mark fisher, lyotard, and the negativity beyond critique

dying parliament

Left theory needs Lyotard. Fisher returns to the ‘scandalous’ passage from Libidinal Economy in which Lyotard suggests the English proletariat enjoyed their exploitation under early industrial capitalism, [1] only to argue that Lyotard is developing a fundamentally Marxist insight – specifically, that no Marxist ought to fight for any ‘return’ to pre-capitalist conditions (what, Fisher reminds us, Marx and Engels mock as “the idiocy of rural life”). [2] Lyotard excoriates the left for its reactionary and fundamentally religious belief in the existence of purely pre-capitalist – that is, pre-lapsarian – societies. [3] Left reactionary nostalgia for this past-that-never-was is also an abdication of the future. This nostalgia is complicit with the “capitalist libidinal infrastructure” (Ibid.) that Fisher elsewhere calls ‘capitalist realism,’ which he defines as the now widely accepted position that capitalism liberates desire. [4] For Fisher, the challenge facing the left is to articulate the ways in which capitalism, while appearing to liberate desire, ultimately frustrates it. However, to effect their retrogression to pre-capitalist society, the reactionary left needs to advocate for the frustration of desire and the inauguration of a new asceticism (Ibid.). What Fisher takes from Lyotard’s polemic against the left: there’s no uncontaminated origin to which we can return, and there’s no uncontaminated desire for an uncontaminated origin.

Back to those English proles – for Lyotard, what occurs during the industrial revolution is a denaturalization of the working class. [5] Fisher refers to Lyotard’s essay “Duchamp’s Transformers,” in which Lyotard draws a parallel between the avant-garde and the working class. Lyotard argues that the working class becomes the avant-garde of the organism through its adaptation – or, rather, mutation – to the conditions of the industrial economy (Fisher: “bodies that were stretched to capacities,” subject to a “blitzing of [their] sensorium”) (Ibid.). Two lessons from Lyotard:

  1. Capitalism was not ‘imposed’ on the English proles, but solicits their desire, even if capitalism must frustrate the desire it solicits. (Fisher: “The other part of the problem is of desire – which can’t be answered with ‘false consciousness.’” (Ibid.))
  2. The ‘avant-garde’ had fallen behind the English proles, who, in contrast to the reactionary nostalgia-formation of left-intellectuals, responded to industrialization through metamorphosis into a mutant workforce with no place or investment in the fantasy of a pure, pre-capitalist past.

With Lyotard, Fisher concludes: “the left subsiding into a moral critique of capitalism is a hopeless betrayal of the anti-identitarian futurism that Marxism must stand for if it is to mean anything at all” [6]. Why does left theory need Lyotard? Because it is still religious, reactionary, nostalgic, moralistic.

Lyotard needs left theory. For every advantage Lyotard has on traditional ‘left’ critique, Fisher thinks Lyotard’s anti-capitalism fails. Lyotard’s “emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification” (Ibid.) relies on an implicit asymmetry between the libidinal and the political such that the former is prior to and productive of the latter. This asymmetry, however, risks reducing the political into an epiphenomenal effect of the libidinal. For Fisher, it’s an insight of Freud’s which renders this reduction untenable – namely, Freud’s distinction between ‘instinct’ and ‘drive.’ Where instinct implies some unmediated (read: pure) form of desire, Freud argues humans have no instinct, but only drives, and drives are manipulable. [7] Political configurations, while composed by libidinal investments, have a recursive effect on the libidinal energy that powers them. This conditioning of the libidinal by the political is what Fisher calls libidinal engineering. While Lyotard fell prey to the temptation of seeking a purity to the libidinal by “the heat of desire [that] just wants to be free,” Fisher implores us to “approach desire in a way that is colder”:

[W]e have drives but not instincts, which makes them reprogrammable […] and capital knows this about desire already, which is why it puts so much money and energy into libidinal engineering [and the left] doesn’t have the same resources at its disposal […] [8]

Despite Lyotard’s own best efforts to solely affirm, Fisher argues that Lyotard nonetheless advances a form of negativity, albeit one excessive to ‘traditional’ – i.e., religious, reactionary, nostalgic, moralistic – left critique. Fisher:

Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. [9]

The question of the future of the left is “a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.” [9] Libidinal engineering names the operation whereby the left might acquire the capacity to make contact with the powers of negativity and transform the libidinal to condition the production of a new political arrangement. But to what end? Not just to the end of a new arrangement in which desire has, once again, been engineered to support an arrangement that frustrates it. Fisher names the possible reconciliation of libidinal engineering and libidinal liberation communism. [10] Why does Lyotard need the left? To be reminded of the possibility of such reconciliation.


[1] “The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – 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 dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening. (Libidinal Economy, 111)”

“Terminator Vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism, 2010 (http://markfisherreblog.tumblr.com/post/32522465887/terminator-vs-avatar-notes-on-accelerationism)

[2] “The Soviet system could not achieve this vision, but perhaps its realisation still lies ahead of us, provided we accept that what we are fighting for is not a ‘return’ to the essentially reactionary conditions of face-to-face interaction, “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity”, [Nick Land, ‘Making it with Death: Remarks on Thanatos and Desiring-Production’, in Fanged Noumena, p. 281.] or what Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life”, but rather 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.” (https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE)

[3] “But in what does the alleged scandalous nature of this passage reside? Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[4] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAQ6lhpVIss)

[5] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrKiScp_gog)

[6] “As Lyotard suggests, the left subsiding into a moral critique of capitalism is a hopeless betrayal of the anti-identitarian futurism that Marxism must stand for if it is to mean anything at all. What we need, as Fredric Jameson—the author of “Wal-Mart as Utopia”—argues, is not a new move beyond good and evil, and this, Jameson says, is to be found in none other than the Communist Manifesto. “The Manifesto,” Jameson writes, “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.” (Valences of the Dialectic, 551)” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[7] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrKiScp_gog)

[8] “Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. […] 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.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[9] “But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari/Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

See also: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Tuck7eMqo)

[10] “There were clues, perhaps, in the architectural marvels from the dying years of the Soviet bloc, photographed by Frédéric Chaubin: “buildings designed at the hinge of different worlds, in which sci-fi futurism conjoins with monumentalism”, “quasi-psychedelic, crypto-Pop”. [Frédéric Chaubin, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen, 2010), p. 15, 9.] While Chaubin sees these buildings as a temporary efflorescence brought about by the rotting of the Soviet system, can’t we grasp them instead as relics from a yet-to-be-realised post-capitalist future in which desire and communism are joyfully reconciled? “Neither modern nor postmodern, like free-floating dreams, they loom up on the horizon like pointers to a fourth dimension.” [Ibid., p. 15.] ”

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

 

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communism on the way down

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