Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Queering the In/Organic

by J J Cohen

I need to stop tinkering with the theoretical frame for my Berlin keynote and start filling in the missing evidence. It's one of those endeavors where I have far too much to say and could blather ad infinitum, so here is what I've worked out as entryway into why queer theory might not want to stop at the limit of biological life.

It's in process and will mutate, but: what do you think?

The queer roams an extensive, still burgeoning range. In 2007 a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly asked if queer theory is now “After Sex?” but this interrogative was really a declaration: about how complex time is (can we really be “post” anything?), and about how messy, uncategorizable and omnipresent sex is.[i] In his contribution to the issue Michael Moon quoted his younger brother Tony, stating that sex is “sort of everywhere, like the weather”: it’s environment, shape, a bright color.[ii] Sexuality, in other words, isn’t easily separable from that which isn’t sex, prompting Janet Halley and Andrew Parker to ask “Does the very distinction between the sexual and the nonsexual matter to queer thinking and, if so, when, where, and how?”[iii] In his contribution to the issue Joseph Litvak writes “It is not just that the imperial ambitions of so much queer theory seem to render the question [of what isn’t queer] almost unanswerable. The problem is less that queer theory makes ‘everything about sex’ than that it lodges the ‘nonsexual’ firmly within the ‘sexual.’”[iv] That inherent impurity is a productive problem to possess.

As a verb, as an action, queer’s possibilities for unanticipated conjugations are limitless. Yet the queer often harbors a recurring and perhaps inescapable limit: anthropocentricity, an unfolding of the world from a human point of view rather than a questioning from the start of how the human comes to be made, of why the category should so dominate that the universe arranges itself around its small form. Don’t get me wrong: the queer often touches upon those who have been abjected into the category of the subhuman, the monstrous, those violently denied the possibility of a livable life, a grievable death.[v] Those who have been reduced to such bare existence may have had their humanity stolen, but we can not doubt that the precondition to a more ethical political system is that the dehumanized must be granted the fuller identity and attendant rights that every human being merits. I’m not talking right now of humans who have been animalized or objectified, but of the animals and objects which were never human from the start. These are the exclusions through which the human emerges as a bounded and purified category; these nonhuman abjections are the limners of human identity, as well as constant reminders of human insufficiency, fragility, and lack of autonomy. Let’s slightly alter Halley and Parker’s query and ask “Does the very distinction between the human and the nonhuman matter to queer thinking and, if so, when, where, and how?” To play with Litvak’s observation about how sex inheres within the nonsexual, what if queer theory were to lodge the nonhuman firmly within the sexual?

The nonhuman – or, as Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird write the term, the non/human: what is its place within queer theory, or what politics of disorientation (to invoke Sara Ahmed) might a non/human queer theory achieve? Giffney and Hird use the slash mark in non/human to be “strategic” and “precise,” performing lexigraphically the inseparability of each term from the other, their inherent instability, “the impossibility of applying a hermetic seal to the distinction between – however temporary and shifting – what gets to count as Human and nonhuman.”[vi] Giffney and Hird’s Queering the Non/Human, a collaborative imagining of queer posthumanism, brings together essays on dogs, werewolves, Christ’s body, antichrist, doll sex, ecology, death drive, green bunnies and cadavers to resist the anthronormativity intrinsic to anthropocentrism. The “cut” that this slash in non/human enacts could be glossed by Karen Barad’s “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering,” where she writes of the brittlestar, a star-fish like creature that possesses no eyes because it is itself a total visual system wrought of skeletal crystal. Any broken piece of the brittlestar becomes another organism, another creature that confounds our all too human notions of perception and lived experience. Barad writes:
Ethics is not simply about the subsequent consequences of our ways of interacting with the world, as if effect followed cause in a linear chain of events, but rather ethics is about mattering, about the entangled materialisations we help enact and are a part of bringing about, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities – even the smallest cut matters.[vii]
The smallest cut to the smallest creature matters in a doubled sense: creates and possesses significance. Critical animal studies therefore has insisted that animals be considered outside their dependencies upon human definition, making the field one of our most promising modes for practicing post- or anti-humanism. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic ethology, Rosi Braidotti has argued that the animal is to be “taken in its radical immanence as a body that can do a great a deal, as a field of forces, a quantity of speed and intensity, and a cluster of capabilities,” opening the way to a “bioegalitarian ethics.”[viii] I’m wondering, though, if we can substitute for animal what Braidotti calls “inorganic others” and still have what she calls a “posthuman bodily materialism,” one in which the forces, intensities, and potentialities belong to a nonbiological body, belong to, say, a rock. Can we have a zōē-egalitarian ethics, where zōē indicates not just bare or animal life (Agamben) but a life force that animates all materiality, without caring whether it’s made from carbon and possesses DNA? Can we dream instead of a biopolitics a zōēpolitics that embraces the nonbiological, the inorganic?

As Karen Barad observed, mattering is an active, ethical process. In her recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett has argued that the “quarantines of matter and life encourage us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations” (vii). Matter, Bennett insists, possesses aesthetic, affective and practical agencies: the world unfolds through our alliances with a lively materialism, where we are one actant among many within a turbulent identity network. In Bennett’s account ethics is relational in ways that exceed the merely human, constituting a “complex set of relays between moral contents, aesthetic-affective styles, and public moods” lived out within a “landscape of affect.” Affect here denotes an impersonal, nonsubjective yet vivacious materiality (xii-xiii) -- the living stuff of which we are made and by which we are surrounded. Life then becomes a “restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not fully coincide with any specific body” (54).[ix] This “impersonal life” (4) can speak only in borrowed words, perhaps, but the recognition of its vitality, a cognizance that matter possesses agency, story, a biography or maybe a zoegraphy, is essential to our leading of a wonder-laden, ethical existence (18, 54).

[i] On temporality and the question of “After Sex?” Halley and Parker write: “one of the contributors wanted after to signify a decisive loss or relinquishment of sex, queer theory, or temps perdues. Crisp distinctions between before and after appealed to no one. Instead, the essays multiplied the meanings of “After Sex?” and sent the potential linearity of that question (“Now that sex is over, what comes after it?”) around a Möbius strip (“In sex, what am I after?”) in order to make it possible, again and again, for everything that is posterior to precede ... While no one denied that succession can and does occur … our authors were much more interested in posing questions about simultaneity, multiple temporalities, and overlapping regimes of social practice, thought, and analysis.” “Introduction,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 421-32, quotation at 424.
[ii] Michael Moon, “Do You Smoke? Or, Is There Life? After Sex?” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 533-42, quotation at 542.
[iii] “Introduction,” 422.
[iv] Joseph Litvak, “Glad to Be Unhappy,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 523-31, quotation at 525-26.
[v] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).
[vi] “Introduction,” Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008) 1-16, quotation at 5. Their slash (in the words of one perceptive reviewer) is meant to convey “not a comparison of human and non-human, but rather to avoid such binaristic dead ends” (Shamira A. Meghani, “Queer Theory and Sexualities,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory [2010] 1-23, at 19).
[vii] Karen Barad, “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering,” Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008) 311-36, quotation at 336.
[viii] Rosi Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124.2 (2009) 526-32, quotation at 528. Braidotti likewise insists that we rethink the “old hierarchy that privileged bios (discursive, intelligent, social life) over zōē (brutal ‘animal’ life),” arguing for zoe as “generative vitality … a major transversal force that cuts across and connects previously segregated domains” (530). On these two kinds of life being “irreducibly indistinct,” see Karl Steel, “Briefly, on the Animal Sacer” ( and Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 315-17, 324-33.
[ix] Bennett is following Deleuze and Guattari here in glossing the “great Alive” as a “pure immanence,” as matter-movement, a “vitality proper not to any individual” (54); see A Thousand Plateaus 407.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this post, Jeffrey. If you want to be really thorough on your Butler cite, you could also point to Frames of War, which further develops the central concerns of Precarious Life.

I think there's no need to worry too much about the 'imperialism' of queer theory sexualizing everything. That's the nature of any methodology, any question. Marxism sees class struggle everywhere (or it should!); psychoanalysis anxiety or family dynamics or constitutive (non)relations; feminism a gender struggle or a struggle between a singular (masculine) gender and a heterogeneous (feminine) nongender; etc.

So I think you worry about this problem precisely as much as you need to.

Your piece then went exactly the direction I wanted it to: towards the nonhuman, where sexual relations--whether of desire, or reproduction, or even of body to itself--proliferate without end. Think about the male angler fish, which I discuss here. I see the connections, then, with you words several years ago about the hyena....

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks Karl: this really is just the small section that makes the argument for why my work belongs in a conference entitled "Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics" at all. Love that angler fish reference as well...

hd said...

I'm left pondering the relationship between desire and your rock. On the one hand, desire is oriented around all kinds of inanimate objects--Ahmed's discussion of Husserl's table does such a great job of articulating how desire is spatial and tangible through relationships with inanimate objects. But that's not quite the same as asking: what does the rock desire? Is asking such a question merely an anthropomorphic projection? If desire is oriented--or animated--spatially, does the rock, being inanimate, represent a potential release from such longing? Does it inhabit a space that's truly "after sex"? (Though of course such a conclusion merely reads motion through a very human-oriented timeline... is the problem that we imagine the rock as inanimate, merely because we can't perceive how it moves?)

Which is all just to say: I'm intrigued and can't wait to read/hear more...

Just some thoughts--you've given me a lot to think about.

Lupton said...

Timothy Morton published a nice position piece in PMLA called "Queer Ecology" that addresses some of these issues, too.

PMLA, Volume 125, Number 2, March 2010, pp. 273–282 (10)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

@Lupton: will it surprise you to know that queer ecology is one of the motivating forces behind this project? I'm using Timothy Morton's guest column from PMLA as well as Robert Azzarello's nice essay "Unnatural Predators: Queer Theory Meets Environmental Studies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula" in _Queering the Non/Human_.

@hd thanks for formulating that central question so crisply. As the paper unwinds it deals with the desires of rocks by focusing upon diamonds, and how that gemstone insinuated itself into human erotics. I give the typical account of the De Beers advertising campaign that coined "A diamond is forever," and invented the idea that a two months salary for a diamond engagement ring was the only way to sanctify a marriage. Such accounts always leave the diamond passive. I want to get back to its medieval possibilities, where adamant always involves a rocky magnetism that might be love.

Eileen Joy said...

First, thanks so much for calling attention to the special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on "After Sex?" which I have long had on my desk and have read more than once. I think it is one of the best special journal issues I have read in a long time. Although the term "queer" can certainly now denote the sexual as well as that which is "not sexual" [but which may always be lodged within the sexual, regardless], I think it's productive to keep in mind, pace Michael Moon's brother, that sex really *is* everywhere and that, at the same time, it has always been [historically--both in the past and still, now] a privileged realm for various acts and modes of the oppression and violent squashing of individual liberties and expressions: both an irrepressible network of continual, daily signals [occurring in and around humans as well as in flowers and the rays of the sun, etc.] as well as a field of actants/expressions [organic and inorganic] fraught with some of the deepest anxieties a culture can both possess and also express in horrifying manner. Freud seems to have understood this when he described the libido, not so much as a sex-force, but as a *life*-force, and this, perhaps, is also where something like "vitalism" and Bennett's "vibrant matter" might come in [as, in other words, somehow "sexual"].

I love this piece, Jeffrey, and I just want to raise some cautions [which I am actually borrowing from some recent conversations I have had with Sara Ahmed relative to Bennett's recent talk at Birbeck College, London on "Whitman's Solar Judgment," which I know you've also listened to] having to do with asymmetrical power relations vis-a-vis our discourses on queering the non/human, the in/organic, vibrant matter, actant networkologies, etc. This is much on my mind since I will be giving a talk on ethics in relation to Bennett's talk at GW-MEMSI's conference on objects and ethics, and since you are raising ethics here [by way of Barad], I want to do the same. SO . . . .

Even though we might admirably begin now [thanks to essay collections such as Giffney and Hird's "Queering the Non/human," your "postmedieval" essay on "Stories of Stone," critical animal studies, Bennett's and others work on object-oriented ontologies, queer studies, and the like] to ruminate, as you say, the possibilities for "unanticipated conjugations," plus a non-anthropocentric "politics of disorientation," which might even lead to a new ethics of "mattering" [with all double- and triple-entendres intended, per Barad], I still worry a little bit about who the primary actant is in all this: isn't it still the human, who, for all of his/her humility before the knowledge that the world is composed of a multiplicity of networkologies of the organic, inorganic, etc. in which the human might matter *less* than previously thought, is still doing the *thinking* [and therefore also, to a certain extent, the *grasping*] in all of this?

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

Mush dash out on an errand; will return SOON!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I am going to cautiously state "no" here Eileen, at least not fully ...and await your further comments. Human thought itself is a complex process: chemical and affect laden and nonsolitary. When humans think they are always thinking-with, and sometimes those partners are inorganic. But I'll wait til I hear more!

Eileen Joy said...

More still to say but without Internet until Tuesday! Shall try again this evening from a clandestine wireless cafe. Sheesh.