Filed under: Academe, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: emogeo, Lauren Berlant, stories
Everyone wants to tell their story. What use is a story? Who is telling the story and why should we listen?
These are some thoughts I am left with following the Emotional Geographies conference last week. Stories were everywhere: the telling, the encouragement to tell, the strategies to extract them.
What’s my story, I think. Do I need a story?
Through my research I have learnt that telling one’s personal story is the key to recovery. Telling a story is healing and restorative. Its empowering, enlightening, liberating. Telling stories is the answer to everything it seems.
It isn’t social change we need or meaningful work or better health care or a living wage, we just need to construct our story and then we will be free.
Telling stories is about finding the truth. Stories are true if you tell them. That’s your truth, it can’t be denied. But sometimes some stories are deemed less true than others. What are the parameters on truth? How does truth get revealed, concealed and distorted in the telling of stories?
At the conference emotional stories were the most truthful. Two of the keynote speakers told personal stories of illness. They were accounts narrated emotively, they wanted to tell us about their feelings. The personal was awarded more status than scientific or medical knowledge. This was ‘writing against the grain’.
At the conference and in my research I have been struck by the question as to whether stories can ever be non-conventional. In a culture where stories proliferate, and lives are lived via the online advertising reels of Facebook and Instagram, and public displays of emotions are sensationalised (and induced) in ‘Britain’s got Baking on Ice’; there’s an overcrowding of stories and confessions and tears. There’s so many stories but less connection to them.
To really go against the grain it might be better to say nothing at all. How would it feel to not have a story?
Stories cannot avoid being conventional because they rely on an assumption of truth. It has to appear true to whoever is listening. Stories interpret events so that they have meaning and stories demand an ending of some form.
Imagine if these dimensions of telling a story were not adhered to. People diagnosed with psychosis are often accused of telling false stories. Their accounts do not align with dominant assumed truths that structure society. The interpretation might not make sense either. The story might not end. It might be circular.
These are not considered stories; this is stuckness. People who are grieving might tell stories about how their dead husband speaks to them. They might take this to mean that their spouse is still here. They might tell this same story for 17 years.
Stuckness is just a stopping place on the way to finding a story. But without a story you are undoubtedly stuck. And ‘wrong’ stories might take you to the wrong places.
Stories might be told as though they are definitive and final: the memoir is the exemplar – this is my one true story of me. Of course this is not accurate, a memoir is not truth but an edited identity, like an instagram photo, capturing one reality and omitting a whole load of others.
Stories are always in flux. Or rather individuals, people, are always in flux. Telling a story gives respite from the flux – and it might feel like catharsis. Constructing a story might be a way of containing the unbearable. Sometimes though there just isn’t a story to capture a feeling or an event. And perhaps the feeling or event doesn’t need containing. Perhaps not having a story is a way to think about the inadequacy of storytelling and to think of, not better stories, but better realities that will allow space for flourishing. Stories can become a quick-fix remedy when what is needed is not a podium, but lasting spaces in which to inhabit; where meaning can be found in the liminal and a life worth living can be discovered in the suspension of conclusions that is not nothingness.
Filed under: Mental health, Recovery, Uncategorized | Tags: good life, recover college, recovery
Talk presented at recent seminar at the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University.
Recovery has become popularised in mental health care as a means of empowering service users to construct their own identity and meaning of recovery. Recovery is a term often used indiscriminately but what does it mean to recover? The strength of recovery apparently lies in its ability to mean different things to different people allowing people to construct their own version of a meaningful life. However I will argue in this presentation that the shift in emphasis to the individual in the rhetoric of recovery has meant that recovery becomes the responsibility of the individual. As recovery becomes an individual obligation or requirement, the promise of recovery rather than freeing people to construct their own meaning serves to reaffirm existing norms on how to function and manage mental distress in order to obtain the good life.
Recovery, as I am sure many of you are aware, has become increasingly popular in mental health care services. Services now describe themselves as ‘recovery-focused’ and ‘recovery orientated’, Recovery colleges that provide a variety of courses for service users are being set up across the country. An increasing academic interest in recovery in mental health care has lead to the creation of a number of seminars and conferences and research networks, and is what has brought us all here today.
In my own PhD research I am exploring how recovery from grief is understood and experienced. My interest in recovery has led me to learn about the uses of recovery more broadly in mental health care and also to speak with several current and ex-mental health service users each with differing views on recovery.
So what does recovery actually mean? In brief the use of recovery appears to have emerged from the psychiatric survivors movement, where recovery referred to the right to live with mental distress rather than see it as something to overcome.
However many definitions of recovery have been proposed with no universal agreement on what recovery should look like. This is in part because recovery was intended to be self-defined.
Most descriptions tend to focus on building hope, creating a new identity, having a meaningful life, and taking control over one’s life.
South London and Maudsley’s (SLAM) Recovery College prospectus defines recovery as:
Recovery is about people with mental health difficulties having the same opportunities in life as everyone else. It is about a personal journey towards a meaningful and satisfying life. It is about hope, control and opportunity. It is about living as well as possible.
Another example taken from a report entitled ‘Making recovery a reality’ published in 2008 by the Sainsbury centre for mental health describes:
(Recovery) can only be resolved if the person can discover – or rediscover – their sense of personal control (‘agency’) and gain a belief in the future (hope). Without hope they cannot begin to build their lives.
However since recovery’s incorporation into mainstream mental health care a number of more specific models such as the ‘recovery star’ have been developed which predefine the parameters of recovery.
The Recovery star includes the following dimensions:
- Managing mental health
- Physical health and self care
- Living skills
- Social networks
- Addictive behaviour
- Identity & self-esteem
- Trust and hope
There is also the new ‘Wheel of well-being’ which contains 6 elements: body, mind, planet, place, people, spirit. And another model called the Tree of life, all of which are taught at the recovery colleges.
The point I wish to highlight here is in these models recovery is given outcomes and priorities that are not set by the service user themselves but by the NHS trust delivering the service.
I would argue these priorities are reliant on an assumed understanding of what constitutes a good life and living well. The recovery colleges for instance deliver courses on how to stop smoking, how to eat better, and how to get a job. In these models of recovery there is an implicit judgement over how one should successfully live out their personal lives.
As one participant I interviewed in my research commented, in the recovery model it is as though you need to recover from being yourself. Daily activities such as taking a shower, or walking outside, and eating a balanced diet become ‘self-care activities’ rather than just living.
By establishing markers of recovery such as the recovery star it becomes possible for the relevant medical authority to make a judgement on whether or not someone is recovered.
People then become responsible for adhering to prescribed ways of governing their lives, but the medical authority still remains in tact – as psychiatrists become recovery experts and mental health care becomes ‘recovery orientated’ and ‘recovery focused’.
A contradiction then arises as recovery is described as a unique individual journey to self-control and autonomy over one’s life yet it is taught and learnt via a set of experts and in adherence to a set of predefined criteria.
As SLAM’S recovery college prospectus states:
“The workshops and courses we run aim to provide the tools… to help you become an expert in your own recovery.”
And whilst recovery is claimed to be a co-production, if someone fails to reach recovery the blame is squarely on the individual.
Again from the SLAM Recovery college prospectus:
“Treatment and support from mental health professionals can be helpful but every person with mental health problems can become an expert in their own self-management. Whatever challenges you face, recovery involves ﬁnding the personal resourcefulness and resilience to take back control over your life and what happens to you.”
If something bad might happen then, something that might not fit within the recovery model, the blame will then fall on the individual because in this understanding recovery is always possible, no matter how serious the person’s difficulties you just need to find your inner ‘resourcefulness’.
This is the promise of recovery: you can get better according to pre-existing normative ideas of what a satisfying good life is, because the only thing that needs changing is you and how you currently live your life and we (being the relevant medical authority) are here to tell you how to do that.
This obligation to recover thus becomes a way to abdicate responsibility for mental distress elsewhere, that is to the person experiencing the distress themselves.
It is for this reason amongst others that the recovery model has come under criticism from service users and others working within mental health care. Recovery is seen as a way to cut back on services, to eradicate long-term care, where referring people to recovery colleges is a way to discharge them quicker.
For an increasing number of people then, recovery is a shiny gloss on an unchanged system that remains unequal in practice and which shifts responsibility to live a certain way on the service user.
A group of people have formed on Facebook to express their disapproval at the way recovery has been appropriated in a group they have called ‘Recovery in the bin’. The members of this group contend that ‘recovery’ has been colonised and used to discipline and control people with mental distress and argue for a ‘Social Model of Madness’, placing mental health within the context of the wider class struggle.
Some of the group have claimed the title of “UnRecovered” to replace “Recovered”, to express their rejection of what they see as a neoliberal intrusion on the word ‘recovery’ that has been redefined, and taken over by marketisation, an capitalist values.
To recover from mental illness, to adhere to the model of recovery, involves a considerable amount of work on behalf of the service user. To recover involves a range of activities such as attending recovery colleges, completing recovery plans, taking medication, getting a job, sustaining good relationships with others, eating well, not smoking, creating a new identity, being mindful and taking walks in nature.
People using mental health services are increasingly finding themselves obligated to undertake this sort of ‘recovery-work’ in the promise of becoming well.
Yet the promise of recovery possesses a cruel contradiction in that the highly prized ability to become autonomous and have self-control to manage one’s life is only possible through submitting to experts who help people navigate their way through to recovery.
The service user is taught how and what to desire all in the name of self-fulfilment and individual freedom.
And because recovery is always possible it can only be the individual’s failure of will or resilience if they are seen to relapse or fail to recover in the terms that have been proposed.
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: diagnosis, freud, normalcy, posthuman, recovery, sovereignty
Paper presented at Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane, University of Sheffield, July 2014.
I’ve always been interested in people who don’t do as they’re told. They excite me, intellectually and personally. In my PhD research I am interested in those that are seen to have failed to recover from their grief following bereavement.
The failure to recover from grief is defined in contemporary society by bereavement theories and increasingly by psychiatric diagnostic categories that place a time limit on the appropriate length of mourning as well as delineating what behaviours and emotions are normal and acceptable in grief and those which are not.
In grief and bereavement research there was much controversy over the publication of the Fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) last year that saw the omittance of the bereavement exclusion in the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, which was included in previous editions of the DSM. What this means is that someone who is bereaved could potentially be diagnosed with depression as little as two weeks after bereavement. Further the DSM-5 also included the diagnosis of ‘Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder’ for further consideration in the next edition of the manual. ‘Prolonged grief disorder’ has also been proposed for the revised version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
There are overlaps and inconsistencies in each diagnostic category, but the push toward what has been seen as a medicalising of grief relies upon claims that there are a number of people (research varies from 7-20%) who have ‘complications’ or fail to recover from grief. These complications are described as a ‘derailing’ of ‘normal’ grief or a ‘delay’ in integrating loss. The markers of someone failing to grieve properly are overwhelming time specific – people should be moving toward healing in a few months, struggling 6 months on is classified as complicated. The diagnosis are also structured – in vague psychiatric terms – in accordance with the degree to which behaviour is deemed inappropriate or out of line with the dominant cultural and social norms in which the bereaved person is situated.
As a commonplace and yet problematic event, grief marks the line between normal (does not require medicalising) and abnormal (intervention is necessary to ease suffering) emotional behaviour.
The search for the pathological in grief also presumes a normative mode of grieving yet this is never made explicit, or been proven. The normal way of grieving is instead defined by the ways in which the line between abnormal and normal grief is drawn. My focus has been then to uncover who draws the line, who has the power to draw the line, with what claims and with whose interests at stake.
Those that do not recover within these paradigms risk being read as resistant, problematic and in need of psychiatric treatment. The failure to recover is often seen as a failure of the individual rather than the individual being a victim of the ever-expanding field of psychiatric diagnosis. For example in the current era of the DSM-5 and the future world of the ICD-11 the bereaved person might be considered mentally ill but in the era of past editions of the DSM or before psychiatry began to make claims on grief, bereavement and grief were experiences situated within the normal side of the line.
The developments in grief treatment can be seen as a reflection of broader changes in mental health services and psychiatry. The Recovery Model is the current popular model of providing mental health services that has been met with much enthusiasm and success.
The recovery model encourages people to find their own individual path to life without mental illness.
Recovery Colleges have been set up to provide courses for people with mental health difficulties on recovery and how to recover from mental illness. These colleges also run courses on ways to well-being, how to find work and how to manage one’s diet.
Recovery began as a radical movement to reclaim power back to the patient from the psychiatrists, but in being co-opted by the mainstream the vision has become a conventional one that places emphasis on the individual and their responsibility to change. The recovery model relies upon an idea of the ideal person as being a functional citizen, someone who gives back to society, someone who has the capacity to make the right choices.
However many patients and service users have now turned their back on the recovery model due to what they feel is a lack of acknowledgement of the social factors that contribute, create and maintain mental difficulties. When recovery is ‘always possible’ failing to recover can only ever be the fault of the individual. Critics have also argued how the recovery model is still one very much dependent on the deficit model – where people with mental illness are in some way deficient and require fixing. The recovery model was adopted in order to remedy this; an attempt to allow people to uncover their own unique individual journey to recovery, to the good life. But the journey to recovery is filled with yet more normative fantasies.
The obligation to recover is one of the obligations we encounter when the human is considered to be a sovereign subject. Experiences such as grief can work to unsettle our sense of sovereignty, problematising what it means to be able to choose, how capacity is defined, revealing instead a self that may be incoherent, ambivalent, not in control of themselves. I will talk about how and why grief has the power to make us come undone, but first a note on sovereignty.
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 in political and legal terms when discussing the sovereignty of the head of state where sovereignty is understood as having the power over life and death – that is to permit life and to take it away. There is much debate in political philosophy over the uses of sovereignty, but here I am picking up the concept in a similar way to Lauren Berlant but in a perhaps somewhat more crude fashion and placing it in an individual context to refer to a way of being which has capacity to make decisions, is consistent, intentional, and has coherent explanations for actions.
In many ways I am also talking largely about capacity – and the capacity to make choices and decisions for oneself (to be autonomous) is arguably the paradigmatic feature of what it means to be human in a contemporary neo-liberal society.
After all it is often when sovereignty is taken away that we feel injustice is taking place. It also reveals the rights we assume to have by virtue of being human (which may or not be supported in law). As I work within the field of death and dying I have been exploring the ways this sense of sovereignty is interrupted and destabilised through the act of death. Sovereignty is not necessarily something we have simply by virtue of being human but something that is granted or taken away.
It also serves to pathologize those that deviate from these expectations.
As Berlant describes:
Without attending to the varieties of constraint and unconsciousness that condition ordinary activity, we persist in an attachment to a fantasy that in the truly lived life emotions are always heightened and expressed in modes of effective agency that ought justly to be and are ultimately consequential or performatively sovereign. In this habit of representing the intentional subject, a manifest lack of self-cultivating attention can easily become recast as irresponsibility, shallowness, resistance, refusal, or incapacity; and habit itself can begin to look overmeaningful, such that addiction, reaction formation, conventional gesture cluster, or just being different can be read as heroic placeholders for resistance to something; affirmation of something, or a world-transformative desire. – Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p.99.
When the intentional, positive active subject is considered to be the truest enactment of being human, emotions such as grief – which may leave the subject irresponsible, unemployed, and ambivalent – are devalued and are seen as negative, unproductive, something to be recovered from.
The over-psychologisation in grief theory has meant normal grief tends to involve integrating the loss, claiming that in order to recover, the relationship with the deceased has to be reconfigured in some way, either as a process of detachment or reinstating and/or continuing bonds in order to accept the loss.
Sigmund Freud in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) is often attributed as the first thinker to promote the idea of the need to detach from the deceased, and that ‘hanging on’ to the deceased is pathological and an obstruction to healthy mourning. The melancholic figure persists as an example of what happens when people fail to mourn successfully, when they are unable to let go of the deceased. This at least has been the way in which Freud’s ideas have been interpreted by later theorists.
The melancholic is one who is never sure what he or she has lost. That is to say, what has been lost remains unconscious to the melancholic, they do not know what they are missing. The melancholic knows whom they have lost but not what is lost in him/her. The melancholic does not know what they have lost in themselves because the melancholic incorporates the lost person into his/her ‘ego’, so that he/she never fully experiences the loss, since the loved one, even in absence, becomes merged with the self. What this suggests therefore is that people who are seen to be ‘stuck’ in grief do so perhaps unknowingly because they are not fully conscious of how they are still tied to what they have lost. This is because the lost person has been incorporated into, in Freud’s terms, the ego. In other words the deceased person still makes up a large part of how the grieving person understands their sense of self.
To understand how someone could get stuck unable to face the ‘reality’ of their loss requires a refiguring of how the self is understood and how the sense of self is composed. It is to look upon identity as not something that is shaped and constructed autonomously, but composed in relation to others. Grief theories which describe continuing bonds or building biographies of the deceased attempt to explain how and why people talk about keeping the deceased inside themselves. However these theories often do not elaborate further on how grief and loss become an instance that reveals the one who has been lost already existed inside the subject. To say that the deceased person already existed inside the subject is to point towards the fact that people are shaped by one another, often perhaps ambivalently, in ways that do not presume two atomized autonomous individuals making an attachment, but rather a more intimate and intricate interface of being entwined into one another’s lives and sense of self. But the ways in which people are bound to one another is often not known until an event such as loss or the risk of loss that allows the recognition of how the sense of self is invested in another person. Grief therefore destabilizes the ‘I’ of autonomous thinking through a process of coming undone, being confounded by loss, in which the self, and not only the one who has died goes missing.
Certain types of attachments act to impede the ability to move on, even if they provide a sense of self, a sense of place in the world. The bereaved person is then suspended in the space of liminality, for to let go and leave the object of desire is to leave the anchor for optimism, and yet staying with this fantasy produces unhappiness. This sense of ambivalent attachment is captured by Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’ which describes how any form of attachment can become cruel when they become obstacles to flourishing. Berlant’s example is instructive for grieving for whilst recovery is constructed on the understanding that detaching from the lost object leads to successful mourning, the lost object is the very anchor that sustains hope.
This ambivalence also reveals a more complex view of agency, where the bereaved may desire and not desire to become attached to something that makes them lose control, a desire and lack of desire to become sovereign. Discourses that promote recovery often assume autonomy, choice and agency are desirable traits that everyone should wish to achieve and vulnerability is weakness and undesirable. What the sustaining of cruel attachments suggests on the contrary is that people often wish to not be sovereign, (and proposes further that sovereignty can never be anything but a fallacy) by violating their attachment to intentionality and give themselves over to something larger than themselves.
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 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.
To tell someone to lose the object of their desire and face up to the reality of their loss – the reality that is apparently evident to everyone but them – is to neglect to see how certain fantasies that people invest in provide a sense of belonging all of their own.
What if we do not presuppose the sovereign subject? How do we account for the self?
Should not the whole theory of the subject be reformulated, seeing that knowledge, rather than opening onto the truth of the world, is deeply rooted in the “errors” of life? – Michel Foucault
Borrowing from Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant I have been working with a description of grief as an instance which can make a person ‘come undone’. This is a coming undone of a self that was already not the sovereign person they took themselves to be. What this means is not that grief or loss merely breaks people down before they put themselves back together again (a recovery narrative that relies upon the self as normally integrated) but rather an instance that reveals the relational nature of their sense of self; the capacity to affect and be affected.
Injecting some incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the subject then, the interest lies less in how people come undone – if we alternatively assume the subject is always somewhat prone to incoherence – but rather how do they hold themselves together, and what form this holding together takes and why. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?
The task remains for me to discover the discourses that mould the form of the grieving person into an identifiable recovering/recovered/not recovered subject. That is to say what are the discourses, structures, norms that may impinge, limit, obstruct the capacity for flourishing or for becoming otherwise.
There’s a labour to remaining within the bounds of normal, of which some feel more acutely than others. And yet there’s also a comfort to passing as normal because it means staying under the radar. Expecting or demanding a level of sovereignty over one’s life can serve a protective or liberating purpose but it can also enforce an unworkable and limited vision of what it means to be human. I’m not so sure about whether we need throw out the concept of the human and become post-human and I know too little to make a biological claim on things that are indisputably human. Rather I make the modest proposal that it is not the vision of the human that needs transforming but the world we inhabit so that is capacious enough to hold all the multiple ways of being human.
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: grief, liminality, memorialisation, place, space
Navigating the liminal space of grief. Paper presented at the Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin, June 2014.
It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. The experience of grief has been described as having the potential to destabilise the world one lives in and shatter the meanings people use to hold up their world.
The experience of grief can feel like a loss of origins and a loss of a dwelling place. The potential of grief to dis-embed people from their sense of being in the world suggests the importance of space and place in the experience of grief.
Following on from this sense of disorientation at the event of loss, I seek to suggest in this paper that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space.
Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable.
Following Yi-Fu Tuan in his seminal text ‘Space and Place’ I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscape, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries.
Grief and Place
There has been much research exploring how the deceased and dead bodies are located in place as well as how the dead are memorialised in certain places.
These studies have explored how landscapes can work to contain or relocate the deceased as part of the process of grieving and memorialising.
Studies have also demonstrated how death is often located in spaces behind the scenes of day-to-day life.
With the death of public figures in particular we tend to see the creation of public memorials, which also receive a lot of media coverage. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Jade Goody and of course Princess Diana for example provoked widespread public forms of memorialising. The picture here is a replica produced by the artist Graham Dolphin of the bench once frequented by Kurt Cobain that subsequently became a fan shrine following his death.
The ways in which people memorialise their dead ones in contemporary society has highlighted some of the paradoxes around how death and dying is hidden from view and yet creative public mourning seen in roadside memorials and online memorials have made grief visible.
In Avril Maddrell’s (2009, 2010) research she argues these these public places of memorialisation are ‘permeable’ places, which reinvent and negotiate traditional rituals, blurring the boundaries between secular and sacred practices. Places of memorialisation are liminal spaces, that serve to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.
It is not only places but also objects that act to tie people to their dead ones. People hold onto to certain objects of the people they have lost, items are passed down as heirlooms, photographs help keep the memory of the deceased alive, all of which are used to help manage grief.
Work by Paul Koudounaris has explored the role of skull rituals amongst the indigenous communities of Bolivia. People believe these skulls bring them good fortune, and they bestow the skulls with names and identities. These are not the skulls of deceased family members just unknown skulls. An annual festival is held in Bolivia to bless and celebrate their skulls, in likeness with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.
These liminal objects can be seen then as a way to bring death into the routine of living, as well as a way of maintaining bonds with dead ones.
The meaning of spaces therefore has a role to play in how death and grief are experienced, not only in the spaces of the cemetery or the funeral home where death is expected to be but also in the everyday familiar spaces such as the home.
However, though the meaning of spaces and landscapes of grief has begun to be explored further, I would like to suggest that grief itself should be seen as a space in its own right. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into.
Grief as linear process
Grief theories have tended to view grief as a linear process that involves a number of stages and phases to move through. These have varied and been adapted over time but the idea of grief stages is one that remains prevalent in popular discourse on grief. The first stage is normally shock and denial moving through to acceptance with some depression and anger along the way.
The focus in grief recovery is on acceptance or adaptation or restoration. Following bereavement people are encouraged to either in some sense return back to the life they had before, or to move on, as though grief is an experience that casts people outside of what is considered the normal realm of everyday experience.
Bereavement is often seen as an occasion for transformation (being better than before) or professional intervention (due to failing to act correctly), that is to say it becomes an extraordinary experience, outside of the ordinary and mundane.
Following bereavement people are encouraged to reintegrate back into society and to return back to a sense of ‘normality’, but where exactly does the experience of grieving cast people out to?
Grief as a liminal space
And what might it mean to view grief as a liminal space?
Victor Turner (Turner, 1974, 1982) utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep from his book Rites de Passage (1909) to develop his definition of liminality.
Van Gennep in his anthropological studies outlined three stages in a rite of passage undergone by members of tribal societies: 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 of liminality which Turner explored further; the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities and freed from the normative obligations they imply. 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 begin. In a state of liminality individuals stand outside not only their own social position but all social positions. A space of liminality is full of potential for transformation and for experimentation and exploring alternative avenues, or in other words it is a space of ‘becoming’.
The space of liminality can provide limitless opportunity to forge new identities and allow for creativity and subversive acts due to the eradication of the normal structures that tend to inhibit or obstruct behaviour. In a liminal space there are potentially multiple avenues to follow. Yet a liminal space is also a space of heightened affectivity, uncertainty and insecurity.
In a liminal, insecure, and uncertain space people may seek out models of behaviour to follow and imitate. These models may appear to be contrary to their own interests, but in favour of other interests; on the other hand they may be against the interests of others but in favour of their own. But under liminal conditions the idea of interests is superfluous for there is no structure with which to objectively define ‘interest’ against. For this reason, rituals and customs are used in order to help people navigate through the space. So whilst a liminal space provides opportunities and possibilities the space is highly determined to guide people in a particular direction. In Turner’s description of liminality, these rituals and customs serve to provide staging to the process, not in order to close down options, but to facilitate a productive becoming.
In terms of grieving, rituals such as funeral rites and traditional burial customs have historically been considered to assist the mourning process. In contemporary society, services and interventions such as bereavement therapy, medication, or treatment for complicated forms of grief as well as popular self-help books that proscribe steps through the process, like the stage model as already mentioned, similarly act to assist people through the liminal space of grief to what is considered to be the agreed ‘good’ ending.
In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief and how they guide people through liminality towards what is viewed as a successful recovery.
In contrast to dominant grief theories that look to the individual and the psyche for explanations I am focussing my attention on the space and the environment in which people are located and how and why the discourses that dominate that space are constructed and popularised as truth.
A (flourishing) Impasse
In this space of liminality people may also undertake their own habits or practices as a way to bring stability, to ward off the threat of chaos and destruction which are far more likely in the ambiguous state of liminality. These habits might include behaviours considered to be unproductive to the recovery process, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, avoidance, and dwelling on the past. Yet I would argue these ‘bad’ habits and attachments might also be read as a strategy people use to maintain a foothold in the liminal process.
The sort of questions I am posing in my research are why people may choose to follow some models and not others and why do some people follow and invest in the model of recovery and why do some fail to imitate this model effectively or resist the model altogether?
Conceptualising grief as a liminal space then is to problematise the idea of a ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ process of grief often promoted in grief theories. Whilst there are normal processes to follow this does not make them natural, and these vary depending on the theory that is popularised in any given social and political context.
In Turner’s concept of liminality there is more emphasis placed on the importance of experimenting and play, and undertaking activities that do not follow a linear pattern. The time restraints placed on grieving, as demonstrated in the diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder where the display of grieving symptoms at 6 months following bereavement could lead to clinical intervention, could be seen as a way to reintegrate people who have been cast into this space of liminality where time and order no longer exist, back into a linear routinised sense of time.
Grief as a liminal space can be seen as providing an impasse in which people can reflect upon alternative modes of living and identities without the concern for working towards an immediate future.
Losing and drawing new boundaries
Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience (thus relying on an assumption that the experience of living is either normal or abnormal) but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. This can allow for the exploration and uncovering of how the boundaries of appropriate and normal grieving are drawn and how the different theories, policies, and practices around grief are wrestled with; both conflicting and connecting with one another in a complex interface through which grief emerges as an identifiable object. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.
Its is hoped that in this paper I have begun to outline how the grieving person might navigate and negotiate their way through the liminal space of grief. In a space of liminality all choices are equal, that does not make them meaningless, simply that the goal or end point of endeavour is still open to question. By incorporating the concept of liminality and comparing the experience of grief to that of being in a liminal space I am arguing that grief be viewed as more than something to be overcome.
Maddrell, A. (2009). A place for grief and belief: the Witness Cairn, Isle of Whithorn, Galloway, Scotland. Social & Cultural Geography, 10(6), 675–693.
Maddrell, A. (2010). Memory , Mourning and Landscape in the Scottish Mountains: Discourses of Wilderness, Gender and Entitlement in Online Debates on Mountainside Memorials. In E. Anderson, A. Maddrell, K. McLoughlin, & A. Vincent (Eds.), Memory, Mourning, Landscape (pp. 123–145). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Maddrell, A., & Sidaway, J. (Eds.). (2010). Deathscapes: Spaces for death, dying, mourning and rememberance. Surrey: Ashgate.
Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery | Tags: affect, brain, complicated grief, grief, neuroscience, psychiatry
Recently I have become engrossed in discussions around the shifts in psychiatric research toward the brain.
This shift includes a number of different activities occurring in different disciplines and domains, most notably:
- Change in focus in mental health research from the psyche to identifying ‘biomarkers’. It is quite evident that funding is increasingly directed toward research interested in uncovering brain activity and biological causes that may underlie a mental condition, this also includes complicated grief.
- Part of this change in focus has come about due to growing criticism of the DSM and standardised modes of diagnosis based on self-reported symptoms. The director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Tom Insel, has been openly critical of the DSM, critiquing its scientific validity. In response he has created the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) which proposes to improve diagnosis of mental illness by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system. This framework is based on the assumption that mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behaviour, and that mapping the cognitive, circuit, and genetic aspects of mental disorders will yield new and better targets for treatment. The RDoC aims to move away from using the DSM as the gold standard and base diagnosis on emerging scientific data.
- On the level of theory there has in recent years been a flurry of interest in social and cultural theory toward affect, and thinking about neurobiology, the human nervous system and brain functions to explain the self, subjectivity, consciousness and what it means to be human (writers such as Deleuze & Guattari, Nigel Thrift, Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant, Eve Sedgwick, are often cited as proponents of this move). However there are considerable problems with how ‘affect’ is used, and varying interpretations of what affective awareness means of implies, often supported by wrongly or selectively interpreted neuroscientific data.
What reading this literature has brought up for me is:
- How to understand the self/subject, and avoid lapsing into either essentialism (it’s all chemical) or relativism (it’s all socially constructed)
- What can we take from affect theory?
- What bearing these different explanations have for grief, and the increasing focus on defining complicated grief?
I will try to outline some of my thoughts on each point below.
i. It’s all chemical or it’s all socially constructed: Moving beyond duality
Human behaviour is increasingly explained in reference to the brain, implying that the brain fundamentally shapes who we are and our capacities and attributes. Yet the increasingly fashionable focus in psychiatric research towards finding a biological – neurological, genetic – basis for mental illness speaks of a broader move to understanding the human as a biological organism that is no longer deterministic or essentialist as it was once criticised to be, but as providing an opportunity. The idea of biology as an opportunity, not destiny is becoming a prominent explanation for mental illness (Rose, 2013a). However as even my brief foray into neuroscience has shown, the more that is known about the brain, the more we realise we don’t know (ibid). It also produces basic or crude analysis of mental states where areas of ‘activity’ are pointed out on brain scans and sections of the brain are singled out as responsible for aspects of human functioning, when these areas of the brain involve billions of synapses of which little is still known. Studies into complicated grief (CG) have sought to identify what areas of the brain are activated in people with CG compared with people with ‘normal’ grief (O’Connor, 2012). Further a study (O’Connor et.al., 2008) revealed that the areas of the brain activated in people with CG is the same as the areas of the brain activated in people with addiction, a part of the brain concerned with reward. On viewing a picture of the deceased this part of the brain would be activated, thus leading the researchers to argue that people with CG find pleasure in their distress unlike people without CG. However whilst these provide interesting explanations and interpretations, often research that seeks out specific brain activities or biological markers ignores how the human organism works as a whole and how the brain is affected by its social environment. A project headed by Nikolas Rose seeks to understand precisely how experience gets under the skin, by situating the brain in its milieu. As Rose (2013a) states:
The scientist (is required) to realize that the conditions they are dealing with, whether they be psychiatric diseases, brain diseases, physical diseases are all diseases of human beings living in their social environment and they are not things that happen with genes in petri dishes in labs and that that’s a rather important scientific thing to recognize and not just, kind of, an addendum from the social sciences or from the ethics. Recognizing how the problem feels for those on the other side, for those who are experiencing it, and therefore what the solutions may look like for those on the other side.
By acknowledging the social embeddedness of neurobiological processes, and of biological processes this research is at the forefront of a new wave in thinking about mental health that seeks to bring together the knowledge from the social sciences and the biological sciences. It is argued that biological traces are produced through the practices and ideologies of modern social life and thus the biological and sociological life of the body and brain are inseparable. Both brain, body and environment all impact upon one another. The discourse that merely seeks to identify ‘biomarkers’ or ‘cognitive biases’ glosses over the complexities of understanding the situatedness of a mental disorder; of how the outside gets in.
This then poses a problem for how to account for the subject, the self, a self that is both social and biological and further is both social and biological in a way that the biological self and social self do not exist as discrete categories. Maurice Bloch’s ‘The Blob’ still perhaps for me presents the most convincing attempt at accounting for how a human – or the blob – can be both a process, a relational being and yet also have some type of biological consistency that makes the blob identifiably human. In thinking about grief, it has always been the potentially destabilising and disorientating power of grief that has been, for me, interesting to theorise. Borrowing from Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant I have been working with a description of grief as an instance which can make a person ‘come undone’. This is a coming undone of a self that was already not the sovereign person they took themselves to be. What this means is not that grief or loss merely breaks people down before they put themselves back together again (a recovery narrative that relies upon the self as normally integrated) but rather an instance that reveals the relational nature of their sense of self; the capacity to affect and be affected. Injecting some incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the blob then, the question is less about what makes us come undone – the impact of trauma etc – but what holds us together. Grief might be one experience that can expose our potential or capacity to be different and yet we appear or tend to stay from one day to the next more or less the same. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?
ii) What can we take from affect theory?
I got drawn into affect theory as it promises a means of describing the self that incorporates ambivalent, irrational, and contradictory behaviours. Affect theory grew out of cultural theorists borrowing from the developments in neuroscience. What binds the affect theorists and the neuroscientists is their shared anti-intentionalism (Leys, 2011). Affects can be described as a non-conscious intensity, unlike emotions they exist prior and outside consciousness. Affects are only contingently related to objects in the world; they are non-signifying forces. What the establishment of a theory of affect has provided then is to draw attention to and elucidate the gap between a person’s affects and the cognition or appraisal of the affective situation. In other words, it gives space to suggest that behaviours are not always consciously directed, or further we are not always consciously aware of what might trigger a particular pattern of behaviour or action. Affect theory’s use of neuroscience has its own problems and contradictions which have been criticised (Leys, 2011; Rose, 2013a). However despite the precarious stance of arguing for anti-intentionalism, I don’t want to dispense with the contribution of affect theory mainly for how it emphasises a radical relational model of the self. Thinking about the capacity to affect and be affected I would argue goes further than talking about embodiment or materiality in that it places more focus on the spaces in between people; how people through interaction get caught up in an energetic exchange. This also avoids relying on a model of emotions that either go from the inside out or from outside in. Rather affect theory argues for the mutual interplay; where emotions belong neither to the individual nor exist somewhere outside. It opens up space for thinking about surfaces, impressions and atmospheres.
In terms of grief I have found these ideas useful to work with as it highlights how the experience of loss is one in which the self enters a space of liminality, of non-sovereignty, which involves violating an attachment to intentionality. But further there is an object in grief, the intense yearning for the deceased as described in complicated grief diagnosis, which gives grieving an intention – but this may not be easily available for conscious deliberation. This brings us back to the continuing bonds thesis, that provides little room to think about the how the grieving person’s sense of self is composed, rather an integrated self is presumed as the norm. It also glosses over contradictory and messy feelings, ambivalence, suggestibility, resistance and how these can all exist at the same time without necessarily being pathological. To reiterate the question above then; by thinking about the self in this way, the interest lies less in how people come undone – if we alternatively assume the subject is always somewhat prone to incoherence – but rather how do they hold themselves together, and what form this holding together takes and why.
iii) What bearing do these different explanations have for grief, and the increasing focus on complicated grief?
Attending a recent talk at St Christopher’s Hospice on complicated grief brought up some interesting questions around the diagnosis of complicated grief. Whilst the shift towards brain science is starting on the level of research, psychiatric practice still remains shaped by the diagnostic categories of the DSM and ICD.
In Colin Murray Parkes’ talk he focussed on the DSM-5 and the relevant developments and associated controversies as related to grief and bereavement. His presentation was quite skeptical and he felt that the DSM had put ‘too many eggs in one basket’. He also elucidated some of the politics behind the DSM-5 and the inclusion of the proposed criteria of ‘Prolonged Complex Bereavement Disorder’ (PCBD). According to Parkes, Holly Prigerson initially proposed ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’ to the APA for inclusion in the DSM-5. This was then countered by Katherine Shear’s description of ‘Complicated Grief’, and in the midst of the controversy over the grief exclusion and Major Depressive Disorder, the DSM backtracked and ended up with PCBD, to be considered as a ‘condition for further study’. The definition of PCBD is quite evidently a mixed combination of symptoms lacking cohesion and agreement.
Here’s some of the criteria for PCBD:
To have at least one of the following symptoms for at least 12 months after death:
– Persistent yearning/longing for deceased
– Intense sorrow
– Preoccupation with deceased
– Preoccupation with circumstances of death
At least 6 of the following symptoms persisting for 12 months or more after death:
Reactive distress to the death
– Difficulty accepting death
– Difficulty in positive reminiscing
– Bitterness and anger
– Mal-adapative appraisals about self
– Excessive avoidance of reminders
Social identity disruption
– Desire to die
– Difficulty trusting people
– Feeling alone/detached
– Feeling life is meaningless/empty
– Confusion over one’s role in life
– Difficulty planning for future
Further this disturbance has to be deemed to be causing ‘clinically significant distress’ or ‘impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning’. The ‘bereavement reaction’ is considered to be ‘out of proportion to cultural, religious and age-appropriate norms’.
There is a lot to comment on here, wading through the loaded language. What is quite striking as with most psychiatric diagnosis is how a pathology is defined by the extent to which it exceeds what might normally be expected, when someone becomes unable to function. As can be seen in the list of symptoms, it is pathological to either excessively avoid or be excessively preoccupied with the deceased and/or the death. The implied norm of functioning is understood to depend on the individual social context. This appears as a way to avoid stating a general norm of functioning and grieving for all people who have been bereaved. This apparent cultural sensitivity neatly hides the contradiction of why acting in excess of a norm – which is itself variable, arbitrary, and historically context-specific – is necessarily pathological, and further not recognising how by developing a standardised criteria, specific habits and behaviours have clearly been selected as being, in any social and cultural context, somewhat problematic.
At the St Christopher’s talk, whilst there was some interest in these broader debates around diagnosis, there seemed to be a feeling amongst the attendees that this was not relevant to their daily practice. One person commented that he felt it was distracting from the main issue which is helping people (to recover, we could add). This was not exactly a surprising perspective to hear but it does speak of the disjunctures between theory and practice. The actual process of diagnosing grief as complicated, prolonged or complex might not yet be regular practice in the UK, but some practitioners did speak of how a medical diagnosis of abnormal grief can/could be useful in referring people on to other services, or as means of protecting/preventing people from more severe mental health problems. In the end there was little conclusion and there was a sense that this sort of language was ‘clinical’ and hard to understand. Grief then continues to be an ambivalent object, at times medicalised, and at other times seen as part of the natural order of things. There’s more to say here but I think there is something interesting in this management of excess or the inappropriate that produces a certain form to a person (or perhaps rather it gives a person-like form to the blob). Similarly the person who doesn’t recover isn’t formless but has their own shape too. I still remain too clueless about the brain and genetics to talk in any conclusive way about a biological core of what it might mean to be human, and so the task remains to look to the discourses that might mould the form of the grieving blob into an identifiable recovering/recovered/not recovered subject. That is to say what are the discourses, structures, norms that may impinge, limit, obstruct the capacity for flourishing or for becoming otherwise. And perhaps by exploring what holds these identities together, space can be found for thinking about relationality, the non-conscious, and how experience gets under the skin.
Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. & Singh, I. (2014). Urban life and mental health: Re-visiting politics, society and biology, Discover Society, Issue 5 February 2014.
Leys, R. (2011). The Turn to Affect: A critique. Critical Inquiry, 37: 434-472.
O’Connor, M.-F. (2005). Bereavement and the brain: invitation to a conversation between bereavement researchers and neuroscientists. Death studies, 29(10), 905–22.
O’Connor, M.-F. (2012). Immunological and neuroimaging biomarkers of complicated grief. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2), 141–148.
O’Connor, M.-F., Wellisch, D. K., Stanton, A. L., Eisenberger, N. I., Irwin, M. P., & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). Craving Love?: Enduring grief activates brains reward center. Neuroimage, 42(2), 969–972.
Prigerson, H. G., Horowitz, M. J., Jacobs, S. C., Parkes, C. M., Aslan, M., Goodkin, K., … Maciejewski, P. K. (2009). Prolonged grief disorder: Psychometric validation of criteria proposed for DSM-V and ICD-11. PLoS medicine, 6(8), 1–12.
Rose, N. (2013a) The Human Sciences in a Biological Age. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(10): 3-34.
Rose, N. (2013b) What Is Diagnosis For?’, Talk delivered at the Institute of Psychiatry Conference on DSM-5 and the Future of Diagnosis, Kings College London, 4th June 2013.
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.