Keti Chukhrov on Pleasure, the Common, and the Good

26.8.19 / Text
A short conversation on the philosophical implications of hedonism at the time of approaching catastrophe

Keti Chukhrov, photo: Olympia Orlova-Vilberg, 21 June 2018

David Riff: Our world today seems full of imperatives to seek enjoyment and fun in pursuit of happiness, no matter what the cost. The world might be heading for ecological and social catastrophe, but you should become a more fulfilled person by partaking in the most sophisticated possible pleasures. How do you see this state of affairs? What are the philosophical implications of all these “happiness industries” at a time of growing turmoil and crisis?

Keti Chukhrov: One of the reasons conditions of crisis and catastrophe do not impede hedonism is that enjoyment since the 1960s had been linked to liberation and emancipation—be it in art, critical theory, gender studies, or philosophy. Even now, many would insist that communism is rather a site of accomplished desires or simply collective bliss, and certainly not the hard work of organizing the politics of the common good. This Platonic notion itself—the “common good”—has been split into the “common” and the “good.” Critical discourse and subversive practices always embraced the common, the “commons,” and even “communalization,” whereas the good acquired connotations of a controlled governing order or patriarchal regime. It was linked to state power, the authoritarian establishment of law, the restriction of liberties, or the abolishing of pleasure. Even Lacanian psychoanalysis and post-structuralist thought fell prey to the defiance of the good in apologising for desire and its creative potentials.

DR: So from the “pursuit of the common good” to the “pursuit of pleasure?”

KC: Precisely. The commons is understood as collective enjoyment. Labor and discipline can only be authoritarian subjugation, and never simply generic to human existence. Instead, perverting and subverting practices become the primary form of indulging in the commons. They are juxtaposed to the good of governing power, which can only be a “false” good. This tearing away of the commons from the good leads ever deeper into an exploration of individual desire, generating ever more innovative, alienated, estranged forms of odd and unconventional enjoyment. In short, instead of organizing the commons around the good and uniting in the labor of its communalization, we get the diversification of desires under the auspices of liberating hidden traumas or perverse imaginaries, when their public exposure stands for freedom and resistance against power. Meanwhile the history of despotism and authoritarianism shows that indulging in surplus pleasure and perversion is not at all counter-authoritarian; paradoxically, it is power itself that is the principal subject of halting the law, of perverting its own order and of enjoying surplus enjoyment.

DR: So how do you see the political role of avant-garde hedonisms today when they appear in the culture industry?

KC: The ethics behind many contemporary utopias of emancipation remind me of the lumpenized bohemians from Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Only, Marx’s critique concerns miserable bohemian outcasts reluctant or unable to join the proletariat’s struggle. Conversely, today, in the ideology of gender and decolonial liberation, post-human studies, various dystopias of cybernetic occultism, and apologetics of new animalities—manifested explicitly in so many other cultural projects and agencies—the social degradation and predilection for indulgence of the lumpen bohemians are claimed as a revolt against power, as long as such a carnival of voluntary decadence and perversion stands for emancipation.

DR: So we are talking about an ontology of enjoyment, where pleasure becomes the main goal and essence of being …

KC: Samo Tomšič demonstrates in The Labor of Enjoyment (2019) that the pursuit of unattainable surplus enjoyment cannot be balanced in any way—even in socialist, planned economies. The pleasure principle is the outcome of a split and incomplete subject (Lacan), dependent on her drive to constantly replenish the lack instigated by ever unaccomplished desire. This means that even a communist society cannot get rid of the syndrome of surplus enjoyment—which is why the 20th-century socialist projections of communism failed. In psychoanalysis there is no escaping the pleasure principle; in its context, even displeasure or the death drive, as well as labor and its cessation, are formed by the libidinal drive and thus eternally linked to enjoyment. Similarly, in contemporary theories of creativity, from Deleuze and Guattari up to the most recent accelerationist imaginaries, there is no exit from the instigations of desire. We cannot imagine any proper production and social ideal without enjoyment, and this inevitable state of things has been ontologized in many theories of emancipation, which, de facto, have nothing to do with emancipation in the end.

DR: Is there an alternative?

KC: Maybe we should simply trust Marx who saw that enjoyment, in a bourgeois society, was inevitably tainted by the political economy of surplus value and commodity fetishism. What if this “libidinal” surplus of capitalist economy were simply outlawed at the stage of production? Would this mean the castration of desire and creativity? Or, on the contrary, maybe it would posit the starting point for the ethics and economy of the common good, based on the generic zeal for truth, rather than the phantasies of the self that desire and enjoyment can never exceed.