Doubting the Promise of Newness: Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone (2011)

One of the books I looked most forward to reading after dropping rent money on Duke University Press’s Spring Book Sale was Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (2011). While I have only made my way through the Introduction and Part I (“Life: Human and Inhuman Becomings”), a few things have come to mind now as I slowly move through the rest of the book (Parts II and III are respectively titled, “Disturbing Differences: A New Kind of Feminism” and “Animals, Sex, and Art”). These “few things” concern Grosz’s promise of newness (as seen in the title to Part II) and its problematic rhetoric.

What do I mean by promise? newness? Perhaps its best to quote directly from Grosz’s text:

[This text] explores how becomings undo the stabilities of identity, knowledge, location, and being, and how they elaborate new directions and new forces that emerge from these processes of destabilization. (3)

Darwin, Bergson, and Deleuze represent a new kind of philosophy of life, a trajectory in which life is always intimately attuned to and engaged with material forces, both organic and inorganic, which produce [. . .] further differentiations and divergences, both within life and within matter as well as between them. (4)

[. . .] I want to explore how a new framework in which the human man and woman are contextualized not only by human constructs [. . .] but also by natural and animal geographies and temporalities might help us rethink some of the key concepts in feminist thought [. . .] This is less a new kind of materialism than it is a new understanding of the forces, both material and immaterial, that direct us to the future. (5)

[My] chapter, “Differences Disturbing identity: Deleuze and Feminism,” further explores the relevance of Deleuze’s understanding of difference for challenging some of the dominant forms of feminist thought and for developing a new, more nuanced and subtle understanding of the forces of power than that represented by the models of intersectionality or multiple overlapping forms of oppression that are so powerful within much of contemporary feminist theory. In these chapters I attempt to articulate new questions for feminist theory to consider [. . .] Irigaray is among the few contemporary theorists committed to the creation of a new ontology, one which addresses the forces of becoming.  (6)

new understanding of the creativity of art may be elaborated using Darwin’s understanding of sexual selection. His work may turn out to be surprisingly contemporary, surprisingly postmodern [. . .] In “Art and Animal,” [. . .] I use the work of Jakob von Uexküll, which [. . .] establishes new questions regarding the world of animals that Darwin made relevant but did not explore. (pg. 7)

[Life’s] capacity for self-overcoming is the condition for the emergence of art, for the eruption of collective life, and for the creation of new forms of politics, new modes of living. (pg. 8)

All of these passages come from Grosz’s introduction: twelve promises of novelty in six pages. Something about this extreme recurrence of the word “new” and the sheer diversity of nouns to which Grosz applies it triggers my otherwise lazy sense of doubt and provokes an important question: What does “new” mean in these contexts, especially when applied equally to the work of philosophers long dead (e.g., Bergson) and to “modes of living” still to come? Indeed, the more I think about it, the more Grosz’s use of the word is incoherent. There are, after all, a few sentences here where one could replace “new” with “alternative” (e.g., “how they elaborate [alternative] directions” [3]; “Darwin, Bergson, and Deleuze represent [an alternative to the traditional] philosophy of life” [4]), or one could take it out altogether and  leave the integrity of Grosz’s point intact (e.g., “for developing a [. . .] more nuanced and subtle understanding”). In other passages, like the last one above, replacing “new” with “alternative” would be remarkably deflating, moving readers from the promise of “emergence” and “eruption” to a mere option, an alternative form of politics or mode of living. In the last passage, newness is not simply alterity, for it describes the rupture of a radical, unforeseen, unpredictable, yet positively-charged rearrangement of interaction and mutual flourishing. The actualization of this novelty is apparently still to come.

What does newness mean to Grosz’s philosophical sources? In Difference and Repetition, which I am slowly working through in a series of other posts, Gilles Deleuze writes:

Nietzsche’s distinction between the creation of new values and the recognition of established values should not be understood in a historically relative manner, as though the established values were new in their time and the new values simply needed time to become established. [This misleading sense of “the new” is at work in a few of the passages from Grosz’s introduction.] In fact [Nietzsche’s distinction] concerns a difference which is both formal and in kind. The new, with its power of beginning and beginning again [that is, repeating], remains forever new,  just as the established was always established from the outset, even if a certain amount of empirical time was necessary for this to be recognised [. . .] For the new—in other words, difference—calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model, from an unrecognised and unrecognizable terra incognita. (136)

Whether one buys into Deleuze’s metaphysics (like I do) or thinks it a bit mystical and silly (like many of my friends do), it is not difficult to see that he wants to give conceptual rigor to novelty or newness. For the new to be new, for Deleuze, it must be free of the typical script of historical waxings and wanings (what the Avett Brothers call “the most predictable story told” in “Down with the Shine”). What one calls new, in other words, must always be new, according to Difference and Repetition, existing and consisting as the repetition of a singularity. From this perspective, it is, on the one hand, absolutely mundane to describe any philosophy as new (since all truly philosophical concepts, for Deleuze, are always new). On the other hand, it is theoretically misguided and perhaps even intellectually dishonest to promise “new forms of politics [and] new modes of living” distinct from old, limited, and outmoded ones. While Grosz’s last promise of novelty aligns a bit more closely with Deleuze’s co-conceputalizations of difference and repetition, her use of it introduces a messianic or redemptive element which is not present in her Deleuzian sources. After all, newness is central to what Eleanor Kaufmann calls Deleuze’s “dark ontology” (Deleuze, the Dark Precursor 6); it does not concern freedom or liberation but, rather, force, ill will, and constraint. This would take a bit more time to unravel, but I will have to do so another time.

I admit that some of my concerns about this inconsistent promise of new forms and frameworks and understandings stems partly from my own training as a modernist scholar. Literary modernism, after all, is usually associated with Ezra Pound’s heroic imperative, “Make it new!” (an imperative that, though still the dominant criterion for what scholars consider “modernist,” has come under considerable scrutiny). What often depresses me about the stubborn transfer of modernist novelty into modernist scholarship is that it usually inspires an uncritical reflex that conflates the complexities of immediate predecessors into (reified) caricatures. Thus, modernist scholars are among (though certainly not always) the worst readers of Victorian novels, just as romanticists often have very little nice to say about the work of Alexander Pope (or, taking things much more broadly, just as scholars of renaissance, neoclassicist, romanticist, Victorian, or twentieth-century modernity have little insight to offer concerning medieval literature, sweeping much of it into the darkness of the purported “Dark Ages”). (I’m not, of course, saying that all scholars do injustice to works which precede their own period of specialization, just that it is an observable pattern of scholarly self-justification. One often sees this justification turned the other way as well: e.g., neoclassical scholars arguing that Pope had “romantic” insights before romantic poets did; modernist scholars arguing that postmodernist insights merely copy and plagiarize Joyce or Proust or Woolf; etc.; etc.)

Looking at Grosz’s groundwork in Part II, “Disturbing Differences: A New Kind of Feminism,” I worry that this trend of retrospective reductionism in literary studies is operating here as the caricaturization of “feminist politics” and “feminist theory” (59). While I am not a scholar of feminism by any means, I have certainly read enough of it to doubt some of the following claims and promises:

While the[] concepts [of autonomy, agency, and freedom] are continually evoked in feminist theory [. . .] they have been rarely defined, explained, or analyzed. Instead they have functioned as a kind of mantra of liberation. (59)

Is feminist theory best served through its traditional focus on women’s attainment of a freedom from patriarchal, racist, colonialist, heteronormative constraint? Or by exploring what the female – or feminist – subject is and is capable of making and doing? [. . .] [The] relevance of [“freedom from” constraint] should not be overstated, and if freedom remains tied to only this negative concept of liberty, it remains tied to the options or alternatives provided by the present and its prevailing and admittedly limiting forces, instead of accessing and opening up the present to the invention of the new [. . .] [A]t best [it] addresses and attempts to redress wrongs of the past without providing any positive direction for action in the future. (61)

While the impetus of this argument is familiar (it makes me think of Foucault’s late distinction between freedom and liberation and of Deleuze’s “Letter to a Harsh Critic” in Negotiations), I worry about the gross detachment of feminist theory and politics from any sort of positive action or positive thinking regarding present or future action. It is one thing to critique a particularly influential feminist theorist or philosopher for failing to give voice to anything other than a call for the removal of restraints; it is another to sweep together all theorists and critics into one generalization in an audacious attempt at self-differentiation. Grosz avoids giving a specific critique of particular feminist theorists (clustering together thinkers as different as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Patricia Hill Collins, and Saba Mahmood into a group which is stuck, she claims, in thinking about “difference” within the prison-house of “identity” [90]). Having studied for a brief period of time with Mahmood, I find myself completely befuddled by Grosz’s arguments. Moreover, her generalizations make me distrust her promise that Deleuze’s ontological reconceptualization of difference (when read alongside Irigaray’s oeuvre) proffers any sort of hopeful vision of an “opening up of humanity through sexual difference” that will, in turn, possibilize “an opening up [] of class, race, ethnic, and sexual relations to difference, to variation, to multiplicity, to change, [and] to new futures” (112). I simply ask: How? Merely insisting that sexual difference “is the eruption of the new, the condition of emergence, evolution, or overcoming” is not an answer at all (103). (This is a criticism of Grosz, of course, not of Deleuze or Irigaray.)

With all this said, I am sympathetic to a few of Grosz’s points: namely, that the reduction of radical difference into general categories of identity (e.g., sexuality, race, gender, sex, class, ethnicity, language group, age, etc.) is problematic as a cultural, legal, and political foundation. (Though this is not to say the categories are illusory or should be abandoned.) I am occasionally sympathetic to Michael Warner’s polemic in The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999) and often pretty lukewarm to the pathetic appeals to those opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage (appeals like “Love is love! Gay marriage doesn’t affect you, so why do you care? Who are you to deny someone the pleasures of wedlock?”). This rhetoric is little ridiculous to me not because I’m against gay marriage or a defender of traditional marriage, but because I have ethical and philosophical problems with this tradition and because my own work on love (as a concept and a phenomenon) doubts the reductive truism, “Love is love.” Even so, while such sloganeering may make my skin crawl, I certainly recognize the point and the potential effectiveness of this rhetoric: that it may succeed in changing someone’s mind, that it may travel faster than my explications of Deleuzian theory, and that it might do some potential good for those whose homophobic mindset is on the verge of becoming rearranged. I may be as frustrated with identity politics as Grosz seems to be, yet I’m more frustrated by her promise of providing a new form of politics and a new hope for feminist activism when, in fact, she completely fails to say anything recognizably political or substantively hopeful.

I get far more hope from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay, “Queer and Now,” which opens her volume Tendencies (1993) and seems far less naïve about the problems of identity (though she is among the thinkers that Grosz lumps together):

What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? Think of that entity “the family,” an impacted social space in which all of the following are meant to line up perfectly with each other:

a surname
a sexual dyad
a legal unit based on state-regulated marriage
a circuit of blood relationships
a system of companionship and succor
a building
a proscenium between “private and public”
an economic unit of earning and taxation
the prime site of economic consumption
the prime site of cultural consumption
a mechanism to produce, care for, and acculturate children
a mechanism for accumulating material goods over several generations
a daily routine
a unit in a community of worship
a site of patriotic formation

and of course the list could go on. Looking at my own life, I see that – probably like most people – I have valued and pursued these various elements of family identity to quite differing degrees (e.g., no use at all for worship, much need of companionship). But what’s been consistent in this particular life is an interest in not letting very many of these dimensions line up directly with each other at one time. I see it’s been a ruling intention for me that the most productive strategy (intellectually, emotionally) might be, whenever possible, to disarticulate them one from another, to disengage them – the bonds of blood, of law, of habitation, of privacy, of companionship and succor – from the lockstep of their unanimity in the system called “family.” (6)

Concrete. While Grosz might point out that Sedgwick is still talking about differences in degree (rather than in kind), such conceptual quibbling misses the larger point: that Sedgwick is expressing her singularity as a miraculously complex and composite and rearrangeable life form. From this perspective, her moving passage and catalog—far from stabilizing difference into an identity—manages to do precisely what Grosz claims Sedgwick’s work does not do: it problematizes identity, sets it on the move, and revels in keeping it in a perpetual mode of self-differentiation. Sedgwick might not be espousing a political or philosophical program here, but she certainly exemplifies a coherent critical, vital, and theoretical move from something akin to Deleuzian ontology to a conscious experiment with life and love.

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