‘Happiness is statistically abnormal’: happiness after nihilism

Happiness is a kind of madness
Look around you. Examine the world you live in. Give it a cursory glance. How could you not conclude that happiness is a delusional state? In the abstract to a 1992 paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, experimental psychologist Richard P Bentall put this idea on the table for real:

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant [1].

As Bentall explains in his Madness explained: psychosis and human nature, he intended to suggest that happiness was a psychiatric illness as a satire on the medical model that was, and continues to be, the dominant paradigm through which psychiatric practice is concieved, planned and organised. While Bentall intended this as a cutting spoof, a few media outlets and psychiatric journals took him at his word and cited it as evidence of the madness of psychiatry in its pursuit of relentless pathologisation, or painting scientific research as so completely detached from everyday life, so totally “ceased living in things”, as to be absurd. One newspaper even running the headline “Top Doc Talks Through Hat”. Bentall even uses his mocking article to bring the question of happiness into contact with political economic terms, coolly reporting that

Interestingly, despite all the uncertainty about the epidemiology of happiness, there is some evidence that it is unevenly distributed amongst the social classes…

Bentall’s cutting paper uses humour as a weapon to slash the pretentious throat of biological psychiatry’s classificatory system, a fetish that I’m sure has also been sardonically cited as evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, this piece isn’t primarily about psychiatry or taxonomic reductionism; this is part intended as a response to a post by anthropologist and synthentic_zer0 fellow traveller, Jeremy Trombley. In a post titled “Happiness and Struggle“, Jeremy raises some questions on the subject of the relations between happiness and struggle, hedonism and eudaimonia, before finally connecting happiness and “healthiness”. In what follows, I want to add to what Jeremy has written, and to examine some of what lurks beneath and beyond these questions.

Social genomics of happiness and “human nature”

Jeremy links to an article that reports recent findings that psychological well-being (or happiness) comes in two species, one of which is damaging on the cellular level in the same way that trauma and depression are. This species of happiness is identified as hedonic happiness and is differentiated from a more fulfilling species ‘that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification’ [2].

This picture is obviously familiar to anyone interested in philosophy and/or political theory, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it here (I’ll return to it below). It is important to note that while some philosophical traditions maintain a separation between hedonism and eudaimonia, placing them in an antagonistic relationship where the former is spat upon and the latter is raised up as authentic or divine happiness, the Frederickson et al. were more nuanced in their research. For instance, early on in their literature review the researchers note that hedonic and eudaimonic happiness ‘are empirically correlated and can reciprocally influence each other’ [3]. In their study these two conditions were analysed for how well they help human beings ‘survive and thrive’ by following up on previous genomic studies that discovered alterations in environmentally mediated gene expression profiles under conditions of ‘stress, threat, or adversity’- what philosophers might prefer to call anxiety, or terror. The study had a relatively low sample of 80 participants and assessed their hedonic-eudaimonic profiles by applying a standardised and approved psychometric test. The problems with low sample sizes and subjective self-report testing in research are well known and, frankly, far too boring to reproduce here. Suffice to say, it means that the findings of this study are, despite their rigorous statistical analysis (actually, seems to border on data dredging toward the end), only provisional. That in itself is no problem. We operate under scientific sceptical paradigms in which truth is often a matter of the contingency of historically approved techniques of validation, so any truth-claim is going to be provisional and incomplete.

The more interesting aspect of the findings of this paper are that the genetic expression activated by ‘stress, threat or uncertainty’, let’s simply call it anxiety, are also up-regulated in hedonic experiences. As Frederickson et al. state, this begins to ground within natural science the claim that there exists a ‘dissociation of molecular well-being from affective well-being’ [4].This is of importance because it means that while the phenomenology of happiness might indicate that hedonic experiences are making me happy, the embodied real is that part of the ontospecific transcorporeal ensemble (or body) that is responsible for the ontogenesis and maintenance of my happiness is being damaged. While my affective experience of going out to the club or buying that new TV might make me feel good right now, I am endangering the physiological machinery that my capacity for happiness depends upon in the long-term. Eudaimonic-activities, on the other hand, have a positive effect on that long-term machinery. Yet that hedonism can resemble pathology so closely and that we could willingly engage in behaviours that feel good but are far from being so isn’t exactly a revelation; it is more a hallmark of the kind of creatures that we are. These findings, rooted as they are in the natural sciences, are undeniably compelling. The authors of the study conclude their paper with references to grounding moral philosophy in natural science, having provided demonstrable evidence of the corporeality of the pathological consequences of hedonism. I don’t think that this means that we’re entirely on the road to a naturalised morality. As the authors themselves have it, they are defining psychological well-being/happiness as the ‘survive and thrive’ that has comes from the ‘basic biology of human nature as revealed in 2 million years of evolved genomic programming’ [5]. I should make clear that I have no problem whatsoever with claims to human nature being grounded in biology, at least not coming as it does from within social genomics. As Steven Cole explains it:

As genes have come to be understood as concrete DNA sequences, rather than abstractions inferred from inheritance, it has become increasingly clear that social factors can play a significant role in regulating the activity of human genes. DNA encodes the potential for cellular behavior, but that potential is only realized if the gene is expressed – if its DNA is transcribed into RNA and translated into protein [6].

In this short paragraph the shift from genetics to genomics resembles a philosophical shift from a kind of idealism to a much more corporealist account of materioenergetic processes being undertaken by molecular bodies on molecular bodies. In this account actual assemblages perform operations that transform an ensemble of assemblages in such a way that new capacities are actualised that only existed as virtual. Cole goes on to note that

Several studies have shown that social influences can penetrate remarkably deeply into our bodies. The nervous system plays a key role in perceiving and responding to social stimuli, and social conditions have been found to regulate the expression of neural genes such as the Nerve Growth Factor NGF gene (Sloan et al., 2007) and the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Zhang et al., 2006). More surprising is the discovery that key immune system genes are also sensitive to social conditions (Sloan et al., 2007). Immune cells exert selective pressure on the evolution of viral genomes, and many viruses also appear to have developed a genomic sensitivity to our social conditions (as reviewed above). However, even pathogens that escape our immune system may still modulate gene transcription in response to host stress and social conditions. Most human cancers are invisible to the immune system, but some still change gene expression patterns in response to social stress (Antoni et al., 2006). One recent study of women with ovarian cancer found more than 220 genes to be selectively up-regulated in tumors from women with low levels of social support and high depressive symptoms (Lutgendorf et al., 2008) [7].

The complex interaction of social environment and our bodies should come as no surprise to anyone interested in embodiment. We exist as bodies, are to be completely identified with our bodies insofar as there is no separation from “I” and “my body” (indeed, this dualism is a nonsense). Our bodies exist alongside, despite, because of, within, and as hosts for other bodies (organic and inorganic, discursive and historical) that together produce particular times and places. This emplacement and temporalisation is part of the catalysis from possibility to event that can only happen through the process of distributed actualisation occurring through the choreographic interpenetration of the transcorporeal real. That women with ovarian cancer who were socially incapacitated and registered highly for “depressive symptoms” also had a large number of genes that were up-regulated in tumours is just one example of this kind of fleshly causation. We already know that our bodies are emergent from the molecular level of material organisation and that they exist, for example, in this room at 5pm on this Sunday afternoon in August, in the shape and form that make them recognisably “me”. In one sense, a realist ontology or metaphysics of any kind, one that exists the species-narcissism of anthropocentrism, must also be one that departs from a fetishisation of the human scale. Our phenomenality, rooted as it is in our gross biological structure and its dispositions toward its environment, is focussed on the bodies we can perceive whilst interacting with them, misleads us into attributing potency only to those bodies and missing out on all the activity that is going on above and below that level. While we are capable of gleaming some experience of the dispotifs of power and capital that affect our lives, we are less capable of experiencing the molecular level of sensibility, and still less so of experiencing the interactions between the social and the molecular. This is probably why we often fail to appreciate that

Socio-environmental conditions can also regulate the molecular composition of CNS cells, and thereby alter psychological and behavioral responses to future environments (Zhang et al., 2006). Because the molecular composition of our cells constitutes the physical machinery by which we perceive and respond to the world around us and that molecular composition is itself subject to remodeling by socio-environmental influences, gene expression constitutes both a cause and a consequence of behavior [8].

That we are bodies is also that we are this “physical machinery” that is itself a “molecular composition”. While the exact mechanisms may be obscure to those of us who are not scientists, it is obvious that if our bodies and social environment are interpenetrative and interactive with one another so to is the composition of our bodily composition and the social composition. The claim that human nature comes from an evolved basic biology is little more than the admission that the kind of beings we are is dependant on the ontogenesis and morphology of our species and individual bodies as it is exists with its much bigger environment. There is nothing in this that attempts to eternalise human beings as they are right now, and no attempt to identify any essence or core of humanity. If there is such a thing as species-being it can’t be extracted from the transcorporeal flesh without perishing. In effect, this is human nature as a matter of becoming and event, of drift and accident. This is close to the kind of materialism that was advocated by Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro. In Timpanaro’s On Materialism, he provides the following definition:

By materialism we understand above all acknowledgement of the priority of nature over ‘mind’, or if you like, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level; both in the sense of chronological priority (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in the sense of the conditioning which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future [9].

This definition has clear Darwinian resonance and accords to the discussion of molecular-social interaction, even if in its polemical insistence on the supremacy of the physical and biological over the socio-economic and cultural Timpanaro asserts this interaction in unidirectional terms. In Timpanaro’s geological and Darwinian Marxism, ideology and culture are still determined by the capitalist mode of production but it is also the case that the mode of production is itself determined by conditions we might once have referred to as “nature”. Of course, in insisting on the “physical” as a separate category to “the biological”, Timpanaro is also opening us up to the possibility of a cosmological Marxism. While it may appear that this would make this a strictly deterministic materialism, Timpanaro cautions us that

It is certainly true that the development of society changes men’s ways of feeling pain, pleasure and other elementary psycho-physical reactions, and that there is hardly anything that is ‘purely natural’ left in contemporary man, that has not been enriched and remoulded by the social and cultural environment. But the general aspects of the ‘human condition’ still remain, and the specific characteristics introduced into it by the various forms of associated life have not been such as to overthrow them completely. To maintain that, since the ‘biological’ is always presented to us as mediated by the ‘social’, the ‘biological’ is nothing and the ‘social’ is everything, would once again be idealist sophistry [10]. [emphasis added].

Humanity is an animal like any other animal and it is bound to its evolutionary history and to the conditions that pre-existed the emergence of what humanity has named “culture” or “civilisation”. In his declaration that the forgetting of human animality is both an idealism and a sophistry Timpanaro is attempting to “re-root” Marxism in corporeality, and especially- considering the goals of Marxism- in the human body, yet without the possibility of making the human body “the body”. After all, the human body is simply one more body within and playing host to so many other bodies. This is to return politics to questions of embodiment, and especially to the basic questions that the overtly ideological era of post-modernity (“end of history” etc) had tended to forget on occasion: that any radical philosophy and any revolutionary politics must ground itself in that embodiment. To paraphrase Deleuze, we have forgotten what it is a body needs. In a corporealist politics we do not begin by asking questions about conceptual problems or dwell exclusively in language games: we begin from questions of what a body needs and thus from questions of movement, of hunger, of thirst, of shelter, of pain and pleasure, suffering and happiness. The reason that I have gone through this account to develop a sketch of what  a “corporealist politics” might mean is because in surveying this world in bodies intermix and transform other bodies, in which there is no trace of “idealist sophistry” is because this world is already familiar to us: we are describing the blind and purposeless world that natural science has revealed to us, the world that is its own nihilism. The question is, how is happiness possible in a world that is already an accomplished nihilism?

Nihilism and Hedonism

We can understand hedonistic behaviour in part as a response to nihilism. Just as the article Jeremy links to can speaks of two forms of happiness (although Jeremy is right to suggest this is limited), we can also say that there are (at least) two nihilisms. The first of these nihilisms is that powerfully diagnosed by Nietzsche in passages such as those from The will to power where he announced that

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . . For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end. . . . [11].

This cultural-subjective nihilism is that which Nietzsche declared with the black news of the death of God and it accords to all the Nietzchean themes that we are familiar with: the loss of orientation, the collapse of “Truth”, the loss of all values and a sense of being in a purposeless, meaningless cosmos. This is what Nietzsche refers to when he says that the meaning of nihilism is that ‘the highest values devalue themselves‘ [12] and that ‘Humanity still has no goal!’ [13] as Zarathustra declares. The devaluation of the highest values means the loss of those norms and principles that we had erected to organise our lives in such a way that we could claim to be civilised, refined, social beings. This loss is the loss of those axiomatic norms, those arche of all our endeavours, our way of living, our political ideals and our moral rules. This is the catastrophe of nihilism, it is a catastrophe that would bathe the world in blood and arbitrary horror. The death of God, the death of the divine Sovereign, is the most acute picture for the death of these highest values upon which rested all our tools and techniques for making sense, for having reasons rather than motivations, For Nietzsche this is not properly a subjective condition in the sense that it is another perspective within perspectivism one could take up and toy with. That it is “cultural nihilism” does not mean that it happens nowhere to a nothing, after all the BBC is a “cultural institution” but that doesn’t mean it is a vapour. There is something about the word “culture”- Latourian objections aside- that implies something endemic to the human sphere, something that is, as Nick Land wrote, virulent. This 19th century prediction became 20th century reality in the form of two world wars, especially in the second and the event of the Holocaust. As the “eccentric” orthodox heiromonk Seraphim Rose states in his ranting book on nihilism:

Here at last we find an almost “pure” Nihilism, a rage against creation and against civilization that will not be appeased until it has reduced them to absolute nothingness. The Nihilism of Destruction, if no other form of Nihilism, is unique to the modern age. There has been destruction on a wide scale before, and there have been men who have gloried in destruction; but never until our own time have there been a doctrine and a plan of destruction, never before has the mind of man so contorted itself as to find an apology for this most obvious work of Satan, and to set up a program for its accomplishment [14].

This is a well known story at this point: nihilism is the historical pathology of Western European civilisation that culminates in ferocity with the Holocaust and lingers with us in a cool liquid late modernity in which all promethanisms and grand narratives have become impossible. What happiness is there to be found in this cultural nihilism? The active nihilist might know the joy of destruction and the decadent might know the hedonistic thrill of “everything being permitted”. Today, it is not simply Darwinism as a possibility, not war as a explosive tragedy, not an emergent capitalism’s destruction of traditional way of life and social organisation, it is not a sickness spread through humanity or “culture”: today, nihilism is an accomplished reality. It is materiality that is nihilistic. Darwinism is no longer a new maybe-game but a theory we treat as more-or-less fact or vehemently deny out of terror for its full blown nihilistic implications for an aimless, purposeless, stupid, brute existence on a planet on which we are not special, not creatures of God, and cosmic meaningfulness is entirely absent: we are left with a choice to place ourselves somewhere on a spectrum of opinion that places us as highly evolved accidental globs of slime that are entirely impermanent to retreating from the truth as best we can judge it in order to preserve our precious self-image. We are faced with a cosmology and a physics that says “ohaiguyz, its all just waves moving through waves without any inherent Reason or design”, and that seems to confirm that we are the lonely humanoids, being forced to adhere to the surface of a cold rock that spins madly around a great chain-reaction of nuclear explosions that will some day swell to incinerate this Earth before everything else slows down, cools, gets so far apart the whole thing just ceases. We’re confronted with climate change and the imminent threats of global warming, the burying of chemical and nuclear materials that poison the soil, the chocking of the air, the disappearance of drinkable water, the despoiling of forests, the peak point being passed for the fuels we have depended on and the promise of new wars of scarcity, the generalisation of war to being just a background phenomena without end, the use of rape as a weapon and a new slave trade in women’s bodies, the temptation to conflate materialism with physical reductionism and the triumph of an accelerated if moribund capitalism that refuses to die, does not know it is dead, and beyond which we cannot imagine. Today: objective nihilism. When JG Ballard wrote about seeing reality as a stage set that could be swept away, I think that we’re all now in the boat of knowing that this is the case. For Ballard it was a revelatory experience that brought this to him: wandering an abandoned and half-destroyed Shanghai after escaping a POW camp, his mind already acclimatised to a new incarcereal logic heightened by dehydration and severe malnutrition.

For us, I think the knowledge of nihilism is almost a birthright. If we can understand hedonism as a response to cultural nihilism- “decadence”- that is exacerbated by our evolutionary necessary short-sightedness (eating that high sugar food NOW might have stopped us from dying, today it is killing us) then wouldn’t it also make sense to see the pursuit of hedonic happiness as perhaps the ONLY attractive option in a world without meaning? On an autobiographical note I can certainly say that I have been tempted on occasion to see things this way, to simply let the monstrosity of my animal nature take precedence over everything else, to consume and indulge in excesses because, why the fuck not? I once knew a woman who had precisely this attitude and attempted to experience pleasure all the time, to reach the perfection of image because substance is dead, to take substances in order to replace the deadening inside her, to flaunt her body because the body is all that remains, and to starve herself in order to propel herself on. She died not that long ago. This is what the world can do to us. The deal seems thus: be good, be quiet, and in exchange we’ll keep you safe and sell you shit. It is entirely unsurprising that in such a world depression is rampant. and no wonder that a satire can work so well as to be confused with a real claim because ‘happiness is statistically abnormal’. The WHO indicates that over 350million people worldwide have been diagnosed with clinical depression- an illness that is artificially distinguished from anxiety. I have some concern over claims that depression is now “endemic” or “epidemic”. First, these epidemiological terms are already too close to a biomedical understanding of psychological distress, but also because we are simultaneously aware that diagnostic classification changes over time, the workload and outcome targets of GPs/family doctors, and the availability of psychological treatments of other technologies, practices and communities of coping have may have led to over diagnosis and prescription. Nevertheless, from where I sit and in my reading and communications with others here in the UK and around the world happiness is not in abundance. Mark Fisher has tackled that part of the cultural nihilism that is wrapped up with objective nihilism in his book Capitalist Realism. While discussing depression in that text, Fisher notes that in his higher education college teaching

Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure [15].

Depressive hedonia is the potent mixture of depression with hedonism, a condition that is characterised by a compulsive pleasure seeking, an inability to stop consuming, to stop looking for happiness in instant gratification. This is the psychology of a new generation of bodies born to a world in which late capitalism had already succeeded in neutralising the antagonism of labour and using the demands of labour to form itself into the now familiar neoliberal landscape. With this the subject spoken of by the name “consumer” has become hegemonic. The London riots of 2011 were correctly diagnosed as ‘riots of defective and disqualified consumers’ for whom ‘non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled’ [16]. While Bauman may be overstating the case, we can see that his disqualified consumers are part of that section of the population for whom hedonistic happiness is channelled into consumption of luxury goods like TVs, the newest trainers, the next generation of consoles and so on. While some had accused the rioters of being apolitical (conveniently forgetting the circumstances under which the riots began) and others pointed out that they were working or underclass kids whilst speculating about their ethnicity (historian David Starkey made comments to the effect that white youths had been “negro-ised”), some of us realise that the post-political is the most political. Far from ‘shopping with violence’ the riots featured the rage of those incited to a compulsive hedonism whilst being denied the ability to attain that form of happiness, of being presented with a version of fulfilment they were also forbidden from achieving due to their position in the productive process. If the riots had been had a more middle class complexion, a la JG Ballard’s Millennium People, there would have been much more concern about why hard-working were so unhappy. There is also no appreciation that we are all of us inside the same system of incitement; of the production of insatiable desires; the engineering of obsolescence and scarcity; whilst having paraded before us a spectacular promise of security, happiness, serenity on billboards, pop-ups, websites, radio shows, TV advertising (and what else?) that I have argued elsewhere operates on us at the physiological level. Some may be more integrated into this spectacle than others but there should be no mistake that all nervous systems are materially wired into it. Fisher continues his analysis of contemporary hedonism when he notes that for these young people, these disqualified consumers, who are really just exaggerations of the rest of us:

There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle [17].

This condition manifests as ‘the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV and marijuana’ [18]. This soft hedonism is often equally accompanied by the spectacular hedonism of MTV popular hiphop artists like Kanye West, whose last album (a kind of audio mental breakdown at times) is a testament to the emptiness of the hedonic-friendly YOLO philosophy espoused by Drake. Even more worrying is a sort of biopolitical-hard hedonism dualism that is flourishing and includes everything from the fetishisation of a healthy lifestyle to the use of psychiatric and illicit psychostimulants to have a good time, but increasingly also just to function. This hard hedonism is also wired into the distributed nervous system in the cloud and is dealt with brilliantly in Gary Shteyngart’s 2010  novel Super Sad True Love Story. In that novel a depressed middle-aged and literate Lenny, a man working at Post-Human Services and hoping to achieve nanotech immortality, falls in love with the young, rampantly consumerist, post-literate hedonist Eunice. While the story plays itself out amidst a crumbling America desperately sliding into a racist police state, the heart of the novel comes from its charting the death of eudaimonia and the embrace of total depressive hedonia. Super Sad True Love Story perfectly captures what Jeremy speak of as

the world that Capitalism has crafted over the last century or so, one geared towards instant, individualistic gratification. No new world is constructed by these actions (and, in fact, the existing world is continually reinforced) This world is not oriented towards lasting satisfaction or well being (eudaimonia) because satisfied people don’t consume and consumption is the driver of the Capitalist engine. This is also the short-coming of environmental and social justice campaigns that are largely oriented around consumerism – they don’t make a difference to the basic logic of Capitalism, they simply shift the same logic into feel-good kinds of consumption. [19].

In the novel, as in our everyday life, there are problems of scale. The characters fail to see what is going on around them, just as we do- even those of us who “know”: capitalism is a hyperobject too complex, too big, and too temporally distributed to grasp. Just as Jeremy points out, in agreement with critics like Bauman and Zizek, contemporary hedonism can’t deliver on its spectacular promise and increasingly fails even to provide us with that “hit” of pleasure or jouissance we were hoping for. Contemporary compulsive hedonism has nothing to do with what a body needs. Instead, the biopolitical form of consumer hedonism is the one that Zizek claims

God is dead, we live in a permissive universe, you should strive for pleasures and happiness — but, in order to have a life full of happiness and pleasures, you should avoid dangerous excesses, be fit, live a healthy life, not harass others… so everything is prohibited if it is not deprived of its substance, and you end up leading a totally regulated life [20].

Still, is this biopolitical modality of hedonism, mixed up as it is with all the others, necessarily the kind that lead to a totally regulated life deprived of real pleasure? While Zizek’s concerns about the administration of the healthy body are correct it is too far to reject the avoidance of dangerous excesses and to refuse fitness and health. When I was an undergraduate and had first got my head around biopolitics I had the kind of undialectical urge that Zizek seems to be giving voice to: fuck health! fuck fitness! and today, having drunk too heavily and smoked too hard whilst taking pretty much no exercise, I can feel the invisible damage done to me. We shouldn’t be too easily convinced either that the biopolitical side of hedonism is “total”; how many models and body builders, the poster girls and boys of fitness, struggle with anorexia and extreme substance misuse? The problem here is not decaffinated enjoyment but rather the issuing of a double-bind: enjoy but don’t over do it. This double bind is also issued in a world where embodiment is reduced to a crass physicalism such that the characters of Michel Houellebecq’s novels are caught in and from which they can’t escape. Certainly, some form of hedonism is necessary as the article Jeremy linked to suggests and this necessity is entirely physical. Our bodies and brains evolved under and for conditions of scarcity. In such conditions there is a huge opportunity cost involved in delaying gratification. When food is not a guaranteed object it is necessary to go for what is presented right now in order to avoid the risk of some other predator/forager getting what we need to survive and to enjoy. Coupled to this is the popular idea that because we evolved in scarcity we have a predilection to eating high-calorie foods that would be able to maintain our metabolic requirements in the event of interruptions in food availability. This wouldn’t have been a problem in the early days of our hominid existence but when we live in societies of overproduction and abundance of cheap high-calorie fast-food and snacks the problem of overeating and obesity become live (as do troubled attempts to deal with these phenomena). The hedonistic happiness of eating delicious high calorie foods has morphed into the depressive hedonism of binge eating, purging, or obsessively worrying about one’s weight. Some researchers [21] also claim that because we live in a society marked by uncertainty and doubt, the ability to defer gratification into future goals (long term well-being) might be too high a gamble for many people to take. Of course, delaying gratification would require the ability to extract oneself from the “instant” of instant gratification. Yet today is marked by the cancellation of the future and the acceleration of temporality that more and more attempts to hold us frozen within that electronic instant that Virilio sums up as the ‘Instantaneity of the interactive telecommunications of cybernetics’ [22]. Human beings have evolved to be short-term planners and have managed through collective efforts to extend that ability to years and decades, but the material conditions of objective nihilism are evidence that have remained far too short-termist. The physiological interventions of late capitalism are not limited to advertising but extend to the new technologies that we willingly wire our nervous systems up to, coupling our slow finite organic systems to the infinite accumulation of information travelling close to the speed of light. Under these conditions deliberative thought, the kind of thinking needed for delayed gratification, doesn’t have time to do its work. If hedonism is linked to an insistence on commodity consumption under conditions like these then capitalism’s surest means of securing consumption is through producing addicts. As radical psychologist David Smail writes

The ultimate market success is to exploit the properties of the human nervous system such that a stimulated “excitement” is followed by an “instant satisfaction” in a maximally accelerated cycle. Food, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sex clearly lend themselves admirably to the process of “addictification”, and the challenge to the market resides only in its refining and augmenting their addictive properties (the reduction of food to its most easily assimilable and basically appealing properties),,,Products less directly biologically linked may be sold on the basis of an association with an addictive bodily process: here one thinks of sex… [23]. 

Fast-food has been augmented to be ‘as addictive as heroin resulting in the possibility that people are building tolerance to the hedonistic kick and becoming overstimulated and dependent, just as they are being overstimulated by the hedonistic kick of instant culture. It isn’t just food, sex and substances that are used in this way but our emotions too. Given that we are physiologically overstimulated, we are ripe for emotional manipulation through “affective advertising”. If late capitalism works to produce a hedonistic kind of happiness that reinforces itself it does so by understanding and making use of our embodiment. Bodies aren’t produced simply to be docile any longer but to be active in precisely the right way. This is perfectly understood in Houellebecq’s novels. In Platform, for instance, the main characters, long since abandoned any hope of eudaimonic happiness, realise that the way to restore their holiday business is to specialise in opening hotels in countries rife with poverty and poor legal protection for sex-workers in order to market sexuality itself as a legitimate tourist experience. All of Houellebecq’s novels are populated by inept and dysfunctional characters obsessed with ageing and death whose sole happiness consists of a sexual pleasure that is often denied them. The Houellebecqian world is one in which a spiteful hedonism is (almost) all that remains. For instance, while we might think of poverty as one the worst effects engineered by capitalism, Houellebecq has the protagonist of his first novel, Whatever, muse that

It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting exotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude [24].

In this passage, Houellebecq expresses an undoubtedly real form of misery that many people experience. Loneliness and lack of physical intimacy are undoubtedly attributable as causes of unhappiness but the typically Houellebecqian move is to equate an impoverished sexual life with a life of reduced to economic destitution. In such an equation the lack of access to sexual pleasure for the (male) consumer of sex is tantamount to a life in which the basic conditions of survival are precarious. While sexuality is undoubtedly crucial to human beings this can’t help but seem an exaggerated claim; in a hierarchy of things that a body needs, sex would surely come after shelter, food, warmth and all those other things that prevent malnutrition, cognitive decline, exposure to violence, and, ultimately, death. Houellebecq’s novels- with the exception of his latest, The map and the territory– are full of male characters seeking to find some kind of meaning, to secure some lasting happiness in the kind of sexual libertinism that their ageing bodies or ugliness reveal to them as inaccessible or fleeting. Yet there is also an ambiguity in Houellebecq’s hyperbolic and misogynistic claim: insofar as his characters are caricatures of types of people populating our own world, they express a truth. There has been a linking of sexuality and consumption, not just in advertising but in the more obvious proliferation of pornography and the reality of sex tourism. There really is this kind of sad sexual hedonist who wants to find self-certainty through the consumption of female bodies that refuse to be fucked by it. The commodification of sexuality and its discontents are not just fictional props that Houellebecq has dragged up from nowhere, they are part and parcel of the sex industry. Houellebecq’s is essentially the argument that the hedonism of the sexual revolution and counter-culture of the 1960s was not simply co-opted into capitalism, but already shared the same logic of the emergent consumer markets. While he massively downplays the benefits that feminists won for women, one can’t accuse this thesis of being reactionary or conservative. In The possibility of an Island one of the two protagonists, Daniel1, confesses that sexual pleasure

was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures- whether they be associated with rich food, tobacco, alcohol or drugs- were only derisory and desperate compensations, mini-suicides…[25]

in a passage that fully confirms the nihilism of our present materiality. In this coupling of sex and economic reason, Houellebecq repeats Schopenhauer’s pessimism as a historical result of the development of late capitalism and gives voice to the condition of contemporary misogynists- how many sexual assaults and how much everyday sexism is caused by this solitude and craving for the ‘sole objective of human existence’? Here, part of the unhappiness of millions of women also comes into focus as a result of a hatred born of a perceived exclusion from an economic right to sexual fulfilment. For these men, the sense of “something missing” is sought out in a violence that is hidden or seems legitimate within a patriarchal society: this is the dark inverse of the belief that one must form part of a romantic couple in order to be happy.


The kind of hedonism that I have been outlining is the kind that comes from the production of the consumer subject and the reliance on consumer markets to drive neoliberal capitalism. Writing from a British perspective, at the advent of neoliberalism there was a systematic assault on the working class that consisted of mass lay-offs, a policy of casualisation of labour, the destruction of public services, the evisceration of labour and trade union laws and the intense and gleeful fragmentation of social relations (tipified by Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”). While an in-depth analysis of the emergence and crisis of neoliberalism is not my subject in this piece, it is enough to note what everyone already knows: this process is well under way again. The kind of hedonism outlined above is supposed to be our reward for labour. We work for 37 hours a week in a job we hate for low wages, high stress, and (often) under conditions that border on outright authoritarianism while the class of capital scoops out the surplus-value from our labour and in return we are provided with a never ending assortment of bullshit to desire. At the advent of neoliberalism the assault on labour was intended to break an increasingly strong political composition that threatened the power of capital across Europe, while today it might be attributable to the failure for a political recomposition to emerge. In the UK we are inundated with headlines about people surviving off of food banks, working zero-hour contracts, being forced into work despite illness and/or disability under threat of benefit withdrawal, having to pay an under-occupancy charge, or “bedroom tax”, whilst public institution are dismantled and welfare “reform” and automation of industry continues to take from the working class hard won safety nets. All of this is added to the fact that jobs in the service industry are already often horrible experiences endured for low pay and that it is- as with many office and communications jobs- socially unnecessary labour that can lead to feelings of futility, and to the unpaid hours of overtime that so many so-called cognitive workers are expected to put in. Similarly, just as our overstimulated nervous systems are wired into an anxiogenic media environment, they are also constantly at the beck and call of employers thanks to technologies that were once considered liberators of leisure time. These same devices (smartphones, laptops, whatever) have effectively made the distinction between work time and non-work time porous enough to effect a deconstruction of the private-public distinction, whilst the managers of capital somehow manage maintain the lie that domestic labour doesn’t require remuneration. Of course, the invariant aspect of work under capitalism- neoliberal or otherwise- has always been that it appears as, and usually is, the only way of securing what a body needs. As Kathi Weeks writes

Waged work remains today the centerpiece of late capitalist economic systems; it is, of course, the way most people acquire access to the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. It is not only the primary mechanism by which income is distributed, it is also the basic means by which status is allocated, and by which most people gain access to healthcare and retirement. After the family, waged work is often the most important, if not sole, source of sociality for millions. Raising children with attributes that will secure them forms of employment that can match if not surpass the class standing of their parents is the gold standard of parenting. In addition, “making people capable of working is;’ as Nona Glazer notes,”the central goal of schooling, a criterion of successful medical and psychiatric treatment, and an ostensible goal of most welfare policies and unemployment compensation programs” (1993, 33). Helping to make people “work ready” and moving them into jobs are central objectives of social work (Macarov 1980, 12), a common rationale for the prison system, and an important inducement to perform military service. Indeed, enforcing work, as the other side of defending property rights, is a key function of the state (Seidman 1991, 315), and a particular preoccupation of the postwelfare, neoliberal state [26].

Despite this, the centrality of work, and class, has been all but obliterated, although they are making something of a return. The neoliberal recomposition of the class doesn’t just have the effect of promoting the agenda of the state and capital by attempting to destroy the emergence of proletarian figurations to challenge them; they also have the effect of blocking many of the routes of individuals and groups to the kind of activities and ways of working that promote eudaimonic forms of happiness. For the over-,under-, and unemployed- that is, for the various strata of workers- the emotional toll involved in overwork, precarity and the exclusion from access to the politicoeconomically construed means of subsistence can result the emergence of depression, anxiety and other forms of mental distress. The centrality of wage-labour to the increasing levels of distress often goes unobserved in the mainstream media, and is certainly not happily or even often acknowledged by psychiatry. All the social ills generated by capitalism, with the wage-labour relation as its central social relation, from homelessness, psychiatric illness, poverty, obesity, and criminality are linked to one of another variety of personal failure. If you lack what a body needs, you should have been more responsible; if you are psychologically disturbed, its your thinking/biology/genes; if you can’t secure work, you aren’t trying hard enough/need to retrain/skill up/lower your expectations, and so on. Added to this is the emergence of what Maurizio Lazzarato has dubbed “indebted man”. At this point it is common knowledge that previous and current crises were partially managed (ie. the cracks were papered over) by the ability of finance capital to create a speculative credit bubble that fuelled consumer spending. Whilst people were given access to masses of personal credit on a buy now pay later style scheme (often with huge repayment rates) and governments backed subprime mortgages (a mistake being wilfully repeated in the UK at the moment) consumers were accruing masses of debt that they could not repay. In Lazzarato’s analysis the indebtedness is ubiquitous throughout the symbolic spaces that neoliberalism- as a process of real subsumption- has colonised:

All the designations of the social divisions of labour in neoliberal societies (“consumer,” “beneficiary,” “worker,” “entrepreneur,”unemployed “tourist” etc.)  are now invested by the subjective figure of the “indebted man,” which transforms them into indebted consumers, indebted welfare users, and, finally, as in the case with Greece, indebted citizens. If it is not individual debt, it is public debt that weighs, literally, on every individual’s life, since every individual must take responsibility for it [27].

Through an analysis of Nietzsche’s treatment of debt, Lazzarato is able to show how the creditor-debtor relationship forms part of the decomposition of the working class by nailing individual workers to personal consumer debt and in the extreme, as in the Greek example, to the state. This Nietschean account reveals that debt is a promise to pay, while units of finance capital (stocks, bonds, shares) are promises of future value. The debtor is the subject capable of promising to repay what it has borrowed, a subject of memory and of expectation, but also a subject that is bound not just to a legal contract that it will pay but a moral order:

The sphere of debt obligations thus represents the origin of those “dismal things” (Nietzsche), the moral concepts “blame,” “guilt,” “conscience,””bad conscience”, “repression”, “duty”, “sacred”etc. [28].  

Given Lazzarato’s analysis of debt as a kind of force for domestication engaging a process of subjectification that generates economic-moral subjects bound to capital through relations of guilt and redemption, we could also recall what Nietzsche writes about those who fail to pay their debts. They become the mirror of ‘conquered enemies’, ‘deprived of every right’ and subject of a ‘triumphant festival’ of punishment. It is hard not to see correlations between such a situation and those we are experiencing today; except that certain failed debtors (states) escape unpunished, while sacrificial scapegoats are sought that can stand in their place (illegal immigrants; Guantanamo inmates; etc). It seems tragically laughable to even begin to speak about happiness in connection with such figures. Debt is part of the apparatuses that work on the conduct of workers, keeping them bound to demoralising jobs. Under neoliberal capitalism with its emphatic drive for the antiproduction of debt, we are tied to exploitation not only to secure the means of subsistence (necessity) and compulsive hedonism (material reward) but also out of moral obligation. Exploitation is no longer endured, it is supposed to be actively enjoyed and viewed as a means to proving we are good people. The creditor-debtor system operates with the intention of creating individuals who sell their labour-power, renting their corporeality, their cognitive capacities, and- most importantly- the temporal horizon of their lives because it is the right thing to do. To prove oneself moral is to repay ones debts, and being moral- we are told- is meant to be the route to being happy. This is what Lazzarato means by the formula ‘solvency serves as the measure of the “morality” of man’[29]This condition results in the middle class paradox that being a good person and a good citizen is conflated with working hard and “getting on with it”; that is to say, the renunciation of one’s place in the political life of society. The individualism of late capitalism is doubled in this economic and moral subjectification that already Nietzsche had shown to be one in the becoming calculable of individuals, making them stand in relation to the sovereignty of the promise. Writing on asylums in Madness and civilisation, Foucault would tell us that the invention of psychiatry was linked not just to point out the madman’s guilt but more than this

it organised that guilt; it organised it for him as a consciousness of himself, and as a non-reciprocal relation to the keeper…From the acknowledgement of his status as object, from his awareness of his guilt, the madman was to return to his awareness of himself as a free and responsible subject, and consequently to reason [30].

Within the debtor-creditor relationship we also find this non-reciprocal object/subject-keeper relationship, which burdens the indebted with an awareness of herself as the subject who freely promised to repay what was lent to her and so is entirely burdened with the responsibility of repayment. It is clear that this is the ground on which campaigns like Strike Debt, forms part of the reason why the Greek citizenry is refusing to pay and is central to David Graeber and Harry Cleaver’s demand for the abolition of debt (esp. the latter for whom debt forms part of the attempted decomposition of working class power) [31]. 

I hope I’ve begun to show how it is that work and the uses to which we are compelled to put wage remuneration toward in compulsive hedonism, operate simultaneously to produce the conditions for mental distress (depression, anxiety) and to bind us to a potentially exponential guilt. We could also analyse the various forms of guilt inculcated in the workplace as well, given the postmodern “I’m your friend” management style that spreads to most workplaces in the neoliberal economies, but this is really only a subtendency in a broader transformation in relation to work. Here, I will briefly consider the emotional demands of contemporary labour.

Today we are supposed to partake of forms of work that we enjoy. In many industries work is supposed to be fun, or we are at least supposed to put in the requisite amount of emotional labour to give the impression that it is fun. Early in The managed heart Arlie Hochschild recounts the effort that has to be put into appearing to enjoy the job of being an air-hostess, a vital part of the job that one can be disciplined for failing to take seriously [32]. Later in the text, Hochschild asks what happens when rules of display of emotions and when affective capacities are commodified as part of a worker’s labour power. She answers by suggesting that although

[D]isplay is what is sold…over the long run display comes to assume a certain relation to feeling. As enlightened management realizes, a separation of display and feeling is hard to keep up over long periods. A principle of emotive dissonance, analogous to the principle of cognitive dissonance, is at work [33].

It is telling that Hochschild refers to this dissonance and distancing from our own emotions as “estrangement”, as this is the term Marx would deploy with its full Hegelian resonance in his early writings on labour. For instance, in discussing the worker’s alienation from the product of her labour under capitalist political economy Marx famously writes that

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation [34].

This is precisely the kind of estrangement that Hochschild is pointing out as happening to our own emotional lives where our jobs call for “feeling management”.  Our emotions are part of the “product” that we produce insofar as part of that product is the interaction itself between worker and consumer: my smile does not belong to my face, expresses nothing of my emotions, but properly belongs to the affective tenor of the exchange itself. Under such conditions, my own emotional life appears as just such a ‘loss of realization’ an as an estrangement and alienation. If our own emotional lives become commodified and put to use in specific types of work and appear to us as something from which we exist at a distance, as if our feelings were not our own but were “over there”, then it is hardly any surprise that the forms of pleasure that we engage in more and more are those of compulsive hedonism, those that only increase our exposure to depressogenic conditions, and those that more and more remove any defences we might have against nihilistic corrosion. This corrosion and alienation isn’t only happening on the level of making us upset or sad (although it certainly does so) but also by exposing people with certain vulnerabilities to the conditions that can trigger difficulties with the regulation of emotions (core pathologies in both eating disorders and personality disorders) and/or what psychiatry classifies as mood disorders. In such conditions, the question of happiness can become ever increasingly distant and replaced simply with the bare- and for my money central- human question of how to cope. There is another reason that the self-alienation from our own emotionality can lead to disasterous effects, and that is because, as affective neuroscience and various psychological studies have shown, our emotions rooted in our embodied existence. If we are alienated from our emotional life this is because we are alienated from our whatever control we have over our neurobiological and physiological processes, a control that is increasingly taken over by the demands of wage labour.

This can be even more troubling as work is also increasingly put forward as a source of eudaimonic happiness. Of course, work has been associated with happiness in different times and in different ways. The protestant work ethic as much as Freud’s insistence that humanity requires “work and love” for happiness. I’m not denying that human beings require meaningful activity to avoid falling into boredom, misery and despair, but the vision of eudaimonic work under capitalism has always been limited and, when we consider the kind of labour undertaken in the shadows and elsewhere in the industrial economies, even insulting. None of which is to say that our jobs can’t give us joy or be fulfilling- just that this isn’t going to be the experience of everyone, or even most workers…and those for whom it is, it probably is so despite working conditions than because of them.

Towards a conclusion 

If I have focussed on work and consumption at the expense of other elements of the world’s material nihilism it is because these are the ones that are often the most proximal to us (except perhaps for ecological collapse, but that would require that this already lengthy piece get even longer than it will end up being). Aspects of material nihilism, such as our Darwinian heritage, the heavy suggestions of meaninglessness implied by physics, the absenteeism of any God, eventual species-extinction and the death of the cosmos, alongside the necessary fragility of our embodiment and our inevitable perishing, are those aspects that we can do little about. Of course, this article appears on a website that is devoted to the emancipatory moment of nihilism, so it should come as no surprise that these supposedly tragic conditions aren’t viewed in such a sad and sombre light by those of us interested in possibility of post-nihilist praxis. An example of such emancipatory potential is expressed in Gianni Vattimo’s After Christianity [35] ; specifically, it can be seen in his claim that the death of God and the end of colonialism form an entwined pair. The claim is that the breakdown of metanarratives that Lyotard defines as characteristic of postmodernism, and the subsequent explosion of a discursive pluralism of mirconarratives, went hand in hand with the decline of a Eurocentric thought that defined colonialism as a mission to Christianise, and later to civilise, other cultures.

In such a picture, the experience of the becoming nihilist of the world accompanied the end of colonial oppression. In this text, considerations of a post-nihilist praxis are inseparable from a consideration of Jeremy calls “struggle”, and, qua the relation of nihilism to capitalism, this struggle is also inseparable from consideration of class (although class struggle is by no means the only form of struggle). In raising the issue of nihilism I want to make clear that thinking about living after nihilism or not, I begin from a pessimistic question. For me, its not so much that happiness is difficult but that living in the world that we do, we ought to start from an appreciation that it is remarkable we aren’t in the situation Franco Berardi was putting forward a few years back: mass suicides. This isn’t to push the question of happiness away, but to situate it within a world in which happiness is statistically abnormal whilst being normatively championed. Such a championing is seen in spectacular representations of joy; in the UKs apparently forgotten ‘happiness agenda’; and in its enshrinement in the US Constitution. We are all supposed to be happy, to want this particular happiness, and to do so without reference to the reality that strangles the possibility of such happiness existing in anything but islands of our lives.

That struggle and post-nihilist praxis are linked is evident when we consider that the kind of nihilism that we live inside is one that not only devalues all values but destroys the possibility of values and realities transcendent of this world. The death of Meaning allows us to recover the meanings of this wordly beings, hence the insistence through this piece on a corporeality that is a transcorporeality: bodies exist in, through, and across one another as a flesh. Struggle and happiness depend on the radical articulation of a theory of what bodies need. In this instance I have focussed on what a human body needs because the issue at stake is happiness, and it makes no sense to speak about a happy tree, microbe, molecule or book (although, I admit, it certainly makes sense to speak about happy animals). It should also be obvious that a corporeal politics doesn’t limit itself to the minimal needs of survival of bare life because basic needs find themselves in antagonism with capitalism when they are read in a radical formulation, and because the human need for ‘long-term mutual well-being’, as Jeremy puts it, is certainly a demand that is anathema to capitalism. What is called for in a radical theory of corporeal needs is something much closer to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs than it is the maintenance of biological existence. Not only does capitalism fail to meet those needs that Maslow grouped under the (I think) ludicrous term “self-actualisation”, but it also can’t deliver basics like unpolluted air to breathe, uncontaminated water to drink, or shelter. I would extend this criticism to include the mutilation of our “higher” needs that life in a state leads to, and especially insofar as protection of the body of the state is placed at a greater importance than the well-being of all those bodies that the state is parasitic upon.

All of this is to say that happiness as long-term mutual well-being is dependent on the common material circumstances, from the basic needs to the more complex capacity to express what it is our bodies can do. Struggle is an absolutely necessary part of this when we consider struggle as the material and technological (qua the internet etc.) linkages of bodies- human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic- in networks of mutual-aid and open confrontation. As I have written elsewhere, I don’t think that this means that human beings require “revolt, not therapy” but that we go some way to produce a politics that is also therapeutic and a therapy that is openly political. Such “political therapeutics”, meant in a similar way perhaps to Foucault’s “political spirituality”, must be involved in critiquing psychiatric and psychotherapeutic power but must not lapse into uncritical rejection of the potency of medications and forms of therapy to help people get themselves to the position of being capable to continue struggling. Such political therapeutics can’t be decoupled from the various forms that struggle takes, least of all the struggle of those reduced to nothingness, and that, in order not simply evade the problem of nihilism, the destruction of values and the urge to form new values after that, struggle can begin only from one point, one constellation of meaning: that of the body. I will also call this struggle communist if only because from the beginning it recognises that all bodies are bodies that matter; I will call it post-nihilist praxis because If happiness is a kind of madness then it compels us to construct a new common delusion rooted in the needs of all bodies. We may also need to think about happiness in an post-nihilist world; it is by no means certain that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ gets us close to anything but an ersatz replica that pinions us to the emptiness of our worlds.


[1]. Bentall, RP. 1992. A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of mental health ethics. 1992: 18. pp.94-98.

[2]. Fredrickson, BL., Grewen, KM., Coffey, KA., Algoe, SB., Firestine, AM., Arevalo, JMG., Ma, J. & Cole, SM. 2013. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS Early Edition. 2013. 10.1073/. p.1.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid. p.6.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Cole, S. 2009. Social regulation of human gene expression. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2009. Here.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Timpanaro, S. 1980. On Materialism. London: Verso. p.34.

[10]. Ibid. p.45.

[11]. Nietzsche, F. Will to power. Here.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Nietzsche, F. Thus spake Zarathustra. p.60

[14]. Rose, S. 1994. Nihilism: the root of the revolution of the modern ageHere.

[15]. Fisher, M. 2009. Capitalist realism: is there no alternative? London: Zero Books. p.24.

[16]. Bauman, Z. 2011. The London riots- on Consumerism coming home to roost. Social Europe journal. 2011. Here.

[17]. Op cit. Fisher. p.24.

Note: I think it is important to point out here that not everyone will recognise themselves in this image. That is fine. I take it to be a symptom of being human that we are like this to some degree but that under capitalism it becomes obscene and compulsive. The sense that something is missing might explain the rise- the retreat from current conditions- of religiosity, the continued embrace of Eastern wisdom and philosophy, and is more than likely a significant push in many people’s lives to philosophy and political theory, as well as political and politico-economic activity. I fully agree with the idea explored by thinkers as disparate as Gianni Vattimo, John Gray, Simon Critchley, Slavoj Zizek, and others that ours is a post-secular time or one that marks some return to the importance of theology. I also agree with Ernest Becker’s suggestion that humanity is a theological animal. At the same time, I also think that there are those who are all too aware that they could attempt to find the “something missing” beyond the pleasure principle. Under nihilistic conditions, when the symbolic order has lost its coherence and efficacy, this is dangerous as it may lead some people to try to undergo a direct, immediate  experience of jouissance. This may be part of the logic behind the rise of eating disorders, self-harm behaviours and other manifestation of “the new symptom”. See here.

[18]. Op cit. Fisher. p.23.

[19]. Trombley, J. 2013. Happiness and struggle at Struggle Forever.

[20]. Zizek, S. Passion in the era of decaffinated belief. Here.

[21] van den Bos, R., and de Ridder, D. 2006. Evolved to satisfy our immediate needs: Self-control and the rewarding properties of food. Here.

[22]. Virilio, P. 2010. The futurism of the instant. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.70,

[23]. Smail, D. 1993. The origins of unhappiness: a new understanding of personal distress. London: Harper-Collins. p.126.

[24]. Houellebecq, M. Whatever.

[25]. Houellebecq, M. The possibility of an island.

[26]. Weeks, K. 2011. The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, and post-work imaginaries. Durham and London: Duke University Press. p.7.

[27]. Lazzarato, M. 2011. The making of the indebted man: an essay on the neoliberal condition. Amsterdam: Semiotext(e). p.38.

[28]. Ibid. p.41-42.

[29]. Ibid. p.58.

[30]. Foucault, M. 1967. Madness and civilisation. London: Tavistock. p.247.  

[31]. Graeber, D. 2012. Debt: the first 5,000 years. London: Melville House; and, Cleaver, H. 1988(?). Close the IMF, abolish debt, and end development: a class analysis of the debt crisis. Here.

[32]. Hochschild, AR. 2003. The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. 20th Anniversary edition. London: University of California Press. p.8.

[33]. Ibid. p.90.

[34]. Marx, K. Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844. Here.

[35]. Vattimo, G. 2002. After Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

4 responses to “‘Happiness is statistically abnormal’: happiness after nihilism

    • I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m claiming that sadness is madness. My intention with using Bentall’s satirical essay wasn’t simply to report on it but also to try and use it to take the claim seriously. We’d never ordinarily accept that it was mad to be happy, so moving towards a position that really says happiness is a kind of madness is also doing something to the category of madness (which doesn’t directly coincide with mental illness). What is being done to or with the term “madness”, which I certainly hope not to reproduce as an uncritical term that could be connected with ideas of deviation from some normative neuro and/or behavioural concept of sanity. Even less am I wanting to seem to be supportive of any rational animal claim. Human beings have rationality, but that doesn’t make us rational.

  1. Related:
    Jason Read (Unemployed Negativity) posts on affective composition of labour



    Splintering Ashen Bone on “negative solidarity” (I’ve been misattributing this term to Mark Fisher for 3 years…its a good job people only just started reading me).


  2. Pingback: Happiness and Struggle pt II | Struggle Forever!·

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