Explaining his theoretical background, Peter Pál Pelbart writes: “More than two decades ago, parallel to my academic activities in the University in São Paulo [Brazil] as a professor of Philosophy, I started a clinical activity in a Psychiatric Day-Hospital. The first time that I stepped foot in that institution, by chance, was in the company of [Felix] Guattari himself, whose institutional supervision I had the task of translating… I cannot deny that Guattari’s theorizations regarding schizophrenia, the machinic unconscious, transversality in the institution, his experience at La Borde, the way he smuggled fragments of his practice into the philosophical and micropolitical domains has inspired me enormously over all these years.”
While this confession comes more than half-way into the book, the influence of Guattari, as well as other notable theorists, such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille and Giorgio Agamben, to name a few, is evident much earlier on. If, as has been said, books by these thinkers are meant to be guides to anti-fascist living, then Pelbart’s book must be included in the genre.
Written in a conversational tone and replete with numerous personal anecdotes, Cartography of Exhaustion is probably not meant for a general audience since it presupposes some familiarity with the thinkers listed above. Yet, his summations of these theorists’ key ideas, which he will use as intellectual footholds, are so clearly articulated that they should put even intimidated readers at ease. Indeed, working my way through the book, I found some of the theoretical clouds that had been lingering since graduate school start to dissipate, and give way to clear bright skies, if you will.
This is a sunny, revitalizing book, despite its ostensible focus on exhaustion and nihilism. Anyone who has felt rejuvenated reading Nietzsche, or experienced the excitement that accompanies new pathways being forged in their lines of thinking after having read Anti-Oedipus or A Thousand Plateaus will have an idea of what I mean. Unlike other recent maps of our contemporary milieu, this one gives you hope.
If for Albert Camus the question was how to live as neither victim nor executioner, for Pelbart it is how to live collectively without falling prey to “despotic socialitarianism”. “How to create a structure of life that is not an apparatus of life? How to live together and escape tyrannical gregariousness? How to reject forms of living together that suffocate singularity?” These are the same questions that his influences grappled with, but questions that still plague us, because we are all exhausted by too much training, too much discipline, too much stimulation. We just cannot take any more; in part, because we have taken to imposing it all upon ourselves.
Key to understanding the modus operandi of biopolitics is the notion of “bioascesis”. “Bioascesis is a care of the self, but different from the ancients, whose care was directed at the good life… Our care aims at the body itself, its longevity, health, beauty, good shape, scientific and aesthetic happiness… We shall not hesitate in calling it, even under the modulating conditions of contemporary coercion, a fascist body.”
“If before, we still imagined that we had spaces that were protected from the direct interference of the powers (the body, the unconscious, subjectivity), and we had the illusion of preserving in these areas some independence, today our life appears entirely subsumed within those mechanisms of modulating experience. Thus even sex, language, communication, oneiric life, even faith, none of these still preserve any exteriority in relation to the mechanisms of control and monitoring. To summarize in a sentence: power is not exercised from outside, nor from above, but more as if it were from within, steering our social vitality from head to toe.”
What is especially appealing about Pelbart’s book is the ease with which he transitions from so-called “high theory” to concrete experience. Deleuze and Guattari’s “Body-without-Organs” is fine as a conceptual means of resistance, but how might it be reified and practiced in day-to-day life? Pelbart’s chapter entitled “Inhuman Polyphony in the Theater of Madness” may serve as one reply.
As the book’s literal and intellectual fulcrum, the chapter is the best of both worlds, like having all of the philosophical insights of Deleuze coupled with the clinical praxis of Guattari in a single essay that documents the power of fiction and theater to bring about “a suspension in the automatism of comprehension”. It’s a thrilling chapter about the joyous explorations made possible by art, as well as a blueprint for resistance against the exhausting tyranny of the norm.
“We are the Ueinzz Theater Company, established in São Paulo, Brazil seventeen years ago. Lunatics, therapists, performers, maids, philosophers, ‘normopaths’ — once on stage no one can tell the difference.” If Artaud called for a “theater of cruelty”, Pelbart’s troupe creates schizophrenic situations. Their unpredictable performances deconstruct distinctions between “art” and “audience”. Actors storm off the stage mid-sentence, or enter upon others’ scenes, reinventing the script in front of the audience. As Pelbart puts it: “we witness disconnections that make so-called normality flee, along with its linked automatic reactions; and also the evocation of other possible bonds with the world.”
What we need most today are more opportunities like these, experiences that transform us. “Now, this means that thought, without a prior Model of how to think (for example: thinking is to seek the truth), opens up for other adventures (for example: thinking is creating).” However, these new lines of thought are rarely tolerated by society, despite protestations to the contrary. What fuels the Standardized Testing movement in the US and UK if not the desire for control and for the circumscription of knowledge?
Still, if our world is overwhelming, banal, oppressive, it’s also true that it’s socio-historical, which is to say: capable of being changed. “Both nihilism and biopolitics obey the logic of a Moebius strip,” Pelbart claims, and “in a reversibility that is intrinsic to them — under certain conditions, they reveal their opposites… an affirmative element.” When we are utterly exhausted, when nothing is possible, suddenly everything becomes possible. “By whom? Of what? In which direction? We don’t know. It is a collective cartography, unfinished, moving, from the inside out of nihilism…”
Partly an homage to Deleuze and Guattari, partly a personal memoir, Pelbart’s Cartography of Exhaustion is above all a superb introduction to an exhilarating thinker through the lenses of philosophy, madness, art, nihilism and exhaustion. Hopefully this book will pave the way for future translations (John Laudenberger and Felix Rebolledo Palazuelos have done a fine job here) of Pelbart’s works.