Posts Tagged ‘alienation’

“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.


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.


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.

Stranger ethics and fuzzy thinking phobia

June 14, 2014

I feel so tired of hearing harshness in ironies, and my own writing registers as flippant to me in spite of it, but I’m beginning to hope it will fade out – when I think out loud the sound of my own voice is less unbearably pointed, and yet it’s confusing to look at the kinds of thoughts that seem to be helping my feelings resolve away from the jagged-edged sounding sense of disgust with my options for confronting the world as I see it.

That’s part of the reason I pulled back some earlier blog entries about the domestic violence case a public prosecutor brought against my mother. I’ve now heard that the charges against her were dropped and she’s interested in resuming contact with me, after several months of avoidance. I hadn’t realized until then how badly I wanted a conviction even if she was only sentenced to anger management counseling again. Her sense of impunity frightens me.

The things I end up having said somehow seem to jostle the barbs of fear and anger at the same time, I can’t look at my own words or hear my own tone of expressing what I’m angry about without hearing the same cruel habits in myself, yet I don’t know how to demand change of myself. Apart from violating Wizard’s Eighth Rule and becoming a vegetarian.

Maybe I’m just too tired to trust willing change to matter and that makes it easier to imagine it’s a different kind of problem, not a grounds for capitulating to the way things are – a desire to resist a sign of failure to understand the real, a failure to apprehend the truth as straightforward as a bad grade in physics.

I sound like a hypocrite to myself. Misery loves company but when your unhappiness is disorienting, you know better than to take the idea of reducing anyone else to grief and confusion lightly, if they listened hard enough to be hurt by what you had to say for yourself.

Fears feed each other, not in a metaphysical way I don’t think, it’s as simple as associational logic underpinning all the unreflecting habits that make up a susceptibility to attentional bias.

Any strong sense of alarm heightens your alertness to everything else that has come to mind lately that is frightening, and then your concrete perceptions about just those things that frighten you dwarf the other things you already know, and even if one fear can be resolved you look from one to another and it’s far too easy to feel overwhelmed.

Lies are so easy to blame people for, so complete in the harm they seem to do, it’s easy to feel undone by mistrust of your own ability to tell what’s going on. And putting names to feelings when you’re that unsure feels like inviting other people to listen when you know your intuition feels unreliable.

But you wouldn’t reject a reassuring lie that worked for you, if you knew fear was what was keeping you disoriented, no matter what rabbit hole it led down. You’re reduced to that, willingness to believe anything that differs from the sum of all fears, even if it’s a twisting around of whether something confronting you is to be feared, as if what you feared for could be devalued in a way that would help.


When you’re prone to black and white thinking that seems like too much, you look for other explanations for the way you feel even if there are none coherent enough to hang on to.

Perception is the credible threat – not Cartesian anxiety about whether I am there, but a totalizing sense of contingency about how revisable I am as a person who has an identity drawn up by way of self-awareness as well as actual habits and traits of which I may be less entirely aware.

Look at informal credit, and the way people use numbers as if they didn’t know better for ambiguity and indirection about social distance, the absolute value of informal credit ratings, with a give and take measured in price information asymmetry in the sense of access to gossip, always partial in both senses of the word. Walter Bagehot, founding editor of The Economist, was good at explaining that sort of everyday micro-economics. I named a beagle after him for putting a positivist spin on the dismal science.

Part of what I’m struggling with is fuzzy thinking phobia. Fuzzy thinking is how we get through unscripted parts of our lives, but it is rather a lot to face if your biggest fear is being misunderstood and that fear applies to even concrete details of your identity and memories, whereas in real life there isn’t time to so much as verify the verifiable, let alone make your case for what you can’t corroborate with external evidence beyond the integrity of your own testimony.

This is partly why I am so fond of The Legend of the Seeker. Craig Horner interprets Richard Cypher’s distaste for magic as a preference for dealing with tools and threats that are tangible and concrete rather than deceptive and mysterious. This validates my reluctance to allow experts to tell me this or that is merely psychosomatic pain, or that threat perceptions can be chalked up to catastrophizing just because they’re recurrent and inconvenient to redress.

I was a runaway as a kid, but I never got far, and eventually my plans for running became a joke even to me, a comment on the fact that hell is other people but foraging isn’t a viable alternative to life where there is nowhere to run. What I was running from gradually infected my understanding of the world I thought I was running toward until the fantasy fell apart.

Secrets and lies and the group dynamics of gossip and ambivalence compromised my notion of a better world “outside, over there” through incident reports of violence in my home and bystander-typical reactions from the people I confided in about it. Some of the violence was quite psychological – as when a toad was found impaled on a pencil holding down an improbable note implicating a very young neighbor and friend.

Pulled punches left confusing memories – heated verbal threats of bodily harm followed by relatively light bruises, a blurring of death threats and petty injuries into a bleak comedy about the elephant and the mouse.

Zooming out to the sociology of health, all this seems to be part of the social experience of alienation that is widely considered a modern urban phenomenon but has close parallels in the paranoia of rural poor communities concerning envious neighbors. Maybe alienation is the price we pay for trying to live by voluntary agreements loaded with uncertainty about how well trust holds when bargaining rules approximate zero sum games.

There is something perversely reassuring about coercion in this context; expectations reinforced by threats are considered more reliable and can be liberating if you are willing to respond to fear without compunction or if the expectations don’t feel compromising in a way that would tempt you to face your fears and disobey.

Maybe alienation is exacerbated by social conditions promoted by marketing culture that exploit asymmetry of information systematically. Could a political economy of seduction produce more atomizing social conditions than the hierarchical compliance culture of patronage politics?

“Don’t stand so near me!
I am become a socialist. I love
Humanity; but I hate people.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

False sympathy or use of opportunities to tend to the weaknesses of others to curry favor and the idea of “entrenching the need for help” by institutionalizing welfare provision come to mind. Why do the administrators of vital social safety nets come across as patronizing and out of touch to their own clientele? In how many ways are status-oriented microaggressions masked as kindness?

Does defensive posturing about “the best a flawed social safety net can do” capitalize on the prevalence of faux pas issues from cognitive dissonance, or is the difference of intent that relevant if the recipient can’t tell where the speaker’s misconceptions are coming from or to what degree they are rooted in unspoken but internalized hostility rather than unconscious mirroring of a hostile cliché? Victim-blaming stereotypes must come to mind in such a workplace.

People who attend to your sense of distress about a weakness, limitation or source of pain without kindness and a compassionate impulse to alleviate your distress often are relating to you as an enemy, in their minds your claim to their capacity for compassion is presumptuous or artificial on some level. Doctors, in particular, have strong pain-silencing prejudices for coping with patients.

We all have a sense of our own limitations to help others, and recoil quickly when we feel someone is asking too much of us relative to our means; in a helping professional this can lead to internalizing a triage ethic that is rather out of touch with the root concept and rather clumsy as a way of respecting personal boundaries. They feel defensive about relatively impersonal boundaries like purview, workload, minor conflicts of interest like whether or not they get along with the colleague whose help they would need to follow through on a perceived need of a client, etc.

What if conservative economic philosophy is a belief system that also protects the upwardly mobile from shame when they must refuse their own social contacts some of the favors they are asked to grant as if they owed their friends and family to spread their wealth? If they are consistently stingy fewer people will take it personally or be bold enough to put them in a position to have to refuse a request.

Liberals want resource allocation professionalized within the public sector for fairness and efficiency, the same reasons conservatives prefer private charity be responsible for allocating surplus. Both fear the selfish corruption of rhetoric that misallocates resources in the name of the social good.

If futile in another’s eyes, your interest in discussing your own victim status will often be seen as undignified, pathetic and self-defeating. The victim role assigns significance (injustice) to the ongoing distress and thus elevates its prominence, which does mean experiencing it more acutely than you would if you didn’t see a need for redress of the injustice but chose to be more accepting instead.

In this respect counseling someone to stop complaining and accept their fate is a kind of advice that can bring a degree of relief to their distress, and make them more willing to distract themselves from it. Even if your frustrations are blameless on your part and reflect serious fault on someone else’s part, dwelling on the unfairness of what happened to you won’t necessarily solve the problems that were caused for you.

Yet no one should put their own hardships in a global perspective in the sense of trivializing their own unmet needs if they can think of some other unmet needs in the world that would dwarf their own if lined up side by side. There is plenty of external social pressure to keep quiet about one’s unhappiness conditioning us not to be an unreasonable imposition on those we could turn to for help or emotional support at will. Internalizing it is redundant and unsustainable.

In particular, the hidden harms of institutional violence – discrimination in its passive forms, distinct from micro-aggressions – leave their victims with largely unshareable experiences, difficult to discuss openly with anyone who hasn’t been through something very similar. Support groups with people who have had similar victimization experiences are important in part because of the way cognitive dissonance has denied them adequate emotional support and understanding from friends and family who lack the kind of insight that comes from personal experience.

But even within support groups we are all strangers, with reactions to one another’s stories typical of bystander indifference. That’s why I’m getting a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s book The Needs of Strangers. I have a feeling that until I understand what it means to be a stranger, I won’t fully understand how to be a friend.

Freckles’ first fan reference

October 12, 2012

Those cranky postmodernists couldn’t have anticipated Freckles’ first fan reference, when they were prognosticating about the hyperreal. Yet I now know my dog is a Bruce Spence fan because she fished a sock out of the laundry basket just after we watched “Puppeteer” with the actors’ commentary on (her usual tastes in smelly clothes run more toward underwear).

I’d gotten used to her being a dog who takes no interest in television apart from to be annoyed with mine, and who finds life without squirrels boring and thunderstorms frightening every single time. I’d decided her consistently nervous reaction to an interrogation scene in The Recruit was a fluke.

I hadn’t noticed how unwelcome a common interest like fandom would be between me and my dogs. I used to be the one who enjoyed special effects in surround sound, and now kicking them out of my room just leads to a huddle across the hall openly plotting further intrusions on the life of my imagination.

Proud music of the storm,
Blast that careers so free, whistling across the prairies,
Personified dim shapes –

Would a beagle-border collie cross be taken in by the seduce-and-destroy ploys of the sort of dystopia imagined in Fahrenheit 451?


Or would she just disassemble their working parts to prove she knew where the wires were hidden in the walls?

When scapegoating modernism for alienation did nothing for our burdens of privacy, technology created “networked communities” with global reach for our search for sympathizers with our most idiosyncratic interests. The scholars of culture saw nothing reassuring about this, and ran to scapegoating postmodernism for our loss of intimacy.

They understated the case. We’ve progressed from deluding ourselves, each and every one, that we are popular, that being popular means being liked for ourselves and for “being ourselves” without remorse – and progress meant waking up to a habit of wallowing in the filth of isolation and self-pity in the extreme.

Apparently, awareness that no one was really looking had been dawning for quite some time.

They hadn’t expected us to start generalizing from our relationship with the television to our relationship with other household objects, with wild birds, with the attitude of the wind in a tree visible through the window, a pinwheel in the back yard.

They hadn’t predicted that we would ultimately find our household pets squarely in the middle of our own interpretive space, casually taking over. I suppose it makes sense as the next thing that would have to happen. Why wouldn’t they be smug and assertive about their status?

The pets inherited a realm so affected by hallucinogenic isolation and dread that they now seem able to use anthropomorphic sign language “better than we do” – or rather, with the directness of mid-sized children who haven’t tired of pointing out what adults do wrong according to their own standards.

In the manner of biology news announcers, naturalisms have been framing all such recently formalized observations about our own behavior as normative by default. There must have been a reason, and adaptative rationales don’t need to be self-evident to be discernible, when your commentators hail from a species with a special gift for rationalizing.

Should I fear the “performative” life that replaces privacy with unquiet daydreams about starring on reality TV, if my dogs stop playing tag whenever their audience stops watching?

Attention seeking could be natural; a lot of things are. But no one likes to meet the audience unprepared.

Please please please
No more melodies
Give me something familiar
Somethin’ similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere

Access to “the big tent” audience is kept carefully in scarcity, an easily maintained regime once in place since broadcast media giants maximize profits by producing the work of the shortest list of performers capable of holding the crowd, reproduction and distribution being vastly cheaper than producing the content itself once infrastructure is installed.

This emboldens us with envy, if all else fails.

The internet, never short of forgettable embarrassments that make it easier for any of us to feel forgiven without asking, promises to help us each carve off a piece of the “long tail” of the attention economy. But the attention we crave can actually be even more fleeting than usual, in virtual space.

The duration and credibility of interest documented in a tracking statistics unit (a page view) can be thinner than passing hints that one might have been acknowledged somehow, look for look, by a fellow pedestrian on the street – whether for a shared mood in the same scene, or a confrontation held and released before you lost sight of each other’s faces.

So culture scholars warn against an excess of individualism, each locked in escapist personalized worlds of simulation, hiding from the social costs of neoliberalism.

But he’s been pretty much yellow
And I’ve been kinda blue

 And it’s dangerous work
Trying to get to you too

 I’ve been watching all the time
And I still can’t find the tack
And I wanna know is it okay
Is it just fine
Or is it my fault
Is it my lack

Having tried using denial as a resistance strategy for as long as we could manage, now we’re emotionally prepared to allow the scholars to give directions on another course of collective action: notions like reembodying the body, reasserting a politics of place, reembedding time in space.

We are told to try relating to the built environment – where it clings as a social convention of dress code on the skin, and where it casts a shadow the size of a skyscraper’s – as an expression of nature that we may or may not be satisfied with, but have the only means to modify among ourselves. Find a role to play.

If anyone could, in fact, do better using virtual space to reach out, to step forward, than they would using the front door, it would be clever to know the difference.

If scholars of culture have been trying to focus more of our collective attention on failures of love lately, and the pervasive anxiety about belonging to the ranks of “the working dead” spawns an entire zombie apocalypse genre, maybe the new fear is of stepping out, and finding out what people would really think if you had an audience.


Self-advancing technology certainly hasn’t always seemed like a good place to look for the love that would be needed to close the gap known outside family courts as affective inequalities.

But hype about the democratizing potential of the internet has done its best to change all that, and sideline the technology-as-enabler-of-evil discourse altogether.

The question is, how long will we want to live with autopilot on its own terms?