Depression and austerity

In a recent post I argued that far from being a time of pain and suffering, living in an age of austerity could actually be very enjoyable.1  Or, rather, it was precisely the pain and suffering of austerity that was the root of enjoyment – or at least a certain type of enjoyment. The type of enjoyment that Lacan referred to as jouissance.

This probably seems counter-intuitive to many people: after all, doesn’t austerity mean job loss, more pressure on those who still have a job, pressure on finances, which then often leads to pressure on relationships, and so on? And there is some evidence that rates of depression have increased in the UK over the last few years, which seems to correlate to the onset of the recession.2

But before we jump to the (apparently self-evident) conclusion that recession = depression, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the nature of depression. One thing that most clinical practitioners agree upon (and there is very little they do agree about!) is that depression is linked to loss. This is all too often and painfully demonstrated with the death of a loved one; but loss can be experienced in other situations as well.

I mentioned earlier job loss, and in an era of mass unemployment more and more people are experiencing the pain of losing what they often thought was a secure job for life. And then there is the loss brought about by the break-up of relationships.

But what exactly is lost in all these situations?

The answer may seem obvious: a loved one, a job, a relationship. However, if we look closer it’s not only the actual loss but also what it represents. And often, what it represents can be a very complex set of meanings and relationships.

For example, the loss of job can represent a loss of income, of status, of identity, a social life, a sense of meaning. And even the death of a loved one can represent a loss of companionship, a sense of identity, someone to scream at, some to laugh with, and so on.

So far, I doubt if any of this is news to many people. But perhaps what is not so obvious is that there is something about the loss itself that can be deeply troubling for us human beings. There is a great deal written in psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic literature about lost objects. These lost objects are representations of actual lost objects; in other words they are what a particular person, job, relationship and so forth represented for that particular individual.

But then we have to ask what does the representation itself represent? Of course, we could go on ad infinitum, but the point is that it is not at all clear what exactly is being lost here. This is not to deny that such a loss does not have very real and often devastating effects. However, this still begs the question as to the exact nature of this loss. Which brings us back to the question of the loss itself…

In Lacanian parlance, what is lost is the objet a, which later on in his teaching Lacan defined as surplus jouissance, an excess of enjoyment. So now we can say that a loss of something, or someone, represents a loss of surplus jouissance, a loss of an excess of enjoyment.  But here we are still in the domain of representation, of meaning. Nobody can really say what an excess of enjoyment ‘looks like’: but they certainly know when they’ve lost it..

What has all this to do with depression and austerity? Perhaps one answer might be that in a time of austerity, a great deal is lost: jobs, dreams, aspirations, wealth, homes, certainty, a future.   But as I argued in my post on austerity, there is also something present within austerity; a particular kind of suffering which is also a particular kind of enjoyment. What’s more, it’s a virtuous enjoyment, one based on prudence, of living within one’s means, of managing on a budget.

So there is not necessarily a correlation between austerity and depression at all. At least, not in the sense that people are depressed because of the losses inflicted on them through austerity. It could be more the case that depression is an effect of change: in a time of austerity, life is different to what it was before, and that’s the key point.

The real danger is that once people have got over their depression, come to terms with the loss of the ‘old life’, they start to enjoy the new one a bit too much…

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