Wilfred Ruprecht Bion. Past and Future

Last Updated: domenica, 22 dicembre, 2013

What's New

Bion's Legacy To Groups

This is the Introduction we wrote to
Parthenope Bion Talamo, Franco Borgogno e Silvio A. Merciai, Eds. (1998). Bion's Legacy to Groups. Karnac Books, London.

It is reproduced here
as an homage to Parthenope
courtesy of Cesare Sacerdoti and Karnac Books.


Parthenope Bion Talamo, Franco Borgogno, Silvio A. Merciai

Only the Ship of Fools is making the journey this year.
W. H. Auden, "Atlantis"

This anthology can be thought of as being the natural offspring of the International Centennial Conference on the Work of W. R. Bion, which was held in Turin (Italy) in July 1997. It is a "natural" offspring not so much in the sense of illegitimate though some of the chapters have been slightly revised, making use of the stimuli furnished by the Conference itself, and so could be said to have an unknown plurality of parents - but in the sense that as the Conference was a transient occasion, the desire to leave some more tangible sign of its existence was "naturally" very strong.

We decided that the book was to "represent" as near as feasibly possible the atmosphere that resulted from the intermingling of (a) the original formulation of the conference "philosophy" as expressed right from the start in the call for papers (i.e. not to celebrate Bion's thought, but to give room to all who have continued his work with an independent way of mind: very much a work-in-progress affair, with the possibility of presenting ideas that may not have been fully worked out or tied up to other parts of psychoanalytic theory - Bion's or other people's - with which they might seem to have a natural affinity); (b) the development of the above during the preparatory months; and (c) the "realization" of our dreamt philosophy, the Conference itself, that is to say, the resulting mix of our intentions, other people's interpretation of them, and the actual outcome.

This obviously means that the criterion is a subjective one (though, on the other hand, who has ever seen a human being do things for objective reasons - i.e. other people's - and still feel that their own capacity, great or small, for creativity, is satisfied?). We three pooled our individual feelings, and, basing ourselves on what we each felt about the conference, while still warmed by the heat (metaphorical and, unfortunately, also physical) of the event itself, made our choices on the basis of an emotional adherence to the spirit of the Conference as we understood it. This perception of the "quiddity" of the meeting itself (to use Joyce's term) the realization of what had, up to the opening of the Conference, only been a partially shared and barely verbalizable set of fantasies and phantasies - was an extraordinarily important experience for all three of us and, we believe, was shared in different ways by nearly everyone at some point during the four days. It was indeed a scientific meeting with a significant emotional component, which was perceivable at the time and which we have tried, if possible, to transmit via this book: our desire to "think", keeping mental freedom and openness and preserving "wild thoughts" as such.

* * *

Given Bion's specific interest in groups, several special panels during the Conference - one of which was organized autonomously by the Tavistock, whom we wish to thank here for their enthusiastic and efficient collaboration - were dedicated to the field of group and organizational relationships and also to problems connected with institutional behaviour and change. This volume presents a selection of the contributions to these panels, showing the continuing fertility and efficacy of some of Bion's theories, together with the lasting interest in them, and in their use, by experts in this field, and ranging from the more therapeutic aspect to the application of Bion's ideas to the understanding of organizational life and conflicts, and institutional and social change, both micro- and macro-.

The first two chapters, those by Hoggett and Lipgar, show, by way of a general introduction to the theme of Bion and groups, two very different approaches to the subject. Chapter 3, by Miller, is central to the understanding of what is proving to be one of Bion's most stimulating and productive theories, that of the basic assumptions. The four chapters that complete the book discuss developments in different fields in which Bion's ideas can be applied: Lawrence and Armstrong on industrial relations, Skolnick in the field of clinical, institutional psychiatry, Hatcher Cano opening up the new development of the Internet, and Biran applying a different set of Bion's theories, not originally intended for use with groups, to the field of social, or mass, psychology.

* * *

Paul Hoggett's chapter on the internal establishment makes use of a blend of a considerable number of psychoanalytic writings (Bion, Klein, Rosenfeld, Meltzer, to mention only a few of the authors) with more political or social commentaries, such as those by Gramsci and Havel, to build up his thesis about the bent for destructiveness shown by groups and individuals. The development of his ideas in the course of the chapter, as he "dialogues" with the authors he quotes, is itself an illustration of the concept of the dynamic configuration between inner and outer world that he delineates so clearly. His treatment of concepts such as collusion with tyranny and terror can also be seen as linking up with that wider world of politics that is depicted from a different point of view in Biran's chapter.

Robert Lipgar's contribution describes Bion's noticeable influence on experiential and empirical studies of group dynamics, leadership, and group relations in the Chicago area. The author reminds us that this influence had its origins during the 1950s in the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, thanks to the sensitive mediation of Herbert A. Thelen; he then reviews the successive and more recent work of the Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations of the A. K. Rice Institute, the Northwestern Department of Education and Social Policy, and the University of Chicago Department of Psychology. Objective and quantified inquiry is seen and presented by Lipgar as a "strategy to augment and clarify `learning from experience'" and as a necessary method for testing and convalidating experiential and, more precisely, subjective data. One could almost say that it is a sort of realization of "binocular vision", congruent with Bion's vision and Tavistock tradition, and open, as the IPA's recent orientation suggests, to confrontation with "more sophisticated ways to understand and communicate what we learn in our specific field". The author essentially illustrates "Q-Methodology", initiated by the British psychologist William Stephenson. He spotlights its particular relevance for research on groups and institutions, and he introduces, compares, and comments on numerous studies that make use of this interesting research methodology.

Eric Miller, referring exclusively to Bion's early work and to his classical papers on groups (Bion, 1948_51, 1952, 1961), aims at giving new value to the aspects of "instinctiveness" that underlie the basic assumptions. According to Miller, Bion himself, when extending the field of psychoanalytic knowledge from the dyad to the group, referred initially to explicative biogenetic concepts when he described the human being as a "group animal" and illustrated the "gregarious" "valencies" of personality. But, almost in homage to Klein and her theories (she was not very interested in unconscious groups and social processes and was, in fact, less than lukewarm about them), Bion (1952), and with him many of his commentators, were rapidly to put this specifically groupish instinctual perspective to one side, in favour of the re-alignment of comprehension of the proto-mental system characterizing the basic assumptions in dyadic terms, seeing it as a product of postnatal experience and as a defensive reaction in the face of unconscious phantasies and psychotic anxieties connected with the primal scene. Although Miller feels that psychoanalytic concepts founded on the individual and on the dyad are useful (for the understanding, for example, of the problems connected with the passage from attachment to separation and autonomy within the individual-group relationship), he maintains that the specificity of group processes is lost if one refuses to take into consideration also the innate aspects of groupishness and the proto-mental system, linked to survival instincts. These are essential for the understanding of group behaviour and institutional dynamics between homogenization and differentiation. Miller thus treats the group as an arena for a "two-fold struggle": "of the group itself between homogenization in the basic-assumption group and differentiation and rational cooperation in the work group; and for the individual between attachment and separation". Bion's classic basic assumptions are discussed by Miller from this point of view and extended with an eye to later, more recent, literature.

W. Gordon Lawrence and David Armstrong, in their wide-ranging contribution, from Bion and psychoanalysis to the Internet and the logic behind the organization of labour, paint a clear fresco of contemporary society and show, without in any way forcing their hand, that it can be described in the terms of some of Bion's categories. They identify four founding elements of contemporary economic-organizational reality - (a) the availability of nothing else other than part-objects, (b) basic-assumption investments, (c) fears of catastrophic change, (d) memory and desire - and conclude, in line with the teachings of Bion's legacy, that only the suspension of memory and desire can offer the hope of development. This is a task that, as the authors repeatedly point out and take as understood, is on the verge of psychotic thought, only one step away from manic defence or from the defences supplied by splitting and projection. It is not only because of the authors' authority and their experience, but also because of the clear, almost serene, awareness that appears in their words, that this chapter seems to us to illuminate particularly well the fertility and liveliness of Bion's teaching - of his psychoanalytic teaching in general - when it is taken up and further worked on as a refinement and an aid to the capacity for thinking.

Marvin Skolnick's chapter, intentionally presented as proof of appreciation of Bion's work, offers a well-turned, sympathetic description of the schizophrenic world as seen from the group perspective. Mention is also made of the author's experience, stretching over 27 years, in a therapeutic project for schizophrenic patients (derived from models of group relations introduced by Bion), based on the hypothesis that they can benefit from participating in a group that respects their autonomy and their capacity for learning from experience. In this chapter one can feel how the author has approached, with self-awareness and serenity, the complexity and the drama of the world of psychosis, which can only be faced, as the author seems to suggest and to practice, by conjugating humility, faith, dedication, and open-mindedness. As in Lawrence and Armstrong's chapter, so here, too, the idea seems to have taken root that with a quiet acceptance and awareness of the ubiquity of psychotic phenomena, these can, when they are not demonized or converted into dogma, become part of an experience of the world that can, at least partially, be understood, contained, and perhaps modified.

Diane Hatcher Cano talks about experiencing, in some work situations as a consultant, "something else" other than the expanded set of basic assumptions, and she advances the idea of a ba Grouping (or baG) as an explanatory tool for the dynamics of many different environments, including a mailing list on the Internet. We felt that the idea in her chapter - that basic assumptions are not dogmatically stated in Bion's papers but are socially determined and can be differently conceptualized as society changes its leading ideas - is highly significant. We were also impressed by her freedom in applying Bion's concepts both to traditional consultancy areas and to newly emerging group fields such as the Internet.

Hanna Biran has made an interesting attempt at using Bion's theorization of alpha- and beta-elements as a heuristic tool for understanding the splitting, both in the individual and in society at large, that results in the inability to control the phenomenon of terrorism. Her discussion is based on the premise that individual and society are to each other as microcosm is to macrocosm, so that society as a whole suffers from the same sorts of "defects" in thought and communication as does the individual who cannot process his alpha-elements through alpha function. She makes no attempt to use Bion's theories on group basic-assumption functioning and seems to maintain that the concept of "indigestible" and in any case "undigested" sense impressions is sufficient as a tool to try to make some headway at the level of sociological understanding of terrorism and allied phenomena. The chapter is centred on the assassination of Itzhak Rabinas the case-history, so to speak, and Biran indicates that the split between the murderer's act and his words mirrors a far more widespread split in Israeli society as a whole. As she points out, there are some sense impressions that impinge on us and that we cannot digest, such as terrorist threats; perhaps what we really lack is the performance of a sort of social alpha function for the benefit of society. Bion would certainly have agreed with her about how truly dangerous it can be at times not to take people's words at their face value, and she has made a courageous effort to go a little further along the path of trying to persuade us all to listen to what we hear and to try (at least) to digest it.

* * *

Our aim in this book is to present Bion's approach to groups, as illustrated by the contributors, showing that his ideas on the subject are, as we feel, lively and open to many applications and developments. But it is our belief also that his contribution to groups is, as emphasized by many thinkers, one of the central themes and dimensions of his whole work. We were a little surprised to note at the Conference that Experiences in Groups (1961) is still thought to be Bion's only reference to the subject - and we suggest re-reading A Memoir of the Future (1991), Cogitations (1994), various collections of seminars, War Memoirs (1997), and Bion's other autobiographical writing with his approach to groups in mind.


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