Promoting Passivity 01

‘The Beer Went Mad’

Lynn Truss, in her ranty book, Talk to the Hand – which tries to do for everday personal interactions what her earlier book did for grammer an speling – quotes some remarks on their actions given by convicts to the cultural conservative and prison shrink Theodore Dalrymple:

‘The beer went mad’

‘The knife went in’

‘Something must have made me do it’

‘My trouble came on again’ (this uttered by a serial church burglar and arsonist).

He characterises remarks like this with the useful phrase ‘locutions of passivity’.

One of the features of present-day culture is the pervasiveness of such locutions, through phrased in faux-scientific jargon:

‘My brain told me to …’

‘I guess I’m just hard-wired that way’

‘I have an anger management-issue’


‘I’m [fill it in, or make it up] syndrome’.

At one time folks would use the notion of ‘melancholia’ to explain behavior in much the same way as the above is now used. It used to mean much more than just sad, downcast and so on. It purported to be not just a description of mental states, but an explanation. ‘Melancholia’ mean ‘black-bile’, this being one of the four ‘humours’ which, for a fair chunk of European culture were held to be constitutive of character and disposition.

I think it’s a fair bet that humour-discourse was used in much the same way as we moderns (or post-moderns if you’re that way inclined) use the fashionable phrases which leap to the lips of so many as. It’s not that long ago (and still for some) when behavior would be “explained” by the likes of ‘on the cusp of Leo and Virgo, with Mars ascendent’. Then again, not much further back the lingo would be in terms of ‘inferiority complex’ or ‘introvert with strong extravert tendencies’.

Dalrymple, in what I think is his latest book (forgotten the title, just eye-balled in Blackwells), blames Freud for the pervasiveness of passivity-locutions and asserts that Freud’s work was premised on the denial of agency and moral responsibility. I don’t know whether to be surprised or not that this claim should come from a psychiatrist. Because it’s demonstrable false. The entire purpose of psycho-analytic therapy is precisely to give the client some control over their own behavior and not be driven by unconscious impulses.

Thinking on melancholia led me to read the last of Freud’s Papers on Metapsychology entitled ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (meaning by the latter term what is usually called ‘clinical depression’). I certainly don’t feel that I have anything like a firm grasp on the argument, but what is so striking about his discussion is precisely that it is in terms of agency:

In melancholia, the unknown loss will result in a similar internal work and will therefore be responsible for the melancholic inhibition

Througout this paper the ‘mechanism’ of depression is discussed in terms of actions, though unconscious, which the self engages in. One of the great strengths of the psycho-dynamic sensibility is to take seriously in science that which we all, in our everyday lives (and in our response to literature and drama) take for granted: that actions and utterances have meanings.

The entire thrust of passivity locutions is to deny this.


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