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Metamorphoses
Metamorphoses
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Metamorphoses

Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming

Rosi Braidotti

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📖 eBook - ePub

Metamorphoses

Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming

Rosi Braidotti

About This Book

The discussions about the ethical, political and human implications of the postmodernist condition have been raging for longer than most of us care to remember. They have been especially fierce within feminism. After a brief flirtation with postmodern thinking in the 1980s, mainstream feminist circles seem to have turned their back on the staple notions of poststructuralist philosophy. Metamorphoses takes stock of the situation and attempts to reset priorities within the poststructuralist feminist agenda.

Cross-referring in a creative way to Deleuze's and Irigaray's respective philosophies of difference, the book addresses key notions such as embodiment, immanence, sexual difference, nomadism and the materiality of the subject. Metamorphoses also focuses on the implications of these theories for cultural criticism and a redefinition of politics. It provides a vivid overview of contemporary culture, with special emphasis on technology, the monstrous imaginary and the recurrent obsession with 'the flesh' in the age of techno-bodies.

This highly original contribution to current debates is written for those who find changes and transformations challenging and necessary. It will be of great interest to students and scholars of philosophy, feminist theory, gender studies, sociology, social theory and cultural studies.

Information

Publisher
Polity
Year
2013
ISBN
9780745665740
1
Becoming Woman, or Sexual Difference Revisited
‘I am a violent being, full of fiery storms and other catastrophic phenomena. As yet I can’t do more than begin this and begin again because I have to eat myself, as if my body is food, in order to write.’
Kathy Acker, ‘The end of the world of white men’, p. 66
‘Imagine, if you will, a lesbian cross-dresser who pumps iron, looks like Chiquita Banana, thinks like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talks like Dorothy Parker, has the courage of Anita Hill, the political acumen of Hillary Clinton and is as pissed off as Valerie Solanis, and you really have something to worry about.’
Marcia Tucker, ‘The attack of the giant Ninja mutant Barbies’, p. 28
Feminism shares with poststructuralist philosophies not only the sense of a crisis of the Logos, but also the need for renewed conceptual creativity and for politically informed cartographies of the present. One of the aims of feminist practice is to overthrow the pejorative, oppressive connotations that are built not only into the notion of difference, but also into the dialectics of Self and Other. This transmutation of values could lead to a re-assertion of the positivity of difference by enabling a collective re-appraisal of the singularity of each subject in their complexity. In other words, the subject of feminism is not Woman as the complementary and specular other of man but rather a complex and multi-layered embodied subject who has taken her distance from the institution of femininity. ‘She’ no longer coincides with the disempowered reflection of a dominant subject who casts his masculinity in a universalistic posture. She, in fact, may no longer be a she, but the subject of quite another story: a subject-in-process, a mutant, the other of the Other, a post-Woman embodied subject cast in female morphology who has already undergone an essential metamorphosis.
Feminist philosophies of sexual difference are historically embedded in the decline and crisis of Western humanism, the critique of phallogocentrism and the crisis of European identity. The philosophical generation that proclaimed the ‘death of Man’ led to the rejection of humanism, marked the implosion of the notion of Europe, and also contributed to disassembling the package of geo-political specificity of Western discourses and especially of philosophy. Irigaray broadens the range of her intervention to cover spatio-temporal co-ordinates and a number of many constitutive relations, including ethnicity and especially religion. The fact that the notion of ‘difference’ as pejoration goes to the heart of the European history of philosophy and of the ‘metaphysical cannibalism’ of European thought makes it a foundational concept. It has been colonized by hierarchical and exclusionary ways of thinking, which means that historically it has also played a constitutive role not only in events that Europe can be proud of, such as the Enlightenment, but also in darker chapters of our history, such as in European fascism and colonialism. Because the history of difference in Europe has been one of lethal exclusions and fatal disqualifications, it is a notion for which critical intellectuals must make themselves accountable. Feminist ethics and politics of location can be of inspiration in meeting this challenge.
The politics of location refers to a way of making sense of diversity among women within the category of ‘sexual difference’ understood as the binary opposite of the phallogocentric subject. In feminism, these ideas are coupled with that of epistemological and political accountability seen as the practice that consists in unveiling the power locations which one inevitably inhabits as the site of one’s identity. The practice of accountability (for one’s embodied and embedded locations) as a relational, collective activity of undoing power differentials is linked to two crucial notions: memory and narratives. They activate the process of putting into words, that is to say bringing into symbolic representation, that which by definition escapes consciousness.
A ‘location’, in fact, is not a self-appointed and self-designed subject-position. It is a collectively shared and constructed, jointly occupied spatio-temporal territory. A great deal of our location, in other words, escapes self-scrutiny because it is so familiar, so close, that one does not even see it. The ‘politics of location’ consequently refers to a process of consciousness-raising that requires a political awakening (Grewal and Kaplan 1994) and hence the intervention of others. ‘Politics of locations’ are cartographies of power which rest on a form of self-criticism, a critical, genealogical self-narrative; they are relational and outside-directed. This means that ‘embodied’ accounts illuminate and transform our knowledge of ourselves and of the world. Thus, black women’s texts and experiences make white women see the limitations of our locations, truths and discourses. Feminist knowledge is an interactive process that brings out aspects of our existence, especially our own implication with power, that we had not noticed before. In Deleuzian language, it ‘de-territorializes’ us: it estranges us from the familiar, the intimate, the known, and casts an external light upon it; in Foucault’s language, it is micro-politics, and it starts with the embodied self. Feminists, however, knew this well before either Foucault or Deleuze theorized it in their philosophy.
Where ‘figurations’ of alternative feminist subjectivity, like the womanist, the lesbian, the cyborg, the inappropriate(d) other, the nomadic feminist, and so on, differ from classical ‘metaphors’ is precisely in calling into play a sense of accountability for one’s locations. They express materially embedded cartographies and as such are self-reflexive and not parasitic upon a process of metaphorization of ‘others’. Self-reflexivity is, moreover, not an individual activity, but an interactive process which relies upon a social network of exchanges. The figurations that emerge from this process act as the spotlight that illuminates aspects of one’s practice which were blind spots before. By extension, new figurations of the subject (nomadic, cyborg, Black, etc.) function like conceptual personae. As such, they are no metaphor, but rather on the critical level, materially embedded, embodying accounts of one’s power-relations. On the creative level they express the rate of change, transformation or affirmative deconstruction of the power one inhabits. ‘Figurations’ materially embody stages of metamorphosis of a subject position towards all that the phallogocentric system does not want it to become.
A range of new, alternative subjectivities have indeed emerged in the shifting landscapes of postmodernity. They are contested, multi-layered and internally contradictory subject-positions, which does not make them any less ridden with power-relations. They are hybrid and in-between social categories for whom traditional descriptions in terms of sociological categories such as ‘marginals’, ‘migrants’, or ‘minorities’ are, as Saskia Sassen (1994) suggests, grossly inadequate. Looked at from the angle of ‘different others’, this inflationary production of different differences simultaneously expresses the logic of capitalist exploitation, but also the emerging subjectivities of positive and self-defined others. It all depends on one’s locations or situated perspectives. Far from seeing this as a form of relativism, I see it as an embedded and embodied form of enfleshed materialism. Put in a more feminist frame with Irigaray, the differences proliferating in late postmodern or advanced capitalism are the ‘others’ of the Same. Translated into a Deleuzian perspective, these differences, whether they are large or quantitatively small, are not qualitative and consequently do not alter the logic or the power of that Same, the Majority, the phallogocentric master-code. In late postmodernity the centre merely becomes fragmented, but that does not make it any less central, or dominating. It is important to resist the uncritical reproduction of Sameness on a molecular, global or planetary scale. I don’t want to conceptualize differences in a Hegelian framework of dialectical interdependence and mutual consumption of self and other. I do see them instead as being disengaged from this chain of reversals in order to engage in quite a different logic: a nomadic, or rhizomatic one.
The work on power, difference and the politics of location offered by post-colonial and anti-racist feminist thinkers like Gayatri Spivak (1989b), Stuart Hall (1990), Paul Gilroy (1987; 1993), Avter Brah (1993), Helma Lutz et al. (1996), Philomena Essed (1991), Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias (1989) and many others who are familiar with the European situation helps us illuminate the paradoxes of the present. One of the most significant effects of late postmodernity in Europe is the phenomenon of trans-culturality, or cultures clashing in a pluri-ethnic or multicultural European social space. World-migration – a huge movement of population from periphery to centre, working on a world-wide scale of ‘scattered hegemonies’ (Grewal and Kaplan 1994) – has challenged the claim to the alleged cultural homogeneity of European nation-states and of the incipient European Union. Present-day Europe is struggling with multiculturalism at a time of increasing racism and xenophobia. The paradoxes, power-dissymmetries and fragmentations of the present historical context rather require that we shift the political debate from the issue of differences between cultures to differences within the same culture. In other words, one of the features of our present historical condition is the shifting grounds on which periphery and centre confront each other, with a new level of complexity which defies dualistic or oppositional thinking.
Feminist theory argues that if it is the case that a socio-cultural mutation is taking place in the direction of a multi-ethnic, multi-media society, then the transformation cannot affect only the pole of ‘the others’. It must equally dislocate the position and the prerogative of ‘the Same’, the former centre. In other words, what is changing is not merely the terminology or metaphorical representation of subjects, but the very structure of subjectivity, social relations and the social imaginary that support it. It is the syntax of social relations, as well as their symbolic representation, that is in upheaval. The customary standard-bearers of Euro-centric phallocentrism no longer hold in a civil society that is, among others, sexed female and male, multicultural and not inevitably Christian. More than ever, the question of social transformation begs that of representation: what can the male, white, Christian monotheistic symbolic do for them? The challenges, as well as the anxieties, evoked by the question of emerging subjects-in-process mark patterns of becoming that require new forms of expression and representation, that is to say socially mediated forms which need to be assessed critically. Feminist theory is a very relevant and useful navigational tool in these stormy times of locally enacted, global phenomena, i.e. ‘G-local’ changes.1
Whether in relation to media cases such as that of Princess Diana, or of social phenomena such as poverty and marginalization, one often hears the term ‘the feminization’ of postmodern and post-industrial cultures. A highly problematic term, if ever there was one; it is symptomatic, in so far as it expresses the crisis of masculinity and of male domination, but it also refers to a normative level of ‘soft values’, such as flexibility, emotionality, concern or care. These ‘soft’ qualities clash against but are not incompatible with the rather rigid protocols which still govern the public sphere and reflect not only its male-dominated structure, but also the masculine-saturated imaginary that supports it. That these ‘transformations of intimacy’ (Giddens 1994) can be expressed in terms of ‘feminization’, though their relationship to real-life women and their experiences is far from direct, or transparent, is an endless source of wonder for me. I would therefore prefer to translate this allegedly ‘feminized’ process into the need to develop socially more flexible, multi-layered approaches to access and participation in contemporary technological culture. At both the micro- and the macro-levels of the constitution of subjectivity, we need more complexities both in terms of genders and across ethnicities, class and age. This is the social agenda that needs to be addressed. The inflationary discourse of the ‘feminine’ has never proved particularly helpful for women and ‘others’, unless it is supported by a healthy dose of feminist consciousness.
Black, post-colonial and feminist critics have, however, rightfully not spared criticism of the paradoxes as well as the rather perverse division of labour that has emerged in postmodernity. According to this paradox it is the thinkers who are located at the centre of past or present empires who are actively deconstructing the power of the centre – thus contributing to the discursive proliferation and consumption of former ‘negative’ others. Those same others, however – especially in post-colonial, but also in post-fascist and post-communist societies – are rather more keen to reassert their identity, rather than to deconstruct them. The irony of this situation is not lost on any of the interlocutors: think for instance of the feminist philosophers saying: ‘how can we undo a subjectivity we have not even historically been entitled to yet?’ Or the black and post-colonial subjects who argue that it is now their historical turn to be self-assertive. And if the white, masculine, ethnocentric subject wants to ‘deconstruct’ himself and enter a terminal crisis, then – so be it! The point remains that ‘difference’ emerges as a central – albeit contested and paradoxical – notion, which means that a confrontation with it is historically inevitable, as we – postmodern subjects – are historically condemned to our history. Accounting for them through adequate cartographies consequently remains a crucial priority.
In this chapter I will continue building my cartography by focusing on issues of embodiment and immanence, reading especially Irigaray with Deleuze so as to compose my own brand of enfleshed materialism.
Materialism: embodiment and immanence
The body strikes back
If I were to think in figurations and locate the issues of embodiment in my cartography, so as to stress some of the paradoxes of political sensibilities of this end of millennium in Europe, I would pick two contradictory ones: the public’s schizoid reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the nameless bodies of thousands of asylum seekers in the European Union today.
Alternatively labelled – depending on one’s politics – as ‘a phenomenon of mass hysteria’, or as ‘the floral revolution’ – analogous to the Eastern Europeans’ ‘velvet revolution’ – the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana have already entered the realm of political mythology. They were also one of the biggest ever media events focused on a single individual. What is most extraordinary about the com/passionate reaction of the British public is the fact that it consisted of an overwhelming majority of young women, gays and people of colour. The excluded or marginal social subjects, those whom Thatcherism had forgotten or swept aside, bounced back in to the political and media arena with a vengeance. It was the return of the repressed, not with a bang but a whimper. It formed a suitable complement to the landslide that had brought ‘New Labour’ to power in the UK a few months before and to a renewal of respect for emotions, affectivity and the role they can and should play in public and political life. It was also a powerful expression of the continuing potency of the white Goddess as an object of collective worship (Davies and Smith 1999). That it was subsequently denied and repressed as a ritual of collective bonding and outpouring of emotions merely confirms the symptomatic value of the event. One of the things I find relevant about Princess Diana is the fact that she was a woman in full transformation. In other words, she was more interesting for what she was becoming than for what she actually was. I think this dynamic and transformative dimension is crucial to understanding Diana’s charisma. As Julie Burchill put it: ‘She was never a plaything: she was always a work in progress’ (Burchill 1998: 44). This was not lacking in opportunism, as Rushdie suggested, in a less charitable vein: ‘Diana was not given to using words like “semiotics”, but she was a capable semiotician of herself. With increasing confidence, she gave us the signs by which we might know her as she wished to be known’ (Rushdie 1997: 68).
By way of counterpoint, and in order not to confine the cartography of the body within the parameters of the dominant cultural code, I want to turn to another significant case. The second image therefore is that of endless and nameless women, men and child refugees, or asylum-seekers, who have been uprooted from their homes and countries in the many micro-wars that are festering across the globe, including in Europe, at the dawn of the third millennium. The century-old virus of nationalism combines, in contemporary Europe, with the destabilizing effects created by the post-communist world order, as well as the globalization process. The end result is an influx of refugees and a rise in violence, exclusion, racism and human misery that has no equivalent in post-war Europe. These two examples represent for me two sides of the same coin, which is the saturation of our social space by media images and representations.
This results in positioning embodied subjects, and especially the female ones, at the intersection of some formidable locations of power: visibility and media representations produced a consumeristic approach to images in a dissonant or internally differentiated manner. Female embodied subjects in process today include interchangeably the highly groomed body of Princess Diana (like Marilyn Monroe before her) and the highly disposable bodies of women, men and children in war-torn lands.
At both the macro and the micro levels the body is caught in a network of power effects mostly induced by technology. This is the driving force of the globalization system and the trans-national economy which engender continuous constitutive contradictions at the ‘g-local’ level. Manuel Castells (1996), in his seminal work on network societies, argues that technology is absolutely crucial to the changes that have structured the global societies. Post-industrial societies are operating under the acceleration of digitally-driven ‘new’ cyber-economies. Whether we take bio-technologies, or the new information and communication technologies, the evidence is overwhelming. Capital flow, undeterred by topological or territorial constraints, has achieved a double goal. It has simultaneously ‘dematerialized’ social reality and hardened it. Suffice it to think of media events such as Princess Diana’s funeral, or the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing of Kosovo – which are experienced in the relative quiet of one’s living room via the television set – as virtual happenings. The ‘virtual’ reality of the migrants, asylum-seekers or refugees is not high tech, but rather comes close to an over-exposed kind of anonymity, or social invisibility. The virtual reality of cyberspace is a highly contested social space, or rather a set of social relations mediated by technological flow of information.
Consequently, cyberspace and the ‘cyborg’ subjectivity it offers are no longer the stuff of which science fiction is made. On the contrary, the blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines is socially enacted at all levels: from medicine, to telecommunication, finance and modern warfare, cyber-relations define our social framework. What I want to emphasize, however, is that the cyborg as an embodied and socially embedded human subject that is structurally inter-connected to technological elements or apparati, is not a unitary subject position. The cyborg is rather a multi-layered, complex and internally differentiated subject. Cyborgs today would include for me as much the under-paid, exploited labour of women and children on off-shore production plants, as the sleek and highly trained physiques of jet-fighter war-pilots, who interface with computer technologies at post-human levels of speed and simultaneity. As a political cartography, or figuration, the cyborg evokes simultaneously the triumphant charge of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and the frail bodies of those workers whose bodily juices – mostly sweat – fuel the technological revolution. One does not stir without the other. The cyborg is also, however, an empowering political myth of resistance to what Haraway calls ‘the informatics of domination’, about which more in chapter 5.
On a more philosophical level, in relation to the embodied subject, the new technologies make for prosthetic extensions of our bodily functions: answering machines, pagers and portable phones multiply our aural and memory capacities; microwave ovens and freezers offer timeless food-supply; sex can be performed over telephone or modem lines in the fast-growing area of ‘teledildonics’; electric tooth-brushes and frozen embryos enlarge other bodily functions; video and camcorders, Internet networks and a plethora of simulated images open up a field that challenges the Platonic notion of ‘representation’ that has been sedimented by centuries of practice. Media images are the never dead, forever circulating reflections of a haunted postmodern vacuum. The technologies have affected the social space of postmodernity by bringing about a dislocation of the space–time continuum. Technologies freeze time in a discontinuous set of variations determined by speed and simultaneity. They thus induce a dislocation of the subject, allowing not only for deferred or virtual social and personal relations, but also for a pervasive social imaginary of ubiquity and timelessness...

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APA 6 Citation
Braidotti, R. (2013). Metamorphoses (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1535436/metamorphoses-towards-a-materialist-theory-of-becoming-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Braidotti, Rosi. (2013) 2013. Metamorphoses. 1st ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/1535436/metamorphoses-towards-a-materialist-theory-of-becoming-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Braidotti, R. (2013) Metamorphoses. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1535436/metamorphoses-towards-a-materialist-theory-of-becoming-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses. 1st ed. Wiley, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.