Dismantling

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The term dismantling, introduced by Donald Meltzer, refers to a very primitive defense mechanism involving dissociation of the perceptual apparatus "by a passive process that allows the various senses, specific and general, internal and external, to attach to whatever object is most stimulating at the moment" (Meltzer, 1975/1991)—for example, a light, a sound, or an odor.

Meltzer used this term for the first time in a paper delivered at a meeting of the British Psychoanalytical Society in June 1969, "The Origins of the Fetishistic Plaything of Sexual Perversions" later published in his second book, Sexual States of Mind (1973, pp. 107-113). He took the idea of the dismantled object from the psychoanalytic treatment of children who had suffered from early infantile autism. He defines dismantling as "the most primitive working of obsessional mechanisms" (p. 108). Unlike the splitting processes described by Melanie Klein, which make use of the sadistic drives, dismantling, which is reversible at any time, instead relies on a relaxation of the attention function.

The author invented this term with reference to the notion of "consensual validation" defined by Harry Stack Sullivan, which is very close to Wilfred R. Bion's idea of the "common sense." Meltzer's proposed idea involves a dissolution of such constructions, leading to the creation of a multitude of unisensory objects. He emphasizes that the implementation of such a defense mechanism suppresses genuine relational experiences and thus their introjection. In the first publication, he hypothesizes that dismantling is also seen in sexual perversions where the exciting objects (fetishes) are "dismantled objects" used in their purely sensorial aspect.

The notion of dismantling is then taken up in greater detail in Meltzer's 1975 book Explorations in Autism, where he shows the massive use of this defense mechanism in autism proper, explaining the stereotypes of sensory autostimulation under the influence of the repetition compulsion. He demonstrates a more complex use of this phenomenon in postautistic obsessionality and in obsessional states in general. Meltzer argues that dismantling, which is beyond consensuality or within its dissolution, does not belong to the spectrum of projective identification but rather belongs within the notion of "adhesive identity" positing a two-dimensional space, proposed by Esther Bick (1975).

Some French authors (J. Bégoin, 1994; D. Ribas, 1994; D. Maldavsky, 1995) have compared dismantling to decathexis in the Freudian sense, and it is indeed possible to do so: The former can be considered as a very primitive form of the latter. Dismantling also seems to be at work in the self-soothing behaviors described by Claude Smadja (1993) and Gérard Szwec (1993). These authors compare this mechanism with the abnormal, destructive primary masochism that Benno Rosenberg (1991) describes as "centered around excitement in and of itself . . . and the gradual abandonment of the object." Frances Tustin also shares this view in Autistic States in Children (1981), in which is described an autosensuality, differentiated from autoerotism, in autistic maneuvers and its exacerbation into self-directed sadism in certain cases.

GENEVIÈVE HAAG

See also: Autism; Autistic defenses.