Why have some people’s anxiety levels decreased during lockdown?

6th July 2020

The injunction to enjoy in a world of universal boredom

Author: Nicholas Gibbs, a criminology PhD student at Northumbria University.

For many students, furloughed workers, shielded people, and retirees, lockdown has been an emphatically tedious time. In the UK, since Boris Johnson's belated call to Stay Home (and subsequently to Stay Alert), millions of us have found our social worlds relegated to the house, the occasional walk and the alarmingly militarised supermarkets. Given the incongruity of this new-found stasis with the former hair-raising pace of late-capitalist consumer society, one would expect the population to be universally frustrated, down-beaten, and climbing the proverbial walls. However, whilst listening to the first episode of Louis Theroux’s recent podcast series Grounded, wherein the famed documentary-maker interviews an assortment of high-profile celebrities about their experience of the Covid-19 lockdown, I came across a surprising sentiment: coronavirus, and what feels like the end of the world as we know it, has actually reduced anxiety levels for many citizens.

This is the conclusion that Louis’ guest, journalist Jon Ronson, draws, citing an odd feeling of calm in the face of what ought to be a neurotic nightmare. This same outlook has been espoused by various media outlets (see Jarral, 2020; Gold, 2020), leaving some to question: what is it about normal life that leaves most of us with some feeling of anxiety? Why has the closure of our coveted arenas of commodified leisure left many of us feeling more satisfied? These guiding questions, I contend, can be answered if we adopt an ultra-realist lens and draw upon Slavoj Žižek’s (2008) notion of the super ego injunction to enjoy.

For the sake of brevity, the transcendental materialist underpinning of ultra-realist criminology will be spared from this piece (for an exploration of this, see Hall and Winlow, 2015 and Raymen, 2019). Suffice to say that desire, dissatisfaction and the pursuit of pleasure underpin the late-capitalist subject, and it is these driving forces that may help explain the reduction in ‘objectless desire’ (Hall, 2012) that has been observed during lockdown. Žižek characterises the contemporary injunction to enjoy as a reorientation of the superego, whereby the subject is compelled to seek maximal enjoyment at all times, even if this is against the interests of the greater good.

This concept is situated in a shift from a society of prohibition, to one that promotes unrestrained individual enjoyment and consumption (McGowan, 2003) facilitated by a swelling commodified leisure economy where we are encouraged to hedonistically engage with the ‘stupid pleasures’ of consumption (Žižek, 2008). Put more simply, where the super ego once acted as an inhibiting force, curtailing our pleasure-seeking behaviour in line with the Big Other, the current epoch of consumer capitalism has fundamentally altered its function to a point where we feel guilt-ridden if we fail to consume. This is expressed through the contemporary concept of fear of missing out (FOMO), wherein we feel anxious that we are, at any one moment, failing to enjoy ourselves to the fullest extent. As a result, the altered super ego’s guilt is generative, compelling us to seek ever more opportunities for consumption and vice. However, we never reach a point of satisfaction and therefore perpetually consume in a state of jouissance, as pleasure ceases to be pleasurable. This process underpins the panoply of commodified leisure practices studied within the school of deviant leisure, and goes some way to explaining the contemporary pressure to compete in these spaces. However, what happens when the population is forced into a collective state of inaction, and the FOMO-inducing practices are swiftly curtailed? Covid-19 has been many things, but has it also been an agent of change, or at least respite for the scores of us stuck at home doing nothing?

The impacts of the coronavirus upon Žižek’s injunction to enjoy have been superbly analysed from the perspective of the much-maligned transgressors of lockdown rules by Matthew Flisfeder (2020). Writing in the wake of news coverage chastising American teenagers in Ft. Lauderdale determined to live out their Spring Break in spite of Covid-19, Flisfeder argues that, far from transgressing society’s rules, these young people were wholeheartedly adhering to the injunction to enjoy. Such over-conformity (Raymen and Smith, 2019) shows that, for some committed adherents to consumer culture, even a global pandemic could not assuage their FOMO. However, where does that leave the scores of us whose friends are engaging in no such activities, whose nightclubs, restaurants, gyms, and shops are physically inaccessible? In a UK context, this account falls short.

Instead, I propose that, for large swathes of people across the UK, the apparent relief and contentedness they feel is a result of the injunction to enjoy being partially (temporarily) lifted. We may see other people’s throwback pictures on our Instagram feeds, or experience a pang of FOMO when an acquaintance is out walking in a beautiful location or luxuriating in a nicer house than our own, but that cloying objectless anxiety has to some extent lifted. Clearly lockdown has its own innumerate challenges, particularly for the elderly and the isolated, but for those taking time away from their usual consumer haunts perhaps this is an unprecedented period of stillness in the otherwise ferocious tides of the leisure economy.

Whilst that image perhaps represents a somewhat rosy point on which to finish, the reality, I fear, is slightly more insidious. Whilst that nagging injunction to enjoy may well be momentarily suspended, consumer capitalism still seeps into our lives in the form of Amazon parcels, home gym packages, and fashionable Instagram posts. Further, The Dangerous Maybe (2020) in an article on Medium, proposes that, free from the costs of the leisure economy, the panic buying that characterised the first few weeks of lockdown represented an altered form of jouissance. According to this view, consumer capitalism has simply changed form amid the lockdown restrictions and, no doubt, will come back with a vengeance once the consumer spaces that define our lives reopen.

Regrettably, this scenario seems most likely, so let’s all enjoy this period of respite before the madness starts all over again in July.

References:

Flisfeder, M. (2020). Social Distancing and its Discontents. Available: https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/social-distancing-and-its-discontents/. Last accessed 24/06/20.
Gold, J. (2020). Feeling Less Anxiety Since The Coronavirus Lockdown? You’re Not Alone. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicagold/2020/06/08/feeling-less-anxiety-since-the-coronavirus-lockdown-youre-not-alone/#78ae82f43874. Last accessed 24/06/20.
Hall, S. (2012). Theorising Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hall, S. Winlow, S (2015). Revitalizing criminological theory: towards a new ultra-realism. Abingdon: Routledge.
Jarral, F. (2020). The lockdown paradox: why some people's anxiety is improving during the crisis. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/29/coronavirus-lockdown-anxiety-mental-health. Last accessed 24/06/20.
McGowan, T (2003). The End of Dissatisfaction?: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. New York: State University of New York Press.
Raymen, T. (2019). Parkour, Deviance and Leisure in the Late-Capitalist City. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing.
Raymen, T. Smith, O. (2019). Introduction: Why Leisure?. In: Raymen, T. Smith, O Deviant Leisure Criminological Perspectives on Leisure and Harm. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. p1-14.
The Dangerous Maybe. (2020). Enjoy Your Pandemic!: Lacan, Žižek and Coronavirus. Available: https://medium.com/@mdowns1611/enjoy-your-pandemic-lacan-%C5%BEi%C5%BEek-and-coronavirus-3560281999eb. Last accessed 24/06/20.
Žižek, S. (2008). For They Know not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso.

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