In my previous Useful Concepts post, I mentioned that Adam Phillips was responsible for two of my favourite useful concepts. The second one is the “transformational object.”
Phillips made me aware of this concept, but he actually quotes Christopher Bollas, a professor of English, psychotherapist, and – according to his Wikipedia profile – “one of the most widely read authors in the field of psychoanalysis.”
As their name suggests, transformational objects are things that change our lives. The psychoanalytical background is that, in Bollas’ words, for babies their mother “is an object that is experientially identified by the infant with the process of the alteration of the self experience.” (That raises all sorts of questions: Why does it have to be put in this kind of language? Does psychoanalysis pay insufficient attention to the role of fathers with regard to the experience of infants? Is it ever ok to regard human beings as objects. But I digress…) This then is the first instance of what becomes in adult life an ongoing “search for an object (a person, place, event, ideology) that promises to transform the self.” As Bollas and Phillips point out, we don’t so much want to possess transformational objects, but surrender to them, in order to let them change our lives.
If we’re honest with ourselves, I think it’s true that we look to objects (including people, places, events, ideologies) to change our lives. The problem is that this makes things (or our relation to things) complex. The opportunity is that seeing things as transformational objects can also give us clues to making things easier and life better.
The difficulties stem from the fact that we can invest objects with false expectations for transformation, or falsely over-emphasise their transformational aspects over others. And this is involved to addictions, consumerism and other unhelpful behaviours.
For example, “these designer clothes will change my life into that of someone stylish, good-looking, glamorous.” Maybe to some extent, but they will also make me someone who spent too much money on clothes that will go out of fashion. Or “this piece of chocolate cake will transform me into someone who is comfortable, satisfied, fulfilled.” Yes, it may briefly, but it also contains a lot of sugar and fat that, if ingested too frequently, can transform me into someone quite unhealthy. Or just “this cup of green tea is going to give me health, clear thinking and deep insights.” Maybe a little bit but one cup of tea isn’t going to turn me into a Zen master. Personally, I always think that my favourite pen and a new branded notebook will make me super-creative, insightful and organised in my thinking. Until I look back on pages and pages of random scribbles which don’t make sense or I failed to follow up on. I have always held hopes for books to be transformational objects. But the books that truly change lives can be stacked in a small shelf.
Advertising, of course, relies entirely on going over the top in depicting an over the transformational power of objects: These trainers aren’t just good for running, they will make me sporty, super-fit and attractive. This laptop isn’t just a good computer but it’s the machine that will power a great and creative for me. This drink isn’t just pleasant but will make my life a party.
So advertising exaggerates. We knew that, didn’t we? But the truth is that objects can change us. These trainers can make you fit (if you run in them for 30-60 minutes a day). This cake can make you feel satisfied for half an hour or so (but don’t over-indulge or hope for a lasting state of fulfilment). This notebook can help you organise your thoughts (but don’t expect to be the next Hemingway purely on account of your stationery).
And so the optimistic point is this: We can get better insights into ourselves and better in our relationship with objects (don’t forget persons, places, events, ideologies) through a greater awareness of the transformational force we see in them.
So we can ask ourselves: what change in myself and my life am I looking for in really desiring this object? Is this a fair expectation to have of the object? And what is my part of the bargain? And this may lead to a better contract with ourselves and our transformational objects. “This object will make me fit, if I take it to the gym a few times a week and use it to exercise. This cup of tea will make me calm and focussed, if I spend the time it takes to drink it to centre myself and to become aware of my thinking.”
Or, we can use the desired object as a guide to greater insight into the transformation we seek. “Am I keen to have another cup of coffee because the quickening of the pulse, the increase of alertness and the strong flavour give me respite from the lack of stimulation in the tasks on my to-do list and an uninspiring working environment?”
We can make better use of object to achieve transformation by being aware of their limited role and the effort required from us. (What would it take to change the tasks on my to-do list and my working environment, instead of having another coffee?) We can save on acquiring objects, or reduce our ingestion of objects (that’s eating and drinking) by maintaining the right perspective on their transformational effects. And when we understand that we are always necessary to any transformation of our selves and to any change in our lives, while the objects play at best a small and replaceable part, we can then also think about what we can or need to do independently of the objects. This would mean not surrendering to the objects in the hope that they would transform us, but staying in charge and recognising our role in transformation.
One further thought: Acquisition and possession of transformational objects is one thing. Their creation another. It is intriguing to think of the goal of creative efforts, or really work of any kind, as the production of transformational objects. The extent to which we can create things or situations that change our lives and that of others may be an aspect of the quality of that work and the job satisfaction we can derive from it.