Fear, wanting and the politics of neoliberal anxiety
We can’t live plain lives because we are afraid.
We mostly can’t live plainer lives because of all the fear.
We mostly can’t relate to our lives plainly because fear hobbles this ability or repertoire.
When I’m afraid, I replace curiosity with either/or thinking.
When I’m afraid (and don’t know I am afraid) my repertoire is puny.
I could be curious about being afraid but this would involve noticing that fact, then a gear change.
It would mean abstaining (just long enough) from what or how I usually do.
(Fear is very busy. One can end up paralysed with busyness.)
Abstaining might involve making something—that is, swapping expectation for praxis.
How is it that abstaining and making aren’t opposites?
How could a plain life be not-the-opposite of a rich life?
These days, it’s easy to get the impression that people are really very anxious. Who? you ask. Well, people you hear about. People who tell you they are. Friends. Lovers. Acquaintances. Colleagues. The Youth. The term is around and people are applying it to themselves, or having it applied to them, willy-nilly. People are talking about anxiety plenty, getting diagnosed by certified professionals as “anxious.” It’s concerning; it’s distressing. Debilitating, often. It can dismantle a life, they say. It can erode your well-being and capacity for connection. You can become a real pain in the arse. Stuff like that.
Clearly, the term is an umbrella term. There must be lots of species of anxiety. It means different things all the time. We could get far more precise about what we mean by the term, host a little tournament of semantics, but who’s got time for that. Anxiety, in any case, goes to the heart of one’s experience of time. And the term, we can affirm, gets thrown around as a new staple in the parlance of our times.
This essay didn’t set out to be about anxiety. I wanted to contemplate something else, something I’m venturing to call a Plain Life. What I discovered, however, as I began to write, was that it was hard to avoid addressing this other thing. And it seems the two might be connected. Not in opposition—as one might assume—but more in a subtractive way: that’s to say, they have that particular relation of no relation. A Plain Life might be that of which we can become capable (of recognising) when the conditions for anxiety are not operating so fiercely, or when we manage—even for a tiny interval—to abstain from colluding with these conditions.
And so, in order to explore with you this idea of plainness, I find myself having to wrestle with the beastlier notion of anxiety—a thankless undertaking, and a potentially hurtful one. In writing some of things here below, I risk (ever so slightly, not so slightly) making you, the reader—an anxious person? diagnosed, closeted, unsure?—feel blamed and judged. This might happen, and it would be neither my wish nor intention.
On the other hand, my intention is to ask slightly more probing questions about something that appears to be eating our collective faces off, or to be eating collectivity per se. I want to ask not so much about discrete instances of anxiety and whether the term is merited or not, but rather what the conditions might be in which a certain ilk of anxiety becomes more likely; in which it can gather momentum and flourish.
It seems to be flourishing right now.
I could be, however, that I’m listening too earnestly to these declarations and self-diagnoses. Perhaps labelling oneself as “suffering from anxiety” might be more a kind of style—like heroin chic—rather than something to worry about. It might just be one way a person likes to approach being a person. Going at life. Front on. With some edge. Nothing soggy. The anxious do not truck with soggy. That’s the impression I’ve gleaned over time.
Sans sog? Maybe there’s a clue right there. Not so much middle ground.
I suspect it’s both—an epidemic for many and a contemporary stance for some. And probably both at once.
In this essay, I may make some obnoxious arguments. Perhaps you’ll find them obnoxious, perhaps I flatter myself prematurely. I’m going to talk two broad notions in two parts, and link them up. The first involves expectations about life (getting, having, feeling) that we can tend to absorb unfiltered from our milieus. The latter are also now almost inevitably global and neoliberal, and this will become important. Alongside that I’m going to explore a subtheme, namely: desire. Splendid, super-duper, never-the-problem, desire.
The second aspect I’ll explore is fear (see propositions above), and in particular what unfelt fear does to one’s thinking. In my own experience it tends to narrow my imaginative range, and then exaggerate the content of that range in unsettling ways. I think it’s this—hyperbolic, polarised thinking—that constitutes a crucial element in the set of conditions in which anxiety can take root so operatically. Unfelt fear, then, really hinders the possibility of a Plain Life.
In this way, anxiety, and the conditions under which it flourishes, concerns us all, is therefore political. It is something we might consider collectively. Together. Although we may suffer the squalls of so-called mental health alone and in our own particular ways, as Deleuze and Guattari taught us, it is neither personal nor individual. We get sick in ways also specific to contexts and moments. If can be constructive to think about this as shared—to link it up with our times and its mores, with our capacities and limitations.
Your suffering might be particular, but it is also generalised, and I reckon it’s worth having a good shot at working out why that might be and if there is anything—anything at all—that we can do about it. Thinking about it together might be the first step to undermining one pillar that it relies on in order to operate.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.
Antonia Pont lives in Melbourne and works at Deakin University as Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature. A long-term practioner, she also runs a yoga school in Melbourne's CBD, where she and others collectively research non-violence, intentionality and the mechanism of change.