Mapping emotion in intersubjective space

November 15, 2014

People watching at work has gotten me thinking more theoretically about the structure of an emotional response in intersubjective space. I’ve noticed how embedded emotions are in social context, and how intrinsic posturing is to emotional life. We posture when we want to demonstrate relative status, whether dominant or submissive, hierarchical or egalitarian. We posture constantly, and all our emotions are inflected by the subtext through which we broadcast socioeconomic status.

I like the emotional maps at Hyperbole and a Half for “being a menace” and “this is why I’ll never be an adult” for getting past the formal content of emotional life and into the reptile brain of self-aggrandizing ego mania churning beneath the surface. So silly, but absolutely true to life.

I’ve tried to hint at how the “psychopathology of everyday life” accounts for innocuous modes of compartmentalizing in ways that are shockingly similar to traumatic repression in rigidity and potential for causing consequential confusion. The routine ambit of everyday life in and out of cognitive cubicle spaces of situational vocabularies can limit personally significant conversations as brutally as a meager command of phrasebook English, in its own peculiar way.

antarctica2

This ad hoc compartmentalizing artificially shoehorns our conversational and productive lives into topical received wisdom recitatives that barely apply to our own situation at all in most instances, our own lives being more multidimensional than poorly-operationalized interdisciplinarity allows. The simple explanation for wanting a “theory of everything” is wanting to erode these psychosocial barriers, so that interdisciplinarity comes naturally as needed, and our intuitions are more trustworthy (with fewer paradigm-scale caveats).

Emotions are simultaneously impacted by various compartments of intersubjective experience, and can be unpredictable when the emotion seeming to be provoked by one compartment of our lives manifests in a different one.

On my walk to work I thought of seven different dimensions within discrete emotions. There’s no special reason for stopping at seven of them, it’s just as many as I could possibly think of in a one hour walk. Some of these are peripheral to the content of an emotional response, but all of them add context to the unconscious decisions we make about how to feel when something happens to us.

1. Arousal level – Composure level and intensity of feeling

2. Valence – Pleased or displeased

3. Values – The highly personal intellectual content of the evaluative response

4. Attitude – Specific expectations and assumptions about interpersonal space

5. Posture – Dominant or submissive and more or less egalitarian

6. Privacy level – Degree to which feelings are either broadcast or suppressed

7. Certainty – Level of confidence in the information giving rise to these feelings

Arousal level and emotional valence can be mapped together like a point or vector on a matrix. A celebratory mood is both highly aroused and pleased, a melancholy mood the opposite. Depression is related to anger in that both are negative in valence, and a change in arousal level can lead to a transition from one to the other.

arousal_valence_matrix

Attitude and posture are more peripheral issues, but so many of our emotions are about someone rather than something, or about both, that I decided they belong on the list. Certainty level and privacy are information theory details, but emotions are tells in information handling games and it feels different to suppress an emotion than to express it freely, so I think the emotion itself is affected by these contingencies.

I can imagine doing a script analysis of Hamlet in which each of these dimensions could be described for each beat of the play, so I think it’s a pretty sound model of the internal structure of an emotion. But I haven’t played with it very much yet, I’m just treating it as food for thought. It helps me operationalize the problem compartmentalizing poses to reflective self-analysis.


Crescendo series

September 29, 2014

At times this blog functions as an echo chamber for cognitive distortions winding through a maze of quotations that are only interrelated in the most abstract sense, metaphors for introverted moods coasting on a melodramatic soundtrack for self-talk. I get wrapped up in an emotional state disguised as an observational essay, and what comes out is an awkward fusion of prose poetry and verbal collage.

I love the way digital libraries give us aesthetic control of a virtual environment, enriched by rhythms that can co-opt background noise and blur its relationship with the imagination, non-uttered but verbal and complex, interpretive, evaluative and improvised.

The production value a digital library represents vastly extends the personal agency and voice of a consumer whose moods and tastes are validated by the market. There are few pleasures that can compare with turning up the volume on a favorite song.

And I love using quotes, exploiting a deep stack of library notes taken over the 2012-2013 school year. I love the challenge synthesizing and interpreting that wealth of intellectual production represents.

Where I feel like I’ve fallen short of synthesizing or interpreting the quotes and fan art I’ve used, I’m facing complex reintegrative challenges related to psychosocial compartmentalizing. I suppose false starts like this work the way “venting” does, partially processing and expressing feelings that are still fairly incoherent but which couldn’t wait for clearer prose to come to mind.

Sometimes the impatience to hit “publish” feels as simple-minded as the inclination to push “play” on a video or music track. There are similarities between “internet addiction” and gambling as an addictive behavior that are worth noting here. Much of the trick to making a slot machine successful (addictive) involves imposing uncertainty about what will happen if you push “play” again, so that the player can’t tell whether they have a winning hand unless there are bells and whistles.

puzzle

Allowing your imagination to play with the puzzle of how to win reinforces an illusory sense of self-efficacy even when the frequent small payouts (each announced with bright lights and fanfare) fail to add up to what you put into the machine. The internet is packed with bells and whistles and puzzles too, anarchic but limitless in its apparent potential.

Resisting being sucked in has something to do with reading “ambiguity” as ambiguity, rather than delving for hypothesis confirmation in all directions at once; awareness of the cognitive biases comes into play.

Bridge players are probably more attuned to this than bingo players. But ambiguity is prominent in bridge bidding too; no matter how much you know about body language, it would be hard to read someone whose affective center of attention was elsewhere, and distractions are everywhere in social life. Attributing your partner’s “tells” to the game at hand could often be a mistake. For me much of the trouble with reading social cues is the importance of not reading too much between the lines.

I’m trying to pay more attention to the role of sentence length and syntax in expressed ambiguity as a way of learning to express myself in ways that don’t reinforce an overly objective-assertive attitude towards passing observations that are inflected by emotions and proximate, situational attitudes. I want to reduce my habitual use of sweeping statements both to make the blog more concrete and engaging, and to improve its positive role for self-signaling in emotional life.

dartmoor_pony

I also want to become more self-aware when it comes to my affinity for action-adventure movies and soundtracks with big crescendos. One of my playlists is called “crescendo series” and another one is called “melodrama”, but fully half of my playlists could fit under either of those titles.

I like the adrenaline rush of getting wound up in an argument and indulging heavily in cognitive biases to advance confident, far-reaching conclusions, but when the rush is over what’s left is a dubious thesis so difficult to follow that it’s a non-starter, conversation wise. When I listen to a playlist full of melodramatic pop songs and big crescendos, I often pace rapidly to better follow the emotional arc of the music internally, and a lot of my writing lately has had that same “aimless but agitated” path of movement, recursive without being reflective.

I like what Eckhart Tolle says about this sort of idle restlessness:

“The mind exists in a state of ‘not enough’ and so is always greedy for more. When you are identified with mind, you get bored and restless very easily. .. observe what it feels like to be bored and restless. As you bring awareness to the feeling, there is suddenly some space and stillness around it, as it were. A little at first, but as the sense of inner space grows, the feeling of boredom will begin to diminish in intensity and significance. .. You discover that a ‘bored person’ is not who you are. Boredom is simply a conditioned energy movement within you. Neither are you an angry, sad, or fearful person. Boredom, anger, sadness, or fear are not ‘yours,’ not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go.

Nothing that comes and goes is you.

‘I am bored.’ Who knows this?

‘I am angry, sad, afraid.’ Who knows this?

You are the knowing, not the condition that is known.”

- Stillness Speaks

I also like the tips on mindfulness in Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum (I’m just on the first chapter now). PTSD has greatly exacerbated sensory issues that weren’t as prominent for me before last fall, and where I work filtering out background noise is a constant challenge. I’m hoping meditation will help me relinquish some of the “addiction to stress” I wrote about earlier, so that I don’t associate stress with escapism and dissociative states of mind and instead feel competent responding to stressful life events with composure.


Drama and socializing

September 28, 2014

Blogging is an important outlet for me, because I don’t often start conversations off-line. I was raised to wait to speak until spoken to, and to keep my answers short and to the point. I now see that upbringing as part of an abusive past, but the habits stick with me. Keeping up in conversation is also difficult for me, possibly because of autistic traits, though it’s hard to parse that out from the way I was raised.

I’m starting to develop an analytical grasp of dramatic rhythm and conversational skill, but only as an outsider looking in. My new job at a restaurant gives me a wealth of “people watching” opportunities to learn from, but when it comes to making conversation with coworkers I rely on a few considerate colleagues who reach out to me more often than the rest and aren’t bothered by awkward silences or blank stares in response to what seem to me to be inane conversation starters. They’re always the ones to initiate conversation, but they don’t seem to mind.

Lately my personal preoccupation with PTSD and other aspects of trauma has led me to feel a little jilted by the way people who don’t have PTSD seem to minimize my experiences in conversation, saying normalizing things about what happened instead of recognizing the gravity of the situation or the intensity of my fears and disorientation. But I’ve come up with a hypothesis for explaining some of those seemingly unfeeling reactions away.

Petty trauma is social drama, and conversation can’t continue without it. Finding dramatic rhythm in conversation involves storytelling, plot conventions, a climax and an anticlimax, and lots of repetitions and role reversals. Everyone gets a routine turn at airing a grievance, something exciting to talk about, an event. Alleging that your grievance dwarfs anyone else’s problem of the day is bad form.

Just getting through the day is supposed to be an adventure for everyone, and egalitarianism is strict in this regard. To be congratulated on your adventure narrative you have to have already slain your dragon and you have to show your scars with pride, not with self-pity. This is part of fitting in – you have to be prepared to minimize your own hardships and to carry on as if it were a normal day, if you want to be respected.

billiard_ball

Conversation elevates the trivial to epic proportions on a routine basis, and the price everyone agrees to pay for this glamorization of minor insults is that major struggles are to be trivialized in turn, to maintain the illusion that everything anyone wants to talk about is fair game, to avoid the oppressive self-seriousness of formality and evaluative judgments. This is protective of everyone’s feelings on most days, but extremely demanding for those who are having a run of bad luck.

Compartmentalizing helps ease the strain of equalizing pressures and conformism a little. If you have a health problem, it’s just your doctor’s purview, and talking about it isn’t the same as talking about yourself, there’s sure to be a prescription and if it isn’t perfect that’s one of the ironies of talking about health. Talking about family is another compartment with rules favoring forgiveness and cohesion – it’s bad form to counsel someone against mending fences with family members. Family is supposed to be a bulwark against the vagaries of other social ties, and if you don’t have one to go to there are no substitutes.

But compartmentalizing eases tensions by formalizing social boundaries. Talking about health is different from talking about how you feel, it’s “just” a health problem and you have to be satisfied with the doctor’s solution and leave it at that really. A chronic condition with no cure is still “just” a health problem and you can’t keep talking about it indefinitely, you have to respect the fact that healthy people get bored with illness narratives quickly.

I’m bad at compartmentalizing lately. I’ve become resentful and suspicious about conventional wisdom and informal economics. I’m getting too strident to reason well as a social critic, too emotional. Everything seems related to me, the connections are intrusive and nagging rather than illuminating, and I have a constant feeling of information overload every time I sit down to write.

empty_chairs

Part of me wants to become a Marxist and let my personal frustrations be subsumed in an ideological critique of capitalism that has a certain abstract coherence and reasonableness to it. Part of me wants to understand economic theory better than an idealogue would though, part of me is greedy for knowledge despite the information overload. I spend most of my free time with books.

I’m trying to spend more of my free time in conversation. I’ve joined a PTSD support group on the internet and that has helped me resolve the frustration I had with making myself understood when I need to talk about just how dismal I feel. I’ve decided to take up a meditation practice and focus on the concept of friendship when I meditate. And I’m trying to become more self-aware at work, more conscious of how I come across, more willing to do what it takes to fit in.

I want to learn more about dramatic rhythm and conversational form, and in search of a discipline that may begin by “examining listening as an activity” I got a lot out of these passages from a book I read recently about jazz piano playing and “talk” as such:

“Consider the guided hand at the piano .. The finger starts out for a note, then stops, backs off from another note, and then comes back to where it is being told to go.

[.. In time, the fingers needn’t be watched while they work.]

They feel the edges of adjacent keys not as treacherously named places to be avoided but with almost the degree of intimacy with which the fingers feel each other ..

You listen to another person speak in order to say what he is saying as quickly as he says it, repeating his sounds aloud, trying to stay in spatiotemporal touch with his speech, anticipating forthcoming places to second-guess his movements .. Your efforts to repeat involve you in talking when you need to listen still more; it is like trying to follow a dance step with your eyes and feet at the same time.”

I like the analogy between talk and piano playing, because one of my favorite piano pieces is in counterpoint, and it really feels as if your hands are having a conversation with each other to play it.

piano

The author describes how the body ascertains and expresses a natural understanding of math, how we listen, and how we relate to each other as individuals when he describes the uneasy listening style characteristic of modern life:

“You listen to the voice to hear its nervousness.
You listen to identify the language.
You listen to see if you are interested.
You listen to be able to repeat it later.
You listen so as to write a piece of criticism.
You listen to show you are listening.
You listen for your turn to talk.”

- Talk’s Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards

The analogy to music works for me because I used to study the piano and the viola, and I especially enjoyed the viola because it gave me more opportunities to perform counterpoint in an ensemble, where the instruments seem to talk to each other.

Lately I use music more as an emotional thermostat, and spend more time than I should on YouTube watching music videos and just zoning out.

“…we have developed a series of emotional thermostats as well, by far the most potent of which is television itself. Instead of really experiencing the highs and lows, pains and joys, that make up a life, many of us use TV just as we use central heating – to flatten our variations, to maintain a constant ‘optimal’ temperature.”

– Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information

Some days it seems therapeutic and needful, others just a bad habit. I’d rather be relating to my favorite films with a solid critical distance for analytical appraisal. To have a response to film is important to me. But right now I just don’t have the self-discipline to compose a good film review.

That frustrates me – not having anything to say for myself here on wordpress. This is a fandom blog, and lately I’ve only been using fan references for emphasis, not to explore film subjects in depth. I’m hoping it’s just a phase and that I’ll pull out of it before long.


“Those that love with irony, last.”

September 23, 2014

I’ve used this space to explore trauma at length lately, and I’m starting to want to move away from that topic again and back into “aspie anthropologist” mode. But I do have a few things left to say about PTSD and trauma services, so I’ll try and develop a segue from trauma topics back into my usual musings on the arts and sciences.

Trauma is central to relationships in Freudian theory, a catalyst to the maturation of primary relationships in childhood and a subliminal impulse operating under the surface of erotic love relations. To possess love is to annihilate the competition for one’s love, and to be loved is to be consumed by another to the destruction of one’s integrity as an individual.

In my experience, love is intimately related to fear. To be loved is to hold fear of abandonment over someone, and to assert oneself within a love relationship is to inspire fear and resist being taken for granted with physical force. There is no respect for autonomy that isn’t backed up by the power to inspire awe, either through threat displays or through competitive accomplishments and prestigious appointments, socioeconomic importance.

Love dwells in the deep shadows of adventure, more present in adversity than its reward.

Patronage politics holds sway in my family. Might is right and authority is charismatic, in the sense that only the person in charge talks about themselves and sets themselves up to be admired. Escapism is dissociative and dysfunctional, submission is taken for granted and punished as a dependency-parasitism. Ritual reenactments of violence through empty threats and rote accusations maintain the pecking order in spite of a one-sided distribution of resources.

That was the dyadic relationship style I left behind after my mother was arrested. You could say that I was always trying to usurp my mother’s control over her own earnings because I felt at home in her house and wanted to enjoy autonomy there as if I owned the place. Like an Oedipal conflict between same-sex parent and child, or an Elektra complex complete with absent father and unmarried daughter.

Trauma wasn’t just a catalyst in our relationship, it was a currency. I was preoccupied with whether or not my mother had broken any of my bones in a long series of beatings with heavy objects like a hammer or a cast iron skillet, and she was preoccupied with the likelihood that she could get away with murdering me if she ever got worked up enough to actually do it. She was impatient with me for skulking in her house like an anonymous stranger and bringing no friends home to meet her, and she was disgusted with me for being the sort of person who would not be missed if I disappeared.

The mistake we make is to attribute to religions the errors and fanaticism of human beings. —Tahar Ben Jelloun

Disgust is a way of enforcing fidelity to the values we hold true, and of someone who never gets disgusted we might ask, “don’t you discriminate at all?” Out of the furnace of my mother’s tantrums I secretly became very particular in my likes and dislikes, obscurantist in my cultural affiliations and self-indulgent in my tastes. Superficially passive and ready to go along with anything, I developed an inner life defined by convoluted ideas and idiosyncratic pursuits.

Inequalities are reconciled by compensating strengths and specialization of labor, and I cultivated skills that were specialist to a fault. I cultivated weaknesses too, zones of dependency that gratified my mother’s appetite for power and left me ill-prepared for living independently.

In The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf writes of her ghost, “She didn’t trust these names, oh no. She didn’t trust herself. She was doubtful, amid our toxic swirl of new name-giving; what she doubted was the reality of the names, though seldom accurate and that, even if it is accurate, name and thing coincide only for a short time. She shrank from stamping any name on herself [..] What are you going to be Krischan? A human being? Well, you know…”

That tenuousness to belonging is very familiar to me, that listlessness about what to say in a social situation, the tendency to second guess every possibility and offer no satisfying alternative, that inquisitive shrug that is neither indifferent nor convinced of anything yet, a life of examination that falls short of drawing any conclusions worth speaking up about, disapproving of conventionality but inhabiting it, too.

I like what Walter Bagehot wrote about the disincentives to openly discussing one’s aims or reasoning: “‘Democracy’, it has been said in modern times, ‘is like the grave: it takes, but it does not give’. The same is true of ‘discussion’. Once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery, or fence it by consecration; it remains for ever open to free choice, and exposed to profane deliberation.”

Obscurantisms restore a little mystery to conversation, like a word borrowed from another language. Obscure fan references protest the inadequacy of names for things by invoking whole works of art with the stubborn enthusiasms of someone who thinks the reader’s understanding will never be complete until they’ve seen the movie or read the book.

These overelaborate metaphors and allusions exploit the vague depths of incongruous comparisons and celebrate an overextended feeling of affinity central to fandom. To not put it into one’s own words instead is to insist that art is present in everyday experience as a constellation of reference points suspended above the mundane in the imagination.

bridge

If you love what you see of yourself in someone else, you would theoretically expect to find something of your self that you love in others as well; but there is a reflex for snapping back onto the particular person as beloved, because you have a sound instinct for insisting there’s a there there, even if each person’s individual experience and identity is in another sense a confluence of external forces in the grand scheme of things.

Contingency is the rational power to explain away love, and it puts the fear into awe when nothing else does. Need compels love, but pity corrupts love. To receive love is to be reminded of how rare it is. What is mundane about love is animal in its ferocity and fecundity, and what is imaginative about love is trivial in its narcissism and illusory quality. All this is very dull because it’s so abstract, where a fan reference would be vivid and vehement, and at least still vehement if it were inscrutable.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

..
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
..

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.”

Blogging for me is both an overture to friendship and a practice in isolation, both sharing and journaling, both conversation and monologue. I’ve probably been making too many allusions for good conversation lately, but disclosing about trauma is a very isolating experience for me, alienating and unsatisfying. It feels needful but unpleasant. I’m impatient to move on.

As a writer, I think wanting to be seen for who you really are comes to mean settling for the distant hope that some people will get to know you well enough to notice the truth about things you couldn’t tell them persuasively yourself, because so much of experience is idiosyncratic yet one must form preconceptions about what is believable out of the commonalities.

barn

Reducing burdens of enforced privacy comes at an exact price: you must make the grounds of validation mutual even in your own mind, and reduce your sense of conviction that your personal authority as a knower differs qualitatively from theirs. You must make deciding what to say for yourself more like listening for what they have to say.

Complaining about trauma is all about distinguishing a private experience of fear and pain from the common lot, claiming to be different in what you have seen and felt, asserting a kind of secrecy about what you have to say – that it can be described but not understood. To get out of this loop of introspection “for display only” I’ll have to acknowledge that traumas are a universal experience, and build a common vocabulary for how I feel from there.

Negotiating the ironies of attachment and disillusionment is part of the project of understanding love and detachment, belonging and alienation. I’ve been meaning to pursue a more formal approach to film criticism here, too, something less subjective and more transparent than the way I usually write about film.

I think the best place to begin that transition is to take an ironic look at fandom as a way of relating to art, self-situating as an implicated participant. Escapism and the dissociative side of trauma experience are strongly related to fandom for me, so I’ll try to work them into this multi-part segue out of the territory of extended monologue.


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