Rhythms: third movement

Bathing in the cold glow of the planet Melancholia, from the eponymous film.

Second part of investigation into rhythmic understanding of madness and our corporeal bodily existence. Runs a little longer than the usual libcom article.

In the last post, I discussed neurological rhythms and their synchronisation as social rhythms. Both of these rhythms are part of the determination of the existential rhythm of our lives, the lived temporality that is, to a large extent, the plane of our being, and the segmentation of the flesh of all beings. When we’re talking about mental illness, politics and psychiatry we should remember that we privilege the human only insofar as we are concerned with pragmatic fields. In this post I want to talk about circadian rhythms and the other component of nerves- depression. Another aspect of the relationship between biorhythms and social rhythms will be traced. I will also gesture at a concept of capitalist oscillators, mentioned but not followed up in the last post.

For every diagnostic category there are dozens of aetiological theories. The major problem with most is that they tend to emphasise one domain of existence at the expense of all the others, ending up in a reductionism that does more harm than good when taken on its own. By now we know that biochemical theories of depression espoused by the pharmaceutical industry are lies designed to sell pharmacommodities. As a side-effect that policy makers, healthcare managers and other invested parties are happy to exploit, a neuropharmaceutical imaginary has taken hold that reinforces and becomes part of strategies for the responsibilisation of individuals.

Responsibilisation is all the more insidious because it is an operation that divides the social body into its individual organismic parts, thereby also creating the very individual that is supposed to take responsibility. This process is reinforced in the major branches of psychotherapy where one is indebted to one’s own individualistic elaboration. From this perspective therapy and neurology are deployed as functions of capitalist subjugation, decomposition and the introjections of government that are further compounded in the ongoing remodelling of work. In today’s workplace, performance targets are individualised, surveillance is individualised, and wage packets are increasingly individualised: everything is tied to the individual who is responsible for managing whatever other devices they a synced to, and to their own entrepreneurial development as living CVs. But this is no reason to reject neuroscience and pharmacology out of hand, and no reason to flee from biology.

Circadian disrhythmia hypotheses of depression break explain the syncing of biorhythms to capitalist institutional rhythms. Circadian rhythms are those bodily rhythms that are regulated so as to vary throughout the day with a regular periodicity. Many core processes of the biological body are regulated by these rhythms but the most well know are the sleep-wake cycle and those surrounding temperature. Abnormalities, according to medico-normative ranges, in circadian rhythms have been connected with depression for a while now, while disturbances to sleep have been symptoms of dysphoria since before the diagnostic coding device of depression was created.

The circadian rhythms have two components. The endogenous component consists of regulation via an “internal body-clock” that is, in actuality, the suprachiasmatic nuclei [snc] located in the hypothalamus. This area of the brain is also responsible for locomotor activation and selected hormonal secretions. But to say that this form of regulation is “internal” or fully endogenous is misleading as the snc is stimulated via perceptual coupling to the environment following entrainment pathways that proceeding by way of photosensitive ganglion cells in the retina. In other words, there is a complex interplay- mediated by various feedforward and feedback circuits- of the eyes, the perceived object, light waves and the positions of all these in relation to one another and the movement of the perceiving body. This coupling means that there is a circulatory movement toward-into-across-out of the body and the objects of perception. Circadian rhythms as fundamental biorhythms already violate the traditional bounded picture of organisms; they are machinic and not organic. Biorhythms are an evolved biomechanical technology.

That these circulatory rhythms are dependent on photosensitivity clues us in: circadian rhythms operate by orienting the body to light. Ultimately circadian rhythms are part of the solar economy, part of an ecological metabolism that extends beyond planetary closure. The sun is a zeitgeber, the name given to those synchronisation stimuli that help to regulate the snc. In an interview from 2010 Patrick Lemoine notes that:

Since the invention of electricity, humans have probably lost an average of two hours sleep per night. To be more precise, it is generally considered that 1 lost hour of sleep can be attributed to artificial lighting, and an additional hour to television, the internet of other electronic stimuli.

This average must have considerable individual variation. How many night have you sat up online aimlessly scrawling through infoshit or watching repeats of shit TV? I’m writing this after a nightshift, just about to hit 24 hours of wakefulness. Other synchronisation stimuli exist too. Lemoine notes that completely blind people rely on these more than others:

When deprived of sight, humans as social animals call upon donors of social rhythms in order to synchronize themselves with their environment, principally be means of hearing: working or family hours indicated by the alarm clock or time clock, television programs, meals, and group activities at fixed times, or, in other words, anything that “requires” an individual to adopt regular rhythms.

The experience of desynchronised circadian rhythms is familiar to anyone who has ever had jet-lag or has been unemployed for a long period of time or who regularly works nightshifts. In the latter case “shift work maladaptation syndrome” has been linked to all kinds of health conditions, not least among them depression. In a fairly comprehensive review of the evidence up to the point of writing Healey and Waterman put forward what they called a shift work hypothesis of depression that states

The outlines of this would be as follows: depressive disorders are triggered by environmental disruption, that is by altered social routines and, consequently, altered zeitgebers; they involve, at their heart, disturbances that resemble jet lag and shift work, and they respond to the kind of measures that have also proved useful in the management of jet lag and shift work 1.

Anticipating criticism about the lack of cognitive dimensions to this portrait Healy and Waterman remind their readers that not all depression come with hopelessness, guilt, and/or suicidal ideation. They also hypothesise that depressive disorders may begin with these somatic problems before the sufferer goes on to make attributions about herself that would by mantra-like repetition become self-fulfilling prophesies. I’d add that this picture would also sit well with people who develop depressions after long periods of unemployment, underemployment or enduring chronic pain. It has been documented that experiences that get diagnostically coded as depression are often experienced as aches and pains, a general physical lassitude, sluggishness 2. In Japan Western style depression didn't exist until recently. Instead the Japanese codify dysphoric experience in terms of an illness that is exclusively experienced as a bodily disturbance 3.

Depression isn’t just a psychological condition that affects some disembodied mind because no such thing exists. From the point of view of cognitive science we have to consider that “somatisation” may be the primary means of experiencing mental illness. Consider that the loss of social routines and the loss of zeitgebers is a loss of machinic components of the structural coupling that forms part of the ensemble of subjectivation. If I am partly this pragmatically coupled brain-body-world then these losses are losses of my subjectivity. This circadian dysrhythmia is also and immediately a social dysrhythmia that profoundly disrupts the existential rhythm that my experience of myself is identified with. In a later article Healey returns to the question of circadian rhythms to assert that those who are persistently desynchronised from the imposed routines of everyday life are suffering from just such a dysrhythmia4.

On this rhythmatic account of depression it is impossible to reduce down to neurochemical imbalances or individual cognitive pathologies. As the relations that create the world are dissolved all that is left is the psychological- the autoaffectivity of a brain/body ruminating on itself- and the body. It is with a theory like this in mind that I am tempted to suggest that patriarchal capitalism, with its industry of feminine beauty and body modification, creates the perfect conditions in which depression can be fully absorbed by the body in such a way that the body is identified with the depressive experience. Such despair is a focalisation on the body, an attempt to establish the body as a strangely self-sufficient rhythm, which might result in conditions such as anorexia. More speculatively, could these bodily disturbances form the basis of “mood congruent psychoses” in which the body that I am is experienced as auto-alterity: I am not my body/this body is not mine.

It must be admitted that whatever the status of our phenomenal experience it is within its field that mental illness is a problem. Depression and anxiety, pathological poles of enervation, wouldn’t be what they are if the machined production of subjective experience didn’t exist. In his phenomenological work psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs has set down some of the conditions of lived depression: slowness, stiffness, heaviness, thickness of the body . This is enacted in bodily performance where the depressive body is one that moves with difficulty, its gait being one marked by all the features we expect from being weighted down- especially in those severe depressions where the sufferer is unable to lift their head, to get out of bed, to move without exhaustion. In another discussion of depression Fuchs points out that

The corporealization in depression is thus equivalent to a desynchronization, an uncoupling
from common intersubjective time 5 .

Fuchs’s phenomenological research, based on the analysis of reported bodily experiences of people diagnosed as depressed, coincides with the rhythmatic analysis of depression in which the body appears to itself as its own obstacle. The “corporealization” that Fuchs describes is essentially the experience of auto-alterity in the form of experiencing one’s own body as an object that refuses to disappear into the background. The previous rhythm jars. What once could have been called subjective flow becomes leaden and staccato. The bodily rhythms cease their metabolic exchange. They are no longer rhythms at all at this point. One of the best cultural representations of this effect comes in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia when the character of Justine is completely consumed by depression. Her body becomes so heavy that she needs help to be washed, she no longer eats, she can barely get in and out of a taxi. Justine doesn’t respond to others; she is no longer within a shared rhythmicity. In highly stylised sequences that open the film we see her moving through a scene, weighed down by vines that wrap around her waist, arms, and legs. Justine only begins to recover when the planet Melancholia is about the smash into the Earth, fucking everything up. In a sumptuous scene, she lays bathing in its glow on a river bank: soaking in the cold light of her own despair.

Within the society of stimulation workers are expected to work more and more. Workloads increase and wages are depressed so that relative surplus-value can expand. More work is expected to be undertaken without remuneration because today workers are supposed to be personally invested in their work- at least if they work in the so-called knowledge or creative economies. Workers are expected to audit themselves and (informally) their colleagues as well, while also undertaking continual professional development, self-development, self-surveillance, and working both inside and outside the workplace- the workplace essentially becoming a nonlocalised dystopia activated by a series of behaviours. At the same time that work expands, filling more and more of life, work collapses, becoming empty, devoid and threatened. There is only so much of an accelerated rhythm a body can take before it collapses. Hence the phenomena of “mindful employers”: we’ll work you to fuck but before you burn out we’ll send you for meditation, relaxation, a pre-emptive and nonpathological form of depression.

The old Fordist factories and Taylorist management methods were essentially routines imposed on the factory worker in much the same way that the ward routine was imposed on the confined madman. The difference today is that both the worker and the mad are induced to want to live according to alien rhythms as evidence of their value as human capital and moral subject. Which of these latter terms corresponds to which is up to you. The factory and the asylum functioned as capitalist oscillators in much the same way that the snc operates as a neural oscillator. These oscillators, which regulate rhythms, are molecular rhythmic activities in the nervous system of the productive body. Simple cooperation produced oscillatory activity that could be determined either by the rhythm of the capitalist or the rhythm of the assembled workers: rhythms producing rhythms. Oscillations take off when they are able to synchronise with each other locally and regionally.

As I keep saying, the distinction between depression and anxiety is an economic one. The separation of depression and anxiety followed the production of pharmaceuticals that were sold on the basis of being disease-specific; but these illnesses aren’t disease, and the reality is that the creation of depression is the creation of the anti-depressant market. The same is true for anxiety. The great cynical moment of pharmaco-capitalism is that it produces the illnesses and the treatments.

This is what we still lack, what we have been robbed off: the ability to live our own rhythms and to synchronise these autonomous rhythms into coordinated sites of oscillation. For this we require cultures of resistance, groups capable of coming to terms with the neurosocial wounds inflicted by capitalism, capable of weaponising our wounds and turning against capitalism. In the next post I’ll finally approach the idea of autorhythmia.

  • 1. Healy, D. and Waterhouse JM. 1995. The circadian system and the therapeutics of the affective disorders. Pharmacological Therapies. 1995: Vol 65. pp.241-263.
  • 2. There is a wealth of studies into this field that any particular reference is unnecessary. A quick google search for the terms "depression" and "somatisation" will yield a plethora of sources
  • 3. For instance: Waza K. et al. 1999. Comparison of symptoms of depression in Japanese and American depressed primarily care patients. In: Family Practice.1995: 16[5] pp.528-533. Abstract available online
  • 4. Healy, D. 2001. Circadian rhythms, multilevel modes of emotion and bipolar disorder- an initial step towards integration? In: Clinical Psychology Review. 2001: 21[8] pp.1193-1209.
  • 5. Fuchs, T. 2003.The phenomenology of shame, guilt, and the body in dysmorphic body disorder and depression In: Journal of phenomenological psychology. 2003:[33]2. Both papers cited from Fuchs are available online

Posted By

sometimes explode
Sep 8 2014 15:11


  • This is what we still lack, what we have been robbed off: the ability to live our own rhythms and to synchronise these autonomous rhythms into coordinated sites of oscillation.

Attached files


Sep 13 2014 17:03

I saw an idea expressed by John E Sarno that the body tends to exaggerate its chronic aches and pains that have been brought about by stress in order to distract oneself from addressing the offending mental wound because the subconscious has designated that as too dangerous an area of activity. His books are are mainly about healing chronic back pain, but there seems to be some obvious overlap going on. I've little else to offer in response to this as I'm not very familiar with it. A lot of it appears to be spot-on.

Not in agreement
Mar 29 2015 08:27

Removed because you don't listen.

sometimes explode
Aug 4 2015 19:44

Apologies. I try to reply to posts but there isn't (as far as I know) an automated system that prompts me to look for them. I work 4 twelve hour shifts a week and have a small child to look after on top of doing whatever organizing stuff I can spare time for on top of research and writing for understanding the world and other stuff necessary for my job. If I don't reply to a comment it isn't that I'm not listening, I just don't always have the time to prioritize.