Hold the Presses—Why Are We So Attached to the Vitalism of Bowlbian Attachment Theory?

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In a series of posts that started back on December 9th, 2010, I’ve been looking at the following question: “Do mothers (therapists) really attach to their babies (clients)?” I’ve suggested that within a reductionistic worldview, the answer is probably “yes.” However, within a naturalistic systems theory worldview (the one that Bowlby principally used), the answer is not as clear cut. In my January 12th, 2011, post, I took a first pass at answering the above question using a naturalistic systems theory framework. Here’s what I had to say:

Events in a naturalistic systems theory world do not operate in single directions at single times. In truth, when the attachment behavioral system of the infant is activated, this may cause a “reaching out” (outward stretch to use Fred Fischer’s term) on the part of the infant. This reaching out on the part of the infant (for what, she knows not, but reach she must) may activate the attachment behavioral system of the mother, which, in turn, may motivate her caregiving behavioral system to provide or “return back” care. In turn, the “returning back of care” on the part of the mother may trigger her attachment behavioral system in a way that motivates her to reach out sexually to her partner. Again, returning back and reaching out can take place at the same time and even in different directions, and even involve different people.

I’ll continue with this discussion in future posts but I feel compelled to take a slightly different road because a pressing issue has popped up on the radar screen. This pressing issue has caused me to yell, “Hold the presses.” This pressing issues centers on the question: “Why are we so attached to the vitalism of Bowlbian attachment theory?” I ask this question because if we cannot wean ourselves off of the vitalism of Bowlbian attachment theory then we will never be able to access the knowledge and understanding that is afforded by looking at attachment from within a naturalistic systems theory perspective. I believe in what naturalistic systems theorists (like von Bertalanffy) call equifinality—the idea that many different roads (or processes) may ultimately take one to the same end point. So, this side road may ultimately help me with my quest to answer the question: “Do mothers (therapists) really attach to their babies (clients)?”

I’ll make the case that we are attached to the vitalism of Bowlbian attachment by steeping through a passage from an article by Rachael Peltz entitled The Manic Society (which I just finished reading). This article appears in an edited volume (from 2006) that I have mentioned before: Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics. What follows is a “quick look” at our attachment to the vitalism of Bowlbian attachment theory as revealed by a passage taken from The Manic Society.

Peltz starts out by making the following statement:

Manic defenses are designed to distort, deny, and denigrate the awareness that we are not the omnipotent source of life, but instead dependent on our caretakers. In the Kleinian [as in Melanie Klein] tradition, manic defenses come into play when the pain of the awareness that we are not omnipotent becomes too much to bear.

Most students of Bowlby’s life and work are aware of the fact that Bowlby was supervised by Klein. Suffice it to say that Bowlby was subjected to Klein’s vitalistic projections. To say that the infant in essence “gets pissed off” because he or she realizes that s/he isn’t the center of the world—the mother is, as represented by the breast—is a gross anthropomorphism. In my post of January 12th, 2011, I make the following statement: “As an example, a frog ‘knows’ (to use an anthropomorphic concept) that he has to make croaking sounds to attract a mate.” I put “knows” in quotes as a way of signifying that my use of an anthropomorphic construction is designed to increase conceptual understanding but should not be taken as a teleologic truth. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell used to regularly tell his audiences (and I paraphrase): “Do not take the symbol for what is symbolized—don’t eat a menu thinking it’s a meal.” Sure, it might increase understanding to refer to infants in such anthropomorphic ways, but if you then start to “take the symbol for what is symbolized,” you run the risk of becoming attached to vitalistic energy (e.g., actually thinking that a pissed off infant aggresses against an omnipotent breast). Personally (and I haven’t read a lot of Klein) I’d say that these Kleinian anthropomorphisms are more about Klein expressing her inner anger than they are about arriving at any scientific understanding.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I think capturing vitalism is an important step on the road toward greater understanding. When I was a grad student in geology back in the early 1980s, there were still a few holdouts who believed in land bridges. Before the advent of plate tectonics, many geologists believed that land bridges popped up and down. Land bridges were used to explain the accumulating data that suggested that the continents were together, then apart, then together, etc. Land bridges captured the vitalism that later was placed within a plate tectonics framework. Could plate tectonics become so much vitalism (say, when we discover that space aliens move our continents around for entertainment)? Sure. But, sadly, many land bridge geologists simply did not want to give up the vitalism that the land bridge theory captured. And when the space alien theory is proved to be correct, trust me, a lot of geologists will cling to plate tectonics. Nobody likes for their worldview to be up ended.

My sense is that Bowlby recognized Kleinian theory for what it was: vitalism. And remember that Bowlby’s early writings used Kleinian vitalism as a backdrop. Take a look at the 1939 book that Bowlby co-wrote with his dear friend and colleague (and left-wing politician), Evan Durbin, entitled Personal Aggressiveness and War. Rather than view Klein’s insights as so much vitalistic rubbish, Bowlby sought to turn vitalistic lead into scientific gold (to use an alchemy metaphor). Interestingly, Bowlby quickly realized that the vitalism that Klein captured did not fit within the traditional (then as now) scientific framework of reductionism—expressing a desire to reduce all phenomena to simple cause and effect (billiard ball style) chains of events. Honestly, I’m not sure Klein is given credit for capturing vitalism in a way that would ultimately point Bowlby toward naturalistic systems theory. Thanks Melanie. Lets get back to the Peltz passage. All emphasis is mine and my additions are in brackets.

Then the combined efforts to deny and disparage our helplessness and dependence [which vitalistically captures our need for attachment relationships], and control and idealize (through splitting) the objects of our dependence [vitalism for “attachment figure”] (these internal objects [vitalism for Inner Working Models] return in their persecutory role), fuel what we think of as the manic cycle of response [cites work by Hinshelwood here]. These defenses are regulated [see the end of my January 12th, 2011, post] by the degree to which we can tolerate the pain associated with loss (of omnipotence, of object [e.g., attachment figure], and of the object’s love and caretaking [read “attachment patterns”]). To the degree that we can tolerate loss in all its variations [vitalism for Bowlbian attachment patterns], we remain engaged with the multi-dimensionalities of psychic reality [e.g., the competing behavioral systems of Bowlby’s theory—see my January 12th, 2011, post] [cites work by Klein and Ogden]. To the degree that we cannot tolerate loss [e.g. how insecurely attached we are] and instead invoke the cycle of manic defenses, the experience of psychic reality in all its complexity [vitalism for a naturalistic systems perspective] collapses [e.g., a coherent whole breaks down into and operates out of isolated subsystems].

I had to stop the presses because as I read this passage, I was hit full force with the question: “Why are we so attached to the vitalism of Bowlbian Attachment Theory?” To use my geology analogy once more I could frame the question thus: “Now that plate tectonics has been embraced by the geologic community as a way of explaining and understanding continental drift, why oh why are there still all of these land bridge types around?” Honestly, I do not have an answer. But I do know that unless we give up “Kleinian ‘land bridge’ vitalism” (so-to-speak), we will never fully embrace “Bowlbian ‘plate tectonics’ systems scientism.” If you have any ideas on why we are so attached to the vitalism of attachment and not the scientism, please, I’d love to have your thoughts. In the mean time, I’ll also give some thought to why the Land Bridges of Attachment are so popular. I’ll end on this note: look at how popular the idea of Intelligent Design has become in recent years (a big movement here in New Mexico). The rise of ID represents vitalism’s attack on scientism, both reductionistic and natural systems science. The popularity of vitalism may simply map the crazy world we live in currently.

Postscript – I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Peltz, in her article, does use the vitalism of Kleinian theory to comment on the current political landscape. For that, she deserves credit. Peltz argues that unfettered market forces (e.g., neoliberalism) is incompatible with a democratic society that believes in the importance of social safety nets. This is the same message that can be found in the work of Daniel Brook, Henry Giroux, and Peter Marris. As a matter of fact, Marris is probably one of the only Bowlbians (that I know of) who has used Bowlby’s attachment theory to comment on the current political landscape. (Use the CONTACT US link above to request a copy of my summary of Marris’s 1996 book The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life, or a copy of his 2002 article What Can Be Wrong With Growth?) It’s too bad that more Bowlbians don’t take the opportunity to use attachment framed by naturalistic systems theory to build bridges to the world of politics. Again, I give Peltz credit for building bridges between psychodynamics and politics, vitalism or not.