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The Thinking Body: A Feminist Revision of Melanie Klein

by Jo Nash.



1. A ‘part-object’ relationship to the environment is the only possibility open to the very young infant as their neurological system, and therefore perceptual functioning, are still not fully developed, They are not able to distinguish between separate objects, and can only sense changes in the overall environment at a pre-verbal affective and somatic level. Thus the delayed feed becomes the bad mother evoked by environment of deprivation, just as the full feed becomes the good mother evoked by the experience of nourishment and satiation though this mother is one and the same person. For the infant these two polarised experiences of the mother, of the breast, lead to representation of the mother as split, as a good breast or bad breast, depending on her response to the infant’s demands. Hinshelwood writes,

Because the infant cannot perceive the true nature and cause of his own sensations, they are interpreted according to innate experiences... In particular, the object has a feeling state - good or bad and has intentions or motives towards the infant. The object, at the outset, is sensual, emotional and intentional rather than physical. Thus "the breast"... is an object (that)... touches his cheek, intrudes a nipple into his mouth for good or bad purposes. In spite of having only these ephemeral qualities it is completely real for the infant. Such objects are called ‘part-objects’ although, from the infant’s point of view, the part is all there is to the object (Hinshelwood, 1989, p. 379).

It is this explicitly human existential state of neurological and perceptual underdevelopment at birth that makes us prey to the continuing intrusion of infantile processes that lead to part-object relations and concomitant neurosis and psychosis in adult life.

2. I find Yankelovich and Barret’s concept of the ‘developmental’ a more suitable term than, instinct’. They write:

We define the developmentals therefore, as structures that grow only when phylogenetic factors interact with critical individual experience at specific stages in the life cycle. Experience and instinct are here regarded as inseparable aspects of a single unified event : in one sense, the infant " learns" basic trust from being mothered, but in another sense mothering elicits and brings to fulfilment an instinctive potential for basic trust (1970, p, 396).

In this sense what is instinctive is redefined as a set of phylogenetic ‘potentials’ for certain sorts of behaviour, which must be elicited by interactive experiences at critical stages in the life cycle. Should the environmental conditions necessary to elicit the development of these instinctual behaviours be lacking, then I inhibitions I of instinctive behaviour occur.

3. As I have argued elsewhere in this study, phenomenological perspective because it accords the status of reality to the full range of modalities of human experience. 1 have adopted this Laingian perspective as an antidote to the positivist scientific tradition favour the existential that the most developed areas of natural science have also made philosophically redundant.

4. Estella Welldon’s shocking book Mother, Madonna, Whore (1989) discusses our cultures idealisation of mothers as Madonnas in the light of several case histories of women only able to relate to their own bodies and their children in grossly narcissistic part-object relational terms. The idealising phantasies associated with the ‘at-oneness’ represented by Madonna and child representations of the mother-infant bond are acted-out by these mothers in relation to their children in ways that are unable to admit the separate inner life of the child. Welldon calls such a mother a ‘perverse’ mother. She explains how such a mother will not have separated from her own mother who will in turn have treated her daughter as an extension of herself with no autonomous inner life, as a part-object. The child in this situation is only able to exist as long as it meets mother’s needs first, is the mother’s container. The mother’s ability to meet her child’s needs, and her own infantile needs ( for food, health, safety, comfort), is severely impaired if not almost entirely lacking. Welldon’s study does much to debunk the phantasy of at-oneness commonly represented by Madonna-like depictions of the mother-infant bond as in any way desirable. Welldon’s book suggests that the fantasy that because women are mothers they possess an omnipotent bond with their children, and are entitled therefore to special treatment from their children, is especially strong in those mothers who neglect and abuse their children.

5. Robert M.Young is careful to differentiate between didactic and evocative knowledge, Though I am writing about evocative experience my use of this term is a direct application of his use of it when he writes about countertransference phenomena. He writes ‘Didactic knowledge is imparted, while evocative knowledge is elicited or brought forth’ (Young, 1994, p. 56). In this way I am suggesting that the infant’s experience is elicited by the mother’s ambivalence toward the act of giving birth, rather than a fusion of its own life and death instincts.


6. Teresa Brennan draws upon the ideas of her predecessors in this field, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, to provide an important account if what happens intersubjectively between men and women when both are compelled to communicate according to the imperatives of the ‘masculine logic , of phallocentrism, She argues that the French feminist emphasis upon woman’ s relation to the symbolic order is,

...a necessary but not a sufficient condition for change. But it is a difficult story to tell in full, because of the anxiety and forgetfulness which repress it. The story can be told only when this anxiety is overcome and the forgetfulness surpassed. It becomes coherent only when words follow an uncensored chain. It is forcefully expressed only when the inertia that is the condition of masculine logic maintaining its ellipses is projected back, and when the being who carries it thinks, and acts on a reality that provides her with a space for activity, and the opportunity to bring dank phantasies out into the light of day (Brennan, 1992, p. 239).

Brennan argues that only when a woman turns back to what is forgotten, or repudiated by masculine logic, can she excise masculinist phantasy constructs from the foundations of her false-self and reclaim her subjective capacities. This supports my similar argument which is based on a re-reading of Klein specifically, whereas Brennan draws more upon Freud’s economic theory to construct her theory of energetic relationality.

7. Here I am suggesting that mother serves as the container for the child I s projections which she must be able to hold, detoxify and feedback in a suitably mitigated form in order to further her child’s development. However, mother must be in touch with her inner life, not dissociated from it, she must be healthy enough to achieve this. If not the infant will become ever more frustrated and terrified, which is again mirroring mother’s inability to contain her own infantile phantasy and her child’s projections.

8. Literature concerned with the political analysis of rape (Brownmiller, 1975) and regarding the psychological suffering and treatment of survivors (Braswell, 1989; Hilberman, 1976; McCahill et al., 1980; Sanders, 19801) bear out my suggestion.

9. These feelings are based on the widespread experience of the actual colonisation, robbing and violation of the intimate physical space within women’s bodies. Klein describes how women feel about their bodies when they express this in analysis, but these feelings are based on actual everyday realities encountered by women, not on phantasy. This is why I believe her work is worth re-examination by feminist seeking to understand embodied knowledge, as it seems Klein’s analysands are expressing some fundamental intuition about their bodily existence in a patriarchal culture. Andrea Dworkin summarises this reality as follows :

Male sexual domination is a material system with an ideology and a metaphysics- The sexual colonisation of women’s bodies is a material reality’ - men control the sexual and reproductive uses of women’s bodies. The institutions of control include law, marriage, prostitution, pornography, health care, the economy, organised religion, and systematised physical aggression against women (for instance in rape and battery) - Male domination of the female body is the basic material reality of women’s lives; and all struggle for dignity and self-determination is rooted in the struggle for actual control of one I s own body, especially control over physical access to one’s body. (Dworkin, 1981, quoted in Humm ed., 1992, pp. 84-85).

10. During my researches on this subject 1 found an interesting essay by Adam Parfrey on castration. It seems that there other incidences where forms of partial castration take place, noticeably among psychotic men. Also a form of genital mutilation called subincision is practised among Australian Aborigines. Be writes,

Australian Aborigines visit another form of genital mutilation upon the pre-pubescent, slicing open the urethra from the glans to the scrotum on the underside of the penis ( taking care not to slice open the corpus cavernosum, with all its erectile tissue), The result is what the Australians humorously call the ‘whistle cock’ , referring to its whiffling leakage of sperm and urine.. , the Aborigines only accord full social status to those who have undergone subincision (1987, p. 98).

Parfrey argues that this rite is practised by the physically more vulnerable and sexually less potent male elders upon their male children in order to maintain patriarchal control over the greater sexual potency and physical strength of younger men, while ensuring they remain able to reproduce.

11. I use the term unconscious knowledge to denote a form of knowledge elicited in the girl by the primary carer’s sexuate response communications with her via the modality of unconscious phantasy. In other words, a nanny, mother or father may not say anything specific to convey this kind knowledge to a little girl, but this is instead evoked by the affective component of what is and is not said, or avoided, or by tone of voice, gesture, and the different ways of regulating activity and behaviour according to her gender, for example.

12. As I mentioned (p. 122, n.6), Julia Kristeva conception of the semiotic points towards Kleinian formulations of the archaic maternal, or ‘primitive’ processes. She writes,

...semiotic processes prepare the future speaker for entrance into meaning and signification (the symbolic). But the symbolic constitutes itself only by breaking with this anteriority, which is retrieved as "signifier", "primary processes", displacement and condensation, metaphor and metonomy, rhetorical figures - but which always remain subordinate - subadjacent to the principal functioning of naming-predicating. Language as symbolic function constitutes itself at the cost of repressing instinctual drive and continuous relation to the mother (1980, p. 136).

By contrast it is necessary to be able to intuitively process semiotic communications when nurturing baby, or conducting psychotherapy for example.

13. The metaphysics of phallocentrism collapse biological sex into gender, gender into sexuality, and sexuality into psychosexuality. This metaphysics of sexuality enables all sort of complex differences to be dismissed as aberrations of the phallocratic causal chain, which refers to anatomical sex in order to prescribe a person’s destiny. Within this framework, no logical explanation can be made of those persons with particular anatomical, gendered, sexual and psychosexual identities which do not collapse into each other in this, for they resist the fall into the phallocentric heterosexist bi-polar framework of explanation. For example, though the butch lesbian may be explained away as a woman who wants to be a man, as merely a case of gender identity confusion commensurate with a heterosexist evaluation of her sexual preference, the feminine lesbian exceeds this binary oppositional, either/or account of the sexual aberration, as does the heterosexual transvestite male, and the male to female transsexual who, once a biological woman goes onto identify as a lesbian.

There is no necessary, or demonstrably I natural I connection between a persons biological sex, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, sexual practices and psychosexual phantasy life. To presume there is denies all evidence to the contrary, However the dominant assumption that there is a natural and necessary relationship between these different modalities of sexual experience forms the foundations of an anatomically reductionist phallocentric social phantasy system.

14. There is a vast literature covering these themes, central as they are to the feminist analysis of women’s changing economic, social and political role in contemporary society. A good overview of the literature relating to the sexual division of labour can be found in Harriet Bradley’s Women’s Work, Men’s Work (1989). Recent sociological analyses of changing childrearing practices include Julia Brannon and Peter Moss’ New Mothers at Work, Employment and Childcare (1988); Jane Ribbens’ Mothers and Their Children: A Feminist Sociology of Childrearing (1994); and Dione Richardson’s Women, Motherhood and Childrearing (1993) .

15. Though other groups of women, such as Asian, African, Jewish, lesbian and disabled women are represented by different sets of stereotypes traceable in origin to their particular experiences of white male heterosexual domination, I am suggesting that these stereotypes are evaluatively constructed by a process of referral to the ‘feminine ideal’, aspired to by white heterosexual bourgeois women. Writing about the origins of stereotypes of Black African women Patricia Hill Collins writes:

According to the cult of true womanhood, "true" women possessed four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Elite white women and those of the emerging middle class were encouraged to aspire to these virtues. African-American women encountered a different set of controlling images. The sexual ideology, .. "confirmed the differing material circumstances of these two groups of women- . .by balancing opposing definitions of womanhood and motherhood, each dependent on the other for its existence"...

The first controlling image applied to the African-American women is that of the mammy the faithful , obedient domestic servant. ., the mammy image represents the normative yardstick used to evaluate all Black women’s behaviour (1990, p, 70).

The point is that the stereotype of the mammy was constructed via a process of referral to the bourgeois stereotypes aspired to by white women mistresses of the houses who employed Black house servants, The difference was that the Black mammy stereotype was used to justify Black women’ s continuing slavery and removal from her own family, her own children.

Similarly the stereotype of the butch, ball-breaking, aggressive, ugly lesbian is constructed by a referral to the stereotype of the I feminine I weak, submissive but pretty heterosexual woman- Thus the dominant ideology which affords only white heterosexual men the means to define their own subjectivity without reference to the stereotype means that masculine privilege remains intact.

16. For a further discussion of this see John Fletcher ( 1989) Freud and His Uses: Psychoanalysis and Gay Theory, on male homosexuality.

17. A feminism of autonomy must work toward the provision of an alternative, more fertile philosophical and/or theoretical foundation for the future germination and growth of these ‘seeds’ of phallocentrism’s destruction, extracted as I have suggested, from the tomb of the Kleinian symptom. Without this alternative no coherent, autonomous reconstruction of the feminine subject will be possible, within psychoanalysis or anywhere else, only a continual mutation of the phallocratic phantasy of woman.

18. When I use the term ‘vicariously’ I mean that mother is split in two by the projected polarisations, the binary oppositional foundational phantasies of a phallocentric psychic economy, The representational prototype of the ideal woman-mother contains the split-off anxiety resulting from the disavowal of ambivalent relations between mother and child, while the denigrated woman-mother who is oblivious to her child’ s needs justifies that ideal, This paranoid-schizoid representational schema obliterates any recognition of mother’ s needs, of life beyond the orbit of the child, of her autonomy, The needs of the child are pivotal, In this way the child in Kleinian theory replaces the penis as the object of adult female desire. Should the female develop ‘normally’ then the displacement of her desire for sex, into a desire to-be-sexual-for-a-man, then maternal for-a-baby, ensures women never acquire the status of whole objects, in their heterosexual partner’s, child’s, or their own eyes, because it is felt to be too dangerous (for the child/penis). This also means masculine dependency needs are successfully circumvented, In this way all woman-mothers risk remaining forever contiguous with the original phantasy mother of infantile part-object relations who Parker calls The Great Mother and Fragile Container.

19. For an in-depth psychoanalytic account of the mother-daughter relationship in similar terms see Nini Hermann’s Too Long A Child. The Mother-Daughter Dyad (1989).

20. According to Karen Armstrong, the Christian doctrine of original sin handed down from the Western Fathers ‘...teaches us that our "natural" state is evil and hopeless and has made religion for many people a desperate affair: a guilty battle with self that seems to refuse

salvation, a terror of "Hell" and, finally, . , a fear of sex and a hatred of women’ (1986, p. 29).

The doctrine of original sin bears more than a passing resemblance to the fundamental view of human nature propounded by classical psychoanalysis, There is a popular view that Freud founded a religion, a kind of esoteric cult rather than science, which is propounded most convincingly in Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong; Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995).






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