Falling Apart Together: On Hannah Proctor’s “Burnout”

By Tom AllenApril 10, 2024

Falling Apart Together: On Hannah Proctor’s “Burnout”

Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat by Hannah Proctor

IT IS A quality of revolutionary periods that the sense of possibility they transmit endures even if those who participated in them have stopped believing. What, after all, is the bitter anti-racist landlordism of an old 1968er in comparison with the shaping fire of the collective struggle they lived through? Zoom out far enough and the damage someone suffers from politics is easily ignored given the promise of what caused it. Hannah Proctor’s new book Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat is a work of left-wing history and theory that asks us to take this damage seriously and to understand it as part of the totality of any given period of collective struggle.

Proctor, a Glasgow-based historian of psychoanalysis and Marxism, presents a history of different people and the movements in which they were engaged. Throughout, the aim is to elaborate a range of negative emotional states experienced by those who fully committed themselves to a world that has not yet come into being. For Proctor, focusing on experiences of defeat is not defeatist. Rather, the loneliness and depression that characterize the end of social movements are as much a part of the totality of such events as the undeniable prefigurative joy that exists in their dynamic center. If we want the totality, we have to think about the parts of it that we don’t like.

Burnout does not deny the capacity of radical politics to change the direction and feeling of our lives for the better. Indeed, it is written explicitly in fidelity to this capacity. Still, Proctor maintains, I think rightly, that her own experience of the impossibility of brushing aside the dejection and “doom” that accompany the receding of transformative possibilities makes ignoring the negative effects feel like a mere “rhetorical gesture.” Such a gesture fails to take seriously the harm that people suffer and, as a result, what it might mean to live in a world in which this harm was not present. The book elaborates its concepts by balancing sociopolitical and individual realities: Proctor argues that we cannot fully explain away emotional states via social relations, as if every bad feeling could be mapped directly onto class positionality, but that one must also be sure that we don’t “reduce social problems to individual ones.” Emotions exist in history without being reducible to it, and early on, Proctor presents us with none other than Che Guevara struggling to transform his own personality into something he felt more suited to conducting the work of revolution.

Burnout is internationalist in scope and includes considerations of the Chilean deserts turned into mass graves by Pinochet, the streets of New York during Black Lives Matter, and the hastily abandoned dachas of the Russian aristocracy transformed into spaces for the recovery and convalescence of exhausted Bolshevik fighters. Proctor includes her own experiences of psychological difficulties, ranging from despair and cynicism following the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s social democratic project in 2019 to a prolonged depression following a relocation from London to Berlin a few years earlier. More than once, these moments of autobiographical musing serve as points of departure for the emotional states that Proctor elaborates. In her hands, autobiographical reflection enables a movement from an immediate feeling—doom, cynicism, depression—to social history and back again. This movement forms the framework of Proctor’s method as a historian.

Proctor’s own mental state—mediated as it is by social conditions as general as the governing party of her country, and as personal as having a shit doctor—reflects an enactment of the simple fact that we are all participants in the same history Burnout engages. The point is never to say that the personal is really the social or vice versa but to show that considering one of these poles leads one to the other and that the process of shifting between them begins to loosen the stuffy categories through which our social world is too often constructed. Whatever the historical conclusion, the aim is, I think, to make the terms we use fluid again.

Proctor divides her book into subsections organized around eight recognizable emotional states: melancholia, nostalgia, depression, burnout, exhaustion, bitterness, trauma, and mourning. These concepts are themselves open to contestation. More than once, Proctor notes that, in contemporary parlance at least, these terms serve to obfuscate as much as to clarify. The project of the book is to reinsert ideas like depression, now so commonly invoked as to have lost almost all meaning, into the history from which they emerged. She reminds us, for example, that medical treatments such as Prozac “flourished during a historical moment in which psychological well-being was framed as the responsibility of the suffering individual” and in which “[s]elf-actualisation took the place of collective struggle.” At the same time, Burnout maintains a keen awareness that something like well-being is necessary for collective action. Existing in the world is, after all, a condition of changing it, and nobody has ever been freed from a debilitating mental state by having it explained to them that they were actually suffering from politics. “[R]evolutionary selves,” Proctor writes, “are needed to make revolution.”

For me, some of the most memorable sections of Burnout involve Proctor’s elaboration of how the language of mental health flattens meaningful distinctions and social antagonisms. Words such as trauma are now as likely to feature in the therapy notes of Kendall Roy as they are in the cursory medical assessment of a teenager born in the West Bank. This does not, however, mean that the word is entirely devoid of content but rather that its history has been evacuated by its everyday use. In her writing on the history of PTSD, Proctor notes the way in which the diagnosis was originally applied to US soldiers who had perpetrated or witnessed war crimes in Vietnam, enabling a kind of inversion of the perpetrator into a victim and the leveling of these two categories into the anti-politics of everybody hurts. It is by taking the reader through their history that words such as “trauma” gain a renewed resonance. It was, Proctor tells us, in the process of coming to terms with the limitations of a diagnosis of PTSD that psychotherapy expressed the insight that “[t]he wounding forces that structured external reality were not neutral but political.” Terminologies that populate the current mental health industry are the product of a long contestation. To take us through the process whereby their current meaning is formed is to remind us that the terms and the things they refer to remain mutable.

The word “burnout” itself is tricky in this regard. It has, we are told, become ubiquitous as a “term to describe the exhaustion that comes from working too hard in a cutthroat capitalist world.” This ubiquity means that, much like the phrase “working too hard,” to describe oneself as “burned-out” is to say nothing about specific kinds of exertion, suffering, and commitment that cause someone to become exhausted. Proctor is able to make this term come alive by going back to its origin. Burnout, she writes, emerged as a term in radical community organizing “to describe people exhausted from helping others ‘in free clinics, therapeutic communities, hot lines, crisis intervention centers, women’s clinics, gay centers, runaway houses.’” To refer to someone as burned-out was to talk about a person “who devoted their spare time to projects that sought to transform society.”

The point, therefore, is neither to throw out these concepts as they are used now nor to accept them at face value, but rather to demonstrate that they, like us, are in history and that the history of a thing is overwhelming evidence of its mutability. The task is to demonstrate this without treating these explanations as a kind of magic wand one can simply wave in order to make defeat easy to swallow. This is, I think, part of what Proctor wants to do when she says that the book is both a piece of left-wing history and an intellectual resource for activists in the present. As good Marxists know, these two are usually the same thing anyway.

The revolutionary moments that Burnout presents are not islands: they communicate with each other and establish a process of memorialization and commemoration whereby the meaning of an earlier event is metabolized by one that follows it. During her section on nostalgia, primarily focused on the Paris Commune and its legacies, Proctor contrasts a tendency to enshrine the events of 1871 as a kind of lost homeland for melancholy revolutionaries with their reception in revolutionary Russia. In these years, the commune “did not ossify into a relic for sober museal contemplation but inspired vibrant new forms of social relation.” Such was the power of revolutionary inheritance that “Soviet babies were even named Parizhkommuna.”

The word “nostalgia” itself is charged with mutually exclusive possibilities. Speaking about literal memorabilia from the Commune, Proctor contrasts a “red banner displayed in Lenin’s mausoleum” with a scarf that Louise Michel tore in two and bequeathed to the Kanak people of New Caledonia in whose struggle for independence she had become a committed member. The first of these functions as a “deathly relic” that, much like the mummified body of Lenin himself, expresses a static relationship between two historical periods, and the second as an “artefact from the Commune connecting to the vibrancy of a new movement.” Nostalgia, like the other terms Proctor analyses, contains an internal dynamism that can revivify how we think about our own trajectories. Homeland, after all, is a state of having broken free.

The section of Burnout that deals with mourning figures loss and grief as something processed, reborn, and metabolized within social movements, rather than to the side of them. Proctor seeks to move us away from an assumption that one must mourn a loss before engaging in militant action by pointing out that closure is all but impossible in a world in which “loss is inflicted by social and political forces that continue.” You can’t heal a wound when there are cops outside the house. Uprisings such as the ones that followed the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor demonstrate that a traditional understanding of mourning as the individual psyche working through its grief in private is unsustainable in a social reality that needs to be changed if wounds are to stay closed.

The answer here is not to refuse to reckon with loss—another chapter details the failed attempts by radical groups to harden themselves into perfect revolutionaries and cautions that these may, ultimately, mimic the soulless qualities of the world they are aiming to resist—but to understand that political action provides an opportunity for the metabolization of grief as collective internal and external transformation. A process that Proctor terms “militant mourning” and that she sees at work in social movements in Brazil and New York City is defined by its refusal to separate mourning from the enactment of a collective challenge to a world that makes grief a condition of existence. Channeling Walter Benjamin, she insists that “[t]he dead will be safe from the enemy only when it is defeated.” Until that day, the dead, like the living, are to be reckoned with on the street.

Burnout is largely concerned with negative feelings. These feelings are isolating and are often carried by isolated people. Openly at stake in the book is, I think, a question regarding the value of the historian’s-eye view on this isolation. In her chapter on melancholia, Proctor writes of women in the aftermath of the British miners’ strike who found themselves alone and devastated when the opportunities for sociality, militancy, and creativity offered by the picket lines evaporated. Plunged back into domesticity and starved of the comradeship that had changed what it meant to be alive, these women began to fall apart mentally. Proctor suggests, however, that they were “falling apart together.”

There is, I think, a lot hanging on this “together.” It suggests that the usefulness of a left-wing history might be in the way in which it shows us people held and defined by a commonality of experience that they can neither see nor know but that defines them in their loneliness. It may well be the case that taking this view is scant relief for the ones who pass through times of defeat and repression, but since when was history actually written for the sake of the past? Burnout allows us to understand our own previous and coming isolations as constituting a kind of atomized unity with those who tried and failed to make the world different and better. To make this togetherness real outside of a historian’s perspective on the past would be to redefine the meaning of hitherto accumulating lonelinesses. Enacted within Burnout is the conviction that this meaning is still up for grabs.

LARB Contributor

Tom Allen is a writer and researcher mainly based in Paris. His essays, poetry, and translations have been published by, among others, Mask Magazine, Senna Hoy, and Earthbound Press.


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