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André Green  at the Squiggle FoundationReview - André Green at the Squiggle Foundation
by André Green
Karnac Books, 2000
Review by Dan L. Rose, Psy.D
Jun 1st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 22)

            There was a time when the mention of French psychoanalysis conjured images of the ever-flamboyant Jacques Lacan. Lacan has been the poster boy, the image of Francophilic psychoanalytic thought for quite some time. Lacan’s house of mirrors approach to theory, his almost gleeful obliquity, has turned many a clinician toward more accommodating theorists, usually geographically removed from France’s borders. As a result, it could be argued that other valuable voices in the French psychoanalytic community have been ignored. It’s heartening to see an increasing amount of attention and influence being afforded André Green. His work began to trickle into English translation a decade or so ago.  That trickle is now a steady stream of current and much earlier works now available for the adventurous reader. A good place for the uninitiated to start might be the recently published André Green at the Squiggle Foundation.

            The book is a collection of five lectures given at the Squiggle Foundation (a charity created in 1981 to further the work of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) from 1987 to 1997. Each chapter loosely deals with an area of commonality with or the influence of the Object Relations theorist Donald Winnicott. Green spins a recondite web around these commonalties, weaving in bits of Lacan, Wilfred Bion and, most often, Freud. In fact, following his fellow Frenchman Lacan, Green’s work in this text is very much a “return to Freud.”  Green revisits Freud, sometimes challenging assumptions, elaborating on Freud’s ideas or, most often, extending them into the next century.

            The first chapter is a rather dense meditation on thinking, with Green’s construct of the Negative as a signature theme. Green begins by positing that, as with Freud and later theorists such as Wilfred Bion, thinking has its genesis in the absence of something desired. Put simply, in the occasional absence of the first object of desire, the mother’s breast, the infant in its physical helplessness is forced to mentally deal with the frustration through either wishing something there that is not (the absent breast) or actively wishing away what is (feelings of frustration). Green traces how absence is necessary for creativity and change, using an extended clinical case example to illustrate how negation as a wishing away can be caught and interpreted, leading to the patient moving toward the analyst in a new way.

            Denser still is the second lecture, in which Green tackles the nature of subjectivity and how relationships or objects are central to its construction and experience. Green begins the chapter by chiding American theoretical trends that suggest that a unified self is possible. He counters with his notion of  “the subject” in place of a “self,” noting that a subject is by definition embedded in relation to a verb. Therefore, unlike the common concept of a self, a subject cannot be seen as unified thing apart from its context.  Green then connects his ideas to Winnicott’s famous dictum that the infant does not exist apart from the mother and takes a detour in both connecting his ideas to Lacan and distancing himself from Lacan’s tying of subjectivity to language. Green, in what strikes this writer as his most daring theoretical leap, turns his lens to the object itself, finding the object just as multitudinous. To Green, even in the tight connection between mother and infant, the mother is more than a single thing. Within her mind is the father, dividing the mother’s attention even as she feeds the infant at her breast.  Having illuminated the fluidity and complexity of both subject and object, Green turns to the clinical encounter to demonstrate how the Analyst’s complexity and the analysand’s complexity interact, forming a unique transference creation.

            The third chapter (appropriately entitled On Thirdness) moves quickly from another critique of Ego Psychology to an introduction of Green’s concept of Thirdness. Taking to a whole other level Winnicott’s notion that the infant does not exist outside of its relationship to the mother, Green posits that the mother-infant relationship does not exist without the father. For Green, the father is always present in the mother’s mind, creating a tension that is present from the very beginning, pushing the child from “potential thirdness” to “effective thirdness.”  Green then traces the triads that exist in thinking (binding, unbinding and rebinding), metapsychology (Id, Ego and Superego) and finally symbolization and language. Green’s trail of thirdness moves from complexity to a staggering obliquity, with Freud, Lacan, Saussure and Pierce as signposts.  Green ends the chapter with a summation that suggests that no “science of the unconscious” can attempt to grasp the nature of the psyche without a “third element.”

            The fourth lecture features Green improvising around Winnicott’s posthumously published book Human Nature. True to form, Green begins with a critique of contemporary psychoanalytic theory, here using a quote from Winnicott to call to task those who would reduce emotional conflict and the psyche itself to cognitive and neuroscientific constructs. Green then pulls from Human Nature concepts that reinforce a need for such criticism and dovetail with his own theories. The concept of self is discussed as an independent structure between the “outside” of the body and the “outside” of external reality, thus positioning the self or psyche as more than just an extension of the body. Green then reveals how Winnicott shows aggression to be not the bedrock of experience but a developmental achievement, as an object is only capable of manipulation or destruction if it is seen as apart from the self. He follows this by linking aggression as necessary for moving from the solipsistics of primary narcissism. Green continues early discussions of the role of the father in development by citing Winnicott's assertion that castration anxiety is a “blessing,” in that it moves the child to separation and the possible future reunification through intercourse with a mother substitute. His construct of the Negative is again linked with Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object, this time focusing on how the building of “illusion” is a developmental achievement in the service of thinking. Finally, Green quotes a particularly controversial Winnicott passage in which the notion of a “good enough mother” is said to provide a comfort with illusion or comfort knowing that external reality does not coincide with our perceptions of it. Green finishes by suggesting that philosophers and seekers of truth might trace their compulsion to a mother that was not “good enough.”

            The final lecture is an extended exploration of how Green’s construct of The Negative is revealed in Winnicott, specifically in his collection Playing and Reality. Green begins by describing Winnicott’s concept of transitional objects and transitional space as a “journey toward experience,” paving the way to showing how Winnicott’s theories anticipate his own in relation to the positive and negative aspects of the Negative. Positive aspects of the Negative are necessary for thinking, as in what is not said while one is speaking, or the latent underpinning of all thought. In effect, absence is necessary for a presence of mind. The pathological aspects of the Negative can be seen in what was never received in development, the breakdown of a “holding space” by a not- “good enough mother” which creates a void or a space that was never properly filled. In essence, the journey toward experience is never achieved and the individual is “lost at sea.” Green illustrates such a developmental derailment in an amazing turn of events. Green sees a former patient of Winnicott’s, one made famous in Winnicott’s writings and, with such a link to the past, Green connects his theoretical constructs in application to Winnicott’s.

            There is much to savor in this very dense text. Green’s synthesis of Freud and contemporary theory in itself is satisfying, as Green weaves complexity with complexity creating an almost crystalline tapestry. To this reviewer, Green’s main strength, much like the theorists’ he quotes, is in his ability to capture and name oblique and ephemeral aspects of everyday life. In doing so, he challenges current psychological and philosophical notions, tweaking the noses of the modern, assumed experts. In fact, one can sense a devilish delight on Green’s part in stirring up trouble with his peers.

            However, there is a problem or two. As a clinician, I found the theoretical expositions a little groundless, as there was little direct clinical material. At times, there seemed only traces I could directly tie to the everyday work with patients. Furthermore, the density at times could be maddening. Several chapters were read many times before anything but a dim understanding dawned. It’s telling that the extended passages quoting Winnicott were often a breath of clarity.

            Quibbles aside, Green is a genius. There are passages in this text begging for extended exposition and connection to clinical practice. Just as Green combs through Winnicott’s writings for gems, there will be future theorists combing through Green’s work, taking a sentence or two and transforming it into an entire book. It doesn’t make for easy reading and can cause the distracted reader to reach for hair to pull, but what shines through is very valuable indeed.


© 2002 Dan L. Rose




Dan L. Rose, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist involved in direct clinical work and training at Columbus State University and in private practice. His interests include psychoanalysis, neuroscience, religion and literature.


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