HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

HKRB Interviews: Aaron Schuster

Philosopher Aaron Schuster is the first guest on a new series of HKRB interviews with new authors in critical theory. Interview by Alfie Bown.

Aaron Schuster, The Trouble With Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis (MIT Press, 2016) pp. 223.

What is pleasure and do we really always want it? A history of philosophy, from Sade to psychoanalysis, has complicated the idea that we simply seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. This book, the latest to address this infinitely complex question, has an original approach to the problem. It argues that pleasure can be a powerful ideological experience that constructs us as subjects in particular ways (capitalist ways, for example), but it also argues that the ‘trouble with pleasure’ is how unsettling to our subjectivities it can be. Far from being something which simply affirms who we are, a kind of enjoyment of our selves, pleasure can be a site at which subjectivity and identity is disrupted.

The Trouble With Pleasure, out last month in the MIT Press ‘Shorts Circuits’ series edited by Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič, constructs this argument via another one: that Lacan and Deleuze, often seen as opponents in philosophy, should be brought together. Doing so, Schuster convincingly shows, offers a new framework for thinking about pleasure which allows us to recover the properly subversive core of pleasure today, problematizing existing models of subjectivity and, ultimately, challenging capitalism itself. In keeping with the impressive standards of the Short Circuits series, this is one of the most interesting philosophy monographs to appear in a long time.

Below I had the chance to ask Schuster some brief questions about his new book and its projects.

Alfie Bown: Let me start not with a complaint but with a question about ‘complaining.’ This is what you begin with in your book, and I also saw you give a conference paper on the complaint some years ago. In the book you use the idea of the complaint to discuss desire and the question of fulfillment. Complaining, you say, is not so much something we do because we want something we haven’t got, or even because we want things to be different. Instead, we get a particular kind of pleasure from the process of complaining itself, or even from endlessly complaining with no real end ‘goal’ to our complaints, as it were. Can you say something about this relationship between complaining and pleasure?

Aaron Schuster: One of the main arguments of the book is that pleasure is a very complex phenomenon, and that the human relation to pleasure is often confused, difficult, and contradictory, and this is even what makes it so “pleasurable.” It is not as simple as the old formula would have it, that pleasure is good and pain bad, or people like pleasure and avoid pain, an idea that, after all, informs a good deal of psychology, economics, and moral philosophy (Nietzsche has a wonderful line about this, making fun of utilitarians: “Man does not seek pleasure. Only the Englishman does”). The human relation to pleasure is much more complex and ambiguous than often acknowledged; what we want and what we enjoy are not the same thing, and against the classical notion that we are striving for happiness and fulfillment, one can have just the opposite impression, that people are astoundingly ingenious at engineering their own discontent. This perversity is something Lacan aimed to capture with his concept of enjoyment (jouissance). I use complaining, a practically universal human pastime, as a prime example of this: a strange sort of pleasure that arises out of something annoying, painful, or even unbearable. It is clear that many people enjoy complaining, and that it can be a very creative and refined activity. One might say that complaining bears witness to the fact that desire is always missing something, that it is always unsatisfied; and what is this missing satisfaction if not the pleasure of complaining itself? On the one hand, there is a lack, and on the other, a surplus. And what is funny is that the surplus does not really fit the lack: the two never quite meet, and this imbalance or asymmetry is what gives to human desire its particular dynamism and charge.

One could go much further into this. Complaining should be understood in a broad sense, as encompassing all different forms of lamentation and protest, with all their cultural and historical variations; as Deleuze says, the lament is a great source of poetic creation. For me, the “critique of complaint” is above all a way to address the problem of negativity. Instead of Deleuze being on the side of affirmation, creativity, and becoming, versus Lacan’s emphasis on lack, law, and castration, I argue that the encounter between the two figures ultimately revolves around different ways of conceiving negativity and the violence of the negative.

AB: At the Hong Kong Review of Books, we recently ran a piece on Samo Tomšič’s new book The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. Our readers were very interested in the question of what we might be able to call Lacan’s leftist radicalism as well as his more conservative political leanings which made him, in other ways, a less than ‘radical’ figure. Your book is very much about the relationship between Deleuze and Lacan. Do you think, like Tomšič argues about Lacan and Marx, the best way to discuss these two is together, rather than as figures opposed to each other, as they have tended to be considered?

AS: Absolutely. Part of what I try to do in this book is to re-introduce Deleuze, and Lacan as well, in what is hopefully a new way, to break with the clichéd receptions of their work. Although in some circles they are considered mortal enemies, I think it is very fruitful to read Deleuze and Lacan together, especially on the problems of desire and enjoyment, normality and pathology, and the relation of the subject to the cultural space where it never quite finds its place. On the other hand, my goal is not to reconcile everything into some kind of nice balanced whole. If anything, I aim to stage an encounter between Deleuze and Lacan that would be at least somewhat surprising and bewildering for both parties.

For example, regarding the notoriously polemical Anti-Oedipus: it is not that Deleuze and Guattari simply propose a liberation of desire; instead they attack a certain version of psychoanalysis for its dull and boring image of desire, where all problems stem from the family and the prohibiting law. Against this, Deleuze and Guattari do not advance a happier, more flowing and anarchic vision, but, rather, the real force of the book is to ask whether there are not other problems, other more cruel and troubling things to complain about?

AB: At the heart of your book is this Deleuzian notion that the concept of pleasure is itself a ‘rotten idea.’ This has to do with a difference between pleasure and desire, is that right? You also introduce the discussion with the Foucaultian idea that we usually define ourselves as subjects in terms of desire rather than as agents of pleasure. Since this is really part of the main thesis in the book, I think our readers should get the book and read it, but can you say just a little about how you see these terms pleasure and desire and why they are so important for you?

AS: Deleuze’s statement that “pleasure is a rotten idea” is, of course, a provocation. Which pleasure is the rotten one for him? It’s the Platonic idea that pleasure consists in the filling of a lack. Deleuze want to replace this idea with the enjoyment of a force; if pleasure always makes up for some absence or loss, desire is a positive power. Rather than the feeling of satisfaction when you get what you want, a better figure for understanding desire is the sudden surprise and even shock at what you were able to do, without previously being aware of your own capabilities and in spite of your usual habits and ideas. Now, this force of desire is itself a complex thing, split into different elements: there are the partial objects or desiring machines on one side, and the body without organs on the other, as well as the structured organization capable of preserving and sustaining itself. Desire is a kind of crisis, and more specifically, a crisis of embodiment: it recalls us to the fact that having a body is not a natural given but a precarious and artificial accomplishment.

One of the things I am interested in is to go back to the philosophies of desire of the 1960s and 1970s. Lacan endeavored to grasp the complexity and perversity of human drive-life by distinguishing between enjoyment (jouissance) and pleasure (plaisir); Deleuze instead opposes desire to pleasure; Foucault, for different reasons, wants to defend pleasure against desire; and Sartre has his own conception of desire as a perpetual failure. Obviously this is a very complicated terrain. I try to take up this controversy from a fresh angle by first returning to the debate between Plato and Aristotle about the nature of pleasure. Is pleasure a filling of a lack, or the perfection of an activity? Does it refer to loss or to the elaboration of a power? I am also interested in another idea I take from Greek philosophy, that might easily appear absurd today (if not already back then): namely, that the greatest pleasure is that of thinking, that philosophy itself is the best pleasure, and the paradigmatic form of the drive. For the Greeks, the theory of pleasure culminates in the pleasure of theory.

I adhere to the Spinozistic idea that desire is the essence of the human being. But the psychoanalytic twist to this is that there is no such thing as “normal desire”: desire has no inbuilt rule or program or goal, the question of how to desire is a problem that must be solved anew, for every time and culture, and for every subject. This why instead of having a normal expression or development, which is then subject to pathological deviations and distortions, desire essentially expresses itself in and through different pathologies, ruptures, and twists. Or to paraphrase Lacan, “I always speak of normal desire, there are three kinds: neurotic, perverse, and psychotic.” One of the central challenges of the book is to work out this “patho-analysis” of subjectivity.

AB: You finish with the philosophy of schizophrenia and with the important point that, far from trying to tear down psychoanalysis, Deleuze and Guattari were interested in recovering ‘its properly subversive core.’ This is something often missed by Deleuzians, in my opinion at least. I’m over-simplifying, but we can say that people, following Deleuze, see psychoanalysis as upholding capitalist structures of subjectivity. Your argument here, if I have it right, is about the potentially subversive qualities of psychoanalysis in capitalism. What do you mean by ‘the debt drive,’ your own formulation of the death drive?

AS: The debt drive is linked to the death drive, to such an extent that they can appear indistinguishable, but there is nonetheless a crucial difference. What is the death drive? Very generally speaking, it is connected to what I said above: the idea that the human being is the sick animal, or, even further, that life itself is a disease. There is an entire literature that explores this idea, by both theorists and novelists. The human being is sick unto death, desire can’t be satisfied, there is a self-sabotaging character to human existence that runs against the aspirations of classical moral philosophy. But I would argue that, against appearances, the death drive isn’t a pessimistic notion per se. What it signifies, on the most fundamental level, is that the situation is an open one; there is no Other or law to rely on, only a fracture or lack-of-being or indetermination that poses a problem. Lacan thinks this in terms of death, and Lacan’s answer to theology is, effectively, that we have already died, this is the afterlife (heaven or hell, take your pick). Instead of being directly lived, life must be conceived in a twisted or oblique way, as an undeadening of death, or as I write in relation to complaining, a “failure not to be born.” Deleuze, on the contrary, thinks this from the opposite end, in terms of a new concept of life, a “virtual life” that is not only about renewing the relations and limits of the actual, but designates what is unbearable and unlivable in life.

Now, the debt drive can be understood as an exploitation of this openness and precarity for the benefit of the ruling ideology. It converts the fracture in psychic life into guilt and debt (the German word Schuld conveniently condenses both these meanings). We see an extreme development of this nowadays with neoliberalism, where the subject is indebted to an order that owes it nothing in return, to cite the formulation of my friend Dominiek Hoens. And even though this is very widespread and entrenched, I do not think it is necessarily inevitable—this is the lesson of psychoanalysis. In this sense, I intend the term debt drive ironically: not only are we being killed by debt, but debt is the prevalent form that the death drive takes today; it is capitalism’s way of both exploiting and binding the psychic fracture whose Freudian name is death drive.

Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of Literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis. He is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) and lives in Hong Kong with his wife Kim and tiny daughter Lyra.

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