There’s No Need to Bite the Breast

Original Citatio:
Miles, Adrian. “There’s No Need to Bite the Breast.” Journal of Digital Information 3.3 (2003).

An archive of all the essays that made up the special issue on hypertext criticism, that this was a contribution to, is available at http://journals.tdl.org/jodi/article/view/117

There’s No Need to Bite the Breast

This is a short piece that appeared in an issue of the Journal of Digital Information that was dedicated to hypertext criticism. I wrote three short pieces for the issue, where the editors specifically wanted short sharp interventions. This short piece is about reading hypertext and teaching students how to read hypertext (so I guess it is actually about a network literacy after all!).

There’s no Need to Bite the Breast

Object relations psychology has, on occasion, been used to consider our relationship to art, and more specifically to account for the presence of art (Wright, 1984). One particular form of object relations psychology, largely the province of D.W. Winnicott (1982), develops the idea of the breast as a ‘transitional object’ for the child. The transitional object is that thing that the child uses to mediate its first experiences of itself as an entity separate in the world.

Imagine the infant’s point of view, it is hungry and the breast (or its equivalent) appears, and so there is a strong sense that the child imagines they have created and control the breast. As the child develops physically and psychically a time comes when the breast does not appear ‘magically’ when desired and the child becomes understandably angry and so wishes to punish this ‘object’ – the breast is bitten. For Winnicott this is a continuation of the child’s fantasy, it still thinks the breast is under their control and so now wishes for it to be banished.

Of course, it returns, and it is the manner and persistence (in time and perhaps temper) of this return that allows the child to learn that the breast is external to itself and in fact independent of the child’s desires. It is the manner and persistence of this return that Winnicott, perhaps problematically, describes as ‘the good enough mother’. This figure (which it should be stressed is what we would today recognise as the child’s primary care giver) of the good enough mother is the person who helps ground this originary transitional object which mediates our place in the world.

In relation to art some theorists have suggested that the experience, presence, and use of art is essentially as a transitional object. Art is something that mediates our relation to the world and the real, yet it is also something that in many ways dissolves or at least plays with the security of our identity. Wright (1984) introduces this reasonably thoroughly, and it is also more or less the position that someone like Julia Kristeva (1984) takes in relation to particular forms of modernist writing.

In critical writing that explores hypertext, when introducing students to reading hypertext, or when ‘traditional’ readers approach hypertext, it is surprisingly common to find responses that are, in essence, biting the breast. The methodology for this is banal, and is largely founded on a refusal or inability (unwillingness?) to acknowledge the work as outside of and separate from the reader. In the case of students who first confront a hypertextual fiction it generates a series of readings that may appear naïve, except they have invested so heavily in specific assumptions and ideologies of textual pleasure and closure that they lack the innocence of the genuine naif. Unfortunately, it appears that much the same can be said of more mature critical writing (for instance Miall and Dobson 2001, and Birkerts 1996).

To respond in this manner to hypertext it is usually important to posit specific assumptions about what constitutes narrative pleasure. The list is usually a conservative one derived from some avatar of closure and what Barthes’ (1977) and his heirs would immediately recognise as the readerly, and then to rail against the work because it doesn’t actually provide this. You punish the object because it doesn’t give you the mastery and pleasures (whether this is narrative coherence, closure, or even scopophilic mastery — you can’t see it all and it looks unattractive) that you have taken as your right, you bite the breast.

I’d suggest the problem with criticism that bites the breast is that first of all it simply hasn’t recognised that the work is an entity in its own right, and as such is not subject to your whim. This is more significant than it might appear precisely because, as art, one of the things it is probably going to do is to play with those things that separate “I” from “it” and it might not want, or even be able, to give you what you expect or want. Secondly, when the work is recognised as something independent we are in a much better position to ask questions of why it might do what it does. Rather than punish it because it doesn’t have an ending (for instance), what might happen if we asked instead, why doesn’t the work want to end? Or why does the work feel unable to end? Why is it scared of ending? Or even why am I threatened by not finding an end?

(Of course the irony here is that I could be asking this of Beckett, yet it’s rather harder to find someone with a lit. major to bite that particular breast.)

Kafka, if my history is adequate, never finished a novel. The interesting and productive critical work in that context is not that which condemns the work as broken and incomplete but instead recognises this as a problem that lets us move towards the heart of what the works are about. Or, as I remind students, a hypertext asks questions of us, not the other way round, and you have to learn how to listen. If you don’t, you will only find yourself condemning hypertext for not being something else. Let’s get over it. Because a work does not do what we think it is supposed to do is not a reason to condemn it. Nor is it criticism.

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Trans. Stephen Heath. Image–Music–Text. London: Flamingo, 1977. 155–64.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Miall, David S, and Teresa Dobson. “Reading Hypertext and the Experience of Literature.” Journal of Digital Information 2.1 (2001).
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1982.
Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice. London: Routledge, 1984.

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