Lacan, Winnicott, and the objects of early experience

Aside: this is another of a series of short essays written for my class on objects and experience. None of these essays should be considered a complete work; rather, they are snippets of my thoughts at the time. This week’s readings dealt with transitional objects (Winnicott) and the mirror stage (Lacan).

It is commonplace today, partly because of the work of the associated theorists for this week’s readings, to accept the immense influence of the early objects of a child on his or her later psychological development. Yet in these very early objects or toys, meaning those of the newborn up to about a year or two, the actual characteristics of the toys themselves are somewhat irrelevant. It seems to be the act of interacting with the object itself which is important at this stage, at the region of time where the newborn begins to form the “not-I” concept. But given the mirror-stage theory of Lacan, and the ideas of transitional objects from Winnicott, the makeup of the object should be vitally important for the newborn’s later psychological development; Lacan says, in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”, that “This form [the image] would, moreover, have to be called the ‘ideal-I’…in the sense that it will also be the rootstock of secondary identifications….” [p. 4, Ecrits, A Selection] While I understand that strictly speaking Lacan is referring to the child’s identification with something outside of his or her body, be it the mother, the image in the mirror, or an object; however, if we pair this with Winnicott’s transitional objects, which are, as he says, designated for the “intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear” [p. 2, Playing and Reality], I come to the conclusion that the makeup of the objects themselves at this formative period should exact a precise influence on later development. But if these readings of Lacan and Winnicott are correct (and I wonder if they actually are), they seem to be in conflict in some ways with actual experience; choosing which object it is that exerts this influence, that forms the rootstock, is extremely difficult. While it could be the object with which the child spends the most time, perhaps it is some other object, a toy that the child saw or experienced for only a short period of time, the interactions with which formed the roots for later identification and psychological development. I have a difficult time, at this stage of development, to associate time-of-play with psyche importance.

Lacan defines the mirror stage thusly: “The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality—or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.” Mann’s identification with the World Book encyclopedia is a precise example of the development of the mirror stage. The stultification of his own development as a result of familial dynamics caused Mann to find the Other in a series of books. The contents were immaterial; it was the process of discovering knowledge that was important, allowing the books to become, in Mann’s own words, “my interpreters, my models, and my guides.” The World Book became a distorting mirror that reflected the quiet of his family life and transfigured it into the cacophony of knowledge.

Every essay but one explored an object that was formative in the author’s own childhood; it was Gleason that viewed her sister Shayna’s fascination with the stuffed rabbit Murray from the detachment of a graduate student. She was able to understand the importance of Murray to “embody character” in an object outside of Shayna’s body. Gleason was also able to see how Shayna used the “Bunny language” to create a new world, separate from Shayna’s everyday realities. This has an intriguing connection to the Lacanian Symbolic order, which is, succinctly, the portion of the psyche that crystalizes desires and societal mores through the use of language. Shayna’s (and most kid’s) use of a made-up language suggests that at this early stage of development there is something lacking in the language of society and of the parents; perhaps the child does not know how to fully express his or her desires in the common-tongue, or rather the child finds the need for a personal language, something that provides a closer match with his or her wishes, where the correspondence between thought-desire and representation of that desire through language is more readily apparent. It would be interesting to explore this in the context of multi-lingual children: do those who have access to multiple ways of expressing desires linguistically choose to play these language games with one of the tongues of which they have access, or do they too develop new languages for play?

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