Friday, 20 July 2012

Life's What You Make It: Vitalism and Critique

Presented at‘The Politics of Critique’, University of Brighton (July 18th – 19th 2012)

In a 2009 pamphlet issued out of the student occupations in New York we find what we might call the standard rejection of critique: ‘This activity of producing novel recommendations for the submission of the population is called critique.’ (2009, III) The activity of critique is treated as one that is indissolubly bound to what it rejects, and hence always constrained and always available for recuperation: ‘Critique illuminates all the errors of a society that its managers have overlooked.’ (2009, III) What we find is the rejection of critique founded on a rather unstable amalgam of an immanent thought of affirmation – which would charge critique with always being secondary, dependent, and a symptom of ressentiment – coupled to a post-Situationist model of perpetual recuperation – in which critical activity is a mere corrective or, as the pamphlet puts it, ‘[a] release valve for intellectual dissonance.’ (2009, III) The ‘solution’ to this impasse is one of radical separation, which aims to sever the relation to power: ‘Critique must be abandoned in favour of something that has no relation whatsoever to its enemy, something whose development and trajectory is completely indifferent to the nonlife of governance and capital.’ (2009, III)

The reference to ‘nonlife’ gives a clue perhaps to the nature of what has no relation to the enemy, what has a different development and trajectory: Life. It is the power of Life that will substitute for the impotence of critique. This is made explicit in the appeal to ‘a form of life which no reason can govern’ (2009, IX), and the closing assertion: ‘Our task, impossible, is to seize time itself and liquefy its contents, emptying its emptiness and refilling it with the life that is banned from appearing.’ (2009, XI) Of course, what justifies and supports this discourse is the work of Giorgio Agamben. It’s initially somewhat surprising that the supremely po-faced and hyper-refined thought of Agamben, in which the paradigm of modernity is the concentration camp, should be so prevalent in licensing radical discourse. No doubt, the work of Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee has been influential in encouraging this take-up through the redemptive reversal of the transformation of ‘bare life’ – life everywhere subject to sovereign power – into a transfigured life of glory. I will say more about this ‘transfiguration’ later, for the moment I want to pause for a while on the vitalism subtending this take-up.

Comedy and Critique

I want to turn to what might perhaps appear an unlikely topic – the comic (don’t worry this won’t be funny). It is the comic that will allow us to explore the continuing vitality of vitalism and, in particular, how vitalism attempts to replace critique. Henri Bergson’s work Laughter (1900) contains a famous definition of the comic as ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’. One key example of this repetitious mechanism deployed by Bergson is the jack-in-the-box:

As children we have all played with the little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush him down beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying. It is hard to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but the kind of amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a struggle between two stubborn elements, one of which, being simply mechanical, generally ends by giving in to the other, which treats it as a plaything. A cat playing with a mouse, which from time to time she releases like a spring, only to pull it up short with a stroke of her paw, indulges in the same kind of amusement.
This example indicates the two tendencies that Bergson traces: the elasticity of life, represented by the act of playing, and the inelasticity of the comic, represented by the jack-in-the-box’s mechanical and thing-like repetition. The function of laughter is to free us from this inelastic ‘machine-like’ existence and return us to the social normality of elastic life – to prevent us from merely being jack-in-the-boxes, we might say.
This is, of course, equivocal because the return to social normality can itself seem like a return to something ‘machine-like’ and repetitive – the routines of social life being hardly more elastic than the comic. Therefore, Bergson himself notes how laughter can free us from the machine-like, but also risks returning us to the limited forms of social life:

Laughter comes into being in the self-same fashion. It indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life. It instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. It, also, is afroth with a saline base. Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.
The bitter taste of laughter is this limited ‘critical’ function and the difficulty of finding a true elasticity of Life. In finding the elasticity of Life we aim to replace the merely ‘negative’ function of critique by affirming that elasticity. Yet, the result is still equivocal, seemingly as bound to the social as critique is supposed to be. On the one hand, laughter threatens to return us to the rote routines of social life, to what Federico Luisetti calls the ‘founding mechanisms … of late capitalism’s violent entertainment compulsion’ (2012). On the other hand, laughter also incarnates a possible detachment or interruption of these mechanisms, and the possibility of a new construction.
We can find this latter kind of political (or anti-political) vitalism figured in the comic turns of activism that aims to mock the inertial repetitions of the 1% or capitalist capture. Laughter at those in power is the affirmative replacement for critique, indicating both how we can collapse into the social repetitions and machine-like roles of our capitalist personas and how we can break with these routines. The difficulty is that the very act of the comic, the very attempt to break social norms, can itself become another mechanical norm. The valorisation of the elasticity of Life – incarnated in lines of flight, exodus, and ‘movement’ – threatens to become another rote routine of affirmation, if not to fall back into replicating the ethical and social forms of a ‘mutational’ capitalism. The result is a perpetual conflict, a divine comedy, which serves to enforce the perpetual power of Life. Life as affirmative operator must also be returned to again and again to free it from any becoming inelastic, including in the inelasticity of opposition. The dread fear of recuperation, displaced onto critique, returns to haunt Life that always falls short of the excess it is supposed to figure.

What I am tracing is a strange mimicry and replication of the operation of critique, and its fate, by this political vitalism. The very stridency by which critique is condemned in the name of Life is suggestive of the parallel by which vitalism comes to replace, or try to replace, critique. The ‘empowering’ effect of vitalism, and also its comedy, makes it the signature gesture of the moment. It traces a biopolitical populism that poses Life against a vampiric Capital. This is an ethical discourse in which are actions are assessed by their ability to live up to the elasticity of Life and condemned by laughter at their failure to do so. We are perpetually comic subjects, laughing at our own enchainment to the mechanical, while repeatedly trying to conform to the vibrancy of Life. I want to unpack now a little more just why the interchangeability of vitalism and critique should take place and suggest a little more why this should be problematic.

A Renegade Discourse
Donna V. Jones has noted the popularity of vitalism in the contemporary moment as a replacement for the usual discourse of critique:

As a radical or renegade discourse, vitalism represents protest, disillusion, and hope. Life often grounds opposition today, after the political disappearance of a subject/object of history and scepticism about the philosophy of the subject in general. … A third way, Life disallows bourgeois stasis as certainly as it makes impossible the achievement of rational controls. In fine, Life conjures up experience, irrationality, and revolt. (2012: 17)
Obviously the slightly coy reference to the ‘subject/object of history’ indexes the absent proletariat, and so we might say Life indexes a new populist subject that, true to its object, overflows any class canalisation. Also, the reference to exceeding rationality is the trope of anti-planning and anti-rationality that is driven also by the claimed immeasurability and excess of Life over all control.
What Jones crucially indicates is that despite vitalism claiming the status of an affirmative and primary force it in fact always functions as a ‘reactive banner’, and should be ‘defined less affirmatively than as the negation of its own negation – the mechanical, machinic, and the mechanistic.’ (2012: 28) Life does not come first, but (as we saw with the comic and laughter) can only be recovered through and against the mechanical. It is for this reason, I want to suggest, that the hostility of vitalism to critique is a sign of what Freud would call the ‘narcissism of small differences’. Vitalism constantly makes a claim on Life as primary and castigates critique as reactive because it remains within the same matrix.

Now, of course, one response to this could be to suggest the complexity of vitalism as a ‘critical’ discourse – noting that it does not involve a simple opposition between Life and mechanism, but rather a complex and dynamic topology (as does Federico Luisetti). The path I wish to explore is rather the strange interchangeability this analysis sets up between vitalism and critique. Where we saw how vitalism starts to look like critique, I now want to briefly explore where critique starts to look like vitalism.

This is interchangeability is posed by Jones. She turns to Bergson’s essay on laughter to track how Bergson’s suggestion that ‘laughter is social therapy for action that has become mechanical’ (Jones 2012: 52) can be used to understand the work of Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu as forms of Bergsonian comedy. In the case of Butler’s theory of drag as parody the act of parody frees us from the laughable mechanical repetitions of gender roles, while Bourdieu’s analysis of the habitus becomes ‘a comedy of class society, a risible provocation.’ (Jones 2012: 55) These works of critique can be seen as vitalist in the ways they encourage us to mock routine and encourage invention and elasticity.

What we see here is how theories we might consider to be anti-vitalist and critical turn back around to vitalism once we recognise the critical function of vitalism. In this ‘comedy’ we find positions exchanged as critics become vitalists and vitalists critics (admittedly this may be a ‘comedy’ only found funny by a few sad souls). In Jones’s reading the addition of Marx’s analysis of reification is that there we laugh at how inanimate things act as living beings – in the ‘dancing’ commodity form. Marx inverts Bergson to demonstrate ‘living activity in inert things’ (Jones 2012: 55).
The effect of the deconstruction of the distinction between the living and the machinic seems to problematise vitalism, but still leaves it as a useful ‘critical’ discourse. In fact, this speaks to the difficulty of discarding vitalism, should we wish too. There is, if we like, a kind of persistence of the ‘living’ as norm secreted within the critical apparatus (as well as a critical apparatus secreted within the ‘living’). This is the ‘vitality of vitalism’ referred to by Georges Canguilhem, in which he stressed its ethical and imperative function (Greco 2005: 17-18).

Critical Life
Despite, or perhaps because, of these parallels and fusions the critique of vitalism seems all the more urgent. The very volatility, promiscuity and dispersion of vitalism (which mimics its own account of Life) threatens to leave no space at all for critique that could not be re-absorbed into Life. Max Horkheimer, in a 1934 essay, accepted the element of protest against reification at work in vitalism, but was critical of its elimination of history, evasion of the material, and irrationalism (Horkheimer 2005). Now, while these criticisms still hold good, I think, we might note the re-tooled anti-critical vitalism of the present tends to embrace these exact points of criticism.

If history is co-extensive with Capital and Empire, the ‘single catastrophe’ to use Benjamin’s oft-quoted phrase, then the elimination of history is the only way to found the novelty of the new. The crisis of capitalism and the exhaustion of left or social democratic forms is taken as a given and as the sign of the release of the repressed force of Life. In similar fashion the material only incarnates the practico-inert slumped into the frozen stasis of the commodity form. The alternative ‘materialities’ of Life – objects, networks, complexity, et al. – are the only hope against the dead matter of the present. This is what Badiou, in Logics of Worlds (2006), calls ‘democratic materialism’. Finally, irrationalism is to be welcomed against the sterile rationalisms of planning and order that are taken to encompass everything from state socialism to neo-liberalism.
This is something of clichéd presentation of the various forms of political vitalism, but I would argue that there is some truth to it, and some truth to it as an account for the attraction of biopolitical populism. In fact, this kind of political vitalism precisely tracks outside of the constraints of the present and presents itself as a discourse without limits. This was Michel Foucault’s point concerning what he described as the ‘savage ontology of life’ in The Order of Things (1966) (1974: 303; trans. mod.). The galvanising force of this ontology lies precisely in its disregard for the discourse of political economy. The difficulty is, however, that the discourse of ‘Life’ remains within the forms of capitalist and state power as its essential support.
My contention, then, is that ‘Life’ with a capital ‘L’ opposed to Power with a capital ‘P’ is obviously a critical discourse, but an inadequate replacement for critique. While it constantly tars critique with the brush of being reactive and trapped by its proximity to what it negates this supposed model of separation and distance replicates the forms and functions of capitalist ideology – which separate off ‘Life’ as the sphere of reproduction from production. In that sense it operates as a replacement for critique and founds its superiority on the affirmation of a productive value on which capitalism depends, and which capitalism posits. It mistakes interiority for exteriority, and also dissolves the difficult questions of class structure into the simplicity of two opposing blocs.

I want to suggest that critique here finally turns on the question of mediation. Part of the appeal of this political vitalism is its deliberate dissolution of mediations. Mediations are bad. They stand at the expense of the immediate expression of Life – whether those mediations are the forms of power of state and capital, the mediations of organisation in the forms of party or union, or the mediations that would impose rationality and direction on the forms of Life. Now as I have noted one form of these mediations, those of the organised left, have largely collapsed, or have certainly been hollowed-out and significantly weakened. This, however, does not license the complete removal of the problem of mediation.

Part of the difficulty here is that mediation tends to get understood as the search for the happy median, for mediation as synthesis, as stabilisation, in line with the usual clichés concerning Hegelian or Marxian mediation. In fact, mediation is a work of negativity and negation that does not propose to bring together, but which splits, divides, and exacerbates contradictions. We might say, and I would say, that the irony is that the seeming discourse of separation, of the radical division into Two, that is the discourse of the savage ontology of Life finds itself most subject to mediation in the bad sense it decries. Its very division forces it back into mediation.
My suggestion is then that mediation, in critical terms, traces an impossibility of conjoining and integration. In precise terms the mediation that concerns me is labour, as the very impossibility of labour. So, a thinking of labour does not entail the function of labour as mediator in terms of discipline and generation of either a capitalist or revolutionary identity – Marx’s ‘stern but steeling school of labour’. Rather, a thinking of the mediation of labour suggests that even labour can’t save us, that ‘wageless life’ is a future traced within the forms of labour as well as in abandonment from them. It’s precisely the collapsing of this mediation that feeds the fantasy of Life as norm of excess, but also this impossibility that reveals the form of Life with a Capital ‘L’ as capitalist fantasy of canalisable excess. Hence it is the political vitalisms that produce the antinomy of Life as excess and Capital as vampiric that results in a totalising (in the bad sense) discourse.
If the compactness of the class did not deliver then the compactness of Life will not either. In fact, what is lauded is the dispersion and volatility of Life beyond any positive or negative point of identification – precisely its lack of compactness attests to its always revolutionary potential. I want to suggest that this folds back into bad comedy – in which Life is always about to succeed but some final pratfall, last minute social or political blunder, leaves us laughing at Life reduced to mere lives. Rather than this perpetual comedy, I am suggesting that we look a little more closely at how Life was already mediated by capitalist and state power. This is not to sow a countervailing despair of ‘everything is recuperated’. In fact, it is the discourse of Life as radically separate that oscillates between the poles of Life as everything and Life as completely mediated and recuperated. In contrast, mediation lies in the patient work of insinuation and negation that reveals no affirmative ‘Life lesson’, with its consoling comedy, but rather the divine comedy of the purgatory we are in.

Marx remarked, in the Eighteenth Brumaire, that ‘the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically.’ I doubt we still have quite the confidence of the teleology of the journey to paradise. That said, Marx also remarked about the complexity of any revolutionary process: while bourgeois revolutions ‘storm more swiftly from success to success’ they leave you with a terrible ‘Katzenjammer’ (hangover – literally cat’s wail); in contrast, proletarian revolutions ‘constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew’. This suggests that making life what we want it to be might be a winding process, more purgatorial, still a divine comedy, but not the storming to immediate transfiguration ‘Life’ would promise.

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