politics of the hap

On the need for better stories.
February 2, 2017, 2:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The last time I wrote on this blog was over a year and a half ago. I had written about not having a story. I had become increasingly fatigued over the proliferation of stories, and specifically the use of stories as a means of liberation. In effect that was my last story for a while too and this blog – and by extension me – had become consumed by silence, or at least I had run out of stories to tell.

More accurately I had become consumed by the bigger story of my PhD and in telling that story I had no time for any others. But also in the process of telling one story, all other stories become relevant and related in some way. It as though the more your story expands and becomes all encompassing the more one-pointed your focus becomes and you end up seeing and listening to very little that is new. That is the persuasive power of narrative.

Now in post-doctoral life I am revising that same story again and again in slightly different formats so that hopefully one day I can start thinking about new stories again.

My feeling then – and now – was that stories were not enough. Telling one’s account is not in itself liberating. A story shouldn’t be used in place of lasting social change. Giving someone a ‘voice’ can be lazy quick fix remedy to avoid shifting social structures, changing laws and bringing justice. Giving everyone a platform might be the beginning of equality but it certainly is not the end of it. I felt that stories were pointless when what we should be really thinking about is building spaces people can inhabit without hate or prejudice.

In a way that was the sociologist in me responding to arguments that had forgotten the emotional is always social, and political. The personal account is not more true than other knowledge because it is emotional. Truth is not measured in tears. We remain trapped in a different version of the same story if, for example, we view the personal experience of an illness as more significant than the clinical diagnosis and description of what is happening in a body. The point is: both matter.

Anyhow I had been reconsidering the importance of stories as I have been wondering about the role of sociology in the contemporary world. As I dip in and out of various social media it’s a question that is apparent if not explicitly posed. I decided that the role of sociology was to tell better stories. To provide a narrative to events. To put events, ideas and people into context. Inevitably this might be a long and complex story. How to tell stories of the present to an audience accustomed to 140 characters?

Personal stories are often assumed as true. But it seems nowadays any story that is published in black and white can be assumed as truth. The response to “fake news” signals that popular culture has yet to even reach the postmodern phase, as all social constructionist know that it is not about ‘truth’ being ‘fake’ but rather truth is always a social construct.

For Foucault things don’t just exist ‘out there’ but emerge as identifiable objects through various social structures – including language. The task is to examine how things come to be seen as truth; to critically engage with all claims to truth. In other words, we need to all do our homework.

This becomes increasingly hard when wading through partisan news agendas. Journalists I am sure wouldn’t be keen on referring to themselves as ‘story tellers’, even as the news is fed to us in ‘news stories’. Journalism has to believe in an objective truth and fight to convey that as best as possible. But media often presents a point of view, and too little diversity in points of view and we start to accept opinion as truth.

Often in academia we bend over backwards to ensure our work is untainted by bias and opinion. We engage in reflexivity, acknowledge our sources, cite references, and undergo peer review. Perhaps because of our rigour we are better placed to provide better stories. In which case the whole structure of academic publishing needs to change dramatically.

Not having a story can mean you get consumed in the dominant narrative, whether you like it or not. Like not voting, the choice is made for you. The problem with dominant narratives is that the story expands and becomes all encompassing. It becomes harder to listen and see and critique. Depending on the vision the narrative provides we might join and work towards that, or reject it and argue that its not working. In such a climate of destructive narratives, an alternative vision is needed, which could begin with telling sociological stories. But there has to be the offer of a future. Foucault never made any claims on how society should be run, but he did provide the gift of critiquing repressive structures. Once that repression is visible, the question remains: what makes a life worth living?



On not having a story.
June 15, 2015, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Academe, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: , ,

Everyone wants to tell their story. What use is a story? Who is telling the story and why should we listen?

These are some thoughts I am left with following the Emotional Geographies conference last week. Stories were everywhere: the telling, the encouragement to tell, the strategies to extract them.

What’s my story, I think. Do I need a story?

Through my research I have learnt that telling one’s personal story is the key to recovery. Telling a story is healing and restorative. Its empowering, enlightening, liberating. Telling stories is the answer to everything it seems.

It isn’t social change we need or meaningful work or better health care or a living wage, we just need to construct our story and then we will be free.

Telling stories is about finding the truth. Stories are true if you tell them. That’s your truth, it can’t be denied. But sometimes some stories are deemed less true than others. What are the parameters on truth? How does truth get revealed, concealed and distorted in the telling of stories?

At the conference emotional stories were the most truthful. Two of the keynote speakers told personal stories of illness. They were accounts narrated emotively, they wanted to tell us about their feelings. The personal was awarded more status than scientific or medical knowledge. This was ‘writing against the grain’.

At the conference and in my research I have been struck by the question as to whether stories can ever be non-conventional. In a culture where stories proliferate, and lives are lived via the online advertising reels of Facebook and Instagram, and public displays of emotions are sensationalised (and induced) in ‘Britain’s got Baking on Ice’; there’s an overcrowding of stories and confessions and tears. There’s so many stories but less connection to them.

To really go against the grain it might be better to say nothing at all. How would it feel to not have a story?

Stories cannot avoid being conventional because they rely on an assumption of truth. It has to appear true to whoever is listening. Stories interpret events so that they have meaning and stories demand an ending of some form.

Imagine if these dimensions of telling a story were not adhered to. People diagnosed with psychosis are often accused of telling false stories. Their accounts do not align with dominant assumed truths that structure society. The interpretation might not make sense either. The story might not end. It might be circular.

These are not considered stories; this is stuckness. People who are grieving might tell stories about how their dead husband speaks to them. They might take this to mean that their spouse is still here. They might tell this same story for 17 years.

Stuckness is just a stopping place on the way to finding a story. But without a story you are undoubtedly stuck. And ‘wrong’ stories might take you to the wrong places.

Stories might be told as though they are definitive and final: the memoir is the exemplar – this is my one true story of me. Of course this is not accurate, a memoir is not truth but an edited identity, like an instagram photo, capturing one reality and omitting a whole load of others.

Stories are always in flux. Or rather individuals, people, are always in flux. Telling a story gives respite from the flux – and it might feel like catharsis. Constructing a story might be a way of containing the unbearable. Sometimes though there just isn’t a story to capture a feeling or an event. And perhaps the feeling or event doesn’t need containing. Perhaps not having a story is a way to think about the inadequacy of storytelling and to think of, not better stories, but better realities that will allow space for flourishing. Stories can become a quick-fix remedy when what is needed is not a podium, but lasting spaces in which to inhabit; where meaning can be found in the liminal and a life worth living can be discovered in the suspension of conclusions that is not nothingness.

March 3, 2015, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Grief, PhD chat, Subjectivities, Yoga | Tags: , , , , , ,

Sometimes my fear of losing overrides my ability to listen. This is a lesson I should have learnt already. As I undertake the mind-numbing labour that is interview transcription, I note how as I went from one interview to the next my contribution became less and less. When my input appears it is more measured, concise, to the point.

I’ve always felt how I express myself is at odds with what I mean. This is no doubt true. And I am no doubt not alone in this. One always speaks as the stereotype of the person they think they areDelving into the stories people tell about themselves and their losses, I’ve been struck by how we rarely say things in concrete terms. We’re always skirting, dancing in vagueness – like, sort of, kind of, thing. It’s as though words, language, is constantly failing us. Or else we’re scared that in the act of capturing we enact violence to the ‘thing’ (experiential, sensory realm) itself. And yet we understand each other, make sense of each other through these mumbles, incoherences, gestures. We talk in codes, metaphors, sounds, utterances, signs and silences – those most important silences. How we ever manage to find a space to commune and feel known by another amazes me. I often would walk away from an interview encounter carrying one impression but in the process of typing speech into words on a blank page it impresses upon me in a totally different way. Sometimes when I hear myself ask the questions that occurred to me at the time, I cannot even recognise my own thought process. The stories we tell through language are already not our own, but then they become mine as listener and researcher and in turn they become owned by the page or screen. It feels as though something seeps away in each step of this process, that messy something that’s better to edit out.

So too must we be transparent with ourselves about how we go about understanding. First of all – there is no neutral place. We’re always giving something, even in silence – perhaps especially so. Spending time in the mysore practice room taught me this. As well as the theorists before that. India has taught me this too, aggressively so at times. And again my adopted Indian family before that. I think spending a lot of time being the only white face in a room/house/temple full of brown bodies, all speaking in a language once foreign to me is an experience instructive as all the post-colonial theory I can get my hands on. Because what happens is you stop seeing difference. I started to understand a different language through listening alone. When, after some time becoming part of, I got mistaken for Indian, I don’t think it had anything to do with not seeing my white skin – that much was obvious – but a reaction to the way I had consciously and unconsciously developed a disposition, a bodily disposition that went beyond appropriate clothing or eating with the right hand. This wasn’t merely a performance – it was as though ‘India’ had tapped into something vital in me – but the process through which I on occasion managed to ‘pass’ is still elusive to me.

In the research encounter my identity became more performative as I had not yet cultivated an academic demeanour I could rely on. I was concerned people would not take me seriously but on reflection the only person who struggled to take me seriously was me. Becoming serious would mean becoming present. And never being neutral can feel like a heavy burden to bear. More so when its due to things you can’t control like being female or feeling complicit in the neo-colonial benevolence of the new empire.

Down the other end of the Skype line in another time zone my PhD supervisors tell me once again “You need to clarify your position. It’s still not clear where you stand.”

Most of the time I view myself as an outsider in the academic world, in the ashtanga world, in rooms of white middle-class people. When positioned as the one with power whether that’s when I’m using academic discourse to get people to talk to me or paying for chai and chocolate cake at the Green Hotel in Mysore with 1000rs note, it disturbs me and I seek to displace myself. And sometimes power displaces me. I’ve been thinking perhaps that’s part of what going on with sexual harassment in India. My body symbolises power but it can still be violated by your body. I can always become silenced (again).

Knowing from where we speak is the most important lesson for the critical researcher. I’d say its pretty important for a yoga practitioner too. And I will have to establish my position for my thesis as much as I loathe fixity. My supervisors tell me too that the position I will take is only a performance. But I wonder if there’s more to be said about why I understand emotionally and you understand logically and if we can describe this without resorting to gender roles.

Positioning oneself is all about becoming part of a structure that is recognised. The habitus cannot exist without the field (Bourdieu). That’s why the entrance fee is through learning the language (and that’s not just about words). We reach our limit in structures that reject us on things that either we cannot or choose not to change. Its here we fall back into the space between the idea of ourselves that finds room to move through performing and passing and what stands still, caught up against weighty structures. That’s why I always start with stuckness. Why don’t people recover from loss? What happens when you’re deemed as failing to capture the dream of the ‘good life’? Why can’t they/we speak? Trauma is often considered to be a result of not having a story. But the voices in the stuckness have always been speaking clearly its just that the world is poorly equipped to translate. What if we all developed the capacity to listen to each other even in the midst of prejudice. Might then we find relief in the stuckness and find space for flourishing to exist in and alongside the messiness.

Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Loneliness, emotional entanglements and the PhD.
December 17, 2014, 11:02 pm
Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.

If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.

If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.

I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.

The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.

But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.

People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.

Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.

I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.

The Promise of Recovery: A polemic.
November 17, 2014, 10:46 pm
Filed under: Mental health, Recovery, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Talk presented at recent seminar at the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University.

Recovery has become popularised in mental health care as a means of empowering service users to construct their own identity and meaning of recovery. Recovery is a term often used indiscriminately but what does it mean to recover? The strength of recovery apparently lies in its ability to mean different things to different people allowing people to construct their own version of a meaningful life. However I will argue in this presentation that the shift in emphasis to the individual in the rhetoric of recovery has meant that recovery becomes the responsibility of the individual. As recovery becomes an individual obligation or requirement, the promise of recovery rather than freeing people to construct their own meaning serves to reaffirm existing norms on how to function and manage mental distress in order to obtain the good life. 

Recovery, as I am sure many of you are aware, has become increasingly popular in mental health care services. Services now describe themselves as ‘recovery-focused’ and ‘recovery orientated’, Recovery colleges that provide a variety of courses for service users are being set up across the country. An increasing academic interest in recovery in mental health care has lead to the creation of a number of seminars and conferences and research networks, and is what has brought us all here today.

In my own PhD research I am exploring how recovery from grief is understood and experienced. My interest in recovery has led me to learn about the uses of recovery more broadly in mental health care and also to speak with several current and ex-mental health service users each with differing views on recovery.

So what does recovery actually mean? In brief the use of recovery appears to have emerged from the psychiatric survivors movement, where recovery referred to the right to live with mental distress rather than see it as something to overcome.

However many definitions of recovery have been proposed with no universal agreement on what recovery should look like. This is in part because recovery was intended to be self-defined.

Most descriptions tend to focus on building hope, creating a new identity, having a meaningful life, and taking control over one’s life.

South London and Maudsley’s (SLAM) Recovery College prospectus defines recovery as:

Recovery is about people with mental health difficulties having the same opportunities in life as everyone else. It is about a personal journey towards a meaningful and satisfying life. It is about hope, control and opportunity. It is about living as well as possible.

Another example taken from a report entitled ‘Making recovery a reality’ published in 2008 by the Sainsbury centre for mental health describes:

(Recovery) can only be resolved if the person can discover – or rediscover – their sense of personal control (‘agency’) and gain a belief in the future (hope). Without hope they cannot begin to build their lives.

However since recovery’s incorporation into mainstream mental health care a number of more specific models such as the ‘recovery star’ have been developed which predefine the parameters of recovery.

The Recovery star includes the following dimensions:

  1. Managing mental health
  2. Physical health and self care
  3. Living skills
  4. Social networks
  5. Work
  6. Relationships
  7. Addictive behaviour
  8. Responsibilities
  9. Identity & self-esteem
  10. Trust and hope

There is also the new ‘Wheel of well-being’ which contains 6 elements: body, mind, planet, place, people, spirit. And another model called the Tree of life, all of which are taught at the recovery colleges.

The point I wish to highlight here is in these models recovery is given outcomes and priorities that are not set by the service user themselves but by the NHS trust delivering the service.

I would argue these priorities are reliant on an assumed understanding of what constitutes a good life and living well. The recovery colleges for instance deliver courses on how to stop smoking, how to eat better, and how to get a job. In these models of recovery there is an implicit judgement over how one should successfully live out their personal lives.

As one participant I interviewed in my research commented, in the recovery model it is as though you need to recover from being yourself. Daily activities such as taking a shower, or walking outside, and eating a balanced diet become ‘self-care activities’ rather than just living.

By establishing markers of recovery such as the recovery star it becomes possible for the relevant medical authority to make a judgement on whether or not someone is recovered.

People then become responsible for adhering to prescribed ways of governing their lives, but the medical authority still remains in tact – as psychiatrists become recovery experts and mental health care becomes ‘recovery orientated’ and ‘recovery focused’.

A contradiction then arises as recovery is described as a unique individual journey to self-control and autonomy over one’s life yet it is taught and learnt via a set of experts and in adherence to a set of predefined criteria.

As SLAM’S recovery college prospectus states:

“The workshops and courses we run aim to provide the tools… to help you become an expert in your own recovery.”

And whilst recovery is claimed to be a co-production, if someone fails to reach recovery the blame is squarely on the individual.

Again from the SLAM Recovery college prospectus:

“Treatment and support from mental health professionals can be helpful but every person with mental health problems can become an expert in their own self-management. Whatever challenges you face, recovery involves finding the personal resourcefulness and resilience to take back control over your life and what happens to you.”

If something bad might happen then, something that might not fit within the recovery model, the blame will then fall on the individual because in this understanding recovery is always possible, no matter how serious the person’s difficulties you just need to find your inner ‘resourcefulness’.

This is the promise of recovery: you can get better according to pre-existing normative ideas of what a satisfying good life is, because the only thing that needs changing is you and how you currently live your life and we (being the relevant medical authority) are here to tell you how to do that.

This obligation to recover thus becomes a way to abdicate responsibility for mental distress elsewhere, that is to the person experiencing the distress themselves.

It is for this reason amongst others that the recovery model has come under criticism from service users and others working within mental health care. Recovery is seen as a way to cut back on services, to eradicate long-term care, where referring people to recovery colleges is a way to discharge them quicker.

For an increasing number of people then, recovery is a shiny gloss on an unchanged system that remains unequal in practice and which shifts responsibility to live a certain way on the service user.

A group of people have formed on Facebook to express their disapproval at the way recovery has been appropriated in a group they have called ‘Recovery in the bin’. The members of this group contend that ‘recovery’ has been colonised and used to discipline and control people with mental distress and argue for a ‘Social Model of Madness’, placing mental health within the context of the wider class struggle.

Some of the group have claimed the title of “UnRecovered” to replace “Recovered”, to express their rejection of what they see as a neoliberal intrusion on the word ‘recovery’ that has been redefined, and taken over by marketisation, an capitalist values.

To recover from mental illness, to adhere to the model of recovery, involves a considerable amount of work on behalf of the service user. To recover involves a range of activities such as attending recovery colleges, completing recovery plans, taking medication, getting a job, sustaining good relationships with others, eating well, not smoking, creating a new identity, being mindful and taking walks in nature.

People using mental health services are increasingly finding themselves obligated to undertake this sort of ‘recovery-work’ in the promise of becoming well.

Yet the promise of recovery possesses a cruel contradiction in that the highly prized ability to become autonomous and have self-control to manage one’s life is only possible through submitting to experts who help people navigate their way through to recovery.

The service user is taught how and what to desire all in the name of self-fulfilment and individual freedom.

And because recovery is always possible it can only be the individual’s failure of will or resilience if they are seen to relapse or fail to recover in the terms that have been proposed.

Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign.
November 17, 2014, 10:44 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: , , , , ,

Paper presented at Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane, University of Sheffield, July 2014.

I’ve always been interested in people who don’t do as they’re told. They excite me, intellectually and personally. In my PhD research I am interested in those that are seen to have failed to recover from their grief following bereavement.

The failure to recover from grief is defined in contemporary society by bereavement theories and increasingly by psychiatric diagnostic categories that place a time limit on the appropriate length of mourning as well as delineating what behaviours and emotions are normal and acceptable in grief and those which are not.

In grief and bereavement research there was much controversy over the publication of the Fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) last year that saw the omittance of the bereavement exclusion in the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, which was included in previous editions of the DSM. What this means is that someone who is bereaved could potentially be diagnosed with depression as little as two weeks after bereavement. Further the DSM-5 also included the diagnosis of ‘Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder’ for further consideration in the next edition of the manual. ‘Prolonged grief disorder’ has also been proposed for the revised version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

There are overlaps and inconsistencies in each diagnostic category, but the push toward what has been seen as a medicalising of grief relies upon claims that there are a number of people (research varies from 7-20%) who have ‘complications’ or fail to recover from grief. These complications are described as a ‘derailing’ of ‘normal’ grief or a ‘delay’ in integrating loss. The markers of someone failing to grieve properly are overwhelming time specific – people should be moving toward healing in a few months, struggling 6 months on is classified as complicated. The diagnosis are also structured – in vague psychiatric terms – in accordance with the degree to which behaviour is deemed inappropriate or out of line with the dominant cultural and social norms in which the bereaved person is situated.

As a commonplace and yet problematic event, grief marks the line between normal (does not require medicalising) and abnormal (intervention is necessary to ease suffering) emotional behaviour.

The search for the pathological in grief also presumes a normative mode of grieving yet this is never made explicit, or been proven. The normal way of grieving is instead defined by the ways in which the line between abnormal and normal grief is drawn. My focus has been then to uncover who draws the line, who has the power to draw the line, with what claims and with whose interests at stake.

Those that do not recover within these paradigms risk being read as resistant, problematic and in need of psychiatric treatment. The failure to recover is often seen as a failure of the individual rather than the individual being a victim of the ever-expanding field of psychiatric diagnosis. For example in the current era of the DSM-5 and the future world of the ICD-11 the bereaved person might be considered mentally ill but in the era of past editions of the DSM or before psychiatry began to make claims on grief, bereavement and grief were experiences situated within the normal side of the line.

The developments in grief treatment can be seen as a reflection of broader changes in mental health services and psychiatry. The Recovery Model is the current popular model of providing mental health services that has been met with much enthusiasm and success.

The recovery model encourages people to find their own individual path to life without mental illness.

Recovery Colleges have been set up to provide courses for people with mental health difficulties on recovery and how to recover from mental illness. These colleges also run courses on ways to well-being, how to find work and how to manage one’s diet.

Recovery began as a radical movement to reclaim power back to the patient from the psychiatrists, but in being co-opted by the mainstream the vision has become a conventional one that places emphasis on the individual and their responsibility to change. The recovery model relies upon an idea of the ideal person as being a functional citizen, someone who gives back to society, someone who has the capacity to make the right choices.

However many patients and service users have now turned their back on the recovery model due to what they feel is a lack of acknowledgement of the social factors that contribute, create and maintain mental difficulties. When recovery is ‘always possible’ failing to recover can only ever be the fault of the individual. Critics have also argued how the recovery model is still one very much dependent on the deficit model – where people with mental illness are in some way deficient and require fixing. The recovery model was adopted in order to remedy this; an attempt to allow people to uncover their own unique individual journey to recovery, to the good life. But the journey to recovery is filled with yet more normative fantasies.

The obligation to recover is one of the obligations we encounter when the human is considered to be a sovereign subject. Experiences such as grief can work to unsettle our sense of sovereignty, problematising what it means to be able to choose, how capacity is defined, revealing instead a self that may be incoherent, ambivalent, not in control of themselves. I will talk about how and why grief has the power to make us come undone, but first a note on sovereignty.

Sovereignty, in a truncated form, is about having the power over one’s life and having the ability or capacity to decide how you live your life. Sovereignty is mostly used in political and legal terms when discussing the sovereignty of the head of state where sovereignty is understood as having the power over life and death – that is to permit life and to take it away. There is much debate in political philosophy over the uses of sovereignty, but here I am picking up the concept in a similar way to Lauren Berlant but in a perhaps somewhat more crude fashion and placing it in an individual context to refer to a way of being which has capacity to make decisions, is consistent, intentional, and has coherent explanations for actions.

In many ways I am also talking largely about capacity – and the capacity to make choices and decisions for oneself (to be autonomous) is arguably the paradigmatic feature of what it means to be human in a contemporary neo-liberal society.

After all it is often when sovereignty is taken away that we feel injustice is taking place. It also reveals the rights we assume to have by virtue of being human (which may or not be supported in law). As I work within the field of death and dying I have been exploring the ways this sense of sovereignty is interrupted and destabilised through the act of death. Sovereignty is not necessarily something we have simply by virtue of being human but something that is granted or taken away.

It also serves to pathologize those that deviate from these expectations.

As Berlant describes:

Without attending to the varieties of constraint and unconsciousness that condition ordinary activity, we persist in an attachment to a fantasy that in the truly lived life emotions are always heightened and expressed in modes of effective agency that ought justly to be and are ultimately consequential or performatively sovereign. In this habit of representing the intentional subject, a manifest lack of self-cultivating attention can easily become recast as irresponsibility, shallowness, resistance, refusal, or incapacity; and habit itself can begin to look overmeaningful, such that addiction, reaction formation, conventional gesture cluster, or just being different can be read as heroic placeholders for resistance to something; affirmation of something, or a world-transformative desire. – Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p.99.

When the intentional, positive active subject is considered to be the truest enactment of being human, emotions such as grief – which may leave the subject irresponsible, unemployed, and ambivalent – are devalued and are seen as negative, unproductive, something to be recovered from.

The over-psychologisation in grief theory has meant normal grief tends to involve integrating the loss, claiming that in order to recover, the relationship with the deceased has to be reconfigured in some way, either as a process of detachment or reinstating and/or continuing bonds in order to accept the loss.

Sigmund Freud in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) is often attributed as the first thinker to promote the idea of the need to detach from the deceased, and that ‘hanging on’ to the deceased is pathological and an obstruction to healthy mourning. The melancholic figure persists as an example of what happens when people fail to mourn successfully, when they are unable to let go of the deceased. This at least has been the way in which Freud’s ideas have been interpreted by later theorists.

The melancholic is one who is never sure what he or she has lost. That is to say, what has been lost remains unconscious to the melancholic, they do not know what they are missing. The melancholic knows whom they have lost but not what is lost in him/her. The melancholic does not know what they have lost in themselves because the melancholic incorporates the lost person into his/her ‘ego’, so that he/she never fully experiences the loss, since the loved one, even in absence, becomes merged with the self. What this suggests therefore is that people who are seen to be ‘stuck’ in grief do so perhaps unknowingly because they are not fully conscious of how they are still tied to what they have lost. This is because the lost person has been incorporated into, in Freud’s terms, the ego. In other words the deceased person still makes up a large part of how the grieving person understands their sense of self.

To understand how someone could get stuck unable to face the ‘reality’ of their loss requires a refiguring of how the self is understood and how the sense of self is composed. It is to look upon identity as not something that is shaped and constructed autonomously, but composed in relation to others. Grief theories which describe continuing bonds or building biographies of the deceased attempt to explain how and why people talk about keeping the deceased inside themselves. However these theories often do not elaborate further on how grief and loss become an instance that reveals the one who has been lost already existed inside the subject. To say that the deceased person already existed inside the subject is to point towards the fact that people are shaped by one another, often perhaps ambivalently, in ways that do not presume two atomized autonomous individuals making an attachment, but rather a more intimate and intricate interface of being entwined into one another’s lives and sense of self. But the ways in which people are bound to one another is often not known until an event such as loss or the risk of loss that allows the recognition of how the sense of self is invested in another person. Grief therefore destabilizes the ‘I’ of autonomous thinking through a process of coming undone, being confounded by loss, in which the self, and not only the one who has died goes missing.

Certain types of attachments act to impede the ability to move on, even if they provide a sense of self, a sense of place in the world. The bereaved person is then suspended in the space of liminality, for to let go and leave the object of desire is to leave the anchor for optimism, and yet staying with this fantasy produces unhappiness. This sense of ambivalent attachment is captured by Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’ which describes how any form of attachment can become cruel when they become obstacles to flourishing. Berlant’s example is instructive for grieving for whilst recovery is constructed on the understanding that detaching from the lost object leads to successful mourning, the lost object is the very anchor that sustains hope.

This ambivalence also reveals a more complex view of agency, where the bereaved may desire and not desire to become attached to something that makes them lose control, a desire and lack of desire to become sovereign. Discourses that promote recovery often assume autonomy, choice and agency are desirable traits that everyone should wish to achieve and vulnerability is weakness and undesirable. What the sustaining of cruel attachments suggests on the contrary is that people often wish to not be sovereign, (and proposes further that sovereignty can never be anything but a fallacy) by violating their attachment to intentionality and give themselves over to something larger than themselves.

Melancholia and the refusal to recover or let go of attachments to the dead can not only be read as a sign of pathology but might be understood as an active choice to not be sovereign. This presents a contradictory twist – the right of choice we have over our lives can also be used to reject those choices. But there is also something more subtle taking place, it is about injecting the unconscious into the intentionality of the subject. It is suggesting that certain affective experiences such as grief can reveal to us we often do not know to what we are tied and why, the one who refuses to recover might not be aware of the ways they are attached to something that is actually becoming an obstacle to their ability to live a life.

To tell someone to lose the object of their desire and face up to the reality of their loss – the reality that is apparently evident to everyone but them – is to neglect to see how certain fantasies that people invest in provide a sense of belonging all of their own.

What if we do not presuppose the sovereign subject? How do we account for the self?

 Should not the whole theory of the subject be reformulated, seeing that knowledge, rather than opening onto the truth of the world, is deeply rooted in the “errors” of life? – Michel Foucault

Borrowing from Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant I have been working with a description of grief as an instance which can make a person ‘come undone’. This is a coming undone of a self that was already not the sovereign person they took themselves to be. What this means is not that grief or loss merely breaks people down before they put themselves back together again (a recovery narrative that relies upon the self as normally integrated) but rather an instance that reveals the relational nature of their sense of self; the capacity to affect and be affected.

Injecting some incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the subject then, the interest lies less in how people come undone – if we alternatively assume the subject is always somewhat prone to incoherence – but rather how do they hold themselves together, and what form this holding together takes and why. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?

The task remains for me to discover the discourses that mould the form of the grieving person into an identifiable recovering/recovered/not recovered subject. That is to say what are the discourses, structures, norms that may impinge, limit, obstruct the capacity for flourishing or for becoming otherwise.

There’s a labour to remaining within the bounds of normal, of which some feel more acutely than others. And yet there’s also a comfort to passing as normal because it means staying under the radar. Expecting or demanding a level of sovereignty over one’s life can serve a protective or liberating purpose but it can also enforce an unworkable and limited vision of what it means to be human. I’m not so sure about whether we need throw out the concept of the human and become post-human and I know too little to make a biological claim on things that are indisputably human. Rather I make the modest proposal that it is not the vision of the human that needs transforming but the world we inhabit so that is capacious enough to hold all the multiple ways of being human.

Navigating the liminal space of grief
June 29, 2014, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

Navigating the liminal space of grief. Paper presented at the Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin, June 2014.

Points of Departure ICA Jumana Emil Abboud I Feel Nothing 2012-blxigW_0

Jumana Emil Abboud – I Feel Nothing, 2012.

It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. The experience of grief has been described as having the potential to destabilise the world one lives in and shatter the meanings people use to hold up their world.

The experience of grief can feel like a loss of origins and a loss of a dwelling place. The potential of grief to dis-embed people from their sense of being in the world suggests the importance of space and place in the experience of grief.

Following on from this sense of disorientation at the event of loss, I seek to suggest in this paper that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space.

Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable.

Following Yi-Fu Tuan in his seminal text ‘Space and Place’ I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscape, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries.

Grief and Place

There has been much research exploring how the deceased and dead bodies are located in place as well as how the dead are memorialised in certain places.

These studies have explored how landscapes can work to contain or relocate the deceased as part of the process of grieving and memorialising.

Studies have also demonstrated how death is often located in spaces behind the scenes of day-to-day life.

kurt cobain bench

With the death of public figures in particular we tend to see the creation of public memorials, which also receive a lot of media coverage. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Jade Goody and of course Princess Diana for example provoked widespread public forms of memorialising. The picture here is a replica produced by the artist Graham Dolphin of the bench once frequented by Kurt Cobain that subsequently became a fan shrine following his death.

The ways in which people memorialise their dead ones in contemporary society has highlighted some of the paradoxes around how death and dying is hidden from view and yet creative public mourning seen in roadside memorials and online memorials have made grief visible.

In Avril Maddrell’s (2009, 2010) research she argues these these public places of memorialisation are ‘permeable’ places, which reinvent and negotiate traditional rituals, blurring the boundaries between secular and sacred practices. Places of memorialisation are liminal spaces, that serve to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.

Liminal Objects


It is not only places but also objects that act to tie people to their dead ones. People hold onto to certain objects of the people they have lost, items are passed down as heirlooms, photographs help keep the memory of the deceased alive, all of which are used to help manage grief.

Work by Paul Koudounaris has explored the role of skull rituals amongst the indigenous communities of Bolivia. People believe these skulls bring them good fortune, and they bestow the skulls with names and identities. These are not the skulls of deceased family members just unknown skulls. An annual festival is held in Bolivia to bless and celebrate their skulls, in likeness with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.

These liminal objects can be seen then as a way to bring death into the routine of living, as well as a way of maintaining bonds with dead ones.

The meaning of spaces therefore has a role to play in how death and grief are experienced, not only in the spaces of the cemetery or the funeral home where death is expected to be but also in the everyday familiar spaces such as the home.

However, though the meaning of spaces and landscapes of grief has begun to be explored further, I would like to suggest that grief itself should be seen as a space in its own right. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into.

Grief as linear process

Grief theories have tended to view grief as a linear process that involves a number of stages and phases to move through. These have varied and been adapted over time but the idea of grief stages is one that remains prevalent in popular discourse on grief. The first stage is normally shock and denial moving through to acceptance with some depression and anger along the way.

The focus in grief recovery is on acceptance or adaptation or restoration. Following bereavement people are encouraged to either in some sense return back to the life they had before, or to move on, as though grief is an experience that casts people outside of what is considered the normal realm of everyday experience.

Bereavement is often seen as an occasion for transformation (being better than before) or professional intervention (due to failing to act correctly), that is to say it becomes an extraordinary experience, outside of the ordinary and mundane.

Following bereavement people are encouraged to reintegrate back into society and to return back to a sense of ‘normality’, but where exactly does the experience of grieving cast people out to?

Grief as a liminal space

And what might it mean to view grief as a liminal space?

Victor Turner (Turner, 1974, 1982) utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep from his book Rites de Passage (1909) to develop his definition of liminality.

Van Gennep in his anthropological studies outlined three stages in a rite of passage undergone by members of tribal societies: the initial stage of separation from one’s group or society, the middle stage of liminality and the final stage of reintegration. It was the middle stage of liminality which Turner explored further; the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities and freed from the normative obligations they imply. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begin. In a state of liminality individuals stand outside not only their own social position but all social positions. A space of liminality is full of potential for transformation and for experimentation and exploring alternative avenues, or in other words it is a space of ‘becoming’.

The space of liminality can provide limitless opportunity to forge new identities and allow for creativity and subversive acts due to the eradication of the normal structures that tend to inhibit or obstruct behaviour. In a liminal space there are potentially multiple avenues to follow. Yet a liminal space is also a space of heightened affectivity, uncertainty and insecurity.

In a liminal, insecure, and uncertain space people may seek out models of behaviour to follow and imitate. These models may appear to be contrary to their own interests, but in favour of other interests; on the other hand they may be against the interests of others but in favour of their own. But under liminal conditions the idea of interests is superfluous for there is no structure with which to objectively define ‘interest’ against. For this reason, rituals and customs are used in order to help people navigate through the space. So whilst a liminal space provides opportunities and possibilities the space is highly determined to guide people in a particular direction. In Turner’s description of liminality, these rituals and customs serve to provide staging to the process, not in order to close down options, but to facilitate a productive becoming.

In terms of grieving, rituals such as funeral rites and traditional burial customs have historically been considered to assist the mourning process. In contemporary society, services and interventions such as bereavement therapy, medication, or treatment for complicated forms of grief as well as popular self-help books that proscribe steps through the process, like the stage model as already mentioned, similarly act to assist people through the liminal space of grief to what is considered to be the agreed ‘good’ ending.

In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief and how they guide people through liminality towards what is viewed as a successful recovery.

In contrast to dominant grief theories that look to the individual and the psyche for explanations I am focussing my attention on the space and the environment in which people are located and how and why the discourses that dominate that space are constructed and popularised as truth.

A (flourishing) Impasse

In this space of liminality people may also undertake their own habits or practices as a way to bring stability, to ward off the threat of chaos and destruction which are far more likely in the ambiguous state of liminality. These habits might include behaviours considered to be unproductive to the recovery process, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, avoidance, and dwelling on the past. Yet I would argue these ‘bad’ habits and attachments might also be read as a strategy people use to maintain a foothold in the liminal process.

The sort of questions I am posing in my research are why people may choose to follow some models and not others and why do some people follow and invest in the model of recovery and why do some fail to imitate this model effectively or resist the model altogether?

Conceptualising grief as a liminal space then is to problematise the idea of a ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ process of grief often promoted in grief theories. Whilst there are normal processes to follow this does not make them natural, and these vary depending on the theory that is popularised in any given social and political context.

In Turner’s concept of liminality there is more emphasis placed on the importance of experimenting and play, and undertaking activities that do not follow a linear pattern. The time restraints placed on grieving, as demonstrated in the diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder where the display of grieving symptoms at 6 months following bereavement could lead to clinical intervention, could be seen as a way to reintegrate people who have been cast into this space of liminality where time and order no longer exist, back into a linear routinised sense of time.

Grief as a liminal space can be seen as providing an impasse in which people can reflect upon alternative modes of living and identities without the concern for working towards an immediate future.

Losing and drawing new boundaries

Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience (thus relying on an assumption that the experience of living is either normal or abnormal) but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. This can allow for the exploration and uncovering of how the boundaries of appropriate and normal grieving are drawn and how the different theories, policies, and practices around grief are wrestled with; both conflicting and connecting with one another in a complex interface through which grief emerges as an identifiable object. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.

Its is hoped that in this paper I have begun to outline how the grieving person might navigate and negotiate their way through the liminal space of grief. In a space of liminality all choices are equal, that does not make them meaningless, simply that the goal or end point of endeavour is still open to question. By incorporating the concept of liminality and comparing the experience of grief to that of being in a liminal space I am arguing that grief be viewed as more than something to be overcome.



Maddrell, A. (2009). A place for grief and belief: the Witness Cairn, Isle of Whithorn, Galloway, Scotland. Social & Cultural Geography, 10(6), 675–693.

Maddrell, A. (2010). Memory , Mourning and Landscape in the Scottish Mountains: Discourses of Wilderness, Gender and Entitlement in Online Debates on Mountainside Memorials. In E. Anderson, A. Maddrell, K. McLoughlin, & A. Vincent (Eds.), Memory, Mourning, Landscape (pp. 123–145). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Maddrell, A., & Sidaway, J. (Eds.). (2010). Deathscapes: Spaces for death, dying, mourning and rememberance. Surrey: Ashgate.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.