politics of the hap

Don’t let me go
October 10, 2013, 5:55 pm
Filed under: Grief, Love, Recovery, Subjectivities | Tags: ,

Reticent affect is often dramatic because it refuses the abreactive mode of demand. People who yell all the time stop getting listened to; so do the quiet. So creativity gets caught up in making new idioms for feeling things out and for being found. Care, tenderness, stuckness: we see ourselves seeing the world emerging from gestures, and seeing the critical need for the present to be extended, held out there, walked around in, rested in—to honor what’s tender. In this style of being in relation (in sex as in politics) to care for the world is to keep something of it close, not just to imagine displacements or futures. Casid and Wilson perform this so beautifully: refusal, attachment, a multiply voiced “don’t let me go, don’t be gone, don’t let go, get out of here, leave, well, not completely, I just need to move from this impossible knot to a more possible one.” What does it mean to have a sexuality when the world is so bad at it? – Lauren Berlant (emphasis mine).



On Liminality.
July 18, 2013, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery

‘It’s life on the edge but not over it.’ – Rosi Braidotti (2006, p.163)

Room 11, Mario Wagner. © Mario Wagner

Room 11, Mario Wagner. © Mario Wagner

Liminality from the Latin ‘limen’ means threshold or margin. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begun. The liminal stage is one where the social order is turned upside down. Victor Turner (1974, 1982) has utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep (1909) from his book Rites de Passage, to develop this understanding of liminality. Van Gennep outlined three stages in a rite of passage: the initial stage of separation from one’s group or society, the middle stage of liminality, and the final stage of reintegration. It was the middle stage that caught Turner’s attention, the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities, and freed from the normative obligations they imply. In Turner’s work, focused on the anthropological study of “tribal” societies, liminality meant a physical separation from one’s community, it was to undergo a necessary rite of passage where signs of pre-liminal status were destroyed and a liminal status applied.

Standing outside of not only one’s own social position but from all social positions allowed the potential of forming a new alternative identity. The liberation from normative constraints, social roles, social status and membership proposes a radical potential of becoming through the literal sense of losing one’s dwelling place. Innovation happens in the space of liminality, a space Turner also refers to as ‘anti-structure’. The normal structures of society we live by act in order to inhibit or obstruct this limitless potential of becoming, as the creation of new identities and social arrangements may act to subvert the status quo (Turner 1974, p.13-14). Such a space is also therefore one of heightened affectivity, of uncertainty and insecurity.

Liminality is a process that in tribal societies according to Turner is navigated through the use of rituals and customs. To contrast this mode of liminality with how liminal spaces are experienced in an industrial society, Turner talks of the ‘liminoid’. The liminal is an obligatory rite of passage, it is compulsory, serious and demanding, it is not designed to be subversive. The liminoid on the other hand is a space of play and choice; it is voluntary and has the potential to be highly critical. Turner describes entertainment and art as liminoid forms. They are pockets, or spaces in daily life outside the realm of work, in that region we describe as leisure that provide opportunity to explore and reflect upon potentials and alternatives. This liminoid space of play is one of spontaneity; it is concerned with the immediacy of now, not of working toward a specific future. Yet liminality is not a state of meaninglessness. A state of exploration and play where social formations can be reconfigured and reconsidered is not one of chaos or disregard for the consequences.

I would suggest that liminal spaces are not only entered consciously via choice or obligation as Turner highlights but emerge out of resistance (a resistance to the normative structures of living) and also through force, as in the incidence of grieving a death. The space of grief if we compare it to a state of liminality – where one is no longer what one was but is not yet anything in particular – is not a chosen space, yet it does contain many obligatory rituals to guide the way: funeral ceremonies, the recovery process, the stages of grief etc.

The rhetoric of liminality and becoming often paints a fantastic picture where ‘anything can happen’. But to be exposed to new potentials does not necessarily signify a positive process. In the recovery narrative there are right and wrong modes of becoming. Attending a counselling group for example, demonstrates the need for ritual and framing of liminality to avoid a sense of unraveling. The very ambiguity of liminality which allows its potential may also be the scene of disease, despair, death, suicide, of a breakdown without replacement of well-defined social ties and bonds (Turner, 1982, p.46). Liminality thus can foster a state of no recovery much in the same way it can build the foundations for positive transformation. Liminality makes no promises of a better future, or indeed of any future at all. As Turner describes: ‘Liminality is both more creative and more destructive than the structural norm’ (1982, p.47). Further being ‘betwixt-and-between’ causes one to literally and figuratively lose one’s sense of being in the world. When the taken for granted is swept away, ‘we can easily loose our grasp of external reality and our sense of inner self-coherence’ (Stenner & Moreno, 2013). As in the experience of grief, when the taken for granted is no longer, one’s sense of self is destabilized, the idea of rational agency appears impossible. In such a state people might then be more open to those experiences of suggestibility, mimesis, social influence, imitation, contagion (Stenner & Moreno, 2013 p.24).

The self-destructive potential of becoming and of liminality is often avoided by theorists such as Rosi Braidotti (1994, 2006) where the desirable position for the subject is always in transition, a subject relinquished of the idea of fixity and authentic identity (Braidotti, 1994, p.23). Stenner and Moreno (2013) argue that affect studies often avoid or negate structure in favour of flow. They propose instead that liminality and affectivity should always be seen as a transition. There can sometimes be a sense that liminality is a permanent state of modern society, everything – our identities included – is non-permanent and fluid. Liminality gives rise only to more liminality. The liminal space is all the more fraught with the decline of ritual and ceremonies to allow us to ‘pass’ from one identity to another. ‘Passing’ as used by Ahmed (1999) is not a becoming but simply a passing from one identity to another. Braidotti would claim we should become without becoming anything in particular. While this is an intoxicating vision, this mode of self-conscious play seems an unrealistic and unsustainable mode of existence. Furthermore one has to be sufficiently situated in order to grasp this very process. Liminality and becoming are not just free floating states but a state in between. Liminality is still situated between two different ordered and normative structures. How one views one sense of self, and what future they perceive, is simply then a matter of which side of the threshold they find themselves.

Some staging in the liminal process is important therefore not in order to provide no other options (to follow a limited narrative or else be deemed pathological) but to facilitate a productive becoming (Stenner & Moreno, 2013). To view liminality as a process is to suggest like Deleuze & Guattari something that ‘must not be viewed as a goal or an end in itself, nor must it be confused with an infinite perpetuation of itself.’ (1984, p.5). The aim is not to prolong the sense of liminality nor to interrupt it prematurely. Thinking about grief then we can say the aim is not to encourage a prolonged sense of unhappiness but nor is it to label grief with a time frame that implies one step too far over the line is pathological. Here then we might consider Braidotti’s quote at the opening of this piece ‘ ‘It’s life on the edge, but not over it.’ Liminality is a state where new potentials and limits can be challenged and explored, and yet there is a sense to not to go too far, to not ‘go over the edge’. What lies over the edge? Braidotti claims the body will signal when it reaches a limit through somatic expressions, being sick, that act as corporeal warning signs. Self-destructive modes mark the territory of what we think is possible, they draw out the boundaries. Yet self-destructive modes are ways of coping, they are bad habits that become rituals, addictions. They are the mal-adaptive forms of recovery that are the symptoms of complicated grief: insomnia, eating disorders, hoarding etc. These bad habits are the negative options available in a space of liminality. They are a mode of grasping, comprehending the world as well as a way of holding the self together. Ritual in Turner’s description of liminality was productive, it assisted people from A to B. Ritual becomes a way of survival, similarly bad habits, or bad rituals become a way to survive, yet this promise becomes a false one, they cause an unraveling, they do not provide a future.

How to navigate the liminal space successfully? How to select the footholds that will carry us and not cause us to spiral down? There is it seems a need for not only attachment or belonging but for the correct forms of attachment and belonging, for positive encounters, not destructive ones. This is all the more complex when we consider how people may resist the available options to them. Liminality then can also become a way of getting stuck, both by lack of desirable avenues and exits but also by the fact that even if given the space for novelty and change, it does not follow that someone should or will choose to act on it. The capacity to think of the new is not the same as enacting that as a reality. As mentioned previously bereavement is not a choice but a forced entrance into liminality. The bereaved individual will not necessarily then happily dispose of their prior identity, they might maintain many attachments to the deceased, as well as their identity that was constructed around the world of the person they have lost. Not letting go and not forgetting then can force a sense of ‘stuckness’, the person will go neither forward nor can they go back. Angela Kelly (2008) provides an interesting understanding of liminality in the case of a terminal illness, AIDS dementia, where she claims liminality becomes a permanent way of living. Liminality as a process is one in which people enter and then leave, yet Kelly claims that liminality is a state that sometimes becomes impossible to leave. The continual disintegration of disease with no recovery, where no future is possible places the person in a sense of the ever present now. There is a tension between viewing liminality as a phase and liminality as a way of life. This again highlights the importance of thinking about what side of the threshold you are looking from, or in this case looking from within liminality itself.

This also might elucidate why hope is so central to a recovery narrative, or to thinking about how to die well. To have hope even in a state of liminality where all that one has known is eradicated, keeps open the opportunity of constructing new futures and of transitioning us safely to those new horizons. What is important to remember, as Kelly (2008) illustrates is that hope is not always a possibility, but further not always desirable. Hope also can take on different forms than the dominant narratives imposed on us. To transition through liminality is then not necessarily to get over the loss or trauma but can be a way to create newness founded on the very loss of the original place. Some losses are irrecoverable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as foundations for the new (Butler, 2003). Again let’s not forget the new is not always positive – self-destructive habits are new even if not productive. What is key here is that loss can build a way of living a different life not through a desire to forget the past but the very act of not forgetting.

In Van Gennep’s rite of passage to enter a liminal phase is to lose or forget one’s pre-liminal status. Clinging to memories and the recollection of memories can then be seen as a way of dwelling in the past, as making us stuck. A new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum ‘Memory Palace’ is an illustrative reminder of what might happen if we are encouraged to forget. Developed around a story by Hari Kunzru the exhibition depicts a dystopian vision of London where all signs of modern civilization are to be destroyed and all means of remembering are prohibited. As Kunzru writes, the rulers of this new world claim: ‘Knowing nothing should be cherished: it’s a sign that you’re free of trace.’

So though some memories we may resist, reject or continually attempt to destroy, they are some things that shouldn’t be forgotten. The question then is what should we let go of and what should we hold on to? This is not always a conscious decision, what we remember and how we remember is often beyond our control and comprehension (insert neuroscientific data here). At the end of the exhibition it poses the question, ‘If you could keep one memory, what would it be?’ The visitors are then invited to write down their memories in words and or pictures on a screen which then become displayed as part of the exhibition. The replies vary between the trivial, a picture of someone’s breakfast consumed earlier in the day, to a delicate drawing of a grandfather’s hands. The question also forces an uneasy realisation that the memory one chooses will be the only one that composes who we are. Perhaps in retrospect people should rewrite their answers to ‘how to walk’ or ‘how to speak’  – here’s a lesson that reveals we can only remember to keep what we haven’t already forgotten, but instead the memories chosen were centred on relationships and love. In the pretext of the vision of a world depleted of hope, future and memory, a world focused only on the very present now, it was remarkable to see not only how vital memory is, and how the past structures our existence in a very fundamental way, but how affect and feeling is placed at the centre of what we take ourselves to be. Here then was a clear example of Turner’s ‘communitas’ a spontaneous, transitory union between people, relationships that enable becoming through a sense of belonging, but a belonging detached from the prescriptions of social structure. Perhaps then it is in this enabling, inclusive form of communitas, of union between individuals, a union not of one but of multiple, that a sustainable sense of becoming can be realised and the gulf of the liminal space negotiated.


Ahmed, S. (1999). ‘She’ll Wake Up One of These Days and Find She’s Turned into a Nigger’: Passing through Hybridity’, in Bell, V. (ed.) Performativity & Belonging. London: Sage, pp. 87-106.

Bell, V. (1999). ‘Performativity and Belonging: An Introduction’, in Bell, V. (ed.) Performativity & Belonging. London: Sage, pp. 1-10.

Braidotti, R. (1994). Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.

Braidotti, R. (2006) Transpositions: On nomadic ethics. Cambridge: Polity.

Butler, J. (1997). Excitable Speech: A politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2003). ‘Afterword: After Loss, What Then?’, in Eng, D. L. & Kazanjian, D. (eds). Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.

Kelly, A. (2008). ‘Living Loss: An exploration into the internal space of liminality’, Mortality, 13 (4): 335-350.

Stenner, P. and Moreno, E., (2013). ‘Liminality and affectivity: the case of deceased organ donation’, Subjectivity, 6(3), (In press).

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: CornellUniversity Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

“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.

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.

Reflections on Recovery: Research notes, Part II: Emotions, grievable lives and no recovery.

Read Part I first here.

1st March 2013

The past fortnight has felt a little meandering in regards to a specific focus of attention. This has not necessarily been a hindrance. I have mostly fixed my gaze on the reading of sociology and cultural analysis of emotions, with a few detours along the way.

A lot of the ideas and literature I have encountered have entailed a more contemplative mode of analysis, which feels like an ongoing process. Some of the texts have not been easy reading, especially thinking around ‘affect’, which is both an intellectually knotty concept as well as a demand, on the reader, to rethink one’s own affective response. In short, the delicate nature of the concepts I am dealing with has been brought quite sharply to my attention, especially when these ‘concepts’ are not just that, they are social constructions of a ‘real’ felt emotion – to return to a discussion we had a few weeks ago. Affect then perhaps is a way to describe that which remains outside of the concept; yet being both a socially named construct whilst also refuting social construction is why affect is proving such a slippery subject.

Affect however is not necessarily the focus of sociological explorations into emotions, the sociological view being one where emotions are an outcome and cause of social processes (Barbalet, 2001). For Barbalet it is not cultural rules and norms that shape emotions but the structural properties of social interactions that determine emotional experiences.  The culturalist perspective also borrows from social constructionist perspective but acknowledges the historical context, the situated-ness of emotions (Harding & Pribram, 2009). A culturalist perspective doesn’t limit its gaze to the individual but is instead engaged with how emotions, cultures and social formations are articulated in contextualised and historicised ways to produce boundaries that shape and position individuals and collectives. As Sara Ahmed describes, emotions produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they were objects (Ahmed, 2004).

This way of thinking about emotions therefore maintains neither an ‘outside in’ nor an ‘inside out’ perspective. An outside in perspective would consider emotions as properties of social and cultural practices that ‘get inside’ the individual whereas an ‘inside out’ perspective would see emotions as something innate to the individual that emanate from within out onto the world. The inside out perspective is one that is broadly shared within the positive psychology/happiness/resilience camps where negative emotions (like depression, grief) are disturbances that leak out into the individual’s environment. Similarly it is the individual who has the power and responsibility to express positive emotions and happy feelings. By viewing emotions as something that emerges from an intersection of the two is a way to skirt sticky issues around free will in deciding how one presents or expresses themselves but also underlines the impossibilities of wrangling a subjective self from the social contexts, structures in which they are positioned. Perhaps Pierre Bourdieu’s (Wacquant, 1989) concept of ‘habitus’ can also be instructive here, which in thinking of how emotions shape boundaries also possesses a spatial quality in describing the ‘field’ of possibilities and struggles that moulds what is possible and how individuals are positioned.

Nikolas Rose, in line with Foucault, in his work on subjectivity (1989, 2007) persistently refuses to provide the self with any sense of agency that can be identified as originating from inside-out the individual. This is a view that frustrates Giddens-esque ideas around reflexive self-identity and sociological arguments that still maintain divisions between structure and agency, such as Gidden’s own structuration theory. What Rose’s work aims to demonstrate is as a culturalist theory would propose; that boundaries are created, in an ongoing process, between the individual and social such that they are established as objects – yet these objects cannot be identified as separate entities. As Ian Hacking (1986) has also argued; subjects are ‘made-up’ through various historical discourses and as these discourses shift so does the understanding of the subject.

In the new issue of Omega features an article by Tony Walter on disenfranchised grief (Walter & Robson, 2013). Walter argues against the idea of disenfranchised grief by arguing a person can undergo a ‘process of disenfranchisement’ but grief itself cannot be seen to be ‘disenfranchised.’ The use of the term disenfranchised constructs a binary that Walter argues is not applicable to grief. The assumption of disenfranchised grief theory supporters is that all grief should be made equal, that all norms around grief should be done away with. Walter argues that norms are essential to grieving and that not all losses are equal (e.g. can the loss of a goldfish be comparable to the death of a father) and thus we have hierarchies of grief that determine appropriate responses to grief. A mourning individual will only feel their position in the hierarchy negatively if they grieve too much or too little or if they feel their grief is not recognised correctly. In this situation the grieving individual may undergo a process of disenfranchisement.

This article provoked thoughts around recognition: both how recognition is sought and the failure to be recognised and what this entails for the construction of subjectivity and the expression of emotions. A piece by Jennifer Biddle (1997) described shame as a feeling that arises from the failure to be recognised. If a person’s grief is not recognised in the way the person would hope they might feel shame at grieving too much or too little. But it also might mean that the person’s position in the hierarchy is not recognised as being allowed to grieve. Walter’s idea of a hierarchy over disenfranchisement is understandable, yet the hierarchy he proposes leaves little space to understand complex or resistant emotions like ambivalence. A hierarchy of grief seems like a very crude gloss of the complex web of connections we have with one another that are often destabilised by grief.  A hierarchy is also constructed and maintained through what lives are considered ‘grievable’. To be considered grievable one has to have been recognised as living a life worth living whilst they were alive (Butler, 2004). It also supposes one accepts the position they find themselves. As Walter comments, to grieve too little or too much might require careful presentation of the self to appear to be grieving appropriately and thus elicit the appropriate responses from those around them. The grieving individual therefore might be recognised via the hierarchy yet might also still feel a sense of disenfranchisement due to the gap in felt emotion and the emotions they present to others. This gap might be filled with shame: the failure to be recognised.

Grief might then be felt as pathological, as a disturbance, as something that is leaking out onto the world. Grief becomes an unruly emotion to be managed rather than experienced. As Barbalet argued, emotions are not opposed to reason, they do not merely distract us from our purposes but re-establish those purposes anew (2001, p.31). Yet emotions such as grief are often considered as something that gets in the way. Time limits on grieving enforced by the demands of the workplace or by the DSM-5 or by a desire to avoid suffering, shape grief as an object to overcome. When something becomes our aim we establish a timeline to achieve it.

This has also made me reflect on the question ‘recovery of what?’ I have discussed grief above yet the question remains as to what precisely will be the focus of my looking into recovery. Though in a way to pose the question, ‘recovery of what?’ is instructive in itself by highlighting the need to posit an event or object from which one recovers (one can only recover when we have identified the object which is causing suffering – e.g. the first step on the road to recovery for an addict is to admit their problem). But it is also to ask what are we recovering, recovering what? Recovery is perhaps more accurately considered the process of adopting a new narrative, a narrative of self-empowerment, the sense of being strengthened by suffering, and thus appears as an act of covering over suffering rather than overcoming. The question of ‘recovery of what?’ is also muddled when we consider the extent to which we are encouraged to be prepared to recover for an event that has not yet happened. Happiness and resilience training in schools and life coaches etc are a fraction of the proliferation of the language of resilience into political, economic and social domains. So there exists a sense that we are already always recovering from something (life..?) because we are always discovering a new threat from which to protect ourselves from.


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

Barbalet, J. M. (2001). Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure: A macrosociological approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biddle, J. (1997). ‘Shame’, Australian Feminist Studies, 12(26): 227-239.

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

Hacking, I. (1986). ‘Making Up People’, in Bagioli, M. (ed) (1999) The Science Studies Reader (pp. 161-171). London: Routledge.

Harding, D. and Pribram, D. (2009). ‘Introduction: the case for a cultural emotion studies’ in (eds) Emotions: A cultural studies reader (pp 1-24) Oxon: Routledge.

Rose, N. (1989). Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Free Associations Books.

Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. New Jersey: PrincetonUniversity Press.

Wacquant, L. (1989). ‘Towards a reflexive sociology: A workshop with Pierre Bourdieu’, Sociological Theory, 7: 26-63.

Walter, T. and Robson, P. (2013). ‘Hierarchies of Loss: A critique of disenfranchised grief.’ Omega, 66(2): 97-119.

13th March 2013

I have to begin with the caveat that the past ten days have not seen as much thought time as I would have wished, I have been attending various workshops at the university as well as seeking out other opportunities such as conferences and networking possibilities, so what I have to present my not be as substantial as hoped.

To begin, I came across a film centred on the theme of recovery featuring people who had undergone treatment for mental illness describing their personal experiences. This was a film conceived by ‘service user’ Michelle McNary along with the support of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation trust and was first released in 2009. It is available to watch online here: http://www.slam.nhs.uk/patients/recovery.aspx . There is also literature about the making of the film, for example this leaflet: http://www.slam.nhs.uk/media/115062/recovery_booklet.pdf, which provides further interesting information on the origins of the modern concept of recovery (which I am in the processing of reading in more detail). The film itself presents four people talking about their (ongoing) experience with recovery from various mental illnesses. The film is a rich source of recovery narratives, particularly the way in which people describe their experiences and the extent to which they identify with having a mental illness. Recovery was broadly understood as a way of coping with an illness as well as having a life. There was also a sense of the importance of recognising one’s self as mentally ill as the first step on the ‘road to recovery’. However though recovery is meant (or at least was meant) as a way to live a life with an illness rather than search for a cure; a way that was intended to put power and control back in the hands of the patient as opposed to the doctor/psychiatrist etc, the individual accounts were cluttered with talk of building a new life, creating a new identity, recovery was a ‘second chance’, a ‘rebirth’. And the possibilities of this new life were very much fostered by hope and positive thinking.

I was reminded of a short video interview where Nikolas Rose touches upon the idea of recovery. It is a ten-minute video available to watch here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8mkcXdTZ_g. Rose starts to talk about recovery about 5 minutes in. I have transcribed some of his key remarks below:

But now in the same way as empowerment, people are obliged to recover, obliged to live a life and what does it mean to live a life today? It means to be in charge of your money, it probably means to have a job, it means to have housing, it means to be independent, it means to have choices, it means to be on Facebook, it means a hundred different things, all these obligations today. So in a sense recovery has the potential, and I think we can see this in some way, to be a kind of process of normalisation where recovery means from the professional point of view, demonstrate to me that you can live what I take to be a normal life, and I think those people who are arguing for normalisation did so for all the best possible motives… But I think the obligation to recover is linked to a reduction in the tolerance of our society for difference. And the belief that there is only one proper way to live your life and if you don’t live your life in this way, if you’re not autonomous, if you’re dependent on someone, if you need care all the time, if sometimes you don’t want to go to work, if couple of weeks you just want to stay at home and not talk to anybody, well that’s pretty pathological, and you’ve got to be brought back to being in a normal way of living. So that’s what I mean by being an obligation to recover rather than perhaps a toleration of the many different ways in which people actually do live their lives.

The idea of the obligation to recover as a reduction in tolerance of the different ways people live their lives has been such a useful tool to think with, both personally and professionally. For the individuals featured in the film it seemed that recognising oneself as ill was not so much a radical gesture to live a life based on this difference but more an acknowledgment that sent them on the road to adjustment.

I also returned back to Jeffery Kauffman’s (2008) great article ‘What is “No recovery?”’, which has many points to unpack, the central being the exploration of the idea of ‘no recovery’ not as a transitional state but as a condition of existence. On a parallel point, I read an article on the BBC about Paul Gascoigne and his recent return to rehab. There was a comment in the article by an addiction counsellor where they stated: ‘Relapse is part of recovery’. I found this poignant that even failures could become incorporated into this bigger more meaningful narrative of recovery. There was clearly a sense that recovery is the normative response, and perhaps the only desirable one, as failures too become meaningful as part of the road to recovery. There is the belief that no recovery is always a transitional state; ‘You’ll get over this’.

Kauffman looks upon no recovery as a product of a society where there is a loss of traditionally accepted authority over mourning. No recovery, and the questioning of recovery, is then a degradation of normative authority. I would add here that questioning recovery is also a result of becoming more aware of the ways people recover and live their lives following loss or the onset of illness. The eradication of traditional norms allows this questioning to become possible.

Kauffman also describes how recovery and identity are bound together so that without recovery there is no reflexive sense of identity. So like the individuals in the film, recovery was only possible through the adoption of a new identity and vice versa. A narrative of no recovery is not a rebirth. As Kauffman describes it:

No recovery is a volatile state of identity diffusion, in which one is always a stranger from oneself, and in significant ways also estranged from others. (2008, p76)

Here I am reminded of Judith Butler (2004) and her description of grief as being ‘beside oneself’. This type of estrangement might be commonly identified as a feature of grieving, yet Kauffman argues that recovery is not a transition out of this state but only indicative of the capacity to function and adapt to this state, which would then be labelled as recovery by others. Recovery is then a simulation that functions in place of a reality of no recovery. Recovery is a process of social adjustment (or normalisation to quote Rose) that induces people to forget. The search for a new identity and narratives of rebirth involves a strong dose of forgetfulness according to Kauffman. This idea of forgetfulness as key to recovery I find particularly interesting, and it is also a point made by Sara Ahmed (2010), who describes how recovery can often become a means of ‘covering over’. In this sense recovery is not so much a return to past selves (those selves are forgotten) but a better improved self.  It also implies that certain things must be forgotten in order to recover.

To extend this idea further there is also perhaps a connection to be made between forgetfulness and the pace of modern life. A book by Milan Kundera entitled ‘Slowness’ focuses on the absence of slowness in our lives and makes an interesting observation on the link between slowness/speed and the process of memory:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting… In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

Kundera concludes that the modern drive for speed and efficiency is in fact caused by a desire to forget, to eradicate memory before it has chance to materialize. It may be that the very nature of modernity is so that all experiences, ideas and indeed memories are disallowed the opportunity to solidify. Modernity encourages us to forget. In terms of recovery, the incentive to recover in an appropriate time period might induce a necessary forgetfulness both of a life experienced in the past but also of the present experience of grief. The degree of speed in which one is encouraged to recover might mean painful memories are not allowed to be pondered, that is to say dwelling in loss is discouraged or considered contrary to recovery.

I want to end with some thoughts on Maurice Bloch’s ‘The Blob’ which I found very instructive in terms of thinking about the self as both a continuum and a relational self, and included many other points to think through. Bloch also made a useful distinction between the narrative self and the self that narrates, and the way the blob might present a narrative to others is not the same as exposing themselves or their personhood. Thinking about this in terms of the ideas of recovery discussed above, recovery is often very much a narrative that is interpreted and presented. The people featured in the recovery film for example were carefully selected as being articulate and able to answer questions coherently. Though the film was designed as a way to get to the ‘reality’ of personal recovery it offered only the expected narratives of new identity and rebirth etc. For no recovery has no language, it is only the underside of the positive language of recovery. As Kauffman and Rose described recovery is only a demonstration of the ability to live whatever is considered to be a normal life. But underlying this perhaps is the idea of the impossibility of recovery, and that none of us actually recover, only some are better at demonstrating it than others. What makes some better at recovering than others is then not so much a personal matter of individual will and resilience but the ability to find certain narratives of recovery meaningful, of the ability to adjust to social life – get a job, be on Facebook etc as Rose outlined. Something else that was also repeated in the film on recovery was the importance of hope to recovery. There had to be a continual belief and hope in the possibility of recovery else recovery would fall apart. Hope was then the object that kept them tied to an identity of recovery that acted as a reminder that recovery was only a transitional state. In no recovery there is no hope. Yet I think it would be more fruitful to not end there by saying no recovery disallows hope but rather that focussing on recovery disallows no recovery as a possibility and thus reduces the different ways to live a life. When relapses also become part of recovery, recovery becomes a limiting narrative to live by. This is arguably not a very hopeful way to live a life. That is not to reject recovery as a possibility, but to say that neither recovery nor no recovery should be our talisman, or what fills our hopes and dreams. Rather it is to suggest ways of recovering inappropriately or not recovering successfully; ways of living that expand the possibilities of what is considered a life worth living.


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

Bloch, M. (2011) ‘The Blob’, Anthropology of the Century, Issue 1.

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

Kauffman, K. (2008). What is “No Recovery”?. Death Studies32(1), 74-83.

Reflections on Recovery: Research notes, Part I: Beginnings, complicated grief and happiness.
March 12, 2013, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

31st January 2013

As a way into thinking about the current debates surrounding recovery I have been quite drawn by the debates around the omission of the grief exclusion in the DSM-5’s definition of major depressive disorder and how that has raised issues surrounding the normative boundaries of grief. Complimenting this is the establishment of a category of ‘complicated grief’, or sometimes referred to as prolonged grief disorder. The proponents of the establishment of a ‘complicated grief’ diagnosis include Katherine Shear and Holly Prigerson and colleagues who have outlined a ‘scale’ or ‘inventory’ of complicated grief. The boundaries of what constitutes CG however seem to still be in flux, yet its supporters argue a concrete category is necessary in order to separate those that have ‘difficulty in progressing through the natural healing process’. The implication here is that there is a natural and instinctive healing process that is impeded in some way and thus requires correcting in order to reach the appropriate recovery.

Omega also dedicated a journal issue in 2006 discussing CG which highlighted some interesting points. Neimeyer in his article interestingly commented how the existence of grief as a real phenomenon is not the issue but rather the ways in which it is constructed by various groups. His argument was thus that ‘complicated grief’ was not a thing to be essentialised but a social construct reified in discourse. Whilst in agreement with viewing grief and complicated grief as a socially constructed, or at least socially manipulated emotion, Neimeyer’s argument that CG is comparable to abstract concepts such as ‘democracy’ or ‘power’ I found unconvincing. For while Neimeyer seems to admit that CG does not exist as a ‘real’ thing, diagnosing individuals with CG does become a real thing in terms of a labelled, categorised aspect of someone’s personality or emotional landscape; it becomes something to overcome. In the same Omega issue, Walter made some poignant points in asking ‘What is complicated grief?’ and listed some of the key contributing factors that have brought about the idea of CG. One point he made that I thought was salient was how the only thing that separates CG from ‘normal’ grief or from mourners in general is the time period in which feelings of grief last. As Walter remarks:

This reflects popular notions that grief is something one should get over quickly, and that it is embarrassing and/or inconvenient if colleagues or family members’ functioning is impaired by grief for extended periods. Indeed, it reflects a widespread duty in American culture for its members to be self-determining individuals and, moreover, happy.

Further Walter put forward an argument for the usefulness of complicated grief as a political tool and thus not something to be ‘therapied away’ but something that may lead to a more just society. I feel this is a particularly neglected line of enquiry and reminded me of Sara Ahmed and how she demonstrates the political and emotional uses and benefits of unhappiness in her book ‘The Promise of Happiness’. The way in which Walter linked the obligation to recover from grief with a wider sense of duty to be happy also paves a way for my own research.

The shifting boundaries of CG also provides a rich basis to explore the ranging definitions of what constitutes abnormal and normal grief. As Arnar Arnason also highlighted in his work, bereavement counselling exists as a way to make ‘visible’ feelings that ‘already exist’ but remain incomprehensible to the mourning individual. Bereavement counselling and the increasing medicalisation of grief can be seen therefore as a way of re-ordering the chaos of grief into tangible categories. This clearly brings up thoughts of Foucault and the medical gaze as well as Nikolas Rose’s work on psychotherapy and the normalising role of medicine. Intervention is made on the basis of the correct naming of things. The questions that arise for me so far from beginning to read the literature around CG, is to ask why does grief need to be defined or categorised in this particular way. CG is an example of how boundaries can be placed on grief and certain grief experiences can be labelled as pathological, which in turn assumes a normative healthy grieving process. In this act of naming CG – which as Neimeyer remarked does not exist as a ‘real’ thing – there is the sense that something is being created; grief is being ‘made-up’, or performed, in a certain way. Throughout some of the literature there is also a – I feel problematic – assumption of grief and feelings of grief as something that already exists out there, the process of naming and categorising thus becomes a way to capture them and act upon them. Yet I am interested in posing the question: Rather than identifying what is ‘already out there’ are we not creating categories, symptoms and pathologies where they do not exist? For how do we know things exist if we cannot name them and why do we think these categories, say CG for example, are the best means to capture them?

13th February 2013

I have been tentatively exploring the historical contexts of the contemporary conception of recovery. There are a few intersected factors that have emerged from some very preliminary readings, those being the impact of WW1 and WW2, the creation and proliferation of cognitive behavioural therapies and increased experimentation with psychiatric disciplines. One of the key impacts of war was the prevalence of ‘shellshock’. Shellshock as a non-physical injury posed an interesting problem to the medical profession that allowed what was arguably the first wide-scale intervention into the mental health of the population. The treatment of shellshock is a key instance of mental illness becoming a matter of ‘social hygiene’ (Rose, 1989). The sheer quantity of cases of shellshock shifted the perception of madness from something that was dependent on individual personal history and childhood trauma to something less discriminating and capable of affecting all individuals. Viewing shellshock as a treatable disorder promoted the idea that the individual was open for intervention and further that intervening into individual mental health was a matter both of public health and individual autonomy and freedom. This perspective has its legacy in contemporary healthcare as displayed in the Foresight report (2008) – a government directed project into ways to create ‘positive mental capital’ and well-being:

Positive mental health has an important societal value, contributing to the functions of society, including overall productivity. It is an important resource for individuals, and nations, contributing to human, social and economic capital.

Indeed another recent document published by the Department of Health was entitled: ‘No health without mental health’ (2011). It could be argued that following the world wars emerged an opportunity for mental health to become far more central to the understanding of what it means to be well, and further that positive mental health became a requirement for a productive and efficient workforce. Mental disorders such as shellshock thus became something that needed to be treated and to be overcome, which stimulated the experimentation with new behavioural therapies at places such as the Maudsley hospital (Marks, 2012). The indiscriminate nature of shellshock – the fact it was a mental disturbance produced from the experience of war rather than an internal trauma based in family history – complemented the rise of CBT that dispensed with Freudian heavy psychoanalytical approaches while retaining the element of the unconscious and unconscious drives.

This in some ways mirrors the view of positive psychology. Positive psychology believes the potential for happiness lies in our own hands and is something that can be achieved through correct training and adjustment. In the UK, Action for Happiness is an organisation that established itself with the aim to promote the way to achieve happiness. One of its slogans found on its website (http://www.actionforhappiness.org/) is quite instructive of the idea that positive mental health is a individual choice: ‘If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it’. I can’t help but draw parallels with the NHS website and their slogan: ‘Your health, your choices’. The emphasis on individual choice and the fostering of the idea of autonomy frames the way recovery is understood. Recovery from unhappiness or illness becomes a matter of making the right choices; unhappiness is a product (or defect) of the individual not the social context. For if you can’t change it you can at least change how you think about it. Unhappiness becomes synonymous with the inability to act on ones own and take responsibility for ones own life (Binkley, 2011). To fail in taking steps towards attaining happiness is a shunning of responsibility but also autonomy – making ones self happy becomes a matter of individual freedom.

Positive psychology reaffirms its status by claiming it has scientific measurable techniques that are proven to make you happy. The idea of happiness as a measurable entity is now widely assumed with the first national well-being measure carried out last year. Recently the department of health also put forward its support for a scheme that would promote 30 self-help book titles in GP surgeries and libraries. The idea is that when an individual turns up at the doctors showing signs of depression they will be directed to these titles which include much of the ‘Overcoming…’ series and self-help classics such as ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’. This promotion of self-help books is seemingly an extension to the IAPT scheme which a government initiative to increase access to talking therapies throughout the UK.

What is interesting is how recovery became something individually directed to something guided by experts. Perhaps this is a bigger question that directs us to much bigger shifts in healthcare. To return back to positive psychology, the conception of the self is an interesting one. As mentioned above, positive psychology rejects psychoanalytic models that emphasis the unconscious or early childhood, employing in Binkley’s words ‘a strikingly truncated view of the human psyche’ (2011, p384). Yet positive psychology and the happiness proponents centre their belief in the need to guide and advice people about happiness by claiming we don’t always do the things we ought. We are prone to making mistakes about our happiness, says Paul Dolan (2011) and so we need our attention redirected to the right (happy) objects. Positive psychology thus seems to imply we have an unconscious that leads us to unhappiness and needs redirecting but this is something we need to be helped with – in the name of autonomy. I also feel this conception of the self and emotions echoes how bereavement counsellors and psychiatrists seem to work on the idea that feelings are already existent in the grieving individual, but simply need a language through which to articulate them.

With the ‘happiness agenda’ the problem occurs when the promotion of certain ways of living a life are at the expense of other ways of living, of being free to be unhappy, resulting in a decrease in the toleration of the different ways people live their lives. Indeed the pursuit of happiness can in itself mean happiness is decreased through failing to attain the objects that are designated as creating happiness. This is an argument put forward by Pascal Bruckner in which he attacks the ‘duty to be happy’. His argument also draws interesting parallels with Lauren Berlant’s idea of ‘cruel optimism’. Cruel optimism is when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. The attachment to the desire (say to be happy, or to recover) becomes cruel only because the object that draws your attachment impedes the aim that brought you to it initially. These objects come in to represent happiness or freedom but ultimately by becoming attached to them they get in way of any chance we have of sensing freedom or happiness.

This has lead me to think more about emotions, and return to Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness and emotions (2004, 2010) and sociological explorations into emotions, in order to reflect on the understanding of grief I am assuming in my own analysis.


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 and London: Duke University Press.

Bruckner, P. (2010). Perpetual Euphoria: On the duty to be happy. Oxfordshire: PrincetonUniversity Press.

Department of Health (2011a). No health without mental health: a cross-government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages, London: Department of Health.

Dolan, P. (2011, 8th February). ‘Absolute beginners: Behavioural economics and human happiness’. Department of Social Policy Inaugural Lecture delivered at the London School of Economics. Video of talk available here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20110208t1830vSZT.aspx

Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008). Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century. Final Project report – Executive summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

Marks, S. (2012) ‘Cognitive behaviour therapies in Britain: The historical context and present situation’ in Dryden, W (ed) Cognitive Behaviour Therapies. London: Sage.

Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. Second Edition. London: Free Associations Books.

“You’ll Never Get Over It”
January 17, 2013, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health | Tags: , , , , ,


Some stories won’t ever stop being told. Funny, I watch this: BBC Three’s Growing Up Poor and I’m 16 all over again. Twelve years down the line and how the memories of the weekly queue in the Post Office with my benefit giro book in hand suddenly emerges from a murky recess. Another life I tell myself. But I still remember queuing alongside the pensioners and the unemployed, me 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. A freak, scary, tragic and alive. I can still feel the stares. This shit doesn’t fade. In those sad girls I see myself. No-one now would place me in the same category as them. But I know them.

Funny because I was thinking about grief and categorising grief and the DSM-5 and I had this rant all planned out. And then a relinquished memory re-appears and illustrates the work of grief. “Complicated grief”, “Prolonged grief disorder” could be labels for this form of pathology. Grief research has told me there is a need to refine diagnostic criteria in order for formal intervention. Grief doesn’t make sense. The grieving individual doesn’t understand what is happening so new names and forms emerge from the experts in order to “work through” and “deal” with emotions.

I don’t want to deal or work through. I still want to feel it all the time. I want to remember this. Recovery becomes a means to forget. But some things shouldn’t be forgotten. It is easy to forget, especially in a world where very little is given the time it requires to unfold. Even love. Even love we don’t give time to.

Feelings always tell the truth right? We just need someone to pick them out and arrange them for us in a pretty pattern. And then we can flick through the DSM-5, “Ah, yes major depressive disorder. That’s you”. They gave me anti-depressants too at 19. Oh and steriods and other stuff. A whole kaleidoscope of medication in the morning.

If only someone had given me the opening chapter of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender then. It would have helped. Or someone saying “You’ll never get over it”. That would have helped.

I didn’t want boundaries on my grief thanks or names. It was mine, and it was all I had along with my £40 a week (or however much income support was then).

But naming gives the opportunity to take a chaotic state and squish it into an acceptable coherence. I don’t know what I’m going through so please tell me. I read the books, I did the counselling with the patronising tissue box and bland wall paintings, I did the psychotherapy group for three years. Searching for a form for the intangible to fit. A medicalised form, a form borne out of the current thinking in psychology, counselling, bereavement literature, self-help jargon. These currents change though. The language we use to describe grief changes. The DSM diagnostic criteria shifts continually. What was grief is now depression and so on. Feeling down and not sleeping for more than two weeks is a pathology these days (by this logic I must have been schizophrenic in India…).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know if I want my mind or my personality to be shaped by a whim in ill-advised research. I’d much rather find my own means to articulate a sensation in my mind and body. That might not be through language. It might be hard to to find a medium that can escape the double-bind of counselling speak – autonomy through other peoples versions of autonomy. And of course these feelings can take ‘maladaptive’ forms (as said to me by a doctor many years ago). Maladaptive behaviours like eating disorders, anxiety attacks, and the like.

Behaviours adaptive or mal- seem to me to produce a similar false consciousness by accepting the obligation to deal with emotions by first labeling them problematic and then seeking means to remedy them. In the quick-fix to remedy a distance is formed when we seek remedies not of our own making. It fosters a false sense of self that is contrary to the maturing of a person who knows herself and contrary to our best visions of what it is to be a human being (paraphrasing Ian Hacking in Rewriting the Soul).

My sister and I often remark on how ‘well’ we turned out. We’re miraculous and impossible beings. That doesn’t mean I don’t flinch every time someone I know talks about how much they love their parents, or people ask me where my home is. But remember:  there’s no use in talking to people who have a home. They have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lie your head.

Emotions are unwieldy and can be immature, why would we want it any other way. To borrow from Lauren Berlant: sometimes we need an impasse in our present to place those events that have not found a genre. Maybe there is nothing to figure out after all. Maybe all that is needed is just a space for unhappiness to lie.