Working with a transference to the work

by Philip Boxer

Two groups are meeting virtually online every few weeks.  Group S shares journal material with each other between meetings.  Group N does not.  The journals themselves are ‘split-screen’, tracking participants’ progress on their current writing projects alongside which they write their reflections on what is coming up for them in their writing.

Group S participants are present in relation to each other in a different way.  While the interactions in Group N respond directly to what is going in the session itself in the here-and-now, there is a lack of depth in their interactions when compared with Group S. To overstate the difference, it is like watching two soap operas, one having developed the viewer’s sense of the characters involved, the other providing the viewer only with appearances.  If we consider the difference in terms of presence, it is as if the participants in Group N are choosing not to be present for each other.

If this were an Application Group meeting within the context of a Group Relations Event, we might say that Group N was exhibiting a Ba Me-ness basic assumption in its dynamics, behaving like a non-group group. A Group Relations Event provides rich opportunities for participants to come to know each other through experiencing identifications of the first kind, wanting to be like the other, or of the second kind, wanting to be able to organize a way of acting in the world like that of the other. The emergence of Ba Me-ness would be striking in this context, suggesting a high degree of anxiety about who the participants took themselves to be.  No such opportunities for working through these kinds of identification exist within a virtual group, so that the lack of presence for each other in Ba Me-ness is more likely than not. It appears that the journaling is providing support for a different kind of identification, identification of the third kind with a way of being in relation to what is going on.

Group S is coming together around a shared relation to its participants’ work and not to the dynamics of the group itself. The dynamics are not arising from the way identifications of the first and second kinds are being transferred onto each other, giving rise to patterns in transference/counter-transference dynamics that can be described in terms of basic assumptions. Rather the dynamics are arising within the group from a shared way of being in relation to their work. It is identifications of the third kind that are being transferred onto each other’s relation to his or her work. Group S appears to be working with a transference to the work, therefore, in which basic assumption dynamics are secondary to their working together as individuals. This is referred to by Bion as a sophisticated group. With a transference to the work, the participants in the group are encountering each other’s different way of organizing meaning, referred to by Bion as different vertices. Participants’ different vertices reflect different ways of being in relation to the work.

The developmental impact of working with a transference to the work comes from how these differences are worked with in terms of three moments. In a first moment, the instant of the glance, the way of organizing meaning remains entirely implicit. A first crisis emerges with the realization that things are not going to be as easy as they first appeared to be. In a second moment, the time for understanding, the way of organizing meaning has to become explicit if it is to be extended and elaborated in order to address the challenges presented by the work.  The second crisis comes when it becomes clear that this way of organizing meaning will never ‘work’ and something fundamental about it must change.  It is this second crisis that leads to a third moment, the moment to conclude, in which something new has to be tried – a moment in which the participant must act in his or her world in a new way as if s/he knows while knowing that s/he does not.[1] The developmental impact of these virtual groups comes from working through these encounters with second crises and from following through on third moments. To persist in the work of the group, its participants must remain true to their desire.[2]

To work with a transference to the work is to work forensically. Michelangelo, in approaching a block of marble with the intention of making a sculpture, asked not ‘what do I want you to become’ but rather ‘what do you want of me’?  He related to the block of marble as if it knew what it wanted to become.  This is at the heart of working with a transference to the work.  It is the cues and clues in the embodied materiality of the situation that must be given voice to if current ways of organizing meaning are to be put in question. 


[1] There are three moments that have to be overcome within this second crisis too, if something new is to happen: first, it’s not my problem; second, it’s my problem but I’ll leave it to others who know better than me what to do; and third, it’s my problem, no one else is going to do something, but I’m not either because I might get ‘killed’.

[2] ‘Desire’ here is used not in the usual sense of a relation to a something that is desired. It is used in the Lacanese sense of a relation to that which remains wanting. To desire is to be mindful of the gap that remains and that is left to be desired.  

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