The Karoshi Complex

Alfie Bown – Enjoying It, Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015).

I will state up front that everyone should read and enjoy this book. I did. I enjoyed Bown’s use of the word ‘unarable’ immensely, and his use of language generally. I enjoyed his words in the sense that I have written equally enjoyably myself.

I have since enjoyed reviewing this book and look forward to filing a paper copy in the little section of Zero Books on my shelf. The author may have a shelf that is similar to mine, but also different. A Candy Crush range of colours, one of which may even be my own book. Enjoying, sharing, sharing, enjoying.

But I know full well, as Bown points out here, that enjoyment reinforces cultural divides, at the same time as it turns pleasure into production, creaming surplus value by ‘grouping people’ according to ‘what they enjoy’ and simultaneously ‘preventing communication across these enjoyment-divides’.

We are both in a micro universe, Bown and I, as writers and readers. Inside an expanded circuit of authorship, with a depleted subject at its centre. But this is definitely not a circuit which has expanded far enough to assimilate a very diverse mix of readers.

Put more straightforwardly, Gilles Deleuze used to enjoy watching episodes of The Benny Hill Show, but there are big gaps, as the author points out, ‘between enjoying philosophy’, watching TV, and ‘enjoying a tabloid newspaper’. This is something Bown’s book ‘hopes to work against.’ My own writing has tried to militate against this tendency in a different way.

I am a sucker for anyone who can write about ubiquitous ‘ephemeral’ phenomena as an anthropologist might. Bown does this with charisma and insight.

He describes the shift from desire as ‘natural’ in the nineteenth century, with social orders policing the limits of those desires. These processes were then inscribed in what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’, the structured subject, which might best be illustrated in our fading Victorian hangover, which as Foucault described it, allowed people to discourse about all kinds of ‘pleasures’, but via a patriarchal ‘largesse’ that permitted and limited at the same time.

But, as Slavoj Zizek famously pointed out, the social world has turned upside down since then, via consumer capital’s tyrannical demand on the superego, over an assemblage of decentred drives, to instruct us to ‘enjoy’. Bown figures this as a ‘second wave’ of essentially Neo-Victorian limits to pleasure. A refiguring of the circuit, that also makes us think we are free, something always detectable in naive liberalism.

Desiring-assemblages, fleeing lack, ski down a slalom of jouissance, brushing a series of little objects as they go, flagpoles pointing to ‘satisfaction’. But this slalom is endless, and the flags point nowhere, they flap in the wind and maps are pointless.

This is the libidinal course. You remember the way and its landmarks, you expect to ‘arrive’, but never do. More importantly, you never remember that you don’t arrive: This is the most scandalous and secret fact about pleasure there is.

These symbolic skiers can perhaps be best observed in exaggerated form via that derided contemporary tribe, The Hipsters. Hipsters are colonisers of meaning, but the very declaration of that meaning is seemingly enough: ‘Look, beards!’ ‘Look, barber chairs!’ ‘Look, excavated 1950s stuff!’

Look! Old but new! Mixed-up! This fort-da game with cultural objects – you throw it away, they pick it right back up again – is irritating precisely because it is infantile. It betrays the function of remaining adolescent well into years previously designated by older forms of culture for adulthood, as all generational bandwidths spectre out into one.

Here is where it gets disturbing, as we see young people in old people’s clothes, and old people in trainers and hoodies, all trying to find a Big Other which no ski slope, road or train line ever leads to.

Well, it could be worse, you might argue. What about Rem Koolhaas’s idea, you might say, that shopping is better than tearing each other limb from limb? But Black Friday shows us how thin the line is between the two.

Reviews about books called ‘Enjoying It’ should probably never be ‘spoilers’, barriers to enjoyment. So I want to employ another game to conclude here, one which best explores Black Friday’s ‘line between’.

Mr. Karoshi is an assault course game in which you have to make a chronically depressed 8-bit Japanese Salaryman repeatedly kill himself. You splatter this digital, oriental Suicidal Sid against spikes and burn him into floating ash.

In Mr. Karoshi’s repeated deaths, we find the inverse logic of most computer games. The usual assualt course game is derived from military survivalism, you have to ‘live’ to get to the next level. Here, the logic of capital itself has been inverted. To ‘get on’, you must commit suicide, again and again.

The famous shift from pleasure principle to death drive is here. A suicide of the subject that might also be, in Deleuze-Guattari’s sense of ‘the self’, exactly what one needs to ‘get on’: Mr. Karoshi repeats his ‘self-sacrifice’ of a pleasure without an object, in a kind of eternal return of corporate capitalism, every day.

By getting up and putting his tie on, he ritually murders the possibility of anything but the life he already has.

The potential for objectless ‘pleasure delerium’ is killed in a difference and repetition of sheer conformity, represented in the Mr. Karoshi game as a permanently failing suicide mission. Mr Karoshi’s condition is ‘chronic’ in this sense, temporal, in that his return is quite literally eternal, like all those seen on trains at strange hours, still tapping away at the indexical face of information capital, next to their oddly similar neighbours, pecking like birds at Candy Crush and other treasures. Bown explores all of these tensions.

Karoshi is not ‘enjoyment’ as Deleuze-Guattari posited it, desire without a subject. Karoshi still entails chasing gaudy baubles down the infinite slalom, a la Candy Crush. Its symbolic flip does not create a different or new kind of desiring-machine.

No, Karoshi inverts the usual gaming logic, only in order to simply replace survival with death, enjoyment with pain.

However, I do offer Mr. Karoshi, and this book, as modern day Leavisite examples of the best that can be thought, said – and enjoyed – in our age.


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