Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    10. Postmodernism Is a Humanism: Deleuze and Equivocity

    The Politics of Postmodernism

    There was an intense and long-running debate in the feminist theory of the 1980s regarding the politics of postmodernism. Was the attention to representation, signification and cultural difference a liberation from an essentialism that had mired women in their biology? Or was the focus on representation yet one more way in which the feminine can be appropriated and homogenized within one all-determining system? One way to solve this problem was to shift from feminism, which begins its critique from one side of a sexual binary, to gender, thereby problematizing the nature or construction of that binary. The very concept of gender provided a way out of the impasse of negotiating whether women ought to seek equality or difference, for the problem of gender lay not in whether women were really different but just how that difference had been produced through the representational system.

    I want to argue that the very structure of the concept of gender is a symptom, a symptom that pastes over a certain failure to think. It is quite possible, even expected, today to use gender as a self-evidently critical term without asking about the nature of those kinds or ‘genres’ to which gender refers. Gender difference is either one form of constructed cultural difference among others, just one more way in which man as a representational animal produces his differentiated world. Or, gender difference is a privileged figure or phantasmatic frame through which we construct the symbolic order. Either way, we are always at one remove from difference, already within the frame of gender. Against this tendency towards gender, the problem of the status of sexual difference has re-emerged recently in a certain attack on postmodernism undertaken in the name of Lacanian sexual difference: one cannot reduce the world to a system of circulating differences or constructed genders, for one can only live such a constructed or symbolic frame through the fantasy of a ‘real’ excluded from that frame, and this ‘real’ that resists symbolization absolutely is figured through ‘woman’ (Lacan 1982:144). This is why, for Lacan, there can be no sexual relation, no happy postmodern cohabitation in a world of constructed differences with each term being differentiated from every other. For one term of that relation—woman—is not an object within the system but a fantasized ‘one’ outside or beyond the system (Copjec 1994:235; Žižek 2003:12). For all their virulence, these attacks on what Slavoj Žižek and Joan Copjec among others take to be postmodernism do not go far enough, for they remain within the problem of gender, the problem of the construction of kinds through signification. Whereas the postmodernism under attack supposedly presents the world as a system of unfounded difference, of hybridity, multiplicity and simulation, the Lacanian anti-postmodern riposte merely points out the conditions that must prevail in such a constructed or signified world: one must always presuppose a subject for whom these signifiers signify, a sense barred by the signifier and therefore a ‘beyond’ of the signifier or ‘not-all’ that we phantasmatically live as woman. What I will argue is that even if we accept the Lacanian fantasy that underpins the postmodern condition of signification we should go further and ask just whose fantasy this is and whether one might not be liberated from it.

    The very concept of gender—the notion of constituted, represented or signified kinds—is tied up with a certain understanding of sexual difference. Sexual difference becomes ‘gender’ in postmodernism precisely because postmodernism remains a humanism, with the subject as the point of construction or representation through which the world is constituted. The very idea of genders, as signified kinds or binaries, relies upon an equivocal distinction between that which signifies and that which is signified. Man in his modern and postmodern incarnations is not a rational animal so much as a being who, by virtue of the fact that he speaks or signifies, can never be included in the real to which he refers. [19]

    There is an idea of postmodermism at the centre of Alain Badiou’s, Žižek’s and Copjec’s defence of sexual difference: postmodernism supposedly imagines a world of circulating differences without foundation, ground, subject or centre. According to the post-Lacanian critique of this postmodern celebration of difference and hybridity, sexual difference is what must be presupposed, even if disavowed, in such affirmatory logics. In Copjec’s case, without the idea of sexual difference—or the idea of woman as the Thing that subtends signification—one could not have a system. In order to signify, the system must be the signification of some being, some non-included object, and this being that is extracted from the domain of signifiable, differentiated things is woman, who strictly speaking does not exist. That is, in order to imagine the ‘all’ of being one has to complete the set of signified objects with that one lost object (Copjec 2003:35-6). The entry into the system of signifiers, which is lived as prohibition or renunciation, produces woman as that which must be renounced. Everything begins with prohibition or the injunction that not all desires are permissible (Žižek 2003:103-4), and from that ‘not’ one fantasizes the desired thing beyond the law. For Copjec, the way out of this fantasy is to face the non-all of being, that there is no lost object, that woman does not exist. If women, unlike men, are not constituted through the fantasy of this lost object they offer a new model of ethical agency, the possibility of acting without the mourning or nostalgia for a precluded plenitude. One does not happily inhabit a post-gendered world; one lives through the trauma of sexual difference, the necessary gap or hole in being that has always been phantasmatically imagined as woman.

    Badiou takes this attack on postmodernism further, insisting that historicism, sexuality, multiculturalism, the reduction of the work of art to culture, as well as a general laziness and quiescence of thinking, abandon the event, an event that tears the actual world of things from itself but that is also belied once we take this disruption as a truth within the world. For Badiou the event is the rupture of the domain of already constituted things, and it is the exposure of the event that produces the subject of truth, a subject at odds with, or irreducible to, one’s world. It is in the Lacanian relation of love, and not in the world of sexuality, that this event opens being (Badiou 1999:83). [20] So for Badiou what is wrong with postmodernism is its celebration of differences and the absence of a subject at odds with this actual multiplicity. I want to sustain the force of this critique of postmodernism—that it is a failure or banality of thinking, a reduction of thought to quotation, repetition and signification—and argue that Badiou, Žižek and Copjec do not go far enough. Rather than assert the subject, the sexual relation or the event as a gap or not-all of being, one needs to traverse the fantasy of ‘man’ as submitted to a signification that is radically other. We can do this by taking the psychoanalytic genesis of sense one step further. If the emergence of the world, as a domain of representable objects, can occur only through signification, and if we live this signification phantasmatically—as imposed by an other who has subjected my desire to the system of things, thereby denying me ‘the Thing’—then we can go one step further. Fantasy and signification, including the subject of speech, are only possible through sense. Rather than remaining within the Oedipal fantasy frame of sense, we might set ourselves the challenge of intuiting the emergence of sense.

    We might consider this liberation in Deleuzian-Spinozist terms: from a finite point of consciousness within the world, we see ourselves as subjected to relations (Deleuze 1992); but if one thinks further, if one strives to think from the point of view of the emergence of relations, one will no longer enslave oneself to constituted terms, such as the gender system, the heterosexual matrix or the framing fantasy. One will ask what life must be such that fantasy is possible: what must the body be such that its relations to other bodies would take the form of a sexual narrative? In general, rather than seeing signifiers as imposed on life, we should ask what life is such that it yields signification. This will take us to sexual difference in the non-Lacanian sense: bodies are such that their interactions, desires and affects yield a surface of sense. Sense is not an imposed or alien system that negates, diminishes or orders life; sense is the infinitive (Hughes 2008; Williams 2008).

    In addition to his extended argument in The Logic of Sense, Deleuze describes the emergence of sense in his first book on cinema. Following C. S. Peirce, we can think of firstness or powers and forces of life; then we have secondness or actions, the ways in which powers act upon each other. Thirdness, or relations properly speaking, take the form of sense: one power does not just encounter another but adds to the encounter the sense or perception of the perception. (The eye does not just encounter light but sees something as something, something that could be seen again, and is seen as having the power to be perceived.) Sense, then, is the emergence of the relation, not just between two terms, but a relation to an exchange, a giving or interpretation (Deleuze 1986:197). One can only have signifiers—a system of ordered relations—if there is already a potential in life for the perceived to refer beyond itself. The perceived is not just perceived as having a certain sense—we do not just see the world as this or that—for seeing something as something requires that the perceived bears a potential to repeat itself, or to be sensed: redness is perceived as redness because of a singularity, a ‘to red’ that allows for the emergence of sense. This is not an essence in the sense of a predicate—redness in general—but an infinitive, a power to be repeated, varied, extended, actualized, ‘to red . . .’ (Deleuze 1990:221). So sense emerges from bodies but is not reducible to bodies, and sense also emerges through the desire of bodies. The psychoanalytic insistence on corporeal genesis takes us to the proper problem of sense (Deleuze 1990:197). At the level of bodies there is a corporeal perception, such as the eye encountering light, but at the level of sense there is an incorporeal event. If the eye exceeds the located present and sees a color as a power or potential to be perceived beyond the present, a ‘to red . . .’, an infinitive emerges that takes the encounter beyond the present and recognizes its force for all time: the eternal truth of the singular (Deleuze 1990:99). Sense is not an order imposed on an undifferentiated world; rather sense is orientation or relations effected from singularities. This means that there is a not a subject or system that signifies; rather, signification and subject are the effects of the sense (or effected relations) of singularities:

    Only a theory of singular points is capable of transcending the synthesis of the person and the analysis of the individual as these are (or are made) in consciousness. We can not accept the alternative which thoroughly compromises psychology, cosmology, and theology: either singularities already comprised in individuals and persons, or the undifferentiated abyss. Only when the world, teaming with anonymous and nomadic, impersonal and pre-individual singularities, opens up, do we tread at last on the field of the transcendental. (Deleuze 1990:103)

    Thinking sense in this way requires the challenge of univocity: not remaining within the myth of the construction of life through signification, separating life on the one hand from representational mediation on the other. Rather than regarding desire as that which extends the bodily drive beyond life to an other who does not exist (Žižek 2003:95), univocity sees sense as the surface that regards bodies as located within time, but perceives in them a potential for all time.

    So, if there is a criticism of postmodernism that it has failed to take into account the structure of the subject—that to have a lived world of signifiers one cannot avoid positing the subject for whom those objects are presented, and a thing or being that those presentations are presentations of—this does not mean that one should not take this possibility beyond the Oedipal structure it causes. That is, one should go beyond the fantasy and structure of signification to its possibility. This involves three problems that I will address here. First, how has this fantasy—of signifying man relating to an absent object of desire—been constituted (what are its specific historical and political conditions)?

    Second, how is fantasy as such, or sense, possible? How is the world always more than itself, not lacking an object that would complete sense, but productive of sense as an incorporeality or extra-being? Finally, if there is an event or possibility of sense that exceeds a system of signifiers how might this lead us to read, and how might we deal with a postmodernism that has so readily reduced what is other than the signifer to an effect of signification? These problems need to be approached through the concept of equivocity, for it is just the postmodern refusal to consider being or ontology beyond signification that is itself ontological and equivocal. How is it that the world is lived as somehow signified through a system that is not of being itself?

    The Ontology of Postmodernism: Equivocity

    How then is the idea of the postmodern entwined with an equivocal ontology? To begin with, we can follow Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (who, in turn, follow Lacan) and argue that the very concept of the signifier relies on the logic of the subject. [21] In both Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari trace the historical genesis of the subject through the logic of signification. Once we see life as necessarily mediated through a single point of law and system, and once this system is identified with language as such, then the subject is formed as nothing more than an effect of this one system that ‘overcodes’ all other systems.

    Both Copjec and Žižek, following Lacan, also insist on the subject as the subject of signification. In so far as I speak and am submitted to a law that allows me to articulate my demands in relation to an other—an other who is always given to me through the system of signs—I necessarily imagine a remainder of desire, the real subject, that is other than any of its signified acts (Žižek 1999:159).

    Postmodernism, if it is understood as a system of signification that is radically detached from the real or that produces and constitutes the real, is equivocal. As opposed to Deleuze’s ontology of univocity in which there is just one plane of expression, equivocity posits two radically incommensurable levels. This is made clear in the Lacanian insistence on the logic of the ‘not-all’: the linguistic system must, if it is language, posit that to which it refers, and in so doing the subject must also be posited as the desire to signify that underpins the linguistic system as such. The logic of sexual difference here is both subjective and equivocal: subjective because it is only through the desire to speak to or be recognized by an other that the subject who precedes and exceeds the sign is generated: ‘sexual difference can articulate itself only in the guise of the series of (failed) attempts to transpose it into symbolic oppositions’ (Žižek 2002:12). And this logic is equivocal precisely because that which is other than system and signification is not one more thing or being, but that which can only be imagined as other than any signified being, and yet generated from the very logic of the signifier as that which determines and represents beings. The not-all or the failure of being to be given in the form of a totality entails both some fantasized point beyond the system of signified objects, and the recognition that this beyond is produced by the system’s own failure:

    At the core of this matter of the unforgettable but forever lost Thing, we find not just an impossibility of thought, but a void of Being. The problem is not simply that I cannot think the primordial mother, but that her loss opens up a hole in being. Or, it is not that the mother escapes representation or thought, but that the jouissance that attached me to her has been lost and this depletes the whole of my being. (Copjec 2003:35-6)

    As Copjec goes on to explain, what is important is not some unrepresentable beyond, but the formation of a drive that directs itself to some representation of this beyond, some part object or thing that we desire that is a fragment or sign of the Thing beyond relations (Copjec 2003:37). What makes this logic truly equivocal is the extreme rigor of Copjec’s position: the Thing, or noumenal beyond, is given as other than representation only through a peculiar structure of representation. The drive is just the formation of a representation of a thing that is desired because it is not the Thing: one desires the breast, not for its fulfillment of the needs of life but because it is a fragment of, but not identical to, that which is other than all life, the mother or Thing: ‘It is not a means to something other than itself, but is itself other than itself. The bi-partition takes place within the object, not between the object and the satisfaction that lies beyond it’ (Copjec 2003:38).

    Copjec herself suggests a utopian beyond to this equivocity in the title of her book (itself a quotation from Lacan). To ‘imagine there’s no woman’ is to refuse the masculine fantasy of the Thing or jouissance beyond the law. The position of woman—for whom there is no beyond precisely because she is not submitted to the law of castration—might therefore offer the model of an ethical act; unlike man who looks back to a lost totality, it is woman who acts without the support of truth or a barred thing in itself (Copjec 2003:7). Like Alain Badiou, who is highly critical of Deleuze’s univocity, Copjec insists on the ethical act as a break, rupture or tear in the fabric of being. Not surprisingly, while Copjec cites the tragic Antigone as exemplary of such an act, Badiou and Žižek appeal to the Christian and Pauline images of a disruption of truth from beyond being (Badiou 2003; Žižek 2001). It is just this religious, transcendent or ir-real affirmation that is most problematic in their critique of postmodernism.

    We may want to be critical of the world as a closed system of signifiers that can only be troubled from within, but does this mean we need to leap out of the system by an appeal to a beyond of being? The strength of the contemporary Lacanian position is its appeal to truth as other than received systems, but such a truth can be better and more responsibly secured by Deleuze’s insistence on univocity, and this for affirmatively ethical reasons. The problem with equivocity is just its terrifying religious heritage, that it affirms that which is other than communication, representation, experience, justification and language.

    Indeed, this must be so if we understand language as signification, as an imposed and arbitrary system, as radically other than its putative referent. So I would argue that both the simple image of the postmodern—as a world of simulation, signification, representation or social construction—and the criticism of this notion are equivocal without justification. The idea of language imposed on the world begins from a binary between a world in itself and the mediating or differentiating system. By the same token, the criticism of postmodernism that insists on the necessary fantasy or event of the ‘in itself’ also accepts truth as other than the lived real. But this equivocal understanding of the signifier should be challenged by the thought of univocity, in which truth may be intuited as that which expresses itself, not as that which is ‘in itself’ only to be belied by relations, but as that which gives birth to—while remaining irreducible to—relations.

    Expressionism, which follows from the commitment to univocity, is not the affirmation of a human subject and his relation to the world; expressionism accounts for relations as emerging from one substance, but a substance that is given not as a single whole but as a play of forces and differences from which points of relative stability emerge. Expressionism aims to intuit the real possibility of relations: to perceive is to establish a relation, to connect or mix corporeal bodies; any such mixture results in an event—say, a perceived quality within time—and this event then opens another time, a time of singularities or eternal truth whereby the what that is perceived can be thought independently of the that through which it is perceived. The subject who perceives and speaks is made possible through sense. And sense is not the effect of a system of signifiers, for there can be signification only if the signifier refers beyond itself to a signified. Each actual body that we perceive within time has emerged from a potentiality that exceeds its concrete material appearance. It is possible for language to refer, concretely, to ‘women,’ because that specific and extensive grouping is an actualization of a broader and excessive potentiality. It is this beyond of the signifier—that to which it refers—that Lacan describes in Oedipal terms: to be submitted to language is to seek the sense of what we say, some beyond of the signifier, a beyond imagined as prohibited by the one who holds the phallus, with the phallus as a paradoxical element, for it offers itself as signifier of signifiers—that there is sense—while strictly bearing no sense. For Deleuze, who follows Lacan up to this point (Deleuze 1990:228), one needs to go one step further. That there can be sense, that a body part can detach itself and present itself as the sense or law of bodies is possible only through the event of sense in general: the capacity for bodies—through their mixtures, causes or relations within time—to release the thought of that which is for all time.

    This event or infinitive is sense: it inheres in language but cannot be reduced to language. Regardless of whether I affirm, remember, imagine, deny or desire what is expressed, the expressed itself remains the same; the expressed is therefore not the thing itself (what is denoted). The expressed is perceived as that in the thing that marks it out as being the thing that it is. So when I say ‘morning star’ or ‘president of the United States of America’ I refer beyond the corporeal object (the physical body of the planet Venus, or the individual Barack Obama) to that body’s particular way of being referred to, and if I tried to explain this sense—by saying the morning star is the evening star, or saying that the president of the United States is the husband of Michelle Obama—I would then have to give you another sense; we can never say sense itself or that which sense expresses. Nor is the expressed the mental or psychological idea of the I who speaks (manifestation), for the sense of, say, ‘the author of Hamlet’ is more than the corporeal body of William Shakespeare (for there would still be an ‘author of Hamlet’ if we were to find that the physical individual named as William Shakespeare did not actually write the plays we had taken him to write. Sense is also more than any individual’s articulation of sense, for we can identify the same sense in different articulations. Sense is the result of bodies and their encounters, the expression of relations, but it also takes on a being of its own that should not be regarded as other than being, as imposed on being, but as ‘extra-being’.

    Univocity enables responsible and responsive thinking: not accepting the world as signified, as mediated through signs, but interrogating the emergence of signs. Equivocity, by contrast, is banality, not thinking through the events within which we are immersed, but accepting already given distinctions between two substances; equivocity reads art as representation, selves as constructs, and genders as mediated kinds. Equivocity accepts two levels—signifier and signified, sign and world, representation and the real—without asking the genesis of this difference.

    Deleuze explains equivocity in his book on Spinoza by referring to two ways of apprehending signs. If Adam sees the prohibition placed over the tree of knowledge as a command or imposed order, then the sign or command is seen as other than the world, tyrannically imposed. It is as though there is the world on the one hand, and then the laws and commands of its governing creator on the other. If, however, Adam sees the prohibition as an expression of the world’s relations, as a sign of the harm that will follow from eating the forbidden fruit, then God is nothing more than the full knowledge of the world’s powers (Deleuze 1992:247). To see signs as signifiers, as differences arbitrarily imposed on an otherwise lawless and undifferentiated world, is to imagine the system of speech and the speaking subject as radically other than the world itself. There is posited being on the one hand and the subject who posits on the other; this results in the radical split of the subject and the symbolic, for any thought of being as a whole must always have a remainder, blind spot or not-all that conditions the system but is never able to be articulated within the system. The subject is produced in and through subjection (Butler 1997).

    There are both ontological and practical or pragmatic reasons to reject equivocity. Ontologically, equivocity might be defined as the privileging of ontology, or as the decision to grant some being a foundational status (whether that foundation is the subject, life, actuality, culture, signification, God, humans, matter and so on). It follows that equivocity would also entail a certain mode of pragmatism, whereby we accept what is true in terms of what is true for us, or what works for us—which is of course no truth at all. By contrast, univocity does not concern itself with what really is and so there could (and should) be arguments about whether one can include numbers, fictional characters, relations or values in one’s ontology; there would be no privileged being that would provide the yardstick for all other beings. It follows that if there is a pragmatism it would be without ground: no longer a decision of truth according to what works for us, but truth as that which works as such, as that which takes hold or possesses force. (And if one were to answer that this seems like totalitarianism—for doesn’t Nazism ‘have force’—one would reply that, Nazism doesn’t possess force because it has to operate by vanquishing and denying force. (In fact totalitarianisms are necessarily equivocal, grounding the truth of the world on some higher logic of what really and truly is.) Univocity affirms one expressive plane of life in which languages and signs express or flow from the real, and yet do so in ways that are contingent (or that could have issued in different systems). By contrast, in equivocal ontologies signifiers imprison and order a life that in itself remains radically other or phantasmatic. Our submission to a system of signs gestures to an outside that is signified, but out of reach. According to equivocal logics, the signifier is a law or command, an order or norm to which thought ought to submit. And it is in this process or act of submission that the subject is split from being; a gap or ‘not-all’ opens a symbolic order that both produces and precludes its mourned outside.

    It is just this equivocity that engenders postmodernism and its discontents, for it establishes the signifier, system and subject on the one hand, and the real or the retroactively constituted world on the other. For Jean Baudrillard, the simulacrum is defined through a loss or absence of the real and is therefore both other than the real as well as being the only real, or hyperreal, to which we have access (Baudrillard 1994). There have also been positive affirmations of this post-metaphysical condition, a condition abandoning the real and recognizing our linguistic condition. For Richard Rorty, postmodern liberal humanism is just this acceptance of our existence within contexts along with the abandonment of any grand claims to foundations, justification or life as such (Rorty 1983). Jurgen Habermas, while critical of what he takes to be the postmodern relativism of deconstruction, nevertheless insists that only by working within speech and negotiation can there be any politics; politics abandons any metaphysical outside to focus on procedures of legitimation and communication (Habermas 1992). Judith Butler, who maintains both the idea of a mourning for a lost real, and the recognition that such a real is produced only through mourning, insists that it is just this recognition of subjection that might enable political mobility:

    One can certainly concede that desire is radically conditioned without claiming that it is radically determined, and that there are structures that make possible desire without claiming that those structures are impervious to a reiterative and transformative articulation. The latter is hardly a return to ‘the ego’ or classical liberal notions of freedom, but it does insist that the norm has a temporality that opens it to a subversion from within and to a future that cannot be fully anticipated. (Butler 2000:21)

    Gender, if one took this dominant equivocal point of view, would be an identity or position adopted in order that we might speak, act and perform as subjects; but this very condition of required submission and normativity would also allow for instability. One must recognize oneself as this or that gendered identity in order to take part in what Butler refers to as the heterosexual matrix; but, precisely because this matrix is constituted through speech, acts and performatives, it is also always capable of being rendered otherwise, of producing new relations. Gender is a system of norms and prohibitions; it is only through the prohibition of the object of desire—say, the maternal body—that the subject is produced as other than that which he must have desired. One’s sex, or that which precedes the gender system, is, for Butler, positioned as real only after the event of its loss or abandonment. Sex remains as impossibly other precisely because submission to the system of gender is not something one does or does not do; there is not a self who then adopts the law. Rather, there is law—the norm of speaking as this or that gender—and from there one recognizes oneself as a sexed subject who was destined to take on this or that position. One is produced as a subject through the fantasy of submission. On the one hand, then, Butler appears to be anti-postmodern, for she rejects the idea of a system of signs imposed on an otherwise neutral and inaccessible sex. On the other hand, she represents the epitome of equivocal logics. Our position within a system of norms produces a radical difference between norm and that which the norm supposedly orders, organizes and represents. It is in the repetition of the norms or signifiers of gender that one produces oneself, one’s sex or the real as that which was there to be signified:

    This is not to say that, on the one hand, the body is simply linguistic stuff or, on the other hand, that it has no bearing on language. It bears on language all the time. The materiality of language, indeed, of the very sign that attempts to denote ‘materiality’, suggests that it is not the case that everything, including materiality, is always already language. On the contrary, the materiality of the signifier (a ‘materiality’ that comprises both signs and their significatory efficacy) implies that there can be no reference to a pure materiality except via materiality. Hence, it is not that one cannot get outside of language in order to grasp materiality in and of itself; rather, every effort to refer to materiality takes place through a signifying process that, in its phenomenality, is always already material. (Butler 1993:68)

    What makes this logic equivocal is not that it is binary so much as the character or nature of the binary. In equivocal logics there are no true binaries or differences, only one privileged term—such as the signifier (or mind or representation)—that generates its pale and dependent others. Equivocity or the positing of two substances, going back to Descartes’ distinction between mind and matter, precludes real difference. If one begins from numerical difference between, say, two substances such as mind and matter, then one has to establish a relation between these two, and this will always take the form of one substance negotiating its other: mind as cause of matter, mind as reflection of matter, matter as cause of mind. Once one privileged substance, such as mind or the signifier, accounts for relations and differences, differences can always be seen as different instances predicated on some quality that is parceled out among numerically different bodies. Red, say, would be a generality that could appear now here, now there, differentiated as a quality by the real body of which it is predicated. Univocity, by contrast, allows only for real difference. Two instances of red are really and singularly different, each with their own singular power; this real difference is released in sense, in the perception of this singularity as not being a variation of some generality through time, but as a ‘potential to…,’ or an infinitive, that has as much being as anything else. If there is only one being, then differences—such as the difference between incorporeal sense and the bodies it expresses, as well as different qualities—are all equally real and equally different. This is revealed most clearly in the singularities of art: what I might perceive or think here, on this canvas, is not redness in general, redness as the variant of some generality, but a ‘to red . . .’ that bears a repeatability for all time. Univocity or one being enables real difference, for difference is no longer differentiation of some being that is other than the differentiated.

    In postmodern equivocal logics, however, difference is determined in advance on the basis of a difference between one type of being or substance and another. One term—the signifier—produces, constitutes and orders its other. For Butler, the real or matter is just that which divides itself into inside and outside, before and after; and the signifier is precisely that portion of matter that divides life from itself (Butler 1993:68). The norms of gender are read as signs of some real and underlying self. So the difference between form and matter, subject and world, sex and gender, signifier and signified, are produced by one substance—the signifier, language or the speech-act—generating its radically incommensurable other. As signifiers, gender norms produce a sexual subject who supposedly precedes the act. For Butler, then, there is no being, substance or life that is the one ground subtending all acts; rather there are acts of a certain form or type—performatives or significations—that then produce their real or cause. So what seems like a difference or a binary, the difference between sex and gender, real and signifier, presence and representation, is actually the effect of one term (the signifier) producing a phantom, a lost and imagined other. And this is only possible because there is a distinction made between what really is or has being—the signifier—and its generated and lesser other (the illusory subject or sex). Postmodernism is equivocal precisely because one event or relation of life—the signifier—explains and typifies all relations. Signification is the explanation, cause and logic from which all other relations take their being.

    Not only is postmodernism equivocal—depending on the signifier and an absent or constituted real—it is also the culmination of subjectivism. (And in this respect we would have to note the profound value of Butler’s work in bringing intelligence, rigor and force to the tradition of ontology that has for the most part not faced up to the logic of the signifier that Butler so astutely unpacks.) According to Martin Heidegger, western thought as a whole is subjectivist. Some point or underlying ground—hypokeimenon—precedes and orders all other relations; differences are the effect of, or flow from, some point or logic outside life. [22] But this substance that grounds and orders life is also, for most of western thought, imagined equivocally as other than perceived and lived life. For Heidegger, and Deleuze after him, overturning Platonism does not entail the reversal of the hierarchy of being over becoming, but the recognition that both sides of this binary have their ground in a single life, a life expressed through, but never exhausted by, language. Language is not the sign or order of some world; the world gives itself through language (Heidegger 1998:200) and through multiple series of signs beyond human language (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:117). Western thought becomes enslaved to equivocity, for Heidegger, precisely when the truth of the world, the logic of being, is located in some source point beyond the world itself, when Plato’s Ideas, for example, become correct ideas or forms through which the world might be viewed. For Deleuze, this subjection to equivocity has a political origin. Whereas primitive societies regarded their inscriptive systems as expressive and productive—with rituals of tattooing, scarring and symbolization producing the connection among human bodies and the world with which they work (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:176)—modern man regards inscription as signification, as one system of signs that is relatively translatable and that has as its single condition and point of origin ‘the’ speaking subject (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:159-60).

    For both Heidegger and Deleuze, western thought, particularly in its humanist mode, is both equivocal and subjectivist, precisely because the subject—‘das Man’ for Heidegger, the signifying subject for Deleuze—is that point through which all the differences of the world are generated, a single point of generation or synthesis that is the ground of all relative differences. Humanism is equivocal, not just because there are two substances—mind and matter—but because one substance is the ground of the other: the subject is the point from which the logic and relations of the world are recognized and given actuality. Without the synthesizing power of mind the order of the world would not be brought into being.

    In postmodernity it is the system of signification, the law of speaking, communicating man, that constitutes a political ground: ‘The State gives thought a form of interiority, and thought gives that interiority a form of universality’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:375). In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari explain the ways in which the logic of capitalism is built on a fantasy of man and an equivocal ontology. The idea that we are all submitted to a system of signs, and that outside the system of communication and recognition there is only the chaos of the undifferentiated, and that there must have been an object that was abandoned for the sake of order: all these fantasies of submission center on the affective image of signifying man (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:182). Two key aesthetic political points need to be made here. The first is critical. The idea that ‘we’ are submitted to a system or law that produces us as subjects set over against a necessarily prohibited object is a sexual fantasy. Psychoanalysis tells me not to kill my father and desire my mother and I realize that that’s what I wanted. We should, however, not see ourselves as submitted to a system of speech beyond which lies the undifferentiated night of chaos and incest. On the contrary, for Deleuze and Guattari, systems of signs are expressive; they flow from life, and a life that is more differentiated than any formalized system of signs. Signs are not arbitrarily imposed. They do not differentiate and order the real. They are themselves real, have their ground in the real and flow from the real. Signs become signifiers—an imposed system generated from the point of law and the subject—only with the aesthetic investment in the affective perception of man as a speaking animal, or what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘faciality’ or the regime of the ‘despotic signifier’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:117). [23] Contrary to the view that we can include Deleuze and Guattari within a postmodernism that has freed itself from the real or substance, they insist that the structures, forms and systems within which we operate are substantial. Their theory of language insists that there is a form both to the signs emitted—a form of expression—and a form to what those signs express—a form of content—and these forms, stratifications or expressions take place through substance. ‘The signifier’ for example expresses the subject, the body of man organized through the face. This affective investment in the signifying body—‘the interpretosis of the priest’—can be historically delimited:

    the form of the signifier has a substance, or the signifier has a body, namely, the Face[...]. Not only is this semiotic system not the first, but we see no reason to accord it any particular privilege from the standpoint of an abstract evolutionism. We would like to indicate very briefly certain characteristics of the other two semiotic systems. First, the so-called primitive, presignifying semiotic, which is much closer to ‘natural’ codings operating without signs. There is no reduction to faciality as the sole substance of expression: there is no elimination of forms of content through abstraction of the signified. To the extent that there is still abstraction of content from a strictly semiotic point of view, it fosters a pluralism or polyvocality of forms of expression that prevents any power takeover by the signifier and preserves expressive forms particular to content, thus forms of corporeality, gesturality, rhythm, dance and rite coexist heterogeneously with the vocal form. A variety of forms and substances of expression intersect and form relays. It is a segmentary but plurilinear, multidimensional semiotic that wards off any signifying circularity. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:117)

    Deleuze and Guattari write here of ‘warding off’ circularity, which is precisely how one might describe postmodern equivocal logics: a signifier is not a signifier unless it is the signifier of something signified, and yet the signified is given as signified only by way of the signifier. So, from the critical point, where we reject the idea of signs imposed on life, we can move to the constructive point of asking whose life is expressed in this Oedipal fantasy of man submitted to language for the sake of being saved from the dark night of maternal incest? (And how did what is other than the signifier—the form of content—get reduced to a pre-linguistic, undifferentiated and unthinkable abstraction?) When confronted by a language—such as the language of postmodernism, the language of signifying man—we can ask about the genesis of linguistic system, and about the desires it expresses.

    Now, according to the early Deleuze, there is a sexual genesis to sense, and he follows psychoanalysis strictly on this point. The self-preservative and destructive drives produce a series of partial objects, which are then related to the phallus as a paradoxical object: for the phallus is that body part that signifies but does not yield the sense of what it signifies. There are two series: the concrete body parts that make up our actual body, and then the organism that experiences itself as a unified identity only through reference to some organizing point. In the case of the Oedipus complex, the self is unified by imagining that its bodily integrity or the image of the body as a coherent whole might be fragmented if another body—the father who possesses the law—were to impose castration. Oedipalism creates a specific causal series: it refers the series of multiple parts to an imaginary whole—the self or subject who speaks and answers to the law—and then (ex post facto) regards fragmentation as that which would follow if the self were to transgress the prohibition on desire. The body’s actual parts are organized via a virtual scene. And this enigmatic resonance between two series—the series of bodily objects and the series of the object elevated above the body—yields sense only with the Oedipus complex, which refers the series beyond itself to the event (Deleuze 1990:220). For Deleuze, here, the event emerges from sexuality but then liberates itself from a personal sexuality. So, for example, the mouth that connects to the breast through the drives of life, articulates a demand that is addressed to an other who is beyond life (for the breast is also a promise of love, and an indication of an other whose desires can be imagined but never known). It is with speech, emerging from sexual relations, that a sense irreducible to speech is liberated; any act of speech expresses a sense that is at once within a context (referring to this sense here and now) but also beyond a context, for the same act of speech could be repeated in other contexts. Sense is sexual in a ramified sense. Sense is a pure attribute, an infinitive or power that detaches itself from bodies.

    Concretely, one can say that bodies allow for perceptions or qualities. One can perceive a certain quality, and this perception might then be expressed in a proposition. It is in and through this expressed proposition that sense is liberated: a perception of x is perceived as a power to x, a redness, for example, that is capable of being repeated and varied in any time whatever. Sense may emerge dynamically from Oedipal relations among bodies, but can never be reduced to bodies. You and I can converse and understand each other only because our language transcends us both, and exceeds any single body. Indeed, if we are to think, one needs to move beyond constituted sexualities to the sense that appears as their ‘quasicause’: it seems that we speak only because we are subjected to a single system that grants us our distinct identity, but this supposedly foundational or causal law is possible only because of relations among bodies.

    This allows us to move to the positive argument of univocity. There is an affective component of any system of signs, any assemblage; there is a form of expression (or a particular character to the regime of signs) as well as a form of content (or a particular distribution of what is expressed). In capitalism we imagine the form of expression to be the signifier, an imposed and purely differential system, and we imagine the form of content, or what is signified, to be the undifferentiated, negative or retroactively posited real. But if all regimes are expressions of life, and if we question the universality of the signifying model, we can ask what mode of life the despotism of the signifier expresses. How did we come to think of ourselves as subjected to systems? How did we come to think of life as that which can only be thought (phantasmatically) as other than the law? What investments, desires, connections must be presupposed for me to think of myself as a speaking subject positioned within a law that is radically other than some supposedly negated pre-Oedipal real? If we see signs not as radically other than life but as expressions of life we can undertake two tasks.

    First, we can ask what the image of signifying man expresses. What configuration of desire has produced a submission to law that remains forever in a state of negation, loss and mourning of the real? Deleuze and Guattari give a direct answer in Anti-Oedipus. Lacan is quite right to note that we are all Oedipal, but this Oedipal subject is historically, politically and sexually specific. It is the man of the bourgeois family who sees himself as dominated by an internalized father. And this internalized, punishing and castrating father—this man of law within us all—has a political and historical origin. Whereas law and force once emanated from the despot, the king or the tribal ruler, we now see law as ‘human’, as generated from the simple fact that we are speaking beings. A certain body—that of white, laboring, familial man, the man of propositions and judgments—provides the affective image that underpins the Oedipal fantasy. (And underpinning that Oedipal fantasy is the ‘image of thought’ in general, or the equivocal notion par excellence: that there is some thinking being, subject or performativity that precedes and conditions the world.) The fantasy of signification is therefore expressive of a reactive desire, a desire that posits man as a speaking animal, submitted to the logic of the signifier, set over against a desiring life that can now only be imagined as retroactively constituted through the very fantasy of prohibition. And as long as we do not question this fantasy we remain within what Deleuze refers to as the ‘neurotic novel’; we repeat the symptom as our own (Deleuze 1990, 276). Žižek has recently defended this persistence of desiring negativity on two grounds: first, without the gap of desire or the illusion that there is a distance between the emptiness of the subject and the world, the desires we would be left with nothing, but subjectivity lies in this ‘less than nothing,’ in acknowledging that the subject is an illusion but one that nevertheless persists through the desire of the drive. Second, this allows for creativity: no object answers to my desire, and ‘my’ subjectivity is nothing other than this gap or distance between desire and what I can grasp, know or have:

    Far from being the same as the nirvana principle (the striving towards the dissolution of all tension, the longing for a return to original nothingness), the death drive is the tension which persists and insists beyond and against the nirvana principle. In other words, far from being opposed to the pleasure principle, the nirvana principle is its highest and most radical expression. In this precise sense, the death drive stands for its exact opposite, for the dimension of the ‘undead,’ of a spectral life which insists beyond (biological) death. […] What Lacan calls ‘symbolic castration’ is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—‘incestuous’—object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity. (Žižek 2012)

    This dimension of Žižek’s thought comes close to the Deleuzian insistence that one also recognize the subject as a production: the key difference lies in the nature of production, whether it can be located in a death drive of the psyche or whether there is a broader extra-human field of force of which the human death drive would be but one actualization. I would suggest that the difference lies in the commitment to univocity: should we affirm the subject as the gap or ‘less than nothing’ that introduces an ‘undead’ haunting or absent element allowing for creativity, or should we distribute distance across an entire field, beyond organisms, subjects and what is taken to be life? Univocity would not deny the force of subjects and desires, but would locate such forces or drives in a larger plane—with no mode of drive being any more significant than any other. This would also mean that one would challenge certain accounts of ‘the political,’ such as Judith Butler’s account of subjects and bodies as being given through political systems:

    If one can speak about the ‘being’ of the body, it is a ‘being’ that is always given over to others, to norms, to social and political organizations that have developed historically and that allocate precariousness differentially. It is not possible first to define the ontology of the body and then to refer to the social significations the body assumes, or the social networks that form its conditions for subsistence. Rather, to be a body is to be exposed to social crafting and form; it is to be this very exposure. That is what makes the ontology of the body a social ontology. In other words, the body is exposed to socially and politically articulated forces as well as to claims of sociality—including language, work, and desire—that make possible the body’s persisting and flourishing. (Butler 2011, 382)

    If we think beyond the polity then we move from equivocity—the polity and the bodies its creates by way of subjection—to univocity, where there is no polity so much as a field of forces that are micro-political, creating thousands of tiny interactions, relations and resistances.

    The challenge of both thought and art is to construct a symptomatology: to read the symptom as a response to a problem, to read the work of art not as an arbitrary or contextually bound signification but as an event of sense. For Žižek the imperative is to ‘enjoy your symptom,’ because without the subject’s attachment to some contingent object that promises (but also stands in the way of) full enjoyment there would be no life, force or resistance. For Žižek the gap or distance of the symptom is tied to the distinct difference of language:

    Everybody now knows that ‘we can do things with words’: […]. And indeed, is not the very kernel of psychoanalysis embedded in the dimension of language embedded in the dimension of language as speech act? Is it not confined to this dimension by the very fact that it is a talking cure, an attempt to reach and transform the real of the symptom solely by means of words, i.e., without having recourse to an immediate operation on the body[…]. The point is not to arrive at the factual truth of some long-forgotten event—what is effectively at stake here is, quite literally, the recollection of the past, i.e., the way this remembrance of the past bears on the subject’s present position of enunciation, how it transforms the very place from which the subject speaks (is spoken). (Žižek 2001, 32)

    For Deleuze, by contrast, symptoms trace back to a field well beyond subjects, to a plane of forces from which relatively stable points emerge. Expressionism works against the craven ressentiment that would proclaim: ‘I am constituted through the system of signifiers therefore I can only think what is beyond signification as some absent cause.’ Expressionism prompts us to look beyond the fantasy of signifying man to the very possibility of signs. Expression—seeing signs as events that flow from the real—is tied to univocity: not world and signification, not real and system, but one flowing life. And yet this flow of life gives itself in articulation, in ever and ever finer distinctions, cuts, bifurcations, disturbances; the cuts are not differentiations of the real, for ‘the real’ is the force of distinction and difference. Both expression and univocity in turn are dependent on the recognition of affect, and yet affect is not emotion. If affects are considered to be what we feel when our bodies respond to certain forces or perturbation, then affect is once again the sign of some outside. Part of the force of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is to detach affect from the lived and from feelings and emotions; one might say that there are affects or the powers and forces that occur in the relations among quantities, some of which are felt. Forces of light meet with the resistance of my skin; I feel warmth. I probably do not feel the other quantities produced (vitamin D, melanoma, ageing and so on.). What if a painter could paint this light? Not light as felt or absorbed, but light in its capacity to warm? Then an affect would be seized upon that might stand alone. Further, we might say that persons and other organisms are possible because there are affects: powers of encounter from which we are assembled.

    It is the critical concept of affect that allows us to ask just what the equivocity of postmodern man expresses. It is through affect and its extension that we can explain the emergence of the image and fantasy of man. In his book on David Hume, Deleuze explains how all life is affect or sympathy (Deleuze 1991:34); a body lives and desires in its partial connections and attachments to other bodies. From the connection of one body part to another the self forms regular sympathies with present bodies, say in the formation of a family or tribe (territorialization). But one can extend these sympathies to bodies that are not present. A body can become exemplary, and represent the law or identity of the whole (deterritorialization). For Hume, the family produces the father as the exemplary body, and we can imagine communities as extended families, such that social virtues are fictions that enable us to think of imaginary wholes that express and extend sympathies (Deleuze 1991:35). This fictive extension can produce the image of man or humanity: a community of those who are not present or can be thought of only potentially (Deleuze 1991:41). Two points need to be made and the first is directly aesthetic-political: the extension of sympathy or affect begins from expressivity and image. One body stands in for the whole, allowing us to think the community of bodies or the family of man. And this allows us to understand why our supposedly universal concepts of humanity, or man in general, are always different and micro-political. The supposedly generic ‘man of reason,’ is more often than not the white, bourgeois man of modern capitalism. (In the beginning is not the polity, but the affect or attachment from which a figure of ‘the body’ is assembled.) The sense of ‘man’ or the subject is always the affective extension or deterritorialization of this or that body. Despite all our proclamations of humanity, human rights and universal sympathy recent events ought to lead us to question why, when we know this distant, different suffering other has as much right as my similar neighbor, we nevertheless feel more sympathy for those who are like ‘us’. The western trauma of September 11 is a salutary reminder of just how affective our image of humanity is, for was not this incident traumatic precisely because it was an attack on the West, on us, on ‘man’? Only an affective and expressive approach to sense—not a logic of the signifier—can deal with a politics that is pre-discursive. Far from insisting on the logic of sexual difference, as differentiation, which would have to do with the formal structure of signification, thinking of sex expressively allows us to intuit the articulations of the body that is imagined and presupposed in our fantasy of the speaking subject.

    The subject of rights and language, who is supposedly any speaker whatever, is a body who precedes exchange, who communicates, calculates, labors and submits to inter-subjective norms; this affective body of the ‘speaking subject’ is produced from the body of white western man, a body governed by the signifying face and expressive eyes:

    The face is not universal. It is not even that of the white man; it is White Man himself, with his broad white cheeks and the black holes of his eyes. The face is Christ. The face is the typical European, what Ezra Pound called the average sensual man, in short, the ordinary everyday Erotomaniac[...]. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:176)

    Deleuze and Guattari also argue that the image of speaking, judging and signifying man—the subject produced through the system that differentiates life and negates the real—is equivocal. Its desire for that which is necessarily or constitutively prohibited, the definition of man through Oedipal or negated desire, sets the signifying subject radically apart from ‘his’ world. On the one hand there is the order of speech, signification, difference and relations; on the other hand there is a real that remains forever out of reach, retroactively produced or imagined only from within the limit of the system: man and his other(s). Nowhere is this more apparent than in fetishized ethical models of the face, where the radical distance and absence of the other closes the world upon the subject and what cannot be apprehended. For Deleuze, reading through Proust, the face, like all fragments, does not present itself as a radical alterity set apart from the world, but it does open out onto proliferating worlds:

    By setting fragments into fragments, Proust finds the means of making us contemplate them all, but without reference to a unity from which they might derive or which itself would derive from them. […]

    Even the final revelation of time regained will not unify them nor make them converge, but will multiply the ‘transversals’ that themselves are not interconnected[…]. Similarly, the faces of the other have at least two dissymmetric sides, like ‘two opposing routes that will never meet’: thus for Rachel, the way of generality and that of singularity, or else that of the shapeless nebula seen from too close and that of an exquisite organization seen from a right distance. Or else for Albertine, the face that corresponds to trust and the face that reacts to jealous suspicion[…], and again the two routes or the two ways are only statistical directions. We can form a complex group, but we never form it without its splitting in its turn, this time as though into a thousand sealed vessels: thus Albertine’s face, when we imagine we are gathering it up in itself for a kiss, leaps from one plane to another as our lips cross its cheek, ‘ten Albertines’ in sealed vessels, until the final moment in the exaggerated proximity. And in each vessel is a self that lives, perceives, desires, and remembers, that wakes or sleeps, that dies, commits suicide, and revives in abrupt jolts: the ‘crumbling,’ the ‘fragmentation’ of Albertine’s departure, must be learned by all these distinct selves, each at the bottom of its urn. (Deleuze 2000, 124)


    For Deleuze the problem that poses itself if we think of expression, rather than signification, is how we might discern and intuit a life that exceeds and solicits the enclosure of the subject. If postmodern subjectivity depends on the affective image of man—the self positioned within exchange, communication and the negation of life—then the path to expression might be through sexual difference, a difference that would have to be rethought at the level of style. Instead of seeing sexual difference as the logic through which life is signified—with the man of speech and law set over against the feminine ‘not-all’ or beyond of signified objects—one might imagine sexual difference as the style of life.

    If there is not life on the one hand and signification on the other, but one expressive life that gives itself only in its styles, then we can propose a series of connections. Sense is sexual precisely because the corporeal body and its relations create a sexual surface, a series of zones and territories that extend and thereby transform the drives of life. Sense is possible through the Oedipal relation that creates a surface or frontier between the body on the one hand and the incorporeal expressed on the other. Even in The Logic of Sense, Deleuze will insist on a further metaphysical surface: the impersonal singularities that are irreducible to the Oedipal relation from which they emerge. But in Anti-Oedipus, with Guattari, he is more stringent: the mother-father-child schema is one fantasy of sense, one way in which bodies and their connections deterritorialize, or allow a body or body part—the phallus—to provide the sense of all bodies.

    The way to think through the Oedipal enclosure of sense is through style, for style creates sense, especially in the form of the paradox. Paradox is only possible through sense but also displays sense as emerging through a language that it also exceeds. ‘I do not mean what I say’; ‘this has no meaning’; ‘this is not what I’m saying’; ‘I am lying’; or ‘this is not true’: such acts are performative contradictions. They are so because the ‘I’ who speaks is split from the ‘I’ denoted; paradoxes allow the speaking subject to inhabit the system of sense, while also refusing sense. This is only possible because sense operates in two directions at once, down towards the denoted or what is said, and outwards towards the expressed that is released from the denoted. Sense, therefore, relies on an aleatory or paradoxical element, such as the ‘I’ that at once grounds the speech in a here and now and releases a sense of the act that exceeds this ‘I’ (Deleuze 1990, 77). It is this creation of a surface or paradoxical element that occurs through style. Style is sexual if we take sexuality to be the extension of the drive beyond its object. Sense is not tied to sexuality because a sexual scene or fantasy of difference is required in order for the signifier to be split or barred from the subject; sense is sexual because by sexuality Freud referred to the event: the power for an affect, quality or perceived to be thought and imaged beyond the corporeal body.

    Styles do not refer to or organize some underlying life; styles are problems, expressions or strivings of a life that gives itself in its variations (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:318). These variations or styles are sexual because they are productive, connective and desiring. ‘Becoming-woman’ can then be seen to indicate a counter-Oedipal movement of sense: not the ‘woman’ who does not exist because she is man’s projected, fantasized other, but woman as variation. There are becomings, or positive expressions of life, that occur as powers or styles of variation that are different from the centered subject of speech and enunciation. Whereas the image of the subject is that of some site or point that manages, subtends or imposes difference, becoming-woman is always ‘becoming-towards.’ It is not creation ex nihilo. Becoming-woman can be intuited as an expression of that life of which man is only one distinct effect: ‘A woman has to become-woman, but in a becoming-woman of all man’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:292). ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are not binary differentiations or genders; both terms are expressions of a sexuality that goes beyond the human (233), a sexuality that can only be intuited if we go beyond the logic of signifying man and think of a life that articulates itself in distinct powers or potentials to become. There is no single point, term or actuality—no man as subject—that can act as ground and enunciating centre for all becoming:

    There is no becoming-man because man is the molar entity par excellence, whereas becomings are molecular. The faciality function showed us the form under which man constitutes the majority, or rather the standard upon which the majority is based: white, male, adult, ‘rational,’ etc., in short, the average European, the subject of enunciation. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:92)


    In order to give this reference to style more specificity we might consider Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. First we can consider the novel critically, at the semantic and narrative level, as both an allegory and manifesto of aesthetics. The first section of the novel, ‘The Window’, sets up a series of oppositions that take the binary form of equivocity: one term—man—is the ground, origin and centre from which the other term ‘woman’ is effected as different. Mr Ramsay the philosopher who works with defined and closed problems and who is concerned about his place in history (or whether he will be remembered in the great canon of philosophers) is set against Mrs Ramsay who is the classically other-directed, emotive, empathetic, beautiful and uncomprehending ‘woman’. Lily Briscoe is trying to paint Mrs Ramsay as an iconic representation of all things human and wholesome, but has to deal with the phrase emanating from Tansley, one of Mr Ramsay’s university colleagues, that ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’. The binaries of this first section are equivocal precisely because they organize sensible, physical and emotional being as the lesser, dependent and distinct other of intellectual being. Lily’s painting of Mrs Ramsay will be a representation of meaning, of the female body as the principle of life and nurturance; it will also take its place within history. Just as Mr Ramsay is fearful that his personal contribution to philosophy might pass unnoticed and that his proper name might remain unrecorded, so Lily’s painting aims to take its place in the great hall of art. We could see this first part of the novel as critical.

    Woolf repeats the standard oppositions of western thought—male/female, reason/body, logic/emotions, philosophy/art and viewer/viewed—in order to expose their rigidity. As Jane Goldman has noted, there is more than one way to read Woolf’s declaration that on or about 1910 human nature changed (Goldman 1998). 1910 was the year of the Post-Impressionist exhibition, when forces of light and difference were freed from the organizing point of the human eye. We should therefore consider the style of the novel with regard to the problem it expresses, what the novel as an event of sense is striving to do, and the potentials or infinitives it releases. This is given at two levels in the novel. First, in the concluding section of the novel Lily Briscoe no longer represents Mrs Ramsay, nor is her artwork pure form and imposition; she is invaded by perception. Her work is neither an intended act, nor a performance that produces her as a distinct subject, so much as a perception in which two terms—Lily’s desire and the painting—are produced as distinct through their specific relation.

    With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it—a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related; and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space. (Woolf 1977:148)

    It is the event of sense, or the emergence of a difference, that creates Lily and the surface to which she is directed. (Lily and canvas operate in modes of mutual creation or transversal becoming.) Lily finally draws a dark line on the canvas, thus reversing the idea of a single light that illuminates and gives form: ‘with a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre’ (Woolf 1977:192). Here it is dark—the zero degree of light, the positivity of light’s absence—that expresses a pure difference, not this or that different thing, but the pure potential to differ. If the God of Genesis gives form to being and matter through light, Lily’s creation produces form through dark on light, a light that is not differentiating so much as given in difference. This iconic moment in the novel expresses a manifesto or desire for a certain style: style as the response to differing light, and not style as a form-giving or illuminating power set over a dark matter.

    With this iconic moment in mind, we can now read the style of Woolf’s novel as a whole in terms of its refusal of the position of subject and object and its tracing of singularities. The power of Woolf’s sentences, we might say, is that they fail to connect or logically follow. How, we might ask, can a sentence, such as the following, describe a light that allows something to be heard, a sound that harbors a memory and longing, and that illuminates lost objects, and then draws a smell, and ultimately produces a tactile sensation of grit. In the following sentence the subject of the sentence is a perception, first of light (‘the sun poured’); this light then enables the auditory (‘so that every footstep could be plainly heard’); the sound evokes a distant scene or desire (‘sobbing for her father’); and then, we might ask, just what is it that ‘lit up bats’? For this same subject that illuminates, allows to be heard and recalls is eventually referred to as olfactory—‘a smell of salt and weeds’—before concluding with the tactile ‘gritty’:

    while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing. (Woolf 1977:13)

    No longer adopting the propositional style of a subject who predicates qualities of an outside world, nor of a subject who is nothing more than the mechanical repetition of a disembodied system, Woolf’s style moves beyond the free-indirect inhabitation of styles towards monadic points of perception. The sentences confuse perceiver and perceived, at the same time as they express a substance that does not exhaust itself in any of its terms. Essence is power, and power is the capacity to affect and be affected. To intuit the essence of a text, to think beyond its composed terms, is to strive to perceive or be affected by the problem to which it is a response. From the rigid binaries of male and female, light and dark, Woolf’s style moves to the singular differences covered over by dependent oppositions; sexual difference supplants gender. There are no longer distinct kinds or generalities, or genders, so much as essences that operate as powers to differ, essences that are sexual precisely because they have their sole being in creation.


    1. ‘[T]he paradox is that the Real as external, excluded from the Symbolic, is in fact a symbolic determination—what eludes symbolization is precisely the Real as the inherent point of failure of symbolization’ (Žižek 2000:121). return to text
    2. The relation of love, in Badiou’s work, is only one way in which we might consider the event, which also manifests itself in the poem, the matheme and the revolutionary situation. I am here deliberately narrowing the terms of debate to the question of sexual difference and gender. The figures whom I am contrasting with Deleuze—Judith Butler, Joan Copjec, Slavoj Žižek, as well as Alain Badiou—do offer highly nuanced reflections on the problem of sexual difference. By drawing a stark contrast between their approaches and that of Deleuze—despite the fact that there are certain sympathies—I hope to focus on the ways in which the work of thinkers like Butler has (however unwittingly) led to an unthinking celebration of the performance, discourse and constitution of gender at the expense of the positivity of sexual difference. return to text
    3. Deleuze and Guattari historicize what Lacan takes to be a transcendental condition. We are, they concede, subjected to the signifier, regarding our desires as mediated through the law of the father; but this is the consequence of capitalism’s shift of the law away from an external prohibition towards a general axiom. It is the act of speaking as such, existing in a world with others, that now imposes a command of prohibition. We are now tyrannized by a supposedly general human condition of lack. return to text
    4. If Luce Irigaray and Deleuze share the same project of sexual difference, albeit with different outcomes, this is because they both draw on Heidegger’s recognition that western thought has been dominated by a Platonism that the works of Plato, if read carefully, would allow us to challenge. That which truly is, substance or hypokeimenon, cannot be identified with or exhausted by any of its expressions or representations. The thought of substance is just the opening of thought to that life or being that is beyond thought’s own limited images; the thought of substance therefore allows for real difference. However, once substance is seen as numerically distinct from perception as other than or different from the represented world then we fall into equivocity: the perceived world on the one hand, and its different ground on the other. Man or the subject becomes that point in the world from which difference and representation are explained in advance. return to text
    5. Deleuze and Guattari therefore spend a great deal of time in A Thousand Plateaus describing regimes of signs and various strata. Strata refer to various ways in which the one expressive life produces distinct levels, such as the strata of language in the narrow sense that borders the life it signifies on one side, and the system of speaking subjects on the other. But there are other stratifications, such as the social arrangement of bodies that faces law on the one side, and the desires of bodies on the other. One side of a stratum faces towards territorialization or organization, while the other faces towards deterritorialization or the freer flow of singular, not yet connected, differences. This allows us to think of various regimes of signs, with formal language being one of many. A sign, for Deleuze and Guattari, is not other than life, not an order imposed on life, but a relation within, or of, life. Sexual difference can be considered as a sign, with one body’s perception and desire of another body producing a relation that is both sexual—because it is desiring, connective and productive—and a sign , for life is just this relation of singular differences that must somehow read, code or perceive other differences both in terms of its own life and striving, while also being transformed through this perception. So all perception is (a) sexual or desiring, (b) a sign, because the difference encountered must be read, (c) anti-interpretive, because this reading or perceiving does not posit a meaning behind what it perceives but creates a body and relation, a territory of assemblage, and (d) expressive, because these signs, perceptions and strivings are not signs of a life that lies outside them, for life is just this striving, perceiving whole. return to text