Friday, 26 November 2010

Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces, ed. P.L. Rudnytsky

This book is a collection of essays exploring the application of D.W. Winnicott’s concept of potential space in the literature and the wider cultural arena.

The volume begins with a chapter ‘The Location of Cultural Experience’ from Winnicott’s seminal book ‘Playing and Reality’. Here Winnicott sets our his ideas on "potential space", an intermediate area of experiencing that lies between the inner psychic reality and the external world (originally the space between the infant and mother). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena link these inner and outer worlds. Transitional objects originally symbolised the union between mother and baby, when the mother is in transition from being (in the baby’s mind) merged with the infant and being experienced as a separate object. In the potential space these objects can be used symbolically, imaginatively manipulated and transformed in play to represent parts of the mother or the external world.

These ideas have been widely applied beyond the world of psychoanalysis, as is attested in the diverse essays that comprise the remainder of the book. In particular I enjoyed Bollas’ essay ‘The Aesthetic Moment and the Search for Transformation’ where he suggests that an aesthetic moment, experienced in potential space, takes us back to "the most most profound occasion where the content of the self is formed and transformed by the environment". I also found Hopkins’ analysis of the Christian resurrection myth ‘Jesus and Object Use’ very interesting. Hopkins' essay includes a lucid account of Winnicott’s ideas on the transition from object-relating (where the object is related to as a bundle of projections) to object-use (where the object is experienced as an external reality) - "the most difficult thing, perhaps, in human development" - through acceptance of our own aggressive and destructive impulses. It is through our destruction of objects (in fantasy) that they become real to us.

So what has this to do with game design (beyond a spurious justification for FOTW allowing players to obliterate the world)? OK... probably nothing directly, but I still think Winnicott really was on to something. He believed that our adult abilities for play, creativity and cultural experience are grounded in our experience of potential space - we need to enter this potential space in order to be creative. This intermediate space is a world of ambiguity and duality, a space where the boundary between “me” and “not me” can dissolve, a place where we both blend and separate inner and outer realities, the place where our subjectivity engages with objective reality (the transitional object represents both our connection to the external world but also our separateness from it). So in a gaming context we could see the game as framing a potential space within which the player is able to creatively engage with the game environment and game elements to form his or her own connections and meanings.

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