I wish to speak of something without knowing quite what it is. A disposition; a sensibility; a micropolitical strategy; a navigational heuristic; a performative absence; a forgetting, perhaps; a queer site of refusal and resistance; a creative potential; an experiment, a mode of living within, despite and against the regime of gender, which I’m going to call “gender nihilism”.

Gender nihilism designates a kind of radical agnosticism at the level of (gender) identity; a refusal of the injunction to know what one is, to objectify oneself as knowledge, and to make oneself known; a persistent “no comment” to the police who surround and suffuse us, and marshall against us a vast array of tactics – promises, threats, insults, lies, seductions, manipulations, forms of violence – to extract a confession. It names a possibility latent within any particular gender position: that of disidentification, of non-identification.

Silence too is performative.1 If gender is in some sense the effect of the repetition of gendered expressions, what is the effect of the repetition of a silence when the question of one’s gender is posed? It is not an escape. Norms continue to inscribe gendered meanings on the body, to produce modes of embodiment, and to act upon expression. One remains both a relay for and a product of gender as a form of power.2 It is more like a strike or an act of sabotage, a refusal to function as a site of production for a particular kind of knowledge and an effort to disrupt one’s normal functioning as a force of production.

There is nothing natural about having a gender. The shift from sovereignty – whose mode of action is necropolitical and whose instrument is law – to discipline – in which the fashioning and control of life (rather than consignment to death) becomes the primary concern of power, and the norm its instrument – as the dominant form of power required the expansion of modes of inquiry and knowledge production. Simply: that which is to be disciplined must be rendered intelligible to disciplinary powers; the norm must be defined and delimited and deviance understood in order to be corrected and eliminated. Gender, sex, sexuality are conceptual instruments of this form of power. The belief that one must have a gender, that is, that one must know oneself in gendered terms and be capable of transmitting that knowledge, that gender self-knowledge is a necessary condition for a livable life, and that the absence of such knowledge is a form of crisis, is a historical phenomenon and an effect of power. Gender nihilism is the lived refutation of that belief, the demonstration that life can be lived without such knowledge, and that such a life can flourish.

If the disciplinary society aimed at the elimination of troublesome difference through institutional power, the new capitalism, the society of control, produces a fresh twist on the politics of intelligibility. Control is interested not in the elimination of difference but in its assimilation, the recuperation and reincorporation of renegades into the market, the state, the family and so on by adding additional axioms which conditionally and selectively allow access to the norm. Homosexuality no longer requires a cure, rather the marriage norm is expanded to include gays who conform to certain norms of acceptable difference, while the rest are further abjected. Disciplinary power is tactile and direct, control is remote and abstract. It effects biopolitical control through the modulation of differential access to markets, food, shelter, recognition, rights, protections.

If the assertion of abjected identities, and the hybridisation and invention of new identities directly confronted disciplinary power, such gestures are increasingly incorporated by new forms of control. The assertion of identity becomes the means by which a population delimits itself and renders itself intelligible to power and begins a trajectory of assimilation which assigns it a place within marketing strategies, state institutions, culture and social life.3 It thereby structures oppositional politics according to a logic of recognition, drawing renegade flows back toward the state and the reproduction of the present.

Gender nihilism is disinterested in recognition. Recognition is always “recognition as…” and therefore remains always conditional: “I recognise you as…” is always conditional on a prior identification, always implies a “because you are…”, and always retains the possibility that recognition will be withdrawn if you become something else. The power of recognition is also simultaneously the power of misrecognition and non-recognition, and the goal of recognition, whether demanded or asked for, exposes one permanently to these forms of violence. However forcefully we assert “I am…”, we remain vulnerable to “You are not…”, “You are instead…”4

Gender nihilism has no positive content. In itself it does not prescribe or recommend any particular way of being in the world. It makes no claims about what it is. If identification is drawing a circle in the sand saying “here are the things I am, there are the things I am not”, gender nihilism simply lets the circle be washed away by the waves. The gender nihilist is therefore indifferent to the names they are called and the genders they signify. Gender nihilism opens the entire space of gendered possibility as a terrain for exploration, but does not replace fidelity to an identity with fidelity to an ethics of exploration. One can stay where one is just as surely as one can set off at a sprint. In this sense it is less a nomadism than a homelessness.5 It opens up gender as a space of play, or of combat, without mandating either. It’s mode of address is “you can…” – “you should…” and “you must…” only emerge when other components are bolted on. It is futural in the sense that it refuses the conception of historicity that grounds identity (“I am what I always have been”) which is always in any case a founding myth, a constantly reworked fiction that establishes continuity with the past. Gender nihilism is at ease with rupture. It allows us to treat our histories as a resource, an archive of past styles, ways of living, memories, experiences, beliefs to be reworked and refashioned in any way desired, but is not innately a postmodernist, or futurist, or accelerationist disposition towards novelty or innovation.

Gender nihilism is political but it is not a politics. It is queer by definition, but proposes no ideal queerness, nor any queer horizon towards which to direct itself. It is a negation that doesn’t presuppose some future dialectical turn. Clearly it is in various ways a marginal and precarious position and thus its structural position pushes towards certain forms of alliance, and indeed may in itself open unique political possibilites. In this sense gender nihilism may be a valuable conceptual component in a political assemblage, but one ambivalent to the particular political projects it connects with.6


1 One stock example of performativity is the “I do” of a wedding ceremony. Consider how the same ceremony also incorporates a performative silence to sanction the legality of the marriage: the moment after “speak now or forever hold your peace”.

2 A question arises here: if we assert that gender cannot be escaped, are we not legislating against the identities of those who claim for themselves a position outside of the gender binary, or outside of gender as such – those who call themselves agender, non-binary, or third gender, for example? This, I think, is a problem that arises in all forms of gender identification, which I call the problem of ‘lived ontology’. That is: any particular assertion of gender identity involves claims about what kind of genders can exist and which cannot, whose implications extend beyond the self to the whole social body. For example, a trans person’s insistence that their anatomy does not dictate their gender troubles the gender of a cis person who understands their gender as grounded in biological fact, while in turn forms of lived gender fluidity trouble some trans people’s understanding of their lived gender as grounded in fixed interior truth. The various forms of gender identity in the world are mutually incoherent, and in some cases mutually canceling. This should not be seen as a problem, rather we should seek to understand the ways that a variety of mutually incompatible forms of gender dissidence each open up their own spaces of freedom and effect their own disruptions of the gender regime. I intend to return to this topic in a more systematic way in the future, but provisionally we can say that all genders are in some sense impossible, and that the extension of recognition despite or even because of that impossibility is one of the ways in which we can collaborate and support one-another to performatively open up possibilities that are barred by gender norms.

3 Of course, this process is not inevitable. Identity categories can be queered and re-queered to resist assimilation. And identity-based movements can exceed containment and threaten power. My aim here is not to proscribe identification, but to question its necessity and sketch an alternative.

4 This condition is perhaps never fully escapable. As social beings we are always minimally vulnerable. We never fully control how we are affected by the names we are called. In this sense perhaps gender nihilism designates a horizon rather than an actuality. In any case, it is certainly not a delusion of invulnerability.

5 My point is not that a nomad ethics is not desirable (I think it is, and there is clearly an affinity or compatibility between the two), simply that this question is external to the proposition of gender nihilism.

6 Indeed I write this in part because I am convinced of the political value of nihilism both as a point to pass through and as a position to act from, but that’s another essay.

  • The pen is mightier than the sword. No comparison can be made between racist speech and actual physical violence.
  • We support freedom of expression. Muslims must integrate to the dominant culture.
  • Cartoons of Mohammed are just a joke and Muslims who feel attacked by them are being over-sensitive and censorious. There is an irresolvable clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamic world – satire is one of our key weapons in that struggle.

(See also: Woolwich, Islam and the contours of contemporary racism)

Camden Street, Harcourt Street, George’s Street, Smock Alley.

No bells from the churches, no urban foxes, no first snowflakes.

Just the boom-boom of a bass, somewhere in the distance.

Rats skittering, across sodden blankets, beds of needles.

On our journey, people laughing, having the craic.

Making the most of their night out, under Christmas lights, strung high on streets, over strung-out people.

On Grafton Street, a Gucci sign beams over the remnants of humanity.

(Source)

What does this poem say?

It begins with four street names. A sense of placement and of movement: a short stroll round Dublin’s Southside.

Then three negations: “no… no… no…”. What is missing? Church bells, foxes, winter’s first snows. A Christmas card scene, an idyllic picture of Dublin, present in the form of an absence: a haunting.

Then contrast. A bass throbbing in the distance, no poetic quality, no imagery, just onomatopoeia: “boom boom”. The vulgarity of nightlife and its idiot rhythms.

Another twist of perspective: from pumping drunk ecstasy to grim filthy horror. Rats, dirty blankets, needles: the homeless as the figure of abjection, appearing not quite as people, but as the intersection of various forms of filth. Here is the obscene underbelly of the city, that only we who take this walk can see.

The rest are blinded by the oblivion of their own enjoyment. Fun and laughter return, and so too beauty, pleasantness, warmth in the form of Christmas lights, but now they are hollowed out, absurd. How could such things coexist, share space with such misery? How could their brightness, their aspiration, amount to anything other than an obsecenity: strung-up lights over strung-out people?

Final shift, final contradiction: Grafton Street and Gucci appear as the figure of consumption, the hypocrisy of the city’s bustling indifference as money and goods circle round and round. The humanity of the homeless is reduced to waste, “remnants”, as the lure of high-fashion branding beams down in grim irony.

* * *

There’s nothing difficult about this poem. It’s diagnosis is simple: beneath the affirmative veneer of the city is a subterranean world of poverty. We could see it if we only looked, but we choose to look past it as we busy ourselves with our own privileged lives of shopping and socialising. But it exists nonetheless as a kind of horror that haunts our activity and spoils and corrupts our happiness.

Everyone, I think, has experienced these moments where the presence of suffering is forced to the attention of our consciousness, and asks us difficult questions of ourselves as caring moral beings. Is not our humanity partial, self-serving, hypocritical when suffering can coexist in such proximity? And we have all written this poem in one form of another, drawn together the same clumsy contradictions, puked out the same tired autocritique, so that we can finally utter the statement “homelessness is bad” in the guise of a profundity.

I have written this poem several times, and always scrunched it up and threw it away. Why? Because it says nothing. It presents itself, hypocritically, as social critique, as a political statement, as a symbolic mirror reflecting the ugliness of the real which we refuse to see directly. But really, its diagnosis is not social or political, but spiritual, metaphysical. It pushes homelessness and homeless people outside of politics and into the syrup of sentiment, smothering structural reality in the fake universality of human empathy (if only we could recover it!) as if the world were experiencing a deficit of nice thoughts. It’s message is not that a problem exists that must be fixed, that people live in shit situations for specific reasons that we might do something about, but rather that society is decadent and we must lament and find redemption. It is patronising and self-indulgent. Patronising, because real homeless people are reduced to abstract, identical and absolute victims in order to tell us something about ourselves; self-indulgent, because it’s not really about homelessness or homeless people at all, it is about the redemption of the person who speaks through the poem, allowing him to transcend the moral cesspit in which he traumatically finds himself: self-worth is restored because he is The One Who Has Drawn Attention.

It’s bollocks, basically. And specifically, it’s the kind of bollocks we as adolescents come out with when we’re first finding our feet in the world as moral and political beings and still think we’re the first ones in the world to have ever noticed anything. It’s excusable when it’s handed up by a Junior Cert student as a composition assignment. (Which is not to say that teenagers don’t have unique, important and interesting thoughts, because they do, all the time.) Maturation is the process of learning that it’s not about you, that other people are not characters in your moral drama, and that what you think means fuck all unless you’re prepared to do something about it.

* * *

But Enda Kenny is not some middle class teenager, privileged but basically as powerless as anyone else, indicting the world to resolve his guilt. He is the leader of government of a territory in which homelessness is ever-mounting as a crisis. His pukey humanitarianism is not a few lines in a notebook that nobody will ever read – it’s national news and a matter of Dáil record. A text is indissociable from the voice that speaks it, and here the transposition of sophomoric bien penses into the discourse of power transforms banality into obscenity. Here gooey universalism isn’t just some hippy rubbish to make us all feel better, it’s the attempt of one whose policies, whose decisions, whose position and function within a structure of power, puts human bodies on the street to shiver and die, to assert that, beneath it all, he shares a common humanity with his victims. That beneath it all, Enda Kenny and Johnathon Corrie are just people trying to make the best of things. That he is just one of us struck by guilt and grief and trying to make sense of the absurdity of it all. It’s obscene beyond comprehension.

This is Scrooge McDuck’s Christmas epiphany. This is the mercy of power for its subjects. This is the cold monster of the State trying to fabricate a heart. It deserves nothing more or less than contempt.

I want to share this short section from an essay I wrote for college on Nozick’s ‘entitlement theory’. It justifies, I think, the best response to the tedious rationalism of libertarians everywhere: “Fuck off, I don’t care.”

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that no rational objection against Nozick’s philosophy can be sustained. What status, then, are we to give the horror we feel at the suffering and inequality in the world, and the sense of the absurdity of the notion that such suffering could result from a situation that would be called just? What status, further, are we to give our own refusals to be condemned to misery and alienation and indignity? By what force can a philosophy compel our fidelity to its precepts? If it is proven somewhere that a rationally-derived morality compels our inaction in the face of another’s suffering, or declares our own suffering just, then so much the worse for rationality and morality, surely? This is, I admit, a nihilist objection, but it is surely a superior nihilism to that which would repress caring impulses, sever solidarities, and resign us to inaction in the face of suffering in the name of Reason.

Nozick

I wish I could
inhabit music
swim in it
let it permeate
feel it flow through me
like a current
a great destructive wave
that tears my bones asunder
strips away my flesh
discarded: useless
what good is a body
to pure intensity
a swirling maelstrom
of abstraction
before language
that knows nothing
of the turgid play of signs
just the brutality of drums
that clatter and rush
or a lonely sentinel bleep bleep
a gliding foggy effervescence
that adresses itself to an empty night
and expresses everything without meaning.

Everything’s positive here
the migrane squeal of a vicious machine
or the lulling of a womb
the ghosts of bells
and fulsome rushes of fingered notes
their surface leaping, live
with molecular struggle
it all collides here
all the colours and moods dance
etching their baroque patterns
curious, without fidelity
just the promiscuity of unbounded codes
genes coming apart, unravelling
meeting strange isotopes, sinister viruses
drugged up floods from the future
and embracing, happily
no zeros in this world
silence too is penetrated
coloured, enriched
and can no longer feel empty.

But no
I am here
corporeal, exact, tactile
drab air in my lungs
bald light, too yellow for comfort
a world of things and whispered demands
of sharp corners and subtle knives
the music caresses me here and there
and breathes its world into me for a moment
but I cannot become it
only swing hostile limbs
perturb my throat
softly bludgeon brain against skull
but I’m too real for it
and it swims away
leaving me
here.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of mixes drawn from free music and netlabels. Download links for all tracks are available below:

Sounds From Nowhere #1 by Kanellos on Mixcloud

  1. Kamikaze Deadboy – A Forest
  2. Jack Anderton – Acridge
  3. Pandy Corporation – Track2
  4. Desert Island Dicks – To Mars By Balloon (Aurist Mix)
  5. Aurist – Like This
  6. Rainbosws – p
  7. Kanellos – Dialectics At A Standstill
  8. Paradeigma – Wind (feat. My Automata)
  9. Jii-Music – Zero Gravity
  10. Pollux – New Life
  11. It Happened One Autumn – distanstations

Another college essay. I found writing this useful in clarifying my understanding of subjectification in Foucault, perhaps others will too.

[I]t is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.” Explain what Foucault means by this remark.

Foucault’s works are often read as theorising a kind of cold monolithic structuralism, in which power is determinate and human subjects are merely its passive products, whose conscious intentions are more or less irrelevant. (Heller, 1996, pp. 78-9) Indeed, when Foucault tells us, for example, that “individuals are the vehicles of power” and that “[t]he individual… is not the vis-a-vis of power… [but] one of its prime effects” (Foucault, 1980, p.98), it is difficult not to envision the human subject as merely a leaf caught in a storm, helplessly blown this way and that by monstrous flows that are essentially beyond her control. Does Foucault’s picture of modernity, as Habermas (1986, p.106) alleges, not simply reduce to “a senseless back-and-forth of anonymous processes of subjugation in which power and nothing but power appears in ever-changing guises” – power as the real subject of history, abstract and inhuman? And yet Foucault insists that his analytics of power is secondary to his interest in subjectivity. (Foucault, 1982, pp. 208-9) My aim here will be to offer an explanation of Foucault’s interest in the subject in the light of the apparent structural determinism that is so often attributed to him, which entails discussion of (1) the relationship between power, the subject and resistance in Foucault, and (2) Foucault’s approach to theory as a desubjectifying and transformative practice.

Foucault claims that the central concern of his work is to produce “a history of the different modes by which… human beings are made subjects”. His work focused primarily on three inter-related modes of subjectification: (1) the modes of inquiry (sciences) which produce the human subject as an object of knowledge, (2) “dividing practices” which divide the subject both within herself, and from other subjects according to a binary logic of norm and deviance, and (3) practices of self-governance by which the subject (re)produces and transforms herself as subject. Within these modes of subjectification, Foucault detected a form of power for which traditional modes of inquiry lacked adequate analytical tools, that is, a form of power whose effect is to attach the subject to her own identity: “a form of power which makes individuals subjects”. (Ibid., p.212) For Foucault, the analysis of this subjectifying power entailed a shift to the outside in relation to traditional understandings of power. The conception of power as coextensive with the will of the sovereign (the juridicial conception of power, as it appears e.g. in Hobbes’ Leviathan) is rejected by Foucault, (Foucault, 1980, p.97) as it the theorisation of power based on the immanent logic of institutions (the conception of power in terms of the problematics, functions, and objects presumed by institutional logics). (Foucault, 2009, pp.117-8) Rather, Foucault seeks to analyse power in terms of strategies, but insists on a form of strategic analysis in which strategy is not conflated with the intentionality of a subject: “Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective… they are imbued, through and through, with calculation… but this does not mean [they] result from the choice or decision of an individual subject”. (Foucault, 1998, pp.94-5) Power relations are an immanent feature of human relationships, and arise wherever one acts on the action of others to constrain or direct the present or future effect of potential of that action. (Foucault, 1982, p.220) There is no power as such as a kind of universal substance, but rather powers which are immanent to relations between subjects and exist only through their application (Ibid., p.219)

Thus, in contrast to phenomenology, for which the subject is a kind of primary transcendental substance (Foucault, 1991, p.31), Foucault’s subject is always already implicated in circuits of power, an emerges in the context of a strategic field where she is always simultaneously undergoing and exercising power, and it is within this context of the strategic interplay of power relations that “certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires come to be constituted as individuals” (Foucault, 1980, p.98) – a kind of folding or doubling of the field of force relations, in which the subject is always the product of the interiorisation of her relations with the Other. (Deleuze, 1988, p.98) Foucault’s subject, then, is neither a radically free or self-originating agent nor the passive interpellate of some overdetermining structure, but is always in some sense an active participant in the interplay of power relations which produce her as a subject. Consequently, resistance is always possible – the exercise of power is always vulnerable to reversals, disruptions, refusals – but resistances never originate from a position of exteriority to power, rather a plurality of points or strategies of resistance exist within the web formed by power relations, as its immanent and irreducible opposite. (Foucault, 1998, pp.95-6)

Foucault’s interest in subjectivity, then, can perhaps be summarised as seeking to understand the power relations which form us as subjects and the strategies by which we might seek to transform the power relations to which we are subject and thus transform ourselves as subjects. Theory itself, for Foucault, can be such a transformative strategy. Inspired by the works of Nietzsche, Blanchot and Bataille, Foucault conceives of theoretical practice as a kind of desubjectifying “limit experience”, such that the subject is torn from herself and produced as something other than herself. Foucault’s historical inquiries (however rigourous) are concerned only secondarily with the production of truths – the primary concern is that of the experience of history as a transformation of the self, as the production of new understandings and new relations to the present. (Foucault, 1991, pp.30-6) “A book… is a little machine” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013, p.2), and Foucault’s machines are built with a particular purpose in mind: that of allowing the subject to transform her relations to the games of power in which she is constantly and inextricably implicated. This is the second sense (which ultimately produces the first) in which Foucault is a thinker first not of power but of the subject: the analytics of power is always motivated by the problematics of our existence as subjects within particular constellations of power. “Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.” (Foucault, 1984, p.88)

Bibliography

Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. US: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. UK: Bloomsbury.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge. U.K.: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1982) “Afterword: The Subject and Power” in Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. eds. Michel Foucault: Structuralism and Hermeneutics. US: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1984). “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Rabinow, P. ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1991) Remarks On Marx. Trans. Goldstein, R.J. and Cascaito, J., US: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. UK: Penguin.

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Habermas, J. (1986) “Taking Aim at the Heart of the Present” in Hoy, D. ed. Foucault: A critical reader Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heller, K.J. (1996) “Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault”. SubStance, Vol. 25, No. 1, Issue 79, pp. 78-110.

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