Tag Archives: primitivism

Psychoanalysis, primitivism and reality testing

I realize it is meaningless to harp on the failures of past authors, but I was still struck by this very blithe statement from a psychoanalytic scholar in 1970, in a paper on “The Concept of Reality Testing.” I suppose I usually think of the 1970s as the beginnings of our intellectual present, rather than as a past epoch. And yet:

Werner (1948) showed how mental development proceeds from syncretic (non-differentiated), diffuse, indefinite, rigid and labile to more discrete, articulated, definite, flexible, and stable functioning. In primitive mental functioning (where Werner convincingly demonstrated formal parallels among higher animals, human children, primitive peoples, and schizophrenic and brain-damaged human adults) objects in the external environment are not apprehended as things with separate, fixed characteristics. Rather, objects tend to be understood in relation to their emotional and motor connection with the perceiver, animistic qualities are often imputed to inanimate objects, and there is an inability to distinguish separate parts, or to discriminate between essential and non-essential characteristics.

I was reading the paper in question because I’ve been thinking about whether the notion of “reality testing” can be analytically useful. In particular, I’ve wondered whether it could apply to moments where people aggressively press the boundaries of institutional reality, to the point where social reality itself seems to be having a breakdown. I saw numerous people in my French fieldwork complain that situations were getting “surreal,” meaning not-normatively-real, and I find it useful to see these as moments where people were testing their normative impressions of reality against their immediate situations.

But it’s demoralizing to see that psychoanalysts, who are the main theorists of reality testing, have also used the notion to reinforce these hyperprimitivist notions of lower, savage, child-like, animalistic thought. If anything can still be made of the notion of reality testing, it would need to be cleansed of this primitivist genealogy.