Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Semiotic Transformations in Psychoanalysis with Infants and Adults

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Semiotic Transformations in Psychoanalysis with Infants and Adults

Article excerpt

The author addresses issues that emerge when we compare psychoanalytic experiences with adults and with infants. Two analyses-one with a 35 year-old woman and one with a 2 week-old boy and his mother-illustrate that infant psychoanalytic experiences help us understand and handle adult transference. However, we cannot extrapolate infant experiences to adult work. Truly, witnessing the baby's communication widens our sensitivity to non-verbal layers of the adult's communication. Infant work also offers a direct encounter with the container and the contained personified by a mother with her baby. But we need to conceptualize carefully the links between clinical experiences with babies and adults. When we call an adult transference pattern 'infantile', we imply that primeval experience has been transformed into present behaviour. However, if we view the analytical situation as one in which infantile invariants have transformed into adult symptoms, we face the impossible task of indicating the roots of the present symptoms. The author rather suggests that what is transformed is not an invariant infantile essence but signs denoting the patient's inner reality. He proposes we define transformation as a semiotic process instead of building it on an essentialist grounding. If we view the analytic situation as a map of signs that we translate during our psychoanalytic work, we can proceed into defining containment as a semiotic process. This idea will be linked with a conceptualization of the mother-infant relation in semiotic terms.

Keywords: semiotic transformation, adult/infant psychoanalysis comparison, psychoanalysis of mother and infant, Bion, Kant, infant research

The reason why our cognitive theories frequently run into trouble could be due to the fact that we are inexorably embedded in a primal cognitive basis in which experiences escape from the limits imposed by words.

(Corradi Fiumara, 1995, p. 65)


Monica, an analysand of 35, bursts out on the couch, 'I can't bear it! Now I'm here again, it's terrible. Oh, God! I would do anything to come to my session, but when I'm here I can't stand it. Ahhh ... we really have a problem'. Her legs sway from side to side as she brushes her forehead and moans. There is panic and total frustration. It is hard for me, her analyst, to watch her suffering. I interpret her resentment for my having abandoned her since our last session, and her bewildered and bitter feelings when we meet again. She reacts with indifference. I convey the image of a baby who has been longing for her mother and now is screaming and moving in panic. She replies, 'That baby thing doesn't tell me anything!' I feel helpless and annoyed, as if I am to witness her shakes and sighs and yet be declared unable to help.

A year and a half into Monica's treatment, I start psychoanalysis with 2 week-old Nicholas and his mother Theresa. She had visited a baby clinic because of a wound on the nipple. It soon healed but the nurse, seeing her crying, recommended that she contact me. Theresa tells me she does not know if she wants to be a mother. She is constantly worried that Nicholas might get injured. She seems trapped, angry and desperate. Evidently, she also has warm and loving feelings for her son. While sucking the breast, Nicholas jerks and tosses his head as if shunning the nipple. He sucks it in entirely, rather than rhythmically working it. To see Theresa's anguished face while Nicholas fusses is poignant and alarming. Something must be done quickly or else their relation may get stuck in mutual resentment.

The line of argument in my paper is this: first I will show how infant work can inspire us to focus on primitive aspects of the personality of the analysand, regardless of age. It also helps us become aware of how we interact with the adult patient. Thus, Nicholas and his mother inspired my change of technique with Monica. Then my trajectory will change direction. …

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