“The cell phone has become the adult’s transitional object, replacing the toddler’s teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging.” – Margaret Heffernan
In the previous post on this blog, the deliberate subversion of the feminist movement was briefly explored. What had originally emerged as a well-intentioned campaign aimed at reducing the oppression of women was co-opted to further a divisive agenda of pitting men against women, increasing revenues from employment taxes, and removing infants from the care and influence of their mother from an earlier age.
This post will focus upon the last of these three aims and consider the reasons why this is important and why such an outcome might be beneficial to those occupying positions of power.
Child psychoanalyst William Fairbairn (1952), as part of his object relations theory, describes the loss of intimacy with the mother as a basic trauma that brings about a basic anxiety situation of helplessness for the infant. Such a trauma, if not successfully negotiated, will often result in dysfunction that continues into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The mother is crucial in the provision of support that the infant needs to negotiate its way through such a trauma, and in providing the assurance that the world is essentially a safe place – that those outside of itself, the ‘not me’, can be trusted. The early patterns that are established form the blueprint for the way in which the growing child relates to external objects as they grow and develop. If the anxiety that is brought about by a basic early trauma is not successfully resolved in infancy, then this anxiety and the infantile mechanisms used to cope with it, will form the object relating pattern that extends into adult life.
That such early-established patterns extend in some manner into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, is broadly accepted and understood. Donald Winnicott (1971) describes the importance of the transitional object to the developing infant as a means by which it learns to cope with the absence of the mother and of the breast. The developing infant adopts an object from its immediate surroundings that best resembles the mother’s breast, an object that is always available to the child, such as a soft blanket or a cuddly toy. Such an object will often be a pale imitation of the object that it represents, however, it serves its purpose adequately in that it evokes the absent mother and provides a degree of comfort. This signals the beginning of the development of the capacity to symbolise, and this stage is synonymous with the development of language – the elements of which rely entirely upon the capacity of the individual to relate to the world in a symbolic way.
Winnicott observes that most children grow out of their attachment to the original transitional object, however, it is observed that this original object is merely replaced by new attachments to new objects and these objects are, in turn, replaced by newer attachments to newer objects.
Thus begins a life-long cycle of object-relating through the placement of a mantle of symbolic meaning upon one, or upon several, possessions, relationships, accomplishments, statuses, appearances, jobs, external institutions, or ideologies. This relentless cycle of endeavour seeks to alleviate the anxiety brought about by the basic trauma of lost intimacy with the mother by replacing the love, nurture, security and provision found in her, with a series of inadequate symbolic objects that always hold out the promise of their attainment.
The extent to which this cycle is considered dysfunctional is typically framed around the manner in which the individual possesses the capacity to cope with the loss of one object, or the loss of its symbolic significance, along with the ease with which transition to the next object occurs. However, it could be argued that there is something fundamentally dysfunctional about the typical human condition that is hardwired to operate in this way. The ache to return to the cradle, or indeed the womb, never abates, but nor does it ever reach its fulfilment; there is no denying that symbols possess great power, yet they always remain symbols, and each time this reality emerges, a new object upon which to place the mantle of meaning is then sought.
Such a propensity is exploitable by those in positions of power who, with sufficient resources, are able to provide a range of appealing object options. The universal enslavement to the need for a transitional object at each of life’s stages is consumerism’s fuel and is the principal driver keeping capitalism and more specifically, consumerism, afloat. Each newly presented object promises the fulfilment of the search – the hope that this object will in fact be the substance of that which is longed for. We are talking here about idolatry.
In this regard, the human condition is in a state of deep disconnection from reality. What is also revealed is how little trust can be placed upon the ways in which human behaviour is rationalised and explained, and what the true motivations are behind that which is chosen, prioritised, and valued.
This propensity can also be utilised and deliberately engineered by those with motivation to do so, creating a society full of traumatised individuals driven into a perpetual loop of anxiety, and incapable of relating to the world in a way that trusts it to be a safe and secure place. Such a world is replete both with individuals in possession of dysfunctional object-relating patterns, and a plentiful supply of objects with which such individuals can dysfunctionally relate.
In combination with the early and deliberate separation of mother and infant, Minnicino (1974) describes the manner in which those in possession of power and resources (in this case The Rockefeller Foundation) have been able, in test environments and in co-operation with the UK-based Tavistock Institute, to establish artificial family environments. In these experiments environments were purposely set up so that vulnerable members would quickly come to perceive them as being both protecting and nurturing, and becoming for them, the latest transitional object.
Such experiments demonstrate the ease with which individuals, having been deprived of the traditional family structure and environment, can be placed within alternative ‘family’ environments. In such social settings it was found that any individual placed in a position of vulnerability could be easily manipulated into conforming with group norms. These findings have been successfully extended to encompass entire people groups, and indeed Western society as a whole; the understanding of that which is considered to be the prevailing view on a particular subject – and media co-operation forms a crucial element in the success of this strategy – brings about a real or perceived societal pressure upon the individual to conform to such an orthodoxy. It is also necessary that the consequences of any non-conformity, typically in the form of social sanctions, be made crystal clear for such a strategy to have the desired impact. This is easily and effectively achieved through public shaming.
It was discussed in the previous post that a key stage in the formation of identity occurs during adolescence. It was also outlined that identity formation inextricably occurs within a broader social milieu and relies upon the understood perceptions of the external world. By the time adolescence is realised, the transitional objects at play are often those objects that are tied up with identity formation. Part of this process involves identification with a particular individual perceived to embody certain desirable traits – traits that in combination symbolise both respect and acceptance in the adult world, and the fantasy and play elements of childhood. An alternative expression involves the pursuit of a specific identity such as that of a musician, an actor, a sportsman, or a celebrity. These transitional objects in the development cycle of the adolescent are important transitional identities, embodying important symbolism for a period of time, before gradually losing this symbolism as new, more stable identity objects are identified and embraced.
For some, however, the symbolism attached to these transitional identities does not fade and, in a society eager to elevate those who appear to encapsulate adolescent identities, a natural consequence is the increased prevalence of those who remain stuck at the adolescent stage of identity formation, unable or unwilling to move on from it, and who retain an excessive reference to external world perceptions. Such part-child/part-adult identities retained long into physical adulthood typically extend beyond the narrow activity associated with the transitional identity itself such as music, sport, celebrity etc. The individual’s lifestyle as a whole will retain substantial elements of the adolescent’s grappling with and denying of the responsibilities and realities of the adult world.
Winnicott was emphatic about the importance of the mother’s role in the development of the infant: “…protect her from everyone and everything that gets between her baby and herself.” With this in mind, the primary purpose behind the subversive aspect of feminism has less to do with any beneficial or detrimental impact upon adult women per se, and has more to do with achieving a particular kind of impact upon the psychology of infant women (and men), as part of a broader social agenda. Such an impact has been, and continues to be, sought through the deliberate early separation of infant from mother and from the environment in which the infant learns how to love, and the opportunities for exercising control over the individual and over society as a whole that this strategy presents.
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1952), Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge
Minnicino, M., The Tavistock Grin, Low Intensity Operations: The Reesian Theory of War, The Campaigner, April 1974.
Winnicott, D. (1971), Playing and Reality, Routledge