Many variables figure in a personal sense of limitation. Discourses on limitation, that is, of feeling unfairly limited in our capacities and proficiencies, are often approached through the lens of identity; our constraints are drawn from the well of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and oppression. Through these identity-oriented discourses, there is a persistent sense that, albeit to different extents, we are lumps of clay, moulded by disciplinary discourses that exceed us and attempt to make us actors in our own immiseration. Writing of this kind, on this subject, does not pretend to be a panacea or to have a programmatic solution. But it is assumed, if not overtly stated, that the means by which we overcome these discursive edifices — these ossifying pressures — is by becoming newly re/(in)formed, active subjects. If we become (newly) aware of the forces that mould us into limited, deagentialised, and passive subjects, we can raise our consciousnesses and become reattuned and active subjects. The solution is to become active.

Less common is a reconsideration of how to assume a renewed passivity. It’s no overstatement to say our inability to experience a restorative passivity is fundamental to our sense of unjust limitation. What am I saying? I’m saying we can’t rest. We can’t relax, we can’t rest, we can’t engage in a restorative passivity. How is it possible to become genuinely confident, alert, engaged, adroit, calm, co-operative, considerate, aggressive, — living — subjects if we are consistently and ceaselessly prevented from ever discovering restorative passivity?

What prevents this restorative passivity is the conditioning of our bodyminds under capitalepsy. A pormanteau of capital and catalepsy, I coin capitalepsy to refer to how late capitalism during the 21C can condition our bodyminds — through the sociocultural and institutional foundations and articulations of neoliberalism — into a state of ineffectual and exhausted restlessness. Or, to phrase it differently: Maggie’s ghost won’t let us sleep!

Why do I turn to catalepsy to define this condition? It’s an admittedly uncommon point of reference. In 1996, German E Berrios ended his chapter on catalepsy — a ‘disorder of motility’ during the nineteenth century — with ‘[c]atalepsy is no more’. For Berrios, writing in ’96, and the clinical establishment as a whole, catalepsy was a historical phenomena of no contemporary clinical purchase, other than as being recognisable as ‘one of the most difficult [disorders] to grasp from the perspective of today’. What Berrios means by this is that the contemporary clinician would preceive catalepsy as a labile, vague, yet potentially infinite signifier — a condition that could include symptoms of ‘stupor, akinesia, catalepsy, psychomotor retardation, agitation, impulsions, bradyphrenia, parkinsonism, dyskinesias akathisia, grimacing, mannerisms, posturing, stereotypies, soft neurological signs, tremors and tics’. A veritable smörgåsbord of symptoms, no? Relatedly, for Berrios, understanding catalepsy today is complicated by having to return to the 19C, a time ‘when dichotomies such as voluntary-involuntary, cortical- and sub-cortical, and organic-psychogenic had not yet been invented’. And, yet, during the late 18C and 19C, an understanding of voluntarism, ‘organic’, and ‘natural’, as distinct, differentiable, but related categories, were instrumental to seemingly unclinical developments such as Benthamite utilitarianism and classical liberalism.

What I want to suggest is that Berrios and others would be wrong to rule out the relevance of catalepsy, especially during the last twenty-five years, and remiss not to consider further its ideological, economic, social, political, and historical rooting. Interestingly, Berrios’ writing on catalepsy was published during the supposed heyday of pre-election optimism in Britain: 1996. (NB. David Stubbs has written brilliantly about this optimism from a cultural historical perspective in 1996 and The End of History). The British union was standing at the precipice of a landslide election victory for New Labour. And catalepsy, I argue, was fundamental to the party that was about to be elected. New Labour, as a governing party and ongoing political project, presided over and co-produced both the twenty-first century renovation of catalepsy as capitalepsy and its contagious spread throughout Britain. In short: capitalepsy was fundamental to cementing neoliberalism’s hegemony as an institutional, cultural, and bodymind revolution. Indeed, it’s by no means a coincidence that catalepsy was a condition first clinically debated and identified in Britain during the 19C, when industrial capitalism, classic liberalism, and Benthamite utilitarianism were ascendant. During the 21C, we have seen the gradual yet consistent erosion of many of the post-1945 achievements of Keynesian social welfare reforms, and a return to a 19C period in which catalepsy emerged and capitalism’s punitive relationship with workers in Britain was differently expressed. And whilst Berrios regards catalepsy as something hard to understand in the 21C, due to its rooting in a world that lacks distinctions of in/voluntary and in/organic, I would argue that catalepsy attended the birth of these distinctions within a political and social philosophy of Benthamite liberalism. Much like how — for David Harvey and others — Chile was the laboratory for testing neoliberalism’s developing tenets, catalepsy during the 19C was a means of co-producing and conversing with Benthamite liberalism’s teleological distinctions and understanding of causal effects. And, during the 21C, catalepsy was renovated into the aspirational disease of capitalepsy.

Three key characteristics of catalepsy’s presentation during the 19C and their manifestation during the 21C:

  • Full and sudden motor paralysis. ‘Thatcherism’ with a human face (New Labour) came with a picture-perfect, frozen smile. It’s full and sudden, instantaneous, consumable, and as disposable as it is disingenuous. And we can find a contradistinctive but related sense of frustrated, capitaleptic paralysis in the wider public. But integral to that sense of paralysis was another, complementary and integral feature: waxy flexibility.
An image of Tony Blair grinning. Blair is pictured holding a copy of The Mirror. The frontpage headline reads 'We Will Win It For Mirror Readers!' and an image of another grinning Blair.
Image owned by The Mirror and sourced here. A mise en abyme of capitaleptic proportions.
  • Waxy flexibility or passive posturing: ‘The patient’s reactions are determined by impressions suggestions derived from others, it is manifested in various ways. In extreme cases the patient resembles a clay figure; the limbs can be placed in any position and are there retained indefinitely’ (White 1913). As Sherry Turkle and others have noted, we live in a quasi-alexithymic age in which expression is a necessary precondition of feeling and knowing our feelings. Moreover, in an era of ‘transparent’ communication and subjects, ‘reaction’ becomes the primary currency, motivator, and form of engagement between people. On social media, the datatariat willingly slogs to produce the material wealth of an opaque elite, to the immiseration of themselves (economically and subjectively). Tangentially, this waxy flexibility and passive posturing is surely related to the renewed popularity of Bartleby’s quote ‘I would prefer not to’ during the 21C — in which such timid resistance appears both perversely aspirational and impossible. Unlike for Bartleby communication today must precede along grounds of relentless affirmation, approval, and positivity — as Byung-Chul Han, Julia Bell, and Anne Dufourmantelle have noted in their own respective works.
  • Total sensory disconnection and total amnesia: As Mark Fisher and others have identified, younger generations express a listless yet persistent anhedonia — an infinite pursuit of joyless pleasure — that is intimately related to the hebetude of the purposeless amnesiac; the worker who can’t remember before ‘The End of History’ (and, increasingly, can’t ‘remember’ due to being born after 1991). Interestingly, Linas (1877) noted catalepsy as a condition particular to students, inter alia., something resonant with Fisher’s critique of student protest in Britain (cf. our French contemporaries in France)

This blog is designed for messy writing, but that shouldn’t be to the detriment of concrete takeaways. Capitalepsy — like The Care Manifestos coinage of ‘promiscuous care’ — is an unwieldy, if not ugly, term. But it allows a discursive intervention into the clinical space otherwise dominated by pharmacopsychological solutions to many of capitalepsy’s symptoms and — as a disease of aspiration — solutions. Capitalepsy is also a term with a point of origin in political history (during 19C industrial capitalism and liberalism’s ascendancy in Britain); as a largely forgotten and abandoned term, catalepsy can be retaken as means of intervening across multiple discourses: medical, historical, social, cultural, political, economic. It’s also useful for distinguishing the liminal nature of contemporary restlessness: exhausted, ever-nomadic prisoners of an instantaneous, circuitous present that — despite being impossible to occupy for more than a fleeting moment — is nevertheless tasked with conceiving an unprecedented future.

If capitalepsy is to be a viable, functional term in the way I think it can be — as a shorthand for the psychosocial condition of 21C cultural production and working life — it needs to be situated correctly in the cultural and political history of Britain and New Labour.

Capitalepsy must be understood, articulated, and overcome if we are to truly experience restorative passivity; if we are to truly wake-up sleeping.

Published by CJGriffin

I am a PhD Researcher of Contemporary Anglophone Literature at the University of Warwick. I mainly research 'the secret', neoliberalism, and the novel since the turn of the twenty-first century in Britain, drawing on literary studies, politics, philosophy, history, poststructuralism, postcritique, affect theory, and aesthetics.

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