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The Writings of Professor Robert M. Young

Mental Space

by Robert M. Young

 

 

| Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Bibliography |

Chapter Eight

POTENTIAL SPACE: TRANSITIONAL PHENOMENA

I wish to insert here an exposition of Winnicott's ideas about culture. It could be argued that discussion of his ideas about transitional space and transitional phenomena belong in chapter two, where I examined psychoanalytic ideas about culture. Indeed, I did include a brief discussion of his ideas there. But I want to linger longer over them in this chapter, partly because I think they are lovely and partly because I want to dwell more on the topic of chapter three - the notion of mental space itself. I find Winnicott's way of writing about these matters quite congenial for rumination: good food for thought. They are an example of what they advocate: they offer space for pondering.

I'm not sure why this is so. My Kleinian friends are scathing about them. I recall an eminent Kleinian training analyst saying, rather grumpily, 'There are no transitional phenomena, only failed primary object relationships'. I take it that he meant that the use of objects like blankets, teddy bears, a thumb or a rag are not, after all, a constructive path from near-total dependence on maternal presence, toward relative independence on the part of the infant, but that they are a sign of a developmental failure, leading to a - hopefully temporary - fetishism. There is also a philosophical issue: for Kleinians psychoanalysis is solely about internal objects. The very idea of something that is partly internal, partly external, or of a zone or third world between the internal and the external, is to them a sloppy thinking. Yet that sense of intermediateness is exactly what I feel sitting in a theatre, listening to music, reading, watching a sunset. I cannot say where my hopes, dreams and longings end and what I am taking in from the experience begins. There is a merging, a congruence, a suspension of boundaries. I am in the theatre, in my mind and in the cultural experience - all at once.

There is also a significant difference in tone and atmosphere between Winnicottian and Kleinian ideas about creativity and culture. Put simply, Winnicott treats cultural phenomena as something positive and constructive, occurring in a reparative space, mending or filling an absence or lack. Kleinians treat culture and creativity as a form of atonement, a reparation on the part of the infantile self. This reparation is an attempt to make up for the devastation caused by the phantasy attack on the mother, which is in retaliation for the sense that the mother's absence was itself an abandonment, experienced as persecution. The absence is a form of starvation, and the hunger gnaws.

One way of making the contrast stark is to say that Winnicottians learn to look after themselves, filling the space created by the mother's deliberate, loving and controlled abandonment, while reparation in the Kleinian sense is rather more like war reparations, where the infantile forces have been wilfully destructive, as we have seen in previous chapters, in particular, in the phenomena of racism and in the case of Helen Keller's satisfaction after smashing her doll, followed by an attempt to put it back together again once she had entered the realm of symbolism and culture (pp. 28-30). For a Winnicottian, cultural space is warm and loving, a fulfilment. For a Kleinian it is a move from the fragmented, persecuted, part-object world of the paranoid-schizoid position, through reparation, to the whole-object, depressive position, where responsibility and concern for others are characteristic feelings. The mood is less wholesome than relieved. For the time being, I want to place these issues in the background and explore Winnicott's ideas on their own terms. Although I am, in general, inclined toward Kleinian ideas, I find Winnicott's notions about the transitional so appealing that I want to keep them before our eyes in the hope that some sort of alliance between them will turn out to be possible.

I dare say that this brief chapter will be experienced as breaking both the flow and the mood of my argument. So be it. I know it is important, while I cannot integrate it with what I have been saying about the negative aspects of our basic natures. In the course of writing this book I have had a growing sense of having located in the psychoanalytic literature three fundamental features of human nature - psychotic anxieties, projective identification, and transitional objects and phenomena. It is tempting to call them three fundamental particles of human nature, but I wish to eschew scientistic authority, except in the loosest, metaphorical sense. If we pursue that rhetoric for a moment, I feel like the sort of scientist who has located the elements but doesn't yet know much about how the chemistry works - how they combine and interact. If we put the point more humanistically, I'm not sure how they fit into people's stories, but I am satisfied that they are basic. Moreover, I feel strongly that the way Kleinians turn their noses up at Winnicott's ideas is a mistake. Their psychology was a strong reaction to the neo-Freudian tendency to give too little weight to human destructiveness, but they left themselves with too little understanding of how and why people are constructive, loving and creative. While I was revising this book, I had an exploratory conversation with a particularly thoughtful Kleinian analyst about this, who said that reparation is simply not enough to account for all of culture. Something more - something playful and celebratory - is needed, as well. He lamented the doctrinaire unwillingness of the Kleinian establishment to make room for this idea.

I think it is fair to say that Winnicott is, at present, the most popular psychoanalyst in the world. His popular books and essays remain in print in relatively inexpensive paperbacks, while his writings for fellow-professionals are steady sellers. His broadcasts for mothers, parents, teachers are utterly accessible. The book he wrote in which he developed his original (1951) paper on transitional objects and phenomena, Playing and Reality, went through five printings between 1971 and l985.

The idea put forward in that book is the most well-known of his ideas and is extraordinarily and intuitively appealing. It is that most infants have an object that they insist on having with them for a period of months or years. It is typically a rag, a pacifier, a small blanket, favourite doll or teddy bear. In Schultz' 'Peanuts' it is called Linus' 'security blanket', and he is always trailing it behind him, just as Christopher Robin trails Winnie the Pooh bump, bump down the stairs. If this object cannot be found when the family is going out for the day, there is an instant crisis. The child can't live without it. It mustn't be washed or altered, even if it becomes threadbare. The child must be allowed to abandon it in its own time and its own way. It is not mourned; it is left behind, 'relegated to the limbo of half-forgotten things at the bottom of a chest of drawers, or at the back of the toy cupboard' (Winnicott, 1989, p. 56). I should add that the 'object' need not be a thing. It can be a song, the edge of a curtain, the mother herself, an image in the mind. However, having made this point, I shall develop the idea in terms of material objects.

My experience is that everyone, on first hearing about the concept of transitional objects, immediately recognises the phenomenon in their own and their children's experience. Winnicott moves on from this anecdotal description to make large claims. He sees it as the fundamental element of culture, the way into the worlds of play, creativity, including the arts, religion and science. The ability of a child to inhabit this realm is the sine qua non for being a member of the civilized human race. It is the rite of passage for entering the realms of symbolism and culture.

The transitional object is not the first object, but it is the first possession. This means that it is not a Kleinian internal object, which is a concept (Winnicott, 1951, pp. 231, 237) and purely a matter of the inner world (Winnicott, 1989, p. 58). It is the first 'not-me' (Davis and Wallbridge, 1981, p. 69). It stands for the breast and is a symbolic part-object (Winnicott, 1951, pp. 231, 233). The mental space it occupies is neither subjective nor objective but partakes of both (p. 231). It develops into a space 'that is intermediate between the dream and the reality, that which is called cultural life' (Winnicott, 1965, p. 150). Cultural life is the adult equivalent of transitional phenomena of infancy, wherein communication is not referred to as subjective or objective (Winnicott, 1965, p. 184).

It is this quality of cultural life as occupying a space between subjective and objective that I find particularly appealing in Winnicott's thinking. Kleinians give one a very rich inner world at the expense of the outer world and allow little or nothing in between. Similarly, in traditional epistemology one is taught to think of a line between subject and object, but - as we saw in chapter four in the case of interpersonal perception and communication - this is too simple a model. What exists between subject and object is in some sense a zone and in some sense a permeable boundary with constant traffic both ways and with objects often multiply represented.

Winnicott says that in addition to the inner world and external reality 'there is the third part of the life of a human being, a part that we cannot ignore, an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is an area which is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that it shall exist as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related' (1951, p. 230). 'This third area might turn out to be the cultural life of the individual' (1989, p. 57).

It is important that it is an area or space. It is not the sharp boundary-maintenance referred to as reality-testing. It is intermediate: 'illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion' (Ibid.). He acknowledges that 'infants and children and adults take external reality in, as clothing for their dreams, and they project themselves into external objects and people and enrich external reality by their imaginative perceptions' (1989, p. 57). But he means something more than the inner world, external reality and the commerce between them: 'But I think we really do find a third area, an area of living which corresponds to the infant's transitional phenomena and which actually derives from them. In so far as the infant has not achieved transitional phenomena I think the acceptance of symbols is deficient, and the cultural life is poverty-stricken' (ibid.).

What begins as a child's first possession widens out not only into 'that of play and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling ' and of dreaming, but also of 'fetishism, lying and stealing, the origin of loss and affectionate feeling, drug addiction, the talisman of obsessional rituals, etc.' (Davis and Wallbridge, 1981, p. 72). There is a direct development from the earliest transitional phenomena to playing, to shared playing and from this to cultural experience (p. 73). For Winnicott, this process is central to the mother's role in fostering the child's development. She must at first allow the infant the 'illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under magical control. The mother's eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion' (Winnicott, 1951, p. 238). (A Kleinian would object to the notion that the breast is ever seen as other than fully an object or part-object.)

I shall now quote at length from his original, highly evocative statement: 'It is well known that infants as soon as they are born tend to use fist, fingers, thumbs in stimulation of the oral erotogenic zone, in satisfaction of the instincts at that zone, and also in quiet union. It is also well known that after a few months infants of either sex become fond of playing with dolls, and that most mothers allow their infants some special object and expect them to become, as it were, addicted to such objects' (1951, p. 229).

'There is a wide variation to be found in sequence of events which starts within the new-born infant's fist-in-mouth activities, and that leads eventually on to an attachment to a teddy, a doll or soft toy, or to a hard toy... I have introduced the terms "transitional object" and "transitional phenomena" for designation of the intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and teddy bear, between the oral erotism and true object relationship, between primary creative activity and projection of what has already been introjected, between primary unawareness of indebtedness and the acknowledgement of indebtedness ("Say: ta!")' (pp. 229-30).

He then speaks about the development from playing with one's hands and lips to relating to part of a sheet, blanket or bit of cloth which is sucked or caressed. He continues, 'One may suppose that thinking, or fantasising, gets linked up with these functional experiences.

'All these things I am calling transitional phenomena. Also, out of all this (if we study any one infant) there may emerge some thing or some phenomenon - perhaps a bundle of wool or the corner of a blanket or eiderdown, or a word or tune, or a mannerism, which becomes vitally important to the infant for use at the time of going to sleep, and is a defence against anxiety, especially anxiety of the depressive type. Perhaps some soft object or cot cover has been found and used by the infant, and this then becomes what I am calling a transitional object. This object goes on being important. The parents get to know its value and carry it round when travelling. The mother lets it get dirty and even smelly, knowing that by washing it she introduces a break in continuity in the infant's experience, a break that may destroy the meaning and value of the object to the infant.

He suggests that the use of such objects can begin anytime between four and twelve months, purposely leaving room for variations.

'Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bed-time or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens. In health, however, there is a gradual extension of range of interest, and eventually the extended range is maintained, even when depressive anxiety is near. A need for a specific object or a behaviour pattern that started at a very early date may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens' (p. 232).

The outcome of the child's relationship to this object is that 'Its fate is to be gradually allowed to be decathected, so that in the course of years it becomes not so much forgotten as relegated to limbo. By this I mean that in health the transitional object does not "go inside" nor does the feeling about it necessarily undergo repression. It is not forgotten and it is not mourned. It loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between "inner psychic reality" and "the external world as perceived by two persons in common", that is to say, over the whole cultural field' (p. 233).

Winnicott adds, 'the term transitional object, according to my suggestion, gives room for the process of becoming able to accept difference and similarity. I think there is use for a term for the root of symbolism in time, a term that describes the infant's journey from the purely subjective to objectivity; and it seems to me that the transitional object (piece of blanket, etc.) is what we see of this journey of progress towards experiencing' (pp. 233-4).

In conclusion, he says, 'The transitional objects and transitional phenomena belong to the realm of illusion which is at the basis of the initiation of experience... This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in respect of its belonging to inner or external (shared) reality, constitutes the greater part of the infant's experience and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work' (p.242)

In this and a related paper on 'Psychoses and Child Care' (1952) Winnicott presents diagrams which illustrate the move from illusion to the transitional object and the epistemological space occupied by transitional objects and phenomena. [illustrations, 1952, figs 13, 14, 19, 20, pp. 224, 240].

In my opinion, the lines he draws between the subjective, the transitional and the objective should be dotted, so as to indicate their permeability, rather like a cell membrane, across which all sorts of metabolites selectively move back and forth.

In reflecting on Winnicott's notions, it is important to distinguish them from fetishism, where an object is perversely substituted for the appropriate one. Critics claim that he is describing fetishism, but the answer lies in the process of consigning the transitional object to limbo and opening out the ongoing transitional space of the third world - the space of play, creative symbolism and culture. True fetishism is more rigid and is unlikely to fade without treatment or substitution of another symptom. I think that no other psychoanalyst has offered anything approaching the richness of Winnicott's description of cultural space and its ongoing links with infantile processes.

I also think that the space which opens out does not preclude other transitional objects in latency, adolescence and adulthood (see Kahne, 1967). By this I mean that having abandoned the blanket, doll or teddy, one can still attach similar significance to other objects with a less addictive intensity. The sensuous, comforting quality and the sense of something that is favourite and to which one turns when in danger of depressive anxiety applies to all sorts of special things. Everyone's list will be different, but these days walkmans have this quality for many adolescents, as do portable computer games for pre-teens and computers for adult devotees, whether they be merely enthusiastic word processors or totally committed 'hackers'. The same can be said of mountain bikes, fancy roller skates, expensive trainers, certain fashions in clothes - Champion sweatshirts and sweatpants and Timberland shoes in the case of my children.

The advertising industry is predicated on getting in touch with this area of need and comfort and can succeed brilliantly with jeans, body oils, perfumes, bath oils and cremes, shampoos and conditioners. I think the burgeoning of The Body Shop phenomenon and the need for chemists such as Boots to emulate them (all their shops revamped under the banner 'Health Care and Beauty') only makes sense if seen in the light of providing transitional satisfactions. Advertising for cars and motorcycles evokes the same quality of luxuriousness and comfort. This is particularly true of sports cars and powerbikes. The sensuous quality of Braun products (black brushed metal) and certain beers, rums and bourbons evoke the satisfactions of the transitional realm, as does Cadbury's Milk Tray (or so the advertisers would have it). For me, much the most satisfying experiences of this sort come from favourite music played on a home or in-car stereo, where one is bathed in totally enfolding sound. The experience is somehow both soothing and ecstatic, like a return to the womb, and certain pieces of music make the experience almost overwhelmingly comforting, as can certain films on video.

Apparently mundane objects can occupy the transitional realm if they are experienced by the consumer in that way. A leather personal organiser - an original Filofax or a comparable notebook - gives the illusion that one has one's life under some sort of control. In my case it literally acts as a container, a portable file for all sorts of bits of paper, reminders, addresses, phone numbers, tickets - all of which would be routinely mislaid if it were not for this lovely leather portmanteau. How otherwise can we explain the proliferation of such products and the ludicrous prices people are willing to pay for what is fundamentally a utilitarian object and some bits of paper with holes punched in them? It is useful, stylish and a metaphor for the attempt to contain in one's mind all the obligations and opportunities of a busy life.

I think all of these things can function as adult security blankets and teddy bears. I also think that the more we are deprived of deep satisfactions in an alienated society, the more we comfort ourselves with such things. I am not suggesting that favourite clothes, adornments, accessories or listening to Mahler's Eighth or Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson singing 'Gulf Coast Highway' are not truly soul-satisfying experiences. I am suggesting, however, that we may well turn more and more to such experiences as luxurious foaming bath cremes or Jacuzzis, to Gucci shoes and gold chains, as rather sad compensations for the lack of a better quality of society and social relations. Otherwise why smile sheepishly at the slogan: 'I consume therefore I am'? (I have given further consideration to these issues in Young, 1989c.)

Think back to Meltzer's lovely description in which dimensions of mind are added, moving on from the house with no insides - a paper thin world of surfaces - to three dimensions and to the fourth one of development and the ability to learn from experience. We are now in a position to fill that space and that lifetime with - with what? With work which has moral purpose and relationships of love and concern? With lots of expensive commodities and plenty of chemical substances for highs and lows? With ambition and status? With envy and spite? Mental space and the transitional realm come with no guarantees of the quality of life. They provide only the potentiality. Winnicott's third world is a 'potential space'; what one makes of it is exquisitely contingent. What use one makes of objects depends on moral qualities that are not explicitly under consideration here.

Much has been made of Winnicott's ideas. Indeed, there is a large collection of essays covering a wide range of topics, Between Reality and Fantasy (Grolnick et al., 1978), as well as an ongoing debate in the literature, including at least one swingeing (but, to me, unconvincing) critique: 'Transitional Objects: Idealization of a Phenomenon' (Brody, 1980).

One of the more interesting applications of the concept is a paper by André Green, 'Potential Space in Psychoanalysis: The Object in the Setting', which, among other interesting ideas, treats the psychoanalytic relationship as transitional. He says, 'Analytic technique is directed towards bringing about the capacity for play with transitional objects. The essential feature is no longer interpreting, but enabling the subject to live out creative experiences of a new category of objects' (Green, 1978, p. 176). 'The analytic object is neither internal (to the analysand or to the analyst), nor external (to either the one or the other), but is situated between the two. So it corresponds exactly to Winnicott's definition of the transitional object and to its location in the intermediate area of potential space, the space of "overlap" demarcated by the analytic setting. When a patient terminates his analysis, it is not only that he has internalised the analytic interplay, but also that he can take away with him the potential space in order to reconstitute it in the outside world, through cultural experience, through sublimation and, more generally, through the possibility of pairing or (let us rather say) of coupling' (p. 180). In the same vein, Adam Phillips suggests that a good interpretation, like a transitional object, cannot be given to a patient; it can only be offered and found meaningful (Phillips, 1988, p. 115).

Klein's biographer reports that until he wrote 'Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena' in 1951, Winnicott considered himself a Kleinian. He wrote it for inclusion in the classical collection of Kleinianism, New Directions in Psycho-Analysis (1955). She wanted him to revise it so as to incorporate her ideas more clearly, and he refused. As far as Klein was concerned, that was the end of their relationship, although he remained committed to certain of her ideas, particularly the depressive position, while disagreeing about the death instinct, the paranoid-schizoid position and innate envy (Grosskurth, 1985, pp. 397-8; cf. pp. 399-400).

Klein's was a sharper, sterner view, in which we reach the stars through the bars - ad astra per aspera - while he, according to his wife, Claire, suffered from 'benignity' (Grosskurth, 1985, p. 399). His work is optimistic and not immersed in the ongoing, unresolvable struggle between good and evil in the human spirit. He was inclined to refer to 'capacities', with rather unclear boundaries, while she specified clear, distinct 'positions' with oscillations from moment to moment. His notion of 'good enough mothering' was anathema to her. Indeed, a latter-day Kleinian said to me contemptuously, 'What's all this about real mothers? That's not psychoanalysis, which is exclusively concerned with internal objects.' Winnicott put much more onto the environment and saw the baby-and-mother as a unity.

I cannot, at present, offer a mediation or adjudication between Kleinian object relations and Winnicottian ones. (Indeed, this is only a tiny part of a problem which seems to me not to have been seriously addressed: how very different the theories of the three founders of object relations were. For example, Klein saw internal objects as the sine qua non of having a mind, while Fairbairn saw all internal objects as pathological.) I do, however, want to hold on to the idea of a space between the inner world and the outer one. I inhabit it much of the time, I'm glad to say, and I'm not inclined to let my appreciation of Kleinian psychoanalysis lead me to abandon it, just because it's not kosher Klein. Kleinian writings on culture and aesthetics strike me as having a precious quality and indulge in an esotericism to which I find it hard to relate. They fail to do something that I think any account of human nature (or of anything, come to that) ought to do: give one back one's familiar experiences with additional illumination. I get illumination of unconscious phantasy aplenty and am glad to have it. But what about my experiences of music, film, exhibitions? I shall keep trying, but in the meantime I find this idea of transitional space good enough to be getting on with. I am glad to say that broader and deeper use of Winnicott's ideas on culture are becoming more widespread. For example, they are evident in a special issue of The Psychoanalytic Review, entitled Illusion and Culture: A Tribute to Winnicott , which contains a number of essays which are close to my own reading of the fruitfulness of his ideas on culture and epistemology (Lerner, 1992). Winnicott's ideas have been applied to literature in a collection edited by Peter Rudnytsky (1993) and to film in the work of Phyllis Creme (1991). I look forward to further developments of his ideas and to an eventual rapprochement between them and Kleinian thought


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