My life-long engagement in the project of nomadic subjectivity rests on a specific cartography of our globalised times, marked by large-scale and technologically-mediated transformations of our social, economic and political universes. I start from the assumption that, as a result of these upheavals, traditional forms of self-representation, familiar cultural points of reference and age-old habits of thought are being re-composed, albeit in contradictory ways.
Our historical context is marked by the schizoid structure of technology-driven advanced capitalism, as Deleuze and Guattari lucidly put it. Examples of the non-linear and internally contradictory ways of the working of this system are the vast accumulation of wealth alongside growing disparities in income, well-being and access to the very technologies that sustain our economy. Another example is the paradox of a world economy linked by a thick web of transnational flows of capital and labour, which functions through different forms and speeds of mobility, including internal and external flows of migration. It also translates, in socio-economic terms, in the state of so-called flexibility of a large proportion of the working force. Interim, untenured, part-time, sub-standard, underpaid work has become the norm in most advanced liberal economies. The universities and the research world are far from immune from this fragmentation and exploitative approach. This negative and exploitative brand of capitalist flexibility induces the fracture of life-long careers or professions, offering little compensation in return.
The precariousness of actual work conditions makes for social instability, transitory citizens and impermanent settlements, as well as violent evictions. Globalisation challenges the hegemony of nation-states and their claim to exclusive citizenship but it also strengthens their hold over territory, cultural identity and social control. In addition it produces a global political economy of scattered hegemonies. Advanced capitalism is a surveillance society that installs a complex political economy of fear coupled with consumerist comfort. Governance by fear and increased security operates not only between the geopolitical blocks that have emerged after the end of the Cold War, but also within them. Paradoxically, old power relations are not only confirmed but in many ways exacerbated in the new geo-political context.
Firmly grounded and centred in world-cities that function as organizing principles in the stratification and distribution of wealth, the globalized network-society functions by controlled mobility. Goods, commodities and data circulate much more freely than human subjects or, in some cases, the less-than-human subjects who constitute the bulk of asylum-seekers and illegal inhabitants of the world. A commodified form of pluralism is the capitalist brand of opportunistic nomadism that proliferates today. The dense materiality of bodies caught in the very concrete conditions of advanced global societies flatly contradicts advanced capitalism’s claims to being immaterial, flowing or virtual. Expressed with Deleuze, these differences in modes of mobility and circulation are not qualitative, but rather quantitative and as such they do not alter the powers of the dominant subject. The centres proliferate in a scattered manner indeed, but lose none of their powers of domination. It is therefore important to resist the uncritical reproduction of sameness on a planetary scale.
The disposable bodies of women, youth and others who are racialised or marked off by age, gender, sexuality and income and reduced to marginality, come to be inscribed with particular violence in this schizoid regime of power. They experience dispossession of their embodied and embedded selves, in a political economy of repeated and structurally enforced mobility. Translated into the language of philosophical nomadism, the global city and the refugee camps are not dialectical or moral opposites. They are two sides of the same global coin, as Agamben reminds us. They express the schizoid political economy of our times. Massive concentrations of infrastructure exist alongside complex, worldwide dissemination of goods.
The technologically driven advanced culture that prides itself in being called the information society is in reality a concrete, material infrastructure that is concentrated on the sedentary global city. The contrast between an ideology of free mobility and the reality of disposable others brings out the schizophrenic character of advanced capitalism, namely the paradox of high levels of mobility of capital flows in some sectors of the economic elites and also high levels of centralization and greater immobility for most of the population. As Vandana Shiva points out, within globalisation we must distinguish between different modes of mobility. “One group is mobile on a world scale, with no country, no home, but the whole world as its property, the other has lost even the mobility within rootedness, lives in refugee camps, resettlement colonies and reserves.”
Our task as critical thinkers is to provide an adequate cartography of the shifting lines of segmentation and racialisation of the globalized world and its labour market. This process cannot be kept separate from the genderisation and sexualisation of the same market. The point of nomadic subjectivity is to identify lines of flight, that is to say a creative alternative space of becoming that would fall not only between the mobile/immobile, the resident/the foreigner distinction, but within all these categories. The point is neither to dismiss nor to glorify the status of de-territorialized marginal, alien others, but to provide more accurate, complex accounts of the different locations and to link them to cartographies of power so as to transform the very terms of their specification and of our political interaction. New alliances and assemblages are needed.
The structural inequalities engendered by the perverse nomadism of advanced capitalism both complicate and define the task of the social and cultural critic. They require more historically grounded, and subtler cartographies of power relations, which stress the fundamental power differentials among categories of human and non-human travellers or movers. Such a task requires more conceptual creativity and more theoretical courage in order to bring about adequate readings of our historical condition: we need to learn to think differently about the kind of subjects we have already become – from the centre as well as the margins – and to reflect upon the processes of deep-seated transformation we are undergoing.
Writing emerges from this cartographic imperative as a strategy of resistance. “Speaking truth to power,” as Edward Said taught us, starts with a critique of the structural powers of language itself. Philosophically, this pertains to one of the axioms of post-structuralism, namely the specificity of language as the constitutive structure of human subjectivity. In this perspective, language is not just (or even) an instrument of communication, but rather an ontological site of constitution of our shared humanity. In this spirit and working on the assumption of a fundamental isomorphism between the psychic and the social realm, Jacques Lacan argued, in the post-World War II years that language contains the symbolic rules and as such it structures the political ontology of our culture. Derrida, Irigaray and Deleuze developed a social and political philosophy starting from the seemingly simple insight that the relation to others, mediated by socio-symbolic structures, is the defining feature of all subjects and of our common humanity. From here onwards, the paths diverge in terms of textual methods and political strategies. Style is the name we give to these tactical choices, which come down to two crucial and often overlapping options: resistance and ethics.
As to resistance: given the coercive power of language, the writer’s task is to resist the gravitational pull of the master signifier and oppose it. Out-manoeuvring its powers, the writer tricks (Gilles Deleuze’s style), decodes (Michel Foucault-like), unveils (Jacques Derrida) or seduces (Roland Barthes) language into directions it was not programmed to follow. Writing so as to make the master signifier falter (Foucault), stutter (Deleuze), expose its drive to mastery (Derrida), reveal its affective core (Barthes) – are all variations on the theme of loosening the despotic grip of language over the process of subject formation.
The real challenge is how to make manifest the powers of, and in, discourse such as they are exercised in the very task of producing subjectivity, knowledge and meanings. By exposing the compulsive and rather despotic inclinations of language, the writer thus forces upon the readers a critical reflection into the workings of power itself. This critique includes the institutions that uphold and sustain that power, notably the university structure of departments, institutes, faculties and the whole hierarchical disciplinary machinery that spreads to specialized journals, citation indexes and careers management.
Ethics is the other way around the vicious circle of language. It unveils this complex and paradoxical political economy and explores its complexity and inner contradictions. To the extent that a text enacts the nexus of power and meaning, power and discourse which compose it, it both exposes and holds them to accountability. By making manifest such responsibility, a writer acknowledges the importance of a text’s relationship to others. In this respect, writing is the visualization of ethical relationality through the in-depth critique of power. By acknowledging the constitutive presence of otherness within and all around the self, writing enacts the destitution of unitary visions of the subject as an autonomous entity. Nomadic or fluid identities are part of this deal. The tactics of resistance and the ethical approach are not only mutually compatible but also inter-linked. On both counts, the nomadic writer does not relate to language merely as a tool of critical analysis and rational political intervention, but rather feels inhabited by it as an other within.
A fundamental hermeneutics of suspicion lies at the core of this redefinition of style and is connected to the critique of unitary subjectivity. Foucault’s death of Man argument rests on the assumption that Man is neither an ideal nor an objective statistical average or middle ground. It rather spells out a systematized standard of recognizability – of Sameness – by which all others can be assessed, regulated and allotted to a designated social and symbolic location. The human is a normative convention, which does not make it inherently negative, just highly regulatory and hence instrumental to practices of exclusion and discrimination. What is presented as a neutral category – ‘Man as the measure of all things’ – functions by transposing a specific mode of being human into a generalized standard, which acquires transcendent value as much by what it excludes as by what it includes in the category of the human. The progression is from male to masculine and then on to human as the universalized format of humanity. This standard is posited as categorically and qualitatively distinct from the sexualized, racialized, naturalized others of this subject and also in opposition to the technological artefact. In so far as writing is committed to expose the structural injustices and constitutive exclusions of this vision of the subject, writing – as an intransitive activity – is intrinsically political and explicitly ethical.
What attracted me to French philosophies of difference such as Deleuze’s multiple subjects of becoming, or Irigaray’s virtual feminine in the first place is precisely that they do not stop on the surface of issues of identity and power, but rather tackle their conceptual roots. In so doing, they radicalize social constructivist methods and push the psycho-sociological discussion of identity towards issues of subjectivity, that is to say, of entitlement and power. It is particularly important not to confuse the concept of subjectivity with the notion of the individual or individualism: subjectivity is a socially mediated process of entitlements to and negotiations with power relations. Consequently, the formation and emergence of new social subjects is always a collective enterprise, external to the individual self while it also mobilizes the self’s in-depth and singular structures.
In this perspective, subjectivity names the process that consists in stringing the reactive (potestas) and the active instances of power (potentia) together, under the fictional unity of a grammatical I. The subject is a process, made of constant shifts and negotiations between different levels of power and desire, that is to say entrapment and empowerment. Whatever semblance of unity there may be is no God-given essence, but rather the fictional choreography of many levels of a relational self into one socially operational self, within a monistic ontology. The implication is that what sustains the entire process of becoming-subject, is the will-to-know, the desire to say, the desire to speak, it is a founding, primary, vital, necessary and therefore original desire to become (conatus).
The project of feminist nomadism for a European thinker implies a relationship to multiple languages. My work as a thinker has no mother tongue, only a succession of translations, displacements and adaptations to changing conditions. Nomadism for me equals multi-lingualism. Although this entails large doses of lexical contamination and the occasional syntactical debacle, the real creolisation effects have always been, for me, acoustic. Accents are the traces of my multiple linguistic homes. They spell my own ecology of belonging, my loyalty to parallel yet divergent lives. I’m always writing with an accent.
Creativity entails the active displacement of dominant formations of identity, memory and identification so as to open them up to alternative genealogical lines, which often entail a switch to other languages. Creativity also results in the actualization of virtual potentials. Nomadic becomings are the process of affirmation of the unalterably positive structure of difference, unhinged from the binary system that traditionally opposed it to Sameness. Difference as positivity at the heart of the subject entails a multiple process of transformation, a play of complexity that expresses the principle of not-One. Accordingly, the thinking subject is not the deployment of in-depth interiority, nor is it the enactment of transcendental models of reflexive consciousness. The nomadic subject is a materially embedded and embodied, affective and relational collective assemblage, a relay-point for a web of complex relations that displace the centrality of ego-indexed notions of identity.
Building on Foucault, Deleuze argues that, considering the de-territorializing force of processes of becoming, they gather force from some energetic core at the heart of the subject, a vibrating hub of activity which is the creative pole of its powers as potentia. This is opposed to the restrictive pole of institutionalized power as potestas, which can only replicate and perpetuate it. Only potential or joyful affirmation has the power to generate qualitative shifts in the processes of becoming, hence Deleuze’s emphasis on the idea that there is becoming other than minoritarian/nomadic/woman/animal/other. According to Gatens and Lloyd this nomadic becoming is an ethology, that is to say a process of expression, composition, selection, and incorporation of forces aimed at positive transformation of the subject. As such it is also crucial to the project of a creative redefinition of philosophical reason and of its relation to conceptual creativity, imagination and affectivity.
In terms of writing practices, the processes and flows of becoming, install a sort of parallelism between the arts, sciences and conceptual thinking. The point of convergence is the quest for creativity, in the form of experimenting with the immersion of one’s sensibility in the field of forces – formatted as by music, colour, sound, light, speed, temperature, intensity. Deleuze and Guattari argue for instance that writers speak the unsayable; painters make visible forces that previously were not, much as composers make us hear sounds that were unheard of. Similarly, philosophers can make thinkable concepts that did not exist before. Artistic genres are variables co-existing along a continuum. It comes down again to the question of style, where style is not decoration, but rather a navigational tool. It negotiates our path across sets of material (matter-real) coordinates that, assembled and composed in a sustainable and enduring manner, allow for the qualitative transformation of the affects and the forces involved. They thus trigger the process of becoming.
The imagination plays a crucial role in enabling the whole process of becoming-minoritarian and hence of conceptual creativity and ethical empowerment. It is connected to memory: the affective force of remembrance propels the process of becoming-intensive. When you remember in the intensive or minority-mode, however, you defeat linearity, to open up spaces of movement and of de-territorialization that actualise the virtual possibilities which had been frozen in the image of the past. Opening up these virtual spaces is a creative effort. When you remember to become what you are – a subject-in-becoming – you actually reinvent yourself on the basis of what you hope you could become, with a little help from your friends.
It is crucial, in fact, to see to what extent processes of becoming are collective, intersubjective and not individual or isolated; it is always a matter of blocks of becoming. Others are the integral element of one’s successive becomings. A nomadic approach favours the destitution of the liberal notion of the sovereign subject altogether and consequently overcomes the dualism Self/Other, Sameness/Difference which is intrinsic to that vision of the subject. Subjects are collective assemblages, that is to say, they are dynamic, but framed, fields of force that aim at duration and affirmative self-realization. In order to fulfil them, they need to be drawn together along a line of composition. This is rather like pitching a musical tone. Accordingly, a figuration is a living map, a creative concept that expresses a transformative account of the self; it’s no metaphor. Figurations are not figurative ways of thinking, but rather materialistic mappings of situated, i.e. embedded and embodied, social positions. Being nomadic points to the decline of unitary subjects and the destabilization of the space-time continuum of the traditional vision of the subject. Being homeless; a migrant; an exile; a refugee; a tourist; a rape in war victim; an itinerant migrant; an illegal immigrant; an expatriate; a mail-order bride; a foreign caretaker of the young or the elderly of the economically developed world; a high-flying professional; a global venture financial expert; a humanitarian relief worker in the UN global system; a citizen of a country that no longer exists (Yugoslavia; Czechoslovakia; the Soviet Union) – these are no metaphors. Having no passport or having too many of them is neither equivalent nor is it merely metaphorical. These are highly specific geo political and historical locations – it’s history and belonging tattooed on your body. One may be empowered or beautified by it, or be scarred, hurt and wounded. Learning to tell the difference among different forms of non-unitary, multilayered or diasporic subjectivity is therefore a key ethical but also methodological issue. Figurations attempt to draw a cartography of the power relations that define these respective and diverging positions. They don’t aim to embellish or metaphorize, they just express different socio economic and symbolic locations.
In late postmodernity Europe shares with the rest of the world the phenomenon of trans-culturality, or cultures clashing in a pluri-ethnic, poly-lingual and multi-cultural social space. World-migration – a huge movement of population from periphery to centre – has challenged the claim to the alleged cultural homogeneity of European nation-states and of the incipient European Union. Present-day Europe is struggling with multi-culturalism at a time of increasing racism and technophobia. The paradoxes, power-dissymmetries and fragmentations of the present historical contest require that we shift the political debates from the issue of differences between cultures, to differences within each culture. In other words, one of the features of our present historical condition is the shifting grounds on which periphery and centre confront each other, with a new level of complexity which defies dualistic or oppositional thinking.
Black, post-colonial and feminist critics have, however, and rightfully, not spared criticism of the paradoxes as well as the rather perverse division of labour that has emerged: thinkers located at the centre of past or present empires are actively deconstructing the power of the centre – thus contributing to the discursive proliferation and consumption of former negative others. Those same others, however, – especially in post-colonial, but also in post-fascist and post-communist societies – are more keen to reassert their identity, than to deconstruct it. The irony of this situation is not lost on any of the interlocutors. Think for instance of the feminist philosophers saying: “How can we undo a subjectivity we have not even historically been entitled to yet?” Or the black and post-colonial subjects who argue that it is now their historical turn to be self-assertive. And if the white, masculine, ethnocentric subject wants to deconstruct himself and enter a terminal crisis, then – so be it! The point remains that difference emerges as a central – albeit contested and paradoxical – notion and practice. Which means that a confrontation with different locations is historically inevitable, as we are historically condemned to our history. Accounting for them through adequate cartographies consequently remains a crucial priority.
My nomadic subject pursues the same critique of power as black and post-colonial theories, not in spite, but because of the fact that it is located somewhere else. Philosophical nomadism addresses in both a critical and creative manner the role of the former centre in redefining power relations. Margins and centre shift and destabilize each other in parallel, albeit dissymmetrical, movements. I want to resist the identification of the centre as inertia and self-perpetuation and to the aporetic repetition of Sameness. The challenge is to destabilize dogmatic, hegemonic, exclusionary power structures at the very heart of the identity structures of the dominant subject through nomadic interventions, thus encompassing changes at the in-depth structures.
The point is not just mere deconstruction, but the relocation of identities on new grounds that account for multiple belongings, i.e. a non-unitary, relational and ethically accountable materialist vision of a subject. This subject actively yearns for and constructs itself in complex and internally contradictory webs of social relations. To account for these we need to look at process ontologies rather than essences and at transformations, rather than counter-claims to identity. The sociological intersectional variables (gender, class, race and ethnicity, age, health) need to be supplemented by a theory of the subject that calls into question the inner fibres of the self. These include the desire, the ability and the courage to sustain multiple belongings in the context of advanced capitalism, which celebrates and rewards Sameness, cultural essentialism and one-way thinking. Nomadic Subjects is my contribution as a European nomadic subject moving across the variegated landscape of whiteness, to a debate which black, anti-racists, post-colonial and other critical thinkers have put on the map. There is something about claustrophobic self-referential Euro-centred philosophical thought that is not living up to the challenges of diversity, multiculturalism and the kind of mediated societies which we have already become. We need more planetary dimensions.
What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.