Of Worldliness and Being Otherwise: A Conversation with Elizabeth Grosz – Heather Davis

When thinking of questions of dirt, of its intricacies, its complexity, and its force, my thoughts immediately turned to feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz. This is not because she writes about dirt itself, but because she has been instrumental to a revitalization of biological and physical, or worldly, considerations within feminist philosophy. Her insistence on thinking with the complexity of the world, in its material, political, and cultural resonances, letting thought be guided or impinged upon by the problems posed by outside forces, recognizes the way in which we are intractably and irrevocably of this earth. For decades, Grosz has been central to feminist philosophy due to her attentiveness to questions of the (sexed) body, to what the body can do, and to its limitations. Most recently, these corporeal interests have led her to a reconsideration of Charles Darwin as one of the first theorists of difference. Grosz argues that sexual selection, fundamental to evolutionary theory, offers an understanding of difference itself as the generative motor of cultural and biological life. The differentiation of living organisms into (at least) two categories, and the desires and tensions of this difference, allows for the emergence of aesthetics, ethics, and culture. Think here of a peacock’s feathers, or a good dance party: the processes and accoutrements of attraction often pose a liability to continued existence, seemingly counterintuitive to an evolutionary model, but feathers, music, and dance emerge and continue to proliferate because they are appealing, sexy. And because each individual, and each group, has slightly different tastes, difference is continually generated as part of the excessiveness of life itself. I took the opportunity of rolling in the dirt that this issue afforded to ask Dr. Grosz about how the sciences, especially biology, offer new avenues for feminist thought and politics. This conversation emerged through a series of emails conducted over the past couple of months. I am continuously humbled by the intellectual generosity shown by Dr. Grosz, and am so pleased to be able to pass on this exchange.

Heather Davis: In your recent book Chaos, Territory, Art (2008), you draw upon the works of philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Luce Irigaray, as well as biologist Charles Darwin to offer a reading of art and artistic practices as primarily natural, that is, as deriving from the evolutionary, bifurcating, and differentiating force of the world. I am interested in the way in which your reading of art refuses to mark a clear distinction between people and other animals, the way you refuse the easy division offered by other philosophers who point to the caves of Lascaux (as the first known instance of representational art) as the birth of humanity. What impact does positing all life as generators of art have politically, for both artistic practice and for ourselves, as humans?

Elizabeth Grosz: I am not sure what political effects refusing the distinction between the animal and the human has in the sphere of art. It certainly means that the dating of ‘first forms of art’ is always problematic, and endlessly open to revision, especially dependent on where the arbitrary line between mammalian and human development is drawn. As is true in all anthropological speculations about human origins. Art in its most general sense – the framing of qualities and their use to intensify sensations – has always been a feature of those animals who are sexually differentiated into at least two categories as a mode of attraction. This means that the art undertaken by humans involves the use of the qualities and sensations that also effect various animal species, the reframing of the animal framings of qualities. Qualities, colours, shapes, sounds, rhythms, resonances of all kinds please, intensify, and highlight: they do so for animals as much as for humans. Restoring the human to its place among the worlds of animals is the first step in the transformation of the millennia of human self-representation as above or superior to the worlds of animals. If animals have worlds, and not just a single world, humans no longer have the clear right to the sovereign regulation and management of the natural world.

HD: One of the things I find so refreshing about your recent turn to Darwin in Chaos, Territory, Art, and elaborated upon in Becoming Undone (2011), is your radical insistence on ‘restoring the human to its place among the worlds of animals,’ placing the mammalian beside the human, in the multiple worlds where ours is simply one. In this gesture you begin to undo, as you say, millennia of the naturalization of human domination, but you do so by equally refusing traditional environmentalist discourses. In particular, your insistence on becoming is radically different from the calls for ‘sustainability.’ I wonder if you could comment more on why sustainability doesn’t work for you, and what becoming with the world may offer, as a conceptual apparatus, for what Ricardo Dominguez calls our ‘no-future future’ in the face of multiple ecological crises.

EG: This is a tough and complex question and requires some nuance. We are indeed one species among many millions of species. Mankind has relegated to itself the function of reigning over animals, harnessing them for human purposes, making the animal a different order than itself. I am not sure that the discourses on sustainability or environmentalism are any different. They still assume man as steward of nature, man as the one who both causes and can stop ecological catastrophes, man as both the misery and saviour of animals. Sustainability is surely what is sustainable for human use, human interests, human forms of identification, isn’t it? That is why it is a continuation by other means of the discourses of liberal humanism, but a humanism that doesn’t just represent humankind but all those animals (and plants) that humans find interesting. Which animals are saved (tigers, polar bears, baby seals, whales) and which are to be destroyed in saving other animals (mosquitos, insects of various kinds, sharks) are those, perhaps, that humans find appealing. And this is itself not the overcoming of evolutionary forces but the latest torsion in the forces of natural selection, with human excess being one of the conditions that now make up the natural milieu of most species. The human assumes that it is exempt from the forces of natural selection – forces that are brutal in the extinction of the vast majority of species over time – but what ecological crises show is not only the vulnerability of species to human excess but also the vulnerability of the human to its own excesses. We need to no longer think of ourselves as the masters of nature, the stewards who represent the interests of all other species; the history of humanity in its vast variations has at least this in common – that the rest of the living universe was there for human needs alone. We have not caused a catastrophe for life on earth, for many, many forms of life on earth will long supercede mankind; we have caused a catastrophe for ourselves and the animals we need to perpetuate our existence. Politics everywhere relies on this assumption that even Marx relies on.

HD: Could you say more about how politics everywhere relies on the assumption of humans as the stewards of other animals and forms of life, including Marx, and your own intervention into this discourse where Darwin figures so prominently?

EG: There is of course a very close connection between Darwin and Marx. Marx saw in Darwin’s work the biological preconditions that explain the explosion of human culture as a struggle for existence. But where they differed – and I am not clear whether they were aware of this difference – is precisely in how each understood nature (and thus the worlds of animals and plants). For Marx, the human can be defined in terms of its ability to work on and transform nature, using nature as raw materials in the production of goods that human labour has created. Human society produces itself through its overcoming and transformation of nature, including animals. Human society is thus fundamentally different from natural societies to the extent that humans annul and rework nature according to their own needs, thus producing new needs. Darwin, whose view of human culture and creativity never removed it from the world of nature, has a more differentiated and less oppositional or dialectical understanding of nature, including all other life forms. Human society is not different in kind to animal societies, which are abundant in the natural world; they too are subjected to the operations of variation, natural selection, and sexual selection. In creating human society, humans do not move beyond nature but always remain a part of it, one variant among many, many others. For Darwin, I believe, the idea that humans must become stewards of a nature that is now in jeopardy must be regarded as ludicrous, and as narcissistic as much of human self-evaluation tends to be: humans are neither the problem nor the solution but a momentarily dominant or privileged species.

HD: You say in your introduction to Becoming Undone that the turn toward materialism in your thought can be understood less as a ‘new materialism’ and more as a “new understanding of the forces, both material and immaterial, that direct us to the future.” I’ve often wondered if the current emphasis on materialism in contemporary philosophical thought is being pushed by the force of the world, as our way of living, our way of conceiving of the world is being increasingly impinged upon by anomalous weather events, massive crop failure, and poorer and poorer air quality. Are these events and forces pushing theorists and philosophers toward questions of material reality?

EG: I am not sure what prompted the so-called ‘new materialism,’ which doesn’t seem to me to be all that new. Feminist theorists, with some notable exceptions, have always claimed to be materialists. A generation ago, the form of materialism was historical materialism of the kind Marx elaborated. And even now, there are many kinds of materialism, most of them claiming some direct connection with the world, whether the world be understood in terms of the most pressing political events of the present (the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement, the war on terror), or in terms of the most abstract concepts of matter. I don’t think that the ‘new materialism’ that many people are talking about within and outside of feminist theory is directly prompted by political events, for the more urgent and pressing events are, the less theory has much to offer directly. I think that in my own case, this interest in the question of the real is ontological rather than political, conceptual rather than practical. I clearly cannot speak for everyone in this. It came, for me, from an intellectual dead-end, the demise of a certain kind of theory in which the real moved increasingly into the background to be covered over by sovereign or representational norms.

HD: Yes, you say that in order for feminism to break out of its conceptual impasse – that is, a theoretical framework that is overly concerned with questions of the subject, of who the subject is, its experiences and affects – feminism should now be concerned with directing “itself to questions of complexity, emergence, and difference that the study of subjectivity share in common with the study of chemical and biological phenomena.” What does this move toward the biological sciences, an ontological orientation that displaces the human, offer for you conceptually, as a feminist philosopher? You argue that the inclusion of the biological, the physical, offers a future orientation which aids in the creation of new worlds, new possibilities, where “feminist theory has the potential to make us become other than ourselves, to make us unrecognizable.” I wonder if you could say more about this impulse to be rendered ‘unrecognizable’ or imperceptible.

EG: This is a difficult question to answer. I think that ontology, how we understand the real, the world and its components, is the basis of not only epistemology, but also politics, ethics, and aesthetics. What we understand the world to be is shaped by how attentive we are not only to the scientific representations of chemistry and biology, but also to the work of those in the humanities who can address what the key questions and methods might be in our understanding of the chemical and biological worlds – worlds in which we are ourselves only a small part that doesn’t adequately understand its place or the nature of chemicals or biological entities. We live in a world that is atomic, sub-atomic, metallic, biological only because, without caring for it much, we are ourselves expressions, partial expressions of this world. How things and processes mix together, what are the conditions for and effects of their possible inter-relations, are also questions about ourselves, not necessarily questions about how we are masters of the world and the agents which regulate it, but questions that remind us of where we come from both personally and as a species. For me, this is a possible new path of feminist (and other forms of minoritarian) philosophy: how to bring about new mixtures, new forms of engagement, not only among ourselves but also with all other living beings, and even the inanimate forces that make animate life possible. In the wake of religion, we have only physics, chemistry, biology – but not as they currently exist, in their generally unselfconsciously patriarchal forms, but as they could exist, a new religion of worldliness, of the complexity of the world, and the conditions for being otherwise that it contains.

Image: is courtesy of Nathalie Casemajor Loustau.

Heather Davis is a researcher and writer from Montreal. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Communication at Concordia University on the political potential of community-based art and is currently pursuing an FQRSC postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University. She explores and participates in expanded art practices that bring together researchers, activists, and community members to enact social change. She has written about the intersection of art, politics, and community engagement for Fibreculture, Public, Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media, .dpi, and Politics and Culture.

Elizabeth Grosz is the Jean Fox O’Barr Professor in Interdisciplinary Feminist Studies in the Women’s Studies Program at Duke University. She is the author of The Nick of Time (Duke University Press, 2004) and Chaos, Territory, Art (Columbia University Press, 2008).