Thursday, May 3, 2012

Transitional Objects

I've been thinking more about carpentry and my son. Yesterday I blogged about the book When Air Moves and a few days ago about his "collection" of twigs, leaves, chunks of brick and stone, and pines cones. This line of thought is motivated, of course, by fatherly affection, but also by the argument, which emerges from the work of Jane Bennett and Ian Bogost, about the importance of a certain kind of naivete and wonder when it comes to approaching objects as objects. And then Ze Frank told me about transitional objects (or "comfort objects"). In this brief post, I want to make a case for transitional objects as a form of carpentry and so amenable to OOO. I also want to briefly use transitional objects to attend to the affective elements of carpentry and OOO.

To Wikipedia (big deal, wanna fight about it):
In human childhood development, the term transitional object is normally used. It is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place of the mother-child bond. Common examples include dolls, teddy bears or blankets.

Donald Woods Winnicott introduced the concepts of transitional objects and transitional experience in reference to a particular developmental sequence. With "transition" Winnicott means an intermediate developmental phase between the psychic and external reality. In this "transitional space" we can find the "transitional object."
Will's transitional object: Reindeer, his tiny stuffed reindeer. By my rhetorical carpentry-infused reading of Winnicott's transitional object theory, Reindeer is a specific object that attunes Will to the withdrawal of objects in general.

At first glance, this approach to objects looks correlationist. Objects are what they stand-in for, mean or represent for humans. One immediately thinks of evocative objects, the main feature of which is the argument that "objects carry both [human] ideas and passions" (although Graham Harman has argued that we can read evocative objects as amenable to OOO as well). OOO, in contrast, is interested in objects in and of themselves, distinct from what they might mean for us. Certainly, we can easily read transitional objects this way. But I think, for the moment, we might benefit from seeing them as more than this, and we can do that through the idea of carpentry. Again, I go to JB:
Rhetorical carpentry would construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us. ("The Decorum of Objects")
It's in light of carpentry that "transitional objects" does real work for OOO. More from Wikipedia (listen, I just thought of this):
When the young child begins to separate the "me" from the "not-me" and evolves from complete dependence to a stage of relative independence, it uses transitional objects. Infants see themselves and the mother as a whole. In this phase the mother "brings the world" to the infant without delay which gives it a "moment of illusion," a belief that its own wish creates the object of its desire which brings with it a sense of satisfaction. Winnicott calls this subjective omnipotence.
Now, bear with me for a moment: could we not see "subjective omnipotence" as correlationism—the idea that the world is only ever what I am always able to make of it—in its most extreme form? What a transitional object does, then, is help the child break out of this subjective omnipotence, which is a powerful, painful, and necessary experience.
In a later stage of the development the child no longer needs the transitional object. It is able to make a distinction between "me" and "not-me," and keeping inside and outside apart and yet interrelated. This development leads to the use of illusion, symbols and objects later on in life.
So while transitional objects could easily be read as correlationist (and perhaps work will need to be done to make this less likely), what I see these objects as are objects that attune us to the strange withdrawal of all objects, including mom and dad, doggie, rocks, trees, and even Reindeer. What OOO/OOR needs and wants is for people to hold onto these transitional objects well after childhood, which some adults do. We always need transitional objects. What carpentry suggests is that we make transitional objects in the philosophical work of dismantling more sophisticated, adult, and dangerous forms of "subjective omnipotence."

Finally, and in a round about way, I also find transitional object theory compelling because it attends to the affective dimension of carpentry. Correlationism isn't just an abstract, disembodied idea that some (or many) people have; it is a whole way of being in the world. Carpentry, then, must surely provide not just ways of engaging the strangeness and withdrawal of objects but also ways of coping with the transition to an object-oriented ontology itself. Carpentry's objects must also be security blankets and stuffed reindeer.

Note: Eileen Joy, co-editor of O-Zone, has a short essay at In the Midde that dicusses transitional objects: "Willingly Playing the Role of Thing: The Hope of Persons as Transitional Objects"


  1. Interesting, especially as I recently sent off my review of the Latour panel at C's and raised Wysocki's question -- well, let's not even call it that, perhaps an interjection is a better term -- as necessarily troubling.

    As I followed this post, I actually kept reading Freudian/Lacanian "fort/da game" and the traumatic as intimately linked to transitional objects. This makes sense to me since "nature," an intimate encounter with an object, or a strage stranger would necessarily produce what traditional psychoanalysis would call trauma. (And I am reminded of Scot's pointing to MFB-D's article in CE that has - finally! - been published).

    This begins to answer my own critique of correlationist environmentalism but also the question of whether or not OOO/OOR really have anything to say to that critique.

  2. Maybe (?): Mircea Eliade on Talismans in _Patterns in Comparative Religion_. -- a breach between the sacred & profane.