Introduction: Politics of Ecstasy
Must we stop obsessing about how faithfully our anti-authoritarian practices conform to certain ideological principles and, instead, try to understand how they produce moments of exultation, of “ecstasy”? Looking at our battlegrounds through the lens of ecstasy lights up shifting visions and narratives. While the regulation image of us decked in our best principles might appear unblemished, most of us writing for this issue have found the image of us stripped down to our ecstasies less flattering. So much for our plans to destabilise capitalism with our seismic passions – at the moment, our ecstasies are adding cement to its foundations…
Here we are again, digging through innards – but we try to do it without resentment and without a sense of doom. We’re not sure we have succeeded.
Also, do not forget our eternal disclaimer: however self-assured our assertions might at times appear, we’re not writing the law here, we’re not revealing the truth: we’re experimenting with writing about stuff that we find urgent and it often means finding our way in the dark, tendons in our arms thinly stretched. But we try to hold hands.
Preamble: Does Radical Ecstasy Thrive in the Shadow of the Phallus?
We explore various fragments of our ecstasies in this issue and still barely scratch the surface of the words and things we have learned to enjoy. We paint a rather bleak image of our techniques of enjoyment, but one not devoid of hope. At the same time, we don’t echo the assertive tone of some anarchist/autonomist writings on the topic (“We’re constantly burning in the orgasmic fires of passion!” type thing) and try to explain why.
The idea that maybe does not emerge so strongly, but was a guiding thread while we were conceiving the issue, is that we are strategically trying to move from respecting some “principles” to intervening on the structure of our ecstasies. A turn, if you please, towards a “politics of ecstasy”. Or, putting our ecstasies where our mouth is.
The “Man of Principles” is, after all, the strong figure of liberalism and instrumental in shaping our carceral reality. We leave to them the inflexible, centralising, rationalistic, legalistic, duty-bound, algorithmic and disciplined approach implied by “principles”. As a friend once said, “Ethics are for liberals”.
Around us, the “population” is blissfully flooding the various bourgeois amusement parks and refuses to imagine that any other form of enjoyment is possible. Meanwhile, liberal apparatuses continue their colonisation of the libidinal field, filling it up with high streets, theatres and opera houses, strip clubs and assorted bordellos, malls, trenches, walls, museums, pubs, restaurants, screens, road blocks, art galleries, barbed wire, holidays, cruises and motorways; everyone dreams of joining the guided tour from one comfortable exhilaration to another. From parenthood to work, from tourism to art, from sex to shopping, from self-display to the spectacle of each other’s and the other’storments, the population has a ready-to-wear flora of exultations to jolt itself with. As long as this is the case, the future of capitalism is secure: governing enjoyment is a wonderful tool for creating a docile and useful population.
Despite the predictability of the enemy’s techniques, us antibourgeois are most hapless precisely when operating in this field of enjoyment, losing ground, battles and, if we continue like this, probably the war. We are yet unable to develop a serious riposte to the bourgeois ecstatic dominion and, inside our circles and outside them, seem to prefer sipping the indigestible cocktail of radical principles and mass-produced ecstasies. Soon our enjoyment will become undistinguishable from that of the “avant-garde” bourgeoisie, if it isn’t already.
On the other hand, changing the way we enjoy won’t be easy and, if nothing changes, the temptation to use “radical” principles to disguise our bourgeois enjoyment will grow stronger. Because, what happens when a “radical” realises – at some level – that their desires and pleasures remain bourgeois? Quite possibly they hold on, white-knuckled, to some high-principled habitus and performativity that become impossible to contest, to some compulsory rituals that remain their last indication of “radicalness”. Such algorithms of performance grow increasingly detailed and rigid as they struggle to soothe our paranoia, a bit like the algorithms of liberal bureaucracy grow increasingly detailed and rigid as they try to hide the structural violence of this system. Until, to our surprise, our “antibourgeois” spaces start harbouring minute policing techniques and militia patrols to prevent the transgressing of our principles of “radical conduct”. Until we start practising quasi-religious ceremonies for exorcising our uncertainty, ambivalence, oscillation, vacillation and murkiness, a purge similar to the liberal quest for absolute truths and universals, for certainty and untarnished goodness. Until the rituals of denunciation, trials and auto-da-fé become a source of enjoyment. If and when that happens, our enjoyment is fully trapped within the coordinates of phallic enjoyment, seeking law-like certainties, dreaming of omnipotence, wholeness and holiness, exalting the ego, tracing boundaries between us and the other and trying to come on top in some turgid competition of individual worth. And it’s a slippery slope from there: let’s not forget that both liberalism and fascism abhor uncertainty and fantasise about a life shaped by exhaustive rules, laws, procedural codes and absolute truths and by the violent expurgation of all “impurity” from life. All bourgeois enjoyment is phallic.
Whenever and wherever it occurs, phallic enjoyment makes collective life tricky, a pond to be navigated carefully so as to avoid hitting the archipelagos of sensitivity and anxiety of our comrades and groups. Everything we write in this issue is meant as a tool for getting ourselves out of this pond and for opening some, no doubt quite modest, windows towards an uncharted – hypothetical? – but tempting open sea of non-bourgeois ecstasy.
The Unbearable Docility of Bourgeois Ecstasy
A. The dead end of “wild desire”
I know very well that analysis is half-blind, a mirror stained by the fantasies, imagined memories and narcissism of the “analyser”. But still, I cannot give up some sort of post-hoc examination of my and my comrades’ practices, hoping it might help me understand how, in the bourgeois order, our enjoyment is shaped like a formula one race, a most idiotic shape indeed.
Maybe the most important point I’m trying to make is that desire and pleasure are closely governed in bourgeois society; they are possibly the main targets of this regime’s apparatuses. This goes against what some of our comrades or potential allies have been arguing; for them, desire represents something spontaneous and primordial coming from “inside”, a “natural” force that, when obeyed, brings unbridled joy, liberation or revolution. Why do I dismiss the idea that the revolutionary task is to “liberate desire” from the shackles of socialisation or capitalism? Because, for me, there is no “primordial desire” – all desire is socially manufactured. Nothing is hiding underneath our “bourgeois desire”. Literally, nothing. The fantasy that under our “bourgeois desire” lies a “wild and free desire” is actually a trope of bourgeois ideology. It’s understandable that an obsessively (self)governed creature like the bourgeois would dream up some ungovernable “depths of the body or soul” like desires, instincts or whatever. It’s comforting to imagine that under the leash you put on every morning lies something indomitable. But this fantasy of a free and ungovernable desire that can lead to freedom is but ointment for the leash, soothing the friction, reducing the burn; moreover, it is an effect of liberal governing, a sibling of the fantasies that freedom can spring forth from the “ungovernable” market, from “spontaneous” individuality or from “unconstrained” choice. Liberal governing technologies usually tiptoe around a central question: “How can we shape a social order in which very closely governed subjects can – and prefer to – pretend that they are free?” Presenting certain elements of subjectivity as being naturally ungovernable is one possible answer this question and this is why bourgeois ideology sells as “natural”, “spontaneous” and “free” the most intensively governed elements of subjectivity or social organisation: “individuality”, “difference”, “personality”, “sexuality”, “sex/gender”, “ethnicity”, “intimacy”, “choice”, “private property”, “market”, “society”, “the family” and, of course, “desire” and “enjoyment”.
The desires or enjoyment we “spontaneously” experience and put our hopes in very possibly conceal at their core the most typical bourgeois desire: the desire to submit to authority. For us, born in the concentration camps of bourgeois ecstasy, the point is not to dig for freedom inside this camp, but to make our escape; we should return only when we are able to burn it down.
B. Everything you ever wanted to know about bourgeois ecstasy but were afraid to ask (yourself)
In psychoanalysis, jouissance is an ineffable term, impossible to pin down definitively but also impossible to abandon because in its own slippery, vague and erratic way it remains fascinating. To tap into this fascination, but also get away from the clinical-academic apparatuses of psychoanalysis, I will propose another term that, partly, releases jouissance from its disciplinary cradle: “ecstasy”. In the West, the fantasy of “ecstasy” is largely Christian and the term summons associations with the supernatural, obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, aggressive, tyrannical, colonial, patriarchal and docile. This is precisely why the term is fitting.
Let’s rapidly move away from the shore and into the obscure deep waters.
I. Small fragments of a heretical map of ecstasy
My working definition of ecstasy would be something like this: “a moment of intensity that makes life worth living”. Within the various routines of bourgeois life, there are certain practices that produce a peak of excitation and dreaming about such practices justifies going on with it all. It seems like a rather vague and pedestrian definition, but I hope to flesh it out gradually by approaching it from various angles. Here are some initial hypotheses on ecstasy:
– The experience of ecstasy necessitates a fantasy (for example, mystical orgasms are reachable only by going through one’s religious fantasy). Thus, ecstasy can take any character, from spanking to watching football, from partying to neurotic symptoms and from venerating the leader to rioting.
– Ecstasy has no conforming or subversive intrinsic potential and can be either, the submissive ecstasy of normative gender or the subversive ecstasy of sabotage.
– There aren’t “natural” forms of ecstasy; human ecstasy is a thoroughly engineered and governed process.
– As some of my examples above suggests, ecstasies are not necessarily pleasant, without for this reason losing their ability to give some substance to one’s subjectivity: suffering, self-mutilation or neurotic symptoms like phobias can produce ecstasy as much as gambling or consuming pornography do.
– Ecstasy represents a most important element of one’s life, indeed what we could call the “truth” of the subject, if there ever was such thing (there isn’t).
– At times, ecstasy might be experienced as “self-loss”: a loss of awareness of the self, as in the “petite mort” of the sexual orgasm, say. In such moments, one feels that they lose touch with their surroundings and their ego and slip into “another realm”. This sensation of being “fully in the moment” comes from forgetting, for an instant or a bit more, the anxiety of being under the Other’s gaze. One experiences the exultation of being “off the official map of recognition”. Not bad; but there are risks, since during this “little death” one loses sight not just of the Other but also of the power relations that shape the self and reality, a temporary blindness that can spur that fantasy of “instinctual ecstasy” I find rather counterproductive.
– Most often, however, our ecstasies are not experiences of being out of the Other’s gaze but on the contrary, of being at its centre. This is not the exultation of self-loss but the exultation of certainty, of self-importance, when we fantasize that we are unequivocally confirmed as “I!” (or “You!”).
– Bourgeois ecstasy is a variant of this second type of ecstasy: “a moment of intensity that has the ability to confirm the subject’s existence as aself (an identity, individual, etc.) and therefore becomes addictive”.
The boundary between the ecstasies of loss and the ecstasies of presence might be much more flimsy than my description allows; and there might be other forms of ecstasy that I cannot think of right now. Since ecstasy is about practices and their traces (memories, craves, desires, guilt, remorse), only practice might tell.
Cosily draped in the blanket of the modern fantasy of (scientific) certainty, the bourgeois feels heightened anxiety whenever faced with the fundamental uncertainty of reality and of desire. This cauldron of anxiety is, according to psychoanalysis, where jouissance is generated.
Hence, psychoanalytically, jouissance is associated with disruption, destruction, desubjectivation and the subject’s drive towards death. That is, psychoanalytically, jouissance is expressed in practices that aim at the destruction of life, body, identity, career, comfort, stability, institutions, social order, selfhood, civilisation, the other, the loved ones and so on (the “death drive”). This is why some of those that write in a psychoanalytical vein, like Lee Edelman, Todd McGowan or Baedan, imagine the death drive as an insurrectionist force that can disembowel bourgeois society; I will suggest otherwise.
In order to explain why enjoyment falls outside of or threatens the symbolic order, some texts I have read describe jouissance in the same way any bourgeois would: as something natural, wild, atavistic, primordial, pre-discursive, as something coming out of the “depths” of the pre-symbolic body. I don’t find that interesting; it reheats residues of colonial, biopolitical and Romanticist (that elitist European current enamoured with “darkness” out of terminal upper class boredom) fantasies, which all conjure instincts, natural drives, primordial desires and so on to justify the nastiest power relations of modernity.
II. “I feel it in my body, I feel it in my soul…”
Modern apparatuses shape a panoply of ecstasies that, behind their deceptive diversity, use the same mechanism: they gratify the subject with a confirmation of their “being”. If bourgeois anxiety is expressed in psycho-dilemmas of the type “I do not know if they desire me, therefore I am not sure (if/what/when) I am!”, then the experience of bourgeois ecstasy resonates as “I am (this)!” Both terms in the “I am!” exclamation are confirmed by the moment of ecstasy: both being or presence (“am!”) and the self or ego (“I!”).
To make it clear, “being”, this concept of a unitary, coherent, stable and unique essence that represents, unequivocally, who “I am” and and who “We are” is itself an impossible ideal, a fantasy, a pretense and a ploy. The consciousness of the “I” or of “being” is rather the effect of an aggressive, desperate effort to create a force that can keep together the disparate, incompatible fragments that compose subjects and reality.
Obviously, the answer that bourgeois ecstasy provides to the question of desire is not straightforward, a voice-over in one’s head going: “Hi, this is an announcement from the Other: Stop worrying, you really are a desirable (woman/man/worker/etc.)”. Most often ecstasy arrives in the form of a sensation: butterflies in the stomach, a rush, a high, the embodied pangs of terror or guilt, suffocation, pain, fainting, shivers, dizziness, and so on. During such moments, the subject self-recognises as a stable “somebody” but without an immediate awareness that this is the case: they simply experience some addictive intensity.
That ecstasy is often (always?) experienced bodily encourages the subject to recognise it as something solid or “material” that anchors the indeterminacy of being in the firm ground of the biological, the natural and the “felt”: in the ecstatic moments Ifeel, in unmediated manner, that I am “I”, I experience my “being” in my sphincters, nerves and heart. How could this feeling not be rewarding, when it “materialises” the modern fantasy of having our “being” confirmed by nature? It is from this perspective that we should understand the endless pleasure that the bourgeoisie obtains from Calvinist assertions of the type:: “Our truth is coded in our genes!”
But, while seemingly “spontaneous”, or “natural”, or “animal/corporeal/instinctive”, any ecstatic practice depends on a fantasmatic framework that is, on a symbolic narrative, a myth, etc. Pricking your finger might be intense, but it is not an ecstatic intensity unless the act is incorporated into a fantasy – of a pact, of a blood rite, of sex, of self-destruction, etc. So, even if – especially if! – ecstasy is experienced in the body, we should not be fooled into believing that it’s an expression of animal instincts – the “animal (instinctual) body” of science is but a reinterpretation of the “dirty (instinctual) body” of Christian theology.
Technical note: The body has no depth; it is a surface of inscription folded in complicated 3D patterns by various scripts, discourses and disciplinary technologies (education, hygiene rituals, anatomical atlases, pornography, etc.). The “soul” is an even more intricate origami, creating various vacuoles: of memory, of desire, of enjoyment, of identity, of the unconscious, of the ego or “I”, and so on. We have a fully symbolic body and ecstasies, if you please.
IV. Bourgeois ecstasy as exoskeleton
The moments of ecstasy become the bourgeois’ most passionate moments of “living” in the sludge of everyday automatisms. They, weirdly, provide a structure that is something more than the rituals of work, household chores, meals, driving, taking care of children, pre-programmed chitchat, shopping, fixing the house and whatever else we do when we live “normally” or “non-ecstatically”. As absurd as it seems, amidst the placidity of everyday chores, the moments of idiotic rage and joy experienced while watching one’s favourite football team play, or the moments of “self-loss” we obtain with drugs are the “truest”, since they reassure the bourgeois that they have a being and an ego, that they have presence and purpose. This makes one easily governable by a modern regime specialised in creating mass conducts that give the impression that they are made “specifically for you” or, rather, that they express who “you” truly are.
V. Of ecstatic submission
It becomes clear that bourgeois ecstasy and governing or authority are closely connected. As argued, the bourgeois gets all ecstatic whenever they fantasise that their “being” is confirmed. And, as in any hierarchically governed society, bourgeois “being” is granted by formal authorities (the heterogeneous and dispersed apparatuses, authorities and experts that produce gender/sex, race or ethnicity, to give the most obvious examples). Bourgeois ecstasy “confirms” as true and desirable the formal modes of “being” – gender/sex, ethnicity, etc. – secreted by authoritative, hierarchical apparatuses, from the State, Fiat and the FIFA to facefuck, history books and so on… “A Master becomes a Master by recognizing me in my uniqueness”, as Žižek argues.
So, bourgeois ecstasy is addictive not because it brings the subject in unbearable proximity to the limit of meaning and order; but because it produces a feeling of having one’s existence confirmed by an authority from within the liberal-capitalist apparatuses of ecstasy. Saint Theresa, according to de Beauvoir an existentialist heroine, cannot access ecstasy unless through her belief in and love for her male master, the Christ. Her ecstasy reveals how passionate is Theresa’s submission to the phallic law of Christianity. Today, as suitable for a confessional society like the bourgeois one, ecstatic exultation is still elicited by a relationship of passionate submission.
Capitalism’s ability to govern bourgeois ecstasies has nothing magical about it: the same apparatuses that grant this subject identity – apparatuses of sexing/gendering/sexualising, for example – are also producing their ecstasies. Nor is the docility of the bourgeois hard to fathom: if one extracts ecstasy from some formal process of being named, instituted or displayed, from (social) visibility, from being granted credentials, prizes and rewards, from being assessed, selected and categorised, from being nominated, cited, invited or convoked, etc.; then, obviously, they will cling to the socio-symbolic structures that create and protect these authoritative processes. Otherwise put, if one’s enjoyment depends on identification with this or that authority, one will not contest said authority (“one cannot criticize too far the terms by which one’s existence is secured”, Judith Butler).
No wonder we are obsessed with selfies, social media or celebrities. “When we authenticate on the [social] platforms and access our profiles with a name and a password we are, in fact, accessing ourselves” (Ippolita). And, in the contemporary bourgeois fantasy, celebrities seem to us anxiety-free because they seem to bask in the glory of being constantly loved/desired by the Other for their unique individuality (a funny fantasy considering how obviously these “individualities” are manufactured); thus, the bourgeois feels relieved of anxiety when identifying with these celebrities, in the same way in which they feel ecstatic when identifying with the “strong leader”, who also projects the phallic image of being beyond the anxiety of desire. Now, an anxious bourgeois can check out every day the page of an “influencer” or post myriads of selfies in an attempt to find the final answer to the question of desire and get rid of uncertainty.
VI. Fascist ecstasy
Besides the various mechanisms mentioned above, there never misses from the bourgeois panoply of exultations fascist ecstasy, which is produced by projecting the subject’s symbolic uncertainty on their fantasmatic antagonist, the other. Racism, homophobia, misogyny or classism produce enjoyment by blaming the subject’s castration or identity failure on the non-white, gay, women, unemployed, criminal, mad, poor, migrant, racialized and so on. In the fantasy that guides this form of ecstasy, the other acts as a blockage to the bourgeois’ own ecstasies or wholeness and has to be eliminated. This projection is only encouraged by the connection between bourgeois ecstasy and self-confirmation. Since in the modern fantasy identities are constructed through the symbolic exclusion, erasure and domination of the other, whose posited abjection is the foundation of my self-worth (manhood depends on the debased identity of womanhood, to give the most obvious example), then self-confirmation implies violence and a great many bourgeois ecstasies depend on the degradation of an other. We are nowhere near to seeing the end of fascism: new forms will keep appearing for as long as bourgeois ecstasy continues to function according to this mechanism.
VII. Ecstatic loops
Since the bourgeois is constantly bothered by the anxiety of (non-)”being”, their ecstasies become compulsive. In capitalism ecstasy assumes the hamster-wheel form that psychoanalysis calls the “drive” and that I will call “ecstasy loop”: a circling around various objects of desire guided by various dispositifs: shopping, sports, nationalism, pornography, elections, gender performance, gambling, gaming, sex, TV, art, social media, war, etc.
C. The two-headed phallus of the ecstatic loop
For the bourgeois, the exultation obtained from the loop – say, the ecstasy of shopping for shoes – has a double aspect. On one hand, one obtains an ecstatic rush from the repressed knowledge that the new shoes will fail to fill their hole, thus making necessary a new purchase. By not satisfying, the ecstatic loop guarantees future ecstasies, allowing one to unconsciously fantasize about re-engaging in another enjoyable loop even while performing the current one. Here, bourgeois ecstasy tends towards an encounter with the fundamental uncertainty of being only to keep one step away from it: this step is the next loop, the next shopping spree. On the other hand, shopping also produces ecstasy from the fantasy of recognition, of imagining how desirable one will appear to the Other in their new shoes.
Titillated by both dissatisfaction and the promise of fullness, the bourgeois remains idiotically addicted to the process of buying, to the plus/minus cycles of the loop, in a process that never gets close enough to either self-dissolution or satisfaction but keeps consumption going.
Thus, bourgeois ecstasies prop up the framework that guarantees their reproduction, now and ever: capitalism. Meanwhile, the entire cultural production of capitalism is directed at making, again and again, the point that these docile loops are the characteristics of a proper modern subject, the freest and most desirable subject.
D. Where is the battlefield?
Ecstasy is the real currency of capitalist governing: to rule undisturbed, one has to deploy apparatuses that pepper the tedious bourgeois habitus with moments of ecstasy. So, the various machineries of the modern age are set up to construct patterns of ecstasy. Today the bourgeois’ most “secret” sexual fantasies can be organized in “consumer-friendly” categories by the sex industry.
The structure of bourgeois ecstasy might explain why we so smoothly move towards a condition where the population wants even less “choice” and fantasises about a perfect (“natural”) order where their “being” would be secured by law, apartheid-style, and where they would receive precise commands on how to be desirable. The bourgeoisie desires more, not less, authority, since it makes their typical ecstasies easier to attain.
The fickleness of the “population” that some analysts lament when, for example, citizens vote alternatively left and right wing governments, is just an appearance. The bourgeois population is not fickle but, on the contrary, obstinately pursues its known and trusted patterns of ecstasy and will vote for whoever convinces them they can deliver, be they the communists, conservatives, social-democrats, neoliberals or fascists.
Some philosopher argued that we live spontaneously in ideology, that our natural sight is ideological. To damage the bourgeois order, we do not need to remove the “distorting specs of ideology”, as some Marxists would argue; but to put on the “specs of radical fantasy”.
Similarly, our desires and ecstasies are engineered by the bourgeois order and then shown as “natural” by liberal ideology. And thus, if one’s desire is for submission and one obtains ecstasy from docility, one cannot “liberate” their desire for antinomy or insurrectionary ecstasy that, allegedly, lies underneath, “repressed”; this is simply because this rebellious desire and these wild ecstasies do not exist. And since they are the only ones they’ve got, giving up these obedient desires and ecstasies means being left empty, a paralysed carcass covered in inert, unbearable meat. This is why the bourgeois population so fiercely defends their ecstasies. So then, one more time with feeling: the point is not to liberate desire and ecstasy “from the shackles of bourgeois ideology”; but to produce other, wicked, poisonous or rabid forms of antibourgeoisecstasy that will cannibalise their bourgeois counterparts and, eventually, completely consume them. This requires experimentation. Many comrades tried to imagine collective ecstasies (the Invisible Committee, Colectivo Situaciones, the Bataille group); many of us experienced them in some occasion or another. They exist and, when they happen, are exhilarating. To these, capitalism opposes the mass-produced, individualised, isolated and narcissistic ecstasies that keep the bourgeois busy and reinforce, at each loop, this insufferable reality.
This is where the battleground is; but most of us don’t seem to be aware of it.
(The full edition of the second issue of the eukariot can be found here).