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1. 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).” Sit there with that for a bit.
“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 “Slow Death”: self-medicating activity that tilts toward self-destruction amidst overwhelming life. It can be seen as a refusal or embrace of sovereignty (see Gerard’s comment on my earlier post). 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, and with them the people seeking out relief from the sense of being useless, which is different from being powerless.
Where isn’t the fraying happening? 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 entire post could be hyperlinked 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.
The “Precarious” movement, of course, is reshaping “care” to create a new solidaristic class across the diverse locations and horizons of the shattered. “Care” is also 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. (I could care for you without caring for you, but then probably you’re going to have to pay me a salary or via taxes: will you pay me a genuinely living wage? And if you don’t have the money are there institutions to deliver care?) What about the state? These days, the first thing I think when I hear about someone’s illness is, are they were poor or alone, and what if . . . ? 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.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has committed his government to substituting for what people’s networks don’t provide: “If you need assistance, if you’re looking for a helping hand, know that we’re ready with open arms and open hearts to guide you through this tough stretch to see that everyone emerges from their crisis with their livelihoods and their lives in tact.” He can’t possibly deliver materially what his heart and arms are promising. But you know that a whole crew of people will repudiate both the tone and the cost of the caring state he offers. That “Campaign Against Living Miserably” is still a campaign for the others, not the members.
Also, 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. The maths for adding up are all becoming archaic now, or worse: Krugman calls them “zombie ideas.” Time to reinvent the good life: otherwise, it’s a continuous present lived on an ice sheet through which anyone might fall any minute, and the good life will be the one in which one managed to keep one’s head above water, near fantasy, after all. If the Campaign Against Living Miserably works, for what world are these men being preserved? See Umberto D. and its legacies in Rodrigo D., Mondays in the Sun, etc. For what world are we preparing others to be preserved, like those whom we teach? See The Class. These people don’t know. I’d like to know. The Campaign Against Living Miserably ought just to be another name for politics. But if it were called politics none of the young men would come.
2. You tell them, Lauren: people are about to snap. (Marshall, the homeless guy who collects street offerings and tells stories in front of the abandoned Hollywood Video on 53rd. St. in Hyde Park.)
This post was originally about the financial suicides. Weekly I revise the link in the original post to absorb the new ones. It contains stories about all sorts of people: people who had been cushioned by capital, institutional location, or an inherited sense of power; people who never had power over much but felt the loss of what they had as definitive; house poor people who grabbed onto the credit dream in hopes of gaming the system in a way that would eventually feel cushioned and reliable; people who, coming from anywhere, saw no way out to anywhere else.
The particular case that slays me is the suicides of Ervin Antonio Lupoe and his wife, Ana, and the murder of their 5 children, 8 year old Brittney Nicole, the 5 year old twins Jaszmin Lissette and Jassely Lisbeth, and the two year old twins Christian De Shawn and Benjamin Ryan. The mother died in bed with her sons, the father in a different room, with his daughters.
The story is like a lot of the stories about people who were living beyond their means (he’d gone bankrupt once already), who were yet building a world on the ether of those dreams, who became adept at hustling to cover their asses by varieties of kinds of lying to get resources for which they didn’t quite qualify (pretending they were poorer than they were to get low cost childcare); who were happy and scared all the time too. One neighbor said, “They were happy, they had birthday parties . . . . always outside on their bikes, riding on their wagon.”
Clearly they had chosen to be medical technicians because there’s always work in the medical field. CNN reported this very “fact” today, on Jobless, Not Hopeless. When I ask technicians at the UC hospital how they ended up there, that sentence is always there the way Merry Christmas is there in December, even amidst massive layoffs. But a woman at my gym told me this week another story: she’d been a phlebotomist and took a few years off to be with her kids, but in the meanwhile they changed the rules and require more training now, training she can’t afford. So she can’t find work in her or any field, and now she shakes when she gets the mail, hoping that this time it won’t be the final notice. I’ll take anything, I’ll take anything, maybe I should learn computers. She joined the gym to keep her confidence up, to get out of the house and into the world when the kids are at school, to network (people are always giving you business cards at my Y), and to stay fit for if-ever it is that the world will accept her back into it again.
Lupoe faxed a letter to the local ABC affiliate that explains his act, an act which, nonetheless, politicians and former employers insist on calling incomprehensible. He claims that he was a whistle blower, but they claim that he was caught lying for childcare: either way, he went to the union, they filed a counter claim, but when they returned to Kaiser Permanente thinking that their jobs were protected by the union, an HR person said, “You should not even had bothered to come to work today you should have blown your brains out.” After some struggle with KP, they did.
There’s a lot more to say about this, about their Facebook page (Facebook has put their page in a permanent “memorial state,” which is what happens to your page when they find out you’ve died), about the passage that ends their letter from The Da Vinci Code: “Oh Lord My God Is There No Hope For a Widow’s Son?” , about the ways the press runs the exemplarity of the event in the rash of California financial suicides. The state is bubbling over with them. Yet the historical evidence is that when people come to terms with the fact that economic precarity is widespread suicide rates actually go down. At the moment, psychologists are unbelievably incoherent about this, largely, I think, to prevent copycat modes of maladaptation.
My main aim is not to speculate about psychological motive, though. Who knows whether the people who give out in the face of this crisis were always giving out like the depressives of the previous posts? Anyway, only some of the people who have been long giving out give out; and only some of the people who were ok sometimes can’t adapt and give out, having no skills or emotional resources to tap into for the next step away from drowning. My unemployed father used to say to me, “What do you want me to do, shoot myself in the head?” (I didn’t, he didn’t.) Meanwhile, they were happy, they had birthday parties.
All they wanted was to inhabit a circuit of respect, of reciprocally decent mirroring and response, say, materially, not just affectively. But they also needed skills for resilience (or the serotonin, or the dopamine, or the genes, or the childhood), for keeping the anxieties at bay in the zones where these dynamics are unreliable. This case cluster points to the need to have better analysis of and respect for the productive function of disavowal, the political economies of disavowal and learned adaptation, the place of fantasy in maintaining life not just for later but for getting through the day right now.
What if the HR person at KP had acted as if in a “community of care”? “This is a nightmare, I’m so sorry: but you have to leave today.” Would the Lupoes still be alive, in Kansas with the relatives who were expecting them there, or were they just too exhausted from all the skating (Emerson, “Experience”)? What if the difference between life and death in economic crisis were a tone of voice, a performance of reciprocal something where there is no economic obligation, no meritocracy, and a mass recognition of the fragility of the sustaining intimacies ? None of these is a rhetorical question: they’re research directions; they’re epistemological pressures.
Seriously, the woman next to me in this cafe just said brightly to her friend, “Who knows? I may be the next Bill Gates!”
Part IV of this entry soon. I earned a little blogging time by writing 5 new recommendation letters in the last two days. Only you who do it know how insanely hard that is.
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