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Unformulated Experience : From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis

Stern, Donnel

April 2003
ISBN: 0881634050

Relational Perspectives Book Series Vol. 8
n this powerful and wonderfully accessible meditation on psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, and social constructivism, Donnel Stern explores the relationship between two fundamental kinds of experience: explicit verbal reflection and "unformulated experience," or experience we have not yet reflected on and put into words. Stern is especially concerned with the process by which we come to formulate the unformulated. It is not an instrumental task, he holds, but one that requires openness and curiosity; the result of the process is not accuracy...


price: $62.50

Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis

In this ambitious work, Donnell B. Stern attempts a major revision of the concept of the unconscious in psychoanalytic theory. He suggests that the nature of the unconscious was misunderstood in older Freudian theories, and that it would be better grasped using a post-modern perspective. According to post-modern thinking, meaning is created through language, whether the language of thought or of action, rather than pre-existing such expression; meaning is a social construction, created in interaction by the subjectivities of two persons and their cultural and other influences, rather than something inherent, to be discovered; there is no one fundamental historical "truth" to any aspect of a person's behavior, but many different potential truths, all of them subject to creation as described above. Authors such as Donald Spence and Roy Schafer have previously introduced these and related ideas into psychoanalysis. Stern explores these ideas anew to establish the foundation for his own contribution.

What gives Unformulated Experience a unique position in the attempt to adapt post-modernism to psychoanalytic theory and process is Stern's interest in hermeneutics, a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the study of interpretation, or the attempt to formulate what it means to understand. (P. 10) He is particularly influenced by the work of the philosopher Gadamer. Other significant sources include other hermeneutic thinkers such as Habermas, as well as a quite varied group of fiction writers, philosophers, and analysts of various persuasions, including Merleau-Ponty, William James, Herbert Fingarette and Harry Stack Sullivan.

Now as to what he does with all this: Stern is interested in what he calls "unformulated experience", which he defines as "mentation characterized by lack of clarity and differentiation." (P. 37) The term encompasses both a moment-to moment state of vagueness and possibility and a long-term more encompassing version, which is "the sum total of all the knowable, communicable implications that have never been spelled out, perceptions that have been habitually passed over, and so forth. (This) can be related to the ongoing organizing activities-character, for example-that supply life with continuity." (P. 44) Thus unformulated experience is that which we refuse to recognize, identify, or acknowledge. Stern contrasts this with repression in that what is repressed was first formulated, then banished from awareness. Unformulated experience as Stern defines it is that which has never been formulated, therefor, it is not there to uncover. The retreat is not from a recognized then disavowed meaning, rather, that there is something there at all is not acknowledged. Stern identifies this as the defensive process of dissociation. Finally, he suggests that it is this multitude of unformulated, dissociated meanings that never were which constitute the unconscious. Thus psychoanalysis in his view becomes an interpersonal process in which patient and analyst together create (not uncover) potential meaning(s) out of the interaction of their two subjectivities. Most of the book consists of the theory-building to arrive at and support these ideas, but there are some comments on clinical implications as well.

Whether an analyst or therapist finds Stern's core ideas convincing will be partly determined by their reaction to the postmodern perspective. The book jacket includes very high praise from several authors very attuned to his position: "Stern has evolved a magisterial, coherent theoretical frame of reference that places psychoanalysis (particularly post-Sullivanian interpersonalism) firmly within the postmodern critique of language; and he elaborates with great clarity and wonderfully frank vignettes the clinical implications of this position for contemporary psychoanalysis" (Edgar Levenson) and "Our ideas about memory, language, and the self will never be the same after this book-neither will our therapeutic practices nor our individual lives." (Philip Cushman). For this reviewer, the postmodern perspective has limited appeal and utility, which leads to a more critical view of the work than the two cited above. However, this also leads to the very interesting question of what a work like this has to offer to those of us who do not agree with its central thesis, and I hope to provide some thoughts on this.

A few comments of the book itself. This is a theoretical work, inspired by philosophical enquiry, rather than one born in the consulting room. It is a difficult book as well, partly due to the content which is not easy going for a reader unfamiliar with hermeneutics and some of the other material. The author's style is also a factor. The book is broken up into a great number of very small sections of a few pages each, all packed with ideas. To this reviewer, the connections and flow between these sections was not always smooth and obvious. Ideas, and sources (particularly Gadamer), are cited and explored at length in one part of the book only to turn up again later, making it difficult to track and connect what is being said. Some sections contain statements which are not fully developed or supported, leaving the reader puzzled or in some instances irritated at the apparent meaning. For an example of the former, Stern is arguing (p. 21) that in line with post-modern thinking all meaning is the outcome of social processes and is hence subject to convention. Where, then, he asks, "does the powerful, bizarre, nonrational language of dreams come from?" He answers his question with the statement that "we can understand such experience as the consequence of our personal and usually nonverbal reworking of imagery that was originally public and consensually validated." Presumably unconscious process does have some link even remotely to external cultural validated meanings, however, Stern appears to side-step the degree to which internal "reworking" alters the cultural material in a unique and idiosyncratic way. Were he to clearly acknowledge this, he would have difficulty maintaining that there is no prior internal meaning until one develops through interaction. This kind of gap occurs frequently throughout the book.

For an example of the more offensive variety, Stern states (p. 182-183) "In conservative psychoanalytic thought, reality is as simple as the object one turns in one's hand, and the interpretations of both the patient (the transferential grasp of the analyst) and the analyst (the interpretation of the patient's transference) therefor can be judged simply by reference to reality." So Freud, and the rest of us, are simple and naive. Isn't it odd then that "conservative psychoanalytic thought" found it necessary to develop concepts such as the unconscious, primary process, resistance, multideterminism, defence mechanisms, transference and countertransference, to account for what is encountered in attempting to explore this "simple reality"?

A particular problem with Stern's major thesis is this: he believes that experience remains unformulated as a form of defence. What, then, is defended against? Here, he cites Sullivan, who argued that people become anxious in the face of the unfamiliar and hence avoid recognizing it. But surely unfamiliarity per se is not so overwhelming a threat to all persons under all conditions that it explains the degree of dissociation which Stern describes. And again dreams, art, ideas and encounters with other persons and cultures expose us over and over again to the unfamiliar which we often not only take in but enjoy. If however we think of specifically anxiety-provoking content to explain dissociation, there arises the logical conundrum of how do we know something is threatening if we have completely avoided "formulating" it?

In any case, this book requires, and repays line-by-line reading, and the reader will often pause to think. Given our disagreement, this reviewer had a very lively continuous debate with the author throughout my reading of the book. It wasn't all argument either. At times I found Stern insightful, clear and down to earth, as in the following two excerpts:

"To the extent that one cannot cite particulars about something-an event, a person, an interaction-one does not know how to be curious about that thing. Not knowing how to be curious, though, is not worthy of condemnation, at least not when it occurs, as it so frequently does, in the experience of someone who is dedicated to understanding. Often the closest one can come to being curious is wanting to be, or being puzzled about why one cannot be." (251)

"Acceptance that the analyst intends for its own sake is useless. Unconditional positive regard is ultimately ungenuine. Real acceptance does not preclude the analyst's rejecting internal reactions; it only precludes making the patient responsible for alleviating them. Therefore, accaptance that is a contribution to the patient's feeling of safety and the establishment and growth of a therapeutic collaboration can only be the acceptance inherent in the analyst's genuine curiosity-compassionate curiosity to be sure, but curiosity nonetheless." (173-174)

As stated earlier Dr. Stern started with a set of ideas and wrote a book to explore and validate them. Most of the book is theory. While there are some clinical vignettes, most are very brief, and clearly they are secondary to the ideas presented. The clinical vignettes left this reader with the impression that Dr. Stern is a thoughtful and capable analyst, however, although this might be an expression of bias on my part, I did not recognize any unusual or different quality to his interpretations which would support the idea that his theories should supercede others in practice. For example, one of the longer vignettes (p. 103-110) concerns a disruption in a treatment over the analyst reacting to a patient postponing a fee payment (the analyst was under the impression at that time that the patient had not paid the previous month's fee). Over the course of a number of difficult sessions and some sensitive work, Dr. Stern arrived at the realization that both he and the patient had been feeling deprived of needed recognition and appreciation, both having some lack of this in childhood. He was able to effectively and successfully heal the rupture in the therapeutic alliance. However, neither the content nor the process by which it was arrived at seem to this reviewer different from what any skilled analyst or therapist would have attempted to do.

What then does Unformulated Experience offer those of us who do not share its theoretical orientation? I would say that the unconscious as Freud and other "conventional" theorists have conceived it remains paramount. However, it is also true that some useful moments in any therapy might take the form Dr. Stern describes, not of uncovering something repressed but in patient and analyst together finding a concept for something neither had noticed before, and thus bringing it within reach of reflection and exploration for the first time. I certainly have had experiences like this in my own work. As they were not what I thought of as central to therapy, I have noticed them only in passing and have not thought about them much. I don't believe they have been the pivotal factor in the case when they have occurred, but they have been worthwhile. Dr. Stern has brought them to the fore, and the reader does not have to agree with him overall to acknowledge the usefulness of this.

Dave Denberg, MSW, RSW

by: Dave Denberg, MSW, RSW

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