Bion and beyond: projective identification and material imperviousness


The Kleinian concept of projective identification is often invoked to explain non-verbal processes in the analytic situation and other close relationships and in this paper I examine some of the clinical material that led Bion to revise Klein’s original formulation. Approaching the concept from a Winnicottian perspective, I suggest that the process is less fundamental to infant life than is often claimed and can be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to maternal imperviousness. I question the Kleinian assumption that it constitutes the basic mode of infant communication and suggest that primitive communication can better be understood by reference to the emotional signs or signals which form an integral part of emotional arousal. I suggest that such signs are not projected into a reluctant mother by the baby but noted and read from a position akin to ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ (Winnicott) by a mother who imagines and feels herself into the baby’s situation. From this perspective, projective identification can be seen as a pathological consequence of maternal failure rather than a fundamental defensive feature of infant life.

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