Tuesday, July 18, 2023 at 7:30pm
Deprivation Theory

361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn

Presented by Hannah Zeavin

Grief: A Peril of Infancy, René A. Spitz, 1947, digital projection, 24 mins
A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, James Robertson, 1952, digital projection, 30 mins
Rock-a-Bye-Baby, L. Richard Ellison, 1984, digital projection, 29 mins

Attachment theory is a misnomer. It is a theory of deprivation. Attachment theory, broadly defined, takes as its central tenet that how a mother and baby get on and how they attach will have ongoing effects on the child’s development. Attachment theory holds that a bond with a primary caregiver is crucial for good developmental outcomes. A lack of bond conversely will beget bad futures. Across its longer history, the theory has fluctuated as to whether it theorizes mother and child apart, mother and child together, or a kind of psychic distance that crosses both togetherness and separation. In brief, based on nearly a century of infant-mother observation substantiating the impacts of mother-infant separation and, later, to distinguish types of attachment, attachment theory is connected to the longstanding tradition of mothers, and then psychologists and pediatricians, watching children—in their homes, through a mirror, on film or, later, on video tape, as they respond to stimulus or its dearth.

The location of these observations is eventually assumed: the prison, the orphanage, the clinic, the laboratory, the early childhood program at the university. The subject of observation is almost exclusively the child; the clinicians performing their analyses, however disparate, have been termed “baby watchers”—and crucially not mother watchers, however much they may assess them too. As attachment theory has become domesticated, the assumed mother is—if present—one who lives with her baby at home. However, the science was born from entirely other domestic conditions.

It is no accident that the theorization of hyper and hypo states in mothers, and over- and undermothering, emerged when World War II produced large groups of children separated from their mothers by bombing, mass death, and emigration. Especially in Europe and the United States, in research conducted by refugees fleeing the Nazi regime, the states and institutions aiming to take care of displaced and motherless children were used as laboratories for understanding the effects of maternal separation on children, distilling the role of the mother. Institutions, too, that regulated mothers and their relationships to their children, like the women’s prison, became temporary laboratories of attachment and deprivation.

The scientific proof for these psychological studies was often complimented with film, to document and verify the pain of separation, the look of attachment, and to catch the micro-expressions of insecurity that would go on to be the hallmark of the theory. Nicolas Rose describes this as an obsession with “the minutiae of mothering,” which would come to dominate the field. Screening this evening are three films central to the early elaboration of attachment theory: Grief, A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, and Rock-a-Bye-Baby. These films were widely circulated in their moments, shifting maternal policy, understandings of child development, and, crucially, what pathological mothering might look like. Each offer rare windows into those total institutions where attachment theory was first substantiated—the prison, the hospital, the laboratory—and how the findings of these psychologists were communicated to the American public.

- HZ

Hannah Zeavin is the founding editor of Parapraxis and the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press) and Mother’s Little Helpers: Childminding, Media, and the American Family (forthcoming, MIT Press).

Tickets - Pay what you can ($10 suggested donation), available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm. No entry 10 minutes after start of show.