Transitional Objects

I was a student in psychology in the mid-1970s at Harvard University. The grand experiment that had been "Social Relations" at Harvard had just crumbled. Its ambition had been to bring together the social sciences in one department, indeed, most in one building, William James Hall. Clinical psychology, experimental psychology, physical and cultural anthropology, and sociology, all of these would be in close quarters and intense conversation.

But now, everyone was back in their own department, on their own floor. From my point of view, what was most difficult was that the people who studied thinking were on one floor and the people who studied feeling were on another.

In this Balkanized world, I took a course with George Goethals in which we learned about the passion in thought and the logical structure behind passion. Goethals, a psychologist who specialized in adolescence, was teaching a graduate seminar in psychoanalysis. Goethals focus was on a particular school of analytic thought: British object relations theory. This psychoanalytic tradition kept its eye on a deceptively simple question: How do we bring people and what they meant to us "inside" us? How do these internalizations cause us to grow and change? The "objects" of its name were, in fact, people.

Several classes were devoted to the work of David Winnicott and his notion of the transitional object. Winnicott called transitional the objects of childhood—the stuffed animals, the bits of silk from a baby blanket, the favorite pillows—that the child experiences as both part of the self and of external reality. Winnicott writes that such objects mediate between the child's sense of connection to the body of the mother and a growing recognition that he or she is a separate being. The transitional objects of the nursery—all of these are destined to be abandoned. Yet, says Winnicott, they leave traces that will mark the rest of life. Specifically, they influence how easily an individual develops a capacity for joy, aesthetic experience, and creative playfulness. Transitional objects, with their joint allegiance to self and other, demonstrate to the child that objects in the external world can be loved.

Winnicott believes that during all stages of life we continue to search for objects we experience as both within and outside the self. We give up the baby blanket, but we continue to search for the feeling of oneness it provided. We find them in moments of feeling "at one" with the world, what Freud called the "oceanic feeling." We find these moments when we are at one with a piece of art, a vista in nature, a sexual experience.

As a scientific proposition, the theory of the transitional object has its limitations. But as a way of thinking about connection, it provides a powerful tool for thought. Most specifically, it offered me a way to begin to understand the new relationships that people were beginning to form with computers, something I began to study in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From the very beginning, as I began to study the nascent digital culture culture, I could see that computers were not "just tools." They were intimate machines. People experienced them as part of the self, separate but connected to the self.

A novelist using a word processing program referred to "my ESP with the machine. The words float out. I share the screen with my words." An architect who used the computer to design goes went even further: "I don't see the building in my mind until I start to play with shapes and forms on the machine. It comes to life in the space between my eyes and the screen."

After studying programming, a thirteen year old girl said, that when working with the computer, "there's a little piece of your mind and now it's a little piece of the computer's mind and you come to see yourself differently." A programmer talked about his "Vulcan mind meld" with the computer.

When in the late 1970s, I began to study the computer's special evocative power, my time with George Goethals and the small circle of Harvard graduate students immersed in Winnicott came back to me. Computers served as transitional objects. They bring us back to the feelings of being "at one" with the world. Musicians often hear the music in their minds before they play it, experiencing the music from within and without. The computer similarly can be experienced as an object on the border between self and not-self. Just as musical instruments can be extensions of the mind's construction of sound, computers can be extensions of the mind's construction of thought.

This way of thinking about the computer as an evocative objects puts us on the inside of a new inside joke. For when psychoanalysts talked about object relations, they had always been talking about people. From the beginning, people saw computers as "almost-alive" or "sort of alive." With the computer, object relations psychoanalysis can be applied to, well, objects. People feel at one with video games, with lines of computer code, with the avatars they play in virtual worlds, with their smartphones. Classical transitional objects are meant to be abandoned, their power recovered in moments of heightened experience. When our current digital devices—our smartphones and cellphones—take on the power of transitional objects, a new psychology comes into play. These digital objects are never meant to be abandoned. We are meant to become cyborg.