. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Do you intend to die (II)?

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

I have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of things, which requires some reporting on concepts, some associative building on them, and an emotional weather report about a case that feels exemplary of this historical moment in the U.S. but whose exemplarity is constituted partly by the form of its enigma.

The problem with writing across different, incommensurate, and oblique archives is striking the right tone of reportage:  dispassionate, passionate, comic-absurd, comic-slapstick, stentorian, melodramatic . . . No tone feels right ethically, which says something about tone itself, which is that it provides an affective epistemology of its own, holding the object just so, so that we can walk around it.  Tone is to voice as atmosphere is to the environment phenomenologists call a world.  In this case, though, to strike the “right” tone would be to risk homogenizing the incommensurate and describing the obscure so well that speculation looks like evidence construction. What follows is speculative, and I am a worm in an apple.

The question was about detaching. We were thinking about the intention to die.  We were 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.  (He was my first adult-life personal encounter with this series.) 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.

Here are the keywords:  “affect regulation,” “ego depletion,” and “resiliency.”

Again, because these are research notes indicating the rich literature on affect management that I am pursuing to understand why people remain bound to lives that don’t work and what would happen if they didn’t, I cannot tell the whole story here, but provide some names to be followed out; and I fear that this three part post will have to become four parts, just as my national sentimentality trilogy will become a quartet when joined by the transnational supernumerary nipple of Cruel Optimism. It is not that I am endorsing the universal application or relevancy of what follows, by the way, but that I am collecting cognate explanations for different ways that people wear out, give out, bottom out, or work out.

(I took a break and, for fun, went to the Thesaurus for “enervate”:  debilitate, devitalize, disable, enfeeble, exhaust,fatigue, incapacitate, jade, paralyze, sap,unnerve, vitiate, weaken, weary . . . . What a goldmine! Jade!)

Ego depletion:  the psychologist Roy Baumeister has written a series of articles about ego depletion. In classic Freudian psychoanalysis, the ego’s job is to filter out what’s overwhelming (overstimulating, in Freud’s argot of the nervous intensities); the ego’s function is to enable the subject not to be defeated by all that his senses encounter.  The ego makes it possible for you to be reliable in your personality:  it enables personality continuity to be presumed rather than actively resumed. Baumeister, no Freudian, more or less equates “ego” with “personality.”  He writes in a fascinating yet flat-footed way about how the ego gets exhausted, and whether it might be trained to develop a more sustaining musculature. (“Muscle” is his metaphor, not mine.)

The scene of Baumeister’s concern is people’s failures at self-regulating, which account, in his view, for most personal and social problems. (As if!) It is not that people are not committed to affective and appetitive self management, or that they had bad caretaking environments when they were little and so are less positively attached to the world, but that the subject literally gets worse at self-management–has less capacity for it–the more consciously s/he tries to do it.

People become depleted and less capable of acting intentionally if they have recently consciously or intensively attempted to be competent to something. In this view, in states of ego depletion people are more likely to act self-destructively not because of a psychoanalytic-style drama of fortda or attachment disorder, but because the mechanism of the personality (a concept he presumes rather than explores) is such that intention, the gathered up agency of the subject toward an end, takes energy.

Some people argue that indeed what Baumeister calls “ego depletion” is really just tired attention.  But he claims that it’s not just that people become merely clumsy after they have gathered themselves up into intentional action (his model of agency is the task). His claim is that people become disorganized subjects from the very same work that produces them as subjects who act in the world. He thinks one can train oneself to be less self-destructive or self-undermining during those episodes when one is recovering from being a subject who acts intentionally.  Maybe:  it helps to clarify ways of addressing the recovery time one needs after ordinary attentiveness, social encounters, and at the end of the day, let alone the school year, for instance; but also to think about subjectivity  over time, and of the ways that exhaustion might lead either to rigidity (“I am who I am,” a phrase I find quite toxic) or to giving out into modes of diffusion.

Affect Regulation:  I am just at the beginning of tracking this rich literature on attachment, mentalization, all sorts of things related to how subjects experience affective intensities and how they cope with them (the presumption is that intensities induce action, but here we have to understand that the category “action” includes not acting but becoming very still, distracted, numb, cut off, and so on).  Some people call the conventions with which people learn to have kinds of response “schemas. This material is quite stunning for the wide variety of ways people metaphorize how much of the individual’s agency is seen as caught up in generative self-management, reactivity, keeping it together. Fonagy notes that “self-regulation can be considered as a higher kind of affect regulation; in another sense, it constitutes a change in form. . . . “, which makes his view a lot like the affect/emotion literature. But its interest isn’t solely in sovereign selves but in the child’s capacity both to imagine the mind/inner world of the other and also to be able to express his/her own inner world.  Mentalization is a capacity for imagining the internal likeness and difference of anyone else.

Resilience:  In a way I’m most excited by this idiom, because it’s ridiculous and therefore most metaphoric. It will help to articulate a neurological observation about depression with Butlerian self-performance theory (the world reproduces itself through reiterations that are not mechanical or compulsive but part of the drive toward self-continuity, a drive that can then swerve into engendering new kinds of conventionality-in-identity) with the materiality of living on, which is a lot less exuberant and more affectively disorganized than it often appears in Butler’s model of the subject. (Her model of the subject is very structured. The subject is someone with an unconscious who takes up her position in subordination to power; who mourns that to which she does not attach and then projects that detachment into the world as a variety of kinds of violence against the object she disavows but can’t bear to feel her mourning for; and her current solution is “ethics,” which is to say her solution, at some level, is to bracket the unconscious from consideration in the production of one’s affect management and negotiation of the terms of reciprocity with the world.)

The subject’s reproduction through reiteration is of course the condition of living on as a being in the world and also the scene for the reproduction of normativity, and also of normativity’s capacity to absorb so much variation that its adherents can disavow their incoherence or self-anomalousness in a flash. I want to link that part up with what the brain people like T.S. Frodl (who barely know anything about the brain, so I am not using them to verify a thing but to stimulate a thought) call resilience.

The claim is that the hippocampus is stressed out when the subject has an episode of depression; and that over time the brain becomes less resilient, which is why people have a harder time overcoming depression as they experience repeated episodes. (The whole idea of “episode” becomes more ridiculous the more you think about the continuous activity of the body in relation to the recent past and the pressures of ongoiingness.)  So while it’s true that being old is very hard–your body is less and less your friend, and your friends are less and less alive, and you not only matter less to the world but your presence, your pacing, your being is inconvenient to the exuberant set–it apparently is also true that your body recovers from neurochemical disruption more slowly as events accrete.

So, no doubt, you can see where I’m going.  Steel that gives out; elastic that tires; tea that eventually fails to discolor the water poured through it.  That’s the affective representation but it doesn’t get at the other part of this that needs representation. One must remember that the liberal model of the self-organized subject was always an ambition and not the default state. One must remember that the Lacanian/Freudian subject of psychoanalysis who takes up a position in a structure is aspirational with regard to identity, always auditioning for it, lagging behind–a supplicant. In the psychology literature reported on above, the subject becomes organized in activity or practical agency (including mental activity). And that even if all bodies want food and attachment in a reiterated way, the ambition to be a subject in the world is work and takes work. Ambition, audition, labor.

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.” This relates to the argument in “Slow Death” against the sovereign model of the subject that I intuited in the face of the non-continuity between epidemiological, environmental, psychological, and materialist explanations of the obesity epidemic. Here, 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. See the next post.

I am unhappy about the diffuseness of this post, but it’s a symptom of its topic. I am writing this from a quiet flat in London where I discover I have been so intent on a variety of writing projects that I have forgotten to listen to music, or anything, for over a week.  Ego depletion, executive function …

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I’m just sending you a note to say that I’m glad you’re still thinking of Anil as your wonderful student, as he was my wonderful friend. No, one can’t tell from the outside. But now, I think it would please him to be in your thoughts and to be a part of your project, although we surely all would have wished him to be part of an entirely different sort of project. I will be interested to see how your work develops. I trust it will honor the fine person we knew.


Comment by Aimee Baldridge

[…] . . . . . . . Supervalent Thought wrote an interesting post today on Do you intend to die (II)?Here’s a quick excerpt1.  I was by myself when I fell, but I wasn’t alone. (Slogan for UK Telecare) I have been trying and it has been trying to write the second installment of this post, as it is difficult to couple the distance and transference necessary for this stage of things, which requires some reporting on concepts, some associative building on them, and an emotional weather report about a case that feels exemplary of this historical moment in the U.S. but whose exemplarity is constituted partly by the form […]

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It took me a couple of goes with your parenthetical “As if!” before I realized (or else misrecognized!) that the corrective indicated there came in the next sentence (“It not that people….”)–which meant that I spent a while trying to figure out what the “as if” to Baumeister’s remarks about bad or malfunctioning sociability was. And so, what I thought you could mean was that when the personal and the social work–when they are experienced as non-problematic–, they work, or gel, partly through instances or small events in which subjects are able to suspend self-management, or perform its suspension, in a way that feels freeing to them, as, say, a show of spontaneity that is also a show of one’s assurance that being unguarded is not necessarily an invitation to harm, injury, rejection, etc. It seems that many liberal but also radical models of personhood and sociability have ways of privileging gestures or forms of self-abandon–as authenticity or emotional honesty in the liberal model and de-individualized, communal belonging in some radical ones (I think (and I don’t want to use this word but I can’t think of another one) fetishizations of potentiality have to do a lot with fantasies of abandon too, but for the moment that’s under-important )–, so that it would be false, or at least only part of the picture, to say that people’s problems are caused by their self-disciplinary inadequacies. That’s a minor tangent to what you’ve said so provocatively (“provocation” in the sense of “to thought”), but it makes me think that intentions to die have something to do, also, with the failure of failed self-management to promise “personal and social” success in the form of feeling free or disinhibited. When does disinhibition stop feeling like a choice, or like its own sort of intention towards something positive and desired, and more like going to pieces in an un-fun way? Perhaps when self-regulation stops feeling like something you can choose not to do–in, say, the service of a politicized messy embodiment, or of just feeling pleasurably disorganized–and more like something you are forced to acknowledge you are doing poorly, with difficulty? I don’t know if disinhibition is a helpful or salient concept here, since it’s surrounded by the same incoherences vis-a-vis agency and intention as any other performative form, but that’s where I got from “as if!”.

Comment by anahid j.

In New York Times, Science Section February 24.2009 the following article appeared: “After Abuse, Changes in the Brain”

“For years, psychiatrists have known that children who are abused or neglected run a high risk of developing mental problems later in life, from anxiety and depression to substance abuse and suicide.

The connection is not surprising, but it raises a crucial scientific question: Does the abuse cause biological changes that may increase the risk for these problems?

Over the past decade or so, researchers at McGill University in Montreal, led by Michael Meaney, have shown that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes in animals, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation: rodents and nonhuman primates biologically primed to handle stress tend to be more nurturing to their own offspring, Dr. Meaney and other researchers have found.

Now, for the first time, they have direct evidence that the same system is at work in humans. In a study of people who committed suicide published Sunday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers in Montreal report that people who were abused or neglected as children showed genetic alterations that likely made them more biologically sensitive to stress.

The findings help clarify the biology behind the wounds of a difficult childhood and hint at what constitutes resilience in those able to shake off such wounds.

The study “extends the animal work on the regulation of stress to humans in a dramatic way,” Jaak Panksepp, an adjunct professor at Washington State University who was not involved in the research, wrote in an e-mail message.

He added that the study “suggests pathways that have promoted the psychic pain that makes life intolerable,” and continued, “It’s a wonderful example of how the study of animal models of emotional resilience can lead the way to understanding human vicissitudes.”

For the rest:

Web Link
Epigenetic Regulation of the Glucocorticoid Receptor in Human Brain Associates With Childhood Abuse (Nature Neuroscience)

Comment by ashtor

Yes, Gila, I’ve known about trauma and brain transformation for years, and Ian pointed me last year to Panksepp’s work too (there’s some great lectures online, for ex http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=Panksepp&hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=3ld&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wv#).

That literature is one of the reasons I teach trauma as something fundamentally physical and environmental, eg. not about events but environments that transform the sensorium. Nonetheless I don’t think that your material is of the same order as what I’m talking about here, which is not neurodistortion because of pasts (that’s their model). I’m looking at patterns of adaptive dissolution in an overwhelming present. I think this work is less convincingly about resilience (I think they don’t know much yet, except about its absence) despite Panksepp’s claims in the NYT article; elsewhere he continues to say that our knowledge of why some people wear out and others don’t is paltry.

Nerdily yours, LB

Comment by supervalentthought

You wrote that: “that intentions to die have something to do, also, with the failure of failed self-management to promise “personal and social” success in the form of feeling free or disinhibited. When does disinhibition stop feeling like a choice, or like its own sort of intention towards something positive and desired, and more like going to pieces in an un-fun way? Perhaps when self-regulation stops feeling like something you can choose not to do–in, say, the service of a politicized messy embodiment, or of just feeling pleasurably disorganized–and more like something you are forced to acknowledge you are doing poorly, with difficulty?”

This is very interesting, and I want to think about it more, so I’ll come back. My first response is yes, there’s exactly the problem of the relation between managerially successful self-interruption (which doesn’t always seem like disinhibition except in the broadest sense of the non-sovereign)and self-interruptedness as a condition to which one submits. When is that pleasurable and when is it neutral and when is it shattering? This is why I think the Detachment theory project has to move from comedy (dissolution into laughter) and sex to torture and homelessness and anxiety other contexts where giving out and shredding or unraveling are what there are, exactly. What puzzles me more in your cogitation here is the phrase about the promise of “personal and social success” in disinhibition, but you were being efficient there, I suspect. I’m wondering about whether claims for the virtue and value of expressive authenticity can all be gathered under this rubric. But I am going to think. thanks.

Oh and one more thing to Gila: I *am* interested in the ongoingness of pasts, but when there’s a cultural moment of vast amounts of giving out then the question of when that moment began requires creative thinking about causality…

Comment by supervalentthought

Just to clarify, yes, I was trying to be efficient, and also assuming Baumeister’s metrics–which I don’t actually know, but was riffing off “personal and social problems” and getting “success” as the opposite of “problem.” But of course “problems” is/are problematic, and I take it that some of this project has to do with integrating ambivalence into standardized discursive and conceptual measurements of what it means for things to go well, and what it means for feelings to be productive or enabling, and what it means for things to go badly, or for feelings to produce exhaustion or disability.

Incidentally, the night following the afternoon when I read your post, I watched a documentary on Charles Bukowski called ‘Born Into This,’ which quoted a few lines from a poem called “The Shoelace”:

“with each broken shoelace
out of one hundred broken shoelaces,
one man, one woman, one
enters a

so be careful
when you
bend over.”

Which made me think of your post, although the poem becomes much less interesting–and less moving, I thought–when you find out that the rest of it enumerates, with straight-up realism, other pains in the a**, and that “broken shoelace” is not obviously a metaphor for what, in your “Part 1” of this series, you refer to as the inability to keep treading water. That “bend over” is cruel, though.

Comment by anahid j.

Under New Management
As you say, the sovereign subject is an ideal that cannot ever be achieved through daily living, with its stopgap measures, its adjustments, its fits and starts. Managing to manage those constant destabilizations of life, to steady your affective boat when there’s a gale and enjoy the breeze when it’s sunny seems to be what you call success and suicide is a “failure” to deal. The comparison to steel and other materials is interesting, especially if we follow through with the analogy: steel doesn’t “intend” to give out, it just does by dint of its matterhood. On the other hand, the psyche that breaks is not the body that breaks; that takes an intentional next step, willfully ignoring all those social demands and guilt trips from those who love you. Applying a deterministic lens (i.e. ego depletion) to the action seems to rob the actor of his act. To my mind, the suicide appears as the ultimate liberal, gaining autonomy over that one area (death) which ultimately eludes our most strenuous efforts at management. As much as we might like to make sense of the decision through psychology or sociology (to feel less disquieted, I think), the finality of the act and its consequences sever it radically from all causality besides the subject’s own agency.

Comment by gerard

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