politics of the hap

“Even when I know you’re not coming I’m still waiting.”
May 14, 2013, 8:11 pm
Filed under: Grief, Love, Recovery

In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis compares grief to a feeling of suspense (1961, p.29): ‘Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.’ (p.29). This is not about patience. This is a situation of suspended agency. Last time I closed with this thought: ‘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.’ No recovery is a situation that offers no catharsis, satisfaction, virtue nor culminates in some kind of purgation or purifying release. In this definition of ‘no recovery’ I am borrowing from Sianne Ngai’s idea of ugly feelings. Ugly feelings do not facilitate action but are characterised by their ‘ongoingness’ and ‘flatness’ (2005, p7). In this feeling of suspense there is too much time; everything feels flat and boredom arises (Lewis, 1961). Whereas a narrative of recovery is expectant and (hope)full.

Yet grieving, I would like to suggest, could be viewed as a gesture that reads: even when I know you are not coming, I’m still waiting. This is statement that points toward the ways in which grieving is often grounded in an ambivalence that both seeks an object whilst accepting the impossibility of this goal. As Lewis continues: ‘I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual’ (1961, p.41). Grief is a state of frustrated feelings, of a love cut short, curtailed in what seems an untimely manner. And yet everything feels provisional: a permanent provisional feeling. The permanence of death is acknowledged which makes time feel long and inescapable, and yet the state of mourning feels novel and thus transitory. As Lewis describes, there doesn’t seem any point in starting anything, he cannot settle: ‘I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much’ (p.30). There is a restlessness and laziness in Lewis’s feeling of grief: what’s the point in completing tasks when weighed with loss (and thus aware of the futility of each and every task) and yet the fidgeting speaks of a need to fill the spaces and ‘flatness’ that have now opened up in his life.

In grief there can be a use to remaining within this sense of suspense; this is the ambivalence that says that while grief is not desirable there is an obligation to the one that has died to prolong grief, to prolong the unhappiness. If one has been cut in two, to feel better is to pretend one is whole and complete again and subsequently do an injustice to the memory of a marriage or life together (Lewis, 1961). As Derrida (2001, p.110) puts it: ‘mourn we must, but we must not like it.’ Perhaps this feeling of suspension can then be seen as an impasse in the present that allows the grieving person to remain attached to these feelings of loss and frustrated impulses. As Lauren Berlant (2011) describes through her concept of ‘cruel optimism’; even with the image of the good life (recovery/happiness) to sustain our optimism, it is awkward and threatening to detach from what is not working. We stay attached to what is not working because at least we are attached to something, to let go is to risk loss and the insecure promise of a better life. Waiting can feel like temporary housing when death has taken away our sense of origin, our sense of the world once shared with our dead ones (Derrida, 2001, p.115). Moreover ‘what makes us feel, is also what holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place’ (Ahmed 2004, p.11).

So we don’t want to do away with the feelings of grief, ugly or otherwise, because they give us something: a way of being in the world, and to detach is to lose that feeling. But those same feelings suspends us in ambivalence, it is a feeling that does not facilitate positive action: ‘I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much’. It is a distracted set of feelings. Yet in this double-bind withdrawal does not feel like an option. Lauren Berlant (2012) describes this feeling of a double-bind through the example of a destructive love affair:

if I leave you I am not only leaving you (which would be a good thing if your love destroys my confidence) but also I leaving an anchor for my optimism about life (which is why I want to stay with you even though I’m unhappy, because I am afraid of losing the scene of my fantasy itself). So this double bind produces conflicts in how to proceed, because massive loss is inevitable if you stay or if you go.

I find Berlant’s example instructive for grieving for whilst recovery is a narrative that would point towards detaching from the lost object (successful mourning) the lost object is the very anchor that sustains hope. Hope in grief exists only in the form of the fantasy of the return of the dead one. In Berlant’s scenario ‘even though I’m unhappy…I am afraid of losing the scene of my fantasy itself’. Perhaps this is why for Lewis grief feels so much like fear (1961, p5). The fear is of detaching from what brought optimism to life, and thus losing for a second time, even if staying brings unhappiness. A successful recovery story is one imbued with hope, but this hope has to be a new hope without the one that previously brought happiness; or else the memory of the one lost has to become healthily integrated into one’s psyche (more on this later). As Freud tells us, only melancholics hold on to the lost objects; they are affect aliens, unable to get over loss, which keeps them facing the wrong way (Ahmed, 2010). They must be redirected or turned around (ibid, p.141). In melancholia the object is missing; the griever does not know what they have lost. But as Lewis reminds us, in the intensity of longing we are less able to see clearly: ‘You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears’ (1961, p.39).

Passionate grief thus distances rather than links us with the dead.  Ahmed (2004) highlights how passion and passivity have the same root for the Latin word for suffering. To be consumed with passion is to be reactive not rational; dependent not autonomous (p.2). This is why the story of a frustrated love illustrates the double-bind so well. In the midst of the passion we cannot think rationally, though we try. Foucault describes passions as possessing strong and weak phases, but feelings that endure (Foucault cited in Deleuze, 2001 p.116). Passion is a constant shifting state that doesn’t tend to any given point (Deleuze, 2001). Like Ngai’s ugly feelings these are feelings/passions that have no clear object, but remain ongoing. Yet I would suggest, in contrast to ugly feelings that are ‘minor’ uneventful feelings, passion is a more volatile and fluctuating state. It is similar to how Kauffman (2008, p.76) describes a state of no recovery: ‘no recovery is a volatile state of identity diffusion, in which one is always a stranger to oneself’. Passion in grief may distance us from the dead but it also acts to distance us from our sense of self. In a state of passion, ‘being oneself no longer makes any sense’ (Foucault cited in Deleuze, 2001 p.116). As Butler (2004) has described, grief can make us ‘come undone’, we become ‘beside ourselves’. Grief has been compared to a feeling of being in love (Walter 2007, p.128), but it is not so much that grief and love both drive us mad, but that both states take us outside of ourselves to the extent that being our self no longer makes sense. In closing Lewis spoke of an intimacy with intellect, a sense of loving while being wide awake, a love that is rational (1961, p.62-3). This was a way of regarding the ‘otherness’ of the Other, whereas heated passion blends the boundaries: ‘for if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you’ writes Butler (2004), but Lewis is describing an intimacy with distance, and it is this distance that allows him to feel he is better honouring the memory of H.

I would like to pursue this idea of grief as a form of love, or indeed part of the act of loving. For Derrida (2001) all friendship must be founded on the realisation and agreement that one friend must die before the other. Someone will inevitably lose; this is the price we pay for making bonds and ties with one another. A relationship is thus already shrouded in a sense of mourning right from its conception (Derrida, p123). Similarly Lewis recognises that bereavement as in fact a part of love: ‘It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure’ (p.43). The double bind only feels like a bind because we were under the impression that it was a game we could win. A relationship is often predicated on the desire ‘I don’t want to lose you’ but perhaps we would be better served by acknowledging we all lose each other in the end. When the desire ‘I don’t want to lose you’ is the guiding statement, in grief each option feels like a loss, there’s no road to head down or object to follow (Lewis, 1961). And yet grief brings into sharp awareness the fact that our life as we knew it was merely a ‘house of cards’. (Lewis, 1961, p.44).

Waiting then serves another related purpose, to hide us from the fact we cannot win. For waiting is hopeful and can be the better option when the avenues to express one’s desires are unsatisfactory, limiting and repetitive, when it feels like you’re going in circles (Lewis, 1961). But this then begs the question: What is the grieving person waiting for? In the double-bind of the love affair, the waiting is the hope for a change in circumstances (he/she will treat me better, I will be happy again etc), it is a naïve belief that ‘everything will work out’. It is a better road to follow than one that says: ‘he won’t love me like that’. But of course in grief, he/she cannot ever love you like that ever again. The waiting then is the ‘invisible blanket’ that keeps us situated in the numb sense ‘like being mildly drunk or concussed’ (Lewis, 1961, p5), of not quite being part of the world.

To detach from what is not working, to stop waiting is perhaps then to come face to face with no recovery. But no recovery offers no narratives or objects to follow. It is to lose the anchors one had in the world, to lose one’s dwelling place. This why it is threatening and awkward to detach from what is not working (Berlant, 2011). This is why it so feels like fear (Lewis, 1961). To believe we do not lose others – though a ‘house of cards’- provides a future for the friendship. When grief reveals to us the pointlessness of it all, indeed it is easy to think ‘what does it matter?’ and allow laziness to prevail (Lewis, 1961 p.7). So in vacating the life we once knew (or it vacates us?) creates fear and anxiety. I would propose anxiety is a negative affect that emerges at the emptying out of the imagination. When everything becomes equivocal, anxiety floods to fill the space, that terrifying space of non-signifiers, of the meaningless, the death of the imagination. Anxiety is restless, ‘I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much’, it tries different paths but they don’t stick. Anxious habits become a way of clinging on to give a structure in the horrifying swirl of what is not in the desperate attempt to stop the self-unraveling. And throughout, the anxious mind is plagued thinking: What’s next? What are we becoming?

The question ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. (Deleuze & Parnet,1977 p.2).

At least so claims Gilles Deleuze. It is a stupid question, because what one is becoming is changing as much as the person him/herself. As Lewis reminds us: ‘For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?’ (1961, p.49). Perhaps in grief then we might borrow from Deleuze and think about a becoming without a being. A becoming is a process without an end, it does not dictate ideas about how to be or act ‘it’s not a question of being this or that sort of human’ (Deleuze, 1990). Neither is it a movement that progresses or regresses (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988, p.237): ‘I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out not to be a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history’ (Lewis, p.50). To become is not to conform to a model ‘no terminus from which you set out, none which you ought to arrive at’ (Deleuze & Parnet, 1977, p.2). Grief is a long valley which reveals new landscapes (Lewis, p.50), it is not a circular route, and there is something new to be chronicled everyday. Each encounter with another, dead or alive is a moment of becoming, not merely a recognition of what one already is. It is a potential transformation, a future building (Butler, 2004).

And yet this future is not to be realised, what is real is the becoming itself (Deleuze, 1990). Psychoanalysis would claim that the goal is to become better integrated, to build healthy attachment to the one that has been lost, to let go. For Deleuze however the aim is not integration, this is an impossible goal. Deleuze, in clear contrast encourages us to state: ‘I don’t know who I am’. Psychoanalysis cuts desires down through codifiying desires (Deleuze 1990, p.79-80). ‘we have to counter people who think “I’m this, I’m that”, and who do so moreover in psychoanalytic terms (relating everything in their childhood or fate) (Deleuze, 1990, p.11). Thinking in such a way doesn’t give the analysed a chance. For Deleuze proposes the analysis of the unconscious should be a geography rather than a history (1977, p.102). The self is made up of lines, rather than internal desires that signify pathology or can be readily codified. Viewing the self as a criss-cross of lines frees desires from being tied to objects and starts to see the self in fluid and unusual terms. It asks what are the lines that make people up, which ones they take and create , which lines are blocked, closed in, which are lively, active (1990, p.33).

For everything has a geography, these lines exists between others as well as over bodies. The aim then rather is disintegration, the dismantling of the self. This is captured in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘body-without-organs’ (1988). In becoming a body-without-organs we don’t have to ‘be’ anything because in the constant dismantling we are becoming over and over again:

Is it really so sad and dangerous to be fed up with seeing your own eyes, breathing with your lungs, swallowing with your mouth, talking with your tongue, thinking with your brain, having an anus and larynx, head and legs? Why not walk on your head, sing with your sinuses, see through your skin, breathe with your belly: the simple Thing, the Entity, the full Body, the stationary Voyage, Anorexia, cutaneous Vision, Yoga, Krishna, Love, Experimentation. Where psychoanalysis says, ‘Stop, find your self again,’ we should say instead ‘Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our Body without Organs yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self.’ Substitute forgetting for anamnesis, experimentation for interpretation. Find your body without organs. Find out how to make it. It’s a question of life and death, youth and old age, sadness and joy. It’s where everything is played out.  (p.150-1)

The BwO is then, in essence, a experimentation that doesn’t seek to ‘find oneself’ but instead seeks to cease to be an organism (p.159). But the BwO is always a limit, a horizon, not a reality. The BwO is what remains when you take everything away. The BwO is the potential, the ‘egg’, you are already on it (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988). To empty the self of organs is the goal of the drug addict, the anorexic, the hysteric. Deleuze and Guattari highlight these as reminders of what happens when the BwO becomes a reality. The aim is not self-destruction, or nothingness, but to diminish the organism, to clean it. Something needs to be retained in order to survive, to make sense. The emptying out of the organs, the imagination leads to anxiety, non-signification. What the BwO invites is to enter into a mode of liminality; an opportunity to become over and over again. It is the erosion of the sense of antecedent, or psychoanalytic terms that tie us to an Oedipus complex or label us with ‘lack’.

In grief and passion we may feel that being our self no longer makes sense, yet Deleuze and Guattari are suggesting a mode of subjectivity that is not a being but in a constant flux of becoming. The self, and the way one lives then feels at all times as though it is ‘permanently provisional.’ Yet the BwO awaits us, we do not have to wait for it. Viewing the sense of self in such a framing also has implications for how we view those we have lost. While Lewis pondered whether his dead wife was part of him, and in what way she could now by part of him, we should perhaps see this attachment to H as another line in his geography. The BwO is permeable not fixed and contained. It does not carve a place for the lost object, internalise it, but is a line of many that is in constant change. The bond changes as the person carries on living, that is to say becoming. This is the difficulty in speaking of ‘we’ and ‘us’ – to which us does it refer, the image of the one lost now inside the grieving individual, or can it still speak to an Other outside of the self. As Lewis called himself the ‘one –legged man’, in grief we are lessened, we have lost something internal. But instead we could say we lose our bearings, our origin in the world. Or else as Ahmed (2004) describes we cannot keep the other one alive but we still retain the impressions of that other. This is a sense of self that fixes its gaze on how we shape one another’s surfaces and emotions in our encounters. It is to say like Butler, that encounter between two is not to ask for recognition for what one already is (as if to state one is a clearly defined integrated self), but to solicit a becoming (2004).

Deleuze and Guattari (1988) provide a useful counter to the emphasis on integration (what am I disintegrating from?) by positing disintegration as the normative, and desirable, mode of being/becoming. It also highlights the ways in which psychoanalysis because it seeks integration cannot be radical because it closes down those very alternatives before they have chance to grow. A recovery narrative that pursues integration similarly too will lose its radical nature by clinging on to anchors that promise the normative vision of the good life, leading to imitation and assimilation.  But in the event of loss, ‘the act of living is different all through’ (Lewis, 1961, p.12). Loss covers everything. The aim of recovery is a conservative one, but perhaps a sensible one. It is a narrative that stops thinking we lose everyone in the end. It makes friends without accepting the inevitability of each others death. Living experimentally, with the BwO as a horizon might say ‘Let’s go further still…’. But dismantling the self is a dangerous exercise. In grief it is possible to say the self was already dismantled, what is left is to find a way of holding things together (through habits, anxiety) or figuring it all out (successful recovery). In this situation, waiting, can appear a favourable prospect. After all how do we get the total impact of the ‘Thing itself’ (Lewis, 1961)? There are just the ups and downs, the rest is a name, an idea. As Derrida states, there can be no meta-language for mourning (2001, p.143). So the waiting is necessary, not in order to figure it all out, but maybe just as a space for unhappiness to lie. And yet still in this waiting we should not forget that unlike the narrative of recovery, in the narrative of becoming there are multiple exits (Deleuze, 1977, p.103).


Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University  Press.

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Berlant, L. (2012) ‘On her book Cruel Optimism’, Rorotoko, June 5th 2012, http://rorotoko.com/interview/20120605_berlant_lauren_on_cruel_optimism/?page=2

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.

Daly, M. (1984). Pure Lust: Elemental feminist philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Deleuze, G. (1990). Negotiations 1972-1990. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (1977). Dialogues II. London: Continuum.

Derrida, J. (2001). The Work of Mourning. (Edited by Brault, P. & Naas, M). London: University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, C.S. (1961). A Grief Observed. London: Faber and Faber.

Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press.

Walter, T. (2007). ‘Modern grief, Postmodern grief’ International Review of Sociology, 17(1): 123-134.


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