In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions by Steven Connor
  • Rick de Villiers
Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions, by Steven Connor; 241 pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

In "Who the Meek Are Not," poet Mary Karr thinks it unlikely that peasants, serfs, and the socially low will inherit the earth. Puzzling out that beatitude, she instead conjures the image of "a great stallion at full gallop / in a meadow, who—/at his master's voice—seizes up to a stunned / but instant halt."1 We are then invited to picture his muscles rippling even when at rest, to see in that rippling an immense power purposely held back. Blessed are the meek, for they restrain what they could unleash.

If this is not exactly the theme of Steven Connor's book on unappreciated dispositions, it comes close. In his revaluation of those quieter virtues that decline to speak their names, he draws a link between inhibition and agency. Giving way isn't the inability to do—it's the ability to not do. Silence, submission, and other reputedly monkish attributes are not to be taken as symptoms of a slave morality but as "modulations" (p. 35) of the will. These modulations might be inspired by sly self-preservation, as when one of Samuel Beckett's characters "humbly … ask[s] a favour of people who are on the point of knocking [his] brains out."2 Self-minimizing efforts may also hide a subdued menace: "They that have power to hurt and will do none."3 But in their less cynical performance, self-modulations constitute a dialing down of the ego that enables both civility and community. Our coming together depends on our holding back.

Giving Way is a book for the unsuspecting specialist. With his usual goodhumored, easy-going erudition, Connor shows that we're adept at politesse beyond our knowing. As the native speaker of a language naturally intuits how to arrange adjectives of size, color, and shape, so we all have an instinct for inhibition. Instincts, of course, are not instinctively understood. The dispositions discussed here are generally taken for granted, which means that their value in the economy of social exchange has not received due accounting. Connor's is therefore a work of retrieval, of digging up etymologies, of reassigning meaning: "reassigning," we are told (p. 13), being related to a letting go (resignation) and also to reclamation (marking as one's own). Unfurled antinomies such as these help us see how the quieter virtues are potentiated in our workaday lives. Not a secular regula, the study supplies a vocabulary for our unwitting proficiency in manners, making visible and articulate behavior that is naturally unobtrusive and unspoken.

Soft-spoken, too. Some of the chapter titles—"Backing Down," "Minding Your Tongue," "Taking Care"—are apt descriptions of the book's method. This isn't to suggest that Connor's cultural phenomenology has lost any of its boldness, though he makes a conscious effort to avoid the programmatic and prescriptive. A fine thread connects the quaint, the cute, and the political. But to map a clear trajectory is to misrepresent the feline shifts of thought that themselves [End Page 244] partake of the spirit of withdrawal. So the mode that predominates is one of detached but delighted description. Take, for instance, Connor's musing on the wave by which I offer someone the seat beside my own:

This gesture … uses abbreviation to amplify the sense of the space available, which may literally constitute only the narrow track between where you are currently standing and the only available chair in the room but is made to seem like a broad, daisy-sprinkled meadow across which you are being invited to trip.

(p. 39)

Whereas pointing signals the peremptoriness of the schoolmaster and also the pointed reduction of available space, the open-palm sweep clears a broad and unbounded way to the room I make for another. Something similar seems at play in people's willingness or reluctance to wear face masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There are those who submit in good grace to a literal loss of face. Then there are those whose thymotic sense...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 244-247
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.