This is an extract from The Neurotic Turn, a new anthology of writing around neuroses edited by Charles Johns, which is out now. In it, Graham Harman considers the relationship between Deleuze, Freud, and Object-Oriented Ontology.
Freud’s Wolf-Man in an Object-Oriented Light
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari are often very hard on Sigmund Freud, who would rank as one of the greatest prose writers of the twentieth century even if every scrap of his psychoanalysis turned out to be false. An exemplary case is the second chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, a dozen or so pages of writing entitled “One or Several Wolves?” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). As their title suggests, the famously irreverent duo of French philosophers is concerned primarily with Freud’s case study of the “Wolf-Man”, later revealed to be a wealthy aristocrat named Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff. This young Russian underwent psychoanalysis with Freud and then his followers for many years, though the chief period of analysis covered in Freud’s case study runs from 1910-1914. Deleuze and Guattari are certainly not alone in criticizing Freud’s interpretation of the case; his critics include other psychoanalysts as well as Pankejeff himself. In what follows I am concerned only with Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Freud’s study, rather than with the broader accusations that Freud misdiagnosed his patient or abused his power with psychological bullying. Yet we will have to include something that Deleuze and Guattari strangely leave unmentioned: the fact that Pankajeff came to Freud because he was suffering from debilitating psychological problems.
Such is Freud’s continuing status in our culture, despite widespread dismissals of his work as unscientific, anti-woman and anti-gay, that his conclusions regarding Pankejeff are known even by many who have not actually read the study in question. As a young child Pankejeff once dreamed of “six or seven” white wolves sitting in a tree staring at him. Terrified by the dream, he woke up screaming. So vivid was the dream imagery that he refused at first to believe it was not reality, and it took his nurse a long time to calm him down so that he could fall asleep again. This experience gave rise to a lifelong neurosis on Pankejeff’s part. Freud interprets the dream in accordance with his usual methods, and concludes — via numerous steps — that it reflects Pankejeff’s horror at accidentally seeing his parents copulate in rear-entry fashion. Later, Freud also considers the possibility that Pankejeff may have seen a case of animal copulation instead. In any event, the supposed copulation scene is merely the centrepiece of a longer interpretation by Freud that involves several other important factors: the prematurely naughty activities of Pankejeff’s sister (who would later commit suicide), a folk tale told by his grandfather, and Pankejeff’s relations with a number of household servants. This interpretation has been mocked by a number of authors, and was rejected as false by Pankejeff himself. It does not follow that we need to participate in such mockery and rejection. Rather than reconstruct the whole of Freud’s interpretation of the case, I will proceed as follows. First, I will summarize the chief objections to Freud’s interpretation made by Deleuze and Guattari. Second, I will cover an important essay by Freud that explains the groundwork for distinguishing between the unconscious and conscious mind and in the process gives a clear theory of repression, neurosis and psychosis. Third and finally, I will reflect briefly on the connections between Freudian psychoanalysis and object-oriented ontology (OOO), a position I have done a great deal to develop in the past two decades. One section is devoted to each topic.
Deleuze and Guattari contra Freud
Deleuze and Guattari consistently take Freud’s “Oedipus” theory of neurosis to be a strategic enemy, given their professed admiration of schizophrenia and their radical ontology of multiplicities, becoming, assemblages, and lines of flight, which they regard as vividly embodied in schizophrenic experience. This ontology has enjoyed especially widespread influence since the mid-1990s, by which time Deleuze (d. 1995) and Guattari (d. 1992) were both freshly deceased. Though “One or Several Wolves?” contains a number of positive philosophical claims, these take the form of a chapter-length polemic against Freud. From this unforgiving critique I have chosen a number of passages of unusual interest, and have been able with only slight arbitrariness to group them into four basic classes:
- Freud is too quick to pass beyond the immediacy of any phenomenon and turn it into something else. Here Deleuze and Guattari join in the frequent “common sense” astonishment at Freud’s interpretations often found among those not directly familiar with his work. How can a dream of wolves in a tree mean that the Wolf-Man was traumatized by seeing his parents having sex? It sounds so implausible.
- Freud always turns multiplicities into unities. This is connected with a more explicitly philosophical point, which is Deleuze and Guattari’s suspicion of the philosophical tradition for its tendency to reduce the many to the one, even as they claim to be beyond any such classical opposition between the one and the many.
- Freud makes an incorrect distinction between neurosis and psychosis, thereby belittling psychotics and failing to recognize that what he treats as psychosis is actually a more primary mode of experience, even among those who would be described as “normal,” “neurotic,” or “hysterical” rather than psychotic.
- Freud completely misses a number of important ideas developed in the work of Deleuze and Guattari themselves: becoming, intensity, multiplicity, deterritorialization, social machines, and the body without organs. Let’s look at some of the relevant passages under each of these headings.
The basic principle of psychoanalysis is that wishes are often censored or repressed as incompatible with respectable civilized life. This leads accordingly to such phenomena as dreams, parapraxes (such as slips of the tongue or losing various objects), neurosis, hysteria, and the sublimation found in such cultural phenomena as religion and myth. The goal of the analyst is to uncover the deeper meaning hidden behind the surface or latent content of the individual and collective psyches, which is why psychoanalysis was referred to by Jung’s mentor Bleuler as “depth-psychology”. As a rule, Deleuze and Guattari object to the speed with which Freud replaces surface-meanings with hidden ones. For instance: “That day, the Wolf-Man rose from the couch particularly tired […] He knew that Freud knew nothing about wolves, or anuses for that matter. The only thing Freud understood was what a dog is, and a dog’s tail” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 26). The reference here is to Freud’s claim that castration anxiety played a key role in the Wolf-Man’s mental illness, with the tails of the wolves in the dream serving as phallic symbols, as barricades against castration. Another example: “in the Wolf-Man’s case the story about wolves is followed by one about wasps and butterflies, we go from wolves to wasps” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31). Here Deleuze and Guattari are incredulous that Freud would lump together such different entities as wolves, wasps, and butterflies as symptoms of the same underlying problem. Freud links the Wolf-Man’s terror at the dream of the wolves and the later flapping of a butterfly with his mention during analysis of an Espe, an incorrect version of the German Wespe (wasp). There is also the noteworthy fact that Espe sounds very similar to the German pronunciation of S.P., the initials of his real name: Sergei Pankajeff. Another example: “Freud sees [everything] only as Oedipal substitutes, regressions, and derivatives. Freud sees nothing and understands nothing. He has no idea what a libidinal assemblage is, with all the machineries it brings into play, all the multiple loves” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 37). Here again, Deleuze and Guattari object to the fact that Freud transforms all the various interests of the Wolf-Man into a fairly repetitive expression of a complex family romance: Pankejeff’s unconscious erotic interest at various times in his mother, father, sister, and beloved nurse. Let’s give a final example:
Talk as he might about wolves, howl as he might like a wolf, Freud does not even listen; he glances at his dog and answers, ‘It’s Daddy’ […] The Wolf-Man keeps howling: Six wolves! Seven wolves! Freud says, How’s that? Goats, you say? How interesting. Take away the goats and all you have left is a wolf, so it’s your father… (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 38)
Deleuze and Guattari reject the manner in which Freud weaves a fairy tale about goats into his interpretation of the dream, while ignoring the Wolf-Man’s own literal words about wolves.
Second, we have Deleuze and Guattari’s related concern about how Freud unjustifiably turns the many into one as he pleases. Here is one example:
No sooner does Freud discover the greatest art of the unconscious, [the] art of molecular multiplicities, than we find him tirelessly at work bringing back molar unities, reverting to his familiar themes of the father, the penis, the vagina, Castration with a Capital C […] (On the verge of discovering a rhizome, Freud always returns to mere roots.) (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)
The art of molecular multiplicities refers to the capacity of psychotics for the multiplication of symbols beyond anything known to the neurotic, who can easily take a sock as a substitute for a vagina, but unlike the psychotic cannot treat the many pores in the skin as a field of many vaginas. Deleuze and Guattari also speak in this connection of the surrealist painter and sometimes Freud-admirer Salvador Dali, who
may go on at length about THE rhinoceros horn; he has not for all of that left neurosis behind. But when he starts comparing goosebumps to a field of rhinoceros horns, we get the feeling that the atmosphere has changed and we are now in the presence of madness […] the little bumps ‘become’ horns, and the horns, little penises. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)
As for the rhizome, this is Deleuze and Guattari’s way of referring to horizontal connections between multiple things in the manner of mushrooms rather than the root/trunk structure of trees, the favoured metaphor of all the various theories of foundation and origin that they despise. They also reject Freud’s treatment of language:
names are taken in their extensive usage [by Freud], in other words, function as common nouns ensuring the unification of an aggregate they subsume. The proper name can be nothing more than an extreme case of the common noun, containing its already domesticated multiplicity within itself… (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27)
Against such “domestication”, Deleuze and Guattari insist that the proper name is an intensity added to whatever multiplicity it covers, rather than a unifying term that embraces them. There are other cases where they think Freud is too quick to unify things: “During the first episode [of the Wolf-Man], which Freud declares neurotic, he recounted a dream he had about six or seven wolves in a tree, and drew five. Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in packs? Only Freud. Every child knows it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28). Here Deleuze and Guattari seem to take the position that multiplicity is simply multiplicity, with the exact number of wolves being of no importance, whereas Freud insists that every detail in a dream must be accounted for, especially when some of these details contain contradictions. And finally:
The wolves will have to be purged of their multiplicity. This operation is accomplished by associating the dream with the tale, ‘The Wolf and the Seven Kid-Goats’ (only six of which get eaten). We witness Freud’s reductive glee; we literally see multiplicity leave the wolves to take the shape of goats that have absolutely nothing to do with the [Wolf-Man’s dream] story […] Who is Freud trying to fool? (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28)
This passage is especially striking for its lack of fairness. The fair-minded reader will find no “glee” in Freud’s account of this point, which is recounted in all possible sobriety and slowness; this word is simply a typical polemical device of imputing disreputable emotions to one’s opponent. As for the story of the goats, it is by no means true that it has “nothing to do” with the Wolf-Man, since he is familiar with this story and mentions it at a key point in his analysis.
We have now covered the first two classes of critiques of Freud in “One or Several Wolves?”, which share the common point that Deleuze and Guattari object to Freud failing to take images at their face value, subjecting them to analysis in terms of displacement and condensation: the bread and butter of psychoanalytic interpretation. Despite this, the authors also claim to avoid any traditional opposition between the one and the many:
There is no question […] of establishing a dualist opposition between the two types of multiplicities, molecular machines and molar machines, that would be no better than the dualism between the One and the multiple. There are only multiplicities of multiplicities forming a single assemblage, operating in the same assemblage: packs in masses and masses in packs. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 34)
And what is the positive difference between a pack and a mass? “The leader of the pack or the band plays move by move, must wager everything every hand, whereas the group or mass leader consolidates or capitalizes on past gains” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 33).
The third category of complaints is related to Deleuze and Guattari’s objection to Freud’s account of the difference between neurosis and psychosis. Much of this comes from Guattari’s career-long work with psychotics, who he appreciates on their own terms and does not wish to see personally or intellectually deprecated:
Freud says that hysterics or obsessives are people capable of making a global comparison between a sock and a vagina, a scar and a castration, etc. […] Yet it would never occur to a neurotic to grasp the skin as a multiplicity of pores, little spots, little scars or black holes, or to grasp the sock erotically as a multiplicity of stitches. The psychotic can […] Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19)
The implication seems to be that there is a superior imagination, liberation, and even ontological correctness in seeing the world in a manner that Freud regards as psychotic. A further tribute to schizophrenia soon appears:
Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. He was myopic and hard of hearing; he mistook crowds for a single person. Schizos, on the other hand, have sharp eyes and ears. They don’t mistake the buzz and shove of the crowd for daddy’s voice. (Deleue and Guattari 1987: 29-30)
Though it is not strictly true that Freud is unaware of multiple currents at work in the unconscious, Deleuze and Guattari’s real claim is that Freud subjects this unconscious to a small number of oedipalizing forces, thereby domesticating their pure multiplicity. Their contempt for such procedures is clear: “People say, After all, schizophrenics have a mother and a father, don’t they? Sorry, no, none as such. They only have a desert with tribes inhabiting it, a full body clinging with multiplicities” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30).
The fourth category of criticisms of Freud contains those which serve as launching pads into Deleuze and Guattari’s own philosophy, about which I will have less to say in this essay. But it is worth including a sample of them for the light they shed on why the two French thinkers react so badly to the supposed deficiencies of Freud. One reason that Deleuze and Guattari want to preserve the immediacy of the wolves against Freud’s symbolic transformations is their interest in becoming: “Freud obviously knows nothing about the fascination exerted by wolves and the meaning of their silent call, the call to become-wolf” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 28). It is obviously a different becoming if we feel called to become wasp or to become butterfly, and hence it is easy to see why Deleuze and Guattari want to preserve the specificity of each of these creatures against Freud’s attempt to put them all under the same yoke. They continue on a related theme:
This brings us to [another] factor, the nature of these multiplicities and their elements. RHIZOME. One of the essential characteristsics of the dream of multiplicity is that each element ceaselessly varies and alters its distance in relation to the others. On the Wolf-Man’s nose, the elements, determined as pores of little skin, little scars in the pores, little ruts in the scar tissue, ceaselessly dance, grow, and diminish. These variable distances are not extensive qualities divisible by each other; rather, each is indivisible or “relatively indivisible,” in other words, they are not divisible below or above a certain threshold, they cannot increase or decrease without their elements changing in nature. A swarm of bees: here they come as a rumble of soccer players in striped jerseys, or a band of Tuareg. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30-31)
Presumably the Wolf-Man’s gray zone of indifference between five and seven wolves is taken by Deleuze and Guattari to have the same intensity at all points, with the wolves not changing in nature, and this is why the exact number is said not to matter as much as Freud thinks. A multiplicity is a multiplicity. Along with the networking rhizome, we have that other classic Deleuzo-Guattarian concept, the body without organs:
something plays the role of the full body — the body without organs […] In the Wolf-Man’s dream it is the denuded tree upon which the wolves are perched […] A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30)
The body without organs is a term for the resistance of multiplicities to being over-organized, “all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 30). What arises amidst such a body without falling back into it can be called its intensity, for “the Wolf is the pack […] the multiplicity instantaneously apprehended as such insofar as it approaches or moves away from zero, each distance being nondecomposable. Zero is the body without organs of the Wolf-Man” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31). This brings us to yet another classic term of these two authors, deterritorialization. In their own words:
Lines of flight or of deterritorialization, becoming-wolf, becoming-inhuman, deterritorialized intensities: that is what multiplicity is. To become wolf or to become hole is to deterritorialize oneself following distinct but entangled lines. A hole is more negative than a wolf. Castration, lack, substitution: a tale told by an overconscious idiot who has no understanding of multiplicities as formations of the unconscious. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 32)
The critique of the “idiot” Freud becomes more concrete when Deleuze and Guattari criticize his inability to handle the social aspects of the Wolf-Man’s dreams, as in his
second dream during his so-called psychotic episode […] Even [the psychoanalyst] Brunswick can’t go wrong […] this time the wolves are Bolsheviks, the revolutionary mass that had emptied the dresser and confiscated the Wolf-Man’s fortune. The wolves, in a metastable state, have gone over to a large-scale social machine. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 35)
Yet psychoanalysis supposedly misses all of this, since for Freud “it all leads back to daddy” though the Wolf-Man’s father was “one of the leaders of the liberal party in Russia”, entangling the supposedly oedipal father in a wider net of social machinery. Exasperated, Deleuze and Guattari conclude sarcastically that after reading Freud, “you’d think that the investments and counterinvestments of the libido had nothing to do with mass disturbances, pack movements, collective signs, and particles of desire” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 35). Having been steeped in so many accusations against Freud, we might forget how powerful an experience it is to read him. In the next section I will make a defence of Freud’s procedures, and in the last and final section will ask how OOO might relate to Freud’s claims.
The Freudian Side of the Story
My first direct encounter with Freud’s writings came in an undergraduate seminar on The Interpretation of Dreams (2015), which must have taken place during my senior year in 1989-90. A few days after I had done the assigned reading, an intelligent classmate named Jason happened to enter my place of part-time employment, and asked what I had thought of it. When I responded positively, he reacted with assertive dismay: “What?! I thought you were a Heideggerian! What does it mean to say that a dream is a wish-fulfillment?” In those days, I was not much of a talker or arguer, and was unsure what to say in response. This scene has occasionally returned to my mind over the ensuing quarter-century, and I am still not entirely sure what Jason meant by his critique. But his reference to Heidegger shows that his criticism of Freud would not have been that of Deleuze and Guattari, who were to some extent fringe figures in the America of 1990, and who Jason had surely not yet read even if he had heard of them. The French authors are bothered primarily by Freud’s appeal to a depth behind any surface-appearance, or beyond “immanence” as Deleuze and Guattari would say. While the man-on-the-street’s vulgar critique says that “Freud reduces everything to sex”, Deleuze and Guattari clearly have no problem with sex per se, as witnessed by their celebrations of desire and their frequently brazen discussions of genitalia. Instead, they are bothered by Freud’s appeal to the Oedipus Complex as the concealed hidden meaning behind everything that should be treated as immanent: “Oedipus, nothing but Oedipus, because it hears nothing and listens to nobody. It flattens everything, masses and packs, molecular and molar machines” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 34).
If Heidegger were to criticize Freud, it certainly would not have anything to do with the depth part of depth-psychology. Heidegger is one of the most prominent philosophers of concealment in the history of the West, and while doubts have often been sown about whether Heideggerian concealment has anything to do with the psychoanalytic sort, we will see that Freud makes an explicit comparison between his own concept of the unconscious and Kant’s notion of the unattainable thing-in-itself. Heidegger’s objection to Freud would lie along a different path. Heidegger is concerned primarily with one relation, and only one: the relation between the always concealed Being and the multitude of visible beings that we encounter either as present-at-hand in consciousness or in the readiness-to-hand of reliable equipment taken for granted until it fails. Any discussion of the transformations between one individual being and another could not be of much interest to Heidegger, who would dismiss such considerations as “ontic” (pertaining to accessible individual beings) rather than “ontological” (pertaining to Being itself). But although Freud will compare the unconscious to the Kantian in-itself, much of his work consists in discovering the displacements and condensations at work in dreams as in everyday life. You may harbour a strong desire for your best friend’s wife Jennifer, but to admit this to oneself, even to dream about it at night, would be unacceptable to the inner censor who helps by transforming it into some other image. Perhaps you dream of sex with another woman named Jennifer for whom you feel no desire at all. Maybe you dream instead of being given flowers by Queen Guinevere from Arthurian legend, whose name is quite close to Jennifer’s. Maybe Jennifer attacks you with a sword in your dream, giving you a good alibi against guilt. Perhaps the dream is of seeing a woman’s wedding ring on a table in your friend’s house, as you place a rigid finger through the centre of it as your friend assures you that it’s a good fit, thereby assuaging your repressed torment. (Though this one might be interpreted, instead, as the homosexual wish to marry one’s friend and enjoy Jennifer’s own passive pleasures.) Or maybe your wish is so forbidden, so laden with regret, that your dream consists of watching through a window as some unknown aggressive man with a sword attacks Jennifer’s sister or friend. This is displacement. Condensation occurs when many things become one. Perhaps you fear your upcoming doctoral defence, and in your dream the thesis committee members take the form of a single incoherently speaking worm crushed beneath your foot. Perhaps you even scream after killing it, as an alibi for your guilt at slaying three professors for your own convenience.
None of this would happen in your dreams if not for the conflict between our often licentious or murderous unconscious impulses and our ego’s conscious need to see ourselves as reliable social beings who would never betray friends or colleagues in such a manner. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1990a), Freud explains how similar things can happen with slips of the tongue, and in Totem and Taboo (1990b) he traces religious ceremonies such as the Eucharist, and myths such as the triumph of Zeus in Greek mythology, to a shared primeval guilt among brothers for slaying the father and eating his body. Most important of all is the myth of Oedipus, the centre of Freud’s work, in which Oedipus kills his father on the road and then marries his mother, without knowing they were his father or mother. Rather than seeing this as just another horrible event on a par with those found in any other tragedy, Freud makes a claim that establishes him as one of the great anti-formalist literary critics. Namely, he insists that the special power of Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex is rooted in a shared incestuous desire confronted by children, who all wish to kill the parent of the same sex and thus have the opposite-sex parent for themselves. Civilization requires, of course, that we swiftly overcome such wishes. And though nearly all humans manage to avoid this childish amalgam of parricide and incest, the cost of forbidding ourselves such instinctual pleasures requires some combination of sublimating our desires and forming neurotic or hysterical symptoms. It is these symptoms that psychoanalysis aims to identify and, God willing, treat. Whether or not Freud succeeds in his various diagnoses and treatments has always been a controversial topic, but this does not require that we dismiss the erotic displacements of civilization and neurosis as inherently far-fetched.
As already mentioned, the most striking omission from Deleuze and Guattari’s account is their failure to mention the Wolf-Man’s obvious psychological problems. For example, he is unable to defecate for long periods of time, and can do so at last only by means of an enema. We learn that his love life is characterized by sudden but short-lasting obsessions, usually with servant girls. Deleuze and Guattari try to portray Freud as a bourgeois snob by referring in scare quotes to “people of inferior station” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19), missing the obvious fact that for a Russian aristocrat of the pre-WWI era, any romance with a servant girl would surely be a social deadend. Perhaps even worse is this bit from the French authors:
A dentist told the Wolf-Man that he ‘would soon lose all his teeth because of the violence of his bite’ — and that his gums were pocked with pustules and little holes. Jaw as high intensity, teeth as low intensity, and pustular gums as approach to zero. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 31-32)
However original or inspiring it may be to view one’s jaws, teeth, and gums in terms of “intensities”, this sounds like a bona fide dental emergency, and Deleuze and Guattari are not up to the task of even recognizing it, let alone helping with it. It is one thing to draw philosophical conclusions from a study of schizophrenics, but quite another to argue for turning Western medicine into a celebration-without-cure of rhizomes, lines of flight, and the body without organs. Nowhere in their objections to Freud do Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge that little Sergei woke up screaming in terror from his dream of the wolves, that he changed afterward from a docile boy into a furious troublemaker, that his sister was later able to horrify him at will with an illustration of a wolf standing erect, that he chased a large butterfly but screamed in terror after seeing it land and flap its wings, that he began to soil his bedding regularly, or even that he voluntarily sought out Freud’s treatment. Only with this complete bracketing of the medical aspect of Pankajeff’s case does it become plausible to view the wolves, wasps, and butterflies simply as poetic calls to become-wolf, become-wasp, become-butterfly.
The dream of the wolves causes obvious problems for young Sergei, and on this basis it seems fair to investigate its meaning. Even if the appearance of wolves rather than foxes or tigers came from some special and innocent passion of Sergei for wolves instead of other animals, Freud would be justified in asking Sergei why it was wolves and attempting, through free-association, to learn what topics in his unconscious are the mental neighbours to these wolves. And Freud would be even more justified in wondering why the wolves in this particular dream inspired such significant terror, more or less ruining Pankajeff’s childhood. Nor does it seem right to object to Freud’s wondering about the vagueness of “six or seven” wolves, coupled with the fact that Pankajeff’s drawing of the dream only shows five of them. Finally, on what basis can we condemn Freud for investigating other appearances of wolves in his childhood, especially in the printed stories and oral folk tales that were available to the child? Psychoanalysis holds that there are no irrelevant details in memories or dreams, and while this is as open to question as any other hypothesis, it does not seem ridiculous a priori. There is also the force of Freud’s own intellect, so immediately evident to anyone who gives him an unprejudiced reading. The writings of this “idiot” who “understands nothing” carry sincerity and conviction in a way not always true of Deleuze and Guattari’s otherwise amusing strings of jokes and swear words.
The two French authors seem especially miffed (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 27) by Freud’s essay “The Unconscious” (1957), where the report of the pores on the Wolf-Man’s nose appears. Here Freud gives an ambitious account of the relation between the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious mind. It should be noted that the unconscious is a psychological concept rather than a philosophical one. Much of the evidence for it comes from clinical experience, and is thus beyond the realm of strictly philosophical critique. No philosopher could or would have deduced the existence of the unconscious in its Freudian form, any more than they could or would have deduced the finite speed of light or the gravitational curvature of space-time theorized by Einstein. Nonetheless, Freud makes an important philosophical link for us at the end of the first section of his essay:
Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object. Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be. We shall be glad to learn, however, that the correction of internal perception will turn out not to offer such great difficulties as the correction of external perception — that internal objects are less unknowable than the external world. (Freud 1957: 171)
Like Freud, object-oriented ontology (OOO) basically accepts Kant’s notion of a thing-in-itself. The point is controversial, since German Idealism emerged from Kant largely by reinterpreting the thing outside thought as something immanent to the movement of thought itself, and for this reason many critics of OOO (and of Freud) try to paint this as a form of “naïve realism”. In similar manner, the emergence of Jacques Lacan from Freud owes much to his reinterpretation of the unconscious as something as an immanent gap at the centre of consciousness itself. This striking similarity has enabled Slavoj Žižek to produce his unique synthesis of German Idealism and Lacan. The price Žižek pays for this synthesis is a vociferous anti-realism, neatly concealed behind the alibi of a “materialism” that has nothing of the material at all. This also allows him to draw on the critical resources of traditional Enlightenment-Left materialism despite offering up as exaggerated a theory of the worldless subject as anyone since Berkeley, while also encouraging him to dismiss the present-day realists of OOO as naïve pre-Hegelian dupes (Žižek 2016).
But perhaps it is important to recall briefly where OOO agrees and disagrees with Kant, since it is often falsely presented as a purely anti-Kantian movement. Like Kant (and Freud), OOO agrees with the notion that perceptions must not be regarded as identical with what is real and unknowable. Our main difference from Kant is found in the OOO principle that this lag between the perceived and the real is not some special property of human beings, but arises from the difference between reality and relation, as found in animals, plants and even inanimate matter. This is not (or not yet) an argument in favour of panpsychism, but merely the observation that even in the causal relation between fire and cotton, the fire and cotton make contact with only a limited array of one another’s features. It is simply not the case that physical contact is total, as if only mental contact with reality were limited. While this is the core argument of OOO, it is of no relevance to psychoanalysis, which deals specifically with the psyche rather than reality as a whole. At most, psychoanalysis could debate how the unconscious might function in animals; extending its sphere of inquiry to plants and stones lies far beyond the realm of present-day clinical plausibility, though I have entertained the possibility in print (Harman 2002: 208).
One further remark is needed. In the passage just cited, Freud assures us that “internal objects are less unknowable than the external world”. Now, almost every philosopher short of Berkeley is willing to admit that things and our presentations of things are not identical. When I stare at the flames in a furnace, the flames themselves are dangerously hot, though the flames I see are mere images and do not harm my skin in the least. The question is how to account for this difference. Partisans of absolute knowledge in recent philosophy (ranging from Husserl to Meillassoux) hold that there is no thing-in-itself, since with a bit of effort we can actually come to know the essential or primary qualities of things. What this amounts to is the claim that we can extract those qualities of the thing and bring them into the mind without alteration, while simply leaving their substrate outside the mind. Form is extracted from “dead matter”, as Meillassoux (2012) puts it. But in this way, the completely empty notion of “matter” serves as a mere crutch to prop up the evident difference between fire and the perception of a fire. And more than this, it is assumed that a form can move from one place to another while remaining the same form, so that there is only a material but no formal difference between the two kinds of fire. I have criticized this idea elsewhere. For the moment, it can simply be said that this violates Bruno Latour’s useful principle that “there is no transport without transformation” (Latour 2005: 130), which entails that there must also be a formal difference between the two kinds of fire (Harman 2013a). This might seem to place OOO in disagreement with Freud’s notion that the unconscious is “more knowable” than Kantian things-in-themselves, since knowledge as the direct extraction of forms out of matter is thereby rendered impossible. But Freud is well aware that the unconscious is not directly convertible into knowledge any more than the fish-in-themselves or stars-in-themselves that Kant places forever beyond our reach.
Freud justifies the distinction between conscious and unconscious largely through the observation that “the data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them; both in healthy and in sick people psychical acts often occur which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence” (Freud 1957: 166). Even if we were to reject the whole of his The Interpretation of Dreams, there is strong prima facie evidence for unconscious thoughts in the case of parapraxes such as calling someone by the wrong name or declaring a meeting closed when one was supposed to declare it in session. At any rate, there is nothing in Deleuze and Guattari that would cause us to question this. But Freud immediately faces the ambiguity that not everything that is unconscious is unconscious in the same way. Some thoughts are not currently conscious but are capable of becoming so, while others cannot be made conscious in quite the same way. That is to say, some are “merely latent, temporarily unconscious” while others “such as repressed ones […] if they were to become conscious would be bound to stand out in the crudest contrast to the rest of the conscious processes” (Freud 1957: 172). In order to emphasize that only the latter kind are unconscious in the full-blown psychoanalytic sense, Freud introduces the terminology of “Ucs.” and “Cs.” when speaking of the “systematic” difference between these two realms. This is opposed to the “descriptive” difference that merely announces whether or not something merely happens to be in our mind at the present moment. What is the border control that prevents the Ucs. from bleeding into the Cs.? We have already mentioned it: “a psychical act goes through two phases as regards its state, between which is interposed a kind of testing (censorship)” (Freud 1957: 173). But that which passes the test of the censor might still become latent or pre-conscious (“Pcs.”) rather than conscious. For this reason, there is not yet any topographical difference between Pcs. and Cs., both of which remain united for now in their joint opposition to the Ucs. Whereas the first two have cleared censorship, the last has not. Freud hints coyly that if there turns out to be an additional stage of censorship between Pcs. and Cs., only then can we distinguish between these two topographically as well. I say “coyly” because Freud will in fact discover this additional censor less than twenty pages later.
An additional question now arises, which Freud admits “may appear abstruse” but is nonetheless crucial: What is the relation between the unconscious and conscious forms of one and the same idea? Is it the same content but with two different roles depending on whether it is conscious or not: i.e. a functional separation between the two? Or is the content recorded twice, in two different locations: i.e. a topographical separation between them? Freud inclines initially toward the second view. This is due to his frequent clinical experience that if he suggests an idea to one of his patients that seems to be hidden in his unconscious, “our telling him makes at first no change in his mental condition […] [A]ll that we shall achieve at first will be a fresh rejection of the repressed idea” (Freud 1957: 175). Freud’s allegiance to the so-called “talking cure” does not mean that he thinks that making an idea conscious is enough to dispel its harmful unconscious effects. For “there is no lifting of the repression until the conscious idea, after the resistances have been overcome, has entered into connection with the unconscious memory-trace” (Freud 1957: 175-6). This strongly suggests that it is not just a question of the “same” content in two different places: “To have heard something and to have experienced something are in their psychological nature two quite different things, even though the content of both is the same…” (Freud 1957: 176). Freud hints that he will perhaps find a new, alternative approach, as indeed he does later in the same essay.
A new question now arises. If ideas can exist either in the Ucs. or the Cs., is the same true of instincts and emotions/affects? It is clear to Freud that instincts must always remain in the Ucs., and can pass into Cs. only in the form of ideas. But he holds that the opposite is true of emotions and affects, which are always discharges rather than cathexes (investments of libidinal energy in some object). Since it is of the nature of a discharge to unleash itself in the world rather than to hide in withdrawn concealment, emotions and affects must always belong to the sphere of Pcs./Cs., never to the Ucs. Nevertheless, the suppression of emotion is obviously the immediate aim of repression, and it is hard to see how this can happen if the Ucs. is the sole locus of the repressed. Freud’s solution to this problem is to say that repression occurs at the point where the unconscious idea meets its conscious counterpart. In cases of normal psychological life, the instincts enter unproblematically into conscious emotion. But at least two different kinds of things can go wrong. The former occurs when “the development of affect […] proceed[s] directly from the system Ucs.; in that case the affect always has the character of anxiety, for which all ‘repressed’ affects are exchanged” (Freud 1957: 179). The latter comes about when “the instinctual impulse has to wait until it has found a substitutive idea in the system Cs. The development of affect can then proceed from this conscious substitute, and the nature of that substitute determines the qualitative character of the affect” (Freud 1957: 179). A good example of this is found in the animal phobias of children, quite often directed at animals never or rarely encountered in everyday life. Here it could be that the fear of the father is transformed into a hysterical fear of wolves or butterflies, among other things. Both of these cases can be called “anxiety hysteria”, as opposed to the “conversion hysteria” in which repression is found not in a substitute object, but in some mysterious bodily symptom.
Repression occurs at the point of censorship, which withdraws cathexis from the censored idea. Freud now asks in which system this occurs. Since the repressed idea by definition still exists in the Ucs., the withdrawal of cathexis must occur somewhere else. The libido may withdraw from a cathexis that is actually already conscious, but this occurs most often in the pre-conscious sphere. But given that the cathexis remains at work in the Ucs., why does it not repeatedly try to rise back into the Pcs./Cs., yielding a permanent state of anxiety? Freud declares here that he has no choice but to introduce the notion of an anticathexis, “by means of which the system Pcs. protects itself from the pressure upon it of the unconscious idea” (Freud 1957: 181). In cases of primal repression (Urverdrängung) this has always already happened and the ideas never reach the Pcs. at all, so that no “withdrawal” is necessary. But in cases of “repression proper” (Nachverdrängung), such as the repression of unwelcome ideas, there must also be a withdrawal of the cathexis that did reach the Pcs. Freud briefly summarizes how this works in the various cases of anxiety, phobias, conversion hysteria and obsessional neurosis, noting that conversion hysteria with its bodily symptoms is the most “successful” form of repression, given its relative absence of anti-cathexis in comparison with the others. This fits nicely with Freud’s observation elsewhere that whereas (conversion) hysterics entirely repress all knowledge of the cause of their symptoms, obsessive neurotics are often quite aware of this cause and simply repress their emotional reaction to it.
Freud now highlights the censorship role of the Pcs. Taken in itself, the Ucs. “consists [solely] of wishful impulses”, “of instinctual representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis” (Freud 1957: 186). If some of these impulses are contradictory, they merely seek a compromise. They are capable of displacement or condensation, as we see in dreams and neuroses, in which the “processes of the higher, Pcs., system are set back to an earlier stage by being lowered (by regression)” (Freud 1957: 187). They are not affected at all by time. Perhaps most importantly, they contain no reality principle at all, which is entirely the work of the Pcs. The Ucs. contains even the most absurd impulses, absolutely forbidden by or impracticable in normal social existence. Censorship and reality testing are entirely foreign to the Ucs., and are carried out only by the Pcs., as are all muscular motions other than sheer reflexes. Yet we should not imagine that the Ucs. is simply a primitive vestige, “with the Pcs. casting everything that seems disturbing to it into the abyss of the Ucs” (Freud 1957: 190). For in fact the Ucs. “is accessible to the impressions of life […] constantly influences the Pcs., and is even, for its part, subjected to influences from the Pcs” (Freud 1957: 190). Among other things, if the Ucs. were completely cut off from conscious life then psychoanalytic treatment would be impossible, and Freud’s own experience shows that “though a laborious task, [it] is not impossible” (Freud 1957: 194). Freud also notes that a good part of the Pcs. consists of unconscious “derivatives” that are fully present in the Pcs. but not in the Cs. Thus, “now it becomes probable that there is [an additional] censorship between the Pcs. and the Cs” (Freud 1957: 191). Thus, every transition from a lower state to a higher one involves a fresh censorship, though not in reverse: the Pcs. and Ucs. can directly absorb what Cs. learns through perception. One piece of evidence is that many ego-impulses “remain alien to consciousness” but still belong to the Pcs. rather than to the Ucs. Freud summarizes his three-tiered structure wonderfully:
The Ucs. is turned back on the frontier of the Pcs., by the censorship, but derivatives of the Ucs. can circumvent this censorship, achieve a high degree of organization and reach a certain intensity of cathexis in the Pcs. When, however, this intensity is exceeded and they try to force themselves into consciousness, they are recognized as derivatives of the Ucs. and are repressed afresh at the new frontier of censorship, between the Pcs. and the Cs. Thus the first of these censorships is exercised against the Ucs. itself, and the second against its Pcs. derivatives. (Freud 1957: 193)
This already becomes clear through the psychoanalyst’s ability to have the patient free-associate without any repression, simply saying whatever comes into his or her mind, however vile or irrelevant it may seem. In this way, the patient overcomes the second censorship between Pcs. and Cs., so that “by overthrowing this censorship, we open up the way to abrogating the repression accomplished by the earlier one” (Freud 1957: 193-4). Freud speculates further that consciousness of an idea requires not just a cathexis and certainly not an anti-cathexis, but a hypercathexis. In any case, we see now that the Pcs. plays a crucial mediator’s role between the Ucs. and the Cs., with the Ucs. unable to pass directly into Cs., though perhaps the reverse does happen directly. When too strong a separation occurs between them, when their indirect communication is dammed up or cut off, we have an unfortunate situation: “A complete divergence of their trends, a total severance of the two systems, is what above all characterizes a condition of illness” (Freud 1957: 194).
We now come to the final section of Freud’s essay, the most objectionable part for Deleuze and Guattari, since it is here that Freud offers his own purportedly inadequate theory of schizophrenia. Freud refers to the psychoses as “narcissistic psychoneuroses”, given his view that whereas the neuroses continue to cathect their objects in the Ucs. as well as substitute objects in the Pcs./Cs., in psychosis the object-relation seems to disappear. In schizophrenia (or “dementia praecox”, in Bleuler’s terminology), “the object-cathexes are given up and a primitive objectless condition of narcissism is re-established” (Freud 1957: 196-7). Freud sees this clinically in the inability of the schizophrenic to engage in transference of libido onto the analyst, without which psychoanalytic cure is impossible; he also cites the schizophrenic’s repudiation of the outside world, the hints of a hypercathexis of his or her own ego, leading to an ultimate state of complete apathy. He also notes that “all observers have been struck by the fact that in schizophrenia a great deal is expressed as being conscious which in the transference neuroses can only be shown to be present in the Ucs. by psycho-analysis” (Freud 1957: 198; emph. added). Freud seeks the key to interpretation in the strange speech pattern exhibited by schizophrenics, “which become ‘stilted’ and ‘precious.’ The construction of [the schizophrenic’s] sentences undergoes a peculiar disorganization, making them so incomprehensible to us that his remarks seem nonsensical” (Freud 1957: 198). He summarizes an interesting case from his trusted Viennese colleague Victor Tausk. A girl is brought in after quarreling with her lover. She complains that “her eyes were not right, they were twisted”, which she blames on her boyfriend, though there is obviously nothing wrong with her eyes. While standing in church one day “she felt a jerk; she had to change her position, as though somebody was putting her into a position, as though she was being put in a certain position”. The obvious difference for Freud between schizophrenics and hysterics is that in the latter case there are actual bodily symptoms rather than just words about them:
[A] hysterical woman would, in the first example, have in fact convulsively twisted her eyes, and, in the second, have given actual jerks, instead of having the impulse to do or the sensation of doing so: and in neither example would she have any accompanying conscious thoughts, nor would she have been able to express any such thoughts afterwards. (Freud 1957: 198-9)
These two factors lead Freud to conclude that schizophrenics have the same relation to words that the rest of us have to objects. The work of condensation and displacement that occurs in the dreams of neurotics — and everyone else for that matter, given that dreams themselves have the structure of neurotic symptoms — takes place in psychotics with words, sometimes to the point that “a single word […] takes over the representation of a whole train of thought” (Freud 1957: 199).
This brings Freud to the unpleasant case of the Wolf-Man’s face, on which he had squeezed out many blackheads. Under analysis Freud determines that this squeezing is a substitute for masturbation, and that the castration anxiety often associated with penis-related activity in boys (a maid had once threatened to cut it off after he urinated on the floor in her presence) is ratified by the remaining holes in his face after the blackheads have been squeezed. Whereas a hysteric is able to treat almost any hollow object as a vaginal substitute in his or her symptoms, no hysteric (Freud claims) would treat such a multiplicity of tiny holes as a field of vaginas: the vagina of fantasy life is normally just one, and we would also expect that hollow objects would need to reach a feasible minimum size before the relation with a vagina would be suggested. We recall Deleuze and Guattari’s sarcastic words about this passage of Freud: “Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 19). Freud’s case might seem to come down to a question of greater and lesser resemblance, though he actually reaches a somewhat different conclusion:
As far as the thing goes, there is only a very slight similarity between squeezing out a blackhead and an emission from the penis, and still less similarity between the innumerable shallow pores of the skin and the vagina; but in the former case there is, in both instances, a ‘spurting out,’ while in the latter the cynical saying ‘a hole is a hole’ is true verbally. What has dictated the substitution [in the latter case?] is not the resemblance between the things denoted but the sameness of the word used to express them. Where the two — word and thing — do not coincide, the formation of substitutes in schizophrenia deviates from that in the transference neuroses. (Freud: 200-1)
The bracketed phrase above that I inserted in the form of a question points to a grammatical ambiguity in this passage, in which the final two sentences do not flow naturally from what precedes them. We understand Freud’s view that whereas the neurotic deals with objects, the psychotic deals with words. But whereas the earlier part of the passage suggests only a difference of degree between “squeezing a blackhead = ejaculation” and “pores in the face = field of vaginas”, since the first is called “a very slight similarity” and the second “still less similarity”, the conclusion of the passage makes it sound as if there is a crucial difference in kind between the two cases.
Here it is necessary to bring up a crucial point in the theory of metaphor, which I have dealt with extensively elsewhere (Harman 2016: 101-4). It is obvious that metaphors cannot work unless they avoid the extremes of comparing objects that have nothing in common and those that have too much in common. “Memphis is like the Pacific Ocean” has no immediate metaphorical effect at all, though perhaps some great poet could provide the context for this to take place. “Memphis is like Louisville” fails for the opposite reason, since the similarity is too literal, or at least is claimed as such by the speaker. Though a skeptic might quickly point to the vast cultural differences between the two cities, the comparison does have some things going for it: both are mid-South river cities with roughly 600,000 inhabitants. For a metaphor to work, it needs to hit a vague bullseye somewhere between these two extremes. Luckily, my graduate school roommate Paul Schafer is a Memphis native, and once shared a good metaphorical description of his home city: “Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, but Memphis is the capital of Mississippi”. In order to understand this, one only needs to know a bit of American geography and a bit about the varying flavour of the two cities. Both are located literally in the state of Tennessee, and Nashville is the actual state capital. Hence the first part of the sentence “Nashville is the capital of Tennessee” expresses a literal truth containing no metaphorical effect whatsoever, unless retroactively after the second part is heard. The real metaphorical work occurs in the second part of the sentence, “Memphis is the capital of Mississippi”. This statement is an obvious falsehood, as is known even to ten-year-olds in America, and the impossibility of accepting it at face value forces the mind along a different path: Memphis is the most relevant urban centre for at least the northern half of Mississippi, and Memphis also has more of a Mississippian Deep South atmosphere than does relatively clean-cut Nashville. Though Jacques Derrida makes a concerted effort to downplay the literal/metaphorical distinction (Derrida 1982), the OOO theory of metaphor (Harman 2005: 101-24) sees the basis for an absolute distinction between them, even if two people may disagree about which is which in particular cases. Whereas a literal statement compares two things (correctly or incorrectly) in terms of their purportedly similar properties, and a fanciful statement — Memphis/Pacific Ocean — does this in immediately unconvincing fashion, a metaphorical statement works by transferring the characteristics of one object to another. In this case, Memphis acquires Mississippi traits through the metaphor. This leads to a further observation on Freud’s distinction between neurosis and psychosis. The “very slight similarity” between squeezing a blackhead and masturbating to the point of ejaculation seems no more “slight” than that which occurs in any metaphor. It is true that the first case of slight similarity has a repulsive ugliness that will — one hopes — bar it forever from the realm of aesthetics (“Squeezing a blackhead is like…”). Beyond this, however, the main difference between symptom and metaphor is as follows. In the blackhead/penis case one object is unconsciously substituted for another, so that the blackhead is conscious and the role of the penis is repressed. In metaphor, by contrast, Memphis is not repressed: it is foregrounded as a vague object orbited by the properties of Mississippi and of a capital city, though in reality neither of these is accurate. But we might imagine a reversal of the two cases, in which a disgusting poem calling the penis “that blackhead of the loins” or the blackhead “that penis of the cheeks” is conjoined with the Nashville-abhorring delusion that Memphis is the real capital of Tennessee, with the existence of Nashville thereby repressed — at least temporarily — into the unconscious. Note that however wild this delusion sounds, it would still be a neurosis rather than a psychosis in Freudian terms, since we would still be dealing with objects rather than words. On that note, we move directly to the final pages of his essay.
The strangeness of schizophrenia, Freud concludes, comes from “the predominance of what has to to do with words over what has to do with things”. Though the observation remains in force that the schizophrenic abandons cathexes of the object, the cathexes of words are retained all the more. This has direct implications for two issues already raised earlier. The first has to do with the exact nature of the relation between the Ucs. and the Pcs./Cs.:
We now seem to know all at once what the difference is between a conscious and an unconscious presentation. The two are not, as we supposed, different registrations of the same content in different psychical localities, nor yet different functional states of cathexis in the same locality; but the conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone. (Freud 1957: 201)
Two pages later Freud clarifies that the association of thing and word actually belongs to the pre-conscious rather than the conscious realm, since “being linked with word-presentations is not yet the same thing as becoming conscious, but only makes it possible to become so”. The second issue clarified by Freud’s distinction between object and word is the nature of neurotic repression. For as he puts it: “Now, too, we are in a position to state precisely that what repression denies to the rejected presentation is translation into words, or a psychical act which is not hypercathected, but remains thereafeter in the Ucs. in a state of repression” (Freud 1957: 202). We must remember, however, that Freud told us earlier that putting something into explict words does not free it from repression, since to state something explicitly is not yet to make a connection between the conscious and unconscious realms. But this raises the question of what repression is in the case of psychosis rather than neurosis. We saw that for the neurotic, repression happens at the gateway between Ucs. and Pcs. For the psychotic, no such thing can happen, assuming Freud is right that psychosis is the negation of both unconscious and conscious object-cathexes in favour of a narcissistic withdrawal into the mind. This withdrawal is actually more than a simple flight away from the world, since it simultaneously takes the form of a hypercathexis of words. Freud concludes the essay with a fascinating question and an equally fascinating result. Given the detachment between objects and words in schizophrenia, it seems strange that the words should be the element that is retained, given that we usually see the reverse: for it is usually Pcs. material that is repressed, even as everything still remains at play in the Ucs. Freud’s imaginative solution to this puzzle is as follows: “It turns out that the cathexis of the word-presentation is not part of the act of repression, but represents the first of the attempts at recovery or cure which so conspicuously dominate the clinical picture of schizophrenia” (Freud 1957: 202-3). In an attempt to regain the lost object, the schizophrenic “may well […] set off on a path that leads to the object via the verbal part of it”. This leads him to remark that “when we think in abstractions… the expression and content of our philosophizing then begins to acquire an unwelcome resemblance to the mode of operation of schizophrenics” (Freud 1957: 204).
As a philosopher, I am of course in no position to mediate a clinical debate between Freud and Guattari as to what schizophrenia really is. But in both cases certain philosophical notions are brought into play, and here the philosopher is fully justified in offering affirmations and objections. Moreover, we have now seen Freud’s careful attempt to describe the interrelation of the Ucs., Pcs., and Cs. and how this interrelation generates various illnesses. For this reason we are inoculated against any of the more frivolous objections to Freud into which Deleuze and Guattari too often lapse. “It’s all Daddy!” is a fun comic parody of Freud, but it must be wondered how many of Deleuze and Guattari’s fans take it merely as a parody. There is nothing counterintuitive about Freud’s procedure here, even if he is as vulnerable to being proven wrong as anyone else. The father and mother are awesomely powerful, perhaps godlike figures in the eyes of the infant. Sexuality can be confusing enough for adults, and all the more so for small children making their first researches in this area. Many boys can probably still remember their first discovery that their sister or girl cousin or mother did not have penis, or can remember their archaic theories that babies are born from the mother’s bottom. Thus castration anxiety is at least a plausible hypothesis, as is the notion of the bottom serving as the locus of gifts in the form of feces, babies and (following conversion) money. The Oedipus hypothesis also has some innate plausibility, given the quite believable theory that the infant desires the death of the same-sex parent and marriage with the one of the opposite sex. Yes, Freud can be made to look ridiculous if we portray him as jumping directly from wolves in a tree to parents having sex. But any multi-step process can be made to look equally ridiculous if we cut out the middle terms. To borrow an example from Bruno Latour, what if we poured Saudi crude oil directly into the gas tank of a vehicle, without the middle stages of refinement? (See Latour’s wonderful “industrial” model of truth: Latour 1999: 137.) Or what if we removed the power cord between the lamp and the wall socket? In that case, we would be just as clown-like as those who choose to mock Freud by jumping instantly from the staring wolves to the copulating parents. What must be judged is simply the quality of translations between each step, and here Freud can fail like anyone else, without his psychoanalysis becoming a mere laughing-stock.
Some Thoughts on OOO and Psychonalysis
I have mentioned that Freud’s work is psychology, not ontology. He only tries to clarify the workings of the human mind, barely speaking even about animals, and with little to teach us about the structure of inanimate objects. Nonetheless, there are obvious points of contact with OOO. Perhaps the most obvious is found in Freud’s analogy between his own procedure and that of Kant when introducing the thing-in-itself. With OOO, as with Freud, the better part of reality lies beneath the accessible surface, as everyone knows in the proverbial case of the iceberg. However, this happens for completely different reasons in the two cases. For OOO, the withdrawal of objects occurs due to the inherent difference between reality and relation. A tree is not identical with its effects, since the tree can have different effects at different times, and even if it could have all of its possible effects simultaneously, this grand total of effects would still not be a tree. For Freud, however, the concealment of the unconscious happens for a specific reason that may well be limited to human beings alone: the existence of two layers of censors. Though the fire does not make contact with all aspects of the cotton, but only with those on which the fire is capable of acting, this is not because the fire has some inner censor that represses aspects of the cotton that are too terrifying for it to admit. The uniqueness of human beings has often been linked to our possession of language, a claim that seems less plausible with every new study of animal communication. A more plausible claim about what makes humans special comes from F.W.J. Schelling, who thinks it is history, of which there are few if any traces in the animal kingdom. But Freud’s theory suggests that repression, which he calls the very cornerstone of psychoanalysis, may be what makes us unique. Without censorship, no humanity. If this is the case, then it challenges the notion of Deleuze and Guattari that psychosis is a more fundamental layer of experience than neurosis and hysteria. Psychosis would instead be lost in an anti-unconscious incapable of grasping the metaphorical beneath the literal.
We turn now to a different point. The followers of Deleuze and Guattari might claim (though I have never heard them do so) that they are better potential allies for OOO than is Freud. Though they would willingly concede that Freud provides tools for discussing concealment that cuts against the grain of Deleuzo-Guattarian “immanence”, Freud is nonetheless too reductive to be a reliable ally for OOO. After all, OOO insists on the irreducible character of objects, which cannot be explained away by reducing objects to their sources or parts (undermining), their effects (overmining), or both procedures simultaneously (duomining) (Harman 2013b). But this would not be quite to the point. OOO’s claim is only that a horse is more than horse parts and less than horse-actions, horse-effects, or horse-events. By no means do we claim that the translation between these realms is impossible; indeed, such translation is the very heart of the matter. Objects are not just isolated from their possible upward and downward reductions, but are in fact entangled in such reductions. But we need to keep in mind that each translation is by the same token a distortion or caricature. Thus there is no problem in thinking that a sock might be the translation of a vagina or the Christian Eucharist the translation of primeval cannibal guilt. We simply cannot assume that such translations exhaust the meaning of any of these symbols. But on this point, paradoxically, we come into partial agreement with Deleuze and Guattari, who are also right that a wolf, a wasp and a butterfly are not the same, and that these differing entities might well receive different libidinal energies rather than all being mere recursions to a traumatic primal scene of infancy.
Finally, there is some convergence on the question of metaphor. Earlier I doubted that repression can have a truly metaphorical character, since for OOO the metaphor requires the vague presence of the object that disappears (e.g. Memphis) even as it is forced to bear properties normally foreign to it (e.g. capital-qualities, Mississippi-qualities), whereas the hysteric — at least — completely represses the vagina when he or she develops a phobia of socks. Yet we must admit that there is a metaphorical flavour to Freud’s “dream-work”, which we all know is sometimes capable of something like high art. After all, if the dream did not hint vaguely at that which is repressed behind its manifest content, no connection between the Pcs. and Ucs. would be possible. Not only would psychoanalysis become impossible with such a total cutting-off of the Ucs., but the dream could never work as a wish-fulfillment as Freud requires. The image of wolves in a dream would be nothing but a wish to become-wolf, and would thus never give rise to anxiety in the very moment of fulfilling the wish of the Ucs. Elsewhere I have suggested that this indirect access to the repressed lies at the root even of the mere causal relations between objects such as cotton and fire. But this would take us beyond Freud, who confines himself to the underworld that is ruled by a censor.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (1982). “White Mythology”, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freud, Sigmund. (1955). “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis”, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII (1917-19): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, trans. under the General Editorship of J. Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.
______. (1957). “The Unconscious”, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV (1914-16): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, trans. under the General Editorship of J. Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.
______. (1990a). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton.
______. (1990b). Totem and Taboo, trans. J. Strachey. New York: Norton.
______. (2015). The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. A.A. Brill. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Harman, Graham. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court.
______. (2005). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court.
______. (2013a). “Object-Oriented Philosophy vs. Radical Empiricism”, in Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books. pp. 40-59.
______. (2013b). “Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining: A Critique,” in ADD Metaphysics, ed. Jenna Sutela. Aalto, Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory. pp. 40-51.
______. (2016). Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Latour, Bruno. (1999). Pandora’s Hope: Essays in the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
______. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meillassoux, Quentin. (2012). “Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the Meaningless Sign”, (a.k.a. “The Berlin Lecture”), trans. R. Mackay, unpublished manuscript. Available at: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0069/6232/files/Meillassoux_Workshop_Berlin.pdf
Žižek, Slavoj. (2016). “Afterword: Objects, Objects Everywhere”, in Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism, ed. Agon Hamza & Frank Ruda. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.
“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.
In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it, “Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders”.
And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.
What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.
Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.
In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks.
“It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.”
It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.
It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”
Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.
The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as :
There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!
He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.
I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?
There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
This is an edited extract from Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy From Below (out now). He will be speaking at Five Leaves bookshop, Nottingham (UK) on 16th March (more details/FB event)
The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place
Black people desire to determine their own destiny. As a result, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied by the police department. There is a great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by the racist police. The armies were sent not to protect the people of South Vietnam but to brutalize and oppress them in the self-interests of the imperial powers.
—HUEY P. NEWTON, “A Functional Definition of Politics” (1969)
We don’t need anybody to agree with our tactics, right? We’re disrupting business as usual. That is the whole idea. We’re not going to stand in a corner and protest, because nobody pays attention to that. We are going to disrupt your life. You are going to know that business as usual in America and the world is not going to continue while black people —unarmed black people —are literally being shot and killed by law enforcement in the street every day.
—MISKI Noor, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (2015)[ii]
The Ferguson revolt did not take place; the Baltimore revolt is proof.[iii] The Ferguson revolt did not take place because it has occurred and is still happening in different ways in other places. In so many uprisings, from Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 to the many North American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the race riots of the 20th century, from Springfield, Illinois in 1908 to Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, to current insurrections in Ferguson 2014 and Baltimore 2015, to the Black Lives Matter disruptions at the Mall of America and Minneapolis airport in Minnesota in December 2015, there is always some part of the event that expresses disaffections carried over from the previous ones. Revolts are nodal points in the elaboration of a transformative “politics” that exceeds them. To historicize revolt by marking its beginning and its end is to cut it off from itself, to misunderstand it. In particular, the fixation on the end of revolt disguises that old quotidian hope for a retour à la normale.
Riot and revolt are difficult to predict. And yet, as soon as they break out, the reasons for their occurrence are easy to see. The hardest part of processing riot and revolt in an intellectual register is always: not why they happen, but why they do not happen (until now). They are difficult to predict because of the remarkable capacity of societies to bear the unbearable, to suffer the insufferable.
Historians have a difficult time with the continuity of discontinuous events. But we can find a close connection between any two coordinates in the history of black revolt in North America. In the recent examples of Ferguson and Baltimore, the linkages are clear (i.e. killer cops, poverty, racism). Yet, historical accounts always want to identify the start and end dates of each uprising, especially because discrete and isolated events can be treated as local aberrations, not expansive fabrics of discontent.
What if Baltimore does not begin with the case of Freddie Gray? What if Baltimore does not end in Baltimore (which we discover when it is taken up again in six months, in one year, in two years, in another city)? Each revolt is itself, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed, “an unstable condition that opens up a new field of the possible.”[iv]
But what exactly is possible here beyond the possibility of posing old questions in new ways? First of all, the whole question of revolt is thoroughly imbricated with selective concerns about violence. Violence pervades and disfigures everything from the start. Every revolt, every riot, is haunted by the figure of violence. On April 28, 2015, The Wall Street Journal declared that “violence breaks out” in Baltimore.[v] That is the basic treatment: “Violence breaks out” whenever black people revolt against racist violence. For The Wall Street Journal, there is no violence when the cops kill black people, there is no violence on Wall Street, let alone any consideration of the violence of capital more broadly. The article could have been written by the Baltimore Police Department, and the fact that it wasn’t is indicative of the depth of the problem. Bakunin’s basic understanding of revolt from 1872 far exceeds the understanding from The Wall Street Journal in 2015. Bakunin said: “To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.”[vi] Contrary to racist caricatures of insurgents as wild animals, revolt is —for the human animal —a modality of indignation, a measure of dignity.
Nonetheless, ideological and idiotic depictions of “violence” remain effective and reliable mechanisms for the disqualification of the critical content of revolt. Georg Lukács explained that “the radical and mechanical separation of the concepts of violence and economics” are the result of the fetishization of economics as a nonviolent and legal field, and the fetishization of violence as always outside economy and law.[vii] Revolt exposes the “invisible” violence of economy and law, challenging that separation. Economy and law establish themselves as the normalization of the non-violent order, so anything that opposes them is identified and condemned as violence and disorder. Voltairine de Cleyre had it right when she observed the violence of the social order: “watch a policeman arrest a shoeless tramp for stealing a pair of boots. Say to your self, this is civil order and must be preserved… Aye, I would destroy, to the last vestige, this mockery of order, this travesty upon justice!”[viii] What the revolt invites, encourages, and makes possible, is to worry less about “violence” to capital (its inanimate objects and commodities), and more about the violence of capital. A broken window, looted food, a burning bank, a burning car, are violence from the perspective of property law. From what perspective, however, is the police killing of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Jamar Clark, and so many others, called violence? So many others indeed: On August 9, Michael Brown became the 668th person killed in the US by the police in 2014, and he was far from the last. Police killed over 1,000 people in the US in 2014, and in between every killing you do hear of, there are hundreds of others you don’t. Someone is killed every day by police in the US. In fact, it’s usually several each day.[ix]
It is therefore necessary to reject all efforts to reduce each revolt to the stories of the murdered individuals who trigger them. We all know that the “Arab Spring” was not about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire in December of 2010. We must try instead to see the violence in the conditions that made self-immolation appear sensible to Bouazizi. Can we ask, as Bouazizi’s sister asked: “What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?” Treatments of particular cases matter, but even “justice” in a verdict, as sug- gested by the indictments of the six officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, resolves none of the everyday violence of capital and law.
Everyday violence indeed, and one which it is necessary to confront as an overwhelmingly racist violence. Angela Davis points out: “The sheer persistence of police killings of Black youth contradicts the assumption that these are isolated aberrations.” She refers to “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.”[xi] In light of this everyday violence, which is of course not the only form of violence, revolt is patient, revolt is kind. Revolt may even appear too moderate, too restrained, and too peaceable.
Professional academics are typically part of the problem. We need less intellectual analysis of revolt, and more consideration of the active intellect of revolt, revolt as analysis itself. Can we only hear the demos when it speaks in ballots? One participant in the Baltimore revolt answered in the midst of the uprising: “They tell us when we ‘vote’ we are being heard. No THIS is an example of us young people being heard!”[xii] That revolt does not need to speak through experts, elections, figureheads, and analysts is a lesson that even the most sympathetic political scientists are slow to learn.
Academics can be helpful only if they possess a deep and abiding understanding —as did Socrates and Jacques Rancière —that intelligence is not the private property of professionals. Discourse in the form of text can be useful indeed. Rancière’s beautiful book, Hatred of Democracy, diagnoses the hatred of democracy that hides behind the professed love of democracy.[xiii] I propose the following variation on Rancière’s theme:
Those who condemn the riots secretly love them — the purported hatred of the “violence” of the riots conceals a special love for that “violence.” They love the riots they condemn, for their own reasons, most of them racist. The riots are made to serve as evidence for what liberals and conservatives already think about politics, race, class, and capital.[xiv] This is particularly clear with the media, but can also be seen throughout society (universities included) in the surrounding conversation.
Deleuze and Guattari claimed that what “we institutionalize for the unemployed, the retired, or in school, are controlled ‘situations of abandonment’.”[xv]275 This is also true of impoverished black communities throughout the US. Institutionalized abandonment and everyday violence are always more the causal factors of revolt than the personal immorality and intellect of participants.
In the Baltimore revolt of 2015, there was an early celebration of a black mother, Toya Graham, who discovered her son participating in the uprising. She chased him down in the street, grabbing him and hitting him in the head, scolding him loudly. Forget the National Guard, said her fan club, send in the moms to tame the revolt. Graham knows well what the police do to young black men like her son, but she was not applauded for concern over his well-being. Rather, she was applauded for berating and beating him in the streets. The message in her celebration was clear: Black people in revolt are like out-of-control children, and what they really need is the paternalistic power of containment.
Meanwhile, capital hides behind the scenes of revolt, staying aloof and quiet. But what of the peculiar silence of capital? Even those who acknowledge the class dimensions of the problem often do not acknowledge that capital has nothing to offer impoverished communities that face a dilapidated opportunity structure with no future.
Over 63% of Baltimore’s population is black, but the median income of the black population ($33,000) is roughly half that of whites in the city. Maryland is the richest state in the country, which exacerbates the already abysmal conditions of life for the poor. Young black men in Baltimore were unemployed at the star- tling rate of 37% in 2013. Compare that with 10% unemployment for white men of the same age. One-third of Maryland residents living in the state’s prisons come from the mostly black communities of Baltimore.[xvi]
Impoverished black people in the US don’t need to be taught how to stand up for themselves. Everyday life shapes and informs the knowledge and experience of the disaffected, and indicates that “the field of the possible lives elsewhere.”[xvii] You cannot simultaneously reproduce everyday life and transform it. Revolt understands that basic logic.
Thinking about May ’68, Deleuze and Guattari argued: “There can only be creative solutions. These are the creative redeploy- ments that can contribute to a resolution of the current crisis and that can take over where a generalized May ’68, amplified bifurcation or fluctuation, left off.”[xviii]
Baltimore 2015 takes over where Ferguson 2014 left off, keeping Ferguson (and Springfield 1908 and Watts 1965) on the list of unfinished business. But the creative solutions and redeployments that Deleuze and Guattari call for may still be premature. Creativity is a productive activity, but there is still much to abol- ish. Perhaps the abolition of racism calls for creative solutions, and perhaps abolitionists need to get more creative. Yet, we cannot create new worlds without transformation, and transformation implicates abolition. Hegel and Marx understood well that there is an abolitionist force in the negations of transformation. The abolition of old forms of life, political institutions, and social structures implies the creation of new ones, implies creativity. There is always an abolition of old understandings in the creation of new ones, even if, in Hegel’s sense, the new understandings carry forth much from the old. And there is always an abolition of the present state of things in the construction of a new state of things, even if some things stay the same.
Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a “violence” that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt. And if the existing order is maintained against revolt, as it often is, that existing order will be haunted by the specters of future revolt. Defenders of this present capitalist society know well that surviving a revolt is not busting the ghosts, is not laying them finally to rest. The conditions that give rise to revolt, left unchanged, also leave the abolitionist impetus in place. If the imprecators of upheaval tremble, perhaps they know: Efforts to realize abolitionist dreams continue on where previous ones leave off. Nothing is over and done.
[ii] Noor, Miski, “Interview on CNN with Carol Costello about the Black Lives Matter Protest Planned for the Mall of America” (12/22/2015), accessed January 11, 2016, http://archives.cnn.com/trANSCrIPtS/1512/22/cnr.02.html .
[iii] This short chapter is a détournement of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s shorter essay, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, ed. Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).
[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 209.
- [v] Calvert, Scott and Maher, Kris, “Violence Breaks Out in Baltimore After
Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/violence-breaks-out-in-baltimore-as-freddie-gray-is-laid-to-rest-1430169131 .
[vi] Bakunin, Mikhail, “On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,” accessed January 7, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ archive/bakunin/works/1872/karl-marx.htm.
[vii] Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: The MIt Press, 1988), p. 240
[viii] de Cleyre, Voltairine, The Votairine de Cleyre Reader (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 2004), pp. 71-72
Reuters, “Peddler’s martyrdom launched Tunisia’s revolution (1/19/11),” accessed January 8, 2016, http://af.reuters.com/article/libyaNews/idAFLDE70G18J20110119?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true
[xi] Davis, Angela Y., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 77. 271 Ibid.
[xii] The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary (New York: Research and Destroy, 2015), no page numbers
[xiii] Rancière, Jacques, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London and New York: Verso, 2006).
[xiv] In short, liberals and conservatives hold in common that procedural and electoral politics and reform are sufficient, that racism is a shrinking or minor difficulty, that socio-economic class positions are more-or-less negotiable through hard work and upward mobility, and that capital is either neutral or good, respectively.
[xv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211
[xvi] Malter, Jordan, “Baltimore’s Economy in Black and White,” accessed January 8, 2016, http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/29/news/economy/baltimore-economy/index.html
[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211.
Digital Taylorism: labour between passion & serendipity
Attack of the Big Yawn
In his fascinating historical study of the rise of happiness to the highly valued commodity it has become in our time, the British sociologist William Davies offers a brief yet intriguing meditation on the end of capitalism. In the past, he says, the collapse of our current mode of production has usually been imagined to occur as the result of economic crisis, political revolution, ecological disaster, or, in the best of cases, through technological innovation. However, since the end of the cold war, Davies muses, there seems to be another, “more lacklustre” option on the horizon:
What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is simply met with a yawn?
Williams’ remarks are far less tongue-in-cheek than they may appear. There is indeed a rather telling sign of – if we were to put it in Marxist terms – capital’s lack of motivational pull with regard to labour that over the last two decades has developed into a management obsession: the theory and practice of “employee engagement”. Gallup started measuring employee engagement in the Eighties, its popularity as an indicator of the ‘health’ of a company surged in the 1990s, and today there is a plethora of refined engagement surveys and training programs available from dozens of providers. While the popularity of employee engagement is in itself suggestive of a motivational problem among the workforce – why else would one want to measure engagement? – the actual numbers these surveys regularly produce are truly disheartening for the managerial class. Gallup’s last Global Workplace Report of 142 countries has found that only 13% of employees are properly “engaged”, with those “actively disengaged” among the European and North American workforce figuring around 24%. Often, though, it’s not just the ubiquitous ‘yawn’ ruling our corporate and public offices that is the problem. Stress-related illnesses, burnout, and similar work-induced forms of psychological and physical paralysis have joined forces to become the 21st century workspace epidemic throughout the developed world. In this sense, lack of enthusiasm or activity indeed presents a formidable challenge to our economic order, in spite of the cynical strategy to commercialise the collective disengagement by repackaging it as independent symptoms of individual psychological pathology.
What interests me in the anti-capitalist attack of the collective yawn and its pathological companions – beautifully captured by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the notion of the “fatigue society” (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) – is that it can help us to come to terms with some of the current transformations in our understanding of labour as productive activity. In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on two developments that can be seen as attempts to respond to the challenge of the big yawn: on the one hand, the quasi-eroticisation of labour articulated in the notion of passionate work, and, on the other hand, the mobilisation of the social dimension of labour expressed in the celebration of entrepreneurial serendipity.
The Passion of the Work
While the fateful alliance between passion and labour had been anticipated by a number of visionary sociologists around the turn of the century, it is only recently that work is almost everywhere turning into a passionate project. Over the past few years, passion has become a basic requirement for employees of all stripes. Regardless of the mundane nature of the job at hand, today it is almost impossible to get anywhere near work without the invocation of one’s passion for it.
As with so many of the ideological tropes discussed in this book, the connection of work and passion makes quite a bit of intuitive sense. What could be wrong with ‘loving what you’re doing’? If employees and entrepreneurs could be truly passionate about their work, it would turn their daily toil into a much more fun and fulfilling activity. Employers and clients, on the other hand, would profit from increased productivity and generally from a better job being done. Take, for example, one of the more authoritative publications on the topic, The Power of Pull, written by business consultants and management scholars John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. Under the heading “Make Your Passion Your Profession” they inform their readership about the new logic of passionate work:
Those of us who continue to toil at jobs we don’t love will find ourselves nonetheless toiling harder as our competition continues to intensify. We’ll find it increasingly difficult to cope with the mounting stress or to put in the effort required to raise our performance. We need to marry our passions with our professions in order to reach our potential… Passion in this context refers to a sustained and deep commitment to achieving our full potential and greater capacity for self-expression in a domain that engages us on a personal level. We often develop and explore our passions in areas such as sports or the arts outside of work, but we rarely integrate our passions with our professions.
The funny thing about the logic of the argument here – and this really is a staple of the management ideology of passionate work – is that the necessity of throwing yourself passionately into the game is sold to the reader as a result of everyone being just about to do it. Maybe not today but certainly tomorrow, there will be so much passion going on in corporate and public organisations that competition becomes a question of being even more passionate than everyone else. Stress, lack of performance and cynicism are caused by insufficient alignment of one’s passion to one’s work. Hence, the suggested solution: get aligned, fall in love with your work already; passion is the key ingredient to professional success. While this makes for a fascinating story, it is exactly the opposite of what a dispassionate view of reality (a.k.a. empirical data) suggests. The wave of passion that supposedly is just about to sweep through contemporary capitalism shows neither in employee engagement surveys nor in health statistics, business indicators, or macro-economic data. Nor, in fact, does it show in the great product and service innovations that surely would be the outcome of a passion-driven economy. No, the reason why passionate work has emerged as one of the great ideologies of our time is the fact that the big yawn is becoming deafening, that the neoliberal mutation of capitalism has turned the economy into a self-sabotaging system, systematically destroying its most important source of value: labour.
In order to make sense of the rise of passion to a workplace requirement within corporate and public organisations, it helps to first consider an interesting historical coincidence. The emergence of debates around employee (dis-)engagement was contemporaneous with the beginning of the systematic digitisation and automation of the workplace. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, a new breed of professional service providers revolutionised the management consulting sector. What they offered had very little to do with traditional board level advice. Rather, they were selling large scale IT-systems able to automate management processes throughout the entire organisation. The first wave of digitisation and automation of business came for the most part with the label of reengineering. The grandiose claims with which reengineering firms pushed their way into corporate and public boardrooms have largely been erased from managerial memory. Suffice to say that alongside predictions of increased efficiency and massively lowered costs came the promise of a workforce liberated from repetitive bureaucratic chore. Reengineering the organisation was supposed to lead to the creation of professional environments in which creativity was finally allowed to thrive.
This, of course, is not what happened. The former Financial Times correspondent Simon Head is one of the few scholars who have systematically traced the automation of the workplace from the reengineering wave of the Eighties to the current almost universal use of so-called Computer Business Systems (CBSs; previously known as Enterprise Systems [ES] or Enterprise Resource and Planning Systems [EPS]). His reports from the battlefield of digital armament for the sake of creatively liberated workforces paint a picture of the contemporary workplace all too familiar to many of us who spend their lives within corporate and public organisations. According to Head, digitisation and automation have spread the logic of industrialism far beyond their conventional jurisdiction: to wholesale and retail, financial services, higher education, health care, public administration, and corporate management. In addition, they have also introduced the neo-disciplines of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Human Resource Management (HRM).
What’s going on here has nothing to do with the future visions of digital machines working merrily side by side with humans. The computer systems that have been implemented throughout the economy form the technological backbone of a massive neo-bureaucratisation of corporate and public organisations. In order for the digital industrialisation of the workplace to function across different sectors, a veritable army of techno-bureaucrats has invaded corporate and public institutions whose mere task is the streamlining of employee behaviour according to the requirements of algorithmic performance indicators and the like. And it is not just the infamous call centres and Amazon warehouses we are talking about here. Highly trained professionals such as doctors and professors have been pressed into preformatted work processes, effectively losing the sovereignty over their own crafts(wo)manship, expertise and knowledge. There is a systematic annihilation of professional creativity at work here, nullifying, as Head puts it, “the employee’s accumulated skill, knowledge and experience which, applied to the daily problems of the workplace, enable employees to do their jobs well”.
Faking It: Passion as Simulation
The reason why this is crucial for the present discussion is that the massive destruction of professional skill and quality by the logic of office automation was accompanied by the emergence of a new kind of competence. Arlie Hochschild famously began to describe this development in the Eighties in terms of the appearance of what she called “emotional labour”. In her pioneering study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart, Hochschild defined emotional labour as requiring the employee “to induce or supress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. It is obvious that thirty years ago, flight attendants’ requirement to serve with a smile didn’t have much to do with automation. And also today, emotional labour is not necessary directly related to CBSs and the like although it can be if we think of the emotional stress caused by counterproductive office IT-systems. The point where digital office automation and emotional labour intersect is that of simulation. CBSs and their administrators are not for one bit interested in the inherent professional value of performance simply because they have not got the means to understand what this would actually be. They simulate performance by way of algorithmic indicators and matrices whose abstract universality – the fact that they need to be applicable across diverse sectors in order to be economically viable – ensures their radical decoupling from the particular professional reality (epitomised, perhaps, by the infamous star ratings for hospitals, universities and so on).
The flipside of this kind of performance simulation can be found in the rise emotional labour, and indeed, passion. For HRM-professionals, emotional labour is not the ‘labour of care’ that comes with a specific professional territory – think, for instance of physicians and nurses – but the universal mobilisation of individual sources of empathy and enthusiasm for the most profane ends. The creation of experience as a service is an important reference here, albeit in a much more skewed sense than was intended by the gurus of the experience economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore. In an economy where the most exciting new consumer products are digitally pimped wristwatches (first developed almost fifty years ago) and cars that actually rob you of the experience of driving, experience is something that increasingly has to be provided as a product or service veneer by the employee. The logic of the emotional template that is spreading throughout corporate and public management culture by way of HRM has been famously captured by Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space. In the film, Joanna works as a waitress in a fast food chain called Chotchkie’s. An integral part of her work there is to wear idiotic buttons with slogans and symbols on them. They are referred to as “flair”. At a certain point in the film, Stan, Chotchkie’s manager and Joanna’s boss, takes her aside in order to express his dissatisfaction with the way she’s handling her “flair”:
“Stan: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, OK?
Stan: Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty-seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: OK. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan: Look. Joanna.
Stan: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. OK? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. OK. So more then, yeah?
Stan: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, OK? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan: OK. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.”
In 1999 the scathing humour of the Judge’s film was somewhat lost in the peak of the dotcom boom, but a few years later it became a commercial success on the small screen (VHS and DVD sales) as a cult comment on the corporate re-entrenchment of the post-crash years. Today, it serves as a reminder that the idiocy expressed in the notion of “flair” has become almost universal workplace policy. In the contemporary workplace, flair in its many disguises has been integrated in the strange virtuosity of emotional labour. This goes for all layers of management, save the highest, as well. Those of us who are lucky enough to be uninitiated into the circuits of managerial emotional labour can begin to bring themselves up to speed on the issue through the work of the young German director Carmen Losmann. In her brilliant 2011 documentary Work Hard, Play Hard, Losmann follows a number of so-called change management trajectories in German corporations. In one of the sequences, the viewer witnesses a series of assessment interviews for potential junior managers who are confronted with the most insipid questions about their emotional ‘leadership qualities’. Interestingly, the candidates who do well in the interviews are those who respond by shooting back the prefab-slogans found on the pages of contemporary management and coaching literature. One gets the impression that what unfolds in front of one’s eyes is a grand simulation, a mutual game of Munchausen, where everyone knows that this is essentially nonsense but equally knows that as an employee – regardless whether shop floor or management – one simply has to show the readiness to go the emotional extra mile. What makes this viewing experience so excruciating is the effortlessness with which the camera is able to reveal the absurdity of the change trajectories followed by Losmann’s documentary. We are observers of an exercise in pointless emotional gymnastics motivated by the illusion that this will somehow vitalise corporate culture. The flair of the burger waitress returns, this time packaged in an HRM-fabricated company culture that in its ideological wackiness is easily on par with the obligatory party-gibberish that pervaded the Kombinate (state-owned corporations) of real existing socialism.
The obvious difference to the time of the politburo is that today, there is no central authority determining and emitting the correct world-view and watching over its implementation. Proud to be ideology-free, the neoliberal state has outsourced its ideological function – at least when it comes to labour – to the consulting industry. This is not meant as a rhetorical pun at all. If one looks at the process by which the consulting industry rose to its current dimensions, one cannot escape the realisation that it is heavily invested in the rise of neoliberal politics. The shrinking of state bureaucracy that started in the 1980s coincided with the expansion of the consulting sector that stepped in to provide the services previously run by the state itself. The reason why this worked quite beautifully was that at the same time the consulting industry underwent quite a drastic transformation – from traditional board level advice to the provision of in- or outsourced IT-systems covering the entire business process. Governments – particularly in the UK and the US – were among the first clients, providing an industry in transformation a field of large-scale experimentation by handing out consulting contracts of unprecedented financial value. The governments’ benefit for subsidising and in fact growing the consulting industry was that they got the argument of technological progress to support their own ideological agenda. In other words, both the massive growth of the consulting industry in the 1980s and 1990s and the history of office digitisation and automation are intimately linked to the rise of neoliberalism.
Of course, the consulting sector is a notoriously secretive industry so much of its machinations – including the often catastrophic failures of the 1980s and 1990s IT-contracts – remain largely in the dark. It is thanks to another German documentary maker that we are able to look behind the screens of today’s distributed production of ideology. In Ein neues Produkt, Harun Farocki follows the directors of the Quickborner Team, a Hamburg consulting firm that was once famous for the invention of the Bürolandschaft. Today, they design corporate environments for the so-called ‘new way of working’, which is a big theme for corporations. In the ‘new way of working’, the digital automation of work processes discussed above meets the appropriation of cultural practices that independent creative producers have experimented with over the last decade or so in order to update the industrial configurations of corporate work space.
With his characteristically calm and discreet concentration, Farocki films the strategy workshops and client meetings of the Quickborner Team, capturing the semiotic dynamics at work in the development of radically innovative workplace cultures. The consultants develop the cultural tapestry for office architectures that are supposed to make employees faster, smarter, more effective and so on. The goal is flexible workspaces able to facilitate more self-determined, independent employees who, through all kinds of serendipitous interaction, contribute to the innovative capability of the company. Nothing wrong with this, let’s make these environments less depressing and more interactive, if people become more productive and innovative in the process because the new environments cater more appropriately to their professional needs, that’s fine as well. Yet, what the semiotic dynamics of the meetings portrayed by Farocki reveal goes in a rather different direction. It transpires quickly that the protagonists of the film have very limited interest in understanding the needs of the ‘modern employee’. The purpose of these workshops and client meetings appears to be limited to the generation of a vocabulary able to catch a managerial zeitgeist that is totally unencumbered by any substantial reflection on what flexibility, collaboration, or, indeed, self-determination might entail from an employee’s point of view. Instead, the Quickborner space-gurus combine design thinking fragments, systems theory sound bites and kitchen psychology in order to produce a rhetorical vacuum that is supposed to fill their clients’ workspace with what John Hagel and his colleagues call the “power of pull”, attracting the passion of the employee. “It’s emotionality where we can score with our clients”, one of the directors of the Quickborner Team says at a decisive moment in the film, and, as silly as this may sound, he is spot on. The general ideological task of these consultants is to find the passionate antidote to the big yawn his peers have caused by implementing digital managerial industrialism.
Abstract Passion, Concrete Bullshit
It is obvious that nothing of this kind will ever be achieved by simply encouraging the workforce to ‘fake it’. Interventions by culture consultants of the above kind are not just economically nonsensical but counterproductive. For companies that understand themselves as economic entities existing for the purpose of creating products and services that people need, they have no value whatsoever. They do, however, make perfect sense for corporations whose purpose is first and foremost to cater to the interests of financial markets. This might sound slightly vulgar (“Oh, they just want to make money!”), but it is in fact a vital distinction. One of the main reasons for the absence of exciting innovation today – increasingly even at the level of technology – has to do with what economists call “the financialisation of the economy”, i.e., the fact that economic performance is increasingly measured on financial return on investment (shareholders, etc.) rather than on successful products and services. Clayton Christensen, perhaps the most influential management and innovation guru of our time, denounces this tendency in Harvard Business Review as “The Capitalist’s Dilemma”. Where real economic output becomes secondary, it gets difficult to form a company culture based on the collective pride of being part of an organisation that makes great stuff. Hence the false belief in the snake oil salesmen who claim to be able to create your company/product/ service culture based on hot air.
This innovation predicament is related to the neoliberal transformation of capitalism understood as the streamlining of economic production according to the needs of financial capital. The flexibility inherent to financial capital has to be reproduced at the level of the employment relation. And this is exactly the reason for the shift from professional skill to emotion and affect: the abstract liquidity of financial capital requires a corresponding liquidation of professional skill into the desires and emotional dispositions of the workforce. Today’s intensified competition and chronic market instability have at least as much to do with financialisation as they do with the transformative power of digital technology. Think, for instance, of the way in which the so-called sharing economy is organised. Many of the platform business models we find there are able to disrupt existing markets in spite of being economically dysfunctional. They can do this because they are highly subsidised by financial speculators whose treasure chambers are filled with capital that can’t find economically sensible investment. Financial abstraction thus leads to pseudo-economic (yet very lucrative) investment games, erratic markets environments, and the need for hyperflexible employees for whom the emotional labour of passion replaces professional skill.
In such an economic environment, one can expect to find an organisational landscape that is increasingly unprepared to treat its employees like grownup professionals. There is clear evidence that working conditions have been deteriorating for years across a wide range of industries – particularly in the US and the UK. This list, provided by Simon Head, is quite comprehensive:
[They] include increased working hours for individuals and family units; increased inequality of income and stagnant or declining real wages for a majority of the workforce; the break in the historical relationship between profits, productivity and real wage growth; loss of retirement income and shifts in the pension risk to employees, declining health care coverage and shifts of cost to employees; loss of employee voice at work as labour-movement members decline to pre-1930 levels; and increased layoffs not as a last resort but as a routine aspect of corporate restructuring. To the list should be added the increased pace of work dictated by CBSs, its intensive targeting and monitoring by ‘performance evaluation’ systems, and its deskilling of employees with expert systems.
Now this is not a list cooked up by some lefty curmudgeon whose only pleasure is to critique ‘the system’. It’s simply a reading of mainstream statistical data on labour. Thomas Piketty, of course, wrote a bestseller based on this data, it is there for anyone who reads the newspapers, mainstream economists discuss it frequently, and anyway, we also experience these conditions on a daily basis. True, in some parts of continental Europe things are considerably less bad than elsewhere, but the tendency is a global one: there is a systematic assault on employees’ ability to simply do a good job. If we correlate this development with the equally systematic requirement of employees to provide not just services but great experiences vis-à-vis clients and customers, a blatant contradiction comes into view. Actually, it’s a double contradiction: underwhelming products and services and deteriorating work conditions are supposed to be balanced out by the employees’ emotional labour. Time and again, they try to achieve this Sisyphean task by reaching deep into the magic box of affective human integrity in order to mobilise their emotional and communicative faculties. And if one is particularly unlucky, then one might find that all this affective energy is going into what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, i.e., the growing number of pseudo-professional activities that do not make a sensible contribution to society by any stretch of the imagination. No wonder everyone is yawning. Welcome to the fatigue society!
Exodus into Serendipity?
Given the inhospitality of office environments corporate and public, it is not very surprising that an increasing number of professionals opt out of the institutional context in order to become entrepreneurs on their own account. One form of entrepreneurial exodus, already discussed in Chapter 1, is the so-called coworking movement. When the first proper coworking spaces popped up in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and London in the early years of the new Millennium, they were born out of frustration with the confined office environment and reflected the growth of an increasingly independent workforce trying to turn their economic precarity into a neo-Bohemian entrepreneurialism. Instead of the prefabricated passion of the big organisation, they were trying to get truly passionate about their profession by becoming entrepreneurs.
From the start, serendipity was an important reference for the coworking multitude: coworking spaces needed to provide their users with an environment offering a high probability of serendipitous encounters as a way of compensating for the freelancers’ lack of organisational support structure. The groups and communities spurring the first generation coworking spaces intended to generate imperfect yet more exciting replacements for the conventional organisation. They were supposed to generate ideas and opportunities for business, but also had a political ambition in the sense of strengthening the position of the precarious entrepreneur, vis-à-vis potential clients, through an exchange of knowledge and skills and a general practice of mutual generosity. It is easy, too easy perhaps, to dismiss the alter-entrepreneurial euphoria of the early Millennium as a pale copy of the Californian Ideology that is now holding the start-up scene firmly in its grip. It is certainly true that the West Coast form of expression, with its endemic combination of infantile pathos and cliché, was an early visitor to the coworking community as well. Yet, underneath the silly awesomeness of everything, there was indeed awareness that it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the key concerns of the early coworking movement was to help prevent the multitude of independent producers from sinking into what Byung-Chul Han calls the “solitude” of self-exploiting neoliberal subjects. Here, serendipity, i.e., the accidental sagacity that emerges when people with different minds and skill sets encounter each other, was really part and parcel of the story. It turned these coworking spaces into third spaces that seemed to enable an ambivalent kind of social innovation: one that was necessary for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism but also had the ambition of going beyond it. One of the ‘values’ the early coworkers were passionate about was ‘community’, and back then this meant something more than the marketing catchphrase it has become of late. The coworking movement – or at least a substantial part of it – really thought it was possible to rewrite the rules of the neoliberal economy.
Today, coworking as a politically, culturally and even economically innovative phenomenon is all but history. The formidable spread of flex-work spaces around the globe is driven by motivations radically different from those of the early activists. Coworking has mutated into the massive provision of infrastructure for start-up entrepreneurs, independent professionals and freelancers and as such, it has become big business. Operations, such as the New York based start-up WeWork, are bent on turning the coworking model into a real estate version of the platform business model (see Chapter 6). Its aggressive global expansion is based on an incredible market valuation of US$10 Billion. While the rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘values’ persists as marketing strategy toward the growing client-base of independent workers and entrepreneurs in need of affordable workspace, its practical articulation has been taken over by professional hosts and community managers. There is, of course, nothing wrong per se with such a professionalisation of coworking. People still need affordable workspace and flex-workspaces tend to provide exactly that. Sure, in the hands of the likes of WeWork, Regus, Liquid Spaces or indeed Marriott, coworking has lost its utopian impetus. However, if this would be all there was to it, one might bemoan it as a lost opportunity for the much-vaunted ‘change’, or simply write it off as the usual course of a fringe phenomenon maturing into business, and losing its more exciting, socially progressive elements along the way.
Yet, something is happening to the coworking movement that is rather unsettling. Driven by the managerial hype around serendipity – i.e., the realisation that in order to fully mobilise the workforce, individual passion needs to be complemented by the generative and, hopefully, innovative effects of social promiscuity – a growing number of smart organisation consultants have discovered coworking as a template upon which they can market their services to corporations as the new generation of change management. Again, nothing would be wrong in trying to inject the treadmill of the office with some of the serendipitous energy one sometimes encounters in coworking spaces. In fact, one would welcome this effort if it was intended as a way of humanising the corporate workspace. However, one of the obvious problems here is that coworking culture – or whatever is left of the libertarian spirit of the early digital bohemians – is very hard to decree into being in a corporate context. What is distressing about the most recent wave of coworking-inspired office reform is that its proponents seem to have something in mind that goes way beyond the superficial change gymnastics highlighted in the work of Losmann and Farocki…
In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Lior Tirosh picked up the phone and a voice said, “Run.”
Tirosh stared blearily at the ceiling. A black cloud of mould had spread gradually over one corner of the room. It had began as a mere speck of dirt, some long while back, but now it had extruded aggressively outwards, had colonised and settled and stayed. The last time he’d spoken to his landlord, Yossi, the man had told him to use hot soapy water to gently wash off the mould. But Tirosh never did. In many ways he was a lazy man, not given to undue intervention in the little injustices of life. It was easier to let the mould grow than to try and combat its spread, knowing that anyway it would just come back, that one day, whatever he did, the mould would grow to cover the entire flat and, later, extrude farther, until first the city and then the entire Syrian-African Rift Valley would come under its sway. In such a world, Tirosh thought, still, perhaps, in that uncanny valley between wakefulness and dream (for he was usually a deep, if late, sleeper), the mould would eventually develop intelligence, and with it a sort of symbiotic relationship with the humans, whom it would enslave. In such a world (now so vivid in Tirosh’s mind that, for a moment, he all but forgot the strange telephone call he was in the midst of), a person would be marked from birth with the Black Sign of the fungus, perhaps on the forehead or – like the small round scar of a smallpox vaccine – on the arm, close to the shoulder. The Pax Fungi would then herald a never-before-seen era of peace and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, until it extended across the entire planet. It would be a golden age never before seen in human history, and would – “Are you listening to me, Tirosh?” the voice demanded.
Outside, Tirosh could hear the creaking, halting sounds of a street sweeper as it crept along Hatkuma Street, which is to say, the Resurrection, right up to the intersection with Hatchiya, which is to say, Rebirth Street.
This was not out of the ordinary. Tirosh had first moved to Tel Aviv from the periphery. He had grown up on a kibbutz up north, a lonely child immersed in books for too long a time for his own benefit, like a Catholic child baptised forever in cold, if holy, water. Back then, he lived for a time in an apartment which sat on a confluence of streets all named for ancient pogroms. Blood libels and dead Jews haunted him on trips to the greengrocers and the local kiosk until, at last, he’d fled, past countless peeling Bauhaus contraptions that littered the sandy grounds of Tel Aviv like candy wrappers or empty, discarded packs of cigarettes, south to Jaffa.
“Who is this?” he said, sleepily.
“You have to leave,” the voice said. “They’re coming for you now.”
by Johanna Isaacson
This is an edited extract from The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).
By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that requir
ed institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:
Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.
For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.
Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:
When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.
What are the dwelling-places of the human? Are not our houses and huts, our tents and caves, our urban and rural environments alike, spaces of nonlife that give forth life? In particular, the urban domain which so many people now inhabit reveals itself to us as a vastly complex ecosystem of life and death, one in which the extension of the organism occurs in the most varied, layered and complex ways—in the flowing of the sewers, the surging of electricity, the streams of traffic and tributaries of streets and roads, the transmissions and circulation of information and symbolisation, the capture, release and manipulation of vast libidinal currents. “Urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all of these, and accumulates them.” And in this gathering, this accumulation, we can identify the coming-together, the becoming-with, of life and death, the tendential connectivity of both.
However, the urban space in particular, in its position as a space of the absorption of excess and the eruption of endless accumulation, has so often become a space in which the tendential connectivity, this commoning between the living and the dead, has been concealed and marginalised under the figures of finalist-death, under the logics of opposition, rationalisation and fatalism. The continual purging of life, that is the absolute exclusion of the living, from the rationalism of nonlife appears as the impossible dream of modernism. The grand structures of the modernist dream stand within the urban as spaces of nonlife that attempt a violent silencing of the tendential interplay between life and death. As an architecture modelled on the opposition of the living and the dead, that is moulded in the image of finalist-death, the vast towers of modernism with their proud, tall straight lines and gleaming pristine surfaces deny the efficacy of nonlife other than as a rationally manipulated backdrop for life. The processes of decay and dirt are excluded from them, and every morning and evening people across the cities come to these spaces tasked specifically with cleaning away any remnants of life that might cling to these structures, with the attempted absolute annihilation of any nonhuman life form, microbial or otherwise, that might seek to dwell within these domains of finalist-death.
Of course this annihilation is never final or absolute, for no number of attempts could entirely remove the tendential connectivity of the living and the dead. The marginalisation of microbial life that manifests itself so clearly on the immaculate glass surfaces of the looming urban towers can never be total, and the continual reassertion of life within even those spaces so closely modelled on the notion of a finalist-death reveals the inescapability of the cohabitation of life and death. And what is more, the emergence of life upon these planes that sought to exclude them need not be the object of a collective neurosis of cleanliness in which life, to its own destruction, seeks to impinge upon itself. Rather, these processes of decay and degradation, of life standing forth from its attempted exclusion, can become a matter of joy and affirmation as in the Mouldiness Manifesto of Hundertwasser.
When rust sets in on a razor blade, when a wall starts to get mouldy, when moss grows in a corner of a room, rounding its geometric angles, we should be glad because, together with the microbes and fungi, life is moving into the house and through this process we can more consciously become witnesses of architectural changes from which we have much to learn.[ii]
The urban domain, rather than being built to exclude life—that is, built in the image of a finalist-death of rationalism and opposition—is inescapably decaying, and it is this very decay that is an unfolding unto death that is also the springing forth of li
fe. This springing forth of life is that of which the finalist tendencies of modernist architecture remains in denial, and which it seeks to continually exclude under the banner of rationalism. But this exclusion can never occur or find its absolute realisation, for the architectural domains from which exclusion is attempted already form elements of a vast ecology of extended organisms, that is they are already and inescapably continuous with life, as elements of an organology by which life faces death and death faces life; the living dwell and become-with the dead.
It is hoped that it is clear that in all these instances what is important is not that one builds in order then to dwell—that the spider constructs its web in order to dwell within it, that the termites build their mound in order to live inside, that the humans construct the urban domain only then to later inhabit it—it is not that building has dwelling as its goal.[iii] Dwelling, that is becoming in life and death, existing as a durative-soul in continual becoming, connection and swelling, is anterior to building. To build we must dwell with the living and the dead, and we must share our becoming with them. To build we must, so to speak, inhabit the commons of life and death, as entities that appear delimited, but are in fact spread more and more thinly across a vast expansive domain of connection, collision and association. Dwelling does not come after building, for in building we dwell. We dwell with the so-called dead entities that we assign to the realm of technics and tools, and we cannot think of these apparently dead entities without thinking of their other side, that is their life and the life with which they are continuous. We cannot think the tool and yet ignore the hand just as we cannot think the hand and seek to ignore the tool. And tool and hand cannot oppose one another as exclusory opposites, just as the living and the dead cannot stand opposed to one another each as the principle of utter exclusion of the other.
Toby Austin Locke—The Living and the Dead
[ii] Hundertwasser, Friedensreich (1964) Mouldiness Manifesto
[iii] Heidegger, Martin (n.d.) Building Dwelling Thinking
In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
Graeme has a place waiting in the recently requisitioned Walpole Bay Hotel and Nick puts him in a USG minivan with a few other recent arrivals. The rooms are all full and so a series of bunk beds and spaces for sleeping bags have been set up in the downstairs lounge. He sits in the corner feeling vulnerable, his bag held tight, wishing he hadn’t flushed that spliff away; he could do with a smoke, calm his nerves.
How much will his records get sold for? They must be worth six, seven grand if he could get full price for them, probably they will go up for auction on one of the Government’s Clawback sites and be sold for whatever anyone bids for them, anything that isn’t sold after a certain point goes to charity shops for free. He thinks maybe he can sell the records he has in the bag to pay off his debts and buy back his own stock.
The room is filling up now. A dazed looking group in black hoodies is being processed at the doorway and let into the room one by one, activists, he thinks he recognises a few. He doesn’t want to hug the bag of records too close for fear of alerting someone to their value or loosen his hold on them for fear they might be taken. If he loses this he loses everything. He can’t seem to get any kind of signal on his phone down here and needs to get online, to contact his buyer and arrange something. Money no object, they said. He’s seen tape collections go for ten, twelve grand, getting bid up on ExecutiveCollector. This is all a mistake he can rectify if he can just get online.
On the other side of the room he spots another couple of familiar faces, Giveback Partners from one of the refit jobs they did in Elephant and Castle six months ago, a horrible experience that got Graeme ever more frantically pursuing his record trading afterwards in order to stave off ever having to do it again. A group of ten of them in Giveback Boilersuits jogging in lockstep from the branded Giveback van, the team leader, ex-Army, barking instructions at them, the public spectacle of it as much a part of the exercise as anything, letting the poor know, this is what’s waiting, allowing the rich to savour the discipline.
He approaches tentatively, knows faces but not names, they all seemed alright even though they hadn’t communicated much, each one locked away in a pocket of anger and shame that seems here in the light and space of the temporary encampment to have been broken open.#
Alright boss, Graeme says. I know you mate, from Giveback up in Elephant. We did that housing estate, ripping all the old carpets up and that. For a second they look blankly at him then one of them nods, yeah, yeah, bruv. Yeah that’s right. They got you too.
What’s going on? I need to get back up to London. He’s here coincidentally, accidentally he explains, came down on some business and can’t get back up there now, hasn’t had time to sell or stash his stuff, nothing more than the shirt on his back and the phone in his hand. Can anyone get a signal? He needs to ring Matty, he’ll come and get him, ring his contact, let him know he’s got stuff, start negotiating a price. Ring Joolzy, ring the OkupaUK crew, anyone, just to let them know he’s here, that there’s been some mistake. They all shake their heads. Signal’s been jammed, something’s going on. You could try the internet café down on the front but you are not supposed to go more than quarter of a mile from your centre. How can there be no wireless, he asks, no phone signal? They’ve turned it all off. Simple as that. Plus, one of them says we know you yeah, but don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Lot of undercover narcs about.
One of the group is telling them a story about how he had to go and work for Pret A Manger making sandwiches on a Giveback placement in a big, cold warehouse up the river, standing at a long line of other workers in white coats and hairnets at scratched silver trestle tables. He is tall, six foot three and the bench was little too low. He asked the supervisor if there was any way they could raise the table but he looked at him blankly. That’s the table we use here, he said. Then could he have a chair to sit on? We don’t have chairs, they told him. No one else is sitting down. Yeah, but I am taller than they are. The supervisor smiled. Find a solution, he said. Don’t mention it to me again.
An older guy, maybe early fifties, with a beer belly and glasses has drifted over to join them. Find a solution to being tall? Every day the pain in his back started a little earlier in the shift, until even after a weekend of lying in bed just trying to recover, using the muscles as little as possible, on the following Monday morning the pain was instantaneous, adjusting his posture slightly to pull the first two slices of bread out of the box a strap of raw muscle started heating up until after thirty minutes it was burning and making him nauseous. Every time he finished a sandwich it was pulled across the table cut and boxed then sealed. He began to slow down dramatically, shifting his weight from side to side bending and stretching, pausing as his teammate scowled impatiently at him from across the other side of the table. Each pair was assessed for productivity, each team competing with other teams, each section with others and each individual performance logged, someone would lose out, the least productive pair in each team put the whole table in danger of being deemed to be showing insufficient enthusiasm, efficiency, motivation and penalised, benefits cut, more Giveback hours extended, or worse, both. You could find yourself working more hours for free, racking up Giveback hours for a bare subsistence in terms of on-the-job food allocations. He tried to keep going he said but by the afternoon the pain was unbearable and in the half hour break he sat and wept in the company toilet wondering what the fuck he was going to do, whether they would even let him leave and dreading the sanctions they would apply, the medical tests he would have to go through, which would find him fit to work and give him pain-killers, a privilege he would have to pay for with more Giveback hours. In the end he couldn’t take it any more. And so.
Yeah. Yeah. Everyone nods.
How come you are down here? They ask a guy in his early thirties. Hi alright, he says, I am Charlie. Charlie sounds a little bit posh. He said had been stopped at the turnstile at Charing Cross by some private security guards asking him why he wanted to come into Zone 1, what the purpose of his visit was, asking why a Claimant would have any need to leave his particular, they used the word designated, Zone to come down here. I want to go to the library. You are not a student though, are you? You can do all that online. I want to go to the library, the museum, a gallery, window shopping whatever, what’s the problem with that? Loitering with no clear purpose then. Looking at your Viability Index you have got no money to spend and I am refusing you entry on reasonable suspicion of attempted non-authorised financial solicitation. ITB. Intent to Beg. After some protesting and refusal in which he was very careful not to lose his temper he was eventually escorted into a side office while his details were checked, then he was taken away and kept in police custody for 24 hours as they went round and trashed his flat looking for suspicious or subversive material. Lucky for you we didn’t find anything, they said, though we could have done if we had wanted to. Two days later he received notice that the Giveback hours incurred through the time being held in the police cell had pushed him over some preprescribed limit and that he was to report to the office down here.
They are getting serious; they are cracking the fuck down. Another guy on one of the camp beds at the back chipped in that he had been refused entry to a pub in Blackheath after his Claimant Card set off some kind of alarm behind the bar. He refused to leave and a group of big guys in rugby shirts made the fact that he was not welcome clear to him: fuck off out of here or you’ll be claiming disability from now on, one told him, to raucous laughter.
Well, she said, I was coming back home on the bus one day and I just decided, fuck it, I am going to go full default. I was working in Rootz making £6.37 an hour and I had debts, you know? There was no way I could pay it back, no way, and the interest was accumulating all the time so, I mean it was scary to do it but I’d just got paid and I knew I was going to see all of that money disappear, go to the landlord, on transport, to pay back student loans, to cover credit card bills. Already I was living in a shared house, right, in the cheapest room and every month I am just digging myself in deeper paying bills and expenses. So I ended up looking around for a cheaper place to live but they were all even further away from work so then there was extra transport costs. What can I do, right? I’m not going into one of the Beehives. I can’t live. I am working all week and I can’t live. Do more hours, work two jobs maybe but I am already doing an extra ten to twenty hours a week overtime just to show willing and keep my job at Root and Branch, so about two months ago I thought, well, I can either go back and live with my Mum and Dad or I can go full default, in which case I have got about a two week head start before the bailiffs are on to me. So that means no phone, nothing, you’re looking at five years for some of the debts to be cancelled, some of them never, always trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs, always having to find work from someone who won’t ask questions, no benefits, people always ready to grass you up, you know? The only thing worse than being a Claimant is being a defaulter as far as some people are concerned, but me, I had no choice. I couldn’t see any way out. My Mum and Dad don’t have any money to give me a leg up, you know. I worked through University, I got a good grade, I wanted to keep studying but then the prices went up, the credit dried up, the only jobs I could get were minimum wage, I didn’t know if I would be working from one week to the next. And nearly everyone I knew was the same, some of them had help but I didn’t have any lifelines, you know. So I just had to leave.
How long did you manage?
Six weeks. Immigration raided this meat packing plant I was working in up near York. There were three Brits in there; everyone else was foreign, y’know, from all over. I got shipped back down here.
How much have they got you for?
Giveback? She swallows.
Fucking years and years and years.
Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.