Sexual Difference, Indeterminacy, & Open Works: a few thoughts on Grosz

I’m starting work on my third book, which I am tentatively calling “Signal & Noise”. This involves a lot of reading; I am going to try to post short reflections on what I’m reading as I work my way through the material. So, this is the first post in the #signalnoise series.

Right now I’m re-working my way through Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art. (It’s for the role of sound and music in feminist new materialism chapter). From my last reading of the book, which was a few years ago, my sense is that her reworking of ‘sexual difference’ as a kind of indeterminacy, a protocol for chance processes is actually the production of a post-identity sexual difference. It’s a sexual difference grounded in the ‘flat’ and ‘deregulated’ ontologies of neoliberalism.

Traditionally, sexual difference is a binary and teleological discourse: this is the whole point of Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of becoming-woman. ‘Woman’ is the constitutive outside of patriarchy, so patriarchy courts but ultimately reterritorializes ‘woman.’ (The reaffirmation of patriarchy, the One, is the ultimate telos of patriarchally-differented sexes; that’s Irigaray’s point.) As Grosz sees it, however, sexual difference

is not a homeostatic relation of stabilization, the build-up and expenditure of lidbidinal energies that Freud sees as the foundation of orgasmic sexuality [McClary, tonality], but a fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaptation that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing, the sensory for their own sake” (7).

Dynamic and aleatory, sexual difference is, in Grosz’s model, the chance process par excellence:

sexual difference…the very machinery for guaranteeing the endless generation of morphological and genetic variation, the very mechanism of biological difference itself–is also, by this fact, the opening up of life to the indeterminacy of taste, pleasure, and sensation (6).

In other words, sexual difference is the protocol that turns life, biological life, into an open work…A composition more Cagean than Mozartian. Given the Deleuze & Guattarian framework in which Grosz works, this should be no surprise–they explicitly reference Cage and Boulez and other post-tonal, avant-garde art music composers.

Sure, “sexual difference” makes life into an open work. But isn’t this ‘open work’ style governmentality precisely the mechanism by which post-identity MRWaSP operates? Gender is deregulated; race is mixed; society is diverse and multi-. Sure, there can be 50+ genders (as Facebook suggests in their drop-menu), but everybody has to pick one because that’s how you become productive for capitalism and for MRWaSP.

Her concept of “art” seems similarly informed by the same metaphysics and ontology that grounded mid-century avant-garde art music composition. Art (which is also life), for Grosz, is the speeding up of the gradual process of phenomena coming into (and going out of) phase. She explains:

‘In the beginning’ is chaos, the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, VIBRATORY OSCILLATIONS that constitute the universe. Chaos here may be understood not as absolute disorder but rather as a plethora of orders, forms, wills–forces that cannot be distinguished or differentiated from each other” (5).

The universe is noisy, full of infinite vibrations each with their logic but none perceptibly in phase. Art and life hone in on the signal in this noise, find the rare moments when things lock into phase. If left alone, these vibrations will eventually fall out of phase. Art and life intervene by separating out the noise that would dissolve this signal back into chaos: they “bracket out or cast into shadow the profusion of forces that engulf and surround it” (6), the signal.

This passage clarifies that “art” is the finding of signal–resonance–in noise–the fluctuating universe:

The artistic release and propagation of sensation…is always a mode of resonance or harmonious vibration, an oscillation extracted from the fluctuating, self-differentiating structure of the universe itself used to pace, measure, and provide discernment in a universe in which nothing is self-identical, all substance is movement…and generates…above all rhythm (19).

I don’t know if ‘rhythm’ is really the right word here so much as frequency…frequency is the regular pattern of oscillations in a signal, the regularity of its phase.

The thing is, as Reich rightly points out, these ‘rational’ patterns, the patterns we perceive to be ‘in phase’–these are patterns we’re already attuned to by force of acculturation and habit (a round and a quarter seem rational because we’re habituated to recognizing these intervals). Grosz recognizes as much, at least nominally: “we perceive only that which interests us, is of use to us, that to which our senses have, through evolution, been ATTUNED” (6).

I guess what I want to argue is that “sexual difference” is itself a type of attunement. It’s a culturally-specific pattern to which our material/historical/ideological context habituates us. Things seem ‘in phase’ when they lock into established gender patterns (which encourages an understanding of queer as out of phase).

I also want to ask: so, if art is finding the signal in the noise, “art” sure sounds a lot like Nate-Silver-style big data. I’m concerned that Grosz’s project naturalizes the metaphysics and ontology that makes something like big data (the statistical, computational forecasting based on a particular kind of sniffing and sifting) possible. My question is thus: does the politics she finds in this metaphysics & ontology provide a sufficiently critical alternative to the politics that generally informs and is reinforced by big data?

I also have a totally underdeveloped question: why in European thought would sexual difference be what opens up materiality/life to indeterminacy? Is this the becoming-woman of post-tonal music? Post tonal music doesn’t necessarily rely on the logic of abjection, the hierarchical logic of constitutive exclusion, that tonality does. Post-tonal works include all pitches, sometimes even all sounds. Such works can’t be disorganized or disrupted by too much feminized dissonance. So how do post-tonal works “become-woman”? What’s the relationship between post-tonal compositional techniques and post-identity governmentality?