Playing Dead

A book titled “The Trouble with Pleasure” (2016)  is receiving some attention in philosophy circles. What follows are… creative interpretations of some the book’s more suggestive passages. This may amount to a violent appropriation of this work by a foreign intellectual agenda, or perhaps these interpretations are in fidelity with the its deeper concerns.

The book explores conceptions of the death drive in Gilles Deleuze’s writings circa-1970. Many other books have been published on this problematic, and these constitute a bit of a genre in their style as well as their guiding concerns. Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (1956) would be an early precursor, along with Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1916). Catherine Malabou addresses this topic at length in Ontology of the Accident (2012).  I want to address what is exceptional in Schuster’s book, and explain how it could open the chance for something of an event, in that it may provide coordinates for a symbolic reorientation of subjectivity.

The book includes a survey of how the term “pleasure” operates in western ideology. Through its several senses and connotations, he suggests that pleasure has a way of marking the limits of the subject, determining the subject’s ends in various forms, whether Aristotelian or Platonic. And as the sense of this word unravelled in circa-WW1 psychoanalysis, it seems that theorizing passed outside canonical forms of subjectivity, where it discovered an uncoded life no longer hemmed in by the limits of classical idealism.

This infinite zone beyond the bounds of classical subjectivity might be conceived as one of “reflexive fantasy”. I propose this term to designate a particular mode of theorizing. In the terms of the Matrix films, this is like the path of the red pill, where the subject becomes aware of the simulated artifice of everyday reality. Theory becomes an experience of a stage-managed life, and this experience corresponds with the pathology of perversion. It would seem that perverts may engage in this sort of theory to experiment with and augment their own fantasies.

Perverse theory tends towards autism, which contrasts with the way neurotic theory is oriented towards the other. The rhetoric of neurosis asserts the primacy of the other, whereas the pervert attempts to escape from this relational capture through artificial ruses. This is a way to account for Deleuze’s attitude towards Lacan, and how he invokes material forces to break symbolic institutions.  Yet perhaps the ultimate problem for the pervert remains the communication or sharing of fantasies, so that the pervert ultimately aims to mingle and exchange in the fantasies of others. Then these would be different strategies of sublimation or communication, the neurotic being direct and the pervert indirect.

These different paths of sublimation seem to reflect different conceptions of society. The neurotic assumes that social conditions are a sovereign given that must be accepted, hence the need to repress unsociable drives. While the pervert understands society as a game of superficial appearances, where sublimation is acheived by arranging masquerades to stage subjectivity in ways which are adequite to the expression of their drives. In one case the drives are manipulated to fit irrepressible society, and in the other society is manipulated to fit the irrepressible drives. This is why the pervert naturally resorts to isolation, in order to better control their social relations. For them, society is a tenuously negotiated set of aesthetic conspiracies which orchestrate the enactments of shared fantasies. This communication of fantasy hinges on alternations in the forms of pleasure. Even in the perverse realm beyond the pleasure principle, the issue of pleasure remains critical, because it codifies the symbolic images required for sublimation. It seems the concept of pleasure will always determine the limits of subjectivity, however artificial those limits might become.

From a perverse perspective, a community would exist by virtue of a chemistry of inter-fantasy communication. The perverse strategy aims at assembling a sort of social metabolism so that drives can be expressed. More robust relational structures would arrise where these fantasies regulate, orient and regenerate each other, whereas incompatible fantasies will interrupt and terminate each other. There is the agony and torment of those perverts whose fantasies have gotten lost under the pressure of the fantasies of others. Perverts engage in these micro-political negotiations and struggles over the conceptions of pleasure, which are the symbolic determinations of subjective form.

In this regard, it is possible to perversely reconsider the politics of misfortune. The poor are commonly considered to be those without work, food, clothes, or housing, which is a kind of doxa that identifies misery with certain material deprivations. There is a perverse way of rejecting this materialist doxa, and shifting perspective by positing fantasy alone as the sovereign core of well-being. Malnutrition and homelessness then are only unfortunate if they weaken fantasy, and otherwise might just as well be beneficial.

Shuster’s book opens with some discussion of complaint. If the pervert treats their fantasy as the vital core of their life, then complaint could index the interruption of fantasy. When Deleuze says “c’est trop fort pour moi”, this may refer to a fantasy which is too intense. These words of someone overcome indicate something which social subjectivity cannot represent. Perhaps this tactic was shared by a tradition of complainers, with Virilio’s its too fast for me, Derrida’s its too present for me… perhaps their generation performed the succumbing of Kantian humanism to the agony of exhaustion, with their tortuous prose style as a histrionic display of intellectual incapacity. This would be a sublime complaint that has a troempe l’oile effect in that it indicates something unseen. This relates to what Avital Ronel called the testamentary whimper, as an expression of exasperation just beyond the limit of symbolic representation.

I beleive that  this sort of Deleuzo-Lacanian theory still has much work to do on the question of symbolic expression. The Deleuzian theory of expression, at work in the discussion of facial expression in What is Philosophy?, has an obscure relation with Lacanian theories of symbolic subjectivity. This area seems to demand a reframing or revision, or perhaps I am just insufficiently informed.  The ultimate question here seems to concern what sort of communication praxis is attributed to the Deleuzian subject, which has been so notorious for its incommunicative tendencies.

Complaining could become like a form of pseudo-kantian maxim, where we are left to search for our own maximal complaints, which are adequite to our circumstances. This sort of complaining implies historicity, which is not just to say that its object is singular, but that it implies a highly contingent structure in its relation to subjectivity. I read Schuster’s Zizekian renovation of Freud’s late topology of the psyche as an eruption of such historicity into speech. The model of id, ego, superego can be located at the center of what has been called the disciplinary society, which is a conceptual legacy that holds the political imagination in its spell. There is the assumption that the raw drives of the id are unruly natural forces which get domesticated into polite society by the superego. Progressives and conservatives alike tend to share this assumption about how society is organized, it’s just that progressives favor the liberation of the id, and conservatives favor its constraint by social norms. But Schuster suggests another interpretation of this model, which would reverse the relationship, so that the unruliness is caused by the social superego, and the drives themselves in their origin are lethargic. This model of the psyche, where the social superego excites and destabilizes the lazy drives of the id, provides an opportunity to reconsider the sense of complaining, or to reconceive the kind of scenerio that complaints refer to.

The late Leonard Cohen had a maxim, “never lament carelessly”. What I suggest here is a radical form of complaint, to give the complaint a new hyperbolic form, based on the Zizekian interpretation of the superego which issues an injunction to enjoy. A hyperbolic complaint for today might have a form something like “Having been dead for roughly a century, our corpses are now used as puppets for financial rituals we don’t understand. And in this role they are failing miserably.” This would be the complaint of a dead body which is failing to be exploited.

Conservative politics usually assumes a temporal orientation where ideals come from the past, and they are to be realized in the future through actions. The hyperbolic complaint would be an attempt to throw that time frame out of joint, so the drives of the id exist in an earlier age where they could become unresponsive to the injunctions of the superego. The id would be pronounced deceased according to the values of the contemporary world, and this detaches the energetic ground of subjectivity from action in present and future conditions. This complaint would deny the drives any presently existing objects.

This would take perverse dramaturgy to a new level. The pervert is able to complain that he did not choose perversity, and that in fact it is the superego of capitalist society which is perverse. He says he is only perverse because he is being forced to be so. He can claim that he is dead and would rather just remain still, but his dead body is being forced to participate in this masquerade of the living.

Shuster suggests that the withdrawal of subjectivity into drive is inherent to philosophy. This withdrawal would seem to correspond with what psychoanalysis calls the fundemental fantasy, where the drive itself is encountered as something internally problematic. This occurs at the end of a clinical analysis, where the subject assumes responsibilty for managing the drive’s own internal malfunction. What I am calling “playing dead” would be a tactic for a perverse theory to traverse its own fundemental fantasy – which is perhaps the fantasy of being alive – and establish a more direct connection with the id. This way the pervert could releive himself of responsibility for his own perversion by identifying entirely with the drives. He distances himself from his perversity by identifying it with the capitalist superego. So I’m interested in how complaint could effectuate, or even institutionalize, this sort of break between id and superego.

Playing dead can acheive a kind of symbolic relation which I propose to call a “death certificate”, in a somewhat Derridean fashion. This would be a symbol that confirms that the id is deceased. Where the superego tries to capture the drive in its frenzied spectacle (more on this contradictory “arresting dynamism” below), this is a document that would nullify that possibility. It’s as if the superego had an arrest warrent or labor contract which allowed it to mobilize the energy of the id in the gaze of the spectacle. It is by some symbolic right that the id is obligated to work, reproduce, and generally to care about how bodies appears within the spectacle frame and how they are coded under the symbolic gaze of the Other. The tombstome would by a hypothetical death certificate that voids this obligation, so there is no living body left symbolically available for the possibility of capture in the spectacle. This nullifies the possibility of habeus corpus in its unarticulated pressuppositions, in that it renders the body symbolically unavailable.

Pleasure can be a dangling peice of meat that holds Tantalus in thrall. Perhaps what he needs to escape this trap is a symbolic artifice that would prove he is already dead. He needs a symbol that gives him the right not to take pleasure in that peice of meat.

This death symbol would have to be adequite to the singularity of the drive, and our language would have to learn to express this. The preliminary difficulty here concerns how the drive’s form is shared across a population. The problem of sublimation opens the problem of community, and here this is a community of the dead. So my interpretation of Schuster’s book would run into the question of community, as elaborated in the books of George Bataille and company, and particularly in Jean-luc Nancy’s proposal for a literary communism. I don’t have time to elaborate on this here, but will just mention that this work is in dialogue with Lacanian theory, for example Nancy uses the term abandonment to translate feminine jousance.

So I am interested in the problem of how to attain a symbolic representation of a common id’s negative vital status. It is not just the individual’s drive which is pronounced dead, but rather the drive of a community. But individuals may have to share this symbolic death according to their own drive-forms. This concerns the sublimation of the tombstone, which is a matter of negotiated singularity, so that the members of a community feel the deadness of their drives is represented in the symbol.

A complaint is an index of suffering. It’s a symbolic performance of a subject’s singular suffering of this world. This performance needn’t refer to any actual suffering. All that matters is if it is adequite for dislodging the superego’s grip on the id. One must develop the fantasy of suffering, where a subject is struck by tsunamis and lightning bolts, pummelled by hail and ravaged by earthquakes, drown in their own singular whirlpools and cry out in their own singular voice as they are scalded by lava. A fantasy of personal suffering and wounds. This fantasy of cosmic suffering forms a background for posing the decisive question, how did this industrial disaster befall you? In which industrial accidents were you killed?

To consider the present life one lives as already postmordem would be a radical hermeneutic decision. This implies a decision on the problem of the origins of psycho-pathology. The point is not to decide whether the problem is in nature, or in humanity, or in civilization. The image of a past healthier life only needs to function as an artificial foil. The problem is to construct symbolic fantasies that cover the singular form of one’s wounds.

A tombstone may emerge from around the event called World War 1, a hopelessly Eurocentic term. This symbol would represent the exhaustion of an imperial symbolic order at the begining of the 20th century. The lost empire can represent the id’s lost form of symbolic life. Now this is admittedly an alt-rightish turn in perverse theory that may raise objections. What I suggest here is not a restoration of this semi-fictional empire, but rather a fantasy of a time before the id was ravaged by modernization. This provides a symbolic function in the structure of complaint, which is nothing like an ideal to be realized in the future.

The question of when the id died can have an answer: the id died at the beginning of the last century. So we posit a fantasy of the id-life of the empires that covered much of the earth, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, Qing… these states provided a principality of pleasure that contained the id in a subjective life-form. There is an archive of testamony on this cultural death event. I am thinking of the section on refugees in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Walter Benjamin’s essay on the Russian storyteller, Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, and the peculiar vision of Fernando Pessoa. Eric Santner outlined this area of the archive in his Royal Remains (2011), and maybe it’s not a coincidence that Santner and Schuster are apparently both at University of Chicago. Schuster discusses Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno along with another novel from those years. (was it something by Stefan Zweig?)

The problem is to relate to modernism as an industrial accident that killed us. The idea of what exactly was alive before that event can remain obscure. There is no need to elucidate that life because this idea of the former life provides only an orientation function, like what Kant called a regulative ideal. It is a fiction that allows us to compose our complaint against modernity on an adequite scale of magnitude. The question is whether this complaint can break the spell of the futurist libidinal orientation.

Portrayals of Confucianism in the early 20th century show it as an obsolete anachrony, with its old scrolls and stained robes… the lethargic aristocracy of the death drive with its distinct obstinacy. At that time Confucianism was associated with other embarrassing institutions like footbinding, eunuchs, and opium addiction. The lines of thought I’ve been trying to develop here come into sharp releif if we juxtapose the tired old Confucianist with today’s frantic Chinese consumerism, where the name of Confucious’s little kingdom of Lu is used as an insult meaning “dull”.

The old empire of the id is presented with images of obstinate feudalism ridiculed, pushed aside, and obliterated by the forward momentum of modernization. But a perverse theory keeps vigil around the site of the disapearance of the maligned old community. It will be pointed out that this vigil will go nowhere. But in perverse theory there is always another failure in the works. At some point, this vigil inevitably “sells out”, and gets seduced by the futurism of the superego. There is ultimately a futile attempt to commercialize this fantasy. And so the fantasy moves between playing dead and dubious commercialism. One just fails back and forth, rhythmically, getting rejected by the spectacle, then trying to have fidelity to an extinct ancient life, and then getting seduced back into the spectacle, only to get rejected again.

Perverse theory is caught in this struggle between a lazy id and a dynamic superego with their respective unfortunate qualities. They alternately possess us, with their respective attitudes of mourning and social ambition. They regenerate each other as negative foils, oscillating in a vicious circle from one failure to the next.

This superego is contradictory, in that it stimulates, dynamizes, energizes, mobilizes… while it is still a machine of capture and arrest. This contraciction between fixity and mobility points to a profound dialectics that goes beyond this discussion, pointing towards Benjamin’s dialectical images and Deleuze’s stationary voyage. There are economic trade-offs where some mobility is forced at the costs of some other fixity. It seems the superego maintains its domain by enforcing certain stereotyped images of these alternatives. Certain forms of stasis and mobility are prescribed as decent or indecent for certain kinds of subjects. The spectacle favors subjects who are excited in certain ways, about certain things, at certain times, and so this combines disciplinary and post-disciplinary techniques of social control.

The pervert insists on living their drive-fantasy, and in order to acheive this they are ready to artificialize their social sublimation. The pervert is a kind of war machine that turns against the stereotyped images of the superego. He refuses to rely on the superego for his social sublimation which he chooses to simulate instead. Rejecting restrictions on his forms of pleasure, he instead opts for more simulated social relations. Playing dead is an extreme perverse strategy to break with the superegoic conditioning of pleasure. The death certificate would be a permit for bohemianism. What else could be expected from the dead?

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