Attempting to explain the how, what, and why of normativity has exercised the attentions of social analysts for centuries, remaining an enduring puzzle in sociology since its disciplinary inception. A nest of related riddles attend the subjectivation of the individual, or how the social gets under our skin. How does an outside (social norms, grids of intelligibility, and behavioral compliance) also articulate the inside (personal belief and conscience, and even biological symptomatologies)? Given this intricate involvement between the inside and the outside, an involvement whose causal origin cannot be determined, should the conscious strategies of antinormativity be understood as interventions that hail from outside these norms or as expressions of power’s internal and perverse machinations? If norms are considered the genetics of power that inform all of social life (without necessarily dictating it), then the peculiar identity and ubiquity of a norm is neither restricted nor prohibited. In sum, what is normal about a norm?
This essay explores power’s intransitivity, its “self-possession,” by interrogating the way that cultural analysis routinely assumes that the workings of power rest on a break with nature, a break that explains human exceptionalism as an unnatural perversion of nature’s previous conventions and prescriptions. By way of Georges Canguilhem, the argument dilates on the implications of this foundational assumption, itself a form of antinormativity, by shifting its frame of reference to that of life itself.
This meditation begins with a rather obvious statement, namely, that academic research, regardless of its content, political temperament, disciplinary formation, or scholarly smarts, is driven by a shared desire. Whether our aim is to register a new perspective, an innovative approach, or a suggestive interpretation, we all want to make a difference. Our practice may be one of critical judgment in the face of complacent acceptance; it may be endorsement and affirmation in response to critical judgment; or it could even be a self-conscious refusal of the whole, tired, agonistic dynamic (which inadvertently repeats it). In our individual attempts to register what is unusual and specific in our arguments, we cut and slice our way through other positions—parsing and trumping, correcting, rejecting, diagnosing, and repurposing—in an attempt to locate the special signature of our contribution. Certain words and rhetorical devices do the work for us, operating as deictic markers that install spatial and temporal distance, political hierarchy, and comparative value. The purported difference between a norm and its opposite is one of these devices, and conservatives and their opponents assume their assigned positions and read them as alternatives. Although this journal issue explores this particular problematic in terms of queer and its “axiomatic foe,” normativity, understanding difference as an operational separation has broad acceptance. This means that queer’s intrinsic impropriety and lack of restraint will “naturally” align it with all the other others, whether through color, gender, sexuality, ability—the list is long and the cross-referencing of its failures, debilitating. Inevitably, the associational deficiencies of the negative, regardless of its chameleon guises, will defy revaluation, even when that correction takes the form of a reversal, a celebration of its misfit. As my interest is in how a self-identified radical politics might realize its claim to make a difference, a different difference, my focus is not on queer as a specific discursive, historical, and political artifact, at least, not straightforwardly; rather, I find the more compelling question to be why the center, the norm, the rule, is routinely accepted as a fixed reference point against which deviation, change, and singularity—the exception—must be measured.
In the introduction to this journal issue, Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson argue persuasively that almost all queer theoretical analysis will define itself in terms of negative affirmation. “Queer” claims its identity in the breach, breaking with conventional claims of gay, lesbian, and trans identity politics; it champions its antinormative credentials in terms of “defiance and reprimand”: it understands its special ability to rupture and thwart the oppressive circumscriptions of a norm by way of experimental possibility, a privilege presumably afforded the outsider. Even recent manifestations of what queer might mean in areas such as posthumanism continue to underwrite their radical credentials in these same antinormative terms. For example, disciplinary knowledges become the normative site of constraint and restriction, whereas interdisciplinarity, that bastard crossbreed of conceptual transposition and rearrangement, promises more transgressive possibilities. As the logic that equates queer with transgression and play is increasingly predictable, however, the very status of “transgressive” is surely qualified. In Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, a text that cleverly engages the shifting forms of human/nonhuman couplings, we are given a clear account of how this relatively recent field of intervention and innovation runs to script: “My core sense of ‘queer’ refers, as might be expected, to exceptions to the conventional ordering of sex, reproduction, and intimacy, though it at times also refers to animacy’s veering-away from dominant ontologies and the normativities they promulgate. That is, I suggest that queering is immanent to animate transgressions, violating proper intimacies (including between human and non-human things)” (11).
Let me be clear. By suggesting that the rhetorical and structural “tic” that repeats and repeats like a mantra of authentication in queer theory, and critical analysis more generally, is itself prescribed, “expected”—a norm in its own right—I am not claiming to “out” critical scholarship in a gesture of one-upmanship that might leave it at that. As already mentioned, such a critique that understands its difference in terms of “distance from” simply repeats the problem: the murky complicities that are involved here are capacious and structural, and not resolved or even contained by moral and political arbitration. Given this, my interest is to acknowledge the fact and force of these mired complicities and, in a sense, to explore their dis/affections. For example, if we return to the quotation above, I am made to wonder if “immanence” can actually be managed and circumscribed by the critic: is animacy really inoperative in “dominant ontologies,” failing to enliven them? If dominant modes of being are resilient and cleverly transformative in their methods of survival, why exempt this process from review? Zahid Chaudhary, acknowledging that the need to oppose, reject, and exclude is universal, enjoins us to consider “the desire that the antinormative impulse registers.”1 His point is that if everyone, regardless of political color, is caught up in the “contradictory yet coherent, imprecise and yet magnetic imperatives of antinormativity,” then, citing Jacques Derrida on this same point, he asks if “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire” (“Structure” 279). Chaudhary wonders if conceding the perversity and comprehensiveness of this desire “might change the critique of antinormativity” from one of conceptual and naive mistake. We are certainly left with something of a riddle here, and it is one whose “animacy” is at work in all political engagement, namely, what is the nature of this shared desire whose refracted intimacies and morphogenetic perversity confounds opposition, even as it reinstates it?
Importantly, these questions about what is common, shared, even universal, and what is individual, noncompliant, particular—the exception that breaks the rule—capture the enduring puzzle of the individual versus society. It is a question that has fascinated sociologists since its disciplinary inception, and even across the humanities, a nest of related questions attends the subjectivation of the individual. Put simply, how does a culture’s specific signature of place and time, the very texture of its identifiability, get under our skin and inform our individual experiences with felt significance? How is it possible that our own aspirations and desires, the intimate meanings of things held close, could appear inauthentic, as if the affirmation of self is ventriloquized from elsewhere? How does an outside (shared social norms, cultural grids of intelligibility, and behavioral compliance) also articulate the inside (personal belief and conscience, sexual identity and expression, psychological and even biological symptomatologies)?
A brief clarification is in order before we get under way. The words norm, compliance, and shared all draw on a sense of belonging, a sense that a language of meaning-making through which social behaviors are interpreted is held in common. Shared doesn’t mean same, however, and we could even risk asking if “the logic of the same,” an accusatory phrase deployed by feminists in the eighties, and by Luce Irigaray in particular, has any real weight. Just as any language community will house as many idiolects as it has members, each one different from the next, what renders a society identifiable does not rest on its internal coherence. Nor, in turn, is an individual identifiable in terms of her own internal unity, or consistency. We see this illustrated when we authenticate a person’s signature. Surprisingly, the guarantee of individuality is a specific relational pattern, yet one whose endurance requires the signature’s integrity to be merely apparent. A valid signature will show signs of transformation; indeed, a forgery is often spotted because there is no vital movement from one moment to the next. Although counter to expectation, a norm is similarly erratic: if it is accurate to describe a norm as a constant, then what persists is something inherently mutable.
We could ascribe this ambiguity to all entities, all individuations, inasmuch as something deemed to be the same will, on closer inspection, prove to be constitutionally aberrant. In other words, instead of beginning from an identity that is stable and coherent, one that discovers difference outside itself, we are confronted with something whose interiority is already alive with what Chen might call “animacies,” an interiority that could just as easily describe what is alien and exterior. Given this, to think the question of the norm rigorously, to interrogate “the how” of its social and political regimens, begs the question of how and from where they arise. How should we circumscribe an entity or behavior as an appropriate starting point, one that is analytically separate from another? How, for example, can we identify or foreclose what is normative if our departure point is one that already contradicts itself, one whose identity meanders all over the place and won’t “sit still”?
To unpack what is at stake in this last point, we might assume that an act whose motives and behaviors discover a unique individual with bizarre criminal intent would be proof that a normative structure of compliance, even if qualified as approximate, has been discovered and also breached: we have found our exception, our nonconformist outsider. Yet even such stand-alone aberrations that seem to come from nowhere express familiar patterns, shared “designs” of behavior whose modus operandi reveal a recognizable signature. The criminal profiler can discover information about a specific crime scene, even clues that are not immediately evident, by analyzing data from other scenes—potentially far away in time and geography—that involve other perpetrators and other modes of enactment. We are left to wonder how these foreign circumstances could prove telling in regard to this particular one. Strangely, the discipline of criminology, a branch of sociology, excavates families of behavior whose logics operate like genetic structures, stretching across time and space, unbeknown to the individuals who enact them. When a population has sufficient critical mass, data gathering that bores down through the historical record discovers a past whose liveliness is uncannily contemporary. This tethering of past within present forms a palimpsest of ghostly interconnections, an algebra, literally, a “reunion of broken parts,” that will manifest as an identifiable “standard,” and one with predictive capacity. It is as if the past lies before us as an indicative force, such that every individual act that appears isolated in the present, in the immediacy of a here and now, is inhabited by a future anterior, where the past cannot be circumscribed as gone and done with.2
Émile Durkheim, father of sociology, had much to say about this mysterious force that animates the individual from the inside out, describing its organizational adhesions as a “conscience collective.” In Durkheim’s hands, the very notion of an individual becomes something of a riddle, no longer defining part against whole. This last point is crucial to the discussion that follows because its implications are often simplified and misunderstood, as if there is a choice to be made between one or the other—individual or group, exception or common rule. We can certainly concede that Durkheim was interested in the big picture, preferring to study the broader social context in its generality. Durkheim, however, did not see society as an aggregation of individuals whose messy personal lives and the vagaries of their decision-making processes were simply too difficult to analyze. On the contrary, what exercised Durkheim’s attentions were the ways in which personal choices were neither original nor individual. Given this, Durkheim’s analytical object proved slippery and elusive, and his pronouncements quite confusing, as we see in this attempt to define “sociological phenomena”:
Thus it is not the fact that they are general which can serve to characterise sociological phenomena. Thoughts to be found in the consciousness of each individual and movements which are repeated by all individuals are not for this reason social facts. If some have been content with using this characteristic in order to define them it is because they have been confused, wrongly, with what might be termed their individual incarnations. What constitutes social facts are the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively. But the forms that these collective states may assume when they are “refracted” through individuals are things of a different kind. What irrefutably demonstrates this duality of kind is that these two categories of facts frequently are manifested dissociated from each other. Indeed some of these ways of acting or thinking acquire, by dint of repetition, a sort of consistency which, so to speak, separates them out, isolating them from the particular events which reflect them. Thus they assume a shape, a tangible form peculiar to them and constitute a reality sui generis vastly distinct from the individual facts which manifest that reality. (54, my emphasis)
Before elaborating this last point, a few preliminary remarks about my own methodology are in order. My aim is to try to juggle two seemingly competing interpretations of what is meant by the individual, hoping to acknowledge why the concept’s necessity and problematic status are not in opposition. In the first instance, I want to begin with this sense of exception. There is an almost automatic conflation of what is individual with what is unique. An individual is quite literally excepted (Latin excipere—“taken out”) from its context. Each one of us is, indeed, a one (and only). Even the most conforming, the person with so little individuality that she goes unnoticed and unremembered by neighbors and colleagues, is nevertheless special in being so inconspicuous.
In what can only be a brief musing about the riddle of the individual, its muddled and contradictory aspects are, nevertheless, quickly apparent. The individual is both single and plural, and as our personal identity passports are multiple, the sense of being a specific isolate is significantly compromised by the cross-associations and conflictual allegiances we each embody. Even the gesture of replacing totalizing claims with appeals to more modest and presumably more accurate descriptions of self, gestures meant to acknowledge the hubris of speaking for others and the local basis of our knowledge claims,4 even this well-meaning strategy can deflect the matter’s complexity by unwittingly repeating the problem. As any one category is splintered by its infinite membership, each fragment different from the next, the appeal to confine our representations of the world to that tiny patch that we each occupy would reduce the measure of our truth claims down to an undivided corpuscle, and by dint of its lonely particularity, the veracity of such a perspective could never be tested. If we commit to some notion that the truth of a life is impossible to represent because it is closed in upon itself, an island among islands, then we might surmise that truth, at least an individual truth, is nevertheless anchored, or guaranteed, by someone, somewhere. Yet even this comforting concession to a radically scaled-down truth, albeit one frozen in relativism’s solipsism, is surely something of a fiction.
There are few research areas today, including the sciences, in which the notion of an atomic individual is not the marker of a heuristic necessity rather than an actual, bounded entity. Just as psychoanalysis has shown that the subject—the individual, the person—is inherently dis/articulated, a dynamic site of constant reinvention that denies and forgets its processual and alien manufacture, this insight that the individual is inseparable from its context—but more than this, that it is its context—is confirmed by myriad empirical studies. Another example, again from forensics, gives this claim some weight. When we witness an event, whether our recollection is given in a court of law or to a friend, the value of our memory rests on the empirical fact of self-presence, “I was there; I saw what happened.” Research into eyewitness testimony, however, has found that our memories, even when recounted in good faith, are not our own. Memory involves a process of reconstruction that can cannibalize the stories, images, and even the feelings of others, materializing their significance into bodily symptoms that “relive” an experience that may never have taken place.5 What does it mean to concede that we are not witness to our own lives, that other people’s needs and actions, stories and emotions, even apparently inanimate representations—images and words—inhabit and motor our most intimate sense of self?
The etymology of the word individual comes from the Latin in, “not” + dividuus, “divisible” (from dividere, “to divide”), and it is this sense of an atomic entity that cannot be divided from itself that also grounds morality; integrity and truth become inalienable and self-evident qualities. We can see why the concept of the individual and its cognates is as necessary for political contestation as it is unworkable. The concept’s problematic status always demands apology or qualification, some promise of repair or solution, even if provisional, because we want to be right in our commitments even if this can only be a temporary reprieve from anxiety. Responding to this dilemma, we might recall Gayatri Spivak’s use of the phrase “strategic essentialism” in the 1980s as counterweight to the reality that any political identity, for example, “woman,” will universalize its constituency. Under the burden of the resulting “ampersand effect”—the demand for inclusion from proliferating groups of previously excluded “others”—the definitional haecceity of the original category will lose all traction. Identity in this model is necessarily replete with interruptions that highlight essentialism’s precarious and provisional status. This style of “answer,” one that Spivak has since rejected (17), attests to the constant review of how best to leverage arguments for political change that rest on appeals to identity, appeals that evaporate under close inspection. Making a similar point, Judith Butler notes how the drama of representing an unbounded and welcoming sense of community will be forced to add an “embarrassed” et cetera to its catalog of others, a gesture of acknowledged failure because social inclusion will always exclude, forget, and render invisible (Gender 143). The dilemma is that political arguments based in identity claims need to ground their demands, to make them concrete and real, while at the same time resisting appeals to foundationalism. One thinks of Susan Harding’s “standpoint theory,” Donna Haraway’s “partial knowledges,” or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality”—all different ways to manage the problem of what belongs where and to whom. Although arguments intended to decide the best way forward continue to proliferate, many of these methodologies are now assembled in a sort of happy equivalence in the activist-bricoleur’s toolkit. Engagement with the detail of an argument can prove frustrating because interminable, the whole problematic of an identitarian essentialism unraveling even as it is asserted.
At this point it might prove salutary to remember that Durkheim did something odd when he took as his object a socius whose internal differentiations/individuals are the refracted expressions of that same socius: the specific and unique in this case are instantiations of the general. Social involvement cannot be parsed into separable entities/individuals that pre-exist their communication, their coming together, because for Durkheim the individual is already replete with social momentum. Harkening back to Jacques Derrida’s assertion that “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire,” what we see here is the same ontologizing force, a force that Durkheim understands as the desire of the social to manifest itself in/as the individual. In light of this, the arguments around representational accuracy or inaccuracy mentioned earlier get decidedly strange. How can we determine the pragmatic measure or mismeasure of anything if there is no outside this refractive, interactive dynamic that might arrest the confusion? Indeed, on this account, every methodology that we adopt in order to better understand the workings of sociality—be it poststructuralism, affect theory, new materialism, identitarian rights activism, queer theory’s wary renegotiation of “fitness” and its celebration of the marginal and antinormative—each and every methodology instrumentalizes the social organism’s own will to self-alienation (its desire to other itself); and at the same time, each and every methodology enacts the social organism’s own will to self-discovery (to know itself). Jacques Lacan described the internal perversity of the subject’s manufacture, its will to knowledge, in these very same terms. However, we are now considering a “self” whose location breaches the apparent isolation of the personal, the individual, and appears in an enlarged form as sociality itself. Here, the separation of entities can only appear as a form of perspectivalism that operates from within a “duality of kind,” indeed, of one kind: humankind.
Things get more interesting if we question the frame of such assertions. According to the story so far, although we have explained why the difference between what is general (social) and what is individual, normal, and exceptional is not oppositional, we have inadvertently recuperated the problem by identifying human species being against its (different) others. The human is now our reclaimed individual, a site of spontaneous self-generation by dint of its unique capacity to intend, technologize, and reinvent the world in its own image. The nonhuman world, lacking such capacities, is caught in primordial immediacy and comparative failure. This may sound confusing if we commit to the doxa that nature is a sign, a back projection of cultural self-discovery, as thinkers such as Butler understand it. However, this determination is predicated on a more foundational assertion, namely, that culture’s identity is properly circumscribed against an alien milieu that cannot sign. On this understanding, human exceptionalism is demarcated as a break with nature (now under erasure), a break whose perversion of nature’s previous conventions and prescriptions finally discovers the true outsider who defies all previous norms of fitness.6
So far, the discussion has moved between analytical cognates such as the social, the individual, the exception, and the norm; indeed, the problematic nature of these different terms is interchangeable because they must all negotiate the spatial metaphorics of inside versus outside, identity versus difference. If we throw the notion of power into the mix, we are confronted with this same difficulty. What is outside power? Is resistance to power internal to power, a torsional re-presentation of power’s own complex identity? From where does power originate and how can we hope to change things if we are mired in its internal machinery? Does it go without saying that power’s machinations describe the complexity of human self-involvement, which would then mean that there is an outside, a before power? In other words, is the nature of power unnatural by definition?
François Ewald, a sociologist whose theoretical position is indebted to Michel Foucault, deploys this sense of power’s radical interiority, the notion that there can be no outside of power, to explore the question of norms. In what we might risk describing as power’s own “duality of kind,” Ewald asserts that aberration does not arrive from a place outside social normativity. As he explains: “The abnormal does not have a nature which is different from that of the normal. The norm, or normative space, knows no outside. The norm integrates anything which might attempt to go beyond it—nothing, nobody, whatever difference it might display, can ever claim to be exterior, or claim to possess an otherness which would actually make it other” (173).
In response to this position, and perhaps not surprisingly, Butler worries that the ability of a norm to cannibalize all opposition might leave us with no way to conceive change, no means to be otherwise (Undoing 221). This anxiety, however, only arises if we perceive the identity of a norm in restricted terms, as something that can only constrain or prohibit, such that the promise of change that might reroute and overturn this repression must arrive as an antinorm, an absolute outside. Butler knows full well that an oppositional mode of analysis is untenable when we are talking about the maneuverings of power, the intricacies of representation, or the interiority of the subject, and she has argued robustly against such simplifications. Why, then, would Butler concede that an outside of the subject (or the good, identity, normativity) is actually an inversion of the inside, as if there is no absolute cut—as she does quite explicitly in Bodies That Matter—while also insisting that oppositional difference is essential to political analysis (hence her apprehension in response to Ewald)? Is this contradiction an inescapable heuristic, the very mark of the human condition’s constitutional inability to resolve the fact of the matter? And building on the direction of these questions, can we assume, along with Butler and other cultural theorists, that the human is, indeed, exceptional, that it is the author of its own modus operandi, and that the scene of its reproduction is radically severed from the vital energies of the life-world? To return to Chen’s “animacies,” her queering of existence, can we risk generalizing this notion? In short, is nature really culture, a human ideational manufacture/invention? As this conflation posits an inaccessible before culture/the human, what would happen if we were to reverse this statement’s direction? Does a return to nature as origin and end imply that political arguments for change will prove impossible because norms and determinations are, as Butler feared, truly prohibitive? For example, would biology inevitably prove to be destiny?
If we approach the question of the human as a refracted expression of a larger field—a field or system that does not simply surround and sever us from the rest of life—how might the riddle of norms be rerouted? The philosopher and physician, Georges Canguilhem, who included among his students such luminaries as Foucault, Derrida, and Gilbert Simondon, queers the conventional coordinates of an anthropocentric analysis when he takes life, or the living, as his subject. He documents the circuitry wherein the instrumentalism of medical practice engages a social order that includes these same medical practices: the human organism must continually reinvent itself within a specific milieu and its normative, reflexive potentials. Importantly, this means that illness, or pathology, is not a state of deviation from a norm of health, a static determination of intrinsic failure and deficiency. “There is no fact which is normal or pathological in itself. An anomaly or a mutation is not in itself pathological. These two express other possible norms of life” (Normal 144). And again, Canguilhem insists, “An anomaly is not an abnormality. Diversity does not signify sickness” (qtd. in Rabinow, “French” 196). We could read this statement as a political intervention into prejudicial discourse about biological life in medical practice, a reading that would remain inside culturalist approaches that invariably rest on anthropocentrism. Canguilhem, however, argues that life itself negotiates its milieu by way of the norms that arise as it does so, norms that could be described as both ontologically imminent and epistemologically ordered and ordering. Normativity involves this tautological transformativity, and it provokes us to question the difference between these purportedly oppositional “orders” that separate the object of knowledge from the process of knowledge gathering, ontology from epistemology—even if Canguilhem is, in the main, equivocal about doing so.
It seems odd, for example, that Canguilhem opens anthropocentrism to the milieu that is life—an environment that is internal to the human and not simply an external contingency—while at the same time insisting that social norms should not be confused with vital regulation. A brief aside will prove helpful here. Conservative views, such as sociobiology, once saw social and political life as forms of biological expression, where a prescriptive preformation gave orders about how life should be lived. Not surprisingly, the status quo was naturalized in these analyses. Although research in the humanities and social sciences has successfully contested such views, the legacy of this intellectual labor, even today, continues to conflate biological arguments with prescriptive conservatism, as if biology is a domain of normative injunctions whose logics are inescapable and entirely different from the cultural order. There is a tendency for cultural and social critics to believe that biology is, indeed, foundational, a material substrate that is other to the self (consciousness and agency) and therefore capable of betraying that self or perverting its intended course of action. Despite routine denunciations of Cartesianism’s mind/body, culture/nature opposition, a separation that naturalizes disadvantage and militates against change—the very presumption that the social/cultural is an identifiable, circumscribed, and exceptional “system” of operation—presumes it.
Importantly, although much of Canguilhem’s work remains faithful to this division, working inside the orthodoxies of its terms, there is, at the same time, much that is suggestive of how we might wrest nature, or biology, from its primitive self-enclosure by acknowledging its agential motility and political involvements. If this sounds far-fetched, we need only consider contemporary scientific research into epigenetics that shows how sociocultural life, and this includes political life, inheres within gene expression, or again, the ways in which social life and its vicissitudes are registered as neuronal configurations.7 There is much interest in how the plasticity of these results should be interpreted, especially as the causal division between a material, biological foundation that effects its cultural and ideational overlay, or vice versa, is put into considerable tension in these research fields. How should we draw the line between a subject and an object if the object looked at is the subject looking (at itself)? Indeed, this is not even a line, but something more akin to Durkheim’s refraction, a line whose broken existence is dispersed, and yet, individually, uniquely, and objectively manifest.
Although Canguilhem dances around the question of vitalism throughout his career, and although the term has myriad meanings—conventionally corralling living beings from mechanistic processes—vitalism’s “nebulousness, its vagueness” (Knowledge 62) seems at times to be mechanistic. Canguilhem notes, for example: “Essentially, a machine is a mediation or, as mechanists say, a relay. A mechanism does not create anything […] it can be constructed only through art, and it is a ruse. […] Human ruse can only succeed if nature does not have the same ruse. Art can only make nature submit to it if nature is not itself an art” (63). This is not a statement of clarification about what is exceptional in being human, however, for Canguilhem admits to “the ruses used by animals to evade traps”—hence, nature does have the capacity to strategize—and the ruses of “the deceiver God” that turn “man into an animal surrounded by traps” (65). Canguilhem attends to the contagion that confounds these accepted divisions even as he wants to adjudicate their more provocative possibilities. He insists, for example, that “[i]f social norms could be perceived as clearly as organic norms, men would be crazy not to conform to them. As men are not crazy, and as there aren’t any Sages, it is because social norms must be invented and not observed” (qtd. in Rabinow, “French” 199).
It seems fair to ask if, despite their many contradictions, Canguilhem’s investigations remain an epistemological project about life, a project that conforms to the segregationist logic of representationalism. But can we redirect his inquiry in a way that loops subjectivation through and as life, such that life’s observations of itself could be seen as vital reinventions? To take this tack would mean that life, here biology, would comprehend, or be, those same social and political processes through which normativity is negotiated, not from a position outside a norm, a position that already presumes an alienation that must be overcome, but from within a norm’s enduring capacity to reconceive itself. Importantly, this sense of a living dispositif—a mechanism of sorts—dislocates anthropos, for himself, as isolated exception, and it challenges foundationalist appeals that would equate nature with what is primordial and outside the crafting of this art, this ruse, this genesis.
The stakes in such a reading do risk a certain “craziness” because if human agency, as conventionally understood, is a choice made by an individual, here it is more of a “made choice,” a determination that defies prescription and whose original cause is not authored by the individual, or at least not simply. One of the most cited sentences in Canguilhem’s oeuvre, repeated and mulled over by every commentator of note, captures this fascinating conundrum. Canguilhem states, “The thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living” (Knowledge xx). How should we interpret this assertion that confounds origin and outcome, an assertion whose reflex discovers both subject and object in life itself? Nikolas Rose is someone who appreciates the importance of Canguilhem’s challenge to “cultural constructionism” when he states, “In linking the normativity of the processes proposed in medical and biological thought to the normativity of their living objects, they issue a challenge to ‘non-realist’ analyses of such knowledges and practices” (“Life” 158). But does this intervention promise anything more than adding questions from the life sciences to the already rich battery of concerns that exercise cultural and social analysts? Not that there’s anything wrong with that! If, however, this is a gesture that adds grist to the cultural mill without necessarily questioning what we mean by culture, or why it is not, already, life, then there is surely more to be done.
Rose notes, for example, that in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault attributes Canguilhem with showing how medical knowledges are historical knowledges that are often disjointed and nonlinear and how “the history of the concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement … but that of its various fields of constitution and validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts in which it developed and matured” (Foucault qtd. in Rose, “Life” 156–57). Foucault further notes Canguilhem’s recognition that there are “several pasts, several forms of connexion, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves” (Foucault qtd. in Rose, “Life” 157). For Rose, what is most provocative in Canguilhem’s work is the sense that scientific reason, “[l]ike life itself […] is subject to the continuous dynamic of the identification and rectification of error. Error is as central to science as it is to life” (161). And so to press the point, is Rose arguing that what we might describe as cultural, historical, and political complexities—discourse, representation, and behavioral practices—resonate with biological or natural ones? And if this concession is granted, can we risk the suggestion that they are one and the same, no longer “like,” “connected,” “attached to,” or “communicating with” what is radically other and elsewhere? Is the possibility that no bridge is required to join life to life a “bridge too far” for cultural and social analysis, and if so, why?
We should remember that the more nuanced forms of political engagement with normativity, arguments that question oppositional logic, self-righteous moralities, and the prescriptive fixity of norms, conflate outside with/in inside in order to contest the sense that a norm is simply identified and indemnified against change. Even norms that appear given in their enduring insistence will be subject to mutational crosscurrents. Are such arguments only possible because they rest on an uninterrogated norm about the relationship between nature and culture that will suffer no interference, namely, the assumption that culture, human exceptionalism, exists in a protected carapace that sets it apart from its diminished origins?
I have moved much too swiftly over Rose’s excellent summation of the value of Canguilhem’s work, conveyed all the more powerfully by setting those arguments within the milieu of contemporary biological discovery and debate. Rose’s is a respectful treatment that lingers over the awkwardness in the philosopher’s comprehension of what life entails. When, however, Rose cites the “characteristically enigmatic statement” from Canguilhem mentioned earlier, namely, that “[t]he thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living,” his gloss on its meaning remains representational. “For me, this suggests that at every historical moment, the ways in which we think about how to think about vitality must be informed by, underpinned by, shaped by and premised on the very way in which vitality itself is understood in the contemporary sciences of life” (“Human” 15). As noted above, there is good reason to supplement cultural and social analysis with insights from the life sciences; however, the sense that the addition of this material will remedy our ignorance about how life works should make us pause. Why are the sciences of life, in their current disciplinary manifestation, the proper place to discover life itself, life at work? Is there an idea—wrong or right, a hateful rant, a murderous act, self-sacrifice, senselessness, care and empathy, literary endeavor, or the cacophony of this particular group of essays—that is any less lively, any less intricated, biological, physical in their invention and reception?
Monica Greco entertains something close to this way of thinking when she focuses on what is particular in Canguilhem’s engagement with vitalism. She concedes that the term is fraught with ambiguity and notes that his student, Dominique Lecourt, advises that the word should be abandoned for just this reason. Rose manages to salvage something productive from the concept, but only if we circumscribe its relevance as culturally operational rather than as “the self regulation of a vital order” (“Life” 165). Clearly, vitalism’s meaning and terms of reference present problems; however, Greco is interested in this very mess—the “semantic polyvalence of vitalism” (“Vitality” 16) and its historical vagaries. Rather than a final determination on the tenability of the concept, or on whether Canguilhem could legitimately be described as a vitalist, Greco cleverly bypasses this style of corrective without diminishing the legitimacy of its competing positions. Her interest is in Canguilhem’s reference to the historical “vitality of vitalism,” or as she describes it, “the fact that the imperative to refute vitalism has had to be continually reiterated up until the present. […] The imperative to refute vitalism, in a sense, is superseded by the need to account for its permanent recurrence. The question of vitalism acquires a new dimension—a diachronic dimension—that supplements and subverts each one of its settlements” (17). Greco reminds us that Canguilhem is arguing for vitalism’s intransitivity, a form of self-possession that motors and exceeds its individual expressions. This sense of a systemic concept/ion, a constant genesis, is all encompassing: it accommodates and reroutes oppositional logics, including that of vitalism versus mechanism. As Greco explains: “[I]t is not as an account of life that vitalism appears viable; rather, it is as a symptom of the specificity of life that its recurrence should be understood. To erase the contradiction that vitalism provides, to dismiss it as a weakness of thought, is to silence life, and to become ignorant of ignorance” (18). Here, we are no longer in a closed realm of human exceptionalism, where ways of knowing must inevitably misconstrue an external reality. The epistemological shuddering of this reflexive is internal to being and ontological self-reference. Can we risk asking why they are not one and the same?
Despite Canguilhem’s hesitations and contradictory assertions, he does, in places, acknowledge this sense of an intricated everything, where life’s constant is to take measure of itself.8 Given this more adventurous and expansive suggestion, perhaps we could ask, with Canguilhem, why we so automatically corral the biosphere as our proper object, our true exception. What normative investment prevents us from considering that what appears to surround life, providing a ground, a milieu for life, is already life? Canguilhem explains: “[T]he classical vitalist accepts the insertion of the living organism into a physical milieu to whose laws it constitutes an exception. Therein lies, in our opinion, the philosophically inexcusable fault. […] One cannot defend the originality of the biological phenomenon, and consequently the originality of biology, by demarcating within the physicochemical territory […]. In the end, classical vitalism sins, paradoxically, only in its excessive modesty, in its reluctance to universalize its conception of experience” (Knowledge 70).
It would be misguided to assume that the reframing of life as a sort of superorganism leaves us with nowhere to go, our conventional frames of reference, the limits and norms of a recognizable political environment, somehow undone or proved foolish. Norms insist. Just as the received and circumscribed notions of culture and the social generate individual, or singular, events “within them,” the very manifestations of culture and the social, and indeed, the human in its turn, are themselves singularities, individuations, and yet at their very centers we find a milieu at work. As Canguilhem argues, “To explain the center by the environment would thus seem to be a paradox” (Knowledge 70), and yet this regionalization of the center is the operational riddle of all identities, including that of norms.
Given time constraints, it might prove salutary to return to the earlier discussion about political norms; recall Ewald’s argument that a norm will generate its own opposition, its reinvention, and Butler’s apprehension that this apparent repetition will prove suffocating, leaving us with no space for change. We will also remember Chaudhary’s reference to Derrida, namely, “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire,” a statement that again conjures this sense of differentiation within. Attentive to power’s radical interiority while acknowledging the stubbornness of its sticking points, Pierre Macherey is another commentator on Canguilhem who gives further dimension to power’s apparent narcissism. In “Towards a Natural History of Norms” he asks us to reconsider the terms of political analysis, from a “mechanism of determinism” that conceives power in causal terms, acting on things, to an acknowledgment of power’s self-involvements. If it is “the relationship that defines the action of a norm,” Macherey argues, then:
[T]his relationship is not a relationship of succession, linking together separate terms, pars extra partes […] but it supposes the simultaneity, the coincidence, the reciprocal presence to one another of all the elements which it unites. From this point of view it is no longer possible to think of the norm itself in advance of the consequences of its action, as being in some way behind them and independent of them; the norm has to be considered such as it acts precisely in its effects—in such a way, not so as to limit the reality by means of simple conditioning, but in order to confer upon it the maximum amount of reality of which it is capable. (186)
With this scene of power’s self-contagion and creativity as backdrop, we can return to Butler’s hesitations over Ewald’s emphasis on the internal parthenogenesis of a norm. Although Ewald understands the operation of the social as one of cross-contagion, he installs a limit to the process, quarantining the infection as a human dis-ease. And indeed, for most social analysts the circumscription of these processes requires no justification. Within the radical interiority of Macherey’s notion of power play, a notion that tolerates no exceptions, however, the human/social is no longer a subject in a milieu that surrounds it; rather, what is human is an “outcome” of the normative processes of what is now a much broader ecology, a socius of natural cross-infection.
The reason I have lingered over the nature/culture question, trying to argue that the normative regimes that operate around this division are natural expressions (and mutable because of this), is because the analysis of power, as properly cultural, social, human, forecloses the origin (presumed to be nature), and this foreclosure mandates power’s iteration as a failure to achieve its (repressive) intention. The juridical notion of the law is not contested but fetishized in such readings, as hope for change must come from outside the law when it proves incapable of maintaining itself. How might a natural notion of norms rewire this logic and challenge the normativity that, in the main, attends the celebration of political intervention as necessarily and only antinormative? In Macherey’s “model” of normative immanence, there can be no presumptive foreclosure, prohibition, or absolute loss that drives power’s attempt to reaffirm itself. With Butler, we are used to investing in loss, failure, and lack, and we tend to assume that when power fails to maintain itself, then in its absence we might find the agential space for contestation and intervention. Macherey, however, discovers an immanence of agency in power’s self-affirmation: in other words, power’s essential incoherence and productive proliferation mean that change is constant. What difference might this way of thinking make to the doxa that an effective political practice must wear its antinormative credentials on its sleeve? Is there something about a norm that is already as perverse and involved as whatever we would like to replace it with? Indeed, could we suggest that nature is essentially queer, even when things appear otherwise?
Chaudhary’s comments were offered at the manuscript workshop on Queer Theory without Antinormativity in April 2014 at the Franklin Humanities Center, Duke University.
For references on profiling, see, for example, Canter; Holmes and Holmes; and Rossmo.
Through a close reading, the sociologist Colm Kelly argues that objectivity is redefined and complicated in Durkheim rather than lost.
“The indignity of speaking for others” was a phrase made popular in a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (209) and used with accusatory moral force.
The most renowned researcher in this area is Elizabeth Loftus. For a good summation of such work, see Wells and Loftus.
Butler has been an important figure in refusing the nature/culture division, arguing that the opposition is itself a cultural construct: nature is interpellated as a diminished and distant back projection of culture’s own origin story. “Discursive performativity appears to produce that which it names, to enact its own referent, to name and to do, to name and to make” (Bodies 107). The problem, however, is that by grounding her analysis in failure, foreclosure, and Lacanian méconnaissance, she explains this confounding of the two in terms of language, or the special property of being human. Consequently, a nonhuman nature is reinstalled as an inaccessible, illiterate, and inchoate outside.
For interesting examples in epigenetics, see Harper and Lund et al. For an accessible introduction to neuroplasticity, see Doidge.
Dominique Lecourt suggests that Canguilhem’s growing understanding that an individual is an environment is indebted to his student, Gilbert Simondon, who went on to publish L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique in 1964. Canguilhem admits to this, thanking Simondon for his “clarifications” in a revised introduction to La Connaissance de la vie in 1965. I raise the point because it may go some distance to explaining why Canguilhem’s sense of individuation is replete with contradiction and changes over time.