The chaos of commitments

Commitment means the affirmation of a message…(Arnold Hauser. 2012. The sociology of art.

A rift, or fissure, may also be explosive.

Mulling over one of Levi Bryant’s recent post. Trying to think it through a bit more.

Every claim and action we take commits us to other things.

Every claim commits us. There are a lot of kinds of claims but here I want to consider truth claims (and for my purposes these are to be considered as testable hypotheses).

Truth claims: depression is the result of a chemical imbalance.

Entailment: An understanding of depression as biological/neurological at root. The belief that it can thus be corrected. The further belief that it can be corrected by the application of methods that adjust or correct chemical imbalances.
Actions: If I want to treat depression, I might become a psychiatrist- this will commit me to medical training, to years of hard work, to making certain sacrifices, and ultimately to undergoing specialised training in psychiatry. It will also mean I must enter the work place (either privately or through a health service). Alternatively it might commit me to becoming a psychiatric nurse which entails less intense training over a shorter duration but probably means I have much more contact with patients and therefore am engaged in more affective labour. It may lead me into research of various scientific kinds (neurology) or into the research and development of better and more effective psychiatric treatments (pharmaceuticals/pharmacy). In all of these instances there is an understanding that I am regulated by an ethical body and an ethical principle that I will “first do no harm”- here a question in my logic arises…is it possible to argue, counterfactually, that a nurse or doctor who acts in such a way as they knowingly cause harm to a patient is therefore not really a doctor or nurse? Or does it just mean they are a bad one?

Of course, the normative judgement and expectations put on these professions do not necessarily follow from the belief. We can imagine someone holding this belief (whatever that eventually means) who does not wish to go on to treat/cure but exploits it for something else.

Conduct-Conflict: So here we could look at someone who holds this particular truth-claim and say that, well, they stake the they believe depression is caused by chemical imbalance and operate according to this in their professional life, but when it comes to their own sadness, their own depression, they identify it with a) a life event, b) a psychoanalytic framework, or c) due to work stress.

a) A bereavement. The psychiatrist believes they need to mourn, not take meds. Here their conduct in the workplace and their conduct in their own life reveals a conduct-conflict: In situation i. their conduct is expressive of the presupposition that depression is a chemical imbalance. In situation ii. their conduct is expressive of depression as an expression of a subjective condition responding to the loss of a loved one. It is entirely possible to keep these two modes of conduct separate, except that one’s own depression also takes place in the setting in which one’s conduct towards others contradicts one’s conduct towards oneself. Depression doesn’t stay at home when you go to work. In this instance we’d say there is a hypocrisy. Of course, the point here isn’t that our psychiatrist believes “my depression is different” but that they act in such a way that expresses a pattern of conduct that announces “my depression is different to that of the others I treat”. It is possible for our psychiatrist to live this way without producing cognitive dissonance. CBT wouldn’t be able to touch this contradiction either because CBT would involve “cognitive schemas” that our psychiatrist lacks. CBT thus demands the translation of conduct into cognition so that it can be worked on as cognition, whilst leaving the conduct intact.

b) As above, the point isn’t that our psychiatrist figures their depression as the result of some psychoanalytic process, as the symptom of an ungreaved loss or the lack of any loss to grieve, but rather that the psychiatrists disposition to their own depression expresses something of this. The psychiatrist might eschew seeking a clinical diagnosis and pharmaceutical prescription and instead seek out friends, confidences, perhaps even a therapist of some kind, to talk about the possible causes for his affective state. Our psychiatrist might be engaged in a labour that a psychoanalyst could recognise as the bringing of the unconscious material to consciousness. This suggests that our psychiatrist’s conduct in situation i and situation ii is expressive of different commitments. In reality they are likely, at least for a while, to be in situation i/ii where each commitment is being expressed. Here the psychiatrist isn’t really changing their commitments as operating with two different sets of commitments at once.

The problem is that they are contradictory, or, we might prefer to say, as these are undoubtedly not the only corporeal commitments this particular body “psychiatrist” makes and unmakes, but that they are heterogeneous. We could talk about these different commitments exist in as interlocked- but not as a chain of commitments, as if they followed discretely and neatly, but maybe as a chaos of commitments.

In condition c) we might also see the psychiatrist acting to take time of work, go on holiday, start painting, get a little exercise, take the waters and all that jazz. Again, eschewing meds, the psychiatrist, we might feel, is talking bullshit.

The psychiatrist’s avowed and expressive commitments marry up only in relation to others, in relation to himself a rift opens up.

Here, a word on my own case. I am normatively committed to the superseding of psychiatry via the liberation of useful and appropriate forms, modalities, techniques and technologies of care from psychiatric-pharmaceutical power, institutions, discourses etc. Yet my day to day practice expresses a commitment to the reproduction of the psy-function. Here I am constrained in the sense that I cannot and do not fully express my normative commitments at work. A question naturally appears as to whether I hold those commitments at all when I am at work, rather having cognitions about holding them. At work am I the enemy? As such is my normative commitment not also to my own destruction as nurse? Once again a rift opens up; an enacted disjunction between expression and enunciation that problematises my ethical and political authenticity. Again, institutionally speaking, how else could this be? If I am driven in some part by the desire to help others who experience trauma, addiction, despair and so on, by what other means could I do it and make an income from doing it? David Smail has written that it might be best if people employed in care work admitted what they are: offering love for money.

In an opportunity-cost kind of analysis the psychiatrist is constrained. Constrained to particular theories, practices, interventions and institutions. At the same time the vertiginous literature on depression, its causes and treatments, are limited. Information overload is managed.

This is less problematic. The claim here is probably made by a landlord against occupiers who have not paid their rent, squatters or more overtly political occupiers. This claim involves a cascade of other commitments including respecting property rights and recognition of the rule of law. Except that we know that landlords frequently break these commitments. They use illegal practices against all three kinds of occupants, especially when it comes to extracting money from legitimate occupants in the form of rents, deposits or fines for damages and tenancy contract infractions. The landlord’s actions betray their avowed commitments and thereby reveal implicit expressive commitments.

We could also substitute terms to draw out other aspects of the claim about claims:

Every institution we act in commits us to other things.

I’ve already given an example of this in the brief discussion of my nursing practice. However what we could also add to that mix is the way that my practice in that institutional context commits me to other institutions. I am bound to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the regulatory body of my profession, and to a series of legislative bodies, discourses and institutions that includes various sections of the state apparatus. I am also committed to pharmaceutical companies and markets in the sense that I am actively engaged in their reproduction. Many of these commitments are felt as burdens and compromises, but however I feel about them, I am nonetheless necessarily bound to them.

There are obviously many more examples we could run through, including claims from first principles (I think therefore I am), claims to and from expertise, and legal claims. What I’m getting at here is that there is a topology of commitments, a chaos. There are avowed commitments that are expressed through enunciation and there are expressive commitments that may be more or less congruent with them. It is our actions that reveal the expressive commitments which are such that they may not be avowed or even consciously held. These unconscious commitments might not be latent and hidden in the depths but are more often bound to contexts and to the connections made between contexts. They might overlap, cancel one another, reinforce one another, or operate in different times and places to different degrees and intensities.

In a final illustration: Let’s say that in situation A (the workplace) I am committed, actually and not just in words, to the equality of all workers and take a lead on workplace organising. In situation B (the home) I might cognitively recognise that my partner (cis-female for this example) is engaged in social reproductive labour, and is therefore a worker. However my conduct in the home- laziness or whatever- reveals a presupposition that in the home I am not actually committed to the equality of all workers. Isn’t the upshot of this that I am not committed to the equality of all workers in actuality at all?

This might not be a revelation, but it does allow certain determinations to be made and certain battles to be fought with more clarity. A commitment in conduct ruins a commitment in enunciation, or at least renders it problematic. From this we can might be able to explain a particular variant of white working class reaction against various feminisms, against critical PoC, against intersectional analyses: these critiques are ones that point to conduct and reveal the spuriousness of certain communist positions. In other words, the avowed communist isn’t always actually a communist.

Is this account one of non-thetic awareness and bad faith? In some instances it seems to imply that, while in others we’re simply caught in the messiness of the infrastructures of the world as it exists. The disagreements between institutional and normative commitments and the degree to which these may encroach on one another a difficult to reduce to a matter of bad faith. When my political judgments are in contradiction with the institutional understanding (and enforcement) of the code of ethics my nursing practice is determined by how can I be said to be in a state of self-deception? When the white communist berates and degrades the queer sex worker how can is the former in a state of self-deception about their status as communist?

In the first instance I want to say we’re discussing commitments of different orders, but really the analysis I have given up to this point would demand that I be a much more reflexive practitioner than my nursing lecturers produced. That is, I would have to attempt to reveal what commitments were revealed through my actions as the necessary presuppositions of my actions. Guattari provides a possible way for making sense of all this when he was asked about the proximity of his work at La Borde to his work as a theorist.

I have always lived in the situation of a rift between my social commitments, my militant commitments, my practice at the La Borde clinic, my practice as an individual psychoanalyst , my theoretical and literary activity. It is not something homogenous, of which can be supposed, at all. Now it is precisely through this rift that, from time to time, I find the matter for calling back into question or the matter for reworking something.

The rift between commitments implies the gaps and imperfections and impurities to be located and addressed within each variety. Yet it isn’t just about this accounting; the rift as rift implies a certain metaphorical compression, a sense in which circulates ideas of nonfriendly relationships and antagonisms, the breaking apart of something solid and stable, as well as the kind of geological fissures that cause rift to become drift. A rift is at once an opening up and a distancing from, and so we are obliged to place it alongside vulnerability. Because here is something a commitment also links us to: the possibility of being wrong and of the likely necessity of revision- of modelling and remodelling, of the mutational logic of metamodelling.

For the rift to be the matter is to say that the opening-distancing is precisely what is at stake and that is is also what is called back and what is reworked; it is the material rather than the problem. Guattari isn’t a simple Sartrean. The point isn’t that we are condemned to be free, that we are exposed forever to an infinite and traumatising responsibility, but that we are always caught up within a multiplicity of specific and shifting commitments. If we think of the absence of the rift we can think of the drug user for whom there is nothing but the pursuit, preparation and consumption of the drug- here there is one overcoding commitment [1].

We don’t make commitments and then act on them; we are capable of action only because their are commitments already at work. Commitments aren’t meta/cognitive phenomena, they aren’t things we hold in our heads or things that we think about, and often aren’t things we make decisions about. In determining our commitments we might be better suited to a conducting behavioural analyses than to cognitive reflection, and to thus work on our conduct rather than attempting to become resolute or fall for the illusion that we can make magical decisions.

In the above I’ve quoting Guattari from an interview from 1992, wonderfully entitled ‘The Veritgo of Immanence’, that is reproduced in Eric Alliez and Andrew Goffey’s The Guattari EffectIt is mentioned in the context of the schizoanalytic concept of transversality. A little later Guattari will connect this existentially registered “rift” to the transversal/chaosmic “plunging out of sense, out of constituted structures”. This is very suggestive that the scattered thoughts I’ve knitted together here point towards a theory of commitment as just this movement of out of established codes for reading and towards one of production within this movement: mutation. Commitment might finally be something we neither “make” nor adopt, but rather which act on us as and reveal means of subjectivation. It is these very rifts in commitments that allows for the possibility of mutations, revisions, and reinventions in subjectivity and praxis [2], in our relations to institutions and totalities, and to what it is we think and speak about being committed to. Commitment isn’t at all the affirmation of a message.


[1] On the subject of active substance misuse we have another way to frame commitment. When the active user seeks help to stop using there is a lot of techniques deployed that are coupled to a discourse on motivation. Frequently the user is seen as lacking motivation and “readiness to change” Here an essentially Lacanian perspective is illuminating: therapeutic change is painful and no one- or nearly no one- has a stable commitment to this kind of pain. Here commitment, motivation and desire are uncoupled from each other. This is important in at least one respect: these reflections, half formed during a nightshift, are troubling insofar as they dis-orient commitment from the future. This invites us to consider that it is desire in the form of anticipation that is oriented to the future; when we speak of being fully committed what we mean is being desirous of being so.

[2] In radical politics it is sometimes assumed that horizontalist methods of organising- loose assemblages that fall apart in a breeze- are adequate. There is a host of reasons theoretical and empirical for why this isn’t so. Crossing between these is a the observation that in part we have organisations to hold us to account for our enunciated commitments. It isn’t enough that I agree with the aims and principles of the Anarchist Federation, I must also act in accordance with those aims and principles.

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