on critical exhaustion.

August has always been difficult. As a child, it was the longest and most dreary month: there was no school, so no escape from home, and the public holiday at the end meant my father was home for an extra day, too. The atmosphere was charged and dangerous, and the fields beyond my window were no longer green but a parched yellow, punctuated with black lumps—hay bales, left to dry, protected from the rain with plastic sheeting. There were three big farms in our village, and their smells were amplified by the stagnant air. Every time a car or tractor drove past the house, on the single road through the village, a great cloud of dust would rise, then settle slowly. Everything looked and felt as though it was being choked. August, then, for me, has always been a heavy month, a relentless month, an ugly, ugly month. A time of bruises and boredom and abject retreat.

Heavy, relentless, ugly. Two years ago, my grandfather died at the start of August. His funeral was in early September, so I spent much of that month in bed, crying and panicking at the prospect of having to face my family. Last year, I was working on my postgraduate thesis, stressed beyond stress, so that, in the middle of the month, when the rest of my life fell apart in spectacular fashion, I almost felt nothing. (Almost.) Teeth set, shoulders permanently clenched, as though my musculature was a sort of armour against the world, it became a question of survival; a binary choice: do or die. Heavy, relentless, ugly.

This year, this August, things have been easier. I have a house, a cat, a garden full of flowers. My income is as precarious as ever, but I have paid work and I enjoy doing it. I have stacks and stacks of books, and as much time as I need to read them (after years of academia, this feels so luxurious). I've made myself three new jumpers this year, and they're cosy and soft and perfect. Looked at from this perspective, life is serene, tranquil, a glowing and constructive sort of quiet. Replenishing is the word that comes to mind. It's a time of replenishing. 

And yet every time I come here to write, I find that I can't. 

It isn't that I am not writing at all; rather, every time I try and wrap my heart around the process of theorising, of forming an Opinion and offering it to the great wide world, something inside me shuts down. (It reminds me of the times when I am tired—deeply physically tired—and I find it impossible to make any sort of future plan. After a long day, before we say goodbye and go to our respective homes, a friend will say, hey, so, what about that thing next week? Do you want to go?—and my entire being will revolt: I'm TOO TIRED FOR THAT! It's as though my mind, in its weird, indecipherable, tumultuous relationship with(in) my body, cannot conceptualise of any form of being that's other to the one I'm experiencing at that precise moment. Like the Zen 'eternal now', perhaps, but entirely without the clarity and spaciousness that should come with it.) I open a draft post, stare at it for an hour or more, screw my face up, raise my hands to my ears, and shake my head. An embodied NO.

Why is this? My instinct was to blame August. It'll all be okay when September comes. And, given what we know about the ways in which trauma operates, it's likely that my memories interact with sensory stimulus—the light, the air, the weather, the kids away from school—to inflect the way in which I inhabit Augusts in general. But I think there's more going on here. I'm exhausted—not physically, perhaps not even mentally (is there a difference?), but critically

When I ask myself, why can't you write, the answer that comes back, clear and sharp, is this:


Too much of what? Too much politics, too much manufactured outrage in service of some obvious but unacknowledged goal. Too many opinions, all of them loud, many important, some... less so. Too many disappointments: theorists and critics and people whose work and being I have loved positioning themselves firmly on the side of power and abuse and cynicism, or simply relishing the carnal delights of tearing apart an acquaintance, a comrade, a former friend. But wait, let's stop the stream of consciousness here; let's exercise some compassion. It's been a difficult summer to be a leftist in the UK, and I can't blame people for reacting negatively to the climate. I can't, won't, blame people for nihilism, cynicism, the fatal combination of bunker mentality and they-eat-their-own mistrust. All of these things are understandable. I get it. I'm there. I'm experiencing it myself. And that's precisely it: I don't like these qualities in myself. 

I once half-joked to a friend that my memoirs would be called 'Cheap Shots Win Fans'. I've always found it shamefully easy to be mean; to criticise, to wield my sharp tongue against others in a way that makes observers laugh. It has, in the past, been an easy route towards a sense of friendship: If I'm making people laugh, they must like me. And there are few things I've wanted more than just to be liked. So I'd take the cheap shots, win the fans, get a reputation for sharpness and aloofness that was, in actuality, just shyness and desperation and a complete lack of confidence in my own potential goodness. The thing was, though, that friendships based on people being amused by your ability to eviscerate others with sarcasm are not fulfilling; nor are they the sorts of friendships that can endure any deviation from the script. And so, when I hit bad times and tried to take my pain to these people, they disappeared. And I learnt, painfully and all too late, that people who glorify your making others the object of derision will also, in your absence, glorify others making you the object of derision. Meanness begets meanness. Since then, I've been trying hard to never take the easy route, the cheap shot. I mess up a lot. That feeling of popularity is a heck of a drug. But I try and keep it in mind; try and keep goodness as a horizon towards which I can aim.

So what does this have to do with my current inability to write theory or critique? I think it's this: when so much is going wrong, it can feel like all I ever do is point it out. Heavy, relentless, ugly; this constant criticism, picking fault and picking holes, and arguing—so much arguing! One cannot escape the political, it's true, but frequently I find myself exhausted with argument and defence, with taking a position, with offering ideas and opinions, with trying to bring others along with me. It feels like some sort of combination of:

  • screaming into the wind

  • being coercive

  • taking cheap shots

  • critiquing without purpose—just because I can

And I think this is what exhausts me: the mire of negativity that engaged humans must necessarily navigate. It's necessary, it's just, but it's so, so tiring. I suppose what I'm saying is, I'm burnt out on my own critical capacities. I'm exhausted by attempting to engage with positions that are taken in bad faith, or that are some sort of ersatz Socratic irony. I'm exhausted by feeling the pressure—coming only from within, of course—of having to react to things. Exhausted by expending my energy, my knowledge, my Righteous Ire—and then, afterwards, feeling exactly like this:

I'm distressed, too, by certain revelations.
Derrida, weaponising his own philosophies in the service of an alleged sexual harasser.  
Butler and Spivak, amongst others, wading into another sexual harassment case on the basis that "[the accused] isn't like that".
These are theorists whose work has informed my own, and whose actions (as detailed above) have directly undermined their work. That leaves me with... something. A sense of grief, of loss? A feeling of instability? I had always assumed that one lived one's politics. But it seems that some people—people I have admired and loved—merely make a living from them. So how do I respond to this? And, given the exhaustion and burn-out I've discussed in this post, — — — — — must I respond? 

This is an open question, for now. And this reflection doesn't have any real rhetorical aim: there's no goal or purpose to my writing, here, other than just to write, just to think through what it means when I feels that my politics have become somehow separated from the practice and ethic of love that I wanted to keep at the centre of everything? 

I wanted to make some space for this question. And I wanted to explain why, despite all my promises, I haven't written anything theoretical for months. I'll come back to it, I'm certain I will. But for now, and for the past few months, what I've needed have been small and quiet things. Flowers, yes. Fiction (reading, writing). Window-gazing, park-walking, an interior life without documentation. In a way, it's a sort of decommodification; I'd reified my political self, which is always a danger for somebody with my particular emotional configuration. I need to take a moment to remember who I am and why I do what I do. More reflection, less reaction. 

All of this to say that I hope you can bear with me through the irregular posts, the photographs of flowers, the dreamy half-fictions that might accompany them. I'm still here, but I'm replenishing.