The Family

Absence as a presence that attacks

(c) Kurt Haubrich

Caring about what other people think of you is seemingly there from the beginning. In an article entitled “The language of absence”, Hayuta Guverick describes a film on infant development, in which early signs of dependence between self and other are starkly illustrated:


One scene in particular left a powerful impression on me. A mother is holding a small infant in her arms, their gazes meet and they smile. Then the mother is instructed to stop smiling and looking at the child. The sequence goes into slow motion and shows how the infant looks at the mother and continues to smile. When he grasps that his mother is neither looking nor smiling at him and with him, his smile gradually freezes. He turns his head away and looks aside, his smile disappears. A few seconds later he looks again for his mother’s gaze, with a remnant of a smile – and, once more, when he meets with her non-gaze, he responds in a similar manner. This time his own gaze blurs. Again, he tries, unsmiling now but with a puzzled, shocked  expression. Then his head flops sideways. From here on he stops looking at her, his head drops – his gaze frozen, his mouth slightly open, saliva trickling from its corner.”

This description of a helpless and vulnerable child highlights the pain caused by a more prolonged absence of love and attention at such an early stage of development. It suggests that the potential is always already there for the development of individuals who, in Guverick’s words, are ‘absent to themselves’, frozen and hollow adults who have never managed to overcome the blurred gaze of a damaged intersubjectivity. The absence of others becomes what Faimberg called a ‘presence that attacks’. When applied to relationships, the notion that what is absent can also be a disruptive and malignant presence may resonate strongly with some, ghosts of the past that can never quite be exorcised. Just like the past itself.

By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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