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American Imago 60.4 (2003) 407-428
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The Containing Matrix of the Social
Karl Figlio and Barry Richards
This paper is an experiment in cultural analysis. Rather than use an artifact, such as a novel, film, or painting, we will base our analysis on two personal experiences. An artifact, which is available to anyone, has the advantage that anyone could compare what we say about it with his or her own view, and arguments could be tested against each other. The advantage of personal experience is that the theory is part of it, an account of it in the mind of the subject who had the experience. It keeps the theory close to the experience, and invites others to report in a similar way. We know that it raises all the difficulties that occur in communicating private experiences from the consulting room, and adds to them the absence of a regulatory process, such as the transference in clinical work.
If we were to look for precedents to ground our experiment, we might call upon the engaging essay by Freud, "On Transience" (1916), which one could read as an experiential theorizing that is a pendant to the more formal "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917). Freud used the occasion of a country walk with two friends to reflect on the nature of mourning and the defenses against it. He had concepts to hand, through which he expressed the poignant sense of despair that eroded his friends' appreciation of natural beauty. He apparently used these concepts (narcissism, libido, cathexis, melancholia), more or less explicitly, to persuade or, better, to fortify his friends. He neither derived them from nor proved them through the experience on which he reported.
We will give two reports of an experience. We have concepts at hand, two in particular. They will structure the articulation of the two experiences. They are "containment," as defined by W. R. Bion; and "depressive anxiety," as defined by Melanie Klein. 1 We will work outwards from personal experience to an understanding of the social situation of the experience, or rather, we will see them as intrinsic to each other. In [End Page 407] our view, the social situation—in the abstract, society—should be understood neither as the setting or backdrop for personal experience nor as the aggregate of social interactions. Social life is lived, assimilated to personal experience, and personal experience is, from the outset, social. We begin with personal experiences, and with minimal theoretical elaboration, because they are the medium in which social is lived; everyone is a spontaneous theorizer and interprets experiences as he or she goes along. 2 Like Freud, we would like to persuade you of the validity of our perceptions and of the psychoanalytic expression of them, and invite you to contribute your own.
Our approach links the psychoanalytic focus on psychic "primitivity" to accounts of human community that attend to the same primitive level. In our view, the metapsychological concepts that best capture this idea of communal fantasies are Bion's idea of containment and Klein's idea of depressive anxiety: society is a container of primitive—and, particularly, depressive—anxieties (Hinshelwood 1991, 246-53).
Just as containment is a process, not a static structure, our concern in this paper will be with the "social" as the capacity to contain primitive anxieties. One way to look at this process is to think of the fluid responsiveness of a mother with her baby. A primitive social matrix arises from the unconscious demand made by one person upon an other (Figlio 1998; Hoggett 1989).
Our psychoanalytic approach to understanding the everyday experience of collective belonging departs from the traditional assumption of social psychology that individual experience (e.g., social attitudes) is directly shaped by social processes. The first example concerns childhood and allows for a certain discrimination between the naive immediacy of the child's theorizing and the more abstract, structured theorizing of the adult. The second example comes from a comparatively recent event—a demonstration—that precipitated itself unexpectedly into the course of everyday life and thereby forced its bystanders...