Some Quick and Provisional Notes on Wilfred Bion’s ‘Intra-Group Tensions in Therapy’ (1943)

Bion proposes two meanings for “group therapy.” First, he uses it to refer to the actual analytic work of the individuals who are formed into a collection; second, he uses it to refer to the development of cooperative activity with the group. My immediate inclination is to reject the second definition as being incompatible with the first. These are, indeed, two mutually exclusive definitions inasmuch as the latter aims at the establishment of an ideal community while the former aims — or, perhaps, it ought to aim — toward the eradication of the ideal in favour of the singularity of the individual for the purposes of releasing the instinctual forces upon the egoistic or super-egoic agencies.

To what extent is the second goal a mandate of the psychoanalyst and not in of itself the insertion of the analyst’s own ego, that is, an extension of the Other’s demand onto the singularity of the elements of the group? The role of an analysis, almost exclusively, though not entirely exclusively, is to find what within the group can give rise to a sharing of lack as the formation of a paradoxical bond of community. The smoothly running co-operative activity therefore needs to be qualified considerably before presuming it at the onset as the goal of therapy.

Finally, I would propose, initially, the following: the first goal of analysis, that is, of ‘group therapy,’ may be situated roughly within the psychoanalytic tradition while the second is situated squarely within the tradition of therapy. I am thinking here of a wonderful intervention made by a French psychoanalyst of the Lacanian tradition in his essay “On the Differences of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis,” whereby the two seem quite incompatible with one another. Psychoanalysis aims at ‘absolute difference,’ that is, on the experience of lack and on psychotic stabilization, and so on. For more on this difference see my review of the essay here.

In a word, the basic risk in shifting from psychotherapy to psychoanalysis and vice versa, that is, the risk of the conflation, is one of ‘shifting knowledge from the place of truth to knowledge in the place of the circuitous route of identification.’ The author of the aforementioned essay suggests that psychoanalysis is best defined as a praxis of interpretive cuts which incessantly divides the subject (e.g., “it is a desire for pure multiplicity,” Lacan). I find some truth in this definition but it nonetheless misses work with psychotics (ordinary or otherwise) which is not necessarily about making interpretive cuts. Moreover, it is not always about interpretation but about allowing the isolation of the S1, the master signifier, its emptiness and disjuncture from S2, knowledge, resonate. This was something that occurred several times in my own analytic experience when my analyst isolated the triggering and nonsensical signifier ‘chicken.’

In any case, I return to the thread.

Bion makes a proposal here that I would like to resituate in light of the aforementioned:

“The therapy of individuals assembled in groups is usually in the nature of explanation of neurotic trouble, with reassurance; and sometimes it turns mainly on the catharsis of public confession. The therapy of groups is likely to turn on the acquisition of knowledge and experience of the factors which make for a good group spirit.”

Is this not a turning from the psychoanalytic intervention toward the psychotherapeutic comfort? In other words, the session is likely to begin with a demand or a complaint regarding some pathology, some symptom, some neurotic phenomena, and then, through some time, it moves toward a structure of identification, that is, a social bond characterized by discourse. This is the ‘group spirit,’ neglecting, for the moment, whether it is ‘good’ or not. We can see that the session begins in the spirit of from the group’s desire to seek out knowledge in the place of truth toward the comforts of a knowledge — an “acquisition of knowledge” — which makes for a good identification.

This is the troubling dimension of Bion’s opening remarks and it should be situated within the register of the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic disjuncture — if, indeed, we can maintain that disjuncture (and I do believe that it is productive for the moment to do so).

Bion then opens up the question of scope, which I find quite agreeable:

“[I]n the treatment of the individual, neurosis is displayed as a problem of the individual. In the treatment of a group it must be displayed as a problem of the group.”

This opens up a number of questions which I will only leave as threads: first, to which extent is the entire cultural environment, that is, the Other, the group in question from which the individual must extract him or herself as subject so as not to remain alienated or interpellated within that group? Second, what of the group which is not neurotic? How might we discuss the treatment of a group which is psychotic or perverse or phobic in its essential structure? This also must be opened as a possibility and in many ways, after the 1940s, it is much more likely, I would claim, that the group not be typically neurotic but rather subject to a different variation on the Other: a mutation, perhaps.

Bion’s task within the military hospital turned toward the question of discipline within the scope of group neurosis. He recognizes very quickly that there is something important to the father figure — he does not call it that — namely the commanding officer, whose function is to sustain a certain discourse among his soldiers. What structure of authority, that is, what discourse, is this? It is a discourse whereby “[h]e must know what it is to exercise authority in circumstances that make his fellows unable to accept his authority except in so far as he appears to be able to sustain it.” Is this not the function of the father in Freud’s early writings? It is the Oedipal father — and not the dead father of Totem & Taboo — inasmuch as the father is seen to have it together and become indifferent to the judgments of his somewhat inferior soldiers. It is enough for the Oedipal father to fulfill the function of becoming the enemy around which the social bond of his fellows circulate, that is, as the lynchpin of their discourse.

But the next move that Bion makes is quite remarkable: “neurosis needs to be displayed as a danger to the group; and its display must somehow be made the common aim of the group.” What does this mean? It could imply a number of thing: first, it could imply, technically, that the neurotic symptoms become further repressed and therefore pathologies exacerbated. Or it could mean that the working through of the neuroses becomes the common aim of the group such that knowledge itself does not come in the place of its truth. If, in the one case, we are once again faced with a psychotherapeutics, then, in the other, we are placed in the position of the analytic response.

In the context of this Bion raises questions concerning the ability to make the working through of neurosis the basis of a social bond. How can this be done? This is the central question that I see explored in the text. I think now, particularly, of the movement of psychoanalytic discourse into the broader domain of entertainment. I am thinking about this only because I have been provoked by a number of discussions recently with a psychoanalyst who works precisely — in her capacity as psychoanalyst — within the domain of entertainment. The tension is once again between knowledge as truth, and, therefore, knowledge of the unconscious, and, alternatively, knowledge as identification, semblance, or entertainment. To what extent can this cut, itself, constitute the split of entry into the analytic discourse? It is possible that the discovery of a psychoanalytic culture promote the group working-through of the neuroses — yet, here, I fear, we are much too late: isn’t it the case that today’s culture (American, at least) is itself structured already in the perverse matheme of the analytic discourse whereby objet petit a is in some relation to the S1? This was a claim made many years ago by Jacques-Alain Miller and repeated by Slavoj Zisek. It is for this reason that we must become aware of the new real, that is, the new American discourse which is closer to psychotic or perverse phenomena, which is, in a word, what Lacan called his fifth discourse, the discourse of capitalism.

What is the place of invention? And how can invention be sustained among the group?

One of the findings of the group experiment in the military hospital was that there was the feeling among 20% of the group that 80% of the group were shirking responsibilities, taking advantage of the group, or, otherwise, being ‘lazy.’ In other words, they were not living up to the standards of the rest of the group. How to understand this? Well, if, in this case, we are treating the group as an individual, then do we not see that the group has developed its own judgmental agency and that the 20% is a reflection therefore of something constitutive of the group itself, that is, its split? This is something that Bion intimates when he writes: “why should their disabilities be treated in one way and the disabilities of the 80 per cent be treated in another?”

Now, at the conclusion, the author turns to the neglected phrase that I drew my attention to at the beginning concerning the “good group spirit,” since this, the authors admit, was their aim. They resist the temptation to define “good group spirit” in terms of “good health” of its constituent individuals. Instead the authors choose that the “good group spirit” concerns a tendency toward (1) common purpose (largely centering around an abstract anchoring point who is the enemy, an Oedipal fantasy), (2) common recognition, (3) group identity (which does not lose itself in the face of flucutations or variables in the group constitution), and so on.

This concludes my brief and quick reading of the short text (which appeared in a wider book of Bion’s essays). And it leads me to the provisional claim that Bion tendended toward therapeutics, that is, the interpellation or constitution of a group identity as the aim of the treatment. This neglects the more psychoanalytic position of placing the group knowledge within the register of its truth, that is, of its split. The group is precisely this split which constitutes itself despite all attempts to produce a consistency, that is, a knowledge or identity.

Having said this, it seems to me that within certain psychotic formations the production of a consistency certainly has its place. Yet, we need to be careful not to universalize or generalize the experience of a case — which is situated within a particular cultural configuration, which has its own singular subjective relationship or discourse — to the wider public, or, put another way, we have to be careful of transferring these thoughts to other contexts.

My reading is the following: what is most essential about intra-group tensions is precisely the tension that splits the group, that is, the ‘intra,’ which is constitutive of any neurotic group. It is this larger and more forceful and therefore troubling unconscious formation which proletarianizes the group and prepares it for revolutionary war.