Anxious Strategies, Part 2: Anxiety in Strange Places

James Rákóczi discusses the collaborative and explorative processes behind the Anxiety in Strange Places workshop

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

This is the second of two blogposts on the Anxious Strategies research day that took place on Friday 28th January 2022 through the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University. This article will outline the workshop that took place in the afternoon. It will also indicate some of the rationales, processes, and second thoughts which went into producing a workshop about anxiety.

Anxiety is a common mental health symptom associated with many disorders and comorbidities. Yet, anxiety is also anxious. It shifts into the contours of everyday life in ways that can be hard to grasp and harder still to describe. Its messy conceptual history – across sites of psychological, philosophical, and literary interpellation – discloses this diffusiveness even further. If only we could work out the most felicitous strategies to trace (however fleetingly) these diffuse lines of anxiety, then we could follow anxiety into unexpected sites of study. It was for this reason that, several months previously, I had decided to call my upcoming workshop “Anxiety in Strange Places”.

When circulating news about this event, I had used an aerial photograph of the Santa Ana winds. These winds, associated with so many buried and overt folktales, are pictured driving smoke from a wildfire out into the ocean from the Pacific coastline. This image came to encapsulate much of the spatial imaginaries I wanted to communicate and explore about anxiety’s strange placements. On one level, of course, it could be claimed that the photograph is merely anxiety-inducing. But what if anxiety, freed from any assumption that it bears a necessary or sufficient relationship to consciousness, could also be said to inhabit the image itself, to participate with the flames and myths as a condition of our climate-changed world? What then? How might that change the meaning and form of our strategic and therapeutic responses to anxiousness? By embracing the unfixed nature of anxiety rather than trying to straighten it out, I hoped, we could start relating anxiety’s ambiguities to these conditions of late capitalist precarity and environmental violence.

It was around this stage in my plans I discovered that Veronica Heney, who is shortly to begin a major new project on anxiety, was going to be in town the week of the workshop. I invited her to co-host the workshop with me and we were able to meet several times in person to discuss our perspectives on anxiety, critical medical humanities, and engaged research. After these discussions, we wrote our position papers, delivered them to each other, discussed some more, rewrote, and gradually the shape of the Anxious Strategies workshop was constructed. Incidentally, this is how I think anxiety research should take shape: in conversation about working out and working through, a solidarity of unsurety, the fostering of collaborative uncertainty.

The workshop was divided into two halves. The first half was titled “The Anxiety of Anxiety”, and the second “The Paradoxes of Comfort”. It began with a non-obligatory exercise, inspired in part by Joe Brainard’s poem-experiment “I Remember”. Through open-ended prompts, workshop participants were asked to write out memories they might hold about:

Something that made you anxious this week.

Something that made you anxious in March 2020.

Something you watched which made you feel anxious.

Something that made you feel anxious when you were 18.

Something that made you feel anxious when you were 5.

My initial plan, had this event been in-person, was to invite participants to place their memories into a cardboard box. Then, we were going to burn the box. This was to reassure I had no intentions of extracting any form of information from participants. More impishly put, it was to methodologically refute the possibility of anxious data. It occurs to me only now that had the smoke billowed off into the crisp winter’s afternoon, it might have resembled the wildfires flamed by the Santa Ana winds. And who knows? The exercise might even have been cathartic.

Nevertheless, with such memories unshared but fresh in our minds, I next offered a series of definitions of anxiety—though I asked participants to bear in mind that I believe anxiety has a definition only in the sense that hair has definition.

Anxiousness—a difficult disease. The patient thinks he has something like a thorn, something pricking him in his viscera, and nausea torments him.
— Hippocrates, 4thC BC

One of the paradoxical features of anxiety is that a person seems to bring on unwittingly what he fears or detests the most. In fact, fear of an unpleasant event seems to enhance the probability of it actually happening.
— Aaron T. Beck, 1985

Anxiety has its origin in the fear of death.
— Melanie Klein, 1948

It is not strictly accurate to speak of “having” anxiety; rather one “is” anxiety, or “personifies” anxiety.
— Rollo May, 1950

A profound and perplexing confrontation with pain.
— Barry E. Wolfe, 2005

We discussed which of these definitions people found themselves most drawn to. It was noted by one participant that I had not included any of the more commonplace definitions that relates anxiety to fears of the future. This had been deliberate. But afterwards I worried that in orientating our attention to anxiety’s definitional qualities through memory as well as excluding its futural orientation I had attributed to it a far too loaded sense of its preoccupation with the past.

By entangling self-reflection and definition together, nevertheless, my aim had been to vindicate what is all-too-easily described as the self-absorptive quality of anxiety. Chris Millard has recently described the history of using personal experience in historical and medical humanities research. With that scholarship in mind, I asked the workshop to consider the affective lives we always bring to our lines of work. Anxiety, I proposed, haunts research always. This need not be thought of as a triumph of self-preoccupation over epistemological fidelity. Instead, in the case of research about anxiety, it permits us to realise the ways that research concept and research approach collapse ceaselessly into each other.

Both myself and Veronica Heney then offered work-in-progress papers. My talk, entitled “Something is Up”, aimed to highlight how the sense of anxiety we were offering (proliferative, oddly-positioned, ungraspable) could help us read anxiety in four keys moments of its post-war theorisation: i) the reaction of existential psychology to the so-called age of anxiety in the 1950s, ii) the formulation of a social materialist psychology of anxiety during Thatcherite Britain, iii) the rearticulation of ‘postmodern art’ as an anxious response in the 2000s, and iv) how anxiety, in the wake of austerity politics, is related to the resistance of far-right-populisms from 2016-present.

Across these theoretical divides, there exists a consistent desire to recognise anxiety as something generative rather than merely reactionary. Anxiety is made to constitute a true and open response to the world. Yet, despite this shared desire, each theorist expresses – sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently – a conflicting suspicion at how anxiety signifies and calcifies amongst populaces. Consequently, anxiety gets marked out both as a subterranean and lucid form of insight and a manipulable response, wedded to some preordained political assumption. If anxiety is open-ended reflection, for example, then it might also be described as a self-absorption corresponding to neoliberal values of individualisation.

My research, therefore, circulates around a working definition of anxiety as an unpleasant and at times debilitating sensation that something is up. Caught between bodily reaction and value-judgement, my intention is to establish a relationship between the experience of anxiety and this experience’s susceptibility to political consciousness. I have become concerned with how anxiety acts as the registration of as-yet-unidentified problems of worldly proportion. What therefore can we be said to perceive when we feel anxious? I want to consider if the reason why anxiety is so hard to pin down is precisely because it is a bodily unease that operates at this level of the social: “something is up” as nascent political perception.

One of the delights of discussing these ideas with Veronica Heney was to learn how our research intersected in such exciting ways. Her talk outlined a key aspect of her next research project, which will attend to comfort-viewing and comfort-watching. Analysing these practices, she suggested, might offer a method through which the troubled relationship between anxiety and comfort is brought into new focus.

Veronica’s talk was full of rich considerations on the theme of comfort and repetition, the politics of care, and comfort as a mode of retreat. A further aim was to undo any alleged binary between knowing and refusing to know. This was a tension I, too, had noticed in my work on and, in a sense, became the heart of our workshop’s aim: to encourage participants to re-evaluate how practices and acts – whether compositional, meditative, restful, self-destructive, improvisational, critical, therapeutic, and so on – are not simply reactions to feelings of anxiousness (and therefore a flight from anxiety/politics), but bear the character of anxiety itself.

The experience of anxiety is one of temporal punctuation – bound up with relief, comfort-seeking, and stress-reduction. Anxiety is structured precisely by these rhythms of intensification and relief, which – cruelly – risk making the conditions that produce anxiety more bearable. Nevertheless, anxiety therefore pushes us beyond any straightforward phenomenology of lived experience and instead into the networks of incapacity which undergird experience itself. If anxiety is an unpleasant sensation that something is up, then it alarms and alerts us to the global systems of dis-hierarchy that make up the political and therapeutic realities of our social world.

I would like to thank the workshop’s attendees and offer an especially warm thanks to Veronica Heney, and creative facilitator Mary Robson. If you have been interested in these discussions, then do check out Part 1 of this blogpost series where I discuss what went down during the research seminar’s morning.

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

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