Archive

Tag Archives: biopolitics

“NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!”

Miley Cyrus

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.

* EDIT 11/11/15 The struck-out sentence is one I no longer endorses since it prescribes indifference as an ideal way of living queerness – prescisely the kind of prescriptivism this text seeks to escape. I have struck it out because, while I feel it can safely be removed from the text without loss of coherence, I don’t believe in simply deleting problematic/contentious mistakes so it appears as if I never said them.

Advertisements

Trigger Warning: anxiety, depression, suicide

I began writing this a number of months ago and abandoned it. This was partly because I am not someone who is naturally comfortable sharing intimately personal experiences, but mostly it was because I sensed that the space for discussion around mental health issues has been colonised by the medical community and by state apparatuses and that, because of the seriousness of the issue, only a certain kind of discourse is permitted, and to say anything different is to invite attack. But the enormous wave of condescension following the death of Robin Williams has pushed me to finish it. I am open to discussion on any of the points I make here.

* * *

A few months ago, I was walking across Dublin to meet a friend. At the top of Grafton St., a woman from some religious group or other was handing out glossy leaflets titled something like “Reasons to go on living”. How absurd. I wanted to take her aside and explain to her that, while she probably means well, anyone who is actually considering suicide has a complex and personal web of problems in their life that couldn’t possibly be addressed by a one-size-fits-all pamphlet of generic reasons why life is worth living. I also wanted to shout at her for being so completely, offensively patronising. How self-absorbed do you have to be to think that your fleeting interaction could conjure away someone’s suicidality? To think that the most alienated and impersonal form of social interaction – shoving a leaflet into someone’s hand – is going to decisively alter their relationship to society? As if depression is just the result of ignorance or stupidity: of never having been told, or never having thought, of things about life that are good.

I did neither, as it happens. I just kept my head down and walked past, hoping she wouldn’t try to engage me. It was far too early in the morning for that shit, and I was in no mood for it.

In the Arts block in UCD they’ve installed a blackboard, that says “Before I die I want to _____________” about 20 times. Predictably enough, it’s been used by men to anonymously sexually harass women they know – “Before I die I want to ride X” – and to make jokes about how useless an Arts Degree is. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. Do its instigators imagine that people with suicidal thoughts don’t realise that if they’re dead they won’t be able to go on a skiing trip, or learn to play the banjo, or get a blowjob off the Pope anymore? Or do they think that they’re crowdsourcing a set of useful suggestions as to what one’s life’s purpose might be that might actually change someone’s trajectory? Does it have a point beyond spending a sum of money earmarked “suicide prevention” so that someone in an office somewhere can tot up in monetary terms how much “suicide prevention” has been done this year?

It seems every other week there’s someone on TV cycling a bike or jumping on a trampoline or swimming to prevent suicide, all bleating the same condescending message “it’s ok not to feel ok, and it’s ok to ask for help”, as if the weight of fears and stigmas that keep people locked in silence can be dispelled by a catchphrase. College campuses are intermittently swarmed by these people: happy-clappy do-gooders in brightly coloured clothes baking cupcakes and putting up balloons and smiling rather too earnestly. At some point in the recent past, it was decided somewhere that the issue of suicide would be tackled, and that it would be tackled in the most obnoxiously fluffy, self-congratulatory, and insubstantial way possible. It’s one thing to think you can save the world by holding a jumble sale for Africa when you’re in primary school and don’t know any better, but adults should be able to address serious issues seriously.

* * *

I’ve never felt myself to be at serious risk of suicide, thankfully. But for the past four or five months I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression, which had me struggling to get out of bed, never mind leave the house, sleeping erratically, not eating, fighting with those close to me, panicking over college and other commitments which I was unable to make very much progress on, and enveloped in a dread that my whole life was about to collapse around me, which culminated in my having to abandon this semester of college because I simply couldn’t cope anymore. Life stopped being enjoyable, except in intermittent flashes; at best it merely was – flat, anhedonic, boring – and at worst it was a cloying trap of worry. The last thing I needed – and I needed, and still need, many things – was chirpy teenagers in fluorescent t-shirts enjoining me to “please talk”. (To whom?) I find it utterly alienating, superficial, empty. Are there really people whose world is so pleasant that all this joyous affirmation could be an authentic expression? Or is it simply a naivety that thinks the psychosocial damage of the world can be healed with an injection of fake saccharine positivity? Either way, there’s no possibility for communication here, because this mode of expression simply doesn’t inhabit the same world: how could all this Crayola-coloured positivity have anything to say about anything real?

What’s missing from all of these efforts by mainstream culture to address the issue of suicide is any capacity to grapple with the ambivalence of life in this society. What I mean by this is the recognition that life does not automatically provide us with a reason to carry on, that the world is not waiting to shower us with pleasures if only we would embrace it. Uncertainty and vulnerability are fundamental to the human condition, and thus too are anxiety, despair, and pain. The possibility of boredom is proof enough that mere experience is insufficient. If we find a reason to persist with life, a possibility for enjoyment, it is the result of a process of struggle, an active creation – the product of an act of will, or perhaps faith, not of reason. There is always the possibility of hope, perhaps, but it is pure fantasy to suggest that it is always immediately available to us in all circumstances.

In my experience, a good psychotherapist understands this, and is willing to engage with the validity of negativity. But as a culture we do not permit such things to be expressed and acknowledged. Instead all we can muster is the absurd moralising insistence that life is always worth living – an axiom that cannot be questioned – and the corollary pathologisation of the real lived experience of those who feel otherwise. Perhaps it is because existential questions are painful that such things are confined to the therapeutic situation and the backrooms of philosophy departments. Perhaps it is because those of us who are “healthy” recognise on some level the precariousness of that position. I don’t know. But I do know that socially-enforced positivity, the social ethic that commands that life must be enjoyed, consigns the reality of negativity to a grim and dangerous silence.

* * *

What does the reality of anxiety, depression, suicide, say about society? According to the dominant medical discourse, nothing at all. Healthy people are healthy, sick people are sick and need to be made healthy. There are only individuals and their problems. It would of course be obscene for me to try and suggest that all mental illness is political in origin or meaning – moreover, I don’t believe it – but it is, I think, equally obscene to treat mental illness as if it were merely an individual dysfunction with no social component. (This is of course not to deny the biological/clinical reality of mental illness, merely to question the compulsory individualisation of their causation.) There are political reasons why we experience anxiety and despair. There are political reasons why mass culture permits only the celebration of the often miserable conditions of our existence, and why the permitted conversation on these matters has all the depth and nuance of a playschool mural. Precarious work, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, social isolation, the fear of one-another, the patriarchal system which poisons our most intimate connections and alienates us from our closest companions: these are social diseases which can only be tackled politically. There are limits to the powers of medical practioners. We should demand more from life than coping strategies and medications, and that requires that we implicate the society in which there is so much unhappiness, and not just our selves which are unhappy – that we reject the repressively depoliticised official discourse on mental health, and dare to think about the kind of world in which life might be worth living.