Adam de Ville, who who I have linked to before, has a fascinating post on Christopher Bollas, and how he (deVille) came to an appreciation of the enduring insights of the psychoanalytic tradition.
I begin at the beginning with Bollas, whose 1987 book The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known has just been republished in a 30th-anniversary edition. It reads, as many of his books do, like collections of essays only loosely stitched together usually around one theme. He begins with a chapter on the “transformational object,” and those who know psychoanalytic history will at once recognize that Bollas, born and educated in the US but practicing as an analyst in England for many years, is here indebted to the British independent school, especially D.W. Winnicott and his equally famous idea of the “transitional object.”
For Bollas, the “object” is not singular. Our life is a collection, largely unconscious, of memories of interactions with myriads and myriads of “objects,” most of them human, including, most powerfully, our parents and families. “There is no one unified mental phenomenon that we can term self,” Bollas argues, because “the person’s self is the history of many internal relations,” and those relations to various objects cast a shadow over the rest of our life. Many of those object relations will remain unconscious to us, but nonetheless powerful and directive of other relations. One way, Bollas says, we may discover some of these earlier object relations is by listening to “our own idiom of thinking about and talking to ourselves.”
But how many of us do that today? How can we do that today when we drown out the capacity for such thoughts, filling our days with electronic stimuli so much that we cannot part with our phones even at night when sleeping, as a huge majority of us now do? If the cell phone today is not a “transformational object” in every sense then nothing is. So too are social media in their various forms, which at least sometimes seem to collude, as it were, to keep us from deeper, more wide-ranging reflection and insight. Surely one of the main goals of these media is not to encourage genuine criticism of some depth in which the very systems of our time (political and economic) are put to the question, for, as MacIntyre has said (see ch. 9, here), we are all condemned to think and act in the terms of the modern nation-state and its capitalist handmaid. Thus social media largely seek homogenization in the service of advanced capitalism, which requires the production of standardized consumers deemed to be normal, a process of definition, Bollas says, that “is typified by the numbing and eventual erasure of subjectivity in favor of a self that is conceived as a material object among other man-made products in the object world.”
Such a self what Bollas calls “normotic,” that is,
someone who is abnormally normal. He is too stable, secure, comfortable, and socially extrovert. He is fundamentally disinterested in subjective life and he is inclined to reflect on the thingness of objects, on their material reality, or on ‘data’ that relates to material phenomena…..Such an individual is alive in a world of meaningless plenty.
(Erich Fromm argued something loosely similar many years ago in his The Pathology of Normalcy.)
The normotic individual “is interested in facts” but not to link them together, still less to see any kind of overarching pattern or to subject them to critical analysis: “facts are collected and stored because this activity is reassuring.” (That, alas, describes too many students today, and usually only around exam time.) This person loves being part of a team, thrives in institutions and corporations, enjoys committee work, and is frequently a workaholic who sees no utility at all in having a subjective interior life. This person, who sounds frightfully like Donald Trump–who is, as Jung might say, an archetype of many people today, not least political and business leaders–has managed to convince himself that the “mind itself, in particular the unconscious, is an archaism, a thing to be abandoned in the interests of human progress.”