objectivity’ (inter-subjective agreement) and a ‘scientific’ empiricism made it easier to reduce this to a two-way stretch between an ‘above’ and ‘below’ the surface, hiding unconscious valencies to the paternal metaphors behind scientific progress through an ‘unconscious error‘ that invoked the materialism behind Morris’s 1938 International Encyclopedia of Unified Science – see the missing subject-ego relation in true symbolism, symbolic equation and object-relations.

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