Forms-of-Life

What is the reasoning, perceptive, ‘singing’ monad that is only in the passions, affection, and perceptions that it expresses?

Claire Colebrook suggests it’s a queer passive vitalism. Consider this:

In concrete terms, we might begin by thinking of gender. Active vitalism, at least in the form that Deleuze and Guattari trace back to Kant, regards all concepts and categories as originally imposed by the subject upon an otherwise meaningless life. Active vitalism might regard gender as one of the ways in which life or the social ‘constructs’ categories that differentiate an otherwise general or undifferentiated humanity: so the criticism of stereotypes (as clichés or rigid forms imposed upon life) would lead to an overthrow of rigid categories in favour of what we really are (as unique individuals) or would expose that there are no such things as individuals, only effects of gender as it is represented. Genders and kinds are known in the vague and general opposition between male and female, distinctions that are imposed upon life and that need to be reactivated by being traced back to their social and familial origins. By contrast, for Deleuze and Guattari’s passive vitalism genders, kinds and stereotypes are not categories imposed upon life that might be overcome or criticised in the name of a universal and self aware humanity; instead, it is life as a multiple and differentiating field of powers that expresses itself in various manners. Differentiation is not a false distinction imposed on an otherwise universal humanity. On the contrary, every female is an individuated actualisation of a genetic potential for sexual differentiation, and every aspect of that female body – ranging from chromosomal and hormonal composition to the stylisation of dress and comportment – is one highly individuated way of actualising a potentiality. So every woman is an actualisation of a potentiality to be female, while the difference between straight and gay gives further specification or distinction, and this would continue on and on to the smallest of differences, marking out not only each body, but also all the events, souls and affections within bodies. There is, then, no opposition between sexual difference and queerness. It is not the case that causes, such as feminism, that would aim to affirm the possibility of women’s becoming would – as gender differentiated – be opposed to movements of queerness that would strive to liberate bodies from gender norms. The key to Deleuze’s passive vitalism and the aesthetics that it mobilises lies in thinking difference beyond the kinds and generalisations of a politics of active vitalism. Whereas active vitalism would seek to return political processes to the will, intent and agency of individuals or subjects, passive vitalism is micropolitical: it attends to those differences that we neither intend, nor perceive, nor command.
Again, to return to a seeming tension between queer politics and gender politics, we might consider movements of trans-sexualism, cross-dressing and the politics of sexualities. On an active vitalist model the very identification of oneself as, say, ‘woman’ or ‘queer’ would be internally contradictory. In order to achieve political recognition I must at once be recognised as this or that being participating in some movement of identifiable collective will, but I must also realise that the demand for recognition from the normative matrix compromises my claim as a subject. The vital, on this model, is the spirit or subjective act that is always belied or compromised by actuality. It follows, then, that there would be a conflict between the vitality of political claims and the intrinsic compromise of political actuality. It also follows that those selves who would embrace certain kinds or distinctions – men who want to be regarded as naturally homosexual, women who want to be recognised as masculine, and bodies who regard their individuation as possible only outside or beyond gay, lesbian or gendered kinds – would have competing and exclusive political agendas. What is presupposed is a distinction between the active enunciating self of politics – the active subject whose claims must be heard in opposition to normativity – and the enunciated or represented individual defined by sex, gender, sexuality or other terms such as race, ethnicity or belief. Such an opposition is captured in what Gayatri Spivak refers to as strategic essentialism: on the one hand we acknowledge that politics requires kinds or essences, but we also see such terms as the effect of strategies, or activist decisions made for the sake of political efficacy. Such a term creates an ongoing problem and contradiction for any political movement that undertakes an overthrow or revolution in terms of transgression, for acting in the name of a subordinated term must begin from the already determined and subordinated field of positions.
The same problems and tensions apply to the tired dialectic between philosophies of rights on the one hand and multicultural and racial political claims of difference on the other. That is: there are those who would defend a ‘subject,’ universalism or radicalism opposed to all constituted identities (and would therefore reject any multiculturalisms or relativism that merely allowed competing bodies to exist alongside each other). At the same time there are those who oppose any such appeal to the subject, philosophy or critique as such insisting that one only knows the subject as this or that specified, individuated and socially determined form. In the first mode of critique in opposition to actualised terms in favour of a constituting decision we could place Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom insist that there is no intuitable domain of life in itself, for being is just that void that is given only in its disappearance. But for every insistence on the subject as a power that must be inferred as that which gives birth to the decision there are also a range of political debunkers who regard such appeals to an originating act as one more ideological obfuscation or mysticism; for all we have is an actual political field of determined bodies, always already given in terms of race, sex and gender. It is no surprise, perhaps, that today a series of ‘philosophers’ berate the ways in which multiculturalism (or the claim for difference) precludes an ethics of decision and the subject. For Alain Badiou subject events occur not through processes of inclusion and the allowance of any lifestyle whatever, but through acts that decide – with no prior justification in actuality – that a new situation has occurred; subjects are nothing other than such decisions.9 The entire possibility of ethics is not grounded on life and actuality, but on a subjective decision or break. Badiou’s ethics of the subject is ostensibly an anti-vitalism, insistently opposed to the grounding of political claims on some already existing actualisation of being or life. But it is just the vibrancy of the subject’s difference from the world as already actualised, the radical distinction of the subject as negation of an already lived order that places Badiou in stark contrast both with the undifferentiated and generalising inclusiveness of a weak multiculturalism that would seemingly appeal to differences among individuals, and the passive vitalism of Deleuze and Guattari who would regard the subject of identity politics and activism as not yet fully individuated. Far from seeing the subjective event as occurring in a break with the world of differences, as Badiou would do, or from regarding the profusion of different cultures and bodies as the very force of life, Deleuze and Guattari put forward a vitalism that is neither that of the decision nor of the differentiated body. Their vitalism is passive in its attention to the barely discerned, confused and queer differences that compose bodies.
Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that there is a vitalism that one can discern in Kant alerts us to a long-running privileging of the decision and the re-awakening of the subjective act in the face of a fall into everyday normality and normalisation. An active vitalism strives to overcome the imposed norms that would reduce an individual’s autonomy, but also takes into account the vitality of traditions, cultures and practices that constitute bodies as individuals and agents in the first place. A passive vitalism, by contrast, is one of re-singularisation or counter-actualisation: every differentiated political claim, whether that be in the name of the human, a sexualised or gendered individual, or a racial minority may begin with a molar politics, but has the potential to become minoritarian, and it is this potentiality of queering that is properly vital.

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6 thoughts on “Forms-of-Life

  1. What are you citing here of Claire Colebrooks? This actually sounds somewhat similar to work that Hilary, HJM at Prodigies and Monsters, has done on Deleuze.

  2. I’m wondering, given this post and it’s examples; this passive vitalism against the subject of decision, suggests that you may be saying that a Deleuzian Politics, this weak vitalistic politics, would be pro-life; while the deciding subject would be, pro-choice. In short, to put it in an actual political conflict, you have Deleuze as a Pro-Lifer and Zizek as Pro-Choice. That seems to me to be odd…

    1. I understand the confusion.

      First, and most simply: Your argument is the result of a mincing of phrases.
      [For instance: if John is anti-union, then he’s against gay marriage?] [And: I hardly think Zizek can be characterized by ‘choice’, he is, after all, famous for his combination of The Act and The Terror – his reading of Lenin & Robbespierre]

      Second, the true contrast between each of the two positions are their different ecologies of forces. Subject-centered decisionism, with it’s emphasis on norms and the subjective response to those norms. Versus body-focused vitalism that looks to the passions, affections, and perceptions, and the environment that produces them.

      Third, the stakes. “The point is that you can have an argument and you can win the argument rationally, but then people can still not behave in such a way as to enact that rational conclusion, and so your political goals are still not realised. That’s where the question of desire comes in, and the analysis of microfascism. Microfascism is a crucial issue here; it’s about clinging on to things that consciously you recognise you ought to have abandoned, but you cling onto them nevertheless.”

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

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

      Micropolitics is a form of pragmatism insofar as it focuses on life, but this is a life of passive vitalism where we attend to all the minor, less than human, not yet personalised desires that enter any field of social relations.
      If pragmatism refers questions of truth and right back to the life that is maximised and enabled, the pragmatism of micro-politics considers the lives of which we are composed. We would need to take something as general and majoritarian as the right to reproduction and look at the desires from which it is composed, some of which would be ‘sad’ or reactive (my desire to be like every other normal family, and which diminish my power by referring my
      body to what it is not yet and may never be); but other components would be joyful (if I imagined an other life as creating potentialities beyond my own imagination, perhaps also compelling me to feel different affects beyond those of autonomy and self-management). Every body is queer, not because there is no body that actually attains the ideal embodied in any norm (say, where there is no woman who fulfils the figure of ‘woman’); rather the queerness is positive. No body fully knows its own powers, and can only become joyful (or live) not by attaining the ideal it has of itself – being who I really am – but by maximising that in ourselves which exceeds the majoritarian, or which is not yet actualised. Counter-actualisation or re-singularisation takes bodies as they are, with their identifying and determining features, and then asks how the potentials that enabled those features might be expanded. If I identify myself as having a certain gender or sexuality then I can either regard this (in active vitalism) as a form of strategic essentialism, where I decide to adopt an identity for the sake of political efficacy while remaining aware that who I am as a subject is radically different from any identifying term; or (as in passive vitalism) I would recognise that gender, sex and other defining features emanate from histories, passions and relations that I have not lived but which might be retrieved.

      From the position of passive vitalism one would need to look at the composition of bodies as themselves encounters. Deleuze’s book on Leibniz cites a seemingly politically and sexually neutral example: a body at a desk is at once composed of inclinations towards a drink in a club (anticipating the hum of the surrounds, the coolness of the drink, the conviviality of the atmosphere) competing with the desire to continue writing (the anticipated sense of a job done, the interest in solving a problem). What is required in such a situation is a ‘differential calculus’ for it will always be the smallest imperceptible inclinations that lead to a decision one way or the other. The same idea can be extended politically. Our sympathies, affects, desires and acceptances as social and political beings are composed of micro-perceptions that barely come to awareness. One of the key ways in which Deleuze and Guattari see such counter-actualisation coming into being is through art.

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