Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Real Work Is Play... the rest is labor...

From The Psychoanalytic Field. This is part of a series on work and play--a post too good not to quote in full. I take this as another opportunity to call for a new reading of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.

The method of free association was Freud’s response to one of the most challenging tasks with which psychoanalysis has had to grapple over its history: the elaboration of a system of contact, traversal, and translation between the primary and secondary processes as two ways of thinking, and hence as two ways of being, that are radically alien to one another.
In their elaborations of the unconscious, Lacanism and Ego Psychology seem to stand on the opposite ends of a conceptual scale that pits the ineluctable foreignness of the symbolic against the domesticity of development. One recognizes the effects of such theorizing in the tone of the texts as well: from the turgidly undecipherable to the rigidly banal. What a shame it is to have reduced the workings of the unconscious to the structures of language or the chronologies of development, and to have colonized the former with the disciplines and strategies of either of the latter.
While relying heavily on Klein’s notion of unconscious “phantasy,” Winnicott articulates the fact of an in-between that facilitates and organizes the passages between subjective and objective, self and other. Neither a hallucination nor a concretization, the “transitional” object is the site of infantile illusion and, by extension, adult creativity. It is neither simply given nor autocratically created; it is a found object in the sense that, while belonging to an external reality, it is invested with the qualities that suit the momentary psychodynamic purposes of the individual that “finds” it. It becomes “transitional” at the very moment of its finding.
Of all the principal figures in the psychoanalytic pantheon, and in spite of the ideological restrictions of his parental metaphors, Winnicott is perhaps one of the most faithful of Freudians. Rather than upon the uncovering of history, the enunciation of truth, the resolution of conflict, or the mastery over anxiety, it is upon the capacity to “find” and re-deploy creatively one’s own objects, in other words to play, that Winnicott bases his principal mark of health. Instead of merely a tool for analytic inquiry, the capacity to associate freely has now been clearly identified as the goal of that inquiry and, ultimately, as a necessary strategy for “healthy” living. (I think there is a bridge here between Winnicottian play and Deleuzo-Guattarian bricolage.)
This makes a lot of sense to me. And yet, rare indeed are those that undertake an analysis because they want to “play.”

My year or so in therapy was brought on by a crisis, and though I wouldn't have stated it that way, there was never any question but that what marked the end of my need, was a restoration of my capacity for play... something my therapist fully recognized.


  1. Hello Jacob;

    First, many thanks for taking the time to read, comment on, and reference my posts over the last few months. I did hear your call to take Arendt seriously and I will have to respond to that call at some point in the future.

    I've been remiss as far as keeping up with the blog over the last few weeks. Checking proofs, indexing, and a very well deserved vacation kept me away. I'm planning a few entries right now and you;ll hear from me again on a regular basis soon enough.


  2. I do look forward to your thoughts on Arendt. One of those thinkers important to me, like Martin Buber, both early and late in my life, who seem lately to have slipped under the radar... perhaps worth another look.

    I mean, if Zizek can dig up Hegel and rearrange his bones and claim they have something to say to our generation...

  3. I've never read Arendt, and that's a hole in my education. I'm a big fan of Winnicott, however, and all things transitional. This is a fascinating passage and I love the idea of play. It's the only way I can write, to think of myself as playing with ideas and concepts and other people's metaphors. And I think it's a very Winnicottian idea that restoring the patient to his or her ability to play lies at the heart of the cure.

  4. Litlove,

    I will have to educate myself on Winicott...