For Freud the new born infant is essentially a body driven by instincts in which a conscious mind has yet to grow. The model is one of ‘cupboard love’ – an attachment driven by hunger in which the infant is originally conscious of the body’s demands for nourishment,but not of a self as distinct from the external world. As the infant oscillates between anxious hunger and satiated bliss, Freud theorises that its mental states are best understood as hallucinatory (psychotic). Just as the parched traveller in the desert hallucinates the oasis, so the hungry baby instinctively dreams of the mother and her breast.
This is the ‘oral phase’. In their conceptual glossary, the Language of Psychoanalysis, Laplanche and Pontalis define this as
‘the first stage of libidinal development: .. pleasure at this period is bound predominantly to that of the
excitation of the oral cavity and lips which accompanies feeding. The activity of nutrition is the
source of the particular meanings through which the object-relationship is expressed and organised;
the love-relationship to the mother, for example, is marked by the feelings ofeating and being eaten’. (287:1973)
It is precisely because the infant is oblivious to the distinction between its self and the external world that it can draw comfort from sucking its own thumb in the absence of the mother, and no accident that thumbsucking, spitting and biting are regressive behaviours to which children resort under stress.
Melanie Klein’s work builds on this theoretical foundation. She argues that the infant’s early mental life is essentially ‘paranoid-schizoid’. Sometimes the mother responds to the infants cries, sometimes she does not. The infant doesn’t yet recognise the mother as a distinct and separate person. Instead there is simply a ‘part-object’ – or rather two ‘part-objects’ – an idealised ‘good breast’ that responds to its demands, capable of providing unlimited, immediate and everlasting gratification and a ‘bad breast’ that does not, evoking terrifying fears of persecution, of being devoured and destroyed. It is to this primitive mode of mental functioning that people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia regress.
Klein contrasts this with the ‘depressive position’. This is marked by the infant’s ability to recognise the mother as a ‘whole object’ – a distinct person, separate from itself, to which it has a bi-polar relationship which vacillates between manic high spirits of love and depressive lows of extreme wretchedness and hate. This is the mode of mental functioning characteristic of bipolar disorder, and which is overcome when the infant develops the mature capacity to tolerate ambivalence.
Where Freud’s account centres on the instinctual drives, and Klein’s theorising focuses on emotional states, Lacan’s work draws our attention to perceptions. For him, the ‘mirror stage’ is the critical moment in human development. Between six and sixteen months, the infant begins to imagine itself as a person, apprehending and being to master itself as a thinking body. Although relatively powerless and lacking motor co-ordination, when the infant recognises herself in the mirror, she experiences a ‘specular joiussance’ – a triumphant sense of jubilation in the apprehension of an image of itself which it can control. This image, with which the infant identifies, is a prototype for the ego or conscious self.
If we now return to Freud’s classical account, as outlined for example in his Three Essays on Sexuality of 1905, we find for him the critical moment in the infant’s development of a sense of self is rather later than that found in his psychoanalytic successors. For Freud the oral stage is the first of four distinct psychosexual phases – it is followed by the anal, the phallic and then, after a period of latency, by the mature adult state – the genital stage.
The anal stage is exemplified by the infant’s struggle to gain mastery of control of her bowel movements, and the concrete experience of that which was part of oneself becoming separate which is defecation. It is during this period of toilet training that distinct internal mental agencies are formed – the id, ego and super-ego. The id represents the instincts and the demands of the pleasure principle. It is impulsive and exclusively focussed on gratification, obliviousness both to the practical requirements dictated by reality – which are experienced in consciousnessby the ego – and to the moral demands of society, which are represented by the super-ego as the voice of conscience.
Freud argues that two distinct kinds of personality traits are formed during this period – the anally retentive type, who fights the urge to defecate as dirty, and grows up to be orderly, respectful of authority, parsimonious and classically ‘passive-aggressive’ and the anally explosive type who is the opposite: messy, reckless, careless and defiant. It is notable that, for Freud, gender identity remains undeveloped during the anal stage. The infant is oblivious to the distinction between men and women.
From the age of about three onwards, the phallic stage begins. At this point the infant begins to become aware of whether or not she or he has a penis, and develops an increasingly aggressive and jealous attachment to the parent of the opposite sex. This is classically designated as the Oedipus Complex in boys, and the Electra Complex in girls. The boy becomes aware that he has a rival for his mother’s affection – his father, while the girl blames her mother for her sense of castration or penis envy, and takes her father as the primary object of her attachments. It’s important to note that Freud’s thinking here is complex, nuanced and, as he is the first to admit, incomplete, but it has nevertheless been extremely influential in 20th century accounts of the development of gender identity and sexual orientation.
As the boy reconciles himself to the superior influence of his father and represses his desires for further intimacy with his mother (supposedly fearing the father will castrate him as a punishment) and the girl accepts her subordinate status, especially to her mother, the latency period begins (six or seven onwards). Sexual feelings are inhibited, only to burst forth again during adolescence when they typically mature into adult genitality
Bowlby and Attachment Theory
John Bowlby began his psychoanalytic career during the Second World War in London. His first study ‘Forty four juvenile thieves’, based on his work at a child guidance clinic with teenage delinquents, was published in 1944. This showed a clear relationship between maternal deprivation and subsequent psychopathology.
Until Bowlby, psychoanalytic and behaviourist accounts of ‘mothering’ – what we might now call primary care giver behaviour – were both premised on the idea of cupboard love – that attachment grew out of the satisfaction of the infant’s need for nourishment. Infants were often left alone for long periods, swaddled so as to restrict their movement, and trained to sleep and eat at particular times, especially when they were institutionalised – as in orpanages, hospitals and childen’s homes.
The brutalities of World War Two left a legacy of orphans who needed to be taken care of, and the accelerated development of state welfare provision in Britain and mental health care in the United States brought an interest in more humane arrangements for orphans and attention to the prerequisites of successful parenting. As both societies returned to more traditional gender roles after the radicalism of the war years, the qualities of the good enough mother became the object of academic, governmental and media interest.
In the early 1950’s Harry Harlow’s experiments with young monkeys demonstrated the inadequacy of cupboard love assumptions, showing that primates had clear instinctual needs for love and affection. Orphaned monkey infants took comfort in their ‘cloth mothers’ just as human babies love teddy bears and other transitional objects. There is a built drive for attachment. Bowlby spent his life researching the nature of attachment, and bringing together insights from both psychoanalysis and animal research, often to the irritation of both communities.
In 1950, Mary Ainsworth came to work with Bowlby. A Canadian child development expert, her research complemented Bowlby’s. Modern Attachment Theory is their joint creation. Ainsworth’s ‘strange situtation’ study was critical to its development. In this procedure the child is observed playing for 20 minutes while caregivers and strangers enter and leave the room, recreating the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar presence in most children’s lives. The situation varies in stressfulness and the child’s responses are observed.
Ainsworth identified three (and later four) groups of infants with different attachment styles on the basis of these responses. These were
anxious avoidant insecure attachment
anxious ambivalent/resistant insecure attachment
disorganised insecure attachment.
Attachment theorists argue that these early differences have long lasting effects on the quality and quantity of relationships formed in adult life. Therapists influenced by attachment theory, whether psychodynamic or nor, draw attention to the way in which clients’ early attachment styles are repeated in the transference with their therapists.
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