Ontologies of Sex: Philosophy in Sexual Politics

28 JANUARY 2021


Excerpt from Ontologies of Sex: Philosophy in Sexual Politics, Rowman & Littlefield International, London and New York, 2020.

Between the Waves, Tejal Shah, 2012, video installation still. Image Credit: Tejal Shah

         f life as it really is does not refer to life in a transcendent realm of Platonic ideas as grounded in The Good, but refers to sensible natural life, the question comes to mind: What if the real is bad, what if it inheres some violent oppressive state of affairs? What if life is lived under some maleficent forces that exercise physical, psychological, and economical domination? If nature gives rise to violence, how can naturalist realism avoid justifying violent treatment of the oppressed and refuse to ground unequal moral and political treatment in natural difference? Such a naturalism might operate with the logic of sexism and racism. Colebrook is aware of the problem and, in order to solve, it she makes a distinction between ‟life as it really is” and ‟actual life.” The difference between ‟active vitalism” and ‟passive vitalism” sheds more light on the two different senses of the notion of ‟real life.” By ‟real,” Colebrook does not mean actual. Active vitalism starts with the actual life, therefore, from bodies organized in accordance with heterosexual humanity and family norms. The alternative way of thinking about the real is, by following Deleuze and Guattari, to align it with virtualities, that is with ‟a pre-individual plane of forces that does not act by a process of decision and self-maintenance but through chance encounters” (Colebrook 2010, 77). Virtualities are potentials that can realize in contingent (chance) encounters. Indeed, Colebrook distinguishes between two different ontological planes: the real life, in the sense of actual life, consists of bodies and their organizations in accordance with the capitalist economy of desire. This is also the layer at which the body is organized according to the heterosexual family norms and is imagined as the corporeal ground of a spiritual and moral person who is attributed the capacity for deliberate action. Underneath that stratum lays the impersonal layer of a multiplicity of forces. The domain of the organized bodies does not give us access to the real as it embeds virtualities. Virtualities belong to the forces of composition that differ from those of man and productive organism. Colebrook argues that passive vitalism is queer. She believes that it is possible to find a queer vitalism in Deleuze, because, like Leibniz, he refuses to find a unity over the expressive multiplicity of perspectives (Colebrook 2010, 79). “Everybody in this world is possible as an individual because it gives some form and specificity in time and space to a potential that always threatens to destabilize or de-actualize its being” (Colebrook 2010, 80). Colebrook appeals to Leibniz’s monad to elaborate an internalist model of individuation. The body does not individuate materially in its relation to the externally regulating laws of the social realm. In the monad there are perceptions that are apperceived but also an unapperceived, unconscious realm of perceptions. This should be conceived as a realm of virtuality, which become real in accordance with the unfolding of the monad. Our experience of encountering other beings in the world is reducible to the unfolding of the monad’s perceptions and affections. And the materialization of the body is also made possible by it. Colebrook thinks this is a better model to conceive the queer: queer materialization resembles the unfolding of the monad, a continuous passage of the virtual to the actual, a process that does not permit rigidity. Hence Colebrook uses Leibnizian monadology as a model to understand queerness, as the openness of sexual identity to transformation: 


My body is a soul or monad because it is capable of perceiving and being affected in an absolutely singular manner: no other body has the same unfolding of time and space, the same perceptions and affections as mine. And within this body are a thousand other souls: a heart that will beat according to all the hormonal, nutritional, climactic and nervous perceptions it endures (and so on with every organ, and so on with every organ’s cells, and so on with every microbiological event). Far from a body being individuated through subjection to norms, a body is absolutely individuated above and beyond (or before) any of the generalising norms that the laziness of common sense applies. This vitality is therefore essentially queer. The task of thinking is not to see bodies in their general recognisable form, as this or that ongoing and unified entity, but to approach the world as the unfolding of events. (Colebrook 2010, 83) 


If active vitalism is a macro analysis at the level of bodies, which are historical and political, passive vitalism is a micro analysis because it focalizes on the infinitely small vital potentials of which bodies are composed. Our bodies are composed of monads (thousand souls) as in Leibniz’s metaphysical framework. I doubt that this metaphor fulfils well the role it is supposed to play. What Leibniz means by the constitution of the material body by the monads is controversial. How can material beings be composed of immaterial beings? If for “monads” we have to substitute “forces,” what does it mean to call forces “souls”? Are we talking about psycho-physical forces? Do bodies materialize thanks to the affections and perceptions of the souls? I do not know what we gain by throwing ourselves in this metaphysical language, which is obscure. How to borrow the monad model without committing to the onto-theological claims that Leibniz makes by introducing the term? God created the monads and he knows all about their experiences because he chose the best possible world in which their perceptions are compossible. If in monadology there are no external relations, and all relations are internal, in what respect can we talk about “encounters”? Do encounters take place within the monad; are they always already inscribed in its concept? It is difficult to borrow some notions from a metaphysical system without pulling the whole metaphysical web of related concepts. And what guarantees that the perceptions that unfold from within the monad would not be organized in accordance with the norms that pertain to the heterosexual family of the patriarchal capitalist system? 


Colebrook is heading toward an ethics and politics that dispense with the notion of the “person.” Deleuze and Guattari reject moral subjectivity based on the deliberative model, which presumes that we are capable of weighing reasons before we make moral decisions. There are competing forces that underlie ‟decisions” and the reason why we acted in such and such a way can be explained as an effect of minute difference of forces. The absence of the person in this ontology brings with it the collapse of the politics of representation (of women’s issues, gay rights, minority values) and thus the struggle for recognition no longer makes sense. The aim of politics is mobilization (Colebrook 2010, 86) of the forces. Butler and the naturalists share the anti- humanist perspective; they are both against the ontologies that assume free subjects who are capable of creating autonomous lives as persons by acting in accordance with values. Butler shows why this freedom is difficult to have by pointing to how the subjects are effects of power. On the Deleuzian side, the debate over freedom is more complicated because we are an intersection of the impersonal forces and it does not make sense to speak of free choice. The only thing we can do is to attain the awareness of the forces of which we are effects. 


Butler believes in the unlimited multiplicity of gender performances and Grosz believes in the unlimited diversity of sexual differences—they both seek a politics to expand cultural representation. They ontologically disagree about how diversity should be understood. Should it be conceived as having a biological ground in nature or is it linguistically, symbolically produced by power? For Grosz, sexual difference is real and not culturally constructed. More accurately, that which is corporeally lived is as much given as invented difference (Grosz 2012, 73). To speak of the creation and invention of the body implies the entrance of nature into culture and the cultural transformation of the body. If that is the case, the right way of understanding sexual difference requires at once a pondering on how nature presents diversity and how some of that diversity retreats and disappears in nature.



                    Is it morally right to violently target radical, socialist, materialist feminists, and queer theorists in non-Western parts of the world, in contexts where patriarchy is still very strong, femicide is a serious problem, the state power bans pride parades and feminist marches with police force, and the historical gains of the women’s movement are constantly under patriarchal attack?

Zeynep Direk; Photo credit: Zeynep Direk

In her recent writings, Grosz argued, following Irigaray, that corporeal biological difference is a source for spiritualization. Her new strategy rejects the setting of opposition between nature and culture. Culture is a complex expression of nature, but in the actual culture only some of these expressions are prevalent. For the natural multiplicity to attain culture we need new imaginary and symbolic interventions. In The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics and the Limits of Materialism (Grosz, 2017a), she holds that the articulation of identity requires incorporeal frameworks (space, time, the cosmos, ideality, God). What she designates as ‟onto-ethics” is not merely a new philosophical description of the being of beings (which are in constant change) but speaks of what might become and what ought to happen (the domain of normativity). In Grosz’s late work the realm of normativity does not directly derive from the corporeal but is spiritual creation. Her position goes beyond a naturalist position in meta-ethics that reduces values to natural properties. Irigaray had stressed throughout her work that in Western civilization the symbolic frameworks reflected a unique type of subject, which is the male subject. Grosz argues that we cannot understand the material world if we neglect the incorporeal conditions of materialization. In “Irigaray, the Untimely, and the Constitution of an Onto-Ethics,” she recognizes the irreducibility of the duality between the nature and law, nature and spirituality, even though she emphasizes that nature precedes the spiritual realm (Grosz 2017b). She places Irigaray among the philosophers who aimed at restoring the continuities of the real, “the return of respect to not only the materiality of things, including living things, but also to their incorporeal conditions, to the framing conditions under which space, time, and sense or representability give possible order to the world of things” (Grosz 2017b, 19). This approach attempts to overcome the great problem of materialist feminism, which is reductionism. One way to solve the problem is to efface the opposition between nature and culture and talk about the sexed body as a “material-semiological assemblage.” In materialist feminisms that are inspired by Irigaray, female biology as ova producer is considered to be an indispensable natural category. The plurality of the sexual differences should open up from the binary. This is a refusal to efface the female in the name of plurality of the sexes; the strategy is to affirm it and acknowledge that women’s political struggles depend on that affirmation. In this framework, “gender identity” can be conceived as an expression, in contrast to, for example, Beauvoir’s feminism that would look at it as a complex effect of historical material reality. In Grosz, the lived experience of the corporeal is articulated through the incorporeal conditions that are cultural inventions; in Colebrook, the internalist model individuates and individualizes sexual difference in such a way that no room is left for feminist critique that makes use of terms such as “patriarchy,” “masculinity,” “gender,” “male domination,” etc. 

Grosz’s onto-ethics takes the material and the immaterial forces as the ontological forces of the real world. Her concept of the “real” has at first shifted the focus from the symbolic structures to the material forces of nature; though, with the appeal to the immaterial, reality takes on a new sense: it is now seen as something that can also be fashioned. It is now redefined as the continuity or the bond between the material and the immaterial forces. In her onto-ethics the immaterial has a major role to play for the materialization of the body, which is always in becoming in its worldly reality. A metaphysics of subjectivity and politics of recognition are rejected. However, the creativity of the incorporeal is deemed necessary to open the space for the bodies to materialize in their diversity with the right to define, know, and order reality. This is the ontological proposal to undo the regime that benefits only one sex, the call for a new order of cultural and ethical regulations that allows for the plurality of the sexes, without effacing the biological female. Surely, Grosz is highlighting the ontological significance of social and cultural framing and, in so doing, makes possible the way for an ethical co- existing of the nature’s dynamic forces. She stipulates that existence of “real forces, real actions, real histories, and geographies, forms, and directions of sense that makes individuals possible and constitute their conditions of existence and flourishing” (Grosz 2017b, 9) and borrows Simondon’s distinction between the pre-individual and the individual to argue that the pre-individual forces can be the conditions for the existence and flourishing of the individual (Grosz and Hill 2017, 13). 

I think both Butler and Grosz are pursuing a Hegelian problem: Hegel comprehends reality as the dialectical unfolding and concretization of the idea in nature and spiritual world. There is an ontological continuity between nature and the spiritual human world. We cannot understand spiritual reality just by considering individuals’ acts. Butler rejects a naturalist standpoint that beings with the effectivity of the natural real forces. The thesis that the performativity of power materializes bodies is quite stronger than the recognition that there are incorporeal frameworks of materialization for bodies that are already real in the natural sense. Butler refuses to see reality as an unfold- ing of an idea in the Hegelian sense, a concretization of a symbolic thesis; she sees our corporeal reality, existential reality, as a production of power. In Butler’s Gender Trouble, the problem is not just the opposition between the symbolic and the real, language and nature, gender and sex. It results from the fact that the second term arises as a logical consequence of the operation of the first term and reduces to being a postulate of it. 

Butler believes, like Grosz, that difference and dynamism is the engine of change, but she rejects the claim that sexual difference is a fundamental difference. It is worth noting that her criticism of sexual difference is not similar to Catherine A. MacKinnon’s critique: given that difference is a relation, if X is different from Y, Y is different from X. It is unclear what difference can establish in view of the unequal distribution of power. Difference does not tell us anything about why men have more power over women. Why then talk about sexual difference instead of social and political inequality? The sexual difference view risks falling in the trap of patriarchy and can reinforce the patriarchal prejudices. Butler’s reasons for opposing the sexual difference thesis are different than MacKinnon’s reasons. Butler rejects the sexual difference thesis on ontological grounds: the reflection must shift its focus from sexual difference to gender because corporeal materializations depend on the performativity of the normative representations that pertain to discourse/power regimes. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (Butler 1993) is a restatement of that position. If this is the case, we have no philosophical ground to know anything about sexual difference that is not constructed. In “From Radical Representations to Corporeal Becomings: The Feminist Philosophy of Llyod, Grosz, and Gatens,” Colebrook rightly remarks that even though Butler rejects that the difference between sex and gender is a necessary distinction that we should keep, she in fact intensifies a duality (Colebrook 2000, 78). However, even if Butler’s account implies a duality between sexual difference and gender, there are no grounds to speak of the former; it remains unspeakable. Colebrook accuses Butler of being too occupied with the duality between matter and representation for this is an opposition as typical as male/female, nature/culture in Western thought. I agree that we have no means to speak of matter without representation. And how to understand representation without pitting it against matter? To figure that out, we can look at how Colebrook describes a particular form of empiricism, which Deleuze called “radical empiricism,” which she also refers to as a “superior empiricism,” and a “transcendental empiricism” in her book on Deleuze: “The principle of immanence demands that we do not see experience as the experience of some being or some ultimate subject. Rather, there is a flow or multiplicity of experiences from which any being or idea is effected” (Colebrook 2000, 87). Not only beings and ideas, but norms, too, come out of the flow of experience. At times, Colebrook sounds as if she argues against normativity and does not like to think about how norms regulate incorporation. She is critical of Butler’s account because in the gender approach the bodies materialize in their encounter of the law, norms, and prior ideals. Colebrook takes queerness as a problem of individuation. Bodies are individuated because of the potential differences that infinitely exceed and divide bodies. It is not in relation to law but due to this monadological constitution that bodies are individuated. Colebrook’s naturalist materialism fails to make sense of the operations of the gendering power on bodies; in contrast to her, Grosz has a way to explain that. From Butler’s perspective, it is unclear how the natural forces can counter power that organizes bodies. In Grosz, however, it is possible to claim that changing the immaterial conditions of materialization can help to transform the exercise of power. I think that naturalist feminisms can enlarge our conception of nature beyond teleology, essentialism, and sexual determinism, but they are doomed to fail insofar as they cannot account for normativity. Grosz’s version of naturalist feminism that comes to value the role of the immaterial and the incorporeal holds that values and norms are human spiritual creations, which give us frames of materialization. Beauvoir’s materialist existentialism concentrated on the interaction between the forces of production and reproduction. Grosz’s version of naturalism enables us to see that the forces of sexual difference go beyond their roles in reproduction and create new cultures.

                    an ontology that takes into account the lived experience of the body, that signifies within the framework created by the immaterial forces of materialization, and that recognizes the importance of the feminist critique of patriarchy, restitution of the male domination by the institutionalized power, is preferable to the alternative ontologies of sex.

Book cover image credit: Rowman & Littlefield International

Indeed, the old feminist debate over sex and gender is far from being outdated and still haunts our present gender politics. These terms have such a long history in which several attempts have been made to redefine them. With all the complexity of that history, these terms are still central to alternative queer ontologies. Butler’s queer ontology denaturalized sexual difference by working out a new concept of gender. In contrast, the naturalist ontologies of sex of Grosz and Colebrook embraced the term sexual difference and aimed at the “renaturalization” of differences. The naturalist endeavor to redefine “the real” beyond the opposition between nature and culture opens to a plurality of sexual differences and fights compulsory hetero- sexuality. Butler’s queer theory began with a dismantling of the category of “woman” as the subject of feminism, and concentrated, following Foucault, on the way power produces subjects. This is an ontology of power that focuses on how power is diffused in discourse and practice, effectuates sub- mission and exclusion, materializes bodies, and creates hierarchies among them by rendering some intelligible and others unintelligible. 

These alternative queer ontologies lead to different sexual politics. As I read her, Butler offers a peaceful and transformative strategy to overcome exclusion; her theory makes people think from the other side of a binary understanding of gender, and does not foreclose itself to philosophical questioning. In her ontological framework, “gender” functions as the key concept for an anti-essentialist account of sexuation. Although she acknowledges that the specific configuration of power relations must be approached in their specific context, there are still universal explanatory concepts and structures. As soon as these are forsaken, gender as a major critical concept will be lost and we would be left with a politics of bodily becomings and their monadic experiences. The assemblages that they form can be mobilized to carry out an affective politics of shame, anger, and hate, and engage in politics of war. This war may not be fought against patriarchy, male violence, and power embedded in sexist and racist institutions, but target the closest allies, such as feminists and queer theorists. If the self-affirmation of vulnerable subjects comes with an unquestionable moral justification of their right to verbally injure, attack, label, silence, and exclude other theoretical and political voices and concerns from the public space, the feminist field would no longer embrace multiplicity. Nobody should be forced to agree with an ontological view about which one has reasons to doubt. And we need to question the harm caused by the violent politics of shame carried out by activists all over the world. Is it morally right to violently target radical, socialist, materialist feminists, and queer theorists in non-Western parts of the world, in contexts where patriarchy is still very strong, femicide is a serious problem, the state power bans pride parades and feminist marches with police force, and the historical gains of the women’s movement are constantly under patriarchal attack? How does that fit with intersectionalism? How can the arguments of intersectionalist black feminism apply in contexts such as my country, Tur- key, where ethnic difference has become politicized due to state oppression, where the government openly withdraws its support for gender equality in universities, and where women’s studies risk being closed down? 

From my point of view, an ontology that takes into account the lived experience of the body, that signifies within the framework created by the immaterial forces of materialization, and that recognizes the importance of the feminist critique of patriarchy, restitution of the male domination by the institutionalized power, is preferable to the alternative ontologies of sex. In a world in which men kill women every day, we should not dispense with the feminist critique of patriarchy. Race is not a scientific category; the “reality” of race is the reality of the lived experiences of racism, which are historically constituted. The reality of sex, too, is created by the history of sexism, but if women suffer violence because they are gendered on grounds of their female biology, they should be able to defend themselves with sexed rights. Identity being among the multiple effects of power, identity politics cannot be a good strategy to fight power. If resistance is the subversion of power and the destabilization of its function and effect, it should not be based on sameness, control, unification, and be an instrument of power’s reign over bodies. For Hegelians, subjectivity depends on recognition, and this is also where Butler started in her first work. The politics of recognition is identity politics. However, according to Butler, the construction of subjectivity through being recognized as an identity on the grounds of difference leads to melancholia because the question of self exceeds the category of identity. Ontologically speaking, identity remains always wanting, deficient, and transitory. However, in certain situations, the assumption of an identity can help the subject to transform itself into a resisting subject. There may be situations in which identity politics is the only inevitable way to fight the domination that aims to dissolve the agency of the oppressed, to stand up against the forces that relegate people to passivity and apathy. 

Colebrook problematizes the view that the politics of resistance depends on recognition by suggesting that the assemblage and articulation of becomings can organize a becoming minority. The goal of politics is not the recon- ciliation of a minority through its recognition by the majority (Colebrook 2010, 86). On this view, the existence and effectivity of plurality does not rest on its being recognized or accepted by the majority, it comes from its multiple becomings. Granting that there are multiple becomings, the question what makes them good and not harmful remains to be answered. If the good reduces to the liveliness of the forces, there would be no good reason for wanting them to trump over the other forces that have other concrete prob- lems on their agendas. If the call for equalization implies cancelling and replacing persons and groups who have access to the means of symbolic production, how different this is than the ruling power’s strategies based on resentment which enjoys the civil murder of their opponents? We have seen how the resentment caused by the secular repression of the religious style of life can backlash as injustice and persecution of the secular style of life. The symbolic realm has its own dialectic and does not simply evolve by the clash of the emotive forces. Naturalism must theorize and re-evaluate justice and equality before it can assert that multiple becomings bring emancipation. In the sixth chapter, I shall talk about how a politics of subjectivation can contribute to the ontological debate over sex, without which politics of assemblage risks turning into a politics of war and persecution. However, be- fore I do that, I shall follow the second trajectory of my elaboration of ontology of sex and devote my fifth chapter to Jean-Luc Nancy’s ontology of sex and erotic relationship.

                    In a world in which men kill women every day, we should not dispense with the feminist critique of patriarchy.

Philosophy World Democracy

It will not be a world democracy, since it must be the people themselves who create themselves and arrange themselves. Rather, we affirm a democratic essence of the world: peopled by all the living and by all the conversing, wholly configured by their existence and by their words.