A short note on ‘active’ and ‘passive’ interventions

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‘I don’t wish to “reform” society, really, I am not paranoid. I only want to free thought [Gedanken] and discourse [Rede] from the constraint of useless inhibitions in the relationship between people who are psychoanalytically oriented’ – Ferenczi to Freud (letter) 3 Oct 1910


The following is for discussion purposes, it is nothing more or less than points for potential further discussion, and aims only to address the most basic premises of what might admit from a realistic understanding of the analytical notions of and for ‘active’ and ‘passive’ psycho-analysis.

The terms ‘active’ and ‘passive’, as I have explained elsewhere, stand as mere vehicles to convey pragmatic truths but not correspondent truths. These terms (i.e. active or passive) are here approached located in the service of what one might call the bases or basic premises of technique. In order to take account of the gestalt – as the analytical ground in which we operate – I am enlisting the help of a historical figure, Sandor Ferenczi, who suggests himself as an admirable educator and an elucidator on the subject at hand (though, analytical heritage owes him so much more than this mere token gesture).

There are three fundamental and distinct groups of thought within the broad church which is known as the British School: ‘A’ Classical, ‘B’ Contemporary Freudians (aka Kleinian) and ‘C’ Independents (and I should be keen to await the comments and reflections on the current situation and analytical landscape in the US).

Obtaining from these groups each conceptualises from an initially distinct technical model which leads to practical and explanatory differences in respect to each given framework. These conceptual models can be broadly identified as: ‘A’ = Drive/Structure; ‘B’ = Object/Relation and ‘C’ = Integrative/Eclectic. And I should like to consider the terms ‘active and ‘passive’ in the light of the first two groupings, ‘A’ and ‘B’. That being said, however, each clinician moves between conceptualisation and praxis, and each is, of course, impossible to tell as any interpretation is, naturally, unique to that particular individual.

For the ‘A’ group of classical analysts (vide ego-psychologists) the conceptual model used revolves around a nucleus of principles; i.e. ego, drive, structure. Here the analysand/subject might be viewed by the analyst as a self-enclosed system of energetic tensions. Also, the analysis performs a fundamental therapeutic task of facilitating the education and elucidation of that which lies outside the brackets of lived experience (i.e. unconscious) to the subject. Just as the thing at the root of tension may be unsignified, so too, the analysts ‘passive’ role of reflecting may be offered as a mirror in the service of the subjects reflective capacities. The template for this perceived passivity in role comes directly from the Master – the ‘blank screen’ and the ‘reflecting mirror’ (see also 1912d: pp. 109-120). In this setting the primary processes, most notably displacement, are privileged by the analyst. Displacement of the analysands imago [vide familial types] onto/into the surface provided by the analyst are wholly understood by recourse to the dialectic of transference. Transference itself is understood as entirely composed of the familial type, historical circumstances, and the demand placed upon the facilitating environment of the family system by the subject during physical and emotional development. The gradual unfolding of the content of transference takes place through the conduit provided by free association until such time as more constellated or complex tensions reach the maturity of transference neuroses. Here resistance is viewed as taking the form of signal anxiety or anxiety proper due to an implicit desire of the analysand/subject ‘not to know’ (repression and suppression). The countertransferential experiences of the analyst are seen as unresolved anxieties within the analyst and not – crucially – as triggered by the analytic relation with the analysand.

For the ‘B’ group of contemporary analysts (‘Kleinians’) the conceptual model used is that of Object/Relation. Here the field of discovery is no longer the self-enclosed system of the analysand/subject. Instead, the field of discovery is that of the relatedness of the dyadic-system, the alliance and the intertransferential relation at the heart of that system. The therapeutic relation itself [the stuff of transfer] becomes a third entity to the analysand and analyst. The skilled analyst performs, acts and ‘plays’ various roles for the benefit of the analysand within this dynamic scene: roles from the imago, roles from the historical context or even roles from the subjects’ selfobjects (see also Kohut, 1971). The analyst’s [B] role mediates in a potential space fashioned from the space between objective and subjective. Trust may be constued as built up through the constancy and quality of the containing, holding environment provided by one endeavouring to become good-enough. Here then, the analyst aims to be perceived by the subject as a transitional object – that is, as previously noted, an object of transition, of change located between the subjective realm and toward the ideal of ‘objective’ reality. The transitional objecthood of the analyst serves to push the margins of the transferential realm through an ‘active’ participation in and of the intertransferential material from the analyst fed back into the economy of the transference. This iterative process is an ‘active’ process which uses the development of transference to open up new pathways for the subject and analyst alike. Reciprocity and participation become the defining characteristic of resistance, as resistances are not mere interferences or cases of a desire ‘not to know.’ Here resistance becomes utilised by the good-enough analyst as a model in and of the survivability of the analyst which, after due reality-testing by the subject, the objecthood of analysand may perhaps be introjected/internalized at first in part and then in whole form.

Thus through ‘active’ participation (and an emphasis on the quality of the intertransferential exchanges and contents) with the otherness presented by the analyst, the gradual processes of esteemed change, of courage for transition, may come to be fruitful.

Above we have the most basic and much simplified premises of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ groupings, and an extremely concise overview [vide ‘whistle-stop’] of their respective conceptual models. To a certain extent however it is these basic premises for the conceptual models at hand which vitiate a suggestion for a reconsideration of these very models and associated processes. Which is to say, one of the tasks for proceeding from the ‘active’ ‘B’ Object/Relational model toward that which Ferenczi first outlined as ‘active-intervention’, ‘mutualism’ and ‘co-operative dialogue’ requires a closer inspection of the principal inhibition (vide knower/seeker dialectic) which one may suggest appears to inhere within the more classically oriented clinicians. (Though one might equally note this type of obvious dialectical asymmetry in the technical constructions used by certain CBT practitioners also.)

That said, Ferenczi (1986, 1994; orig pub. 1925) offers us guidance in many forms, not least through what he termed ‘the language of tenderness’. His early, heterodoxical stance against the maintainance of a classical asymmetrical authority relation (i.e. the mirror) and, perhaps, the question of lay analysis (something for which he met with vociferous opposition) are two clear examples of his technical developments. For Ferenczi, there was no shying away from the task of liberating analysis from itself – from its own imago, so to speak. Yet, there are no fixed rules on these matters, however, for Ferenczi, the various degrees of incorporation of ‘self-conscious’ (vide potentially narcissistic) authority manipulations play out (vide paroxisms) as if the conceptual model and technique employed were surely related to a notional analytical imago – its own familial type, of sorts.

Ferenczi advocated for a more ‘active’ analytical stance, arguing strenuously for, amongst other things: further degrees of ‘mutualism’ than those seen in [A] analysts (when appropriate and not before), separation from the ‘Knower’ and ‘Seeker’ relation, the greater consideration of a two-way co-operative dialogue (when appropriate), and the further migration from the transferential to the countertransferential and intertransferential – a radical, wild thought in his day, one that Jones was quick to seize upon for not inconsiderable personal gain.

From these most basic and simplified premises, and further observations and understandings obtaining from those basic premises, one can, perhaps, begin to see an emergent outline of how (and why) Ferenczi had indeed politicised the analytic process and placed himself at the political centre of this new ‘active-intervention’ process. Today it is so very easy to take object-relations for granted, and say ‘Who?’ when someone speaks the name Sandor Ferenczi. Let us hope that this situation may soon be reversed.


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