SOCIAL THEORETICAL CONTEXTS FOR THE CONCEPTUALISATION OF TRANSGENERATIONAL TRAUMA AND PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION
MID-CAREER FELLOW: OCTOBER 2014 – SEPTEMBER 2015
Matt is Deputy Director of the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, where he is also a Senior Lecturer on the history of psychoanalysis, and on psychoanalysis and literature.
His research interests include psychosocial studies and integrations of psychology with sociology, nineteenth-century theories of the unconscious, German Romantic psychology and philosophy, psychoanalysis and critical theory, and modernist poetry and poetics.
Matt’s ISRF project investigates theories of ‘transindividual’ processes of mind from the period 1890-1920 (including from Myers, Le Bon, Bergson, Butler and Scheler) in order to inform the study of ‘projective identification’ and ‘transgenerational trauma’ in contemporary social research. The research aims (1) to find better bridges between psychoanalytic and sociological forms of conceptualisation; and (2) to develop alternative descriptive models of transindividual process, drawing from the historical basis of social theory.
This project investigates theories of ‘transindividual’ processes of mind from the period 1890-1920 (including from Myers, Le Bon, Bergson, Butler and Scheler) in order to inform the study of ‘projective identification’ and ‘transgenerational trauma’ in contemporary social research. These concepts have been mobilised in numerous studies in the last twenty years of racial and ethnic conflict, and the after-effects of social trauma. However, their use within social research also meets with various challenges. These concepts were developed in psychoanalytic clinical work, and thus can be viewed by non-psychoanalytic social researchers as belonging to an alien paradigm. Another challenge concerns the limits of the psychoanalytic theoretical and descriptive languages themselves. Both concepts involve the theorisation of processes happening at transindividual levels (the passage of thoughts and feelings from one person to another, across social situations, or historically across generations). However such processes are hard to put across to researchers in disciplines informed by conventional assumptions about the bounded nature of individual experience, where thoughts and feelings belong to particular individuals, and cannot be ‘transferred’. In order to demonstrate the operation of such ‘transference’ via combinations of social, cultural and psychological mechanisms, psychoanalytically informed researchers have typically been led to couch their theorisation in quasi-occult terms (as intergenerational ‘haunting’, or the ‘possession’ of one mind by another). This research offers an innovative rethinking of the problems by turning to neglected strands of social and philosophical theory from 1890-1920. Here, psychological process is routinely approached within transindividual frameworks, using a variety of social, psychological and philosophical models. By rereading contemporary work on social trauma in the light of these earlier approaches, this research aims (1) to find better bridges between psychoanalytic and sociological forms of conceptualisation; (2) to develop alternative descriptive models of transindividual process, drawing from the historical basis of social theory.
The Research Idea
This research develops contexts for the theorisation of two key concepts in contemporary social research on prejudice and trauma: (1) ‘Transgenerational transmission of trauma’ indicates ‘how strongly a trauma lived through in one generation continues to have effects in later ones’ (Frosh). (2) ‘Projective identification’ (distinguished clinically into normal and pathological forms) implies the splitting-off of unbearable thoughts and feelings and their expulsion into another person, through unconscious psychological processes, leading the other person to experience this quality in themselves. It is characteristically used to analyse the projection of self-hatred from one social group into another. Both processes are now widely accepted, across various schools of psychotherapy, as providing an explanation of certain traumatic mental phenomena. However, their application in social research meets with particular obstacles. The most important of these is the problem of translating theorisations from psychoanalysis to more general frames of reference for mental life operative in social research. A particular challenge is posed by the assumption that emotions and thoughts can be unconsciously transferred between people. The original contribution of this research is to identify a widespread, but now neglected, strand in social and psychological theory from the period 1890-1920, which understands individual psychology as historically and socially permeable, and which favours transindividual perspectives on psychological processes. My research idea is that these neglected theorisations can inform contemporary research by (i) providing different rationalisations of transindividual processes; (ii) providing different descriptive resources; (iii) linking these concepts to a broader history of social theorisation.
With the rise to prominence of the concept of ‘trauma’ as an object of historical, political and social research in the 1990s, there has been an associated rise in the application of psychoanalytic approaches within investigations of prejudice, conflict and genocide (contributing to the rise of ‘psychosocial studies’ in the last twenty years). However, large rifts still appear between the interpretive paradigms of psychosocial researchers, and those in sociology more broadly.
This research focuses on two contemporary objects of enquiry:
- ‘transgenerational transmission’ of trauma, originally applied in studies of ‘the silent persistence of the Holocaust in the minds of second-generation Jews’, but since extended to many different legacies of conflict. The persistence of trauma applies to ‘all trauma in every place’ and ‘all acts of personal violence and political oppression, of colonialism and genocide, or sexual and racial hatred’ (Frosh).
- The second strand concerns the dynamics informing racism and prejudice between groups, and here the concepts of projection, identification, and projective identification come to the fore, applied in work by Simon Clarke, Stephen Frosh, M. Fakhry Davids, R. D. Hinshelwood, Michael Rustin and many others.
Such concepts have helped to theorise the psychological dynamics of prejudice and trauma, from studies of white working-class hostility towards Asian communities, or prejudice against refugees in the UK, to research on anti-semitism and the transmission of trauma in post-colonial contexts (including Australia, South Africa, and slavery in the Americas). They are employed in psychosocial theory, in qualitative research, and by oral historians.
Spillius and O’Shaughnessy (eds) Projective Identification: The Fate of a Concept (2012) testifies to its increasing clinical significance, as well as its longevity as a tool in experimental infant-mother psychology (maternal depression) and the psychoanalysis of organisations (Tavistock). Stephen Frosh’s Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions (2013) reviews the numerous sociological, historical and psychological accounts of the transgenerational transmission of trauma. However, work in the broader psychosocial field struggles to convey psychological processes happening intersubjectively, using descriptive tools derived from the assumption that individuals are ‘bounded’, with their own inner history and internal world. Derek Hook, addressing the trauma of racial identity, remarks on the ‘paradoxes of the sociality of desires’ and cites A Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race on the usefulness of psychoanalysis because it understands that ‘intrasubjectivity exists as a form of intersubjectivity’. However, attempts to mobilise such models of intersubjective process beyond the psychoanalytic paradigm, forces writers to express themselves in language that appears irrational. The projection of thoughts or feelings from one mind into another may evoke ‘occult ideas about thought transmission or telepathy’ (Frosh), transgenerational trauma is approached through the metaphor of ‘haunting’. Though such terms have a contested presence even within certain sociological work, they pose serious obstacles to research. Such vocabulary testifies to an inability to articulate processes fully, as well as suggesting such phenomena are in some way unreal (ffytche, 2012). This research aims to provide clearer and alternative articulations of these two real processes, by bridging psychoanalytic descriptions with neglected social theory.
Theory & Evidence Base
My hypothesis is that the problem in articulating these processes is caused by attempts to replace a model in which psychological problems are bounded within individuals, with one in which they occur at individual and trans-individual levels simultaneously. The relegation of the latter approach reflects the increasing association of psychology with trends in liberal individualism, and the elevation of the ‘autonomous individual’ in twentieth century culture (explored in my first book, and by Zaretsky 2004). The original contribution of this research is to return to a neglected moment in the development of psychology and social theory, which envisioned mental and emotional life as permeable, with contents passing between generations, and between individuals socially, through various mechanisms. This approach was developed across a number of disciplines in England, France, Germany and America, by philosophers (Bergson, Scheler, Peirce); philosophers of the unconscious (Hartmann, Du Prel); psychologists of the unconscious (Janet, Myers, Freud); social theorists (Spencer, Tarde, Le Bon); philosophers of biology (Haeckel, Driesch, Bölsche); and literary essayists (Maeterlinck, Butler, Strindberg, Sinclair), amongst others. Though not amounting to a single ‘movement’, their work offers a rich resource for constructing narratives of the transmission of feelings and ideas between individuals, who are conceived not as isolated units, but in constant emotional and ideational exchange with one another and with layers of past experience. Through an investigation of this literature, theorisation of transindividual process in current psychosocial research can be given a broader epistemological sanction, underpinned by alternative descriptions, and developed in new directions.
The project turns to these neglected theories of the permeability of minds in order to extract theories, and supporting narrative descriptions, of transindividual psychological processes. By ‘permeability of minds’ is understood ideas and feelings operating between one mind and another, or between generations.
The methodological approach is:
- to identify particular theorisations of transindividual processes of experience in the authors listed above, and in other lesser-known secondary literature on psychology and society from this period with which they engaged;
- to use this material to develop new critical paradigms, and descriptive languages, through which to address the presence and operation of processes of transgenerational transmission and projective identification in material for social research.
As an example of links between the early-twentieth century context and the contemporary field: for Maeterlinck, ‘our chief concern with the past’ is ‘the moral reactions bygone events are producing within us’; for Butler, the continuity of identity between child and adult provokes questions about continuities between the child and its parents; Scheler challenges whether ‘it is our own individual self and its experiences’ which are given in inner intuition.
The aims are:
- to use these neglected theorisations of transindividual psychological process to inform new theoretical interventions in contemporary psychosocial research on social trauma;
- to improve the scope and plausibility of these concepts as tools for social research, by addressing some of the problems of articulation in current models;
- to provide new bridges between the theoretical paradigm (clinical psychoanalysis) and the investigative field (psycho-sociological).
This project hinges on the recovery of neglected theoretical and descriptive resources as an intervention in contemporary social research on trauma and prejudice. From the start, dissemination of these ideas is a key objective. Two kinds of output are proposed:
- the production of a monograph (published by CUP) reviewing and analysing the relevant material from 1890-1920. This will provide a new historical and conceptual resource for researchers working in fields concerned with the transgenerational transmission of trauma, and projective identification. This monograph builds on my own interdisciplinary research on the history of psychoanalytic engagement with social and political issues.
- a series of talks and workshops using the research to inform the development of methodologies in contemporary work on trauma and prejudice. These will be delivered from the latter third of the research period at venues such as Essex, UWE and Birkbeck, aiming to bring psychosocial researchers together with sociologists, clinicians and contributors from Refugee Care (a field with close links to CPS), as well as fostering international links (Lynne Layton, Harvard). As Deputy Director of CPS, I am well-connected in the field. The workshop model is one I have employed successfully as a co-organiser of ‘Psychoanalysis in the Second World War’ (2009-10), leading to the 2012 conference ‘Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism’ (London, Wellcome), and in ‘Taking Stock: Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities’ (Essex, 2012-13). Articles from these talks will be submitted to journals including Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, and The Journal of Psychosocial Studies.
The research is interdisciplinary in:
- bringing together insights from psychoanalysis, psychology, social theory and philosophy;
- drawing on thinkers who were themselves interdisciplinary in their outlook;
- developing bridges between psychoanalysis and social research.
The work builds on an interdisciplinary approach to psychoanalytic concepts pioneered in my monograph The Foundation of the Unconscious: Schelling, Freud and the Birth of the Modern Psyche (CUP, 2012) described as ‘an impressive contribution to the history of philosophy and the history of psychoanalysis’ (John Forrester), and as setting ‘a new standard for philosophically sensitive historical writing on the concept of the unconscious’ (Radical Philosophy). It also builds on two projects of which I have been co-organiser (Taking Stock: Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities; and ‘Psychoanalysis in the Academy’), aimed at developing the psychoanalytic contribution to contemporary academic methodology.
The project’s originality consists in:
- rethinking the way in which ‘transgenerational transmission’ and ‘projective identification’ are understood in contemporary social research;
- its use of neglected models of transindividual process in order to challenge current explanatory frameworks.
It is unlikely to be funded elsewhere because its interdisciplinary approach doesn’t fall squarely within either ESRC, AHRC or Wellcome priorities. It also presents a very independent approach to a significant but niche problem in the theorisation of trauma, and this may also make it less acceptable to mainstream funders.
Initial plan for work and how it developed during 2014-15
The original research aims were (1) to find better bridges between psychoanalytic and sociological forms of conceptualisation; and (2) to develop alternative descriptive models of transindividual process, drawing from the historical basis of social theory.
The concepts I wanted to focus on in particular were those relating to (1) ‘transgenerational transmission of trauma’ (TT) (which concerns how trauma experienced in one generation continues to effect later ones) and (2) ‘projective identification’ (PI) (which implies the splitting off of unbearable thoughts and feelings and their expulsion into another person). These two concepts were related to real-life issues in the areas of genocide (TT), and racism and prejudice (PI) respectively.
During the course of the research, the aims, the concepts investigated, and the real-life focus remained the same, but my sense of the research shifted in two ways. I early on decided to concentrate more exclusively on ‘projective identification’, though I did some work on transgenerational transmission which fed into a couple of papers, and an article.
Secondly, I originally aimed to spend time examining cultural and social theory from 1890-1920 in order to derive new ways of approaching the contemporary concepts. In practice, I moved on from that study more quickly in order to deal with the research aims more directly. I found that to build better bridges between psychoanalytic and sociological concepts (research aim 1), I needed to concentrate more on sociological and psychoanalytic works from the 1930-1980s, and I particularly focused on the work of Blumer, Goffman, and Giddens.
Out of this focus, I did start to develop an alternative descriptive model (research aim 2) which centred on models of ‘dramaturgy’, common to both psychoanalysis and sociology, and particularly active in descriptions of projective identification. This was an unexpected finding of the research. The task since then has been to develop an analysis of PI via the model of dramaturgy as a way of bridging psychoanalytic and sociological research on racism.
This is at present being explored through psychoanalytic writing on race, and the imagination of racial conflict, drawing on work by Fanon, Wright, Manganyi, Rustin, Marriott and Hook. This more recent research will be presented at a conference in November 2016, at Warwick, which is a joint endeavour of the Institute of Psychoanalysis and the British Sociological Association: ‘Sociology and Psychoanalysis: The Unfulfilled Promise’.
The People we live in notes on projective identification as a form of social interaction, 11th March, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex
Psychoanalytic Sociology and the Traumas of History: Alexander Mitscherlich Between the Disciplines, 22 January 2015, Psychoanalysis Across the Disciplines at University of Warwick
The Emotions of Others in the Unconscious Economy of the Self: thoughts on empathy in the light of psychoanalytic projection, 13 July 2015, Empathy Across the Disciplines, HPS, Cambridge University
On A Memoir of the Future, 23 January 2016, Department of Comparative Literature, Ludwig Maximilian University