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last call on militant dysphoria

with 22 comments

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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 9, 2009 at 12:07 am

Posted in dysphoria

22 Responses

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  1. No offense, but, your ignorance regarding depression is glaringly obvious:

    ‘Depression, after all, is a psychopathology that convinces its sufferer that everything – in a bleak way, of course – revolves around him or her.’

    Whoa. Couldn’t be further off! Depression not only convinces the sufferer that the world does not revolve around him, but that he is so insignificant that he might as well not exist at all!

    I haven’t read Dominic’s book yet, but it seems to me there is an obvious political edge to be sharpened here, insofar as the social body producing this insignificance thereby strips certain subjects of any interest in preserving or reproducing it.

    ‘this is perhaps the fullest description of Militant Dysphoria that we’ve had yet’

    …and Dominic’s book was a preface to this brief and oblique series of comments on popular music and potential politicization of apolitical cultural trends? Of course the post is vague and only hints in the most cursory manner at what these potentials are, but for godsake, its a freaking blog! You want him to all of a sudden explain everything?

    ‘For some reason Mark selectively ignores just what he keeps saying about depressive dysphoria – that it encourages a form of narcissistic misanthropy’

    I’m pretty sure the whole point of the discussion of misanthropy was that it can go beyond narcissism and achieve a sort of productive discontent with the very world in which that negativity exists.

    I really don’t understand your insistence on prohibiting a discussion (in this case, clearly, a very preliminary and vague contribution) of politicizing currently apolitical sub-cultural social groups. Mocking people for being depressed, and for wanting to turn depression into more than a paralyzing condition? Strange. I don’t understand this criterion by which all political programs must be applicable to people in Africa or whatever, and anything tailored to Western middle-class white people is wrong. Why would you oppose getting people on your side that would otherwise sit idly by? Besides, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would feel like an asshole trying to tell people in African what to do. I do feel very comfortable talking about the culture I came up in, its limitations and potentials, and prescribing ways to exploit them.

    Reid Kane

    October 9, 2009 at 1:45 am

  2. OK – nice summary of the whole ‘thang’ –
    Its alienated solipsism has nothing particularly ‘political’ (or indeed philosophical) about it.

    If anything, it seems like an attempt to formulate a kind of ‘subculture’ for thirtysomethings (pretty much recycling the youth/subcultural attitudes/tastes of previous decades, or thirtysomething’s own youth). Alienation as a mark of political and aesthetic sophistication – but pretty similar to the way alienation and disillusion is used by many a teenager anyway:’Hey my fave band has an unhealthy nazi obsession, but they’re like really nihilistic’. ‘Hauntology’ seemed to be a similar ‘project’ in the blogosphere.

    All of which seems to have little to do with Marxism as I understand it. Nostalgia + left-wing disillusion – youthful consumerism. Meanwhile, here in the UK the next government prepares for a massive onslaught on the working class – death metal and Deleuze are the last thing on my mind. I want a fuckin’ roof over my head!

    At the end of the day, its about a small gang of assholes taking vast sums of money (and life) away from the majority. That’s where most of my (very material) ‘dysphoria’ comes from.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 1:49 am

  3. The influence of JG Ballard on all this can’t be underestimated: “The problem with Marxism is that it’s a religion for the poor – what we need is a religion for the rich.” (quoted from memory)

    His idea of using inertia and alienation as way towards a ‘liberating’ narcissistic, anti-humanist, anti-nature psychosis was of course a hip idea with post-punk 17 year olds who felt too ‘intellectual’ for Anne Rice or Bukowski (I should know – I was that kind of reader). All interesting ideas for fiction; but as Ballard’s own life demonstrated, hardly useful for mobilisation, motivation or commitment in ‘meatspace’.

    Probably explains the thematic fixation on zombie movies (surely the ‘youngest’ but most hackneyed genre around), spectres and dead/stillborn pop movements. Like departed friends and relatives, they can become a focus for depression and a sense that ‘your’ world is absent.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 2:10 am

  4. Ads,

    Great post.

    On “the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish”, I can say from my own experience and that of friends that there’s a correlation between involvement in some kind of (very) modestly successful collective political efforts (I mean specifically working as a member of political organizations and mass organizations and seeking to build those organizations) and feeling less anomic and alienated.

    w/r/t the quoted bit — “an interruption of habit and the habituated was a precondition for militancy”, that seems… formalist. This is unfair, but it almost sounds like any old interruption will do (I feel this way about the category ‘subjective destitution’ as well). The observation that actually existing militancies have involved or required interruptions of habit, that observation alone says nothing about whether or not any particular interruption or type of interruption is conducive to militancy, since there are other things that could also be said to have interruption of habit as their precondition.

    It also seems to me that economic shock doesn’t deprive people of our “symbolic co-ordinates”, it deprives us of *some* of our symbolic coordinates. I’ve only read this stuff in cursory fashion but the force of the argument seems to me in part to rely on a slip between position in THE symbolic order as such and between one position in one symbolic order, out of the many that people tend to occupy.

    Reid,

    w/r/t depression and narcissism, I’m not at all up on the mental health literature on this (or anything), but it seems from a bit of googling that the jury is out on the relationship between the two and there’s at least some argument that the two are closely related. (For instance – http://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/malignant-self-love/the-depressive-narcissist-narcissism-depression-and-dysphoria/menu-id-1469/)

    I think the devil’s in the details here, as usual, it all depends on what one makes the terms mean. In my own bouts with depression occasionally and of watching those of others in my life, depression often involves a narcissistic elevation of one’s own problems and self-assessment over others’ (“I suck so much/my life is so fucked, anyone else’s comments to the contrary are simply false” and sometimes “other people’s problems are different from mine, mine are intractable” or “other people have abilities to cope that I don’t have), all of which are a sort of “I’m really unique compared to others” IMHO. There’s also regularly a narcissistic withdrawal from adult responsibilities – a hard time being there (and recognizing the responsibility to be there) for family members and friends and comrades, especially being there emotionally. At least in my experience.

    In any case, it seems to me very clear that there are definitely some affects which are a conjuncture of depression and narcissism. Regardless of the larger categories and the possible variety of their relationships, and at the risk of speaking for Ads, I take the relevant point here in this post to be that “militant dysphoria” is one such conjuncture.

    cheers,
    Nate

    Nate

    October 9, 2009 at 5:02 am

  5. Reid,

    Whoa. Couldn’t be further off! Depression not only convinces the sufferer that the world does not revolve around him, but that he is so insignificant that he might as well not exist at all!

    Hmmm… Perhaps I’ll edit for clarity. But I’m not sure what I said there is all that far off from Mark’s descriptions of the inwardness of depression. “Revolves around” might give the wrong impression there.

    I’m pretty sure the whole point of the discussion of misanthropy was that it can go beyond narcissism and achieve a sort of productive discontent with the very world in which that negativity exists.

    Yep! Those are the steps that would be interesting to hear about, because those are the steps that are hard to take.

    I really don’t understand your insistence on prohibiting a discussion

    Prohibiting a discussion? I am discussing! That statement is exactly like Mark’s bit about the grey vampires or whatever – critical intervention is seen as a form of censorship rather than just what it is… discussion. By all means, carry on discussing. Let’s just hope it gets somewhere….

    Besides, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would feel like an asshole trying to tell people in African what to do.

    Basically agree! That wasn’t quite the point of what I was saying a few posts back, telling X what to do. Thinking about the thin-sliced class matrix that one’s argument fits into – encouraging the embrace of dysphoria in a situation goes a bit wrong when you think about it in any class scenario beyond the framework of youngish media worker types.

    and anything tailored to Western middle-class white people is wrong. Why would you oppose getting people on your side that would otherwise sit idly by?

    Sure! I’m thinking about just this sort of thing, more or less all of the time and for a variety of reasons. But the point is – one has to be super fucking careful, as any politics of middle class unhappiness can go incredibly wrong incredibly quickly. It’s not at all that these groups can’t be approached – it’s that they have to be approached with a huge amoung of clarity about the mechanisms at use and the ends they will likely garner.

    Ads

    October 9, 2009 at 6:52 am

  6. wayne,

    ’Hey my fave band has an unhealthy nazi obsession, but they’re like really nihilistic’.

    Well, in a sense, I do think that a problematic sense of the politics of aesthetic objects, what one does politically with aesthetic objects, is sometimes at play here. The recuperative mode in particular, where one likes something suspect and then performs the contorsions necessary to mine good politics out of it, is a useful mode at times, but again… slippery, dangerous.

    Expect quite a few posts about Ballard in the coming months, as I’ll be teaching quite a lot of him. I like him more and more as a writer as I read him, but the politics are, in general, not nice. Which is fine! It’s not a bad thing to enjoy books that aren’t nice – the question is what we do with that enjoyment…

    Ads

    October 9, 2009 at 7:07 am

    • It’s not a bad thing to enjoy books that aren’t nice – the question is what we do with that enjoyment…

      Do you really think so? Once you’ve decided that enjoying not-nice books is not a bad thing, then you probably don’t have the power to choose what you do with the enjoyment, do you? Doesn’t the enjoyment have the power then? Doesn’t the enjoyment ‘have its way with YOU’, not the other way around; I mean, insofar as you’ve already decided it’s ‘not a bad thing’. Maybe you do have to decide it’s a bad thing OR realize that the enjoyment WILl decide you. This is the question, whether you will cross that Rubicon, as did Arletty and others.

      deserted carpark

      October 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm

  7. Look forward to a post on Ballard. I’ve always been a fan of his, but like many great artists, their writings etc. (Ballard was a compassionate, fairly liberal, family man in real life) are hardly a mode for living in the here and now. That’s why its called fiction – the unconscious (different to ‘desire’) is the last place to look for a political project.

    I’ve read the bloggers and writers perpetuating these ideas for some time, but I can’t shake the feeling that recently many are getting a bit ‘lost’ in the attampt to make their mark with a ‘movement’ – the undoing of many a writer.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  8. I suppose these misgivings make me a ‘grey vampire’ (does this make criticizing politicians etc. ‘grey’?) Or maybe this term comes from a certain intellectual hubris on the part of the ‘playas hated’.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 1:13 pm

  9. As for middle-class discontent being organised and unleashed – well, that’s what gave energy to nazism and the cultural revolution. Not my idea of liberation! Keep middle-class frustration buttoned down, I say!

    Sorry to go on.

    wayne

    October 9, 2009 at 1:19 pm

  10. Reid,

    “Whoa. Couldn’t be further off! Depression not only convinces the sufferer that the world does not revolve around him, but that he is so insignificant that he might as well not exist at all!”

    I think this is a bit off. Depression is a kind of narcissism that is predicated on what you say, seeing that the world does not revolve around him and that he is so insignificant that he he might not exist at all, but one that precisely casues you to feel down because you can’t understand why you aren’t more significant. There is a still a sense that, while it is true you might as well not exist at all, you still feel like there should be some reason for you to exist. It’s a narcissism of a broken mirror. Or, at least, this is how I’ve experienced my own problems with depression.

    Anthony Paul Smith

    October 9, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    • Good point Anthony, and I can’t wholly disagree. I think its less of a this-or-that situation, however, than one of a dynamic internal to depression. In part, I wonder if it’s even intelligible to talk about life at all deprived of that basic, ground-level narcissism, that stubborn insistence that ‘I deserve to exist, I deserve to keep living’ etc. If a depressive weren’t minimally convinced of this entitlement, it’s hard to see what other option there would be than suicide (that’s not to say that certain cases of suicide aren’t themselves inspired by a narcissistic swipe at one’s loved ones). But I think it vacillates, it goes back and forth, and this dynamic is what makes depression so difficult, but also so unfortunately livable.

      Consequently, I think a certain exacerbation of the narcissistic tendency here is precisely where a kind of politicization can happen (although that’s not to suggest it is easy): I should be more significant, but instead of reading this discrepancy as a problem with me, I see it as a problem with the world that produced me, and therefore a world that would undervalue its constituents must be challenged and changed. Of course, this could easily lead off into some kind of liberal politics of healing, or even something worse, and hence politicization is not inherently neutral, but that is more of a practical difficulty than a theoretical contradiction.

      Reid Kane

      October 10, 2009 at 12:05 pm

  11. I too think Dominic goes wrong, but in a much different way than you do, Ads. I think the return to the lifeworld is not a return to a barren world, but one that is stunningly happy. The amazing, crushing opulence of the developed world has been the astonishingly successful outcome of the enlightenment. It did deliver what was promised, in spades. It bowed war itself to the delivery of ever more goods – in the past, war operated, at best, as a zero sum game in which the predator amassed wealth from the victim – military keynsianism turns this around and makes war the central industry of the state, which overflows with bounties, including this here very internet I’m using to write to you.

    Alienation then returns to the lifeworld and doesn’t ask why is everyone so happy – for the answer is obvious. Rather it asks, why is that happiness becoming more and more ruinous? It is then that one looks at the roots of the whole project, and indeed, the very idea that there is no alternative to the collective project of maximal happiness.

    Looked at from that point of alienation, one notices that happiness is a total social fact, like Mauss’s mana, and not an emotion or mood.

    roger

    October 9, 2009 at 9:31 pm

  12. oh my god – so tired everyone. Mad Men S03E08 plus a bottle of white! I’ll respond to everything and everyone, given the way sleep usually goes, at about 3 AM BST tomorrow morning!

    Ads

    October 9, 2009 at 10:39 pm

  13. deserted carpark,

    The issue isn’t really one of the “enjoyment having its way with you” – which it of course will or won’t, and does so every day and in all sorts of ways. It’s a question of what we make this pleasure / the having of its way when we turn to description / analysis / argument. In other words, just because we enjoy looking at the scenery of Ballard’s novels, it’s a more complicated issue what we do with that enjoyment.

    wayne,

    I look forward to writing about ballard too – and the issue of what he makes of the relationship (and nature) of the “unconscious” to the material world is one of the things I surely will be writing about.

    APS,

    That’s exactly what I meant, yes. And exactly why I didn’t in the end go back and edit my post.

    Roger,

    That’s rather brilliant, Roger… What’s interesting about it, from the perspective that I usually take as a lit guy, is that one way to describe the modernist novel is that it breaks the seal that held, say, the source of the wealth that underwrites Austen’s novels, exposes the source of the happiness (unhappy happiness) of romance. Heart of Darkness, just to cite an obvious example, seems like a romance turned inside out – Kurtz’s quest for the Intended is the front story gone back.

    Ads

    October 10, 2009 at 7:48 am

  14. the endgame for the politics of militant dysphoria in reality calls for a zombie revolution. depressives with nothing inside consuming the flesh of the ‘real’. the real being the fake we are supposed to aspire to. eat the rich. militancy sounds too organized it’ll be more like your classic riot.

    if life imitates art, then the current zombie fascination in music, film and fashion should make the revolution well worth televising

    somehow i think dubstep will be the soundtrack as opposed to black metal. from the plodding halfstep to the mid range squawkers and the full on aural assault of the likes of reso and king cannibal.

    lets fookin ‘ave it:)

    pollywog

    October 10, 2009 at 10:33 am

  15. Truly the last word on militant dysphoria: http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118009754.html?categoryid=13&cs=1

    Sam

    October 10, 2009 at 10:56 am

  16. Lars Von Trier – another hubristic talent becoming increasingly ridiculous from the fawning discussions of his big ‘statements’… wonder how he’ll mutilate women in his next ‘masterpiece’?

    The ‘black iron prison’ of neoliberalism rendering art, theory and politics into a childish (and deadening) series of stunts. Academic bread and circuses.

    wayne

    October 10, 2009 at 11:36 am

  17. Wayne,

    Perhaps you’re new to this site, but no one’s allowed to make fun of LVT on AWP. Them’s the rules.

    Ads

    October 11, 2009 at 8:26 am

  18. Fair enough – LVT’s been doing the job himself well enough for the past decade!

    wayne

    October 11, 2009 at 7:47 pm

  19. […] As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly. […]


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