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2nd Living Theory Conference

3rd-4th December 2022 - Online

"Feel it in Your Bones"

A Language for the Indescribable

This year we wish to focus, think and discuss together in depth. For that, we will concentrate on the recent work of Howard Levine on unconscious intra- and intersubjective processes and their interpretation. Throughout the one and half days of the conference, Howard will present three unpublished papers. These papers will be commented by Ofra Eshel, Dominique Scarfone and Carlos Farate and discussed by the audience. The three papers are:

  • On the Genesis of Interpretation in a Changing Landscape

  • A Metapsychology of the Unrepresented

  • On the Necessity of Failure

The papers are awaiting publication and will not be published by the Free Association Lisbon before the Conference. But there is a suggested reading list to lay the groundwork and catalyze associations for the discussion. You can download it here.

The Argument


There are limits to our capacity to directly know the psychic experience of ourselves and our patients:


“… no one can ever know what happens in the analytic session, the thing-in-itself, O; we can only speak of what the analyst or patient feels happens, know what the participants say happens, or the emotional state engendered by the verbalization of analyst or patient in the listener.” (Bion 1965, p. 33).*


Psychic reality, which was once believed to be exactly and fully ‘knowable’ via empirical observation is now recognized to be only ‘represented’ or indicated – i.e., partially intuited and constructed - by unconscious intra- and intersubjective processes and it is these processes that partially determine the terms which representations assume when they are given shape.


But even in that approach, our ability to talk about psychic life and functioning with patients and colleagues is limited by the constraints and obscurity of the very language that we are of necessity forced to use. The nature of language and communication is such that even in the best of circumstances, words can only approximate and indicate that which needs to be communicated. Speech itself, whether that of the patient or the analyst may be used in the service of communication or evacuation; to attempt to evade frustration (Pleasure Principle) or to recognize, modify and thereby deal with frustration (Reality Principle). At every moment in the consulting room, “The choice that matters to the psycho-analyst is one that lies between procedures designed to evade frustration and those designed to modify it. That is the critical decision. (Bion 1962, p. 29, original italics).

Freud (1920, 1924) implied and Bion (1962, 1965, 1970) described at length that initial sensations were “senseless” in that they were devoid of intrinsic meaning. Meaning is only assigned to sensations and facts after they undergo a transformation that allows for notation, psychical storage and retrieval. I have emphasized the disparity and slippage, the inevitable gap, between what is sensuously felt and what can be known, as one moves from the thing-in-itself, mental space, raw, existential Experience** (O), to what can be known of that experience, (K); and, again, as that knowable part, what we colloquially call ‘experience’ written with a small e, is spoken of – as we attempt to put the knowable part of our perceptions, thoughts and feelings into words - and perhaps too, even as we attempt to think about them (Levine 2017, 2022).***


In this gradient or trajectory from raw existential Experience, to not-yet articulated thought to that portion of thought that can be verbalized, at each point of transition, an unknowable, untransformable residue remains left behind, unrepresented and unrepresentable.****


Both Freud (1923, 1933, 1940) and Bion (1962,1965) were following in the tradition of Kant, who believed that “human cognition is a matter of how our peculiar capacities as epistemic subjects actively ‘form’, and in that sense, constitute the world we seek to gain knowledge about.” (Stanicke et al, 2020, p. 289). We “can only approach truth about reality; we can never fully reach it.” (Stanicke et al, 2020, p. 283, original italics).


Freud (1923, 1933, 1940) considered the cathexes of the id to be sensorial disturbances, psychic and pre- or proto-psychic turbulences and forces, that had not yet achieved a level of organization and a degree of development that would allow us to say that they possessed final and enduring ideational structure, signification and meaning. Bion (1962, 1965, 1970) extended Freud’s argument asserting that the raw, initial data of perception also consisted of unrepresented, non-ideational sensorial disturbances that arose as a result of our being in the world. Bion (1962) categorized all these sensations, including the emotions, as beta elements and described how they needed to be worked upon and transformed by the psyche (alpha function) if they were to be stored and used to think with and think about.***** He noted that this transformational process is always only partial and tends to place a subjective and contextual stamp on the resulting ideational product. What we commonly discern and then talk about as small experience is always a partial derivative of the actual thing-in-itself. This perspective challenges theories that would have us assume that what we feel we discover or observe has an identical correspondence to that which is there in the external world or in psychic reality and is relevant to our understanding of the status (truth value) of the content of our interpretations, to constructions and to certain dimensions of the interpretive process itself.


Freud’s first topography allowed analysts to assume that there was intention, motivation and significant, already formed, hidden and unconscious sense and meaning in hysterical symptoms, obsessive thoughts, compulsive acts and paranoid suspicions and that these could be discovered and interpreted to the patient. This assumption rested upon a model of the mind organized around representations: that is, specific ideational elements (wishes, desires, perceptions, fears and fantasies) that are saturated in regard to meaning, capable of being more or less fully described in words, that possess potential symbolic value and are able to be strung together in the patient’s discourse to form chains of signifying associations. This theory has proven – and continues to be – of enormous value in guiding the understanding and classical treatment of neurosis and the neurotic sectors of the mind.


However, Freud’s deepening clinical experience – with problems presented by narcissism, trauma, unconscious guilt, negative therapeutic reactions and the various phenomena that he would categorize as lying “beyond the pleasure principle” (Freud, 1920) – led him to hypothesize the death instinct and propose his second topography, the so-called Structural Theory (Freud, 1923).

According to Green (2005), Freud’s theoretical shift marked a change from a theory centered on psychic contents (ideational representations) to a theory about process and the movements needed to tame the unstructured, not yet represented aspects of the drive – that is, emotion, impulse and somatic discharge – within the psychic apparatus. Consequently, in addition to facilitating the uncovering and recognition of already formed, hidden elements, interpretive attention now had to be drawn to creating and strengthening psychic capacities by binding, containing and transforming previously unrepresented forces and turbulence so as to create meanings and support the very psychic processes through which meaning can be made.


Green’s view, which was influenced by his contact with Winnicott and Bion, as well as his own clinical experience, is consistent with that of Freud (1933), who described the Id as:


“… the dark, inaccessible part of our personality” (p. 73).


Freud (1933) said:


“We approach the id with analogies: we call it chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…. It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle…. Instinctual cathexes seeking discharge – that, in our view, is all there is in the id.” (pp. 73-74).


Freud (1933) then added that the quality of the cathexes of the id differ so completely from those of the ego that we cannot speak of or expect to find in the Id “what in the ego we should call an idea” (p.75).

Following the implications of Freud’s second topography, we can see that the capacity to create psychic representations is a developmental achievement rather than a given (Levine 2017, 2022). The absence, weakness or failure to develop this capacity leaves one at the mercy of “psychic voids” (Green, 2005), “unrepresented states” (Levine et al. 2013, Levine 2022) and the turbulence and sensorial overloads that reflect traumatic disruptions of psychic processing and development that have come to be associated with the more pathological pole of Green’s (1999) “work of the negative.” The clinical phenomena associated with these more disruptive forces of the unrepresented and unrepresentable challenge “the fundamental credo of psychoanalysis that psychological states are full of meaning” (Alvarez, 2019, p. 867) and imply that in many important instances, meaning is something that is yet to be created rather than uncovered or discovered.

Howard Levine, 2022


* In Bion’s Supervisions (e.g., Junqueira de Mattos et al 2017) he often said that the analyst could not know what was true; the only thing the analyst could know for sure was what the analyst believed was true.


** I will use the convention of using the capital E to talk about raw existential Experience, which by definition cannot be fully known, but may only ‘be’ or ‘become’ and use the small e to refer to that part of Experience (everyday experience) that can come to be known.

*** Like Freud (see Stanicke et al, 2020), Bion‘s epistemological reasoning rests within the Western philosophical tradition of thinkers such as Kant and Hume.

**** For further discussion, see Levine 2017, 2022 and what I have called the Fundamental Epistemological Position.

***** See Levine 2017, 2022 for an extended discussion.

The Speakers

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Ofra Eshel is a training and supervising analyst and faculty member of the Israel Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and member of IPA. Honorary member of the New Center for Psychoanalysis (NCP), Los Angeles; former vice-president of the International Winnicott Association. Founder and head of the post-graduate track “Independent Psychoanalysis: Radical Breakthroughs” at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University. She received the Leonard J. Comess Fund grant at the New Center for Psychoanalysis (Los Angeles, 2011), the David Hammond grant at the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis (Boston, 2016), was a visiting scholar at the Psychoanalytic Institute of North California (San Francisco, 2013), visiting lecturer and supervisor at the advanced International training program in Winnicott’s psychoanalysis (Beijing, China, 2018), the lecturer of the Psychoanalytic Center of California's 8th Annual Wilfred Bion Conference (Los Angeles, 2018), and was the Robert Stoller Lecture speaker (Los Angeles, 2021). She was awarded the 2013 Frances Tustin International Memorial Prize, the 2017 Symonds Prize, and the 2022 Leonard J. Comess Award. She is co-editor of Was It or Was It Not? When Shadows of Sexual Abuse Emerge in Psychoanalytic Treatment (Carmel, 2017), and author of The Emergence of Analytic Oneness: Into the Heart of Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2019).

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Carlos Farate is a psychiatrist, training and supervising analyst of the Portuguese Psychoanalytic Society, researcher and faculty member of Instituto Superior Miguel Torga and the School of Medicine and Biomedical Silencies of the University of Porto. He participates in national and international research projects, he is a research fellow of the International Psychoanalitical Association. He has a large number books and of publications in national and international journals.




Howard Levine is a member of APSA, PINE, the Contemporary Freudian Society, on the faculty of the NYU Post-Doc Contemporary Freudian track, on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Inquiry, editor-in-chief of the Routledge Wilfred Bion Studies Book Series, and in private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has authored many articles, book chapters, and reviews on psychoanalytic process and technique and the treatment of primitive personality disorders. His co-edited books include On Freud's Screen Memories (Karnac, 2014); The Wilfred Bion Tradition (Karnac, 2016); André Green Revisited: Representation and the Work of the Negative (Karnac, 2018); Psychoanalysis and Covidian Life (Ithaque, Phoenix Publishing House, Bucher, 2021). He is the author of Transformations de l'irreprésentable (Ithaque, 2019) and Affect, Representation and Language: Between the Silence and the Cry (Routledge, 2022).




Dominique Scarfone, M.D. is honorary professor at the Université de Montréal, member emeritus of the Société Psychanalytique de Montréal and honorary member of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society. He taught psychoanalytic theory for more than 30 years in the university. He recently retired from his practice as supervising analyst in the Institut psychanalytique de Montréal (French branch of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Institute). A former associate editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, he published extensively, contributing numerous  book chapters and more that 70 original papers in peer reviewed journals internationally.

Books published in English:

•The Unpast-The Actual Unconscious, (New York by The Unconscious in Translation);

•Laplanche-An Introduction, (New York by The Unconscious in Translation);

•A forthcoming book bears the title: The reality of the Message (also inNew York, The Unconscious in Translation) and should be out in a few months.

• Coedited Unrepresented States and the Construction of Meaning, with Howard Levine and Gail Reed (Routledge).



Lisbon Time, Portugal


Saturday, December 3rd

14.00 - 14.10 - Opening

14.10 - 15.10 - On the Genesis of Interpretation in a Changing Landscape by Howard Levine


15.10 -15.50 - Commentary by Ofra Eshel

15.50 - 16.30 - General Discussion

16.30 - 17.00 Break


17.00 - 18.00 - A Metapsychology of the Unrepresented by Howard Levine


18.00 - 18.40 - Commentary by Dominique Scarfone

18.40 - 19.20 - General Discussion

19.20 - 19.30 - Closing the day

20.30 - Dinner at Ramiro

Sunday, December 4th


14.00 - 15.00 - On The Necessity of Failure by Howard Levine


15.00 -15.40 - Commentary by Carlos Farate

15.40 - 16.20 - General Discussion

16.20 - 16.30 - Closing

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