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RelationalityReview - Relationality
From Attachment to Intersubjectivity
by Stephen A. Mitchell
Analytic Press, 2000
Review by Elliot L. Jurist, Ph.D.
Jun 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 24)

In this book, Stephen Mitchell, the leading theorist of the relational movement in psychoanalysis, explores connections between earlier psychoanalytic perspectives (especially Loewald, Winnicott, Fairbairn, and Bowlby, but also Sullivan and Fromm) and relational thinking and introduces some of his own ideas about levels of mental functioning. Mitchell uses clinical material to good effect: not only does this illuminate the ideas under discussion, but it enables us to witness a clinician at work who is deeply honest and fully engaged in the therapeutic enterprise. Indeed, Mitchell's clinical work stands out for its boldness and originality. Although some of the book covers old ground in its criticism of the classical model of psychoanalysis, Mitchell does branch out here in a new direction by emphasizing connections between relational psychoanalysis and recent versions of attachment theory (like Fonagy's work).

Mitchell's reading of figures like Loewald, Winnicott and Fairbairn highlights the distinctiveness of their respective contributions. The first two chapters are devoted to an assessment of Loewald in which Mitchell demonstrates how Loewald uses traditional psychoanalytic terms in novel ways-for example, in construing the unconscious in terms of dedifferentiation, rather than in terms of explosive energy or propulsive drives (p. 11), and in redefining the boundary between fantasy and reality in a less rigid manner (p. 18). Mitchell offers an interesting discussion of Loewald's notion of the "primal density" of the mind, which is manifest in the infant's sense of unity with the mother. In this context, Mitchell observes the similarity to Mahler's commitment to a phase of symbiosis, but Mitchell does not grapple with the extent to which such ideas have come under attack by infant researchers (Gergely has reviewed this literature in relation to psychoanalysis; for a current version, see Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, Target's Affect Regulation and Mentalization, forthcoming in 2001 from the Other Press). Mitchell's appreciative examination of Loewald emphasizes his wish to affirm adult reality without minimizing the value of infantile fantasy. The former without the latter would mean "a dessicated, meaningless, passionless world," (p.24). According to Mitchell's interpretation of Loewald, "only the enchanted life is worth living" (p. 29).

In the third chapter, Mitchell moves on to present his own ideas. Developing Loewald's notion of how different levels of functioning coexist in the mind, Mitchell offers four different modes of organization. It will be possible to do justice to this theoretical framework here. Let me briefly characterize the range of distinct kinds of human interaction which Mitchell specifies: 1) non-reflective exchanges, which are revealed in actual behavior; 2) interactions which are predicated upon affect permeability (or what is sometimes referred to as "emotional contagion"); 3) interactions which determine self-other configurations (including how others can be part of oneself and how the self is multiplicitous); and 4) intersubjective interactions, which are mediated by the capacity for self-reflexivity that allows us to have a richer sense of both the self and others (pp. 58f). This framework is helpful in establishing Mitchell's claim that secondary process does not replace primary process and that we need to accept and promote interaction between these two general realms.

Clinical illustrations are used throughout the book to capture aspects of this theoretical framework. For anyone who would like to get a real sense of how psychoanalysts are working these days-- and thus to escape the antiquated, tired images that popular culture tends to favor-- I would highly recommend Mitchell's book. He is candid about his own moments of confusion and frustration. Mitchell has a subtle eye, noticing the value of opting not to make an explicit interpretation in favor of allowing an emotional moment to linger in the room. He also does not hesitate to examine challenging topics such as excitement and erotic arousal between patients and analysts.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Mitchell's clinical work has to do with his use of himself. With a patient who was chronically hostile both within and outside of therapy, but also attuned to how this drives others away from her, Mitchell responds to her assertion that it was likely that at that moment he was hating her by saying: "If this were not an analytic relationship, if this were out on the street and you were talking to me this way and I weren't your analyst, I probably would say 'FUCK YOU!' But I am your analyst" (p. 142). This served to defuse the hostility in the room and facilitated a new level of connection in the treatment. The example represents a fine case of how acknowledging countertransference, even negative countertransference (within the bounds of what will be beneficial to the patient) can be helpful.

This book breaks new ground for the relational model in the way it warms to attachment theory in the fourth chapter. Mitchell offers a good discussion of how psychoanalysts failed to appreciate Bowlby's work and also of how attachment theory has evolved in a direction that is less behavioral and thus more readily compatible with psychoanalytic ideas. Fonagy and Target's notion of "playing with reality" and the process of mentalization through which a child becomes interested in his/her own mind, fits well with Loewald's redefinition of the boundary between fantasy and reality. The warming to attachment theory is significant as well because the relational movement has tended to identify itself with the hermeneutic side of psychoanalysis and to bequeath the scientific side to post-Freudians. One of the merits of attachment theory is its solid basis in empirical research. Mitchell's openness to science is also apparent in his passing comments on Edelman's neuroscientific work.

I would like to conclude this review by noting that Stephen Mitchell died in December 2000 shortly after its publication. This is a huge loss to the relational perspective, but also to the entire field of psychoanalysis-all the more so since Mitchell was only 54 years old. On a personal note, I encountered Mitchell in a number of times professionally (and once in a consultation). One did not have to know him well to sense what a decent, humane and astute man he was.

© Elliot Jurist, 2001

Elliot Jurist, Ph.D. is a Professor of Philosophy at Hofstra University and is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is the author of Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture, and Agency (MIT Press, 2000).


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