Sunday, April 15, 2012

Until the End of the World

Dear readers, I fear in order to expand more on this post on happiness in our culture, I must drag you all down "the dark rabbit-hole of the absurd society we inhabit" (Thank you, Comedy: Text and Theory professor Kjel Johnson for this). Because, as we all know, there's a lot of sadness in our lives. We long for happy movies because so much of what we see everyday is so unhappy - the news on TV, our jobs, the mundane-ness of everyday life (another discussion, another time - I promise).

In this era that has been called "Post-Modern" (gotta love the terms), we find ourselves in a situation Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, philosopher, sociologist, novelist, feminist, (and then some) describes as abjection - a politics of disgust and rejection (especially the feminine, maternal and things that come off as "other" and "unhealthy"/"unproductive," such as excess emotion). She's been described as an "Apocalyptic thinker" both because she discusses destruction but also on the flip side of defining apocalypse, she expresses revelation.

In her book Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Kristeva discusses... well, depression and melancholia. Namely the difference between mourning and melancholia, as defined by our culture. Mourning has become a process that is rational, communal, and progressive - there is a start and an end, a narrative unto itself. It can be externalized and memorialized and seen - in the case of death, it is obvious what we are mourning. Thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, we even have a nifty little system of tracking loss through the "five stages of grief" - denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Again, it's a rationalization of loss, described by my professor as "something of canon today" (I can tell I've been thinking about fandoms too much; the first thing I thought of when this came out of his mouth was the connection of the word canon to fangirl's pairing of characters in relationships. Am I getting in too deep? Hell yes). If you "play it right," you succeed in reaching acceptance, in moving back into the normative happy phase (or "compulsory happiness" as my prof put it). If not, you're considered abnormal if still grieving after a certain point. Of course, this is a totally different way of talking about mourning than we do in my other field of study, psychology. But look up grief in the DSM  and you'll see that if you have an extended period of mourning, it's considered abnormal and a disorder. In Freud's thoughts, when grieving, you must work through what you lost and what it is in that thing you lost; if one fails to do this, they will go down a dark path (and likely end up at melancholia). Sometimes, psychology is not as kind as I'd like to think.

(If you've drawn connections between the stages of grief and the stages of fangirling, good work (talk about a form of rationalizing something that is seen as strange). If you're still reading since I wrote posts on the stages of fangirl, I deeply appreciate it, and I owe you. Big time.)

In contrast to mourning, there's melancholia. This is dubbed as "regressive," asocial, self-destructive, and irrational. It's what psychologists would call a disorder. Unlike mourning, there's nothing named or nameable to mourn, nothing to work through, a point to arrive at. It is marked (clinically and dialectically) by cycles of mania, extreme expression, indulgence, and hysteria, cycling from high and low, light and dark. Culturally, it is coded as feminine, emotional, irrational, mysterious and dark. (If you are seeing more parallels with fangirls and the way the act, bonus points. Keep this in mind).

Kristeva suggests that, to "recuperate" melancholia, it should not be treated as wrong but explored, to discover the language and expressiveness that comes with it. This is not at all to glorify depression and all of the troubles is brings, but to accept that it is a part of our lives and to accept it. To Kristeva it will become "the secret mainspring of a new rhetoric." For art and artists, depression states profound realities, celebrates the irrational, and from darkness comes light. Mania and melancholia are described as co-morbid, together, like natural rhythms, not a disease, but a fault of life; not just life, but culture. Because in the early 20th century, everything changed.

If you've studied sociology, cultural studies, history, English... okay, ANYTHING IN THE LIBERAL ARTS DEPARTMENT, you've studied the effects of World War I and World War II on the modern world. It threw the world into crisis, that we "civilized" individuals could do such atrocities to each other. I could write an entire post on this alone (actually I took an entire CLASS on it) but I'll spare you. Just know it's damn important.

The two wars sent us spiraling into doubt, worrying about the validity of faith and human goodness and belief itself. As Kristeva describes,
Today's milestone is human madness... In the view of an ethic and an aesthetic concerned with suffering, the mocked private domain gains a solemn dignity that depreciates the public domain while allocating to history the imposing responsibility for having triggered the malady of death. As a result, public life becomes seriously severed from reality whereas private life, on the other hand, is emphasized to the point of filling the whole of the real and invalidating any other concern. The new world, necessarily political, is unreal. We are living the reality of a new suffering world. (235)
As my professor described, it's like Alice in Wonderland: "We're all mad here." Add in the image of the Cheshire cat, "dark as hell but smiling on the outside" (my prof again), and you've got a good idea of what Kristeva's getting at. The only thing to do is to embrace the "sunshine and melancholia" and create a new site of discussion (259).

Of course, there's an added caveat to this. I introduce you to Hanna Arendt to discuss loneliness. While Arendt and Kristeva have different views, especially on the use of politics in modernity, I think it works to pair their two theories here (but, considering I know very little about them, I'm probably wrong. A theorist guru I'm not). Arendt argues that there's a pervasive feeling of loneliness amongst society today, which has "has been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution..." (475). Because of this domination of production and materialism, a feeling of insecurity and being at the mercy of society has surfaced, while creativity has been shattered and isolation strengthened, turning into loneliness. Individuals have lost trust in themselves and loneliness, the feeling of being deserted by all other people, becomes a common everyday experience. Most dangerous are feelings of “organized loneliness,” when individuals are surrounded by people and yet still feel utterly alone, "deserted by all others" (476). And to add to this, Arendt argues that one can be deserted by their own self and begin doubting themselves, expressed through the feelings that "nobody 'understands' them" (476). Not only is this incredibly troubling, but it "had become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century" (478). Madness indeed.

So there you are. The world went to war (twice) and the world went mad. We feel we have lost something (we don't know what), we feel alone (we don't know why), we doubt ourselves (because no one understands ourselves), and we feel like this everyday.

There are reasons Cultural Studies people are a bit odd (no, seriously, I was told by one of my professors my sophomore year it was a good thing I was a double major or I'd be totally cynical and jaded by the time I graduated).

Of course, this is all just theory. And while it may not be 100% true for everyone, there are ways it reveals itself to be accurate. Stick around, and I'll tell you how (do you ever get the feeling that this blog is a bad infomercial, where I keep promising to show something really cool then never do? I apologize for that, but it can't be helped. Otherwise every blog post would be massive.) For now, here's something to cheer you up: Martin Freeman being Martin Freeman. Because no hedgehog could be this dapper. 

Note: All citations are from -
Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia by Julia Kristeva (unsure of the version, my apologies).
"Ideology and Terror." The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. 1968. Harcourt.

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