The previous blog examined how the process of symbol formation could be read using a 4-term relation between subject, ego, object-signifier and signified-object. It raised the question of how Bion understood a sophisticated relation between individual and group mentality, concluding that we needed a better understanding of the relation of these mentalities to Bion’s ‘container’ in order to understand the subject’s double subjection both to the unconscious and to the social. Why should we care? Because we want to understand how unconscious valencies can lead to ‘unintentional errors’.
The relation between mentalities and ‘containing’
Bion defined group mentality as “the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions. It is thus a machinery of intercommunication that is designed to ensure that group life is in accordance with the basic assumptions“. His definition of group culture followed as “a function of the conflict between the individual’s desires and the group mentality“. He therefore defined the problem facing a group leader to be “how to mobilize emotions associated with the basic assumptions without endangering the sophisticated structure that appears to secure to the individual his freedom to be an individual while remaining a member of the group.”,p56
Organization and structure were the sophisticated product of co-operation between members of the group, while a group acting on a basic assumption needed no organization or co-operation, individual distinctiveness being “no part of life in a group acting on the basic assumptions“,p122. Bion used the word ‘valency’ to refer to this “capacity for spontaneous instinctive co-operation in the basic assumptions“, using it to refer to the readiness of an individual “to enter into combination with a group in making and acting on the basic assumptions“.,p103 The counterpart in the basic-assumption group of sophisticated co-operation was therefore valency, “a spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man“.,p122
Bion further defined the proto-mental system as “one in which physical and psychological or mental are undifferentiated“, a matrix “from which spring the phenomena which at first appear to be discrete feelings only loosely associated with one another“, and from which “emotions proper to the basic assumption flow to reinforce, pervade, and, on occasion, to dominate the mental life of the group“. Inoperative basic assumptions were confined within this proto-mental system, “victims of a conspiracy between the sophisticated group and the operating basic assumption“. ,p89-90 In advancing this concept of the proto-mental system, Bion was trying to account for “the solidity with which all the emotions of one basic assumption seemed to be welded together, and at the same time to provide a concept that would account for the whereabouts of inoperative basic assumptions that were obviously felt by a group to be potentially active, and must therefore be considered to be ‘somewhere’.”,p91
The individual’s relation to the proto-mental system was therefore a relation to his or her unconscious, with the strength of valency describing the extent to which particular organisations of object-relating gave expression to particular ways of being in relation to the unconscious. The progression from basic-assumption to sophisticated group behavior was thus conceptually equivalent to the progression in individual mentality from symbolic equation to the creative use of symbolisation. Such a progression in group behavior also demanded, however, that the individual mentality be capable of ‘containing’ the group dynamics from a depressive rather than a paranoid-schizoid position. As Hanna Segal observed in a 1979 postscript to her paper on symbol formation (my additions to reflect a 4-term reading in red):
Since writing this paper, and largely under the influence of Bion’s work on the relationship between the container and the contained, I have come to think that it is not projective identification per se that leads to concretization. One has to take into account the particular relationship between the projected part (the signified) and the object projected into (the signified-object operating as a signifier): the container (the signifier) and the contained (the signified).,p60
The “object projected into” in the form of the mother was able to give meaning to the projected part (of the infant). This mother-as-able-to-give-meaning was operating as a ‘container’ that the infant, to the extent that s/he was able to introject it as an object-signifier, ultimately provided a mental space within which the infant could ‘contain’ anxiety for himself or herself.
What is the relationship within the infant of the introjected object-signifier of mother-as-container, and the signified-objects ‘contained’ by it? Hanna Segal addresses this later in writing about the function of dreams:
The infant deals with discomfort and anxiety by projecting it into the mother (the signified-object operating as a signifier). This is not only a phantasy operation. A good mother responds to the infant’s anxiety. A mother capable of containing projective identifications can transform the projections in her own unconscious and respond appropriately, thereby lessening the anxiety and giving meaning to it. In this situation, the infant introjects the maternal object (i.e. the ability to give meaning to signified-objects operating as signifiers) as a mother-container capable of containing anxiety, conflict, etc. and elaborating it meaningfully. This internalized mother-container provides a mental space… ,p93
The function of this mother-container, being the ability to give meaning to signified-objects operating as signifiers, involves organising the relationships between signifiers in relation to signifieds in a way that is particular to the embodied situation of the infant. We encountered it in the previous two blogs on the missing subject and reading a 4-term relation as corresponding to the place of the ego in the relation between subject, ego, object-signifier and signified-object. To follow Bion, therefore, this introjected mother-container establishes a capacity for a mental space capable of exhibiting mentality in the way it ‘contains’, becoming manifest as a particular way of organising the relationships between object-signifiers and between organisations of object-signifiers and signified-objects.
Matrices, mattresses and organising the relationships between object-signifiers
Bion uses the notion of a “matrix of thought which lies within the confines of the basic group, but not within the confines of the individual.”,p79 It is this matrix of thought with which the individual may have some valency and which becomes manifest through the individual’s participation in basic assumption behavior within the group. The individual’s relationship to this matrix of thought is also modified, however, by a process of sophistication. What is this process?
Basic assumption behavior is never ‘not there’. If it is not being acted from, it is through having been transformed by a process of sophistication. To what extent, however, can this transformation be total? There will always be some aspects of group mentality in which there is no ‘play’ as an effect of symbolic equation. If we think of the stuffing of a mattress as made from sophisticated behaviors of symbolisation, then its quilting points are the behaviors based on symbolic equation. Some forms of symbolisation have to mean just one thing within the particular group mentality. The quilting points are thus what remains of the matrix of thought as it is transformed by a process of sophistication, enabling the conflicts between the group and individual mentalities to be ‘contained’ by the individual. The group makes a mattress which can support some aspect of the individual’s being.
The individual subjects himself or herself to the group mentality, the organisation of which is constrained by the organisation of ‘quilting points’ aka organisation of symbolic equations. This is the point where the 4-term relation becomes useful. In addition to being subject to his or her unconscious, an individual will also be subject to numbers of mentalities, with different valencies to each one of them. In the ‘container’ (i.e. the organisation of relationships between object-signifiers and between organisations of object-signifiers and signified -objects) that characterises an individual’s relationship to a group mentality, some meanings (i.e. signifier-signified relationships) will not be negotiable (i.e. will have no ‘play’ in them).
What happens, then, when an individual has a relationship to more than one group mentality where there are inconsistencies between the quilting points? For example, the way Bert is expected to provide social care by his organisation may not be consistent with the way Great-Aunt Agatha expects to be supported in her twilight years! Bert wants to fix mealtimes and organise social events around them while Agatha wants to fix the social events and organise meals around them. How are these inconsistencies across the boundaries of a group mentality resolved within Bion’s way of thinking?
Hierarchy as a way of banishing inconsistencies
As Bion said, “when a group meets, it meets for a specific task, and in most human activities today co-operation has to be achieved by sophisticated means“.,p129 During the course of his text, however, he replaced the term ‘sophisticated group’ with ‘work group’,p86, with the definition of a work group being uniquely derived from hierarchy as the source of definition for its boundary conditions, i.e. as derived from primary task. Subgroups then appeared in three different forms, depending on what level of system he was talking about:
- Group: When writing about a small group, Bion identified subgroups as emerging through schism reflecting a basic assumption.
- Institution: When writing about an institutional context, Bion identified two conditions for internal sub-groups: that they should be free from having rigid boundaries (i.e. not centred on any of its members nor on itself), and that their value to the main group should be generally recognised.,p17 It was this thinking that evolved into the Institutional Project within the group-relations conference.
- Society: When he goes on to talk about specialised workgroups within society, he again refers to them as specialised sub-groups dealing with particular kinds of basic assumption on behalf of society as a whole system.
These three kinds of sub-group fall under a vertical assumption of hierarchy, in the sense that they are each a subordinate part of a larger system. These vertical relations therefore enable inconsistencies to be removed by reference to a shared larger context, from which the formation of sub-groups may be derived. To these we must add a fourth kind of relation between groups, therefore, identified by Trist as a characteristic of the horizontal cross-boundary relations within turbulent environments. These were the relation of a work group to a referent group, the horizontal relationships to which could give rise to inconsistencies in the relations between object-signifiers arising from different forms of symbolic equation in the relations between object-signifiers and signified-objects – mattresses with different organisations of quilting point.
The challenge presented by the relation to ‘referent groups’
Emery and Trist understood that open-systems models could deal with the equifinality of material exchange processes between an enterprise and elements in its environment but not “at all with those processes in the environment itself which were the determining conditions of the exchanges”. Furthermore, the laws connecting parts of the environment to each other were themselves “often incommensurate with those laws connecting parts of the enterprise to each other, or even with those which govern the exchanges”. Following this, Emery proposed restricting the term “socio-technical” to ‘operative’ enterprises engaged in material exchange processes, distinguishing them from ‘regulative’ enterprises.
Trist further proposed that these regulative enterprises be described as being “concerned directly with the psychosocial ends of their members and instilling and maintaining or changing cultural values and norms, the power and the position of interest groups, or the social structure itself”. Trist called these regulative organisations ‘referent’ because they were defined by particular inter-organisational relations and boundary conditions within a larger ecosystem, functioning as a ‘reference group’ for the operative enterprise supplying them. Whereas the focus of the ‘operative’ enterprise was on exchange processes across its boundaries, the ‘regulative’ or ‘referent’ enterprise focused on the way its own interests were served within the context of the larger ecosystem.
Not only were the laws constraining the behaviors of these referent groups often incommensurate, but there were also many of them, each one demanding a different relationship with an ‘operative’ enterprise. How, then, were these inconsistencies across the boundaries of an organisation to be resolved? Using four-term relation with the symbolic equation of ‘ego’ prevents us from considering inconsistencies in the relations between object-signifiers arising from different forms of symbolic equation in the relations between object-signifiers and signified-objects – mattresses with different organisations of quilting point. To do this we need to replace the singular ‘ego’ with multiple formations of mentality or ‘container’, later addressed by Bion in terms of multiple forms of ‘vertex’.
The structure of discourse as showing the play of unconscious valencies
The 4-term relation between subject, ego, object-signifier and signified-object distinguishes signified-objects that are ‘external’ in the sense of observable by others, and ‘internal’ in the sense of being experienced as relationships to the unconscious. If we therefore take up the 4-term relation as between the subject, the ‘container’ (as organising the relations between object-signifiers and between organisations of object-signifiers and signified-objects), object-signifiers and signified-objects, then the ‘container’ must be giving meaning both to the relation to the unconscious and also to the ‘social’. The notion of the quilting points in this ‘container’ gives us a way of thinking about how these relations between object-signifiers may be over-determined by their relation to the unconscious, thus restricting their use for the purposes of symbolisation in ways that indicate unconscious valencies. The subject can in this sense be understood as doubly subjected to both the pleasure principle (the relation to the unconscious) and to a reality principle (the relation to the ‘social’),
How, using this notion of the ‘container’, are we then to consider how inconsistencies are resolved? In order to articulate both the double subjection and also how this double subjection is reflected in the relations between subjects, we need a more complex structure. This can be provided by a structure of ‘discourse’ that brings together both inter-subjectivity and double subjection. A ‘sophisticated’ group mentality will thus relate to the ‘otherness’ of a referent group through the different ways in which the members of each group take up being subjects in discourse in relation to each other, made apparent as the relations between different formations of mentality.
 Bion, W. R. (1959). Experiences in Groups. London, Tavistock Publications.
 Segal, H. (1986). Notes on Symbol Formation. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association Books.
 Segal, H. (1986). The Function of Dreams. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association.
 This is the example taken up in the paper on ‘engendering boundary’, in which boundary is primarily a relationship to otherness rather than a secondary effect of a relationship to hierarchy.
 The early use of the concept of the primary task was to account for the role of the supervisor in managing the immediate boundary conditions of the worker-task relation within an organisational structure (Emery, F. E. (1993). Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems. The Social Engagement of Social Science Volume II: The Socio-Technical Perspective. J. Fichtelberg, H. Murray and B. Trist, University of Pennsylvania Press). This worker-task relation constituted a bounded workgroup if the workgroup could be responsibly autonomous within definable boundaries of technology, territory and/or time (Miller, E. J. (1959). “Technology, Territory and Time: The Internal Differentiation of Complex Production Systems.” Human Relations(12): 243-272).
 It follows from these hierarchical assumptions that the primary task of a work group (and therefore its boundary conditions) are assumed to have been defined by reference to super-ordinate definitions of primary task. It is perhaps not suprising that, once Bion replaced ‘sophisticated group’ by ‘work group’, that notions of containment should become so associated with boundary conditions. I continue to use ‘sophisticated’ in order to avoid this conflation.
 Emery, F. E. and E. Trist (1965). “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18: 21-32.
 Emery, F. E. (1993). Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems. The Social Engagement of Social Science Volume II: The Socio-Technical Perspective. J. Fichtelberg, H. Murray and B. Trist, University of Pennsylvania Press.
 Trist, E. L. (1981). The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems. Perspectives on Organizational Design and Behaviour. A. F. Van de Ven and W. F. Joyce. New York, John Wiley.
 Trist, E. (1983). “Referent Organizations and the Development of Inter-Organizational Domains.” Human Relations 36(3): 269-284.
 This leads not only for a form of organisation that can address demands one-by-one, as in ‘organisations without boundaries’, but also the there being no such thing as an ‘environment’ in general, as in ‘THE environment does not exist’.
 The concept of ‘vertex’ is introduced in Bion, W. R. (1965). Transformations. London, Heinemann. The difficulty with using this concept arises from its roots in its reading of Freud’s project in terms of the beta-alpha ‘screen’. See ‘Bion, Lacan and the thing-in-itself’. This difference is written about at greater length in ‘anxiety and innovation’.
 As Hanna Segal points out, there is a long continuum between abstract symbolisation (at the ‘top’ of Bion’s grid, and full-on symbolic equation in which the object ‘is’ some aspect of an ‘internal’ experience. There are varying degrees of over-determination or ‘fixing’ of meaning-equation, therefore (i.e. ‘fixing’ of the relation between signifier and signified).
 In the next blog we take up this issue of a structure of discourse that can bring together both inter-subjectivity and double subjection. In order to do so, it has to examine how this was not posisble using Bion’s reading of Freud’s contact barrier. (see footnote 5 in the earlier blog considering what was happening to ‘boundaries’, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’).