politics of the hap


On not having a story.
June 15, 2015, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Academe, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: , ,

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.

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Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign.
November 17, 2014, 10:44 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery, Resistance | Tags: , , , , ,

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.



ways of being (human) that were never sovereign

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.

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



the non-sovereignty of grief: revisiting Freud

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

One of the themes that recur throughout the grief literature is that of attachments and bonds with the deceased. Whether it is framed as attachments or bonds, the focus on attachments has contributed to an understanding that suggests in order to recover the relationship with the deceased has to be reconfigured in some way, either as a process of detachment or reinstating and/or continuing bonds in order to accept the loss.

Freud in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) is often attributed as the first thinker to promote the idea of the need to detach from the deceased, and that ‘hanging on’ to the deceased is pathological and an obstruction to healthy mourning. The melancholic figure persists as an example of what happens when people fail to mourn successfully, when they are unable to let go of the deceased. This at least has been the way in which Freud’s ideas have been interpreted by later theorists. Yet I would like to contend that Freud can be re-read as being far more ambivalent about attachments, especially if noting his later writings. In particular Freud emphasised that mourning is normal and healthy, and that grief was not a cause for intervention.

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

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

To return back to Freud’s melancholic figure presents a revealing contrast to these ideas for the melancholic is one who is never sure what he or she has lost. That is to say, what has been lost remains unconscious to the melancholic, they do not know what they are missing. The melancholic knows whom they have lost but not what is lost in him/her. The melancholic does not know what they have lost in themselves because the melancholic incorporates the lost person into his/her ‘ego’, so that he/she never fully experiences the loss, since the loved one, even in absence, becomes merged with the self. What this suggests therefore is that people who are seen to be ‘stuck’ in grief do so perhaps unknowingly because they are not fully conscious of how they are still tied to what they have lost. This is because the lost person has been incorporated into, in Freud’s terms, the ego. In other words the deceased person still makes up a large part of how the grieving person understands their sense of self.

To understand how someone could get stuck unable to face the ‘reality’ of their loss requires a refiguring of how the self is understood and how the sense of self is composed. It is to look upon identity as not something that is shaped and constructed autonomously, but composed in relation to others. Grief theories which describe continuing bonds or building biographies of the deceased attempt to explain how and why people talk about keeping the deceased inside themselves. However these theories often do not elaborate further on how grief and loss become an instance that reveals the one who has been lost already existed inside the subject. To say that the deceased person already existed inside the subject is to point towards the fact that people are shaped by one another, often perhaps ambivalently, in ways that do not presume two atomized autonomous individuals making an attachment, but rather a more intimate and intricate interface of being entwined into one another’s lives and sense of self. But the ways in which people are bound to one another is often not known until an event such as loss or the risk of loss that allows the recognition of how the sense of self is invested in another person. Grief therefore destabilizes the ‘I’ of autonomous thinking through a process of coming undone, being confounded by loss, in which the self, and not only the one who has died goes missing.

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

Certain types of attachments act to impede the ability to move on, even if they provide a sense of self, a sense of place in the world. The bereaved person is then suspended in the space of liminality, for to let go and leave the object of desire is to leave the anchor for optimism, and yet staying with this fantasy produces unhappiness. This sense of ambivalent attachment is captured by Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’ which describes how any form of attachment can become cruel when they become obstacles to flourishing. Berlant’s example is instructive for grieving for whilst recovery is constructed on the understanding that detaching from the lost object leads to successful mourning, the lost object is the very anchor that sustains hope. Thinking about attachments as cruelly optimistic recognises how staying attached then becomes the only way to perpetuate what the grieving person does not want to relinquish. For the person who is grieving is not only grieving for the person that has died but for the person they could have become, and the vision of the future in which they had invested.

There are benefits to remaining stuck, and to let go is to risk losing one’s self into an uncertain, unknown future of liminality. Interestingly, neuroscientific research has begun to find links in people with complicated grief to the parts of the brain associated with addiction. A study discovered that those diagnosed with complicated grief found it hard to resist in engaging in ‘pleasurable reveries’ about the deceased even though these reveries may prevent them from ‘adjusting to the realities of the present’. So the attachment brings pleasure whilst becoming an obstacle to what others deem to be successful adjustment. Cruelly optimistic ties suspend people in a space where they are encouraged to move forward. As individuals navigate through the liminal space of grief they will encounter various discourses, people and narratives that seek to direct them the right way. The person diagnosed with complicated grief, the melancholic, needs reorientation to the right direction, they need to learn how to let go in the right way. This ambivalence also reveals a more complex view of agency, where the bereaved may desire and not desire to become attached to something that makes them lose control, a desire and lack of desire to become sovereign. Discourses that promote recovery often assume autonomy, choice and agency are desirable traits that everyone should wish to achieve and vulnerability is weakness and undesirable. What the sustaining of cruel attachments suggests on the contrary is that people often wish to not be sovereign, (and proposes further that sovereignty can never be anything but a fallacy) and to give themselves over to something larger than themselves. To tell someone to lose the object of their desire and face up to the reality of their loss – the reality that is apparently evident to everyone but them – is to neglect to see how certain fantasies that people invest in provide a sense of belonging all of their own.



Be a body
October 28, 2013, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Love, Recovery, Resistance, Subjectivities
Amedeo Modigliani - Le Grand Nu

Amedeo Modigliani – Le Grand Nu

How do you feel? No, I mean, how do you feel, energetically? If I touch you here, hold you there, breathe with you, sense the movements of the body; how do you feel? This is superficial and deep all at once. It’s primal but not specifically sexual. You’re revealing something in this moment or you’re holding back. If you share this with me, I can give you this; this energy. I can give you all this if you want, it will not diminish me.

Something’s happening to the energy in my body but its been too close and exciting to talk about. The body is responding on a level the mind hasn’t quite caught up with. Or maybe this is how it works: being a body. When you start breathing through those fears and make new and wonderful shapes with the body; that point on the horizon – that ever-reaching point on the horizon in which you focus in the yoga practice (the always somewhere elsewhere, never quite specific, formless – god??) blurs, it all blurs. Having a body to being a body.

How do you feel?: (how does it feel) to be a body.

Back in the home town I revisit the multiple ghosts of my past. How can such a small space contain so many versions of myself? The clumsy, youthful, inauthentic expressions of my self; it makes me cringe. And it occurs to me, as it always does, quite how the only thing we know is that we don’t know who we will become. That’s the theory: I don’t know.

Being a body is about situating yourself in those layers of becoming, not so you crystallize an identity, but so you can observe how the past selves either dissipate away or comes to rest inside, settle in the porous, membrane, cells, flesh, bone, tissue as tension, tightness, or softness. This is what I’m seeking in a touch. I’m trying to disperse it with you, or let it go.

I’m wondering if this is what it means to be home as I sit and pick the leaves off stems of mint and coriander and listen to the paath on PTC Punjabi. I recall the times in the kitchen of the Gurdwara sat over heaps of potatoes shoulder to shoulder with the elder women as they told tales in Punjabi or gossiped under their chunnis and we peeled the potatoes one by one. And I would sit up from time to time to stretch out my lower back, my hands sore and chapped and mud stuck under my fingernails.

Out of the corner of my eye I see the lines of people shuffle into the Golden Temple with their hands placed together. I think about repetition. What repetition does energetically. “This is what you need to keep you from delving into the 12th house in your mind”, the astrologer tells me as I sit patiently labeling crystal after crystal. I smile and nod. “You have a tendency to fly away”.

Is this what home is: the encircling motion of the same. To know that somewhere there is a place or space (within the self or between two) where everything stays the same. When I look up at the shala in the early morning darkness and see the lights, it feels like home. This is what love is, I think. It’s about feeling like you’re home.

I’ve always felt at home with those who don’t belong. Bodies out of place. When the world makes you feel out of place, you become aware of being a body; a disappointing body, a willful body, a body that refuses to resign to a normative fantasy. Your body is always a statement whether you wish to say anything or not.

It’s funny the ways we can be read, and read ourselves, and read others. We’re always becoming something else in this mis-recognition. Attributing characters to ourselves and others. I never quite understand it when people tell me I have changed – what else would I do? “Who are you?”: I’m being a body. “That’s not like you”. Haven’t we learnt by now that we can never know the other, only the fantasy we make for them, the ideals we invest in them. “You weren’t the person I thought you were.” Well of course. You will always be other to me. But instead of trying to overcome this difference lets make it our centre. Let’s work towards a ‘we’ that never implies sameness but promotes the understanding of difference. Let’s make the act of understanding one another the most powerful gesture we can attempt as humans. Let’s allow ourselves to breathe in one another’s bodies in such a way that we can both blur into that space in-between, if only for a moment.

Oh and I could drown that gap between us with words and stories; stories about what it means to care, and how it feels to not recover and how I got stuck year after year. Or how I spent my university years drinking masala tea and watching Zee TV and why the feeling of being alone in the world never leaves. I could tell you what happens when you lose the object of your desire. I could tell you that you were never my type either; it was just that I was looking for difference not sameness, and I always want to be different and new and everything. I could tell you when I started minding not having it all and how I’m carrying you close. And I could tell you what it means to care, I could show you what tenderness feels like, and I could tell you that I’m sorry and how I don’t like these things you’ve brought me so can you just take them back? I could tell you how to care. And I could tell you how in my dreams you stain the landscape but when I wake up I can’t remember all the things you were saying.



London Ablaze
August 8, 2011, 11:04 am
Filed under: Resistance | Tags: , , , , ,

A generation that have been told NO too many times awake from their suppression

This is England

Its an interesting coincidence that the year I move to London is the year the city starts to become alive. This is the beginning, this is just the beginning. If we say it enough times maybe it will come true. The news embarks on its usual round of suppression tactics, but who now can seriously take the media on face value knowing the incestuous relations between the police and the media, as revealed via Murdoch & Co?

What we are seeing is rage, rage of a forgotten and dismissed youth. Whatever the cause: student fees, abolition of EMA, a man shot down by police; the anger and passion is the same. This anger is always there, simmering, waiting for the opportunity to pour out and run free across the streets. Though as it erupts it appears misdirected and basic in its strategies.

Dan Hancox describes this feeling perfectly:

There has been a psychic revolution since the glass shattered at Millbank in November – and the new reality has been a shock to everyone. In Parliament Square you could see teenagers testing the edges of the kettle and feeling its barbed-wire edges, like animals caged for the first time. Pinch me to see if I’m awake, they cry, and then run back, eyes bulging with adrenaline – I saw it after darkness fell that night, when conviviality turned to intense anger: that same full-body blood-rush of fear and excitement you get if you’ve been in any kind of physical confrontation. It affects you physiologically, your nerves bristle and tingle, and you can’t help but come back for more.

I too remember that same rush of fear and excitement on the March 26th protest. Everything turned upside down, the world through a new perspective. It was a sensation of being very present, alive. A feeling people rarely have access to day-to-day as we are sedated through consumption, of objects, ideals, and fast food that fattens our limbs making us sluggish, weak and unable to defend ourselves.

This is a transitory feeling, holding its power only in those isolated moments. And the power felt smashing a window or stealing trainers from Footlocker is too a transitory and unsustainable one. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and criticize these actions, and the anger felt by shop owners who are sweeping up shards of their shop fronts is perfectly reasonable. And yet what these actions are attempting to achieve is to reveal the transitory, impermanence of our own little lives. A bus in flames has come to hold so much meaning for we have allowed ourselves to depend on these aspects of modern life to a debilitating degree. The riots act as a way to demolish what we know, and the response is one of condemnation, for behind that condemnation is pure fear. Fear that in the act of demolishing our sense of ontological security there is nothing to replace it: no safety net, no solutions.

To repeat from my last post, we can learn much from the patterns of modernity as Marshall Berman so aptly described by embracing and accepting the reality of the dangerous and ambiguous nature of modernity. This is not a comfortable process, but stability is an illusion of capitalism. It is through the chaos and ruptures of modernity that transformation is allowed to occur. In this era of suppression it is easy to forget the tumultuous nature of the history our ancestors faced.

No trust, no respect, no fear, not anymore. No fear of delving into the unfamiliar and fighting back. Lets explore the opportunities of this ambiguity, but lets be more ambitious in our goals, in our hopes and desires, lets set our aspirations high, lets see how far we can go.

For coverage, updates and intelligent discussion on the Tottenham/Enfield/Britxon riots see Richard Seymour on Lenin’s Tomb



All that is Solid Melts into Air

The disintegration of Rupert Murdoch’s Empire has somehow opened us all up to the real ambiguity we face

Murdoch's face is certainly seeing signs of disintegration...

The News of the World/Murdoch saga has captured the imagination of the public in a way that I for one didn’t quite understand intially. Yet as the story unravels I too have found myself fascinated. This is because it is, in many ways, the story that people have been waiting for. This past year has seen Wikileaks bring groundbreaking news to the public attention. Masses of information, but so massive it was almost impossible to digest it all. The phone hacking scandal on the other hand provides an ideal exempler of what wikileaks has done: to uncover the deeply tied links between the elites that govern our society. It has revealed relationships between government, police, media, in a way we all suspected, and for those who have ever read Adorno & Horkheimer had all strongly believed. The phone hacking scandal also, and most crucially, has begun to open the eyes of the (quote/unquote) average citizen by reaching them in a way that the vast US cables uncovered by wikileaks for example, or even the financial crash and recession, could not quite do.

It is as yet hard to say whether this development is positive or negative, yet it is possible to say that commentators are now clearly acknowledging the precipice we are currently in. Since beginning this blog at the start of the year there has emerged an unintended recurring theme about an increased sense of ambiguity that is plaguing the life I observe around me. This is a generational feature, no doubt, yet I am inclined to feel this ambiguity is also something that implicates all ages and people in Britain today (and beyond). Attending the recent Slavoj Zizek and Julian Assange discussion in London, this sentiment was reiterated by both. Personally I have been finding lines written by Marshall Berman in his seminal text ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ returning and revolving in my head. Re-read the following for example, as if Berman was writing about contemporary Britain:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face . . . the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men

Berman famously quotes Marx, further expanding on his ideas as Berman provides a definitive account of the experience of modernity on economic, social, cultural and personal levels. A re-reading of Berman can remind us that those relations we believed to so ‘fixed’ were quickly ‘frozen’ and so can just as swiftly be swept away, as this is the very nature of the modern era in which we live. Now we find ourselves in a moment in which all that is solid (Murdoch’s empire/emblem of capitalist greed) is steadily crumbling away, we are facing the uncomfortable task of dealing with the ‘real’ conditions of our lives.

As blogger potlatch notes, in reference to the phone hacking scandal:

The ruptures and speed of recent events removes the various technical certainties that otherwise structure decision-making processes and provide orientation for elites. When these are removed, the reality that there is a public at large looms over politics, but so does its incapacity to speak or act (not least due to Britain’s under-democratised society).

As potlatch identifies, the phone hacking scandal has brought the question of the ‘public’ or ‘public interest’ to the fore but instead of a public emerging into view there is only the question where and who is this unified public? Potlatch acknowledges that ‘something new is emerging’ yet he points out that while these are events unfolding in public life, there is no tangible public to speak of, and further we would not know what this public would look like if it did. Similiarly as K-Punk identifies:

A manageable level of cynicism about the media actually serves the capitalist realist media system well. Since the media stands in for the public sphere, if journalists and politicians are perceived to be “all liars”, as they widely are, then there is no hope to be had in public life at all.

If we agree the media stands in for the lack of a tangible public sphere in modern Britain, and that media is being dismantled before our eyes, we can begin to understand the cause behind our uncomfortable fascination with the phone hacking scandal. Our collective public voice has merged into the opinion of the media we consume and now without the guidance of Murdoch to make our minds up for us, what opinion will we choose? While something is indeed is emerging, something too is being lost.

In these ambiguous times, collectivities have attempted to merge in what could be understood as an attempt to bring forth the voice and face of a tangible public. For example the student protests were a rare opportunity to see other people, a public, with shared interests, hopes and beliefs. But to what extent are these collectivities real or imaginary? As potlatch questions:

I would suggest that this newly active ‘public’ is both real and imaginary at the same time, in that imagined entities (such as nations) become decisive at times of crisis.Equally, right now, we are seeing the same political elites, economic interests, political parties and media outlets taking key decisions, but invoking some mystical notion of ‘the public’. To witness that this ‘public’ is partly imagined is not, necessarily, to dismiss it as fake, merely that is hasn’t been assembled either.

The student protests collected together a marginal group of people which ultimately were deemed as not sharing ‘public opinion’. With the phone hacking scandal, the lines of wronged and right are made far clearer. As potlatch notes the notion of ‘the public’ and its interests is being invoked in the face of the loss of the public sphere via the disenchantment of the media that K-Punk identified. This notion of the public is being invoked on ‘our’ behalf, it is up to us to assemble ourselves appropriately.

We should be mindful to remember however the transitory nature of the public sphere and the collectivities we may form. Going back to Berman:

Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Modernity by its very nature is paradoxical, the sense of perpetual disintegration propels us toward the desire to rid ourselves of the ambiguity we feel and the struggles we face, and yet this surge toward development only creates a new stability which eventually will reach its own demise. Crises can easily become opportunities for the renewal of power or strengthening of ideology, rather than the possibility of an alternative vision.

The repetitive nature of modernity in the way Berman is depicting can appear infinitely cyclical and inescapable. Yet he still maintains the contradictions of modernity hold real possibilities:

In spite of all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart, dimly aware of all we might be together, ready to stretch ourselves to grasp new human possibilities, to develop identities and mutual bonds that can help us hold together as the fierce modern air blows hot and cold through us all.

What Marx can show us is that modernity is subject to change and influence and in that lies the seeds of potential. We are not destined to repeat the same patterns over and over, but if we carry on with the attempt to simply attempt to adapt or add to capitalism we will find our efforts come to nothing. Further, maintaining a belief in the permanence of a movement will also lead to failure:

In this world, stability can only mean entropy, slow death, while our sense of progress and growth is our way of knowing for sure that we are alive. To say that our society is falling apart is only to say that it is alive and well.

We must move with the flows of this ambiguity rather than striving to overcome and defeat it with rational ambitions. The disintegration we witness is cause for alarm, yes, but it is also, as Berman highlights, a symptom of a public that is alive. This is a moment in which to utilize this vitality and to decide whether this destabilization can be directed toward positive or negative ends. K-Punk ends on a positive note, commenting on the upbeat tone of Julian Assange in his discussion with Zizek:

As Assange said on Saturday- and as Dan Hind also argues in The Return of the Public – the function of corporate media has been to isolate people, to make them distrust their discontent with a world controlled by business interests. What has combated this is the production of new collectivities of dissent, both online and in the streets. What we’re seeing in this extraordinary moment of transition is a reality management system imploding from within at the same time as it is being undermined from outside. And, this is only the beginning – you haven’t seen anything yet.

To hear Assange speak such positive words did feel empowering, and there does indeed feel as if there is an increasing amount of belief in the potential of ambiguity. Yet stale mate (or worse OhDearism) is equally possible. And it is this inability to seize the moment which remains the real danger of the uncertainty we face:

Grave danger is everywhere, and may strike at any moment, but not even the deepest wounds can stop the flow and overflow of its energy. It is ironic and contradictory, polyphonic and dialectical, denouncing modern life in the name of values that modernity itself has created, hoping – often against hope – that the modernities of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will heal the wounds that wreck the modern men and women of today.

As Berman so eloquently outlines, only when embracing and accepting the reality of the dangers of ambiguity can there be real hope of transformation. This is not a comfortable process, but as Berman and Marx can teach us, stability is an illusion of capitalism. A very clever illusion that has kept people satiated with their flat screen TVs, humungous Tescos, and News of the World tabloids. The cracks have appeared in this happy delusion, but will it be the catalyst for an unstoppable force, or will the ruptures be sewed back together with rhetoric and empty apologies, with a bit happiness-ideology or similar to ease the transit? What modernity do we want tomorrow? I think it is time we sat down and started to draw up a diagram of what that looked like before this fleeting moment melts away from us, as swiftly as it materialized.