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The Libidinal Economy of Inherent Vice

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“As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.”— Inherent Vice

I am a great admirer of the work of the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. So, a few years back, when he released a film based on the novel, Inherent Vice, by the quintessential postmodern author, Thomas Pynchon, I was incredibly eager to see the film. On first viewing, in one of the small back room type of screens in Copenhagen’s Grand Cinema, the film left me cold. Yes, there had been laughs, beautiful cinematography, a fantastically challenging score of both original and licensed period music, left-field but compelling performances, and the fingerprints of PTA’s direction all over the film, but the meandering plot, cryptic hippy dialogue, and disorienting editing had made it difficult for me to work out if this film had, in fact, anything to say at all. Nonetheless, I wanted to believe it did, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had missed… something. Something that would require more investment to appear. Since then, I have watched the film four times, read the novel and with a little help from Jean-François Lyotard’s “evil book”, Libidinal Economy, I can say for certain that the book and the film provide incredibly rich commentaries on that disavowed part of life in late-capitalism. The point of intersection in which unconscious sexual desire becomes the valorising engine of capital.

First, a recap. Inherent Vice (2009) is a shaggy dog story about a hippy private investigator, Lawrence “Doc” Sportello, living in L.A. at the tail end of the 1960s (which I think could really mean up until 1974ish). One night, his “ex-old-lady”, Shasta Fay Hepworth, comes around looking for help to stop the kidnapping of the billionaire land developer she’s been having an affair with, Mickey Wolfmann. This sends Doc into a world of drug-fuelled conspiracies involving a cartel/dental syndicate/schooner called “The Golden Fang”,  FBI and police corruption, Neo-Nazis and reactionary anti-hippy conservatives, junkies, prostitutes, mystics and an undead saxophonist. By the end of the novel, we are still left wondering what has transpired. Some characters are a little better off, others are worse… or worse. And we are uncomfortably left to ponder the remark of one character that “in the end, nothing really ends”.

This novel is, as other critics have remarked, Pynchon-lite. Meaning that, while the author’s unquestionable flair for prose and convoluted narratives is indisputably present in the book, he has dialled back the inscrutability that had caused so many to abandon his earlier works such as Gravity’s Rainbow. In fact, despite it being about three times as long, I would say one could read and comprehend Inherent Vice in around the same amount of time as The Crying of Lot 49, one of Pynchon’s renowned early works. The prose is great, light and playful, while, at the same time, it is always pointing in a bunch of different directions both within the text and to its outside. This pointing within the text means that the novel quasi- or satirically fulfils the genre conventions of a detective story, in which pieces of the puzzle are revealed and connected to other pieces in such a way that the story gathers momentum towards what feels like a big reveal. However, when we step back at the end and look at all these puzzle pieces, we are not presented with a coherent picture of what has occurred and why, but instead, metaphorically speaking, a blurry portrait that might be of Shasta Fay, but that also might an image of the delusional dream offered by the promise of the hippie revolution that mirrors, in a peculiar way, the delusional dream offered by the promise of freedom under free market capitalism. This is where the novel is able to point outside of the world it has built.

The way I think about this is through an argument between three French men in 1970s, carried out over two books. On the one side we have Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with the 1972 book, Anti-Oedipus, and on the other, Lyotard with 1974’s Libidinal Economy, which was written in response to the work of D&G. To put the dispute overly simply (I have to save something for the academic version of this behind a paywall), Anti-Oedipus, which is regarded by some to be the book of the Paris 68 movement, argued that we need to look beyond the structural trap of conventional leftist psychoanalysis and anti-capitalism to the underlying motivating productive force of desire, through which the world is actually constituted. Only then can we shed the oppressive shackles of things like the nation-state, the market and the Oedipal complex, and progress both as humans and beyond. And it is only through the release of desire from these shackles of conformity that this can be possible. Lyotard, however, was sceptical of this. On the one hand, he welcomed the throwing off of structuralist shackles, which he argued always, in the end, lead to nihilism, but, on the other, he thought this was a gross simplification of desire. Where D&G saw productive desire, Lyotard saw instead the potential for an intensive jouissance, a pleasure in and of destruction. And in this destructive potential of desire, Lyotard sees the undoing of an attempt to construct a simple relationship between the liberation of desire and societal emancipation. In this infamously scurrilous remark, Lyotard argues that the recruitment of the English proletariat into the factories of early industrial capitalism was not only something destructively imposed upon them, but also a kind of self-destruction that was thrilling and intensely enjoyable even as it was harmful:

“The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.” 

While we perhaps do not want to go as far as Lyotard in our own analysis of industrialisation, there is a need to examine the often disavowed truth by which a great deal of oppression is possible. There is a thrill to be in self-obliteration at the hands of power. This self-destructive impulse is something that is inherent to our desire, in Lyotard’s understanding. It is this element of desire I believe is invoked in the title of Pynchon’s novel. Self-destruction is desire’s inherent vice.

This latter concept is borrowed from a term in maritime insurance law, in which it refers to the quality of certain commodities to destroy themselves;

“Is that like original sin?” Doc wondered.

“It’s what you can’t avoid,” Saucho said, “stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo—like eggs break—but sometimes it also refers to the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?”

“Like the San Andreas Fault,” it occurred to Doc. “Rats living up in the palm trees.”

Pynchon places this conversation towards the end of the novel and it allows for a moment in which to reconceptualize what has come before. Of course, vice, be it sex drugs or rock n’ roll, has featured heavily in the narrative up until now and, of course, this book is clearly a comment on the counterculture of the 1960s and its context, how the dream was tainted. But the notion of inherent vice sets these elements in a new constellation.

There is a thill to be in self obliteration at the hands of power. This self-destructive impulse is something that is inherent to our desire, in Lyotard’s understanding. It is this element of desire I believe is invoked in the title of Pynchon’s novel. Self-destruction is desire’s inherent vice.

In the West, we are used to this reductive narrative about our cultural history. Basically, in the 60s (or the 70s if you’re in Denmark) everything changed and we became more free. We became more free in relation to sexuality, enjoyment, creative fulfilling employment and even just the ways in which we interact with one another. Sure, there were those who resisted this change but overall this has been a good thing embraced by the vast majority. And this was all done by freeing ourselves from the conventional structures we had used to govern our lives and by setting free our desires. Whether this is free from Christian morality, the concept of property, values of the nuclear family or traditional gender roles, we were escaping the mistakes of the past. There is some element of truth here but it is not so simple either. Yes, oppressive social norms that propped up sexism and racism and class exploitation needed to be broken down, but there is some unacknowledged jouissance in the smashing of the established structures that produce the inherent vice of the 60s1.

What is this inherent vice? Well, if we consider, in a fairly obvious way, Shasta to represent the “spirit” of the 1960s, and that this beautiful carefree hippy, whose pursuit of her desires cannot be contained, we start to see where this dream of freedom falls apart. Because just as in a relationship, where the person you desire reveals themself, over time, to be far more complicated than they appeared at first, this carefree pursuit of desire does not only produce pleasure, it also produces pain. Indeed the pursuit of pleasure may actually be an attempt to outrun pain and, over time as the run goes on, people become addicted to drugs, become frustrated with their lot in life, fall out of love, die. These may all seem inescapable, and many of them are, but what the hippy dream carried with it from the “straight” world was the individualised relationship we had to these problems. Meaning that chasing your bliss was still something you succeeded or failed at. The inherent vice of following your dreams is the loneliness and selfishness embedded in this pursuit.

If you just read the novel, while all this is admittedly there, it can nevertheless easily be missed. However, if you consider PTA’s film adaptation as an act of producing a reading of the novel, this theme is broadcast all the more clearly. Not only is the section on the concept of inherent vice given more time to breath, but setting its explanation in Joanna Newsom’s narration, over images of Doc and Shasta frolicking on the beach with Jonny Greenwood’s dissonantly beautiful score destabilizing the enjoyment, we understand the concept more deeply. The inherent vice of the hippy dream was a time bomb counting down to its destruction at a historical moment. And what’s more, we could also wonder about the inherent vice of the present as well.

More than anything else, I think it is Greenwood’s score that reinforces this theme throughout the film. It’s careful atonality queuing you in, not only to the paranoia of the period depicted (itself a side effect of all the reefer) but also that discomfort one can feel when they have partaken in too much of any given substance with the intention of having a good time. That uncanny vertigo that alienates you from the world around you, preventing the establishment of anything you can understand as entirely real and thus you are willing to invest in. But this is par for the course for your journey towards freedom from obligation to the “straight” world. This dream of overcoming societal expectations and norms was also the dream of finding yourself. And yourself was always already a mess of social norms mixed up with the desire to be away from of them. Simply put, defining yourself by escaping something can leave you looking over your shoulder. Something that might be as relevant today as when the novel was set.

The inherent vice of following your dreams is the loneliness and selfishness embedded in this pursuit.

Deleuze and Guattari’s desire revolution was based on the assumption that it would be built upon the dissolution of individualism (though not heterogeneity) into intensive flows of desire. We would be freed from the Oedipal structures that policed desire and legitimized capitalism, which made us suffer. What they missed, according to Lyotard, is that Oedipus might come along for the ride, even if he is in the back seat. At present, it is incredibly difficult to desire without the structures in which we are formed, which is to say, other than as individuals. The notion that escaping these individualizing forces of normative society could just be something one decided to do, as this kind of philosophy was adopted by hippy philosophy, was itself riddled with the same problematic individualism and individualized desire. This in turn set in motion a desire for new forms of self-destruction. Not all of this was worse than before, but it certainly was not what anyone imagined it would be.

At the end of the novel, we see Doc, driving through California in a haze of fog, likely both his own compound high and actual precipitation. He considers just driving on past L.A. into Mexico and beyond, the next move in a journey away from a life of conformity. Maybe there the inherent vice of this desire will follow him to the new frontier. But perhaps not. Not every egg breaks as it is shipped across the sea.

(This all needs to be more developed).

You can listen to the Ark Audio Book Club on Inherent Vice right here.


Works cited

Anderson, Paul Thomas, Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Thomas Pynchon. Inherent vice. 2015.

Deleuze, Gilles, Mark Seem, Félix Guattari, Helen R. Lane, Michel Foucault, and Robert Hurley. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London [etc.]: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Libidinal Economy. Bloomsbury USA Academic, 2015.

Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.n

  1. Also like, it didn’t end sexism, racism, homophobia or class exploitation. Seems obvious to say but just so we’re on the same page.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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