Finding utopia in ordinary habits

homemade poemI am very angry this morning already—or rather, perhaps, over time I have built up a lot of free-floating anger that attaches itself to a number of objects (it’s how anxiety works). But what does come first? The object that makes me angry (neoliberal practices in the university; a three line whip to attend that lecture on ‘making the student experience better’; the bear bile farming and the fox cruelty images I saw this morning; the fact that ‘Natural England’ have been destroying protected buzzard eggs to safeguard the ‘sport’ of pheasant shooting; my sense of impotence of doing anything about this; the usual rhetoric surrounding the murder of the soldier on the streets of Woolwich about ‘terror’ and ‘resilience’ and no-one ever properly asking ‘why’ these people either a) decide to join the army and go to war and why our governments legitimate killing ‘other’ people, or b) why these ‘other’ people decide to act (retaliate?) in the way they did; about feeling ostracized from a friend in the running club, as if I’ve done something wrong when I know I haven’t?).

Nothing will get fixed. Nothing will render better until questions are asked of why and how we are living, and no questions will be asked while we, as Paul Kingsnorth put it yesterday, are complicit in the benefits that this imperialism brings us, domination over others and nonhuman others to benefit accrued from a comfortable life, and yet a comfortable life that makes less and less people happy, one where we are all more precarious, where deficits are made by tax cuts and then those deficits are used to justify austerity and the decimation of the working classes, where the fantasy of the ‘good life’ is held onto tighter and tighter even as it slips away, even as I seek out a comfortable café in the morning with a Motown soundtrack and regulars I know, including C from Angola off to do his last exam this morning, and good tasting decaf coffee and where the concerns of the staff are regarding the placement of the lemon cheesecake… (Note: judge less, my friend).

I’ve been reading a lot about affect, emotion, feeling and mood, especially Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, building on Heidegger’s work of being there, talking about the facts of our attunement to the world. In a very real way, says Flatley, we make the world through our mood (Stimmung, in Heidegger’s original) and that it is the moods we do not realise that are the most powerful of course. But also that we are always in some mood, we cannot be outside of a mood, and indeed, for things to change, we need to be in the mood… (for political change, cheesecake), and that it is usually when our moods become intense (joy, depression, mania, exuberance) that we notice at all that it is how we are attuned to the world that makes it this way and not that way.

So I have been trying to remain aware of my mood, the base level – even neurologists talk about this, our personal disposition to return to a level – to which my attunement to the world settles. But it is pretty angry. Or not really anger. Anger is an affect. Flatley uses shame and guilt to explain the difference. Shame is the bodily and immediate, immanent reaction to an event or perception (the perception can be internal) whereas guilt is the emotion: a cognitive constellation that makes sense in the social realm of placing that shame in the context of your world, past and present and future, relationships and roles and responsibilities. So if anger is the affect, what is the emotion I am feeling? Despair, depression? Very possibly melancholy, personal, left and political (and digital melancholy, too). And more importantly, what is the mood or attunement it feeds in me—or, as Pema Chodron puts it, what tomorrow am I making for myself out of my today?

It’s relevant to the work I’m doing with Steve Thorp on the 21 Soul programme (still on module one!) about the three realms of the Self – the soul, social and ecological selves. Where do the different terms of experiencing fit into this model, if they do? Do drives and affects sit in the soul self; are feelings and emotions only social; are structures of feeling and moods the ways to understand and change or care for the ecological world? No answers here, not yet, probably not ever. But it doesn’t feel wrong as a working hypothesis to begin there, not least because, as I’ve noted in the past few entries, the natural place to put ‘love’ (because we experience it mainly there) is in the social realm, experienced as love for/with human others.

Not only, of course. There is a great deal of love for the natural world in people; and love between species; and love within the nonhuman world, especially in the higher mammals, if we take love as something that makes sense within social contexts of care, support, working for a greater good of the group and care for the environment: don’t bees and ants fit this definition? Why would we think we have a monopoly on love? Don’t magpies grieve? Don’t elephants mourn their dead? Do buzzards?

Yesterday I had an idea. I wanted to put all the running I do to some good use. I did a search for the slaughterhouses in the North East – found three – and, inspired by two sources (Toronto Pig Save, and by my friend’s very old and infirm cat, who now gets her exercise by circling the kitchen table when I pop over for lunch or a cup of tea, and my friends’ mum cannot stand it, as if it is some sort of psychological torture!) I had the idea of going to these slaughterhouses and running round them, non stop, for hours, in a political and democratic protest against the use of sentient, feeling, social animals as products to satisfy our cultural (not physiological) wants (not needs). I am going to do this, to somehow bear witness to what I see as wrongs, to make something of my energy (not to stop running for running’s sake, but to channel that potential and skill into something I believe in).

These things are connected: pigs, the animal cruelty I purposefully expose myself to in fully facing the issue, love, mood. I was struck by the comment of the Toronto Pig Save founder saying how calm and peacefully she is able to get on with the rest of her day after the weekly vigils she runs for the pigs transported on trucks through the middle of Toronto, eight thousand a week (a day? Is it a day?!) of these creatures. I want to change the attunement that is my baseline response to a world that affronts me, such as on the news this morning: who the hell can drill a hole through the back leg of a wild fox to tether it to a pin to keep it alive long enough to use it in dogfight baiting? As horrible as this might sound, I can understand more (although not condone) the mental processes of someone who believes he is retaliating against injustice done to him to go out and kill his enemy, which is all over today’s papers, but I cannot comprehend the mental condition or thought processes of someone who treats another living creature with such inhumane domination, out of nothing. Well, actually, no, I can comprehend it—it is an ‘othering’ that is cultural and structural and effected, like all norms, as Judith Butler says, through repetitions that we forget—it is why, as Melanie Joy puts it in her book, why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows.

My ‘mood’ this morning (at least, but that’s the thing about moods: they are long-lasting) is an angry, frustrated attunement to this type of world. Is it selfish to want more peacefulness in my life? I know it isn’t – the practice of Buddhist meditation focuses on the individual first, teaching that you cannot help others until you are first compassionate with yourself – until, as a friend put it recently, you can love yourself. Now, I may be a complete novice meditator, but my running is at a more experienced level. I have trained hard for something—I thought it was racing, running marathons, being able to run from A to B (such as running home from work, running from friend’s house to mother’s house for Sunday lunch). Now I look at it, I think this training may have been for some other purpose, one inspired not only by my friend’s cat or the Toronto miracles but also by Guy Mannes-Abbott, who used running as a political act to highlight atrocities in Palestine.

Perhaps I will stay more injury free now I think that my running is part of the process of bearing witness to the suffering of others.

But cruelty and insanity and horror is not the only fabric of this world in which we can become enwrapped. There are good things, too. I was going to respond to Paul Kingsnorth’s post yesterday on this issue, on the Empire of the Ape, and suggest to him: stop listening to the news. From working in the media industry (advertising, journalism, then using media for development purposes, then teaching journalism and researching the media) I know full well the power it holds—we get, for example, most of our knowledge of climate change from the media. These are macro-worlds, or hyper-objects, in Timothy Morton’s terms, things we are inside of, that we cannot see from the outside. A little like moods—we are inside them, they pass through us. But the media can also be used well—as Marc Bekoff put it this week, cruelty hates a spotlight.

I know the answer is not to simply withdraw. Removing yourself from the modes of living that comprise Western capitalism is in some way a remedy of non-exposure—but it is still ‘my’ world, ‘our’ world, and it will not change through the small minority of us who wish to change it then withdrawing.

The answer is more complex: something about resilience, about not wearing your patterns of behaviour like clothing as some sort of identity statement or protection from the world’s terrible weather, about finding the daily practices that can lead to alternative ways of living, what Anne Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit”, and committing to them. About finding daily practice to reset one’s base attunement to the world, for example, moving from periods of depression, as Cvetkovich does and writes about, to modes of engaging, activism, belonging.

I would say, in a strange way, as many people do, I have a considerable debt of love to Anne, who I met only once, briefly at a conference, but whose openness and consideration have an involvement in my constellation of cognitions, perceptions, appraisals, and feelings, that, in the social world at least, is labelled as ‘love’ (or, as Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in February 1933, as her father rationalises his next marriage to a former pupil, twenty five years his junior, with socially-acceptable reasons for their conjugation: ‘Why can he not say simply this: I love her?’).

My friend J says he loves Katie Perry. At least I’ve met Anne.

This is what Cvetkovich has to say on the utopia of ordinary habit, and in particular, she says, of the role of crafting, such as knitting, collage, making things, and, strangely but I think also beautifully, animal studies. She begins:

[crafting and animal studies] are inventing different ways of being more ‘in the body’ and less in the head. As a practice, and not just an ephemeral feeling, crafting is not the homology or first step or raw material for some form of political change beyond it. It is already a form of self-transformation, although it can also be a way to build the spiritual warrior self necessary for doing other kinds of work in the world, including organised political activism.

And then she goes on to extrapolate:

daily life in all its ordinariness can be a basis for the utopian project of building new worlds in response to both spiritual despair and political depression. As forms of practice, rituals such as crafting, knitting, and other hobbies, as well as yoga, running, and other forms of exercise, belong to what I want to call a utopia of ordinary habit. Although the term practice, a repeated action whose meaning lies in the process of performing it, might seem more appropriate here, especially because of the connections between daily practice and spiritual practice, the positive and negative connotations of the term habit are also relevant. Habit encompasses both the desirable and healthy regularity of practice and the putatively unhealthy compulsions and obsessions of addiction. […] Using the term habit in connection with utopia, however, suggests that habit can be a mechanism for building new ways of being in the world because it belongs to the domain of the ordinary, to activities that are not spectacular or unusual but instead arise from everyday life. […] It reconceives the rational sovereign subject as a sensory being who crafts a self through process and through porous boundaries between self and other, and between the human and the nonhuman (including animals and things).

For me, I guess, this is central to how we might integrate the three realms of the self, not just for ourselves but to take things forward for others, including nonhuman others, including animals and also the plant and insect worlds, including the soil. As the State of Nature Report that so angered Kingsnorth yesterday makes clear, we have a lot to do if we want to achieve this, and we cannot withdraw, we must not withdraw, because who else is going to try to put things right?

And what about writing? I made a small note to myself in my I-Phone (only a 3! I’ve refused to upgrade, and when it breaks, I won’t replace it) that the reason I began to work on the 21 Soul Programme was a very specific task: “to reinvent for myself writing for the sake of writing, in whatever form”. I needed to do this to motivate myself on the PhD, to complete that piece of work for its own sake, not simply to get it over-and-done-with. In some way this 21 Soul work has already achieved the beginning of that (the beginning of the reinvention; now to maintain! I guess that’s down to mood…), but of course any such approach to the attunement of life will open up other doors, other thoughts, ways of being.

I thought to myself the other day, something I regularly think, that writing is self-indulgent, that it doesn’t change anything, or, as Cvetkovich puts it, the refrain of the Western culture that we find so often inside our own chambers of the critical mind, is: “What makes you think this is going to change the world?’ And often I don’t. Often I hate writing because I don’t think it will change anything. But then Cvetkovich goes on to say:

In addition to knitting and crafting, the utopia of ordinary habit can include the practice of writing that forms the basis for my depression memoir. Writing as everyday spiritual practice.

Thank you Anne. I think I needed to hear that from you; it is the same way that Kingsnorth concludes his piece, too, with a quote from Doug Tompkins. Whatever you are good at, find your place on the frontline, and do that, keep doing that, every day. And keep fighting.

Image (cc) Home Made Poem, Alex Lockwood



  1. emilywilkinson

    I very much like what Anne has to say, and would agree that creating your own everyday practice (whatever that is for you) is vital for being able to make change in the world, however big or small. In many ways it is the only thing we have any control over, or can establish a way of being in the world where we don’t go mad (or do, but in a focused way because that space has been created). I admire your engagement with the issues you care about and expression/exploration of anger, and knowing you want to channel it somewhere is a positive.

    Resilience is a word often associated with striving and hardened shells, but it can be gentle too. Everyday activism? I’m sure someone has coined that but my non-academic brain forgets the reference!

  2. Pingback: The 40 x 40 list; a writer’s utopia of habits |

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