Fort Dad: A Chip off the Old Block

“Do you know where your kids are tonight?”

This was the challenge from a police public education campaign a few years ago. Middle-class parents would have felt confident that their children were at music lessons with the nice old Pole in the big rambling house across the park or upstairs doing their homework. The aristocrats would have assumed that their dahlings were unnecessarily grooming the new pony – again. And the working class, if they gave it a thought, would have known that their sprogs, like themselves before them, would have been on the street-corner, learning like feral cats, or even Top Cat, how to con fools and horses.

Should one bristle at such stereotypes or at the advert from the state superego?

Despite knowing that stranger-danger contributes to only a tiny percentage of the risk to children, it being well-established that most abusers are relatives or friends, most parents respond to the annual exaggerated media focus on the predictable summer-murder of some luckless child, by fretting about how much more they could know of their own children’s movements.

Technology finally gives parents the eyes in the back of the head whose absence has frustrated them for centuries. Harry Enfield’s teenager from hell, Kevin, comes to realise that his slow-witted parents can ring his friend’s parents to find out where he was long before he has worked out the lie to tell them. But for some parents this is not enough.

They find themselves thinking:

“Wouldn’t it be more reassuring to know exactly and simultaneously? Well, it’s true mobile phones are a start, a reasonably good tracking device. But then they can get lost or stolen.”

In a particularly vulnerable or unsublimated moment they might find themselves thinking:

“How lucky are the police to be allowed to electronically tag miscreants. But wait – can’t they get removed or even lost, like mobiles? Ideally, the device would have to be irremovable”

And here it is! Prof Warwick has accepted the commission of Wendy and Paul Duval to place a microchip in the arm of their eleven-year-old daughter Danielle, which will allow them to trace her position on a computer map.

“After the news of Holly and Jessica, we sat down as a family and discussed what we could do”, Mrs Duval said. “Like us, Danielle needs to feel she is safe at all times and could be located in a real emergency. I know nothing is ever 100% or foolproof, but we believe the microchip will go a long way towards protecting her.”

Danielle commented “I will feel so much safer knowing that mum and dad could find me in an emergency. The professor said the chip won’t hurt, so thats OK”.

So Mr and Mrs Duval will soon know where their lovely and loved daughter is – all the time! Both parents might talk of the more respectable fears of stranger-danger, or empty-nest syndrome, or Eskimo Day. But of course what they want is to stop her going beyond their boundary. Isn’t this separation anxiety? Mr and Mrs Duval might add: “Thank God the law is enough of a stalker’s charter to let us trail our girl”.

In fact most people think of separation anxiety moving in the other direction: the child’s terror of being disconnected from its mother. To illustrate this, Freud presents, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one of his most charming examples, about an eighteen month baby-boy, his grandson.

“The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skilfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive o-o-o-o (fort) representing the German word for gone. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string, and hailed its reappearance with a joyful da (there).”

His interpretation of the game is that the child has attained to a “great cultural achievement – the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting. He compensated himself for this, as it were, by himself staging the disappearance and reappearance of objects within his reach.”

It was two Victoriennes, a mere generation earlier than Freud, who gave two of the finest illustrations of that metaphor as a way of indicating later human development.

“Father, I have often wished that there were a length of string connecting you to me: so that if we got separated, all I would need to do would be to tug a little, and you would come instant to me”

So longs the nine-year-old Molly Gibson, heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”

Is this Molly, thirty years later, speaking ? No, it is that wonderfully rich and strange character invented by Charlotte Bronte, Mr Rochester. How beautifully resonant is that phrase cord of communion.

Our present generation of songwriters has also addressed this theme.

Every breath you take,
Every move you make,
Every bond you break,
Every step you take,
I’ll be watching you.

It was many months after becoming fond of this song, and impressed by the narrator’s dedication and passion, that I was dismayed to read Sting explaining that it was about the bad, mad love that leads to unremitting surveillance of one’s lover.

A few days later I played it to a female friend for the first time: and she got the dark side immediately! With his typical facility for puzzle and paradox the mighty Dylan could name a song, Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).

In a different medium, a couple of years back, there was a delightful TV ad in which two ten year olds were seen walking from school, thinking of home and teatime. “What do you like best: dad or chips?” asks one of them. The young girl is puzzled by the strange question. They enter the house and the ad cuts to later, the dining-table. They are enjoying tea. Suddenly their dad appears and in larky mood, steals one of her chips. The girl turns to her sibling and gives her delayed answer, “Chips!”

Why this story? Well, free-associating round chips viz chips with everything. A famous letter to the Guardian Women’s Page decades ago, echoing Freud’s greatest enigma, went:

“What do men want? Sex and chips!”

The phallic, metallic, electronic chip is now in the girl, just like the potato chip. In psychoanalytic theory, the superego is the metaphorical chip that a parent places in the child: yet another internal object whose shadow falls on the ego. Perhaps, the good parent should sew attachment using soluble stitches?

I wonder what the Duval’s family discussion was like: what kind of exploration there was of concepts like knowledge, safe, real emergency, protecting, hurt. The newspaper article reports that ” Professor Warwick has called for an urgent government debate on the issue and believes ministers should consider implants for all children.” Look again at the photograph, at their expressions. It doesn’t look hopeful.

I doubt that the debate that may follow will include psychoanalytic ideas, but it would be a very poor account of the meaning of this new socio-technological innovation if it didn’t.

by Kalu Singh

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