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Melanie Klein And Object Relations

Probably the most influential analytic thinker after Freud, Melanie Klein (1882–1960) articulated a prehistory of childhood development, whose history in Freudian thought commenced with the Oedipus crisis. Following Freud, the sequence of events she outlined had as its main theme the integration of the chaotic desiring world of the infant with the real world.

According to Klein, the infant's world was threatened from the beginning by intolerable anxieties, whose source she believed to be the infant's own death instinct (whose central importance she forcefully affirmed, in opposition to many other contemporary theorists). These "persecutory" anxieties, which were felt in the infant's own bodily needs as well as from the external frustrations to those needs, were overwhelming to the infant, and in order to combat them the infant resorted to defenses whose aim was to isolate her from them. Through these primitive defenses—projection, denial, splitting, withdrawal, and "omnipotent control" of these objects—the infant put threatening, "bad" objects, outside herself and into the external world; simultaneously, she preserved the "good" objects, both within herself and externally, by splitting them off from their malevolent counterparts.

Perhaps the most fundamental of these processes were projection and introjection, which described the infant's first, primitive attempts to differentiate himself from the world, inside from outside, self from other, based on the prototype of oral incorporation (and spitting out) and the infant's relation to his first, nurturing/frustrating object, the mother's breast. The first objects were not the mature, "whole" objects of Oedipal development, but primitive "part" objects whose existence for the infant was determined solely by its function in the infant's world.

In the course of maturation, Klein believed that the infant introjected both "bad" and "good" objects, and that through processes of progressive internalization, these fragmentary objects were taken into the self, and became forerunners of the superego. Klein emphasized that this process (of introjection, projection, and re-introjection) was continuous and cyclical, leading to increasing synthesis as the infant gradually attained greater degrees of reality testing, differentiation, and control over her own psyche.

Klein divided pre-Oedipal development into the "paranoid/schizoid" and "depressive" positions. She located the paranoid/schizoid position in the first months of an infant's life, a time in which the infant was in helpless thrall both to the outside world and to his own instincts. Deprivation, the experience of need, and frustration, even though emanating from the infant's own body, were perceived during this phase as persecutory, and the infant responded by putting them outside of himself, "projecting" or throwing them away.

The early objects—beginning with the breast—were experienced alternately as "good" or "bad" according to whether they were perceived as nurturing or destructive; and again partly on the model of the breast, the infant took in (introjected) or dispelled (projected) them according to their relative safety or danger. In this way, Klein believed, the infant took in and preserved those feelings in the external world that were felt as "good," while expelling from herself those destructive feelings directed "into" the object that threatened the relation with the object.

In the depressive position (roughly corresponding to the second six months of life), the trends established in the first months of life were extended. In this stage, the infant was able to bridge the gap between "good" and "bad" objects, and between his own experiences of love and hate, which created them. He became capable of ambivalence, and his awareness gradually grew to encompass the object world outside himself and his mother, who, in a crucial development, he now perceived as a discrete, whole object. The infant became aware of his own destructive impulses and, fearing the loss of his object's love (by his destructiveness), attempted to inhibit them, to preserve, protect, even resurrect the object that he continually destroyed in unconscious fantasy, or phantasy. His anxious awareness of his aggression toward the object/mother (which Klein called guilt), and subsequent efforts to contain his own anxieties by curtailing these impulses (efforts Klein termed reparations), led the child to an increasing tolerance for ambivalence, and acceptance of a position of mediation between the needed, loved object and his own instincts that threatened to destroy the object, preparing the way for stable object relations, first with the mother and then with other objects.

For Klein, both paranoid/schizoid and depressive positions represented normal developmental phases on the road to mature object relations; her use of the word position was indicative both of her view of this developmental scheme as normative and her conviction (derived from Freud) that "fixation" at such positions was the source of later psychopathology. The defenses of early infancy—including projection, splitting, withdrawal, and denial—became the prototype for the defenses of more severely disturbed patients, whose pathology Klein traced to disturbances in early development.

Klein saw the infant's efforts to bind and modify persecutory and depressive anxieties as the central struggle in the infant's development, and as the essential precursor to all subsequent mental development. Through this progressive process, the anxieties were modified, structuralization increased, and the anxieties and impulses that gave rise to them were themselves diminished. She saw all defense as directed against these anxieties, and regarded the earliest defenses, especially splitting, as the foundation for repression, which she viewed as itself a restricted and refined form of splitting. She also saw forerunners of the Oedipal conflict and the superego in the very first months of life. Indeed, Klein's theory attributed to the infant from the first months of life a range of sophisticated, dyadic and triadic emotions—including greed, envy, and jealousy—that implied an acute sense of others and her relation to them, far earlier than was accepted in Freudian psychology.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Propagation to Quantum electrodynamics (QED)Psychoanalysis - Overview, Psychoanalytic Theory Of Mind, Infantile Sexuality And The Oedipus Complex, Later Revisions: Mourning, Narcissism, And The Beginnings Of Object Relations