The Pleasure Principle Meets the Performance Principle: Gary Numan, Marcuse, and Neoliberalism

So I think Gary Numan’s work—I’m thinking Tubeway Army & Pleasure Principle stuff—is a really helpful example of the ways neoliberalism and “global/info” capital reworks the structuring binaries of classical liberalism and commodity capitalism. Binaries like public/private, authentic/alienated, use/exchange—these all ground classical liberalism and commodity capitalism. Marx, for example, relies on all of them (public/private in “On the Jewish Question,” authentic/alienated and use/exchange in German Ideology & Capital); public, authentic, and use value are positively valued, private, alienated, and exchange value are problematized. Numan’s work shows that by the late 70s, at least in US and UK youth cultures, these binaries weren’t as meaningful as they once were. Or at least they weren’t particularly significant to the structures of subjectivity by which late Boomers and early Gen Xers were interpellated. Kids those days, or at least the kids who liked Numan’s work (which obviously weren’t all children or teens), didn’t find conventionally drawn public/private, authentic/alienated, and use/exchange binaries compelling ways of describing or evaluating their experiences. Or, classical liberalism, and even radical critiques of classical liberalism (like Marx), didn’t seem to provide the kind of resistance or alternative to Reaganomics and Thatcherism that some of these kids wanted/needed/got excited about. In the discussion after my panel at this year’s philoSOPHIA conference, I kept inarticulately gesturing to this, saying something like “Yeah, nobody cares about alienation anymore, GARY NUMAN DUH.”[i] I want to take the time to explain that argument here.  It’s worth further exploration because, as I’ll discuss at the end, this move away from alienation and classically liberal aesthetics deeply affects pop music aesthetics, especially the role of (stereotypical) blackness and black music in the white musical mainstream and avant-garde.
The clearest, easiest way into this argument is by contrasting Numan’s album The Pleasure Principlewith Marcuse’s psychoanalytic/Marxist work Eros & Civilization, where he develops his idea of “the performance principle” in contrast to the Freudian notion of “eros” or pleasure/desire/life.
In short, Marcuse thinks that Enlightenment (instrumental) rationality forces us to repress desire and pleasure, to sublimate our erotic energies into the production of “civilized” (docile) bodies and surplus value. As Marcuse puts it:
reason was defined as an instrument of constraint, of instinctual suppression; the domain of the instincts, sensuousness, was considered as eternally hostile and detrimental to reason. The categories in which philosophy has comprehended the human existence have retained the connection between reason and suppression: whatever belongs to the sphere of sensuousness, pleasure, impulse has the connotation of being antagonistic to reason—something that has to be subjugated, constrained” (159).
We can’t enjoy, we have to perform, in a really Weberian-protestant-work-ethic kinda way. We do this by repressing our libidinal, erotic energies—what pleases us, what we enjoy, our desires—and channeling them instead into alienated labor. Marcuse calls this repression “the performance principle.” It is “the violent and exploitative productivity which made man into an instrument of labor” (199).
Pleasure is the opposite of performance; pleasure—or Eros—liberates us from the repression commanded by the performance principle. According to Marcuse, “liberation is the work of Eros” (166) because it sutures alienation and re-unites us with ourselves, our desires, our pleasures and our capacity to play (to engage in non-teleological, non-goal or performance-oriented action). If we liberate Eros, we can create a society in which “wants and needs can be satisfied without alienated labor. Then, man is free to ‘play’ with his faculties and potentialities and with those of nature, and only by ‘playing’ with them is he free” (188; emphasis mine). The performance principle is a problem because it alienates us from ourselves; we are liberated when we are not alienated, especially when we are not alienated from our capacity for non-teleological activity. Liberation is “a non-repressive erotic attitude toward reality” (167) organized not by rational teleology, the demands of production and performance, but by “the order of gratification which the free Eros creates” (164). So there’s this idea that we can only be truly, genuinely, fully “gratified” or “fulfilled” when we are not alienated. “Liberation” is “the reunion of what has become separated,” specifically, the “separation from the libidinous object (or subject)” (170).  As this citation clearly demonstrates, the traditional binaries of subject/object, authentic/alienated, etc., are key to Marcuse’s theory of oppression and liberation: we are oppressed when we are objectified (or when we objectify ourselves in alienated labor), we are liberated when “the opposition between man and nature, subject and object, is overcome” (166). Even though he’s arguing for the “reunion” and “overcoming” of the binary, this liberatory ideal opposes wholeness and authenticity to alienated repression.
The title of Gary Numan’s 1979 album The Pleasure Principle obviously resonates with Marcuse’s psychoanalytic framework. However, Numan’s Pleasure Principle is actually very different from Marcuse’s Eros, both as a text and, more importantly, as a concept or ideal.
I want to take the iconic Cars as my primary example, both because many people are already somewhat familiar with it, and because I think its popularity indicates, well, its popularity—it resonated with people, it made sense to them, it touched on some common experience, affect, etc.
Both the lyrical content and the musical form suggest that alienation is not something that must necessarily be overcome. This claim is perhaps most strongly evident in the song’s video.
Musical Form:
            Traditional pop songs, and tonal music, are organized as the conquest of difference. There’s a main theme or key, which is challenged by different harmonic or melodic material (like a verse or a bridge or a break), and these challenges are resolved. This resolution is what lets listeners sense the song’s impending end—many people without formal musical training can tell when a song is nearly over. Delueze would say that traditional Western pop is a story of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. “Cars,” however, doesn’t play the de/re-territorialization game. It has two sections—a 4×6-bar “verse” and a 4×4 “bridge”—which are not set in opposition to one another.  There’s no verse/chorus/verse pattern, no climax and denouement, just a sort of homeostasis. Unlike trad pop structures, it’s not a story of difference, conquest, and reintegration. Musical pleasure is not a matter of climaxes and money shots, but of appreciating carefully-crafted effects. The song is a curated sonic ecology (this sort of reminds me of Andrew Goodwin’s point in his “Digital Reproduction” essay in On Record that it’s all timbre now…). Hwu Halam has done some work on neoliberalism and the curated sonic ecology made possible by personal audio players. The car, as the lyrics indicate, is a pre-Walkman example of this “bubble.”
Lyrical Content:
            The interior of a car is a carefully-curated environment; the point of a car is to isolate oneself in a “bubble” suited to one’s own preferences. You don’t need to deal with the weather, the sounds, smells, or bodies of the “outside” world that pedestrians, bike/motorbike, and public transit riders have to negotiate. This is what the song’s lyrical content demonstrates. The first verse is all about the bubble and the carefully curated ecology:
Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live in cars.
Here in my car
I can only receive
I can listen to you
It keeps me stable for days in cars.
The second verse troubles the safety and apparent perfection of the car-ecology, but not very strongly. For example, it’s unclear if he’s leaving his car, or leaving in his car.

Here in my car
Where the image breaks down
Will you visit me please
If I open my door in cars
Here in my car
You know I’ve started to think
About leaving tonight
Although nothing seems right in cars.

So, “Cars” is about the pleasure of inhabiting a self-curated bubble. Pleasure isn’t found in the overcoming of alienation, in the reappropriation of labor and desire from the commodity, but in navigating the world of commodities.
Finally, the video:
The video shows fragmented male body parts—mainly hands playing instruments—that are disconnected from the performers’ faces, or the rest of their bodies. As Laura Mulvey famously pointed out, this sort of fragmentation is traditionally reserved for female bodies. Male bodies get to be full subjects, not objects in the development of male subjects or for the pleasure of male gazers.  This fragmentation of male bodies—separating the laboring hands from the face and the voice—would be very problematic in classically liberal accounts of subjectivity. The laboring hands are alienated from the self as such. The video suggests that this separation is not a problem in Numan’s world. In fact, the fragmentation, especially the video effects used to produce it, are seen as evidence of his “futuristic” aesthetic. So what was once negatively regarded as a sign of alienation is now a positively regarded as a sign of avant-garde-ness.
Neoliberalism and the end of “alienation”
These are more or less underdeveloped thoughts—stuff for the manuscript in process.
1. Neoliberalism undoes the structuring binaries of classical liberalism: inside/outside, subject/object, public/private, etc. As Jason Read explains, 
What is lost in neoliberalism is the critical distance opened up between different spheres and representations of subjectivity, not only the difference between work and the market, as in Marxism, but also the difference between the citizen and the economic subject, as in classical liberalism. All of these differences are effaced as one relation; that of economic self-interest, or competition, replaces the multiple spaces and relations of worker, citizen, and economic subject of consumption…it is without an outside. It does not encounter any tension with a competing logic of worker or citizen, with a different articulation of subjectivity. States, corporations, individuals are all governed by the same logic, that of interest and competition” (Read 35).[ii]
There’s a lot to unpack in this quote. First, Read argues that “differences are effaced as one relation.” This is his way of framing what I’ve called the undoing of structuring binaries, like public (citizen) and private (worker). Instead of a subject structured by these binaries, neoliberalism works with a subject organized on a qualitative gradient of intensity, what Read calls “interest and competition.” Classically liberal subjects are fulfilled when they persist through challenges to their wholeness and coherence. Individual maturity and aesthetic pleasure are organized as conquest narratives, or, as Jeffery Nealon puts it, as “opportunities for confronting, overcoming, purchasing, or otherwise consuming some ‘other’” (82); bell hooks calls this “eating the other.” It’s a model of consumption or assimilation: I ought to incorporate the other into me (e.g., resolve dissonances back to consonance). Neoliberal subjects are fulfilled when they have turned themselves up to eleven, so to speak—i.e., when they have maximalized all aspects of their existence. It’s not about consuming an other, an object, a commodity, but “intensifying new versions of familiar things” (Nealon 81). So, Numan’s curated sensory ecology fits with this latter, neoliberal account of subjectivity and aesthetic pleasure. In his car, he has carefully curated the sensory environment to maximalize his enjoyment of the car, the stereo, and himself. “Cars” is not so much about the car qua consumer commodity, but about Numan’s narrator and his aesthetic experience in the car. Numan’s narrator is not alienated in the car, either as laborer or as fetishizing consumer.
2. This is because commodities—structured by use/exchange, inside/outside binaries—are not very significant factors in neoliberalism. As Nealon explains, neoliberalism replaces the traditional M-C-M logic of exchange (money-capital-money) with the M-M “logic of intensity.” In this model, “money is directly intensified—made greater or smaller—rather than being transformed into a different state through the mediating work of investment, labour, commodity prouction or exchange” (79).. Alienation is a function of commodification of labor: I take my own labor as an object that I exchange, not something that I use or realize the direct products of its use. However, if capital and commodities no longer mediate transactions—if “no actual goods or services are required to represent or serve as a placeholder for the abstract value of invested money” (Nealon 79), then alienation isn’t a factor in or consequence of the M-M relationship. Neoliberal subjects don’t care about alienation because they don’t necessarily experience it; they do not have to commoditize their labor, they have to treat themselves like money (there’s that phrase, “I’m so money,” right? Or, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”)
3. In Anglo-American pop music, alienation used to be the problem that blackness and femininity solved. White masculinity was alienated from its bodily powers of affect and receptivity, and appropriating stereotypical blackness and/or femininity is what overcame this lack. But if neoliberal subjects don’t experience this alienation-induced lack, then this shift in the logic of subjectivity (from exchange to competition) entails a change in the logic of hipness, a change in mainstream culture’s relation to blackness, and to other non-white masculinities and femininities. Shannon Winnubst’s work on the biopolitics of cool gets at some of this, but it’s not specific to pop music. My stuff on postmillennial hipness does address the shifting role of blackness, black masculinity, and non-white femininities, but it doesn’t directly tie these racial shifts to neoliberalism. And that’s what I’m suggesting here: that the mainstreaming of certain styles/stereotypes of blackness is related to the increasing influence of neoliberalism and the logic of intensity. Howso?
            a. First, Afro-American musical practices already fit, or can easily be adapted to, the logic of intensity. In the late 20th century, musicologists and cultural theorists often used an oversimplified “harmony v repetition” opposition to contrast Western tonality with Afro-diasporic systems of musical organization. Tonal harmony follows the classically liberal conquest narrative—dissonances are introduced and resolved. Hip hop, house, and techno (and their various permutations) often rely on loops and ateleological song structures grounded in rhythmic and timbral intensity instead of harmonic development. As DJ Spooky has noted, black music is now mainstream pop music, both in the US and especially in Europe, where house and techno have been even more influential than in Chicago and Detroit. While it might be heartwarming to suggest that the mainstreaming of black musics is due to some sort of lessening in racism and increase in inclusivity, I don’t think that’s the case (if only because I think it’s foolish to claim that racism has decreased—it’s different, sure, but not less or better). Actually, I think hegemony was interested in black musics—hip hop, house, techno—because they worked better with the neoliberal logic of intensity than trad Western tonal harmony. 
            b. White hipsters are responding to the mainstreaming of black music by a return to classically liberal ideals of authenticity, wholeness, disalienation, etc. That’s what all this precious return to the 19th century, return to twee-folky-preciousness, handlebar moustaches and soda fountains, return to craft-made, hand-made, artisan, etc. is. This is not an effective response to the logic of intensity. Or rather, it’s not a critique of the logic of intensity, but an attempt to appear to escape from it.  These white hipsters are in fact participating in the careful curating of the self—the neoliberal entrepreneurial logic of self-cultivation. However, by curating old-skool liberal humanist aesthetic values and practices, they make classically liberal values seem like critiques of neoliberalism. Authenticity is a refuge or bonus for those privileged enough to have their “human capital” already recognized by others, already recognized as sufficiently maximal. Neoliberalism doesn’t give a crap about authenticity or alienation—those are questions raised by the “C” that has dropped out of neoliberalism’s “M-M” algorithm. Think of it this way: the alienation and authenticity would affect the “C” variable; now that this variable is out of the equation, alienation and authenticity don’t factor into anything anymore. They’re vestigial.
            c. So what’s a better response? Around the same time as Numan, you had the development of industrial music in the UK. Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal, Throbbing Gristle…they’re all responding to de-industrialization…As is hip hop over in the Bronx, and No Wave in the Downtown scene, house over in abandoned warehouses in Chicago, or techno in abandoned industrial spaces in Detroit. I want to focus on UK industrial here because I think there’s a useful contrast between these late 70s industrial bands and the previous generation’s metal bands. Metal bands like Black Sabbath were responding to the industrialeconomy: “Iron Man” has to be situated alongside the factories in Birmingham. But a quick generation later, young men in the industrial centers of England (Manchester, Sheffield, etc.) aren’t rebelling against wage slave-dom, because the factories have closed. Neoliberal economic restructuring has left them to die—that’s what industrial was a response to—the fact that one was already part of the car crash set, whether one liked it or not. These genres also scramble traditional love-and-theft logics of cultural appropriation—whites aren’t treating the blues as a suture for their alienation…instead you get black kids sampling Kraftwerk, or black kids plundering the soul and funk archives, etc.
            d. Basically, the shift from exchange to competition is a change in whiteness; this shift in whiteness impacts all racial categories and relations. I need to think more about this.

[i] The utter failure of this claim to resonate with the audience was a real “lightbulb” moment for me. It made me realize that I’m working, at least in part, from a really different archive than, uh, philosophers do. That archive is, of course, pop music. I suddenly realized that not everybody knew as much about post-punk and new wave as we all knew about Marx or Kristeva.
[ii] Read, Jason. “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the PRoduction of Subjectivity” in Foucault Studies, No 6 pp. 25-36 February 2009.