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.

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.


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.


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.


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