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Peter King reviews Libidinal Economy by Jean-Francois Lyotard.
I ought to begin by stating two things which this book is not. Firstly it is not a new book. It was originally published in France as Economie Libidinale in 1974 and has only now been translated into English (with financial help from the French Ministry of Culture!) Secondly, it is certainly not an easy work. Indeed it is an extremely difficult and at times almost incomprehensible one. This is nothing to do with the translator (although his glossary and introduction can hardly be called helpful) but is rather due to the style and procedure adopted by the author himself. Indeed in this book Lyotard is apparently more concerned with style – how the book is written – than with the arguments he wishes to pursue within it. It thus affirms Lyotard’s concern for theatricality instead of critique – for happening instead of an analysis of what and why – that is a major focus of the book.
This theatricality is demonstrated in the use of what I presume to be deliberately provocative imagery. For instance he depicts God as a pimp and consequently can see Christ as a whore prostituting His body to fulfill God’s will. Indeed the image of prostitution runs throughout the book with its concern to show how one creates capital from desire and trades on, and in, it also. Moreover much of the recurrent sexual imagery is explicit and at times almost pornographic in the sense that it is gratuitous and aimed for effect. This however is but one of the ways in which Libidinal Economy is a book of its time.
Libidinal Economy is a particularly aggressive example of the philosophy that emanated from France in the early 1970s. The failure of the uprisings of 1968, and in particular the gulf these events showed existed between workers and intellectuals, led to a major change in radical French philosophy. The universal certainties of structuralism and marxism were jettisoned in favour of of an anarchic, diffuse ‘anti-philosophy’ where theory, or what Lyotard was later to call metanarrative, was replaced by the local and the ephemeral. Eventually this situation of flux crystallised into what we now refer to as poststructuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction. However this period saw the production of several anarchic texts, some more notable than others. Perhaps the most notable is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus written in 1972. This text tried to connect Freud and Marx in what has been termed “a brilliant, appropriately nutty way”. Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy is also a product of this reaction and can be seen as something of a response to Anti-Oedipus. Therefore Lyotard’s text can be seen as a response to one of a long line of attempts to equate the subjectivity of Freud with the social concern of Marx that includes Reich, Fromm and Marcuse. This attempt to locate Freud and Marx together can be seen in the broader philosophical tradition that attempts to reconcile the social or public sphere with the individual or private sphere. This has motivated much of liberal thought since Kant and is seen most recently in the work of Rawls and Rorty. In the continental tradition it can be seen in the attempt made by Sartre to connect Existentialism with Marxism in his Critique of Dialectical Reason and in Habermas’ descriptions of communicative reason and discourse ethics. This search for a bridge between the social and the individual thus goes wider than reconciling the tension between Freud and Marx.
Deleuze and Guattari develop a critique of both Freud and Marx.Freud, they argue, ignored the social, whilst Marx downplays the role of the unconscious. They respond with the ‘industrial’ metaphor of humanity as ‘desiring-machines’ who produces the social out of desire. They thus describe what has been called libidinal materialism.
Lyotard counters this description by aggressively affirming the instantaneous nature or ephemerality of desire. Desire does not create anything other than a happening. It has no purpose but to produce a response of the highest intensity. It is desire for pointless pleasure and it does not seek any particular needs. Furthermore this desire is reality – the two principles are merely different sides of the same process. There is thus no purpose to pleasure, other than its own instantaneous sensation. Lyotard can thus state that the ‘purpose’ of adultery is the fulfilment of the desire to be adulterous – it is justified by its happening. He also see pleasure in the happening of an industrial injury.
Lyotard goes on to develop a stinging parody of Marx and this accounted for much of the scandal of the book on its initial publication, for in the early 1970s Marx was still a theorist of the utmost seriousness. Lyotard, the hitherto militant Marxist, had lost his faith, and chose to announce this not through critique or argument but through parody and ridicule. He satirises Althusser’s distinction of the young Hegelian Marx and the mature scientific Marx with Old Man Marx – the prosecutor of desire – and Little Girl Marx who desires. But Lyotard is not only going for a cheap laugh, he is also trying to implicate the scientific nature of Marxism with desire – just why was Marx obsessed with commodity fetishism?
A further important theme of the book is Lyotard’s portrayal of capitalism as allowing for the liberation of new libidinal intensities (hence the pleasure of the industrial accident). Libidinal Economy appears to be almost a celebration of capitalism in its untrammelled form as an engine of positive and masochistic desire (not that Lyotard seeks to distinguish between the two). Capitalism allows things to happen – for desire to be fulfilled. Lyotard appears to suggest that any happening is justified by its occurrence and this is reason enough. Hence the anti-critical, anti-theoretical style of the book which attempts itself to create a happening within the reader. However it is this uncriticality that is the main problem with the book. Lyotard just does not discriminate, either practically or morally. After the immediacy of desire (or perhaps even before) one needs to eat; after a happening one may be bemused as well as thrilled. Indeed a book that seeks not to discriminate between the pleasure of sexual intercourse and the ‘pleasure’ of deafness through industrial injury must be flawed. What indeed are we to say to 10 year old child murderers if we accept Lyotard’s perspective – are we merely to ask them what did it feel like?
This book therefore evades a moral stance. But why should Lyotard have written it, and why is only now seen as the right time to translate into English? What do the author, the translator and the publisher desire in return for their investments? These questions seem especially relevant as Lyotard has subsequently referred to this as his ‘evil’ book and said he felt thankful it remained largely unread.
To deal with Lyotard’s initial motivations first I can offer one possibility. One can see the book as being an act of catharsis in that one needs the extremity of an opposite to separate one totally from the now all too apparent folly of one’s former position. Libidinal Economy therefore served to neutralise his Marxist past. However this only reinforces the premise that this is a book belonging to a fairly specific period and again begs the question as to why it has now appeared in translation.
One could argue of course that the book is of historical interest, albeit showing a rather unfortunate stage in the career of one of the world’s most significant living philosophers. However I fear that the reasons for its appearance may be as much due to hagiography as history. It is merely another example of the uncritical fawning to the ‘Greats’ of French poststructuralism who are apparently incapable of anything insignificant and wrongheaded. In short it is a case of trading on a name.
Finally, for me, the most disappointing aspect of this book is its absolute pointlessness. It simply does not do anything. If philosophy has any use it is when it reminds us of what we had forgotten we already knew and thus helps us to engage more effectively with the world. This work however makes no attempt to do that. It is so abstracted as to be almost incomprehensible, but without the mitigation of even an abstract ethics. Immediately after reading this book I read Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival. Comparisons are invidious and these two books are fundamentally different, but Jacobs makes an attempt to engage the reader in the world as a moral being and tries to show that philosophy can make a difference. Libidinal Economy – unlike, it must be said, several of Lyotard’s later works – does not engage. It is instead self-absorbed and in consequence trifling. It is a dated historical relic of a brief period when anything went but unfortunately nothing was left!
© Dr. P. King 1993
Libidinal Economy by Jean-Francois Lyotard, translated by Iain Hamilton Grant and published by the Athlone Press. Cost: £40.00 hardback or £14.95 paperback.
Peter King lectures at De Montford University in Leicester