Hand-offs and the attention economy

July 5, 2015

The cruelty of bystander indifference is a concept I spent a lot of time writing about last year and the year before that, and this year I think my understanding of the concept is a little more mature. But only a little bit. From my readings on Object Relations Theory, I would have to say there was something infantile about my levels of existential angst at that time and the black-and-white thinking I directed at other people, depending on whether or not they appeared to be meeting my needs. Now I feel more restraint about complaining, but when I sit down to write, the themes are often the same.

The resolution of those abandonment fears into a sense of self-sufficiency makes blogging regularly possible again, at least. I had gotten too strident to be able to stand the sound of my own voice for a while there.

Returning to the huge volume of notes I accumulated while I was unemployed, I found a passage that needs no revision to reflect what I understand about empathy and its limitations now. It was a response to a scene with Hekabe and Agamemnon by Euripides, in which the enslaved queen is entreating the same conquering king whose men just ordered the death of her daughter (as a funeral sacrifice for Achilles) for justice concerning the death of one of her sons.

Perhaps we secretly fear embarrassment when distracted, but unexpectedly confronted with a pain or an injustice that is not fleeting. There is always eventually the problem of needing a decent exit.

In this respect, it’s as if the ancient directives not to spurn the needs of lepers are about not turning your back on those who reveal a pain no one can relieve, asking only that you acknowledge the reality that their pain is a source of distress that they cannot face alone, given an opportunity to solicit understanding kindness from someone who means them well.

I remember a certain look that crossed my face while I was reading this scene. I suddenly sat back against a concrete bench where I was reading in the shade and felt my face fall, deeply to the left and less deeply to the right, the deepest frown I have ever felt. It is the only time I have had a palpable epiphany while reading anything at all. I look for that frown sometimes in the expressions of an actor, but I have never seen one like it yet.

The line was, “Shit.
No mortal exists who is free.”

Now I find myself as unsympathetic as they come. I work in a neighborhood where attitudes are brash and abrasive, and I sell meat even though I’ve resolved not to eat meat or milk or eggs myself. I cajole people to buy even more of it, and most of my customers are obese. Many of them, judging from their work clothes or the state of their cars, frankly can’t afford our prices, and I’m usually glib with them about the sticker shock. It’s especially distasteful when an immigrant child tricks her grandmother into ordering $20 worth of food, seeing the shock on their faces when they realize how small the portions are for that amount of money.

At any rate, it’s a good laboratory for studying aggression theory. Right now I’m putting off further work on that until I’ve had time to read more myths – I want to try something I’m calling “queering Freud” but I want to ground it in an analysis of actual mythology, since Freud’s theory hinged on an interpretation of myth.

And the long walk to and from work gives me a lot of time to reflect on abstract ideas and enjoy the outdoors.

I noticed something surprising on my way to work earlier this week. There’s something ugly about vulnerability to me now. Ugly but sensitive, poignantly alive, so that I feel a pang of longing when I notice it, while at the same time I feel profoundly repulsed.


I think it’s because of the coarseness of relationships where I work now. The cramped workspace, the constant sense of urgency, the friction with new management and the clumsiness of the hand-offs from top to bottom in the chain of command. I used to wonder why people who worked there laughed so much at their frustrations instead of addressing them head-on, but now the sense of futility has gotten to me, too.

Frustration is almost the wrong word, it has more active connotations. Disappointments might be better suited to this context. One is continually feeling let down by one’s peers and the customers we deal with, inconvenienced and disrespected without provocation. The disappointments accumulate relentlessly, in an impersonal way, as if under a gravitational pull.

Learned helplessness must be something other than a phenomenon of abnormal psychology, for this to be true. I see it as a social construction out of highly interdependent castes of ritual laborers with no independent survival skills or tenure rights. The potential to be freed from subsistence work to pursue highly skilled arts and sciences is what differentiates civilization from absolute poverty, but unemployment and underemployment are the normal corollaries of urbanization.

But normal and inevitable are not the same thing. Everything susceptible to analysis is susceptible to reform. Hand-offs are the main problem at work – often rude, sometimes ignored, and always consequential. One reason I work at a restaurant and not in an office is that I don’t interview well, and I think this has to do with skill in hand-offs. Everyone I work with is bad at this, to varying degrees.

According to what I’ve read, bad hand-offs are also the leading explanation for harm-causing medical errors. Again, I think it is a difference of degrees.

The main problem with hand-offs, in my experience, is that you have to get someone’s attention and tell them to do something in order to complete a hand-off, and no one likes to be interrupted or told what to do. It’s an attention economy problem, one that advertisers have a very fine-grained understanding of, and if marketing departments can unriddle the problem, surely there’s a way to manage the day to day business of team work, too.

I need to dig out some of my notes on team work and medical errors and share them with the management, along with Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. This job may be a stop-gap solution to an ongoing job search for me, but I’ve been at it for over a year now, so I have a stake in it.

Besides, it could be an interesting experiment, to see what they make of these ideas for themselves.

Routine and culture politics

June 21, 2015

Going back over some of the things I wrote a year and a half ago, when I was talking to myself more than I should, I found a passage about pets that was strange, but salvageable.

There are bad moments that resolve, well worse than a moment long but they resolve, towards a realization that you expect much kindness of the world.

It dawned on you there was a detail you were missing, in your “why I can’t take it any more” recap of what has given you this particular headache that forces your attention onto the unriddled world of which everyone wants meaning.

Though with pets it’s really just stress, confusion, blundering shoves from fidgeting, blind with trust.

Lear was mistaken about something, however great his plight, to speak of bitches and hearths so furiously. Maybe that hateful spasm was just the hard edge of fear. But maybe it’s useless to explain anger away.

They shudder in my dark moods. But “abject terror”? Not on their part, never.

I don’t envy them the mutism, the limited understanding of words itself. Not exactly. But it doesn’t look that scary in its own right when you imagine a life of that kind.

You only really fear being refused the lack of understanding, cross-examined when you can’t talk. I wonder if that’s what they fear – it’s unclear how much they understand. Unclear for most of us among ourselves, too.

The best furniture gathers dog hair in the upholstery’s color bound, gear fitting weave. Indigo, red and apple pollen gold. Teased, shreds eaten, the good big parts were neat but now all loosened and pawed.

What’s real about life is a little bit cold. The limits of comfort are everywhere in evidence.

“I do not like a fabric in which the seams and stitches show, just as in a handsome body we must not be able to count the bones and veins.” Montaigne. “The eloquence that diverts us to itself is unfair to the content.”

Our pets are cocooned in the life-giving consolations of our routines. We neglect them out of frustration with the confines of habit and our dissatisfaction with the familiar, but their solid expectations remain. The section before this one was a rant on the subject.

Routine. It’s the daughter of invention, and a bit negligent. If it didn’t happen for you by accident, it hasn’t happened yet, but everyone else in that cozy built environment is sure it’s your fault somehow. …

It’s easy to be a critic when your responsibilities don’t seem urgent or unmet somehow, but when you can barely do enough for someone you love, the big picture is less a map of human error begging to be set straight than an eerie wilderness, devoid of safety nets, where birds fill the air with a conversation in which your survival doesn’t figure at all.


When I reread what I wanted to say before, I have to reject most of it as childish. I’ve learned a great deal in my first year of real financial independence. I wouldn’t go back if I could now. But I can see I still have a lot to learn.

Those same little details about human behavior that seemed so intractable, so difficult to forgive, take on new meaning when you’re negotiating for bare necessities. Then humans are magical beings, resourceful and pliable – words are all you have, and the sheer plasticity of meaning is your currency, not the truth.

Every stranger is a sphinx guarding a treasure horde, and the deeply fungible nature of value is what you unriddle to gain a foothold in those wildly unequal,  but ruggedly democratic social networks that manage the built environment encircled by degraded wilderness and open roads.

Viggo Mortensen’s The Road is like an anthem to me now. The great fear is other people. But with other people, it just depends. In the end, you can’t do it on your own.

Object relations theory and synesthesia

March 24, 2015

I’ve been mulling over options for conceptualizing a theory of aggression for a few months now, looking for ways to link Freudian psychology with the Cultural Cognition Project‘s egalitarian/hierarchical dichotomy of personality types. The Cultural Cognition Project ties into a favorite book of mine, inspired by Plato’s Republic, which sorts various cultural norms into two groups, one favoring hierarchy and the use of force, and the other favoring equality and the use of commerce.

The book is Systems of Survival, and I’ll be writing more about it as I delve deeper into the topic of aggression. It argues that the two mutually exclusive codes of conduct are symbiotic when they co-exist separately, but that intermingling their values only leads to corruption, because their values contradict one another explicitly (adhering to one code of conduct entails violating the rules of the other). My interest in it has to do with the evidence that political affiliation is biologically driven and related to the fear response in humans.

What if there is a threshold in brain function and structural differentiation that determines what values make sense to us and which norms are consistent with our perceptual capabilities and behavioral instincts? What are the ethical and political implications of this kind of neurodiversity?


Relating cultural cognition to Freud is about searching the early years of neurodevelopment for commonalities between the two phenotypes, identifying unifying principals of cause and effect and explaining how the two patterns of behavior diverge. At least, I had assumed I would be using Freud. Instead, I’ve decided to use an off-shoot of Freudian psychoanalysis known as Object Relations Theory.

Where Freud gave all the explanatory power in psychoanalysis to the pleasure principle and formative experiences of sexuality, Otto Rank, Melanie Klein and other proponents of object relations theory focused on infantile development and the intense bond between mother and child. They saw fear of abandonment and desire for human contact as more important than pleasure itself, and argued that personality is shaped by the process of achieving independence from a primary care-giver, and the development of the maturity needed to forgive an imperfect parent.

Like Freud, they linked paranoid phases in psychological individuation to projection and identification with one’s parents, in a process called “splitting” that is characterized by black-and-white thinking. When a care-giver is attentive, the child idealizes her, and when the child feels abandoned, the care-giver is rejected as inadequate. The child identifies with the idealized care-giver as a self-soothing technique, and imagines achieving omnipotent mastery over the care-giver when disappointed. The “object” in all this is the image of the parent in the child’s mind, often only a partial image, and at its most primitive, only a breast.


What I like about this theory is the description of infant  psychology as a constant battle for composure in a state of abject helplessness, a desperate search for self-soothing techniques with which to cope with constant anxiety. Here illusions are adaptive, therapeutic, necessary. Identifying with the breast brings a sense of tranquility to a life spent waiting helplessly for rescue from hunger and cold. The irrational is indispensable, the only recourse from a reality too overwhelming to process without distress. Aggression is distress, a disorganized rejection of discomfort and want.

And the response posited by object relations theory as universal and unconscious is a plausible one. Identifying with an external object on the basis of emotional valence is a pervasive self-soothing technique in everyday life. We identify with role models, prized possessions, family and friends. When we make enemies, we allow ourselves to assume the very worst about them.

Any number of cognitive biases can be explained by projective identification. And these natural foibles are clearly related to aggression. Identification with what is familiar, seeing confirmation of one’s preconceptions in everything and personalizing arguments are all commonplace logical fallacies that can be mobilized as motivational rhetoric to whip up the emotions of a crowd. They naturalize black-and-white thinking and normalize aggression, agreeing with preverbal instincts that override logical compunctions.  When logical fallacies tap into our instinct to identify with one group and vilify another, paranoid enthusiasm for hate crimes results.

But paranoia is only a phase in object relations theory. The rhythms of the attention economy are absolute in the world of an infant; a distracted parent is no parent at all, but distractions are inevitable. Psychological maturity begins when this sort of lapse is forgiven. Only by learning to integrate partial objects into a complex whole – recognizing the same person in both the inattentive parent and the idealized one – does a child move beyond paranoia and into the realm of repressed resentments and remorse for laying blame on a good-enough care-giver. With this remorse, now an integral part of the mature experience of love, comes active concern for others, as well as a sense of restraint.

If the family is a microcosm of a hegemonic social unit, it has two hierarchies in its internal structure: a hierarchy of fears and a hierarchy of needs. The needs of the most helpless family member are paramount, met by the others without any thought for themselves, and yet the breadwinner imposes a tacit threat on the household and all its dependents, being free to turn them out or walk away. Care-giving is routine in family life, but it is asymmetrical and contingent.

The fears of infancy are never fully resolved, and infantile psychological instincts persist into adulthood, so that the parent projects as well.


I see infantile projection as akin to synesthesia. According to some scientists, all infants experience synesthesia – synaptic pruning causes the intermingling of sensory perceptions to fade out in all but a few individuals, whose brains retain higher levels of connectivity into adulthood. For affect and identity to be blurred seems like a similar processing problem to me.

Projection begins before the infant has learned to differentiate between self and other, and persists only as an unconscious instinct after sensory integration has been achieved.

It seems logical that sensory integration and aggression are related. Pain disrupts sensory integration and acts as a provocation to aggression. Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain details how unraveling pain is to consciousness, and how omnipotent fantasy taps into this devastating effect in the mind of an aggressor.

But some acts of aggression are rational and subject to restraint, not a disorganized reflex to shake off a threat. Earlier, I mapped aggression and seduction together on a matrix of responses to boredom. Here, I’m plotting aggression and care-taking activities on a matrix of responses to need. On one end are rational behaviors, and on the other are infantile responses. Critically, a parent’s interest in attending to a child’s needs is an irrational instinct in its own right.


You have to click on the image to see it clearly. I’ve mapped hierarchical and commercial behaviors on the right-hand side as relatively rational expressions of aggression and love. Both the enforcement of hierarchy and engagement in commerce require sensory integration, maturity and restraint. One operates on a hierarchy of fears, the other on a hierarchy of needs. The difference is subjective, a matter of interpretation. I may have to continue on to Freud to discover a more distinctive point of departure between the neurodevelopment of egalitarian and hierarchical values, respectively.

But one is perhaps more mature than the other. Aggression itself is something we motivate ourselves to accomplish by mobilizing projective identification, and to issue a threatening command is to enlist black-and-white thinking. “Be good to me and I will be good to you; be bad and I will be bad to you” is more primitive than negotiating an exchange by saying “do something specific for me and I will do something specific for you.” The latter is more integrated, and acknowledges that there is only partial reciprocity at stake, whereas the former offers totalizing idealization of the relationship. So perhaps hierarchical conservatives have less fully resolved their infantile anxieties than egalitarian liberals. Anyhow, it’s a start.

I also want to build on my last blog entry in developing a theory of aggression, so I would add an eighth dimension to the emotion components chart – self-soothing techniques, related to the arousal level. These could include projective identification instincts or even conscious efforts to regain one’s composure. They may have important explanatory power in exploring how one emotion gives way to another. I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy that we choose our own emotions in life, and that it is important to choose them consciously. Infantile self-soothing techniques may represent a strong unconscious tendency in emotion selection and transition. This is something I plan to explore in script analysis.

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.


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.


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.


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