Elizabeth Grosz on Incorporeality, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism

Published May 22, 2017 in Theory Culture & Society: HERE

VIKKI BELL: Many congratulations on the publication of your new book The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics and the Limits of Materialism (2017). The book seems to simultaneously explore a genealogy of a concept ‘the incorporeal’ while also proposing it as a concept that has both explanatory power and ethical promise. I wonder if there is a debate that is un- or under-described here but that drives the desire to explore the incorporeal and these thinkers, since genealogy in both Nietzsche and Foucault’s sense is always a purposive endeavour. Which positions are you taking a stance against, or which oversights are you seeking to correct?

ELIZABETH GROSZ: I wouldn’t say that it is a corrective particularly, though there are a number of positions that describe themselves as materialist that I think are problematic and would disagree with. A genealogy – an exploration of sources and sites often unrecognized or unknown – is a way of reviving things that either we have forgotten or that were never developed, elaborated or perhaps even born, things that were stillborn or fragmented. I was seeking something positive rather than undertaking a critique, implicit or explicit. From a commitment to materialism, I was interested in how to address certain questions that were reductively posited within materialisms (after all, there is no one form of materialism, but many, some conflicting with others) or not addressed at all – questions linked to explaining thinking and experience, language or representation more generally, and the self-evident immaterial conditions of materiality, such as space and time. If materialism(s) cannot account for the immaterial events we experience and articulate, then it has a clear limit that it needs to address. I see my work as an expansion of materialism more than a critique of it, though I suspect that the book may be considered idealist in the opinion of some. I am looking for an account of being-becoming that can explain the existence of incorporeal things and events – and most especially how thinking is possible, what it is, how it relates to the brain, or doesn’t, how it capable of being understood beyond any reductionism.

VB: Relatedly, I’m wondering how this book sits in the trajectory of your writings and teachings throughout your career? When we first met in London many years ago, you were speaking about the Mobius strip, and exploring how the ‘outside’ enfolds itself into the subject; this was a clear engagement with concern within feminist theoretical debates at that time. Now, in this new book, there is an extension of this concern with this detailed exploration of what concept of the incorporeal might mean, that we’ll explore in more depth in a moment, but the issue of sexual difference and feminist theory seems more muted. Is it? Or has that concern itself become enfolded into your thought?

EG: This is a good question and a complicated one. Looking back, one can often see a trajectory that was not always clear when one set out! I think you are right that there is a continuity in all or most of my work that began with my thinking of the mind-body relation though psychoanalysis. For me, this is the question of philosophy because it is the question that constitutes both philosophy’s possibilities of existence and has, indirectly, guided most of its key questions. I think this question has never left me and fascinates me still. I do not think this is necessarily separate from or different to my interest in the centrality of sexual difference: rather, it is part of carrying out the philosophical (as opposed to the political or aesthetic) work of sexual difference – to think the repressed terms of dichotomous thought that have been and remain associated with femininity and its attributes. Idealism, the existence of a work of ideas, affects, thoughts, is in many ways one of the most repressed and underrepresented traditions in philosophy, since the work of Marx. Thinking materialism and idealism together is a feminist task, although one for only the most abstract of feminists!

VB: The Simondon chapter guides the reader through the crucial argument that the process of individuation creates both an individuation and an individuating milieu, a ‘reserve of the preindividual’, from which the individual is differentiated but into which it is continually ‘reimmersed’ (p176). This ‘remainder’ is ‘dynamic and full of potential, the endless possibility of becoming, and becoming-more’(p180). Can you explain the intriguing notion of ‘reimmersion’ and the significance of this part of the argument? How is it related to the arguments around perception as modes of connection between the interior and exterior that you offer later on (p190) and the notion of the ‘transindividual relation’(p193) that you relate to art as ‘one mode of celebration of the capacity of the human to outstrip the collective … by “returning” to the preindividual by means of the transindividual’(p203)?

EG: Simondon’s understanding of the preindividual – the on-going resource for the emergence of processes of individuation and for the continuing transformation of individuated beings and their collective environments – is one of his most exciting and original concepts. In many ways, it provides an alternative to the Hegelian model of sublation or supercession, in which history, in overcoming contradictions, upholds and transforms what is positive, leaving behind what is negated. What Simondon’s writings make clear is that with the preindividual, or, in other terms, a dynamic concept of the real, there is no negation, no leaving something behind and moving on from it. What is individuated both carries within itself the source of its own individuations, and the external but continuing resource of the preindividual that abides and transforms itself, as virtual, through the ongoing processes of actualization it enables. So in a sense, we never ‘return’ to the preindividual or ‘reimmerse’ ourselves because we can never leave it behind, either in our own individualities, or in our environments. For me, one implication of his conception of individuation is the strange process of producing what is new, what is not (yet) addressed by collectives of individuals. Simondon posits that the individual who creates something new – whether a work of art, a piece of writing, a machine or an invention, however humble – undertakes a process of ­disindividuation, a process of disinvesting their individuality, their personality or personhood, in order to summon up a part of the preindividual necessary to create. This creation is not simply self-expression because there is something profoundly impersonal, perhaps even immaterial, about the process of summoning up, creating or inventing the new. It is something within an individual, something impersonal, that an individual may sometimes call upon to extend themselves into the organization of this new creation. It is not ‘I’ who creates but something of the preindividual within the ‘I’.

VB: I was also intrigued by the way that you elaborate Ruyer’s concept of the directionality as an affirmation of being as becoming – an ‘enfolding’ but with direction – and describe this through his analogy of musical variation or counterpoint, where the living being joins and elaborates on a theme or melody that is on-going in its surrounding environment. It’s a lovely analogy, but in our household in London, music is also work! And my children know all too well that there is a lot of practice, rules, repetition and discipline involved before the conditions for ‘style’ in Nietzsche’s sense are available! So I wonder whether there is also something inhibiting or constraining about directionality? Music is often used to explain concepts of virtuality and processes of actualisation but this is not always the beautiful idea of singing the world into being. Why is this directionality important to your argument?

EG: I don’t think that Ruyer would understand this mnemic theme, as he calls it, as constraining because it is the model of all possible actions, movements, behaviours, in a dynamic being. This theme, which for Ruyer, pre-exists all primary beings (or what he calls, quite contentiously and with some pointedness, ‘consciousness’), provides them with a form by which to materialize themselves. I don’t think that one should take the musical metaphor too literally. To take probably his most urgent and favourite example, the embryo: an embryo makes itself. It makes itself from placental materials, and perhaps according to a genetic code, but this code does not provide it with the ‘algorithm’, the ‘recipe’ by which it is able to make itself. A human embryo produces itself, according to very wide variations and without norms, according to what we might call a ‘human’ theme, a theme composed by no one but improvised by all of us who have constituted the human race. This theme is not necessarily entirely different from the mnemic theme that prepares for all other anthropoids. Yet it is distinct. This self-performing theme, or model, is the way in which an embryo of any species makes itself according to a broad ‘plan’ that enables it to resemble and act as others in its species do. Such a theme, for Ruyer, is not only the precondition for all living forms, but also for all forms of primary consciousness, including the atom and its subatomic components, which also, like the embryo, form themselves according to types or categories (in this case, sub-atomic and chemical alignments that maintain great consistency in their behaviour relative to other subatomic or chemical alignments). I don’t think that this is a singing metaphor at all, or really even much of a musical metaphor: it is rather, an explanation of how forms of primary consciousness form types or categories in their own ways.

VB: There is something crucial to your argument in the chapter on Ruyer which concerns autoaffection, and you quote Ruyer as saying it is easier for a child to recognise his brother as his brother than himself as the brother of his brother. There is a ‘self forgetting’ here. Because of the research I am engaged in perhaps, on disappearances in Argentina, I wonder if in grief, or in such extreme cases, this recognition becomes possible, unavoidable even. One is ‘named’ very much as the brother or child of the disappeared. Maybe the extreme examples don’t help here, because I do see the point is about how self-consciousness is ‘lost’ in the work of the craftsperson so that identification is a continuous sensorium rather than a series of contact points. But is it going too far to say with Ruyer that the objects – and he does seem on your reading to include the people around me – are ‘me’ (p219)? I have argued in my own work that they ‘sustain’ me, in Stengers’ sense of an etho-ecology, but you seem to follow Ruyer to an even stronger position?

EG: This is a complicated question and I am not sure directly how to answer it. I think that Ruyer’s point is an ontological one about the invisibility of primary consciousness to itself, which enables it to directly access what is available to it in perception rather than a political insight about particular situations of oppression. The child who does not recognize himself as the brother of his brother is too small, too young, to understand that he himself is not invisible, that his perception is not all-encompassing (this is a problem that at times moves beyond early childhood and may even affect presidents and heads of state!). The immersed craftsperson, and all of us know the experience of immersion even without crafting ability in our contemporary passion for the cell-phone – or any self-absorbing activity – where we lose ourselves very easily in even the silliest of activities. To answer the last part of your question: yes, objects are us – they compose us (e.g. at the subatomic, chemical and genetic levels as well as in terms of symbionts – viruses and bacteria) as much as, if not more than, we compose or come to understand objects. And this may in part explain our inability to see ourselves, to understand our own consciousness, which is always larger and more comprehensive than our understanding of it.

VB: The book ties the question of the incorporeal to ethics, and this interest to some extent guides your choices of where to focus your attention in your genealogy, but is perhaps most clearly argued in the chapter on Deleuze. There you argue that ‘all thought has an ethical dimension’ (p149) related to its task to extract or contract and thereby to intensify and construct a sense of order for the world. Furthermore, beyond philosophy, it seems the book is arguing that all life, insofar as it is about the creation of a membrane that allows an internal circuit (p251) can be understood to give shape and ‘direction’ to a future. This is something very important, it seems to me, because the incorporeal might sound on the face of it as something which makes the question of the ethical more remote or more fanciful. For others, attention to that which sustains and allows for the development of the individual is to remove or dissipate the agency of the individual. Can you explain how, on the contrary, the incorporeal allows us to consider the orientation of beings, to see that life is about value and thus always also a question of ethics?

EG: Thanks for this question: this gets to the heart of my project in the book. I realised, looking back on my work, from the time I was an undergraduate, my interest has been in the question of ethics, although it is something I haven’t written about much. Most theories of ethics in the history of Western philosophy assume that one wants to be an ethical being, that one is seeking a way to understand and thus to undertake the good. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to argue for an ethical existence for those for whom this holds no appeal, for those who don’t care about good or bad. For most theorists, ethics as a code of action, behaviour or belief that directs action (and will) to the good (defined in various ways), is separate from and even unrelated to what kinds of beings we are. There has been a concerted effort to separate the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’. But with an immanent ethics, of the kind developed by both the Presocratics and Spinoza, and remarkably articulated in a number of Deleuze’s writings, ethics is not separated from being or becoming: it is the modality or the manner of becoming, how and in what directions becomings occur. I became interested in the concept of the incorporeal through the Stoics, for whom it referred to the immaterial conditions of all material things, including living beings. These immaterial conditions – space, time, the void, and especially sense, or expression, are the directions or orientations to which things tend, their future movements. The Stoics created a beautiful conception of ethics as a kind of culmination of existence rather than a set of rules or principles by which to regulate life from outside. Ethics, for them, is the capacity to live up to one’s impersonal fate, to bear it, to live it. In this sense, it is immanent in life itself, not just human life, but in all forms of life. Some people, perhaps a majority, have considered this the realm of religious thought; but for the Stoics and Spinoza, this is not an order separate from the world for it is inherent to it. I wanted to create a perhaps paradoxical non-normative ethics, an ethics unrelated to (Kantian) judgement, one related to the ways in which one directs one’s life. The incorporeal is thus a name for the direction immanent in our actions, the direction to the future in which we may overcome ourselves, become more than ourselves. I am happy to call this ‘the divine’ as long as we understand that this is not an order of judgement, nor an order separate from the world and its tendencies.

VB: You offer a notion of ontogenesis or even Ruyer’s embryogenesis in place of ontology in order to further the insight that ‘a being is always more than itself insofar as it is also the site of becomings without end, becomings that keep it “alive” … keep a being from remaining the same as itself’(p260). I wonder what the risks are of these terms? In some circumstances the instability and interactivity of the world are our sources of hope; but are in others – I’m thinking of mental health, and in infancy as much as politics, where people seem obliged to speak normatively in order to be heard at all – do they carry risks?

EG: I understand your question, I think. It is that such an ‘ethics’ or ‘ontogenesis’ is normative; it excludes, or perhaps idealises lives that are unavailable to all. I agree that there tends to be a drive to normalization in political practices, even if it is a contestatory or new norm that is being addressed or created. And I understand that such a picture of the world and its living beings as ‘divine’ may be hard to sustain in the hardest conditions under which many live their lives. But I suspect that for even the most downtrodden, there are still moments of great wonder and inspiration at a world bigger, much bigger, than oneself, a world indifferent to any one of us, but open to all sorts of actions and aspirations, even those that remain unattainable. It is only such a hope that enables the most disenfranchised and countryless subjects to still aspire to more, to believe that it is possible, and real. The ideal still calls us, even in the most abject situations and positions, as the possibility for something better.


Elizabeth Grosz is Professor of Women’s Studies and Literature at Duke University. She moved to the USA from Australia to take up a position in the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at SUNY Buffalo. She moved to the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University in 2002 and took up her position at Duke in 2012.

Vikki Bell is Professor of Sociology and current Head of the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She studied Social & Political Sciences at Cambridge and gained her PhD at Edinburgh University in 1992. She has taught across all levels at Goldsmiths since she joined in 1993, and has convened the MA Critical & Creative Analysis. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Berkeley, University of California, Yale University, University of Buenos Aires and the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (Oñati, Spain).

3 responses to “Elizabeth Grosz on Incorporeality, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism

  1. it’s an interesting sort of gnosticism she is working out, on the image of thought “It enables the concept to address other concepts without the mediation of arguments, propositions, refutations, critique, and the rest of the paraphernalia of institutional philosophy” in a way a sort of ontological take on the more pragmatic/rhetorical/performative approach Jane Bennett lays out in that video I sent you.

    • I think any wisdom worth the label is a kind of gnostic approach that synthesizes the practical hooks of emotional life with navigational analytics. For me its only and always about what enacts and services adaptive and eudimonic expressions.

      I like this part:

      “There has been a concerted effort to separate the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’. But with an immanent ethics, of the kind developed by both the Presocratics and Spinoza, and remarkably articulated in a number of Deleuze’s writings, ethics is not separated from being or becoming: it is the modality or the manner of becoming, how and in what directions becomings occur.”

      Separating ‘is’ from ‘ought’ is THE fatal mistake of transcendentalists. Ethics are just codes for organizing what is – for instantiating the immanent goals of particular kinds of beings with particular kinds of needs following from their onto-specific capacities. What ought to be done can only be based on what kinds of things are involved in the doing.

      • well surely we can only do things that can be done and to suggest that we somehow do otherwise is twisted in all the ways that Nietzsche and co outlined but likewise to suggest that being clear about what is happening tells us, in and of itself, what should happen sounds at best like magical thinking, but ya know I’m a nihilist on these matters as I see us making it up (largely in the dark) as we go with what’s at hand (which is limited by our alltoohuman grasps).

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