I Know You’ve Been Hurt – Solace and Semblance of Self-Care
by Tamara Antonijevic and Henrike Kohpeiß
Movement Research Performance Journal N.52
Editor: Mårten Spångberg
sick, sad, exhausted, sarcastic, tired, anxious, nervous, tensed, pissed, resentful, resigned, paranoid, sleepless, chronically hangover, dehydrated, out of shape, out of mind, out of patience, impatient, jealous, hysterical, mean, cynical, moody, bossy, demanding, dismissive, cramped, depressed, numb, empty, disappointed, unreliable, mistrustful, weary, uneasy, skeptical, suspicious, hurt, tearful, obsessive, unbalanced, indecisive, ironic, spaced out, undone, unrecognized, disrespectful, ruthless, lonely, out of breath, ungrounded, shaky, panicky, doubtful, unruly
Self-care is a broad term that unifies different practices and regulations that an individual can follow in order to preserve or build its physical and mental wellbeing. It is assumed that engaging in them will result in a more stable, mindful and cheerful subjectivity. Taking care of nutrition and regular physical activity marks one of the paths that should be followed. Spiritual and esoteric practices add techniques in order to transform negative states and feelings. Instead of spirituality, one can also engage in therapy and meet the needs of mental hygiene in this form. Self-care comes to an interesting point, when narcissism, personal and social precarity and privilege intersect and are accessorized with a broad network of products. This type of care for the self is not only a marketing construction or a lifestyle. It is present in the countries of western Europe and countries of developed capitalism, more than in regions like Eastern Europe or the Balkans. It is a response to processes that a young bohemian class of freelancing cultural workers currently deals with. These processes are the continuous workflows of the contemporary project economy and they produce a lack: People continuously stumble from one exhausting precarious workflow into another one and another one, but the fantasy that this time the separation of life and work will succeed continues, accompanied by the dream of success and naturalized by the pursuit of ‘what one loves to do’. Typical strategies for the recreation of a work-life-balance are: learning to say no, learning to do less emotional labor and generally learning to take care of the self. But the achieved types of care easily result in strange, neurotic rituals: It is a situation in which we’re trying to keep ourselves safe exactly from the conditions that we’re accepting or we have to accept: conditions that are neoliberal and precarious, which originate in social, economical and political problems and not personal issues. This is why the individual, the only self that we have, will never be able to resolve this neurotic state and this is the moment when a scented candle comes in. Talking about the subjectivity of the contemporary cultural worker- artist, we have to stress that we talk about a specific class: a class that consists of many privileged individuals, a class that is trying to reflect on those issues and a class that sees itself as an ally to many underprivileged people, who on the other side, probably have different coping mechanisms. In order for us to be able to take care of the self by engaging in the outlined practices, no matter how precarious conditions might be, we are already deeply involved in the game of ‘artistic life’ – and the subjectivity that is to be assembled and saved by these practices is not just any kind of self, but the privileged, western, neoliberal, flexible, inconsistent self.
The compulsiveness of this project is mostly reflected in the fact that it is not possible to ‘take care of oneself’ sometimes, or ‘a bit’ – but like every practice, this one is to be maintained over the course of time and demands regularity and dedication. Self- care has to be chronic. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one avocado does not make a good self-carer. The word is that only regular body practice, regular monitoring of what one consumes and when, regular bedtimes will compensate and soothe the accumulated stress in between. This is of course almost impossible to achieve and therefore the claim ‘you need to take care of yourself’ is usually said with anticipation of a breakdown. When it’s uttered, the pain has already settled in. It is not a nice thing to hear: it’s a menacing claim and it’s marking the impossibility of the subject to control its emotions and actions. Even if there is an idea what this practice should be, it still signifies the non-existing practice, a practice that can only be from now on. The concrete decision on how to realize this, is much more con- nected to what one consumes than to the process of knowing, regulating and moni- toring oneself, before entering a public sphere and engaging with the community as a subject. Another aspect of this complex is the fetishization of leisure time: We’re not able to just do whatever we want when we’re not working, or to be precise, when we think that we’re not working. One doesn’t just go and buy tea in a bio shop or have a spon- taneous bubble bath – rather, one has to believe that this is how free time- me time is spent usefully, because one is actively not-working which is even better than just not working. On the one hand, self-care operates as a substitute for these states of non-working, and on the other hand, for coping mechanisms against exhaustion, depression, having to go through yet another job search, emotional, structural, social and political instability, which are the characteristics of the cultural project economy. Consequently, the activities described above get overcharged with significance and become the only tools for general wellbeing. This categorization establishes a de- mand which entails that every time we’re not working we have to ask ourselves: Are we doing this right…?
In the following, we first want to contextualize the tendency sketched above in its relation to late capitalism, secondly we’ll ask for other notions of critique that are available to the worn out subjects that are in need of self-care and thirdly, we want to manifest and dive into the states of negativity that have produced the necessity to actively take care of the self and see what happens if we persevere in them. We will try to understand something about the functions that are adopted by self-care as a concept and a practice in the contemporary project economy.
In one word, all of the struggles that originate in precarious working conditions and produce exhaustion and anxiety find their articulations in the notion of self-care that seemingly manages these problems. Self- awareness is becoming a term that describes the ability to determine if we would profit from sleeping until 11 tomorrow which might sure be a good idea. Paying our bills in time is another organizational structure that can sure be called self-care. Still – these actions of micromanagement are not a way of opposing structural problems on an appropriate level but, to the contrary, they create a new field of competition: Who is writing the best lists and who has the most regular body practice in order to feel less shitty? If we meet three friends in the same week who are working on their projects and are successively growing more and more insane, depressed, stressed and keep ques- tioning their whole existence because of the work they are doing, this is not a coinci- dence. All of them are very isolated in their frustration, sadness and pain. All of them feel like a failure. Still, the only tool to counter this shared state seems to be to re- mind each other of very basic things, which – if we’re really honest – have never effectively ended a crisis alone: Why are you not going to bed before midnight? Are you sure that you don’t need therapy? You should treat yourself better, etc. Well, no one actually wants to hear another person complaining about the things that everyone knows, you idiot, because they are busy managing their own busy schedule, job applications, grants, and they are also nervous about that one project money that is always late, ‘and they really counted on it’. So please, just breathe in, breathe out and take some responsibility for your moods and bad feelings. What becomes visible is the impossibility of staying with the negative emotion and the lack of tools to be close to them, so when what is known under the broad term ‘negativity’ (or: negative energy) appears, it needs to be removed. Attempts to do that very often begin by means of consumption: The accumulation of material and immaterial products is re-establishing a sphere of privacy that has been given up on in the universal overlaps of life and work. If our friends – who formerly constituted this sphere – are not available for moments of relaxation because they are part of each other’s projects or – even if not – will sure tell each other about their current projects when we meet, we turn to the lavender scent- ed candle and try to forget. Together with our candles, our massages, yoga classes and our avocados, we find relief by temporarily adopting a subjectivity for which it is still possible and allowed to delve into the private. Only by entering this specific avocado-space, we can differentiate between life and work and we can decide to only come back if we need to. Work has become the self-evident condition of all other areas of life, all except the one that provides a performance of privacy by consumption. So it is an ideology of self-care, that is supposed to make us feel better by telling us what to consume in order to replace the non-existing border between life and work. Furthermore, it makes us all think that we are the problem, and we are not – at least not in the way we think we are.