The Maternal Return

Some 36 hours after my initial call to the crisis team, two nurses showed up at my door. They had attempted to come round during the night shift, first scheduling a visit at 1am, then waking me up after I fell asleep to say it would be 2am. I said, don’t bother, I can wait until the morning.

The advice given was much of the same as that which I have been offered incessantly over the last few days. I pre-empted their various tick boxes. Everything still fell back on the possibility of a medication review – “you’re on 20mg, you don’t like 40; have you tried 30?” The one good thing to potentially come out of their visit was that I’m now “on their books”. They’re going to share their assessment with my GP and see about getting me some more bespoke talking therapy that can hopefully help me cope with these feelings of attachment and detachment. At least I hope that’s what they took away from our chat. But they were also deeply cynical about the therapy I’ve receiving from my psychoanalyst. I was reticent to describe it in much detail, assuming they’d think psychoanalysis is a crank pseudoscience (but I’m get to see any results from their preferred methods of treatment). For the most part, they seemed sceptical of its open-ended nature, its lack of structure or plans for action. I can appreciate that, and I would like something that supplements what I’m doing with my therapist, although these two processes could likely conflict with one another.

One of the nurses who came round had an awful way of putting it. She said something along the lines of: “It sounds like you’re doing a lot of unpacking and that might not actually be helpful for you right now. Maybe you should take some sort of therapeutic break from therapy.” She added: “At some point, you need to learn to pack that stuff up again.” To my own cynical ear, this sounded like they were recommending a more active repression, which is the last thing I need. But as ever, a close friend here had a much better take of their intentions.

Her responses on Whatsapp went as follows:

Yeah that’s not the best way of phrasing it. But part of this is trying to fathom how to move past something you’ll never understand. […] And that sounds agonising and you deserve to be able to imagine looking forward. And a huge part of that is letting go of the fact you will never resolve anything that’s happened. And that is actually sort of repressing it. But so you can build your life for you. Because you really really deserve to be happy (using that word cautiously with all obvious caveats). […] I think you can learn about your ‘issues’ with people and trust. And be curious about it. Without having to keep [tying] yourself in knots about why you struggle with it. Because seeing you this week it’s been exactly that. Like fast track panic to WHY AM I LIKE THIS vibes.

It is this “rush to understand” that has crashed my mental health. The rapid desire to understand why I struggle so much with interpersonal relationships, with the messy establishment of new ones, with the push and pull of romantic attachment and sexual connection and a desire to never again be alone, which always eventually transforms into social exhaustion, ending with a deep desire for disconnection and an anxiety that comes from not knowing other people as intimately as I would like.

As I waited for the crisis team this morning, I sat outside with a vitamin-packed drink and my pack of tobacco, reading Merve Emre’s annotated edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t know why I suddenly felt the urge to read it. Something about the walking in the book, in which the characters are torn between a repressive and explosive energy. Maybe I hoped to channel something of Septimus’s suicidal tendencies into my own, but instead found comfort in the instability expressed.

In her introduction, Emre discusses Woolf’s penchant for “character-reading”:

To become a writer [for Woolf] was to transform oneself from a reader of character, gazing at those around her with avid, gleaming eyes, to a creator of character, turning those observations into words, conjectures, fantasies. In life as in literature, she bathed ordinary people in the glow of her generous, affectionate imagination; remained attentive to the shadows and shades of their personalities. She did not seek to understand people completely, to master them. She knew all too well the disordered currents of emotion that ate away at the smooth and steady tracts of the mind, that no one, no matter how charming or successful or self-possessed, ever existed as a complete and wholly integrated self.

What emerges from Woolf’s other novels is a total affirmation of this fact. In Between the Acts, Orlando, The Waves, To The Lighthouse, there is always this tension between the horror of an unintegrated self and the reciprocated horror that an integrated ideal of the self can also give rise to. Elizabeth Abel, in Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, makes this explicit in her reading of Between the Acts, where “the horror of the impending world war … extends Woolf’s critique of the fascist appropriation of the mother’s body.” From Woolf’s feminist standpoint, this fascist appropriation is terrifyingly approximate. The mother is absorbed into the patriarchal body of society at large. (“Society it seems was a father, and afflicted with the infantile fixation too”, she writes in Three Guineas.) But as Abel notes, the rise of fascism, for Woolf, was not so much the total ascendency of patriarchy but rather a reaction to the dwindling of a paternal authority.

Abel goes on to note how this viewpoint ran contrary to Freud’s, and Woolf was closely reading Freud’s Moses and Monotheism whilst drafting Between the Acts. Freud argues that the assertion of a patriarchal society, for better or for worse (and he seems conflicted on this point himself), is the victory of “intellectuality over sensuality”, but in attempting to absorb sensuality within itself, the world succumbs to a crisis of embodiment, which Woolf illustrates through the grotesque analogy of a snake choking on a still-kicking toad:

The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round – a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, [Giles] stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas of his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him.

Though Freud seems to want to assist the snake in its digestive process, a process of paternal assimilation, Woolf hopes to smash the whole sorry entanglement. But this image of birth in reverse is also telling, in that it demonstrates how the maternal is not something to be absorbed but a kind of shadow that lingers behind the patriarchal dialectic of fathers being superseded by sons. Abel notes how this is present, too, in Freud’s text, when he argues that Christianity’s emergence from Judaism, the religion of the son emerging from the religion of the father, also recentres (albeit in a secondary role) the sensual role of Mary in a nonetheless patriarchal continuation. Abel writes, “By analogy to Christ’s own sacrifice, which replaces the father it would appease, Mary’s selfless mothering advances maternal authority.” The word “selfless” here feels like a double entendre. The indeterminacy of the feminine self constitutes a kind of ambivalence and ambiguity. Though Freud insists on the father’s return — writing what Abel calls a kind of “apology for Hitler” when he argues that “in the mass of mankind there is a powerful need for an authority who can be admired, before whom one bows down, by whom one is ruled and perhaps even ill-treated … a longing for the father felt by everyone from his childhood onwards” — Woolf instead affirms the indeterminacy of the maternal, albeit contrary to Freud’s own description of its return. “The world that for Woolf had newly consecrated patriarchy”, Abel continues, “was for Freud reviving the sensuous chaos of archaic matriarchy.”

When asking about my own circumstances, the crisis team noted the absence of my own father(s) from my narrative. I described the lingering trauma felt from my own adoption, and the further trauma of a breakdown in the relationship with my adoptive mother. In 2013, she suffered a breakdown, following spinal surgery, which led to a sort of paranoid schizophrenia (though I do not think she was given an official diagnosis). On returning home, having been spurned by local spinal and mental health wards to be the recipient of a lacklustre “care in the community”, her agoraphobia was all-consuming and extended outwards to my father and me. Living at home after graduating from my Bachelor’s degree, any attempt to leave the house was met with an interrogation, as she feared I would never return. She manifested the realisation of this fear through her own actions. I would often escape the house battered, bruised and scratched as she tried to wrestle me from the front door, overreacting to any defensive manoeuvre as I was forced to use my own strength to escape her grasp, desperate for some contact with the outside world. My father escaped for a time, but never fully. He still lives in the house in which my mother’s struggles to leave. I have left and now have no desire to return.

Despite this, I still talk to my dad sometimes, although not often. I do not feel like he is an authority figure but someone who has suffered the same traumas as myself, at least more recently. He, too, is a victim of a twisted authority. Whereas I have escaped, he remains trapped, and I often wonder now if my further decision to leave a long-term relationship – or rather, my eventual acceptance of my girlfriend’s belief that it had run its course – upset him as he realised I had found the wherewithal to move on, which still eludes him. (As an aside, I should add that I have no idea who my biological father is, nor do I feel any particular desire to find out, so unimportant he feels to the narrative of my birth beyond the borrowing of some of his genes.)

My relationship with my biological mum is distant, civil, polite. We occasionally share news about each other’s lives and say hello on birthdays. But my adoptive mum feels like that snake and toad to me. The necessity of crushing that relationship, splattering it all over my life, despite the trauma of maternal disconnection that has haunted me for so much longer, was an action I did not think I was capable of. As I sit in my present, slowly ebbing crisis, I feel similarly torn by this kind of decision, which is not always within my control: What should I affirm and what should I destroy? What am I capable of affirming and what am I capable of destroying? With my own agency diminished, rocked by the waves of present instability and historic trauma, these questions have been turned narcissistically inwards. What am I able to affirm in myself? What am I able to destroy? My self-destructive tendencies, at periodic moments, have almost won out. They continue to intrude as thoughts and images, if only because I feel incapable of affirming anything else. The desire to self-destruct rushes in to fill the void left by what is outside of my control. (This week, I am feeling like a particularly bad Stoic.)

A further anxiety, when confronting by preoccupation with mothers, with the feminine, with the sensuous, is whether this anxiety comes from my own patriarchal frustrations. I am a son, after all — albeit one who feels so disastrously displaced. I have repeatedly explored a sense of gender identity over the last few years, which does not so much emerge from a desire to become woman but from an ardent refusal to be a man. I wonder to what extent my own heteronormativity – my basic attraction to women – blurs into other social norms that, intellectually speaking, I wholeheartedly despise. I long for something queerer than what is expected of me, and the constant interrogation of my own internalised misogyny gives way to a near-constant social anxiety, regarding how I appear and pass through the world. I am a big guy, and though soft and cuddly to those who know me, I fear the assumptions projected onto me from the outside world, the understandable fears so many people – women in particular – may have when in the company of a man and the ways that I may have been conditioned to relate to them.

My adoption trauma triggers this constantly. A foundational disconnection from the maternal gives rise to often anxious and ill-advised attempts to connect with the women in my life. But do I long for a mother figure? Not really. I long for a more sensuous, less fascistic form of community. As Abel writes of Woolf’s Between the Acts, the book “emphasizes the disintegration of the contemporary social fabric, but it refuses integration under the aegis of fathers, and it laments the loss of a concept of mothering that could serve as an alternative source of unity.” I think this captures my own feelings perfectly. It is not an idealised mother I long for – I have no experience of such a thing. But I do long for a sense of unity that I am all too aware patriarchy smothers and chokes on. I long for a community, a kinship, a kind of relationship that is tender and reciprocal in ways that patriarchy so often forecloses. It is a surprisingly difficult thing to achieve, not least because it is wholly other to the heteronormativity I feel otherwise encased within.

Echoing this, Abel notes how Woolf’s novel is “parched”. Mother nature is dehydrated and dies a series of death in the arid lands of modernity. “Relief comes with a sudden providential shower that dissolves the boundaries between author and audience, restoring the human community in a moment of collective lament that both articulates and heals the pain of isolation.” I am reminded, as ever, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which the pull of the sun is a kind of patriarchal authority, under which a newly thalassic world is giving rise to new schizophrenias, new subjectivities. Though the sun activates the lizard brain of each of the characters, it is the water that first brings forth new life from the shadowy maternal depths of the world. So it is for Woolf: “Hence the startling reversal through which rain, rather than sunshine, elicits her conclusion that ‘nature once more had taken her part…’”

Rain takes on the form of “all people’s tears”; rain is the diffusion of a “‘sudden and universal’ character”. “[T]he value of the weather is reversed. What [has been] represented as disaster, a wedge niched into the fabric of human relations, has here become a desired dissolution, a fleeting moment of maternal return, as nature, assuming Mary’s guise, weeps the world’s ‘[t]ears’…” I find myself weeping constantly at the moment, freely, openly, collapsing into a lifelong grief that is triggered by the perpetual promise and denial of the maternal’s return. It is a desire not just for a mother but to be a mother; a desire to be subsumed in new connections and actively produce them, hold them, nurture them, without any hint of paternal authority.

What Crisis?

Trigger warning: discussion of mental health and suicide.

This morning I had a crisis team call back 16 hours after a further onset of intrusive suicidal thoughts. They are, of course, deeply irrational and staving them off is an exhausting process. In the meantime, I hid away at friends’ houses until I was too tired not to sleep. This morning, I woke up feeling no different, fighting off intrusive thoughts of plans to end my life.

I say none of this to curry any sort of sympathy. I don’t want it. I just want to survive this. I’m trying to ride it out, knowing all things take time and I just have to withstand it. But I’m not sure if I can withstand it much longer. That is why I rang the crisis team.

I want to feel like this nervous and self-destructive energy can be channeled into something positive. I’ve been going on walks to feel better but the pull of dangerous places makes it feel as risky as it is helpful. That is why I feel in crisis. I feel damned if I do, damned if I don’t, fighting off frightening impulses from within that attach themselves to all things from without.

Given they are called the “crisis team”, I expected the person on the other end of the phone to be well equipped when it comes to dealing with this sort of crisis. Imagine my frustration when I am given the exact same advice I’ve had from my various GPs over the last few years.

The man on the phone tells me about all the ways I can support myself in my community — eating well, exercising, socialising, taking my medication. I’m already in private therapy. I do all of those things already advised. I am in crisis nonetheless. After I explained this, I get annoyed and sit in silence. There are two options left, he tells me: increase the dosage of my medication to the maximum (something I did a few years ago but which didn’t make me feel good at all, later coming back down to the standard dose) or I can have a further mental health assessment from the crisis team (I have had 5 mental health assessments over the last 18 months and the only advice given then was that I should try exercise more and consume less sugar, which I’ve done, but here I am in crisis again).

Every time “my community” is mentioned, I get that little bit more annoyed. As well-meaning and supportive as the man on the phone is, I hear echoes of Thatcherism in every utterance. My life in community is the problem, a community embedded in structures and experiences that are overwhelming me. Even calling the crisis team is a literal cry for help that only echoes around the system that is itself causing me distress. But the most infuriating thing about this incessant talk of “my community” is that it is all I have to lean on right now. My friends have shown me so much kindness and patience over the last few days, but the feeling that I am burdening them with my own distress, which may be triggering and difficult for each of them, only compounds feelings of guilt and shame. What support is available for those who are giving me support? I feel myself getting increasingly irritated. This burden is detrimental to the community in which I am embedded, but all they can offer is everything already tried, rebounding me back to those people who have already done more than enough. I am looking for something new, something that takes the burden off my community, only to be turned around and sent back where I came from.

They ask if I’ve ever been given an official diagnosis. I say no, but I’ve tried to get one, if only so it could make these protracted and utterly pointless conversations about how to deal with “low mood” appear as superficial as they feel. “Depression” is only a symptom, not the disease. I am buckling under the weight of passed traumas, adoption traumas, buckling under the weight of attachment anxieties and fears, all of which are triggered by my immersion in a wholly new community, in which I feel like a stray dog, overtly friendly but irrationally distrusting of the connections offered. The underlying causes are skirted around. Therapy is helping but also compounding my distress, as I become increasingly aware of the enormous scope of the task of healing ahead of me. Now I’m at the point of taking myself to A&E and getting in touch with a more acute service provider, but the advice is exactly the same.

These things take time, but I feel my time is running out. I want to be sedated. I want to be given something — be that drugs or a safe space to dwell uneasily — but it is all out of the question. I need a quick fix, at least until I can steady myself and keep walking down the long road ahead. Induce a coma. Let the unconscious do its work. I am exhausted; the embodiment of a flat tyre. I’ve had to stop. I feel every bump in the road so intensely. Suspension buckled off-road, I need a pick up. There are none available.

I go quiet after he advises yet another medication change and sends me back to my GP. The man on the other end of the phone says, you don’t have to agree with me. Taking the bait, I say, okay, I don’t. What if “my community” is the problem? He rabbits on about chemical imbalances, exercising, changes to medication. We go round in circles. None of this is helpful. The system is broken.

Update: Alexander Boyd replies on Twitter:

“What support is available for those who are giving me support?

Friendship is the support. You are the support that’s available when you can give it. This cannot be substituted by a remote professional. The intrinsic dysfunction of the system lies precisely in its remoteness.

Originally tweeted by Alexander Boyd (@AlexanderJBoyd) on May 19, 2022.

I agree, and this is precisely what my friends say in response to my own anxieties. I suppose that’s the source of my frustration too. I know that is my support network, and it is more important than any other. I only wish it was more integrated with the other things I am plugged into.

Dreams of the Liminal

Last night I dreamt I was in rural Wales, in the very south-west of the country. I had a lot of bags with me, my mum and ex-girlfriend with me, and for someone reason a bass guitar that had once belonged to someone famous. The back room of the guitar shop where the bass was for sale became our base of operations, and we were doing our best to figure out how to get back to Newcastle.

Information was scarce. We could plot a journey, buy a ticket, but the main problem was that we didn’t know where exactly we were setting off from. There were towns that I’d clearly made up — with names like Anwich and Alnwick (which does exist but not in Wales) and Aber-something, all stereotypically Welsh and provincial — but alongside our positioning in space, time was also a complete unknown, alhough it was most certainly the evening and getting later, as trains became few and far between as we dillydallied.

In the end, I sent my mother and ex on their way, having sorted them out ahead of time but finding myself falling at the last hurdle. I had a plan but needed to return the guitar and get some things left at the shop. On my return, I realised I’d actually left my luggage at the station, which I’d travelled quite some way away from. I didn’t want to go back there because my plan was to depart for Newcastle from somewhere else, but now I had to. My thoughts turned to where I’d sleep. I resigned myself to sleeping on the floor of the station I’d just left and waiting in purgatory until the morning.

I woke up before any of this liminal travel situation was resolved and was left wondering what it all meant. It was a somewhat banal stress dream considering the reality of the day before, which I had spent in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary having an acute mental health crisis.

For the most part, when my mental health isn’t great, it manifests as an anxious guilt and shame. The main somatic symptom is an anvil on my chest. My solar plexus is transformed into a black hole from which no emotion can escape. I’d felt like that for a few days, apropos of nothing but some incongruously triggered adoption trauma and attachment anxiety. Then, in preparing myself for my weekly therapy session, the big black balloon burst. Whatever was being held in that emotional abcess seeped out all over my body as a nervous and self-destructive energy.

A friend came over, whose kindness I will never, ever forget, but the feeling would not go away. In the end, it felt like A&E was the best place to be — on the one hand, as the best place to preempt any sort of self-injury, but on the other, as a way to get in touch with a crisis team and make myself known to any community support systems that might be in place.

It was a very surreal experience, but I think it was also ultimately a positive one. Still, it was my first time in A&E without any clear physical ailment to be seen to. To confess you have shown up to an overcrowded and stretched hospital for your own safety is deeply embarrassing, but thankfully the team there were endlessly understanding and even appreciative. What had felt like an extreme course of action as I paced around my living room was eventually confirmed as the right thing to do.

It also turns out that six hours in an NHS waiting room is a good way to distract yourself. By the time I’d been both physically and mentally accessed, I mostly felt numb, calm, exhausted. But the relief on the long walk home was also comforting. I felt utterly depleted with nothing left to feel. The only sensation left was that I’d survived something. I’d ridden the wave and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

My arrival in Newcastle has felt somewhat jumbled. Outward appearances have largely been social, joyful, drunk, euphoric. It was meant to be a fresh start; it has been a fresh start. But there is an inevitable amount of baggage I have brought with me, which has been left unpacked, for the most part, as I go about making friends here.

With friends made, I have felt the inevitable creep of other lives returning, knocking at the door, ready to make themselves at home again as I fall into a new sense of stability. My train dream, though banal, felt appropriate. In my unconscious rush to return to the present, I am struggling to negotiate what parts of my old lives to bring with me, mentally at least. Perhaps the dream of picking and choosing is itself a fallacy. It’s all coming with, whether I like it or not. Pretending otherwise has not been particularly clever. It has caught up with me.

At the time, I must acknowledge that I invited it in. I have wanted to take some time to process, reflect, transform myself by actively thinking about and processing the recent (and not so recent) past. The next six months are intended to be a liminal space, a transitory space for my mental health, where I hope I can find a more concrete sense of stability than the flux of the social. But in consciously beginning that process, I underestimated just how hard things would hit me.

On this occasion, the return to blogging was not enough to weather the overflow of thoughts. I knew it was a bad omen.

Sex and Subjective Instability

If it was not already obvious, I have started re-reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in the run-up to my PhD, which I’m starting in October. Given my topic is the figure of the orphan in psychoanalysis and philosophy, I am taking Anti-Oedipus as my starting point, and whilst the PhD will no doubt be a relatively straight-laced research project, I already know I want to transform it afterwards into something more personal. The entire impetus behind this project, after all, is a kind of therapeutic function. (Whether that’s a terrible idea or not — and I suspect it might be, as far as my mental health is concerned — we’ll soon find out.)

Yesterday, I wrote about Deleuze and Guattari’s re-conception of desire in the book’s opening chapter on “The Desiring-Machines”, and could not help but begin to apply it to a lot of what I’m trying to work through at the moment, in therapy and life more generally. I have felt an unfortunate tendency to lean into a certain new conception of myself. On the one hand, this is positive and brings so much of their book directly to the fore, as I feel myself actively affirming “the nuptial celebration of a new alliance, a new birth, a radiant ecstasy, as though the eroticism of the machine liberated other unlimited forces.” But against this arises the unfortunate desire to compound and concretise that new sense of self all too readily. A “non-fascist life” is a surprisingly difficult think to live.

I’ve been discussing a certain runaway desire of a “rush to understand” — to understand what certain relations (and relationships) mean or represent; to sketch, far too quickly, the product of a particular aspect of social production, newly entered into; a rush to know, to like, to love. It’s euphoric, but with that comes a strange tendency to get to the end of something, to curtail the flux of getting comfortable with someone new. But an anxiety arises from this too, one which Deleuze and Guattari hold tangentially in their sights. In their abstracted terms, they talk about desire as a “set of passive syntheses that engineer partial objects, flows, and bodies, and that function as units of production.” The ultimate end of this process, however, despite the rush to understand, is surely unconscious. “The real is the end product, the result of the passive syntheses of desire as autoproduction of the unconscious.” When desire makes itself an object to be held and overtly described, it becomes inert, trapping, detrimental to other processes. The anxiety of social production, then, comes from the desire to know the unknowable — that is, the unknowable as the real, beyond all idealistic anticipations and conceptions. I feel I understand this intuitively, at least right now — I am tired all the time, struck by an awareness that what I feel so intensely during the day can only really be resolved through the unconscious machinations of sleep. But letting go of a certain “active” (that is, conscious) production is hard. The desire to produce a concrete and conscious knowledge becomes elusive and self-defeating.

The rush of social production is at its height when opening oneself utterly to the other. But this can also be an intensely unhealthy and even exploitative position to find oneself in. The feeling of being a subject in excitable flux comes up against its own desires to give form to an “object” (person, relation, event) before oneself. (Photography be damned.) As I do my best to steer clear of this, it becomes all the more apparent in other people. There are men — and it is often men — in my social circle who struggle with a certain social indeterminacy and hope to pin everything down. But here again, Deleuze and Guattari confirm what seems so elusive to the self caught up in the fraught vulnerability of social relations. To project what we desire onto others, thought of as social objects, is a kind of violence — whether explicitly or implicitly. In truth, as they write, it is “the subject that is missing in desire,” rather than any external object, or rather it is “desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression… Hence the product is something removed or deducted from the process of producing: between the act of producing and the product, something becomes detached, thus giving the vagabond, nomad subject a residuum.” A recent conversation about bad sex comes to mind, where the self, in trying to determinately affirm its own participation in intercourse, occludes the other in a detached fantasy, and as a result all tenderness is lost.

Dating advice from Deleuze and Guattari? There may be nothing more insufferable to draw from this book; nothing more pathetically “theory bro”. But it is intriguing to feel the stakes of their project in that most intimate and vulnerable of social relations, where a recently acquired and relatively nomadic embrace of post-Covid, newly single sociality struggles against a desire for concentration and privation, which does begin to feel immediately like the repression of a broader tendency to know, like and love a web of people and neighbours. It is the curtailing of a psychic reality into a negatively familiar and restricted form, which is not negative in and of itself, but only in the ways it can deny you a far more liberatory reality if you let it. “As Marx notes, what exists in fact is not lack, but passion, as a ‘natural and sensuous object.'” To be passionate about people needn’t be curtailed and applied to limited circumstances. Indeed, it mustn’t be. We do not need those kinds of relationship, but rather desire them as the distillation of our passion. Distillation needn’t be a form of restriction. Let your cup runeth over.

Relationships and the Real:
Thoughts on Desiring-Production as Social Production

… the real object that desire lacks is related to an extrinsic natural or social production, whereas desire intrinsically produces an imaginary object that functions as a double of reality, as though there were a “dreamed-of object behind every real object,” or a mental production behind all real productions.

One of the first tasks that Deleuze and Guattari set themselves in Anti-Oedipus is to flesh out the psychoanalytic conception of desire. At “the very lowest level of interpretation”, they argue, desire is constituted by a lack. Production is set opposite acquisition. We produce as a means towards a consumptive end. This seems intuitive. I want something, I work towards its acquisition, producing the circumstances of its emergence; the object is produced, I acquire it, I am content. That is, until I come to realise I lack something else. But this “until”, this “and then” or “and so”, complicates the linear development and dialectic actualisation of desire and its object. Though production and consumption may appear to be a straight line, the straight line, they note elsewhere, is its own kind of pernicious labyrinth. Set against the ultimately enclosed complexity of a hedge maze, it can be far harder to say where a straight line begins and ends.

This “conjunctive synthesis”, in itself, constitutes the “production of consumption”. Under capitalism, we become all too aware that desire is never truly and fully resolved. There is always more to desire, because production and consumption, in this context, are not a straight-forward dialectical process. As Deleuze and Guattari write, within the conjunctive relationship between production and consumption, where the product cannot be fully separated from the process of its own production, “the pure ‘thisness’ of the object produced is carried over into a new act of producing.” What is desired and acquired is never simply left to one side but produces new potentials of multiplicity, arrangement and rearrangement, bricolage. This producing-product is, as a result, “multiple and at the same time limited”, constituted by “the ability to rearrange fragments continually in new and different patterns and configurations”. To find oneself in a milieu overrides the possibility of understanding that 1+1=2. We find ourselves before the straight-line labyrinth of 1+1+1+1+1+1… Postmodernism, as the cultural logic of late capitalism, makes an embarrassment of this otherwise open-ended desiring-production, where what is combined is not simply the “1” as a single unit of something or other, but a 1 that is always the same 1, if only represented superficially through different typefaces. (The unending productive consumption of Marvel movies, etc.)

For a subject in the midst of social relations, either form of conjunctive synthesis can be a difficult thing to withstand. It is for good reason that Deleuze and Guattari model their seemingly positive alternative on the schizophrenic, who may be far more attuned to the materialist machinations of the world at large, beyond capitalism’s restricted purview, but who nonetheless struggles and suffers to belong within the same purview of a hegemonic social order. But it is not an experience unavailable to us in the here and now. “The satisfaction the handyman experiences when he plugs something into an electric socket or diverts streams of water”, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, by way of a notably commonplace example, “can scarcely be explained in terms of ‘playing mommy and daddy'”.

This is the “rule of continually producing production”. The institutional bounds of the reproductive family disrupt this process through orbital sets of relation. The nuclear family, after all, is a configuration that revolves around a given nucleus: the 1+1=2. Other individuals or grouped relations can form bonds and relationships with the reproductive 2, but it is always the 1+1=2 that constitutes an ideological core around which all else revolves. As we move through a heteronormative world, what becomes apparent is the way that this drive to pair up becomes detrimental to a wider social order. Given our current discursive climate, it is necessary to say that this is not some overwrought argument in favour of polyamory. Each to their own, of course, but on a more general level, it is necessary to remain vigilant before the institutional pressure exerted by the family and its inchoate forms of prefiguration, in which the restrictive relationship of the 1+1=2 tends more towards privation rather than further socialisation, not only of a given romantic pairing but the individual as such, constituted by an innate potential for so many more kinds of synthesis.

As I continue to settle into Newcastle, I feel a strange pull towards a sense of belonging I’ve seldom gotten on well with. Finding myself embedded in a whole new set of social relations, at first the joy experienced was euphoric. A new friend made every day; an ever-expanding support network of emotionally available people. But as the period of adjustment begins to settle into a particular configuration, leaning into certain relationships becomes an anxious relation. Validation and comfort is sought in specific places and the ability to self-soothe and feel ground as an individual begins to wane. We call it FOMO, but it goes much deeper — the fear of missing out on what, exactly? Not just fun, but connection. The more friends I have the opportunity to see, the lonelier I find myself feeling when they’re not around.

In the pub the other day, people were talking about the pop-psychological traits of being first or second born. “What about you, Matt? Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “I’m a lone adoptee”, I reply without thinking. “It’s a special category.” An only child without the same antisocial tendencies. In truth, I’m exceptionally social. There’s nothing I enjoy more. But it covers over a secret sadness; a more foundational sense of disconnection. The metaphor routinely returned to is that of a stray dog — perhaps too trusting, despite abuse and discomfort, where a social desiring-production is inexhaustible in being born of lack, but which finds itself colliding with a certain vulnerability that desiring-production necessitates, a certain will-to-rupture. I find myself leaning into and hoping to produce a sense of sociality that those with bigger and/or more stable families may take wholly for granted, leaning all too readily into the production of a certain restrictive social relation that has never actually felt safe to me.

For me at least, the source of this anxiety is familiar, if long since overcome. I feel like a teenager again, all too aware of the insufficiency of a given familial relation, actively seeking new ones. That this sense of social productive, actively engaged with, might resolve into a singular product is a scary thing. The end of social production, the pressure of which is felt and affirmed all around me, is both intensely desired and feared. It is a double-edged sword. Vulnerability, it seems, is endearing, even attractive. A queer friendship seems to navigate this desire with ease. But the shadow of adoption is long and dark. I feel on the outside at all times, even as I am beckoned inwards. An emotional intelligence is sought out as a nice thing to be around. But the vulnerability that this requires, the deprivatisation of desire as a form of social production, eventually starts to feel self-destructive.

Perhaps this is the reason I have felt a desire to write publicly today for the first time in weeks. Even though I take little real comfort from the parasociality of blogging these days. I also started smoking again — properly, at least. No longer simply a social stimulant or writing aid, a treat interrupted by long stints of abstinence, the tiny addictive machine of a writer’s nicotine dependency becomes a stable moment of reprieve where the mind can focus on an oral fixation, as the hands roll cigarette after cigarette and every feeling expunged returns to the body with each intake of cancerous breath. Blogging has long felt like having a cigarette in this regard, whether I am smoking through it or not: the acquisition of a brief moment of composure amid the tumult of the social, a way to write out a feeling and affirm a brief moment of grounding, that performatively travels far out into the world but which is nonetheless produced in the discomfort of intellectual isolation.

For my sins, I am smoking a lot right now, if only because I feel I need lots of these moments to sit and unwind. Against the social euphoria of new connections is the deep-seated and somewhat irrational desire for stable consummation, which is nonetheless distrusted. That smoking is a (somewhat) socially accepted form of self-harm is not to be disregarded here. I’m reminded of James Wilt’s forthcoming book, Drinking Up The Revolution. Our social lubricants, considered within their full materialist context, do us so much harm, despite the fact we (on the left especially) so often fetishise them for the other worlds they provide us glimpses of. Our complicity is deep-rooted; our utopias woefully contained within broader fascistic processes. This is more readily addressed when considering the productive consumption of alcohol. What about the social production that surrounds and runs implicitly through it?

No Familiar

3rd May 2022

When do you know you feel safe? When do you know to trust that feeling of being safe?

I still feel so all over the place, but it’s stupid because everything is so good. I feel safe and held but I don’t know whether to trust that feeling fully or not. Ian asked an interesting question: When was the last time I felt safe? […] I have previously chosen familiarity over safety, because it felt like home, and home also never felt safe.

[…] I’m doing a lot of things differently now. I feel like I have thrown off the familiar. I need to make sure I keep doing that. Don’t let anything go staid. Don’t let that dysfunctional sense of home creep back in. Define a new one.

Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life:
Zer0 Classics Edition

The first in a new series of Zer0 Classics have been announced: a new edition of Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life. I was invited to write a new introduction and Simon Reynolds has contributed an afterword.

As a little precis to my introduction, I’ve done my best to chronicle the development of one of the book’s central concepts: hauntology. I chart its emergence through the blogosphere, the initial backlash in the early 2010s, its jousting with accelerationism, and finally consider why the book was eventually published and struck such a chord, despite the fact many considered hauntology to be over by the time Ghosts was published in 2014. I hope it adds some considerable context to a book that far exceeded its blogospheric moment and why it continues to resonate today.

No word on a release date as yet, but watch this space.

Spring News

A big week this week. The first complete draft of my next book, Narcissus in Bloom, was sent off to Repeater Books, so we can start the editing process in a couple of months. I also had confirmation that my PhD in Philosophy at Newcastle University will be funded by the Northern Bridge Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership. I’ll be starting research on the figure of the orphan in philosophy, starting with the role of the “orphan-unconsicous” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. It’s a project I’ve had in mind for a few years now, following on from an essay I wrote for Lapsus Lima in 2019 — current working title Anti-Oedipus, Pro-Antigone.

Between now and starting my PhD in October, I’m going to keep taking something of a break from the blog. There’ll be photos, but having written intensely and almost daily for five years, it feels like the perfect time to recharge and reorient myself for what’s to come. More soon.