What makes so many people desperate to live conventionally rather than experimentally, when the prevailing norms generate so much noise and evidence of their failure to sustain life? (Berlant, 2012)
Recently I have become captured by Sianne Ngai’s (2005) idea of ‘ugly feelings’. Ngai describes ugly feelings as non-cathartic feelings that do not facilitate action or culminate in some kind of purgation or release. Ngai focuses on feelings such as anxiety, paranoia, envy and irritation as exemplars of ugly feelings that are characterised by their ‘ongoingness’ and ‘flatness’ (2005, p7). These are feelings that offer no satisfaction or virtue nor therapeutic or purifying release. These feelings are continual and of a long duration unlike passionate and sudden emotions such as rage which are fleeting in nature. For Ngai, ugly feelings index situations of suspended agency, an obstructed agency grounded in ambivalent or explicitly contradictory feelings. The ambivalent nature of feeling is key here as it means ugly feelings resist easy assimilation; ugly feelings work to interfere with other emotions. Ugly feelings are not object-directed and politically ambiguous.
Ngai’s description of ‘ugly feelings’ such as anxiety can shed light on what ‘no recovery’ might sound like. No recovery is better described as a state rather than a feeling, but a state of obstructed or suspended agency that is grounded in ambivalent or ugly feelings. In particular it is the lack of defined object that unites the different feelings that I feel is instructive for thinking about not recovering. A feeling of anxiety for example is a feeling that can be understood as a feeling that arises due to confusion about what one is feeling. The confusion emerges due to the lack of defined object. This in modern medical terms is described as ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, previously known as ‘pantophobia’, which in broad terms refers to state where a person is fearful of everything; there is no reasoning or apparent rationale behind the fear and anxiety. Feelings such as envy rather work through a negation of the object. In envy, one is attached to the object but only through the wish to negate, destroy it.
For Ngai, these ugly feelings have become especially powerful in our lives but often are reabsorbed into the system that produced them. For example irritation that arises from one’s dissatisfaction with working life can become the fuel to become a more productive worker, rather than instigate a change of life. For ugly feelings are non-cathartic, they do not find release. To find release they might have to transform into anger, or love or a more demonstrative emotion. Yet Ngai wishes to recuperate the critical productivity of these feelings. Feelings like anxiety or fear for example could be read as signifiers that signal something is not working. There is a suggestive quality to ugly feelings, even if they lack the ability to promote action. The ability to act could then be understood as coming from elsewhere, emerging out of different situations. As Berlant asks at the opening of this piece: ‘What makes so many people desperate to live conventionally rather than experimentally?’. For Berlant it is the double-bind of a ‘cruel optimism’ that makes it awkward and threatening to detach from what is not working, even with the vision of the better good life that feeds our optimism (2011, p.263).
Ugly feelings, and cruel optimistic attachments to the idea of a good life can then become lubricants of the system they came into being to oppose, rather than a radical rejection of what is already not working. No recovery similarly is read as pathological and in need of rectifying rather than perhaps as a form of resistance, or more simply as an alternative way to live a life.
I came across this video of Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst who has also written about mourning and depression, talking about how we understand psychosis:
What is interesting in Leader’s argument is his emphasis on the importance of distinguishing between the phenomenon of psychosis, which he views as a process of disintegration, and the secondary act of delusion a person constructs to ‘recover’ from this disintegration. This secondary delusion, Leader argues is often identified as the psychosis when in fact it is the person’s own response, a means of recovery, and to intervene or obstruct this response through a diagnosis of madness, is to enact a form of violence to those who choose alternative modes of existence. It is to rob the person of their own strategies for recovery, and attempts at reconstruction and deprive them of resources, instead allowing the clinician to impose their own view of what life should be. Leader instead argues for a need to ask what reality is for the patient and try to understand that.
In Leader’s understanding we then have a conceptualisation of recovery that is radically different from a clinical or social definition of recovery that is imbued with ideas of choices and agency. Thinking back to anxiety as a feeling that might arise due to sense of something that is not working, we can perhaps then read obsessive compulsive behaviours that emerge from anxiety as an act of recovery, not of madness. Compulsive behaviours, overeating, anorexia for example are seemingly irrational responses to something (say grief or perhaps as Julia Kristeva (1989) might say just a nameless, unsymbolizable ‘thing’) yet in this view we can start to see them as rational responses to a world unraveling They provide a structure, they are a mode of clinging on, or making sense, even if they are construed as delusional. Recovery in this sense is not necessarily concerned with an attachment to the good life or normative associations of what makes a life worth living, it is a strategy of holding things together in the face of disintegration. It is just the markers of recovery are different and the prevailing norms have shifted. The markers of a person with an eating disorder are avoiding certain foods, achieving a certain weight and so on. The fact then that this ‘irrational’ form of recovery becomes the pathology to then be recovered from, is as Leader argued, neglecting how the eating disorder became the chosen mode of recovery to start off with.
Perhaps even we could propose that behaviours such as these that are persistently read as depression or anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder are in fact a rejection of the normative, and in some ways a resistance to it. At least they could be seen as creative responses to an unraveling sense of self. This is not to support self-destructive modes of existence as preferable or in some way more ‘authentic’ but it is to suggest what might be gained from seeing the value in these different strategies that seek to hold things together. For often behaviours such as eating disorders are seen as a process of disintegration or unraveling when rather they are intended as a way to bring cohesion to the self. The disintegration thus comes prior. This is also important as it might indicate that what is often considered ‘no recovery’ may in fact be a mode of recovery, at least in the sense that it is an attempt to rebuild or recover one’s inner world.
Again we can wonder what makes so many people desperate to live conventionally rather than experimentally when the prevailing norms generate so much noise and evidence of their failure to sustain life? The problem that arises when recovery becomes a standardised policy is the belief that it is what all patients or ‘service users’ want. In such a predicament it is hard to argue or reject the model if it turns out it doesn’t work. I think this is why I find Ngai’s description of ugly feelings so interesting for it is a way of retrieving the critical capacities of feelings that are amoral and non-cathartic; that are seemingly pointless and irrelevant. Here we might also want to think about affect rather than emotion, affect being in Ngai’s interpretation as less structured and less formed than emotions. Emotions belong to the speaker but affect exists outside as a feeling felt from an observer’s position. Affect is not organised like emotions nor is it sociolinguistically fixed. It has no object or clear intention. Yet the question remains how to follow these negative affects around, and whether to do so will bring about different claims on what constitutes recovery. Above, I have played with ideas that see no recovery as a situation of suspended agency characterised by ambivalence and ideas that view recovery as a way of holding things together. To truly risk the opportunity to live experimentally is to lose the anchors one has in the present through ‘bruising processes of detachment’ (Berlant 2011, p.263). It is not a process of holding things together, or a state that seeks to put a halt to a sense of unravelling. It instead rides that very wave of self-disintegration in the belief of the better good life. No recovery suspends action because it remains counter-active, it does not offer identities or resolution; it provides a view of the world laid bare, an emptying out of the imagination. Whereas recovery is expectant and full; it is a gesture that reads: even when I know you are not coming, I’m still waiting.
Berlant, L. (2012) ‘On her book Cruel Optimism’, Rorotoko, June 5th 2012, http://rorotoko.com/interview/20120605_berlant_lauren_on_cruel_optimism/?page=2
Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kristeva, J. (1989). Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.
Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press.
Filed under: Academe | Tags: #britsoc13, alternatives, conferences., limitations, radical, sociology
Two years ago in April it was a beautifully warm and sunny Spring. I was wearing sunglasses and sandals as I lazed in the sun on the grass in the LSE campus at my first attendance to the British Sociological conference. Back then I was on the verge of a crucial decision, 6 months or so into my Sociology PhD (the first time round) I was questioning my commitment to the discipline. I attended the conference, paying the extortionate fee out of my own pocket (around £210 for concessionary fees plus BSA membership joining fee of £50, non-members you are looking at £500 for the whole three days), but above all seeking inspiration from my fellow peers. I was expecting to mingle with like-minded thinkers, engage with forward-thinking and exciting alternatives. What I went away with was an overwhelming sense of ‘Sociology’s crisis’ a discourse which echoed throughout the conference. Two years ago it was the peak of student protest activity, Occupy and UKUncut were taking to the streets, and yet that sense of activism and exchange of ideas felt very distant from the stale powerpoint presentations and formal wine receptions of the conference. This week that same feeling of what can only be described as disappointment arose once again. It was shortly after the conference of 2011 that I applied to study yoga here and booked a one way ticket to India. Two years down the line and back nestled into academia, I am wiser and less naive on my return. Still though I registered for Britsoc13 with enthusiasm even if with a pinch of apprehension.
Housed within the Grand Connaught Rooms, what was underwhelming was the similarity of ideas, grumbles and criticism of two years ago. Now well immersed into the age of austerity, there was much talk of how Sociology’s challenge is ‘different’ now and we need to adapt new tools and ways of thinking. Yet these calls for change were largely muffled by the amount of formulaic presentations that rehearsed a conservative almost stereotypical form of Sociology I hadn’t been acquainted with since A-level. There was luckily some genuinely great speakers and talks to be found such as the Open stream which took place in the Derby suite and had an interesting array of psycho-social research and presentations. Namely one panel discussion which focused on the marginalisation of psychoanalysis in Sociology for me set the scene for the whole conference. George Cavalletto remarked rather poignantly how researchers get frustrated by Sociology’s inability to account for inner life and then turn to literature and cultural studies to find answers and adequate expression for their ideas. The marginalisation of psychoanalysis as a credible discipline in the social sciences and the further degradation of the psyche and the emotions as valid areas of study has led to Sociology becoming a discipline where emotions are only things that come from the outside-in thus reinforcing tired binaries between mind and body. Sociology becomes a matter of inequalities that can be seen or proved but not felt, its remit including only the newsworthy topics of race, gender and class, but articulated in a very truncated sense.
The discussion following Polly Toynbee’s plenary also threw up some interesting questions. The plenary was in some ways a how-to guide to getting your research in the mainstream media but the Q&A saw some audience members stand up to talk about their work as ‘activist scholar’s’ as they described themselves. A sociologist’s task is to not just relay information but actively educate their communities in which they work and research they argued. Further another response reminded us that a sociologist’s task is to be provocative and go against the norm. Sociologist’s are so busy toeing the line and filling in REF applications they forget about the importance of big ideas. Toynbee was calling for the need for big thinkers along with the researchers that produce the ‘facts’ as she called them. (The simplistic view of the journalist where objectivity exists as a possibility…). Yet as she also acknowledged ‘big thinkers’ are dismissed if they lack the appropriate forms of validation. The sociologist’s hands are so tied that all that becomes possible are small-scale projects. Yet the problem lies not in the small scale of the research but the small scale of ideas and thinking. Big ideas can be attached to the small-scale, the embedded, and the everyday, but what is lacking is the ability and/or motivation to undertake this bridging. This was evident in the Happiness session where happiness was banded about like an unproblematic object. Research was presented that relayed people’s understanding of happiness as the truth of happiness rather than viewing them as a particular narrative of happiness that borrowed from the dominant understandings of happiness that imply certain ways to live a life and be a good citizen. Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness was demolished in the hands of Mark Cieslik who seemingly read a different book, and seemed to think that Ahmed was wanting to do away with happiness, where she was arguing for a form of happiness that did not ignore unhappiness as a possibility. Instead happiness was seen as a thing that existed outside of history, an innate feeling, and neglected to see how the form of happiness that was being advocated was remarkably similar with neo-liberal ways of living and being.
When emotions are a focus of sociological study they become hollowed out and instrumental, lacking theorisation from more sensory modes of study, such as psychoanalysis for example that could illuminate the way in which a person experiences happiness from their environment through affect and attuning to certain things. These ideas are active in disciplines such as cultural studies. It is no surprise that for my own research I have been reaching for Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant to provide an adequate reading of subjectivity and loss. And Nikolas Rose and Michel Foucault for a sociology where the body and psyche are actually present and acknowledged. Les Back led a great session on the use of the senses and sensory methodology in Sociology. Again the best sessions of Britsoc13 were the ones that basically said ‘You know what we are not really supposed to be here but we are going to try and challenge you for 90 minutes.’ My year at Goldsmiths acquainted me with Les Back’s great speaking style and passion for the rekindling of a form of forgotten Sociology. It was quite striking to hear from someone of Back’s stature and prominence about the difficulty he had in deciding to overcome the wariness he had concerning talking about his belief in the importance of the sensory in sociological research. It shared parallels with a similarly great session focused on reflexivity presented by Jon Dean and a presentation by Martyn Hammersley about the role of sociology in analyzing key events such as the UK riots. As Jon Dean spoke in his presentation about the problem of including personal reflections in academic work and the dilemma of what is too much (a problem I know well) a response from the audience after asked ‘What kind of discipline do we have if we cannot include such data in our work?’. It was a powerful statement. What kind of discipline do we have? Thinking of Les Back’s hesitation to focus on the sensory – perhaps out of fear of being discredited – I too started to think what discipline is this? And indeed do I want to be part of it? Les Back then spoke about an exhibition he visited as an example for the forms of presentation that should be on display at the BSA conference. Installations that engage the senses. Also in the session Alex Rhys-Taylor used sound recordings and gave a monologue of the sights and sounds of Ridley Road market in the East end of London that felt very close to the ‘scenic compositions’ Lynn Froggett spoke of back in the psycho-social sessions.
It is true some research lends itself better to interactive and creative presentations than others. The point is not to do away with statistics, graphs and powerpoint. But it is to suggest a form of Sociology that allows these sensory methods and modes of thinking as a valuable possibility. Embarrassment or shame are brought about when ideas fail to be recognised; when others refuse to listen. These few snapshots of marginal ideas at Britsoc13 felt like glimmers of hope in amongst the polite small talk, bad vegetarian lunch options and overpriced entrance fee. Yet these thinkers will continue to only throw their ideas against a brick wall if the sociology discipline fails to listen.
I owe much to Sociology, and will always be somewhat grounded, if only through educational socialisation, in a sociological view of the world. I always loved Sociology because it gave me the freedom that other disciplines didn’t. But now I feel constrained and frustrated by Sociology’s limits, where potential radical thought always has to be explained through conservative terms. Particularly as a novice researcher, barely broken in to my PhD, it can seem a dreary and frightening prospect. Luckily I have spent enough time outside academia as well as in to realise the game everyone plays is one you can opt in or out of. I might be old-fashioned in that I came into Sociology wanting to change things and not keep them the same because I saw problems that were being ignored and overlooked. This applies to the inner workings of the discipline too. Conferences that take place in opulent buildings filled with overwhelming numbers of white middle class male faces leave a bad taste in my mouth. John Holmwood in his plenary spoke of readjustment rather than constructing ideals of the future. Indeed a fixed ideal of the future is limiting, but perhaps a fixed desire to maintain the status quo is even more so. There is a paradox as Sociology continues to concern itself with engaging the public and ‘every day life’ we are getting further and further away from the object we are so hurriedly scrabbling toward.
It seems like Sociology needs to ask itself what it thinks makes a life worth living. I am not saying we should cohere on this vision but at least lets have better avenues for dialogue and not bristle so alarmingly at new approaches that delve into the arts and humanities for inspiration. Because in essence is this not the goal of sociological endeavour: to ask what makes a life worth living. A life with less inequality, less discrimination based on gender or colour of one’s skin or age or sexuality, a life that is not prescribed but active, aware and critically engaged. A life of learning, a life made meaningful through felt emotions, affect, attuning to the environment and sensory imaginations. To start thinking this way and asking these questions requires big thinking and being alive to experiences and encounters. Our lives as sociologists are not separate to our work but integral to it. Perhaps then hope lies in those who have yet to become institutionalized into the formal dance of sociology’s discipline requirements. In those still young enough or those outside academia that are able to think big and unashamedly. Hope might also lie in those of us PhD students who risk to take up the challenge to make their PhD a piece of radical sociology, where radical is simply a challenge to normative obligations, that doesn’t seek career progression as the endpoint, that seeks to contribute to a life worth living. I’m prepared for the challenge, the question is, are you?
*This post was kindly reposted on The Sociological Imagination.