“it is good to accept how fucked you are”: questions on a dark coexistentialism

A lucid view of the darkest situation is already, in itself, an act of optimism.
Indeed, it implies that this situation is thinkable-, that is to say, we have not
lost our way in it as though in a dark forest, and we can on the contrary
detach ourselves from it, at least in mind, and keep it under observation; we
can therefore go beyond it and resolve what to do against it, even if our
decisions are desperate. (Sartre).

Commitments are lies we tell ourselves; subtle promises that we will follow through, make good on our word, that we will be what we say we are, what we lay claim to being, which are impossible for us to keep. It is impossible because we act and in acting we always fall short. I commit myself to living a certain form of life and fail to do so because the circumstances of my living forbid it. I am a drug addict who commits herself to living the clean life and I relapse more than once. What does a drug do? It produces certain neurophysiological effects that are translated into phenomenal states, specific finite existential. Already, even before the needle pierces the dermis and lances into the vein, prior to the discharge of the barrel and the transformation of the circulatory system into an opiate delivery system, the ritual of the preparation of the charge has opened me up to the heroin Universe. I have kids in the next room I need to look after and a partner I swore to I’d stay clean: but there is a craving and a situation and an availability, a friend with a certain smile and a street I knew I shouldn’t have walked down, a bad day and an easy rationalisation, it hardly matters. The commitments I’ve made disappear. I take the charge and the entire reference of commitment vanishes.

Yet for the average intravenous user getting heroin isn’t easy. You have to have money, but you’re habit has got so you can’t hold down a job and your benefits are gone before you know it. You have to do a little work. Maybe you intimidate someone, flash a blade so they’ll pay their fucking debts or maybe you’ll snatch a bag and run; you could sit in the rain and the cold for a few hours outside the metro station as the throngs of commuters pass by, mostly ignoring you, trying to ignore, to unsee your weathered sunken face, to disregard the semiosomatics of junkies and keep their own mode of life secure; shit, you could suck a few guys off, just tonight, just as a one off, or this guy wants to fuck you and he’ll give you enough to get a teenth. We’re talking about a real habit here. You need this.

So let’s say you get the cash and you can compartmentalise how you got it, or at least you will be once you get a hit. You haven’t got any tools so you walk to the needle exchange and go in and listen to their bullshit and make your choices. You can’t wait to get home, so you have to find a secluded spot to put it in you, but first you’ve got to prepare. Cook up- melt the shit down in sterile water, without burning it, without the low quality cookers twist or warp above the flame, and then you gotta draw it up, find a vein, adjust the tourniquet you just had to cobble together, and maybe the your veins aren’t so easy to find anymore, so you’ve already spent some time palpating, slapping, trying to get one up, but it hasn’t worked, and you’ve got a real habit, so you’ve been going into your groin with trousers and underwear down. Finally you get the charge. Cops are everywhere; or are you paranoid?

A biopolitical bloom of narco-administrative nodes have left scars and tics in the way you shoot up- you call it “injection technique” now- as you remove the spike from beside the place they took the blood to check for hep C, HIV, a million deadly bacterial parasites. You give you name at the chemist, the addiction team, the needle exchange, the day program, the n/a meetings………you’re registered, noted, logged, injected, sampled, recorded, prescribed, dispensed, dividuated into national statistics and computational models, risk assessed, spied on……as you turn your body into a laboratory for the production of existential deterritorialisation and de-subjectivation, you’re subjectified and turned into a laboratory for medicojuridical control mechanisms. You let the rhythmic patterns of your kinesphere contract and the egoic boundedness dissipates, dissolves.

You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.

Burroughs description is one I see a lot. Its a very familiar story. Addiction begins where there are no commitments or rather where all commitments are subordinated to securing the ultimate commodity. To say that being an addict is a commitment isn’t to undo the very real need that is marked by dependency. The opioid receptors scream out; the muscles cramp and the bones feel like they’re aching; you’re hit by a powerful flu; you can’t eat or sleep at all. These phenomenocorporeal symptoms are the result and cause of the material recoding of the electrochemical informational ecology of the neural networks that gets called “the reward circuit”. This is not a closed system. Heroin enters the body like a virus and reprograms the neurocircuitry in response to its presence (and absence) causing a recomposing of ecological elements in its favour so that it becomes the molecular Master. The reward circuit is the embedded synaptic network that systems neurology has identified as being the mechanism responsible for pleasure: activation of the reward circuit expresses itself in the phenomenal experience of enjoyment.

In this model the neurotransmitter dopamine is the material medium of the informational fluxes of enjoyment that has evolved in response to survival dependencies such as food, water and sex. In chronic drug users the substance and its chain of enaction (from procurement to injection) activates the reward circuit: the eventual upshot is that the drug is as important to the chronic user as food because the neurological system responsible for desire for and cognitions about food has undergone a reassembling. Simplifying massively, the exogenous opioid transforms the circulatory system into an extended delivery mechanism and recodes the information fluxes so that the drug becomes the material asignifying particle that the brain expects. By this point it is no longer necessary that the using body experiences enjoyment or pleasure because now the reward circuit operates as an expectation-enaction pattern. Like the starving body responds to food so the addicted body literally responds to the drug. Suddenly the onto-metabolic relation is productive of drug-affordances: the drug using body stratifies and archives in terms of the drug……..this is all there is. This is why Deleuze and Guattari are able to claim that it is a decomposed body approaching the absolute and empty body without organs.

For all this it is important to realise that none of this implies that the brain has been hijacked, that the addiction (now an informational process?) is “in control”, or that their is some psychopathology going on: The brain alone doesn’t determine conduct, the experience of a locus of control is a functional delusion, and the recomposition of the neuroanatomy and synaptic machinery can only be considered pathological from a prior normative hypostatisation. At best we can say that the repeated introduction of exogenous chemicals embedded within a highly specific situational niche has produced new dispositional enactions, conducts, and existentialities. You don’t choose to be an addict any more than you choose to be a revolutionary: it all depends on being inserted into a new assemblage, or having certain heterogenetic elements insert themselves the assemblage we experience as our “selves”.

The mind under heroin evades perception as it does ordinarily; one is aware only of contents. But that whole way of posing the question, of dividing the mind from what it’s aware of, is fruitless. Nor is it that the objects of perception are intrusive in an electric way as they are under mescalin or lysergic acid, nor that things strike one with more intensity or in a more enchanted or detailed way as I have sometimes experienced under marijuana; it is that the perceiving turns inwards, the eyelids droop, the blood is aware of itself, a slow phosphorescence in all the fabric of flesh and nerve and bone; it is that the organism has a sense of being intact and unbrittle, and, above all, inviolable. For the attitude born of this sense of inviolability some Americans have used the word “cool”.

As I understand it our sense of self is based on the non-thetic autoaffective sensibility of a body that knows how to withdraw its heavy corporeality from itself. A body’s autogestive capacity to manage itself as a collectivity goes wrong all the time, but through various allostatic mechanisms it manages to pan out enough for us to navigate our day to days. This anarchic cellular field, in conjunctive work with various “co-actuations”, thus produces a very basic bodily self-awareness. What Alexander Trocci describes in the above quote from Cain’s Book is the production of a new capacity out of the insertion of heroin into the body’s machinery. For the actively heroin infused body all these mechanisms, enactions, reprogrammings of information and so on generate a perceptual detachment from the exteriority of the environment and the intensification of ipseity. Implicit bodily identity swells and inverts itself so that the physiological interior becomes a new exteriority. Here is the banality of alterity-with-identity: it doesn’t take mysticism or dialectical contortions. Like a good many ontological conclusions, it just takes the right pharmacodynamics, the right rhythmic alternations.

The blood is aware of itself. I want to pause on this. What does it mean? It means that heroin isn’t reducible to being a chemical co-efficient of an existential blackhole. Yes, the drug-user seems to exists in a kind of impossible self-enclosure, but for the blood to feel itself? This is the language of sensory intentionality not decomposed but diffused: it isn’t the case that the transcorporeal effects of heroin have the gravitational pull of collapsed stars. If that were the case you’d only ever need one hit- and for some that’s all they’ll get, the true blackhole being death by OD. Trocci’s literary recounting of his heroin delirium reveals something else: getting a gouch has more to do with becoming a sensionaut of the body’s territory. The world doesn’t disappear, it just changes places and the user experiences neither herself nor the everyday but a strange other world that is a temporary renunciation of corporeal, social and political commitments.

So there’s to be no end to my incarceration in this abominable, disgusting world…My thoughts go round in circles.  Mad with despair, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t remember or think any more.  The terror of life imprisonment stupefies me, I feel it inside me like an intolerable pain.  I only know that I must escape from this hell of hallucination and horror.  I can’t endure my atrocious prison a moment longer.

There’s only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered, and needless to say I haven’t forgotten that.

So now I wave my arm frantically at a passing taxi, fall inside, and tell the man to drive to the old address.

Anna Kavan’s fictionalised account of her own heroin description reveals that the drug accords to the same kind of logic as suicide: the logic of exodus, escape, and withdrawal. Heroin is a stalled suicide, an interrupted suicide, that threatens completion all the time. In this respect it is still a form of commitment. The addict is a committed escapologist; whether it is from trauma, subjectivity, or the chaos of commitments doesn’t matter from this abstracted view. There is a passage into a kind of incorporeality that can only be achieved by the intensification of ipseity to the point of breakdown. In Kavan’s account the world is terror, hallucination, horror and prison, and commitments are lies that we can’t stop telling ourselves because we can’t stop acting. Being an addict takes a lot of commitment. It’s a full time job: it is a perverse production of the subject that wishes to flee itself.

So here is another definition: commitment is committed action, even where it results in deterioration. The preceding discussion could easily have been about an eating disorder or, with the proper modifications, a revolutionary guerilla fighter. As the existential Acceptance and Commitment Therapy understands it, committed action always presupposes a commitment to a value. The problem often emerges that we don’t know what our values actually are because we never stop to examine our conduct and dispositions but follow the idealism of seeking meanings and significations contained within cognitions. This might be the ultimate cognitiive bias.Within ACT the point is to examine what our values actually are via a behavioural analysis. In ACT we are supposed to undertake values work with the therapist guiding us. The question “what are your values” can be phased as “who do you want to be?”, “who do you care about?” and so on. This is less a question of values as transcedental principles as it is about valuation as compacted into desire and conduct. The next step is to set “values-based goals” that are achievable, necessarily outside of superegoic injunctions because no longer structured by “what I should want”, adaptable and time-limited.

As a therapeutic model this has some empirical validation. So what? Almost all therapies do. What if this was taken outside the therapeutic consultation room model and into the world? Could there be such a things as Acceptance and Commitment consciousness raising experiments? In the ACT language the therapy aims at achieving a kind of “creative despair”, the exposure to the insistent sensation that all solutions fail because there are no solutions (Deleuze&Guattari: “all revolutions fail”). The relinquishing of finding the solution, of escapology or of enacting the revolution might thus paradoxically construct the situation in which committed prefigurative action can be undertaken by this cultivation of an exclusively cognitive distance from our situation. In a certain respect we find ourselves in weird existentialist waters where the death of essence necessarily precedes coexistence.

All this makes me want to ask the question of whether enactivism is an existential behaviourism, and what such a collective practice of committed action would look like? Will our political organisation only really be effective once we have accepted just how fucked we are?

16 responses to ““it is good to accept how fucked you are”: questions on a dark coexistentialism

  1. This is a theme that preoccupies me, I know. The great irony is that we instinctively turn to the accumulation of knowledge as if this were the solution, not realizing that it could very well be THE problem. I think of rural Nigerians murdering newborn twins, believing them to be evil, and all the Western attempts to relieve them of their ignorant superstitions, and I wonder what kinds of problems superstitions solve, and how much better off anyone is ultimately. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the twins *have* to be saved, I just think doing so could very well belong to a far more amorphous catastrophe, and that the dialectic of harm reduction, attend to an obvious ill no matter what the knock-on consequences, is one that will doom us in the end.

    • I’d say that I’m not sure I recognise that as harm reduction, or at least not entirely. I might write something on that at some point drawing on the experience of working in substance misuse where that is our explicit focus.

      Still, I understand your concern. I think of it in terms of psychiatric colonialism. After natural disasters or civil wars psychiatric workers are mobilised in a Doctors Without Borders/Medicines Sans Frontiers manner. Arriving at the traumatic scene the workers are keen to help people out. In reality this often means counsellors “educating the natives” into the correct diagnostic categories, teaching them how they ought to be experiencing their post-traumatic reality, and then going on to treat them.

      Their is a difficulty here. Do we think of science as our best truth-discourse? Sure. So we should deploy psychotechnics to help people. On the other hand, we know that psychotechnologies are also technologies of power and that they are eroding people’s ability to determine themselves in drawing on indigenous forms of solidarity, community and epistemic frameworks.

      The accumulation of knowledge may be being displaced. Today we’re seeing movements centred on demands around dignity (assisted dying/elder care) and the good life (indigenous Latin American people); perhaps in the face of the catastrophe there are already outliers of a different kind of resistance.

      • Arran, many so-called third world interventionists no longer view their work as one of “educating natives” (although that is certainly an aspect when it comes to technical solutions) but as working with locals to create hybrid solutions. Since the 90s there has been a strong movement in the international development field to be more reflexive and pluralistic. See the work done by Lansing on Bali water temples and beyond. If anything we are now seeing an era where locals are beginning to want and demand Western solutions when their traditional coping styles would do just fine with minor technic tweaking. Cultural colonization (of styles, structures and psyches) is near ubiquitous these days thanks to capital.

        But more to your point i think the push for an attention to “quality of life” from a neo-phenomenological slant is a step in the right direction re: humanistic concerns.

      • This is part of the problem Michael. If the hybridisation operates in the same way that domestic mental health services do via co-production then I would doubt the just how mutual the process really was. I’ll have to have a look at the example you put forward.

    • We can’t escape synthetic semantic coping Scott. It is our mode of operation. We are enbrained organisms. The question is whether we can reorientate cognition such that new ratios of sensory activity temper our more delusional phantasies. That is, can we develop the kinds of ‘minds’ that auto-correct prior to doxification?

      With BBT you help us, perhaps paradoxically, recognize our limitations and so we adjust and begin fashioning new epistemic relations, but isn’t this too a kind of META (knowing that we do not know)? And if so then maybe our only philosophical concerns are 1) the existential consequences and affordance of knowing that we do not truly know, and 2) tinkering around with semantics as salvage operation to affect new modes of coping?

  2. Dirk, i was thinking in terms of what philosophy as a project ought to be up to, but more generally yes: praxis-oriented hacking all human doings.

    Arran, i’m thinking of humans developing the capacity to avoid dogma (doxification) and phantasmic arrogance via tweaking both brains and narratives, and the ecologies they are generated in. Infrastructures of cognitive flexibility?

    Really al this is just so much ‘compositionalism’ (Latour), no? Assembling worldspaces, carving our niches of adaptive excellence within and without the human..

    • Well, we’re certainly agreed on that. Compositionalism suggests another direction though- that of “recomposition”. Around the term “recomposition” there is a lot more at stake than Latours apolitical diplomatic worlds. Taking the lesson of folk like Latour but not resting there, we swing back to Guattarian tranversals, to Bifo’s mutuative-viral-singularisations, the work of autonomia in discussions of class composition.

      Its funny you talk about “cognitive flexibility”as that is a term used in the ACT literature. Its part of why I looked into it in the first place. Its use is currently for a “just observe, don’t act”, but I think the idea of committed action is clearly applicable to revolutionary ecological praxis. In many ways this is a kind of return to- or maybe a being haunting by- Sartre.

    • hey m, what do you make of folks like erin manning or alva noe who are incorporating dance and all into their philosophical work, not as illustrative of what might be said/thought in words but in addition to?

      • I love it. I have always thought of gesture as the basis for both dance and speech-acts: bodily-expressive exchange. Performamce art is just as ‘philosophical’ as any artifactual logocentric text. We can identify ‘dance’ at all levels, from quarks to politics to galactic events. Manning and Noe in particular are important thinkers/doers!

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