a note on transpessimism

SC Hickman consistently writes about exactly those concerns that plague me. He also does it far better than I can. This post is really a response to Hickman’s own Franco “Bifo” Berardi: What comes next? that forms part of his ongoing investigation into Bifo and the left. For my part, I am also slowly going through Bifo’s Heroes for my project on suicide. In his post Hickman looks with Bifo at the broader problem of the left.

The left appears dead. Exhausted in its own depression and sick of itself and its negative self-talk, the academic left has swung to the other extreme of its psychoaffective valence into a manic phase we’ve been calling accelerationism. The psychiatric nurse in me can’t help read accelerationism in these terms. It should be noted here that mania is dangerous but often entangled with genius and creativity as much as it is with dangerous and self-destructive acts.

I first read Bifo’s work when I was training to be a psychiatric nurse. Prior to that I’d seen a video with this man with a strange shock of silver hair man with Andy Warhol style little spectacles promising that there was a tsunami of suicides coming, a tsunami that was the only possible response to the post-financial crisis world. I was instantly captivated. I am no sunny optimist, it must be said.  One of the problems that Bifo along with anyone involved in psychiatry or interested in psychopathology must  be cognizant and engaged with is that of the future of near-future of neuroscience. Bifo writes that

“I think that the next game will be about neuro-plasticity. Mapping the activity of the brain is going to be the main task of science in the next decades, while wiring the activity of the collective brain will be the main task of technology. The new alternative will emerge at this level, between the ultimate automation of the collective brain and the conscious self-organization of the general intellect.”

This is a problem I have been acutely aware of since I started working in addiction and encountered people who had undergone neuro-electric therapy for addiction. Traditional treatments involve a mixture of substitute pharmacological prescriptions, psychoeducation, a combination of cognitive and behavioural psychotherapeutic techniques, a splattering of solution-focused therapy and motivational interviewing, and the traditional twelve-step approaches. with increasing reliance on acupuncture detoxification, mindfulness and relaxation as well as the entire gamut of psychiatric techniques used managed the moods, emotions, behaviours, traumatic symptoms and so on that are always also there with the addiction. So much of this is removed with the neuro-electric devices. See here for a history and discussion of the treatment.

Whether or not it really works, and the jury is still out, there is no doubting that neuroelectrical stimulation is a technology that is set to displace the primitive psychopharmacology we’ve been palming patients and ourselves of with up to this point. The neuroelectric therapy is supposed to be able to send a small electrical charge that effectively disrupts and discontinuous the phenomenally experienced craving to take heroin. When (and not if) such treatment become widely available one can see all kinds of effects spiralling out.

One of the two most obvious are that folk-psychologies that depend on ideas of desire or libido would have been eliminated in practice and theory, and with them the whole libidinal economics and metaphysics would also have to go. Baudrillard is salient here in his comment from Forget Baudrillard”, an interview that accompanies the Semiotexte publication Forget Foucault. There Baudrillard explained that there was no place in his theories for desire because it has disappeared, and besides ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with it’. Baudrillard was supposedly impotent and many attribute his lack of desire-talk to be based on this. Perhaps we’re about to enter a period of generalised impotence?

The second most obvious conclusion for me is that it would be remarkably easier to augment this technology for exterior control. Add a wireless receiver and you have the image of a perfectly programmable populace. The viral idea of control gets supplanted by this extremely paranoid fantasy of total dominance. The neuropathic wiring up of totally programmable human beings whose desires, aversions, and experiences could be turned on or off, up or down, or otherwise tinkered with so that all the need for injunctions and commandments, incitements and prohibitions would be obsolete. You want a terrorised populace? There’s a frequency for that. There would be no more need for Gods and Monsters, Friends and Enemies. This neurototalitarianism is just one of the 21st centuries dystopian images.

On the question of neuroscience and politics I think one of the things left open to resistance is a getting comfortable with neuroscience. The critiques of reductionism and prometheanism have done nothing to halt the machinery of progress. Getting comfortable also means learning to experiment with the mechanisms of first person consciousness. If learning and accessing the hi-tech means of such remain outside of our reach then for now we’re left with repurposing drugs or adopting the language of psychiatry to turn it into a critical weapon. I saw Steven Rose talk about DARPA and although he (like Hickman) was absolutely right to be troubled by all this, I couldn’t help but feel he continued in that old tradition of humanism that wants to save us from technological endocolonisation.

His is a politics against alienation rather than a politics for alienation. In fact I don’t know whether we shouldn’t look forward to the possibility of technologically eliminating the self. This has been the goal of oh so many religious movements heretical and orthodox. Guess what, here we are…we’re getting close. This “benign psychopathy” is one of the possible forms that what I’m calling “transpessimism” could take.

Hickman mentions Ballard. What would a Ballardian hero do in this world? I think he’s be a post-futurist in the sense of Bifo’s manifesto included in After the Future, whilst also saying- okay, this is the world as I have it, how do I live in it? His post-futurism wouldn’t be a nostalgic sensualism as Bifo’s is. It’s funny. Bifo doesn’t mention Camus in Heroes, but going via the post-futurist manifesto Berardi actually manages to strike on Albert’s solution to suicide and absurdity: enjoy the sun!

I am also in that trajectory of moving into a ‘post-communist nihil’ but here others have gone before.

“Loss of hope, cynicism, pessimism these are the open eyed modes of consciousness appropriate to present conditions; there are no solutions, no good prospects, no chance of improving, your lot, things are going down, we’re all going, down together. Everything is decay and defeat, the world is grey. Big, good men are laid low by weasly small men. Treachery wins out time and time again, true-hearted intention is turned to further the purpose of despair. These are the blackest days.

And so, if we cannot win, if defeat by the powers of darkness are certain what then of our rejection of the bad days?

Nothing is changed, an illusion is crushed that is all. Resistance is not a bet made, Pascal style, in the hope of making a fortune in the future, it is an unavoidable burden, a fate, a curse upon our miserable band. Shall we then hear no more uplifting songs from the activist camp, no more group patriotism, no more positivity, no more, together we can do it’. Let us find in the defeat of the firefighters the absolute truth of capitalised existence: people lose out to money, we lose out to money. With no prospect of victory we still go on because the resistant position is not dependent on either political victory or lifestyle choice, it is an unavoidable chore. Without illusions we must proceed, our consciousness hardened”.

In the above the pseudonymous pair of authors who go by Monsieur Dupont outline their ‘nihilist communism‘ and say, as it suggests, that we have to ‘go on’ because resistance is ‘an unavoidable chore’. So revolutionary activity becomes like doing the washing up. Certainly this is how it feels to me. What a chore to go to yet another meeting! Sorry, I can’t go to the meeting because it is too much of a chore. But what is a chore? It’s a duty in disguise. So even these nihilists aren’t nihilists. They’re still beholden to an moralism that commands obedience.

Why is a revolutionary a revolutionary? Why does one resist? It’s hard to remember. There is a thick fog of history that shrouds one’s own thinking. It’s a routine, in the way Burroughs speaks of routines in Queer. You don’t really know why you picked up Marxism, anarchism, and why you went to that protest that got you clobbered and radicalised. You only know why the others became revolutionaries. Rather, you know why they say they became revolutionaries. Or you think so at least. You interpret the reasons they give you which are really their own retroactive interpretations of what they have done. Maybe we can’t know. But we have the illusion of knowing. So why? Is it to live the good life? Or for justice? Freedom? Why this pressure and desperation?

Answering that might allow for a different angle of approach. It is likely that communism, the left, progressives or however the movements will be forgotten, has been much more heteronymous in composition than we have been willing to think. What has happened though is a layer of moral coding has been passed down. Call it a weird Christological delusion. I must take on the sufferings of the world. I am responsible for the Bangladeshi sweatshop worker and the sex worker who gets beaten and the liberation of my fellows and the health and happiness of the future generations. So whatever the impetus for seeking emancipation the movement morality has coated us all with this pseudo-universality of “every single one”. Its summed up in the IWW slogan: an injury to one is an injury to all. Well, is it? What weird somatic telepathy is that?

My own answer is that I wanted to see world without suffering. Truly a utopian impulse and a ridiculous dream but to reduce or minimize suffering is achievable. This opens onto the ethics of antinatalism and negative utilitarianism. From the leftist perspective these aren’t to be touched let alone explored. I have always said that everything we do is an attempt to cope with being alive. What if being alive is and always has been the real problem. What if somewhere there really is a thanatic compulsion to the human species conscious of its own existence? Climate change, resource depletion, social chaos. Hickman quotes Bifo again,

Frankly, I don’t think that political awareness is going to prove the best medicine for our current malady. Most people know that financial dictatorship is destroying their life; the problem is knowing what to do about it. It is possible that nothing can be done, that power has become so deeply entrenched in the automatisms regulating daily life, connecting our interchanges, and infiltrating our words, that bio-financial control cannot be undone, or avoided.

Perhaps we should entertain the possibility that this is the wrong way around? It isn’t that there is nothing to be done but rather that we are all actively engaged in a passivity that is allowing it to be done. It’s not that we want to be subjugated or to die (although we often do) but that we want to escape from ourselves. Each one of us wants out of being the person that they are, and our planetary behaviours are demanding that we become extinct. In the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie an evil AI sets out to destroy the world but we should remember that a human writer has put the words in his mouth:

Worthy? How could you be worthy? You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.

I circle around this problem from time to time. Its too dark to think about for long. We want to die and we don’t want to die. But everything we do is leading to it. It might not be that we need a project of self-managed extinction. Worse, we might already be engaged in it. It might be necessary, after the death of the left and its optimistic dreams, to wake up to the nightmare of our being. It might be time to look towards these tools of neurototalitarianism and use them to liberate ourselves from ourselves as we have been up to this point. This is the essence my still underdeveloped idea of transpessimism: that we should go extinct as a species by opting to become a post-human being. That might be a kind of techngnostic dream or another kind of nightmare to you. We could go and bathe in the sun, I suppose.

Maybe what comes next is extinction either way.


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