SILENCE, RESERVE, SHYNESS, reticence, restraint, inhibition, forbearance, acquiescence, eschewal, withdrawal, detachment, discipline, distance, deference, repression, resignation, renunciation, concession, abstinence, abstention, holding back, humility, hesitancy, compliance, passivity, docility, succumbing, surrender, submission. None of these qualities can very easily be thought of as positive these days, and much of the time they will tend to be marked with disapproval, sympathy, or revulsion and to be regarded as failings rather than qualities. At least two of them, shyness and reticence, have been characterized as a mental disorder, in the form of social anxiety or social phobia. There are many interesting things to be said about the nature, appearances, and functions of shyness, but very few of them can be said in a literature that is concerned with identifying the causes and treating the effects of shyness (G. Phillips 1965; Crozier 1990; Lane 2007; Daly and McCroskey 2009). Allied qualities like patience and forbearance and self-sacrifice may not necessarily be thought of as negative, and may even on occasion provoke admiration, but can also seem to give off a sickly, saintly glow. What has happened to our sense of these comportments, which might once have been thought of as indispensable virtues, or at least indispensable to virtue, and why?
We might attribute our dislike of such terms to the alleged waning of religion, especially Christianity, which Nietzsche saw as a weak, petulant turning inward of the will on itself, and have done with it. But that old sociological assumption is hard to sustain these days, in the face of such various and vigorous forms of religious resurgence, even if those resurgences tend in fact to be expressed in much more aggressively assertive forms than in previous eras when the authority of religion might have been more established. Perhaps it is the effect of the wide acceptance of the value of what is called “agency,” which makes everything that does not allow for or might require the restraining of agency, along with everything that might suggest the moderation of power rather than empowerment, puzzling or provoking. So we might cheerfully recommend people for “assertiveness training” (oddly oxymoronic idea though it may seem, to make people obedient to the imperative to assert themselves) but would shudder at the notion of, say, “acquiescence discipline”; we might prefer to call that “anger management,” which has a stronger suggestion of taking charge rather than giving way. Some of the forms of restraint and refraining I have it in mind to explore can be represented as “self-control,” which positivizes in a similar way. Much might be said in this respect about “willpower,” a phrase recorded in print for the first time only in 1874, the meaning of which seems to flicker between the power of the will and power exercised (but by what?) over the will.
Even the word virtue, despite its virile beginnings and earlier associations, has come to seem rather feeble. This may have something to do with the fact that what we call virtues have tended to be identified with the specific virtues demanded of females, the virtues, for example, of chastity, modesty, continence, and patience in adversity. The revulsion toward this history of asymmetrical moral subjugation via the ideal of female virtue makes virtue itself, as opposed to more conventionally masculine qualities like strength, toughness, and courage, difficult to stomach or take seriously. So while we might allow for certain actions and outlooks to have virtue (but then that would probably just mean that they had a certain kind of utility) or be virtues, to call people “virtuous” would probably be to suggest something rather goody-goody about them or even that they are a little bit too concerned with cultivating their reputation. Merely being virtuous seems, despite what the word itself announces, insufficiently, well, virile, for our present taste, in which a generalized will-to-virility, or autonomized androgen, separated from its privatively masculine associations, holds uncontested sway.
There is no word for the countervailing values and actions that I set out to discuss here. That is, there is no one word. In fact, there are many words for what I would like to talk you into regarding as aspects and avatars and expressions of my subject, and some of them provide the titles of the chapters that follow. But I have not been able to find an existing word that would satisfactorily encompass them all, no zero-degree term of which apology, politeness, reservation, resignation, submission, and so on could be regarded as the inflected forms. At a time when dispositions of this kind dare not speak their name, and are rarely themselves spoken of except in regret, repulsion, or deprecation, it seems telling too that there should apparently be no inclusive name for them, no general term, to counterpose with agency or empowerment that might indicate that complex and internally variable end of the spectrum of attitudes and behavior in which one does not display agency or aggressively advance one’s cause but is rather, to revive a folkish bit of nonsense I grew up hearing people say, “backward in coming forward.” I have thought of naming the subject of this book “negative virtue,” but that sounds more negative than I want to be, besides leaving all the work to be done by a not very specific adjective. If there were a nongerundive way of referring to different kinds of refraining, that might do—though I doubt that an invention like refraint is going to be up to the job. The antique-sounding yieldance was suggested to me by a friend who is rarely wrong about such things, and it certainly has an attractively courtly feel to it. Many of the terms we use to describe these forms of outlook and behavior—the blend that the word comportment seems to give—do indeed come in the form of negatives, even when they are used approvingly—as when, for instance, we say that someone is “unassuming.” So one could also imagine a coinage like undignation exerting a certain amount of force. But what I want to try to come at is the positive force of such retractions and subtractions, such holdings back and standings aside. They may be regarded as positive, not just in their effects but also in the sense that there may be a positive impulse toward them. For I want to show that the mitigation of assertion and the attenuation of agency are indeed often powerfully affirmative and require skilled and attentive application. They are not just ways of not doing things, either with words or with actions, because the ways in which we hold back from doing things are themselves substantive actions.
In a sense, Giorgio Agamben’s impotentiality, as a word for the capacity to decline to do things or the action of not acting, might cover many of the kinds of cases that interest me (1999, 182). In Agamben’s explication, Aristotle distinguishes between a general potentiality, exemplified in the child who, through being able to be transformed by growth or education, may have a potential to become an architect or a poet, and the specific potentiality possessed by the one who is already possessed of the knowledge necessary to make buildings or poems:
Whoever already possesses knowledge . . . is not obliged to suffer an alteration: he is instead potential, Aristotle says, thanks to a hexis, a “having,” on the basis of which he can also not bring his knowledge into actuality (mē energein) by not making a work, for example. Thus the architect is potential insofar as he has the potential to not-build, the poet the potential to not-write poems. (179)
The capacity Agamben calls “impotential,” translating Aristotle’s adynamia, does not mean impotence, or lack of a power, but the power, so to speak, to lack or hold back. This is Agamben’s explanation:
In its originary structure, dynamis, potentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation, its own sterēsis, its own non-Being. This relation constitutes the essence of potentiality. To be potential means: to be own’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity. Beings that exit in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential. They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being. (182)
To be sure, the concept of impotential usefully points to the way in which the positive and the negative may be intermingled and the way in which the potential to do—which must be what is meant by power itself—implies and complies with the power to not do (and splitting the infinitive feels necessary for the positive action of nonperformance meant here). But in the end, impotential is still a form of potential rather than a way of actually doing things—except in the case where one conspicuously performs one action instead of another. What will preoccupy me in this book are the positive actions of avoidance, abstention, and forbearance, the performances, in other words, of nonperformance, that are nevertheless unmistakably actual to the point of forming the tissue and quick of social life.
I offer in the next few sections some remarks on some of the forms these positive abstainings and refrainings take: humility, resignation, mercy, and remission, all of which have operated as part of religious discourse but do not necessarily imply any relation to formalized religious belief, Christian or otherwise. All of them need to be seen as ways of withdrawing from action that nevertheless in themselves constitute positive actions—practices or delicate disciplines of stylized existence. We will see that the very fact that such practices seem like inflections of an absent or at least unnameable zero degree, for which I have so far been able to find no more clinchingly inclusive designation than “giving way,” is part of the work of modulation or the civilizing deflection of violent absoluteness that they all do.
We nowadays have no discourse on submission, which may suggest the tenacity of what we feel we should believe about it. Yet social life is nothing without and perhaps little but the willingness to submit and the skill in deploying submission. There is nothing we can do without submission, yet little we can do with it intellectually except instinctively, that is, unintellectually, to recoil from it. This tension suggests that there may be something to be inquired into.
The complexity of social demands and the mediated reach of social norms mean that we are perhaps more subject to forms of submission than ever before. More and more “experiences” are experiences of undergoing things, adventures of exposure, things to which we actively seek to submit ourselves.
The power of submission is indicated by how easily positive terms for politeness can start to imply dislike or disapproval for hypocritical displays of the quality in question. So nowadays being suave does not really suggest sweetness of disposition, while to be unctuous or sanctimonious is far from implying the genuine possession of religious grace or sanctity. We have lost or abandoned much of the language that allows us to express approval of withdrawal, reserve, or constraint. Politeness has become political, while meekness (meek has the same Germanic base as muck) now seems cloyingly unpleasant.
A similar movement seems to have occurred with the word humiliate, which, until the end of the seventeenth century, tended to be used reflexively, in expressions suggesting self-humbling, as in Robert Burton’s injunction in 1621 that “we ought to feare our owne fickle estates, remember our miseries and vanities, examine and humiliate our selves, seek to God, and call to him for mercy” (1989–2000, 1.408). Over the next four centuries, humiliate gradually lost this reflexive sense and was extended to more transitive uses to signify the action of lowering or assaulting the dignity of others. By 1867, George Macdonald could write, “I think humiliation is a very different condition of mind from humility. Humiliation no man can desire: it is shame and torture. Humility is the true, right condition of humanity—peaceful, divine” (1867, 2.70). Humiliation is violation, effected by one on another, rather than a virtue practiced reflexively on oneself. Recent years have seen a growing acceptance of the idea that whole groups may be subject to forms of collective or “national humiliation.” Here, too, the movement has been from reflexive to nonreflexive humiliation. Days of public fasting, humiliation, and prayer were proclaimed after disasters taken to signify the judgment of God or before undertaking some demanding collective endeavor, this happening as late as 1901 during the South African War.
We do not nowadays have a word for the action of self-humbling that used to be signaled by the word humiliation. The fact that the suspicion of hypocrisy or self-servingly strategic display can attach so easily to extravagant forms of self-abasement suggests that we might find a use for a term like humilitation, the aggressive, Uriah-Heep-like performance of humility. Not only can there be egotistical forms of self-abasement; one must suspect that all forms of self-abasement provide an opportunity for extreme ambivalence. There cannot but be the possibility of self-aggrandizement in the gesture by which one cuts oneself down to size, if only because, as the very word human implies, it is such a human speciality.
“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me” (Pascal 1995, 73). There is indeed a terror in Blaise Pascal’s contemplation, but in what exactly does it consist? Were I to say that the infinite silence numbed or silenced me, that might be the simplest acknowledgment of the disparity between me and the immensity of the It, for it would permit the It to enter into and inundate me. But my terror at the immensity of interstellar space is an insurgence in response to this immeasurability, a protest and protection against the enormity of its enormousness. And this insurgence pushes in two directions at once. To be sure, it compresses me inward, but it does so from some external vantage point, which gives me a picture of my immense littleness, allowing me an identification in imagination with the very immensity that diminishes me. This is a confirmation of the principle that every acceptance of a limit is an implicit transcendence of it.
There must always be a kind of magnificence in humility, if only because the condition of humility implies the action of humbling oneself or lowering oneself from some assumed state of grandeur, authority, or power. The combination of largeness and lowering in humility is indicated in the word magnanimous, which points to a largeness of mind that is expansive enough to encompass its own weakness, as in Wordsworth’s sonnet “Great Men Have Been Among Us,” in which the said great men “knew . . . / . . . what strength was, that would not bend / But in magnanimous meekness” (1954, 116). This dimensional duality is contained in the adjective humble, which since the thirteenth century has been used to mean both lowly (humble beginnings) and self-lowering (your humble servant). There is always the possibility of some minimal moral uplift in lowering oneself or restraining one’s exaltation. This possibility seems to be recognized in the word humility, which could once be used to mean being humble in the first, unreflexive sense but can now signify being humble only in the second, reflexively self-lowering sense. So while it is still possible for objects to be described as humble, humility cannot now be ascribed to them, hence the oddity for modern readers of Charles Lamb’s remark about a meager dinner that led him to “a sort of apology for the humility of the fare” (1913, 35). Humility must be performed or asserted in display, making it always liable to the suspicion of strategy. The suggestion of anthropomorphic humility does, however, persist in the idea of “unpretentious” dwellings, furnishings, or food. Humbleness and humility seem often to suggest an association with homeliness (welcome to my humble abode), though there is no etymological warrant for this, humble having a Latinate origin and home being Germanic. Despite appearances, wayfaring humans can often find something homely in humility.
The reflexiveness of humility echoes the reflexiveness that has accrued to the idea of “esteem.” The earliest meaning of esteem was estimation. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, esteem was starting to be used without a qualifying adjective to mean good or favorable valuation, in particular in terms of reputation. Self-esteem tended before the nineteenth century to be used critically to indicate exaggerated self-regard, for example, in a 1619 attack:
His wit being so shallow, and selfe esteeme of his owne worth and works so great, that as before he neuer more bragged thē wher he had least cause, and was most ouerthrowne . . . hauing passed the bounds of modesty by his . . . immoderate praysing of himselfe, without further reflection he rusheth forwards, and in lieu of this excuse and humble opinion of himselfe he cometh aloft with an Iô triumphe. (Coffin 1619, 353)
Gradually, through the nineteenth century, self-esteem itself came to seem estimable, as an equivalent to self-respect and, indeed, as an essential ingredient in the formation of a healthy and mentally secure individual subject, with “low self-esteem” becoming from the late twentieth century onward the target of systematic remedial effort.
Samuel Beckett may be regarded as a powerful exemplar of imperious humility or aggrandizingly low self-esteem. Though never showing serious signs of any kind of religious conviction, Beckett drew heavily on religious myths and language, especially to embody his sense of the humiliations of the flesh and the piteous arrogance of the intellect. He read Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Imitation of Christ, a work dedicated to the virtue of humility, with approving attention in the early 1930s, and seems to have drawn repeatedly on it for his characterizations of the will-lessness he valued, or claimed to, given the logical trickiness of voluntarily seeking will-lessness (Ackerley 2000; Wimbush 2014). There is almost always a defiance in the forms of Beckett’s submission, if only a defiant noncompliance with the values of expansiveness and willful self-assertion. Beckett’s nonassertiveness is highly assertive, his quietistic giving way always grimly impenitent.
In fact, humility is always potentially paradoxical, precisely to the degree that it may be valued, and therefore itself the source of an approval and admiration that may unhumbly be internalized as gainful self-congratulation. It is for this reason that James S. Spiegel speaks of the “moral irony” of humility:
Humility is a virtue, then, which turns the natural fallen moral condition of human beings on its head, introducing a different and more profound sort of moral irony. For in exhibiting this virtue, the humble person consequently increases in actual moral worth and is therefore deserving of greater moral credit than she otherwise would be and more than other persons who are not humble, other things being equal. (2003, 142)
There is a long tradition within Christianity of what may be called “sublime humility,” a humility that identifies with the ultimate self-lowering or kenosis of the divine in the incarnation. In his “Letter to All the Friars,” Saint Francis wrote rapturously of the Eucharist: “O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself for our salvation that He hides Himself under a morsel of bread” (1906, 114–15). “Stupendous condescension” is nowadays readable only as a reproof rather than praise. Recalling the Petrine injunction “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter: 6–7), Francis urges, “Consider, brothers, the humility of God and ‘pour out your hearts before Him,’ and be ye humbled that ye may be exalted by Him” (1906, 115).
But the possibility of calculating on exaltation in abasement may then seem to require a supplementary turning away from self—perhaps, given that humiliation has ceased to be available for reflexive uses, we might call such an act a “humiliance”—in order to disclaim the reward of approval that humility may garner:
But—and this is the new, positive irony that supplants the irony of abject pride—the humble person refuses to act so as to affirm her greater moral worth (where “acting” may be taken in the broad sense, inclusive of speaking about or dwelling upon something). In fact, to consistently display humility and grow in it is to successfully resist the temptation to affirm one’s increasing moral worth resulting from its demonstration. (Spiegel 2003, 142)
As I noted at the beginning of this chapter, cultural politics has been much taken up over the last few years with descrying and promoting the value of what is called “agency,” which is usually taken to mean something like the power to act knowingly and affirmatively on own’s own behalf. The primacy of agency seems to entail an understandable resistance to the condition of being without agency and a particular queasiness regarding the kind of voluntary curbing or surrender of agency involved in acts of submission.
Despite my rising irritation over the last few years with the unreflective parroting of the need for and value of “agency,” agency is a complicated notion and, luckily for me, complicated in just the way that might be needed for an account, such as the one proposed here, of the modes of social holding back. Agency of course means the power to act and can sometimes seem to be used as a synonym for action itself. Human beings perform actions all the time—getting dressed, making cups of tea, walking to and from the bus stop—and they must necessarily and, for the most part, unremarkably, be the agents of those actions. But the word agency is used not to signify what is presumed and precipitated by action but what seems to make action possible in the future. The power to act, although it depends on and has all of its meaning by reference to the action toward which it is aimed, can be power only as long as it is not yet or in fact action. In other words, it can be the potential for action only as long as it holds back from it. Agency can have potency as the potential for action only as long as it is not in fact the potential for action.
In fact, in all its uses, the word agency indicates some indirectness, naming that by which, or through which, or on behalf of which, action is performed. Indeed, though agency suggests the power to act for yourself, the word itself always seems to stand back or aside from what we call direct action, especially, perhaps, through the phrase “acting for yourself”: if you act for yourself, can you really be just acting? It is not just that the word agency must itself stand for an idea or projected intention of immediate or unimpeded action rather than be it; it is also that there is something substitutive or surrogatory in every kind of agency that looks less and less like what it is supposed to be the more closely one inspects it. Agency names a theory about the possibility of the kind of action I am able to perform. Wherever there can be agency, which sees and knows itself as such, it is something more or other than simple action. In knowing itself for what it is, and in being experienced as future possibility, agency must no longer be the elementary and unreflective doing of a thing that it is supposed to be. Of course, in most uses, agency tends to mean something like the power to perform valuable and significant forms of action, actions that are capable of emblematizing my status as a respected and freely choosing agent. Agency therefore signifies the power to perform actions that themselves signify my power to perform them. Agency has much more to do with a power to act, and therefore not to act, than with agency in the sense of simply doing things.
One effect, and so therefore sign, of this complex sense of reservation about action may be the flooding of erotic writing, especially by and putatively for women, by the idea of submission, and the reciprocal flooding of the idea of submission with the notion of the erotic: Submission at the Tower; Maid for His Submission; Seducation and Submission; The Submissive Housewife; Spanked into Submission; Diary of a Submissive; The Submissive Deputy Head Teacher; Tracy Takes Control; Submissive Professors: Collared and Craving It; Submissive Sissy Short Stories; The Diary of an English Submissive; and the fifteen-volume box set of Hannah Ford and Kelly Favor’s His Submissive. If we are resistant to the idea of submission, submission is the resistance to this resistance. The strong identification of such writing with female authors and readers could easily be a cause for regret and moral reproof. That this does not happen more often may be the effect of the archness or self-protective performativity of such writing, which seems designed to keep ironically at a distance the submissiveness with which it plays. The reassuring sense of being prescripted would make ludicrously literalistic any suggestion that such submissive behaviors or dispositions might seriously be being prescribed.