Lyotard’s libidinal philosophy is developed in the major work Libidinal Economy and in two sets of essays, Dérive à partir. Peter King reviews Libidinal Economy by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Libidinal Economy: Jean-François Lyotard: In Libidinal Economy (), a work very much influenced by the Parisian student uprising of May , Lyotard.

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The historical socialist societies were usually severely criticized for their restrictions on sexual freedom. At the same time, the undergrounds of these same socialist societies were researched for manifestations of the sexuality that was supposedly suppressed because of ideological control.

Researchers tried to discover the concealed practices of sexual liberation and subversive behavior, which would enable them to confirm that the expression of sexuality automatically subverts the authoritarian apparatus. Usually, sexuality stands for freedom and emancipation. However, this stereotype ignores numerous contradictions in the concept of sexuality—sexuality might not necessarily be emancipatory.

Foucault attributed the notion of sexuality to the emergence of bourgeois society. He located the origin of sexuality in the discourses that regulated health, clinical deviation, and medical care in post-disciplinary societies.

The same language that maps and controls sexuality generates its seductive and subversive power. Thus, the superseding of Eros by individual sexuality goes hand in hand with the birth of bourgeois society; the aristocratic poetics of amorous sentiment were replaced by analytical stratification and the control of health, pleasure, and disease.

The productive force of the unconscious is divorced from personal pleasure, but still resides in the realm of desire and its libidinality. The dimension of the libidinality of desire is ambivalent. It is far from being exclusively emancipatory. Desire stands for emancipation, but it is also permeated by the libidinal economy. What does this mean? We might think that we can resist the logic of capitalist production, but our libidinal pulsions happen to be in tune with this economy: The macabre dimension of this argument is that according to Lyotard, the critique of capitalism itself is not at all free from the pulsions and desires that produce the capitalist condition.

The libidinality scattered over the social body of capitalism permeates anything produced under its regime—including anticapitalist critique. One can decipher to what extent capitalism is part and parcel of life by looking at the way jouissance and phantasms circulate within the framework of production and exchange. But it also confirms that capitalism is libidinally desired, even if it might be theoretically and conceptually denounced.

According to Lyotard, what we regard as creative intensity or subversive desire ultimately becomes currency and exchange. Desire constructed via surplus is intertwined with surplus value, and hence with an economy molded via surpluses of various kinds—phantasmatic, sexual, libidinal, financial.

Individually experienced pleasure or pulsion may be inseparable from the desire for power and domination. Although he mainly discusses capitalist production, Lyotard nevertheless extends this libidinal logic to any society, even to the symbolic order—religious acts, martyrology, and sacrifice.

This means that even ostensibly non-libidinal acts, such as sacrificial deeds prompted by ethical or political convictions, can be approached from the point of view of libidinal drives and can be interpreted as transgressive realizations of enjoyment.

Such a totalizing attitude towards the instinctive and affective was also characteristic of Deleuze and Foucault. Although these authors uncovered the ambivalent character of the unconscious and sexuality, they nevertheless reserved a subversive, emancipatory role for them.

The components of capitalism were simultaneously its oblique subvertors. To deprive the economy of its libidinal resource would imply the termination and castration of desire altogether. Getting rid of the vicious part of libidinality would also get rid of its potential for creative fervor, since in a libidinal economy, creativity can only develop parallel to libidinal drives. Thus, capitalist alienation is fiercely criticized, but it nevertheless remains unconsciously seductive to its critics.

But what if the society rids itself of the tempting form of a commodity, of surplus value, and grounds economy on competition in production and distribution according to the necessities constructed by de-libidinized habits of consuming?

In the work of Soviet Marxist philosophers and psychologists, especially Lev Vygotsky, one comes across an unconcealed mistrust of the role of the unconscious—mistrust of the idea that there might be a dichotomy between the unconscious and conscious regimes.

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Piaget interprets this feature as the mode of the unconscious as such. This stage of infancy represents the psychic condition directed to individual pleasure and detached from culture and reality. All social, logical, and generalizing functions emerge later. Generally speaking, in works of Soviet philosophy in which the impact of the unconscious, pleasure, libidinality, and individual psychology was debated works by, for example, Evald Ilyenkov, Mikhail Lifschitz, and Mikhail Bakhtinthe emphasis was always on the fact that social functions precede the instincts and hence the regimes of the unconscious.

Within the libidinwl of such a teleology, individual pleasure, desire, and its satisfaction are complements to the broader demands of the social, even at a very early stage.

Vygotsky insists that the attachment or detachment lyotqrd a child to the implementation of social procedures is dependent on the social conditions of his or her upbringing—on whether the child is raised in the family or in broader collectivities.

This presupposes the acquisition of cultural and social habits by way of collectivity, rather than via the nuclear family. It means that even when a child is confined to the father-mother nucleus, he or she acquires qualities general for humanity and society, since these qualities have been constructed diachronically over the course of human history.

From this standpoint—a standpoint that obsessed Soviet Marxist philosophy—so-called polymorphous lyitard and the whole set of sexual perversions ascribed to the child by psychoanalysis can be regarded as superfluous. Libieinal and sexuality can be ascribed to the child only if they unfold via the linguistic articulation and registration of them—which the child, at least in the pre-oedipal or even oedipal stage, is not able to do.

By contrast, Econommy insists that the satisfaction of needs which Piaget calls the regime of pleasure cannot be divorced from the social adaptation to reality.

According to Vygotsky, pleasure is not just about receiving pleasure; rather, it is inserted into a more complex teleological set of references to reality.

Libidinal Economy

This logic is diametrically opposed to the logic of libidinal economy that characterizes capitalist society. Desire and pleasure can only be understood as necessities to be implemented. The gap between the need for pleasure and the necessity for common values is minimized. A society in which production tries to attain the conditions of use value rids itself of the surplus economy—both in desire, as well as in consuming and communication.

On the contrary, excessive action is manifested elsewhere—in labor, ethical deeds, social responsibility, art, and culture. It becomes the zeal and toil of dedication rather than pleasure or jouissance. Thus, under the conditions of an economy aimed at use value, desire stops being libidinal. Lyotard expertly describes the way the commodity form permeates bodies and their impulses. This is why the critique of the commodity cannot overthrow the regime of capital and the libidinal economy: This does not, ecojomy course, take place in a straightforward way.

The point here is that the commodity form is constructed so that it serves and extends the phantasmatic drives of the unconscious.

But Vygotsky, along with many other Soviet thinkers, tried to prove that the satisfaction of desire should not be opposed to the adjustment to reality. Necessity can be realized in the domain of reality, not counter to it, as Piaget claims. Similarly, there is no abstract thought without a relation to reality, to concreteness. Both the unconscious and the speculative or logical regimes are part and parcel of reality.

Desire is tied to reality rather than to phantasms; it functions within the regime of necessity. This means that libiinal is not epistemologically separate from necessity.

It also implies the non-libidinality of an economy based on necessity and its unmediated satisfaction this unmediatedness is actually the quality of use value. By contrast, in a libidinal economy, pleasure, even when it is satisfied, is embedded in the diversification of modes of mediation—mediation between the drives and their satisfaction. It is precisely this gap that is phantasmatic and that produces the surplus.

Historically, in socialist countries, extensive underground economies developed to meet the demand for alluring commodities from abroad. Perhaps, they may speculate, there was some ideological imperative to keep the whole spectrum of production, trade, and services plain enough to evade the attractiveness generated by a surplus economy—attractiveness that first takes the form of a phantasm, and is then embodied in a commodity.


I put this question to Andrey Kolganov, a well-known economist who researches the Soviet economy. He answered that there was never any deliberate eocnomy engineering through unreliable services or intentionally unattractive and poorly designed commodities. Rather, this situation was the consequence of a planned economy that did not so much aim to satisfy individual, specific demands; rather, lbidinal was constructed to satisfy libidinaal shared and hence general necessities.

Commodities were radically de-personified. Paradoxically, this de-personified, de-privatized material culture met the demand for de-alienation among individuals, who no longer needed any privacy or individualized space.

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In this economy, the object became the tautological realization of its idea—as if it were possible to imagine the chairness of a chair or to wear the coatness of a coat. Interestingly, this applied even to food, which had to be healthy, but deprived of any specific gourmet features, meaning that one had to eat the cheeseness of cheese—i.

This asceticism was not predesigned ideologically. The de-libidinized commodity was just a consequence of the planned economy.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924—1998)

This quality was manifested in a number of works by Moscow Conceptualists. To designate this anti-commodity condition, Ekaterina Degot used a term invented by Boris Arvatov: These non-libidinal conditions of production implied an economy that was not economical, that did not aim at economic growth: That is why social and economic efficiencies were not treated as one and the same thing.

Here we libidijal an interesting paradox. The society that tried to de-alienate social relations produced extremely unattractive commodities and artifacts of material culture which even compelled the Moscow Conceptualists to invent a concept for a Soviet-produced object: Plokhaya Vesh —bad thing.

By contrast, the society in which production was by definition based on alienated labor and social relations generated commodities that aroused intimacy, desire, and comfort—i. The anti-commodity was too general, since it was the embodiment of the idea of a basic need, whereas the capitalist commodity acquired the qualities of an unalienated, desired thing. Later, this unattractiveness of Soviet material culture was characterized by its critics as the embodiment of inhuman, abstract libidinaal production.

This is because personal desire is refused in favor of impersonally deployed de-alienation. Thus, the unattractiveness of Soviet goods was not the ideological imperative of the Party. Rather, it was the consequence of economic shortages that resulted from the demand for equal distribution for all. Modesty and asceticism were an inevitable consequence of social equality.

Without the fetishism of commodities, it would be impossible to design any constructs or languages of sexuality. This is one of the important issues ignored by Freud. But, the argument goes, since sexuality is the epitome of liberation, and since sexuality can never be absent from any society, sexuality is always at least latently embedded in any society as the potential for freedom—freedom from prejudices, power, control, and so forth.

However, judging by statistical data, the rate of ilbidinal intercourse under socialism may have been even higher than under capitalism.

But when we identify sexuality with freedom on the one hand, and with sexual intercourse on the other, one thing is overlooked: If we accept this, then ignoring sexuality does not mean the end of sex. Libidinal drive, pleasure, and sexuality are not directly connected to the practice of genital sexuality. Then he quotes Freud from Civilization and Its Discontents: In other words, Freudian interpretation and many other interpretations that follow Freud presents the libido as a negative drive that results from the fact that genital intercourse is not necessarily supposed to stand for sexuality or libidinality.

Sexuality and libidinal pulsion can be present in things not connected semantically with sexuality at all, and vice versa: