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Emancipation and the Political Superego: Interpassivity Reconsidered

Florian Maiwald

14 August 2023

In his more than underrated work - which should be required reading for anyone committed to leftist theorizing - Socialismo Liberale, Italian publicist and politician Carlo Rosselli (1899-1937) poses a bold thesis that may be considered provocative: Against the background of the rising fascism in Italy and the incapacity of the socialist movement that was becoming apparent at that time Rosselli asks whether historical materialism does not rather benefit the capitalist class than the workers' movement itself.[1] This paradoxical situation, which according to this reading is to be regarded as constitutive for the crisis of the Marxist movement at that time, is impressively presented by Rosselli:

The capitalist, particularly the entrepreneur, being in charge of the production process, dominating and linking its elements, sharing actively in technical progress, possesses an awareness of his active participation in the transformation of the process of production. He is able concretely to insert his will into history, and his relation to economic life is typically one of action-reaction. The proletarian (and the intellectual who joins the cause of the workers on his behalf), however, since he only feels the effects or is forced to assist passively in the process of production, sees the forces of production merely as controlling factors against which, at present, he is powerless to react. Historical materialism, when he applies it, becomes not a liberating philosophy but a philosophy that shows him his chains, and in doing so induces him to make vain attempts to get free of them[2].

When Rosselli points out that historical materialism does not liberate workers from their chains - created by the capitalist system of production - he makes a case for a form of voluntarism that is otherwise only found in the libertarian spectrum. The labour movement needs a new philosophy in which it sees itself as an active emancipatory actor and not as a passive victim of the prevailing social conditions. Against the background of these considerations Rosselli comes to the insight that "[...] (t)he concrete historical process, as the devotees of historical materialism have depicted it, is history lived by nobody, history a posteriori, history for professors. Its vaunted compass works only after the ship is in port".[3]

Even though Rosselli's work, which he wrote in 1923 during his exile on the island of Lipari, boils down to the impressive thesis that socialism must regain awareness of its liberal essence, I would like to use the previously quoted passage to focus on a different problem: If Rosselli laments at the time that historical materialism benefits the class of capitalists rather than the working class, this situation can be captured by the concept of interpassivity coined later by philosophers such as Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Žižek. Even though Pfaller clearly points out that the concept of interpassivity is concretely characterized by the delegation of one's own pleasure (or enjoyment) to a second instance - Pfaller gives the example of a man who, after he gave up drinking, became an excellent host by ensuring that his guests' glasses were constantly refilled[4] - it becomes immediately clear why the concept of interpassivity can be seen as a suitable analytical tool to grasp in its entirety why the history of human emancipation processes is also characterized by an unmistakable form of dialectic.

I explained this form of dialectic in my last contribution for Sublation Magazine, using ChatGPT as an example. My thesis was, roughly speaking, that ChatGPT might one day ensure that we enter into a relationship of interpassivity with the chatbot, delegating the pleasure of interpreting and being critical of social problems to an AI system - the background assumption, of course, being that the critique of social problems generates pleasure. There can be, to put it briefly, no revolution - and emancipation - without a subject that enjoys. If human intelligence were to rely on a chatbot - whose interpretation is based on nothing more than probabilistic calculations - one would run the risk over time, to put it in line with Rosselli, that the principle of history would become an abstractum and that, as a consequence, human beings would not make history themselves, but rather be written by history. ChatGPT, to put it more polemically, is in this sense the historical materialism of the new digital-capitalist classes. A reliance on the ideology of digital emancipation will subsequently lead to emancipatory impotence and the concomitant extinction of the emancipatory subject.

Against the background of these considerations - and indeed I can definitely relate to this criticism - I could be accused of projecting relatively improbable and dystopian scenarios into the future and that I should rather deal with real social distortions instead of bourgeois sensitivities. I would like to counter this objection - or at least I will try to do so - with the following counter-objection: We are already in a post-emancipatory state.

The delegation of emancipatory enjoyment in the digital sphere

Zygmunt Bauman once argued in his work Socialism - The Active Utopia what is lost when we delegate - as Rosselli once lamented - our own responsibility for historical and social change to an abstraction called historical materialism. According to Bauman, the imagination of alternative utopian conceptions of society is to be regarded as a central ingredient for historical change, in that these "[...] pave the way for a critical attitude and a critical activity which alone can transform the present predicament of man".[5]

The critical - and interactive - confrontation with a deficient present requires, however, that human beings do not delegate their own creative capacity for critique and the accompanying imagination of alternative conceptions of society - which always presupposes a form of interactivity with the respective prevailing social conditions - to an AI system. The fact that forms of interpassivity already occur in other areas of the digital sphere has been abundantly and plausibly argued in various places.

Alfie Bown, for example, aptly points out that a form of interpassivity already manifests itself in the emoticon, which frees the user from the burden of a direct, i.e. interactive, emotion:

When we react to a post with the laughing or shocked emoticon, for example, we are passing the obligation to react – and its associated pleasures – to the technology itself: we enjoy it interpassively, delegating pleasure to the machine so that we are not ourselves required to act. It’s of course not that the ‘react’ emoticon is representative of the subject’s real-life reaction (most people write ‘lol’ instead of laughing and not after laughing), so that we are clearly in the realm of interpassive pleasure with almost every online social engagement. If there is any truth in this suggestion, it at the very least shows the prevalence of interpassivity today.[6]

The emotional reaction that we as subjects are forced to express in everyday situations is thus delegated to an emoticon, which relieves us of the pressure to directly react. Moreover, this aspect draws attention to something else that has received rather little attention so far: The interpassive delegation of enjoyment - whether this relates to emotional reactions or to criticism of social injustice - opens up the space for completely new forms of hypocrisy. Even though one finds one's boss unsympathetic, one likes his or her profile picture in order to potentially gain that long-awaited promotion. Of course, even though this may seem like a banality at first, the whole thing becomes many times more interesting when the delegation of emancipatory pleasures to digital objects can be observed in the digital sphere. A good example of this can be seen in expressions of solidarity displayed as frames for profile pictures on Facebook. A symbol perceived as progressive is chosen - for example, the declarations of solidarity during the pandemic or, in the wake of the criminal war of aggression against Ukraine, the numerous Ukrainian flags - which appears on one's profile picture. At this point, however, it is not intended to discredit such expressions of solidarity (these can also have quite meaningful functions at other levels). Rather, it also becomes clear at this point that the emancipatory potential that arises from criticism of social grievances is delegated by the user to a digital function and he/she is thus relieved of the pressure to really have to act. However, the entire issue becomes even more problematic in this context when such contexts offer room for hypocrisy, since the respective emancipatory gesture expressed by the Facebook frame can also stand in glaring discrepancy - for whatever reason - to one's own actual attitude.

Interpassivity and the post-emancipatory Subject

Nevertheless, this problematic cannot be applied only to the realm of the digital sphere, but seems to be of a more general character nowadays: We are rather dealing with a post-emancipatory subject. According to Van Oenen, the phenomenon of interpassivity can be seen as the post-emancipatory condition par excellence.[7]

The more human beings gain in emancipatory achievements, the more they develop - this is how I would like to put it at this point - a political superego, which constantly confronts them with the demand to live up to the emancipatory achievements and norms they have fought for. The previously won emancipatory achievements were made possible, as Van Oenen aptly points out, by the primacy of interactivity, which is specifically characterized by a critical confrontation with the empirical circumstances in order to subject these very empirical circumstances - for example, deficient social institutions - to lasting changes. The interactive critical confrontation with the respective circumstances must, however, always be characterized by the spirit of the utopian - to recur to Bauman - in the light of which the deficient social conditions are subjected to essential corrections (even if the utopia itself, according to its etymological origin, can never be achieved in fact). The interactively gained emancipatory achievements, however, produce an increasingly emancipatory individual who is no longer able to live up to these achievements:

The privilege of self-realization embedded in the interactive condition virtually implies an imperative to self-realize, analogous to the „imperative to participate‟. Accordingly, individuals began to experience their emancipated, interactive status not only as a modern privilege, but more and more also as a burden. Interpassivity implies the shifting of this burden towards the entity with which one is – still – interactively connected: institutions in the case of society, artworks in the sphere of art. Thus we have effectively created a double shift: first we externalized our subjectivity to institutions (or artworks), and now we also „outsource‟ the burden of interactivity and emancipation towards the institutions (or artworks).[8]

According to Van Oenen, however, it is not the case that the perceived burden of interactivity leads to a rejection of emancipatory ideals per se:

It is important to see that outsourcing does not imply the rejection, or devaluation, of emancipatory ideals. On the contrary, it is precisely because we embrace these ideals, perhaps more than ever, that we feel unable to live up to them. We simply cannot self-realize in all aspects of life that have opened to us as modern, emancipated, and interactive beings. This is literally too much of a good thing for us. It is exactly because we want to be fully modern that we are increasingly unable to act consistently in accordance with our norms and ideals. […]Naturally we feel ambiguous about this condition, because we do not readily admit that we fail to live up to our own norms and ideals. Perhaps we often do not even realize that this is the case; it is after all an unwelcome insight that the source of our discontent lies in failing to do what we ourselves consider the right thing to do.[9]

Here Van Oenen precisely draws attention to the dialectic of modern emancipation processes: While numerous struggles for emancipation - here Van Oenen mentions, for example, the revolts between 1965 and 1975, in which social institutions underwent substantial progressive changes - were characterized by the primacy of interactivity, in that the modern subject began to perceive itself as a historical entity and, as a consequence, to actively participate in the shaping of reality, the democratization of the public sphere was perceived as an increasing burden. However, the modern interactive subject, whose actions have played an unmistakable influence in the creation of progressive social institutions, now finds itself confronted with a political superego that continually harasses it with demands to fully live up to the ethical standards it has achieved.

The post-emancipatory subject, on the other hand, seeks to delegate this burden - that is, not only its own subjectivity, but now also the interactive processes of emancipation - fully to social institutions.

Interpassivity Revisited: Letter to the future AI

To close the line of argumentation - at least halfway - at this point, it is worth returning once again to the topic of artificial intelligence. The transhumanist Alexey Turchin has already illustrated the extent to which the increasing improvement of artificial intelligence contributes to us becoming a post-emancipatory subject. In a paper titled Message to Any Future AI: "There are several instrumental reasons why exterminating humanity is not in your interest", Turchin explicitly addresses - possible - perfected future forms of AI with the request to deal with humanity as charitably as possible.[10] Turchin's intention here is, of course, that his text will be read by a future AI. Without going into too much detail here, however, one aspect is very striking: the request to (possible) future forms of AI to act according to honest moral principles and not to exterminate humanity brings the dialectic of modern processes of emancipation and the resulting interpassive (post-emancipatory) subject to the fore: even if AI has emerged from the creative mental capacities of human beings, at some point it begins to be superior to them, so that human beings become subservient to it. In other words: Humans begin to delegate not only their subjectivity - as is already the case in early stages of AI development - but also their interactivity and thus their emancipatory potential to not even existing forms of future AI by admitting their own powerlessness - instead of stopping such development processes here and now. Similarly, as Rosselli already argued at back then - even if historical materialism is in itself a helpful instrument for the analysis of social development processes! -that the sole belief in historical materialism has put the Italian workers' movement into a form of incapacity to act, it is in this context the delegation of one's own capacity to act to AI.

What to do? The bite from the apple and the condemnation from paradise

Erich Fromm has already pointed out in all clarity that Adam and Eve's fall into sin is to be regarded retrospectively as inevitable and as the most radical act of human freedom. In a similar way as the fetus in the womb - this concretely characterizes the existential dichotomy of human existence according to Fromm - Adam and Eve still live in complete harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, but have not yet transcended it in the light of their own freedom. The disobedience accompanying the bite into the apple and the consequent damnation from paradise - similar to the biological detachment from the mother produced by the severing of the umbilical cord - is thus, according to Fromm's reading, characterized by a radical form of inevitability.[11] Only condemnation subsequently leads to becoming human and to an awareness of oneself and the concomitant possibility of acting as a historical subject capable of action. Fromm's metaphor seems to provide an extremely helpful (if not definitive) response to the paradox of the post-emancipatory subject: Unity with the Garden of Eden - the mother's umbilical cord - cannot be restored, and we are ruthlessly at the mercy of this impotence. Instead of delegating the responsibility resulting from this sin to instances that (supposedly) carry out our interactivity, we should repeat the act of sin again and again and risk damnation from paradise. In other words: to separate ourselves from what is suggested as possible and to dare the sinful act of the impossible. This can only be done through active voluntarism and the constantly recurring confrontation with what exists. Neither an AI nor historical development trends can take this responsibility from us.


[1] Rosselli, Carlo. Liberal Socialism. Edited by Nadia Urbinati. Translated by William McCuaig. Princeton Legacy Library. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 61, 2017 [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. 62. [4] Pfaller, Robert. Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 50, 2018. [5] Bauman, Zygmunt. Socialism: The Active Utopia. Controversies in Sociology; 3. London: Allen and Unwin, 13, 1976. [6] Bown, Alfie. “Interpassive Online: Outsourcing and Insourcing Enjoyment in Platform Capitalism,” 323, 2018. [7] Van Oenen, Gijs. “Interpassive Agency: Engaging Actor-Network-Theory’s View on the Agency of Objects.” Theory & Event 14, no. 2, 9, (2011). [8] Ibid. 10-11 [9] Ibid. 11 [10] Turchin, Alexey. “Message to Any Future AI: ‘There Are Several Instrumental Reasons Why Exterminating Humanity Is Not in Your Interest,’” manuscript. [11] “Erich Fromm on Disobedience.” Accessed July 12, 2023.

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