SSRIs

One recognisable cycle of the human complex system is that of anxiety and depression. Within this, we can recognise anxiety and panic as productive forces and depression as withdrawal or non-productivity. The productivity of anxiety succumbs, withdraws and collapses into exhaustion and depression. SSRIs or antidepressants can be used in an attempt to neutralise these intensities, softening panic (filling up) and depression (emptying out). The self can reconstitute itself whilst under the influence of these drugs through recognising the actual social forces and foldings that have occurred. This provides opportunities for the self to break with its fettered image (to quote Mark Fisher, “the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was” [1]) – or alternatively becoming more deeply stratified under capitalism through the ‘psychopathic’ extraction of useful labour.

This phenomenon will be critiqued and analysed through defining anxiety and its potential for post-capitalist desires, then situating my experience with antidepressants using Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, outlining the problem of useful labour extraction and finally introducing the notion of an ethics of the eerie. It is necessary at this stage to put a clear divide between the productive mode of anxiety and the withdrawal mode of depression because anxiety is too often rather reductively seen as cut off. This text separates them out in order to counter the assumptions around anxious experience to begin with, establishing a point of departure. There is a certain rigidity here that will be complicated as posts go on…

Anxiety as pathologised under capitalism exists as a limitation. It becomes cut off or blocked under such conditions. The productivity of anxiety does not occur in the capitalist understanding (surplus labour value), but in anxiety’s expansive capacity to respond to actual social forces using multiple (productive) processes. Hyperproductive anxiety may make the subject appear to be a fully functioning member of capitalist society in their efforts to subdue it. For example an anxious subject may meet every work deadline, but she is coerced by job precarity or low self-worth. It is to be argued that when triggered, anxiety signals the desire for something beyond or outside the current conditions. When this desire goes unfulfilled or thwarted, it becomes panic, which is then cut off, entering the mode of withdrawal: exhaustion or depression. Anxiety serves its function as a tool of everyday criticality analysis, identifying and engaging with oppression and risk. Uncommunicated, it exists as cut off and isolated – even paralytical. Since sense is only made in shared spaces, these uncommunicated limitations overwhelm the individuated subject and are interpreted as a personal failure to integrate or function properly within assumed norms.

When communicated, anxiety offers a basis for the collective building of structural/institutional critique. It has been subjugated as an experience for too long – David B. Morris argues that “we must be prepared to insist that pain, depression, and disability cannot be reduced to the emblems of a private dystopia.” [2] Non-privatised anxiety is the repeated potential openings for connection. Methodologies for reopening and engaging positively with potential connections offer difficulties, because of our embeddedness in existing oppressive structures. Coping mechanisms, such as the ‘flight response’ further perpetuate this conception of a totalised social where withdrawal is the only possibility. Instead, any “enquiry into the nature of what the world is like” should also be “inevitably an unraveling of what human beings had taken themselves to be,” [3] in order to make commitments that challenge the structural mechanisms that hold us and keep ourselves fixed.

Teen movies offer some insight into negative and positive aspects. Motives for assimilation may be either deeper stratification in the first instance or post-capitalist desires in the second; for example the desire to be accepted by the popular crowd who have utopia focused on the perfection of the self; or the desire to be part of a undercommons revolt involving “collective utopian politics and the public exercise of utopian virtues” [4] leading to a more harmonious, if still imperfect, social order. Here, a drama of value [5] plays out in an attempt to shift the responsibility away from the ‘self that must get better’ to the necessary expansion of the commons and facilitation of participation – the former being a negative solidarity of “solitary, private, individual” bodies. The latter mode is the anti-capitalist productivity, or commoning, of anxiety that we must mobilise. Both situations can lead to the cut off mode outlined above as the conditions for participation may remain ambiguous. The proposition here is how can we work from anxious experience in order to communicate potential alliances, equalising knowledges and mobilising a more collective politics.

Antidepressants, anxiety and heterotopia

Anxiety has been present throughout my life, although at the age of fourteen I suffered from anxiety and depression with increasing intensity. At my friend’s recommendation I went to see the local doctor. Following a blood test [6] and numerous psychological health questionnaires, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and given a prescription for citalopram. No further support was offered and I did not know to ask. I began taking the antidepressants with little to no information about what they would do – apart from that they ‘would help’ – as well as minimal information on the conditions I had been diagnosed with. I was not offered any form of counselling or therapy – not knowing any better than to place my trust in the doctor’s recommendations. Unfortunately my story is not uncommon and has various socioeconomic implications.

This ignorance meant I was cast adrift from the feeling self that I knew; observing situations and acknowledging the emotional reaction I would ordinarily have, without actually experiencing the intensity of the response-emotion. I was alarmed by my inability to experience intensity of emotion (or to resemble the image I held of myself). Because of this I decided to stop taking citalopram. On reflection, citalopram granted me an outside perception of the relation between social distress and my ‘typical’ emotional reactions. Although recognising these relations required me to hold some prior image of (my)self in similitude, a voiding process began. The abjection I felt towards unfeeling recognises the outside of feeling, inciting “the challenge of treating discontent, abjection and psychopathology as traces of an as yet unimaginable outside rather than as symptoms of maladjustment.” [7] The shudder of abjection is a shudder of the eerie.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at the age of twenty helped me develop skills for articulating and mapping the external foldings that formulate my anxious mood. The psychological emerges “as the product of forces from the outside.” [8] Even then the eerie effect of SSRIs went unarticulated – dismissed as a missed opportunity to catch my mental health issues ‘early on,’ whilst simultaneously dismissing the conception of it being a politicised indictment of the care I received (fuck off and take these pills becomes we are sacrosanct individuals, so tell me about your family but don’t implicate my profession in social reproduction).

Michel Foucault writing on the mirror as a joint experience of utopia and heterotopia was the first text to come close to articulating my experience of taking SSRIs. Through this spatialisation the pathological can be verbalised, changing the structure of the “relation between the visible and invisible […] revealing through gaze and language what had previously been below and beyond their domain.” This “new alliance forged between words and things” [9] could not be founded in my initial ignorance and the use of heterotopia for this purpose is admittedly clumsy. However I have decided to keep faith with this lumbering articulation. Throughout, the interior mechanisms of the antidepressant diagramming is played out in exterior space:

“The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror.

I acknowledge my typical emotional reactions, but I am absent from them. Whilst on antidepressants, emotion-intensities become a virtual mapping over my lived experience. I hold a prior image of (my)self in this moment. I am made visible, but I am distant, absented.

But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am.

I begin to situate myself using the image of (my)self, coming back to where I am from the standpoint of another perspective. I am reconstituted in their relation.

The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.” [10]

Being distanced from the reactive self allowed me to see the pathological in active relation. This absencing allowed me to presence myself with a different relational understanding of (my)self and social forces. In order to be perceived, it had to pass through absence, holding the absent self distant yet in similitude.

Heterotopia describes a process, a relation between spaces. It offers similitude rather than resemblance, which simultaneously de-anchors the subject from an identitarian reference point and allows for a resituating of the self beyond this (or potentially deepening the embeddedness in capitalist orderings). This resituating is a process building outside of and in relation to homogenous or dominant modalities. Through SSRIs these hierarchies of intensity (anxiety, panic, depression) give way to a series of exclusively lateral relations [11] – different in the way they are experienced because of the emotional flattening of the SSRIs, but equivalent in regards to the relational processes that would produce such intensities. Instead of cutting off and withdrawing from intensities, a process of deferral occurs. The similitude of these processes shifts the point of reference, exposing mechanisms of desire, creation and their repeated potential openings. Here, we can see such relationships or responses from the outside, from the standpoint of another perspective. The self-referential remains, entering a process of disarticulation: again, “the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.” [12] Potentially rearticulated and rebuilt after the shock of losing its referent – a freeing from identitarian fetters – the methodology of this is where we must intervene lest this deindividuated self be dispassionately reterritorialised in order to extract useful labour. This is where transversal practice is needed, but that is not to be expanded upon here.

In Flatline Constructs, Mark Fisher writes of the non-resistance of postmodern anxiety, perhaps to be further explored through the removal of reference anchors (see pg.43 Hetherington) and the desire for immanence. But that is to be expanded upon elsewhere…

Useful labour extraction

This text is about the specific experience of taking antidepressants for anxiety. Antidepressants suppress the vicious cycling of productivity/withdrawal leaving the analytical capacities and reflexivity of anxiety in similitude, distanced from the self-critical. In 4 Theses on Depression and Radical Praxis, Sophie Monk and Joni (Pitt) Coren work from Mark’s thought in Good For Nothing to make the argument for “a life-producing and therapeutic praxis that incorporates depression rather than abjecting it” as well as a demand for “a more nuanced thinking of pharmaceuticals.” [13] Depression, “whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it,” [14] struggles to recognise itself relationally, turning inwards because of its withdrawal mechanisms. Depression isolates, not recognising friendship and consequently never fully in the open. We may be able to begin working for change using antidepressants as proposed by Monk and Coren, because the ‘infernally paradoxical logic’ of depression is “the internalised expression of actual social forces.” [15] Monk and Coren explain that the left’s rejection of antidepressants due to the drugs’ connection with big pharma as well as the inability of someone on medication to be ‘fully present’ in radical politics disregards the lived experience and demands made upon those with mental health issues within activist politics. They argue that “medication has the potential to both pacify and galvanise us” and that our collective depression can perhaps be weaponised by using such medications, further enabling our participation in potentially traumatic and overwhelming confrontations with oppressors.

Antidepressants are criticised for their ‘numbing’ of populations because they are used as an end in themselves in order to trudge out useful labour, rather than as a transformative agent. Privatised disaffection is allowed to proliferate, antidepressants used to minimise the affective impact of this resubordination. When “the social subject is increasingly asked to perform its worth publicly as evidence of its value” [16] it breeds, as David Smail writes, “a technology of manipulation and deceit in which the plausibility of the front you manage to present becomes all-important.” [17] Antidepressants become part of these technologies of deceit, under the influence of “social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.” [18] Popular culture tropes such as the ‘stepford smiler’ [19] acknowledge this.

In The Psychopath Factory, Tristam Adams writes that in semiocapitalism, “desensitisation is a symptom – but it is not an immediately unproductive symptom, like collapse and panic.” [20] Solutions such as antidepressants “follow the same psychopathic trajectory: returning the organism to a deadened, efficient and productive state.” [21] This resonates with the David Smail quote above, however an engaged radical praxis is what stops SSRIs from allowing people to simply be better capitalist subjects. This is emphasised by Mark Fisher in his article Good For Nothing, where he argues that the aim is to convert privatised disaffection into politicised anger. [22]

Adams believes panic and anxiety to be unproductive because of the organism’s exhausting sensitivity to the “energies and effects of late capitalism” and he quotes Bifo:

“[as] the acceleration of impulses provokes stress in the physical organism [it] demands a psychotropic reformatting of perceptions and cognitive interaction, through the use of psychopharmacological drugs or the pure and simple deactivation of empathy.” [23]

Anxiety can be understood here as a resistance to the capitalist understanding of productivity. Because if psychopathy is an example par excellence of capitalist code, then anxiety is a failure of capitalist code. The issue here is not necessarily the drugs themselves, but the methodologies of use. If the inside is a folding of the outside then we must move beyond the transgressive Ripley towards egress. The former being susceptible to capitalist assimilation due to its (see also: his) individuated mode for the extraction of useful labour. Through using antidepressants as an end in themselves, subjects become exceedingly vulnerable to capitalist reterritorialisations. He only helps himself: utopia in the self.

If, as Adams writes, “the horror of confronting the psychopath is the horror of the mirror – an exaggerated and emboldened form of our own subjectivity presented back to us.” [24] Then instead of seeking individual solutions to our collective pathologies engendered by late capitalism (the horror of the mirror), we must shift our focus outwards, using antidepressants as a heterotopic mirror space in which to hold ourselves in similitude, in order to break with its reflection – possible through taking a transversal approach to the outside via collective practice. A potential methodology for this reflective practice can be found in the relational dynamic of antidepressants and anxiety, in combination with an ‘ethics of the eerie.’ Observing and communicating complexity in order to leave or transform it.

Ethics of the eerie

In conjunction to the heterotopic qualities of SSRIs, we can also understand them as eerie agents, transcending affect-intensities in order to articulate them relationally. Under SSRIs a failure of presence occurs – “gaps where agency should be.” [25] In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher writes;

“the perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us access to spaces beyond mundane reality altogether.” [26]

Eerie agents constantly pose the question of the eerie and from this, the outside becomes available. SSRIs invoke a partial emptying of the human, a disengagement from our current attachments. There is a serenity, an eerie calm, a detachment from the urgencies of the everyday. [27] The outside is available to us, engineered and manufactured as part of a practice – egress – or through ingesting an eerie agent. The sensation of the eerie can invoke anxiety (a folding) because of anxiety’s recognition of potential alterity in uncertain surroundings – “the quickest way to produce a sense of the eerie is to restrict information in this way.” [28] This filling up by anxiety can be seen as a failure of absence under neoliberalism because in this context anxiety is a something where there should be nothing. Conversely, as part of a postcapitalist desire, anxiety is a repetition of an opening to the outside, folding it inside the organism, filling it up.

Here, an ethics of the eerie can be put into practice, as outlined by Mark in his analysis of Tarkovsky’s Stalker;

“Cautious, always alert to potential dangers, drawing on [past] knowledge but aware of the way in which the Zone’s mutability so often renders previous experience obsolete, the stalker invokes a space bristling with unseen menace and promise. Humble in the face of the unknown, yet dedicated to exploring the outside, the stalker offers a kind of ethics of the eerie.” [29]

The stalker is anxious due to perceiving openings to the outside. He gathers intelligence, sharing it with others as part of a process of exploration. Everything the stalker knows, including himself, is disarticulated through contact with the outside. These proliferating connections offer a new and unknown consistency as an other; inviting alterity as opposed to identitarian fetters. Anxiety allows for a transversal practice, a productive and rational methodology that responds to the complexity of actual social forces through recognising potential openings or connections to the outside. These desires are often thwarted under capitalist structurings, becoming cut off and entering into depressive withdrawal. SSRIs enable the critical-rational framework of anxiety to remain, distanced from the human complex system, an in-human observation of response-relations.

SSRIs as an eerie agent remove the subject from the urgencies of the everyday. However, without an ethics of the eerie, the horror of the mirror results in a reterritorialisation, as we are magnified privately back at ourselves, abjection thrusting us back into the known – performing identities. In order to egress, an ethics of the eerie holds the known in similitude, entering a process of disarticulation (in a similar way to Foucault’s heterotopic mirror). This is not mere transgression, where the limits are known, but an adventure “involving forms of knowledge, subjectivity and sensation that lie beyond common experience” [30] which invoke the feeling of inscrutability – a barely perceptible world of eerie traces. Traces that fold into anxiety, signalling the outside.

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