step 62: the double bind
Home » All content » Step 62: The Double Bind

Step 62: The Double Bind

A binary is a game where each side needs and provokes the other, while a double bind plays the individual against irreconcilable outcomes that damn them either way.

We are born into a game, a set of rigged circumstances, but can we refuse to play, like Alice refusing the Red Queen’s edicts? Or have we been captured and co-opted, only to internalize the paradoxical contradictions until our sanity is in doubt?

The Book

Alan Watts

Against the Double Blackmail

Slavoj Zizek

Part 1: Problems with the Game

  • Part 1b: Ideology to check power in the game

Part 2: The Double Bind

Part 3: Catch 22


Step 62: The Double Bind

PART 1: Problems with the Game

William James in pragmatism speaks of a middle road between the monists and empiricists. the “tough-minded” and the “tender-hearted.” 

Or as Alan Watts calls them the “prickles” and the “goos.” The animated skeletons of the overly intellectual, desiccated rationalists are in conflict with the squishy, feely experiential people expelling torrents of emotion. Both sides need each other, and because they are confused by each other, they lash out at each other. 

They find grievance in the other, simply because they are not alike. 

Watts says, much like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, they have fallen for believing the game of black and white: The static cartesian grid dictating moves to win and lose, us and them, off with their heads! and yet, Alice refuses to play. 

Can we refuse to play? just leave the egomaniacal Queen or President screaming? Perhaps continuing to play is the problem… but Watts says life is a game… our problem is when we forget that it’s a game. We get the ego involved, and we must win even if it means annihilation.

However, one thing we should remember about competition: it is rigged. Someone fixes the rules, the forms are formalized into law, made static and non-pliable for the players. Creativity ceases and conformist subjugation begins. 

This lack of creativity amidst competition is because we aren’t making our own way, we are busily reacting, aligning our moves to theirs: “Bishop to rook 4.” But it really never was our game: we were dropped into someone else’s game. 

imagine if we agreed living was the goal, not winning? 

But the notion of “living” has been captured by the game: we politic to live. we politic for life, for security, for our children, or we fear life as we know it would end, and with such things at stake, we must win. 

But that’s just believing the game again: “off with their heads”. 

Part 1b: ideology to check power in the game

 I’m sure that issuing Watts’ Buddhist pronouncements about the illusory status of our foundational beliefs is about as helpful as a 15-year-old who just discovered Marx or feminism, or even Buddhism, explaining to their CEO dad why he is the problem with the world. 

It might be true but probably won’t change anything. It is a meta-move where we conclude that reality sucks, and we are all complicit, but mostly it’s our dad’s fault. 

However, if reality is a cage (a given set of circumstances) we are born into and we are mostly powerless, our only respite might be to return to a place of personal power: the realm of ideas where we manipulate personal perspective and withdraw into abstraction, our own personal VR… or at least this is a critique of the Kantianism, that equally fits the post-structuralists. 

Now, at least according to Heidegger and José Ortega y Gasset “the game” – or life- is the social construct and circumstances, into which we are bodily dropped from the birth canal.  These shape who we are is highly dependent on circumstances. In this case, we are not and can never be only “I think therefore I am” … because that creates a binary separating reason and nature. It is more accurately “I think therefore I am in the world.” (shout out to Philosophize This!

And so, the 15-year-old bitterly espousing the thwarted prophecy of Marxism, enraged over his circumstances, can at least check his father: “Pawn to King.”

He converts the ideological systemic conflict into interpersonal ammunition: use the game to attack your nearest opponent. It is a version of attempting to try out the power and utility of these ideas and explode the local authority before expanding to explode the global hegemony. 

“The revolution is neigh, comrades. Off with the capitalist heads!”

Step 62: The Double Bind

PART 2: The Double Bind

Alan Watts also brings up the double bind, “be spontaneous” or “be yourself, act naturally” which is, of course, impossible because the ACT is to perform naturalism, that is conformist normality must be performed, and by performing you are not actually being yourself.   So, socially, we are taught that being yourself is always a performative act. 

We are in a system layered with double binds.   These are irreconcilable differences, or at minimum, the choices given are both undesirable.   It is when you receive conflicting messages… at the same time: a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario.

slavoj zizek "against the double bind"

Slavoj Žižek has a book called “Against the Double Blackmail“, and he references the Paris Riots of 2005, where the Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy (who later became President) calls the immigrant populations “animals” not apologizing for the police treating them as such.  There naturally was more going on, but… let’s consider

 The French imported labor, cheap immigrant labor for their luxury, and relegated them to one specific Community, creating a ghetto. 

Here is the double-bind: by playing with the system and letting them take advantage of you acquiesce to being treated as inferior, as an animal, but if you rebel against the system you are an ingrate who is not civilized, you are a barbaric animal, and so prove you cannot be integrated into French society.

The rage and ressentiment felt by these people led them to embody their rage as a message: “if you think we’re animals, we will give you animals” and they burned cars and a portion of the ghetto down, proving “animality” to some, and a reactionary cry for humanity and justice to others. 

 One issue we encounter with capitalism is this type of double-bind.   Any move you make seems to be co-opted: if you are the rebellious young Elvis Presley, your rage against the machine is channeled and sold, and soon you are polyester and sparkles every night in Vegas.

Capitalism absorbs and literally “capital”-izes on all forms of energy, in fact, capital at some level is merely a measure of energy. Consider capitalism like an amoeba: it absorbs everything, like slime.  I’ve heard it called a hydra, but slime is more totalizing: just digesting everything with no heads to swing a sword at.

But when considering the double-bind, the image is that of a rubber man, where when you lash out it uses your force against you: “stop hitting yourself.” The system not only neutralizes your energies, it captures and redirects them to not only punish you but to sustain and benefit itself. 

The illusion we are offered is to imagine capitalism is a hydra, and with a concerted attack, we could rally to cut off the heads. 

But, as Foucault says, power has diffused into systems, apparatus or assemblages we don’t even know how to combat. 

We are compelled to act, but there is no head to lop off. 

Step 62: The Double Bind

PART 3: Catch 22

The double-bind is also known as a Catch-22 in the Joseph Heller black comedic novel published in 1961. There are numerous examples of paradoxical nonsense in the book, but the main character encounters this one: the military promises you will go home after 10 missions.  Under stress from pointless orders, flying and having shells explode around him, and watching his buddies die our protagonist is aghast to hear the commander raise the number of missions every week, making it impossible to go home.   The top-brass, you see, are competing in petty rivalries. 

The only way out of this death trap is to plead insanity.

Here is the double-bind, the Catch-22: according to the military policy if you want to get out of combat that is a completely sane response, so to be insane would be to want to stay and fight.  If you are sane enough to want to live, you cannot be insane, and if you want to die fighting you are insane, but would never want to go home.

Thus when the main character finally gives up, ceasing to care and not wearing pants anymore, the military awards him for his bravery. 

This type of double-bind creating INSANITY is the preferred outcome. 

It seems to originate in military management and bureaucracy, transferring and flourishing quite well under industrial capitalism and now into cognitive labor and politics. And it is a perfect fit for the prison and health care systems. 

In Ken Kesey‘s “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” Randall McMurphy is caught in a bureaucratic loop, where to avoid one fate (prison) he pretends insanity, but in so doing he unwittingly revokes his welfare from the state into the hands of a petty tyrant named Nurse Ratchet, who (with a tight-lipped smile and for his own good and her pleasure) works to break this spirited, spontaneous man.

Of course, again with Foucault, the body can be captive, but that’s not enough: the true target of her machinations is his head

The apparatus of power hides and moves through bureaucratic machinations, it forces the internalization of no-win, double bind, contradictory, coercive surrender scenarios. 

So, we are forced into the Red Queen’s farcical game.  As we internalize it our mutual insanity seems sane.

“off with your own head” 

Donations have been disabled

If you enjoyed the content, please help offset the costs of production.


Allan Watts, The Book

Slavoj Zizek, “Against the Double Blackmail

Michel Foucault “Power/Knowledge

Ken Kesey, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Joseph Heller, “Catch 22

My daily habit:

Belly Button Lint


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *