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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Building on Bions Legacy: How not to throw the Baby out with the Bathwater

As is apparent in recent ISPSO programs, interest in Wilfred R. Bion and in his work is growing. International conferences most recently in Turin (1997), Los Angeles (2002), and Sao Paulo (2004) have drawn increasingly large numbers of presenters and attendees. Since his death in 1979, a biography and many new books and articles have been published. Three volumes should be noted here: the second edition of Bion and Group Psychotherapy edited by Malcolm Pines and published by Jessica Kinglsey Publishers; and two volumes edited by myself and Malcolm Pines called Building on Bion: Roots and Building on Bion: Branches which contain 20 new articles written by 20 authors from six countries - also published by Jessica Kingsley. Even as recognition of his pioneer work in clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis rises, old myths and stereotypes remain as distractions. Bion is often regarded as brilliant, but difficult - dense to read, obscure and idiosyncratic in his use of language and symbols. One example of this is a recent paper by Kenneth Eisold, president of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, delivered last June in Coesfeld, Germany at that organization's annual meeting. Dr. Eisold, a well-published psychoanalyst and group relations expert cited recent works by Victoria Hamilton, Marcia Cavell, and others in support of his view that two of Bion's major contributions - basic assumptions and theory of thinking - are not inter-subjective enough, and that Bion was not aware enough of how his own subjectivity shaped the phenomena he admittedly so carefully observed and reported. Also, it has been argued that Bion's theory of thinking was not inter-actional enough, did not acknowledge enough of the give and take, the interplay within the social context. These criticisms or corrections surprise me.As I read Bion, his legacy is strongest and rests most firmly on his probing awareness of the inter-subjective, himself included, and his ability to apprehend the socio-cultural context. He was as Grotstein has noted a 'social psychiatrist' before he was a psychoanalyst. (Lipgar & Pines 2002a, p. 9) He is, in my eyes, a pioneer and leader -brilliant, insightful, influential, and generative - the stuff of heroes. To set the stage for building on Bion's legacy, I will refer briefly to the social and cultural context in which he worked. I will not review here the tensions within the British psychoanalytic community during the middle years of the last century, although these were of concern to him. Bion lived and worked in the vortex of the turmoil of the great issues of the 20th Century. He went to war - twice. As an adolescent he volunteered for the Tank Corps in World War I and became immersed in the madness, the blood and mud of battle. As a psychiatrist in WWII, he made innovative contributions to the selection of candidates for officer training which were of assistance to the British Army as it rebuilt after its defeat at Dunkirk, and to the psycho-social treatment of personnel emotionally damaged in combat. Together with Rickman, he installed what is arguably the first 'milieu therapy' program. Between the two great wars of the last century, he studied history and medicine and after the second war, he intensified his studies of groups, psychoanalysis, and madness. Few men of his generation had more direct experience with the challenges and chaos of that century, and few in the health professions were more diligent in their determination to make sense of the tragedies and triumphs of the 20th Century.