The other’s ebb

Capitalist society is organized to make it easy for us to avoid our neighbors, who are diminished in the rush of things to servants, salespeople, and strangers – figures with whom we can hardly be said to have “dialogue” in the daydream that is our daily life. They of course reciprocate by treating us as customers to be dealt with efficiently, potential offenders to be surveilled and policed, or again, one in an endless sea of insignificant strangers whose desires are incongruous with theirs. This lack of real interaction in the public sphere – which can also apply to co-workers one sees constantly, insofar as even that contact is adulterated by the “ulterior motive” of business – is in turn “balanced out” by the emphasis placed on private relations, which thus become the medium of escape, comfort, long-term meaning: the epicenter of our life’s desire. Suicide rates and the boredom of people -bored with themselves – in our culture would however indicate that this balance is only ever imperfectly achieved; it requires decent economic and job stability for one, but also that one adopt certain norms of behavior that make integration less bumpy and painful. (This adjustment of my desire to what is expected of me, however, is also labor: it extends to all the rules of etiquette, of self-advertising, gossip, rivalry, etc., in a word, whatever it is that pins us down as “individuals.”)

I would argue that this bifurcation between work and play, between productive labor and what we do in our “free time,” exacerbates the problem of “love” in the community, namely by foreclosing possibilities of Philia and Agape. Love becomes Eros – unity of two souls who ‘complete’ each other – when the space for love is only “big enough for the two of us.” This supports the illusion that individualistic or couple-centric happiness is the only one available and, moreover, the most preferable, most rewarding type (and TV sitcoms are there to convince us of it). Public is the place where you are to parade your private parts (selfies, family photos, status updates, etc.). “Public” is rendered a space of publication, publicity, and popularity – the private lives of notorious individuals, their curious desires and exploits come to dominate the private imaginations of average TV viewers. Our private life is increasingly being experienced as something to be put on show for all our friends. This is, to an extent, a positive development, even if it takes a distorted form in celebrity culture (but where else would we learn how to present ourselves? Van Gogh, Kafka, were also social media experts). Vilem Flusser calls it the “publishable private”: an emptiness that we share, exposing the truth of our finitude to other mortals. The negative side, however, is that the public sphere risks being stripped of being anything but an indifferent place where we share our private philosophical musings: a neutral sphere of commerce, transaction, anonymity, and distance. If we happen to connect with a stranger along our way to the grave, we’re lucky, and that’s beautiful; but ultimately we leave the organization of daily life up to capital. We do not challenge the work/play, productivity/leisure bifurcation, but accept it as the price we must pay (literally) to find true love and build a life with others.

I find it difficult not to see in this model of desire and of public privateness a perfect lubricant for the capitalist apparatus. To be clear, I do not mean to deny, or even doubt, the quality of love between people who make the most of having to live in such a barbaric situation. Nor do I wish to cast aspersions on the refined artistic creations that manifest in the soul’s retreat from it. But all this romanticism and pathos surrounding the solitary one – Negri calls it blackmail! – does make it very easy to forget the others struggling around you and to focus exclusively on the betterment of oneself. It lets one forget any notion of collective desire that would be free from the “spiritual” demands of the individual – and that would produce a group subjectivity that wasn’t limited to supporting its favorite authors and sports team.

Let me develop the last example for a moment. Again, I do not mean to knock on people who enjoy public sporting events, or to question the “authenticity” of the group experience they have there. But it is important to recognize that – however “loyal” one is to one’s team, or to one’s band, etc. – this experience is a fleeting one; it forms what Guattari would call a “dependent group,” meaning that it is largely inhibited from forming an utterance that would issue directly from it itself – a creative utterance that breaks through the cycle of stats, player profiles, mascots, and champions. Instead, the group remains dependent – on tour schedules, merchandising, trades, big money, executive power – all sorts of authority that, through one way or another, demand the repetition of the same structures, and thus ultimately bar time. To put it another way, the desire of this group remains unconscious, in an alienated state; it cannot actually develop its own perspectives, but is limited to adapting to other groups; it ossifies into a ‘mass’ and, very predictably, sticks to the rules of the game; it is inert because it constantly returns to the same problem, namely, that although it can be loud and make itself heard, in reality it has no idea why, or who cares to listen.

After the game, the fan is forced to head home to their computer and participate on forums or watch highlight reels on youtube. The relation between individuals who externally profess a certain shared desire actually never meet; or it is not a deep meeting, in the sense that this encounter transforms their respective existences and, more importantly, leads them to say things, talk about things, they never would have expected before the encounter. They continually perform a routine filled with meaningless, “unproductive” gestures that only reproduce a kind of vicious circle of winning and losing – and the exchange of money. In that sense, it is very productive: just the kind that keeps all the given structures in place; yet unproductive in that no change in subjectivity is ever activated: only an anger constantly frustrated for having missed its real social object. Let’s not be shy to state the stakes: these disconnects among the organized masses will repeat for centuries – unless something breaks and these dependent groups become subject groups. (Which is not unheard of: when LeBron James wears a T-shirt in support of Eric Garner reading, “I can’t breath,” the true power of the dependent group shines through into a subjectivity-producing machine that is immediately opened on to other groups and explodes with a freshly-molding desire; it is on this capacity that we must “capitalize.”)

To return to my main point: When “desire” is constrained to be the desire of an individual, that individual is doomed to be hung up in a structure that encloses it within a given totality and overdetermines what it wants (for example, there are many fish in the sea, true love is waiting for you, etc.). This view of things comes to define the entire field of one’s potentiality, the scope and limitations of one’s individual life. It closes up the “circuit of personal identity” and lets one “have” something, attach to some desired object, albeit a phantasy; but whether it be a person, a team, an experience, or even a book deal, everything ends up functioning according to what ‘they’ say. It is an odd structure: because one needs (or believes one has) a clear place of equilibrium in the order, the latter becomes all-encompassing and oppressive, making one do and desire a million things uncontrollably, unconsciously, according to scripts that get dreadfully stuck on repeat under the guise of just “being me” (or wanting to be). Soon, people who live on the same poor block of the neighborhood, with the same economic and political reasons to fight back against the systematic oppression of their potentialities, are shooting each other in a battle to be “the realest.” What we need to remind them and ourselves is that we are only the realest as other.

For the reverse, of course, is not to regain control through a purified conception of what should be desired (digging down into “what I really want”); nor is it to try, à la Buddhism, to strip oneself of all desires, tending to self-oblation (which remains caught in the same vicious circle). Rather, “The first item on the agenda [and it remains the first item] is to open up to the complete alterity of the situation,” without knowing at all in advance where it will lead (73). It is to expose oneself to the rupture with inertial structures through an act (of being, of potentiality, of the signifier, but let’s be careful here) whereby we are no longer at the command of signifying chains without depth, enslaved to “timeless” operations, but instead wield the signifier in explosive ways, producing utterances that can be shared by coming collective subjectivities. It is to let oneself be decentered outside oneself by desire – by the other that never lets itself be reduced to an object in a face-to-face, and yet is nonetheless material, real, resistant – to exceed the narrowly defined sphere of the individual’s (for the most part fabricated) “needs,” in constant recourse to this absolute alterity that is no stone statue or god, but is independent of you and of me, does not hand over its identity papers, and forever disallows its dissolution (203; 75). As Guattari writes: “The I for I was only a possible mirage in the intimacy of the other for me.” May we lose the security of even that position – indeed, of any body or work of reflection – and tease out, even as we are teased by, what can only come to be if we are we.

[Quotes – for my own record keeping, but where of course my own record keeping is already the other’s – from Félix Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971.]

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