Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Capitalism: Why we live in a ‘schizo society’

What a pleasure it is to be in Istanbul — probably the most sensuous city in the world — for a conference on one of the most innovative and profound thinkers of the 20th century, if not in the history of philosophy, Gilles Deleuze (whose extensive collaborative work with Felix Guattari makes it imperative to add the latter’s name to this conference). Since the 1970s, the work of these two revolutionary thinkers has permeated intellectual domains such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, music, art, architecture, cinema, sociology, political and cultural studies, and continues to do so. Not surprisingly, therefore, all of these were represented at the conference, which took place at the Istanbul Technical University’s Architecture School.

The intellectual quality of the majority of the papers I attended was superb. There were five parallel sessions at any given time, with the exception of the plenary keynote addresses, so here I shall concentrate briefly on just one of the best keynote papers (exceeding 6 000 words), by Ian Buchanan, the founding editor of the journal, Deleuze Studies. (I should stress that Prof Buchanan’s paper is only in draft form at present.)

In his introduction Buchanan observes that today we live in what he (following Deleuze and Guattari) calls “Schizo Society”, which means that we all suffer from a distinctive malady: “It isn’t Kafka’s paranoia or Freud’s neurosis, it is schizophrenia. Not the schizophrenia of the asylum, but an everyday schizophrenia in which the absurd is simply ‘how things are’. In saying that, though, I would add that the one thing we’ve ceased to notice in the 21st century is absurdity.” He continues as follows:

“It is absurdity rather than hyperreality that defines our era — the defining problem of the 21st century isn’t that the false is presented as the true; after all, one can always unmask falsehood and reveal the truth. No, I would say that the central problem today is that the false and the true can sit side by side without raising so much as a single eyebrow. Not because the line of distinction between the false and the true has been irrevocably blurred, as Baudrillard and other postmodern critics thought, but rather because the false and the true are given an equal footing in today’s society. We have entered an age that requires us to ‘hold two [or more, I would add] opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function’ (as F Scott Fitzgerald famously said all first-rate minds should be able to do). Capitalism insists that we consume, indeed it insists that we over-consume, then it ridicules us for doing precisely what it demands of us: we’re supposed to eat all the delicious sugary treats it puts before us and stay stylishly thin; we’re supposed to remain transfixed in front of the screen and stay healthily active; and we’re supposed to enjoy toxic substances — alcohol, cigarettes, corn syrup, etc — and not think twice about the damage it is doing to our bodies. Absurd is perhaps too mild a word to describe late capitalism.”

This sets the scene for his discussion of Deleuze and Guattari’s (D & G’s) major contributions to philosophy, which I can present here only in severely truncated format. First he casts light on the claim that we live in a “Schizo Society” by phrasing it in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s insight that an individual today comprises a plurality of “competing” subjectivities. In D & G’s terms, subjects today are “assemblages”, and no longer just the “split subjects” of psychoanalysis — this is the first notable contribution of D & G to the “rethinking of cultural analysis for the 21st century”. It may come as a shock to read Buchanan’s Deleuzian statement that: “We live in a society — in the West, at least — in which many of the pathological symptoms of schizophrenia are lived as the normal condition of everyday life.”

Most people would probably be outraged at this thought, snorting indignantly as they protest that they are certainly not schizophrenic. But the “symptoms” of Schizo Society provided by Buchanan are indisputably there, namely (firstly), the “de-centering of the ‘I’ ”, which manifests itself as the inability to “control the competing subjectivities/voices in our heads”. If you doubt this, consider how many people you know for whom shopping, which used to be a “want”, has become a “need” that they cannot do without — even, paradoxically, when they don’t actually buy anything.

Secondly, he pointed out, the “merely apparent and the actual” cannot be readily distinguished any longer — “the apparent is all there is”. Again, if you doubt this, ask yourself why Disneyland and its theme-park offspring, or shopping malls (I would add online games like WoW), for that matter, are so immensely successful. The flipside of this victory of the merely superficial is the increasing “fascination with indigenous ‘deep’ knowledge” — no doubt to compensate for the superficiality that dominates our lives.

In the third place, none of us can stop the demands (even if some can resist them) that are continually being directed at us in the form of advertisements, branded images and a whole spectrum of diverse exhortations, ranging from the political to the religious. As Buchanan remarked, the “intense fascination with mindfulness and spirituality” is symptomatic of this awareness. And the more “hyperstimulation” there is, the greater the need for anaesthetics of some sort (mostly drugs, unfortunately).

The fourth symptom of the generalised schizophrenia in which we are immersed is that “self-destruction seems both rational and attractive”. How many wars aren’t justified as rational, how many people are obese from overeating and living sedentary lives, let alone the ones who destroy themselves through drug-abuse, and can justify it.

For a philosopher Buchanan’s remark, that we can no longer believe that the truth “sets us free”, is a bitter pill, although he does grant that we are able to “know the truth” (or “several truths”) — even if we don’t act on it, partly because we don’t know what sensible action might be (in the case of climate change, for instance). This is how schizophrenia as a cultural condition shows itself, and it has a paralyzing effect. Small wonder that most people turn to their preferred anaesthetic, whether it is watching rugby or soccer, hanging out at clubs or in shopping malls, or immersing themselves in the virtual world via their smartphone or tablet.

This announces D & G’s second major contribution listed by Buchanan — they draw attention, like McLuhan before them, to the primacy of form in our era, specifically regarding the media. But while McLuhan saw that the media change us, D & G go further. What they see as the capitalist mode of subjectivity is partly produced by the media, partly by ourselves when we use the models the media provide. Our dreams and desires are structured “in interaction” with television, for instance. What D & G called “schizoanalysis” is aimed at understanding this phenomenon.

Buchanan regards D & G’s insistence that our “investments in identities from books, films and songs” are far from “unreal” (or “hyperreal”), as we tend to believe, but are instead “real”, as their third major contribution. This explains the fact that a pervasive cultural schizophrenia has taken hold of humanity today. After all, watching television is one of the major “drugs” of today, and its structural effect on people’s subjectivities is not just something incidental; it structures their lives, their wants and needs.

“Capitalism produces schizophrenia, but also requires it”, Buchanan observed, and warns against mistaking this transformation with “progress”. “Manic-depression, paranoia and hysteria have not disappeared”, he pointed out, “even if the conditions that yielded them have; but they are not the same maladies they once were either. Now, they are particular kinds of reactions to the schizophrenising forces that define our age. Identifying, conceptualising, and mapping these forces is the central aim of Deleuze and Guattari’s entire project”.

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