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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM22-PP12: Trauma and the loss of myth

Parallel Papers Session 3
Saturday 2 July 10.15am-11.30am CEST
Paper Code: PP12
CE credits not available

Trauma and the loss of myth

Presenter: Mark Argent


This paper approaches trauma in organisations as “undigested content” which resists symbolisation in terms of Bion’s concept of the proto-mental matrix and Lacan’s concepts of the Real and links this with ideas of lack, and of what can be processed in story or myth.

One example is drawn from the 2021 General Election in the UK, notable for having three would-be Prime Ministers who were not equal to the task and for a remarkable failure of political discourse which made “debate” (and therefore the democratic process) more-or-less impossible. Brexit was a key theme of that election, but was barely discussed in itself — as though what was actually being processed were traumas around the legacy of the British Empire, the rise of China and India, and political polarisation.

A second example comes from what’s been going on around Covid19. In itself this is simply an illness caused by a virus — traumatic only in the sense that an illness is something in the Real of the body, rather than primarily in words. But Covid19 has elicited a huge range of reactions including: fear of illness and death; fear of China; speculations in the West that it was created in a lab in China, and in China that it came from a lab in the USA; fears of authoritarianism in anti-covid measures; legacies of racism; conspiracy theories around the vaccines and the pandemic itself.

These imply raw anxieties finding their way into words inadequately — as if “half-thought thoughts” or things only partly in the symbolic.

Religion might once have helped with this — providing a framework of myth enabling the processing of collective unconscious content — but it’s largely lost that role in the West.

One way of thinking about the gap this leaves is provided by the perverse forms of the Lacanian discourses — “perverse” in the sense that they are attempts to deny lack rather take it into symbolisation. Interplay between different discourses holds open the possibility of change by instead engaging with lack.

Another approach is to think of religious stories as mythic expressions of basic needs, and to treat the “half-thought thoughts” — such as those around Brexit, Covid and other collective traumas — as the beginnings of religious-like myths. That opens the possibility of tracking back to the needs they express.

A key issue in collective and organisational trauma is the tendency for there to be a “conspiracy of silence” to keep it from being named or addressed. Bion and Lacan offer two helpfully-different ways to think of this and so help its presence to be articulated, and the thinking in terms of myth/story enables deeper exploration.

Changing the stories is easier in organisational interventions than at the national level. Here it’s easier to explore the stories being told (or hidden) and work with how people relate to these, and how they might be changed, to enable work to be done with “undigested content”, even as that is only partly in view to enable a different future.