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Tag: Foucault

French psychiatry under occupation: Saint-Alban

In order to better situate Foucault in relation to madness, psychiatry, and antipsychiatry it might make sense to briefly look at the particularities of French antipsychiatry. To that end I’ll give a brief history of the French context, which differs so much from other setting in which antipsychiatry would be born. In this post I want to explore the characters and character of the psychiatric hospital Saint Alban. It is this setting that would colour what came later in France’s history of psychiatry, and it is from this place that Institutional Psychotherapy- arguably France’s answer to antipsychiatry- would be born.

Saint Alban. 

First of all it is important to understand that in the French context the term antipsychiatry didn’t appear much. David Reggio has pointed out that in France people tended to speak more of a “different psychiatry” or a “reorientation of psychiatry”. In Reggio’s fascinating presentation to the Antipsychiatry and its legacies conference he is quick to point out that French psychiatry had a different evolution to that of its British or American relatives, those countries where the term “antipsychiatry” really took hold. Unlike the UK or the USA France suffered occupation during the Second World War and this obviously affected the development of psychiatry there.

In 1941 the Vichy government formed a new Ministry of Health and placed a Dr Serge Haurd at its head. The new ministry operated to pass a series of laws that would concentrate power over pharmacy, hospitals and medicine into the hands of the state. Mental health was not high on the new ministry’s concerns. According to Chapireau  (2007), some 45,000 inmates of psychiatric institutions died in the period 1939-1945 due to starvation and infectious diseases. This famine didn’t really take effect until 1940, just one year before Haurd’s appointment, and would continue until 1944. The psychiatrists wrote about the conditions in their hospitals but they did so in clinical language so as to avoid censor and recrimination. There are reports cited in Birley (2002) that during the Vichy regime’s lifetime famine and starvation were the single most written about phenomena in the leading psychiatric journal. According to Lemoine (1998) a purposeful reduction of supplies to psychiatric hospitals led to the sky rocketing mortality rate, with his figure of 48,000 deaths caused by the famine. Lemoine went so far as to call the policy one of deliberate ‘soft extermination’, an attempted genocide of the mad, although almost every other source seems to think that Lemoine is going too far with this claim, that this was less an extermination and more a massacre by omission. We could argue that between active slaughter and deliberate mass starvation there isn’t much to separate one extermination from another. Birly goes on to report the existence of ‘The French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems’ since 1941, identifying it as a kind of think-tank that would look into solving the problems of feeble-mindedness, among others, and whose director was a strong advocate of eugenics. Psychiatrists and other workers did attempt to feed their patients by increasing productivity on their own farms, but these were huge institutions with thousands of inmates. Birly reports of one psychiatrist who wrote to the Ministry for additional rations, receieving the reply that


increased rations should only be given to those patients who are likely to recover sufficiently to be discharged and take their place in society.


What does this mean, “take their place in society”? Given that we’re talking about Vichy France in the midst of a war, I think the implications are clear. We should also bear in mind exactly who the Vichy Government supported and were legitimated by. The nazi regime itself was responsible for the active extermination of people with schizophrenia. E Torrey Fuller reports that somewhere between ‘220 000 and 269 500 individuals with schizophrenia were sterilized or killed’ and that this represents between 75-100% of all German schizophrenics. Fuller’s report on the killing of schizophrenics presents us with a systematic genocide of no less horrific industrialisation than was carried out in the murder of 6 million Jews. We must understand that French psychiatry re-emerges from occupation, famine, and war.

There was one notably exception to the grave picture of French psychiatry during the war. At St Alban’s Hospital in the south of France not a single patient died. The St Alban’s hospital had operated not just as a psychiatric hospital but also as a sanctuary for a number of Resistance fighters, conscientious objectors, French intellectuals and surrealist artists. This mixture of therapists, intellectuals, militants and mad people gave St Alban’s a particularly liberated feeling and would help to establish it as a site of autonomy. Indeed David Healy records that the hospital would eventually become a site of ‘pilgrimage’ and that many pilgrims came away with a sense that resistance ‘against tyranny and oppression was not yet over, but had to extended into the rest of bourgeois society’ (2002, 151). To understand the importance of St Alban’s we should ask ourselves whether we could conceive today of a similar situation taking place in a psychiatric hospital- whether in France, the UK, the USA or any other part of the world. Today, to have this kind of situation would be intolerable and forbidden. Psychiatric settings in societies of control are driven by fear, codified as “risk”, and operate on the basis of managing that fear. Better put, we could say that today’s psychiatric institutions are anxious places: there is this fear of the patient, her potential for violence and for self-destruction that in general outweighs the actual likelihood of her carrying such violence out. Today’s hospitals are certainly not hotbeds of militancy and radical action or of intellectual pursuits (I’ve often wondered why not even though the answers are immediately obvious…but under different circumstances: the hospital as the site for the production of embedded intellectuals, a kind of “mad inquiry”). It was only because of the unique circumstances of the war, the necessities it brought with it, and the hospital’s geographical isolation that allowed it to flourish as a zone of militancy.

Opened in 1921 by a Dr Tissot, the hospital had already instituted an open doors policy by 1942. An open doors policy allows psychiatric patients the right to enter and leave the hospital at any time they please, in a move that was purposefully designed to radically curtail the power of psychiatrists over their inmates and to transform those inmates into voluntary patients. In the Italian context Basaglia would begin to do the same at his hospital in Gorizia, and he struggle with the question of this voluntary curtailment of the psychiatrist’s power. Basaglia had some affiliation with Maoist theories of the self-dissolving of power but his anxiety was that if the psychiatrist voluntarily ceded her power this to was an act and so an expression of that same power. If these same concerns arose in St Alban is impossible for me to say, as very little source material has been translated into English (although a book on the subject is in preparation). Certainly Tissot is said to have been inspired by Pinel, the man who “liberated” the inmates of a mental hospital in France and according to one history iinaugurated a new humane psychiatry. We all know what Foucault would have to say about that (for those that don’t, he called bullshit).

Two of the most important psychiatrists to work out of St Alban were Francois Tosquelles and L. Bonnafe. Again, there is not much that has passed into English on what these men wrote, so we largely rely on the reports of others. However, we do have the following transcription of Tosquelles oral description of Tissot:

His discourse resembled that of today’s [1960s] antipsychiatry in many ways. At the time of  the creation of St Alban’s [1821], Tissot had some partisans, for example two peasants, Guazi and Rousset; he sent them to Dupuytren in Paris, a guy who was an anti-doctor we would say today, an anti-psychiatrist, because he fought against blood letting, baths, purges, and all those wild therapies psychiatrists used. And this Tissot sent Guazi and Rousset, Lozere peasants,  to work for a year at Dupuytren, to learn what could be learnt of therapeutic and clinical value. They were the first two psychiatric nurses of France. Tissot was therefore the anti-psychiatric creator of St Alban’s hospital and of 25 others. All this is a strong current that by far preceded the 1838 law, which was already a way of integrating, of recuperating that anti-psychiatry (cited in Postel and Allen 1994, 399).



So we see Tosquelles citing St Alban’s as an antipsychiatric institution, and its founder as an antipsychiatrist. This is significant coming from the man who was called “the red psychiatrist”, a man who had fought against Franco in the Republican Popular Front in the Spanish Civil. We have been told that antipsychiatry wasn’t spoken much in France, so when it appears we should pay attention. The description of both the institution and the man with this term is more important for it reveals about Tosquelles than it does about St Alban’s or Tissot themselves. We have no way to know is Tissot would have considered himself antipsychiatry, even if it seems clear that St Alban’s could easily be considered to meet with the concerns for the creation of disalienated spaces that would mark the antipsychiatry to come. It also tells us something about the misunderstood name of antipsychiatry. While many people still see in that name something like a total negation of psychiatry, we can see that Tosquelles saw antipsychiatry as a movement that worked to end the abuses of the psychiatric system, its excessive power, and its role in subjecting mad bodies to what amounts to torture. Given this, we can assume that Tosquelles saw himself as part of the same antipsychiatric movement.

Tosquelles arrived in St Alban’s in 1941 and it was under his tenure that the open door policy was put into place there. It was also Tosquelles who oversaw the demolition of the walls around the hospital, by this point renamed a “psychiatric centre”, and the removal of the prison bars from the windows. Before fleeing Spain, Tosquelles had studied Freud, Marx and Reich and, most significantly, had become well versed in Lacanian psychoanalysis. According to Tosquelles himself when he fled Spain he carried with him only two texts, one of which was Lacan’s work on paranoia. In Roudinescu’s (1990, 199) insightful turn of phrase, Tosquelle became convinced of the need to introduce into clinical practice ‘a couchless variant of Freudianism’. Roudinescu also reports that while he had been fighting in Spain, Tosquelles had become convinced that a number of psychoses had resolved themselves spontaneously because the people caught in their grips had become “useful to their comrades”. In other words, the fight against fascism was linked to the psychic condition of militants and thus antifascism could be seen as a moment of political therapeutics. With Toscquelle’s communist antifascism and Lacanianism we also see an early example of Freudo-Marxism coming to France. In fact, Toscquelle’s clinical practice would come to be known as Institutional Psychotherapy and would dominate the French scene. If there is a reason that the French didn’t speak very often of antipsychiatry it is because they spoke instead of Institutional Psychotherapy, which involved a radical reorganisation of the asylum and clinical work.

I don’t think it is possible to stress the heady environment of St Alban or the significance of its milieu, to use a term that would become important in Institutional Psychotherapy. Francois Dosse speaks of an ‘interweaving between the Resistance and the hospital’ (2011, 42), noting that weapons drops for the Resistance had to be organised for around the hospital’s grounds, and that much of its staff were in fact Resistance fighters. The director at the time of Toscquelles arrival, and whom the he would succeed, Bonnafe wrote that central to the hospital was the spirit of ‘continuity and fidelity’ that emerged from a shared experience of resistance to Spanish and German fascism. Among those who would seek refuge or train at St Alban are listed Tristan Tzara, Paul, Franz Fanon (who spent two years training under Toscquelles), Georges Canguilhem (whose discussion of normality and abnormality would be pivotal to Foucault), and Jean Oury. For my purposes here, it is the last of these who stands out among the crowd for the simple reason that Oury would go on to found what is perhaps the most important site in the history of French psychiatry: La Borde. Leaving St Alban for the moment we can conclude in the words of Felix Guattari that it was there ‘a new attitude, a new militant approach to mental illness was born’ (1972, 40).

In the next post in this brief history I’ll have a look at the formation of La Borde, the radical practices that were put in place there and its importance for shaping both French psychiatry and the militant psychiatry that would come. At this point I don’t think that it is at all impertinent or premature to say that without the experience of La Borde there would be no Guattari as we know him, and certainly no Deleuze and Guattari. La Borde would be a revolutionary experiment in psychiatry that would take what was developed at St Alban and go further, fundamentally reorienting the routines, organisation and purpose of the psychiatric institution in France.




Birley, JLT. 2002. Famine: a distant shadow over French psychiatry. Online.

Chapireau, F. 2007. La Mortalite des malades mentaux hospitalises en France pendant La Deeuxieme Guerre Mondiale. Here.

Dosse, F. 2011. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting lives. new york: Columbia University Press.

Guattari, F. 1975. Psychoanalysis and Transversality. 

Postel, J., and Allen, D.F. 1994. History and antipsychiatry in France. In: Micale, M.S., and Porter, R. eds. 1994. Discovering the history of psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Most of this text is available online.

Roudinesco, R. 1990. Jacques Lacan & Co: A history of psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985. London: Free Association Books.


Background for Foucault’s Lectures on Psychiatric Power

Antipsychiatry, in general

By 1973 the antipsychiatry movement was well etablished. Although not an antipsychiatrist himself the work of Jacques Lacan had already been challenging psychoanalytic orthodoxy for decades, and he had laid the basis for a theoretical movement that would proclaim psychosis as intelligible. In the 1960s there would be an explosion of theoretical critiques of psychiatric theory and institutional practice, most of which would focus on the Aslyum as a what Erving Goffman called a  “total institution”. Thomas Szasz had challenged the entire edifice of psychiatry in his The Myth of Mental Illness, and the American sociologist Thomas Scheff developed the idea of labelling theory that almost all high school kids are now aware of. In the UK RD Laing and David Cooper- the later of whom had coined the name “antipsychiatry”- had already written extensively on madness as an understandable reaction to society, an existential response to impossible situations, and had gone on to experiment with new forms of psychiatric care.

Of these the most famous are probably RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall and David Cooper’s Villa 21, emphasising an approach to care that attempted to systematically subvert the features of the asylum. Similarly the US saw the emergence of Loren Mosher’s Soteria model of mental health care in the 1960s. What Laing, Cooper and Mosher’s experiments had in common was the idea of providing a genuine space of sasanctuary from the world, a disalienated-disalienating space in which people could go mad safely, without an emphasis on restraint, either physical or chemical. But perhaps no part of the antipsychiatry movement went further than Franco Basaglia’s reform of the Italian psychiatric system. Preferring the name “democractic psychiatry”- almost all the antipsychiatrists would at some point or another reject the name- Basaglia’s Law made it illegal to build any more hospitals, and started the process of deinstitutionalisation in Italy. Basaglia’s experiment might have been the most radical of all, given as it took place within an existing psychiatric facility. He and a team around him set about desegregating patients from staff, and progressively handing over more and more control of the his ward’s treatment and administrative powers to those patients. In many respects Basaglia’s experiment in Gorizia is closer to Guattari’s experiences at La Borde than any Laing and Cooper attempted. Guattari himself became involved in the network for an alternative psychiatry that Basaglia was also a member of, and all these experiments would be profoundly important to his development as a thinker of political therapeutics, as well as in his capacity as Deleuze’s accomplice in writing of capitalism and schizophrenia.

Of course throughout all this there was also grass roots movements outside the walls of the hospital and the academy. Among the most dramatic examples of this were the gay rights activists throughout the world who challenged the idea that homosexuality was a pathology. Arguably one of the high points of gay militancy was the Stonewall riots of 1969. The riots broke out in Greenwich Village after the police raid of a public meeting of “homophile” groups, the name for proto-gay liberation organisations. The riots accelerated and radicalised large amounts of the young gay community, many of whom turned against the previous homophile acceptance of the idea that homosexuality was a medical condition, a psychopathology. In 1970, during a film screening about the use of ECT as a treatment for same-sex attraction (ie. ECT as a cure for homosexual desire), a number of gay activists began to shout “torture!”, “barbarism!”, and rushed the stage to yell and, eventually, to explain how psychiatrists were complicit in the torture of gay men and women. The film screening was an event held and hosted by the American Psychiatric Association. This, and other similar protests, eventually led to homosexuality being dropped from the nosology of mental disorders in 1973.Similar fights are still ongoing in relation to trans people, but that exceeds the context setting of an immediate potted history prior to Foucault’s 1973 lectures.

Elsewhere, the Socialist Patients Collective- a group heavily influenced by Hegelian Marxism- was a group of people founded via a therapy group run by psychiatrist Wolfgang Huber. It was Huber’s belief that his patients were only mad because of the pathogenic effects of capitalism and that only a communist revolution could effect a cure of their condition. Huber’s higher-ups would try to fire him and his patients would form the SPK as a group to protest this. The SPK occupied the hospital, held protests. They also produced some of the most militant communiques and manifestos of the antipsychiatric period, and even secured Sartre’s approval (he wrote a preface for their manifesto). By the mid-1970s most of the SPK had disbanded- although it exists today in an attenuated form- and had joined the Red Army Faction. By this point the SPK had already begun engaging in acts of terrorism.

At the same time, this period of history also saw the abuses of the Soviety psychiatry coming to public attention, a topic I hardly need to elaborate on here.

For the sake of space I’ll leave it at that. I’m not trying to give a history of the antipsychiatric movement or attitude or orientation, but to give some context as to what had been going on around the issues of madness and politics before Foucault took to the stage to lecture of Psychiatric Power at the end of 1973. Of course, Foucault had already penned Madness and Civilisation by this point, as well as numerous other essays and interviews (notably the paper on dangerous individuals).

Foucault’s antipsychiatry, in general

By 1973 we see Foucault wanting to distance himself somewhat from Madness and Civilisation. This is the period in which Foucault is moving from his archaeological/structuralist methodology to the genealogical/post-structuralist period. Or, if we prefer, he is moving towards what he will call in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, “the law of immanence”. This transition in his thinking marks a movement from an analysis of institutions towards a pragmatics of dispositifs. In the Lectures of Psychiatric Power Foucault is keen to point this out:


Here, in this second volume [on madness], I would like to see if it is possible to a make a radically different analysis [than that of Madness and Civilisation] and if, instead of starting from the analysis of this kind of representational core, which inevitably refers to a history of mentalities, of thought, we could start from an apparatus (dispositif) of power. That is to say, to what extent can an apparatus of power produce statements, discourses, and, consequently, all the forms of representation that may then derive from it (2008, 13).


Without going any further into this quote for now, we can see Foucault himself identifying the relevant shift in his thinking: away from representation and towards that from which representation is assembled. We are on the move from the inherited image of power as constraint and repression, towards that in which power is also seen as productive.

Jacques Lagrange goes explains further in the “Course Summary” that appears at the end of my edition of the Lectures. For Lagrange, the Foucault of Madness had been concerned with ‘putting psychiatry on trial and accusing it of concealing the real conditions of mental pathology behind nosological abstractions’ (2008, 350). It is arguable that this has always been the main stock of the antipsychiatry movement. Even today the bulk of the critiques (at least the more academic ones) are focussed on a critique of the nosological noumenclature of the DSM. Its not exactly that this work is unimportant, that such critiques shouldn’t be carried out, but that they operate at the level of representations, of ‘mentalities’, and so on the terrain of psychiatry itself. The more interesting question, and the one that is much more in the spirit of Foucault’s Lectures, and of the work of Deleuze and Guattari, is the question of what these diagnoses do, what function they perform, what tactics they enact, how they come to operate between the body of the patient and the body of the psychiatrist on the field of battle. Foucault’s new approach, that both Habermas and Deleuze would identify as functionalist, although functionalism of a different kind, would emphasised what went on beneath the level of these representations, asking the questions of how they emerged, which conjunctions they emerged from, to whose benefit, and to whose loss?

Lagrange returns us to the question of Soviet psychiatry in order to point out that this placed a severe limit on what French antipsychiatry could achieve. The psychiatrists of France didn’t want to draw too much attention to their own practice in case they too would be accused of committing crimes against humanity, of abusing the status of their profession, of political torture. As we saw above, the APA had been getting accused of exactly that in the United States, so the French psychiatrists were probably not being paranoid in fearing the same. Foucault comments that French psychiatrists ‘found themselves blocked by a political situation…taking place in the Soviet Union’ (cited in 2008, 352) and goes on to state that psychiatrists could thus ‘struggle against medicine and the administration without being able to free themselves from either one or the other’ (cited in 2008, 352). In essence, Foucault’s problem with his old form of analysis- although he stated in Madness that he wasn’t doing a history of psychiatry but of madness itself- was that it to remained caught within the medical-administrative problem. That is to say that the old critiques remained focussed on the institution of the asylum and so were operating within a territory that was demarcated and set out in advance by the institution itself. The question of psychiatric power, of what it is composed and how is operates, can never be raised when one’s focus is a critique of the institution and the attempt to discover a new institutional arrangement. Left to their own devices the psychiatrists could never really question their own power. This wasn’t simply because they were corrupt agents of domination- a position still in keeping with institutional analysis- but because they were themselves ‘state employees’, as Foucault notes. To challenge psychiatric power effectively would be to dissolve their own positions in relation to the mode of production. A true antipsychiatry would produce superfluous psychiatrists, plunging them into the mass of the relative surplus population and unemployment and poverty with it.

As we saw above almost all the other radical antipychiatrists took the institution as their target, and many of them attempted new institutional modalities. Even Szasz attempted to defend a particular model of the consensual contracted psychotherapeutic relationship (and completely misunderstood how psychotherapy works in the process). In a certain sense Foucault believes that his critique of psychiatry goes further than the others because it refuses to speak on its grounds or about its problematics. Just as Foucault would announce that he had yet to cut off the king’s head, so to he thought that we hadn’t truly left the asylum. As long as we remained within and with the institution we would not be able to really expose the multiplicity of operations of power that lay beneath it, upon which it rested, and which could not be confined to the institution itself. In later entries we’ll see that Foucault is keen to see that the institution had always been in the process of an immanent auto-deinstitutionalisation insofar as its principles and strategies of functions and operations were also bleeding beyond its own discursive and concrete walls:



The first consequence [of the psychiatric colonisation of childhood] is that psychiatry will now be able to plug into a whole series of disciplinary regimes existing around it, on the grounds of the principle that it alone is both the science and power of the abnormal. Psychiatry will be able to claim for itself everything abnormal…The generalisation, diffusion, and dissemination of psychiatric power took place in our society by way of this carving out of the abnormal child (2008, 222).

This moment in Foucault’s text can hardly be underemphasised. Foucault is one of the few antipsychiatristic theorists who is not a psychiatrist or psychotherapist of some order. When he critiques the emphasis on the institution I think we have a legitimate reply in the form of asking Foucault what he would see happen to people who go mad in capitalist societies. Does he not think that they deserve any kind of refuge or care? For those of us who are mental health workers and those of us who have experienced mental suffering understand that there will also be a need for a place to go. Even within utopian conditions of full luxury communism do we really expect madness to disappear? Suffering is part of the human condition- dreams of its eradication are just that…dreams. We can reduce the amount of unnecessary suffering we undergo but we can’t expunge suffering as such. Of course Foucault would probably shrug at this question: “I’m not suggesting the mad should be left to go mad, unattended, alone, that suffering should just be allowed…but that isn’t my question; my question is more along the lines of how your question even comes to appear as a problem, and about how has tried to answer it, with what technologies, by what techniques, in what circumstances”. This is the way of Foucault, and its what causes many of his critics to regard him as a flake who can’t pick a side. I think that’s the wrong way to reprimand Foucault.

At any rate, if Foucault doesn’t provide us with an alternative form of psychiatry, or an alternative to psychiatry, he does provide us with a theory of psychiatric power that sees it functioning beneath and beyond the asylum walls even before the movement of deinstitutionalisation. Foucault’s grasp on psychiatry thus offers us a very important insight: that deinstitutionalisation, the closure of the hospitals and the creation of community psychiatric organisations, was already occurring in a much more subtle form within psychiatry itself. The ongoing dissemination of psychiatry reaches a fever pitch in our society- even as the asylum seems to be coming back into fashion: we are forced to defend hospital closures, bed losses, and find it necessary to gather around calls for the reinvention of the asylum. Foucault predicts all this. Psychiatry will always have us defending it, he seems to suggest. And it becomes more and more mobile. Foucault never lived to see the emergence and the massive over-prescription of compulsory treatment orders, but if he had I’m sure he would agree that they are little more than a fractal of the institution circulating openly in the fabric of society itself, rendering the patient’s home into an institutional space without the institution having to exist. Speaking otherwise, Foucault already begins to present us with a history of the psychiatric movement from discipline to control.

Who are the militants?

Foucault disregards many of the antipsychiatrists then. His antipsychiatry is different. It has different concerns. We see this also playing out in where Foucault identifies an authentic antipsychiatry. For Foucault the ‘front of resistance ‘ (2008, 253) to psychiatric power is to be seen in the figure of the hysteric. Foucault is unamiguous about this:


The hysteric has magnificent symptoms, but at the same time she sidesteps the reality of her illness; she goes against the current asylum game and, to that extent, we salute the hysterics as true militants of antipsychiatry (2008, 254).

Foucault’s Lectures are thus important for another reason. He doesn’t identify antipsychiatry as a phenomena led or even comprised by psychiatrists and other mental health workers, although he doesn’t deny their place in it. Instead Foucault asserts that the mad themselves, specifically in the form of the hysteric, are the militants. In the course of looking into the Lectures more deeply I think this will become very important for today’s nascent antipsychiatry. The question becomes, who are today’s hysterics? And a number of candidates come to mind. The most obvious that comes to mind are those people who are diagnosed with personality disorders, among the most spurious of all diagnoses. Personality disorder, especially histrionic personality disorder, has a clear historical continuity with hysteria, actually being a rebranding of the DSM-II entry “hysterical personality”. The hysteric is always suspected of faking-it, or “simulation” in Foucault’s terms, and this is quite clearly the case with personality disorder. Almost everyone that works in mental health will tell you, PD really means “I can’t work with you/you’re an attention-seeker/ you’re a cunt”. But hysteria also has links to anorexia, which may have been a subset of hysterical illness in the 19th century, and to self-harm.

It may well be that Foucault would regard people subjectivated via these diagnostic categories as today’s true antipsychiatric militants. Certainly they all share with the hysteric not just a common history but also occupy a similar position in relation to psychiatry itself (are they “real” disorders? are they treatable? are they actually forms of resistance to power? are they faking it?) as well as sharing a certain series of strategies with the hysteric, not least of which is the capacity for magnificent symptoms. Of course, we would have to be careful in these articulations not to run away with ourselves and forget the suffering that the experiences codified as these conditions also bring with them.

Yeh well….

So I’ve laid out a little general background, any of which could be expanded on. What I haven’t given much of here is a picture of French antipsychiatry in particular- perhaps that can come another time. But what I’ve tried to give myself here is some way to place Foucault’s theories in the context of his own time, in regards to antipsychiatry, and to identify certain carry overs with our own, certain concerns that are still live for us today. Among those is the question of the place of the child in relation to psychiatry, which I haven’t much gone into in the above. Foucault certainly sees it as crucial, and today we could hardly disagree. Childhood psychiatric disorders have exploded, as have the number of psychoactive drugs being prescribed to children, and the child has become recodified in many instances as an “ulta-high risk” patient. The UHR patient has no symptoms but has been identified as at a very high risk of developing symptoms. This is established via actuarial risk assessment (and maybe by gene-screening and/or neuroimagining screening as the technology improves) and parental concern. Many of these children might never develop symptoms without treatment, but you can be sure the fact that they never do will be attributed to the prophylactic doses of psychoactive substances they’re taking.

At any rate, we’ve got a series of questions to focus on while reading Foucault’s Lectures.

What is psychiatric power?- and all the related questions (how does it operate? when? where? etc).

What is the difference between the apparatus and the representation?

What is the asylum, and how does Foucault depart from it?

Who are the agencies of psychiatry and who are the agencies of resistance?

How does Foucault relate to the rest of antipsychiatry?

These are good questions to bear in mind to begin with…


Foucault, M. 2008[1973]. Psychiatric power: lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

Psychiatry and post-traumatic subjectivity

Today at 2pm (GMT) Novara Media will be broadcasting on contemporary psychiatry and the post-traumatic subject. This is a subject the importance of which for me I can’t express. I think I have said before that my own experiences of panic and the rising anxiety, disassociation, and dis-empathic conditions that I saw so many friends falling into had three profound influences on me. First, it compounded my desire to leave London. Second, it lead me to the desire to work in the psychiatric world (eventually as a nurse). Third, it led me to start thinking and reading about just this post-traumatic subject.

Meanwhile, Novara Media is a fantastic project hosted by the brilliant Resonance FM. If you don’t have the time to listen to today’s stream live (I probably won’t either) I will be embedding it once it is available.

Update: (Quasi-)relatedly, Foucault News has also just put up a link to a new paper. From abstract:

By exploring the complex co-existence and intertwinements of discipline and biopolitics in preventive practices, this study eschews an interpretation that views the powers of the professional health system as invasive and one-directional. Perhaps surprisingly, the study demonstrates how patients in various ways defy a ‘patient-centered’ and empowering approach and demand to be treated medically and disciplined in a more traditional sense.

Plurality of powers

In the essay The Subject and Power, Foucault talks about power in the following terms:

‘Let us come back to the definition of the exercise of power as a way in which certain actions may structure the held of other possible actions. What, therefore, would be proper to a relationship of power is that it be a mode of action upon actions. That is to say, power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not reconstituted “above” society as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of. In any case, to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible —and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction’.

He doesn’t seek to define what power “is” but to define its exercise. This is in part owing to ontology but also to his neo-pragmatism; to answer the question of what a phenomena is one should ask about what it does. So for Foucault there is a sense in which power is ‘action upon actions’, and that this is how we should orient ourselves to it.

There is a danger that this kind of talk is itself too abstract and that we should return to the (unstable) ground a bit. So let’s use other words: it is the operation of conducting conduct. Power is simply the way in which behaviour/conduct/comportment is organised. Every constraint-restrain upon comportment limits the choreography of possible way of orienting ourselves to the world. As such, certain possibilities appear and others disappear. To think in terms of a party of the minority is to think in terms of permanent revolution. What is the meaning of such a process without end?

If one completely eliminates the concept of the end of history, then the concept of revolution is relativized; such is the meaning of “permanent revolution.” It means that there is no definitive regime, that revolution is the regime of creative imbalance, that there will always be other oppositions to sublate, that there must therefore always be an opposition within revolution.- Merleau-Ponty, Epilogue to Adventures of the Dialectic.

Isn’t Merleau-Ponty speaking the same language as Foucault? No definitive regime, creative imbalance. This is a thought faithful to the minorities, the dissensus, which is resolutely open, but that is unafraid of power. The dialectical image is dispensed with in Foucault but it is clear that Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophy jettisons the dialectic in favour of the transverse, the in-between, the “folding” of the flesh in the chiasmic “polymorphic matrix” of being. Under Merleau-Ponty’s vision-in-being-in-vision, there is power relations running not just through society but through the whole thing; power is utterly inhuman and can’t finally be relegated to the anthropological way of thinking. This is already the case in Foucault but Merleau-Ponty radicalises this immanantisation of power. No wonder Foucault thought the word would cause so much confusion! The question of power fragments into multiple questions of powers, of constraints, restraints, and enablements. Finally, returning to Foucault’s essay

At every moment the relationship of power may become a confrontation between two adversaries. Equally, the relationship between adversaries in society may, at every moment, give place to the putting into operation of mechanisms of power.

This is simply to say that the history of society is the history of a complexity that might, at any moment, appear as if it were the history of the emergence the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This appearance can also disappear, as it did until recently in the global North, but it can also reappear under new names and new forms: plutocracy and precariat, geocapitalism and the earthbound.

A short note on politics, or communism.

Why call ourselves communist? The more a lexical item means, the more likely it is to be put into
hard labour by the ruling order. Like “freedom”, “autonomy”, “human” and a host of others, the word communism has been twisted, turned upside down, and is now currently a synonym of life under a benevolent/dictatorial
totalitarian State. Only a free, autonomous, human, communist awakening will make these words meaningful again.- Gilles Duave. 1997. The Eclipse and reemergence of the communist movement.

If you want to know something truly despairing, a friend of mine today told me that protest and political involvement is a hobby. “Today, it’s become a hobby”. Not a duty, responsibility, or self-interested self-defence… a hobby. A fucking hobby? Sometimes I wonder about my friends. I can’t imagine a more post-political statement. But then, I remember that poster by some post-spectacle Deterritorial Support Group that announced “the post-political is the most political”; its an interesting subversion, if subversion is something we can still say exists. perhaps its better to say its an interesting reversal. What happens when you reverse the relationship of the political to the image of its own obliteration as one more lifestyle choice, one more commodity or brand to be picked up? It gains a kind of mobility? A slipperiness that is frustrating because on the one hand it refuses to openly commit itself, shows itself as ignorant of its own place in things (you might not be interested in power, but power is interested in you), and its enmeshment in the ideological bullshit of the age; on the other hand, it complicates open commitment, shows the facile nature of the names and options on offer (if this is your politics, I- as a young consumer[he is 22 i think]- ain’t buying), points to the difficulty of finding any stable positions or locations, and finally embraces the nihilistic rejection of transcendental signifiers. It is depressing because it is a good analysis of the situation, a better analysis than that given by many a Laurie Penny or an Owen Jones, because it is completely unburdened of theoretical attachments and conscious ideological affiliations. Politics is a hobby, and one my friend isn’t very interested in.

There is a section in Bifo’s The Uprising (which I’m going to try to do a careful reading of), in which he discusses his generation, the generation of May 68, as “the last modern generation” and, as I’m sure you know, this means for him the last generation tied to the promises, indeed to temporality of the promise itself, implied by a conception of “the future”. We are post-futurist (I go further, claiming we are post-nihilist…or at least, I take nihilism as the starting point of thinking). He means by this that there is no future, it is here now, immanentised in every moment, this is the future that we were promised. A promise- if you ask me- can only be a promise if it is never tested, if it is never broken, and this is the matter of the romance with the future, a love affair with futurity, with the temporality of the future as radically other than the present. There are other names for this phenomena, the most obvious is revolution. Revolution conceived of as the emergence of an Event that disturbs the historical situation- the count-in-one- so fundamentally as to cleave it’s unity into a Two, a before and an after, a situation and its excess, a synaptic junction and post-synaptic junction in the brain of history. All this is done with in Bifo, as in so many others. The romance is finished with; the promise is broken; the lovers fall away from one another…its over. Of course, for the last generation of moderns, the last believers in progress and the cunning of reason, the last of the faithful flock who worshiped at the altar of Communism defined as a transcendent signifier (today reduced to Badiou’s ludicrous ahistorical hypothesis), where also, to say the same thing again, the last believers in the myth of progress. If there is something that counts in people like Bifo, in object-oriented philosophy, and in the fiction of speculative realism (a movement without members, it seems) then it is this: Hegel, finally, is dead. Those who mourn him are precisely those who said that the London-Manchester riots of 2011 were “not political”. Well, the post-political is the most political.

Sure, nothing came of it. Rage was vented, desire exploded, excess ran amok. But what about organisation? There was no sign of it. This is why I thought at the time that it is firstly rage- or the passions as such- that needs to be organised. Who should do this work of organisation? Certainly not the pharma-therapeutic agencies that I- against my own better nature- am about to work in. For myself, I am interested in the Stoics who attempt not attain mastery over the passions by suppressing or repressing them, but by accepting them and asking whether or not I should assent to them? I don’t know if this has political application, but it means I am not consumed by rage all day long, and this has to be helpful for actually achieving things. This is besides the point though. Why did Zizek, Badiou, and Baumann (whose analysis was doubtlessly the best) consider the riots to be apolitical? I would suggest because they didn’t flourish into organised forms, they didn’t fall easily into a narrative of democratic socialist organisation, of anarchist consensus building, of Bolshevik progress; they didn’t address, enact, or even bother gesturing towards any kind of future.

I think for Bifo, the melancholy of the contemporary left, and our inability to think new forms but our unflagging obsession with novelty, is historico-generational. There is a generation who overdetermine political discourse, who operate based on a world that is gone, that is finished…….the world before the end of the future and the objective realisation of nihilism. Their narratives can’t be our narratives- although whether we are a fault line generation, rather than a thoroughly post-futurist one, is an open question. I don’t want to say these things to encourage polemic and partisanship based on age or on historical experience of Events (what Event do we have to hold fidelity to? What is our May ’68 if not 2011?) The logic of promises is no longer operational. We are in the present, fully in the present. That is all we have now. And if our generation and those that come after us are also marked by an apocalyptic imagination, and a catastrophic science (ecological collapse; rogue planets; comets; pandemics; solar catastrophe; heat-death of the universe) then let us say that there is no jumping out of the present, because the future is finished in advance.

The online etymology dictionary says that a promise is a ‘declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done’ . We are in a defensive position, attempting to protect a past that is being unwritten, obliterated, taken from us (the nhs, the welfare state, the meanings of the very terms of engagement). What comes next? What comes after the future? Part of working this out might involve patience. We have only the present. It is a moment that won’t end. In this regard maybe Zizek’s insistence is correct; the point isn’t to do something (anything) but to think better, to work it out, to be painstaking. To produce “perspicuous representations”. To come to terms with the situation from within the situation. This is little more than a repetition of Marx, really, an insistence on the primacy of praxis as reflective practice. If there are such things as duties and responsibilities today, they aren’t the same one’s of the old politics or of the inanity of repetitive calls for a new politics. I don’t know if what I’m saying is stupid or desperate or what… but I’m interested in the real, in the real of the situation, I don’t care about Lenin’s question “what is to be done?”, I’m interested in the pragmatic question “what can be done?”- defence movements, protest, riot, insurrection, voting, the development of a political party or a platform (one that doesn’t just repeat Bolshevism, sure…but maybe let’s not have people infected with Bolshevic experience attempting to dictate the terms of our departure from it?), the intervention of cultural modes of disruption? I’m for democracy not understood as a form but as a practice of disruption, infinite disruption, reclamation, reinvention. Maybe this sounds empty and far away from actual on the ground practice- after all, I’m not an activist, its easy to make pronouncements from my Ivory Tower (i know you wouldn’t say I was speaking from such a place, but there are those who would, simply because I’m not covered in blood and guts of policemen and bureaucrats)- but the point is a call for a return to all that. I’m getting fond of repeating the question “what can be done?”, of the pragmatic orientation, but a pragmatism that is not value-free, that is not “what works” in the sense of a neoliberal de-and-re-regulation of social practices in the name of capital…. but a what works to undermind, to rebuild, to reappropriate and misappropriate (Mark Fisher’s idea of a leftist Daily Mail is intriguing on that point) what is ours, was ours, was never ours.

If we stand in the ruins, what can we fashion from those ruins?

Or maybe that’s more of the same pessimism that gets people no where; except that pessimism, to be pessimism proper, has to have a future. Pessimism is the myth of progress on its perverse side, its negativity that is not its negation: pessimism says “things can only get worse”, “there is no worst”, we go down and down forever, spiralling.

Both historical optimism and philosophical pessimism are a priori theoretical attitudes that are intoxicated with futurity, with the possibility of a future, of “another world”. Fuck another world; neoliberalism is so successful because it understands how to recompose this world, so our job should be the same… to fight over the composition of this world.

. Ironically, given the Nietzschean fervor of so many iconoclasts, critique relies on a rear world of the beyond,
that is, on a transcendence that is no less transcendent for being fully secular. With critique, you may debunk, reveal, unveil, but only as long as you establish, through this process of creative destruction, a privileged
access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances. Critique, in other words, has all the limits of utopia: it relies on the certainty of the world beyond this world. By contrast, for compositionism, there is no
world of beyond. It is all about immanence.

I don’t quote Bruno Latour to nail my flag to his, to his name, to the name compositionism or to any other name. I don’t want to be evasive or to refuse identifications on principle, I do not lack the security to state my beliefs but I begin to lack the need to secure them within fixed ideological (read: futural) terminologies, ones that refer to exhausted, toothless utopias that in the words of Deleuze “no longer possibilitate”. I am beginning to believe we have to be tactical, mobile, to follow specific fault-lines in a situation, to respond to specific calls, to retain a willingness to maintain an immanence.

In terms of organisation, I am becoming more in favour of what you might call “plastic party“, where the party is understood as plastic in the sense of plasticity derived from neurology and the plastic arts (including body modification like Genesis P-Orrige’s, although without the religiously tinged inability to mourn that comes with his singularity). This would be a party responsive to changes in its environment; one that altered its own structure on the basis of necessity; it would be a party that was not invested in self-reproduction or self-dissolution, but one which would function functionally. It is a party of empiricism rather than of ideology or partisanship:

We have to transform the field of social institutions into a vast experimental field, in such a
way as to decide which taps need turning, which bolts need to be loosened here or there, to get
the desired change. … What we have to do … is to increase the experiments wherever possible in this particularly interesting and important area of social life (Foucault 1988).

I think maybe we need to start thinking of new leftist heros, and new narratives that aren’t saturated by guilt and failure. A new left heroism? Could we stomach it?

The immanent present is a field of experimentation. Being an experimenter means rejecting the idea that hypotheses can be rejected before being tested. We can see in Foucault’s suggestion a kind of anarchist attitude to taking power. I think Foucault’s slipperiness amounts to this: he is an anarchist that doesn’t believe in anarchism, a pragmatist who is to wedded to the left to be a pragmatist, a nihilist who sees nihilism as emancipatory rather than mournful. I like Foucault’s orientation, and I would call myself a Foucauldian if that identification made any kind of sense (it doesn’t, it can’t, it’s moves too quickly, circulates endlessly in a problematic, unconcerned with finding final solutions). When he speaks of critique he speaks of it as the art of not being governed or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost’. The eye is to the detail, to the specifics, to the singularity of each situation. It is also not a rejection of power, of parties, of government… is a rejection of that kind of government that demands you pay that price. Foucault again,

I was not referring to something that would be a fundamental anarchism, that would be like an originary freedom (qui serait comme la liberté originaire), absolutely and wholeheartedly (absolument et en son fond) resistant to any governmentalization. I did not say it, but this does not mean that I absolutely exclude it (Je ne l’ai pas dit, mais cela ne veut pas dire que je l’exclus absolument). I think that my presentation stops at this point, because it was already too long, but also because I am wondering (mais aussi parce que je me demande)…if one wants to explore this dimension of critique that seems to me to be so important because it is both part of, and not part of, philosophy…it is supported by something akin (qui serait ou) to the historical practice of revolt, the non-acceptance of a real government, on one hand, or, on the other, the individual refusal of governmentality.”(What is critique?) [all my emphases].

Things are put forward and retracked, things are said only in order to not be said, things are offered and not given, put into circulation and arrested, gestures are gestural and do not attain the standing of genuine communications. Anarchism is named but as something that goes too far, because it is to inside or outside of philosophy, and because it’s “originary freedom”- the freedom of a body that exists in isolation to the paradoxical operation of power-knowledge, that is not subjected to governmentality, that does not find itself circulating-circulated within a market of labour-power and value production- would be a body that was impossible. A body like that would be an organism. Man is not the political animal because animals don’t engage in politics. I don’t want to suggest we’re not organisms, that we’re not animals, hominids, apes, but rather that our relationship to our own animality is complex (anxiety and mortality salience are evidence enough). Foucault’s relationship to anarchism seems the same as so much of the contemporary communist left that avows elements of its critique and its potency without naming it, but naming it as the moment that goes too far. I think fundamentally Foucault might also agree with the Zizekian criticism of the anarchists; that they do not take responsibility for power, for its exercise, for it traversing them. Just so, for Foucault the job of the homosexual wasn’t to abandon sexuality, to abandon mores, the regulation of desires and pleasures, the field of the relation, but to complicate it, to question it, to draw it up anew, to take responsibility for it.

The left- the communist left if we want to risk making an identification- is itself in need of recomposition, of transforming itself. This means looking at the rubble and sifting through it; it means no more ideologically motivated answers on subjects like the party, the unions, the affinity group, elections, parliaments. We make use of what we can make use of, and operating tactically might mean that- from the outside- we appear to take up contradictory strategies. Importantly, if we want to get out of a defensive position, if we want to build a position from which to attack or to “go on the offensive”, we must first build bases, supports, hubs of plastic stability.

Friendship as a creative practice of vulnerability

In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. – Graham Harman, Prince of network: Bruno Latour and metaphysics

Kiki Smith sculpture. Currently exhibiting in Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art.

I have been thinking about certain conversations I’ve been having about friendship, its meaning but also its character. The sense that friendship can be authentic or inauthentic, rich or poor, complex or simple…however we carve it, we’ve been talking as if there are two orders of being-together that both fall under the nomination “friendship”. It’s actually an old tradition, this way of thinking. It’s in the Stoics, for whom “friend” meant something particular. Epictetus has this to say on the image of playful animals (kittens with balls of wool, dogs with chew toys, whatever), “To see what friendship is, throw a piece of meat among them and you will learn”.

The point isn’t that friendship is ruthless, a deception both parties enter into with full awareness that it can be tossed aside when it looses its use-value (Max Stirner thinks of it this way). The point is that friendships in which “externalities” can destroy the bond reveals that the bond was never there. This is communist, up to a point. Property- or rather the reverence thereof and attachment there to- is inimical to friendship; we can’t genuinely call ourselves friends if claims to possession can tear us apart. For Epictetus, the question of friendship turns on the question of whether or not the one who calls herself my friend is turned towards externals or internals. In the end, this is simply to ask whether she is a subject of ownership or a subject of will. Epictetus goes on:

‘But if you hear that these men in very truth believe the good to lie only in the region of the will and in dealing rightly with impressions, you need trouble yourself no more as to whether a man is son or father, whether they are brothers, or have been familiar companions for years; I say, if you grasp this one fact and no more, you may pronounce with confidence that they are friends, as you may that they are faithful and just. For where else is friendship but where faith and honour are, where men give and take what is good, and nothing else?’

It may be declared that this is a rationalist’s view of friendship. It lacks the sensibility of friendship. It lacks the practice of the share; sharing in pleasure, in practices, in nonsense, in walking, in drinking, in consolation, and provocation. Is that fair though? After all, what is it that Epictetus is really saying here? He is saying that we can be friends with those with whom we share a common commitment to certain principles, namely to the value of living in accord with nature/reason; to live the examined life, and to spurn attachments to things that distract from such examination. We could phrase it differently from Epictetus’ often overly “cognitive” way of talking (and let us not forget that his concept of cognitive inspired the CBT sense and is not derivative of it), that in order to be a friend to anyone else one must first be a friend to oneself. An authentic friendship can only be a relation between two authentic beings. This is also Seneca’s definition, and it seems to me it is part of de Montaigne’s notion of solitude. Epictetus again, this time from the discourse “On Freedom”:

If he does that, then first he will never revile himself or be in conflict with himself, he will be free from change of mind, and self-torture; secondly he will be friendly to his neighbour, always and absolutely, if he be like himself, and if he be unlike, he will bear with him, be gentle and tender with him, considerate to him as one who is ignorant and in error about the highest matters; not hard upon any man

The person who frets about what is outside of his will, outside of his control and sphere of responsibility, is a masochist too steeped in a kind of martyr’s jouissance and confusion that he can’t really be any one else’s friend. His mind- indistinguishable to his “soul” or his ownmost being, for Epictetus- is not under his own possession, but is pulled hither and thither by the chaos of the world, is therefore only an eddy in that chaos. It has not become regularised, it produces no “refrain”. Actually, this apparent rationalism is simply the effect of the idea that friendship is an ‘intrinsic presence to thought” (D&G 1999, p.9). Plenty of people know one another, but a friendship is something that is a part of thinking. It is a part of thinking that is inseparable from that thinking. It is an inseparability that is present-in-thought.

Friendship, in other words, is immanent to thought. I am not willing to say that in encountering you I only ever encounter the idea of you- I find this ontologically intolerable- but epistemically, in what I know of our encounter, yes, perhaps, all I can have are is this set of impressions, these ideas, these sensations, and this concept-of-you that is not exactly live, but neither is it static; so what? That is how I encounter you in friendship, as a thought? And it is how you encounter me? Or is it more the thought that we codetermine, and the world that we co-enact? Friendship is a practice, it is something friends do, and what I’m saying here is that what we do is create a world that we both inhabit. We can call this “thought” if we like, but it is not thought. It is, however, immanent to thought. The friendship here is thus a kind of work of producing a world together. We may not occupy it perfectly- indeed, we mustn’t, if we do then we’re not friends but mimics of each other, a split-personality- and those he can’t enter into, is not “at work” with us in practically enacting that world, bear with him, be gentle and tender with him. Especially as there is no reason to presuppose exclusivity to friendship. Anyone might possibly enter a friendship. In the friendship, we don’t quite become anonymous (what kind of friendship would it be between strangers?) but we do give up something of the usual pretense of sovereignty. Let’s not think friendship only happens as thought, it is affective too; but then what kind of account of thought do we have if thinking is not already bound up with, a modification of and modified by, affect?

We’re getting towards something in this. I am thinking about the nature of our friendship, the way it might differ from this one or that. I would say that we are friends who can’t be defined in terms of consumption. Neither of us, I think, sees our friendship as a resource to make use of, to be bought or traded, to be “enjoyed” in the way that a diner enjoys a McBurger. Nor is it as strong as Epictetus or Aristotle- who defines friendship as between the already virtuous- but as a friendship of those on the way to virtue. Let me turn to Todd May, who has recently written a book on friendship as a form of political resistance to the neoliberal imposition of market reason to every aspect of our lives. Todd May says that

Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be.

[emphasis added]

This sounds a lot like how I think about empathy and “visceral ethics“, but friendship’s are special places, they are relationship that not just anyone can enter into; although anyone could be doing friendship, those outside a friendship can’t enter into it with ease. This is probably quite banal, but it bears emphasizing. In the friendship there are refrains- perhaps linguistic ticks shared by the friends, verbal quirks, gestural postures adopted through mirroring, historical in-jokes, a style of thinking and laughing, all these things- and when someone from outside the friendship tries to decode the meaning of the friendship, attempts to step into it’s world, they find themselves jarring the friends, they show up as not-friend, or not this kind of friend, they “stick out like a sore thumb” as the element of a friendship that defines its territorial boundaries. Although friendships are absolutely about equality, they are also in this minor way about exclusivity. Without malicious intent, friends can cause pain in the other. Yet friendships also open us to intimacy and proximity with the other who is friend. It is to our friends that we confess without confessing, to our friends that we most readily or most accidentally display our wounds. To go back to Todd May,

They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that particular individual, a party to this or that particular life.

There is something here, right? Friendships do render us vulnerable because it is in friendships, authentic ones (ones not exclusively based on jibes, one-up-man-ship, and other concealed forms of contempt) that we let take our character armor off, let our shields down, and say to the other in confidence ‘I know I said it was this, but I can tell you and no other that really…’ and so the hurts, the fears, the hatreds flow. In friendship we share not only our pleasures, but also our horrors; we reveal our weaknesses to each other, our non-heroic frailty. I say that in friendship we confess without confessing, but really I should not say “confess” at all; we show our wounds to one another. For Foucault, ‘Western man has become a confessing animal’. Confession is at the heart of so many of our contemporary police operations; I don’t just mean that we confess our crimes to the police, we also confess our psyche-sickness to the psychotherapist, our sexual identity to the world at large, our criminality, we confess and await judgement and absolution (assessment, diagnosis, treatment).

what a friendly face!

For Foucault, confession is a technology of truth, it produces truths. Some have claimed this is a relativistic idea, but I would disagree…it’s an eminently pragmatic idea. In the pragmatism of William James, for example, ‘truth is something that happens to an idea’. So to with Foucault, you self-reflect, you are guided to self-reflect, to discover the inner essence, the inner core, your ownmost being. Foucault was man who liked to fuck men, but was he a homosexual? The form of his enjoyment was particular, could only be satisfied in particular ways, and would influence his friendships (sexual relationships are friendships too, if they are not conducted under the logic of consumption). The homosexual, in The history of sexuality, is one of Foucault’s examples of the production of truths. Look inward, identify your desire, name it as the truth of your being, your affliction. In Foucault’s words, ‘The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’. There was a time when “gays” didn’t exist; but now they do. Regimes of truth make particular truths, and just because these truths are made doesn’t mean they aren’t real; it is just that there reality is not necessary, their truth not eternal. What is the contemporary spectacle of culture if not confessional? If homosexuality were not a (produced) truth, Foucault would not have felt the need to respond to it. Under Foucault’s analysis, the problem isn’t that we lack Truth, its that we are drowning in truths.

The point of this digression is to say that if authentic friendships aren’t consumptive but enriching and productive, to say that the kind of confession that is undergone in friendship differs from this police confession. Foucault himself notes that the Stoic conception of ethics is a self-relation prior to being an other-relation, and in two senses. First, the Stoics lived by the Socratic creed to “Know Thyself” through letter writing to friends (Seneca epitomizes this), and by examining oneself, reviewing one’s actions and making preparations for the future actions (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations). The point of these techniques was not that they would reveal the inner essence of the person, but that they were a practice of self-mastery, of gaining the autonomy that Epictetus talked about above. The truths produced in the Stoic concept of self-reflection, a “know thyself” that is also a “care of the self”- a taking care of the self, of finding how to live the good life, to attain virtue- are not fixed truths rendered up to some big Other for judgement. If I commit some crime, I do not examine that in order to produce myself as a Criminal, but as this man who has committed this crime and most endeavor not to do so again; crime reveals my distance from virtue, from autonomy. The confession shares in the mystical structure that I have previously written about as “the secret”. In Stoicism, and in friendships, we do not confess if we mean by that that we cry out that we’re guilty, always already guilty, in order to “be ourselves” but, and in opposition to this, in order to become other than the person we are “supposed” to be. In a sense, friendship is a way to practice other ways of being yourself. Isn’t this the meaning of authenticity? In a friendship, even between we two, there is a multiplicity; each of us, our own double, and the affectional concepts we have of each other.

There is another reason to talk about homosexuality. In an interview now titled ‘Friendship as a way of life’, Foucault links homosexuality to a practice of friendship. I want to stress one of the reasons for this; for Foucault, homosexuality presented a problem of how it was possible for men to be together “naked”, as he puts it, outside of institutional apparatus. One doesn’t need to be homosexual or to have sex with men or to even be curious about it to see the problem. Homosexuality, as much as it has become a truth, a lifestyle, and a cultural pose or gesture, is also a suspicion and an accusation. Two men together, in an intense relationship, run the risk of being called gay. Two women together out in a bar may be thought of as lesbians (indeed, sometimes this is even a play to be indulged in, confounding “the male” gaze). Foucault conceived of homosexual culture as an experimental culture that sought new ways of relating. The possibilities of how to practice friendship were suddenly up for grabs in the interstitial-liminal spaces in which homosexuality was being played with in the 70s and 80s. On this front, it is worth remembering that Foucault wasn’t talking from the ivory tower in these matters, but was embedded in an S/M culture; he was himself doing this field work. Foucault:

Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages – what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless.

There is no readymade world and no environment with pre-established cues for the practice of relating to one another; of course, homosexual culture may have had its own codes at the time Foucault was writing but they would not have been so saturated as heteronormative culture that it was at the peripheries of. Not to digress too far, but there is a certain disappointment in the idea of gay marriage- and I think Foucault would agree with this- that is essentially an admission that the experimental quality of homosexuality has now firmly been capitulated in favour of a social conservatism that announces equality not in terms of the equality of all to anyone, but the equality of all through the Same. Foucault resists this reduction when he says that homosexuality is not a form of desire and that sexual relations are banal; the important thing about homosexuality is its affective and relational aspects. It is a formless relationship that must form itself; the creation of the homosexual world is then the co-enactment of a particular world. Here, we can see some of why Todd May thinks friendship is a form of resistance: friendship is exactly this collaboration in the production of a specific world that does not rely on, may depart from, may even disrupt the existing normative regulation of human-human relations. (Is it necessary to restrict ourselves? Can humans be friends with non-humans? Children can even have non-existent imaginary friends, after all). Friendships can thus even be instances of politics. A white person and black person being friends in America’s slave and segregation history? That would constitute a political act. This concept is also linked to the production of temporary/permanent autonomous zones (communes yes, but also afternoons).

In another interview, Foucault asks

Why shouldn’t I adopt a friend who’s ten years younger than I am? And even if he’s ten years older? Rather than arguing that rights are fundamental and natural to the individual, we should try to imagine and create a new relational right that permits all possible types of relations to exist and not be prevented, blocked, or annulled by impoverished relational institutions.

Here the idea of adoption is legal, linked to a juridical concept of transfering guardianship or the power of loco parentis to some non-biologically related other; I take responsibility for the adopted as the parent for the child. Here, Foucault’s question seems to me much more like a provocation: isn’t this, despite its nonrecognition by juridical power, by the state, precisely what I do when I make a friend? Foucault seems to be asserting, not just that I could assert such a right and thereby bring it into being (and denature rights discourse, denature the subject “man” on which they rest and take for a sovereign), but that in friendship I do adopt the friend. Adoption is an “action noun”, it is a name of something that can’t be conceived outside of its being done (belief, likewise…what is a belief in the abstract?). When I adopt, I select, I choose for myself, I desire. And, for a friendship to be a friendship, so to does the friend. We choose ourselves for the other and the other for ourselves; or, perhaps, we choose ourselves in the other, and the other in ourselves. In either case, to take the friend up as my own is never to assert myself over her but always to choose to be implicated in, enmeshed with, intimately engaged with her.

Friendship is a sharing. It is a sharing one another and in the making of a world. I don’t really have any friends, I make them; and in the practice of making friends, so to I fashion myself. This point can be made in a banal way by suggesting that without friends we wouldn’t have the interests that we do. Indeed, at some point in Reconsidering Difference, I’m sure Todd May makes exactly this point. Our interests and enjoyments, pleasures and desires, our ways of relating are, in no small part, determined by our friendships. It is because of the nature of friendship as this kind of practice of sharing oneself, that authentic friendships can’t be conceived of on consumer or confessional terms. When I show you my wounds, I don’t confess them to you, I share them with you.

Seneca remarks that ‘when one is busy and absorbed in one’s work [of making friends], the very absorption affords great delight’ (Philosophy and Friendship, in Letters of Seneca Kindle Location 737). How distant this sounds to the characterization of Stoics as cold and aloof, but also, and more importantly, it makes the point that friendship is ongoing. I could know you for years and still be making friends with you. Indeed, the term itself “to make friends” implies this labour that we are joined in, that we are making something other from the materials to hand, which is ourselves and our current practices of relating. Seneca is clear (Kindle Location 748) that I don’t make friends to gain something, or to win something, but

in order to have someone to die for, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, pay the pledge too…[the Sage] seeks [friendship] precisely as he seeks an object of great beauty, not attracted to it for by design for gain, nor frightened by the instability of Fortune…

A friendship has this quality, a true friendship. One does not fight and die for casual acquaintances, for those with whom one does not share a world. Its interesting that Derrida thinks of this as a transfer from oneself to the other, as Seneca didn’t think one could be one’s own friend. Yet a friendship is not a burden, not a hostage-taking situation. A friendship is something of great beauty. If it is a work, it is thus an aesthetic work. Returning to Todd May once again,

By that I mean that in liking a whole person, one cannot give an exhaustive account of what it is one likes in liking a friend. Telfer tells us that, “Liking is a difficult phenomenon to analyse … It seems rather to be a quasi-aesthetic attitude, roughly specifiable as ‘finding a person to one’s taste,’ and depends partly on such things as his physical appearance, mannerisms, voice and speech and style of life; partly on his traits of character, moral and other.” Telfer insists that liking a friend does not mean one takes an inventory of these things. Instead, they somehow meld into a person whom we are drawn.

Friendship is non-cognitive as much as it is anything else, it is embodied in profound ways. This is perhaps why we are (mistakenly, I think) immediately suspicious of online friendships, an online friendship may lack the qualities of an embodied face-to-face encounter but it can maintain the aesthetic dimension. Online, our friendships are like co-written novels, certainly they resemble dialogues. Yet the voice, the seductive voice or the passionate voice, does reach us in a very direct and visceral way, making contact with us, permeating us in a way that epistemic communication alone can’t, whilst at the same time, in the elusiveness of being able to sum up the person, to be located at its origin, reminding us of the withdrawn aspect of this particular object I call friend. We must also recall that while the voice is integral to our affection for the friend, it is the voice as such to which we respond- the voice prior to the sonic signifiers it articulates.

A friendship is a kind of relation, most importantly, that is not expressible in terms of mastery or submission, sovereignty or subjection. Authentic friendship can’t be what Derrida feared friendship would be, as one part of the binary that also identifies an enemy. The identification of friends and enemies in the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt is a matter of rear guard defense, of being tied to and protecting a pre-existent eidos, rather than being the entanglement of mutuality in an ethos such that I’ve been discussing. If Carl Schmitt uses the names friend and enemy, we don’t have to tremble and decide that friendship is contaminated or at risk of such contamination. It is not a work of semantics or a play of definitions to state that the identification of friends from without, either by the state or the media nominating my friends for me and telling me that I am in a friendship with these people and united in common cause against this enemy, is already to have conceded that I am not the friend of the friend. That Schmitt rejects from his account of friendship everything that we typically mean by friendship (the “psycho-individual” aspects of “emotion” I think he says), tells us that he is willfully misappropriating the name.

A thought of post-nihilist pragmatics, what I have also been calling catastrophia and/or “catastrophic thought“, is a thought that is about what work after nihilism. This is not just about what works after nihilism, what is efficacious but that takes the question of practices as fundamental. If meaning collapses, if it is always going to collapse, if it is tied to our finitude, then how do we have practices of significance? How do we have such practices in a manner that doesn’t revert to the kind of heroism that fascism founds itself on? The reason I speak of the catastrophic and of a love of the catastrophic is not out of morbidity or because I want to declare that the emperor has no clothes. I take the term catastrophe from Aristotle claim from the Poetics, that it is ‘an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed’ but also from the Beckett play of the same name. The catastrophe is the part of the play when things are revealed for what they are; the hopelessness of the situation is made visible, the wounds are shown. Vulnerability once meant having the capacity to be wounded and to wound. Vulnus meant the literal wounds of the body, the body that we are thrown back on as our after nihilism, that we rediscover we always already are. Our sense-making capacity is founded on our openness to the having a world, and to having a world together. When I was in Edinburgh last week, I went to an exhibition on embodiment title “From death to death and other small tales”. At this exhibition, I saw the Joseph Beuyers work, that insists that you Show Your Wound. In the work of friendship, a work of vulnerability, we show one another our wounds, we are amidst the catastrophe, we don’t turn away from it…we might even celebrate it. The new practices that we need to forge to move across nihilism will be practices undertaken in friendship.

When Carl Scmitt talks about the identification of friends, he is not talking about the identification of those with whom we are moved, from whose thought we can’t disentangle our own, those with whom we generate new worlds, experiment with new ways of relating, and approach, together, the good way of living: he does not, finally, mean that we these are people to whom we show our wounds, those to whom we share, fundamentally, our vulnerabilities with. Schmitt is talking about the people with whom we might share our desire for stable meaning achieved through the renunciation of vulnerability, through fidelity to some exception or through identification with an absolute sovereignty. Friendship, as I see it, is fundamentally anarchic, fundamentally about the affirmation of fragile openings, about improvisation, about embracing of the ongoing, always unfinished work of experimenting with the friend relation. There is no “friendship”, only this friendship that we (you and I) are making. In that making, who is to say where I end and you begin? My thought isn’t mine…this post is based on a conversation and is, in fact, a letter written to a friend intended to carry on that conversation with him, and now also with you. If Aristotle can sigh ‘Oh my friends, there are no friends’, this is only because they must constantly be created. Friendships are not without risk, they are about risk. The practice of friendship is like that of trapeze; one flings oneself from the rope and hopes to be caught, each time choosing to be truly vulnerable.


In the history of Marxism, a friend would be named “comrade”; in anarchism, friendship as an organisational principle is called “affinity”; in feminism, it is conceivably the case that there could be no “sisterhood” without a concept of friendship. Today, authentic friendship is hard to achieve but it is not impossible. Today, I find none of these names happy identifications. Strategically, I call myself anarchic but not anarchist. I call the approach I am hopefully helping to shape, post-nihilist pragmatics. The experience of nihilism is the experience of the collapse of all identifications, all transcendental structures, all sense-making that relies on a capital ‘N’ Name. Over the years I have read Simon Critchley- Very Little Almost Nothing is undoubtedly a book I loved reading, Infinitely Demanding less so- but it is not until today that I have agreed with him so powerfully. What is required, our task, the work that comes after nihilism is

the production of a fiction that we know to be a fiction and yet which we believe in nonetheless.

(Faith of the faithless, p.93).

That fiction must start from the nonfictional that nihilism reveals as conditioning our stark exposure: our being bodies. Friendship seems to me to be one line of pursuit of such a fiction. To start anywhere else than with our bodies and with each other is already to avoid the chance to live after nihilism, is instead to turn away and pretend nihilism never happened.

Latour on Foucault’s “power”

No one was more precise in his analytical decomposition of the tiny ingredients from which power is made and no one was more critical of social explanations. And yet, as soon as Foucault as translated, he was immediately turned into the one who had ‘revealed’ power relations behind every innocuous activity: madness, natural history, sex, administration, etc. This proves again with what energy the notion of social explanation should be fought: even the genius of Foucault could not prevent such a total inversion. – Reassembling the social.

Pessimist activism

I’ve been wondering about political nominations lately. As a younger man (I am still a young man, being a meagre 28) I had a intellectual love affair with Michel Foucault and anarchism. Following a conversation with a friend and comrade- whom I had an intense and carelessly set aside friendship- and Nina Power, who was a phD candidate who was teaching existentialism at the time, I was delivered the name: Foucault. I had expressed the idea that I didn’t consider power to be a property or a transcendental position, but was rather a kind of flow between people and things. At this time, I was naive to Foucault, to Marx, to anarchism, to communism.

As a student at Middlesex University, and with the friends I had then, I was quickly inaugurated into radical politics. I came to identify myself as an anarchist. An avowed “theory-head”, I wasn’t involved in a great deal of activism but I was involved in some events and actions. I’m not wanting to rehearse my trajectory of political identifications, and I don’t feel a great pressing need to know what “name” names me. Rather, I want to affirm something.

Given my recent interactions with Terence Blake, who has given much of his life to an understanding of FEYERABEND, I wanted to think know which philosopher- to echo Merleau-Ponty, another early favourite of mine- I am in the shadow of. And I suppose, as much as I might not want it to be the case, the origin and limit of my radicalism, my pragmatism, my pessimism, and my corporealism owes a great deal to Foucault.

What is the point of this post? I’m not entirely sure myself. I think it may simply be to point to a master who recedes from his position as a master. With all this recent talk of brain-blindness, I want to make sure I’m not blind to the earliest explicitly theoretical engine of what passes for my thought. And, if we must communicate ourselves in political names, perhaps I am, with Foucault, a kind of ‘hyper- and pessimistic-‘ activist.

Radical Denial

And this is why for the last 40 years or so, since post-structuralism came on the scene around the failed revolutions of 1968, we’ve all been skeptics of a sort. We’ve traced the same anti-systems. A few more have come along, but basically, any attempt to say anything must first reveal itself as at least an anti-system, never a system. And so, any system produced today has to really be about how systems are produced, and how we’re not really saying anything, but simply being manipulated.

Of course, all of this makes sense in the age of late capitalism, and the rise of what many have called postmodernism. Lyotard argues that post-modernism isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon, it’s what happens whenever a society breaks with its attempts to break with the past. That is, societies have values which come from repetitions of the past. At some point, they decide to break with these, and this is what is known as modernism. “We won’t be like our parents!,” people say. But after a period, people come to realize that they aren’t as different as they seemed, and much of what they are opposed to has seeped into their positions, if in reverse. Like a rebellious teen who does the opposite of whatever their parents desire, only to realize that this is being controlled by them in reverse. The result is a loss of modernist and traditional confidence in belief in general. Everything is possible, but nothing really real. It’s all images, lies, simulacra. This is postmodernism. For Lyotard, this happened in the late Roman empire, and any so-called ‘decadent’ period of the past, is happening in what is now often called ‘late capitalism,’ and such cycles will repeat again in the future.

But does that mean we need to deceive ourselves? Lie to ourselves, so we can believe something again? Certainly this is what Nietzsche would have said. In his famous essay on “Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense,” he argues that all language is lies (proto-deconstruction!), and so is philosophy and all thought. The question isn’t whether or not we’re lying to ourselves, because we always are. The question is which lies are better than others. Those who pretend they’re not lying to themselves are the most dangerous liars, they fully believe their own lies. But those who realize they’re lying to themselves can ask the question of which lies they want to believe. It becomes a question of values. What type of world do we want to live in, what colors do we want to paint our world?

Deleuze is the most anomalous of the bunch. And perhaps this is why, towards the end of the twentieth century, it was Deleuze that so many philosophers so as a path beyond the crises of post-structuralism. Deleuze felt that all philosophy was a result of the play of the virtual, that which could never be captured by any worldly embodiment thereof. Deleuze’s skepticism was in this sense broader than that of his peers. Rather than see language, or the economy, or power, or the unconscious, as the source of simulation, he sees the world itself as one giant simulation of itself, a world-cinema in which all are images, and all images are real, but none as real as that agency which produces images and yet is captured fully by none of them. The virtual, Deleuze’s name for this force, is everywhere actualizing, but nowhere fully actualized. And this is the opening to freedom. It’s all false, which is why at points Deleuze speaks of the “powers of the false” which is to say, the wonderful power to produce new worlds.

Chris Vitale. 2012. ‘Speculative Realism, Deconstruction. and Post-Structuralism: Can We Start Philosophizing Again, Or Is That Just Naive?’ Read in full at networkologies.

Deleuze, Ballard, Baudrillard…certain strains of Gnosticism… circle round and round. To lie is to create, to produce… the identity of ontology and aesthetics. And here, below, I reproduce something I wrote two years ago. The stability and continuity of that thought with this time, two years hence, speaks of an intellectual laziness brought on by concerns with actually living. What remains though is the idea that incorporeals are themselves material, that Illusions are as real as those things invested with a more obvious, sensuous (Feuerbachian) materiality. Perhaps I am still entralled by early influences, the brief adolescent love affair with Max Stirner…the undergraduate in me who was certain of the impossibility of the Absolute that Hegel’s system in the Phenomenology logically implied, the materiality of Giest. Conflations and confusions. I groped then for understanding and still grope now. Here is what I had to say then, what I still have to say…

Thus we are not exactly real for one another, nor are quite real even to ourselves. And this alterity is our best chance of attracting and being attracted to others, of seducing and being seduced. Put simply, our chance at life.

The alterity that Baudrillard refers to here is that created, or maintained, by Illusion. In this passage from The vital illusion Baudrillard is quite clear that for him, just as for myself, Illusion is not something to be conceived of in its distance from the real as an error or contamination. There is no Fall in this, or if there is then the Fall is constitutive and there is no possibility of any prior Edenic state, no golden age, and at the same time no possibility for any nostalgia for such a time.

In the image above we have an approximation of the real of sex when we view all the extra layers we experience it through as rectified and removed. It is presented stripped of its various possible aspects (as love union; one night stand; hedonistic act; violence; social relationship; property mediator; reproductive act conceived within a Darwinan or genetic discourse; an act of consumption or production; a social ritual replete with codes and entrenched with meaning). Here sex appears naked. We appear naked. Our bodies appear naked. Muscle, cartilage, grey matter and so on. The entire assemblage of the two bodies. They appear in a macabre manner but also slightly ridiculous and explicitly, we realise, in a carefully posed manner, and their is certainly a truth to all this. In sex we can be macabre, we are ridiculous and we do take up carefully learned poses, moves, gestures.

Yet we do not fully recognise ourselves in this image. The dead are fucking! It is obscene. Yet not out of some fictive respect for the dead, such is pure delusion as we have never truly respected our dead. Instead we have philosophies that laud death itself, giving all respect to the idea alone at the expense of those who pass through it and cease. Perhaps it is the lack of skin, the sheen of continuity, or the absence of faces. Yet neither Freud nor Levinas will do. Rather, they will both do. The key is the illusion. We are appalled because here we are faced with ourselves, stripped of our Illusions. Those fantasies that pattern our inner existence; whatever it is we mean by subjectivity, whatever we mean by unconscious or mind.

These illusion are, for Baudrillard, ‘radical and objective’ as denoting the deferral or splitting of things from themselves, the ‘definitive absence from themselves’ of things. These illusions are a distinctly human affair in Baudrillard but why should this be so? The human is a thing as much as any other and there is the possibility of the truth of panpsychism.

In Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy objects withdraw from themselves and from all other objects, including but certainly not exclusively limited to that particular object named ‘human’. Here I wonder, isn’t Baudrillard’s Illusion incredibly close to Harman’s own concept of Allure which is ‘the separation of an object from its qualities’ which Avoiding the Void goes on to note, in a dictionary of Harman’s very poetic terminology, as an object’s ’seductive power as it alludes to a things mysterious depths beyond its qualities’[emphasis added].

Likewise in Levi Bryant‘s onticology, which I have much more time for for reasons I can’t really explain, he claims that ‘What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims’. The object that proceeds and exceeds its entrance into any particular (set) of relation(s) is, if I understand Bryant at all correctly, what he calls its proper being which exists as virtuality. No object, therefore, is ever fully actualised. There can be no exhaustion of an object in whatever mesh or assemblage or network it enters into, something always remains of it. Something seductively withdrawn from access. Of course the thrust of this last point is shared by all the (post?) speculative realist philosophers in one variant of another.

This may be philosophically crude at best but I want to focus on simply this notion that for both Harman and Bryant objects are withdrawn, remaining in some sense virtual (to risk conflating two different systems). In the same passage cited above we find these words:

‘Everyone knows that the light of stars needs a very long time to reach us; sometimes we perceive it after the star itself has disappeared. This gap between the star as virtual source and its perception by us, this non-simultaneity, is an inescapable part of the illusion of the world, the absence at the heart of the world that constitutes the illusion.’

This illusion is what allows human being to orientate themselves to something they can live through, share and call reality. It may not be the real as such, the virtual source/being, from which the perception, the ‘as-it-appear-to-us’, that part of it that becomes accessible to human beings but it is vitally necessary for humanity to exist as it does. Given speculative realism’s rejection of correlationism we can also safely posit that all other objects enter into similar relationships whereby they never attend to the virtual source only (if this is itself not correlationist language) to some ‘perception’, the mode of disclosure that that relationship conditions or promotes.

I raise this tentative connection with Baudrillard in order to observe that for him the disappearance of the real is simultaneously the disappearance of the Illusion of the world. For Baurdrillard the disappearance of the real does not occur because it has been rendered non-actual or somehow or other made into less than real but precisely by its relentless actualisation, its too-muchness; ‘It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality’. This excessive reality leaves no gap for the Illusion, a hyperbolic actualism obliterates the virtual. Perhaps we could think of a nuclear explosion, or a bomb that was so destructive as to leave not a trace of its target. This weapon would reach down deep into the depths of the zone of withdrawal that is proper to the object-target and, in coming into relation with every possible aspect of that object, would tease out every virtuality, would (in B.’s terminology) make obscene every point of seduction. Such would be a reality bomb, as devised by the Daleks in an episode of the re-booted Dr.Who. In this way, actualism is the enemy of the real by depriving it of its virtuality. The Illusion is necessary. The Illusion is integral to the real.

It is for this reason that I wonder whether it could be that the proliferation of new realist positions point to the vanishing of the real. Even the name ‘speculative realism’, to take it out of context, harbours the suspicion that reality is now a matter of speculation or that it requires such speculation, at least that is from our limited perspective. As the real vanishes from view we develop strategies that would sure it up, we gamble on the possibility that it is we are not finally cut off from its domain, that there is still objects and that we are still among them.

Perhaps this goes some way to giving a ‘subterranean’ explanation of Harman’s positing of a universe carved up into discreet objects. However much people may disagree with him, Harman’s system is an attempt to remind us that the real still exists. It is, as Bryant has stated elsewhere, a result of the fact that in our emphasis on process we have left behind the things at work in these processes just as, as we have focussed on time, we have forgotten the importance of space.

This is not a project of resuscitating the real, philosophically or otherwise, as the real has and continues to exist quite aside from our interventions (sometimes incredibly so, given our history). Of course such an idea would have to be discounted from the outset as we ourselves are of, through, in and because of the real. It is merely that insofar as we have conceived of it, and insofar as this impacts and shapes our experiencing of it, we have forgotten the real in a mad accelerative thrust towards transparency. To make everything visible by first making everything actual. It is not to save the real but to respect it and in doing so, perhaps, to save one particular parcel of it; ourselves. Maybe this is why onticology is crucial to our social and political endeavours.

An object is any difference that makes a difference, in Bryant’s (re)formulation. Illusion makes much difference. We must conclude that illusion itself is real. The eliminativist picture, nicely depicted in a certain manner by the image atop this post, can only be considered incorrect from this realisation. An Illusion that is real. Could this be a (gnostically) philosophical definition of the scientific concept of emergence?

For Baudrillard we would enter the world of simulation when objects become merely signs- that is when the philosophical linguistic turn generalises itself- and until such a time only ‘principle of simulation governs us’, and clearly speculative realism, the new materialisms, and the New Aesthetic all signal that even this principle may be in recession: the nonhuman turn signals a revalorisation of Illusion. As Baudrillard wrote in Art and Artefact:

The illusion of the world cannot be dispelled (1996a:19) – from its very beginning the world has never been – as realism believes – identical with itself, never real .

Here is the strangeness, or weirdness if you prefer, of the realism that I am trying, and probably failing, to extract from Baudrillard. The realism that he is decrying, which states that the world is identical with itself is precisely that naive realism that does not take heed of the fact that things are not what they are but are really hidden away in the space of Illusion, which is a space beyond mere appearance- the real detached from the sensuous, the phenomenal aura. Another way of phrasing this space is as the space of disappearance. More strictly of dis-appearance; this very break or split that both establishes and undermines the reality of things. As Baudrillard writes in the paper ‘Photographies’

Objects are such that, in themselves, their disappearance changes them. It is in this sense that they deceive us, that they generate illusion. But it is in this sense too that they are faithful to themselves, and we must be faithful to them: in their minute detail, in their exact figuration, in the sensuous illusion of their appearance and connectedness. For illusion is not the opposite of reality, but another more subtle reality which enwraps the former kind in the sign of its disappearance.

As Chris Vitale contends, in the quoted text that opened this post, the cry of postmodernists, or more so their critics, is that its ‘It’s all images, lies, simulacra!’ Yet we can rejoin that it has always been images, lies and simulcra and that the postmodernist, and the legacy of post-structuralism, is to a kind of sadness of this fact. We could say that in choosing genealogy as his method Foucault wanted to find the uncontaminated outside of his own anti-system, the original place of genesis that was itself not subjected to and subject of the generative powers of Illusion.

One might ask why I prefer to focus on Baudrillard than Deleuze. I make so much work for myself in this way. It may simply be a matter of temperament or taste. It is simply that I can’t go along with the ringing optimism of a Deleuze, feel a repulsion to the affirmationism that his thought is so often identified with, often with good reason. The difference between Deleuze and Baudrillard is one of tenor, the latter being steeped in the noxious air of pessimism; steeped in it but still able to breath in it. It is the difference that means that while Vitale can claim that the virtual is ‘a force’ somehow ‘more real’ than it’s actualisations, something which I don’t think is true, the same could not be claimed of Baudrillard’s illusion.

It’s space is one of disappearance, of being unable or refusing to appear so that what is given in appearance is partial and the result of withdrawal rather than outburst (or their conflation) means that the ‘illusion’ cannot be placed into a hierarchy. Simply, the appearance of an object is akin to it’s encrustations, it’s outer epithelium: dead skin. The actualised portion of things is the product of a kind of death (hence Baudrillard’s constant exhortation that it is not enough that we learn how to die but that we learn how to disappear. It is in this sense that my silly and playful term, autopsy vitalism, makes sense.

Thus when Baudrillard claims in the paper ‘Integral Reality’

“Does reality exist ? Are we in a real world ? Such obsessive questions, which are the pervasive leit-motiv of our culture, simply expresses the fact that the world, trapped in the claws of reality, is bearable now only under the sign, in the shadow of the principle of Evil, that is in the form, whatever it may be, of a basic and radical denial.”

he is not setting up this ‘radical denial’ as complete and successful because, under his own insistence, it must be that any such denial would necessarily fail. This, finally, is the difference between Deleuze and Baudrillard- and for that matter probably of Ballard too. The only way in which anything can be affirmed is by way of its catastrophic aspect, its woundedness, the parts of it that are falling apart back into the space of illusion. Negation is the engine of creation and skepticism is a paradoxical affirmation.

If we want to get out or away from post-structuralism then I would think that this is a good direction to go in. Hidden away in all this is the assumption that the only way to get at a realism, to be able to say something again, is to preserve post-structuralism as just that moment of denial. The way out of our naivety (realist and constructivist) is to affirm the denial. Reality doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as the real world. The real is a lie. Objects are illusions. To say all this is to break through the phenomenal world and get at what lies underneath; the illusion that is real, and we can choose (some) of our illusions. In the end it is enough that we be realists of a kind, and that we again speculate… but choosing an allegiance, that might be too far. The point is that it is reality itself that is speculative.

I suspect that this is all a jumbled heap of nonsense. It’s not really that important. No suffering went into this, so it’s hardly a work of art. It passed the time and sated an urge to write. That’s enough for me.You judge it by your own criterion.


Who can fail to detect the bathic in Foucault’s death: the man for whom interiority was constructed out of the interplay of discourse inscribed spatially upon the body was killed by his body obliterating itself. Finally, he reached the limit of narratives.