Inverting the Personal

The massive practical divide in the social could be said to lie between “small-scale” love and “broad-scale” love. The one we call love: friends, family, and romantic love. Nearly every pop song and blockbuster movie glorifies it as what makes life in the world worth bearing. The other we lamely call politics, which is represented in culture in large part as an intrigue of corruption. When it is positively portrayed, it comes in the form of the biopic, a portrayal of the courageous activity of one heroic figure.

Models for amorous love abound, but we hardly have a clue what broad-scale love would be. The politician, today modeled on the efficient businessperson or technocrat, is almost invariably lacking in it. We have no idea how to operate on that level―except insofar as it fills a “slot” at the periphery of our small-scale loves. The periphery includes: having certain opinions, supporting certain parties, arguing for certain causes, standing in solidarity with certain peoples, empathizing with certain pains, intervening in various ways by donating money, feeding the hungry, supporting initiatives, and so on. We know the result: people end up gravitating to the political ideas of those with whom they share their small-scale life. We are attractied to the ideas that we believe will benefit our own personal lives and interests the most. The small-scale retains its priority even here. We know the corruption of politicians generally has to do with their inability to sacrifice personal interests for the sake of larger goals, but at the same time this is a sacrifice that none of us really would want or know how to execute―especially not where it approaches a wholesale dedication to broad-scale love. In the cultural imaginary, that role is reserved for exemplary spiritual figures: Jesus, Ghandi, MLK Jr., Mandela, etc.

Let’s examine this from the vantage of private personhood, which I believe is the central issue here. First, we should understand that this concept cannot be reduced to biology (the animal fact that this is my body, my voice, etc.), even if it draws amply from the natural metaphor and, especially, from the numerous threats to our survival. I would posit, however, that private personhood is one of Capitalism’s and the State’s primary ideological operations. It elevates private life to the ultimate arbiter of meaning. It not only encourages us to act in our own small-scale interest, but the exclusivity of personal interest is cruelly and ruthlessly enforced through debt mechanisms, legal personhood, death certificates, insurance policies, and so on. Such is also the chief role of opinion: to ensure that each of us are who we are, insofar as we can be defined as an individual in the social world. After all, it is the most “reasonable” thing in the world, so goes the common wisdom, to act in our own private interest. Private personhood and its ideology is so ingrained into these practices that they operate almost without resistance. They take on a life of their own as each of us fights for our own life exclusively, thinks of it as our own and wants to “be somebody.” For a conversation to take a even step beyond this ideological sphere is rare. But let me speak as a “communist”: it is this bias that must be eradicated at the core if any revolution against capitalism is to come and be effective. This goes against everything we’re taught and traditionally led to believe about the need to “persevere in our being.” It would even seem to be the epitome of foolishness. It means “throwing away one’s life.” (But isn’t the real question how far it can be thrown?)

Because of the way capitalism imposes the need for private property and frames all of psychosocial life as essentially small-scale, the broad-scale behaviors I named remain on the periphery. They do not reach into our core being, our practice, our deepest desires, in large part because they are prohibited from doing so, both on the unconscious level and at the level of social structures (the bank, the doctor’s, etc.). What is so hard to envision is a total “inversion” of our relation to the private: to look at the private as peripheral, to view the “location” of our action and behavior as in the broad-scale, to see private interest itself as, at best, a necessary evil to keep our bodies alive while we ourselves dedicate our action and thought to other aims. Capitalism, with its magnificent state-media-entertainment apparatus, basically makes it impossible for even a moment’s inclination in this direction to take hold.

Clearly there is no leap into the “inversion” I referred to above. In my experience―if I can speak of having experience in this matter―it requires a double strategy, even a double life. There is the omnipresence of private interest and the small-scale life. The sheer force of this convention makes it unthinkable to simply step outside of it. I am called to address you as myself, and to respond to the state, the tax agency, and the doctor as myself. To call all of that outright “false” is madness, plain and simple. And to practice its outright rejection would land one without any small-scale loves pretty quickly. (Confession: I often feel on the brink of losing all these, mostly because of a disappointment I’m sure others feel at my inability to get my mind out of a contrary space. I have lost, or rather let drift away, so many wonderful small-scale loves, almost as if it had no effect on me, as if I was in different to what I’d lost. I feel the guilt of that and know it to be cruel. What’s more, I know that I have little concrete to offer in exchange. But the experiment is entering a different stage, that much I know. It demands even more cunning in the double strategy― eradicating a belief while simultaneously having no choice but to believe it.)

No choice but to use personhood for the sake of its inversion. I cannot think of a more delicate operation. And perhaps it is absurd to construe any of this under the heading of politics, since it does not speak directly to any real world struggle. For many years, I have tried to focus my thought and critical skills on the matrix of this problem. Along the way I have rejected the spiritualist thesis, which dissolves the small I in a transcendent I, small mind in big mind, etc. (so many millions of versions of this). The spiritualist thesis retains the private under the heading of a journey into wholeness: from the alone to the Alone. Today, this strikes me as an ahistorical, religious evasion, full of magical guarantees. It is incapable of achieving the inversion I am talking about; it remains individualistic after all. Perhaps it helps along the way, but there is a step it does not take, which has to do with the dimension of work―with the double strategy, which is nothing if not an immanent process. At the same time, as much as the priviledge given to individual existence is unconscious, I believe that the ‘eradication’ (the word is too strong) of that priviledge also proceeds unconsciously. It goes a path and gets to work without consciousness knowing what it is up to. It is not a matter of a new decision, a deliberate overturning of personhood, a new sacrifice of self. It’s never about “denying” the small-scale. But it is also too easy to view the small-scale as the broad-scale (the non-dual position).

The best I can say is this: on my side, no inversion ever takes place. I’ll die me, I’ll keep talking me, nothing else will ever really make sense; I’ll even use me as a tool to advance the inversion; I’ll confess it all, turn my weak heart inside out like a glove, showing it to have been inside out from day one, destined for the other’s heart all along. Whereas on our side, the inversion pulls us all in. The small-scale love we had will never be the full story. It will never have been just a one-to-one, never quite person-to-person. A different destiny let itself intervene under the heading of “generic subjectivity.” Granted, it is painfully obvious that its operation is, at this point in history, unstable, faltering, precarious. The very instant we catch a glimpse of the inversion, something intrudes to return us to the conventionality of the private. Again, we must conceive of this as a double strategy situated, as Maurice Blanchot would put it, between the everyday and the infinite.

I started this reflection by naming a gap between small- and broad-scale love. I have progressively “abstracted” the discussion away from what anyone could reasonably call political concerns. But we must seek a thought of politics beyond parlimentarianism and democracy. A working hypothesis: Politics is the intelligence of a group committed to inverting the personal and the private property relations it implies. Politics as the pure prescription of this inversion: the work of constructing, from within the small-scale arrangements in which we all inevitably find ourselves, a beyond of private interest and personhood. As I have said, I believe this is the most delicate, long-term battle, since (if we’re honest with ourselves) ‘eradicating’ in thought, word and deed our complicity with those relations―with capitalism―is in most circumstances not only hard but forbidden. It takes a group committed to the possibility of this inversion, this radical unbinding from the conditions that support capital (which also support law as we know it, the university system, the employment system, etc.). Because every time we look each other in the face, every time we exchange words, the great temptation is to slip back into the personal-private view, which sees us as mere individuals arrayed in an “intersubjective” space. It takes intense group support and collective dedication to bear with the failures and regressions of this work and with the bold experimental leaps in expression and organization it demands. Without ridicule, the political group will always be looking for how this inversion can be readied or advanced, without ever believing that it demands they get lost in the group or lose their own singularity as persons in the process.

Forgive me one more hypothesis. Small-scale love―which works on the model of the Two, the one-to-one―is not capable of teaching this inversion to us. Why? Because it is precisely small-scale love in its intimacy that teaches us the ultimate value of our singularity. Small-scale love touches us because it is so personal. Without it, we would probably never learn the value of compassion, empathy, patience, and so on. Without it, we would have no basis from which to invert it. It seems to me unmistakeable that politics is an extension of love in the direction of the generic; but this extension is at the same time a cancellation and metamorphosis.

We should stop trying to find echoes of amorous and familial in political love (the mistake of “brotherhoods,” “nations,” collective “unity” in general). One sees again the necessary interplay of a dual strategy, a cognizance of levels and of the different interventions they require. Small-scale love is not a game, or to be taken lightly or less seriously. “Politics” in the sense I have defined it would have to cut across it diagonally. It would have to become capable of reorienting it, of giving it new trajectories that are paradoxically anti-privative, anti-possessive. One could say: this is precisely the fulfillment of a love that now knows no jealousy, no partiality, no unkindness, no exclusivism. But to raise the banner of that type of love―in the fullness of its genericity―we require a real strategy that goes against the grain of all concern for personal-private existence, though of course without falling into the trap of sacrificing ourselves for the whole (which is just another ploy to recoup the private, to make the small I die into the big I, etc.).

In the end, it is perhaps not right call politics broad-scale “love.” I seems that, in practice, it proves to be a somewhat cold procedure. I have felt this myself, personally, awkwardly. Politics is a killjoy when it ruins the personhood grounds. This coldness has become, in some areas, a political necessity because of how capitalism has co-opted love. The joy that our coldness kills, however, is just the false enthusiasm of politics as the circulation of stances, and of love as the justification for the capitalist system (a slavery of the heart, a slavery to self-desire-bound love, as one song puts it: “You got me in chains, you got me in chains for your love / But, I wouldn’t change, no I wouldn’t change this love”).

We should also entertain the hypothesis that the love of romance, family, and friendship is the only thing actually supporting the continuance of capitalism, because these are the only things with the power―a very real power!―to sustain belief and hope in our own singularity, which capitalism requires. For, as we know all too well, where that love lacks, belief in the strong singularity of the individual falters; the result is isolation, depression, and suicide. This “strength” of personality is however immensely contradictory, since love itself requires weakness, vulnerability, openness, forgiveness―all values that capitalism, as a system of protection, accumulation and competition, denies. In that capitalism leans against love for its own continuation, it can have the effect of degrading small-scale love, turning it into just another calculation of private interest. Couples know the danger that money constantly interjects between them. Only loving communication gets them through and makes it bearable. Today, if I had to venture to name capitalism’s most heinous evil, it is that it is unashamedly parasitic on human love, drawing sustenance from it while draining it―demanding of its subjects that they not only fight capitalism directly (debt, employment, finance) but indirectly: that they not lose faith in love, that they not forget that love exists in the world altogether, lest callous calculation trample them.

If we want to save love from its co-optation by capital, we need a double strategy―a politics that balances warmth with coldness, amiability with caution. A politics of personhood daily strengthened by love, but strengthened for the sake of executing an inversion. A “cunning” double strategy of immersion and restraint, binding and unbinding. An uncertain procedure drawing from singularity to construct the generic. A thought, an address, a life-practice, no longer dedicated to this or that specific one, nor to the one who thinks, addresses, and lives the practice. A politics of nobodies, slowly ‘eradicating’ the belief that they have a personal life to live at all, thus liberating themselves into strange new behaviors, strange “communities” in total dispersal and unbinding.

I do not mean to advance a bottom-line for politics or redefine it per se, no more than I wish to banish amorous and familial love to the margins. What I am trying to dig toward is the basic intelligence of the social, the power of generic human constructions, insofar as they escape any small-scale measure and can circulate toward the utterly unforeseen. I believe we are already practicing it constantly. As I said above, inverting the personal is less a deliberate act than a parallax shift in perspective that, nonetheless, has the power to redirect or “communize” what we do. For those who regularly bring their ideas and inspirations to bear in the public sphere know what that means and the bonheur it brings. What I would like to offer is a thought that enables us to go to these extremes quicker, that can encourage others to turn themselves inside out, to “throw their lives away” to the greatest extent possible within the parameters set by survival in the capitalist world.

Alas, since anything can always be looked at in the traditional way, perhaps I have just explained to myself my own project of self-abolishment, which has brought to my heart more confusions and conflicts than I would ever know how to count; perhaps I have just attempted to justify my own moodiness, silence, withdrawal, and nonsense. But I believe the double strategy demands something of the absurdist risk, since there is no guarantee whatsoever that anyone will ever come to meet us in this forum. Although all this must issue from what Paul Celan called the mystery of the encounter, the meeting place is anything but assured. There is no bar, no forest, no house, no bed prearranged, no more than anyone knows what comes next for those who meet in that non-place. All we know is that it is an infinitely multiple meeting, never just a one-to-one, and never really small-scale. It is never just love―unless it is the most just love that ever existed.

Work, write, trace a trajectory―yes, but for who? This is the question that, pivoting on the immanent inversion, generic-politically, no longer even needs to be asked. The intelligence of the committed group takes its stand, and we all go under―without ever even needing to know, each other, who we individually are.

―August, 2017

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