Orlaith Darling

We undertake further education for a raft of reasons. There is, however, always a future-orientation to the pursuit of education. This might take the form of motivation to qualify for a dream job, or simply to get a job that will facilitate a comfortable life; it might be about identifying a social issue and wanting to address it, or it might be about challenging or deconstructing given realities.

One question we ask ourselves as doctoral researchers in the arts and humanities is “so what?” (One of my colleagues even has it pinned to her desk). All other things being equal, research for research’s sake might be okay – but the fact is that we live in a world wracked by crisis, beset by structural problems so embedded as to seem intractable, and with a not-insignificant question mark hanging over our societal, political, economic, and planetary futures. We should therefore be concerned with why it matters that our research is done. Asking yourself “so what?” everyday might sound like dissociative nihilism, but it is actually a stake in a future which is sometimes hard to imagine.

However, all of this has implications for the researcher’s mental health. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that PhDs’ mental health is, to put it bluntly, dire. In 2021, The Guardian reported that postgraduate researchers are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, and that, in the UK, more than half were stressed about work, two thirds were concerned about the future, and 70% had money troubles.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Mark Fisher suggested something slightly audacious in his book, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?: that mental health disorder – depression, anxiety, apathy, and dissociation – is the logical product of a late capitalist environment. For Fisher, the environment in which we live is the main factor in mental ill-health; in the twenty-first century, this environment is characterised by individualism, cut-throat interpersonal competition, the hollowing out by austerity of the welfare state and, with it, the evaporation of the very idea of the social. Humans, Fisher says, don’t thrive in hostile environments – they merely survive.

I was born in 1995 and began secondary school in 2008. The crash was the soundtrack of my bus to and from school every day. Joblessness was assumed, emigration was encouraged when then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny came to Loreto Balbriggan in 2012. My study of economics was a litany of bad news and capitalist realist propaganda: there was no alternative to austerity, to the economy’s boom-bust cycle. All there was for me was a fear-led motivation to study in the hope that I could protect myself against the worst ravages of recession – as the news constantly told me, after all, there was nothing else that could protect me in the post-welfare, post-boom Darwinian hellscape of late capitalism.

As an affective background to life, austerity makes it hard to nurture hope or aspiration.

As an affective background to life, austerity makes it hard to nurture hope or aspiration. We know that millennials are more financially conservative than their parents – we are more likely to save, even as we are less likely to afford anything worth saving for. We know that millennial adolescence is extended, possibly due to a lack of opportunity to establish independent financial security, and thus to make the decisions which once signified adulthood. We also know that mental health issues are on the rise – yes, because there is less stigma and more awareness, but also because we have been promised the world by capitalism only to have it cut down in front of us.

Fisher also identifies over-stimulation and fixation on the pleasure-principle as the modus operandi of contemporary culture. Since he was writing in 2008, scroll-culture and the constant deferral of the future it comprises has only intensified. Moreover, this culture is not something which is shared in any meaningful way, instead accessed via a “private ‘OedIpod’ consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.” In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant suggests that the contemporary dominant affect is crisis, but that this crisis is latent rather than immediate. Unable to respond to a concrete instance of crisis, then, we tread water in an extended present.

What Berlant and Fisher are concerned with is the notional future in which we invest as humans, and how this future is at once shaped and undercut by capitalist mythos. What is the point in giving up nutritionally-bereft but pleasurable modes of existence if we are being constantly told – by climate scientists, by austerity governments, by the property sector, and by the job market and our own academic mentors – that there is no future beyond this moment?

All of this is depressing. And yet, the same lines of research which outline the affective mode I seem to have occupied since 2008, and which characterises academic precarity, offer ways of thinking which spark hope. I am surrounded by colleagues whose intelligence and compassion astounds me daily. Moreover, I am surrounded by people whose research and generosity in conducting it is demonstrative of a bright and bloody-minded optimism about our future. Examples in my office are rife: Angeliki Lima’s research on how experiencing education in prison allowed the Irish and Greek incarcerated to imagine new lives; Conor Brennan and Céline Thobois’s work on how literature – contemporary novels and Samuel Beckett’s drama – helps us make sense of climate change; Autumn Brown’s on informal approaches to learning and cross-pollination between the arts and STEM; Maggie Masterson and Eleanor Neil’s analysis of the past – how normative ideas of girlhood are influenced by childhood reading, and how community archaeology might counter imperialist narratives of national identity, respectively.

Mental ill health is a very real threat to these projects and to the worlds that could come into being as a result of them. Mental ill health is, of course, a threat to every life that could be something else. We must remember that there is always an alternative – and we must continue to imagine these alternatives.

Orlaith Darling is a doctoral candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. Her project, funded by the Irish Research Council, asks how contemporary Irish women’s literature engages with or represents neoliberal culture and economics.