THE PRICE OF CIVILIZATION: ON PLEASURE, ECONOMY AND THE LAW

Between The Lines

Bachus and Ariadne. Tintoretto 1578.

Saitya Brata Das

I

n Civilization and its Discontents Sigmund Freud offered the insight that an immense amount of repression is the price humanity has to pay for its civilization. Using that profundity as point of departure one can argue that civilization demands a certain ‘economy of pleasure’ and that this economy is ensured by an apparatus constitutive of institutions of both moral and juridico-political law. The result is an increasing incorporation of life in all its individuation and singularity, to the point where life at its very source suffocates.

Despite its apparent release of the libidinal sources of life in our world of escalating sophistication and technological advancement, the integrative violence of the law continues to operate under new guises, in a much more powerful manner that today is becoming difficult to understand and measure.

ECONOMY OF PLEASURE

Towards the end of his life Sigmund Freud expresses his pessimistic reflection about the prodigious price that humanity has to pay for its “civilization”. It appears as if the foundation of civilization is constituted on a ‘tragic denial’: denial of the very elements that constitute life as life, elements that singularize us. Freud gives that denial the unforgettable name “repression.” The result is an edifice that conceals, behind the monumental features of its visible visage, its ‘document of barbarism’ that Walter Benjamin invites us to reflect upon.

A few decades before Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche had delineated for us a genealogy of the loss and the logic of this strange economy of civilization that he comes to call, in his own incomparable manner, “reversal”. From Plato to Hegel, the history of metaphysics is understood as an ever more intense realization of this logic of reversal to which Nietzsche even assigns some “steps” or “stages”.

According to Nietzsche, Plato elevates the last evaporating reality (the least real) to the supreme significance while reducing the most vital elements of life to the lowest level of reality. The history of this reversal, according to Nietzsche, finds its most metaphysical expression in Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Concept that banishes all the elements of life that are sensuous, singular and riddle-like and subjugates them, by a metaphysical violence, to the last evaporating reality called “Absolute Concept”.

The Hegelian ‘concept of the concept’, does not know pleasure. There is no pleasure of the concept; all that is “Dionysian”—tragic, enigmatic, generous and magnanimous enough to squander itself, away is set to “work” for the service of the “concept”.

This subjugation of pleasure is the logic of capital as Marx, a contemporary of Nietzsche saw it; it is the logic of production and investment, production of values constitutive of the whole modern economy called “capitalist”. There can be “worklessness” only at the service of work, in sight of production, in sight of its possible return to profit, which is best exemplified in the ‘economy of holidays’.

A process of secularization has transformed the religious concept of “Sabbath” into “holidays” (which is deprived of all its holiness) for workers once a week so that Mondays on they can be even more productive. This is the exact reversal of the logic of the Sabbath. God too took rest on the seventh day, which is the holiest of the seven days: work here is performed in sight of rest; the work receives meaning from its Sabbath.

Behind this idea of Sabbath is a peculiar idea of God as much as of the human: the human who enjoys Sabbath, like God, is not primarily homo oikonomia. In other words, the humanity of the human cannot be exhaustively determined as economic-laboring-producing being; rather, the plenitude of his being is realized precisely in Sabbath where life itself is consecrated and made holy.

By contrast, the secularizing logic of modern civilization has come to determine the human as essentially homo oikonomia. Pleasure qua pleasure, pleasure in-itself, is considered a waste, a useless expenditure which the apparatus of civilization necessarily produces in order to re-incorporate it into the same.

Hence a necessity is perceived to superimpose upon the possibility of enjoying pleasure qua pleasure the attributes of laws that emanate from institutions of morality as much as from the juridico-political order.

Pleasure is granted provided that it serves the oikonomia of civilization, in service of its profit and preservation. There is something in ‘pleasure qua pleasure’ that is radically workless and unprofitable; it is squandered away without returning to the service of benefit. Pleasure qua pleasure, is useless, unproductive and dangerous. And as Georges Bataille holds, it is the “sovereign” element of our life.

The idea of civilization, specifically the civilization that we have come to call “modernity”, is grounded upon this economic determination of the “human”, upon a commodification and regulation of sensation – of pleasure – in sight of profit: not just the profit of wealth but of meaning and knowledge too.

Various institutions of civilization–judicial structures or moral customs, schools or work places, factories or the military–provide such “schooling”, with its operative principle of discipline and punishment, with its rewards and constraints.

They all carry the civilizing mission of economizing, minimizing and regularizing the pleasure of the individual so that only pleasure that cannot be squandered away is made available. With the most sophisticated methods supplied by institutions of knowledge – methods that classify and order phenomena with its laws – they incorporate individuals into masses, groups, categories, concepts, numbers and attributes to maximize profit. The result is a ‘tragic denial of life.’

PLEASURE WITHOUT ECONOMY

Why is pleasure restrained by moral or juridical law, constrained into an attenuated variation of economy that constitutes the order of the world? Unfettered pleasure, pleasure qua pleasure threatens to potentially suspend the law.

Here lies the true danger, but also the seduction, of pleasure; for what seduces us to pleasure is not the fulfilment of the law but its potential transgression, or even its momentary suspension. What calls us to pleasure is its potential excess that cannot be pinned down to knowledge, to meaning, or to any tangible, enduring profit. It is a plenitude that squanders itself and impoverishes itself in expenditure, and makes itself, once more, use-less.

Pleasure belongs neither to the order of “being” nor to that of “having” or possession. This negativity of pleasure, that is, pleasure which cannot be assigned to any concept or knowledge by any order of discourse, is its own affirmation of becoming-excess-in-impoverishment, either below or above the law, each time it comes to the individual, to each one alone, separately, even when we are with the other or others.

Even when it occurs within the pre-scripted institutions of the juridical-moral world-order, pleasure may still open us up to the “experience” – if one can still call it “experience” – of the non-inscripted and the un-prescripted (that which momentarily de-subjectivizes us). It leaves us a solitude by individualizing us in a mode of individuation which is without “being” and “having”.

For pleasure, given and received, is without possession, and hence, without the “values” that mark the economy of the world: it cannot be evaluated on the basis of any equivalences, pleasure is without economy.

Pleasure threatens to suspend the law. An even more interesting proposition: the law invents this danger for itself. The law demands a principle supposedly antagonistic to itself in order to legitimatize itself; demonizing the enjoyment of pleasure law turns it into a threat to the order of civilization and culture.

Our civilization then resting on precarious foundations is constantly threatened, in imagined or in real ways by little pleasures that individuals, alone or in groups invent and enjoy, even those harmless ones, like masturbation. Pleasure can also be invented, and discovered for the first time, perhaps where none imagined it existed.

This incessant potentiality of ever new modes of pleasure is always at odds with the operating principle of the law that tends to fix, once and for all if possible, “experiences” into categories and attributes, concepts and meanings under ‘hegemonic fantasm’, with its ‘maximizing thrust’.

Pleasure opens us to those singularities that always occur as ‘undertow’ beneath ‘the maximizing thrust’ of categories. Pleasure is always incalculable, appearing while disappearing, arriving while vanishing, opening us to its sudden eruption and to the momentary disruption of our subjectivity. It constitutes a momentary transgression wherein lies the very potential of ‘not-being-able to be’ the human subject of the law that one normally and normatively is.

At stake here, then, is the very question of the essence of humanity. The concept of civilization demands, a certain determination of humanity that is qualitatively opposed to animality.

The enjoyment of pleasure as pleasure is considered on the other hand to be “brutish” and “animalistic”. This opposition between “humanity” and “animality” is very constitutive of what we call “civilization”.

That is why Hegel, inspired by Aristotle, determines the essence of humanity negatively: the birth of the human is the death of the animal. This birth of the human – for Aristotle this is the very moment of the birth of the political – is contemporaneous with the birth of language. The scream dies and speech is born. The political being, bearing its right, is not the being who merely screams or howls, but speaks. She is not mere animal deriving pleasure from the titillating touch of skin but someone for whom this touching-smelling-and its pleasure and pain is only a moment within the normative order of the civilization.

A correlate to this Aristotlean linguistic distinction between scream and speech is the distinction between pleasure/pain and just/unjust. The zõo politikon, the political being, is one who primarily makes the distinction between just and unjust. Here the very possibility of the political is derived from the opposition between the human (who has logos) and the animal (who merely has a voice).The essence of humanity lies in being political; the political being is s/he who, negating the claims of pleasure and pain, can make the distinction between just and unjust.

Here pleasure that cries and moans is tacitly determined as “animalistic”: it falls below logos from which alone the possibility of the political can be derived.

Why, then is ‘pleasure as pleasure’ an object of suspicion? Sexual pleasure reaches at the very limit of “humanity” the limit of possibility, as it were, and poses as negativity, even though in a momentary manner, suspending the order of the law. Making the calm distinction between the cry and speech indeterminate in the most imperceptible and incalculable manner possible, pleasure delivers the human to that zone of in-distinction from where the human does not completely emerge unscathed by animality.

This negativity (of in-distinction) is not like the negativity of the concept that Hegel propounds; it is rather that cunning negativity which puts itself into work so as to undo that very work. This ‘worklessness’, as Maurice Blanchot calls it, ‘unworks’ in advance the whole logic of oikonomia of the homo; it thus produces an extra, an excess, in its very impoverishment, that does not yield to profit once more.

Such expenditure that is an unproductive-fruitless expenditure makes the human other than a mere economic being. And at stake is the logic of such expenditure that leads to the suspension of the nomos, of the law.

SADE MY NEIGHBOR

 Such suspension of the law occurs in the unbearable, unreadable and disgusting writings of Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). What Sade’s incomparable writing exhibits is something that the normative logic of pleasure represses. Generally we make the distinction – the distinction that constitutes the very norm of pleasure –of pleasure and pain into an oppositional and incommensurable one: pleasure as the avoidance of pain, and pain as the absence of pleasure.

Sade’s writing makes this static distinction (which is constitutive of the economy of pleasure), an indeterminate one. Pleasure and pain are no longer “states” or categories; in their dynamic becoming-pleasure and becoming pain, or, in another dynamic of pleasure-becoming-pain and pain-becoming-pleasure, they dissolve. As if pain lies as an undertow, as potentiality, in each experience of pleasure, and offers, from its dark underground, the very possibility of experiencing it.

That there can be pleasure even in pain, which, by the economic logic of any moral or juridical law amounts to “cruelty,” can be considered a subversion of the economic law of pleasure itself. Such pleasure is not simply “aesthetic” pleasure, pleasure which is aesthetized (and anaesthetized) and made beautiful by the economic operation of the law: it is rather pleasure against pleasure, pleasure that touches the unbearable and disgusting, pleasure that displaces, in some indeterminate manner, the very human subject who knows pleasure as pleasure, and pain as pain.

Marquis de Sade achieves this through writing itself, in writing creative works of imagination and fiction, in a language that revolts all sense of decorum and sobriety. What is revolting about Sade is not so much these abominable practices of sexuality but writing itself, this language of imagination itself, this whole thing called Sade-literature; what is revolting is that he wrote it at all, and wrote it down in the most disgustful manner possible.

Sade did not kill anyone, unlike the leaders of the French Revolution. All that he did, for 32 years of prison life, is to just write words, literature, whose power lies in its very powerlessness, so much so that one can be imprisoned just for putting something to paper. This is the enigma of Sade’s writing: literature, mere words that do not kill anyone, that is supposed to be the most powerless activity has a tremendous power to fascinate us down the ages, has a power to shake the immense edifice of morality that civilization has constituted for ages. Here writing itself seeks to transgress the law, moral or the juridico-political one.

What Sade exploits is the explosive power of reading itself, not so much the practices of these abominable sexual pleasures: there is a pleasure of reading Sade which explodes all sense of moral economy and regulation, where reading is sexualized and erotized, where reading becomes equivalent to sexual pleasure with all its antinomic effects.

It is the pleasure of reading and writing that is explosive: it is this pleasure, this sexuality of reading and writing, which needs to be confined and constrained by the moral law of civilization. What Sade does is to sexualize language; he turns the human language into an experience   of cruel pleasure or pleasurable cruelty.

The human language of logos which is supposed to make the distinction between just and unjust is pierced through by cries and moans of pleasure and pain, by the trembling of skin that articulates without being completely transformed into concepts, categories and attributes of the law.

Despite being abominable and disgusting, or, precisely because of this, Sade is seductive. His writing gives us glimpses into that region of impossible possibility which the law itself, hints at, albeit negatively. The law exists only to be transgressed; its rigorous institutions indirectly and elliptically invite us to their very possible transgression.

In other words, the law entices us towards pleasure precisely by forbidding or economizing it. If there were no law in place, would there have been transgression? As if, transgression of the law and the institution of the law are born at the same instance; one may even say that transgression has already begun, not temporally though, at the very moment of institution of the law. Transgression is the logical presupposition of the institution of the law.

Hegel has a penetrating gaze into the instituting character of the law. In the famous section on the moral order in Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel writes about how the unconscious transgression of the law calls forth the retributive strike of punishment. Here lies the integrative violence of the law: the law designates the one whom it incorporates within its fold as a transgressor and a criminal, at least potentially. Here is the cunning of the law through which particular citizens are subsumed with ‘the maximizing thrust’ of its language.

FREE LOVE

It is precisely against this integrative violence of the law that the movement of “free love” of the early 20th century came into being: the free love here is precisely that love which is to be freed from the coercive force of the law.  Here love is not understood as mere hedonistic-libertine freedom for sexual pleasure with anyone that one likes, but the freedom to be with another in relationship of love and of pleasure, out of one’s own consent, freed from the law and from the legitimized institution of marriage.


Read : IMAGINING UTOPIA: THE IMPORTANCE OF LOVE, DISSENT AND RADICAL EMPATHY


The notion of free love is to be freed, not only from the law but from the restricted understanding of love itself which confines it to a monogamous and mono-amorous relationship. Free Love recognizes, and calls into question the normative concept of love which, even when it is practiced outside or before marriage, or even without marriage, always takes its paradigmatic meaning from the institution of marriage.

It is not for nothing that in a country like India, which never experienced any movement like “free love”, an extra-marital affair on the part of a man (not a woman) with a married woman, without the consent of the other man, is still considered to be a criminal offence in the 21st century.

It not only presupposes that a married woman is the private property of her husband, it also considers the economy of pleasure within marriage–and marriage by definition is heterosexual, monogamous and mono-amorous– to be the inviolate, sanctified and consecrated paradigm of all erotic relationships between humans, more constructively, between a  man and a woman.   

LOVE WITH BENEFITS

In our times, flowers of love and pleasure seem to be blooming in a more glorious light than ever before. Every object of production and consumption today, from mango juice to a pair of shoes, from perfume to soaps, is sexualized or erotized in advertisements, promising an abundance of limitless pleasure. With the plethora of online dating sites and emergence of varied sorts of platforms for “friends with benefits” and “no strings attached”, and “live-in”, it may appear that sexuality and love are now finally liberated and emancipated from the prison-house of morality and the law.

A closer look, however, gives us a different understanding of these phenomena. In today’s ‘society of the spectacle’ – as Guy Debord uses this term – nothing is more spectacular and nothing is more profitable than pleasure in the global market-place of mass-consumption. Everything, even the least sexual thing or the most asexual thing, must be sexualized to be profitable.

In this universalization of so-called sexualization that touches every aspect of our life today, a life that feeds itself upon the virtual world of fantastic enjoyment, nothing seems to be more missing than truly a form of life freed from the grasp of the law. One fitting example is that of online dating which is so tightly controlled by all powerful social media moguls.

Online dating predicated on the immense loneliness of individuals in crowded cities looking for love and enjoyment, for friendship and companionship, has become a source of super profits for the owners of these multinational companies. We don’t tend to encounter in these dating sites individuals as irreducibly singular beings; we rather meet them as people from whom pleasure, like profit, can be elicited. In this manner, love and pleasure are incorporated, in a much more overwhelming manner, and in a much more powerful apparatus of totalization, into a system of economy where we willy-nilly participate.

Nobody forces us to join online dating sites or social media like Facebook and Instagram, and yet, all of us are forced, by an invisible, anonymous and impersonal force to participate in these systems of totalization. This force-without-force, which is precisely the force in its nakedness, never ceases to measurelessly incorporate us into the new world-order of economy for which pleasure and love are nothing other than pure fantasy, an elusive and unattainable object of desire.

We now live a life incorporated much more powerfully within the means-end structure of the economic law than ever before.

It is an overwhelming paradox of our times that with so much stress on socialization through social media and online dating sites , individuals are lonelier than ever before. Nothing is today more difficult than to encounter another human in her absolute singularity. This is the new barbarism of today’s extremely sophisticated and technologically advanced civilization.

This paradox is symptomatic of the immense price that we are paying for our civilization. On the one hand, online dating and “friends with benefits” in social media are becoming immensely popular in today’s world of erotic mass-consumption; on the other hand, a new puritanism of morality is economizing our need for love, companionship and pleasure by censoring our erotic-amorous life in the name of the heterosexual, monogamous and mono-amorous institution of marriage.

The more we seek to fulfill our life with love freed from the ‘carceral archipelago’ of the law, the more the law captures our life in ever new guises, turning love and pleasure to an unattainable goal.

 

Notes:

--Bachus and Ariadne jpg courtesy: www.wikiart.org
Subrata DasSaitya Brata Das teaches English Literature and Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has published peer-reviewed articles extensively, He co-edited (with Soumyabrata Choudhury) “The Weight of Violence: Religion, Language and Politics” published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.

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