We are Not Cyborg Subjects, We are Artisans

This post flows out of the wonderful time I had at SLSA13, particularly a book panel on Thomas LaMarre’s translation of Muriel Combe’s book, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual (MIT 2012).  The discussion we had with Steven Meyer, Hugh Crawford, and Andrew Goffey at the panel informs what follows.

In my work on transgender embodiment in my dissertation I look at contemporary redefinitions of childhood and adolescence taking place through puberty suppression therapy and the relatively new capacity for pre-pubescent children to transition gender.  One of the conceptual questions that has nagged me in this work is the question of transgender embodiment when the child is taken up as a material resource or standing reserve, a constellation of biologically extractable systems imbricated in technoscientific assemblages and posthuman and biopolitical systems of subindividual and population-level production.  How can we think the labor of the self working on the body such as is undertaken in various forms of trans embodiment, not only in transition, but the multiplicity of forms of technological intervention (in the most expansive sense of that phrase) into the human body?

My case for a new materialist and posthumanist account of trans technogenesis is made first and foremost as an ethical one: to dismantle the privileged idea of the integral or natural human body, one that exists prior to technological modification.  This technophobic account of the self-enclosed human body sees modification as, ultimately, a fall from grace.  The Cartesianism in much of trans studies, then, worries me, because its privileging of the agency of the gendered psyche over the material substrate of the body in the journey of transition is unable to respond to those transphobic arguments that would conclude that the trans body is a derivative form of gender.  In this transphobic line of thought, the gender of the trans body is less natural than that of the integral human body unaffected by technology.  To say in response that all bodies are affected by technology in one way or another is unfortunately not a resolution of this problem, for technology is still an ontologically separate plane from the flesh in that proposition, one that interacts with,  but is not necessary or inherent to, the human form.

Technogenesis, which Kate Hayles’ new book develops at length, suggests that the human and the technic have co-evolved from the very beginning.  In the past, I have looked to Derrida’s account of originary technicity to arrive at technogensis, but recently I have been more drawn to Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation and technical beings, much like Hayles.  Simondon being “the ghost in Deleuze,” as Goffey put it at SLSA, I have also gone back to Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari to take up the particular question of a self working on its own body (the Cartesian reflex is seen even in the naturalness of separating “self” and “body” in that sentence).  Nevertheless, since the psyche does experience itself phenomenologically as working on its body, rather than purely coinciding with it in some kind of weird metaphysics (apologies to Tim Morton and his SLSA keynote!) of presence, I wanted an approach that would account for the mutually informing agential qualities of both the psyche and the material substrate of the body in trans embodiment.

The solution to this dilemma for a long time in feminist theory and theories of technical embodiment has been to say we are cyborgs.  However, following LaMarre’s Simondonian critique of the cyborg account of hybridity, the blending of human body and technology (the “and” designating two ontologically separate entities), I want to say that we are not cyborg subjects, but rather Deleuzoguattarian artisans.  The cyborg body has tended to be a hylomorphic one (although I don’t think Haraway’s is) and this is insufficient to the task at hand.

The artisan appears in A Thousand Plateaus to emphasize Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism–the separation of active form from a dead or homogenous matter upon which the former is impressed by human activity.  In a hylomorphic account of trans embodiment, the conscious psyche of the subject would impress the material form of gender upon the substrate of the passive body, remaking it in its ideal image.  As I already mentioned, this argument is vulnerable to a transphobic reproach, which is to say that if trans bodies need technological supplement in order to form their gender, then they are less natural or less real than cis bodies.  The hylomorphic account of the work of the artisan, moreover, follows analogously: the carpenter, for instance, impresses the form of furniture he wishes to build upon the passive material of the wood that he manipulates using his savoir-faire.

“But Simondon demonstrates that the hylomorphic model,” Deleuze and Guattari write in the treatise on nomadology, “leaves many things, active and affective, by the wayside” (408).  The artisan works on the wood, to be sure, but the wood also works on both itself and the artisan, affecting the resultant object.  First, the wood’s singularities or haecceities are its “implicit forms,” the virtual potential it carries within itself as matter, that which makes it topologically receptive, through its inherent activity, to being shaped by the artisan.  These are the torsions of the wood fibres that in fact guide the tools and action of the artisan.  Second, there are the variable intensive affects of the wood itself: “wood that is more or less porous, more or less elastic and resistant” (408).  Rather than the artisan forcibly (and violently) imposing the form he has conjured onto the wood, Deleuze and Guattari propose that “it is a question of surrendering to the wood, then following where it leads by connecting operations to a materiality…what one addresses is less a matter submitted to laws than a materiality possessing a nomos” (408, emphasis added).  Not only do the wood’s affects contribute to what the artisan can and cannot do, but the artisan must enter into their rhythms, acquiesce to their vibrant materiality, in order to “make” anything.

Instead of cyborg subjects estranged from our technology and our materiality, I propose that we are all artisans, and our bodies are the wood in Deleuze and Guattari’s example.  Our bodies are not passive material substrates governed by a consciousness, gendered or otherwise, but have their own affects, their own singularities and implicit forms that intra-act with our intentional and unintentional work upon them.  In this way, trans embodiment is not a derivative of the natural human body, for all bodies are formed through technogenesis and the active participation of the body’s materiality in its continual becoming, its continual modification.  If anything, this is an even stronger affirmation of trans embodiment, because it finds transness in matter itself, not only as a psychic phenomenon.

Like the artisan, we must all finds ways of surrendering to the activity of our bodies, to stop working against their affects and instead with them, and in so doing affirm our embodiment as a joyful process of creative evolution.



  1. […] PhD aspirant Julian Gill-Petersen’s excellent work on transgender embodiment provides him with a singular perspective to explore nascent developments around trans technogenesis and the self and body’s role in and within it.  He discusses this in the aftermath of a particularly stimulating session at the recent 27th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.  His insights can be found here: https://juliangillpeterson.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/we-are-not-cyborg-subjects-we-are-artisans/. […]

  2. Julian, thank you for your insightful responses to the conference, and I really appreciate the way you have tied your dissertation into the conversation as this post outlines a clearer image of that project than our brief conversation could provide. And I think you are correct in emphasizing that we ought to turn our attention towards bodies working “with” one another, but also bodies working on their own bodies.

    In my own thinking on this issue, I have struggled with the “surrender” to which you refer at the end. To surrender reminds me of Gianni Vattimo’s emphasis on the Heidegerrian concept of Verwindung or declination, as it pertains to his “weak” ontology (“Dialectics, Difference, and Weak Thought.” Graduate Faculty of Philosophy Journal. 10.1 (1994): 151-164.). I’ll try to quickly summarize his point as far as I understand him:

    Verwindung recalls an absent thing. It recalls what cannot be present; it is not the summation of a logical process; nor is it a stable thing that is always present. Instead Verwindung is a recalling (a kind of looking backwards) and acknowledgement of being that cannot be made present, i.e. the recalling of x. Personally, I do not know how Verwindung does not belong to a logical process. What Vattimo describes is a form of analysis, as far as I can tell. Rather than synthesis, we take steps backwards but we must maintain a negative in the place where would normally find the definition or a universally valid, first principle, i.e. the empty center which belonged to the third equation on Tim Morton’s diagram from his keynote address this weekend (for those who missed it, you can hear it here: http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2013/10/weird-essentialism-mp3.html).

    I raise this version of surrender to illustrate a pitfall. If we are not careful, surrender becomes Verwindung, which is couched in history, it is anti-futurity, and from the Deleuzian angle, it does not allow for speculation with regards to what a body might do, which is perhaps more relevant to your project in particular (body artist? Why artisan and not artist? Rousseau paints a bleak picture the artisan as an automaton in Emile).

    Please understand that I have been in a similar position, and hence the stress I am putting on this word. My “Weak Teaching” did not go over so well as a teaching philosophy, and my initial dissertation idea, “Romantic Weakness,” seemed too destined for failure to pursue. Despite our mutual interest, I now wonder if “surrender” or “weakness” is correct. I wonder if something like “dancing-with the-body” would not better articulate what we’re going for, or some variation of this (I suppose Billy Idol deserves some credit here). It is somewhat of an anti-self-consciousness that you are describing, but again, if we are not careful this anti-self-consciousness becomes violent in a passive, ascetic way, right? Dancing seems to be a way where we can, but must not necessarily, intend or consciously will ourselves to dance. Furthermore, in the process of dancing consciousness might give way to feet and the body might give way to rhythmic movements determined by the dynamics between itself and the environment. There is something more active here, and yet the passivity is maintained.

    But by itself I worry that surrender turns us all into zombies, or John Keats.

    • Thank you for your generous comments, Aaron. I think you raise a really valuable question about the “surrender” that Deleuze and Guattari advocate. Elsewhere, I’ve been thinking a lot about forms of surrender or acquiescence in the face of the overwhelming indifference of matter to the human form, or other forms of time and space events that overrun and overwhelm the otherwise proudly narcissistic creature that is human consciousness. Rather than maintaining the fantasy of the bounded human whose correlationist presumptions make him feel as though he grasps the world by knowing it in some ultimate fashion (which I want to say is precisely the kind of normative psychosis Lacan diagnosed in us all), I have been speculating that a kind of surrender or acquiescence to the traumatic overwhelmingness of matter or the real (in the sense of Deleuze, though, not Lacan) might be one way of encouraging a different, posthumanist way of knowing, where knowing is perhaps not the best word. Access to the real, or something more rhizomatic and transversal.

      Your raising of Heideggerian Verwindung is pushing me to think a bit differently about this, though. I think you’re right about it being an anti-futurity, which for me–now I need to go read Vattimo, though–is rooted in its occupying the negative space (outside?) of logic. We can infer its negativity out of our logical modes of thought, but I think what Deleuze challenges us to do instead is to affirm surrender creatively, rather than making it the supplement to a restricted economy of human logic. Now, I think that’s exactly what’s so incredibly difficult to be mindful of: how to affirm instead of access surrender through negation, the latter being what we are far more habituated to do by virtue of being imprisoned in our form of humanist consciousness.

      I’m also curious, now that you raise it, about why Deleuze and Guattari choose the artisan over the artist. I think the answer is infrastructurally latent in A Thousand Plateaus, I’d just have to do some careful reading. My hunch, though, is that the artisan is more or less their version of the artist, too; the difference being about examples, since the artisan works with a kind of materiality we associate less with aesthetics than production–although in either case, they want to merge both.

      Dancing is a great counterexample (it makes me think, too, of Erin Manning’s work on individuation and dance). The emphasis on the activity of the body as an assemblage, which is to say not as a Cartesian lump being controlled by a brain, but rather an emergent, somatic intelligence produced out of a distributed, metastable system, seems a far cry from the threat of negative oblivion that Heidegger raises. “Dancing-with-the-body” is an interesting grammatical construction, too; it displaces the Subject in a curious way by making it co-present with itself until those distinctions are sort of a posteriori undone.

      Given that the zombie has been named by more than one person as the somatic avatar of late capitalism (I’m thinking of Steven Shaviro, for instance), I too would much prefer to try dancing.

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