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LIFE AMONG THE MEDIATIONS: LABOUR, GROUPS, BREASTS

by Robert M. Young

My title was meant to be alluring but not mystifying. By mediations I mean the class of determinations which — as it's usually put— lie between knowledge and its objects. I want to examine that way of situating the issue, but it will do for a start. I want to look at three sorts of determinations. I've chosen the ones I have, because they interest me, because I've worked on them, and because they suit my politics and world view. I hope that the larger framework within which I'm thinking about them will become clear as we go along.

'Labour' refers to the concept of labour as ontologically prior in a way analogous to what Strawson says about the concept of a person being ontologically prior to those of mind and body. Labour is neither nature nor culture but their matrix. I want to explore a labour process perspective on knowledge — or rather on knowledge production — production of theories, therapies and things, of facts and artefacts.

'Groups' refers to the social relations of knowledge production or — as I prefer to put it — to knowledge production as social relations. By this I mean the process of agenda setting, patronage, funding, peer review, collaboration, small and large group dynamics, careers, visible and invisible colleges, other forms of institutions, research councils, what we know about the Rockefeller, Ford, Wenner-Gren, McArthur and Wellcome Foundations, the Apostles (I'm glad to see some of them here today), schools, pipelines, the process of origination, consolidation and application (especially funding).

'Breasts' refers to the primitive origins of knowledge. I have in mind, in particular, Wilfred Bion's epistemological elaborations of Kleinian psychoanalysis, for example, his theory of thinking and the philosophical development of his ideas by, among others, Roger Money Kyrle and J. O. Wisdom. I am also referring to Donald Winnicott's theory of transitional objects as the primary element of culture and of culture — including science —as a set of transitional phenomena. Both of these sets of ideas involve reflections on the moment of psychological development when the first 'not me', the dawn of knowledge, occurs. The first fact we know is the absent breast, and the elementary particle of culture is a symbolic breast, the precursor to a blanket, teddy bear or other object which is the first possession and which lies between the inner world and the outer world, being neither but partaking of both. I want to explore the significance of these psychoanalytic contributions to epistemology and of the psychoanalytic concept of culture as they bear on issues in the history, philosophy and social studies of science. These theories are part of the post-Freudian 'object relations' approach, viewing the person as embedded in her or his surroundings — not just subjects, much less material objects but, on the whole, other subjects.

So much for preliminaries. Why do I want to talk about labour process theory, group dynamics and symbolic breasts? To anticipate my own framework, what use value do I wish to derive from the labour process of this enquiry? I've thought a lot about this and have spent a long time engaged in autobiographical ruminations — a morass which I will spare you, except to say that the thread running through all of my writings from my first publication in an undergraduate journal and my senior undergraduate essay, entitled, respectively 'The Process of Belief' and 'The Problem of Transcendence' — has been the limits of human nature. The enquiry has taken various forms, but there is a common core relating values and politics to human limitations and to concepts of nature. Some episodes: Is there a presuppositionless vantage point for knowledge? How can self-knowledge occur? What light can Plato, then Kant and

Cassirer shed on these questions? What about Freud? Can we test the psychoanalytic theory of insight by studying the physiological basis of emotions in the limbic system of the brain, i.e., can we test this psychological theory by physico- chemical science? Another way of putting this is, how do the problems of mind/body and mind/brain bear on the question of human frailty? How do we think about the brain — the terms of reference for physiological and psychological enquiry (this led to a study of cerebral localizatiom — my thesis). In what context were the first empirical and experimental questions asked about mind and brain — associationalist psychology and evolutionary biology? What forces led to these questions — political economy, Malthusianism, natural theology? How do epochal forces act in scientific controversies?

A fully historical history of science becomes a study in the textured sociology of knowledge with the role of ideologies central to that knowledge. Where do the questions come from? Knowledge is the embodiment of values in theories, therapies and things: what gets asked, prioritized, funded, pursued, published, researched and developed, deployed, and finds its way into textbooks. All of these are the products of resolutions of forces. The process is a transformative one of human labour.

This brings me to the attractions of a labour process perspective. But before developing it, I want to sketch in, so far as I can, the models which it has progressively replaced in my own mind. For a long time I saw epistemology as trying to work out the limits of veridical knowledge along a sensory-motor arc: sensation, perception, conception, association, etc.

The parameters of 17th-century epistemology endured and turned up in the l9th-century psychology textbooks which I read in attempting to understand the background and contexts of the theories of Darwin and Freud: the senses and the intellect, the emotions and the will (these phrases are the titles of treatises by the leading pre-evolutionary British psychologist, Alexander Bain). Somewhere in the ’intellect’ part of this framework came the question of the categories, the schemata, what we bring to experience and where that comes from. These questions in psychology and epistemology had to be married up with two other puzzles: mind/body and subject/object. I spent a long time thinking about mind body dualism in the history of philosophy and in psychosomatic medicine, just as I spent a long time studying scientific method.

The series of questions which I sketched above led, as you can imagine, to an ever-broadening series of contextual issues about the location of various aspects of knowledge. Until I hit upon the role of ideology and the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, I think I was on some tramlines which weren't leading anywhere, except to an ever more complicated set of questions in the history of ideas. My own way to summarize this was something I think I learned here at Cambridge: all facts are theory-laden; all theories are value-laden; values are expressions of ideologies — world views. Start, then, with the values. In the beginning was the value. But the other problems find their place in an account that asks what interests are served, what forces are at work, what outcome is being sought and for what purpose?

As I look back on the development of these ideas, the common element seems to be that every boundary between the substance and the context of a given set of issues gave way, and useful illumination followed when the boundary was breached. It was in the period I am now speaking about that I wrote 'Evolutionary Biology and Ideology' and 'The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of the l9th-Century Debate on Man's Place in Nature'. These historical/philosophical writings were complemented with a series of essays applying the concept of ideology to human nature in an essay on 'The Human Limits of Nature' and to science in 'Science is Social Relations'. The questions were then applied to epistemology in 'Who Cares About Objectivity and Why?', 'What if Human Nature is Historical?', 'Science is a Labour Process', 'How Societies Constitute their Knowledge' and 'Is Nature a Labour Process?’

So — there is a trajectory leading from rather traditional questions of historiography and epistemology to an approach based on ideology, sociology of knowledge and human labour. What does a labour process perspective have to offer? First, as I've said, labour transcends the nature/culture dichotomy and focuses on four factors — ones which I find loosely reminiscent of pre-Cartesian, Aristotelian aspects of causality or coming-to-be.

First, raw materials, that out of which, the material causes

Second, means of production, that with which, tools, that with which we shape, something like the efficient cause

Third, purposive human activity, with the telos or goal informing, motivating, serving as an ego ideal, where the vision of the final product transcends the moment in the name of the imagined, realized product

which is the fourth element — the use value being sought from the product of the labour process. The formal and final cause are here intermingled

What I find attractive about this framework is not that one can write down the four concepts and slavishly do the normal science of filling in the blanks. It is not that kind of framework. It is a perspective. First, it focuses on the transformative relation which labour is — in which the researcher, craftsperson, labourer ransacks the plenitude of nature by whatever means — pre-conscious rumination, Edison's trying out filaments, or whatever logicians, programmers, athletes and nuclear weapons designers do to transform raw materials into a product. It opens up labour into a process, a research and development pipeline, a narrative, a story. Second, it slows one down and invites consideration of the connections or articulations of a given labour process. Always labour, always process, always borne on by more determinations than the intellectual historian, the social historian, the rational reconstructer or even the psychohistorian would deploy.

Why did the 'Beagle' set sail? What were the geopolitical, colonial or imperialist reasons for the seemingly cartographic and natural historical preoccupations of the Royal Navy? Why did those particular patients come to Freud? Who should want to read character on the surface of faces or skulls? Why make it easy to get a grant for an ultracentrifuge in biological research? Who thought a whole new medical school should be build in Rochester, New York in the 1920s, integrating clinical and preclinical works? Who thought, 30 years later, that it should have a Department of Radiation Biology? Why give coenzymes to some malnourished children and powdered milk to others? Why classify in one period, look for origins in another, and seek theories of systems in another? Come to that, who wanted an Institute of Human Relations at Yale and another at the Tavistock Centre in London? Who wanted a School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London and specialist studies in Human Relations at Harvard? Why set up a centre for agricultural research in Mexico to develop hybrid rice and grains? Why apply physiological and homeostatic models to psychology, sociology, anthropology, factory work, architecture and business?

This last group of questions all has as its answer the Rockefeller Foundation. It takes us on from a labour process perspective to my second sort of mediation. 'Groups' is a rag-bag term for social determinations which impinge —often as structural causes — on a given labour process. The questions toward the end of the list could be expanded since the Rockefeller Foundation was engaged in a host of initiatives with respect to the origins of molecular biology, sociobiology, our current concepts of the funding and management of science, the relations between industry and psychoanalysis, the rise of scientific management, of systems theory, of socio-technical systems theory and of the patronage of research. Most of our national models of the funding of natural, biological and social science research grew out of this set of interrelate initiatives.

Among the things that developed under the umbrella of Rockefeller patronage was another important aspect of group determinations — the psychoanalytic study of group processes associated with the names of Foulkes, Rice, DeMare, and pre-eminently Wilfred Bion — the same Bion I shall discuss under the heading of 'breasts'. What Bion did was to draw attention to the primitive, even psychotic processes which are at work in small groups which slip from what he calls 'the work group' mode to what he calls 'the basic assumption' mode. In the work group the members have a common goal and pursue it in the sensible ways that were described in Victorian lives and letters, and are now described in BBC ’Horizon’ programmes and at school prize-givings. But a big difference between Klein and Bion on the one hand and Freud and the neo-Freudians on the other is that the neo-Freudians have a relatively greater faith in the strength and endurance of the rationalist, work group mode. As Freud once put it, the primitive urges or primary processes can be replaced by reality-oriented or secondary processes. 'Where id [or it] was, there ego [or I] shall be. It is reclamation work like draining the Zuider Zee.'

In the basic assumption mode the members of the group may stoutly believe themselves to be rationally pursuing the ostensive goal. But primitive psychotic forces have in fact taken over to give rise to sycophancy toward a leader or the fight/flight mode derived from the effects of anxiety on the adrenal glands, so well described by Walter Cannon in his work on stress and on homeostasis. A third possibility in addition to dependency or fight/flight is pairing. Note carefully these are characteristics of the group and act coercively as structural causes on individuals. They are, of course, unconscious. On Bion's account a group is always in danger of falling through the thin ice of the work group mode to the primary process of the basic assumption mode — for a moment, a period or irredeemably. One defence which has been looked at by Tom Main and others is fragmentation into individual fiefdoms or pure atomistic individualism. I venture to say that no member of a university department or scientific laboratory team or industrial research group can honestly fail to have some sense of what I am referring to.

The study of work groups was begun with disturbed World War II soldiers but has been continued with managers, unions, therapists and groups of many kinds. Its insights have been applied to hospitals, factories, cricket teams, but not, as far as I know, to one of the modern era's most notable examples of teamwork — the scientific or technological research group. I have in mind, for example, the gossip we hear about the discovery of DNA, especially relations with Ros Franklin. Another example would be an interpretation of Tracy Kidder's account of the creation of a new computer, The Soul of a New Machine, on the one hand, and the creation of the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project, on the other. Moving on from this aspect of groups, there is one area where I think the history, philosophy and social studies of science have grasped the need to look at group determinations is institutionalization, visible and invisible colleges, the culture of certain laboratories and fieldwork teams, the conduct of certain controversies in science, technology and medicine. I have been told off by Jonathan Hodge for being insufficiently cognisant of institutions, and I think this is a fair cop. But I wish those who are stressing institutional determinations were not so positivist about them. By that I mean that first order positivism decontextualizes facts and leaves out the meanings, values and motivations involved. Institutional positivists draw their ring wider but can still separate a department or a discipline from wider, epochal patronage, socioeconomic and ideological forces at work on them.

Among the things which strike me as most interesting about institutions is the role of museums. These are amenable to ‘readings’ like any other texts, and their social locations and histories seem to me to cry out for research. Donna Haraway has begun to do some work in this area with respect to the New York Museum of Natural History, and I have done a vignette with Les Levidow about exhibits at the Science Museum in London. David Noble has an analogous story to tell about his short-lived job at the Smithsonian Institution, but one condition of his leaving on good terms was that he would not tell the truth about what had happened there. I know how tempting such offers are, since I was made one by Central Television. As we have recently learned, government ministers are flattered and muzzled by similar undertakings. I stress the role of museums because they involve the bestowing of the imprimatur of official culture on the phenomena which they display, while providing a very revealing story about how those phenomena are viewed by the ways in which they are presented. There is, as some of you may know, a most interesting story to be told in this area about the setting up of the Wellcome exhibition at the London Science Museum. I know at least two people who could tell it, but neither would. One of them is silent because of his career, while the other is silent because of her demoralization.

My view is that such studies are still rarely gossipy enough and fail to give due weight to the vicissitudes of the personal relationships involved, the role of careerism, the sheer corruption on the one hand and principled behaviour on the other, that characterize stories told verbally but which seldom find their way into the writings of historians, since they are still trying to shoehorn history into various philosophical models of scientific change.

I'd like to advocate that the normal mode of discourse in the history of philosophy and social studies of science should be social history and biography. Philosophical questions that interest us should find their place inside such accounts rather than, as is still usual, for context to be background while discovery (more or less narrowly conceived) is foreground. Societies constitute knowledge in traditions, disciplines, teams and individuals. The nearer you get to being a great scientist, the more likely people who write about you are to treat the history of discovery the way that scientific biographers do who seek to disarticulate their subjects from the very determinations which help to illuminate their work in the ways which I have sketched. I'm thinking, for the moment, of Ernst Mayr's version of Darwin, in which Darwin replaces Mohammed Ali as 'the greatest'. And yet Darwin is one of the figures in the history of science where we are best equipped to provide studies which integrate a labour process analysis with the articulations which the group perspective involves. We have his notebooks, his correspondence, his crossings-out. We have insight into his illness; we have the beautifully evocative study of his social setting in the work of Jim Moore. We also have in the discipline of Victorian studies and of Victorian social history sufficient information about the epochal causes which bore upon him. As some of you will know, a number of these articulations have been carefully spelled out, for example, in the work of Howard Gruber, David Kohn, Peter Vorzimmer, Sylvan Schwebber, and me. There have even been a number of attempts to achieve dramatic disarticulations in the writings of Ghiselin, Mayr, and deBeer. However, recent careful studies by Kohn, Olroyd and Evans have, I am relieved to say, fully vindicated the positions which Kohn and I share. This is particularly true with respect to the important connection between Malthus and Darwin on the one hand and between artificial and natural selection on the other. That is, the articulations have been vindicated in the areas which connect Darwin's work to ideological theories on the one hand and to anthropomorphic ones on the other.

It is commonplace to say what is classical about Greek or Roman science, what is Renaissance about Renaissance humanism. But this way of thinking becomes less normal when we try to say what's 17th-century about the scientific revolution, what is enlightenment about the 18th-century or Victorian about the l9th, Progressive, Edwardian, etc. about later periods. I won't carry on about groups, because, except for the Bion aspect, what I have to say is not very original. It is a relative silence in my own work, and I think that the history of philosophy and social studies of science is attending to it, though I do, as I've said, advocate doing so in a way which doesn't treat institutions as separable from knowledge production and from wider epochal forces.

Now I want to celebrate breasts. I appreciate that I am not a pioneer of genetic epistemology or even of genetic epistemology applied to science or even to the sciences which interest me. Kant, Piaget and Howard Gruber can claim those accolades. I am also making no claim to say something new about the psychoanalytic study of creativity, an area which fascinates me and about which I publish books but which seems exquisitely mined. I am thinking, in particular, of the fate of psychobiographies of Luther, Newton, Frederick W. Taylor and Darwin's illness. However, please don't hear me to say that I think that psychohistory is a dud. I have just finished reading Peter Gay's Freud for Historians, a book which takes seriously all of the criticisms made of psychohistory but still insists that we have both an opportunity and an obligation to interrogate psychoanalytically the past, even when its subjects are not available to provide us with their free associations on the couch. It seems to me that Joel Kovel, for example, has done admirable psychohistory of racism on the one hand and the state of nuclear terror on the other. He is currently at work on a book entitled History and Spirit which paints on a broader canvas.

Instead of any of these things I want to ask a question I don't know the answer to. What difference would it make if we had an epistemology based on psychosexual development — on object relations — rather than on whatever it's now based on, rationalist or hermeneutic criteria, let's say? I can say what difference some of the other things I've been on about make, at least to how I see science and other forms of expertise. They help to revert our gaze. The official story of history and philosophy of science as it was taught when I was a student diverted our gaze from socio-economic, ethical and ideological determinations. During the eleven years I was a student the norms changed from history of discovery to history of ideas to doing original philosophical analysis in the history of ideas, especially in the works of Whitehead, Burtt and Lovejoy in the older generation and Hanson, Hesse, Buchdahl and Kuhn in the generation of my teachers and senior colleagues. This was exciting, but it was avowedly, relentlessly, and intolerantly asocial, apolitical (which is roughly equal to liberal or conservative, innocent of the sociology of knowledge and of the problem of ideology. Of course it was not necessary for it to be anti-Marxist, because that was not even a perceived issue.

The traditions I have tried to package under a labour process perspective and 'group determinations' have the merit of insisting that our work has certain characteristics, that it should be fully historical, social, political, ideological, developmental, all about process and that its explanations should be over-determined (as some would say, we must do our best to get on our horse and ride off in all directions at once). It is also part of the things I wish to retain

from what I learned from my teachers — especially those of the older generation — that the value dimension should be integral and constitutive, not contextual, not split off.

Before I offer an exposition of what I have to say about Bion and Winnicott, let me say what some of the payoffs might be if we had a psychoanalytic, therefore psychosexual, object relational, genetic epistemology. For starters, questions of gender and expertise would be fundamental, not a fringe speciality. By that I mean that gender questions about the philosophy of nature, disciplinary boundaries, approaches to particular disciplines, research priorities, the structure of research itself as division of labour and as labour process, and the deployment of what we now think of as technologies — all of these would be open questions at every level. I say this as my first point, because a psychosexual genetic epistemology would draw our attention to the ways in which people develop their relationship with knowledge and expertise and, in particular, how they relate to frameworks of ideas and disciplines which split off affect. There are a number of other potential benefits from removing the boundary between the context of development and discovery on the one hand and the context of justification on the other. We might achieve some insight into the origins of technocracy, the grip that careerism has on research and relations between colleagues, the role of neophilia and consumerism and the grip which they have on us. It is also possible that we could have frameworks and sets of concepts which are less alienated, desiccated and reified, less abstracted and even — hopefully — writings and relations which are less snide. Much of this could be achieved if there was less misplaced concreteness, that is, if distinctions came trailing the historical constraints that generated them. But I am getting ahead of myself and letting my hopes outrun my story. What is it about Bion and Winnicott that can engender such utopian hopes?

What I have to say, in particular, about Bion and Winnicott is less important than the kind of things I am saying. You could read more than I take note of in their works about the primitive origins of thinking in the awareness of the 'no breast' and of culture in the 'not me' or symbolic breast. These things matter, and I shall elaborate a bit on them. But what I wish to stress and what is important about Kleinian and object relations thinking is that they continue to matter. They continue to matter in the sense that we do not cease to think in ways which take thought through these primitive mediations. It’s alimentary, forever lodged in the digestive track, elemental. Psychotic mechanisms continue to operate, as do introjection and projection, nourishing and un-nourishing elements, linking and attacks on linking. The primitive functions continue to be served: they are not transcended. The most elemental needs continue to operate. There is an analogy here to positivism. As I've already said, positivism separates facts from their historical and other relations. That doesn't mean that those relations become inoperative. They are merely bracketed out. The same can be said about the relationship between scientific facts, artefacts and theories. They are treated as if the process of origination should properly be detached, and I'm arguing that it should not. Aphoristically, just as we must transcend the positivism of context, we need to transcend the positivism of origins or psychogenesis.

I said at the beginning I was going to look again at the model of mediation between knowledge and its object. Here we go. My aim in what follows is to shed light on the persistent basis of thought processes, of the origins and meaning of cultural phenomena and of the inner processes of scientific research and creativity.

How can we know and know that we know? How can we make the outside like the inside? The answer is to invest a bit of self in the outside. Under the threat of the 'not breast', one creates the thought breast — the first other. It is the union of preconception with a negative realization, the absence of the object, the breast. (Intro to Bion, p. 40). We do this by projective identification. A bit of us is split off and projected into the absent object; it is inhabited by a bit of us. Mere projection would not have that quality. An aspect of our own identity must go with it. and stick, i.e., find a home or resonance in the other. This first distinction cannot have distinctiveness without the other or without the sacrifice of one's own sense of completeness. It would be wrong to call this completeness 'omnipotence', since we are speaking of the first moment when it occurs to one that there is something to have potency over Research, to jump ahead, involves searching again for the lost object and its meaning. For Bion this process is active. There is no space for a sensationalist epistemology. The absent breast is a space in which the processing, the transformation of experience, can occur. It is where the labour of thought occurs. The awareness of the absent breast is a hole, a rent, an ur-distinction, the first deprivation. All knowledge has its origins in primitive emotional experiences related to the absence of the object. Characteristics inherent in this experience intervene in an attenuated form in later experiences of discovery and learning and creation of new ideas in any field, whether scientific, aesthetic, psychoanalytic, etc. (Intro to Bion, p. 63).

As I was thinking about ways of conveying Bion's epistemology and its relation to more traditional ideas, a passage from T. R. Malthus occurred to me. In the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population, he wrote, 'The first great awakeners of the mind seem to be the wants of the body'. [He tells us at this point that it was his intention to enter at some length into this subject as a kind of second part to the essay.] 'They are the first stimulants that rouse the brain of infant man into sentient activity, and such seems to be the sluggishness of original matter that unless by a peculiar course of excitements other wants, equally powerful, are generated, these stimulants seem, even afterwards, to be necessary to continue that activity which they first awakened. . . From all that experience has taught us concerning the structure of the human mind, if those stimulants to exertion, which arise from the wants of the body, were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure. In those countries where nature is the most redundant in spontaneous produce the inhabitants will not be found the most remarkable for acuteness of intellect. Necessity has been with great truth called the mother of invention.

'Locke, if I recollect, says that the endeavour to avoid pain rather than the pursuit of pleasure is the great stimulus to action in life: and that in looking to any particular pleasure, we shall not be roused into action in order to obtain it, till the contemplation of it has continued so long as to amount to a sensation of pain or uneasiness under the absence of it. To avoid evil and to pursue good seems to be the great duty and business of man, and this world appears to be peculiarly calculated to afford opportunity of the most unremitted exertion of this kind, and it is by this exertion, by these stimulants, that mind is formed. If Locke's idea be just, and there is great reason to think that it is, evil seems to be necessary to create exertion, and exertion seems evidently necessary to create mind’ (Malthus, 1st edn., pp. 125-6).

We have here a sensualist, though not a sensationalist, epistemology based on meaning derived from projective identification and labour. Once again, Bion's theory of the origins of thinking stresses a continuing role for primitive and psychotic elements and the vacillations between more mature processes and the most elemental ones. His views are nicely complemented (in ways that are of particular use for my purposes) by Donald Winnicott's most original contribution to the study of human nature: the significance of the first 'not me' (Davis, p. 69)— not the first object but the first possession (Winnicott, Paediatrics, pp. 231, 237). He writes about the capacity for symbol formation as dependent on the use of what he calls transitional objects (Maturational, p. 50). These objects stand for the breast. They are symbolic part-objects (Transitional, 231, 233). They lie in what he perceives to be an extremely important space which is intermediate between the subjective and the objective (p. 231). The primitive 'not me' or transitional object develops in later life into the domain of culture — an area intermediate between the dream or fantasy and the shared reality (Maturational, p. 150). It is a third place which partakes of both but which is intermediate. He calls it 'the place where we live'. Cultural life is the adult equivalent of transitional phenomena of infancy, wherein communication is not referred to as either subjective or objective (p. 184). I am paraphrasing Winnicott here to give you a sense of the space occupied by culture. He says that it 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, p. 72). There is a direct development from the earliest transitional phenomena to playing, to shared playing and from this to cultural experiences (Davis, p. 73).

What is the object on which so much hangs and from which all of our cultural life is generated? I shall now quote at some length from Winnicott's classical paper on 'Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena'.

'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.

'There is a relationship between these two sets of phenomena that are separated by a time interval, and a study of the developments from the earlier into the later can be profitable . . .

'There is a wide variation to be found in a sequence of events which starts with 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 the teddy bear, between the oral eroticism and the 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 "').'

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 fantasying, 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 things or some phenomena — 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 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.

‘I suggest that the pattern of transitional phenomena begins to show at about 4-6-8-12 months. Purposely I leave room for wide 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.'

Winnicott goes on to describe the outcome of the child's relationship to this object: '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).

He goes on to claim that the term 'transitional object’ ’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 progressing towards experiencing' (pp. 233-4).

In the conclusion of his paper he says, 'transitional objects and transitional phenomena belong to the realm of illusion which is at the basis of 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).

(There are diagrams in his papers which help to illuminate his argument: pp. 223-24)

My purpose in dwelling at such length on what Bion and Winnicott have to say about the origins of knowledge, of culture, and, in particular, of science, is to draw attention to how elemental, primitive and tenacious they are. You will recall that in introducing these ideas, I referred to some utopian hopes that if we ceased to split off the genesis and the affects of epistemological parameters, we might be much better off with respect to gender and expertise, the division of labour, the origins of technocracy, the grip of careerism, neophilia and consumerism. The scientific world view of which Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alfred North Whitehead, Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse have so much to complain involves both alienation in one sense and splitting in another. That splitting isolates affect and purposes, goals and meanings. It allows us to contemplate and even to invent napalm without being fully and sensuously aware of its use. It does the same for rhinoceros-hide whips and plastic bullets, Cruise missiles and binary nerve gases. It allows 40 per cent of our scientific experts and more than 50 per cent of our research and development budgets to be devoted to military research by splitting, by bracketing out. Turning to technologies of consumption, the understanding of the origins of research and of the enduring power of transitional phenomena helps to shed light on the conditions of work which people are willing to endure in order to obtain the satisfactions, the treats which we so compulsively require. I am thinking of radio in my childhood, television in my adolescence and videos, Walkmans and compact discs in the childhood and adolescence of my youngest children. These have the particular enfolding and comforting quality to which Winnicott refers. There is an affinity between the satisfactions provided by these forms of consumption and the sensual aspects of research which lead people to think in aesthetic terms about elegance, cuteness, beauty in the theories and things, the facts and artefacts, the processes and products of scientific and technological research and development.

There have, of course, been other genetic epistemologies, as I mentioned earlier. That of Piaget, for all its ingeniousness, in my opinion gives us one damn Kantian thing after another — a geometric skeleton rather than a living and developing, introjecting and projecting, human labour process. Similarly there are other theories of the development of knowledge wherein the idle consumption of the fruits of exploration are split off, doing the Devil's work, leading to banishment, alienation, and pain. I have reflected a little on these matters at the beginning and end of my book, Darwin's Metaphor, wherein I try to show just how deeply evaluative and anthropomorphic concepts go into our ideas about living nature.

Another fruit I am looking for in the line of enquiry which I am advocating is a revival of the philosophy of nature. Don't mistake me, I have as little time for Gaia, Capra, nature mysticism as anyone here. Indeed, I may have less time for them than many people here. I am not looking for a re-enchantment but for a revaluation, objects with origins and purposes built into our ongoing perception, not just into their forms.

Just a note about another place where all this might lead. I'd like to think that in the fullness of time this analysis could be integrated with the elaborate hunch I had (in a paper on 'Persons,

Organisms . . . and Primary Qualities'): that the basic concepts of biology are ineradicably teleological and anthropomorphic, a point I also tried to convey in Darwin's Metaphor. Then biological properties and the concepts of organism and person could really take their place at the heart of a benign ontology. I am, to put it flat-footedly, arguing for a history, philosophy and social studies of science which could be of some use to the women's, peace, environmental, ecological, and libertarian socialist movements.

My very first philosophy teacher, 30-odd years ago, was Dick Rorty (to whom I dedicated my thesis). He argues for a culture in which the science/literature distinction no longer matters. I have argued elsewhere for one in which the science/art distinction and the science/ideology distinction do not matter. I want to go further and argue that not only do such distinctions not matter (or perhaps I should say they do matter but are doing so for the wrong reasons) but that we should cultivate psychoanalytic terms, for example, especially splitting and projective identification — as part of our cultural/literary/aesthetic/scientific/ ideological, i.e., political and religious, discourse.

It is almost exactly a quarter of a century since I first gave a seminar in this building, so I hope I can be indulged for having a sense of occasion. As it happens, it was on psychoanalysis (but I was persuaded for a time that this topic was bad for my career). It's over a decade since I chose to live among the mediations. When asked for a title, my first thought, protectively rejected by my host, John Forrester, was 'What I Learned at Summer Camp'. I still like it. The other title I once had turned down was 'When the Shoulders of Giants Hunker Down' which was, like today's title, a serious come-on, in that case connected with Newton and Merton on 'the shoulders of giants', refracted through a series of Marxist questions about base and superstructure.

 

Talk delivered to Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Whipple Science Museum, Free School Lane, University of Cambridge, 20 February 1986.

 

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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