Reading Ogden: On Psychoanalytic Virtues (#2)
To know Ogden, one must know Winnicott and Bion
Adam J. Rodríguez, PsyD is a psychoanalytic psychologist in private practice in Portland, OR. He is the editor and a contributor to “Know That You Are Worthy: Experiences from First-Generation College Graduates” (2023) with Rowman & Littlefield. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This is part 2 of 3-part series by Adam Rodriguez on the work of Thomas Ogden. See part 1 here.
III - Being Accountable
There are several essential elements to Ogden’s view of accountability. He notes that the analyst must hold himself accountable to the patient for his actions, but that “accountability does not end at the edge of one’s conscious control over oneself” and extends to “behaving seductively or jealously or competitively or arrogantly with the patient regardless of whether he is conscious of doing so at the time or had it in his power to refrain from doing so.” (Ogden, 2005b, p. 11). He follows this statement with a reminder that just as the analyst must be accountable for their actions, so must the patient. He adds:
“Moreover, we ask of ourselves (and of the patient) that over time there be an increase in the degree of control exercised over such behavior and an increase in the degree of conscious awareness of the previously unconscious context of that behavior.” (p. 11)
Psychoanalytic work is a slow and gradual work. It can feel as though it moves at a glacial pace, which can lead to a passive stance which includes an overly austere model of non-directiveness. I think that Ogden is arguing for a type of accountability in which the analyst is consistently monitoring the growth of himself and the patient. We may then notice and intervene with increased conscious awareness of both the analyst’s own behavior as well as the patient’s.
Ogden is arguing for a type of accountability in which the analyst is consistently monitoring the growth of himself and the patient… Our accountability is not to our operational procedures, it is to our patients, their humanity, and their suffering.
Ogden makes a case for our accountability to the patient over psychoanalysis. He states that the patient has come to us not “to be analyzed,” but for help in “living in a way that is less tormented, or less lonely, or less empty, or less devoid of a sense of self, or less destructive, or less selfish” (p. 11). Our task, he reminds us, is not an allegiance to analytic principles and ideas, theoretical concepts or dogma, or one school of thought versus another.
In his 2006 article On Teaching Psychoanalysis, Ogden shares a case example from a group supervision for general practice physicians (GPs) which he participated in. A physician was called to a patient’s home upon the death of the patient’s mother. The physician went to the patient’s home, examined the mother, pronounced her dead, and then called for an ambulance to take the woman’s mother to a mortician. The supervisor asked the physician, “Why did you do that?” which confused the physician so much that he could not respond. The GP’s actions seemed standard and obvious to him; an alternative was unimaginable. The group supervisor responded: “Why not have a cup of tea with the daughter?” Ogden noted that the group was accustomed to going into an operational mode with the patient, rather than slowing things down and allowing for a different type of humanity to emerge. I think of this as a form of accountability, (as well as being humane and facing the music!). Our accountability is not to our operational procedures, it is to our patients, their humanity, and their suffering.
IV – Dreaming Oneself Into Being
The theme of how one is alive, and how one comes into being, is present in this value. Ogden (2005b) believes that “a psychoanalyst must be able to recognize with sadness and compassion that among the worst and most crippling human losses is the loss of the capacity to be alive to one’s experience - in which case one has lost a part of one’s humanness” (p. 13). In multiple ways and places, Ogden’s articulation of the focus and goal of psychoanalysis, and of life in general, is the pursuit of coming fully into oneself and their humanity, which is connected to dreaming oneself into being.
To know Ogden, one must know Winnicott and Bion. He thinks of Winnicott and Bion as analysts concerned less with how one, as a subject, thinks, and more with how one becomes a human subject through thinking [and feeling, and playing, and experiencing]. Winnicott, through his focus on transitional objects and phenomena and his concept of going-on-being, a phrase that Ogden says is “all verb,” differentiates himself from Klein in that his focus is not on the symbolic meaning behind the play the child engages in, but rather is concerned with the “state of being involved in ‘playing’ (Ogden, 2019, p. 664). This connects to Ogden’s emphasis on the nature of psychoanalysis. He believes that the desire and drive to become more fully human is not abstract, but is a “requirement of the species” which is “among the very few things in a person’s life that may over time come to feel more important to him than his personal survival (Ogden, 1997a, p. 15).”
Bion’s work is heavily focused on how the mind forms as a thinking and feeling entity. In an effort to move away from psychoanalytic terminology that had become overly value-laden and restrictive, Bion introduces new language to describe his understanding of the thinking mind. This new terminology is often experienced by readers as confusing, as Bion often intended his writing to be, but it is in fact the opaque nature of the terms which allows the readers to create them anew for their own usage. These terms notably include beta elements, alpha elements, and alpha-function. Trying to precisely determine what exactly Bion meant by each of these terms has never proven useful to me. I think of them, and the way that I think of them is not necessarily the way Bion may have or the most “correct” way but rather the way that is most useful to me in how I work with patients, as the elements of how the mind processes experience.
Beta elements refer to the raw sensory information that our mind receives through its senses. Our minds take in stimuli from our environment, but that stimuli are in and of themselves only raw experience, not attached to symbolic meaning as produced through a mind. They may have physical meaning, like heat may burn and a taste may be bitter, but they do not have psychological meaning. The brain processes a configuration of light waves as what we generally call “blue,” yet in beta elements, blue is meaningless, along with all other colors. They carry no symbolic difference from one another and therefore cannot be attached or connected to anything meaningful. Alpha function refers to those functions of the mind which process raw sensory experience (“beta elements”), into experiences that can have symbolic meaning. They can be thought about, linked to other experiences, or stored as memory. These are called alpha elements. Another way to say this is that alpha function is the mind’s ability to take raw sensory experience and make it utilizable by the mind for the purposes of doing psychological work, (thinking, feeling, linking). When a baby is born it does not yet have a psychological experience of hunger. It does have an experience of hunger as a raw sensory experience. It feels painful, or like the baby will be torn or ripped apart, destroyed, or annihilated. The baby instinctively cries out in distress and need of satiation. The mother, in a state of what Winnicott would call primary maternal preoccupation, is attuned to the need, and has a mind which psychologically comprehends hunger. When the mother is able to emotionally and physically meet the baby’s need for satiation, they are also, important to the baby’s development as a subject, communicating to the baby on an emotional level. It is as if they are saying, “Oh yes, hunger, I know that pain. It will be relieved once you feed and then you will feel good.” The mother is providing the alpha function, since the baby has not yet developed their own.1 Over time and repeated experiences, the baby begins to develop and internalize their own sense of alpha function, through the experience with the mother, so that the pain of hunger is experienced as tolerable. It is no longer just a raw, potentially terrifying and incomprehensible, sensory experience (beta element), but instead is transformed through the mother (who provides alpha-function), into an experience that can be taken in as part of their own mind/psychology (alpha elements). This is an intersubjective experience. People come into subjects through another. We require others to become and be human.
For Bion, both the conscious and unconscious mind are in constant states of thinking and processing of experience. He considers the unconscious “work” (thinking, feeling, linking, storing) that our mind is doing “dream work.” This is opposed to our conventional concept of dreams, involving narrative stories our mind plays out during sleep. It is also different from how Freud thinks of dreams and dream-work. Freud’s dream-work refers to “that set of mental operations that serves to disguise unconscious dream-thoughts by such means as condensation and displacement. Thus, in derivative/disguised form, unconscious dream-thoughts are made available to consciousness and to secondary-process thinking” (Ogden, 2004a, p. 1355-1356). Bion’s “work of dreaming is that set of mental operations that allows conscious lived experience to be altered in such a way that it becomes available to the unconscious for psychological work (dreaming)” (p. 1356). Dreaming occurs during wake and sleep. While we are awake, Bion refers to this type of unconscious mental activity as “waking dream thoughts.”
Dreaming that is disturbed or interrupted, or having undreamt dreams, represents some form of a breakdown in the ability of our mind to do unconscious work. Interrupted or disrupted dreaming involves emotional experiences in which the patient may be able to do unconscious psychological work, but the capacity to do that work is disrupted by the overwhelming nature of what is being felt. Our emotional experiences become so overwhelming to us that our mind will not allow us to confront them. Ogden provides the example of a child who sweeps all of the toys off the table which he had previously been engrossed in. The child had experienced some emotional experience that was so overwhelming that the experience had to be negated or destroyed. Undreamable experience “is held in psychologically split-off states, such as pockets of autism or psychosis, psychosomatic disorders and severe perversions.” (Ogden, 2005b, p. 14). They remain “amorphous, ominous, unimaginable threats to one’s sanity and one’s very being” (p. 14) which is akin to what Winnicott describes as a “fear of breakdown” (Winnicott, 1974).
To underline the importance of waking dream thoughts for Ogden and their role in how we dream ourselves into existence, I will conclude this section with an extended quote. It is a “highly condensed statement” Ogden offers to describe what the analytic experience involves:
“A person consults a psychoanalyst because he is in emotional pain, which, unbeknownst to him, he is either unable to dream (i.e. unable to do unconscious psychological work) or is so disturbed by what he is dreaming that his dreaming is disrupted. To the extent that he is unable to dream his emotional experience, the individual is unable to change, or to grow, or to become anything other than who he has been. The patient and analyst engage in an experiment within the terms of the psychoanalytic situation that is designed to generate conditions in which the analysand (with the analyst’s participation) may become better able to dream his undreamt and interrupted dreams. The dreams dreamt by the patient and the analyst are at the same time their own dreams (and reveries) and those of a third subject who is both and neither the patient and analyst.
In the course of participating in dreaming the patient’s undreamt and interrupted dreams, the analyst gets to know the patient in a way and at a depth that may allow him to say something to the patient that is true to the conscious and unconscious emotional experience that is occurring in the analytic relationship at a given moment. What the analyst says must be utilizable by the patient for purposes of conscious and unconscious psychological work, that is, for dreaming his own experience, thereby dreaming himself into existence.” (Ogden, 2004a, p. 858).
This comment is so rich with meaning that I am tempted to discuss it at length. Ogden himself spends the entirety of the paper with which this quote appears breaking down this statement, piece by piece, along with a clinical illustration. I would refer the reader to the original article for a deeper understanding of the statement. If for Freud psychoanalysis is about making the unconscious conscious, for Bion it is about making the conscious unconscious.
The third and final part of this essay will be published on Dec 18, 2023.
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Ogden, T.H. (1979). On projective identification. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, 357-373.
Ogden, T.H. (1997a). Reverie and Interpretation: Sensing something human. Routledge.
Ogden, T. H. (2004a). This art of psychoanalysis: Dreaming undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85, 857-877.
Ogden, T. H. (2004b). On holding and containing, being and dreaming. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 85:1349-1364
Ogden, T. H. (2005b). What I Would Not Part With. Fort Da, 11, 8-17.
Ogden, T.H. (2006). On teaching psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 1069-1085.
Ogden, T. H. (2019). Ontological Psychoanalysis or “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 88, 661-684.
Winnicott, D.W.W. (1974). Fear of breakdown. In Psychoanalytic Explorations, (pp. 87-95), C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis (eds.). Harvard University Press.
This example also contains elements of a related phenomenon, projective identification. For a detailed analysis of projective identification by Ogden, see his 1979 article On Projective Identification. For a detailed analysis of Bion’s container/contained by Ogden, see his 2004b article On holding and containing, being and dreaming.