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on worrying Arrow vol 2 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003


On Worrying: the lost art
of the well-administered national cuddle*

Ghassan Hage
University of Sydney


1. Since the rise of paranoid nationalism in the last 15 years or so, its affective expression, ‘worrying about one’s nation’, has become such a dominant cultural trend in most Western societies that it is sometimes uncritically equated with what it means to be attached to the nation. The culture of ‘worrying’ which was initially most pronounced among supporters of extreme-right, anti-immigration movements, such as the Front National in France and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia, has now become the dominant cultural form of expressing one’s belonging to the nation. Nowhere has this generalised culture been as intense as it has been in the Australia of the Tampa and the detention centres. This is perhaps because no other society has ideologically legitimised, even institutionalised, the culture of worrying to the extent that the conservative government of John Howard has.

2. ‘Worrying’ clearly denotes the prominence of a dimension of fear about the fate of the nation that is only minimally present in the affective practice of ‘caring’. Thus the difference between the two can simply be the result of the presence or absence of a threat: our caring turns into worrying when something is threatening what we care for. Indeed this is often the case when worrying is a relatively fleeting sentiment associated with a specific threat to a specific relation, and where the threat is external to the caring relation. In such cases ‘caring’ emerges as the norm to which one reverts after the disappearance of the threat and the worrying it has caused.

3. The problem with cultures of national worrying is that they are not of such a fleeting nature. Of course national worriers do posit threats – threats that are located, either literally or symbolically, outside the national subject-national society relation – as the source of their worrying. Migration, illegal refugees, crime, paedophilia, ‘foreign investment’, etc are often cited, and one can imagine why they can be a matter of concern for some people. These sorts of threats do not, however, explain what is beginning to look like a structural entrenchment of the culture of worrying. Indeed, worrying has become such an enduring mode of relating to the nation that if the nationalists ever ceased ‘worrying about the nation’ it would be hard to remember what the ‘caring about the nation’ one is supposed to return to means. That is, worrying today exerts a form of symbolic violence over the field of national belonging (Bourdieu 1991). It eradicates the very possibility of thinking an alternative mode of belonging.

4. In this essay, I aim to recover the significance of the relation of care that can exist between the nation and its citizens. I will argue that the cultures of worrying and caring about the nation do not reflect the existence or absence of a threat to the nation as much as they reflect the quality of the relation between the nation and its citizens. I will emphasise the way society works as a mechanism for the distribution of hope and examine the relationship between this distributional capacity and the prevalence of either caring or worrying. I will show how an understanding of the ethics of care provides us with an important conceptual site from which we can capture the pathological nature of a nationalism consumed by worrying.

On dispositional hopefulness

5. By being a mechanism for the distribution of social opportunities, society operates as a distributor of social hope among the population it encompasses. Social hope, however, does not refer only to these societal routes for self-realisation. As implied by a statement such as ‘I am hopeful but the situation is hopeless’, hope also refers to a disposition within individuals. Farran et al. differentiate between hope as a state and hope as a trait. They argue that:

As a state, it reflects the present feelings that persons have about a particular situation, it may fluctuate over time, and it can be influenced through growth or intervention. As a trait, hope functions as a more enduring attitude or approach to life, and is less subject to fluctuation in response to life’s vicissitudes. (Farran et. al. 1995: 5)

6. The dispositional hopefulness that concerns us here is, in Farran et al.’s language, more like a trait than a state. It is an enduring disposition rather than a fleeting feeling. But if hopefulness is a disposition, what does it dispose the body/the self to do?

7. For most social and psychological researchers who have worked on this issue, hopefulness is above all a disposition to be confident in the face of the future, to be open to it and welcoming to what it will bring, even if one does not know for sure what it will bring. (Averill et. al. 1990) Spinoza importantly points out that hope (unlike wishing, for example) is an ambivalent affect, always laced with fear. For him hope is like a combination of desire for and fear of the future in which the desire for the future is more dominant. (2000: 215-6)

8. One can extract from Spinoza a conception of the hopeful disposition as nothing more than the will to live – come what may – that is inherent in the human body. (2000: 171) It can be linked to Spinoza’s theory of conatus, that ‘each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persevere in its own being’. We can call this raw disposition to embrace life as it unfolds, conatic hope. It is a disposition denoting what Spinoza would call an ‘appetite’ for life. It is well captured by the popular saying, ‘Where there’s life there’s hope.’ This kind of hopefulness emerges most clearly when humans are confronting desperate situations. This is why one finds it captured most powerfully in the literature analysing human beings’ ‘fighting spirit’ in the face of fatal illnesses or in concentration camps. (Nunn 1996: 233; Frankl 1997) But this desire to confront life and live it, even if it is an intrinsic property of all human beings, cannot be separated from the effect of society on its development. Indeed, in some cases society ends up extinguishing it – this is the case with suicides.

9. Galina Lindquist, an anthropologist doing her ethnographic work in contemporary Russia, describes how some small business people (such as her informant, Olga) rely on visits to urban magicians who give them enough ‘hope’ (in the form of ‘cosmic advice’, charms, spells, amulets, etc) to confront the deep uncertainties of a market characterised by an acute absence of trust. For her, hopefulness is the ability to cope with what is beyond one’s control and a belief in the possibility of a minimum sense of agency despite all. It is the perceived capacity to exercise some .mastery over life, and it stands in opposition to helplessness. (Nunn 1996: 232) As Galina Lindquist points out: ‘Magical means are the very few left to a woman like Olga to exert power over others in this society, to exercise agency … Olga is learning to have confidence in her own self.’ (2000: 351)

10. Magic, then, gives Olga hope in the form of a capacity to confront the uncertainties of the market; she does not know what the future will bring but she has some ‘magical’ confidence that she is on the right path. Such hope ‘sustains people like Olga and helps them to arise and continue after absorbing the hardest blows’ (2000: 351). Thus even though the social conditions of the Russian market are, so to speak, hopeless, magic allows Olga to reach a hopefulness that is within her regardless of what the social situation is like. Lindquist ends up defining hope as ‘a stubborn confidence without any substantial ground, an ineradicable human faculty’.

11. We can see that Lindquist, here, ends up with a definition of hope close to what we have called conatic hope. Though one senses a contradiction in this definition. For if this hope was, as Lindquist says, an ‘ineradicable human faculty’, why did Olga need a social means in the form of magic to find it within her? This does not so much negate the idea of a conatic hope as awaken us to the fact that even when we say that the disposition for hopefulness is inherent in all people, this does not mean that it is present in the same way in every single person. The intensity with which this inherent disposition of hopefulness is activated within an individual depends on the material and symbolic social conditions of its activation.

12. So society is not only a mechanism for the distribution of societal hope; it also functions as a mechanism for the distribution of hopefulness, through the provision of certain social conditions which, once internalised by individuals, activate their conatic hopefulness and allow it to flourish. Olga’s story, by emphasising their lack, already gives us a sense of what some of the social conditions that activate this hopefulness can be: they are the negation of the conditions whose presence magic is trying to compensate for. These are, according to Lindquist, ‘lack of trust’, ‘a society where the dangers of social interaction are pre-eminent’, ‘where the mechanisms of security and control are dramatically reduced’, and where there are no sanctions for breaching contractual relations.(318-319) Although Lindquist is speaking of the ‘market’ in a strictly economic sense, I would like to suggest that these conditions are equally important in defining more generally ‘the market of life’. A society that can induce and distribute a dispositional hopefulness, a lasting and enduring hopefulness, is precisely a society where the opposite of the conditions mentioned by Lindquist prevails.

The distribution of hopefulness and the art of the well-administered cuddle:
on caring and worrying

13. In its examination of the dynamics of early childhood, psychoanalysis has already shown us that the internalisation of ‘good social relations’ as a means of developing a healthy sense of hopefulness begins with the internalisation of a ‘good mother–child’ relation. Within Kleinian psychoanalysis, for example, hope has been explicitly linked to the infant’s internalisation of the good breast. As Anna Pontamianou argues, ‘Hope is conditional upon the idea of a breast which it is possible to find, as opposed to non-breast, non-existence of breast, or destructive fragmentation of the other and of self.’ (Pontamianou 1997: 73) A well-internalised breast allows us to develop a capacity to wait for the object of our desire with minimum anxiety, even when this object does not show up when expected. That is, the internalisation of the good breast allows the development of exactly that capacity to ‘face the uncertainties of the future’ which, I suggested above, is an essential characteristic of hopefulness.

14. Hopefulness, then, is a ‘historically’ acquired sense of security in facing what the future will bring – historical in the sense of being the product of an internalisation of the history of one’s relation to the breast and the objects of desire that come to replace it later in life. It is also an enduring disposition, in that it is not likely to be modified just by the odd occasions where the object doesn’t ‘turn up’. It is thus a confident belief that ‘of course the good object will come, or of course my mother will feed me, even if I am a bit worried that she hasn’t shown up yet (Spinoza’s fear)’. This ‘bit of worrying’ takes over, however, when the history of the child’s relationship to the breast is such that it leads to an insecure form of attachment, an attachment overshadowed by the fear of the bad breast. We can begin to see here the relationship between worrying and hope-deprivation.

15. Clearly, there are elements in this foundational breast–child relation that offer us some key insights into the imaginary relationship between the national citizen and the ‘breast of the motherland’. Above all, it allows us to appreciate how the social hopefulness of the national subject is produced through an internalisation of the certainty that their national society will care for them. Worrying emerges when this certainty disappears, and when the national’s answer to the question ‘Will my society care for me?’ is an insecure ‘I don’t know.’ Then anxiety sets in.

16. But despite these insights, it is clear that the Kleinian breast–child relation is of limited value in understanding the national subject–national society relation. Not least because at this early stage in life, the passivity of the child in this relation makes it an unsuitable model for understanding the active role the national subject plays in relating to the nation. Taking a later stage in the parent–child relationship offers us a better understanding of the development of hopefulness within the nation, and of its complexities.

17. One can note, when watching children who have only recently began to walk confidently play with others in a playground, with a parent sitting on the side, how often such children go back to the parental lap for a ‘reassuring cuddle’ before resuming their play. More often than not this parental cuddle lasts a bit longer than the child desires. And one can see children, especially when they have ‘returned to the lap’ in the middle of some very involved game, battling to free themselves from a cuddle they initially sought but now find restraining. They wildly struggle to free themselves, screaming with all their body: ‘Hey, I’ve only come for a little reassuring cuddle. No need to suffocate me. I want to move on …’

18. This situation emerges when the parent’s desire to reassure the child is overcome by more narcissistic desires. In such a situation we have an interaction between two different desires: the desire of the child to make contact with a reassuring presence and the desire of the parent to treat the child as a cuddly and perhaps soothing possession. To begin with, each wants the other as an object that satisfies their own needs; to be just that and nothing more. The child wants the parent to be around but not so around as to restrict their movement. The parent wants the child to stay long enough for them to ‘get a cuddle’. But this is only at the beginning. What is crucial is that with time, both parent and child start learning to seek what they themselves need and to try to give the other what that other needs.

19. For the children, the cuddle they seek is an energising cuddle. It is a cuddle which replenishes their capacity to face the world (the game they are playing). Confident with the caring presence of the parental lap, they are ready to confront the uncertainties of the future (as they present themselves in the playground). The cuddle represents the essence of the relation between caring and hopefulness. That is, the cuddle acts like Lindquist’s magic. It activates conatic hopefulness in the child. The caring cuddle also represents the essence of what it means to be ‘at home’, and opens up for us the significance of the relationship between hopefulness and homeliness.

20. Although one often finds in the literature on ‘home’ and ‘homeliness’ an equation between ‘home’ and the mother, the mother’s lap and/or particularly the mother’s breast (see next chapter), there is an enduring assumption that home and the mother’s breast represent security in the form of immobility as well as in the form of an enclosure. Such homeliness is perceived to stand in opposition to openness and movement, which are somehow associated with homelessness. As Paul Chilton and Mikhail Ilyin argue:

The concept of ‘security’ seems in English to be understood by accessing base concepts of fixedness and being inside an enclosing space or a container. This basic cognitive schema is also an important component of the ‘house’ metaphor. (Chilton & M. Ilyin 1993: 9)

21. Yet this is at best an incomplete definition of both security and homeliness. Alone it provides an imaginary of claustrophobia rather than of homeliness and security. For what is security if it isn’t the capacity to move confidently? And what is ‘home’ if not the ground that allows such a confident form of mobility, i.e. that allows us to contemplate the possibilities that the world offers confidently and move to take them on. A home has to be both closed enough to offer shelter and open enough to allow for this capacity to perceive what the world has to offer and to provide us with enough energy to go and seek it. This is why there is always a subliminal psychological value to the ‘room with a view’. This also explains the homely ontology of glass and the reasons for its popularity in the construction of houses. Is it not the ideal medium for the embodiment of this double movement of closure and openness that is the essence of homeliness, providing a shelter from the outside without becoming a claustrophobic inability to see what the outside has to offer?

22. It is precisely that double movement that the child seeks in the parental cuddle. It is a cuddle that manages to simultaneously embrace and protect and allow the child to contemplate the future and move towards what it has to offer. Working towards administering such a finely tuned cuddle is part of the essence of parental care in all walks of life. After their initial tendency to ‘suffocate’ the child with a claustrophobic embrace, parents soon learn that their child needs different kinds of embraces at different times, and they then aim – according to their ability and their own history – to become both physical and metaphorical providers of this range of hope-inducing cuddles.

23. The more parents are capable of providing such caring embraces to their children, the more likely the latter are to develop a sense of security which will make them less dependent on these cuddles and more capable of moving into the world confidently and securely, without needing a constant direct physical relation with their parental ‘home’. They acquire something similar to what in attachment theory is called an ‘internal secure base’: a sense of confidence and homeliness that is internalised as a place in the psyche, and which allows one to move away from parental care without losing the sense of homeliness it provides. As Jeremy Holmes puts it: ‘the child no longer is wholly dependent on the physical presence of the care-giver but can be comforted by the thought of "mum-and-dad", or "home"’. The child develops the capacity to move further and further away from the parents and to live more and more without needing an actual ‘cuddle’, since the latter has now become internalised. (Holmes 2005: 5, 12)

24. Another equally important effect of the caring embrace is that the child who has internalised such an embrace becomes more amenable to allowing himself or herself to become the object of parental desire: s/he becomes more disposed to allow the parent to get out of the cuddle what that parent wants to get out of it. Care essentially generates an inter-subjective and reciprocal ethics that is intrinsic to its nature: there is no caring without caring back. And the way one has been cared for shapes one’s capacity to care for others. As Holmes puts it:

As care-givers, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we take a small fragment of our own experience and amplify it so that it fits with that of the person in our charge. In this way, our own experience as receivers of care is used when we become care-givers ourselves. (4)

25. It is precisely this kind of caring relation that national societies are ideally imagined to have with their members. Nation-states are supposed to be capable of providing a nurturing and caring environment and of having a considerable mastery in the art of border management. They are supposed to be able to operate between the two never-to-be-reached extremes: where openness becomes lack of protection and where protection becomes claustrophobia. Likewise, by being cared for, citizens ‘care back’ through their active and affective participation in the nation. It is this relation which the uncaring penal state of transcendental capitalism and its paranoid obsession with border controls is no longer allowing us to even think of as a mode of attachment to the nation.

26. Worriers cannot care about their nation because they have not been and are not being cared for properly by it. Because of the insecure relationship they have with their own nation, they substitute a national belonging based on the defence of a good national life they cannot access (worrying) for a national belonging based on the enjoyment of such a good life (caring). The primary source of worrying, therefore, is internal to the relation. As Holmes argues: ‘In insecure and especially disorganised attachment, the body becomes a vehicle for an introjected "alien" other from and with which the individual can neither peaceably separate nor harmoniously co-exist.’ (23) That is, the threatening object in the discourse of worrying is intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the national subject–national society relation. It is nothing but the manifestation of the national subject’s relation to the motherland, the subliminal fear that ‘she’ is going to abandon us. It is in this sense that worrying is part and parcel of paranoid nationalism.

Conclusion: all overboard

27. During the ‘children overboard’ case, the government made people believe that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard to gain access to Australian soil and the right of refuge. As this was later proven to be a lie, it was argued that it is xenophobia that allowed Australians to believe such stories. But is it really so? What kind of people believe that a parent (even an animal parent, let alone a human from another culture) could actually throw their child overboard? Perhaps only those who are unconsciously worried about being thrown overboard themselves by their own motherland?

Ghassan Hage teaches anthropology at the University of Sydney. He is the author of a number of books, including White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Pluto Press Australia 1998, Routledge 2000) and his thoughts on hope are included in the collection of interviews by Mary Zournazi, Hope: New Philosophies for Change (Pluto Press Australia, 2002).

*This essay is a slightly modified version of Chapter 2 in Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, published here with the permission of Pluto Press Australia, Sydney, 2003.


Averill, J. Catlin, G., Chon, K., (1990) Rules of Hope, Springer-Verlag, New York.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Violence, Polity Press, Oxford.

Chilton P. & Ilyin, M. (1993) 'Metaphor in political discourse: the case of the "common European house" 'in Discourse and Society, vol. 4 (1).

Farran, C. Herth, K. & Popovich J. (1995), Hope and Hopelessness Critical Clinical Constructs, Sage Publications, London.

Frankl, V. (1997) Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography, Insight Books, Plenum Press, New York and London.

Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy, Brunner-Routledge, East Sussex, p. 5.

Nunn, K. (1996), Personal Hopefulness: A conceptual review of the relevance of the perceived future to psychiatry, British Journal of medical Psychology, No. 69, 227-245.

Lindquist, G. (2000) In Search of Magical Flow: Magic and Market in Contemporary Russia, Urban Anthropology, vol. 29, no. 4, Winter.

Pontamianou, A. (1997) Hope: A shield in the Economy of Borderline States, Routledge, London, 1997.

© borderlands ejournal 2003


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