Sam Diamond 💎

29.03.2019

Writing at the End of Self-Care

Contemporary fiction and the logic of mindfulness

Commonly understood, the decade since the 2008 financial crisis has been a period of relentless austerity. This is of course true, but it’s also been a period of great abundance. It has often felt to me as if, for most in the West, it’s been a decade of accelerating oscillation between the twin poles of austerity and abundance.

Huge public debts incurred as a result of bank bailouts were combined with the cynical and unnecessary rhetoric of belt-tightening, sacrifice and hardship. Inevitably, the poorest bore and continue to bear the heaviest burden. The middle classes have also suffered: labour became evermore precarious, education and childcare more expensive. In the US, despite Obama’s flailing attempt at reform, the cost of healthcare skyrocketed.

Federal funds rate, 2006–2018

But at the same time, the financial instruments deployed to stave off financial oblivion generated an atmosphere of abundance. To encourage economic activity, interest rates stayed almost flat, rarely straying above 0%. As a result, capital flowed into the technology sector. In 2008, the largest company in the US was Exxon, and Microsoft was the only technology firm in the top ten. By 2018, the top five places had been taken by technology companies, their market caps double those of the 2008 top five. Apple, Google and Amazon all breached $1trillion valuations, the first companies in history to do so.

Despite the rupture caused by the crash, the neoliberal trade policy pioneered during the Clinton presidency and maintained through the Bush years continued to operate efficiently, with companies like Apple working with Asian partners to drive down the price of their advanced hardware devices.


This, combined with the flood of capital into tech stocks and the dawn of Web 2.0, provided consumers with aesthetic abundance on an unprecedented scale. The material circumstances for most became more difficult, with jobs less secure and public services and welfare support evaporating. But, as you can see in this chart (produced by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute!), media, communication and entertainment have never been cheaper.

Here, the oscillation between austerity and abundance is most clearly illustrated. On one side of the scale is the increasing cost of healthcare, food, education, housing and childcare, bolstered by the stagnation of wages below inflation and government austerity policies. On the other is a flood of aesthetic interference, with images and text flying across social networks at an increasing speed.

There have been numerous signs that this ambivalent dynamic is having a damaging effect beyond the growth of in-work poverty, homelessness and general material insecurity. Mental illness is also reaching epidemic proportions. Studies suggest that despite the introduction of a series of new antidepressants and a wealth of new research, depression and anxiety have spiked. It seems reasonable to infer that the cause of this trend is some combination of diminishing material security and an overload of aesthetic material.

By aesthetic material, I’m referring to a range of visual objects. Our electronic devices and entertainment products are now cheaper and more advanced, and so we can consume visual material at a great pace. We also have new categories of visual material to fill the increased time we spend looking at our devices; memes, social posts, digital advertising, but also emails from our bosses, messages from our friends. The decreased price of software means that it’s never been easier to become a visual producer; images and video is created and reedited, bootlegged and reproduced on a massive scale. If, as per Terry Eagleton, postmodernism reflected a world shrunk by the rapid new speeds of transport and information distribution, we have now surely reached the next stage. The distribution of aesthetic material is immediate, its volume overwhelming.



In order to deal with this issue, there has been a deliberate move to combat its symptoms through a redefinition of our relationship with time. One of the most interesting and widespread developments has been the adoption of corporate-backed, NHS-approved ‘mindfulness’ practices. Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a figure often credited with its rise, ‘means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ Mindful meditation involves concentrating on how one’s body feels through a process of breath-based consideration of the present moment. It makes sense that such a practice has, encouraged by corporations and health services, become a cornerstone in the treatment of mental health issues caused at their root by material precarity and aesthetic overload. It would be an overstatement to claim that mindfulness has become a defining cultural practice, but it does provide a mechanism for understanding the temporal orientation of the last decade. It is no coincidence that it’s come to the fore now.

Also notable is a rise in the language and practice of ‘self-care’, of which mindfulness is often a component. Self-care involves obeying one’s own will, free from external interference. It has come to mean everything from cancelling plans to eating or drinking what you want to enacting a skincare regimen. We might see these practices as defence mechanisms against the new, transient conditions of whatever comes after postmodernity.



What does fiction have do with all this?

As the oscillation between material austerity and visual abundance accelerates, I think that literature is showing a will to slow down, a tendency it’s possible to explore through the language of mindfulness and self-care.

In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, Frederic Jameson described the defining feature of the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard as itemisation. Knausgaard’s work, Jameson argues, is the result of what happens after

we have abandoned the quest for new languages to describe the stream of the self-same or new psychologies to diagnose its distressingly unoriginal reactions and psychic events. All that is left is to itemise them, to list the items that come by.

So it is not only the objects Karl Ove buys and uses that are itemised here: it is the people, the emotions and feelings, the thoughts, that are itemised as well.

This sounds a lot like mindfulness, which involves noting feelings and thoughts as they occur without judging them: ‘I feel sad but sadness is just a feeling and that’s ok’ rather than ‘I feel sad and I need to work out why and stop myself from feeling this sadness’. As explained in mindfulness literature:

In contrast to most thinking, noting is not discursive. It does not involve analysis or judgment. Rather, we simply give our current experience a one-word label. For example, upon hearing a sound we note ‘hearing’ without thinking further about the sound. Other common mental notes are ‘seeing’, ‘touching’, ‘feeling’, and ‘thinking’.

In itemisation, writing is less a means of working through thoughts and feelings and discerning their meaning, and more of a therapeutic method of transferring inner mental detritus to the physical world. This is the opposite of classic psychoanalysis: rather than dwelling on thoughts and probing for patterns which might help elucidate and alleviate trauma, this mode of writing involves simply organising thoughts and feelings without unravelling their meaning.

Knausgaard’s itemisation or, as I would refer to it, mindfulness, is a key component shared by much recent fiction. Novels such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Rachel Cusk’s Outlinetrilogy all treat their characters’ thoughts and feelings as neutral expressions of the present. Their first-person narrators recount information, note details and mental states without judgement. Perhaps such an approach leaves space for the reader to extrapolate meaning — after all, the work of the author can never be neutral; there is always a reason for the inclusion of certain material over the infinite possibilities that are inevitably left out.

An incredibly basic and perhaps wrong chart I made. Conventional Realism would span all three sections, Modernism would span the last two, as would Speculative Philosophy/Autotheory.

Cusk’s work is the best example of this impulse towards mindfulness. Her narrator is barely a narrator at all; she absorbs other people’s stories and seemingly recounts them verbatim, barely commenting on their content. Material is communicated to the reader, but without external affective or interpretive context from narrator or author.

Such an approach can be frustrating, as is the case in the sections of Cusk’s novels that deal more directly with political questions. In one such section, a Spanish man on a beach refers to how stupid the English tourists and emigrants are, how they refuse to learn the language and behave atrociously. The narrator does not comment, leaving the words to hang in the air, but one can easily guess the perspective of Cusk and many of her readers at the time of Brexit: the English working class are uneducated fools, ruining the cosmopolitan dream of continent’s deserving elites (although no doubt they would not phrase it in this way). One might argue that there is nothing wrong with making such a point. This is true, but without the narrator offering affirmative or conflicting comment it appears as an objective fact. After all, we’re not given the perspective of a Syrian migrant or out-of-work Greek doctor, both of whom might have suffered as a result of the EU’s actions, despite the fact that some of the trilogy is set in Athens.

In the same sense that a photograph considered without context might give an easy appearance of an individual moment, ignoring the depth and ambivalence of real life, the narrator stands apart from potentially painful, complicating or traumatic repercussions and avoids the difficulty of complexity.

If, as Jameson suggests, the itemising impulses of autofiction in the work of Knausgaard, Cusk, Lerner and Heti are a detached ‘noting’, the goal is not to interpret and derive meaning in the sense of analysis but to experience the material at a remove, to become familiar with it without trauma. It’s a therapeutic method of temporal redefinition.

At a time when visual material combines with material precarity to trigger anxiety, literature becomes a space for information to be digested without urgency. To quote from the London Review of Books’ new advertising campaign: ‘As politics speeds up, slow down.’ The function of literature in this environment is to provide a temporal lens through which the world can be considered at remove, more slowly, away from the painful and troubling conditions of actual life. I don’t doubt that this might make one feel better, but removing oneself from politics is unlikely to alleviate the conditions that have led to such behaviour being necessary.



In Megan Boyle’s recent novel Liveblog, we can see a more extreme and direct example of this tendency. The 800-page novel documents a year of Boyle’s life in which she updated her blog a few times each day, writing down as many of her thoughts and feelings as possible. In mindfulness, this process would be called noting; for Boyle, it’s literature. She has a similarly therapeutic goal:

**this is not going to be interesting** ** i am not going to try to make this sound interesting or try to make you like me or think about if you are reading this or enjoying reading this, it’s just going to be what it is: a functional thing that will hopefully help me feel more like improving myself**

By noting down thoughts and feelings and not judging herself for having them, Boyle expects that they will somehow arrange themselves in a way that will enable her to digest them more readily, and eventually allow her to reassemble them into a form that she’s more comfortable with.

The result is a shift in temporal perspective. By its nature, Liveblog cannot dwell on the past or even gesture towards a possible future. The narrator must constantly inhabit the present. We can again see a tendency towards self-care manifest; Boyle’s narrator (the gap between the narrator and Boyle is extremely thin) embodies the most self-driven aspect of self-care in her non-compromising disclaimer. Her novel is not for the reader, it’s part of her own care and self-improvement regimen.

The results are mixed. At its best, Liveblog captures the narrator’s jarring inner monologue, which reflects the uncomfortable state of consciousness in the age of abundance and austerity. At its worst, it’s a self-indulgent mess. Often, such as in a section in which she quaffs Xanax and falls asleep in the bath while still holding her Macbook, it’s both:

12:22AM: bathwater is running. i’m just going ot do this until forever. ate half of some kind of pill, 1 mg Xanax ithink. ate other one […]

ookkk anoth athter xaanxn at some e oo==ibe, ijay sruffl is going to better e=vetter i know

1:12AM: woke in mostly empty bathtub. very cold. drain wouldn’t close so i just sat on it and refilled tub with hot water. when i woke felt obsessed with finding candy i had been eating but i guess i ate it all. flopped around trying to always be covered in hot water, thinking ‘sexy seal’ and ‘sprinkle princess’ and pictured someone tossing me a fish and this is what would get me into the maxim top 100 hottest women or whatever. because enough seals voted me in.

Dropping a Macbook in the bath because you’ve taken Xanax and fallen asleep is illustrative of the writing of self-care: the act of writing (symbolised by the Macbook) is literally submerged by the act of care (the drugs/bathwater). Despite a care-overload, the documentation continues.

Boyle takes drugs throughout the novel. Sometimes recreationally, at other times remedially. The line is frequently blurred, and we might see intoxication as another method of self-care. Xanax makes a frequent appearance, as do other downers. The effect these substances share in the novel is to further remove Boyle from reflections on the past or future; they place her unshakeably in the present, numbing her relationship with the consistent, unstoppable passage of time.

It isn’t difficult to see why this type of fiction has gained traction in a period of precarity and overload. The tendency towards self-indulgence functions as a mechanism of protection and stability, insulation against the painful past and an uncertain future. At a time when social media and the non-stop bombardment of aesthetic material triggers anxiety of a temporal nature, Boyle responds in kind, but places herself at the centre of the narrative, a position in which she is able to define her temporal location. By documenting the present and occupying it as much as possible, she hopes to achieve control at a time when control is hard to come by.



Another novel offers a further exaggerated portrayal of self-care. Ottessa Mosfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation transports the Victorian sanatorium to pre-9/11 New York, as its unnamed protagonist doses herself with prescription drugs with the eventual goal of becoming unconscious for months at a time. In the novel’s final section, she invites an artist to enable her behaviour, instructing him to visit her apartment during the her three-day periods of drug-induced sleep and leave her a pizza and other supplies, which she consumes upon waking before taking another dose and returning to unconsciousness.

Why would anyone want to do this? The protagonist’s parents have recently died, so there’s an implicit trauma underlying her behaviour. Her attempt to medicate herself against the pain of the past while insulating herself from the possibilities of the future is an extended and extreme version of self-care, radicalising the premise. Taking a bath, cancelling one’s plans, ordering food, taking a year-long period of drug-induced convalescence: these things are versions of the same impulse.

The brilliance of Mosfegh’s novel comes in her bold subversion of the moral unfolding we might expect. The protagonist is, trauma-effected as she might be, not a good person. She hates Reva, her annoying and flawed girl-boss-type best friend who is nonetheless one of the few characters who cares for her (although the extent to which this is just a symptom of codependency is up for debate). Her decision to numb herself in her Manhattan apartment seems the morally-degenerate copout of a privileged brat. By rights, such a choice should end in failure and misery. But in fact, her warped version of self-care pays dividends.

The drugs and her relationship with Reva allow her to practice a seemingly pure version of mindfulness which, in the culmination of the novel, brings her out of her convalescence and enables her to resume her life:

Reva was like the pills I took. They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted — my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.

Like mindful meditation, her relationship with Reva and the drugs allow her to experience a temporal purity free of past and future and, therefore, pain:

Reva was a magnet for my angst. She sucked it right out of me. I was a Zen Buddhist monk when she was around. I was above fear, above desire, above worldly concerns in general. I could live in the now in her company. I had no past or present. No thoughts. I was too evolved for all her jibber-jabber. And too cool. Reva could get angry, impassioned, depressed, ecstatic. I wouldn’t. I refused to. I would feel nothing, be a blank slate.

Reva gets a job working in the World Trade Center, and subsequently jumps to her death on 9/11. After awaking from her benzo slumber, the narrator feels alive again, ditches the drugs and experiences a healing calm by replaying a VHS tape of Reva’s fall from the North Tower over and over. Her own new dawn is reflected in the apparent appearance of Reva before her death: ‘There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.’

It’s possible to read the novel’s end in multiple ways. It could be a brilliant sick parody of Millenial onanism and selfishness (likely); a simultaneously ironic and sincere subversion of rise-and-grind New York capitalism (a good reading); or a wry, benefit-of-hindsight comment on the post-9/11 moment (a reach). It doesn’t really matter.

Personally, when I reached the book’s denouement, it did feel like the end of something larger. It was extremely satisfying to witness a character embody so completely the ideology of self-care, to display its ability to heal and insulate while at the same time withdrawing an individual’s capacity to care for others. My argument here is not a reproach to those whom self-care has helped — it’s an effective buffer against the twin assaults of material austerity and aesthetic abundance, just as it helps Mosfegh’s narrator overcome her grief at the loss of her parents. But although it can be a valuable tool, it’s also a symptom of the specific conditions of the last decade and thus incompatible with a wider programme of socially-focused care that might deal with the issue at its root.

There can be no doubt that the literature of the late 2010s will continue to seek the same itemised remove from its own events and place the self above the collective. But perhaps, just as in politics, economics, environmentalism and everywhere else we’re beginning to see the exhaustion of such an approach, we might see fiction explore once again what it means to live among others, to extend care beyond oneself.

29.01.2019

Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure

‘How Asia Works’ and Wealth Distribution for Growth

The last few weeks have seen an uncommon volume of debate about tax policy. First, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a 70% marginal tax rate on those earning more than $10 million. After this proposal had generated foam-mouthed ire from every weasel-faced Fox News pundit going, the World Economic Forum in Davos began.

Here, the focus was slightly different: rather than right-wing libertarians disgusted at the suggestion that a government might impose themselves on private property, what we saw was the apparently well-meaning global elite claiming that although they would be happy contributing a vast amount (though not proportion!) of their wealth to philanthropic foundations under their own control, taxes were regressive, ineffective and, fundamentally, not the answer to rising inequality, social and political unrest and plain-old poverty.

There were a series of Epic Clapbacks from historians and economists, who noted that ‘high’ taxes had never previously impeded economic growth, but it was clear that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the billionaires still thought they knew best — a fact compounded, at least in terms of optics, by Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s announcement that he would run as an independent for President in 2020, an act which he seems to think of as an extension of the corporate philanthropy he believes is the answer to the world’s problems. Save us, Howard, we need you!

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Joe Studwell’s comprehensive economic study How Asia Works. Despite its TED-talk title and dry tone, the book is a fantastic exploration of the material results of macroeconomic policy, ostensibly about Asian economies and the reasons behind their success or failure. But, of course, it’s about much more than Asia specifically, and provides a fascinating contrast to the arguments about tax policy and inequality that are currently unfolding in the West

Often, arguments for higher taxation are made in terms of redistribution, with neoliberal economists and politicians putting forward the idea that the rich should ‘do their bit’. I agree, they should do their bit. But the assumption behind this argument is that it’s their wealth in the first place, that they’ve shown the requisite work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit and innovative nous to attract wealth, and that they are therefore entitled to the fruits of their labour. All we can hope is that they’re kind enough to give some of it back.

How Asia Works demonstrates over and over again how stupid this line of thought is. Asia provides a useful testing ground for economic decisions, as many of the continent’s economies began from similar developmental positions. Their differing states suggest a series of questions: how has South Korea developed successful electronics and automotive industries while Malaysia’s attempts to do the same have fallen flat? Why have many Asian economies industrialised while others, such as the Philippines, still struggle with agriculture?

Studwell provides a series of answers on the level of specific policy that makeup a rough playbook for how to develop an economy: household farming is required to maximise the labour force before larger-scale productivity gains are worth it; export discipline is vital in order to develop a competitive manufacturing operation that can bring in foreign capital and liquidity.

Underpinning these policies is a wider theme. In order to build an economy that works, private ingenuity must be directed by state policy. It’s fascinating to see how the South Korean government, to take one example, gave individual entrepreneurs support and encouragement and, in some cases, applied coercion, in order to ensure that industry grew in the right way. The private sector was allowed to gain wealth, but only if it followed government direction, which was geared towards creating an economy that worked for the entire country, providing technological progress and growth.

One of the biggest killers of economic success is rent-seeking, and it’s vital that governments intervene to prevent entrepreneurs from gaining control of business and sitting on it without innovating, which will benefit the public. In South Korea, for example, automotive manufacturers were required to export vehicles, which led to technological development and global competitiveness. In Malaysia, however, entrepreneurs were able to stick to the domestic market, and so their cars didn’t have airbags, which were required internationally. Therefore, Malaysian entrepreneurs grew rich and sat on the wealth generated from domestic sales, while innovation stalled and the country suffered.

An interventionist state, working in tandem with the animal spirits of the private sector, contradicts the assumptions about wealth that are currently playing out in tax policy debates. In successful Asian economies, private wealth is an incentive to encourage progress that benefits the public, and the right to it comes from the public itself. The public generates wealth and is the source of wealth, and private entrepreneurs should be rewarded only when the public benefit.

According to the Davos elite, the public should apparently be grateful for the personal contributions of the rich, who should be worshipped as wealth-creating geniuses. If only we could all be blessed with such talent!

After reading How Asia Works, it’s hard to argue that that the rich in the West exist as a result of anything other than policy failure. Levelling higher taxes is a good start, addressing a structural imbalance that has enabled them to seek rent while innovation stalls. It’s a useful tool to prevent rent-seeking and spur those without wealth to innovate.

One thing that has been encouraging about the left-wing arguments for higher top rates of taxation has been a redefinition of terms towards this position, a sentiment best put into slogan by Ocasio-Cortez policy adviser Dan Riffle: Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.