You are not what you think you are

I’ve explained how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari deal with identity and subjectivity, but I think a bit of repetition won’t hurt. I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible, like I did in the previous essay, trying to avoid their jargon as much as possible, even though that’s quite tricky, considering how complex this issue is. Anyway, there’s an interview in which Jean-Charles Jambon and Nathalie Magnan ask Guattari to explain what’s the deal with identity and subjectivity. It has been published in English as ‘Toward a New Perspective on Identity’.

So, the interviewers (215) prod Guattari to tell them why subjectivity is so important to him. He (215) answers them that it’s important because it’s largely taken for granted, as “already given, fitted and packed”, but it’s actually something that’s produced. What he (215) wants people to do is to realize that and to pay attention to how it is produced. The problem for him (215) is that the production largely results in a passive or tranquilized subjectivity. I think Michel Foucault would call this type of subjectivity a docile body, as discussed by him (135) in ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’.

I like the way Guattari (215) explains this here, in this interview, calling the subjectivity that we are used to dominant subjectivity, and what he promotes in its stead chaosmic subjectivity. Simply put, the former is this fixed entity, autonomous, free and capable, supposedly, whereas the latter is chaotic and cosmic, by which I believe he means that it’s creative, always undergoing transformations. I think he (215) manages to put it particularly well when he summarizes his own intentions:

“This is just the opposite of turning toward a being already there, already formed, because being is above all becoming, event, production.”

This challenges the dominant subjectivity, because if things change, all the time, to this and/or that degree, you can’t hold on to a fixed sense of self. It’s that simple. If you get that, if you are like yeah, that’s how it is, that you are just what you are and not what you think you are, or, more broadly speaking, that everything is just the way it is and not the way you think it all is, then the rest of this essay shouldn’t be too hard to understand.

Anyway, the interviewers (215) ask him to elaborate on how this is connected to homosexuality, probably because he (215) mentions homosexuality as a good example of that, of being as becoming. For him (215), homosexuality is not some anomality, some fixation to wrong genitals, because such conception relies on the dualisms of masculine and femininity. In other words, he (215) isn’t buying that men have a penis and fear of no longer having one and that women don’t have one, but would like to have one, hence their attraction to men, and then, I guess, somehow, men not wanting other men because they already have a penis. In this view, because men don’t want men, homosexuality is then, by all logic, explainable as a stage from which one can progress, once one realizes that one is fixated on the wrong thing. It’s, as if, homosexuals, men and women, are just waiting to get it, to accept their fate, to have and to not have and to desire to have, as he (215) points out.

Okay, okay, that’s a crude way to put it, to explain the castration complex that he (215) refers to in this context, but that’s the gist of it. He (215) doesn’t like that because, rather obviously, that penis is taken for granted, as the yardstick, according to which everything is then arranged, even though there’s no reason why it would be that way. Why would one start from the penis and not the pussy? I mean, come on, that’s pretty dumb. We might as well pick any feature and give it that status. It could the color of your eyes or your hair, anything, really.

Now, this also means that what’s been covered so far, hetero- and homosexuality are, in fact, illusory. Why? Well, because that baseline is arbitrary. In his (216) words:

“[E]ven if we come to be homosexual, before being homosexual we have to become homosexual, to make ourselves homosexual.”

Even this is too much for him. How so? Well, there is still this distinction between being and becoming. He (216) clearly doesn’t buy it:

“Here we have the idea of an existential praxis of homosexuality[.]”

That’s great, because he (216) is all for this practice or praxis, which is linked to an “emergence of becoming”. But, the problem with his initial take is that it still relies on that dominant subjectivity, which, in turn, relies on a transcendent subject, as he (215-216) points out and as he (216) goes on to add:

“[But] it refers ultimately to the most banal homosexual conjugality, one which rejoins the world of dominant significations.”

To put that in other words, what he objects to is not homosexuality, as a becoming, but homosexuality as a being. The problem for him is that homosexuality is viewed as this transcendent object, as this fixed idea, of men on men and women on women, just like men on women or women on men, you know, configured as a couple. To be fair, as he (216) isn’t trying to be dismissive, to mock anyone’s sexuality, not to mention to be homophobic, he (216) acknowledges how people cling on to such fixed notions:

“We can hardly dispense with the constitution of micro-territories into which we retreat in order to experience being, to feel recognised.”

Ah, yes, it is indeed about recognition, or, rather, about the desire to be recognized. But that’s not what he is advocating for, as he (216) goes on to add:

“It is a matter of a perspective on identity which has no meaning unless identities explode.”

So, in other words, he wants to reconstitute identity and being as dependent on constant becoming. One may, of course, be still recognized as such and such, but that’s there and then. It doesn’t matter what you were or what you’ll be in the future. It is what it is. You are what you are. No need for labels. If you ask me, that’s the best way to put it.

Now, to be clear, he isn’t judging anyone for their sexuality. He isn’t questioning any of that. He (216) does express siding with minority groups, such as homosexuals, but in terms of micro-politics and not of macro-politics. I don’t think he had any problems with men bumming men or women going down on women, or the like, feel free to use your imagination, and he would have opposed all kinds of homophobic behavior. For example, I reckon he would have found expressions like ‘no homo’ very interesting, because, on one hand, it does appear to express prejudice against homosexuals and homosexuality, but, on the other hand, there’s this defensiveness to it, this distancing of oneself from it, which stems from its origins in rap and hip hop. To clarify the second part, Joshua Brown explains this particularly well in his article ‘No homo’ (I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s such a good example, so I’ll go with it again), when he (302, 308) points out that it was originally something that African-American men would say to one another, to make sure that the other men wouldn’t think of them as homosexuals, because while homosexuality might have been (and probably still is) considered as something negative, it was considered as something much more negative among African Americans. In other words, that expression came to be, not because someone was, necessarily, homophobic, but because it was expressed to shield oneself from being viewed negatively, among a group that was already (and still is) viewed negatively, to prevent oneself from carrying a double burden, as he (308) points out. So, simply put, it’s more telling of the struggles of the African Americans than anything else. The members of the community feel so oppressed that it makes sense to them to avoid being oppressed even more.

C. J. Pascoe and Sarah Diefendorf (123) summarize this neatly in their article ‘No Homo: Gendered Dimensions of Homophobic Epithets Online’ by stating that this all about “a form of gendered norm enforcement”, which “reflect[s] current cultural expectations of masculinity.” I think they hit the nail on the head on this when they (123) state that this is about “a gendered practice that works to define parameters of normative masculinity.” So, to be clear, what’s important here is not homosexuality, as such, but rather the constitution of masculinity as exclusively heterosexual. It is an odd one though, as they (124) go on to add, considering that the phrase is expressed following some, generally speaking, positive remark or a compliment. As they (124) point out, it’s like a way to express one’s approval of someone, while also distancing oneself from that person, just because homosexuality was viewed and is still to viewed negatively. In other words, if it wasn’t viewed so negatively, as a transgression of the norm, there wouldn’t a need for it, as they (124) go on to indicate.

So, in short, it’s basically about insecurity, typically among men. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I think Lonely Island’s song ‘No homo’ manages to explain that particularly well, how it’s about insecurity, considering that it’s all about just telling how you feel, which is, supposedly, the most unmasculine, i.e., feminine, thing to do, to tell how you feel; “To tell a dude just how you feel, no homo”.

Pascoe and Diendorf (129-130) actually go on to point this out, how in their study of online behavior, it is much more common for people to use the phrase positively, accompanying compliments given to others and expressing friendship, than to use it negatively. While the results of their study should not be generalized, it being based on a fairly small sample, as they (134) also point out, it does suggest that it has more to do with masculinity vs. femininity than it has to do with homosexuality.

What’s interesting about this is how puzzling it is, as Pascoe and Diendorf (132) point out. So, whenever you say ‘no homo’, following a compliment, what you really are saying is ‘homo’, but in a way that it is not then taken as a transgression of norms, even though, it can be argued that it’s exactly what you are doing then. Pascoe and Diendorf (132) reckon that it functions to immunize the person expressing it, preventing others from using it against that person. So, oddly enough, while it can be used in a negative manner, to judge other people, it is often used in a negating manner, as they (132) go on to add. I agree, but I think it also be thought as a valve, because it’s also about letting out your emotions, in a controlled manner, so that others don’t think of your behavior as a sign of deviant masculinity, by what they would then think of as feminine. So, yeah, oddly enough, I’d say that distancing yourself from gayness is, arguably, the gayest thing you can do, because you are, in fact, only saying it because you want to say it. That’s desire for you and I think that’s also the gist of the Lonely Island song lyrics (as I’ve also mentioned in the past, because it’s such a good example, much better than anything that I could come up with some wordplay).

To put this another way, that phrase is particularly interesting because it assumes that homosexuality is all about intercourse, because, in fact, it assumes that all sexuality is about intercourse. It’s, how to put it, an attempt to reframe sexuality, to make it all about intercourse, so that what’s actually said is then not sexual and thus acceptable. To explain this the way Guattari (216) does in the interview, the problem here is that all sexuality, including homosexuality, ends up being reduced to conjugality, by which I take him to mean that it’s then all about procreation and thus serious business. Now, while with homosexuality it’s clearly not about having offspring, it’s still the same logic, just without the offspring. It’s all very … proper. Anyway, while Pascoe and Diendorf (132) don’t put it this way, it is indeed about “[d]rawing [b]oundaries”. I totally agree with their (132) take on this:

“The deployment of ‘no homo’ reifies particular meanings of masculinity (as unemotional, unattached, rational, for instance) while simultaneously creating space for the expression of these sentiments.”

They (133) refer to this as hybrid masculinity, which is, well, like having your cake and eating it. It builds on this premise that, as a man, you are supposed to be this stoic figure, unshaken, no matter what, someone who knows what’s what and doesn’t get carried away with emotions, you know, like a woman, while, at the same time, secretly being all emotional, you know, like a woman. Now, I don’t believe that premise holds, it’s laughable, really, but the thing is that people think it does.

Related to this, Brown (309) also mentions something that Guattari (216) would agree on, how minority groups are also capable of being oppressive once the adopt to dominant logic. Brown (309-310) exemplifies this with how some homosexual men don’t mind calling other homosexual men “fags” as an insult to question their masculinity. So, as I’ve tried to explain, the issue people take with homosexuality is that it challenges heterosexuality. It is the practice that deeply troubles them, as Guattari (216) points out. Once it’s turned into a fixed identity, alongside the heterosexual identity, basically giving it the heterosexual conjugal form, people can be controlled through it by judging their behavior, assessing whether it conforms to the norm of homosexuality. So, if you are a homosexual, you are now expected to act accordingly, whatever that means, and if you don’t act accordingly, you are, once more, a sexual deviant, perhaps one of the “fags”, to use Brown’s (309-310) example.

It’s also worth emphasizing how Guattari (216) opposes micro– and macropolitics. It’s not too clear what he means by this, if you aren’t familiar with the terms, but you can find them defined in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. He and Deleuze (213) mention them in the context of politics:

“[E]verything is political, but every politics is simultaneously macropolitics and micropolitics.”

The former pertains to rigid segments, for example social categories, such as men and women, whereas the latter pertains to supple segments, which then challenge these notions, as they (213) go on to clarify. To put that in terms that shouldn’t be too hard to understand, we may think that men and women are these fixed categories, i.e., transcendent objects which we then just happen to represent, or, at least, as these discursively constructed categories, i.e., social constructs, but, in any case, there are these clear-cut categories. We may also take a closer look at them, to examine what counts as masculine or feminine. When we do this, we are bound to notice that it’s not at all that simple, that you are either masculine or feminine, nor that you have some masculine features and some feminine features. It is the micropolitics that challenge these macropolitical notions. In their (213) words:

“[T]he two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes.”

Now, it’s tempting to think from this that micropolitics is what we should strive for, instead of macropolitics. That’s right. I’d say so, yes, but at the same time, one needs to keep in mind that micropolitics can turn ugly or, as they (214-215) put it, cancerous. The point here is that macropolitics is pretty old school, or classical, as they (214-215) point out. It’s rigid, yes, but it’s also easy to deal with, whereas micropolitics is supple, bordering fluid, and thus difficult to deal with when things turn ugly. This is exemplified by the two with the paradox of anti-fascism:

“Leftist organizations will not be the last to secrete microfascisms. It’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist in inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective.”

To explain the terms, they refer to the macro as the molar and the micro as the molecular. So, what they (215) want to get across is that the latter is not, in itself, any better than the former. Like I pointed out, making things more supple or fluid is, overall, the way to go, but you got to let go of the segmentation as otherwise you are only making finer distinctions. In their (215) words:

“[F]ine segmentations are as harmful as the most rigid segments.”

Why? Well, because they are still segments. They are smaller, i.e., more molecular, than the rigid, i.e., the more molar, segments, yes, but they are still segments. Then there’s the related issue of scale. As they (215) point out, we are tempted to think of the small as pertaining to individuals and small groups of individuals and the large pertaining to the whole society, but this is wrongheaded. The small can permeate the whole of society, you know, like a virus, and the large can be found manifested in an individual, which is the case when someone is highly rigid in one’s own thinking.

On top of that, neither negates the other. Instead, they work in tandem, as they (215) point out. In fact, the more something is organized in either way, the more it is open to turning into the other, as they (215) go on to add. So, the more rigid something is, the more susceptible it becomes to being challenged. They (215-216) exemplify this with two examples that I think are still valid contemporary. Firstly, there’s globalization, which means that work is now a planetary phenomenon. You can hardly escape it. So, it’s molar, yet, it is very, very molecular as it’s all about the individuals. Secondly, security is a state matter, all about macropolitics, but it’s fueled by micropolitics, by all those fears that people have. They (216) mention separatists, but that’s almost quaint by now. We’d call them terrorists these days. Then there are the immigrants, who, supposedly, are there to take your jobs, despite not knowing the language, nor having the skills needed to do the job. They don’t mention immigrants, but Guattari (170-171) does mention them in ‘Everybody Wants to be a Fascist’ and foresees the flow of immigrants to Europe from Africa and the Middle-East, as well as to the US from Central and South America.

Now, none of this is to say that, in molar or macro-political terms, that minority groups, in this case homosexuals, should just keep to themselves, let things slide, just because there is this danger, of becoming the oppressor, despite having being oppressed. To be clear, this applies to everyone, not just to homosexuals or any minorities that you can think of. In fact, I believe that you should put up a fight, to challenge the system, but, at the same time, you have to keep in mind why you are doing it and not compromise it, to make a difference, because there is no shortage of cases where people have sought to challenge the powers that be, only to end up the powers that be, no better than the people who they opposed. To give you an example, what did protestants do? Well, they protested. That’s where the name comes. Why? Because they thought the system was pretty corrupt and served the people who run the show. Was it that way? Ahm, yes. I’d say that they were totally right about that. But what did they end up doing? Well, they eventually ended up with their own system that while, perhaps, better than the old system, is not unlike the old system. This is what Friedrich Nietzsche points out in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he (69) states that:

“Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself. And when you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”

Anyway, it is at this point that Guattari’s interviewers (216) ask him to define identity. Now, he (216) does not give you the typical definition of identity, that of being, that you are this and/or that, as that would invoke a transcendent object. Instead, he (216) wants to define it as an existential territory. What is it? Well, if you’ve read either of the volumes of ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ and/or ‘Anti-Oedipus’, you won’t have encountered it. Guattari mentions it at times, here and there, but the most thorough take on it can be found in his ‘Schizoanalytic Cartographies’. In that book, he (26-27) refers to it as a dynamic domain that lacks a fixed identity and as something that is very real, yet virtual. If you want the long answer, read my essay on that book or, even better, just read the book yourself. To give you a short answer, it’s all about how the given is given. It’s about what’ve become, at any given moment. It’s the given, but not from the perspective of the given, taking it as just the given, but from the perspective of the giving of the given.

“It is a matter not only of tolerating another group, another ethnicity, another sex, but also of a desire for dissensus, otherness, difference.”

So, in other words, we must abandon such notions of identities altogether and think in terms of difference. To put it another way, it’s the giving of the given that we must build on and not on the given. Difference is therefore not something that’s what’s been this and/or that identity, something subsidiary to identity, but something that is primary to identity, something that is constitutive of identity, as Deleuze (xv) points out in ‘Difference and Repetition’. Anyway, Guattari (216) continues:

“Accepting otherness is a question not so much of right as of desire. This acceptance is possible precisely on the condition of assuming the multiplicity with oneself.”

Note here that it’s about multiplicity and not of multiple. Why? Well, because the former could be anything, even something that we don’t even know yet, whereas the latter is limited to this and/or that. Again, to explain this the way Deleuze (xv) wants us to think, think of identity as that what is given to us by difference and not as something that is simply different from something else, as this given that is given because it is simply different from another given.

While I may have strayed a bit and didn’t manage to avoid some of the jargon, I like this two page short interview, because it keeps things relatively simple. You should be able to get the point he wants to make about identity and subjectivity, even if you are not familiar with his and/or Deleuze’s works. It’s certainly central to their works, as well as to the works of Foucault, but it’s presented in a fairly accessible form. Oh, and I totally agree with what he says in this interview. My own work also deals with these with identity and subjectivity and while I recognize their importance, I find them problematic, just like Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault do. I get it that people want to cling to their identities, what we may thus also call dominant subjectivities, because going against that logic is tough, because it challenges the way you think, while also providing you a sense of self. Giving it up is asking a lot, but that’s exactly what’s needed. It’s also difficult, because your sense of self, as this and/or that, has been ingrained in your, likely for decades, so giving it up must feel like someone is tearing you apart. Oh, and that’s not a joke. Find a copy of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ and read the plateau ‘How do you make yourself a body without organs?’. If you feel like you are being torn apart, like you’ve been lied to your entire life, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. The feeling is like you are bordering insanity. That’s how I’d put it. It’s your way of thinking that wants you to keep you from thinking in any other way. Do stop reading at that point though and only return to it a good night sleep or so, when you feel like you can handle the challenge. It may take a while, sure, but once you can handle that, it’s pretty sweet. You are no longer occupied by thoughts about yourself, who you think you are. You just are. That’s what’s so revolutionary about. You’ve become revolutionary, not by moving from this to that, but by becoming-revolutionary, as Deleuze and Guattari (292) put it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:

“Becoming-revolutionary remains indifferent to the questions of a future and a past of the revolution; it passes between the two.”

So, once you manage it, once it’s about becoming-revolutionary, you no longer think of yourself as this and/or that, in the present (which is actually in the past already), in the past, nor in the future. You just are what you are, here and now. It’s as simple as that.


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  • Lonely Island (2011). No Homo (A. Samberg, A. Schaffer, J. Taccone, B. Long and B. Byrd, Wr., B-Sides, Pr.). New York, NY: Universal Republic Records.
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