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  • Max Schmermbeck

There Are Only Problems, and Nothing Else

Some Thoughts and Reflections on the Nature of Problems

Some time ago, Lex and I issued a call for papers on the Thought Magicians platform entitled ‘What is today’s problem?’ In light of the many interesting responses we have received thus far and which we will publish over the course of the coming months, I would like to offer some further thoughts on what I take this question to mean and why I think asking it is so valuable in contemporary times.


Generally, we conceive of problems as being future-oriented. Somewhere, there is a friction, shortage, tension or conflict which needs to be fixed. On this model of thought, the question of today’s problem becomes something profoundly practical and political, as the last election cycle in the Netherlands has clearly shown. For weeks, we were bombarded with a multitude of problems in fields such as education, housing, healthcare, ecology, and migration. We voted for politicians who presented solutions to these problems which resonated with us the most, even when we did not fully grasp their complexity. I think this helps to explain the sudden popularity of somebody like Pieter Omtzigt: if he embodied anything, it was the desire to cut the crap and start fixing the problems of society in a direct, practical manner. Perhaps it even provides insights into Geert Wilders’ shocking electoral victory: being a master at reducing the complexities of contemporary times to a set of ready-made solutions alongside blatant xenophobia, he directly represent the ethos of the populist ‘man of the people’ who will finally start setting things right.


Many insightful analyses have been written about these problematic figures and the dangers they pose to contemporary society. But what the authors of these scathing critiques often overlook, is that they keep the form of the problem intact. In other words, they implicitly work within the framework of problems and solutions that got us in this mess in the first place. They ask questions such as: did this politician get all the facts about the problem right? Is their proposed solution adequate and fundable? Is this solution accepted according to the norms and values of society? Can it be done? Surely, these are important questions to ask. If populists keep coming up with simplistic solutions to complex problems, journalists, activists and policy makers must also persevere in pointing out their flaws. But watching these discussions take place over the last few months, a question started to creep up on me: are philosophers also destined to operate in this framework? Can they not contribute in another way? Must they relegate their analyses of contemporary society to the domain of policy papers, statistics, facts, and bureaucratic infrastructure? It seems unhelpful to counter this overblown focus on the practical domain with abstract musings about what society should or could be if only people were more kind, or if there were more money, or if everybody read books, or if there were no corruption; such endeavours are often so far detached from the vicissitudes and contingencies of everyday reality that they are more akin to fiction than thoughtful engagement with our current situation.


So, how can philosophers bridge the gap between an overly practical engagement with reality and abstract idealism? Can we engage with the banalities of everyday existence and simultaneously transcend them in order to offer an alternative vision of how things could be? I think that the path towards such a form of thought demands that we re-think the nature of problems. We must let go of the idea that society is simply a ‘given’ in which all sorts of problems pervade, as if our analysis can only start in the present and look towards the future. Rather, we must dismantle this stale and limited framework by approaching society itself as a response – not a solution – to a whole range of problems. Let me cite Deleuze here, who beautifully contrasts these different ways of thinking:

The master sets a problem, our task is to solve it, and the result is accredited true or false by a powerful authority. It is also a social prejudice with the visible interest of maintaining us in an infantile state, which calls upon us to solve problems that come from elsewhere, consoling or distracting us by telling us that we have won simply by being able to respond: the problem as obstacle and the respondent as Hercules. Such is the origin of the grotesque image of culture that we find in examinations and government referenda as well as in newspaper competitions (where everyone is called upon to choose according to his or her taste, on condition that this taste coincides with that of everyone else). Be yourselves ~ it being understood that this self must be that of others. As if we would not remain slaves so long as we do not control the problems themselves, so long as we do not possess a right to the problems, to a participation in and management of the problems. (Difference and Repetition, 158).

As Deleuze shows, a problem is not a practical fact which needs to be fixed, but a coming together of forces which creates the appearances that we see on the surface of phenomenal reality in the form of symptoms. Problems are not empirical, but metaphysical: they continually produce, shape and fold the contours of reality. To phrase this more succinctly, we must stop thinking about reality on one side and problems on the other – as if there could ever be such a thing as ‘unproblematic’ reality. Rather, we must see reality itself as a constantly evolving, mutating and changing problem. The question, then, is not how to come up with solutions to problems in order to make them disappear, but rather to adequately grasp the nature of problems, to penetrate their complexities and inner workings, and to thereby explore the various pathways which they open up.

Perhaps this is a little abstract, so let me offer an example. Take a person who has a fever. We could say that this is a problem, for which certain medicine are a solution. Surely, this solution often works, so drawing these two together is not entirely nonsensical. However, we are so used to thinking in this way that we fail to see how we are only ever really operating in a practical register – in this case a medical one – and nothing more. Surely, that is not the only way in which we can understand illness, or even reality for that matter. What other perspectives can there be? First, we can ask: does this person have a fever? Or is he sick? Well, it’s neither: we do not possess our illness as an object, nor do we coincide with it as a subject. Rather, a fever is a set of symptoms which arise as a response to the problems posed by a coming-together of hostile forces in our body. The symptoms of the fever and the problem of the bodily encounters relate to each other in a process of reciprocal immanence, creating positive or negative feedback loops which determine the intensity experienced by the sick person.  As such, it  makes little sense to speak of ‘being sick’ or ‘having a fever’; one should rather say that one is in the process of ‘sicking’ or ‘living through his sickness.’ In his Notebook for an Ethics, Sartre succinctly argues for a similar point:

There is no sickness, delirium, amputation, lesion, or intoxication that is not existed from the inside as a project. It is absurd to say that fever causes delirium. Delirium is the way the sick person lives out his fever in projecting himself beyond it toward the world. Similarly, a dream is not produced by sleep, it is the sleeper's enterprise, the way he exists his sleep. (316).

What Sartre is doing here, is essentially re-thinking the nature of problems. “Delirium is the way the sick person lives out his fever in projecting himself beyond it toward the world”: a fantastic metaphor for the analysis of contemporary society. What if we look at ourselves and really inquire into what is making us ill, and how we are living out these illnesses in projecting ourself beyond them? Which aspects of our behaviour betray an underlying pathology, addiction, insecurity, crisis, or trauma? As thinkers like Franz Fanon and Mark Fisher have already pointed out in their works on colonialism and capitalism, individual pathologies arise within and through societal structures. The worlds we live in can make us sick. As such, it is important to ask ourselves if the rhythms, habits, patterns and cyclings of our daily life arise from a place of health and affirmation, or if they rather form responses to an underlying illness. Or, to phrase this point more succinctly, are we living through our own fault lines, and can we break with them? These are the questions we must ask, if we want to adequately understand the situation we are in.

Let us take drugs as another example. Surely, drugs can make us sick. They can pose a problem to our health, our relationships, our work, and our very existence. But they can also take us to mystical, magical domains of experience that otherwise remain inaccessible to us. How can we understand them properly in the form of problems? If our inquiries takes the moralizing form of ‘which solution does drug use demand?’, we make it impossible to see the various depths that the  phenomenon of drugs contains. Therefore, it makes more sense to ask: to which problems of existence are drugs a response? What makes them so attractive and so powerful? In posing the question in these terms, we can arrive at something much more complex, meaningful and elusive, like the nature of desire and human experience. What leads a person to desire drugs? How must our psyche be structured, if we willingly and knowingly poison ourselves in order to get that intense feeling of a ‘kick’? To what illnesses are drugs a medicine? And how did these illnesses arrive in the first place? Conversely, we can ask about the new problems which arise through our continual desire for artificial highs and kicks. How do we cope with the consequences of our drug use and our desire for instant gratification? How do live in a milieu which does nothing but intensify? How can we square our addiction to pleasure with the horrid state of affairs in the world? Drugs, then, do not only exist as responses to a problem, but also form a whole range of new problem-fields immanently connected to the rising and falling tides of reality.

If we think the nature of problems through at the fundamental level, they can take us beyond the nature/culture split, for they inquire into the moments when our organs, senses and synapses, as well as our ideas, opinions and values, become metaphysical. They allow us to ask questions such as: How does our culture impact our unconscious? How are material, bodily desires arranged in order to accommodate for certain experiences, affect and sensations and not others? What kinds of desires does our culture champion, and which ones does it prohibit? How does advertising colonize our organs? How are we produced by desire?

Of course, these various problems must be worked out in far more detail in order to truly elucidate their complex nature. However, it is the form of the question, rather than the content of the answer, that is crucial in our investigation of problems. Let us starting thinking through problems rather than solutions, to stay with them, shape them, and return to them, over and over again. Let us make problems metaphysical and explore new ways of living through them. For there are only problems, and nothing else.



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