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Depressive capitalist realism

I recently received an email challenging some of my past comments on depression and public political theorizing. Here is the main gist of the email and beneath it is my response.

I'm a pretty recent listener of Other Life and I was interested to hear your most recent release about your book project Based Deleuze… I think I agree with you about the cultural left's refusal to be unrelentingly "real" with itself… I was a bit taken aback, though, by the whole notion that 'depressives shouldn't be forwarding political ideas/norms,' or whatever point you made to that effect. (Forgive me if that's a mischaracterization or unfair reduction…) I'm interested to hear more about why you hold this position, or maybe why you come off as so unrelenting in it… I’m not sure of your position on thinkers that circulate alongside people like Mark Fisher…

I probably can come off as too harsh, and I don’t want to, so that’s unfortunate and I would like to work on that. I have no interest in being a dick for edge-lord points, but I guess it is a real temptation in this new model I’m working. It’s weird. So first of all I appreciate push back here, it will keep me honest and based.

I do not mean that someone with depression necessarily has wrong political views, or should not speak in public, etc. I really don’t. Of course I speak so loosely and brashly that I am sure I have occasionally been over the top about it...

What I’m really trying to say is that many people on the internet, Twitter and FB in particular, present themselves as knowledgeable and convincing and powerful and charismatic, grinding sometimes atrocious political axes, but if anyone could see the current state of their mind/lifestyle/relationships — one would become way more mistrustful of their opinions. I really think this is a massive thing going on, and a lot of really bonkers people are affecting the opinions and judgments of other people who would be much better off if they discounted the ramblings of these types of people. So I think that’s a fair and not inhumane concern of mine. I’m sure I express it stupidly and like an asshole, so sorry about that and I’ll work on it…

The more delicate issue has to do with people like Mark Fisher. He was my friend, and of course I’m glad he wrote everything he wrote, like I would never for a minute want to stop or prevent his writings from having come into the world… That said, I do think there is something very difficult here, which is almost never talked about.

The truth is that depressive people can and very often do project things onto other people and the world. And it really can and often does pull other people into their depression. I have a dear family member who struggles with periods of anxiety and depression, and I know perfectly well that when they get low, they sometimes cannot help themselves from describing things to me in catastrophic and morbid ways. And it can pull me in, it can change how I see the world and convert me to a depressed mood. Especially if they are smart and articulate.

It might sound cruel, and I can work on being less cruel, but I really really do think a non-trivial portion of the fashionable rad-left intellectuals are actually very confused and sad individuals whose personal lives are quite bad (blame it on capitalism, sure, fair enough — but nonetheless) and a lot of their intellectualized outputs are depressive projections that produce real, depressogenic effects on others. I mean, there is a whole cottage industry of Left-theory “against wellness” for example lol. I get the critique, OK, but things like meditation and diet and CBT and exercise etc., these really can and do have transformative positive effects for many, many people. I’m sorry but I really think there is some evil beneath intellectuals who write whole books systematically turning people off to something like “wellness.” This is just one example. Anti-natalism is another example.

Many of these cottage industries are based on something they alternatively deny and glorify: that the authors are often quite miserable people with many significant personal shortcomings and resentments and projections. I do think more readers should take this information into account when evaluating fashionable ideas. It doesn’t mean depressed people shouldn’t write what they think, if that’s what they want to do. I just think the depressive nature of a particular author should be discussed openly, and I think readers should discount for authorial depression much more consciously — kind of like how food manufacturers have to tell consumers how much sugar they’re packing, and healthy people will avoid foods with a lot of sugar…

Suicide should be slightly stigmatized

For people on the brink of suicide, struggling with excruciating suffering, no good would ever come — and wanton cruelty would certainly result — from stigmatizing their difficult situation. I wish for all such people to be treated with nothing but compassion. For instance, compassion makes me hope that no such person would ever browse the open internet, for the internet is filled with toxic and unwholesome content certain to aggravate suicidal tendencies. So if this describes you, then I would kindly beg you to not read further. I guess that's a trigger warning.

I have mixed views about trigger warnings because when writers address the public, they must assume the type of reader they hope to produce through their writing. That's how writing works. That's how writers contribute to culture, rather than merely giving it more of whatever it already is. If independent writers on the internet considered themselves at all responsible for not triggering a tiny minority of suicidal depressives, almost by definition we would tend toward a culture fit for suicidal depressives. But would we really want a public culture fit for suicidal depressives? Would a public culture fit for suicidal depressives not be, essentially, a culture of death — or even a culture for death? I don't think anyone would want that. I have nothing but sympathy for the suicidal, which is why I hope they have the support networks necessary to keep them off the internet. I would sooner ban the suicidal from the internet or forcibly remove my friend or family member from the internet, than discourage public thinkers from reflecting frankly about suicide. For some reason, the former options are seen as tyrannical and hurtful, and the latter is seen as humane, but I see these normative charges in reverse.

Compassion and sensitivity to those currently on the brink of suicide is certainly reasonable, but what about people who are already dead from suicide? I believe the dead should be respected, generally, but surely the present and future of life should also be respected. Should the compassion we extend to accomplished suicides really be unlimited, as seems to be the case now? This is now the norm, explicitly or implicitly, for nobody ever seems to speak ill of the suicide decision. Whether they were friends or foes, suicides are almost always seen as honorable casualties of mental illness and/or political neglect. In the case of infamous evil-doers such as mass shooters, suicides are typically not criticized because it's seen as useless or because the suicide pales in comparison to the other evils committed.

Suicide should be slightly stigmatized, for the person who commits suicide abandons us. There are many among the living who have been tempted to leave us, but don't, often because somebody needs them. This is good of them, and they endure their suffering to be good. You cannot affirm the goodness of those who bear the burden of their own suffering in order to serve others, without affirming that many suicides must therefore possess some kind of negative ethical charge. Suicide is quitting, and sometimes quitting is an unavoidable necessity and sometimes quitting reflects weakness, impatience, disloyalty, and other dimensions of poor character. Quitting is slightly stigmatized, in the sense that it's vaguely discouraged and its opposite is generally admired ("determination", "perseverance", etc.), but we also understand there are cases in which it's unavoidable or even the correct decision. Suicide should be stigmatized in this way, but currently it is not. If we spoke of parents who abandon children with the same unconditionally solemn generosity we apply to suicides, we'd sound like monsters (and the suicide abandons far more people than an absent father).

One reason why someone might be unconditionally generous toward past suicides is if they don't really mind being abandoned, perhaps because they never really cared about the life that chose to end itself. If I wish to stigmatize suicide slightly, it is because I value the lives of those who would consider quitting. Indeed, their quitting feels to me like abandonment precisely because I value their lives, because I rely on others to keep going, to keep me going. Our collective tolerance for past suicides makes the living feel like nobody would mind if they quit, which is depressing enough to make one suicidal. Whenever someone quits, I do mind, and I think we all should — at least slightly.

So what if I’m afraid of death

I must admit to feeling afraid of death. I am drawn to religious belief, in part, because I think I do want help with my fear of death. I don’t see why it would be an intellectual violation to want such help, and to experiment with solutions coming from beyond rational justification. If understood properly, I don’t think such recourse to the religious is intellectually dishonest or irrational (although it may be extra-rational).

I recently got high before flying in a plane and I thought a lot about dying. If this plane goes down, I thought to myself, I would much prefer to have an already developed and practiced confidence facing this experience, to die with calm and grace. I suppose it is possible to enjoy such a cool composure, in the face of death, through a rationalist practice of life, but in my view thus far I don’t see how it’s possible. So long as one’s orientation to human experience is organized centrally around the search for ever greater rational coherence, the moment of death must always be, at best, an unfortunate and bewildering event. For it cuts off the rational search, and in that moment one can know nothing other than the futility of reason in the final analysis. How this could produce anything but a sad and childish frenzy of confused anxiety, I really cannot imagine. I would quite like for it to be an exhilirating and exalted moment in which I genuinely believe that all is exactly as it should be. Looking around and considering my options, as a living person who could die any day, it seems that some kind of genuine religious commitment is the only available method of securing such a graceful end.

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