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Psychoanalysis of Elmo, Rocco and Zoe

| Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Emma Kirner | The Observer

Understanding the inner machinations of the minds of Zoe and Elmo requires outlining some obvious details. “Sesame Street” is the most universally-beloved institution of the United States educational system. As an educational program, it’s extremely practical, every episode features counting, saying the alphabet and a number and letter of the day. The most practical part of “Sesame Street” is that characters like Elmo and Zoe are learning along with the audience. Like Ash Ketchum, Zoe and Elmo have been cursed with eternal youth. Unlike Ash, who has been 12 years old since 1996, Zoe and Elmo are only three. Assuming that the psychosocial development of muppets is roughly similar to that of humans, Elmo and Zoe are caught in limbo between spoken language acquisition and learning to read and count, making them perfect companions in learning for the audience. Episodes featuring Zoe’s pet rock Rocco often demonstrate the important life skills of conflict resolution and putting up with your friends’ bullcrap.

From the perspective of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, every person has their own Rocco, or even several. The need for Rocco, according to Lacan, comes with the acquisition of language. If you’ve ever seen an infant, you know that they explore everything. To an infant, everything they can perceive is something novel and alien and they will examine all of them, primarily with their mouth and fingers. Lacan believed that, in the first six months of life, infants have a fragmentary experience of the world, and see everything from their high chair to their own toes as equally disconnected objects. Lacan also theorized that between six and 18 months, infants experience the mirror stage. During the mirror stage, the infant first recognizes their likeness in the mirror, and their fragmentary experience of the world is replaced by a holistic one. This is their induction into the imaginary order, in which experience is mediated through images and, according to Julia Kristeva, communication is mediated by intonation and body language. However, according to Lacan, the infant’s recognition of their likeness in the mirror is in fact a misrecognition, for the infant identifies their likeness in the whole unified image. And in what context does an infant most frequently see their likeness in a mirror? According to Lacan, it is when they are being held by their mother. 

The definitive experience of the mirror stage is then the illusion of unity with the mother. Lacan called this the “desire of the mother,” because it is a preverbal emotional experience that not only is your mother all that you need, but you are all that your mother needs. This illusion comes crashing down with language acquisition, as, according to Lacan, there is no need for language without separation. For Lacan, experience and communication are mediated by language in what he called the symbolic order. The world of the symbolic order is a world of rules and restrictions that originate from the father. The first rule of the symbolic order is the oedipal prohibition: Mother belongs to father alone. Therefore the acquisition of language, which Lacan framed as induction into the symbolic order, is the loss of unity with the mother, the first and most devastating loss of the child’s life.

For Lacan, life in the symbolic order is spent pursuing the unity of the mother, which is forever lost. Throughout life, individuals acquire objects or experiences or relationships that they use as substitutes for that lost unity. That is what Rocco is for Zoe and, in the context of young children like Zoe, items like Rocco are called “transitional objects.” Zoe’s relationship with Rocco is entirely exclusive: Zoe speaks for Rocco, she explains everything Rocco is doing and she alone can understand Rocco. Zoe is re-enacting the desire of the mother with Rocco, with herself in the role of the mother. A critical component here is that this relationship is a world in which Zoe retains control, because entry into the symbolic order is also the loss of control to “the name of the father,” patriarchal ideology. This is where the tension with Elmo originates, because Zoe’s friendship with Elmo is also a substitute for unity with the mother — except Elmo is an other, his own person outside Zoe’s control. This relationship works both ways and Zoe’s relationship with Rocco causes anxiety for Elmo because losing Zoe’s attention reactivates that loss of unity with the mother. Zoe’s nonlinguistic modes of communicating in this scene, the imaginary order, doesn’t disappear, it remains accessible in the unconscious modes of communication. Thus, according to Kristeva, multimodal discourse is mediated both through the symbolic order, in the form of language, and through the imaginary order, through the often unconscious use of intonation and body language which the muppets excel at portraying. 

Transitional objects are prominently featured in “Sesame Street.” In one episode, Elmo and Zoe have a fight after Elmo showed Zoe his blanket and they ripped it when Elmo was trying to take it back. One Rocco episode features Zoe asking Elmo to watch Rocco, a task Elmo neglects because, “Rocco’s just a rock,” opting instead to continue playing with his own transitional object, Baby David. When Rocco goes missing, Elmo hands Zoe a new pet rock, which enrages her. For Lacan, objet petit a, which denotes the lost unity with the mother and all its substitutes, is inherently irreplaceable. Chris, a human resident of Sesame Street, explains to a confused Elmo that Zoe is upset because she loves Rocco, and asks Elmo to consider how he would feel if he lost Baby David. The conflict then is used to teach the basics of empathy, aiding children in the audience in their development of an understanding that other people have their own internal worlds.

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