Our media are more and more fascinated by the prospect of “post-humanity” opened up by a direct link between our brain and a digital machine. To remind readers, this is what is popularly called “Neuralink” and what New Age obscurantists term Singularity, the divine-like global space of shared awareness. But there is an aspect of Singularity that is largely neglected in pop-scientific considerations: the eventual rise of Singularity will also be a case of what we cannot but call post-human capitalism.
One usually assumes that capitalism is (more) historical and our humanity, inclusive of sexual difference, more basic, even ahistorical. However, what we are witnessing today is nothing less than an attempt to integrate the passage to post-humanity into capitalism. And this is, in fact, what the efforts of new billionaire gurus like Elon Musk are about. Their prediction that capitalism “as we know it” is coming to an end refers to “human” capitalism, and the passage they talk about is the passage from “human” to post-human capitalism.
Singularity thus confronts us with the problem: how will the emerging “post-human” capitalism work? And, insofar as capitalism implies workers’ exploitation, how will it continue to exploit us? In order to unravel this problem, one has to introduce the dimension of enjoyment into our consideration of Singularity. From the libidinal standpoint, is Singularity not a space of an ecstatic trance of intense enjoyment, the space in which we can fully enjoy, no longer hindered by the constraints of our finitude? So, where does libidinal exploitation enter here? To simplify the issue to the utmost, it takes place when the Other (the system that exploits us) appropriates our (its subjects’) enjoyments, when we are serving and feeding the “enjoyment of the system (this is what exploitation ultimately stands for from the Freudo-Lacanian perspective)” (247).[i]
To understand properly this claim, it is crucial to go beyond a mere parallel between the labour of enjoyment and the labour of commodity production, between producing surplus-enjoyment and producing surplus-value. The relationship between the two is not just that of a formal homology; the two are moments of the same totality, which means that their relationship is that of a mutual implication: each is, in its way, a moment of the other. So, we have the enjoyment of labour (enjoyment taken in hard work itself which implies the renunciation of enjoyment) and the labour of enjoyment (enjoyment itself is not just a passive experience; it is an outcome of labour).
The first thing to note is that economic exploitation, understood as the production of surplus-value, only functions if it is sustained by the enjoyment of those exploited: “the master’s discourse does not hide what it is or what it wants. What does remain hidden is the link between exploitation and enjoyment, the reproduction of the relations of domination by means of the production of enjoyment” (15). In short, a master can exert domination only if he “bribes” the servant by way of throwing him some crumbs of enjoyment. This enjoyment has two opposed main forms: I directly enjoy the very subordination to the Master whom I serve and this subordination provides a kind of security and meaning to my life; or, the Master who controls me discreetly allows me to violate his prohibitions when I am out of his view, knowing that such small transgressions will keep me satisfied (therein resided the role of political jokes in Communist regimes). This brings us back to Lacan’s critical reading of Hegel’s dialectic of master and servant where Lacan points out that it is the servant, not the master, who enjoys:
“The work, Hegel tells us, to which the slave submits in giving up jouissance out of fear of death, is precisely the path by which he achieves freedom. There can be no more obvious lure than this, politically or psychologically. Jouissance comes easily to the slave, and it leaves work in serfdom.”[ii]
Maybe, from this standpoint, we should reread the famous lines from Hegel’s Phenomenology about the interrelation between desire (Begierde), enjoyment (Genuss), and labor (Arbeit):
“Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object, and, as a result, it has reserved to itself that unmixed feeling for its own self. However, for that reason, this satisfaction is itself only a vanishing, for it lacks the objective aspect, or stable existence. In contrast, work is desire held in check, it is vanishing staved off, or: work cultivates and educates. [Die Arbeit hingegen ist gehemmte Begierde, aufgehaltenes Verschwinden, oder sie bildet.] The negative relation to the object becomes the form of the object; it becomes something that endures because it is just for the laborer himself that the object has self-sufficiency. This negative mediating middle, this formative doing, is at the same time singularity, or the pure being-for itself of consciousness, which in the work external to it now enters into the element of lasting. Thus, by those means, the working consciousness comes to an intuition of self-sufficient being as its own self.”[iii]
We should give a Lacanian twist to the claim that “work is desire held in check”: gehemmt also means “inhibited, impeded, obstructed,” and we should give to these terms all their Freudian weight, especially with regard to the reversal of the repression of desire into a desire for repression. What if this impediment/postponement of enjoyment generates a surplus of enjoyment on its own? Marx’s “labor theory of value” displays an unexpected homology with the key ingredient of Freud’s “labor theory of the unconscious”[iv]: the unconscious “value” of a dream is exclusively the product of “dream-work,” not of the dream-thoughts on which dream-work exercises its transformative activity, in the same way that the value of a commodity is the product of the work spent on it. The paradox here is that it is the very cyphering (obfuscation) of the dream-thought, its translation into the dream texture, that engenders the properly unconscious content of a dream. Freud emphasizes that the true secret of a dream is not its content (“dream-thoughts”), but the form itself. Dream-work is not merely a process of masking the dream’s “true message”; the dream’s true core, its unconscious wish, inscribes itself only through this process of masking, so that the moment we retranslate dream-content back into dream-thought expressed in it, we lose the “true motive force” of the dream. In short, it is the process of masking itself that inscribes into the dream its true secret.
This is the core mechanism of the “labour theory of enjoyment”: surplus-enjoyment is produced by repression itself, by encoding dream-thought into the manifest dream, or, to put it more directly, renunciation of pleasure turns into the (surplus-)pleasure of renunciation. There are three steps in this process: first, there is some form of direct pleasure; then, we are forced to renounce this direct pleasure; finally, this very labour of renunciation, of repression, generates a surplus-pleasure of its own – the condensed formula of this process is P-L-P’ (157), i.e., pleasure – labour of repression – surplus pleasure (a formula which, of course, echoes Marx’s formula of the circulation of capital, M-C-M’, or money, commodity, surplus-money). Imagine a simple example of compulsive rituals: a compulsive (obsessional) neurotic finds some of his desires intolerable and fights them, so that he establishes rituals of self-punishment by means of which he tries to keep his intolerable desires at bay, but then he starts to enjoy these rituals themselves… I fight my sinful sexual desires by painfully whipping myself, but then I start to enjoy self-whipping itself because, in a negative form, it reminds me that the prohibited desires are still active in me.
So, again, how does exploitation enter here? In terms of libidinal economy, the way to do it is to mobilize the distinction between drive and desire. The desire (or, rather, the drive) of capitalism itself is not the capitalist’s desire. The latter can vary in all its pathological declinations: it can be the desire to take revenge, to amass wealth, to expand construction and produce more, or whatever else, while the desire of capitalism itself is a monotonous drive towards expanded reproduction. (And why should we not add also Communism, i.e., the distinction between the desire of a Communist and the desire of Communism itself?) In order to avoid a new kind of animism (of desires inhabiting objective social processes), one should nonetheless inquire into the more precise status of this non-subjectivized desire. Though non-subjective, it still functions as something that presupposes subjectivity, since it only functions as presupposed by it.
This brings as back to Marx. Some of the best recent readings of Marx’s Capital shift the focus from the first to the second volume which deals with the circulation of capital, i.e., the cycle of its expanded self-reproduction. In order to clarify this circular structure, they refer to the category of life as it is deployed in the second part of Hegel’s subjective logic – not the life from his philosophy of nature, but life in its purely logical structure, life as “second nature,” as the objective self-reproductive movement of the notion that follows the subjective triad of notion-judgment-syllogism. The thesis underlying this reading is that the self-movement of capital, its “life,” is the actual base of Hegel’s notion of the Absolute, of the absolute Idea: capital in its self-movement is the actuality of the Hegelian absolute subject. I find this reading, perspicuous as it is, problematic insofar as it has to conceive of the proletarian revolution, the breaking out of the capitalist system, as a move outside dialectics, into some non-mediated radical Otherness. Furthermore, to put it in somewhat simplified Lacanian terms, the problematic premise of this reading is that capital is a big Other which exists, not an Other which only persists as a virtual point of reference of subjects who act as if it exists.
In the functioning of pre-digital capitalism as described by Marx, the tension between drive and desire remains fully operative: capital’s drive is not the same as the desire of an individual capitalist who serves capital’s self-reproduction. At this libidinal level, exploitation equals serving the enjoyment of the Other. The subject’s desire is subordinated to the Other’s drive, so that even if I suffer pain, I accept it, so long as this pain serves the Other’s enjoyment, i.e., Capital’s infinite drive for expanded self-reproduction. The infinite self-circulation of Capital (as an “automatic subject”) parasitizes on my finite desire. This enjoyment is, of course, not psychological; it is impersonal, a moment of the objective social structure of Capital, but still not simply objective. It is presupposed by individual subjects as a virtual point of reference, in the same sense as the symbolic big Other is virtual: a non-psychological entity that only exists as the virtual point of reference of subjects and their activity. But what happens with Singularity, with my direct immersion in the collective space of the Other, is that the gap that separates the subject’s desire from the Other’s drive collapses. When I am in a Singularity, my thoughts are no longer mine, they are directly the thoughts of Singularity thinking itself, and I directly participate in the Other’s drive.
The Matrix stages precisely such a situation. The premise of The Matrix[v] is that the very reality we live in, the fake reality staged by the Matrix, is in place so that we can be effectively reduced to a passive state of the living batteries providing the Matrix with energy. The unique impact of the film thus resides not so much in its central thesis (what we experience as reality is an artificial virtual reality generated by the “Matrix,” the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds), but in its central image of millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate the energy (electricity) for the Matrix. So, when (some of the) people “awaken” from their immersion in the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not an opening onto the wide space of the external reality, but first the horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a foetus-like organism, immersed in pre-natal fluid… This utter passivity is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately the instruments of the Other’s (Matrix’s) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries.
Therein resides the true libidinal enigma of this apparatus: WHY does the Matrix need human energy? A purely energetic solution is, of course, meaningless: the Matrix could have easily found another, more reliable, source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of the virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on the human’s jouissance. And here we are back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance. This is how we should turn around the state of things presented by the film: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively the exact opposite, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. It is not that we (the exploited) do not enjoy but just work for the enjoyment of the Other. On the contrary, we do enjoy, even emphatically (as is clearly rendered by the central image of the film, humans in a fetus-like passive position silently enjoying), and it is this very enjoyment that is appropriated by the Other, which can be Capital in consumerist exploitation, bureaucracy in a state exploiting its subjects, and, in a homologous way, Singularity exploiting us when we enjoy our immersion in it.
Now, this brings us to the paradox of exploitation at work in the Matrix. The enjoyment the Matrix sucks from individuals does not set individuals free. What they get from the Matrix for continuously providing it with enjoyment is a growing state of indebtedness: the more enjoyment is sucked out of individuals by the Matrix, the more debt these individuals incur. For this reason, the subject’s alienation can also be formulated in terms of an infinite debt. In alienation, the subject is constitutively indebted, haunted by a debt it can never repay, or, at any rate, a debt, the repayment of which is an infinite task. The situation is homologous with the states themselves: since the rise of capitalism, the states have reproduced themselves by getting indebted. Here we have a nice example of the properly historical dialectics, in which something that emerges as such only today (universal indebtedness) is seen as operative since the very beginning of capitalism.
Marx wrote that “with the emergence of state indebtedness, lack of faith in the national debt takes the place of the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness.”[vi] Are these lines not more actual today than ever, keeping in mind that the Greek crisis, which was all about debt, was “solved” with MORE DEBT, of course? A shift from an exploited worker to an indebted individual has radical political consequences: it makes the rise of class consciousness, i.e., a transformation of the exploited workers into proletarians aware of their revolutionary historical role, almost impossible since their indebtedness individualizes them: “Neoliberal capitalism has established an asymmetric class struggle that it governs. There is only one class gathered around finance, the power of credit and money as capital. The working class is no longer a class. The number of workers has considerably increased since the 1970’s all around the world, but they no longer constitute a political class and will never again constitute one. The workers do have a sociological and economic existence”[vii] – no longer a proletarian class but as indebted individuals, responsible as such. Althusser’s formula of ideology as the interpellation of individuals into subjects is thus turned around: ideology interpellates subjects into (indebted) individuals.
Will, then, Singularity also work like the Matrix, as the Substance that will feed on our enjoyment? There are good arguments for this possibility. All descriptions of Singularity de facto point towards a structure of radical alienation, the rise of a new form of the divine big Other in which the subject is fully immersed so that the subject’s activity coincides with the activity of Singularity itself. (Recall Lacan’s definition of male mysticism as a perverse structure, in which my view of God coincides with God’s view of himself).
Marx wrote that, with large factory machine industry, the form of production process in material reality fits the capitalist structure: the worker is no longer an artisan who individually uses his tools to work on some matter, but an appendix to a machine taking care of its smooth functioning in the same sense that the worker is an appendix to capital. Is, in a homologous way, the very form of Singularity not a structure of radical alienation, in which the subject is thoroughly deprived of all content, inclusive of its inner life?
We should pursue this parallel between Singularity and capital further. Gerard Lebrun mentions the ”fascinating image” of Capital presented by Marx (especially in his Grundrisse): “a monstrous mixture of the good infinity and the bad infinity, the good infinity which creates its presuppositions and the conditions of its growth, the bad infinity which never ceases to surmount its crises, and which finds its limit in its own nature.”[viii] Actually, it is in Capital itself that we find this Hegelian description of the circulation of capital:
“in the circulation M-C-M, both the money and the commodity represent only different modes of existence of value itself, the money its general mode, and the commodity its particular, or, so to say, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form to the other without thereby becoming lost, and thus assumes an automatically active character. /…/ Value, therefore, being the active factor in such a process, and assuming at one time the form of money, at another that of commodities, but through all these changes preserving itself and expanding, it requires some independent form, by means of which its identity may at any time be established. And this form it possesses only in the shape of money. It is under the form of money that value begins and ends, and begins again, every act of its own spontaneous generation.”[ix]
Note how Hegelian references abound here: with capitalism, value is not a mere abstract “mute” universality, a substantial link between the multiplicity of commodities; from the passive medium of exchange, it turns into the “active factor” of the entire process. Instead of only passively assuming the two different forms of its actual existence (money – commodity), it appears as the subject “endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own.” It differentiates itself from itself, positing its otherness, and then again overcomes this difference: the entire movement is its own movement. In this precise sense, “instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters /…/ into private relations with itself”: the “truth” of its relating to its otherness is its self-relating, i.e., in its self-movement, capital retroactively “sublates” its own material conditions, changing them into subordinate moments of its own “spontaneous expansion.” In pure Hegelese, it posits its own presuppositions.
Crucial in the quoted passage is the expression “an automatically active character,” an inadequate translation of the German words used by Marx to characterize capital as “automatischem Subjekt,” an “automatic subject,” an oxymoron uniting living subjectivity and dead automatism. This is what capital is: a subject, but an automatic one, not a living one. Can Hegel think this “monstrous mixture,” a process of subjective self-mediation and retroactive positing of presuppositions, which as it were gets caught in a substantial “spurious infinity,” a subject which itself becomes an alienated substance?
And, again, does exactly the same not hold also for Singularity into which we will eventually be immersed? Will Singularity not be a new version of such an “automatic subject”? We should bring this parallel to the end: in the same way as the figure of capital as an automatic subject is an ideological fantasy (albeit a fantasy with real social effects), immanent to the movement of capital, the figure of Singularity as a divine mega-Subject in whose activity we participate is another ideological fantasy. Singularity does not imply our alienation in the (symbolic/virtual) big Other: Singularity will take place in the Real. However, insofar as the subject will be not just immersed in Singularity but also radically alienated in Singularity (since, as we have speculated, the subject will survive in it as the evanescent point of pure void), is then ”separation” here not the Unconscious itself as correlative to the pure subject ($)? In short, does the virtual big Other itself not enable us to acquire a minimum of separation from the digital big Other? Is the Symbolic as such not a minimal form of separation?
The problem is, of course, that in our dealing with the digital network, these two dimensions (the virtual/symbolic big Other and the actual digital big Other) tend to get confused, so that we tend to project onto the digital machine, which is a part of material reality, a dimension of the symbolic big Other, to treat it as a “subject supposed to know” (or not to know, i.e., the entity from which we succeed to hide our intimate secrets). One can argue that this confusion is what defines the notion of Singularity, a materially existing big Other which is simultaneously a divine Other. Such a confusion brings us close to paranoia: in paranoia, the virtual Other – which, as Lacan put it, doesn’t exist – is perceived as existing in reality (in the guise of our persecutor). In order to fight the confusion, the two dimensions have to be kept apart, which means that the digital Other (the digital network) has to be treated as what it is, namely as a vast stupid machine, which operates blindly.
To sum up, the human participants who inhabit Singularity automatically (in an effect of spontaneous ideology) conflate the real digital Other (the digital machine that sustains the contact between wired brains and thereby our immersion into Singularity) with the symbolic “big Other.” The two surreptitiously coincide: the real Other (the digital machine that sustains our immersion into Singularity) is elevated to the symbolic big Other and is perceived as a figure of symbolic authority, as a divine partner or space in which I dwell. The first task of the critique of ideology is, therefore, to de-sublimate Singularity, to reintroduce the distance between the two dimensions, to reduce the digital Other to its stupidity of a blind machine, to deprive it of the aura of a secret Master.[x] In short, the figure of Singularity should be de-sublimated, deprived of the dignity of a Thing.
And yet, how are we to combine this urgent need to de-sublimate Singularity, to deprive it of its quasi-divine status, with Tomšič’s proposal to determine the shift from repression (which sustains exploitation) to a new libidinal economy without repressive exploitation, as a move from repression to sublimation? “In the regime of repression the only change possible is the change of objects, but not ‘the change of object in itself´”(221). One should give to these lines their full Hegelian dignity, recalling Hegel’s claim that in experience (Erfahrung), it is not only our perception of the object that changes but the object itself. So how does this change work? What does the subject do with the object? Instead of repression, i.e., the repressive displacement of our libidinal investment from one object to another (as in our example of compulsive behavior where our libidinal investment is displaced from the illicit activity to the ritual of punishment for this activity), the subject enacts sublimation where the same object (in this case the illicit sexual activity) is “elevated to the dignity of the Thing,” the impossible-real object of desire.
But are then there two sublimations, the “good” one (sublimating the object instead of submitting it to the labour of repression) and the “bad” one, the one of sublimating (elevating to the dignity of a Thing) capital (or Singularity) into a divine Thing, a trans-human monster that automatically reproduces itself through us, through our activity? There is a subtle difference between the two: what is sublimated in “bad” sublimation is not a concrete libidinal object or practice but the very global space of alienated force that controls our lives and exploits us, libidinally and/or economically.
To clarify this distinction between the two modes of sublimation, we have to further specify the shift from repression to sublimation characterized by Tomšič as the shift from the infinite (substance) parasitizing on finite (individuals/subjects) to the infinite as the inflection of the finite (subject): “if repression stands for a parasitism of infinite on the finite and the exploitation of the subject’s alienation, then sublimation is grounded on an inverse parasitism, that of the finite on the infinite”(247). Parasitism means that a finite ordinary object parasitizes on the infinite Thing. So, again, in “bad” sublimation, singular objects are not elevated to the dignity of a Thing; they are merely reduced to a vanishing moment in the eternal circular movement of the Thing which passes from one to another form of appearance. In “good” sublimation, by contrast, a singular object, in its very finitude, stands for the Thing, i.e., parasitizes on the infinite. It’s like in love where a singular ordinary person, with all of her or his faults, turns into the unshakable fixed point of my libidinal investment. These two forms of sublimation are well-known from tradition: the “bad” one is that of traditional wisdom – all phenomena are passing, the only Real Thing is the Abyss into which all that is disappears -, while the “good” one is best encapsulated by the Christian notion of love violently privileging a singular subject, a love that is exclusive, introducing extreme imbalance into the universe.
That said, the formula of inverted parasitism is in itself insufficient. Capitalist production for the sake of production only works if it is experienced by the workers as production to satisfy their needs, that is, as externally teleological. It is thus the very capitalist parasitizing of the infinite (Capital) on the finite (worker) which “finitizes” the worker. In Communism, in turn, it will not be simply the finite which parasitizes on the infinite, but a different infinite – the infinite as the subject itself, the loop of its self-enhancing productivity, and let’s not forget that “subject” is in its very notion a singular entity, a One that excludes the multiplicity of reality. This is why “production for the sake of production,” and not to satisfy the worker’s needs, is not just a form of capitalist alienation; it also defines Communism, in which production is for its own sake, so as to fulfill our creative potentials. In other words, the problem with “bad” sublimation is that the Infinite which parasitizes on transient finites is a case of what Hegel called “bad (spurious) infinity.”
When we move beyond alienation, subjectivity with its singular force of negativity is, of course, fully asserted, but not in the usual “Hegelian” sense that served as a model for Marx, according to which a subject re-appropriates alienated substance, recognizes it as its own work. What happens in de-alienation is just the redoubling of alienation, which constitutes separation for Lacan. What gets separated from what here if alienation already stands for the separation of the Other from the subject (who is also in this way decentred, separated from itself, with its centre of gravity outside itself)? The big Other gets separated from itself. It becomes de-substantialized, inconsistent, lacking a foundation, moving in a circle, cut through with antagonisms. We encounter here again the Hegelian topic of disparity: redoubling alienation means that the subject’s disparity with substance is reflected back into substance itself, as its disparity with itself.[xi]
[i] Samo Tomšič, The Labour of Enjoyment, Berlin: August Verlag 2019. Numbers in brackets refer to the pages of this book.
[ii] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, New York: Norton 2006, p. 686.
[iii] Quoted from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/pinkard-translation-of-phenomenology.pdf.
[iv] The term was elaborated by Samo Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan, London: Verso Books, 2015.
[v] I resume here my detailed reading of the film – see “The Matrix, or the Two Sides of Perversion,” in https://www.lacan.com/zizek-matrix.htm.
[vi] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, London: Penguin 1990, p. 919.
[vii] Maurizio Lazzarato, Gouverner par la dette, Paris: Les prairies ordinaires 2012, p. 10.
[viii] Gerard Lebrun, L’envers de la dialectique. Hegel a la lumiere de Nietzsche, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2004, p. 311.
[ix] Quoted from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm.
[x] Freud claimed that at the end of analysis the subject’s pathological self-sabotage (in which we find enjoyment) is replaced by (our acceptance of) the common misery which we have to confront as a libidinally-indifferent fact, as our lot – another example interrupting the short-circuit the structure of external reality (and its limitations) and the real-impossible that pertains to our psychic life.
[xi] Here, with regard to the topic of overcoming alienation, Tomšič seems to miss the point when he insists on the parallel between psychoanalytic process and the Communist revolutionary process as interminable processes. It is clear why he does it: since alienation is irreducible, constitutive of human subjectivity, Communism as the process of the overcoming of alienation has to be an infinite task… However, this conclusion only imposes itself if we continue to conceive Communism as a new transparent non-alienated order in which the collective subject is a full master of its destiny. But what if we abandon this utopian notion of Communism and admit that there will be tensions and antagonisms also in Communism, just tensions and antagonisms of a different order that we cannot even properly imagine today? (Fredric Jameson gave a hint in this direction when he pointed out that envy will re-emerge as a central issue in a Communist society.)