August 23, 2022
In a recent article, Alex Hochuli comments on the zeitgeist of a culture in which every piece of popular culture must be analyzed and dissected to reveal its secret political agenda. Today, every “musical artist or cooking show is now a vanguard of actual fascism or cultural Marxism — of which you must be made acutely aware and which you must, consequently, denounce and expunge from your life.” Squid Game would be a case in point, endlessly discussed and debated — especially in liberal circles — in a battle to decide whether its politics are on our side or not. And this is seen as the only possible concern respecting a work of art. Once identified as being on the wrong side (the most common conclusion to draw), we are encouraged to be cautious of our own enjoyment of the work in question, lest we are ourselves seen as adjacent to its political biases. The work of art — if we can call it art when it strives to escape the judgment and survive the scrutiny of its audience — lives in the age of purification. If we are seen as being adjacent to the wrong things, we need to be exposed, but what if being adjacent to things was a point of potential rather than a problem?
The backdrop for the emergence of this culture is an assumption that politics is everywhere. Gone are the days when people considered cultural products of any kind — no matter how mundane and vapid — as separate from the political domain. From football to video games, everything has been welcomed into a discourse of political tension. All cultural products are now seen as containing politics within themselves. This is a move that has been initiated by liberal culture, largely by those who identify as leftists. In 2014 the “GamerGate Saga” represented a battle between those on the liberal-left who wanted to reveal and rout out the politics of videogames — their misogyny, their racism, etc. — and those who tended toward the conservative side and wanted to retain the apolitical status of games (“games are just fun”, etc). Of course, games were political, whether they liked it or not, and it appeared to many — including myself — that politicizing phenomena like games was a necessary step towards understanding the way in which culture becomes politicized and goes to work on its subjects.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, this position makes theoretical sense. After all, it was central to Freud that the unconscious be seen as political. Politics happens where we don’t see it. Jacques Lacan would write in “The Logic of Fantasy” that “the unconscious is politics,” meaning that politics contaminate the unconscious, affecting us through desires, impulses, and, perhaps most importantly, enjoyment. From this perspective, it made sense to argue for recognizing the secret politics at work in every piece of art — themselves each a sublimated manifestation of the political unconscious. But what if psychoanalysis led us down a dangerous path here? What if by making everything “political” we obscured the real sites of political contestation and created instead a culture of apolitics, endlessly debating whether or not Nyan Cat is a capitalist while we became more and more removed from politics itself?
Coining the term “hyperpolitics” to describe this contemporary moment, Anton Jager writes:
Today, everything is politics. And yet, despite people being intensely politicised in all of these dimensions, very few are involved in the kind of organised conflict of interests that we might once have described as politics in the classical, twentieth-century sense.
This shift in the discourse is not simply the old distinction between politics with a capital P (politics ultimately directed at the state, whether directly electoral or not) and politics with a small p (the family, culture, everyday life). Of course, there has always been a distinction between official political systems and the cultural politics of any given context. With the first Trump election run, the panic on the liberal left was that this distinction could be erased. Would the gamers finally come out of their basements and elect a “fascist” head of state? Would politics finally explode outward and bring itself to bear on Politics? We would need to be even more suspicious of everything. It was time to cancel culture.
Once again, this was a move driven not by traditionalists or conservatives but from those who associated themselves with progressive politics. In the 2000s, universities relentlessly preached this line, teaching all first-year arts students that real politics — especially those aspects revealed by feminism and postcolonial studies — was to be found everywhere. It was our job to identify the problems within everything and to make them visible. Achebe’s accusation that Joseph Conrad was a racist became a staple text on every Literature syllabus. History degrees would focus on the inherent biases of Western primary texts. Woody Allen’s films would come with a trigger warning. We had to be careful with everything lest it taint our political unconscious.
Against this tendency to see politics everywhere, Jacques Rancière wrote that the critical starting point for emancipatory politics is the “conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it.” In other words, the most important thing is knowing which parts of society are capable of counting for something. In losing our ability to distinguish what mattered — to pick our battles, as it were — we had lost our way, and everything was now under the microscope and subject to a litmus test.
In meme culture, the word “enjoyer” has become a staple. The classic is a meme showing two men — one a basement-dwelling omega and the other a gym-conquering chad (usually the YouTube influencer James' YouNiverse and Iranian influencer Saman Ghasemzadeh) — separated by two cultural items, one portrayed negatively and the other positively. The “enjoyer” meme — and the grammatically awkward word itself — subversively points to a connection between enjoyment and identity suggested and proliferated by the liberal left. What you enjoy defines you. Or, perhaps better, as the meme physically displays the text and the image, you are adjacent to your enjoyment.
Enjoyment is the topic of psychoanalysis. In the 1990s Slavoj Žižek would further politicize the ideas of Lacan — who himself had been highly suspicious of radical politics — to argue for enjoyment as a political factor. In recent capitalist politics, the role of enjoyment — the harnessing of libidinal energy — has been stronger than ever. What Jodi Dean called a traumatic kernel of intensity attaches itself to the ideological subject, and this is particularly visible in recent elections. Srecko Horvat puts it well at the time of the Trump election when he notes that “when Obama said ‘Yes, we can!’ this was a political statement, but it was also counting on emotions, and specifically, hope. . . What we can see today is that the Right — just take Donald Trump — can appeal to people much more directly and easier precisely because they are aiming at emotions and affects.” As this shift from Obama to Trump embodies, what the right was benefitting from here is the logic of the liberal left. But the left doesn’t seem to have recognized this. Instead, it has doubled down, intensifying the rigor with which it polices enjoyment and banking even more heavily on the assumption that what we like is who we are.
To draw some basic conclusions about this brief history: we can perhaps say that the strategy of revealing the politics inherent to everyday phenomena served a critical purpose from the 60s until relatively recently. Roland Barthes was no doubt acting in good faith. We could stretch as far as to say that same of Gayatri Spivak in her idea of empire “writing back” through art and culture. Anyway, these were intellectuals who had no (and knew they had no) direct connection to the actual politics of the day. But today, in the age of what Jager calls “hyperpolitics,” this strategic approach — enshrined in university education, journalistic op-eds, and Twitter, and bolstered by establishment forms of cultural studies largely interested in stoking the flames of race and gender wars — serves to obscure, even close off, sites of genuine political contestation that are, or could become, available to us.
Can the Left Enjoy?
A side effect of this connection between enjoyment and identity is the Left’s blank affirmation of the collapse of privacy and, with it, individuality – we now have to confess what we enjoy and contextualize it in front of everyone. Being able to bitch and grouse, to be perverse, to simply laugh and safely experiment (a bit of Joe Rogan or Love Island without searching for toxic men, say) with ideas and personae with our friends, lovers, and family without society breathing down our necks has become a major achievement. Now, success at work, romantic relationships, and family are experienced as a depoliticization (bolstered by the sense they affirm the notion that one grows conservative with age). Can we even enjoy our girlfriends, unapologetically and still be part of ‘the Left’?
It is increasingly common to be judged via what we enjoy, even in the realm of politics and theory. If we like the ideas of Jacques Lacan, for instance, we are seen as a Lacan Enjoyer and can be judged and dismissed — even expunged from the conversation — simply on the basis of this adjacency, without the need to engage the arguments themselves. Association with certain people or publications (a writer was recently accused of being “Compact adjacent”) pre-determines the kind of engagement the content receives. Adjacency ought to be the very aim of leftist thinking (since it is what connects us and allows us to work for universality), but it has become a mechanism for purification.
Would adjacency maybe be better used as a positive term, one that speaks to the possibility of actually reaching a site of contestation by bringing out the contradictions inherent to political and personal thinking? The term “red-brown” would be a useful example here, deployed by those who claim to have identified a fascism hidden within Leftist thinking in order to root out a perceived toxicity hidden in the mask of the pure Left (but, in fact, more often applied to moments where contradiction becomes visible). By turning contradiction into opposition, calling something red-brown casts out the politics of the other in an attempt to continue the endless purification of the Left. Because of the connection between enjoyment and identity, it’s no coincidence that the term “red-brown” is applied to individuals rather than ideas. Today, you are the ideas you enjoy.
A first step might be simply to acknowledge the role of the Left itself in the creation of this culture, but the greatest task for a Left today may be to break from this project of purification and to sever the connection between identity and enjoyment. That itself would be a form of psychoanalytic thinking that would take us off the path of seeing politics everywhere and allow us to regain the ability to pick our battles.