Holding Environment as Home

Maintaining a Seamless Blend across the Virtual/Physical Divide

How to Cite

Gamble, J. M. (2007). Holding Environment as Home: Maintaining a Seamless Blend across the Virtual/Physical Divide. M/C Journal, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2697
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment… (Eliot 204)

Questions of just what home might mean emerged with unfortunate biting salience during the writing of this article with the vicious attack of a student knocked to the ground by the force of a broken bottle and then kicked mercilessly in the head. If not for the ministrations of a bystander, there would have been one less person on the planet. Such disruptive and distressing incidents shake up our world – not only for the person who experiences the original event but also for those who find themselves as witnesses. Using the given incident as an exemplar, the following paper explores the concept of home in the context of ruptures and breaks for people who inhabit a blended world of the digital and the physical. To focus investigations, the Winnicottian concept of the holding environment provides a novel way of understanding home as a seamless domain of continuity which, in this instance is the worldspace spans the physico-digital divide.

Sitting writing a paper about ‘home’ and the manner in which the virtual and the physical worlds are blending, I glanced up and was shocked. It is very easy to sit within the warmth and comfort of academe, especially if you have a nice toasty office in the midst of winter and to postulate about what home might be. Theories and concepts, heater, pc and comfy chair support feelings of being at home, of feeling like you have a place in the world, that you have an academic home, you have a conceptual home and, …just wait a minute… back shortly… just answering an email… and a virtual home, in which you can interact and exist in wholly other ways. The other day, however, I abandoned writing the earlier paper with the disorienting experience of seeing a student at my door, a person who tumbled in amidst a mass of scrambled sentences, bandaged bleeding hands, and a bruised head-kicked face. An overseas student who should have been knocking on my door to tell me that ‘Hey, I’ve finished my exams’ instead arrived to ask for my advice: ‘Someone attacked me the other night and I don’t know what to do.’

Home, at least the home about which I wrote before the shock of meeting a traumatised student, was a concept and reality that had transformed markedly over the last quarter of the twentieth century. It was a concept that in its shifts revealed a parallel between the setting up of share housing and the emergence of virtual/physical world blending. Home, as I construed it was about the move, by people aged up to thirties, who were frequently moving from family homes towards blended environments in which share housing became specific non-related familial space (McNamara & Connell), a space/place replicated by social networking in the domain of the digital. There it was. Leaning on the work of theorists such as Miriam Meyerhoff in relation to communities of practice in a linguistic sense, to the earlier work of Lesley Milroy in relation to social networks, I was set to make an argument that the textual world of the internet and other digital domains was developing in a manner that replicated linguistic – specifically spoken – communities of practice based on speech patterns. Buoyed by the recent discovery of the more recent writing of Line Dubé, Anne Bourhis and Réal Jacob in relation to virtual communities of practice, I was certain that my propositions regarding textual practices had something to offer to the current edition of this journal. Further, my argument would proceed in such a way as to infer that the textual base played out in digital media was advancing into the domain of speech in the physical world to the extent that it was possible to determine who had an active digital life – especially in relation to domains on the net – merely by their vocabulary and their sentence construction. My proposition was that the digital domain had not only blended with the virtual in the manner that Dubé, Bourhis and Jacob suggested, but that textual communication was now a home base for the development of the English language for a broad section of the general populace in English speaking countries.

The sudden jar of a physical world shock shook loose the comfortable home of text and theory and challenged what I wrote. What was home for the young student who stood before me? We had spoken of ‘home’ before, of making home in a new country, of how your housemates become your family to a certain extent, of how internet and mobile phones made it easier, how home was really with you wherever you went BUT, with the disaster that was an assault, some of that rhetoric resonated as hollow – rhetoric without substance, cold comfort, no comfort.

In this situation, home is a concept tested. Perhaps only in such a context can the boundaries and meanings of home come to the fore. It is to that issue that I will address this version of the paper and for that purpose, I will advance the argument that although there may well be a modified version of home developing for a specific generation or cohort of people, that there remains a need for anchoring in the various domains of engagement. To that end, I will use the theory of psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott who constructed the concept of the holding environment (Winnicott ‘From Dependence;’ and Seinfeld). This article therefore takes its new springing point from hereon in and starts with a brief exploration of the holding environment by its originating author, reconstructs this as a contextually relevant concept, and then talks into some of the original propositions using the given incident for illustrative purposes.

The holding environment as construed by D.W. Winnicott is, under optimal conditions, the first environment that an infant experiences, the warm and caring one provided by a primary caregiver who, for this article will be known as the m/other (“The Concept of the Healthy Individual” 27-28). Within this environment of literal and metaphoric holding, the infant knows nothing other than an all-encompassing domain which includes physical and psychological care, the anticipation and provision of needs, and a titrated introduction to the world of things and people (“From Dependence” 86). From the perspective of the infant and within this circle of holding, the world belongs to the infant and is composed largely of the m/other. Only when there is a break in the continuity of care does the infant notice/perceive a world that is anything other than seamless with her/his own existence. In Winnicott’s schema, if a holding environment operates in an optimal manner, it largely remains invisible (Winnicott, “From Dependence” 86; Winnicott, “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship” 52; Ogden 200).

This manner of experiencing the world changes with the developing person so that in adulthood, we experience a range of environments that attend to our various needs, if we are fortunate enough. For example, your office supports your work to a greater or lesser extent and perhaps your partner supports you in a psychological sense, and your personal trainer supports your physical training needs. Other instances of support and holding could include the glasses that support your sight and the car that supports your proclivity for drives in the country and a particular lifestyle. There are therefore, many things, people, institutions, and even phenomena such as birthday celebrations that support different aspects of who we are – our being – and different aspects of our activities – our doing. This mirrors theories developed within the context of sociolinguistics in which authors parallel what people are with social networks and what people do, with communities of practice (Moore 22). In the context of Winnicott and linguistic theory, without those supports, our lives would be different and for many of us, would be diminished.

The supports I describe are those I construe as holding environments and I believe that by considering a holding environment as a form of ‘home’ that we can reveal a specific way of understanding not only what a home might be, but also the manner in which it operates when people perceive it to be under threat.

In the context of the digital domain, there are many media such as email, chat rooms, twitter, real time chat in a range of venues and digital social networks and virtual worlds that support different aspects of our identities, of things that we want to do, of contacts we make and maintain, and of communication for fun and for business. My initial proposition included the concept that various language forms operate to support and construct our identities and that what digital media provided were various venues for the operation of differing but overlapping holding environments in a textual sense.

What do these elements, or those like them mean in the situation in which the student found himself? What does it mean and why was it that despite some time in between, that his primary quest was to seek out a person in the physical domain rather than finding solace online when, as I understood, he spent a great deal of time in digital communication? I believe that although there is a blending of domains – the digital and analogue – that when a holding environment of either variety breaks, fractures or at least reveals cracks, that it is likely that a person will seek redress in both modes and in so doing, will reaffirm what is a vital element for the healthy existence of every person – the maintenance of a sense of home – be that on or offline.

Despite the seeking for redress in the mode in which the break occurred, the parallel search for social sanction and acknowledgement in the alternative domain may be just as significant for a slightly different reason. When Winnicott writes about ruptures and breaks, it is about those impingements that destroy continuity (“The Fear of Breakdown” 93) – the break in going on being. In the current context in which a person or community inhabits both the online and offline realms, part of their continuity of being, their worldspace (Hardey 2) is the seamlessness between the domains. It is therefore necessary to bring the sense of rupture/failure that occurs in one domain, across into the other to maintain the meta- holding environment or home.

Home is that space where ‘you speak my language,’ whether on or offline, the holding environment is one that adapts to you, that understands your speech/text and responds in a manner predictable and in your own genre under optimal conditions, home meets you where you are and, importantly, is a space and place that when it ruptures, mends in such a way as to your restore your faith in its capacity to perform as a holding environment (“Transitional Objects” 10-11). Winnicott writes that only with an environment that was not perfect, (only with an environment that failed occasionally in a minor way), is it possible for a person to sense that there was a holding environment at all. Further, rather than a person construing this failing as a marker of lack of dependability, that the small failure revealed the significance and value of its effective functioning for most of the time. Additionally, a minor break revealed that the holding environment/home held the potential to respond to some unanticipated and distressing break by supporting the person experiencing it. By operating in this manner, there is now an imaginal space of holding/home. In a sense, this mirrors what other authors such as Thomas Lindif and Milton Shatzer write about when they describe social presence in relation to the manner in which an online arena supports or is perceived to support activities such as communication between peers.

One of the most noted and public manifestations of the phenomenon of a failed holding environment becoming mended and therefore stronger was that experienced in several places in relation to terrorist attacks such as that of 2001 in the USA. In relation to the attacks on the twin towers in New York, the people of that city experienced a shattering of the integrity of their holding environment/ their home. However, they also noted – as reported across a range of media (for example: Gamble 1.iii; Grider), a huge outpouring of compassion and caring by their fellow New Yorkers thereby experiencing a certain mending and elevating of the significance of their home city holding environment (Gamble 2.vi).

In the context of the aforementioned student being attacked, the break also occurred in the physical domain. Although he sought some form of reassurance online could provide some solace. However, it would leave him with the experience that the physical environment was no longer homelike, that it had failed as a holding environment. That is, home in the physical realm was, for a time, failing to support him. To effect a mending in the physical domain, it was therefore important that he seek out solutions that equally involved the physical world of people – mirroring the break – the assault by a person. What occurred when he visited my office was that he received a physical world hearing and witness to his injuries and then with the aid of colleagues, he received further care, advice and support. One of the consequences of such an experience is that although the possibility of assault is now imaginable, because it has been experienced; there is also the knowledge that assistance is at hand – a situation that may not have been known or predicted before. In some manner therefore, with other imagined ghastly events, there is now an expectation of potential assistance. That imaginal knowing therefore now forms part of his holding environment in his physical world, that form of home that ensures ontological security as mentioned by McNamara and Connell (82).

Outrage over incidents in Second Life and in other domains such as myspace predominantly play out in those arenas but, like the assault of the student, also get played out in other arenas, including mainstream media. For example, an attack on the virtual headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Second Life attracted attention in newspapers and other mainstream media (Hutcheon). It seems therefore that not only is it necessary to mend the breaks in a sense within the medium in which the original break occurred but also to reassert the blended domain of the digital and the analogue and the capacity of each to form part of the meta holding environment that exists in contemporary society. There is yet to develop a discourse that links the digital and the physical worlds as constituents of a worldspace (Hardey 2), that can be viewed as a meta- holding environment/home. However, even with the few examples proffered here, it seems apparent that by investigating breaks and ruptures in the lives of people who maintain a life world that spans the digital/physical divide that it might be possible to understand the apparent merging of the two. Further, it may lead to significant observations about the newly emerging worldspace as a holding environment /home in a novel way with leads for the assisting people across the divides that may otherwise have not been considered. The implications for maintaining the seamlessness and continuity of home/holding environment in the instance of natural or person-effected disasters in either domain is the demand for an appropriate response in both. Although this already occurs, it is in an ad hoc manner without a consideration of the significance of mending ruptures and re-enlivening both domains for a sense of ontological security of the worldspace – that is at its very heart, a sense of home.

Author Biography

Jennifer M. Gamble