Friday, 2 October 2009

The Paradoxes of Militant Dysphoria



Many thanks to Mark Fisher for organising Wednesday's Militant Dysphoria event at Goldsmiths, in conjunction with the release of Dominic Fox's excellent new book Cold World. The quality of other papers was such that I hope they are made available online, but for the meantime here is Nick Srnicek's on Dysphoria, Actor Network Theory, and slow motion revolution. My own paper, which is fairly inconclusive unfortunately, is below:

Dysphoria & Unworlding

Firstly let us consider the particular political-theoretical ecology from which the need for “the cold world” of militant dysphoria appears to arise. Most obviously, there is the collapse of the familiar paradigms of leftist politics, be they democratic parliamentarian, or street-protest based. Though neo-liberalism as reality principle might well appear to have imploded following the economic crisis of 2008, in the West we have pointedly not seen a serious renaissance of the left. The impasse of the contemporary political moment is never better dramatised than in this Spring’s G20 protests in London. Here the limits of a certain form of praxis were plain, where protest seemed little more than a kind of feel-good feel-bad activity, a pious but clearly inevitable defeat. Thirty years of triumphant post-Fordist neoliberalism seem to have critically weakened the usual avenues for left politics, to have driven those who keep faith with the truths of Marxism or Socialism to either an in-denial fervour for the theatrical acting-out of a party in the street, or a kind of numb remove, an immisrated state. So the left is trapped in a sort of depression, in a dysphoric state itself. Here “militant dysphoria” means the dysphoria of the militant. The hope arises that it is through a radicalisation of this very negative state that a future emancipatory politics might be born. A radicalisation in what sense though?

For perhaps what the cold world of militant dysphoria threatens is a similar utopian twist to a dystopian analysis as the Italian post-Marxist Autonomist’s notion of the Multitude. For the Autonomists, most notably of course Hardt and Negri, there exists on the one hand an ever deeper encroachment and subsumption of the human lifeworld by post-Fordist capital, and the destruction of workerist subjectivity. But on the other there is an expansion in the power of living labour (as fixed capital becomes ever more composed of cognitive and affective-communicational components), and the formation of a new kind of subject, the Multitude. Somehow what appears to be an absolute dystopia nurtures the very conditions from which utopia might emerge, and from the state of utmost despair arises ultimate salvation. We might agree with the negative dimension of their analysis, delineating the fundamental shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production, and the concomitant erasure of a certain form of political subject, without accepting their thesis of what will replace it. Can the notion of a militant Dysphoria escape such a fate, a pseudo-Hegelian teleological fantasy of determinate negation?

In terms of theory, we have seen a parallel swing from euphoria to dysphoria, from affirmation to negation. As Ben Noys has diagnosed, this shift is most firmly marked by a swing in the balance of power from affirmationists, or accelerationists, paradigmatically Deleuze and Guattari, to a qualified return to the negative (or at least, the subtractive) in the form of Badiou. Affirmationist politics proceeds from a primary positivity- be that difference-in-itself, Desire, Life – and from there towards an acceleration of the innate processes which Capital utilises but which must always limit in order to maintain its consistency, in other words to undo capitalism from within by accentuating its deepest tendencies. Against this, Badiou stands markedly more opposed to the logics of capital, seeking to think a subject divorced from the determinations of the situation, working to construct truths which are subtracted from the democratic materialism of bodies and languages. Though continuing to root the political closely to the ontological, the political here is not an acceleration of the fundamental tendencies of a world, but rather a subtraction from it, and a torsion upon it.

Finally we might see the cold world as sitting intriguingly at the juncture between two emerging trends within contemporary post-continental philosophy, between Speculative Realism, and a less well defined but equally powerful strand which might be termed “subjectivationism”. Speculative Realism, though it consists of a series of distinct elements marks a shift away from a correlationist conception of philosophy, a breaking of the necessary co-implication of human subject and world. In so doing it has been accused of jettisoning concerns for the political altogether, although this is perhaps a premature judgment. The second school of thought is probably even more loose, and aims instead towards a rethinking of the conditions for radical political subjectivity. The notion of the cold world and militant dysphoria serves as a meeting point between the two, for whilst on the one hand it seeks to uncover the subjective conditions for new forms of politics through the gesture of scission in a post-Badiouian fashion, the removal of the subject from the world, it also opens the door to the beginnings for the beginnings of a post-speculative realist politics.

One interpretation of a militant dysphoria would hold that dysphoria acts to separate the subject from their world, and that then once suitably energised by this negative relation, they might act to change it. In this sense of “militant dysphoria” dysphoria is a necessary stage of subjective transformation, a making strange of the everyday world of life and the vital, a subtraction apart from its quotidian ensnarement and the first step on the path towards its transformation. Here then, militant dysphoria breaks down into first dysphoria, then militancy, in that order. We might even conceive this in Latourian terms- to change the world from a “closed black box” which is simply taken as a given, effectively invisible, to an opened black box revealing its components and working parts, coming newly into focus as the dysphoric subject finds themselves freshly alienated from its processes. The primary difficulty here is to think the transition from the moment of refusal, of separation, of scission, and the conversion of this negative energy into action, the shift from rejection and dejection to engagement. Here we would certainly need the supplement of a form or vessel into which this negative energy might be poured, a structure, a party, a battle group, some degree of institutionalisation of negativity which would serve to give form to the otherwise potentially solipsistic tendencies of the dysphoric.

Moreover the politics of this form of militant dysphoria is deeply paradoxical, and seemingly always in danger of either sliding back into the logic of the vital or its dark inverted doppelganger, a reification of dysphoria itself. There is always something approaching a paradox in the disavowal of the vital. Take for example the writings of the ontological horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At the level of content there is a radical denial of the vital, and yet this very disavowal enables the works to pulse with certain inhuman vitality. Within the libidinal economy of the depressive mind, whilst life itself is refused, the life of the depressive economy, of the inverted libido, becomes omnipresent, becomes a new kind of life. Ligotti, for example, whilst claiming an absolute anhedonia, a freezing up of the machinery of desire and enjoyment into a crystallised, timeless, ice-like tableaux, at the level of productivity remains motivated. Fundamentally of course, Ligotti still writes. Instead of a refusal of the vital, of enjoyment, the dysphoric libidinal economy seemingly learns to enjoy displeasure, to metabolise disenchantment itself as a new kind of alternative energy source. Again this leads us back either to the vital, back to the world which seemingly the dysphoric appears to be escaping, but are in fact simply reconfiguring their internal relation to. Or, alternatively, towards a genuine absence of energy, which would preclude any political activity whatsoever. Problematically, if the dark libidinal economy takes hold, it serves only to perpetuate itself, and therefore will never rise to risk the elimination of the very things which enable its perpetuation. In a political context the refusal to enjoy, to take the apparent fruits of consumerist late capital and receive pleasure from them, comes to take on its own negative enjoyment, to become an inverted pleasure all of its own. At best a malign energy distinguishes the militant dysphoric from the merely dysphoric.

In his book Dominic singles out a line from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins “Terrible Sonnets”, which runs “no worst, there is none”. This indicates something of the paradox of the dark libidinal economy. That there is no worst means that there is no halting point to the process of disenchantment of which dysphoria is the primary affect, and that a radicalised dysphoria’s only aim is towards its own self-expansion. To think politically, the amassing of negativity within a social-economic system at the affective and economic levels might trigger the calling into question of the coherency of such a system, and the emergence of the truth of it, a new world born from its ashes. But if there is no worst, that we can advance ever worstward ho without limiting point, the necessary dialectical grip or friction for a conventionally oppositional change is absent. The very point of sublation which might imply the alteration of the world of life from which the militant dysphoric has fled is absent, and instead a non-dialectical form of negativity rages without end.

But what I would clarify as the necessarily militant moment is perhaps the point of subjective decision, to, ironically, affirm this withdrawal, or perhaps, to identify with it. If the distinction between the merely dysphoric and the militantly dysphoric can be drawn, it is at precisely this moment. Discontent can always be cathected, or indeed stored and then released. But might there be another interpretation of the term, rather than the sadness of the defeated militant at the end of the end of history, or the dysphoria which leads somehow towards militant engagement? Rather perhaps a dysphoria which is itself militant. If the paradox of militant dysphoria is its tendency towards inertia without some kind of vessel into which it might be employed, then perhaps one way through this impasse is via dysphoria itself, not to escape, to employ this negative affect to remake the existing world, but rather to see in it a new world altogether.

What is most fascinating about the militant of the cold world is precisely what Dominic has located in the field of Black Metal, in the ability of the genre to present aestheticised dysphoria as a kind of telepathy with the dead, an ability of the subject to reach a point of anti-subjectivation, to commune with that which is not a subject, to become possessed by the inhuman. What is most radical about this notion is, for all its influence by Badiou, it is an inversion of its master’s doctrines, a generic mis-anthropy or generic inhumanity rather than a generic humanity. Here then dysphoria acts as a path not towards militant engagement with the world, but rather a making strange of the human-world relation, to the extent that the human subject identifies no longer with their own ostensible interests, but instead with those outside of itself. In other circumstances a similar kind of politicisation might occur so that the self-interested individual takes on a willingness to live and perhaps die for an idea or a cause. But here rather than an identification with humanity as a generic concept, or even the vital as such (as in perhaps communism or radical environmentalism, with a willingness to make ones own interests subservient to those of the greater cause) here the abjuring of the vital indicates instead a form of communion with sub-vital or non-vital processes.

To systematise briefly: a world protects its consistency by rendering itself a black box, invincible and invisible, taken for granted. The human world is one determined by vitalistic principles, and it is these which are undone in dysphoria, hence undoing the world which they construct. If capital has subsumed the world of life, has exploited and manipulated its processes to such an extent that it becomes synonymous with life, and indeed a form of life itself, then perhaps the way of death, of non-life, of the freezing over of the vital offers a way out of its particular strictures. It is certainly true to say that capitalism as it stands now requires a degree of acquiescence with the “big other”- to at least pay lip service to the affirmationist common sense. This means that at the level of microeconomics, we must “enjoy” or at least pretend to do so, and at the level of macroeconomics that the dogma of growth of gross domestic product as strictly equivalent to the common good and the elevation of the general standard of living of humanity must be maintained. So in identifying with the state of dysphoria itself and hence to subtract from this world, the militant dysphoric effectively abandons a world already made cold by capital’s alien life, and then perhaps, undoes it. Perhaps.

But there are clearly uneasy isomorphisms between the self-expanding activities of capital and the accumulative logic of dysphoria itself. Unlinked from the necessary dialectical purchase to transform the world of life in the name of life, the libido of the terrorist or Black Metallist, can think of no greater horror than the ending of horror itself, no greater misfortune than the ceasing of the cold world, of being drawn back into the rhythms of the vital, to, as Dominic puts it most succinctly, love and to work. As such the dysphoric libidinal economy appears to depend upon the very thing which induces it, leading this reified, fetishised dysphoria to appear to be intimately imbricated with contemporary Capitalism. A truly militant dysphoria is analogous to capital-as-cancer or as-virus, (ie- without dialectical purchase or friction, a slippery self expanding negativity) but this itself must be grasped and pushed to an aggravated conclusion, since as with Nick Land’s phantasmic re-imagining of neoliberalism, we can clearly risk overestimating the dissolutory forces involved, and to ignore the ever-present conservatism of the form. For Capital this is the need to preserve its own consistency through restraint upon production, and for dysphoria it is its unwillingness to dissolve itself or the grounds for itself. In this sense the militant dysphoric asserts both the unending dissolution of worlds, and the construction of a singularly new world consisting of such endless dissolutions, the world defiled and the world of the process of such defilements.