A Day with Donnel Stern

For the 23rd Annual Lecture held on Saturday May 22nd, NCSPP welcomed Donnel B. Stern, one of the leading minds of relational and interpersonal psychoanalysis. In his lively and engaging presentation, Dr. Stern began by providing a view from a height," discussing how the major themes of his work developed during the past 30 years. He illustrated his conceptual model with clinical material, describing his reformulated views of dissociation, curiosity, enactment, and "unformulated experience." He firmly located his theory within the fields of ontological hermeneutics and semiotics, and explored what he believes it means to experience, perceive, and relate.

Following a break, Dr. Stern more formally presented excerpts from his newest work, Partners in Thought: Working with Unformulated Experience, Dissociation, and Enactment (Routledge, 2009). He described his understanding of how personal meaning is shaped and organized, with particular reference to his relational conception of the "witnessing" that occurs not only between patient and analyst, but between parts of one's own self. His reflections centered upon the theme of how narrative and interpretation within the inter-relational space yield affective change, thereby shaping present experience and memory, and creating new understandings.

For this lecture, NCSPP experimented with a new format -- that of interlocution as opposed to discussants commenting on the lecture. The hope was that this would stimulate a more spontaneous and alive interaction. Given the content of Stern's presentation, namely the challenges inherent in being engaged and curious, this seemed an apt moment for such experimentation. Drs. Sam Gerson and Susan Sands served as interlocutors.

While conducive to a more engaging and less stilted conversation, the interlocution's lack of formal structure also required the audience to adjust their expectations. A less structured organization certainly fosters a potential space for creativity and liveliness, but also lends itself to the risks of disorganization, misunderstandings, and uncertainty. As the format works itself out, in addressing the "snags and chafing" within the interlocution, perhaps we can draw from Stern's approach to make use of such experiences. Stern, in his 2004 article The Eye Sees Itself: Dissociation, Enactment, and the Achievement of Conflict, argues that in the face of moments that feel "inconsistent," "subtly wrong," "contradictory," or "just uncomfortable," and that "counter an affective expectation," it is the analyst's task to disentangle herself from this unusual experience by evaluating the internal changes felt at the time (p 208). It is through this quiet and self-reflective process that new perceptions can come about.

Elizabeth Bradshaw, M.Sc., M.A.
IMPULSE Staff Writer