Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)
I recently finished reading Mark Fisher‘s Capitalist Realism. I’m very sorry it took me so long. Now I’m at the end of my thesis I’m starting to finally do things I’ve been putting off for a long time. Mark really must be praised for writing such an accessible and yet eminently perceptive and persuasive book. It touches on a number of issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a long time, and gives names to several phenomena that have been on the edge of my intellectual awareness for even longer. I don’t agree with all of it, and I can see numerous points where the discussion needs to be taken further, but these are merely signs of how thought provoking and well-written the book is.
As I’ve said, now I’m at the end of the thesis, I’m starting to pick up things I’ve put off, and start new projects again. Politics is what originally got me into philosophy. Specifically, I was motivated to take up theoretical philosophy by precisely what demotivated me to engage in practical political action: the problem of how it is possible to change anything in the current environment (an environment Mark so perspicuously circumscribes). I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something. I’ve spent the last 7 years or so on a journey into high theory, acquiring a number of abstract theoretical tools along the way, and I think I’m finally ready to make my descent back toward concrete political issues. Capitalist Realism has only reinforced my resolve on this front.
To this end, I’m in the early stages of starting a new blog to discuss more concrete political issues. Deontologistics has always been very much a blog about abstract issues, and although I’ve touched on the odd bit of political and ethical theory here and there, that’s never been its purpose. The arrangements for the new blog are still coming together though (it doesn’t even have a name yet), so watch this space. The one thing I can tell you is that if there is one phrase that sums up its modus operandi, it’s this: political rationalism. Given all this, I feel that it’s a good idea for me to write up my thoughts on Capitalist Realism (or CR), as a preliminary to the work I’m hoping to undertake. This will be less of a summary of the book’s core ideas than an exploration of the terrain it covers from within my own theoretical perspective. This means adding some theoretical supplements and using these to sketch the ways in which I think some of Mark’s ideas can be developed. The other qualification to add here is that I’m not as well versed in political theory as I’d like, and so it’s quite possible that I’ll reinvent some theoretical wheels as I’m going here (especially with regard to Marx and Habermas). I’m very happy to have this pointed out to me.
As should be no surprise to regular readers, this will be a long post (this part is 16,000, which I believe is a new record). It started out life as an email to Mark and became somewhat excessive. It’s gotten so long that I’ve actually had to split it up into parts (the second has yet to be completed). Here is the first part, which involves more theoretical supplementation than political musing. The second part should get more concrete, or at least, as concrete as I am known to get.
Anyway, here we go…
1. The Dialectic of Freedom
I’m going to run in reverse a bit, and start with the invocation of Spinoza at the end of CR. This may seem tangential, but it’ll build up to the point where I can address other things. I’m a big fan of Spinoza’s metaphysics, and I’m especially enamored of his attempts to consistently think through the implications of causal determinism. This is amplified by my affection for Deleuze, who I consider to be the neo-Spinozan thinker par excellence (see here, here, and here), attempting to think through determinism and its principle of sufficient reason while both avoiding the perils of onto-theology and incorporating an understanding of the tools of modern science (i.e., of the reasons that scientists use in providing descriptions of the way systems are causally determined). But enough of metaphysics. The other aspect of Spinoza I appreciate is his concept of Freedom, and the way it is not only consistent with determinism but dependent upon it (something that has puzzled Levi recently). This obviously feeds into his ethical project of transposing good/evil into what is good/bad for modes given their internal constitution and the way this effects their capacities. It’s the broad gist of this ethical project that Deleuze and Guattari extend in Capitalism and Schizophrenia. It is this aspect of Spinoza that Mark invokes at the end of CR, and defends it against Zizek.
Despite my endorsement of Spinozan metaphysics, and my appreciation for his concept of Freedom, I ultimately think that his ethical project is unworkable, at least in the strong form he presents it (and the modified form D&G develop). This is because the transposition of what is good and evil into what is good and bad from the perspective of a given mode, or the attempted reduction of normativity to a non-teleological metaphysical register, can’t select which perspective from which we are to judge. This might sound like an accusation of egoism, i.e., that different people’s perspectives will be incompatible, and thus that it cannot provide us with norms that arbitrate conflicts of interest, but it isn’t. The Spinozan solution to such an objection is to point out that multiple individuals can form parts of a single larger scale mode (e.g., the city), and that we can derive norms of arbitration from what is good or bad for this latter mode. The problem with this is that there’s no natural cut-off point for this strategy. Do we derive our ethical/political norms from what’s good for ourselves qua biological organism, qua person whose extended presence outlives this organism (be it in the form of a mind uploaded into software, or the records and memory-traces we leave behind), qua familial line (i.e., as a loose alliance of selfish genes), qua socio-cultural group (e.g., class, intellectual school, corporation, etc.), qua society (e.g., city, state, federation, etc.), qua race (e.g., caucasian, human, primate, etc.), qua biosphere, or ever upward. There must be a choice of perspective, but this is not itself something that Spinozan metaphysics can provide.
This isn’t to reject Spinoza’s ethics or his concept of Freedom outright. It’s simply to suggest that it requires supplementation. I think the necessary supplement is provided by Kant, and those that follow him. However, this is not a matter of siding with Zizek against Mark’s appropriation of Spinoza. I consider Zizek’s to be a vulgar form of Kantianism. It’s best to explain this by tracing the dialectic of the concept of Freedom a little bit. The most important original debate is really between Leibniz and Spinoza, as it is they who attempt to make the concept of Freedom consistent with determinism and sufficient reason. However, Leibniz’s approach is very much reactionary, in that its conception of God as making a free choice between possible worlds conceives this choice as a fundamentally different kind of input into the causal chain. This drives a wedge between causality and modality in a way that makes possibility abstract (as opposed to the concreteness of Spinoza’s account of affects, and Deleuze’s extended account of the virtual). As interesting as Leibniz is, his metaphysics of causality/modality and his account of Freedom are incredibly problematic. They are far from dead however, and I think there’s a good sense in which there is a contemporary split between neo-Leibnizians and neo-Spinozans, and the Leibnizians (e.g., Zizek, Badiou, Meillassoux, etc.) currently seem to have the upper hand.
Kant’s real innovation on the topic of Freedom is to properly distinguish between actions and mere events. All actions are events, but not all events are actions. He does this by distinguishing actions as those events that someone can be held responsible for, and this means that we can demand that they supply reasons for their action. This is the proper genesis of the notion of rational agency. He distinguishes rational agents (or subjects) from other entities (usually just called objects) on the basis of the fact that they may be held responsible, insofar as they are capable of giving and asking for reasons for their beliefs and actions, and of acting on the basis of these reasons. This is not to say that every action is in fact motivated by a reason, just that if one’s actions could not be so motivated then one could not be counted as a subject, and thus, as responsible for them. This is just what the capacity for free choice consists in as far as Kant is concerned. I’ve written about some of these issues before in relation to ethics (here).
None of this is incompatible with determinism, as Kant makes quite explicit. In distinguishing objects and subjects, he generates a distinction between two different domains that takes on many names in the history of philosophy following him. Respectively, it is the distinction between: nature and culture (Latour et al.), the space of causes and the space of reasons (Sellars et al.), and the real and the symbolic (Lacan et al.). However, he does not take the latter term in each case (the domain of subjects) to be a different part of reality in the strong sense that Zizek (and Adrian Johnston) interpret it as being. This is obscured by his talk about the noumenal causality of Freedom. There is a whole tradition that interprets this in metaphysical terms (i.e., Schelling, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Badiou, Zizek, etc.). This is to miss the fact that Kant takes the idea of noumenal causality to be regulative rather than constitutive. This means that we must think of ourselves as if we are a kind of supplementary causal input into the chain of causes that constitutes nature, in order to be able to engage in practical reasoning, not that we actually possess a different kind of causality. To make this mistake is to return to a Leibnizian conception of Freedom, whereas Kant’s account is perfectly compatible with Spinoza’s more authentically deterministic conception of Freedom.
Moreover, this gives us an interesting way of looking at the dominant axis of indeterminism in contemporary continental thought (again, Zizek, Badiou, and Meillassoux are the big names). The combination of this vulgar Kantianism, or neo-Leibnizianism about Freedom with a resistance to theism (be it derived from the Heideggerian rejection of onto-theology or the Lacanian rejection of the big Other) demands a strong form of metaphysical indeterminism, in which nature is always ‘fractured’, ‘incomplete’ or simply subject to the whims of a ‘hyperchaos’. This is because the natural order is supposedly insufficient to account for the alternative causal order of Freedom (the Lacanian symbolic, the Badiouian Subject/Event, Fichtean facticity, etc.), meaning that there must be points at which something other pokes through into nature. Yet this supplement can’t be conceived as itself governed by sufficient reason without collapsing into some kind of positive theology. This is the point at which the neo-Leibnizians part ways with Leibniz. However, the effect of foreclosing the supplement to sufficient reason constitutes a turn to negative theology, albeit a more extreme form of it than the traditional judaic variety (even that of Levinas, for instance). We might call this a negative deism. Whereas Leibniz’s God freely chooses the best of all possible worlds, because his essence contains infinite goodness, the deviant Leibnizian non-God of the negative deist has no essence to speak of. It is the equivalent of Lovecraft’s Azathoth – a non-sentient, absolutely indifferent, writhing hyperchaos.
The connection between this sort of metaphysics and these negative theological tropes has become increasingly explicit in the metaphorics of ‘darkness’ that some of those influenced by them have begun to deploy, perhaps best exemplified by Eugene Thacker’s work (e.g., here), but equally present in the explicit appropriation of Lovecraftian themes pursued by others, such as Ben Woodard (e.g., here). I think that this vulgar Kantian/neo-Leibnizian tradition is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. Indeterminism is both a metaphysical and political disaster, as it licenses abandoning the process through which we endeavour to understand the real factors that determine the world as it is, be it in the disinterested pursuit of scientific knowledge or in the more instrumental pursuit of an understanding of our socio-political situation. This is dangerous insofar as it legitimates both a selective attitude to the insights of empirical science on the one hand (e.g., “ah, but this point in nature is simply a site of emergence/eruption/etc. that science cannot tell us anything about”), and a secular political eschatology to match its secular negative theology (e.g., “ah, your proposed political interventions simply aren’t radical enough, we must instead prepare for an Event/Capitalism’s Autoimplosion/the Virtual God/etc.”). I must emphasise that these are tendencies, rather than universal generalisations. However, I have seen these tendencies in person, and they are indicative of what I take to be the deeper intellectual bankruptcy of these positions. Sufficient reason need not be grounded in theism in order to have metaphysical, epistemological and ethico-political significance.
It is thus necessary to trace the alternative, more authentically Kantian tradition, which seeks not only to make the Kantian conception of Freedom compatible with determinism, but to properly integrate them, thereby synthesising Kant and Spinoza. I think this alternate tradition originates in Hegel rather than Schelling, and I think it at least includes Marx, Sellars, and Foucault. Hegel’s critique of abstract Freedom (as pure caprice) is perhaps the most penetrating critique of the Schellingian appropriation of Kant’s notion of Freedom as a constitutive form of noumenal causality. His conception of Freedom as involving necessity can then be read as the normative counterpart to Spinoza’s conception of Freedom as involving causal necessity. One is only free insofar as one can be determined to act by reasons. I don’t know much about Marx unforunately (though I hope to remedy this), but I’m certain he must have some interesting things to say on this point. Reid Kotlas has been doing good work on this front though (see here and here). Sellars’ contribution is to make Kant’s account of perception and action consistent with the instantiation of the transcendental structure of the rational agent in a causal system (in terms of reliable dispositions governing discursive entry and exit moves, respectively). This is no mean feat, and it is precisely what defuses Meillassoux’s criticism that transcendental philosophy cannot account for the manifestation of the transcendental within the empirical realm. But for me, Foucault is the most subtle and interesting thinker of Freedom in the 20th century, and the one that really brings about a genuine synthesis of Kant and Spinoza. The facile criticism that Foucault ‘leaves no room for freedom’ simply demonstrates a total misunderstanding of his work (and usually indicates an adherence to vulgar Kantianism/neo-Leibnizianism).
2. Freedom, Capital, and Power
The important thing to recognise is that Foucault is a Kantian, and indeed (as demonstrated by the dictionary article he wrote about himself pseudonymously) he sees himself as such. This is also demonstrated in the structure of Foucault’s critical project, which directly maps onto that of the Kantian project: Knowledge (1st Critique), Power (2nd Critique), and Ethics (3rd Critique). It might seem odd that Foucault’s ethics are lined up with Kant’s 3rd Critique, until one realises that Foucault’s ethics is an aesthetics of existence. Moreover, if one examines the details of his ethics, one finds that it is a Kantian aesthetics, i.e., it is about a synthetic free play guided by an ideal of formal purposiveness, rather than actions guided by any objective purpose. The free play in question is the activity of self-construction, and it is formally purposive insofar as one is constructing oneself not for any particular purpose, but in accordance with the pure ideal of self-mastery, or making oneself more adaptable, more able to be so constructed (I think this is his appropriation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch). Overall, Foucault’s ethics is in my opinion the most advanced form of virtue ethics yet developed. This may seem mildly tangential, given that Foucault’s real political significance lies in his account of Power and its related technologies of control. However, it is importantly linked, at least insofar as it is Foucault’s answer to what he takes to be the core ethico-political question of the modern age: how do we increase our capacities without thereby centralising power?
The important point is that Foucault’s work on ethics does not just have normative significance, i.e., telling us how we should live as individuals, but also involves a very subtle and powerful description of how we actually do live, or better, a framework for understanding different actual ways of living. Foucault’s whole account of self-construction, technologies of the self, and forms of subjectivity, is essentially his version of Heidegger’s account of individuation in Being and Time. It describes the general structure of relating to oneself as a both an object of theory and practice, the forms this self-relation can take, and how these affect both the opinions and actions of the subjects that adopt them. This forms the architectonic bridge between both the work on Knowledge and the work on Power insofar as it is the limit-case of both, i.e., of theoretical relations to objects in general and practical relations to objects in general. The connection to the work on Power is most relevant for our current concerns. Foucault defines Power as action upon action, of the way in which the choices different individuals make effect those of others. He thus conceives it as a distributed network of connections between rational agents, traversed by flows of influence. These flows can then be understood as more or less centralised and directed. They may be vast conspiracies organised on the basis of direct agreement, chance allignments between the aims of disparate groups of actors, or somewhere in between.
This account of Power is not a matter of metaphysics (even if it is inspired by Nietzsche’s metaphysics of power), but rather a set of conceptual tools for engaging in a very specific kind of empirical analysis of social structures. I’d call it transcendental sociology, but that would take us on another tangent. What’s important is that Foucault gives us an account of how both implicit and explicit forms of authority are causally generated and propagated within social structures, which is essentially to talk about the genesis of social structure as such. His crucial insight is that from the causal perspective, centralised structures characterised by explicit forms of authority are premised upon decentralised networks of implicit authority relations. The social field within which the process of social individuation takes place is in the limit-case unstructured (although this is never actually the case), and its evolution proceeds through decentralised networks of influence before it can generate the kind of complex internal organisations we see in contemporary societies (much as it does in the biological realm). This is obviously where Foucault’s project and that of Deleuze & Guattari begin to shade into each other.
Foucault then diagnoses the temptation to begin one’s analysis in the opposite direction, focusing upon centralised structures and explicit forms of authority, and understanding decentralised structures and implicit forms of authority in terms of them. This whole form of thought is endemic (and Mark provides some concrete examples of it at various points in CR), and it stems from the conflation of two different ways of looking at our social practices: as norms (or collective practical commitments) that are to be understood in terms of their discursively articulated content, and as behaviours (or collective behavioural regularities) that are to be understood in terms of the causal mechanisms through which they are generated and propagated (I’ve discussed this before here, though I’m now slightly unhappy with the terminology). As I’ve tried to show above, these two perspectives are entirely compatible, and it is necessary to adopt both. However, there is a grave temptation to conflate them, and end up with what I’ve elsewhere called empirico-normative hybrids (here). These concepts (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘consensus’, ‘the will of the people’, etc.) are adequate for limited forms of social explanation, but actively prevent the detailed kind of explanation required in many cases. I think Latour (and his facile collapse of the nature/culture divide) is the prime example of this trend, turning what is otherwise a common mistake into a full blown theory (see here and here). The role of a moderate eliminative materialism is to dissect these hybrids, pulling apart their empirical and normative sides in order to free us from the explanatory confusions notions like ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ engender when they are poorly understood. I think Foucault can be aligned with eliminativism insofar as he gives us the tools to extend eliminativism from psychology to the social sciences – to take a scalpel to folk-sociology, folk-economics, and folk-politics. I think that this is a project that Mark is already engaged with in CR, and this is one of the reasons I find it so compelling.
Returning to the connection between Foucault’s work on Power and Ethics, if his account of Power can be viewed as an account of forms of collective agency/subjectivity, then his account of Ethics can be viewed as an account of forms of individual agency/subjectivity. The properly normative dimension of each is guided by the question posed above, and it amounts to this: how do we create forms of individual and collective agency that increase the effective capabilities of agents without making them susceptible to hijacking by flows of influence (be they planned conspiracies or random confluences). This is the profundity of Foucault’s concept of Freedom, and the genuine synthesis of Kant and Spinoza discussed earlier. Like Kant, he is concerned not with all entities and events, but specifically with agents and their actions. Yet, like Spinoza, he is concerned with the specific causal structures associated with agency.
Foucault’s innovations are thus twofold: he introduces the notion of the quasi-subject to replace Kant’s regulative Idea of Freedom, and he provides the most concrete analysis of Freedom as a kind of capacity. Whereas Kant thinks that we must treat ourselves as undetermined in order to engage in practical reasoning, Foucault sees that this prevents us from engaging in practical reasoning about how to mold and construct ourselves as causal systems (in the way that the Greeks, and the Stoics in particular, were so concerned with). Against the vulgar Sartrean appropriation of Kant (i.e., the account of Bad Faith), Foucault holds that we must only understand ourselves as undetermined in only a very minimal sense. We can act upon ourselves as causal systems as long as we treat our actions upon ourselves as undetermined to some extent, and this is iterative – we can act upon the ways we act upon ourself as long as we treat this as to some extent undetermined. This regulative remainder is what he calls the quasi-subject. Whereas Spinoza thinks that Freedom is a matter of understanding one’s causal structure as such (both one’s internal structure its interactions with one’s environmental context), Foucault focuses upon the specific forms of causal interaction that constitute the social domain. He thinks that we have a margin of Freedom in relation to different social structures (e.g., epistemes and technologies of power), precisely insofar as we are more or less predictable (Knowledge) and controllable (Power) in relation to them. This multifaceted form of Freedom is something that can then be worked upon, such that one can make oneself more free, and others can make one less free. The question CR closes with is essentially this: how do we make ourselves, both as individuals and as a collective, more free? It’s a bloody good question.
I don’t really know Foucault’s work on neoliberalism and biopolitics, so I can’t connect this up with his own analysis of capitalism. However, I will give my own take on it, in relation to the way Capital is presented in CR. In essence, for Mark, Capital is a loosely allied set of forms of agency, both individual (e.g., the self-conscious executive hypocrite, the interpassive worker, the eternally marginal activist, etc.) and collective (e.g., the corporation, the hedge fund, the think tank, the oligarchical political party, the military-industrial complex, the entertainment industry, etc.), which despite being instantiated within certain concrete individual and collective systems of agency is both mobile and plastic enough to perpetuate itself independently of any central nexus (no matter how some wish to localise it in archetypically oppressive global economic institutions). The real issue here is just how plastic we’re willing to make it while still calling it Capital. Traditional definitions of capitalism link it to certain specific modes of economic organisation, and although there is a good case to be made for different features that have persisted throughout (perhaps even reaching purer forms in the neoliberal consensus), we must be able identify it with some specific features or forms of subjectivity that constitute it, lest we make it into a formless individual that might simply be identified with humanity itself (or perhaps even the biosphere, in the form of an anti-Gaia hypothesis), or some abstract universal metaphysical force of absolute deterritorialisation (which Nick Land seems to tend towards). This was the point of my question at the Accelerationism event: a metaphysics of Capital strips us of any ability to analyse the ways it is concretely instantiated and thereby to work against them. This parallels the kinds of negative deism I discussed above, and indeed, there seems to be a certain convergence of these Landian and Schellingian themes in some quarters. The question of just which features we associate with the name ‘Capital’ is open for debate, but we must settle on some.
However, this being said, I do think that we can identify Capital as a mask of a more pervasive and plastic general structure. This is not a universal metaphysical structure of the Landian kind, but something specific to rational agency, and the social field it constitutes. It is the spectre of the decentralised nature of the social field, or Power itself. It is neither good nor evil, but an indifferent force of change, a turbulent storm of flows of influence that threatens to undermine any particular mode of social organisation. Put in a different way, it is the collective libido (the intersection of our various desires and projects) as unbound by processes of collective rational self-determination (the intersection of our practical reasoning about the satisfaction of desires and the realisation of projects). Power is the dark twin of Reason. There is no Power without Reason, and no Reason without the conditions which give rise to untamed Power flows. The ideal of a social field without Power is simply the ideal of a perfect process of collective rational self-determination, which you can call Communism if you like, though I prefer Democracy myself. This is an unattainable ideal, but the work of reshaping ourselves in accordance with it (both individually and collectively) is nothing other than the struggle for Freedom.
3. Responsibility and Causality
One of the most refreshing things about CR is its willingness to talk about social problems in terms of responsibility. This is a notion that the Political Left has almost entirely ceded to the Political Right, in order to instead talk in terms of causality. This generates a neat but entirely false dichotomy in political discourse about social issues. The Right seems unable (and/or unwilling) to do anything but blame social problems upon certain sectors of society, and this results in policy solutions that are exclusively organised around punishment. This is a hallmark of vulgar individualism. The Left seems unable to do anything but forgive these same sectors of society, in virtue of the dissolution of their agency into the causal factors that produce their actions and dispositions to act. This is a hallmark of vulgar collectivism. The Left’s reputation for infantilising the public (and the corresponding charge of elitism) tends to stem from this latter approach. If one cannot treat individuals as responsible for their actions and opinions to some degree, then one cannot treat them as individuals. This much Kant has taught us. Moreover, as is the case on many political issues, the tactic of the Centre-Left (e.g., New Labour and the Clintonian Democratic Party) in recent times has simply been to capitulate to the Right’s perspective to greater or lesser degrees, rather than to develop a genuinely synthetic point of view (Hegel would not be pleased). The New Labour government in the UK, with its legacy of ASBOs and other reactionary salves for the symptoms of social decay, exemplifies this trend. Mark does an admirable job of demonstrating the abject failure of this approach (and its other Centrist cousins) while at the same time refusing to return to the reactionary position of much of the contemporary Left. He asks us to view individuals as responsible agents, not in place of, but in conjunction with analysing the systemic factors that produce them.
This is not an impossible task, as demonstrated by our earlier discussion of the distinction between the natural and the normative. What we have are not two different and conflicting theories about human nature, but two different perspectives on it: an understanding of humans qua rational agents, and an understanding of humans qua causal systems. As Sellars has shown us, these two perspectives are perfectly compatible. One can stand within both the space of causes and the space of reasons, and one can view others as standing in both too. On the one hand, this means that it is possible to view causal factors as mitigating the responsibility of individuals for their actions, without thereby dissolving this responsibility. On the other hand, it means that it is possible to deploy systems of punishment as response to policy problems, without thereby making them the sole tool of social policy. As Mark points out, there is an almost ingenious loophole in the reasoning of Right (and Centre-Left), wherein it can simultaneously hold that problems such as the financial crisis are the result of ‘a few bad apples’ (vulgar individualism) and that nonetheless these individuals cannot be punished because they are products of a deeper systemic problems (vulgar collectivism). The status quo is maintained because the problems are both the responsibility of specific individuals and of no one in particular, and caused by specific individuals and a wider impersonal system (delete one side as appropriate for one’s argumentative context). This is the worst of both worlds united in a triumph of modern day sophism. By contrast, the correct response is both to punish the individuals responsible and to correct the systemic flaws that both enabled and encouraged them to produce the problem.
This is response, and the binocular point of view that motivates it, can be applied to the contemporary hate figures of both sides of the political spectrum: the fat cat banker, who receives pay incentives and state funded bail outs despite (and perhaps even for) fucking up the global economy, and the lazy benefit cheat/dependent, who receives tax-funded benefits despite failing to (or failing to declare) work, and whose otherwise anti-social behaviour contributes to the nation’s general social decline. We can treat each group as part of a general social tendency or social-systemic pathology that demands detailed policy solutions based on an actual understanding of the causal networks within which they are involved, while at the same time treating each individual member of the group as responsible for their own actions, both in ethical and legal terms. The former perspective then gives us a concrete basis to talk about the ways in this responsibility is mitigated by social factors in a way that refuses to simply dissipate it, in the way that the Right (and Centre-Left) tends to do with the former figure in response to the Left’s critiques, and the way that the Left tends to do for the latter figure, in response to the Right’s (and Centre-Left’s) critiques. If we can do this, then we can actually get into proper debates about which problems to prioritise (e.g., sorting out the financial system’s stranglehold on the economy vs. sorting out multi-generational unemployment and its associated social pathologies), rather than trading in blame and excuses. If the last 15 years have taught us anything, it’s that the Right is much better at the blame game than everyone else, and that the only effective response is not to play it on their terms.
To conclude this section, if we are to get past these stale oppositions without deploying trite centrist gimmicks, then it is necessary to dissect the false dichotomies on which they thrive. This can only be done by developing a deeper understanding of the relation between these two perspectives on the social, and the complex ways in which they interact. I must once more insist that reverting to a premodern (or even amodern) standpoint on this issue, in which we actively ignore the distinction between the two sides is the equivalent of theoretical suicide. Actor Network Theory as methodology can be a powerful tool (as exemplified in the work of Nick Srnicek), but as metaphysics it can be disastrous (see the final section of my most recent engagement with OOO for details).
4. Desire, Akrasia, and Hedonic Depression
Another theme which CR attends to with remarkable clarity is the relation between desire, pleasure, happiness, and depression. Mark says many interesting things about the epidemic of depression afflicting many western societies (most especially the UK and the US), but I find the conclusions he draws on the basis of his experience as a teacher in an FE college most compelling. He not only analyses the problems of the college’s staff (and the associated pathologies of management culture) but also the problems of its students. I found his description of the latter to be incredibly perceptive, and especially relevant given that I am from the generation of students he taught, and attended an FE college very much like the one he describes. The most interesting point he makes is that whereas depression is usually characterised as an anhedonic state, the kind of depression he found to be commonplace in his students was intensely hedonic. Whereas depression is usually a matter of being unable to experience pleasure, this new form of depression is a matter of being unable to do anything but seek pleasure. Those afflicted are perpetually moving from one form of immediate satisfaction to another. Ordinary depression often involves something similar – a retreat into sources of comfort, be they comfort food, comfort media, and other passive forms of consumption. This can be seen as a kind of defence mechanism that is prone to becoming pathological (be it due to biological, psychological, sociological, or mixed factors). What distinguishes hedonic depression from this mechanism (be it pathologically triggered or not) is that comfort seeking behaviour is the norm. The subject has not fallen into it because their other modes of satisfaction have been disrupted in some way, but because it is their principal mode of satisfaction. This is a profound analysis, the truth of which I have witnessed first hand.
In order to understand this phenomenon it is important to get a grip on the idea that there are different modes of satisfaction, or put differently, the notion of forms of desire. Much as Foucault identified a plurality of forms of subjectivity, it is possible to identify a variety of forms of desire. However, most of these will be too particular for our purposes (e.g., obsession-compulsion, addiction, lust, romance, nostalgia, parental desire, artistic desire, etc.). We are interested in a much more general distinction: that between sensuous desire and rational desire. This is another inheritance from Kant, who defined desire as that faculty tasked with producing the reality of its representations, or realising the subject’s goals. This is desire considered as the faculty of practical reason. This is to be distinguished from desire understood as the drives that produce physical needs and urges. There is no absolute distinction between the two, insofar as one can aim to satisfy ones urges and therefore reason about how to do so. However, it is important to distinguish between them insofar as there can be rational desires that are strictly more complex than, or perhaps entirely independent of, drives, and there can equally be sensuous desires that are not channelled by, or perhaps entirely rejected by, reason. We can make the relation between these forms of desire more clear if we examine the way they are connected to a series of other notions: motivation, satisfaction, and pleasure.
Prima facie, desire plays two roles: it motivates us to perform actions, and it produces pleasure. The thing which links these two roles is the notion of satisfaction: we are motivated to perform actions that satisfy our desires, and we are pleased when they are satisfied. The difference and relation between sensuous and rational desire is to be found in the way satisfaction is configured in relation to both motivation and pleasure. A good way into this is to consider Wittgenstein’s objection to Russell’s early definition of desire as that which aims at whatever gets rid of it. In response to this Wittgenstein rather astutely suggested that a punch in the gut may cure him of his hunger, but he certainly couldn’t be said to desire it on that basis. In essence, what Wittgenstein was getting at was the intentionality of desire. However, the fact that his example is articulated in terms of hunger muddies the waters somewhat, insofar as this is the classic example of a biological urge. For instance, if I have channelled my hunger into a rational plan to prepare myself a very satisfying meal, then a punch in the gut will certainly not satisfy me, and will moreover thwart my satisfaction insofar as it removes the desire from which the pleasure I seek derives. But if I have in general no interest in such things, and am perfectly happy to receive my sustenance through intravenous drip, then a punch to the gut, or something else that simply removes my hunger without the accompanying negatives, would do just fine.
What this indicates is that rational desires (or projects) have well delineated satisfaction conditions, insofar as they aim to make true certain propositions about the world (e.g., ‘Pete has had a slap up meal’), and we can argue about the content of these propositions by arguing about their consequences (insofar as semantic content is inferentially articulated). I’ve provided a more detailed account of how this works in terms of Brandom’s account of practical reasoning (and its relation to norms and values) elsewhere (here). The important point is that these satisfaction conditions are such as to underwrite a distinction between our taking something to satisfy our desire, and it actually satisfying it. This is parallel to the distinction between what we take to be true, and what actually is true, that is constitutive for the notion of truth itself (which in ETR I call the withdrawal of authority). Sensuous desires (or urges) do not have such well defined satisfaction conditions. We might say that they are principally satiated, rather than satisfied. They are quelled by certain stimuli, and there is nothing which intrinsically underwrites a distinction between stimuli which correctly satiate it (i.e., which satisfy it) and those which incorrectly satiate it (i.e., which leave it unsatisfied). There have been plenty of attempts to underwrite this kind of distinction, the most famous being the teleosemantic approach (e.g., Dretske and Millikan). This tries to derive satisfaction conditions for urges on the basis of the evolutionary history of the drives they derive from. It enables us to say that a frog which accidentally eats lead pellets rather than flies may have it’s hunger satiated, but will not have its drives satisfied, insofar as those drives have evolved for the purpose of acquiring adequate nutrition. This approach is interesting, but it suffers from the problem of normative closure, or that its satisfaction conditions will always be underdetermined. By contrast, for any question about the determinate content of our rational desires we can engage in a process wherein we more or less self-consciously determine it. This difference between satisfaction proper and satiation is the root distinction between what we have called modes of satisfaction. We must now get a better grip on the notions of motivation and pleasure.
Taking the notion of motivation first, it’s helpful to contrast the account of sensuous desire we’re presenting with the metaphysical account of Desire put forward by Deleuze in both his own work and in more detail in his work with Guattari. For Deleuze, desire is universal. Everything has drives. Or more accurately, everything is an interconnected alliance of drives with an emergent unity. This is his modernisation of Nietzsche’s metaphysics of force, but it incorporates far more subtle and complex influences from thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz (i.e., modes, monads, and conatus), among others. This theory of Desire is strongly opposed to the Hegelian theory developed by Lacan, which for all it’s deployment of Freud’s theory of the unconscious remains an intentional theory of Desire (and thus more allied with the notion of rational desire we’ve been delineating). Deleuze’s notion of Desire is very much the metaphysical correlate of Foucault’s more restricted notion of Power. It describes decentralised causal tendencies that can become bound together to become more or less centralised and organised causal systems. It is for this aspect of Deleuze’s work that inspires a more metaphysical account of Capital that tends towards (and explicitly becomes in Land’s work) an account of a force of pure deterritorialisation, or the tendency of unstructured Desire to dissolve all forms of structure and organisation.
We need not reject the Deleuzian account so much as put it in its place. In essence, it is an important aspect of Deleuze’s metaphysical account of causation, or the way events are produced as effects. But we must remember the Kantian distinction between events and actions. We are only interested in Desire insofar as it is involved in motivating action. The question is thus how to understand the relation between causation and motivation. This is a thorny issue, and once more it is Sellars who provides the crucial insight necessary to address it, namely, that for causal systems to count as rational agents they must have reliable dispositions to respond to reasons for action by producing the relevant actions. This doesn’t mean that for a causal output of a system (e.g., leaning back on one’s chair) to count as an action, that it must therefore be causally effectuated by the acknowledgement of a reason, but rather that the process that produces it must be connected to the causal structures in which the reliable disposition to act on reasons are based. This is a fairly vague claim. The real question is how they must be connected up. I do have an answer to this question, which is essentially my interpretation of the unconscious/conscious/self-conscious distinction (which seems to correspond to the id/ego/superego distinction of psychoanalysis, though I’m not coming at it from that direction). The distinction between the latter two is essentially my interpretation of Kant’s account of the transcendental unity of apperception, and it’s relation to Brandom’s logical expressivism. However, the technical details of this account are both complex (I’m having to teach myself some unfamiliar mathematics and logic just to properly articulate them) and still evolving. I will say a little bit more about it later on though.
These details aside, we now have a threefold distinction between causal dispositions as such (or Deleuzian drives), which are present in everything (including the biological drives of animals), causal dispositions that can be channelled by practical reasoning (but needn’t actually be channelled), and the causal dispositions that constitute practical reason itself. For sake of clarity, let’s restrict the term ‘drive’ to the second of these. We then have the basis of an account of sensuous desire which is independent of the particular causal structures in which it is found. We can now see that whereas the motivational role of sensuous desires is principally causal (in producing action), the motivational role of rational desires is principally normative (in licensing action). However, it is the case that sensuous desire can play a corresponding normative role insofar as it is channelled by practical reason in the form of projects (e.g., my hunger being transformed into the project of acquiring a slap up meal), and that rational desire can play a corresponding causal role insofar as it is processed by the causal dispositions that constitute a system as a rational agent. There can thus equally be sensuous desires that aren’t channelled, and rational desires that aren’t acted upon. The latter phenomena is what the Greeks called akrasia, or weakness of the will, but the former is interesting precisely insofar as it can be the cause of this weakness. If we take hedonic depression to be a problem with the channelling of sensuous desires into properly articulated rational projects, then this fits entirely with Mark’s analysis. As he well describes, the principle effect of hedonic depression is precisely a kind of akrasia in which individuals are incapable of recognising and acting on the basis of their long-term interests.
There is a good sense in which the tentative description of Capital I supplied earlier is precisely a kind of collective akrasia – a self-perpetuating structural arationality that prevents us from working through our shared commitments and problems and synthesising genuine political positions and policy solutions. We have already suggested that Capital is a system that prevents the collective libido from being channelled by collective reason. Although Power is as much about the rational desires of individuals being unbound by systems of collective reason, it does involve the unchannelled sensuous desires of individuals insofar as these have effects upon the actions of those individuals and the actions of others. The hedonic depression of large groups of individuals thus need not be seen as merely a symptom of Capital, but as something that feeds into the structures that perpetuate it. Indeed, we can equally understand Capital as itself involving a kind of collective hedonic depression. This aptly captures the conjunction of total obsession with short-term statistical indicators (e.g., economic indicators such as GDP, educational league tables, NHS targets, etc.) and complete inability to confront long-term structural problems (e.g., climate change, resource depletion, the hollowing out of economies (first local then national), etc.) that is the hallmark of contemporary politics. However, if we are to extend this description further, we must continue to trace the relations between desire and reason, and specifically the role that pleasure plays in this.
5. Pleasure, Mood, and Practical Consciousness
Pleasure is something that is causally produced. We must thus be very careful in tracing its interactions with the various normative distinctions we’ve already outlined. This is because there is a very great temptation to talk about it in terms of specific causal structures (e.g., the neurological structures involved with stimulus-reward learning patterns). For instance, one might be tempted to think that we must either hold that the causal structures responsible for producing pleasure in response to rational desire must be the same as those responsible for producing it in response to sensuous desire (e.g., that practical rationality is just another learned behaviour), or that they must be different (e.g., that practical rationality is innate), but in truth it could be either way (or more likely something in between), and precisely how it works in humans is an empirical question. The distinction between drives and rational desires is motivated by normative considerations, and although it is described in causal terms, these are maximally abstract. We are thus not concerned with biological distinctions between forms of pleasure (though these are very interesting and important in their own right), but with transcendental distinctions of the same kind as the distinction between sensuous and rational desire.
Once more, this takes us back to Kant, who by the time of the 3rd Critique has distinguished between at least four different forms of pleasure: pleasure produced by the satisfaction of rational desires, pleasure produced by the satiation of urges (this includes both things that our body needs, and things that our senses find agreeable), pleasure produced by the experience of the beautiful, and pleasure produced by the experience of the sublime. One of the main purposes of the 3rd Critique is to distinguish the latter two from the former two: to show that aesthetic experience is neither bound by some objective purpose (i.e., a particular project), nor by simple sensory agreeableness. He does this by showing that they satisfy the ends of reason itself, and thus are formally purposive. In the case of the beautiful, he takes pleasure to be produced by reason’s need for its faculties to be able to synthesise nature as a unified whole, which is presented in the process of free play that the faculties enter into in the experience of the beautiful. In the case of the sublime, he takes there to be an oscillation between terror and pleasure caused by the presentation of the inability of the faculties to synthesise something (the converse of free play), and the presentation of the power of reason to cognise beyond this limit (which is itself an end of reason).
Whether or not we accept Kant’s own analysis of aesthetic experience and the related ends of reason, this effectively gives us a threefold distinction between types of desire and the pleasure they produce: sensuous desire/pleasure, projective desire/pleasure, and structural desire/pleasure. This returns us to our concern with the distinction between general and particular forms of desire, insofar as projective desire and structural desire are species of rational desire as a genus, which is itself opposed to sensuous desire as a species of desire as such. This puts us in a much better position to understand the taxonomy of desire. So far, we have only really considered unchannelled sensuous desire, channelled sensuous desire (which has thus become projective), non-sensuous projective desire, and structural desire (which is essentially non-sensuous). This is totally inadequate. We have not yet properly described the way in which sensuous desires are organised (or disorganised) amongst themselves, the way in which projective desires are organised amongst themselves, or the way in which the former can be channelled by the latter. To do this it’s first important to distinguish a different kind of generality and particularity involved in the description of forms of desire: the distinction between particular desires (sensuous urges and rational goals) and the general structures that motivate them (sensuous drives and rational valuations). For example, there is a distinction between my urge to eat at a given time, and the general drive of hunger that produces it, just as there is a distinction between my short-term goal of helping my mother clean the kitchen and my valuing helping my parents to the best of my ability.
The relation between urges and drives should be reasonably intuitive, but the relation between goals and valuations is more complex. It is essentially just the distinction between ordinary practical commitments and inferential practical commitments that I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere (here). To re-explain some of this briefly, practical commitments are essentially commitments to make a proposition true. There is a distinction between individual and collective practical commitments, the former being those that one is responsible for on one’s own, and the latter being those that one is responsible for as part of a group (which can take a variety of different forms, as explained in section 4 of this post). What distinguishes inferential practical commitments from ordinary ones is they are committed to making conditional propositions true, which amounts to licensing practical inferences from theoretical commitments to the antecendent of the conditional to ordinary practical commitments to its consequent. This gives us a fourfold distinction between personal goals, collective goals, personal valuations (or desires), and collective valuations (or norms). These are the basic forms of practical reason, but they still do not exhaust it, or the taxonomy of desire that derives from it.
The more complex forms of desire emerge when we consider the question of how desire is organised. It is on this issue that Heidegger’s genius shines forth, insofar as he understood the need to distinguish between the way in which drives are organised in themselves (Befindlichkeit – or disposedness) and the way in which they are channelled into the organisational framework of projective desire, ordered around ourselves as the for-the-sake-of-which, or the formal end of all action. This role of the self as the formal end of all action has been misunderstood by many as implying a certain egoism on Heidegger’s part, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Heidegger does not think that all of our actions are ultimately motivated by self-interest as it is ordinarily understood, but rather that insofar as they are genuine actions, they are in some way directed toward individuating us as who we are (be it as an egoist or an altruist). The ‘in some way’ here indicates that this is the case regardless of whether we explicitly take up individuating ourselves as an end or not. We are always constructing ourselves as who we are in everything we do, whether we like it or not. This idea is indebted both to Aristotle’s account of practical reason and virtue, and to Kant’s account of subjects as ends in themselves, and it gets taken up and developed further by Foucault in his account of self-construction, or subjectivation.
Before returning to and expanding on the idea of subjectivation, it’s necessary to return to Heidegger’s account of disposedness, or what he will later simply call mood (Stimmung). For the early Heidegger, disposedness is the existential structure whose existentiell modifications are moods. Contrary to what some maintain, these mood are not intentional. I can have affective attitudes toward particular things (e.g., being scared of a dog, loving a person, etc.), but this is a possibility produced by moods, in precisely the way that urges are produced by drives. For Heidegger a mood is a global phenomenon – it is an attitude to the world as a whole, rather than to some local part of it. For him, the world is just the space of possibilities projected by our understanding of the ways in which we can act. The problem is that this space does not determine which of these possibilities we choose. Our moods colour the way in which we experience these possibilities, highlighting some and excluding others. They do this principally by organising our dispositions towards certain general types of action (i.e., our drives) in different ways. For instance, when I am depressed, staying in bed will seem much more attractive than going out and seeing my friends, whereas this ranking will be reversed when I am elated. Moods thus dispose us to action by regulating the production of urges, but they need not completely determine it. Our practical reasoning can both influence and be influenced by our moods. On a less Heideggerian note, a mood is just a configuration of drives that plays a role in motivating action, and its particular structure is to be understood in the same empirical terms that the structure of its composite drives are.
We’re now in a position to explain the way in which rational desire is organised, and the way it channels the disparate networks of drives that constitute mood. As we’ve noted, the way in which drives are organised in moods is an empirical matter, and these organisational mechanisms need not produce anything like perfect unity. As Nietzsche and Deleuze understood, drives are basically at war with one another, even if they are bound in temporary alliances. In short, the organisation of drives amongst themselves is principally a causal matter, whereas the organisation of projective desires (the ‘kingdom of ends’) is principally a normative one. Practical reason is not simply about the realisation of ends, but about their prioritisation. It is entirely possible for us to undertake ordinary practical commitments that negatively impact each other’s realisation, up to the point of outright incompatibility (e.g., promising both to cook dinner for family at 6:00pm and to go out with friends at 7:00pm, or wanting to go to two different conferences on the same day, respectively). In these cases one has to generate preference hierarchies that determine how finite capacities and resources are to be deployed in realising one’s various goals. Moods as we have described them can play the same role as such preference hierarchies, insofar as they regulate the interaction of drives in their production of urges, which can then be made explicit as goals that we can reason about how to realise. However, this transition from urge to goal is the minimal form that the channelling of sensuous desire can take, precisely because it doesn’t amount to a genuine rational organisation of those goals. In this case, instrumental reason is subject to the whims of mood.
The crucial point is that in discussing the way sensuous desires are rationally channelled into organised projects, we are really talking about the way in which we become conscious of our desires, such that we can engage in practical reasoning regarding how best to prioritise and realise them. This consciousness comes in different degrees. At it’s most basic it simply consists in translating our urges into goals, so that we can plan to satiate them. The rational satisfaction found in achieving these goals is essentially secondary to the sensuous satiation thereby achieved. Greater levels of consciousness correspond to the forms of practical reason that organise these goals (which are essentially further species of desire). We can work our way up through the most general such forms. The first level of rational organisation is the translation of the relations between drives in mood into rational preference rankings of goals. This enables us not only to engage in instrumental reasoning regarding how we will realise a given project, but how we will realise our various independent projects in relation to one another (as we’re already capable of organising sub-projects of a single project, as they are not independently motivated by sensuous desire). The second level of rational organisation is the translation of distinct drives into personal valuations, so that they may directly motivate particular goals, rather than proceeding indirectly via the production of urges that are then translated into goals. This is the point at which desire as such becomes properly conscious, insofar as it is the point at which we have some grasp of why we want what we want.
This is not the end of the story, but it’s worth taking a brief Brandomian interlude here. One of Brandom’s most interesting insights is the link between the conscious/self-conscious distinction and the implicit/explicit distinction. He takes it that to be conscious of something in the proper sense (i.e., sapient, rather than merely sentient) is to be able to reason about it (which is just what Kant means by being able to ‘bring it under the transcendental unity of apperception‘), but he takes it that this ability to reason is a kind of practical understanding. He thus thinks that it is perfectly possible to reason by navigating implicit inferential connections between claims without being able to make explicit these inferential connections. Making explicit in this sense is a matter of turning practical understanding of reasons into theoretical understanding, and this is accomplished by the use of logical vocabulary. This is the gist of Brandom’s famed logical expressivism. So, ability to use conditional vocabulary (i.e., ‘if… then…’, ‘…even if…’, etc.) is the prerequisite of explicitly, or self-consciously, grasping the inferential connections between claims that one usually navigates implicitly, or merely consciously. Brandom thinks this applies equally to practical reasoning, where evaluative/normative vocabulary (e.g., ‘want’, ‘prefer’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘may’, etc.) makes explicit the inferential practical commitments that constitute both personal valuations (or desires) and collective valuations (or norms). This means that we can be rational, in both the theoretical and the practical sense, without necessarily being logical.
However, what’s important to recognise is that while the kind of self-consciousness that logically expressive ability constitutes is indeed a sort of higher level of consciousness, it is not another stage of the linear dimension we are currently considering. At each level of practical consciousness we are considering, it is both possible to merely navigate the inferential relations between the practical commitments one’s urges and drives are translated into, and to make them explicit in such a way that they can be rationally revised. What this indicates is that the progression between the unconscious, the conscious, and the self-conscious is not strictly linear (perhaps contra psychoanalysis), but that the two steps actually constitute (at least) two distinct dimensions of progression that can interact in various ways. This also contradicts Hegel’s linear presentation of forms of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, even if it does not preclude us from acknowledging genuine insights that Hegel may have had into particular forms (or for that matter, all forms). Really, it indicates that we are glimpsing the edges of a complex Pragmatics of Spirit, in which there is not a linear distribution of forms but a complex web of varieties of consciousness, both theoretical and practical. However, this is something that must be developed for its own sake, elsewhere.
Returning to our elaboration of the levels of practical consciousness, the next stage is translating the general relationships between drives into preference rankings of valuations (or value systems), as opposed to simply preference rankings of goals. These are constituted by relational practical commitments (as explained here). This is the transition from organising the various projects that are motivated by our drives to rationally organising these drives themselves, which is the move from being able to reason consistently about the projects one is engaged in at any given time, or one’s short-term projects, to reasoning about one’s long-term projects. This stage is a necessary, though insufficient condition of developing a genuine life-project which organises all of one’s desires. The question is precisely what is sufficient. This is where we return to Heidegger’s appropriation of Kant’s idea that the subject is an end in itself. This is a crucial aspect of Kant’s theory of autonomy. The reason for this is that there could be something like a rational agent, with all of the capacities already outlined, that was capable of organising its desires into a single long-term project, but for whom the goal of this project was fixed in advance. This quasi-agent would thus not be autonomous in the Kantian sense, insofar as it would not legislate its own ends. The problem is thus how an agent can exhibit unity in its practical reasoning, so as to act consistently in accordance with its various practical commitments, while still exhibiting autonomy in its choice of these commitments.
5. Subjectivation, Recognition, and Happiness
It is this problem that Heidegger solves with his account of individuation. As explained above, for Heidegger, individuation is something that we do through doing everything else, rather than one project amongst others. It is a purely formal end that underlies and unites the hierarchy of objective ends, or the formal structure of the life-project that unites our various particular projects. It consists in making ourselves who we are, by doing what we do. This level of practical consciousness corresponds to the practical ability to connect all of our various projects to some conception of ourselves, which thereby organises them into an concrete life-project. There are various ways in which this self-image is articulated: through virtues (i.e., pre-organised partial value-systems, such as compassion, wisdom, temperance, fairness, etc.), through social roles (e.g., teacher, doctor, soldier, father, mother, debutante, rock star, christian, etc.), through heroes and other archetypal figures (e.g., Socrates, Jefferson, Gandhi, Jesus, the Buddha, Heracles, Athena, Batman, etc.), as well as through more mundane qualities (e.g., strength, skill, attractiveness, etc.).
What is important is that although the elements of one’s self-image are inherited from one’s social environment (into which one is thrown), they are neither unitary nor fixed. On the one hand, one has a certain limited choice over which elements one brings together, and thus how one identifies with and differentiates oneself from others. This is precisely a Foucauldian margin of Freedom in relation to the mechanisms through which one is socialised. On the other hand, one’s self-image can change over time, be it unconsciously, through the influence of drives, mood, or mechanisms of socialisation, consciously, by rationally developing it in an implicit fashion, or self-consciously, by rationally developing it in an explicit fashion. There are then different forms of consciousness and self-consciousness that correspond to the different ways of articulating one’s self-image, and making explicit this articulation (the different practical logics of virtue, role, etc.). These kinds of consciousness and self-consciousness correspond to the different degrees of what Heidegger calls authenticity. It is this capacity to continually renew one’s self-image, and the way it unifies and organises one’s other projects, that secures a rational agent’s autonomy. This is the positive side of Freedom that emerges out of the negative side of Freedom delimited earlier – a margin of Freedom for acting upon oneself, rather than simply for acting in general. This is the causal correlate of normative autonomy.
In order to return to the advances of Foucault’s account of subjectivation over Heidegger’s account of individuation, it is important to address its relation to desire and pleasure, which involves examining its connections to Aristotle and Hegel, respectively. Heidegger’s approach is obviously indebted to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, even if it abandons the teleological basis of Aristotle’s theory in favour of something more like a Kantian transcendentalism. An aspect of Aristotle’s account that is very relevant to the overall picture I’ve been painting is his account of the relation between virtue and habit. For Aristotle, in choosing to act in a virtuous way, we habituate ourselves such that we are more inclined to act in a virtuous way. What this means is that although there is a conflict between our drives, which motivate us to act viciously, and our self-image, which motivates us to act virtuously, the very process of acting virtuously can resolve this conflict by reshaping our drives in line with our rational desires. This is an important aspect of the process of self-construction. It is a kind of passive action upon oneself qua causal system, in contrast to the more active techniques of the self deployed by the Stoics. It shows that the rational adoption and development of a self-conception need not be a merely normative matter, but can also be causal one. One of the principle advances that Foucault’s account of subjectivation (which is influenced by the Stoics) makes on Heidegger’s account of individuation (which is obviously more rooted in Aristotle) is that it better appreciates this causal dimension.
Before looking at this in more detail we need to address the relation between individuation and pleasure, and the relation to Hegel just indicated. The account of desire that Hegel develops in the Self-Consciousness section of the Phenomenology has been very influential, at the very least through its impact upon Marx, Sartre, and Lacan. What is so intriguing about it is not simply that it is a very minimalistic intentional account of desire, or that this intentionality is directed at something the subject lacks, but that what the subject is understood to lack is principally consciousness of itself. It is the need to recognise itself as a subject (or as an I) that drives the dialectic of desire, proceeding through the life and death struggle, the master slave dialectic, and ultimately reaching its truth in mutual recognition (wherein we recognise ourselves by recognising those who recognise us). The ideas Hegel sketches in this short bit of text are of incredible importance, and there is much that can still be learned from them (as shown by Brandom’s analysis of mutual recognition). However, what we must focus on is the core idea that desire is linked to consciousness of oneself. As we’ve shown above, the nature of drives bares out Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Lacan’s appropriation of the Hegelian account of desire in terms of lack, insofar as it is taken as an account of desire in general. Nonetheless, we can see Hegel’s (and potentially Lacan’s) thought about desire as providing crucial insight into particular forms of it. Specifically, we can see Hegel’s account as describing the form of desire corresponding to individuation, along with the form of pleasure that emerges from it. We can then see the dialectic of desire as being a quest for a stable mode of individuation and the rational pleasure that corresponds to it, whereby one can see oneself as one conceives oneself reflected in one’s wants, one’s labours, and one’s peers. These can be viewed as complementary ways in which one’s self-image (as that which underlies the unity of one’s practical reasoning) gets validated, thereby satisfying a structural end of practical reason itself, and producing a kind of pleasure that contrasts with the mere satiation of drives.
We can now (finally) start to pull everything that’s been covered in the last three sections together in order to flesh out Foucault’s notion of subjectivation and its relevance for the problem hedonic depression. The real advances of Foucault’s account of subjectivation over Heidegger’s account of individuation are its concerns with causality and variety. We’ve already traced the issues regarding causality and its complex interface with normative concerns in some detail, but what remains to be done is to address the variety, and corresponding unity, of the various forms of consciousness, desire and pleasure that we’ve been articulating. In essence, what we’ve been trying to show is that there are a variety of different structures involved in the way in which rationality, and practical rationality in particular, is instantiated by causal systems. This is just what Kant would call transcendental psychology. However, while we have differentiated between many of these different structures (and done so in a somewhat hierarchical fashion) we’ve also provided some basic arguments for why some of them must be unified in the same system in order to constitute genuine rational agency. This amounts to an informal demonstration of certain conditions for the possibility of autonomy. What we need to do now is to show how the aspects of this unified structure that we have differentiated may vary (which Heidegger would call existentiale and their existentiell modifications, respectively). This amounts to showing how the various kinds of practical reason/consciousness we have discussed may be configured in relation to one another. To do this in a comprehensive fashion is too great a task for the present piece, which has already strayed too long on this tangent, but we can say enough in order to make proper sense of the notion of hedonic depression.
We’ve already roughly indicated the connection between Heidegger’s accounts of individuation and thrownness. The various elements one brings together in constituting one’s self-conception must be pieced together from what is available within the social environment that one is socialised into. Foucault certainly agrees with this, although he places more emphasis upon the way in which our self-images are causally affected by the area of the social field we find ourselves in. However, Foucault extends this idea by seeing self-images as we’ve described them (and thus the elements they’re composed of: qualities, virtues, social roles, heros, etc.) as aspects of a deeper phenomenon, which he calls forms of subjectivity. These are more than who we take ourselves to be, insofar as they include the general ways in which we understand and relate to ourselves as subjects, or the ways in which we treat ourselves as theoretical and practical objects. This means that they include the variant configurations of the different facets of practical reason we have just described. For instance, it is not only the case that one can in fact prioritise certain ways of constructing one’s self-image, and thus of individuating oneself, over others (e.g., idolisation of heroes over adoption of social roles, or manifestation of qualities over exemplification of virtues), but these kind of prioritisation can be structural features of one’s form of subjectivity (e.g., the different weights placed on the notion of virtue in Ancient Greece and in Modern Western Society). This is especially important insofar as these aspects of self-image provide us with ways in which we can channel sensuous desires into rational desires, and thereby become conscious of them (to varying degrees). This means that although autonomous agents at minimum have the capacity to have a whole range of different types of desires, in different amounts and organised in different ways (e.g., focused on satiation of urges, focused on completing short-term goals, focused on maximising preferences, etc.) their form of subjectivity has an important effect on how they can distribute desire in this way.
This sheds light on my earlier claim that hedonic depression is a state where the subject’s principal mode of satisfaction is short-term or immediate gratification. In essence, what I was describing was a form of subjectivity in which the subject’s mode of individuation/subjectivation discourages channelling sensuous desires into rational desires in anything but the most simple fashion, and therefore discouraging the kinds rational pleasure that are associated with this, including the pleasure associated with more complex forms of individuation. We can call the overall network of one’s pleasures, pains, satisfactions, and frustrations (as organised and related by one’s drives, moods, projects, and practical reason) one’s happiness. This could use spelling out in more detail, specifically in order to show (contra crass forms of utilitarianism) that it is not a summation of quantities. However, this enables us to put the problem of hedonic depression in much more classical terms: it is a form of subjectivity in which happiness is restricted to hedonia, at the expense of eudaimonia.
This is not meant to be interpreted as some nostalgic call for a return to Ancient Greek values. There’s plenty the Greeks have to teach us (something I’ll go into more in part 2), but the wholescale lionisation of a culture is rarely productive, especially if it is treated as a substitute for genuine social understanding, as most forms of political nostalgia are. Neither political nostalgia nor political eschatology will bring about political progress, only action motivated by genuine understanding of our social conditions will. As Mark shows, hedonic depression is something that calls out for this kind of social analysis, precisely because it is generally treated (along with other widespread disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD) on an individual basis rather than as something that has potentially broader social causes. Mark’s point is razor sharp: it is obvious that these disorders are neurologically instantiated, and thus can be treated on an individual neurological basis (often pharmaceutically), but this is the case with all behavioural traits. The trick is to differentiate between those whose causes are genuine biological pathologies (of which there are manifestly many), from those whose causes are pathologies of the social mechanisms that intersect with the biological in order to constitute autonomous rational subjects. My contribution to this point, which this long digression into the structure of practical rationality has been leading toward, is to further explain the prevalence of hedonic depression as a pathology of subjectivation. What the above analysis indicates is that it is caused by structural deficits in the social mechanisms through which we provide one another with options for individuating ourselves. It is essentially the bleeding edge of that alienation which is endemic to what Mark calls capitalist realism.
6. Social Cognition, Social Evolution, and Alienation
This thesis needs to be clarified and expanded upon a great deal, and this is a task that cannot be completed here. However, we can begin to develop the idea in some potentially interesting directions. It’s first important to realise that what Heidegger calls thrownness is not simply a matter of being born into a given social environment, but of living in that environment. Subjectivation is a continuous process in which our relations to ourselves and others constitutes us as agents. Forms of subjectivity are ways in which we related to ourselves as who we are, such that our actions upon ourselves (which can be more or less passive/active and conscious/self-conscious) feed into this extended process of subjectivation in particular way. However, we should not let the fact that a form of subjectivity is a matter of self-relation mislead us into thinking that it is something entirely internal to a rational agent. It is not something that is forced upon an agent all at once, which they then completely internalise and proceed within, but can equally be part of the networks of action (i.e., Power) that they find themselves in. There are social structures which mediate our relations to ourselves. This requires a further excursus to explain properly.
Heidegger was one of the first to recognise that practical cognition (and therefore the theoretical cognition in which it is grounded) is socially distributed to some extent. We offer one another practical possibilities, both in the sense of creating opportunities for action (implicitly and explicitly shared enterprises) and in the sense of providing examples to follow (doing what one does). He was also one of the first to articulate a notion of embodied cognition, in which thought is understood not as something exclusively internal to the agent, but as something that can involve the cognitive resources provided by its environment. This idea has been developed in really interesting ways by those who advocate the extended mind hypothesis in the philosophy of mind, with greater concern for the causal conditions of cognition than Heidegger could muster. Again, Foucault advances on Heidegger on both these fronts, insofar as he does not simply view practical cognition as socially distributed in a global way and causally extended in a general way, but combines these ideas into local systems of social cognition that are organised in particular ways, which he calls practical systems. These are collective quasi-agents that inhabit the social field, or the more or less decentralised and structured networks of actors that are traversed by flows of Power. We are all bound up in what are essentially socially distributed networks of reasoners engaged in parallel processing of practical problems (to greater and lesser degrees of consciousness).
On this note, ANT has the right idea in understanding us as bound up in networks of reciprocally determined ‘agency’, but what it lacks is an understanding of those aspects of networks that determine genuinely rational agency. Latour is no substitute for Foucault here. Those who claim that Foucault is some form of post-structural correlationist who makes everything about humans have gravely misunderstood what Foucault is doing. Foucault is perfectly happy to talk about the way in which non-human objects and technical apparatuses are bound up with social structures (e.g., the Panopticon). He’s not even hostile to metaphysics (as evidenced by his respect for Deleuze’s work), he just doesn’t do it. This practiced metaphysical agnosticism lets him avoid the dangers of combining social analysis with metaphysics that are so amply demonstrated by the problems of Latour’s metaphysical excursions. Foucault’s core problems are theoretical problems about the general ways in which rational agents understand and act upon themselves and others, and social-historical problems about the particular ways in which humans have and continue to do this. There is nothing wrong with restricting one’s scope in this way (if one can even call such a scope ‘restricted’ with a straight face), especially when it’s possible to integrate the results with those of genuine metaphysical inquiry.
That Foucault’s Kantian account of practical reason should be highly compatible with Deleuze’s neo-Spinozan metaphysics (and the ‘assemblage theory’ it has inspired) should come as no surprise. This is most obvious in the interface between Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of Desire and Foucault’s theory of Power already discussed. Heidegger’s theory of mood lets us understand the ways in which drives are organised, but although it is implicitly collective, it fails to articulate the way in which the drives of local groups of individuals can be organised into particular desiring-machines. Combining these distributed networks of sensuous desire with the Foucauldian account of practical rationality I’ve been advocating allows us get a synoptic picture of the social field, and the way Power traverses it. The various forms of desire we’ve uncovered provide different ways in which the desires of individuals can converge so as to constitute Power flows. This includes everything from the diasporic sensuous desires that make up the market for consumer goods (inhabited and molded by fashions, genres, and advertising agencies), through the maximised preferences of day traders (set up as they are in a well-circumscribed war of all against all), to the organisational strategies of management (with their own fashions, alliances, and management consultancies). The practical systems which channel and organise drives are multifarious, and they inhabit different strata of the social field.
This brief sketch of a theory provides us with a better way of thinking about forms of subjectivity, insofar as it enables us to cash out the more general notion of forms of agency discussed in section 2. The social field is much like an ecosystem, insofar as it is nothing above and beyond the reciprocally constituted social/biological processes that compose it, and it evolves just like an ecosystem, insofar as these processes continuously adapt in relation to one another. This means that the social field contains evolutionary niches. The most general of these niches are forms of agency, both individual and collective. They are the social roles that rational agents and the practical systems they constitute occupy, respectively. These roles are in some sense internalised insofar as they must be configured in a certain way in order to occupy them, but they may be equally externalised insofar as there are complex social systems which both sustain these niches and retain these agents within them. For example, both the roles of the banker and the benefit dependent discussed earlier (in somewhat more inflammatory language) are social niches supported by extended social apparatuses including the aspects of the state, and the role of the supermarket is a social (and specifically economic) niche supported by the rise of the automobile, the rise of the two income household, and a good bit of state sponsorship.
Forms of subjectivity are more specific aspects of forms of agency (much as the various elements of self-image are aspects of forms of subjectivity), insofar as they govern the way an agent understands and acts upon itself. These can be equally externalised insofar as there are complex social mechanisms that organise the way in which we view our social roles, the qualities and virtues they involve, and the heroic figures that exemplify them. These mechanisms mediate the way we see ourselves, and thus the way in which we construct ourselves in conjunction with the various other factors that sustain our social niche and retain us within it. For example, the ways in which bankers see themselves (their wider social role (i.e., managing capital flow), their virtues (e.g., willingness to take risk), their qualities (e.g., financial innovativeness)), and the ways in which they individuate themselves on this basis (e.g., working up the ladder within organisations, roaming between them, isolating their business lives and personal lives, etc.) insist within certain social networks (e.g., ‘the City’, ‘the Street’, etc.) that are fairly isolated from the general populace. This is why there can be such a large discrepancy between their view of their own importance and culpability and the view of the general public. Moreover, regulatory capture (and more general political capture) consists precisely in entanglement of these networks with those of the regulators (and politicians).
As described earlier, Capital is a loose alliance of forms of agency, a collection of individual and collective social niches that is adaptive enough to sustain certain core features of the configuration of the social field. It would be as impersonal as the evolutionary dominance of dinosaurs up until the end of the Cretaceous if it weren’t actively championed to greater or lesser degrees by persons (both as individuals and groups). Our question is thus how is this disparate social system responsible for the problem of hedonic depression? What is this contemporary form of alienation that it breeds?
Again, much could be written on this topic, but I will stick to some fairly classical themes. As was explained earlier, Hegel’s account of desire as self-recognition delimited three basic ways in which one could derive pleasure (and thus happiness) from individuation: by means of identifying oneself with one’s wants, by means of identifying oneself with one’s labours, and by means of identifying oneself with one’s peers. I think that this is a reasonably good schema, and the account of subjectivation just presented enables us to see that there are different social mechanisms which mediate each kind of individuation, and thereby constitute the various forms of subjectivity available to the agents that are socialised by them. Marx’s characterisation of the way the social structures of Capital alienate workers from their work, and thereby preclude certain forms of individuation and happiness, describes an aspect of a more general trend: the systematic decline of the latter two forms of individuation in favour of the first – individuation through desire. Moreover, these desires are generally channelled into rational desires and projects to a much lesser degree, insofar as it is the ability to individuate oneself in more complex ways that encourages the formation of rational desires that are less bound by one’s drives. This is a core feature of Capital’s evolutionary strategy, as it undermines the organisation and development of individual and collective forms of practical reason at its source.
Mark has written about the way in which the modern workplace has been reconfigured to exclude the possibility of individuation, and the corresponding rise in middle class alienation, better than I ever could. What is so fascinating about his characterisation is that it is often those features of work whose aim is purportedly to encourage workers to become unique and skilled individuals that take away their possibilities for individuation (e.g., his point that ‘satisfactory is no longer satisfactory’). If excellence is mandatory, then it is harder to identify oneself with it as one’s own choice. This doesn’t mean it is impossible. There are still many whose job defines who they are, but this often involves its own pathological consequences (e.g., psychological compartmentalisation, self-conscious hypocracy, and unhealthy/inefficient forms of social competition). People are often confronted with either rejecting the irrationality of the organisational structures they are part of, and thereby losing their ability to see themselves in their labour insofar as this undermines its purpose, or accepting and even propagating this irrationality. This is analogous to the way that peer pressure works in less complex social groups. Either way, genuine collective rationality is discouraged.
This leads nicely to the discussion of individuation through identification with social groups. It is not that Capital has tended to discourage individuation through groups completely, as there’s a good case to be made that all individuation has an important social component, precisely insofar as social roles are ways of differentiating oneself within a group that one has identified oneself with. Rather, it’s that it has tended to undermine those mechanisms of group individuation that are not based on less rationally organised forms of individual and collective desire. The above discussion of identification through working for an organisation is only one example of this, and there are many others that we could discuss. However, I will single out the increasing delocalisation (rather than globalisation) of communities and their interlocking economies. The work of Jane Jacobs and her successors (such as NEF) is exemplary here. The advent of the automobile, some truly disastrous post-war urban planning, deindustrialisation, and the rise of supermarkets and chain stores (aided by clueless national and local government), has all conspired to hollow out many local economies and the communities whose interactions they structured. Social networks that previously provided possibilities for individuation, including taking on purposive social roles within those communities, have disappeared on mass. This is felt more by the younger generation than anyone else, especially when (as in the UK) the congregation of ‘youths’ in order to form their own social networks is not only not encouraged, but actively discouraged.
This leaves us in a situation in which the default modes of individuation are our ‘interests’, and disparate friendship groups that are themselves united by their ‘interests’. This means individuation on the basis of mostly unchannelled sensuous desires, rather than anything like collectively determined rational interests, be they social, economic, or otherwise political. We are what we do, and if what one does is play video games and smoke weed, then that’s who one is. Especially if one works in a call centre, because no one is a call centre worker, it’s merely what they do. This is not the worst life imaginable by any means, but there’s a very important sense in which it is unsatisfying. However, it is precisely this kind of satisfaction that Capital has systematically precluded, because it is this kind of satisfaction that encourages the development of practical reason. My generation (and those who come after) are the model subjects of capitalist realism: desperately seeking satiation, but never satisfied. I don’t even need to draw the connections between this and the economics of consumption, or the role of advertising and marketing in encouraging hedonistic modes of individuation. However, I would like to make one final point, which is an interesting twist on Foucault’s account of the history of sexuality: there are many walks of life in which it is now easier to identify oneself with one’s sexual preference (it is something one is, rather than something one does) than to identify oneself with one’s occupation or social class. It is no coincidence that sexual desire is more easily depoliticised than work or class.
7. End of Part 1: The Promise of Political Reason
We can now return to the question posed earlier: how do we create forms of individual and collective agency that are resistant to Power, be it in general or in the specific form of Capital?
Foucault’s ethics is an answer to the former question. It is essentially an ethics of radical autonomy. It is a Kantian aesthetics of existence in which we explicitly take up individuation as a structural end of practical reason itself, engaging in a continuous process of self-construction with the only purpose being that we become more able to construct ourselves, thereby intensifying the causal dimension of autonomy, or positive Freedom. It is essentially a far more developed version of both Heidegger’s ethics of authenticity, and Nietzsche’s ethics of adaptability. It is thus the natural development of virtue ethics, except that it moves beyond the notion virtue and focuses on the rational core of the notion of agent-centred ethics. However, it should not for that matter be taken as an alternative to act-centred ethics. Foucault is not calling for the collapse of social norms (be they ‘ethical’ or otherwise) into the play of self-development. This is the import of Foucault’s distinction between ethics (norms of self-relation) and morality (norms of other-relation), and although he is certainly critical of the contemporary tendency to ignore the former in favour of the latter, this does not mean that he wishes to reverse this trend.
The import of Foucault’s ethics is that it subordinates all objective ends to the formal end of developing practical self-consciousness. It subordinates all particular practical commitments to the proper practice of reason itself. This encourages resistance to Power insofar as it is our objective ends that enable us to be bound up in flows of Power. Inspired by Mark, I’ll try my hand at a cinematic example to demonstrate this. The film Thankyou For Smoking is almost a fairly unremarkable genre piece. It’s protagonist is someone who is good at what he does, who is then confronted by some adversity, which builds to the point at which he is confronted with a final challenge to which he must rise in order to be the best he can be. It is a cinematic depiction of eudaimonia, much as one finds in classic sports films (e.g., Rocky, Days of Thunder, etc.). The difference is that what the main character is good at is being a tabacco lobbyist. What I enjoyed most about the film is that this doesn’t stop it from carrying through the inherent logic of the genre. It neither attempts to downplay how downright immoral a practice lobbying (in this or any other form) is, nor does the character learn any major moral lesson. He is confronted with a challenge, and he overcomes it by being the best tabacco lobbyist he can be. What this demonstrates is that individuation in and of itself is neither ethical nor moral. I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard’s sketch about the American dream (“I’m crazy Eddie, and I want to put babies on spikes!”).
In essence, capitalist realism still offers plenty of opportunities for individuation for those who are happy to get with the program. As long as one is willing to turn a blind eye to organisational irrationality, or better yet, completely abjure the possibility of anything other than instrumental reasoning (see my comments on rational choice theory here, here, and here), then one can be as rational as one likes in organising one’s own projects. But, just like the protagonist at the end of Thankyou For Smoking, one can even abandon one of these roles in favour of another, giving up on one form of social evil and going freelance. One can be as smooth and malleable in the ways one constructs oneself as Capital is in the ways it deconstructs others. This means that the best that Foucault’s ethics can do is to make one resistant to Power, or prevent one from being used by it, but that this does not necessarily prevent one from being complicit with it, or using it for one’s own ends. This is not to downplay Foucault’s achievement, as I certainly do not think that this is where Foucault’s story was supposed to end. Nonetheless, we need to supplement Foucault’s ethics of personal Freedom with a politics of collective Freedom. We require a form of politics that is organised around a structural end of collective practical reasoning, in much the way that Foucault’s ethics is organised around a structural end of individual practical reasoning. This is the promise of a genuine political rationalism.
That’s all for now. The second part of the commentary will go into the idea of collective practical reasoning in much more depth, using this to discuss the pathologies of modern democracy in greater depth, and tackling the idea of capitalist realism itself. It will then try to give more concrete form to this idea of political rationalism. Given how long this took me to write, it may be a while. Nonetheless, stay tuned…