Academic journal article New Formations

Pharmacology of Desire: Drive-Based Capitalism and Libidinal Dis-Economy

Academic journal article New Formations

Pharmacology of Desire: Drive-Based Capitalism and Libidinal Dis-Economy

Article excerpt

There is a figure who for a long time remained almost entirely unknown, in particular within the world of psychoanalysis, but who played a major role in establishing the economic model that currently seems on the way to collapsing before our very eyes: Edward Bernays, who happened also to be Freud's double nephew. Bernays forged the basic concepts of what he called 'public relations', the earliest version of what would later become marketing. He instituted managerial and commercial practices founded upon readings of his uncle's work, and he proposed to totally reconfigure American industrial policy as a libidinal economy.

The libidinal economy of the twentieth century has been progressively but completely transformed by marketing, which constitutes what I call a psychopower, and which is as such related to what Foucault named 'biopower'. Biopower controls populations of producers through the technologies of disciplinary power. Psychopower controls the individual and collective behaviour of consumers by channelling their libidinal energy toward commodities-by provoking the investment of desire in the object of consumption it becomes possible to derive profits from industrial investment in the apparatus of production.

The thesis I am defending here seems at first glance to be quite close to that of Herbert Marcuse. It is, however, very different, and in what follows I hope to clarify this difference. I propose on the one hand that there is in principle a historicity of the unconscious--this was also Jacques Lacan's argument, although he does not thematise it as such (I will return to this question). But on the other hand I propose that this historicity takes the form of the relations between the economy of subsistence, that is, of needs, and the economy of existence(s), that is, of desires, desires that themselves equally presuppose an economy of what I call 'consistences,' that is, of objects of idealisation in all its forms (infantile, amorous, artistic, scientific, philosophical, political, and religious, among others).

The planetary crisis to which we are subject is the collapse of the consumerist arrangement between subsistence and existence--a collapse due to the liquidation of consistences that has taken place, that is, the liquidation of idealisation and sublimation in all their forms (and it is on this point that my argument resembles that of Marcuse, in particular insofar as he makes use of the concepts of de-sublimation and the automatic superego). With the appearance of psychotechnologies, the first critics of which were Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt school, the historicity of the unconscious made possible a libidinal dis-economy, that is, a destruction of the libido as the power of binding the drives--that power of binding that we must understand by relating it to the binding power of Kant's transcendental imagination thereby opening the question of what I call here the pharmacology of desire (referring here to the Greek, Platonic, and Derridean understandings of the pharmakon as both poison and cure).

In the consumerist economy, the drives are diverted from their aims and toward artificial needs-needs that fail to constitute any desires. Adorno and Horkheimer already had a sense of this when they argued that the Hollywood system of projection short-circuits imagination. I have, however, tried to show in a work yet to appear that their analysis neglects the fact that the imagination is always constituted through transitional artefacts and that it is not the technical exteriorisation of the imagination that causes the short-circuit, but rather the cultural hegemony that psychopower exercises on what must be understood as a pharmakon.

Fantasies in general proceed from the polymorphism intrinsic to the libido, but in the case of consumerist fantasy, the diversion fails to lead to any libido, since it on the contrary rests on de-sublimation and de-idealisation. The object of consumption, as soon as it is invested, must be dis-invested: consumerism is an economy of disposability, that is, of infidelity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.