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Black Boxes, Double Alienation, & the Formative Loss of Depression
In the published version of this text here I’ve changed the names of the building and removed the name of the institution to draw attention away from the particularities.
Late on a Monday in early August my tutor emailed to let me know that someone had killed themselves on campus. By the next morning, before the day’s lecture, details emerged. It was an XXXX student, but not one of mine; he had jumped from one of the balconies high on Building 111, where our weekly lectures were held; some of the students in my subjects were posting and commenting on it. I knew all this from my office in an adjacent building, as I was procrastinating on preparing that week’s lecture by checking my email. As one among many employees working in that building, who had to give their lecture in that building, which the university had decided to open the day after the suicide, I felt upset. But about what? To the time of writing there has been something about the events of that week that’s stuck to me, above and beyond its inherent grimness and tragedy. Above all, for me, there was the following twofold emotional truth, realisations that stayed with me long after many of my colleagues forgot about it.
The first was a truth about the contemporary university as an institution: that it showed itself incapable of attending the people it has a duty of care toward. The second was that the suicide had triggered me back to situations in my adolescence with depressed and suicidal people I loved. I did not fully, punctually acknowledge these archaic factors in play in how it affected me, and it was only slowly that I was able to see that what was upsetting to me was places in my past where I had some duty of care, and had to keep caring and trying to make a difference, but had no agency or control, no ability to fix things, save anyone, or make any difference. This is how it can be caring for the depressed when they’re suicidal. I call this the formative loss of depression. Aside from the week’s events themselves, it was this formative loss that I re-experienced.
But this only washed over me slowly, in the weeks and months that followed. During that week, it was the university’s incapability of attending to its duty of care which was upsetting for me – alongside the many other employees and students, who, like me, were thrown back into their own or their loved one’s thoughts and attempts of suicide. I also remember feeling pissed off about the university’s treatment of the event, especially that they not only kept the building open, but chose to offer counselling there.
I was pissed off because the university’s failure to show up and face the matter ‘downsourced’ emotional labour to teaching staff: it was myself and my tutors who felt capable of doing so who were left to do the mental health triage in the days immediately after, and the reparative care work for the remainder of the year. This triage was all the more emotionally difficult for me, as it was only week three, so I was addressing a group of upset young people with whom I hadn’t yet built rapport, who I hardly knew, who were effectively strangers, yet to whom I owed a duty of care. I had to keep speaking the event even as the university kept posting – but only posting – that we were not allowed to know who the suicide was: their death was some degraded neoliberal inversion of the Unknown Soldier. So the day after it took place, I was left to address the suicide of an unknown student by facing a lecture theatre of as yet mostly unknown students, in the very building where it happened. Recalling some details in their order of events can, as I now hope to show, restore some personality to the place and people.
The person who killed himself jumped from the balcony in Building 111 on the morning of the Monday, and fell to his death onto the road of Stewart Street, a small one way back street shadowed by residential skyscrapers built for international students, facing a courtyard of some well-liked basketball courts, near the entrance where I and other commuting colleagues and students kept their bicycles. But as mentioned, I didn’t know any of this that Monday, not until a bit later. So that for an employee like myself, engaged in university business face to face and by email, and not on Facebook or Twitter, the university did not punctually inform me. Nobody rang, there was no email on the day; it was my tutor who informed me, because of posts they’d read by students on social media. Looking back at the order of events, there had been a Twitter announcement, timestamped around 1230. And there had been a Facebook post, sometime within the next couple of hours. But there was no University-led announcement or videoed gathering that went out to all staff that day informing them of the event; and there was nothing from my boss or line manager. So there had been acknowledgment, but it had been minimal.
As I came to know by the next day, Twitter and Facebook had absorbed a substantial load of comments, led by upset students and some employees. Reading back on this outpouring, most of the comments were heartfelt, but as always, some of them shaded into impossible requests for clarification about details, ventured commentary critical of the building, the university, and its handling of student welfare; and broader speculations with varying degrees of basis in fact about why it happened, its inevitability, whose fault it was, who was to blame.
Scrolling back over some of the more than thousand comments responding to the initial announcement on the Facebook page, the university did what I would have expected it, given that situation, those platforms, and its institutional style. All of which is to say, it repeated the following refrain:
“Out of respect for the family we are not discussing any specific details and we respectfully request that people please do not speculate”.
In itself this seems an appropriate approach. I could not have been appropriate for XXXX as a communicating entity to go into any level of detail or discussion – on either of those platforms, at that time – about details of the event or person. At the same time, behind this we can note a few quick decisions which ramified in upsetting ways, and surmise a little about what may have driven them. It’s impossible to know what the internal discussions considered, and the reasoning behind the decisions shaping the chosen communication strategy on Monday, if one could call it that. At any rate, looking at some of the comments and recalling email and messaging conversations I was involved in with the students, the university gave the impression it wished to hush and smother the event, to give it as little air as possible – and this could do nothing to ameliorate, and indeed induced a dynamic of escalatory posting.
As already mentioned, there wasn't a punctual email sent to employees. For those of us who had already been teaching on the Monday through to Wednesday, we were left in the dark, on our own, to piece it together and decide whether or not to say anything, and if we were to speak, what to say. Yet as teaching staff, we were dealing with atmospheric-emotional effects of rampant speculation on social media by students in the classroom. This had got going very quickly, continued for days and days, and became heated, a kind of ‘hysteria’, as one student posted. I can’t say with any certainty, and it could have been my own projections, given how I was feeling that week, but it really felt like it had poisoned a percentage of my cohort, and risked wrecking the atmosphere in my course, in the crucial weeks in which this congeals, then sets.
On Tuesday at 12.30, I fronted my lecture. I opened with an announcement to the students, acknowledging that the event had happened in the building. I listened back to my own recording of what I said to the students on that day. Hearing my voice and knowing the meaning of its tone, it's clear to me that I didn't feel good about having to announce it, nor having to be in that place to do so. But I distinctly recall that I felt the weight of having to very personally, and in part that this fell to because the university had not and would not attend and face its employees and students and name what happened where it had. As with the rampant and sometimes very negative and intense posting, this feeling I had is where my subjective feelings mesh with systemic settings, because it’s a foreseeable ramification of the communications approach chosen by the university on the Monday.
When I step back and analyse some deeper and more systemic reasons why I felt the way I did, what confronted me is a double alienation that felt like two black boxes.
The first black box is the incorporated entity called the university, a set of offices and officers who co-ordinated, took a position, and issued the agreed communications in a style that, by design, conveys no upsetting emotion, nothing specific or personal, no details, nothing spontaneous, nothing elaborated – and which, as a consequence, cannot name or give face to the very things in which the suicide of a student from a campus balcony consists, the selfsame things that the students are craving to hear, to express, to have named and addressed.
The second box is composed of that percentage of the student body who were extremely online throughout the week of the event, all those posting and commenting and returning and replying to and building those threads. For it’s also important to remember that there was a percentage of the student body who hadn’t clocked that the event had happened, while many others avoided posting and didn’t involve themselves and their friends in these online spirals. For a lot of my students, and some of my colleagues, this was a non-event, or just a terrible thing that regrettably will happen from time to time in a huge modern institution in a big city where strangers work and study in tall buildings. But for those who were involved – and those are the students for whom the topic of suicide is affecting, involving, investing or gratifying in a range of ways conscious and unconscious ways – participants were involving one another in a lot of negative and upsetting speculation, including posting images and comments that seemed intended to elicit emotional reactions and induce escalation.
Each of these metaphorical black boxes names members of two communities I’m related to, through my vocation as a lecturer, and as an employee of the university.
The first box contains the university and how it expresses itself; the second contains a percentage of the students and how it expresses itself. Together, the events of that week showed me is that one community is incapable of showing love and care, while the other has no proper form or place to spontaneously share its disaffection. They are divided communities who will not speak directly to one another, who never pick up the phone and call one another, who do not meet in person, do not gather to discuss what happened and share their rage and hope and offer one another meaningful and binding support. Yet both communities see fit to use Facebook and Twitter to mediate their responses to the event: the university ‘meets’ its students by posting that it has nothing further to say and that any details and speculation are improper, ‘out of respect’, and the students ‘meet’ the university by posting everything they are thinking and feeling, regardless of whether its interlocutors can address this or whether it’s appropriate they should or that this should be said there. In fact, the norm actually practised here, shared by both the black boxes, is that Twitter and Facebook have come to be the only public spaces where it is appropriate to announce such events and share the feelings they provoke. Nobody graffitied or occupied the building itself, which was shut only for that day until 1730. No place, no name, no person; not the building itself. Later that week, I was happy to see that there were small bunches of flowers left near the door, out of the wind, near the spot.
There is something about Building 111 itself that plays a part in this, as a kind of third black box: the number that is its name, the fact that it's a dark grey inside and out and is full of angular corners, a steel and concrete ziggurat of escalators and floors leading to strange dark dead ends and odd-shaped rooms. It's not a warm, collegial place, it's a counterintuitive set of points of ingress and egress where you go and dwell only to do what you need to. It's never a space that anybody would want to inhabit, nothing snug, only a few arid corners to snuggle in. This is not tantamount to saying that it's a building that makes you want to kill yourself. But there's something about that building; there's nothing about Building 111 which will save your life. That seems diffusely important somehow. It’s not to say, either, that Building 111 could or should have ‘taken care of’ the student who killed themselves; but certainly it did not. This is a building that is incapable of producing affection for it, or creating identification and making places for students to be and dwell and return to.
So the two metaphorical black boxes of the university and the students, they are coming together over an event that took place in a literal, physical, material big black box, to discuss the suicide of a person that, to most involved in the discussion, is a stranger, not their son or friend or student, probably not someone who they would have care to know or befriend, some other student moving through the crowded corridors like everyone else, anyone and no one. In this case, nobody was there at that moment to be able to take care of that person in a way that saved their life in the moment. This is always in every formative loss, and the fact that individuals still possess agency and will and can be completely set on their path, however destructive it is. You can’t really save people, you must try to save the ones you love, but there’s no guarantee you can.
The next event happened on Wednesday, in the same building. At the time, and for days, it was rumoured to be a second suicide, a copycat suicide. This elicited a second perfunctory statement which was met with a second wave of emotional outpouring. Until I went back to recover and re-order some of the details from that week, I was still under the impression that it may have been a person known to the first student who jumped – for this was another of the rumours circulating that week. As it happens, by that Wednesday, the university had finally put together a full statement, including updates on the second event. But by then, who cares: it didn’t matter, and I suspect very few people, certainly not me and I would guess a vanishingly small number of my students, read or cared to read what the university had finally come out and posted on a page of its own website.
Can we imagine a different response? Even from the neoliberal managerial university? What might have happened had the Vice Chancellor fronted and faced the event punctually with a video of a minute or two? What if senior members of the executive had stayed in building 111 that week, and fronted, for example, my lecture, so that I was met with leadership and not left to acknowledge the event alone as a unguided individual choice? One need not even imagine the wording of this hypothetical fronting, for by Wednesday 8th the VC had issued a more detailed statement, signed off with their first name. Again, at the time I didn’t register it, and only found it recently going back through my inbox. The document is a PDF ‘for internal use’ attached to an email informing employees about the statement and giving points of contact for counselling. The VC’s message is buried, right down on the bottom of the second page. Its 241 words may convey sincere wishes and feelings. But, like the initial posts on Twitter and Facebook, and like the official refrain, it is of a kind: it is faceless, placeless and abstract, and could have been written anywhere by anyone about anyone. There is nothing of the place nor the person, and nothing of their voice or face.
Yet what if this message had been said aloud, what if they had fronted a camera? This could have been something, at least. In the absence of this something – which might just have been symbolic, a placeholder – of course rumours and bad posting continued for days. The university acknowledges the ubiquity of Twitter and Facebook as the only shared public spaces left in our institutions by making the Monday announcements there and only there, yet with the same tacit acknowledgment, the same university (who every year encourages its staff to produce short videos for students) refuses give face and voice to the event. The students were left to deal with their feelings together online, without leadership, elders, rituals, observed boundaries and norms; teaching staff were left to decide how their own conscience and resources told them led them to approach it.
A second counterfactual to address the place where he fell and the building from which he leapt: what if there had been a period of mourning? What if the university shut the building for a week, ‘out of respect’? What if a space had been a made for people to offer vigils, in the building, out of the wind and rain where they had been placed? What if candles had run up the staircases at all major entrance points? My feeling is that the University kept the event below the threshold of this kind of public mourning, which does pour out when events reach a groundswell. So the students kept posting, and the building was kept functioning, with that percentage of students who were concerned left work act out their thoughts and feelings with one another online, or make the individual choice to dial the number for counselling.
It didn’t fully occur to me until returning to write this reflection the obvious reason for the avoidance of anything like a videoed presser, a week’s closure, or a vigil: Building 111 was one of the key buildings hosting that year’s Open Day, which took place that Sunday. The approaching Open Day has to have factored in to the response to the suicide somehow, for it has become an annual juggernaut looming over the thoughts of every neoliberal university’s leadership team. We could even say that contemporary university executives tend to be people who obsess about Open Day as much as they avoid drawing attention to student suicides, and for exactly the same reasons: both affect the brand, the optics, and risk huge investments in buildings and marketing. As Open Day is about selling an as-yet-unpersuaded group of VCE students, and their anxious and uncertain parents, on the idea of XXXX, while their preferences are still undecided, the very last tagline the XXXX brand team chooses is that ‘students choose to kill themselves in our buildings’. Thus, the actuality of what happened that week is in defiance of everything the university’s most senior and well paid people wish to proclaim about itself, and every aspect of the fantasy they spend millions of dollars a year trying to get students to invest in.
This set of signifiers and the signs they give and give off all come together in the visual marketing campaign of that year, with an aptness I would struggle to invent. The campaign of that year plays with empowerment and exploration, through scale. In the posters, which appeared as billboards and online, giant students stride smiling through campuses. In each case, the Lilliputian campuses are mere sets of buildings – emptied of antlike people – architectural background for an exploratory walk of the enlarged self alone at the centre of the picture, walking confidently toward the camera. The campaign’s tagline, ‘see beyond and explore your future’, primes prospective clients to invest in the fantasy of XXXX as a place where their enlargement is central and enrolment leads to stupendous growth, giving them a towering new perspective on their living environment and personal horizons, by lifting the vision of their aspiration beyond the top of its tallest buildings. But the students are not Gulliver here, for there are no Lilliputians; nor are they Godzilla, because the city is not at risk of being destroyed. There is only the aggrandised self as the huge protagonist of a story about the exploration of empty buildings.
On that Sunday I left a catch up at a friend’s place to catch the train into the city to do a stint of work at Open Day, with my eldest son. On the way in, I passed one of the campus’ billboard, which featured a smiling girl in a full brim hat, Harry Potter glasses, a blue polka dot shirt, red skirt, and eight up leather boots. It had just rained, a freezing flash storm, and we were wet when we arrived.
The reality of Open Day has almost nothing to do with the images used to promote it: it’s crowded full of very confused or Bolshie students and anxious, solicitous parents: no one knows where they are, where to go, or what to ask, and because of the rain, everyone smelled like wet hair and clothes in the close indoor spaces. Most of the work teaching staff do is little different to the low-level retail peddling I had done when I was an undergraduate. The actual job is about selling people onto XXXX in the way you sell them a pair of shoes.
Our booths were set up, in Building 111. I introduced myself to one of the student volunteers, and when they said they knew who I was because their friends were taking my course, I asked them what they thought of it: ‘they hate it’, they said, looking at me flatly. ‘They think it’s the worst course in the whole program’. The student mascot’s comment made my heart palpitate, and put me in an adrenal cold sweat. It hurt me. ‘That’s an incredibly rude thing to say to a person who puts their heart and soul into their courses,’ I think I replied, ‘but thank you for being so candid’. Yet without skipping a beat, I was responding to some prospective students approaching. All I remember of the remainder of that shift was that two of the students I had contact with told me ‘I’m thinking either criminology, or remedial massage’. I urged them to consider remedial massage, and kept responding to whoever came in, telling some story about our courses that no one would remember, handing them glossy brochures none of them would read. When the crowds and the questions subsided, I waited, then said my goodbyes to my colleagues, and walked out of Building 111 with my son.