Driving decision-making by creating a vacuum.

8/5/20235 min read


The passive-active construct hinges on a much more elaborate set of psycho-strata. In one of its contexts (a state which is not expressed, yet very much desired), it creates a constant flux of Zugzwang for its environment.[i] In other words, the passive-active creates conditions in or on which others have to act, without A having acted itself. This is not a reaction, since no action has been taken, and is connected to the quandary found in the story The Lady, or the Tiger?.[ii]

Written by Frank R. Stockton in 1882, the story deals with a situation of ‘impossible choice’. A prisoner must open one of two doors. Behind one is a beautiful woman, ready to marry him; behind the other is a voracious tiger, ready to eat him. But which is which? The beauty (and the fascination) of this tale is that the author does not provide an ending. Stockton’s last words follow: ‘And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?’ In order to close the narrative circle we need to come to our own conclusion based on the information the tale gives us. We become actively engaged by reading the story; if we do not make a decision about the ending, then all our energies invested in reading the story are wasted. Precisely this meta-construct, this literary Zugzwang, is the most interesting aspect of the story (much more than a decision on how it ends). It ties the concept of the passive-active construct to the model of artificially locked information in a dialectical opposition to non-artificially locked information.[iii] If the tale of the lady and the tiger illustrates the passive-active mechanism within a setting of artificially locked information, then ‘the parable of the red chamber’ exemplifies the working of this system when dealing with non-artificially locked information.

The parable of the red chamber takes place a longer time ago and concerns a young married man and woman who must make a multitude of decisions about their lives together. The young woman is completely obsessed by the colour red and would like nothing more than to live in a house completely furnished and furbished in red. The young man does not have a specific preference, but he is keen in having an equal say in the decisions made regarding the decoration of the house, and he is also very aware of their budget. The woman knows that if she were to announce her desire to decorate the whole house red, her husband would object. When choosing the first piece of furniture (the couch) they consider all options fairly, one of which is a red couch. During the negotiation process she argues against all the other options on the basis of economics, aesthetics (not only visual aesthetics but also drawing on the entire somaesthetic sphere), pragmatic, social and environmental reasons and many more besides. The end is predictable: the red couch is chosen. A year later, when an old friend of the husband comes to visit the house, he notices that it is completely decorated in red. He asks the husband about this, and he truthfully replies that he has no idea how this has happened. His wife’s wish has been achieved not by means of direct action, but by creating a vacuum through the elimination of all alternatives to red: a passive-active pull towards a desired state.


A special case of a two-step information system is the famous Catch-22, invented by Joseph Heller in his book of the same name. It describes a circular system of reasoning in which the outcome of each of two logics enables the opposite to be true.[iv] As I argued above, information is the hinge between the virtual and actual, and as both terms are part of the real, the information itself must also be real. Philosopher Laurence Goldstein reasons that the Catch 22 is a ‘vacuous biconditional’: it is logically not a state that is true under any circumstances. Imagine a paper with the words ‘to find the truth turn to the other side’ written on both sides. Any state (looking at one side of the paper) forces us to move from that state (flipping the paper). It serves little purpose to go into the details of any linguistic arguments in this context, but it is interesting to consider the semantics of language itself by regarding the emergence and development of language as an indication of the working of the mind. The desire for access to information leads to the discovery of knowledge that one would then prefer not to have known. For example: on the basis of a concrete indication, a husband persists in asking his wife if she slept with another man while she was in Vienna. Finally she admits she did, at which point he wishes he had never received this information since it completely and irreversibly annihilates the tranquillity of their relation.

The above situation is different from one in which the social conventions built around the maintenance of secret information are more important than the actual disclosure of the information itself. If by chance I come home early and discover from a distance that a surprise party is being organised in my honour, it would be best if I left the scene and returned home at the usual time, pretending to be completely surprised. The receiver of the locked information (the one to whom the secret is unintentionally disclosed) needs to reconstruct the ex-secret into a new secret. The ‘new’ secret is that the original secret is no longer a secret. It has become phantom information. However, when confidential information is formally available to only one or a few receivers yet obvious to everyone else (such as the pregnancy of a teenage girl), we speak of an ‘elephant in the room’, which is an issue tacitly ignored because it is too problematic to speak of. But what if the elephant is bigger than the room?

Photo-credit: Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. No known restrictions on publication.

Title: This woman worker at the Vultee-Nashville is shown making final adjustments in the wheel well of an inner wing before the installation of the landing gear, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 1943.

[i] Zugzwang is a German term for ‘the compulsion to move’, which is an undesired state in chess when a player is forced to move, but strategically it would be more advantageous to pass or to do something else.

[ii] Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, or the Tiger? was first published in the American magazine The Century in 1882, http://www.english-literature.uni-bayreuth.de/en/teaching/documents/courses/Stockton1.pdf [accessed 25 July 2016].

[iii] Slavoj Žižek adds: ‘When Alain Badiou emphasizes that a double negation is not the same as an affirmation, he thereby merely conforms to the Hegelian motto les non-dupes errant. Let us take the affirmation “I believe.” Its negation is: “I do not really believe, I just pretend to believe.” Its properly Hegelian negation of negation, however, is not the return to direct belief, but the self-relating pretence “I pretend to pretend to believe,” which means: “I really believe without being aware of it.”’ See Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 354.

[iv] In his book Catch-22, Joseph Heller describes many of these types of locked reasoning, as the following quote exemplifies: ‘There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.’ Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, [1955] 1997).