Symbolization and Desymbolization: Essays in Honor of Norbert Freedman (Book Review)

Author:  Lasky, Richard (Editor)
Publisher: Other Press. 2002
Reviewed By: Paul A. Dewald, Fall 2003, 59-60

Norbert Freedman is a revered teacher, researcher, and original thinker who has been highly influential in the functioning of the “Institute For Psychoanalytic Training and Research” (IPTAR). This volume, edited by Richard Lasky, is a tribute to Freedman’s creativity and influence on the psychoanalytic scene. It consists of a personal biographical and research summary introduction by Lasky, as well as twenty-two subsequent essays by prominent psychoanalysts most of whom are attached to IPTAR, but also including Sydney J. Blatt, Lawrence Friedman, Jean B. Sanville, Ricardo Steiner and Robert Wallerstein.

I approach this review from the position of a post-modern ego-psychological perspective, which includes emphasis on multiple forms of both intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict. This makes it necessary for me to “translate” some of the concepts and terminology into various communication forms which for me are more familiar (i.e., symbolization as the ability “to gain psychological distance from raw (internal or external) experience” (p. 1) translates to the ego capacity for self-observation and affect modulation.). Given the differences in language and conceptual phraseology, the similarities to the topics and processes described in this volume and those of more traditional ego psychological conflict theory are striking.

As with any collection of separate essays the quality and clarity varies among individual contributions. But one theme that runs through most of them is the praise and acclaim for Freedman and his impact as a role model and thinker. Lasky quotes Freedman himself in regard to symbolization:

The psychoanalytic attitude is a symbolizing attitude. We listen to our patient’s stories as signifiers of multiple meanings. And, we listen to ourselves from multiple perspectives. Our patients deal not only with drives, self, or objects, but they also try to deal with symbolization of drives, self, and object relationships. What matters consistently is the process of translation and transmutation. Psychoanalysis may have been born in theory of dreams and matured in the theory of transference and countertransference, but these are all unthinkable without a concept of mediation and transformation. It is a process of linking items in different spheres of the mind where one represents the other. It is a process where experience, stated as a fact through self-reflection, becomes symbol. It is through such a network of mediation that psychoanalytic work accrues and when this is throttled impasse ensues. Hence, it is along lines of symbolization that we can account for psychoanalytic work and psychoanalytic change. It is this perspective that has given rise to my most recent interest in symbolization as a process specific to analytic treatment. And it is a process that belongs to common ground because every analyst, in every theoretical orientation finds, him- or herself embracing a symbolizing attitude. Such a recognition calls for a specific psychoanalytic theory of symbolization, rooted in but overriding known cognitive or information processing approaches.(p. 18).

“Desymbolization is concrete and repetitive, with an insistence it is not only on the sameness of things in situations but also sameness of the self and of others. Defensively this mood of mentalization is based on profound disavowal, implementing the wish not to know.” “Only single unwavering perceptions of experience are used and they are treated as concretized facts, rather than being understood as a construction, as one of many possible interpretations.” (p. 19). In other words the person’s feelings and beliefs are experienced without question as reality.

Between these extremes are intermediate levels of the capacity for symbolization, Incipient symbolization is the early possibility of relating body-linked emotions to past and non-verbal modes of expression. Discursive symbolization expresses the widening of inner space and the ability of the analytic couple to begin to reflect together on the impact of relationships and the beginning of self-awareness. Dynamic symbolization implies that “something unknown or unconscious is being integrated, bound, and linked.” It refers to the recognition of contradictory perspectives on the self or on the other person. These contradictions will vary in structure from chaotic and incoherent to cohesive and realistic.

An additional contribution of Freedman’s ideas has been in the utilization of videotaped psychoanalytic sessions which allow the researcher to observe movement and other physically manifest experiences, both of the analyst and of the analysand, and to correlate these with the flow of psychic experience expressed verbally and in that sense to explore on a more sophisticated level the correlations between psychic mental function and physical activity and symptomatic expression.

There are a number of themes that tend to unify the different contributions in this volume, although each may be presented in a slightly different way. One is the multiple levels and forms of communication in the clinical setting, including the verbalization of various “body language” activities, the manifest content expression of a dream, acting out and with it also the concept of enactment, the importance of transference-countertransference responses, and the analytic relationship which emerges progressively in the dyad, and the needs to establish trust and reestablish it when broken. Another theme through many of the contributions is the analyst as a new object in the patient’s life experience, and the emphasis on the crucial importance of the analyst’s response to the patient’s difficulties and distortions. The idea of symbolization as a process leading to recognition by the analysand that the transference experience is not the same as reality.

Another common theme is the essential importance of the earliest mother-child relationship and developmental process that evolves out of that relationship including the capacity for symbolization and for a significantly trustful relationship.

The emphasis throughout is on the analytic process as encouraging the shift in the analysand from raw primitive potentially annihilating states of affect to the capacity to modify such experience into secondary process verbalization. This occurs in a slow and stepwise process that in some ways recapitulates the original development through the use of the analyst to re-experience that process with a new object, and the analyst’s capacity to maintain connection without retaliation.

Silverman’s case report illustrates that the analysand’s sense of self and self-worth are a function of the interaction with the mother. The need of the analysand to maintain the negative self-image is a justification for hatred, which then continues the tie to the original object. In this context her idea is similar to those of self psychology and the individual’s sense of self being a function of reflection of the mother’s empathy and care and concern which is internalized by the child. Describing the various ways of communication other than verbalization with which the analyst interacts with the patient she emphasizes that forms of implicit communication may represent procedural knowledge and open unanticipated forms of being together. This in self psychological terms would be the analyst’s prolonged immersion in empathy and empathic connection to the patient as a new form of interpersonal interaction.

Lawrence Friedman presents symbolization as a form of attraction and considers language and mathematics as having achieved the ultimate level of abstract thinking. “Treatment has to do with what is being put into language as well as how language facilitates the selection. When we say that psychoanalytic treatment creates or restores symbolizing we really mean the treatment fosters accurate abstractions and a fluid process of symbolizing. So our first question is how abstractions come to be formed and the second is what influences their formation.” (p.211). For Friedman “habits and words have something in common, since both are examples of abstraction” (p.216). Language and the ability to describe inner experience is a process of abstraction, which then allows an individual to become aware and to recognize the qualities of his or her interactions with other people. This is particularly the case with the analyst, where the analysand’s habitual abstraction and expectation can at times be challenged by the analyst’s unexpected and non-confirmatory reactions and responses. “In each case the analyst’s unexpected behavior would challenge the abstractions that comprise the patient’s preexisting transference”. (p. 226). (a concept close to the “corrective emotional experience” of Alexander, but without the element of conscious manipulation.)

Within the confines of this review it is not possible to extensively summarize each person’s contribution. The papers cluster around issues of transference and countertransference and the idea that symbolization allows the patient to recognize the distinction between the transference feelings or fantasies and the reality, whereas in dysymbolized transferences the patient experiences the transference as reality and there is little capacity for self- observation and self recognition of the fantasized nature of the response. There is a heavy emphasis on very early pre-verbal experience in the mother-child interactional matrix out of which the capacity for the development of language becomes an important basis for development for the capacity for the use and experience of symbolic thinking. If this interaction is significantly pathological, the child persists in procedural memory leading to problems of desymboliztion.

Another line of contribution is the concept of trust and the therapeutic alliance and its importance in the process of analytic work and capacity to experience the analyst as trustworthy at a symbolic level. There are inevitable interruptions in the sense of trust (similar to the emphasis on breaks in empathic communication in the self-psychological model) and the urgent need to restore the capacity of the patient to trust.

Another contribution focuses on the need for some analysands to deny pathology in the parent in order that the child can maintain a sense of attachment to a protective object. The impact of the disturbed parental thinking on the identification and the capacities for symbolization and learning in the child can be intense.

Throughout the contributions there are a significant number of (brief and some more extended) case vignettes meant to illustrate some of concepts being presented. Some of these tend to be somewhat sketchy and therefore of less value than others where the detail and relevance to the point being made are significantly more effective.

Generally speaking this is a somewhat variable collection of contributions focused around the research and concepts of Norbert Freedman in which various authors attempt to elaborate on one or another aspect of Freedman’s thinking and work. For someone like myself not already familiar with the vocabulary and concepts involved it can be a slow and difficult volume to read, and yet as one does so one appreciates the ways in which the phenomena of clinical interaction are similar. In spite of our theoretical and technical differences and the varying ways we describe them the end result is an appreciation of the commonality of our clinical psychoanalytic experiences. The end result is a worthwhile effort and the reassurance that in spite of our individual idiosyncratic way of describing and conceptualizing what we see the commonalities reinforce and reassure one that the enterprise of clinical psychoanalytic experience is validated through more than one perspective. “A rose by any other name...”

Paul A. Dewald is the author, among other works, of The Psychoanalytic Process: A Case Illustration and The Supportive and Active Psychotherapies: A dynamic Approach. Although now retired from practice he continues to supervise psychoanalytic candidates and to teach psychiatric residents at St Louis University.


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