Rosi Braidotti is a force of nature-culture. Her work since Patterns of Difference and extending through her trilogy, which includes Nomadic Subjects, Metamorphosis and Transpositions, has been vital to a resurgence of feminist, anti-racist and materialist thought. Her incredibly prolific career – which spans multiple languages – engages with the material realities of politics within the frame of a feminist, Spinozist ethics. This is one of her many great contributions: the ways in which she can adeptly move between the realms of theory and on-the-ground politics, never losing sight of what is at stake in thinking or action. This dual insight is born from her roots in the women’s movement and feminist activism; Braidotti began her career by publishing in militant journals and is always writing from and within feminist genealogy. As she writes in her brilliant essay about her own life and work, “The Untimely”: “more conceptual creativity is necessary, and more theoretical courage, in order to face the challenges and also the horrors of our times.”1 She is an example of both conceptual creativity and theoretical courage.
I had the immense privilege of sitting down with Braidotti to discuss her work in the context of the series Boundaries of the Human in the Age of the Life Sciences at Penn State.2 Our conversation began with her insistence upon zoe, as a life – an impersonal force that moves through us and connects us to the other creatures we share the world and our own bodies with. Zoe is distinct from bios; the latter representing the political, intelligent and discursive side of life, while the former “stands for the mindless vitality of Life carrying on independently and regardless of rational control.”3 This concept is at “the core of the postanthropocentric feminist turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic transspecies commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.”4 From this theoretical foundation we discuss her most recent book, The Posthuman, and the place of the humanities in the contemporary university. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I’m interested in the work that zoe does for your thinking, particularly in relation to this time of extinction. I am thinking about extinction both in terms of biological species and the way that Félix Guattari would talk of it, as the extinction of subjectivities and collectivities. I feel like the impetus to think with zoe is even more imperative at this moment in time.
Yes, psychic constructs and ideas are as mortal and vulnerable as physical species. What is becoming extinct today is a sense and a measure of the possible. We are watching our social, political, conceptual and ethical horizons shrink and narrow by the day. You’ve hit exactly at the conceptual core, which most people miss. I was teaching my class at Columbia last week and a student said, “But we’ve had 30 years of post-structuralism. How could we have missed monism?” And I said, “What a very good question.” Because a switch to Spinoza is almost the essence of the difference between the linguistic branch and the new materialist branch. Althusser’s students bring back Spinoza as an antidote to the limitations of Hegelianism, best exemplified by the catastrophe of Eastern European Communism. It brews up around 1968 and consolidates after the failure of ’68. It was a fantastic cultural revolution that in many ways changed the world but politically it didn’t work. So, it’s clear that a dialectical system of politics doesn’t work, nor does liberal democracy. What do we need? We need a monistic system. It’s key.
Now, why doesn’t it get through? That’s a key question. There is a revolution and then a conservative moment. De Gaulle wins the election. The philosophers stay radical – until 1981. Then Mitterand wins and it’s all over, finished. That’s the French political logic. In our academic world, we have to look at the phenomenon of French theory in the United States, what I call the Trans-Atlantic disconnection. We have to look at what gets imported, where, and for what purposes. The prominence of Derrida and his derivatives makes it impossible for the new materialisms line to emerge. Foucault is a case apart. But, he also dies very young, at 54. So the celebrity thing does a lot for Foucault, but it also kills him. We just don’t have enough of his books.
So I think we have here a political economy of import and export to explain why this question that for you is so obvious – it is the conceptual core – can only be asked now. I think we can almost do the entire interview around this question. There are number of things here in place: power, what became postmodernism, and the backlash against postmodernism that I sometimes feel was set up as a dead horse to be beaten and re-beaten. It was an easy one to both inflate and deflate, and the political consequences of this non-debate have been devastating, as they resulted in dismissing the whole thing as relativistic and amoral. So, then I would say the materialist line is much more subterranean, to use a term from my teacher François Châtelet. And yet, in the context of the history of French philosophy, monism is very prominent, if not the dominant line after 1968. Besides, French philosophy has a tradition of thinking about life and a strong rationalist tradition in the philosophy of science. Monism turns into a vitalist philosophy of science. Georges Canguilhem trained Foucault. Gaston Bachelard supervised both Deleuze and Michel Serres. And then our people come along. They don’t come out of nothing. There are these geneaologies of philosophies of life.
So, I would keep in mind these large blocks of solid scholarship to say, “Actually, we could have done this.” This is core business. That’s my first answer. How do we do monism and why is it so difficult? Well, because our world is organized in binaries. And our political system is organized in binaries. And binaries are the most efficient mechanisms of capture. That’s why they are in place. The gender system is idiotic! It works because it’s stupid. You Tarzan, me Jane. Brilliant! Stupid, untrue. We know from Lacan and psychoanalysis that sexuality is polymorphous, perverse, non-human, all over the place. The gender binary is a mechanism of capture, a mode of governance, a mode of government mentality.
But then we enter the anatomy of advanced capitalism explicated in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. This system is far more sophisticated. It functions by perverse forms of mobility in striated spaces and quantified multiplication of differences. It works on life as capital, life as surplus. But biogenetic powers are always quantified for purposes of commodification. So the code, the axiom is always the same. Maybe the problem has been that until now we could not think about monism because of the domination of social constructivist binaries.
So, we can, at least, think zoe. The first thing we need to say about zoe, monism and the switch to Spinoza, is it actually clearly states that we are part of it. In an immanent frame, we start by saying we are part of it and looking at the modes of implications, the ecologies of belonging. We are immanent to the conditions which we are very often opposed to. The conditions of possibility, the thinkability of zoe has to do with the new situation that we’re in. And it’s no wonder that A Thousand Plateaus is taught in business schools. People want to understand how the world works. The punchline for us is that we are a part of it. This is unbearable for Marxist-Leninists because they are always assuming a position exterior to and outside of capitalism; they see themselves as exterior to the system. Here, my feminism comes in, in relation to immanence, as the politics of location and situated knowledge. Feminism allows you to look at ways where you can both acknowledge and disengage from this complex and multi-layered ecology of belonging and make a difference, a positive difference. The feminist, immanent position assumes the humility of saying “we are a part of capitalism.” That is the beginning of wisdom, that is to say of an adequate cartography of our real-life conditions. Well, that wise humility is just completely not in the picture with the neo-Leninists who are still talking as if they are in charge of the course of history, as if they’ve got the truth in their pocket and they are going to tell you at which particular point capitalism is going to break so that they can stay in charge of the revolution. Capitalism doesn’t break, it bends. It enfolds and unfolds. Welcome to a monistic system.
One of the things that I find so fascinating about your thought is that you’re clear about laying out particular genealogies. I see this as a recognition of the feminist politics of location. This approach entwines immanence with thought. A thought is coming out of and is immanent with a social milieu and an ecological milieu. Considering this entanglement of thought and social processes, I’m wondering if you see the rise of materialist thinking as a result of the increasing pressure of the ecological situation, of it looking increasingly dire?
I think that you stress something very important. That is, monism gives you a methodology and it gives you a pedagogy. That was clear for any of us who actually studied with Deleuze. He gave us a clear anti-oedipal collective pedagogy. He gives you a toolbox, and concepts, and tells you to go and do your own thing. Doing your own thing is actualizing your own virtual forces to implement your own praxis. This also involves a transversal politics which implies a collective. You cannot do anything if you do not have an assemblage, if you don’t have a “we”, a people. There is no subject of knowledge waiting there for you to be recognized by and for you to recognize him – it’s always a him – as the one who holds the key that can unveil the truth, which puts intellectuality in a totally self aggrandizing and classical position. Everything starts with the plane of composition of a we: we need to compose that assemblage and bring out the missing “we” – the people. That we, for me, is a politics of location. It is also a bibliography. It’s also a genealogy.
The thinkability of materialism is definitely connected with the life sciences, bio-genetics, and nano-technologies: all the new matters, new materials, and wearable technologies that are now being developed. We are surrounded by the fabrication of life, the manufacturing of life.5 And then we try to make an ethical, qualitative distinction. This is a massive university, a major agent of cognitive capitalism; we are agents of cognitive capitalism. And then there is the negative part, the anxiety about the future. The Anthropocene, however shaky it may be as a scientific concept, is one of the factors that enables the thinkability of extinction and the possibility of recomposing a humanity.6 But the Anthropocene is by now almost disregarded as a concept. I see nothing but criticism of it.
I think in this moment I become a true first generation Spinozist calling for a different ethics. The ethics of affirmation, the ethics of actualization. And that is the theoretical battle line. That’s where we are not getting through at all. That’s where we are losing massively because the Marxists attack us to say that we don’t have a politics. The neo-Kantians attack us saying “you hate humanity in a time of such suffering that requires that we join forces.” And we are left exactly where we were in the 1980s with the discussion of postmodernism: as the alleged enemies of Humanity and of the humanities. We are back to that.
One of the things that I find fascinating about the ways in which you take up the Spinozist ethics around the question of affirmation is that it isn’t only about positivity. You also engage with difficult subject matters such as death, suffering, suicide and depression. These other things don’t look like affirmation, especially not in this age of self-help and the perfectibility of the subject, but affirmation can also look like an acknowledgment of the difficulties of getting through the day.
Spinoza’s Ethics has entire chapters on poisoning and death. He is living in terrible times – the end of the Dutch Republic, political assassination, chaos. He himself is a pariah and experiences marginalization – out of the synagogue, out of the city, living in the Hague. He talks about poison and being intoxicated by negativity. That’s exactly how the negative functions. It’s toxic, toxic for the earth, the social, psychic and environmental. It’s not just killing. It’s a slow death. To get that out of a system is clinical as well as critical. So, we should make the clinical exercise of the detox from negativity our number one priority to live a life of the mind that constructs affirmation. It’s not about optimism and feeling good. Who cares about how you feel?
Reason left to itself is a horror. Einstein took it all back, the poor guy, when he saw what they had done with his thought, saying “if I had known I would never have thought it.” He was so against the violent application of the bomb. Freud had a psychopathology of philosophy project. Then came Nazism and he had to flee. But before then Freud had several meetings to look at the pathologies of the philosophers. Kant with his maniacal obsessive behavior: people could set their watches to his walks. Rousseau, the great pedagogue, sends his children to the local institution because he couldn’t be bothered. I mean, the “great philosophers” are a bunch of dysfunctional nuts! Or, to put it more affirmatively, they are expressing a kind of psychopathology as they are dealing with intensities and they are cracking. You have to crack a little. If you do it in a Spinozist ethics of affirmation, you are pursuing the crack as a way of opening up to further intensities. But, you need people who have been wounded. You need some wound. If you haven’t been wounded you are a very dangerous person in critical theory because you are just another white male barking at the moon in a frenzy of me-too-ism.
We need to acknowledge the pain, the difficulty of it, and to proceed with the humility and the lucidity necessary to create basic conditions by which you can sustain a life. Do people think it is easy to sustain the life of the mind in the years 1967-1968? Look what happens to that class of academics. Look at the alcoholism, the burn out. Those who swap wives every five minutes. It’s all so heavily masculine. Look at the dropout rates. Sustainability is extremely important because it’s a marathon run. It’s not a sprint.
You’re absolutely right that the politics of sustainability must also apply to subjectivity and to building collectives…
Sustainability for me has to do with what we used to call the life of the mind, how we sustain a project. You know, Spinoza left the academy to sustain his project.
The way in which you are re-imagining the university in The Posthuman is extremely compelling, but to sustain these institutions as non-profit seems really difficult. Students are being charged exceptional amounts of money for tuition. Academic labour is being increasingly undervalued. There are so many people who are exceptionally talented scholars who end up working sessional or contract labour. Obviously, universities are a microcosm of the larger structures of labour under advanced capitalism. So the question is, if we recognize the immanence of capitalism and the immanence of the university to the life of the mind, at least at this particular historical moment, then where are the points that we can put pressure on to actually make conditions more livable?
It’s a great question. It’s a real question. The contemporary university is a place where thinking – not even in the terms of critical theory – but where the creation of concepts can occur. Making the university a think tank for innovation for the good of humanity with labs and structures that would allow us to explore methodologies and pedagogies would be ideal. That would be my university. Now, who is going to pay for it? I think that the private sector has everything to gain because they understand that innovation is crucial. They know that in cognitive capitalism, ideas matter. Concepts matter. Look at the success of Deleuze in business schools from Cardiff to Copenhagen to LSE, they are teaching it because it is the correct anatomy of advanced capitalism and these people don’t have any time to waste. It is there that we go into deep water. Okay, then when do we start negotiations? I provide you with cognitive capitalism – I am working at the radical edge – what do I get in return? Will they listen? The serious ones may. Most will not. And so you may get an exodus of people out towards the new infrastructures that we’re getting institutionally. People are moving to the art world. They are moving to private industry. They are going home and doing the Spinoza “I do this on weekends.” It’s a difficult moment. I am not sure the university for our field can make it.
What they did at Utrecht was select bits of the Humanities that were profitable and the rest was cut down to a teaching curriculum, which is sort of effective but also short-sighted. And the writers and the bloggers and the designers and the hackers – they are the people who are the motor of productivity. They are the creators, particularly in algorithmic culture, where the university is miles and miles behind.
So, the fact that the interesting things seemed to be funded by private foundations, both in terms of the arts and the humanities, to me this is worrying because even though it allows for certain kinds of innovations that maybe don’t happen elsewhere, it also really feels like it shuts it down. I really am concerned about the for-profitability of what would happen if most of our think-tanks were run by private business.
I think there is a question there, a real question whether we could have a market economy that isn’t capitalism. Capitalism is, after all, only one of the readings of the market economy. There are other market economies: the commons, the digital commons, Indigenous-driven, ecological commons. What, then, would be the institutional structures that would go with those? This would be some sort of an academy, some sort of cooperative model as opposed to the hierarchical university. I was also toying with the idea of what the opposite of the profit-motive would be. What is non-profit? I see the profit-motive as purely instrumental, only looking for applied results. So, for me the opposite of profit is fundamental research. Fundamental research means experimenting with the virtual. We need places, laboratories, fundamental labs to discuss the terminology, the conceptual schemes, the pedagogies, and the value systems. We need to work on this. This is what the humanities should be doing. Fundamental research like they are doing in the labs. We are digging our own graves by enacting repetitions without differences: re-embracing the classics, or re-hashing universalism just because it’s what everybody knows. This reterritorialization of philosophy by what they call ethics – in fact neo-Kantian moral philosophy – is a catastrophe. It’s a domination of power by Kantian morality. They don’t mean anything else. It’s a major reterritorialization, and that becomes the value system and under that they can neglect the analysis of the most atrocious exploitations, both of matter and of the chunks of humanity who do not matter in wars and migrations. We need variations and gradations of ethical assessment within a system that continuously modifies and is one with differential variations. This does not mean that anything goes, it is not ethical anarchy. No, it’s a different way of evaluating for forces and relation that requires a little bit of work – it’s called an ethology. Oh, that’s too much work? So, we have complexity in the sciences and simplifications in the humanities? Kill me. The humanities need to be the complexity theory. We need to be the humanities branch of complexity theory. Otherwise you are killing us. We need to update. That’s why my post-humanism is post-humanism, and not neo-humanism. I think we need to go with this. And we are capable in the humanities to come up with schemes – this is precisely what Deleuze teaches, the vitality of actualizing the multiple virtuals.
One of the things that I was curious about when I was reading through The Posthuman is that you’re very careful to move away from this issue of shared vulnerability. I was initially surprised by that because to be vulnerable is part of the body’s capacity to be affected, right? I was thinking of vulnerability in a relational mode, because it is being open to being wounded. But, I understand your hesitation to shared vulnerability in the political sense that we aren’t all in this together, we don’t experience vulnerability neutrally, it is a politically differentiated reality and corresponds to questions of gender and class and racialization and ability.
That’s interesting. I think that in between the two books – Transpositions and The Posthuman – the discussions of vulnerability sharpens. Vulnerability is not part of the terminology that I inherited from my teachers. I get perishability. I get some sort of mortality. Vulnerability is very much the language of the Levinasian phase of Derrida. And it becomes the language of Judith Butler, but also Simon Critchley and Paul Gilroy’s postcolonial melancholia. So, it is the latest reincarnation of this fixation on otherness as the ethical turn.
I wanted to address the difference between Levinas and Spinoza, two branches of Judaism that have become clear to me – Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding is the book that clarified this for me, even more than Butler’s work on precarious life. The Levinasian other, the Derridean other is what you are accountable to and for till the end. To infinity. It is the face of the other that you can not get past. Then you stand still by the graves or by the wound, and you honour them. I have enormous respect for that. It’s just not my ethical system. I am now more careful in defending the ethics of affirmation. It’s another way of reworking the wound. It assumes a relationality on all sides. It does not assume a dialectic or dualism of self/other whereby there is one pole that needs to be responsible for the other in whichever order. No, it’s a ramification. The rhizome is lots of us. I’m responsible for the air I breathe. I’m responsible for, at least, the three ecologies. At least! Processing negativity is training. You get better. Age really helps. I’m going to write on aging next. Why it helps? I don’t know why, but it helps. It goes faster. I’m tracking it carefully around me, as if the organism growing slower somehow facilitates this. Most extraordinary. I’m going to focus on this in my next book, which is going to be on death and dying.
Now, the other argument I want to make about vulnerability is the larger frame. That comes from Foucault. A culture that runs on milking the wound and the pain – in popular culture, on television, in the legal system through litigation – we are really milking pain. This country, the United States, is truly demented. The pornography of pain in this culture, the litigation. The money that goes with it. The voyeurism, the exhibitionism that goes with it. I am really so opposed to that. And then, the claims that I am the most persecuted person who ever walked the earth. The exceptionalism of the wound. It marries into narcissism, this exceptionalism.
We need complexity to assert that you can be simultaneously really wounded and really powerful. And to live with that, you need an ethics of affirmation that allows you to process it, to take distance, with humour, maybe, with love and compassion. I mean, there is a lot of crying and a lot of pain involved. Our business is extracting knowledge from pain. That’s what we do. And we are crazy to do it! Why aren’t we on Wall Street extracting money from human misery? No! There must be something wrong – ie: totally right – with us. There are different methodologies for dealing with this. Also, it’s a question of temperament. There are many factors. I get very impatient standing by the dead. I prefer to go off and clean the cemetery or do something. So there is a question of wanting to actually get active in the world. And the passivity of Levinas can be affirmative, but it doesn’t have the speed that I need to cope with the pressures that I feel, particularly for as long as I am in cognitive capitalism as a professor. It may change when I am a civilian. When I am in the world doing my bee-keeping and the other alternative hippie things that I will do. But as long as I am an agent of this, I need to do things. Standing very still and remembering the dead, I think, yes, okay, I actually do that regularly, but it’s not my ethical system. I have enormous difficulties with it. I think it needs different institutional practices. I think you should do a study of how people function in an institution, at the front of melancholia, at the front of affirmation. The speeds and intensities that compose you, we really do differ. So I think the more the merrier. And anything is better than Neo-Kantian universalism.
Rosi Braidotti, “The Untimely” in The Subject of Rosi Braidotti: Politics and Concepts, edited by Bolette Blaagaard and Iris Van Der Tuin (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 240. ↩
For more on the series, including the video of Braidotti’s lecture see http://sites.psu.edu/iahboundaries/. ↩
Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), 37. ↩
Rosi Braidotti, “The Posthuman in Feminist Theory” in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, edited by Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), 10. ↩
For more on the intersection of biological sciences, biotech and neoliberalism, see Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015). ↩
Donna Haraway’s work on the Capitalocene is very important here. See Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Claire Colebrook has written extensively on the thinkability of extinction in the two volume series, The Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume One (London: Open Humanities Press, 2014) and Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction Volume Two (London: Open Humanities Press, 2014). ↩