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Publications: Book Reviews
Review of Forms of Knowledge: A Psychoanalytic Study of Human Communication

Title: Forms of Knowledge: A Psychoanalytic Study of Human Communication
Author: Aragno, Anna
Publisher: Publish America
Reviewed By: Montana Katz, XXIX, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 53-55

Anna Aragno, in Forms of Knowledge, addresses core issues that confront psychoanalysis and practicing analysts today. She notes that the fragmentation of the field into diverse perspectives, the lack of an overarching metatheory, as well as a lack of a unified treatment theory, call for a new way of conceptualizing psychoanalysis. In Forms of Knowledge, Aragno takes on this challenge, and more. The book comprises an impressive attempt to reorient the field. In the work, Aragno has devised a creative, interesting and highly contemporary approach. The model put forth in the book is intended to be a conceptually different foundation for psychoanalysis, one that will affect a paradigm shift in treatment models towards a unified psychoanalytic perspective.


Aragno brings philosophy and some aspects of philosophical method to bear on the construction of a comprehensive framework or model of human communication. This construction is the principal focus and goal of the book. Aragno draws upon pertinent work in philosophy, particularly from epistemology and philosophy of language, linguistics, psychology and critical theory. In grounding a metatheoretical model in forms of communication themselves rather than in their myriad motivations or consequences, Aragno departs from traditional psychoanalytic theory construction and places the means of psychoanalysis at the forefront. This approach affords a new vocabulary with which to revisit classic as well as contemporary questions in psychoanalysis.


The central discussion in Forms of Knowledge is to build the model of modes of communication, explain both new concepts and rework existing psychoanalytic concepts to ground psychoanalytic theory and practice in a wholly psychoanalytic foundation. From that vantage point, a further proposed goal of the model is to be able to make use of and engage in interdisciplinary dialogue. It is suggested in Forms of Knowledge that the model resolves debates between different psychoanalytic perspectives. The perspectives explicitly discussed in the book are the classical and relational perspectives. The model in virtue of its specific developmental format is said to eradicate Cartesian dualism and integrate biology into psychoanalysis at the foundation. Further, the model attempts to provide a theory of affect and nonverbal communication generally as well as a theory of knowledge and learning.

The model of communication put forth is designed to be holistic and biopsychological. The model is represented by a chart (page 168) which includes six progressive communicative modes from signals through ideo-motor replication to signs and symbols ultimately to psychoanalytic and supervisory communication. Communication is understood broadly to include as many facets of transmission of information from one person to another as possible, including verbalization, tone and cadence, body language, and other intuitive unconscious transmission and reception. The underlying foundational concept is that of dialogue, and forms of interaction are articulated. On the basis of the study in Forms of Knowledge, because communication is used to ground a unified metapsychology for psychoanalytic theory and because communication is the basis of treatment, Aragno attempts to unite metatheory and treatment theory into a seamless whole. This emphasis is significant in a field in which metapsychology has been posed in opposition to multiple treatment perspectives which eschew metapsychology and some of which lack articulated theoretical models.


A subsidiary purpose embedded in the work is to model psychoanalytic and supervisory processes, exhibiting their complexity and layers. Here, the project in Forms of Knowledge is to articulate the different forms of communication, how each develops, in what context, and how different forms might intersect and overlap in structure and function with others. The discussion and the model proposed exhibit how different layers of experience of each participant can have bearing on a single aspect of a communication. The discussion of this provides an unfolding rich panorama of the intricacies of the two kinds of processes and it is of value in itself. The descriptions have the feel of vivid portrayals of psychoanalytic and supervisory processes and offer much for analysts, supervisors and supervisees to productively ponder about analytic work.


In Aragno’s model, communication begins through affect, taken to be a biological signal system. Through interaction with the environment and the development of sensori- and ideo-motor systems and language acquisition, an individual can progress from signal to sign to symbolic modes of communication. In the chapters that discuss this progression, Aragno relies and builds upon the work of Vygotsky, Piaget, Langer and others. The path of development is taken to radiate into and from the whole person. While bodily or psychical processes may be to an extent isolable, Aragno builds an argument that meaning is developed and expressed by the entire organism, through multiple and simultaneous paths. An emphasis in this book is a study of the kinds of human interaction and their vicissitudes throughout the life cycle. Communication is by its nature interactive, and interaction is considered antecedent in Forms of Knowledge to relationship. It is out of interaction that an individual learns, creates and processes meaning. And, in interaction, it is whole persons that participate. Moreover, meaning is proposed to be, at its essence, co-created.


As a result of the study of forms of communication an explanation is provided of how psychoanalytic interaction within a psychoanalytic process creates change for analysands. Further, on this basis, there is a discussion concerning how psychoanalytic education and learning can proceed. The emphasis here is on supervision as at the core of psychoanalytic education. Transcripts of sessions could not, in this model, convey what occurred and could not begin to communicate the meanings that were developed. Thus, Aragno stresses that optimal conditions for psychoanalytic education include supervision in which as much of the totality of the therapeutic setting and sessions is discussed between supervisor and supervisee. This, for Aragno, crucially involves attention to and emphasis on parallel processes in addition to the supervisee’s narrative description of sessions.


Much of the contents of the book do not present new or original research and thought. Rather, formulations of others concerning development, therapeutic action, metapsychology and other broad categories are presented in this book. It is a strength of the book that Aragno carefully synthesizes a vast amount of previous thought and research and puts it to use in proposing an organized theoretical framework that is genuinely psychoanalytic. In laying out both an overview of discussions of development and facets of expression, communication, understanding, and change, Aragno has assembled and created a valuable text for displaying the nature of analytic work. Practicing analysts may benefit from working through the text as a means of evaluating their operating theoretical principles as well as their technique. Students and beginning analysts have much to gain from taking in this aspect of the book as a way of introducing in vivid description analytic and supervisory processes.


The enormous undertaking in the book raises interesting questions well worth more discussion each in their own right than can be accomplished in this review. There are two sets of issues raised, those concerning the details of the model and propositions put forth and those concerning an overview of the project. Three crucial examples of the former, each pivotal in the discussion in the book, are: the problem of the existence of and locating the point at which meaning and psyche are created out of soma, the assertion that meaning is wholly co-created, and, whether a model grounded in a developmental conception of communication is substantially distinct from relational perspectives and is also compatible with or can supersede classical perspectives.


The first of these must be addressed by any framework that begins with the body and posits the development of mind there from. That is, whether holism and biologism can be made to be compatible and whether Cartesian dualism is eradicated in this work. One of several forms that this takes in the book is the assertion that affects constitute the beginning of communicative operations and are purely bodily. This position leads, then, to the difficulty of explaining how from these beginnings, meanings accrue and mind comes in to being. If, as is claimed in Forms of Knowledge, all data including sense data are registered by means of interpretation, in other words, mind, then this in turn must be derived initially from the body.


The proposal is that interpretive systems arise in a developmental progression from interaction. Interaction begins bodily with affective expression and reception. This sort of formulation of beginning from the body seems to inevitably lead to the dualism that Aragno eschews and appears to be, at its core, anti-holistic. There are leaps involved in the claim that interaction yields meaning. For example, interaction involves at least a dyad. One gap in the discussion lies in the implied proposition that dyadic interaction gives rise to intrapsychic meaning, and gives rise to not only the development of the individual but the individual itself. Pertinent to this is that it may be that in Forms of Knowledge there is a conflation of affect as communication and the experience of affect. While the former is accounted for in Forms of Knowledge, the latter is not. Filling in this lack would move in the direction of an explicit derivation of the intrapsychic. A holistic account would need to posit an organism that encompasses some forms of meaning and mind from the outset.


The second issue, concerning a crucial proposition of the book, that meaning is co-created, is not discussed as fully as it might need to be in the book. The content of this assertion is intended as distinct from a form of the relational perspective and is, rather, to be a component of the proposed model as a new paradigm. While a relational perspective might extract meanings and persons out of relational fields, here, the emphasis is on meaning arising from total, whole person communication. While the vocabulary is different, it is not clear whether there is a fundamental difference. More generally, it is not clear whether the proposed model is in its implications significantly different from a relational model. The model in Forms of Knowledge may not ultimately constitute a distinct position; yet, the shift in focus to communication supplies another way of approaching psychoanalytic questions. Specifically in its relevance to understanding psychoanalytic and supervisory processes, the emphasis on systematically discerning the modes of unconscious communication may well be more illuminating for the purposes of psychoanalytic education than emphases on relationship.


These considerations lead to the third open question, whether what is proposed in Forms of Knowledge offers a new paradigm for psychoanalysis, one that lifts the debate out of the controversy between classical and relational perspectives. Setting aside the issue that there are other psychoanalytic perspectives distinct from the two mentioned in the book, the question is whether a model grounded in a conception of communication could accomplish this. Part of the assertion in the book is that in shifting the focus from persons to forms of communication, the paradigm shift is accomplished. This, again, may depend on how the concept of a person and the intrapsychic are explained in this model.


Questions that are raised for the general proposal in the book are many, most of which requiring extensive discussion. A few questions that arise readily are, first, how a model of communication is also a model of knowledge, learning, and a general theory of mind. This set of questions also hinges on how the intrapsychic is characterized in the model in addition to specifying what is sought in the broad categories of knowledge, learning, education and mind. Second, whether a model of communication is also, in itself, a treatment model. While a model of communication is a promising base, there is more to a treatment theory model beyond such a base. A third question is what it means to fuse clinical considerations and theory into the model of forms of communication. And, finally, whether in fact the base concept of dialogue in this model does eliminate the debate between classical and relational models of psychoanalysis or whether the combination of biological and dialogical bases is an attempt to incorporate both. For the former, it would need to be shown in more detail how the proposed model either retains, refashions or obviates concepts and principles of the classical and relational perspectives. In the latter alternative, consistency may be an issue.


While these questions are not addressed in the book in as much detail as may be required to convince, it is a strength of the book that these important questions for psychoanalytic thought arise directly from it. It is useful to return to the dual focus of the book, one metatheoretic model building and the other modelings of psychoanalytic processes themselves. A model based in communication could be highly useful in the latter. In order to assess the larger and former question, more work would need to be done, spelling out precisely how the framework can accommodate the aspects and conceptions of the classical and relational perspectives that are to be retained and how the structure accomplishes the goals of a metatheory.

            No attempt of this nature could realistically be put into simple, succinct language that is clear and transparent to follow at every step. Nevertheless, this book is unduly difficult to read. There is much language and frequent repetition that could have been pared. While this does not subtract from the content of the book, it undermines the ability of the reader. Editorial changes would have yielded a more powerful book. I would encourage candidates especially to persevere in their reading of the book. It displays the nature of and offers valuable insight into psychoanalytic process.


Montana Katz

New York, NY 10012

[email protected]

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