Monday, February 09, 2009

What Interests Me

I have been following the news of the economic collapse and the stimulus bill with some interest. Although I have to admit that I am of two minds on the issue. As a tenure track (but not yet tenured) philosophy professor at a state university I am keenly aware of my precarious job position. I am also concerned for the well being of my friends and family, many of whom work in non-profits, education, and social services, in other words all of whom are expendable. Because of this, part of me would to see this bill succeed, to see the economy restored, or at least brought out of this downward spiral. At the same time, however, I do not want to say that I would like to see it fail, but at the very least I would like to see something other than a restoration of business as usual. I would like to see this conjuncture extended into real critical reflection about the fundamentals of our economy: of what counts as wealth and how it is distributed. I am not hoping for a revolution (at least yet) just a transformation, and it seems like it has to get much worse for that to happen.

One could label the first thought, that of hope for success of the economic stimulus package, interest, since it bears directly on my economic wellbeing. In doing so it brings to mind the critical ways in which interest has been discussed by Badiou, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. (Admittedly this is a somewhat odd constellation since it encompasses texts written over the last thirty-five years). In Badiou’s little text on Ethics, he argues that “interest” is fundamentally conservative, even nihilistic, because it can recognize no event other than harm, than the eventual death of the human animal. “The ordinary behavior of the human animal is a matter of what Spinoza calls perseverance in being, which is nothing other than the pursuit of interest, or the conservation of self.” In Metapolitics Badiou goes on to argue that “interest” is at the heart of every “Thermidor” of every attempt to deny the truth of a revolutionary event. The revolution comes to an end when it is declared that “interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.” Politics is reduced to the conflict of interests—truth, equality, and universality collapse in the face of competing interest groups. I find Badiou’s scattered remarks of interest to be well interesting, they capture something that is essential to both neoliberalism and interest group politics. However, they are not presented as such, as diagnoses of the present. For Badiou there is a fundamental split in humanity: on the one side there is interest, a struggle for survival shared with all living things, on the other there is the capacity to be immortal, to maintain fidelity to the truth of equality and justice.

In a different way Deleuze and Guattari argue for a division, not between interest and truth, but between interest and desire. However, for Deleuze and Guattari, interest is not the residue of a purely animalistic existence, rather it is the product of a particular social formation. As Deleuze writes in Desert Islands, “Once interests have been defined within the confines of a society, the rational is the way in which people pursue those interests and attempt to realize them. But underneath that, you find desires, investments of desire that are not to be confused with investments of interests, and on which interests depend for their determination and very distribution: an enormous flow, all kinds of libidinal-unconscious flows that constitute the delirium of this society.” The distinction between interest and desire relates to a short period in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, roughly the years around Anti-Oedipus, and it seems to be part of the incomplete project of that early work: the project of schizoanalysis as an analysis of the political unconscious. Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the distinction between desire and interest is an attempt to overcome two dualisms: one between base and superstructure, desire is part of the infrastructure, and one between rational interest and irrational false interest. Thus sometimes it is desire that is completely subjugated to the system, caught in the flows of money that make it appear as if we all participate in the massive flows of wealth. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “Desire of the most disadvantaged creature will invest with all its strength, irrespective of any economic understanding or lack of it, the capitalist social field as a whole.” At other times, interest is entirely subordinate to the social aggregates, to the socius, and it is desire that is revolutionary. It is possible to be radical at the level of desire, breaking the chains of society, and reactionary at the level of interest, or, and this is more Deleuze and Guattari’s concern, vice versa, to have an interest in changing society but fascist desires. What is essential, at least as far as differentiating Deleuze and Guattari from Badiou, is that neither interest nor desire are natural; they are not anthropological constants, but thoroughly historical and social, even at the point where they break with society.

Michel Foucault continues this discontinuous line of considering the historicity of subjects of interest in his lectures on neoliberalism (The Birth of Biopolitics). According to Foucault neoliberalism can best be understood as a form (or would that be mode?) of governmentality that acts on interests rather than on rights. Rights by definition are exchangeable; in fact one could argue that, at least in classical social contract theory, rights come into existence through the exchange of certain “natural rights” for the right of security, safety, and property. Thus rights are oddly social even in their separation. Interests are irreducible, they cannot be exchanged or alienated. To be governed by interests is to take this irreducible asocial aspect as foundational: one channels interest by making certain activities cheap and others costly.

I am not sure what this quick survey of interest has to do with the dilemma above, except to pose the following question: what if we assume that we are governed by interest? Which is to say that we are not so much controlled by ideology, by arguments and ideals about how we should live, but by our simple desire to live. Our interest causes us to be invested in things that we might otherwise oppose, like huge bailouts to banks, because we need them to simply survive. Interest ties us to society as it exists. It seems to me that we can then follow Badiou and Deleuze’s route, and try to find that which radically breaks with interest: truth or desire. We could try to recognize in interest the seeds of our subjection and try to think about how we could constitute ourselves otherwise.


Will Roberts said...

This is not necessarily a helpful comment, UN, but I've been teaching Luxemburg and Lenin, and your discussion of interests reminds me of nothing so much as the classical Marxist category of "opportunism." The 35 year span you are analyzing could be opened up to include the whole of the 20th century, at least: opportunism versus the historical task of inaugurating the revolutionary event. Luxemburg would understand Badiou perfectly!

unemployed negativity said...

That is helpful. I am always interested in the way in which old debates are replayed with new vocabularies and concepts. Not to say that there is nothing new under the sun, but the difference and repetition interests me.