Anxious Strategies, Part 1: Anxiety and Its Research Futures

James Rákóczi reflects on new directions for anxiety research and the Anxious Strategies seminar

This is a two-part series. Read part two here.

It’s a ubiquitous feature of contemporary life, yet anxiety remains a remarkably elusive object. That tension, between anxiety’s hypervisibility and its concealed and stigmatized intrusions upon everyday life, is what initially inspired me to host a research day on anxiety through the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University.

I wanted the day to unfold from a simple guiding intuition. Anxiety is not straightforwardly a contained feature of consciousness; instead, it is a problem embedded into the textures of our lived environments and carried through into our practices and acts. It was to this end that I named the day Anxious Strategies. Pushing the hard-edged noun of “anxiety” into the leaky and adjectival “anxious”, I hoped, might facilitate an exploding open of the anxiety archive for the medical humanities. In turn, this could provide us with unexpected but essential insights into the perceptions, genealogies, and therapeutics of anxious experience.

This will be the first of two Polyphony blogposts on the Anxious Strategies research day, held online (a late adaptation due to the Omicron variant) on Friday 28th January 2022. In this post, I will discuss the morning seminar where five early career researchers were invited to present research on the theme of Anxiety and Its Research Futures. Drawing from expertise in psychology, literary studies, philosophy, linguistics, phenomenology, clinical practice, affect, and critical theory, these researchers collectively mapped out important new directions that the research of anxiety will, as well as should, take.

The morning was divided into two panels. Katie Salmon (Newcastle) kickstarted the first panel with a paper titled ‘Anxious futures in (post)crisis Spanish comics’. Moulding this talk around an incisive reading of Nadar’s 2015 comic El mundo a tus pies (The World At Your Feet), Salmon anchored our day’s discussion by considering anxiety in relation to the very live tensions at operation in discourses – and denialism – of economic crisis.

Salmon traced how ‘a corpus of contemporary Spanish comics’ are emerging which engage with the loss of ‘future expectations’ experienced by folks in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Noting the disparity between official state and media narratives which declare the crisis over versus the lived experience of many young people whose material prospects deteriorate as previous generations’ wealth expands, Salmon’s work explores how anxiety thus gives rise to a host of aesthetic and pedagogic strategies. For example, when Spanish graphic novels restage scenes from childhood, they do not merely offer a nostalgic retreat but instead are attempting to make sense of – in Salmon’s wonderful formulation – the ‘residual disenchantment’ (desencanto) of our present. To paraphrase Lauren Berlant, these comics are reimagining the “cruel” attachments to a good life that can no longer even be “optimistically” enjoyed. Anxiety, therefore, is refigured as a lesson in cruel optimism, a necessary unravelling in order to ‘learn to live in a world that doesn’t give a shit about us’.

The next speaker was Lucy Prior (Birmingham), who directed our attention back towards the clinic and to issues of ordinary language. Turning discussion to our day’s aforementioned theme between “anxious” and “anxiety”, Prior’s talk outlined how dual and conflicting processes of medicalisation and normalisation of anxiety occur and can be traced through a distinction in everyday speech between the grammatical forms of “to be + anxious” and “to have + anxiety”.

Prior’s research findings are drawn from her ongoing work in discourse analysis of news texts (from 2014-2020). I was animated particularly by Prior’s reflections on how this research might feed back into therapeutic and clinical choices for treating anxiety. She evoked a tension, picked up again in our post-panel discussions, between how the anxiety/anxious distinction mediates a complex set of questions surrounding agency, and the moralization or responsibilization of managing one’s own anxiety.

The panel’s final presentation was given by Caroline Greenwood Dower (Durham), a doctoral researcher, psychotherapist, and former Head of Durham University’s Counselling and Mental Health Services. Greenwood Dower encouraged us to consider anxiety from a further set of surprising approaches: Gestalt psychophysiology and Nina Simone.

I write “surprising” deliberately, because a compelling element of Greenwood Dower’s talk was in her weaving together of anxiety with the possibility of surprise. Nina Simone’s lyric in ‘Do I Move You?’ – ‘don’t be psychic / or you’ll blow it’ – was offered as a refrain for therapeutically negotiating with anxiety. Greenwood Dower posited that anxiety be rethought of in terms of encounter, i.e., in unpredictable relation to the world. Anxiety, whilst a necessary ‘mediator of how we experience affectivity’ (Greenwood Dower’s expression for this, circled several times in my notebook, was anxiety as a ‘low motor’) also threatens the closure of worldliness because it seeks to make knowable (to predict, through fear of threat) what is unknown.

As the first panel offered us this series of anchorings around what anxiety is and what we can do with or about it, the second panel – and I mean this in the most generative way possible – presented us with a series of disorientations.

First up was Jacob Gracie (King’s College London) in a talk titled ‘Traversing Anxiety: The Futures of an Illusion?’. Gracie talked us through how and why anxiety has come to present itself in modern thought precisely as the proliferating and hard-to-grasp category that our seminar was trying to grasp. Considering how the discursive object of anxiety is presented in epidemiological, neuroscientific, or illness memoir literatures, Gracie suggests that the riddle of anxiety emerges precisely in its ‘refusal to succumb to theorization’. Across different disciplines, then, anxiety is assigned an exceptional state of disorganization, yet this disorganization then comes to function as the organizing principle of that discipline’s logic (Kierkegaard, Freud, and Heidegger are one such trilogy of thinkers with outsized influence in the history of anxiety’s theorization.)

The talk concluded by turning to an unexpected place in search of a solution: the historiographic field. Building from an essay by historian Reinhart Koselleck, Gracie suggest that anxiety’s preponderance as an affect, condition of suffering, or political characteristic emerged around 1800 – as a gradual shift occurred in understandings of temporal perspectives. Historiography thus matters to anxiety because, to understand the contextual and conceptual histories of the terms we use, it is necessary first to grasp emergent politicized orientations of temporality.

The second panel’s second talk, and concluding presentation of the morning, was given by Kelechi Anucha (Exeter). If Gracie’s provocation signified a kind of genealogical disruption to assumptions researchers might make about anxiety’s ahistoricity, Anucha’s talk “Anxiety, racialisation, and misrecognition” proposed a further set of disorientations to open up a space for rethinking the problem of anxiety in its relationship to the future.

Drawing from Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings which explores how ‘anxiety’s projective character’ in fact codifies a very normative form of crisis (i.e., ‘white, male, western, progressing towards the “stable” crisis of mid- to late- life’), Anucha’s talk folded around a carefully crafted – but simultaneously improvised – reading of Harryette Mullen’s poem ‘All She Wrote’. All the discourses that we have inherited of anxiety, in their gesturing towards a (foreclosed) futurity, tend – in the same movement – to also gesture towards an individuating and “un-worlded” interiority. Reading Mullen’s work as an ‘anxious poem that habituates us to anxiety’, therefore, Anucha drew attention to how the poem contrariwisely stages or constructs anxiety through relationality. Precisely through Mullen’s articulation of a withdrawn, anxious interiority as distractible, with aphasia, and incommunicable, Anucha argues, the poem shows how impossible it is to understand disconnection and anxiety without attending to difference and the social.

In bringing anxiety and futurity together in these ways, a second theme was also to emerge in our seminar discussions. In broad swathes of psychiatric, cognitive, and neuroscientific literature, anxiety is understood as a subject’s disproportionate (i.e., excessive) fear of future threat. Yet this notion of anxiety’s excessiveness has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Renata Salecl and Franco Berardi who note that anxiety might better be understood as very much proportionate to what Berlant terms the ‘crisis ordinariness’ of everyday life. It becomes difficult to mark anxiety out as a pathology of the individual when various regimes of crisis – climate change, geopolitical violence, capitalistic reifications of racialized and gendered exploitation, pandemics, our precarious job futures – inform our collective capacities of perception and response.

If reading that above sentence’s list made your heart sink (as writing it made mine), then I want to suggest two things. First: always at stake in delineating anxiety as an object, disorder, or concept is a politics of the future. Second: therefore, to a lesser or greater extent, anxiety haunts all our research futures. It stands as a kind of ur-concept or underground affect structuring the margins, foundations, and firmaments of the contemporary university. To research anxiety, then, is to find that it stands both in front and behind. This is overwhelming, yes, but from the affective registers and the undercommons of research life, such a reflexive quality also offers the grounds for a solidarity of unsurety. Such solidarity is not to deny the different weights and intensities of anxiety’s effects, but rather to consider how anxious the processes of crafting liveability is, how these processes are imbricated within the kindnesses and collisions necessary for knowledge to be collaborative, communal, horizontal, joyful, neurodiverse.

I would like to thank my five morning speakers, as well as the seminar’s participants, for offering a warm spirit of sharing that allowed me to think these thoughts. Please come back for Part 2 of this blogpost series where I shall be discussing how myself and Veronica Heney explored in the research day’s afternoon workshop how these themes of anxiously perceiving and strategically responding to the future gets bound up further still in various socio-political currents.

James Rákóczi is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University developing a project about anxiety, lucid perception, and textuality. He was previously an affiliated researcher in the Department of English at King’s College London.

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