Mental Health Asteroid

Originally part of yesterday’s post, After the End of the World (Part 1), this post feels more at home on its own. Nonetheless, there’s a cross-pollination of references.

Social trauma, in the process of making-sense, often requires analogies to be formed — regularly channelling apocalyptic imagery to exacerbate a radical destruction of the sociopolitical “world-for-us” that violence of many kinds affectively instantiates.

Such analogies have been endemic in the aftermath of the neverending disruptions to the sociopolitical landscape that have occurred over the last few years. In late 2016, writing in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in the US, Laurie Penny diagnosed the extremity of psychological affects being experienced by many in that moment as precisely the destruction of “our world”.

The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.

I repeatedly referred to this passage within the community that formed in the aftermath of Mark Fisher’s death in 2017 as we tried to make sense of and inhabit the rupture that it opened up within and around us.

A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread”.

Whilst the affective catastrophe this phrase described resonated with the “structures of feeling” that arose in late 2016 and early 2017, as time progressed that resonance dwindled as our “community” repeatedly changed shape. (A lot more on that here).

Despite its eventual redundancy in the face of flux, the image conjured by Penny is nonetheless powerful in its paradoxical nature. The disaster she describes is an asteroid without a crater; a shockwave felt but not seen; a horrific planetary event without the disaster-movie spectacle and mass extinction it seems to promise. It is a disaster that leaves everything standing.

Opening his book The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot’s poetic explorations at the limits of literary description similarly resonate with the invisibility of the “mental health asteroid”:

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. It is in this way that I am threatened; it is in this way that the disaster threatens in me that which is exterior to me — an other than I who passively becomes other. There is no reaching the disaster. Out of reach is he whom it threatens, whether from afar or close up, it is impossible to say: the infiniteness of the threat has in some way broken every limit.

Where Penny and Blanchot differ is that whilst Blanchot’s poetic description is necessarily abstract, exacerbating the experience of the affectively unquantifiable, the scale of Penny’s disaster could not be clearer.

The personal and the social are conflated and made analogous to science-fiction, a disaster has occurred on a cosmological scale, making emotions impersonal and, therefore, more explicitly political.The affective imaging of this instantaneous extinction event nonetheless requires an update.

Eugene Thacker describes the potentials of this cosmological scaling when he writes that “we are increasingly more and more aware of the world in which we live as a non-human world, a world outside, one that is manifest in the effects of global climate change, natural disasters, the energy crisis, and the progressive extinction of species world-wide.” 

Likewise, Thom van Dooren, in his book Flight Paths, describes extinction as “that collective mode of dying”. The last chapter of the book, Mourning Crows: Grief in a Shared World, is to ecology what Mark’s PhD thesis was to cybernetics. He highlights the Hawaiian Crow as a species of great intelligence that seems to mourn its own dwindling numbers, melancholic in its increasing loneliness.

Hoping to overcome our tendency to privilege human consciousness over (whilst underestimating the inner lives of) other species, Van Dooren wonders how an expanded interspecies grief can help us to think new responses to the pressing ecological questions of our time.

Whilst such ecological writing may seem tangential to the thought explored here so far, as Dooren himself explains, a wider consideration of the “phenomenology of mortality” experienced by both humans and nonhumans can only help to deepen our social understanding of death and grief across various scales and cultures. The dead are, after all, culturally central to the living and so perhaps we should include the dead more explicitly in the formation of cultural thought.

Quoting Françoise Dastur, Van Dooren explains that

the political and cultural dimensions of human life inevitably “reference” the dead: whether directly, in the sense that the dead continue to live among us and act on us as spirits or ghosts or “simply” in terms of the meanings, values, memories, and ideas that we individually and collectively inherit (not to mention the languages and other modes of expression that we inherit them through). In this context, all human life takes place among the living and the dead: a person “lives in society not merely with his ‘contemporaries’ but also — and perhaps more so — with those who have gone before”.

Donna Haraway takes up a similar point in her book Staying with the Trouble and conceptualises a process of grieving-with:

Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think. Like the crows and with the crows, living and dead “we are at stake in each other’s company.”

Unfortunately, we seem to struggle to engage in practices of grieving-with with other humans nevermind other species. However, this makes Haraway’s sentiment all the more necessary to carry with us.

Penny’s essay also ends with a call for action: “we must navigate a course between the exhaustion of perpetual outrage and the numbness of normalization […] taking care of ourselves and of one another […] practicing a sort of emotional intelligence that the new power order lacks the capacity to imagine”. How such a practice should be constructed nonetheless remains elusive.

What does Penny’s imagery of ecological planetary disaster say to our entangled and shared mourning and melancholy? The immediacy of this asteroid-induced extinction event robs us of agency. It suggests something too big, too other, to contend with. What is needed, perhaps, is another analogy with which to work with.

Disaster movies typically like to portray the threat of annihilation as an immediate or at least rapidly occurring event. Such narratives hit peak popularity just prior to Y2K1998 alone saw the release of Armageddon and Deep Impact with their near-identical meteorite-impact plots.

In the mid-2000s, movie disasters became less acts of god and more directly our own fault with 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow showing us what we may have to look forward to if climate change is allowed to continue unabated. However, since the mid-2000s the immediate-extinction disaster movie has seemingly fallen out of favour with Hollywood. Slowness or even an eerie inactivity have become the new cinematic horror of choice.

In line with this shift, Mark Fisher begins Capitalist Realism with an appropriately slow disaster. Writing on Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Menwhich occurs in the aftermath of an unknown “catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation”Mark notes that this disaster is “specific to late capitalism”, highlighting the way a “normalization of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable an observation that resonates even more now.

Things have only gotten worse since Mark wrote Capitalist Realism, with the current state of emergency in Francerecently renewed for the sixth timebeing an unprecedented example of the normalisation of a crisis following a series of terrorist attacks in the country perpetrated by ISIS affiliates.

(Alongside counter-terrorist legislation, what Mark called the “therapeutic turn” demonstrates the normalisation of endemic mental health crises.)

Children of Men is just one example of a film in which post-apocalyptia itself is the focus of our attention rather than the event of the preceding disaster. In such films, how the planet found itself in such a mess is often merely a detail or completely unknown. Instead, what is to be done, and what are the limits of what we willing to do, become the central philosophical and political questions.

Such scenarios are very often the result of zombie apocalypses, owing to the popularity of such a terror, and it is here that the problematics Dooren and Haraway propose find their feet most explicitly.

Here, extinction is slow; death itself is an endemic disease, the very prognosis of which is a mutation of its opposite. The undead are at their strongest when they form a group, as are humans when they do the same (although humans lack a zombie’s resolve, with communities collapsing under the pressure cooker of constant dread and threat).

Some of these films also show a normalization of crisesShaun of the Dead, for example, does so to comic effect by showing the undead being used as cheap labour, pushing trolleys in supermarket car parks, once the event of the disaster has been corroborated but on the whole, since the release of George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, commentators have repeatedly highlighted the figure of the zombie as a fundamental critique of society.

John Cussans writes that the modern cinematic zombie’s “newly anthropophagous drive to convert us into them has been read as an allegory for the nihilistic, mindless insurgency of the structurally disenfranchised, unemployed, redundant and socially worthless human refuse of the late capitalist system.”The contagious nature of late capitalist disenfranchisement echoes the fear evoked by Lovecraft in his description of the Cthulhu cult, and also (in part) Mark’s concept of an “eerie Thanatos — a transpersonal (and transtemporal) death drive, in which the ‘psychological’ emerges as the product of forces from the outside.”

The undead are transpersonal in the way that they — both symbolically and physically — erode the self of the individual and society more generally; transtemporal in their apparent immortality (or hypermortality) which ungrounds our temporal conceptions of the limits of human life. Whilst Mark’s analysis in The Weird and the Eerie focuses on eerie agentic objects, the figure of the zombie is a fitting alternative to Penny’s asteroid analogy — one that is terrestrial and more explicitly psychological: an externalised mental crisis which, in both the figure of the zombie and the asteroid, is an attack by a catastrophic thanatoidal otherness, shattering self-esteem: zombies are — or were — us.

As survivors survive and zombies seek to convert the living, internal entanglements and tensions increasingly exist for us, cognitively, on the outside, splitting the psyche.

This identification with the outside-as-other is exemplified contemporaneously by The Walking Dead — a franchise of comics, televisions series and games that has made the psychological horror of the zombie its explicit focus.

The premise of the show is familiar. Rick Grimes, a sheriff from Atlanta, Georgia, wakes up in a hospital bed to find that the world he knew is gone. The streets are empty of any signs of life. Something has happened but he has no idea what. Piles of bodies suggest a rate of death the infrastructure of the state could not handle. Local infrastructure too has collapsed. Grimes heads out looking for his family, not knowing if they are dead or alive, and soon encounters the lurking undead who want nothing more than to eat his flesh.

Grimes eventually teams up with a group of other survivors and, by chance, finds his family amongst them. Together they try to stay alive against the relentless threat of the undead and have so far managed to do so, with variable success, for eight seasons.

What is unique about the show is its relative depth and realism. Gone are the familiar tropes of camp gore and slapstick comedy, hopeless women, over-prepared survivalists and wantonly ultraviolent heroes. Wantonly ultraviolent villains, however, are another matter — the cruelty of other desperate humans is soon revealed to be even more of a threat than the walking dead themselves.

The repetitive psychological traumas of their ordeal are relentless, negatively impacting the mental health of each character in profound ways. Excesses of life and death drives power the narrative, as dangerous as each other.

The world, however, has not descended into total anarchy. If anything, The Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic America is feudalistic — various authoritarian communities are strewn throughout the landscape that the central characters both feud and team up with.

The show is most infamous for the grief it not only piles on its characters but also its audience. No major character is safe. Heroes and villains die frequently. This oppressive atmosphere of fear is exacerbated by the discovery in the first season that the entire world has been infected by the zombifying pathogen. Everyone who dies — no matter the cause — becomes a “walker”. The traditional viral contagion of undeath is now made a social inevitability, making the zombie threat less of an existential quandary and more of a cognitive challenge to those concerned.

It is worth emphasising the “relative” realism of the show here. It is fantastical in many ways — and becoming increasingly more so — but many of the show’s strongest episodes explore the impact of the repetitive psychological traumas that the characters are put through.

One of the show’s most discussed episodes — season four’s The Grove — follows two young sisters, Lizzie and Mika, who are under the guardianship of main characters Carol and Tyreese.

Lizzie is sympathetic, even affectionate, towards the walkers around her. Much like how Mark explores children’s propensity to imagine the inner life of the nonhuman and nonorganic in his PhD thesis — quoting Sherry Turkle’s exploration of how children today “are comfortable with the idea that inanimate objects can both think and have a personality” — Lizzie has come to see the walkers as potential friends. Her affection for the undead eventually goes too far and it is revealed just how disturbed she is.

Carol and Tyreese return from hunting one day to find Lizzie has stabbed her sister to death. She exclaims: “Don’t worry, she’ll come back! I didn’t hurt her brain!” In a gut-wrenching conclusion, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Carol kills Lizzie. Believing her delusions make her unfit for the world, Lizzie will only ever be a threat to herself and those around her.

“The Grove” finds its antithesis in an episode from the following season. Titled “Them”, the episode finds the group defeated and melancholic. Having lost two major characters in recent episodes — one of whom being Tyreese — they are mentally and physically exhausted by grief and a lack of food and water. Morale could not be lower.

With barely enough strength to fight off the walkers that stalk them day and night, many members of the group are plagued by dark thoughts of giving up and an acceptance of the no doubt grisly consequences of doing so.

The episode is slow and uneventful, and the monotony of their struggle is overwhelming. Out of nowhere a storm breaks and the group are rewarded with their first drink for days. They shelter from the rain in an abandoned barn where they struggle to light a fire. Rick picks up on concern within the group about how their struggle is impacting the children in their charge. “I used to feel sorry for children that have to grow up nowin thisbut I think I got it wrong,” he says. “Growing up’s getting used to the world. This is easier for them.”

“This isn’t the world,” interrupts Michonne, another member of the group. “This isn’t it.” The group are in disagreement: for some, accepting the state of the world is giving up on it; for others, it is necessary preparation for facing up to the challenges ahead. Carol reassures Rick that kids can bounce back from anything but Lizzie’s fate from the previous season makes clear this is not always the case.

As the thunder and lightning outside only unnerves the group further, Rick proceeds to give what is perhaps the show’s most iconic speech:

When I was a kid, I asked my Grandpa once if he’d killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn’t answer. He said that was “grown-up stuff”. So I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. And he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, “Rest in peace, now get up and go to war.” And then after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive… And that’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then we get to live… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.

Still, the group cannot agree. “We’re not them!” exclaims Daryl, who leaves only to find that a horde of walkers have approached the barn under the cover of the storm, making the group’s previous discussion somewhat moot.

Death is always approaching. They cannot turn their backs on it for a second.

What Rick is suggesting is the formulation of a biological foundation for death in the hope of an eventual better life. On the one hand, that foundation is always already present in death’s inevitability but Rick’s argument is very different to the familiar platitude of “live each day as if it were your last.” His is rather live each day as if you were already dead in recognition “that “we” “ourselves” are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. What Rick notably adds to Mark’s folded outside is a communal orientation.

This collective looking into the cracked mirror of otherness is present in a number of other SF narratives with an added technological — and Promethean — dimension.

The OA, a Netflix Original series from 2016, begins with hand-held footage of a woman running through traffic before jumping off a bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. The woman, we soon learn, is Prairie Johnson. Having disappeared from small-town USA seven years previously as a blind woman, her apparent suicide attempt signals her return and now, mysteriously, she can see.

Immediately becoming a local celebrity, the series follows Prairie (who refers to herself as “the OA” or “Original Angel”) as she tells her story to a group of troubled new friendsthe school bully whose parents are threatening him with military school; his grieving teacher unable to process the death of her brother; the stressed jock trying to get a college scholarship whilst caring for his sick mother; a stoner parented by his sister; a lonely transgender boy struggling to find his place within the strict social hierarchies of an American high school.

Prairie’s story beginssurprisinglyin Russia. The daughter of a powerful oligarch, as a child she was the sole survivor of a bus crash caused by her father’s political enemiesher first near-death experience.

Blinded by the accident and sent to America whilst her father goes into hiding, she is adopted by an American couple. Prairie nevertheless yearns to be reunited with her father and so, once she is older, she runs away from home, believing he will be looking for her.

Playing an old Russian song on her violin on a New York subway platform, hoping one day her father will hear her play and come to her, she instead meets Hap, a scientist who wishes to prove, once and for all, that there is an afterlife. Hap believes that survivors of near-death experiences (or NDEs), having already passed through to “the other side” and chosen to return, can be studied with an aim to scientifically liberate all human beings from the assumption that death is the end.

He kidnaps Prairie who joins a group of four other captives. As they are repeatedly killed and revived by their captor, the characters realise that the afterlife is, in fact, a real place and only “death” itself will bring them freedom.

On their trips to the outside, the group one by one bring back a thanatoidal technology which they refer to as the Five Movements.

Resembling interpretive dance moves, as each captive adds to their repertoire they discover that these movements allow them to channel the outside, giving them special abilities such as the power to heal.

The first move, acquired by Prairie, cures her of her blindness and when Homer, her fellow captive and love interest, acquires a second they are able to revive another captive who is killed and purposefully not revived by Hap as punishment for their resistance to his experiments.

Soon the group and Hap are racing each other to acquire the fifth and final movement which the group believe will open a portal to the afterlife and allow them to escape their situation.

Before they can succeed, Hap dumps Prairie in the middle of nowhere so that she cannot join Hap and the others on the outside. He will take her place, acquiring the proof has has been so violently seeking.

It is at this point Prairie returns home and meets her new friends. She wishes to teach them the Five Movements so that they too can open the portal and allow Prairie to be reunited with Homer and the others in the emancipatory outside.

When the credibility of Prairie’s story is called into questionrepeated meetings with an FBI trauma counsellor suggest her mental state is more fragile than we know: is it possible her story is a delusion; an invention of her damaged psyche to help her to cope with her otherwise real abduction?—the new group part ways. However, during the season finale, whilst the other four members of the group—seemingly no longer on speaking terms—are eating lunch in the school cafeteria, a school shooter emerges and threatens to kill, at random, members of the student body.

When the shooter walks into the cafeteria, the group perform the Five Movements. With the shooter distracted by their performance, a chef in the cafeteria tackles the gunman who inadvertently fires an arch of stray bullets, one of which hits Prairie in the chest who is outside the cafeteria having run to the school after experiencing some sort of indeterminate “bad feeling”.

The series ends, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers, but the show is expected to return for a second season…

The OA and The Walking Dead, it seems, could not be more different. Both, however, seek to articulate a collective praxis through which the realities of death and undeath can be transcended.

The stakes of this kind of thinking in reality are currently prevalentwithin the Black Lives Matter movement.

Repetitive chants such as “I can’t breathe” and “I am Michael Brown” echo the sentiment of “We are the walking dead” in their frank identification by the living with the deceased; The OA’s emphasis on a communal bodily knowledge of repetitive death and violence echoes, albeit through a relative whiteness, a political reality of communal fear and death-consciousness.

The Five Movements are also a gesture of protest; an embodied emancipatory technologya “branch of knowledge dealing with [libidinal] engineering.” It is also a technology beyond the pleasure principle that engineers a collective desire for emancipation through repetitiona repetition that is continued until the movements are performed with “perfect feeling”.

Just as Freud describes the repetition of trauma as being central to the death drive, the characters in The OA are forced to repeatedly die but practice the Five Movements so as to process and transcend their situation.

This technological trend is common in cinema but it is seldom so emancipatory. Flatliners (1990/201) follows a group of medical students who self-induce near-death experiences on a quest to find what lies beyond. They likewise find an afterlife but are haunted by their experiences on their return, threatening their community. In Strange Days (1995), a man illegally sells transgressive experiences—from robberies to deaths—on a kind of MiniDisc that can be played through a neural-interface technology called SQUID. In Brainstorm (1983) a “death trip” is similarly recorded and committed to tape by a medical researcher who resists the military’s desire to weaponise the technology for use in torture.

In all instances, an impossible knowledge of death is framed as transgressive and dangerous, even when those exploring such limit-experiences are actively curious as to what they will find on the other side. Experiences are shared but nonetheless remain individually subjective. Death is transgressed but nonetheless remains taboo.

In The OA and The Walking Dead, the experience of death is no longer framed as a transgressive act but rather a means towards emancipation. Whilst The OA presents death as a Promethean technology of emancipation, The Walking Dead articulates a transforming of the affects of death and grief for emancipatory, consciousness-raising/razing purposes. Both attempt to move death from transgression to egression.


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