Bojana Kunst
The Organization of Happiness and the Exhausted Body

  • text by Bojana Kunst
  • Published in: 'hopefully someone will carry out great venegance on me', Catalogue of Impure Company / Hooman Sharifi, Brussels, 2004.

© Bojana Kunst

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I. Organization of Happiness

Reflecting on the 1968 student revolution in France, Julia Kristeva ardently disagrees that the demands for happiness - the intriguing kernel of jouissance, as she terms the political longing of the sixties – should be but unfortunate utopias of that time. In her opinion, the intrusion of private pleasure into the public arena is one of the greatest achievements of the sixties revolution, which still garners political power nowadays. Confronting public life with the rebelling private, and demanding a representative space for that private desire, this kind of revolt opens the path for individuals and their desires, helps break through old social limitations, and opens the possibility of an impossible, yet essential, connection between private and public activity.

But how can Kristeva’s proposition be consistent with the fact that, after the revolutionary movements in the sixties, the intrusion of the private into public life has been experiencing its catharsis with the global organization of the economy of happiness, and for more than two decades? I therefore not only refer to the well-known observations that many of the participants in the sixties movements are now the executive motors of contemporary liberal capitalism, and that the demands for jouissance have been transformed into commercialised longing for the realization of pleasure in the contemporary western society of welfare. A consequence of such commercial and economical organization of happiness is namely that also politicalness itself has sort of disappeared from contemporary politics. Today, politics represents a way of systematization and transparency of the societies of late capitalism, where any revolt and permanent verification is transparently included in advance into the bureaucratic and multilayered re-organization of private interests. The centre still isn’t precisely aware of where the guerrilla is, but the central system is spread in such a way that every guerrilla, as minor as it may be, can be organized and represented. A consequence of such organization is thus a society depoliticized in character, resulting from the fact that every particularity has already been placed within the social structure: ”what is usually praised as `postmodern politics' (the pursuit of particular issues whose resolution is to be negotiated within the 'rational' global order allocating to its particular component its proper place) is thus effectively the end of politics proper“ (Žižek). Like the contemporary economy, public political life has been reduced to the battle of transparent interests incessantly systematized and organized within contemporary political life, which, however, no longer allows space for misunderstanding, uncivil gesture and the exterior.

II. Forces of Pleasure

The transformation of the permanent resistance of the sixties into the post-capitalist welfare economy can be well illustrated with a story from socialist history, which can serve as a good example of how political activities have nothing to do with the contemporary organization of happiness. Interestingly, this was realized quite early by the communist authorities in Yugoslavia; having always schizophrenically oscillated between two different kinds of ideological hedonism, the country widely opened its borders to foreign tourists as early as in the seventies. In the late seventies, the beginning of high tourism was marked by opening a hotel – a masterpiece of modernist architecture in the town of Malinska on Krk, the biggest Yugoslavian island. The architectural masterpiece itself, of course, did not suffice for a solemn enough marking of the turning point when Western pleasure finally became part of socialist income. There was a guest speaker invited – editor-in-chief of the American magazine Penthouse, together with his yacht and ten pinup girls. A documentary on this event provides an informative lesson on how absurd a meeting of the two hedonistic interests can turn out to be. After a show of Yugoslav folkdances and a communist speaker marked by an awkwardly styled suit (and an unmistakable air of obsolescence), there appeared Penthouse editor-in-chief in person, a total opposite of the previous speaker, sporting an elegant white suit, a cigar and the pinups, whom he solemnly introduced as peace forces of the west. After the opening ceremony, the sexy peace forces took a stroll around the town to fondle the red stars and ample revolutionary slogans on the stone walls, observed by the locals – old women in traditional black dresses and toothless old men.

The documentary does not only show another bizarre case of the unsuccessful aesthetic meeting between the rigid body of communism and the hedonist body of the west. What it opens is the unusual contemporary connection of ideological rigidity and the ideologies of welfare, commercialization and contemporary way of participation, characterizing many political, cultural and peace missions of the present day. Even the most bizarre gestures can be included into the repertoire of co-operation and public communication, and become legitimate and connecting when it is about the economy and its organization of public happiness. In this kind of co-operation, one is constantly trying to bamboozle the other party with its most intimate image; this is precisely why difference can become representative for the monolithic unity of the universal conflict of interests, which contemporary democracy is supposed to realize with its abstract respect of another. Every maladjustment is uncultured, obsolete and not considered part of contemporary dialogue – casting doubts onto the work of the existing democratic institutions, and profoundly disturbing the crave for a participatory share in common welfare. It is precisely from this perspective that the crisis of social and political values in contemporary society should be viewed. While generating a complex bureaucratic and police apparatus to embrace even the most trivial of interests, the contemporary participatory logic simultaneously subjects these interests to profound control, and is increasingly established as the supervision of life itself (after all, every refugee has to undergo a thorough police and biopolitical check-up). The contemporary political crisis thus testifies to the fact that we are actually no longer capable of detecting the essence of political activity.

III. Activity

At this point, let us return to Julia Kristeva. There are important features to be considered in the demand for jouissance, the term which Julia Kristeva denotes as extremely important for the present day as well. First and foremost, jouissance is realized through permanent resistance: we could therefore define it as a pleasure which, in its effort to pose its demands and make them public, is forever on the brink of fatigue, and thus constantly confronted with its own emptiness. It is a demand for something that can never be achieved in its entirety; and yet it must constantly be active and test its options because this is the only possible way for public life to be changed and provoked, and its course altered and reflected on. Testifying to this fact is also the central slogan of the sixties revolution: ”we are realists ... we demand the impossible“. The demand for jouissance, as conceived by Julia Kristeva, parallels Ranciere’s demand for a differentiation between politics and the police. If the police represent the regulation and administration of the participatory interests and thus - in accordance to the order they stand for - wish to assign a place in society to everyone, politics is something entirely different. Politics always aims for something more, for a restructuring of the entire social space. The political takes place when the one outside rejects the space and position assigned to him to contribute his share to the already established unity.

What we can today learn from jouissance and its demand for the intrusion of the private, is precisely how to take action and at the same time achieve something more. The first rule of the activity of the private is that the private never really represents itself; it is only active. To put it differently: despite the fact that it constantly enters the public sphere, the private keeps its banal and unbending reality, even when it has long been inhabited by the obstinate habits of representation. Its activity has to be especially “uncivil” when the private has already become part of the system: only by continuing to be active within the system, it can preserve its permanent rebellion. The demand for political activity is thus connected with that for “constrained society, incessantly submitted to fervent and sustained disruption” (Kristeva).

It seems to me that it could nevertheless be possible to connect art and politics along these lines, but we must be very careful in doing so. It is namely not about the connection between art and police, where art is inevitably understood as culture, reflecting Trocki’s syntagm “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” The relationship between art and police namely reveals that the discourse of art is always understood as a kind of a joke about the policeman. The discourse of art is here just the one that pertains to and reflects the structure of authority, established and represented by the policeman himself. In case of the relationship between art and politics, however, it is not about the ways to talk similarly as or differently than the opponent, but about how to venture through the world of activity by means of unstable, difficult and at times uncultured mimicry. It is about a way of demanding freedom - a way, however, which is getting lost with its realization, about a committed establishing of a community where loneliness is even more conspicuous. Or, from the perspective of Hooman Sharifi’s performance which we are watching today, and to which this essay is dedicated: although constantly searching for its own jouissance, this is no longer a hedonistic activity. The jouissance namely always demands something more, it is placing us on the border of our own disappearance and at the same time we are not falling into the kind of existential emptiness. This border is constant productivity, demanding and non-conforming, constant resistance to the divisions of work and activities, permanent resistance to be transparent and represented.