Reviewed by Conrad Hamilton
Who remembers Max Stirner? Foil to Marx when he launched a fusillade of challenges against the German philosophical establishment of the mid-1840s, Stirner has long since been relegated to a footnote in the unfolding of scientific socialism. Yes, it’s admitted, he helped alert Marx to the perils of Feuerbach’s humanism, which dubs God a necessary conceit of Man at the cost of naturalising godliness. But if Stirner’s critique is of the narrowness of Feuerbach’s ethical edifice, how can he justify advocating self-interest or ‘egoism’ as the way forward? And if this isn’t what he’s advocating, if what he wants instead is – as certain recent commentators have contended – a sort of inverse subject emptied of fixed ideas, how can this serve as the pillar upon which to construct a positive system?
The tension between these two views – of Stirner as petit-bourgeois purveyor of selfishness versus Stirner as post-Hegelian provocateur – traverses Eliot Rosenstock’s new book, The Ego and Its Hyperstate: A Psychoanalytically Informed Dialectical Analysis of Self-Interest. As its onerous subtitle implies, the basic goal of the book is to read Stirner via psychoanalysis, filling in the gaps of his egoism with the DNA of Freud’s ego (or ‘das Ich’). At its best, this ad-hoc approach parlays the (recently acquired) status of Stirner as online fetish-object and subject of a thousand memes into a fairly nimble synthesis of Hegel and Freud. At its worst, it raises questions about the intellectual bona fides of the project – in particular, of how compatible the Freudian ego is with the voided Hegelian subject Rosenstock inherits from Stirner.
Hyperstate is divided into two parts, book-ended by an introduction and an ‘Afterwards’ – not to be confused, presumably, with an ‘Afterword.’ In the introduction, Rosenstock provides a broad outline of his project. Self-interest, he tells, is often treated as a ‘dirty concept’, as being akin to the ‘libidinal death-driv[e] of kings, capitalists, and criminals’ (2). But far from being synonymous with the putting forth of ‘simple immediate demand[s] contra society at large’, seen through a psychoanalytic prism self-interest appears as a ‘process’ in which the ego, compelled to misrecognise itself, engages in a ‘dreamlike’ distortion of reality so as to justify its own ends (3). This process, through which the form of reality is shaped by the ‘concrete material of self-interest’ (5), Rosenstock refers to as the ‘hyperstate.’ And should we apply it as a ‘metalogic,’ we will see that both the ‘power hungry’ (2) as well as those who ‘sing the song of reality contra self-interest’ (3) are equally beholden to self-interest – although the latter have learned to better filter it through ‘language’ and the ‘group rationality’ (3) it grounds.
While the introduction of Hyperstate is content largely to describe the eponymous term, it is in the book’s first section – ‘Essential Properties of Psychonalytic Self-Interest’ – that Rosenstock sets about telling us how it functions. In the work of Freud, the items of the psyche are capable of being condensed so that they extend into ‘material reality.’ In his Interpretation of Dreams, for instance, Freud links a female patient’s dream of the planting of eucalyptus trees by Trappist monks to a broken-off engagement with a Mr. Dry (or ‘Drei’ in German) on account of his alcoholism. Important here for Rosenstock is that the eucalyptus trees are not just decorative products of fantasy – they have also ‘scientifically been determined to transform swamps into ground which can then be traversed’ (21). The fantasy engendered by self-interest ‘sticks to everything’ (14) no matter how seemingly rational – if protesters ‘tear down statues’ (18), for instance, this is really part of a ‘fantasy of performing an exorcism of the American nation from its sins’ (19). Yet at the same time to manifest effectively, self-interest must delicately balance ‘the negativity’ of the ‘unconscious will’ and the ‘positivity of the demand.’ The ‘primordial desires’ that reside within the will are insatiable; if left unchecked, they will bring about a politics of ‘obfuscation and mysticism’ (24); of violence waged in the name of a religious ideal. On the other hand however the articulation of an ‘immediate demand’ will never be sufficient for a ‘universal politics’ (24) – something apparent in the recent disputes over COVID, which have pit a ‘maskless vitalism’ secretly beholden to the ‘material forces of capital’ (27) against a ‘will-toward-health’ (28) that wishes to use the cancellation of the enjoyment of others as a staging ground for its politics. Rosenstock concludes the section with a short commentary on identity formation, in which he argues that the destiny of self-interest is to be transmitted and congealed in the form of identities and institutions. This process inevitably generates complexities: to identify as ‘black’ for example requires that one recognise their own identity as simultaneously real and unreal (in the sense that race is the consequence of the social relation of self-interest projected onto reality).
While Rosenstock hints at the political application of his theory of the hyperstate in the book’s first section, it is in the second – ‘Dialectical Egoism: Vectors of Self-Interest’ – that this angle is fully developed. This takes the form of a four-term dialectic: from ‘A: Universal Movements’ to ‘B: The Good Cause’, to ‘C: The Communal and Interpersonal’ and to ‘D: Pure Unconscious Rational Force.’ As in clinical therapy as in politics, Rosenstock tells us in A, there exists a ‘superegoic tension’ between personal adherence to a general ideal and ‘the helping of the other’ (50). Communism as a ‘myth’ has the ability to ‘carry people who may have opposite demands in the direction of a unitary goal’ (60) – something evidenced by its ability to address different forms of social justice (racial, economic-distributive, etc.) But as the spectacular dissolution of the USSR shows, the articulation of ‘an ideal within a [single] country will be doomed to contradiction,’ due to the way it posits a ‘subject-supposed-to-know know-how’ who can make ‘general morality intelligible’ (54) at the cost of decisively separating ‘right or law’ from ‘morality’ (55) – something with which Rosenstock equally charges the ‘empty dut[y]’ (56) of voting.
In term B, Rosenstock delineates what is required for the negative will to push the ‘articulations of an ideal’ – or the ‘Good Cause’ – ’through the world’. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a ‘post-racist’ (67) capitalist society can perhaps seem naïve; nevertheless, his brilliance was to masterfully project an ideal into the world without making himself a single, ‘total re-writer of history’ (74), as with, for example, Stalin. This is expanded on, in C, in a description of the way that the will manifests positively through three stages – —Agreement, Identity and Order, whereas there often exists a residual tension between the ‘negativity’ of the will and ‘posited identit[ies]’ (92). In D Rosenstock reproaches Hegel for being ‘not Hegelian enough’ (95) insofar as he ignores the ‘negative force of the unconscious’ (94) by attempting to subordinate it to the ethical life of the state, before concluding by praising Stirner and critiquing Kantian and Hegelian subjects for being at bottom over-unified expressions of the ‘maxim of peace’ (100).
That Rosenstock sees Hegel as a proponent of an ‘Absolute peaceful subject’ (99), of false dialectical unity, is telling regarding how his system functions (and given that Hyperstate seems to ape the expansive and uninhibited style of a nineteenth-century treatise, describing it as a ‘system’ seems appropriate). Several commentators – among them Slavoj Žižek and Gillian Rose – have credibly made the case that the decisive element in Hegel’s thought is not positivity but negativity: Žižek, for instance, claims that in the Philosophy of Right the impoverished ‘rabble’, who ‘do NOT find’ recognition within the ‘existing social order’, have ‘the right to rebel’ (Žižek 2012: 116). Given that Rosenstock’s last book, Žižek in the Clinic, was an attempt to adapt his work for clinical use, it’s surprising then that the author applies such a traditional, synthetic reading of Hegel here. Yet this makes sense when one considers the centrality of Stirner to his system: if Hegel is a thinker of irresolution, of never-ending agonism, then there is no unearned totality against which the concrete ego or flesh-and-blood individual of Stirner can be pitted.
Of course, flesh-and-blood is rarely as simple as it sounds, and the same can be said of the ‘Ego’ or ‘self-interest’ of Hyperstate. In Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own there exists a constitutive tension between, as Rosenstock states, Stirner’s desire to be more Hegelian than Hegel and his resurrection of the Kantian is-ought distinction, so that any revolution that depends upon moral idealism or an ought (Sollen) can be charged with clinging undialectically to fixed ideas. All of this raises the question: is Stirner an egoist, in the sense of taking Hegel to his apotheosis, or an egotist, in the sense of schilling for threadbare bourgeois individualism? For Marx in The German Ideology this opposition was a false one – if ‘Saint Max’ can’t get beyond the bourgeois individual, it’s because he starts from the same abstract premises as Hegel. But whereas Hegel’s commitment to negativity means that he leaves the door open for a decisive subsumption of individuality, Stirner’s undialectical supposition of the concrete ego makes him more pre-Hegelian than post-Hegelian.
Rosenstock admittedly adds some panache to this dialectical deadlock by yoking together Stirner’s egoism with the ego of psychoanalysis. It would be unfair to the author to suggest this association rests on a mistranslation – Stirner’s ego (Der Einzige, ‘the Unique One’) is not the same as Freud’s das Ich, and the confusion in the literature mostly seems to stem from John Clark’s 1976 work Max Stirner’s Egoism. Still, the problem is that by supplementing Stirner with psychoanalysis, Rosenstock produces something like an equilibrated discourse of modernity, in which the ego must balance precariously between the negativity of the will and the positivity of the demand. Thus the vanishing point of Hegelian thought is even further obscured, and what we’re left with as regards politics are warmed-over abstractions – of what use is it to know for instance that racism exists because of ‘self-interest’? The corollary of this are takes that are sometimes strikingly banal: if the goal of Hyperstate is – as everything about its presentation suggests – to advance radically new ideas, it’s strange Rosenstock would think acclaiming Martin Luther King Jr. as more successful than Stalin is the way to do it.
For the sake of intellectual honesty we must add a caveat to these criticisms. Taking Hegel more seriously than Rosenstock does as a thinker of negativity means acknowledging that Marx as much as Freud and Stirner does not completely succeed in getting beyond him. Indeed, if Hegel’s message is – at bottom – that thought always outstrips itself, how could he? Hyperstate of course is not on par with the titanic accomplishments of these authors – not much of an insult. But with his sophomore work Rosenstock has taken on a very difficult problem, and shown more than a soupcon of creativity in trying to resolve it. The book ends with a couple of rhetorical questions which channel Gladiator, part of a fondness for citing films half Žižekian homage and half down to the author’s Angeleno heritage. ‘Is it not beautiful? Are you not entertained?’ (112) Entertained, sure. And with a little more time and extremity, Rosenstock’s intellectual constructs could be beautiful too – like the colossal performances of Maximus, who learned well the art of violence before conquering the world with his will.
1 August 2021
- 2012 From Democracy to Divine Violence Democracy in What State? New York: Columbia University Press.