Our Shared Preverbal Symbols

Essay Ucs. Issue 08: by Spencer Rowell

'The form of some art corresponds truthfully to some felt pattern of our emotional life. In this sense, every object with aesthetic import is potentially in tune with some elements of human feeling... every truthful work will be limited by its authors range of sensibilities, every truthful work will have its supporters because it resonates with them'.
Kenneth Wright (2009)

Through the therapeutic use of our cameras, are we trying to recollect the forgotten past and in doing so create a process by which we resurrect deep experience? Or are we creating images, making the unconscious conscious, attempting to enrich meanings to events that may give significance and answer questions to the here and now?

One fundamental aspect of engagement with photographs is a shared understanding of symbolic gestures, often not able to be verbalised. I am personally interested in the development of these communications through the production of self-portraits and our ability of being able to symbolise these 'feelings' without language. In a self-portrait I present a picture of someone I should know very well, but of course I do not: on the contrary, I seem to know very little of him. Using the camera as researcher, can I find a more accurate representation of the real self and create a narrative more in keeping with these felt emotions? This joy of being recognised also serves all our narcissistic needs for recognition, acceptance and uniqueness. Perhaps the photographer, in taking such images, can inhabit these forms, slowly becoming more fully themselves and in doing so, have a more meaningful contact with humanity.

The psychoanalyst and academic Kenneth Wright offers us insight into some of these questions in his book 'Mirroring and Attunement' (2009). In it, he talks of early pre-verbal relationships. As the title suggests, he focuses on two aspects of functioning in the pre-verbal relationship provided by the mother. Mirroring, in context of Winnicott's emotional mirror, where the baby sees his own face in the face of the mother and this engagement marks out the mental space between them. As well as the baby feeling an essential sense of connection and rapport, it creates a direct line of conscious and unconscious communication between the two. This early and important stage is the precursor for linking our inner experience with external forms, an essential phase of early symbol-formation.

'To put things in this way begins to make the link with art more apparent; there is an emotional reaching out towards the subject, with perhaps the expectation of a response; a medium that allows itself to be transformed; and a 'finding' or creating within that medium of significant forms that reveal the subject to himself. Winnicotts' model readily transposes into the language of art'

During any empathic engagement with images, both the photographer and viewer try to put inner experience into words, although this can be done in many other non-verbal ways, in mirroring, we attempt to reflect the perception of our inner state; in attunement we attempt to imagine what the inner state, that is being experienced, actually is. This joint identification, suggests Winnicott, provides the external picture of the inner experience.

'In attunement, a similar situation prevails. First the mother identifies with the baby's experience (emotion), then recasts it in her own idiom and replays it to the baby. If the baby can experience the mothers enactment in a resonant way (ie corresponding to something in the infant), at that moment, baby and mother, like the artist and the audience, will be momentarily linked through the created (maternal) form.'

Can these pictures be seen as portraying the shapes of non-verbal imagery and of an expression of early relationships? Can these images, perhaps in different sequences produce an alternative form of dialogue, providing a range of symbolic communication of the artist's inner state, a way of reviving some parts of the inner world of the artist that may have died or failed to develop, or simply the artists need to newly acquire, reform, reconstruct and search for these deficiencies? Does the photographer, compensating for any deficiencies in attunement, make reflective forms of their own and in doing so, gain an ability to exist and feel 'real' through this process? These photographs allow the possibility of us all to exist in a world of newly created reflections. In Klein's view, the creative act is driven by guilt and concern. Hannah Segal, a Kleinian psychoanalyst, stated that symbolism within the photograph is based more on absence and the loss of the object. It is the rebuilding of these fragments of scattered objects that becomes the creative act. It is this attempt to repair, to make reparation to this object that becomes the photographer's artistic endeavour. In a generalised way, the Kleinian concept of creativity comes from a sense of lack, and the need for replacement of what is missing, it reinstates the missing experience and attempts to replaces the mother with a more perfect version, perhaps this what is being attempted in these photographs.

Fuller, (1980) suggested that the picture surface could be thought of as a face like structure, with which the artist communicates in ways that reaches back to earlier experience with the mother's image. The photographer can modify the surface until it gives back to her or him the responses that are needed.

This is the canvas surface that in Fullers words 'becomes a surrogate for the good mothers face'. Likening this mothers face to an emotional mirror and suggests that the infant sees this and begins to experience himself, through the visual medium of the mother's responsive expressions. Wright says the artist, in this space, can be dangerously poised on the edge of 'no mother' (the un-attuned mother), so hence the photographers compulsion to go on creating. The photographer has then to retrieve an experience in the absence of the mother, observing this object brings her back, or at least the infant's way of remembering her.

'The infants initial world is made of symbols, created concrete objects made from his pre-verbal structuring, as language appears he now faces another world, made half by other, restructuring his world in the fashion of language that carries other meanings. Does the artist hang on to this unique much earlier code of communication?'

The photographer creates a joint metaphorical and creative language. Ordinary language, is essentially practical and concerned only with external reality, it is object related and it needs considerable adaptation before it can be used to embody subjective phenomena, like symbols and art. Finding this authentic voice is a not easy, a person's true self lies deep in this preverbal world, the world the photographer inhabits, it is here that our important and often most difficult feelings to communicate lay beyond the reach of ordinary language. Language, of course, offers us an important form of shared communication regarding external objects, however, non-verbal communications of symbols offer us a much more a profound insight into inner objects and feelings. It has the power to move, in the words of Barthes, to pierce, the inner self and that of others.

Through symbols, the artist gives a voice to the unsayable, like trying to recapture a lost memory, in doing so producing what Winnicott would call our transitional objects, 'primary creativity, a realm of illusion, a place of transitional objects and from a much earlier stage of the child's omnipotence.' Through photography and its refining and experimentation, the reflections one would have preferred begin to emerge, the surrogate mother, a more perfect object is created that contains more of the artist self than the artist can communicate verbally.

These individual experiences shown in the photographs are of course personally significant to the creators, but so often with creative work, there is a 'fit' or an unconscious 'knowing' that emerges with the engagement with them. Shared attunement, a shared pre-verbal experience. If a photograph is based on this structure of non-verbal presentational of symbols and represents the 'fit' between mother and child, the creative endeavour can provide fertile material indeed.

These photographic objects are an artist's way to recast subjective feeling into more or less objective form and create a bridge to these experiences. They represent the photographic importance of a shared experience, not simply a vehicle for self-examination, self-analytical exorcism or an individual journey of self-awareness, but primitive communications that are based on shared preverbal symbols, communicated to us non-verbally, not intellectually via words. This photographer's joy of being recognised, of being responded to, is the confirmation that is so desired. A confirmation of self and the creation of the good enough, even perfect maternal object.

Spencer Rowell is a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist and researcher at Sir John Cass School of Art, Whitechapel, London

/ 08 Article by Spencer Rowell 2011