April 11, 2006

Reflexive impotence


Why are French students out on the streets rejecting neo-liberalism, while British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, resigned to their fate? The answer to that question is partly, also, an answer to why a group like the Arctic Monkeys connect with British teenagers. It is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence.

It is reflexive impotence that you hear in the Arctic Monkeys - yes, they know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can't do anything about it. But that 'knowledge', that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And guess what? They probably know that too.

Reflexive impotence amounts to an unstated worldview amongst the British young. Many of the teenagers I work with have mental health problems or learning difficulties. Depression is endemic. The number of students who have some variant of dyslexia is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness. This pathologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing problems - treating them as if they were caused only by the individual's neurology and/ or family background - any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.

Part of the success of neo-liberalism has consisted in its presenting of capitalism as 'purely economic', as if the the 'mental health plague' and the routine disintegration of families have nothing whatsoever to do with capitalist 'creative destruction'. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how Capitalist Realism operates. Capitalist Realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, we know that even weather is no longer a natural fact). Poor mental health is of course a massive source of revenue for multinational drugs companies. You pay for a cure from the very system that made you sick in the first place.

The majority of students I encounter seem to be in a state of what I'd call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterised in terms of anhedonia, but the state I'm referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that 'something is missing' - but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle. In large part this is a consequence of students' ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services.

In his crucial essay 'Postscript on Societies of Control', Deleuze distinguishes between the disciplinary societies described by Foucault, which were organized around the enclosed spaces of the factory, the school and the prison, and the new control societies, in which all institutions are embedded in a dispersed corporation. According to Deleuze, the factory-school-prison system was an expression of the nineteenth century 'capitalism of concentration'. With this in mind, CCRU once described schools as 'concentration camps', spaces in which bodies were confined, subdued and forced to concentrate.

Walk into almost any class at the college where I teach and you will immediately appreciate that you are in a post-disciplinary framework. Foucault painstakingly enumerated the way in which discipline was installed through the imposition of rigid body postures. During lessons at our college, however, students will be found slumped on desk, talking almost constantly, snacking incessantly (or even, on occasions, eating full meals). The old disciplinary segmentation of time is breaking down. The carceral regime of discipline is being eroded by the technologies of control, with their systems of perpetual consumption and continuous development.

The 'market Stalinist' funding system and the parlous state of the college finances means that the college literally cannot afford to exclude students, even if it wanted to. The lack of an effective disciplinary system has not, to say the least, been compensated for by an increase in student self-motivation. Students are aware that if they don't show up for weeks on end, and/ or if they don't produce any work, they will not face any meaningful sanction. They typically respond to this freedom not by pursuing projects but by falling into hedonic (or anhedonic) lassitude: the soft narcosis, the simstim eternity, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV and marijuana. Capital's interpassive nihilism.


Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many - and these are A-level students mind you - will protest that they can't do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it's boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be 'boring'. What we are facing here is not just time-honoured teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate 'New Flesh' that is 'too wired to concentrate' and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems.

There is a sense, of course, in which reading is boring. Upon first encounter, philosophical or literary writing which is genuninely new will be frustrating and difficult. But that is true of the acquisition of any skill - learning to play a musical instrument, for instance, is demanding before it is enjoyable. A certain hedonic-conservative consensus holds sway, however, which holds, with Homer Simpson, that 'if something is too hard to do, then it's not worth doing'.

On this account, 'boring' is not opposed to 'interesting'. To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, MTV and fast food, to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp - and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension - that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.

An illustration. I challenged one student about why he always wore headphones in class. He replied that it didn't matter, because he wasn't actually playing any music. In another lesson, he was playing music at very low volume through the headphones, without wearing them. When I asked him to switch it off, he replied that 'even he couldn't hear it'. Why wear the headphones without playing music or play music without wearing the headphones? Because the presence of the phones on the ears or the knowledge that the music is playing (even if he couldn't hear it) was a reassurance that the matrix was still there, within reach. The use of headphones is significant here - Pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts upon public space, but as a retreat into private OedIpod consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.

The consequence of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus. Students' incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into any coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation. It is, in fact, eerily reminiscent of Jameson's analysis in 'Postmodernism and Consumer Society'. Jameson observed there that Lacan's theory of schizophrenia offered a 'suggestive aesthetic model' for understanding the fragmenting of subjectivity in the face of the emerging entertainment-industrial complex. 'With the breakdown of the signifying chain' Jameson summarised, 'the Lacanian schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time. ' Jameson was writing in the late 1980s - i.e. the period in which most of my students were born. What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemic blip culture - a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.


If the figure of discipline was the worker-prisoner, the figure of control is the debtor-addict. Cyberspatial capital operates by addicting its users; Gibson recognized that in Neuromancer when he had Case and the other cyberspace cowboys feeling insects-under-the-skin strung out when they unplugged from the matrix (Case's amphetamine habit is plainly the substitute for an addiction to a far more abstract speed).

If, then, something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a pathology, it is a pathology of late capitalism - a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture. Similarly, what is called dyslexia may in many cases amount to a post-lexia. Teenagers process capital's image-dense data very effectively without any need to read - slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-tabloid-magazine informational plane. 'Writing has never been capitalism's thing. Capitalism is profoundly illiterate,' Deleuze and Guattari argued in Anti-Oedipus. 'Electric language does not go by way of the voice or writing: data processing does without them both.' Hence the reason why many successful business people are dyslexic (but is there post-lexical efficiency a cause or effect of their success?)

Teachers are now put under intolerable pressure to mediate between the post-literate schizo-subjectivity of the late capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass examinations etc). This is one way in which education, far from being in some ivory tower safely inured from the 'real world', is the engine room of the reproduction of social reality, directly confronting the inconsistencies of the capitalist social field.

Teachers are often exasperated at students for their failure to see that, if they do not attend classes, or do any reading or thinking at home, then they will not pass the exams. But our mistake is in supposing that all students care about passing exams. Many don't. Many are at college not because of their own ambitions, but because of their parents'. Attending college, or rather, sporadically attending college, sustains their parents' fantasies (that their offspring will all become lawyers and doctors), leaving students free to nurture their fantasies (of ascending, effort-free, into the ranks of celebritydom).

It is worth stressing that none of the students I teach have any legal obligation to be at college. They could leave if they wanted to. But the lack of any meaningful employment opportunities, together with cynical encouragement from government means that college seems to be the easier, safer option. Deleuze says that control societies are based on debt rather than enclosure; but there is a way in which the current education system both indebts and encloses students. Pay for your own exploitation, the logic insists - get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you'd left school at 16 ...

What many students most want from college, although they would never admit it, is an authority structure. There is a demand for an authority which they can then reject; they want to be told what to do, so they can disobey. It is a textbook case of bad faith, a flight from freedom. Interpassive nihilism again.

Teachers are caught between being faciltitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. Teachers want to help students to pass the exams; they want us to be authority figures who tell them what to do. Teachers being interpellated by students as authority figures exacerbates the 'boredom' problem, since isn't anything that comes from the place of authority a priori boring?

Ironically, the role of disciplinarian is demanded of educators more than ever at precisely the time when disciplinary structures are breaking down in institutions. With families buckling under the pressure of capitalism, teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioural protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases barely socialised.

What, then, are the possibilities for politicization now? On the face of it, the situation is bleak. Jameson observed that 'the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases [the] present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis'. But nostalgia for the context in which the old types of praxis operated is plainly useless. The French model - which amounts to a demand to retain the Fordist/disciplinary regime - could not work here. Fordism has definitively collapsed in Britain, and with it the efficacy of the old politics. At the end of the control essay, Deleuze wonders what new forms an anti-control politics might take:

'One of the most important questions will concern the ineptitude of the unions: tied to the whole of their history of struggle against the disciplines or within the spaces of enclosure, will they be able to adapt themselves or will they give way to new forms of resistance against the societies of control? Can we already grasp the rough outlines of the coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing? Many young people strangely boast of being "motivated"; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It's up to them to discover what they're being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines.'

What must be discovered is a way out the motivation/ demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy. A positive disengagement, in other words, involving forms of collective activity which break down the OedIpod solitude of the entertainment-consumer.

Posted by mark at April 11, 2006 08:39 PM | TrackBack