politics of the hap


the non-sovereignty of grief: revisiting Freud

[This is a revised extract of my probationary literature review and a (hopefully) future paper in the works. Currently obsessed with the idea of non-sovereignty and how this shapes political/social identities and nature of relationality]

One of the themes that recur throughout the grief literature is that of attachments and bonds with the deceased. Whether it is framed as attachments or bonds, the focus on attachments has contributed to an understanding that suggests 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.

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. Yet I would like to contend that Freud can be re-read as being far more ambivalent about attachments, especially if noting his later writings. In particular Freud emphasised that mourning is normal and healthy, and that grief was not a cause for intervention.

The picture portrayed by Freud is a more complex understanding of interdependency and bonds than what is commonly depicted in grief theory, even those emphasising the role of continuing bonds. The continuing bonds theory was an attempt to reject the models of detachment that Freud and others appeared to be claiming. Instead the continuing bonds thesis highlights the many ways people do retain some type of bond with those they have lost, but it does not mean that the continuation of a bond is pathological or necessarily stays the same as it was before the death. It is rather an attempt to relocate the dead into a new identity by a process of relinquishing but also continuing attachments in order to activate recovery. This is achieved by a process of oscillation where the loss is at times confronted and at others avoided. Developing a balance between avoidance and yearning for the deceased is seen as a way to successfully recover from the loss. However, there is no empirical study that has proven the benefit of relinquishing ties, rather it is counselling and therapy literature that has centred on the idea that holding on to the deceased brings complications. This is again perhaps evidence of the particular reading of Freud that has become prevalent in grief literature.

Further there is neither any empirical evidence to prove the benefit of continuing bonds. The continuing bonds theory then remains only a theory; a theory that is unclear on how people actually carry out the process of oscillating between confrontation and avoidance and what precisely needs relinquishing and what needs continuing in order to recover. Moreover, the process of oscillation is viewed as an intra-psychic process that neglects to place the individual in a social and cultural context, thus failing to acknowledge that the aspects of identities and memories that are held on to and the ones that are relinquished, will to an extent be shaped by the cultural beliefs and norms of the society in which a person is situated. Therefore, whilst the continuing bonds theory provides a welcome counter to the emphasis on detaching bonds it too tends to individualize people, just as the detachment focused models have done by failing to delve further into the complexity of interdependence and relations people have with one another. The continuing bonds theory manages to retain the same assumption of autonomy dominant in recovery stage models and theories on resilience, by viewing people as having choice and control over what they stay attached to and what they do not, and further that is it their own responsibility to find the appropriate balance.

To return back to Freud’s melancholic figure presents a revealing contrast to these ideas for 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.

But what exactly is it that people remained attached to in grief? Freud talks of being attached to and losing ‘objects’. This is to imply that grieving is not just an occasion of losing a person but losing the objects invested in that person; the cluster of promises and future that person represented. To stay stubbornly fixed to situations of bruising attachments, as the melancholic figure does, is then because losing the lost object is to also lose the possibilities that person represented, and thus to lose part of his/her self. The refusal to let go and detach from the deceased is partly a result of the attachments often existing outside of awareness, but also a way of protecting one’s self, of keeping oneself together. Yet of course holding on to something that is no longer present becomes problematic in the path to recovery. The melancholic figure is read by others as failing to let go of an object that others declare as absent, as already dead. To state that a person with complicated grief, a contemporary term for melancholia perhaps, is not facing up to the reality of their loss, is to declare the objects they have failed to let go of as dead on their behalf.

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. Thinking about attachments as cruelly optimistic recognises how staying attached then becomes the only way to perpetuate what the grieving person does not want to relinquish. For the person who is grieving is not only grieving for the person that has died but for the person they could have become, and the vision of the future in which they had invested.

There are benefits to remaining stuck, and to let go is to risk losing one’s self into an uncertain, unknown future of liminality. Interestingly, neuroscientific research has begun to find links in people with complicated grief to the parts of the brain associated with addiction. A study discovered that those diagnosed with complicated grief found it hard to resist in engaging in ‘pleasurable reveries’ about the deceased even though these reveries may prevent them from ‘adjusting to the realities of the present’. So the attachment brings pleasure whilst becoming an obstacle to what others deem to be successful adjustment. Cruelly optimistic ties suspend people in a space where they are encouraged to move forward. As individuals navigate through the liminal space of grief they will encounter various discourses, people and narratives that seek to direct them the right way. The person diagnosed with complicated grief, the melancholic, needs reorientation to the right direction, they need to learn how to let go in the right way. 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) and to give themselves over to something larger than themselves. 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.

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