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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Recovery of Meaning

In the advance publicity for this Symposium we are told that it offers an opportunity to explore he future of organisations and how psychoanalytic theory can help us understand this future. 'I should say at the outset that I have two difficulties with this optimistic statement. The first is that I doubt that psychoanalytic theory can help us understand organisations at any time [I am not persuaded that it can help us understand individuals at any time either.] What I believe may help us to understand organisations at some time and certainly in my experience does help us to understand ourselves in the time of our personal lives, is psychoanalytic practice. Without experience of that practice, on either side of the analytic encounter, no amount of acquaintance with theory is likely to prove all that useful. Psychoanalysis is an applied discipline, in the sense that it is discipline applied to the phenomenology of the consulting room. Theory is extrapolation at best, and the conjunction of such theory with the world of organisations, which are neither subject nor object of psycho-analytic practice, is extrapolation once removed. I have argued elsewhere (1) that the relevance of psychoanalytic experience and understanding to working with and thinking about organisations lies primarily in its heuristic value: as a method of attention to and interpretation of emotional experience. I have suggested that this methodology can have an analogue in the organisational domain and that the practice of this analogue can yield insights into the dilemmas, challenges, paradoxes and discontents of organisations that may elude other methods of enquiry. Perhaps I am making too much of this objection. I raise it mainly as a way of trying to ground what I say, and mainly to and for myself. When I first began thinking about this paper, I was under the sway of a particular psycho-analytic account of the genesis of meaning and its significance in development. I thought it might be possible to deploy this account in thinking through a number of observations from recent consultancy assignments, each of which in different ways seemed to touch on questions of meaning and the clients' openness to meaning as a factor in organisational life. However, this trial venture proved increasingly difficult and irksome. I felt I was compressing phenomena from one domain into a frame of reference derived from another : nothing quite seemed to fit, without distortion. I was trying to exemplify and apply something 'known', when what I had to do was venture out from something 'unknown' and risk what links I would find. This paper is the outcome : more tentative, provisional, confused than I had hoped. But by the same token, perhaps, more relevant to the content and the process of this Symposium. Which leads me to the second difficulty I have with the organisers' statement of intent. How can 'psychoanalytic theory' or psychoanalytic practice or indeed any other theory or practice help us to understand something that is not yet here. We may believe that the future can be predicted, although the precedents are not particularly encouraging. But in what possible sense can it be understood here and now. One available answer is contained in Wilfred Bion's evocative phrase, 'the shadow of the future cast before'. This could be taken to mean that the seeds of the future exist now, as a kind of inner resonance or presaging of things to come, something that can be captured and given provisional expression. An example that comes immediately to mind, in relation to this setting, is Fred Emery and Eric Trist's formulation of the theory of turbulent environments and its implications for organisational development. (2) However I do not think that this interpretation exactly catches Bion's meaning and its emotional undertow. It is hard for example not to hear in association to it, Freud's image in Mourning and Melancholia, of 'the shadow of the object (that) falls on the ego' - something impending that heralds loss, abandonment, 'catastrophic change'. On this reading the shadow that the future casts darkens rather than illumines. It heralds the arrival or return of the not known : a world without something or with something unprecedented. I want to argue that it is in encouraging our acceptance of, our readiness to receive this darkening, that psycho-analysis (more accurately a psychoanalytic approach) can help us most to understand the future, organisationally no less than personally. Or rather not so much to understand it as to understand our not understanding, in a way that prepares us or tunes us to meet it, to make it and to develop with it.'