The Symbolizing Function of the Object
Every theory is necessarily a theory of the self and for a given individual, but at the same time it cannot but be a theory of the object and of the manner in which the object subjectifies the self or enables the self to take on board the feeling of being a subject. That is the symbolizing function of the object, if we agree to superimpose the development of symbolization on the function of subjective and subjectifying appropriation.
That is no doubt why psychoanalysis is constantly attempting to develop its representation of the symbolizing function of the object and of the process of symbolization. It is also why psychoanalysis modifies or adjusts certain sections of its theory in order to fit them more closely to the ongoing progress it makes in understanding symbolization. Psychoanalysis had first to acknowledge that symbolization certainly does not go without saying, but that it is the outcome of an internal processing that demands more than simply putting a curb on discharge; it then had to admit that the quality and nature of intrapsychic binding are just as fundamental as its purely quantitative aspects. Our conception of the work of symbolization had to integrate these points, and in so doing was modified. Those aspects have had an impact also on our conception of the intersubjective function of the Oedipal objects and on the way in which we conceive of their symbolizing — or potentially symbolizing — function for the individual concerned.
The theory of anaclisis that Freud put forward (1905d) meant that all the object had to do was to ensure self-preservation; it was up to the infant, following the model of the satisfaction of bodily needs, to work out his or her auto-eroticisms in order to provide a basis for sexuality, both present and future. That theory, however, can no longer satisfy the demands of how we are to represent the urgent needs of the object’s primary function. Closer clinical investigation of narcissistic pathologies of the sense of identity bring into much sharper focus what could, in other circumstances, remain relatively well-hidden — I emphasize the word « relatively », because of course the problem existed already, for example, in the hysterical patient’s rancour or in the obsessive-compulsive patient’s magical thinking. In so doing, it made it absolutely vital to think again about the question of the specific features and nature of how symbolization could gain support from the object and the Oedipal objects.
It might indeed be advisable to abandon the concept of anaclisis, because too often it bears the hallmark of its origins and is understood merely in terms of the « support » that it offers or the backing it finds in bodily needs, often to the detriment of ego needs (Winnicott 1986, 1987) or to what could make symbolization and subjectivity possible. It is not only the support or backing of the environment that these require — unless we extend the definition of anaclisis to a considerable degree and see it as the metaphor for all the preconditions of the activity of representation.
The same is probably true of the increasingly obvious polysemous nature of the concept of « object » in psychoanalysis. This too is a source of misunderstandings and ambiguities, not all of which can be looked upon as the undecidable elements that are required for mental processing — especially as regards what that clinical concept reveals of the historically-crucial nature of the subjectifying function of being acknowledged by an other-subject.
These two issues tend mutually to reinforce their ability to make certain aspects less well-defined — the idea of anaclisis and even that of taking support from the object, the transference relationship that does not seem to be set up in terms of what I would describe quite generally as the relationship to the object or to the other-subject, and the relationship both to symbolization itself and to the process and / or apparatus of symbolization.
That is one of the ideas which I intend to explore in this chapter: the characteristic features of the primary relationship to the object tend to be transferred onto the self’s relationship with the activity of symbolization and with the symbolic « acknowledgement » that could be expected of this.
In their developments of Bion’s theory of thinking, Green and Donnet (1973) argue that in psychosis damage is done not simply to a given fantasy but, more generally, to the apparatus of symbolization itself: what Bion (1962) liked to call the apparatus for thinking thoughts. What psychosis makes abundantly clear through its impact on the mind seems to me to be present — in a less well-defined or perhaps more hidden way — in all narcissistic pathologies of the sense of identity (and perhaps, even more widely, in the transference neuroses themselves, even though what is at stake here is not as crucial as in the psychoses).
Each specific mode of mental functioning has its own relationship to symbolization, its apparatus and its functions, one which differs from all the rest. These variations highlight the existence of a differential relationship to the activity of representation and open up the question of the historical meaning of these differences, thus enabling some possibility of interpreting that relationship.
Following in the footsteps of other psychoanalysts, I have personally emphasized this factor, particularly in the relationship between the self and that part of the apparatus of symbolization that we call language; it applies also to the relationship between the self and the dimension of primary symbolization, i.e. the sphere in which thing-presentations are produced. This is shown quite clearly through the analysis of differences in how dream activity functions and how the individual relates to dream activity.
Writers, and more especially poets — I am thinking here particularly of those who have engaged with the substance of language itself: Mallarmé, stylists like Céline or Proust (see the following chapters), and, much more recently, Novarina (1989) — are outstanding examples (and cultivated ones, to boot) of this particular differential relationship to language or to the actual substance of language. Nevertheless, often in a more muted way and with less emphasis, the words of our analysands, pronounced while they are lying on the couch, also bear witness to this. In such cases, the transference goes beyond the relationship that analysands set up with their analyst or with the psychoanalytic situation as such; it has also to do with the use they make generally of the analysis and its symbolizing setting, and with the manner in which they treat the whole apparatus of language.
When we try to understand what phase of history or prehistory is being brought into the transference, when we try to follow what is being transferred into the relationship with the setting and the apparatus of symbolization, that is when it may become possible to grasp more clearly the fact that what is being reproduced is the relationship with the symbolizing function of the Oedipal objects, displaced onto the relationship with symbolization itself.
Does this way of looking at the situation — it is slightly different from those that have become classic in psychoanalytic literature — help us to « dig more deeply » or to deploy other aspects of the symbolizing function of the object? That is the issue that I am at present attempting to think through.
The question of the symbolizing function of the Oedipal objects has focused particularly on two aspects — conditions or perhaps preconditions — of symbolization.
The first has to do with the environment functioning as a protective shield against excitation or against the quantum of excitation. In order to symbolize or to develop a capacity for representation, the quantum of excitation that has to be bound via symbolization must be relatively moderate so as not to overwhelm the infant’s capacities. In this way, the movement from perception-hallucination to simple thing-presentations with the support of the object’s protective shield against the quantum of excitation becomes possible. Another way of putting it would be to emphasize that what is at that point the main factor of excitation — the absence of or separation from the object — must not exceed the capacity of the individual to restore, via representation, the mental continuity that is necessary for the feeling of ongoing being to be maintained or recovered.
The second goes more deeply into the conditions under which this protective shield against excitation can be brought into play; the idea is to identify the main axis of the qualitative aspect of a triangular structure: the Oedipal attractor. Whether it is via a reference to the father in the mother’s discourse and desire, the censorship of the woman-as-lover, to use Fain’s term (it has really caught on!), or, with reference to Freud, through evoking the various metaphors of the threat of castration pronounced by the mother and expected from the father, we would all agree that when the maternal object manifests a reference to or desire for a third party, the infant can thereupon break free of a pre-symbolic and anti-symbolizing mirroring relationship.
There cannot be any symbolization unless some Oedipal structure is established, unless there is a gap between two other individuals who set up a third-party function and a process of metaphorization from one to the other. The protective shield par excellence is the outcome of this third-party dimension that lies at the heart of the structuring quality of that twofold difference: between the sexes and between generations.
Benchmarks like these make up the matrix of the symbolizing function of the Oedipal objects; they no longer, however, seem to me to be sufficient to account for the specific clinical situations on which my present thinking is based. The Oedipus complex, together with its function as attractor-binder for symbolization, emphasizes one of the general conditions under which symbolization can take place and the setting in which it can unfold; it designates what must be appropriated and bound — but it does not show in sufficient detail how that appropriation may come about nor how it may miss its mark. The Oedipal situation includes within itself what has to be symbolized and how symbolization can be carried out, but in such general terms that its implementation in practice leaves much to be desired; the conditions under which it can be subjectively appropriated are too vague, at least when it is first actualized.
There is another level which stands in a dialectical relationship to the first, and which attempts to give a fuller picture of the specific features of the implementation of that matrix or general framework. I am referring here to the mother’s containing function (or that of the parental couple) and, beyond that, to the mother’s reverie. Here, as in the mirroring function of the primary environment described by Winnicott, another step forward is taken towards setting up techniques of primary binding that make possible the energy retention necessary for symbolization to take place. In this general model, there is a reflective function in the object’s response to the self’s feelings, distress and impulses. Here, it is when the object is present that the self has to discover the wherewithal to work at representation, not simply when the object is absent, albeit to an acceptable degree.
This model appears to satisfy most psychoanalysts, especially when the « mother’s capacity for reverie » is endowed with a general metaphorical function such that it designates the set of means employed by the object in helping the self, in enabling the individual to bind and contain any outbursts of primary sensations and affects. In a somewhat paradoxical manner, Bion’s more abstract formulations concerning the transformation of beta elements into alpha elements have also acquired metaphorical significance in discussions between psychoanalysts.
The work of metaphorization is important: it brings together all the elements of a question and « contains » them before all of their particular ramifications, hidden conflictualities and blurred paradoxes can be displayed. Could we now make an attempt at demetaphorization such that we are not left facing too many raw formulations nor imprisoned inside a model which, although important — the model of fantasy and dreams — is nonetheless limited in scope, in our approach to the complex nature of the question?
It must anyway be said that, in the various models that I have described, there are two issues that remain unresolved, two questions that make it absolutely necessary to have recourse to certain theoretical suggestions which we owe to Winnicott.
The first concerns the shift from the symbolization and primary binding proposed by the object, by the object’s behaviour and reverie, to a symbolization that is the fruit of the self’s own mental endeavours. This, in other words, is the work of deconstruction / construction, of the subjective and creative appropriation, by the self, of symbolization. As far as I know, Bion had very little to say about this; indeed, it is often lost behind references to the process of identification. In this case, however, the identificatory response would do nothing more than hide an unsightly shabbiness, because what is really at stake is the need to explain and to account for the processes that lie behind symbolic or symbolizing identification.
The second point has to do with how to articulate the two facets of the symbolizing function of the object. Objects are simultaneously — this is the problem that I pointed out earlier with respect to the Oedipal situation — objects to be symbolized (their differences, their otherness, their absence) and objects for symbolizing. Here too, the Oedipal matrix offers us a convenient framework for developing these issues, but at the same time, in our clinical work with patients suffering from narcissistic disturbances of their sense of identity, we can see that that framework is too simplistic; we can probably all the same « symbolize » the otherness of one of the objects with the other, and vice-versa, as long as we disconnect the relationship to be symbolized from that for symbolizing. However, this form of « triangulation », to which the psychoanalyst, during a session, may well have recourse — the psychoanalyst is there to be symbolized and for symbolizing — can never be more than a first step, especially if the difficulty in articulating the two facets of the symbolizing function of the object is always treated in this way. Distributing between two ambivalent polarities obfuscates the real work of conflictuality, i.e. facing up to the otherness of which the object is the cause and processing it with that object.
That twofold necessity — facing up to the object’s otherness and symbolizing that otherness with the object — is precisely what I mean by the phrase I used earlier: the other-subject. Clinically speaking, that symbolization can never be complete, but if progress is made along these lines this will be highly significant for the self’s capacity to symbolize with a third-party figure (cf. the way in which auto-eroticism functions) the incompleteness and non-fulfilment that is experienced in the relationship with the object.
When I began this presentation I was careful not to use the « classic » term object relation; I quite deliberately preferred the apparently more vague idea of relationship with the object. In Playing and Reality, Winnicott suggested a concept that has not met with the same success as that of transitionality, even though it does shed light on the problems that I have just evoked. In addition to the idea of an object relation — the relationship that is set up with an object separate from the self — Winnicott suggested that there were also different issues that involve the use of the object. What I call the relationship to the object has to do with the dialectics that are set up between an object relation and the use of the object.
I would suggest that the use of the object has specifically to do with what I call « the object for symbolizing ». It involves the object that lends itself to attempts at symbolization by the self, agreeing to annul or attenuate any reminder of its otherness in order to facilitate symbolization. Use of the object, particularly in the field of ego needs, is an extension of the primary maternal preoccupation; it operates mainly during intersubjective phases that amount to symbolizing situations.
In order to understand the articulation between object relation and use of the object in terms of the object’s symbolizing function, it is necessary to go back to Winnicott’s conception of how the otherness of the object is discovered.
Following Freud and Ferenczi (1913), psychoanalysts saw the discovery of « reality » — or, rather, the exteriority of the object — as having its roots in the frustration imposed on the infant by the absence of the object; the discovery of reality is a direct effect of that frustration, and thinking and symbolization have their origins in the hallucination that the absence of the object produces. For Winnicott, however, that sequence is more complex and has also to do with the use of the object and with how this combines with destructiveness.
The first fundamental modification is Winnicott’s idea that the hallucinatory process takes place whenever any increase in drive-related tension occurs (although the use of the word « drive » in the strict sense of the term may be inappropriate here), and not simply when the object is absent. Hallucinations are a response to the increase in tension, not to the realization that the object is absent; they are independent of the reality of the object. Hallucination and perception are not alternatives; hallucinations may occur even when the object is present. Hence the problem of how hallucination or drive-related excitation can be bound by the object: the problem of « primary » binding.
If the object is absent, drive-related excitation and hallucination will be dealt with either through evacuative discharge or through some form of binding in statu nascendi (here, it is primary masochistic binding that comes to mind).
If, however, the object is present and its response « attuned » to the hallucinatory process, it will give rise to the found-created dimension and the transformation of hallucination into illusion. Later, once the dimension of primary illusion is set up in a sufficiently solid manner, if the « censorship of the women-as-lover » or a decrease in the primary maternal preoccupation weakens this « made-to-measure » adaptation and jeopardizes both the primary illusion of self-creation of gratification (or of non-gratification, which is also found-created) and the kind of primary link set up thanks to the object and the care that it provides, the infant will then be able to try out a further developmental step.
The threat that hangs over the primary illusion triggers an increase in destructiveness, linked both to the distress and to the anger experienced as a result of the feeling of failure generated by inadequate maternal attunement.
At this point, Winnicott suggests a second modification to the theory of how the mind is structured. In the classical view, exteriority is discovered because « the external world […] and what is hated are identical » (Freud 1915c, p.136) — it is therefore a direct result of frustration and destructiveness, and almost a way of opposing these.. Winnicott, however, argues that the birth of exteriority depends on the response of the object to the self’s destructiveness. This is the point at which object relations and the use of the object begin. Winnicott’s suggestions therefore introduce an additional stage, the effect — and perhaps the function — of which is to make room for the response of the object within the infant’s process of symbolization.
In order to be discovered, the object has to « survive » destructiveness, and this implies three aspects in the object’s response to that destructiveness. The first two are: no withdrawal — the object has to be psychologically present; no reprisals or retaliation — the object must not enter into a power struggle with the self. However, these two very important aspects — they are often the only ones to be mentioned — are not in themselves sufficient; in addition, the object must break free of the orbit of destructiveness and re-establish contact with the self, showing itself to be creative and alive. It is in this way that the object bears witness to its existence in terms of an other-subject. It is re-establishing contact that is the decisive element in the discovery of the object’s exteriority; basically, the other two factors are simply the necessary preconditions under which that contact can be re-established.
Strictly speaking, the work of symbolization can only begin once it encounters that boundary which holds back destructiveness: the link with the object survives the attack — or, more precisely, it is revealed in and through that attack insofar as it serves to bind the destructiveness that is part of it.
What Bion (1959) called « attacks on linking » in narcissistic pathology is a way of trying to get back in touch — or to get at last in touch — with that experience, one which I would describe as the destroyed-found object. There is no need, then, to resort to concepts such as a constitutional incapacity to tolerate frustration in an attempt to explain certain problems encountered in setting up the apparatus for symbolization; as Winnicott implicitly argues, the inadequacy of the object’s response in the attempt to bind primary destructiveness is a much clearer explanation.
Once the object is discovered in all of its exteriority, an object relation — which of course will be ambivalent — then takes root. The object « survives », it is « discovered » as the object of the drives and it is loved. At the same time, the self is dependent on that object; since it may be absent, missed by the self, it will also be hated.
The beginnings of primary symbolization arise from the « retroactive » restructuring that has to be carried out on the world of primary illusion, in order to take into account this new aspect of subjective experience.
The gap introduced by the object against the backcloth of its primary adaptation to the self’s needs — the bulwark that is thus created — opens up a field of experience thanks to which the complex process that will lead to symbolization can begin. The object’s response to the destructiveness that is thereby mobilized sets up the preconditions for that work of symbolization to become a possibility. Here the object is just as much the barrier that primary illusion comes up against as the element which enables destructiveness to be the occasion for a structuring discovery. It operates just as much through its own limitations as in terms of those it imposes on the infant’s destructiveness. Development and gradual integration are not automatic or dependent solely on the self’s internal processes; they become structured only when they are accompanied by an appropriate response from the Oedipal objects, when the infant is not left on his or her own to face up to these destructive impasse situations. The intervention of the object is required if illusion and destructiveness are to be transformed into the mainsprings of the work of representation.
The next phase is that of the presentation of the object. As the primary maternal preoccupation diminishes, the need to compensate for that decrease means that the object must offer the infant some kind of substitute for what is felt to be lacking. The object offers other objects, suggesting to the infant that he or she adapts by transferring the feeling of something lacking on to these other objects, which will then become primary symbols. The « objects for symbolizing » will take over from what the object no longer provides, or at least will help to narrow the gap that is always opening up between « found » and « created ». A dialectic is set up between what the infant can continue to take directly from the relationship with the object and what will have to be obtained with the help of symbolization. What appears to be a pre-requisite for these beginnings of representation is that the infant must not feel over-dependent on the object nor feel hurt by his or her own immaturity and relative helplessness. The work of symbolization enables the object’s efforts at adaptation to be finished off, so that they can gradually be reduced and lead to a « good enough » response with respect to the infant’s narcissism.
Part of the object’s symbolizing function is to offer the infant the wherewithal to compensate sufficiently for the feeling of loss that is part of the relationship with the object. Thus it is that the limitations perceived in that relationship with the object open on to the need to use other objects to symbolize and make up for the inadequacies of the Object itself. The object therefore proposes that the feeling of loss that it generates be transferred onto and dealt with by the work of symbolization and the objects which make this possible. That « proposition » is essential if the infant is to use these objects in order to symbolize the feeling of loss that he or she experiences with the object. Once again, it is only metaphorically that such a « proposition » can be identified with the emergence of the paternal function. That function will indeed be found somewhere along that same dimension, but it represents only one specific instance of it, its processing horizon as it were, even though it does have a significant structuring aspect to it. I indeed have the impression that it can have a truly structuring effect only if it has been preceded by a significant degree of « use » of objects for symbolizing.
Let us now examine the nature and function of these objects and explore how they are bound up with the relationship to the object of which they are the locus of transference / transformation.
My first comment follows on directly from what I have just indicated. These « symbolizing objects » must be proposed by the object itself, which must acquiesce in and perhaps even encourage the way in which they are used.
By proposing other objects, the Object starts to open up the possibility of differentiating between the relationship to an object and the use of an object. The subjective appropriation of the work of symbolization assumes that this transference is carried out and that it is being encouraged by the primary environment — in other words that the primary environment agrees to some of its features being displaced onto other objects; this displacement will enable the secret of symbolization to be gradually revealed. This is particularly true of what is involved in the use of the object.
The object’s agreement is vital also for another reason, this time linked to the auto-eroticisms that are mobilized by the work of representation and by the subjective appropriation that this makes possible. The ability to play with objects that are primary symbols goes hand in hand with the development of auto-eroticisms — these are quite different from auto-sensualities which do not possess any activity of representation other than hallucination — and comes up against the same basic problem complex as these, i.e. that of secondary narcissistic activities. These are « taken from the object » as Freud (1915c) put it. This implies that the appropriation of the objeu and of all self-related activities (especially auto-erotic ones) is experienced as being taken away from the objects that are either directly involved or represented; that feeling goes hand in hand with the fear of and / or wish to dispossess these objects of the typical features of the work of representation. This activity and the work of autonomization and mourning which it implies always call de facto into question the object’s ability to survive the subjective appropriation that is part and parcel of this situation.
The pleasure that these movements entail means that there is a fear of dispossessing the object of its own pleasure, but at the same time the wish to do just that; the new capacities that they offer the infant come up against the question whether or not they have been acquired in opposition to and to the detriment of the object.
Do the activity of symbolization and the auto-eroticisms that support it impact on the object and / or on the quality of the relationship that the self has with it?
If the quality of that relationship is not in any way threatened by the object’s responses, this implies that it is of little value — it has not affected the object because it is more or less worthless.
If it is threatened too powerfully, according to the intersubjective testimony of the object’s modes of response, this leads to a dilemma: a choice has to be made between a relationship with the object and symbolization, i.e. between a relationship with the object and the use of the object. That dilemma runs deep, and knows of no solution.
The object’s symbolizing response ought to be able to diffract those fears and wishes: the object is affected by the wish and survives in refutation of the fear. It shows itself to be affected, thereby substantiating the reality of the ongoing attempt at separation / differentiation, acknowledging the value of and the issues involved in that attempt, and at the same time bears witness to the changes thus brought about in the relationship with the object. It survives, with its capacity for pleasure, and thereby enables a difference to be made between actual reality and the psychical reality involved in the process of appropriation.
Ideally, the dialectic between the two components thereby differentiated with the help of the object’s response will produce some modification in the relationship with the object; that modification will bear witness to what has recently been integrated thanks to the work of symbolization that has taken place. It then also becomes apparent that any continuation of the work of symbolization is dependent on the object’s « accompaniment », on its mirror-role within the relationship and on how the object accepts and tolerates its representatives / representations being used and displaced in the interaction. The object can always impose a veto on the work in progress — which, therefore, remains subordinate to the object’s acceptance.
Proposing objects for symbolizing, surviving the work of symbolization that is carried out on those objects, surviving the unfolding of auto-eroticisms and the way in which they affect and transform the relationship then reflect it back — these are the fundamental aspects of the object’s symbolizing function and of the way in which that function vectorizes and makes possible the work of subjective and differentiating appropriation. The object’s response to this displacement and the way in which it encourages and substantiates these responses fall within the scope of the deflecting function of the object.
This leads me to the third comment that I would make as regards the function of the object in the initial stages of the work of symbolization. Retroactively, the use of symbolizing objects will enable certain primary features of the relationship to the object to be diffracted and analysed, given that it has now become possible to define them. Play is an analyser of the relationship to the object. It enables, retroactively, what made the experience of the initial encounter with the object worth revealing through and in the work of symbolization; in addition, it is a fundamental aspect of the subjective appropriation of the experience itself. The transference and other ways of taking stock of that experience, including that with other objects, are crucial; they are of the same essence as the revelation of the value of the work of representation itself.
Even better, it is in and through this kind of play that it becomes possible, retroactively, to distinguish between what belongs to the object relation and what involves the use of the object. It is when this takes place that differences are deepened and are revealed; they become perceptible and can be represented. The object relation has to do with issues concerning the confrontation in the primary relationship with the object’s otherness, with the non-pliable part of the object; the use of the object, and therefore symbolization, has to do with the way in which the object annuls its otherness in order to lend support to the self’s efforts at symbolization and make itself appropriate for that use.
It is therefore retroactively and thanks to play that the gap between object relation and use of the object can be properly estimated; the relationship to the object is freed of the burden of the use of the object, with the latter being put to use in symbolizing that relationship. That gap depends on the ongoing work being done through play and changes as symbolization progresses — which thereby modifies the relationship to the object. This takes us far from a conception of object relations that are set up only with respect to the primacy of a given drive-related activation — it is rather the development of the capacity for symbolization that determines which drive-related impulses are activated and therefore the kind of object relation that will be possible or predominant. Object relations and use of the object are therefore in a complementary and dialectical relationship that varies according to the progression of symbolization; they are both different from each other yet non-separable — the one cannot be thought about without some reference to the other.
Play and non-play cannot be considered independently from each other. Experience and symbolization call upon and give meaning to each other reciprocally and dialectically; also, they are in a dialectical relationship with the deflecting and reflecting functions of the object that acknowledges and therefore appropriates them (or does not acknowledge and therefore invalidates them, disqualifying them as to their capacity to process).
That is why a study of the properties of symbolizing objects, of the pliable medium, has much to teach us about the « relational » conditions and preconditions for symbolization. That pliable medium is both the object of transference of these conditions and preconditions and the locus in which their diffraction and differentiation can be analysed. The way in which it is used — the way in which its various properties can be used in the work of symbolization — tells us something about what it inherits from the primary relationship to the object. The relationship that the self has with it bears the imprint of the history of its relationship with the use of the primary object; its « usable » capacities tell us what has been used in the primary relationship with the object, while its non-usable capacities highlight what was not available for use with the primary object.
The relationship with the pliable medium of the process of symbolization also bears witness to the way in which the activity of symbolization was acknowledged and substantiated in the relationship with the object. This opens up the possibility of access to the symbolizing function of the object, through its transference onto the symbolizing-object that symbolizes the symbolization.
Once the symbolizing function has been transferred on to the symbolizing objects, the specific features of the way in which the object materializes its symbolizing function can be interpreted and analysed; they can be reconstructed in terms of the use of the object. At the same time, this enables us to improve our representations of relation-based qualities, incipient ego needs that will be required for the future deployment of the capacity for symbolization; it enables us also to get a better grasp of the forerunners of the primary relationship, so that the use of the object then becomes possible. This in turn allows us to go more deeply into the relation-based characteristics that maternal reverie must make possible in order to prepare for the forthcoming subjective appropriation that is inherent in the work of primary symbolization. The concept of the « good enough » mother can therefore be described in more detail, as can its articulation with the pre-symbolizing function of the object.
In light of what the pliable medium diffracts, the initial attunement, which makes possible the organizing of the primary illusion in terms of found-created that is required if symbolization and the symbolization « thing » is to take root, must contain a certain number of characteristics that can be identified and listed.
In several of my earlier papers (e.g. Roussillon 1995), I began to draw up a list of the various characteristic features of the symbolizing-objects of the pliable medium type; these typical features are also the qualitative characteristics of the primary attunement relationship — those which give initial shape to the future properties of the symbolization apparatus within the primary relationship.
Their principal components are as follows: a specific consistency (the degree of hardness and malleability), indestructibility, ability to be taken hold of and transformed, sensitivity, availability, reversibility, reliability and constancy. Once these properties have been sufficiently tried out, with their limitations — these concern the otherness of the object, the boundary that has to be symbolized on the basis of the properties of the object — they can be transferred onto the apparatus for symbolization and the symbolizing objects so as to make them fit for use in the process of representing a given experience. Coming across them and appropriating them through representation will create a specific level of the experience of subjectivity that lies at the heart of the ability to take hold of and define internally the subjective experience of the activity that is symbolization. The embodiment of their specific features will imbue the experience of symbolizing with their particular effects and nuances, thus echoing the history of how they were built up and the limits of their intersubjective deployment.
Given these specific modalities of the relationship to symbolization — in a psychoanalytic session or in the course of everyday life — it becomes possible to make legible a particular feature or other of the primary experience of the encounter with objects, as well as the specific manner in which these objects are present for the self; they can be reconstructed, notwithstanding the disguises to which the passing of time and the application of the pleasure-unpleasure principle have subjected them. An experience of destruction of the capacity for symbolization should make us think of the existence of a possible primary trauma. Destruction of the object or of the link to it and the unavailability of the words or substance required for symbolization raise the issue of the availability of the object. Stereotyped and unchanging formulations or style evoke matters concerning the object’s sensitivity or lack of sensitivity, etc.
Of course no immediate equation can be made between a given symptom affecting the relationship to the apparatus for symbolization and the history of the individual’s encounter with the object. That working hypothesis, all the same, does open up possibilities and it would be a pity simply to dismiss them immediately in the name of the complex nature of retroactive reorganizations dominated by the self’s pleasure principle — especially when what is at the forefront of the clinical situation has to do with narcissistic and self-identity issues and with what remains imprisoned inside the primary compulsion to repeat.
In the clinical situations that lie behind my hypotheses, the transference of the specific features of the primary relationship with the object onto the apparatus for symbolization itself is like a violent attack: there is very little processing behind it, so that in a relatively simple way it can reveal the traumatic past.
This leads me quite naturally to the question of the clinical and technical effects of the use of the object. I have just stated that the work of reconstruction of the specific features of the primary relationship with the object can begin to become possible based on their transference onto the work of symbolization. The question which then arises is that of the « psychoanalytic » use of the object’s symbolizing function and of the importance that we attach to the object’s responses at each stage of the process whereby the self’s symbolizing function is constructed.
Green (1990) gave some indication of this when he emphasized that, in a session, the analyst has to supply the response that the object, in the past, did not communicate to the analysand, a response that would probably have helped the analysand to integrate and metabolize his or her experience. Although that first indication is indeed essential, I do not think that it is in itself sufficient, because it is important also to analyse the historical effects of the object’s inadequate response — in other words, the consequences of the fact that the object did not let itself be (or could not, for whatever reason, be) used. In my experience — and this is particularly the case in the analysis of narcissism and its distortions — we have to reconstruct the object’s response and the impact of this on the structuring of the self. The work of reconstruction, as Winnicott observed, involves not only the processes specific to the self but also the dialectical relationship between these and those of the object — not simply the object-for-the-self but also the object as such. I realize that this gives rise to a number of problems, particularly as regards the status of the historical reality that finds itself de facto implicated; what must also be taken into consideration, however, is the structuring bulwark that this kind of investigation makes possible.
No human being has ever been self-conceived in his or her bodily existence, and the same is true of our psychological make-up. The organization of our mental apparatus does not depend solely on a series of events and on the meaning that we attach to them; it depends also on the dialectical relationship that is set up between our mental processes and the echoes that these have undoubtedly heard coming from the environment. We are no more self-generated psychologically than we are physically; the primal scene has a considerable number of relation-based and intersubjective aspects in addition to the sexual bodies that it displays. The analysis of narcissism cannot avoid following also the path that leads to a reconstruction of the dimension that we call the use of the object. It cannot ignore the history of the self’s object relations nor can it overlook the relationship that the object had with the self or the function that the self had for the object’s psychical economy. How to take up in the course of psychoanalytic treatment the dimension of the use of the object seems to me to be one of the crucial questions that contemporary psychoanalysis must address.