Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery, Resistance, Subjectivities | Tags: Berlant, composure, fantasy, grief, liminality, love, recognition, sovereignty, the good life
I’ve always been interested in people who don’t do as they’re told. They excite me, intellectually and personally. In my current work I am interested in those that are seen to have failed to recover from their grief over losing someone. What’s interesting is that it is hard, if not impossible, to identify cultural examples of someone who hasn’t recovered. The non-recovered mourner – like Freud’s melancholic – is the silent, shadowed figure that strikes fear in all us as we inevitably face the loss of someone we love. This is partly because in the modern rhetoric of recovery everyone is always on the road to recovery, and even if we haven’t faced a traumatic event we are (or should be) always on the way to bettering ourselves, trying to be happier, grasping that elusive ‘good life’ fantasy. The non-recovered are read as resistant, refusing, problematic, troublemakers because they appear to be actively rejecting the normative fantasies to which we are all obligated to subscribe. There was a telling moment in episode three of the Channel 4 programme Bedlam (an insight into the work and patients of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital), where we see a social worker knocking on the door of the home of a woman whose health he feared was taking a ‘downward spiral’. “Why are we going to these lengths when she is living the life she chooses?”, he remarks. And yet the woman, Rosie, was deemed as not having the mental capacity to make a choice, and so by law choices had to be made for her.
Many things are happening here and here’s a few to point out: having capacity to make a decision is part of what is considered to be a functional, mentally fit, human being yet these decisions and choices have to fit into a pre-existing framework that already decides for you what is normal and what is not normal, e. g. going to work, waged labour, owning a home = normal; singing Christmas carols to yourself in July, having a fear of bedbugs = not normal. Being normal then could be seen as more about making the ‘right’ decisions than about the level of perceived control one has over the decision. Yet we are encouraged to believe that by virtue of being human we have sovereign control over our lives, our behaviour, and our choices. The problem with sovereignty is that when someone makes a choice society at large disagrees with, and this could range from being overweight or a refusal of a 9-5 capitalist regime, it is deemed a fault of the individual. The problem individual just needs to be turned to face the ‘right’ way. In what follows I am going to attempt to unpack the notion of sovereignty by heavily drawing on Lauren Berlant’s ”Cruel Optimism’ to consider how sovereignty can be unsettled by affective experiences such as grief and love and can only ever be an aspirational concept that might better be expressed as a temporary display of ‘composure.’ Composure, as detailed in the middle section, is also worn thin by an unending desire for the good life where for the worker the act of reproducing life is also the means of being worn out by it. In closing I start to move on from Berlant and think about what responses might be possible to an attachment to a wearing way of life that is not working.
i. How can I keep my composure?
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 on political terms, as in the sovereignty of the head of state. As a ‘death’ scholar, I explore the ways sovereignty is interrupted, and eventually destroyed, through the inevitable act of death. Ideas of sovereignty, and autonomy have only ever appeared to me as unsustainable pipe dreams, that provide at times a necessary illusion in the face of getting on with life.
In a previous post I argued that 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 love and 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. We rarely get to choose what interrupts our lives or the attachments we forge to people, to ideas, to habits, to objects. Grieving and being in love are great exemplars where these features are exaggerated, where to be able to grieve and to be able to love require violating the attachment to our own intentionality, our sense of sovereignty. Why is it, we wonder, that when we are around a certain person we cannot keep our composure?
Composure is something we try to keep, maintain or that we lose. It is the ‘default’ setting, it’s something already there. Showing the right levels of composure at the right time is all part of the performance of normal. Composure is a way of holding the self, it is a maintainance of social identity, it helps provide a distance from our desires. A healthy level of composure is required in order to function and perform well in a world where losing one’s composure brings shame, or is read as incapacity, madness. The anxiety we feel over the struggle to keep our composure around certain people is a struggle over the fear of being mis-recognised by those whose recognition is so fundamental to our sense of self. I decided to do away with sovereignty too following Berlant when grief taught me that other people undo us over and over in ways we are unable to predict and control. These sort of experiences reinforce the importance of composure whilst simultaneously it’s fragility becomes all too apparent. But in the face of loss composure is about all you have to protect you. Keeping your composure means the world can come up to you when you choose and you can keep it at a distance. You can protect yourself from the world, other people, from coming in and interrupting you again.
Then love taught me that composure is only a holding ground until you find an environment in which you can relinquish your composure. Love doesn’t let you keep your composure, it’s too greedy. Composure is willed not natural, love is fantasy, not conscious – that comes later. A sense of sovereignty is considered a part of being a functional citizen and yet the moments of non-sovereignty are paradoxically seen as the moments where life truly takes place. Finding an easy friend, needing someone, thinking about someone, is what colours the otherwise weary days. It’s not so much the dependency that lifts the spirits but the chance to be recognised by another, for them to say ‘I see you’, for us to ‘feel ourselves’. I got obsessed with the MTV programme ‘Catfish’ as it documents a fascinating array of moments of misrecognition, of misplaced fantasies and overwhelming investments in a desired other. But as Catfish reveals, this sense of recognition is only the misrecognition we can bear, what we want to believe. We let someone carry an image of us, better than the one we can hold of ourselves.
ii. …never enough money, never enough love, and barely any rest…
Stories of love are all too often the plaster that fills in the cracks of the everyday overwhelmed life. Berlant’s ‘Cruel Optimism’ is remarkable in numerous regards but particularly in the way she describes how in modern industrial society the act of reproducing life (working for a living) is also the means of being worn out by it. We might not be fighting life and death on a daily basis, in fact the clinical, sanitized workplace might feel very detached from anything quite like a real experience. There’s something very ordinary about the crises encountered in the modern workplace. The labour is numbing and mundane, but still the dangers of precarity, little money, little time, work stress, and an exhaustion so very old and new all at the same time, feels pressingly real. As Berlant argues the feeling of deterioration is a fundamental part of the experience of modern working life. This not about a desire for the good life; it is the search for a less bad life. It is about finding resting places, someone who might understand our struggles, spacing out in mindless entertainment or seeking nourishment in food not for thought.
And modern life does provide pockets of intimacy to distract and soothe our overloaded sensorium: selling smiles and anecdotes on dating sites, or picking up whatever you can find on the weekend for some quick thrills and empty affection, or sleeping with him/her in the office. We are provided with things that promise reprieve but not repair: sex, mindfulness courses, energy drinks, all help keep the machine running smoothly, help us to catch up with a present that is always already happening too quickly. We’re keeping our composure even in intimate relations, discomposure is too unsettling, we haven’t time to come undone. The situations within which lie the potential for change are kept at bay – even the previous radical practices: mindfulness, yoga, are emptied out, re-branded and co-opted as a form of niceness production that keep us striving for the status quo. We’re not aiming for the horizon, just spreading out sideways, passing under the radar. But this is not a comfortable position, there’s little safety inhabiting the normal. It is a constant bargaining with what you can bear.
iii. The concrete realisation of being the odd one out.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the boundaries of normal are shifting all the time. This is what learning a bit of history can give you. ‘Doing your homework’ as Gayatri Spivak would say. This might sound less dramatic than it actually is. Encountering the fact that the prescriptions of the ‘good life’ you are encouraged to follow are not inevitable, and are in fact quite disagreeable, is the first step in the realisation of being the odd one out. Staying proximate to normality is a way of keeping out of view, toeing the line, not ruffling feathers. This is easily done if you happen to be born and grow up in a environment that is in line with the normative discourses on how best to live a life. But you might grow up as always already the outsider. You’re the odd one out without even trying. Either way, interruptions can work to destabilize the most comfortable of existences – the wearing out of working life, death, loss, scouring love – can elucidate in an often very banal and depressing way that the life you were living was held up by a series of attachments: to a person, a job, an ideology, a cat, or anything in which you had invested your sense of endurance about life. Losing that thing, interrupting the fantasy to which you had attached to it, is I think crucial in coming to a critical awareness of the world in which you live. I don’t know, this is just a hunch, but I think there has to be a loss. Even if not tangible, just the process of losing your sense of privilege. I don’t think there can be sovereignty in freedom. This is a view contrary to perhaps most movements that seek freedom, such as the recovery movement in mental health care, where freedom is conflated with reclaiming autonomy.
Discovering you are the odd one out, in my view is rather not about reclaiming sovereignty or autonomy but about dispensing with it entirely. Being the odd one out might sound like a passive position, but whilst yes you may feel as though you do not fit, you are also not accepting the life on offer. Who rejects who first is hard to tell, and perhaps not important. The rejection is not necessarily conscious either, we might spend many tiring years attempting to pass as normal before we realise that we had already given up on believing in the sustainability of this form of life a long time ago. This lag might mean we come to this impasse a little late, or not at all.
Talk of freedom might seem too corny and idealistic for jaded ears but again this might sound less radical than it actually is. It is a response that says: don’t try and reason, persuade, convince, expend energy as it does not serve you. When the system does not respect you, you owe nothing to it and you can make yourself free. And when I say freedom, I’m not speaking in sugarcoated tones, freedom without sovereignty is entering into what I can only describe as the realm of the ‘I don’t know’. It’s a liminal space, without boundaries or form, it is being in transit without knowing where it is leading. If you decide to reject the fantasies of the good life, than this is what you get. How to build a world that is not hopeless? Where to find a life worth living? In the liminal space of ‘I don’t know’ there is all to experience and different roads to go down. Choice is not pragmatic but whimsical. In this liminal space subjectivity is allowed the space to be non-sovereign, to be incoherent, changeable. We can mourn, love and lose our composure. The challenge is to find a sense of stability built through not being attached to what we attach to. Some call this nomadic theory, but I quite like unequal attachments that are sticky and messy. We might never quite become the person they wanted us to be, but in this liminal space of becoming the odd one out, unlike the cruel optimism of the fantastical good life, there are multiple exits.
Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
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