“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Imp of the Underground and the Literature of Low Status

Image courtesy of Block Magazine
The one overarching theme in literature, and I mean all literature since there’s been any to speak of, is injustice. Does the girl get the guy she deserves? If so, the work is probably commercial, as opposed to literary, fiction. If not, then the reason begs pondering. Maybe she isn’t pretty enough, despite her wit and aesthetic sophistication, so we’re left lamenting the shallowness of our society’s males. Maybe she’s of a lower caste, despite her unassailable virtue, in which case we’re forced to question our complacency before morally arbitrary class distinctions. Or maybe the timing was just off—cursed fate in all her fickleness. Another literary work might be about the woman who ends up without the fulfilling career she longed for and worked hard to get, in which case we may blame society’s narrow conception of femininity, as evidenced by all those damn does-the-girl-get-the-guy stories.

            The prevailing theory of what arouses our interest in narratives focuses on the characters’ goals, which magically, by some as yet undiscovered cognitive mechanism, become our own. But plots often catch us up before any clear goals are presented to us, and our partisanship on behalf of a character easily endures shifting purposes. We as readers and viewers are not swept into stories through the transubstantiation of someone else’s striving into our own, with the protagonist serving as our avatar as we traverse the virtual setting and experience the pre-orchestrated plot. Rather, we reflexively monitor the character for signs of virtue and for a capacity to contribute something of value to his or her community, the same way we, in our nonvirtual existence, would monitor and assess a new coworker, classmate, or potential date. While suspense in commercial fiction hinges on high-stakes struggles between characters easily recognizable as good and those easily recognizable as bad, and comfortably condemnable as such, forward momentum in literary fiction—such as it is—depends on scenes in which the protagonist is faced with temptations, tests of virtue, moral dilemmas.

The strain and complexity of coming to some sort of resolution to these dilemmas often serves as a theme in itself, a comment on the mad world we live in, where it’s all but impossible to discern between right and wrong. Indeed, the most common emotional struggle depicted in literature is that between the informal, even intimate handling of moral evaluation—which comes natural to us owing to our evolutionary heritage as a group-living species—and the official, systematized, legal or institutional channels for determining merit and culpability that became unavoidable as societies scaled up exponentially after the advent of agriculture. These burgeoning impersonal bureaucracies are all too often ill-equipped to properly weigh messy mitigating factors, and they’re all too vulnerable to subversion by unscrupulous individuals who know how to game them. Psychopaths who ought to be in prison instead become CEOs of multinational investment firms, while sensitive and compassionate artists and humanitarians wind up taking lowly day jobs at schools or used book stores. But the feature of institutions and bureaucracies—and of complex societies more generally—that takes the biggest toll on our Pleistocene psyches, the one that strikes us as the most glaring injustice, is their stratification, their arrangement into steeply graded hierarchies.

Unlike our hierarchical ape cousins, all present-day societies still living in small groups as nomadic foragers, like those our ancestors lived in throughout the epoch that gave rise to the suite of traits we recognize as uniquely human, collectively enforce an ethos of egalitarianism. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm explains in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarianism,

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him. (105)

Since humans evolved from a species that was ancestral to both chimpanzees and gorillas, we carry in us many of the emotional and behavioral capacities that support hierarchies. But, during all those millennia of egalitarianism, we also developed an instinctive distaste for behaviors that undermine an individual’s personal sovereignty. “On their list of serious moral transgressions,” Boehm explains,

hunter-gathers regularly proscribe the enactment of behavior that is politically overbearing. They are aiming at upstarts who threaten the autonomy of other group members, and upstartism takes various forms. An upstart may act the bully simply because he is disposed to dominate others, or he may become selfishly greedy when it is time to share meat, or he may want to make off with another man’s wife by threat or by force. He (or sometimes she) may also be a respected leader who suddenly begins to issue direct orders… An upstart may simply take on airs of superiority, or may aggressively put others down and thereby violate the group’s idea of how its main political actors should be treating one another. (43)

In a band of thirty people, it’s possible to keep a vigilant eye on everyone and head off potential problems. But, as populations grow, encounters with strangers in settings where no one knows one another open the way for threats to individual autonomy and casual insults to personal dignity. And, as professional specialization and institutional complexity increase in pace with technological advancement, power structures become necessary for efficient decision-making. Economic inequality then takes hold as a corollary of professional inequality.

None of this is to suggest that the advance of civilization inevitably leads to increasing injustice. In fact, per capita murder rates are much higher in hunter-gatherer societies. Nevertheless, the impersonal nature of our dealings with others in the modern world often strikes us as overly conducive to perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. And even the most mundane signals of superior status or the most subtle expressions of power, though officially sanctioned, can be maddening. Compare this famous moment in literary history to Boehm’s account of hunter-gatherer political philosophy:

I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me. (49)

The billiard player's failure to acknowledge his autonomy outrages the narrator, who then considers attacking the man who has treated him with such disrespect. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He explains,

I turned coward not from cowardice, but from the most boundless vanity. I was afraid, not of six-foot-tallness, nor of being badly beaten and chucked out the window; I really would have had physical courage enough; what I lacked was sufficient moral courage. I was afraid that none of those present—from the insolent marker to the last putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard who was hanging about there—would understand, and that they would all deride me if I started protesting and talking to them in literary language. Because among us to this day it is impossible to speak of a point of honor—that is, not honor, but a point of honor (point d’honneur) otherwise than in literary language. (50)

The languages of law and practicality are the only ones whose legitimacy is recognized in modern societies. The language of morality used to describe sentiments like honor has been consigned to literature. This man wants to exact his revenge for the slight he suffered, but that would require his revenge to be understood by witnesses as such. The derision he can count on from all the bystanders would just compound the slight. In place of a close-knit moral community, there is only a loose assortment of strangers. And so he has no recourse.

            The character in this scene could be anyone. Males may be more keyed into the physical dimension of domination and more prone to react with physical violence, but females likewise suffer from slights and belittlements, and react aggressively, often by attacking their tormenter's reputation through gossip. Treating a person of either gender as an insensate obstacle is easier when that person is a stranger you’re unlikely ever to encounter again. But another dynamic is at play in the scene which makes it still easier—almost inevitable. After being unceremoniously moved aside, the narrator becomes obsessed with the man who treated him so dismissively. Desperate to even the score, he ends up stalking the man, stewing resentfully, trying to come up with a plan. He writes,

And suddenly… suddenly I got my revenge in the simplest, the most brilliant way! The brightest idea suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes on holidays I would go to Nevsky Prospect between three and four, and stroll along the sunny side. That is, I by no means went strolling there, but experienced countless torments, humiliations and risings of bile: that must have been just what I needed. I darted like an eel among the passers-by, in a most uncomely fashion, ceaselessly giving way now to generals, now to cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies; in those moments I felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure. This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly—more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else—that went without saying—but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone. (52)

So the indignity, it seems, was not borne of being moved aside like a piece of furniture so much as it was of being afforded absolutely no status. That’s why being beaten would have been preferable; a beating implies a modicum of worthiness in that it demands recognition, effort, even risk, no matter how slight.

            The idea that occurs to the narrator for the perfect revenge requires that he first remedy the outward signals of his lower social status, “the measliness of my attire and the measliness… of my darting little figure,” as he calls them. The catch is that to don the proper attire for leveling a challenge, he has to borrow money from a man he works with—which only adds to his daily feelings of humiliation. Psychologists Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky have conducted experiments demonstrating that people display a disturbing readiness to compensate for feelings of powerlessness and low status by making pricy purchases, even though in the long run such expenditures only serve to perpetuate their lowly economic and social straits. The irony is heightened in the story when the actual revenge itself, the trappings for which were so dearly purchased, turns out to be so bathetic.

Suddenly, within three steps of my enemy, I unexpectedly decided, closed my eyes, and—we bumped solidly shoulder against shoulder! I did not yield an inch and passed by on perfectly equal footing! He did not even look back and pretended not to notice: but he only pretended, I’m sure of that. To this day I’m sure of it! Of course, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my purpose, preserved my dignity, yielded not a step, and placed myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home perfectly avenged for everything. (55)

But this perfect vengeance has cost him not only the price of a new coat and hat; it has cost him a full two years of obsession, anguish, and insomnia as well. The implication is that being of lowly status is a constant psychological burden, one that makes people so crazy they become incapable of making rational decisions.

            Literature buffs will have recognized these scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (as translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhnosky), which satirizes the idea of a society based on the principle of “rational egotism” as symbolized by N.G. Chernyshevsky’s image of a “crystal palace” (25), a well-ordered utopia in which every citizen pursues his or her own rational self-interests. Dostoevsky’s underground man hates the idea because regardless of how effectively such a society may satisfy people’s individual needs the rigid conformity it would demand would be intolerable. The supposed utopia, then, could never satisfy people’s true interests. He argues,

That’s just the thing, gentlemen, that there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as not to violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit (precisely the omitted one, the one we were just talking about), which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in short, against all these beautiful and useful things—only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (22)

The underground man cites examples of people behaving against their own best interests in this section, which serves as a preface to the story of his revenge against the billiard player who so blithely moves him aside. The way he explains this “very best profit” which makes people like himself behave in counterproductive, even self-destructive ways is to suggest that nothing else matters unless everyone’s freedom to choose how to behave is held inviolate. He writes,

One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil… Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (25-6)
Arthur Rackham's Imp of Perverse Illustration

Notes from Underground was originally published in 1864. But the underground man echoes, wittingly or not, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story from almost twenty years earlier, "The Imp of the Perverse," who posits an innate drive to perversity, explaining,

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object. Or if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say that through its promptings we act for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but in reality there is none so strong. With certain minds, under certain circumstances, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy of an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us, to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution to ulterior elements. (403)

This narrator’s suggestion of the irreducibility of the impulse notwithstanding, it’s noteworthy how often the circumstances that induce its expression include the presence of an individual of higher status.
Dov Cohen

            The famous shoulder bump in Notes from Underground has an uncanny parallel in experimental psychology. In 1996, Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, and their colleagues published the research article, “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’,” in which they report the results of a comparison between the cognitive and physiological responses of southern males to being bumped in a hallway and casually called an asshole to those of northern males. The study showed that whereas men from northern regions were usually amused by the run-in, southern males were much more likely to see it as an insult and a threat to their manhood, and they were much more likely to respond violently. The cortisol and testosterone levels of southern males spiked—the clever experimental setup allowed meaures before and after—and these men reported believing physical confrontation was the appropriate way to redress the insult. The way Cohen and Nisbett explain the difference is that the “culture of honor” that emerges in southern regions originally developed as a safeguard for men who lived as herders. Cultures that arise in farming regions place less emphasis on manly honor because farmland is difficult to steal. But if word gets out that a herder is soft then his livelihood is at risk. Cohen and Nisbett write,
Richard Nisbett

Such concerns might appear outdated for southern participants now that the South is no longer a lawless frontier based on a herding economy. However, we believe these experiments may also hint at how the culture of honor has sustained itself in the South. It is possible that the culture-of-honor stance has become “functionally autonomous” from the material circumstances that created it. Culture of honor norms are now socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood. (958)

            More recently, in a 2009 article titled “Low-Status Compensation: A Theory for Understanding the Role of Status in Cultures of Honor,” psychologist P.J. Henry takes another look at Cohen and Nisbett’s findings and offers another interpretation based on his own further experimentation. Henry’s key insight is that herding peoples are often considered to be of lower status than people with other professions and lifestyles. After establishing that the southern communities with a culture of honor are often stigmatized with negative stereotypes—drawling accents signaling low intelligence, high incidence of incest and drug use, etc.—both in the minds of outsiders and those of the people themselves, Henry suggests that a readiness to resort to violence probably isn’t now and may not ever have been adaptive in terms of material benefits.
P.J. Henry

An important perspective of low-status compensation theory is that low status is a stigma that brings with it lower psychological worth and value. While it is true that stigma also often accompanies lower economic worth and, as in the studies presented here, is sometimes defined by it (i.e., those who have lower incomes in a society have more of a social stigma compared with those who have higher incomes), low-status compensation theory assumes that it is psychological worth that is being protected, not economic or financial worth. In other words, the compensation strategies used by members of low-status groups are used in the service of psychological self-protection, not as a means of gaining higher status, higher income, more resources, etc. (453)

And this conception of honor brings us closer to the observations of the underground man and Poe’s boastful murderer. If psychological worth is what’s being defended, then economic considerations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, since our financial standing tends to be so closely tied to our social standing, our efforts to protect our sense of psychological worth have a nasty tendency to backfire in the long run.

            Henry found evidence for the importance of psychological reactance, as opposed to cultural norms, in causing violence when he divided participants of his study into either high or low status categories and then had them respond to questions about how likely they would be to respond to insults with physical aggression. But before being asked about the propriety of violent reprisals half of the members of each group were asked to recall as vividly as they could a time in their lives when they felt valued by their community. Henry describes the findings thus:

When lower status participants were given the opportunity to validate their worth, they were less likely to endorse lashing out aggressively when insulted or disrespected. Higher status participants were unaffected by the manipulation. (463)

The implication is that people who feel less valuable than others, a condition that tends to be associated with low socioeconomic status, are quicker to retaliate because they are almost constantly on-edge, preoccupied at almost every moment with assessments of their standing in relation to others. Aside from a readiness to engage in violence, this type of obsessive vigilance for possible slights, and the feeling of powerlessness that attends it, can be counted on to keep people in a constant state of stress. The massive longitudinal study of British Civil Service employees called the Whitehall Study, which tracks the health outcomes of people at the various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, has found that the stress associated with low status also has profound effects on our physical well-being.  
When Americans are asked to imagine an ideal distribution of
wealth, the results show far less stratification than actually

            Though it may seem that violence-prone poor people occupying lowly positions on societal and professional totem poles are responsible for aggravating and prolonging their own misery because they tend to spend extravagantly and lash out at their perceived overlords with nary a concern for the consequences, the regularity with which low status leads to self-defeating behavior suggests the impulses are much more deeply rooted than some lazily executed weighing of pros and cons. If the type of wealth or status inequality the underground man finds himself on the short end of would have begun to take root in societies like the ones Christopher Boehm describes, a high-risk attempt at leveling the playing field would not only have been understandable—it would have been morally imperative. In a group of nomadic foragers, though, a man endeavoring to knock a would-be alpha down a few pegs would be able to count on the endorsement of most of the other group members. And the success rate for re-establishing and maintaining egalitarianism would have been heartening. Today, we are forced to live with inequality, even though beyond a certain point most people (regardless of political affiliation) see it as an injustice. 

            Some of the functions of literature, then, are to help us imagine just how intolerable life on the bottom can be, sympathize with those who get trapped in downward spirals of self-defeat, and begin to imagine what a more just and equitable society might look like. The catch is that we will be put off by characters who mistreat others or simply show a dearth of redeeming qualities.

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

and Can't Win for Losing: Why there are So Many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change

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