The Residues of Libidinal Capitalism: The Significance of Banter

The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and the Merchant Ivory Productions film adaptation has been a pre-occupation of mine for some time now. At first I fell in love of Mr Stevens’ meandering conceptualization of dignity, his coil-sprung fastidiousness and his quaintly clipped passive-aggressive dialogues with Miss Kenton. The book in particular also threads an intriguing juxtaposition of manners, sense of honor, class and responsibilities in the looming shadows (looming up and looming away) of/from WWII. But for me Mr Stevens is about work. On many levels Mr Stevens embodies the predicaments of contemporary workers. I see Mr Stevens to be a vivid and exemplary locus of how the dynamics of control (the unconscious and socio-economic codes) operate. This blog addresses just a couple aspects: the desire to work and the significance of banter.
When one first reads the book or views the film one is left with an acute sense of loss – Stevens lost the love of his life due to his self imposed shackles to the responsibilities ‘his position’ – butler at Darlington Hall. Mr Stevens looks back on regret; regrets of honoring his Lord, of following his orders and executing them with a level of dignity befitting his position. But perhaps most of all, Stevens has regrets of becoming his role and position to such a degree that it acted as a shield against the passions he felt for Miss Kenton. However, for Renata Salecl, this is not the case – or rather, Mr Stevens love for Miss Kenton, however hidden, unrequited, denied or obfuscated by the responsibilities, dignities and politeness of a man in his position - must be seen as contingent to the unconscious and the social structures it is formatted by. Salecl states how:

"Freud observed that with the obsessive the thought process itself becomes sexualized, "for the pleasure which is normally attached to the content of thought becomes shifted onto the act of thinking itself, and the satisfaction derived from reaching the conclusion of a line of thought is experienced as a sexual satisfaction." Stevens thus gets sexual satisfaction from the plan how to solve the staff problem by taking the trip to visit Miss Kenton, not out of thoughts about Miss Kenton herself. (...) "What the subject dissimulates and the means by which he dissimulates, is also the very form of its disclosure." There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence. In the case of Stevens there is no "beyond," no suppressed world of passions hidden behind his mask of proper Englishness. It is useless to search in Stevens for some hidden love that could not come out because of the rigid ritual he engaged himself in—all of his love is in the rituals. Inasmuch as it can be said that he loves Miss Kenton, he loves her from the perspective of submission to the codes of their profession." (Salecl, 1996, p.183-185)

In the above text, Salecl points out what is so apparent it is invisible: Stevens loves the chores, rigid structures, monotony and obsessive tendencies of his work more than Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton is loved conditionally and contingently. Miss Kenton is the object of Stevens' love only when seen via the kaleidoscope of class, work, responsibilities and obsessive vocational ambition. When viewing the film or reading the book, we presume these are all strategies employed to maintain a denialist subjectivity or sooth the burning urges that have remain unsatisfied – yet looking at the situation in another, perhaps more pragmatic way, one could say that Stevens is presented with a choice between work and Miss Kenton over and over again (in both the film and the book) – only to chose the former, over and over again. When Stevens suggests he visits Miss Kenton to solve the staffing problems at Darlington hall, his new employer, Mr Lewis/Farraday, banters that Stevens may have a lady friend – what we are seeing here is the creation of a hidden truth. We think there must be some burning passion beneath the starched shirt; there must be some ulterior motive. There is a burning passion. It is for work. There is no ulterior motive, Stevens is succumbing to his unconscious desires to obsess and ritualize – he is working. Stevens’ root desire is the ritual of work, Miss Kenton is, for Stevens, a love object only insofar as she slots into a position of impossibility in relation to his rituals and unconscious desires for said rituals.

In the film adaptation, in a scene not found in Ishiguro’s novel, this concept is laid out with sublime concision. It is at the end of the film. After strolling along the pier discussing regrets and hopes Miss Kenton and Mr Stevens sit down on a bench. Miss Kenton asks: "what do you most look forward to Mr Stevens?" For the viewer, this is Stevens’ last chance to admit to Miss Kenton that he had feelings for her, after all, he has been planning and looking forward to meeting Miss Kenton since the film began, and now he is sat with her looking out into the lavender dusk of an English seaside town. Stevens’ response is the Salacl argument spelt out in plain English for the viewer. Stevens says: "Oh! Er... Getting back to Darlington Hall principally… and straightening out our staff problems... always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt." QED I think.

What has this got to do with modern work? Surely we are not like Stevens? We are. We are because (and although the accouterments of unconscious formatting may change) we are all driven by a unconscious that is autonomous from what we know ourselves to be. Consumerism is a convenient and simple example. Everyone knows that once the BMW, MacBook Pro, beach house or designer coat is acquired the desire and want for said objects vanishes. The more one buys the more one wants. The objects (those tangible things in the shop windows or glowing from our laptops) of our love are contingent to our socially and capitalistically formatted unconscious. Stevens root desire was work and his contingent love object, Miss Kenton, was the fall out. Thus, we are not dissimilar, our root desire is to work and want, our contingent love object is money, cars, property – whatever. Always will be want, want, want and more wanting... and will continue to be so I have no doubt. I once worked with someone who was quite like Stevens, she was meticulous in her work and consumerism. She spent half her breaks debating which items to order from online retailers and the other half were spent returning items to post offices and high-street outlets so shopping could continue. Her practice was fastidious, obsessive, ritualistic and relentless. She seemed to always have a love object in her sights, some more perfect pinnacle of luxury, but her actions and ways were really in the service of her unconscious, and her unconscious desired wanting, it did not desire shoes or watches.

The same can be said of work. I believe that most people’s unconscious is in love with work – in the same way that Stevens’ is. Sure, one can stand around complaining about the standards (inequalities, silverware being unclean, staffing challenges, pay rates or ethics) but these are all flimsy, contingent, surface level distractions – the unconscious wants work, planning, rituals. Nowhere is this more explicitly played out than in the crisis of retirement. Many people die soon after retirement and the existential crises of retiring the western white male are well documented in Hollywood. The unconscious is what drives the organism, it must be nourished by what it has been cultivated to subsist upon – if not, a biological as well as existential and conscious collapse ensues… Of course, my argument here is not that the unconscious needs work – I am not arguing that work (or want) is necessary or impossible to give up – I am arguing that generally the unconscious is, as it ought to be, directing the modes of survival and at present these are utterly Capitalistic. For anyone reading this blog, I can well imagine the reaction; “but I don’t want that” of course you don’t, but you are eons and light-years away from the unconscious steering you - that most powerful and intrinsic part of yourself. Alas! Isn’t it a shame the unconscious won’t speak up –it has different ideas to you and I…

Of course, there are methods for scratching at the surface of the unconscious. The voice is one such method. Free-association, in particular, is an excellent method for getting the unconscious to speak – so to speak. I say love, you say mirror. I say father, you say knives… and so on. But there is a hidden key to free association. It is time, or lack of. The respondent must not hesitate, they must respond instantaneously, promptly. By having to respond so promptly the unconscious is presumed to sneak out and speak. The socialized and proper respondent may be left horrified at the alien thoughts they have ventriloquized. It is here that I shall return to The Remains of The Day because I feel such a methodology of accessing the unconscious is prevalent throughout the book and the film. In short, there is a hidden thread of free-association running through The Remains of The Day - it is Bantering. Bantering is peculiar in that it requires a prompt response. More than any other form of communication set upon the vocal rhythm, bantering requires a comedic timing par excellence. It is quite simple: one cannot deliver too late. Imagine some banter being delivered too late, prefixed with some reference to an earlier comment or reference, it would certainly not be seen as banter, it would fall awkwardly, it would not be afforded the jovial acceptance of banter – it would be taken all too seriously. Banter is contingent to time; it lives off the instant. Bantering is also utterly rude, like our immoral and gnashing unconscious is. How many bantering dialogues quickly descend to either blue double entendre or jest-cloaked quips of spite and malice? 

The casual view of Mr Stevens is that he is hopeless at banter, that he is somehow unable to banter. Stevens recalls at one point in the book that in his spare time he practices banter:

“I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment. Or, as a variation on this same exercise, I may attempt to think of three witticisms based on the events of the past hour.” (Ishiguro, 2012, p.116)

Of course, such preparations miss the point of banter entirely. Mr Stevens mistakenly presumes he can learn and practice bantering. But such meticulous and obsessive preparation is what Stevens adores most. The suggestion that he ‘practices’ banter and witticisms to improve at these things is not quite the case. Stevens is indulging in the ritualization of work. Bantering has become one of his responsibilities with his new American employer and he takes to ritualizing the work with an obsessive, fetishistic and introspective vigor. But this doesn’t mean that Stevens doesn’t successfully banter, he does, all the time. It’s just that when Stevens banters and his unconscious desires (for work, routine and obedience) reveal themselves the reader/viewer mistakenly assumes that he is avoiding bantering, that he is somehow too uptight or denying for engage in banter. In the film and the book, questions of his desires and wants arise (with both Mr Lewis/Farraday and Miss Kenton) via banter. At each turn, Mr Stevens response is to talk about work, his staff planning, future responsibilities etc. Mr Stevens is revealing his unconscious in these moments, he is, of course avoiding the question of “having a lady friend” or “being flesh and blood after all”. Over and over again, Mr Stevens strafes around the conscious surface level questions of sex, love and emotions only to reveal his deeper desires: work. “There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence.” (Salacl, 1996, p.185, my emphasis).

In the film, Miss Kenton plays out the mistaken assumption that the essence of the person is not in the veil or mask but somehow exists behind it. After become exasperated that Stevens never shows how he feels, a new, pretty employee takes their tea away. We see Mr Stevens, staring through the window watching the young girl walk away, he smiles. Mr Stevens comments, whilst still smiling, that the young girl he did not wish to employ but did so on the advice of Miss Kenton has come along well. Miss Kenton, mistaking the essence of Mr Stevens to be behind the mask of politeness, begins taunting Mr Stevens and suggesting that he does not like employing pretty girls because they may distract him - “look at that smile on your face, that tells an interesting story in itself.” The viewer and Miss Kenton assume the smile signifies Mr Stevens lust whereas, following Salacl’s analysis, I suggest that his smile actually points to a unconscious satiation. The smile, invisible for its brazen apparentness, spotlights Mr Stevens’ unconscious desires being met through the smooth operating of Darlington Hall; through work.

Banter is one of modern works primary languages. Getting along through a surface level dialogue, accelerated to instantaneous retorts and gushing, is work today. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Today the office is a morass of psychological analysis, bantering free association, trust building relationships and soft-skilled emotional leveraging. The horror of work is that it is a constant psychoanalysis. The contemporary worker is not dissimilar to Mr Stevens, awkwardly trapped in a session of bantering free-association with our colleagues and managers. Of course, the vexation of this is similar to Mr Stevens too. After years of such peculiarly telling communiqué being absent we are faced with a demand for prompt witticisms and banter. Stevens had no experience of such things because he gave his life to serving Lord Darlington in the most impeccable manner, when he was required to serve Mr Lewis/Farraday in a more casual fashion that required bantering he found himself all out at sea – unable to offer anything but the mask which is the essence of his unconscious. The contemporary worker is similar, after a lifetime of capitalism eroding the social sphere we arrive and clock in only to be greeted with the responsibilities of having to quip, banter and jest our ways through the corporation. When the contemporary worker (seemingly disingenuously) banters and jests through the day, the mask of unconscious essence is paraded, invisibly conspicuous and cloaked in plain sight. The depressing revelation that our immoral and gnashing unconscious testifies to between quips and retorts is that our unconscious, like Mr Steven’s, desires work. We may think, consciously, that we are lying, but our disguise, our mask of professionalism is the abhorrent unconscious serenading its desire for ritualized, work, social codes, structure, obsession and Sisyphean drudgery. Always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt.


Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. 1 Edition. Polity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2012. The Remains of the Day. Everyman's Library.

Salecl, R. 1996. ‘I Can’t Love You Unless I Give You Up’ in Gaze and Voice As Love Objects (Series: SIC 1). Salecl, R., Zizek, S. (Ed.) 1996. Duke University Press Books, pp.90-126.


The Remains of The Day. (1993) Directed by James Ivory. Merchant Ivory Productions.

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