Conference Report Donald Winnicott: The History of the Present

21-23 November 2015

Over 200 people including Scandinavians, Italians, French,South Americans and Spanish gathered for the Winnicott weekend hosted by the Winnicott Trust with support from the Institute of Psychoanalysis. DWW might have chuckled at the disruption of the original venue by occupying students and surely would have been impressed by the great care the organisers paid to provide an environment conducive to creative playing with ideas. This was enhanced by the presence of charming Phd Student ushers who amongst other tasks played ethereal Corelli on smart phones to signal the end of a refreshment break.

The mixture of presentations and workshops produced a very intensive and sometimes overwhelming feast of ideas which if anything ratcheted up a notch on the second day. The quality of papers and the fact that the contributors were eminent pioneers in their fields and were keen to engage their audience in an exciting act of creativity, was only slightly marred by the necessity to curtail at least two of the papers. Each paper or pair of papers could have occupied a whole weekend discussion profitably. Four main field were covered – The self, the analyst and the analytic relationship: research in the first two years on the importance of close relationships: Culture and the Arts: Regression.

Angela Joyce in her introduction explained that the title of the conference drew on Foucault’s idea of history as genealogy rather than archeology. Here is a quote from Foucault taken from a paper by David Garland in Punishment and Society: “I set out from a problem expressed in the terms current today and I try to work out its genealogy. Genealogy means that I begin my analysis from a question posed in the present’’ .

‘‘Genealogy’’was, for Foucault, a method of writing critical history: a way of using historical materials to bring about a ‘‘revaluing of values’’ in the present day. Genealogical analysis traces how contemporary practices and institutions emerged out of specific struggles, conflicts, alliances, and exercises of power, many of which are nowadays forgotten. It thereby enables the genealogist to suggest – not by means of normative argument but instead by presenting a series of troublesome associations and lineages – that institutions and practices we value and take for granted today are actually more problematic or more ‘‘dangerous’’ than they other-wise appear. The point of genealogy is not to search for ‘‘origins.’ (1)

Winnicott arguably had a more genealogical approach to human development than others before him, with his emphasis on locating the baby in a family and the importance of that facilitating environment.

It was fitting that the first morning was devoted to papers by eminent French and Italian analysts, given the influence that Winnicott has on the Continent and indeed in South America. A short piece like this does not do justice to the breadth and complexity of ideas that Rene Roussillon, Professor in Lyon, tried to impart. Instead a few themes I have picked out. Some of these emerged in the excellent discussion that followed. Professor Roussillon emphasised that the mother at the beginning stage of maternal preoccupation , needs to be elastic and pliable, safeguarding the infant’s experience of omnipotence, and ensuring the infant’s “hallucination” meets reality. Such an infant is capable of creating what is found and finding what he/she created . This is the basis of living and lays down the foundations of self esteem.There is an equivalent in the first feed of the later experience of mirroring where the infant sees him/herself reflected in the face of the mother and through other sensory modalities such as smell and sound. He emphasised that this primary creativity integrates libidinal and aggressive drives into the emerging self right from the start, through the mother allowing her infant to transform the tension of drives into his/her own subjective state. This was elaborated in the discussion with the idea that the mother’s sexuality is an important influence on the infant’s developing sexuality and at the end of the conference by Lesley Caldwell, who thought that Winnicott neglected the idea that the mother is also a sexual woman. Professor Roussillon thought that the baby was born with a preconception of an object, born to relate. The death drive might instead be the experience of a traumatic rupture at the earliest stage of absolute dependency resulting in a break in the continuity of being and an experience of primitive agony or void. This theme recurred in later papers .

With reference to the use of the object, Professor Roussillon described how important it is that the mother shows she is alive under the onslaught of her baby’s ruthless attacks and does not withdraw. This allows the infant to destroy the mother in fantasy, recreating a different relationship whereby the baby now has agency and the mother is no longer a bundle of projections as DWW says. This sets the ground for the baby’s fantasy life and forms the basis of loving and living. This theme recurred repeatedly throughout the conference. Lesley Caldwell thought that at the same time as Ken Wright and Ken Robinson were busy destroying Winnicott they were creating something new which was not all imitative, and again it was pointed out that Winnicott needed to destroy Klein in fantasy in order to liberate his own work particularly in the paper ‘Hate in the Countertransference’. It was truly a conference which echoed to Winnicott’s famous statement, “Hello I destroyed you, I love you, you have value for me.” Perhaps this was why it felt so alive and tumultuous.

‘Hate in the Countertransference’ was the subject of one of the next pair of papers by Dr Vincenzo Bonamino, a senior Italian pyschoanalyst. Hate in the Countertransference marked the parting of ways between Klein and Winnicott and Dr Bonamino wondered whether Winnicott was conscious of how provocative it was. This paper still shocks because of its uncompromising language. Until then countertransference was an obstacle, but Winnicott turns it into a positive force. New parents are sometimes alarmed and astonished that their baby can evoke such such primitive raw feelings in them. The mother’s hatred precedes that of her baby, but it cannot be acted upon. Making the mother/analyst’s hate eventually available for interpretation does not mean self disclosure. For disturbed patients, whose trauma lies in the the period of maximum dependency, the analyst has to tolerate his/her own hatred over a long period of time. Dr Bonamino thought that the psychotic patient has entered into a contract with an object capable of feeling hatred towards the patient. It might or might not eventually be possible to help the patient recognise that the analyst has emotions, enabling the patient to face reality. Klein’s elaboration of the death drive is superseded and displaced by the centre of gravity moving from the infant/patient to the mother/analyst.

The other paper from Italy by Dr Stefano Bolognini had to be truncated and in the absence of the speaker who was ill, was delivered by Lesley Caldwell. The casualty was the ‘transitional catflap’ which was in the original title. This was also a paper on technique with particular reference to everyday verbal utterances such as ‘mmm’, exploratory questions, impersonal pronouns, the use of we and the use of repetition of the patients’ words with the analyst’s added association.   All these create a transitional space where the patient is safe to enter and leave fusional states, knowing all along the reality of separateness. Dr Bolognini thought this was the hallmark of interpsychic dialogue, contrasting it with transpsychic dialogue where traumatic intrusive comments can humiliate the patient. Particularly, the use of ‘we’ and impersonal pronouns which de-emphasise differences can repair humiliations. Unfortuantely this account misses out a great deal implied in the title “The transitional catflap and the difference between interpsychic, intersubjective and Interpersonal”.

Workshops included Winnicott and Poetic practice, Winnicott and Broadcasting, Wiinicott’ s influence on Social Work, Parent Infant Psychotherapy in a Universal Child Setting, Helping Troubled Children in a Residential Setting and Winnicott’s paradigm shift. In retrospect Foucault’s ideas of a genealogy and revaluing values were very apposite to this latter workshop. Some of the ideas appear in a chapter in Winnicott Today edited by Jan Abram (2). Dr Zeljo Loparic a Brazilian analyst and philosopher drew on Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts which advance scientific knowledge. He thought that Winnicott shifted from the predominant paradigm of exploring the repressed unconscious to an exploration of the dissociation at the heart of the self, arising from early ruptures. The ‘reflex arc’ 19th C model of Freud is replaced by a more existential psychology with the emphasis on integration of self; ‘talking cure’ is superseded in helping the patient be alive. In the ensuing discussion, there was some discomfort, as some participants felt that an unhelpful polarity dividing Freud and Winnicott, was being proposed. This was probably not what Dr Loparic was intending.

The audience was captivated by Dr Juliet Hopkin’s introduction to the last section of the day. She recounted very modestly her experience of being supervised by Winnicott. She described exquisitely the maturational unfolding of a little boy where naming emotions and mental states was central, where the process of play was more important than the content. This last point was picked up by Ken Robinson the next day. Professor Lynne Murray briefly summarised her longitudinal research on children whose mothers were postnatally depressed, of the increased prevalence of antisocial behaviour and depression and of lower GCSE grades especially amongst boys. She specifically linked this to the depressed mother’s decreased sensitivity and increased hostility in the first two years and went on to describe an intervention study in a South African shanty towns. Experienced and older women with a very short training help young mothers with their infants, become more sensitive to the baby’s needs. The intervention starts before birth with expectant mothers. In another study of older babies, mothers were encouraged by helpers to share books with their child. In the first study the intervention improved attachment scores, and in the second, cognitive improvement and socialisation scores improved demonstrating that interventions at different developmental stages affect different domains. Might these relative low tech interventions be applicable to organisations like Sure Start?

The next day began with glorious blue skies and frost. Did everything somehow seem brighter and more vivid? The two papers on creativity and art and poetry were remarkably complimentary considering that neither Dr Ken Wright nor Professor Ken Robinson, both well known analysts practicing in the U.K. but outside London, had conferred. The audience was treated to a playfulness, sometimes a coming together and then a separateness which felt like a dance. This was only marred by the necessity of truncating both papers. Dr Wright entitled his paper ‘The Irrepressible Song’ which conveyed vitality, joy in living. The jouissance in capturing the essence of an object and presenting it is the hallmark of art. Suzanne Langer, whom Dr Wright draws upon a great deal, concisely defines art as “The creation of forms symbolic of human feeling”. Whereas words represent, art presents. Wright’s image of momentarily capturing a butterfly, describes beautifully the transient experience when a piece of music or sculpture suddenly transforms us, bridging subject and object. The artist who captures the essence of a tree is creating him/herself. This linked with Professor Robinson’s paper where he described Kalahari hunters becoming their quarry in the hunt. Seamus Heaney describes poetry as an echo coming back to you. In becoming a writer Heaney talks about hearing an other’s sounds entering the echo chamber of your head and the feeling of delight as it evokes something true and essential. The first steps of the new writer just like the baby are to imitate.Might this also link with Marion Milner’s concept of ‘the answering activity’?

Dr Wright thought that the mother might take on a more active role than implied in Winnicott’s paper on mirroring, closer to Daniel Stern’s attunement where the mother gives the infant back a sensory multimodal experience,. The artist sees himself in the canvas which captures the essence of the object, like mirroring, whereas attunement includes a feedback echo, perhaps rather similar to Trevarthen’s analogy of jazz improvisation. Unfortunately Dr Wright was unable to expound more on mirroring and attunement which is the title of his second book.

Professor Robinson began by quoting a boy with a stick who said his telescope could become anything. Whereas the content might be interesting, especially if he went on to talking about penetrating space with his rocket, it is the process of playing which fascinated Winnicott. Those who remain entirely in the object world are not really living and absent from their own life, whereas those occupying the subjective world entirely are deemed psychotic. In William Carlos William’s poem the Red Wheelbarrow, the reader is invited into a meditative contemplation of the essence of the images evoked, simultanously merging and yet separate. Play is characterised by the mixture of apperception and perception. Furthermore the stick becoming a telescope and then something else, denotes the joy in the continuous process of destroying and remaking, which is at the heart of creativity. This boy conveyed a very strong message of “I am”. Breaks in the establishment of a continuity of being in the earlier stages where unit status has not been achieved, in that period of maximum dependency, interfere with the process of feeling alive, leaving holes in the self or a void. Such breaks happen when there is a failure of the “environment”, which is not just mother, but father/other. Professor Robinson drew the analogy with the frame of a painting by Howard Hodgkin and also the frame of theatre. Sometimes a play can be so disturbing that the frame of theatre which grounds the audience in reality, is not strong enough to withstand the emotions evoked. Playing is shattered; a child becomes too terrified to play because the holding frame of reality is overwhelmed. If the frame does not hold, the dream-like state of playing ends with a sudden waking up.

Fortunately the frame held right through to the last paper thanks to Angela Joyce, Lesley Caldwell, Helen Taylor Robinson, Jennifer Johns, Marianne Parsons and other members of the Winnicott Trust whom one felt really looked after the participants.

Angela Joyce conveyed complex ideas with astounding clarity. Regression has a bad name which needs rehabilitating. Rycroft thought this and wanted to depathologise it. Ferenczi was critical of the cool emotional neutrality of the analyst which might re-traumatise the patient. Images replace words in the topographical sense of regression which is what happens in dreams. For Winnicott the achievement of unit status depends on the mother’s imaginative elaboration of her baby. The mind is not then split off in an intellectual way but is integral to the psyche which is the imaginative elaboration of the soma. Early relational trauma disrupts the achievement of unit status. Angela Joyce then brought two examples of clinical material from her trainees in which regression was perhaps a misnomer as the child patients had never got to a more advanced developmental stage. The examples illustrated the importance of the frame and the holding and also the value of the active role of the therapist. The cases illustrated how the setting becomes a transitional space where both parties play. The therapist has to be sensitive to avoid intrusion whilst conducting herself in a live way in order not to repeat the patient’s experience of a dead mother, a void where the mother should have been, a negaitive hallucination.

Angela Joyce drew on Botella who thought that the analyst needs to be in a state of regression which he called ‘regredience’. The analyst, through her imagination, transforms ideas into images. This seems to be close to Bollas’s ideas of the ‘unthought known’ and the transformative work of mother/analyst. In devising the Squiggle game in therapeutic consultations, Winnicott brilliantly could divine the trauma often within a brief time frame. Bob’s squiggles led to Winnicott thinking that the picture of Humpty Dumpty was about disintegration, that falling down the stairs and being rescued by father and taken to mother, was of being dropped, despite on the whole good environmental provision and the blacked out eyes indicated a crucial withdrawal of the mother. After Winnicott drew the baby at the bottom of the stairs, Bob responded with a story of the witch which daddy stabbed and mother saw. He later learnt that the mother’s depression was characterised by falling asleep. This, compounded with surgery for pyloric stenosis at around six weeks, was catastrophic for Bob’s development. Subsequently Bob’s diagnosis changed from suspected mental retardation to a more hopeful diagnosis of “infantile schizophrenia” which probably meant something different then, a schizoid defensive withdawal. The Squiggle game had allowed the boy to find a fantasy which he could put into words. This also illustrated the positive value of regression which can be transformational.

So ended one of the best conferences I have attended. Values were revalued, Institutions and techniques were questioned, but most of all questions about what makes us human and alive were explored, furthering the project of Winnicott.


1. What is a History of the Present?.On Foucault’s Genealogies and Critical Preconditions.

By David Garland in Punishment and Society Oct 14 Vol 16 4 365-384


2. From Freud to Winnicott; aspects of a paradigm change.

Zeljo Loparic in Donald Winnicott Today edited by Jan Abram

New Library of Psychoanalysis, Routledge 2013


Chris Brogan: Squiggle Foundation Trustee for the North East of England