Discover more from Transmissions from the floor
Exploring how rigid constraints shape us; Bonzai Kittens, Wilhelm Reich's Characterology, the rise and fall of the American posture, and the machine that makes the shoes that we wear
On December 20th, 2000, the ending of the first year of the dawn of the new millennium and the last day that I was 10 years old, a legendary website called bonsaikitten.com went online. It claimed to provide a set of instructions on how to grow a kitten from infancy inside of a jar such that, like those famous Japanese square-shaped watermelons, its body would conform to the shape of the container.
From our modern, cynical and internet-poisoned vantage point, it is sometimes hard to forget that people are pretty gullible. A wave of outrage exploded, and continued unabated even after the webmaster Dr. Michael Wong Chang was revealed to be an alias for a bored MIT student. The site was taken down less than two weeks later, but mirrors quickly popped up all over the net. An actual FBI investigation was launched.
Animal rights organizations, flooded with complaints, rushed to issue statements condemning the website:
“While the site’s content may be faked, the issue it is campaigning for may create violence towards animals” —MSPCA
As hilarious as the imagery of a small defenceless kitten trapped inside of a jar and slowly crushed into the shape of a rectangle (or spiral, or klein bottle) may or may not be, the site was clearly inspired by the historical practice of foot binding, which was an extremely painful three year long process where the feet of young girls were repeatedly broken and tightly bound to make them smaller.
A bonsai plant, along with its more widely encountered counterpart the topiary garden, achieves its miniature yet mature form through a long and delicate process of trimming during the formative years of the tree. It is not possible to trim a kitten!
However, fortunately the Oriental artists of yore were also expert in the modification of animal forms. Both foot-binding and head-binding were practiced in the Far East, for the purpose of miniaturizing the feet and shaping the head into attractive shapes. This technique is also the principle behind the well-known corset, which is regaining popularity in recent years.
By physically constraining the growth of a developing living thing, it can be directed to take the shape of the vessel that constrains it. Just as a topiary gardener produces bushes that take the forms of animals or any other thing, you no longer need be satisfied with a housepet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species.
With Bonsai Kitten, a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination. (source)
The conventional view of this somewhat unhinged practice (foot binding, not bonsai kitten-ing) is that it was done to please a powerful lobby of foot fetishists who preferred incredibly small feet; giving well-cultured women a delicate and dainty lotus gait made up of tiny steps and a swaying walk that set them apart from the poors with their ugly, mannish, and cravenly functional stompers.
The most desirable bride possessed a three-inch foot, known as a “golden lotus.” It was respectable to have four-inch feet—a silver lotus—but feet five inches or longer were dismissed as iron lotuses. The marriage prospects for such a girl were dim indeed. (source)
Foot binding was practiced in China from the 10th century all the way up until as recently as 1949. To put that into perspective: that is a long ass time1. To help explain this some researchers have pointed out that Chinese families relied on women to do handwork that produced valuable goods like yarn, cloth, mats, shoes and fishing nets; which was both profitable to make and, also, boring as hell. Limiting the mobility of young girls to make it easier to force them to do this tedious labor, in addition to making it more profitable to marry them off later, would have been an easy win for the family checkbook. In this economics-based view, the practice died out not because of foreign influence or a sudden change of heart or something, but because of industrialization and the emergence of factory produced goods that made it a shitty deal.
Whatever the cause, we have thankfully been able to move past this heinously sexist practice in the modern era and achieve great strides towards equality: now everyone gets to have their feet fucked up.
That’s right folks, the mass-produced shoes we wear every day are forcing our toes together and flattening our arches:
A friend of mine on twitter who grew up in Malaysia sometimes talks about how his feet were put into casts to try to make them more “normal looking” (A) and prevent them from looking like they belonged to a villager (B).
But having slightly fucked up feet isn’t the only ticket to success in this world. A few months ago I was on a plane, squishing myself into a tiny rectangular seat, and I managed to catch the first half of a 1960s documentary about poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen (before getting so bored that I opted to just sit in silence instead).
One thing that stuck out to me is that they repeatedly made a point to mention his posture. To the modern eye it looks pretty unremarkable, but they seemed very curious about what led him to have the “stoop of an old spinster”, or in plain terms the uh… hunched over posture of the little old women who made their living performing the tedious hand labor of spinning yarn…
Leonard Cohen was a trailblazer in many ways, and apparently being an early example of the common modern affliction nerd neck was no exception.
Having the stoop, unsightly as it may be, serves a purpose: it helps you to perform tasks that involve a lot of sitting and staring down at things. Spinsters need nerd neck to spin, academics need nerd neck to study papers, nerds need nerd neck to write computer programs and look at their calculators or whatever and teens need it to look at they phone all day.
Five suits of armor
Wilhelm Reich is most well known (to me) for building “cloudbusting” machines intended to control the flow of a theorized orgasm-cum-lifeforce energy in the atmosphere (“orgone”), in order to influence the weather. He died in America in police captivity on charges of contempt of court: escaping from the Nazis had been one thing, but the FDA proved themselves to be an even more sinister adversary. Inspired by his son Peter Reich’s memoir, Kate Bush dramatized the events in her 1985 record Hounds of Love. A single off the record, Running Up That Hill, went on to top the billboard charts last year (37 years later) and inspire thousands of bad tiktok videos.
But for our purposes a more relevant thing that he is also known for is his “Character Analysis” work—sometimes referred to as Reichian Characterology. He was a student of Freud, and thus represents an interesting alternate-reality launching point for western psychiatry in a universe where they decided that the body mattered at all (rather than just being a place where people stored their brains). He describes several different coping mechanisms for stress (or “Character Armoring”) that shape the way that we hold our bodies, which are borne out of different types of childhood trauma.
Recently I have been reading an updated (sanitized, purified) version of this theory in a book called “The 5 Personality Patterns” by Steven Kessler, which is very awesome: not least of which because it gives you silly little physical exercises to put your mind into each pattern, and instructions on how to “get out of pattern”2. Here’s how his version of these archtypes are drawn:
(I mostly use Kessler’s names for these here on out but Reich’s were funny and offensive so I will also include these in brackets)
Leaving pattern (“The Unwanted Child” • schizoid): Try to leave the situation, either physically or by letting their mind wander into fantasy land. Energy is not attached to the body, which is left small and frail. Creative, Spiritual; Absent, Space-Case
Merging pattern (“The Needy Child” • oral): Look to connect, fawning behavior. Their body is a leaky container that can never get enough energy, so they rely on drawing it from other people. A subvariant called compensated merging can manifest as taking care of other people at the expense of ignoring their own needs, secretly hoping that the subject of their affections will feel like they owe it to them to return the favor: real giving tree stuff. Their body is rounded, as if hollow (no sense of core). Kind, Loving; Needy, Pathetic
Enduring Pattern (“The Endurer” • masochist): Take whatever is thrown at them passively by retreating into themself. Energy is contained deep inside, pressed down into the ground. Their only power at all comes from passively resisting rather than taking action. Their body is squarish and sturdy. Stable, Rooted; Boring, Stuck
Aggressive pattern (“The Controller” • psychopath): Viciously attack any threat. They secretly never feel safe, so they’re vigilant and constantly sizing people up. Confident, and can be extremely charming at times, but in the end they only trust themselves. Draw energy upwards and send it out in explosive bursts, leaving them with a v-shaped body. Powerful, Charismatic; Psychotic, Asshole
Rigid Pattern (“The Perfectionist” • rigid): Follow the rules of the situation precisely. They feel like their feelings and internal experiences don’t matter: only their external accomplishments. Energy neither leaves nor enters their body, which forms a tense outer shell that contains and suppresses impulses. Organized, Productive; Cold, Stick-up-ass
Then again maybe thats all too abstract. Not much to help us visualize. Luckily these all roughly map onto the characters in The Breakfast club:
Allison, the loner girl that’s ignored by her parents and uses the dandruff in her hair to create snow for her drawing: leaving. Brian, the pathetic babbling brain3 who receives no love from his mother and is constantly sucking up to everyone around him including the janitor: merging. Claire, the rich, popular, sushi-eating girl with divorced parents (who use her to get back at each other) that feels like her life is just happening to her: enduring4. Bender, the knife-wielding drug dealer and relentless asshole whose dad hits him and puts out cigars on his skin: aggressive. Emilio Estevez, the sports star and winner who has a father that rides him hard and only values him for his achievements: rigid.
And then at the end they realize that they don’t actually have to be that way. It’s not really who they are, it’s just what their parents and society have turned them into. They see each other, and then after the worst makeover scene in the history of cinema everyone pairs off to start fucking (except for Brian: he gets to write the essay5).
A nice thing about this system is that it’s not prescriptive: theres no need to take the online quiz and see if you’re an enduring sun, rigid moon. These are just patterns, we all have experiences with all of these patterns. They only shape our personalities and our bodies to the extent we come to rely on them.
The aggressive and rigid patterns both look like good posture, but the judgement of what’s good or bad is basically just a reflection of cultural attitudes towards the emotional states that those postures represent6.
We’re used to thinking about the whole field of ergonomics as being about chairs and standing desks and stupid looking keyboards, but originally it was about how you could very precisely train people and build machines to optimize factory work. Americans like Henry Ford, Frederick Winslow Taylor (of taylorism fame), and Frank/Lillian Gilbreth (subjects of the 1950 film/memoir Cheaper by the Dozen7) were able to accomplish feats like raising the amount of pig-iron that workers could load onto carts each day at the Bethlehem Steel Company from 12 to 47 tons and other such triumphs of industrial exceptionalism.
By breaking down each job into its individual motions, timing the workers with a stopwatch, and optimizing or eliminating every motion, workers were able to achieve
In 1914 Lenin was dunking on the “Scientific Management” movement, referring to it as man’s enslavement by the machine, but by the time he was in power four years later he had a change of heart: “Russian is a bad worker [who must] learn to work. […] The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field.”
Since the 1960s, which incidentally is around the time the cold war started to cool off and factory jobs started moving to other countries, America has generally embraced a totally radical ethos of rejecting the rigid values of our parents8. A consistent undercurrent in our thinking since that time is a strong opposition to authoritarian structures, the man, and (especially) fascism: with ever escalating purity tests to prove that you are not a crypto-fascist9, and existential arguments over just who’s definition of fascism we’re going by here.
Wilhelm Reich provided one such definition that has proven to be popular. The same year he published his Character Analysis book, 1933, he also put out another book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism which claimed that the rise of fascism was caused by authoritarianism and sexual repression/abuse in the family, and coined the term the sexual revolution. These books were banned and burned in Nazi Germany, but what he described seems to have found a life in America:
“In Germany in the 1930s, [my father] led a political movement that called for, among other things, the abolition of laws against abortion and homosexuality, free birth-control advice and contraceptives, health protection of mothers and children, nurseries in factories and in other large employment centres, the abolition of laws prohibiting sex education and home leave for prisoners.” —Peter Reich (source)
Modern attitudes towards parenting are in many ways the polar opposite of the cold, formal style that was promoted by the Nazis10: neglect slowly replaced with helicopter parenting, physical distance with attachment parenting, authoritarian rule with consent-based parenting, corporal punishment with gentle parenting, and rigid schedules with free-range parenting. Boy… there sure are a lot of named parenting philosophies now. But I notice that each of these appears to take aim at the root cause of one of Reich’s character structures and then totally fucking obliterate it to the extent that they are almost mutually exclusive approaches.
But obsessing over the behaviour of parents in the home can only take you so far: if the goal is to run away from an authoritarian way of raising children at top speed, it’s interesting that the Prussian education system has managed to survive this scrutiny. You know… the Prussian education system: the basis of all modern school systems, laid out by Frederick the Great with his Generallandschulreglement decree in 1763, which required compulsory, tax-funded, age-segregated secular education for all girls and boys from the age of five11. Prussia and it’s education system were fully absorbed into Germany by 1871, and it so strongly influenced the development of education systems around the world that by the time the 20th century rolled around it was nearly universal.
This is also sometimes referred to as the “factory model” of education, which is considered an ahistorical mischaracterization because it isn’t actually modelled after factories, nor was it intended to produce factory workers specifically. But the educators during the industrial age sure did seem to like factories as a metaphor:
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.” (source)
But this shaping and fashioning of children for their future roles predates industrialization by a lot. The Spartans famously abandoned their young males in wilderness situations to force them to survive on their own, producing many aggressive warriors well suited to their extreme combat culture. The British elites sent their children as young as seven to boarding schools, subjecting them to a rigid hierarchy of trickle down violence and sexual abuse that left them well suited to manage their colonial territories. As a more contemporary example (although I guess boarding schools do still exist12): the Japanese force their youth into extremely high-pressure study schedules and cram schools, which prepare them for a corporate culture that is known for working its employees to death.
It reminds me of the ending of that movie Snowpiercer, where it turns out that the train that all of the remainder of humanity lives on (conveniently arranged linearly from upper to lower class) is missing some critical piece of its engine, and the only way to keep it running is to kidnap children and force them into a tiny space to replicate its function. People need to be shaped a certain way so that they can fit into the machine; like an interchangeable widget, or sprocket.
In my early twenties I pumped over a thousand hours of my life into an objectively fucked up game called The Binding of Issac, where you play as a small crying naked child who shoots his tears as projectiles to defend against a variety of enemies that look like demented versions of himself.
The story, such as it is, is that you are fleeing from your mother who is trying to sacrifice you to god after she hears a voice from above.
As you head deeper and deeper into hidden underground levels of your house, you are given at least two items on each floor that make you more powerful, at the expense of making you more fucked up:
An item called tough love gives your character a smashed face and replaces some of your tears with broken teeth that do more damage.
A photo of Isaac’s family with his father torn out of it makes him sadder, and thus able to shoot more tears at his enemies.
Catching the virus makes everything you touch contaminated with poison.
These various effects stack on top of each other, sometimes conflicting with each other in game-endingly bad ways that you have no real way to predict beforehand without cheating. But, if you do make it to the end, you have usually become massively powerful and deeply, irredeemably cursed.
There is a metaphor here: maybe our traumatic experiences stack up on top of each other to create the interesting combinations of coping patterns that make us who we are. Sure we had some tough times, but at least they toughened us up; growth in the face of adversity requires exposure to a certain amount of adversity. Every one of Reich’s character structures comes with its own gifts, so maybe all we have to do is patch up the most egregious downsides and we can still come out ahead.
If traumas do lead to strengths and build character, then how much should we be protecting our children from them? Is it better for us to run out and buy our kids ugly little peasant-style unstructured shoes to wear and let their feet grow free, or is that just cursing them to a life where they never quite fit in?
It may or may not be the case that children need restrictions to succeed in the traditional sense, but let us consider the art of Bonsai (rather than just the kitten version): impressive as the results may be, all that they are actually accomplishing through their long and delicate process of trimming is making a tree that’s quite a bit smaller than it would have been.
Certainly a lot easier to keep on your shelf.
In the end, I’m afraid we are left with a not so simple choice to make:
Transmissions from the floor is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Like, really long.
I have done the exercises and they are great. I am actually suspicious that they may have been influential in the development of some of the practices I learned in clown school.
In my extensive archeological research into gen x teen culture, I have come to the conclusion this term was used in a similar way that “nerd” is used today, but notably without any positive connotations: this was of course before the meteoric rise of Bill Gates in the 90s.
Now, Claire isn’t actually fat and stocky but there is a scene where Bender tells her that she has a fat person’s name and that she’s spiritually destined to become fat, so…
I, of course, relate to this movie on a deep level because the entire plot revolves around them procrastinating on writing an essay.
Having a straighter posture apparently isn’t actually associated with having less neck or back pain, but is associated with lower rates of depression as you might expect.
Not the one with Hillary Duff
After we exported our factory management philosophies to the Japanese in the aftermath of WW2, we had to re-import them later because everyone here completely forgot them: the so-called kanban is hugely influential in modern software companies.
Wikipedia on the etymology of this term: In an ABC television debate during the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Gore Vidal described William F. Buckley, Jr. as a “sort of pro or crypto-Nazi”. Buckley responded, “Now listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face”
The German Mother and Her First Child, a parenting book promoted by the Nazis, recommended that babies should be isolated for 24 hours immediately after birth and that mothers should speak to their babies in reasonable German instead of a silly-banal childish language. Children were to be kept always at a physical remove from the mother, with as little touch as possible outside of cleaning and feeding (cautioning against “monkey love” or “ape affection”). The author basically as far as I can tell just openly hated children, and encouraged adults to viciously mock their mistakes and weaknesses: advice which was apparently broadly taken up by parents and teachers.
This is where the term kindergarten comes from (and yes it is, apparently, supposed to be spelled with a ‘t’ instead of a ‘d’ because it’s German).
So I know you were wondering: Griffindor is aggressive pattern, Slytherin is rigid pattern, Ravenclaw is leaving pattern. Hufflepuff is merging pattern for sure but ALSO I guess it’s kind of enduring pattern as well and I think this is because (yes I am going to get into the lore here) the other three founders of Hogwarts took all of the brave, ambitious, and intelligent kids respectively as their students, and Helga Hufflepuff took the leftovers which would have included both types.