The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.


Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

/*  The Twitter was angry that day, my friends */

In the contest between competing emotions, and in the emotional resolution that precipitates and precedes action, a certain sort of computation occurs. A computation that prices active, contending emotions into the unfolding narrative of action. Emotions related to priceless values. Such computations are governed by the laws of what I called the economics of pricelessness, which has its own special rules.

In such computations, the only two possible price-points involved are infinity and zero. In a given course of action, every emotion is either affirmed as a life-or-death matter, or denied entirely. Any emotion not valued at infinity or zero adds indecisiveness to the action. If there’s enough such indecisiveness, you get anomie and a freezing of action. This is the emotional equivalent of analysis paralysis, the state of mind that in Urdu is called kashmakash.

Though outrage and joy  are emotions corresponding to priceless values (honor  and community), and therefore individually resistant to normal computations, they are not mutually incommensurable in specific situations. So this computation can actually converge and conclude quickly enough to inform action, and trigger follow-on behaviors such as conscious adoption of a purpose, explicit goal-setting or planning behaviors, and coordination with others with aligned emotional states.


As a result, the vacuum at the locus of action gets filled with emotionally coherent stream of kinetic energy. I’ll just call this a stream from here on out. The sense in which I’ve used the term in other posts harmonizes well with the sense here. So you can have a stream that is calm, a stream that is angry, a stream that is gurgling along joyfully, a stream that is cascading adventurously through rapids, and so on. The opposite of a stream in this emotional sense is any sort of stagnant, fetid pool of dark, unprocessed shadow emotion, which is resisting resolution into action.

To narrativize a stream is to tell a story whose content harmonizes with the evolving emotional texture. If reality does not supply sufficient data of the right sort to narrativize a stream, you are allowed to make stuff up.

You could say, without losing a great deal, that the purpose of music is to make emotional textures legible enough to serve as a narrative canvas. Which is why the pop-psych idea of having a theme song for your life is so attractive when you are young. To be young is to feel with more intensity than your capacity for making emotions legible can handle. So you seek external scaffolding.

Narrative is the external scaffolding that makes evolving emotional textures legible. Adding actual lyrics is an optional extra step. The result of successful narrativization is increased momentum of action.

To  narrativize a stream, you simply add a certain amount of organizational structure. If you choose to add some explicit Meaning and Purpose, you have yourself a corporatized ideology.

Social and political orders are the theme songs of civilization. Corporate missions are lyrical refrains.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk a bit more about the emotional texture of streams and what it means to narrativize one.

/* There is always an adverb, he said smugly */

A narrative vacuum as a condition where you don’t know how to feel about what you’re doing. It is difficult to engage in action with absent or incoherent emotional content. Our narrative capacity is what suffuses action with an emotional texture that sustains it.

Under normal circumstances, the economy of pricelessness circumscribes transactional behaviors in ways that seals the narrative vacuum out, and induces coherence within.

When we leave that safe zone, we don’t know how to feel. We can only endure a few seconds of such a narrative vacuum in its most extreme form.

The literary tic known as the Tom Swifty — an inability to write dialogue using unadorned verbs like said or asked — has a deep source. We instinctively recognize that all meaning inheres in the adverb that wants to be in the sentence. It takes skill to convey the emotional texture of a conversation without adverbs, but if you lack that skill, omitting that texture is not a viable option.

The existence of the stream — the default background emotional texture of action — vastly simplifies all the thousands of conscious, subconscious and unconscious decision-making that comprises any externally visible behavior. It is extremely expensive for our minds to generate coherent, directed effort without a coherent and sufficiently intense emotional texture accompanying it. This gives us a 2×2 of intensity versus coherence:


At the top right is what I call gonzo narrative texture. The archetypal organizational structure is the flight-or-fight response. When strong fear is an intense and dominant emotion, and “existence” is the priceless value at stake, you’re down to a simple two-way fork.

At the bottom left, where the emotional texture is extremely tenuous, you start to suspect you’ve lost the capacity to feel, and enter the paralysis zone where action refuses to precipitate. That is depression. You cannot even even see forks in the road, let alone count the paths leading away or conjure up the restless resolution energy that drives a coherent emotional fugue to choose you, and drag you down one or the other path.

At the bottom right, where there is intensity without coherence, you have the condition characterized by the phrase, he’s lost the plot. Emotional coherence precedes narrative coherence. You cannot easily erect scaffolding to make an emotional garbage dump legible.

And almost always, narrative incoherence is a matter of underlying emotional incoherence, not logical or ethical incoherence. The anarchist is fundamentally someone who tries to feel several inconsistent and intense emotions at once, not someone suspicious of narrativized social orders per se.

At the top left is the meditative emotional texture that underlies narratives of contemplation.

Carpe Diem!” said the Gonzo, exuberantly.

“Tear it all down!” raged the anarchist.

“What’s the use?” asked the Depressive, despondently.

“Use the force, Luke!” said Yoda, placidly.

Some people claim that the last regime is a non-narrative state. They are not lying. They are just not sufficiently sensitive to narrative to detect extremely low-intensity, near-vacuum narratives. Some also confuse an absence of lyrics for an absence of narrative.

The narrative doesn’t stop when the words do. The narrative stops when the music does.

The more coherent the evolving emotional texture,  the more naturally the action just flows. This evolution of that emotional texture from one liminal passage to another is the essence of narrative.

In the purest, most bright-edged cases, the emotional texture of a stream has the sort of extreme clarity and intensity that we associate with the idea of gonzo behavior, even if it lacks any semblance of logical or moral clarity. Unlike persuasive rhetoric, narrative only requires clarity in pathos to keep moving. Clarity in ethos and logos are optional extras.

/* The infinite justice of Hunter S. Thompson*/

Here is an example of gonzo emotional clarity, a letter from Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess, in response to the latter attempting to weasel out of a writing commission for Rolling Stone magazine (where Thompson was an editor). Read the sidebar on the left for context, before reading the main letter.


In this letter, there is no narrative vacuum, and no hint of the sort of tenuousness we associate with any sort of near-vacuum. Thompson clearly had no doubts regarding how to feel about what he was doing. There is also no sign of consciously wrought engineering in the clean narrative of the story. The characters are clear. The plot is clear. There is a satisfying beginning and a satisfying resolution. But there is no save-the-cat moment or 5-act structure.

This is a clarity born of high, perhaps perfect, emotional self-awareness. It is hard to separate out the constituent emotions. Active emotions have been alloyed harmoniously, infinity into infinity, to form a purposeful whole.

There is no fetid pool of unresolved emotion in the background. The gonzo saint casts no Jungian shadow.

“Do or die. There is no try. Do not is for that weasel Yoda,” as Thompson once said.

Actually he said nothing of the sort. But I’m narrativizing here, so I’m allowed to make up quotes to make points. And the point here is this: When the music stops, the gonzo saint must commit suicide.

What was at stake in the conflict was more than a commissioned piece of writing in exchange for a payment. For Thompson — though clearly not to Burgess — the conflict was between the bold and vigorous American literary tradition he represented, and the tired, effete and cowardly European literary tradition that he called Burgess out for retreating to.

One can imagine any sort of tribe going to war with this sort of energizing emotional clarity, and creating a decisive outcome one way or another. One way, they are victorious and gain eternal honor. The other way, they are slaughtered en masse and gain eternal honor, except there’s nobody alive to narrativize it.

The only way to pay off an infinite slight to one’s priceless honor is to end an infinite game. Blood for blood.

/* “You seriously fight over how to crack an egg?” asked Gulliver, incredulously.  */

Emotions and narratives are situated in material reality. The conflict between Thompson and Burgess was first and foremost a conflict over what should be printed on a piece of paper. Only secondarily is it over abstract values and principles. The materially situated action is necessary. The abstract bits are optional.

Material things have emotional valences. The things we carry have meaning. That meaning is emotional to the extent it embodies the priceless. The more unique the thing, the more its embodiment of emotion is priceless.

One of my favorite bits of science a principle in computing called Landaeur’s principle: computation is necessarily physical. Bits must be embodied by atoms. The second law of thermodynamics applies.

Poetically enough, this is because sometimes bits need to be deleted.

In the world of atoms, bits too must do or die. Reversible computing is for weasels.

No matter how lofty it feels, emotion is computing, so by extension, it is physical and embodied in matter. The way we eff the ineffable is to impute significance to matter and fighting over it. The way we sentimentalize our lives is by sentimentalizing bundles of atoms.

To narrativize is to materialize. The scaffolding that we use to make emotions legible is always made of atoms. Even a rave needs an empty warehouse and a sound system.

Which end of an egg you crack matters until you can find an alternate home for the significance of the act.


The economic spectrum that ranges from commodities on one end to precious individual human lives at the other is a spectrum of emotional significance as much as it is a spectrum of fungibility. At one extreme, we have our own lives (or for parents, the life of a child). At the other extreme, we have plastic spoons in Costco thousand-count packs, valued at pennies apiece, and evoking a commensurate amount of emotion.

A commodity is not just something that is defined by its fungibility. It is also something which we do not transact with any significant degree of sentimentality. This is why it feels wrong to think of gold as a commodity. While it is certainly fungible in a metallurgical sense and financial sense, the fact that fairly small quantities of it are enough to buy priceless things like liberty and honor means it is not, emotionally, a commodity.

So we toss used plastic spoons in the trash, but have traditionally preferred to store our gold in aestheticized form as artistically designed jewelry, to lend it the emotional valence it ought to have, but does not in its natural form. If there is a market for jewelry made out of discarded plastic spoons, it is a small one.

Where does this need to narrativize gold come from, if it does not inhere in the gold itself?

/* I dub thee Sir Wilson */

An heirloom is only emotionally significant to the extent it embodies a relationship with dead ancestors. Take that away and you have a bunch of commodity components artfully arranged in a pleasing configuration.

There is a plausible hypothesis that all the emotional salience of the material is derived from relationships with other humans. Let us call this the Hypothesis Red.

The purpose of lending a unique identity to a lump of gold, through design, is to make it capable of embodying emotional content.

Actually, any commodity can acquire emotional valence this way under the right circumstances. Chuck Noland, the FedEx executive played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away, scrawls a face on a basketball and reclaims the brand name Wilson as a human name, in order to create a sufficiently intense and coherent emotional life for himself. After all he was on a Mission to survive on a desert island.

In terms introduced by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Chuck Noland had to elevate an I-it relationship to an I-thou relationship to preserve his sanity.

According to Hypothesis Red, all coherent emotional texture accompanying action has to do with social bonds. Even if some of those bonds involve dead or imaginary people at one end. All mediating objects of any significance are social objects.

The purpose of life, according to Hypothesis Red, is to defeat the narrative vacuum and sentimentalize the entire universe.

Hypothesis Red is this: We only care about I-it  relationships to the extent they serve as mediate I-thou relationships, real or imagined. To be able to care about an it, we must first turn it into a thou.

I believe Hypothesis Red is wrong.

This is why, as Captain Zapp Brannigan observed on Futurama, the story of the universe is the story of the epic struggle between good and neutral.

And we must ask the question asked by Brannigan:

What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

I have an actual answer: what makes a man turn neutral is a deep disaffection with the idea that life must be limited to that which can be sentimentally engaged.

This disaffection is the essence of Hypothesis Grey. It is a disaffection driven by the suspicion that life begins when the music stops. That reality is driven by the power of a narrative vacuum at the core of it. The metaphysical pump of creative destruction needs a vacuum at its heart to operate.

The vacuum exists at all levels of social reality, fractally intertwined with sentimentalized materiality. This we’ve known for as long as monasticism and mathematics have been part of humanity.

Individuals have been waging their personal inner jihads between good and neutral for so long, it no longer makes the news when a particular individual wins or loses.

But only recently have we begun to recognize the existence of an outer jihad between the good and the neutral.

At the heart of every social order, there is a narrative vacuum, a collective inner silence. Until recently, we had no name for this nameless horror that embodies neutral in the epic struggle between good and neutral.

Now we do. We call it the market

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. On first reading, I (who abhor sentimentality) find myself rooting for Team Grey. The extraversion of my youth and the practical necessity of constantly crafting narratives that underpins my professional life are slowly giving way to the preference for silence and more frequent solitary retreats from tribe and society. I am probably striving for the upper left quadrant of your 2×2.

    Your take on emotions as intertwined with actions reminds me of a strand of depth psychology, particularly as espoused by the Spanish Dominican friar Antonio Moreno in the mid-to-late 20th century, that blended Aristotelian and Jungian concepts about the nature and origin of emotions. They are not primarily about feelings, but drivers of the will meant to provoke rational responses to the source of the emotion. E.g. anger is the state of recognizing a present threat and is meant to provoke a fight or flight response.

    So, I’ll meditate on this a bit more and see if I am driven to new or deeper insights. Thanks.

    • I suspect something like that instrumental theory of emotion is probably true in a loose sense, but I also suspect that emotion has long since become unmoored from any adaptive environments that may have led to it evolving. Same as intelligence.

  2. Neutral isn’t purely oppositional to good as an end-state… It’s continuously giving rise to good. Most / many players who gain a temporary edge in the market leverage it into some kind of monopoly or rent (because survival dictates building a safety margin — very few people want to have to re-earn their daily bread each morning). And once you have a monopoly or rent, then people start developing norms to justify their position, and good re-emerges.

    in the beginning, everything was the market… Particles in primordial ooze. Neutral -> good -> neutral -> good…

    • I like the idea of the market as the primordial ooze. Shades of ‘man in the state of nature’ hypotheticals in political science. I don’t think it’s historically a likely evolution, but it is an interesting lens.

  3. The Twitter was angry that day, my friends… Like a Social Justice Warrior trying to figure out which moral outrage was more outrageous.

  4. Isn’t rejecting these emotions, and the narrativism they represent, entirely just a kind of self-handicapping purity fetish? Shouldn’t they be tools that you can meta-awarely choose when to invoke, and isn’t that the point of having musical emotion pills?

    • I’m not rejecting them. I’m trying to get a sense of the contours of the space they cannot go into. Like trying to imagine 4d through 3d.

  5. very deep…

  6. Mentally stimulating! I have to reread the article twice in order to absorb the essence of it.

  7. Very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing =)