Nomadic Subjects
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Nomadic Subjects

Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory

Rosi Braidotti

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eBook - ePub

Nomadic Subjects

Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory

Rosi Braidotti

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For more than fifteen years, Nomadic Subjects has guided discourse in continental philosophy and feminist theory, exploring the constitution of contemporary subjectivity, especially the concept of difference within European philosophy and political theory. Rosi Braidotti's creative style vividly renders a productive crisis of modernity. From a feminist perspective, she recasts embodiment, sexual difference, and complex concepts through relations to technology, historical events, and popular culture.

This thoroughly revised and expanded edition retains all but two of Braidotti's original essays, including her investigations into epistemology's relation to the "woman question;" feminism and biomedical ethics; European feminism; and the possible relations between American feminism and European politics and philosophy. A new piece integrates Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the "becoming-minoritarian" more deeply into modern democratic thought, and a chapter on methodology explains Braidotti's methods while engaging with her critics. A new introduction muses on Braidotti's provocative legacy.

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Year
2011
ISBN
9780231515269
one
By Way of Nomadism
image
It’s great to have roots, as long as you can take them with you.
Gertrude Stein
I am rooted, but I flow.
Virginia Woolf
My project of feminist nomadism traces more than an intellectual itinerary; it also reflects the existential situation as a multicultural individual, a migrant who turned nomad. The material gathered here was first conceptualized and in some cases expressed in several different European languages over fifteen years ago. These essays accompany, precede, and prolong the ideas expressed in my book Patterns of Dissonance (1991, second edition in 1996) which is itself representative of my nomadic existence. First drafted in French, it had to be translated, but in the final version I rewrote it extensively directly in English, so that by the time it went to press, the book had become a translation without originals. My own work as a thinker has no mother tongue, only a succession of translations, of displacements, of adaptations to changing conditions. This has become a defining feature of my texts.
Over the years I seem to have developed a peculiar economy of writing as a way of negotiating with my many languages and cultural affiliations. Some books now exist exclusively in Italian (Madri, Mostri e Macchine and the coauthored: Baby Boomers) or French (La philosophie, là oú on ne lattend pas) without English counterpart. Meanwhile, several selections of my essays have been translated in many languages (from Finnish to Korean, Hungarian, and Spanish), creating a series of assemblages or combinations that defy any original. In other words, the nomadism that I defend as a theoretical option is also an existential condition, which, for me, translates into a style of thinking and a mode of relation to writing. My project is to both develop and evoke a vision of critical and feminist subjectivity in a nomadic mode. This mode refers to a figurative style of thinking, slightly autobiographical, which may at times strike the readers as an epistemological stream of consciousness, but is rigorously structured around a number of key concepts. Some readers have even suggested that in my writings I activate the “feminist theorist” as a working figuration or conceptual persona in order to innovate in both philosophical form and content.1
In this chapter I will explore different facets of the notion and the practice of “nomadic subjects,” which is for me the most suitable theoretical figuration for contemporary subjectivity. A figuration is a politically informed image of thought that evokes or expresses an alternative vision of subjectivity. There is a real urgency to learn to think differently about the notion and practice of subjectivity. This entails the creation of new frameworks, images, and modes of thought, beyond the dualistic conceptual constraints and the perversely monological mental habits of phallocentric thought. I take it as the task of the feminist—as of other critical intellectuals—to have the courage to face up to the complexity of this challenge. The black feminist writer and poet bell hooks, in her work on postmodern blackness, describes this kind of consciousness in terms of “yearning.” She argues that “yearning” is a common affective and political sensibility that cuts across the boundaries of race, class, gender, and sexual practice and “could be fertile ground for the construction of empathy—ties that would promote recognition of shared commitments and serve as a base for solidarity and coalition” (1990a, b). In the same spirit, nomadic consciousness is an epistemological and political imperative for critical thought at the start of this millennium.
Contrary to fashionable usages of the term, I have taken the postmodern to indicate a specific moment in history. It is a moment in which in-depth transformations of the system of economic production are also altering traditional social and symbolic structures. More important for a materialist thinker, they shift the terms of our social interaction. In the West the move away from manufacturing toward a service and information-based structure entails a global redistribution of labor, with the rest of the world and especially the developing countries providing most of the underpaid off-shore production. This shift entails the decline of traditional sociosymbolic systems based on the welfare state, class, and labor. The family structure is also affected, as is masculine authority. As Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan point out (1994), postmodernity corresponds to a reorganization of capital accumulation in a transnational mobile manner, which, however, does not automatically resolve power differentials. Given this new historical trend toward “trans”-national mobility, it is crucial for critical theorists and cultural critics to rethink their situation and their practices within this scheme. My task is to attempt to redefine a transmobile materialist theory of feminist subjectivity that is committed to working within the parameters of the postmodern predicament, without romanticizing it but also without nostalgia for an allegedly more wholesome past. As I stated in Patterns of Dissonance, the historical contradiction a feminist poststructralist is caught in is that the very features perceived by dominant subjects as factors of a “crisis” of values are for me the opening up of new possibilities. Mors tua vita mea: the same historical conditions that can alternately be perceived as positive or negative depending on one’s location.
The question that immediately arises here is: where can this new theoretical and political creativity be found? Where does “the new” come from? What paradigms can assist us in the elaboration of new schemes of thought? Is the model of scientific rationality totally discredited, or can it still provide some inspiration? Is the model of artistic creativity any better? Following some of the insights of the poststructuralist generation, I would like to answer this by stressing the limitations of a logocentric approach and shifting emphasis to other ways and modes of representation. We need a qualitative leap of the feminist political imagination.
One of the strengths of feminist theory is the desire to leave behind a linear mode of intellectual thinking, the teleologically ordained style of argumentation most of us have been trained to respect and emulate. In my experience this results in encouraging repetition and dutifulness to a canonical tradition that enforces the sanctimonious sacredness of certain texts: the texts of the great philosophical humanistic tradition. I would like to oppose to them a passionate form of posthumanism based on feminist nomadic ethics. More especially, I see it as essential that women break free from what Teresa de Lauretis, the Italian American feminist theorist describes as “the Oedipal plot” of theoretical work (1986). It is important for feminists to break away from the patterns of masculine identification that high theory demands, to step out of the paralyzing structures of an exclusive academic style (Miller 1991). Nomadism is an invitation to disidentify ourselves from the sedentary phallogocentric monologism of philosophical thinking and to start cultivating the art of disloyalty, or rather that form of healthy disrespect for both academic and intellectual conventions that was inaugurated and propagated by the second feminist wave.
I believe in the empowering force of the political fictions that are proposed by feminists as different from each other as Luce Irigaray and Donna Haraway (Braidotti 1991b). The former emphasizes images drawn from female morphology and sexuality, such as the two lips that suggest closeness while avoiding closure. The latter proposes instead the figuration of the cyborg, that is to say, a high-tech imaginary, where electronic circuits evoke new patterns of interconnectedness and affinity. Both, however, are committed to the complex and radical task of subverting conventional views and representations of human, and especially of female, subjectivity. They both rely on alternative figurations as a way out of the old schemes of thought.
These figurations are evidence of the many heterogeneous ways in which feminists today are exploring alternative forms of subjectivity and of their struggle with language to produce affirmative representations. The array of terms available to describe this new female feminist subjectivity is telling: Monique Wittig (1991) chooses to represent it through the figuration of the “lesbian,” echoed by Judith Butler with her “queer parodic politics of the masquerade” (1991); others, quoting Nancy Miller (Miller 1986b) prefer to describe the process as “becoming women,” in the sense of the female feminist subjects of another story. De Lauretis calls it the “eccentric” subject (1990a:115–150); alternative feminist subjectivities have also been described as “fellow-commuters” in an in-transit state (Boscaglia 1991:122–135) or as “inappropriated others” (Minh-ha 1989) or as “postcolonial” (Mohanty 1984:333–358; Spivak 1989b, c) subjects. These last analyze gender in relation to other geopolitical concerns in terms of transnational feminist links.
The starting point for most feminist redefinitions of subjectivity is a new form of materialism that develops the notion of the corporeal by emphasizing the embodied and therefore sexually differentiated structure of the speaking subject. Consequently, rethinking the bodily roots of subjectivity is the starting point for the epistemological project of nomadism. The body or the embodiment of the subject is to be understood as neither a biological nor a sociological category, but rather as a point of overlapping between the physical, the symbolic, and the sociological. I stress the issue of embodiment so as to make a plea for different ways of thinking about the body. The body refers to the materialist but also vitalist groundings of human subjectivity and to the specifically human capacity to be both grounded and to flow and thus to transcend the very variables—class, race, sex, gender, age, disability—that structure us.
A nomadic vision of the body defines it as multifunctional and complex, as a transformer of flows and energies, affects, desires, and imaginings. From psychoanalysis I have learned to appreciate the advantages of the nonunitary structure of the subject and the joyful implication of the unconscious foundations of the subject. Complexity is the key to understanding the multiple affective layers, complex temporal variables, and internally contradictory time and memory lines that frame our embodied existence. In contrast to the oppositions created by a dualistic mode of social constructivism, a nomadic body is a threshold of transformations. It is the complex interplay of the highly constructed social and symbolic forces. The body is a surface of intensities and an affective field in interaction with others. In other words, feminist emphasis on embodiment goes hand in hand with a radical rejection of essentialism. In feminist theory one speaks as a woman, although the subject “woman” is not a monolithic essence, defined once and for all, but rather the site of multiple, complex, and potentially contradictory sets of experiences, determined by overlapping variables such as class, race, age, lifestyle, and sexual preference. One speaks as a woman in order to empower women, to activate sociosymbolic changes in their condition: this is a radically antiessentialist position.
The nomad expresses my own figuration of a situated, postmodern, culturally differentiated understanding of the subject in general and of the feminist subject in particular. This subject can also be described as postmodern/industrial/colonial, depending on one’s locations. Insofar as axes of differentiation like class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and others intersect and interact with each other in the constitution of subjectivity, the notion of nomad refers to the simultaneous occurrence of many of these at once. Speaking as a feminist entails that priority is granted to issues of gender or, rather, of sexual difference in connection with the recognition of differences among women. This figuration thus translates my desire to explore and legitimate political agency while taking as historical evidence the decline of metaphysically fixed stable identities. One of the issues at stake here is how to reconcile partiality and discontinuity with the construction of new forms of interrelatedness and collective political projects.
The nomadic subject is a myth, or a political fiction, that allows me to think through and move across established categories and levels of experience: blurring boundaries without burning bridges. Implicit in my choice of this figuration is the belief in the potency and relevance of the imagination, of myth making, as a way to step out of the political and intellectual stasis of our times. Political fictions may be more effective, here and now, than theoretical systems. The nomadism in question here refers to the kind of critical consciousness that resists settling into socially coded modes of thought and behavior. Not all nomads are world travelers; some of the greatest trips can take place without physically moving from one’s habitat. Consciousness-raising and the subversion of set conventions define the nomadic state, not the literal act of traveling.
Caren Kaplan points out in her work on Deleuze’s image of deterritorialization and nomadic traveling that poststructuralists are in danger of romanticizing these notions (Kaplan 1987:187–198). I find, on the contrary, that Deleuze’s scheme of thought is sober and empirical and resists romantic temptations, entailing a radical critique of dominant formations from within and the dissolution of the notion of a center and consequently of originary sites or authentic identities of any kind. Moreover, I find that Deleuze and Guattari warn us against the risk that postmodern systems, with their fragmentation and loss of unity, may reproduce power relations globally on a small scale. They refer to this danger as “micro-fascism”: smaller, more localized but equally exploitative power formations that can also be described as the reproduction of “scattered hegemonies,” as Grewal and Kaplan put it, on a world scale. The radical nomadic epistemology Deleuze and Guattari propose is a form of resistance to microdespotism in that it focusses on the need for a qualitative shift away from hegemony, whatever its size and however “local” it may be.
In some cases, the figurative mode functions according to what I have called the philosophy of as if. It is as if some experiences were reminiscent or evocative of others; this ability to flow from one set of experiences to another is a quality of interconnectedness that I praise highly. Drawing a flow of connections need not be an act of appropriation, quite on the contrary: it marks transitions between communicating states or experiences. Deleuze’s work on lines of escape and becoming is of great inspiration here (Deleuze and Guattari 1980): nomadic becoming is neither reproduction nor just imitation, but rather emphatic proximity, intensive interconnectedness. Some states or experiences can merge simply because they share certain attributes. Nomadic shifts enact therefore a creative sort of becoming; they are a performative metaphor that allows for otherwise unlikely encounters and unsuspected sources of interaction experience and knowledge.
As many feminist theorists have pointed out, the practice of “as if,” with its ritualized repetitions, runs the risk of falling into solipsistic language games and self-referential obsessions with its own terms of reference. In order to avoid this, I have grounded the depiction of the nomadic state not only on a cartography of global hybridity (see the introduction) but also in my own life experiences, embodying it and situating it in the most concrete manner possible. The autobiographical tone that emerges in the course of this chapter as of others is my way of making myself accountable for the nomadic shifts and performances that I enact in the text. If this be metaphor, it is one that displaces and condenses whole areas of my existence: it is a retrospective map of places I have been—a nomadic countergenealogy. Avoiding romanticizing or appropriating the exotic, the “other,” I want to practice a set of narrations of my own embodied genealogy, that is to say, I want to revisit certain locations and account for them. As Caren Kaplan put it, this kind of positionality is: “a fictional terrain, a reteritorialization that has passed through several versions of deterritorialization to posit a powerful theory of location based on contingency, history and change” (Kaplan 1987:198). The practice of “as if” is a technique of strategic relocation to rescue what we need of the past so as to trace paths of transformation in our lives here and now.
The practice of “as if” can also be approached as the mode of impersonation, that is to say, of fetististic representation. This consists in simultaneously recognizing and denying certain attributes or experiences. In male-stream postmodern thought (Schor 1987a; Modleski 1991), fetishistic disavowal seems to mark most discussions of sexual difference. I prefer, through a feminist perspective, to approach “the philosophy of as if,” however, not as disavowal, but rather as the affirmation of fluid boundaries, a practice of intervals, interfaces, and interstices. In other words, the element of repetition, parody, or impersonation that accompanies the practice of “as if “cannot constitute an end in itself. The practice of successive poses or masquerades per se has no automatic subversive effect: as Judith Butler lucidly warns us, the force of the parodic mode consists precisely in striving to avoid flat repetitions, which bring about political stagnation.
What I find empowering in the practice of “as if” is precisely its potential for opening up, through successive repetitions and mimetic strategies, spaces where alternative forms of agency can be engendered. In other words, parody can be politically empowering on the condition of being sustained by a critical consciousness that aims at engendering transformations and changes. The moment I posit radical consciousness as a precondition, however, I am committing myself to addressing issues of repetition, difference, and the subversion of dominant codes, which calls for more complex schemes of explanation. Thus, Irigaray’s strategy of “mimesis” is a politically empowering sort of repetition, because it addresses simultaneously issues of identity, identifications and political subjecthood.
Laurie Anderson’s performance art of the 1980s and 90s is another great example of effective parodic nomadic style, in the “as-if” mode (Howell 1992:17): situations and people are always reversible in Anderson’s conceptual universe. This constant flow of experience allowed Laurie Anderson to depict a high-tech kind of continuum between different levels of experience. In turn this makes for her extraordinary talent to evoke paradoxes, not the least of which is one of complexity resting on a minimalist approach. In her witty practice of “as if,” Laurie Anderson has perfected the art of reversibility: events, but also statements, can collapse into each other and be turned inside out. Thus, Anderson often stated: “it is not the bullet that kills you, but the hole,” thus signifying that the boundaries between inside and outside, as well as the temporal chain set up by being hit by a bullet and therefore dying, are not a one-track sequence. Their meaning, consequently, cannot be restricted to a one-way mode.
By analogy I would say: what is politically effective in the politics of parody, or the political practice of “as if,” is not the mimetic impersonation or capacity for repetition of dominant poses, but rather the extent to which these practices open up in-between spaces where alternative forms of political subjectivity can be explored. In other words, it is not the parody per se that will kill the phallogocentric posture, but rather the power vacuum that parodic politics may be able to engender.
The nomadic subject is a performative image, a political myth that allows me to weave together different levels of my experience: it reflects some autobiographical aspects, while it also expresses my own conceptual preference for a postmetaphysical vision of subjectivity. Last, but not least, it allows me to conjugate my feminist politics with a variety of other powerful political and theoretical concerns and locations. This figurative approach to nomadism will allow me to play on the associative quality of the nomadic state and therefore tap on its metaphorical richness. I will proceed by exploring some of the cognitive and affective resonances of the image of the nomad, riding on its back, so to speak, toward an horizon that I cannot always predict. All along, the many variations I shall play on the nomadic theme, I shall emphasize the extent to which the nomadic state has the potential for positive renaming, for opening up new possibilities of life and thought, especially for women and, even more specifically, for female feminists.
This is in keeping with what Patricia Yaeger calls “visionary epistemology” (1988:31): she points out that a new image has “this capacity to offer us ordinary access to extraordinary thinking” (32). Yaeger consequently urges feminists to reflect upon the potency of our own figures of speech so as to fully assess their poten...

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