Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Language of Absence

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Language of Absence

Article excerpt

This paper will focus on the concept of 'absence', which describes a continuum of nonresponsiveness and misattunement of the environment in the stage of absolute dependence; it refers to concepts like lack, failure, non-recognition, impingement, neglect, tantalizing, ranging to mental, physical and sexual abuse. An extreme external absence causes shock and fear. The automatic survival response is an inner absence, an intrapsychic absence, a dissociation of parts of the self. The external and the inner absence are the negative image of each other. The concept of absence points to the synchronicity of outer and inner reality and portrays the non-responded-to needs of the self. This point of view of the development of psychopathology of the self on the basis of massive dissociation is inherently an intersubjective-field-theory. As the inner absence is created as a reaction to an absence of the other, in analysis - the analyst has an active role in reviving it. This paper will explore the language of absence, that is, the derivatives and consequences of these situations in the inner realm, and in the relations with the analyst. It is the author's contention that understanding and speaking this language has important clinical and technical implications. Understanding the language of absence enables the analyst to recognize its intersubjective and its intrapsychic presence, to provide an environment that allows for its revival, and to facilitate and regulate the annihilation anxiety that awakens when dissociated self-states are experienced. When the absence is present, i.e. when the traumatic experience and the dissociated reactions to it are experienced in an attuned relationship, it is rendered with meaning, symbolization, and validation, and enables the survival mode of dissociation to be relinquished.

Keywords: absence, dissociation, early trauma, intersubjective, negative

A few years ago I happened to see a film about Daniel Stern's work on infant development. One scene in particular left a powerful impression on me. A mother is holding a small infant in her arms, their gazes meet and they smile. Then the mother is instructed to stop smiling and looking at the child. The sequence goes into slow motion and shows how the infant looks at the mother and continues to smile. When he grasps that his mother is neither looking nor smiling at him and with him, his smile gradually freezes. He turns his head away and looks aside, his smile disappears. A few seconds later he looks again for his mother's gaze, with a remnant of a smile - and, once more, when he meets with her non-gaze, he responds in a similar manner. This time his own gaze blurs. Again, he tries, unsmiling now but with a puzzled, shocked expression. Then his head flops sideways. From here on he stops looking at her, his head drops - his gaze frozen, his mouth slightly open, saliva trickling from its corner.

What is it that we are witnessing here? When a mother and infant smile at each other it is as though they were smiling one smile, that is, smiling the two of them. Even if what we have here is really two persons with two separate subjectivities, this encounter flows in unity and concord, in an illusion of harmony. The mother devotes herself to the infant and holds him in a way that allows his body to be safe and relaxed. Thus he can focus himself entirely on the experience of unity, of at-one-ness. When, however, the infant meets with the absence of what he was expecting,1 and he does not yet have the ability to know that he is suffering the psychological pain of absence, he cannot but go on living the absence of smile in a state of shock - his mother's no-smile causes both his face and smile to freeze.

The smile is suspended in mid-air, like an outstretched hand not taken, a 'thing' that must be concealed. The mother's freezing together with the void she creates are the hollow mouth of the infant, of unanswered expectation, the emptiness inside. …

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