politics of the hap

Navigating the liminal space of grief
June 29, 2014, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

Navigating the liminal space of grief. Paper presented at the Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin, June 2014.

Points of Departure ICA Jumana Emil Abboud I Feel Nothing 2012-blxigW_0

Jumana Emil Abboud – I Feel Nothing, 2012.

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.

kurt cobain bench

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.

Liminal Objects


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.

Conferences, or me speaking about stuff.
March 20, 2014, 12:41 pm
Filed under: Academe, PhD chat

I’m getting myself around this year which is somewhat unheard of. I am very excited to be speaking at the following conferences this year (maybe more to follow…). If you’re interested come and have a listen!

Titles of papers and conferences:

23-25th April: ‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, The British Sociological Association Conference, Leeds.

5-6th June: ‘Navigating the liminal space of grief’, Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin.

7-8th July: ‘Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign’, Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane conference, University of Sheffield.

Here’s the full abstracts:

‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, BSA, April.

The use of the term ‘recovery’ has become increasingly popular in mental health care and policy. The notion of recovery began as a radical movement that critiqued the paternalistic nature of health care and sought to reclaim power back to the patient or service user. Though the initial move towards recovery sought to bring acceptance to living with an illness and to broaden the notion of recovery outside of medical requirements; as recovery has been co-opted and incorporated into mainstream practices, the radical demands have gradually coincided with, or diluted by, a government agenda of autonomy and individual responsibility. Similarly in literature on grief, recovery has gained interest yet what recovery from grief entails remains contested. Current theories tend to conceptualise grief as a psychological phenomenon to be overcome, often through the use of psychotherapeutics. Yet the controversy over the omission of the grief exclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revealed how competing definitions of grief persist with little consensus on whether grief should be considered a ‘natural’ process or as potentially pathological. In this paper I suggest that investigating what it means to recover first requires looking at the ways in which people who are seen as ‘failing’ to recover are managed and treated. In doing so I will argue that though the definitions of recovery from grief remain contested, there are theories, policies, and practices that seek to guide people who are grieving towards a vision of successful recovery.

‘Navigating the Liminal Space of Grief’, Between Spaces and Places, June.

It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. In this paper I seek to suggest 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. In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief. Following Tuan (Tuan, 1977, p.6) 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 landscapes, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into. Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience 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. 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.

Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. London: Edward Arnold.

Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign. Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane, July.

In this paper I will argue why grief is an instance that allows for the recognition of the non-sovereignty of being human. Within a contemporary western neo-liberal context, being human is often presumed to involve having control over decision-making and responsibility for our choices. This is reflected in the rhetoric of mental health recovery where recovery is synonymous with being a functional citizen. To fail to recover is to refuse the normative fantasy of the ‘good life’ and to be read as problematic or as a troublemaker. In grief, the failure to recover is commonly associated with the failure to let go of an attachment to the deceased, described as ‘melancholia’ or in contemporary psychiatric diagnosis: ‘complicated grief’. However, contrary to the rhetoric of recovery, the failure to ‘let go’ of the deceased and the capacity for grief to make us come undone might alternatively be understood as an occasion that reveals how sovereignty is unsettled by affective experiences such as grief. If grief has the potential to inject some incoherence and ambiguity into our sense of self and sense of sovereignty by highlighting the complexity of attachments and relationality, what does this mean for how we think about the human?

I am not my blob, Or It’s all chemical baby // some sketchy notes.
March 3, 2014, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery | Tags: , , , , ,

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:

  1. How to understand the self/subject, and avoid lapsing into either essentialism (it’s all chemical) or relativism (it’s all socially constructed)
  2. What can we take from affect theory?
  3. 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

– Disbelief/numbness

– 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.

Recovery as a process of normalisation: what is normal grief?
February 11, 2014, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Theorisations of grief serve not only to capture grief but define the appropriate ways it is approached and performed. The theories that currently dominate the way grief is understood and managed are theories and studies of a largely psychological nature. As Granek (Granek, 2013) has argued, grief theory has been over-psychologised, with on over-emphasis on identifying the dysfunctional aspects of grief. This has produced a contemporary understanding of grief that tends to cohere around the idea that grief is an experience that impacts on the psychological well-being of a person and needs to be recovered from through processes of detachment from the deceased. Successfully detaching from the deceased will enable the reintegration of the grieving person back to ‘normal’ functioning through adjustment and acceptance and help them relearn healthy patterns of attachments to the deceased (Kubler-Ross, 1970; Lindemann, 1979b; Parkes & Weiss, 1983). Currently neuroscientific data is shaping present understandings of grief by exploring how grief affects the brain (O’Connor, 2005, 2012). This is opening up new avenues for viewing grief not only as a matter of the psyche but also as possessing biological and somatic markers.

Whether as a matter of chemical imbalance or a disorientated psyche, grief, despite the many claims to its ‘natural’ occurrence, is posited as an experience that requires reorganisation. Though the stages of grief so famously outlined by Kubler-Ross (Kubler-Ross, 1970) have been critiqued following empirical enquiry (Konigsberg, 2011; Maciejewski, Zhang, Block, & Prigerson, 2007) the continual search to capture grief in scientific terms and the proliferation of self-help literature on grieving suggests grief is still considered as something to be ‘worked through’(Worden, 1991), and significantly an activity for which individuals are responsible. Studies that have explored the social constructions of grief have highlighted the social structures and contexts that shape perceptions of grief (Jakoby, 2012; Lofland, 1985; Walter, 1999; Wambach, 1985). This work has illuminated how grief can be understood as a social emotion and not only as an individual psychological experience. Sociological explorations of grief have also discussed how hierarchies of grief exist that demarcate appropriate presentations of grieving (Robson & Walter, 2013) and can act to ‘disenfranchise’ certain types of grief (Doka, 1989). For example, the relationship with the deceased, the type of death, and the age of the deceased all factor in to how much or little grieving is appropriate. This is to argue that not all losses can be understood as being equal and further that different social settings or structures demand different responses (Charmaz & Milligan, 2006). Grieving then becomes not only an internal psychological task to work through but an active presentation of self.

But where and how do these norms, these ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild, 1983), emerge? In my research I will be exploring how factors such as the impact of government policy on healthcare practices as well as empirical data on grief patterns and behaviour, shifts in counselling practices (for example the shift in popularity to cognitive behavioural therapy) and changes in psychiatric diagnostic manuals all contribute to how the norms on grief in contemporary Western societies are shaped and interpreted. The norms that ‘police’ and regulate grief (Walter, 2010) in a modern neo-liberal society that has witnessed the ‘secularisation of death’ (Mellor & Shilling, 1993) are arguably far more fluid where the priority is individual choice and autonomy. This is reflected in healthcare services where patients are increasingly viewed as consumers of what is claimed to be a democratic system in which the voice of the service user is far more central. In particular, policies concerning recovery are becoming progressively more popular (Department of Health, 2001; McPherson, Evans, & Richardson, 2009). Recovery began as a radical movement, drawn from a melange of beliefs and values that emerged from anti-psychiatry, the psychiatric survivors movement, and the consumer rights movement, that critiqued the paternalistic nature of health care and sought to reclaim power back to the patient or service user (Braslow, 2013; Roberts & Wolfson, 2004; Travis, 2009).  The introduction of recovery into health care policy, the growth of narrative approaches to health care, and the growth of online user directed forums are all attempts to remedy what is considered to be the ‘epistemic injustice’ at the heart of the way health care services have been administered (Carel, 2013).

Though the initial move towards recovery sought to bring acceptance to living with an illness and to broaden the notion of recovery outside of medical requirements, as recovery has been co-opted and incorporated into mainstream practices the radical demands have gradually coincided with, or indeed diluted by, a government agenda of autonomy and individual responsibility (Braslow, 2013). This is perhaps a result of the ‘plastic’ nature of recovery which originally was designed to be inclusionary rather than the exclusionary nature of the healthcare of the past. Indeed for grief, what recovery means and entails has been contested (Balk, 2008; Paletti, 2008; Rosenblatt, 2008; Sandler et al., 2008; Shapiro, 2008) and the divergent conceptualisations have done little to dent the belief in the stages and phases of grief in wider culture. A possible cause for the failure of recovery to bring about the radical demands it set out to achieve is that in trying to expand what was viewed as normality, it became incorporated by the norm itself, without that norm experiencing dramatic change.

Recovery has come to rely on assumed notions of what it means to be a functional citizen yet the criteria of what is deemed to bring quality of life are rarely questioned. A Department of Health policy document entitled ‘The Journey to Recovery’ (2001) describes recovery from mental illness as including the following: having an acceptable place to live, a meaningful occupation, access to further education and training, access to information on entitlements and benefits, and engaging in ‘ordinary social activities’. This vague list of components of the happy recovered life (an ‘acceptable’ place according to whom? What are ‘ordinary social activities’?) appear to point towards an ideal life, a normality to which everyone should live by or strive for. In grief literature there are similar notions found as Shear (2012) describes the aims of successful mourning are: to be re-engaged with daily life, to be reconnected to others, to be able to experience hope for the future, for grief to be transformed and integrated, and to ‘effectively regulate’ emotions. As Arnason & Hafsteinsson (Arnason & Hafsteinsson, 2003) argue, the way in which grief is dealt with can be linked to permutations in government rationality. The types of bereavement therapies offered, mainly versions of cognitive behavioural therapy and increasingly mindfulness therapy, are part of broader government interests in well-being and happiness. These types of choices that are made available to a person following bereavement can be seen as processes of subjectification (Foucault, 1975). That is to say the adoption of behavioural therapies or mindfulness within the NHS in UK healthcare to treat grief both shapes how grief is defined but also shapes the subjectivity of the person who is grieving. This process of subjectification is not a simple process of disciplining from above, but as the incorporation of the recovery movement has shown, it is a process composed of two vectors where individuals are encouraged to undertake activities of self-governance, just as they are being encouraged to treat or work through their grief with the help of external services and interventions (Hacking, 1986).

Increasingly the resilience of people in the face of loss has become a popular focus in grief as well as across healthcare research (Bonanno, Moskowitz, Papa, & Folkman, 2005; Bonanno, 2009; Edward, 2005; Mancini & Bonanno, 2009; Miller, 2002; Richardson, 2002; Stokes, 2009; White, Driver, & Warren, 2008). George Bonanno and colleagues (2005) argue that most people tend to remain resilient in the event of losing a loved one. Bonanno (2009) dismisses the idea that people go through stages instead proposing that for most people grieving does not become a serious problem, and that if there is no real devastating sense of loss there are no stages to go through. This argument also brings into question the focus in grief theory on attachments and bonds to the deceased. Whereas the continuing bonds thesis (Klass et al., 1996) promoted the idea that ‘getting over it’ did not mean having to ‘let go’, an emphasis on resilience rather enforces an idea of our self-sufficiency; the belief that our autonomy remains intact even after losing a close family member or friend. The growth of research into resiliency also sits neatly within the broader emphasis in health care on recovery, where recovery is defined as an individual self-determined process. Yet the acknowledgement of the complicity between how people report themselves as resilient, and the wider societal discourses that promote and favour resiliency and rapid recovery from grief is notably absent in studies promoting the power of resiliency.

Seen through this lens then, resilience appears a simple gloss that ignores the complexity in how agency is formed and obtained. Resilience and recovery rely on an autonomous subject, and therefore the inability to ‘bounce back’ can only be a failure of the individual. So while grief is construed as a potentially problematic occasion, it is equally one where an individual is seen to be capable of rising above their suffering, using it productively to transform their lives. The transformative potential of grief has been highlighted (Balk, 1999) and stories of dramatic fighting against adversity proliferate in self-help books and memoirs (Dennis, 2008, 2012). When autonomy and choice are promoted as desirable qualities and when recovery from grief is depicted as something that is the responsibility of the individual, recovery becomes an obligation and a normative requirement. The failure to perform recovery thus becomes a moral failure of will.

Yet this presumption of autonomy gets confused in the instance of grief where commonly people who are grieving are considered not to know what is best for them; they cannot be autonomous (Parkes, 1972). As Butler (1997) highlights, subjects come into being through recognition, through being interpellated by language. If a subject is deemed vulnerable – and that is in contrast to the desired autonomy – then the very viability of the subject is questioned. It is in this instance when the person who is grieving is seen as requiring intervention to get them ‘back on track’. The grieving person is a ‘risky’ individual who needs managing (Rose, 2007). Yet to be deemed a risk there needs to be a normality from which abnormality is identified. The knowledge of the normal mind that the psychological disciplines claim to possess (Rose, 1985) provides the condition and basis for the application of techniques and measures such as diagnosing complicated grief. Complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder are categories that seek to explain and treat the 7% who do not cope ‘effectively’ with bereavement (Shear, 2012). Complicated grief is what occurs when the natural healing process is ‘impeded’ ‘derailed’ ‘delayed’ due to ‘interference’ and complicating factors (ibid). Some of the symptoms of complicated grief are intense yearning for the deceased, numbness, detachment, avoidance, trouble accepting loss as real, intrusive/preoccupying thoughts, sense of loss of meaning in life, and ruminating. Yet who decides what is sanctioned in grief and what is not? Shear describes the intention behind treating complicated grief is to stop ‘unnecessary suffering’ but often it would seem this more a matter of easing the suffering or discomfort of others around the person who is grieving. After all, it is family members who tend to be the ones who refer their grieving relatives for treatment (Shear, 2010).

What is interesting in this search for the pathological is the ambiguity of what makes up normal patterns of grief. Complicated grief is described as something that ‘derails’ the ‘normal healing process’ (Shear, 2012), yet what the ‘normal healing process’ actually entails remains vague. Studies that focus on the meanings the bereaved make about their grief and the deceased are widespread and narrative approaches to studying grief have sought to tackle the idea that there is only one or right way to grieve (Bury, 2001; Charmaz, 1999; Gilbert, 2002; Neimeyer, 2005; Valentine, 2008). In these narrative explorations, grief is depicted as a unique and individual experience. Telling stories about grief is seen to help bring voice to the multifaceted and varied nature of grieving. Yet this seems to fit uneasily with a preoccupation to identify the biological and psychological markers of grief, where bereaved people can be slotted into typologies and composed of lists of symptoms.

Furthermore there is an odd contradiction in that the aim of complicated grief treatment to promote ‘natural healing’ neglects to see how external intervention automatically undermines the possibility of a natural order of grieving. Perhaps rather this failure to perform natural recovery or tap into resilience reserves is in fact the ‘natural’ state of grief insofar as it is an equally valid manifestation of a state that is still undefined. Perhaps it is the norms through which grief is defined that need expanding; the definition needs to shift to fit the person, not the person to fit the definition. This is evermore salient for grief where the state of normality is constantly in flux, it is only by delineating failed performances can the desirable norms be selected and reinforced. As Maciejewski et.al. tellingly note:

The identification of the patterns of typical grief symptom trajectories is of clinical interest because it enhances the understanding of how individuals cognitively and emotionally process the death of someone close. Such knowledge aids in the determination of whether a specific pattern of bereavement adjustment is normal or not. Once the normal patterns of grief are known, individuals with abnormal bereavement adjustment can be identified and referred for treatment when indicated (2007, p.717).

But of course individuals are identified and referred for treatment without the normal patterns of grief being known. This suggests then that the norms through which grief are guided are not so much a way to stay faithful to a natural mourning or healing process, for this process is not known or at least cannot be identified. Rather then the norms of grief do something else; they prevent against and constrain the possibility of not recovering. ‘No recovery’ is chaotic and open-ended; there is no transformation of self or resolutions available in this experience of grief (Kauffman, 2007). The risk of no recovery is not just to the person who is grieving; it is a risk to the very idea of the vision of the good life the recovery narrative promotes. According to the diagnostic criteria of prolonged grief disorder, showing symptoms of grief for six months or more can potentially be cause for intervention (Prigerson et. al., 2009). The popularity of research into resilience further fosters the idea that grief is something to be recovered from quickly (Balk, 2008). Time then becomes one of the key indicators in managing grieving. ‘Technologies of temporalisation’ (Binkley, 2009) is one of the strategies Foucault (Foucault, 1975) argued institutions use to produce docility in its workforce. Borrowing Foucault’s concept, the experience of grieving has become something framed by time, by an imperative to recover within socially acceptable parameters, which thus may induce a sense of docile adherence to guidance promoting the ‘natural’ healing process. There are clear and immediate incentives and obligations for a grieving person to recover in order to get back to work and to re-engage with ‘ordinary social activities’ which all take place within a routinised daily pattern. To refuse to conduct oneself in this way, or to fail to conduct oneself in this way, is to willingly or forcibly enter into the unfamiliar space of no recovery.

February 6, 2014, 7:19 pm
Filed under: Love | Tags: , , , ,

I can feel his love. Sometimes I think I can taste it.

It hums around me, even while he remains distinct, self-possessed, contained. I feel it when we walk in silence along the canal, peering into the riverboats. I feel it when we’re in a roomful of friends, eating roast lamb, and he puts a hand. a gentle hand, on the small of my back. I feel it on the phone, in exchanges and in silences – warm, pulsating silences, hearing each others’ breathing. I feel it when we stir in sleep. And I feel it when we are on the rugged tracks of desire, careering towards something, pitching this way and that, threatening to tip over any moment, when his hands are in my hair, and he is inside me, and I am biting him, and we are all teeth and claws and wings. – Katherine Angel, Unmastered: A book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell, p.92.

This book just swept me away.

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.


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.