Metamorphoses & Trans-Human Becomings (Rosi Braidotti)


Reading Rosi Braidotti sometimes feels like reading comic books, or science-fiction. Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming is no exception.  The book is like a dare. Throughout the course of western culture and into our own popular culture, the “humanity” of women has been called into question. But in our own advanced technological age, the tables turn. With the very concept of humanity itself pressed by science and called into question, there’s a strange logic to aligning women with animals, insects, monsters, and cyborgs. In this work of philosophical science fiction, the “second sex” has turned into a swarming, mutating, transforming entity. In this new ontology, the second sex turns into something completely “other,” now that the subject is no longer one, or once the very idea of a coherent subject has become undone.

Behind the delirious play in Metamorphoses is the seriousness with which Braidotti takes images and the imagination. Basic to this book and others by her is the imperative to find decentered (ec-centric) and multi-layered “figurations” with which best to represent the lived sense of mutation, transformation, and flow in contemporary globalized culture. Combining frameworks drawn from Irigaray and Deleuze, concepts and aesthetics are made to work hand in hand. Rather than critique representation as such, the work of philosophy is supposed to establish itself alongside the aesthetics of art and cinema, as if from inside Plato’s cave, imagined as a “transgressive philosophical phantasmagoria” (p.93). The figures privileged by Braidotti (woman, insect, monster, machine) are just that. From comic books and science fiction, they are figures, nothing more and nothing less, meant to capture the becomings of contemporary consciousness.

Taken over from Deleuze, “becoming” performs a technical function in Braidotti’s work. It signals transformation, understood in terms of qualitative increases in speed, intensity, and color, in terms of sharp breaks into new fields of perception and affectivty (p.147). This more intense form of living, the author insists, is supposed to be regulated by an ethics based on joy, affirmation, and sustainability (147-8, 135). But not just that. Perhaps it is a form of escapism, this peeling off of the stratified significations that encrust the body in this or that social and political performance. The One “becomes woman,” “becomes animal,” “becomes machine,” the ultimate telos of which is to become “imperceptible.” For Braidotti, “becoming” ultimately comes down to the dissolution of the subject or self as its merges into the environment. In ways that remind this reader of Rilke, to become imperceptible means that the “I” becomes invisible, no longer subject to a percept or judgement (Cf. Braidotti, Transpositions, p.260).

Subjectivity is, alas, more squishy than that. You think you have put your finger on it hard and finished it off, but there it is; having slipped under your finger, it’s hiding over in this or that new fold. In ways that I don’t think Bradotti accounts for, the subject is actually privileged in its very in-signification. This is the tension in her work, which one can read charitably or critically. It is the one between “becoming imperceptible,” on the one hand, versus what Braidotti simultaneously signals, on the other hand, as conatus, remaining and enduring as human. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting parts of this book are the ones that one doesn’t expect to find –for instance when Braidotti actually walks back the very hype about animals and machine-technologies upon which her own work depends and builds (pp.224, 2277-9, 243).

The only productive way I can think to resolve the tension is to suggest that becoming “imperceptible” is theatrical, or “figurative.” For all the posthuman brio, Braidotti wants to maintain the human, does not reduce the subject to a bio-technological-cybernetic datum or function (p.230), and holds out for a sustainable sense of self. To be sure, she wants to do so at a higher “intensity.” But the very last word of the text hangs upon a poignant picture of the human self as half-gone, but still enduring (pp.264-70).

Is the point then to actually become animal or machine, or just take up a more felicitous space alongside and with them? If so, there are two conclusions to be drawn about this project. The first is that it continues that long tradition (one can trace it back to Lewis Mumford and Norbert Wiener) that seeks to harmonize the human and the machine. We could call it posthuman humanism, understanding that what’s at play in this project works as a playful form of mask-work pushing the human out towards its limit that separates the human and the non-human. In this case, the mask happens to be a Virtual Reality mask. We get to act out what it might be like to be or become an insect or monster, or machine. Braidotti would seem to recognize that we’re not really cyborgs as much as we pretend to be. That’s the takeaway from her citation of Vivian Sobchak, “Prosthetically enabled I am, nonetheless, not a cyborg. Unlike Baudrillard, I have not forgotten finitude and naked capacities of my flesh nor, more importantly, do I desire to escape from them” (p.224).

But what then about finitude in Braidotti’s project, what about suffering, the problem of limit, and the enduring power of domination and privilege that dog her own thinking?

There are, after all, limits to any project of metamorphical self-transformation. Blithely writing off those who fear radical change as hopeless and hidebound, Braidotti pays little attention to the catastrophes and catastrophic suffering that typically provide the necessary catalyst for radical change. Against Freud and with Nietzsche, Braidotti tends to over-value raw intensity, passion, ecstasy, and trauma. Without a feel for tragedy, the concession that one embrace trauma “however difficult and at times painful” is too easy a throwaway that misses the scope of catastrophic suffering, not just its “intensity, but the enduring power of catastrophic suffering to cripple for as long as they live the lives of those who suffer it (pp.140, 143). How far should one go in the pursuit of transformation? What about violence? Braidotti poses these questions without really answering them except to disregard dominant morality for tamping down “intensity” (pp.145-8).

About the strange attempt to transcend or overcome suffering in Braidotti’s project I’ll say more in another post. For now I want to focus on a connected line of thought. With Deleuze and Guattari, Braidotti assumes that standard majoritarian subjectivity is “molar,” i.e. having to do with classes or segments, and therefore sedimented, fixed, reactive. In contrast, becoming-minoritarian is “molecular,” i.e. having to do with masses or flows, and therefore less given over to solidity, stability and stasis (cf. A Thousand Plateaus, p.243). While Deleuze and Guattari want to disassociate what they call minoritarian-becoming from quantitative determinations, there may be no neat away around the limits of social identity (see A Thousand Plateaus, 320-2).

As it turns out in the way Deleuze and Guattari present it, minority-becoming turns out to be another form of majoritarian privilege. That would be the privilege of the man who “becomes” woman, the gentile who “becomes” Jew, or the white person who “becomes” black (as opposed to those women, Jews, and black people who already “are” female, Jewish, and black, and whose struggle with the facts of having to be so lends itself to politics that are always intensely molar).

Assuming against Deleuze and Guattari that there is no way around social identity, it might be the case that the minoritarian-becoming that Braidotti wants to commit feminist theory would show itself as a form of molar positioning par excellence. This positioning is one that digs deep into its own ground, closed in and burrow-like, self-aware and self-obsessed in being tough, resistant, and reactive. While minoritarian-becoming lends itself to ec-centric points of view, those turn out to be tenuous and ultimately unsafe. (The examples of Kafka and Benjamin stand out.) In contrast, it might turn out to be the case that majoritarian subjectivity would prove to be more free, more loose and open, more easily given over to change, and to adjusting standards as it sees fit in sovereign acts of decision over the long term, if not the short term. More than any minoritarian-becoming, which is always forced to bend around a majority, what is called majoritarian subjectivity can pretend to be neutral and take itself for granted as it crosses more freely over boundaries –be they social, political, psychological, and ontological in nature.

Consider how majoritarian privilege plays out in Braidotti’s text. Whether recognized or not by her, it could be that to be open to and to accept with joy and not fear the promise of radical change would have to depend upon the safety and security that comes with privilege. There would indeed be no reason to think that radical “becomings” will actually undo standards and domination and every reason to suspect that these kinds of metamorphoses will re-set and re-group them on new, but still uneven terms. For instance, Braidotti’s reading of Clarice Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. about the becoming insect of “a post-emancipation female subject” “a “sculptress living on the top floor of a luxurious apartment-block in a modern South -American metropolis” does little to waylay this suspicion about privilege and the politics of becoming (pp.160-7). Braidotti’s reading of radical self-transformation in Lispector’s story suggests that the subject-protagonist has only gained and loses nothing in the process of becoming insect, and through that, becoming one with the universe; while presenting the entry by that privileged subject into her housemaid’s room as a crossing of class boundaries, instead of a violation of a woman’s privacy by her employer.

I’ll have read Metamorpheses with two eyes, one suspicious and critical, the other charitable and sympathetic. It’s a question of critical balance and judgment. Stepping back for a moment, what stands next to the critical questions tugging at Braidotti’s text is the pushing of “the human” combined with undergirding commitments to human well-being, the generous and critical creation of new philosophical figures that are materialist and embodied, the invitation to a carnal perception or point of view, the critique of anthropocentric modelling, the creation of a picture of the world sensed on a superb feel for weirdness against fixed points of view, and the generating of new possible ways of capacious social relating and connecting concepts based not on a stand-apart phenomenology of radical difference, but rather the incorporation of subjectivity into a large and swarming inter-subjective or trans-subjective mass (pp.173-4).

What remains to be figured out about theoretical projects like this is the extent of this incorporation, what gets lost or left behind and overlooked in the process, what stubborn finite structures stay the same as one seeks to peer into the life form of an infinite substance. In this light, Simone de Beauvoir’s suspicion about “immanence” remains very much in order. She writes against the way “man” flees freedom and subjectivity in these attempts to lose oneself in within the Whole, in cosmic and pantheistic reveries, and in the desire for sleep, ecstasy and death. “It is more satisfying to deny brutal separation than to overcome it, more radical to be lost in the heart of the Whole than to be petrified by the consciousness of others: carnal fusion creates a deeper alienation than any abdication under the gaze of another” (The Second Sex, transl. by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, pp.284-5).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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