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dysphoric about dysphoria

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Very grateful for the articulate explanation of militant dysphoria at Poetix today. I hope Dominic doesn’t mind if I post the pièce de non-jouissance, the final paragraph, here:

“Militant dysphoria”, or “politicised unpleasure”, is a name for the shift from experiencing dysphoria as a personal pathology (depression, anhedonia, guilt) to recognizing that the syntheses of experience that bind together all but the most rudimentary pleasures are part of a larger cybernetic network: personal “dysfunction” must be understood in the context of this system and its (naturalised) functions. The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.

I’ll admit that there’s a sort of knuckleheaded temptation to answer this provocative arguments with just what it expects to be answered by… diagnosis, pathologization, and the like. After all, to be fair about this temptation, there are lots of people with major or minor, manic or minimal, physiological / psychological / social issues and pathologies that can in fact be treated and via all sorts of approaches. It is clear that some forms of therapeutic intervention are certainly aimed at simply taping up the broken worker and getting her or him back out on the the neoliberal, precarious, dehumanizing shopfloor. CBT, which is by far the dominant practice in the UK, aims at just that. (Though I will say that I’ve seen some serious and undeniable success stories with CBT and CBTesque therapy, and often practice a bit of auto-CBT on myself, as do we all, I’m sure… Still…)

But even if the embrace of one’s own dysphoria, let alone becoming militant about it, leaves me worried from the start for the above reasons, let’s not head down this line for now. And anyway, if much of the point is to see the social (or “cybernetic,” in Dominic’s term) matrix that informs one’s own individual negotiation with happiness and unhappiness, then I’m all for that. One of the weakest points of psychoanalysis (even in its softer versions – which happens to be my preferred therapetic approach) is its unstinting structural avoidance of the social and political. It’s written right into the basic models at play. Everything goes back to when you were a little kid, dealing with the dad and mum that made you and their treatment of you after they did, and the thing about families is that class differential really doesn’t exist in the family home, or only does on rare occassions. Things change when Billy leaves the house, and later becomes CEO of the company that employed Dad as a janitor, but during the first act, you are your parents’ class. When dealing with later issues, if they’re always belated, adult manifestations of the child’s problems, class / work / financial matters can only be deplaced meta-effects of the pre-social triangle of mommy/daddy/me. If you’re dissatisfied with your work, it’s because you had a tyrannous father who told you would fail etc.

So whatever qualms I have about Dominic’s description as far as the first move – toward the comprehension of the generic nature of personal dysphoria – goes, I am definitely willing to shelve my concerns and keep listening. Where I become much less patient, however, is when we get a bit further down the road. First of all, while I am clearly no expert on Goth culture, and that seems to be an important thing to understand in order to understand, let alone buy into, Dominic’s claims, I would assert that I was a paid-up and duly dunked member of the original Gothic clan, that is to say, the Roman Catholic Church. Funny costumes – we got those. Fetishization of gore and all sorts of visualized morbidity – check. But above all else, militant dysphoria shares with Christianity the embrace of the refusal of “natural” pleasures, the prolongation under the banner of virtue of unhappiness, the investiment of unhappiness in the bank of uncertain and ill-defined futures. When I was told not to masturbate or mess around with girls, it wasn’t couched in the promise of more and better pleasure in the future. It was dysphoria for dysphoria’s sake – and as far as Dominic’s post takes the matter, that is what I see as the logic of his argument as well.

I’d even be so glib as to say that the conceptualization of militant dysphoria would only be possible in a place that’s long since left Christianity behind, where enough generations have come and gone since belief and all that comes of it was real that it is possible to forget how all of this worked. Or perhaps its just poor memory at play. For what Dominic is refounding (rather than simply founding) is a pseudo-Christianity dressed in the garb of a left politics without the political, that is to say without a pragmatics of possible change and resolution of the problems that the concept is meant to address. Sure, Christians are meant to get to heaven by embracing (or actively creating and then embracing) their refusal of pleasure. But heaven is as vague a place as the outcome of MD – both Christianity and militiant dysphoria are far more invested in the pathologization of pleasure in the present than the arrival of some sort of misty reward after the redemption.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but there’s a way that this endorsement and prolongation of the dysphoric resembles the temporal (il)logic of what has long been called the Protestant Work Ethic as well. Isn’t the trick of the PWE, too, the trick of deferral within a system that will systematically deprive you of the opportunity to reap what you’ve sowed? This brings me to my second, and perhaps more important, problem with the description. As Dominic says, “The aim is not to reform the world so that one will at last be comfortable in it (what suits me wouldn’t suit you, just as what suits you doesn’t suit me), but to be able to suspend the verdict of pleasure where it serves reactionary political ends.” This I really don’t understand. Perhaps there’s more to be said, but I’m just working with what’s in front of me.  But where does this dysphoria end? If the aim is not reform, such that the gothic disavowal can finally put an end to itself, and everyone can be just a littel bit or a lot happy – whether they want sex, whether they want to come, or not – then I’m not sure I see the point. Does reform, despite what Dominic says, slip in the backdoor at some stage in this process? Or do things end up in a dysphoric utopia? If the point of the deferral, perhaps infinite, of the partaking of pleasures is to bring about radical political change, presumably unto the betterment of the world, then at what point to the capes and sullen looks get beaten into jouissance, or even plain-old plaisir, of any sort?

If we’re killing the category of pleasure off altogether, then I’m not sure what game were ultimately playing. In fact, if that’s the game we’re in, perhaps there would be nothing better than to simply embrace the present, call for exactly more of the same dysphoria that we’ve allegedly already got. I’m sure it will get worse, all by itself and without our attention. Perhaps this is the point. But if this is what we’re after, then I’m not sure there’s any point in writing about it. It will happen whether we’re awake at the switch or fast asleep, either way. And either way, I’m afraid you can count me out of all of this.

One last thing – perhaps a bit guardianistal, but so what. I’d be really very nervous, if I were Dominic, about trotting this idea out in front of people whose dysphorias are less cerebral than material. If anhedonia is the baseline, sure. But I’d venture to guess that for 95 percent of the world’s population, and even a healthy minority of Britons, the idea of giving up the struggle to make things better, the idea of actively embracing a perverse and amorphous psychological blankness, would be, to say the least, something of a non-starter. This is politics for the relatively affluent only – and come on, we’re all relatively affluent – we eat, we don’t get rained on, here we even get free medical treatment and cheap or free education. Let your imagination roam free, and imagine what happens when you pitch this stuff to anyone who’d not a well-fed information worker….

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June 16, 2009 at 11:18 pm