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  • Bruce Fink's Critique of Projective IdentificationReflections on Countertransference and the Ends of Analysis
  • Aaron Berman (bio)

In his 2007 book Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, Lacanian analyst Bruce Fink mounts a forceful critique of the popularity of the concept of projective identification among contemporary psychoanalysts that extends all the way to a critique of the concept itself. For Fink, analysts' use of projective identification as a clinical concept to capture something of the dynamics of transference and countertransference opens the door to a plethora of dangerous consequences. In this paper I evaluate Fink's critical claims against some of the key proponents of projective identification within the psychoanalytic literature in order to better draw out the stakes of Fink's criticisms. Carrying out such an evaluation offers the occasion to outline what I take to be the fundamental clinical and philosophical issues underlying what I can only, at this point, characterize as the differend between the Lacanian and post-Kleinian schools.

Fink's Claims

Fink levels five key criticisms of the concept of projective identification, differentiating them according to the particular constructions that they take as their object. He follows Joseph Sandler's (1989) history of the concept of projective identification, which periodizes concepts of projective identification according to stages, such that the initial concept, as present in Melanie Klein's [End Page 77] work (stage 1), is followed by a version of the concept in Paula Heimann and Heinrich Racker's work, which includes identification with the patient's projection on the part of the analyst (stage 2); this concept is in turn said to be followed by an even stronger version in Wilfred Bion's work (stage 3), in which projected emotions are really, and not only in fantasy, distributed across the psychic economies of patient and analyst in such a way as to require no active participation on the part of the analyst (Fink 2007, 168–71). Fink refers as well to Thomas Ogden's alternative typology of stages of projective identification in a footnote, but he does not address Ogden's construction in detail, a task that we will have cause to pursue in addressing some of the distortions of Fink's polemical presentation.

Fink makes the following claims:

  1. 1. Belief in the prevalence of projective identification allows analysts to transmogrify their own negative (countertransferential) feelings toward their analysands into signs of "exquisite sensitivity" on their part, shifting the responsibility for these negative feelings onto the analysand (166). This claim sensibly applies to stages 2 and 3.

  2. 2. The post-Heimann concept of projective identification suggests that analysts can establish a form of unmediated contact with the analysand's unconscious. The knowledge that analysts claim to have about their patients on evidence of countertransference experience of projective identification goes well beyond what can usually be attributed to intuition or trained sensitivity (172). This claim applies to stages 2 and 3.

  3. 3. Following from claim 2, interpretations of countertransference that make use of the concept of projective identification unduly privilege the imaginary register at the expense of the mediating symbolic. This may be appropriate for psychotic patients, but it can render neurotic patients unduly dependent on their analysts (188). [End Page 78]

  4. 4. The "strong version" of projective identification (associated especially with Bion), in contrast to Klein's formulation, involves the claim that split-off portions of the ego can "leave" the individual's psychic economy, something that entails a radical departure from Freud's conception of splitting and begs significant metaphysical questions (180). This claim applies only to stage 3.

  5. 5. The notion of projective identification carries a normalizing subtext about what the "analysand should be feeling when he or she discusses certain things" (181). Analysts implicitly, and illegitimately, appeal to "what they think any human being would normally be feeling in certain situations" (181). This claim applies to stages 2 and 3.

Because these claims touch on different areas of theory and practice, I will evaluate each in turn after having established a sufficient historical and theoretical background to sensibly discuss the issues at stake. We will accordingly begin by reviewing some of the Kleinian literature on countertransference to discuss claims 1 and...


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