5 December 2016
MARK FISHER: OK, what did you make of Lyotard? [Student], I know you’re introducing it, but what did other people make of the text?
STUDENT #1: Difficult.
MF: You thought it was difficult? OK. You thought it was more difficult than anything we’ve done so far? Maybe not more than the Lukács…
STUDENT #1: Yeah. I don’t know…
MF: It’s a loaded question…
STUDENT #1: I just felt like I got quite lost in it…
MF: OK, did anyone else feel that way…?
STUDENT #1: I couldn’t figure out if he was being sarcastic or…
MF: OK, well I’ve highlighted some quotations we can go through, but let’s hear first what [student] said.
(Here a student reads aloud a long introduction, summarising some of the concepts and peculiarities within Lyotard’s text — his thrust towards the “intensities” and affects within Marx’s writings; his almost Derridean wrestling with and description of a dichotomous textual Marx, who is at once an Old Man theorist and an amorous Little Girl, which transforms Marxism into “a strange bisexual assemblage”.
Referred to by Lyotard himself as his “evil book”, Libidinal Economy reads, at once, like a deeply theoretical and complex text and like a work of transgressive and erotic literature, as he channels a Bataillean view of Marxism from within the midst of 1970s post-structuralism. This strange relationship between styles and genres of philosophy and writing is part of what makes Lyotard’s text so difficult and so enthralling.)
MF: It’s a really difficult text and I think you’ve done well to pull out some of the big questions.
Let’s get to what I see as the heart of this… or certainly what I think of as the key challenges that are posed and will be taken up by some of the later texts within the module — and that is the sections — the main paragraph from page 111 , and the paragraph beginning on page 115 .
But, you will say, it gives rise to power and domination, to exploitation and even extermination. Quite true; but also to masochism; but the strange bodily arrangement of the skilled worker with his job and his machine, which is so often reminiscent of the dispositif of hysteria, can also produce the extermination of a population: look at the English proletariat, at what capital, that is to say their labour , has done to their body. You will tell me, however, that it was that or die. But it is always that or die, this is the law of libidinal economy, no, not the law: this is its provisional, very provisional, definition in the form of the cry, of intensities of desire; ‘that or die’, i.e. that and dying from it, death always in it, as its internal bark, its thin nut’s skin, not yet as its price, on the contrary as that which renders it unpayable. And perhaps you believe that ‘that or die’ is an alternative?! And that if they choose that, if they become the slave of the machine, the machine of the machine, fucker fucked by it, eight hours, twelve hours, a day, year after year, is it because they are forced into it, constrained, because they cling to life? Death is not an alternative to it, it is a part of it, it attests to the fact there is jouissance in it, the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they — hang on tight and spit on me [MF : I love that! (Laughter.)] — enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.1
OK, I think this could be an epigraph for the course in a way — certainly for certain aspects of the course — the questions around accelerationism have a lot to do with this — and this brings up the relation of desire and capitalism. Is it the case simply that capitalism is imposed on the peasant body as something wholly unpleasant or is it something which engenders its own desire, or, as he puts it here, “forms of endurance”? And he wants to say: no, it does! There are these forms of endurance intrinsic to capitalism! The proletariat, then, is not the same as the peasantry here. The proletariat — the industrial proletariat — is something produced, partly, in this enjoyment of the dissolution of the old world.
What’s key to this, then, is something that really goes throughout the chapter, which is overthrowing any notion of an outside to capital, repeatedly. That’s the move that keeps being made. This is the move against Baudrillard, for instance. We’ll look at Baudrillard later. We’ll look at [Baudrillard’s 1976 text] Symbolic Exchange and Death later. Part of the argument there is… Well, Baudrillard is a kind of primitivist. So, what he’s saying is — and like Lyotard, it’s a form of Marxist argument — in some ways you could say Baudrillard is more of a Marxist than Lyotard, in that he retains the idea of a critique of equivalence. The idea is that, with Marx, what happens in capitalism is that everything is made equivalent. This is what capital is, right? X physical thing here equals a virtual quantity of capital. This is what it is to inject things into a capitalist system — and Baudrillard opposes this to what he calls “symbolic exchange”. Symbolic exchange, as Lyotard professes here, partly comes from Mauss’s theory of gift-exchange — Marcel Mauss — the idea of gift exchange, which was a study of certain practices of so-called primitive societies — practices of potlatch — anyone heard of this?2 Yeah. Basically, it’s a form of ritualistic gift-giving often with a latent (or not so latent) aggression to it, where you escalate and escalate the gifts that are given, sometimes to the point where you burn down the whole village as a “top that!”
The thing is, with gift-exchange, there is no equivalent. There is no law of equivalence. If I give you something and you respond with something else, what is the metric that would make those things equivalent? There isn’t anything. This is what Baudrillard says. This is the logic of the gift. It has nothing to do with any kind of law of equivalence. This is, then, a part of primitive societies that can be completely contrasted with capitalism. But Lyotard really wants to reject any attempt to find an outside to capitalism. Either everything is primitive, or nothing is primitive. Either capitalism is itself primitive… There is no subversive region. There is nothing beyond the purview of capital. This is what he says on page 108 at the bottom:
There is one thing, then, which makes us say: there is no primitive society, that is to say: there is no external reference, even if immanent, from which the separation of what belongs to capital (or political economy) and what belongs to subversion (or libidinal economy), can always be made, and cleanly; where desire would be clearly legible, where its proper economy would not be scrambled. And this should be clearly understood: ‘scrambled’ does not mean ‘thwarted’, tainted, by a foreign, evil instance. This is simply the problematic of alienation…3
And this is also what he’s rejecting, right? The idea of alienation. The “phantasy of a non-alienated region”, as he puts it.4 These kinds of dualisms, whereby there is a pure subversive region — a primitive region untainted by capitalism. There are no such regions. There are no such spaces. This is a relentless message in this text. And I think it’s not clear if he means there never were primitive societies in this way, or certainly not now — there is no access to anything that would function like that. And it would also mean that there is no revolutionary outside either.
It’s striking, I think, to read this text. I’ve called it “libidinal Marxism” but it’s not about a desire-revolution at all, actually. It’s more of a scathing assault on what he regards as close partners, like Baudrillard, and the general tendencies of the Left.
So, this text came out, as you said, in 1974 — that’s six years after May ’68 — so a long time after those events — a long time after the stewing of those events… And surely that is what colours the tone of this text, then… For me, it’s come two years before its time in lots of ways — as a response to ’68 — or clearly as a response to Anti-Oedipus — Anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari, which can be seen as the great book of ’68, codifying and translating into theoretical terms a lot of the events that happened in May ’68.
I’m referring to May ’68 as if you know what it is but I assume most of you do. It was a proto-revolutionary configuration in France with workers, students, joining together, spilling onto the streets, a feeling that revolution was imminent. It didn’t work out that way. There was a backlash. The Right consolidated power, etc. Some people even say that the Right containing of what happened in May ’68 was the beginning of or a building-towards the neoliberal order that came afterwards.
But Anti-Oedipus from Deleuze and Guattari, which I said, in a way, not having Deleuze and Guattari on the reading list was somewhat perverse in a certain way, but they’re present in their absence… Deleuze and Guattari, then, bring into theory some of these alignments that occurred in ’68: the idea of desire and revolution going together, the idea of the countercultural currents plus the Left. And the idea of a different kind of revolutionary subject — if the term “subject” is really appropriate there — as we’ll see when we come to accelerationism, one of the most famous passages in Anti-Oedipus is the one where they reject the idea of being able to withdraw from capitalism. They [don’t] talk about withdrawing from the world market and instead they talk about accelerating the process. It’s a famously ambiguous passage. It’s another attempt, after Marcuse and the Frankfurt school, to think Freud and Marx together. And, as with Marcuse, there is an attempt to think of desire or libido not necessarily as paired with discontent in civilisation. The great pessimism of Freud consists in that equation: the idea that, as far as there is civilisation, there is discontent because, as we looked at with Marcuse, desire will never be commensurate with the organisation of life that requires work. Work involves this kind of subduing of desire. All other repression follows from that.
OK. So, all of those… — Lyotard, Baudrillard, Marcuse, Deleuze and Guattari — can be seen as attempts to overthrow this, to rethink libido and its relationship to politics, and to rethink how our social field could look if it wasn’t based on this inevitable accommodation [and blockage] between desire and work.
With Lyotard, I think, we still don’t have this positive project so much in this — at least in this chapter, or anywhere, really — and there’s a kind of interesting tendency of this text, right? Despite the fact he has a kind of sarcastic aside against Nietzsche at some point — it’s quite a Nietzschean text, I think — and you can see the influence of Deleuze and Guattari. Part of the influence of Deleuze and Guattari is towards immanence — an emphasis towards immanence — towards a kind of flatness, towards this idea of there being only one plane, against dualism, against this idea of a split between… I guess against the idea of various kinds of splits — between the primitive and the modern, for instance — and also in terms of the rejection of critique, I think. The rejection of critique is also a kind of Nietzschean, Deleuzo-Guattarian move. The idea of thinking in terms of intensities in relation to zero — this is also kind of Deleuzo-Guattarian…
1 Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Grant. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 123-124
2 See: Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaik Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison. Eastford, CT.: Martino Fine Books, 2011.
3 Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, 121.
4 Ibid., 120.