Happiness and the Art of Life

Notions of happiness, wellbeing and quality of life have become a significant crystallization point in what Foucault would have called a dispositif, or an apparatus or device of power.

Whilst this development has long historical roots, it is only since the late 1990s that it has congealed into something recognizable as such an apparatus, comprising different elements that have already received copious commentary, both within academic literature and by a range of stakeholders in wider forums such as openDemocracy.

In proposing to address the affective dimension as such, beyond its construction in discourse (and associated practices), we depart from the tradition of ‘governmentality studies’, to offer more than a descriptive account that stops short of suggesting the possibility of an alternative, however speculative the latter may be. In the argument we develop below, we contrast the discursive and empirical normativity of the neo-liberal concept of ‘happiness’ with the immanent normativity that authors like Canguilhem and Deleuze, in the wake of Spinoza and Nietzsche, associate with the concepts of ‘health’ and ‘joy’.

It is not accidental that the thought of each of these authors, from whom we draw inspiration, can be characterized as a form of vitalism, where attention to relationality and process takes precedence over the definition of entities and their properties, the latter being regarded always as the emergent product of an immanent set of relations. By contrast, we propose, the thought that animates the happiness dispositif is predicated on the ‘bifurcation of nature’ that has long informed Western rationality.

In the succinct definition offered by Bruno Latour, bifurcation is ‘what happens whenever we think the world is divided into two sets of things: one which is composed of the fundamental constituents of the universe – invisible to the eyes, known to science, real and yet valueless – and the other which is constituted of what the mind has to add to the basic building blocks of the world in order to make sense of them’.

A bifurcated approach to questions of happiness and wellbeing, we argue, underlies the scientism, individualism and biologism that many critical commentators have already identified as features of the discourse on wellbeing and of the ‘happiness agenda’.

The will to power in this sense is not primarily to be understood as the will of any given individual person, and still less a conscious and linguistically articulated ‘want’. One might just as well say that it is the will of the larger machinic and hybrid creature that is the dispositif, and that the dispositif serves precisely to organize or machine the affective dispositions of what we come to call ‘individuals’. To make this suggestion is not to deny personal subjectivity, and this is an important point.

In fact, abstracting from social context, what we call the subjectivity of an individual person is, from this perspective, nothing but a dominant force that has succeeded in capturing, redirecting and transforming the organic powers and potentials of the socially located body it calls its own. But that body itself, taken in abstraction from its attendant consciousness, is no less analyzable in terms of will to power. The body, for example, is composed of numerous centers of organic activity dominated by the more centralized assemblage of biological organs we call the brain.

The brain, to paraphrase Whitehead, is a dominant center that receives its data from numerous more specialist centers, coordinating, redirecting and transforming them in line with its own preferred sphere of activities or ‘system of purposes’. But of course bodies and subjectivities, in concrete reality, are never abstractable from their implication in broader forms of social order. To use a concept from Deleuze and Guattari, the elements of a dispositif or assemblage, including the people involved, are territorialized.

From this perspective it is not a question simply of tracing a will to power – or the joy associated with it – back to a subject, an individual, that might have willed it or experienced it. As Nietzsche put it, ‘there is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything’.

This style of thinking, in short, resolutely refuses to separate the subjective from the objective. It refuses to treat, for example, experiences of happiness or misery as if they were a merely subjective matter that has nothing to do with a real world; and it refuses to consider the real world as a meaningless and objective matter that has nothing to do with the experiences and desires of subjects, because it is simply ‘the way things really are and have to be’.

Joy, to repeat, is defined by Spinoza and Nietzsche as the feeling of becoming more active in the world. The affects are an integral aspect of the art of life. That is to say: of the creative activity of lending form to one’s own real existence, collective and individual.

A turn to affect and an interest in joy and happiness thus become indispensable to psychology, but this is a turn which does not separate the feelings from what is felt and that does not consign emotions to an expressive domain purified away from an instrumental domain of material reality, political practice and collective action.