July 14, 2006

Let the memories begin


At the begining of the World Cup, Savonarola and I were aghast when ITV revealed that the promotional tagline for its coverage would be the phrase, 'Let the memories begin'. As Savonarola observed, here was a slogan which was at least as darkly resonant as 'welcome to the desert of the real'. The temporality suggested by the phrase 'let the memories begin' is, on the face of it, bizarre, but it is immediately familiar. A strange sense of anticipative commemoration accounts for all manner of postmodern cultural phenomenon, from the proliferation of unwanted 'making-of' features on unwatched DVDs, to that - increasingly widespread - tendency of spectators at live events to spoil any enjoyment they might have by concentrating all their attention on recording what is happening on their mobile phone cameras.

But the hankering for memories, the fixation on making things memorable, is precisely what prevents anything memorable happening. As I noted in my sleevenotes to the Caretaker box-set, 'anterograde amnesia' is an uncannily apt analogue for our (postmodern) condition, because it consists in 'the incapacity to form new memories'.

For football commentators, the arbiter of the worth of a team, player or tournament is always the 'history books' (by which they mean the big Other's memory). Part of Zidane's sin on Sunday was to have tarnished his Iconhood; to have reminded the big Other what we would much rather it had forgotten, namely Zidane's occasional violent outbursts (outbursts, needless to say, which are provoked by a constant needling and niggling from less skilled opponents). Zidane is a figure it is easy to fantasize about; we want him to be a Symbol, a representative of the racially diverse France side which Le Pen famously detested but which we loved. Zidane had a grace that went beyond his famed balletic style. His manner, his very physical features - which as he has grown older, seem more and more to have been chiseled out of stone - bespeak a gravitas that is very far from a heavy 'spirit of gravity'. On the field, he looked majestically self-sufficient, monastically focused; a figure of the utmost moral seriousness amidst celebrity fluff. He appeared so untouched, so untouchable --- which made the moments when he snapped all the more startling.

Some of the most interesting and convincing speculation on why Zidane snapped on Sunday is contained in Nick Southall's piece for Stylus -

    Rumour has it that Materazzi abused Zidane by calling him a “motherfucking Muslim” and a “terrorist.” “Fuck the World Cup,” thought Zidane perhaps in that instant of existential explosion, “I’ve already won it and right now this matters more.”

    Because what Zidane did, is do that thing that a billion downtrodden and bullied people around the world dream of doing almost every day—sticking it to someone who’d been trying to make your life a misery for years, on your last day at work when it doesn't matter anymore, and sticking it to them good and hard. Who hasn’t fantasised about trashing their office, or bad-mouthing their domineering boss, or lashing out at a bully?

Zidane's act could be read as an act of sacrifice - did he sense that France would not win, and so offered himself up as a kind of scapegoat for the team's failure? Or was it his way of ensuring that he dominated the headlines, even if France did not win? (Certainly, what happened had the effect of tainting or at least overshadowing the Italian victory, if only temporarily.) Was there, too, some desire to annihilate Zidane the Icon? His sending off provided the Spectacle with an Image - the shamed hero striding past the World Cup trophy - that, even as he trudged off, Zidane must have recognized would have a (counter) Iconic power.

Nick was right: the World Cup was a tournament dominated by fear. Fear is the complement of the fixation on memory, the thought, how will be remembered?, functioning not as a spur to a greatness but as a cue to be ultra-cautious. Nick is also right to connect this fear with wider trends in capitalism. Far from being the creative carnival of unrestrained libidinal innovation that some of its defenders want it to be, current capitalism is locked into the production of commodities that are barely different from one another. 00s capitalism is very different from the capitalism that Deleuze, Guattari and Lyotard described in the early 70s. The issue that troubled, exercised - and to some degree excited - them was capitalism's capacity to consume and metabolize any apparently 'subversive region', convert any Outside into a commodified interiority. Capitalism's problem now is a consequence of that very success; if it has colonized everything, then there is no longer any Outside for it to vampirize, and it is reduced to cloning the already-existing successful models, producing diminishing returns. In this way, the spreading of Business Ontology into all areas of the culture and into every level of the psyche - the demand that every single activity must justify itself in terms of economic utility - is disastrous for capitalism itself; it fails to recognize that the most ostensibly useless and non-productive activity may be what generates the 'entrepreneurial leaps' without which it is caught in stagnant reiteration.


There are connections between fear, hedonic conservatism and Jennifer Senior's article on happiness in New York magazine, linked to by Simon. The article is indeed fascinating, even though it contains nothing that would surprise Spinoza, Freud or Lacan. The problem is not only that human beings do want to be happy; it is that unhappiness brings us enjoyment. The bleak, Schopenhauerian take on this - and one that Freud and Lacan sometimes echo - maintains that the best we can hope for is to attain a compassionate detachment from our own inevitable follies.

To construe things in this way, however, is to remain within the purview of the pleasure and the reality principles, where the inevitably failed pursuit of an impossible hedonic satisfaction can only result in dejection. (The most famous formulation of this is Freud's distinction between 'hysterical misery and common unhappiness'.) The syndrome I described as 'depressive hedonia' is a short-circuiting of this process, so that instead of oscillating between pleasure and dejection, the two states become increasingly indistinguishable. When 'pleasure is the boss', teenagers find themselves subject not only to work pressure but also to a perhaps even more punitive hedonic pressure. That is why the phrase 'hedonic treadmill' is indeed 'so vivid, so apt'. ('Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is?' Senior asks. And if the pleasuredome of NY is actually a miserable hell, what, then, of London?)

Positive Psychology - which sounds like some nightmare combination of good old-fashioned American ego psychology with vulgar Deleuzianism - apparently maintains that we should '[n]o longer should we think of ourselves as tin cans of sexual chaos, as echoing caverns of repressed wishes and violent desires; rather, we should think of ourselves as the shining sum of our strengths and virtues, forceful, masters of our fates. All that nattering we’ve been doing in therapists’ armchairs, trying to know and exorcise our darker selves—it’s been misguided.'

The problem, of course, is that people are 'echoing caverns of repressed wishes and violent desires'; or, at least, this is the default settting. The diagonal cutting across Freudian pessimism and Positive Psychology's optimism is Spinozism - the goal is to cease to be an 'echoing cavern of repressed wishes', but this cannot be achieved by acts of will alone, nor by shoring up the Ego, but by a long, slow, dismantling of the accreted wounds and habits that we are. There is no strong Master waiting at the end of this road.

Seligman, one of the gurus of Positive Psychology, recognizes that pleasure cannot be all, but the way in which he describes what is beyond pleasure is telling. He 'makes the critical distinction between pleasures, which make us feel good, and gratifications, which, oddly, may not involve positive emotions at all, but rather the blunting of them. Eating a Mars Bar is a pleasure; doing something that engages or enhances our strengths is a gratification, whether it’s swimming, welding, or listening to a friend in need. Optimally, when we’re in a state of high gratification, we’re experiencing what Seligman’s colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ... calls flow—a state of total absorption, when time seems to stop and the self deserts us completely.' The question is: why call this second state 'gratification'? Wouldn't a term like 'involvement' be better? (Much of the appeal of videogames is that they provide a kind of off-the-peg mode of involvement, in which the ostensible teleological goal is quite clearly only a lure; the real appeal, evidently, is not the winning of the game, but the immersion in the gamespace.)

See also:

Adam Phillips' claim that “Happiness is fine as a side effect” echoes Burroughs' claim in The Place of Dead Roads that 'happiness is a by-product of function. Those who seek happiness for itself seek a victory without war.'

I can't resist bringing up this little nugget :

“Yet every bit of data says children are an extreme source of negative affect, a mild source of negative affect, or none at all. It’s hard to find a study where there’s one net positive.”

And this:

'Gilbert theorized that our beliefs that money and children will make us happy are super-replicators—without them, civilization wouldn’t survive.'

In other words, Schopenhauer was right: the desire to have children is not based on reason or the desire for happiness but a 'cunning of the species'....

Posted by mark at July 14, 2006 05:27 PM | TrackBack