A New Pleasure: On Capitalism and Psychoanalysis

Aaron Schuster

29.6.20 / Text
In his contribution to A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, philosopher and psychoanalyst Aaron Schuster looks at how capitalism both deploys and devalues pleasure in a quasi-religious all-inclusive experience—sapping it of its essential ingredients.

A New Pleasure

We live in “the age of inventions—and yet nobody has succeeded in inventing a new pleasure.” So laments Aldous Huxley in his 1931 essay “Wanted, A New Pleasure.”1 Pleasure, it turns out, does not have much of a history, and what history there is doesn’t offer an image of progress and innovation. “So far as pleasures were concerned, we are no better off than the Romans or the Egyptians.”

The great joint-stock companies which control the modern pleasure industries can offer us nothing in any essential way different from the diversions which consuls offered to the Roman plebs or Trimalchio’s panders could prepare for the amusement of the bored and jaded rich in the age of Nero. And this is true in spite of the movies, the talkies, the gramophone, the radio, and all similar modern apparatus for the entertainment of humanity. . . . All that these new machines do is to make accessible to a larger public the drama, pantomime, and music which have from time immemorial amused the leisures of humanity.2

Though the technical means have changed, the underlying forms of gratification have not: from a historical perspective, pleasure is monotonous, sterile, and, dare we say, dull. Have we come any further today? Huxley writes about cinema, radio, and the record player as the main entertainment technologies of his time; nowadays we might think of video games, smartphones, and Facebook, though these too could be seen as updated versions of age-old pleasures: play, gossip, rumors, attention, and voyeurism-exhibitionism (although the ritual of staring at a small screen for an hour or two everyday might count as a new pleasure). Much of Huxley’s essay is devoted to the holiday resorts of the French Riviera—the “depressing conclusion about the absence of new pleasures” struck him one windy night at Cannes—and he writes, with a somewhat weary air, of their delights and diversions, especially the joys of snobbery and social distinction. Huxley’s restlessness betrays an implicit theory: that pleasure needs novelty, the new is the condition of enjoyment. Are we already satiated by the old pleasures, and thus bored with them? Is there nothing original to stimulate desire?

Pierre Louÿs, the prose stylist and sensualist—he wrote the novel The Woman and the Puppet which was adapted by Luis Buñuel into That Obscure Object of Desire—anticipated Huxley’s question in a short story titled Une volupté nouvelle (A New Pleasure, 1899). One evening the seductive apparition of the nymph Callisto appears on the doorstep of a young poet in Paris. Having been summoned from death by a pagan sorcerer, she finds her new surroundings to be surprisingly staid and mediocre, and disdainfully remarks on the lack of progress made by Western civilization over the centuries: in the arts, philosophy, science, and manners the Greeks have everywhere already set the example. Is there at least one new pleasure? “During the nineteen hundred years of my sleep in the tomb, what unknown joy have you discovered? I asked you earlier for a new pearl. I ask you now for a love that I have not experienced. No doubt, after so long, completely new pleasures must have been revealed. Invite me to share them with you.”3 The poet’s response is to offer her something that has now become an almost forbidden fruit, foreign to today’s antiseptic hedonism and well-being culture: a cigarette.

Huxley thinks along the same lines, only more grandly. His own candidate for a new pleasure is a hypothetical drug, “an ideal intoxicant,” that would be “a more efficient and less harmful substitute for alcohol and cocaine.”4

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.5

The role of drugs in culture would call for a longer commentary; Freud remarked that intoxicants play an important part in managing the discontent of civilization, life would be unbearable without the three great “palliative measures” of distractions, illusions, and drugs.6 But I want to highlight something else: that Huxley’s vision for a new pleasure—a pill inducing a state of otherworldly delight and rapturous communion without the next-day crash—is really a conception of absolute pleasure. First question: What is signified by absolute pleasure? Does it designate complete and total satisfaction, a world transfiguring bliss, or should it be given another meaning? How does the absolute appear in the history of pleasure? I will touch on this at the end of this essay.

Secondly, I want to inquire more broadly into the relationship between capitalism and enjoyment, a question that was addressed by the now largely forgotten intellectual movement of Freudo-Marxism. How does capitalism figure in the history of pleasure, and what novelty does it bring to it? Capitalism has surely produced a lot of new gadgets and services, as well as colonized domains that would seem to be alien to it (see high performance sleep), but is the rise of modern consumer society the only or best way of conceiving capitalism’s relation to enjoyment? Today, pleasure achieves a self-referential high when the technical capacities for optimizing pleasure coincide with the pleasures of self-optimization. In later life Huxley became a proponent of LSD, and was one of the major figures behind the counterculture’s fascination with the drug (he requested a shot of acid on his deathbed, which his wife delivered). If one wanted a marker of generational change, one might well look to the Silicon Valley trend of microdosing: LSD, the mind-altering drug, repurposed as a mind hack for boosting productivity and achievement, turned into a performance enhancing supplement—“Turn On, Tune In, Drop By the Office.”7 From freeing your mind we arrive at being your best self; and, as has been analyzed before (e.g., in Adam Curtis’s documentary Century of the Self), there is a more or less direct link between the counterculture’s consciousness expanding experiments and the emergence of the narcissistic consumer and the entrepreneurial self.

This kind of high productivity pleasure is also reflected in a recent teen drama aptly named Euphoria (Sam Levinson, 2019). The TV show scandalized with its explicit depictions of sex (one episode showed no less than thirty penises), but there was something ironic about its hyper-sexualized portrayal of teenage life since, as numerous studies have indicated, sexual activity is actually declining among adolescents and young adults.8 And indeed, as one perceptive critic observed, the kids in Euphoria aren’t so much obsessed with sex and drugs as they are ruthlessly performance-driven, euphoric about success: they “hope to ‘secure the bag’—which is to say, in Gen X terms, they want money.”9 The nerdy girl gets into camming, performing sex acts online for money, and becomes a financial dominatrix; the football star dreams of joining the NFL so he can invest the money to build an empire; the girl from a working class family is in love with her boyfriend’s expensive gifts; the drug dealer’s eight-year-old sidekick is savvy about Bitcoin. “In Euphoria, the plot, the dialogue, the music all point to an element more desirable than the consumable drugs and sex: the money that enables them. Euphoria’s teens are thirsty for bills. They willingly and rapidly participate in a system that used to be scoffed at by youth culture for its moral bankruptcy.”10 These teenagers escape into the system. In this world money is jouissance and entrepreneurialism the new mode of rebellion.

Surplus Value and Surplus Enjoyment

Capital is often presented as a new form of transcendence, and economics as a new secular religion.11 Although there is something true in this, the reference to transcendence is conceptually imprecise. Capitalism does not transcend this world, it does not refer to anything beyond or outside it, like the gods or God of old: its operations are entirely inner-worldly, it is a system of immanence. But this immanence takes the form of an imitation or doubling, such that the world and its double coexist on the same plane. Everything belonging to the world can, at the same time, be turned into a vector for the production of value—this is a dynamic principle of capitalist economy. The self-valorization of value, the constant pressure, or drive, to create surplus value, becomes the reverse side of this world. This has two contradictory aspects: On the one hand, capitalism is radically accepting of everything that is, precisely because it is indifferent to meaning, it has no project to realize or idea to impose. In this sense, nothing is more tolerant and pluralistic than the market (and whence its awesome capacity to co-opt and appropriate anything). Though meanings, projects, and values can be attached to capitalism, and serve strategic purposes, it remains fundamentally indifferent to them: its only sense is numerical. On the other hand, capitalism is radically destructive for exactly the same reason, reconfiguring whatever is without concern for anything other than the extraction of value, up to the point of planetary destruction.

The consequence of this doubled world is that things become parodies of themselves, as their substance is turned into masks for value. Thus Jacques Lacan argues that surplus value is an imitation surplus enjoyment (un plus-de-jouir en toc, a fake or sham enjoyment).12  Surplus value parasites surplus enjoyment, capitalist dynamics mimic the dynamism of the sexual drives, capitalist economy is like libidinal economy, with the difference that the lack of being is “cashed out” as cash: surplus enjoyment is rendered calculable and quantifiable in terms of money. The essentials of Lacan’s theory of desire is that the psyche is fundamentally imbalanced or out of joint: instead of a self-regulating entity tending to equilibrium, it is caught between a lack that can never be filled and a bonus or surplus enjoyment that has no proper place. The starting point for Lacan’s Freudo-Marxism is the thesis that Marx’s formula for capitalism apes this excessive dynamic: money is not a means of exchange allowing for a more efficient fulfillment of needs (this is the closed circle of C-M-C’, selling one commodity in order to purchase another); rather the production and consumption of commodities is the means for money to “beget” itself—this infinite drive is what M-C-M’ designates: money, via the detour of the commodity, generates more money (Marx even uses sexual language to describe this). The difference with respect to libidinal economy is that in capitalism, money, by virtue of its emptiness and plasticity, takes over the subject’s lack-of-being and makes it into something countable and calculable. In the 1980s, a brand of margarine appeared called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” Imitation enjoyment could similarly be labeled “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Jouissance!” Like the range of consumer products with their noxious qualities removed (coffee without caffeine, e-cigarettes without tobacco, butter taste without the butter, etc.), so capitalism offers jouissance minus the unfathomable lack, that is, jouissance that can be positively quantified as money (profits and losses).

One should not too quickly equate this “imitation surplus enjoyment” with consumerism, the pleasure provided by commodities. The problem with the consumerist reading is that it risks focusing too much on the individual as the locus of enjoyment, whereas capitalist enjoyment has a more uncanny aspect. The real locus of enjoyment is not the consumer per se, but Value, i.e., the abstract rule of money to which the individual is submitted. To put it another way: it’s not my pleasure that’s at stake, it’s not that I am enthralled by capitalism because it gives me so much pleasure, so many things to enjoy, assuming I can afford it (this enjoyment being inherently frustrating, hence stimulating the need for more); rather I serve the Other’s enjoyment, that is to say, I belong to something greater than myself, the circuit of self-valorizing value. The irony is that while it may seem like we live in a narcissistic consumer society where hedonism is the only value and the self the measure of all things, the enjoyment that binds one to the system is an impersonal and abstract one, an enjoyment that transcends the personal ego. There is a funny short circuit here between narcissism (the individual is all that matters) and a de-narcissizing attitude of worship and adoration (the devotion to the market, which is “nothing” but the aggregate of individual actions). Subjectively we are narcissists, but objectively we act like worshippers. In this sense, one can speak of transcendence: our economic activity, and conversely the tendency for all life to become interpreted in economic terms, constitutes a massive cult of Value, devoted to its pseudo-religious glory.13

I would add that capitalist economy can be understood as mimicking libidinal economy insofar as the latter’s function is to bind together the psyche in the face of the “beyond” (jouissance) that threatens to tear it apart. Capitalist economy binds surplus enjoyment through the circulation of money: it makes what is beyond economy legible and manageable in terms of the inherently meaningless and plastic signifier of money. But, like a symptom or coping mechanism that ends up running out of control and taking over a person’s whole life, this binding itself becomes unbound from anything. Money, in other words, runs wild, and takes on the excessive features of the jouissance that it was meant to contain by rationalizing it, i.e., rendering it countable and calculable. (A contemporary emblem of this is the infamous Black-Scholes equation, a pseudo-rational mathematical formula that became the cipher for financial madness.) In Lacanian terms, the economy—which is supposed to create a livable relation to the Thing—itself occupies the place of the Thing. The novelty of capitalism as opposed to other economic formations is that the beyond of the economy is the economy itself.14

Likewise, capitalism also appears as a caricature of philosophy, where the most radical philosophies of negativity are recast as jargons of value. This is especially apparent in the current eliminative mode of capitalism, emphasizing precarity and responsibilization. Labor precarity is a grotesque parody of the ontological precarity that, philosophically speaking, is a vector of emancipation. The definition of the subject as a lack, void, nullity, or nothingness finds its uncanny double in the fate of the un- or underemployed worker. The classical theory of ideological interpellation no longer holds. Interpellation works not by assigning the subject a place within the system but, in a deceptively truthful way, by addressing the subject as nothing and no one, as pure waste, who is then grateful for the opportunity to be exploited, that is, to be provisionally considered useful and granted a place. What I argued above about the individual’s participation in something greater than himself (the Other of the market, the circuit of self-valorizing value) must thus be modified: in capitalism, one belongs to the system as something that is thrown out of it—this is its shameless message. Ideology is a derisory comedy. It lies not by making false promises but by proclaiming the truth. Nothingness is an imaginary fetish which masks the nothingness that it exposes. To put this in Heideggerian terms: it is as if das Man were to speak the language of Being and Time, preaching the gospel of “being the basis of a nullity” as a new, perversely “authentic” mode of inauthenticity. Dasein must face the anxiety of its nothingness, of having no substantial worldly support, nothing to hold on to and no social safety net to protect it, and resolutely assume responsibility for its own precarious existence—precisely as the means for its capture by capital.15

The History of Pleasure, and Its End

Apart from communism, it is psychoanalysis that was the great rival to capitalism, because it demanded the same unbounded immanence, even a more radical one. Psychoanalysis is fundamentally concerned with the unconscious. The unconscious is also not a new form of transcendence, but is intimately bound up with the world of discourse, it involves not so much a doubling as a twisting or torsion of immanence. The technique that psychoanalysis uses to access the unconscious is the peculiar mode of speech called free association, a form of speaking that is maximally freed from conscious intentions and the control of the ego. The radicality of Freud’s method is that it admits no outside to the therapeutic process. The analyst is not someone who directs the process objectively, from an external position, but is fully immersed in it in ways she cannot control (this is what transference means). Moreover, there are no set goals to be achieved nor any expertise to be applied; or rather, any ideas about goals (the cure, well-being, happiness, etc.) or any claims of knowledge (about psychology, morality, education, mental health, etc.) must also be submitted to the process of free association, so as to discover the unconscious significations lurking in them. This is its plane of immanence: psychoanalysis refuses to be regulated by any outside in order to access the great outside of the unconscious.

Here we can briefly contrast the logics of the three great constellations of the 20th century. Capitalism has no project; in lieu of pursuing an idea it circulates numbers, it turns everything into a mask for more value. Communism had a project, namely the building of socialism and the creation of the New Man; this necessarily made it far less open and tolerant than capitalism (think, e.g., of its hostility to religion). To have an idea means to make a cut in the plurality of things. The irony is that while communism failed in its bid to create a New Man, to thoroughly remake subjectivity, capitalism succeeded, even though this was in no way its goal or intention. It produced various subjective types by entering into haphazard alliances with different ideologies and religious concepts, but only as by-products to the valorization of value. There is no capitalist subject per se, no capitalist “New Man”—it is perfectly indifferent to the subject, this is its openness—but it foments different subjectivities as contingent side effects of its operations, as it comes into contact with different lifeworlds. Probably the closest it comes to having a proper subject is its parodic imitation of the barred subject as pure waste, where capitalism appears as the uncanny double of negative human nature (capitalism could market itself as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Human Nature!”).16 Finally, like capitalism, psychoanalysis also has no project but, in opposition to it, it does aim to bring about a new subject, in the strict sense of the term, by probing the fault lines and impasses—the points of impossibility—in discourse.

Here I can propose a kind of matrix: capitalism has no project and no subject; communism has a project and a (revolutionary) subject; psychoanalysis has a subject but no project. This leaves one other possibility: a project without a subject, which describes the standard neoliberal mode of work, with its projects to be pitched, planned, approved, budgeted, supervised, delivered, and evaluated. This allows us to begin to grasp the proximity between capitalism and psychoanalysis, as well as their distance. Of course, one can always point out that psychoanalysis is also a commodity, it is a service that one pays for, and as such is fully integrated into the market; it’s even been criticized as a bourgeois phenomenon, ministering to the well-off. But from within the perspective of analysis, monetary exchange is not some kind of outside reality encircling it, but is fully part of its process: money is also something to be talked about, it is a signifier like the others, its unconscious associations need to be articulated and explored. While capitalism aims to subsume everything to the production of value, psychoanalysis subsumes the act of capitalist exchange to its logic, to the movement of free association.

Is this the new pleasure we were looking for: psychoanalysis? The most innovative, startling, outrageous statement about pleasure in the 20th century was Freud’s thesis about “neurotic unpleasure,” “pleasure that cannot be felt as such.”17 This is a pleasure that destroys the natural attitude to pleasure: it’s not about feelings, it doesn’t fall into the standard alternative of tension or release, excitement or relaxation, and it’s not something “wanted” or “good.” On a phenomenological level, what this “unfelt pleasure” refers to is not any particular affective state but the tenacity and verve of certain patterns and activities that hold the psyche in their grip and press to elaborate themselves, though they bring no conscious pleasure and even the opposite. It thereby manifests a split in the subject. Its formula is: it enjoys, while I suffer. The neurotic’s convoluted enjoyment, on the one hand, bears witness to the glorious maladaptedness of the human being, to the impossibility that gives birth to and traverses desire, and on the other, it constitutes a kind of mutilated dialogue with the subject’s social-historical conditions, it’s a tortured, half-legible reply to the contradictions and impasses that structure the social field. There is a line in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) that goes Das Glück ist nicht immer lustig, Happiness is not always fun. I would suggest a Freudian improvement: Die Lust ist nicht immer lustig, Lust is not always lustig, pleasure is not always fun.

There is good news: in the contest between psychoanalysis and capitalism, psychoanalysis wins—although this victory is a bit different than one might imagine. Its plane of immanence is grander, more sweeping, more paradoxical, and more compelling than that of capitalism, precisely because it includes impossibility within it. But, of course, psychoanalysis doesn’t escape the historical reality in which it’s embedded, and it doesn’t constitute a program for fundamentally changing this reality. If we want to understand what psychoanalysis meant for the 20th century (and which, despite its much reduced prestige today, still continues to resonate), we shouldn’t see it only as a therapeutic practice and a theoretical apparatus, but as a great innovation in the history of pleasure. I would even claim that, in a Hegelian way, psychoanalysis marks the end of the history of pleasure, it is its culminating point, with the neurotic as the figure of the absolute. Not Napoleon on his horse but the neurotic on the couch. In the neurotic’s complaint is lodged the truth of absolute pleasure or absolute Lust, not as some kind of perfect joy or pleasure paradise, but as the strange disjunction between desire and satisfaction, or the non-coincidence of lack and surplus. This is the same structure that capitalism will exploit so effectively for its own circuit of value.

Aldous Huxley, “Wanted, A New Pleasure,” in Music at Night and Other Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931), p. 248.
Ibid., pp. 249–50.
Pierre Louÿs, “Une volupté nouvelle,” in Oeuvres complètes, Tome VII (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1972), p. 76.
Huxley, “Wanted, A New Pleasure,” p. 254.
Ibid., pp. 254–55.
Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955), vol. 21, p. 75; hereafter SE.
I borrow this phrase from the title of a journal article: Emma Hogan, “Turn On, Tune in, Drop By the Office,” 1843, August 31, 2017, https://www.1843magazine.com/features/turn-on-tune-in-drop-by-the-office.
See, for example, Kate Julian, “Why are Young People Having So Little Sex?,” The Atlantic (December 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/573949/.
Christina Svenson, “For the Teens of Euphoria, There’s No High Like Getting Paid: Generation Z Craves Finance more than Romance,” Slate, August 2, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/08/euphoria-hbo-zendaya-finance-generation-z.html.
“Capital therefore represents a new kind of transcendence, which entails a new form of subjectivation”; “The transcendence of capital stands in the way of life as immanence.” Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, trans. Erik Butler (London: Verso, 2017), p. 7, p. 51; original emphasis.
Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Book XVII, 1969–1970, trans. Russell Grigg, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), p. 81.
This capitalistic “enjoyment of the Other” is what Eric Santner provocatively calls “liturgical labor,” pursuing in his own way, through the Durkeimian notion of mana, the idea of capitalism as religion. See his “The Rebranding of Sovereignty in the Age of Trump: Toward a Critique of Manatheism,” in William Mazzarella, Eric Santner, and Aaron Schuster, Sovereignty, Inc.: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
Or in William Mazzarella’s phrase, the economization of enjoyment flips over into the enjoyment of economy. See his “Brand(ish)ing the Name; or Why is Trump so Enjoyable,” in Mazzarella, Santner, and Schuster, Sovereignty, Inc.: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment.
On this point, see my “Beyond Satire: The Political Comedy of the Present and the Paradoxes of Authority,” in Mazzarella, Santner, and Schuster, Sovereignty, Inc.: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment, pp. 224–30.
Instead of proposing a discrete “capitalist discourse,” a theoretical experiment which, in my mind, ultimately failed, Lacan should have remained faithful to his conception of surplus value as imitation surplus enjoyment, and spoken of a capitalist semblance of discourse or parody of discourse. On the uncanny proximity of neoliberal capitalism to negative philosophical anthropology, see Paolo Virno, When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature, trans. Giuseppina Mecchia (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2015), pp. 204–9; and Bertrand Ogilvie, La seconde nature du politique: Essai d’anthropologie négative (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012), pp. 161–64.
Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE 18, p. 11.

Aaron Schuster (1974, Seattle, USA) is a philosopher and writer. He has written on such topics as the philosophy of tickling, the history of levitation, anti-sexuality, pleasure, and complaining, and has collaborated with artists on a number of projects as a writer and dramaturg. His publications include The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis (2016) as well as Sovereignty Inc.: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment (2019) and the forthcoming Spasm: A Philosophy of Tickling. Schuster lives in Amsterdam.

Aaron Schuster, “A New Pleasure: On Capitalism and Psychoanalysis“ in A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, eds. Ekaterina Degot and David Riff (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, May 2020), pp. 45–55.

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