Posts Tagged ‘ambivalence’

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.

Justice, pity and dignity

December 31, 2012

Athens has been described as “a city of advocates” (i.e., lawyers to a man) in records from the time of Aristotle, and Greek thought on the moral sentiments was rather refined. Skeptical of high emotion, they often described pity as an untrustworthy, reactionary sentiment:

The most extraordinary thing of all is that while in private suits the wronged shed tears and are pitied, in public suits the wrongdoers are pitied and you, the wronged, pity them.

Pity and Power in Ancient Athens

Public discourse on justice was civil by way of being equivocal, with orators dancing easily around one another’s claims on righteousness by being ever conscious of the procedural nature of law-making and trials.

Moral sentiments themselves have always had a reactionary element to them. It makes sense in the emotional reasoning of a jury for the accused to suddenly appear to be the underdog, once the case is being brought at court. The plaintiff is the one complaining that there is something amiss, if sympathy simply switches to the party presently on the defensive.

Outside the officious ceremonies of a courtroom, the universal commitment to “common decency” is even more difficult to pin down.

“…he actually felt safer fighting than running.”

In the first season of The Legend of the Seeker Richard politely brushes off the idea that, from a child’s point of view (a child with the magical ability to see into the private thoughts of others), he and Kahlan are the only people resisting tyranny for unselfish reasons. He corrects the boy, “we’re just the first ones you’ve met so far.”

Like any Rahl, he is quick to see himself as a “prince with a thousand enemies,” but Richard rarely suspects flattery when dealing with the subtleties of others.

A suspicious goddess, more inclined to assume he has been coasting on the optimism of others about whether his good intentions will carry the day, catches him off-guard in Season 2 with her teenage enthusiasm for confrontational right-mindedness and infinite skepticism.

She is no doubt being unfair, if understandably flustered that all her creation is on the line, and he seems close to blowing the deadline for preventing doomsday.

After all, asking follow-up questions is not unwise, even if a recently deified teenager presses them childishly.

Think of Phaidra’s nurse. First it’s “Better to be sick than tend the sick. The one is simple, the other work, work, work, work and worry.” Then one mistake is never to be forgotten, a boy spits on your love and disclaims your confidence: “My tongue swore the oath. My mind is unsworn.”

Go ahead and blame my failures, lady,
for the sting is stronger than your judgment now.
But I have answers too, if you allow.
I reared you, I am on your side.
I sought a cure
for your disease and found one not so nice.
Yes if I had succeeded you’d call me smart.
Smartness is relative to winning, isn’t it.

Good intentions, we learn from care-givers, are not enough for testimony if work was expected of you and instead, some harm has brought down law.

This blogger’s account of mundane frustrations living in a homeless shelter evokes the shock of transition to a stigmatized population – the raggedy edge of life on the receiving end of pervasive, unthinking micro-aggressions. Where he comes across as brash for having brought higher expectations, his concrete observations of day to day conditions reveal how they drain the emotional resources of those already down on their luck.


“I come from good parents: my mother is Night ..” | “I go.”

When your unmet needs go unacknowledged by the prevailing group-think, you have to start accepting that some who profess not to understand your point of view are brushing you off for reasons as frivolous as:

(a) convenience,
(b) defensiveness of a shallow appearance of self-righteousness,
(c) difficulty maintaining composure, or
(d) habitual confrontation avoidance.

And yet, how much stress can anyone you inconvenience with your unmet needs be expected to cope with day to day?

And so it goes.

“Peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy” is how Christopher Nolan’s Batman would like to see the people of Gotham he would lay down his life to protect. The catch is that he must hide his face from them to avoid reprisal on the terms of procedural justice, and still fear for those he loves knowing they could be traced to him despite the mask.

Choosing ambivalence isn’t always about avoiding risk by refusing to take sides. It can also be a deferential gesture to something desirable, muting one’s personal wishes to share in it, out of respect for the truth that not everyone can enjoy the best of everything. Bruce Wayne’s hope of laying down the mask fades fast in the Nolan trilogy.

Just as when one admires two lovers kissing in public without denying that their moment belongs to the two of them.

Sometimes, the key to preferring a fight over bidding for pity is to remember that all of us are vulnerable, and to move beyond fear for yourself, realizing that it’s possible to drag down those who would show you love, if you take someone’s hand and then allow yourself to lose your footing.

One of the lines in the song used for this fan video made me realize something interesting about the dystopia of Equilibrium:

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” – W.B. Yeats

The contraband information that the book burners in this movie set out to destroy is the literature of freedom and dignity feared by behavioral scientists like Skinner for its celebration of willful individualism and disobedience.

Rather than expunging records of unflattering facts about the regime, these thought police are bent on destroying the flattering lies of art, the seductive illusions of idealization that inspire emotional life.

The ego is a rudder in a sea of moral sentiments. There must be a hand on it, willing to defy seemingly overwhelming currents.

Respect for others begins as a multiplication of the ego’s capacities for self-regard, just as the Golden Rule is referential, dictated by analogy to the felt experience of self-respect. We see ourselves in the other, and expand our understanding incrementally as we unlearn attachment to trivial distinctions that set us apart from some. We gradually gain a more universal respect for others, together with greater humility about our own place in the world.

More reluctantly, we gain perspective on the sense in which our lives and actions mirror those of others so greatly that our position is one of redundancy, not as selfless as a member of the Borg, but far from the vanities of one who would fight for heightened self-regard at the expense of others. This is where healing begins, the unburdening of the psychological aversion to pain. This is how the apparent privacy of suffering can be shattered, and the fear of carrying unshareable feelings and lacking help with “unconfirmed” hardships can be diminished.

To buy or not to buy

October 10, 2012

“You are what you buy” sounds like a grim yardstick, even for karma. But postmodernist theories of fandom seem to hinge on this concept of consumerism having spawned a rather unexpected but energetic cultural life form, the consumer cult.

Whether you cling to cult classics like the soundtrack to Magnolia and its isolation-friendly grasp of “the social rhythms of ambivalence,” or collect and exchange the tokens of anime fandom among friends, access to a market that knows your past is part of identity in a world that imposes choppy life transitions on relationships with family and those you meet at and between various work places and places you’ve lived.

Fan references evoke nostalgia and a retained currency of values from which your point of view could be triangulated. It could be, to remind those who were not always strangers of how they do know you. After however many transitions through roles in social circles and spatial dislocation have passed since your last meeting, “fandom could be the integrating factor for one’s multiple personal identities that change over time … to integrate an idealized past with the present, in a pleasurable way.”


What the audience knows to expect? What would you believe?

If you have confidence in your guides, at least. The artists sometimes startle the audience, whether gorging on honey and shattering goblets after they finish the wine, or teasing out cognitive dissonance, where they knew they would find it and embarrass you for not being surprised either.

There are formulae even for acts of the carnivalesque. And the tools of the trade are not lightly used.

The audience wants to believe it is transgressive for the performer to create a crisis of identity in the individual spectators, that this is an exception to the rules of consumer culture, that a fixed border is so violated between art and the reality of life, between aesthetics and ethics.

There is an illusion that such a border can be forced and the spectators dragged across it in a carnival without showing them a way out of the crisis, but that this is not the way most days.

That everyday life is untouched by the transformations and recursive reveals of what already was exactly so that ensue.

Mass market broadcast media challenge the audience to evade such things any day of the week. Can they tell the difference?


Intertextual, subliminal, and still positioned just there.

The intimate details that film “can convey of performance” need no knife fights to find their way under the skin. An embodied real is quick to invade the home theater and include the spectators in a scene, when their attention holds and self-consciousness fades into identification with the substance of the scene.

But we are most easily persuaded such intimacy with a stranger, an artist, is gained at a price. Perhaps at knife’s point.

Introducing a chapter of film criticism about David Cronenberg in The place of breath in cinema, Jean-Luc Nancy writes it is in experience of harm that the body

“reveals its interiority, its depth, the secret of its life. Unity is given only to be broken, releasing the infinitely fragile secret that the soul and the breath, the desire, the passion for the unique and the infinite are the same as the wrenching of the body from itself, .. disjection exposed in the raw.

In every sense, the soul blows through the body.”

The same illusion of dismemberment, as the impressions of bodies are decontextualized in close-up or audible small movements, a caress from which the object of touch withdraws as living forms would, can be produced with breath alone in many ways, when breath is even noticeable within cinema.

It may be noticeable in horror genre, and easily mapped out in its devices there, but it is pervasive in music, in theater, in film, and in every performance art – ascertainable even from the balcony in ballet. Genre is no safeguard against the effects of technique used to situate literature in performance art that spares no reader the understanding deemed fit for the audience by the players so prepared, and where they are subtle, effects may be deeper than the audience suspects.

The book explores several examples in ways that are easily grasped without reference to the films in question, such as L’Intrus, described by Beugnet:

“as the text unravels .. its rhythm also recalls that of irregular breathing or a heartbeat: hurried passages, where a series of short interrogative sentences collide, are followed by clauses using elaborate phrasing and long sentences between parentheses that create suspended moments of reprieve.”

According to Irigaray, the rhythm and shape of a breath in a series of breath can be specific enough in emotional or dramatic content that a breathing pattern can be interpreted as using or showing a syntax of psychological content that contributes directly to an artistic text apart from words spoken in the breath.


The cinematic gaze is elevated compared to the usual audience of a live stage, but to privilege dramatic elements over crude visual control of attention and framing, as film necessarily does to create drama in composition, is not naturally authoritarian, and does not spare the spectator’s gaze a risk of confrontation with the artists looking straight back.

“It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it .. high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….”

Hesitation is not for the audience. It is an illusion in which they are trapped. The timing of confrontation is not then theirs to control, nor would it be if the actors had their way, for the secret to comedy is timing, and the secret to drama is comedy, and the secret to irony is to know your position within the scene and the movement on your part that, in time, completes it.