Letter 10

Dear Alanna,

‘Helplessness’ is an odd word. I suppose it literally means ‘without help,’ but the main connotation seems to be ‘without autonomy,’ and with that there is a tacit judgement about those who, supposedly, ought not to lack autonomy. In many phases of life, it seems that the time at which one is not autonomous is the precise time at which one is least likely to receive help, due to some ridiculous delusion of individualism in which needing something is the reason why one doesn’t deserve to have it. And then one really is helpless. Not being permitted to be helpless is what makes one helpless.

Brené Brown studies shame and vulnerability. She has a TED talk on the subject which irritates me immensely, because her delivery matches the double bind of what she says in a way that is poetic precisely because it denies its poetry.

She describes, in the talk, how when interviewing people about social inclusion, she would be told stories of exclusion; when interviewing people about love, she would be told stories of heartbreak. She concluded, through her research, that shame is the most powerful barrier to human connection. It’s a thing we almost never talk about, possibly because the idea that one might feel shame is itself shameful. Not feeling as though you’re good enough – not feeling as though you’re worthy, just as you are, of connection – has become a ‘self-esteem issue’. It’s ‘your problem’, which means ‘you’re not good enough’ – and the cycle begins all over again.

Brown found that the people who were happiest with their relationships (with others and themselves) were those who most believed they were worthy of connection just as they were. These people were most willing to be vulnerable, or helpless – which is not to say they enjoyed the feeling, only that they knew, in permitting themselves to be helpless, that they created the conditions in which it is possible to not be helpless.

Your quote about humans seeing helplessness as a lack seems to be part of the structure of our language. In the last two paragraphs, I’ve spoken about ‘not feeling (worthy/good enough).’ Even if I were to get rid of the ‘not,’ I’d still, most likely, find myself using words that connote a lack – ‘imperfect,’ ‘undesirable,’ ‘worthless.’ Even words connoting need are somehow negative – ‘needy,’ and ‘lack’ itself, which is again where the cycle folds in on itself, because I started writing this paragraph about the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack, but now I’m at the point where the undesirability of the word ‘lack’ is included in the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack. Which simultaneously makes perfect sense and absolutely no sense at all.

As I mentioned, this TED talk irritates me a great deal. Brown is talking about this cycle of shame, and she’s doing it in the context of her own psychological grappling – she talks about her love of measuring and her impatience with anything that can’t be measured, assessed, and tidied away into a box. She talks about the breakdown that ensued when she realised how central vulnerability is to human connection, and how unmeasurable this centre is; she talks about the transformation in her worldview that followed. Here is the infuriating thing: she performs this talk in a way that embodies the resistance and irritation she felt at feeling vulnerable whilst grappling with vulnerability. She talks about how much she hates the immeasurability, how much she hates the insecurity of the immeasurability, and how much it sucked to have talk to a therapist for a year about feelings and other wishy washy things. The circularity of both content and delivery are so maddeningly synchronised that I want to bang my head against a wall.

This, I think, is the problem: the performance of the double bind can only occur for the benefit of the performer. The performance – of hating and resisting, and of knowing the circularity and futility of hating and resisting, and of hating this futility, and of hating the accursed knowledge of it – works for the performer when she has become comfortable with the discomfort of performing it. The performer has got to the point where she doesn’t need to step outside the cycle anymore, because she knows that the double- (triple-? quadruple-?) bind already includes any attempt to escape within itself.

I think this facet of performing is only evident for and within the one who performs. Performance is often construed as a single-faceted exchange, in which the performer gives something to the audience, who reward the performer with a performance of their own appreciation. But there is an internal aspect to performing, and there is an internal aspect to watching a performance, and those things are not necessarily (or perhaps necessarily not) evident on the external face of the performative act.

I think the problem with having to perform is not the expectation that one performs. The problem is the expectation that the external performance is the reason for performing, rather than its accidental residue.


I stopped writing for several days, because I was worried that I was expressing these thoughts in a way that seemed to reinforce the whole ‘it’s your problem and this makes you bad which means you have more problems’ thing, when my intention is to say that I think it’s possible to use these helpless things from within the bind, to make something that is workable and good, but only just as workable and good as it needs to be. You know, like your last letter, where you quoted what I wrote in a previous letter, in which I quoted some other people who were basically saying that there is no ‘away,’ no ‘outside vantage point’ – one eventually finds oneself, irritatingly, using all the useless waste, because waste is kind of impossible and inevitable at the same time.

I still worry that I’m not expressing this correctly, but also I am tired of trying to express things correctly. I think I may have mentioned this sentiment before. Anyway, the previous paragraph will serve as a disclaimer that I am aware of the limitations of my expression, but the extent to which I’m going to try to improve upon these is also limited.

Here are some photographs of peat bogs:

Peat Bogs


Here is a largely plotless story:

I worry a lot about being bad, or wrong, or mean, or rude, or sick. The internalised narrative I’ve had since my earliest memories is:

“You’re bad. It’s bad to be bad. If you don’t try to be better (stop crying, do as you’re told, listen properly, show initiative, make eye-contact, don’t stare, don’t yell, speak up, don’t be a bully, don’t be a pushover, answer the question, don’t be a smart-arse, offer to help, don’t get in the way…), that’s bad. If you do try to be better, you’re trying too hard (or not hard enough), and that’s bad. In any case, you’re bad, so you trying to not be bad is by definition bad. If you say you feel like a bad person, that’s bad – you should have more self-esteem. If you think we think you’re bad, that’s bad – how could you say something so hurtful?”

This isn’t a verbal narrative – there’s no inner voice that says these things – rather it is a pervasive and embodied role in which I could not, as a child, avoid being cast. It’s a role that I necessarily played without knowing I was playing it – the knowledge that I was playing it has emerged only very recently.

The problem with this role is the problem of impermissible helplessness. The only way to escape the role is to be happy within it. The only way to remain standing under the weight of an infinite loop of badness is to enjoy the pressure.

I think this sounds either incorrect, or perverse, or both – but as the aim is to embrace badness, incorrectness, and perversity, this problem presents no problem.

When I first became visibly insane (performatively insane, maybe?), I felt that half of my brain had split off, several years before, from the part to which I had access, and was intruding upon my consciousness, trying to hurt me or take control of the body we both shared. This other brain embodied much of the badness double-bind. At the time this was diagnosed as psychosis and I was prescribed antipsychotics, but since then that diagnosis has been questioned on several occasions, and I have become no more ‘psychotic’ since ceasing the medications than I was whilst still using them.

I realised, recently, that this other-brain person has an advantage over me, in that they are comfortable with inhabiting the role of vulnerability and inadequacy without trying to escape it, whereas I still find myself struggling against those multi-layered binds. So I’m trying to work together with Other-Brain these days, and let them take the reigns as necessary.


This letter has probably already eaten itself by this point, so I should stop writing.


P.S. here is a bog emoticon:Bog emoticon

Letter 8

Dear Alanna,

I’m not sure where to begin.

I remember studying that Sylvia Plath poem when I was in high school. I identified, at that time, with the lines you quoted:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty

I’m reading a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, which is about how the way we use function words (pronouns, prepositions, etc.) can reveal aspects of our psychology, like how we’re feeling, how much social status we have, and what kind of personality we have. This information is accessible only via computer analysis – no human can count and analyse that many words.

The author writes about one study he conducted in which he analysed the collected works of 18 poets, 9 of whom died by suicide and 9 of whom did not. He found that the subject matter was no different between the two groups – the difference was in the use of pronouns. The poets who died by their own hands, like Plath, used “I” much more than the other group, particularly in poems about more difficult or emotional subjects. Previous studies have shown that when we feel sad or depressed, we tend to use more self-reflexive language – we use the “I” pronoun more – because sadness and depression tend to accompany an inward-looking perspective. The author suggests that the suicidal poets were identifying more closely with their emotions than the non-suicidal poets, whose writing seemed to come from a more distant standpoint.

It doesn’t follow that identification with painful emotions necessarily leads to depression and suicide, but it is still one of the perils of inwardness. I think, in general, we are more afraid of the dangerous within than the dangerous without. Cave diving is ok – a sign of virility, possibly of foolhardiness though not of sickness; self-diving is a problem – a sign of weakness, sometimes without enough agency to even be foolhardy. A perilous identification with the self is not something that can easily be left alone – but I suspect that not leaving it alone is the main contributor to the peril. I think that is the main difference between the two poems you quoted:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free


Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,
free of mountainous wanting.

I think wanting to be free is probably part of the “mountainous wanting.”

Psychiatric hospitals don’t actually provide one with the opportunity to lie with hands turned up and be utterly empty, as I know to my cost and dismay. Such activity is usually interpreted as a behavioural problem of some kind. Even in “mental” health, the health of the mind is measured according the “appropriateness” of one’s physical and social interactions. Maybe the issue is the need to measure in the first place, rather than its method.

I didn’t know where to begin this letter because I wanted to respond to everything you wrote, but also to do so in a coherent, linear way. I also wanted to not do those things. Although writing can be a difficult exercise, it’s difficult not to be coherent and linear with writing – if you paint something that doesn’t mean anything to anybody, it’s still comprehensible as a thing that exists, but if you type some incoherent gibberish and put it on the internet, it’s not writing, not anything – it just looks like a glitch, only significant to the person who repairs the program.

There was a French theorist, Dominque Laporte, who took issue with linguistic cleanliness. His book, History of Shit, begins by linking efforts to tidy up language and discourse with the evolution of public health and waste management policies. The article you mentioned, We are all Very Anxious, seems to relate well to Laporte’s discussion of 16th century Parisian waste management – “To each his shit.” The edicts of 16th century Paris were about as effective in making people contain their physical shit as contemporary social convention is at making people keep private their psychological shit. Also, Paris at the time had no sewer system to speak of, so ownership of shit was an inconvenient responsibility.


Non-productivity takes quite a lot of effort if it’s going to be workable. There’s a book called You Are Here by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, where he talks about loving and accepting all of your mind. He uses the analogy of gardening – a beautiful flower needs compost to grow, and it will become compost itself in the end. All the garbage is just as useful as the produce, but only if you use it – throwing it away won’t do you any good, not least because there isn’t really any “away” to which you can throw things, as we are learning to our cost.

I’m at a point where I’ve lost interest in growing the flowers. I feel like there are too many flowers, and not enough empty places, left fallow and enriched by compost in the knowledge that something will be grown there one day, but that the growing isn’t the whole point of having the field. This is a difficult thought to express in a way that doesn’t seem irresponsible or pathological, that doesn’t provoke attempts to “reassure me” that “I’m wrong.” Such patterns of response are part of the reason I developed such convictions in the first place.

You know what I like about snails? I like that they don’t tick any of the boxes:

1. They’re not cute
2. They’re not cuddly
3. They won’t be your friend
4. They don’t have a recognizable face
5. They don’t have a voice
6. They steal your lettuces before you have a chance to get at them
7. They are mostly unhelpful to humans
8. They leave a residue everywhere they go and they don’t tidy up after themselves
9. When they get together, they slime all over each other in day-long love-fests where nobody conforms to gender norms because they’re all hermaphrodites and therefore indivisible along gender lines
10. Even if you could get rid of them, you’d do so at your own peril, because their undesirability to humans does nothing to diminish their vital role in the world as a whole

I like snails because they are a reminder that even if I find something unpleasant, or inconvenient, or useless, that does nothing to diminish the worth and rights of that thing. It doesn’t matter how strongly I believe it’s about me.

I like snails because they are a reminder that I don’t necessarily need to be pleasant, or convenient, or useful, not even to myself. It doesn’t matter how strongly I, or anybody else, believes we’re in a position to judge.

This is not a territory, and it requires no defense.

The idea that this is not a territory is also not a territory, but apparently I still feel the need to delineate it somehow. One can’t have everything, I suppose.

I keep trying to conclude this letter, but I can’t. I can only come to a stop. Here is a film about a system:


Letter 6

Dear Alanna,

There is a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. On its cover, it’s billed as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” I never finished reading this book, but I definitely made it past page 152, on which the author demonstrates his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek)

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.


Due to a series of complex and pervasive internal tendencies and environmental events, I spent most of my adolescence and early twenties wishing I could avoid doing or being anything at all. The options with which I had been presented had always seemed undesirable, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how incompatible I was with them. At the same time, I had been taught to endure things rather than to seek better alternatives – any deviation from a particular definition of the norm was not so much unacceptable as impossible. It took a long time to unlearn this, but I think I still did so on a kind of fast-track, by virtue of becoming insane.

When one becomes sufficiently mentally ill, a lot of ordinary pressures are immediately lifted (although, obviously, a lot of other pressures become immediately more apparent). When one is judged to be medically ‘incurable’ with a life-long disability that is expected to render one unfit for almost all of the activities commonly regarded as ‘productive’, then suddenly one’s failure and inadequacy become, in the eyes of many, not a feared possibility but an inexorable certainty. This conclusion is arrived at not due to any real understanding of one’s situation or potential, but simply by habitual definition.

My previous letter’s description of failure as an untrodden field, rather than a deep hole from which to escape (which seems to be a more common conception), comes from what I’ve learnt about language and social expectation as a result of being seen (by many, though not by all) as someone who is trapped in a dark pit, from which I could not even see the pit, much less the surface.

Although I agreed with this pit-definition (or peat-bog-definition, perhaps?) for a time, eventually I began to question this assumed relation between other people’s definitions and my tangible reality. I began to enjoy ‘being sick’ because it allowed me so much freedom to define my life and work in a way that made sense to me. The mental-illness-as-pit-of-eternal-woe conception I encountered in others became a kind of disguise. The more insignificant I appeared according to ordinary definitions of usefulness, the more space I had to explore the world in my own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of my actions.

I also realized that the act of appearing productive is often the only method we have for judging productivity, even within ourselves. I had been largely absolved of that particular responsibility, and yet I felt that my time was much more fruitful now that I had no reason to care about its actual or apparent products.

Things are a bit different for me these days, but the insights I had then are no less pertinent now. All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of answering your questions

When are you getting things done?
When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

The short answer to the latter question (and possibly also the former question) is: “probably always.” The short answer to the former question (and possibly also the latter question) is: “I don’t know, because I’m not entirely sure what I’m even trying to do in the first place.”

Your quote from Quentin Crisp provides an even shorter expression of my thoughts:

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.


I’ve been constructing a little darkroom in the basement, taping cardboard over all the sources of light. I thought I’d blocked it all out until I sat in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, at which point all the little glowing spaces became visible. I called Adam down to confirm to me that there were still gaps for light – that I wasn’t just imagining them because I’d been down there too long with nothing to look at – but he couldn’t see them. He hypothesized that this was due to his eyes not being properly adjusted to the darkness, rather than me being in the dark for so long that I had to imagine there was something there, when really there was nothing.


Your comments about Slack Time and Against the Rage Machine made me think of an incredibly prescient book I’m reading at the moment, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was written in 1985, and starts off like this:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
[emphasis mine]

Postman wrote this before the internet came into public use, and he died in 2003, before the explosion of social media, YouTube-comment wars, and Twitter #protests. His book, a discussion of the way in which the content of discourse is changed (he thinks damaged) by an image-heavy, context-poor medium, was based upon an analysis of the epistemological assumptions inherent in the medium of television.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I don’t know precisely what the author’s conclusion is going to be. I do agree that Huxley’s dystopian vision is closer to our reality than Orwell’s. But I also incline towards the idea that part of the problem is the unquestioned definition of irrelevance as detrimentally murky or unproductive – something to be overcome, a hole out of which we are constantly trying to escape. Perhaps irrelevance has proliferated, but I don’t think our knee-jerk definition of it has changed, even though it seems we are all feeling increasingly bogged down by irrelevance’s necessity.

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

worm mrow

Letter 5

Dear Katherine,

To quote you: ‘systems and dependable harvest were not our original goals’.

Last week at my yoga class the teacher was talking about the time it takes for something to be achieved or just to happen, a process you have to be patient with. She was using the analogy of pregnancy, standing there as she was with her protruding belly and saying that however impatient she may be to meet her child there were steps her body had to take before she could. Although the foundations of the spine are lain in week 4, the body takes much longer to build it’s little bricks.

The analogy made me think of how frustrated I get with my perceived slowness of my achievements, projects etc.  Although we agreed to write this bog every week I kept on putting off writing this letter, like I was not ready for it and perhaps my mind was building blocks quietly in preparation (or was I just giving into to my semi-permanent internal feeling of un-readiness?)

I – suppose – I – mean – When are you getting things done? When are you rushing the process? When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

I’m not sure if this is what you are thinking about in terms of pointlessness and failure. Your description of the word ‘delirious’ makes failure sound more like exploration, adventure.

I really enjoyed the article you mentioned “Against the Rage Machine” . The bit when the writer said after his analysis of the way facebook makes everyone into erratic rage machines;

“We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.”

I like the idea of having freedom not to care, not to engage, because indecision and indifference (is there another word for indifference that I could use here that doesn’t suggest negligence?)  are as much a part of life as passionate direction. The article reminded me of another one called ‘Slack Time’ (just me linking words to words) about Moyra Davey in Afterall, Markus Verhagen writes about photographs she took of her unkempt home;

“Her images have no use for the immediacy of the photograph, its hold on a ‘slice of time’. In her work, nothing happens. The moment is always already over: the coffee cups are empty, the dust has already settled. The precise interruptive operation of the news photograph or snapshot gives way, in her work, to a slacker time — to a time without tension or striving.”

I think the romance of this article for me rests on this phrase “a time without tension or striving”. I feel little fists of anxiety release their hold  when I read those words, it makes me think of useful afternoons gazing out windows and the fortunate breaks in busy days such as the mindless chewing of lunch sandwiches. The article goes on to describe the presence of dust in the images, relating it to the descriptions of dust in Sebald’s ‘The Emigrants’

“Here, too, dust is a crucial metaphor. In his account of the life and ancestry
of a painter who settled in Manchester, Sebald describes the artist’s constant 
painting and scraping, drawing and erasing, and the dust and grime that carpeted his studio

…the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust […] This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well dusted house…”

This passage seduces me to the appeal of a life ineffectually lived, where all you’re left with is a house full of dust. In a BBC doco made about Quentin Crisp, the interviewer remarks;

“Your house is all a bit dusty Quentin.”

and Quentin replies;

“It’s true, unkind friends say that I have the dust sent in from Fortnum and Mason’s, but that’s not true I merely don’t clean the place. And I have a message of hope to offer to the house wives of England, it’s this: don’t lose your nerve because after the first 4 years the dirt won’t get any worse.”

Perhaps I’m not brave enough to be a dust gatherer, because I’m not really like that at all, I’m more a machine of awkward, disorganised production. Such as turning innocent letter writing between friends into a weekly blog/bog exchange.


Meanwhile, the internet describes a bog as

“An area of wet, muddy ground that is too soft to support a heavy body.”

The bog is clearly one of nature’s many metaphors. It reminds me of something I read in a self-help book  The Happiness Project “It’s easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” and also that I once had a boyfriend that told me that I was too SERIOUS, and another who told me that I was too cheerful. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to deduce from those conflicting observations. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on failure, and also more of your thoughts in general.