Postscript on Becoming Undone: Grosz’s Stoic Error

A few weeks ago, I posted a rather harsh response to Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (2011). Having finished the book now (moving on to Brian Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual [2002]), I thought I might tack on a lengthy postscript that provides a better angle on Grosz’s frustrating and self-assured sense of political intervention and theoretical provocation. Though I had hoped finishing the book would transubstantiate my harshness into admiration, reading through the last few chapters only intensified my distrust of her arguments. This is not to say, of course, that I distrust her sources! I wholeheartedly admire (and am still devoted to learning something from) Darwin, Bergson, Deleuze, and Irigaray, but I worry quite a bit about how their contributions to the history of thought become shaped here into a throughly prescriptive project masking itself as a descriptive one, a project that repeats one of the oldest stories of philosophy: i.e., how to derive what theorists should be doing or how I should be living my own life from an ontological account of how the world actually is. In short, how to derive an ought from the is.

Grosz would, I think, deny this characterization of her work, so I offer the following quotations:

It must be acknowledged that feminism has not succeeded in either of its competing and contradictory aims: either the creation of a genuine and thorough-going equality, which reveals the fundamental sameness of humanity [. . .] or the constitution of a genuine and practical autonomy, in which women choose for themselves how to define both themselves and their world [. . .] Given this reality, it may be now time once again to raise the question, not of what feminist theory will be, but of the much less depressing subject of what it could be, perhaps even what it ought to be. (Becoming Undone 75)

To the extent that feminist theory focuses on questions of the subject or identity, it leaves questions about the rest of existence [. . .] untouched. Feminism abdicates the right to speak about the real, about the world, about matter, about nature, and in exchange, cages itself in the reign of the “I”: who am I, who recognizes me, what can I become? [. . .] To focus on the subject at the cost of focusing on the forces that make up the world is to lose the capacity to see beyond the subject, to engage the world, to make the real. We wait to be recognized instead of making something, inventing something, which will enable us to recognize ourselves, or more interestingly, to eschew recognition altogether. (84-85)

Becoming, and dispersion, spatial and temporal elaboration, are part of the “nature” of any thing, entity, or event. Becoming means that nothing is the same as itself over time, and dispersion means that nothing is contained in the same space in this becoming. [. . .] Difference means that the constraints of coherence and consistency in subjects, and in the identity of things or events, is less significant than the capacity or potential for change, for being other. (97)

Oppression is made up of a myriad of acts, large and small, individual and collective, private and public: patriarchy, racism, classism, and ethnocentrism are all various names we give to characterize a pattern among these acts, or to lend them a discernable [sic] form. I am not suggesting that patriarchy and rascism don’t exist or have mutually inducing effects on all individuals. I am simply suggesting that they are not structures, not systems, but immanent patterns, models we impose on this plethora of acts to create some order. What exists, what is real, are these teeming acts [. . .] Patriarchy, racism, and classism are the labels we attach, for the sake of convenience, a form of shorthand, to describe this myriad of acts that we believe are somehow systematically connected. (97)

The acts that constitute oppressions also form the conditions under which other kinds of inventions, other kinds of acts, become possible. Perhaps there are only differences, incalculable and interminable differences, for us to address — no systems, no identities, no intersections, just the multiplying force of difference itself. It may be that these acts, and the immanent patterns they form and the bodily alignments they create, are as close to identity as we can get. (98)

In my Slow Reading 1.5 post, I analyzed Deleuze’s reference to what he called “the Stoic error,” that is, the effort to translate observations of natural law into virtue (DR 3). One still sees this alignment of the natural and the virtuous in a variety of contemporary phenomena: the conservative opposition to gay marriage or queer life (because they are “unnatural”), the commodification of healthy eating (since “natural” ingredients are a priori “better for you”), the demonization of zoos, the promotion of recycling, the explanation or justification of rape (under certain conditions, after all, “men can’t help themselves”), etc., etc. In all of these instances, it becomes all too easy to rely on “the natural” as a rhetorical ground, forgetting that capital-N Nature is, in itself, neither “good” nor “beautiful” nor “benign.”  Saying this does not mean I am against all of these positions or effects (I actually support a few of them), but I am against using nature as leverage or justification. To do so often hides something pernicious or obfuscates reasons or effects or histories or perspectives or ulterior motives that are far more compelling or disturbing.

I claim that Grosz’s appropriation of Deleuzian ontology commits this Stoic error. This is a somewhat ironic point, since Deleuze crafts his ontology in Difference and Repetition in opposition to this error (which he sees at work not only in the Stoics but in Kant as well). Looking back over the quotes above, it is clear that Grosz is looking for an ontological justification for why feminists have, for so long, been wasting their time. Why spend so much time worrying about identity or subjection when these are mere artifices? When they are not even real? Why critique racism or sexism as a systemic problem when it is a nothing more than a mere assemblage of more or less (loosely) related “acts”? Feminist activists should align their activities and positions, like good Stoics, with the ontological (natural?) law of difference. Until they see that difference — i.e., unceasing change — is the law of being, of the world, of materiality, and of beings in the world, they remain caged, restricted, and unnatural ethical and political failures. Indeed, in her earlier analyses (or summaries) of Bergson and Darwin, we see that difference is the deus ex machina of the relation between life and materiality; it is the engine of evolution. In short, feminists must learn to align themselves — their lives, their activities, their policies, their positions, their beliefs — with evolution in order to properly learn how to create supple and useful concepts, to see patterns (rather than systems), and (finally, after all this wasted time) to invent something.

To align their activities with nature is the key to Grosz’s promise of newness:

I dream of a future of feminist theory in which we no longer look inward to affirm our own positions, experiences, and beliefs, but outward, to the world and to what we don’t control or understand in order to expand, not confirm, what we know, what we are, what we feel. Feminist theory can become the provocation to think otherwise, to become otherwise. It can be a process of humbling the pretensions of consciousness to knowledge and mastery and a spur to stimulate a process of opening oneself up to the otherness that is the world itself. At its best, feminist theory has the potential to make us become other than ourselves, to make us unrecognizable. (87)

I have no qualms with wanting to “think otherwise.” (Hell, my dissertation focused exclusively on this problem.) However, it is clear that Grosz’s program to do so and the purportedly Deleuzian foundation upon which she hopes to do so is completely at odds with Deleuze’s own work on the relation between being and thinking. In the third chapter of Difference and Repetition (“The Image of Thought”), Deleuze explicitly divorces thought from eight presuppositions that have traditionally characterized philosophical accounts of thought, the first of which Grosz reintroduces back into her Deleuzian interventions. Though she follows Deleuze, for instance, in wanting to dis-align theory from projects of recognition or knowledge-acquisition, she nevertheless aligns it with the “good will of the thinker and [the] good nature of thought” (DR 167). More than this, she aligns thought with a good nature. Indeed, our capacity to think otherwise is itself reliant upon how “the universe” works! She writes, “Yet as an interconnected whole, the universe exhibits hesitation, uncertainty, the openness to evolutionary emergence, the very indetermination that characterizes life [. . .] The universe has this expansive possibility, the possibility of being otherwise” (71). While Grosz might deny the presence of an idealization of nature (or the universe) in her text, that is, an a priori alignment of nature with the good, it is clear that her model of how feminist theory should be thinking is borrowed from her triangulation of Bergson, Darwin, and Deleuze’s disparate (even if resonant) theories of life and/or being. If difference is the (free) rule of existence itself (of both life and matter), then it behooves us to make it the (free) rule of our thought: unstable, open, always emergent, in solution.

As I suggested last time, Grosz spends little to no time showing the failures of specific feminist theorists. Indeed, the fact that she includes Saba Mahmood’s work among her list of those caught in the cage of identity politics is enough to make the rest of her argument untrustworthy. Still, since it is perhaps a waste of my time to detail what any reader of feminist theory already knows (that it does theorize freedom, agency, and ontology in conceptually innovative ways and that it has done so in a variety of competing ways for a long time), I merely want to extend a point I made in my previous post on Grosz: that Deleuze’s ontology in Difference and Repetition is a “dark” one. In fact, he makes a rather unsettling claim in his original preface:

We believe in a world in which individuations are impersonal, and singularities are pre-individual: the splendour of the pronoun ‘one’ [. . .] What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. In this sense, it should have been an apocalyptic book. (DR xxi)

An apocalyptic book. We might take Deleuze to mean “apocalyptic” in the sense of “revelatory,” and yet the tone and tenor of this passage suggests otherwise: apocalyptic as in “world-ending.” Grosz’s naive alignment of how feminist theory should operate with Deleuze’s ontological mechanics completely ignores how violent his ontology can be.  Grosz later celebrates nature’s orientation toward the unknown — under the rubric of “sexual difference” — as “a site of renewal and regeneration” (Becoming Undone 151) as well as “the intensification of beauty over generations and [] the proliferation of colors, sounds, and forms that are pleasing to members of one’s own species” (165). But not only does she fail to mention nature as the site of ugliness, stasis, death, disaster, reduction, and extinction, she also utterly fails to underscore how traumatic Deleuze’s sense of thinking “otherwise” actually is, how violently destabilizing the contact between the ontic and the ontological can actually be for those of us living in the world, those of who require some form of recognition, stability, security, generality, identity, and epistemology. 

Indeed, consider this enigmatic passage from Difference and Repetition:

[. . .] concepts only ever designate possibilities. They lack the claws of absolute necessity — in other words, of an original violence inflicted upon thought; the claws of a strangeness or an enmity which alone would awaken thought from its natural stupor or eternal possibility: there is only involuntary thought, aroused but constrained within thought, and all the more absolutely necessary for being born, illegitimately, of fortuitousness in the world. Thought is primarily trespass and violence, the enemy, and nothing presupposes philosophy: everything begins with misosophy [. . .] Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounters [. . .] that [] can only be sensed. (DR 139)

I love this passage. In fact, my entire dissertation hinges on this moment in Deleuze’s ontology: that thought (or, thinking otherwise) is born not of good will or of an alignment with a good nature but the effect of an accidental, fundamental violence. The difference (in itself) which Grosz naively celebrates as that which feminist theory must simply choose to embrace is not, according to Deleuze, a space or an ethos or a force that I can will myself to imitate or inhabit. Difference in itself is — as Deleuze and Guattari will write in What Is Philosophy? (1991) — absolute chaos. It is the undulating, seething, daunting, brewing immanence of deep space and deep time. It does not, as Nietzsche so eloquently and mischievously shows us in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” care about us; it does not notice us; it merely runs and works and changes and expands and creates and destroys. This, I would contend (with Deleuze), is not a proper theoretical model upon which to base a progressive policy or politics or mode of existence.

So why do I love it? Because it is honest that a project that aims to bring about or to prefigure a “thinking otherwise” is a dangerous and risky one. It requires some sort of heuristic safeguard, some sort of space or territory of security that prudently guards against the chaos of difference even as it aims to draw something from it. I am with Grosz, then, in wanting to conceptualize projects in thinking, loving, and living otherwise. However, with Deleuze, I do not think this is done by abandoning identity or recognition but, rather, by better understanding them and by inventing heuristic, everyday modes that regulate where and when difference in itself might find me, encounter me, and teach me to see something I had not seen before. All of Deleuze’s philosophy, I argue, is an attempt to show how to negotiate exposure to chaos, how to draw components of chaos from difference (in itself), and how to introduce those components into activities that remain engaged with the very world that Grosz seems intent on abandoning.

Indeed, her support of a “cultural duty to nature” (BU 151), while admirable on a few levels, ultimately comes across as ignorant of how terrifying The New literally can be . . . and this critical and ultimately costly blindness comes across so frustratingly in her final paragraph. This paragraph comprises a frenzy of claims to newness that fail to say much of anything substantive. While I found my breath taken from me when looking up more images and analyses of indigenous Australian art (the subject of Grosz’s final chapter), I couldn’t help but feel that Grosz’s claims, for all their enthusiasm, do this art a stark injustice:

These works of Doreen Reid Nakamarra and the Martu women’s collective, among the many luminous, shimmering works produced by Indigenous artists over the last four decades, represent new trajectories, new possibilities for women artists. They represent a new recognition that women’s stories, sites, and experiences provide as much energy and inspiration for art activities as men’s and that perhaps the ways in which women undertake these project may prove different to and separate from those of men. They express a new vigor and energy, new forces of self-representation and self-production through the artistic production of new images, new techniques, new objects of representation, and in the process, they create new generations of artists to bring into existence a more hopeful future. This is an art that brings new forces into existence by elaborating natural and social forces themselves. It is an art thus directed to the future, an art beyond identity  an art directed to the forces of the real, to making a new kind of real. (BU 201)

I doubt these promises of newness, not because I doubt the women who create these masterpieces but because it remains utterly unclear, at the end of a long, frustrating book, what one is to do now. All of this is new? Well, then, what can I learn from it? What questions and problems does it make possible? What is the future this art opens for these and other women? Does this art replace the need for political recognition and self-determination? Is it really at odds with such aspirations? Is Becoming Undone really a model of how Deleuzian theorists want to intervene in policy and politics?

Again, I doubt it.

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