Hanna Biran

An Attempt to Implement Bion's Alpha and Beta Elements to Processes in Society at Large.

In his book Learning from Experience Bion refers to two principle and different elements of thinking. The first is called "Alpha elements." These are elements that can be thought. The other are the "Beta elements" of which it is not possible to think.

"Alpha function" is the one which translates what is absorbed by the baby through the senses in a pre-verbal form into words, dreams, expression of feeling and dialogue. Alpha function does the transformation from thoughts which cannot be thought to thoughts which can be thought. First the mother does this function for the baby. She translates the baby's distresses for it, gives names to its hardships and anxieties and thus calms and contains it. Later, when it already has concepts, it learns how to carry out this transformation for itself.

Those senses' impressions which do not receive a name, a word or a thought, which do not appear in dreams, are all those elements which did not undergo transformation and remained as Beta elements. Bion calls them "things in themselves." They are like undigested splinters which will usually appear in a form of acting out or as a psychosis. The psychotic suffers from those undigested elements which appear in a concrete form, and he cannot change them into a metaphor or an idea, he cannot name them, and they overwhelm him in what Bion calls "nameless dread."

If we borrow this idea of Bion's and transfer it from the individual to the public, we will be able to detect whole "pockets" inside society which operate under the influence of Beta elements. These elements are stored within the collective memory in their crudest form. These are elements upon which time and experience leave no impact. They express the inability to learn from experience, and are repeated over and over again. For example, in terror activity, which is persistent and has recurred in the Middle East for dozens of years.

These elements are especially dangerous to society in times of threat, tension and uncertainty. They will burst out in the form of social violence with no sublimation. They cannot be transformed to the level of dialogue and they appear as concrete acts. These actions have not undergone digestion and they recur time and again in the same form. They represent a situation of the loss of hope and a great deficiency in the capacity for reverie. They appear in the most primitive and cruel forms. They do not respond to any discourse, to any human language.

The political relations between the two peoples, the Jewish and the Arab, in the Middle East, exist now on two totally unrelated levels at the same time.

One level represents the Alpha function and is expressed by the peace talks, the attempted dialogue, the efforts for coexistence and the intention of dividing the territory. The other level is the one of terror, which represents the Beta functions. We live in a reality which is still pathological from a social point of view, in which those who talk - talk, but at the same time those who kill - kill.

The individuals who make up society as a whole, are unable to define for themselves the unconscious social processes at the time of their occurrence, but they experience these processes in accumulative fashion and on a non-verbal level. There are hidden processes, which have not undergone transformation, and which appear suddenly and traumatically. The example which I wish to use is the assassination of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin. The assassination itself was the concrete act of a single person, but it was also the most extreme expression, the pick, of events which took place for a long period and which penetrated the deepest levels of society. In that sense, the assassin was the delegate of social processes; he does not represent himself, but is lead and activated by pre-existing processes and pressures, for which he had the valencey to realize.

It is important to remember that he is a representative of wider trends and, regrettably, does not represent a private phenomenon. There existed fertile soil on which this poisonous seed has been feeding and growing. It is interesting to look at the act of assassination itself, which included the split on the social level which I mentioned earlier. This is the split between those parts of society which are involved in dialogue, and those which exercise political violence, between which there is no contact. A strange split occurred even within the very act of the assassination. While committing the assassination, simultaneously with the firing of the shots, the assassin was heard calling "blank bullets, blank bullets." So far no satisfactory explanation was given to that call. But the fact is that parallel to the murder there was a call which apparently was negating the act, and creating the illusion that the assassination was not truly taking place. That catastrophic moment, when the split between wards and actions materialized, is the essence of many accumulative moments during which the split between actions and words was constantly growing.

Society as such had not realized that it "in fact knows" about the coming assassination. There were different signs and clues, but it was impossible to think them. Society holds a huge reservoir of knowledge which is left unused because the roads leading to it are blocked. Just as the road to the personal unconscious is sometimes blocked, so is the road to the social unconscious. Bion has an intriguing idea, which is formulated in his book Attention and Interpretation (p. 104):

"1. True thought requires neither formulation nor thinker.

2. The lie is a thought to which a formulation and a thinker are essential."

That is to say, truth exists without us. It does not need us in order to exist. It does not require a thinker who would formalize it.

The truth of the impending assassination was there earlier, and it had its signs in the social processes: polarization, extremist stances, fanaticism, the sanctification of the land and the depicting of Rabin as a criminal who deprives the people of land and security.

This truth of the impending assassination have not turned into thought, and therefore did not come out into the full light, but appeared only as tiny, swift flashes, appearing for a second and disappearing into darkness again. In this sense, the truth had remained at the Beta level, as an element that cannot be thought, and which appears only as "the thing as itself." It is clear that the possibility that an assassination would occur was too frightening, so much so that we could not have dared to imagine or think it.

It therefore remained stashed away like some raw explosives, without any transformations, waiting to explode at any moment.

Lies, which do need thinkers and formulators, filled the space, obscuring the truth and blocking its way into the open. Such fallacies were, for example, "a Jew would not kill another Jew", or "this could not happen to us" or "those threats are mere words, there is no real intention behind them" and so on. The truth, which remained with no thinker and did not undergo any transformation, came out into the open in an acute and drastic way.

For a long time now there existed in Israel a split between the peace talks and the attempts at dialogue on the one side, and the language of violence which simultaneously runs wild and does not respond to dialogues and words on the other. Political violence is a recurring and unchanging phenomenon. Its essence is the antithesis of dialogue. A dialogue is a state of change, of moving forward and of growth. Terror, on the other hand, represents the stubborn elements repeating themselves time and again. These element appear in the most primitive and cruel form. The violent code appears as a form of repetition, a repetitive movement which always begins and ends the same way.

An old Jewish legend says: "When a tree which bears fruit is cut down, its scream traverses the world but its voice is not heard." This is a concise and cruel metaphor, which describes how society castrates and kills its younger generation, which is its future fruit. This is accompanied by a scream which cannot be heard. It is a very primeval, incommunicative scream, which has not been translated into words.

Through this metaphor it is perhaps possible to try and understand Bion's idea concerning indigestible elements. The use of the term "indigestible" is taken from the sphere of the organism, but Bion uses it metaphorically rather than concretely. He talks of the ability to digest mentally, that is to say, to absorb, contain, assimilate and grow through the mental substances which a person absorbs.

It seems that just like in the life of a person, whose past holds substances which have not undergone digestion, on account of their being too difficult to digest, so too in society, in the life of a people, there may have been historical processes which have not been digested, and for that reason it is impossible to imagine through them or learn any lessons from them. They remain frightening and painful, and are therefore outside the scope of the collective public thought.

We may presume that the emotional aspect of terror remains indigestible. This emotional aspect remains outside of the processes of digestion. The terror may be likened to a dense object which blows up again and again. Those delegates of society which carry out this kind of actions belong to that part of society which refuses to feel pain for loss, to undergo processes of mourning and understand the meaning of a tragedy. That part of society which does not undergo the processes of mourning remains indifferent to death and disasters. It is an aspect which remains outside the natural human life. People who represent this aspect are not in touch with what they themselves have lost, and are therefore indifferent to other people's disasters. The whole idea of pain is meaningless to them.

Social violence is a stubborn social element which does not undergo transformations, and of which it seems adequate to cite the French saying: "How things have changed, and yet how things are still the same." It seems that the late twentieth century post-modern society is a technologically sophisticated society, but one which is detached from the reservoirs of internal knowledge which remain in the social unconscious. Today's government is too rational, and therefore does not appreciate the use of knowledge which comes from the unconscious. For example, in the field of economic planning there exists the illusion that it is possible to feed the computer with data and receive future forecasts. These forecast are always found out to be wrong. There is always an unexpected element which does not function according to the forecasts, bursting out of the unconscious. Sometimes the irrational world surprises the rational one which collapses like a house of cards. The bigger the split between the unconscious reservoirs and the familiar and rational world, the bigger the risk to society for more acting out and more violence.

The biblical story of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, in the Book of Genesis, supplies us with an interesting angle on this matter. Pharaoh must have lived in an intuitive culture, as shown by his nominating Joseph the Dreamer to be his right-hand man. Pharaoh constructed his economic policy according to the interpretation of dreams. The biblical story is born from a culture that acknowledged the power of signs coming from the unconscious.

This kind of acknowledgment must have been gradually lost during the long journey from those ancient times and up to our own days.



Bion's definition of the Alpha and Beta elements in personal life can also be applied to the life of society at large. Undigested Beta elements are typically represented through political violence. One such case is the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The signs of the impending assassination were stored in the social unconscious and could not surface. Contemporary society should learn to use its reservoirs of unconscious, internal knowledge.

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Hanna Biran

1997 - Copyright by Hanna Biran