philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Becoming-Woman with Virginia Woolf

[This is rather personal, as it was written as a letter to a friend, but since the dominant theme is one of depersonalization and impersonal affects, it seems appropriate. The refrain of the impersonal should manage to exceed and transform the personal aspects. I'm going to expand my engagement with the concept of becoming-woman soon, including its inheritance from Lacan (affirming feminine jouissance, denying the once-and-for-all fixity of unconscious sexuation), and the oft perplexing claim that there is no 'becoming-man'.]

I've always had a rather distant relationship with feminism, feminist theory, and the like. To be honest, I've maintained a safe distance from most everything until only very recently, and so this instance is not peculiar. My forays into metaphysics over the last few years have given me new impetus and passion for intellectual exploration, and this has led inevitably to the rich field of feminist theory, the feminine in philosophy, etc. And yet, while the problematic of feminism has become far more important to me, and far more resonant or interconnected with my own, I must admit there remains a distance between myself and the field that I have yet to traverse.

Perhaps it has to do with the difficulty – indeed, the pain, the misery – that has always abided between myself and the women I have loved. And yet this difficulty, this distance, is to an extent inconsequential, as it hasn't prevented on my part encounters with the feminine that attain a consistency and force unlike that of theory, of history, of lust or love. Such encounters are definitive of my very soul, my ownmost, unstrippable passion. These have come and gone, more often than not with a haste that I regret, and they extend beyond those with femininity, reaching into musicality, animality, machination, schizophrenia, childishness, the cosmos...

What I'm referring to is becoming – a Nietzschean, Bergsonian, Deleuzo-Guattarian, and staunchly anti-Hegelian concept of becoming – that is, a becoming that is not bound by the being that becomes, nor by that which is 'coming-to-be'. The encounters I speak of are certainly not worldly, and never depended on any woman, 'real' or imaginary, whom I fantasized about becoming, any more than they depended on my own being a man. They are secret encounters, molecular, often imperceptible encounters, in which 'I' have become no less impersonal than 'a woman' I happen upon. Such encounters will have nothing of beings, of stable, fixed (id)entities: this molecular woman and this molecular man are swept away by a mutual becoming; they are no more than the singular forces unleashed, the irreducibly unique compositions drawn; a becoming whose 'origin' or 'goal' is unthinkable, as the man and the woman have become indiscernible in this singular constellation of force, motion, affect – a dance. This dance is not yours, not mine, nor is it reducible to the two of us as individuals, as it escapes our individuality, our definite attributes and identities, and carries us away.

Imagine my excitement, my joy, upon hearing Virginia Woolf express with such clarity the sense of the encounters, the becomings-feminine that have so blessed my meager existence. Please excuse me as I quote at length from A Room of One's Own [available online here; I'm quoting from part six]:
At this moment, as so often happens in London, there was a complete lull and suspension of traffic. Nothing came down the street; nobody passed. A single leaf detached itself from the plane tree at the end of the street, and in that pause and suspension fell. Somehow it was like a signal falling, a signal pointing to a force in things which one had overlooked. It seemed to point to a river, which flowed past, invisibly, round the corner, down the street, and took people and eddied them along...Now it was bringing from one side of the street to the other diagonally a girl in patent leather boots, and then a young man in a maroon overcoat; it was also bringing a taxicab; and it brought all three together at a point directly beneath my window; where the taxi stopped; and the girl and the young man stopped; and they got into the taxi; and then the cab glided off as if it were swept on by the current elsewhere.

The sight was ordinary enough; what was strange was the rhythmical order with which my imagination had invested it; and the fact that the ordinary sight of two people getting into a cab had the power to communicate something of their own seeming satisfaction. The sight of two people coming down the street and meeting at the corner seems to ease the mind of some strain, I thought, watching the taxi turn and make off. Perhaps to think, as I had been thinking these two days, of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort. It interferes with the unity of the mind. Now that effort had ceased and that unity had been restored by seeing two people come together and get into a taxicab.

I can not express enough how this passage has affected me, and has given words to something that has escaped my own articulation. For what occurs in this chance encounter if not the very becoming of which I have spoken? It is not that the man 'acts like' a woman, imitates or impersonates a woman, any more than the reverse. It has as little to do with the man's being as such than with the woman's. There is a whole impersonal field of forces at play: a lull in traffic; a falling leaf; a passing taxi, a becoming-machinic; a becoming-river, a force of the river enters into composition with a force of the taxi and with a vague masculinity, a vague femininity, a becoming-feminine and becoming-masculine as forces that escape the persons and that invest and enter into composition with the entire field. There are attractions that have nothing to do with sexuality, or at least not as it is commonly understood.

These encounters, these becomings that escape from being – but not without sweeping the beings involved into a pure dancing – they are so important to Woolf. As she says, “
the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd...” The greatest power of the mind is that of becoming that emerges like a bloom from a chance encounter. It is this power to alter, to produce alterity, to set free a difference, a force of difference unbound from identity, “a force in things which one had overlooked”: this is what Woolf so profoundly discovers in concluding her discussion of 'women and fiction'. “Nothing is required to be held back.” This discovery impels her to question the stability of the categories of 'man' and 'woman', or the importance thereof, in the mind, that is, in this power of becoming and altering.

Then what, if not the binary opposition of identities? What characterizes gender, if we are not to carelessly disregard it? Her answer here is decisive: rather than an amateurish understanding that would see in every mind a struggle between some masculine and some feminine principle, a suppression of one by the other, she proposes an image of harmony and cooperation (as dancing requires) between the masculine and feminine, exemplified by the androgyne. Harmony does not reduce to either note, but involves a resonance
between them, emerging from their encounter, that carries both into a new field of sonic potentiality (dissonance, consonance, the interval, song). Similarly, the power of androgyny is not in a simple imitation of one gender by the other, but rather in a capacity to free the elements, the forces and affects, of each gender, to give them free reign, to allow them to play, to dance, to compose and decompose within singular encounters. She takes Coleridge's claim that the mind is androgynous to mean just this: if the mind cannot free becomings-feminine and becomings-masculine from 'woman' and 'man', if it cannot become-other and affirm the chance of the encounter, it will be too rigid, too brittle, it will surely crack.

Androgyny thus becomes the highest, most brilliant power of gender and the thought of gender, the power with which they attain creativity, alterity, freedom. “[T]
he androgynous mind is resonant and porous; transmits emotion without impediment; is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” What a radiant notion! Androgynous thought is thereby able to escape the binary distinction of man and woman in order to free the creative potentialities it so often stifles and suffocates. Indeed, there is a deathly air about such a clean cut duality:
It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman–manly or man–womanly...And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.
This fertility that is affirmed in such a consummation must be rescued from the all-to-easy allusion to sexual intercourse and conception, as there is no longer a simple man, a simple woman, a simple act, but rather a complex dance between two androgynes (I say two, but each of them is already so many!). The fertility is becoming, and the consummation is the chance encounter that frees the forces so often captured and integrated by clear-cut identities. Such becomings-feminine as we find in the story of Shakespeare's sister, these are the stuff of creation, true creation. It is not a simple 'imagined' history, but rather draws out an androgynous trait from Shakespeare himself, a becoming that passes between him and Woolf in the proximity of their encounter. If anyone has shown the importance of becomings, and of becomings-feminine in particular, Woolf has done so here. I might say that my own discovery of these becomings, of this androgyny that clandestinely wanders across the territories of my existence, has been the most powerful and important experience for my own relationship with feminism and femininity in general. Whatever occurs when I do begin to traverse the 'safe distance' I've kept between myself and feminist theory and activism proper will surely involve these becomings-feminine, these androgynous encounters, that I've treasured so much.

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