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The Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

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A new paper by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic and the special difficulties that it poses for thinking about the future. Here, David Kaposi presents an abridged version of the paper. He begins by considering the Queen's recent address to the nation:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed - and that success will belong to every one of us… We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. (5th April, 2020)

Queen Elizabeth II here shows that it requires no special expertise, social psychological or philosophical, to conceptualise this phase of global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ as a period of suspended normality. Surely an essential characteristic of such a state of suspension is that it will end, that we will overcome? Following the lockdown, ‘we will meet again’. But how do we think about this period of suspended life? Here the event is simply positioned in-between a stable past (A) and a stable future (B). This suspension may be global in scope, and last longer than hoped, but nevertheless – to use a metaphor that has recently proliferated – we are invited to think of the suspension as an instance in which life has pressedpause. The suspension will pass and a ‘new normal’ will return. The suspension is thus figured merely as an element in an ordinary narrative sequence (or in the narrative sequence of the ordinary). 

Yet, in attempting to reassure us by assimilating the current period into a larger narrative sequence in which ‘we’ll meet again’, the Queen’s speech cannot help ‘raising’ the more disturbing spectre of what it is reassuring us against – the possibility of ‘us not meeting again’, either because ‘we’ are dead, or because ‘we' are not we anymore. The current events actually have the power to transform us beyond recognition. Together, the two seeming solidities explicitly invoked by the Queen serve as the frame for this unstable chasm that threatens the now. They draw attention away from the chasm as if ‘we’ must notlook down into it.

In our paper, we argue, the words of the Monarch notwithstanding, that we do need to look down into the chasm. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, because to create our future it is essential that we engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of the norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end, our paper proposes that we should recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. 

Understood in this way, the pause cannot be equated with something familiar like the pausing of a song we have been listening to. Instead, we need to understand how it can be that the song that plays after the pause may be different from what was playing before. And furthermore, we may find that the song we thought was playing before the pause may turn out to have been an entirely different one.  We need to understand how a liminal event inaugurates a period of radical uncertainty which can disrupt and re-order expectations of the future, re-configure memories of the past, and thereby transform the very seat of reality: the present.

And what are the human capacities required to deal with such radical uncertainty? Uncertainty and paradox (where our lives no longer conform to the past nor yet to the future) engender a phase of anxiety: we shift from rumination and no engagement with action, to attempts to escape into unthought solutions. Our paper argues that, on the contrary, what is required to shift from paradox to pattern change is a zone where thought meets reality, and where action is imaginative and thought is creative.

What was unsayable at the time the Queen spoke (and our paper was originally written) was that the lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. Naturally, the first weeks were dominated by the idea that the lockdownwill one day be lifted – yet this expectation already strikes us today as coming from a different world. On one level, we now know that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. The blanket ‘all or nothing’ approach will be replaced by a new rhythm and precision. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity has now entered our political, social and personal realities and is interacting with them in ways we have even not begun to understand. What it makes of us will depend upon what we will make of it. And this will require the blend of ideals and practicality that underpin creative thought and imaginative action. 

The original paper Virus ante portas:  the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot' by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi will be published here(https://diecisiete.org/ Full publication details will be available on ORO, the Open University research depository

You can read about David Kaposi's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

You can read about Paul Stenner's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476

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Thoughts for the times on virus and loss

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Life during the current Covid-19 crisis situation has been compared to the experience of being at war. For a better understanding of lockdown and its associated anxieties, Dr David Kaposi, a senior lecturer in the School and a psychodynamic psychotherapist, looks back to Sigmund Freud's response to World War 1, and forward to the challenge the current crisis is posing to psychotherapy – and to our lives.

Through that transformative week when those of us who are in the UK were first strongly advised to work from home and only to meet with “essential contacts” (16 March), then saw the schools closed (20 March), then pubs, gyms, restaurants and all social venues (21 March)… when we thus recognised that the current lockdown would be inevitable – I could not help recalling Freud’s reaction to the First World War:

“In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without the glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgments which we form. We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest.” (Freud, 1915/2001, p. 275.)

As we know, Freud’s concern and practical business was the taming of humanity's wild spirits in the therapy room, to ensure the triumph of the healthy, the ethical and the relational. The triumph of peace. What is more, at this point in his life, not only is he optimistic about achieving such outcomes but also, after a decade in the wilderness, he has followers, their numbers gradually building across the globe. His work is being vindicated not just by his success in turning his patients’ “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” but by psychoanalysis becoming a worldwide movement (Freud and Breuer, 1895/2001, p. 38).

Yet when five months after the outbreak of the war he looks at the devastation, he feels compelled to declare repeatedly: we did not see this coming; we don’t know what’s going on.

I recalled Freud’s poignant confession, this pronouncement of his own limitations at the precise point when he had good personal and professional reasons not to feel limited, because what seems to me the vast, overwhelming psychological characteristic of our present situation is that we did not see it coming. Not when it was in Wuhan, not when it was in Italy, not when it was in Brighton. Or perhaps we did 'know' but did not realise what we would have to reckon with. So why should we assume, even when it has reached into our own houses, that we now do know what’s going on?

To take the example of Freud’s own profession, counselling and psychotherapy, there is hardly any trace of previous thinking or preparation for the wholesale change that occurred pretty much overnight, to move all therapy sessions online. Professional bodies offered no guidelines or warnings for their members. They made no reference whatsoever to a coming change which will profoundly alter our profession. On Monday morning (16 March), online therapy (or 'Skype therapy', as it was known back in those ancient times) was still what it had been for the past decade or so: a marginal phenomenon that was hardly mentioned (let alone taught) in professional training and existed mostly as an occasional substitute for the “real thing”. By the afternoon, online therapy (mostly via Zoom, as Skype all of a sudden seems to have proved less than ideal for therapy purposes) had pretty much become the sole medium for therapeutic activities. As a result, the transition to what is a massive change in the therapeutic setting, and as such with equally massive consequences, has been done in a breath-taking haste and without proper discussion with clients.

Needless to say, the present crisis has political, and ideological, aspects. The “Keep calm and carry on” attitude was, after all, official policy, until its likely horrific consequences had become public knowledge. Yet, another aspect of the crisis may once again go back to Freud and the tradition that has evolved from his work.

I think that the staggering degree to which we have been unprepared to think about the coronavirus crisis is because it is to do with death, and death around us on a mass scale. It may also come to be about our own death, or the imminent and sudden death of a loved one we have not been prepared to lose. And it already means the death of our way of life, the way we were used to living our lives.

The First World War prompted Freud’s first engagement with mourning what we have lost, a psychoanalytic theme that Melanie Klein subsequently positioned at the centre of our psychic life. When the baby starts to realise that they are they and we are us, the baby realises that the thing s/he loves and hates is one and the same thing – the object of love can be damaged and lost. This realisation is possible/manageable and can be sustained if there is some capacity to restore and recover and build up everything again inside the baby’s mind. However, if the person possesses no such capacity (yet), the response may be denial (i.e., “I did not lose it”) or omnipotent control (i.e., “I can bring it back to life whenever I want to”). With those responses, reality is not faced with sadness, sorrow and perhaps hope; instead, there is a (doomed) attempt to triumph over it in manic excitement. 

Today, there is a lot of anxiety around. People are suddenly facing a loss that was denied up to a very short time ago, and they don’t know what to do. Certainly, other people very quickly volunteer to tell them what to do. The advice will perhaps come across as helpful, yet what needs to be considered is whether it is an authentic engagement with a problem, or a manic response that continues to be based on denial and omnipotence. This is a very delicate question, but my hunch is that there can be no helpful response which does not take account of the fact that the author themselves did not see this crisis coming. Any helpful response needs to start with our looking into the mirror, and reckoning not just with the sorrow and sadness that loss entails (Melanie Klein), but with the utter and complete denial that was our own initial response. Otherwise, what appears and is surely intended as helpful support will merely exploit and even ultimately increase the anxiety, rather than genuinely alleviating it.

When encountering the burgeoning genre of “how to survive the lockdown” or even “how to thrive in a lockdown” guides, I therefore feel we need to consider this. Therapeutic support is genuinely needed, and rather basic therapeutic support is genuinely needed, on a vast scale as we suddenly cannot escape loss. We are locked in with it, so to say. Support therefore needs to be offered. Yet it will be no real support if it does not acknowledge in some form its own profound limitations: we did not see it coming (either) and we do not really know what’s going on (either). What we can help with is not by creating the utterly false illusion that we know how to survive such lockdowns, but by preparing ourselves and others to finally look this unexpected and unprecedented loss in the eye.


Relevant literature:

Freud, S. (1915/2001) ‘Thoughts for the times of war and death’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 273-300.

Freud, S. (1917/2001) ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 237-258.

Klein, M. (1935/1998) ‘A contribution to the genesis of manic-depressive states’, in Love,Guilt and Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 262-289.

Klein, M. (1940/1998) ‘Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states’, in Love, Guiltand Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 344-369.

David Kaposi’s psychotherapy practice website can be found here.

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Viral language? The discourses of COVID-19

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In this blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor considers the language of COVID-19 and its wider implications.

 In 1978, the critical theorist Susan Sontag wrote about the metaphors of cancer. She argued that the language used to discuss cancer, which at the time was considered an almost untreatable disease, echoed that of the so-called war against communism, centred on the Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Later, Sontag extended her original book to note similar trends in the language used to refer to AIDS. 

Few people are now preoccupied with the war against communism but the 'war' metaphors that Sontag noted still persist. For instance, it is usual to refer to people who have cancer as 'brave' and to speak admiringly of how they are 'battling' their illness. Some cancer patients have been critical of such language, noting the implication that their recovery will depend on their own efforts, as if those who eventually die of the disease are somehow at fault because they have failed to fight hard enough. 

Critical discursive psychologists and other discourse analysts approach such metaphors as part of the discourses of cancer, and illness more generally. A dominant discourse, for instance, of illness as conflict, may be superseded over time, although it seldom disappears completely. It remains available to be taken up again in new situations, often carrying an extra authority because it is familiar, as if a lost 'truth' is being recognised. 

Discourses can also alter over time. For example, Shani Orgad (2009) has discussed the changing meanings of surviving and being a survivor. From referring simply to those have not died (for instance, when an inheritance passes to the surviving legatees), being a survivor has come to denote 'a desirable mode of being or identity that people are encourage to comply with and take on'. Orgad notes that the statement 'I'm a survivor' is now likely to be a claim to certain personal qualities, like 'individual strength, bravery, self-sufficiency, and determination'. In this sense, it shifts from referring to a past experience (such as, again, cancer or another illness) to a person's potential for the future.

 The reporting and discussion of COVID-19 of course invite careful attention. The point of interest for discourse researchers, including critical discursive psychologists, is to draw out and make visible the implications of metaphors and the other language that is being used. For example, measures involving distancing and 'lock down' inevitably suggest that the threat comes from those outside, some 'other' people, who are different to 'us'. In the rapidly evolving situation, the people who need to be kept out have been those who are, variously, from Wuhan, all of Mainland China, Northern Italy, all of Europe and now, for Australia and New Zealand, everyone else in the world.

 Sometimes the implications of the language themselves become a point of public debate. UK government ministers are currently having to explain that 'self-isolation' does not mean the complete severing of connection with other people, as if you are on an island ('isola' in Italian). Even the change of preferred name, from coronavirus to COVID-19, seems significant. COVID-19 sounds more scientific. Perhaps it also reduces the status of the virus by implying a succession of earlier forms (1-18?) that may already have been successfully dealt with!

The instruction to 'self-isolate' or 'self-quarantine' emphasises everyone's own responsibility for managing the COVID-19 situation. This is consistent with the prevailing individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism. (Orgad also links the new meanings of 'survivor' to neoliberalism, noting the implication of 'a self-responsible individual with a considerable degree of agency'.) Social theorists and researchers have explored how these discourses operate in multiple contexts so that issues like unemployment, racism and inequality are defined not in social or structural terms but as the personal problems of individuals. 

Yet COVID-19 can also be seen to have challenged such individualist discourses by reminding us that our welfare is linked to other people's. Neoliberalism rests on the logic of the market i.e. that individuals must compete with each other, and the winners will obtain the greatest benefit. But when even the wealthiest and starriest celebrities (Tom Hanks!) have been shown to be vulnerable, we are reminded that winners are still part of a larger society. One person's infection is potentially everyone's problem. We can't get away from each other or, to express the point in another way, we are inevitably connected and interdependent. Perhaps, despite the undoubted threat and difficulties it is causing, COVID-19 will have the positive effect of reminding us that we are social beings and our survival, in any terms, depends on our working together.


Shani Orgad (2009) The Survivor in Contemporary Culture and Public Discourse:  A GenealogyThe Communication Review vol.12 issue 2

Susan Sontag (1978) Illness as Metaphor Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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