Resilience: Bonnie Honig

In Winnicott’s account of object relations, resilience is a key trait of both objects and the subjects who use them. Winnicott is focused in particular on transitional objects, like a baby’s blanket or teddy bear. Through these, he says, the baby comes to know a reality beyond herself.19 When the baby cathects onto that object, she acquires the emotional resources to withstand the disappointments of the mother figure or caregiver, and comes to feel she may safely rage against them. And when she exercises control over the blanket, hiding and finding it, for example, as in Freud’s fort-da game, she learns a certain lesson. Freud says she learns mastery or control, but Winnicott emphasizes a different, perhaps even opposite, lesson: that of object-permanence. As the women come and go, perhaps talking of Michelangelo, the child’s blanket has a stubborn existence and this is how the child learns non-mastery: there is a world that can survive her rage and also her love, which can be powerful and destructive.20

On Winnicott’s account of transitional objects, we destroy the objects we use and they survive. We fantasize destroying them, and they survive. We love them for their resilience and in this way we acquire some of their resilience. It rubs off on us, as it were. Indeed, we may borrow the earlier quoted phrase from Rebecca Solnit, describing the Mizpah Café, to describe the baby’s blanket: once chosen as transitional object is “at once nothing special and a miracle.”21 The “miracle” and the “nothing special” both have to do with the object’s permanence in fact and fantasy. As Winnicott says in Playing and Reality, when he argues for a shift in the focus of psychoanalysis from object relations to object use:

This change (from relating to usage) means that the subject destroys the object . . . after “subject relates to object” comes “subject destroys object” (as it becomes external); and then may come “/object survives/destruction by the subject.” But there may or may not be survival. A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object-relating. The subject says to the object: “I destroyed you,” and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: “Hullo object!” “I destroyed you.” “I love you.” “You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.” “While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) /fantasy/.” Here fantasy begins for the individual. The subject can now/use/ the object that has survived. It is important to note that it is not only that the subject destroys the object because the object is placed outside the area of omnipotent control. It is equally significant to state this the other way round and to say that it is the destruction of the object that places the object outside the area of the subject’s omnipotent control. In these ways the object develops its own autonomy and life, and (if it survives) contributes-in to the subject, according to its own properties.22

Adam Phillips refers to this as Winnicott’s Punch and Judy version of the child’s secret dialogue with his object. In it, we acquire subjectivity, paradoxically enough, to the extent that the object world is impervious to our intent, that is, to the extent that the durable object defies our intentions and powers and defeats our sovereign omnipotence with its recalcitrant (fantasized but also factical) permanence. (This is quite different from how we now think of subjectivity in liberal or democratic theory though it will not come as news to readers of Hegel.)

Note how, for Winnicott, the capacity to survive destruction is both a trait we grant to the object (in fantasy) and a trait we acquire from objects, by way of a kind of (unnamed) transference. We destroy the objects and they survive. Thanks to them and to us — for it is our fantasy and not just their factical reality that makes this happen — so, thanks to them and to us, when we are destroyed, we survive. Resilience is what the autonomous object “contributes-in to the subject, according to its own properties.” This happens when there is a “holding environment” that allows these transactions or transferences to occur. One of the things that a holding environment does is to offer up objects that are sturdy enough to underwrite all this by surviving the changing mood, play, and use of the infant.

Although Hannah Arendt never uses the word, so far as I know, resilience is absolutely central to her thinking as well. All of her work is devoted to documenting the material–institutional–political conditions of resilience, a trait that makes us fit for worldliness and helps us survive the trials of “dark times.” Importantly, for our purposes, in Arendt as in Winnicott, resilience is a property of both persons and things (to borrow the title of Barbara Johnson’s fine book, to which I turn shortly).23

Arendt begins the “Work” section of The Human Condition by distinguishing things that we use, from things that we use up, or that spoil when left unused. Plants are an example of the former, shoes of the latter. Shoes, she says, “survive even for a considerable time the changing moods of their owner. Used or unused, they will remain in the world for a certain while unless they are wantonly destroyed.”24 Recall, the emphasis in Winnicott on the capacity of the transitional object to withstand the changing moods of the child — the rage of the child, and the love.25 It is this test, too, in Arendt, not just of durability but also, and in particular, of independence from human mood or appetite, that fits some things into the category of Work, where humans fabricate objects, rather than Labour, where humans consume things and labour to produce them in the cyclical time of the seasons.

What Hannah Arendt says about things in The Human Condition uncannily echoes Winnicott’s vision of infant development, in which transitional objects (the blanket, the teddy bear) provide the infant with much-needed assurances of permanence and are, more importantly, their partners in discovering the promise and limits of worldiness among others.26 There is a further echo, though, of Winnicott in Arendt’s own account of action, in which a contingent and hard won, but also evanescent, immortality gained through action in concert, finds a curious resilience or everlastingness, if and only if it is buttressed by the human world of things. That is, resilient, enduring things — like poems — have the power to enable and inspire resilience in persons. Telling stories of resilient people who acted together, sometimes at great cost to themselves, on behalf of care for the world creates what a Winnicottian “holding environment” out of which future political action may be born. Arendt calls this the “web” and characterizes it also as an “in-between.”

Although Arendt is famously at pains to distinguish the three domains of the vita activa from each other, and to insulate each from the alien orientations of the other two, a close reading of The Human Condition shows that Work underwrites and secures the other two domains, which rely on it. Without Work, Labour and Action are both impermanent, each in its own way. Labour is subject to the ceaseless eternality of bio-reproduction and Action to the uncertain immortality of great acts. Both depend on Work to offset the vicissitudes of ceaselessness and uncertainty. The fabricated objects of Work provide shelter from the storms that Labour must weather, easing the workload with tools and its perpetuity with housing. Work’s objects also house the memories created by Action: in Work, we create the poems, memorials, sculptures, and histories that reify and extend the vital renown of the political actor and create the web of human relationships of meaning in which we live and into which we may later act. Providing a holding environment for Labour and Action, Work transitions us from the immersive infantile environment of the former into the more individuated – but still inter-subjective — authenticities of the latter.27 (As with my discussion of Winnicott, so too here, my aim is not to endorse Arendt’s characterizations but rather to encapsulate them.) Work’s products are objects and they, rather strikingly, are said to contribute something unique to the human condition, something neither Labour nor Action on their own can secure: durability or (a bit later in The Human Condition) permanence. There is some circularity here, as Arendt points out, unperturbed: The world “consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.”28

19. This is an epistemological claim in Winnicott, but I extend it, elsewhere, to the realm of ethics and politics. See Bonnie Honig, Public Things (Manuscript).

20. See Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), where she says that the “common world can survive the coming and going of generations only to the extent that it appears in public” (55).

21. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 22. I do not know if Solnit reads Winnicott, but they share a sensibility. As Graham Music points out, Solnit’s 2005 book, Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Viking, 2005), is reminiscent of what (in the words of Music) “the great pediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote about long ago, that ability to be alone, which is the root of being able to play and be creative but which depends so much on feeling good and safe in relationships, being loved and cared for” (“The Importance of the Lost Arts of Play, Doing Nothing and Just Being,” Music cites Winnicott’s article, “The Capacity to be Alone” (1958), International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (39), 416–420 and Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York. Basic Books, 1971). Even more suggestive is when Solnit’s plea for a more hopeful, generous, and positive left, is summarized by her as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left” ( Sometimes the transitional object is just a fetish.

22. D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 89-90. (italics added)

23. Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

24. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 138.

25. This suggests, from an object relations point of view, and perhaps in contrast to Jorg Kreienbrock’s argument, that the anger we feel with malicious objects is a way to test their fidelity or durability, not a symptom of their infidelity to us. See Jörg Kreienbrock, Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

26. Martha Nussbaum thinks Winnicott’s views of holding environment and culture could inform a democratic idea of flourishing while underwriting a commitment to a humanistic education. (“Indeed, one may learn many things about contemporary political life by posing systematically the questions of what it would be like for society to become, in Winnicott’s sense, a ‘facilitating environment’ for its citizens.” “Dr. True Self: Review of ‘Winnicott: Life and Work’ by F. Robert Rodman,” The New Republic (October 27, 2003). I agree. But she does not follow his lead, as I do here, to attend to things and their role in public life.

27. Patchen Markell says Arendt shifts during the course of her treatment of Work from durability (of objects) to permanence (via art). Work’s objects are first characterized as physically durable (The Human Condition, 136-7, cited by Markell, “Arendt’s Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” College Literature 38:1 (2011), 32) by contrast with Labour’s immediate consumption, but she attributes “permanence” to objects later on. This may not be a shift, though, or not only one. It may recognize something fundamental, observed by object relations theory: durability teaches permanence. Object permanence is the experience of relating to objects as stable, reliable, durable, lasting, and capable of giving to fluctuating subjects some compass-like orientation in a world of flux.

28. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 11.

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