The concept of alloplastic adaptation was developed by Sigmund Freud, Sandor Ferenczi and Franz Alexander. They proposed that when an individual was presented with a stressful situation, he could react in one of two ways:
- Autoplastic adaptation: The subject tries to change himself, i.e. the internal environment.
- Alloplastic adaptation: The subject tries to change the situation, i.e. the external environment.
March 21, 1994
3801 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Suzanne M,. Pitts, MD
Dept. of Psychiatry
GW Univ. Medical Center
2150 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Dear Dr. Pitts:
This letter reports on an instance of apparent transformation of specific affects into specific ideations. It is hoped that this letter will clarify the none-too-obvious affects that underlie certain of my fantasies/intellectualizations.
Keep in mind that the following observations record a train of unconsciously-determined associations and therefore follow the loose logic appropriate to dream analysis rather than the precise logic of Aristotelian argumentation.
In the period after our session on Thursday March 17, 1994 at which the affects of rage and aggression (and perhaps despair) played a prominent role, I began to have a train of thought. One would expect that the above-referenced affects, if transformed into intellectualizations, would appear as thoughts of revenge and murderous aggression or the opposite, thoughts of suicide (accompanied by depression)--the affect of rage being very much on the surface. It is significant, therefore, that my train of thoughts centered manifestly on concerns relating to adaptation, with the underlying affects of rage and despair not immediately apparent. (One wonders whether and to what degree feelings of rage lay at the base of the drive to change and reform the environment seen among idealistic political figures. At a fundamental level there seems to be a relationship between (1) the actions of the disgruntled and mentally disturbed employee who in a fit of revenge guns down his colleagues and superiors, then kills himself (certainly a kind of simultaneous alloplasty/autoplasty) and the (2) actions of the reformer bent on a program of political change. In the case of Wagner, for example, one wonders what possible profound (non-Oedipal) childhood disappointment and rage might lay at the root of the following program of political action: “He was hurt and surprised when, despite his complaints, the king engaged too long in conferring with court officials to invite him to join the royal table. Inevitably, the visiting cabinet secretaries came into contact with Wager, and the talks he had with them sowed the seeds of a fatal temptation. He resolved on an attempt to overthrow the government. . . . Wagner [urged King] Ludwig to remodel his cabinet as if the replacement of . . . Hofmann would have achieved anything.” Gregor-Dellin, M. Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His Century, at 361-362 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1983)).
On Saturday March 19, 1994 a certain thought came to mind; the thought did not appear to be related to any particular affect or immediately previous experience. I began to think of the religious reformer Martin Luther. I was intrigued with the thought that although Luther is seen today as a world historical figure, his own contemporaries would have had a different perception of him. Luther’s contemporaries would have viewed him as simply an annoying malcontent, indistinguishable from any other annoying malcontent. I was fascinated with the thought that commonplace interpersonal difficulties might be seen differently from the vantage point of a different historical perspective following the occurrence of certain supervening events: that Luther’s interpersonal difficulties, seemingly commonplace, have taken on a mythical quality in retrospect and are interpreted as an intrinsic part of Luther’s program of historical change.
My thoughts then shifted to my relationship with you: the conflicts, the arguments concerning your competence, the issues of incompatibility. It occurred to me that, as in the case of Luther, what appears to be commonplace interpersonal conflict, might be a component of a wider environmental conflict and, indeed, might involve ultimately the issue of adaptation to that wider environment.
The issue of adaptation recurs frequently in my disagreements with you. The conflict over the issue of medication can be interpreted as a conflict over the issue of adaptation. Thus, our disagreements concerning your recommendation that I take medication can be interpreted as a conflict between your autoplastic aims for me 1/ and my alloplastic aims vis-à-vis my own wider environment that encompasses persons at my former place of employment. Your autoplastic aim for me is encapsulated in your statement: "The change must come from you. I can’t change your environment.”
I then thought of the following intriguing insight. Although your express statements indicate your program of autoplastic change for me, certain of your actions have unintentionally promoted my own alloplastic aims. For example, I have used facts that have arisen in my relationship with you to form the basis of a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice relating to my former employer’s violations of my civil rights under the federal statute 42 U.S.C. section 1983.
Thus, the following paradox appeared to me for the first time. I expressly state my alloplastic aims--that the environment must change. I reject a therapeutic program that involves autoplastic change only. You, on the other hand expressly state an autoplastic program for me and reject an alloplastic program. However, your actions have, in fact, unintentionally promoted my alloplastic aims Your very incompetence (about which I repeatedly complain) has, paradoxically, tended to promote the alloplastic aims of which I despair of achieving and which you reject as undoable. Your very incompetence allows you to do the impossible: you are helping me change the environment. (The same dynamic arises in my relationship with Dennis Race. If I had been terminated by a competent attorney in a competent manner, the later-developed opportunities for alloplastic change would have been severely narrowed. Dennis Race’s incompetence (the very incompetence about which I complain!) has provided me the opportunity to --speaking metaphorically -- “get rid of Hofmann,” i.e., to change the environment. At my meeting with Dennis Race and Malcolm Lassman on October 24, 1991 at which I presented my complaint of harassment Dennis Race made a statement that now seems uncanny, He said, “We can’t fire everybody” (implication: “So, I’ll just fire you.”) How eerily similar is you own (incorrect) assessment of your alloplastic limitations: “I can’t change your environment” (implication “So, I’ll just medicate you”). And how eerily similar has been the outcome; both you and Dennis Race have far more ability to change my environment, albeit unintentionally through your incompetence, than you know.)
One wonders to what Martin Luther’s seemingly commonplace interpersonal conflicts (conflicts that were a source of pain to Luther actually promoted his opportunities for alloplasty (and were a necessary ingredient of world historical change).
My thoughts then turned to Dr Palombo. Dr. Palombo possesses a high level of competence and expertise and, sure enough, my opportunities for alloplasty were severely limited with him. During the entire year I saw Dr. Palombo in consultation, he did not provide the basis of a section 1983 complaint (literally or figuratively). Although my relationship with Dr. Palombo was satisfying for me emotionally, the then unperceived drawback in my relationship with him was that he did not provide any opportunities for alloplastic change. If one may be permitted a teleological observation in passing, it was as if Dr. Palombo had said to me on Friday October 2, 1992 (the consultation initiated by Dr. Cuenco): “Go to GW, young man. The experience will be hellish, but in the end you will thank me--they will help you change the environment. I can do nothing for you in than regard; my level of competence is far too high.”
My thoughts then turned to Israel. (“I knew he was Jewish--he’s too fine a doctor not to be a Jewish doctor!”) I think of the fact that it was the Nazis who, paradoxically and unintentionally, promoted the Zionists’ program of alloplastic change. The Second World War contributed to the foundation of the state of Israel.
I then think of the following anecdote from Freud’s final year, in England. The photographer Edmund Engelmann reports: “The Maresfield Gardens house [in London] was beautiful, with a large wrought iron door that opened into a lush garden. Paula, still a friendly, vivacious woman, was glad to see me. She took me around and told me how happy Freud had been in this house. He would jokingly repeat a Nazi slogan--”Wir danken unserem Fuehrer” (“We thank our Fuehrer”)--for being forced to flee Austria and find peace in this beautiful setting. . . . This was where he died.” Engelmann, E. A Memoir. In Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud’s Home and Office, Vienna 1938-The Photographs of Edmund Engelmann, at 143 (The University of Chicago Press: 1976) (Introduction by Peter Gay).
Perhaps not unrelated to Freud’s oral cancer my thoughts then turn to my early oral injury and the fact that but for my injury, I would not have had the opportunity to gorge on ice cream (like a holocaust survivor in Israel, like the exiled Freud in England, like the disgruntled employee provided with a section 1983 complaint on a silver platter).
This paper has focused on the transformation of the affects of rage and despair into their none-too-obvious intellectualized form: fantasies centering on the issue of adaptation, specifically my alloplastic aims and my opportunistic use of defects in others' adaptive programs to further my own alloplastic aims.
1/ It is interesting to observe, incidentally, that your autoplastic aim for me (that it is I and not my environment that can or needs to be changed) necessarily entails your own alloplastic aims for yourself. In changing me by means of medication, you change your environment of which I am a part. Thus, viewed from this perspective our conflict is not one of my "impractical" alloplastic aims for myself versus your "practical and selfless" autoplastic aims for me, but rather my alloplastic aims versus your own alloplastic aim for yourself (namely, your desire to change that portion of your environment that involves me). Further, your seemingly purely pragmatic observation that you cannot change my environment can also be interpreted another way: it is not a pragmatic concern regarding the feasibility of changing my environment that motivates your statement; rather it is that my wider environment is simply irrelevant to your own program of alloplastic change for yourself (which calls for autoplastic change in me). Keep in mind that one man's autoplasty can be another man's alloplasty.