Cuddled, Loved and Mutilated: Transitional Justice as Transitional Object

By Dr Lars Waldorf

Lars Waldorf is a Reader at Dundee Law School.

“The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated.”
– D.W. Winnicott (1953, p. 90)

I was once at a “transitional justice” workshop where a scholar took credit for coining the term.  The rest of us were happy to let someone else own the conceptual confusion it had caused. That me-not-me moment generated a transitional space in which we debated the meaning of transitional justice: Is it (special) justice for transition or (normal) justice during transition or justice in transition (see Bell 2016)? In the intervening years, transitional justice has been both elusive and illusive.

* * * 

I was supposed to be writing this Introduction but kept finding excuses to put it off. I had re-read Christine Bell’s “The Fabric of Transitional Justice” (2016) and didn’t think it had left me anything new to say. So instead of typing, I was listening to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” (1982).

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.

The song shifts registers from love (“O Mom and Dad”) to justice (“O Judge”) to force (“O Superman”) to punch-line (“Hi Mom!”). As the stanza above makes clear, justice is inherently transitional and relational – suspended between force and love, rupture and suture, absence and omnipresence, Superman and Mom. That got me thinking that perhaps transitional justice is a transitional object for an anxious age of disenchantment.

* * * 

I am well acquainted with transitional objects. My Mom gave me a teddy bear when I graduated from law school. The British psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott explained the phenomenon in his classic essay “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”:

It is not the object, of course, that is transitional. The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate. (1953, p. 90)

The transitional object is “the original not-me possession” (p. 90) that enables an infant to navigate from inner world to external reality and from narcissism to inter-personal relations. Importantly, it also “gives room for the process of becoming able to accept difference and similarity” (p. 91).

That last line (and many eminently quotable others) explains Winnicott’s appeal to some contemporary liberal theorists. For example, Martha Nussbaum (2012) sees affinities between Winnicott’s “facilitating environment” and her own capabilities approach in developing “an enriched conception of the meaning of liberal ‘individualism’: not selfishness, but the ability to grow and to express oneself; not solitary self-sufficiency, but ‘subtle interplay’; not the transcendence of human passions, but the secure ‘holding’ of human need and imperfection.”

Another example comes from Bonnie Honig (2013), who applies Winnicott to “the politics of public things”:

In object relations theory, certain kinds of objects and certain kinds of orientations to them and certain kinds of contexts in which to relate to them, all serve as epistemological props to enable people to transition from continuity to contiguity, from self to neighbor, from solipsism to knowledge. (p. 71)

She then asks, “Might there also be, analogously, some objects, relations, and contexts that serve as episte-political props to enable democratic citizens to make analogous political (and not just psychic) transitions?” (p. 71

* * * 

Given Honig’s query, it is surprising how few scholars have made the connection between transitional justice and transitional objects. I found just three. The psychoanalyst Gillian Stryker speaks about the victims’ narratives from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in terms of transitional objects:

Thus, this particular narrative by the act of being articulated comes to belong both to inner and outer reality in a different way than before, although it retains its intensity of experiencing, an intensity which is characteristic of transitional phenomena. In its being placed outside of the self in this context, given the profundity of its effect on the other it also may become a transitional object for the other, the audience. The stories of the victims, which form part of South Africa’s history, belong in some crucial way both to the self and to the other for all South African citizens. These stories are indeed in the realm of me-not-me objects, and their role is to help us integrate reality. (Stryker, 1999, p. 263)

Similarly, Brandon Hamber, the South African psychologist turned transitional justice scholar-practitioner, likens symbolic reparations to a transitional object: both “need to exist in both the internal and the external world for the survivor, and they must have something sacred or even magical about them to have an internal (individual) and social (collective) meaning simultaneously” (2009, p. 111).

Kirsten Campbell sees how transitional justice discourse talks about legal archives (and the legal memories contained therein) as if they are transitional objects:

By creating new relationships between self and others, the object can reorient memory to a peaceful future. Legal memories thereby appear to connect individual and collective worlds, and support the transition from war to peace. (2012, p. 10

But she challenges this transitional justice perspective, arguing that the legal memories in the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia are traumatic rather than transitional objects – and so cannot create newly peaceful relations (p. 14).

* * * 

Transitional justice resembles a transitional object:

  1. It is also a security blanket, providing a creative “defence against anxiety” (Winnicott, 1953, p. 90). As Manderson (2015) notes, “The security blanket offers the child the talisman of an authority figure, allowing him or her to adapt to their absence, a new context, or even a new regime.”
  2. It is also reliably imperfect and so too needs only “a good enough ‘mother’” (Winnicott, 1953, p. 93). Winnicott writes that “the object that behaves perfectly becomes no better than an hallucination” (p. 93).
  3. It also teaches a liberal toleration – not only of difference and imperfection, but also, in Winnicott’s winning phrase, “the results of frustration” (p. 93).

* * * 

Transitional justice has also undergone its own transition. Geographically, it has spread North to South, South to South, and South to North. Temporally, it has shifted from past imperfect to past historic, present continuous, and future perfect. Structurally, it has buttressed democratic transitions then conflict transitions and then non-transitions, stalled transitions, and post-transitions. These geographic, temporal, and structural transitions have prompted further “results of frustration,” which have led, not to toleration, but to calls to replace it with new objects.

Indeed, transitional justice may be on its way out. As a term, transitional justice is falling into disfavor, though not yet disuse. The UN created a Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence rather than one for transitional justice. As a concept, transitional justice is being traded in. Bell (2016, p. 19) proposes “reliev[ing] transitional justice of its normative ‘justice’ burden” by relabeling it ‘contending with the past.’ By contrast, two new books propose replacing transitional justice with something much more normatively ambitious: transformative justice (Evans, 2019; Gready and Robins, 2019). Occupying a middle ground of sorts, several scholar-practitioners argue for focusing on guarantees of non-recurrence (Mayer-Rieckh, 2017; Roht-Arriaza, 2016; Sandoval, 2017). As a norm, transitional justice – rather like Responsibility to Protect – seems to be experiencing increased contestation, if not outright degeneration. That is most apparent in the increased hostility towards the International Criminal Court from African state-parties and renewed hostility from the US. As a practice, transitional justice has a weak track record in demonstrating impact and value-for-money, which makes for a harder sell to donors.

Like any transitional object, transitional justice “becomes not so much forgotten as relegated to limbo” (Winnicott, 1953, p. 90). As Winnicott explains, the object

loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common,’, that is to say, over the whole cultural field. (p. 90)

Maybe that explains why I’m now working on dance in post-war Sri Lanka.


Anderson, L. 1982. “O Superman” from the album Big Science. Warner Bros.

Bell, C. 2016. ‘The Fabric of Transitional Justice: Binding Local and Global Political Settlements’. University of Edinburgh School of Law, Research Paper Series No. 2016/22.

Campbell, K. 2012. ‘The Laws of Memory: The ICTY, the Archive, and Transitional Justice’. Social & Legal Studies. pp. 1–23.

Evans, M., ed. 2019. Transitional and Transformative Justice: Critical and International Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gready, P. and Robins, S., eds. 2019. From Transitional to Transformative Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hamber, B. 2009. Transforming Societies after Political Violence: Truth, Reconciliation, and Mental Health. Berlin: Springer.

Honig, B. 2013. ‘The Politics of Public Things: Neoliberalism and the Routine of Privatization’. No Foundations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Law and Justice. 10, pp. 59-76.

Manderson, D. 2015. ‘The Metastases of Myth: Legal Objects as Transitional Phenomena’. Law & Critique. 26(3), pp. 207-223.

Mayer-Rieckh, A. 2017. ‘Guarantees of Non-Recurrence: An Approximation’. Human Rights Quarterly. 39(2), pp. 416-448.

Nussbaum, M. 2012. Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986 – 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roht-Arriaza, N. 2016. ‘Measures of Non-Repetition in Transitional Justice: The Missing Link?’ UC Hastings Research Paper No. 171. Available at

Sandoval, C. 2017. ‘Reflections on the Transformative Potential of Transitional Justice and the Nature of Social Change in Times of Transition’. In Duthie, R. and Seils, P., eds. Justice Mosaics: How Context Shapes Transitional Justice in Fractured Societies. New York: International Center for Transitional Justice.

Van Zyl, S. 1999. Interview [with Gillian Stryker]. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 9(2), pp. 249-274.

Winnicott, D.W. 1953. ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 34, pp. 89-97.

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