Queer Vitalism

By Colebrook, Claire | New Formations, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Queer Vitalism


Colebrook, Claire, New Formations


This essay is about vitalism and the ethical urgency of returning to the problem of life. This urgency, I will argue, far from being a recent, radical and necessarily transgressive gesture, has always underpinned (and presupposed) highly normative gestures in philosophy, literature and cultural understanding. Indeed, the very notion and possibility of the normative, or the idea that one can proceed from what is (life) to what ought to be (ways of living) has always taken the form of vitalism. For the purposes of this essay, then, I will define vitalism as the imperative of grounding, defending or deriving principles and systems from life as it really is. From this it follows that there will be two forms of vitalism, for there are two ways of understanding this notion of 'life as it really is'. For the most part 'life as it really is' is reduced to actual life: here, vitalism begins from living bodies (usually human, usually heterosexual, usually familial) and then asks what it means to live well. We could refer to this, following Deleuze and Guattari, as an active vitalism because it assumes that 'life' refers to acting and well organised bodies. However, there is another way of understanding 'life as it really is,' and this is to align the real with the virtual. For Deleuze and Guattari this leads to a passive vitalism, where 'life' is a pre-individual plane of forces that does not act by a process of decision and self-maintenance but through chance encounters.

By understanding life as virtual we no longer begin with the image of a living body, and are therefore able to consider forces of composition that differ from those of man and the productive organism. Those queer theories that account for the self as it is formed in the social unit of the family fail to account for the emergence of the self and the genesis of the family; in so doing they remain at the level of the actual and of active human agents. Passive vitalism is queer, by contrast, in its difference and distance from already constituted images of life as necessarily fruitful, generative, organised and human. A passive vitalism is also queer in its transformation of how we understand the work of art. The notion of the 'aesthetic' has its origins in perception--referring to--and also to the subject. For Kant, the work of art is to be judged only in its capacity to enliven the subject's capacity to give order and synthesis to the world; beauty is the experience of material as perfectly harmonious with the subject's conceptualising powers, while the sublime refers to an experience that allows the subject to feel its own striving for form and order. The work of art returns us to the constituting power from which the lived world unfolds. This emphasis on art as disclosing the active power that originally forms the world as this meaningful world for 'us' is maintained in all forms of post-Kantian aesthetics that takes us back to the structure, language or matrix that gives sense to 'our' world.

(AT LEAST) TWO VITALISMS, TWO HISTORIES, TWO PHILOSOPHIES

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari argue for a tradition of passive vitalism (beginning with Leibniz and extending to Ruyer) which counters the dominant tradition of vitalism, which runs from Kant to Claude Bernard:

   Vitalism has always had two possible interpretations: that of an
   idea that acts, but is not--that acts therefore only from the point
   of view of an external cerebral knowledge ... or that of a force
   that is but does not act--that is therefore a pure internal
   awareness ... If the second interpretation seems to us to be
   imperative it is because the contraction that preserves is always
   in a state of detachment in relation to action or even to movement
   and appears as a pure contemplation without knowledge. (1)

Before looking in detail at what the aesthetics of such a passive vitalism might be, and how such an aesthetic might open a way of thinking beyond modernist norms of art, we would do well to define the dominant vitalism that 'acts but is not. …

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