Our Strange Situation is shifting

Our Strange Situation is shifting

This week I'm pausing our ongoing series on the philosophical question of self-destructive behavior (especially its relation to the ego and fantasy), and instead have chosen to share a brief essay about a fascinating lecture I heard at a recent meeting of the Sacramento Psychoanalytic Society. Thank you for reading!

Last Friday evening, I had the delight of hearing Dr. Eric Taggart present on his notion of “the algorythmic object” at a meetup of the Sacramento Psychoanalytic Society. Taggart is both a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, but also a multi-medium artist, and a freshly minted PhD from nearby UC Davis. He presented some provocative thoughts to a small group of us at the inaugural evening of the wine and cheese lecture series at SPS.

Taggart has worked extensively with the theoretical import of Mary Ainsworth’sStrange Situation Protocol” in order to clarify its implications for the formation of human subjectivity within our current media ecology and technological environs. Ainsworth developed her strange situation protocol as a series of interactions between a mother, child, and a stranger, where the mother comes and goes, all with the aim of surfacing clues which can help determine the nature of a child’s attachment to its caregiver (in this case, the mother).

John Bowlby was a pioneer of attachment theory, and Ainsworth was a student of his. Ainsworth, like Bowlby, felt that a human could not be analyzed as a closed system — one had to observe and understand the environment in which they moved and the network of relations which composed their life-world. Bowlby departed from his mentor Melanie Klein on precisely this point — Bowlby insisted on the importance of the material mother, that is, the actual mother which the child’s circumstances have forced them to attach themselves to for their survival, whereas Klein focused exclusively on the child’s fantasy of the mother object.

Ainsworth was so dedicated to this insight, that she initially engaged in multi-week home-stays to observe her clients’ interactions in their natural habitat. However, she quickly realized that this practice could not be sustained and would be difficult to scale. Thus, she developed the "Strange Situation Protocols" to attempt to re-create the child’s attachment network within the clinical context.

Ainsworth followed Bowlby in emphasizing the importance in analysis of the material objects which make up the child’s world, because they are what the child has to work with. The child does not have a mother object generally, but rather this mother object, the one which they live with. The fantastical element is thus not eliminated in this model, but rather the fantasy cannot be understood in isolation from its relation to the material conditions of its production.

From this focus on the inextricable relation between material objects and human development, Taggart explores, what he calls, “technologies of individuation.” Human beings require external objects for our own internal subjectivity to evolve. For the child, the mother is one of the first objects in their world, and this appearance of the mother coincides with the emergence of the subject. Not only have individual humans required technologies, that is, external objects, to become subjects, but the record of humanity as a whole composes a story of co-evolution with the tools we have developed for working on our world and ourselves.

To make this point, Taggart points out three important objects in the history of psychoanalysis — Freud’s spool (fort/da), Lacan’s mirror (mirror stage), and Winnicott’s blanket (transitional object). Rarely are these concepts presented together grouped in this way, but doing so reveals a surprising connecting thread. All of these material objects correspond to a moment in the infant’s process of individuation, and these events remain reliant upon the object which facilitates the process of emerging as a subject.

  • Freud’s spool empowers the child to re-enact in an active manner the usually passive experience of mother coming and going, and later, Freud observes his grandson also throwing the spool away, engaging in the Oedipal activity of banishing his father.
  • Lacan’s mirror describes a primal scene in which a two experiences coincide — first, as the child sees an image of themselves in the mirror, they provide wholeness to the chaos of their bodily drives through the process of mis-recognizing themselves as the image. However, secondly, they also experience seeing themselves being seen by the caregiver, thus introducing a relation between their image and the Other’s seeing them.
  • Winnicott’s blanket was the concept I had the least familiarity with (although I’ve been meaning to dive into Winnicott more), and I gathered that the blanket serving as a transitional object allows the child to generate a substitute for the satisfaction of the breast, thus enabling them to engage in affect regulation in the mother’s absence, further facilitating their development as a separate being with independent agency in their environment.

This constellation of notions — attachment theory and technologies of individuation — cashes out in Taggart’s thesis that “the planetary attachment milieu has shifted” — and all the provocative questions which this raises. If we are collectively developing and experiencing a different structure of subjectivity on the basis of the objects with which we are co-evolving, both as people and as a species, then there is something radically unknown about the experiment which we are unwittingly performing on ourselves through the proliferation of technological and digital objects with which we are forming attachments.

Taggart’s “algorythmic object” provides a tentative label for referring to the digital Other which gathers our data, predicts our behavior, and intervenes in our lives through feeds, ads, and reminders. This also includes the digital objects which mediate our experience of this Other, for the two are, in some important sense, inseparable. We become attached to this digital Other only through repeating attachment behaviors with the material objects (phone, tablet, computer, TV) which provide the medium for our experience of our relationship with this Other.

This new (m)Other knows us deeper than we even know ourselves, such as when Spotify makes the best song recommendations, or online retailers discern that someone is pregnant before even they have realized that they are. This can be shockingly suffocating, as Winnicott pointed out when he heard that many nannies in London had become so good at their jobs that they could sense a child was hungry before the child realized they were hungry, and consequently would simply feed them. What do we lose when the opportunity to register our hunger is stolen from us by this all-knowing, every-vigilant (m)Other?

Ultimately, as we observe our planetary attachment milieu shifting dramatically, we have to stop and ask — to what sort of mother are we becoming attached?

A free piece of theory in your inbox once a month