20 September 2008

Winnicott’s Transitional Object

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

In order to follow along with Psychoanalytic Field’s latest project (which now seems indefinitely delayed), I read D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971). As Winnicott states in the first sentence,

This book is a development of my paper ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ (1951).

Positioned between inner subjective reality and the objective outside world there is an intermediate space in which we play and work, discover and create, interact with others. Winnicott says that this space opens up in infancy, when the child first comes to realize both that his mother isn’t merely an extension of himself and that the temporarily absent mother will return. At first the space between infant and mother is occupied solely by the “transitional object” — the teddy bear, the security blanket, le doudou in French — that for the child represents the absent mother, or more specifically, the mother’s breast. Winnicott summarizes the “special qualities” of the infant’s relationship with the transitional object:

1. The infant assumes rights over the object, and we [i.e., the mother and other adults] agree to this assumption. Nevertheless, some abrogation of omnipotence is a feature from the start.

2. The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated.

3. It must never change, unless changed by the infant.

4. It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating and, if it be a feature, pure aggression.

5. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something to show it has vitality or reality of its own.

6. It comes from without from our point of view, but not so from the point of view of the baby. Neither does it come from within; it is not a hallucination.

7. Its fate is to gradually be 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.

In interacting with this object, the child makes the transition from regarding it as something subject to his omnipotent control, to being destroyed or banished, to surviving this destruction and coming into its own existence as a distinct entity. The child’s interaction with the transitional object symbolizes his relationship with the “good enough” mother who , in allowing herself to be engaged by the infant while gradually establishing herself as a separate person, enables the child to move gradually into his own subjective agency. Instead of alternately controlling, being controlled by, and destroying the things and people that occupy the space around him, the child learns how to play with them, to use them, and to create with them.

So now I’m thinking about how Winnicott’s ideas jibe with Lacan’s. For Lacan too the separation of the infant from the mother is a crucial developmental phase. In Lacan, however, this separation seems invariably traumatic. Rather than the mother easing the separation process as in Winnicott’s formulation, for Lacan it’s the father who enforces the infant-mother separation. In Winnicott, the transitional object, on which the child lavishes both its affection and its destructive cruelty, represents the mother’s breast. For Lacan, le petit objet a represents that which the child has lost from itself in being separated from the mother and that which the mother seeks to complete herself; namely, the phallus. For Winnicott the transitional object serves a temporary function in ushering the child into appropriate relationships with real people and objects in his surroundings. For Lacan the object persists forever in sublimated form, either as the external object of desire or as oneself embodying the other’s desire.

If the narcissistic infant perceives the mother, and specifically the mother’s breast, as part of himself, then it’s conceivable that he would regard the transitional object as representing that part of himself which has been cut off, or castrated. Is it conceivable that the (Lacanian) phallus = the (Winnicottian) breast? This equation would work, except for Lacan’s insistence that objet a isn’t what the mother has but that which she desires. The infant perceives that his mother has lost her desire for him because of something he has lost. In Winnicott, the lost object isn’t what the mother desires and searches for, but what the infant desires and has now been detached from him.

There’s a reasonably coherent body of empirical evidence supporting Winnicott’s position: children with secure attachments to their mothers are more comfortable exploring strange situations — what Winnicott might call unfamiliar intermediate territories — than are children with insecure or ambivalent maternal attachments. I don’t know what empirical research has been done on transitional objects.

I’ll probably write a second post about Winnicott’s book, focusing specifically on the intermediate territory between subjective and objective realities.



  1. nr 7 should read DEcathected, rather than catchected.


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  2. So it should. I’d already decathected from this post, so having this transcription error pointed out to me aroused no defensive response — at least none of which I’m consciously aware.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    • did the article serve as a transitional object?


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  3. I am writing a paper on transference for a metapsychology class (psy phd) and I only have 4 days left. I would love to read Melanie Klein, une pensée vivante by Lauret and Raynaud… I am not so sure I understand what differentiates her from Freud in terms of technique (working with adults, not with children).


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  4. Possibly it aided in my transition away from Lacan, although that particular attachment was never very secure.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    • I hear you. I have got to keep on reading unfortunately. Well, this isn’t so unfortunate actually, I enjoy it. Have a good evening.


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  5. “although that particular attachment was never very secure.”



    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 6:00 pm

  6. Not to worry, radu — 4 years from now you won’t even remember you wrote this paper unless someone comes along to trigger the return of the repressed.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 6:02 pm

  7. I am striving to avoid creating new repressable material :-)


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  8. I would like to continue this conversation later on this year , after the fateful 20th of December (my deadline).


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  9. I look forward to learning something from your investigations, but isn’t the world supposed to end on the 21st?


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    • well doesn’t that leave us a window of one day?


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  10. I’m trying to remember which high floor in a Kansas City hotel it was where the kindergarten-repressed renewed itself, but in a somewhat more stately manner.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    • partial objects scattered all around. You may think I have read your post carefully, to be able to pinpoint your 2 letter omission, but in fact it was my mother who landed on your wordpress page in reaction to my posting the winnicott 1 to 7 quote on facebook. Then she was confused by the contradiction. The rest you know.


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:33 pm

  11. Your studies must be equipping you for living in the moment, radu — not my forte, I acknowledge. After the 21st though the world might be full of partial objects, affording us a prime opportunity for discussing Klein.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 6:23 pm

  12. 33rd floor — same as Jesus’s age when he exposed himself publicly.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 6:28 pm

  13. Thanks for bursting my bubble of self-importance, radu. I have to ask: did your mother think that you were the one who made the mistake?


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    • No, she was just confused by your version, which is a sign that she was actually reading and trying to understand. And actually understanding. Since she is a ‘lay’ person I am surprised. But I always enjoyed the object relations people over the French psychoanalysts for their pragmatic down to earth style. I see this as proof that they write for people in general, not just for their specialized coworkers.


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    • I have just discovered your other posts, quickly between 2 articles on Jung. Very interesting.


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  14. I see, so you were still hoping to derive some prestige from your little text, eh? That much for decathecting


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  15. I recently read that Katie Roiphe wrote in her new book “Facebook is the novel we are all writing”. Facebook does rather read like a gathering of supportive addicts.

    Puts me in mind of the Valentino show at the 67th Street Armory in 1992. A young Adonis was there with his mother, and he was chastising her for not letting him make his own decisions about what contribution to make. His was less than Lee Radziwill’s, so he told me that his (proceeds went to some AIDS charity), I must needs understand, meant just as much or more than those whose quantity had not been in dispute. I responded “I doubt it”. and he began to cry, while other young women spoke of Demi Moore’s pregnant picture on Vanity Fair.

    But that was my first glimpse of Lee, in jeans with a perfect ass, and paying the suggested amount.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    • facebook reads like a vast collection of everything and predominantly of nothing. People just shoot annoyingly unfinished thoughts. But anyway, for me Facebook is best explained as virtual contact, which is an illusion and must therefore be dealt with as such. In the first days of ICQ I tried to actually have satisfying chats with unknown people, but I gave it up within a week or so and have never since tried that again. But I have fun collecting images and other interesting internet memorabilia and posting them on this virtual wall. I live my satisfying life elsewhere. Are you at all on FB?


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  16. Complimenting my Jung posts is unnecessary: your interpretation stands. And “little text,” is it? Nice emasculation. My best to your mother.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 7:06 pm

  17. Yes, I was as well musing on ‘little text’. The whorish is not necessarily an emasculation, although I concede that my finest text is truly also whorish. The point it to be like Terry Moore, not Dianne Selwyn.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  18. I have no Facebook presence, and haven’t really looked it over enough to have informed opinion. Citing Winnicott there no doubt adds some class to the proceedings. “I doubt it” — another interpretation that brooks no sentimental preserving of egos.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  19. are we at all within the same time zone? 9:20 pm here, As much fun as this is, I have to now return to serious reading. My apartment is too small for my ego, let us not talk about the doorways. The ego has no use for small. Except when smaller is better. Then it loves small.


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 7:22 pm

  20. Don’t let us disrupt your concentration. Thanks for stopping by, and bonne chance on your paper. Maybe we’ll see you again after your personal Apocalypse.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    • I have a Russian friend who says things like that: we shall go for a walk with you (meaning herself and I will go for a walk). Alright, we shall speak with you later then. Good bye


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 7:32 pm

  21. Must I come to regard this as another kind of ‘dark gift?’ It seems radu is ready to claim a couple dark gifts with that last post.

    “Merry Christmas, dah-ling?”
    –Margaret Sullivan in ‘No Sad Songs for Me’


    ‘Alright’, that should get your mind off your insurmountable problems. I thought about posting it up with your genderisms, but it’s too ‘problematic’ in terms of ‘indirectly related’ not to receive yet more tiny wrist-slaps.

    I think drrrink-ing is a dark gift, you know.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  22. radu must have thought that I was using the royal we, though I probably shouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to speak for you too, Patrick. Since radu was hoping to read “Melanie Klein, une pensée vivante,” I’m guessing native French-speaker. Drinking? A glass and a half of chardonnay with dinner (potato-sausage soup and crusty bread), but that was ages ago.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  23. I wrote a post, 2 months before this Winnicott post as it happens, about some guy on the airport bus telling me that I looked like Robert Fripp. We had a nice chat about King Crimson. Fripp’s sister Patricia wrote a short comment on that post.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    • I am writing in my sleep now, remember I said I would go to bed? You are kidding me about Fripp’s sister?? I saw Fripp at one show, here in Montréal and he stood up all of a sudden (who knows why) causing everyone to applaud frantically. French is my current language indeed, although I spent my childhood in Transylvania. hence the dark gifts I suppose.


      Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 9:44 pm

  24. that being written, i now slide into a sleep phase during which writing is not possible. So good night and talk to you soon. Happy Chardonnay.


    Comment by radu — 15 December 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  25. I am going to try to be more sensitive to such concepta as ‘keynote speaker’. There is no other way to understand ‘the other’…


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 15 December 2012 @ 9:53 pm

  26. Seriously about Fripp’s sister. She must receive some kind of automatic alert when her brother’s name appears in blog conversations. She showed up mostly to promote her brother’s speaking engagements.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2012 @ 10:05 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: