Paranoid Style, Take 2


I recently had a conversation that led me to revisit Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, and in particular, its final chapter, where Fisher undertakes a reading of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness to illustrate the ‘strange loops’ that characterize contemporary ‘cybernetic capitalism’—and, by extension, illuminate the ways in which capitalism is inducing a “schizophrenization of culture”. It’s Fisher at his most eschatological: he provocatively asks us to “read” the film as a companion piece to Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and indeed, the doomsday scenario presented in the film (which, in its final moments, sees society rapidly pitch itself into insanity and chaos as a result of mass-market horror fiction paperbacks) brings to mind D&G’s depiction of what lurks beyond the limit of capitalism as “the wilderness where decoded codes run free, the end of the world, the apocalypse”.

While interesting, these observations are less important than the way that Fisher’s presentation of these dynamics, and the way he ends up reframing them several years later, can shed some light on what I covered a bit in my previous post on social paranoia.

In Flatline Constructs, Fisher builds a veritable demonology out of capitalism, where on the one hand the subject is decentered and, in proper CCRUian fashion, is dissolved back into autocatalytic production processes, and on the other, capitalism’s ‘strange agencies’ come to take on the appearance of animism. Such a formulation is dependent on what he, following Iain Hamilton Grant, calls ‘cybernetic realism, which is rendered as distinct from a more basis, positivistic sense of realism that merely takes the appearance of the Real as a stable, logical totality. The sense of the Real here is not that of the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition (more on that commentarily), but corresponds to Kantian empirical reality that remains limited by the wall of the transcendental—but Fisher isn’t interested in remaining trapped within the original framework of Kants. Like the rest of the CCRU, Fisher’s Kant is the one reformatted by D&G’s ‘transcendental materialism’, where the transcendental is reconceived in terms of materialist production processes—the ‘production of production’—and the empirical is treated as the secondary product that is then folded back into it. This, effectively, has pushed Kant into a philosophy of immanence, one that also isn’t simply Spinozist, but is Spinoza routed through an intensification of Marx.

In this situation, the division between the fictional and the Real-empirical becomes destablized and difficult to untangle, if not outright impossible. This is the logic of the strange loop: flattened into self-reinforcing production processes, the fictional comes real, and by extension the Real becomes fiction. “[I]n capitalism, fiction is no longer merely representational but has invaded the Real to the point of constituting it”. Because capitalism, on the one hand, is a machine for propagating fictions, and on the other hand unfolds through endless arrays of cycles and circulations, the social body is infected from top to bottom by these fictional quantities, fictions-becoming-real. Capital itself becomes “an entity… with its own animistic agency”.

This might seem like a complex route to arrive at the same position of Marx, whose depictions of capital in the subject position take on an animistic quality (“abstraction in actu“; “self-moving substance”, the industrial factory as a gigantic “automaton”) and of society is at once hyper-modern and oddly premodern (“the mystical character of commodities”, the spiritualist ‘table dancing’). But Fisher ends up disavowing precisely allows Marx to identify the causal agent behind this inverted world, and writes of an understanding of capital “stripped of a Marxian referrent like the labor theory of value”. Ideology and fetishism, then, have no place in the Flatline Constructs, and the entire Marxist explanation for how the fiction of capital—capital as operative abstraction—becomes socially-real drifts away into the vortices of the hyper-real.

In 2007, eight years after he wrote Flatline Constructs, Fisher revisited In the Mouth of Madness in an essay on the film Basic Instinct 2While the basic read—capitalism as ‘schizophrenizing’ society—is the same, the framework is has shifted from a Deleuze-Guattarian inflected account that dispenses with ideology to one based on Lacan and Zizek that, as one might expect, accomodates it. The passage is worth quoting in full:

In In the Mouth of Madness, Cane’s immensely successful pulp fictions are destructive of the structure of reality itself, literally puncturing holes in the Symbolic Order (one scene sees the lead character, John Trent, walk through a chasm that has opened up in page of text). By the end of In the Mouth of Madness, it is clear that Cane is not the agent of the process, but a conduit which the (Lovecraftian) Old Ones are using to gain access to this world. Although Cane ‘thought [he] was making it all up’, he realizes that the Old Ones, the creatures from the Other Side – were ‘giving him the power to make it real. And now it is. All those horrible slimy things trying to get back in. They’re all true.’ It is the radically unstable social ontology of late capitalism – in which any ‘reality’ is precarious and provisional – that allows the Old Ones to return, to ‘become-real’. In Lacanian terms, this ‘becoming-real’ is a collapse of the Symbolic into the Real, the inevitable result of which can only be psychosis, John Trent’s condition at the end of the film.

The Real spoken of here is not the same Real that was present in Flatline Constructs; it is Lacan’s Real, the seething ‘state of nature’ that remains foreclosed to us by the Symbolic, that is, the register of language, conventions, and, importantly, the big Other, the Law. The Symbolic, in other words, is the domain of ideology. It’s an important shift. Whereas before, capital’s fictional-becoming-real simultaneously endowed economic processes with animistic agency without recourse to ideology, Fisher’s account now accomodates the space of ideology, which for Marx is what allowed money and commodities to appear as if they radiated a life-force of their own. The moves with respect to schizophrenization are roughly analogous, as D&G’s Oedipus serves as the stand-in for the Symbolic (reversing Lacan’s transposing of Freud’s Oedipus into that position)—but where they saw the capacity for liberation via a post/anti-Oedipal absolute deterritorialization, Fisher historicizes this moment and forecloses its emancipatory character. It’s not the specter of absolute deterritorialization: it’s the “radically unstable social ontology of late capitalism”.

Fisher thus repositions In the Mouth of Madness from being a foreboding anticipation of the world-to-come to being a mechanism for exploring the current world, with its permanent implosion of place-ness and vertiginous dance of surfaces. It also brings the discussion into alignment with Jameson’s “breakdown of the signifying chain” and Zizek’s “decline of symbolic efficiency”. Each of these converge in the same zone—a Lacanian-Marxist read of the crumbling Symbolic Order—though both Jameson and Zizek offer differing understandings of what leads to this process. In the case of the former, it’s the widening of the great chasm between the one’s lived experience and the conditions that produce it, all the while  bound together with the simultaneous annihilation of spatial distance (space-time compression, in other words). We undergo “insertion as individual subjects into a multidimensional set of radically discontinuous realities, whose frames range from the still surviving spaces of bourgeois private life all the way to the unimaginable decentering of global capital itself. The consistency of the Symbolic fails, hence the breakdown of the signifying chain. The result of this, per Lacan, is schizophrenization, which Jameson finds as being expressed most acutely in postmodern cultural production:

The crisis in historicity now dictates a return, in a new way, to the question of temporal organization in general in the postmodern force field, and indeed, to the problem of the form that time, temporality, and the syntagmatic will be able to take in a culture increasingly dominated by space and spatial logic. If, indeed, the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its protensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent experience, it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but “heaps of fragments” and in a practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory. These are, however, very precisely some of the privileged terms in which postmodernist cultural production has been analyzed (and even defended, by its own apologists). They are, however, still privative features; the more substantive formulations bear such names as textuality, écriture, or schizophrenic writing…

Zizek, on the other hands, track the decline of symbolic efficiency across several vector. Among these are Lyotard’s post-industrial vision of the collapse of grand narratives (covered similarly by Jameson) and the subsequent explosion of micro- and meta-narratives; a correlated rise of ‘post-ideological’/’post-historical’ discourses (beginning with Daniel Bell and culminating in Francis Fukuyama); a generalized stance of skepticism towards all truth claims (emerging in the collision between the loss of grand narratives and the rise of new scientific modalities); and the compulsion to enjoy that which had previously been prohibited (prohibition being on the hallmarks of the Symbolic).

Slipping from the abstraction of theory to the curve of historical development, it’s clear how these all interlace with one another and reflect transitions in the capitalism mode of production: the ‘collapse of grand narratives’ is intimately tied to the rise of the ‘end of ideology’ discourse, which emerged on the basis of the deepening power of the technocratic/managerial strata in both business and the state (and, more importantly, the blurring of this division in a common ‘technostructure’). As Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool), Jim McGuigan (Cool Capitalism), Paul Piccone (with his concept of ‘artificial negativity’), Fred Turner (From Counterculture to Cyberculture), Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (The New Spirit of Capitalism), among many others, have shown, the rise of a ‘permissive’, ‘informal’, culture-oriented, subversively-tinged forms of marketization and even corporate organization have occurred through the recuperation of the 60s counterculture spirit—and as Barbara and John Ehrenreich argued in their early writings on the so-called “professional-managerial class” (see here in particular), the New Left wing of the counterculture was largely the political expression of the young soon-to-be technocrats and managers (it also seems to me that one can draw links between the so-called ‘hippie wing’ of the counterculture and the New Left side, as well as to postwar technocracy; the Ehrenreich’s argument that ‘PMC radicalism’ was in part an effort to reclaim the ‘best’ elements of liberalism can easily apply to the hippies, while Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround shows the direct line linking the freak-scenes of the late 60s to earlier postwar efforts at social engineering).

At any rate, Zizek sees in the midst of this the rise of the ‘cynical subject’, the subject of the ideology of post-ideology, or the one who is constituted by ideology but maintains a position of skepticism towards the world, and more importantly to the very persistence of ideological formation. Fisher seizes upon this point as well:

One of Zizek’s greatest strengths has always been his hyperstitional account of the way in which capitalism runs by generating beliefs and behaviours. Behaviour anticipates belief, in a causal, not a merely predictive, sense. Perhaps that isn’t going far enough: it would be better to say that behaviours are already beliefs, Pascalian ‘beliefs before beliefs’. Yet ideology, as I’ve argued before, resides in the (apparent) discrepancy between belief and behaviour. At the level of cognition, people ‘know perfectly well’ that money is only a token, that commodities aren’t alive, yet they behave ‘as if’ money is a real substantiality and that commodities are a natural force. Such activity is, needless to say, more than sufficient for the purposes of the replication of Capital.

The direction, for Zizek, isn’t to follow the injunction of Deleuze and Guattari to go deeper into this process and melt the Symbolic down into the turbulent void of the Real, but for a reconstitution of the Symbolic, to somehow allow it to regain the consistency and efficiency that it has lost. “[T]he task”, as he writes in In Defense of Lost Causes, “is to produce a symbolic fiction (a truth) that that intervenes in the Real, that causes a change within it”. This point, which takes as its leaping-off point Lacan’s gnomic take that truth bears the structure of fiction in its expression, sheds light on two positions that Fisher takes that appear at first glance to be contradictory. On the one hand, there’s the line taking plasticity of the Symbolic as its staging ground: “since capitalism is itself inherently fictional, it is essential that counter-capitalist fictions be produced… Anti-capitalism needs to take the form not only of a demystifying, depressive desublimation but of the production of alternative modes of sublimation”. On the other, there’s the Fisher who launched a stern defense of dogmatism:

what does being a dogmatist entail?

Briefly, it involves commitment to the view that there are Truths. One can add to this, the view that there is a Good…

Far from being equivalent to authoritarianism, as the postmodern liberal doxa would have it, dogmatism is only effective alternative to authoritarianism. Authoritarianism and postmodern ‘forms of life’ entail one another. The familiar PoMo relativist insistence that it is neither possible nor desirable to arbitrate between the different ethical and ontological claims of ‘incommensurate’ ‘language games’ surrenders reason to mysticism.

Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’ falls into this framework as well, since he positions it as functioning along the lines of ideology in the ‘Althusserian-Lacanian’ sense, i.e. in relation to the symbolic. The inability to carry out cognitive mapping and the decline of symbolic efficiency are woven together: the deeper into capital’s maw, the greater the spatial reorganization of life and the dual contractions/dilations of space and time, the more plastic and discardable previously-held norms and value systems become, the more shapeless history becomes—inability to comprehend the totality and skepticism towards it march hand in hand (it’s interesting, then, that Jameson makes an offhand comment that the “political motivation of the ‘war on totality’ lies… in a fear of Utopia that turns out to be none other than our old friend 1984“, while Fisher offers the heretical position par excellence that we side with O’Brien against Winston Smith and Julia’s flight into the passionate libidinal unfreedoms that are advanced by the “liberal orthodoxy”). By aligning a potential cognitive mapping program with the notion of an “aesthetic”, Jameson thus arrives in the same space as Zizek and Fisher’s calls for a fiction capable of reconstituting symbolic efficacy.

(In his own way, Deleuze too seems to arrived in a similar territory in his ‘late’ period, where there emerged a focus on the function of ‘fabulation’ as a key element in constituting a people—the Nietzschean ‘powers of the false’ reworked as political fictions. Though it must be said that Deleuze’s take bears an aristocratic stamp, perhaps covertly informed by his usage of Tarde in Difference and Repetition and A Thousand Plateaus, where the frameworks used by the sociologist to describe the irrational, imitative nature of the unruly crowd underpin the notion of bare repetition.)

What then of things like populism and paranoia?

I’ve already argued that populism, with its inclinations toward a distrust of elites, enacts the sort of cognitive mapping that Jameson disavows as regressive conspiracy theorizing, and that it tends to enact the Fisher (and Zizekian) mobilization of fictional energies as a stable ground against the forces that erode it. I also argued in my post on populism and technocracy that populism is best understood not in the first instance and Zizek-Fisher’s “hystericalized liberalism”, but through Polanyi’s “self-protection of society”, which can lend itself to left-wing and right-wing manifestations, and which doesn’t equalize with the Marxist conception class struggle (while also not being foreclosed from developing into such). It seems to me that the idea of the ‘decline of Symbolic efficiency’ is pertinent here, as the reconstitution of a Symbolic can be read at the heart of these tendencies.

Here there’s a convergence with Laclau, since his understanding of populism was the (re)establishment of a symbolic universe—though the difference is that for him, this symbolic universe is a postmodern assemblage of empty signifiers capable of being filled with particular content pertaining to the dreams, aspirations and goals of the people. He achieves this goal by dismissing the Marxist accounts of the law of value and the Althusserian overdetermination of structural causality. By contrast, I think these provide a deeper understanding of what populism is by providing the initial ground for the impulses and by exerting a determining, if incomplete, force on the signifier’s content…

Lacan’s account of paranoia helps fill this out a bit (in the sense that Jameson uses it, as suggestive guideposts more than a clinical picture). Just as D&G historicized schizophrenia and attributed it directly to the capitalist society, Lacan did the same for paranoia: it’s something that arises only in modernity (which, of course, is but an index of the massive social and cultural changes driven by the development of capitalism, the “ego’s era”. Paranoia is the response to a Symbolic that no longer guarantees stability, truth and meaning; it is foreclosed, but by want of this foreclosure appears in the Imaginary as a concrete figure, imbued with apparently unlimited power and destructive capabilities. Or, as Zizek says, “a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively ‘pulls the strings’ behind the visible, public Power”. This can be slotted into less fantastical images, ones that do indeed appear standing before us and shape the contours of our individual and social lives: the figure of the corporation that hijacks democracy, the technocrat who intrudes on the terrain of everyday life bearing the cursed gift of ‘superior knowledge’, the elites who profit from the underclasses’ slow motion annihilation, etc, all the most comprehensible avatars of a system of determination whose logic seems to recede endlessly into the infinite.

4 thoughts on “Paranoid Style, Take 2

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