politics of the hap

Ugly Feelings/A World Unravelling.
April 16, 2013, 9:58 pm
Filed under: Grief, Love, Recovery

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.


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