A Note on Cold Rationalism

I started psychoanalysis recently, of the Laingian variety. I’m not going to make a habit of blogging about it, for reasons that I assume are obvious, but I had a spooky, serendipitous moment just now and wanted to share it.

I had a difficult session tonight, speaking a lot about Mark Fisher’s work, my mixed feelings about intellectualising my own trauma as a way to deal with it, whether related to Mark or other things I’ve been through, and how I’m not sure how healthy that is. In many ways, it made even seeking out psychoanalysis feel like a contradiction, lying in wait.

I found myself struggling to talk about how I’d decided to write about Mark’s work in the way that I have, taking personal experience and claiming to make it productively impersonal. That’s the goal, but I’m not sure — on a personal level, at least — how successful I’ve been. And if I have been successful, is that anything to be proud of?

Unsure of the answers, I’ve nonetheless been trying to get away from it. Acknowledging a tendency to insert an intellectual distance where there isn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t be) any, I tried to explain that my interest in Laing was precisely a way out of that. I know just enough to undertake this journey but not enough to get caught up in the theoretical details. I am aware it is a phenomenological approach to therapy, after all, that creates a space to live in and feel things rather than turn them into philosophical problems. But in being here, I am nonetheless aware what the philosophical problems are. They don’t disappear, but I don’t want to turn therapy into a study group, if I can help it.

After the session ended, I started trying to write down the feelings that I was struggling to bring to the surface, so that I might be able to articulate myself better next week — the impossibility of fully intellectualising an experience, or fully “feeling” it, precisely because the two things are not ultimately distinguishable. But the problem is that I have taken my reasoning too far, perhaps. I struggle to acknowledge feeling, often forcing myself to do so in ways that perhaps seem insincere, vocalising feeling but still never quite feeling it, always slipping into an irrational rationalism (the Vulcan paradox).

In the end, I turned, as I often do, to the k-punk blog and was stunned to find a post that was written on this exact day, seventeen years ago.

Mark is responding to a blogpost by Simon Reynolds, in which Simon queries his recent posts on “cold rationalism” on the Hyperstition blog, specifically a post titled “Surfascism”. Here Mark provides a brief unpacking of that Vulcan paradox, wherein

Rational analysis rounds upon itself. The scalpel of analytic reason – the capacity to understand Nature and the principles which animate it – becomes a weapon of auto-laceration turned both against reason itself and its agent. Never fully extirpated (because never fully extirpatable), reason is lured into a hideous line of abolition.

It’s Mark’s intriguing post against Bataille. Responding to a lecture that accuses Bataille of proto-fascism (or “surfascism”, which a number of his contemporary critics accused him of), Mark suggests that Bataille’s affirmation of a kind of “unreason” is no response to this Vulcan paradox, which is already self-defeating. For this reason, the affirmation of unreason ends up on the same “hideous line of abolition”, just as an ideal of absolute logic does too.

Simon Reynolds has an excellent response to this, which I am more personally aligned with. Mark is a music writer, after all, and

what is Music if not emotion, intoxication, sensuality, violence, the orgiastic? […] There is a superfluousness, a futile gloriousness, an excess to requirements, an utterly non-necessary aspect to music — which relates very well to the Bataillean worldview.

(He adds how it’s quite funny “how swiftly Mark (and presumably others in the post-CCRU milieu) have junked one entire canon of thought (Nietzsche, Bataille — whom Nick Land wrote a great book, The Thirst for Annihilation, about — Deleuze & Guattari, presumably Ballard too now as he’s a big fan of surrealism, mythology, etc.) for its complete inverse. But I guess it’s all part of the adventure that is the life of the mind.” Quite!)

Mark later clarifies that the point is not to fall on one side or the other of a reason/unreason divide:

What has to be resisted at every level … is the idea that emotions are some ineffable and inexplicable slurry. The great breakthrough of Freud was to return to the Spinozist insight that all emotions have rationales. The devastating radical enlightenment thought is also astonishingly simple. Everything that happens — and crucially that has to include emotional reactions — has a cause. But a prior — or mechanical — cause, not a final cause or teleology. […]

Romanticism is a kind of secular resistance to the radical implications of this Cartesian-Spinozist mechanism, the return of Jahweh in the form of the ‘inner self’. What is important, Romantics convince themselves, is what we feel (with feeling explicitly opposed to thought and action). The true reality of ourselves lies ‘inside’, in the interior, the phenomenological. Somehow, this alleged interior is to be thought of as absolutely independent of its material substrate. Feelings and consciousness aren’t epiphenomenal side-effects of socio-neurochemical interactions, they are irreducible traces of some ‘deep’ and ‘eternal’ human soul. […] This is mysticism, not philosophy.

He later aligns his rejection of a Bataillean unreason to his comments on “psychedelic fascism”:

Spinoza says children are abject because they do not know what causes their actions or desires. Like many adults, they confuse being free with ‘doing what they want’, when freedom entails attuning your desires and emotions to your reason.

Simon is still confused — and understandably so, since Mark’s response is so dense and unwieldy, if nonetheless fascinating. He summarises:

I suppose ultimately I don’t really get what he’s talking about when he uses the word “rationality”, now that’s supposed to include emotion and the body?

But Mark’s response is characteristically taut and to the point. He exercises his Spinozism, turning what sounds like a contradiction into a call to arms:

the point is to subordinate passive (i.e. self-destructive) emotions to reason (= identification of the causes of actions) in order to increase the capacity to act.

If there is a perversity to my book Egress, it is precisely in its attempts to use Bataille towards these ends, reconnecting Mark’s intensive Ccru mode to his later rationalist tendencies — a project I think he was undertaking for himself towards the end. But even beyond an intellectualised “Fisherian” project, this is similarly how I hope to deal with whatever life throws at me, colliding with my understanding of Deleuze’s Stoic adage that “we make ourselves worthy of the things that happen to us” as well.

When we subordinate our passions to reason, we increase our capacity to act.

That is all I want out of therapy too. I want to get better at doing this — feeling things and understanding them and their affects; improving my capacity for handling them and thinking about them. Not thinking about pain as a way to neutralise it, rationalising it as a way to abolish it, but rather rationalising it as a way to acknowledge and live with it. It is a fine line, but at this point in my life, it is also the most important line there is.

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