The left hand of all creation (2): Freeing up the objects for use

Panel from Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! (ブラム!).

While including our ordinary understanding of objects (as real objects, out there in external reality), the conceptual vocabulary of psychoanalysis helps us register objects rather more expansively than the ordinary conception of objects alone. For psychoanalysis, objects are not just mere bundles of features or properties occupying space or time, numerically distinct from our own bodies or selves. Rather, objects – that is to say, the necessary carriers and substrata of relations of all types – compose the very stuff of lives and lifeworlds. We attach and detach from objects; we cathect and decathect them relentlessly. We dwell upon them, aggress them, invest and divest in them. The play of objects occupies us endlessly. Furthermore, what qualifies as an object varies dramatically. Consider the contrast between Melanie Klein’s theorization of partial objects, such as the breast, and Christopher Bollas’ own extended reflections on life itself taken as an object, namely, the capacity for subjects to use objects so as to elaborate and articulate the self throughout the course of a life: “The objects of our world are potential forms of transformation.”

In this regard, Donald Winnicott (in the paper “The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications” [1968]) draws a useful distinction between two modes of engagement with our objects. The dynamic he describes on the basis of this distinction is quite powerful, even if the discourse of psychoanalysis does absolutely nothing for you otherwise.

The first mode of engagement he calls “object relation” and the second, he calls “object use.” (Note: There is a degree of semantic slippage throughout Winnicott’s discussion of objects, but you can think of it like this. Ultimately, he refers to two types of objects: there are “fantasmatic objects,” which are the projections that figure in object relation, and there are autonomous “real objects,” which we can use if we develop the capacity to do so.)

In relating to an object, the subject composes, decomposes, and recomposes projective material, which is thereby (mis)taken or (mis)understood to be the (real) object as such, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this regard, object relation has a fundamentally private or subjective dimension, even when it involves gesticulating or interacting with entities or events in the external world. It takes place primarily in the psychic sensorium of the individual. Object relation reconfigures the internal relations of the subject vis-à-vis the object (and perhaps operational effects follow from this reconfiguration). In other words, the object that appears in object relation is fantasmatic, a projection manufactured by the subject to one degree or another. It’s important to note that Winnicott doesn’t want to do away with object relation as such, but only with object relation insofar as it inhibits or obstructs object use.

In contrast, object use is rather more ontologically complex or sophisticated than object relation. As a mode of engagement with objects, object use exceeds the largely internalist process of object relation. As Winnicott states, “in examining [object use] there is no escape: the analyst must take into account the nature of the object, not as a projection, but as a thing in itself.” In order to use an object, the subject must come to occupy what Winnicott calls the intermediate position (in Playing and Reality [1971], he describes it as “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” [emphasis in original]). In the intermediate position, the subject must place the object “outside the area of [her own] omnipotent control,” which is a necessary step if the subject is to apprehend or encounter the object as a “real object” rather than as the bundle of projective material apprehended or encountered in object relation.

By placing the object outside of herself, or in evicting it, the subject finds the object already there, one way or another. After all, the (real) object has a degree of ontological autonomy, but discovering its autonomy necessitates the destruction of the (fantasmatic) object, or, put differently, the destruction of those projections that get operationalized in object relation. This fantasmatic destruction of the object testifies to the object’s continued existence as an external phenomenon, a real object, something that stands outside of the subject’s inner psychic life. Winnicott writes, “it is the destruction of the object that places the object outside of the subject’s omnipotent control,” which is what makes access to the object possible: “the object, if it is to be used, must necessarily be real in the sense of being a part of shared reality, not a bundle of projections.” As he notes further, (real) objects may or may not be able to survive their fantasmatic destruction, but their survival is the prerequisite for use in his sense: “the object’s survival of the destruction places the object outside the area of objects set up by the subject’s projective mental mechanisms.”

In summary, then, in object use this sequence takes place: “Subject relates to object. Object is in process of being found instead of placed by the subject in the world. Subject destroys object. Object survives destruction. Subject can now use object.”

Winnicott spends relatively little time on how to use any particular object, although the principal example he provides is that of “the patient’s ability to use the analyst,” to “finish up with us and forget us,” to “find living itself to be the therapy that makes sense” rather than being trapped in the prisonhouse of interminable analysis. What his example reveals is that object use is a matter of function (as opposed to dysfunction) – that is to say, using objects at all depends on the development by the subject of her capacity to use objects. This capacity is a matter of ontological facility and, perhaps, epistemological virtue. As we have seen, developing this capacity requires the destruction of the projective material that ensnares or entraps the subject entirely within itself and its own assumptions. But “this stage [in the development of the subject] having been reached, projective mechanisms assist in the act of noticing what is there, but [that] they are not the reason why the object is there” (emphasis in original). The alternative is being trapped forever in a fantasmatic world of projections from which exit is impossible, caught in a spectral loop, like an isolated and lonely ghost haunting itself.

In this regard, Winnicott’s conception of object use does two things. First, it provides a richly descriptive account of how subjects become able to encounter and interact with external reality, with a lifeworld populated by autonomous objects that do not reduce to mere constructions, fantasies, or projections. He writes: “In this way a world of shared reality is created which the subject can use and which can feed back other-than-me substance into the subject.” Second, it also suggests the method by means of which we can free up the objects for use. This method consists of what you might call the creative destruction of objects. In other words, by destroying the (fantasmatic) object – that is to say, by destroying its manifest image or, in my terms, by redescribing it, by revising the descriptive apparatus attending the object – the (real) object becomes available for repurposing. If objects are what they do, then redescribing them changes what they are, because a redescription changes the prospectus of what they can do. You could even say that, always and preliminarily, the object first must be destroyed before it can be freed up for use and repurposed to whatever end.

Excursus 4: Note on Winnicott

I should note here that I’m purposefully appropriating Winnicott’s conception of object use. In my terms, I’m repurposing it. What intrigues me about it is precisely this dynamic of destructive repurposing that I think Winnicott explores quite lucidly. From Winnicott’s perspective, object relation and object use are both introduced in the context of individual psychic development from the undifferentiated or unstructured experience of the infant to the adult’s experience of virtually everything. In this regard, he describes the transition from object relation to object use in terms of the infant’s disillusionment – but it’s a productive disillusionment, because this transition enables the infant to learn that the external world, or reality, exists independently of its own desires and projections (however inchoately). For Winnicott, every person whose development is good enough undergoes this transition, to one extent or another. In the final analysis, however, I’m more interested in Winnicott’s conception of object use as an ontological operation than I am in his developmental account. There’s a tremendous insight here, if we can salvage it from the clinical context.

Go back to Part 1 (“The sinister pathway of the object”) or go forward to Part 3 (“Excursus on creative destruction (Spielrein, Schumpeter, Boyd, Land)”).