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In an article entitled “Performativity and Becoming” (Cultural Critique, 72, Spring 2009, pp. 1-35), Mikko Tuhkanen critically addresses Judith Butler’s philosophy of futurity through a Deleuzian/Bergsonian matrix. His primary criticism concerns Butler’s supposed avowal of an open-ended, non-teleological reading of Hegel that “[refuses] the dialectical synthesis of the Absolute by ‘[a]rresting [Hegel’s] text prior to its resolution into Spirit'” (11). According to Tuhkanen, while Butler’s attempt is indeed vigorous it nonetheless falls short of its intended aim and ultimately succumbs to “realization.” The latter is a term derived from the work of Deleuze (following Bergson) that relates to possibility. For Deleuze, the possible is that which is able to be realized (or not). The possible is thus the limited assortment of potential happenings (or lack thereof) in futurity based on the conditions of the present. For Tuhkanen, following Deleuze and Bergson, realization of that which is possible, while an important element in political transformation, is limited and ultimately insufficient to provide new trajectories of political subjectivity. In Butler’s case, Tuhkanen identifies the latter’s self-limiting commitment to realization in her insistence on the abject being recognized in a society that otherwise excludes such persons (more specifically in Butler’s case “genders”). In other words, Butler’s primary objective is “to shape a symbolic future that would render [the abject] culturally recognized and intelligible” (19). The problem according to Tuhkanen is that by merely seeking “recognition” Butler is containing herself within a limited paradigm of realizing that which is possible; for Butler is not interested in imagining “new genders” but merely in attaining recognition for genders that have existed for many years. This latter desire is therefore perpetually stuck in a reduplication of the conditions of possibility, thus limiting the depth and scope of unforeseen potentiality.

The latter is overcome, for Tuhkanen, in the Deleuzian notion of the actualization of the virtual. According to Deleuze, the actualization of the virtual is distinct from the realization of the possible precisely in that the virtual is the ontological dimension of absolute indeterminateness. In other words, Butler’s hope for recognition is merely epistemological, whereas the actualization of the virtual is ontological. This latter note is key for Tuhkanen because Butler’s project is always stymied by her own methodology (despite her intention to the contrary). There is therefore no hope for a true futurity within Butler’s framework because she is not able to think beyond the prefigured possible of abject beings. On the other hand, by appropriating Deleuze’s notion of actualization of the virtual, Tuhkanen believes that genuine futurity is possible, as the virtual is by ontological necessity unbound, unexpected, and uncontainable in present conditions. Therefore, committing ourselves to the radical openendedness of virtuality “may prove central in reinvigorating a politics embracing the future by refusing to tie it to the realization of possibilities” (25).

While I find this to be a (somewhat at least) convincing argument (especially considering my own penchant for the work of Deleuze), what I wonder is how can political subjects prepare for this openendedness? And perhaps more importantly, is there a way to actually harness this virtual power for specific ends? Part of my work lately has been centered on the later Sartre, who I’m sure would fall into a similar line with Butler here. In Search for a Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason, the most unique aspect of Sartre’s existentialist marxism (for me at least) is that he eschews all structuralist and deterministic readings of History in favor of a historicism that is open and excessive. While the latter is his claim, according to Tuhkanen, I’m sure Sartre too would be stuck within the paradigm of realizing the possible. In fact, Sartre constantly addresses human praxis as aiming toward the possible, as overcoming the material conditions in which one is in situ. Through “man’s” project, one’s material conditions are surpassed by praxis, which results in the objectification of subjectivity (in one’s work, in a gesture, in the tools of production, etc.). The latter however is uncontainable; for the profundity that inheres within this objectified subjectivity is beyond total excavation; not only because of the depth of the subjective element but also because the meaning of this objectivity varies in each situation in which it is received and then analyzed. Thus, there is a robustness to objectivity, as the product of subjectivity that dialectically produces subjectivity, that is always in itself in need of surpassing toward the beyond and that always escapes total comprehension by virtue of its intrinsic excessiveness. Therefore, in the act of surpassing, one does not merely negate and forget the conditions that brought about his/her subjectivity. Rather, the conditions are sublated in the act of praxis and carried forward into new situations, which when objectified, in turn, create new subjectivities. Thus, we can see that Sartre is susceptible to the Deleuzian critique of Tuhkanen; for the former (according to the latter) is incapable of theorizing the absolutely new.

What I’m wondering here is does this mark a decisive impasse between Hegelian/Marxist thought and the work of Deleuze/Bergson? Or is there a way to reconcile the two? Or perhaps reconciliation is wrong-headed. Is there a way to utilize each for liberatory ends in the political sphere? Perhaps I’m just not seeing an inroad right now… or perhaps there is only dissonance…

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