A Process Philosophy of Sadness.

It’s warm and sunny this morning, but I am in bed. Trapped under the weight of being unwell, trying very hard to “just get on with it” but finding it almost impossible, I come across this, from Sara Ahmed’s latest blog post, and, just for a moment, I feel witnessed:


I wrote last year about the ways in which the (self-)disciplinary affects and effects of capitalist subjectivity mean that so often those of us who are unwell often doubt whether this is even really happening to us—and, if it is, that it really matters. In these moments (which are extensive, durational, saturating), the bearing of affirmative witness can be lifesaving. I use the term ‘witness’ with care: witness and testimony. I saw this. It really happened. No value judgements, no actions prescribed—just a space of recognition. This witnessing—as I have argued in my book-to-come—is situated within what Paul Ricœur (2005 p.222) has called “the dialectic of love and justice”. We cannot care for one another if we cannot see one another. In this sense, the act of bearing witness becomes, in Ricœurian terms, a “silence [which] does not mean muteness… [which] opens up a space for hearkening” (1974 p.451). I’d want to challenge Ricœur’s (or his translator’s!) use of ‘muteness’ here as a signifier of inactivity. But the point remains: to bear witness is an active form of silence, a type of listening which—and this is what Ricœur means by ‘hearkening’—is a crucial precondition for ethical action. And when so much of personhood—one’s sense of validity, of worth—seems to be predicated on being healthy enough to participate in sick systems, these forms of recognition (witnessing, hearkening) can feel revolutionary. Invalid: something which is incorrect, poorly-suited, or no longer of use. Invalid: somebody who is unwell.

I’m writing this midway through “““Mental Health Awareness Week”””, an annual festival of self-humiliation in which those of us who struggle in and against ourselves make lengthy posts on various social media platforms to the effect that we don’t need “awareness” thank you very much, but we do need proper support, treatment, compassion, the end of capitalism and such. I don’t know what, if anything, it means for my current relapse to be temporally situated in this way. I do know that I don’t particularly want anybody to be “aware” of the scale and brutality of the violences I routinely wish upon myself. I’d rather none of this existed; I’d rather none of this was happening. But things are what they are, and capitalist logic is so pervasive that here I am, writing what is at least in part a sort of theoretical sicknote. I have a Patreon, a tiny “following”: you’re all my bosses now.

And here’s the crux of it: when one is unwell, one cannot produce, and so one becomes isolated. I’m thinking production quite expansively, here: it’s not just that I find myself unable to churn out the takes on Twitter, or to write, or to edit the numberless pieces in my queue. I am also just not very fun. I struggle to reply to messages with anything worth saying. I struggle to even get out of bed. I can’t produce within the context of social relations—and so people sort of shrug and put their energies elsewhere. Understandable, when energy is limited; and besides, an anti-extractive politics means that one never ever wants to be a drain or a demand. But it also means that one ends up feeling somewhat like “dead nature”: with no resources to offer, you become irrelevant, an abstraction, severed from the intertwining of mutually-constitutive relations. One feels, to return to Ahmed’s blog post, depleted.

A few days ago I went outside; the sun was shining and everything was so beautifully alive, and I wanted (in one of those depressive moments that are both ludicrously grandiose and quietly & painfully honest) to drop to my knees and apologise to the daisies, to the earthworms, to the birdsong—to apologise for being in relation with them even when I am like this, so ugly and misshapen and useless: so invalid. I looked at it all: the Whiteheadian/Spinozan joy and creativity and boundlessness of it all; and then I saw myself, like a cold spot on a heat-sensitive camera; the kind they use on ghost-hunting programmes to detect Malign Presences. I was a part of it all, and yet so joyless, and so empty. What was my worth? The realisation—the notion that I make the world a bit sadder just by being in it, being sad—made me want to cry. A process philosophy of sadness.

But today I’m thinking that a process philosophy of sadness—one that is ethically-committed, anti-extractive, resistant to capitalist-colonial logics—means listening to what’s depleted. Bearing witness, hearkening, to the possibilities in every thing. In every body. Because what’s depleted isn’t dead, isn’t invalid: it can’t be; not if we take our commitments seriously. What’s exhausted, what’s worn-down and weakened and transformed, has much to tell us.

Lansalon Pit, Cornwall. This is a former china clay mining pit—a depleted environment—that, as well as being ethereally beautiful, is also home to rare plant kin. Photo by Tony Atkin, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lansalon Pit, Cornwall. This is a former china clay mining pit—a depleted environment—that, as well as being ethereally beautiful, is also home to rare plant kin. Photo by Tony Atkin, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

Academic works cited.

Ricœur, Paul. 1974. The Conflict if Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2005. The Course of Recognition. Translated by David Pellauer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.