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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Search for the Subject and The Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations

Since I began to attend ISPSO Symposia, I have been impressed and fascinated by the inordinate space devoted to the issue of the relevance of psychoanalytic thinking to the study of organizations. The exploration of this question seems to occupy a position that is central, but also beclouded by doubt, uncertainty, disagreement, and controversy. While the centrality of the issue is perfectly understandable for an organization dedicated to the pursuit of a psychoanalytic approach to organizations, the extent of the controversy and perplexity may perhaps be indicative of the very nature of the underlying issue. My acquaintance with this theme began by being somewhat traumatically exposed to Elliot Jaques's dramatic declaration in the 1992 Symposium that he psychoanalytical approach to understanding organizations is dysfunctional' (1995). As this was the first symposium I attended, you can imagine how shocked and perplexed I was to be ushered into this debate in such a startling manner. I was relieved, to some extent, by Gilles Amado's rebuttal to Jaques, but this relief was short lived.Ken Eisold posed the same question again in the 1995 London Symposium, when he asked: 'What is the psychoanalytic study of organizations?' (1997). Eisold went to great length to elucidate the changed nature and climate of the psychoanalytic stance, as experienced by the contemporary practicing psychoanalyst. He warned against the unreflective and unwarranted regarding of psychoanalytic theory as monolithic and authoritative. He raised a concerned call for attention to the uncertainty and disillusionment that seemed to be the lot of much of current psychoanalytic theorizing and clinical practice, and emphasized the elusive nature of psychoanalytic 'knowledge.' The question, however, continued to be echoed and reverberated in almost any subsequent discussion and forum.At the same Symposium, David Armstrong (1995) examined the nature of the 'analytic object.' He found that 'psychoanalytic practice has taught us that its 'object' is disclosed in what happens between a pair of people within the space of an analytic session.' He applied this insight to what was 'released and revealed' in the space between his client and himself as consultant. By focusing on this emergent 'object' David Armstrong sensed and formulated an 'unknow' emotional aspect of the organization's 'way of being' which had eluded formulation: a sense of vulnerability that needed to be managed. A good deal of Armstrong's discussion is highly relevant to my theme, even though his point of departure is the 'analytic object,' while my focus here is on the 'analytic subject.' Clearly, however, subject and object are closely intertwined in what I will be looking at. It is particularly pertinent to quote Armstrong's emphasis on the disclosure of emotional meaning which 'introduces the client' to the organization-in-himself and himself-in-the-organizatio' (1995, p. 8). I will return to this important notion later.Gordon Lawrence's thoughtful and innovative address at last year's Symposium (1997) seemed to me a further link in this chain. Drawing upon Bion's metaphor of 'binocular vision,' he distinguished between the vision of Sphinx - the psychoanalytic study of groups and organizations - and of Oedipus - the dyadic, intrapsychic work with the individual - and stressed the need for the parallel and complementary development of both. Gordon Lawrence drew our attention to the erosion of Industrial Society's finite perception of reality, and hence of organizations. At this time, information technology is creating a Technological Society, increasingly faced with and in need of finding its way within an infinite universe. His claim was that psychoanalysis, through its Sphinx vision, was ideally suited for the newly emergent needs for coping with non-finite representations of reality.I am sure that further examples can be brought to illustrate this point. What strikes me most about these contributions, as well as the ensuing discussions and controversies stirred up by them, is the fact that they represent attempts to grapple with one uncertainty by drawing on another. The question of the relevance of psychoanalysis to understanding and working with organizations then shifts to taking up certain psychoanalytic insights and lending or ascribing to them authoritative, fixed-truth status. I believe, however, that the ongoing struggle with this question suggests that the phenomenon we are trying to describe and account for has an inherent elusiveness. The nature of the encounter resembles shadow boxing: one is convinced there is someone there, and every once in a while a punch seems to connect and reach its goal. Yet one is never quite sure of the nature and identity of one's opponent, nor can the outcome of the bout ever be decided. The Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel comes to mind in this connection. Upon his return to the Land of Israel after many years abroad, Jacob [i.e., 'The Conniver' or 'Deceiver,' but also 'The Follower'] is faced with the danger of facing his brother Esau, from whom he had escaped. Jacob sends his herds across the river as gift-bearing delegations, carrying placating messages of conciliation to Esau. He then brings his several wives and eleven children across the river. Having taken care of his riches and his dear ones, he is finally left all alone at the crossing. Alone and in the dark of night, the struggle takes place; And there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he [the angel/man] touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.' And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.' And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel [i.e., He who striveth with God]; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.' And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? 'And he blessed him there.' (Genesis 32:25-30).In a later recapitulation of the encounter between man and the angel of God (the annunciation of the birth of Samson) the same question is again posed to the angel: 'What is thy name?' This time, however, the answer is stated more fully: 'Wherefore askest thou after my name, seeing it is hidden?' (Judges 13:18). The identity of the subject in the internal strife remains unknown even as the struggle bestows a name and an identity.'