Posts Tagged ‘gender’

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.

Concubines and Amazons

February 14, 2013

At one time, “when there was little contact with the outside world or with China, the Japanese people thought a leopard was a female tiger…”


Is it the shape of the torso, the way hair is worn, voice timbre, muscular apportionment?

If you can’t have a concubine without hinting that an amazon is coiling to spring, that is an active metaphor, an engine of incomplete desires that practically writes its own poetry. Femininity is an impersonal juggernaut in that respect, one that can exploit the language of gender conventions to dance around the concept of masculinity.

The feminine seems radical in its relationship with the transformative, embodying inversions and attempting appropriations of the masculine as a way of recognizing, or stress testing, what is unique about men among women.

A Greek in Alexandria admired
this in a dervish, his sensuality.
More illicit than yours, nightly tired
in the arms of strangers,
“Pleasure itself enjoys his blood,” he wrote.

The green sea in our bay is a moral element.
Sailors know her dice are always loaded;
quick to judge and clear in ascertainment,
even handed and respectful of talent.
You headed into her paladin intrigues

among sleeping sharks and nesting eels, every
ordeal complete in turn. She did not blind you, fatigue
couldn’t catch you, trailing you by a league.
The workshop of the sea furnishes love
every breath, communion with the heady sky

above, busy with intentions toward the water,
fluency in the shapes of fish, their
movements and resting places, an
urge to sail over unmeasured
mysteries, touching just their surfaces.

Putting either gender on a pedestal at the expense of the other means asking for trouble. If system as defined by dualism were an organic mutation it would spit bile at birth until dead. But there is a sinusoidal boundary snaking between them in symbol and myth.

Philosophy’s childish little charmer Montaigne claims that stature is the only kind of beauty at hazard in the lottery of birthrights among men. Set a woman on high and she won’t be bothered to jeopardize her ankles, even if it was the heels that got your attention.

Virginia Woolf pegged the pessimistic critic of all domestic affairs “the angel in the house,” arguing the voice of negativity chooses a feminine persona. The angel looks to have fat miniature wings because schoolteachers and housekeeepers only flatter each other’s tacky jokes in subversive little forays of spite. But what can you do when your job is to dust the “negative space” of the built environment, the quiet parts kept cozy for rest and relaxation?

“When you love you have an indefinite lease of it. When you approve you only approve single acts,” warns Silvia Plath about mothering. Today’s mother has an unfunded mandate to talk about, for fulfilling her personal ambitions and desires, yet she is less often hysterically frustrated for all this self-absorption. She is not limited to being “unrelated instead of independent; compulsive instead of energetic .. hostile but not legitimately angry” any more.


Not by natural force, just by the ample embrace of a convenience lifestyle announced to her at an impressionable age by her built environment, and the complacency it inspires. Yet it is well put how Jane Wheelwright warns that a woman seems “objectionable instead of objecting” if she feels put up against a wall on every side for having an ego of her own, left no stamina for finishing a single thought.

No wonder the inherited (albeit invented) tradition of attributing to one’s gendered identity-group no apparent capability for cogency, a convincing “less than” among men familiar with the means of public discourse and curt about its innate limitations, rather than fascinated by the traction they give to a rhetorical skateboarding act. A know-nothing card for every occasion.

In literary adaptation, women who flee the domesticity-mongering of marriageable men for the company of wolves can hardly be distinguished from the furies in the poetry of sublimated jealousy – as if they cared when war would seek out havoc over rhetoric.

“O Earth, unhappy planet born to die,
What wonders must you not relate to me
.. you have not learned in all these years
To tell the leopard and the newt apart;”

“let him twist, and ape
.. – his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing ..
where, in pious rape
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
.. I shall not even force him to confess;

– Both Edna St. Vincent Millay

A very constant alibi, worn under the bra but not invisible exactly, the shirt is a bit displaced.

Her unmarried protégés “investigated; they disarranged” and called it breaking gendered glass ceilings and breaking taboos at the same time. Child, don’t. Advocating experimenting with the forbidden because it’s forbidden, violating contracts and secretly reneging on requests out of prurient interest in the pea, information hoarding is asymmetry and the social transition sits its little fence, catty and snide.

Sphinx, what are you hiding where? Blood is for writing in, as far as love poets are concerned with the spilling of it. Getting a scribble in while the blood was wet must have been enough for them.

One imagines the writers in social science somehow lost traction with the lived experience around their gendered assumptions. Their job in thinking through the group dynamics of everyday life was robbed of much gendered significance, working with a diminishing pool of rude metaphors in currency or palpable innuendo in contemporary expressions.

The gears let all slip through their teeth when it was down to “kind and very clean without ostentation .. has no imagination” as opposed to “feathers and torn taffeta .. but she is not kind.” Duller than a great thaw. Don’t play dumb, there’s a hidden meaning in that, be belligerently obtuse and try to get diagnosed on your day in court.

There would be an origin story about how “traditional” gender roles came to be entrenched. People peddling these stories as theory need to be reminded that taste applies in science as well as art. The art of governing unfolds in public in the good old-fashioned blur of theatricality without genre that lives among us.

Just So stories are either morality tales or comedies, and anything short of a dirty joke is likely to render the topic painfully political and irreverent. Politics, after all, is just the anecdotal style of tragedy and comedy.


A poet with a love of concretisms would warn against letting “love’s spaciousness” invade the nature of all manner of things, even petty garden pots.

There “love’s gibberelllic wish” would add monstrously ambitious means to the pitiful ends of “the great world’s flowering.” It is a trite comedy if potting soil marketing has come to this, eminently plausible, politic, very possible to read the nicest thing between the lines:

“.. if love goes leaking
outward, ..
Deliver us from its giant gardening, from walking
all over the earth with no rest from its disproportion.”

– Elizabeth Bishop

Some theorists speculate that in primitive human social groups, hierarchical culture defined men’s values, and a more egalitarian culture applied to women’s, that the first prizes egoistic achievements like military valor, the other trying to minimize pain while relying on agreements (such as trading) for comfort and convenience.

As if it were up to women to tempt men into noticing sensation, seeking out luxury, or liking pleasure.

If a mast could be a tree and
flower, if its boughs could bend with the wind
and sing a little with the birds, your hand
would be pursed leaves twinned
on either side of the fruit’s stem, bright skinned
and long limbed, perfectly symmetrical.
You were meant to shadow purple finned
porpoise and roseate pandora and pull
the secrets from the sea and its jewel caves.

Your body is not so many parts to me.
Biceps femoris, sternum, radius,
every outline in your flesh seems to be
drawn without lifting the pencil,
anxious to say something,
precious in the immediacy
of feeling and the completeness
of every conscious movement. Your smile
is felt in your curving shoulder’s cusp,
trapezius, tender, knowing.

Fear of pleasure, skepticism of beauty, and the conviction that work by definition entails steeling oneself to sacrificial pain are built into the Stoic tradition, into law and citizenship in ways that show to this day. There’s a reason.

For those who have no gentler sense of humor than to address cruelty to all the things that bore them or make them feel ignored, pleasure and affection aren’t that hard to weaponize themselves.

You can impose an artificial scarcity, manipulate someone’s locus of control by making them experience contrived futility from striving, tantalize them even as a punishment, trade on their trust to make them internalize negative self-evaluations and deepen their sense of exclusive dependency on you for emotional support, or use a non-reactive demeanor to make them feel ignored while you study them for other vulnerabilities to exploit.

There are alternatives, and if your fear of pleasure runs deep enough, you may be more conscientious about pursuing some of its more convincing substitutes. In this paper on the neuroscience of pleasure, Siri Leknes and Irene Tracey argue that because the pleasure and pain-relief circuitry in the brain runs roughly in parallel, the conceptual referents those neurochemicals address with enthusiasm are easily confused, enmeshed and contested at the same time.

One can become accustomed to substituting pleasure for the satisfactions of achievement, or vice versa, while calling them by one another’s names from not having noticed which is which, or in what ways they already mingle in ordinary experiences that don’t feel like premeditated indulgences (to gratify the ego, or the senses). 

If someone were socialized to pursue one and not the other, they might not really guess what they were missing. Even if they were habitually on the look out for newfangled pastimes out of “fear of missing out.”

Maybe repression only succeeds in sharpening the knife, and it becomes stupid not to try and beat cupid at sport. You liberate a woman and, suddenly free to take the use of soft power for granted, magic explodes with uncharacteristic disorder that makes little of its scope for enlightening fantasy. Maybe mustached hypnotists and sorcerers are an at large Greek chorus resorting to extreme measures, trying to fend off the neighbors with thinly veiled satire.

And all writers just like a turn of phrase, whichever way it take the sentiment to better strike a note. If Shakespeare’s lovers frighten the word out of its right sense, the poets of Sapphic tradition frighten Aphrodite, she gives pause in the bedroom:

“All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
Stood and beheld me” (Swinburne 1925).

Maybe it’s not all that strange for whole periods of the history of civilization to have tried anyone suspected of involvement, seduction. Go out the front door, see what happens, die in public, on the curb just there. Enough, that’s an easy one, you bluster now and with such little words, “I can imagine” that, too obvious.

(Inside you tremble to have homey, private denial interrupted, fact huddled upon fact.) So. Hello to madness, nevermind despair. There are no bystanders, my mind does not exist to those who supposedly “stand by” for they stand incuriously, this is make-believe. The ideal kept alive in rumor is preserved as one considered high and formidable.

whistlerAnd the Symphony in F? “F, F, F … Fool.” – Whistler

No sense of proportion, no respect for their own right to want to live, to enjoy elbow room. Everything has to be more drastic than that to come close.

At least some fear of consequence must inhabit the person to be feared. They are so afraid, of being enslaved by any touch less cold than the seat of a toilet. Afraid enough to be badly forgetful.

Concretization can flummox an effort to describe what’s in front of your face without belying the continuity of fluid dynamics in a world that suffers solids only as optical illusions and lived experiences in mentionable collision, incident.

Man vs. nature

July 9, 2012

The main metaphor for nature is not gender, but metaphors as commonplace as nature and gender cross paths often enough to mislead. The feminine aspect of the natural world is popular.

But it wants ornament, despite being doubly confined to the admired pedestal of that which is not for everyday use in life. One can tell this is from one of Tennyson’s satires better if you elide the distractingly vivid “Wind oozing thin through the thorn ..”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view ..

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

The pastorale brought to life in symphonies like Creation is a flattery of fairy tales far more violent in their action than a country scene with listeners relieved from mundane indoor chores, the coarse chains of love labors in domestic life, distractedly soaking in the fresh air, exposed and at risk of pneumonia only when they take a walk in dark weather to the full sound and weight of rain, because they could not be persuaded to wait out the weather, they were above persuasion on the day.


Pop culture’s sense of history is similar. Of mass movements we want the stuff of The Chicago Poems, metaphors for mountains, horizons overburdened with stars,

.. the beach where the long push under the endless tide maneuvers ..

.. pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children ..

Of cities, we want images of artisans, always in action and working as at play in the metals, and someone bigger, also industrious, who works and brawls under the wicked reputation of the city, in smoke, and “dust all over his mouth, laughing .. under the terrible burden of destiny” unselfconsciously. He should not know better than to be remorseless, for he does work hard.

If we are to notice anything in multitudes, we want something less fragile than a crowding of kinds of life in rainforests’ canopies or the liminal subsurface that waits on disturbance, needs the air, but withstands only enough disturbance to bring air below by the breath, by the pocket. The jungle frightens us with long shadows that belie worthless soil underfoot driving all life toward the clouds in search of better nourishment. Response to the soil’s strangling, under the last business cycles of field cultivation, is disdained.

Instead we want simplicity when we imagine great amounts, the idea of an endless supply of any certain thing, and metaphors for rain, constancy, the monotone:

.. the sudden rise and slow relapse
Of the long multitudinous rain.

.. fire and gold of sky and sea,
And the peace of long warm rain.

The suburb with its books of pressed fairies is a complaint, that this flattery was not cunning enough to fool those who can afford to leave the slum, and at a safe distance, plant pasture where nothing comes of growth. They were not fooled out of their boredom with the advantages that make indifference defensible. They are not even committed enough to find boredom melancholy and so succumb to the greater interests of madness.


There’s always violence. Interest pervades the scene of a crime, reanimates the landscape sparsely traveled by birds and feral cattle between the mesas and the scrubby flats beyond a rainshadow, when a stagecoach robbery is to be staged, or a nuclear experiment conducted with stadium seating for secondary hypothesis testing.

A hurricane creek in drylands is a storyteller who knows only outlaw ballads, making miniature rapids in the heat to show up the hikers and outlaws. Even without seawater, far from the nesting grounds of any crocodiles, the white water menaces, never quite too shallow to drown someone. Take Roderic Quinn’s The Fisher.

The mangroves drooped on salty creeks,
And through the dark,
Making a pale patch in the deep,
Gleamed, as it swam, ..

The bream went by, and where they passed
The bubbles shone like beads.


No lost wind wandered down the hills
To tell of wide
Wild waterways; on velvet moved
The silky, sucking tide.

.. stars burned large and still.

The fisher, dreaming on the rocks,
Upon the beaten way,
.. stood entranced, enchained by her

In geologic time, the cross-section of a ridge carved cleanly in relief for paved switchbacks is a record of violent overthrows conducted by faceless giants, detailed in many volumes by John McPhee. Good country for driving.


A mirror carefully staged finds us in the same scene as nature. The same as we always are, only definitely right there in the epic landscape, since the horizon is accessible by a shortcut. There is a trail to the vantage point, you can be seen from below. You can make being seen there look like an accident for camera.

And seeing yourself in the landscape you deferred to as too natural to admit traffic, even your own everyday smile isn’t good enough, so if you cannot convey enough respect for the unconstructed wealth of the opposite of civilization’s accomplished facts, you retreat into another subject.

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,

You stay out of the picture finder’s frame, put certain pebbles in your pockets that come in at least four kinds of brown, remember the other two are reserved for horses you have never met. They were innocently named, ideas “displayed, without intention, in the act” of naming what was there to be mentioned, not shades of brown parsed out with descriptive adjectives in a disaffected struggle “with the communicative significance of words.”

You limit your Christmas letter mementos to uncultivated apples and a still life with driftwood, or a pool that seems uninterested in polishing wood. A pool where a still life can humble the stage manager for trying too hard to include driftwood in the composition, because you can relate to that and would’ve hoped it would look more natural.