Re-thinking the Political in Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy and Naked Lunch by Alana Clegg

Jean-Francois Lyotard, a main protagonist in postmodern thought, sought to defend and promote difference and fragmentation in the face of today’s totalising global structure of late capitalism. Lyotard demands a re-thinking of the political to combat this hegemony in his philosophical thought, the most radical of which is his 1974 work Libidinal Economy. In Libidinal Economy he seeks to denounce Marxist theory, not by entering into a critique with it, but through a libidinal reading of Marx that reveals its problematic unconscious desires that undermine its rigid structure. In this sometimes obscene account of Marxist theory, for he is usually treated within a serious theoretical setting within philosophical work, he exposes the problem of theory and critique itself: for critique is always bound to the theory it intends on disrupting, and thus exists only to serve theory in its stultifying processes, informing a system devoid of difference. Lyotard’s political alternative lies in his libidinal discourse, which is a blunt rejection of theory, creating a politic of perpetual disruption of knowledge through this very rejection. Finally, an example of Lyotard’s political method that does not depend on the universal but rather seeks to disturb it, is demonstrated in the libidinal aesthetics of the American avant-garde author, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Libidinal Economy was written with the goal of positioning itself as an opposition and counteracting element to a traditional ‘political’ economy based on some organised ideological system. Lyotard deals specifically with Marxism, motivated by the student worker upheaval in Paris May 1968 – a revolt against the normalization and seriality of life brought about by rational thought. Lyotard conducts a libidinal materialism that brings unconscious desire to the forefront as an effective rebellion against rational thought; for the two are never reconciled but stand in a constant tension with one another. “This is the law of libidinal economy, no, not the law: this is its provisional, very provisional, definition in the form of the cry, of intensities of desire.” (Lyotard 1998, p. 77). This is crucial as it means desire is the ultimate disruptive force to theory, for it cannot be contained within it. Desire becomes an essential element to Lyotard’s reading of Marx; claiming that it is exactly what Marx’s systematized body of thought avoids, and is integral to a complete denunciation and an alternative to Marx’s ‘political’ economy. To begin this process Lyotard proclaims: “We must come to take Marx as if he were a writer, an author full of affects, take his text as a madness and not as a theory, we must succeed in pushing aside his theoretical barrier and stroking his beard without contempt and without devotion […] stroke his beard as a complex libidinal volume, reawakening his hidden desire and ours along with it.” (Lyotard 1998, p. 70-71). Here, Marx is treated with an entirely unexpected attitude; placing him within a sexualised gaze in defiance of his accustomed theoretical or critical one. Instead of critiquing Marx, Lyotard asks us to stroke his beard to awaken his ‘hidden desires’. This technique employed is a far more affective force in producing some kind of change within thought than merely entering into the dialogue of critique with Marx. The extract fittingly introduces the uncontained force of desire in Marx that his theory unsuccessfully attempts to hide or stabilize to create the logical whole it is seeking.

The most provocative of Lyotard’s libidinal discourse is contained in the chapter of Libidinal Economy entitled The Desire Called Marx, where he maintains that there is no possibility for a politics to solve and describe society in a single unified truth or theory. “The form of this research already contains its denial and its impossibility.” (Lyotard 1998, p. 73). This conclusion manifests within Marx himself, demonstrated in the unconscious forces that bubble to the surface resisting the scientific and straightforward theory he proposes. Herein lies what is impossible to theorize but nonetheless exists, that which Marx cannot contain. Revealed in Lyotard’s libidinal reading in which Marx, rather than being treated as a philosophical doctrine, is treated like a work of art. Lyotard claims that the denial of the non-rational in human behaviour, in order to perpetuate Marx’s ‘political’ economy, leads to unresolvable contradictions within Marxism which do not allow it to attain the unified body of knowledge it strives to be. Lyotard highlights this contradiction using the literal body of Marx to posit the following thesis: “the little girl Marx, offended by the perversity of the polymorphous body of capital, requires a great love; the great prosecutor Karl Marx, assigned to the task of the prosecution of the perverts and the ‘invention’ of a suitable lover (the proletariat), sets himself to study the file of the accused capitalist.” (Lyotard 1998, p. 72). The thesis explains itself in the perpetual postponement of completing his work on Capital, describing it as his ‘cancerization of theoretical discourse’ (Lyotard 1998, p. 72). Why is this so? Lyotard claims it lies in the very duality of Marx’s peculiar sexual assemblage described in the above thesis. The ‘Old Man Karl Marx’ is both captivated and disgusted by what he is meant to be indicting, a process in which capital becomes a pornographic substance for him. He achieves a strange jouissance, an excessive pleasure, in prolonging the study of that which he must destroy. The love that the amorous ‘Girl Marx’ desires, which if attained would lead to the unification of the sexual body as well as the theoretical body, is an impossibility due to this denial of unconscious desire.

Lyotard makes evident the inherent uncertainty of the unconscious desire that grounds Marxist theory. The root of this is a problem with the totalizing process of theory itself, and that of critique too, which ultimately lends itself as the stabilizer of theory. Therefore, critique is an inadequate process of change, for its essentially negative rhetoric binds it to the object that it is trying to distance itself from. This process becomes one detrimental to any difference outside of its supposedly all-encompassing organic body of knowledge. The theoretical text is one that aims to construct this coherent and unified organic body by way of the strict rigidity of a system of established good and evils: of universal values. This means that we must “laugh at critique, since it is to maintain oneself in the field of the criticised thing and in the dogmatic, indeed paranoiac, relation of knowledge,” (Lyotard 1998, p. 71). Here, Lyotard denunciates all critical activity in the process of his libidinal description of Marx. Asserting the disillusionment of Marxist theory for it believes it can create a unified organic body while suppressing libidinal energies that secretly plague it. Critique is now recognised, through libidinal discourses, as part of the problem as opposed to a potential solution to it. Maintenance of the static system of tyranny in a ‘political’ economy is the real goal of critique, due to its denial of the truly political and disruptive force of desire.

Lyotard’s key motivation in the philosophical work done in Libidinal Economy is the hope of creating something that is truly valuable in a political sense: “one must show what intensities are lodged in theoretical signs” (Lyotard 1998, p. 77). In his elucidation of a libidinal discourse he presents a radical political alternative aimed at making politics open to uncertainty, stripped of all perceptions of being exhaustive. This limitless and bodiless description of political action is not meant to produce a solid well defined affect, but rather to persuade, describe and read, just as Lyotard has done of Marx. Early in his life, Lyotard positioned himself towards a strict political commitment to Marxism; that has been entirely renounced in this work which creates a politics foreign to traditional notions.

The point is not to produce a critique, a theory of Marx’s theory; not simply to show that Marx is still religious alienated and so on; not to postulate a ‘true atheism’ against such religious residues – such an ‘atheism’ would simply be a new form of religion. Rather, it aims to show intensities lodged in theory, to demonstrate that the cold serious discourse of political economy is also a set up of libidinal economy. This requires perhaps endless caution if it is not to slip back into the forms it is attempting to disrupt. (Bennington 2008, p. 34-35).

Bennington aptly points out that Lyotard’s new political action, set up as a libidinal discourse, does not seek to be a stable investment to replace critique but rather a constant re-placing and disruption of theory. This, he insists, should be adopted as a kind of drifting in which one denies stable positions and endeavours for continual progress and difference. “It would make us happy to be able to retranscribe, into a libidinal discourse, those intensities which haunt Marx’s thought and which, in general, are dissimulated in the brass tracks solemnity of the discourse of economy and politics. “We will show, therefore, how in Marx’s own terms, political economy is a libidinal economy…” (Lyotard 1998, p. 77).

Aesthetics is an important part of Lyotard’s new political method for they are constantly at the limits of the perceived absolute of knowledge. Art can only function and exist as art by living off constant progression; pluralistic in nature for if it lacks the constant confrontation with the limits of the theoretical it dies. Lyotard makes use of a libidinal aesthetic in his work, contrary to the critical theoretical aesthetics of traditional philosophical work.

Open the so-called body and spread out all its surfaces:[…] but open and spread, expose the labia majora, so also the labia minora with their blue network bathed in mucus, dilate the diaphragm of the anal sphincter, longitudinally cut and flatten out the black conduit of the rectum[…] Work as the sun does when you’re sun bathing or taking grass. (Lyotard 1998, p. 1)

He creates a difficult form of literature that undermines the solemn nature of theoretical texts using a range of techniques to produce this effect: ridicule, bad taste, obscene language and imagery, eroticism. However, this all has a significant political purpose, succinctly highlighted by James Williams: “the shock value and innovation of the work of art take on a political significance as acts that disturb an established status quo and force us to think anew. Artists can show the limits and flaws of set ways of thinking and acting. They can return us to more fundamental sensations that have become hidden under elaborate forms of thought.” (Williams 1998, p. 6). In the effort to do philosophy differently, Lyotard conducts experiments in his writing to great effect. Libidinal Economy is not designed to teach the reader a well-defined systematic lesson on knowledge, rather it seeks to affect the reader by disrupting that knowledge. This creates a challenging experience when reading and comprehending the text due to its intensity and force of shock. Lyotard’s writing style and libidinal aesthetics effectively resists the limits of theoretical concepts and critiques of these concepts that are endlessly attempting to present some final truth.

An example within avant-garde literature that depicts this Lyotardean political method is William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. The text lacks definite structure, being compiled of short vignettes that can be read in any order. The cut up technique employed creates a textual corpus of difference and fragmentation in its anti-form. The work demands thought by the reader; it provokes thought and confusion for it cannot be judged according to determined unified forms of thought like critique. William Burroughs relation to the avant-garde connects him to the political work of Lyotard as he is a strong supporter of avant-garde art for “the sense of avant-garde is fully political in art, but also that the sense of ‘political’ is revolutionized by avant-garde art. The deepest sense of the political comes with the avant-garde, as it disturbs established knowledge and laws, and turns our attention to the constant possibility of further disturbances.” (Williams 1998, p. 6). Naked Lunch forces us to think through its shocking and obscene abuse of systematic and established modes of writing, making use of a libidinal aesthetics that is similar in its aims and its methods of disruption. The overtly sexual work disrupts knowledge making it become political:

“Naked Mr. America, burning frantic with self bone love, screams out: My asshole confounds the Louvre! I fart ambrosia and shit pure gold turds! My cock spurts soft diamonds in the morning sunlight!” (Burroughs 2009, p. 64).

Ridiculous lurid imagery runs rampant throughout the text, displaying a dissatisfaction with hegemony of thought, ideas and life; rejecting the normalized role of the written word entirely. Through this psychotic drug induced delirium, Burroughs discloses the unsayable, the uninterpretable – and in being uninterpretable creates endless and boundless meaning in difference. “Lyotard’s work reflects a suspicion of knowledge as basis for action. There will always be limits to such knowledge and the task of philosophy can be seen as revealing them in and through art and language.” (Williams 1998, p. 4). Naked Lunch presents a clear example of how art and language reveals the limits of knowledge as a basis for political action; in the destabilizing effects of the text it becomes a political action itself.

Lyotard’s philosophical work in Libidinal Economy and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch demand a re-thinking of our political framework by questioning structure itself. In that vicious questioning they create an alternative perspective on the political—a perspective that exists and indulges in uncertainty within the hegemony of our knowledge, theory and critique.

Alana Clegg is an undergraduate student in philosophy at UQ.


Lyotard, J 1998, ‘A Desire Called Marx’, in Sim S (ed.), Post-Marxism: A Reader, Edinburgh UP, Edinburgh, 70-80.

Bennington, G 2008, Lyotard: Writing the Event, Createspace, S.I., 34-35.

Williams, J 1998, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy, Polity, Cambridge, UK.

Burroughs, WS 2009, Naked Lunch, 50th Anniversary ed, Grove, New York.

Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk.

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