Elizabeth Grosz's "The Incorporeal"

My seminar recently read Elizabeth Grosz's latest book, The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism. Grosz is an insightful reader of philosophical history and she has assembled here the Deleuzean songbook with chapters on the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Simondon, along with the lesser known French philosopher of biology Raymond Ruyer plus a chapter on Deleuze himself. The book follows a few themes that recur in multiple chapters, specifically the theme of ethics and how to live, as well as the notion of immanence and what it might mean to have a non-reductive or "flat" ontology. The provocative premise of the book however is something a bit different. In The Incorporeal Grosz continues her exploration of materialism, only now counterintuitively through materialism's putative opposite, that is, through the idea and the way in which the ideal always inheres in any material milieu.

I find it interesting how a number of theorists have recently embraced some of the very things that they might have avoided at a younger age: Kaja Silverman shifting away from difference and towards analogy; Donna Haraway coming out in favor of discipline (for dogs); and now Grosz, she a pioneer in what we today call New Materialism, writing a book on idealism, that hoary rival of all good materialists. I don't see any of these developments as conservative or reactionary per se. This is the mature work of mature thinkers who understand that every aspect of life ought to get its due, even those aspects that one might have formerly shunned out of a political or ethical commitment. And anyhow, why shouldn't a materialist be able to give a decent account of mind or form?

Still there's something conventional -- maybe classical is a kinder word -- in the conception of Grosz's new volume. The Incorporeal is a book about dead white European men. It's a book about the underlying "conditions" or "frames" that structure things, an approach that, in a different sense, would not be incompatible with that of Immanuel Kant many years ago or Michel Foucault more recently. In these starkly political times, Grosz's book is very proudly a book of ethics not politics; it's a pre-Trump book in that sense. Having overhauled our definition of materialism in her previous texts, she now turns her attention to the conditions of possibility for any sort of materialism whatsoever. She proposes a "new idealism" in service of a new New Materialism. To be sure, the definition of materialism has drifted significantly from its sources in 18th and 19th century European thought. And Grosz has drifted with it. Indeed she presents a new picture of materialism in which Marx is cited precisely once.

Like anyone, I have my own gripes. But they are mostly minor. For instance, the important work on immanence today is being done around figures like Henry and Laruelle, not Spinoza and Deleuze as Grosz would have us believe. I'm also skeptical of Grosz's reliance on amor fati and the ethical model that it engenders. I suspect that an "understanding of one's place" (52) is a bit out of step with the current state of feminist philosophy. And I'd point out that, like her master Deleuze, Grosz is an analog philosopher par excellence, something that I'd like to write about more in a future post, inspired as I am by some excellent new approaches being sketched out by Robin James (where I would substitute her use of "sonic" with that of the "analog").

Amidst the many revelations that populate the pages of Grosz's new book I found myself pausing on a very particular point, indeed a rather small point that nevertheless seems important for me to enlarge and explain. I've long been confounded by two aspects of contemporary arts and letters: the wild popularity of Deleuze and the undead persistence of poststructuralism despite numerous recent efforts to kill it. To be clear I see Deleuzeanism and poststructuralism as essentially immiscible ingredients, like oil and water, even if they are frequently conflated by the casual reader. It's an argument for another day, but consider the question of otherness and lack (po-struct yes; Deleuze nope), or epistemology vs ontology (po-st almost entirely the former, D almost entirely the latter), or the question of hermeneutics/representation (p likes; d doesn't care).. and the list goes on. So how can both of these intellectual currents still remain so strong? Is it merely a question of two alternative camps, opposing or otherwise? Is the world simply large and complex, capacious enough for many schools of thought? Perhaps. But with Grosz at least it seems that a very specific configuration is at work -- and I wager that her particular style is shared by many others if one were to investigate further.

My observation is the following. In her immediate interests Grosz is thoroughly Deleuzean, so much so that this project would be inconceivable without his influence. Yet when we consider the meta conditions of this text, when we consider what motivated her to write it, it gains a characteristically poststructuralist profile.

The exact nature of the amalgam is perhaps less readily legible in Grosz, given that her Deleuzean side is so dominant even as each chapter bears its own proper name (Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and so on). But at the same time I found myself writing "Derrida?" in the margins at her most methodological moments, rare as they may be. And that's what I mean: the method is deconstructive or poststructuralist, even if the page-by-page subject matter is thoroughly Deleuzean. She cares about what Deleuze cares about, but she justifies the whole endeavor via recourse to poststructuralist virtues (not Deleuzean ones).

Consider a line like this taken somewhat at random: "Simondon proposes the most profound decentering of identity, hierarchy, and binarization" (181) -- only a fervent poststructuralist could pen such a predicate; but only a Deleuzean would care that much about the subject.

I also consider this a footnote to my previous discussion of the swervers. Specifically, we can see now the particular way in which swervers borrow certain things from the poststructuralist tradition (slippages, difference, decentering) and at the same time ally themselves very firmly with Deleuzean approaches (assemblages, milieus, affects, the nonhuman). A sign of the times, the general swervitude is a deconstructive method wrapped up in Deleuzean clothes. The meta conditions are thoroughly Derridean but the substantive claims are characteristically empirico-materialist. The decision is a decision of "troubling," "problematizing," "destabilizing," while the substance is that of intensity, affect, expression, sensation. More an observation than a criticism, I see Grosz as a clear intellectual leader in this new theory of materialism rooted in ethics, aesthetics, and ontology -- overall one of the most influential scholarly currents of our times.