Sunday, 14 January 2018

bartelby the scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville's 1853 story of the recalcitrant scrivener contains a few lines which well describe the mechanism I should like to focus on here. We are in the territory of projective identification, of what
following the 1938 play / 1944 film became known as 'gaslighting'.

It isn't clear - it isn't determinate - whether Bartleby's obdurance is a function of a depression, of a schizophrenic catatonia, or a personality disorder. Perhaps the first two are more likely, yet the mechanism I have in mind is most often found in the final set of disturbances. Perhaps any lack of realism belongs to our nosology rather than to Melville.

Bartleby's catchphrase is 'I should prefer not to', deployed when asked to do almost anything for which he has been employed, despite this not being a reasonable response. It's unreasonableness is so 'out there' that it radically takes aback the protagonist.
It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason are on the other side.  
Bartleby is a bully; he is emotionally abusive. He is not playing by the rules. But it is hard to credit this. One feels sorry for him. How does he get away with it? It's because the bullying is tacit: Bartleby is passive-aggressive:
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavour charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgement. ... Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence...
Much of the story concerns the un-named protagonist's failures to stand up to this passive resistance.

Later on Bartleby decides to stop working but does not move from the narrator's chambers. That he should even think of doing so is not really commented on - it too remains mute:
The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his deadfall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.
"Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"
"No more."
"And what is the reason?"
"Do you not see the reason for yourself?" he indifferently replied.
A classic borderline strategy! The protagonist helpfully (too helpfully) decides it is due to poor eyesight, and suggests to Bartleby that when he has rested his eyes for a couple of weeks he could get back to work. Naturally, though, Bartleby would prefer not to. 'I'd have thought it was obvious!' is the borderline's way of evading having to express his or her feelings, take any responsibility, feel any guilt. Now their interlocutor is asked to carry the guilt of not noticing what is - allegedly - right before his or her eyes. It buys the borderline time; later they may come up with a rationalisation which gives the alleged content of 'what was obvious'.

This goes to the heart of this kind of emotional abuse. What makes it so abusive is its latent, tacit, background nature - this is how it destroys the heart, the mind, the self-esteem of the abused person. It is the difference between being poisoned in your sleep versus being punched when awake: it takes an extraordinary amount of self-possession to stand up to it. If someone goes to punch you, you know full well that aggression is going on and who is the aggressor. What makes emotional abuse abusive is that it aims to twist the moral fabric of the relationship so that the abused person takes on the sense of blame, shame, inadequacy which the abuser wants to project into them. Nobody wants to believe that this is happening to them, and so they again and again draw on their imagination to invent reasons for their interlocutor's actions. Anything other than judge.

Herman Melville
Further classic borderline strategies are to post-hoc rationalise bad behaviour, to make out that it came from a reasonable intention. Now it is the interlocutor who will be filled with guilt - guilt that they could, as they now see it, have been so judgemental, so presumptuous. Now he or she feels like the aggressor - for isn't it they who have been uncharitable, abusive perhaps, in their estimation of the low moral character of the behaviour? Bartleby is too mute to deploy such a devious strategy, but in real life we find it frequently enough in the actions of the passive-aggressive person.

What Melville's protagonist does, however, is to try everything to make what Bartleby does seem like the actions of a reasonable or decent person. He sees him as suffering; he sees him as traumatised; he sees Bartleby as a valuable test of his own love, as a fortunate opportunity for storing up moral credit, etc. He loses (or perhaps he never had it) his self-possession - and ends up taking chambers elsewhere simply to avoid the problem of removing the squatting Bartleby from his premises. (Such people do tend to squat in our minds.) This gives us a hint as to the only real way to handle passive-aggressive behaviour: a super-human level of self-possession. The question that he should have asked himself is: 'So what if Bartleby would prefer not to do this or that? Do your job or you're fired.' But that's hard to achieve by oneself. Melville gives us another clue, though, as to how to achieve self-belief - you make use of the opinions of 'disinterested persons', and turn 'to them for some reinforcement for [one's] own faltering mind.'

Thursday, 21 December 2017


I'm confused about self. I've got no reflective sense, really, what theorists mean when they talk about self, and no idea what they mean when they deny that there is such a 'thing' as self (I didn't know 'self' was supposed to be the name of a thing to start with). And whilst I've got some sense of what self-consciousness is, in its everyday usage (i.e. getting paralysed with the freakitude of the thought or experience of others observing me), I can't do more than pretend to get to grips with the more philosophical senses of that conjunction. Philosophers and social scientists talk confidently about 'self' as if I ought to know what they take themselves to know - which is the meaning of the word 'self' as it comes out of their mouth. But I just don't know, and I don't want to be the kind of thinker who just gets with the programme and ends up indoctrinated into verbiage - for wouldn't that itself show a regrettable lack of self-possession? But, yikes, what is 'self-possession'?

So I thought I'd start by looking at some of these 'self'-related concepts and maxims. We have 'selfishness', we have 'to thine own self be true', 'knowing thyself', 'self-becoming', 'self-possession'. Can we get a sense of what these mean by giving paraphrases which don't themselves simply trade on an understanding of the word 'self'?

A selfish person and his acquaintance come across 10 blackberries. The selfish person takes more than 5 of these and does not give any of them to the acquaintance - instead he keeps them all. Here, when we say 'keeps them for himself' what we mean is: he keeps them but not in order to give them away later to the acquaintance or anyone else. Here I think it very important that keeping something for yourself does not behave, semantically, just like keeping something for someone else. It is not like keeping something for person A as opposed to person B, where A is as it happens oneself and B is one's acquaintance. What it means is simply keeping something without thought of giving it to someone. And - to not think about and act to meet the needs and wishes of others is to be selfish.

'Know thyself' was inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi - as a bit of fundamental moral advice. What does it mean? I propose that it's unhelpful to think of it as inviting or instructing us to come to know any old facts about ourselves - e.g. to know more about whatever of our character traits. And I doubt that it refers to some other kind of knowledge such as acquaintance - knowing yourself is neither like knowing Geoffrey nor like knowing facts about Geoffrey. For one thing we don't use the concept when talking about our positive qualities; instead we use it when thinking about our unhelpful subconscious habits. So, it's 3am and I'm awake and about to buy something a bit random on Amazon which suddenly seems like a good idea. But wait - if I know myself then I know I'll regret this in the morning. What seemed like a good idea at the time (to drink that extra pint of beer, to buy that gotta-have-it Inca mask on eBay) will later be something I regret. Knowing myself involves not getting carried away by passing passions. And if we accept a psychodynamic account of passing passions - which we should do! - one which views our susceptibility to them as a result of defending against emotional distress and anxiety - then 'knowing thyself' reduces nicely to not defending against emotional distress - i.e. not ignoring but rather embracing inner conflict. For example: I know perfectly well how much I dislike gluttony or gossip but then, driven by the short-term rewards, I just ignore this and start to binge or tattle.

So, 'knowing myself' does not include knowing that I am usually a smart and thoughtful person. It just includes not losing sight of the fact that sometimes I can be a knob-head. But that itself isn't enough - for what really matters here is that the person who knows herself acts according to this knowledge at those times when she is tempted by passing passions.

This takes us to 'To thine own self be true' (Polonius). Do we succeed in taking this advice if we want to go to the toilet and then, by gosh, go to the toilet? I think not. It surely does not mean 'do whatever you find yourself feeling like doing'. (Not even Crowley's law of Thelema means that.) It might implicitly invite us to not pay heed to what others want or need of us - i.e. it might be an invitation to selfishness. But of course if we really do care about others, then one use of 'to thine own self be true' will not exclude our acting to further their interests, since that will be true to what we really want. What I propose it suggests, really, is that we strive to become more self-possessed. And what does that mean?

Self-possession, like self-knowledge, is I think not a relation of possessing or knowing held between oneself and oneself. Once again the phrase is best understood in terms of its antithesis. Thus someone wants for self-possession if they're doing things which are only really what someone else wants. Someone may lack self-possession if they've come under the influence of someone else's will. Yet a slave may be self-possessed: if she resents doing what she is forced to do, and is doing what she knows she wouldn't choose to do were it not for avoiding punishment, then she does not thereby lack self-possession. By contrast if I habitually find myself trying to meet your needs, cleaning up after you, changing my plans for you, deferring to your judgement, automatically acquiescing in your wishes as to what we should do - in such a way that I don't even think about what I would most want to do were I to choose - then I lack self-possession. Self-possession, one might say, involves not being 'possessed' by someone else - it is the lack of this, and not some kind of positive quality in its own right, which makes for it.

Self-becoming can also be seen in this manner. The idea is apt to look peculiar if we import the sense of the conjoined terms from that which they enjoy in other applications. But once we see it as the flourishing of will such that our action is not one of habitual and unreflective servitude - so that one no longer does the things that one's father would have done were he in one's situation, but instead thinks what one truly wants to do - 'for oneself' as we say - then it makes more sense. I become myself when I lose the loss of self-possession; I become a true agent.

Self-consciousness. If I am completely by myself, thinking about my proclivities or the smallness of my biceps, I am unlikely to feel self-conscious. (And, nb, self-consciousness truly is a feeling.) Yet self-consciousness is not simply an awareness that someone is looking at us, nor even an awareness that someone is judging us. For we can have both of those without yet feeling self-conscious. Self-consciousness amounts to shyness (which itself is a disastrously under-studied phenomenon). Rather than be able to express oneself naturally, the sense that others would judge what they see is paralysing. Again, it's important to note that I may feel that someone is judging me yet not be in the least self-conscious - this happens when I'm not shy, when I'm confidently going about my business - when I do not fear their judgement, when I'm self-confident (i.e. not intimidated).

At the end of this little enquiry I think I've created a little bulwark against the question 'what is the self?' I might reply 'well, 'self' can no doubt mean whatever you want it to mean'. Yet one of the key things that the word 'self' does, in everyday discourse, is, rather than reference any kind of thing (this person here as opposed to that person there), to specify the absence of a phenomenon. Thus I am not (as it were) 'possessed' by someone (I am 'self-possessed'); I am not deluded (I have 'self-knowledge'); I am not generous or fair (I am 'self-ish'); I am not deploying defence mechanisms (I 'know myself'); I am not socially confident (I am 'self-conscious'); I am not doubting what I can do (I have 'self-belief'); I do not cast doubt on my worth (I evince 'self-acceptance' and 'self-esteem'); I am not plagued by thoughts of others judging my behaviour (I am 'self-confident' so can act naturally). Very often it seems to work to specify the absence of: a particular kind of relation to others (self-possession; self-confidence; selfishness; self-employment; self-catering; self-service) or of psychological defences (self-knowledge) or of change (selfsameness). No doubt it works in other ways too, and it would be nice to know how unified a story we can tell of these ways.


Addendum: I have just read this in Rowan Williams' 'Know Thyself': What Kind of an Injunction?:

If we were to ask: 'How might we 'test' for self-knowledge in ourselves or others' it looks as if the answer might lie in trying to deal with questions like 'Is there a pattern of behaviour here suggesting an unwillingness to learn or to be enlarged?' Or 'Is there an obsessive quality to acts of self-presentation (in speech especially) that would indicate a fixed and defended image of needs that must be met for this self to sustain its position or power?' or 'Is there a refusal to deal verbally or imaginatively with the limits of power - ultimately with mortality?' In other words, we do not look first for acquaintance with any particular vocabulary of 'self-analysis' (we don't test for information). This may be a rather banal observation, so philosophically obvious as not to need saying. But in a culture where self-help books about self-knowledge , not least of a religious tinge, abound, we may well need reminding that a person may be possessed of a fluent vocabulary, well able to plot him- or herself on the charts of temperament and attrait and to retell their biography in the idiom of fashionable psychobabble, and yet continue to act in a way that seems to deny the recognition of mortality and the necessary ironies that go with it.


Further addendum: I've just read this from Augustine (On the Trinity) in Richard Sorabji's book on Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death. Augustine, we are told, wrote that when the mind ‘is ordered to know itself, let it not seek itself as though withdrawn from itself, but let it withdraw what it has added to itself.’

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

on the fragility of sanity

ok... an ox not a horse...

Today I read this in Wittgenstein's Culture and Value:

I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse's good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

madness as the last means of saving life

Reading an essay by Andrew Brook and Christopher Young today reminded me of Schopenhauer's view of psychosis from The World as Will and Representation (vol 1; originally published 1818):
Now if such a sorrow, such painful knowledge or reflection, is so harrowing that it becomes positively unbearable, and the individual would succumb to it, then nature, alarmed in this way, seizes upon madness as the last means of saving life. The mind, tormented so greatly, destroys, as it were, the thread of memory, fills up the gaps with fictions, and thus seeks refuge in madness from the mental suffering that exceeds its strength. 
The position, as Brook and Young ably describe, is fundamental to Freud in Neurosis and Psychosis (1924), and intuitively compelling to boot.
In regard to the genesis of delusions, a fair number of analyses have taught us that the delusion is found applied like a patch over the place where originally a rent had appeared in the ego’s relation to the external world. If this precondition of a conflict with the external world is not much more noticeable to us than it now is, that is because, in the clinical picture of the psychosis, the manifestations of the pathogenic process are often overlaid by manifestations of an attempt at a cure or a reconstruction.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

now i know what i feared

In The Blue Book (dictated 1933-34) Wittgenstein notes that whilst we sometimes feel afraid of something particular ('transitive' fear), at other times we may just feel afraid full stop ('intransitive' fear; I suspect this is essentially the same as 'anxiety' - the distinction between fear and anxiety will become important later). In considering an example of the latter he asks whether we do well to represent it to ourselves with 'I am afraid of something, but I don't know of what?'. 'Consider this case', he says (25-6):
we have a general undirected feeling of fear. Later on we have an experience which makes us say, "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening". Is it correct to describe my first feeling by an intransitive verb, or should I say that my fear had an object although I did not know that it had one? Both these forms of description can be used.
And, to help us grasp the legitimacy of this latitude, he invites us to 'examine the following example':
It might be found practical to call a certain state of decay in a tooth, not accompanied by what we commonly call toothache, "unconscious toothache" and to use in such a case the expression that we have toothache, but don't know it. It is in just this sense that psychoanalysis talks of unconscious thoughts, acts of volition, etc.
Now is it wrong in this sense to say that I have toothache but don't know it? There is nothing wrong about it, as it is just a new terminology and can at any time be retranslated into ordinary language. ... But the new expression misleads us by calling up pictures and analogies which make it difficult for us to go through with our convention. ...
Thus, by the expression "unconscious toothache" you may either be misled into thinking that a stupendous discovery has been made, a discovery which in a sense altogether bewilders our understanding; or else you may be extremely puzzled by the expression (the puzzlement of philosophy) and perhaps ask such a question as "How is unconscious toothache possible?"
You may then be tempted to deny the possibility of unconscious toothache; but the scientist will tell you that it is a proved fact that there is such a thing, and he will say it like a man who is destroying a common prejudice. He will say: "Surely it's quite simple; there are other things which you don't know of, and there can also be toothache which you don't know of. It is just a new discovery".
Here Wittgenstein is offering a deflationary answer to the question 'Are we right to talk of 'unconscious fears and desires'?' We feel an undirected sensation of fear or longing. If you ask us 'What of or for?' we may either reply i) 'of or for nothing' or say ii) 'I don't know what of or for'. Wittgenstein invites us to draw an equivalence between these utterances: we can say what we like, although it's best of course if we don't then go on to mislead ourselves about what we mean by what we say.

How might we mislead ourselves if we talked in one or the other way? Well, we might think that i) and ii) contrast in that the fear of i) supposedly has no object, whilst ii) supposedly has an unknown object. When we consider the toothache analogy, however, we're not drawn to think that there is any difference between there here being what we call 'unconscious toothache' and 'tooth decay but thankfully no toothache'. And we can then usefully extend our grasp of this to the case of not knowing what we fear.

The analogy is unfortunate if pushed in an unhelpful direction. One unhelpful direction is that which makes objects (the intentional objects of intentional attitudes - fearing etc.) equivalent to causes. What causes toothache is tooth decay; toothache is not about or of tooth decay. What causes my fear may however be pretty much of a piece with what my fear is of (a tiger's chasing me, say, and a tiger's biting me). Yet there's no reason to push it in that direction, and every reason to think that Wittgenstein would not have wanted us to do that.

We may also distinguish between two forms of undirected feelings of fear. In one case I later discover that earlier I had, say, unwittingly ingested a large quantity of caffeine. In the other case I later 'have an experience which makes [me] say, "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening".' The first of these cases provides a cause but no object for the undirected fear. The latter case may make us want to revise our description of undirectedness ... but, nota bene, this would be a non-compulsory decision on our part.  For we could, after all, equally say that an undirected feeling of fear which yet had a certain cause but no object has turned into a directed feeling of fear where the object now coincides with the cause.

This provides one way in which we may after all want to talk of a non-equivalence between there being nothing which a fear was of and someone not knowing what particular something he was afraid of. By this I mean: we could use our distinguishing between such cases to give life to a distinction between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. And not: we can use an already-intuitively-grasped distinction between knowing and there being nothing to know to accurately depict such cases.

We would not want to talk of knowing what we were afraid of in the caffeine case; instead we would just talk of knowing what made us afraid. However this is not to disagree with Wittgenstein's important suggestion that knowledge and what is known are not here, in the case of unconscious fear, to be understood along the model of knowing or not knowing that there is, say, a tiger chasing you.

What are the conditions of intelligibility for talk of having had an experience which we are happy later to further describe with "Now I know what I was afraid of. I was afraid of so-and-so happening"? I propose that we can only understand this as recovery from an agnosia or as de-repression. In proposing that we can only understand objectful yet object-unavowable fear as agnosia or repression I intend a conceptual, not an empirical, thesis. The claim is that it's unintelligible to suggest that one had a feeling with an 'unknown' object unless one's prepared to posit a mental blockage of a neurological or psychodynamic sort. Absent such a defeater on an ascription of the capacity to avow the object and the claim that there was an object all along, and not simply a cause, becomes - I'm claiming - unsustainable.

Consider the difference between the caffeine case and the repression case (my fear with repressed 'knowledge of my fear's object'). In the former case our understanding does not belong to psychology in the sense that it is not to be understood in terms of my psychology. There is nothing about caffeine which scares me - which is not to say that it does not have specific chemical properties which cause me to become anxious. There is however something about my boss walking in with that de haut en bas expression on his face which freaks me out. Unpacking this aboutness necessarily invokes mention of my distinctly psychological states: thus he reminds me of my beloved yet infuriatingly haughty father. Our understanding of my reaction is of a sort which belongs uniquely to the intelligibility of our human lives; it makes human sense to you why I reacted as I did.

Without my fear belonging in this way to my psychology, without it being the kind of thing to which meaningful understanding may be brought to bear, it is - I suggest - impossible to sustain a meaningful distinction between it and objectless anxiety. This marks an important difference between repression and agnosia which explains why, in the case of agnosia, the decision to speak of a 'fear with an unknown object' truly does seem as optional as the decision to talk of unfelt tooth decay as 'unconscious toothache'. Whilst we are not compelled by the facts to talk of recovered repression cases as involving a fear of something we know not what rather than as involving a fear which only becomes objectful at the moment of de-repression, we are yet surely more moved to talk here in the former way than we are in the case of the agnosia. In the agnosic case it seems truly arbitrary to us whether we talk of our intention as having or as not having an object.

Wittgenstein, I think, here and elsewhere tends to underestimate the conceptual significance of denial (and motivational dynamics more generally) for the logic of psychodynamic forms of unconsciousness. None of this is intended to contradict his apt deprecation of an assimilation of the logic either of the knowledge or of the objecthood of unconscious emotion (emotion with an unconscious object) to such cases as our knowing what's in the cupboard. Instead it's intended as a protest at his assimilation of the logic of the dynamic unconscious of psychoanalysis to the merely descriptive unconscious of psychology, an assimilation which disguises the way in which reference to disavowal as opposed to disability motivates us in an inclination to preserve the objecthood and not merely the causality of such unconscious emotion.

Ten or so years after he dictated The Blue Book Wittgenstein completed part 1 of the Philosophical Investigations. In sections which bear comparison to his earlier offerings (except for being about a 'visual room' rather than 'unconscious toothache') he has it that (401):
You have a new conception and interpret it as seeing a new object. You interpret a grammatical movement made by yourself as a quasi-physical phenomenon which you are observing. ... But there is an objection to my saying that you have made a 'grammatical' movement. What you have discovered is a new way of looking at things. As if you had invented a new way of painting; or, again, a new metre, or a new kind of song.-
This takes us closer to the idea that we cannot easily and without loss translate psychoanalytic discourse into ordinary language in the way that the comparison with unconscious toothache suggests. Freud is indeed wrong to think that he has discovered that emotion may in fact be unconscious, rather than discovered how driven we are by what we may call 'unconscious emotion'. In this sense psychoanalysis really is 'a new kind of song'. Yet if we accept that it truly is 'a new way of looking at things' (or an alternative set of 'rules of representation') we risk succumbing to another temptation - the temptation to imagine that the 'things' looked at can readily be specified independently of this 'new way' (or of the 'rules') - as if we are here looking at the same things (x, y, z) in different ways.

Freud did not just invent a new way of talking, nor merely make empirical discoveries about the causes of certain behaviours and illnesses. To change the object for our metaphor of a 'new kind of song' away from the psychoanalytic discourse to the unconscious itself: Freud provided for us a new way of listening, a way of listening which enables us to hear a song we've sung for a long time, yet a song to which we've previously been so habituated that we couldn't distinguish it from silence.