4. Queer Aesthetics
Perhaps no notion has been more normative than that of becoming. Perhaps because of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, with their concepts of ‘becoming-animal’ or ‘becoming-woman,’ or perhaps because of a now-institutionalized poststructuralism that appears to have privileged process over stability, creation over system and singularity over universality, becoming appears at first glance to be the notion that would free us at once from moralizing normativity and rigid identity politics. What I want to suggest in this chapter is that the contemporary valorization of becoming over being repeats rather than destabilizes a highly traditional and humanist sentiment of privileging act over inertia, life and creativity over death and stasis, and pure existence or coming-into-being over determination. Indeed, all the forms of anti-essentialism that marked the late twentieth-century could only have force because essence—or that which is, as such, beyond its actualization—was deemed to be necessarily (or essentially) impeding. Becoming, thought in its opposition to normativity and essence, has always underpinned standard liberal notions of the political, the ethical, and the aesthetic. The political: a good polity is a polity that does not merely follow rules and order automatically but gives a law to itself freely.  The ethical: a subject is not a mechanism that unfolds in time to realize what he was always going to be, but becomes what he ought to be by realizing his self-creative freedom.  The aesthetic: art is the minimal distance or deviation from perfectly clear, accepted, and rule-bound communication; art works as art only in disclosing once again that the world is not fully seen and said, but is opened through seeing and saying. 
To get a sense of the ways in which this concept of becoming has presented itself as a self-evident good, we need only ask whether it would be possible to speak against becoming. Would it be possible to assert simply that one is: that I am the being who I am and have always been; that I do not expect or hope to change? Or, would it be possible—this time not referring to oneself—to affirm a world or nature that is fully actualized, and that bears neither a potentiality for change nor a tendency to change in ways that are not determined in advance by some norm? Does not the very insistence on the importance of the political, from Plato and Aristotle to the present, presuppose that ‘we’—the polity—do not accept a closed and completed state form but consider human collective life to be creative of itself? When there is talk of a loss of politics today, this is usually a way of referring to widespread passivity and the consumption rather than production of images. If one can distinguish a power of mind and life from matter and inertia it is to the degree to which the former is active and self-creating. Well before Henri Bergson distinguished between matter and memory by arguing that the former is fully actualized and can only vary mechanically through the redistribution or reconfiguration of what is already given, while the latter will properly lead to a spiritual becoming that will free itself from fixed and rigid units, there had been a long history of privileging a living and dynamic becoming over the stasis of an unthinking matter that has no potentiality or relation beyond itself. Theologically, it is chaos that simply ‘is’ while being is creative, dynamic, fruitful, and multiplying. Even if, as Giorgio Agamben notes in Homo Sacer, there would be a problem of considering how natural generation would be accommodated in a redeemed world, there is a long history of justifying a properly divine creativity. Agamben articulates the problem this way: if there is a heaven then everything would be complete and redeemed, so how would the blessed deal with the problem of such activities as eating (with the concomitant acts of digestion and waste)? And this is the problem that marks Agamben’s project of potentiality today: could we imagine a becoming that is not constrained in advance by some aspect of already actualized life? Our imaginations of heaven, after all, have tended to take human bodies and simply resituate them in an eternal domain, not asking about the potentiality or becoming of those bodies. Agamben recognizes that heaven, traditionally conceived, could not accommodate waste, growth, and regeneration; but this opens the problem of dynamic action. Would a godlike power do anything, would this not impede completeness and perfection? Could there be a divine becoming? Such a problem has haunted theology that at one and the same time wants to grant dynamic creativity and life to God, while also recognizing that divinity would not need to become. Milton, for example, maintains that the angels—like Adam and Eve before them—will be involved in the production of hymns of praise. But what makes such production divine is that it is unprompted and unnecessary. Like Agamben four centuries later, Milton recognizes the problem of human potentiality: a world without becoming would be mere life. Even a redeemed humanity will never remain in itself but will create further, expressing itself as nothing more than this creating spirit (Schwartz 1998).
We can chart this highly normative anti-normativity of becoming by working back, genealogically, from Bergson. Bergson’s attack on dualism was preceded by a series of anti-Cartesian attacks on mind as a thing within the world. Cartesianism was targeted from its inception as a dangerously mechanistic reduction of the world and a godless detachment of man as substance (Israel 2001). Bergson’s attack on Cartesianism (and other representations of mind as a substance within time and space) needs to be distinguished from the contemporary appeal to becoming. There is a difference between affirming—as Bergson did—that all life bears tendencies both towards explosive difference and inertia, and simply affirming that the subject is nothing other than its pure relation to what it is not, a pure becoming. That is, there is a difference between a metaphysical objection to positing one substance—such as mind—as the point from which time and movement are perceived, and the existential objection that man or humanity is distinguished by its not having any essence other than its capacity to become. Bergson did not treat mind as becoming, rather than being, without thoroughly challenging the notion of a simple opposition between being (what simply is) and becoming (processes of change that those beings undergo). What Bergson radicalized in his vitalism was a failure to think the difference between being and becoming appropriately. That is, Bergson will not—as later affirmations of becoming would do—celebrate ‘life’ or political subjects as mobile and self-creating in opposition to a supposed essential or timeless nature or ‘bare life’; he will remove ‘man’ from his privileged position of homo sui faber and describe all life as bearing (at least in part) an explosive capacity to destroy its bounded and self-same identity. In this respect, Bergson is at once the queerest of philosophers, regarding all life as deviation or disturbance (Grosz 2004), and the most normatively humanist of philosophers, placing the power that had always elevated man—dynamic becoming—at the heart of all life. But Bergson is not alone; his work evinces a more general problem of the relation between becoming and man. There has always been an anti-humanist privileging of becoming that would set itself against ‘man’ as nothing more than an animal with special qualities, such as reason (Derrida 1969).
Kant had insisted that for both ethical and metaphysical reasons one could not consider the world as an object in itself that is then pictured by the mind. The relation of mind to world is itself the outcome of an active synthesis: mind is not that which can be known as a being or substance, for transcendental subjectivity is the process of synthesis itself, knowable only after the event, in its effects. It follows, ethically, that mind cannot be a thing or nature from which one might establish certain norms. Instead—because it is nothing other than a synthetic power—mind is that which gives a norm to itself (Korsgaard 1996).
In some ways, then, one could read Kant as a vitalist; and this was, indeed, how Deleuze and Guattari chose to figure Kant—as an active vitalist, privileging a subject who is nothing other than pure act. In contrast to Kant, they set another tradition of vitalism, running from Leibniz to Raymond Ruyer. That second, passive, tradition is not that of a subject but of a ‘pure internal awareness’: ‘Vitalism has always had two possible interpretations: that of an idea that acts, but is not—that acts therefore only from the point of view of an external cerebral knowledge [...]; or that of a force that is but does not act—that is therefore a pure internal Awareness. If the second interpretation seems to us to be imperative it is because the contraction that preserves is always in a state of detachment in relation to action or even to movement and appears as a pure contemplation without knowledge’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 213). In the conclusion of this chapter, I will look at this passive vitalism in relation to D. H. Lawrence’s poetry, but for now we can note that such a tradition of vitalism would enable us to consider different modes of becoming and different modes of aesthetics. Aesthetics does not, of course, begin with Kant, as there has always been some conception of art or beauty at the heart of philosophy, with beauty in turn being linked to a proper and normative mode of becoming. This occurs most obviously in Plato’s Symposium, where it is the beauty of the beautiful that explains its desirability. Desire should, in its apprehension of the beautiful, move beyond the delighted perception of any beautiful object and arrive at the understanding that insofar as there is apprehension—insofar as there is perceiving—one ought to direct oneself to that which makes apprehension in general possible. This possibility is the form or Idea as such. We perceive beautiful things only because they actualize a potential to be beautiful that is never exhausted in any single being: it is that eternal potentiality, or Idea, that knowledge ought to attain. This attainment occurs through becoming: not simply accepting passively what is true or good or beautiful, but realizing it for oneself, through dialogue, education, and reason. This good becoming is liberation from the passively received and an activation of proper potentiality: one sees, through the beautiful, the beauty that makes perception possible, and one realizes the potentiality of oneself, becoming what one ought to be by activating dynamic perception.
We can contrast Platonic perception, desire, and Ideas, where perception is drawn to that ultimate ground or condition which makes it possible, to Deleuze’s notion of a desire that bears a potential for Ideas only in relation. Desire is the capacity to create relations through encounters, relations that are external to the potentialities or differential powers from which they emerge. Drawing, among other sources, on the passive vitalism of Raymond Ruyer, Deleuze posits that the development of a body occurs not just as the unfolding of a form from itself, but as an orientation to what Ruyer refers to as ‘transcendental forms’ or what Deleuze refers to as Ideas. For Ruyer, the becoming of an embryo is neither self-determined from the beginning nor caused by the environment; instead, there are virtual powers towards which development tends. In the case of camouflaged animals, becoming makes sense only in relation to a field that is beyond the animal’s body-world relation (Ruyer 1958). This passive vitalism is one in which ‘life’ is not some force that actualizes itself in single bodies, but a ‘field of survey’ that places any body’s becoming in relation to the forces of its milieu, and never as active self-creation. Becoming-woman and becoming-animal, for example, are not the becomings of women or animals, which is why, notoriously, in A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari distinguished becoming-woman from the women’s movement and also saw becoming-woman as the starting point for all becomings. There would no longer be man as subject, the being who is nothing more than his own self-becoming, for becoming-woman suggests that becoming is oriented, or tends toward, a term beyond the process of becoming. Becoming-woman and becoming-animal are also tied to writing: for Deleuze and Guattari, writing is rhizomatic insofar as it possesses a force and field of its own, beyond the self, mastery, or becoming of the writer. There is not a self who affirms its own becoming as a woman, nor a self who writes about animals to uncover animality as such. For there are no terms or points—no human or animal—outside of encounters; and neither term becomes for itself, from itself or without inflection from without. There is no woman as such or animal as such toward which one becomes. But there are styles of becoming, such that any becoming-woman will both encounter something other than itself, and rewrite just what that ‘other’ (or woman) is.
Deleuze’s reversal of Platonism is not an elimination of Ideas but a creation of a new concept of the Idea: one does not become toward the Idea in order to realize oneself, for Ideas are created attractors that violate thought’s self-sameness and transgress any internal or proper becoming (Deleuze 1994). Plato’s Ideas are transcendent: they are potentials towards which thought might direct itself. Deleuze retains this aspect of the Idea, while refusing to place the outside of thought beyond life.
When Kant rejects any notion of Ideas that are transcendent to thought, and instead argues that the Ideas toward which thought strives are consequences of extending thought’s own potential beyond any given object, he liberates becoming from any end outside itself: ‘Against rationalism, Kant asserts that supreme ends are not only ends of reason, but that in positing them reason posits nothing other than itself’ (Deleuze 1984, 2). The subject is now elevated to becoming both an ethical being who gives a law to himself (because he is pure power of decision and does not proceed from any decided norm) and to an aesthetic subject whose capacity to perceive form as such allows him to feel his own harmonizing and synthesizing activity.
Is it surprising, then, that today theory appears to be enlivened by the concepts of potentiality, becoming, and the experience of the work of art that would be liberated from any norms or figures—any meaning—other than that of perception feeling itself perceiving, art feeling itself as art? The most explicit exponent of such a potentiality freed from any body, norm, or organism other than its own power of the pure act can be found in the work of Agamben, who, in Potentialities, explicitly turns back to Aristotle to think a potentiality that is not governed by an already given end. And, despite his criticism of vitalism in Deleuze, Badiou’s emphasis on the subject, as a pure event facing the void, without any prior or determining body or transcendence, could also be read (as Badiou himself will do in Manifesto for Philosophy) as a subjectivism of a specifically Platonic mode. The subject is nothing other than an apprehension of a universal that it brings into being. This universal for Badiou demands a certain fidelity beyond any worldly or already individuated point of view. For all their differences, and they are many, both Agamben and Badiou regard the work of art as an experience that is irreducible to the cognitive or predicative statements of philosophy or science. For Agamben, the work of art demonstrates that, before there are subjects who have proper and determined ends, there is the opening of the world as such. For Badiou, the work of art’s experience of a world is not (as Heidegger would have it) the proper mode of thought qua thinking as disclosure; rather, it is because a world is unfolded poetically that philosophy can argue that there is no world in itself outside its disclosure, no throbbing, pulsating ‘lived,’ only a void.
The ‘aesthetic,’ then, has—at least since Kant—been a way of returning the subject from its captivation with the given and known world to the subjective conditions through which any such world is given. In Kant, it is in the work of art that one feels, but does not know, the synthesizing power of the subject. For Kant, the aesthetic is that mode of presentation that does not simply give the world but presents the world in its event of presentation.
Kant’s vitalism of a subject who cannot submit to a norm precisely because he is the power from which any possible normativity might be generated, has its pre-modern and theological precursors. For Aquinas, God is not a being who acts according to an essence, for his essence is nothing other than that of pure being; God is existence as such, the power through which any determined form can be brought into actuality (Gilson 1994). This scholastic definition of God derives from the Aristotelian concept of potentiality, which (as I have already suggested) forms the focus and basis of much of today’s ‘theory,’ especially as theory gives itself the task of finding, from within life, something like a power of life transformation that is not that of annihilation or negation For Aristotle, a living being has a proper and living potential: a being lives in order to actualize what it ought to be. To say that such and such a being is good is to say that it realizes what it can be in the fullest way possible. In the case of human reason, its highest power (of reason) is the capacity to intuit this principle of becoming as such, and then to create itself according to its sense of its power of self-determination (Irwin 1988).
When contemporary writers, such as Agamben (who refers explicitly to Aristotle) or Judith Butler (who adopts the more general notion of performativity), seek to liberate the self from any proper end that would govern its becoming, they at once react against the traditional definition of human potentiality as teleological, while also repeating the idea that the human animal has a peculiarly special end: that of having no end, of being oriented to nothing proper.
To say that becoming, today, is normative is to make a twofold claim. First, becoming presents itself as a self-evident good, not as one norm among others, and not as one good among others, but as the underlying or a priori condition that allows for anything like the good. If there were no becoming, there would be no decision or value, and nothing could be apprehended as what one ought to do, rather than what one simply is. Second, if we accept that there is becoming, or that any constituted and decided being is the outcome of a dynamic and constituting power, then we are impelled to be self-normativizing; if the subject is nothing other than the power of its own becoming, then it must take this becoming upon itself, liberate itself from all the illusions of a given nature or normality, and become nothing other than self-becoming. If the subject were not to give itself to itself, not affect itself and realize itself, then it would have abandoned its proper potentiality to act and become.
It is in contrast to this normativity of becoming, or becoming as normative, that we can place the queerness of Deleuze’s concepts of becoming-animal, becoming-woman, and becoming-imperceptible. Here, becoming does not realize and actualize itself, does not flourish into presence, but bears a capacity to annihilate itself, to refuse its ownness in order to attach, transductively, to becomings whose trajectories are external and unmasterable. Thus, if we refer to Deleuze as a vitalist, it is not because he insists on the becoming of life as such, in opposition to the terms that are effected from an act of becoming. Rather, any becoming is always localized; it is a force of a particular quantity, in relation to another quantity, producing a point of relative stability, or a field. In terms of ‘the aesthetic,’ it is not a question, then, of art practice returning the subject or creative potentiality to the sense of its own forming power. Rather, the art object would be the result of a collision not intended or reducible to any single life.
Another mode of vitalism, running from Ruyer to Leibniz, entails also another mode of aesthetics, one that does not rely on the work of art as a condition in general that would bring the subject back to its acts of perception that constitute its world. As Deleuze suggests in The Fold, this form of vitalism does not see life as a constituting power that flows forth and recognizes itself after the event of creation. It is a vitalism of divergent series in which every power to perceive creates its own opening to the infinite, its own series of perceptions passing from finitude to an open whole. For Leibniz, there are not selves who perceive, nor subjective powers that synthesize the given; for the harmony of the universe follows from the fact that there is only one universe, perceived differently by every one of its components. The universe is not some single object that is then perceived or synthesized; there are events of perception, each of which is an unfolding of an infinite series. There is no conflict in these series precisely because there is no outside as such, or life as such, beyond all the points of view that compose the harmonious whole. This doesn’t mean that truth is relativized, that we don’t get to the truth because of perspectives; rather, truth is composed of relative series, not located in ‘a’ point, but effected from an open whole of converging and diverging points. Life just is this quantity of divergent worlds. As a more modern form of this line of thinking, Ruyer’s vitalism simultaneously entails a resistance to mechanism—to the idea that one might determine in advance the various lines of becoming that compose the universe—and a radical passivity, as in his concept of ‘absolute survey.’ As Ruyer argues in Neo-finalisme, every perception is a feeling of the whole of being, a sense or orientation that is productive of a located viewpoint, a viewpoint that can be located only because it bears its own sense of a whole or relation of which it is also an effect (Ruyer 1952).
Thus, the concept of becoming, far from being a radically new turn in a twenty-first century vitalism that has broken with normalizing metaphysics, is the normalizing concept par excellence. It has always been the case that anything resistant to dynamism, fruition, creation, and a flowing forth of open and productive life has been demonized as a death or inertia that tarnishes life from the outside. A subject must be nothing other than the event of its own performance, acting, or unfolding. If, following Butler, we recognize that performance is enabled by prior norms (for one must always perform as this or that specified being), we nevertheless take heart in the power to perform that will introduce a certain nonbeing or undecidability into the rigidity of the very identity upon which we must unfortunately rely. Butler’s success as a theorist lies in her capacity to maintain a tradition of theory as theoria: as a looking or perceiving that activates itself in a resistance to that which would be merely given and immune to the becoming one takes upon oneself as an ethical subject. Against this Butlerian retrieval of a relation between norm and performance, one might suggest that, rather than rely on something like becoming in general, a power of creativity or dynamism that is different and distant from any norm, one could always see becoming as having a relation to what is not itself. Becoming-animal, for Deleuze and Guattari, is not the becoming of the animal, just as becoming-woman does not proceed from women as a group (even a group formed for the purposes of action alone in some decision of strategic essentialism). Indeed, becoming occurs not as a retrieval of the life, dynamism, or vitality that has fallen into reification and substantivism, but as an encounter between ‘a’ life—always this power of difference—with another. Deleuze and Guattari insist that ‘pluralism is monism’ because if there are a thousand tiny becomings or awarenesses, there is no transcendental ground or subject—no life in general, and therefore no one ground that would be substantially different from the grounded. Deleuze and Guattari’s celebrated monism is of one power of difference expressed multiply and not a single life that differs.
In order to make this more explicit I want to contrast two modes of vitalism and aesthetics, the first from Ezra Pound and the second from D. H. Lawrence. An aesthetics tied to active vitalism privileges impersonality (as distance from personae), defamiliarization, and negation. Usually, such an aesthetics presents itself as a strictly formalist endeavor. It matters less what one says in a work of art, than the disjunction one manages to achieve between represented content and the forming power that synthesizes materials. In general, then, the modernist techniques of fragmentation, disembodied voices, allusion and parataxis preclude a subject being presented and instead intimate a power of presentation that is never given as such. Consider Ezra Pound’s modernism, which began with the presentation of personae as personae, but which developed into the epic venture of the Cantos, a work that quoted Western culture from Sappho to the present as so much dead, circulating, passively repeated and atomized content devoid of animation. Pound’s relatively early ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ presents a voice that answers, in a passively craven manner, both to the markets of consumption (‘the age demanded an image’) and to the desire for a synthesis of the past in the present (‘the classics in paraphrase!’) (Pound 2003, 549-50). Pound began with translations of the Chinese poetry of Li Po and fragments of the Western poetic tradition before the latter fell into what Pound saw as a weak and flabby dependence on the propulsions of rhyme and meter. Often, what Pound borrowed, though in another voice, was quoted in such a way as to create a disjunction with the present, so that the voice of the past is reanimated to speak as if from the point of view Pound himself would have sought. So the opening of ‘The Seafarer’ that Pound ‘translated’ from early Anglo Saxon presents the distanced singing voice, detached from its own culture:
Pound’s use of the past, here in his drawing upon Anglo Saxon sources, and elsewhere in his use of Sappho, Greek epic, Dante and even (as in ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberly’) earlier phases of his own work, despite its seeming passivity enables a mode of active vitalism typical of high modernism. By taking up already given fragments and voices of the past the implied modernist artist is (to quote Joyce after Flaubert), ‘like the God of the creation, remain[ing] within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails’ (Joyce 1922, 252). It is because the artist remains indifferent that he is never determined by any specific or finite position within the world, remaining as pure creation liberated from any of the points of view that he adopts. Pound’s use of fragments, personae, translations, voices and historical periods—for all its implied absence of authorial intervention—enables a position of pure act or creative force, untainted by the substance or finitude of an action or creation. The mode of quotation is crucial: the author is at once not speaking, not present, and yet able to summon materials that speak about a world in which speaking is no longer possible or at least distanced and difficult. The present has been rendered so passive as to preclude the possibility of speaking authentically. One can only repeat the fragments of the past, yet never be at one with that lost past. In Pound’s translation of Li Po, the poetic voice is not that of Romantic interiority or self-expression, but perception reduced to its relation to the world, a simple ‘I’ that is nothing other than its present: ‘While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead / I played about the front gate, pulling flowers’ (‘River-Merchant’s Wife’ 251). In his imagist phase, Pound also tries to present language as an object, standing alone, presenting an imaging as such. This ‘making new’ of language is directed towards reviving the force and energy of language and also—and Pound was explicit about this—reviving the imagination that would no longer be enslaved by conventions and ‘easy’ listening, nor by bourgeois ‘taste.’
Pound’s poetics was one of anti-commodification, where commodification is counter-vital both in its mass-production of things (rather than created works) and in its tendency to produce lulled and passive consumption that could only be broken by the difficulty of modernist poetics. This governing intention later led him to criticize his own imagism for producing yet one more fashionable and easily digested vogue:
Yet, it was his final project, the Cantos, that yielded an aesthetics that was far more explicitly vitalist, sexually normative, and fascist. Vitalist: through processes of fragmentation, cutting, juxtaposition, parataxis, and the insertion of untranslated elements, culture could be presented as lacking any already given synthesis, forcing the reader—and culture in general—to confront the machinic, atomized, lackluster, and incoherent nature of modern life. Sexually normative: not only did Pound present figures of a fallen sexuality that were variously diagnosed as homosexual, promiscuous, effeminate, and (therefore) infertile, he also created a direct association between sexuality and artistic production. Modernity suffers from a compulsion towards a restricted economy: in its corrupted and fallen mode, life, like art, must be measured through capital. What is lost is expenditure that has not determined its productive end in advance. At a formal level, this meant that Pound aligned proper artistic experimentation with a fertile, productive, and living expenditure that would produce ends that were not already determined. At the level of content, Pound placed journalists, homosexuals, Jews, and bankers in an excremental hell: journalists merely allowed language to circulate for profit, rather than generating genuine poetic creation; homosexuals were guilty of a same-same sexuality that could know no genuine fertility or life; bankers (and, by extension for Pound, Jews) were responsible for the institutions of usury which would direct all money into the creation of further money, precluding any excessive expenditure that might allow for genuine artistic excess:
Pound associated proper, fruitful, excessive, and creative spending with a pre-modern form of patronage, where art was not yet subjected to markets, commodified language, effete styles of pleasure, or the homogenizing blandness of democracy.
Finally, Pound’s effort turns fascist: by emphasizing art as a decisive break with the circulation and system of production, for the sake of a higher, productive, and creative end beyond already actualized life, Pound justified a violence of the present for the sake of a future that would return life to its proper, active, and expansive creative potential. Indeed, it is just in this respect that one might consider fascism to be tied to a certain privilege of becoming. Radically futural, fascism acts for the sake of a singularly violent decision and act over the meandering and undirected or unfruitful pleasures and affects of the present. Fascism, at least in its modernist form, was tied to a horror of static, inert, reifying and lifeless infertility of twentieth-century democracy, or—more specifically—a diffuse, inhuman (because animal-like) dispersion of a people who would be devoid of decision, self-identity, striving and vigorous assertion. Pound’s work is complex, and its tendencies to fascism—to the privilege of the single decision and productive force of the future—cannot be unequivocally separated from a revolutionary impulse that would not be enslaved to an axiomatic of production and directed force. One needs to consider the ways in which an active vitalism of self-constituting life that produces itself from itself is distinguished ever so subtly from a passive vitalism that enables life to be thought of from divergent, dispersed and infinitely divisible points of difference. That is, whereas Pound’s response to the horrors of modern democracy—its rendering equivalent of all forces, its general tendency towards a reduction of intensity and distinction to vague uniformity and single quantities—was to assert the life and force of art as decision, another passive vitalist potential opened thought to vibrations of life and thought beyond act and decision.
When Deleuze and Guattari consider the tendency of the Body Without Organs to develop a cancerous or fascist mode they confront two of the major problems of modernist aesthetics and its relation to politics. First, the vital productive forces of life cannot be deemed to be good in opposition to the evils of undecided, animalistic, machinic and squandering forces of death. For this moral opposition between productive, bounded, formed and self-asserting life and a diffuse and squandering dispersal of forces is a moralism of the organism, where bounded living forms are opposed to the dissolution of death. Second, fascism is an internal possibility of the vital order, not an accident that befalls an otherwise good life from without. Pound’s work is worthy of attention precisely because it gathers revolutionary forces that would break with bourgeois humanism and normalizing stasis and yet reterritorializes those same forces on a normative image of life, life as pure becoming that encounters no event other than itself and its own production. If, as Pound did, one fragments the syntax that normally allows the reader to pass from one term to another, if one places usually opposed and contrasted terms alongside one another without connectives, then the reader is forced to compose an order that is not given, or at least confront a dis-order that would foreground the arbitrariness of any system. Reading is not consumption but production. We do not, in everyday and efficient language, recognize language and syntax as the connective and normalizing systems they are. By removing connectives, we are forced to relive order in its ordering. Perhaps not surprisingly Pound will associate the passivity of imagery—the lack of vitality in thinking—with the loss of a fertile ground of artistic production outside the system of capital.
By contrast, we can think of the ways Deleuze and Guattari do not want to break with capitalism’s tendency to take the movements of bodies into inorganic flows and systems, but want to release that movement from capital. Their immanent and passive vitalism would not be a return to a force before capitalism and syntax, but a move within capital and relations: not a grounding of syntax, relation, and systems on some anterior life force or spirit above and beyond systems, but an intuition of the powers of relation and proliferation within, between, and among bodies. Pound’s reference back to a force that would not be submitted to the system of circulation—the references in the Hell section of Cantos to Renaissance patronage of excess and a spending without calculation of return—reveals a (sexually) normative image of life at the heart of active vitalism. Opposed to the fruitful, and expansive relation between productive force and a production that can be released into the open, Pound’s banker-Jew-journalist-homosexual-necrophiliac closes production in upon himself (as redundant language, dead money, or nonactualizing flows of putrid bodily fluids):
Desire is caught up in itself, bearing no distance from itself. Pound’s aesthetics valorized the distances between terms and sounds without an overarching unity or reason. The productive excess of terms without subordination to a recognizable, consumable, or syntactical sense demands that the reader work in relation to the poem: rather than follow some natural order of sense, he has to reawaken the creation of order before the efficient, reified, systematized, and jejune order of commodity production.
Pound’s form of vitalism is anticapitalist in its opposition to a world reduced to so much already formed circulating content: art should always be other than the ready-made. This entails either taking the ready-made and presenting it as already formed (through quotation and repetition out of context and order) or cutting into the ready-made with radically external, alien, and unreadable matters. As the Cantos proceeds, the typeface takes over the voice (with the intrusion of dollar signs, Chinese characters, ancient Greek, diacritical marks, numerical calculations); the poet, as grand absent artist, is not one whose voice extends itself into speech and content, but can only be assumed (after the event) as that which would be other than any of the presented fragments.
We can contrast Pound’s active vitalism with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the art of the ready-made, which has two features. First, art is inhuman. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari describe a bird’s selection of materials for its territory as the beginning of art in the form of the ready-made. This is not a process of defamiliarization, or decontextualization but a selection of a matter that has a quality or ‘thisness’ that allows a body to form a territory, to create relations, and to produce a body-world coupling (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 184). Second, the ready-made does not refer back to the gesture or selection of an absent artist, for there is no self who selects; from selection and relations, or the encounter of forces, something like a body or milieu is formed. This is art as the house or dwelling, a certain detachment or ‘standing alone’ of matters.
The passivity of Deleuze and Guattari’s vitalism has been associated (often critically and negatively) with capitalism. If Pound’s vitalism (and active vitalism more generally) always threatens to fall into a mode of fascism in its elevation of a decision or force outside social circulation, Deleuze and Guattari are wary of the microfascisms and the ‘cancerous Body without Organs’ that would follow from an insufficiently rigorous political movement of deterrirorialization. That is, if the taking up of movements, potentialities, and forces from within capitalism liberates itself from the capitalist axiomatic only to proliferate by turning back in upon the self—the affirmation of one’s own especially queer becoming, or the simple affirmation of becoming as such, liberated from all relations—then one has left the grand system of capital without creating a positive line of flight. Queerness defined negatively—as other than any given syntax or system, or as the negation of the ready-made—would be insufficiently vital, if one takes vitalism in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense as the creation of ‘a’ body without organs. The imperative is, then, not a return, retrieval, or revitalization of the already existing synthetic force that has become alienated or reified: vitality occurs with a line of flight, a becoming, or an event that is not the expression or extension of an already existing force but the outcome of a genuine and positive encounter.
Here we can link Leibniz’s passive vitalism to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal. For Leibniz, the body’s being or individuation is not a consequence of it being synthesized or recognized as this determined being; what something is is not defined by the way in which it is recognized, nor by the way in which the being affirms itself. A being is not the being it is because it is recognized as this or that type. A being is individuated by all the relations it bears to other relations; a monad is absolutely unique in its occupation of a point in time and space, as well as the way it perceives and is affected by all the other relations and affections of time and space. Identity does not refer back to a subject who is perceived only through the world it constitutes. On the contrary, Leibniz’s world is composed of affections, which expand inward infinitely. A body is its susceptibility to relations, and ‘I’ am nothing other than the perceptions, events, encounters, and vibrations that produce a certain feeling of oneself or ‘self-enjoyment.’ For Deleuze, following Leibniz, it is possible to intuit the singularity and difference of the tiny souls of which we are composed, which surround us, and which constitute our individuation: I am those souls I feel as my own (so that we can say that the soul that feels the other souls—the mind that contemplates—exists at a different level) while the feeling I have of the souls that compose me enter into relation with souls from without. I can feel hunger, fatigue, confusion—all working divergently: I am tired, but need to eat, but puzzled as to whether eating will stop me from sleeping; my body is composed of these souls that I can observe, but that can be observed in turn. All this confusion, fatigue and hunger is felt by the body next to me, whose sadness I can only dimly feel so caught am I in my own contemplations. And yet, I can feel another’s sadness as their sadness, affecting me in my own being, while not perceiving their world and their duration. One does not become ‘oneself’ by living as this or that normative being imposed from without but from which one always differs. Identity is not difference from, nor a negative becoming in which one destabilizes or subverts a given norm. Rather, identity is distinct but unclear; each being is distinctly individuated by being composed of only its own encounters and affections, and yet one feels certain of those affections clearly (my own sadness) and others dimly (your sadness).
This, in turn, has consequences for the politics of images and its problems. It is not a question of either creating images that would be less stringent in their production of norms, or of producing an active, critical, and negative relation to images. On the contrary, micropolitics and schizoanalysis regard any image as ensouled, composed of thousands of affections. Every normative image—such as the ‘mommy-daddy-me’ of Anti-Oedipus—is not imposed upon an otherwise radically open or undifferentiated life in general. The image does not impose difference on disorder, but covers over distinction with generality. The Oedipal ‘daddy’ is made up of racial, historical, sexual, and political desires. And it is here we can discern another mode of passive vitalism, one in which forces not of the subject are not taken up and reactivated, but contemplated in their power to destroy subjective syntheses and coherent, as opposed to articulated, identity. We recognize the force of the Oedipal triangle—still, today, with repeated emphases on family values. Rather than negate the image we open up its souls and contemplations—how the figure of the good work-at-home mother is possible because of a series of mid-twentieth-century technologies creating the modern household, and because of civil rights battles granting women identity and one universal gender regardless of race. The twenty-first century television series Mad Men at once presents perfectly Oedipalised individuals, but does not posit some rebellious ‘becoming’ against the images of familial life but instead displays life as a war of images, as a field in which bodies create and are created by perceptions of other bodies. Such twenty-first century works would seem to be post- or counter-modern in their refusal of the grand gesture of modernist refusal. Art is not the distanced negation and fragmentation of images but the proliferation of images, showing that social fields are not stereotyped or negated by mass-produced images, but emerge from images. There is not a self above and beyond the fixity of the image, for the self is a thousand tiny images. But there is one way in which Mad Men continues a modernism of passive vitalism, in which the image industry is not countered by a more active and willing life, but opens out onto more and more images. Of course, one way of reading Mad Men is to see gender and sexuality as performed; the series would denaturalize the Oedipal family and capitalist individual by demonstrating all the ways in which the self does not have an identity prior to performance. The central character—Don Draper—takes on his proper name and identity after being mistaken for another individual during the war, and he goes on to live his life as Draper by performing the role of father, husband and wage-earner. But the series’ setting of advertising agencies and the emergent tele-visual culture marks a subtle difference: selves do not occur through subjection to images from which they posit themselves as having been. Selves are warring images: the battle on the television screen to establish a brand or mark as desired is coupled with selves as images at war, including the war between older models of familial gender, and emergent images of gender as allure, as resistance, as becoming. Advertising deploys the images of freedom, choice, self-fashioning and unique identity in order to create territories of viewers. This way of reading contemporary image production allows us to look back at modernism and read its texts in terms of passive vitalism: selves are relations to images, perceptions, and temporal intervals between desire and desired, and this would be different from performativity, where the self is always at odds with the various voices and roles that she takes up.
D.H. Lawrence’s prose, often criticized for privatizing or mystifying class politics by presenting social relations in terms of sexuality, can be seen as the creation of just such a sociopolitical field. The Oedipal triangle, in Sons and Lovers for example, opens out onto a social field. The mother turns her affections to the son precisely because she is disenchanted with the limited education, worn spirit, alcoholism, and resentment of her miner husband. The son, in turn, perceives other women through the figure of his mother, but again in a broadly political field: the cramped and restricted world of his first lover, Miriam, emerges from a desperately declining rural mining milieu, where marriage is the only form of possible social expansion (and where the son sees his mother as similarly folded into a field of historical, social, and class restrictions); the more educated and expansive world of the son’s other lover, Clara, is tied to a bourgeois marriage market. But Lawrence is more than a sociological writer who ties the personal and sexual to the political; he also transforms the very style and syntax of literary point of view to create a mode of perception that is neither sexual (in some private and personal psychological sense) nor political (where self-sufficient bodies relate to each other in some community or polis).
Similarly, in Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake,’ the observing voice is all too human, feeling himself invaded or overtaken by desires to destroy or master the animal; but alongside the affects of the human, there are also counter-affects that allow the snake to be viewed as noble, stately, more alive than the body of speech and reason. The poem presents a composition of competing perceiving selves in the one speaking body; this fracture is not a negation of the self, but its expansion. Directly thematizing the relation between human and animal, ‘Snake’ relies not on the fragmented and juxtaposed quotations and allusions of Pound’s modernism, but on an encounter between two temporalities or durations expressed at the level of form and content.
If active vitalism presents a field of parataxis that must presuppose some absent cause that, as Deleuze and Guattari observe, ‘acts but is not’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 213), Lawrence maintains an ‘I’ viewpoint that is a localization of received impressions and affects. But the ‘I’ is not only contrasted in terms of content with the snake, it also yields to stylistic poetic variations. According to Deleuze and Guattari, we can distinguish between form of content and form of expression. Not only does this allow us to think about the relations of bodies and the relations of language; it also gives Deleuze and Guattari a way of describing the ‘higher deterritorialization,’ which occurs when a work of art renders the relation between form of content and form of expression undecidable.
Lawrence’s poem begins with propositions that describe the snake as a subject completing actions: ‘A snake came to my water-trough.’ The snake is contrasted with the I as observing subject: ‘I came down the steps with my pitcher / And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me’ (217). The ‘before me’ that concludes that lengthy line of verse (a line that itself ‘waits’) gives two senses to ‘before.’ The snake is ‘before me’ temporally: its presence imposes a sense of another duration. The snake is also ‘before’ the ‘I’ spatially. We are given a spatial proximity of two bodies, with an intense temporal distance. The snake is described with adverbs and adverbial phrases: ‘softly,’ ‘silently,’ ‘vaguely,’ ‘dreamily,’ ‘slowly.’ The ‘And’ that frequently begins the poem’s lines ties the form of expression to the form of content. Because the observing ‘I’ increasingly finds himself captivated by the snake’s movement, desire, duration, and milieu, his waiting is expressed not in a syntax of subordinate clauses and consequences, but simple connectives: ‘And I like a second comer, waiting.’ Giving us a ‘second coming’ of the ‘I’ that is radically counter-messianic (for the second coming here is one of being late, redundant and without revelation), the poem begins to open up the field of the human: to be this highest point of evolution, progress, and rational development is to come second, to be without any existential priority; it is to be belated. Thus, instead of regarding the human—with its expansive point of view, instrumental command of nature, and subjective self-awareness as a point of culmination towards which life is directed—‘Snake’ moves in the opposite direction. The snake is ‘one of the lords / Of life’ (219) whose earth is ‘secret’ (218); the animal opens onto a time and sense well beyond the ‘I.’ The poem describes a waiting where the ‘I’ arrives at ‘my’ water trough, only to be dispossessed by an intrusion which is perceived in a double sense. On the one hand, the human milieu regards this animal as an interfering body to be eliminated. Education, action (described as ‘paltry’ ), human voices (that are ‘pett[y]’ ), myth, and even masculinity pull the ‘I’ towards command and destruction: ‘And voices in me said, If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off’ (218). At the same time, and on the other hand, another aspect of the ‘I’ is drawn away from itself towards a fascination with or perception of, not the self-awareness and active mastery of the human, but the snake’s divinity that lies in a not seeing, in a godliness of being ‘adream’:
It is the snake who becomes one of the ‘lords / Of life,’ who is ‘like a king, / Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld.’ The description of the snake as ‘like’ a king, or as one who ‘seemed’ like a king, draws attention to the event of encounter as perception: another duration appears, yet remains—like the snake writhing back into the earth—always hidden, secret. At the level of form of content, the poem takes two bodies—snake and human—with the snake presenting itself as secret, hidden, unselfconscious, and vital precisely because of its radical passivity, its distinction from the ‘I’ viewpoint’s ‘horror’ at that which cannot be brought beneath its own command. At the level of form of expression, the poem oscillates between a poetic voice of a reflective ‘I’ that recognizes itself as a fragment of a history and humanity of domination—‘I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education’—and another that in its fascination can follow movements, allowing an affect (‘horror’) to become the grammatical subject:
Both at the level of expression, where the grammatical ‘I’ recognizes its own limits precisely insofar as it is self-aware and human, and at the level of content, where the poem describes the encounter between the time of human history, burdened with myth and education, and the duration of a snake that forces us to wait, Lawrence’s poem expresses a passive vitalism that is also positively queer. It is not the critical negation of man but the intuition of other durations that can open up a genuine event of encounter. (Queerness is neither the anti-normative, simply different from the dominant, nor is queerness the reiteration of the norm to achieve destabilization: queerness occurs in the encounter between two disjunct temporalities.) This is neither an event of recognition, nor of defamiliarization. The inhuman, or the powers of time and movement that do not serve recognition and command, are expressed here as a certain capacity to live the earth not as one’s own. The snake’s earth is a ‘dark secret’: not a matter or ground that we synthesize in order to recognize ourselves as subjects of truth, nor is it a milieu or world that is given in terms of some meaningful horizon of projects. The ‘I’ finds itself to be a second coming in a negative sense, as one who can only perceive from afar what it might be to live without a commanding and educated past, without the imperatives of recognition: how might one live if one could free oneself from the conditional: ‘If you were a man’? Such a question is answered positively by a perception of the animal as another style of perception and duration and one of the lords of life in its liberation from mastery.
- When Giorgio Agamben writes of the need to ‘return thought to its practical calling’ as part of the project to retrieve the political, he at once betrays the thoroughly proper notion of politics as emerging from creative action; at the same time he also laments a present in which the becoming of politics through speech and praxis becomes attenuated in managerial systems of biopolitics that will regard life as being nothing more than mere matter for political proceduralism. Agamben’s (1993) ‘coming community,’ which would break with present states of bureaucratic management, retrieves the active praxis of becoming and potentiality that had always been (rightly, he argues) foregrounded in premodern political theories, but that have been occluded with the modern attention to mere life; such potentiality, he continues in Homo Sacer, might (finally) be freed from all taints of becoming oriented to some proper actuality, some orienting end.
- In his Ethics, Alain Badiou contrasts the act of the subject over culturally relativist claims to identity. Badiou is highly critical of a world in which ‘ethics,’ rather than affirming the capacity of subjects to seize events that are not already calculated within modern procedures, appears to do nothing more than save human beings from becoming victims. While he presents his work as at once a radical break with metaphysical affirmations of an ultimate ground or ‘One,’ he also ties his thought to what he deems to be a philosophical tradition of truth and universalism, which can neither be reduced to facts, nor decided once and for all, nor located in any domain other than that of the act. Whatever else it is, ethics cannot be that which follows from nature: from Plato to Kant and Badiou, the good is not an object from which action follows. Rather action can be ethical only if it decides the good from itself.
- One of the ways in which modern art has been defined and celebrated has been in its radicalization, renewal, or destruction of convention; but this ‘making new’ is linked closely with ethical and political celebrations of difference and becoming. If scientific and technological procedures reduce the world to so many already quantified, lifeless, circulating, and mechanistic units, it is the task of art to reawaken the subject to the world not as so much mere matter but as that which is given to the subject through syntheses that art will reanimate. According to a lazy received reading of Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the republic, the philosopher rejects the secondary and mimetic qualities of art in favour of the originary ideas of reason; even here, though, there is a privilege of all the features that will mark art and the aesthetic. It is art, in its proper mode, that yields form in its original, creative mode of becoming; it is scientific language that is passively received and manipulated for efficiency. The valorization of art as the active bringing into being of form goes back at least as far as Plato, for it is the sophists who merely manipulate terms in contrast to Socrates, who will form himself as an active character through dialogue (see Nehamas). When art is devalued—as that which is passively received—it is always in favor of an art of active creation, dialogue, and becoming.