negative thinking
negative thinking > examples

death and suicide green thinking homeopathy monasteries
negative architecture romance sublimation value

death and suicide

negative thinking > examples > death
negative thinking > achieving negative goals > restarting


"Evolution leads to climax: ecological saturation of all the possibilities of differentiation. Learning leads to the overpacked mind. By return to the unlearned and mass-produced egg, the ongoing species again and again clears its memory banks to be ready for the new." [Bateson]

Cell death

In the living human body, there is a constant turnover of cells: some cells are created by cell division, while other cells die. Every seven years or so, they are completely replaced. The pancreas replaces most of its cells every twenty-four hours, the stomach lining every three days. In a fully-grown healthy body, these processes are in balance. Even in a growing organism, there is a significant amount of cell death as well as cell division, although for growth to occur, the latter must obviously outweigh the former.

In lower animals, such as frogs and butterflies, substantial cell death occurs during the transformation from tadpole or caterpillar into adult. This kind of transformation even takes place in the human: you may have forgotten this, but you first developed a kind of spade-like paw, which transformed into a hand by shrivelling the gaps between the fingers.

Normal death of a cell occurs by shrinkage, with the cellular matter being absorbed by neighbouring cells. This is entirely different from abnormal cell destruction through injury or certain diseases, where the cell bursts in an uncontrolled manner. This suggests that cells have a self-termination (or ‘suicide’) programme.

Nerve cells shrivel and die when they cease to receive signals from neighbouring cells. The lack of a signal seems to trigger the self-termination programme. Professor Martin Raff speculates that this mechanism applies for all cells. This would explain how the healthy body maintained a balance between cell division and cell death, since there would be just enough signal to sustain the right number of cells of a particular kind. Cells which grew in the wrong place would fail to get sustaining signals, and would self-terminate. (This explains why we don’t get muscle cells in the middle of the liver, or bone cells in the brain. On second thoughts, though…) Other biologists have suggested that there is one signal for cells to divide, and another signal to terminate. Raff’s hypothesis is more elegant; he allows all cells to divide, since the resulting cells will then immediately die if they do not receive signals from the rest of the body that they are wanted.

Raff’s idea leads to two hypotheses for diseases of cell imbalance (such as cancer): incorrect signalling, or incorrect cell response, and thus two potential stratagems for cure.

Personal death

We have mixed feelings about death. On the one hand, it is the most important thing that will ever happen to us. The word ‘end’ is usefully ambiguous: it denotes both the limit of a finite period of time (viz life), and also the purpose to which that life may be devoted. To the religious person, the fact that we shall end (i.e. die), and the possibility that this end be the beginning of something else, provides the end (i.e. values, goals) according to which we should live life. To the non-religious person, of course, religion itself is but a mechanism for comforting oneself against the fear of death. It is, as someone once said, the opium of the people.

"Das religiöse Elend ist in einem der Ausdruck des wirklichen Elendes und in einem die Protestation gegen das wirkliche Elend. Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volks." [Marx]

Human suicide

The model of cell death discussed above provides an interesting metaphor for human suicide, since people may also need regular or occasional signals from others to persuade them to stay alive. What kind of signals? Few of us need to be explicitly instructed to remain alive: we interpret all sorts of random messages from friends and strangers alike, and decide whether this justifies the trouble to keep breathing, or to stop. It is in overcrowded transient populations where it may be more difficult to get a sufficient supply of ‘being-wanted’ signals. And it is in conditions of stress and change that people fail to recognize the hidden ‘being-wanted’ signals. (Call this the Walter Benjamin syndrome.)

One curious phenomenon is the propensity for the survivors of Nazi concentration camps to commit suicide in later life. (Call this the Primo Levi syndrome.) This may be attributed to their guilt at having survived, or perhaps their experience reduces their fear of death, or increases their desire to be in control of their own death. But can it be explained on the signalling model? What messages did Primo Levi stop getting? Perhaps for a person who has undergone such an experience, the only survival messages that count are those from fellow-survivors.

What inhibits suicide? There are three reasons:

Hamlet What if death doesn’t end the suffering? "In that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause."

Dorothy Parker Suicide is unpleasant, undignified, and often unsuccessful. "Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids stain you, drugs cause cramp, guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful, you might as well live."

Beckett What’s the hurry?

green thinking

negative thinking > examples > green thinking

Some writers argue that ancient civilizations (including the American Indians) were Green, that Green is the normal attitude towards Nature, and that modern ‘civilization’ is an aberration.

Ancient man foolishly respected Nature because he imagined it could destroy him. He believed that if he chopped down too many trees, he would suffer.

Modern man knows that if he runs out of trees, he can always give tax incentives to people to grow more trees. Modern man believes that he has power over Nature, that the only real problem is other men (in other countries). If only They would stop whaling, chopping down the rain forests, polluting the air, water and earth, and (heaven help us!) consuming, there would be no problem. Hell, as Sartre pointed out, is other people.

Many eco-warriers believe that renewal of natural resources cannot keep up with future demand for these resources. Therefore future demand must be reduced; this is a negative goal.

How to reduce demand? There are at least five answers:
Redistribution Reduce the average consumption per head, by substantial cuts in Western consumption levels. This may perhaps be partially offset by increases in Third World consumption, at least to bring them up to subsistence level.
Demographic Reduce the number of people.
Economic Convert the resource into a commodity, and allow/force the price to rise until the demand is reduced to a sustainable quantity.
Technological Increase supply and reduce wastage through innovative extraction and production processes.
Change in taste Transfer consumption away from products and services that use scarce non-renewable resources.

Naive utopians believe that some of these can be achieved without coercion or revolution.

A traditional way of ‘preserving’ resources is by taking them away from the underdeveloped communities that have tried to live from/with them. Since more sophisticated individuals or organizations can ‘preserve’ resources more efficiently, surely only sentimental arguments can stand in the way of progress.

"Forests are divided into rigidly defined precincts - mining concessions, logging concessions, wildlife corridors and national parks - and transformed from providers of water, game, wood and vegetables into scarce exploitable natural resources."


Whose common future? (The Ecologist,  special issue, vol 22 no 4, July/Aug 1992)


negative thinking > examples > homeopathy

Homeopathy apparently relies on two simultaneous applications of the reversal stratagem.
The Law of Similars To cure an ailment producing a particular set of symptoms, take a substance that produces this set of symptoms in a healthy person.
The Law of Infinitesimality Less is more.  The greater the dilution, the greater the potency.

We can find versions of the Law of Similars all over the place.  One pamphlet on homeopathy cites the following:

The existence of the proverb proves the plausibility of the Law of Similars as an occasional principle.  It’s not difficult to accept that it works sometimes, and to understand why it sometimes works.  Homeopathy raises the Law of Similars to a universal principle – claiming that all proper cures are based upon it, and dismissing cures based on any other principle as “allopathy”.  (There is an exception to this: Bach Flower remedies are highly regarded by most homeopaths and recommended in most books on the subject, although they don’t seem to follow the Law of Similars at all.)

There are also some problems with the notions of “healthy” and “symptom” – which indicate general problems with the reversal stratagem.  Homeopathy starts from a notion of a “healthy” person as a clean sheet, onto which “symptoms” may be produced (or inscribed) by doses of some substance.  But what if we don’t ever have such pure health to start with – either because we lack standard norms of health, or because we don’t in practice have anybody who fully satisfies these norms.  How do we know what counts as normal temperature, normal blood pressure, normal body weight, normal sleep patterns?  (Of course, this may be a problem for so-called allopathic medicine as well.)

It is the Law of Infinitesimality that generally arouses the most scorn among opponents of homeopathy.  In support of this Law, homeopaths can cite various examples of physical or chemical processes that can be affected (or catalysed) by extremely small quantities of some substance, or examples where infinitesimal quantities can be detected by extremely sensitive measuring equipment.  But while these examples demonstrate that infinitesimal quantities of something can have a detectable effect, they generally fail to illustrate the converse – that larger quantities would have a smaller effect.

It’s easy to see why many homeopathic remedies have to be strongly diluted – because they would be poisonous if given undiluted.  Belladonna, for example, is prescribed for fever, while mercury is prescribed for diarrhoea.  But once the remedy has been diluted to eliminate any danger of poisoning, there is no obvious reason why further dilution should actually increase the potency.

This reversal paradoxically seems to reintroduce danger into the use of homeopathy.  While potencies of 6X or 30X (denoting concentrations of 10-6 and 10-30 respectively) are considered safe for amateurs to use, higher potencies such as 200C (denoting a concentration of 10-400) should be controlled by properly trained homeopaths – because they may trigger a violent reaction.


negative thinking > examples > monasteries

Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is, among other things, a fascinating murder mystery, in a carefully researched late mediaeval setting. Among other things, it contained some long and complicated debates between the Benedictines and the Franciscans, which most readers probably skipped.

The history of the monastic orders in the Middle Ages can be described as a constant struggle to achieve poverty and simplicity, in the face of systemic trends towards the acquisition of wealth. At the time of Eco’s novel, it was the followers of Saint Francis who represented poverty and simplicity, against the wealth of the more established monastic orders.

Even within the older orders, the same story recurs. Groups of monks would break away, set up a simple community in a remote area, work hard and consume little, and within a few generations they would find themselves owning all the land within a day’s journey. Both the monks and their secular neighbours interpreted the accumulation of material wealth, not as a natural result of their own efforts and abstinence, but as evidence of the Grace of God. Wealthy neighbours would offer further material gifts to the monks, hoping to receive in return some of the monks’ spiritual wealth. As time went on, the monks spent more and more time saying masses for the rich and powerful, and less and less time digging in the fields. The monastery would itself become richer and more powerful, with grand buildings and impressive art collections. Eventually, some monks would become dissatisfied with this situation and would break away, and the story repeats itself.

When we think we’re turning our back on something, it often returns with a vengeance. The monks started with a negative goal: to reject material wealth. Their attempt to do this was an example of refining. But this attempt failed outstandingly: they became wealthier than before. Most of the monks were able to come to terms with this failure; they interpreted it differently, and saw a new value in material wealth: as a sign of God’s favour. This counts as reframing. A few were not comfortable with this failure, and went back to the beginning. This counts as restarting.

Many sects, including the Puritans, have thought material wealth to be an outward sign of God’s favour. In other words, hard work causes God to smile on us, which causes us to become wealthy. To suggest that the hard work might have caused the wealth directly, without God’s involvement, would have been regarded by some as blasphemous, and by others as a further secular example of reframing.


Wolfgang Braunfels, Monasteries of Western Europe (Trans Alastair Laing.  London, Thames & Hudson, 1972)
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

negative architecture

negative thinking > examples > negative architecture
negative thinking > achieving negative goals > remaining silent

Not building but drawing

Most architects are judged on the buildings that are actually built; those that remain on the drawing board are remembered only by other architects and theorists. Yet perhaps the most notorious architect of the twentieth century is known (and often reviled) for his unimplemented plans. Le Corbusier produced plans that would have reshaped parts of Paris, as radically as Napoleon over a century before. Frustrated by the obstacles in the West, he travelled to Russia, believing the Soviet political environment to be best suited for his vision of a building as a perfectly functioning machine.

The crunch came in 1932, with Le Corbusier’s design for a ‘Palace of the Soviets’ in Moscow. He strove to make a people-friendly building, by focussing on the dynamic movements of people into and around the building. He carefully avoided designing a grandiose monumental structure, such as were favoured by Western governments. The authorities rejected his design of a non-monument, in favour of a neo-Palladian monument by the architect Zholtovsky.

A related experience occurred to me in East Berlin, less than a year before the Wall came down. Skiving off from a conference with an American colleague, we wandered into a building that had no obvious function. It was called the Palace of the Republic. I speculated that it was the parliament building. It cannot be, retorted my friend, because if it were they wouldn’t have allowed us inside. Then he had a second thought: since East Germany wasn’t a ‘real’ democracy, the parliament had no power and therefore didn’t need to be protected from the people.
Architecture therefore carries powerful political messages. The Palace of Westminster conveys the message that power is hidden within a labyrinth of crooked corridors; the House of Congress conveys the message that it is an enormous honour for a humble citizen to meet his representative; visitors to both buildings are searched for guns or bombs; these symbolic barriers are intended to be off-putting to all but the most determined campaigner.

To return to Le Corbusier, it was a challenge for him to design a building that avoided these messages. His defeat was a genuine defeat for popular architecture, but defeat was inevitable once the project was defined in negative terms. It was and still is impossible to design a non-monument, to communicate that the messages of the past are now reversed, a monument that does not shout MONUMENT.


negative thinking > examples > romance
negative thinking > achieving negative goals > redemption

Belief in higher powers underlies various forms of romance. Romantics often view human relationships as if they were prepared and presented by some higher force (including Providence or Chance – as in the novels of Thomas Hardy). Eros or Cupid – the intervention of the gods in our love lives.

Romance can be idealistic or fatalistic.  If a relationship is decreed by the gods, then it must be perfect – or perhaps capable of becoming perfect.  Romantics oscillate between two extreme positions: either repeated attempts to escape from situations that fall short of the romantic ideal (the slightest imperfection punctures the infatuation), or irrational attachment to impossible situations (the slightest infatuation outweighs the grossest imperfections).

One of the key struggles in the Christian church since the second world war has focused on the role of the romantic elements of doctrine and practice.  Some modernists have sought to purify Christianity, to strip away layers of romanticism that possibly distort and distract from the Truth.  This has met with huge resistance from the romantic majority within the Church, who see the renunciation of the romantic elements as tantamount to atheism.  The Church of England regularly appoints articulate modernists as bishops, exposing them to suspicion and ridicule by the popular press – for example, John Robinson who was the Bishop of Woolwich in the 1960s, David Jenkins who was the Bishop of Durham in the 1980s.

Much of our technology dates from the nineteenth century.  By the end of the nineteenth century, technology had become a collective institutional feat. The process of technical innovation was no longer the domain of the creative engineer in his private workshop, but had been taken over by the corporate machine.  Inventions were generated from a socio-economic machine.  From one form of romance (the engineer-hero) to another (the transcendent corporation).


negative thinking > examples > sublimation
negative thinking > achieving negative goals > redirecting

Sublimation can be thought of as a displacement of sexual or sadistic energy into something more socially useful or acceptable. For example: Art, Religion and Science. Lacan associates these three forms of sublimation with Hysteria, Obsession and Paranoia respectively, and describes them as three different stratagems for tackling emptiness. We can show his theory as a table.

Sublimation domain
Psychological condition
Hysteria Obsessional Neurosis Paranoia
Psychological mechanism
Repression (Verdrängung) Displacement (Verschiebung) Repudiation (Verwerfung)
search for
Creativity Certainty Power
Organization around emptiness Avoiding emptiness Ignoring emptiness

Three forms of sublimation (after Lacan)

Interestingly, people who are successful in one of these three domains rarely display the symptoms corresponding to their own domain, but often have fantasies relating to the other two domains. Artists are often obsessional or paranoid; scientists often dream of writing novels.

Some professions and disciplines combine two domains. Architecture combines science with art. Mathematicians attempt to develop sciences without uncertainty. Doctors have to offer certainty to their patients, based on uncertain scientific knowledge: this leaves them vulnerable to hysteria, and to fantasies of becoming artists.

The table leads us to observe another interesting phenomenon: attempts to convert one domain into another, in order to sublimate more than one psychological condition. Theorists and historians of art, who try to turn painting into a social science. Philosophers, such as Kant, who tried to turn science into religion. If we regard Salvador Dali as a brilliant technician, who converted scientific draftsmanship into art, then the theory predicts that he should be left only with obsessional neuroses.


negative thinking > examples > value
negative thinking > achieving negative goals > reframing

“In resolving the dialectic conflicts between value and fact, meaning and relevance, integrity is the master virtue … wisdom the protector of fact and meaning, justice the protector of fact and relevance, courage the protector of relevance and value, and love the protector of value and meaning.  These … virtues … instruct us to create, not adjust.  Wisdom dictates that we do not blindly follow the implications of knowledge but that we be … responsible in the use of knowledge.  Courage tells us to push forward when circumstance signals danger and retreat.  Love requires that we hold our selfish acts in check until we have viewed the situation from the perspective of the other - the Golden Rule.  And justice demands fair and equitable treatment for all against the expedience of the special situation.”

creative dimensions: meaning, fact, value and relevance
D. Kolb, Experiential Learning (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984) pp 227-8

Page last updated on February 19th, 2001
Copyright © 2000, 2001 Richard Veryard