Suicide and Capitalism: Nietzsche, Žižek and Baudrillard
We are living in hard times. Americans are currently facing down the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality, economic disaster and a fascistic president. It’s very understandable that many people are ready to give up. Some of them are even wrestling with suicidal thoughts. However, instead of brushing the topic of suicide under the rug, let’s discuss it and let’s do so from a few perspectives. Obviously, there’s different forms of suicidal ideation. Some people are actually in need of immediate professional help, whereas others are dealing with thoughts of suicide in a more, for lack of a better term, existential way. It’s the latter group that I’m focused on in this post, which is why it will be a philosophical reflection on suicide and not a clinical one. I will be drawing from Lacanian psychoanalysis but in a way that is philosophically oriented. I’m going to argue that there are two types of suicide and that one of them is usually confused with the other. The vast majority of the people who have suicidal thoughts at the moment really don’t want to literally kill themselves — they desire another form of death. It’s this other suicide that we will be exploring.
I’d like to begin by considering some of the famous statements concerning suicide that existential philosophers have made. The most well-known is, of course, Albert Camus’ proclamation: ”There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 1). However, is this really the “one truly philosophical problem” or is it a problem of our times? In other words, is the philosophical problem of suicide actually a problem of modernity? Slavoj Žižek thinks so.
This brings us back to the possibility of a mythical structure in modernity, when even philosophy itself becomes reflexive in two consecutive stages. First, with the Kantian critical turn, it loses its ‘innocence’ and incorporates the questioning of its own conditions of possibility. Then, with the ‘postmodern’ turn, philosophizing becomes ‘experimental’, no longer providing unconditional answers, but playing with different ‘models’, combining different approaches which take their own failure into account in advance — all we can properly formulate is the question, the enigma, while answers are simply failed attempts to fill in the gap of this enigma.
Perhaps the best illustration of the way this reflexivity affects our everyday experience of subjectivity is the universalized status of addiction: today, one can be ‘addicted’ to anything — not only to alcohol or drugs, but also to food, smoking, sex, work. . . . This universalization of addiction signifies the radical uncertainty of any subjective position today: there are no firm predetermined patterns, everything has to be (re)negotiated again and again. And this goes even as far as suicide. Albert Camus, in his otherwise hopelessly outdated The Myth of Sisyphus, is right to emphasize that suicide is the only real philosophical problem — when, however, does it become so? Only in modern reflexive society, when life itself no longer ‘goes by itself”, as a ‘non-marked’ feature (to use the term developed by Roman Jakobson), but is ‘marked’, has to be especially motivated (which is why euthanasia is becoming acceptable). Prior to modernity, suicide was simply a sign of some pathological malfunction, despair, misery. With reflexivization, however, suicide becomes an existential act, the outcome of a pure decision, irreducible to objective suffering or psychic pathology. This is the other side of Emile Durkheim’s reduction of suicide to a social fact that can be quantified and predicted: the two moves, the objectivization/quantification of suicide and its transformation into a pure existential act, are strictly correlative.
(Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, pp. 27–8)
Žižek just said a whole lot, but the important insight is the connections he makes between modern reflexivization, life and suicide. The point is that life used to be experienced as a simple given before human beings became super-reflective in modern times, that is, people just accepted their lives for what they were and didn’t reflect on the value of life itself. Sure, some people committed suicide in ancient and feudal societies, but it was always due to some particular suffering or unique tragedy they had endured, e.g., their children dying. Things are different now. With the onset of modernity, everything started to be analyzed from a critical perspective including life (human existence) itself. This modern reflexivity is what lead Camus to question whether life in and of itself is worth living. Suicide is no longer something that merely relates to very particular human circumstances but to the very universal structure of human existence. It’s not a question of whether this or that type of life is worth living, but, instead, is life as such worth living. Thinkers such as Peter Wessel Zapffe, Thomas Ligotti and David Benatar actually argue in favor of antinatalism (the position that holds it to be immoral to have children). The antinatalist stance is one rooted firmly in the hyper-reflection of modernity insofar as it declares life itself to be bad.
So we appear to be left with an either/or: either suicide is a response to the most particular and personal facets of someone’s life or it has to do with the most universal features of existence. But is there not a third option? We are seeing large amounts of people suffering from depression, alienation, anxiety, hopelessness, etc., and these all can serve as the nihilistic engines of suicidal ideation, but do they primarily have to do with the radical particularity (the idiosyncratic details of a single individual’s life) or the radical universality (the trans-historical and trans-cultural essence all human beings have in common) of human existence? I think not. In fact, I think they’re mainly caused by a particular “universal”, that is, with the specific structure of capitalist society. People are being flooded by suicidal thoughts precisely because the neoliberal paradigm of today’s capitalism is incapable of solving the biggest problems we are currently facing.
Climate change is accelerating. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy. Wages stagnate. Political consensus is basically impossible. Racism, fascism, police brutality, white supremacy, xenophobia, scapegoating, sexism, etc., are all intensifying. Democratic-liberal institutions are in a state of decay. The mass media is broken. Academia is just job training for jobs with built-in obsolescence. Mental health is deteriorating. Wage labor has transformed into a precarious form that ceases to grant the security traditional capitalist exploitation offered. The lack of disposable income makes our consumer delights harder and harder to attain. Technology and science are still forced into being the servants of big capital. Traditional forms of religion are incapable of providing us with a politico-economic solution to our global situation. The power of art is dwindling away. Pop culture seems incapable of producing anything truly new and original. And yet capitalism is still the “best we can do”. We are suicidal because of capitalism. We are suicidal because of the fear capital unleashes. Our world is now what Paul Virilio called an “administration of fear”:
I use the expression “administration of fear” to refer to two things. First, that fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. It occupies and preoccupies us. Fear was once a phenomenon related to localized, identifiable events that were limited to a certain timeframe: wars, famines, epidemics. Today, the world itself is limited, saturated, reduced, restricting us to stressful claustrophobia: contagious stock crises, faceless terrorism, lightning pandemics, “professional” suicides (think of France Telecom). Fear is a world, panic as a “whole.”
The administration of fear also means that States are tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear. Globalization has progressively eaten away at the traditional prerogatives of States (most notably of the Welfare State), and they have to convince citizens that they can ensure their physical safety. A dual health and security ideology has been established, and it represents a real threat to democracy.
(The Administration of Fear, pp. 14–5)
Mark Fisher called the current state of the world by the name capitalist realism. This term signifies the depressing and reluctant acceptance of the idea that capitalism is the best we can do and is here to stay. “Let’s be realistic, capitalism is our only option.” Fisher says, “We are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, p. 2). Fisher goes on to argue that capitalist realism is becoming more and more haunted by the ghosts of lost futures. The void in our current global situation is the present-absence or conspicuous lack of the future. Fisher writes, “For me, the failure of the twenty-first century is that the twenty-first century has yet to really start — so, in a way, it’s a disappearance of both the present and the future” (k-punk, ‘Hauntology, Nostalgia, and Lost Futures’, p. 683). The thought of capitalism being the “best we can do” combined with the knowledge of it being what has robbed us of any meaningful and progressive future is enough to make anyone warm up to the thought of suicide. But maybe, just maybe, there is a silver lining to this thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Emil Cioran have something to teach us here. Nietzsche wrote, “The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort: it helps one through many a dreadful night” (Beyond Good and Evil, p. 91). Why would Nietzsche of all philosophers respect the thought of suicide? He, as opposed to the pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer, deeply affirmed life even with all of the suffering it entails. But notice that he praises the thought of suicide and not suicide itself. Nietzsche’s metaphysics was based on his concept of the will to power. He argued that all things are seeking to maximize their strength and power over their lives and environments. It’s crucial to make a distinction between power-to and power-over. Power-to is the will to have the power to do and become what makes you most passionately affirm your existence, what brings you to say “YES!” to the eternal return of your life. However, power-over refers to the poisonous drive to have power over other people. Now, will to power might get attached to resentful forms of power-over, but its best and purest expression is in power-to. Why? Because power-to affirms the power of others to live their best lives. The best world is one wherein we all can shout the life-affirming “YES!” for all to hear. This involves affirming the creative wills in other human beings along with your own.
But how does the will to power relate to the thought of suicide? Because the thought of suicide gives us the power to not kill ourselves; it gives us power over the suffering we are facing. The reasoning works like this: “Life seems to be nothing but agony so I should just kill myself and be done with it, but do I really have to kill myself right now? No! I have the freedom to kill myself whenever I like, which means I can put it off one more day.” As Cioran wonderfully put it, “I live only because it is in my power to die when I choose to: without the idea of suicide, I’d have killed myself right away” (All Gall Is Divided, p. 87). In an ironic twist, it’s the thought of suicide that gives us to power to go on living. In an interview with Katie Forster for The Guardian titled ‘We are all basically evil, egotistical, disgusting’, Žižek provided us with a perfect example of the comforting power of the thought of suicide in action. He says about himself, “Writing saved my life. Years ago, because of some private love troubles, I was in a suicidal mood for a couple of weeks. I told myself: ‘I could kill myself, but I have a text to finish. First I will finish it, then I will kill myself.’ Then there was another text, and so on and so on, and here I still am.” Žižek used the thought of suicide in collaboration with his life (his passion for writing books, his will to power) to continue living until he was no longer suicidal. The idea of suicide kept him alive by giving him power over his pain (he could put an end to the pain whenever he felt like it).
For us, the idea is to weaponize the thought of suicide against the capitalist system that produces it in the first place. We weaponize it by committing suicide, but, I must stress, not in the literal sense. There is a suicide committed just so we can actually live and not literally die. We must commit this suicide so we can fully live our lives and not end them — a suicide committed in the name of life is the goal. There is a suicide that leads to life. We will see that our battle is suicide versus capital.
Above, I mentioned two types of suicide and now it’s time to explore them. The distinction is between literal suicide and symbolic suicide. The former is what we mean when we say someone committed suicide; it’s when a person actually ends their biological existence. Symbolic suicide is altogether something else; it’s when a person destroys or escapes from their social identity or their position in society. This is not a literal death, but, rather, a social one. Here’s how Žižek defines it: “Symbolic suicide: an act of “losing all,” of withdrawing from symbolic reality, that enables us to begin anew from the “zero point,” from that point of absolute freedom called by Hegel “abstract negativity”” (Enjoy Your Symptom!, p. 43). Yet despite the fact that symbolic suicide is not the act of ending one’s biological reality, it can be just as difficult. Throughout the course of our lives, we become so utterly invested in our social identities that it can be extremely hard to free ourselves from them — but it’s not absolutely impossible. There is an aspect of our ourselves that can aid us in this endeavor. Some part of us always wants to explode our social identities and its name is death drive. But, before discussing death drive and how it relates to symbolic suicide, let’s flesh out what a social identity is.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that there are three main orders or registers to human existence and they are the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. These orders can be thought of as the three main domains, spaces or areas that make up the psyche. Each of these orders contribute various structures and features that make us the type of beings we are. The Imaginary mainly involves our egos and all of the things we consciously identify with. The Symbolic refers to languages, laws, rules, customs, codes, social positions, etc. Finally, the Real has to do with the unconscious, death drive, fundamental fantasy, enjoyment (jouissance), etc. Here’s how Žižek explains the three orders:
For Lacan, the reality of human beings is constituted by three intertangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. This triad can be nicely illustrated by the game of chess. The rules one has to follow in order to play it are its symbolic dimension: from the purely formal symbolic standpoint, ‘knight’ is defined only by the moves this figure can make. This level is clearly different from the imaginary one, namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which this figure would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever. Finally, real is the entire complex set of contingent circumstances that affect the course of the game: the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one player or directly cut the game short.
(How to Read Lacan, pp. 8–9)
However, symbolic suicide primarily relates to the Symbolic and the Imaginary. For example, take a professional baseball player. This person is a baseball player because they base their identity on the idealized image of a great baseball player. This image is the person’s ideal ego. Now, the ego is the ego only by making a series of (mis)identifications. A baseball player identifies with bats, jerseys, team logos, other baseball players, etc. None of these things are actually the player, but the player produces a sense of self (ego) by making a (mis)identification with them. “Oh, that’s me!” But our Symbolic identities are different from our Imaginary identities while still being connected to them. The baseball player’s Symbolic identity is comprised of the social status it brings and by the rules the player must follow (the rules of baseball).
But what happens if this baseball player decides to break apart this identity? What if the player decides to walk away from baseball and never play again? A symbolic suicide occurs. The person is not literally dead but a death has happened nonetheless. This death is that of a social identity. Abstractly speaking, it seems relatively easy to commit this suicide, but, concretely speaking, it can be unthinkable. Just imagine how much of this person’s life has been invested in building and cultivating this social identity. This process could’ve began early on in childhood. On top of that, there’s the question of how the person will support themselves. Walking away from your profession usually entails walking away from your livelihood. Symbolic suicide is no easy task, since it hurls one into a space Lacan called the “between two deaths”. Here, a person is stuck between symbolic death and actual death — neither (socially) alive nor (literally) dead. Lacan’s prime example of this is the character Antigone from Sophocles’ play named after her. As Žižek puts it, “Is not Lacan’s analysis of Antigone focused on the moment when she finds herself in the state ‘in between the two deaths’, reduced to a living death, excluded from the symbolic domain?” (The Ticklish Subject, p. 189).
Long story short, Polynices, Antigone’s brother, has died in battle, but due to the surrounding circumstances, the King (his name is Creon) is refusing to allow Polynices to have a proper burial or even to be mourned. Well, Antigone is having none of that shit. She gets caught defying Creon and is forced to go talk to him about it. She basically says, “Yeah, I mourned my brother, you piece of shit! Fuck you! I serve God’s Law and not yours! I stand by what I did and, on top of that, I unconditionally demand that you let my brother have a respectable burial!” Creon is a little bitch, so he has Antigone buried alive in a tomb (symbolic death, first death). Creon eventually decides to change his mind, but it’s already too late. Tragically, Antigone has hung herself (literal death, second death). But don’t worry, Fuckboi Creon ends up getting what’s coming to him. His son and wife kill themselves directly because of his choice to entomb Antigone. See, the son was in love with Antigone, so he kills himself once he learns of her death. Then the son’s mother, in turn, kills herself because the son killed himself. Hey Creon, that’s what you get for being a coward. You rotten fuck, you! The end. Ok, but let’s focus on the relevant aspects of the story. Here’s how Žižek sums it up:
Let us begin with Antigone who, according to Lacan, irradiates a sublime beauty from the very moment she enters the domain between two deaths, between her symbolic and her actual death. What characterizes her innermost posture is precisely her insistence on a certain unconditional demand on which she is not prepared to give way: a proper burial for her brother. It is the same with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who returns from his grave with the demand that Hamlet revenge his infamous death. This connection between drive as an unconditional demand and the domain between the two deaths is also visible in popular culture. In the film The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg who returns to contemporary Los Angeles from the future, with the intention of killing the mother of a future leader. The horror of this figure consists precisely in the fact that it functions as a programmed automaton who, even when all that remains of him is a metallic, legless skeleton, persists in his demand and pursues his victim with no trace of compromise or hesitation. The terminator is the embodiment of the drive, devoid of desire.
(Looking Awry, pp. 21–2)
The reason why Antigone was willing to risk it all was because she had an unconditional demand (“Bury my brother!”). It didn’t matter to her if it cost her social life. She made the ethical choice to choose her demand over the comfort, pleasure and security of her social identity. Now we can see how the death drive is operative within symbolic suicide. Death drive is not a drive to literally die. No! It’s a drive that seeks to destroy our social selves and all the baggage (limitations, restrictions) they bring with them. It’s a “will” to begin again, to free ourselves from the fixity of our Imaginary-Symbolic identities. As Lacan said of the death drive, “Will to destruction. Will to make a fresh start. . . . Freud’s thought in this matter requires that what is involved be articulated as a destruction drive, given that it challenges everything that exists. But it is also a will to create from zero, a will to begin again” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 212). As Žižek pointed out, Antigone’s death drive became aligned to her unconditional demand and it was precisely this assemblage that allowed her to commit symbolic suicide (refusing to accept the commands of Creon). David Hume said of actual suicide, “If suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbour, or ourselves” (Selected Essays, ‘On Suicide’, p. 316). Maybe, maybe not, when it comes to literal suicide, but what about symbolic suicide? Isn’t it just the reverse? Is it not the case that oftentimes the ethical thing to do is to commit symbolic suicide? It certainly was in the case of Antigone and that’s why she’s still celebrated to this today. Sometimes, symbolic suicide is one’s duty.
Ok, ok, ok, but what does all of this have to do with our current situation? Everything! Everything, I tell you! There is one symbolic suicide we must all commit in order to ensure a future for ourselves, for all future generations and for the planet itself. The suicide of the consumer in all of us. The one social identity behind all others. We must sacrifice the consumer “self” for the sake of the future. This symbolic suicide is the price for a new and better life, since this identity is what keeps us existentially and libidinally invested in capitalism. We hate capitalism but we enjoy what it allows to be. Is it any surprise that, by and large, class consciousness withered away as the Postwar consumer society took hold? Consumerism is the pacification of the proletariat; it’s is what makes us enjoy our own exploitation and precarity. But the consumer “self” is a bribe. Capital says, “I will give you all kinds of commodities to build your identity off of and I will flood you with all kinds of entertainment to enjoy, so long as you leave me to pursue my own devices!” Our parents and our grandparents took the bribe. Many of us have taken it, too. But it’s time to change things. In the words of Rage Against the Machine, “We gotta take the power back!”
How is this symbolic suicide to be accomplished? The answer is through what Baudrillard called symbolic exchange. This form of exchange is fundamentally opposed to that of economic (capitalist) exchange due to the fact that it involves the exchange of symbols/gifts (singularities) instead of signs/quantities (equivalents). Capitalism is an automated system of pre-programmed, coded exchanges rooted in the principle of equivalence, for example, $4 is equivalent to a cup of coffee. The coffee and the money exchange on the basis of a quantitive system of value that exists separately from the buyer and the seller of the coffee. There is no meaningful connection forged between you and a cashier in the exchange of money for a commodity for the very reason that the two quantitive values exchange themselves within the autonomous system of exchange. Neither your personhood nor the the personhood of the cashier comes into play in the quantitive exchange of equivalents.
Capitalism has forced the quantitative money-relation and the principle of equivalence into all aspects of our lives for the sake of capital accumulation, for the efficiency and the speed of the growth of capital. Max Weber said, “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all peoples not under a capitalist influence” (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 18). In fact, capitalism’s hyper-quantification stands as a threat to the future itself. Take it away, Virilio: “I am surprised to see how many of the decisive issues of our future turn to the advantage of the quantitative at the expense of the qualitative. I do not think that we can deal with future history purely in quantitative terms. If we do so, in a certain way, we are leaving History. By studying problems from a quantitative point of view, we are paradoxically led to solutions that break powerfully and qualitatively with our true life. . . . I cannot accept being enclosed in numbers, in a numerological cult” (The Administration of Fear, pp. 62–3).
Baudrillard offered us an alternative vision of exchange, one that prioritizes the creation of social bonds, and this is what symbolic exchange is all about. This concept was deeply inspired by Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, which is a sociological text that shows how reciprocity and gift exchange worked in archaic (tribal, indigenous) societies. The example that most impacted Baudrillard was that of potlatch, a gift-giving feast, in the Pacific Northwest. From Mauss’ descriptions of potlatch, Baudrillard formulated his concept of symbolic exchange. Here’s how he explained it:
In symbolic exchange, of which the gift is our most proximate illustration, the object is not an object: it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value. The object given has symbolic exchange value. This is the paradox of the gift, it is on the one hand (relatively) arbitrary: it matters little what object is involved. Provided it is given, it can fully signify the relation. On the other hand, once it has been given — and because of this — it is this object and not another. The gift is unique, specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange. It is arbitrary, and yet absolutely singular.
As distinct from language, whose material can be disassociated from the subjects speaking it, the material of symbolic exchange, the objects given, are not autonomous, hence not codifiable as signs. Since they do not depend on economic exchange, they are not amenable to systemization as commodities and exchange value.
What constitutes the object as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other (ob-jicere); one divests himself as if of a part of himself — an act which is significant in itself as the basis, simultaneously, of both the mutual presence of the terms of the relationship, and their mutual absence (their distance). The ambivalence of all symbolic exchange material (looks, objects, dreams, excrement) derives from this: the gift is a medium of relation and distance; it is always love and aggression.
(For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, ‘The Ideological Genesis of Needs’, pp. 64–5).
These paragraphs are packed full of fantastic insights, but what we should take away from them is that the gift given in the act of symbolic exchange has no pre-programmed or coded equivalent. There is no way for it to be immediately integrated into a system. Simply put, there is no scripted response to it, since it is a singularity exchanged between “two persons” or groups outside of a generalized system of exchanges. What in our particular situation would be the ultimate instance of symbolic exchange? Our death, of course! Suicide has always been a taboo in our liberal-capitalist societies, but why? You’d think that liberalism, with all its permissiveness, would champion the right to kill oneself. However, in capitalist society, suicide is a subversive action. There is an antagonism between suicide and capital for a very significant reason that Baudrillard pinpointed:
The prohibition of suicide coincides with the advent of the law of value. Whether religious, moral or economic, the same law states ‘no-one has the right to remove any capital or value’. Yet each individual is a parcel of capital (just as every Christian is a soul to be saved), and therefore has no right to destroy himself. It is against this orthodoxy of value that the suicide revolts by destroying the parcel of capital he has at his disposal. This is unpardonable: we will go so far as to hang the suicide for having succeeded. It is therefore symptomatic that suicide increases in a society saturated by the law of value, as a challenge to its fundamental rule. But we must also take another look at its definition: if every suicide becomes subversive in a highly integrated system, all subversion of and resistance to this system is reciprocally, by its very nature, suicidal. Those actions at least that strike at its vitals. For the majority of so-called ‘political’ or ‘revolutionary’ practices are content to exchange their survival with the system, that is, to convert their death into cash. There are rarely suicides that stand against the controlled production and exchange of death, against the exchange-value of death; not its use-value (for death is perhaps the only thing that has no use-value, which can never be referred back to need, and so can unquestionably be turned into a weapon) but its value as rupture, contagious dissolution and negation.
(Symbolic Exchange and Death, pp. 175–6)
In other words, in a capitalist society, you’re not even free to die so long as there is still labour power flowing through your body. Your body (energy) gets transformed into a source of living capital (surplus-value), which means that if you destroy it, you, then, are a criminal, a thief, the lowest of the low. This is why Baudrillard sees suicide as a subversive act.
To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death. Nothing, not even the system, can avoid the symbolic obligation, and it is in this trap that the only chance of a catastrophe for capital remains. The system turns on itself, as a scorpion does when encircled by the challenge of death. For it is summoned to answer, if it is not to lose face, to what can only be death. The system must itself commit suicide in response to the multiplied challenge of death and suicide.
(Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 37)
Our suicide doesn’t necessarily mean literally killing ourselves. It means killing the part of us that identifies with and enjoys capitalism while also meaning being willing to die in order to put an end to this system. This death is death from our consumer lifestyles, from the “gifts” of the consumer society. This is our symbolic suicide. If we all said to capitalism that we would rather fucking die than let capitalism continue to exist, if we exchanged the “gifts” of consumerism with the countergift of our death (symbolic suicide), then capitalism would itself be forced to give the countergift of its own “suicide” (this would be its symbolic obligation). We commit this suicide not only for a new life, for the true life, but also to actually die one day on our own terms and not because of an “external accident” brought on by capitalism. In Žižek’s words:
The Freudian death drive means that the subject wants to die, but to die in its own way, according to its own inner path, not as the result of an external accident. There is always a gap between the two, between the death drive as “transcendental” tendency and the contingent accident which kills me. Suicide is a desperate (and ultimately failed) attempt to bring the two dimensions together. There is a nice scene in a Hollywood horror movie in which a desperate young woman, alone in her bedroom, is about to kill herself when suddenly the horrible creature attacking the city breaks into the room and attacks her — the woman then fights back desperately, since although she wanted to die, this was not the death she wanted.
(Living in the End Times, pp. 297)
And now we can tie it all together. Yes, many of us are being bombarded with suicidal thoughts, but do we truly want to die? No, what we want is a better, freer life. We are stuck between the inability to live life to the fullest and the inability to go through with actual suicide. This double inability is what’s driving us to obsess over the thought of suicide. Cioran said, “The obsession with suicide is characteristic of the man who can neither live nor die, and whose attention never swerves from this double impossibility” (The New Gods, p. 115). The Baudrillardian answer is to reverse the situation by way of the countergift. The capitalist system gives us the “gift” of suicidal ideation, so now let’s wholeheartedly receive its challenge and respond with the collective countergift of our symbolic suicides. Our unconditional demand is for a postcapitalist society wherein we have the freedom to live meaningful lives based symbolic exchange instead of nihilistic “lives” rooted in the soulless stupidity of consumerism. We sacrifice our consumer identities and throw them at the feet of capital itself. We die this symbolic death not only for our own sakes but out of an ethical duty to future generations and to the Earth. We are not alone in this, since the death drive is always-already dead set on destroying our Imaginary-Symbolic identities. And yet this symbolic suicide fights for the liberation of the will to power, for the freedom to have lives we radically affirm in the face of the thought of eternal return. There is but one truly capitalist problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of capitalism. We are all Antigone now.
I want to wake up in Los Angeles during the summer of ’87. No time to waste. Roads circle in on themselves. I am filled with deadlocks. I wish I was waiting for the return of my video nights. Instead, I await Moses and Elijah. I would prefer not to. Spirit meets death drive. Bible-chains. From Revelation 11 to Malachi 4. Pixilate the breath of God. My heart is a sprite. Street lights once sheltered many dreams and many more promises. That perfect house I never got was my birthright. American highways raised the dusky sky higher than it could on its own. I refuse to forget. I want to forget. I just want peace. The lake in Suburbia gazes its last gaze. Even the ducks reject its simulation. Let us play Nintendo one last time. “I” should be buried inside of a dead mall (any of them will do). I want to meet up with the ones I love on that beach I never saw with my eyes but always knew in my heart. The microscopic breaks the world while I commit a neon suicide. I demand the future! Now and forever . . . I live by the groove.