If You Lived Here, You’d Be Hume By Now

The housing market in Newcastle is fucked at the moment. Affordable rental properties are few and far between. Regrettably, I found a new place to live just over a week ago, but was nervous about taking the first thing I saw, particularly since it was a little overpriced and in desperate need of a new kitchen, with the current one covered in rust and looking generally unsafe. “But I can see beyond the grime,” I told myself, “I can make it my own,” before putting in a rental offer that was soon accepted. Then my dream flat came on the market and I pulled out.

That felt like the right decision at the time. Now I’ve been waiting almost two weeks to view the place and time is running out. I headed over early this morning to finally take a look, but on arrival I received a call from the letting agent to say they could not get in touch with the current tenant and so were going to have to cancel all viewings, with the intention of rearranging them next week.

This means cutting things very close to the bone. If I do eventually get to see the place, it will be just a few days before I have to move out of where I am currently living. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll have to put my life into storage and sofa-surf until I can figure things out. I do not want to hang all my hopes on a single property, of course, but there just isn’t anything else currently available. Options are painfully limited.

This is my worst nightmare. In the midst of my breakdown last year, part of what I found so triggering was the sense that I no longer have anything to fall back on, other than the charity of friends. Though I am still in touch with my Dad, I no longer have a place to stay in my childhood home, and going back there would be all the worse for my mental health even if it was possible. I called him this morning regardless, looking for a sympathetic ear so I wasn’t just running over my lack of options incessantly as I wandered around the Ouseburn, working myself up into an emotional state, but his confirmation of my situation didn’t end up helping matters. He only told me what I already knew: there was nothing he could do.

So here I am, sitting outside a café, with a bag of books, my nerves and my tobacco for company, turning as ever to the one thing that grounds me: the blog.

As the manuscript for my next book is being proofread, I’ve managed to get back into my PhD research recently. This too has a tendency to make me feel worse, if undertaken on a bad day, as I focus on what the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari might offer to a material politics of familial displacement. All the more adamant to take some comfort from my reading, however, I look to extract something in the here and now that might be useful.

I spent most of yesterday reading Deleuze’s book on Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity, which has proven to be a good starting point in this regard, not least for the latent Spinozism that Deleuze finds in Hume’s thought. He explains how there is a paradox innate to Hume’s empiricism and rationalism, which Hume himself acknowledges; he frames reason itself as an affect, beyond our more colloquial understanding of reason as a sort of objective rationality that serves the application of logic beyond all (sad) passions. It is through the application of reason that we solve problems, after all. But in being framed as a way to take us out of our immediate experiences, so that we might see our problems as if from a bird’s-eye view, this understanding of reason tells us far less about the surpassing of certain emotional states than it tells us about a more elusive problem at hand: reason is not the adjudication of objects outside of the mind but a process that takes places within the mind itself. The application of reason is not to take a seat looking out on some unbiased view from nowhere — a nowhere that, logic dictates, must necessarily lie outside of reason itself also.

As Deleuze writes, “for reason to experience a problem, in its own domain, there must be a domain that escapes reason, putting it initially into question.” The poverty of a popular rationalism tends to obscure this situation, since it instead “expects ideas to stand for something which cannot be constituted within experience”. Facts don’t care about your feelings is the oft-repeated adage of contemporary reactionaries, but the point for Deleuze (and Hume) is that facts are necessarily felt nonetheless.

Indeed, Deleuze insists that we should understand reason itself “as a kind of feeling”, which is felt most potently when habitual thinking does not suffice. The result of a poorer understanding of reason, however, lends itself to the constitution of a false kind of “realism” – as in “capitalist realism” – and Deleuze draws on a sentence from Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature that may have a familiar ring to us: “’Tis not contrary to Reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”; it is not contrary to reason to imagine the end of the world instead of the end of capitalism.

It is for this reason that reason itself must be reasoned with, if we are to develop an ethics that properly responds to any given situation. As Deleuze continues:

Reason … does not determine practice: it is practically or technically insufficient. Undoubtedly, reason influences practice, to the extent that it informs us of the existence of a thing, as the proper object of a passion, or to the extent that it reveals a connection between causes and effects as means of satisfaction. But we cannot say that reason produces an action, that passion contradicts it, or even that reason thwarts a passion… Reason can always be brought to bear, but it is brought to bear on a preexisting world and presupposes an antecedent ethics and an order of ends.

The proper application of reason, in this sense, is the problematization of reasons readily given to us – and it is particularly intriguing to me that Deleuze turns to the problem of family to explore this.

Deleuze explains that sympathy is the ground on which any ethics is formulated, as it is sympathy that makes us “take hold of something and live in it, because it is useful or agreeable to the Other or to persons in general”. But we find another paradox here, not dissimilar to the paradox of reason:

[Sympathy] opens up for us a moral space and generality, but the space has no extension, nor does the generality have a quantity. In fact, in order to be moral, sympathy must extend into the future and must not be limited to the present moment. It must be a double sympathy, that is, a correspondence of impressions multiplied by the desire for the pleasure of the Other and by an aversion for her or his pain.

There is perhaps no better example of such a sympathy in action than the family. But the problem of the family, as a social institution, is that it exacerbates only “a limited generosity”, in that we tend to extend our sympathies only into a partial locality. “We condemn the parents who prefer strangers to their own children.” Sympathy, then, is less an extensive affect than it is an obstacle to be overcome, particularly when we find that things like “family, friendship, and neighborliness” — as “the natural determinants of sympathy” — are used to smother and restrict our sympathies rather than encourage their unlimited expression.

Consider, for example, how families are indeed natural to us. “What we find in nature, without exception, are families”, Deleuze writes. But we take from this natural inclination to family life only “a set of limitations” that confine us to a set of general rules or social norms, rather than “understanding society as a positive system of invented endeavors” – and human beings are, of course, a fundamentally “inventive species”.

Our natural inclination towards family, then, must be understood only as a starting point for more expansive forms of kinship:

The problem of society, in this sense, is not a problem of limitation, but rather a problem of integration. To integrate sympathies is to make sympathy transcend its contradiction and natural partiality. Such an integration implies a positive moral world, and is brought about by the positive invention of such a world… The problem is how to extend sympathies.

Capitalist society is hardly unaware of this, but it constitutes itself through a negative schematisation of sympathies in response. We generate a set of general rules that we believe are best placed to satisfy our natural inclinations. We institutionalise our sympathies and encase them in zones of satisfaction that apply in general but not to all. We invent institutions only to restrict our broader inventive capacities. “Thus, anything positive is taken away from the social, and instead the social is saddled with negativity, limitation, and alienation.” For Deleuze, “the problem must be reversed.” It is instead “outside of the social [that we find] the negative, the lack, or the need.” The social itself “is profoundly creative, inventive, and positive.”

In affirming this reversal, we are more capable of re-activating our inventive and imaginative capabilities, precisely through the application of reason. It is when we come up against institutions that claim to satisfy our drives, but which ultimately fail to fulfil their own promises, that we must turn to the (social) production of alternatives:

In marriage, sexuality is satisfied; in property, greed. The institution, being the model of actions, is a designed system of possible satisfaction. The problem is that this does not license us to conclude that the institution is explained by the drive. The institution is a system of means, according to Hume, but these means are oblique and indirect; they do not satisfy the drive without also constraining it at the same time. Take, for example one form of marriage, or one system of property. Why this system and this form? A thousand others, which we find in other times and places, are possible.

Ultimately, then, reason is no salve against the running wild of our imaginations, particularly in those moments of desperation when life comes to a sudden halt, overrun by contingencies. Just as “a deserted but fertile soil leads us to think about the happiness of its possible inhabitants”, reason is nothing if it is not imaginative and speculative.

This is something worth remembering as I stew in the nausea produced by so many current uncertainties. Though it feels trite to apply Deleuze and Hume’s very broad rumination on human nature to something as myopic as flat-hunting, there is nonetheless a general affect in play that has been produced by this particular set of circumstances. I needn’t prefer the end of the world to a minor setback in my living situation. Though I may still feel stressed, depressed, panicked and worried about the immediate future, it should be affirmed that these feelings are not the irrational products of a mind running away with itself — I’m not catastrophising (yet) — but reason’s affects at work.

With all this in mind, I feel calmed. I stop myself from thinking, “maybe I could have done more, maybe I have made poor decisions, maybe I have taken unnecessary risks,” and instead affirm the fact that I have, on the contrary, done all that is within my power. I have reasoned with and imagined a new life worth living, combining my desire with the options available. Though it is easy to feel disheartened when the capacity to reason runs up against the injustices of a preexisting system that frustrates it, the necessity of finding solace in the social allows for sympathies to extend. I make plans to reach out to others, and know I can be held for a time, even as the wider system makes momentarily falling out of its bounds a general inconvenience. But it’s in those spaces, nonetheless, that new worlds start to form.

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