In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.
This is the second of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
This Movie Doesn’t Move Me
(13th March 2005)
As I nervously anticipate the new Doctor Who (although after McCoy, after McGann, what more can there be to fear?), it is worth thinking again about the appeal of the series, and also, more generally, about the unique importance of what I will call “uncanny fiction”.
A piece by Rachel Cooke in the Observer two weeks ago brought these questions into sharp relief. Cooke’s article was more than an account of a television series; it was a story about the way broadcasting, family, and the uncanny were webbed together through Doctor Who. Cooke writes powerfully about how her family’s watching of the programme was literally ritualized: she had to be on the sofa, hair washed, before the continuity announcer even said the words, “And now…” She understands that, at its best, Dr Who’s appeal consisted in the charge of the uncanny – the strangely familiar, the familiar estranged: cybermen on the steps of St Paul’s, yeti at Goodge Street (a place whose name will forever be associated with the Troughton adventure, “The Web of Fear”, for Scanshifts, who saw it whilst living in New Zealand).
Inevitably, however, she ends the piece on a melancholy note. Cooke has been to a screening of the first episode of the new series. She enjoys its expensive production values, its “sinister moments”, its use of the Millennium Wheel. “But it is not - how shall I put this? – Doctor Who’” Faced with an “overwhelming sense of loss’”, she turns to a DVD of the Baker story Robots of Death for a taste of the “real” stuff, the authentic experience that the new series cannot provide. But this proves, if anything, to be even more of a disappointment. “How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker-Bowles-style green quilted jackets… Good grief.”
Let’s leave aside, for a moment, all the post-post-structuralist questions about the ontological status of the text “itself”, and consider the glum anecdote with which the article concludes:
Before Christmas, when it became clear that my father’s cancer was in its final stages, my brother went out and bought a DVD for us all to watch together. Dad was too ill, and box went unopened. At the time, I cried about this; yet another injustice. Now I know better. Some things in life can’t ever be retrieved - an enjoyment of green robots in sequins and pedal pushers being one of them.
This narrative of disillusionment belongs to a genre that has become familiar: the postmodern parable. To look at the old Doctor Who is not only to fail to recover a lost moment; it is to discover, with a deflating quotidian horror, that this moment never existed in the first place. An experience of awe and wonder dissolves into a pile of dressing up clothes and cheap special effects. The postmodernist is then left with two options: disavowal of the enthusiasm, i.e. what is called “growing up”, or else keeping faith with it, i.e. what is called “not growing up”. Two fates, therefore, await the no longer media-mesmerised child: depressive realism or geek fanaticism.
The intensity (with) which Cooke invested in Doctor Who is typical of so many of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies. I, slightly younger than her, remember a time when those twenty-five minutes were indeed the most sacralised of the week. Scanshifts, slightly older than me, remembers a period when he didn’t have a functioning television at home, so he would watch the new episode furtively at a department store in Christchurch, silently at first, until, delighted, he found the means of increasing the volume.
The most obvious explanation for such fervour – childhood enthusiasm and naïveté – can also be supplemented by thinking of the specific technological and cultural conditions that obtained then. Freud’s analysis of the unheimlich, the “unhomely”, is very well known, but it is worth linking his account of the uncanniness of the domestic to television. Television was itself both familiar and alien, and a series which was about the alien in the familiar was bound to have particularly easy route to the child’s unconscious. In a time of cultural rationing, of modernist broadcasting, a time, that is, in which there were no endless reruns, no VCR’s, the programmes had a precious evanescence. They were translated into memory and dream at the very moment they were being seen for the first time. This is quite different from the instant - and increasingly pre-emptive – monumentalization of postmodern media productions through makings of documentaries and interviews. So many of these productions enjoy the odd fate of being stillborn into perfect archivization, forgotten by the culture while immaculately memorialised by the technology.
But were the conditions for Dr Who’s colonizing presence in the unconscious of a generation merely scarcity and the “innocence” of a “less sophisticated” time? Does its magic, as Cooke implies, crumble like a vampire seducer in bright sunlight when exposed to the unbeguiled, unforgiving eyes of the adult?
According to Freud’s famous arguments in Totem and Taboo and The Uncanny, we moderns recapitulate in our individual psychological development the “progress” from narcissistic animism to the reality principle undergone by the species as a whole. Children, like “savages”, remain at the level of narcissistic auto-eroticism, subject to the animistic delusion that their thoughts are “omnipotent”; that what they think can directly affect the world.
But is it the case that children ever “really believed” in Doctor Who? Žižek has pointed out that when people from “primitive” societies are asked about their myths, their response is actually indirect. They say “some people believe...” Belief is always the belief of the other. In any case, what adults and moderns have lost is not the capacity to uncritically believe, but the art of using the series as triggers for producing inhabitable fictional playzones.
The model for such practices is the Perky Pat layouts in Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Homesick offworld colonists are able to project themselves into Ken and Barbie-like dolls who inhabit a mock-up of the earthly environment. But in order to occupy this set they need a drug. In effect, all the drug does is restore in the adult what comes easily to a child: the ability not to believe, but to act in spite of the lack of belief.
In a sense, though, to say this is already going too far. It implies that adults really have given up a narcissistic fantasy and adjusted to the harsh banality of the disenchanted-empirical. In fact, all they have done is substituted one fantasy for another. The point is that to be an adult in consumer capitalism IS to occupy the Perky Pat world of drably bright soap opera domesticity. What is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny – the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls. As Scanshifts and I hope to demonstrate in our upcoming audiomentary london under london on Resonance FM, the Real of the London Underground is better described by pulp and modernism (which in any case have a suitably uncanny complicity) than by postmodern drearealism. Everyone knows that, once the wafer-thin veneer of “persons” is stripped away, the population on the Tube are zombies under the control of sinister extra-terrestrial corporations.
The rise of Fantasy as a genre over the last twenty-five years can be directly correlative with the collapse of any effective alternative reality structure outside capitalism in the same period. Watching something like Star Wars, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is BOTH impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, AND too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about an irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all the gaps have been monofilled. It is no accident that the rise of Fantasy has gone alongside the development of digital FX. The curious hollowness and depthlessness of CGI arises not from any failure of fidelity, but, quite the opposite, from its photoshopping out of the Discrepant as such.
The Fantasy structure of Family, Nation and Heroism thus functions, not in any sense as a representation, false or otherwise, but as a model to live up to. The inevitable failure of our own lives to match up to the digital Ideal is one of the motors of capitalism’s worker-consumer passivity, the docile pursuit of what will always be elusive, a world free of fissures and discontinuities. And you only have to read one of Mark Steyn’s preppy phallic fables (which need to be ranked alongside the mummy’s boystories of someone like Robert E Howard) to see how Fantasy’s pathetically imbecilic manichean oppositions between Good and Evil, Us and (a foreign, contagious) Them are effective on the largest possible geopolitical stage.
(16th April 2005)
Well, I’m still enough of a neophyte to be thrilled by a mention in Village Voice. I suppose it is ironic that Geeta describes k-punk as “cultural studies”, given my notorious antipathy to cult studs. On the other hand, though, k-punk is cultural studies as I’d always thought it should be practised (much of my hostility to cult studs stems from a disappointment when faced with the depressing, guilt-mongering reality of cultural studies in the academy).
Anyway, here is the full text that I sent to Geeta:
1. Why I started the blog? Because it seemed like a space – the only space – in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with what I think are appalling cultural and political consequences . My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman and Simon, so there has always been an intense connection between theory and pop/ film for me. No sob stories, but for someone from my background it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.
2. Because of that, my relation to the academy has always been uh difficult. The way in which I understood theory – primarily through popular culture – is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally – clinically – depressing.
3. The Ccru as an entity was developed in hostile conditions as a kind of conduit for continuing trade between popular culture and theory. The whole pulp theory/ theory-fiction thing was/ is a way of doing theory through, not “on”, pop cultural forms. Nick Land was the key figure here, in that it was he who was able to hold, for a while, a position “within” a university philosophy department whilst dedicatedly opening up connections to the outside. Kodwo Eshun is key as someone making connections the other way – from popular culture INTO abstruse theory. But what we all concurred upon was that something like jungle was already intensely theoretical; it didn’t require academics to judge it or pontificate upon it – the role of a theorist was as an intensifier.
4. The term k-punk came out of Ccru. “K” was used as a libidinally preferable substitution for the California/ Wired captured “cyber” (the word cybernetics having its origins in the Greek, Kuber). Ccru understood cyberpunk not as a (once trendy) literary genre, but as a distributive cultural tendency facilitated by new technologies. In the same way, “punk” doesn’t designate a particular musical genre, but a confluence outside legitimate(d) space: fanzines were more significant than the music in that they allowed and produced a whole other mode of contagious activity which destroyed the need for centralized control.
5. The development of cheap and readily available sound production software, the web, blogs means there is an unprecedented punk infrasctructure available. All that is lacking is the will, the belief that what can happen in something that does not have authorisation/ legitimation can be as important – more important – than what comes through official channels.
6. In terms of will, there has been an enormous retrenchment since 1970’s punk. The availability of the means of production has seemed to go alongside a compensatory reassertion of Spectacular power.
7. To return to the academy: universities have either totally excluded or at least marginalized not only anyone connected with Ccru but also many who were at Warwick. Steve “Hyperdub” Goodman and Luciana Parisi are both Ccru agents who have managed, against the odds, to secure a position within universities. But most of us have been forced into positions outside the university. Perhaps as a result of not being incorporated (“bought off”), many in the Warwick rhizome have maintained an intense connection and robust independence. Much of the current theoretical drift on k-punk has been developed via a collaboration with Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and Ray Brassier (co-organizer of the NoiseTheoryNoise conference at Middlesex University last year). The growing popularity of philosophers like Žižek and Badiou means there is now an unexpected if rogue and fugitive line of support within the academy.
8. I teach Philosophy, Religious Studies and Critical Thinking at Orpington College. It is a Further Education college, which means that its primary intake is 16-19 year olds. This is difficult and challenging work, but the students are in the main excellent, and far more willing to enter into discussion than undergraduates. So I don’t at all regard this position as secondary or lesser than a “proper” academic post.
11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017
In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.
This is the first of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.
We will all remember Mark Fisher.
Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)
(11th May 2015)
So it was to be a re-run of 1992, after all. It seems that even elections are subject to retromania, now. Except, this time, it is 1992 without jungle. It’s Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru. Always ignore the polls, wrote Jeremy Gilbert late on election night. “You get a better sense of what’s going on in the electorate by sniffing the wind, sensing the affective shifts, the molecular currents, the alterations in the structures of feeling. Listen to the music, watch the TV, go to the the pubs and ride the tube. Cultural Studies trumps psephology every time.’”
Contemporary English popular culture, with its superannuated PoMo laddishness, its smirking blokishness (anyone fancy a pint with Nigel?), its poverty porn, its craven cult of big business, has become like some gigantic Poundbury Village simulation, in which nothing new happens, forever… while ubiquitous “Keep Calm” messages, ostensibly quirky-ironic, actually function as They Live commands, containing the panic and the desperation…
England is a country in which every last space where conviviality might flourish has been colonised by a commercial imperative…. supermarket check-out operatives replaced by crap robots… unexpected item in bagging area… every surface plastered with corporate graffiti and haranguing hashtags… no trick missed to screw every last penny out of people… exorbitant parking charges in NHS hospitals (exact amount only, no change given), all the profits going to private providers…
Everything seen through a downer haze… “Mostly you self-medicate”… comfort eating and bitter drinking… What’s your poison?
The suburbs are hallucinating, England is hallucinating. Monster Ripper and Smirnoff, Brandy Boost, oversized glasses of chardonnay at Wetherspoons monday club, valium scored for a few quid in the pub , the stink of weed drifting from portakabins, red eyes and yellow bibs. The pharmaceuticals industry is one of UK Plc’s biggest success stories (along with arms dealing and loans companies) as prescriptions for anti depressants are kept on repeat.(Laura Oldfield Ford)
Time for one more, Nigel?
Time, gentlemen, please…
There is no time… Time is on your side (yes it is)…
In any case, Shaun Lawson is to be congratulated – if that is the word – for what turned out to be an astonishingly accurate prediction of how the election would go. My attempts to refute the parallels with 92 in my last post were as much wishful thinking as anything else. I suppose at some level I knew after the BBC Leaders Debate how things would go – which is why I found watching it so dejecting. (Another rhyme with the past: Ed’s stumble at the end of his interrogation by the petit-bourgeoisie was a minor echo of Kinnock’s tumbling into the sea in 1983.)
It seems that the very thing which gave us hope – the possibility of vacillating Labour being pulled to the left by an alliance with the SNP – might have been what motivated Tory voters to come out in such numbers in England. (Another echo of 92: fear as a hyperstitional force.) The truth is what many of us have long suspected: Labour lost this election five years ago, by failing to challenge the Tories’ narrative. Yet this failure wasn’t about the wrong leader, PR strategy or even policies; it is ultimately rooted in Labour’s disconnection from any wider movement, and this is in turn rooted in the wider emergence of capitalist realism. Blairism may have won Labour three elections, but the unfolding of its logic could well lead to the destruction, in the not so far distant future, of the party. As Paul Mason acidly summarises, “Labour no longer knows what it is for, nor how to win power.” With Blairism, Labour knew how to win power, but in acquiring this knowledge, it forgot what it was for.
That existential quandary is bitterly ironic given that there is a large proportion of the population in England – I still believe it is the majority – which feels it has no party which represents it. I maintain that the shift to UKIP is ultimately much more to do with this sense of disenfranchisement and despair than with any intrinsic tendency towards racism or even nationalism in its supporters. Everyone has chauvinistic potentials of one kind or another which can be activated by particular sets of forces. Ultra-nationalism is a symptom of the failure of class politics; or, class politics emerges through the ultra-nationalist lens in a distorted and displaced way.
As Paul Mason also points out, a return to Blairism will certainly not win back those Labour supporters who turned to UKIP. In England, as in Scotland, it was Blairism’s taking for granted and abandonment of its working-class base that produced the sense of betrayal which led to so many former Labour supporters losing patience with the party on Thursday. In Scotland, the response to betrayal took a progressive form; in England, it assumed a reactionary mode. Partly, this is because there was no progressive outlet available in England. Working-class English voters alienated from Labour’s Oxbridge elite were left with a choice between a UKIP that deliberately talked up its appeal to working families, and an array of small left-wing parties to whose message they were not exposed and which had no chance of being elected. UKIP were also practically forced on them to by a political media so decadent, so boring, that it counts Nigel Farage as a charismatic flash of colour. Hence what Tim Burrows calls “the curiously mediated entity of Farage, a man whose direct manner, coloured tweed and pints of ale seem made for meme-politics. UKIP are more popular on Facebook than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.”
It would be easy to fall into despair about England after Thursday; it would be easy to conclude that the country is full of selfish, mean-spirited and stupid individuals. Yet we have to remember that most people’s engagement with politics is quite minimal; thinking in political terms, framing everyday life in terms of political categories, is now a minority pursuit. This is not a moral or intellectual failing on the part of the electorate: it is a consequence of a neoliberalism which has largely succeeded in its aim of disabling the mechanisms of mass democracy. Overworked and told they need to work harder, busy, but sill feeling that they can’t get everything done, many are too drained to care. (Too knackered to think, just give me time to come round… ) How many Tory voters are committed Conservatives, really? Mostly, they are jaded and detached, maybe voting out of fear as much as self-interest (and self-interest is often experienced as fear).
Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticisation of the neoliberal worldview. The Tories’ pitch is in tune with this ambient neoliberalisation, with its apparently commonsensical emphasis on choice, opportunity and the dignity of labour, and its emotional appeal to negative solidarity. To break out of this, you need a repoliticisation, and this requires a popular mobilisation, just as we saw with the SNP.
The Tory success depended upon a popular de-activation (the days of Thatcher’s rallies are long gone). There was no enthusiasm for either of the two leading parties. The only party that could call on massive popular enthusiasm in the UK was the SNP. That popular enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that capitalist realism is set up to prevent emerging – is the rushing in of something that, for a long time, there hasn’t seemed to be any glimmer of in England: the future.
Don’t be depressed …
What hope for a country where people will camp out for three days to glimpse the Royal Couple? England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)
So we shouldn’t take the Tories’ victory as a sign that we are totally out of sync with the majority of the population in England. As Jeremy remarked to me on Thursday, it is not as if the equivalent of Syriza or Podemos had lost. (Although that was part of what was so devastating – our expectations were low, but reality contrived to go even lower.) Given the serious weakness of Labour’s offer, given the ferocity of the attack on Labour from the right-wing media machine in the UK, given the failure of supposedly neutral popular media such as the BBC to offer the public an adequate account of the banking crisis and its aftermath, it is actually surprising that the Tories’ victory was not even more comprehensive. Those who voted Tory aren’t necessarily indifferent to the suffering of the poor, or to the plight of the vulnerable – most merely accept (why wouldn’t they) the capitalist realist story about there being “no money left” and the need for “difficult choices”. No doubt, their acceptance of this is somewhat self-serving; no doubt, it depends on keeping those who suffer out of sight or in their peripheral vision.
But it is also a fundamentally depressing and depressive outlook. There is a connection between capitalist realism and depressive realism. The idea that life is essentially drudgery (and that therefore no one should get a free ride) is a depressive conception of fairness (if I have to be miserable, so should everyone else), which has a particular traction in a burnt-out post-protestant culture like England’s… (England is the oldest capitalist country, don’t forget…)
All Cameron offered was more of this depression: a vision of a man chipping ice off his windscreen and going to a job he hates, forever. Yet Labour not only failed to offer a narrative about how the economy had gone wrong, it also failed to offer any positive vision of what society would look like if it had its way. I’m convinced that even the most minimal sense of this might have been enough to have inspired people to reject the Tories. Yet the fact that Labour couldn’t offer it was not some mistake (a few more focus groups and meetings with advertising people, and they’d have been there!). It was one more symptom of the way in which the party has been completely colonised by capitalist realism.
The Tories quickly abandoned the “Big Society” after the 2010 campaign, but the concept did actually point to what neoliberal culture has corroded: the space between “individuals and their families” and the state. In addition to its clunky and uncommunicative name – it was a kind of anti-meme – the problem with the “Big Society” was that, in the Tories’ hands, it was a transparent ruse to dismantle the welfare state. To resocialise a culture that has been individualised to the extent that England has demands massive resources – it requires time and energy, the very things that capital (especially the contemporary neoliberal, English version of capital) strips us of most thoroughly.
Real wealth is the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. This is Red Plenty. We, and they, have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block Red Plenty. The attack on capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about “wealth creation”, capital necessarily and always blocks our access to this common wealth. Everything for everyone. All of us first.
Labour has allowed election after election to be fought not on the Red terrain of resocialisation, but on the Blue territory of identitarian community, with its border guards (we’ll have as many as you!) and barbed wire fences (they will be as high as yours!). The genius of the progressive forces which have seized the SNP, meanwhile, was to have moved from the Blue of identitarian community – and the nationalism of colonised peoples is of course very different to the nationalism of the colonisers – to the Red of internationalist cosmopolitan conviviality.
Red belonging offers something different to traditional forms of belonging (faith, flag, family – so many corrupted forms of the commons, as Hardt and Negri have it). Jodi Dean has movingly described how the Communist Party in the US
gave some Americans the feeling that the world was of one piece, their work meaningful as the work of a class, their struggles significant as part of a global struggle to liberate collective work from those claiming it for their own private profit. For desperately poor and barely literate immigrants, communism is a source of knowledge and power – the knowledge of how the world works and the power to change it.
The sense of belonging here could not be reduced to the chauvinistic pleasures that come from being an insider in any group whatsoever; it was a special sense of involvement that promised to transfigure all aspects of everyday life in a way that, previously, only religion had promised to, so that even the dreariest task could be imbued with high significance.
Even those engaged in the boring, repetitive work of distributing leaflets or trying to recruit new members as the official line changed, or chafing against the smugness of higher ups, experience their life in the party as intensely meaningful.
As opposed to the essentially spatial imaginary of Blue belonging – which posits a bounded area, with those inside hostile and suspicious towards those who are excluded – Red belonging is temporal and dynamic. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).
But don’t hope either …
“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”, Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope”, Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:
Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating – not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).
We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence”, Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed”. Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/ us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed”.
“Class disadvantage is a form of injury inflicted on the person at birth”, David Smail explains.
The confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister speaks not so much as a current possession of power (on some measures the union boss might possess as much) as of a confidence which was sucked in with his mother’s milk.
(Even if the milk he fed on was unlikely to have come from his mother.) The welfare state was supposed to be a structure which removed some of this doubt, while the imposition of precarity is a political project designed to remove the confidence that the working class had attained after years of struggle. (See Jennifer M Silva’s heartbreaking Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty – a book to which I shall certainly return in future posts – for an account of the devastating impact of precarity on the emotional lives of young working-class men and women in the US.)
Whereas hope and fear are superstitious (although they may have some hyperstitional effects), confidence is essentially hyperstitional: it immediately increases the capacity to act, the capacity to act increases confidence, and so on – a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous spiral.
So how are we to rebuild our confidence? While the conditions are difficult – and in England, they are about to get much more difficult – we can still act, and act imminently and immanently. How?
Socialisation beyond social media
The answer of course is that many groups are already doing what is necessary. But these processes will become more powerful when they are logistically coordinated (which is not to say “unified” – unity is a strategic weakness, not a strength) and bound together by stronger common narratives and fictions. Jason Read’s essay “The Order and Connection of Ideology Is the Same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation: Or, Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination” explains why narrativisation is so important. In his account of two neo-Spinozist thinkers, Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton, Read reminds us that “our desire, our loves and hates, are already shaped by narratives, by scripts inherited through television and books. We enter into a world already scripted, and, as Spinoza argues in his definition of the first kind of knowledge, our life is defined as much by signs and images as things experienced.”
that the scenarios that we imagine, the stories and narratives that we consume, inform our understanding of reality, not in the sense that we confuse fiction with reality, but that the basic relations that underlie our fictions shape our understanding of reality. It is not that we confuse fiction with reality, believing everything that we see, but that the fundamental elements of every narrative, events, actions, and transformations, become the very way that we make sense of reality. Fiction exists in a permanent relation of metalepsis with reality, as figures and relations from one constantly inform the other.
This is why the intensification and proliferation of the capitalist technologies of reality management and libidinal engineering in the 1980s was not merely some happy coincidence for neoliberalism; neoliberalism’s success was inconceivable without these technologies. It is also the reason that direct action, while of course crucial, will never be sufficient: we also need to act indirectly, by generating new narratives, figures and conceptual frames.
By first of all imposing a particular set of narratives, figures and frames which it then naturalised, capitalist realism hobbled what Jason Read identifies as the “particular power of humanity (and the linchpin of our emancipation)”: “our faculty to reorder differently the images, the thoughts, the affects, the desires and the beliefs that are associated in our mind, the phrases that come out of our mouths, and the movements that emanate from our bodies.” Cultural Studies was also based on this account of the capacity for reordering (which it derived partly from Spinoza, via Althusser). The reordering of images thoughts, affects, desires, beliefs and languages plainly cannot be achieved by “politics” alone – it is a matter for culture, in the widest sense.
Seen from this point of view, the locking of popular culture into repetition that I describe in Ghosts Of My Life – and which Simon Reynolds also describes in Retromania – is therefore a very serious problem. Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change. Sometimes, it can seem fiendishly difficult to account for what has happened to popular culture, but the explanation for its sterility and stasis is ultimately quite simple. Innovation in popular culture has overwhelmingly come from the working class. Neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life – the results are now all around us.
Furthermore, the incursion of capitalist cyberspace into every area of life and the psyche has intensified the processes of de-socialisation. This is not to say that there are no progressive potentials in the web, but these have almost certainly been overrated, while the impact of cyberspace in de-socialising culture and subjectivity has been massively underestimated. Here I merely rehearse Bifo’s account of semiocapitalism and Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism, but it is important to operationalise this critique.
Blogs and social media have allowed us to talk to ourselves (but not to reach out beyond the left bubbles); they have also generated pathological behaviours and forms of subjectivity which not only generate misery and anger – they waste time and energy, our most crucial resources. Email and handhelds, meanwhile, have produced new forms of isolation and loneliness: the fact that we can receive communications from work anywhere and anytime means we are exposed to work’s order-words when we are alone, without the possibility of support from fellow workers.
In sum, the obsession with the web, its monopolisation of any idea of the new, has served capitalist realism rather than undermined it. Which does not mean, naturally, that we should abandon the web, only that we should find out how to develop a more instrumental relationship with it. Put simply, we should use it – as a means of dissemination, communication and distribution – but not live inside it. The problem is that this goes against the tendencies of handhelds. We all recognise the by now cliched image of a train carriage full of people pecking at their tiny screens, but have we really registered how miserable this really is, and how much it suits capital for these pockets of socialisation to be closed down?
Knowing someone in this life feels as desperate as me
Some folk in Plan C have been talking about consciousness raising, and for many reasons, I believe that it is a crucially important to revive and proliferate this practice (or range of practices) now. Consciousness raising is partly about the discovery and production of subjugated knowledges, but it is also about the immediate production of socialisation, of forms of subjectivity antithetical to the always/on-always lonely mode of contemporary capitalist individuality.
Consciousness raising opens up the possibility of living, not merely theorising about, a collective perspective. It can give us the resources to behave, think and act differently at work (if it makes any sense to talk about being “at” work any more), where capitalist realism has become second nature. The roots of any successful struggle will come from people sharing their feelings, especially their feelings of misery and desperation, and together attributing the sources of these feelings to impersonal structures, albeit impersonal structures mediated by particular figures to which we must attach populist loathing.
In the harsh conditions of cyberspatialised capitalism – conditions that, as Jennifer M Silva demonstrates, have produced a “hardening” of the self, especially in the young – consciousness raising can produce a new compassion, for others and for ourselves. Neurotic-Oedipalising capitalism responsibilises, harshly blaming us, while – in its therapeutic mode – telling us that we have the power as individuals to change anything and everything: if we’re unhappy, it’s up to us to fix it. Consciousness raising, meanwhile, is about positive depersonalisation: it’s not your fault, it’s capitalism. No individuals can change anything, not even themselves; but collective activation is already, immanently, overcoming individualised immiseration.
So I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.
The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:
Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?
Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.
All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.
The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has… This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.
The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #Itsnotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).
Anyway, here goes:
- Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affectioninto spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
- Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
- Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
- Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
- Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
- Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realismpost. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring cheap labour, etc.
- Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up veryrough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
- Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.
Summer is coming
The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right-wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of ‘”ed” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….
Choose Your Weapons
(12th August 2007)
People are often telling me that I ought to read Frank Kogan’s work, but I’ve never got around it. (Partly that’s because, Greil Marcus apart, I’ve never really tuned into much American pop criticism at all, which in my no doubt far too hasty judgement has seemed to be bogged down in a hyper-stylized faux-naif gonzoid mode that has never really appealed to me.) The - again, perhaps unfair - impression I have is that, in Britain, the battles that Kogan keeps on fighting were won, long ago, by working-class autodidact intellectuals. No doubt the two recent pieces by Kogan that Simon has linked to are grotesquely unrepresentative of his work as a whole (I certainly hope so, since it is difficult to see why so many intelligent people would take his work seriously if they weren’t), but it’s hard not to read them as symptomatic, not only of an impasse and a malaise within what I now hesitate to call “Popism”, but of a far more pervasive, deeply-entrenched cultural conservatism in which so-called Popism is intrinsically implicated.
Remember, in the immediate wake of 9/11, all those po-faced Adornoite proclamations that there would be “no more triviality” in American popular culture after the Twin Towers fell? There can be few who, even when the remains of the Twin Towers were smouldering, really believed that US pop culture would enter a new thoughtful, solemn and serious phase after September 11th - and it’s surely superfluous to remember, at this point, that what ensued was a newly vicious cynicism soft-focused by a piety that only a wounded Leviathan assuming the role of aggrieved victim can muster - but would anyone, then, have believed that, only six years later, a supposedly serious critic would write a piece called “Paris [Hilton] is our Vietnam“… especially, when, in those years, there has, like, been another Vietnam. What we are dealing with in a phrase like “Paris is our Vietnam” is not trivia – this isn’t the collective narcissism of a leisure class ignorant of geopolitics – but a self conscious trivialization, an act of passive nihilistic transvaluation. Debating the merits or otherwise of a boring heiress have been elevated to the status of a political struggle; and not even by preening aesthetes in some Wildean/ Warholian celebration of superficiality, but by middle-aged men in sweat pants, sitting on the spectator’s armchair at the end of History and dissolutely flicking through the channels.
The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
At least the “Paris is Vietnam” piece laid bare the resentment of resentment that I have previously argued is the real libidinal motor of “popism” - “we love Paris all the more because others hate her (but luckily we loved her any way, honest!)” But this latest piece Simon has linked to is, if anything, even more oddly pointless and indicative. Unlike the pleasantly mediocre Paris Hilton LP, the ostensible object of the piece, Backstreet Boys’ single “Everybody (Backstreets Back)” is actually rather good. Practically everyone I know liked it. The problem is the idea that saying this is in some way news in 2007. No word of a lie, I had to check the date on that post, assuming, at first, that it must have been written a decade ago.
The article makes me think that, if the motivating factor with British popists is, overwhelmingly, class, with Americans it might be age. Perhaps those a little deeper into middle age than I am were still subject to the proscriptions and prescriptions of a Leavisite high culture. But it seems to me that popists now are like Mick Jagger confronted with punk in 1976: they don’t seem to realise that, if there is an establishment, it is them. Even if the “Nathan” with whom Kogan debates exists – and I’ll be honest with you, I’m finding it hard to believe that he does – his function is a fantasmatic one (in the same way that Lacan argued that, if a pathologically jealous husband is proved right about his wife’s infidelities, his jealousy remains pathological): for popists to believe that their position is in any way challenging or novel, they have to keep digging up “Nathans” who contest it. But, in 2007, Nathan’s hoary old belief that only groups who write their own songs can be valid has been refuted so many times that it is rather like someone mounting a defence of slavery today - sure, there are such people who sold such a view, but the position is so irrelevant to the current conjuncture that it is quaintly antiquated rather than a political threat. There may be a small minority of pop fans who claim to hold Nathan’s views; but, given the success of Sinatra, the Supremes, Elvis Presley and the very boybands that popists think it is so transgressive to re-evaluate, those views would in most cases be performatively contradicted by the fans actual tastes. (Kogan does grant that the problem is not so much fans’ tastes as their accounts of them – but the unspoken assumption is that it is alright, indeed mandatory, to contest male rock fans’ accounts of their own tastes, but that the aesthetic judgements of the figure with which the popist creepily identifies, the teenage girl, ought never to be gainsaid.) (The other irony is that, if you talk to an actual teenager today, they are far more likely to both like and have heard of Nirvana than they are the Backstreet Boys.)
The once-challenging claim that for certain listeners, the (likes of) Backstreet Boys could have been as potent as (the likes of) Nirvana has been passive-nihilistically reversed - now, the message disseminated by the wider culture – if not necessarily by the popists themselves – is that nothing was ever better than the Backstreet Boys. The old high-culture disdain for pop cultural objects is retained; what is destroyed is the notion that there is anything more valuable than those objects. If pop is no more than a question of hedonic stim, then so are Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Reading Milton, or listening to Joy Division, have been re-branded as just another consumer choice, of no more significance than which brand of sweets you happen to like. Part of the reason that I find the term “Popism” unhelpful now is that implies some connection between what I would prefer to call Deflationary Hedonic Relativism and what Morley and Penman were doing in the early Eighties. But their project was the exact inverse of this: their claim was that, as much sophistication, intelligence and affect could be found in the pop song as anywhere else. Importantly, the music, and the popular culture of the time, made the argument for them. The evaluation was not some fits-all-eras a priori position, but an intervention at a particular time designed to have certain effects. Morley and Penman were still critics, who expected to influence production, not consumer guides marking commodities out of five stars, or executives spending their spare time ranking every song with the word “sugar” in it on live journal communities that are the cyberspace equivalent of public school dorms.
Whereas Morley and Penman (self-taught working-class intellectuals both) complicated the relationship between theory and popular culture with writing that - in its formal properties, its style and its erudition, as well as in its content – contested commonsense, Deflationary Hedonic Relativism merely ratifies the empiricist dogmas that underpin consumerism. More than that. Owen Hatherley has astutely observed that, in addition to reiterating the standard Anglo-American bluff dismissal of metaphysics, the Deflationary Hedonistic Relativist disclaiming of theory (“we just like what we like, we don’t have a theory”) uncannily echoes the dreary mantras of the average NME indie band: “we just do what we do, anything else is a bonus’”, ‘the music is the only important thing”. In the UK, the rhetorical fight between “Popists” and indie is as much a phoney war as the parliamentary political punch and judy show between Cameron’s Tories and Brown’s New Labour: a storm in a ruling class tea-cup. In both cases, the social reality is that of ex-public schoolkids carrying on their inter-House rivalries by other means. In the case of both indie and Popism, there is a strangely inverted relationship to populism and the popular. While the “Popists” claim to be populist but actually support music that is increasingly marginal in terms of sales figures, the indie types claim to celebrate an alternative while their preferred music of choice (Trad skiffle) has Full Spectrum Dominance (you can’t listen to Radio 2 for fifteen minutes without hearing a Kaiser Chiefs song). In many ways, because it was attempting to analyse a genuinely popular phenomenon, Simon’s defence of the Arctic Monkeys was more genuinely popist than all of the popist screeds on Paris Hilton’s barely-bought LP - but of course much of the impulse behind them was the ultra-rockist desire to be seen thumbing ones nose at critical consensus. Witness the genuinely pathetic - it certainly provokes pathos in me - attempt to whip up controversy about the workmanlike plod of Kelly Clarkson, on a blog which, in its combination of hysterical overheating and dreary earnestness, is as boring as it is symptomatic - though, I have to confess I have never managed to get to the end of a single post, a problem I have with a great many “popist” writings, including the magnum opus of popism, Morley’s Words and Music.
Much as he occasionally flails and rails against popist commonplaces (see, for instance, his recent - I would argue unwarranted - attack on Girls Aloud), Morley is as deeply integrated into Deflationary Hedonic Relativist commonsense as Penman is excluded from it. What was the strangely affectless Words and Music if not a description of the OedIpod from inside? All those friction-free freeways, those inconsequent consumer options standing in for existential choices… Yet Morley is still a theorist of the ends of History and of Music, still too obviously in love with intelligence to be fully plugged into the anti-theoretical OedIpod circuitry. Even so, Ian’s silence speaks far louder than Morley’s chatter, and, after my very few dealings with Old Media, I’m increasingly seeing Ian’s withdrawal, not as a tragic failure, but as a noble retreat.
All of UK culture tends to the condition of the clip show, in which talking heads - including, of course, Morley – are paid to say what dimwit posh producers have decided that the audience already thinks over footage of what everyone has already seen. I recently had dealings with an apparatchik of Very Old Media. What you get from representatives of VOM is always the same litany of requirements: writing must be “light”, “upbeat” and “irreverent”. This last word is perhaps the key one, since it indicates that the sustaining fantasy to which the young agents of Very Old Media are subject is exactly the same as the one in which popists indulge: that they are refusing to show reverence to some stuffy censorious big Other. But where, in the dreary-bright, dressed-down sarky snarky arcades of postmodern culture, is this “reverence”? What is the postmodern big Other if it is not this “irreverence” itself? (Only people who have not been in a university humanities dept for a quarter-of-century - i.e. not at all your bogstandard Oxbdridge grad Meeja employee/leisure-time popist - could really believe that there is some ruthlessly-policed high culture canon. When Harold Bloom wrote The Western Canon it was as a challenge to the relativism that is hegemonically dominant in English Studies.) I’ve quickly learned that “light”, “upbeat” and “irreverent” are all codes for “thoughtless” and “mundanist”. Confronted with these values and their representatives - who, as you would expect, are much posher than me – I often encounter a cognitive dissonance, or rather a dissonance between affect and cognition. Faced with the Thick Posh People who staff so much of the media, I feel inferiority - their accents and even their names are enough to induce such feelings - but think that they must be wrong. It is this kind of dissonance that can produce serious mental illness; or - if the conditions are right - rage.
Anti-intellectualism is a ruling-class reflex, whereby ruling-class stupidity is attributed to the masses (I think we’ve discussed here before the ruse of the Thick Posh Person whereby make a show of pretending to be thick in order to conceal that they are, in fact, thick.) It’s scarcely surprising that inherited privilege tends to produce stupidity, since, if you do not need intelligence, why would you take the trouble to acquire it? Media dumbing down is the most banal kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Simon Frith and Jon Savage long ago noted in their NLR essay, “The Intellectuals and the Mass Media”, which Owen Hatherley recently brought to my attention again, the plain common-man pose of the typical public school and Oxbridge-educated media commentator trades on the assumption that these commentators are far more in touch with “reality” than anyone involved in Theory. The implicit opposition is between Media (as transparent window-on-the-world transmitter of good, solid commonsense) and Education (as out-of-touch disseminator of useless, elitist arcanery). Once, Media was a contested ground, in which the impulse to educate was in tension with the injunction to entertain. Now - and the indispensable Lawrence Miles is incisive on this, as on so many other things, in his latest compendium of insights - Old Media is almost totally given over to a vapid notion of Entertainment - and so, increasingly, is education.
In my teenage years, I certainly benefited far more from reading Morley and Penman and their progeny than from the middlebrow dreariness of much of my formal education. It’s because of them, and later Simon and Kodwo et al, that I became interested in Theory and bothered to pursue it in postgraduate study. It is essential to note that Morley and Penman were not just an “application” of High Theory to Low Culture; the hierarchical structure was scrambled, not just inverted, and the use of Theory in this context was as much a challenge to the middle-class assumptions of Continental Philosophy as it was to the anti-theoretical empiricism of mainstream British popular culture. But now that teaching is itself being pressed into becoming a service industry (delivering measurable outputs in the form of exam results) and teachers are required to be both child minders and entertainers, those working in the education system who still want to induce students into the complicated enjoyments that can be derived from going beyond the pleasure principle, from encountering something difficult, something that runs counter to one’s received assumptions, find themselves in an embattled minority. Here we are now entertain us.
The credos of ruling class anti-intellectualism that most Old Media professionals are forced to internalise are far more effective than the Stasi ever was in generating a popular culture that is unprecedentedly monotonous. Put it this way: a situation in which Lawrence Miles languishes, at the limits of mental health, barely able to leave his house, while the likes of Rod Liddle swagger around the mediascape is not only aesthetically abhorrent, it is fundamentally unjust. Contrary to the “it’s only hedonic stim” deflationary move that both Stekelmanites and Popists share, popular culture remains immensely important, even if it only serves an essential ideological function as the background noise of a capitalist realism which naturalises environmental depredation, mental health plague and sclerotic social conditions in which mobility between classes is lessening towards zero.
A class war is being waged, but only one side is fighting.
Choose your side. Choose your weapons.
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.
We will be publishing an anthology of Mark Fisher’s writing, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds, in the second half of 2018. More details soon.
RIP kpunk ❤️
This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Way) at a day of lectures in tribute to Mark Fisher last Saturday, 8th July, at Spike in Berlin. You can see the full list of speakers and lectures here.
( I was asked to give a talk about some aspects of Mark Fisher’s work, so this is what I said.)
About a year or so ago I was briefly in contact with Mark about his book Acid Communism, which I’d heard rumours about, didn’t quite believe really existed and finally succumbed to the temptation to ask him about it. Anyway he sent me the introduction, which may have altered subsequently, and among the many striking observations there was one section and one phrase that particularly struck me, partly because I was thinking along similar lines and also because of what I was reading and listening to at the time.
I wanted to ask Mark lots of questions about this project and this particular phrase he’d used but it wasn’t the right moment to start burdening him with my insights so they went unasked, and so I am taking the opportunity to reconsider them now.
Mark uses a passage from Danny Baker’s autobiography to illustrate a moment that he then characterises as expressing a sense of “exorbitant sufficiency”:
I’ll think about that phrase in two dimensions, political and aesthetic, because as we are repeatedly told there is only aesthetics and political economy
First, here’s the passage from Baker’s autobiography.
“It was July 1966 and I was newly nine years old. We had holidayed on the Broads and the family had recently taken possession of the gorgeous wooden cruiser that was to be our floating home for the next fortnight. It was called The Constellation and, as my brother and I breathlessly explored the twin beds and curtained portholes in our cabin built into the boat’s bow, the prospect of what lay ahead saw the life force beaming from us like the rays of a cartoon sun. … I … made my way up to through the boat to take up position in the small area of the stern. On the way, I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, ‘River Deep’ gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, ‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’ (pp 49-50)
The preconditions for this experience of exorbitant sufficiency get spelled out in the text—essentially the high point of a post-war social democracy and what Mark is keen to emphasise are the general preconditions of this particularly personal moment of rapture—in order to deflect the criticism that it only represents a nostalgic reflection on Baker’s part or a typical, halcyon moment from childhood. This is of a piece with many of Mark’s observation that the foundations for a particular continuum of working class art and music production, punk/post-punk/rave/drum and bass were based on the possibilities of a dropping out and/or going to art school, having a reasonably comfortable life on the dole, something which probably stops being possible around the mid-late 90s in the UK.
“there is something very specific about this moment, something that means it could have only happened then. We can enumerate some of the factors that made it unique: a sense of existential and social security that allowed working-class families to take holidays at all; the role that new technology such as transistor radios played in both connecting groups to an outside and enabling them to luxuriate in the moment, a moment that was somehow exorbitantly sufficient. (italics mine)”
One of the things that’s interesting in the book, or at least in its opening section, is that Mark has returned to the Sixties. In some ways the Sixties for an earlier iteration of K-Punk in its blogging heyday would have been anathema, the hippies and their tree-hugging, free-love organicist enthusiasms were everything that punk and cyberpunk stood against, and one of the main currents that has developed out of a particular strain of Mark’s thinking, a ccelerationism, is still quite openly anti-hippy in its orientation.
One of the ways in which hippie culture is/was anathema is in its focus on the child as symbol of nature and innocence and Mark was a famous early advocate of anti-natalist positions, championing No Future by Lee Edelman and so on.
So I suppose my first question here would be; while we have to be careful to make sure we are looking at the techno-economic paradigm that make these highly personal moments possible, can childhood and the experience in childhood of continuous levels of engagement and enlargement, the constant learning, the, if you like, repeated epiphanies, be a good model for acid communist or exorbitantly sufficient subjectivities? I am also thinking here little bit of a recent proposal for a National Education Service in the UK, a non-neoliberal equivalent to the market demand for life-long learning, because there is something psychedelic in the world-renewing properties of theorising and reconceptualising and that’s consonant in some ways with Mark’s interest in the notion of an outside; this space beyond current conceptions and boundaries that we constantly push into.
Can we locate a radical version of the inner child? Can we repurpose it, move it away from kind of wide-eyed avatar of some essential goodness and wonder, into a questing and adventurous, intellectually omnivorous, polymorphous subject, one that retains openness to an outside and that doesn’t ossify into a “realist” “adult” or highly individualised subjectivity?
There are several categories that Mark identifies as being essential to this sense of exorbitant sufficiency, light and space are two of them, but the most essential is perhaps time, free or unpressured time, and the sense of unpressured time comes of course from being a child, but also from a lack of anxiety about the future.
Exorbitant sufficiency has an ambiguous relationship toward the future as the space into which we project both anxiety and hope, but both those projections occur only if the present is intolerable, fallen, and will be redeemed in some way by the yet-to-come.
You might want to say that in exorbitantly sufficient moments the experience is one of time being in-joint as opposed to being out-of-joint. I’ll tentatively suggest that perhaps the time is always out-of-joint but that there are positive and negative modalities of that disjointedness. And I’d also suggest that there’s something slightly bittersweet in Baker’s passage, which is perhaps why Mark says that it could “only have happened then” as it takes place just as a shift of a certain kind is occurring, and that shift is symbolised here by the transistor radio that Baker takes up onto the bow of the boat.
One of Mark’s most influential formulations or projects was hauntology. Hauntology expressed a time out-of-jointedness in its negative mode—a certain future should have appeared, a better present should exist but has failed to come into being and the remnants of this better present are scattered around us, provoking us, reminding us of the lost possibilities.
This idea is given a certain kind of empirical base by economists like Carlota Perez, who is essentially a long wave theorist of capitalism and who argues that a shift toward a different type of post-Fordism, a production regime not based on oil, mass production and disposability should have occurred around the 1970’s but the “spatial fix”, essentially the opening up of China and the economic power of big oil to suppress alternate technologies, among other factors, have kept us trapped in an unnaturally elongated, slowly and unevenly differentiating Fordist moment.
Interestingly the subject that Perez imagines as the new consumer of this deferred future/present is very similar to the figure of the Hipster. She believes that elites lead the way culturally, so these would be moneyed connoisseur, interested in the specialised, high-quality, durable goods. interested in recycling and reclaiming and oriented toward vintage and low energy intensive forms of commodity accumulation, creativity, “up-cycling” if you like. So, to a degree, the 2000s, in which Mark formulated his hauntology, was haunted both by the remnants of the Utopian promise of an early order, modernism, intersecting with these kinds of harbingers of a Perezian future, temporally stranded and wandering around Dalston waiting for solar panels and vertical farming to arrive.
Time can also be out of joint in a “good way” however and I’d think here about Mark’s complaint that with regard to modern technology’s role in music, you can’t hear it anymore, using the example of Brian Eno’s synths and tapes and the way they irrupted into Roxy Music’s often quite standard, pastichey pop and rock tunes, inducing in the listener an exhilarating frisson of Future Shock. Here the time is out of joint because the future is forcing its way back into the present, opening a passage in space-time and allowing the ghost of the yet-to-come, more an angel than a ghost perhaps, to come floating in.
In the passage with the young Danny Baker on the boat we have a couple of key interrelations, firstly the surrounding countryside offering an image of the eternal, the pastoral and sublime, the boat and its engine, an older classical form, an established type of technology and the emergent, the future, as symbolised by the radio.
As it notes though, the radio is tiny and portable and the moment therefore captures something of an inflexion point in terms of the possibilities of Future Shock as an affect or an experience, and it’s a notion which disappears from the culture probably from the late 70s onward and is, to some extent an addiction that people of a certain generation have never been able to wean themselves off. Indeed you might want to argue that a lot of the accelerationist project both aesthetically and politically is redolent of Future Shock envy on the part of a younger generation.
For this Future Shock to occur I think the technology has to be visible in the same way as it has to be hearable in music, hence in a kind of vulgarised, or at least popularised, hauntology, and in steampunk we have a fetishisation of clunky, monolithic early versions of technology with huge, glowing cathode tubes, gramophones, vast banks of synths and so on. So as technology miniaturizes, blends in with its surroundings, becomes invisible, becomes more of a discrete frame, as architecture does too around this point, then this kind of juxtaposition, the eternal, the residual, the emergent begins to disappear. Even though cyberpunk, extropian and to some extent accelerationist fantasies focus on seamless integration, technical augmentation, the man-machine and so on, in a way a certain affect a certain dramatic temporal tension is lost with miniaturization, the future side of the relationship falls away, becomes invisible and the present feels lopsided, dislocated, out of joint.
So I suppose another question I would have there is, what’s the relationship of exorbitant sufficiency to time? Is it only possible at a given historical moment, a good out of jointedness? Is this why it can’t seem to come again?
The term exorbitant sufficiency expresses that one has enough yet that enough feels luxurious, far in excess of what’s required. So this is a paradox or an oxymoron, and this sense of completeness in the moment, this lack of orientation to the future puts me in mind of Todd McGowan’s recent work. McGowan’s a Lacanian, which makes reading him a rather forbidding prospect, at least it does for me , but essentially McGowan tries to build a politics, an anti-capitalist politics of the death drive.
To very crudely summarise his argument, we have suffered an originary loss and we try to replace this loss all through our lives by pursuing an object that will stand in for the loss, here, commodities, which promise us a sense of completeness but only lead us to experience disappointment, because what we actually want is the disappointment itself, the loss that allows us to desire again. The chase is better than the catch, as Motorhead succinctly put it.
McGowan believes ALL orientation toward the future is inherently bound up in capitalist desire, that the constant search for and repetition of failure maps onto the structure of capital accumulation, orientation toward the future as a salvationary space is caught up in the logic of the profit motive, commodity production etc. All of this is expressed through the kind of counterintuitive and paradoxical formulations of which Mark was fond, the title of his big book being “enjoying what we don’t have”. What we should stop doing for McGowan is precisely thinking about the future, seeking out boundaries and limits to overcome in the belief that beyond them there is a true satisfaction possible as we already have everything we need or possibly everything we don’t need. Or, perhaps better still, we already don’t have everything we don’t need.
There are problems with McGowan’s work in that it fails to address the body and material needs, poverty and so on. It’s hard not to be oriented toward the future and accumulation if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you face crop failure this summer, and so there is an extent to which McGowan is really perhaps addressing, in a more rarified register, the Affluenza that bedevils his students and his peers. Either way, this refusal of the future overlaps in some ways with Marks exorbitant sufficiency; the moment burgeons into a sense of plenitude because in some ways it’s been bracketed off. The relationship with acid here might be fairly clear. Acid shuts down the memory and the sense of anticipation, the music critic Simon Reynolds likening its results to one being dazzled by the moment.
So the next question I would have asked is whether a postcapitalist desire is at odds with a demand for the future and whether an exorbitantly sufficient renunciation of the future isn’t also an option to be considered? Does the idea of exorbitant sufficiency map in some ways onto the idea of Communal Luxury more than Luxury Communism.
Thinking about exorbitant sufficiency as an aesthetic, one of the songs Mark mentions as exemplifying this is the Kinks’ Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon, free time, a certain luxuriousness of surroundings, life devoted to the ludic, but also crucially a loss or a sense of being unencumbered.
I am going to suggest a series of qualities that I think are required for a work to add it to a canon of the exorbitantly sufficient and do that on the basis of some of my interpretation of the phrase I have already outlined.
I think it should it contain a sense of the good childlike, in the sense that it must have a certain numinous quality, a sense not of breaking into new territory/overcoming boundaries but of transformation or enlargement.
It should concentrate on a concentrated moment and that moment should be, paradoxically, illuminated by the eclipse of the future
Should have a sense of ease and lassitude.
Should formally express a relation and tensions between deep time and the traditional and the defamiliarising possibilities of the technological but without aiming at the sense of the ruptural that characterised Future Shock
It should have something of the reverie and the epiphany.
I am going to nominate a song for this and that’s Estuary Bed by The Triffids from an album with the interesting title, Born Sandy Devotional.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGP6fmpIxt0[/embedyt]
The song title is also relevant. Estuaries are as much a combination of forces pulling in different directions as they are a confluence, an arresting of motion and a deepening of it, rich, teaming environments alive with growth, ancient and yet also densely populated, worked over by humans, in some ways undermined by them.
Here are the lyrics:
The children are walking back from the beach/ Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet/Washing the salt off under the shower/And just wasting away, wasting away
The hours and hours and hours
Come on, climb over your father’s back fence/For the very last time we’ll take the shortcut/Across his lawn/Then lie together on the estuary bed/Perfectly still, perfectly warm
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
I see you still/I know not rest/Silt returns along the passage of flesh/ I hear your voice/I taste the salt/I bear the stain, it won’t wash off/I hold you not
But I see you still/What use eyesight if it should melt? What use memory covered in estuary silt?
I know your shape/Our limbs entwined/I know your name, remember mine
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
There is an emphasis on childhood, un-hurried time, sunlight, nature, the sense of rebirth, sloughing an old skin, awakening, mutual embrace, a mutual transformation. The track itself is essentially a pretty straight, folk-rock track given a particular brightness and ambient edge through the production, and as it progresses the lead vocal becomes increasingly detached from the background, swimming of into a kind of overlapping, multi tracked, oneiric drift, urging whoever the song’s addressee is, perhaps the singer themselves, to awake, to face life replenished. There is nothing but two people lying together in the sun, in a particular favourite place and yet the song implies this is everything, more than anything one could want, exorbitantly sufficient.
So, I suppose all of this would just have been a long preamble to the question, What do you think of this song, Mark? Do you like it?
To which his answer would almost certainly have been “no”.
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…
Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Richard Gilman-Opalsky about his new book Specters of Revolt. Here is a 12-minute excerpt of our conversation and the transcript is below. –John Tintera
Richard Gilman-Opalsky on Specters of Revolt [transcript]
I really want to turn our understanding of revolt upside down. I want to invert it, to turn it upside down. Rather than looking upon it as a lowly emotional outburst, I want us to see it as, in some ways, the high point for politics, for our ethical commitment to others on earth.
And within that, there is also a kind of historical concern that my book takes up and that is the idea of the revolt as not being over when it’s done. This gets to the whole title of the book Specters of Revolt and its meaning.
This is why I wrote the book within the context of a hauntology—being haunted. Societies are haunted by revolts because often times something happens—a revolt, an uprising takes place over a weekend or it goes on for two weeks—maybe if it’s a very intense thing it can go for three or four—and then it’s over and people say, “Ah, it’s over but nothing happened.”
I think this is a fundamentally flawed historical understanding of each individual revolt. A revolt is always taking up the unfinished business of previous uprisings. It’s never really over. Once we stop seeing it happen it doesn’t mean it’s done. It’s only finished when the grievances it reacts against are thoroughly resolved – when the conditions that gave rise to it are transformed.
That’s why I look at these more recent revolts within the US as continuations of a long history of revolts that go all the way back to the slave revolts. In fact, in the introduction of the book, I talk about the famous slave revolt of Spartacus in gladiatorial times.
When we don’t have a revolt, we always know, and I believe people in positions of power know full well…there’re a couple of examples in the book that I use to illustrate this…that until the society really does transform and address the conditions that give rise to revolt, times in between revolt are really “ante-revolt” – they’re times before the next one.
We’ve started to see a new wave of black revolt, within the US, in response to police brutality, police killings of unarmed black men across the country. We saw uprisings in Baltimore, in Charlotte, in Ferguson among other places. The book is really about trying to treat these revolts with the dignity they demand and, I think, deserve. And trying to take seriously that, contrary to the typical caricature of revolt as irrational and violent, that they’re actually full of exceedingly thoughtful content. And that they’re more a reaction against violence and various forms of violence than they are themselves violent.
Quite a long time ago, I had taken up, for a book that was published in 2008, the example of the Mexican Zapatistas who made a revolt in Mexico on the inauguration day of NAFTA. This was in 1994, early into the post-Cold War period, when people were saying that the old revolutionary politics is dead and that it was time for a tombstone to be placed above everything under the heading revolution, transformation, criticism of capital and capitalism, and all the rest. Because the old Soviet Union and the communist projects of the 20th century were now dead and buried.
And then come, out of the mountains of Chiapas, people with virtually no power, out of the mountains, and that indigenous population threw into question the neo-liberalism of the early ’90s.
Really, ever since that moment, I have been interested in what we might call revolutionary alternatives to revolution. Not the old 19th-century idea of revolution where people storm the Bastille, take the state, and govern it from above, but different ways of challenging the existing situation from below.
In the years after that, I had thought, written, researched, and taught about social movements and all kinds of challenges that were coming from everyday people. What usually was the case was that students and readers saw this as a highly impractical theoretical debate because we didn’t live in a world of revolution. We lived in a world of acceptance, of acquiescence, of conventional politics, and failure.
So when 2008 came around and we started to see uprisings throughout Greece, Europe, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and in the inner cities throughout the US, finally, at long last, it was much easier to say, “You see. This is not a pure theory trapped up in text or philosophy. This is the actual practice of people everywhere. Whenever they can do it, whenever the conditions are there they do rise up and always have.”
Events in the world have forced me to take up the question anew. For myself and for a whole generation of people, there was a big question in the early ‘90s. And that question was, is there anything else; is there nothing but global capitalism of one form or another, is there anything else? Is there any other way of thinking about and against this newly consolidated power of capital?
In the ‘80s, really throughout the whole Cold War period, the idea that dominated was, there’re two systems. That was the Cold War ideology. There’s the system of capitalism versus the communist system. Of course, we knew for a long time — across the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities — that the Cold War ideology was a fake. It was a fraud; it was a lie.
Many of the philosophers I read, many of the sources I used, demonstrated that that period was a period not between capitalism and communism but; rather a period of contest between two forms of capitalism; state capitalism, bureaucratic and administrative capitalism, on the one hand, versus the free market deregulating capitalism of the US. And that was the capitalism that won at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.
In that period of the early 1990s, people were generally convinced that now there was no alternative, not even an alternative within capitalism of one form against another. It was just the victory of neo-liberal free market global capitalism and nothing else.
The indigenous rebellion in Mexico–the revolt of the Zapatistas, which in many ways was a failure but in other ways was a success–showed those of us who learn from revolts… (that’s the kind of scholar I always have been, one who didn’t want to teach revolt but rather to be a student of it and learn from it) the Zapatistas taught us that there were still new ways of thinking against the situation.
As I said, some of it was a failure but some of it was a success. What it did was spark what I call in the book, the “insurrectionary imagination.” It didn’t directly and immediately solve problems, but what the Zapatistas did do was they unjammed the insurrectionary imagination, which is the title of the third chapter of Specters of Revolt.
They got us thinking in a very big way, open and creative, about the possibility for challenging the power of capital. The interest in human psychology, in social psychology, that the health of the human person in our society, for me, comes out of a really long tradition of what is sometimes called critical theory—thinkers like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other sociologists and theorists.
What they tried to do is understand the political situation and social situation—the reasons why we accept the unacceptable; the reasons why we tolerate the intolerable. Not from the old merely political and economic point of view but also from the point of view of human psychology, and the position of the person within the society, and why it is that we think the way we think about ourselves and the world.
Why it is that we can call certain things totally unacceptable—for example, growing inequality, brutal exclusions, mass incarcerations, incredible levels of violence associated with poverty and racism. Why we can say that those things, on their face, that they’re totally unacceptable and then continue to accept them as if they weren’t.
Psychology, when fused with political theory and the social sciences more broadly can help us to explain some of the human conditions, I think, on levels that earlier political scientists and theorists, either neglected or often times didn’t have the tools to undertake.
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
This is an extract from the introduction of Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol 2 by Eugene Thacker. It is the second part of a 3-book series, which began with In the Dust of This Planet (Zer0, 2011) and will continue with Tentacles Longer Than Night.
Vol 2 & 3 will both be published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015 – TS
Descartes’ Demon. Sometime around 1639, René Descartes sat down at his desk to write. At issue for him was a simple question concerning knowledge. Philosophy, theology, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, and the natural sciences all claim to know things. From them a cumulative understanding of the self, of others, of the world, and of the cosmos is made possible. But how do we know that what we know is actually true? What is the foundation on which these disparate fields of knowledge are based? Are there questions that cannot – or should not – be asked, lest they undermine the knowledge they are designed to produce? How much uncertainty is tolerated before knowledge becomes doubt, and when does doubt come to a stop, if ever?
An abyss opens up. For Descartes this was a personal as well as a philosophical problem. As he writes, “Some years ago I noticed how many false things I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful were the things that I subsequently built on them and therefore that, once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and I should begin again from the most basic foundations…”
Being the astute thinker that he was, Descartes set out a method for addressing this problem. The task was, as he notes, ambitious, and Descartes writes that he had been waiting for a “mature age” at which to undertake this project. Whether the age of forty-three was the right age or not is hard to say. He felt he had been waiting long enough, even too long, and so, Descartes writes, “today I appropriately cleared my mind of all cares and arranged for myself some time free from interruption. I am alone and, at long last, I will devote myself seriously and freely to this general overturning of my beliefs.”
The result of these exercises in skepticism are well known to students of philosophy, and, when The Meditations on First Philosophy were published in Paris in 1641, they immediately attracted a whole range of responses, not least of all from the ongoing debates over the relationship between philosophy and theology, reason and faith.
Descartes’ most lasting application of his methodological doubt comes in the first of his meditations, where he considers how our senses deceive us. Dreams, hallucinations, painting, and other examples are discussed as instances in which we think we know something based on sensory evidence, and are in fact deceived. But at least in these instances we can learn, from experience, to distinguish dream from reality, and the image from the thing itself. Our senses are reliable, if used properly.
But Descartes pushes his doubt even further. What if our senses are, by definition, deceptive? What if deception is, as it were, hard-wired into our very modes of being? Descartes raises this question through a kind of thought experiment:
Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil mind, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dream by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false.3
Another abyss opens. Often dubbed the “evil demon” or “evil genius,” here we see Descartes pushing his doubt to an extreme point, a point at which no knowledge is possible because nothing is for certain. One thought is as good or as bad as another, every- thing relative, arbitrary, haphazard, pointless. Subject to continual deception, prey to the cunning of unknown entities, dismembered and insubstantial, Descartes has let himself to stand on the precipice of philosophy and peer over the edge. And what he finds there is a terrifying abyss, where there is neither certitude nor knowledge, nor even a single thought – just a tenebrous, impassive silence.
“But this is a tiring project and a kind of laziness brings me back to what is more habitual in my life.” Can we blame Descartes for stepping back from the precipice? Thinking is hard work, yes, but the negation of all thought is, perhaps, harder. What Descartes inadvertently discovers is at once the ground and the greatest threat to philosophy, the question that cannot be asked without undermining the idea of philosophy itself.
Traditionally, the Socratic tradition in philosophy has a thera- peutic function, which is to dispel the horrors of the unknown through reasoned argument. What cannot be tolerated in this tradition is the possibility of a world that cannot be known, or a world that is indifferent to our elaborate knowledge-producing schemes. Descartes’ Meditations begin – and end – in this mode. But along the way there are gaps, fissures, and lacunae in the philosophical edifice. With the evil demon Descartes stumbles upon a horror intrinsic to philosophy: the thought that philosophy cannot think without undermining and annulling itself. In order to continue its work, philosophy must ignore it, or gloss it over, or skip it altogether.
And so, in the following meditation, a foundation is provided by Descartes, in his famous formulation cogito ergo sum: “…let him deceive me as much as he wishes, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be state that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”4 From this flows an entire legacy of philosophical thinking, in terms of Cartesian space, Cartesian dualism, and the privileging of human consciousness over all other forms of being. But it is not so easy to shake Descartes’ demon, which continues to haunt his philosophical treatise to the end. It is always there, threatening to undermine whatever conceptual edifice Descartes has constructed. Better to not deal with it at all – and continue philosophizing. Descartes even confesses: “I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.”5
Kant’s Depression. On the 12th of February, 1804, Immanuel Kant lay on his deathbed. “His eye was rigid, and his face and lips became discoloured by a cadaverous pallor.”6 A few days following his death, his head was shaved, and “a plaster cast was taken, not a mask merely, but a cast of the whole head, designed to enrich the craniological collection of Dr. Gall,” a local physician. The corpse of Kant was made up and dressed appro- priately, and, according to some accounts, throngs of visitors came day and night. “Everybody was anxious to avail himself of the last opportunity he would have for entitling himself to say, ‘I too have seen Kant.’”7 Their impressions seemed to be at once reverent and grotesque. “Great was the astonishment of all people at the meagreness of Kant’s appearance; and it was universally agreed that a corpse so wasted and fleshless had never been beheld.”8 Accompanied by the church bells of Königsberg, Kant’s corpse was carried from his home by torch- light, to a candle-lit cathedral, whose Gothic arches and spires were perhaps reminiscent of the philosopher’s elaborate, vaulted books.
In his book A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran once wrote: “I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers.”9 Indeed, for many, the name of Immanuel Kant has become synonymous with a certain type of elaborate, grand, system-building philosophy that characterizes works such as The Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. Indeed, so decisive was the impact of Kant’s later, “critical” philosophy that textbooks on the history of philosophy often refer to philosophy before Kant and “post- Kantian philosophy.” The significance of Kant’s philosophy is, however, counter-balanced by its notorious difficulty. Reading through the table of contents alone, with its dazzling and labyrinthine array of sections, sub-sections, and sub-sub- sections, is a task in and of itself. Nevertheless, if Kant’s philosophy achieved one thing, it was a renewed optimism in philosophy, much in line with Enlightenment ideals concerning the advantages of secular reason and the “maturing” of humanity as a whole. Reading through Kant’s works, with their patient and rigorous divisions and sub-divisions, there is a sense of philosophy as an all-encompassing, totalizing endeavor. Philosophy, in its Kantian modes, knows everything – it even knows what it doesn’t know.
That Kant suffered from depression may come as a surprise, especially given the ambition of his philosophical books and the enthusiasm of his wide-ranging intellectual interests (his lecture courses cover everything from philosophical logic to anthro- pology to chemistry to predictions about the end of the world). But in 1798, in a letter to a colleague on the topic of “the art of prolonging human life,” Kant commented on his own struggle with depression. The comments are rare for Kant, both in the sense of being personal and in the way they serve as a confession of weakness. In typical fashion, Kant first defines depression as “the weakness of abandoning oneself despondently to general morbid feelings that have no definite object (and so making no attempt to master them by reason).”10 A thought without an object is a troubling thing in Kant’s philosophy; it can lead to endless train of fickle thoughts without any ground, similar to the speculative debates in Kant’s time over the existence of God, the origin of the universe, or the existence of a soul. Reason becomes employed for no reason – or at least, for no good reason. At issue for Kant is not just the employment of reason over faith or imagination, but the instrumental use of reason – reason mastering itself, including its own limitations. This was as much the case for everyday thought as it was for philosophical thinking: “The opposite of the mind’s self-mastery… is faint- hearted brooding about the ills that could befall one, and that one would not be able to withstand if they should come.”11
And when the coherence of reason is threatened, so is philosophy. Or rather, so is the philosopher. A little later on, Kant offers this strange confession: “I myself have a natural dispo- sition to hypochrondria because of my flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in my earlier years this disposition made me almost weary of life.”12
Elsewhere Kant drops hints of this depression. In the Critique of Judgement, for instance, he allows that “misanthropy” is preferable, and even has the character of the sublime: “Falsehood, ingratitude, injustice, the puerility of the ends which we ourselves look upon as great and momentous… these all so contradict the idea of what men might be if they only would, and are so at variance with our active wish to see them better, that, to avoid hating where one cannot love, it seems but a slight sacrifice to forego all the joys of fellowship with our kind.”13
But Kant does not give in so easily to this “pathology” of thought. Philosophy is the panacea. Kant distinguishes “philosophizing” from “philosophy,” though both play a therapeutic role in reason’s self-mastery. Philosophizing, for Kant, “does not involve being a philosopher,” but instead “is a means of warding off many disagreeable feelings and, besides, a stimulant to the mind that introduces an interest into its occupations.”14 At another level, there is “philosophy” proper, “whose interest is the entire final end of reason (an absolute unity),” and which “brings with it a feeling of power which can well compensate to some degree for the physical weaknesses of old age by a rational estimation of life’s value.”15
This is all fine, from the critical distance of philosophical self- mastery. But things get a little more complicated when Kant discusses depression (in the same essay he also discusses boredom, diet, and sleep). What Kant doesn’t consider is that reason might actually be connected to depression, rather than stand as its opposite. What if depression – reason’s failure to achieve self-mastery – is not the failure of reason but instead the result of reason? What if human reason works “too well,” and brings us to conclusions that are anathema to the existence of human beings? What we would have is a “cold rationalism,” shoring up the anthropocentric conceits of the philosophical endeavor, showing us an anonymous, faceless world impervious to our hopes and desires. And, in spite of Kant’s life-long dedication to philosophy and the Enlightenment project, in several of his writings he allows himself to give voice to this cold rationalism. In his essay on Leibniz’s optimism he questions the rationale of an all-knowing God that is at once beneficent towards humanity but also allows human beings to destroy each other.16 And in his essay “The End of All Things” Kant not only questions humanity’s dominion over the world, but he also questions our presumption to know that – and if – the world will end at all: “But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all? And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?”17
The implication in these and other comments by Kant is that reason and the “rational estimation of life’s value” may not have our own best interests in mind, and the self-mastery of reason may not coincide with the self-mastery of us as human beings (or, indeed, of the species as a whole). Philosophical reason taken to these lengths would not only make philosophy improbable (for how could one have philosophy without philosophers?), but also impractical (and what would be the use of such a “depressive reason”?). What Kant refers to as depression is simply this stark realization: that thought is only incidentally human. It would take a later generation of philosophers to derive the conclusion of this: that thought thinks us, not the reverse.
Legend has it that Kant’s final word on his deathbed was “enough” (genug).18 The aged peripatetic philosopher of Köningsberg let out a word that was also a sigh, and depressive reason seems to have had the final say.19
Nietzsche’s Laughter. Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth – that is, on ourselves – that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.
Astronauts often refer to their first view of Earth as the “overview effect,” suggesting that the view of the Earth from space produces a shift in consciousness – that we as human beings are not separate from the planet on which we live. The general message is that of sublime wonder and unity: national boundaries disappear, and over its surface the planet reveals strange, luminous patterns of color, cloud, and light (otherwise known as cities, smog, and the electrical grid). Thanks to digital technology the overview effect can now be an everyday experience.
However, in its appeal for a planetary consciousness, the overview effect tends to reveal something different – the indifference of the planet vis-à-vis our repeated attempts to render it meaningful. It is in this context that one is reminded of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted passage from “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history” – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.20
Here Nietzsche gives us a different take on the “overview effect.” In this version, we have never been one with the planet, nor does the planet require our cleverness and technical ingenuity to save it – from ourselves. It is tempting to imagine Nietzsche himself as a present-day astronaut, going up into space, turning back and seeing the Earth, and noticing the contrast between the indif- ferent, glittering planet and the equal indifference of the busy and clever animals on its surface. No doubt Nietzsche’s ill-health would mean that he would fail to complete the astronaut training. And so he would settle for writing it down.
But Nietzsche’s capacity for undermining the human is perhaps needed now more than ever. On the one hand, we who are still on the Earth’s surface cannot escape an awareness of the impact of climate change, beset as we are by disasters that increasingly refuse the distinction between the natural and human-made. On the other hand, the process of recuperating the planet for us as human beings continues unabated. Whether we can “save” the planet is one question – whether the planet needs saving is another.
Nietzsche encapsulated this dilemma in the title of his third published book: Human, All Too Human, a book that captures the polyphony of voices in Nietzsche’s writing – by turns sarcastic, enthusiastic, naive, spiteful, meditative, joyful.21 For example, in the second volume of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche gives us yet another, much more sardonic variant on the overview effect:
There would have to be creatures of more spirit than human beings, simply in order to savor the humor that lies in humans seeing themselves as the purpose of the whole existing world and in humanity being seriously satisfied only with the prospect of a world-mission. If a god did create the world, he created humans as god’s apes, as a continual cause for amusement in his all-too-lengthy eternity… Our uniqueness in the world! alas, it is too improbable a thing! The astronomers, who sometimes really are granted a field of vision detached from the earth, intimate that the drop of life in the world is without significance for the total character of the immense ocean of becoming and passing away… The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the earth…22
As Nietzsche jibes, the strange endeavor of human thinking tends to eclipse the world, until we become so philosophically solip- sistic that even the non-human – by its very name – begins to look a lot like the human. Nietzsche caps off his rant with the following: “Even the most dispassionate astronomer can himself scarcely feel the earth without life in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”23
But Nietzsche’s phrase Menschliches, Allzumenschliches has several meanings. Certainly it evokes a sense of disappointment – the “all too human” as less than human, as the failure to live up to the various standards, criteria, and values that we associate with being human. And, as Nietzsche repeatedly points out in his book, this itself has become a hallmark of the human. But the phrase also evokes a more critical sense of failing to challenge our most basic and habitual ways of thinking and living – including the questioning of those same criteria and values that demarcate the human from the non-human.
At the same time, Nietzsche’s invectives against humanity are outstripped only by his refusal to dispense with the term “human,” much less imagine a romantic, transcendent realm “beyond” the human – itself the height of humanist thinking. Nietzsche repeatedly affirms this notion of the human, all too human, even as he rails against it. Human beings are all too human not only because we fail to live up to the human – and what we assume it means to be human – but because we are merely human, only human, and in a way that refuses both the divine fiat of science as well as the natural history of religion’s chosen peoples. This is Nietzsche’s own, tragi-comic brand of humanism: that there is nothing special about the human.
When Nietzsche began writing Human, All Too Human around 1876, many changes were afoot – the thirty-two year old philol- ogist was forced to retire from his teaching post at the University of Basel due to a series of health issues, which included stomach problems, arthritis, migraines, nausea, vomiting, and rapidly deteriorating eyesight. He had also alienated himself from Wagner and his cultist circle, opting instead for the life of an itinerant scholar. Deciding to relocate to a better climate, he traveled to Sorrento, where he wrote the bulk of the first volume of Human, All Too Human. 1878 saw the publication of Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, comprising some 600 aphorisms. Of the 1000 copies printed, only 120 sold – the remaining volumes were subsequently rebound together with the second volume for the 1886 edition.24 The following year another four hundred aphorisms would be published with the title Assorted Opinions and Maxims, and the year after that, another 350 aphorisms with the title The Wanderer and His Shadow. Writing in Ecce Homo some twelve years after its initial publi- cation, Nietzsche would characterize the book as “the monument of a crisis” and a “spiritual cure.”
The change in lifestyle was echoed in Nietzsche’s writing style as well. While in Sorrento, Nietzsche began writing in the brief, aphoristic style that would characterize some of his best-known works. But Nietzsche’s aphorisms are not of a single mold, and his turn to the short form manifests itself in different ways, from mini-essays in the vein of Montaigne to taut maxims reminiscent of La Rochefoucauld. We also get dialogues, parables, poetry, even jokes. Indeed, Human, All Too Human not only reflects Nietzsche’s experiment with style, but with reading as well. One anecdote has Nietzsche reading La Rochefoucauld’s Sentences et maximes on the train to Sorrento, but Nietzsche himself gives the detective in us a number of clues: in addition to scholarly works on Greek tragedy and philology, Nietzsche is reading Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Montaigne, Pascal, Vauvenargues, Voltaire (the dedicatee of the first edition of Human, All Too Human), and of course Schopenhauer, ever Nietzsche’s “educator” and paragon of misanthropic aphorisms.
Human, All Too Human is a master class in fragmentary writing, an exegesis on the virtues of the “incomplete thought,” as prescient today in our era of the “overview effect” as it was in Nietzsche’s era of Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, and Spiritualism. It is no accident that such experiments in the incom- plete thought take as their subject the problem of the human. Above all, the phrase “human, all too human” signals the beginning of a trajectory that would reach across all of Nietzsche’s writings, and would continue into the rediscovery of his work by generations of twentieth-century philosophers and theorists. The “overview effect” rendered as the “gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity.”
Were Nietzsche writing today, he might very well regard the flora and fauna of contemporary philosophy (posthuman, transhuman, inhuman, non-human, and so on) as so many varieties of this impulse to redeem the human, through the back door, the side door, a trap door… But Nietzsche himself was not immune to such impulses. For every misanthropic statement there is a statement of almost ecstatic, almost embarrassing affir- mation, and for every impulse to start a project there is the equal impulse to abandon it. An entry from Nietzsche’s notebook in the fall of 1878 simply reads: “A novel. A volume of poetry. A history. A philology.” An entry from the summer of 1879, perhaps during a bout of illness, reads: “All I lack is a homunculus.” Another note, from the fall of 1879, reads: “I am thinking of having a long sleep.” In his notebook, Nietzsche puts the phrase itself in quotes, but does not give a reference.
Horror of Philosophy. When Descartes stumbles across his demon, he discovers a thought that potentially undermines his entire philosophical project. A dilemma presents itself. If Descartes accepts the demon as actual, he has remained true to his method of skeptical doubt – but then his project is futile, since there is no ground for his thoughts, and nothing can be known for certain. If Descartes rejects the demon, either by ignoring it or by glossing it over, he can carry on with his philosophy, but he has effectively abandoned the original impetus behind his philosophizing to begin with. And so philosophy becomes a kind of pantomime, the passing of time, wasted energy. Either way, it seems that philosophy has to confront the real possibility of its futility – and the equal possibility that one will never know for sure whether philosophy has been futile or not. This is the crux of the “horror of philosophy,” which we see in
Descartes’ demon, Kant’s depression, and Nietzsche’s wrestling with an indifferent cosmos. Put simply, it is the thought that undermines itself, in thought. Thought that stumbles over itself, at the edge of an abyss. That moment when the philosopher stumbles upon (Descartes), or cannot avoid (Kant), or actively confronts (Nietzsche) the very thing that undermines their activity as philosophers. Being philosophers, they cannot simply switch tracks, and opt for poetry or mathematics. So they continue the labor of philosophy, all the while under the tenebrous, impersonal gaze of the horror of philosophy.
Far from dismissing philosophy, I would argue that this makes philosophy interesting. Particularly if one “mis-reads” philosophy in this way. If we were to adopt a method, it might be this: read works of philosophy as if they were works of horror. Of course, this is not to ignore the differences between, say, the narrative fiction of Poe or Lovecraft and the analytic, discursive language of Plato or Kant. But, at the same time, we know that many philosophers make use of literary elements (Plato’s dialogues being a prime example, not to mention Augustine’s use of autobiography and Kierkegaard’s use of the parable). And we know that many of the classics of the horror genre, from Poe to Lovecraft to the “new weird” in fiction, are largely idea-driven stories and make extensive use of the discursive mode in their narration or dialogue. One imagines Descartes, the accidental necromancer, making hesitant pacts with demons; one imagines Kant, swaying before the looming abyss of a gothic maelstrom; one imagines Nietzsche, reveling in the fin-de-siècle extinction of the species and the attendant exhaustion of vampiric thought.
The proposition that governs this book, Starry Speculative Corpse, is that something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this thought that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility. Certainly, there is a bit of tongue-in- cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought.
Admittedly, the title of this series of books – Horror of Philosophy – is a bit odd; in one sense, it is something of a joke. Anyone who has, as a student, been forced to read a philosopher like Kant (or worse, Hegel), has no doubt felt a certain horror of philosophy. The sheer heft of a book like The Critique of Pure Reason is intimidating in and of itself, never mind the pages upon pages of jargon-filled divisions and sub-divisions that make a mockery of any notion of “plain language” or “common sense.” Much of philosophy today prides itself on instilling this intel- lectual horror in the reader – it is too serious to be taken lightly, too full of gravitas to joke about, replete with relevance, rigor, authority. But this is not just limited to the obscure corners of academic philosophy; our public intellectuals and pop philoso- phers also leverage this intimidation factor in the guise of the know-it-all, the self-help guru, the philosopher as the person authorized to say something about everything, obliging us to stroke our collective beards in rehearsed gestures of profundity. As a reader, my reaction is something out of a B-horror movie – I recoil in terror.
But if the phrase “horror of philosophy” is a joke, it is because it simply reverses the phrase “philosophy of horror,” thereby pointing to a basic assumption we have about philosophy itself.25 A “philosophy of horror” implies a relation between philosophy and its object. Specifically, that philosophy will either explain its object (whereas in itself it is confusing), give meaning to its object (whereas in itself it lacks meaning), or render its object clear, apparent, and transparent (whereas in itself it is opaque and hidden). This applies to any formula of the type “philosophy of X” where X is philosophy’s object, an object that stands apart from philosophy, and because of this, can be analyzed, unpacked, and dissected. Today we not only have the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of mathematics, and political, ethical, and moral philosophy, but also the philosophy of cognition, the philosophy of technology – even the philosophy of… philosophy (that is, meta-philosophy).
Questions arise. Is philosophy’s object always separate from it? What happens when the critical distance of philosophy collapses? Does philosophy really have the ability to explain everything? Is philosophy’s specialization its universality? And if philosophy can’t explain everything, how would we know this, and what language would be appropriate for expressing it? At what point does a philosophy of futility become indistinguishable from the futility of philosophy?
The three volumes of the series aim to take up these questions in different ways, using different forms borrowed from the history of philosophy. The first volume – In the Dust of This Planet – introduces the general themes, particularly regarding the limits of the human and the idea of the “world-without-us.” This volume – Starry Speculative Corpse – aims to, as I’ve said, read philosophy as if it were horror, while the third volume – Tentacles Longer Than Night – aims to do the reverse, to read works of the horror genre as if they were works of philosophy.
Starry Speculative Corpse is published by Zer0 on 24th April 2015.