Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    2. Norm Wars

    It might seem at first glance that Gilles Deleuze would be the anti-normative theorist par excellence and that we could turn to his work to draw from his rich lexicon of seemingly counter-normative concepts, including immanence (as the refusal of any imposed order), affect (or forces disruptive of calculated propriety) and the body without organs (that appears to signal, even if he did not used the word, some sense of a body’s capacity to generate instability). The body without organs, more than immanence and affect, offers two modes of counter-normativity: the first lies with the use of the word organs, for it is organs or parts that seem to grant some functioning wholeness to bodies. The body without organs seems to reverse the organicist idea that beings become what they are (and take on function, order and organization) only in relations to a whole. The body without organs suggests that there can be something like a body—a whole—that does not have functioning parts; as long as fragments, parts or forces are not organized or functional then they cannot be said to be organs. By contrast, another performative mode of reading this term would suggest just the reverse; there are acts or performances—movements or functions—that compose or perform a body, but that body never takes on a final or definitive wholeness. Despite the complexity and polyvalence of the term ‘body without organs’ it can nevertheless provide a clear and distinct path beyond performative approaches to normativity. On a generally performative account, immanence is true and good because it frees us from any imposed or given norms; immanence is a radical liberal refusal of any authority that might dictate order in advance. Further, affect also disturbs standard, prescriptive, calculative or imposed orders of the self; affects occur without decision or mastery and the politics of affect takes us out of the domain of selves and interests and into a realm where politics would proceed by creating and performing: producing or working with affects rather than simply negotiating information. As already suggested, immanence and affect seem to have the vogue that they do today (if they still do) both because of Deleuze’s work and because of a general shift towards performativity, or the idea that politics and identity occur through ongoing creation and not by appeal to principles. If performativity is true then it follows that selves become what they are in ongoing actions that relate to, are affected by, and affect, others. If performativity is true then it also follows that we have no foundation outside our self-creating performance of who we are. We would all, potentially, be ‘bodies without organs’ capable of dismantling any identity to which we have been subjected, but never by decision or fiat so much as precarious and heteronomous engagements with others. It would seem then that immanence, affect and performativity would be the anti-normative concepts par excellence, freeing us from the negativity of critique.

    I will argue that all these concepts of immanance, affect and performativity—have two sides: one is anti-normative, and therefore defined against (and within the same terrain as) normativity. The other side would neither be normative nor anti-normative but would be posed in terms of a different problem, a problem on a plane distinct from that of performativity. For it is performativity—in its shift from linguistic to political modes—that stresses that there are not identities, forms, systems, meanings or terms that are then repeated by language users; nor is language use or the taking on of identity the adoption of some external system. Rather, terms and systems are created and constituted through ongoing performance. It would follow then that individuals do not take up norms and identities and then find space for critique, for there is no norm or identity outside performance, and so all performance is at once repetition and disturbance, consolidation and critique. In this respect the very possibility of a norm—that it is given through repetition and performance—is also the impossibility of a norm, for no repetition is or coincides with the norm itself. One is always necessarily subjected, for there is no self or subject outside the norm, but one is also necessarily never fully or finally ‘a subject’ precisely because every performance of a norm is never the norm as such. Norms emerge from, but are disturbed by, the very performance they make possible. But it is for just this reason that performative modes of defining affect and immanence remain subjectivist. Affect becomes that destabilizing force of bodies in performance and relation, while immanence precludes any reference to a force or power that would exceed performing bodies. These reactive modes of defining anti-normativity are subjectivist in Heidegger’s sense: they posit some ground from which all relations emerge (and, further, in rejecting Descartes’ subject of mental substance they posit some other ultimate subject—such as life, affect, embodiment or immanence). Deleuze’s concepts of immanence, affect and act or fiat (rather than performativity) are—I will argue—composed on another plane, from a different style of problem. [5] It might seem at first that performativity might be a counter-vitalist concept: without any foundation or appeal to life all we have are actions and relations among bodies, from which we then posit some foundation or subject that must have been. Certainly such a mode of thinking performativity might be possible but it would need first to free performance both from language acts and acting bodies, perhaps thinking of performative forces beyond all that we have come to think of as acting, and would also need to be freed from the problems of norm and identity. (As an example one might think of all the cosmic performances of geological powers that do not seem to have been active or identified until now and that have a being or force beyond systems of recognition.) As conceived, the concepts of immanence, affect and performative—those that seem to have waged war on normativity and especially insofar as they are opposed to normativity—constitute something like a new subjectivism of life. For if one appeals to the affects of bodies as destabilizing powers that would wage war on the rigidity of norms, or if one thinks of performativity as radical insofar as it takes on (and then destabilizes) norms then one repeats, reactively, a disjunction between the system of norms on the one hand and the force of disturbance on the other.

    This has direct consequences for disciplines and disciplinarity. If it were the case that one might appeal to some generative ground—such as life—from which relations would emerge, then knowledge would be a single field, and may enjoy something like interdisciplinarity, which would encompass all the different but conversant and convergent ways in which life appears. Seeming disciplinary divergence—such as literary theorists’ or art critics’ tendencies to treat works of art as detached from life, or philosophy’s approach to logic as having some Platonic reality, or the scientist’s disenchantment and reification of life—could all be remedied by an acknowledgment of the genesis and emergence of all these faculties from one self-furthering life. Habermas, the great theorist of inescapable normativity, has insisted that we need some reflective practice—such as critical philosophy—that locates and negotiates the knowledge practices of various lifeworlds:

    The difference between lifeworld and communicative action is not taken back in any unity; it is even deepened to the extent that the reproduction of the lifeworld is no longer merely routed through the medium of action oriented toward reaching understanding, but is saddled on the interpretive performances of its agents. To the degree that yes/no decisions that sustain the communicative practice of everyday life do not derive from an ascribed normative consensus but emerge from the cooperative interpretive processes of the participants themselves, concrete forms of life and universal structures of the lifeworld become separated. Naturally, there are family resemblances among the plurality of totalities of life forms; they overlap and interlock, but they are not embraced in turn by some supertotality. Multiplicity and diffusion arise in the course of an abstraction process through which the contents of particular lifeworlds are set off ever more starkly from the universal structures of the lifeworld. (Habermas 1990, 343)

    No discipline should be a world unto itself, rigidly imposing its field upon life. The task of the disciplines, and especially the humanities, today would lie in just this ideal, but not actuality of, convergence. All this would seem to follow from at least one notion of immanence: disciplines emerge from life and cannot stand above life (or other disciplines); nor could there be a specialist ‘moral’ or biological science that would provide some law for life, for these practices too emerge from, and are therefore immanent to, life.

    By contrast, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) focus on the incommensurable and divergent nature of the faculties—lacking anything like a sensus communis, good sense, common sense, lifeworld or ‘lived.’ The concepts created by philosophy have a thought and consistency of their own, and are responses to problems that take hold of and do violence to thinking. If there is an immanence it is not immanence to a life of the ‘lived’—not this life of ours that we negotiate from practices and can never step outside. Rather, the immanence is inhuman, which means that ‘we’ (we humans) cannot locate all that is within any life, for life is not given as such, as some ground from which difference emerges. The disciplines—then—far from being traceable back to praxis exist and insist in their immanence, irreducible to anything other than themselves. Works of art manage (at least in part) to tear something like ‘affects’ from affections: as though the lived affection were the expression of a pure power or quality. Scientific functions are definitely not those of the lived, but have success insofar as they formulate new ‘observers’ that would allow for a consistency and truth that is certainly not that of human experience. It is not the case, then, that we have competing systems—all emerging from life, each composing a reality of its own that we then need to adjudicate via reflective critique. Nor are we imprisoned in a human domain of performed or constituted normative orders from which the only exit would be destabilization from within. If we think beyond normativity and its others to a different way of thinking about the concept of immanence we would be presented with multiple powers, all of them opening up divergent potentials and assembled systems. Each such diverging line would be expressive of the infinite in its own way. The problem with normativity would neither be that norms in their rigidity do violence to the dynamic praxis of life, nor that without norms we would fall into the chaos of the undifferentiated. Certainly, then, there would be no distinction between the hard world of scientific facts, and then the norm-constitutive or meaning-productive humanities. Nor would there be some imprisoning and reactively nihilist sense that the sciences, too, are normative or value-producing, and that beyond normativity there only exists some reality or life that is known ex post facto as beyond the sense we make of it.

    Life, as articulated by Deleuze, is not a generative ground. It is not life in general as some force or algorithm that generates a ‘vital normativity,’ such as the imperative for life to maintain and persevere in itself (Esposito 2008). Nor is life some negated or mourned real that is given only through the narrow forms that we impose upon it. Rather, by referring to ‘a’ life that is distinct from the actualized individual, life does not become some imperative of retrieval, redemption or repair. It does not have the sense of drawing our attention back to the ground of life from which individuals have emerged. On the contrary, ‘life’ is—like the three faculties of Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?—a detaching power.

    This is because it is ‘a’ life: neither the life of an individual, nor life in general:

    We will say of pure immanence that it is A LIFE, and nothing else. It is not immanence to life, but the immanent that is in nothing is itself a life. A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence; it is complete power, complete bliss[…] it is an absolute immediate consciousness whose very activity no longer refers to a being but is ceaselessly posed in a life. (Deleuze 1991, 27)

    If normativity is a commitment to one’s life, such that I could not be who I am if I were not committed to some ongoing, stable and disciplined self, then ‘a’ life shifts the terrain of the problem. One is neither a free, self-creating individual, always other than any reified or imposed norm (anti-normative subjectivism); nor is one a self who gives a law to oneself, recognizing oneself through the capacity to be someone. In contrast to one’s life or dynamic life in general, Deleuze’s ‘a’ life has two distinguishing features. First, Deleuze argues that this potential for thought—for thinking about immanence as ‘a’ life—is expressed in literature. That is, in order for this strange thought of ‘a’ life to emerge it needs to be distilled, articulated or constituted through some specific faculty. When Charles Dickens describes the loathsome character Riderhoodwhose organized and identifiable individuality no one would seek to save—he manages to articulate a moment at which all the general and stable qualities, including the character’s personal striving, fall away:

    Between his life and his death there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a ‘Homo tantum’ with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude. It is a heacceity no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad. (Deleuze 1991, 28-29)

    One is given not an individual who wants to live, nor life in general but something like a ‘spark’—one force in an eternity and infinity of forces that flickers here and now, and that may or may not endure. If there is an individual who endures as a relatively stable ongoing collection of predicates, all given form through relations to other individuals and predicates, then this is because there are individuating ‘sparks’, flickers of ‘a’ life that might create a differentiated person located in a specific point of view. Life, given as ‘a’ life, would therefore be closer to a power of dispersal and positive destruction: ‘a’ life is that which is stabilized when individuals are brought into being, but which appears as individuating when the individual falls apart and is now the potentiality for individuation. Second, this way of thinking about immanence is radically destructive and anti-foundational. Rather than posit something like life, humanity, labor, responsiveness, affect, being or the lived as that receding ground from which relations emerge, ‘a’ life is counter-actualizing or anti-relational. It does not express itself via some normative commitment that something is only insofar as it is recognized, maintained as itself, and constitutive of ongoing stability; nor is life that which is given as other than any fixed norm (as it would be in the Romanticist notion of the subject as above and beyond any of his expressed personae).

    This can be explained more concretely by looking at one of the few occasions when Deleuze and Guattari address the relation between norms and desire. In Anti-Oedipus they examine the colonizing power of the figure of Oedipus. The power of their diatribe against psychoanalysis lay in their astute understanding of the truth of the Oedipus complex, that Oedipus was, indeed, the structure of the modern subject. We imagine that either we subject ourselves to the prohibiting normativity of the law, or fall back into a chaotic and nightmarish psychosis. Discussing the ways in which psychoanalysts approached an African tribe, Deleuze and Guattari criticize the assumption that psychoanalysis can and should begin not when disturbances and forces are distributed beyond individuals humans but when crises are located within a subject and a psyche. Why, they ask, should individuation be tied exclusively to an individual and a subject’s relation to norms?:

    Why think that supernatural powers and magical aggressions constitute a myth that is inferior to Oedipus? On the contrary, is it not true that they move desire in the direction of more intense and more adequate investments of the social field , in its organization as well as its disorganizations?[...]

    Could it not be said that Oedipus is also a traditional norm—our own to be exact? How can one say that Oedipus makes us speak in our own name, when one also goes on to say that its resolution teaches us ‘the incurable inadequacy of being’ and universal castration? And what is this ‘demand’ that is invoked to justify Oedipus? It goes without saying, the subject demands and redemands daddy-mommy: but which subject, and in what state? Is that the means ‘to situate oneself personally in one own’s society’? And which society? The neocolonized society that is constructed for the subject, and that finally succeeds in what colonization was only able to outline: an effective reduction of the forces of the desire to Oedipus, to a father’s name, in the grotesque triangle? (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 170-71)

    Deleuze and Guattari’s argument against Oedipus as a structure pertains directly to normativity: the structural account of Oedipus insists that either one submit to the prohibiting law of normativity and renounce the fullness of desire, or one falls back into the dark night of the undifferentiated. One accepts normativity as the very condition for being a self; other than the normative recognized self there is only a silent and inarticulable negativity. In terms of theories of the political subject this can be charted in terms of two positions today: normativity is the enabling, ennobling and productive condition of granting one’s life sense, worth and recognition (Korsgaard 1996, 237); or, the self that is constituted through normativity and recognition is the outcome of a process of subjection, beyond which lies a negated, mourned, inarticulable and precarious life that can only be posited after the event of its loss:

    our identification with the active side of our nature is what binds us to the moral law. That the moral self is a self normatively conceived, what I call a practical identity, emerges nicely when Kant says that ‘even the most malicious villain (provided he is otherwise accustomed to using his reason)’—that is, provided he is reflective—‘imagines himself to be this better person when he transfers himself to the standpoint of a member of the intelligible world.’ The ‘better person’ here functions as an object of aspiration and identification. The idea of identifying normatively with a certain conception of one’s nature—the conception of oneself as active and rational—therefore plays a central role in Kant’s view, just as identifying normatively with the conception of oneself as human does in mine. (Korsgaard 1996, 237-38)

    Performativity is thus not a singular ‘act’, for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover this act is not primarily theatrical; indeed, its apparent theatricality is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated (and, conversely, its theatricality gains a certain inevitability given the impossibility of a full disclosure of its historicity). (Butler 1993, xxi)

    Either (as in Korsgaard) the self is tied to normativity insofar as it is active and reflects upon itself; or, (as in Butler) the performance of norms gives the appearance of one who has acted. Both agree that the self, one way or the other is normative. For Korsgaard the norm is, and ought to be, properly one’s own (otherwise it would not be a norm). For Butler, the norm is precisely not one’s own—therein lies its status as performative, as that which constitutes an ‘act’ through its dissimulation.

    One way of defining the current theoretical landscape is to chart various positions according to a war on normativity. These could be parsed into three general orientations. First: only normativity can save us. Second: normativity needs to be defined against normalization. Third, and finally—the question of norms is a false or badly posed problem. These three orientations allow for different attitudes towards the problem of disciplines. If normativity is the condition for the possibility of a future, then we require disciplines as positive and enabling practices. The humanities, with its generation of meaning and legitimation procedures, would be crucial for ‘our’ ongoing survival. If, however, disciplines have been intertwined genealogically with processes of normalization, then our normative future would require a radical upheaval of the humanities. This would demand something like a Foucaultian approach, where the very modes of knowing from which the humanities have emerged would need to be criticized in light of the distribution of powers that constituted something like ‘life’ that could function as a transcendental ground. Life would be the horizon that enabled the formation of human sciences, the division of labor that would yield the humanities, and a relation among disciplines that would subsequently generate a conversation concerning man as a norm-constituting animal. Against these two modes of approaching disciplines, both of which would support a defence of the humanities—to some extent—and would present interdisciplinarity as a prima facie good, I would like to propose a Deleuzian approach. Here, one neither appeals to normativity as the definitive human horizon, nor aims to disengage normativity from human normalization. Rather, by destroying both the positive and critical aspects of disciplines it would be possible to achieve modes of thinking that look to a post-humanities future.

    Before launching into some of the academic and disciplinary accounts of normativity we can begin by considering the unstated war on normativity that dominates the present. In its naïve form this has been deployed by marketing strategists, consciousness-raising forms of identity politics, and certain unreflective readings of theory. From early forms of liberation feminism and other seemingly radical approaches to politics, the word ‘stereotype’ is a clear pejorative. Rather than be defined and determined by images or cliches, selves should be defined via one equal and self-organizing humanity; selves should be pure creativity and self-definition adopting a critical distance to anything other than their own real and authentic individuality. That is, one should either reject stereotypes by arguing that beneath color, sexual orientation, gender or religion we are all ultimately human, and capable of recognizing each other across manifest divides. Or, one could appeal to the unique and distinct nature of each individual. Both of these notions have been common marketing and moralizing ploys. In the late 1980s Benetton’s United Colors of Benetton campaign featured posters of ethnic diversity—a range of bodies all wearing the varied colors of Benetton. The ‘family of man’ motif celebrates difference as apparent and enriching, but beneath which lies a friendly and affirmative sameness. This ‘unity in diversity’ notion (that was ironized by William Blake’s ‘I am black but O! my soul is white’) has continually been expressed in popular song lyrics, including Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ of 1991: ‘I’m not going to spend my life being a color.’ Even more cloying was the earlier Ebony and Ivory (of 1982 by Stevie Wonder):

    We all know that people are the same where ever you go
    there is good and bad in everyone
    we learn to live when we learn to give each other what we need to survive
    together alive’

    The ‘deep down we are all human’ motif survives happily in cinema as well, ranging from Paul Haggis’s Crash of 2004—in which the urban conflict and racial violence of interweaving narratives resolve in a final moment of cross-racial human recognition—to the more recent Avatar of 2009, in which the rapacious human species, living in end times, meets a different species only to find that these blue humanoids seem to embody all the virtues of community, reciprocity, altruism and patriarchal lineage that had (once) defined humanity. One might refer to this knee-jerk humanism as the normativity that dare not speak its name: there is no norm other than the norm that ‘we’ have no norms. Despite race, creed or (in the case of Avatar) species differences ‘we’ are all capable of recognition of each other, for there is no real otherness—no norm that does not, in the end, give way to humanity. Religion? Not significant, if we just converse and face each other. Race? Nothing more than a color—akin perhaps to the cohabiting keys on a piano keyboard (‘Ebony and Ivory’…). Gender, sexuality? Don’t mention it. (This ultra-humanism is—I would suggest—masked by what passes in theory today for many modes of post-humanism: we no longer believe in the exceptional distinction of privileged white ‘man’, for everything that lives is an agent—subjected to the one norm of unity, community, communication, reciprocity and ecology: deep down we are all human.)

    Perhaps more significant, though, is the more explicit counter-normative resistance to any image or figure that is in any way transcendent to the individual’s very own being. The first notion—that deep down, despite manifest appearances we are all human—derives from a liberal commitment to human self-regulation: I am free to be anything I want, to pursue anything I want because I am a member of one human community that recognizes and tolerates all others of its kind. There is a minimal transcendence here: the only regulation is self-regulation, and this occurs by way of acknowledging that one is nothing more than human; any other norm (religious, sexual, ethnic, political…) is of one’s choosing and cannot impede the broader recognition of humanity in general. The second and more stringently counter-normative position both extends and reacts against liberalism. Differences between earlier modes of liberalism were that traditional post-Kantian forms relied on a minimal and formal normativity: a just society would be one that would be chosen by all, regardless of one’s social position. The good self would be one who was not defined through any specific norm, but who recognized that some normative structure—giving a law to oneself—is constitutive of reason and selfhood. Against this liberal commitment to minimal and formal normativity, one might define the present as shrilly anti-normative: not only should there be no norm imposed on the individual flexibility of my own being, I ought not to enslave myself to any overly stringent idea of who I ought to be. The self-help industry is largely built on an imperative of self-acceptance—of not judging oneself, of not imposing any figure or ideal upon the self. (Sometimes these imperatives have a ‘feminist’ slant—such that one ought to avoid internalizing media images of ideal women; or sometimes the pitch is apparently ecological or anti-capitalist, so that one is warned not to be a victim of gimmicks and hype. A recent campaign of a popular form of soft drink worked by urging consumers to be intelligent enough to realize they were buying a drink, not an image of coolness or masculinity.) New forms of branding rely less on the appeal to a unified humanity, and more on a rebellious individualism; this can range from Nike’s ‘id’ (or individually designed range) to limited edition versions of street-wear. Advertising now draws heavily from counter-culture, so that environmentalism, anti-corporatism, non-conformism and feminism can be branded. The beauty brand ‘Dove’ used the notion of ‘real’ women to market its products; Starbucks has been one of many companies selling itself through ‘fair’ trade; other brands such as The Body Shop or Pret a Manger, despite their vast sales empires trade on setting themselves against ‘chain’ branding, beauty hype and fast food. Nothing sells like counter-culture; nothing constitutes the uniqueness of an individual more than a rebellion against normativity.

    In terms of theory it is possible to observe an anti-normativity in at least three tendencies. First: ‘immanence’ in one of its popular versions sets itself against any image, norm, law or state that does not derive from the self-constituting act. In Hardt and Negri’s formulation of it, immanence would be distinguished from liberalism’s seemingly similar ‘freedom from imposed tutelage,’ for there is no individual or presumed rationality that would guide the formation of the polity. Instead, humanity constitutes itself; whatever counts as human is achieved through an ongoing and collective becoming. Liberalism’s ultimate value of liberty has always impeded collective self-formation, because liberty was liberty of the individual. (We can see this in the way Rawls’s definition of freedom imposed a responsibility on the individual to choose in such a way that her decision could be universalizable for all.) Against this, Hardt and Negri’s collective discourse abandons any already given subject or grounding agent, arguing for a self-forming humanity, with the multiple nature of the political precluding any settled norm (236). The human is neither a norm of reason, nor an underlying ground. Contemporary capitalism has already, they argue, abandoned norm-regulated forms of behavior in favor of corporate efficiency (178), and so democracy cannot take the earlier forms of city-state models but requires global creativity. This creativity cannot be calculated by any measure other than itself, not capital, and not the free individual:

    ‘living labor’ [is] the form-giving fire of our creative capacities. Living labor is the fundamental human faculty: the ability to engage the world actively and create social life. Living labor can be corralled by capital and pared down to the labor power that is bought and sold and that produces commodities and capital, but living labor always exceeds that. Our innovative and creative capacities are always greater than our productive labor—productive, that is, of capital. At this point we can recognize that this biopolitical production is on the one hand immeasurable, because it cannot be quantified in fixed units of time, and, on the other hand, always excessive with respect to the value that capital can extract from it because capital can never capture all of life. (Hardt and Negri 2004, 146)

    Outside of ‘high’ theory, recent economic crises and corporate corruption—or the war between Wall Street and Main Street—have prompted left-wing calls for individual participation and collective constitution of the polity alongside right-wing ‘small government’ imperatives. What distinguishes these recent maneuvers from standard liberalism is a rejection of any norm or model of reason or regulation that is not that of a continually self-creating and self-inventing becoming. This is also how movements of ‘new’ labor or the third way managed to cast off notions of being constrained by leftist ideology: rather than having a revolutionary program or privileged norm of the primacy of the working class, the model of government was primarily managerial and procedural. It is not surprising, then, that Hardt and Negri’s multitude had to expend quite a bit of labor of its own on distinguishing itself from ‘third way’ movements: the new collectivity of humanity should not be grounded on appeals to global security or war alliance, but should be generated from a creative, rather than managed, multitude (Hardt and Negri 2004, 233, 398).

    Second, we might consider the concept of affect. Defined against mind-centered, Cartesian, cognitive and computational models of consciousness, affect has (in its less critical articulations) enabled a privileging of life that is regressively organicist. Rather than the body being seen as a part of the world or as a known object, the body and its responsiveness is now the horizon from which knowledge emerges. In the beginning is the affect or feeling from which systems, relations and terms have their genesis. In its relatively popular scientific mode this affective turn—away from rigid entities and systems to dynamic relationality—is perhaps most clearly expressed by Antonio Damasio, whose work, even more than that of Hardt and Negri, crosses from university culture to a broader reading public. The titles of Damasio’s books read like a series of theses: Descartes’ Error describes the problem of beginning from the position of the cognitive self, and in that regard expresses a widespread anti-Cartesianism that has much resonance with counter-normativity. For what at least one mode of anti-Cartesianism expresses is a hyper-subjectivism. The properly relational, emotive, responsive, affective and living self has been reified into some normative ‘ghost’ in a body that has become a machine. Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens argues for the primacy of emotion, which far from being a state of mind or mental phenomenon is given or felt after its bodily and definitely non-cognitive occurrence. (‘Bodily’ is not quite the right word here, for there is no body as object; there is a domain of emotive responsive and autopoetic interactive self-regulation, which is then felt—and it is from that feeling that a self is formed.) Looking for Spinoza enables Damasio to strengthen the philosophical ground of his anti-Cartesianism, but his Spinoza is a curious beast. Yes, Spinoza was a philosopher of the affections who defined mind not in opposition to the body, but as an aspect or perceptive feeling of what occurs affectively. But Spinoza was also a philosopher of reason, whose positing of a third kind of knowledge, or a capacity to consider substance—or what is—beyond the point of view of our own affections, opened up a theology (even if pantheistic) that would be distinctly out of tune with any insistence on the primacy of the lived body. Damasio’s most recent work focuses on what he refers to as ‘biological value,’ which—as described -- accounts for the genesis of the self not so much from extrinsic, historical or transcendent systems but from minute selections:

    in addition to the logic imposed by the unfolding of events in the reality external to the brain—a logical arrangement that the naturally selected circuitry of our brains foreshadows from the very early stages of development—the images in our minds are given more or less saliency in the mental stream according to their value for the individual. And where does that value come from? It comes from the original set of dispositions that orients our life regulation, as well as from the valuations that all images we have gradually acquired in our experience have been accorded, based on the original set of value dispositions during our past history. In other words, minds are not just about images entering their procession naturally. They are about the cinemalike editing choices that our pervasive system of biological value has promoted. (Damasio 71)

    I would suggest that Damasio’s use of ‘logic’ here—for all its appeal to individual bodily immediacy, reveals what Derrida diagnosed as ‘logocentrism’: some ground determines systems and relations in advance. Here, that ground is ‘life.’

    Finally, the concept of performativity—especially as one tracks its migration from linguistics to ethico-political accounts of the self—demonstrates the contraction of action away from any consideration that would be beyond processes of subjectivity and subjection (as it might once have been in its linguistic mode). The force of the concept of the performative lay in a capacity of language as action—as doing things with words—that would free philosophy from having to deal with odd immaterial or mental entities such as ‘meanings.’ The performative, as a concept, was always two-sided: it opened the possibility of forces, actions, and acts that are not those of humans beings or lived bodies, but it also—by focusing on act—tended to reground systems on some will or ‘doing.’ Language works, in speech act theory, not because our exchange of tokens allows some transfer of some pure sense that would exist outside our usage: a term works because of conventions of interaction, exchange, use and processes of relative stability. When the concept of the performative was translated into the problem of identity it had (again) two sides: on the one hand, in Butler’s formulation of the term, it produced an affirmative concept of matter, whereby there is no such thing as life or matter that lies outside language, for language—like anything that could be said to be—exists only in its differential distribution: ‘What I would propose in place of these conceptions of construction is a return to the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter’ (Butler 1993, 9). One might, following this, consider matter to be performative: in this case, Butler’s work would open up a new materialism that would pose questions quite distinct from those of subjective normativity. This did, indeed, occur but Butler’s own work went on to pose questions (of recognition, subjection and what counts as grievable) that tended to return processes of performativity to an agent who (admittedly) is not a ‘doer’ so much as one who is given as a subject through the exclusion of something extra-discursive:

    Indeed, to ‘refer’ naively or directly to such an extra-discursive object will always require the prior delimitation of the extra-discursive. And insofar as the extra-discursive is delimited, it is formed by the very discourse from which it seeks to free itself. This delimitation, which is often enacted as an untheorized presupposition in any act of description, marks a boundary that includes and excludes, that decides, as it were, what will and will not be the stuff of the object to which we then refer. This marking off will have some normative force and, indeed, some violence, for it can construct only through erasing: it can bound a thing only through enforcing a certain criterion, a principle of selectivity. (Butler 1993, 11)

    2.1. Only normativity can save us

    Strangely, despite all the incoming evidence regarding a widespread human destructiveness—both to man’s own species and his milieu—there has been a number of appeals, celebrations and defenses of the definitively human capacity for normativity. The argument takes two general forms—one that appeals to a tradition of human normativity, grounded in a faculty of philosophy (such that human beings cannot avoid a constitutive relation to ongoing lawfulness), and another that addresses a present sense of groundlessness and loss of meaning, and that can only be ameliorated through practices of normativity. The first position is best expressed by a humanized neo-Kantianism. There is no appeal to what lies beyond nature, as might have been suggested by some readings of Kant’s account of the noumenal or supersensible (but necessarily presupposed) subject. (This is the subject or non-ground that Heidegger [1967] approached when he questioned the ‘source’ of Kant’s various faculties.) Rather, there is something quotidian or post-metaphysical about the necessity of normativity:

    Outside of human nature, there is no normative point of view from which morality can be challenged. But morality can meet the internal challenge that is made from the point of view of self-interest, and it also approves of itself. It is human nature to be governed by morality, and from every point of view, including its own, morality earns its right to govern us. We therefore have no reason to reject our nature, and can allow it to be a law to us. Human nature, moral government included, is therefore normative, and has authority for us. (Korsgaard 2004, 66)

    It would be a performative contradiction for me at one and the same time to use the word ‘I’, and to affirm some value, and then on another occasion affirm the opposite. Without some minimal ongoing normativity ‘I’ would have no being; this is not because the subject has some nature or essence that entails or dictates law, but because in the absence of nature and essence ‘I’ am nothing other than a lawfulness that I grant to myself. One might say that the governing, or normative, ‘idea of humanity’ is that of the pure form of the self-regulating subject: because there is no human nature that I can know, or that can provide a ground for my actions, I must give a law to myself. ‘I’ am nothing other than this act of self-regulation. Inflected somewhat differently, this inescapable normativity of humanity can take a negative, but no less subjective form.

    We return to Judith Butler: selves are constituted through normativity and recognition. However, one should not simply celebrate this law-giving event of constitution. First, the stabilization of the self through a repeatable norm, sacrifices or mourns that which is occluded or not taken up as worthy of recognition (even though this lost ground is known only as lost, only in being other than, or negated by the normative). Second, one needs to politicize rather than individualize normativity: just what modes of self one will recognize as normative, both for oneself and others, are restricted—not least by what Butler referred to as the ‘heterosexual matrix’ or what has been marked more generally as heteronormativity.

    Here a certain normative crisis ensues. On the one hand it is important to mark how the field of intelligible and speakable sexuality is circumscribed, so that we can see how options outside of marriage are becoming foreclosed as the unthinkable, and how the terms of thinkability are enforced by the narrow debates over who and what will be included in the norm. On the other hand, there is always the possibility of savoring the status of unthinkability, if it is a status, as the most critical, the most radical, the most valuable. As the sexually unpresentable, such sexual possibilities can figure the sublime within the contemporary field of sexuality, a site of pure resistance, a site unco-opted by normativity. But how does one think politics from such a site of unrepresentability?. (Butler 2004, 106-07)

    Without some mode of normativity there would be no selfhood or subjectivity. But in both the neo-Kantian affirmation of self-legislation and Butler’s more critical idea that the performative structures that enable selves are not decided by selves, what would be required is some form of discipline as critique. One could not simply have a world of fact-based natural sciences, nor a social science assumption that one might be able to chart and analyze various systems of norms (cultures, languages, textual systems, societies, polities). What would be required is a critical notion of the humanities: if ‘we’ are always subjected to some norm of humanity, whether that be enabling or restricting, then some reflective procedure needs to be constantly vigilant of normative figurations of the (unavoidably) human.

    2.2. Normativity versus Normalization

    One might say, in response to the idea that humans are norm-producing and norm-constitutive animals, that this is a highly normalizing assumption. Here, a certain reading of Foucault would be in order. Consider one notion of norm, grounded on a certain motif of man (one that Foucault aligns with a specific reading of Kant, and a specific trajectory of the human sciences—a trajectory from which he would distinguish what he refers to as literature). This notion of norm emerged with man; for man is the being who must on the one hand (by nature) give a law unto himself, but whose positive content is left blank: ‘Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist—any more than the potency of life, the fecundity of labour, or the historical density of language’ (Foucault 336). On or around 1700 there emerged a new episteme of life, and from then on no morality was possible, only ethics. Morality would have been just the assertion, perhaps grounded on a notion of God, nature or even humans in relation to some moral nature, that certain values are worthy. Ethics, however, is possible only with the idea of man. Here, I do not assert a value because I say that this is how the world is. Rather, it is because man is that being who realizes that as a cultural (linguistic, historical, desiring) animal he has no nature other than the nature he gives to himself; that he must not simply assert a value, but come up with some formal value-generating procedure:

    It seems obvious enough that, from the moment when man first constituted himself as a positive figure in the field of knowledge, the old privilege of reflexive knowledge, of thought thinking itself, could not but disappear; but that it became possible, by this very fact, for an objective form of thought to investigate man in his entirety—at the risk of discovering what could never be reached by his reflection or even by his consciousness: dim mechanisms, faceless determinations, a whole landscape of shadow that has been termed, directly or indirectly, the unconscious. […]Man has not been able to describe himself as a configuration in the episteme without thought at the same time discovering, both in itself and outside itself, at its borders yet also in its very warp and woof, an element of darkness, an apparently inert destiny in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught.

    […]Superficially, one might say that knowledge of man, unlike the sciences of nature, is always linked, even in its vaguest form, to ethics or politics; more fundamentally, modern thought is advancing towards that region where man’s Other must become the Same as himself. (Foucault 2002, 355; 358)

    For Foucault, this has concrete consequences for the disciplines. Human sciences are only possible if man is at once a being with a certain cultural nature; these ‘sciences’ study man as an effect of hidden forces of which he can be only dimly aware. There now becomes a possibility both of bio-politics—managing man according to his life requirements (the health of populations)—but also a conception of the humanities. For now there is ethics: if man cannot know himself as he is in himself, then he can at least read his own cultural production as an expression of this unthought. (Foucault’s own suggested direction was quite different: to tear language away from man would open up a domain of forces beyond normalizing life. Deleuze extended this path to life: how might we imagine mutations of life not based on the living—such as the geneses enabled by silicon? [Deleuze 2006, 74].)

    Today, with the ‘humanities’ turning to historicism, cognitive archaeology, neuroscience, and other interdisciplinary sources, it is presupposed that concrete forces can provide the ground for interpretive reading. What is assumed is both a notion of man as a being with certain imperatives of life (requiring him to speak and labor) and also as a being who properly gives himself his own lawful being. This might be Kantian liberalism—act in such a way that your act could be assented to by all. Or it might, more insidiously, be what Foucault referred to as ‘biopolitics’; whatever ‘we’ do has no value or morality, but is nothing more than the effective management and regulation of a population. Added to this world of managerial facts would then be the reflective or normative discussions of the humanities. What has happened is that something like ‘life’—a concept that explains the emergence and self-maintenance of all living beings—destroys any immediate or unreflective morality; instead, one sees all moralities as expressions of a human life that is given in various languages, cultures, epochs or systems.

    Foucault’s project was at once historical in demonstrating that this seemingly anti-foundational maneuver was normalizing: if ‘man’ is that animal who has no nature other than the law he gives to himself then we at once assert the universal primacy of the liberal, reasoning, self-furthering subject of reason and calculation and (more alarmingly) posit something like ‘life’ that is the manageable ground of this subject. It ‘follows’ that polities ought to act in such a way that they maximize this subject’s capacity to give himself his own norms: education as the creation of critical, reasoning subjects; health care reforms that enable the fruition of life; intervention in areas that would impede rational activity (protecting individuals from drugs, gambling, debt, pornography, poor diets—anything that would corrupt their supreme capacity of choice). Foucault did not, as some have suggested, want to retreat from a managerial and biopolitical modernity to some golden past where (either) one simply acted with mastery and fiat to create oneself as a work of art. He did chart a genealogy of the self, demonstrating that what we (today) deem to be the inescapable horizon of normativity—the liberal subject who gives a law to himself in a world of self-regulation—ought to be seen as transcendent rather than transcendental. That is, it is something that we encounter as opaque and contingent, not the ultimate horizon of ‘our’ being. Further—and this is where we can mark a distinction between Foucault’s genealogy and Deleuze and Guattari’s geology or stratigraphy—one needs to mark a disciplinary distinction. The human sciences are possible because of the assumption of normativity as normal: we study cultures, languages, epochs, counter-cultures, genders, sexualities, ethnicities or societies because we assume that man is an animal who constructs himself through enabling normative systems, systems that ought to be the object of our (managerial) critique and reflection. Today, as the humanities (especially literature) has become an amalgam of historical positivism, sociology of knowledge and (worst of all) evolutionary criticism, it would be possible to distinguish a different mode of the humanities (if one wanted to call it that). Foucault argued that man emerged from the complex of life, labour and language: man speaks and works because he is the living being whose nature compels him to work and speak in common. If we uncoupled language from its grounding in man as the being who gives himself self-furthering laws we would have literature. Language—considered not as sign of our self-creating being—but as something that has its own being (its own density or shining) would give us a positive criticism. How do texts form relatively autonomous field of problems, and with what other problems do they intersect? How do they mutate, and what do they enable?

    Not ‘Beyond Normativity’

    Deleuze is not one of those thinkers who defines himself against a terrain. Even, with Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (for all its ‘anti’) has a positive condition. It is only possible to have the repressive normative strictures of Oedipus—either you submit to the family or you are psychotic!—because of a broader synthesis. The terms that make up a normative domain, such as the subject who submits to regulation, or the body that becomes sexed, or the thinker who works with a logic, are possible because of what we might refer to (but this time differently) as immanence, affect and fiat. In his book on Foucault, Deleuze makes two remarks that suggest a subtle but important difference from Foucault. First, Deleuze suggests that there is a Kantian limit in Foucault’s work: one knows power in its differential effects, as a distributive force, but one never crosses the line to power itself. (And this is why, by contrast, Deleuze and Guattari will choose to write about desire, as something their method seeks to intuit itself as productive synthesis, not as produced.) Second, Deleuze suggests that it is possible to decouple (or deterritorialize) ‘life’ (and not just language) from the normalizing motif of man. I have already suggested that immanence, considered in the multiple singular—immanence always as ‘a’ life—a disturbing force or ‘spark’, creates a new challenge for the discipline of thinking. If life is given in these sparks, from which individuals emerge but which might also have produced different syntheses of individuation, then ‘a’ discipline would be the posing of a problem from a differential field. Such a field would not be one view among others on the same general terrain, but would encounter other fields, composed differently by different problems—different actualizations or individuations of ‘a’ life. One uses the singular ‘a’ life to mark its distinction, but desists from granting this ‘life’ a body or individuality. This brings us to affect, which would not be emotion, feeling and certainly not responsiveness (and certainly not) a vital normativity. Let us consider inertia or weariness or stupid malevolence as ‘an’ affect. This potentiality would insist and persist, always there, and capable both of seizing hold of us, and of being detached or deterritorialized.

    I am in a debate with my parliamentary colleague, and we are both engaging in a discourse about managing the nation’s debts (both its financial and political debts to the present, and its possibly imagined geological debts to its future); there is a potentiality for positive destruction: we might talk, gesture and move in such a way that the thought of ‘a’ future seizes hold of us, or we might speak and act in such a way that we become gripped by the inertia of all the old figures. Who knows what syntheses might allow one affect rather than another to take hold? One might want to think of such questions in geological terms, by looking at the strata that compose such a scene. (I imagine, writing now, that talks between Obama and Boehner regarding the supposed US debt crisis were gripped by all sorts of free-floating affects—naïve hope, regressive racism, financial fear, political expediency, nostalgia for a real America, panic, psychotic incapacity to imagine dire consequences, the lure of smooth rhetoric, the strictures of procedural and managerial discourse, the visual affects of gentlemanly comportment, visceral anger … I am not saying that Obama or Boehner felt these affects, nor that the Tea-party or ‘left’ expressed these feelings. Rather, just as an artist can capture an affect—such as the litigious torpor that is the affect of Bleak House—one might say that no one in the USA in July 2011 was panicking, and yet the affect of panic haunted the scene: that there may be panic. This would differ markedly from looking at the scene in terms of competing norms—leftist welfare liberalism versus competitive small government conservatism—because the scene would not be motivated by deliberation or cognition alone. It would also differ from rabidly anti-normative reactivisms: either the individualism that resented systemic government enclosure in party-political timelines or appeals to one creative, immanent, global and self-creating humanity. Immanence would not be immanent to a domain that would be structured by (or belied by) normativity. Rather, immanence would place us—or the questions we pose—among a field and plane of problems. It would not be a question of deliberating norms, as though there were a field of life to which we must give a law; nor would it be a question of negotiating some negated but lost outside beyond normativity. We would be exposed to all manner of powers: institutions, affects, habits, desires, pure predicates, potentialities, order-words, spatial distributions, a general interweaving of multiple and discordant strata. But it would not be ‘us’ as self-legislating beings who approached this terrain—as if we were within this life to which we were immanent. Immanence is not our immanence that allows us to eliminate the outside. Finally, we might think of the difference between act as performative and act as fiat: ‘problems are inseparable from a power of decision, a fiat which, when we are infused by it, makes us semi-divine beings’ (Deleuze 2004, 247). Here, also, I would like to return to the quotation from Deleuze’s essay on immanence: ‘for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad’ (Deleuze 1991, 28-29). Consider the difference between the performative, where there is no difference between doer and deed, and where the self is an ex post facto effect of an act, an act that occurs and is possible because of a normative matrix, even as it disturbs that very normativity through a differing repetition.

    In this case what is dominant is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as exclusive disjunction: only in submitting to the laws of action do ‘I’ become a being or subject at all, and yet at the same time I mourn that presupposed but lost real that can only be thought of as other than the normative matrix. Either I submit to recognition or fall into the dark night of indifference; I am either male or female; either I become a subject by demanding inclusion in the State or I refuse recognition and flirt with psychosis. And this is because without performance—without the act that marks out a self within a normative matrix—there is no ‘doer.’ By contrast, Deleuze suggests that there are powers as such, possibly incarnated and actualized, possibly not. Once something like a stable subject is formed, these powers can take on some axiology: ‘only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad’. But it is possible to think outside this ‘good or bad’ for the subject who is given through action and decision. If one were to consider powers beyond the purview of the normative subject of ‘good or bad’, one might open a counter-normative plane of inclusive disjunction: ‘I want to recognize the values of subjected polities and do away with the very concept of ‘the’ political;’ ‘I want to demand women’s rights and autonomy and say that gender is a false problem;’ ‘I want to argue for women’s reproductive rights and refuse the notion of self-deciding individual rights, along with the concepts of reproduction.’ I want to refuse normativity—refuse the notion of the constitutive domain or matrix that grants me my subjective being: and this, indeed, is what the very notion of ‘becoming-imperceptible’ demands.

    As long as I am a subject for whom there is ‘good or bad’ then normativity is the inevitable and non-negotiable presupposition for being an ‘I’: I am nothing other than the subject of my actions, and without that ongoing decisive power I would have no subjective ground for recognition. However, were I to imagine the powers of becoming—‘a’ life—beyond how they are figured as good or bad for me, then something like a counter-ethics would be possible. Rather than an ethos of my own habits and practices, or an ecology where there is one system of interconnected life, or ‘the’ political where decisions are examined from the point of view of ‘a’ polity, the concepts of ‘becoming-imperceptible’ and ‘a life’ enable us to pose problems that are adequate to twenty-first century horizons. Should we really be asking about normativity, values, identity and self-maintenance in an era of climate change, when this very self-furtherance and myopia threatens not only human existence but life in general? Surely now is the time not to ask how ‘we’ decide to maintain who ‘we’ are, but whether there might be questions, powers, problems that are not of our own choosing, that affect us not as doers or performers but as barely adequate witnesses.


    1. It is correct to say, as Paul Patton does, that Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology is normative: that is, their approach to the ways in which we account for the formation of the world of beings is tied to decisive values and commitments. That is, their theory of ‘being’ is not some neutral, value-free or purely scientific theory. This is true so long as one wishes to talk the language of normativity, I would argue that one ought not talk this way: normativity has no sense, or should have no sense, unless we assume that there are things that are not normative (facts? brute matter? chaos?). That is not the case. Anything that ‘is’, or that makes a claim to being occurs through processes of force, interaction, inclusion and exclusion; there is no realm of what simply is, and then a normative domain that adds value. return to text