Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The 'Body-Container': A New Perspective on the 'Body-Ego'

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The 'Body-Container': A New Perspective on the 'Body-Ego'

Article excerpt

Psychoanalytic theory and practice tend to focus on metaphorical and symbolic mental representations in a way that often pushes aside the importance of a bodily 'presence' possessing qualities that can not and should not be subordinated to the representational structure. By introducing the 'body-container' model, this paper reintroduces the concrete physical body into the psychoanalytic discourse in a more direct way. This clinical-theoretical model links the 'body-ego' (Freud, 1923) to the container idea (Bion, 1962) aiming to creates a new integrative psyche-soma scheme. The 'body-container' experience is available as a subjective realization through a priori psycho-physical forms structured as an envelope and a central vertical axis. These forms are the outcome of our given bodily structure experienced under the 'magnetic' force of object relation. The mental envelope is already discussed in psychoanalytic theory (Anzieu, 1989, 1990; Bick, 1968) and I wish to introduce the characteristics of the vertical axis which I call 'the frontal spine', emphasizing its constitutional reciprocity with the skin envelope. The proposed model offers new insights into the psycho-physical organization in primitive mental states and may contribute to the understanding of the complementary structural relation between embodied and represented in human experience. Two clinical examples illustrate the therapeutic work relevant to disturbances in the primal psycho-physical space organization at different developmental levels.

Keywords: body-container, body-ego, container, 'frontal spine', primal space


The present paper is a continuation of recent attempts to 'think body' (Ferrari, 2004; Gaddini, 1978; Haag, 1991, 2000; McDougall, 1989; Stern, 1985). It proposes the 'body-container' as a clinical-theoretical concept that links the 'body-ego' (Freud, 1923) to the container idea (Bion, 1962), creating an integrative psyche-soma model. Freud's notion of the 'body-ego' represents his efforts to conceptualize a psychoanalytical outlook that would free itself from the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy in favour of understanding human experience as a psycho-physical functional continuum. Freud's basic assumption that the ego is first and foremost a 'body-ego' remained widely accepted among the following generations of psychoanalytic thought. However, it was usually reductively interpreted, relating to the body mainly as the matrix of mental representations. According to this interpretation, the psyche emerges from the body in a developmental process and retreats to it when the psychical apparatus fails. McDougall (1989), for example, suggests that we tend to somatize in moments when our inner and outer circumstances defeat our accepted ways of coping. In this interpretation psychoanalytic theory and practice escape dichotomy but obey the hierarchy that elevates the mental and lowers the physical. The importance of a bodily 'presence', possessing qualities that cannot and should not be subordinated to the representational structure, has been pushed aside in favour of emphasizing mental processes which concentrate on transformations to pictorial and symbolic representations.

My clinical experience, especially with primitive mental states, introduced me to a phenomenon that I believe could not be described or understood under the domain of a representational model. This experience encouraged me to describe and conceptualize the Body-Container model as the structure of the primal psycho-physical space - a layer of experience where body and mind appear to be two manifestations sharing the same scheme.

The body-container

My starting point is the broad consensus in psychoanalytic meta-psychology on the strong connection between bodily and mental functions (Bion, 1962; Freud, 1923; Gaddini, 1987; Spitz, 1955; Stern, 1985). Bion raised the term 'container' to the status of a central meta-psychological abstraction of the mental space, and conceptualized the 'container-contained' relation as an innate constitutional preconception in object relations, realized through the operation of alpha-function. …

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