Peter-Christian Miest & Julia Besch-Cornelius: The Oxford millenium conference. Changing times - changing relations. A personal view from Switzerland.

This excellently organised conference, held in the beautiful historical buildings of Oxford University, proved to be one of the largest in the history of the EFPP. On paper, the abundance of topics to be presented and discussed in plenary papers and in simultaneous afternoon sessions seemed in danger of bursting the boundaries of the special and intimate atmosphere that so many of us have come to appreciate as the unique hallmark of EFPP conferences. That this did not happen is largly thanks to the clear yet unobtrusive organisational talents of Brian Martindale and the organising committee. We cannot praise them enough for succeeding in bringing together so many speakers and participants from over 14 European countries and for making them feel quite "at home". So much so that we are convinced that we were not the only ones who left Oxford nurturing fanasies as to how we could arrange a sabatical year in one of the colleges.

Scientific conferences offer us a multitude of useful and pleasant moments. We can, for example, lean back a little and follow the thoughts of a well-known author, with which we are perhaps already familiar from our reading. In this way we can recognise the specific and individual approach of a given author to his subject more precisly than is possible through reading alone. When the author himself stands before us in flesh and blood and once more formulates his already printed sentences, he offers us much more than a mere repetition: on a second level of text comprehension, his physical presence enables us to speculate as to how the therapeutic dialogue in his own practice might evolve; we can ask ourselves what kinds of patients might find their way to this particular therapist, and which ones might not; we can contrast our own social and political experiences with the situation in the speaker's country, his town, his living quarter. Such reflections are exceptionally useful because they allow theoretical positions to become visible within their own specific and many-layered embediment, which at the same time puts them into perspective.

A second splendid way to profit from conferences is to visit the workshops. Here we can become acquainted with new psychotherapy projects, which are often in an unfinished state, thus enabling us to participate in the evolving creation of new hypotheses. At the same time, uncomplicated contacts can be made with colleagues working on similar projects. This is a particularly helpful way to open up the therapist's isolation in his own
consulting room and for him to dip into an inspiring, creative working atmosphere.

All of the aspects mentioned so far are true of scientific conferences in general and, of course, of the Oxford millenium conference in particular, which offered a veritable abundance of most interesting papers and workshops. As we do not feel in a position to do justice to all of these excellent papers, we have chosen to single out just one aspect of the conference - a speciality that has distinguished nearly all previous EFPP conferences. We refer to the continual reflection on the course of the conference in small discussion groups, which remain constant throughout the conference. These small groups which meet for 2 hours at the end of the big plenum papers and are limited to a maximum of 20 participants, allow for every member to take an active part. At our first encounter with such groups we feared that language problems might reduce the discussion to a superficial level - but it turned out quite differently. The mutual foreign language situation proved, on the contrary, to be a secret recipe for some of the most fruitful discussions we have experienced. When group members stammer a little and search around for a suitable translation or try to circumscribe what they wish to impart, they are no longer "at home" in their accustomed world of comprehension - and are forced to renounce all that is self-evident in their mother-tongue. This is sometimes very difficult and unpleasant, but in our experience it always leads to a deepened understanding of the phenomenon that is being discussed. And it is, of course, an important facilitating factor if the conference as a whole takes place in a warm, welcoming and non-competitive atmosphere, as was the case at Oxford. An interesting analogy can be made between this linguistic aspect of the small-group situation and the therapeutic setting itself: are we not always - patient and therapist alike - "foreign linguists", even when we are using exactly the same words as one another ?

The above mentioned linguistic aspect also has its social equivalent. Small-group participants often speak about their nominally identical work as psychoanalytic psychotherapists, but they refer, of course, to basic provisions which are quite different in any individual country. Both of us continue to be amazed at the diversity of therapeutic contexts that can be met within these groups. They force us to peel the psychoanalytical content out of the diverse packages in which it is presented. This can be laborious and uncomfortable, for we psychoanalytical psychotherapists have all to some extent settled ourselves into a particular socio-economical and political context which serves us as a frame of reference for our work. This is particularly the case for our professional-political situation with it's often very rigid hierarchical structures. As two psychotherapists working in one of Europe's smallest countries we are very aware that our professional development takes place in a small chamber-like landscape within which one soon comes up against fences. When we have the opportunity to work in an international group, certain inhibitions and hidden rules can fall by the wayside. This brings a gust of fresh air for everyone involved. Having participated for several years in sometimes quite vehement arguments about psychotherapy policies in our own country, Switzerland, it has been salutary and disturbing at the same time, for example, to discover that what we have come to regard to be severly limited psychotherapy facilities in our country, seem to be positively luxurious in the eyes of many of our European colleagues. Such experiences have forced us to reconsider our own inner catalogues of psychoanalytical "essentials" and to appreciate anew our privileged position within the European family of psychoanalytic psychotherapists. At the same time they have enhanced our admiration for young pioneering colleagues, establishing psychoanalytic psychotherapy facilities for the first time in post-iron-curtain countries.

We would like to thank Brian Martindale and the organising committee for continuing the tradition of small-group discussions, which certainly made a major contribution to our enjoyment of the Oxford conference. Furthermore, this was the place where it was possible to assimilate such a diversity of topics and - at least to some extent - to begin to form a picture of the changing times we are working in at the change of the millenium. We take this opportunity to urge future organisers of conferences yet to come, to preserve the costly achievments of this work in small groups. Here the EFPP has a structure at its disposal that appears to be so modest and yet is of such inestimable value.


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last modified: 2001-07-25