Saturday 24 March 2012

Live Life to the Full

Recently I've been thinking and writing a lot about the critique of the various political vitalisms that dominate the contemporary theoretical scene. Some of this work is available here (turned down as an article by Radical Philosophy for lack of nuance) and here, some will appear soon in various forms (including, eventually, as a chapter in my next book).

At the heart of my deliberately blunt criticism is the suspicion that political vitalisms are often homologous to capitalist operations of value extraction, as both depend on erecting a concept of 'Life' as perpetual resource over the various miseries and joys of 'life' as empirical existence. This replicates capitalism's treatement of labour as perpetual resource, always available for extraction (and abandonment). In particular I suspect a theological discourse at work in which the misery of life is transformed into the glory of Life, in a 'postmodern passion' (Negri) that repeats a Christological dialectic.

Recently my friend Jernej directed me to an article by Alenka Zupančič in this book, which analyses the relation of surplus value to surplus enjoyment, and which can help develop a critique of political vitalism. Her argument is that in capitalism our surplus enjoyment, which usually appears an entropic waste, becomes the means for value extraction and capitalisation. We might say that in capitalism no waste goes to waste, which doesn't mean it is not a uniquely wasteful system only that waste could potentially generate value out of this waste (being recycled... which gives an image of the circular drive of capital).

The result is an 'imitation surplus jouissance' that takes the form of the 'entropy-free enjoyment' of the kind we find in the decaffeinated products Zizek identifies as the 'absolute commodity' of contemporary capitalism (my own favourite being Coke Zero; I'd suggest a reworking of the Lacanian formulas of sexuation on the distinction between Coke Zero and Diet Coke).

This entropy-free enjoyment is split from the negativity it incarnates and is exploited. The result is that surplus jouissance is hijacked for generating value, and we find a convergence of power and resistance as the indirect despotism of capitalism encrypts its own mastery.

Returning to the political vitalisms I would argue that the 'negative vitalisms', like Agamben's, try to reconnect this waste into the form of life, to resist detachment and hence ruin value; 'affirmative biopolitics' tries to exceed value 'on the other side' through overloading or massifying jouissance. In both cases, however, they erect 'Life' over (or under) 'life', and so remain in the convergence of power and resistance on the site of 'Life' as waste/excess. This, as I've suggested, leaves them within the theological matrix of capitalism, which functions (to use Adorno's phrase) as 'psychoanalysis in reverse' - enabling our 'waste' as value. 

Our entropic subjection to perpetual value extraction is treated as the moment of saving: transforming waste into glorious excess, but leaving the recycling machine untouched. While the attraction of these discourses might seem obvious in the moment of capitalist bubble inflation, in which value seemed to spiral upwards without limit and giving 'substance' (or appearance) to the fantasy of Life qua excess, they persist in attraction at the moment of crisis. The denuding of capitalism into 'waste' merely triggers the fantasy of its exteriority and of our superior powers of 'Life' over capitalism. That this figures a gesture of 'creative destruction' is my suspicion.