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Machine Love and the Uncanny Object: A Children's Story

Annette Hamilton

This story is set in a zone somewhere between anthropology and psychoanalysis, in the lonely frightening spaces of early infant experiences, across the transitional boundaries between nature and civilization, and in our present only-just inhabited world of new technologies and primitive dreams of the Will-to-Power.

How are we to understand our relationships with the technologised lifespaces surrounding us, with the programs which require new attributes of the wetware, restructured cognitive skills and new forms of subjectivity appropriate to the machine-world? The uncanny qualities of photography and cinema were often noted in the nineteenth century, a kind of ghostliness in two dimensions. When early photographers tried to capture images of newly-encountered tribal peoples, the people fled. Although it has become a cliché of the photographer and the native, it is nonetheless true that many tribal people did fear the effect of the machine as it faced them. When they were shown the results in a photograph, they could not at first decipher the two dimensional black and white images. The camera effected a kind of capture: the photographer "shot" the people, and, it was thought, stole their spirits or "souls". Almost without exception, pre-modern humans believed something animated them, an essential element which arrived at conception or birth or shortly after and departed with death. In the absence of the spirit, the body was "dead meat". Ghosts and spirits: animating substances in dead flesh, immaterial elements of once-existent Beings. Yet today we are comfortable with every conceivable form of representation, with seeing things which cannot or should not exist, such as dinosaurs and aliens, or experiencing with our own senses (at the movies or with the computer) demons and cyborgs and every conceivable imaginable creature and thoroughly enjoying it without the slightest concern for our own supposed inner essences. How have we become so comfortable, so at-ease, with technological "things", so that far from fearing or avoiding them, we are willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain them ? even hand-held telephones which can send photographs to our refrigerators?

While these relationships can sometimes cause a kind of vertigo, a slipping into a condition where the desire to resist is as strong as the desire to yield, I want to suggest that this in fact is typical of the experience of relationship between humans and their Things. New technologies always appear alarming and dangerous: in Australia, finely-worked stone knives with a blade of trigonal form manufactured from quartzite were traded into the Arrernte lands and from there south into the Western Desert. Whereas the knives were utilitarian instruments in their place of origin, by the time they reached the Western Desert they were wrapped and kept apart from any everyday activity, to be revealed only on the most sacred-secret occasions ? they had become sacred objects (Spencer and Gillen 1968:593; Hamilton 1980:114-115). The movement between sacredness and danger, and everyday appropriation, seems likely to have been a condition of the human relation with technology throughout our history.

The presence of Things, of Objects, has oscillated in our intellectual and social practices. In the nineteenth century, "primitive" and exotic objects (African masks, Japanese screens, Chinese porcelains) rushed into prominence as objects of desire, and the study of "material culture" emerged, an aesthetic anthropology which focussed entirely on the Thing, its appearance, treatment and method of manufacture. Museums were filled up with Things, ripped out of any context and stripped of any original meaning, objects for Westerners to collect and contemplate. In the mid-twentieth century Things disappeared, partly into the political economy perspective (Things were the product of alienated labour etc) and partly into Science and Technology Studies. They reappeared in the 1980s, most remarkably in the work associated with Appadurai (1986). Recently, Things have returned to theory, in the form of commodities, technologies, foodstuffs, urban spaces, and art, and "the sensuous immediacy of the objects we live, work and converse with, in which we routinely place our trust, which we love and hate, which bind us as much as we bind them" (Pels, Hetherington and Vandenberghe 2002:1). The work being signalled now indicates the emergence of a fundamental ontological confusion between human actions and the life of things, and the search for a way of comprehending this.

Over recent times, the apparently alarming qualities of the new machine-life have quickly been normalised, nowhere more so than in the way infants and children are given over to this realm of experience from earliest days. The way the infant and child experiences its object-world is fundamentally determinant of its lifetime relationship with Things. In unexpected ways, perhaps, the world of machine-production has been training each generation not just to accept, want or use its Things, but to love them, to love with them, to use them for purposes of loving. This is because Things become Objects, and Objects are, in the psychic world of the infant and young child, both Thing and Not-Thing, both possessed and possessing. This makes their qualities uncanny, and the uncanny, familiar. From child to adult, the relation to the object follows familiar trajectories, as human objects and non-human objects lose their distinctiveness and begin to blur, to melt into one another and fuse. In this way, through the penetration of subjectivity by a world of Things, another kind of world (one which is already here and already constituting us) draws us as a species forward into the condition of posthuman being.

Psychoanalytic Objects

From techne to psyche: the idea of the "object" in psychoanalytic theory opens up a different but related perspective. In Freudian and post-Freudian thinking, the term "object" refers in the first instance to the attachment process securing the infant?s connection to those on whom it relies for survival. The paradigmatic object is the breast itself, at least in pre-technological cultures. The baby is "attached" to the breast, both really and metaphorically. Without this attachment, it will die. And yet it is not securely attached, because the breast is attached to a body and the body can, according to its own will, move away or fail to appear in accordance with the desire of the child. The complex and difficult processes whereby the infant comes to understand the relation between self and other have formed the primary elements in most psychoanalytic theories, notably those of Freud himself, of Melanie Klein and of Lacan.

Psychoanalytic theory is notoriously ethnocentric. The relation between the infant and the breast is the paradigmatic relationship in the development of a sense of subjectivity and its encounters with an external reality. Freud and the post-Freudians saw many problems in this relation which they attributed to a universal human experience. In Freud?s time, and frequently among upperclass people in the previous several centuries, the infant?s attachment to the breast was in various ways compromised. In particular, wet-nursing may have meant that the infant was usually nourished by someone other than the mother. This often resulted in precarious nutritional status and perhaps an overall lack of care. For many other infants, though they were nourished by their own mothers, there were also various strictures regarding frequency of feeding, the need for privacy, insistence that the child sleep alone or away from the maternal body, and the cultural preference to terminate breast-feeding as soon as possible. The first "object" was almost certainly a very problematic kind of attachment under these cultural regimes. Theorists such as Melanie Klein claimed that these problems caused profound depression, anger and hatred in the very young baby. The presence of maternal aggression and hostility to the infant was also developed in Kleinian theory as a significant element of the earliest formation of universal human object-relations.1

But in the majority of tribal and pre-modern societies, this "detachable object" is in fact scarcely ever detached until the infant is well able to cope with the experience. The breast may be attached to the body of the mother, but so is the baby. The baby is carried physically on the mother?s body wherever she goes; the mother gives the breast to the infant whenever it cries. The subjectivity of the mother and her status as part-object for the baby are not normally in conflict. Breast-feeding continues for at least two and often up to four years. By this time the "object-status" of the mother is no longer a problem: the child has recognised itself as a subject, and knows cognitively that the mother is a separate being, even if in its fantasy-desire this were not so. This is not to imply that there are no "failures", or that the mothers have no ambivalent feelings about their infants. Babies were often killed or left to die for various reasons: if they were too close to another sibling, or one of twins, or if environmental conditions would render their survival unlikely. Nevertheless the confusion between subject and object, identity and otherness, arising from the cognitive underdevelopment of the very young infant exposed to rigid and sometimes neglectful or hostile early nurturance, would not be likely under premodern conditions.

However technological developments have rendered almost completely irrelevant the fundamental nurturance bond between mother and infant, and the specific relationships with the maternal breast. Although artificial feeding of infants was tried on occasions since Ancient Egypt, only since the twentieth century has it been really effective or possible on a mass basis. Modern technology permitted the development of the feeding bottle and the rubber teat, modern manufacturing developed dried milks which mimicked the qualities of human milk, and the germ-theory allowed the development of reliable sterilisation. Now, all over the developed world, the "object" which nourishes the infant is increasingly likely to be a manufactured "thing".

The development of artificial feeding apparatus is now so normalised that the question of whether or not to breast-feed has become merely a lifestyle issue. Every woman in every part of every developed society on the planet can expect to go to a store and buy 100% reliable artificial milk, bottles, teats, sterilising equipment and the like. Many women breast-feed for a few months but most children are "weaned" by six months of age or earlier. They are not really "weaned", but the bottle replaces the breast and usually the "dummy" is provided for non-nutritive sucking. At an early age, most infants can take control, to a degree, of their own feeding.

By seven or so months of age, or earlier, infants can take their own bottle into their own hands and feed themselves. They can continue on the bottle as long as, or longer than, pre-modern and tribal children can access the breast, and go to bed each night with a bottle of milk no matter what their mothers or caretakers are doing. The dummy is attached to their clothing and they can put it in and out of their mouths as often as they like for as long as they like. The "object" is in the infant?s own control, and it is free to love its "thing" provided the caregivers provide it. Every parent can confirm that the baby really does love the bottle and the dummy. This loved "thing" does not have to be confused with the primary caregiver, who is free to come and go while the infant retains control over its loved object. Of course the infant also loves the human caregivers, but its particular dependence on the maternal breast is no longer an essential part of that relationship.

Nevertheless bottle and dummy only "stand in" for maternal love at a particular point in development, and as the infant begins to recognise itself, and know that its primary caretakers can and do go away and leave it behind, the security of its love attachment comes into question. The conditions of modernity, which have permitted the mother to detach from the baby for the purposes of feeding, also mean that the mother may be absent from the infant, and increasingly infants are expected to accept this without "making a fuss", spending large amounts of time at day-care centres from an early age. There is a debate as to whether this affects the infant?s sense of attachment; whether this happens or not, we also know that no level of continuity of attachment can ever be enough. Some level of maternal love is always missing. The demand on the mother will always be thwarted: by the father?s or other relatives demands, above all by the birth of new siblings.

Subsequent love-objects may then be seen as a consolation, a supplement to the missing maternal love. In this way, the person loved functions as a kind of "thing" for the person who loves, and just as for the baby the mother is a separable person as well as a kind of Thing, so is the love-object for the lover. In Lacanian theory, a person can never know or encounter another person in their entirety or in the fullness of their being: there are always ideas, images, fantasies which intervene, arising from the problematic confusion between subject and object. Between any two persons is a space full of projections and desires arising from the "objectification" of the other, and thus the impossibility of a completely transparent intersubjectivity.

If we cannot grasp the "real" of the other when the other is a person, why do we assume we can grasp the "real" of the non-human object? Could it be that the non-human object presents itself in ways every bit as obscure and mysterious as the human one?

The Transitional Object

As child-observers well know, children do not recognise a clear distinction between the "I" and the Thing for many years. The boundaries between them are hard to establish. Children frequently form deep attachments to particular objects ? a favourite "toy", a piece of blanket ? without which they feel unable to function adequately, especially as they approach that terrifying space between being alive and being dead, that is, the time of going to sleep. These are known as "transitional objects". As well, most children find it difficult to ascertain exactly what is "real" and what is not. The testing of "the real" goes constantly in questioning, chattering, in fears (as in "is there a monster in the cupboard?") and in the ideas of being able to do something which is desired, for instance, the child believing it is able to fly. Many children also believe that the toys and other objects which they love and share their lives with actually do have a life of their own, as in the film "Toy Story", where the "things" in the child?s room have a secret life which happens during the night, their animated existence merely being put on hold during the day. Transitional objects are particularly important for providing reassurance against fears of "the real" and the dangers and terrors faced by children in their imaginations (as well as all too often in reality).

At one level, the transitional object acts as a controllable supplement for the missing maternal/paternal carer. At another, though, transitional objects may be a compensation for the many objects which the child is not permitted to touch directly, explore or enjoy. Modern technological societies are replete with these kinds of objects, all of which must carefully be kept away from children. In premodern societies children are given free access to almost all objects in their environment. However there are always some objects which they must avoid: and these include those for which the term "fetish" was originally intended ? sacred and secret objects which are culturally and socially believed to hold important powers in and of themselves. The objects which are most stringently protected are those which are objects of the greatest "value". In the everyday life of modern societies, the environment of the child is also composed of fetishes, in this case items of value which might be destroyed if the child were to touch them. The process of growing up then is learning to respect the inviolability of the fetish.

For adults in technological societies, this relationship forms the core of our relationship with our fellows. We must not take another person?s object because it belongs to him or her, in its substantiality. At the same time, we can neglect or destroy "our own" objects, if we choose to do so, but it would only be the most unwise, or crazy, who would do this. All of our objects partake in the character of fetish objects. In tribal societies the logic of the fetish is quite different. The fetish-object is imbued with power of its own. People must respect the object because it possesses this power, which it will direct against those who trespass against it. But objects in the everyday world need not be held aside, since they can always be replaced by the efforts of the individual. It is often observed that in many tribal communities "valuable" things such as cars, musical instruments, television sets, video players and the like are quickly wrecked because children are allowed to "play" with them. Children are free to explore the objects because they are not considered to be continuing assets which must be retained in their original condition. This is a logic based on the satisfaction of desire, and on a sense of abundance in the world, rather than scarcity. One is willing to relinquish because one can always obtain more. Shortage is a particular kind of condition, based on a perception of objects as alienated in their essence from the desires of the human world.

Love and Its Objects

Thus we can reconsider the world of material objects from the viewpoint of love. Under late modernity, the two seem to converge more and more completely. The bonds of love are redirected towards the Thing, or perhaps expressed most completely by reference to it. The love directed by parents towards children, for instance, can be subject to processes of substitution. The man, for example, may celebrate the purchase of a new car as if it were a child, albeit with a kind of ironical distantiation. The transference of love from a primary object to another was accepted by traditional psychoanalysis as a normal process. For example, the love for the mother is supposed to be echoed or rediscovered in the man?s love for his partner, under the logic of Oedipal heterosexualisation.

Where a love object has disappointed someone, this loss is turned inward and becomes melancholia. The wounded self-regard which arises from the loss of love is turned into self-reproach and depression.

An object-choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person, had at one time existed; then, owing to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object-relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it on to a new one, but something different …. the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. (Freud 1995: 586).

In the Real, there is always and inevitability the loss of loved object. Parents grow old and die, partners leave one another, children leave home and leave their parents. In contemporary modernity the bonds of "love" ? in a form which would have been recognised by Freud, say ? seem to have weakened. The pair-bond of the reproductive couple is totally optional and often an afterthought, if it happens at all. (Postcard: "Oh my God, I forgot to have children!") The mother-child bond remains the strongest and most enduring tie, but the arrangements surrounding it are changing rapidly. International adoption, surrogacy and IVF are reconfiguring the forces of social as well as biological reproduction.

Interpersonal relations become increasingly problematic. Where family groups were once large and expected to be enduring, increasingly co-residence is becoming rarer and people seek to, or are obliged to, live alone. A major element in this reduced sociality is a love-object which is intermediate between the person and the thing. The pet, or animal companion, provides an object which is both substitute and transitional; the pet is manageable and responsive, inexpensive and short-lived in contrast to children. But even pets have severe disadvantages arising from their existence as "things" which exist organically, disadvantages which are being addressed by Sony as a result of its huge research effort in Artificial Intelligence. Sony?s new AIBO robot dog is a Second Generation entertainment robot: it learns its name, and "its built-in stereo microphone, voice-recognition technology and speaker form the foundation of a growing, loving relationship". (From last accessed 23/6/04). AIBO can learn about 50 verbal commands and expresses "real emotions". "AIBO has instincts and acts as if it had free will" (ibid).

The robot dog has been successful in Japan, less so elsewhere. But no doubt it is the forerunner to other creatures/beings which will join our human lives in an intermediate space between Being and Not-Being. Libidinal attachment and "feeling good" in the world depends on objects which may increasingly be objects, rather than other human subjects. The fundamental break between the "I" and the "thing", signalled by Descartes and carried forward into the world of global technology, may be coming to an end, thus opening up vast possibilities as well as dangers.

The Uncanny and the Undead

We can see that there is a deepening element of the Uncanny in our relations with objects; tribal societies knew it and we are beginning to know it again now. The material world increasingly "stands in" as well as "standing-by": an extension as well as a reserve for our own desire. The commodity fetishism of late capitalism has made this its engine, its ceaseless thrumming engine. As Zizek has described it, the indestructible stupidity of superego enjoyment enfolds us with the Master?s injunction: "Enjoy! (Or else!)". This is the clutch of the "undead" as it constitutes the perverse universe of late capitalism (Zizek, 1999: p. 390)

Obedience to the Master is thus the operator that allows you to reject or transgress everyday moral rules: all the obscene dirty things you were dreaming of, all that you had to renounce when you subordinated yourself to the traditional patriarchal symbolic Law- you are now allowed to indulge in them without punishment, exactly like the fat-free German meat which you may eat without any risk to your health ? (ibid: 391)

The dilemmas of drive and desire, and the ethics required in the face of them, must lie at the end of this story, but we cannot reach it yet. The dimension of the "undead" is that of "a strange, immortal, indestructible life that persists beyond death ? an even worse infinity of jouissance which persists for ever, since we can never get rid of it" (Zizek ibid: 294). If it is true that we can never get rid of this uncanny relation with objects, the Undeadness will persist. But as we begin to contemplate the possibility that the objects are themselves "alive" the estrangement between the "I" and the "thing" may find a mode of dissolution.

The logic of capitalism thus is imbued in its unconscious practices with a particular understanding of objects in the world. Technology has created objects beyond number, in an unthinkable abundance by comparison with conditions even in the recent past. Our discarded objects mock us in the garbage dumps of the world. If objects are recognised as having a kind of subject-hood, or to express it in a different way, if the strict separation between object and subject can be abandoned as much in the object-world as in the intersubjective world, a more care-full and respectful relation between humans and things might arise. New technologies open up these possibilities. Exploration of space and harmony, the mapping of human genetic code into musical form, the responsiveness of new objects ? the robot dog, the speaking computer ? signify the possibilities at the edges of thought, and art.


Appadurai, A (1986) The Social Life of Things, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Burgoyne, B. and Sullivan, M. (eds) (1999) The Klein-Lacan Dialogues, New York: Other Press

Freud, S. (1995) The Freud Reader, ed. P. Gay, London: Vintage

Hamilton, A. (1980) Timeless Transformation: Women, Men and History in the Australian Western Desert. PhD Thesis. Sydney: University of Sydney

Klein, M. (1927) "The psychological principles of infant analysis" in International Journal of Psychoanalysis 8:25-37

Lacan, J. (1991) Le Séminaire, Livre XV11 L?envers de la Psychanalyse, 1969-1970, Paris: Seuil

Lacan, J. (1995) [1964]. "The position of the unconscious" in Feldstein, Fink and Janus, eds, Reading Seminar X1, Albany: State University of New York Press

Pels, D., Hetherington, K. and Vandenberghe, F. (2002) Editors? Introduction in The Status of the Object: Special Issue of Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.19 (5/6): 1-21. London: Sage

Spencer, B. and Gillen, F. (1968) [1899] The Native Tribes of Central Australia, New York: Dover Facsimile Edition accessed 23/6/04

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political

Ontology, Verson: London, New York


1 Klein focussed on the presence of destructive impulses and fantasies stemming from oral sadism towards the mother, and the internalization of a "split" relationship between a devoured and devouring breast on the one hand, and a satisfying and helpful one on the other, as central to the construction of the superego. See for example Klein 1927. There are major differences between Kleinian and Lacanian interpretations. See Burgoyne and Sullivan, eds, 1999.