‘Bind me-I still can sing-‘

Read Time: 17 minutes

By Andrea Brady000: Archive

It was Welcome Week at the university where I teach.  Students were arriving, excited, nervous, some imagining a new life in which they could redefine themselves, others perhaps anxious or sad at what they’d left behind or brought with them.  For me, it had been a busy summer with little chance to relax, various troubles, and no opportunity to work on my own research, following two years of overwork when I was seconded to a university strategic role (a full-time job in itself) with little or no buyout of my normal professorial workload.  I was tired and frustrated as I sat watching my inbox spasm with new messages.

Suddenly my office started to pale, the fringes of my vision were trembling and blurred. I didn’t feel exactly like I was a body, like I was in a place. I was desperately thirsty, and my throat felt constricted, as if I was being choked.  I couldn’t speak.  What on earth was happening to me?

After an hour, unable to shake it off, it occurred to me that I was having a panic attack.  And if it could come over me so unexpectedly, in the privacy and safety of my office, it could easily happen next Friday, when I stood up in front of colleagues and 200 students to give my first lecture of the term.  Maybe I would open my mouth, and no sound would come out.  The inner elastic had snapped.  After two years of particularly severe overwork, following on 15 years of manic overproductivity (including the production of three children), I had run out of road.

This is an essay about the mental distress which now typifies academic life.  It considers how the university as ‘anxiety machine’ produces intolerable working conditions that drain academic workers of their health, creativity and will power.  It is not yet an essay on recovery, exactly; but my experience of panic and anxiety over the past year has also been a kind of acute physical pedagogy, which forced me to radically re-examine the conditions under which I was reproducing myself, my family, and my students.

In writing so personally and confessionally here, I am going against all my professional instincts.  This is new to me, but it also feels emancipatory, and has led me to a different way of doing my job – including the job of criticism, two instances of which I describe later as ‘distressed reading’.  So this essay is intended as a polemic about the costs of the way things are, and a demand for new models of what teaching and learning in the university could be: generous, open, and survivable.


THE UNIVERSITY AS ANXIETY MACHINE

Panic involves a feeling of overflowing boundaries.  No resistance is sufficient to hold back the extremity of internal feeling, and what is happening inside manifests itself as a physical, material display outside.  It was only recently that I recognised that this feeling that I was an insufficient container of my panic is a mimesis of my working conditions.  Kate Bowles writes,

“This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.”

Even if it is actually futile to try to impose those limits on an infinitely expandable workload, this futility is registered as a personal and moral failure.  I should learn better habits for managing my email.  I should download software that keeps me off the phone / the internet / social media.  Working conditions become an aspect of personal hygiene.

It has been widely acknowledged that mental illness has become endemic throughout capitalist societies, a result not only of new diagnostic categories, the normalisation of illness or increased awareness among populations but as a specific consequence of the way we work and live now.  J. D. Taylor argues that “Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and living in the neoliberal era.”[1]

The academic worker has been taken as a model of what neoliberal employers want their workers to become: international, networked, flexible, vocational.  Many academic contracts oblige us to work as much as is required to perform all the duties that might be “reasonably expected”.  Colleagues report that they work 60 hour weeks in order to keep up with the myriad demands of the job, from the latest research to performing ‘impactful’ public engagement to finishing the elaborate clerical work required to administer modules, from commercialising research or keeping up to date on the HE policy context and participating in professional development opportunities, attending and presenting at conferences, negotiating the institution’s byzantine management structure and providing competent pastoral support to students who are in deep distress.  If there is no split between who I am and what I do, then I can be working all the time.

It is therefore unsurprising that there is an acute crisis of mental health in academia.  Some studies indicate that nearly half of academics show signs of psychological distress.[2] 47% of Ph.D. at the University of Berkeley reported depression in a survey conducted in 2014.  Research in Australia found that “the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population.”[3] Recent research by the Royal Society confirmed that “academics have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders with prevalence around 37 per cent”, though only around 6% disclose this to their employers.[4]  Colleagues across the UK were horrified by the shocking death of Malcolm Anderson, a lecturer in accounting at Cardiff University who took his own life in June 2018 citing unbearable workloads and an unresponsive management.[5]

The competitive, micromanaged culture of modern higher education is often brutal.  The contemporary university is a corporate institution which subjects its employees to constant surveillance and forms of slow violence: beginning with the PhD, we have competitive interviews for funding, critical tutorials, scrutiny at conference presentations, upgrades, vivas, more interviews; years of precarity, poverty, being fired and rehired for the same job, exclusion from the social life of the department and the status that goes with permanency; then (for those who are lucky enough to find permanent positions) probation, promotion applications, referee reports, grant application feedback, student evaluations, NSS, REF dry runs, and so on.[6]  Melanie Klein argues that anxiety is rooted in a primary sadism; the aggression against internal objects provokes a fear of retaliation and the destruction of good objects beyond repair.  These primitive experiences are reflected back in the numerous sadistic aspects of the contemporary university, with its constant surveillance and persecutory attacks masquerading as critical scrutiny.  Every day involves the possibility of encountering what Rosalind Gill called ‘the hidden injuries’ of neoliberal academia.

Universities have not responded to the crisis in student and staff mental health with anything like adequate resources or manageable expectations.  Instead, we are given a “wellbeing week” with yoga and trips to the city farm (“animals can be very calming”).  Recently, an academic at Kings College London shared a notification from the compulsory online “resilience” e-learning course that it must be completed – thus adding to workload and stress.  As Liz Morrish notes,

“When newspapers report a crisis in mental health, and universities declare a review of ‘welfare’ and ‘support’, this only serves to position the locus of responsibility on the individual and their lack of ‘resilience’. There are even online courses to help academics rehabilitate to the culture of punishing overwork, at the same time as indemnifying universities against legal redress.” [7]

As Sara Ahmed argues, “resilience is a technology of will, or even functions as command: be willing to bear more; be stronger so you can bear more… Resilience is the requirement to take more pressure, such that pressure can be gradually increased.  Or as Robin James describes, resilience ‘recycles damages into more resources.‘”[8]  Too many senior academics feel entitled to subject more junior colleagues to the kinds of evolutionary violence they believe themselves to have survived; thus the system selects for those who can withstand damage and who therefore may be more likely to reproduce it.


WE ARE THE UNIVERSITY

There are of course compensations and defences against the slow violences of the university, and I’m aware I am one of the lucky ones: I’ve got a permanent job, and am a professor in a department which offers tremendous solidarity and compassion.  The health risks for the legions of scholars now spending years if not their entire careers as precarious and exploited hourly-paid or temporary contract staff (often underpaid, lacking long-term job security or support for their research, and liable to be fired and rehired over holidays or summer break) are extreme.[9]

As this crisis took hold of me, I was beside myself – dissociated, but occasionally also ecstatic. The symptoms of panic seemed to be pointing me towards the possibility of a different kind of life. I was so wrong that I couldn’t hope to hide it, so I spoke to colleagues, who told me of their own struggles: insomnia, depression, anxiety, OCDs, imposter syndrome, failed relationships, tremendous guilt about family, bitterness, self-loathing.  It started to become clear just how ill we are as a profession.  I began to understand how I was also modelling manic competence for others, and in some ways contributing to the structure of the university as a mechanism for enforcing competition rather than solidarity.  As Richard Hall has written,

“My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value. The defining, status-driven impulse is to increase my value as an entrepreneur, and to demonstrate that through the traces I leave in publications, or managing a team, or in leading research bids, or in blogging and emailing at all hours. And the toxicity reduces my/our immunity and leaves us addicted to our status as all that we have. And all that we have is a reified, anxiety-infused identity… The defence of the scarcity of power and status amplifies and transmits anxiety; it projects anxiety throughout the academic peloton, reinforced through signalisation and dressage.” [9]

And yet each person feels these struggles as indictments of themselves, as individuals who are uniquely wrong.

The individuation of suffering as a shameful secret began to change for me during the winter, a time of widespread strikes in higher education.  Over the course of a month of stoppages, academics and professional staff stood on picket lines buffeted by the “Beast from the East”, a howling and freezing blast of Siberian air.  We were battling to save our pensions (a struggle which I suspect has now been lost).  But I can’t forget the spirit of solidarity which emerged from conversations with colleagues across the university.  We debated university governance structures, participated in teach-outs around trade union organising and precarity in HE, and shared stories about our traumatic birth injuries.  We sang détourned Cher songs and got a hearse with a coffin in it to honk in support.  We decided that we’d had enough; we remembered that we were the university.

That feeling of solidarity was inspiring, and restored our investment in the institution whose soul we were trying to save on the picket line.  Now we are back to work and trying to hold onto some of that energy, fighting as much against our own union leadership as against management.  But the strikes persuaded me that the work of revolutionising the university must involve a commitment to care, for ourselves, for our students and each other.  And I’m beginning to believe that making the classroom or the office a space of care would require a complete change not only to what we teach, but how.

The hierarchical structures of academia are exclusive and often discriminatory; they also make the admission of vulnerability very difficult.  Standing up in the lecture hall requires an attitude of confidence and a well-polished character armour.  That lone individual, the possessor of knowledge, selects what is worth knowing, and gives it to the multitude.  He or she pretends to be the voice of disembodied reason, when it is the body in all its complexity which is the primary vehicle of work.  To perform mastery is to forbid the admission of vulnerability.  What these panic attacks had shown me was that my intellectual strength, the knowledge and attitudes I used to fend off critical attack, were surprisingly brittle. Many of us are dogged with the feeling that we are imposters; that we must be fleetfooted to avoid our audience, students, supervisors, senior management discovering that we don’t know something we are supposed to know, that we don’t feel entirely comfortable managing a seminar, that putting forward a controversial view in a faculty meeting gives us the shakes.  Surely everyone else is coping, what is wrong with me?  And that is not only harmful to the self, but also the students, by modelling for them a refusal of the fragile body or mind.

For me, anxiety is the fear of being seen to be out of control.  I describe panic as feeling like the emergency brake has snapped: there is nothing to prevent common nerves from racing me straight over the cliff edge.  This year, I’ve lost my assurance that anxiety won’t harm me or render me speechless.  But as I work to recover my equanimity, I recognise that this anxiety has been part of my education.  As I learn vulnerability I am also learning compassion; I’m developing a better understanding of the way the university as anxiety machine affects the people who work there, including my students.  The panic was many things, including an assertion of all the things I couldn’t speak.  It drew my attention, in the most dramatic way possible, to the fact that I had been drifting farther and farther from the shore of what I value: the kinds of open, honest and caring exchanges about our shared work that we could have outside in the driving snow, but somehow seem to slip away from the daily business of the faculty meeting.


DISTRESSED READING

Panic and anxiety didn’t just adjust the way I approached my teaching.  They also affected my work as a critic.  In the final part of this essay, I want to describe what I call ‘distressed reading’: a kind of bibliomancy, in which certain texts appear, swimming up out of the depths of the literary archive, at exactly the moment that you need them.  The most famous example of a textual parousia occurs at the end of Augustine’s Confessions (and which is echoed by Petrarch when he turns to the Confessions during his ascension of Mont Ventoux).[10] Tolle, lege.  In a frenzy of desire, Augustine seizes the book, trusting in it to present him with the precise fragment that will address his despair.  The immediate relief of suffering which is a divine gift transmitted through the written word in Augustine’s experience is so far, for me, a myth.  But what I’m trying to describe is more than the quality of some texts to be ‘relatable’.  Rather, it seems to speak directly to me; a line or a word springs up with a magnified clarity, vibrating with an electric charge across history and calling to me as if it knows exactly where I am.  Over the past year there were two very powerful examples of this, which have reshaped the way I think about poetry, prose, and the techniques of criticism. One was narrative, the other poetic; and these two forms offered very different kinds of reparation.

Over the Christmas break a book appeared in our house.  It was called A Dialogue on Love, and it’s an account of Eve Sedgwick’s therapy, mixing prose, haiku, and contemporaneous notes by her therapist Shannon, in the form of the haibun, a seventeenth-century Japanese form “classically used for narratives of travel”.[11]  This book offered many convenient points of identification.  Sedgwick is 42 (I am 43); in her childhood her parents treated her intellect as something ‘anomalous’ which frightened them; she had a recurrent dream of being engulfed by a giant wave.  When Shannon looks at her, he sees someone ‘sitting there on the couch so nicely’ who “is the product of an arduous and almost endless labor”.  I felt exhausted by this labour of self-composition too.  Eve had achieved things in her writing that she valued, saying that “the canonical areas, love and work—those are weirdly good for me”, as I felt them to be; but “somehow the goodness of these good things doesn’t find its way inside me” (15-16).  I recognised that too.

Eve comes to therapy in a state of mild depression which is connected to her dull and historic desire for death.  Through the therapeutic relation, Shannon wants for her to have “a more continuous sense / of moving through time”, “not grappled tight to myself, / just floating onward”.  Anxiety, as I experience it, is a drastic orientation towards the future – it is a form of distressed expectation, and it produces a very fucked up temporality.  And like a poet, anxiety is constantly out cruising for an object.  Whereas phobias or nervousness fix upon some particularity of greater or less worth, anxiety is related to the nothing – Lacan’s objet a.  In the book’s final pages, as she deals with the return of cancer (she died in 2009, ten years after the book was published), Sedgwick turns to Tibetan Buddhism for a very different notion of the nothing.  The book’s exquisitely beautiful and painful conclusion is not her voice, in fact, but Shannon’s, in effect releasing her to death, just as her textual voice stops for us: “She also talks about having come to be able to hear a voice like my voice inside herself when it is quiet that she can trust and have confidence in.  I can imagine the voice telling her she can stop”.  This closing of the therapeutic circle holds out a promise of a different endpoint to replace the manic futurity of anxiety in which I am still stuck.  This is the therapeutic value of its narrative: it offers conflict and resolution, characters waving back at me from the end of time, to where I am still in the middle of an indeterminable process.

 A Dialogue on Love is part of Sedgwick’s very personal critical project, because like all her work it lays bare how strategies of reading emerge from and inform her intimate life.  She arrives through therapy at a “Proustian” assumption: when “the truth comes to you, / you recognise it because / it makes you happy” (207).  Proust is an important source for Sedgwick’s work, and appears throughout this book, as well as in the closing chapter of Epistemology of the Closet, where she writes: “I am now able to prescribe “Proust” to my friends in erotic or professional crisis or in, for that matter, personal grief with the same bland confidence as I do a teaspoon of sugar (must be swallowed quickly) to those suffering from hiccups” (241).

In therapy, she also alludes to her desire to define for herself a new form of sexuality which expanded the narrow, triangulated love represented by adultery and the couple form (an argument which recalls her book Between Men):

its allure was, you would
eventually

get back all of the
erotic energy you’d
sent around it

so that ‘nothing is / ever really lost’. Sending erotic energy around a circuit in which each point is transformed and transformative of the next is a good description of the distinct kind of intertextual criticism Sedgwick performs, and gives the lie to my perception of any narrative – either her own therapeutic one, or the endless perserverations of Proust – as offering resolution.  Rather, loving reading entails an openness and a circling that brings the truth with it, rather than an anxious cruising for an object.  She describes love as ‘a matter of suddenly globally, “knowing” that another person represents your only access to some vitally / transmissible truth / or radiantly heightened / mode of perception, // and that if you lose the thread of this intimacy, both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment’ (168).  The truth, as we’ve known from the beginning, appears in dialogue.  This is what the lover does, and what the book does, when they are opened in the right place.

The second, very different text that swam up to meet me was Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Bound a trouble – and Lives will bear it –
Circumscription – enables Wo –
Still to anticipate – Were no limit –
Who were sufficient to Misery?

State it the Ages – to a cipher –
And it will ache contented on –
Sing, at it’s pain, as any Workman –
Notching the fall of the even Sun –

F240 (1863); Fascicle 36 (H 97)[12]

This poem occurred to me as a powerful paradox, which required reading both with and against Dickinson.  I wanted to be able to sustain both possible readings, because their simultaneity was exactly descriptive of my distress.

Throughout her poetry, Dickinson constantly invokes spatial and temporal boundaries, circumferences and circumscriptions which are the edges of pain but also signifiers of annihilation and death.  This poem implies that ‘bounding’ a trouble makes it bearable – we can sustain or carry it, because we have put limits to it.  Reading this poem with the grain of Dickinson’s work, I have to assume it means that boundaries are the means of containing otherwise unbearable pain.  No one could be ‘sufficient’ in the face of unbounded misery; none could bear its infinite demand. To anticipate pain still to come, to conjecture a limit or a future, produces the interval between the experience of pain and the subject: if we can think about a time without pain, we are also still able to distinguish between pain and ourselves.  This conjecture sets a ‘Limit’, in the earlier version of the poem, on ‘how deep a bleeding go!’ (F240 [1861]; Fascicle 9 [H 78]).

Work also sets a limit to suffering as well as causing it: as Dickinson, a hard domestic worker throughout her life, wrote in 1878: ‘I am constantly more astonished that the body contains the spirit—except for overmastering work it could not be borne’ (Letters 284).  The body’s suffering as it is mastered by work makes the suffering of the spirit, imprisoned in the body, bearable.  In the poem, misery is bound not just by the body’s strength, but by language: by ‘telling’ or ‘stating’, and by song. The reader is being instructed to sing out through her misery, like a worker whose song makes exhausting labour bearable.  This imperative assimilates the poem’s own song to an exercise in containing misery which passes the time until evening.  That even sun shines on, evenly, despite our misery, illuminating our work and setting its temporal limits, and it would do so even if we had not made ourselves ‘content’ (in both senses) within the form or bodily hexis which is imposed on us by our labour.

Throughout Dickinson’s work, the body is represented as a container which must be carefully regulated because it constantly threatens to escape control.  Many of her poems comment on the pain of enclosing the mind within a finite, bounded form: ‘The Brain, within it’s Groove / Runs evenly – and true – / But let a Splinter swerve’ (F563 [1863], Fascicle 27 [H116]), and it is easier to restore the current after a flood than to return the mind to its customary restraint.  If the mind yearns towards this oceanic or flood-state of excess, it also associates it with boundless pain and the impossibility of recovery.  She fantasises about the infinite capacities of the human mind and heart, miniaturising the universe and expanding the subject, before adjusting the scale again to make the individual just a ‘speck opon a ball’.  This seesawing is the interval in which the self can become magnificent and limitless – ‘when all space has been beheld / And all Dominion shown / The smallest Human Heart’s extent / Reduces it to none’ (F1178 [October 1870]) – and then, submit fearfully to its ashamed contraction in the face of the divine: ‘Oh God of Width, do not for us / Curtail Eternity!’ (F1226).  The urge to push oneself, to widen the heart ‘beyond my limit’ until ‘The other, like the little Bank/ Appear – unto the Sea’ (F757 [1863]; Fascicle 34 [H50]), a boundary or edge which can be overwhelmed by flood, is synonymous for Dickinson with ‘a Bliss’ she dares not to attempt but constantly imagines as poetry.

Her poetry seesaws in this way on the minute interval between expansive freedom and the contractive finality of death, a space no wider than a splitting hair.  She repeatedly presents a subject caught in the interval between intensity and certainty, between the ‘vague calamity’ of suspense and the ‘bounty’ of divine judgement.  Sometimes, this subject relishes this playfully ‘cool’ ambivalence as it awaits either salvation or damnation, relieved of the pressures of living and being a body.  At other times, this is a ‘dangerous moment’ when ‘the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight—and punctual—and yet no signal comes’ (Letters III, PF49). The interval can be an emancipation, the mind fleeing the drossy body to encounter the absolute, or it can be a ‘crisis’, ‘The instant holding in its claw / The privilege to live’ or die.

So reading this poem in the context of Dickinson’s work, I have to assume it is advising me to discover the limits of my anxiety, so that I can bear it.  But the attraction of the interval invites me towards another meaning which overflows that first and which I need to choose. Pain which is bound or circumscribed – both are terms which bring writing and book-binding to mind – becomes an obligation; these activities of limitation enable us to live with woe, though they also enable woe itself.  If binding trouble means that we can bear it, it also means we have to bear it.  Unbound trouble, which exceeds all boundaries and our capacities to maintain it, might crush us.  But unbinding trouble might also mean we don’t have to retain the resilience which allows us to bear it.

This, for me, is the paradox of anxiety, which is fundamentally a question of form. In Freudian theory, anxiety is the result of too much containment: a libidinal surplus that exceeds ‘the economy of the bodily apparatus’.  As panic, it overspills the container, or the container seems too brittle to withstand its outflow.  One remedy might be to set a boundary to trouble, circumscribing it and learning to articulate it to the ‘cipher’ of the analyst.  But excessive circumscription is likely the thing that produced the anxiety in the first place.  Paradoxically, relinquishing the desire for a limit to what is experienced as dangerously unbound affect might be the route out of misery.  Dickinson’s poem is therapeutic to me not because it provides a command or a reparation that shows me the destined end of my distress, but because it teeters in an interval of indeterminacy.  It offers me the culture’s pat wisdom: learn to recognise your limits, and you can cope with anything.  This is the managerial lesson.  Will I be bound by it?  Simultaneously, it offers a much more dangerous premise: that you only bear this much because you are willing to contain it.  The exhausting work of being contented with that ache, day after regulated day, is performed by those who are sufficient to misery.  What I want to know is: how might I become sufficient to something else?


[1] JD Taylor, ‘Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety’, ROAR (14 March 2014): https://roarmag.org/essays/neoliberal-capitalism-anxiety-depression-insecurity/

[2] Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward, ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’, Guardian 6 Mar 2014

[3] Christie Wilcox, ‘Lighting dark: Fixing academia’s mental health problem’, New Scientist (10 October 2014) https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26365-lighting-dark-fixing-academias-mental-health-problem/

[4] Susan Guthrie, Catherine Lichten, Janna van Belle, Sarah Ball, Anna Knack, and Joanna Hofman, ‘Understanding mental health in the research environment: A Rapid Evidence Assessment’, Rand Europe (June 2017): https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/topics/diversity-in-science/understanding-mental-health-in-the-research-environment.pdf

[5] Rachael Pells, ‘Cardiff plans review after suicide of ‘overworked’ lecturer’, Times Higher Education 8 June 2018: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/cardiff-plans-review-after-suicide-overworked-lecturer

[6] Anna Fazackerley, ‘Universities’ league table obsession triggers mental health crisis fears’ The Guardian  12 June 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jun/12/university-mental-health-league-table-obsession

[7] Liz Morrish, ‘Can Critical University Studies Survive the Toxic University?’, Academic Irregularities blog: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/can-critical-university-studies-survive-the-toxic-university/

[8] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 189.

[9] There are numerous accounts of these risks; for an empirical study of the consequences of precarity on mental health, see for example F.Mosconea, E.Tosettia, G.Vittadini, ‘The impact of precarious employment on mental health: The case of Italy’, Social Science & Medicine 158 (June 2016): 86-95.

[10] Richard Hall, ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’, 10 July 2014 http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/07/10/notes-on-the-university-as-anxiety-machine/

11] Theodore Ziolkowski discusses other examples, including Kleist and JS Mill, in ‘Tolle Lege: Epiphanies of the Book’, Modern Language Review 109.1 (January 2014): 1-14.

[12] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, A Dialogue on Love (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

[13] R. W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: A Variorum Edition, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).


Written by ANDREA BRADY

Originally published JULY 2018

A photo montage of office spaces and a small figure in plastic wrapping. Muted colours

Artwork by KATE HOLFORD