IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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Since beta elements are sensory stimuli before they have acquired any meaning , they are different from Freud’s concept of “representations.” While the latter can be conscious or unconscious, Beta elements are by definition beyond – or rather before – consciousness , in that they are not psychic, but ‘ exist ’ or are registered only at a somatic or neurobiological level (the sensory organs and the brain as a part of the latter). This formulation relates to Freud’s early model of the hypothetical neuronal pathways of conduction of pleasure and pain, which Freud drew and described in his “Project of a Scientific Psycholog y” (Freud 1895, pp. 320,324). It is important to note that beta elements are necessarily unconscious, because they are not yet psychic , but not because they have undergone repression or other defensive alteration necessitated by conflict with the superego or the anxiety produced by their wishful or fearful content and meaning. Once beta elements are transformed into alpha elements – i.e., once they have become psychi c – they can then achieve saturation of meaning, acquire symbolic status , be linked together with other mental elements to form narrative bits and associative chains, etc. It is then that they acquire status as representations and can be used to form thoughts and ideas that can be brought to consciousness or repressed into the unconscious because of the anxiety that they arouse. Thus, Bion’s theory of beta elements and alpha function is a metapsychology of the formation, structuralization and growth of the mind. O contains the seeds of future psychic evolution and growth that comes about through processes that are initially intersubjective (maternal reverie, container/contained) and dependent upon the presence of a facilitating object , who lends their own alpha function to that of the patient or infant to form a more effective ‘thinking couple’. Once alpha function is achieved, either through the assistance of another mind or the introjection of the maternal alpha function and the ‘thinking couple,’ then the continuous process of transforming beta elements into alpha elements produces the ‘contact barrier’ and the repressed or dynamic unconscious of Freud becomes possible. This is a process that goes on throughout life. Hence, Bion’s contention that psychoanalysis is the probe that expands the very domain that it seeks to explore. Alternatively, Bion’s recognition that alpha function can be reversed, with alpha elements being cannibalized, evacuated like mental feces to impoverish the mind and the contact barrier replaced by a rigid beta screen, offers a dynamic and dialectical vision of the mind struggling to maintain whatever developmental foothold it has managed to acquire. In the paradoxical statement pronounced by Winnicott (1960) that “there is no such thing as an infant” (ibid, p. 587), one can see to which extent the subjectivity and the unconscious being of the individual require the existence of another subject and depend on the primitive relationship with the environment. A widening of the concept of the unconscious, relationally oriented, can be found in Bollas’s (1987) ‘ unthought known’ , a point of convergence with neuroscience. This is made up by the silent traces of the unrepressed unconscious and the sediments of the individual’s early interactions . It represents a deep relational unconscious form of knowledge which permeates the ‘idiom’ and the entire being of the individual. While Klein’s, Bion’s and Winnicott’s thinking have been strongly influential throughout Europe and Latin America, the reception of especially Klein’s theories in North America has been only gradual and somewhat idiosyncratic. For the most part, until the mid 1970s, classical and contemporary Kleinian papers and ideas were not taught in North American Institutes. This particular fact of psychoanalytic life came about in large measure as


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