Do you intend to die: Lauren Berlant on intimacy after suicide

Lauren Berlant
March 4, 2015

I) January 10, 2009

In the last two months, two people I know killed themselves; in the past few weeks, many people I don’t know were reported to have killed themselves.  Time to collect the bodies,  I thought. I had the urge to create symptoms from all of them, to write  a book that would make a pattern about what’s impossible in  contemporary life.  That’s how I manage things:  I see a pattern, I ask  why, then I find out what happened, describe, and conceptualize, to  relieve myself of the feeling of too-closeness that makes certain  stories and objects a mute-making threat and to produce scaffolds that  can hold the event just so, so we (ok, I) can see it, walk around it,  and move it somewhere else collectively. But it’s not right to rush to  take these deaths on pretending that their likeness is substantive just  because they happened at the same time. We don’t know enough about this  time yet; what we know is what people do to continue keeping on, when  they can.

The fiduciary suicides were events in the world because they’re  deemed auto-exemplary, self-evident illustrations of the unfolding  meaning of the economic crisis that is becoming an atmosphere of social  precarity that no one can disavow. Some people with power or fantasies  of it, once covered in shame, cannot face the world with the face they  have now lost. My personal suicides, on the other hand, might not have  been examples of anything globally dramatic in the current historical  moment – who knows? Anyone can be made exemplary, while also being  singular beings trapped in life. Artists, as it happens, their precarity  was affective more than economic, organized by a feeling of drowning in  the impossibility of consequences. In their lives joys were brief  interruptions from the disorganization of being that constant panic  produces. No way out. That’s what they all shared: not the end of  optimism, but no end in sight of a pattern of being overwhelmed. No  future horizon of flatness or self-forgetting. They were there with  their noise. They lost the capacity for relief from it in absorption,  coasting, and numbness.

That much I know. They couldn’t detach from their situations. They  couldn’t tread water.  They could not shut their minds up or down. They  gave out. I don’t want to numb with the details. This is a problem of  method, ethics, storytelling.

II) February 17, 2009

I was by myself when I fell, but I wasn’t alone.
— (Slogan for UK Telecare)

The question is about detaching. We are thinking about a particular  case of the intention to die, that of suicide. There are other  intentions related to risky addictive modes of physically  self-undermining behavior that might also be characterized as part of  the set of practices associated with intending to die (and writing in  these tiny sixteenth notes makes me sound like a David Foster Wallace  character, which scares me a little), but I think risky self-medicating  behavior is as likely to be evidence of the drive to stay in proximity  to life, to feeling, and to being present as it is to being dissociated  and leaning toward the ultimate detachment. But one can’t tell from the  outside whether a given form of self-interruption moves toward life or  its dissipation, for a little perturbation can mount a grand defense: a  shift in the tonalities of dissociation can pretend to be a shift from  absence or numbness to presence, while being actually a shift between  dissociative modes.

My wonderful student Anil  told me lots about this before he killed himself a few years  ago. According to him, his warmth and presence intellectually,  pedagogically, and intimately were just as detached as were his  depressive recessions from life; according to him, each style of  attachment-defense provided pleasure and armor of its own sort. I think  he thought he would go on forever like this, living from a distance that  often felt like too-closeness.  But what he had no language for, and  what I have some research language for developing now, is why those  attachment-defenses might not have kept him in life, despite seeming  both enervating and animating.

The work of being who you are, even if you take it for granted,  depletes energy and produces those forms of lateral agency that your  body (your brain, your nervous system) requires when you take  breaks every few minutes, are incapable of more attention, devise ways  of disappearing or being unreliable, and seek out opportunities for  absorption that provide vacations from the will that is solicited in the  guise of “your sovereignty”. Thinking about suicide, the consequences  of exhausted practical sovereignty are not about how people live, but  how they no longer can do the work of gathering themselves up for one  more round of being who they are, given everything. The financial  suicides are another matter, I think.

III) March 21, 2009

The Campaign Against Living Miserably

Every day digs me deeper into the bumpy surface of this situation. Today, just for fun, I was reading a wonderful Open Democracy post on the women of Greenham Common  and then the post turned suddenly from a discussion of women’s  emancipated political agency to a discussion of the global suicide  epidemic among young men.  The interviewee, an activist called Jane  Powell, is now working in Manchester UK with a project called –  heartbreakingly, really – “The Campaign Against Living Miserably  (CALM)”.

“The Campaign Against Living Miserably”  is aimed toward a – a what, a population, a world, a loose collection, a  not-yet-formed intimate public – of young men who are alike not in their social location but in their styles of giving out so fast and so hard.

Are you male? Are you living miserably?

Abuse  : Alcohol : Drug Problems : Bereavement : Bullying : Divorce and  Separation : Eating Disorders : Exam Stress : Financial Stress :  Homelessness : Impotence : Masturbation : Mental Health : Racism :  Relationships : Self Harm : Sexuality Suicide : Terminal illness Work  Issues : In care?

Drinking, doing serious drugs, hustling for life, they embody in extremity the paradox I talk about in my article “Slow Death”:  self-medicating activity that tilts toward self-destruction amidst  overwhelming life. It can be seen as a refusal or embrace of  sovereignty. But it can also be seen as a will to stay attached to a  sense of unimpeded aliveness that can’t be assimilated easily to  ordinary or even physically possible projects of life building. The “Campaign Against Living Miserably” shows us how rapidly whole concepts of having and building a life can dissolve.

How much of this emergent discourse heralds the need to teach the formerly more protected economic  classes how to adapt to poor people’s ordinary stress? Or perhaps it  manifests more simply a new deployment of popular culture’s gift to the  suffering: you are not alone. Each word of this piece could be  linked to reportage on new precarious populations whose relation to  “care of the self” tends pragmatically more toward affect management and  material survival than politics, preserving something for futures, or  making in the present a new affective and institutional infrastructure.

“Care” is a big buzzword in queer and feminist theory these days: in  the U.S. the hope is that, rather than organizing the imaginaries of  life and law around marriage and the couple form, durable relations of  care could be protected so that people could make up modes of sociality  that work best for them. I love the idea of getting the state out of the  intimacy business by separating resource management from kinship, and  therefore from sexual normativity. The idea of sanctioned social  relations made by consensual practices of care rather than by law could  really revolutionize the distribution of resources and legitimacy in  these times of social democratic atrophy and transformed worlds of  dependency and need.

At the same time, for many reasons I am bothered when “care” is  defined as what happens among people face to face. It tends to assume  that everyone has people and that everyone’s people have sufficient  resources. Because this rhetoric of care is affective as well as  institutional it obscures the centrality of antagonism, alterity,  ambivalence, and not-caring to the adjudication of responsibility in  collective life. It represses money. It brackets exploitation. As  a politics, care rhetoric obscures how difficult it will be to  orchestrate a new norm of equality-in-democracy for which we would have  collectively to be willing to risk status loss. This was Roosevelt’s  situation when Social Security was instantiated, and the tax-paying body  politic’s commitment even to that is deflating. It will be threatening  to have contingency and precarity as the new universals, and it will be  instructive to see how people adjust politically to replacing the flying  carpet of the American Dream.

If you begin, as I do, where people are giving out, you see that care  often does not produce optimism about living, because it feels merely  palliative: people have lost their faith in adding up to something.  In Cruel Optimism “adding  up to something” is my definition of the good life: the whole book  looks at different styles of trying hard to stay in the world where  adding up still seems to happen, amidst depleted resources.

IV) March 23, 2009

We have been talking about two kinds of detachment from life: detaching from life absolutely, and also detaching from what counts as life,  from a particular way of imagining adding up to something or  mattering.  These are only sometimes the same process. “Detaching from  life absolutely” tends toward the suicidal, from the literalization of  the death drive to the achievement of a negative affective state, for  example in aspirations to become numb, cool, dispassionate, flat,  dissociated, defeated, a machine, normotic – whatever it takes to feel  invulnerable to surprise.

But giving up on a deeply sustaining idea of life as such or  the good life in particular can be shattering and life-affirming at the  same time.  You can’t know in advance whether you will want a feeling of  negative liberty (freedom from) to be sustained indefinitely in the  absence of maps. Stumbling around a landscape in the dark raises  adrenalin that can tilt both toward thrill and threat. The economic  crisis multiplies dramas of adjustment that register the cost of being  in synch with crisis and out of synch too.  Depression, both chemical  and political, can have the same effect, producing the prisonhouse or  the lightness of not caring; or the freedom or vertigo from detaching  and seeing multiple horizons; or the excited scanning or dark melancholy  that might saturate everywhere when desire no longer has an object to  give living on a discrete shape.

But all of this description overdramatizes the state of being in the world not knowing how to live.  It represses those coasting moments where one just gets by or takes  things in. The numb, cool, dispassionate, flat, dissociated, defeated,  normotic list above points us to the part of microadjustment that takes  place as a bodily response, as proprioception, as mood, as a shadow in  an episode, as coping, and not necessarily or usually in a causal chain  or in consciousness or as an expressive symptom that can be read as a  message. The activity of tightening and fraying the binding to life or  life imaginary: these oscillations add up and subtract too. Detailing  how is part of my project here.

So here’s the frame-shifting story that gives this piece its name. I  was to be in Melbourne last summer giving some talks, and my mother said  to me, “Oh, your cousin is going to be in Australia too, maybe you can  see each other!” Because I can be bratty-pedantic, I responded,  “Australia’s pretty big, Mom, I doubt it,” but actually he was to be in  Melbourne when I was.

This cousin is two or three years younger than me, but when we were  growing up he seemed much much younger, partly because he was so  irritatingly exuberant.  We always had to perform for our families at  Cousin’s Clubs, and one kid after another was brought out to play the  guitar, sing, or recite, and early on he became an amazing magician and  thrilled the family, those “children of all ages” around whom I  “loitered with intent to mope” until I left home for good.

So I didn’t like him that much, because you couldn’t have a real  conversation with him: he was always too aspirational (trying to make  you laugh or to be impressed or in awe of the spectacle).  He was  hilarious and explained things well, but it wasn’t relaxing to be with  him. Cuz left home at 14 to be a magician on cruise ships. Occasionally I  would hear about him – the vast money he was making, his move out West,  his apprenticeships with magicians, surgeons, and pop culture  businessmen like Tony Robbins.  Periodically we would talk on the phone,  especially when he was beginning to turn his magic-related knowledge  about what fools people into corporate-related knowledge about what  binds people together.  He began to help businesspeople understand how  capitalist subjectivity works affectively.

We were deeply alike, but our audiences, styles, and aims remained  starkly divergent. I’d see him on CNN explaining how sales were all  about microaffective transactions between people more than about the  qualities of the product, and I’d have to laugh at the fun-house mirror  effect of it, because I was sure that we had both trained ourselves to  understand – to develop knowledge and language for – what we really  couldn’t understand about the childhood environment we had both left  earlier than our ages should have allowed.

I’m leaving a lot unsaid here, obviously. The point is that I grew a  lot of abstract affection for him during the decades between  conversations because, without knowing anything really, I understood the  affective environment in which he operated. He became a motivational  speaker and trainer of entrepreneurs who had only their mouths from  which to create worlds, who had no institutional or inherited ballast or  cultural capital, and who could rely on no help from anyone but the  people to whom they might be able to connect now. All they needed were knowledge and skills about connecting, transmitting confidence, and sustaining reciprocity.

On the day after I gave my master class on affect theory, we arranged to meet at the hotel in Melbourne where he was giving his  master class, training and critiquing other financial-motivational  speakers. We sat down to breakfast, and I said something like, so do you  like your life, are you happy you’ve made these choices, is all of this  traveling and being away from all those children you’ve had working for  you?  Many astonishing stories tumbled out – in the middle of which was  this one.

He has three children, two girls and a boy.  They’re all named after  precious commodities: name brands – say, like Mercedes – and natural  resources – say, like Goldie. At some point the girls started acting  weirdly, and dissociated from their formerly happy ways of being in the  world. “Mercedes,” the oldest, stopped eating.  “Goldie” went very  quiet. Cuz and his wife interrogated them: nothing, nothing, nothing.  Denial. Finally, the youngest admitted to being molested by a family  employee. “Mercedes” refused to admit anything, but continued not  eating. She reached a stage about two weeks away from hospitalization,  he thought. Cuz and I then talked about my later-life anorexia and I  mentioned that I had always thought that it was wrong to say that the  subject of anorexia wanted to die, that the very act of controlling the  world while never being in control enough was a way of staying in life,  staying focused and formally together while so much else seemed so close  to crumbling.

At this point he starts to cry, so I do too, and we’re both a little  confused about that, and then he says something like: “So finally my  wife let me try this tactic, although she didn’t think it would work. I  sat down with ‘Mercedes’. I said to her: ‘Mercedes,’ do you intend to  die? Because, if you intend to die, I’ll pull the other children out of  school and we’ll take a trip around the world, so that at least you’ll  have had some experiences before you die. What do you think, would you  like that? If you don’t intend to die, then we have to do something else  about this.”

At this point he says to me, “Why are we crying?” I say that my best guess is that if anyone had ever talked  to us like that when we were little, not only granting us our  perspective on the world but organizing the world around the way we  understood things, we wouldn’t have had to become what we have become,  people who go around helping other people find a way to use their  particular minds to make themselves and the world they’re in more  possible. If anyone had ever talked to us like that, well – actually,  people did talk to us like that, later, otherwise we couldn’t have known  that our knowledge was anything. We had teachers – the kind who wanted  us genuinely to develop our own set of skills to become who we were, not  who they were. Such relations don’t work for everyone, but they worked  for us.

How does the habitation of an affective environment that would foment a sense of mattering produce the time/space for adjustment to  what the conditions of mattering are, including an adjustment that  refuses adjustment, that produces a politics of imagining mattering –  “intending to live” – differently? What is the relation between  flourishing materially and the will to affective reciprocity?

For most of my life it wasn’t clear to me that living was better than  not being alive, but I wasn’t interested in not being alive, just in  attending to what it is that people have to do to stay afloat.  Staying  alive was a given, but staying afloat wasn’t. People need skills for  that, and supports for that. The crisis of crumbling institutions of  intimacy and durable consistency in the US at the present moment has  something to do with a perceived loss of the relation of event to  effect, so that it is harder and harder to know what it means materially  to effectuate an intention to live, to float.  My cousin was asking his  daughter to state an intention that she didn’t yet have, because that  was the only way he could help her imagine mattering in the world. I am  trying to learn what else there is to learn from that astonishing  exchange.

Note: We are publishing here a series of lightly edited posts from Lauren Berlant’s research blog Supervalent Thought.


All by
Lauren Berlant