Negative capability: A form of suspended animation?

My first job was working in a highly-stressful editorial office of a leading English daily, in which we had to produce four editions of the broadsheet in eight hours. With the amount of news pouring in from the various news agencies and from our roving reporters, there was never any time to eat during the night shift. We survived on hourly cups of tea. I worked here for a decade.

When I became Vice President in a multinational, the pressure of never-ending torrents of emails, phones ringing, meetings and more meetings, videoconferences, recruiting, training and mentoring, took me to new heights, where I was able to operate in a highly stressful environment on a daily basis for six years.

Somewhere amidst these frenzied work environments I had begun to develop coping mechanisms, for example taking an evening walk after office to reflect on the day, before reaching home and spending time with the family. While I was going through these motions, I was not aware of the construct of negativity capability, which apparently includes providing space for “reflective inaction”.

The decision-making in a senior position at a multinational can take place on a minute-to-minute basis, and can be perfected to an art based on years of decision making coupled with intuition. But if there was ever a critical report to write, then I would ask for a couple of days to be able to mull over the problem before providing solutions. This stepping back too was a form of negative capability, but again, I had never heard of the term.

When I did hear of this oxymoron from a doctoral scholar, I somehow became quite excited. It was one of those instances in which you are doing something, but someone else rationalizes this, making it more meaningful. Negative capability, first mentioned by John Keats, is said to consist of components ofopen-mindedness and suspension of the ego.

Taking negative capability a step further, I choose to move away from the world of work after a 25-year stint, in order to focus on my doctoral studies. And just how does it feel from being an overflowing vessel to an empty one, which you have to fill again? Or how does it feel to wipe away all that you were doing or experiencing from a slate and try and turn into a tablu rasa, or blank slate, a term coined by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau?

Initially it is unnerving. The world as you knowsit no longer exists as a reality for you. Nomid-managers clamouring for your advice, no preparation required for an international meeting, no hiring to be done, and strangely enough the all-important year-end targets are no longer your concern.

Stepping off the career‘treadmill’ means you end up constantly facing a barrage of questions, including: so which organization have you joined? With these questions, doubts start creeping in. Was this the right thing to do? While small instances of negative capability within a highly structured worklife as operations head is fine, to have a life with seemingly little structure is like being on a small, anchorless boat in the middle of the ocean, moving wherever the tide takes you.

And then almost imperceptibly something happens. The research papers you had been reading become moremeaningful, your own creative juices seemingly become more active, and there is a strange, indescribable feeling of contentment. It’s like the stillness after a storm. Years of meting out instructions, turn into hours of solitude, reflecting and listening to the perspectives of other scholars.

Said Castellano (2010: 33): to be able to allow “everything”, there must first be “nothing.”In a state of negative capability, a kind of suspended animation, there is a peculiar contentment ‘in drifting with the tide’ and in simply ‘being.’

  • Written byPayal kumar

    Payal Kumar has worked in senior managerial positions in the higher education sector and in the corporate sector in India, including as Registrar and Professor at a university in north India, and earlier to this as Vice President Editorial and Production, SAGE India Publications Pvt Ltd. Amongst her scholarly publications, she has published a book on Indian women leadership with Palgrave-Macmillan: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/unveiling-womens-leadership-payal-kumar/?K=9781137547040 She can be contacted at [email protected]


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