NOTES ON: Braidotti, R.  (2003) ‘Becoming Woman: or Sexual Difference Revisited’, in Theory, Culture and Society, 20 (3): 43-64.

This is a reading based on Irigaray and Deleuze, especially his work on the nomad.  Irigaray has always been interested in post structuralist accounts of the subject, but her later work focuses more on heterosexuality specifically.  The earlier work is of interest here.

Sexual difference theory is not only critical but affirmative, expressing ‘women’s ontological desire’ to develop into ‘corporeal and consequently sexed beings’ (43 – 4).  This must begin with emphasising bodily aspects to oppose any apparently neutral discussion of subjectivity and embodiment.  Desire becomes important in the construction of the subject, both libidinal and ontological.

The feminine subject’s particular concern is with inequalities, and asserts diversity and difference as a positive alternative.  The feminine subject is rhizomatic ‘embodied and therefore perfectly artificial’ (44), machinic and capable of many interconnections.  One of its main fields of operation is sexual difference.  For Irigaray, ‘the feminine’ is virtual, a project arising from transcending the usual conceptions of woman as the other of the same: it is the other of that other.  This is an embodied transcendence, however.

The body is a key term—it is neither biological nor sociological but ‘a point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic and the material social conditions’ (44, with an acknowledgement of Grosz).  The body for Irigaray is ‘a mobile set of differences’, a field, a surface on which multiple codes are inscribed, a cultural construction but one which ‘capitalizes on the energies of a heterogeneous, discontinuous and unconscious nature’.  Among other implications, this leads to a critique of humanism and Eurocentrism, and the Logos.  Sexual difference provides the matrix of power, but Irigaray has added dimensions to include race, ethnicity and religion.  Difference is the main category, and it has had good and bad effects, the latter including fascism, which has driven a particular attempt by liberal intellectuals to reclaim the concept: a new creativity is required.

Feminist conceptions have focused on the relation between self and other, intending to restore the idea of the subject as a fully creative singularity.  This necessarily means that the subject of feminism is not conventional Woman [I’m not sure why the first letter is capitalised and italicised], but a complex and multi layered subject standing outside the institutions of feminism.  She is no longer merely the specular other of the male.  She need not even be female, but more ‘a subject in process, a mutant’, post woman even though still taking conventional shape (45).

One project involves working through all the conventional representations of women created by the masculine subject, in arts, science and all knowledge, collectively repossessing Woman through what Irigaray called mimesis.  This involves collecting the ‘fragments and figments of the phallocratic imaginary’.  These have to be reworked in order to permit the emergence of the feminine in a way which is not colonised: they may also be too fragmented to permit a coherent representation.  Using conventional representation simply repeats this imbalance.

We need the ‘virtual feminine’ to break with dialectical thinking between selves and others.  Dualistic categories are rejected, including Hegel’s.  Complexity rather than humanism or ‘naive social constructionism’ characterizes the subject (46).  Irigaray urges us away from this framework, and this involves a stage of radical heterosexuality, [seeing gendering as deeply affecting all categories?].  She also hopes to construct a location for positive and harmonious coexistence between sexed subjects.  Reconciling other positions, especially ethnic and religious ones, become equally important, especially in the second phase of her work.

This heterosexuality is not heterosexist.  It does also allow for homosexuality, although there is some ambivalence.  For Grosz, for example, it might be possible to think of relationships based on the model of preoedipal bonds between mothers and daughters, as a tactical move to make explicit forms of women’s desire in opposition to oedipal formulations.  For Irigaray, these new thoughts are important to prevent lesbianism from imitating the phallic structures of conventional sexism.  Men are also invited to conceptualize a non phallic sexuality with reconfigured desires.  In this way, the politically potent form of sexual difference is between experimental and conventional sexuality, aimed at an escape from phallic sameness. 

Deleuze can be borrowed to specifically inform Braidotti’s ‘virtual feminine’.  Deleuze argues for a multiplicity of sexed positions and rhizomatic connections.  On the other hand, there is a tension in Deleuze and Guattari between becoming woman and becoming minoritarian: the first is seen as essential to all becoming, but the second is the more general threatening to replace the first.  Sexual difference is a major form of difference, but Deleuze also operates with ‘a multiple and undifferentiated becoming’ (47) .Deleuze might see conventional sexual identities as anchoring points, but he has not particularly discussed the relations between them.

Nevertheless, both Irigaray and Deleuze can be seen as converging in an interest in escape from phallogocentrism.  For Irigaray the point is to develop a more symmetrical relation between all the sexual categories; for Deleuze the point is to escape all conventional forms of representation and release the potential of the subject.  Both offer the basis for a ‘bodily materialism’ (48).

Other thinkers have explored Deleuzian implications.  For example Griggers on the feminine as the abstract machine of late capitalism, generating all sorts of commodified distinctions.  For Deleuze, new images arise from various figurations such as rhizomes and bodies without organs, and these are new forms of being which challenge conventional representations.  The central argument is taken by becoming minoritarian and the emergence of the nomad [seen as particularly youthful here for some reason].  Becoming is a matter of exchanging particles in the space of proximity or ‘dynamic marginality’ (49).

Deleuze agrees that man is the centre of the signifying system, the bearer of the law, so that becoming, particularly becoming woman, is a necessary step in critique.  Becoming woman is the key process in deterritorialization.  However, these are not empirical women but ‘socio symbolic constructions...affective states’, but these should be seen affirmatively.  He needs to catch up with feminist epistemology here, that has long recognized that ‘women’ are defined as the others of phallogocentrism, and this lapse leads him to some pessimistic conclusions about feminist politics.  Becoming woman is just a sub category of becoming minoritarian, and ‘all becomings are equal’.

Deconstructing phallogocentric categories is an essential critical step, and feminists have done this by reconstructing the history of the emergence of male dominance.  Sexuality is the dominant discourse of power, as Foucault has argued, but it requires a particular critical stance.  Deleuze intends to move beyond sexual categorisation altogether into some form of polysexuality, and he sees in feminist theory the tendency to reproduce the conventional categories instead, perpetuating majoritarian thinking.  It sees these as linked in a dialectic relationship, a ‘flat repetition’ (50).  Women have to develop a more general project rather than just pursue mimesis, however ironic.  The category ‘woman’ has to be dissolved back into constitutive forces.  However, Braidotti says this already presupposes some symmetry between the sexes, unlike the asymmetric power differences in Irigaray which have structured the very consciousness of women.

Deleuze fails to see that there is asymmetry in the ability to speak.  It is not just a ‘devalorised difference’ (51).  History and time itself ‘is the master discourse of the white, masculine, hegemonic, property owning subject who posits his consciousness as synonymous with a universal knowing subject, and markets a series of “others” as his ontological props’.  Women have never been offered a subjectivity to be deconstructed: ‘In order to announce the death of the subject, one must first have been granted the right to speak as one’.  Deleuze has seen the need to dissolve all sexual identities, especially in his analysis of the oedipal structure, but this is too abstract.

Deleuze has also been contradictory, revealing ‘a structural and systematic indecision’ (52).  His naivety [conventionalism really] is revealed when he imagines the upheaval should a woman become a philosopher [What is Philosophy, apparently].  Braidotti argues there has been a corpus of sophisticated feminist work since the 1970s.  Becoming is not just an internal volitional process, but de-essentialized forms of embodiment for Deleuze and re- essentialized forms for Irigaray: ‘ becomings or transformations are external and interrelational’ (52).

Minorities could include all sorts of groups, from political guerrillas to street gangs.  However minorities have to actively pursue the creative possibilities and flows that dissolve all identities.  [This issue of becoming a group for itself is a crucial part of the problem with Hardt and Negri as well] .Becoming woman involves such a transgressive group, aiming at taking on the whole system of signs, social practices and embodiments.  Deleuze wants to abandon this project based on identity in favour of a more general project, but Braidotti thinks that few other becomings can challenge the system [she cites the use of Prozac, or the spread of anorexia and bulimia].  Griggers says lesbianism is easily recuperated, part of the differentiation of postmodern markets, and already part of popular culture.  Lesbians find it difficult to form up a genuinely transgressive identity when they are already located in a dominant one.

Minorities have to actively resist recuperation and change conceptual schema altogether, heading towards nomadicity, avoiding envy ‘(negative desire)’ (53) and a tendency to reintroduce domination.  Inevitably, this will involve different starting points.  For real life minorities, this may involve going through a stage of developing an identity first, developing a subject position first, so it can be given up later.  So there is a differentiation in becoming minoritarian, depending on political resources.  This will introduce heterogeneity into otherness to break its relation with the same.

A figuration has a real existence in political locations, and is not just a conceptual map.  We need a ‘cartography of power relations’ (54) to locate sites of struggle and resistance.  This is where the project of finding adequate representations becomes an important political first step.  Post structuralist-notions such as a non unitary vision of the subject become real political issues, not a retreat into relativism.  People starting from a location in the majority have only the option to work through a minority, as in becoming woman, to deterritorialize maleness ‘(also known as the feminization of Man)’ (54).  People starting from a location as an empirical minority can head back into the majority, as in recuperation, or escape into minoritarianism.  In the case of women, both these options are possible, so becoming woman leads in different directions [and one direction produces Margaret Thatcher, not a feminine stereotype any more than feminists are].  Deleuze is interested in those paths that do not involve simple reversibility.

For him, this is an affirmative process, designed not only to criticize but to construct alternatives to phallogocentric power.  One option is the idea of the virtual feminine, while another sees alliances between minorities.  Both majorities and conventional minorities are transformed.  However, given different [‘asymmetric’] starting points, concrete projects can be mostly critical.  Others might be ready to begin affirming new subject positions, but this is a matter of ‘major power dissymmetries and hence of structural differences’ (55), not just an abstract relativism.

Postmodernity has already destabilized the social props of identity.  We need to think about grounding new subjectivities against this background of flow and movement.  This is where connecting Irigaray and Deleuze becomes important, with both asked to address ‘feminist politics of location’.

There are different types of mobility rootlessness and nomadism, and these have to be charted.  Nomadism is not a universal metaphor, but a way of indexing ‘qualitatively different degrees of access and entitlement to socially empowering (or not) subject positions in an historical era’ (55).  Power is the key dimension, underpinning degrees of embeddedness and embodiedness of subject positions.

Irigaray aims at a new kind of symmetrical heterosexuality, but Deleuze and Guattari offer a ‘multi sexual orientation’ (56).  Irigaray’s Lacanian allegiances might explain her position, while Deleuze and Guattari break with Lacan on the issue of the role of ‘lack’ in desire.  Lacan reflects ‘the centuries – old tradition of Christian guilt’, and a residual Hegelianism.

In Spinozist terms of ‘affectivity, intensity and speed’ even Lacanian psychoanalysis is negative in its adherence to a controlling regime.  Its claustrophobic atmosphere is found in French novels like Flaubert, who’s Madame Bovary is ‘onanistic…  [With a]…  Sexuality that is simultaneously titillating and denied’.  So is the agony and ecstasy of martyred female saints.  It extends to the attractive but decayed female body of the Dame aux Camelias, a common figure of 19th century eroticism, apparently.

Nomadism offers quite a different erotic imaginary, ‘less sacrificial and more upbeat’ (57), involving more technological and experimental forms of desire.  It ‘hints at transcendence, but always through and not away from the flesh’ [what on earth does she have in mind?].  Desire is a material ‘socially enacted’ arrangement that permits becoming.  It is active, multiple and empowering.  It breaks with ‘phallocentric self referentiality’.  There is a dissociation from the conventional conscious self.  This inevitably involves relations with a social field as multiple encounters are explored and layers of the non unitary subject built up.

The body is a focus of forces with different speeds and intensities.  Human bodies have the power to interrelate, to affect and be affected.  In temporal terms, bodies are portions of ‘living memory’ [duration?], developed after constant interaction with other bodies and forces.  Thus ‘desire and the yearning for interconnections with others lie at the heart of Deleuze’s vision of subjectivity’.  Psychoanalysis has reduced desire to heterosexual relations and genital contacts.  Deleuze and Guattari want to argue that it is unconstrained affectivity and external relations, encounters between different subjects, the pursuit of ‘intensive, affective, external resonances ...  Multiple other encounters ...  Territorial-  and border-crossings’.  [Argued best in Guattari on alterity?].

The notion of desire as lack reflects the context of 19th century capitalism, and new forms of capitalism have made it redundant.  The dualistically split subject also belongs here.  The point is to disengage desire even from these new forms, which now make flow and multiple encounters much more possible.

Feminists have found this work useful, including the critique of psychoanalysis and the advocacy of polysexuality.  [All old hat really, first argued by Marcuse with the notion of polymorphous perversity].  It seems to support lesbian and gay sexuality and queer theory [not specified as such, but described as multiple sexualities].  Wittig in particular [discussed on pages 58,59] has rejected any idea of the feminine in favour of a general becoming minoritarian, and has cited writers who have developed implications for sexual identities of all kinds, starting from a lesbian position.  However, she seems to have not followed the radical deconstruction of the conscious self implied in Deleuzian work [apparently, Butler disagrees with Deleuze on this point].  Wittig seems to operate with a classic humanist notion of the self, however, with classic wilful intentions.  This also leads to her ignoring social locations and power, and leads to idealist notions of sexed identities.  Nevertheless, the work has become important, apparently in the rejection of sexual difference in favour of queer theory, and away from the idea of a more symmetric heterosexuality. Irigaray became too dogmatic to respond effectively, so heterosexuality was marginalised, even though it remains the choice of most women.  [Suddenly this is a preference, and not the result of male hegemony?].  In all of this, sexual difference as the major form of asymmetric power was also marginalised.  [I think there is an implication that it will affect any kind of sexed subject and relations between them].

Other feminists have also pursued crossings between Deleuze and Irigaray, like Grosz.  She retains the Deleuzian interest in subjectivity as multiplicity, and sees lesbianism as a form of becoming minoritarian.  Heterosexuality is seen as a molar constraint.  This helps explore the creative potentials for becoming of any minoritarian sexuality, including queer ones.  This is a way of retaining an emphasis on sexual difference while adding to it notions of nomadic flows: female sexuality is still the unrepresentable, but queer sexuality offers possibilities, which is not very different from Irigaray’s argument in favour of multiple female sexualities instead of ones defined by binaries.  Queer theory sees the possibility of rethinking relations with a nonconventional ‘improper’ object (60). 

It is possible to see a convergence between Irigaray and Deleuze on the unrepresentable ‘multi – centred fleshed subject’ (60).  Both offer a transcendental analysis, the sensible and empiricist version respectively.  However, both are located differently [in philosophy?  In politics?].  Both need to examine the shifting ground of power relations.  Similarly, Grosz’s notion of embodiment is too ‘textual’ and not sociological enough, which makes her a utopian writer, located in the abstract world of post structuralism.

The strongest point of these approaches is their connection between the inner self and the social, the symbolic and the material.  Both Deleuze and Irigaray offer serious challenges to the idea of the conventional subject and the notion of desire as lack, with all the psychoanalytic implications that go with it.  The very attempt to separate these categories, especially to declare the symbolic autonomous, operating with disembodied subjects and abstract categories is the hallmark of the ‘patriarchal cash-nexus of power’ (61).  Majoritarianism means the ‘masculine colonization of social space’, confining others to a binary system, and colonizing all aspects of the cultural and the most powerful structures.  The privatized self is a typical device to divide and rule, and liberalism is wrong to celebrate it.  Psychoanalysis fails to see its connection with political economy, as an interiorization of despotism.  Deleuze sees affect as a material force, flowing dynamically.  Irigaray still operates with the Lacanian project of overcoming lack by reuniting the subject with its power to become.  The patriarchal symbolic has to be replaced with alternative ‘radical re-enfleshments’ of both men and women.  Both agree that the production of new subjects is required as a radical challenge to the existing system, and this is ‘radical materialism of the post structuralist era’.

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