The Ubiquity of Contempt

I’m about to talk about feelings. So, if you don’t like to talk about feelings, read something else.

OK. So, I really don’t have anything to say about Spring Breakers. I haven’t seen it. I’ve even tried to avoid thinking about it. But today, I let myself follow a link in an email from the Daily Beast to this piece, which includes a short debate, between Marlow Stern and Ramin Setoodeh, about the relative merits and demerits of the film. Their debate didn’t actually make me more interested in the film. Instead, what interested me was how Stern characterized Harmony Korine’s approach to filmmaking as contemptuous. He betrays a kind of contempt for the viewer. Setoodeh confessed that this contempt—which apparently oozes through the medium of the film and into the emotional world of the viewer—is precisely what he hated about the film. He seemed to be meeting Korine’s contempt, and matching it. Stern, on the other hand, seemed unperturbed by it. The overall aesthetic effect of the film was pleasing enough that he didn’t mind being treated contemptuously. I have to admit, I admire Stern’s cool remove and sense of blase. I find contempt the most difficult of all affects to deal with and I felt an immediate emotional solidarity with Setoodeh.

It made me think of my intense and groundless hatred of David Lynch’s films. I have nothing of real substance to say about his work. I never had much of a problem with Twin Peaks. I didn’t love it. But I was able to tolerate it. I recognized its merits. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, left me feeling so emotionally violated that I’ve had to excise myself from discussions of it on more than one occasion because I simply end up churning out flimsy and unfounded criticisms. Sure, I can see its beauty. I’m just entirely incapable of dealing with Lynch’s manipulation of me, and contempt for me. For me as the generic “viewer.” Yes, I take it personally. It does something totally undesirable to my emotional world that I feel it necessary to deflect. 

Look, I recognize that contempt is merely one human affective state among a host of affective possibilities. Years ago, I read Stuart Walton’s A Natural History of Human Emotions and found his parsing of disgust and contempt helpful. Disgust, as he described it, hovers somewhere between an emotion and a simple physiological reaction. Disgust is, he says, “a visceral, corporeal reaction to negative external stimuli.” (87) I understand disgust. I often feel disgusted. When I become aware of something that disgusts me, I test myself to see if I can resist that disgust (incidentally, for those who don’t know, there’s been a lot of talk about the possible correlation of disgust sensitivity and conservative politics). Contempt, as Walton describes it, is a bit more refined and subtle. To treat someone with contempt, he says, “is to regard them with scorn, and at the same time hardly to regard them at all.” Contempt oscillates “between a desire to ignore the offending individual, and the desire to make it plain to him how worthless he is.” (207) Where disgust is something that betrays the body’s own limits, contempt is more like a relational engineering tactic. After reading Walton’s book, I recall coming to the conclusion that I saw a viable place for every emotion he discussed—disgust, anger, whatever—except for contempt. I still couldn’t quite grasp contempt. I couldn’t see clearly enough what function it served. I couldn’t make any sense of its function in the ecology of human emotions. I wanted contempt to disappear.

I won’t pretend that I’ve never treated anyone with contempt—as if I am somehow mystified by contempt because I’ve just never embodied it, or experienced it. I am probably ignorant of my own displays of contemptuousness. Perhaps they are myriad. I’m not discounting that possibility. I am simply confused by its function. The experience of disgust does something real in the body. Letting a shudder of disgust pass through me gives the illusion of some kind of cleansing: the illusion of purity. The experience of anger does something else, but it also allows for a critical kind of release. When anger bursts an emotional state open, the emotions are often left there—opened, more vulnerable, ready for some kind of reconstrual. It seems to me that contempt’s function is more superfluous, more superficial. By using language, and the body, to make another body feel worthless and ignored, contempt serves to lift the contemptuous person up. But this is such a trivial and fragile leap. If given the conscious choice, how many people would choose to lift themselves up onto a throne of worthlessness? 

Am I missing something about contempt? Have I gotten it entirely wrong? Help me with this. Change my mind about contempt. Really, I wouldn’t mind thinking differently about contempt. Because I am convinced that we are living not in the age of irony, but in the age of contempt. Often, what passes for irony might otherwise be called a performance of contempt. It’s everywhere. It’s layered into the tone of critique and commentary, sustaining its very cleverness. Contempt is just under the surface of almost everything I read in the blogosphere. It appears in little bursts in social media. We go to theaters to bask in it, and perhaps (also) to achieve something else if we’re able to deflect it. In a culture with an absurd distribution of wealth, where most assets are effectively owned by a tiny percentage of the population, we can build ourselves up on the crumbs of contempt. We can live like royalty on the little thrones built of someone else’s pangs of worthlessness. Do you think it’s possible to abstain from contempt? Would this be delusion, or folly?

29 thoughts on “The Ubiquity of Contempt

  1. It depends on the class background I feel. Your portrayal of contempt as a fragile building up of ourselves in a kind of performative pecking order describes the (vanishing) social distinction of the middle classes. For the upper classes contempt is the very real/costly material distance between them and others.

  2. It seems that the real homeland of contempt is the U.K., which supports ambzone’s contention that it’s a class-based emotion. So much of British humor is really cruel and demeaning in a way that is very hard for Americans to pull off, and I think it’s the contempt element that does it.

  3. Since your dwelling on contempt originated from a film—although one you haven’t seen—it might be useful to recall that a large part of the most successful contemporary art films display an impressive and intrinsic contempt for the viewer (like in Haneke, Von Trier, etc.), in what could be appropriately called a school of contempt or perhaps—invoking an important text from film criticism—a matrix of abjection

    Another disturbing hypothesis crossed my mind while reading your post: the feeling of contempt might be what is left when you are powerlessly facing a torturer or one of those ruthless executers of power. We do know how consciously avoiding the recognition of someone one knows is a grave offense to them. I always had the impression politics started with how and if you acknowledge people in the street. Curiously, I would say you don’t find the feeling of contempt so much in the literature of the camps…

  4. I think that’s helpful, Andre. The term “school of contempt” seems totally apt. I agree with what Adam and ambzone are underscoring here: that it’s an emotion dependent upon class distinctions. But I think the reason for this, perhaps, is because there’s something inherent in the asymmetry of power relations that enables or feeds contempt. The directors of contempt do more than just illustrate contempt, they perform it. Part of what makes this so effective is their incredible social power (their financing, their reputations).

    It’s interesting that you describe the feeling of contempt as what’s perceived when you’re facing one of these ruthless executors of power. It makes me realize the extent to which contempt, while it’s an emotion that’s exercised by one person (let’s say, the person with greater social power or the person who’s aiming for greater social power) it actually seems to be felt by the person who is the object of contempt. Almost as if the executor exports the emotion.

  5. I think what’s behind my own sense that the film is contemptuous is Lynch’s meticulous entanglement of female sexuality and violence. The women in this film are conscripted into a situation in which their limited power is the power to do violence to one another. They are like violent puppets whose sensual bodies are used to make this violence erotic. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether Lynch is stimulating or tantalizing his audience with these portrayals or whether he is providing the conditions for some kind of critique. The confounding structure of the film, which plays with the lines between the real and the unreal so exhaustively, seems to leave these questions functionally unanswerable. This allows Lynch as artist, as creative genius, to abscond and hover in some kind of illuminated, excessive, amoral space outside of critique. It’s the way that the structure of the film creates this protected space for him that strikes me as contemptuous. It puts me, as the feminist viewer, into the position of moralistic groveling realist while Lynch is illuminated, beyond good and evil.

  6. Interesting. Not being a woman, I’ve not experienced the film from a woman’s perspective. However, for me, the film is really a tragedy that invites us, or me at any rate, to identify with and suffer alongside the female protagonist–for Lynch has given us a unique point of access to her inner experience by representing her fall in the language of her subconsious before we are told the factual reality : a woman who, powerless as you said, was forced to realize her own mediocrity when the deceit of Hollywood’s idealistic life was exposed. Having comitted an unspeakable crime which she desires to forget, she (in the dream) takes refuge in the last, and highly compact at that, vestiges of hope, idealism and wonder that characerize the innocence of childhood and youth. But she can’t escape what she has done, and it bubbles to the surface. We too, as the audience, are forced to viscerally experience the tragedy of her wasted life.

    I suppose that’s contemptuous as you (and others) intend the term? For me, it was deeply moving and sad. But I never felt as though I were being deceived or made to suffer for the sheer sake of exploring that feeling (as perhaps we are made do in certain scenes of Blue Velvet, for example).

  7. I won’t pretend like my critique of the film is grounded in anything but a kind of visceral, almost physical, experience of revulsion and anger I got from watching it. And one of the reasons I dislike getting into discussions about it is that it’s a film beloved by many (many who, I’ll also say, have not responded with counter-readings as graciously as you have here). I’ve been told that I just don’t “get it” (“it” being Lynch’s filmmaking technique), and I’ve noted that the discussions I’ve had about the film often end up in some infinite regress of contempt. At any rate, I’m sure that there are many, many women whose experience of watching this film was quite different. But I do think that part of what aggravated me about the film was precisely this pretension that this male director is facilitating access to the inner experience of a woman… while, at the same time, the women in the film also remain these rather empty vessels – sometimes without anything so recognizable as a functional identity – on which (and through which) orchestrated violence plays out. Is Lynch creating a story in which we suffer alongside women? Or is this a world where violence against women is erotic (where the sexualized bodies of women, themselves, are performing this violence)? The fact that I can’t really assemble a response to this (because the structure of the film confounds my attempts to make sense of it in any customary manner) is what gives me the feeling that I’ve been treated with contempt, perhaps even a kind of misogynistic contempt.

  8. See, I’m pretty sure Lynch isn’t putting you in any position. The way you go about watching films seems to be what is putting you in a “position of moralistic grovelling” I guess I just don’t understand when anyone feels contempt coming from a work of art—I see myself as having power to interpret or turn it off, stop reading it, etc. Turn misogynist art (if it’s that) into a lesson in misogyny if that interests you—though isn’t that forcing the artist into a position of moralistic grovelling?

  9. correction: if one feels contempt (which I haven’t experienced, perhaps because I’m a white straight male) from a work of art, isn’t it muted by the power to turn it off, stop reading, reinterpret, etc.

  10. I would very much like to know what Beatrice thinks of Lars von Trier, who arouses in me a counter-contempt which may well be based on an apprehension – which not everyone shares, or is apparently troubled by – of his own saturating contemptuousness. Or it may well not; there is such a thing as projection after all.

  11. Beatrice… was kidding, as I am surely full of utter contempt for so much these days, as those unlucky enough to have asked to follow me on twitter can see (twitter is where my worst part of me is exorcised… and I keep up with old friends!).

  12. Not sure if I believe this – I am filled with contempt only a daily basis, debilitatingly (being Australian though) – but an attempt to defend contempt.

    Liberal pluralism says something like, don’t feel or enact your criticisms; tolerate what you judge to be wrong or bad (Kant’s ‘criticize but obey’). Anti-liberal politics, in the Carl Schmitt vein, says: there are only friends and enemies. Qua enemy, you must not engage the enemy directly, but the enemy must know that they are the enemy. If I am uninterested in something, it is insufficient to show disinterest; you need to know that I am directing my interest elsewhere (an open secret).

    Contempt is not just class warfare, but warfare by classification. It is ‘schooling’ the other.

  13. Ha, APS, Don’t worry, I’m totally not going to pull a dick move like that. But your comment, and cameron’s, does make me think with a little more subtly about the functions of contempt. When I wrote that contempt is so prevalent on the blogosphere, I was actually thinking about the ladyblogs I read all the time (like Jezebel.) I realize that I take a certain kind of pleasure in witnessing to the contempt that’s layered into their commentaries, in large part because I do feel like the sexism and racism their contempt is shaming should, indeed, be shamed. Witnessing to that contempt seems to extract a certain kind of poetic justice. You’ve never treated me with anything but respect as an individual, so I don’t think of you as a contemptuous person. And, admittedly, much of the contempt you’ve expressed that I’ve actually been witness to… I feel a certain kind of solidarity with it. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons that contempt is so prevalent on the Internet. There’s so much shit, everywhere. Contempt can be an efficient way of filtering through the shit, in a witty way that maintains some semblance of reason (it doesn’t turn into rage, in other words.) When the filtering process makes sense to you (when it renders judgments that seem suitable), it also serves as a point of social connection.

    Dominic, I totally agree with you about Lars von Trier. But I will also admit that there’s something about the scope of his work (the way it strays into the biblical or the theological) that also gives me this sort of masochistic sense that I should weather the contempt I feel in order to get some sense of what’s happening on other levels. I don’t feel as compelled to understand Lynch’s Hollywood. But I definitely have similar concerns about Trier’s visual entanglement of women, sex, blood, and death.

    I think what I was responding to, in the original post, was more the feeling that I get after along day spent on the computer, where I’m always distracted by blogs, facebook, and now twitter. I feel like after a long day of writing, where this is where much of my interpersonal activity is happening, I’m feeling weirdly inundated by contempt. Not necessarily directed toward me (although, perhaps, from time to time). Maybe I just need to spend more time laying the grass and watching birds. Maybe, as Rachel Owlglass has suggested, the real problem is that I am not using my personal power to “turn it off.” But I do think that the question of the nature, or tone, of the digital public is an open and complex one. And I think it’s worth parsing.

  14. Because of this post, I now can’t help but regard Twitter as a non-stop flow of contempt — and obviously I contribute my own share (and often more). It makes it harder for me to read or enjoy Twitter, a problem that had already manifested before….

  15. Contempt seems identical to moral outrage to me. Yes, you have differentiated contempt from anger and disgust, but moral outrage is different from those, too. Moral outrage is when you perceive a violator or oppressor and want to do something about it. Maybe you see a shoplifter, or someone knock over an old lady and steal her purse, and you feel outraged — you hold this person in contempt. Or maybe you perceive some metonymic group (the Bankers, the White Capitalist Patriarchy etc) to be at blame, or maybe it’s quilted to certain people — politicians, philosophers, artists, who represent “what is wrong with the world.”

    I’ve been harping on this motif for a while now: all moral outrage is a yearning for and of source of narcissistic supply. Let me unpack that by saying, this doesn’t mean we should never be morally outraged. Indeed, moral outrage can be a good first reaction to something which should outrage us — a great injustice being done, for instance. It’s just that, the way it works is, when we get outraged we gain narcissistic supply. This doesn’t mean we gain happiness. Narcissism is not happiness. Narcissistic supply is “meaning juice.” If I lock myself in a room for a week with food and water but nothing to give me N.S. then life starts to feel grey, life loses its meaning. De Landa points out that when we say “life is meaningless” or “I feel like my life has lost meaning” what we really mean is that we have lost affect, we have lost the ability to affect and be affected by life (people, places, things). Moral outrage is a way of being affected by things, thus it gives our life meaning. It is also a way of affecting others, e.g. boycotting. Moral outrage is thus a source of narcissistic supply.

    Marie-Louise von Franz recounts a wonderful story about when she met C.G. Jung as a young woman. Von Franz at that point had not yet done the painful work of shadow integration — she was relatively deindividuated at age 18 as I imagine most of us were. Jung asked her to write down a list of everything she hated in other people. This is a list of outrages and contempts — everything that other people did which made her outraged, which she had contempt for. After writing this list, Jung told von Franz, “See, that’s you! Everything on that list is disavowed parts of yourself.” It was a terrible blow, a tremendous ego wound and also a necessary step in the individuation process for von Franz.

    Moral outrage, contempt, scorn, antipathy, distaste, hatred, dislike, ridicule, snobbery … these all go together. They are metaphoric for each other. We can only hold others in contempt when they resonate parts of ourselves we have rejected. Those parts of us which we have cast off are projected onto others who appear to us as villains. Of course, to vilify someone you must claim that they oppress you, they vilify you — we scapegoat people by saying that they scapegoat us. With the Stoics, I remind: the only vice is applying judgments of good or bad to external things and the only virtue is applying these same judgments to judgments themselves.

    As for your problem with the entanglement of women, sex, blood, death — well, these are just one assemblage of archetypal associations. There are many other associations as well. I think the association with blood is obvious, women bleed every month. Also blood is associated with life and women as mothers are lifegivers. Being associated with life also makes one associated with death; life and death are closely related, each is defined by not being the other. Sex and death are also closely intertwined (le petit mort, as well as the undead libido which keeps going etc). Really these are archetypal connections in the collective unconscious.

    I totally see where it can be problematic if people are perpetuating internalized oppression and whatnot, but I also see how part of the artist’s duty is to have fidelity to their content. David Lynch, to me, has utmost fidelity to his unconscious psychic contents. Lars von Trier seems to have this fidelity as well. It’s not easy to do! The conscious ego falsifies everything. The unconscious ego is the repository of some very dark, even “oppressive” fantasies, stuff which would make you shudder were it to see the light of day. Lynch, von Trier, Korine and some of the other “edgier” filmmakers are ones who are willing to engage with the darkness of the unconscious without falsifying it.

  16. Sorry, haven’t had my coffee yet, did not mean to write “the unconscious ego” — yes, parts of the ego are unconscious, but I meant the unconscious in the vaster sense as producer of dark fantasies.

    My whole idea here is just that filmmakers like von Trier who puts really horrific and potentially misogynistic stuff in his movies (see: ANTICHRIST) are potentially having fidelity to their own unconscious, to the images and fantasies which come to them.

    James Hillman talks about fidelity and points out that we can have fidelity to different things. Artists tend to struggle to keep fidelity to the original vision. Hillman has the example that if you have fidelity to Aphrodite or fidelity to Hera, these are two totally different kinds of fidelity. The first means fidelity to romance, the 2nd to marriage. I would say it’s the same for artists — artists are “true” to different things. Lynch, von Trier, Korine, to me all seem to be true to their artistic vision. Other artists like Michael Bay may be “true” to a certain macho Mars-energy, Götz Spielmann is true to a Saturnine quality perhaps, or Woody Allen might be true to the Mercurial-Jovial spirit and so on. Each filmmaker taps into different contents of the collective unconscious depending on that filmmaker’s predisposition, milieu and other factors (I think personality type and astrology play big roles in this).

    Just a quick response to the role of shame in moral outrage/contempt. The difference between blame and shame is this: we blame people for doing something, we shame people for being something. Shame is always identity politics. Shame is always putting people in a metonymic box and saying “this box that I’ve put you in means that you are inherently a bad person.” So when you write, ” I do feel like the sexism and racism their contempt is shaming should, indeed, be shamed” — I applaud your fidelity to your unconscious! Most people falsify, they would never admit such a thing. The fact that you openly admit it is actually an attestation to your self-awareness. You are in touch with the feeling that perceived sexists ought to be shamed. Now that you’re in touch with this feeling, you can work with it — you can ask what parts of yourself you’ve disavowed. Maybe you’re a perfectionist, in which case, how could you ever forgive others for their faults, if you have none? Or maybe you are full of good intentions, sincerity, seeing yourself as a healer of the world and so on — in which case you have reproduced the myth of the Beautiful Soul. (See Tim Morton’s BEAUTIFUL SOUL SYNDROME for more on this).

    Incidentally, do you know your Myers-Briggs personality type?

    I find that most contempt/moral outrage stems from the use of introverted feeling, which vilifies extraverted feeling as perpetuating institutionalized dogmas, oppression and so on. Extraverted feeling is all about the prevailing societal norms, about what is expected and appropriate in society. so to critique normativity is to exert introverted feeling. For instance, Judith Butler and Derrida both use introverted feeling in their critiques. (There is a good video floating around the web which shows an interview with Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan; Andrew is an introverted feeler who gets outraged about the plight of the marginalized, while Carey is an extraverted feeler who is more concerned with appropriateness and “good feelings”). Introverted feeling is highly opinionated and tends to shake up the norms. Extraverted feeling is in agreement with officially-sanctioned (often oppressive) standards and tends to express the status quo. Now, extraverted feelers probably hold introverted feelers in contempt as well, but they are much less vocal about it, because they care so much about maintaining warm feelings. (Consider Gilles Deleuze, Oprah Winfrey, Neil deGrasse Tyson — all extraverted feelers who just ooze warmth). Introverted feelers are totally in touch with their feelings and they aren’t afraid to let their opinions fly. I should know, as an INTJ, I am one! And I’ve been just about the most morally outraged person I know. At age 29 I am slowly transitioning to being less outraged, but as I do, I have to find other sources of narcissistic supply because otherwise there is a void in my life when I’m not fighting oppression everywhere I see it … (and I see it everywhere!)

  17. I’m sorry if I’ve ruined twitter for you, Adam.

    Jonah, I happen to know that I am an ENFP. Perhaps I am bothered by the fact that the status quo is not warm and fuzzy. Who knows.

    I will say that, in spite of the fact that there may be archetypal associations btw women and blood, and life, and death…there are methods and manners of presenting this entanglement that admittedly I think are worth shaming. Even if the men who are doing it are bold and brilliant artists who are merely revealing the contents of their unconscious.

  18. I have in several places discussed the phenomenon of “cronyism” both in the blogosphere and in academia, and I think it is a real barrier to democratic exchange of thought. When I see worried discussions about MOOCs I am surprised at the presupposition that academia is some sort of utopia, when the play for recognition, power and employment leads to some rather ugly group dynamics I find interesting here, in the light of the discussion around the notion of “contempt” and of its acceptability or even toxicity, the frank avowal of contempt by a thinker such as Ray Brassier. I think his declarations are interesting contributions to the question: Is contempt necessarily a sad affect, based on resentment?

    Brassier gives us the beginnings of an analysis of this affect that I find very interesting. He explicates it in terms of antipathy and animus, and is careful to distinguish it from “personal vindictiveness”. I find a Deleuzian ring to his pronouncements, that are more satisfying to my mind than the attempt to discriminate between disgust as a visceral reaction and contempt as more attitudinal and propositional. I think that we must admit with Deleuze that antipathy is essential to assembling our life and our thought, and needs to be expressed if it can help us break through some wall or get out of some black hole that is impeding our process of individuation.

    I think this is part of what Jonah is getting at with his notion of fidelity to the unconscious, which I would cast as being also fidelity to one’s process of individuation. Disgust may be necessary to take one’s distance and protect oneself, but contempt is a more noetic disposition and may permit a less wholesale rejection than disgust. Deleuze talks about hating whatever intoxicates or imprisons life and ties it to a perception of multiplicities. So I think his phenomenology of “antipathetic” affects is convergent with what Jonah says about Jung and Hillman’s ideas. This seems to allow for a distinction between exclusive contempt founded on identities (the identity of the comtemptuous person, identity, the identity of the “contemptible” person), and an inclusive contempt where I have contempt not for a person but for acts, thoughts, styles that I judge to embody baseness. Just as I see the other person as a multiplicity containing other aspects than the contemptible I can see myself as a multiplicity containing contemptible aspects that I must work on. Maybe this is implied in what Jonah says about the difference between extraverted and intoverted feelers.

  19. @Beatrice: as an ENFP you have introverted feeling. So I wouldn’t say you are bothered by the fact that the status quo is not warm and fuzzy, that would be more of an extraverted feeling thing. Thanks for the response!

  20. Great comment, Terence! I especially resonate with the idea of having contempt for acts, thoughts and styles instead of people.

    My caveat: As a Stoic, I really do think that the only virtue is in withholding judgments of externals, and the only vice is in judging external things “out there” as good or bad — the eye that sees evil in the world itself perpetuating the evil it decries. So I try to be open to all these Stoic paradoxes of the type: “It is perfect to be virtuous but it is vicious to try to be perfect.” My pet idea is that each personality type has its own vices (in the Stoic sense) which are “false goods and bads,” false value judgments or ideologies that glorify certain acts, thoughts and styles while vilifying other ones. And I think this an archetypal conflict not between thinking/feeling or sensing/intuiting, because they get along fine together, but between the introverted and extraverted attitudes of a given function: intro/extra feeling demonizes each other the most, and the same for each of the other functions.

    There is a website which kind of inspired me in this area called The idea is that each type has a series of “goods” which it values as virtuous, without realizing that these are ironically vicious. For instance, say that I say “being perfect is good.” This is very different than saying “being good is perfect!” If I say the first one, what I mean is that mistakes are bad. Such an attitude is vicious because I will hold myself and others to an impossible standard which does not allow for mistakes. This type of attitude is common in those with the Conscientious personality type, which, in its extreme form is found in things like Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).

    Each personality type has its own attitude which is fairly predictable based on its preferred functional attitudes. There are some antithetical attitudes which really can’t stand each other. For instance, some people really value privacy and they judge people asking “nosy questions” as bad, or at least annoying. Others find the opposite true: people who value privacy are annoying, because they leave things unspoken, and the unspoken is like an itch you can’t scratch for some people. A more relevant example here would be the difference in value judgments about art. I believe that judging artists to be good or bad (or worthy of shame!) for exploring extremely dark themes in the unconscious is itself bad — it’s an attitude I find distasteful. My Stoicism is a compensation to remind myself not to then shame the person who makes this critique: you should feel ashamed for shaming an artist for exploring dark themes in the unconscious. How hypocritical of me!

    Any time something lights me up, outrages me, irks me or otherwise arouses me I know that I have unconscious complexes which are constellated by it and there is an opportunity to discover some untapped libido within which has probably been causing me anxiety. When I get really angry about something, I say to myself, what is it in me that is so affronted? When I want to shame someone else, which part of myself have I cast off onto that person? And finally, in a Lacanian vein, whose position am I speaking from? I have a friend who has been in a long-term relationship with a very domineering person who is against any kind of therapy which is not “Harm Reduction.” My friend is always getting outraged at perceived injustices perpetuated by psychoanalysis, psychiatry, Jungian psychology and so on. He will call mental health professionals charlatans and rage about how they perpetuate internalized oppression, “They” (the metonym) being, apparently, everyone who does not espouse “Harm Reduction.” (Another sublime object of ideology for him is “client-focused therapy” or “client-centered therapy”). Now, I don’t blame my friend for his outrage — he’s an INTJ like me, and I see so much of myself in him it’s not funny! I have spent much of my life, as both a child and an adult, outraged at perceived injustices in the world. I’ve boycotted, protested, written diatribes full of vitriol against oppression, so I relate. My only point here is that I just kind of thought it was a personal investment of my friend until I got into a conversation with his partner, who used these exact same key signifiers, with the same outraged attitude. Then I realized that my friend had been speaking from his partner’s subjective position! My friend was speaking on his partner’s behalf, performing for the gaze of the Other, all that. So, the idea here is that whenever I find myself in too-close proximity to a particular ideology I have to ask, where have I given ground? Where have I allowed my unconscious to be colonized by machines which produce affects, and how do I reclaim such ground? Have I entered into projective identification and swallowed particular key signifiers — “drank the Kool Aid” colloquially speaking — and if so, how do I extricate myself from such a state of captation? If I am libidinally invested in a particular set of goods/bads in the external world, I must first solve the problem of disinvesting, working on myself before working on the world.

    To bring this back to creativity, I should create the art I want to see in the world — affirming life, instead of only watching others who are frighteningly good long enough to rationalize why they aren’t. Or, instead of negating the state of the world, I should create a life I can say yes to. This kind of affirmative stance is what is often missed by critique, which regularly assumes the form of scapegoating.

  21. I once read a naturalist’s thoughts on the massive venom load of a black widow spider’s bite. He opined that the magnitude of the injury it inflicts cannot be adequately explained by selective processes, being wildly disproportionate in its toxic payload to any potential usefulness in terms of predation or self-defense. The basis for its existence, in his view, is simply the blind randomness of nature. Perhaps contempt is something similar in the realm of human affects.

  22. For being a thread about contempt, I found this quite a lovely read. Having been sick in bed all day, barely able to see straight, I’ll just say quickly that a few years ago I read a little pamphlet by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit (, which I think could serve as an interesting entrance into thinking another, paradoxically intimate (extimate?) side of contempt. I’m fuzzy on recalling the exact details of the book, but they develop what I remember being struck by as a very beautiful, queer-theory friendly notion of ‘reciprocal contempt’ as a kind of medium for relationality itself, particularly through their reading of the couple in Godard’s Mépris (contempt/scorn). They do a good job of surveying the effects that contempt has in the world, as many of the comments on this thread do, as well. I won’t say anything else, because my head is swimming, but it’s interesting to think about Godard as a predecessor of the ‘school of contempt’ and I wonder if there may be more to say between contempt [mépris] and misunderstanding [méprise], as well…

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