. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


You sowed a baby and you reaped a bomb.

I’ve been re-re-re-reading Christopher Bollas’s short essay on moods: it is a complicated thing to take in because of the delicacy with which it calculates what a mood does.

A mood is not a sustained orientation toward the world, but an affective episode: being a curmudgeon is different than being in a curmudgeonly mood.  At the same time, Bollas points out, the concept provokes spatial metaphors. Just as one goes to sleep, one gets into moods; and just as one wakes up and can reflect on sleep, one can get some distance on a mood.  A mood is thereby an affective impasse, a theatre of self-alteration that comes from “within” but with which one does not have to feel entirely identified.  Why am I in such a ______ mood?

Bollas’s essay is not about ordinary moodiness, that flickering rise and fall of intensities that can seem arbitrary, self-indulgent, and dramatically attached to a moment. He does, however, distinguish malignant from generative moodiness, noting that the malignant mood has a manipulative aim, whereas the generative mood is expressed in a repeated pattern of getting into a state.  It’s the latter that interests him. Specifically, he’s providing an account of the kind of mood that “conserves” an affective style of relating to the world that was produced in childhood. When the child lacks a trust-producing knowing and holding relation that that ought to have been available for nurturing her truths, she develops moods that express her unheeded need and/or the cost of its neglect or betrayal.

Those moods, he argues, structure “character.” Yet what interests me about his view of moods is that  they also constitute a tiny, minor mode of detaching from or interrupting one’s usual way of being, that long term encrustation we call “personality.”  If what he says is plausible, this kind of mood is a measure of the cost of being who one mostly is.  It is what falls out of the set of things that you come to identify with as you, while continuing to be in you as a repeated way of responding to situations. The generative mood performs a structural dissociation between normative personality and those affects that could not find a world for their flourishing.

Bollas writes that therefore moodiness performs the subject’s non-presence to the situation she’s in.  But this version of non-presence does not necessarily involve extreme dissociation or post-traumatic splitting. So, say, you’re in a mood.  How do you know, and how do others know? Events take place, or maybe you’re just sitting somewhere doing something, alone or not.  You aren’t psychotic, and when you transact with the world in embodied or imaginary ways you act according to some norms that other people would recognize as appropriate. But you, or others, sense that the events that take place in the present are not affecting you the way one might expect.  You say, or they say, you’re in a mood.

So, to riff on: a mood is a snail trail from some other situation, a state that has lagged on.  A mood reveals your affective habitation of the archaic. It says nothing about where your consciousness is.  Mood here isn’t the same as some musical atmospherics or grammatical tendency: it’s an affective membrane that saturates the space of your activity in the present and protects you from being redirected by what is happening.  It delays adjustment.  It’s affective stubbornness.

One thing this conceptualization of regressive affective intensity implies is that there is a neutral state that isn’t a mood.  That can’t be right, but what then constitutes the tacit standard?  Presumably, in that state you interact with the world in a way that lines up affectively with the mood of the world.  But Teresa Brennan would tell us that we are never affectively quite in synch with the world’s mood: we’re always adjusting.  Which is, I bet, why moods are so often represented as weather:. The taken for granted is a normative alignment.  So the temporal stretch that a mood indicates must involve a kind of affective smudge or gluey immobility that interrupts an expected cadence.

In the case studies that follow his general description, Bollas posits a few different ways that a mood can be a regression of sorts: an affective stuckness in the present that re-enacts a childhood habit of defensive or adaptive response.  I’m not too enthusiastic about theories that cast the present as an effect of the past’s efficient causality as though there’s been no middle, remediation, overdetermination, or history:  for one thing, one may develop many styles of enacting a structure as one gets older.  (I hesitate here because a psychoanalyst friend tells me that most people shrink their adaptive capacity as they age, claiming that stuckness expresses authenticity or self-acceptance. Oh well!)

What Bollas writes here adds another whole worlding activity to the mix of what constitutes ordinary non-sovereignty (unintended enduring affect, in this case) so I’m pretty excited about that.  I don’t think you can intend a mood in his terms. You can produce an affective atmosphere through behavioral prompts (like going into the classroom cheerfully), but that’s a different kind of thing than the recalcitrant affective response scenario that he’s considering.

The title of this post is from Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971). It’s a delightful description of the trusting autonomy that at best flourishes between parent and child.   Here he is writing about adolescence. In a way he is saying that adolescence can put adults in a mood.  Winnicott defines the adolescent as that stage of being at which, ideally, the subject has the most developed capacity for freedom but the least felt obligation to shoulder responsibility for the world. But adults get anxious at that juncture.  First, because the adolescent is too free to destroy things (including the parent). He writes that the adolescent needs to be able to destroy the parent (and not worry about preserving the parent) so that she can leave and return as a fully fleshed out being with a foundation that does not feel fragile. But perhaps also the parent’s mood is a reenactment of its own earlier resignation in the face of unsupported freedom.

Anyway, I hiccupped with laughter when I read that phrase, and imagined a whole series of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards embossed with **You Sowed a Baby and you Reaped a Bomb!**   But it would be unfair to make people be seen looking so ambivalent at the evidence of their success.


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Michael Eigen’s “Abstinence and the Schizoid Ego” (1973) (“The Electrified Tightrope,” ed. Adam Phillips, 1993) organizes a discussion of ego withdrawal around a question of what it means, structurally and conceptually, for a part of one’s ego to be detached and expressing “life-rejecting tendencies.” Eigen relates 3 clinical cases of patients who preserved destructive attachments to their lives (one sabotaged his career by failing to complete a dissertation, another vegetated in front of the television for months and a third was trapped in an endless cycle of failed attempts at rehabilitating from alcoholism). After delineating what these cases have in common, Eigen uses a contrast between Winnicott and Guntrip’s description of the withdrawn ego structure to suggest a version of the “schizoid ego” that is detached *without* necessarily representing selfhood’s core (Winnicott) or libidinal regression (Guntrip).
Eigen writes: “Winnicott speaks of a true, silent, inviolable self, beyond all usual communication with the outside world. This silent self appears safe in a hidden enclosure, out of reach of all impingement” (7). In contrast to Winnicott’s “unbroken – unbreakable? – kernel of the true self,” Eigen cites Guntrip’s model of “such phenomena…as expressions of the regressed aspect of the libidinal ego, the most hidden and withdrawn part of the personality, driven out of contact by fear…the regressed ego, as described by Guntrip, is wholly passive. It seeks the womb” (7).
As a corrective to these two schemes, Eigen offers a third reading of the detached ego. He writes:
“The ego structure described here, on the other hand, is intensely alive and active in its compressed density. It is experienced in an aura of power – it exudes a sense of power. The respite here is not passivity in the womb, not a sleep, but an active seeing stillness, compact and electrifying.” A little later, Eigen continues, “The ego structure appears to be what Elkin has called the “schizoid ego,” an aspect of the self which “retreats to a hidden, detached existence” to preserve a sense of psychic freedom or safety” (8).
Although I am not sure whether the difference between Eigen’s conceptualization of the “active seeing stillness” of the “schizoid ego” is altogether different from Bollas’ idea of the mood as “occasions for the expression of a conservative object” (211), I do wonder whether Eigen makes space for what you refer in your post to as, “many styles of enacting a structure as one gets older.” While Eigen is, like Bollas, focused on the ego’s present relation to a past experience, nevertheless, I am curious about what it means for the question of “the past’s efficient causality” (Berlant) that Bollas’ model necessitates reparative working-through (integrating the arrested emotional moment into the pantheon of transformational objects) versus Eigen’s idea that “actual isolation and abstinence tended to bring the schizoid ego out into the open as a preliminary step toward its integration with the central or communal ego.” While both Bollas and Eigen imagine the eventual integration of exiled affects, I wonder about the possible value of framing detachment as “active” and “electrifying,” rather than strictly the doomed reemergence of the repressed and correlatively, the idea of “abstinence” rather than other more conventional approaches to working-through?

Also I thought the image at the end of the post of hiccuping with laughter at Winnocott’s phrase was especially compelling in the context of the post, in so far as the mood *is* itself a kind of affective “hiccup.”

Comment by ashtor

wow Lauren–a v. interesting set of ideas. max. freedom and max destructivess is exactly right– the other thing that interests me about moods is how demanding other people’s are–and how difficult to tug away from. A mood can completely fill a room, and filter everyone’s behavior. someone else’s mood can be like an octopus or a sea anemone with very long tentacles.

Hmm–I’m also thinking that my main sense of my mother when I was a child was of her shifting moods, and trying hard to jump ahead of them, or behind them.

So how do moods relate to your research on impasse? Moods are often places to be stuck–things that can be hard to roll around in bed with. What does it mean to be in the mood for sex or not in the mood? Odd, that locution–I’m “in” the mood. patsy

Comment by patsy yaeger

I learn from Heidegger on moods. Just a snippet, from B&T: “A mood assails us. It comes from neither ‘outside’ or ‘inside’, but arises out of being-in-the world, as a way of such Being….Having a mood is not related to the psychical in the first instance, and is not in itself an inner condition which then reaches forth in an enigmatical way and puts its mark on Things and persons.”

Comment by Joan

though not exactly about moods but rather about spirits and melancholia, Agamben’s Stanzas may be useful to glance at.

Comment by e

[...] minor and ephemeral variations that, for people not in dementia, add up to nothing, or sometimes, a mood.  If I’m going to work at home there is no place to turn that is free from the noise of her [...]

Pingback by A Teaching (IV) « . . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

It’s so true. I mean, I probably shouldn’t be commenting here as I lack in sophistication and academia. But certainly, I become more frustrated with my modd when I do not know what is instigating (or driving) it and occassionally I feel like I’m about to explode. Lash out. Oh, the moods. Moods do what moods does.

Comment by Rock The Boat




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