In my childhood backyard, there were large ferns beneath which I existed for long hours in the summer, imagining and tending to a world of dirt, potato bugs, and the layer of cool air under the canopy of fronds. I’ve only thought recently about what kind of longing comes over me when I pass by a randomly situated copse on the freeway and have an urge to simply be in it. And I’ve only recently thought about this longing in the context of climate breakdown, walking alongside a creek and coming to a place where the banks form an enclave, where I can transport myself momentarily to a world after collapse, a post-apocalyptic state of survival, one that is “prior” to the aliveness of this world. If I feel grief about anything right now, it’s about the idea that this prior state would not happen in my lifetime—a wish perverse, bizarre, shameful. A retreat into a world in which the clear lines that can now be perceived are rendered fuzzy, blurred, diffuse shapes. A return to a time and experience before my own aliveness.
We both long for and are anxious in relation to becoming one with the environment, Harold Searles argues in The Nonhuman Environment in Normal Development and in Schizophrenia. Searles notes that there is “an early phase of oneness with the total environment and a subsequent phase—the animistic period—in which all objects are personified. These probably precede the infant’s recognition of his own aliveness” (1960, 52). Not only are we variously oriented toward the nonhuman in terms of feeling, but the temporal position that Searles describes also involves a “beyond” that is “before.” Searles writes, “I feel that these hypotheses [about the nonhuman environment] furnish us with a far broader, richer, truer frame of reference from which to understand early ego development, than is provided by the usual preoccupation solely with the infant’s differentiation of its self from the mother. And I believe, further, that these hypotheses provide a likewise enhanced basis for considering the subsequent maturation, throughout life, of the individual personality; this maturation needs to be seen, thus, as inextricably a part of the total matrix, a matrix comprised not only of other human beings but, as I have earlier emphasized, of predominantly nonhuman elements—trees, clouds, stars, landscapes, buildings, and so on ad infinitum” (1960, 53). Ad infinitum, “again and again in the same ways forever,” a temporal, durational dimension, a force of repetition. And yet in Searles’s nonhuman environment, it also implies the panoply of the nonhuman in the midst of our most intimate human relationships: nothing outside the frame.
In “Fear of Breakdown,” D. W. Winnicott phrases breakdown as an experience that has happened in the past but is looked for in the future. In this way, climate breakdown in the United States is the future horizon of the genocide of Native Americans, played out over centuries and into the present in policies of removal and eradication. Ad infinitum. When climate, like racialized violence, enters the clinical space, the hardness of the frame is felt: there may be an urgency felt by therapist or client to push against it and “do” something; it may be dismissed as displacement; the question that comes up in consultation, “But what’s the clinical issue here?”
How do we bring what gets pushed outside the frame into view, bring it within the field of vision, of psychoanalysis? I find myself drawn to Thomas Ogden’s description of the autistic-contiguous position, a term he uses to describe processes of taking in the outside world. Ogden refers to the autistic-contiguous position as “a sensory-dominated, presymbolic area of experience in which the most primitive form of meaning is generated on the basis of the organization of sensory impressions, particularly at the skin surface” (1989, 4). Ogden glosses Frances Tustin’s notion of auto-sensuous shapes in describing what happens here: “Shapes generated in an autistic-contiguous mode must be distinguished from what we ordinarily think of as the shape of an object. These early shapes are ‘felt shapes’ arising from the experience of soft touching of surfaces, which makes a sensory impression” (Ogden, 1989, 55). Spit forms a bubble in the mouth; it is the “‘felt’ sensation of a circle” and not spit itself or the “three-dimensional object located in external space” (Tustin, 1984, 280) that is at play in this experience.
In her book Patterns: Building Blocks of Experience, Marilyn Charles extends the notion of “felt shapes” to a description of her enactment of “longings to make sense of whatever cues are provided in a universe always, to some extent, beyond comprehension” (2002, 21). The experience described by Ogden and Charles is one in which the child generates a sense of comfort and “self-soothing” prior to the use of symbols as a means of communication. The autistic-contiguous is not pathological autism but is seen as common to human development, and while the move to “communication” and “symbol formation” may seem like “normal” development, to move there too quickly is to lose a sense of the fragility and externality that mark our dependence on the nonhuman world. Charles writes, “Integral to the understanding of the roots of this experience is the awareness of the extent and nature of the fears at this level of experience ‘such as the unconscious anxiety that aspects of oneself are so private and so central to an endangered sense of being alive that the very act of communication will endanger the integrity of the self’” (2002, 60). The conflict between these “private” aspects of oneself and the “endangered sense of being alive” is resolved by communication, yet communication may not register the sense of endangered life that it compromises. Is this the experience of the self we find in climate breakdown?
Climate breakdown encompasses a scope of experience that is “beyond comprehension.” It elicits an experience of anxiety specific to the autistic-contiguous position described by Ogden: “…autistic-contiguous anxiety involves the experience of impending disintegration of one’s sensory surfaces or one’s ‘rhythm of safety’ (Tustin, 1986), resulting in the feeling of leaking, dissolving, disappearing, or falling into shapeless unbounded space” (1989, 68). Such anxiety, in contrast to a depressive anxiety (worry about harming others) or a paranoid-schizoid anxiety (worry about impending annihilation), involves worry about the loss of differentiation between the sensory surfaces of the body and the external world.
Perhaps the autistic, rather than narcissistic, edge of experience can guide clinical work with climate change. In his 1972 essay “Unconscious Processes in Relation to Environmental Crises,” Searles argues that the conflict between nonhuman and human is increasingly difficult to tolerate: “…we become increasingly unable to experience consciously, as an inner emotional conflict, the war between the ‘human’ and the ‘nonhuman’ (autistic, omnipotence-based) aspects of ourself” (1979, 237). Instead, the conflict is projected onto “this ecologically deteriorating world…and, since conflict is the essence of human life, we project in this same process, in large part, our aliveness” (1979, 241). In projecting aliveness, we imagine the “real, outer” world as the site of conflict and chaos, instead of locating that chaos and conflict within. Searles writes: “The greatest danger lies in the fact that the world is in such a state as to evoke our very earliest anxieties and at the same time to offer the delusional ‘promise,’ the actually deadly promise, of assuaging these anxieties, effacing them, by fully externalizing and reifying our most primitive conflicts that produce those anxieties. In the pull upon us to become omnipotently free of human conflict, we are in danger of bringing about our extinction” (1979, 242). In other words, not registering the psychical conflict evoked by climate breakdown contributes to the powerlessness, deadness, and apathy we take on in relation to the “external” ecologically deteriorating world.
To bring the nonhuman world and relatedness to the nonhuman world within the ken of psychoanalysis helps me to think about how to listen for climate anxieties and what to hear there. It is important to note that like the formation of racialized subjects in relation to the State, the sensory environment of the autistic-contiguous position, and the objects and shapes related to climate breakdown are often excluded from psychical life. They become the nonhuman objects around which the busy relations of human life take place. The child who finds a space in their mind free from the busy interactions of others may not have a “wooly” to animate and take into this space away from others, but they may still soothe and burrow themselves in the patterns of light and sound. It’s a world that is an enclave, prior to “aliveness.”
“It’s like watching the sea,” my friend Rei said many years ago, observing my two-month-old baby’s expressions shift as she took in the world. I recall watching her begin to perceive patterns of light, begin to take in the shape of Bea, the cat, walking along the back of the couch. I can’t bear psychoanalysis that takes away the utter uncertainty, the precarity of that sensory experience, or that reduces the little we know about it to the terms of the family unit and finds the force of repetition there. I find, as a therapist, that it is not only terror about climate breakdown that needs holding, but the utter terror lest this experience of the felt shapes of the environment be destroyed. The self-soothing experience of the autistic-contiguous position—a connection to the felt shapes of oneself in the nonhuman world—is the site of this most basic conflict around human and nonhuman omnipotence and aliveness. In it we can see a relatedness to the nonhuman environment that is often viewed as regressive but that exhibits what Searles identifies as a “basically positive striving” for aliveness (1960, 252), which we might recognize in what Rachel Carson calls “pressing for a foothold,” the felt shape of life.
- Erin Trapp, PhD, lives in Minneapolis and is currently a fellow at the Minnesota Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She is a practicing therapist and has published essays on poetry, psychoanalysis, and the environment in journals such as Social Text, Postmodern Culture, and Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society. With Ana Baginski, Anne-Lise François, and Chris Malcolm, she has also edited a volume of Yearbook of Comparative Literature (University of Toronto, forthcoming 2022) on environment and loss.
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