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Organizational Effectiveness

Names, Thoughts & Lies: The Relevance of Bion’s Later Writing for Understanding Experience in Groups

David Armstrong co-authored Group Relations: An Introduction. In this chapter from the book, Armstrong traces in Bion’s lines of thought in his later body of work which complement, modify and extend the ideas presented in Experiences in Groups, and how the relative neglect of these lines of thought by practitioners in “group relations” contributes to the sense of a self-inflicted theoretical and methodological atrophy which sometimes seems to surround those who work in this field.

David Armstrong, W. Gordon Lawrence, & Robert M. Young, Group Relations: An Introduction, Process Press: London. Chapter Seven, pp. 117-135.

Bion didn’t think much of Experiences in Groups.1 In a letter to one of his children he comments wryly on its critical reception compared to his later published work: “the one book I couldn’t be bothered with even when pressure was put on me 10 years later, has been a continuous success”.2

It is tempting to interpret this in terms of the redirection of Bion’s energies and interests, following his second analysis with Melanie Klein, from group phenomena to the dynamics of individual psychoanalysis. These he was to explore in a unique series of publications from Learning from Experience to Attention and Interpretation and the three volumes of psychoanalytic and partly autobiographical dialogues, A Memoir of the Future.3

This view, however, ignores the evidence of Bion’s continuing interest in and use of the group in much of his later writing, including his occasional papers, discussions and seminars.

(“Psycho-analytic insight in individuals and groups” is after all the sub-title of Attention and Interpretation).4

I believe it is possible to trace in this later body of work lines of thought which complement, modify and extend the ideas presented in Experiences in Groups, and that the relative neglect of these lines of thought by practitioners in ‘group relations’ contributes to the sense of a self-inflicted theoretical and methodological atrophy which sometimes seems to surround those who work in this field.

Some twenty-five years ago, I was a member of what I think was the last ‘study group’ taken by Bion in Britain, as part of a group relations course spread over three months or so, and directed by Ken Rice at the Tavistock Institute in London.

Looking back, I cannot recall much of the detail of what happened and was said at those meetings. I do retain a strong visual impression of the room we met in Devonshire Street, with its high windows and polished floors, and of my fellow members. They included a prison governor, a prison psychologist, a couple of businessmen, a journalist, a young social worker and an equally young myself. (At the time I was a Project Officer at the Tavistock working on action research projects, mainly in industrial settings.)

They were somewhat torrid days at the Tavi. The Institute had recently split into two factions, headed by Eric Trist and Ken Rice. I belonged to Eric Trist’s faction and was only allowed to attend the course at all because Bion was going to take a group. Of Bion himself I remember mostly the persona: his way of walking into the room and sitting down, the evenness of his speech, his air of intense, dispassionate curiosity. Barry Palmer has written recently of the frequent disjunction between the matter and the manner of consultants’ interventions in group relations settings.5 He suggests that an interpretation is simultaneously a performative or “illocutionary” utterance, and that group members’ response to an interpretation is always a compound of response to the content and response to the conscious and unconscious performative undertow. That describes my own experience, in taking groups and observing others taking them, pretty accurately. Doubtless it can be understood in terms of the reciprocal dynamics of transference and countertransference phenomena. But it does not describe my experience of being in a group with Bion. I am not sure what does. It had something of the quality of being faced with what might be called a “pure culture of enquiry”. It was extraordinarily unsettling, and in retrospect extraordinarily moving.

I will pick up this theme again in a moment. But first I want to comment on two other, partly related, memories. The first, which I was very keenly aware of at the time as were some other group members, is that Bion never gave the slightest impression of being the author of Experiences in Groups. Some of us had read this beforehand with varying degrees of understanding and frustration. We were primed to spot “basic assumptions” at work and to be offered the evidence from our experience of their reality. We were to be sadly disappointed and then intrigued. Nothing Bion said seemed to connect to this bit of conceptual apparatus; whereas in the inter-group events run by Ken Rice, Isabel Menzies, Bob Gosling, Pearl King and, I think, Pierre Turquet over two weekends, dependence, pairing and fight-flight were everywhere, and I think genuinely, to be found.

Bion’s preoccupation was elsewhere. But where? In the early sessions he often spoke about “naming” and the use of names: the way naming has an illusory quality, as if it were felt to be the answer to a question rather than the question for which an answer needs to be sought.

“I’m David Armstrong” seeks to identify a boundary around an entity that is myself: to use the language of Bion’s later writing, to bind a constant conjunction with a name, which Bion refers to as a definitory hypothesis. But this binding can also be used to restrict enquiry. A boundary for exploration (who is David Armstrong?; what is he?; where is he here and now?) becomes a barrier for defending—this is “me”, that is “not me”. A limit is set; the unknown is robbed of its power to disturb. The revenge of the unknown is that one can be left feeling curiously empty, unable to make contact with the group, or even with oneself in any way that has the ring of something authentic.6

In later sessions, a recurring theme was knowledge and the fear of knowledge expressed in rules, morals and judgements. The meetings of the group took place at the time of the notorious Profumo affair.7 I recall Bion’s bafflement (maybe that’s too strong a word) at the moral energy this released in the group, as if we could not entertain the thought that this affair, like the affairs that sometimes surface in group relations conferences, could be understood, to adapt a phrase of Clausewitz or Bismarck about war and diplomacy, simply as the pursuit of politics by other means. Morality was the lie invented to conceal a thought, there for the finding.

Naming, knowing, inventing lies, finding thoughts: these are recurring themes throughout Bion’s later writing. I wish to suggest that they are as fertile a ground for exploration in the field of the group as they are in that of the individual. More than that, I also believe that these two fields provide, in Bion’s phrase, a “binocular vision” for exploring and understanding the ground of human knowing and un-knowing, becoming and be-ing, without which we are prisoners of our fears and terrors, in our private and our public life.

Before exploring this further, I want to return to what I said earlier about the quality or tone of Bion’s interventions. Often in group relations events you are very well aware when an “interpretation” is being made by the consultant. It is as if somehow it carried the label of “interpretation”: in its syntax, complexity or mode of address. If you are the consultant yourself, you are similarly often aware that that is what you are up to and that the members are aware that you are aware that that is what you are up to. Bion’s interventions did not announce their intentions in this way. Was it an interpretation he was offering, or an observation, or a comment, or an opinion? You could not say. It was more like an element from a conversation, without exactly being conversational.

Years ago I went once or twice to hear the philosopher John Wisdom lecture on “Other Minds” at Cambridge. They were very strange performances. They started out like a lecture, in a familiar way. Then there would be a long silence. Wisdom would gaze at a corner of the room or to the back of the hall and apparently pluck an image or example out of that space, as if it were physically present to him at that instant. He would begin to describe it—a pink elephant, a blue moon, an uneasy spirit. We all shuffled uneasily, suppressing giggles.

Wisdom was as self-absorbed as many great philosophers probably were or are. The links he saw and made in that room were links in a mental space projected in front of him. Because we did not inhabit that space ourselves we could not make the links, could not see the thoughts he found in the air around him and us. Bion was not self-absorbed like that, in a space which other people just seemed to inhabit. The links he saw and made were links in a mental space not projected in front of him so much as taken inside him, a space to which the individual members of the group and the group as a whole all contributed. But there was the same sense of being in the presence of a finder of thoughts, offered as food for thought.

Perhaps this style of working is inimitable. But even if it is, I think it contains or exemplifies an important conception about groups, more specifically about the idea of the “work group”.8 Bion is sometimes accused of not taking the “work group” seriously or of taking it for granted, as sometimes psychoanalysts are accused of taking “reality” for granted, so as to be able to dispense with it and get on with the “real” business of studying the various stratagems of evasion and denial. I believe this is fundamentally wrong and that in Bion’s way of working one can discover a meaning of a work group, in a way which transcends any simple notion of accommodation to reality and offers a radically different view of the group as an arena for transformations.

If the group is potentially an arena for transformations, what is it that is being transformed, what does the process of transformation involve and what is its value?

The first of these questions—what is it that is being transformed—is perhaps the easiest to answer. For Bion, the origin of transformation: the thing-in-itself (ultimate reality or “0”), which cannot be known except through the process of transformation, is always the same. It is emotional experience. In his later writing, Bion is bold or foolhardy enough to claim that all human thought and endeavour, whatever the field, originates in the transformation of emotional experience. If one thinks of a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, even perhaps a piece of pottery, it is not difficult to conceive of this as the artist’s attempt to formulate, make present and communicate—through colour and line, through sequences of tones or of words, through the shape and texture of clay—an emotional experience present to him or her.

It is important for what I shall say later to make the point that this act of making present is not (for Bion) an act of simple representation. Representation suggests a model of something to be represented and something through which it is represented, as if the painter confronted an emotional experience as he confronts his model: a landscape, a sitter.9 Making present is not like this because, unlike a sensuous object, an emotional experience cannot be seen, tasted, smelled, touched. It is a mental event: an unknown “x” or thing-in-itself. The only access we have to it is through the transformations we make or perform from it.

A colleague of mine, Colin Evans from the University of Wales, recently drew my attention to a quotation from Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. The poet’s work, Rushdie writes, is “to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”. Perhaps there is something a bit megalomaniac about that; also something rather uncanny and prescient. But that first phrase, “to name the unnameable”, is, I think, a good-enough description of what is involved in making present an emotional experience, provided of course we acknowledge that the name and the thing named are not the same.

When I look at a great painting, say one of Cezanne’s still lives, I do not see the emotional experience which was the origin of Cezanne’s transforming work as an artist. Rather I have an emotional experience myself and that may lead me to say, “I have never understood that before; how one object reflects and takes up the presence of another.” At the extreme this experience in front of a great work of art may lead me to change my life. I do not just understand or know something new, I become something new.

But in claiming that all human thought and endeavour represents a transformation of emotional experience, Bion is going much further than these rather obvious examples. Mathematics he will say is a transformation of emotional experience through the language of number; geometry through the language of spatial coordinates. In some of his later discussions Bion notes parallels between astronomical discoveries and discoveries in psychoanalysis

I am familiar with a psycho-analytic theory of the human mind [presumably his own—DA] which sounds like the astronomical theory of the ”black hole” — as far as I can understand astronomical formulation. Why should a psycho-analyst invent a theory to explain a mental phenomenon and, independently, the astronomers elaborate a similar theory about what they think is a black hole in astronomical space? Which is causing which? Is this some peculiarity of the human mind which projects it up into space, or is this something real in space from which derives this idea of space in the mind itself?10

This is a question which it is unprofitable to try to answer. Or to put it another way, the answer is probably both/and: as a picture of my hand turned one way is my hand, and a picture of my hand turned the other way is my hand. The wish to assign priority here is an attempt to resolve a mystery that needs rather to be lived with and explored. And this mystery has to do with the connectedness of human realizations of thought, in a particular time and place and in and through the medium of the different sciences or arts, pure and applied.

To use the language of my own and my colleagues’ area of investigation in The Grubb Institute, Bion’s way of working and thinking, exemplified here, could be described as fundamentally “systemic”. He is interested in the way in which there is something in a culture, a context, which reproduces itself in different forms, different realizations from some common root. And along with this interest goes a deep awareness and concern with the making and finding of links: between one person and another, between individual and group, between a word and what it is used to express, between physical and mental, conscious and unconscious. And in examining these links, experiencing them inside himself in his practice as a psychoanalyst, Bion found himself experiencing again and again a resistance to linking which at the extreme amounted, he felt, to an attack on mind itself.

Let me quote, again from the late discussions, a reply Bion gave to a psychiatrist who was expressing his puzzlement at an “imaginative speculation” Bion was offering about the development of personality during intra-uterine life:

My surgical chief, when I was a medical student, was Wilfred Trotter who wrote The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. He drew attention to something which seems to exist. For example, take a group like this: We have a combined wisdom which is extraneous to the little that each one of us knows, but by analogy we are like individual cell bodies in the domain which is bordered by our skins. I think there is something by which this combined wisdom makes itself felt to a great number of people at the same time. We like to think that our ideas are our personal property, but unless we can make our contribution available to the rest of the group there is no chance of mobilizing the collective wisdom of the group which could lead to further progress and development. There are certain highly intelligent people who cannot stand the perpetual bombardment of thoughts and feelings and ideas which come from all over the place, including from inside themselves. So they cancel their order for the newspapers; they withdraw their number from the telephone book; they draw the blinds and try as far as possible to achieve the kind of situation in which they are free from further impact. So the community loses the contribution that individual can make and the individual mentally dies—in the same way that certain cells in the body necrose.

The body has the intelligence to resist an invasion of foreign bodies like bacteria—and mobilizes phagocytes to deal with the invading objects. Is it possible that we can organize ourselves into communities, into institutions, in order to defend ourselves against the invasion of ideas which come from outer space, and also from inner space? The individual is frightened of even permitting the existence of speculative imaginations of his own; he is afraid of what would happen if anybody else noticed these imaginative speculations and tried to get rid of him on the grounds of his being a disturbing influence.11

This reply contains in miniature the core of Bion’s highly paradoxical view of groups and experiences in groups. From it I want to draw out three implications:

First, the reply makes it clear that, for Bion, individual and group are necessary for the progress and development of each. It is not just that if an individual’s ideas are to enter the public domain they need a group that can contain and work with them, without destroying or robbing them of their vitality, their power to disturb, and without itself being destroyed in the process. The group also potentially embodies a collective wisdom, a multiplicity of resources, centres of awareness, which can feed, add to, fill out what any individual has been able to discern and communicate. (This is what I have in mind in talking of the group as an arena for transformations.)

But, second, this reply also makes it clear that the group, organized as a community or an institution, resists the very opportunities for transformation which its own resourcefulness provides. Each individual, moreover, shares in this resistance. And Bion implies, I think, that this resistance does not only spring from one’s being a group member. The resistance in the group resonates with the resistance in the individual, under the guise of protecting something felt as personal, belonging only to oneself: my idea, my experience, my thought.

It is common in group relations conferences or events for the consultant or a group member to draw attention to the use of “we”, as a representation of an idea of the group as a monolithic, undifferentiated one. It is somewhat less common for attention to be drawn to the similar use of “I”. Yet both uses, “we” and “I”, often serve the same purpose, from different ends of the spectrum as it were—to block further enquiry, to set limits to linking, to preserve a boundary which is felt to be threatened by intrusions from someone or somewhere else. If an idea, an experience, a thought, a feeling, belongs to us or to me, then we or I may feel it is at least under our or my control. It is something we or I own, and therefore we or I can disown. But suppose it belongs neither to us nor to me. We or I do not know what it will do, what it will lead to, whether it will burgeon into a saviour or a monster, whether it will give us new life or kill us.

It is this possibility which gives such resonance and durability to the myths of Prometheus, Faust and Frankenstein, of the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel.

Nothing is safe from thoughts. Only lies are safe—until thought comes along. Or, to put this in Bion’s terms, more exactly, the only thoughts that are safe are the thoughts to which a thinker is absolutely essential; and the only thoughts to which a thinker is absolutely essential are lies. Hence Bion’s felicitous dictum that Descartes’ tacit assumption that thoughts presuppose a thinker is valid only for the lie.l2

What is a lie: a “true lie”, which is more than just a manifest deceit? Bion puts it like this: a lie is a formulation known by the initiator to be false, but maintained as a barrier against statements that would otherwise lead to a psychological or emotional upheaval.13 The emotional upheaval against which the lie is mobilized is one of “catastrophic change”: that is a change which threatens the psyche, the person’s experience of and valuation of himself, which, as Bion graphically puts it, “outrages his moral system”. Such formulations are as familiar in groups and organizations as in the relation of one person to another, or to one’s self.

This leads me to the third implication of Bion’s reply. The source of the paradox that the group like the individual simultaneously provides the opportunity for and the forces of resistance to transformation is to be found in the uncertainty, the doubt, the un-knowing, which is the defining characteristic of becoming aware of a thought. Or perhaps it would be better to say, of becoming aware of the emotional experience which, if we can tolerate the frustration of un-knowing, may provide the ground in which a thought can appear. At the heart of this un-knowing, this surrendering to a thought in the air, is the fear of catastrophic change.

What has this to do with understanding our everyday experiences in groups, not just groups in group relations conferences, but any group: a society, an organization, a family, a tribe, a voluntary association? Some of the time and in some circumstances, perhaps not much. I think we can often exaggerate the extent to which the work of the world, the work we all do, calls for sustained mental effort, an encounter with the unknown. We can get by on habit, custom, the clever tricks of our trade, our native intelligence and wit, provided circumstances don’t change too much, externally or internally. We are busy and profitably busy. We are having to be clever, adaptable, shrewd. We are not necessarily having to think.

But of course circumstances do change, inside and outside. An environment friendly to our activities and interests becomes un-friendly. Salman Rushdie writes a book. New leaders, new faces, new ideas are abroad. And we ourselves change. Old customs stale, the habits of intelligence seem threadbare.

In such a vital context, which may arise within a single group or organization but which can also infect a whole society, all the phenomena I have alluded to as the essential paradox of group life surface and resurface in a way which forces them on our attention. These phenomena may include the following:

First, there is an awareness of emotional experience in the group, on the part of its members separately and corporately, that is unfocused and inchoate: that it may not be possible to put into words and may betray itself rather in behaviour and the phenomena which psychoanalysts refer to as “acting out”. This experience may be compounded of feelings of excitement, expectancy, despair, loss of control or emptiness.

A model for illuminating this state, Bion suggests, is the phenomenon of birth:

I suspect there is some counterpart of the term “birth of an idea”: that there is some reason to imagine that these painful experiences which we have are related to the process of giving birth to an idea or “struggling to make a connection”, which is an instance of thinking. An institution, a society of human beings, may be unable to survive the birth pangs of an idea—it splits apart. We are undoubtedly careless with our psychological midwifery. We seem to feel that the thing to do with a newborn idea is to give it a good hard smack.l4

Much of my own and my colleagues’ work in The Grubb Institute takes the form of working not with whole groups or organizations, but with individual representatives, often senior managers or leaders, using a method of individual consultation first described by Bruce Reed and called “Organizational Role Analysis”.15 As an applied social research organization, our particular aim as an Institute is described as:

  • to identify, interpret and work at the organisational pressure points of society— through analysing professional and management practice, so as to enable clients to achieve their institutional objectives.

So we are professionally concerned to work in just those situations where the kind of phenomena I am seeking to describe are likely to occur.

Sometimes a client approaches us from an organization, apparently knowing exactly what the problem is or exactly what they want to know, or exactly what they want you to do about it, which often involves doing something for, to or with somebody or somebodies else. It is as if all the client requires is that someone else takes on a particular job he does not feel he or his organization is competent enough to do on its own. His interest is in employing you as a technician, exploiting your expertise. There may be all sorts of other motivations or considerations also. Given our aim as an Institute, these situations may need to be sorted out before any decision to proceed is taken. A client who knows exactly what the problem is or what they want you to do about it isn’t in the realm of “thoughts” and probably isn’t going to welcome it if you are. He or she is more likely to be looking for confirmation of ideas they already know, or handy techniques or tricks to achieve what they want to achieve.

As one explores the situation with the client, one may begin to feel that one is in the territory I have referred to earlier as the “lie”: that is, the statement of the “problem” is known to be unsatisfactory or false, but is held to because not to do so would bring about some upheaval, in the organization as a whole or in the client’s own perception of his or her role. What happens then will depend on the judgement the consultant makes about his or her capacity and that of the client to confront and work with this possibility.

But a client may also come who seems quite uncertain what the real problem is; who tells a story which leaves you feeling just as confused and chaotic as he or she, who is experiencing a sense of frustration, of the loss of signposts, of turbulence within the organization and outside. Such a client, in the terms I am using, is announcing that he or she may be in the presence of the “unborn idea”: something waiting to be formulated in the act of exploration and interpretation between you.

Second, the unfocused awareness of emotional experience in the group (or a representative of the group) is accompanied and may be concealed by other elements, which resist it. An example of this is the assertion or reassertion of boundaries as barriers, either around the individual or the group, through the use of naming as a defence. I have referred to this earlier, in talking about the ways in which the pronouns “I” and “we” can be deployed to prevent recognition of the fact that the new experience is precisely an experience which puts in question the meaning to be given to these “names”. “I”, “we” have not been here before. Openness to the emotional experience present here and now means being open to the evolution of “I”, “we” and the relatedness between them. The insistent use of “I”/“we” betrays the presence of the “not-l”, “not-we” which is already inside me/inside us, waiting to be born.

Such a defensive use of naming can surface in many other forms. Recently as an Institute we had been involved in a great deal of work with schools, in particular with groups of senior staff. Schools are organizations currently facing great turbulence both within and without. This turbulence is not only to do with continuous government interference and legislation. There is also an awareness of something in society which challenges and raises questions about the meaning of schools, of education and training, teaching and learning, in our present environment. In our experience, many teachers in many schools have the courage to face this turbulence—to experience the uncertainty inside themselves and their institutions and work with it. But there are also times where the countervailing tendency is very powerful. This often emerges in a defensive preoccupation with and use of values, or in the assertion of a certain conception of the teaching profession which is designed to circumscribe what can and cannot be entertained as a thought. “Values” and “profession” are referred to as if they were names whose meaning is already known and determined, rather than hypotheses whose meaning here and now is always open to exploration and evolution.

There is a link between this defensive use of names and the lie (in the technical sense in which I have tried to deploy it). Both will often share, overtly or covertly, a preoccupation with morality: what ought or ought not to be as against what is and is not.

My colleague John Bazalgette tells a lovely story of a little girl who was asked to write a short review of a book on penguins. What she wrote was: “this book tells me more about penguins than I want to know”. It is the fear that one may learn, or may already have learnt, “more than one wants to know” that contributes so powerfully to the lie. Behind this fear lurks a primitive belief that the only good news is no news, or at least yesterday’s news. And behind this fear, Bion suggests, is persecutory guilt—the idea which fuels the concept of original sin.

In the last volume of his psychoanalytical autobiography Bion refers to guilt, through the mouth of “PA”, as:

“One of the fundamentals, one of the basic assumptions ... The crime (rational, logical) and the feeling of guilt are natural partners. It is a matter to which justice, morals, intellectual ingenuity can be devoted for so long as anyone can spare the time and energy.”l6

I do not know whether in using the term “basic assumption” here, Bion intended it to have the associations surrounding its technical use in Experiences in Groups. As far as I know no one has explored this possibility in group relations contexts. It is worth considering. If guilt is a basic assumption in group mentality, then perhaps the institution of the law in society can be seen as representing the hiving off of a “specialized work group” to deal on its behalf with the emotions associated with guilt.l7

This reference to basic assumptions introduces a third set of phenomena through which, in a vital context, the essential paradoxes of group life force themselves on our attention—namely the mobilization of basic assumption activity: dependence, pairing and fight-flight.

So far I have said nothing in detail about these assumptions. This is not because I do not think they are important, but because I think this territory is so well explored, so taken for granted, so pervasive—particularly in group relations work—that it can often obscure or draw attention away from other phenomena and foci of enquiry. We need to get both behind and beyond “basic assumptions”, to forget about them, in order to be able to rediscover them and make them new, if they are to retain conceptual vitality and relevance.

I do not think it is necessarily correct to say that the basic assumptions are group defences. In Experiences in Groups, Bion sees them as inherent in all group activity. They correspond to three of what he has described as the four basic situations to which the primary emotional drives correspond: “birth, dependence, pairing and warfare”.l8 But, in the constellation I am seeking to describe, I do think that the mobilization of basic assumptions, the particular forms they take and the occasions on which they force themselves on one’s attention, has a defensive function. They are attempts on the part of the group to put itself beyond the encounter with the un-known, beyond the realm of thought, of names and of lies: to find a magical solution to the existential dilemma the group and all its members are in.

What I think those of us who work in group relations settings are not always very good at or attuned to is attending to and characterizing that dilemma. Because we believe basic assumptions to be ubiquitous, we are not always careful enough to note when, and to consider why, they obtrude on our experience.

I have referred to phenomena within the contexts I am describing which represent ways of resisting or escaping from the meeting with the unknown.

But there are also phenomena which represent ways of going to meet the unknown. And here we are in the territory of work group activity or functioning. I suspect that practitioners of group relations have not really begun to do more than scratch the surface of these phenomena conceptually, though practice may be in advance of theory. It is all too easy to shelter behind the crude, simple idea of the work group as the group that meets to perform an overt task.

The trouble is that in the contexts I am talking about—the meeting with the unknown—the overt task itself can be problematic. This is why I think it may be useful to think of work group functioning not only through the concept of overt task and all its various derivatives,l9 but also through the idea I referred to at the beginning, of the work group as an arena for transformations. I do not want to claim that this idea corresponds to a clear observable reality in group functioning. I am using it (in Bion’s term) as a pre-conception for which a realization may be found, which will give birth to a conception.

But I think one can detect elements of such a reality in the emergence of imagery, of dreams, of myth, within a group and in the capacity for what Barry Palmer and Colin Evans have called “serious play”.20 Or in those moments in a group—which may be more present in the groups of everyday life than in the temporary groups we create in group relations conferences—when people are able to associate to others’ material without an irritable preoccupation with ownership and without recourse to a prescriptive idea of “relevance”.

Recently, Gordon Lawrence has sought to explore this area in a series of conferences on “Social Dreaming”.2l It is interesting to me that, in describing the activity he is setting out to frame, Lawrence avoids use of the term “group”, preferring instead to talk of a “matrix”, defined as a place “out of which something grows”. Part of the reason for this renaming may derive from Lawrence’s sense that advanced industrial societies are experiencing cumulative changes which “can be interpreted as the beginnings of the ending of those societies as they have been known in the past and the beginning of societies that may have to be invented”. It is as if, to create the possibility of exploring that theme, one needs in turn to invent a new form or setting for the exploration—free from the associations which cluster around the concepts of “group”, or “work group” as these have hitherto been employed.

Lawrence’s innovation, simultaneously methodological and institutional, illustrates but also sidesteps one last strand of Bion’s late thinking on which I wish to comment. Throughout his life Bion had a deep suspicion and distrust of institutional life. In a number of his later seminars he refers to institutions in this way:

The trouble about all institutions—the Tavistock Institute and every one that we have—is that they are dead, but the people inside them aren’t, and the people grow and something’s going to happen. What usually happens is that the institutions (societies, nations, states and so forth) make laws. The original laws constitute a shell, and then new laws expand that shell. If it were a material prison, you could hope that the prison walls would be elastic in some sort of way. If organisations don’t do that, they develop a hard shell, and then expansion can’t occur because the organisation has locked itself in.22

Organizations lock themselves in when they are unable to entertain the new idea: whether it comes from inside or outside or through the pores of people’s sensitivity to the presence of the not-known. But we can easily lose sight of the fact that any new idea requires some host through which it is not only disseminated, but is also made available for use throughout the community or society or group. Ideas are precarious: they do not necessarily emerge fully formed or in a way that is fully understood. They may be the products of genius or of the flashes of genius which all of us are capable of some of the time. They need assimilation, digestion, translation and the sometimes painful, patient business of reflection, testing, corroboration.

In Attention and Interpretation Bion spells out a model of the “institutionalized work group” as essential for the development of the new idea, the work of genius, the mystic. Through the emergence of the function of Establishment, and the consequent elaboration of rules, of training and criteria for qualification, the institutionalized work group enables a psychological and emotional accommodation to be made to the reality that a genius dies, a flash of genius fades. This function provides some safeguard against omnipotence and the tendency to confuse the idea with oneself, as if one owned it rather than serviced it, strove to realize it day by day:

The fact that the world’s work has to be done by ordinary people makes this work of scientification or vulgarisation, or simplification, or communication or all together, imperative. There are not enough mystics to go round and those that there are must not be wasted.23

If I could put this point in a more mundane way, it is out of the tension between the new idea and its container: be that a group, an organization, a society, an individual mind (or indeed a word, or a form of art) that development takes place, or conversely fails to take place. Without that tension you would either produce nothing or formlessness, splurge.

If transformations beget resistance, they also require it. It is the relations between the two that is productive or destructive: not either on its own. The tension or the paradoxes I have referred to as intrinsic to all experience in groups and their institutionalized forms is an “essential tension”.24 And this is the last area in which I think those involved in group relations work could learn something from Bion’s later thinking—in being alert to the phenomenology of this relation and to the signs of its presence.

When I set out to prepare this lecture, I thought I knew pretty clearly what I wanted to say. I had read much of Bion’s work, and lived with it on and off for many years. I had often talked about it to my colleagues at the Institute and felt I had experienced links between it and my own experience and practice in taking groups and in consultancy and research work.

Faced with a blank sheet of paper my mind took on that blankness, and I felt rather scared. Perhaps the emperor had no clothes. I was tempted (and did not enough resist this) to go back over and over again to the texts, the Bion bible, and pinch whatever clothes I found there. Two weeks beforehand a colleague asked me what the main theme of the lecture was to be. I mumbled something incoherent and felt rather persecuted by being asked. It took an inordinate amount of time to see that “no clothes” was where I must start from. If I could only allow myself to experience the blankness not as a persecution but as a space in which thought already was but not yet realized, then perhaps I would begin to discover what I could say. Perhaps.

This state of mind in the presence of the unthought thought, the no-thing waiting to be discovered and formulated through the elaboration and playing with preverbal and verbal images, with dreams, myths, preconceptions, Bion has referred to, using a phrase of John Keats in a letter to his two brothers, as “negative capability”:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind & at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.25

For most of us this state of mind, which Bion believed was at the heart of the practice of psychoanalytic insight in individuals and groups, is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. But it is always worth trying, even if we will have to be content, as often as not, to tread in others’ footsteps.

1 Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, London: Tavistock.

2 Bion, W. R. (1985) All My Sins Remembered (Another Part of a Life), The Other Side of Genius (Family Letters), Abingdon: Fleetwood Press, p. 213.

3 Learning from Experience and Attention and Interpretation, together with two intervening works, Elements of Psychoanalysis and Transformations, are collected together in: Bion, W. R. (1977) Seven Servants, New York: Jason Aronson. Each of these is also available in an edition printed by Karnac Books, London, for the Maresfield Library (1984).

Earlier versions of some of the ideas and models developed in the above are reprinted, with a wry commentary by Bion in: Bion, W. R. (1967) Second Thoughts, London: Heinemann Medical.

The three volumes of A Memoir of the Future are: (1975) A Memoir of the Future, Book 1, The Dream, Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; (1977) Book 2, The Past Presented, Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; (1979) Book 3, The Dawn of Oblivion, Perthshire: Clunie Press.

A useful compilation of memorial articles on Bion’s contribution to the study of groups is: Pines, M. (ed.) (1985) Bion and Group Psychotherapy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Apart from the above, something of the flavour of Bion’s ways of thinking and working, and many suggestive ideas and developments, are vividly conveyed in the series of recorded lectures, discussions and seminars he gave and took part in towards the end of his life: (1973, 1974) Bion’s Brazilian Lectures, I and 2, Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora; (1978); Four Discussions with W. R. Bion, Perthshire: Clunie Press; (1978) Bion in New York and Sao Paulo, Perthshire: Clunie Press; (1987) Clinical Seminars and Four Papers, Abingdon: Fleetwood Press.

4 Bion’s treatment of group phenomena in Attention and Interpretation is characteristically unexpected, in that they are used as a ‘model’ for understanding aspects of the mental life of the individual. The accusations sometimes made that Bion’s approach to group phenomena is basically reductive, i.e., that group phenomena are in the end explained by the internal dynamics of mental processes revealed in individual psychoanalysis is, in my view, very wide of the mark. Rather, Bion’s perspective is that group and individual represent two ‘vertices’ for understanding human mentality, neither of which is reducible to the other. What misleads readers of Bion here, I think, is the undue emphasis put on the last of the papers in Experiences in Groups on ‘Group dynamics’, where Bion is struggling to relate his findings about groups to his growing preoccupation with the work and insights of Melanie Klein.

5 Barry Palmer’s discussion of this point is contained in an unpublished paper, ‘Interpretation and the Consultant Role’, written in 1986 for an earlier series of seminars on group relations at The Grubb Institute.

6 Cf. Bion’s own variations on this theme in ‘Emotional Turbulence’, reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers, op. cit., pp. 223-33.

7 John Profumo, the Minister of Defence in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government, was involved in a complex sexual ‘scandal’, with assumed security implications, which he first denied to the Prime Minister and the House of Commons and later, under pressure, acknowledged.

8 Cf. Note 1 above.

9 I do not, of course, want to suggest that for the painter the landscape or sitter and the emotional experience are separable out, i.e., that the experience is, as it were, superimposed on the object. It is always the ‘experienced object’ that is made present; and it is this experienced object that is the ‘thing-in-itself’, the object and origin of transformation.

10 Brazilian Lectures 2, op. cit. pp. 61-2.

11 Bion in New York and Sao Paulo, op. cit., p. 29.

12 Attention and Interpretation, op. cit., p. 103.

13 Attention and Interpretation, op. cit., p. 97ff.

14 Bion in New York and Sao Paulo, op. cit., p. 73.

15 Reed, B. D. (1976) ‘Organisational Role Analysis’, in C. L. Cooper (ed.) Developing Social Skills in Managers: Advances in Croup Training, London: Macmillan.

16 A Memoir of the Future, Book 3, The Dawn of Oblivion, op. cit., p. 54

17 The significance of guilt and the emotions it arouses for the functioning of the criminal justice system and its associated agencies is considered in an interesting, unpublished paper by Reed, Bruce D. (1982) ‘Anxiety, Guilt and Authority: Notes on the Place of Supervision in the Structure and Operations of the Probation Service’, The Grubb Institute.

A similar position to Reed’s is taken by Barry Palmer in (1986) ‘Another Decade of Custody? Not if We Can Help It!: The Development of Probation Practice in Cambridgeshire, 1980-1986’, mimeographed, pp. 29ff (copies of this paper are available from the author, c/o The Grubb Institute).

18 Attention and Interpretation, op. cit., p. 66. To Bion’s three-way classification of basic assumption groups, Pierre Turquet subsequently added a fourth: ‘basic assumption oneness’, ‘Whose members seek to join in a powerful union with an omnipotent force, unobtainably high, to surrender self for passive participation, and thereby to feel existence, well being, and wholeness’, cf. Turquet, P. (1974) ‘Leadership: the Individual and the Group’, in G. S. Gibbard et al., Analysis of Groups, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Chapter 14. It would be possible to interpret the operation of this basic assumption as an attempt to avoid or escape the emotions of separations and discontinuity associated with the situation of birth.

19 For example, the concept of ‘primary task’, defined as that task which a specified purposeful human system must perform at any given time if it is to survive. This concept has proved notoriously tricky to handle, both because of its indeterminate status (normative or descriptive), and because it can easily fail to distinguish between the related but quite distinct phenomena of survival on the one hand and development on the other.

20 Evans, C. and Palmer, B. (1989), ‘Inter-group Encounters of a Different Kind: the Experiential Research Model’, Studies in Higher Education, 14, (3): 300-01

21 Lawrence, W. G. (1989) ‘Ventures in Social Dreaming: the First Experience’, Changes, 7 (3): 76-80.

Since preparing this paper I have had more direct experience of these conferences, as one of the consultants on Social Dreaming and the Management of Change, A Programme of Dialogues, directed by Gordon Lawrence and jointly sponsored by the International Foundation for the Study of Social Innovation (Paris) and The Grubb Institute in July 1989.

22 Banet, A. G. (1976) ‘Bion Interview’, Group and Organization Studies, I (3): 268-85.

23 Attention and Interpretation, op. cit., pp. 79-80.

24 ‘Essential tension’ is the phrase coined by the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his fascinating exploration of the philosophical and psychological dynamics of scientific development. Whether or not Bion himself read Kuhn’s work, there are important links between this and aspects of Bion’s own later writing, cf. Kuhn, T. S. (1977) The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, Chicago and London: Universty of Chicago Press.

25 Forman, M. B. (ed.) (1931) The Letters of John Keats, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 69-72; Attention and Interpretation, op. cit., p. I25.

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