Queer Atonality

I've been reading and re-reading Jordana Rosenberg's fascinating essay on “The Molecularization of Sexuality,” published recently in Theory and Event. It's a long and challenging piece, one that demands a high level of attention from the reader, but at the same time offers rich rewards in equal measure. Rosenberg covers a lot of ground, dealing with the contingency and fragility of “being together,” and provocatively challenging some of the tenets of contemporary queer theory and critical theory.

The essay is devoted to what Rosenberg calls the “ontological turn” in recent discussions in the humanities. By ontological turn, she means that strange polyglot that spans everyone from Jane Bennett to Beatriz Preciado, from Steven Shaviro to John Protevi, and from Eugene Thacker to Samuel Delany. What a bunch! But more generally, she cites speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, new materialism, and neo-vitalism. Labeling the ontological turn a form of “onto-primitivism,” Rosenberg puts forth a powerful polemic: “the ontological turn is a kind of theoretical primitivism that presents itself as a methodological avant-garde.”

Wow. I'll admit I agree wholeheartedly with Rosenberg's intervention here--and, to be clear, my own work, and particularly my collaborations with Thacker on the nonhuman aspects of political resistance, does not come out unscathed in the wake of Rosenberg's meticulous examination. Nevertheless Rosenberg's intervention is precisely what we need right now, as scholars and thinkers of various stripes reassess the current state of the humanities after the high water mark of cultural studies and poststructuralism has receded. There is a profound transformation taking place in philosophy and culture today, and we need to be careful that the historical gains of cultural studies and poststructuralism are not rolled back in the name of ontology and a “return to first principles.”

Rosenberg devotes much of her attention to queer theory’s “subjectless turn” and the shift toward what David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Muñoz in 2005 called the “wide field of normalization.” Yet here the question is not so much a shift within queer theory, but a growing normalization--and a newfound trendiness perhaps--of the concept of queer in culture at large. Thus today any number of folks in straight relationships might still wish to label themselves “queer,” just as there is a growing trend to think about queer societies, queer animals, and indeed queer organisms, queer molecules, and queer ontologies. Rosenberg calls out Tim Morton's essay “Queer Ecology,” but the trend is wider than a single text can reveal, as evidenced by Karen Barad's work on “Nature’s Queer Performativity,” or the promulgation in other circles of what we might call a Queer-Deleuzian metaphysics.

Borrowing the concept of the "atonal" (atone) from Badiou's theory of points, it is possible to assign a name to the specific form of queerness that Rosenberg finds unnerving: queer atonality. By queer atonality we mean the notion that queerness can be abstracted to mean deviation as such, aleatoriness as such, or openness as such, and thus, through such extreme abstraction, queerness may be assigned as a proper monicker for biological and even ontological systems. In other words, if biology is that thing that works via difference and radical openness, then it is, by definition, queer. Or if ontology is a scenario of swerves and deviations, then it is, by definition, queer. As Rosenberg puts it, on the one hand “biology [is understood] as a kind of sheer queerness (or, aleatoriness),” and, on the other, matter “is coded as ontologically 'queer.'”

But “do we truly want to be unleashed into pure aleatoriness?” wonders Rosenberg. Such is the Pyrrhic victory of queer atonality: “If queerness is nothing but the productive force of matter, then why continue to call it queer?” As a deviation from normality, queerness has typically carried a kind of ethical or political force simply by virtue of intervening and resisting. We're here, we're queer demands acknowledgement, and thus a disruption of bourgeois morality. In this sense, queer means essentially "queering." As Nicholas de Villiers writes in his book on queer opacity, queering is a tactic aimed at appropriating, transforming, or deviating from a particular normative category. In this way, queer might have no ontological dimension per se, but rather might be defined as that thing unable to be integrated into existing symbolic economies, be they sexual or otherwise. But if today, following in the wake of the new queer metaphysics, matter and organic life themselves are queer, then the queer intervention becomes as atonal as anything else: the queerness of quantum superposition, the queerness of interspecies viral transfection, the queerness of non-carbon-based life forms. What started as a process of strategic intervention, has now congealed into a state of "sheer" queerness.

Further, ontologizing queerness produces a number of secondary effects, not all of which we can discuss here. One important additional issue though--and this parallels some of my previous commentary on Catherine Malabou, whose work I find tremendously useful--is what might be called the “morality conundrum.” In short: if ontology is pure aleatoriness and if ontology has no particular political or moral valence, then, barring the kind of unmitigated nihilism that makes all politics impossible, one is obligated to graft on a secondary moral theory to supplement the primary ontological one. Consider Malabou: if all is plasticity, then how can an individual judge good plasticity from bad plasticity? By what criterion may we assert, with confidence, that capitalist precarity (one form of plasticity) is odious, while neuronal adaptiveness (another form of plasticity) is not? Such is the curious irony of queer atonality. What began as a movement that, in part, sought to purge itself of the priggish prejudices of sexual moralism, and the bigotry and oppression that goes with it, must now author its own treatise on morality! Having been elevated to the level of being, queer theory must demonstrate its own deviation from being. Having been neutralized, queerness must now un-neutralize itself.

I follow this thread not to revel in futility, nor to expose queer theory to another kind of derision, now from the left rather than the right. Instead let's ask what we might gain from ontologizing queerness? And what we might lose?

Or to put the question another way: if there were a queering of ontology, what should it look like? I can think of two ways to address the question, one more negative and the other more affirmative. But there are certainly many other possible approaches suggested by others.

Response A: Viewed skeptically, queer ontology appears to be something of a contradiction in terms, simply because ontology itself is offensive and oppressive to queer life and identity. Ontology reproduces the very structure of queer alterity, given how ontology tends to be transcendental, abstracting, totalizing, and tied historically to concepts of hierarchy and morality, etc. “Ontology,” Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “does not permit us to understand the being of the black man.” And thus, by homology, ontology does not permit us to understand the being of the queer.

This response seems absolutely valid and yet at the same time somewhat limiting. Absolutely valid--in the sense that metaphysics has often been used as a weapon against the poor, women, people of color, or anyone on the losing end of moral or metaphysical models of alterity. But also limiting--in the sense that ignoring such questions will not magically cause them to disappear; any theoretical undertaking, when pursued long enough, must come to terms with questions of being, appearing, and existing.

Indeed, ontology “does not permit”--as Fanon rightly said--but only when ontology is understood as representation or metaphysics. What if there were such a thing as a non-standard ontology? Could a non-standard ontology allow us to withdraw from structures of oppression? And could it facilitate such a withdrawal, while avoiding the problem of atonality and maintaining the many specificities of people's real culture and history?

Response B: This leads to a second response, one that I see as much more useful: a queer theory of ontology is indeed possible. But how would it look? It might not “look queer” in the aforementioned sense of queer atonality that Rosenberg calls into question, that is, an ontology rooted in aleatoriness, deviation, non-normativity, and so on. Such a new queer theory of ontology would not be queer per se--that's by design--but would be roomy enough for queerness, along with other forms of life and other kinds of being in the world.

Consider two different approaches. The first is a kind of hypertrophic instance of what, in theoretical circles, is called intersectionalism. We can understand such hypertrophic intersectionalism as a maximally heterogenous set of all forms of difference, brought into community without sacrificing the specificity and difference of all members of the set. This is not unlike how Hardt & Negri have defined the “multitude,” the multitude as capacious heterogeneity unmarked by homogenizing abstractions like “the masses” or “the people.” (It would take another blog post to demonstrate how the multitude is not simply a new form of queer atonality; but I think the argument can be made effectively.)

The second approach comes from a different angle. If intersectionalism is maximally heterogenous, a different approach also exists, the minimally heterogenous. Here, the community of alterity is defined not in terms of radical difference, but radical commonality. Similar to the concept of the “generic” in Laruelle or Badiou, I see a new potential for queer ontology to be understood in terms of radical equality via axiomatic exploration of the insufficiency of identity.

Indeed, Rosenberg links queerness to the concept of collectivity. This is the crucial step in my view. Summoning the allegorical style of Fredric Jameson, Rosenberg directs our attention not to “the subject per se, or 'the human,' but the collective.” And isn't this what materialism has always sought? “Surely the collective is that aleatory togetherness of which the ontological turn dreams.”

So, instead of queerness as the productive force of aleatory matter, we might pursue instead the concept of a “queer event” or the “event of queer collectivity.” I suspect that such an event would not follow some of the more familiar models from the past: event as deviation, difference, or alterity. Given that queer atonality is simply the macro form of such smaller deviations--the model of turbulence and churn described so well in Queer Deleuzianism--such theories of deviation have a limited utility. In addition, the queer event would most certainly not follow a productive or reproductive mandate; this being one of the most powerful discoveries of queer theory, that the queer body is not obligated to make anything. Instead we might explore the concept of a queer communism, or what Rosenberg simply labels the collectivity. This strikes me as particularly useful and urgent today.

In other words, Rosenberg's essay reveals that today's onto-primitivism is really a march toward proletarianization, which we might simply define as the bracketing of social collectivity in the name of material necessity. Such proletarianization must be identified as such, and resisted as frequently and as thoroughly as possible. Or as Rosenberg puts it, “Let it never be said of us that our consciousness was sheerly molecular, that we truly believed that all the baleful historical foreclosures of capitalism were ontologically true.”

Never believe that capitalism is ontologically true... This is, in essence, the first step toward exploring any form of collectivity. Queer atonality blocks such a movement, not because queerness has been fully co-opted and hence has nothing more to offer. On the contrary, the problem with queer ontology lies in ontology not queerness, for the standard model of ontology is one that is sufficient to itself and thus promulgates a structure of transcendental mastery, rational autonomy, and sufficiency for all. Queer communism, by contrast, resides in the making-insufficient of such philosophical structures. Queer communism reorients queerness away from deviation and alterity and toward the “weak” insufficiency of collectivity, a life lived in common with others, whosoever they may be.