Response to Kernberg’s 1978 “Structural Derivatives of Object Relations” (2013)

           This is quite an ambitious paper in which Kernberg, seeking to explain some of the most salient features of the borderline pathology, articulates a structural theory that integrates object relations and drive theory.  He begins by focusing on a borderline feature in which patients exhibit a kind of defensive “compartmentalization,” a disjunctive separation of affective states from actions and situations.  From this continuity of psychic states, Kernberg then references Freud’s late (1938) paper “Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence,” which posits splitting as perhaps one of the primary defensive processes.   He explains splitting as an early developmental process in which an individual protects oneself from anxiety by separating affective states.  Kernberg articulates a scheme of a hierarchy of processes of internalization (not dissimilar to Loewald’s) and integrates this with a notion of drive derivatives.  As internalized objects are introjected through the thrust of the drives, formerly compartmentalized objects become integrated with their affective states through a kind of metabolic process. Through this process, an individual moves developmentally from splitting towards repression as a primary defensive scheme.  Early environmental disruptions in a child can inhibit this process of integration and metabolism which can result in the individual relying on splitting rather than repression in adulthood.

          I find the theoretical territory in which Kernberg is working in this paper quite fascinating.  He is working to articulate a structure for a character organization that lies in between psychosis and its foreclosure (verwerfung) and neurosis and its repression (verdrängung).  The primary defense in this scheme is splitting which keeps introjected objects, related affected states and situational anxieties separate.  Splitting functions as a primitive global defense that inhibits the structural integration of objects into the ego.  It also could seem to serve as a defense against the integration of disruptive perceptive data with the primary process hallucinatory wish-fulfilling function of the pleasure principle.  In Freud’s 1938 essay, he speaks of a patient with a sexual fetish involving an athletic belt.  When the belt was worn, the subject could not recognize the genitalia of its wearer and thus alternated between the contrasting anatomical fantasies of penis/ lack of penis.  Thus, splitting becomes the primary perverse defense of disavowal (verleugnung), in which the patient uses a defensive split to protect him from his perception and perhaps the traumatic qualities involved in registering and integrating its object properties in his ego.  In Lacan’s diagnostic system, disavowal is the fundamental defense of perversion.  I believe that Freud’s paper points towards the similarity in disintegrative tendencies in disavowal (hallucinatory repudiation of perception) and compartmentalization (separation of objects and their affective states) in splitting.  Kernberg very rigorously articulates how the drives manifest themselves in object relations by consolidating and confirming a consistent “world of objects.”  He gives a solid explanation for the developmental pathology and clinically illustrates how splitting manifests itself in the transference.