Sunday, 15 April 2012

Intimacy 1: A critical approach to the interventionist ideas of 'attachment parenting'

One in a series of old texts that I am retrieving and collecting together, and sometimes reworking. Often this renewed effort exposes deeper, unworkable, internal contradictions. Sobeit!

1. This is the double bind of lifestyle:
A creeping awareness of the controlling nature of society is crystallised for me by an especially disempowering experience. Suddenly, I recognise my lack of power over my own existence. I see how society intrudes into personal life and causes me to express its values. My life is moulded into the pattern of its regime. I decide to take back my life and live according to my own sense of priority. I will resist this intrusion by excluding its influence. I will set up my own intimate system which will allow me to control myself but. But I have found that no matter how I try to exclude it, the external system keeps re-imposing itself on my system. Each time I discover it leaking into my life I tighten the control I have on my system. My intimate system is a system of control. And the external system is a system of control. The external system exerts control by intruding into intimate systems. It has intruded into my system in a way I did not anticipate. It has caused me to express in my system its value in terms of a controlling system.

2. worn paths: systems against the system
How mysterious other people’s methods are, and how incomprehensible their enthusiasms. What events in the past could have led them to behave as they do now? Opinions and actions appear like some autistic rigmarole — the closed systems of other people’s activity are fused into the idea of who they must be, and it is who they must be at all costs which animates their activity.

It is precisely what we hold most dear, what we consider essential to our identity, what it is that we stand for, which becomes our defence against a relation with others. It feels like our ideas are always under threat from outside forces ... it is all that we can do ... it takes most of our energy just to stay in the same place ... this is my line in the sand. One such locked-in lifestyle defines itself as ‘attachment parenting’ and it is this particular conception of preciousness, or my tentative approach towards it, that I will use to try and uncover a method for coping with enthusiasms and enthusiastic activity in general.

My intention is to help develop a means by which we will be able to gain insight into matters that are of significance to others but not to us. A means which does not adopt an either/or, for/against framework. How might I talk to other people about what is important to them without disagreeing violently? Which procedures should I follow so as to prevent myself from calling you an idiot? At what levels can so and so and thus and thus connect to each other without sheering-off in mutual disgust?

3. I fain would go with you
The regime or circuit of attachment parenting begins with a conventional mise en scène: you look on at some screaming kid and its furious mum in the supermarket, and you say to yourself ‘when I have a kid I will never behave like that.’ And then you have a kid and then you do behave like that. And then you feel shame and then you have a long hard think and then you try and live your life differently, and better. You want to take control, to establish a system of control. And that ‘personal’ story feeds into deeper anxieties about toxins in your child’s body, and the abuses of so-called childcare, about security, about, oh about the end of the world. And so it is that you find yourself volunteering for a mission for which you supply the reasoning: I don’t have much power but I can at least make a difference to my own life.

The intimate negentropy of attachment parenting ... the downsizing flight from the complexities of modern life ... the micro-surgical reconnection of familial bonds torn by TV, private transport, refined sugars and transfats is afforded by a perceived dominion, an economy of sorts, over the specifics of my personal realm. By embracing an alternative method you have rediscovered a proper sense of proportion — Aha! No matter what other priorities might press in, the child, this comes first. But uh-oh, in practice this re-prioritising flatly contradicts every received notion associated with childrearing in this society — suddenly you are up against, the normative techniques of the medical and educational establishments. You need other books that are not the books provided, you need a different community that is not the community provided, you need theories, examples, events, practices, taboos, sanctions, conventions controversies and scandals. You need to set yourself within a petit regime, you need to assert yourself so as to ensure, my child is to be valued as more than just a peg to hang commodities from.. Oh precious, is it?

Attachment parenting supposes a mutually experienced natural instinct for proximity between child and mother. It is assumed that close connection during early years of life will cause the resultant individual to reproduce a system of secure, empathic relationships in adulthood. Attachment theory argues that an infant instinctively seeks proximity to a familiar person and the system, or circuit, of its self feels completed whenever that person is present.
Children attach to their mothers because they are social beings, they experience and develop in the world from their mother’s position. Just as chimpanzee infants for their first five years look out to world and connect with it from their mother’s body, which acts as a frame for experiencing and gauging responses, so the theory of attachment parenting argues for prolonged physical contact. The presupposition for attachment is a perceived necessity for carrying, a constant low intensity intimacy — the initial movement is one of holding close. This is in contradistinction to conventional practice of distancing — putting the child down and distracting it.

4. holding hands in the strange situation
It was inevitable that an identified tendency towards attachment would then be separated out and transformed, in the narratives of those who claim it for their own, into the basis of a theory of human nature. It was inevitable that the phenomena of attachment would become a motif of naturalness in human beings. Moral authority derived from claims for what is most natural is used, in the unnatural world of competing moral authorities, to extract recognition from the world. And like the reverse image of the supermarket scene, which demonstrates unnatural disconnection, attachment comes to stand for something primal, irreducible and therefore proper. It is from this basic ideological building block that subsequent preferences and activities may draw their justification, and an entire lifestyle be built up from it.

Strange then that the authorisation of attachment theory, and this desire for authorisation, isn’t derived intuitively from the relation itself. Strange how this natural bonding is first spooled out as findings on a computer printout, strange that the mise en scène of its discovery is a theatre of estrangement and peopled by the Dr Strangeloves of 1950’s clinical psychology — the white coats, the vivisection, the experimental situations. Strange that primal connection should be inherited via the strange room.

The theory of attachment was first proved by an experiment in which young monkeys (separated from their mothers) were supplied with two dolls intended to function as surrogates, one doll was made of wire and included a bottle of milk whilst the other was soft but had no milk. The monkeys chose the softness of the milkless doll over the nourishment of the uncomfortable one. This was said to prove that maternal love was the primary demand of infants. It was observed that monkeys deprived of attachment displayed strange behaviours and abnormal sexual activities when they reached maturity.

Further developments in the theory of attachment were developed by an experiment known as ‘The strange situation’. This experiment was designed to both classify types of attachment and gradate the degrees to which these were exhibited in children’s behaviour. The strange situation was set up in a room containing two way mirrors which concealed the authors of the experiment. A child and its mother entered the room, the child was encouraged to play with the provided toys, then the mother left the room. As the mother left, just like in an Ibsen play, a stranger entered. The child’s response to the stranger was recorded and classified. The stranger then left and the mother returned.

No doubt today's proponents of attachment are eager to distance themselves from crude early experiments. Nevertheless, the function of ‘findings’ and thus official authorisation from psychological research continues to play its securing, attachment-like, role. The urge is always to find the most basic and therefore ‘natural’ urges so that these might be used to justify present activities.

New studies have found that close attachment increases the mother’s progesterone levels, facilitating the maternal bond and decreasing the likelihood of postpartum depression. There are also claims for better health of the infant which range from improved neural development to better gastrointestinal and respiratory health as well as a better sense of balance and muscle tone. Aggression is diminished, IQ and brain development increased, and properly attached children are more able to communicate in the world. We might observe, when confronted with these claims, that the theory has itself passed from a need for the harsh bottle-doll of monkey experiments to a desire for the comforting soft doll of family therapy.

Attachment parenting is a strategy directed against alienation, and yet it is also a system which is derived from, and ultimately still attached to, a general system of alienation in which it is but one product in a competitive marketplace of ideologies and societal cure-alls. It does not escape conditions, nor does it seriously contest the capitalist productive relation and the waged existence which constantly drags workers away from attached intimacy, but rather it merely seeks for itself a niche afforded by the husband's salary. The function of `the natural' within attachment parenting's arguments is its main selling-point, and yet this very emphasis strategically obscures other issues of equal, or greater concern, than what is `natural' in human productive relations.

5. control in systems of control
Surveillance is one of the few words in the political lexicon which has not shed its meaning, and even where ubiquity has become the name of a means of social mediation the word itself still retains a sinister quality. Surveillance is characterised as a system of control which is deployed as a tool by a wider system of control. The general purpose for the use of surveillance is the continued reproduction of existing relations under static conditions.

Surveillance is a basic and easily communicable means of extracting significant information from apparently complex and multiple relations; it encapsulates the disproportionate hierarchy that exists between relative positions of watcher and watched. The specific content of the hierarchy is expressed through the purpose and practical requirements for the deployment of surveillance: first it must be decided why this place/this group of people needs to be watched. There is no surveillance without intent.

Surveillance always invokes a mechanism for the monitoring of more or less unknowing peripheral parts from a more or less conscious centre. The function and value of the monitored parts, and the degree of control related from the centre to the parts is invariably set by the centre. The intent of the relation flows from the centre outwards, whilst information flows from periphery inwards.

The problem of consciousness is the problem of intentional or purposeful authority over the circuits it monitors. In other words, that element of a systemised relation which is in conscious possession of the purpose of the relation inevitably has more power to manipulate it than those elements which have none.

The problem of consciousness as a mode of control is the problem of elective communities. In other words those practices and ideas which seek to wrest control of life back from the received general social relation, so as to achieve some level of autonomy, are necessarily dependent on a mechanism that is defined by intent, purpose and valuing, in other words, a conscious controlling centre.

6. surveillance against surveillance
Elective communities, elective practices, are reliant to a greater degree than received everyday life, on the practice of surveillance. Attachment parenting tends towards conflict with received or established surveillance — it rejects the conventions, standards, models and interventions of child-raising as proposed by the medicalised state but in order to sustain itself as a counter-tendency it must necessarily adopt a surveillance practice of its own. Above, I have sketched out this convergence with the scientific gaze but the practice of ‘monitoring’ goes much further than this and through it we begin to make out the paranoid character of autonomy and self-management.

At a juncture in history where the social relation has become thoroughly permeated by surveillance — now is a moment, more than any other, that is characterised by the circuit ‘watching/being watched’ — so it is no coincidence that rebellious activity should unconsciously follow the outline of the surveillance system. In the example of attachment parenting, the original break with the system which involves a primal desire to experience the world from the perspective of the child’s interest, a break which grasps the world’s intentions to the child as based on negation, necessarily requires the taking of further steps to secure the original insight.

The self-management of child-rearing requires that the conscious centre which occupies the place of the child, it having no consciousness of the issues for itself, attracts an array of parts (objects and activities) which function to sustain the centre. The practicalities of an attachment parenting lifestyle generate a number of ethical values which are interpreted in a variety of ways. Some logical developments from child-centred parenting would include involvement with natural childbirth, home birth, stay-at-home parenting, homeschooling, deschooling, anti-circumcision, anti-vaccination, natural health, co-operatives, organic food, amongst many others.

The array of practices and values which become attached to the centre similarly become centres themselves from where a further array of parts are monitored. For example: organic food could function as a part in the surveillance system of attachment parenting but it will almost certainly transform itself into a monitoring system in its own right and maintain in its orbit an array of peripheral parts including issues of sourcing, supply, certification, and then on into further systems of perfecting self-sufficiency. Under the sign of surveillance existence is translated into a matrix of distribution nodes, each carefully monitoring its specialised input/output values. Consciousness, at the heart of the surveillance system, is translated into a mechanism for recognition/evaluation.

7. change controlling systems without use of controlling systems?
From the primal scene of the strange situation to a general climate of technologised watchfulness, the practice of surveillance imbues much of everyday life and this is often adopted in radical undertakings where those who seek to refuse their conditions must in turn keep a close eye on the minutiae of their activities (hence the heated conflicts in the radical milieu over small details of definition). I have noted the paranoid character exhibited within projects of self-management, in fact self-management might be diagnosed as an anxiety state which has developed into a condition of exacerbated watchfulness with particular sensitisation towards that which is being managed.

I have noted in the example of attachment parenting how anxiety caused by present circumstances is translated into a compulsive will towards controlling local and intimate circumstances via the monitoring of small details. And I have also implied that this anxiety is not shed in the subsequent development of alternatives to present circumstances but on the contrary the problem continues to suffuse all proposed solutions.

The condition of attachment within attachment parenting mimics the dependence consciousness has on its most familiar objects. A self-managed system, like a circle of settlers' wagons arranged against the wilderness, defines its details with a specific watchfulness and this watchfulness is constrained to recognise the appropriate movement of its objects within very tightly defined criteria. There is little room for ambiguity within the circuit, objects, actions, significances are stark and are sharply contrasted between their positive and negative functioning.

Similarly, the perceived relation of cause and effect, when driven by an anxiety for self-control, becomes oversimplified to the point that each separated string of events decay into base moral instances which call for judgement from the centre. Thus the urge to assess lists of objects: the provenance of the coffee you drink, a baby’s cry, an other’s casual remarks, the standing of an historical personage, food packaging, a political idea, a style of dress, chosen mode of transport, taking a holiday, favourite drugs, are all transformed as they pass before self-managed consciousness, each must be described, categorised, compared, evaluated, included/rejected — each must be retained or rejected, each must have judgment passed on its fitness.

Self-managed systems function, ultimately, as multiple series of yes and no. But whilst strings of simple relations between starkly defined objects form the main object of self-managed consciousness, there is also produced, by the very act of evaluation, a ghostly grey area, an area of grey relations. And the presence of these external unvalued relations further ratchet up levels of anxiety at the centre — patriots of an old language argue over whether to use anglophone neologisms, vegans argue over meat-substitutes, christians argue over the relevance of post-biblical innovations.

Fundamentalism is a paranoid response to objective relativisation of values — further `objective' relativising measures result in a further tightening of core values. For example, if a parent refuses the state vaccination programme, this might initiate an investigation by a social worker, as such a refusal might be interpreted as ‘neglect’. On another front the refusal of vaccination might result in a coercive refusal of admission to school and of medical insurance cover. In return, the parent’s monitoring system might respond to official moves by refusing to allow the child to attend school and denying access to it by the social agencies. From both positions, the monitoring/security mechanism is tightened up at the level of ‘pass/fail’ criteria for activities and objects.

The appearances of ghosts, or dissonances, within self-managed systems are indicators of different associations between parts and alternative means of attributing significance. Ghosts are disturbing because they threaten the coherence of the circuit. They indicate the process of entropy, the loss of cohesion in the elective system. I will not propose here that disorganisation is preferable to organisation, that is I do not think it is better to simply go along with the state, but rather that forces which cause disorganisation and disruption in personal life must be included within decision making. It is important to build walls against the outside, this is the means by which we come to know ourselves, but these should be temporary walls which may be kicked down easily.

The significance of self-surveying circuits is that they facilitate continuity and cohesion, this in turn allows for accumulation of experiences and produces a coherent identity which acts to frame engagement with the world. However, every system should also include a conscious acknowledgement of its internal mortality, i.e. it should come equipped with an off switch, if only to allow those released from it to build subsequent systems differently.

The strict systems of identity which produce living arrangements such as `attachment parenting' are reliant on very simple mechanisms of signification. But if these systems are to relativise the surveillance aspect of their consciousness they must first adopt a different understanding of how they come to be in their particular place — this de-fetishisation of their perspective should help in disrupting reproduction of established practices of ownership and control.

Surrounding the line of inheritance, negentropic spirals and the circuits of accumulation there are also clouds of association, random leaps, disorganisation — connection with these grey relations aids the breakdown of the tendency in organisations to become reductive and self-celebratory. In the example of attachment parenting, it is the parent who is flushed with anxiety, it is the parent who is paranoically attached, it is the parent who must learn to let go — that is, conceive and practice the limit of its own system.

8. Two models of cause and effect
That attachment theory is not really a flight from, or response to, ‘modern alienation’ but is in fact, like powdered ‘infant formula’ milk, just a parallel product, is sobering but no proof as such against the methodology. All we can say is things are not as simple as they seem — living lives based on making decisions and living according to a strict discipline are not enough in themselves to escape the determinations of the general social relation, nor do they seem sufficiently powerful as gestures to cause social change beyond the limits of the self-managed system.

This strange limiting, or holding in, of individual activity illuminates once more the double bind of ‘control’. There are two, apparently contradictory, models for social change. The first (activity) model proposes that changes in activity and values causes further changes in activity and values — multiple alterations cause multiple transformations. The second (generalising) model contradicts the first by interpreting decided activity and values as merely one set of marginal activities amongst an almost infinite number of other marginal activities which can only be understood, when considered in their totality, as possible expressions of their moment. The second model proposes that general changes at the level of activity only occur when there has first occurred a transformation in the general conditions that determine behaviour.

The ‘activity’ model responds to the ‘generalising’ model by observing that we don’t actually live our lives at the level of the generalised social relation and therefore to criticise activity on the grounds that its effects are contained to the level of activity is a mystification — a change in lifestyle is not a change in the social relation but it is a change in lifestyle. It goes on to argue that through the formation of elective communities which exist in flight from the general relation a definite form for critique of general relations is developed at the level of lived life. It is through lived experience and reflection upon different sets of experience that the determining conditions for living are revealed — change at the level of the social relation is not possible without individual experience of both unhappiness and dreams of transcending unhappiness.

Nevertheless, argues the generalising model there is no proof that even a massive aggregation of decisive activities would have sufficient power to transform the general social relation — human beings have never before successfully altered the conditions of their society by means of decision or conscious action. Control over crucial elements has always been elusive. The wider claims of the activity model are therefore unsubstantiated. One may only ever validate one's acts up to the borders of one's own existence, beyond these borders, which are defined by preference, there is no iron law of extrapolation.

This circling of conflicting and irreconcilable models becomes, in itself, or so it seems to me, an illuminated regime. Neither model entirely cancels out the other but together their mutual critiques merge to form an entirety in the matter under discussion. It is the tension between each pole, their orbiting, their answerlessness, rather than any proposed resolution of the tension, that expands both the scope for possible further development at the edge of the system, and the multiple (and contradictory) consciousness derived from it.