What is real? Transitional Space: Baudrillard, Winnicott, Psychoanalysis

by John Farnsworth


This paper takes up a psychoanalytic critique of Baudrillard’s critical theory to discuss how his formulation of the real, the object and the hyperreal can be opened up in quite different ways. This is by drawing on the concept of potential space and transitional phenomena. These have been extensively developed in the work of the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott. He investigated how the experience of the real is generated and how it emerges from a pre-symbolic overlapping of subject and object before they are differentiated in the areas of symbolic exchange or the semiotic. The paper suggests that provides new and potentially complementary ways of understanding the real alongside Baudrillard’s writing.

Key Words: Baudrillard, Winnicott, transitional space, the real, object, reversibility


The tragedy of critical theory is that it has never been able to theorize this potential, transitional, symbolic space, although it has always been concerned with it. Critical theory expects so much from the subject that it can only explain away the damage by attributing fantastic, demonic power to the object. It leaves nothing human in between.

(Levin 1991, 178)

This intriguing statement by Canadian psychoanalyst Charles Levin is aimed squarely at one theorist in particular: Jean Baudrillard. Although Levin’s essay received little subsequent response, and certainly none from Baudrillard himself, it offers an unusual and penetrating critique of Baudrillard’s writing. In part, this is because Levin explores the concept of subject and object at moments before they become differentiated. He does so from the standpoint of object relations, a theory which extends and reworks many of Freud’s foundational ideas within psychoanalysis (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983). The English psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott (1945, 1965, 1971), extended the boundaries of object relations through his study of how object formation takes place. This demonstrated the formation of intermediate space, one between and prior to subject and object formation which is where, according to accepted clinical thought, the constitution of the truly human takes place (Brogan 2021). This area is the realm of transitional space, objects and phenomena (1971) formations which have had enduring clinical power (Ogden 2021, Svrakic et al 2021). Levin takes the notion of transitional space as profoundly unsettling Baudrillard’s conception of simulation, simulacra and hyperreality and, in a larger sense, broader critical theory projects. Levin’s commentary on Baudrillard, however, also raises some difficult questions of paradox and incommensurability around these accounts of subject and object.

There are several ways to engage with Levin’s position. Here, I will develop his description of transitional phenomena in order to highlight how he critiques the reification he finds in Baudrillard’s writing. I will outline how this fails to address developments in Baudrillard’s later thought. This opens up the possibility of discussing two perspectives on the real in Baudrillard and Winnicott by developing Winnicott’s account of transitional space and phenomena. Both writers mobilise paradoxes in their views of the real, but I argue that these are usefully complementary perspectives that illuminate Baudrillard’s work on the hyperreal and simulacra. Another, by contrast, is to outline Baudrillard’s own critique of psychoanalysis and the unconscious where, for example, he counterposes the poetic and the psychoanalytic (1981).

What is at stake here? In brief, it amounts to two contrasting accounts of object formation: one, Winnicott’s, around the object and object space as a dynamic process; the other, Baudrillard’s, describing the object’s increasing domination as sign, where ‘the object system translates drives, emotions and their ambivalences into Sign form’ (Pawlett, 2008)  in order to become objects of consumption (Baudrillard 1981). At first blush, this contrast might simply appear to rehearse the opposition between humanist and posthumanist perspectives. In practice, the ambiguity inherent in transitional space disturbs this simple dichotomy and raises the very questions that Levin wants to address.

Levin and Baudrillard

Levin’s central argument is that Baudrillard’s analyses constitute ‘a theory of reification’:

this may be ‘different from the traditional critical theory of reification; it has turned into what Baudrillard now calls “simulation”. But this is still a theory of reification.

(Levin 1971: 171)

He pursues this idea through Baudrillard’s reading of Marx’s commodity fetishism to conclude that any commodity is ‘an object which has been inserted as an arbitrary term into a purely self-referential system of signifiers which decides the object’s meaning’ (1971: 173). In other words, ‘The commodity is an object in a system of objects; it is consumed as a sign of that system (1971: 174); it becomes a sign-object. As Pawlett (2008: n.p.) puts it, the ‘sign-object system offers a sense of freedom, autonomy and sovereignty to consumers but only on condition that we accept the sense of individuality and personality that is given by the system.’ Levin (1971: 174) comments that ‘meaning does not exist in a relationship between people (what Baudrillard would call Symbolic Exchange), but in the inner relations of signs and commodities among themselves.’ This is what he understands Baudrillard ([1970]2012) to mean by the paradox ‘that consumption has turned into a “system of interpretation” without meaning (Levin 1971: 177).’ There is no meaning because there is no symbolic exchange: ‘The symbolic is always about the potentiality of a relationship’ (Levin 1971: 177 and see Baudrillard 1981).

This amounts to the reification which Levin (1971) emphasizes and, it is from this point, that he develops his critique in relation to transitional phenomena. What this critique misses is the directions in Baudrillard’s later work, written after Levin’s own paper was published. So, there is no discussion of the hyperreal, simulacra or simulation; nor of Baudrillard’s critique of postmodernity where ‘individuals flee from the “desert of the real” for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience’ (Kellner 2020: n.p.). As Kellner (2020: n.p.) comments, ‘the growing power of the world of objects over the subject has been Baudrillard’s theme from the beginning, thus pointing to an underlying continuity in his project.’

He sees this articulated in works such as Fatal Strategies, where ‘the object dominates or “defeats” the subject’ or The Perfect Crime (1996), where the elimination of all the imperfections of human life and the world through virtual reality, amounts to ‘the elimination of reality itself, the Perfect Crime’ (Kellner 2020).

Coulter (2004, n.p.) proposes that Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993) had already introduced Baudrillard’s ‘one great thought’: the idea of reversibility and seduction. This, he argues, is instanciated in The Perfect Crime (1996) ‘where three decades of thought and writing come together’. These themes, and those of good and evil, had already been anticipated in earlier work, for example in The Ecstasy of Communication where Baudrillard writes (1988, p.92):

“Everything is being reversed into the enigma of an Object, endowed with passions and original strategies, an object in which one senses the evil genius, a genius more evil and more genial deep down than the subject, whose endeavors it victoriously opposes in a kind of endless duel.

In this context, Coulter (2004, n.p.) argues:

Baudrillard sees the perfect crime as our doomed attempt to render the world (which is fundamentally a world of illusion) knowable in computer models and information, by the “cloning of reality” and the “extermination of the real [the original illusion] by its double.”

In this context ‘the object is considered more cunning, cynical, talented than the subject, for which it lies in wait’ (Baudrillard 1990, p.181). Consequently, as Coulter (2004, n.p.) comments,

For Baudrillard then, theory precedes the world because there is nothing that can be said of the world that is not framed by our approach to it. Without an exchange with theory, the world does not exist. The real is always a challenge to theory and our only strategy can be to use theory to challenge the real.

As Baudrillard (2001, p. 128) writes:

Does the world have to have meaning, then? That is the real problem. If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination.

Such passages illustrate the reversibility and seduction involved in the ceaseless massifying of information which, ironically, intensifies the hyperreal the more strenuous the attempts are to reach or produce the real.

Reading of the hyperreal this way produces a peculiar, almost dissociated inversion takes place, which relates to the effect to which Baudrillard points. Strangely inert, mesmerising sensation seems to take the place of the reading subject, even in the active process of reading his work. This creates the paradox of an object ‘considered more cunning, cynical, talented than the subject’ (Baudrillard 1990, p.181). As an illustration in his commentary on the US, Baudrillard (1994, p.2) writes:

Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

This conception and apprehension of the real could hardly be more distant to Winnicott’s understanding of how the real is constituted by way of transitional space and phenomena, so it is to this that I now turn.

Transitional Phenomena

To investigate transitional space is to enter a different domain altogether. Winnicott follows how experiential worlds are brought into being; how the quality of aliveness of humanness is established, not simply at the beginning of life, but as a continuing collective, cultural achievement across the lifespan. Winnicott’s exploration begins with Primitive Emotional Development (1945) continuing through a variety of papers to Playing and Reality (1971) and Home is Where We Start From (1990).

Just how different this domain is can be gathered from this quote:

I have introduced the terms “transitional objects” and “transitional phenomena” for designation of the intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear, between the oral erotism and the true object-relationship, between primary creative activity and projection of what has already been introjected, between primary unawareness of indebtedness and the acknowledgement of indebtedness (“Say: ‘ta’”).

(Winnicott 1971, p.2)

What are such transitional experiences? As Ogden (2021, p.3) writes ‘they are very early encounters with what is not-me, and yet they are being woven into what is absolutely personal to an infant who is early in the process of becoming a subject.’ They commonly emerge in secure environments where the individual can become absorbed and forgetful of the outside world. The point of the transitional object, as Winnicott (1971, p.3) writes, ‘is not its symbolic value so much as its actuality’, whether this is ‘a bundle of wool or the corner of a blanket or eiderdown, or a word or tune, or a mannerism’ (Winnicott, 1971 p.3). It includes objects which can ‘affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated’ (p.5). Yet, paradoxically, such an object ‘seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own (p.5).1 In this way, Winnicott observes ‘very primitive forms of relating and playing’ (Davis and Wallbridge 1981, p.58), spaces that create ‘a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated’ (Winnicott 1971, p.2).

If established, such spaces of imagination and play become lifelong, collective dynamics:

Cultural experience, Winnicott writes, begins as play, and subsequently “leads on to the whole area of man’s inheritance, including the arts, the myths of history, the slow march of philosophical thought and the mysteries of mathematics, and of group management and of religion.” (Winnicott, 1986, p.36) Of the three worlds, the area of cultural experience is the most variable.

(Praglin 2006, p. 6)

In this context, Ogden (2012, p. 5) describes the parallel in his own reading and writing:

The in-between space ‘that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work’ (Winnicott 1971, p.14) remains an enigma to me, impossible to penetrate – not reducible to the terms of creating/discovering/not questioning – and remains a domain about which I feel a sense of mystery and awe.

Ogden draws attention here to two issues. The first is an extrapolation from early emotional experience to the dynamics inherent in constituting every area of sociocultural experience. This is the activity of play as creative and exploratory in its largest sense, forged from dynamics identical to originary emotional experience. The second is how the adult reading act, itself, when it is absorbed and creative is, similarly, subliminal, implicitly playful and located in an indefinable, ‘known’ transitional space. As Ogden remarks, transitional space understood in these ways, does not conform to a typical Freudian developmental sequence. On the contrary, whilst transitional phenomena clearly enable the formation of subject and object experiences, they are not intrinsically linear and chronological in nature: ‘Winnicott’s way of conceiving of “the intermediate space” rejects cause and effect, chronological and binary thinking’ (Ogden 2021, p.2).2

Baudrillard and Transitional Phenomena

Levin critiques Baudrillard’s writing in terms of its reification which leaves ‘nothing human in between.’ However, Baudrillard’s later writing and Winnicott’s precise conceptualization of transitional space suggests a very different understanding. Conversely, it indicates more commonality and, paradoxically, more incommensurable elements than Levin allows for. Both aspects are critical to tracing their respective approaches to the real, the subject and object.

The real, Baudrillard claims, “has only ever been a form of simulation” (2003:39).’ Coulter (2010, p.3) adds that ‘Capital, the one entity to which our entire system is tethered, is nothing more than a very complex simulation (Baudrillard 1993a, p.36):’

If objects (and objects are at the core of our system), become signs, this is when we will be in simulation true and proper (Baudrillard 2001, p.129). As yet we are merely Baudrillard believes, in a time when only “the principle of simulation governs us” (1993a, p2). If we were completely in simulation, according to Baudrillard, we would be in a world from which all reference has disappeared (1993b, p.165).

Against this, Baudrillard develops two positions. In his earlier work, it is the symbolic realm: symbolic exchange and the potlach, which Moazami (2016, n.p.) describes as ‘gift exchange, ritual, as well as the act of “seduction”.’ In later work, it is fatal theory: as Coulter (2004, n.p.) puts it, ‘Theory in his view is not to be used to reflect the real as in Enlightenment thought, but rather, as an expression of reversibility, as challenge.’ Baudrillard (1988, p.22) writes,

If it no longer aspires to a discourse of truth, theory must assume the form of a world from which truth has withdrawn. And thus it becomes its very object. …What theory can do is to defy the world to be more: more objective, more ironic, more seductive, more real and unreal.

How, though, can this challenge to be accomplished? There are two potential responses, both of which lie in Winnicott’s account of the real. Both avoid Baudrillard’s attempt to examine ‘the dominance of objects without recourse to object relations theory’ (Breindel, 2019, p.29).

The first response is in the imaginative realm of potential space: here, as noted earlier, is where the capacity to dream, to realize, to create offers the resources to theory as challenge. This is precisely because this realm is pre-symbolic, is necessarily fluid and ambiguous: neither yet subject nor object. On the contrary, it is the domain of the subjective object, where symbolic formation takes place, but remains pre-symbolic: affective, dynamic, protean, intrinsically experiential.  By definition, it is the space, potential and pre-objective, where cultural process is formative.

Such play spaces inherently challenge the hyperreal and simulacra which, in this context, stand as forms of derealization. Derealization as Breindel (2019, p.30) comments is parallel to Baudrillard’s conception of simulation by demonstrating ‘a logic in which reality can only be thought of in terms of progressive stages of the concretion of unreality.’ As Baudrillard (2008, p. 144) writes himself,

the object does not believe in its own desire; the object has no desire. It does not believe anything belongs to it as property, and it entertains no fantasies of reappropriation or autonomy.

In short, unlike the dynamic world of transitional space, the object is lifeless and inert.

Elsewhere, Breindel (2019) and Bass (2000) have argued that Baudrillard’s own psychoanalytic position, based on earlier Freudian thought is conflicted, since he claims not only that the ‘the symbolic is already beyond the unconscious’ (Baudrillard 2017, p.256) but also, paradoxically, that the unconscious ‘subsumes all of social life’ (Breindel 2019, p.30).  However, we might turn to Baudrillard’s link between cultural phenomena and the unconscious, we can glimpse how transitional space operates despite his dismissal (1981, p.61):

If the poem is not the slip of the tongue or even the joke, something to account for it is missing from the theory of the unconscious. There again lies the danger of falling back upon the unconscious to explain something whose process perhaps escapes it.

The point, of course, is that Winnicott has observed in detail precisely how the processes around cultural phenomena are generated – but there is no evidence, unlike Lacan, that Baudrillard ever read his work.

Instead, and as a second response, it is possible to see how Baudrillard’s earlier emphasis on symbolic exchange implies a reliance on the very richness of human experience that Winnicott investigates. These symbolic worlds are produced from the pre-symbolic realms of transitional space: ‘When symbolism is employed the infant is already clearly distinguishing between fantasy and fact, between inner objects and external objects, between primary creativity and perception’ (Winnicott 1951, p.92). Gifts and rituals, for example, have their origins in exactly the collective, communal transitional phenomena that Winnicott explores.  As noted earlier, the transitional object ‘widens out’ not only into:

play, and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming but also of fetishism, lying and stealing, the origin and loss of affectionate feeling, drug addiction, the talisman of obsessional rituals, etc.

(Winnicott 1951, p.91)

It suggests, then, that Baudrillard’s resistance to simulated, hyperreal worlds must initially be grounded in the aliveness to which Winnicott points with transitional phenomena. Indeed, as Cole (2010, n.p.) argues, ‘Fatal theory, in the form of a symbolic gift, seeks to restore order and meaning in our meaningless contemporary world: two very “non-postmodern” themes.’ Meaning, in this context, appears largely identical to the kinds of meaning investigated by Winnicott.

We might go further, following Ogden (2021, p.85), and suggest that in order simply to read a writer such as Baudrillard, the ‘reader lives an experience (in the act of reading)’. Indeed, Baudrillard’s act of writing and the absorbed of reading both seem to require a transitional space – the imaginative and, in effect, playful work necessary for the production and engagement with his complex arguments.

Whatever the case, both responses highlight a combination of commonality and incommensurability between Baudrillard and Winnicott’s in their approaches to the real and the object. Commonality, because both explore the difficulties of constituting and grasping the real, and of understanding the object. Incommensurability, because their approach to these questions is radically different. Apart from those outlined here, Baudrillard’s work is a dialogue with critical theory, Marxism, capital, the postmodern and simulation. None of these largely troubled Winnicott who, although he wrote on larger social worlds, was principally concerned with understanding the dynamics of psychic life. Consequently, to take them together suggests paradox – but paradox itself is a feature readily found in both writers’ work.


It is perhaps surprising to move from Levin’s opening critique of Baudrillard to a position where the concept of transitional space might inform an understanding of his critical theory. To reach this involves the tension between symbolic and pre-symbolic formations, primarily articulated through how subject and object positions are formulated. As discussed, Winnicott proposes that intermediate possibilities, realized through such concepts as the subjective object, indicate how imaginative worlds are created and sustained as cultural phenomena in ways that, implicitly, deny the hyperreal and simulacra. This, as suggested, supports Baudrillard’s emphasis on theory, reversibility and the fatal challenge to the real. It does so by showing how, in effect, negative resistance, a potential space, is always available as a challenge to the domination of the object and the hyperreal.


  1. It is important to note Andre Green’s (2005) critique of Winnicott’s work on play. Green, also thoroughly versed in Lacan’s thought, points to a previously unrecognized aspect of Winnicott’s formulations. This was disturbances and distortions of play, such as cheating, competition or foul play that identify the intrusion of rivalry and aggression (2005, pp. 16 and 30). However, these aspects move away from the pre-symbolic considered here towards the symbolic.
  2. This suggests we might locate transitional space within philosophy but, in practice, this is inconclusive. Some accounts explore Schelling’s naturephilosophy in relation to Freud but arrive at contradictory conclusions – and none consider transitional phenomena (eg McGrath 2011). Fenichel (2016) investigates Schelling’s contribution to the development of the unconscious, and Erkan (2020, p.495) proposes that ‘Schelling’s conception of nature renders it as pre-consciously sensed prior to becoming an object of reflection’. Yet neither constitute persuasive links to transitional space.


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