Matter That Matters: Materialist Feminism & Sexual Difference

bodies-that-matterReading Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art for the first time finally made materialism click for me. I had been feeling a growing dissatisfaction with social constructivism; and while I had been reading plenty of materialists who insisted on “matter that mattered,”  I never knew how to explain it, or at least without recourse to a crude reductionist paradigm. With Grosz, however, we see how differences (and in her case: sexual difference) create a beautiful tension from which art and culture spring forth. At last, a beautiful demonstration on why matter matters. Enjoy.

I want to start with some mythical sense of “the beginning.” “In the beginning” is chaos, the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, vibratory oscillations that constitute the universe. Chaos here may be understood not as absolute disorder but rather as a plethora of orders, forms, wills—forces that cannot be distinguished or differentiated from each other, both matter and its conditions for being otherwise, both the actual and the virtual in-distinguishably. Somewhere in this chaotic universe, in a relatively rare occurrence, through chance, molecular randomness generates [6] organic proteins, cells, proto-life. Such life can only exist and perpetuate itself to the extent that it can extract from the whirling and experientially overwhelming chaos that is nature, materiality, and their immanent forces those elements, substances, or processes it requires, can somehow bracket out or cast into shadow the profusion of forces that engulf and surround it so that it may incorporate what it needs. Henri Bergson, one of Deleuze’s major philosophical influences, understands this as a skeletalization of objects: we perceive only that which interests us, is of use to us, that to which our senses have, through evolution, been attuned (Bergson 1988). That is, life, even the simplest organic cell, carries its past with its present as no material object does. This incipient memory endows life with creativity, the capacity to elaborate an innovative and unpredictable response to stimuli, to react or, rather, simply to act, to enfold matter into itself, to transform matter and life in unpredictable ways.

Such elementary life can only evolve, become more, develop and elaborate itself to the extent that there is something fundamentally unstable about both its milieu and its organic constitution. The evolution of life can be seen not only in the increasing specialization and bifurcation or differentiation of life forms from each other, the elaboration and development of profoundly variable morphologies and bodily forms, but, above all, in their becoming-artistic, in their self-transformations, which exceed the bare requirements of existence. Sexual selection, the consequence of sexual difference or morphological bifurcation—one of the earliest upheavals in the evolution of life on earth and undoubtedly the most momentous invention that life has brought forth, the very machinery for guaranteeing the endless generation of morphological and genetic variation, the very mechanism of biological difference itself—is also, by this fact, the opening up of life to the indeterminacy of taste, pleasure, and sensation.6 Life comes to elaborate itself through making [7] its bodily forms and its archaic territories, pleasing (or annoying), performative, which is to say, intensified through their integration into form and their impact on bodies.

There is much “art” in the natural world, from the moment there is sexual selection, from the moment there are two sexes that attract each other’s interest and taste through visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory sensations. The haunting beauty of birdsong, the provocative performance of erotic display in primates, the attraction of insects to the perfume of plants are all in excess of mere survival, which Darwin understands in terms of natural selection: these forms of sexual selection, sexual attraction, affirm the excessiveness of the body and the natural order, their capacity to bring out in each other what surprises, what is of no use but nevertheless attracts and appeals. Each affirms an overabundance of resources beyond the need for mere survival, which is to say, to the capacity of both matter and life to exchange with each other, to enter into becomings that transform each. They attest to the artistic impact of sexual attraction, the becoming-other that seduction entails. This is not a homeostatic relation of stabilization, the build-up and expenditure of libidinal energies that Freud sees as the foundation of orgasmic sexuality, but a fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaptation that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing, the sensory for their own sake.

Every morning the Scenopoetes dentirostris, a bird of the Australian rain forests, cuts leaves, makes them fall to the ground, and turns them over so that the paler internal side contrasts with the earth. In this way it constructs a stage for itself like a ready-made; and directly above, on a creeper or branch, while fluffing its feathers beneath its beak to reveal their yellow roots, it sings a complex song made up from its own notes and, at intervals, those of other birds that it imitates; it is a complete artist. This is not a synaesthesia of the flesh but blocs of sensations in the territory—colors, postures, and sounds that sketch out a total work of art. These sonorous blocs are refrains; but there are also refrains of posture and color, and postures and colors are always being introduced into refrains: bowing low, straightening up, dancing in a circle and a line of colors. The whole of the refrain is the being of sensation. Monuments are refrains. In this respect art is continually haunted by the animal. (DELEUZE AND GUATTARI 1994:184)

In short, there is something about vibration, even in the most primitive of creatures, that generates pleasurable or intensifying passions, excites organs, and invests movements with greater force or energy. This force is not directed to survival, to the acquisition of pragmatic skills, except perhaps indirectly; instead it is linked to expression and intensification, to sexual selection, to the increasing differentiation of the sexes from each other and to the operative value of attractiveness and taste in the appeal that individuals of each sex exert (or do not exert) for their desired partners. In affirming the radical distinction between natural and sexual selection—that is, between skills and qualities that enable survival, and those that enable courtship and pleasure, which sometimes overlap but commonly do not—Darwin introduced an excessiveness into the development and transformation of species. Species are no longer natural collections or kinds developed to survive and compete, they are also the a posteriori and ultimately incalculable consequences of sexual taste, appeal, or attraction. Perhaps sexuality itself is not so much to be explained in terms of its ends or goals (which in sociobiological terms are assumed to be the [competitive] reproduction of maximum numbers of [surviving] offspring, where sexual selection is ultimately reduced to natural selection) as in terms of its forces, its effects (which can less contentiously be understood as pleasure in indeterminable forms), which are forms of bodily intensification. Vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances affect living bodies, not for any higher purpose but for pleasure alone. Living beings are vibratory beings: vibration is their mode of differentiation, the way they enhance and enjoy the forces of the earth itself. Music is “charming”; that is why it survives and why it is so culturally universal: [34]

The suspicion does not appear improbable that the progenitors of man, either the males or the females or both sexes, before they had acquired language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm. . .. The impassioned orator, bard or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excited the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which, at the extremely remote period, his half- human ancestors aroused each other’s ardent passions, during their mutual courtship and rivalry. (DARWIN 1981:337)

For Darwin, though not for most of his followers,8 our appreciation of and orientation toward music is one of the more primitive characteristics of life and is part of man’s most ancient animal heritage.9 Darwin suggests, in terms that perhaps ironically anticipate a feminism of difference, that the elaboration of the voice as an instrument of seduction must have occurred before the human was fully human, and before human cultures became patriarchal, where the female voice exerted a beauty and appeal perhaps as strong if not stronger than that of the male voice. Perhaps the musical manipulation and constitution of timbre, tone, pitch, rhythm, beat, melody holds as much appeal for the human as it does for man’s earliest primate ancestors:

So little is known about the use of the voice by the Quadrumana during the season of love, that we have hardly any means of [35] judging whether the habit of singing was first acquired by the male or the female progenitors of mankind. Women are generally thought to possess sweeter voices than men, and as far as this serves as any guide we may infer that they first acquired musical powers in order to attract the opposite sex. But if this is so, this must have occurred long ago, before the progenitors of man had become sufficiently human to treat and value their women merely as useful slaves. (DARWIN 1981:337)

 Chaos, Territory, Art, pgs 5-7, 12, 33-35.

6. See chapter 3 of Grosz 2004 for a discussion of the indeterminate, sometimes even deranging, effects that sexual selection has on the relentless operations of natural selection and its place in the generation of music, language, and the arts. I have used Irigaray’s understanding of an irreducible sexual difference to elaborate and explain Darwin’s account of sexual selection: his conception of the capacity to attract sexual partners is fundamentally linked to sexual bifurcation, the bodily differences—whatever they might be—between males and females and the various categories of bodily form all living bodies approximate. It is this difference that attracts, allures, appeals, though it does not do so in predictable or clear-cut ways. It is the indeterminacy of sexual appeal that ensure the processes of evolution are never predictable in advance. It is this indeterminacy that sociobiology and other deterministic branches of evolutionary theory seem unable to embrace.
8. There are of course a number of contemporary exceptions—evolutionary biologists or anthropologists who affirm Darwin’s hypothesis about the sexual origins of music and its relative independence from language acquisition. See, for example, Miller 2002.
9. As Darwin suggests, music and song are among the most primordial characteristics the human shares with other primates: “Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed . . . the capacity of producing, and no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we have every reason to believe that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period, for singing and music are extremely ancient arts. Poetry, which must be considered as the offspring of song, is likewise so ancient that many persons have felt astonished that it should have arisen during the earliest ages of which we have any record** (Darwin 1981:334).


4 thoughts on “Matter That Matters: Materialist Feminism & Sexual Difference

  1. While there’s a lot of ink on materialist feminism, if one is to go beyond Grosz (whose newest work on time, Darwin, and sexual difference is amazing), the next place to go would be Braidotti and Colebrook.

    In particular, I would suggest Colebrook’s work on vitalism, esp “On not becoming man: the materialist politics of unactualized potential,” Material Feminisms, 2008. I have a pdf copy if anyone want to take a peek.

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