Bion Today (Book Review)

Editors:  Birkstead-Breen, Dana; Mawson, Chris 
Reviewed By:  Lynne Zeavin, Fall 2011, 464pp.

Which Bion?

As Chris Mawson points out in his excellent introduction to this valuable new volume, Wilfred Bion was part of a triumvirate of pioneering analysts that included Hanna Segal and Herbert Rosenfeld. Each extended Melanie Klein's understanding of archaic defenses such as splitting and projective identification and developed new clinical and technical understandings for the treatment of psychotic and severely disturbed patients, during the 1950s. Mawson writes that for Bion, the goal remains "insightful understanding of psychic reality through a disciplined experiencing of the transference-countertransference, the setting and the method, and to remain rigorously psychoanalytic." (p.3) In the last years, Bion has become so popular in the United States that often it seems that psychoanalytic rigor is under threat, if not altogether lost. Bion's radical formulations have become catch phrases in some circles, their meaning diluted and their specificity lost. This volume goes a long way toward restoring the particularity and originality of Bion's ideas and reminding us of the value of rigorous thought, particularly in relation to concepts that now verge on the cliché: container/contained, reverie, projective identification, countertransference, and thinking.

Psychoanalytic models of the mind, developed by Freud, Klein, and Bion, can be loosely linked with one another to form what Donald Meltzer called, "the Kleinian expansion of Freud's metapsychology" (1979, p.23 xx). Meltzer saw Bion's work with disorders of thinking as allowing him to extend Klein's formulations on projective identification and splitting processes. Mawson's project is to underscore the links between Bion and Melanie Klein, and with Freud before her, and to place Bion within the framework of contemporary Kleinian thought as represented by Betty Joseph, Michael Feldman, and Ronald Britton, to name a few. Indeed, Bion's work, together with that of Segal, Rosenfeld, Joseph, and Henri Rey constitute what has been called the contemporary Kleinian development.

Bion is well-known for many contributions, most of them more complex than the casual talk concerning them conveys, and many of them routinely misunderstood and misapplied. Projective identification grew out of Klein's notion of the paranoid-schizoid position, which she put forth in 1946. Interestingly, the ego and its vicissitudes were Klein's central concern at this time, some years after the controversial discussions had been taking place in the British Psychoanalytic Society in London. Years later, Segal, Rosenfeld, and Bion independently and in conversation with one another developed the analysis of psychotic states. The description of the fragmentation of the ego, the destruction and loss of ego functions, and the splitting and projection of parts of the ego were some of the topics that occupied them at that time. Projective identification was the last of these processes to be described, and it has remained central. Bion's own insights into projective identification were groundbreaking: he developed, again from Klein, the idea that a part of the mind could attack another part of the mind, and furthermore that the psychotic part of the mind could propel, in fantasy, "fragments of the personality containing these isolated functions into others, who as a consequence were felt to contain and also to perform these split off mental functions" (p.6). A particular consequence of projection was the effect on the ego of depletion.

Bion was particularly interested in the attacks on the ego and the ego's functions in psychotic and borderline patients, and the way such attacks figure in the psychoanalytic setting. One such attack comes from an ego-destructive superego, an agency of the mind, an internal object of sorts, that violently opposes the ego and its functions. The concept of the ego-destructive superego is one that both Bion and later Rosenfeld developed, and has more recently been taken up by Britton (2003) and O'Shaugnessy (1999), and now in Bion Today. The ego is attacked, according to Britton, because of its relationship with reality. Britton writes, "I would suggest that there is another reason why the ego's functions are hated, namely, the mode of operations. The ego, unlike the system Ucs. or the id, is, as Freud said, subject to Kant's necessities of thought, that is, to time, space and the law of contradiction" (2003, p.96). This, in Kleinian theory, would be the equivalent of the movement into the depressive position, where there is a loss of omnipotent phantasy and the relinquishment of omniscience in favor of curiosity, and a capacity for inquiry as well as a capacity to live in time and endure the contradictory and opposing experiences of hatred and love.

From his observations about projective mechanisms, Bion developed his theory of thinking that included the elemental distinctions between thoughts and a thinker, the mental apparatus that contains thoughts. In her paper in Bion Today, "Taking the Transference: Some Technical Implications in Three Papers by Bion,", Judith Mitrani describes Bion's courage in extending the Kleinian conceit of projective identification to include its impact on normal communication between infant and mother. Bion (1962) suggested that thinking is "dependent as much upon the successful development of thoughts as it is upon the growth of an apparatus for thinking these thoughts" (p.217). Bion proposed that thinking comes into existence to "cope with thoughts," that "thinking is a development forced upon the psyche by the pressure of thoughts and not the other way around." (Bion 1962, quoted in Mitrani, p.217) Bion's notion of how a thought comes into being is as follows: The baby has what Bion calls a preconception of the existence of a satisfying breast. When the preconception is met with realization (that is, when the expectation is more or less satisfied), the result for Bion is a conception. A conception, for Bion, is always found in the presence of an emotional experience of satisfaction. This experience of satisfaction, as it was for Klein and for Freud, is central to the development of a good object within the ego. In contrast, for Bion, when a good object is not developed, when preconception is not met with realization, but is in fact met with what he calls negative realization, the development of a bad object results. For Bion, this is the development of a "no-breast," an object that doesn't satisfy but instead frustrates. This object, introjected into the ego, constitutes not the absence of something good, but the presence of something bad. In other words, for Bion, frustration leads to the development of a bad object, fit only for evacuation, not fit for thoughts. Linked with this is an area of projective identification that, rather than being used as successful communication, is used for evacuation. Thus, a pathological form of projective identification is put into motion. Bion states that "If the mother cannot tolerate these projections the infant is reduced to continue projective identification with increasing force, that denudes the projection of its penumbra of meaning" (1962, p.308, quoted in Mitrani, 2010, p.224).

Implicit in this sequence is the theory of container/contained, another frequently misunderstood concept of Bion's. Too often the concept "container" is used as though it were a synonym for the holding environment, rather than being specifically a maternal function aimed at receiving and containing both projections and unmetabolized bits that Bion called Beta elements. What must be contained by the mother are the unbearable aspects of the infant's self, objects, affects, and unprocessed sensory experience that the infant projects into the mother in fantasy. This is an unconscious process, but often when the container is described in analytic discussions, the unconscious dimension gets lost, as does the aspect of the function that involves tolerating the most disturbing aspects both of one's patient and oneself.

The word container suggests a benign function, but for Bion it conveys a means of processing a range of experience from the most destructive to that which is life-promoting. However, the concept is often used to designate a benign and at times idealized function of the analyst, a therapeutic endpoint, rather than a vehicle that helps patients understand something about themselves. Something can be containing only if it takes into account the very disturbing aspects of what is being projected, as well as those that are more consciously tolerable and acceptable to the analyst. Therefore, reassurance would not be containing, it would demonstrate the analyst's inability to tolerate the very disturbing projections communicated by a patient.

This reassuring role as a benign figure, that is, our very attempts to be receptive, may actually be, in Bion's terms, nonreceptive, in that we may fail to contain our patient's projections of the disturbing, threatening aspects of relationships with their early objects. The analyst's inability to accept certain roles can reinforce what Bion calls "nameless dread."

Container/contained is significant in the development of the capacity for thinking. The mother/analyst must gradually convey a more digested and detoxified communication perceptable to the infant/analyst and by the handling of the patient/analyst and the way that the mother/analyst responds. The containing mother/analyst has a capacity to bear pain and anxiety and is appropriately giving to her infant. The infant must also be able to take in and receive the containment the mother is offering. If this is so, then, over time, the infant is able to identify with the mother, and this identification with and introjection of such an object "leads to increasing mental space, the development of a capacity to make meaning (what Bion called alpha function), and the ongoing evolution of a mind that can think for itself " (Mitrani, 2010, p.225).

Another significant Bionian idea that links crucially with projective identification is countertransference. Countertransference is a concept that has deep roots in Britain, starting with Heimann (1950) and Racker (1953) and elaborated by Bion, along with Segal and Rosenfeld. Curiously, Klein her- self was closer to Freud when it came to discussing countertransference: she remained uncertain of its clinical utility throughout her life. What Bion, along with other major psychoanalytic figures of the 20th century, took from Klein and expanded on constitutes one of the major developments for psychoanalysis today. Countertransference is central to the way that contemporary Kleinians work, but it hasn't always been that way. In 1909, Freud, writing to Jung, noted that "these painful necessary experiences are hard to avoid, they help to give us the thick skin we need to dominate the countertransference" (quoted in Britton, 2003, p.35).

In the United States, countertransference has a complicated history. Indeed, it has been an object of suspicion for many ego psychologists, who believe that countertransference is used mainly to rationalize an error of the analyst's. Countertransference was seen as something analysts fall prey to and that interferes with their ability to properly execute their function. Countertransference is indicative of trouble for the analyst rather than something that is a ubiquitous and necessary fact of furthering the analytic work. More recently, with Renik (IJP, 79: 1998) and others, the analyst's subjectivity has been seen as a crucial dimension of the analytic work, but this might be different from countertransference in certain respects. Countertransference arises from being both inside the relationship and outside of it at the same time, observing oneself and one's patient. In the UK, under the influence of Bion, Rosenfeld, Joseph, and others, countertransference is seen as an aspect of technique that is absolutely central to understanding the unconscious aspects of a patient's communications.

The notion of countertransference goes hand in hand with projective identification and splitting, analysts use themselves to discern parts of the patient that have been projected or split off into the analyst, and it is scrutinizing countertransference that allows this awareness of the split-off aspects of the patient's mind and communication to come into play in the analysis. Like many concepts from Bion, this one has achieved a certain popularity, but the popularity comes precisely because it is so easy to stray from the particular meaning that Bion assigned to it. Working with the countertransference (and the projected parts of the patient) means that the analyst must be willing to take on the fact of its being unconscious. It is perhaps one of the ironies of Bion's work, he wished for his work to be shared by all psychoanalysts, but it has given rise to varied interpretations and applications, some of which inevitably dilute or misunderstand what Bion intended. He did not intend for an analyst to be emotionally involved with his patient, and he was skeptical that patients simply take on faith that the analyst is there to help. He wrote famously of analysis as "making the best of a bad job, or the terrible storm unleashed when the patient and analyst's unconscious (es) meet in the context of an analytic hour. The idealization of the analytic work, the notion that we can comfortably assume that our patient wants our help simply because they have sought it, the presumption that our patients believe we are benign, are all notions that Bion has sought to illuminate. Bion likely would have worried about the analyst's counter-transference communications being put to a self-serving use, as they might be when the analyst is reassuring or self-disclosing, just as he would have worried about the destructive use of the analyst's silence.

There are many followers of Bion who do not subscribe to the Kleinian model of working in the here and now, in the transference/countertransference. Ogden's notion of the analytic third, which is constructed by patient and analyst, departs from the Kleinian idea of the interplay between projective identification and countertransference, as does Ferro's idea of the bipersonal field made up of the analyst's and the patient's projections. In relational psychoanalysis, countertransference is comfortably in play, as it directly reflects what is going on within the analytic pair, and it is used to justify (or to foster, depending on your point of view) self-disclosure on the part of the analyst, as a synonym for co-construction, or to demonstrate the folly of analytic neutrality. From the perspective of many authors in Bion Today, at least, Bion's notion of countertransference remains committed to psychoanalytic neutrality, although one could say that the object of neutrality shifts when analysts see themselves as an inevitable part of what must be analyzed. What is significant for Bion, and Klein and Freud before him, is that countertransference must be monitored carefully. It is not a justification for the analyst's acting in or out. Analysts must be able to distinguish between those responses in themselves that are evoked by the patient and those that come about because of some particular disturbance in themselves. As Mawson says, "Freud, Klein, and Bion all shared the concern that the countertransference concept could lend itself to clinical misuse by the analyst, including the justification of the analyst's acting out, and they were therefore cautious about the widening of the concept, with none more so than Klein herself " (p.8).

So it is interesting that countertransference, which is indeed a central technical tool for working Kleinians, comes with a proviso, a proviso often understood to be lacking by more conservative psychoanalysts. On the other hand, countertransference is also clearly differentiated from the relational school's emphasis on co-construction.

The distinction between analyst and patient is very clear in Bion's writing on countertransference and other matters. Analysts must attempt to keep an eye on what is happening between themselves and the patient, at the very same time that they are involved in what is happening between them. As Spillius (2011) notes, neutrality never attracted the kind of argument in the UK as it tends to in the US, nor does the authority of the analyst arouse the indignation that it has here in the US, which in part has given rise to the relational school's corrective.

Countertransference foreshadows Joseph Sandler's concept of role responsiveness, the idea that the patient will exert a pressure on the analyst to conform to a role lived out by an unconscious internalized object relationship. Bion referred to this as "playing a part in someone else's fantasy." The analyst must tolerate being open (as container) to housing the more disturbed, fragmented parts of the personality. Optimally, countertransference illuminates the ways in which part-objects are communicated via projective identification into the analyst, interfering with the analyst's capacity to function, to work, to think, or to reach the patient. The analyst must be simultaneously open to this and available to the patient's projections. This gives rise to a technical shift, that of working in the here and now, where the analyst is acutely aware of what is happening in the moment-to-moment interaction between patient and action. The here-and-now approach, something Joseph has written about extensively, originated with Bion's famous dictum, "without memory or desire." (Notes on Memory and Desire, 1967).

Mitrani (2010, p.236) refers to this as being able to meet every hour without a sense of what is supposed to happen and what has not yet happened. The notion of "without memory or desire" is taken seriously by the contemporary Kleinians, even though some believe it to be an impossible ideal that cannot realistically be achieved. However, the emphasis on the analyst's effort at understanding not only the patient's unconscious mind but also the analyst's own mind and the interplay between them during the session not to stray to generic interpretations, or the comfort of a displacement, outside the room” these are some of the implications of working "without memory or desire."

Bion Today is organized along lines familiar to anyone who knows the two Kleinian anthologies: Melanie Klein Today: Developments in Theory and Practice, Volume 1: Mainly Theory (1988) and Melanie Klein Today: Developments in Theory and Practice, Volume 2: Mainly Practice (1988), both edited by Elizabeth Bott Spillius. For this volume, Mawson has written a particularly lucid introductory section, followed by a section called "Mainly Conceptual," which is followed by another section called "Mainly Clinical." There are also sections on "Aesthetic," "Group Mentality," and the "Late Bion" a period of work that is itself a point of contention within the book.

An examination of this issue is contained in the book's first essay, O'Shaughnessy's classic paper, "Whose Bion (?)," examines the question of which Bion is being described when Bion is discussed and appropriated by contemporary writers, psychoanalysts, and theorists. (She distinguishes between Bion and late Bion.) For O'Shaughnessy, the force of Bion's work derives from his "ever-present concern with the instinct to know," what Bion calls the K link. O'Shaughnessy reminds us that K was and has remained at the very centre of psychoanalysis. For her, there are not two interacting instincts but three: love, hate, and the wish to know, or the epistemophilic instinct. The wish to know, or K, is related to the development of the capacity to think. Bion distinguishes the process and experience of getting to know from the more static position of being in possession of knowledge. O'Shaughnessy states that, "the arresting qualities of language in his main writings free the reader's thinking, but…as his late thinking becomes less boundaried, the defects of these very qualities make the texts too open, too pro- and evocative, and weakened by riddling meanings" (p.35).

My guess is that O'Shaughnessy would be troubled by the rampant, undisciplined application of Bion, which in the worst instances amounts to an appropriation of Bionian theory by analysts here in the US regardless of the precise meanings of the theory. From O'Shaughnessy's point of view, there may well be a link between the late Bion and this more contemporary freewheeling situation where we find in play a variety of readings of his work.

There are many other beautiful, original papers in the book, evocations of Bion that have vivid application to clinical thinking. In its richness and variety, Bion Today provides a corrective to an all-too-easy application of Bion; it resituates and perhaps reclaims Bion for the Kleinians, a tradition that he very much comes out of and continues to inform.


Bion, W. R. (1962). The psychoanalytic study of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 306, 310.

Bion, W.R. (1967). Notes on memory and desire.Psychoanalytic Forum, 2, 279-281.

Britton, R. (2003). Sex, death, and the superego: Experiences in psychoanalysis. London, UK: Karnac Books.

Ferro, A. (2005), Which reality in the psychoanalytic session: Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 74, 421-442.

Heimann, P (1950) Notes on countertransference. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 31: 81-84.

Meltzer, D. (1979). The clinical significance of the work of Bion: The Kleinian development (Part III). Strath Tay, Scotland, UK: Clunie Press.

Mitrani, J. (2011) Taking the transference. Bion Today (Mawson, ed.), 216-243.

Ogden, T. (2004) The art of psychoanalysis: Dreaming undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85: 857-878

O'Shaugnessy, E. (1999). On relating to the super-ego. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 69, 457, 470.

Racker, H, (1953). A contribution to the problem of countertransference. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34: 313-324

Renik, O. (1998) The analyst's subjectivity and the analyst's objectivity. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 79:1263-1270.

Spillius, E. B. (Ed.). (1988). Melanie Klein today: Developments in theory and practice, volume 1: Mainly theory. London, UK: Routledge.

Spillius, E. B. (Ed.). (1988). Melanie Klein today: Developments in theory and practice, volume 1: Mainly practice. London, UK: Routledge.

Spillius, E. B. (2004). Comments on Owen Renik. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 85, 1057, 1061.

Reviewer Note

Dr. Lynne Zeavin is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education at NYU Medical Center, an assistant clinical professor at NYU Medical Center, and a contributing editor of DIVISION/Review. She is currently writing about the contemporary Kleinians.


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