May 31, 2021
- Three Problems for Ambient Vitalism
- Dionysus and Apollo
- The Reality Principle
- Epistemic Desire
- Conclusion: Towards Antivitalism
Eros is a topic which has been animating several conversations lately, most recently an exchange I had with Nathan Coffman in the comments of a piece he wrote in response to Zak Stein’s Love in a Time Between Worlds: On the Metamodern Return to a Metaphysics of Eros. In this essay Stein proposes two things: i. that not only is the modern critique of metaphysics answerable, but a return to metaphysics is necessary to provide a unifying social vision, and ii. that the required vision of reality is one which centres Eros as its active principle.
I won’t dwell too much on the first of these points, as I agree with it in thrust. I think a return to metaphysics is warranted not because it went away and we need it back, but because it is something we’re always already doing in practice—i.e. we need it back because it never really went away. I take this to be part and parcel of a pragmatist orientation towards thought and language, one which Stein draws from Charles Sanders Peirce, and which Robert Brandom has summarised in the dictum that semantics answers to pragmatics. This is to say that any theory of the meaning of a concept or vocabulary must bottom out in some account of what we are doing when we deploy it. This applies to talk of “reality” as much as to anything else. What a culture takes to be real is, roughly, whatever it treats its representations as responsible to, a cluster of attitudes implicit in its practices even when not made explicit in its beliefs. A culture’s operational theory of reality can be read off from what it values, which can be read off from what it does, whether or not it is capable of performing these readings itself.Many insist that we live in a materialist or “mechanist” culture, for instance. I don’t think that’s right, but the very possibility of disagreement on this point indicates that what’s at stake in it is the metaphysics implicit in our practices, not the metaphysics explicit in our beliefs. Any political project must be metaphysically self-conscious in this sense, if it is to be capable of understanding its own demands.
Stein’s appeal to Eros is an attempt to invigorate a vitalist metaphysics, attributing primary reality to a pre-representational field of intensity associated with love, creative pulsion, and sexual energy. Eros is “a transpersonal force akin to gravity,” one which “drives reality itself towards greater contract and larger wholes.” This is a familiar image from Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze, Freud, and others (with the role of Eros variously being played by desire, affect, will, and so on). The vitalist model can also be seen in the wild, for instance as a latent metaphysic to the countercultural politics of the 1960’s, for whom “liberation” took on the distinctive (and now familiar) sense of freeing the desire of the individual from the stifling pressure of societal rules or norms. This form of vitalism defines a political project indirectly in its implicit interpretation of freedom as a kind of unleashing, as the removal of constraints on some primary process or energy. Applied in the social context, the primary vector of political struggle becomes the conflict between desires and norms.
Here I want to lay out some criticisms of the vitalist model, and to question its capacity to orient a political project. I am less interested in getting into the specifics of any particular philosophical vitalist system than in probing a kind of ambient popular vitalism that is, I’ll suggest, an important attractor in contemporary political thought. In many respects, Stein’s essay is a bid to reboot the countercultural metaphysic by making it explicit and equipping it with some philosophical chops, and in this sense it is an exemplar of the tendency I’m calling ambient vitalism. As we go along I’ll consider others. In accordance with the pragmatic maxim mentioned above, the primary concern is to consider ambient vitalism as a metaphysical orientation implicit in common discursive patterns, rather than as an explicitly held position, though often it will be helpful to move between the two. The guiding aim is to unpack this model by asking what it does—what distinctions does it turn into dualisms, what rhetorical moves does it entitle itself to, what practices does it license. I’ll consider three practical problems for ambient vitalism, examine examples of where these have shown up in recent discourse, and then finally use these criticisms to sketch an outline of a positive antivitalism.
Three Problems for Ambient Vitalism
1. It can’t make sense of conflicting desire.
If I want to give up smoking in general but want a cigarette right now, which desire do I liberate? The vitalist has two ways of answering this question. One is to insist that one of these desires is phoney—that if I exercise the right kind of introspection I will be able to discover what I really want. This move is ubiquitous in the discourse of “authentic” desire: no no no of course you don’t really want to eat junk food and watch Netflix all day, after just one more expensive retreat you will surely discover your true desire (which is probably to run eye-gazing workshops at Burning Man). This pattern has a long tradition: it lies behind the Marxist concept of false consciousness, heavily in play in the rhetoric of the New Left and the Situationist’s analysis of the consumer spectacle as a kind of illusion or distraction.See also False Consciousness and the Displaced Subject. It can also be found in the more recent tendency of urban progressives to explain the existence of Trump supporters, Brexiters, etc., as a straightforward case of stupidity and/or manipulation (a move which aims to discredit their claims about what they want as authoritative representations of what they actually want).
In Stein it shows up in the notion of “clarified” desire:
As A Return to Eros Teaches, if you can clarify your desire and in so doing attune your desire with reality, you will not be trapped in the pseudo-desires that are multiplied by the political economy of enjoyment. (Stein, 2018)
The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it signals as veiled normativity, and this makes it seem politically dishonest. The norm—which tells you what you should do—is transformed into a meta-norm which tells you what you should want, which is then masked as a natural fact about what you do in fact want, regardless of whether it seems to you that you want it. Stein might say that he’s not telling you what you should desire—it is up to you to clarify your own desire, of course—but it is implied that all those people who say that what they truly want is loads of cocaine and a Lambo are somehow wrong, in need of self-clarification. This kind of stuff has long been one of the left’s bad patterns, and rings hollow against the backdrop of contemporary social experience.Such as the blindingly obvious fact that the extent to which a given person accepts some particular account of “authentic desire” typically has more to do with their sense of social destiny than some kernel of inner truth (as when Burners say their costumes express their individuality, yet mysteriously all look identical when placed next to each other). To be on the receiving end of this rhetoric is to be told what you should want by someone who doesn’t think they should have to tell you why. Unsurprisingly, it has not proved persuasive.
The other line the vitalist could take is much more simple: they could just advise yielding to the immediate pulsion—if the whim is there to smoke a cigarette now, then smoke a cigarette now. In this moment the desire to quit is merely a past desire, which is just another constraint. But once generalised into an overarching principle, this amounts to writing off all higher-order desires—our longer-term goals as temporally extended persons—as norms in disguise. While this seems to be the more self-consistent line for the vitalist to take, it also seems to be in conflict with even the most weakly humanist notion of freedom. By these lights, no-one is more liberated than the shameless addict. This amounts to a celebration of akrasia, a philosophy of agential nihilism which cheers on the decomposition of the human subject all the way to oblivion. Perhaps something is being liberated here, but it is not us.I’ve made some links between this line of thought and the Wittgensteinian rule-following paradox elsewhere.
In summary, the problem of conflicting desire forces the vitalist to either embrace the collapse of subjectivity or reintroduce norms through the backdoor in a masked, naturalised form (more on this later).
2. It abandons its entitlement to appeal to norms.
…including rational norms, which leaves it with nothing to say. This one rarely manifests as an explicit tension, but more in its downstream effects on style, rhetoric and strategy. There’s a possible example of this in Stein’s piece when he tries to set his “cosmo-erotic humanism” against Nick Land’s accelerationism, but has very little of substance to say about what actually distinguishes them. The emphasis placed on primary affect has the effect of reducing vitalist critique to something more like vibes critique—in the end Stein’s issues with Land appears to be that Eros sounds kinda nice while Land’s “machinic desire” sounds inhuman and nasty, but structurally speaking their positions are very similar. There is a difference between Stein and Land, of course: they have opposite responses to the problem of conflicting desire. Stein appeals to clarified desire, while Land embraces the collapse of the human subject. But if Stein were to use this as a criticism he would have to argue that what Land is calling desire is merely pseudo-desire, and doing this explicitly would require articulating some standards of authenticity. But this would be to make exactly the kind of normative appeal his position does not entitle him to. So instead he ends up doing this in a back-handed kind of way, speculating vaguely about the alienation of Land’s fans (read: their desire is unclarified) or just assuming that his readers are already on the same page about this. This severely weakens his rhetoric, limiting its persuasive scope to those who already agree with its conclusions.
At a more general level, it could be argued that the demotion of rationality is perfectly in step with a vitalist political project—since the whole idea is that affect outruns norms, then for a self-consistent vitalist rational discourse is more or less epiphenomenal anyway: all it does is provide comforting post hoc framing for the affective flows out front where the real change happens. Insofar as political intervention is possible, it must take the form of affective intervention—the war will be won on memes and aesthetics rather than arguments. A very clear statement of this is found in libidinal materialism, another position associated with Nick Land, who once again represents the more explicit and self-consistent end of this spectrum. A more elliptical and gate-keepy version can be found in the way affect theory is used to legitimise certain practices in contemporary art.
The problem with this line of thought is that it draws invalid prescriptive conclusions from reasonable observations. It certainly seems to be the case, for example, that in the 21st Century political winds are driven by affective investment more than by rational deliberation. But the next inference—from the observation that deliberative coordination is currently failing to the endorsement of affective intervention as political strategy—seems to be based on an assumed logical independence of accelerating affective circulation and the failure of deliberative coordination. It does not consider that coordination is failing because of affective overload as such, rather than resulting simply from the presence of the wrong kind of affects.
For Land this is not a problem, since he thinks the failure of coordination of any kind is a good thing (since according to him all structure, including rational structure, is oppressive—what Mark Fisher, in his aptly titled Anti-Vital lecture, described as Land’s cosmic libertarianism.) But for those who take themselves to be advocating for a humanistic social vision it leads to absurd places, and ultimately to active complicity in the very things they claim to be opposing.
As an example, let’s return to contemporary art’s love affair with affect theory. At its core, much politically motivated contemporary art involves first making aesthetic objects out of injustice or tragedy, then arguing that the exposure of the art consumer to them provides some kind of counter-force against the tragedy (thus justifying both the activity itself and the capital accrued from it). Affect theory often plays a crucial role in legitimising this aesthetisisation of tragedy, by, for instance, rationalising the notion that the significant aspect of an act of witnessing is its affective content. The activity such an artist is engaged in is that of packaging up the affects of witnessing as commodities which can be circulated and consumed independently of any participation in the social-normative dimension of witnessing—namely, the practice of giving testimony and the obligations and risks that go along with it. (See e.g. James Bridle’s Dronestagram project, which does not make a direct appeal to affect theory but whose latent discourse is very similar.) This is pure snake oil: it does not demonstrate contemporary art’s resistance to structures of oppression, but its active complicity in them. By actively extracting affective content from the social practices which endow them with epistemic and normative force, and then circulating them in the marketplace as consumables, contemporary art is very much part of a cultural process which makes coordination against oppression increasingly difficult by filling the airwaves with a mirage of resistance.
3. It licenses a one-sided theory of sociogenesis.
…which leads to bad politics. Transposed into a cybernetic key, the vitalist field of intensity is often associated with positive feedback. Accordingly, a vitalist theory of sociogenesis is one which emphasises the role of positive feedback loops in the emergence of social phenomena. For instance, Nick Land states that “modernity is dominated by positive feedback processes rather than negative feedback processes,” a claim which has marked the main point of disagreement between Land and his left-accelerationist critics.See also my post on accelerationism. This attribution of primary significance to positive feedback can also be seen in Hanzi Freinacht (see How to Outcompete Capitalism for a clear example of this), hinting at a vitalist undercurrent to political metamodernism, one made explicit by Stein.
The criticism (predictably) is that this perspective fails to acknowledge the role of negative feedback processes in the formation of social structures. This leads to confused ideas about how to change them. One version of this is the kind of edgelord Deleuzianism which calls to “deterritorialize everything,” fetishising positive feedback as such without appreciating how the release of local intensities in positive feedback processes are integrated by larger control structures (a point which Deleuze & Guattari themselves understood very well). This is one of the common criticisms of Nick Land.See e.g. Alex Williams.
The same basic picture also underwrites the bubble-up model of social change: the idea that first there must be a psychological transformation, which will lead to a cultural transformation, then to a political and economic and finally a technological transformation (Benjamin Bratton sees this model of social change in Extinction Rebellion’s thinking, for example). A similar idea often underlies strongly education-first approaches to social change. What is underappreciated in this model is that causal arrows flow down the institutional stack as well as up—that, for instance, individual psychology is constrained, regulated, and to some extent even produced, by the socio-technical structures it inhabits, at the same time as partially constituting them. It may be possible to educate a generation of enlightened hyberbeings into existence, but if they inherit a broken stack of social technologies there is no reason to believe they will be able to coordinate social change any better than we can now. Perhaps it could be argued that more psychologically enriched individuals are required to fix those broken social technologies, but this seems little more than a deferral of responsibility: if we recognise those technologies are broken then why not fix them ourselves, rather than kicking the ball down the road for some future humans to pick up?
As this last example hints at, the vitalist vision of political change often shows up in practice as a failure to appreciate the importance of coordination problems. A vivid example of this appears in another Freinacht article, The View From Complexity, which appeals to Schelling simulations to argue that responding to systemic phenomena like racism is more a matter of small, local shifts in behaviours and attitudes than bringing down some monolithic power structure. These simulations show that if you take a population of agents of different groups with even very small in-group preferences, these can produce very large degrees of segregational patterning when played out at scale. Very minor changes to these initial preferences (codified as behavioural rules) produce radically different outcomes. From this Freinacht concludes that structural change is about chaotic aggregation of local tweaks—a direct appeal to positive feedback—and that e.g. feminist rhetoric about a monolithic patriarchy, or the Marxist conception of capital as an impersonal structure, miss the mark in granting far too much substantiality to these phenomena.
Schelling simulations are both a good and a bad analogy for real sociogenetic processes. They’re good in the sense that they demonstrate how positive feedback can amplify small, non-pathological local variation into global bad news. Freinacht is right to say that this should dispel the idea that systemic racism can be thought of as a pathology of individuals, something like unconscious xenophobia. (With the important practical significance that if correct, no amount of implicit bias training is going to fix systemic racism.) This is the good observation from which Freinacht then draws the bad conclusion that fixing systemic racism is a mere matter of local tweaking, an inference which elides the significance of the negative feedback processes that make many social structures not just emergent, but self-correcting. Specifically, in the context of a Schelling simulation what is meant by a “small tweak in preferences” is—crucially–a tweak applied simultaneously to all agents in a group. For this to be a good analogy of real social change we would require a mechanism which allowed us to coordinate tweaks. But this is precisely where all the difficulties lie.
Freinacht’s argument is that because of positive feedback, a small tweak is in practice as good as a big tweak. What it misses is that the problems never lay in the size of tweaks so much as in their coordination. What is not modelled by Schelling simulations are the negative feedback processes which, in the social context, take the form of norms—control structures that can arise when you have agents who not only behave in predictable ways, but who can also incorporate their predictions of one another’s behaviour into their own deliberations. If any isolated individual tweaks their behaviours in a real-world social environment in a way that goes against established norms, then they are liable to be sanctioned by practices that maintain those norms. It may be that a systemic problem requires only a small change in behaviours overall, but bringing about even a small change requires a shift in the implicit and—most importantly—shared rules, in the unspoken consensuses and items of common knowledge that make a society a society, rather than just a bag of individuals with pre-programmed behaviours. And this is an extremely non-trivial coordination problem, requiring some kind of bootstrap effect (Axelrod, 1984; Axelrod, 1986) or norm contagion.For an in-depth discussion of a particular example of norm contagion see Simon DeDeo's talk Collective Memory in Wikipedia. It is a situation much, much more difficult to tweak into shape than suggested by Freinacht’s analysis, and requires a wholly different kind of political strategy.Indeed, these auto-regulative negative feedback controls are exactly the kind of thing that Marxists mean by impersonal structures, an understanding which requires no misplaced substantiality. (For an example, see Ian Wright’s Prolegomena to a Demonology of Capitalism.) It is somewhat ironic that despite dismissing these modes of analysis as relics of thinking unequipped with the view from complexity, Freinacht’s own understanding of this view appears to be several steps behind theirs.
Dionysus and Apollo
If we were to isolate the thread running through all these objections, the conceptual move that best signals the presence of ambient vitalism, it would be the presence of a hard dualism between the positive, productive principle and the principle that negates or inhibits it. This can take the form of a conflict between individual liberation and societal norms, a disagreement about the political efficacy of affect and rationality, or over the sociogenetic relevance of positive and negative feedback. This is the dualism of Dionysus and Apollo, defining vitalism in all its forms. Some take the side of Dionysus (the countercultural liberation of Eros, or Landian total destructuration) while others may take the side of Apollo (here we might think of Freud’s quasi-hydraulic model of an unruly subconscious kept under control by the paternalistic superego). These frameworks differ in style, detail, and on which side they place their allegiance, but the underlying dualism is the same in all cases.
In the social/political context Dionysus and Apollo are represented by desires and norms, respectively. Here the vitalist dualism is operationalised by a conceptual division of labour: all causal or motivational efficacy is placed on the side of desire, while norms are what inhibit and constrain. This has direct practical and rhetorical consequences: since on this model a norm can have no motivational force in and of itself—which is to say in the absence of a desire either to conform to the norm or to avoid sanctions for failing to conformThis is the broadly Humean account of practical reason which insists the only valid inferences yielding intentions are those which include desires as premises.—political justifications for proactive action can only take the form of dubious claims about what people really want, even when they say they want something different; since rational norms are implicitly tossed out along with the rest, dialogue can’t claim to be more than a carrier signal for vibes without contradicting itself; since all efficacy is attributed to the positive principle, the negative principle is obscured as a source of social structure, and political strategy loses its hooks in reality.
Armed with this operationalised dualism, an implicit vitalism can be identified across many domains of theory and experience. When Mark Fisher describes “depressive hedonia” as a state in which an individual is unable to do anything except pursue pleasureSee e.g. Fisher’s k-punk post on Reflexive Impotence., he is describing a mode of consciousness exhibiting a de facto vitalist structure. When a relationship anarchist wonders why a couple would ever restrict one anothers’ freedom by agreeing to rules, suggesting instead that relating should be based on the alignment of desire and no more, they are reasoning from within a vitalist framework, as is the holistic therapist who claims that destructive behaviours are caused by emotional blockages.
I think vitalism is a bad pattern, and that it lies behind many impasses in thought across the political spectrum, often in an implicit and shadowy kind of way. The metaphysical vision we require is not a vitalism of Eros to challenge an aesthetically inverted vitalism of Thanatos, but rather a kind of antivitalism. What would this look like? Based on the treatment he gives him, Stein seems to regard Nick Land as an exemplary antivitalist, in virtue of his inhumanism. For reasons I’ve outlined, this is not right: Land’s position is better understood as the result of pushing vitalism all the way to its logical conclusion.Mark Fisher’s excellent lecture on Land (already mentioned earlier), Anti-Vital, explores this in some depth. Rather, the mark of a true antivitalism would be the collapse of the desire/norm dualism.
We can say something about what this would look like in practice. To collapse this dualism would be to collapse its operational division of labour: at least some motivational efficacy would fall to norms, while desire would become intelligible as a potentially inhibiting factor. A structure of consciousness exhibits a de facto antivitalism if it possesses the practical ability to be motivationally responsive to explicitly represented norms, even in the presence of a contravening desire. This structure is exhibited whenever someone does something for another because they acknowledge that they should, even though they do not want to. In a recent article I have argued that this ability is a fundamentally social ability—an ability possessed in the first place by groups rather than by individuals—and that it is closely dependent on the architecture of communication technologies. Here, however, I wish to remain in a metaphysical key, and for these purposes it will be helpful to return to the problem of conflicting desire.
The Reality Principle
The operational dualism of norm and desire comes under strain whenever two desires are found to be in conflict with one another. This is for two reasons: i. because each desire is playing an inhibitory role with regard to the other, and ii. because it’s difficult to see how the conflict could be resolved without appeal to some standard of correctness (i.e. a norm) to decide which is legit. The only self-consistent and non-arbitrary way for the vitalist to maintain the division of labour in the face of this is to identify authentic desire with moment-to-moment whim. But this causes headaches for any philosophy humanistic enough to want to maintain that a state such as addiction represents a diminishment of vital potential. Unable to help themselves to a norm (you shouldn’t do that even if you want to), the humanist vitalist is forced to posit a natural finality lying behind an illusion of desire (the alcoholic doesn’t really want a drink; if they were only able to clarify their desire, they would not insist on having one).
A norm which has been naturalised as a finality lying behind appearances was given the term “reality principle” by Baudrillard. Reality principles tend to appear in vitalist frameworks as corrections to the problems caused by the ontological separation of the positive and negative principle. Stein’s clarified desire is one example. In Marx’s productivist materialism (one of the main targets of criticism in Baudrillard’s early writings) the reality principle appears in the notion of “use-value,” a conception of value under which objects are understood to have value to humans prior to any practice of exchange (closely tied to the idea that individual economic agents with wants and needs can be taken as given, i.e. ontologically prior to questions of economic organisation). Classical economists claim that the market system of exchange-value is instrumental to producing use-values; the Marxist critique says that capitalism makes exchange into an end in itself, and that the revolutionary project consists in liberating use-values from the system of exchange-value. The first says the map accurately reflects the territory, the second says the map distorts the territory—both operate on the same conception of the territory, i.e. the same reality principle.
In the final chapter of For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (Baudrillard, 2019), Baudrillard describes a stunt in which activists hijacked the loudspeaker of a supermarket, telling the shop-goers to take whatever they want. Rather than run off with armfuls of loot, covered by the plausible deniability provided by the “official” announcement—the outcome predicted by Marxist revolutionary theory—the shop-goers simply lost interest in the items they had been browsing keenly only moments before. It is behaviours like this which have fuelled the theory of false consciousness, which explains them away via the assertion that the system distorts its subjects’ awareness of their own oppression.
Baudrillard argues that the shop-goers’ indifference, far from demonstrating their manufactured delusion, should be understood as a deeper form of resistance. If they were to take the goods, they would still be conforming to the model of independent economic agents with needs and desires satisfiable in the appropriation of use-values, as provided by commodities. In other words, they would be implicitly ratifying the reality principle shared by both the system and its critique. (The point was made often in the wake of the London riots of 2011, that, far from rebelling against the system, the looters who broke into shops to take Nike trainers and iPads were perfectly embodying the value structure of consumer capitalism.) In this sense, the reality principle functions by providing an alibi for a masked norm—in this case, the norm stating that self-actualisation is realised in consumption. The activists are as complicit in coercing consent for this norm as the system itself, and it is the shop-goers who resist it in their refusal to ratify the reality principle.
The reality principle is the mode in which unacknowledged normativity congeals within a vitalist framework. As we have seen, “clarified desire” is the reality principle of Stein’s cosmo-erotic humanism, whose attainment will free us from the pseudo-desires “multiplied by the political economy of enjoyment.” It does not matter that the content of this clarified desire is not identified; it is likely different for everyone, and each must discover it for themselves. All that matters is the separation of authentic desire and pseudo-desire, the latter of which are seen not to be desires at all, but merely external constraints. In pursuit of self-actualisation, the vitalist consciousness unearths and discards these “pseudo-desires” as artifacts of social conditioning—as mere norms—unaware that in doing so they are not closing the gap with reality (the chimerical ‘reality’ of the true self) but conforming to the directive of a deeper norm, one they have deprived themselves of the capacity to acknowledge explicitly as a norm. Discover yourself. But the reality is that there is no true self, at least not in the sense required by this program—social “conditioning” runs all the way down. This is what it is to be a social being. It is not at all surprising that the political economy of self-discovery plays so nicely with the political economy of enjoyment, as anyone who has been to a “transformational” festival lately will know—they are two tightly intermeshed components in a single machine. You can keep discovering yourself forever, because there is nothing to discover. This is great for business.
It’s important to stress that the point is not that, say, advertising does not manipulate desire. It is that the result of this manipulation is in no sense a pseudo-desire, because in an important sense desire is always-already manipulated.I’ve sketched out some thoughts about how to make sense of what advertising does do in Common Knowledge, The Symbolic, and the Imaginary. There is no such thing as an unmediated desire, a desire not shot through with social-normative structuration.I’ve connected this point to some possible Marx-inspired responses to rationalist market theodicy in Invisible Hand Fail Modes. The assumption that there is is a mistake flowing directly from the hard dualism of desire and norm. If we begin to question these vitalist assumptions, we will see that this dualism marks no ontological division, but something more like a scale-relative distinction. (The will of the group is a norm to its members; the desire of the individual is a norm to its time-slices.) An antivitalist metaphysics is one which attributes ontogenetic power to neither the positive nor negative principle, but to their interaction as two poles of a single process. It is only in virtue of negative control processes that matter forms structures stable enough to participate in higher order feedback loops; only in virtue of its constitution as a normative structure that the human subject has any capacity to desire at all.
The previous point touches on another impasse of left political thought. This is sometimes called left wing melancholy: the all too familiar tendency to place a generic blame for the ills of the world on capitalism, disregarding all suggestions for personal betterment as a neoliberal psyop and ultimately leaving no space for human agency whatsoever. There’s a post by Meta-Nomad which nicely captures this as a general affect and why it annoys the hell out of everyone. Here I’ll consider it from the point of view of political rhetoric.
Of course, as rhetoric it is hopeless: when an anti-capitalist activist justifies their own complicity in consumerism—as when the Conservative MP Louise Mensch jeered at Occupy activists for filling the queue at StarbucksA point picked up on by Mark Fisher in his writings on Postcapitalist Desire.—by saying, for instance, that they are acting on pseudo-desires overproduced by advertising etc., this doesn’t wash. People can rightly respond: if it’s only pseudo-desire then why do you keeping acting on it? Do you want the Starbucks or not? This question bites because it appeals to the activist’s own vitalist premises—if it is not a real desire then how can it motivate?
What’s curious about this situation is the failure of this rhetoric does not necessarily depend on the activist being wrong. After all, advertising really does manipulate desire (I’m pretty sure no-one still holds to the old line that advertising simply provides information, least of all advertisers themselves, who know exactly what they’re being paid for). There are many sophisticated accounts of subjectivation, manufactured consent, libidinal engineering, etc, and understanding why the rhetoric misfires does not depend on disagreeing with them. Indeed from the activist’s perspective, the jeering response is just more evidence of false consciousness. To them it is as if the system has pre-emptively absorbed its own critique—there is no way out, capitalism seems even more monolithic than ever, and melancholy is beckoning.
What’s going on only starts to become clear if we disarticulate two different roles played by the concept of desire. In one, desire is used to pick out some kind of feeling or affect, an item of conscious experience. In the other, desires function as premises in pieces of practical reasoning, as when I explain that I went to the bar because I wanted a drink. It plays a referential role in the first and an inferential role in the second, in which it serves as a premise that licenses certain practical conclusions. We rarely distinguish these, because in most scenarios the roles converge. But this is not always the case. The problem with the activist’s appeal to libidinal engineering is that it provides a causal explanation for how they came to feel and behave a certain way, rather than a justification for why they are behaving that way. This is like if you ask someone why they’ve been such an asshole and they just say, “well you know, when I was twelve my parents didn’t give me much attention and that left me with issues and I lash out sometimes, I guess we’re both victims here.” The point is not that this is wrong—it may well be true—but that it is not what you were asking. What was requested was not a causal explanation of how the action came about, but some kind of recognition of responsibility for it.
Similarly, attributing a desire to oneself is a way of taking a distinctive kind of epistemic responsibility for one’s actions—to say “I want x” is to make one’s subsequent behaviour accountable to a standard of correctness. If I claim that I want to stay dry but keep running out in the rain, then I am liable to be challenged on the basis of my own commitments. If the activist wants to say that they are acting under a pseudo-desire, then it is as if they are trying to have it both ways: playing the epistemic move without taking the epistemic responsibility. And this will always fall flat, in the sense that it will fail to provide its recipient with a reason to change their mind.
There’s clearly a lot more that could be said about this, but the important thing is that the bad rhetorical move takes the form of an inability to see the significance of the epistemic dimension of desire—of the normative role that attributions of desire (to ourselves and others) play the context of practical reasoning. This is a distinctly vitalist kind of mistake, characterised by the tendency to identify desire with affect or causal pulsion, eclipsing the epistemic dimension of desire. Such a framework is inadequate to resolving the paradox that characterises the present moment: the coincidence of liberated individual choice with collective disempowerment. To even begin this task what is required is a normatively thick conception of desire, a framework capable of understanding how the attribution of wants and needs operates not just as a way of reporting internal states and their causal histories, but as a constitutive component in normative practices of social reasoning and social action.
Conclusion: Towards Antivitalism
This has turned into something of a meandering post. It’s aim has been to suggest that a broadly vitalist metaphysic is operating in the background of contemporary political thought across several domains. These are as different as Landian accelerationism, metamodernism, certain strands of Marxism, and art theory. In practice, this often manifests in the form of a hard dualism of desire and norm (or more generally, of the Dionysian and Apollonian principle). This dualism lies at the root of many bad patterns and impasses—whether it’s the weak rhetoric of authenticity and false consciousness, the use of affect theory to present commodified tragedy as political resistance, bad political strategy based on naïve bubble-up models of social change, left wing melancholy, or, on the conservative side, an Oedipal conception of authority in which norms are rigidly objective and uncompromising, independent from and impervious to the subjective attitudes of those bound by them.
The upshot of this analysis is that it points to a way beyond the impasse: to a new antivitalist metaphysics. The functional heart of such a metaphysic is the collapse of the norm/desire dualism, both situating desire as an active constituent in the normative realm of the socius and assigning causal force to norms in the squishy realm of bodies and affects. To do so is to sew the seeds of a new philosophy of agency, one which side-steps both the Oedipal paternalism of tradition (the hard objectivism of norms) and the Narcissistic alienation of modernity (the hard subjectivism of desire).
The authority structure archetypal to antivitalism is rather the sibling bond—symmetric, committed, and rivalrous. Interpreted within this structure, desiring individuals represent stakeholders with equal authority to determine the content of shared norms, norms acknowledged as motivationally binding on those individuals, by those individuals. The required framework is one which both understands norms not as handed down by divine grace, but as contingent on subjective attitudes in the sense that they are instituted by them, and that our very constitution as desiring individuals is metaphysically grounded by our participation in norm-governed social practices.A prototypical example of the antivitalism I am describing is Kant’s model of autonomy, in which freedom is understood as constraint by norms (as opposed to constraint by mere causes). This idea is then given a social inflection by Hegel, who replaces Kantian autonomy with the notion of mutual recognition. More recently, Baudrillard transposes similar points into a semiotic and media theoretic key. Where German Idealism draws the antivitalist picture of a human subject that is an essentially normative (and in Hegel’s case, social) structure, Baudrillard attempts to come to terms with what happens to this structure once the underlying signalling technologies that support it are restructured on the logic of a marketplace.
- Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books. [PDF]
- Axelrod, R. (1986). An Evolutionary Approach to Norms. The American Political Science Review, 80(4), 1095–1111. [PDF]
- Baudrillard, J. (2019). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (C. Levin, Tran.). Verso.
- Stein, Z. (2018). Love in a Time Between Worlds: On the Metamodern "Return" to a Metaphysics of Eros. Integral Review, 12(1), 186–220.