Internet shopping has entered mainstream culture. Every major corporation in the world has a web site offering product information, interactive advertisements, and, increasingly, the ability to buy products on-line. Discount books, pizza delivery, stocks, and just about anything else you can imagine are available for purchase in cyberspace. Internet based commerce exemplifies and extends the trends in capitalism that this paper attempts to elucidate. In particular, World Wide Web shopping accelerates the rate at which a shopper can acquire products. The only thing that separates an advertisement from a purchase is a couple of mouse clicks. My central contention is that late capitalism not only accelerates the flow of capital, but also accelerates the rate at which subjects assume identities. Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.
… What is meant by identification? This preliminary question informs my discussion of how identification functions in the media saturated world of late capitalism and, more importantly, the issue of how identities can be fostered that resist the logic of commodification.
1. Capitalism and Schizophrenia
I focus my discussion of identification by comparing two contradictory texts. The first is the groundbreaking essay by Fredric Jameson, entitled, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1983). The second is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s controversial book Anti-Oedipus (1983). Jameson’s essay and Anti-Oedipus present two distinct perspectives on how subjects form identities within late capitalism. Although very different, both texts approach identification through an analysis of schizophrenia and capitalism. To further explore these two themes, I place these texts in conversation with each other and with other texts that focus more narrowly on psychoanalytic studies of contemporary visual culture.
Jameson associates postmodern aesthetic and cultural movements with the psychoanalytic category of schizophrenia. Borrowing from Lacan, Jameson defines schizophrenia as “the failure of the infant to accede fully into the realm of speech and language” (Jameson 118). The schizoid neonate fails to fully acquire language, and as a result cannot individuate, because the infant must enter into a social/linguistic field to develop an ego. Jameson writes that:
schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time (119).
According to Jameson, the schizophrenic lacks a personal identity, is unable to differentiate between self and world, and is incapable of experiencing continuity through time.
There are several reasons why Jameson associates these attributes of schizophrenia with postmodernism and late capitalism. In many respects the media culture of the late twentieth century simulates schizoid experience. The rapid fire succession of signifiers in MTV style media erodes the viewers sense of temporal continuity. To use the same words that Jameson uses to describe schizophrenic experiences, the images that flash across the MTV viewers’ retina are “isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence.” This postmodern montage can have the effect of disorienting the subject, and may contribute to the egolessness that is characteristic of schizophrenia..
Jameson is concerned that the emerging postmodern art forms will lack the subversive, critical function that modernist art served. “[M]odernism was oppositional art,” asserts Jameson. It “did not go well with overstuffed Victorian furniture, with Victorian moral taboos, or with the conventions of polite society” (123–124). As modernism lost its subversive nature and became canonized (i.e. Picasso, Elliot, Sartre, etc.) it is unclear weather postmodernism filled in as a radical social/political movement. By destroying the distinction between high and low art, postmodern culture was able to integrate itself into the capitalist mass culture. MTV can serve as our example once again. For all its sexual explicitness, MTV fails to shock, and contributes to capitalist culture more than it threatens it. Thus, Jameson concludes that “postmodernism is closely related to… late capitalism” (125). Where modernism often attacked the bourgeois society from which it emerged, postmodernism “replicates… reproduces… [and] reinforces… the logic of consumer capitalism” (125). Jameson leaves open the possibility that “there is also a way in which [postmodernism]… resists” the logic of capitalism (125). Nevertheless, he reveals his Marxist background and modernist leanings through his skepticism toward the political potential of postmodernism.
Jameson links schizophrenia to postmodernism, and postmodernism to consumer capitalism. He is saying, in effect, that contemporary capitalism has extended the symptoms of schizophrenia to the masses in the form of postmodern culture. His formulation sees both postmodernism and schizophrenia as cultural forces that scramble and confuse. The schizophrenic confusion destroys the possibility of critical perspectives, such as those found in modernist traditions. In a fragmented cultural milieu, capitalist, consumer culture can thrive unopposed. When Jameson diagnoses our culture as schizophrenic, he is telling us that our culture is not fully human. A schizophrenic culture fails “to accede fully into the realm of speech and language.” (118) Like the schizophrenic, such a culture is rootless, separated from history, and outside of “human time” (119).
Like Jameson, Deleuze and Guattari see correspondences between capitalism and schizophrenia, although they conceptualize the relationship quite differently. This difference stems in part from the philosophies of the authors. Where Jameson is a Marxist with modernist sympathies, Deleuze and Guattari could be classified as postmodernist, or poststructuralist. Jameson would certainly consider these author’s work to be part of (schizophrenic) postmodern1 cultural production. Furthermore, Jameson is a modernist intellectual who studies postmodernism while Deleuze and Guattari can be described as postmodernist theorists. Thus, when Deleuze and Guattari discuss the relationship between schizophrenia and capitalism, a postmodern sensibility is always lurking in the background.
Deleuze and Guattari react strongly against the Freudian and Lacanian treatment of schizophrenia. In characteristically playful and combative language they warn us of Freud’s distaste for the schizophrenic:
For we must not delude ourselves: Freud doesn’t like schizophrenics. He doesn’t like their resistance to being oedipalized, and tends to treat them more or less as animals. They mistake words for things, he says. They are apathetic, narcissistic, cut off from reality, incapable of achieving transference; they resemble philosophers –“an undesirable resemblance” (23).
According to Deleuze and Guattari, Freud does not like the schizophrenic because s/he is a direct affront to Freud’s psychoanalytic system. The schizophrenic has not developed an ego, or gone through the Oedipal process of individuation. Thus, the schizoid is “somewhere else, beyond or behind or below” the Oedipal triad that is so central to Freudian analysis (23). The schizoid has no “me” and hence does not have an unconscious that is preoccupied with the Oedipal drama of daddy, mommy, and me.
In attempts to cure schizophrenics, Freudian psychoanalysts have often tried to lead the schizophrenic down the road to ego formation, and normality. This has often meant forcibly imposing the Oedipal cycle, which is supposedly characteristic of normal psychic development. Melanie Klein is perhaps “the analyst least prone to see everything in terms of Oedipus” (Deleuze and Guattari 45). Nevertheless, even she was unremitting in her attempts to oedipalize her psychotic patients. When a psychotic child named Dick came to see her for therapy she encouraged him to play with toy trains. Deleuze and Guattari quote Kline’s first person account of the session:
I took the big train and put it beside a smaller one and called them ‘Daddy-train’ and ‘Dick-train.’ Thereupon he picked up the train I called ‘Dick’ and made it roll [toward the station]…. I explained: ‘The station is mummy; Dick is going into mummy’ (qtd. in Deleuze and Guattari 45).
Kline’s statements terrified the kid, causing him to run into a closet to hide. Klein responded to this by saying that “[i]t is dark inside mummy. Dick is inside dark mummy” (45). No matter what behavior the child exhibited, Klein imposed an Oedipal interpretation. The purpose of this treatment was to make the disjointed and incoherent behavior of the patient coalesce into a normal (i.e. Oedipal) identity formation.
Deleuze and Guattari see this kind of treatment as a form of terrorism. In the course of such treatment “[a]ll the chains of the unconscious are…linearized, suspended from a despotic signifier (i.e. Oedipus)” (54). Indeed, they assert that schizophrenics who are treated this way often digress into autism, which has unfortunately been associated with schizophrenia. For Deleuze and Guattari, it is the analyst and the psychiatric ward that make the schizoid sick, and turn him/her into a silent and psychologically unproductive autist. The healthy schizoid has an essentially productive (un)consciousness. S/he does not fantasize. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari assert, s/he produces and makes the real.
This production of the real is fundamentally incongruent with Freudian and Lacanian models of the unconscious. Freud and Lacan see the unconscious as symbolic, fantasy laden, and dramatic filled with semiotic puzzles and ancient Greek theater. Hence, for both authors desire is associated with lack. That is to say, desire desires that which is fantasized, repressed, wished for, or absent. Desire is engaged entirely with that which is lacking and needs to be represented. Hence, “desire gives way to a representation” of that which is lacking the phallus, the Oedipal escapade, the ideal “I”, etc. (54). The schizoid, on the other hand, is incapable of experiencing lack. For him or her the unconscious is always productive and never fantastical. Desire itself produces the real and creates new worlds.
The Freudian unconscious is too unproductive and otherworldly to entice the schizoid into normality. It has nothing to offer the schizoid. Hence, the schizoid scrambles, decodes, and reconfigures the psychoanalytic dialogue transfiguring signifiers into the real, and refusing to be Oedipalized. Schizophrenics “escape coding, scramble the codes, and flee in all directions…[they are]: orphans (no daddy-mommy-me), atheists (no beliefs), and nomads (no habits, no territories)” (Seem xxi). Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic will not be trapped by the power-laden and despotic webs of signifiers that saturate society and psychoanalytic practice.
It is the schizoid’s ability to scramble and decode that Deleuze and Guattari associate with contemporary capitalism. Like the schizophrenic, capitalism can insert itself anywhere and everywhere as a decoder and scrambler. Although,
[o]ur [capitalist] societies exhibit a marked taste for all codes, codes foreign and exotic…this taste is destructive and morbid. While decoding doubtless means understanding and translating a code, it also means destroying the code as such, assigning it an archaic, folkloric, or residual function (245).
Mobile, flexible capital is capable of inserting itself into any cultural milieu. In countries as different as Japan, Brazil, France, and Kenya, capitalism is able to take advantage of the local symbolic order (Harvey 1989). The forms that capitalism takes in these various countries reflect the symbolic order that the capitalist machine has plugged into. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari do not characterize the capitalist machine as monolithic or unitary it does not have an “I”, an ego, or a unified identity. It works instead as a polymorphous destroyer of codes. It continually breaks down the cultural, symbolic, and linguistic barriers that create territories and limit exchange. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari assert that “[c]ivilization is defined by the decoding and deterritorialization of flows in capitalist production” (244).
It would seem that Deleuze and Guattari are making a move similar to Jameson’s by asserting that schizophrenia resembles and is associated with the logic of late capitalism. “Yet it would be a serious error,” assert Deleuze and Guattari, “to consider the capitalist flows and the schizophrenic flows as identical, under the general theme of… decoding” (244). Capitalism “produces schizos the same way it produces Prell shampoo or Ford cars” but the schizos are not salable. (245) Indeed, the schizophrenic is locked up in institutions, and turned into a “confined clinical entity” (245). If the schizophrenic really exemplified the culture of capitalism, why aren’t schizos celebrated as heroes and heroines in contemporary capitalist society? Deleuze and Guattari conclude that:
schizophrenia is the exterior limit of capitalism itself or the conclusion of its deepest tendency, but that capitalism only functions on condition that it inhibit this tendency, or that it push back or displace this limit… Hence schizophrenia is not the identity of capitalism, but on the contrary its difference, its divergence, and its death (246).
As capitalism decodes and deterritorializes it reaches a limit at which point it must artificially reterritorialize by augmenting the state apparatus, and repressive bureaucratic and symbolic regimes. The schizophrenic never reaches such a limit. S/he resists such reterritorialization, just as s/he resists the symbolic and despotic territorialization of the oedipalizing psychotherapist.
Thus, Deleuze and Guattari disagree with Jameson’s argument that schizophrenia reinforces and contributes to the hegemony of capitalism. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari see the schizophrenic as capitalism’s exterminating angel. For them the schizo is a radical, revolutionary, nomadic wanderer who resists all forms of oppressive power. They believe that radical political movements should “learn from the psychotic how to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs” (Seem xxi). Schizophrenic sensibilities can replace ideological and dogmatic political goals with a radical form of productive desire. This “desiring-production” brings the unconscious into the real, and unleashes its radical world-making potential. Productive desire need not be solipsistic, and includes the “group psychosis” induced by radical postmodern artistic creations and political movements. Neither is desiring-production limited to clinical schizophrenics. Desiring-production marks the schizophrenic potential in everyone to resist the power of despotic signifiers and capitalist reterritorialization.
Deleuze and Guattari see schizophrenia as a central part of a subversive postmodern politics with the radical potential to bring down capitalism. Jameson’s view could not be more different. For him, postmodern schizophrenic culture “replicates,” “reproduces,” and “reinforces” the logic of capitalism (Jameson 125). How can we resolve this contradiction which transverses the divide between modernism and postmodernism and highlights the fundamentally different political sensibilities of these two groups? It is a contradiction which causes us to question how psychoanalytical concepts and capitalism resist and reinforce each other. Most importantly, it is a contradiction that informs our reaction and resistance to consumer capitalist culture.
2. Identification and Late Capitalist Visual Culture
Hoping for some insight into a possible resolution to this conflict, I turn to Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Jean Laplanche. I use Lacan to show the importance that images play in the process of ego formation and identification. Barthes’ work helps to extend this analysis to capitalist culture. He explains how media images act as Lacanian mirrors that cause identity formations to be ideologically laden. Laplanche’s work adds a much needed temporal dimension. Laplanche’s theory of time provides a tool for understanding the contemporary acceleration of visual culture and its impact on identification.
Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage describes the process by which the schizoid, polyperverse infant first gains a sense of having a unified identity. Lacan asserts that this experience of identity formation “leads us to oppose any philosophy directly issuing from the Cogito” (1). The Cartesian concept of the self, grounded in the self-evidence of the Cogito, assumes that the ego is pregiven, requires no formation process, exists before the world, and even goes so far as to posit the self as the analytic precondition to the world’s existence. Lacan’s work refutes this view by demonstrating that the neonate is forced into a world of already existing social and semiotic structures. The newborn must be inserted into this linguistic order and can only gain an ego in relation to this order. As Jameson told us earlier, there is no “self”, “ego”, “I”, or “me” without language.
Perhaps the first semiotic stepping stone on the road to ego formation is the recognition of one’s own reflection: the “Ideal-I”. Lacan describes the process whereby an infant first comes to recognize itself in a mirror. Before this point of identification the child does not conceptualize itself as a physically and psychologically bounded individual. If it is shown a mirror, it will not recognize itself, and will take little interest in the light bouncing off the glass. This changes sometime after the infant’s sixth month when an identification occurs. Identification is “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image,” or imago (2). When the child recognizes its own image “the I is precipitated in a primordial form” which Lacan refers to as the “Ideal-I” (2). In this way, ego formation begins with a misrepresentation the neonate mistakes itself for its reflection.
The reflection is a “mirage” which represents an “exteriority in which…[the child’s] form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (2). That is to say, the child’s image is merely a single component of the child’s being that metonymically represents the child as a totality. The ideality of the image “contrast[s] with the turbulent movements that the subject feels to be animating him” (2). The bounded and coherent symmetry of the visual image, an image which serves as a (mis)representation of the child, is utterly incongruent with the polyperverse, schizoid nature of the little “hommelette.” Nevertheless, the force of this misrepresentation is undeniable, and marks the establishment of “a relation between the organism and its reality” (4). Thus, it is at the mirror stage that the neonate first realizes that it is one object among many. At this point, it is able to compare the way the imago of it’s own body relates to other images in the exterior world.
The child is normally exceedingly happy with its new imago often laughing and smiling at the reflection. The situation changes however, when the fictional nature of the imago becomes apparent to the child. The child begins to realize that the “Ideal-I”, with which it was so jubilant to identify, is in fact incongruent with the child’s more complex constitution. This results in “the identification with the imago of the counterpart and the drama of primordial jealousy” (5). That is to say, the child becomes alienated from the “Ideal-I” and begins to see it as another, competing subjectivity. The love for the “Ideal-I” gives way to jealously and fear of competition. This is the point at which humans first learn to desire the other, which in this case is the idealized imago of ones own body. By linking desire with alterity, the child moves beyond the mirror stage into the world of “socially elaborated situations” that force the child to reconcile its own ego with the desire of the other (i.e. that which is lacking), and social, linguistic, and symbolic constraint.
This is how Lacan explains ego formation and the subsequent identification and alienation with idealized (mis)representations. The story is useful in the present context for two reasons. First of all, it details how the schizoid comes to identify with an imago and develops an ego. Secondly, the conception of the mirror stage has been used extensively by media critics to explain the force images have in the regime of consumer capitalism. The mirroring that Lacan describes happens when a woman looks at idealized images in a fashion magazine, when a teenager stares at a poster of a rock star, or when the man on the street gazes up at the Marlboro man on the billboard. Such examples are omnipresent in this media saturated society.
Roland Barthes experiences the pleasure of the Lacanian mirror when he visits the cinema: “In the movie theater, however far away I am sitting, I press my nose against the screen’s mirror, against that “other” image-repertoire with which I narcissistically identify myself” (Barthes 348). Barthes’ short essay, “Leaving the Movie Theater,” illustrates how visual culture lures viewers, producing pleasure, but also communicating and transmitting ideology.
I am glued to the representation [in the film]. The historical subject, like the cinema spectator I am imagining, is also glued to ideological discourse… the Ideological would actually be the image-repertoire of a period of history, the Cinema of a society (348).
The viewer “narcissistically identifies” with an image-repertoire that defines the ideological content of a period in history. Barthes connects the pleasure of a Lacanian identification with ideological indoctrination. Like all Lacanian identifications, this filmic experience produces a misrecognition. The viewing subject, “glued” to the screen, mistakes himself or herself for an ideologically laden “image-repertoire.” In this sense, the very process of ego formation reinforces the logic of a capitalist society.
Barthes implies that understanding the image-repertoire of a society will elucidate the types of (ideologically laden) subject formations possible within that society. What, then, is the image-repertoire of late capitalist society? Paging through a fashion magazine such as Vogue or Elle, we encounter a variety of radically different images: some models are child-like, some are butch, some are waifs, some are tattooed, some wear elegant party dresses, some lounge in torn jeans. Closing the magazine and taking the TV remote in hand, we encounter a similar visual cacophony. The viewer is encouraged to identify with cops, thieves, surfers, businessmen, princes, paupers, house wives, and athletes, to name but a few. Indeed, on MTV all of these characters may make an appearance in the course of a two minute video. Newspapers, movies, billboards, and video games also offer a stunning array of images. Not only does each of these mediums contain a surprisingly varied image-repertoire, but a late capitalist subject may encounter all of these mediums in a single day.
Thus, it is difficult to isolate a particular ideology from the image-repertoire of late capitalism. What is noticeable is not the content of the images but the efficiency and rapidity with which they are circulated and consumed. Nevertheless, to promote consumer capitalism the images must have some content to create the possibility for a mirror stage identification. It is this identification with a model, athlete, or actor that encourages the purchase of the product being pitched. In order for an advertisement in GQ to be successful, it must provoke an ego formation that makes the product integral to the viewer’s identity. This fragile ego formation must persist long enough for the GQ reader to purchase the product.
It is this commitment through time, dependent on a Lacanian ego formation, that is required for advertisements to successfully entice people into buying products. The schizophrenic would make a terrible shopper, because s/he “does nothing, since to have a project means to be able to commit oneself to a certain continuity over time” (Jameson 119-20). But, if the schizophrenic is a terrible shopper, why is schizophrenic consciousness associated with consumer capitalism? This question forces us to consider the relationship between temporality and identity. Jean Laplanche’s recent work explores this theme, providing us with a psychoanalytic theory of temporality.
Following Freud, Laplanche associates the experience of time with rhythm. It is through changes in excitation and the movement between pleasure and unpleasure that we develop our experience of time. Laplanche quotes Freud: “Perhaps it [ the experience of time] is the rhythm, the temporal sequence of changes, rises and falls in the quantity of stimulus” (165). In my view, the “rhythm” of consumer capitalism is defined by the “flickering” (Burgin 10-11) images of the mass media. As the word “flickering” suggests, in late capitalist societies the rhythm that constitutes temporality is extremely rapid. How does this historically specific rhythm influence the formation and dissolution of identities?
Laplanche links temporality and identification with the concept of “de-translation” and “re-translation.” The process of de-translation is characterized by “the splitting up of signifying sequences,” that causes an individual to question his or her current identity (171). The psychoanalyst stimulates de-translation in the analysand, so that s/he can develop an alternative, and, they hope, less repressive, identity. This process works because “the individual has only too great a tendency to recompose a unity, to re-translate, to recast a synthetic vision of himself and his future” (171). It is this proclivity to “recompose a unity” that allows the individual to project an identity into the future.
Hence the experience of time, defined by Laplanche as rhythm, is created through the continual pulse of de-translation and re-translation. De-translation requires a temporal discontinuity which produces a re-translation. Thus, in Laplanche’s terms, time’s rhythm is marked by the ceaseless pulse of de-translation and re-translation. Re-translation produces a temporal commitment, and de-translations allow that same commitment to be revised or replaced. This dual relation proves essential to the workings of consumer capitalism. It allows an individual to identify with an advertisement (re-translation), and project an identity into the future that requires the purchase of a product. Simultaneously, other advertisements will bombard the viewer, “splitting up signifying sequences (de-translation),” and creating the possibility for fresh identity formations (re-translation).
In Lacanian terms, consumer capitalism needs subjects who continually reenact the infantile drama of mirror stage identifications. These subjects must oscillate quickly between schizophrenic consciousness and idealized ego formations. Laplanche’s concept of translation adds a temporal dimension to this analysis, showing how the rhythm defined by the capitalist media continually renews the process of identity formation and dissolution. Laplanche’s work leads me to a conclusion that Laplanche never drew himself. I assert that the increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities. Because advertisements link identity with the need to purchase products, the acceleration of visual culture promotes the hyper-consumption associated with late capitalism.
Put differently, capitalism needs schizophrenia, but it also needs egos. The contradiction is resolved through the acceleration of the temporal rhythm of late capitalist visual culture. This type of acceleration encourages weak egos that are easily formed, and fade away just as easily. An essentially schizo person can have a quick ego formation, and buy a new wardrobe to compliment his or her new identity. This identity must be quickly forsaken as styles change, and contradictory media images barrage the individual’s psyche. The person becomes schizo again, prepared for another round of Lacanian identification and catalogue shopping. The “Ideal-I”s that the capitalist media offer are perhaps even less complex than the infantile imago of the child’s own reflection. Needless to say, such an ego wears out fast, inspiring the consumer to shop around for another one.
The acceleration of the process of de-translation and re-translation has necessitated new modes of shopping. The consumer must be able to make a purchase before one fragile identity is replaced by another. Late capitalist society has seen the emergence of numerous techniques to make purchases more instantaneous: the global acceptance of the credit card, catalogue shopping, infomercials, the home shopping network, and the emerging Internet-based commerce. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, computer based shopping makes purchasing as easy as double clicking on the image of the product you want. In this instance, an identity formation would only need to last 10 seconds to successfully engender a purchase. When the process of identification becomes this rapid, it closely resembles the inability to identify that characterizes schizophrenia.
The similarity between rapid fire identifications and schizophrenia elucidates Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that schizophrenia is “the very limit of capitalism” (35). If we understand the word “limit” in its mathematical sense, we see that the acceleration of visual culture aims to produce a subject that approaches, but does not reach, a truly schizophrenic state. In this respect, Jameson is correct to be concerned that postmodernism and schizophrenia reinforce, instead of resist, consumer capitalism. Yet, Deleuze and Guattari are quick to point out that if the schizophrenic flow transgresses a certain limit, ego identification becomes impossible altogether. In this scenario, the urge to buy would be utterly defused, and capitalism would become impossible.
Despite the allure of Deleuze and Guattari’s revolutionary schizophrenic, it is questionable how such a figure could oppose capitalism. The clinically schizophrenic live miserable and solipsistic lives. Although they do not contribute to the hyper-consumption of late capitalism, they can hardly be called revolutionary. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari do not propose that we should actually strive to become schizophrenic. Rather, they feel that we can learn from the schizophrenic’s ability to escape the fascism of despotic signifiers. But how can we learn from the schizophrenic’s ability to de-translate oppressive technologies of identification, and still retain our sanity?
Deleuze and Guattari think that the schizophrenic can teach us to resist the psychoanalytic association of desire and lack. It is this association, Deleuze and Guattari contend, that prevents desire from becoming an essentially productive faculty. For these authors, “[d]esire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object” (26). Indeed, “[t]he objective being of desire is the Real in and of itself” (27). These assertions are paradoxical because they criticize psychoanalytic theory using its own technical language. Within the context of psychoanalytic language, the idea that desire produces the Real is completely ridiculous. If the clinical schizophrenic acts as if desire produces the Real for psychoanalysts it is only because s/he is delusional and completely isolated from the Real. 2
Nevertheless, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a productive unconscious has value if one moves outside the strictures of psychoanalytic theory. In contemporary society, there are political actors who embody Deleuze and Guattari’s vision of the radical schizophrenic. Who are these schizos? Or as Deleuze asks elsewhere, “Who are our nomads today, our real Nietzcheans?” (Deleuze 20). Three groups, I believe, practice a desire that is divorced from the concept of acquisition and lack: contemporary queer activists and theorists, Slackers, and postmodern artists. I conclude by evaluating these movements in particular, and schizophrenic politics in general.
3. A Radical Anti-Capitalist Schizophrenia?
Among queer theorists, Judith Butler’s concept of performative politics is compatible with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of desiring-production. She identifies “queer” politics as a milieu that uses desire as an essentially productive force. Butler refers to,
traditions of cross-dressing, drag balls, street walking, butch-femme spectacles… die-ins by ACT UP, kiss-ins by Queer Nation; drag performance benefits for AIDS… the convergence of theatrical work with theatrical activism; performing excessive lesbian sexuality and iconography that effectively counters the desexualization of the lesbian; tactical interruptions of public forums by lesbian and gay activists in favor of drawing public attention and outrage to the failure of government funding of AIDS research and outreach. (233)
In these examples the border between performance and politics is blurred or erased. As this border erodes, so does the separation of desire and the Real. Kiss-ins and excessive displays of lesbian sexuality celebrate precisely that which is not lacking: homo-erotic affection and desire. In these instances, desire is not defined by lack. Instead, we encounter a positive conception of desire that is capable of producing subversive politics. It is desiring-production, and not “identity politics,” that is essential to the subversive politics that Butler describes.
Queer political practice is probably the most fruitful use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the radical schizophrenic. Furthermore, other late capitalist subjects have also managed to separate desire and lack. One example is the “Slacker” phenomena. These media-savvy youth consume the accelerated visual culture of late capitalism, yet do not develop ego formations that result in consumer shopping. It is as if the light and sound from the television is sufficient to satiate their desire. Actual products become superfluous the media itself is the final object of consumption. This refusal to consume defuses the capitalist media’s efforts to accelerate the process of identity formation/ dissolution and capital accumulation. Although hardly revolutionary, the Slacker’s refusal to identify may facilitate “forms of community that are played out over and above the logic of commodity exchange” (Durkee 1995).
The final schizophrenic subject I will address is the postmodern artist. According to Martha Rosler, these artists produce “quotational work” that appropriates material from diverse sources often based on advertising images from the dominate popular culture (Rosler 73). Warhol’s soup cans, Liechtenstein’s “cartoons,” Duchamp’s ready-mades, and Koons’ Michael Jackson statue are all examples of this form of appropriational or quotational work. Such work can potentially produce a schizophrenic consciousness for art viewers by dissociating advertising images from consumer products. By transforming media images into “isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers,” these artists make identification more difficult (Jameson 119). Such work magnifies the schizophrenic tendencies inherent in capitalism, threatening to transgress what Deleuze and Guattari call the schizophrenic “limit of capitalism” (246). If this limit is transgressed, an advertisement can no longer function as a Lacanian mirror. Instead, it will be consumed as art, and the consumer product will be forgotten altogether.
Finally, Jameson’s question remains: Can schizophrenic social movements be effective at resisting the logic of late capitalism? The three political and cultural movements of queer activists, slackers, and postmodern artists, suggest that a schizophrenic attitude can effect some level of resistance. Yet, these same examples also highlight the limits of a schizophrenic political practice. Queer political movements have been quite successful at subverting and challenging heterosexist norms. More work needs to be done, however, to make this movement more than just oppositional, subversive, and shocking. What positive political vision do we have for a world where two men kissing in public is no longer shocking? This lack of a positive political vision is more evident in Slacker culture. Although, “slacking off may produce endless local instances of noncommodified social relations, it cannot envision modes of association that truly challenge…economic structures” (Durkee 1995). These youth may not contribute to capitalism, but they do not mount a challenge to it, either. Postmodern artistic production encounters similar problems. Rosler is skeptical about the “alternative vision [that] is suggested by such work…We are not provided the space within the work to understand how things might be different” (Rosler 72). The idea of a different, better society is absent or underdeveloped in these examples of schizophrenic cultural and political movements.
Returning to Laplanche’s analysis, we can say that Deleuze and Guattari’s revolutionary schizophrenic is skilled at effecting “de-translations.” This is necessary in a society dominated by heterosexist, racist, colonialist, and sexist norms. As I have argued, schizophrenic acts of de-translation may also be somewhat effective for resisting increasingly flexible and accelerated modes of capital accumulation. Yet, for Laplanche, de-translation is followed by “a tendency to recompose a unity”(179). This is impossible a priori for schizophrenic movements. Nevertheless, new unities can prove to be politically strategic and socially beneficial. Laplanche imagines “a new synthesis of translation… that is less partial, less repressive, less symptomatic” (171). In political terms, this new translation evokes a vision of a society that is more inclusive. It also replaces a schizophrenic refusal to identify, with a directive to form identities that oppose those offered by the capitalist media.
I am not proposing that the unity produced by re-translations is politically superior to schizoid de-translations. Instead, I encourage radical people to explore the political possibilities of both de-transitional and re-transitional stances. Advertising has successfully used both these strategies to accelerate identity formation/dissolution and, by extension, consumer capitalism. There is no reason that radical groups could not use similar methods to challenge capitalism and develop alternative collective identities. The contemporary focus on critical and deconstructive social theory offers fertile ground for positive and collective re-translations. The fear of unity, although understandable, can be limiting to radical political movements. The unity produced by re-translations are not necessarily oppressive, especially if these moments of unity are periodically disrupted and re-configured by schizophrenic outbreaks. A successful contemporary politics has stakes in defining the rhythmic flow between schizophrenic and identificatory impulses. Hopefully, alternative rhythms can challenge, or at least syncopate, the accelerating rhythm of late capitalism.
Special thanks to Victor Burgin, Gabe Brahm, and Lorraine Kahn.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Originally published as: ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution’ Negations vol 1 no 1 (1996).
- When I use the term postmodernism, I mean it in the sense that Jameson defined in his essay. This might not be the best definition, and the term itself is currently a site of contestation. An incomplete list of alternatives to the term “postmodernism” (Lyotard, 1979) follows: hyperrealism (Baudrillard, 1983, Eco, 1983), late capitalism (Jameson, 1984), ultramodernism (Kroker and Cook, 1986), flexible capitalism (Harvey, 1989), amodernism or nonmodernism (Latour, 1991 Haraway, 1992), and metamodernism (Rabinow, 1992). ↩
- Deleuze and Guattari’s attempt to make the Real assessable is in line with the general post-structural move to challenge extra-linguistic, non-representable, and metaphysical concepts. This approach has been criticized for its tendency to reduce everything to language and discourse. Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation is interesting because it resists the “linguistic turn.” Instead of language and signification, Deleuze and Guattari describe “Real” and “productive” forces, flows, and desires. The result is an ironic materialism. ↩