D.W. Winnicott and our inescapable need to plunder

I am intensely interested in the need, responsibilities, and possibilities for psychoanalysis to contribute to public life. This is a matter of faith for me, born of many years of struggle to sustain hope in the face of despair, courage in the face of fear, creation in the face of destruction—in my own life, in my experience with patients, and in the context of the no less daunting climb in matters facing us in public life.

I have recently been writing about the relationship between human and nonhuman realms. I focus mostly on the process, if we are to gain status as human subjects, by which we need to contend with giving meaning to matter (our bodies, the world of inanimate objects, and so forth). To do so we must contend with a reality beyond our omnipotence, and in that process we become further rooted in public discourse, and—well—matters that are literally rooted in the earth, even as they are also the stuff of spiritual life.

Al Gore may have discovered an essential psychoanalytic truth when he made An Inconvenient Truth. When interviewed about his award-winning documentary, he’d often say that he’d come to recognize that it was only by casting the earth as an animated character that we (his audience) could identity with it (and therefore, love and root for it). This was his compelling way of communicating his passion. How do we link Gore’s insight with his very concern: climate change itself and with how we are inescapably implicated as moral agents in our planet’s destruction?

The psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott is well known for his idea of the transitional object—capturing the infant’s capacity to give meaning to that otherwise inanimate blanket and teddy bear, to imbue the world with meaning.  In so doing, he takes a step beyond omnipotence, but also beyond a world of “thingness.” As Gore recognized, we need to imbue the planet Earth with subjective meaning, to render it “our” Earth. A matter of what matters to us. 

Despite the wishes of climate change deniers, many of the calamities we face—including unprecedented Arctic melting, vast erosions to the Pacific region’s coral reefs, droughts, deforestation, firestorms, and extending to the Zika virus, the plight of famine and of millions of refugees seeking shelter—suggest crises of our own subjective making, our own untethered tie to the impact we have on the world beyond our narcissism. More obviously yet, the human factor in the runaway wreckage of unregulated global capitalism (think big Pharma, the financial debacles of recent years, Citizens United), reveal the human vulnerability toward an uncurtailed omnipotence, a failure to draw an ethical line in the sand between hubris and responsibility, unmoored grandiosity and actual reality.

Winnicott’s thought about that line between omnipotence and reality is very relevant to this conversation. But there is another way that Winnicott’s work may be particularly relevant: He also described the infant’s inescapable need to plunder and ruthlessly use “environmental mother” in order to discover mother as “subject”—a mother with her own life and independent desires. A mother Earth perhaps, by analogy, with her own needs and limits. This, said Winnicott, was the pathway towards the discovery of joy and love.

Taking Winnicott’s uncanny wisdom as a starting point, I wonder how we might engage with the idea that human beings—in order to reach a place of love and generosity with a world beyond “us”—must take seriously a developmentally based agenda to plunder and destroy as a condition of and for the claiming of our humanity. Only by this means do we discover a world that survives beyond our destruction. 

Winnicott’s “environmental mother” must bear infant’s aggression and ruthlessness, if she is to survive. But what about the Earth mother? If we, by virtue of our very plight to claim our humanity, must challenge her to the core of her ability to survive our destruction, can she survive? Will she? Might there be another —and less perilous—route to claiming our shared humanity?  

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