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The clout of the real

Reading the opening chapter of Katerina Kolozova’s Cut of the Real, I’m struck with a kind of delighted awe, the kind you might feel when observing a dazzling card-trick or reaching the conclusion of a felicitous mathematical proof. I want to record this sensation at the outset, as I believe it points to something about the book: an effect of suddenness, of striking or leaping or arcing. A short-circuit. And this is in spite of the book’s style of plain and patient argumentation, without overt rhetorical showiness or show-stopping flourishes. Its sublimity is argumentative rather than oratorical. It does something unexpected and, in doing it, shows that it can be done.

What Kolozova does in her first chapter is to show that the canonical “postmodern”, and especially queer or feminist, theory of the subject rests on a disavowal of the unitary – of any sense that the subject’s protean capacity for being woven out of “multiple discursive positions” might be borne by a single self, something that is itself even as it is this multiplicity of self-positings in discourse. This disavowal has become routine to the point of being “axiomatic”, and is guarded by an ethical apparatus that trains us to associate the unitary with the totalising, one-ness with soliloquy, identity with domination. (“Identities” are permitted, on precisely the condition that they are multiple – that they are identifications-with discursive positions, rather than the identity-of a self prior to its co-responsibilities). What we might call the “mystic” or “spiritual” sense of one-ness (wince all you like) is always taken to be a mystification of the coercive forming-into-one of imposed fixity and manufactured consensus. As sexual beings, for example, we are encouraged ethically to focus on the “…which is not one” part of Irigaray’s formula “this sex which is not one” – rather than the prior “this sex”, an identity which proceeds from and as itself into not-one-ness. Kolozova shows clearly that the indicative gesture which picks out this sex, this “I”, this instance of the real in its this-ness, is frequently the disavowed precursor of the common gesture of dispersal, the gesture towards multiplicity. In the work of Judith Butler, for example, there is an unavoidable recourse to, a repeated looping-back towards, the “I” to whom and in whom the psychic life of power occurs. We can treat this as an unfortunate but unavoidable lapse into a theoretically-unsophisticated manner of speaking; but we can also treat it as a symptomatic intrusion, a resurfacing of what’s really always there, a return of the repressed.

If we can disarm or circumvent the ethical apparatus which enforces these associations between identity and domination, then (and perhaps only then) we can get to the point of treating the axiomatic decision it secures as an option amongst other options. Perhaps it is a good option, but we ought nevertheless to be able to suspend it, to treat it as material for thought rather than the indispensible precondition of thinking at all. This is of course the “non-philosophical” move par excellence, and Kolozova makes the best use I have yet seen of Laruelle’s strategies of “unilateralisation” and “dialysis” to render the seemingly-unmovable bedrock of (a certain) gender studies amenible to questioning and transformation. (My view of Laruelle remains that what he proposes to do is extremely interesting, but that he himself does it quite badly. He’s rather like Lacan in that respect: all the best of Lacan is in the work of his disciples, whether faithful or rebellious). To put it simply, Laruelle turns out to be useful for a feminist writer such as Kolozova insofar as he outlines strategies for disloyalty and disaffiliation (or non-loyalty and non-affiliation), for separating oneself from the suffocating self-sufficiency of closed systems of thought. Once you learn to detect gestures of auto-position, you can also learn how to avoid being positioned by them as inexorably subject to the law they propose.

This is a surprising and very promising start, and as I continue through the book I’ll report back here on where Kolozova’s speculative journey takes her. For the moment, though, here’s a passage from Douglas Oliver’s An Island That Is All The World that her first chapter sent me back to:

My companion set off with a strong sidestroke and I liked watching her progress before plunging in and striking up a crawl designed to catch her up. But she was 12 years younger and the cigars had affected my blood. In the lake’s centre I watched her climbing out on the far side; and discovered I was completely out of stamina. For 20 seconds I flailed about wildly or tried to float, which only made me lose precious breath, and I thought myself sure to drown. She was too far away to help. (We found police notices afterwards warning against swimming there.)

It came to me that the mind must have some hidden rescue of its own. There stabilized within me a steady, confident self, which I imagine to be the self I had often speculated about, the unconscious unity of everything we have experienced and incorporated throughout our length of days, an entity that persists, minutely changing, very minutely, as our conscious self goes through its wilder swings of mood. Much modern linguistic philosophy argues this large entity out of all real existence, but I simply don’t believe it. A larger self instructed me to let my limbs do the work while it lay back, almost entirely uninvolved. After great calm – the panic holding off on the periphery – I realised I had ground under my feet, staggered up the shore, and collapsed, as everyday conscious awareness flooded back.

There may be much more to say about the relationship between Douglas Oliver’s conception of harmlessness, connected to the “almost entirely uninvolved” passivity of this “larger self”, and Kolozova’s sense of the real of the subject as a kind of animal-corporeal selfhood; but I’ll need to read more before I can come back to this.