on a little assured happiness

I have been writing so rarely here that it feels foreign to face the screen and not know how to begin. It used to be that I’d just open a window to the text editor and type madly—but then I have not felt madly in love, madly in hope, madly in fear, madly in despair in so long, the words don’t tumble out. If what impels my expression is the occasional fit of intense emotion, then the relative dearth of entries here in itself constitutes an annual report on the emotional climate of my inner world.

Not that my world has been as steady as a potted succulent in a spot of sun—quite the contrary. It seems that 2016 has brought nothing but tide after tide of gloom and insanity: surrender and sundering in March, the FC Fire in April, elections in May, the proclamation of a lying, lunatic murderer as president in June, and since then, the steady spate of outrageousness, from the resurgence of a culture of sexism, killing, barbarity, and impunity, to the shit-show carnival that is Philippine politics, to the triumph of Trump, to the Marcos Burial and the series of mass demonstrations, to the end-of-sem rush and customary yuletide shenanigans. The thoughts that preoccupied me last January 2016, engendered by friends’ weddings and the impending arrival of that terrible February day, seem now to belong to another life, seem so paltry in comparison to what beleaguers me now (or so I like to think—get me drunk and I might wail Adele, I’ve even been learning to sing “All I Ask”).

Even so, I have not been depressed this year, have not felt like crying for at least an hour every day for several months, or wrapping my life up and returning it in a box. For that alone I am thankful—goodness knows I’ve spent a great deal of my over two decades of existence dragging myself through the days, wishing I were not. Existing. How strange it is, this lightness of being, how pleasant and unfamiliar in its being long-lived. When people tell me that I am blooming, I do not say that it is probably because I have not been wishing not to wake up in the morning. I say it must be the snail essence and Nivea crème I’ve been slathering on my face in anticipation of the ravages of aging.

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Taken at the Camoes Garden and Grotto, Macau

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Accidental shot, Macau

But today I do not want to talk about anger or sadness or fear, even as such emotions and collective suffering abound, so that it’s difficult to feel like Christmas or greet people (the privileged ones that I personally know, the ones whose neighbors and friends and siblings and sons and husbands aren’t being slain in their homes or in the streets) “Happy holidays!” Today I want to talk about the concept of “a little assured happiness,” which I encountered in one of the papers I read in preparation for the summer school I attended earlier this year.

Last June, I participated in the 2016 Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society (IACSS) Summer School on Aesthetics and Politics, which was held at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Focusing on how thinking about creativity in relation to social movements has mattered to both theory and practice in Asia, we discussed a variety of topics, including identity politics (specifically race, class, and gender and sexuality), democratic and socialist movements, popular culture, committed art, critical pedagogy, student protests, digital activism, rural reformation and alternative modernities, mobility, militarization, and spectacles of violence.

The specter underlying all such discussions, of course, is the governing ideology and governmentality of our times, neoliberalism, and how being a neoliberal subject makes dissent and the organization of and participation in mass movements toward radical social change even more difficult, not only because of social plurality (and diverse and conflicting belongings, values, and identities often amplified by the echo chambers of the virtual world), the fragmentation of the commons (public goods and services, public spaces, common time), and the rise of individualization (cf. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Bauman) as exemplified by William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul”) at the expense of the social (cf. John Donne’s “No man is an island”), but also because of the state of precarity and uncertainty—even fear of the future—that these conditions engender for a lot of people, especially the youth. It is in this context that I encountered the phrase “a little assured happiness,” which has stuck with me.

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A pond in Lingnan U

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View from the student dorm refectory

We were discussing the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which, like the Umbrella Movement for democracy in Hong Kong in the same year, saw the predominant involvement of students and other youth sectors in drawn-out mass demonstrations. In the article “The Future That Belongs to Us: Affective Politics, Neoliberalism, and the Sunflower Movement,” Chih-Ming Wang interpreted youth mobilization “not so much as a form of ideological struggle—between unification [with Beijing] and independence, free market and protectionism, or right and left,” but as a “structure of feeling … an affective response to the uncertainties of the future ushered in by neoliberal globalization.” Wang suggested that it didn’t matter so much whether or not the students understood the issue, or whether they had an ideological stake in the matter (My roommate from Taiwan who joined the movement opposed this interpretation and insisted they knew what was at stake, though!); what was important was that participation in the movement evoked the sense that “our future is in our hands,” which alleviated the feelings of “anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation” that characterize precarious experience. At bottom, what the youth wanted was to feel like they had agency and were legitimate members of society, and to be assured of opportunities by this society to enjoy moments of happiness despite present struggles and an uncertain future.

“A little assured happiness,” then, refers to “the sentiment of wishing to seize and savor the ‘minute things in life,’” or, as Haruki Murakami (qtd. in Wang) put it, “the excitement one feels when he wallows in icy cold beer after a vehement exercise he struggled to finish.” This mundane sentiment bears more significance when placed in the context of contemporary chronic insecurity—including lack of education, regular employment in meaningful work, living wages, decent and affordable housing, freedom from debt, prospects good enough for marriage and raising a family, and so on—which is indicative of “the complete collapse of the social welfare network that used to support individuals through dire times.”

The significance of this concept lies in its tacit, if reluctant, acceptance of the current, seemingly dystopic, world order, as if the structures of our global society were something we could no longer unmake and refashion through collective action, as though we were already hurtling toward inevitable apocalypse, and what matters now is the enjoyment of what we can, while we can. In this context, Zhao Gang (qtd. in Wang) forwards “a little assured happiness” as “the psychic state of a self-protecting and self-comforting subject when it has lost any ideals, dreams, futures, or means of self-overcoming.”

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Taken aboard the 67X bus from Tuen Mun to Mon Kok

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Group 6 in Mon Kok: TaeYoon, Sohnee, Jamesin, Jiabao, Xinxin, me + photo by Jay Lau.

As a concept that smacks of introspection, even self-involvement to the point of moral solitude, the idea of “a little assured happiness” resonates with me, for it has often been the case that my  brooding over the lack of inherent meaning in existence, my skepticism over the possibility of enduring love and joy and my capacity for selflessness and solidarity, and my worries about the future especially in light of escalating political troubles and climate-related doom have overshadowed my appreciation of life and the messiness, but also occasional brilliance, of human society, my participation in the pursuit of something greater than personal development, and my enjoyment of moments of happiness, however fleeting or subsequently exposed to be empty of truth or substance.

While Wang criticizes the concept as a “minutization of dreams,” “small time” resistance that does not pursue “big time” structural transformation, he also recognizes that its “small revolutions” are “no less real,” for as activist Zhou Yicheng (qtd. in Wang) puts it, the pursuit of a little assured happiness “begins with oneself, and though it does not aim at taking over power, it seeks to bring changes to our lifestyle and values … and make the society more capable of facing the challenges of the big time.” In this sense, Wang’s discourse on “a little assured happiness” reinforces the notion that while the future may not be in our hands, while we may not know where ends end or when The End is to come, we can choose to live and process the present as the future moment, and strive to achieve the kind of social and material conditions that would make such a choice possible for all of us—something that is, needless to say, easier said than done, something that in its instance of conception poses the thorny questions of what does happiness mean to me, and how does it relate to other values, such as meaningfulness, justice, moral responsibility? What kind of future should I like to live? What kind of future falls within social good and collective striving, bearing in mind all the conflicts of interest in a plural and hierarchical society?

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At the July 1 protest march for democracy

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At the UNFIL-MIGRANTE-HK anniversary demonstration

My simplistic answer to those questions has long been Buddhism and Communism—the cultivation of a sense of non-attachment to desires and identities that would enable the kind of harmonious living-together that does not center around individual possession, that does not predicate security on ownership but on solidarity, on social belonging, not to a family, a clan, a tribe, a country, but to the cycles of life and death, of which the human race is just one part. But if what is ethical is not just about what is moral and ideal, but what is within the realm of possibility, within reach and strategy, then my answer must be unsatisfactory, abstract and out-of-touch.

This surfaces, again, the importance of building a web of concrete, everyday practices—from morning rituals to the way one prepares meals and keeps house to how one makes a living and spends one’s earnings and free time, to how one relates to others and loves—guided by the ideals one espouses, hoping that the values these practices cultivate, such as determination, discipline, diligence, kindness, empathy, may eventually aid one in participating in bigger movements for social change.

Isn’t this the very essence of making New Year’s resolutions?

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Last evening in Lingnan with Sohnee and James

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Community art in Ping Che Village, under threat of demolition as part of the Northeast Development Project.

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