Abstitutions Prospectus


Silence, reserve, shyness, reticence, restraint, inhibition, 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. Two at least of them, shyness and reticence, have been characterised 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 (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 feeble, petulant turning inwards 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 powerlessness rather than empowerment, puzzling or provoking. So we might recommend people for ‘assertiveness training’ (oddly oxymoronic though that is), but would shudder at the notion of, say, ‘acquiescence discipline’; what we might call that would be ‘anger management’, which has a stronger suggestion of taking charge rather than giving way. Many of the forms of restraint and refraining I have it in mind to explore can be represented as ‘self-control’, which positivises in a similar way. Much might be said in this respect about ‘will-power’, a phrase recorded in print for the first time only in 1874, which flickers between reference to the power of the will and power over the will.

Even the word ‘virtue’, despite its virile beginnings and earlier associations, has come to seem rather feeble, so that, 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 somebody 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 generalised virility, or autonomised androgen, aggressively separated from its privatively masculine associations, reigns.

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 contrast with ‘agency’ or ‘empowerment’, which might indicate that complex and internally variable end of the spectrum of attitudes and behaviour. I have thought of naming it ‘negative virtue’, but that sounds more negative than I want to be, besides leaving all the work to be done by a not very expressive adjective. If there were a non-gerundive 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 archaic ‘yieldance’ has been 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 behaviour – the blend which 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 of somebody that they are ‘unassuming’. So one could imagine a coinage like undignation exerting a certain amount of force. 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 towards them. For I want to show that the mitigation of assertion and the attenuation of agency are often powerfully affirmative.

In a sense, 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 case which interest me (Agamben 1999, 182). To be sure, the concept 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 will 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. It is these which seem to be without a satisfactory collective name. So I have contrived one: abstitution. English is provided with institution and constitution, indicating a kind of standing up, or putting something in its place. Replacing these prefixes also allows for the idea of removing something from its place, in destitution, or putting something in place of another, in restitution, substitution and prostitution. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that there might be a use for abstitution, which I therefore propose as a kind of temporary stand-in to mean all the different kinds of standing aside or making way.  I include discussions of humility, submission, resignation, politeness, both linguistic and in gesture, especially in the history and use of please and thank you, abstaining, refraining and ‘cohibition’, or abstentive collectivity, apology, good and bad losers, and the operations of care, both locally and globally.

The word abstitution is not to be found in the OED, but it is no surprise to find that a Google search flushes out some specialist invocations of it. Since abstitution names all the modes of withdrawal, and it seems appropriate that these modes of obliquity should withdraw themselves even from being out and proud. English provides institution and constitution, indicating a kind of standing up, or putting something in its place. Replacing these prefixes also allows for the idea of removing something from its place, in destitution, or putting something in place of another, in restitution, substitution and prostitution. There seems to be no place made for the word abstitution, to imply a kind of standing back or standing aside, though Latin does supply asto, to stand by, at or alongside, with the transferred sense of standing up or standing upright. The legal term astitution may capitalise upon this. Alexander Burrill’s 1850 law dictionary defines astitution as an early name for an ‘arraignment’, deriving it from ad-, to and statuere, ‘to place, or set in order, one by another’ (Burrill 1850, 109). Burrill’s interlocking definition of arraigment derives it from ad- and ratio, hence a calling to law, or to account. But it suggests also ‘In old English law. To order, or set in order; to conduct in an orderly manner; to prepare for trial; simply to prosecute’ (Burrill 1850, 90). ‘Lord Coke says it is from the Fr. arraigner, to order or set in the right place’. But these words derive from ad, towards, rather than ab, aside, away from. There is no obstitution in English either, though there is a near-miss in the case of obstinacy, which is from obstinare, a lengthened form of obsto, to stand before, against or in the way, hence obstacle.  The phrase nihil obstat, ‘nothing impedes’, is employed in the Catholic Code of Canon Law to indicate that a book contains nothing contrary to faith or morality. The adjective obstant has not been much availed of in English since the early seventeenth century, though a reviewer of A. Campbell Garnett’s The Perceptual Process (1965),  which argues that all cognition involves strenuous acts of resistance and striving, found a use for it in 1967:

Professor Campbell Garnett’s account of what we find in the course of observation and believe to exist independently of it reminds one of the Oxford story about the undergraduate who was told by his philosophy tutor to write an essay on substance; instead he produced an essay on obstance. It is unfortunate perhaps that the word ‘obstance’ has not achieved a wider currency. But I think Campbell Garnett would agree that a substance, or at any rate a macroscopic physical substance, is essentially an obstant entity. (Price 1967, 287)

It may reasonably be objected that the reason that there is no one word that encompasses all the modes of holding back or standing aside in which I am interested is that there is in fact no such thing to be named, no root of which these modes of action and comportment are offshoots. On this view, what I am perversely determined to see as different forms of abstitution are in fact just different kinds of thing, tout court, without any thing to hold them together. I am prepared to allow that HMS Abstitution is not the tightest ship conceptually that has ever been run, though the very variousness of the ways in which abstitution expresses itself is what gives purchase to the idea that there may be some interest and significance in their association. We might recognise that there are many other concepts, literally ways of catching things together, that are far more ragged and miscellaneous than what I am proposing here: think of all the drastically incommensurable things that are taken to be instances of ‘art’ or the ‘aesthetic’, for example.

Cultures are often thought of in terms of constitutions and institutions, ways of occupying spaces and positions. Humans, who seem, at least to themselves, to have occupied the earth, and proclaim the fact in the earthen name they give themselves, may have developed, or at least be the vehicle for, another mode of occupying space, that the word abstitution tries to signal. It is evoked well in Michel Serres’s reflections in Genesis on dance as an action of systematic displacement, as the answer to, or deflection of, the military understanding of the occupation of place, the trenchwhispered mondegreen of reinforcement for advance into three and fourpence for a dance:

Whoever is nothing, whoever has nothing, passes and steps aside. From a bit of force, from any force, from any thing, from any decision, from any determination, the dancer, the dance step aside. The step is a step aside. Thus is movement born, thus is grace born. Grace is nothing, it is nothing but stepping aside. … To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place. (Serres 1995, 47)

Peace, and therefore survival and the capacity for invention and diversification , in human life depends almost entirely on varieties of turning aside, the actions of deflection or defection often signified by the prefix ‘apo’, related to Latin ‘ab’ – apostrophe, apotropaism, apostasy, apophasis, apophony (vowel-variation), apoplexy (lit. being ‘struck off’), apoptosis (falling away, especially in cell death), aposiopesis, apostle (one who is sent away), apothesis (‘laying aside’, the setting of a fractured limb), abstaining. Apology is ‘speaking away’ – apo-logos: excusing, explanation, justification. In Greek an ἀπόλογος is a story, fable or allegory, that is, an oblique turning aside of direct expression. Apostrophe is literally a ‘turning aside’.

I do not mean to embark on a lament for the loss of gentler, more concessive outlooks in an age of aggressive self-aggrandisement. In fact, part of my motivation is to investigate the strange fact that what we say and what we do and expect others to do seem in this respect so strikingly ill-aligned. For, even if we speak much less about forms of the inhibition of behaviour, there is probably more pressure and expectation than ever before on individuals and groups to develop non-assertive, or even frankly self-restraining outlooks. When it comes to sexism, racism and other kinds of hostile prejudice, we rightly tolerate little in the way of empowering self-assertion, and, in this and other respects, require of ourselves and others higher levels of inhibitional self-monitoring than ever before. If we are disturbed by the apparent need among students to create ‘safe spaces’ in universities, on the grounds that universities ought to be places in which young people (and, for that matter, old ones) encounter intellectual and emotional challenges – and I certainly myself have felt some uneasiness on this score – it cannot reasonably be because we think that social life ought to carry more risk of hurt, offence and psychological injury than it does. Rather, it is to follow the immunological logic that exposure in measured doses to forms of threat and aggression allows for the development of a kind of emotional and intellectual resilience which in the long run makes one safer, while fearful non-exposure puts one at greater risk of having no resources to absorb or deflect threat and aggression. If this can sometimes seem like a matter of policing rather than politics, our growing sensitivity and responsiveness to the need to mitigate social harm and our active and widely-shared willingness to reduce levels of aggression is one of the many proofs that, in Peter Sloterdijk’s hair-raisingly optimistic words (I think, perhaps too optimistically, they are optimistic), ‘the path of civilization is the only one that is still open’ (Sloterdijk 2009, 18). Abstitutive forms and comportments may be thought of, if not necessarily as civilising, then certainly as essentially civil, and essential to civility. They are behavings which are unimaginable in any conceivable ‘state of nature’ and without which the sorts of complex, demanding collective existence that human beings currently have would scarcely be possible. It is as such that I aim to reflect on a range of them and the actions in which they may be embodied: that is, as virtues in which we are more expert than we seem to know, but about which we have lost the knack of being, or motivation to be, morally articulate.

It is also to make out for them what I have been calling since the late 1990s a cultural phenomenology, an articulation of the work which, whether or not we are aware and explicit about them, abstitutive comportments may nevertheless be doing. When I first began thinking about what the thing I have called a cultural phenomenology might be, I thought that it would have the advantage of enlarging the cultural dimensions of the kinds of topic that writers in the phenomenological tradition had tended to think of largely as matters of individual perception and experience, or characteristic of a kind of universal individuality. In the case of the inhibitive habits I have in view (inhibition in fact being almost the same word as habit and for good reasons), one might approach something like a phenomenological account of ‘culture’ itself, in the general sense of a style of collective existence, or being in common, that would be formed just as much through these Polonian ‘assays of bias’ (Shakespeare 2005, 232), the coordination of these concavities, these directions and indirections, inflections and deflections, as through the convex positivity of precepts and institutions.

And, in fact, part of the challenge of making out a history of these abstitutive gestures, tendencies, attitudes and potentials is to retain their quality of indirection. Abstitution stands aside, not just from the positive occupation of positions, or -stitutions of many different kinds, but also from the negative inversions of such things. It is for this reason that this book is not a study of negativity, which has been a leading theme in much contemporary philosophy. The philosophical and political interest in negativity usually exhibits a tendency to precipitate into positive form, through the celebration of pure or absolute forms of negativity, whether it be the principle of absolute loss, or absolute eschewal of gain in the ethics of the gift relation or, more recently, through the investigation of sacrifice, for example in Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice (2018). But sacrifice is not abstitution, precisely because sacrifice evacuates the self entirely, in a way that allows it to triumph. In the blaze of terminal consumption, the self is consummated. Suicide is not a giving way, because it leaves nothing left to be given at all. Abstitution needs and means a self deployed, not glory-destroyed, so abstitution must hold back from the lordly immolation of destitution.



Agamben, Giorgio (1999). Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Ed. and trans. Denis Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Burrill, Alexander M. (1850). A New Law Dictionary and Glossary. New York: John S. Voorhies.

Eagleton, Terry (2018). Radical Sacrifice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Crozier, W. Ray, ed. (1990). Shyness and Embarrassment: Perspectives from Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daly, John A. and James McCroskey, eds. (2009). Avoiding Communication: Shyness, Reticence, and Communication Apprehension. 3rd edn. Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press. ills, LOno

Lane, Christopher (2007). Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Phillips, G.M. (1965). ‘The Problem of Reticence.’ Pennsylvania Speech Annual, 22, 22-38.

Price, H.H. (1967). Review of A. Campbell Garnett, The Perceptual Process. Mind 76, 287-93.

Serres, Michel (1995). Genesis. Trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Shakespeare, William (2005). Hamlet. Ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Sloterdijk, Peter (2009). God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Cambridge: Polity.