Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    9. How Queer Can You Go?

    no ‘gay liberation movement’ is possible as long as homosexuality is caught up in a relation of exclusive disjunction with heterosexuality, a relation that ascribes to them both to a common Oedipal and castrating stock, charged with ensuring only their differentiation in two noncommunicating series, instead of bringing to light their reciprocal inclusion and their transverse communication in the decoded flows of desire (included disjunctions, local connections, nomadic conjunction). (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 350)

    Consider a number of possibilities for what might count as a queer theory: the use of theory (any theory) to expose bias; the criticism of theories themselves for implicit biases; or, a re-description of theory that identifies its orientation as essentially queer. It is this last mode that I wish to pursue in this chapter, and will do so by looking at the ways in which the long-standing model of theoria as a distanced look or regard taken upon an object is intrinsically normalizing.

    Such a model of theory as the imposition of order and judgement on chaos via a transcendent norm of logic has been identified by a number of thinkers as having its origin in Platonism. John Protevi has identified this model as ‘hylomorphic’: the ordering of chaotic matter by an external and stable system of reason (Protevi 2001). Luce Irigaray has, following Heidegger, not only criticized the notion of underlying matter (as hypokeimenon) that is then rendered intelligent through representation as subjective (for then matter becomes what it ought to be through the perceiving subject’s act of knowledge); she has also identified such a notion of theory as phallogocentric. That which is other than the self is the medium through which the self comes to know and affect itself (Irigaray 1985). Perhaps the clearest critique of this notion of theoria comes from Martin Heidegger, who argues that the original experience of the world as unfolding and disclosing itself through a time of bringing-to-presence becomes covered over with the idea of ‘a’ logic that it is, eventually, the task of man to take up as that which renders thought correct and human (Heidegger 1998, 240). Rather than pursuing Heidegger’s own way beyond this forgetting of the unfolding of Being, I wish to pursue Gilles Deleuze’s reversal of Platonism. This is not because Deleuze manages to move further beyond Plato than Heidegger—rejecting Heidegger’s calls to dwelling, caring and attending to the four-fold—but because Deleuze returns to a higher Platonism (Deleuze 1994, 265).

    The reversal of Platonism, for Deleuze, is not the overcoming of a transcendent logic in favor of the primacy of lived experience, but an overturning of experience and the lived in favor of radically inhuman Ideas beyond judgment. This reversed or radical Platonism, I will argue, generates not only a new mode of theory, and a new relation between theory and sexuality, but also a new and positive notion of queerness: not as destabilization or solicitation of norms, but as a creation of differences that are no longer grounded in either the subject or generating life. To anticipate my conclusion: this would yield different ways of thinking about practices, and different ways of thinking about sexual identities. In the case of practices, rather than examining the actions of subjects against existing regulations—such as enquiring whether same-sex civil partnerships are a reconfiguration of norms or a submission to normality—we would look at the ways in which bodies enter into relations to produce events, events that transcend those bodies. To use Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase from Anti-Oedipus, ‘ask not what it means but how it works’: when faced with a practice try to determine its range of potentiality in the future, not its relation to the present system (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 206). In the case of sexual identities, rather than thinking of masculinity and femininity as constitutive norms to which bodies submit, we can see the ways in which bodies play with the ‘pure predicates’ of sexuality (Deleuze 1990, 186): in the case of trans-gender and trans-sexual bodies, such bodies may at one and the same time experience their bodies as female, dress as male, and have sexual relations with partners who are similarly ‘counter-actualizing,’ or enjoying sexuality in its ideal and inhuman form (Deleuze 1990, 238).

    If we think of normal theory as the establishment of a paradigm or norm for thinking which criticizes the unthinking absurdities, illusions and stupidities of everyday thinking, then Deleuze’s theory is, or aims to be, queer in its liberation from a normative ‘image of thought,’ while not being simply anti-normative (Deleuze 1994, 131). The task is not to disturb thought’s images of itself, but to think imaging as such, via a mode of theory that would detach itself from the lived. It does not follow, then, that such a queer theory would be a form of relativism, or the use of ‘a’ theory (Deleuze) by a group that takes itself to be the exemplification of liberating sexual practice. On the contrary, as a radical Platonism and a commitment to taking thought beyond itself to Ideas, Deleuze presents thought with the challenge of a radical transcendentalism. Before pursuing that option I want to explore the ways in which thought approaches the queer: how can thinking, from its base of norms and recognition (or what it takes itself to be), approach the queer?

    One could use theory to isolate and criticize biases and prejudices within putatively neutral positions and paradigms. Not only would there be nothing queer about theory, there would be no relation between theoretical paradigms and one’s political objectives. One could criticize heterosexual or normalizing assumptions from a liberal, deconstructive, communitarian or even psychoanalytic point of view. Liberalism, for example, defining itself ideally as a pure formalism devoid of any conception of the good life, would necessarily be opposed to any political or social system that discriminated against persons on the basis of some unacknowledged presupposition regarding personhood. [15] Deconstruction could, in turn, criticize such a liberalist ideal of pure formalism by arguing that there would always be an exemplary or privileged supplement in any system that could not be rendered transparent by the system. [16] It is possible to imagine this deconstructive orientation to metaphysics’ unthought or radically stylistic figurations as being of service to a politics that wished to expose normative and normalizing conceptions of the self at the heart of figures of supposedly ‘pure thought’. While psychoanalysis from its inception bears an originally normalizing bias, either by positing the Oedipus complex as the transcendental frame for the constitution of subjectivity, or the phallus as the signifier of presence, it can nevertheless be used against its own assumptions. Again, this would be possible only through a critical maneuver, where instead of placing a different notion of the body or subject at the heart of psychoanalysis, the queer theorist would open the genealogy of the psychic subject to permutations not recognized by the original heterosexual frame.

    The second possibility for queer theorizing would deploy the notion of queerness in a stronger sense, not only arguing that certain positions are narrowed by an overly normalizing conception of the subject or life, but would go on to point out the ways in which the very structure of a certain notion of theory was normalizing. One might contrast here, for example, the difference between Judith Butler’s early criticism of psychoanalytic Oedipalism with Deleuze and Guattari’s criticism of the Freudian subject. Butler accepts the structural premises of psychoanalysis—the constitution of the subject in relation to others, the fantasy frame of the self and the other’s body, the vicissitudes of the libido in relation to the structures of desire through which the self is constituted as human, and (most importantly) the originally subjected nature of the subject [17] : one becomes a self only through abandonment of potentialities not allowed by the heterosexual matrix. The subject necessarily exists in a relation of mourning, melancholia and negativity (even if that which the self mourns is constituted after the event and fantasmatically). For Butler, then, there is nothing intrinsically normalizing about psychoanalysis per se, and so a queer theorist can at one and the same time criticize and deploy Freud’s corpus. For Deleuze and Guattari, by contrast, it is that negative notion of desire and anxiety—the very structure of psychoanalysis as a theory—which remains tied to normalizing notions of ‘man’ (1983, 348). For Freud it is anxiety that effects repression: the subject, faced with a world of intensity and affect, must delimit and organize the libido into a state of equilibrium or constancy. We can see that notion of the very economy of desire in Butler’s work and its influence on queer theory; it is assumed that the becoming-human of the self occurs through a process of recognition that must necessarily abandon and repress desire’s more fluid potentialities.

    For Deleuze, the notion of theory that begins from the conditions for the possibility of a constituted and normative subject, is not only intrinsically bourgeois in its ideology of placing thought within a position of compromise and contradiction. It is also committed to a normalizing metaphysics (Deleuze 1994, 283–84). The psychoanalytic model of a pool of energy, which is then structured by attachments to desired objects—as opposed to an intensive life that harbors tendencies towards expansive and creative desires—can only produce the man of common sense and good sense. If subjects are understood as having been effected from a general and undifferentiated ‘life’, understood along the lines of nineteenth-century thermodynamics, then the relation between the queer and the normal would be entirely conventional. Were we to pursue a queer theory along these lines we would have to argue that queerness would operate as a criticism of presupposed but un-avowed norms. It is because there is a heterosexual matrix that constitutes and delimits subjective possibilities that we could pay attention to those modes of performance and enactment that disturbed normative structures. Our theory would not be queer, for we might well be in agreement with the general structure of subjects being constituted through social norms and structures; the queerness would lie in the attention we paid to those supposedly failed or extrinsic modes of subjectivity, to which we may accord a privileged transgressive value. Our approach would be queer only in its difference and distinction from effected models of the subject. Such a theory might also appear to be ‘posthuman’, for rather than beginning from the man of reason or the subject of phenomenology who synthesizes given experiences into some coherent whole, we would begin from a general pool of force, life or energy that—through action or performance—constitutes subjects. Those subjects may, through misrecognition and metalepsis take themselves to be originators of the act. Theory would set itself the task of demystifying such illusions of agency, demonstrating the ways in which everything begins with performance, act and relationality—the substance or true ‘sex’ of the subject being constituted ex post facto. (I will argue, in the sections that follow that this seemingly post-human theoretical approach remains entirely subjective, and still implicated in a highly normalizing ethics).

    In principle, then, it would be a mistake to use the term ‘queer theory’ to refer to the projects as I have outlined them so far, for what we would really be doing would be queer studies. Queer studies would be related to gay or lesbian studies, in its criticism of the assumed normality of heterosexuality, but would go beyond such identified groups to consider the fragility of identity and its excessive character in relation to what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘molar politics’. Queer studies might appear to be concerned with molecular or minor forms of politics: not the contestation of paradigms from the point of view of recognizable (even if marginalized) groupings, but the interrogation of constituted subjects from the point of view of a life or desire not yet identifiable as this or that specifiable form, a ‘people to come’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 106). Queer studies would be different, methodologically, from American Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies and so on insofar as ‘queer’ would not refer to a kind but might use various methods to inquire into the stability and instability of kinds. Rey Chow has already challenged notions of area studies according to the degree to which it makes such assumptions about various worlds or areas being available for purview, so it is quite possible that queerness or identity-instability goes beyond queer studies to ‘studies’ as such (Chow 2006). I would argue, though, that the true challenge of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought lies in its difference from critical models, and in its transformation of the ways in which we understand theoretical relations, and relationality in general.

    The third possibility would be not simply to challenge the norms that dominate a theory—for example interrogating psychoanalysis from within by isolating its unquestioned assumption of male-female relations—but would contest just what it means to theorize. Only then would our theory be queer; it would not be the use of theory for queer politics, nor would it be an interrogation of our theoretical premises or figures regarding implicit normative and normalizing assumptions. Instead we would shift the ‘image of thought’—mind constituted as an effected point within life—to thought without an image: would it be possible to think of the emergence of qualities, potentialities or Ideas that create an aleatory point? This would not be a position of judgment or critique, but a virtual line of sense. Mind would neither be the site from which synthesis emerges, nor the subject that would be created via the imposition of some subjecting system. Theory would not be the capacity of mind to step back from and reflect upon itself, but a capacity to map all the distinctions, separations and created strata of life, including the creation of various lines and powers of thought. If life can be thought of not as substance from which predicates are then differentiated, performed or effected, but as a plane of force that allows for the creation of relatively stable points, we can think of theory as the creation of a potential which is no longer the power of this or that aspect of life (this or that body) so much as the thought of the transcendental potentiality of life as such, life liberated from any normative image. This is why sexuality would come to the fore in the task of new modes of thinking and theorizing. One might say that the potentiality for queer theory has always haunted theory. Or, one might say that theory has always tended to be queer but has been impeded by a counter-theoretical normalizing tendency. Theory, defined with theoria in mind would pertain to looking, perceiving, and possibly imaging. Undertaken in a normalizing manner theory would reflect upon how it is that ‘we’ see; but if we subtract this ‘we’, or if theory is considered without the ground of ‘the people’ then there would be an imaging, perceiving or relation, from which theory would emerge. Theory would arise from relations among powers, and would therefore always be hybrid. This hybridity demands that we reverse the understood relation between theory and metaphysics. If it is the case that our metaphysics—our image of what it is to think—is currently effected from the bodies around us, or the ways in which we ‘fold’ images around our own ego-centered orientation, then a radical metaphysic of transcendental empiricism would free sexuality from organized bodies. It would no longer be the figure of mind or the good thinking subject that established the relation to theory. The sexual body would not be ‘a’ body constituted in a social field, but a ‘body without organs;’ the sexual (rather than gendered body) would be a multiplicity of all those predicates, partial objects, affects and perceptions from which we are composed.

    To understand how theory as such might be ‘queered’ we can distinguish between two senses of the word ‘queer’: the first would be primarily critical and would concern a difference or distinction from a constituted norm or center. The second sense, which I wish to conclude by pursuing here, entails a positive disengagement of substance and subjectivism (so that substance is not that which underlies or precedes; substance does not give us some ultimate subject). This second sense, in refusing substance as some preceding ground, also requires a rejection of what I referred to as the thermodynamic model of desire that underpins psychoanalysis and bourgeois ideology. On the thermodynamic model there is a ground—some form of life, subject or substance—that then requires differentiation; and it would then follow that every actual being would be an instance of more or less. There would be certain figures or norms, such as ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ ‘family,’ ‘duty,’ ‘justice,’ or ‘democracy,’ and every attempt to realize such norms or figures would never quite be the norm itself. Every instance would never quite attain the norm or ideal itself, and this would leave us with a logic of bad consciousness: on the one hand all we have is this world here and now, given some form through systems, and yet (on the other hand) no instance would be adequate to some idea of ‘justice’ itself. All performances would be in part repetitions of a figure but also disturbances of a figure. There would be no life outside norms, but no pure instance of a norm.

    On a positive model, life would not be differentiated through norms, but would be more complex than the norms that have emerged. A theory would be queer if it challenged the supposed neutrality or undifferentiated nature of life. Queerness would not concern deviation from constituted limits, nor even the acknowledgment—following deconstruction—that the condition for any constituted and repeatable identity is a structure of iteration that bears the necessary possibility of disruption. The possibility of a genuinely queer theory begins, I would argue, only when we challenge the normative image of life that underpins the dominant understanding of Western theoria. Perhaps, unexpectedly, it is Platonism in its most radical sense that would allow us to rethink theory beyond its vitalist normativity. In order to make sense of this claim I want first to look at the ways in which the thermodynamic model of life is normalizing and grounded upon an image of thought as good sense and common sense.

    According to Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition there is an originally violent, disruptive and impersonal potential in Plato that is immediately covered over by normative images of the thinking and theorizing subject (Deleuze 1994, 244). What does it mean to theorize? If everyday thinking is directed towards constancy, recognition and efficiency, it achieves this structure through a certain synthesis of time. Experience is lived as continuous: a self is constituted as the ground for the living and open-ended continuity of life considered as organic or as ‘lived.’ The recognition and order that make experience coherent was deemed to be possible, according to Plato, only because there existed Ideas that were beyond the lived experience of the self. Such Ideas could not be considered as concepts or categories imposed by subjects onto experience for the sake of creating coherence. These Ideas were radically impersonal and radically alien to any sense of time as a coherent and lived sequence. Ideas do not exist at the level of Chronos (sequential or chronological time) but Aion, or the eternal power to give difference (over and over again, the repetition of difference). Within Plato’s own thought this radical nature of the Ideas is, however, immediately domesticated; for instead of considering a memory in which an Idea could be given to thought that was not thought’s own, and that was at odds with the lived order of the world, Plato introduced a moral distinction between those experiences that truly reflected the Ideas that they actualized, and the simulated and dangerous doubles that bore a fragile and unreliable relation to the Ideas that were their pure potentiality. Deleuze’s overturning of Platonism is a retrieval of the Idea. Deleuze’s reversed Platonism is not a liberation of life from all order, distinction, difference and essence. Instead, it is a liberation of essence and distinction from the lived world. [18] All our actual experiences that are lived as experiences of this or that identifiable and specified form need to be understood not as constructed and arbitrary impositions on an otherwise undifferentiated life, a life that is only known as lived and ordered; rather, actuality needs to be understood as the actualization of Ideas, but the Idea does not—as it would in Plato—issue in a proper form. For the Idea is nothing other than a potentiality for difference, a difference that is given and lived as simulation (or simulacra). An Idea can never be given other than in its variation. It is not that there is an Idea that is then varied; the Idea is variation. It is the distinctness of the Idea, its absolutely differential nature—or its capacity to make differencesthat entails that it can only be experienced as obscure. Once something is clear—recognizable as this or that delimited and perceived object—it loses its distinction. Theory, then, is not the adjudication of this lived world according to the extent to which it properly incarnates an Idea; theory is the intuition of our lived and actual reality as simulacrum, as a becoming-clear or identifiable of an Idea (an Idea that exceeds the lived, but exists in nothing other than the lived). In turn, once we see the given as the actualization of an Idea that loses its distinction by becoming-actual, we can then take the next step of theorization, which would be ‘becoming-imperceptible’: can we try to think of those movements, distinctions and potentialities that allow our sensibly given world to be sensed but which themselves—as Ideas—are only given as simulations?

    How then do we move from this level of abstraction to queer theory? We can begin by going back to the thermodynamic model, which Deleuze aligns with bourgeois ideology, good sense and common sense. If we follow the modern paradigm and argue that subjectivity is not some natural and transcendent norm but is constituted through the synthesis of relations, then we seem to have demystified all notions of a grounding normality. But, following Deleuze, I would argue that the thermodynamic model (in which an undifferentiated life is given structure through contingently imposed systems) is the highest mode of normalization, for nothing is outside the one grand order of more or less, and every decision is always a compromise that could really just as easily have gone the other way. The subject is not the foundation of experience but is effected through experience:

    Good sense is the ideology of the middle classes who recognize themselves in equality as an abstract product. It dreams less of acting than of constituting a natural milieu, the element of an action which passes from more to less differentiated: for example, the good sense of eighteenth-century political economy which saw in the commercial classes the natural compensation for the extremes, and in the prosperity of commerce the mechanical process of the equalization of portions. It therefore dreams less of acting than of foreseeing, and of allowing free rein to action which goes from the unpredictable to the predictable (from the production of differences to their reduction). Neither contemplative nor active, it is prescient. In short, it goes from the side of things to the side of fire: from differences produced to differences reduced. It is thermodynamic. In this sense it attaches the feeling of the absolute to the partial truth. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but assumes a pessimistic or optimistic tone depending upon whether the side of fire, which consumes everything and renders all portions uniform, bears the sign of an inevitable death and nothingness (we are all equal before death) or, on the contrary, bears the happy plenitude of existence (we all have an equal chance in life). (Deleuze 1994, 283)

    Equality, or the idea that individuals exist in relation to each other via some general standard of the human, partakes of a specifically bourgeois inflection: there is some undifferentiated vague generalization of ‘man’ that will always approximate some never fully articulated standard. Any concept or decision is as relatively good and compromised as any other. Indeed, each concept would be—as constituted in relation to an otherwise undifferentiated ‘life’—an inessential compromise and limitation. The subject of such an anti-metaphysical or post-foundational understanding would bear a number of features. It would, Deleuze insists, be thoroughly at home with contradiction: any constituted concept could never master or express the general life that it represents. As a consequence one would always have to deal with the essentially limited and compromising nature of the terms and figures of our theory (Deleuze 1994, 337). Further, such a subject would be oriented towards judgment, rather than action: aware of the provisional nature of our grasp of our selves and our world, we would always be compelled to consider the limitations and locatedness of our point of view, never capable of appealing to life ‘in itself ’. Such a position would also be characterized by an ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ logic. Deprived of all foundations, norms and essences we would need to acknowledge that any decision would always preclude and belie equally justifiable possibilities.

    Consider in terms of queer theory how this logic would work. On the one hand we need to be critical of constituted identities, which might come to function as restrictive norms. On the other hand, without the tactical or strategic adoption of such an identity we risk political invisibility and ineffectiveness. The same logic applies to all issues within queer theory: on the one hand arguments for civil partnerships seem to buy into the normative structures of middle-class lifestyles and capitalist property relations; on the other hand, without such rights and entitlements we risk complete marginalization and disempowerment.

    Deleuze argues that such a logic takes a partial apprehension for the absolute. Always thinking within constituted, delimited and actualized terms, politics becomes a negotiation of the system, with perhaps some attempt to transgress or destabilize the system—always aware that no break from normativity in general is possible.

    At first, such a logic of more or less, and of the minimal requirements of some normativity, would appear to accord with Deleuze and Guattari’s own more explicitly political statements. In A Thousand Plateaus they argue against an absolute deterritorialisation (while elsewhere arguing for a ‘higher’ deterritorialisation), and they also argue for the necessity of a molar politics alongside the molecular processes of ‘becoming-woman’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 460). However, by looking at the radically Platonic model Deleuze opposes to thermodynamic and bourgeois ideology in Difference and Repetition we can give a more nuanced understanding of the relation between territorialization and deterritorialization in A Thousand Plateaus. The latter should not be understood as a relation between effected identities and their deviation or becoming different through time. Here, we might contrast Deleuze’s own transcendental empiricism with deconstruction. According to Jacques Derrida, the condition for the possibility of any experience of a being or life as this or that ongoing and maintained being is that it be marked and lived through time as the same. This means, then, that there must be some iterable trace that marks each lived moment as a moment of this supposedly constant presence; but if this is the case then something can ‘be’ or ‘live on’ only if it has already submitted to some structure of tracing or iterability. And, as all the queer mobilizations of deconstruction have speedily noted: if an identity is effected only by way of a repetition through time of the same, then the condition for identity is also a condition for difference and deviation. The self is nothing other than its repeated performances, and is at once always already different from itself.

    From this deconstructive point of view there is an ‘essential’ queerness to all identity in so far as identity is effected through structures that at one and the same time make ongoing sameness possible while introducing a destabilizing repetition into the marking out of that sameness. I would argue that even this most radical of models could, at a push, be understood as indebted to the late nineteenth-century understanding of life as force or energy from which identifiable terms are effected. Although Derrida (1978) has undertaken a critique of the Freudian theoretical model and the relation between the quantity of force and constituted qualities, the dissemination of deconstruction, especially for queer theory, has resulted in the maintenance of the idea of theory as reflective and destabilizing judgment in relation to differentiating systems.

    Against that thermodynamic model of thinking, which Deleuze regards as an overly quiescent adoption by philosophy of scientific models, Deleuze argues for an overturning of Platonism that would pay attention to the distinct Ideas that are actualized in the seemingly clear systems within which we think and move. Life is not, Deleuze insists, a general quantity of force of energy that is then differentiated through the establishment of relations. Nor, Deleuze insists, should we take the other Bergsonian path and think of life as irreducible and unquantifiable quality that would then be subjected to quantifying systems. Instead, Deleuze suggests that we consider ‘intensive quantities’. Here, intensities are not qualities that unfold in time and that are belied by quantity. For intensities are potentialities for differential relations which, when encountering other intensities, produce quantities of this or that quality. Each experienced, perceived or experienced intensity is necessarily given as a quantity of such and such a quality; what is, necessarily, covered over by this lived experience is the pure intensity from which relations are effected (Deleuze 1994, 210). It is this radically (or passively) vitalist Deleuzian theory of life that, perhaps surprisingly, charts its way between the linguistic mediation or linguistic paradigm and the literalism of theories of emergence. The vitalism is passive because it is not the case that there is something like life that surges forth from itself in order to arrive at itself; instead there are quantities of force entering into undecided relations from which beings emerge that would then provide some basis for active decisions.

    One way of thinking about modern theory, or metaphysics after Kant, is that we can have no knowledge of things in themselves: things are known only as they are given through the categories of experience. The structuralist or linguistic turn, after Kant, places those categories, not in the transcendental subject but in social or linguistic systems. Even though post-structuralism, especially in its Derridean form, criticized the acceptance of structure without the consideration of a structure’s genesis, it was the tension between genesis and structure that dominated theory: 'And even when one comes to think that the opening of the structure is ‘structural’, that is, essential, one already has progressed to an order heterogeneous to the first one: the difference between the (necessarily closed) minor structure and the structurality of an opening—such, perhaps, is the unlocatable site in which philosophy takes root’ (Derrida 1978, 155).

    One can only think of genesis, origins or life as they are given through structure; but any structure must have had its genesis and it is the process of the ongoing maintenance of structure which precludes any stable system. This leaves us with an ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ logic, and also with a judging position of the subject in relation to distanced life.

    In Judith Butler, for example, we are all necessarily subjected to the heterosexual matrix or the social system of recognition. On the other hand, the condition for the maintenance of any system (repetition and performance) also destabilizes and transforms that system. In terms of specific political terms and issues, we must on the one hand take part in the terrain of politics—accepting its lexicon—while at the same time acknowledging the limits of the given. There could, though, be no appeal to that which exceeds the given. Queerness would then be understood as the destabilization or solicitation of the normative. Theory would be queer only in so far as it attended to the conditions for normality and normativity, exposing a perturbation at the heart of any possible structure.

    For Deleuze, by contrast, there is no contradiction or law of exclusion between structure and genesis, and this is because of his reversed Platonism. There are Ideas, absolutely distinct potentialities from which the differentiated world is actualized. Instead of opposing structure and genesis—or the system through which the world is given, and the emergence of that system—Deleuze argues for a ‘static genesis’ (Deleuze 1990, 124). So we might say this is a case of Deleuze rejecting what he and Guattari refer to as ‘exclusive disjunction,’ whereby one must decide either that one submits to a structure or that one falls into non-identity. Instead, they argue for inclusive disjunction: yes, the world is composed of structuring relations, in various strata (including language) but there are also potentialities for relations or structures that are not yet actualized. Our given world of relations, qualities, quantities, terms and predicates is dynamic, in flux and organized into relatively coherent series. Our response to such an actualized differentiated world should not be to think within a given structure while mourning our non-attainability of some ineffable ‘outside’. Instead, Deleuze’s concept of static genesis prompts us to think of distinct potentialities that exceed thought, but which are only given as thought. Structure is not imposed upon an undifferentiated life; rather, life as it is differentiated is the result of powers to make differences that exist eternally in a plane beyond constituted subjects. Static genesis allows us to think of a past that is impersonal and radically eternal (not already bound up with this historically constituted world): a potentiality for the creation of intensities, which are given to thought only in extended terms. We should see the languages, relations and structures of this world, then, not as organizations or negations/limitations of an otherwise neutral reality—where queerness would lie in the instability or perturbations of the organizing system—but as actualizations of potentialities or Ideas that will be eternally repeated. Thus, for Deleuze, there is an Idea of revolution, such that we can at one and the same time think empirically of all those revolutions that have occurred within history; and the Idea of revolution, which all those instances of revolution intimate but do not exhaust. The memory or reminiscence of that Idea of revolution would take thought beyond human recognition and constituted terms to that strange virtual potentiality, which at once gives itself to be thought while always violating and exceeding thought.

    How might we deploy or respond to this abstract attempt to move beyond structurations of some ineffable reality to the positivity and affirmation of structure? What happens if we see the terms within which we think as actualizations of eternal Ideas? The first maneuver would be critical, for we can—as Deleuze did in Difference and Repetition—look at the ways in which our image of thought belies and diminishes the force of Ideas. If we think of judgment as negotiation of an arbitrary or imposed system in relation to a life that is lost, diminished or mourned then politics can only be a queering or solicitation of a terrain that will always be other than (retroactively posited) life. If, however, we think of theory as an attempt to reinvigorate the political terrain by reference to a positive plane or ‘depth’ of problems, we open thought to a positive outside. In terms of ‘becoming-woman’, we could then think of new modes of relationality: not a world that is synthesized by man as a thinking subject, who then turns back upon his own organizing systems, but a world of divergent lines of relationality, where forces intersect to produce qualities and quantities without the ground of good sense and common sense. Theory is queer, not in the sense of constant destabilization or contradiction, but in opening itself up to problems. For Deleuze, life is neither oriented to self-maintenance and constancy, nor devoid of positivity and distinction. Instead, life takes the form of a problem. A force that encounters another force is the posing of a problem. We can think of this physically in terms of evolutionary theory, so that bodies are not passive sites for inscription but organized capacities that meet a similarly complex environment and produce relatively stable sets of terms. But this physical understanding does not, for Deleuze, provide a ground for theory. Instead, the task of theory is to take this form or Idea of difference—that we begin not with substances or subjects but potentialities for problematic relations—and create a new mode of thinking, thought liberated from the image.

    I want to consider the ways in which two theorists have undertaken this challenge. Elizabeth Grosz has, in her work on time and evolution, argued that we can think of a ‘pure difference’ that would not be the differentiation of some prior, presupposed or posited life (Grosz 2004, 46). Such ‘pure difference’ as articulated in Grosz’s later work can allow us to go back to her earlier positive work on embodiment, and contrast its positive and queer tendency with Judith Butler’s approach in Bodies that Matter. The key difference lies in the problematization of the linguistic paradigm. Butler acknowledges that we cannot think of language or sociality as imposed upon life, for ‘life’ exists only as always already split from itself. Here she follows a post-structuralist notion of the signifier: not as a sign that orders reality, but as that aspect of matter which (in presenting itself as partial) creates a gap, absence, or prior real which is always given after the fact. In terms of politics, then, we are always already within subjection and mourning: at once human or recognizable only through given systems, while never fully coinciding with such systems.

    The body posited as prior to the sign, is always posited or signified as prior. This signification produces as an effect of its own procedure the very body that it nevertheless and simultaneously claims to discover as that which precedes its own action. If the body signified as prior to signification is an effect of signification, then the mimetic or representational status of language, which claims that signs follow bodies as their necessary mirrors, is not mimetic at all. On the contrary, it is productive, constitutive, one might even argue performative, inasmuch as this signifying act delimits and contours the body that it then claims to find prior to any and all signification. (Butler 1993, 30)

    Queerness in Butler’s terms, as I have already suggested, can only be the effect of an explicit theorization of the conditions for recognition: it is because one becomes human or a subject only through processes or iteration that there is also, necessarily, a failure or ‘queering’ of identity. For Grosz, by contrast, the body was never a site for iteration or inscription but always offered its own volatility (Grosz 1994). If we know and live bodies through practices and culture, culture itself is a ‘ramification’ of a nature that is nothing other than a power of creativity (Grosz 2005). Theory is not, then, critical—operating to de-stabilize, de-mystify, or de-naturalize—but positive and affirmative: an attention to those untimely forces that will not so much persist (as ongoing performances) but insist. This is why, for Grosz, one can both insist upon sexual difference, without thereby submitting to some system of recognition. Sexual difference is not the relation between terms, nor a difference posited ex post facto after the gender system has produced relatively stable identities. We could think of sexual difference as an originating queerness that produces positive and creative difference in relation to natural selection. If natural selection is a theoretical postulate that explains, after the event, how randomly effected differences have survived to produce populations that have responded efficiently to the environment, sexual difference introduces an aleatory principle that disrupts life’s tendency to equilibrium, striving and self-maintenance (Grosz 2004, 66). We can see this in animal life with the production of extravagant mating calls and visual display.

    But Grosz makes an important point regarding human culture, where those forms of sexuality and coupling that are not oriented towards reproduction have ramifying effects that open up spaces and possibilities not accounted for by models of natural selection (Grosz 2004, 83). Indeed, the question of fitness comes to the fore once we introduce sexual selection—that is, selection not oriented towards reproduction or ongoing maintenance of the population as it recognizes itself, but the selection of traits that operate as an excessive lure.

    This question of fitness is, I would argue, a politic-metaphysical question of the utmost urgency for our time. What modes of life, what forces or selections can be affirmed? This is not the question of a decision—of how we might make or recreate ourselves—but the problem of encounters that are queer (not determined according to recognition and reproduction). Queer encounters, from a Deleuzian perspective, are not affirmations of a group of bodies who recognize themselves as other than normative, but are those in which bodies enter into relations where the mode of relation cannot be determined in advance, and where the body’s becoming is also ungrounded. Here, we pass directly from Deleuze’s transcendental empiricist motto—relations are external to terms—to micropolitics and ‘becoming-woman’. It is not the case that there is a world of uniform matter or force, governed or differentiated by a system of laws (this is neither the case physically, where interactions of matters produce distinct fields and modes of relations, nor socially, for the world we live is made up of quite distinct fields of relation that include philosophy, art and science). Nor is it the case that there are individuals who enter into relations. Rather, Deleuze begins with a differentiating ‘spatium’ that unfolds into various encounters, producing terms and relations through time (Deleuze 1994, 244). Queer theory then has two features. First, it refuses the man of good sense and common sense who must synthesize, judge and perceive the relations of this world. Not only does such an image of thought reproduce already given terms of gender (mind ordering matter, activity organizing passivity, structure giving being to non-being), it relies on equivocity, or two already decided levels of being: the force or energy of ‘life’, on the one hand, and the synthesis and organization of that life by ‘man’ or systems on the other. Second, having refused the location or organization in the mind of man or language we can start to think of theory in Deleuze’s sense of intuition: not as a critical destabilization of constituted terms and systems, but as an enquiry into the emergence of terms and relations. This is why Deleuze and Guattari regarded ‘becoming-woman’ as the key to all becomings. One must escape from the image of thought of bourgeois thermodynamics: the mind as a negotiating point in a field of effected differences, outside which is the great undifferentiated (Deleuze 1994, 283-4).

    There must be at least one other possibility for thinking beyond the man of reason. Sexual difference, or relations that are not oriented to judgment and reproduction, would be the beginning (but not the end) of theory.

    I want to conclude by thinking the practical consequences of such a notion for queer theory, now understood not as a theory that sets itself against normativity through either a recognition of another group of bodies or through a destabilization and negation of norms. Rather theory would set as its task the notion of the Idea as a problem: how have relations and terms emerged, what—given effected relations—might have occurred otherwise; what are the forces of potentiality hidden in our experienced encounters? The concept of relations being external to terms, or of forces for structuration that exceed human thinking, has been aptly theorized by Levi Bryant. Part of a broader movement of new modes of realism (in which reality is not reality for a subject) Bryant insists on the capacity for forces beyond relations as already actualized:

    While I readily concede that objects can enter into relations—how else would open systems be possible?—it does not follow from this that objects are their relations. In short, if it is to be possible to form closed systems in which constant conjunctions of events occasionally obtain as they sometimes do in experimental settings, then it follows that relations cannot ontologically be internal to their terms or the objects that they relate. In other words, objects are not constituted by their relations to the rest of the world. While relations to other objects often play a key role in the precipitation of events or qualities in objects, we must here recall that objects are not identical to their qualities but are rather the ground of qualities. Accordingly we must distinguish between objects and their relations, or rather the structure of objects and the relations into which objects enter. I call the former ‘endo-relations’ (or, following Graham Harman, ‘domestic relations’), and the latter ‘exo-relations’ (or, as Harman calls them, ‘foreign relations’ […]). Endo-relations constitute the internal structure of objects independent of all other objects, while exo-relations are relations that objects enter into with other objects. Were objects constituted by their exo-relations or relations to other objects, the being would be frozen and nothing would be capable of movement or change. It is only where relations are external to objects that such change can be thought. (Bryant 2011, 68)

    I will now turn to an iconic moment from the literary canon, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and do so through Rosi Braidotti’s concept of an ‘ethics of affirmation’, which she summarizes as ‘giving what you do not have’ (Braidotti 2006, 208, 259). Such an ethic might at first appear to be at once thoroughly capitalist—speculate and project profits in virtual markets of the future—and thoroughly Kantian—we may not know our subjectivity but we can acts as if we were free. Where the ethics of affirmation becomes ecological, queer and counter-modern is in the liberation of the Idea from the lived: can we offer Ideas to thought that are not our own?

    In the following scene from Melville’s Billy Budd, Claggart perceives Billy at once as an all too desirable object and as a force that threatens his personal moral life:

    If askance he eyed the good looks, cheery health, and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him pre-eminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately apprehending the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain, disdain of innocence—to be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it. With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s, surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it. (Melville 1986, 356)

    One way to read such a scene would be as a representation of subjects constituted within heterosexual normativity: in this all-male environment Claggart as a figure of authority is at once attracted to Billy’s beauty (where the beauty already tends towards spectacular effeminacy with its ‘dyed cheek’ and ‘yellow curls’). That very attraction is at the same time repulsive, so that Claggart must destroy what he beholds. The isolation of such scenes in the literary canon would follow from our attention to the ways in which desire at once presents itself within the normative matrix, while also expressing moments of disruption, or what Alan Sinfield (1992) has referred to as ‘faultlines.’ Another mode of reading would be not simply to read this scene—where we as readers view represented subjects and sexualities—so much as force an encounter with the Idea of reading. If we can read qualities as signs of some desire—see Billy as an ideal figure of male youthful beauty—we can then see the world as composed of such signs, the ‘secret forms’ from which we are composed. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari refer to a positive, productive and feminine notion of the secret: not the secret as that ‘gray eminence’ or hidden absolute which would be figured by the great feminine ‘beyond’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 280) but the secret as immanence, or the metamorphosing and transposing world whose qualities we are. We are given in this scene, a scene of sense, a reading of reading, or what Deleuze also referred to as ‘time in its pure state’ (Deleuze 2000, 98). We see or read Claggart seeing and reading Billy: we perceive perception, not as representation, but perception as desire. Here art (as one mode of thought among others) strives to encounter the very emergence of relations and qualities. Billy is, as actualized, a body desired as male by another male, destroyed for that socially prohibited line of desire. But the condition for such a series of relations—the eye of Claggart that contemplates an object that threatens his social being—is intimated when one passes beyond the moral to the aesthetic: ‘Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it’. This would approach becoming-woman, or the ‘feminine line’: qualities or predicates that are actualized but not exhausted by bodies. There is a certain desirability or potential for desire that exceeds the interests and intentions of the subjects it composes. The task of a theory that traced such a desire would be directly political. Can we go beyond the man of good sense, common sense, negotiation and norms and intuit the qualities and the forces of qualities that diminish and compose life? Life itself would neither be that which requires the imposition of norms, nor a domain from which normativity would follow, but would be that creative, queering, divergent, and transposing power that would open up relations beyond those of the thinking or acting subject.


    1. It was in this regard that feminists criticized the supposed pure formalism of John Rawls, who argued that subjects should imagine their ideal polity from a veil of ignorance. Such a notion of a pure subject liberated from partial attachments precludes the consideration of traditionally feminist political problems, such as childcare and childbirth: one can either, as ‘corporeal feminists’ have done, criticize the theory itself for harboring an implicit gender bias (Diprose 1994), or one can make adjustments to the theory according to its own ideals of pure formalism (Okin 1994). return to text
    2. Figures of auto-affection, self-fathering, or mind that gives form and order to matter, have been identified by Jacques Derrida, and others, as ‘remainders’ within Western metaphysics that enable the figuration of a pure and ideal point of view. Thus ‘man’ would not be one term among others in the system but an irreducible norm from which systematicity is figured (Derrida 1981). In a more explicit use of deconstruction for queer theory Lee Edelman considered ‘homographesis’ as the general scene through which homosexuality presents itself as a series of differences to be read, but which at the same time thereby opens up sexuality in general to the problem of differance (Edelman 1994). return to text
    3. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler does, however, distance herself from her earlier insistence on the exclusivity of subjection, and suggests other modes of relation that are not purely negative. Even so, her central criticism of Rosi Braidotti’s feminism—which is the mode of theory I will be pursuing here—is the status of the negative. I would therefore disagree with Butler’s own mapping of the relation among her own work, the work of Deleuze, psychoanalysis and Braidotti’s feminism: ‘Every time I try to write about the body, the writing ends up being about language. This is not because I think that the body is reducible to language; it is not. Language emerges from the body, constituting an emission of sorts. The body is that upon which language falters, and the body carries its own signs, its own signifiers, in ways that remain largely unconscious. Although Deleuze opposed psychoanalysis, Braidotti does not’ (Butler 2004, 198). I will contest this supposed opposition of Deleuze to psychoanalysis; Deleuze opposed the personalization of the unconscious, favoring a more radical unconscious or ‘unthought’ that was radically inhuman and positive: the Ideas or problems through which we think, which give themselves to be thought, even if they cannot be thought: ‘schizoanalysis attains a nonfigurative and nonsymbolic unconscious, a pure abstract figural dimension’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 351). As Butler continues, ‘Psychoanalysis seems centered on the problem of lack for Deleuze, but I tend to center on the problem of negativity. One reason I have opposed Deleuze is that I find no registration of the negative in his work, and I feared he was proposing a manic defense against negativity’ (Butler 2004, 198). Even if there are modes of subjective relation that are—contra Nietzsche—not those of force and violence, there can be (for Butler) no mode of self or theory which is not constituted in relation to norms. It is precisely, though, in Butler’s (2005) critical reading of Nietzsche’s force as violence—in the sense of violence done by selves to others—that the limits of her theory lie. Another reading of Nietzsche (one pursued by Gilles Deleuze [1983] and Elizabeth Grosz [2004]) posits a positive and generating force, not as force among bodies or as force of one body over another. To say that ‘life’ begins with force is to reject the original position of bodies and terms (or even the system through which terms are distributed)—force as relations between or among bodies—and instead see force as the differential production of bodies and relations. Force in that differential and originally unequal sense is queer: not the force of a body, quality or quantity. We could see such a reading of force as a radicalization of Spinoza’s ‘field’ metaphysic (Bennett 1984): there is not a space that is filled with bodies, nor a general pool of energy which is then organized into distinct terms; instead, everything begins with a dynamic potentiality for relations, which are then actualized to produce a space or field of quantities and qualities. return to text
    4. In a remarkably lucid article, Elisa Glick (2000) has criticized Judith Butler’s ‘linguistic idealism’ and privileging of representational politics in favor of a more Marxist interrogation of the lived practices and historical and economic contexts from which practices such as ‘drag’ emerge. Glick draws on David Harvey’s work to argue that Butler reinforces a postmodern capitalist lifestyle commodity culture in her emphasis on performativity (precisely because performance effects, rather than follows, subjectivity). Here I would like to pursue an opposite critique: Butler’s performativity is not too detached from lived experience, but too reliant on an image of life as coming into being and recognition through effected, critical and destabilizing subjects. If we think of life beyond constituted bodies, as Elizabeth Grosz does in her re-reading of Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche (2004), or as Rosi Braidotti does in her notion of metamorphoses and transpositions that can be considered ecologically beyond the human (2002; 2006), then we have a new model of queer politics. We abandon the exemplary queer subject of drag and parody, to examine the abstract potentialities from which subjects are composed. Concretely, this would mean that subjects are not produced as masculine or feminine through some decisive cultural matrix (‘exclusive disjunction’ in Deleuze’s sense), but that masculinity and femininity are potentialities that can be mobilized inclusively: one can be male and female (what Deleuze refers to as inclusive disjunction: both a and not-a). This would go beyond being a socialized man dressing as a woman: for such parody would be equivocal, or a playing of natural being against representation. Instead, we would begin by acknowledging something like ‘becoming-woman’ that would be a potentiality for life as such, beyond women as socialized groups. Significantly both Grosz and Braidotti maintain a positive idea of sexual difference from an Irigarayan perspective, which they (correctly) see as compatible with a Deleuzian impersonal vitalism. If life is not a general undifferentiated force that is then represented by ‘man’, sexual difference (becoming-woman, or understanding life beyond the image of man) opens up a new mode of relationality. return to text