Phenomenologies of Suffering, Phenomenologies of Joyousness: Beyond the Moral Voluntarism of Anti-Capitalism


Theoretical practices on the working-class left today must be completely immersed in the spirit of chapter one of Capital, Volume I, because that is the only way in which militants of proletarian-revolutionism can hope to cleanse their politics of anticapitalism of the dross of moral voluntarism that has, for a while now, thoroughly obscured and blunted its critical edge. This is particularly important in this new conjuncture of capital because its openly barbaric character compels its so-called antagonists to hold on ever more tightly to a morally voluntaristic anti-capitalism.

In the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, Marx is at his rigorous best, as it were. Here he kind of prefigures his critique of political economy in its entirety by demonstrating political economy or capital in its basic cell-form. The spirit, and orientation, of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critically significant because in that chapter Marx demonstrates with great acuity how commodity, as the basic unit of capital, has a two-fold nature: use-value on one hand. and, on the other, exchange-value and value (and thus also the bipolarity of labour between useful concrete labour and human labour in the abstract). Therefore, the moving contradiction — or the internally schizzed condition of social being — that is capital implies, and Marx demonstrates as much, that while exchange-value (which is representation of value) tends to be a negation of use-value, use-value in its concrete qualitative singularity is the necessary material depository/bearer of exchange-value. This is the paradox, or moving contradiction, that is commodity. For, even as exchange-value tends to be a total negation of use-value, use-value cannot be totally negated as that would cause exchange-relations themselves to disappear.

This then means that capital as the actuality of the law of value — which is the rationalisation of exchange as social relations — is not the elimination of use-values through their subsumption into exchange-relations; or, which is the same thing, subsumption by the law of value. Rather, capital as the subsumption of use-values and their concomitant concrete labours (and their immanent affectivity in its diverse experiences of singularity) into exchange-relations is their de-singularising instrumentalisation by the latter. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s explication of the elementary value-form. Here he shows how value — which is an abstraction from the materiality of use-value because it comes into being only in, as and through rationalisation of exchange of use-values into social relations – can express itself only in an exchange-relation, which is the appearance of a value equation, and thus through its embodiment (equivalent value-form being that embodiment). This embodiment, needless to say, is possible only through the instrumentalisation of the sheer bodily form of use-value. Concomitant with such instrumentalisation of use-values, which is clearly not their elimination or total negation, is the regimentation (and, once again, not elimination) of their respective concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and affective experiences.

We can, in a more obvious kind of way, say that concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations as diverse forces of affectivity are regimented precisely because they first come into being within capital by militating against it. In other words, capital, as the actuality of the law of value, is possible only as the regimentation of that which militates against it as that regimentation. That is why capital expands in order to reproduce itself. And it reproduces itself in and through its recomposition. And it can recompose, and thus reproduce, itself only when it is determinately subverted and destroyed. For, recomposition of capital is its reactive response — via regimentation of concrete labours in their singular subjective operations as diverse affective forces — to its determinate subversion caused by the militation of those concrete labours in their singular subjective operations. In other words, capital is always the incompleteness of its own destruction. Thus capital as its own continual recomposition — and thus expanded reproduction — is the continuous hypostatising of the effects — or limits — of its own determinate destruction.

What Althusser terms subjectivation is arguably nothing but this regimentation and instrumentalisation of concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and immanent affective experiences. This regimentation, or instrumentalisation, is conceptualised as subjectivation because it is registered in and as the effect of a subject that is produced by such regimentation (or instrumentalisation) of concrete labour in its singular subjective operation as an affective force. Hence, subjectivation is the truncation of concrete labour as singular affective force in its subjective operation. This is the source of the various experiences, and phenomenologies, of suffering and pain in capitalism. Thus, phenomenologies and experiences of suffering are not on account of affective forces (as the multiple singularities they are) being completely absorbed into, and totally negated by, capital as an entity external to them. Rather, phenomenologies of suffering stem from the truncation and thus de-singularisation, rather than complete elimination, of multiple affective singularities in their concreteness. In other words, a phenomenology of suffering must be grasped not as something that stems from the elimination of an affective singularity in its operation, but as something that is so precisely on account of its instrumentalised and truncated, and thus partial and de-singularising, operation. A phenomenology of suffering is, therefore, not actually a phenomenology of suffering. From the vantage-point of Marx’s explication of commodity — and labour — as something that is characterised by its two-fold nature, it’s, instead, a truncated, interrupted and partialised phenomenology of joyousness.

Clearly then, for the Marx of Capital — particularly in the first chapter of volume I — capital as an objectivity is the operationalised demonstration of its own immanent critique. Althusser is, therefore, entirely correct in observing that Marx’s critique of political economy shows capital in its objectivity to be a symptomatic demonstration of its own Real-impossible (“process without subject”). That is, however, not to suggest, in the manner of an obdurate determinist, that capital as the symptomatic demonstration of its own immanent critique and thus its own immanent impossibility is also the gradual actualisation of the Real-impossible. That more and more of capital will be less and less of it. To think the actualisation of the Real-impossible in gradualist terms is, in fact, an absurd paradox. Such evolutionist social democracy is not at all the point of symptomatic reading that is Marx’s critique of political economy. The point of such symptomatic reading, instead, is to actualise that which is revealed by the symptom. That, in other words, means, subjectification (as opposed to subjectivation) of the immanent critique of capital — which capital as an objectivity is shown to demonstrate or symptomatise — into an active political force of desubjectivation. And that is precisely the reason why concrete labours as diverse affective forces in and as their singular subjective operations must be conceptually articulated — of course, by going through the dialectic of phenomenologies of suffering and phenomenologies of joyousness to their antipodes — as an indivisible post-phenomenological construction of austere and neutral extensionality.

In such circumstances, it would be deeply erroneous, and politically unproductive, to not see the dynamic of subsumption of living/concrete labour by dead/abstract labour (value) as a dialectic. [Regardless of how crisis-ridden, precarious, and thus tautological this dialecticity might have become, the mode of the dynamic called capital will always be dialectical.] And to grasp this dynamic as a dialectic is to come to terms with the fact that subsumption of concrete labour into the web of exchange-relations is also equally about the internalisation of the rationality of exchange-relations (or the law of value) by concrete labour as a singular affective force in and as its subjective operation. That is the reason why politics animated and orientated by an approach that stems from Marx’s critique of political economy can have little to do with ethics as politics, and yet is something that is not completely exhausted by the political. Instead, such politics can, and must, only be the indivisible singularity of the ethico-political, which is basically the dialectic as the mode of determinate presentation of the antidialectic, or its own asymmetry. This amounts to is ascesis, as care of the self, being articulated in its indispensable integrality to the operation of the political. This is how, following Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus, one can think politics as the operation of its own immanent thought, and as thought-relation-to-the-real respectively.

For a new aesthetic of revolutionary exhibitionism against the aestheticised politics of liberal bourgeois voeyurism


There is a need to think a new revolutionary aesthetics of exhibitionism against liberal exhibitionism — for me, the latter is basically the politics of commodity abstraction and society of spectacle a la Situationists such as Guy Debord. However, in order to do that the scopic drive will need to be rethought and re-envisaged, not in terms of contemplativeness, but contemplativeness pushed to its extreme that renders the contemplated object into a dialectical image. [Now, this is already a displacement of contemplation into practical-materiality — or, at any rate, the former being placed under the condition of the latter — in Marx’s sense of the terms as he explicates them in his Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology.] That is crucial if desire is not to be conflated and confounded with its cathection (investment). Such cathection or investment being the interruption and concomitant distortion of desire precisely on account of its determinate instantiation. After all, as Lacan would tell us, the “petit object a” is not much more than a metonymy of desire.

And here Nietzsche’s acute poser about whether truth is not a woman can be deployed rather productively. “Woman” here in its Nietzschean articulation must, arguably, be grasped in terms of “becoming-woman”. That is, woman not as an anthropological difference (which is difference-as-identity) but as an ontological difference (difference as differing away from identity). Translating this antidialectical conception of “becoming-woman” into the conceptual framework of the asymmetrical or materialist dialectic we could say, following Lacan, that woman-as-truth or becoming-woman is to be understood as the Real that cannot be inscribed within the horizon of the symbolic even as it founds that horizon. Clearly then, ‘woman’, in “becoming-woman” or Nietzsche’s “woman-is-truth”, is now no longer thinking of even ontological difference but is, instead, a limit-conceptual figure of ontological subtraction.

This, I beleive, dovetails with what I have tried to get at above with regard to grasping the exhibitionism/voyeurism couple not simply as a dialectic, but as an asymmetrical dialectic, and thus as determinate presentation of exhibitionism-voyeurism singularity in excess of their symmetrically dialectical coupling as exhibitionism/voyeurism duality. In that context, the exhibitionist desire of revolutionary militancy is not merely exhibitionism but Dionysian exhibitionism (a la Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, for instance). And here, therefore, the exhibitionist revolutionary-militant is not a declarative-constantive object — or a directive tribune — vis-a-vis a milieu of passive contemplators/consumers he/she subjectivates thus. Rather, he/she is a semiosis of impulse or symptom of performativity, which is the object-exceeding force in the distinct temporality of its own singularising/singular subjective-materiality. Something that renders this sign/symptom a unit of the milieu of active and continuous producers in the Brechtian sense.

In fact, that is precisely the reason why I think Marquis de Sade’s ‘pornography’ poses and articulates a revolutionary-republican aesthetic. If we attend carefully to the apparently pornographic discourse of his literary production — particularly, his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ — we see that not only does it have a didactic form but one whose mode is Dionysian (performative), which this form strives to transparently reveal. Clearly, De Sade’s discourse ceaselessly registers the thinking of the ethical imperative of desire and the moral law together, but in their separateness. It’s this form and mode of what I wish to call the Dionysian didacticism of desire — and not just any form of BDSM pornography — that renders De Sade’s ‘pornographic’ discourse the index of counter-contemplative revolutionary-republican aesthetics. And it’s arguably this formal and modal dimension of De Sade’s literary discourse that Foucault misses when he critically describes the former as “the sergeant of sex”, who, in Foucault’s estimation, elevates transgression itself into a law.

After all, it’s not for nothing that Lacan impressed on us the indispensability of thinking Sade with Kant. In short, the new revolutionary aesthetic of exhibitionism-voyeurism — as a historically concrete reconstitution of the revolutionary-republican aesthetic of De Sade — will be one wherein a form of contemplation is already always a demonstration of the displacement of contemplation. That is to say, such an aesthetic will truly fulfil itself only when exhibitionism is already always the demonstration of excess of exhibitionism in its limit.

Therefore, the problem of pleasure, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics, is ineluctable. However, the question then is whether pleasure is merely subjectively interiorised experience that is grasped by way of phenomenological reduction, or, is the question really of pleasure founding its own duration and historicity. For, if it’s the latter, then it is already a post-phenomenological displacement of pleasure beyond its phenomenological experientiality, albeit necessarily in and through that experientiality and phenomenology of pleasure. Hence, what we have is pleasure as an existential experience informing the constitutivity of an austerely neutral extension, which is the historicity of suspension of history — “historicity without history” in Alain Badiou’s terms. This, to my mind, amounts to pleasure founding its own duration and historicity.

And this, as far as I understand, is the path Freud also prefigures and indicates in his engagement with the question of pleasure. For him, the problem of pleasure is not, in the final analysis, one of interiorised experience, subjective intentionality and thus joyous productivity. Rather, the problem of pleasure (read in terms of jouissance) brings to him, particularly if we read him through a Lacanian lens, the question of lack and/or trauma as the Real. This, from what I understand, is the crux of his “beyond the pleasure principle”. And this reveals why Freud is no phenomenologist of pleasure, one who would be concerned merely with the question of alternation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Rather, Freud’s concern — in his concerted engagement with the problem of pleasure — indicates the need to develop an approach that thinks the problem of pleasure and its politics in terms of the suspension of the horizon of this alternation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

To think the question of pleasure in those terms – i.e. to think pleasure as an experiential-phenomenological moment of the post-phenomenological movement of its own overcoming (beyond the pleasure principle) — is to already have pleasure-as-joyous-productivity displace and thus transfigure itself into the neutral of subtraction. An engagement with the affective experience of pleasure, if it’s rigorous, is, arguably, bound to lead one towards its post-phenomenological beyond – which, in the same movement, would also obviously be a radical break with the horizon of the reality principle. That is demonstrated, besides Freud, by Roland Barthes: a thinker of pleasure for whom the twinned-questions of “zero degree” and “the neutral” are what ultimately matter.

As for me, I have been helped quite a bit in this respect by Badiou’s critique of what he calls “democratic materialism” – the differing alternation of bodies and languages (or joyousness and its interruption) – as also his attendant critique of Deleuze’s anti-Freudian productive conception of desire (“desiring-production”).