on stuckness.

London in August. A mocking sun occasionally appears, setting the backdrop for the temporary migration of people out and in of the city (locals out, tourists in). In this month London feels even more of a transitory place to be, and with it a confusing pattern of weather in a place that only truly suits greyness. I find that I endure August waiting for September when greyness descends once more and the days get shorter so that my sadness can hide better in the darkness.

People said to me that submitting the PhD is an anti-climax, yet it wasn’t quite that. Rather I experienced a hollowing out which was both a relief and an empty feeling. I am lighter but I am also more pointless.

Lauren Berlant described writing as a performance of stuckness. Recently I have wondered if once unraveled, writing leads you back to stuckness. But along the way you hope something might shift.

A week after submitting my thesis the country descended into the biggest political and economic crisis of my generation. Soon everyone was aware of precarity and how porous safety can feel. It can feel sudden, or somewhat arbitrary, the way that familiar structures dissolve. Left with liminal spaces and no hidings places we were all just blobs striving to divide ourselves – remain/leave, British/other: all that was solid melting into air.

In this way stuckness is never just stuckness. It’s a dynamic and moving reconfiguration, but one where the transformation cannot be known in advance. Yet we still need images and visions to hold us, to keep us in place, on track. In short, we need optimism.

For this reason stuckness has always fascinated me, theoretically. The ambivalence of grief is an extraordinary demonstration of becoming an obstacle to one’s own flourishing, to progress, to recovery. But the desire to hold on to what is no longer there provides its own comfort and optimism even as it counteracts the notions of modern life, where life should be lived at a pace, and there are so many things to do, people to meet, roads to cross.

I like to think that flourishing is possible in stuckness, and that stuckness is only one interpretation of an experience. It might feel like stuckness, or it might feel boring and banal, liberating or terrifying. But stuckness cannot be transformed simply by changing how you think about it. Stuckness, liminality, is also a structural problem (its not necessarily a choice). It’s a state caused by the existence of structure, by falling in-between. It’s not nothingness.

Stuckness is also a judgment, a negative one, but only if existence is viewed linearly. I found that grief was one instance that can revert people to a cyclical way of living. As a vision of the future died along with a person, people focused on building new structures to get them through the everyday. The banal activities of daily life – grocery shopping, cleaning, taking the dog for a walk – became important strategies to navigate what I described as the liminal space of grief.

The repetition of the everyday is not always a reaffirmation of sameness but a hope for change. Its an energetic movement: if energies are directed towards particular actions, a shift must occur. But what actions to choose? The engagement with the seemingly banal activities of managing the everyday are viewed by the bereavement professional as distractions not cures. The judgment is that this is stuckness, not healing.

Perhaps, as psychologists of grief tell me, people need meaning and linear stories – we need conventional structures and to be able to make sense of things. Ontological security, sociologists would describe it. What then of flourishing? I think the thread I was trying to follow – that perhaps I still haven’t grasped – is that life is lived not only when the future is knowable, but in the liminal unfolding present.

 

It’s life on the edge, but not over it.

How do you keep motivated? Ha, motivation is not my problem. Motivation to get on the mat each morning. Motivation to read and write at will. These are acts of desire. It’s simple. How do you keep motivated? Do we really need to be told how to live a life. I think when we need to coach ourselves to laugh and force strangers to hug us, we’ve lost something vital, this is obvious.

Rather the question that occurs to me is: how do I stay adequately attached to the world in order to pass as human? It’s not a coincidence that Ashtangis start to befriend and surround themselves with other Ashtangis. No to the midweek drinking. Yes I have to wake at 5.30am. But why? Here the gulf becomes apparent. They just never knew how well you were playing their game before.

Whatever gets you through the day. This is not a chore. Rolling out my mat seems a modest ritual, virtuous to some, ridiculous to others, but both miss the point. Practice is a necessary action fueled by desire, desire for what? What do we desire in anything we feel addicted to? Addiction in this sense is an addiction to life: the addict is not self-destructing per se, they do not want to die, rather the addiction is a ritual that ties, binds the self to life. It’s a mode of survival – whatever gets you through the day – the desire to get through the day is the desire for a future. But hold up I’m not about to compare a daily Ashtanga practice to getting high: but simply to point towards the fact both promise a future through the repetition of actions. Here’s where the two depart, for some rituals are bad attachments with false promises. Ritual acts are a mode of holding oneself together, of survival, but instead bad rituals cause an unravelling, they offer no future.

This is where limits are reached or the bottom is hit and if you’re lucky you might just step over a threshold. Getting on the mat is to enter into such a space of liminality. The reiteration of the same in the Ashtanga practice is a funny way to reach the radically new. But the practice is never the same, the asanas repeat but it is not sameness that is our talisman. Rather the repetition provokes a becoming. To practice is to be constantly in process. Not a self-defined but a self always on the verge of encountering new potentials, limits, boundaries. The reiteration of the physical poses are the footholds in this process of ebbs and flows. They literally keep us grounded.

Practice as a liminal process is then a form of resistance. Liminality is that space in which order is suspended: where new ways of being and alternatives can be configured. But it is not just that. Liminal spaces emerge out of resistance. A resistance to the normative structures (strictures) of living. Liminal spaces are entered both consciously but also through force. It’s a space you find yourself if you decide to reject the choices offered and remake the foundations of those very choices. To practice then is to actively resist too much order (stiffness in body, rigidity in mind – not ‘letting go’) but also to react against the haunting underbelly of chaos (a world empty of meaning, or non-meaning). We are seeking meaning through the practice just as we are detaching ourselves from our dependence on that very same meaning.

And that discomfort is not just in your lower back, its unsettling and troubling in that liminal space of the mat. And that’s why we roll it away in order to dissolve back into our day, re-collecting the dust of trivialities and frustrations to be re-shed the next morning. It’s an ambivalent relationship at times – that’s the desire – it’s life on the edge, but never quite over it.

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Title stolen from Rosi Braidotti (2006) Transpositions, p163.