The Processes of Defense: Trauma, Drives, and Reality - A New Synthesis

By Levin, Charles | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Processes of Defense: Trauma, Drives, and Reality - A New Synthesis


Levin, Charles, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The Processes of Defense: Trauma, Drives, and Reality - A New Synthesis by Joseph Fernando Aronson, New York, 2009; 370 pp

Winner of the 2010 Gradiva Prize in the category of psychoanalytic theory, Joseph Fernando's The Processes of Defense announces itself as a 'new synthesis' - presumably of classical ego psychology and contemporary trauma theory. Rather than providing a synthesis (which I think is a long way offin our profession), this book elaborates an original, even unconventional framework for future theoretical research - as well as an inspiration for continuing the therapeutic struggle within the psychoanalytic frame. It is an unusually ambitious, systematic and rigorous contribution to clinical thought, elaborated with the support of detailed case studies. These connected narratives are skillfully interwoven with the unfolding conceptual argument, which gradually takes on the aspect of a large and complex structure of ideas.

Fernando ventures on a quest for what he calls a general theory, but his vision of this project is functional rather than dogmatic and treats what I would call the architecture of psychoanalytic concepts. In addition to introducing new terms, which he defines and illustrates very clearly, Fernando also re-imagines the kinds of relationship that theoretical concepts can have with each other and with clinical practice. In this sense, the parts of the theory are rather more modular than synthetic; they do not interlock seamlessly and there is more than one way to fit them together.

This way of doing theory has an inclusive and open-ended quality; like certain kinds of innovative public architecture, it escapes the usual kind of closure. The High Line in Manhattan comes to mind. This is an elevated railway track converted into a garden that rambles through the gridwork of the Lower West Side. Disparate layers of urban history are integrated without being reduced to a common denominator. The architectural success lies not in any given solid element but in subtly reframing an already difficult space to allow for new combinations and new uses of what is already present. This requires great precision, pitched at just the right level of abstraction - an intuitive sense of what to leave strategically undefined (in Bion's terms, 'unsaturated'), what to pin down, and what to leave open to chance, so that the space remains 'ready to hand,' available for use in spontaneous ways, yet reliable and containing for those who enter.

In this analogy, integration and a sense of community can be achieved without erasing present signs of conflict, loss, ugliness, and rupture. A similar analogy obtains between Fernando's general theory and its referent, the psyche: it suggests that the mind is more like an assemblage than a homogeneous 'unit self.' Freud emphasized such discontinuities, but still tried to synthesize them into a hierarchical order of concepts. While Fernando retains the theory of the ego as a sort of CEO, he moves toward a more contemporary perspective which recognizes the inherent multiplicity and hybrid nature of the psyche and of most phenomena on the mind-body spectrum. Broadly consistent with Freud but also with Darwin's insight that history and diversity work against idealized closure in our understanding of what is human, Fernando's conception of mind requires a taxonomic approach emphasizing lateral divisions, or functional silos, rather than common roots that supposedly subtend a unified intrapsychic field.

Fernando proposes a taxonomic subdivision of the defenses, the first of which is counterforce defenses, a reprise of the classical conflict model of psychic functioning, with one crucial difference: drive-defense is no longer presented as the exclusive explanation of psychic structure and development. Instead, it is presented as a way of focusing on material that enables access to complex and elusive dimensions of the average expectable clinical situation, particularly those requiring long-term hermeneutic work. …

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