The Pleasure of Working Through A Conversation between Isabelle Graw and Samo Tomšič
Isabelle Graw: Your book The Labour of Enjoyment: Towards a Critique of Libidinal Economy (2019) basically argues that the production of enjoyment is an essential form of labor for the capitalist system. Combining Marxian and Freudian concepts in an original way, you describe capitalism as a “libidinal” economy where enjoyment plays a crucial, albeit problematic, role. I was really impressed by your demonstration of the manifold links between exploitation and enjoyment. But I was also wondering how we actually work for the system as we are enjoying ourselves? There are a few examples in your book, and I asked myself if you were actually thinking of social media, for instance – of the fact that the fun we have while posting selfies might literally be exploited there? I also asked myself how you would integrate those people into your theory who actually hate their work – those who work in precarious jobs in the service sector, like delivery couriers, for instance. A certain amount of hostility against one’s work can even be observed among artists, although their work is of course much more self-determined than the labor of, say, a wage worker. I nevertheless wonder whether it is actually true that all jobs are “grounded in enjoyment,” as you argue in the book. Aren’t you overlooking all those jobs that are not enjoyable at all? I also asked myself about the role that artists could play in this “economy of enjoyment” that you so convincingly describe. Artists are certainly expected to produce “surplus enjoyment,” but they also have to sublimate in a regime that I would characterize as “imposed sublimation.” While sublimation seems to be the way out in your theory – it functions as the counterpoint to repression – one could also argue that sublimation is productive and value-producing, at least in the artistic sector. Lastly, I would like to know more and in greater detail about how language comes into play. You describe language as a “factory of enjoyment,” but you point to the way subjects become alienated via language and labor. How to speak, then? Is there a way of using language beyond enjoyment, and would this even be desirable?
Samo Tomšič: The Lacanian contribution to the critique of capitalism comes down to the point that, structurally speaking, enjoyment assumes the same position as surplus value. Lacan once remarked that the greatest revolution of capitalism in the subjective sphere consisted in making enjoyment countable, calculable. Surplus value could thus be described as externalized enjoyment, extracted from our thoughts, bodies, and actions and translated into value. Companies such as Instagram or Facebook most explicitly demonstrate this quantification of enjoyment, since their business consists in drawing profit from our compulsive posting. Psychoanalysis also allows for an acknowledgment of an interesting intuition from Marx’s Capital, where the capitalist is described as a social personification of the impersonal drive of self-valorization. According to Marx, we live in a compulsive system in which the production of surplus value and the corresponding obsession with perpetual economic growth both point toward an autonomous force of the system. In Freud, pleasure too links with compulsive mental activity, and here I should recall that his use of the term Lust comes close to the English “lust,” an affection of the body that the subject does not always experience as pleasurable. In addition, enjoyment knows no “right measure”; it shifts between too much and too little. The most obvious example here would be consumerism. Marx already made the point that commodities are not produced in order to satisfy human needs, but in order to produce them. Hence, commodities cause dissatisfaction rather than satisfaction.
If I now link this to your example of people who hate their work, then I’d say that this hatred points toward the same problematic compulsion. Under neoliberal capitalism, we are confronted with the injunction to enjoy work, and hence to enjoy the central compulsion in our lives and the whole system of exploitation built on it. That’s the basic point of the neoliberal idea of the entrepreneurial self: exploitation is internalized; it no longer comes from outside, but instead becomes our most fundamental relation both to ourselves and to others, our inner morality. This brings me to the question: What do artists have in common with, for example, researchers from the humanities? They do not perform any socially productive work in the public eye, but merely procrastinate, parasitically, with public funding. Of course, the hypocrisy of such “criticism” ignores the actual situation in the art market or the academic market, which could be called “lumpenproletarization,” in the sense that artists and researchers are subjected to severe precarization and (self-)exploitation under conditions that hardly sustain attempts at political organization. It’s only logical that these people hate their work, but this does not prevent them from carrying on in the market in the hopes of eventual success. This is a fundamental feature of capitalist morality: I renounce enjoyment, i.e., tolerate a life of misery in the present in order to gain profit in the future. But this future is mostly a mirage. At this point, a negative form of sublimation could enter the picture, so I do agree with you that sublimation can be something imposed, in the sense that it imposes the renunciation of enjoyment that I have briefly talked about. Perhaps one could even say that we live in times of imposed sublimation, just as, at the peak of consumer society, people lived in times of “repressive desublimation” (Marcuse) and “imposed enjoyment” (Lacan).
Finally, I would like to respond to your remarks regarding language. From the viewpoint of psychoanalysis, it would be wrong to believe that language and enjoyment could ever be separated. Certain philosophical schools, notably those in the tradition of logical positivism and analytic philosophy, have attempted this, but they always failed, since separating language from enjoyment would essentially entail detaching it from the living body. There is no ideal language in this respect. In politics we could observe similarly naive attempts, which brings me to the metamorphosis of political language in the so-called populist turn. Before figures such as Trump and others occupied the public discourse, our “democratic” politicians were trained to speak a sterile language, one could almost say artificial, which allowed them to say nothing while creating the appearance of saying something. Politicians were trained to control or conceal every trace of affection, excitation, irritation, etc. in the act of speaking. With the figure of the populist we have the paradigm of discursive enjoyment. Trump is the extreme example of this development, since his language seems to be in a permanent state of grammatical dissolution, besides having an extremely poor vocabulary. Nevertheless, it is charged with enjoyment, violence, and obscenity. And it affects the masses. The danger of contemporary populism is tied to the fact that it is very much aware of this fact, and these forces on the right exploit this power of language much more skillfully than those on the left. .. container:: interview
IG: If I understood you correctly, there are two extremes when it comes to the language/enjoyment complex: there is either the sterile meaninglessness of the language politicians used to use, or there is the dangerous populist language “charged with enjoyment, violence, and obscenity” that currently seems to be successfully reaching a wide audience. What would a third way of associating language with enjoyment look like, maybe in the context of psychoanalysis? I make this request for another form of language/enjoyment here in the interest of the many art critics (myself included) who are currently quite dissatisfied with the language (often devoid of enjoyment) they use. In your depiction of a libidinal economy, it is the relentless drive, with its never-ending surplus production, that is to blame. As a way of dealing with this untamable drive you propose (with Freud) that it should be “tamed” (gebändigt), diverted, or reoriented. I immediately wondered what this would mean for artists and cultural producers like us – doesn’t the drive function as the operating system of artistic production par excellence? Maybe this is the reason many artists tend to avoid psychoanalysis at all costs: because they fear their creative drive will be domesticated. While I certainly agree with your insistence on the structural dimension of personal suffering, I also wondered whether psychoanalysis really manages to understand individual symptoms as being social by nature. Maybe you can elaborate on how this is actually happening within psychoanalytic treatment, which has quite an individualistic orientation, at least in my experience? You have also described psychoanalysis as providing a way to destabilize identity. In fact, you seem to celebrate psychoanalysis for its “non-identity politics.” While I would agree with your notion of a per se alienated identity, I nevertheless wonder if all identities can actually afford this “non-identity politics” that you seem to argue for. Because if one finds oneself marked by an identity that implies discrimination, one might be forced to take this identity on when insisting that it should count like others. Of course, this has to go along with the acknowledgment that power is typically exercised, and discrimination experienced, in multiple and contradictory ways simultaneously, which is reflected in an intersectional understanding of identity politics. Are you against this type of identity politics? Or how would you describe a politics of non-identity. What would a “communist non-identity politics” actually look like?
To come now to identity politics, I should make it absolutely clear that I do not criticize the struggles against discrimination and exploitation out of which identity politics historically emerged, but rather the liberal taming of its striving for an emancipatory political universalism. Hence, my problem is the liberal appropriation and transformation of identity politics into particularized struggles. Radical identity politics departs from the knot of race, gender, and class, thus traversing critique of capitalism and of economic segregation, critique of libidinal economy and of sexual segregation, and critique of racism and of ethnic segregation. With Lacan, I would say that race, gender, and class form a Borromean knot of emancipatory politics, which means that if one is removed, everything dissolves. This knot stands for the common anti-capitalist ground of particular versions of identity politics. But this is also what the liberal appropriation of identity politics more or less successfully dissolved, turning it into a tool of political division. Differently put, breaking up the knot ultimately contributes to the predominance of whiteness, heteronormativity, and masculinity. As long as race, gender, and class are knotted together, they form a continuum in spite of different struggles that they might have otherwise implied historically. And we know all too well that liberal and neoliberal ideology has been reeducating us for decades to think “beyond class” or to drop the class-question as excessively ideological and therefore artificial.
Now, to say that psychoanalysis focuses on the instability of identities, the intertwining of identity and non-identity, means that it treats identity as a process, as something that results from history, often from traumatic history, at the center of which stands the link between alienation and exploitation. The capitalist appropriation of identity politics in turn renews the fantasy of stable and closed subjectivity that seems to be implied by the superficial understanding of identity. It draws sharp, unsurpassable dividing lines between different subjectivities and thus disables their organization within a common political horizon. What I somewhat clumsily call “communist non-identity politics” stands for a politics that places the accent on difference or non-identity, not as something that stands between identities and thus gives ground for the separation of subjectivities, but as something that is inscribed in identity and thus stands for a negative “subjective common,” something that binds and organizes political subjectivity in a unified struggle against the capitalist devastation, without therefore negating the differences in the histories of particular identities. Again, this does not mean a rejection of identity politics, but the reaffirmation of its anti-capitalist character, which can be observed in all historical struggles against discrimination.
IG Your take on identity politics is much clearer to me now: while deploring the liberal appropriation of it, which can turn an intersectional notion of unstable identities into its opposite, you actually argue for an identity understood as non-identity, because this non-identity would allow for a struggle against capitalism that doesn’t negate differences or specific social positions. It seems to me that we are encountering a strong resistance right now (not only among right-wing masculinists, but also on the left) against the psychoanalytic notion of an unstable identity in process. The acknowledgment of such an unstable identity seems to cause great fear across the political spectrum. Speaking of resistance, I really enjoyed the parallels between psychoanalysis and critique that are drawn in your book: according to you, both encounter a similar type of resistance. This is particularly true for psychoanalysis, which is to my mind currently being dismissed for its supposed inefficiency and is thus being replaced by an increasingly popular culture of coaching. Critique, on the other hand, has been under attack for quite some time: either it is claimed that it is discriminatory, and should therefore be abolished, or it is supposedly structurally superfluous, since it has been replaced by quick evaluations made online. You also point to the conceptual overlaps between psychoanalysis and critique in your book: you claim that both Marx and Freud aim at a “politics of working through,” and both the labor of analysis and the labor of critique “mobilize and organize this symptomatic subjectivity (damaged life, exploited subjectivity) into a potentially revolutionary subject.” Could you explain in more detail how not only Marx’s critique of political economy but also Freud’s psychoanalysis actually aim at the transformation of damaged life into a revolutionary subject? And finally, how would this subject distinguish itself from non-revolutionary ones?
You mentioned working-through, which is an eminently social process, even when it takes place in the psychoanalytic clinical setting. Freud leaves no doubt that in working-through there is no external position, which would be immunized against resistance to the cure and, hence, against resistance to change. So analysts should not forget that they are no exceptions themselves. Working-through aims at transforming the symbolic (linguistic, economic, epistemic, and other) relations, structures, and institutions that sustain the social condition and determine our place as subjects. To make a jump from here to radical emancipatory politics, I would say that revolutionary subjectivity could and should not be pinned down to one exclusive social group, minority, or class, otherwise we end up in a risky fetishization. Here we can again see why the liberal taming of identity politics turns it into something that conforms to the demands of the capitalist system. It affirms difference not as something that destabilizes identity from within, but as a border that separates presumably stable identities, between which there is no “subjective common” whatsoever, no unifying political becoming, no solidarity, and finally no “ism” that could be derived from this “common.” I understand “critique” as an attempt to think unbordered subjectivity, because only such unbordering (Entgrenzung) can establish an alliance between differences that could bear transformative potential (i.e., an alliance between different identities and different histories that underpin these identities, etc.).
With regard to “critique,” I cannot help but recall Marx’s mocking of “critical critique” in German Ideology. “Critical critique” – that is, self-immersed and self-sufficient criticism – is that which predominates in media and politics, but also in arts and humanities, so it is not surprising that “critique” in the radical sense, as a possible name for transformative thought, ended up being confused with superficial criticism. Reading Marx immediately shows that the labor of critique consists in an attempt to enforce a new orientation in thinking and acting in the world, against the organized resistance of the capitalist system.