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A Primal Scene

One of the most generative myths in psychoanalysis concerns the acquisition of language in early childhood. Most of the major theorists, regardless of faction, handle this thread. Here’s a brief amalgamation (slanted, surely, to my own concerns). The infant lives a life of undiluted presence: all the world that counts is at hand. The root of the word is the Latin infans: “speechless.” The infant doesn’t have language because he doesn’t need it. In fact, the case literature records remarkable resistances to language acquisition, instances in which the child approaches the gifted horse skeptically, intuiting that the game the noxiously repetitive adults want to coax him into is an imposition, that it comes at a cost. But no holding out can last: absences accrue, and language compensates for them. We name what we come to learn is different from and distant to us: the mother’s body and will, what can be held in the hand and then taken away, what doesn’t move back when we move in the mirror. The child begins to manage a distinction, as D.W. Winnicott put it, between “me and not me.” Language loses its initial life for us as unalloyed sense phenomena (overhearing adults who care for us) and begins, uneasily, to mediate experience with the world by symbolic substitution; this is, in Leo Stone’s words, “that period of life when the modalities of bodily intimacy and direct dependence on the mother are being relinquished or attenuated, pari passu with the rapid development of the great vehicle of communication by speech.” The child learns that she cannot have everything she wants, but she can say the words for what’s missing. This is a retelling of Genesis as developmental psychology. The garden of languagelessness isn’t long. We acquire a capacity that comes to define us; we fall away from something immanent.