Categories
Philosophy

Existentialism Is a Humanism: Some Thoughts

I’ve always found Sartre a better writer (novelist, playwright, and so on) than a philosopher. Certainly, Being and Nothingness is an impressive work – an intelligent, thorough, analytic tome inquiring into the roots and nature of human subjectivity. And yet this text, at least, is a mixed bag for me. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to return to this text for the first time in God knows how many years and to read it afresh. But I did, and I wanted to collect some thoughts I had reading through it. I came away with quite a mixed impression. Let’s start with some of the negatives. At times, it’s almost sloppy: For example, with one hand he rejects Kant’s moral framework for its abstract and universal nature. It cannot, as Sartre says, provide us with any reliable answers in concrete moral situations because moral situations are always unique in their specificity. Granted.

Then, with the other hand, he smuggles back in Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative as the underlying axiom of free human acts. “When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.” (p. 48) For Sartre, one should always ask oneself, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” (p. 25) Kant returns to take vengeance upon Sartre! Sartre also vascillates wildly on the question of whether and how we might evaluate or form a judgement about how an individual seeks to act; is it a moral judgement, an aesthetic criticism, a logical indictment? The second one is perhaps the most interesting, but I’ll say a bit more about that below.

That said, there are many moments of brilliance. There is no doubting his skill as a writer, and his discussions of the constitutive conditions of anguish and abandonment are powerful and precise. He is at his best when he draws equally on Heidegger and Nietzsche; and yet at the decisive moment he always recoils from both. Pushed to the stage where it seems as if he is about to contruct a radical existentialism around human freedom and a Nietzschian ‘aesthetic’ life (there is much to be said about what such a project might look like), he pulls back and rejects such a project as a slight against Existentialism.

I think more broadly, my concern with Existentialism – at least in the form presented here by Sartre – is the radical freedom he attributes to the human subject. Sartre writes that when an existentialist describes a coward, “he says that the coward is responsible for his own cowardice. He is not the way he is because he has a cowardly heart, lung, or brain. He is not like that as a result of his physiological makeup; he is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions.” (p. 38) Powerful stuff, and I certainly grant Sartre that he decisively defeats the objection that Existentialism is pessimistic and powerfully demonstrates its quite radical optimism towards the subject.

Yet he seems to nevertheless overstate the case. We needn’t posit a ‘hard determinism’ on the basis of physical causality, genetic determinism etc. in order to ask difficult questions about whether man is really so free. We might, as Foucault does, inquire into the social and historical conditions which give rise to determinate social configurations and subjectivities – why do we believe x rather than y? What historical forces gave rise to contemporary images of thought? How does discourse and power inform and produce subjects under determinate conditions? Heidegger (whose work of course exercised a profound influence over Sartre) attends to these questions in detail – man is not just thrust into existence, he is always-already thrown into an existing historical situation, plunged into a web of social relations which existed and developed before his birth and will continue long after he dies. Part of our becoming-human is learning to navigate these forces. For Heidegger, we cannot choose just anything; if I am born in Paris in 1789, I cannot choose to become a Feudal lord or an astronaut. I have choice, yes, but it is always historically and socially conditioned. For Deleuze, the possibilities for how an infant brain might develop through its lifetime are not infinite, but neither are they pre-determined; they exist in a virtual field of difference, always carried forward into the future in an endless and complex process of becoming.

I’ve also never entirely accepted that Heidegger’s Being and Time is truly the anti-humanistic work that Heidegger later labelled it. In Heidegger’s discussions of anxiety, of care, embodied existence, thrown-ness, Being-towards-death, Dasein’s temporality, and so on, I think it is impossible not to discern elements of a humanistic philosophy, at least insofar as it is an attempt to provide account of the nature of Being through the lens of Dasein. Maybe this is one reason why Heidegger never finished writing the book – examining it in this way was bound to lead to such results. Sartre instead seems to reproduce the Subject-Object distinction (inevitably given his starting-point is the Cartesian subject) in almost violent terms; so radically does he resist the world of objects that he has to radically free the subject from all causal forces.

Something of the complexity of the varied forces which simultaneously structure, enable, and limit our freedom gets lost in Sartre’s thought. A fascinating debate between Sartre and Pierre Naville is documented as an appendix in the book and it is a fascinating read. Naville seems to really pin down Sartre for the way in which his account of subjectivity and radical freedom seems to return to a kind of bourgeois pre-modern liberal idealism. And yet… And yet. If Existentialism continues to exert such a profound influence over not just academic but the public imagination, it is because it touches on matters which deeply concern all of us. As Heidegger said, we are defined by care; we necessarily take an interest in how things are with Being. If you like, we are all plagued by huge, profoundly important questions: What kind of being am I? Am I free? Is there a God? I am, but how should I be? Moreover, in the absence of a God, we should ask Deleuze’s question: not ‘How should I live?’ but ‘How might one live?’ What rich and diverse possibilities exist to be experienced?

Contemporary analytic philosophy not only cannot answer such questions; it not only has no interest in answering them; it broadly says that such questions are meaningless. At best, they are questions which arise out of linguistic confusion: meaning, after all, is a predicate of a proposition; a life is not a proposition in the formal sense; so to ask after a ‘meaning’ of life is a mistaken endeavour right from the start. And where it does take the question to at least be a meaningful and valid question, all of the humanity and complexity of life inevitably gets lost in the pursuit of analytic rigour. Questions of meaning and purpose are reduced to answers to concrete questions: the conditions for a meaningful life are either subjective, objective, or a hybrid of the two. As always, all the life of philosophy is drained away in such an endeavour.

Existentialism is right to bring such questions to the fore, and in many ways it truly does capture in a stark light what is so tragic and beautiful about ‘the human conditon’. A wonderful writer and a profound thinker, Sartre is still worth reading and taking seriously, even though I think he was often mistaken. But, where he was mistaken, it was at least for the right reasons. Ultimately it mostly makes me want to plunge back into his plays and novels, and to return again to Being and Time.

Existentialism is a Humanism (2007: Yale University Press)

Categories
Philosophy

Post-Capitalist Desire

Out of all the many authors whose books and papers I have read, Mark Fisher’s have long held a place close to my heart. His book Capitalist Realism has had a profound effect on the way I see the world, and I’m certainly not alone in that. However, in this post I want to use this post to draw attention to a piece he wrote called ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ and to draw a few comparisons with other pieces of literature I’ve been interested in recently in order to make a few general points about where the left currently stands in 2019.

Fisher’s argument is this: That one of the central challenges for the left is to disarticulate desire from Capitalism. Fisher arrives at this point in a roundabout way, but particularly through an engagement with the work of Nick Land. He correctly points out that much of the left occupies an ambivalent position towards technology and the mass production of consumer goods – but it is precisely this which allows those on the right to make the (of course ridiculous) argument that it’s hypocritical for the left to enjoy using smartphones when Capitalism created them, characterising the left as either Primitivist or hypocritical. He draws on Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to argue that “As desiring creatures, we ourselves are that which disrupts organic equilibrium.” Desire is a pandora’s box which cannot be shut.

This is precisely why we need a theory of Post-Capitalist desire.

Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic-libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.

https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE

Mark writes in his paper Terminator vs Avatar that “Capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it. Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing. Time to leave behind the logics of failed revolts, and to think ahead again.”

The only way out of Capitalism is through it. Marx is unequivocal on this point, particularly in Capital Vol. 3. Vincent Garton provides a brilliant account of this in his blog post ‘Accelerate Marx‘. He quotes Marx’s argument that at a certain point in the development of Capitalism, “[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…” Garton adds,

Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations.
Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion.
Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism…

https://cyclonotrope.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/accelerate-marx/

Capital must be entirely alienated from Capitalism as a contingent economic system before the groundwork for Communism is ready. Even returning to just the Communist Manifesto, we can already find there Marx demanding that the proletariat “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 243)

I think this reading of Marx (which is one I’ve shared for a long time, and which, incidentally, Lenin also shared) poses serious questions for left-wing praxis, in particular what the role of the left ought to be. The standard rallying cry is for the need to ‘Resist’, ‘Undermine’ or ‘Defeat’ Capitalism; but this seems to render the left a fundamentally reactionary, conservative force in modern politics. What can such tactics achieve? Can socialism really be established upon anything but the corpse of Capitalism taken to its limit – or Capital completely alienated from Capitalism? Presumably the idea is that we ought to return to being simple farmers living in straw huts in a thoroughly de-alienated existence, or, for Nick Land (whom Fisher quotes), “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity.” For Fisher, attempt to suppress desire itself “would therefore involve either a massive reversal of history, or collective amnesia on a grand scale, or both.” And as he goes on to argue,

At the moment, too much anti-capitalism seems to be about the impossible pursuit of a social system oriented towards the Nirvana principle of total quiescence—precisely the return to a mythical primitivist equilibrium which the likes of Mensch mock. But any such return to primitivism would require either an apocalypse or the imposition of authoritarian measures—how else is drive to be banished? And if primitivist equilibrium is notwhat we want, then we crucially need to articulate what it is we do want—which will mean disarticulating technology and desire from capital.

https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE

If Capitalism maintains an ideological monopoly on desire, and on the expansion and multiplication of forms and expressions of desire, then the left becomes an anti-modern, conservative force. What is needed is a way for the left to challenge this monopoly, to embrace desire and its creative and emancipatory possibilities. The yearning for a return to a life of simple sustenance, ‘honest work’, producers meeting distributors face-to-face, a deeper connection with nature and so on; these seem to represent a fundamentally reactionary perspective and one which has nothing at all do with Marxism, certainly nothing to do with what Marx himself wrote, instead having more to do with Heidegger’s nostalgia for the Black Forest.

Fisher’s paper was published in 2012, and since then some work has been done by those on the left to respond to this challenge. Most notably, in my view, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who in 2013 published the Accelerationist Manifesto and then in 2015 the book Inventing the Future. One of the strongest sections of the latter is its opening critique of ‘folk politics’, a tendency amongst much of the left towards reducing politics down to ‘the human scale’ which ends up as a purely reactive political force – one hospital might be saved from closure due to an occupation in protest, for example, but nevertheless dozens will still be shuttered across the country. What the left needs is an alternative to Neoliberal Capitalism which as at least as sophisticated as the current system, if not more so. If leftists continue to be distracted by Anarchistic naivete and ‘local action’, with no room for large-scale, hierarchical organisation, then there is no hope. Anti-Capitalism is rendered as anti-modernity and fundamentally primitivist. Fisher goes on to argue that what is needed is

the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond twentieth-century-style state centralisation.

We cannot return to a pre-capitalist society. The only way out is through. We might conclude with a quote from Lyotard which Fisher quotes in Terminator vs Avatar:

in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalize desires be totally ignored, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy – for what? – does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. l. H. Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 116.

If Capitalism is allowed to maintain a monopoly on desire – as long as the ideological commitment to the idea that only under Capitalism can we express ourselves, experiment creatively and multiply with our desires and to embrace and fulfil it, the left has no chance. The future envisioned by much of the left all too often resembles the past. It’s time to move beyond that.

Questions of praxis remain: if the goal is to ‘Accelerate Marx’ (as Garton puts it), what is it that distinguishes the radical left from the Anarcho-Capitalist right in pragmatic terms? Mark Fisher’s own programme seems to provide some options here, as his critique of Capitalism remains trenchant: critiquing Land, he writes that “The actual near future wasn’t about Capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: New Sincerity, Apple Computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop. This failure to foresee the extent to which pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism would become the dominant cultural tendencies is not a contingent error; it points to a fundamental misjudgement about the dynamics of capitalism. […] The fact that capitalism tends towards stagflation, that growth is in many respects illusory, is all the more reason that accelerationism can function in a way that Alex Williams characterises as ‘terroristic.'”

We might say that much of the supposed innovation or creativity of Capitalism is in fact illusory. This is best exemplified by the music industry: total stagnation disguised beneath a cheap veneer of newness. The whole thing is carried along by sheer the sheer velocity, the pace of new songs, albums and artists. But the overwhelming reliance on nostalgia and fake authenticity (better: authenticity as a marketing tactic) belies the lack of any real movement beneath the surface. Where Land (or, perhaps, D&G) wants to argue that the future is a radical expansion of the productive process driven by an explosion of libidinal energy, we thinking along with Mark Fisher we can perhaps see through this facade to the stagnation beneath.

Fisher draws on Fredric Jameson (a brilliant writer, whom everyone should read) who argues that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx:

“proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program.”

https://markfisherreblog.tumblr.com/post/32522465887/terminator-vs-avatar-notes-on-accelerationism

Further questions remain. Can we really conceptualise desire in a non-ideological way, given the overwhelming influence of advertising, marketing, social conditioning etc. on our preferences and desires; or is Marcuse (drawing on Freud) right to delineate between true and false needs? How does ideology fit into this picture? And what might a post-capitalist future look like? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but I think they’re some of the key ones which arise out of this reading of Marx and Fisher’s programme for the left.

Categories
Philosophy

NPCs Play Bingo

For my first post, I wanted to highlight and comment on an utterly brilliant essay by Justin E H Smith for The Point Magazine published earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about it on a fairly regular basis ever since I first read it, and it provides a useful point of departure for exploring a number of important concepts – the relationship between ideology and power, who we are and what makes us subjects, discourse and politics. Here’s the section which stood out most to me:

There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Men’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all. […]

Another example: I have read that Tinder users agree that one should “swipe left’” (i.e. reject) on any prospective mate or hookup who proclaims a fondness for, among other writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs. I couldn’t care less about the first two of these, but Burroughs is very important to me. He played a vital role in shaping how I see the world (Cities of the Red Night, in particular), and I would want any person with whom I spend much time communicating to know this. I believe I have good reasons for valuing him, and would be happy to talk about these reasons.

I experience my love of Burroughs as singular and irreducible, but I am given to know, when I check in on the discourse, that I only feel this way because I am running a bad algorithm. And the result is that a part of me—the weak and immature part—no longer wants the overarching “You may also like…” function that now governs and mediates our experience of culture and ideas to serve up “Adolph Reed” or “William S. Burroughs” among its suggestions, any more than I want Spotify to suggest, on the basis of my playlist history, that I might next enjoy a number by Smash Mouth. If the function pulls up something bad, it must be because what preceded it is bad. I must therefore have bad taste, stupid politics; I must only like what I like because I’m a dupe.

https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over

On a cursory reading, this seems to neatly outlines the limits of a standpoint-theory or perspectivist account of subjectivity as components of neoliberal ‘woke’ discourse. Individuals are reduced to their component identities – their race, gender, sexual orientation, job, and so on. Your opponent works in a coal mine? I wonder what he thinks about global warming? Of course, once you know someone’s identity along these vectors, you can deduce the categories, whip out the bingo card and – whenever they express their own apparently-considered opinion – smash down the stamp and proclaim ‘Bingo!’ (You said what I predicted you would say!) No counter-argument is required, the very fact that it could be anticipated in advance negates the argument a priori.

While the ‘bingo card’ has long been a favoured tactic of the Extremely Online Left, the right have their own approach to this through the ‘NPC’ meme. According to the NPC meme, ‘the left’ are essentially the equivalent of Non-Playable Characters in a video game: programmed in advance, lacking true autonomy or free will, with scripted lines which they repeat ad nauseam (“Conservatives are racists!”). As with the ‘Bingo’ meme, the arguments being made are predicted in advance and repudiated purely by virtue of the correctness of the prediction. The argument in both cases: The views you hold are predictable functions of your identity as (insert race/gender/sexuality/political leaning); that this reflects a lack of critical, autonomous thinking on your part; and that my ability to predict your argument in advance demonstrates the programmatic nature of your consciousness.

But I think there’s much more to it than that, and I’d like to engage on a more meaningful level than simply yet another critique of Neoliberal IdPol, because the problem goes much deeper. Importantly, Smith writes:

Someone who thinks about their place in the world in terms of the structural violence inflicted on them as they move through it is thinking of themselves, among other things, in structural terms, which is to say, again among other things, not as subjects.

https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over

This is perhaps where Smith goes wrong, but also why his pessimism does not go deep enough. Subjectivity is itself conditioned and determined structurally through the operations of power and ideology. The subject is who she is because of the modulating influences of power, reproduced in and through the subject. Whether we cash this out in Foucauldean or Althusserian terms, as biopolitics or interpellation, I take it that this remains the most accurate assessment of the conditioning of human subjectivity: the individual subjectivised through common-place and subconscious practices of ideological recognitions (Handshakes, calls, and so on – responses to ‘hailings’ from the church, school, family, etc, which even in rejection situate the subject in a certain relationship to the priest, family members, classmates, etc) To think of the subject is, properly speaking, to think of the relay-point of power and ideology. Althusser argues that subjectivity itself is perhaps the ideological mystification par excellence, masking the flux of power-relations and reiterating interpellation going on beneath the mask of consciousness. Althusser writes:

As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), p. 262

To put it in Žižekian terms: the point at which a subject believes they have escaped ideology is the point at which they are most deeply immersed in it. What Smith is diagnosing here is perhaps yet another manifestation of the function of ideology: the production of subjectivity itself, and the exposure (under the conditions of a transparently cynical late capitalist framework) of its regular and quite predictable structure. On one level, a commitment to the idea that it’s always the Other who is ideological remains; on another, the ironic distancing people increasingly practice (consciously and unconsciously) between themselves and their beliefs perhaps opens up a level of transparency about the functioning of ideology, while maintaining the illusion of being beyond it yourself because, unlike other people, you’re a ‘free thinker’.

And of course, on a very simple level, it’s a poor tactic: that I can predict the response of a Christian to the question of God’s existence says nothing about the person in question. But the invocation of the NPC or bingo chart betrays a suspicion that the Other is not really a subject at all (‘not like I am, anyway’) but something more like an automata (Perhaps, psychoanalysing here, a fear of the intrusion of the Other into our subjectivity). Hence its dehumanising character. Perhaps that was always the predictable outcome once the ideological workings going on beneath the surface of the subject are exposed – humanity and subjectivity are intimately interwoven; the latter exposed as a structural misidentification cannot help but undermine the former; anti-humanism at base.

Where does this leave us? Well, nowhere particularly promising. Part of the problem with the bingo and NPC memes is their general accuracy. You genuinely could take a bingo card, scroll through #Resistance or #MAGA Twitter and have filled out the whole thing within five tweets. This perhaps says something more about the collapse of mediating discourses between the two sides than anything else – lacking a moral or epistemological common-ground, the two sides take their opponent’s very identities as predictable and heteronomous, reproducing the normalising functions of ideology: each side implicitly repeats the mantra ‘Everyone is ideological except for me’. The truth is, we’re all ideological to the core and often deeply predictable as a result. Whether originality (or ‘authenticity’) is possible, or merely the mirage conjured up by ideology itself, will be considered in a later post.

Anyway, I recommend reading the article in full. It’s a truly excellent piece. I remember someone described it as “dismally pessimistic, possibly conservative” and akin to someone showing Twitter to Adorno. Brilliant.