“And he who knows how to censure more eloquently and cunningly the weakness of the human Mind is held to be Godly.”
–Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics
Don’t let that quote up there scare you. My interest in this essay is my interest in, my curiosity about, envy. Operating more as Nietzschean difference than as a negating, the “vs.,” in other words, is active rather than adversarial. The take-home—to save your reading on—pertains to dosage. While grim to experience, envy insists; it isn’t going anywhere. Even as visual trace, as word, it cuts a compelling figure. Four letters, in their uppercase guise: sloping, canyonesque, stalactite-mite-like. The “E” faces its companions—who wait, lined up—and it contemplates its relation to them. They occupy space nearby, are proximate, parallel, but do not coincide with the “E.” Envy, as philosopher Agnes Heller reminds us in A Theory of Feelings, tends to occur most virulently between similars, not across starker hierarchies.
But what’s happened to the word “envy” anyway?
It’s gone missing, of late (like the word “fewer,” just sayin’). It seems a lot of people have unlearned its existence (as word, not ordeal) in our historical moment when its phenomenon is arguably more prevalent than ever. We need this word; it names a portion of our shared suffering, our contemporary Affective Jungle Gym. Social Media of all ilks are Envy Factories, n’est-ce pas? Their friendlier purpose is to make “connections” and to share information, but one of their lived-effects is to produce envy—to make us feel malleably insecure and scattered (as well as getting us to cough up our data for free and to want more stuff, especially “minimalist” stuff). Many who live in this queasy, relentless swill don’t seem to know that the word “envy,” in its svelte economy, names something dense and precise. Envy, as we know, has been swallowed up by the jowlier term “jealousy,” despite not being the same thing at all.
Jealousy is what I feel when I am structurally positioned in relation to someone (either “for real,” like married, in a primary-enough relationship, or in my fantasy, such as “I really like someone and forget to remember that I am not really structurally arranged in relation to them in any consensual, acknowledged way”) and then, this person—validated love object or dreamy/stalky object—makes moves on a third party, or has moves made on them. Jealousy tends to involve triangular or other multi-sided geometries. Jealousy is about protecting my relational turf, so to speak, but structurally. What do I mean by that?
Let’s say I’m positioned “with” someone (consensually decided), and we live our lives as if this is the case and operate together in a social (and economic) world with this dyad in place. Nothing unusual. If my partner in certain circumstances, suddenly comports themselves as if they aren’t in a dyad with me, then at a very practical level, it becomes tricky for me to know how to behave in said-situation, since my behavior is determined by, choreographed in relation to, the established dyad. I can either invent a new kind of behaving, or exit the situation/event. If the former, I have to, slightly oddly and disingenuously, act as if I, too, am suddenly single or in a different relational structure. It’s just a bit tedious and complicates a nice Sunday BBQ. Freud, of course, has an insightful take on jealousies. He names three layers that are at stake—the “normal,” the projected, the delusional (or “homosexual”). His is a psychological take, nicely supplementing a structural one. He forgives our “normal” jealousies, as release valves for sustained monogamy, while also acknowledging how repressions produce “mysterious” jealousies, which when unpacked aren’t mysterious at all. Like when your partner suddenly accuses you of desiring someone who is, frankly, their type . . .
Jealousy has often also been a gendered term; that is: women have tended to be positioned as jealous and “insecure” (the latter intended as a personal slight, whereas it might quite accurately be a description of their structural situation). Men, on the other hand, who might’ve performed jealousy in much the same or sometimes worse ways, might cop the more-forgiving designation: “passionate.” Women, if we take another angle, also arguably get more jealousy opportunities because their position in the structural order has (relative to those of their own class/”race” etc.) been more precarious. Jealousy tracks that very instability. There may, furthermore, be two very different phenomena that get called jealousy, generated by distinct circumstances and logics. Traditionally, I’d guess that some women might have been classified “jealous” (read: about to be structurally fucked) in scenarios where marriage, children’s security, and roof-over-head have been in question; whereas traditionally some male hetero-jealousy has—due to women having been legally classed as chattels—pertained to “someone else wanting my stuff” (wife, girlfriend, mistress, daughter, etc.). “Passionate” and “possessive” dovetail here in smarmy ways. Possessing is a kind of passion, but it’s not one on whose end I like to be. Possessions don’t have desires. Possessive types struggle a lot when their “love” object wants in ways that don’t reflect their own wants. The result is a big ugly shock to everyone.
But back to the liberated present… (where none of this applies, and we frolic together scantily clad—innocent and equally-empowered—in fields of fragrant, flowery optimism).
Social relations of all kinds are structured, and ought to be. We comply (or not) with such structures and may benefit from them. When people enjoy these structures, but buck their constraints, jealousy as useful warning bell goes off, usually for others in the structure. Our structural position in relation to significant others does matter to us. Pretending we don’t care is often a complicated defense. We are creatures of various orders, symbolic or otherwise. We orient ourselves in relation to such positionings.
So that’s jealousy, and this essay is (basically) done with the topic. So what’s envy?
Another thing altogether. The “third party” in envy tends to be a thing or a situation or a mode or a level of status or… or… or… It’s the likely culprit when we get either a sickly feeling or wild irritation and impatience, looking at Instagram or Twitter or other forms of social media. We see posts like “I’m so thrilled to announce…” or images of Our Nuclear Family’s Skiing Holiday in [Desirable Part of the World Accessed with Business Class Tickets] or some such. Gross examples, but you get the idea. Envy always involves some sliver of identification. It’s what we can feel, without clocking that we’re feeling it, when we want some Thing that someone else has, and when that someone else is “someone like us.” We envy the person for the Thing they appear to have (this word “appear” will be important). We pounce on and worry at the difference between them and us, which instead of being Incommensurable Difference becomes—due to our general identification with them—Difference as lack-in-us.
Now, the lousy way to embark on jealousy/envy discussions, is to proselytize about “learning to let go.” The discussion proceeds along the infuriatingly prim lines of: well, it does seem to be all about your issues with attachment, doesn’t it? It’s because you haven’t examined your internalized capitalist logic. As if we, humans, despite all our other established modes of ethical retardation over millennia, poor decision-making and entire un-alignment with so-called reason and decency, would just be able to snap our fingers and evaporate complex relations to having, to stability/change and attachment. This is not the way forward, people.
Pressing on. Envy can obviously be triggered when someone parades something they have, even if you didn’t go looking. Social media is a weird version of this: the parading is done by others, hoping we’ll click, and we click. Or we’re the flaunter, with a stable of faux-modest openings at the ready. This raises the question of how much flaunting is seemly?
Well now . . . as a verb it doesn’t have much going for it. Missed out on its mother’s wit and its father’s dainty ankles. Where is the sweet spot between hiding your lights under bushels and Name-Project-Success-Dropping masquerading as conversation? Where is that damn line? Neoliberalism, it seems, is responsible for most of us no longer knowing if we are Having a Proper Conversation—something that theoretically promises to open minds, hearts or legs (all good things)—or if we are inhabiting an on-going audition for safety and status in the vicious immersive snuff-game known as The Precariat.
But I digress. If jealousy is about turf, envy’s about wanting—about “where” you might want to go with your projects or efforts or might’ve wanted to go (but haven’t, didn’t). The hot question, however, is whether envy functionally fuels a future traveling-towards: projects, transformations, mindstates. It’s a live question—assessable in real time—no matter what the self-help books say. Envy can easily segue into regret or violent self-talk, both of which have unstable relations to increased capacity to act and live and feel. I might need to clock a regret, as a step towards doing more of the thing I want to do, but regret and self-berating, as states to dwell in, rarely prove invigorating.
If jealousy says that your structural position might be under threat, then envy might help to point out a desire that you might not’ve known was burgeoning, latent or forgotten. Close but different. (But keep in mind: capitalist vitality has always relied on generating pseudo-wants. That’s hardly news.)
One can see how jealousy might smear into envy, and why there’s a certain logic to their recent ambiguation. Is it jealousy or envy when you meet a desirable person, have a flash of Future Fantasy, and then two minutes later meet their spouse? I’d say, given that you’ve no official structural relation to this person, that this is a case of envy. You envy the spouse, so to speak, because you imagine you’d want their position, and you can identify with them. The spouse, on the other hand, might feel suitably jealous—as warning bell—if their badly-boundaried Structural Other gives you too much attention in front of them.
So what do we envy in 2019? And who are our envy targets? Two questions; I’ll take them one at a time.
1. Secure Work / Not having to work / Secure Housing / “Health” (whatever that means) / Functional Habits / Non-procrastinating Work Styles / Body Shapes of the Gender We Identify With / Skin Color that makes Life Easier in Current Context / Status / Belonging in Particular Sub-Cultures / Accomplishment of Works (in spirit of Arendt) / Calmness / Busyness / So-called Scandinavian Decor / Being Post-decor / Brands of Bikes / Kinds of Partners / The Having (or Not Having) of Children / Detachment in the Face of… / Mobility / Cosmopolitanism / Good Teeth / Big Lips / Room on your lids for lots of Blue Eye-shadow / “Youth” / Gravitas / Chutzpah / Being a Trust Fund Baby / Being a Baby-Boomer / Being Post-Feminist / Being able to be Openly Queer / Being Happily Cis / Being able to Save Money / Being able to Spend it / Being Sexually “Functional” (whatever that means) / Getting any kind of Sex / Not having to be Subjected to Any Kind of Sex / Having an easy relation to Food / Having a Faith / Being comfortably a Non-Believer / Being of a non-persecuted Religious Affiliation / Having Citizenship / Having an Education i.e. Institutional Capital / Having Cultural Capital / Being Middle Class / Being “Edgy” / Being Less Neurotic / Having a Close, Large, Happy Family / Having extricated Oneself from so-called “Happy Family” / Being Admired / Being Talked About / Owning Stuff / Owning Less Stuff / Getting Attention / Having Siblings / Having no Debt / Liking Yourself / Being Noticed in the Street / Going Safely Unnoticed in the Street / Having a Driving Super-ego / Having a Mild Superego / Having Goals / Being beyond Striving / Having “Enough Time” . . .
Gosh, it’s exhausting, but I gave it a red hot go. I don’t know what we envy. We envy stuff that we see other people having or living or not-having-to-have/live. We envy little bubbles that we see rise up around others, which reflect something of ourselves, or of our longings, back to us off their roundy, rainbow surfaces—like carnival mirrors, with bulging bellies and chewing gum necks—or sometimes the profile picture we had before our parents were born. (That’s a Zen joke.)
2. Our Siblings / Parents / Children / “Superiors” / Friends / Colleagues / Acquaintances / Social Media “Friends” / Equals / Neighbors / Ancestors / People of our Class in Other Countries / People of our Class in our own country . . .
This second list (of whom we envy) is shorter, basically since—as mentioned above—the structure of envy is such that we tend to feel it for people with whom we identify, rather than for people who are very distant from us. I don’t probably envy Barack Obama. Not really. I might admire or not admire him or think that his life has been grand and stressful, memorable and bracing, but I probably won’t envy him. He’s not enough like me. I don’t envy Taylor Swift, even if she is super rich and gets to dance around on international stages . . . and stuff. Likewise, Bono, Julia Holter, or the dude who sings in The Magnetic Fields. I wouldn’t probably feel envy unless I had gone to school with one of them and had begun by being almost as good at the style of music as they were, and imagined myself as similar to them, somehow, and then had witnessed their rise to stardom, while I continued to have song-writing block and to work at the bakery.
The latter would be a sure case of probably gruesome, massively debilitating envy. Wouldn’t you be envious? But, of course. Of course.
Envy, at its more manageable intensity, hooks us into our wants. Yes. It can be a signpost sometimes, with its needling bite a reminder to reassess our investments. Little frissons of envy might be part of any balanced emotional diet. It would depend on how the feeling of it tended to activate our behavior in the wake of it.
Dosage, in other words. How much envy is the right amount for you?
Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher, whose ideas made a lot of people very annoyed, so annoyed that some of them wrote horrible things about him (probably not due to envy but also possibly), and others organised a stabbing in the street, yes, that Spinoza . . . well, he classes envy as a mode of hate among the Sad Passions. Passions, in his vocab, mean something experienced passively. My body encounters another body and the result of the mixing of these bodies is an increase or decrease in capacity in either or both of them. Some encounters reduce our capacity to act, and others increase it. Forget magical, wishful thinking. Track what actually happens to you. Observation beyond flabby ideology. Just have a go. As I understand it, Spinoza says that the beginning of reason is to move away from Sad Passions, since these involve reducing your capacity to act, your power to do stuff in the world.
When I feel envy, I could then layer this envy (which is base-level unpleasant) with a new layer of envy (unpleasant to the power of n), harried by the thought that perhaps some people find envy enabling. Is it just me? Is no one else feeling paralyzed and going into the E-hole? New envy layer: imagining everybody else’s talent of being able to make an apparently Sad Passion grist for their Achievement, Lifehack, well-I-find-this-invigorating-don’t-you? mill. I reckon the reason envy is grueling is because it often has shame on its tail. Envy can start a Feeling Pile-Up involving all number of emotional vehicles scrunched beyond recognition: shame (definitely), fear (probably), regret (surely), mild bafflement, base confusion, sadness, more shame, irritation (often), denial, etc. etc.
I’ll repeat my question: how much envy is good for you? How much can you—actually, in fact, lived out for real—handle, as opposed to how much you think you should be able to handle? Any therapist worth their tasteful upholstery would pounce on that last sentence construction. Should!? Phooey. There is only your deciding how much isn’t too much. Like sex. Like white spirits. Like arguing.
I’ve often also wondered how this links to the way people can remain on social media platforms that make them feel really fucking terrible, the carrot of Random Dopamine Hits notwithstanding. Do we stay because we think that we shouldn’t feel envy, that we should be delighted about reading about other people’s luck, fortune and so on? Do we minimize the cost to our capacities of our own envy (denial) because we apparently shouldn’t be feeling it? Do we attempt—God forbid—faux equanimity in the face of it, and then do Affect Gymnastics around the fact of it? Maybe if we got the word “envy” back in circulation again (disambiguating it from jealousy), we could at least discuss it like Big People. Like Much Kinder Big People. Not ashamed at having a very human feeling. Willing to make a well-timed exit from the soft-focus, low-lit Self-Harm scenario of Too Much Envy.
In other words, you’re allowed, truly, just to take less envy-fodder into your system. Spit those sad passions back out—or just don’t go to their dinner party in the first place. Nothing says that you mayn’t cook up new practices to tone envy’s impact down a smidge. Why do we think we have to be Athletes of the Shitty Feeling? Why do we think that Exposure Therapy will help? I remain unconvinced.Too much self-sufficiency, too busy with one’s usual rhythms and ways, creates its own kind of atrophied capacity, over the long term. It’s good to get a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable.
Things other than envy tend to enable me. They might put me in the so-called “center” of my own life, where I’m less tilted towards the scenarios of others, and just doing stuff. I usually feel envy when I’m not “doing stuff,” when I’m gazing into the screen, scrolling over the curated lives of others, instead of baking, kissing, chatting, walking, climbing, visiting, reading, writing, disco-cleaning, dancing, poetry-ing and so on. And there’s less room for envy when I’m doing for the sake of the activity (sensual pleasure, the Sheer Ride), rather than for the sake of its quantifiable (recognizable) outcome.
Because gazing—looking at what others appear to have, do, be—lands us in the register of representation or the Imaginary. We engage with representations of having and envy is the result. This, for Deleuze’s Nietzsche in Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), immediately throws us into a mode where we can only operate reactively and in logics of negation and contradiction, rather than with en-joy-ing our capacities and the life and difference in them. The headspace of the resentful mode involves thinking that the best bits about the “having,” which we see others doing, involve being recognized—as powerful, successful, accomplished, and so on. Social media utterly reinforces this. It is our gazing in from the outside. For Deleuze’s Nietzsche, this is the lens through which the slave views the master. A certain take on reality is produced and generates its own self-sustaining logics.
Another way to say it. Either, Option A: envy itself disassociates, dis-enables me a bit and I take a while to re-kilter. Or, option B: when I’m already a little disassociated from myself, a little more (than the necessary-for-life amount) off-kilter, I become susceptible to envying others. My gaze gets drifty, prone to perambulation. My apparent inactivity—the passivity that Spinoza names—renders me too vulnerable to the gravity-centers of others.
Your Gaze Everywhere at Patternless Rhythm = Less Mental, even Physical, Stability.
I’m not kidding. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the position/quality of the eyes bears on the condition of the liver function. The liver function, in this paradigm, is linked to being able to carry out intentions, and thus to frustration when you don’t and can’t. That’s your grump, your ressentiment, even. In yoga, one places the gaze—the Drishti—somewhere steady and trains it to be steadier. This influences the mind state, the balance, the quality of moving. It’s relevant, therefore, for action and for thought. To be drawn to look everywhere else, beyond homeopathic levels, is not that great for you. Envy, furthermore, doesn’t even count as Interest in the Other. It’s no remedy for a certain self-involved bent—nuh-uh. It objectifies the other as someone who has something I want. It un-persons them in a big way. And this leads to my next point.Envy is just a human thang, not a sin or a sickness. You can actively decide how much dosage you find workable for you right now.
What about being the envy-ee? Being on envy’s end? How to even spot it? A good friend, years ago, probably having listened to me muse in confusion about the sudden, strange behaviors of friends or acquaintances, sat me down for a serious tête-à-tête. He said whenever people were weird with him, for no apparent reason, his practice was to put envy, as a possibility, into the mix of causes. (It hadn’t actually occurred to me.) Just to let it sit there. Seriously, it helps. But not to assume it! And absolutely to check your own appetite for being envied. To aim for a being-envied: that’s some weird reactive layering-up of ressentiment right there. (If that’s what floats your Life Boat as your reason for Doing Stuff—which I don’t buy, one little bit—I pity your brand of Water Sports.)
So, take care: you won’t be able to verify the fact of this envying, since envy is basically a no-go conversation topic. The thing about putting an envious person and their envy-target together in the same conversation is that there aren’t really any established behavioral templates for this combo. We need consultants. We need someone proposing some workable conventions, at the very least. How to do it? Would it help? My hunch is that it really . . . wouldn’t. Envy is best kept under wraps. It helps to get it Out Into The Open inside. Both parties, in their respective insides, and separately.
I once had a moving conversation, walking in a cemetery with a woman I barely knew. She’d asked me if I was someone who had it all worked out. I proceeded to recount some life events that clearly indicated that I did not have it ‘all worked out’. Possibly encouraged by this, she went on to disclose that she’d come to realize that much of her life had been spent in a state of envy. (She called it “jealousy,” but I knew what she meant.) I was gobsmacked by her candor. She talked of face-melting sibling rivalry, a spiraling situation—begun who knows when and coaxed with parental mismanagement or blindness—but which never really abated. The flavor had seeped into her professional life, where she constantly felt envious of colleagues and their success. She worked a very normal job. The stakes weren’t high, but envy cares little for that. It devours democratically. I listened for a long time. The conversation went in stages: later in another building, later as we returned on the same train to the city. More came out and—perhaps strangely—as it did, my esteem for this woman only increased. Hers was not a disclosure of complaint. She wasn’t seeking pity. I was witnessing her thinking her feeling—soberly and with minimal shirking. Coming to Terms—not as a confession, because envy is less a misdemeanor than an atmosphere that sets in. She was deciding to breathe a different air; creating instead of coveting.
And this, dear reader, is the real take-home. Where we might lazily assume that Doing and Non-Doing are opposites, I’d suggest that a more productive distinction lies elsewhere. To be genuinely able to do and likewise to be able to decide to abstain from doing, to wait, to reflect on future true actions, i.e. non-doing—these capacities are of the same order. If you can truly non-do—try it; it’s not that easy—then action is within your repertoire. I’d suggest, however, that what they both can be opposed to is the clusterfuck of reacting-looking. Envy assails us more in the climes of representation, in the scopophilic (“love of looking”)—the self-as-image and others as those-who-are-recognized. If someone wants to make you look too much, then—my advice—fucking riot. Because more is at stake than you know. Envy is just a human thang, not a sin or a sickness. You can actively decide how much dosage you find workable for you right now. You can look away, have a dose of non-doing to catch your breath, and then get back to doing stuff.
Excerpted from The Lifted Brow #42. Used with permission of The Lifted Brow. Copyright © 2019 by Antonia Pont.