One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

read on!

Now, if there’s some legitimate dispute as to whether the brain is the efficient cause of depression or anxiety disorders or whether or not these mentalities should be traced back to social structure, then this has to do with the skyrocketing instances of autism, depression, anxiety disorders, dyslexia, etc., etc., etc., in our world today. Why is it that these mentalities have grown exponentially in the way they have during the last century? The standard line of argument is that these mentalities have always existed in these numbers and it was only during the last century that we came to name them and therefore notice them. This glosses the fact that names and etiologies for many of these mentalities have existed for centuries. What changed in the last century was not so much the emergence of a new set of categories that didn’t exist before (though certainly these taxonomies have grown), but rather the emergence of a set of hypotheses as to the causes of these mentalities. The fact that these mentalities have become ubiquitous suggests that something has changed in our relation to the world to produce a rise in instances of these mentalities. Moreover, we’ve seen other mentalities simultaneously decline and all but disappear such as hysteria and obsession which today are the equivalent of endangered species where mentalities are concerned. Given that genetically we’re largely identical to those that preceded us, it follows that causation must be sought elsewhere.

The important feature of Fisher’s distinction between instantiation and causation is that it allows us to maintain both domains (the neurological and the social). However in Fisher’s proposal we still have an ontological question as to what the world must be like in order for what he claims to be possible. And this requires a theory of objects and relations between objects. The autopoietic theorists provide the beginnings of just such an account under the title of “structural coupling”. As articulated by the Encyclopedia Autopoietica,

Structural coupling is the term for structure-determined (and structure- determining) engagement of a given unity with either its environment or another unity. The process of engagement which effects a “…history or recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 75). It is ‘…a historical process leading to the spatio-temporal coincidence between the changes of state..’ (Maturana, 1975, p. 321) in the participants. As such, structural coupling has connotations of both coordination and co-evolution.

During the course of structural coupling, each participating system is, with respect to the other(s), a source (and a target) of perturbations. Phrased in a slightly different way, the participating systems reciprocally serve as sources of compensable perturbations for each other. These are ‘compensable’ in the senses that (a) there is a range of ‘compensation’ bounded by the limit beyond which each system ceases to be a functional whole and (b) each iteration of the reciprocal interaction is affected by the one(s) before. The structurally-coupled systems ‘will have an interlocked history of structural transformations, selecting each other’s trajectories.’ (varela, 1979, pp. 48-49)

Structural coupling, then, is the process through which structurally-determined transformations in each of two or more systemic unities induces (for each) a trajectory of reciprocally-triggered change.

Structural coupling is thus a relation between two systems in which one or both system enters into a relation with another system such that perturbations from the one system come to preside over the trajectory of states in the second system. These relations can be either asymmetrical or symmetrical. Thus, for example, the relation between a plant in the sun is asymmetrical in the sense that the plant comes to be locked into the rhythms of the sun (it’s rising and setting), but the sun does not itself modify its behavior in response to the flower. The sun provides certain “perturbations” that the plant becomes responsive to over time, leading to actualizations of particular sort. This behavior can be modified under certain conditions (i.e., it’s not programmed into the DNA of the plant) through the use of artificial lighting. Here the manner in which the plant actualizes itself becomes very different. By contrast, symmetrical structural coupling can be seen in the instance of two cells in the body that come to coordinate their ongoing movement as a response to hormones released by one another. All cells begin by being pluripotent such that they can become any type of cell in the body (nerve cells, blood cells, muscle cells, liver cells, bone cells, etc). In this respect, cells begin a virtualities with the possibility for many local manifestations. One of the ways in which the actualization of cells becomes “fixed” in a particular way is through hormonal interactions with other cells. One cell produces a particular hormone leading another cell to actualize itself in a particular way and that other cell, in return, produces another hormone leading the initiating cell to actualize itself in a particular way. What you thus get over time is a sort of symbiotic system where the two cells perpetually produce perturbations that lead to rhythmic coordination of activity between the two cells.

All of this initially seems remote from Fisher’s meditations about the difference between instantiation and causation in the case of mentalities. However, the point here is that to make sense of Fisher’s thesis we need to begin with a conception of human bodies as “pluripotent”, capable of actualizing many different actualities, or characterized by a virtual dimension of attractors that can take on very different trajectories or local manifestations. In other words, absent this we risk confusing the human body with any of its local manifestations in history (reducing the human body to its actualization within any particular currently existing network of social relations) such that the thesis loses its critical edge. We end up confusing the proper being of this object, the human body, with its actualization or local manifestation. However, the mapping of the virtual dimension of human bodies is important for another reason as well. Through the mapping of the virtualities or attractors that characterize this sort of object it now becomes possible to examine structural couplings between human bodies and social systems that are pathological in character. What sorts of structural couplings generate sad structural couplings where, by virtue of the impossibility of navigating the perturbations generated by the other object, the social system, the neurological system effectively breaks down and withdraws? The mapping of virtuality and structural couplings between different strata of objects thus allows 1) a plotting of pathological social structures that lead to the effective collapse of one type of structure, the body (as typified in anxiety disorders, schizophrenias, and depressive disorders), but also 2) the suggestion of other alternative forms of mentality that might be produced through other structural couplings to the social system and other ways of organizing the social system. However, while the politicization of affectivity and mentality should be a key terrain in struggles against post-Fordist, neo-liberal systems of capital (and here the work of Massumi, Protevi, and DeLanda are especially important), what should be avoided is the blaming of those who suffer (as we’ve sometimes seen here in the blogosphere) for simultaneously treating their malady as social and political and highly individual and in need of relief.