Archive for May, 2014

The gendered passive aggressive

May 26, 2014

It’s frustrating to not be able to tell the difference in most cases between somebody not having the time to find the right words to get through to you (bad hand-offs) and somebody using vagueness to be adversarial and deceptive.

If you have a consistent knack for looking foolish and a strong malicious streak, you can get extra mileage out of stabbing someone in the back while looking like you “tripped” – as if you obviously would never have done anything so reckless on purpose.

The violence of indifference is sudden and remorseless, the vacillation of a crowd that attacks a few who are not perfect strangers to all the rest, merely because most there are strangers to one another, and those who know them better fear taking their part.

The fear is reasonable; guilt by association is emotional reasoning, but not unlike categorical reasoning. The vaguely ascertained categories of personal qualities to which guilt adheres affect judgment about what is to be feared in someone, and those who resemble the traits are feared at least a little before they do any harm. Fear of “rocking the boat” is partly an expression of how disorienting it is to be your friend under inauspicious circumstances. It is momentary, situational disorientation, fear of disorder in their own thinking.


“O my friends, there is no friend.”

Making someone squirm mobilizes the same general sorts of physical anxiety that dogs try to dissipate by grooming themselves, but the bullying involved in this human behavior differs by invoking gendered socialization norms that heighten sexual inhibition and valorize the sublimation of sensual appetites for gratification in status-oriented satisfactions like paid work.

Squirming, in this instance, is a useless recoiling from sexualized disgust that differs from arousal altogether, but is denied physical recourse in calming “stimming” behaviors by social expectations that the mind-body dualism reflects a need for privacy and even in private, a certain sense of dignity about the body out of respect for the role of the mind in governing its impulses and functions.

This, conversely, gives the physical a pre-critical sort of authenticity when it surprises us, as if it kept our secrets and harbors the only credible “tells” about our lies. The body itself is where our emotions often initially seem to register, before we realize our thoughts are involved in interpreting the events that cause emotional reactions within. This is one reason why bodily awareness is central to living in the Now, being self-aware and cultivating emotional literacy – when you listen to your body, it comments on your relationships with others on a level your mind is slower to comprehend.

Nonverbal cues are seen as a step up from words in credibility, and clues to a speaker’s true feelings are sought in the tone of voice, timing and expression of the eyes. So we cannot stand to catch ourselves squirming.


Though the emotion imposed on the person bullied in this peculiar way is suppressive of sexuality, the attitude it produces is “futile and flailing” precisely because relieving the anxiety physically would feel like validating the noxious intercourse with a bodily response over which the mind is supposed to have control, like a tacit form of consent to be affected in that way.

Resisting a cue that makes you squirm, just like giving provocation without actual confrontation, is conceptually a loosely categorized mode of conflict, too casually lumped into the notion of being passive aggressive. Passive aggression is typically reciprocal and recursive, full of repressed energy and coded signs. It doesn’t find much traction for its barbs in confrontation with its opposite, naked aggression.

What does the label “passive aggression” mean? Its connotations are especially negative, those of a self-defeating behavior. The contradiction built into the phrase implies a habit of forcing a reaction that is conformist and cagey, the avoidance of being forthright. But passive aggression is more conventional than the use of brute force to advance a dispute, a normal element of everyday interpersonal friction despite the stigmatizing nature of the label.

The presumption of decency civilization imposes on what motives we offer openly for our own actions makes any effort to rely on expressed goodwill in others a risky gamble. But the normalization of passive aggression as a catch-all label for conventional ways of handling (or defusing) conflict implies a profound insincerity in this presumption of decency, something too many people are in denial about.


Because of role of the self-serving bias in rationalizing post-hoc for first impressions of a situation or event, our intellectual autonomy is deeply vulnerable when one operates on anything less than a presumption of indifference concerning the attitudes and behaviors of other people. Demonstrative ambivalence is central to passive aggressive attitudes and behaviors, the ambivalence of being above it all or too clever for one’s own good.

Hence passive aggressive is used only as a pejorative label for a poorly played hand; when verbalized, the label for it is deployed as a kind of posturing by someone with position against someone who cannot afford to maintain opposition (because they are in a weaker position). It is an accusation of bad faith and disruptive resentment within a pecking order.

A more specific word for an expressed passive aggressive attitude is “imposture” (a posturing method that hints ironically that one person believes his position of disadvantage was unwisely overrated by another), which if offered correctly is an irrefutable critique of authority and its assumptions.

King Lear‘s Fool expresses a sobering and compassionate imposture to authority in extremis. Villains like Iago are motivated by the vanities of wit bound up in courtly conventions of imposture. But more often than not, passive aggression falls to the female of the species.

Why would passive aggression be a gendered mode of conflict?

Dyadic habits are adversarial, if it’s not a zero-sum close call there are more than two people’s interests represented when any two people do converse; hence the similarity between Machiavelli and the Ars Amoria, and the romantic tradition of seeing acts of love as death for whomever is in love with the beloved, man or woman.


Of masculinity Montaigne wants to say what can only be said by quoting Lucretius: “How great the biter cares of lust that rend apart, .. pride and filth and wantonness .. And luxury and idleness!”

Much of the reality of gendered discrimination is now in the past for denizens of high income developed countries, and it is increasingly plausible for passive aggressive traits to transcend gendered lines. But the gendered reading of the postcolonial imagination captures a live wire of passive aggressive energy in Jamaica Kincaid’s portraits of Caribbean attitudes that exposes ongoing discrimination and a heavy inheritance of repressed aggression.

The passive aggressive is pregnant with resentment for enforced degrading attitudes or experiences (sometimes learned by osmosis from not bothering to argue with someone addressing you that way) at the personal and geographical levels, in Jamaica Kincaid’s image of “vexed” Caribbean flowers:

“In the night the flowers close up and thicken. The hibiscus flowers, the flamboyent flowers, the bachelor’s button, the irises, the marigolds, the whitehead-bush flowers, the lilies, the flowers on the daggerbush, the flowers on the turtleberrry bush, the flowers on the soursop tree, the flowers on the sugar-apple tree, the flowers on the mango tree, the flowers on the guava tree, the flowers on the cedar tree, the flowers on the stinking-toe tree, the flowers on the dumps tree, the flowers on the pawpaw tree, the flowers everywhere close up and thicken. The flowers are vexed.”

How and when not to be flip, conceptually, why impulsive sarcasm arises, what perceived pressures can be reinterpreted to avoid getting stuck in an attitude of facile rudeness, how that attitude resembles the sphexish violence of indifference, is difficult to parse out.


In The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf writes about a polite landlord in East Germany who allows herself to be played off against herself, whereas the neurotic Christa T. herself is stubborn about taking her life seriously every instant, and is capable of self-serious histrionics over a banal motivational wall hanging. Repressed memories of World War II infuse Christa T.’s life story with harsh social anxieties that mark the extrovert as an eccentric, and make non-conformism a dissociative experience in a world of open secrets.

Ironies commanded by male protagonists seem more boisterous, more fertile, than the passive aggressive travails of women. I read some of Shaw’s notes on his play Caesar and Cleopatra because the Vivien Leigh film adaptation impressed James Agee, and his review reminded me of Oliver Stone’s Alexander. For himself, Shaw says:

“It is said that on the occasion of his assassination [that] he defended himself until the good Brutes struck him, when he exclaimed ‘What! you too, Brutes!’ and disdained further fight. If this be true, he must have been an incorrigible comedian.”

But humor has to have dramatic rhythm to work as an ironic stratagem – forced irony is easy to spot and anything but compelling. Cross-cultural accusations of who looks ridiculous and who doesn’t have a sense of humor are useful no matter how unconvincing as far as political ad hominems go. They reinforce the other side’s perceived identity-politics insecurities, when accusing them of the flippancy and ambivalence characteristic of bystanders.

When and if the unsurprising nightmare unfolds, (each time), a little ambivalence (forced if need be) can create a safe emotional distance within desire for intimacy. It leaves room for composure when the ‘authentic’ reaction would be flustered, room for maneuver to keep up a presentable effort at staying poised in a moment of uncertainty. It’s easier to be amiable when some of your fears are hidden, and in a way, more enchantment can be dared if no one runs the absolute risk of disillusionment.

“Propping his mattress on the turning sphere,
Saturn his rings or Jupiter his bars
He follows, or the fleeting moons of Mars,
Till from his ticking lens they disappear …
Whereat he sighs, and yawns,
.. unamazed
Goes forth to plow, flinging a ribald stone
.. alien to his own.”

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

On writing and revising and marking a paper with margin notes for rewriting, one author gives examples of self-criticisms offered by women who hesitated to publish: “That has already been said,” “It’s not worth the trouble,” “It won’t be read,” “It will meet with nothing but criticism,” “It’s impossible to put all that into meaningful form.” Idle words, uninvested critics. All in glass houses, none lifting a stone.

Pity and fear without catharsis

May 18, 2014

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes bookworms lost in a labyrinthine fiction, “at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves; .. as birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

Who knows how many times The Iliad has been translated, paraphrased and transcribed. A hall of mirrors would be needed to explore intertextuality across iterations of translations and adaptations of the epic.

The Alexandrian poet Cavafy rewrites the image of the horses of Achilles with elegant simplicity:

When they saw Patroklos killed,
who was so brave and strong and young,
Achilles’ horses began to cry,
their immortal nature outraged
to witness the work of death.
They tossed their heads and waved their long manes,
stamped their hooves on the ground, and they mourned
Patroklos, whom they felt was soulless – ruined –
flesh made lowly now – his spirit lost –
defenseless – without breath –
he had gone from life back to the big Nothing.

Zeus saw the immortal horses’ tears
and was sorry. He said, “I should not
have acted so mindlessly ..
it would have been better if we had not given you away,
.. What are you doing down there
with miserable human beings, fate’s playthings.
Neither death nor old age pursues you,
yet fleeting disasters torment you.”
But for the endless disaster of death,
the two noble animals shed their tears.

A revisionist Trojan war story like Troilus and Cressida rendering the story’s heroes as vulgar brutes and the epic duels as cowardly ambushes is reminiscent of the counternarrative to the Alexander Romance in Roman traditions painting Alexander the Great as a bloated drunk. It falls outside the story’s traditional genre, but not outside the classical repertoire of genres, having something more in common with Euripides or Menander than Sophocles or Aeschylus.

Northrop Frye wrote that “as tragedy moves over toward irony, the sense of inevitable event begins to fade out, and the sources of catastrophe come into view. .. Tragedy’s ‘this must be’ becomes irony’s ‘this at least is,’ a concentration of foreground facts and a rejection of mythical superstructures.”


Shakespeare takes the war at Troy into the territories of irony in his Troilus and Cressida, about two minor characters of legend, younger than the heroes, adolescent lovers trying to navigate the socially awkward long-siege polity within the city and the camp. Where Homer “is rapid, plain and direct in thought and expression, plain and direct in substance, and noble” the Shakespeare is cynical, witty and harsh.

There’s an interesting angle on the structure of zero-sum games in The Responsibility Virus (2003): the understanding of failure is governed by four values, “(1) To win and not lose in any interaction, (2) To always maintain control of the situation at hand, (3) To avoid embarrassment of any kind, (4) To stay rational throughout.” This is certainly a cookbook for bitter ironies, and Shakespeare’s war story is bitter to say the least.

Invoking concern about pain and suffering, especially in the context of alleged injustice, always invokes zero-sum game rules by implication. Shakespeare refutes the game and so gives a more merciless portrait of the war than Homer, stripped of ennobling respect for loss and life in favor of camp bawdiness and sneering skepticism of grand reputations for prowess or courage.

Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad makes a glorious image out of the wounding of Menelaus:

“As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple
colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;
it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider
longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king’s treasure,
.. to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman:
so, Menelaus, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour
of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them.”

The vulgar feminine side of war in Troilus and Cressida is garish compared to this royal contest in arms. “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” is the real subject here, a stranger to honor and glory, merely a living, feeling creature grasping at words erringly but insistently, untrusting as a listener but cocksure in every utterance, sly and clumsy at the same time.

Freud posits that the creation of ritual scapegoats for purging collective guilt was pivotal in the birth of civilization, and that the transcendent arts harbor the secrets of redemption for civilization’s discontents. In this play ritual use of high emotion is set aside. Matter-of-factness robs the errors of hope of tragic significance, and only the foibles of conventional wisdom loom large in the disappointments of the point of view characters, their dreams devalued as well as deferred. Discontent is a problem for which the play offers no solutions whatever.

Aristotle was perhaps the first to argue that the cathartic energy in dramatic tragedies contributes to virtue in the experience of theater-goers, and that the literary arts are part of a moral education. But what do we say about “problem plays” like Troilus and Cressida, closer to a satire than a romantic comedy, boldly combining elements of tragedy and farce?


The contingencies of love and necessity fall out with remorseless logic in this story about thwarted romance and dishonorable deaths, and the darker side of psychology, the shadow play of Eros and Thanatos, deepens the conflict in ways that bring about guilt with or without room for redemption, allowing that redeeming moments can themselves be refused.

Troilus and Cressida dances around the option of withholding deus ex machina from a love story or a war story in ways that invite an analysis of intertextuality with Shakespeare’s Pericles or Cymbeline. Above all the play focuses on the regrets of partaking as a social animal in the vicissitudes of conscience, neither glamorizing violence nor validating love as anything other than a glue of convenience among fickle but appetite-driven beasts of nature.

Another translator of The Iliad, I. A. Richards, writes in a book on literary criticism that one can hardly run short of aphorisms about what makes art transcendent – he lists a series of “conjectures, a supply of admonitions, many acute isolated observations, some brilliant guesses, much oratory and applied dogma, inexhaustible confusion, a sufficiency of dogma, no small stock of prejudices, whimsies and crochets, a profusion of mysticism, a little genuine speculation, sundry stray inspirations, pregnant hints ..”

“Beautiful words are the very and peculiar light of the mind.”
“All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation.”
“Unity in variety.”
“The eye on the object.”
“Significant form.”
“The pleasures of Fancy are more conducive to health than those of the understanding.”
“The expression of impressions.”
“Empathy favorable to our existence.”
“Delight is the chief, if not the only end; instruction can be admitted but in the second place.”

He won’t have “mystery mongering” that pursues literary criticism argumentatively while glossing the “impasse” in musical theory, that chasm between technical details discernible in their combined effects, and the aesthetic outcomes that are more like “high inspiration” or “free play” than “shop mechanics” to the approving ear. Instead he expounds an ambitious cognitive theory of the way in which literary work is perceived and critically received.

Richards quotes Sir Walter Raleigh describing Christina Rossetti’s poetry: “Full of that beautiful redundance and that varied reiteration which are natural to all strong feeling and all spontaneous melody … the expression rising unsought, with incessant recurrence to the words or phrases given at first, with a delicate sense of pattern which prescribes the changes in the cadence.” I have an abiding ambition to describe drama or screen acting performances with compliments this articulate and apt.

Richards brings forward memorable analytical tropes like “mutations of regime” and “aesthetic or projectile adjectives,” “profane dissection” and “prudential speech,” “dictionary understanding” and “internal order,” “mnemonic irrelevances” and “stock responses,” “doctrinal adhesions” and “technical presuppositions,” “immaturity” and “construing,” “tied images” and “the fatal facility with which usual meanings reappear when they are not wanted,” and how “the importance of an impulse .. can be defined for our purposes as the extent of the disturbance of other impulses in the individual’s activities which the thwarting of the impulse involves.”

This last is nicely elaborated on: “The adjustment to one another of varied impulses – to go forward carefully, to lie down and grasp something with the hands, to go back, and so forth – and their co-ordination into useful behavior alters the whole character of his experience. These efforts point to promising ways of liberating associative logic from the reputation of non-logic, and bringing it more thoroughly under analysis.”

His study is poetry rather than drama, but a cognitive theory of the cathartic impulse in tragedy would be welcome at this level of detail, something treating the associative logic of thwarted expectations in problem plays that withhold this sublime satisfaction while they play on the pity and fears of the audience. I’ll see if I can come up with one myself, building on my notes from Richards’ work and Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism among other sources.