Immense Supplies
Incarnating the formative process


Two questions to start. One: assuming one wished to materialize — to physicalize — the psychoformative process, or wished to materialize a model of that process, how would one do it? Two: dropping back quickly to question the assumption of such a wish, why would one attempt such a materialization?

The collage process is intensely physical, both in its enlistment of bodily action and in the substantial material weight of the supplies it requires. The rationale for this physicality is two-fold. First, in theoretical terms, the physicality of the collage process permits the method to reflect the trajectory of bodily movement and involvement with the world through which sensori-motor, perceptual acts are absorbed into schemes of mental representation and language.

Second, from a cultural point of view, the method’s materiality immerses the collage-maker in an image-overload analogous to that which characterizes modern life. The cultural background, established by the historical setting beyond the walls of the clinic, must itself be represented within the communicational medium of a depth-psychological method that seeks to accomplish in the present cultural setting what psychoanalysis sought to do in its own formative period. Image-overload and commensurately weakened ego-functioning correspond to what Freud perceived to be the chief threat to the development of personal autonomy in his day: paternal stringency, internalized as superego guilt, and represented in Freud’s method by the predominance of the voice.

In order to restore disturbed processes of psychic metabolization and coordination, depth psychological method must continually renew the psychohistorically relative, counter-cultural work of opposing the incursion of public space into the private, personal but nonetheless inherently social space of individuals. As in every historical period, individuals in our time are formed within a public space, which provides, as well, the arena in which individuality is expressed. In our period, however, there are unique impediments and vulnerabilities in this regard, of which psychological method must be cognizant.

Contemporary cultural tyranny involves overstimulation by undigestible mass-media imagery in a setting of vague social values and forms: image-surfeit combined with image-hunger. In such a context the opportunity for an individual to make personal use of unlabeled, mass-media images for his or her own configurative purposes, and to employ appropriate equipment to gain liberating access to his or her own personal image-repertoire, already invites a resumption of formative processes and is, in itself, both a political gesture and an initial therapeutic maneuver.

Yet the Collage-Method’s materiality, which provides the context for its hands-on, embodied physicality, is, whatever its inertial mass, essentially preliminary and subsidiary. The bulky undigested matter merely marks, both literally and metaphorically, the place where formative labors are to be undertaken in the work of mental metabolization. Restoring psychic metabolization becomes, in fact, like “undoing the repression” in an earlier paradigm, the key therapeutic aim within a formative approach.

In the midst of collage-making, when formative processes are most fully engaged, the maker experiences a meditative stillness, as if the non-discursive, synchronic moment of language (langue) had itself been directly felt. This uniquely expressive yet quiet center becomes all the more significant for having been established precisely at the hurricane’s vortex, where the collectivized debris of image-clutter can at last be idiosyncratically sedimented and laid to rest.

The method’s material substance points, finally, beyond itself to the fact that the elusive yet therapeutically all-important processes that go under the name of “internalization” — the creative moments that establish new inner form — may be approached as a far less subjective ensemble of events than is generally supposed. In the Collage Method the conventional approach to psychotherapy is, in this sense, turned inside out. What are, in a conventional therapeutic setting, the most inscrutably “inner” psychic sequences of signification are, through the actions elicited by the Collage Method, externalized and displayed. The mysterious boundary-shifting moment whereby language permits the expression of an utterly personal content via an utterly impersonal, collective medium is here metaphorically enacted in an image-process. This process is, in turn, able to display linguistic mechanisms (including those essential to the action of internalization) that are, ironically, difficult to to render in verbalized discourse itself. The therapeutic implications that derive from this externalizing inversion are, then, the method’s ultimate justification.

The materiality of the method — all of its requirements for space, equipment and supplies — exists to give the collage-maker access to the collective and private image-repertoire, and to support him or her during the exposure of configurations assembled from this repertoire to the possibility of structural transformation.

With the help of its materiality, its physicality — its “heavy language” — the mental stubbornness and emotional resistance expressed by patients when confronted with the therapeutic need to make personal change are, in some measure, absorbed into the inertial mass of the clinical setting itself. The procedure’s own inertia may then be subtracted from the surplus resistance generated in conventional approaches. By providing a holding environment that more adequately supports signification — for clinical “resistance is always resistance to signification”: resistance to forging the new symbolic links, thresholds and discriminations that comprise the fine-grained structure of personal change — the method carries its own formative weight, a weight off the collage maker’s mind.

The Collage Method’s combined reliance upon physicality and complex equipment contrasts strikingly with the approach taken by virtually all other non-pharmacological therapeutic techniques. It is important, therefore, to understand the background and conceptual support for this divergence. Historically, the non-material, verbal approach inherent in the psychoanalytic model has appeared inseparable from Freud’s discovery of the depth to which language penetrates in constituting the psyche and in instituting its conflicts. The subsequent structuralist disentangling of language as system from speech as act might have challenged the identification of the constitutive function of language with the clinical employment of speech, especially as regards its implications for therapeutic method. But in fact a pure, dialogic- (and, consequently, labor-intensive and time-extensive) model of the therapeutic process has proved persuasive wherever the globally formative influence of language itself has been appreciated.

Psychotherapeutic supplies are accordingly assumed to consist of two persons, the relationship they form, the language which mediates this relationship and the theory which informs interpretations of it. The latter component, psychotherapeutic theory, does, of course, comprise an extremely heavy (even if non-physical) investment. But the analytic tools in which this theory is embodied are wielded by the professional member of the dyad: wide dissemination of psychoanalytic theory has, in fact, presented a challenge to technique. The asymmetry of the dyad — skilled professional theory-holder on one side; confused patient on the other — then serves to legitimize the fee schedule even as its implicit epistemology suggests that a lengthy period of time will be required for the treatment.

From a different perspective one could point out that, to its credit, the profession of psychotherapy has remained, nearly alone among forms of profession practice, a labor intensive discipline, and has done so in the face of massive technolization and capital intensification nearly everywhere else. Are there good reasons to challenge such an apparently warranted humanistic emphasis? The strongest reasons would be those deriving from concerns inescapably central to the psychotherapeutic tradition, namely epistemological theories involving interconnections among feeling, motivation, symbolization, and language acquisition.

Psychotherapeutic theory has long recognized the relations among emotional growth, internalization of new models of object relations, and verbalized expression of feeling. Most theories also insist upon the emotion-laden personal therapeutic relationship as the setting for crucial internalization processes which are at least consolidated, if not actually consitituted, through verbalized interpretation. No school, however, appears to have recognized and systematically developed the fertile structural connection between bodily enactment (and tool use) on the one hand, and language development on the other, where, taken together, these two strands provide a converging path leading to the capacity for emotional appropriation of new inner form.

Those approaches which have relied upon physical media (an emphasis on the body, on artistic-making and other non-verbal “expressive” activities, or on the use of various sound or visual recording devices to provide “feedback”) have tended to see themselves as by-passing language and linguistically-lodged defenses altogether, or else have no clear position as to the relative importance of, or the structural connection between, the revelatory (diagnostic / expressive / cathartic) as opposed to the formative value of these activities. It may be that where adequate epistemological theory is lacking, a technical incapacity to perform effective and precise clinical work on symbolic processes below the limen of verbalization becomes the counterpart of a medical recourse to gross material methods (i.e., psychopharmacology) in cases where the linkages between talk, transference and internalization of verbalized interpretations proves weak.

This situation is all the more unfortunate given the remarkable strides that have been made in this century in the understanding of symbolic processes. It is probably fair to say that, as most of these advances have occurred in fields outside psychology proper, few of them have been either conceptually appreciated or methodologically harnessed by psychotherapeutic practice. If here, as in other fields, utilization of appropriate technology and required production time stand in inverse relation to each other, then a judicious, theoretically informed capital intensity might support an imminently brief and democratically available psychotherapy.

The role of body and of technology in the collage process is that of promoting, not of by-passing, symbolization. By instituting an appropriate tool, the method seeks to support the formulation of feeling in its trajectory from incipience in the impulse, to binding in the image, to stratification in the sign, and to expression in non-dissociated discursive thought. In this project, the Collage Method is both an elaborate metaphor, imaginatively graspable by the collage-maker, and an enactive model, physically unfolded by him or her, which permits the clinical engagement of preverbal processes during the delicate passage between the rise of inchoate bodily feeling and communication in articulate, audible speech. The use of a concrete perceptual process as a tool to support symbolic transformation corresponds developmentally both to the interplay of image and word during the initial acquisition of language, and to the structural re-elevation of already-acquired symbolic capabilities at the Oedipal (and, quite probably, at all fundamental) developmental moment(s).

In conceptualizing the interplay between physical enactment and symbolic development, one may call upon the work of a diverse assemblage of investigators. One thinks, for example, of Freud’s view of pre-consciousness as entailing the linking of visual “thing-presentations” with acoustic “word presentations,” or his remarks on thinking as “trial action” upon a spatialized plane, or his suggestion that, despite repression, the perceptual path to the unconscious remains open.

One thinks also of Piaget on perceptual and sensori-motor schemas as the developmental scaffolding of semiosis; of J. Bowlby and others on the connections between subliminal perception and the mechanisms of defense; of philosophical and psychological work on the spatialization of time (A.N. Whitehead’s “presentational immediacy”) as an essential aspect of the symbolic interplay that extablishes consciousness; of S. Langer on the shared roots of discursive and non-discursive form, and on the privileged status of the latter in the formulation of feeling; of J. Lyons and others on the function of space in establishing semantic networks.

One thinks of of E. Cassirer on the role of space in the functions of deixis that make that establishing of a sense of self inseparable from a sense of “location;” of L. Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, and A. Korzybski on ostension and “the roots of reference;” of L.S. Vygotsky on the interaction of tool and symbol in inner speech and in the process of “making inner;” of D.W. Winnicott on the function of transitional objects in individuation and in the formation of cultural space; of M. Heidegger on the correlation of Dasein (care), involvements, temporality, and world, of P. Friere on concrete investigation of the “thematic universe,” “mediating codifications,” critical consciousness, and linguistic pedagogy (“I - Thou - It”).

One thinks of semiotic and literary theory concerning the inherent triangularity of the sign (C.S. Peirce), the analogies among the spatiality of the visual field (and printed page), language as system, the narrative “field,” and the mutual implication of Imaginary and Symbolic within the narrative text; of neurological work on the closely related mechanisms of perceptual scanning, pattern recognition, information storage and memory, and on the intimate connections within the brain between centers involving hands and those devoted to language; and of E.H. Erikson on the importance of visual recognition and the face in the establishment of basic trust in early infancy, and on the persisting importance of space in psychological life (identity as “configuration,” “play space,” etc.).

In psychotherapeutic parlance, words like “personal space,” “grasp,” “vision,” “focus,” “bringing to light,” and “movement” function in an almost exclusively metaphorical way, as if one could by-pass their literal role in psychic re-creation and still hope to transcend mind-body dualism. If the collage process seeks to install a more concrete therapeutic metaphor, this is in order to make room for a more literal, formative role for the imaginary as a support along the rigorous, precarious and ever-renewed journey toward the symbolic.

© Eric Olson, Ph.D.