last call on militant dysphoria
OK. Last time around for this I think. I’ve pretty much said my peace, but since I keep getting (to a degree, fairly) accused of painting Militant Dysphoria with too broad a brush, I’ll comment on Mark’s new post and that will likely be the end of that for awhile.
Mark keeps writing this stuff, and I’m not sure whether it’s more just to describe the results as getting no nearer to the issue that he needs to address or whether it’d be better to say that he keeps slipping ever further away. At any rate, this is perhaps the fullest description of Militant Dysphoria that we’ve had yet – and it is still terminally self-contradictory and evasive just when the payoff should come.
The post describes MD as a process. First you fall into dysphoria, then you get out – while still retaining, as Mark says, “a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields.” So what are these “glacial insights”? Mark describes Dysphoria in the following way:
Dysphoria […] involves both a disdain for play-acting and an inability to achieve any distance, particularly in relation to oneself. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the distance between the dejected subject and the rituals of the symbolic order is so total that it is no longer liveable. The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life – or inner death – overwhelms everything; at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of play-acting, a series of pantomime gestures (“a circus complete with all fools”), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform – there’s no point, everything is a sham.
So subjective emptying meets an emptying of the extra-subjective, the world beyond the self. He goes on say, looping through a Joy Division / Morrissey comparison that comes down on the side of the former as true bearers of dysphoric melancholy:
No amelioration is possible, that’s the point – and that’s why depression is not mere sadness, not a “mood” that will lift, but an ontological conviction. (Perhaps it is only on “Disorder” – “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” – that there is any hint of a redeeming Other, but even here the hope, such as it is, seems faint, or perhaps already abandoned: Like a fool, I’ve been waiting…. but the redeemer will never come. Depression is a “world”, not only because it colours all experience – or rather removes all colour, reducing everything to the stark black and white of the Unknown Pleasures cover (black and white thinking is a hallmark of the depressive condition) – but also because it lacks any limits. Depression is experienced not as depression, as some “illness” susceptible to treatment, but as the Truth. Given this, no-one else could help the depressive; or at least, that is how it looks from the Cold World. Others are impotent, puppets of a pitiless fatality that makes agency an illusion (an illusion to to which they, insofar as they are not themselves depressed, are victims): they are either unreachable (“Candidate”), betrayers (“Means To An End”), or else themselves betrayed (“Shadowplay”).
Via depression / dysphoria / melancholia (the terms are used rather interchangeably in the post), we come to grips with the coldness of the cold world, a seemigly terminal comfirmation of the unconditional worthlessness of ourselves and the horror of the world.
Fair enough. I’ve only been a bit depressed – or perhaps may intermittantly be depressed – and the description seems accurate. I’ve never had a problem with the identification of the dysphoric that has gone around here, the registration that it is in fact highly prevalent in certain rungs and strata of our world, or even the characterizations of it that Mark (and others) provide. But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom. So right at this point, with this post as with all of the previous iterations of the notion of Militant Dysphoria, this is where we are primed to hear the turn, the argument, the unlikely but persuasive claim.
But of course this is where Mark’s post, again as with all previous descriptions of MD, falls flat. The attempt to render dyphoria somehow militant, or to derive a form of militancy out of dysphoria, once again takes a merely gesture shape. Here is what he says:
So much for dysphoria, but what of militancy? Here, perhaps, I can introduce a personal note. I’ve passed through the Cold World a few times, and I can say – I hope without melodrama – that I’m lucky to have survived it. Yet emergence from the “deserts and wastelands” has never meant a happy reinsertion back into the cheer and security of the lifeworld. A spell in the Cold World necessariy involves a subjective destitution, and what then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes. Both Nick and Nathan highlighted the way in which an interruption of habit and the habituated was a precondition for militancy; this was certainly how things worked in my case, in which serious depression was replaced by political anger. Yet the Cold World is not just some preparation for militancy: it is important to retain a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields. When Dominic spoke last week, his account of dysphoria – that is prompted by a loss that projects the sufferer out of their set of symbolic attachments – sounded like Freud’s discussion of melancholia; but it also reminded me of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Perhaps – and here again the notion of “militant dysphoria” seems especially urgent just now – militant dysphoria could provide a leftist alternative to the shock doctrine, which violently deprives populations of their symbolic co-ordinates as a preparation for imposing a neoliberal narrative on their shattered nervous systems. At a time when capitalism itself has been denuded of its symbolic embedding – when it has itself been plunged into a dysphoric condition – the time is right for new narratives to be developed and propagated.
The turn to personal experience isn’t itself a bad thing here, except that it allows Mark to draw a veil in front of the actual path toward politicization that leads out of (or is the end of, it’s unclear) the valley of dysphoria. Something interrupts, so say Nick and Nathan, but Mark isn’t going to tell us how he was interrupted out of the habit of depression. Dysphoria doesn’t seem to be a preparation for militancy, except of course it is when we’re talking Militant Dysphoria – things start to get quite confused. Then there’s a reference to Klein, and the “shock doctrine,” but how MD helps us to imagine anythign but the process run in reverse, from equipoise toward inturned, nihilistic depression, is left unsaid. Other than the fact that an episode of dysphoria, once experienced, will leave us permanently a bit dysphoric (and remember – that’s already been established that as a sort of nihilitic inwardness, apolitical but not pre-political), we’re not given much. What we have is something like this:
We must start from the recognition that things are truly bleak. And then something must happen to make us grab on to something else, something like politics, without forgetting that the world is truly bleak. Despite the fact that that we’ve learned that world, at essence, is truly and utterly bleak, we must embrace politics as a solution to this, as unlikely as it sounds. We will never forget that the world is truly and finally bleak, but somehow we will struggle to make it better anyway. Our knowledge of the terminal bleakness of the world will show us how to make it better.
In short, the paragraph of the militancy of the dysphoric does nothing more than wave its hands toward militancy – it does not show how it might happen, or even how it might be encouraged to happen. “[W]hat then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes…” But how things are reconstructed is exactly what we want to know, and it’s just what Mark isn’t going to – and perhaps can’t – tell us. Beyond this, all we have is an impressionistic description of dysphoric depression, a hint that sometimes it somehow transmutes , maybe of its own accord, and nothing more. We have no argument, and we sure as hell don’t have a politics.
Militant dysphoria, the way Mark describes it, seems to be a case of something that we might call the solipsistic fallacy. And it is no wonder that such a solipsistic fallacy would take depression as its privileged subjective condition. Depression, after all, is a psychopathology that convinces its sufferer that everything – in a bleak way, of course – revolves around him or her. For some reason Mark selectively ignores just what he keeps saying about depressive dysphoria – that it encourages a form of narcissistic misanthropy – only to suggest that we remember all the other parts (which were what exactly? what characterized the coldness of the cold world in this model other than withdrawal?) as we formulate our future politics and political narratives.