1. “The notion of the univocity of Being or single matter positions difference as a verb or process of becoming at the heart of the matter”
Interview with Rosi Braidotti
Q1: In your contribution to Ian Buchanan and Claire Colebrook’s Deleuze and Feminist Theory you coined the term “neo-materialism” and provided a genealogy of it. Focusing on theories of the subject, one of the red threads running through your work, your genealogy “Descartes’ nightmare, Spinoza’s hope, Nietzsche’s complaint, Freud’s obsession, Lacan’s favorite fantasy” (Braidotti 2000, 159) is followed by a definition of the subject, the “I think” as the body of which it is an idea, which we see as the emblem of the new materialism:
In this text you stay close to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze when developing the new materialism. The term, however, can already be found in Patterns of Dissonance, where you state that “a general direction of thought is emerging in feminist theory that situates the embodied nature of the subject, and consequently the question of alternatively sexual difference or gender, at the heart of matter. […] This leads to a radical re-reading of materialism, away from its strictly Marxist definition. […] The neo-materialism of Foucault, the new materiality proposed by Deleuze are […] a point of no return for feminist theory” (Braidotti 1991, 263–6), and in Nomadic Subjects where it is stated that “What emerges in poststructuralist feminist reaffirmations of difference is […] a new materialist theory of the text and of textual practice” (Braidotti 1994, 154). How is “genealogy” important for you, and how is it that the full-fledged conceptualization of the new materialism came about in a text that focused on the philosophy of Deleuze?
Rosi Braidotti: You’re right in pointing out the progressive development of and identification with the label “neo-materialism” within the corpus of my nomadic thought. Patterns of Dissonance announces my general project outline in theoretical terms, which are expressed in the mainstream language that is typical of book versions of former PhD dissertations. Then there follows a trilogy, composed by Nomadic Subjects, Metamorphoses and Transpositions. Nomadic Subjects—which incidentally has just been re-issued by Columbia University Press in a totally revised second edition seventeen years after its original publication (Braidotti 2011b)—already has a more controversial message and a more upbeat style. Metamorphoses and Transpositions pursue the experiment in a conceptual structure that has grown more complex and rhizomatic and a style that attempts to do justice to this complexity, while not losing touch with the readers altogether.
More theoretically, I would argue that, throughout the 1980’s, a text such as Althusser’s “Pour un materialisme aléatoire” had established a consensus across the whole spectrum of his students—Foucault, Deleuze, Balibar. It was clear that contemporary materialism had to be redefined in the light of recent scientific insights, notably psychoanalysis, but also in terms of the critical enquiry into the mutations of advanced capitalism. It was understood that the post-‘68 thinkers had to be simultaneously loyal to the Marxist legacy, but also critical and creative in adapting it to the fast-changing conditions of their historicity. That theoretico-political consensus made the term “materialist” both a necessity and a banality for some poststructuralists. Leading figures in the linguistic turn, such as Barthes and Lacan, wrote extensively and frequently about “the materiality of the sign.” In a way there was no real need to add the prefix “neo-” to the new materialist consensus at that point in time. That, however, will change.
What is clear is that by the mid-1990’s the differences among the various strands and branches of the post-structuralist project were becoming more explicit. The hegemonic position acquired by the linguistic branch—developed via psychoanalysis and semiotics into a fully-fledged deconstructive project that simply conquered intellectually the United States—intensified the need for clearer terms of demarcation and of theoretical definition. Thus “neo-materialism” emerges as a method, a conceptual frame and a political stand, which refuses the linguistic paradigm, stressing instead the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power.
At that point, it became clear to me that the genealogical line that connected me to Canguilhem, Foucault and Deleuze also marked a distinctive tradition of thought on issues of embodiment and political subjectivity. The terminological differences between this branch and the deconstructive one also became sharper, as did the political priorities. Accordingly, “nomadic subjects” is neither about representation nor about recognition but rather about expression and actualization of practical alternatives. Gilles Deleuze—from his (smoky) seminar room at Vincennes—provided lucid and illuminating guidance to those involved in the project of redefining what exactly is the “matter” that neo-materialism is made of. Things get more conceptually rigorous from that moment on.
Feminism, of course, did more than its share. Feminist philosophy builds on the embodied and embedded brand of materialism that was pioneered in the last century by Simone de Beauvoir. It combines, in a complex and groundbreaking manner, phenomenological theory of embodiment with Marxist—and later on poststructuralist—re-elaborations of the complex intersection between bodies and power. This rich legacy has two long-lasting theoretical consequences. The first is that feminist philosophy goes even further than mainstream continental philosophy in rejecting dualistic partitions of minds from bodies or nature from culture. Whereas the chasm between the binary oppositions is bridged by Anglo-American gender theorists through dynamic schemes of social constructivism (Butler and Scott eds. 1992), continental feminist perspectives move towards either theories of sexual difference or a monistic political ontology that makes the sex/gender distinction redundant.
The second consequence of this specific brand of materialism is that oppositional consciousness combines critique with creativity, in a “double-edged vision” (Kelly 1979) that does not stop at critical deconstruction but moves on to the active production of alternatives. Thus, feminist philosophers have introduced a new brand of materialism, of the embodied and embedded kind. The cornerstone of this theoretical innovation is a specific brand of situated epistemology (Haraway 1988), which evolves from the practice of “the politics of location” (Rich 1985) and infuses standpoint feminist theory and the debates with postmodernist feminism (Harding 1991) throughout the 1990s.
As a meta-methodological innovation, the embodied and embedded brand of feminist materialist philosophy of the subject introduces a break from both universalism and dualism. As for the former, universalist claims to a subject position that allegedly transcends spatio-temporal and geo-political specificities are criticised for being dis-embodied and dis-embedded, i.e., abstract. Universalism, best exemplified in the notion of “abstract masculinity” (Hartsock 1987) and triumphant whiteness (Ware 1992), is objectionable not only on epistemological, but also on ethical grounds. Situated perspectives lay the pre-conditions for ethical accountability for one’s own implications with the very structures one is analyzing and opposing politically. The key concept in feminist materialism is the sexualized nature and the radical immanence of power relations and their effects upon the world. In this Foucauldian perspective, power is not only negative or confining (potestas), but also affirmative (potentia) or productive of alternative subject positions and social relations.
Feminist anti-humanism, also known as postmodern feminism, expanded on the basic critique of one-sided universalism, while pointing out the dangers implicit in a flat application of equal opportunities policies. Contrary to “standpoint theory” (Harding 1986), post-humanist feminist philosophers do not unquestionably rely on the notion of “difference,” as the dialectical motor of social change. They rather add more complexity to this debate by analyzing the ways in which “otherness” and “sameness” interact in an asymmetrical set of power relations. This is analogous to Deleuze’s theories of Otherness; his emphasis on processes, dynamic interaction and fluid boundaries is a materialist, high-tech brand of vitalism, which makes Deleuze’s thought highly relevant to the analysis of the late industrialist patriarchal culture we inhabit. Furthermore, Deleuze’s work is of high relevance for feminism: not only does he display a great empathy with issues of difference, sexuality and transformation, but he also invests the site of the feminine with positive force. Conveyed by figurations such as the non-Oedipal Alice: the little girl about to be dispossessed of her body by the Oedipal Law, or by the more affirmative figure of the philosopher’s fiancée Ariadne, the feminine face of philosophy is one of the sources of the transmutation of values from negative into affirmative. This metamorphosis allows Deleuze to overcome the boundaries that separate mere critique from active empowerment. Last but not least, Deleuze’s emphasis on the “becoming woman” of philosophy marks a new kind of masculine style of philosophy: it is a philosophical sensibility which has learned to undo the straitjacket of phallocentrism and to take a few risks. In Deleuze’s thought, the “other” is not the emblematic and invariably vampirized mark of alterity, as in classical philosophy. Nor is it a fetishized and necessarily othered “other,” as in deconstruction. It is a moving horizon of exchanges and becoming, towards which the non-unitary subjects of postmodernity move, are by which they are moved in return.
This double genealogy makes my own relationship to materialism into a lifelong engagement with complexities and inner contradictions.
Q2: In the same chapter in Deleuze and Feminist Theory the new materialism is also called “anti-maternalist” (Braidotti 2000, 172). Maternal feminism surely is, along with feminist standpoint theory, a feminist materialism. So, on the menu we find “the naturalistic paradigm” and its “definitive loss” (ibid., 158), feminist materialisms, “social constructivism” (ibid.), and, finally, “a more radical sense of materialism” (ibid., 161), that is, an “anti-essentialism” (ibid., 158), “a form of neo-materialism and a blend of vitalism that is attuned to the technological era” (ibid., 160). In Metamorphoses you propose a cartographical method for contemporary philosophical dialogue according to which “we think of power-relations simultaneously as the most ‘external’, collective, social phenomenon and also as the most intimate or ‘internal’ one” (Braidotti 2002a, 6). Looking back at your chapter in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, how would you employ this method to draw a contemporary map of the new feminist materialist dialogue? Or, from a slightly different angle, your chapter from Patterns of Dissonance on the radical philosophies of sexual difference (a branch of feminist theory that does not necessarily overlap with the trademarked “French feminism” and which is very much a materialism) closes with the provocative question: “have they been heard?” (Braidotti 1991, 273). How would you answer your 1991 question nowadays, amidst the theorizations of new feminist materialisms?
RB: The issue of the relationship between the material and the maternal was crucial for my generation. Part of it was contextual: we were the first ones in fact to enjoy the privilege of having strong, feminist teachers and supervisors in our academic work. In my case, I had as teachers and role models women of the caliber of Genevieve Lloyd and Luce Irigaray, Michelle Perrot and Joan Scott—to mention just the major ones. Talk about the anxiety of influence! This sort of lineage made the issue of the oedipalization of the pedagogical relationship into a crucial and complicated matter. Another reason for it was of course theoretical: if you look back at the scholarship of the 1980s, you will find a plethora of texts and treatises on pedagogics and mother-daughter relationships. Psychoanalysis alone blew this issue out of all proportions, and with the privilege of hindsight you may say that the entire post-1968 generation has a big negative relation to their mothers and fathers. I guess all members of a revolutionary generation are marked by the violence of a break, an inevitable rupture from the previous generation.
Personally, I fast grew allergic to the whole oedipal theme, also because I witnessed the many violent and sharp conflicts it engendered in the feminist community—the clash between Cixous and de Beauvoir being a legendary one. In some ways I was scared of the negative passions that the “maternal” mobilized in a highly politicized context. I consequently took shelter in the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, aptly called Anti-Oedipus, and made sure to apply it to the question of how to develop an independent yet loyal system of thought in relation to the development of feminist philosophy. This choice coincided with my decision to bring feminism into the institutions, which I took as a process of democratic accountability. Central to it, of course, is the project of inter-generational justice.
All of my cartographies are as inclusive as I’m capable of making them and I’ve carefully avoided sectarianism, while taking a firm theoretical and political stand (Braidotti 2010). This standpoint was also for me a way of staying sane through the multiple “theory wars” and “culture wars” we witnessed through the 1990’s, as the right wing took over the agenda in the USA and the post-1989 global consensus tends to dismiss the key traditions of thought I consider as fundamental for my work: Marxist and post-structuralist theories of materialism.
Right now there is a need for a systematic meta-discursive approach to the interdisciplinary methods of feminist philosophy. This is among the top priorities for philosophy today (Alcoff 2000) as well as women’s, gender and feminist studies as an established discipline (Wiegman 2002). If it is the case that what was once subversive is now mainstream, it follows that the challenge for feminist philosophers today is how to hold their position, while striving to achieve more conceptual creativity (Deleuze and Guattari  1994).
In a globally connected and technologically mediated world that is marked by rapid changes, structural inequalities and increased militarization, feminist scholarship has intensified theoretical and methodological efforts to come to grips with the complexities of the present, while resisting the moral and cognitive panic that marks so much of contemporary social theories of globalization (Fukuyama 2002, Habermas 2003). With the demise of postmodernism, which has gone down in history as a form of radical scepticism and moral and cognitive relativism, feminist philosophers tend to move beyond the linguistic mediation paradigm of deconstructive theory and to work instead towards the production of robust alternatives. Issues of embodiment and accountability, positionality and location have become both more relevant and more diverse. My main argument is that feminist philosophy is currently finding a new course between post-humanism on the one hand and post-anthropocentric theories on the other. The convergence between these two approaches, multiplied across the many inter-disciplinary lines that structure feminist theory, ends up radicalizing the very premises of feminist philosophy. It results especially in a reconsideration of the priority of sexuality and the relevance of the sex/gender distinction.
It is more difficult to answer the question of whether the radical philosophies of sexual difference, as a form of neo-materialism that doesn’t necessarily overlap with French feminism (a misnomer on many accounts) had actually been heard. The paradigmatic status of the sex/gender distinction in American feminist theory and the global reach of this paradigm, for instance across the former Eastern Europe after 1989, has made it difficult for situated European perspectives to keep alive, let alone move forth.
Most notably, this sex/gender distinction has become the core of the so-called “Trans-Atlantic dis-connection.” If I were to attempt to translate this into the language of feminist theory, I would say that “the body” in U.S. feminism cannot be positively associated with sexuality in either the critical or the public discourse. Sexuality, which is the fundamental paradigm in the critical discourses of psychoanalysis and post-structuralism, simply has no place to be in American political discourse: it got strangled. What chance, then, did “French feminism” have? The sex/gender dichotomy swung towards the pole of gender with a vengeance, disembodying it under the joint cover of liberal individual “rights” and social constructivist “change.” It was left to the gay and lesbian and queer campaigners to try to reverse this trend, rewriting sexuality into the feminist agenda. For instance, Teresa de Lauretis (1994) returns to issues of psychoanalytic desire in order to provide a foundational theory of lesbian identity. Judith Butler reverses the order of priorities in the sex/gender dichotomy in favor of the former and manages to combine Foucault with Wittig. By now, observers begin to speak of American post-structuralism as a movement of its own, with its own specific features and conceptual aims. The fact that most leading French poststructuralists take up regular teaching positions in the USA favors this second life of post-structuralism, which in the meantime dies away in Europe and disappears especially from the French intellectual scene. By the start of the third millennium, “French” theory belongs to the world in a diasporic, not a universalist mode. The Frenchness of post-structuralism is lost in translation indeed, just as it undergoes a conceptual mutation in the Trans-Atlantic transition.
One practical action I took in order to make sure that other, more European approaches were heard is to set up EU-wide networks of women’s gender and feminist studies, of which ATHENA (the Advanced Thematic Network of Women’s Studies in Europe) is the best example. Theoretically, my function as ATHENA founding director resulted in friendly but firm criticism of American hegemony in feminist theory and an attempt to develop other perspectives, drawn from historical and situated European traditions. I think we’ve been heard, insofar as counter-memories and alternative genealogies can ever be heard. The sheer tone and structure of this interview with you—a younger generation of critical thinkers—gives me great reason to rejoice and feel a renewed hope.
Q3: Your philosophy has always been a philosophy of difference. In the chapter “Sexual Difference as a Nomadic Political Project” from Nomadic Subjects (1994) you explain why, and follow Luce Irigaray doing so. First, you claim to attempt to shift difference-as-a-dialectics, which underpins Western, Eurocentric thought. Here, “in this history,” you claim, “difference” has been predicated on relations of domination and exclusion, to be “different-from” came to mean to be “less than,” to be worth less than” (Braidotti 1994, 147; original emphasis). Second, you try to break through the canon of Western feminism, which has dismissed sexual difference “in the name of a polemical form of “antiessentialism,” or of a utopian longing for a position “beyond gender,” (ibid., 149). Developing your own approach, you have consistently focused on “sexual difference as a project,” as a “nomadic political project” (ibid.). Doing so, you have relied on so-called “French feminism” and “French theory.”
Having discussed “French feminism” and its place in contemporary academia in question 2, what is your take on French theory at large in contemporary academia? Apart from its canonical version, which has been created in an Anglo-U.S. context just like “French feminism,” do you see minor traditions in academia that are equally “French”? And if so, how do they look and how are they related to the new materialism?
RB: It is clear by now that we need to deterritorialize French theory in order to rescue it from the debacle it suffered in North America. This is a double challenge, considering how right-wing the European intellectual context has become in the last decade. A further factor that delays the development of situated European perspectives is the perennial hostility between French and German philosophical traditions. There are however three main points worth stressing: first, a tendency to move beyond the analytic versus Continental divide in philosophy, as indicated by John Mullarkey (2006) in his work on “post-continental” philosophy. German philosopher Dieter Thomä makes a similar case in the volume I edited for the History of Continental Philosophy (Braidotti ed. 2010). These are encouraging developments that allow us to activate new theoretical and methodological resources within the previously antagonistic traditions.
Second, the productive contribution of radical epistemologies to the reception of French philosophy also needs to be stressed. Nowadays, there can be no reading of Canguilhem without taking into account Haraway’s work; no Derrida without Butler or Spivak; no Foucault without Stuart Hall and no Deleuze without materialist feminists. This is a point of no return.
Third, to address more directly your question I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit. They range from the less globally recognized, but nonetheless quintessentially French tradition of philosophy of science and epistemology to the emphasis on sexuality of the libertine tradition. My personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot and an established tradition that links rationalism directly to the imagination. They are a multiplicity of mountain streams that converge upon mainstream materialism.
Q4: Do you agree that difference is quintessential to the new materialism? And if so, how would you define its take on difference?
RB: Absolutely—especially if one follows Deleuze on this point and posits monism as the fundamental ontology. The notion of the univocity of Being or single matter positions difference as a verb or process of becoming at the heart of that matter. There are only variations or modulations of space and time within a common block so it’s all about patterns of repetition and difference. Within such a system of thought, moreover, sexual difference plays a crucial role.
Sexual difference in particular poses the question of the conditions of possibility for thought as a self-originating system of representation of itself as the ultimate presence. Thus, sexual difference produces subjectivity in general. The conceptual tool by which Irigaray had already shown this peculiar logic is the notion of “the sensible transcendental.” By showing that what is erased in the process of erection of the transcendental subject are the maternal grounds of origin, Irigaray simultaneously demystifies the vertical transcendence of the subject and calls for an alternative metaphysics. Irigaray’s transcendental is sensible and grounded in the very particular fact that all human life is, for the time being, still “of woman born” (Rich 1976). There are resonances between the early Irigaray and Deleuze’s work.
As I have often argued, Deleuze’s emphasis on the productive and positive force of difference is troublesome for feminist theory in so far as it challenges the foundational value of sexual difference. For Irigaray, on the other hand, the metaphysical question of sexual difference is the horizon of feminist theory; for Grosz ( 1994) it is even its precondition. For Butler (1993) difference is a problem to overcome, as a limit of the discourse of embodiment; for me however sexual difference is the situated corporeal location that one starts from—it is a negotiable, transversal, affective space. The advantage of a Deleuzian as well as Irigarayan approach is that the emphasis shifts from the metaphysics to the ethics of sexual difference. Deleuze’s brand of philosophical pragmatism questions whether sexual difference demands metaphysics at all. The distinctive traits of nomadic sexual difference theory is that difference is not taken as a problem to solve, or an obstacle to overcome, but rather as a fact and a factor of our situated, corporeal location. And it is not a prerogative only of humans, either. This has important methodological consequences.
Following Deleuze’s empiricism, Colebrook for instance wants to shift the grounds of the debate away from metaphysical foundations to a philosophy of immanence that stresses the need to create new concepts. This creative gesture is a way of responding to the given, to experience, and is thus linked to the notion of the event. The creation of concepts is itself experience or experimentation. There is a double implication here: firstly that philosophy need not be seen as the master discourse or the unavoidable horizon of thought: artistic and scientific practices have their role to play as well. Secondly, given that ethical questions do not require metaphysics, the feminist engagement with concepts need not be critical but can be inventive and creative. In other words, experimenting with thinking is what we all need to learn. That implies the de-territorialization of the very sexual difference we started off from.
Q5: In your recent work you focus on “post-humanism” and “post-secularism.” In two articles in Theory, Culture and Society you elaborate on both terms. In fact, you immediately complexify the post-human by weaving a post-anthropocentrism through it, which is an intervention ascribed to feminist theory: “The feminist post-anthropocentric approach […] also challenges the androcentrism of the post-structuralists’ corporeal materialism” (Braidotti 2006, 198). In addition, you claim that for instance Donna Haraway’s post-anthropocentric post-humanism is not an anti-foundationalism; it is a “process ontology” instead (ibid., 199). Apart from the fact that you capitalize on Haraway’s Whiteheadian moment here (“Beings do not pre-exist their relatings” (Haraway 2003, 6)), you also ascribe a specific theory of time to feminist post-humanism, a theory that seems Bergsonian:
Process ontology, along with neo-vitalism, also provides the key to your conceptualization of the post-secular, albeit that sticking to the psychoanalytic frame remains of importance to you (Braidotti 2008, 12–13). In your work, post-secularism is conceptualized as follows:
In your view, the post-secular is thus intrinsic to contemporary feminist theories of difference, perceived as structured by a politics of affirmation rather than negation or dialectics (ibid., 13). And once more, theory’s non-linear temporality, in its Whiteheadian as well as Bergsonian mode, appears to be key.
In your theorization of the post-secular, however, the strong anti-androcentric approach of feminist theory seems to disappear somewhat, albeit that process ontology and neo-vitalism are explicited. How is post-secular feminism an anti-androcentrism? How, for instance, should we conceptualize this faith in “the perfectibility of Wo/Man”?
RB: My starting assumption is that the post-secular turn challenges European political theory in general and feminism in particular because it makes manifest the notion that agency, or political subjectivity, can actually be conveyed through and supported by religious piety and may even involve significant amounts of spirituality. This statement has an important corollary—namely, that political agency need not be critical in the negative sense of oppositional and thus may not be aimed solely or primarily at the production of counter-subjectivities. Subjectivity is rather a process ontology of auto-poiesis or self-styling, which involves complex and continuous negotiations with dominant norms and values and hence also multiple forms of accountability. This position is defended within feminism by a variety of different thinkers ranging from Harding and Narayan (2000) to Mahmood (2005).
The corollary of this axiom is the belief that women’s emancipation is directly indexed upon sexual freedom, in keeping with the European liberal tradition of individual rights and self-autonomy. As Joan Scott (2007) recently argued, this historically specific model cannot be universalized and it is the basic fault of contemporary European politicians that they enforced this model and insist on its homogeneity in spite of rising evidence of its contingent and hence partial applicability. This is a crucial point, which again stresses the importance of sexuality as the major axis of subject-formation in European culture and in its philosophies of subjectivity. It is precisely because of the historical importance of sexuality that sexual difference is such a central axis in the formation of identity and of social relations.
Thus the post-secular predicament forces, if not a complete revision, at least a relativization of the dominant European paradigm that equates emancipation with sexual liberation. Moreover, the post-secular position on the affirmative force of oppositional consciousness inevitably raises the question of the desire for and faith in possible futures, which is one of the aspects of the residual spirituality I mentioned above. The system of feminist civic values rests on a social constructivist notion of faith as the hope for the construction of alternative social horizons, new norms and values. Faith in progress itself is a vote of confidence in the future. Ultimately, it is a belief in the perfectibility of Wo/Man, albeit it in a much more grounded, accountable mode that privileges partial perspectives, as Haraway (1988) put it.
Desire is never a given. Rather, like a long shadow projected from the past, it is a forward-moving horizon that lies ahead and towards which one moves. Between the “no longer” and the “not yet,” desire traces the possible patterns of becoming. These intersect with and mobilize sexuality, but only to deterritorialize the parameters of a gender system that today more than ever combines redemptive emancipatory benevolence with violent militarized coercion into the Western neo-imperial project. Against the platitudes of sex as conspicuous consumption and the arrogance of nationalist projects of enforced liberation of non-Westerners, critical thinkers today may want to re-think sexuality beyond genders, as the ontological drive to pure becoming. Desire sketches the conditions for intersubjective encounters between the no longer and the not yet, through the unavoidable accident of an insight, a flush of sudden acceleration that marks a point of non-return. Accepting the challenge of de-territorialized nomadic sexuality may rescue contemporary sexual politics from the paradoxical mix of commercialized banalities and perennial counter-identity claims on the one hand, and belligerent and racist forms of neo-colonial civilizationism on the other.
Q6: As a final experiment, let us try to move feminism beyond ideas about the social and cultural embeddedness of embodied femininity by discussing the way in which you work with the notion of the nomad. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze ( 1994, 36) already contrasted the nomad to nomos, and it seems that throughout your work you delve into this particular opposition more and more. In other words, it seems to be interested increasingly not so much in a feminism that is about a rethinking of the relation between the female and the male, or the relation between the female and the world, what is at stake in your feminism is thinking about “woman” in all of its morphogenetic and topological virtualities. From the “other materialism” which you already propose in the final chapter of your first book (Patterns of Dissonance) in 1991 to claims like “Language is a virus” (in Nomadic Subjects), you have already pushed feminism way beyond the idea that the female should be thought as “the Other” and even beyond Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-woman” which in some way comes close to a nomadology but still implies the social and cultural relationality which the nomad does not need. Could we conclude (with Arnold Toynbee) that the nomad is she who “does not move” but is merely interested in the experimenting and experiencing femininity in all its material realizations? Or better, has the concept of the nomad allowed you to set in motion a return to a radical Spinozism that studies not so much the social and cultural aspects of feminism, but simply poses the question what a woman can do?
RB: What a great question! I wish we could run a six-week seminar on it! The starting point for most feminist redefinitions of subjectivity is a new form of materialism that develops the notion of corporeal materiality by emphasizing the embodied and therefore sexually differentiated structure of the speaking subject. Consequently, rethinking the bodily roots of subjectivity is the starting point for the epistemological project of nomadism. The body or the embodiment of the subject is to be understood as neither a biological nor a sociological category, but rather as a point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic, and the sociological. I stress the issue of embodiment so as to make a plea for different ways of thinking about the body. The body refers to the materialist but also vitalist groundings of human subjectivity and to the specifically human capacity to be both grounded and to flow and thus to transcend the very variables—class, race, sex, gender, age, disability—which structure us. It rests on a post-identitarian view of what constitutes a subject.
A nomadic vision of the body defines it as multi-functional and complex, as a transformer of flows and energies, affects, desires and imaginings. From psychoanalysis I have learned to appreciate the advantages of the non-unitary structure of the subject and the joyful implication of the unconscious foundations of the subject. Complexity is the key term for understanding the multiple affective layers, the complex temporal variables and the internally contradictory time- and memory-lines that frame our embodied existence. In contrast with the oppositions created by dualistic modes of social constructivism, a nomadic body is a threshold of transformations. It is the complex interplay of the highly constructed social and symbolic forces. The body is a surface of intensities and an affective field in interaction with others. In other words, feminist emphasis on embodiment goes hand-in-hand with a radical rejection of essentialism. In feminist theory one speaks as a woman, although the subject “woman” is not a monolithic essence defined once and for all, but rather the site of multiple, complex, and potentially contradictory sets of experiences, defined by overlapping variables, such as class, race, age, life-style, sexual preference and others. One speaks as a woman in order to empower women, to activate socio-symbolic changes in their condition; this is a radically anti-essentialist position.
The nomad expresses my own figuration of a situated, postmodern, culturally differentiated understanding of the subject in general and of the feminist subject in particular. This subject can also be described as postmodern/postindustrial/postcolonial, depending on one’s location. In so far as axes of differentiation like class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and others intersect and interact with each other in the constitution of subjectivity, the notion of nomad refers to the simultaneous occurrence of many of these at once. Speaking as a feminist entails that priority is granted to issues of gender (or rather, of sexual difference) in connection with the recognition of differences among women. This figuration translates therefore my desire to explore and legitimate political agency, while taking as historical evidence the decline of metaphysically fixed, steady identities. One of the issues at stake here is how to reconcile partiality and discontinuity with the construction of new forms of inter-relatedness and collective political projects.
The political strategy doubles up as a methodology; transformative projects involve a radical repositioning on the part of the knowing subject, which is neither self-evident nor free from pain. No process of consciousness-raising ever is. In post-structuralist feminism, the “alternative science project” (Harding 1986) has also been implemented methodologically through the practice of dis-identification from familiar and hence comforting values and identities (De Lauretis 1986, Braidotti 1994).
Dis-identification involves the loss of cherished habits of thought and representation, a move that can also produce fear and a sense of insecurity and nostalgia. Change is certainly a painful process, but this does not equate it with suffering, nor does it warrant the politically conservative position that chastises all change as dangerous. The point in stressing the difficulties and pain involved in the quest for transformative processes is rather to raise an awareness of both the complexities involved, the paradoxes that lie in store and to develop a nomadic “ethics of compassion” (Connolly 1999).
Changes that affect one’s sense of identity are especially delicate. Given that identifications constitute an inner scaffolding that supports one’s sense of identity, shifting our imaginary identifications is not as simple as casting away a used garment. Psychoanalysis taught us that imaginary re-locations are complex, and as time-consuming as shedding an old skin. Moreover, changes of this qualitative kind happen more easily at the molecular or subjective level, and their translation into a public discourse and shared social experiences is a complex and risk-ridden affair. In a more positive vein, Spinozist feminist political thinkers like Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd (1999) argue that such socially embedded and historically grounded changes are the result of “collective imaginings”—a shared desire for certain transformations to be actualised as a collaborative effort. They are transversal assemblages aimed at the production of affirmative politics and ethical relations.
De-familiarization is a sobering process by which the knowing subject evolves from the normative vision of the self he or she had become accustomed to. The frame of reference becomes the open-ended, interrelational, multi-sexed, and trans-species flows of becoming by interaction with multiple others. A subject thus constituted explodes the boundaries of humanism at skin level.
However, as Irigaray teaches us, changing the boundaries of what a woman can do entails the shift of fundamental parameters. Ontologically, in terms of the spatio-temporal frame of becoming; symbolically, through liturgies of actualization and the formalization of adequate modes of expression; and socially, in practical forms of collaborative morality and transitional politics that may lead to a more radical form of democracy. As I argued earlier, the conditions for renewed political and ethical agency cannot be drawn from the immediate context or the current state of the terrain. They have to be generated affirmatively and creatively by efforts geared to creating possible futures, by mobilizing resources and visions that have been left untapped and by actualizing them in daily practices of interconnection with others.
This project requires more visionary power or prophetic energy, qualities which are neither especially in fashion in academic circles, nor highly valued scientifically in these times of commercial globalization. Yet, the call for more vision is emerging from many quarters in critical theory. Feminists have a long and rich genealogy in terms of pleading for increased visionary insight. From the very early days, Joan Kelly (1979) typified feminist theory as a double-edged vision, with a strong critical and an equally strong creative function. Faith in the creative powers of the imagination is an integral part of feminists’ appraisal of lived embodied experience and the bodily roots of subjectivity, which would express the complex singularities that feminist women have become. Donna Haraway’s work (1997, 2003) provides the best example of this kind of respect for a dimension where creativity is unimaginable without some visionary fuel.
Prophetic or visionary minds are thinkers of the future. The future as an active object of desire propels us forth and motivates us to be active in the here and now of a continuous present that calls for resistance. The yearning for sustainable futures can construct a liveable present. This is not a leap of faith, but an active transposition, a transformation at the in-depth level (Braidotti 2006). A prophetic or visionary dimension is necessary in order to secure an affirmative hold over the present, as the launching pad for sustainable becoming or qualitative transformations. The future is the virtual unfolding of the affirmative aspect of the present, which honours our obligations to the generations to come.
The pursuit of practices of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life, is a simple strategy to hold, sustain and map out sustainable transformations. The motivation for the social construction of hope is grounded in a profound sense of responsibility and accountability. A fundamental gratuitousness and a profound sense of hope is part of it. Hope is a way of dreaming up possible futures, an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded not only in projects that aim at reconstructing the social imaginary, but also in the political economy of desires, affects and creativity. Contemporary nomadic practices of subjectivity—both in pedagogy and other areas of thought—work towards a more affirmative approach to critical theory.