Sunday, 27 November 2011

Winnicott and Agoraphobia

(Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris. By DT)

In a passage from A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze writes the following:

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of the chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip; it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus.

How does the child’s song speak through the darkness? Does the song substitute the formlessness of the dark with the form of a discernable melody? That does not seem correct, as it would imply a causal relation between the two: before there is a melodic structure to the world, there is not chaos but the occupancy of other people’s songs. “It is territorial, a territorial assemblage,” as Deleuze goes on to say. The child’s song does not suppress the darkness, but bridges the light of inner experience with the nocturnal world. Seen in this way, the song is what Winnicott would term a “transitional object.”

For Winnicott, the notion of a transitional object is predicated on an intermediate reality. Between the reality of subjective experience and objective world outside of that reality, an intermediate space opens up. Winnicott cites the infant’s caressing of external objects—cloth, wool, string, teddy bear, etc—as emblematic of a “defence against anxiety, especially anxiety of a depressive type” (Playing and Reality, 5). The transitional object and phenomena coincide, each aspect dependent on the other, and each emerging with greater intensity in times of insecurity.

Winnicott provides the reader with a list of the special qualities of the relationship between the baby and the object. The characteristics range from a will to destroy the object, an insistence on its permanence, a total possession of control, and a sense of it as having an autonomous life. Eventually, the baby outgrows the object and it becomes relegated to “limbo,” now deprived of its meaning, and yet still remembered. Having survived and testified to the destruction of the object, the infant proceeds to an ontologically secure place in the world, now able to experience his own autonomy without the need to possess or be possessed by the things and people around him.

Winnicott’s ideas have a particular appeal to an understanding of agoraphobia. If we—as I have previously suggested—are to understand agoraphobia as having a special relationship with the inability to cultivate a sense of home, then from a Winnicottian perspective, this inability gravitates toward the home as an intermediate reality. Psychoanalytically, there is, of course, a relation between the home and mother’s breast, insofar as both constitute a first point of contact with the world and the source of primordial nourishment. From a phenomenological perspective, “home” is not a geometric site in the world, nor is it a construct of the subject’s internal landscape. Instead, it is a relational mode of being-in-the-world: it is the bridge enabling one to set foot in the world.

It seems to me that in the case of agoraphobia, the “disorder” is a failure to negotiate or create the transitional space between self and world. Let us return to the relationship between the breast and the home. When the baby cries, the breast appears in the world, giving the impression that the baby’s will creates the breast to materialize. In turn, the mother submits herself to the needs of the baby. Once other objects are introduced into this dyadic relationship, the baby slowly begins to recognise objects as being “not me.” In time, the mother herself distances herself from the needs of the baby, and with the mother’s guidance, the baby enters the transitional space between subjective and objective realities. If all goes to plan, then the frustrations met in this phase are adapted to and the baby begins to find a place in the world.

In the case of agoraphobia, the anxiety experienced has its roots in the subject’s inability to will a state of familiarity instantly. For the agoraphobe, the experience of anxiety is primarily an experience of radical alterity: the world becomes hostile by dint of its unfamiliarity, and the one thing the agoraphobe lacks, is the ability to establish familiarity outside of his circumscribed sense of “home.” Panic ensues as the sensations the agoraphobe undergoes are interpreted as a threat to his already vulnerable sense of self.

In turn, the reliance on transitional objects within the transitional space becomes a pathology. Only now, those objects are not teddy bears and pieces of cloth—though they may well be—but instead particular modes of bodily comportment and navigation. Recall this from “victim” of agoraphobia:

I see a man hobbling past my house on crutches, a cripple for life, and I actually envy him. At times I would gladly exchange places with the humblest day laborer who walks unafraid across the public square or saunters tranquilly over the viaduct on his way home after the day's work.
Hobbling, crutches, umbrellas, tying one’s shoe laces, holding to the wall, sunglasses, hats—these are all props equivalent to the “trusted other” that enable the agoraphobe to get from one point to another. They are modes of retaining control over a world that does not spontaneously produce, in Winnicottian terms, the primordial shelter of the mother’s breast. Lacking ontological security in the world, the experience of intermediate space is not interpreted as a “potential space” of creation and growth, but as a space divested of all familiar attributes and so opposed to the singularity of the I. Indeed, in the failure to navigate the terrain of the intermediate space successfully, what the agoraphobe experiences is the reality of internal experience confront the external world, without anything to link them.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Face of Milly


Some subjects can come near to blindness without changing their ‘world’: they can be seen colliding with objects everywhere, but they are not aware of no longer being open to visual qualities, and the structure of their conduct remains unmodified.

(Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception)

You went blind at the age of 6. Slowly, a cloud appeared in the crystalline lens of each of your eyes. At first, the silvery blue sheen that speckled your eye was vague and only visible in certain lights. You could see movements, but you were unsure of the precise origin and nature of those movements. For a while, it was possible for you to walk amongst us unaided by your powerful nostrils. Fearing a loss of contact with you, I would hold my finger in the air, move it from left to right, and measure how much of the movement you could detect with your eyes.

Over time, the cloud grew larger and those movements soon transformed into shadows that cast the world in a blackened haze. We watched it happen as helpless witnesses. We saw frequently that you would stumble nervously in the sunlight. When you knocked your head on rocks and edges, I felt the organs of my body contort themselves in agony. Increasingly, you would make your way in the world by sniffing the corners of each wall you would pass. In the midst of sprawling crowds, you came to a standstill, and I would often pick you up, cover you in my black scarf and guide you to a less densely populated part of our shared world. There, I would see that you had the freedom to roam unobstructed by rapidly moving objects and creatures both taller and larger than you. You had lost your sight, and now, an intense film of blue covered your eyes, masking the brown eyes behind the cataracts.

When the eyes withdrew from your face, where was your vision of the world? Did the world of those that love you simultaneously vanish alongside your eyesight, now consigned to a memory, the affective tone of which no human being can experience from the outside? Prior to your blindness, we saw one another from time to time through touching foreheads, feeling the heat in each other’s bodies. Back then, the eye contact would be full of expression and the focal point of our communication. Often, I might give you a particular look to indicate that now was the time to be fed or walked. Our glances would exchange and a common language would be established in a non-verbal gesture. Today, the same look remains on your face, but there are no eyes to initiate the reflex. And yet: your speech has remained inscribed in your face. True, the visible realm is no longer your priority, and in your blindness, you journey through the world upon different senses. But your face sees through the blindness. In its obscurity, your face continues to call to those around you, to summon their presence. Your face assumes an authority upon human life in spite of its blindness. Know that the silent call is heard.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Face of the Dog


("Stalker," Andrei Tarkovsky. 1979)

Levinas’s article on Bobby the dog—the so-called “Last Kantian in Nazi Germany”—raises several critical issues regarding the limits of Levinasian ethics. The article, “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights,” is an autobiographical meditation on a dog that befriended Levinas during his occupation in camp 1492 (“the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain,” Levinas reminds us ironically). Levinas documents the situation accordingly:

There were seventy of us in a forestry commando unit for Jewish prisoners of war in Nazi Germany… The French uniform still protected us from Hitlerian violence. But the other men, called free, who had dealings with us or gave us work or orders or even a smile - and the children and women who passed by and sometimes raised their eyes - stripped us of our human skin. We were subhuman, a gang of apes. A small inner murmur, the strength and wretchedness of persecuted people, reminded us of our essence as thinking creatures, but we were no longer part of the world. Our comings and goings, our sorrow and laughter, illnesses and distractions, the work of our hands and the anguish of our eyes, the letters we received from France and those accepted for our families - all that passed in parenthesis. We were beings entrapped in their species; despite all their vocabulary, beings without language.
Into this bleak world, a world in which man—now stripped not only of his "human skin" but also his language—is reduced to animal, “a wondering dog entered our lives…we called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog.” The arrival of Bobby thus appears to redeem Levinas from an inhuman status, giving back an ethical responsibility that was otherwise lacking.

At the outset, then, it is hard to know where we ought to be placing Bobby. Earlier on in the essay, Levinas warns us against reading “the name of a dog in the figurative sense,” declaring boldly: “Enough of allegories!” At the end of the essay, this allegorical hazard is reprised again, when Levinas points to Ulysses and the return from the Odyssey. But this allegorical opening is swiftly closed down, Levinas remarking: “Here, we were nowhere,” with the implication being that Bobby was a kind of freak anomaly totally prised apart from the realm of civil humanity.

The place of Bobby hinges upon a tension in Levinas’s treatment of non-human life and (the face of) life more broadly. Of clear concern to him is the danger of anthropomorphising Bobby in a place where anthropomorphising gains an especially offensive air. Bobby is the materiality of a dog, and any expression of Kantian loyalty in his behaviour is by dint of an accident alone; without, that is to say in Levinas’s blunt formulation, “the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives.” Does the resistance toward anthropomorphising lead to a wordless and silent dog, to phrase it in Heideggerian terms? Indeed, the general tone of Levinas’s paper is if not quite sublime awe, then something pointing to bafflement that a dog might attain the level of ethical responsibility that Bobby has done under the present conditions. Bobby survived in a “wild patch,” the name Bobby, an “exotic” token of his uncanny presence in the horror of the camp. All the more uncanny was Bobby’s apparent enthusiasm at the sight of Levinas and his fellow prisoners, there Bobby “jumping up and down and barking in delight.”

One might argue that Bobby’s uncanny presence in Levinas’s essay is due to a fundamental weakness in the notion of face-to-face ethics. This is especially clear given that Levinas never defines the significance of the face in its material presence. We know that the face is not reducible to perception. The face is more than flesh, more than countenance assumed on the human form. Yet at the same time, the face as an ethical injunction relies on the destitution of the skin and the life that is expressed within that skin. “The face speaks,” as Levinas tells us time and again. The face enters into discourse, and doing so, establishes an “authentic relationship” with the other. Coupled with this onus on discourse, the face assumes a height. The face speaks to me from above, it “orders and ordains” me, as he says in Ethics and Infinity. That Levinas experiences respect in the presence of Bobby is thus a paradox. For in Levinas’s formulation, Bobby, unable to speak, has no face. As such, the dog becomes reduced to the “wild animals,” “gang of apes” and other “subhumans” mentioned in Levinas’s essay.

In the camp, Levinas experiences respect, yet it is a respect that cannot be reciprocated. Faceless, Levinas is never able to gesture back to Bobby, except through the guise of astonishment. Here, there is no language that can be shared between Levinas and Bobby, not even in the liminal terror of their shared situation. The animal is pure lack, a presence without a face, and for all his civility, in the end it amounts to nothing more than a mechanised Kantianism, an accident in the ethical order. What Levinas purportedly sees in Bobby is a cruel residual afterlife of a world that predated the camp. In his affections and loyalty, the entropy of brute and stupid habit outlives the inhumanity of industrial murder.

Recall: Levinas was “stripped…of our human skin. We were subhuman, a gang of apes.” What is this skin that enables the human to fend off the ape within? Is the dog already divested of the “human skin” that confers an ethical responsibility upon Others? What does Levinas see in Bobby that is concealed in “human skin”? Such questions remain necessarily unanswerable, as Levinas does not provide us with the resources to establish a dialogue with non-human faces. Instead, they are without a face.

In an interview from 1986, Levinas’s thoughts on non-human faces have altered slightly. Here, he has the following to say on dogs.

One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog. Yet the priority here is not found in the animal, but in the human face. We understand the animal, the face of an animal, in accordance with Dasein. The phenomenon of the face is not in its purest form in the dog. In the dog, in the animal, there are other phenomena. For example, the force of nature is pure vitality.

If Bobby gestures toward having a face, then that face nevertheless remains resistant to ethics. As with Kant, our treatment of animals gains an ethical structure to it only in light of our treatment of humans: at best, the animal serves as a conduit to our treatment of humans. In any case, the face of the dog appears only as a sort of play of light, a fortuitous emergence that will soon be foreclosed by the dog’s purer vitality, “the force of nature.” Here, the face of the dog, already tenuous and diminished, is sculpted in the shape of the human face. Lacking a heterogeneous face of its own, the dog’s face mirrors the face of Dasein in its non-human skin, a face that does less to elevate the dog to a moral status and more to degrade its vitality as an ethical being.