Building on Bion: Roots Origins and Context of Bion’s Contributions to Theory and Practice (Book Review)

Author:  Lipgar, Robert M. and Malcolm Pines
Publisher:  Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Reviewed By:  Sharon Grostephan, LICSW, Winter 2006, pp. 63-65

The book titled “Building on Bion: Roots Origins and Context of Bion’s Contributions to Theory and Practice,” edited by Robert M. Lipgar and Malcolm Pines is composed of two parts. Part I; Roots and Early Development, and Part II; Bion’s Context: Contemporaries and Refinements. Each part takes five of Bion’s contributions or concepts and then using his words as a base, goes on to elaborate on his ideas within the work of his contemporaries, or later writers who have studied with and worked with his ideas. The structure is such a vital part of the book, and enables readers to better understand Bion’s works. This context helps us see the major contributions he made to the field of psychoanalysis in a very understandable and readable way. The format is like being part of a dialogue between Bion and multiple other analytic and non-analytic thinkers who all see his work from different points of view. I found it a very rich, exciting and readable book.

Robert Lipgar writes that the purpose of the book was to “bring together some of the best visions and re-visions building on Bion’s writings,” and thereby bring the reader “closer to the extraordinary depth and breath of Wilfred Bion’s thoughts and influence” (p. 7). I think he met his goal. The authors who are reacting to his ideas throughout the book are from all over the world: Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, the United States and Great Britain. The diversity culturally and in discipline, “psychoanalysts, group analysts, psychologists, organizational consultants, as well as philosophers brings the book its great depth.

Volume I, Building on Bion’s Roots “explores formative influences affecting Bion’s emotional and intellectual development: including his personal experiences in his career, his battle field experience of World War I and the influence of Kant, Trotter, Freud, Klein and Folkes” (p. 6). Robert Lipgar explores how Bion uses the "essential psychoanalytic method to investigate group life much as Freud and others investigated the psychological life of individuals" (p. 29). Bion believed a group required a task and he made the study of the "patient’s tensions" as the task of the group. Bion observed three clusters of emotions that shape attitudes and beliefs in groups: Flight/fight, paring and dependency. His ideas about the intervention and leadership needed to work with a group depended on which cluster was prevalent in the group (p. 33). He believed that there is an innate need for people to be in a community or group and to belong, and a constant conflict with that need and our fear of annihilation and the need to be an individual. He called humans "group animals at war with their groupishness" (p. 173). He wrote about the great difficulty in maintaining a positive influence on the group and how difficult clear-headedness is at times of turmoil and conflict. The "primitive resistances to our learning from experience to change and development are powerful” (p. 51). He often confronted our difficulties in dealing with diversity and the projective identification and splitting that he believed were in evitable in a group.

Paublo Sandier, who writes about Bion’s War Memoirs, introduces the reader to "the grid." Sandier clears up several questions about the grid and shows how Bion continued throughout his lifetime to improve on its usage. Bion believed, in contradiction to Freud, that groups are powerfully pulled toward the paranoid schizoid position and anxieties and the earliest defenses against them: projective identification and splitting. He wrote and spoke about how much we need, when in a group, to be aware of the pull toward "absolute truth" which he labels arrogant, and how destructive we can be when operating in this position.

In the chapter “Gregariousness and the Mind,” Nuno Torres writes about the works of Wilfred Trotter and Wilfred Bion, and the parallels between the herd instinct of Trotter and the group mentality of Bion. He shows us the powerful influence Wilfred Trotter had on Bion’s work, as much as Klein or even perhaps his war experiences. Trotter was an English surgeon and sociologist. Both Trotter and Bion wrote about the need for groups, which Trotter called the herd instinct or our need to be gregarious. Trotter remained a role model for Bion throughout his professional career. His ideas "can be seen traversing all of Bions work, however much in the background..." Torres shows us clear parallels between the work of Trotter and Bion in their theory of groups. "Trotter seems to be an intimate part of Bions personality—one of its functions or factors. It would also be worthwhile to inquire if Wilfred Trotter would not be in some ways an 'imaginary twin' of Wilfred Bion" (p. 112).
Claudia Neri in the chapter on "Anthopological Psychoanalysis" takes up three of Bion's theories that have developed in an original way in Italy.

1. The container contained relationship"
2. The notion of Ps D oscillation
3. The intuition of the existence of 'thoughts without a thinker" (p. 133)

He emphasizes Bion's courage and risk in developing these theories and taking them beyond traditional analytic thought. He sees Bion as "not a pre-modern but a post modern thinker." A "psychoanalyst of the new beginning of psychoanalysis. Bion sees the limits of psychoanalytic practice and technique, but he also announces its fundamental value: the things that make it unique." (p. 148) According to Neri, Bion's view of psychoanalysis is in "considering it a truth verifying process, through which a person becomes him/herself, whoever that may be." (p. 142) His view of analysis is that it concerns two people engaged in research to discover their truth or reality. Bion's famous contribution of container/contained, takes Kleinian analysis another step.

"In the Kleinian view, the analyst is the only agent who is capable of transforming the content of the projective identification. On the contrary, when considering the analytic relationship from the point of view of Bion's container-contained relationship model, the stress is on reciprocity and the mutual undertaking in which analyst and analysand, from time to time, take the role of container or contained. In Bion's model, the mind of the analyst is not the sole performer of the transformation. The transformation is carried out mainly through the interchange of the analysand and analyst, both as container and contained." (p. 143)

Volume II "explores the growing influence of Bion's work as it is being applied beyond group psychology and individual psychoanalysis, (p.8) Part II, Bion's Context Contemporaries and Refinements, begins with a chapter by Dennis Brown, “Pairing Bion and Foulkes Toward a Metapsychosociology?” The chapters in this part of the book illustrate the parallels and differences in Bion's ideas and other thinkers, before, during and after his time. He drew on others for his ideas and other thinkers have drawn on and developed his ideas further since his death. Each has made a significant contribution to further development of Bion's ideas of groups, other organizations, cultural groups, neurobiology. Brown reviews the developing theories growing out of, Bion's thinking from such contributors as Morris Nitsun, Farhad Dalai, Yvonne Agazarian, Turquet, Lawrence and Hopper, as well as the work of organizational consultants, transcultural works, and the analogy with the body image. "We are not alone: psychiatrists, experimental psychologists, neuroscientists are on the trail with us. There is a potential in Bion's work and writings which is highly stimulating, despite running into contradictions, and which remains a source of ideas and evidence to be mined in the future long after him." (p. 194)

These chapters go beyond psychoanalysis and survey how related fields are working on concepts similar to psychoanalysis. Drawing on all these fields, various writers, like Earl Hopper in “Incohesion; Aggregation/Massification,” expand on Bion's theories and explore the effect of traumatic experience on group cohesion and group-like social systems. He adds a fourth basic assumption, Aggregation/Massification to Bion's three groups. He expands on fear of annihilation its intergenerational context and process and the response of individuals and groups that have experienced trauma. His expansion on trauma theory both for individuals and groups is well organized and takes us beyond our current thinking about trauma and its impact on groups and communities in a well organized and way.

Victor Schermer, in "Building on O, Bion and Epistemology," observes, " Bion had an uncanny ability to return to the basics and thereby to open up the field to new possibilities. Bion's questions are more important than his answers." (p. 127)

"The debates about which school of psychoanalysis is correct must have seemed futile to Bion and more a reflection of the theorist's narcissism than the search for truth. At the same time his broad vision of psychoanalysis is the highest praise one can give to Freud.... that the founder courageously opened the door (and we have hardly begun to overcome our fear of walking inside)."(p. 248)

Bion is not usually associated with empathy, but Malcolm Pines in "Bion and Foulkes and Empathy," shows us how Bion's contributions to compassion and truth show a parallel with empathy. Pine states: "Bion is involving the essential qualities in human relations or reciprocity and intersubjectivity. I am moved by this passage, by the counterpoint between truth and compassion" (p. 256).

The way this book is written with such openness to the ideas of others, from such a variety of analytic thought, cultures and disciplines, to me, is the way Bion would have liked us to think and to use his writing: to not take it as the answer, but a stepping-stone to further thought. Bion's ideas are so dense and complex and to have them expanded on by other writers and thinkers was immensely helpful as well as enriching in terms of further understanding his writings and what his thinking has generated in others. His ideas are very intertwined and open to growth and further thinking which would please him, I think, as he was always searching for new ideas and ways to understand the mind and human behavior. One of the most fascinating parts of this book to me is Bion's experience in groups, and how he uses that to explain what happens to communities, specifically psychoanalytic communities. His contention on regression to paranoid schizoid mechanisms and their impact on individual thought and behavior in groups gives insight into the difficulties encountered in all groups to some degree. As he
describes his ideas on projection, splitting, counter-transference and their impact on group function it makes more understandable to me how difficult it is for analytic communities to function effectively. His emphasis on responsibility for individual behavior and our own personal responsibility for the behavior of the group confronts all of us and holds us each accountable for group behavior in a way that is empowering on one hand and a heavy responsibility on the other. He sees the splitting wars in psychoanalysis and the competition for better or less good theoretical ideas as an expression of arrogance and regression.

Bion's work, as well as those others who have pursued it further, offer us as a community many potential tools for growth as well as pitfalls to avoid. Robert Hinsselwood writes about how an individual in a group can, on one hand, operate as a creator of meaningful communication but on the other destroy meaning. Victor Schermer addresses Bion's ideas about the resistant to change exhibited in the psychoanalytic community and how difficult it is to assimilate genuinely new ideas. He further writes: "The debates about which school of psychoanalysis is correct must have seemed futile to Bion and more a reflection of the theorist's narcissism than the search for truth" (p. 248) And finally, "As group members begin to recognize the truthful similarities and differences between themselves and the others, they can begin to appreciate the complexity of personality, to see what is similar and what is different in the other person(s). This inevitably counters the primitive defenses of splitting and projection which lead to other persons being perceived as similar to oneself or totally dissimilar. This occurs particularly in inter-group conflicts when groups draw together to create a common identity that gives them a sense of strength and righteousness, which inevitably leads to the other group being seen as dangerously dissimilar and a threat to security. This is a powerful force in ethnic, political and religious conflicts, but when persons can recognize similarities and dissimilarities within their own group, and break down stereotypes of what they see in other groups, then progress can be made to reducing inter-group conflict." (p. 260-261)

Reviewer Note

Sharon Grostephan is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Minneapolis.


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