Filed under: Affect Theory, ambivalence, Attachment, Craziness, Detachment theory, Encounters, Love, Mood, Ordinariness, psychoanalysis, queerness, supervalent_thought, trauma, writing
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.
6 Comments so far
Leave a comment