Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    5. Queer Vitalism

    This essay is about vitalism and the apparent ethical urgency of returning to the problem of life. This urgency of the turn to life, I will argue, far from being a recent, radical and necessarily transgressive gesture, has always underpinned (and presupposed) highly normative gestures in philosophy, literature and cultural understanding. Indeed, the very notion and possibility of the normative, or the idea that one can proceed from what is (life) to what ought to be (ways of living) has always taken the form of vitalism. For the purposes of this essay, then, I will define vitalism as the imperative of grounding, defending or deriving principles and systems from life as it really is. (This is why many post-human or anti-biopolitical models can be vitalist: it is life beyond humans, or life beyond the bourgeois subject of production, that is often appealed to in order to open a new horizon.) From this it follows that there will be two forms of vitalism, for there are two ways of understanding this notion of ‘life as it really is’. For the most part ‘life as it really is’ is defined through actual life: here, vitalism begins from living bodies (usually human, usually heterosexual, usually familial) and then asks what it means to live well. We could refer to this, following Deleuze and Guattari, as an active vitalism because it assumes that ‘life’ refers to acting and well-organized bodies. However, there is another way of understanding ‘life as it really is,’ and this is to align the real with the virtual. For Deleuze and Guattari this leads to a passive vitalism, where ‘life’ is a pre-individual plane of forces that does not act by a process of decision and self-maintenance but through chance encounters.

    By understanding life as virtual we no longer begin with the image of a living body, and are therefore able to consider forces of composition that differ from those of man and the productive organism. Those queer theories that account for the self as it is formed in the social unit of the family (with the self taking on either male or female norms) fail to account for the emergence of the self and the genesis of the family; in so doing they remain at the level of the actual and of active human agents. Passive vitalism is queer, by contrast, in its difference and distance from already constituted images of life as necessarily fruitful, generative, organized and human. It is not just different or distortive of those images, but comprises a power of imaging that is not oriented to the eye of recognition, the eye that views the world according to its own already organized desires. For this reason such a vitalism would also have implications for aesthetics, especially if aesthetics is understood as a consideration of sensations. Indeed, it would reverse the relation between perceiving body and synthesized sensations. On an active vitalist account the subject synthesizes a world according to its own point of view, and then is able to reflect upon that synthesizing activity when artworks draw attention back to the world-forming power. A passive vitalism would be queer in its transformation of how we understand the work of art, perhaps less as work—as that which would expose the subject’s formative capacities—and more as monument. On a passive vitalist account there would be qualities or powers to be sensed from which something lie a body that senses would emerge, a body being formed through the sensual forces it encounters.

    For Kant, the work of art is to be judged only in its capacity to enliven the subject’s capacity to give order and synthesis to the world. Beauty is the experience of intuited material as perfectly harmonious with the subject’s conceptualizing or forming powers, while the sublime refers to an experience that allows the subject to feel its own striving for form and order. The work of art returns us to the subjective and constituting power from which the lived world unfolds. This emphasis on art as disclosing the active power that originally forms the world as this meaningful world for ‘us’ is maintained in all forms of post-Kantian aesthetics that take us back to the structure, language or matrix that gives sense to ‘our’ world. This would include queer theories of performance or defamiliarization that seek to present the performance of gender as performance, allowing the active body to appear as that which becomes through its own self-forming actions.

    (At Least) Two Vitalisms, Two Histories, Two Philosophies

    In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari argue for a tradition of passive vitalism (beginning with Leibniz and extending to Ruyer) which counters the dominant tradition of vitalism, which runs from Kant to Claude Bernard:

    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)

    Before looking in detail at what the aesthetics of such a passive vitalism might be, and how such an aesthetic might open a way of thinking beyond modernist norms of art, we would do well to define the dominant vitalism mentioned in the above quotation that ‘acts but is not.’ Deleuze and Guattari suggest that this vitalism begins with Kant. This would already make it different from the vitalism or normative figuration of life that has always been Western philosophy’s spontaneous gesture. We can discern a vitalist normativity in the very ethic of philosophy’s definition of itself against sophistry, dogma and opinion. Philosophy refuses to accept the ready-made and received judgments of gossip and chatter and instead strives to legitimate truth by tracing its genesis, whether that be from Platonic ideas clearly intuited, categories of universal reason, or by reflecting upon the subjectively constituted structure of the world. If language circulates without justification, or is repeated without an animating and intuiting intent that would ground what is said in an ongoing and truth-oriented experience, then language falls into an automatic, inhuman and merely technical repetition. The doctrine of Platonic Ideas is, after all, an ethical and political maneuver that would aim to ground assertions, identities and claims in an originating and animating force: the Idea which grants each being its proper form allows us to decide what any being is, and the ways in which it ought to become, according to its preceding and governing essence. [10] Not surprisingly, Neo-Platonism will render the vitalist potential in Platonic ideas more explicit. Neo-Platonism regards every being in this world as an emanation of the One, and in so doing neither detaches a world of matter from a divine transcendence, nor denies any being a full participation in holiness. In contrast with a strict Platonism, Neo-Platonism tends to suggest that the One is not above and beyond its emanations, but is given only through each of its expressions. Thus vitalism in its most general sense would be a commitment to the animation or spirituality of everything that lives, and would be contrasted both with forms of atomist materialism that reduced matter to that which operates only through mechanical and external relations rather than its own immanent force, and with Cartesianism, which separates mind from body, regarding the latter as devoid of any inner life.

    Both of these modes of vitalism—an anti-atomism and an anti-Cartesianism—were prevalent in the seventeenth century, and could often take on a quite revolutionary strain (Rogers 1996). Rather than seeing order as necessarily imposed from above on an otherwise chaotic and unruly world, vitalism granted each aspect of the world its own striving potential directed to order and relations. Against Cartesianism and the disenchantment of the world, modern vitalism drew on Neo-Platonism to argue for each being’s tendency towards the expression and fulfillment of the divine. It is possibly requisite to correct, then, one notion which dominates the history of ideas: that modernity is governed by a Cartesianism which places mind and matter as distinct worldly substances, seeing matter as operating mechanically and mind as being a power to represent and organize the relations of the rationalized matter. Instead, there is an (at least) equally prevalent continuation of an emphasis on the world’s immanent spirit, its striving towards the good, and the contribution of every living being in its difference and specificity towards the efflorescence of the whole. It is this expressivist tradition that Deleuze draws upon throughout his diverse corpus in his references to Leibniz and Spinoza. However, Leibniz and Spinoza stress a univocity—or one life—that expresses itself in both mind and body, rejecting any Cartesian substance that would be simply, distinctly or merely mechanical. For that expressivist tradition the world of distinct and separate entities flows from the one expressive life which becomes what it is only in its production of diverse and emanating bodies, all of which have their origin or true being only as expressions of a prior animating One. For Deleuze, though, this ultimately expressive virtual life does not provide a grounding unity, substrate or single substance but a power for differentiation. It is Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, who will radicalize the expressivism and univocity opened by Spinoza and Leibniz. The latter philosophers refused to posit any substantial distinction between emanating life and its dazzling array of expressions, but it was Nietzsche who regarded the emanating life as a plane of forces effecting itself through styles and dramas.

    We can make a first note towards the distinct contribution of Leibniz’s passive vitalism in contrast with the general doctrine of Platonic and Neo-Platonic emanation. Leibniz, like Deleuze after him, will not posit two distinct substances. For Leibniz, the reasoning, perceptive and ‘singing’ monad is what it is only in the passions, affections, and perceptions that it expresses. Reason, mind or spirit are not the same as matter, but the relations of material bodies are like the ground bass upon which each monad unfolds its own melody, each of which contributes to the overall harmonious symphony of the world. The world I perceive is the same world that you perceive, but our different perceptions unfold a different line of the infinite, each perception having its own zone of clarity. Whereas Neo-Platonic emanation posits each individual being as deriving from and expressing a One, Deleuze (like Leibniz) refuses to posit a unity that would be other than each perceiving and affected point of view; the world is just this multiplicity of viewpoints, each of which composes a truth of a whole that is nothing other than this expressive multiplicity. To refer to Deleuze as a Platonist in a de-realizing or unworldly sense—as a philosopher who wishes to overcome the gritty actuality of this world in favour of some mystical unity (Badiou 2000)—is to fail to take into account what I will refer to as the queer nature of Deleuze’s vitalism. Every body in this world is possible as an individual because it gives some form and specificity in time and space to a potential that always threatens to destabilize or de-actualize its being. This is what Deleuze refers to as real conditions of existence and allows us to think of his philosophy as offering a positive sense of queer being, or what Deleuze also refers to as ‘?being’ (Deleuze 1994). That is, in addition to the actual bodies that populate this world in time and space there is also the virtual plane that is thoroughly real and that is infinitely different; it exists in each body as its potential for variation, a potential that is actualized (but not exhausted) not by the decisions that body makes but by the encounters it undergoes.

    In concrete terms, to see what difference this might make for thinking about this world, we might begin by thinking of gender. Active vitalism, at least in the form that Deleuze and Guattari trace back to Kant, regards all concepts and categories as originally imposed by the subject upon an otherwise meaningless life. Active vitalism might regard gender as one of the ways in which life or the social ‘constructs’ categories that differentiate an otherwise general or undifferentiated humanity: the criticism of stereotypes (as clichés or rigid forms imposed upon life) would lead to an overthrow of rigid categories in favor of what we really are (as unique individuals) or would expose that there are no such things as individuals, only effects of gender as it is represented or performed. Genders and kinds are known in the vague and general opposition between male and female, distinctions that are imposed upon life and that need to be reactivated by being traced back to their social and familial origins. By contrast, for Deleuze and Guattari’s passive vitalism, genders, kinds and stereotypes are not categories imposed upon life that might be overcome or criticized in the name of a universal and self-aware humanity; instead, it is life as a multiple and differentiating field of powers that expresses itself in various manners. Differentiation is not a false distinction imposed on an otherwise universal humanity. On the contrary, every female is an individuated actualization of a genetic potential for sexual differentiation, and every aspect of that female body—ranging from chromosomal and hormonal composition to the stylization of dress and comportment—is one highly individuated way of actualizing a potentiality. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘becoming-woman’ could be read as a residual humanism in their work, as their attempt to keep some form of sexual identity in an otherwise post-human corpus: but if they say that ‘becoming-woman’ is the key to all becomings, and is a ‘key’ insofar as it opens out towards becoming-imperceptible, then this indicates that gender is a difference that needs to be more rather than less differentiated, moving towards a ‘thousand tiny sexes’ (Grosz 1993). Every woman is an actualization of a potentiality to be female, while the difference between straight and gay gives further specification or distinction, and this would continue on and on to the smallest of differences, marking out not only each body, but also all the events, souls and affections within bodies. There is, then, no opposition between sexual difference and queerness. And it is not the case that one would see a contradiction between affirming sexual difference, and also acknowledging that difference goes well beyond its human form. (Elizabeth Grosz’s position is perhaps the clearest form of this, at first puzzling, account of difference: it is at one and the same time legitimate to affirm the distinction of two sexes, and to argue for a sexual difference beyond humans and beyond binaries [Grosz 2011]). It is not the case that causes, such as feminism that would aim to affirm the possibility of women’s becoming would—as gender differentiated—be opposed to movements of queerness that would strive to liberate bodies from gender norms. The key to Deleuze’s passive vitalism and the aesthetics that it mobilizes lies in thinking difference beyond the kinds and generalizations of a politics of active vitalism. Whereas active vitalism would seek to return political processes to the will, intent and agency of individuals or subjects, passive vitalism is micro-political: it attends to those differences that we neither intend, nor perceive, nor command.

    Again, to return to a seeming tension between queer politics and gender politics, we might consider movements of trans-sexualism, cross-dressing and the politics of sexualities. On an active vitalist model the very identification of oneself as, say, ‘woman’ or ‘queer’ would be internally contradictory (even if politically radical or strategic). In order to achieve political recognition I must at once be recognized as this or that being participating in some movement of identifiable collective will, but I must also realize that the demand for recognition by way of the normative matrix compromises my claim as a subject. The vital, on this model, is the spirit or subjective act that is always belied or compromised by actuality. It follows, then, that there would be a conflict between the vitality of political claims and the intrinsic compromise of political actuality. It also follows that those selves who would embrace certain kinds or distinctions—men who want to be regarded as naturally homosexual, women who want to be recognized as masculine, and bodies who regard their individuation as possible only outside or beyond gay, lesbian or gendered kinds—would have competing and exclusive political agendas. What is presupposed is a distinction between the active enunciating self of politics—the active subject whose claims must be heard in opposition to normativity—and the enunciated or represented individual defined by sex, gender, sexuality or other terms such as race, ethnicity or belief. Such an opposition is captured in what Gayatri Spivak refers to as strategic essentialism: on the one hand we acknowledge that politics requires kinds or essences, but we also see such terms as the effect of strategies, or activist decisions made for the sake of political efficacy. Such a term creates an ongoing problem and contradiction for any political movement that undertakes an overthrow or revolution in terms of transgression, for acting in the name of a subordinated term must begin from the already determined and subordinated field of positions. Catherine Malabou has recently stated this problem in the following form: ‘the feminine’ provides a thought of difference beyond the simple generalizing logic of man and generic humanity, and yet—because of this—one would not want to align ‘the feminine’ exclusively or exhaustively to actual biological women (Malabou 2009). But what if there were a virtual and fully real femininity that expressed or actualized itself in woman, and that accounted for the biological and actual difference between men and women, but was not exhausted by that binary, allowing all the mutations, variations, differences and becomings among (and beyond) women? The thought of passive vitalism, or a vitality that exceeds bodies and their actions means that we can at once recognize difference among the actual entities of this world, acknowledging that these terms organize a broader potentiality that could also positively have yielded a different (but not just any) plane.

    The same problems and tensions apply to the tired dialectic between philosophies of rights on the one hand, and multicultural and racial political claims of difference on the other. That is: there are those who would defend a ‘subject,’ universalism or radicalism opposed to all constituted identities (and would therefore reject any multiculturalisms or relativism that merely allowed competing bodies to exist alongside each other). At the same time there are those who oppose any such appeal to the subject, philosophy or critique as such insisting that one only knows the subject as this or that specified, individuated and socially determined form. In the first mode of critique that opposes actualized terms to the subject’s constituting decision we could place Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, both of whom insist that there is no intuitable domain of life in itself, for being is just that void that is given only in its disappearance. But for every insistence on the subject as an absent power (known ex post facto) that must be inferred as that which gives birth to the decision there are also a range of political debunkers who regard such appeals to an originating act as one more ideological obfuscation or mysticism: all we have is an actual political field of determined bodies, always already given in terms of race, sex and gender. It is no surprise, perhaps, that today a series of ‘philosophers’ berate the ways in which multiculturalism (or the claim for difference) precludes an ethics of decision and the subject. For Alain Badiou subject events occur not through processes of inclusion and the allowance of any lifestyle whatever, but through acts that decide—with no prior justification in actuality—that a new situation has occurred; subjects are nothing other than such decisions (Badiou 2001). The entire possibility of ethics is not grounded on life and actuality, but on a subjective decision or break. Badiou’s ethics of the subject is ostensibly an anti-vitalism, insistently opposed to the grounding of political claims on some already existing actualization of being or life. But it is just the vibrancy of the subject’s difference from the world as already actualized, the radical distinction of the subject as negation of an already lived order that places Badiou in stark contrast both with the undifferentiated and generalizing inclusiveness of a weak multiculturalism that would seemingly appeal to differences among individuals, and the passive vitalism of Deleuze and Guattari who would regard the subject of identity politics and activism as not yet fully individuated. Far from seeing the subjective event as occurring in a break with the world of differences, as Badiou would do, and in a manner that is quite distinct from regarding the profusion of different cultures and bodies as the very force of life, Deleuze and Guattari put forward a vitalism that is neither that of the decision nor of the differentiated body. Their vitalism is passive in its attention to the barely discerned, confused and queer differences that compose bodies.

    Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that there is an active vitalism that one can discern in Kant alerts us to a long-running privileging of the decision and the re-awakening of the subjective act in the face of a fall into everyday normality and normalization. Active vitalism strives to overcome the imposed norms that reduce an individual’s autonomy, but also takes into account the vitality of traditions, cultures and practices that constitute bodies as individuals and agents in the first place; and form of theory that operates as a constructivism—whether it is art, language, society or culture (or Kant’s categories) that gives form to the world has the same problems as active vitalism. Life, for any form of active vitalism, is equivocal: there is the forming power on one hand, and that which is formed on the other. Because of this equivocity we are granted an immediate ethics or moralism: that which is formed ought not overtake the properly forming power; we should resist any passifying captivation or enslavement to what is not ourselves, and if we do grant life and worth to what is not ourselves (others, animals, ecology) it is only to the extent that these ‘others’ are granted the same vivifying power. A passive vitalism, by contrast, is one of re-singularization or counter-actualization: every differentiated political claim, whether that be in the name of the human, a sexualized or gendered individual, or a racial minority may begin with a molar politics, but has the potential to become minoritarian, and it is this potentiality of queering that is ‘properly’ vital. This is to say that the ‘property’ that marks queer vitality is an impropriety; what something is resides in its magnitude of deviation. We might say that becoming-woman is a queer predicate because it would be the capacity of what counts as ‘woman’ to enter into variation: it makes sense to have a category such as ‘becoming-woman’ because in addition to all the actual instances of women, one can imagine more and more difference and mutation. Marilyn Monroe was a successful icon, not because there could be Marilyn Monroe impersonators but because there could be a Madonna or a Lady Ga Ga (who repeated the Marilyn-effect, the power to make a difference in a style of becoming).


    Both vitality and queerness are crucial to Deleuze’s philosophy of individuation. First, vitality: a body is identifiable or individuated not because it takes the undifferentiated potentiality of life and then subjects itself to a norm. It is not the case, as Judith Butler would have it, that in the beginning is a radically undifferentiated becoming that can become an autonomous being only by being recognized as this or that generality in some social matrix (Butler 2005). Butler’s notion of the performative self is directly opposed to a simple active vitalism: there is no grounding and pre-social ‘sex’ which is then represented in language or signification. There is no subject or proper self who then acts and speaks; instead, in the beginning is the act or performance from which we conclude or posit that there must have been a pre-linguistic subject. Sex, then, is not some materiality or ground that issues in or is belied by gender; for it is only through gender that we can conclude that there must have been some instituting act. Further, and more importantly for Butler, genders or social norms cannot simply be removed or destroyed in order to reveal the true and real subject; a subject exists and has being only insofar as it is performed as a relatively stable and recognized social kind. And if the self is constituted as recognized then it requires some reference to the heterosexual matrix of normativity, even if it marks its own being as a negation, mourning or refusal of that matrix. For Butler, then, social differences are at once the means through which subjects are constituted as recognizable performing, speaking and acting selves; at the same time as the subject is also a potentiality for destabilization or unsure repetition of the normativity that is its founding condition. Queerness then lies in the difference between performance and performed; the social differences we recognize would be stabilizations or reifications of a performative power that is nothing other than the capacity to destabilize differentiated kinds:

    In this sense, if vulnerability is one precondition for humanization, and humanization takes place differently through variable norms of recognition, then it follows that vulnerability is fundamentally dependent on existing norms of recognition if it is to be attributed to any human subject.

    So when we say that every infant is surely vulnerable, that is clearly true, in part, precisely because our utterance enacts the very recognition of vulnerability and so shows the importance of recognition itself for sustaining vulnerability. We perform the recognition by making the claim, and that is surely a very good reason to make the claim. We make the claim, however, precisely because it is not taken for granted, precisely because it is not, in every instance, honored. Vulnerability takes on another meaning at the moment it is recognized, and recognition wields the power to reconstitute vulnerability. We cannot posit this vulnerability prior to recognition without performing the very thesis that we oppose (our positing is itself a form of recognition and so manifests the constitutive power of the discourse). This framework, by which norms of recognition are essential to the constitution of vulnerability as a precondition of the ‘human,’ is important precisely for this reason, namely, that we need and want those norms to be in place, that we struggle for their establishment, and we value their continuing and expanded operation. (Butler 2006, 43)

    Difference, then, is negative (Butler 2004A, 198): both the difference between kinds, and the difference from social kinds; but there is no difference in itself as some intuitable power.

    When Deleuze argues for a mode of passive vitalism he insists that life tends towards difference, creating further and further distinctions. This is so much the case that he follows Leibniz in seeing the world as composed of souls that descend infinitely. My body is a soul or monad because it is capable of perceiving and being affected in an absolutely singular manner: no other body has the same unfolding of time and space, the same perceptions and affections as mine. And within this body are a thousand other souls: a heart that will beat according to all the hormonal, nutritional, climactic and nervous perceptions it endures (and so on with every organ, and so on with every organ’s cells, and so on with every microbiological event). Far from a body being individuated through subjection to norms, a body is absolutely individuated above and beyond (or before) any of the generalizing norms that the laziness of common sense applies. This vitality is therefore essentially queer. The task of thinking is not to see bodies in their general recognizable form, as this or that ongoing and unified entity, but to approach the world as the unfolding of events. Take an encounter between two bodies: you, a straight man, consider your sexuality to be properly vital, contributing as it does to heterosexual reproduction. I, however, as a lesbian female regard my sexuality as properly vital: not subjected to rigidifying norms of biological reproduction, I am capable of creating myself in ways far more imaginative and varied than any social norm might dictate. The dispute between two such bodies would concern a proper image of life (as biologically reproductive, or imaginatively productive) and would be disjunctive: either I answer to the norms of social reproduction as they exist, or I create other norms and ideals. And one could go on adding other bodies to this terrain: I might be a gay man, assured that my homosexuality is genetically determined, or a trans-gendered individual considering myself to be capable of living a gender while maintaining a sex. One could see such a dispute as devolving upon just how we determined the relation between life and norms: either we regard life as having a genetic reality that would determine sex regardless of social performance, or would see social performance as the determining and decisive force that makes possible any individual body. Determining sexual political disputes in this way—as rejecting the norm of the heterosexual nuclear family but doing so in favor of some more radical determining force—merely substitutes one normative image of life (familial, productive) for another (genetic, socially constructed, performatively constituted). Either life is and ought to be oriented to reproduction, or life is capable of variation, or there are genetic determinants that preclude a realm of pure decision.

    What such a way of thinking depends upon is what Deleuze and Guattari (1983) diagnosed as an exclusive use of the disjunctive synthesis: either one subjects one's desire to social norms or one falls back into the dark night of the undifferentiated. They opposed this transcendent, exclusive and illegitimate use to their own immanent, inclusive and vitalist disjunctive synthesis. Here the relations between terms are neither exclusive (either male or female, either social/political or genetic, either real or constructed) nor transcendent (where such terms organize and differentiate life, and do so on the basis of some grounding value, whether that be genetics, reproduction, liberty or the human). That is to say, we could argue that queer politics in one of its dominant forms remains committed to a transcendent and disjunctive use of the synthesis and is therefore profoundly Oedipal: either you recognize yourself as a being within the familial order of male-female or you risk falling into psychosis. It is the family as the basic unit that also relies on an active vitalism: in order to become individuated ‘we’ must recognize ourselves as part of a symbolic order, for we have no self or being outside the human and self-governing world of father-mother-child, and political action must proceed from a desire that begins, initially, from a relation between self and other that can then open onto a broader political field of historical, racial and social forces. Judith Butler, for example, reads Antigone’s rebellion against the State as at once familial, negative and activist: the very possibility of making a claim, of speaking and being heard, requires that Antigone be situated as a sister and daughter, but it is just that positioning that is rendered negative, impossible and activist by Antigone’s speaking for the claims of her brother. She at once speaks as a familial subject, dutifully promising to bury her brother, while also negating or perverting that subjectivity, by speaking against her father who would refuse her that sibling bond: ‘If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws’ (Butler 2000, 82). One could extrapolate from here, as Butler does, to the structure of political speech in general: in order to speak and be recognized I must be situated in a social body, but ‘I’ have being only in my negation or queering of that recognized normativity. The subject is active when it takes up, and then destabilizes or negates, a norm that is at once its condition for being and its condition for not being. To be is to be disobedient, acting and speaking only within the frame of a presupposed obedience against which one is defined:

    The claiming becomes an act that reiterates the act it affirms, extending the act of insubordination by performing its avowal in language. This avowal, paradoxically, requires a sacrifice of autonomy at the very moment in which it is performed: she asserts herself through appropriating the voice of the other, the one to whom she is opposed; thus her autonomy is gained through the appropriation of the authoritative voice of the one she resists, an appropriation that has within it traces of a simultaneous refusal and assimilation of that very authority. (Butler 2000, 11)

    Like Freud, Butler’s conditioning matrix of obedience or subjection is familial (even though she uses the ambivalence of one’s familial relations to argue for a necessary mourning and melancholia in one’s object choice); to take on a gendered body as one’s object choice both creates one’s own sexuality in relation to an other, and entails a renunciation of other gendered and sexual potentials.

    For Butler the socio-political world extends from the initial coordinates of the family. Deleuze and Guattari reverse this order; the Oedipal family is not the frame from which the self moves out into the political world, and the political world is not sexualized on the basis of the family (the king or president is not a father figure). Rather, there is an initial collectively sexual field, a group investment in a body—such as the despot who terrorizes the social field through public displays of sexual excess and consumption—and from that broad sexual field there is a gradual contraction to the modern nuclear family, the father coming to stand in for the larger historical figures of history. The gender binary, considered in terms of the young child either lining up on the male or female side of the divide, is not a differentiation of a pre-Oedipal indifference, but the diminution of far more complex differences: how did all the complex figures of race, history, myth, spectacle and politics come to be contracted onto the either/or of the male father or female mother? Deleuze and Guattari insist on a schizoanalysis that sees the family as a stimulus for historical political coordinates, and sees the ‘global persons’ of the family as possible only through a process of historical, political and racial contraction. The father is not the basis from which the political figure of the king, the despot or the dictator is extrapolated; on the contrary, it is only possible for us today to understand ourselves as individuated through our relations to our mothers and fathers because an entire history of domination has increasingly displaced its complex, political and collective desires onto private familial images.


    For Deleuze and Guattari, schizoanalysis reverses this process: we need to see the ways in which our seemingly familial and Oedipal conditions—the child constituted as a gendered individual in a family dynamic—is a compression of historical and political forces. In practice this would require opening any relation among bodies to the historical, political, ‘micro’ and vital (or infinitely small) potentials from which they are composed. The attention shifts from persons and norms, to the thousands of souls from which we are effected. So, the heterosexual man who defends his being on the basis of reproductive norms only lives and feels this normativity because his body is composed of passions, affections and orientations which it is the task of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘schizoanalysis’ to break into its various components. We would need to analyze the composition of each of ‘man’s’ defining souls: images of the nuclear family, which have a figurative (Christian, bourgeois, popular science) dimension; notions of life which are also inflected by theology (‘be fruitful and multiply’); political discourses (the family as economic unit); and racial notions of man as the rational, democratic and white individual towards which all human civilization is ‘progressing.’ In order to form some notion of ‘the human’ one needs to take all the capacities for genetic variation and assume some underlying unity. This ‘man in general,’ according to Deleuze and Guattari is achieved historically and politically by unifying complex differences into some single figure. The same applies to ‘woman,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘trans-sexual’ or—in some cases—‘queer.’ If the latter term denotes a group of bodies who seek recognition on the basis of their relation to, or difference from, other bodies then ‘queer’ forms a majoritarian mode of politics: a political force that reduces difference for the sake of creating a political subject group. If, however, ‘queer’ were to operate vitally it would aim to signal the positive potentialities from which groups were formed: there could only be lesbian women because certain differences are possible (such as sexual difference, and difference in orientation), but that would then lead to further and further difference, not only to each individual but within each individual.

    Minoritarian politics moves in the opposite direction from recognition and aims to maximize the circumstances for the proliferation and pulverization of differences. In terms of policy and representation this would have concrete consequences: one would not strive to attain a representative polity—include more women and gays in parliament—but would see politics not as representation (of women’s issues, gay rights, minority values), but as mobilization. What processes could operate in the absence of any ideal image, figure or grouping of human normativity?

    As a concrete example, we might look at reproductive rights, and the question of whether same sex couples should be allowed access to IVF or other forms of assisted reproduction technologies. One way of approaching this would be through rights, access and—perhaps—broadening notions of what counts as a family. Such an approach could also take into account pragmatic considerations about distribution of resources, the quality of life for children of same-sex couples given the prevailing norms, and might also have to deal with the competing rights of religious and ethnic groups. ‘Queer’ in this context would count as one variable among others, and questions of life would be considered in terms of relations among persons: how do we compare and negotiate the competing demands for, and quality of, various notions of what counts as a good life? How do we balance the claims of one group—those bodies who affirm their right to be queer—with another, such as those Christian agencies who have requested exemption from equal opportunity law when it comes to dealing with adoption by gay couples? How do spiritual rights compete with sexual rights? Such questions and problems negotiate interests, already constituted political positions that mark out and, according to Butler, enable political agency. By contrast, a Deleuzo-Guattarian approach would consider life beyond the concept of the person, and would therefore define its vitalism as queer, as having to do with all those potential differences that exceed and infinitely divide each body. Desire, Deleuze and Guattari insist, is both pre-personal and necessarily revolutionary; so one would take any political interest such as the demand by a gay couple for a child, and then look at its multiple constituting desires. These may be in part revolutionary—a destruction of the family unit as the sole site for reproduction, a refusal of the norms of social recognition, and even an affirmation of life beyond one’s own body—but also in part reactionary, in the desire for inclusion in the social field as it currently is, in the maintenance of the family, now as a sexually diverse unit of social production, and in the racial commitment to one’s own kind. Desire is essentially revolutionary precisely because it is the force from which social relations emerge; even if all social forms emerge from desire, desire also exceeds the systems that it has generated. We may have a fascist body politic because desire has been captivated by the body of the leader, but those same desires—as desiring—are not exhausted by the body they have invested. Even when desires are reactionary—such as the racial deliriums that underpin the manifest political interest of having a child of one’s own—they are nevertheless distinct from the social machine that takes up those desires into its own workings. To say, as Deleuze and Guattari do, that we are composed of a thousand tiny sexes is to place race, politics, history and sexuality within, not between or among, individuals. Any body’s desire, and therefore its relation to other bodies’ desires, is composed of multiple and divergent series. My relation to other sexes may have familial determining points; one might relate to something like ‘masculinity’ through the image one has of one’s father. But every father, in turn, presents a certain racial, economic, political and sexual complex. The father who comes home complaining about all the migrants who have taken away his employment, all the single mothers who are destroying the welfare system, who then treats his successful upwardly mobile son with resentment, while fearing his daughter’s relation with her black schoolmate gives the child an entire racial-cultural-economic field through which sexuality is negotiated.

    There is no such thing as ‘a’ life, or if there is it is sub-individual for we are composed of many lives; and a vitalist queer politics is a micro-politics that negotiates the multiple affections and attachments that compose any field. We would have to add to any consideration of same-sex couples and reproductive rights a critical approach to family as such: questioning the prima facie value of a child of one’s own, of family units, of reproductive medicine as a form of bio-capital. The same would apply to any issue of queer politics, which ought not be considered as a negotiation among competing political groupings, nor as a ‘pragmatic’ relation between the necessary accession to norms and the desire for autonomy.

    Micropolitics is a form of pragmatism insofar as it focuses on life, but this is a life of passive vitalism where we attend to all the minor, less than human, not yet personalized desires that enter any field of social relations. Desire is not, as it is in the Kantian tradition, the capacity for an individual to bring what is not already actual into being; desire is pre-individual. It is because there are desires—pre-human desires, such as the genetic, political, social, biological, metabolic and fantasmatic forces that enter into relation—that individuals are formed (and this includes individual humans, as well as individual social systems.) A post-Kantian form of pragmatism would negotiate the social field accord to competing desires and interests of individuals: on the one hand we recognize social groups by granting rights (such as marriage or reproductive rights to same-sex couples); but on the other hand, we negotiate the contingency and force of the rights tradition, or the ways in which Western conceptions of rights enable political and colonial hegemony. If pragmatism refers questions of truth and right back to the life that is maximized and enabled, the pragmatism of micro-politics considers the lives of which we are composed. This different passive form of pragmatism would not refer claims back to competing interests but would de-compose claims, looking at the forces from which they are composed: how is desiring a child or a marriage possible, what social, political, sexual, fictional, genetic, institutional forces do marriage and reproduction entail. We would need to take something as general and majoritarian as the right to reproduction and look at the desires from which it is composed, some of which would be ‘sad’ or reactive (my desire to be like every other normal family, and which diminish my power by referring my body to what it is not yet and may never be); but other components would be joyful (if I imagined an other life as creating potentialities beyond my own imagination, perhaps also compelling me to feel different affects beyond those of autonomy and self-management). Every body is queer, not because there is no body that actually attains the ideal embodied in any norm (say, where there is no woman who fulfills the figure of ‘woman’); rather the queerness is positive. No body fully knows its own powers, and can only become joyful (or live) not by attaining the ideal it has of itself—being who I really am—but by maximizing those potentialities in ourselves which exceed the majoritarian, or which are not yet actualized. Counter-actualization or re-singularization takes bodies as they are, with their identifying and determining features, and then asks how the potentials that enabled those features might be expanded. If I identify myself as having a certain gender or sexuality then I can either regard this (in active vitalism) as a form of strategic essentialism, where I decide to adopt an identity for the sake of political efficacy while remaining aware that who I am as a subject is radically different from any identifying term; or (as in passive vitalism) I would recognize that gender, sex and other defining features emanate from histories, passions and relations that I have not lived but which might be retrieved:

    For if every individual is distinguished from all others by its primary singularities, the latter fall short of extending themselves as far as the primary singularities of other individuals, according to a spatiotemporal order that makes the ‘subdivision’ of an individual be continued into the nearest subdivision and then into the subdivision following that, all the way up to infinity. The comparative extension and intensity of these subdivisions—favored zones that belong to each monad—even allow species of monads or souls to be divided into vegetal, animal, human or angelic traits, ‘an infinity of degrees in the monads’ in continuity. (Deleuze 75)

    From the position of passive vitalism one would need to look at the composition of bodies as themselves encounters. Deleuze’s book on Leibniz cites a seemingly politically and sexually neutral example:

    I hesitate between staying home or going out to a nightclub: these are not two separable objects, but two orientations, each of which carries a sum of possible or even hallucinatory perceptions (not only of drinking but the noise and smoke of the bar; not only of working but the hum of the word processor and the surrounding silence[…]). And if we return to motives in order to study them for a second time, they have not stayed the same. Like the weight on as scale, they have gone up or down. The scale has changed according to the amplitude of the pendulum. The voluntary act is free because the free act is what expresses the entire soul at a given moment of its duration. (Deleuze 2006, 79)

    A body at a desk is at once composed of inclinations towards a drink in a club (anticipating the hum of the surrounds, the coolness of the drink, the conviviality of the atmosphere) competing with the desire to continue writing (the anticipated sense of a job done, the interest in solving a problem). What is required in such a situation is a ‘differential calculus’ for it will always be the smallest imperceptible inclinations that lead to a decision one way or the other. The same idea can be extended politically. Our sympathies, affects, desires and acceptances as social and political beings are composed of micro-perceptions that barely come to awareness. It is true that for the most part our desires follow the paths of least resistance, perhaps accepting what has always been deemed to be acceptable; but at some point the souls rise up: cortisol and seratonin levels rise and suddenly Rosa Parks refuses to sit at the back of the bus. What had been actual and what had been ‘our’ world is no longer all that one perceives or is affected by. One of the key ways in which Deleuze and Guattari see such counter-actualization coming into being is through art.

    The Aesthetics of Vitalism

    In many ways the link between art, vitalism and political renewal is rather tired and seems to run directly against everything that might be revolutionary in Deleuze and Guattari’s political theory. Particularly dominant in the broad understanding of Romanticism and modernism, vitalism appealed to a life force that would be capable of destroying or enlivening the reified categories of the understanding. Vitalism, in its Romantic and modernist modes was also an appeal to various forms of defamiliarization and impersonality. That is to say, for the purposes of everyday efficiency and action we cannot afford to live the intensity and complexity of life, and so we create concepts and languages to manage and diminish the forceful chaos of existence. Art, however, by using language or figures in unfamiliar or unworkable combinations can reawaken us to the creative force from which such systems emerged. In its Romantic form vitalism was active and subjective: whereas everyday understanding reduces us to being so many socio-political and atomized individuals, the work of art intimates a creative power or genius that is given only after the effect, intimating the subject who must have been the author of a synthesis. This was how Kant described beauty in nature, where the delight in form prompts us to posit some notion of design, even if that creating power is felt reflectively, rather than known. The work's harmonious order enables me to feel the concord between me as peceiving subject, and world perceived; reflecting on that feeling of order I recognize myself as one who does not merely (or passively) receive the world. I also feel myself as a world-forming power. This self that I feel is not my worldly bodily or identified self; it is the subject though whom all worldly forms are given. In modernism, the vital power that was reawakened by art was achieved through impersonality, with the work of art suggesting a creative spirit behind the created form—a spirit given only in its not appearing. Modernist uses of language, for example, broke with standard and easily consumed modes of syntax, and by the breaking of forms forced art consumers to create and order the received material, once again experiencing language and art as created rather than simply given. Such high modernist or Romantic modes of defamiliarization and renewal that would reawaken the creative force from which our lived world has been synthesized are essentially normalizing insofar as they refer back to the subjective or grounding conditions from which works must have emerged. These conditions can be retrieved, recognized and re-lived as our own. The human in general, or the transcendental subject, is just that spirit or power that must be felt, but not known, above and beyond any work of genius.

    By contrast, Deleuze insists on real and immanent conditions, and also on the virtual or vital, not as an active underlying ground but as a ‘swarm’ or chaos that, far from grounding or returning life to its animating power, deterritorializes life beyond any of the seemingly proper forms that we know. What I hope to demonstrate is that vitalism in its active form has dominated general concepts of the aesthetic at least since Kant. This active form of vitalism, which refers systems and identities back to a constituting power, is also highly normative: life has a proper trajectory towards fruition and the realization of its proper form; art is the process whereby deviations, failures or corruptions of the vital power may be retrieved and re-lived. Deleuze and Guattari’s passive vitalism, by contrast, challenges the idea of a single, unifying, productive and fertile life force whose proper trajectory is fruition, expansion and revelation. In a number of contexts Deleuze describes the deterritorializing vitality of life as ‘sterile,’ ‘divergent,’ ‘self-enjoying,’ and ‘surveying’. That is, the vital is not that which springs forth from itself to synthesize, unify and produce its world; it is receptive in its feeling of that which is not itself, often yielding nothing more than the isolated or punctuated affect of encounter.

    To summarize so far: there are two ways in which we might think about vitalism and personality, both of which involve dissolution. First, in the tradition of active vitalism personality is that which remains the same through time, allows us to be recognized as this or that individual being and which also (as socially enabling) is existentially or virtually disabling. I become human by subjecting myself to the system of recognition, but that same system belies my unique individuality. Personality, or recognizing oneself as human, is required and enabled by seeing oneself as an instance of humanity in general, but this requires a certain sacrifice or even mourning for one’s singularity or specificity. Kant insists that one must have a sense of one’s phenomenal personality but must also recognize a free noumenal, supersensible and moral personality that we cannot know or perceive but can only think after the event of decision. In contemporary discourses of the subject, such as Judith Butler’s, there is a similar ‘ex post facto’ logic of the subject—it is, as Deleuze and Guattari define active vitalism, a subject that acts but ‘is not.’ For Butler, one must subject oneself to enabling and recognizable norms. To be recognized by, and with, others requires some determined personality. But those necessary norms and figures of personhood are at odds with the act, performance or event that brings them into being. On this account, personhood comes into being through moments or decisions that are perceived only after the event as the outcome of a performance that must be posited as having been. We do not see, live or intuit performativity itself, only its effects. A politics and revitalizing imperative follows: do not be seduced by normativity. Recognize that the self who is performed and recognized is at odds with the less stable—one might say ‘queer’—vital self who acts (who ‘acts but is not’).

    I would suggest that this form of active vitalism, as critique and negation of norm, image, figure or stereotype is not only the dominant in theory, but also characterizes most of the approaches to selfhood in popular culture and public policy. That is, there is today a widespread suspicion regarding the passive reception or incorporation of images; indeed, we might even say that capitalism is just a continuous production of ‘images,’ a constant destruction of any definitive, transcendent or external quality in favor of an incessant process of newly consumable images. One is always defined, on the one hand, as either male or female, while also experiencing oneself as that consuming subject who is neither male, nor female: a unique subject as point of consumption. Against that negation of the image we could posit Deleuze and Guattari’s positive use of the conjunctive synthesis: I am girl and woman and lesbian and masculine and effeminate and ...; here the self is not some radical alterity before and beyond images but a potentiality to include, transform and vary all the races, sexes and peoples of history.

    In its active vitalist form the self is always, ideally, a purely formal principle of decision irreducible to any image. The good citizen is not seduced by rigid norms, does not passively allow himself to be imprinted by pre-given figures, and relates to social and representational systems critically. In policy, for example, governments increasingly express concern regarding negative and pernicious images, whether these concern the representation of the acceptability of certain practices—binge drinking, smoking, the sexualization of children—or the direct war on life-impeding images, or the image as life-impeding per se. In the UK, the Body Image Summit of 2000 sought to police the overly stringent body ideals imposed upon girls and women; this summit led to later campaigns to ban the promulgation of overly thin or ‘size zero’ models. The assumption that an image or model is a norm, or an image of what the viewer ought to be, is unquestioned; such an assumption relies upon a definition of the self as at one and the same time determined by the consumption of images, while properly being other than the generality of the image. Only if the representational and normative sphere is achievable by the bodies it organizes will we have a healthy body politic. If the model, ideal or imaged persona is radically at odds with actual bodies then individuals either diminish their own being through submission and subjection or are not recognized as subjects at all.

    What has been lost is the fictive, virtual or incorporeal power of the image: is it not possible to see a body of ‘heroin chic,’ of androgynous subtlety, or even childlike frailty not as an ideal self, but as ideals that float freely from actual bodies, varying the imaginative range of what counts as human. Would the problem then be not that body-images are insufficiently normal—not like real women—but are insufficiently queer, too close to actuality? One might imagine a higher degree of inclusion and disjunction, with more bodies that are increasingly less realistic, yielding more of a sense of the model or image as image/model, not as some active representation of a life that must know and recognize itself and always remain in command of the production of affects. The war on reified and passively-ingested images leads to, and presupposes, a vitalist ethical imperative that would aim to re-awaken the sense of the produced status of the image: one ought not regard any actuality—be that the heterosexual matrix or humanity in general—as a final or essential form. (Indeed there are no essences, only existence.) The true self is not the subject who is recognized so much as the act, performance, decision or ‘lived’ that is other than (although only known through and after) the norms which give it being.

    If this form of active vitalism demands a becoming-impersonal it does so only in recognizing that while we may require personality to live and speak socially and politically, we are always irreducible to (and other than) such ideals. This mode of active vitalism has specific consequences for activist politics, and results in a certain style of problem: where there is always an ‘on the one hand / on the other hand’ structure. The very notion of ‘queer’ is always a queering of some norm: on the one hand I say ‘no’ to normativity, while on the other hand I demand recognition from the very matrix of recognition whose system allows me to speak. This structure of compromise (or negation and recognition) also plays out in concrete issues: are demands for civil partnership (for example) ways of enlivening social bonds, or are such appeals for inclusion negations of one’s non-heterosexual status? Do movements of sexual or gender re-orientation inject an instability or performativity into the norms of male and female, or are we not seduced too easily into already defined gender roles? Such problems concern the degree of act in relation to the image: is our relation to the norm properly productive (introducing or exposing a potential deviation or queerness) or are we not, in remaining activist at the level of sex/gender/sexuality passively obedient to already constituted categories? Such a structure is theorized by Butler as a necessary acceptance of recognition and submission, alongside an instability or excitability internal to those very normalising procedures. But such structures are not unique to queer theory (a fact which should give us pause for thought: for Alain Badiou a subject is just this decision or event who breaks from an enumerated scene to institute a new mode of numeration. For Slavoj Žižek the subject is an impossible, barred, excluded and negative remainder that occurs in the failure of any image or object to capture desire.) By contrast, as I have already suggested, the Deleuzo-Guattarian approach differs in its very style of problem, which is not to interrogate the relation between body and norm according to the appropriate degree of its vitality (whether the relation really issues from a proper force of decision or is not further subjection). Instead of seeing the self in relation to perceived norms (a self which is defined as other than any of its perceptions), Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari make two key interventions.

    First, for Deleuze there are not bodies, selves or subjects who perceive, for the self is composed of perceptions, each of which is its imaging of other perceiving souls: the heart has its life by responding to the hormones, rhythms, flows and movements that create it as a point of view, while the body is at once a perception of all those barely perceived durations within, and the affectations that it encounters without. Instead of subject-norm relations, we deal with multiplicities and singular points: networks of perception and imagination that create points of view, and that can—at singular points—produce entirely different relations and configurations. Second, once bodies—all bodies—are no longer bodies with organs (the eye that sees in order to negotiate a world mastered by the hand, relating to other subjects through the voice of reason), we can take the image beyond organic and centered thinking to look at the power of micro-perceptions: not just the domain of body-images and imposed norms, but all those barely discerned perceptions that compose all images, and that exist and insist beyond the human.


    1. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze argues that there is a radical potential in Platonism—where Ideas are pure potentialities from which differentiated beings are actualized—that is lost in Aristotle’s criticism of Platonism. For Aristotle, rather than Ideas, it is categories which define each being; and these categories are referred back to a (human or at least subject’s) good sense and common sense that identifies common and repeatable features (Deleuze 1994). return to text