“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, January 17, 2008

the vulnerable self

Two blogs have commented on LI’s latest posts. My so called Midlife Crisis writes:

“… LI looks at the reason/emotion split (aka mind/body dualism) through the lens of an essay by William Hazlitt, and finds it wanting. LI interprets Hazlitt to posit that imagination is implicated in decisions and consciousness as much as reason (mind) and emotion (body), and teases out the following moral implication: [quoting me talking about Hazlitt]…

This account of "imagination" leaves it a metaphysical entity (although I don't know if Hazlitt's idea of reason devolved upon a metaphysical mind or the physical brain) and as it is not a satisfactory one for modern science. Still, the analysis of imagination as being neither reason nor emotion and its necessity for decision and action indicates a problems with mind/body dualism.”

Praxis asks some questions, in a longer post, about my whole project and its relationship to Freud. Specifically, how does psychoanalysis, with its use of the pleasure principle, fit in to the rise of a happiness ethic, conditioned by a political economy that justifies itself in terms of a pleasure calculus?

“On the one hand psychoanalysis (by which I basically mean Freud, I’m afraid) is totally aligned with utilitarianism. Just as much as Bentham, or Mill, Freud sees the human mind as a mechanism for maximising pleasure. Arguably the most basic principle of psychoanalysis is the dominance of the pleasure principle – at least until we get to the watershed moment of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, and even that classic text does not straightforwardly reject this doctrine. One way to understand Freud’s project (probably not the best way, but one way) is as an attempt to appropriate for happiness culture even human behaviours that seem, at first glance, the most obvious counterexamples to the idea of pleasure-maximising individuals. So you think we maximise utility? What about masochists? What about depressives? Ah – well –they may not appear to maximise utility; but if we have a sufficiently complex and involuted theory of the emotions, even these self-destructive behaviours can be understood in terms of the dominance of the pleasure principle…

But of course there’s another side to Freud’s work. By seeing masochism, hysteria, obsession, and so on, as products of the same forces that generate even ‘normal’ mental functioning, Freud changes our understanding of normal mental functioning. The pathologies Freud analyses come to be seen as implicated in almost every element of mental life. Morality is analysed in terms of the conflict between the superego and the unconscious; but since the superego is a product of the very desires it represses, psychoanalysis makes it impossible to separate the rational mental functioning of the ethical individual from the irrational animal forces the individual suppresses and rejects. And this in turn is connected to one of the strangest and most productive difficulties in Freud. Having decided that pleasure-maximisation is the basic principle of our psychic life, Freud then gives such weight to apparent deviations from this pleasure-maximisation, that the deviations come to be inseparable from his understanding of pleasure-maximisation itself. This is why Freud starts developing doctrines like ‘primary masochism’ and the ‘death drive’. As Freud goes ever further into his speculative introspective studies, he asks the questions ‘what is pleasure?’, ‘what is it to maximise pleasure?’. And he finds that the maximisation of pleasure is guided by the very forces that appear to destroy pleasure.”

LI of course wrote some comments on their sites, but the comments, which appeared to me, as they were streaming out of the keyboards, to be exemplars of clarity and good sense, appeared, upon a colder reading, to be farragoes of obscurity.

So, here’s a comment on those comments, although it will be a bit oblique. Both comments are about the self. This may explain a little more what I am doing with Hazlitt. If I’ve been obscure, it may be because I haven’t made clear what it is I take Hazlitt’s central insight to be. It is, this insight, that utilitarianism both exposes and empties the self. I am using Hazlitt as symptomatic of a romantic protest against the most advanced ideological formulation of the system of production that was being put in place in England, and, to a lesser extent, in Europe and the U.S. This exposure and emptying is the white magic of capitalism, the shell game played over and over in all its vaults. Exposed as a single unit thrust out of nature and society, and emptied, at the same time, of all determinants except that of calculating pleasure, the self becomes a roll of the pleasure/pain dice; and even here we have not finished our reducing work, since pleasure is much to big a thing to be enrolled in the calculus as it is, in all its phenomenological splendor – rather, it becomes something much simpler: the aggrandizement function. Pleasure is simply more. Already, Kant had spotted the problems with this idea in his essay on Negative values – as I’ve pointed out – since firstly, to assign negative and positive values to pain and pleasure doesn’t orient us when we deal with feelings in which those two poles are intrinsically mixed, and – dynamically – it doesn’t work to state the course or feeling of the overall sensorium – I may have pain doing x amount of work, and receive money for it that gives me y amount of pleasure, but the ys are never going to abolish or in any way combine with the pains – and more than that, the quantities here don’t track any real genesis – the pain, in other words, doesn’t give birth to the pleasure. The utilitarians saved themselves from Kantian strictures by way of vagueness and analogy. We do, after all, make some calculations – is it worth going out to the car and going to the store tonight to buy milk? Do I want to expend so much effort, x, to achieve some objective, y? We, in other words, have a calculative like feeling about the future. Since we negotiate those feelings and perform those actions, decreeing that we are actually calculating hedonically might seem uncontroversial, even though we are calculating over non-discrete units.

Now, Hazlitt’s vision of hell was that legitimacy – the aristocratic/great bourgeois power that ruled Britain and Europe following the downfall of Napoleon – and utilitarianism, which insisted on this algorithmic sense of the self, would combine. This hell prefigures the radical critiques of the 1848 generation, like Marx and Herzen. As I pointed out earlier, I’m interested in the fact that there were roughly three class defined oppositional stances to the happiness ethic that was coming into being in the nineteenth century, and that they, sharing this oppositional attitude, produced tropes, ideas and examples that, in a sense, communicated with each other.
One further note, re Hazlitt’s larger point: the utilitarian self that he feared was defined in its surrender to pleasure, but the pleasure principle here, being defined simply in terms of more created a paradox Hazlitt plays against, but does not find the key to: the strange contempt of the utilitarians for mere pleasure. This pleasure, pleasure with a content – volupte – the sweetness of life – they scorned as useless. In fact, it made them angry – and that anger has branched out and lives in multiple niches in the happiness culture.

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