The six wide-ranging essays in Holding Patterns by Alasdair Cannon engage with hot-button issues of personal and general contemporary relevance. They were written in a white heat over eight months, COVID months, between September 2020 and May 2021. They are a testament to the creative energy—intellectual, emotional, psychological—that can be released during psychoanalysis and times of isolation. Cannon exercises himself with issues that are of intense concern to him, from ‘RUOK? Day, 2019’, which begins the book, to the final sobering essay on death and mourning and ‘the creative work of loss’. Both are intensely and courageously personal engagements with the topics and both seamlessly contextualise them within quotidian work culture, suggesting strategies for more humane and improved safe work environments. There were good editing decisions in the placement of the essays: these two essays frame the two which are, for me, the meat of the project—‘Love and Meaning (a.k.a. Metroid: Fusion v Molloy)’ and ‘Holding Patterns: or, the Terror of Communication’. The remaining two essays are a scalding review of the ‘Righteous Reborn’—tech evangelists proselytising ‘about the evil technologies they created’ in the documentary The Social Dilemma and a thought-provoking and thoughtful discussion of the Birth-Strikes movement and their ‘catastrophe ethics’ that are ‘ethically catastrophic’.
As I read I took the title literally, and in the spirit of Cannon’s serious playfulness tried to follow his intricate intellectual and affective manoeuvres, to draw diagrams of these holding patterns and his lines of flight out of them. I came up with a series of loop-de-loops of his contradictions, paradoxes and provocations, lines curling back on themselves to become Mobius strips, repeated spiral formations. I ended up with something approximating an Escher drawing or Frank Gehry’s scribble pad (Gehry, by the way, also had a surge of professional and creative energy as a result of his psychoanalysis). It was a schematic representation of a courageous young man rescuing himself from the hermeneutic hell of Meaning addiction which exacerbated his incapacitating anxiety and depression.
Cannon writes that rather than a longed for experience of interpersonal connection, RUOK? Day 2019 felt like a ‘deeply ironic joke, a symbol of hopelessness’. In the essay he revisits his traumatic experiences working for a boss-lady who masquerades as a caring and empathetic leader while narcissistically subjecting her staff to relentless microaggressions and bullying. He describes how, whenever anyone disagreed with her, she’d take to drawing diagrams on a whiteboard which would
translate the argument into a series of mathematical operations, unconventional diagrams and strange tables … Language that first appeared reasonable was transmuted … into its opposite: sense became nonsense … an acute sense of dread would envelope me: lost in the thick of symbols [‘holding patterns’] … we would all fall into silence, speechless and uneasy.
The dangers of this type of silence and speechlessness to mental health are threaded through all the essays as Cannon fires up and reclaims his voice in a ‘multilingual life where I can speak any and all rational, emotional languages’.
Cannon moves through this very personal account of his suffering in this organisation, taking it to where it belongs—the law and the Fair Work Act where workplace abuse is legislated against. After resigning, and before leaving, he filed complaints with the relevant authorities: ‘But all I got was bureaucratic evasion and an excoriating meeting with some spectre from HR’ (Surprise! Surprise! It’s been my experience that that’s what HR’s there for?) Exemplary of his refusal to remain a victim and his survivor-thriver abilities, he uses the parting gift of a gift card to buy the hard drive where he stores these essays.
Forced into therapy by this debilitating experience, my diagrams show Cannon moving sideways into the lucrative payoff of a radical empathetic understanding of his boss-lady’s behaviour—the Narcissistic Victim Syndrome with its silencing echoism—and how the victim of this can so easily become a perpetrator: ‘our empathy demands that we recognise this and accept that the biggest victim may be the abuser herself’.
Then my arrows and loops moved to the ‘emotional damage power entails’ for those in leadership positions who compromise their empathy, for example, Obama and his administration’s disastrous escalation of drone strikes. Cannon mobalises and politicises empathy, radical empathy, not to excuse abuses of power but as a strategic tool that might be brought to bear in negotiations with those in power—‘empathy as a epistemic experience’.
The second essay, ‘Love and Meaning (a.k.a. Metroid: Fusion v Molloy)’, begins with a discussion on psychoanalysis and why he chose to begin analysis. It then moves unexpectedly to his sudden ‘relapse’ away from his addiction to Meaning, meaning anxiety and hermeneutics—from Beckett’s Molly to his old gaming addiction, Metroid: Fusion. ‘I pitted Metroid against Molloy and Metroid won’. When a serious writer friend of mine thumbed through the book I heard a yelp of horror as he read this, and I, myself, never having been a gamer at all, turned my nose up.
Reading on, I realised that with this provocation Cannon, performing the young provocateur, the enfant terrible, cleverly achieved the result he wanted. It energises the following explanation of the psychological trouble in which he found himself. In 2016 he ‘had an encounter with major depression. Suicidal. A combination of sadness and nihilism nearly killed me’. He believed ‘if I solved the problem of meaningless with meaning, I would save myself’. He had, for all intent and purpose, become one of Beckett’s characters. He’d immersed himself in existential philosophers—Sartre, Kierkegaard, Heidegger—and was reading Camus. (Poor guy! They should come with a trigger warning for the depressed and vulnerable.)
The extensive footnotes in this chapter (we’re talking sub-footnotes, sub-sub-footnotes, sub-sub-sub-footnotes!) annoyed me at first, accustomed as I am to the restrained footnoting in academic articles. However, I came to appreciate and enjoy the almost manic experience of reading them. They provide a performative dimension, approximating one of those boozy late-night sessions when everyone’s fighting for floor space. They also most definitely signal that these essays refuse to ape the academic model. They are not mild, cautious, considered in their tone; not obsequiously doffing the hat to some academic superior in the hope of promotion; not trying to wriggle their way into the A-list of the ERA ranking system or genuflecting to some grant’s board.
As I began reading the fourth, eponymous essay, ‘Holding Patterns: or, the Terror of Communication’, and realised it was about 9/11, I sighed, ‘What more can be said about that terrible day?’ Well, a lot, as it happens. Cannon was eight when he saw the planes smash into the towers on TV and felt ‘an obstruction between my child-lungs and child-mouth’. For him it is still so: ‘Violence fills the blue air with strange words: it drives us into a holding pattern of unsuccessful speech, thought and interpretation, into an automatic language that fails the task of signification’. In the essay, he wonders, ‘If we discover the story of our loquacious wordlessness, maybe we can conclude our labours in the language of terror’. The remainder of the essay is his attempt to do this. Footnote 3 knocked the wind out of me. The image Cannon remembers most vividly is a man jumping from the burning tower: ‘And from him, I learned of suicide’.
Teaching creative writing in one of the sandstone universities for eight years, I worked with many a young man (and usually they were males) with similar personalities and issues to those described by Cannon. These young men were often confused about their masculinity and sexuality, ill-at-ease with their physicality and clumsy in their relationships, especially with the women in workshop settings. Having brought up a son myself, I grieved for them. I wish I’d had this book to refer them to. It might have eased their distress and even saved lives.
I will be very interested to see what Cannon turns his talent to next. Maybe a love story—pure affect, relationship, and embodied sexuality. That’s what he seems to be striving towards as he struggles out of masculinist, patriarchal, phallocentrist, bodiless, capitalist patterns.
Despite his striving to escape his addiction to Meaning and Control and move towards affect and relationship, there is still no sense of his physicality; the Body is virtually absent. The one time the body is mentioned is in his footnoted enthusiasm for the avatar Aran in the Metroid: Fusion game. It made me wonder if his adolescent passion for the game hinged on the erotic shock-reveal, right at the end, that Aran was a gorgeous, scantily clad female? Footnote 5, sub-footnote ‘a’ is a long, detailed description of Aran’s hair, clothes, make-up. Cannon might find the work of feminist philosophers emancipatory here—perhaps Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism,or the work of Luce Irigaray and her complex theorisations around Good Old God, that horizon of potentiality created by Man in the male image.
What about stand-up comedy? Coming across the moments of black humour and sly satire in Holding Patterns I could hear the ghost of George Carlin and the eviscerating anger of his faux nihilism. There are also shades of Swift in Cannon’s solutions to the Birth-Strikes movement: ‘have your child and shoot a banker … gun down a fossil fuel executive … kill a politician for each child you have’. There’s a Big Joke lurking like a Big Sneeze just waiting to blow. Set it free!