Archives for posts with tag: Emotion

Recently, while I was spending some time at a local coffee shop, a homeless person came up to my table outside and asked me for change. I was sitting next to three people I didn’t know. Of course, I instantly thought about what my action would mean to them, not just what it would mean to me (and are these not two sides of the same coin anyway?).

Lots of questions run through one’s head, such as, “Why should I have to give away my money – do I have a moral obligation or no?” and “What will this person do with the money?” (We’re always told the money will just go to support an addiction or some other seedy activity). Eventually I decided that I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to give the person some change. So I did.

And then he pressed me further, asking if I had any more. This hadn’t happened to me before – couldn’t he just go away and stop making me feel awkward? So I did it again, handing him a dollar bill, since he specifically asked for a dollar and I just didn’t want to lie and hide it!

At any rate, the real motivation is the first: wanting to stop the awkwardness, wanting to stop feelings of guilt and general uneasiness. I’m sure this is a fairly typical experience. What makes this time interesting is what came next.

I walked into the indoor section of the café to go to the bathroom. On the way, an elderly woman approached me with something to say. This same woman I had seen probably four out of the five consecutive days I had been visiting this café (sad, I know).

I’d previously overheard her talking with another frequent patron about taking a photo of the sky, since it looked so intriguing; the next day she brought in that photo, blown up and with several copies, and showed it to the same man. She always dressed comfortably and was in a rather contented, cheery mood.

She seemed to have a lot of time on her hands, so I figured she was retired. But when she approached me after my interaction with the homeless man, she immediately reprimanded me for giving money to him: “You shouldn’t give money to people like him. That guy comes around five days a week, sometimes multiple times a day. You know, all he’ll do is go out and buy cigarettes.”

I was taken aback for multiple reasons: first, why had she bothered to confront me at this moment, when there were plenty of chances for her to introduce herself to me in more pleasant circumstances?; second, why had she needed to respond to my action so quickly, pushing her way through – rather rudely – the cramped section in front of the cashier?; third, why does she care what I do with my money (surely it’s not as bad as buying a $4 latte…)?; but lastly and most importantly – how does she know that’s what he’ll spend it on? This last question was the one that got me thinking.

In my most recent article on this blog I shed some light on the Lacanian notion of the Real, which is the limit or horizon of the subject’s symbolic existence past which exists pure impossibility, and thus is something that must be continuously avoided by the subject.

What this avoidance of the Real demands is a narrativization of the traumatic possibility that there is really nothing we could know that exists outside our knowledge of it; that all sense is mere “belief” and as such has no guarantee in material reality (in Heidegger’s words, “there is no ontological guarantee for the ontic” – there is no complete knowledge that could know itself to be complete… consciousness cannot know itself as truth).

What we actually encounter is not the totality of the Real (this would be death), but rather just ‘little pieces’ of the Real, unexpected disturbances in consciousness, things heretofore known to be impossibilities. Such disturbances are thus in a sense ‘untrue truths,’ ‘unreal realities.’ The particular pattern of the subject’s circling around these impossibilities is the subject’s ‘symptomal torsion,’ the changes in its movement – literal and figurative – within (symbolic) space.

Back to the story above: can we detect an impossible trauma as the cause of the woman’s frankly symptomatic interaction with me in the coffee shop? She obviously thought it was urgent to correct my behavior, to make me feel guilty – wrong, and therefore culpable – for giving money to the homeless man. I had already acted out of guilt when I gave him money; was it really necessary for her to make me feel guilty for feeling guilty?

Perhaps she saw my decision to act the way I did as a threat to her understanding of the way things should happen. But more importantly, I threatened her enjoyment: the way I acted suggested that one might rightly give money to a homeless person; if it were suggested – by my action, or by someone’s political activism, etc. – that her narrativized understanding of the way society works were wrong, how would she feel?

Would she herself not begin to feel guilty for choosing not to give the money to the homeless? Was she not, in this particular situation, attempting to avoid feelings of sadness and guilt by convincing herself – and imposing her manner of seeing the world on me – that she had acted rightly in deciding not to give money to the homeless man?

By rushing to tell me what I should have done differently, she thus sadistically kept tabs on me, restricting my freedom by pulling me into her vulnerable understanding of the world in order to make it less vulnerable, containing the threat my action/belief posed as a traumatic excess for her, a thing not understood, a possibility outside the realm of possibility…

This brings me, lastly, to the question that got me on this train of thought: how does she know that the homeless man will spend the money on cigarettes? Has she ever bothered to follow a homeless person and watch what they buy? To be sure, this is fictionalization at its purest: one is to assume that all homeless people spend their money that way, in order to reassure oneself that one is in the right when choosing not to give money to the homeless.

In this way, one’s guilt is displaced onto the big Other, taken care of by the societal narrative, so that one doesn’t have to confront the problem on one’s own.

But more than just preventing an uncomfortable feeling of guilt, this narrative functions to protect the subject from the slightest annoyance. That is, the protection is not simply from the guilt of choosing not to give money, but from the annoyance of having to make a choice at all, having to go through the – however brief – agony of making a choice, which implies considering alternatives, such as that one might be wrong – or, in the extreme, that there should even exist something at all to make one feel uncomfortable in a certain situation: “Why can’t I just be left alone?”

Is this not also the state of things in liberal societies? “Tolerance” is not about accepting people into the fabric of society, making that society more diverse. What tolerance does it to keep people at a proper distance so that we don’t have to be bothered by them.

Liberalism’s “leave me alone” policy toward government is therefore its same policy with respect to social life: feel free to do what you want, to celebrate your ethnic culture, your sexual orientation, etc., but don’t go too far: it’s okay if you’re Hispanic, but why can’t you speak English?; it’s okay if you’re gay, but why do you have to be so flamboyant?; it’s okay if you’ve lost your job and you’re financially destitute, but for God’s sake don’t disturb my enjoyment by coming into close contact with me, by asking me for change.

In other words, join our (notion of) society as we want you to see it. Otherwise, you risk showing society for what it actually is, complete with its traumas and symptoms.


According to a list of definitions provided by Princeton’s online dictionary, “melancholy” is:

  • a feeling of thoughtful sadness
  • somber: grave or even gloomy in character; “a somber mood.”
  • characterized by or causing or expressing sadness; “her melancholic smile”; “we acquainted him with the melancholy truth.”

What should strike us here is how different melancholy is from the ‘normal’ experience of sadness or depression: it is ‘thoughtful,’ ‘somber,’ ‘mournful,’ and may even result from the realization of some sort of ‘truth.’ Given this unusual ‘knot’ of emotion and thought, it makes sense to reflect on the significance of melancholic experience for us. There is something sublime about melancholy: it is frustrating, confusing, and difficult to understand. Indeed, this is where understanding runs up against a fundamental deadlock (after all, the emotion is distinguished by the vagueness of its object-cause; it rests on the indeterminacy of its meaning). How can we penetrate the ‘knotty’ core of melancholy to interpret its meaning? How do we pry meaning from it? What should it tell us about our lives? Here I want to give some reflections on this, mostly on my own experience, but hopefully providing, along the way, a general examination of the individual’s relation to melancholy.

If the question why I feel discouraged or out of place, lost, ‘out of joint,’ seems impenetrable, is it not likely that this thing which eludes my grasp is something unusual, something not present to hand, something ‘buried’ or muddled in the thickness of my everyday experience? Judith Butler frames this kind of melancholy experienced by the subject today as a ‘loss of a loss,’ a denial of the disavowal of some element of life that could mean something for us, something which we could experience, but which, for all that, we have chosen to exclude; it is, in effect, a realization that all is not well, that something, as a matter of fact, was just not right about our previous enjoyment, that something was actually covered up…

In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler claims that in contemporary society, ‘alternative’ sexualities and genders make up the excluded part, the sublime object of melancholy. It is this disavowal of the possibility of other sexual and gender experiences that structures the ways in which social groups and individuals interact, says Butler, whether they approach the topic explicitly or not. In fact, on her view, actions and attitudes can be seen to maneuver around these experiences – to avoid them – in a manner akin to the drive in psychoanalysis, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out again and again in the context of ideological critique: the drive short-circuits desire, places limits on its circulation, restricts its possible trajectories, such that some things simply are not desirable; the disavowed Thing is that which appears invisible, which resists symbolization or explicit articulation. And so it is actually when discourse avoids discussing the thing itself – even as an attempt at ‘political correctness,’ as in the Liberal aversion to non-euphemistic language  – that its ideological functioning is most insidious.

Discrimination continues, therefore, insofar as the languages we speak, and the gestures we articulate, prohibit discussion/ articulation/ expression of these ‘alternative’ sexualities and genders, whether explicitly or not. This is the basic outline of melancholy, its basic meaning, seen in the context of contemporary society; it is the experience of a lost object, a lost possibility for desire. The implications, therefore, extend beyond the individual’s narcissistic experience of the emotion, of the guilt and strange soul-searching that set in once the emotion arises: we should see how this emotion can speak to society at large, how it can show us the underlying structure of society’s experience of itself, of the relations among its constituent parts (and excluded elements as well). This is not to anthropomorphize society, as though it could experience emotions, but rather to say that the constellation of relations among persons and their emotions, between the set of rational self-reflections and the set of excluded, denied emotional experiences, parallels the relation between society’s ‘normal run of things’ and its excess, excluded, and marginalized dimensions, the existence of which reveals, precisely, the inadequacy of that very same ‘normal run of things’ for explaining the true structure of society – and that explanation is exactly what cultural critique is for.

But after that somewhat lengthy excursus into cultural criticism, I want to return to the original object of this entry: my own experience and reflections on this peculiar emotion. My sense is not that this melancholy should conjure guilt or initiative to reflect on my attitudes toward disempowered social groups. Rather, what comes to mind is another kind of concern, a basic question: precisely, what should be my relationship to melancholy? Regardless of the particular content of the disavowal – regardless of which forms of life, which forms of social activity I have undertaken to disavow – the question remains how to relate to the emotion as such. For if we cannot know the particular content, but can only interrogate our feelings and attempt to outline the intimations which those feelings, in combination with our actions, our social life-histories, and so on, suggest – that is, if we can only probe toward ‘the thing itself,’ and thus only approach the ‘real’ content asymptotically – then we are left with a plain relation to ‘melancholy’ as such. In other words, because the particular content is simply unknowable, the thing left to do seems to be to determine a manner of relating to the emotion’s form, not its content. So what actions should result from our acknowledgement of the importance of melancholy, when the particular content is itself insoluble? What should it matter that there is this disavowal? What practical conclusions can we draw?

My intuition is that we should fully embrace melancholy as a reason to pause, as a cause for reflection, for the ceasing of activity and the beginning of a more receptive, and perceptive, sense of the environment, especially the people around you. And so the virtue of experiencing the emotion to its fullest extent – instead of hurriedly putting an end to it or simply avoiding it – is that it initiates a kind of humility in the face of one’s fallibility; one comes to realize that there is yet more to be done, that there is always something that one has not yet understood, cannot understand, or has even consciously avoided: we are, in other words, always human, and others are always non-systematizable, ‘unfinalizable’ (as M. M. Bakhtin says). In a sense, melancholy is the middle-point along the continuum of experience, halfway between the opposite poles of insecurity/ fearfulness/ sadness, and arrogance/ pride/ overzealousness; it teaches us to come back down to earth, to disengage from the easy, though false, security of (self-)reflection, of ‘transcendental ideals,’ and to get to work in practical activity, with love and respect for other human beings.

Indeed, if we take the basic coordinates of this peculiar emotion to map fairly well onto the Lacanian relation between the symbolic and the real, between the ‘all’ and the ‘part of no part,’ then it stands to reason that melancholy is a kind of reaction to obsessive-compulsive neuroticism; the subject whose desire is sustained by a drive to match a perfectionistic ideal, to match its behavior exactly to the (imaginary) demands of the Other (the Master-Signifier, the set of relatively clear social roles and distinctions, etc.), and thus to deny itself to exposure or vulnerability to anything outside this order must represent the exact opposite of melancholy: and in just this way, when melancholy falls upon the obsessive-compulsive subject, is the true message not that this drive has resulted in the massive exclusion of other ways of being?

My contention is that this is precisely what my obsessive personality leads me toward; it seems in these moments of bewildered sadness that I am guilty of harming someone else – if even in the most vague manner, such as by imposing myself in a conversation, talking excessively, not listening, feeling too elated, etc. – and that such harm is, in effect, a denial of the place of the other in the symbolic, a denial of the importance of another in my own life.

Thus the solution would seem to be a return to listening to the voices of those who I have temporarily excluded from my perception of the world. This isn’t difficult. And I believe that this fact reflects the way that melancholy passes over me, its strangely transient nature.

Again, this is just a reflection on how I want to try to think of melancholy. But I think the psychoanalytic coordinates of this odd symptom are also helpful for explaining the basic structure of the symptom in general, and for understanding how we are to relate to others based upon our emotions.