The missing subject-ego relation in true symbolism, symbolic equation and object-relations

I recently participated in a research colloquium organized by the Independent Social Research Foundation and Tavistock Consulting, which revisited Isabel Menzies-Lyth’s  thesis on the ‘Unconscious Defences against Anxiety’. My own contribution to this was a paper on anxiety and innovation, which tried to pick up and elaborate on issues raised previously in my earlier blog on ‘what is happening to boundaries, authority and containment’ and subsequently developed in ‘leading organizations without boundaries’ and ‘THE environment does not ex-sist’. It was an interesting experience.

I was struck by the difficulty we faced in addressing the effects of our respective libidinal investments in the way we ‘were’ in language. Borrowing from the work of Kuhn and Lakatos, it was as if the colloquium was itself caught up within the mental models of Menzies’ thesis, only able to discuss what was going on ‘elsewhere’ in its own terms.  Even though there was a feeling of crisis in the room, this was related to individuals’ own experiences rather than to a crisis facing the ability of these mental models to get traction on the phenomenon and effects of neoliberal managerialism.

This difficulty had echos of Emery and Trist’s experience with the top management of a newly-merged enterprise in the aerospace industry, in which there was a flight to the personal and interpersonal:

we found that what they needed most was time in a supporting environment to share their common anxieties, and through doing this intensively to become able to make a collective re-appreciation of their entire situation. There were no deep incompatibilities; nor was there stubborn adherence to previous loyalties. T group procedures intended to facilitate the disclosure of hidden agendas and eyeball to eyeball leveling became rather marginal. The anxieties were existential rather than interpersonal. For the issue was survival. In a turbulent environment the issue is survival. The need is to stop the flight into personal paralysis and interpersonal discord and to replace these by participation in a process of group innovation. In systems of organizational ecology the locus of innovation is in the set of the partners involved.[1]

When trying to speak about the unconscious valencies we might have had for particular mental models over others, whether individually or in groups, we had no shared language for this beyond there being a multiplicity of organization-in-the-mind introjects. How could we speak of the organization of these introjects, and of our apparent subjection to them?  How could we understand psychoanalytically the “flight to the personal” so beloved by those invested in (what Barry Palmer called) the Tavistock Paradigm?

After the colloquium, this led me to examine what assumptions had been built into the Bionic notion of “flight”, which in turn led to the assumptions built into the dynamics of symbol formation and Segal.  In both cases, what was being addressed was the impact of unconscious processes on the emergence of symbol formation in the individual and group, not on the impact of unconscious processes on the subsequent organization of (i.e. relationships between) symbols themselves. Why?  Was this structural, or just a matter of further elaboration?  I have come to the view that it was structural, a view that I want to explore in this and subsequent blogs. In effect, I think it is structural because of a limitation in the theorization of the ‘subjection’ of the subject.

Hanna Segal on Symbol Formation
I start by asking why did Hanna Segal, in seeking to give an account of symbol formation in terms of object-relations[2], used a reading of Peirce’s work by Morris that was later criticised as being behaviorist[3,4], and from which reading the relation of the subject to the ego had been excised by Morris in a way that was inconsistent with the rest of Morris’s text? Why the apparent valency to a behaviorist account?

Segal, in her ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’ wanted to build on Jones’s concept of ‘True Symbolism’ in his ‘Theory of Symbolism’[5] to give an account of the Kleinian Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive positions and their relation to symbol formation. Jones argued that ‘true symbolism’ arose when there was an absence of sublimation. Segal described this ‘true symbolism’ as ‘symbolic equation’ in terms of projective identification:

In projective identification, the subject in phantasy projects large parts of himself into the object, and the object becomes identified with the parts of the self that it is felt to contain. Similarly, internal 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. The early symbols, however, are not felt by the ego to be symbols or substitutes but to be the original object itself. They are so different from symbols formed later that I think they deserve a name of their own… symbolic equation…[2],p53

The excision of the relation of the subject to the ego in the text is noteworthy, given that in the text Segal was describing the process by which the subject was able to engage in the creative use of symbols:

The capacity to experience loss and the wish to re-create the object within oneself gives the individual the 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.[2],p56

The excision
Segal started her “new and more careful study” of the processes of symbolization as follows:

I find it helpful, following Morris[6], to consider symbolizing as a three-term relation, i.e. a relation between the thing symbolized, the thing functioning as a symbol, and a person for whom the one represents the other. In psychological terms, symbolism would be a relation between the ego, the object, and the symbol.[2],p52

This was taken directly from Morris, in whose text this construction appeared as:

a dog (the ‘interpreter’) responds by the type of behavior I (the ‘interpretant’) involved in the hunting of chipmunks D (the ‘designatum’) to a certain sound S (the ‘sign-vehicle’).[6],p4

Using this example, Morris characterized a sign as follows:

S (the ‘sign-vehicle’) is a sign of D (the ‘designatum’) for I (the ‘interpretant’) to the degree that I takes account of D in virtue of the presence of S.[6],p4

In Segal’s text, this became the “three-term relation” in which the behavior (i.e. the object-relation) and the interpreter (i.e. the subject) were conflated, excising an explicit relation between the subject-interpreter and the organisation of symbols within the context of which the object-relation was formed:

S (the ‘sign-vehicle’) becomes the symbol, D (the ‘designatum’) becomes the object, and I (the ‘interpretant’) becomes the ego.[2],p52

Ducasse, in his critique of Morris’s reading of Peirce’s work[3], pointed out the inconsistency in Morris’s own characterization of a sign S:

Morris’s example and his characterization of a sign do not match. Whereas Morris states that ‘I’ stands for the interpretant, i.e. the hunting behavior, in the characterization he makes ‘I’ stand for the interpreter, namely, the dog. That it stands for the dog becomes evident if the example is expanded as follows: The sound S (the ‘sign-vehicle’) is a sign of chipmunks D (the ‘designatum’) for I (that is, for a dog – the ‘interpreter’ – and not for the hunting behavior) to the degree that I (viz., the dog) takes account of chipmunks D (that is, behaves in the manner B called chipmunk-hunting) in virtue of the presence of S.[3],p43

Correcting this inconsistency to make Morris’s characterization of a sign fit Morris’s own example, Ducasse proposed the following amendment:

S (the ‘sign-vehicle’) is a sign of D (the ‘designatum’) for I (an ‘interpreter’) to the degree that, in virtue of the presence of S, I behaves in a manner B (the ‘behavior’) which would be appropriate to the presence of D.”[3],p43

With this correction, Segal’s ‘three-term relation’ becomes a four-term relation that includes the presence of a subject: S (the ‘sign-vehicle’) remains the symbol and D (the ‘designatum’) remains the object, but if B (the ‘behavior’ which would be appropriate in the presence of D) is to be the ego, then we have an additional term I (the ‘interpreter’) corresponding to the subject.

In these terms, the ego is an organisation of symbols aka object-relating[7] aka behaviors-in-relation-to-objects, and ‘true symbolism’ or symbolic equation is a particular form of relation between ‘S’ and ‘D’ associated with behaviors ‘B’ to which ‘I’ is subjected.

The hypothesis
Jones distinguished true symbolism from other forms of indirect representation[5],p132, which Segal followed in distinguishing symbolic equation from the wider concept of symbolism[2],p52. Segal was therefore very well aware of the subject of symbolisation, as evidenced in the first two quotes above. Why, then, did she use Morris’s 3-term behaviorist reading?

We can perhaps impute an unconscious valency for this particular 3-term reading by Morris, one that did not complicate Segal’s focus on understanding the early emergence of symbolic equation[8]. From this perspective, it was only later in a person’s life, as forms of indirect representation emerged, that the need for a 4-term reading became necessary. The adoption of a 3-term reading therefore fitted very well with a wish to explain how the relation to the interpreter ‘I’ might initially have been implicit in the processes of symbol formation in object-relations behavior.

Drawing on Morris’s reading might have also conferred the secondary gain of having been published in an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, supporting the wish at that time of psychoanalysts to present their work as ‘scientific’ within the mores of the 1950’s, bypassing the need to address the problematics of the subject.

A more modern reading of the relation between the sign-vehicle ‘S’ and the designatum ‘D’ would be in terms of the relation between the signifier and the signified. Object-relations would then become relations between object-signifiers and signified-objects, and the ego, as an organisation of object-relating, would become a particular organisation of relationships between object-signifiers and between organisations of object-signifiers and signified-objects.[7]  Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive positions would, in these terms, become particular ways in which the subject experienced himself or herself as subjected to this ego.  Segal added a postscript in 1979 “under the influence of work on the relationship between the container and the contained”. Using the proposed terms above, this read (my additions in brackets):

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 (i.e. the signified in the subject’s experience of themselves) and the object projected into (i.e. the signified-object operating as a signifier): the container (signifier) and the contained (signified).[2],p60

A first question is, therefore, does the adoption of a 4-term reading detract from the argument presented by Segal in ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’?  I address this next in ‘reading symbol formation as a 4-term relation’, which then raises a further question concerning how we are to understand Bion’s “container” in terms of object-signifiers.

[1] Trist, E. (1977). “A Concept of Organizational Ecology.” Australian Journal of Management 2(2): 161-176.
[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] Ducasse, C. J. (1942). “Some Comments on C.W. Morris’s ‘Foundations of the Theory of Signs’.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3(1): 43-52.
[4] For example, Honrubia, T. and A. Herrera (1991). “Two ‘signs’: Peirce and Morris.” Culture and History of Design 05.
[5] Jones, E. (1916). The theory of symbolism. In E. Jones, Papers on Psycho-Analysis. 2nd ed. London: Balliere, Tindall and Cox, 1918.
[6] 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.
[7] It is this ‘organisation of relationships between signifiers’ that 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.
[8] Referring to the use of Morris’s 3-term reading as evidencing an ‘unconscious valency’ carries with it the implication that it was an unintentional error on the part of Hanna Segal. This means that there was a ‘decidability error’ in the model of symbol formation presented that was unable to account for the relation of the subject to object-relations, an error in which the Segal acted ‘as if’ there was no undecidability because of her unconscious valency to that way of knowing.

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