Breuer on "Intracerebral Tonic Excitation"

The following is a brief summary of Breuer's discussion of "Intracerebral Tonic Excitation", from the second section of Freud and Breuer's "Studies on Hysteria" (1895). PDF of Breuer's original text.

Breuer starts by contrasting the “two extreme conditions of the central nervous system: a clear waking state and dreamless sleep.” He asks, what is “the essential difference between the two conditions?”

He notes that, when fully awake, “every act of will initiates the corresponding movement; sense-impressions become conscious perceptions; and ideas are associated with the whole store present in potential consciousness. In that condition the brain functions as a unit with complete internal connections.” On the other hand, in the deepest sleep, the “severence of connections between the psychical elements is… total.”

He attempts to make sense of this through what he calls “tonic excitation”, which is the “conductive capacity” existing between psychical elements at any time. “Let us imagine a widely-ramified electrical system for lighting and the transmission of motor power; what is expected of this system is that simple establishment of a contact shall be able to set any lamp or machine in operation. To make this possible, so that everything shall be ready to work, there must be a certain tension present throughout the entire network of lines of conduction, and the dynamo engine must expend a given quantity of energy for this purpose. In just the same way there is a certain amount of excitation present in the conductive paths of the brain when it is at rest but awake and prepared to work.” (Note how he has to “imagine” such an electrical system, which we now take so thoroughly for granted that we might forget it exists.)

Breuer senses your confusion: what are these “psychical elements” and how do they work within the brain? He responds, with the entire foundation of neuropsychology: “We usually think of the sensory nerve cells as being passive receptive organs. This is a mistake. For the mere existence of a system of associative fibres proves that these sensory nerve-cells also send out excitation into the nerve-fibres. If excitation from two sensory cells flows into a nerve-fibre that connects them - whether per continuitatem or per contiguitatem - then a state of tension must exist in it. This state of tension has the same relation to the excitation flowing away in, for instance, a peripheral motor fibre as hydrostatic pressure has to the living force of flowing water or as electric tension has to an electric current. If all the nerve-cells are in a state of mean excitation and are exciting their nerve-processes, the whole immense network forms a single reservoir of ‘nervous tension’. Apart then from a potential energy which lies quiescent in the chemical substance of the cell and an unknown form of kinetic energy which is discharged when the fibres are in a state of excitation, we must assume the existence of yet another quiescent state of nervous excitation: tonic excitation or nervous tension.”

He discusses sleeping and waking, “tension” as an urge for activity or movement, lack of sensory stimuli felt as torture, boredom, producing an unpleasurable “excitement”: “such feelings are always generated when one of the organism’s needs fails to find satisfaction. Since these feelings disappear when the surplus quantity of energy which has been liberated is employed functionally, we may conclude that the removal of such surplus excitation is a need of the organism. And here for the first time we meet the fact that there exists in the organism a ‘tendency to keep intracerebral excitation constant’ (Freud).”

Breuer follows with a discussion of certain endogenous sources of excitation, the need for oxygen, food, water. He then tentatively reaches the topic that Freud would turn into a phenomenon: sex. He writes: “A transition between these endogenous increases of excitation [oxygen, food, water] and the psychical affects in the narrower sense is provided by sexual excitation and sexual affect. Sexuality at puberty appears in the first of these forms, as a vague, indeterminate, purposeless heightening of excitation. As development proceeds, this endogenous heightening of excitation, determined by the functioning of the sex-glands, becomes firmly linked (in the normal course of things) with the perception or idea of the other sex - and, indeed, with the idea of a particular individual, where the remarkable phenomenon of falling in love occurs. This idea takes over the whole quantity of excitation liberated by the sexual instinct. It becomes an ‘affective idea’; that is to say, when it is actively present in consciousness it sets going the increase of excitation which in point of fact originated from another source, namely the sex-glands.”

He continues discussing sexual instincts as a source of excitation. He describes how “when [excitation reaches] a considerable degree of intensity the train of ideas becomes disturbed and the relative value of the ideas is changed… perception too — the psychical interpretation of sense-impressions — is impaired.” He further claims that “A disturbance like this of the dynamic equilibrium of the nervous system — a non-uniform distribution of increased excitation — is what makes up the psychical side of affects.”

He continues his discussion, attempting to restrict himself to “a single point, which is of importance for pathology, and moreover only for ideogenic affects — those which are called up by perceptions and ideas.” He discusses how “powerful affects restrict association — the train ideas. People become ‘senseless’ with anger or fright. Only the group of ideas which provoked the affect persists in consciousness, and it does so with extreme intensity.”

He discusses how we can cry or shout or speak or act in anger to “blow off steam”, which reduces the excess cerebral excitation, but serve no other purpose beyond maintaining the “tendency to keep cerebral excitation constant”.

He concludes: “If, however, the affect can find no discharge of excitation of any kind along these lines, then the situation is the same with anger as with fright and anxiety. The intracerebral excitation is powerfully increased, but is employed neither in associative nor in motor activity. In normal people the disturbance is gradually levelled out. But in some, abnormal reactions appear, An ‘abnormal expression of the emotions’, as Oppenheim says, is formed.” This is the basis of Freud and Breuer’s theory of hysteria, and forms the neurological theoretical groundwork for Freud's later works.

On Behavioral Hermeneutics

Written in dialogue with Suspended Reason's posts: ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic TheoryConsensual and Non-Consensual Manipulation”, “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation”, and “All Communication is Manipulation”.

See also, my earlier post “Is Communication 'Manipulation'?”, which takes a synthetic rather than analytic approach to its argument.

A.

“All Communication is Manipulation” (ACiM) is a tool for explanation. Its intent as an idea is to answer questions of the form “why did this happen?” It does this by positing a frame which collapses the difference in each individual situation into a unityall communication is manipulation. This is not particularly special in itself, all explanations do this, including this one.

B.

ACiM is a special form of explanation, which “reads” a “deeper” intent or meaning into a situation, beyond what participants say or think. This makes it what Paul Ricoeur called in Freud and Philosophy a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, which is a tool of interpretation that is suspicious of the truth of conscious knowledge. Ricoeur’s three main examples of this type were Marx’s “false consciousness”, Nietzsche’s “will to power”, and Freud’s “unconscious”. What all of these theories have in common is that they purport to “decode” meanings which were previously “disguised”.

C.

In ACiM’s case, what is the “disguised” thing? That the point of communication is to manipulate the other’s behavior. As a hermeneutic of suspicion, we need a technique for “decoding” communications, which then allows us to view the disguised meaning.

ACiM’s technique is an ecological or cybernetic analysis, which views communication as a control system, in which each speech act transmits some difference that eventually results in a behavioral outcome. It proceeds from the fact that:

when we say a communicative act “has a point,” or when we find it “interesting” (and thus it updates our model of reality, to receive it), we are saying that our sensory inputs have been altered in a way which will alter behavioral outputs, if at least in some hypothetical and unforeseen situation down the line.

Here, ACiM seems to claim that each speech act always produces behavioral outcomes in other agents within the same system. I would expect that, to apply this technique as a critical tool, we would think to look at the behavioral results of a certain speech act, and then claim that the act was “intended” to produce those effects. But this seems impossible to do if the alteration in behavioral output occurs “in some hypothetical and unforeseen situation down the line.

We have reached a strange place, where ACiM requires a totally deterministic chain of logic where all effects lead back to specific intentions, and indeed Suspended recognizes this difficulty:

If communication is an act intended to achieve effects, then comprehension of the first order consists of any interpretation which achieves the general effect desired by the writer (by “writer,” I mean a generic term for the agent representing, expressing, speaking, etc). We can call this a first-order reading, which may or may not accurately comprehend the written message. (That is, we can imagine erroneous first-order readings, which do not result in the desired effects.)

Comprehension of the second order involves understanding the effect desired by the writer. We can call this a second-order reading, which may or may not accurately interpret the effects desired by the writer.

If I understand correctly, what the above is saying is that, in order to justify that “all communication is manipulation”, we need to involve a secondary level of interpretation. Not only are we interpreting some situation or action on the grounds of "all communication is manipulation", we're also responsible, as the observing interpreter, for understanding the recipient's own interpretation of the same text.

Let's try and untangle this. Reading carefully, we can see that “all communication literally is manipulation” really means “all communication is attempted manipulation”. The latter form is much easier to work with, because it asks a straightforward question: “what did you want the other to do when they got your message?” Certainly a valid tool in “decoding” communications.

But the two forms seem in tension: the literal definition of ACiM which says “all communication eventually cashes out in behavior, manipulating others within the same system, because that’s how cybernetics works”, and the “hermeneutic” definition, which says “all your communications are actually specific attempts at manipulating behavioral outcomes.”

There is little to say about the literal definition, which is a fact about physical cybernetic systems, except that it seems true, and doesn't amount to much on its own.

In what follows, I will be addressing the hermeneutic definition, as it seems like the more important of the two in terms of Suspended's writing, in terms of its potential uses and effects as an explanatory tool.

D.

Arendt distinguishes “work” from “action” in that the former is based on an imagined outcome, like a craftsman making a table, while the latter is a “setting into motion”, an act of initiative, where one does not know what will come of their act, yet decides to do it anyway. ACiM as hermeneutic posits that "all communication is attempted behavioral manipulation", which supposes that the writer intends some concrete end state in terms of the others' behavior.

In this sense, ACiM as wielded by an agent is an attempt to convert action, a leap into the void, into work, something that can be broken down and rationally pursued. This means ACiM is a rationalizing frame, as Suspended himself notes, an attempt to control a domain of uncertainty through understanding. It is also a Utopian frame, because what is a Utopia if not an imagined outcome based on manipulating the behaviors of Men, like a craftsman would to build a table? Yet it retains the ironic flaw of all Utopian thought: that the fantasy never emerges as expected, and thus remains within the realm of action, despite all the thought put into considering it as “work”.

This boils down to the “consequentialism vs. virtue ethics” debate that Suspended Reason and I have been having since late 2019, where he believes that the crux of ethics is working to ensure the proper outcomes occur, whereas I believe it’s acting from the proper inner attitude. To use his language, it is inevitable that any social project oriented around outcomes becomes “surrogated”, taken on as mere image, losing its spirit. The only way to maintain the spirit of a project is to enact it through one’s own self.

However, this critique doesn't relate to ACiM's value as a critical tool, for interpretation rather than decision-making. I will address that next.

E.

On a more individual scale, pulling from Sadly, Porn, hermeneutics of suspicion, including ACiM, often act as a defense. A defense against what? Taking responsibility for, or even understanding, one’s desire. To return to A, any explanation is an attempt to collapse difference into a single unity, which plays out psychologically as “this was actually not a mistake, not my fault, and here’s why.” It allows the actor to evade saying “I wanted this” (they might even believe they didn't want it!), and instead provide an alternative reason, which others tend to believe, because it’s far easier for others to believe that, e.g. “I did it because I am mentally ill” than “I did it because I wanted to.”

This is equally a flaw with psychoanalytic theory and with ACiM, but I fear that the use of ACiM as defense will, as I explained in my long-form blog post, act as an explanation that one can use to get around responsibility for the bad kinds of manipulative behavior. This is only a problem if one uses ACiM in their own decision-making. For an ethologist or anthropologist or other sort of observer, I see no reason not to use the frame alongside other tools that respect the stated intents of the actors, but when the triad is collapsed into a dyad, I start to worry.

F.

That said, I think ACiM can be useful still, as a tool for reflection. If I use ACiM to decode” a communication act I previously performed, in terms of others' desired behavioral outcomes, I end up producing knowledge about my own motivation and desire, which may have been difficult to access through other means. In practice, this is a tool I use a lot: what did I want to happen? What did I do about it? What actually happened? It's extrospective, in the sense of aiding in self-understanding through taking the perspective of an external observer in relation to one's own behavior, and that's good.

G.

In summary:

  • The concept of ACiM needs to be clarified as to whether it's a literal, factual claim, or an interpretive frame.
  • ACiM as interpretive frame is a hermeneutic of suspicion, a tool for “decoding” a “disguised” meaning in a text or message.
  • ACiM as hermeneutic is a rationalizing frame, which produces knowledge in an attempt to maintain control over the uncertainty of human society.
  • ACiM suffers from the same problem as all hermeneutics of suspicion, which is that it can be used as a defense against culpability or understanding.
  • ACiM has value as an extrospective tool for self-understanding in terms of one's own desire.

Is Communication "Manipulation"?

I.

My friend Suspended Reason recently wrote a post where he put forward the claim that "[all] communication is manipulation". The claim was not well-received. Readers disagreed. The formulation doesn't sit well with me either, but in a vague way. "I'm not manipulating others with my communication, and others aren't manipulating me" feels like a firm belief of mine.

Without trying to discern the truth or falsity of the claim that "communication is manipulation," what I want to figure out is "what's the problem?" Why doesn't it sit well with me? Where does my belief, that we're not manipulating each other, come from, and what does it mean? I'll let the fantasy lead the way.

When I hear "communication is manipulation", I picture a situation where I'm hanging out with my friends, engaged in casual conversation, but all exchanges are oriented around manipulation. Each utterance has a goal behind it, intended to alter the other's behavior in a way that suits one's needs, each speaker using words to affect the other's actions, as if molding clay. If I were to picture this situation such that the "manipulation" seems wrong, I would have a word for the problem: "sociopathy".

What is sociopathy? It's another vague image, of someone who "breaks the rules", who puts on an appearance without really "being" the appearance. One rarely hears accusations of sociopathy in dealings of business or war, because these domains don't seem to have the same "rules" as hanging out with my friends. The rules of business are made explicit by a third party: the law, enforced by the state. A businessman may "cheat" the law, but he's not a sociopath for doing so, just a cheater, and the expectation is that the law will eventually punish him for his cheating. Similarly, appearances in business are also enforced by the rules. If you make big promises but fail to execute the contract, it's not sociopathy, just breach of contract.

We can let the term itself lead us: the socio-path is he who breaks the rules "of society", which excludes the domains of business and high politics, but includes casual hangouts. These rules aren't written down, they're implicit, and there's no objective third party one can call in when social rules are broken, so long as the sociopath avoids committing a criminal offense.

But breaking the rules alone isn't enough to qualify one as a "sociopath". Nerds and autists often break social rules, but few would label them sociopaths. What is special about the sociopath is that he knows the rules and chooses to break them, in order to get what he wants. Only a certain sort of person, with a certain psychological makeup, is able to know the rules without feeling bound by them. Most people only "know" the rules in an immanent sense: the rules aren't "known and consciously followed", but precede choice, e.g. "I can't talk to that girl [because it's against the rules]". We might say that the shy guy trying to talk to the girl feels like "a choice has been made", but that he didn't make it: the "rules" made his choice for him.

Lacanian Psychoanalysis would call the former structure "perverse" and the latter "neurotic". The neurotic is bound by the rules ("I could never do that" "but you could, if you chose to" "no, I literally can't, it's wrong, I would die"), while the pervert knows the rules, and disavows them ("the rules don't apply to me, what are you gonna do about it?")1. Thus the colloquial critical reading of "communication is manipulation" is that it's perverse, that the person who thinks like that is breaking some implicit rule of socializing, and the reader disavows the statement on those grounds.

II.

One thing left unclear: what "rule" of society does "manipulation" break? Let's think of a few instances that we might call "manipulation" and see whether we can figure out what the rules are:

  • You're at dinner with a friend and you don't want to pay, so you lie that you just spent your last few dollars and you have no money. Your friend pays. You've "manipulated" them into paying. What rule was broken here? You lied, misrepresenting facts about your life in order to get what you wanted.

  • You're at a nice restaurant but you can't afford it. You show up and start crying and putting on a show about how you're almost broke and need food, even though in truth you could've afforded a more modest meal elsewhere. They take pity on you and comp your meal. You didn't lie, so what rule did you break? You misrepresented your affect: you put on a performance of sadness in order to get what you wanted. Another example would be performing an unfelt sadness or anger at your partner so they do what you want.

  • You want a ride to a store, so you call a friend and say you're lonely (which is true), let's hang out. Your friend drives over and you suggest visiting a certain store. Your friend agrees and takes you to the store. Again, you didn't lie, yet this story might not sit well with many. What rule was broken? You misrepresented your desire: you said you wanted to hang out because you were lonely, but really you wanted to hang out in order to get a ride.

What's common in all these situations? Something was misrepresented: facts that the other could not know about, affect, desire. What's common to all these misrepresented things is that they're subjective: the other can only know about them through interpreting your communication. Regardless of intent, there seems to be a social imperative not to misrepresent your subjectivity, lest you be accused of acting "inauthentically". Thus, we can call the imperative to act honestly in representing your subjectivity the "authenticity rule".

The other commonality is that all these situations involved misrepresentation with the intent of using the other as a means for a particular end. This is colloquially expressed via the Kantian ethical imperative of "treat other people like ends in themselves and not like means", on account of their shared humanity. Thus, we can call the imperative to not treat others as means the "shared humanity rule".

These imperatives both tie into a particular conception of Man, as originally formulated by Descartes: I think therefore I am. What is essential about thought is that it is private: we are each "in our heads", buffered from each other, with certain thoughts and feelings which we can only to render visible through communication2. The basic ethical question that follows is, assuming that everyone must live together "in a society" and that everyone has common knowledge about the rules of interaction, what rules are best?

Given that everyone is equally "private", it makes sense to have a norm that others stand on equal footing. Our lack of knowledge about the other doesn't mean they are "less human" (more object-like) than us, hence the shared humanity rule. And similarly, the best way to ensure trust between private individuals is to establish a norm that each person accurately represents their own private subjectivity through speech, hence the authenticity rule. Together, these rules ensure the orderly and harmonious state of affairs necessary to sustain a secular society composed of private individuals pursuing their own ends, as described in the 18th and 19th century literature.3

The sociopath may break either of both of these rules: they know that others will treat their representations of their own subjectivity as honest, i.e. authentic, and they know that others will assume that the sociopath isn't "using them", so they take advantage of this common knowledge to further their own ends. Of course, most people are sensitive to violations of these rules, and gossip spreads quickly, so the sociopath may eventually find themselves friendless. But they can always move on to greener pastures, starting over again and again, or else they can choose to play by the rules and maintain their friendships, even as they feel like the rules don't really mean anything or apply to them.

III.

We've determined two rules of casual social interaction, the authenticity rule and the shared humanity rule. Actions deemed "manipulation" tend to violate one or both of these rules, hence the backlash against "communication is manipulation". And yet, these rules are necessary but not sufficient: they constrain individuals in the negative sense, but say nothing positively about how individuals actually do interact in practice. In framing communication positively, perhaps we can salvage the phrase.

We can start by acknowledging that when I'm in a casual social setting, hanging out with my friends, all of my speech is motivated. I speak because I have something to say, and I have something to say because I have something I want. But I don't necessarily know how my speech will cash out later in the others' action; I might not have a specific behavior I want from the others, but rather some state I want to evoke, in myself or in the other. Maybe I want my friend to feel good, or I want to hurt him. In both these instances, the thing I want relies on the other's subjectivity, which could be reflected back to me in many different ways through his speech and behavior. I may not have a particular material outcome in mind. Some games have many ways to win.

To make sense of this, and to attempt to frame communication positively, we can look to Alfred Schutz's work on social phenomenology. Schutz defines the casual being-together of two individuals as existing on a spectrum between the "they-relationship" and the "we-relationship". The former consists of treating the other "as an ideal type", slotting them into one's own pre-figured "meaning context" as an representative, while the latter involves a mutual experience of awareness that the other is aware of you, the synchronization of two streams of time perception, a "growing older together"4.

This "We-relationship" is meant as a limiting concept, the absolute case along a spectrum of social experiences. What we find as one approaches the We-relationship is that the relationship itself seems to exist as a shared or "intersubjective" object, experienced and known by all parties involved. We might use a more modern term to refer to this object, representing the feeling of the relationship, and call it a "vibe". My communicative acts thus are not meant to affect the other, but to affect the shared space that exists between or within both of us. In other words, communication isn't an attempt to manipulate others, it's an attempt to manipulate the vibe, so that we can get what we want.

This can get complicated. As an example, maybe I'm playing a competitive video game with my friends, and I want to win, but I also want them to feel good. So if I beat them, I might also complement their play, show good sportsmanship, to try and maintain good vibes. On the other hand, if we're good friends and I can trust they wont kick me out, I might want to increase the intensity of the situation, to amplify it, so I might insult their play instead. This too manipulates the vibe, making it more competitive. What I wouldn't do is cheat, because that would violate the authenticity rule--I would be manipulating the others' play by misrepresenting a desire to win--unless we were already in a situation where nobody is taking the rules seriously, which is a different kind of vibe.

While I wasn't able to speak to the original claim that "communication is manipulation", I think that my claim "communication is manipulation of vibe" is able to maintain a sense of communication as intentional, and as a "difference that makes a difference", i.e. a message within a cybernetic feedback system, without falling into traps of psychological interpretation. In a certain sense, I feel like I've said something that many already know, or at least already live out in practice. But hopefully the act of making it explicit can help us better express and clarify our intentions, improving the vibes in the long run.


  1. There is a third structure in Lacanian theory, "psychosis", which is the foreclosure on social rules, or put in Lacanian jargon, on the Other. This manifests as their complete absence. Not an "I know the rules and choose not to follow", but "there are no rules, for me". 

  2. We might ask, what would the situation look like if we were not private, but porous? If each person seemed immediately manifest to the other, with no sense of "inner self"? In this situation, we'd see "enchanted" activities: if I wanted to hurt a friend, I could jab an effigy of them. The rules would orient themselves around concrete behaviors, like idolatry, rather than around acts of communication. For an account of this shift in the conception of the self, see Charles Taylor's work on secularization. 

  3. I am not intending to imply that these are the only possible rules, just that these are two common social rules that we live out. Nor am I implying that my explanations are the only possible ones. Different spaces may have different norms, and they may be justified differently. There may also be other rules that work just as well, or better, for different societal values. 

  4. Phenomenology of the Social World, p. 103. 

Response to "What are the main differences between Aquarius and Pisces?"

Question: What are the main differences between Aquarius and Pisces?

The distinction I would draw between Aquarius and Pisces is that Aquarius is the large group (the nation, society, etc), while Pisces is the totality. The result is that Aquarius functions on the level of signifiers, ideology, etc (Saturnian in its reliance on form and structure, airy in its intellectuality, fixed in its presupposition and maintenance of that which exists), while Pisces transcends this and reaches for a level of attunement that cannot be fully grasped through the signifier; there is always an excess, and Pisces can only gesture (Jupiterian in its attempt to reach beyond, watery in its intuitive grasping, mutable in the peculiar relationship of the individual subject who attempts to apprehend the totality, wherein that which appears in a momentary connectedness disappears in the next).

This is why, in my experience, the language of an Aquarius is political, intellectual, attuned to the discourse, whereas Pisces almost speaks in riddles, in shapes and forms, attempting to render that which cannot be depicted. It makes sense as well to think about Aries, in following Pisces, as the spark or moment of absolute certainty that bursts forth from the depths of the totality and begins a new individuality.

A reply writes: I once read a description along the lines of "it can be hard to understand Pisces and that may be because Pisces does not want to be understood."

I want to dive into this a bit by giving a few examples, case studies of people I know. A friend of mine has Mercury (and Saturn, Mars) in Pisces, and she definitely wants to be understood, but has trouble communicating her insights, often because they're at a level of abstraction way beyond what she has the language for. Perhaps the proper language doesn't exist to communicate what she wants to say; she would talk a lot about spirals and is the person who introduced me to Astrology. She fears she comes across as dumb to others because she cannot communicate her thoughts.

On the other hand, another friend of mine has Sun, Moon (and Saturn and Mars) in Pisces, but Mercury in Aquarius, and he's a strong communicator, brilliant at rhetoric, but waffles emotionally and in terms of his identity: he's never sure if he's satisfied with his life, always talking about moving and switching careers, seems to always have some new insight with his therapist but it never seems to stick.

He's deeply involved with another friend of mine, who also has Mercury in Aquarius and Sun, Saturn, Mars in Pisces, but Moon in Virgo. She's also extremely bright and a strong communicator, and also seems to waffle in terms of identity, especially sexual and in terms of self-perception, but her relationship to her emotional needs could not be more different. And indeed, Virgo is opposite Pisces; there's a common element of mutability between the two, but for her, emotional need manifests on a more physical plane, as a problem to be solved, often by changing her concrete methods of emotional satisfaction, e.g. by dating women instead of men, rather than flip-flopping on a purely emotional level.

I feel that a lot of this is determined by house. My first friend I describe (Mercury in Pisces) has Pisces in 4th house, so for her it's always deep, personal insights she's trying to dig up and communicate to those she's intimate with, but seems to always just avoid being understood. The second friend (Sun and Moon in Pisces) has Pisces in 3rd, so for him it's about what he's pursuing in terms of intellectual endeavors, what he's learning: one day he'll be studying for the GREs, the next he'll be writing another essay, or messing around on Tinder. The third friend (Sun in Pisces) has Pisces in 9th, and she is a student of psychology, in which adjusting to the emotions of the other is paramount, and she is very widely read in philosophy and able to make deep connections across domains.

My takeaway from these three case studies is that house matters quite a bit in determining how a planet in Pisces will manifest, and that it's hard to make firmer statements without taking that into consideration as well.

On Enchantment in Modernity

For most people (elite and popular) the choice is not one between disenchantment and enchantment, science and religion, or myth and mythless rationality, but rather between different competing enchanted life worlds — even if people do not always recognize them as such.

"Why Do We Think We Are Disenchanted?", Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm

Over the past few years, or perhaps the last few centuries, a discourse has emerged regarding "enchantment", or more specifically "disenchantment", centering around the claim that the modern world, with its science, technology, and progress toward Truth, causes a sort of withdrawal from an enchanted fantasy world, the world of classical myth, faeries, Gods, etc. This particular claim regarding disenchantment has been thoroughly dealt with, most recently in Josephson-Storm's The Myth of Disenchantment, but I see less conversation regarding the positive side: if we assume that the world is, to some degree, enchanted, then how does that manifest? What is enchantment and where might we find it?

Regarding disenchantment, Josephson-Storm writes:

A key insight is that many [definitions of disenchantment] bundle some combination of a sociological or historical account together with some kind of melancholy or negative emotional affect.

In particular, while tracing many different characterizations of modernity, I focus especially on the theorists who defined modernity in terms of the loss of myth, popular belief in spirits, or magic... my point is that “modernity” as it has long been defined — as a world that is “disenchanted” (devoid of belief in spirits, myth, and magic) — does not accurately describe the world we live in.

For the purposes of Josephson-Storm's argument, enchantment consists of "myth, popular belief in spirits, or magic". Rather than tackle and expand these terms directly (myth, spirits, magic), as many occultists have already done, I would like to tackle the term "enchantment" head-on, expand its definition, and provide a sense of where it exists in modern life without relying on these historical forms or terminology.

My working definition: "enchantment" is a property of experience where the subject projects a fantasy, in the broad sense, onto the experience itself. Enchantment as such elevates the experience beyond its mere factual or physical essence, and brings it into a "super-sensible" relation with the actor. To use Fristonian terminology, the degree to which an experience is enchanted is the degree to which top-down priors predominate over bottom-up.

Working from this basic definition, I created an image which might function as a roadmap or guide to the rest of this essay:

You may notice that, given the above definition, most experiences remain enchanted, as most people are attuned to concepts, ideas, beliefs that extend beyond matter alone. But how exactly does this extra layer of fantasy interact with experience? If we follow the phenomenologers in claiming that an experience consists of a relation of the subject to the object of their perception, then we note that there are two key terms: the subject's consciousness of themselves, in the "I", and the subject's consciousness of the world, the "this", "here", "now". Using this taxonomy, we can locate fairy tale and ancient magic as an elevation of the "this": I see that "this" rabbit hole is special, because I believe in some mystical opportunity for discovery that I project onto the rabbit hole.

Contemporary enchantment tends to accumulate around other terms than the "this". One finds the enchantment of the "I"; enchantment is privatized, relating to the subject's experience of themselves rather than to their experience of the sensuous world1. This is why we no longer see the daemons and fairies of the old world: instead of "I see that this rabbit hole is magical", we have "I, a magical explorer, see this rather mundane rabbit hole."

To make this distinction more clear, consider the difference between classical fantasy and the superhero film. Both portray enchanted experiences, but most will find one easier to identify with than the other. In the classical situation, Frodo is a normal guy dealing with an enchanted world. In the superhero movie, Spiderman is a special guy dealing with a normal world. My claim is that we see ourselves as more like Spiderman than like Frodo, that narcissism, or the overvaluation of the "I" (ego), is itself a form of enchantment2.

Fantasy, as a fictional portrayal of enchantment, comes in "light" and "dark" forms; so too with enchantment itself. The superhero world and the world of fantastical wonder are "positively" enchanted, where the subject projects desirable qualities onto the object of fantasy, whether themselves or the world. The "dark" form is instead negative, whether "the world is undesirable, scary" or "I am undesirable, scary to myself".

HP Lovecraft is perhaps the best example of the negatively enchanted world, where regular guys encounter nightmares from the outer realms and intense paranoia. David Foster Wallace instead exemplifies the negatively enchanted "I", his characters trapped in anxious internal fantasies while engaging with a fairly mundane world. This is why I claim that anxiety3 is a form of enchantment4, as it is the "negative" of a narcissistic overvaluation: one still projects their priors, but they fear that their expectations or desirable beliefs will go unsatisfied by the material substance of life. This form of enchantment produces avoidance, a "moving away" or "warding off", what The Last Psychiatrist, writing as Edward Teach, calls the purpose of "ritual"5:

a ritual is necessary for a good outcome (or to avoid a bad outcome). if OUTCOME then RITUAL... The ritual does not guarantee results, but it is absolutely necessary, there is a 100% catastrophe rate without it... A ritual is strongly suggested when the consequence that results from not performing it is described as a subjective catastrophe, e.g. "I may as well be dead!"

A more succinct phrasing might of the distinction between positive and negative enchantment that I draw above might be "I know that I/the world is special, and that's good/bad". But what if we know that this is untrue, that I/the world are not special?

This stance, that "nothing is special", is where I locate the true sense of "disenchantment". It is common, best exemplified by popular followers of the stoics (I am not special) and the absurdists (the world is not special) respectively. Sustaining a stance of disenchantment can result in a depressive or catatonic state, where the world is sapped of meaning. And yet, even the stance of "nothing is special" requires at least one belief, the enchantment of "non-specialness", which permeates the depressed experience of the world. One needs at least a little enchantment, a little sense in which future outcomes are either desirable or undesirable, in order to act at all, and even this little kernel can provide the energy to bootstrap an individual out of their depressive state.

Where does enchantment come from? Political and news institutions, inherently conservative, i.e. wanting to produce action which maintains the present order of the world, encourage enchantment in negative, through their selection of disseminated information. Those who take heed respond with action to ward off: think of all the ritual and avoidant behaviors in the wake of the COVID pandemic, rooted in fantasies that come from what one reads, out of step with the "objective" severity of the situation. This focuses the energy of the audience away from enacting positive changes, which may result in turmoil and the collapse of the institution, and toward the prevention of negative outcomes.

Popular cultural media, like magazines and "entertainment" websites, instead attempt to produce positive enchantment, but only in relation to the "I". Longform essays are about the magical person, usually the author6, and rarely about the magical world. The result is people invest a lot of energy into their own status, their reflexive perception of the "I", which is a private and thus tenuous thing: who can witness it, who can provide the recognition that affirms one's specialness? This precarious situation keeps them coming back for more culture, more status, etc., in hopes that one day they will be "seen for who they [believe they] are".

Why is this the predominant form of popular media? It seems like narcissistic enchantment comes from the constraints of the essay medium, read to the mind's audience of one. It is difficult to cultivate a positive external enchantment without public or common knowledge, agreement from others that the world is as one believes it is. To believe in the enchanted world in contemporary times requires a willingness to ignore the peanut gallery who insists that life is mundane, a mere manifestation of matter. But even if you know in your thoughts that "this" world is mere matter, one can still be enchanted by the particularity of the "here" and "now" as they present themselves to you, your inner "I", as the Here and Now are always changing, always in flux. As ancient philosopher Heraclitus put it, "you cannot step into the same river twice."


  1. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455305058053246982 

  2. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455304788934074375 

  3. One might contest that anxiety does not always relate to the "I", and I agree that this is the case. There is a more mundane anxiety involving anticipation of real events, like missing a flight, which is not exactly of the same form, but even this anxiety carries a trace of enchantment, in that it involves the fantasy of an impediment to desire. However, most of what we call "anxiety" in psychological language, as a pervasive "disorder", is a sort of social or "I"-oriented anxiety, and it is this type that I'm addressing. 

  4. https://twitter.com/qorprate/status/1455296226275037185 

  5. Watch What You Hear, Edward Teach, p. 64 (footnote 40, which begins on p. 61). 

  6. Think about what is produced in the reader as a result of the "The First-Person Industrial Complex": http://www.slate.com/articles/life/technology/2015/09/the_first_person_industrial_complex_how_the_harrowing_personal_essay_took.html 

Freud and "Empirical Validation"

The following was written in response to a comment on Reddit:

A lot of Freud's ideas turned out to not be empirically validated. So we should ignore them. [??]

To understand what's going on here, we need to think a little more about knowledge, with an understanding that the goal of Science is to produce knowledge.

Contemporary Institutional Science, especially within academia, privileges the detached observer, in the sense that the method is only seen as valid if we follow the model of "arbitrary viewer witnesses phenomenon and repeats results while following the same steps." The intent of this method is to gain universal knowledge, which applies no matter where or who you are, as we assume is the case in the natural or "hard" sciences.

The issue with psychoanalytic knowledge is that, while it is scientific on the philosophical level of "knowledge derived from sensory observations", it dispenses with the idea of the arbitrary viewer and universal subject. Psychoanalytic conclusions derive from observations made within the analytic experience, which is a privileged means of accessing certain information which might be otherwise unattainable, through the act of free association and the context of the analytic relationship. The result is that psychoanalysis can still claim to be a science in the philosophical sense1, as it derives from empirical observation, and can reach meaningful conclusions that work exceedingly well within certain contexts, but also that we cannot attribute to it the kind of universal validity that e.g. physics has.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: all the "soft" sciences like sociology, psychology, etc. have similar constraints, but they often remain unaware of them. Psychology, especially personality and social psychology, tend to act "as if" they were hard sciences, in the sense of attempting to draw universal conclusions. But these sciences overextend themselves in terms of how they design their instruments. Does "Big 5" point to something meaningful in terms of personality structure, or is it merely scores on a test? What even is a personality structure? Can we empirically verify the existence of a personality? These sorts of questions tend to get hand-waved away, especially in didactic contexts, even though they are of utmost importance for the field of inquiry.

So to address the question of "are Freud's ideas empirically validated?", taken literally, we can answer "of course they are, plenty of psychoanalysts have replicated the same ideas empirically in their own work." But the subtext here is that, given the "hard science" assumptions I described above, that "empirical validation" actually means "universality and a detached observer". And to that question, the answer is "of course we can't create a little quiz which validates Freud's conclusions, because there is no way to reliably access the empirical 'data' from which his conclusions were derived without the context of the analytic situation."

Sorry if this is overly technical, I tried to address your comment thoroughly, and I hope this makes sense, although you may find it unsatisfying. The reason this is unsatisfying is that educational and state institutions privilege Institutional Science's conclusions over the conclusions of other epistemological frameworks, in my opinion because it's expedient and produces a broad deference to expertise. Zizek might call this "ideology".


  1. Lacan's answer to "is psychoanalysis a science?" (Seminar XI) is more complex. He saw psychoanalytic constructs as being "meta-theories": broad principles that permit you to construct scientific theories that apply to a particular analysand's observed discourse. So to the question "is psychoanalysis a science?", he answered "it's not a science (i.e. a field of science), it is on the same epistemological plane as science itself, is parallel to it." Basically, for the domain of psychoanalysis-science, each analysand is a separate "field" for whom the analysand must construct a separate paradigm, subject to e.g. Kuhn's laws. In other words, psychoanalysis is more like a philosophy of science than science. 

"Žižek" on "B.E.ing Yourself"

Read in Žižek voice: I want to dedicate a little comment on an image I was emailed by my colleague. The image contains a little sad man talking to a turtle, very absurd combination. The sad man asks "why can I not find a girlfriend?". The turtle, wise of course, replies "all you need to do is, B. E. yourself". The sad man asks, as you might expect, "what do B and E mean?" to which the turtle replies "B stands for B. E. and E. stands for entirely, so the expression expands to "be entirely entirely entirely entirely (and so on) yourself".

The sad man is confused, how could the infinite repetition of such an expression arrive at a meaning? In Lacanian theory, the sad man is distressed at the recognition that the phrase produces a chain of signification which does not terminate. Of course, what is that which terminates the signifying chain, if not the master signifier itself? As those familiar with my book, "The Sublime Object of Ideology", will know, the master signifier is the basic self-referential signifier on which ideology rests. The sad man is responding with frustration and confusion because the wise turtle fails to speak from the expected position of the master, and provide him with a basic signifier on which to validate his ideological stance.

What I did not mention is that this sad man is an image from the alt-right reactionary movement called the "Incels", a movement which my Incel friend Michael Crumplar so kindly informed me about. The sad man stands in metonymically for the structure of beliefs behind this Incel movement; the Incel Subject viewing the image identifies with him. In Lacanian parlance, the wise turtle represents the big Other, who frustrates the desire of the everyman Incel, and this is why the sad man is sad.

But we cannot stop here. If we want to understand the meaning of the wise turtle, we must view his position, to be entirely entirely entirely yourself and so on, from a Hegelian standpoint. An important step taken by Hegel was his reliance on the ancient philosopher Heraclitus--flux, change, everything is fire, and so forth--to challenge Kant's quasi-Platonist, static conception of the Idea. For Hegel, the Idea lives, is animated, moves in a perpetual flow, transcending itself in a process continuing for eternity. Thus we see can the entirely entirely entirely entirely as a means for, how shall I say it, nudging the sad man away from this static conception of "oh, if only I do such and such, x y and z then I can get a girlfriend", and toward perpetual self-overcoming, the Hegelian aufheben, at each step of the "entirely".

The wise turtle's wisdom is in saying "do not worry so much about the girlfriend, focus on improving yourself", but without so much saying it, as providing the potential or grounds for such knowledge in the Subject through paradox. This is akin to the function of the analyst in what Lacan calls "the analyst's discourse", who, in speaking from the position of the analysand's "objet petit a", is able to produce the master signifier of the analysand, revealing his ideology to himself, and offering the potential for overcoming. Of course, you can't walk up to someone and say "oh, you are an ideologue, this is what you believe, you should believe something different" and so on. The production of the Subject's master signifier must be approached from this circuitous route, where the analysand himself does the work of uncovering it for his own knowledge. The paradox is an effective form for this.

So this sad man, the Incel, is asked by the wise analyst turtle to understand the constitution of his own belief in, I don't know, whatever Incels believe. And it is through this that he may be able to free himself from his neurotic fantasy, go watch movies, take a walk, and so on. One day he might meet a girl, they have a coffee, and fall in love. It is in this way that the image, which surely came from within the Incel movement, also demonstrates a radical, reflexive critique of the movement itself.

Self-Compassion and Self-Understanding

A friend writes:

Do you have any theory as to why I am so prone to self-punishment? Like the other day I accidentally slept later than I wanted to and I beat myself up and had zero sympathy for myself. I am emotionally punitive with myself with lots of rules about when work will happen and how it will happen.

The following was my reply:

I can't tell you exactly what's happening in your case but I can give you a few ideas or tools that will help you figure it out on your own.

The key idea: "everything happens for a reason". In this case, every "mistake" and every punishment that follows all happen for reasons, which are always something that you want, either in a positive sense or a negative (avoidant) one.

The trick though is that often these reasons are obscured: we lie to ourselves and put on pretexts. For example, you might tell yourself that having no sympathy for yourself is good because it's a form of discipline, but it actually may be for a different reason, which is guided by outcomes: you get the opportunity to punish yourself by having zero sympathy, and through that self-punishment, you get something you want.

So the approach to take needs to be scientific to an extent: see patterns and what happens next, objectively speaking, and consider whether it may actually be something you want even while consciously denying it.

This is something I struggle with in dating. I say to myself "I want to date" and then I engage in counterproductive behaviors and interactions.

Why? It supports my self-image, which I enjoy out of comfort ("I am just like this, I can't change") and gives me ammo to complain, which I enjoy. Of course I don't consciously think this during the acts, but if I look objectively at my own cognition and the results of my behaviors, this seems true.

Once you've recognized the conflict in some depth, you can work explicitly to change it, through various means, internal (changing your beliefs by accepting consciously the suppressed reasons and acting them out directly instead of circuitously) or external (changing your behaviors to better align).

In my experience, strict punishment usually comes from a belief like "weakness/losers don't deserve sympathy", often internalized from caregivers and sustained out of convenience or comfort. The struggle is developing compassion through understanding why you did the thing deserving of punishment, and recognizing it as a piece of yourself that's just as real as the piece doing the punishing.

I think that this process overall is how people grow toward wholeness and self-understanding, and I'm still working on it myself.

On Physicalist Epistemology and Cyclical History

In this excerpt from a longer conversation, I attempt to address the usefulness of the idea of astrological causality, whether it somehow negates the "magic" of the technique. I also address notions of cyclical history such as Turchin and Strauss and Howe, and the use of intuition in understanding history.

My interlocutor writes "It should be clear to most by now that history isn't objective and is as much a construct of convenience and justification as one's personal narrative can be, though the idea that it's all relative seems as arrogant as believing in a singular story. The world is too complex for a singular perspective to be the ultimate truth, but there are some takes that are still more true than others. How to determine this seems like a case by case process, when, say, arguing that the Revolution, Civil War, and WWII were the biggest moments in US history can't be said in terms of quantities of deaths or anything concrete, but depends on intuition, arguing about the nation's mood and spirit." and "I wonder if stripping astrology to [the level of physical processes] is worth the loss of its ritualistic magic"

My response is as follows:

I think the only real way to reconcile natal astrology with physicalist epistemology is to follow a Freudian route, and many astrologers indeed engage with psychoanalysis for its usefulness in grounding. Put in short: the interface between universal biology and individual psychology was, for Freud, the notion of "drive", which pushes an organism to satisfy some sort of internal need. For Freud, those needs could be summarized as "self-preservation" and "organ-pleasure", and from these needs develop the entire psychic apparatus. I believe, in this sense, Freud would've seen Jung as overstepping the boundaries of science in declaring the universality of archetypes, although Jung would likely attempt to counter that with a Kantian argument about innate categories.

Regardless, if we take Freud's stance as given, then we have no need for Ptolemy's stance on astrology as a causal force working within the universe (although it was precisely this stance that saved astrology during the Christian "dark ages"); this is instead the projective aspect of "as above, so below" demonstrating itself, in that our only capacity to make sense of the universe is through the medium of our senses and psyche. With this in mind, the question of "how can astrology work?" returns us to the classic enlightenment problem of "how can the mind observe itself?" Astrology answers by acting as an objective medium, like a gestalt image but far more systematic and explicitly patterned, that allows the reader to locate real and true patterns in their own lives. So the locus of truth is not so much "in" astrology as "through" astrology.

I think it is only when we attempt to place too heavy a burden of truth on the outer rather than the inner world that the magic is lost, and I think this stance comes from two places. First, a fusion of positivist philosophy (Scientism) mixed with behaviorist philosophy, "if either me or you or that guy over there can't see it, then it doesn't exist", which includes a normative stance that denies individual differences and enforces deference to experts of knowledge (ever tried "going against the grain" on Reddit?). Second, and related, an outgrowth of Christian (Platonic) philosophy which requires an orientation toward the external "thing" or object, enclosed as a static phenomenon, rather than toward the flux or motion of interacting forces. This stance requires the basic epistemological question to be "what is it?" rather than "what does it do?", and shifts the focus of knowledge from the process or movement to the object or static thing. Hegel's work was an attempt to break away from this (and although many disprove of the effects of his work, none can deny that it was spiritual in nature), but most folk epistemology remains Platonized in this way.

All of this holds for cyclical theories of history as well, but with a key distinction that world history itself is explicitly conceptualized (by Spengler at least) as an "external subject" or mind, so the problem becomes more complex, because it raises a more fundamental question of "how can we know what even constitutes history?" The constitution of our minds is immanent to a degree, in that we have a direct apprehension of sensory experience, but not so with history, a world-mind constituted by material circumstances and intersubjective discourse. Thus the notion of cyclical history is a higher order phenomenon, of reading patterns into the events that we've collectively agreed are "history". I believe "intuition" shoves the mechanism of history's construction under the rug, so to speak. I feel like it avoids the ethical questions resulting from how we frame history itself by prioritizing an immediate emotional response, which leaves us vulnerable to ideology and propaganda.

My broader moral stance on cyclical history vs astrology is that I view astrology as agency-creating: I can act directly on the insights I gain from my natal chart, but I view cyclical history as a return to fateful predetermination, either agency-denying, or at minimum a cosmological imperative to organize collectively in relation to predictions. It's the political aspect and imperative aspect of cyclical history that turns me away from it, because I tend to follow Marx in seeing immanent lived circumstances as the heart of any political endeavor, at least in the modern sense of the term.

What is Astrology?

The intent of this document is to answer common questions I get about how I conceive of astrology and why I think it's cool and useful.

Basic Concepts

  • Astrology is a description language for agentic systems, a vocabulary of symbols which describe features and a grammar for relating them.
  • Astrology is a divination framework, for producing meaningfully patterned data from a random seed. As with all types of entropy generation, this is where astrology draws from physics, specifically astronomy.
  • A chart is a randomly produced system describing an agent's set of internal motives and tensions.
  • A natal chart is a chart generated for a person's birth time and place, which is said to represent them. Its interpretation in terms of personality and behavior is known as psychological astrology.

Why Divination?

  • Overcoming our preconceived ideas of anything we're trying to learn about is a hard problem, particularly for introspection. By forcing the "reader" to fit objective observations into a randomly generated system, they become able to observe potentially novel patterns, ones previously overlooked due to their subjective attachment to already recognized patterns.
  • As a metaphor, consider how drawing a face "objectively" is easier when the source image is upside down. The forced reorientation produces a shift in how one subjectively relates to the thing presented: the familiar becomes once again unfamiliar and thus open to reinterpretation.
  • The class of divination tools includes many "esoteric" practices such as tarot, i ching, and augury, with the common thread being the use of randomness to gain perspective.

What's In Astrology?

  • The vocabulary consists of planets, signs, and houses, rendered as degrees or contiguous sets of degrees.
  • The primary grammar consists of aspects relating planets based on degree, as well as relationships inherent in the symbols themselves, such as rulerships.
  • Certain positions, such as the "cusp" or beginning of the first house, called the ascendant, have special names and qualities. Certain higher-order patterns do as well, like a t-square or stellium.

Two Ways of Speaking

Astrology as Internal System.

  • Planets are sub-agents with distinct urges and needs, representing the entire psyche when considered as a whole. Each sub-agent acts with a particular modality or orientation according to sign, and in a particular sphere of existence, or house. Aspects determine the quality of relationships between planets, whether ease or tension.
  • e.g. "Venus in Taurus wants to connect with others physically and possessively, but she is in tension (square) with Saturn in Aquarius, who wants to abide by abstract social rules."
  • The introspective task becomes identifying patterns in your life in which these sub-agents make their appearances and stage their desires or dramas.

Astrology as External System.

  • Planets are needs within a singular person, which manifest with particular qualities (signs) and in certain kinds of situations (houses). Aspects determine the harmonious or ambivalent relationships between needs.
  • e.g. "My Venus in Taurus means I want to connect with others physically and possessively, but that's in tension with my Saturn in Aquarius, my desire to construct and follow abstract social rules."
  • The introspective task becomes identifying certain sets of needs or desires which relate to the planets, and understanding how they may be blocked or facilitated by their relation to other desires (or lack thereof).

What's The Point?

  • In both cases, the goal is to discover ways to resolve felt tensions by understanding the overarching system and enacting changes, in thought or action, which facilitate or maintain good outcomes and avoid or prevent bad ones.
  • A key feature of astrology is that it is non-pathological, so even the challenges produced a "difficult" chart can be overcome through understanding and effort.
  • What I mean by this is that there's no concept of "healthy" vs "unhealthy" within the astrological framework itself, only gradations of tension with a system. High tension systems can produce great results. It is up to the reader to determine what the intent of the system, in this case of living, is: astrology is not a moral theory. This is in contrast to most psychology which sets out from a medical framework and aims to achieve some predetermined notion of "health".
  • The downside, as with any psychological framework, is becoming overly attached to one's self-definition, and using it as a tool to rationalize problems and thus avoid confronting them.
  • Astrology has tools to help avoid getting overly attached, such as progressions (shifting the planets based on their motion as you age) and transits (comparing present planetary positions with your chart), which introduce additional randomness and novelty over time.
  • Astrological principles can also be used as a tool to describe abstract systems such as cities or states or corporations (mundane astrology), and can also be used for comparing two systems or individuals (synastry), and answering questions (horary astrology) or making decisions (electional astrology).

Appendix: Some Definitions

  • As with any language, a word's referent is not easily explained through description. I can tell you a tree is a large plant with a trunk and green leaves, but you wouldn't really know what I meant until you saw a tree first-hand. This is part of the difficulty in learning astrology: figuring out the meanings of symbols through experience.
  • I can, however, provide some brief keywords or descriptions as a first step toward understanding, mostly taken from Margaret Hone's "Modern Textbook of Astrology" and Stephen Arroyo's "Astrology, Psychology and the Four Elements".
  • In the previous section, I laid out the form and context of astrology without getting into the content. This section is only for those interested in digging a bit more deeply into what exactly are the planets, signs, houses, and aspects. Images and tables help, and regrettably I don't have those to offer. I suggest consulting a more thorough reference if you want an even deeper dive.

Planets

Planets represent specific patterns of systematic tendencies in relation to a singular entity. As described earlier, planets manifest to the "subject" as needs or urges, but can also be viewed as agents within the system.

  • Sun (☉): power; vitality; self-expression. Urge to be and to create. Need to be recognized and to express self.
  • Moon (☽): response; fluctuation. Urge to feel inner support; domestic and emotional security urge. Need for emotional tranquility and sense of belonging; need to feel right about self.
  • Mercury (☿): communication; the mind; short journeys. Urge to express one's perceptions and intelligence through skill or speech. Need to establish connections with others; need to learn.
  • Venus (♀): harmony; unison; relatedness. Social and love urge; urge to express affections; urge for pleasure. Need to feel close to another; need to feel comfort and harmony; need to give of self's emotions.
  • Mars (♂) energy; heat; activation; desire. Self-assertive and aggressive urge; sex urge; urge to act decisively. Need to achieve desires; need for physical and sexual excitement.
  • Jupiter (♃): expansion; preservation; grace. Urge toward a larger order or to connect self with something greater than self. Need for faith, trust, and confidence in life and self; need to improve self.
  • Saturn (♄): limitation; cold; contraction; effort. Urge to defend self's structure and integrity; urge toward safety and security through tangible achievement. Need for social approval; need to rely on one's own resources and work.
  • Uranus (♅): change (revolutionary; disruptive; dictatorial); individualistic freedom. Urge toward differentiation, originality, and independence from tradition. Need for change, excitement and expression without restraint.
  • Neptune (♆): nebulousness; imagination; unification. Urge to escape from the limitations of one's self and of the material world. Need to experience a oneness with life, a complete merger with the whole.
  • Pluto (♇): transformation; elimination; regeneration. Urge toward total rebirth; urge to penetrate to the core of experience. Need to refine self; need to let go of the old through pain.

Signs, Elements, Triplicity

Signs are derived as pairs of element (fire, air, earth, water) and triplicity (cardinal, fixed, mutable) and represent modalities, "shapes" or patterns of organizing energy.

The Elements

  • Fire: universal radiant energy, which is excitable, enthusiastic, and which through its light brings color into the world. Experience centered in personal identity.
  • Air: energy relating to the world of archetypal ideas behind the veil of the physical world, energy actualized into specific patterns of thought, geometric lines of force functioning through the mind. Experience concerned with theoretical relations.
  • Water: deep emotion and feeling responses, from compulsive passions to overwhelming fears to all-encompassing acceptance and love of creation. Intuition, sensitivity, vulnerability; deep soul yearnings; attunement to the unconscious.
  • Earth: the physical senses and the here-and-now reality of the material world. Practical reason, patience, self-discipline, endurance and persistence. Cautious, premeditative, conventional, dependable.

Triplicity

  • Cardinal: centrifugal energy; action in a definite direction.
  • Fixed: centripetal energy, radiating inward toward a center; inertia.
  • Mutable: spiralic energy; harmony, oscillation.

The Signs

  • Aries (♈︎): cardinal fire, ruled by Mars. Single-pointed release of energy toward new experience. Self-willed urge for action, self-assertion.
  • Taurus (♉︎): fixed earth, ruled by Venus. Depth of appreciation related to immediate physical sensations. Possessiveness, retentiveness, steadiness.
  • Gemini (♊︎): mutable air, ruled by Mercury. Immediate perception and verbalization of all connections. Changeable curiosity, talkativeness, friendliness.
  • Cancer (♋︎): cardinal water, ruled by the Moon. Instinctive nurturing and protective empathy. Feeling, reserve, moods, sensitivity, self-protection.
  • Leo (♌︎): fixed fire, ruled by the Sun. Sustained warmth of loyalty and radiant vitalization. Pride and urge for recognition, sense of drama.
  • Virgo (♍︎): mutable earth, ruled by Mercury. Spontaneous helpfulness, humility & need to serve. Perfectionism, analysis, fine discrimination.
  • Libra (♎︎): cardinal air, ruled by Venus. Harmonization of all polarities for self-completion. Balance, impartiality, tact.
  • Scorpio (♏︎): fixed water, ruled by Mars (traditional) or Pluto (modern). Penetration through intense emotional power. Compulsive desires, depth, controlled passion, secrecy.
  • Sagittarius (♐︎): mutable fire, ruled by Jupiter. Restless aspiration propelling one toward an ideal. Beliefs, generalizations, ideals.
  • Capricorn (♑︎): cardinal earth, ruled by Saturn. Impersonal determination to get things done. Self-control, caution, reserve and ambition.
  • Aquarius (♒︎): fixed air, ruled by Saturn (traditional) or Uranus (modern). Detached coordination of all people and concepts. Individualistic freedom, extremism.
  • Pisces (♓︎): mutable water, ruled by Jupiter (traditional) or Neptune (modern). Healing compassion for all that suffers. Soul-yearnings, idealism, oneness, inspiration, vulnerability.

Houses

Houses represent concrete domains of experience in relation to the life of the system or person under consideration. All house systems contain 12 houses, and they are classified as angular (action/gaining), succedent (security/maintaining), and cadent (learning/loss), in that order, in 4 groups.

  • Houses are the subject of more debate in terms of meaning than the planets and signs. Stephen Arroyo follows "the founder of modern astrology", Alan Leo, in grouping them in terms of trines, meaning groups of houses at 120 degree angles from each other, and also in associating them somewhat with the elements. Arroyo classifies houses 4, 8, and 12 as "water houses" dealing with "soul and emotional" experiences, houses 10, 2, and 6 as "earth houses" dealing with "material" experiences, houses 1, 5, and 9 as "fire houses" dealing with "identity" experiences, and houses 7, 11, and 3 as "air houses" dealing with "social and intellectual" experiences.
  • Other astrologers have different ways of dividing the houses, sometimes using 1-2-3, 4-5-6, etc instead, and others focused on oppositions, e.g. Noel Tyl who calls the opposite houses 3 and 9 the "axis of the mind".
  • The specific mathematical system for deriving house locations is also a subject of much debate. Whole sign houses line up the house cups with the sign cusps on the zodiac, making it the simplest option. Equal houses use the same house sizes as whole signs but starting at the ascendant. Placidus subdivides the zodiac using quadrants via the Ascendant and Midheaven axes. It is currently the most popular house system because it was in vogue at the time a famous astrology pamphlet was printed in the 1600s. Co-Star uses Porphyry, an older house system it arbitrarily prefers over the others.

Here is an extremely basic description of the houses from Margaret Hone:

  • 1 (angular): the whole person (this is also the Ascendant or "rising sign").
  • 2 (succedent): possessions and feelings of the person.
  • 3 (cadent): short communications. mental interests. nearest relations such as brothers and sisters. neighbors.
  • 4 (angular): home (base), enclosed spaces.
  • 5 (succedent): creativity, risks, pleasures, love, children.
  • 6 (cadent): service; in work, in health.
  • 7 (angular): others in close connection.
  • 8 (succedent): possessions of or from others. legacies, shared feelings. the life-force in birth, sex, death, and after-life.
  • 9 (cadent): longer communications. more profound mental interests.
  • 10 (angular): matters outside the home. public standing. attainment.
  • 11 (succedent): more detached contacts such as friendships. objectives, "hopes and dreams".
  • 12 (cadent): more secluded service. retirement; escape; sacrifice; hidden life of the unconscious.

Aspects

Aspects are angular relationships between planets. They are typically classified as being "easy" or "difficult" based on whether they produce ease of energy flow or tension between the two planets. Tension is not necessarily bad, as it creates a reservoir of energy which can produce great results if an outlet is found. Similarly, ease is not necessarily good, as it can create laziness and lack of motivation.

  • Conjunction (☌): 0 degrees, neutral, the two planets' energies blend.
  • Opposition (☍): 180 degrees, difficult, the two planets oppose each other and must find a balance (signs have same triplicity, same "gender").
  • Square (□): 90 degrees, difficult, the two planets are in tension and have trouble working together, but the difficulties can be overcome through synthesis (signs have same triplicity, opposite "gender").
  • Trine (△): 120 degrees, easy, the two planets work very well together (signs have same element, different triplicity).
  • Sextile (⚹): 60 degrees, easy, the two planets work fairly well together (signs have different elements but are compatible).

Since they act as a sort of connective grammar across a chart, reading aspects in combination with all of the above can be a very complex task, and requires a lot of practice and skill to do cleanly, especially when considering the chart in its totality.

Excerpt: Bleuler on Autism (1911)

Presented below is the text which coined the term "autism". Transcribed from E. Bleuler, Dementia Praecox, pp. 63-68, for source see this twitter post.


The Compound Functions

The complex functions which result from the coordinated operations of the functions previously discussed, such as attention, intelligence, will, and action, are, of course, disturbed to the extent that the elementary (simple) functions on which they depend are altered. Only association and affectivity have to be considered here. However, schizophrenia is characterized by a very peculiar alteration of the relation between the patient's inner life and the external world. The inner life assumes pathological predominance (autism).

Relation to Reality: Autism

The most severe schizophrenics, who have no more contact with the outside world, live in a world of their own. They have encased themselves with their desires and wishes (which they consider fulfilled) or occupy themselves with the trials and tribulations of their persecutory ideas; they have cut themselves off as much as possible from any contact with the external world.

This detachment from reality, together with the relative and absolute predominance of the inner life, we term autism1.

In less severe cases, the affective and logical significance of reality is only somewhat damaged. The patients are still able to move about in the external world but neither evidence nor logic have any influence on their hopes and delusions. Everything which is in contradiction to their complexes simply does not exist for their thinking or feeling.

An intelligent lady who for many years was mistaken for a neurasthenic "had built a wall around herself so closely confining that she often felt as if she actually were in a chimney." An otherwise socially acceptable woman patient sings at a concert, but unfortunately once started she cannot stop. The audience begins to whistle and hoot and create a disturbance; she does not bother a bit, but continues singing and feels quite satisfied when she finally ends. A well-educated young woman, whose illness is hardly noticeable suddenly moves her bowels before a whole social gathering and cannot comprehend the embarrassment which she causes among her friends. During the course of about ten years, a patient gave me from time to time a note on which the same four words were always written and which signified that he had been unjustly incarcerated. It did not make any difference to him if he handed me a half-dozen of these notes at the same time. He did not understand the senselessness of his action when one discussed it with him. Withal, this patient showed good judgment about other patients and worked independently in his ward. Very frequently schizophrenics will give us numerous letters without expecting any answer; or they will ask us a dozen questions one after another without even giving us time to answer. They predict an event for a certain day, but are so little bothered when the prophecy does not come to pass that they do not even seek to find explanations. Even where reality has apparently become identical with the patient's pathological creations, it will often be ignored.

The wishes and desires of many patients revolve around their release from the hospital. Yet they remain indifferent to the actual discharge. One of our patients who has a marked complex about children made an attempt to murder his wife because she only bore him four children in ten years. Yet he is quite different to the children themselves. Other patients are in love with someone. If this person is actually present, he makes no impression on them at all; if he does, they do not care. One patient constantly begs to be given the key to the door of his ward. When it is finally given to him, he does not know what to do with it and returns it almost at once. He tries a thousand times each day to open the door. If it is left unlocked, he becomes embarrassed and does not know what to do. He continuously pursues the doctor at each of his visits with the words: "Please, Doctor." Asked what he desires, he appears surprised and has nothing further to say. A woman patient asked to see her doctor. When she was summoned to the interview, she at least was able after a few minutes of perplexity to make her wishes known by pointing to his wedding ring. For weeks on end, a mother exerts every means at her command to see her child. When permission is granted her, she prefers to have a glass of wine. For years a woman longs for a divorce from her husband. When at long last she gets her divorce, she refuses to believe in it at all, and becomes furious if she is not addressed by her husband's name. Many a patient consumes himself with anxiety over his imminent death but will not take the least precaution for his self-preservation and remains totally unmoved in the face of real danger to his life.

Autism is not always to be detected at the very first glance. Initially the behavior of many patients betrays nothing remarkable. It is only on prolonged observation that one sees how much they always seek their own way, and how very little they permit their environment to influence them. Even severe chronic patients show quite good contact with their environment with regard to indifferent, everyday affairs. They chatter, participate in games, seek out stimulation---but they are always selective. They keep their complexes to themselves, never saying a word about them and not wishing to have them touched upon in any way from the outside.

Thus the indifference of patients toward what would be considered their nearest and dearest interest becomes understandable. Other things are of far greater importance to them. They do not react any more to influences from the outside. They appear "stuporous" even where no other disturbance inhibits their will or actions. The external world must often appear to them as rather hostile since it tends to disturb them in their fantasies. However, there are also cases where the shutting off from the outside world is caused by contrary reasons. Particularly in the beginning of their illness, these patients quite consciously shun any contact with reality because their affects are so powerful that they must avoid everything which might arouse their emotions. The apathy toward the outer world is a secondary one springing from a hypertrophied sensitivity.

Autism is also manifested by many patients externally. (Naturally, this is, as a rule, unintentional.) Not only do they not concern themselves with anything around them, but they sit around with faces constantly averted, looking at a blank wall; or they shut off their sensory portals by drawing a skirt or bed clothes over their heads. Indeed, formerly, when the patients were mostly abandoned to their own devices, they could often be found in bent-over, squatting positions, an indication that they were trying to restrict as much as possible of the sensory surface area of their skin.

Misunderstandings stemming from the autistic thought processes can hardly ever, or only with great difficulty, be corrected by the patients.

A hebephrenic lies on a bench in a thoroughly vile mood. As she catches sight of me, she attempts to sit up. I beg her not to disturb herself. She answers in an irritated tone that if she could sit up she would not be lying down, apparently imagining that I was reproaching her for lying on the bench. Several times, using different words, I repeat the suggestion that she remain laying quietly as she was. She merely becomes more and more irritated. Everything I say is interpreted falsely by her in the sense and direction of her autistic train of thought.

The autistic world has as much reality for the patient as the true one, but his is a different kind of reality. Frequently, they cannot keep the two kinds of reality separated from each other even though they can make the distinction in principle. A patient heard us speaking of a certain Dr. N. Immediately afterwards he asks whether it was a hallucination or whether we had spoken of a Dr. N.---Busch (doing reading experiments) has demonstrated the very poor ability of patients to differentiate between idea and perception.

The reality of the autistic world may also seem more valid than that of reality itself; the patients then hold their fantasy world for the real, reality for an illusion. They no longer believe in the evidence of their own senses. Schreber described his attendants as "miracled up, changeable individuals." The patient may be very aware that other people judge the environment differently. He also knows that he himself sees it in that form but it is not real to him. "They say, that you are the doctor, but I don't know it," or even "But you are really Minister N." To a considerable extent, reality is transformed through illusions and largely replaced by hallucinations (twilight states, Dämmerzustände).

In the usual hallucinatory conditions, more validity is, as a rule, ascribed to the illusions; yet the patients continue to act and orient themselves in accordance with reality. Many of them, however, no longer act at all, not even in accordance with their autistic thinking. This may occur in stuporous conditions, or the autism itself may reach such a high degree of intensity, that the patients' actions lose all relation to the blocked-off reality. The sick person deals with the real world as little as the normal person deals with his dreams. Frequently both disturbances, the stuporous immobility and the exclusion of reality, occur simultaneously.

Patients who show no clouding of consciousness often appear much less autistic than they really are because they are able to suppress their autistic thoughts or, like certain hysterics, seem to be occupied with them only in a theoretical way, and ordinarily allow them only very little influence upon their actions. These patients rarely remain under our observation for very long because we are inclined to discharge them as improved or cured2.

A complete and constant exclusion of the external world appears, if at all, only in the most severe degree of stupor. In milder cases the real and the autistic worlds exist not only side by side, but often becomes entangled with one another in the most illogical manner. The doctor is at one moment not only the hospital-physician and at another the shoemaker S., but he is both in the same thought-content of the patient. A patient who was still fairly well-mannered and capable of work, made herself a rag-doll which she considered to be the child of her imaginary lover. When this "lover" of hers made a trip to Berlin, she wanted to send "the child" after him, as a precautionary measure. But she first went to the police, to ask whether it would be considered as illegal to send "the child" as luggage instead of on a passenger ticket.

Wishes and fears constitute the contents of autistic thinking. In those rare cases where the contradictions to reality are not felt at all, it is the wishes alone which are involved; fears appear when the patient senses the obstacles to the fulfillment of his wishes. Even where no true delusions arise autism is demonstrable in the patients' inability to cope with reality, in their inappropriate reactions to outside influences (irritability), and in their lack of resistance to every and any idea and urge.

In the same way as autistic feeling is detached from reality, autistic thinking obeys its own special laws. To be sure, autistic thinking makes use of the customary logical connections insofar as they are suitable but it is in no way bound to such logical laws. Autistic thinking is directed by affective needs; the patient thinks in symbols, in analogies, in fragmentary concepts, in accidental connections. Should the same patient turn back to reality he may be able to think sharply and logically.

Thus we have to distinguish between realistic and autistic thinking which exist side by side in the same patient. In realistic thinking the patient orients himself quite well in time and space. He adjusts his actions to reality insofar as they appear normal. The autistic thinking is the source of the delusions, of the crude offenses against logic and propriety, and all the other pathological symptoms. The two forms of thought are often fairly well separated so that the patient is able at times to think completely autistically and at other times completely normally. In other cases the two forms mix, going on to complete fusion, as we saw in the cases cited above.

The patient need not become conscious of the peculiarity, of the deviation of his autistic thinking from his previous realistic type of thinking. However, the more intelligent patients may for years gauge the difference. They experience the autistic state as painful; only rarely as pleasurable. They complain that reality seems different from what it was before. Things and people are no longer what they are supposed to be. They are changed, strange, no longer have any relationship to the patient. A released patient described it, "as if she were running around in an open grave, so strange did the world appear." Another "had started to think herself into an entirely different life. By comparison, everything was quite different; even her sweetheart was not the way she had imagined him." A still very intelligent woman patient considered it a change for the better that, at will, she could transpose herself into a state of the greatest (sexual and religious) bliss. She even wanted to give us instructions to enable us to do likewise.

Autism must not be confused with "the unconscious." Both autistic, and realistic thinking can be conscious as well as unconscious.


  1. [Footnote 19 in original] Autism nearly coincides with what Freud has termed auto-erotism. Since, however, for this author the concepts of libido and erotism are so much broader than for other schools of thought, his term cannot very well be used here without giving rise to many misunderstandings. In essence the term, autism, designates in a positive way the same concept that P. Janet (321) formulated negatively as "the loss of the sense of reality." However, we cannot accept Janet's term without discussion because he understands this symptom in a far too general sense. The sense of reality is not entirely lacking in the schizophrenic. It fails only in relation to matters threatening to contract his complexes. Our relatively advanced hospital cases can very correctly comprehend and retain such experiences and events which are irrelevant to their complexes. These patients can give detailed anamneses which turn out to be quiet correct. in short, they show daily that they have not lost their sense of reality, but that this capacity is inhibited or falsified in certain connections. The very same patient who for years never seemed to bother about his family can, when he is anxious to escape from his persecutors in the hospital, suddenly come up with a number of perfectly correct and valid reasons why he is so badly needed at home. However, this does not prevent him from not drawing the other consequences of his deliberations. If he were really discharged form the hospital, or if easy conditions for release were offered to him, it would never occur to him to do anything to realize his "longing" for his family. 

  2. [Footnote 20 in original] The very common preoccupation of young hebephrenics with the "deepest questions" is nothing but an autistic manifestation. The "questions" about which they are so concerned are those that cannot be decided because reality has no part in them. Freud considers doubt and uncertainty as a preliminary stage of what he calls auto-erotism. (cf. Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse, Vol. 1, p. 410). 

On Can't vs Won't and the Will

I had a conversation with a friend earlier regarding the distinction between "can't" and "won't". It seems straightforward at first, something taught as a joke in grade school: "can I go to the bathroom?" "yes, you can, but may you? No." But this example doesn't explain much; the smug teacher asserts their authority over the student, but what is the difference here, really? The student isn't permitted to go to the bathroom, under threat of [...], which may well be practically expressed as a "can't".

Let's try a rephrasing. The teacher says instead, "you're physically capable of going to the bathroom, but I won't let you." In terms of the teacher's perspective, the true statement is "I can't prevent you from trying to leave, but I won't give you permission to go." Now we have our first distinction between a "can't" and a "won't". What do they mean?

In first analysis, "I can't prevent you from trying to leave" means that the teacher acknowledges something outside of their will: the student has the capacity to move their own body and to attempt to leave, regardless of what the teacher wants. However, the "I won't give you permission to go" is an assertion of the teacher's will. A tacit threat: "your physical actions may be outside of my own will, but I will take active recourse against you if you attempt to leave. I will punish you for going against me, so you should do as I say."

In invoking a "can't", the teacher notices something that we may call "nature", forces acting beyond their control, strict laws of motion and potential which delimit the space of possibility inherent in any situation. But in invoking a "won't", the teacher performs an act of will, or more precisely, makes a promise: "so long as I stand by my prior statement (so long as my spoken promise is good), I will act using what power I possess in accordance with my desire (I will carry out what I have promised)."

The vague outlines are starting to appear, of the "can't" as a sort of metaphysical statement on inherent boundaries existing in the physical world, the "won't" as a statement of individual intent within the symbolic or social world. Consider it in terms of "doing": the "can't" says "doing it is not possible given that I exist in a world of external rules", whereas the "won't" says "I am perfectly able to do it, but I am imposing a rule, as if from an external source, under which I am not permitted to do it". To put it more simply, the "can't" is impossible, while the "won't" is possible, but "not permitted" based on my own decision.

The effective distinction comes down to agency. If "nature" is the preventative agent, then I can't. But if I am the preventative agent, then I won't. And yet, the two terms have a sort of slippage. Consider the statement "I can't come to the party tonight." Unless prompted by a material issue ("my car broke down"), is this not really a "won't", a decision made by the agent to skip the party? What's going on?

The most straightforward read is that a "won't" slides into a "can't" when the deciding agent wants to avoid "being seen as" responsible for the outcome. It deflects the justification for the decision, its causal origin, from their own will, to some external source. But for many, the slide from "won't" into "can't" isn't itself an intentional or willful decision; it's as if some external-yet-still-internal force "made" them skip the party, against their beliefs about their own desire to attend.

We call this an "excuse": "I really wanted to go, but I just got so tired, so I can't come." What this does is present the "tiredness" as an external, almost mythological force acting upon the agent, preventing them from attending. In truth, it was a decision made by the agent to prioritize their tiredness over the party. Yet, this truth is invisible to many: they maintain an honest belief that they made no decision.

Ironically, then, one can bring more of life within their will by acknowledging that, yes, I made a choice here. The cause wasn't "my tiredness", like some threatening tiger, but my own decision to attend to this tiredness. It is in this way that a desire to avoid blame or social consequence, by externalizing one's own choices, leads to depression, an inability to bring life under one's own control. One feels assaulted by external forces, not realizing that these forces were created by them, as a means of defense, against this very same [...] originally threatened by that grade school teacher, who refused the bathroom pass. One's attempt to control others, to carefully get what one wants while avoiding consequences, becomes the prison controlling them.

What shadowy forces lie behind this distinction, between nature and the will? The world of society, of Man interacting with Man, has a far more malleable quality than the world of Nature, of God. Yet, is it not what we call "technology" that introduces this same quality of malleability into nature, enacting new "hooks" for the will? With the expansion of technology and thus the will, more and more do we become subject not to the hard laws of Nature or God, but to the soft laws of Men. And as with the example above, does this not create fear of the [...], the giving up of will, alongside the enactment of one's own prison? Technology in this sense appears as both our great savior, freeing us from absolute necessity and conflict with nature, as well as our great enslaver, expanding the clash of wills, the war of Man against Man, raising the bars of our inner prisons ever higher. And the key to this prison is, now more than ever, education and mastery: the raising of the individual will to the challenges one places before it. Through this, one can unmask the terror of the [...] for what it truly is: the desire of the Other.

Internet Gaze

The gaze is the medium of desire. Do not mistake the gaze for the look, one can gaze without eyes. More and more this is how we gaze and experience the gaze of others, as we remain locked in our rooms, afraid of the miasmas which inhabit the body of the other.

They have no eyes, yet I must be seen. The gaze happens here too: flowing into the spaces between words, embedded in certain gestures of the other, certain clicks, certain words, figures emerging, the gestalt of fragments of acts, yet more than the sum of its parts. Its absence too: "left on read", the waiting between each message, the hope of witnessing the right avatar illuminate your screen. All these micro-experiences affect our experience of the gaze, and from these ephemera, we reconstruct our being-together.

We must find God where we can, and He no longer stands in the heavens gazing at all of us, the ultimate fantasy, being desired by God. We take what we can get. If not God, then engagement metrics. If not an omniscience, then a society. Is God real? Irrelevant, none of these things are real, and yet what could be more real than satisfaction?

Those who complain of simulacra, words whose meanings evaporate into mist, networks detached from reality---they miss the ground truth, of experience as more real than words, and words do more than they say. There is an old critique of anime, attacking it as "fake" relative to the "real" of photographic representation. But the critics miss that it's not how the image appears, but what it does that convinces us of its reality or otherwise.

tfw no gf

A tweet appears on your timeline. A friend. The glyphs spell out "tfw no gf." You feel a twinge of sympathy, press "Like", and resume scrolling.

You're in bed. As you wait for sleep, a feeling emerges. Your thoughts tumble and swirl. A sensation of want emerges, echoing, repeating in your mind. You realize, you are having tfw no gf.

Despite the suffering, you realize something. This is an opportunity, to know that feel when no gf. But you need to gather some info. Ask some questions.

What do you want?
A gf.
What does that mean?
I don't know.
What does it look like?
An image appears before you. A couple holding hands.

Tell me more.
Well, I think it would be nice to have a gf. She'd be hot and we would have sex. She would make me feel happy all the time. I wouldn't feel like I was missing anything anymore.

Where did that come from?
I don't know.
What exactly is causing you to want a gf?
Other people have this. They're happy.
What do you mean?
Cmon, it's a common thing, right? To have a lover. A basic human thing. Everyone has a gf. Why can't I?

Oh. You're comparing yourself to what you believe is normal. Well. What have you done to find a gf?
Nothing.
And yet you still expect one?
Yes.
Why?
Other people don't seem to put in any work and they find relationships. I deserve that too.

You can't expect to get what you want without doing anything.
I know. But it feels useless even when I do try. Nothing happens either way. Yet the wanting remains. Every time nothing happens, I feel even worse.

You feel worse?
Yes, I feel rage, frustration.
At what?
At nothing. Well, at something. But it could be any number of things. I could hate women as a group, or a particular woman. I could hate my friends who seem satisfied. I could hate... myself, for failing.

What's it gonna be?
I choose to hate myself.
How does that feel?
There are parts of me that fuck it all up. Those parts are the bad parts. But right now it feels like all of me. Every time I feel this way, it just makes me remember those parts of myself I hate.

What part of yourself do you hate?
I used to hate my body. Now I don't as much. But I still hate other things. The way I act in certain situations without thinking. The times I make mistakes and open up and get hurt. The way people seem to perceive me with disdain. I wish I could never be hurt. I wish I could just be chill and relaxed like the people I envy, and then I could get what I want.

You know this is a catch-22 right?
Yes. But I don't care. I'm having a tantrum, I guess. I have wants! Why is everyone ignoring me! Someone please listen! Help me!!!!

I've been listening this whole time, you know. You're trapped in a narrow pattern of thought. I know it hurts, but you even articulated the problem already: that you're doing nothing and expecting something to happen.

You have more agency than you believe. Go make a change! Something new! See what happens! Then report back and we'll talk again. But surely you see that this doesn't help, and that you are a lot more than you're imagining yourself to be?

Yes. You're right. I see it. It hurts because I want to do nothing yet have everything, and I keep falling into the same ditch. But I feel comforted knowing that I'm not defined by this failure, this lack. I only believe to myself that I am. I am more than this. It's time to switch to a practical mode of thinking. Time to see what I can do.

You pull out your phone and look at your timeline. You felt an urge earlier to make a tweet, to type out "tfw no gf", but you know now it will accomplish nothing. Instead, you send a DM to a friend you haven't heard from in a while. "Hey, wanna hang out this weekend?"

"Nobody Owes Anyone Anything"

"Nobody owes you, or me, or anyone, anything" is a stance I hear from friends sometimes. It makes sense in the context of a perpetual imposition of others' desire on one's life, to think "I don't owe them anything [e.g. when someone talks to me in public in an unwanted way]", but what happens when this becomes universalized into a life philosophy, into an ethics? Is this tenable?

The straightforward step in asking this question is to consider it in terms of the categorical imperative: what would the world be like, if this were universalized? If nobody felt they owed anyone anything? There's multiple ways to approach this. Assuming the most radical elaboration, everyone would act in terms of what was best for themselves, all obligations arising from implicit or explicit contracts, and even those only contingent on whether each party felt that they cared to maintain the contract once established. Many individuals might act out of a felt sense of morality, but this would hold no bearing on everyone else. Ultimately each person's behavior would fall back to an individualist "what is best for me?" mindset, a sort of anarchist libertarian situation.

This seems in accord with many peoples' implicit vision of ethics. So, what is lost? If follow Arendt in defining religion using its Latin roots, as "that which binds back"1, then the idea of "nobody owes anyone anything" implies an ultimate loss of grounding for religion, for a binding back, beyond one's personal preference. The "use" of religion in a culture is exactly that it is what binds. What are the 10 commandments if not ropes, shackles that constrain us, but which paradoxically establish something greater? A collective binding, a common social norm that is truly followed by all, is the beginning of a commons: if we can all agree that "thou shalt not kill", then we become free in a new way, to wander the streets without worrying about being killed.

So the assertion of absolute freedom, "nobody owes anyone anything", also destroys those constraints that produce an entirely different sort of freedom. And I think the attempt to negate it raises one of the most important questions of modern times: "what do we really owe each other?", which we can interpret in terms of "what sorts of freedoms, what sorts of commons do we want to guarantee?"

It's interesting to me that those who avow "nobody owes anyone anything" will, in the same breath, also invoke the idea of regulation: "nobody owes anyone anything, but people shouldn't be allowed to do certain things (e.g. stalk someone on social media)." This raises the paradox of "if nobody owes anyone anything, then how will people be prevented from taking certain actions?" The recourse is to an institutional authority, like the social media website, who will enforce certain rules on their behalf. "No individual owes anyone anything, but institutions owe us something."

The problem with drawing such a line is that institutions are run by people. If those in charge of the institution also believe that "I don't owe anyone anything", then each regulation is subject to the criterion of "what value will this bring the institution, and by extension, me?" The notion of an "ideal" never comes into play, because each collective action is translated into terms of personal gain. So in this world, the only way to "make" an institution do anything, is to raise the stakes for them in terms of their own criteria of value such that they fall in line. In other words, to threaten the institution with punishment unless they take the actions you want. This is effectively how the recent "cancellation" events work: "we will boycott you and undermine your bottom line, unless you fall in line with what we want."

Institutionally speaking, this creates a prioritization of image over substance; the government becomes concerned with their own PR over embodying any actual ideal of good, over any material concerns that citizens may have. The only way out of this trap, this child-like "I want to avoid punishment / we will punish you" is to accept that perhaps there should be certain ideas to which we bind ourselves, in order to produce a greater good. But of course, in our "postmodern" era, many can no longer identify a greater good, as philosophically, we only accept the "lesser" good of negating-the-bad, of subverting that which is evil.

So the first step toward a new "religion" is identifying a positive good, as opposed to a merely negative one. But we can never do this if we cling tightly to the stance of "nobody owes anyone anything", because the good is that which we must believe that everybody owes to each other, an idea which we can measure ourselves and others against, and produce a collective norm.


  1. "In contrast to Greece, where piety depended upon the immediate revealed presence of the gods, [in Rome,] religion literally meant religare: to be tied back, obligated, to the enormous, almost superhuman and hence always legendary effort to lay the foundations, to build the cornerstone, to found for eternity." H. Arendt, "What Is Authority?". 

A Dialogue on Evangelion

A: So you finished watching Evangelion, yes?

I: Yes, I finished watching the entire TV series earlier this evening.

A: Ah, so we don't need to worry about revealing any spoilers, then. What did you think?

I: Honestly, I felt dissatisfied. Almost cheated. I feel like the show gave many hints to plot elements which were never resolved. A lot was never explained.

A: Oh? Like what?

I: Well, for example, the role of SEELE in the plot was never explained. What did they want, or why did they want to cause the third impact? And what exactly is Adam? What about Lilith? It just felt like, even though the show ended, there was a lot I didn't understand about the world.

A: And that's what left you dissatisfied? A lack of understanding about the show's world?

I: Yes.

A: Why?

I: I'm not sure. In a way, I felt cheated, like if the show's going to bring up all these plot elements, why wont it explain them? I was expecting them to be explained, but they never were.

A: Is it a show's responsibility to explain itself?

I: I think it is.

A: Why?

I: Otherwise it would be unsatisfying, like how I felt the ending of Evangelion was.

A: Is it the show's responsibility to satisfy you?

I: Well, I guess not. But why would I bother watching if I didn't expect to get some sort of satisfaction through the show?

A: That's a fair point, which might be worth addressing later. But let's keep going, assuming that it is indeed the responsibility of the show to satisfy its audience. What I want to ask is, why is it that that the show revealing more of its plot elements and world would satisfy you, as opposed to how it actually ended?

I: Well, I want to know! When you reveal something in the world, I read that as asking me to pay attention to it, so that I might later understand how it all fits together.

A: So that's what brings you satisfaction? Having all the elements of the world snap into place?

I: Yes. I want the plot and world to make sense to me by the end.

A: Why? Or, what exactly makes that feeling of "the show makes sense" so satisfying?

I: Well, it's a like a relief. I put in all this effort to watch a show, and to follow its plot and the inner logic of its world. So of course I would want it to fit together into a "whole" by the end. Otherwise I'm left with this feeling of "something missing", why did I even bother watching if it doesn't snap into place?

A: So, to be clear, what you mean when you say you want the show to "make sense", is that you want know an explanation for each of the events occurring in the world? So that it fits into a nice causal arc, leaving no threads hanging.

I: Yes. I want to know all about it, so that nothing is "missing".

A: But what's so satisfying about that?

I: I feel like when I pick up a show, I want to enter into its world, and undergo this process of discovery, where each of the show's elements appear and then can be explained later by reasons, like solving a puzzle. And then, once the show ends, I want to feel like the puzzle is solved, so that I can exit the show's world and feel like the events transpired as a coherent unity.

A: If I understand correctly, what you want is for the show to present you with some experience as an observer, such that, through knowledge gained from what the show presents to you, the show is demonstrated to abide by some logic you find legible? And Evangelion failed at that, because certain events in the show were not provided with logical explanations?

I: Yes.

A: I see. So, in other words, you want the show to relate to you as an observer in a particular way -- you want the God's Eye View. So that you can understand the ultimate reason for all events that transpire.

I: Well, I'm not sure I'd put it that way. But yes, that sounds accurate. It's like why I enjoy history and science, I want all the pieces that I can see to fit together. I don't want any lingering "why?"s.

A: Now we can return to an earlier point. Is a show obligated to provide this to you? That all the pieces of the universe fit together from the perspective of an observer?

I: Well, I guess it's not obligated to do that, but I don't understand why a show would do anything else. It's just not satisfying to me otherwise.

A: Perhaps the show was not made for you. What if it were made for someone else?

I: What do you mean? Who else could a show be made for if not its audience?

A: Well, what if the show were made for the benefit of its director? What could he get out of it?

I: That doesn't make sense. How could a director make a show for himself? Isn't he supposed to work for his audience?

A: To some extent, yes, as something needs to fund the show's development, and who else if not the viewing public? But all the same, we can still wonder what a director gets out of making a show. Perhaps they're aiming for their own satisfaction. And some directors are satisfied by pleasing their viewers, but for what other reason might they create a show?

I: I dunno. Maybe for some sort of personal reason?

A: I agree. Let's say Evangelion was made not to appease the viewers, but to entertain something personal about the director. What could this be?

I: Shinji seems like the most richly developed character in the show, so maybe the director was writing themselves as Shinji?

A: That makes the most sense to me as well. The director writing themselves as Shinji, trying to work through some of the problems they face in their life. And isn't it interesting how all these questions line up? Shinji asks himself "why do I pilot Eva? [is it so people like me?]" The director may well be asking himself "why do I create anime? [is it so my viewers like me?]" And even the viewer, after watching, asks himself "why do I watch anime? [is it so the show can satisfy me?]"

I: I guess that makes sense. But it still doesn't answer my question of what can a show do except try to satisfy me?

A: What does Evangelion do if not provoke these questions? You were dissatisfied by the form of the show, that it failed to follow your narrative expectations. What if that was precisely the point, to ask you to look at your own motivations for watching, just as Shinji looks at his own motivations for piloting?

I: What's the point in that? Seems dumb.

A: What's the point in asking questions? It seems to me that all understanding starts with a question, of why? And was discovering the answer to "why?" not exactly what makes a narrative arc satisfying to you? The only difference here is that the director of the show refuses to answer the particular "why?" question for you: he can solve for you the puzzle of "why do the show's elements exist in this particular arrangement?", but he can't tell you "why do you, the viewer watch anime?"

I: Ugh, that's so annoying. Seems like a lot of extra effort. I watch TV so I can relax after a long day, not to raise questions about myself requiring further thought.

A: Yes, I agree to an extent: it's a lot of extra effort, to deal with a piece of art that forces you to ask yourself questions, rather than containing the question and the answer within its form. And that's exactly why I think Evangelion is a far deeper work of art than most anime in existence: it's one of the few shows that the viewer must grapple with to understand, even after the show concludes itself. But the show does contain a hint to solving the puzzle. Specifically, how does Shinji answer his own "why?" question at the end of the show?

I: Weird question. I'm not used to seeing characters like that. I mean, the ending felt redundant, like it just repeated what we already knew about Shinji. How do you figure?

A: Right, well, that's another facet of Evangelion that makes it complex, is that you're forced to deal with the characters' own knowledge being different from your own. But what if you tried anyway, to understand what Shinji was thinking?

I: I guess I can try. It's like, Shinji asked himself a bunch of questions and tried to dig into things he thought he knew, but actually had no evidence for; he just assumed those things and then believed them. And those questions, in undermining his beliefs, opened up new avenues of understanding.

A: Yes! So can we not do the same approach? Why do you watch anime? You said earlier that it's supposed to be satisfying, or relaxing, and also that this satisfaction comes from the show fully explaining itself to you as the viewer. What is it about this full explanation that feels so satisfying? Or, what exactly is the unmet need within yourself that the shows you like meet?

I: If I were to own up to it, I'd call it "escapism". I want the show to feel like a different world of its own, where things make sense. And I guess that's because, to some extent, the rest of my life might not make sense.

A: What does it mean when you say that the rest of your life doesn't make sense?

I: Oh, it's just that, I deal with a lot of unexpected events at work, and the world seems like it's in such a crazy place right now, with all sorts of political and cultural events happening every day. It feels like a relief to enter into a world where things do make sense, and I think that's what I expect to receive from TV when I watch it.

A: I buy that. It's admirable you own up to it. I can understand why you would be upset that a show doesn't deliver such an experience.

I: Thanks. I guess we each get something different out of our experiences with art, eh? I can also see the other side now. Maybe some people do want to be challenged by what they watch, in a way that makes them reflect on their own lives. But I guess it's just not for me.

A: I'm glad we agree. You might enjoy Evangelion more at another point in your life. I recommend giving it another shot when you feel ready.

I: Thanks! I might do just that! Anyway I just got a page from work, I need to figure out why our website just went down.

A: Good luck! Talk to you later!