Situating Klein

John William Phillips

 “in situ”

Function: adverb or adjective. Etymology: Latin, in position:

“in the natural or original position or place”


Recent work on the texts of Melanie Klein and her followers constitutes what, after Jacqueline Rose, might be called a “return to melanie klein” in humanities scholarship (Rose 134).  From the point of view of the psychoanalytic community, especially in Britain, Klein remains one of the dominant influences in both theory and practice.  Her work is of crucial significance in the history and development of psychoanalysis after Freud.  Yet in mainstream humanities scholarship Klein's work has until recently been regarded as marginal, an example of “object relations theory” with little explanation beyond the category itself.


This paper focuses on what many see as a belated return to Klein in a field that is already considerably influenced by developments in psychoanalysis.  It is as if something has been missed and Klein somehow provides the clue to what that is, although the clue invariably leads to disturbing and enigmatic places.  If this aspect of Klein's work has not been recognized historically, it is partly because mainstream critical theory has followed a trail that leads in a slightly more satisfying (and thus consoling) direction. Jacques Lacan opened up a number of genuinely groundbreaking possibilities for critical thought.  He found a sympathetic audience among structuralist thinkers, for whom language is the privileged element, and Marxist theorists, who saw how Lacan's concepts of desire and the symbolic tie in with notions of ideology and interpellation.  So Lacan offered arguments that could explain how a social (and moral) milieu that is symbolically overdetermined could construct a gendered human subject who feels unique, singular and whole, in an environment that is naturalized and internalized as fulfilling.  Inevitable failures return as neuroses and psychoses (or at least a feeling of general inadequacy), thus exposing a social or “symbolic” aspect to mental illness.  Such explanations, because they are grounded in an understanding of language, offer the promise of political change.  Sexuality, gender and all forms of authority are overdetermined by language regarded in its essential mode as an empty signifier.  Against all this Klein's apparently normative and certainly heterosexist perspective appears less than attractive to a highly politicized and protean critical theory.


Philosophically, however, Lacan's “linguistic a priori” is less than satisfying.  Like Michel Foucault's analogous “historical a priori” through which he argues that human subjects are determined by their historical episteme, Lacan's formulations offer little room for maneuver.  Klein, on the other hand, can now be seen to have been theorizing a deeper determination, something at once more radical than and less assimilable to existing paradigms.  In fact the pre-condition for infantile (and thus adult) development in Klein would seem to trouble all paradigms.  It is a kind of negative a priori where experience begins with an inexplicable exterior at its very core.



I want to begin by describing a piece of music.  It starts with drums, some alternation between the snare and a low tom, then a few washes of the cymbal before settling into a series of rhythmic flourishes--rolls and crescendos--again between low tom and snare.  It sounds to me like a kind of extended announcement lasting over a minute before a few more washes of the cymbal coincide with the entrance of a tenor saxophone.  One long held note is followed by a repeated phrase, repeated several more times before reaching up into the higher registers.  In the meantime the drummer falls back into lighter washes of rhythm.  For over nine minutes these two musicians duet maintaining between them a spontaneous yet faultlessly integrated series of rhythmic and melodic abstractions.  There is nothing here that definitively belongs to any recognizable musical form.  There is no tonal centre, no beat, no meter as such--just the persistent wash of rhythmic flourish and the abstract dance of the saxophone.  What strikes most listeners about this music is, I think, the conflicting experience it creates.  This apparently chaotic irrational sound nonetheless comes across as integrated and uplifting.  The musicians are Elvin Jones and John Coltrane.  The piece is “Vigil,” a rare duet from 1965 by these two members of Coltrane’s famous quartet, who throughout the sixties repeatedly changed the sound of the jazz idiom. 


I was listening to the Coltrane Quartet’s reinvention of jazz music while reading Hanna Segal’s “A Psychoanalytic Approach to Aesthetics” last year.  That essay attempts to account for aesthetic value on the basis of Klein’s concept of the depressive position and in it she provides a rudimentary psychology of the artist as well.  The depressive position marks a fundamental transition in the nature of the infant’s object relations.  She says that it is reached when the infant recognizes the object, i.e., the mother, for the first time as a person, real and whole:

Where earlier he was aware of “part objects” he now perceives complete persons; instead of “split” objects--ideally good or overwhelmingly persecuting--he sees a whole object both good and bad. The whole object is loved and introjected and forms the core of an integrated ego.  But this new constellation ushers in a new anxiety situation: where earlier the infant feared an attack on the ego by persecutory objects, now the predominant fear is that of the loss of the loved object in the external world and in his own inside.  The infant at that stage is still under the sway of uncontrollable greedy and sadistic impulses.  In phantasy his loved object is continually attacked in greed and hatred, is destroyed, torn into pieces and fragments; and not only is the external object so attacked but also the internal one, and then the whole internal world feels destroyed and shattered as well.  Bits of the destroyed object may turn into persecutors, and there is a fear of internal persecution as well as a pining for the lost loved object and guilt for the attack. (205)

For Segal art begins when the child, in the depressive position, succumbs to an overwhelming desire to recreate the inner world that has been destroyed by the ravages of the paranoid-schizoid position: 

The memory of the good situation, where the infant's ego contained the whole loved object and the realisation that it has been lost through his own attacks, give rise to an intense feeling of loss and guilt, and to the wish to restore and re-create the lost loved object outside and within the ego.  This wish to restore and re-create is the basis of later sublimation and creativity. (205-6)

Where I would depart from Segal here, without for a minute contesting her authority as a psychoanalyst, is in the respective roles of the Paranoid-Schizoid (PS) and Depressive (D) positions.  For me Coltrane’s consistently transforming music demonstrates a process that involves a permanent interaction between part-object and whole-object relations.  It is this mutually supporting and also risky, dangerous, interaction that seems to me to most characterize the Kleinian influence both inside and outside psychoanalysis today. 


In the liner notes to the original release of “Vigil,” by the way, Coltrane is quoted as saying that the title refers to the need for watchfulness against elements that may be destructive, both from within and from outside.  This is surely not simply fortuitous.  Music this balanced, this poised, but at the same time so unrestrained would require just such vigilance both towards the external world of jazz music, its groups, audiences and institutions, and to the personal and affective expression (a word much used by John Coltrane) that may be regarded as being of the inner world.


In Situ

I will now move swiftly on to Melanie Klein.  My title makes it sound a little as if I’ll be putting Klein in her place.  I might be placing her in a specific site, in situ.  By placing Klein in a site I might locate her both in a context and as belonging to a category.  Within psychoanalysis to a large degree Klein already has her place as a profound influence on analysts of the British School, including the so called independent group but against those who were happier following the ideas of Anna Freud, during and after the split that occurred in the wake of the 1944 Controversial Discussions.[1]  She belongs to a category too, “Object Relations,” for which Klein’s importance is undeniable.  Here what is placed in situ is the role of the object itself, as implied in a type of discourse that is preverbal and so cannot be conceptualized, cannot strictly speaking be thought.  In this case it is possible to be quite specific.  Klein provides a psychology of the first year of the infant’s life.  The type of object relation that is found there by Klein, and others who have followed her into that territory, is not one that is left behind as the child grows, to be replaced by a more realistic one later—as Anna Freud had taught—but rather it is one that governs and organizes psychic life generally and everything else that the human subject goes on to experience later in life.  Included would be situations that involve the acquisition of knowledge as well as those that demand an ethical practice.  What is involved is a kind of knowledge that precedes thought.


Each of these ways of locating Klein, putting her in her place, are important, even necessary, for a productive understanding of her work.  Yet the very notion of situation is called into question once we start to examine the work itself, so I have learned to be cautious about this when reading Klein.  Klein’s work teaches us that we have no place as such, that our natural or original position is in almost purely literal terms, a no-place.  How far can we go in situating Klein once we have fully taken on board the knowledge that, with Klein, we don’t even know where we stand.  So, in situating Klein, I want to suggest as much as is possible that what is at stake is an attempt to think, to imagine, to evoke this no-place--as an absence, a nothing, a negativity that is virtually impossible to think.  This is what I mean by situating Klein.



Anyway, outside psychoanalysis, Klein’s place is a lot more difficult to chart, though even the fact that this has become a need tells us something.  It has to do with the continued interest in psychoanalytic ideas from diverse fields.  Freud’s works continue to be read and taught by philosophers, literary critics and sociologists, and they remain indispensable in many areas of critical and cultural theory.  (This is true to a much lesser extent in psychology).  Much of the Standard Edition of Freud can be regarded as speculation of a philosophical kind, despite the fact that what psychoanalysis has to say is often genuinely threatening to traditional philosophy, the very institution of speculation.  A number of works over the last twenty years or so can be seen to be revealing the philosophical underpinnings of Freud’s own theory, as well as the continued reliance of psychoanalysis generally on historical and metaphysical presuppositions.[2]


On the other hand there are those, both within and outside psychoanalysis, who have explored, revealed and affirmed elements in Freud that cannot be contained within conceptual frameworks.[3]  These engagements are typical of the amorphous changing territory of critical theory.  One strategic pattern is worth drawing out.  The liminal space that practitioners often occupy—never fully comfortable or secure in any one discipline or institution—allows a kind of affirmation without institutional affiliation that can be as critical as it is affirming.  At the very least this implies an acknowledgment of the importance of the work and the texts of psychoanalysis but does not demand any strict identification with the ideas themselves.  This might look like a lack of commitment on the part of theory but  I would argue that it implies both commitment and responsibility—and it requires vigilance.


So the question remains.  Where do we locate Klein outside psychoanalysis?  By getting under Lacan’s lack in the signifier, getting beneath the language of psychoanalysis, Klein, who also begins with nothing, would seem to be positing an absence beyond absence, a nothing beyond the nothing of the Freudian unconscious, where negation does not figure at all (so Klein could perhaps be regarded as something like the unconscious of the Freudian unconscious).  I want to finish up by suggesting how this might work by focusing on the Kleinian account of the relation to the object.  The role of the object will impact on both the relation between inner and outer world and ultimately on the notions of transference and the counter-transference.


The Object

The object relation in the first months of life cannot be understood in terms of the relation between consciousness and its objects.  Yet the two types of relation cannot be entirely separated out either.  The language of psychoanalysis is philosophical even when breaking through the philosophical frame—as well as the frame of language itself.  I’ve found it instructive to return to Immanuel Kant—that 18th century object relations theorist—in order to draw out what is so interesting in the Kleinian perspective.  Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason contains an important and influential section on “the a priori grounds for the possibility of experience.”  Here he shows on the one hand that the a priori concepts that make experience possible cannot themselves be objects of experience, so there must always be such objects.  But on the other hand there are no objects of experience without the a priori concepts.  This is what he says:

The elements for all a priori cognitions, even for arbitrary and absurd fantasies, cannot indeed be borrowed from experience . . . but must always contain the pure a priori conditions of possible experience and an object of it, for otherwise not only would nothing at all be thought through them, but also without data they would not be able to arise at all. (A 96)

Now Klein’s relation to the object is not yet a thought of the object.  In this sense Lacan remains explicable within a Kantian framework—albeit a profoundly transformed one—while Klein’s discoveries would, within that framework, be strictly impossible.  If, for Kant, the relation of individual representations (things as I represent them to myself in the synthesis of space and time) make possible both the understanding and all experience as an empirical product of understanding, then the Kleinian object relation precedes even that, but with startling results.  For Kant the formal condition for inner sense is time, as that in which all representations must be ordered, connected and brought into relation.  For Klein the object relation remains fragmented and disjunct because for the infant there is no time (just as time does not figure for the Freudian unconscious).  There is neither a synthesis of apprehension nor of the reproduction of experience, which must be the result of repetition.  Furthermore, an object of representation, for Kant, must both correspond to and at the same time remain distinct from cognition.  Cognition requires a general concept (= X) which thus relates the object to the understanding whilst maintaining them as distinct.  This is the precise function of the signified in linguistics, which is re-inscribed as the “lack in the signifier” by Lacan.  Kant (famously) shows that appearances are not things-in-themselves, but merely representations: “which in turn have their object, which cannot be further intuited by us, and that may therefore be called the non-empirical, i.e., transcendental, object = X” (A 109).  So all cognition requires a concept, however imperfect or obscure it may be,  which must be something general.  It thus functions in more or less the same way as the lack in the signifier, which, combined with the signifier’s repeatability, provides the now well understood relation between the identity and difference of the object.  In Lacan the relation to the object is figured as the difference between narcissistic desire (being) and object desire (having)--the difference, that is, between myself and the other--but oriented towards a “plenum,” called by Lacan “the real”, which is impossible because as plenum there can be nothing lacking in it (Lacan 852).    


The earliest Kleinian relation to the object, however, is neither something made possible by a transcendental concept nor a mere function of the signifier.  It is a relation to an appearance that has a transcendental determination only in so far as the object itself is absolute negativity, that absence I referred to earlier as involving neither time nor negation.  The world of the child is pre-conceptual in both the Kantian sense (signified = X) and the Lacanian sense (lack in the signifier).  As such, while the rules that govern the infant’s life run counter to the experience of a thinking consciousness, they nevertheless help to constitute that experience.  As one of the essential grounds of possibility, the Kleinian object relation remains impossible.  There is nothing but the artifactuality of phantasy governing the actual, which is always transformed by the phantasy.  And where empirical thought is governed by the thought of what is necessary, the child is governed by the accidental, which is--as unpleasant as this fact may seem--also necessary.  The realm of empirical thinking (the possible, the actual and the necessary) is inscribed within the emotional phantasy world (the impossible, the artifactual and the accidental) as one of its possibilities.


In Summary

The postulates of empirical thinking--the possible, the actual and the necessary--are for Kant made possible only with the hypothesis of the transcendental object X.  We have access to the object world by virtue of a signifier that in its essential form signifies nothing.  With Klein, however, the lack or absence (which again is a priori) is entirely different.  Klein’s negativity produces the possible through its impossibility.  The actual must always be fitted into the defensive phantasy and comes to it as the terrifying contingency of randomness and chance, like the incalculable comings and goings of a capricious parent transformed by phantasy into separate persecuting and satisfying entities.  The synthesis of time and space that we find organizing Kant’s understanding would need to have emerged from the defences against the chaotic relations between inner and outer worlds, before any such distinction could be made.  The emotional aspects of PS and D are not themselves separable from the cognitive aspects they help to produce.  But there is no theoretical or philosophical paradigm that would be adequate for comprehending the negativity, the no-place, that grounds PS and D.  Rather, as precondition for comprehension as such, Klein’s no-place is situated always outside and beyond situation.  It is for this reason that situating Klein must remain a permanently unfinished project.   


Works Cited

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. The Freudian subject. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

King, Pearl and Riccardo Steiner, eds. The Freud-Klein Controversies: 1941-45. London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991.

Lacan, Jacques. “La relation d’objet et les structures freudiennes.”  Bulletin de Psychologie X/14 (June 1957) 851-54.

Phillips, John and Lyndsey Stonebridge, eds. Reading Melanie Klein. London: Routledge, 1998.

Rose, Jacqueline. Why War? - Psychoanalysis, Politics, and the Return to Melanie Klein. London: Blackwell, 1993.

Roustang, François. Dire Mastery: Discipleship from Freud to Lacan. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Segal, Hanna. “A Kleinian Approach to Aesthetics.” Phillips and Stonebridge, eds. 203-221.  


[1] For the definitive document of the Controversial Discussions see Steiner and King, The Freud-Klein Controversies. 

[2] Among the most effective examples of critical readings of the philosophical and historical underpinnings of psychoanalysis would be the following: François Roustang, Dire Mastery: Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject; and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan. These notable examples are each readings of either Freud or Lacan.

[3]  Here a long list of admired writers would include Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Samuel Weber and Slavoj Zizek.  A number of readings of Klein can be found collected in Phillips and Stonebridge, eds., Reading Melanie Klein.