Intrapsychic and interpersonal containment in internet communication

Chris Evans, M.R.C.Psych.; M. Inst. Group Analysis (London)

Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy, Department of General Psychiatry,

St. George's Hospital Medical School, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE

Locum Consultant to the Prudence Skynner Family Therapy Clinic


The word "containment" is a potent symbol, strongly associated with Bion. The word "Bion" is another potent symbol. The word "Bion97" has become an interesting symbol for many of us.

I am not familiar with all of Bion's work and am most familiar with "Experiences in Groups" and with "Second Thoughts" though I have also read the first volume of his autobiography and a number of his shorter books and collections of papers and a moderate amount of secondary material about him and/or his ideas. The rest of these thoughts will speak to what I have drawn from this experience of Bion's work.

My impression is that Bion mostly uses the notion of containment in an intrapsychic sense but one based in a profoundly object related internal world of relationships, i.e. implying an interpersonal process. Of course, at times he is very explicit about the interpersonal "vertex" on containment: the requirement, if internal containment is to become possible, for the child to have the experience of the parent accepting, containing, his or her projected material.

I have also been struck by a more transcendental "vertex" in Bion: the idea of thoughts as the mating, the containing, of a preconception with a thinker capable of, willing to, think or experience that thought. A process of "alphabetisation", the conversion of projection, or perhaps immanent experience, to symbol and thought.

In my personal therapies, group analysis and individual analytic psychotherapy, the intrapsychic and interpersonal vertices on containment have seemed very real, critical, central components of the analytic process. Rather separately, in my academic life, I have been struck by the extent to which ideas seem to occur to many people around the same times. I am not comfortable with the Jungian idea of a genetic collective unconscious storing new experience along essentially Lamarckian lines. However, I find it hard to dismiss the idea that there are synchronising processes in which ideas "ripen" and seem to become more and more ready to find their thinkers, their containers. To twist another of the genii of the last century, "People make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing".

Of late there has been a "ripening" of the word "containment", it seems to have become one of those words, rather like words "drive" and "defence", and the phrase "projective identification" before it, that is almost mandatory in any psychodynamic writing. In part this seems to me to be because the word is felt to bridge rather comfortably, but in away that is not really developed, the gulf between the attachment theorists and the Kleinians. Surely the word "containment" catches both schools of thought about the mother/child relationship, sweeping in Winnicott and many other Independent school theorist in its omnivorous spread?

I have been using Email lists for some seven or eight years. Because of another of my personal vertices on knowledge, my early use was mostly of statistics lists and I learned enormous amounts about specific statistical software, about computing "platforms", hardware and practicalities of networking as well as generic conceptual and pragmatic statistical issues. I was struck by what seemed extraordinary generosity on the part of many who responded to posting on lists, who seemed to give of remarkable, and no doubt hard won, personal knowledge with unstinting willingness to help any but the most obviously parasitical questioner. There were recurrent angry themes about whether, or to what extent, some software developers might have behaved badly, perhaps frankly illegally, in stealing others' code and there were some, really rather few, recurrent battles between protagonists with strongly held and irreconcilable views of, say, the "true" distinction between parametric and non-parametric statistics.

Some four or five years ago I leavened that diet, with membership of lists devoted to qualitative research methods and to constructivist psychology. The former list rapidly seemed to become incredibly boring with cyclical battles in which people seemed to accuse others of being "positivists", while others, usually, attempted to deny the accusation. It all seemed to me to provide much heat and little light. At the same time, the sheer volume of posting on the two main statistical lists became unmanageable and I also, having "graduated" to quite a level of competence with some software and ideas and to quite a level of experience, found myself able to answer many questions but also able to pose quite complex questions which seemed to get no responses. I dropped off the statistics lists and the qualitative research list and moved more into psychotherapy lists.

About two years ago the constructivist psychology list had its greatest flame war, the end result of which was that a member was thrown off the list by the list owner and many other people left, either so bruised by the evicted person's attacks, or so incensed by what they saw as a violation of principles of equal rights of all both to be members and to post as they saw fit. The owner of the list left some six months later, the list passed to another owner who did nothing to maintain it technically, then, as the service which hosted it required a British academic as a co-owner, I became co-owner of the list and started sorting a backlog of "dead addresses" which would deluge my, and the other co-owner's, mailboxes with 20 or more "bounce" messages for every message that was posted. I became increasingly incensed by my co-owner's non-response to any of my private, and later, public, messages to him and eventually I discovered that he had left his job, although his Email account seemed to go on soaking up Email, apparently infinitely! I deleted his account address with a certain vicious satisfaction.

During the last six months I have launched three other major open lists and maintained a number of small closed lists for various organisations. The experiences have been fascinating.

Over the last two years I have also developed and maintained one large WWW site, actually a conglomeration of many smaller sites representing various psychotherapy and counselling related organisations or themes. I have dipped into newsgroups from time to time, generally finding them vituperative and unhelpful, and have recently discovered various "chat" services. I have yet to experiment with either audio or video chats.

One of the ideas that has occurred to many of us apparently simultaneously is that the Email list has the "unsighted" aspect of the classical analytic use of the couch and this, combined with knowing rather little about most other people on the list, may act like the analytic situation to facilitate the appearance of transferential and projective phenomena.

Another idea that has occurred to many of us is that the Email list recreates many of the characteristics of the large group: again, there is knowing little about many of the participants; again there is being unable to see most other participants; there is the lack of hierarchical structure; there is the absence of agenda and obvious functioning segmentation into different groups; there is the inevitable polarisation into speakers and lurkers, at least in the early stages; there is the uncertainty about how many cultural commonalities can be assumed to apply to all participants.

Yet another idea that seems to find containers widely available for its conception is the idea that Email strips away many nuances of non-verbal communication that may modulate and ground face to face interaction.

I believe all these ideas have found thinkers in many of us precisely because they are "true", they are phenomena that insist on a thought to "contain" them, to make them manageable.

At this point I want to consider a small passage from Bion that may represent something rather more of us to be able to handle it, for us to see its self-evident worth and claim for thinkers to take it onward.

This paragraph has fascinated me for many years now. I remember quoting its entirety in a rather letter to psychiatrist colleague who is probably rather wary of "deep" analytic thinking, when attempting to catch some of my perplexity about the functioning of an organisation to which we both belonged, and particularly the gender and sexuality components of that organisation. I felt that the paragraph touched on much that ran deep in what puzzled me, but, on reading her response and rereading my letter some weeks later, I was rather at a loss to understand what I had meant! it was clear she shared my incomprehension and we have never really returned to that exchange.

Chris Mawson has suggested on the Bion97 list, that Bion often displays aspects of processes he is describing, when he writes about primary process and about projective processes. Certainly he was not one to avoid the (negative) limelight of the cryptic, charismatic utterance or the paradox, nor mentioning the sphinx, does he fail to hint at a riddle about human identity here.

One thing that strikes me is that Bion didn't use "former" and "latter" to make it unequivocal which setting, the individual psychoanalytic, or the group, is being linked with which view, that of the Oedipal situation or the problem of knowledge. On the face of it, the pairing group and the Oedipal situation are being related to the dyadic, psychoanalytic, situation; on the other hand, it is arguable that that, ever since Freud, individual psychoanalysis has been profoundly concerned with the problems of knowledge and scientific method and that no group of any duration ever fails to contain pairing, Oedipal Basic Assumptions or proceses.

Of course, it is arguable that this is exactly the point that Bion is making, that these are viewpoints, almost parallel, almost identical views whose subtle differences transform a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional view.

I believe that individual and group analysts have, as Bion says, been struggling continuously with two different views of the same things and generally failing either to recognise that they are different at all, or to recognise that they are sufficiently similar to provide the werewithal for that miraculous transformation of the flat to the solid. Ironically, I beieve that the Internet, with its range of new pairing and grouping formations, may provide the container that brings the two together so that their potential synergy can be developed further.

Group analysts, after the lead of Foulkes, talk about the analysis of the group by the group. To this extent it is my belief that they go beyond Bion who often seems to believe in analysis of the group, by the conductor. Congruent with the shift of responsibility to the group as a whole, group analysts are concerned that the conductor concentrate on the "dynamic administration" of the group where this includes the provision of the physical space, the chairs, the table in the middle (or not), the marking of the starting and finishing times, the means of communication from outside to the group and vice versa, and, above all, the admission of new members to the group.

Emphasis on these functions can undoubtedly become a protection against full acknowledgement of a very special position in the group and, to that extent, a very special vulnerability to "contain" and to re-express, particular thoughts, feelings and experiences. Waiting for the group to "analyse" those phenomena "itself" can be a flight from responsibility and an avoidance of the full complex interdependencies of "group" and "individual". In quite another context, I was recently relieved to find another family therapist, a well qualified one, (I am a trainee family therapist!) state unequivocally that she believed that "Families don't grieve. Individuals who live in families grieve." Groups don't analyse, individuals who make up groups analyse. To the extent that they analyse only themselves, only the group, or only the other members of the group, they do less than they might!

I think the Bion97 list has often experienced the problems that we, as members of a profoundly individualistic society experience, of reconciling individual, dyad, triad and group. When we speak of we, we attempt the impossible: to speak for the inner world of the other as well as the self, when we speak as "I/me" and "you", yet more when we speak of "I/me", "you" and "she/he/they", we may lose the extent to which the thought transcends all of us, waiting to be contained and recycled as symbol.

Freud, admittedly building on a wonderful heritage, like all good seekers of "knowledge" and "scientific method", created a laboratory. He created the wonderful, and scaring, dyadic laboratory of the analytic situation and the analytic terminologies and metapsychologies. Many others, notably Bion and Foulkes, started to explore the expansion of that laboratory to the group form and created a binocular field, a new potential to see depth, in the interplay of not just two intrapsychic and one interpersonal, but of many intrapsychic, and many, many interpersonal interactions. The complexity revealed has proved even harder than the complexities and rigours of the individual analytic situation, at least as far as the "scientific" task of translation to terminologies and metapsychologies goes. One response has been to regard the group as nothing more than an economical, perhaps bastardised, individual analytic situation. "Analysis in the group (by the conductor)" and "analysis of the group (by the conductor)" represent two extreme forms of this simplification (Bion is often, rather mistakenly to my mind, accused of the latter). Another response has been to regard the group as owing nothing to, and gaining nothing from, psychoanalytic theory and accumulated experience from the individual setting (a justified, and unchallenged, accusation of group cognitive-behavioural therapy, for example).

The advent of the various groups of the Internet, whether focussed (work group?!) lists such as the statistical lists, or much less focussed groups such as Bion97, or the rapid interchanges of chat channels, all reveal so starkly the human capacities to wreck communication, that, like forensic psychiatry, I believe they will always reveal phenomena that scream out for for Sophoclean, Freudian or Bionian, exploration of the Oedipal, the primary process and the logic of knowledge. They expose these things in ways that I hope will finally triangulate the subfertile coupling of individual and group analytic thinking and allow the partners to find common interests, and also rivalries, in their attempts to understand the new medium. If I am right, in another 100 years time, the Bion97 list and this conference will be recognised as an extraordinarily courageous venture into this new situation.

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Chris Evans

1997 - Copyright by Chris Evans