Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Stern, Donnel
Publisher: Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2003 (Reprint)
Reviewed By: Deborah Birnbaum, Spring 2005, pp. 35-36

Catching Psychoanalysis Out of the Corner of Our Eyes
Having done my analytic training during a period coined the “postmodern turn,” I read this book with a general albeit limited understanding of hermeneutics, post-structuralism, semiotics and constructivism. However, not having a background in philosophy I was a bit intimidated reviewing Unformulated Experience. Frankly, I expected it to be one of those experiences like exercising, difficult but good for you, with a feeling of relief and accomplishment when done. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that the rich ideas in the book are as accessible, interesting, and useful to the pragmatic clinician as they are to those with a philosophical background. Despite tackling complex issues and systems of thought, Stern’s work is personal, open and anything but dry. He uses everyday life, art, literature and even his love of food to make the material come alive. The clinical examples are refreshingly frank. In the process of reading these fertile ideas, one’s own imagination and curiosity are stirred. Donnel Stern ends the preface by stating “… I do hope that some of the mystery of formulation that I also experienced, some remnants of the sense of meaning as an emergent thing, attends the readings of these chapters.” I think that the reader will find that in immersing oneself in this work one experiences some of what Stern describes as the process of formulating the unformulated—a deeply felt and imagined experience, a sense of wonder, mystery, openness and curiosity.

Stern describes the development of his ideas, beginning with his interest in unformulated experience and Sullivan’s interpersonalism to his resonance with Gadamer’s hermeneutics. The insight that the concept of dissociation connected these two areas led to the ideas put forth in this seminal contribution to contemporary psychoanalysis. In it, he discusses social constructivism, hermeneutics, and other postmodern concepts and their relevance to clinical practice. In particular, he focuses on the clinical consequences of viewing psychoanalysis through a hermeneutic-constructivist lens. In so doing, Stern reconceptualizes the nature of the unconscious, transference, countertransference, interpretation, resistance and the therapeutic process itself. Some of the questions raised include: How do we come to reflect on our experience and put it into words? How do we choose what to interpret? How do we come to new insights? How do we facilitate therapeutic action? What keeps us from knowing and what does knowing something mean? How do we generate meaning? How does the interpersonal field influence the therapeutic process and what were are able to know?

In Part I of the book Stern conceptualizes a constructivist concept of the unconscious—unformulated experience—as experience that we have not yet reflected upon and put into words. Using the analogy of twilight when dim light makes familiar shapes hard to recognize and one can see things that cannot be coherently identified, he describes the process of formulating experience, and challenges the notion that there is a fully formed unconscious that is objective and factual. In Part II, a theory of dissociation is explicated and the ways in which we narrow what we can experience by “not spelling out” and by narrative rigidity is discussed. Dissociation is the unconscious decision not to interpret experience, to keep it unformulated. Rather than repression keeping a preformed “truth” out of awareness, dissociation never allows us to spell out and put our experience into words. In the last section, he expands on the clinical implications of these ideas. He discusses interpretation, resistance and the embedded analyst. According to Gadamer, understanding is always dialogic and occurs between two people or between a person and an object (e.g., a text, art, etc.) Thus, his work fits nicely with a relational/interpersonal perspective of psychoanalysis. Gadamer’s hermeneutics are further explicated and applied to clinical practice. In these chapters, the concepts are illustrated with rich clinical examples.

Psychoanalytic constructivism posits that the analyst is inevitably embedded in and unconsciously participates in the therapeutic process. Experience is not prefigured but rather is ambiguous and created in interaction. Stern describes the development of psychoanalytic constructivism as an outgrowth of several postmodern perspectives, which share what he calls “the postmodern critique of language.” He explains that “understanding, is inevitably linguistic, and that language is historicized, perspectival and socially constructed” (p. 11). Language is the condition for experiencing. It is not a reflection of experience but rather the basis of all of our experience.

Unformulated experience is “mentation characterized by lack of clarity and differentiation. Unformulated experience is the uninterpreted form of those raw materials of conscious, reflective experience that may eventually be assigned verbal interpretations and thereby brought into articulate form” (p. 37). It includes the seeds of words and of emotions; feelings can be put into words and language is imbued with emotion. He further maintains that the nature of what is possible for us to formulate is created and limited by the interpersonal field. Defensively motivated unformulated experience is termed “familiar chaos.” Rather than repression keeping unconscious thoughts out of awareness, we never allow ourselves to interpret our experience. We cope with anxiety by refusing to formulate. Progress in therapy is not simply the removal of distortion to reveal preexisting truths or preformed memories, but rather is a reflection of an increased willingness and ability to interpret new experience, to have greater curiosity and freedom of thought. In order to be open to new experience we need to be capable of not knowing what will come next. In a sense, one could say we surrender; we allow language to take its own shape and to allow vague inchoate senses to takes their own meaningful form rather that forcing them in a particular direction because it is familiar and therefore safer.

If the unconscious does not have one predetermined meaning, if language is constitutive and meaning is formulated in interpersonal interaction, then what does this mean for the analyst? Stern emphasizes that language being constitutive does not mean that it wholly determines thought but rather that it co-creates it. What we choose to say is not arbitrary and we still search for what is most true. We choose the perspective that has the best fit and it is this sense of fit that creates the patient’s sense of conviction. Stern stresses that the analyst must be open to surprise, to be accepting toward her inevitable participation in enactments and to allow herself to arrive at previously imperceptible possibilities for novel experience. The patient’s sense of safety is established by the analyst’s compassionate curiosity and the development of a collaborative process.

The analyst’s experience of the patient is nonverbal and prelogical. Stern states
that the “part of the analyst’s experience which will eventually be most analytically useful feels as if it comes naturally” (p.187). It is what he calls “unbidden.” He adds,

“Much of our countertransference is embedded in that vast realm of experience that is seldom directly apprehended, but of which everyone is dimly aware, the unattended everyday-everything that is just the way of the world. It is this part of the analyst’s responsiveness to the patient that genuine surprises germinate” (p. 187).

About the therapeutic process he states,

“We hope that, and even pray that we and the patient will find our way to that kind of authentic experience. But we do not know how to make authenticity happens. So, while we are grateful for the unexpected and inexpressibly benefits along the way, we focus our conscious attention on trying to say things that matter” (p 90).

Stern emphasizes that it is markedly difficult to say things that matter in therapy and in everyday life. He terms authentic language “creative disorder.” At times, we do not treat unformulated experience as creative disorder, but rather force ourselves to say things before we are ready by using stereotyped language. Consequently, we do not allow new meanings to emerge. Stern’s own use of language is not conventionalized or stereotyped but rather is evocative and often poetic. For example, he states that language can be “…apocalyptic, intuitive, antic, possessed. Language is a dervish. It belongs to us and carries us away, all in the same instant” (p. 90). He notes:

“By cultivating uncertainty and following the lead of our feeling, by following the point of emotional urgency on whatever path it charts through the time it takes to make a narrative, we create the best, truest stories, and they heal us by bringing what has hurt us into a meaningful relation with experience we already identify as our own” (p.94). [And later,] “Language is always interpretive; the question is only whether the interpretation is hackneyed or from the heart”(p. 113).

Clearly, the language of Unformulated Experience is from the heart. This scholarly work inspires us to surrender to the mystery of the analytic process and to allow ourselves to be surprised by our own rich imaginations. I will end with Stern’s lovely quote:

“We hope that over time, we and the patient, within the confines of out own little universe, and then in the larger world, come to use language more flexibly and precisely than before. We hope that we come to a greater acceptance that speech and thought are always incomplete and imperfect, and to an appreciation that saying and thinking one thing always means not saying and thinking another—that language constantly requires us to burn bridges to meanings not selected and articulate. And we hope that, however precisely we are able to express ourselves, we will be able to tolerate knowing that we never finish saying anything.” (p. 89)

Reviewer Note

Deborah Birnbaum is in private practice in NYC and Westchester. She is a graduate of NYU Postdoctoral Program, and teaches at Karen Horney Institute and Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy.


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