on Judith Butler’s Reading of Deleuze

note: what follows is a reflection on mikko tuhkanen’s article ‘performativity and becoming’, found in cultural critique, no. 72 (spring, 2009), pp. 1-35, published by: university of minnesota press

When we think about the body, do we simply reduce it to terms of discourse? Do we dress it in representational terms thereby limiting our understanding of it relative to historical context and social norms? By invoking the body as a product of discourse, what winds up being theorized about is not the material, or lived-body at all. While arguments for understanding the body as a product of social or symbolic construction provide a way to analyze power relations between bodies and society, such arguments only serve to confirm the potestas (extensive power) of social forces while displacing the potentia (intensive power) of lived-bodies.

This is why Spinoza wonders what a body can do. Because we simply do not know. All of our ideas about the body are merely impressions or indications mediated via affects that are always at the outset inadequate.

Butler is sympathetic towards the Lacanian premise that a critical position is never ahistorical, never outside a realm of symbolic representation. However, just because it is argued that there is nothing ‘outside’ this world of symbolic construction, does not mean it is a philosophy of immanence; no, this position is but a repetition of a certain tendency towards reasserting transcendence/moralism– it is a consequence of humanism, the notion that life is particular to ‘humans’, or that life originates from the Word (logos/discourse).

In her text subjects of desire (pp. 214-15), Butler contrasts Lacan’s understanding of the symbolic order to “Deleuze’s notion of an extradiscursive realm, which suggests an ‘arcadian vision of precultural libidinal chaos’…[Butler] writes that Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘appeal…to a precultural eros ignores the Lacanian insight that all desire is linguistically and culturally constructed'” (9)

here Tuhkanen notes how Butler prefers Lacan’s “insistence on the cultural immanence of desire and the Law” over that of Deleuze’s “understanding of natural desire that has been repressed…of the ceaselessly disruptive outside…a desire that has a natural or metaphysical structure said to exist either prior or posterior to linguistic or cultural laws”. While it is true we are born into a pre-programmed and codified world, thrust into a narrative mid-sentence, it is also true that these cultural forms have to be ‘accepted’. Meaning, social codes and paradigms don’t simply just impose themselves and enter into minds by sheer force. Sure, there’s plenty of coercion involved but the subject also plays a part in receiving, and passively accepting these codes. But for Deleuze, the ‘capacity to be affected’ by such codes is precisely the ‘natural desire’ or degree of power of the body that is prediscursive. From Tuhkanen’s description of Butler’s interpretation of Deleuze, Butler seems to be missing an understanding of the importance of affectivity in Deleuzian philosophy. It’s not that social forces or symbolic signifiers aren’t salient factors when trying to understand the body; rather, the way in which the body processes the affects of such forces is already indicative of a pre-reflexive capacity/power (potentia).

For Butler, “there is nothing outside the symbolic, historicizable realm, but existing forms of power can be appropriated subversively, that is, repeated inaccurately in ways that open a future horizon unlike current symbolic existence.” (10) The irony; that a pragmatic stance uniquely American is taken by someone who argues how one cannot theorize outside of the context/horizon within which one is embedded. it comes off almost patriotic, if not cyclical. All chiding aside, Butler argues that knowledge and experience are always going to be socially, historically, and contextually situated; that despite prevailing power dynamics one can still undermine such normativity by means of performance, satire, or aesthetics.

Here is where the anthropocentric myopia of Butler’s position becomes most obvious. Butler’s criticism of Deleuze’s appeal to a ‘precultural libidinal chaos’ simultaneously suggests that Butler forgets how life (intensive energy) isn’t something particular to humans (humanism). Butler’s own appeal to a “future horizon unlike…” would nonetheless still be a continuation of the same symbolic existence, or normative horizon– try as one may to ‘repeat inaccurately’– so long as it does not permit of the inhuman. What I mean by ‘inhuman’ is that which expresses the ‘precultural libidinal chaos’ that Deleuze valorizes, such as emergent phenomena found in nature, or the human body as ’embrained’ (the body having an intellect apart from, or parallel to, the mind). In other words, Delezue’s assertion of a pre-discursive desire– which is a body’s intensive capacity for affectivity– is the missing element by which a transformational trauma could be affected within a normative ‘symbolic realm’ (representational consciousness). But it is also the very thing Butler cannot admit of; indeed, there is nothing beyond the symbolic realm precisely because it is foreclosed by humanism, an attitude that adopts the notion that man is the measure of all things, and the master of his house. But as Freud so infamously pointed out, the ego is not even the master in its own house.

sure, what is ‘repeated inaccurately’, or performed, by the body may open up new horizons of understanding (after all, does this not describe art?)…but the value in this repetition will always be tied to meaning relative to a master signifier, which in turn is inevitably re-codified into prevailing power dynamics of potestas. That this inaccurate repetition can be enacted at all suggests the presence of a body’s disruptive potentia. The question then becomes…can this repetition open a future horizon that is in turn open to what is ‘outside the symbolic’, that may traumatically disrupt its normativity?

There are expressions of life that resist symbolization. Indeed, each body does this because as Spinoza says, we do not even know what a body can do. But I’m also thinking about Nature. If capitalism is this historical realm outside of which there is nothing, then any potentially heretical repetition would only feed the systemic process of production, commodification, re-production and consumption. This is something Braidotti specifically addresses in her work. I think, based on this text, no matter how much Butler tries to keep the possibility of an uncertain future open, she ultimately is operating within a closed loop. There may be some semblance of movement (via the inaccurate repetitions), but it’s not change. It’s running in place.

“…the error in thinking becoming as the realization of possibilities is that this process can imagine the future only in terms of that which has already come to be. Realization operates through a temporal loop where we retroactively posit in the past the possibilities that ‘will have been’ realized: ‘the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of mind which throws its image back into the past, once it has been enacted’.” (20)

the possible already has an imaginable form, it is preformed, we just have to enact it– and for many thinkers, this constitutes what is political subjectivity. But as the above Bergsonian quote suggests, the problem is we’re always in a state of jet lag, always a step behind the times, our minds temporally out of sync with our bodies. Our bodies are affected by a great many things, and only on occasion do our minds ever cognize such affects, and usually only after some duration has passed. This state of jet lag inhibits us from realizing too many ‘virtual’ actualities that are already latent in our bodies as possibilities. It’s to our detriment that only when a thing already is do we realize that it was at all possible. Recognition, in Butler’s case, is reactive. And as such, rather than realizing possibility, the recognition of a body’s performativity limits the potential of its possibility insofar as it remains unaffected by its temporal displacement.

“Performativity does not allow us to think forms of existence that radically diverge from what is currently available to us.” (22) as in, the possible that already is but hasn’t been granted recognition or legitimacy. Here, Butler also seems beholden to identity politics, as if recognition necessarily requires visibility. This line of thinking simply would not hold water when challenged by the non-binary, un-codifiable complexity of the ethnically and/or sexually ambiguous/fluid– liminal bodies– who would not conform to nor identify with any ‘possible’ category precisely because none could exist, lest these categories themselves become equally ambiguous and fluid to match, resulting in somewhat of a reductio ad absurdum. All to say, there is no such thing for such liminal bodies as ‘an already was’.

while it may be pragmatic to frame discourse about the body within a historical context and symbolic realm, doing so willfully re-subjects oneself to normativity in a way that invokes the spinozan question: why do we pursue our servitude as if it were our salvation? sure, many things can only be but socially constructed, but only relative to complexity. the more profanely complex a body (the higher the capacity for affectivity) , the less it can be reduced to social construction or symbolic terms of discourse precisely because such bodies are affected in ways that the mind, let alone language and discourse, has yet to catch up to.

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