Sense and Sexuality: Foucault, Wojnarowicz, and Biopower.

I’m taking this blog in a bit of a different direction; rather than the explorations of novels I said would come next, I’m using this post to share part of my current annotated bibliography.  My reasoning for doing so is twofold:  first, I’m struggling a bit with writing my post about Apex Hides the Hurt, and I’m hoping that by rehashing the ideas I’ve worked with, I’ll be able to better articulate what I’m trying to communicate (after writing and editing this post, this proved true).  And second, this post will give readers a better idea of what exactly I’ve been doing since the beginning of the semester.  I found writing this post incredibly helpful, so I think moving forward I’ll be sure to do annotated bibliography posts for the essay I’ve read/will read in addition to my posts about the literature. 

Sense and Sexuality:  Foucault, Wojnarowicz, and Biopower.

I discussed this essay in my introductory post, but not exhaustively.  In response to biopolitical theorists that insist sexuality is not the primary dispositive of biopower in the post-fordist neoliberal state, Roach argues that AIDS should be understood “as a primary locus of biopolitical struggle”—and accordingly, sexuality cannot be ignored as a point of biopolitical control.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, the subjects of Roach’s critique, put forth the concepts of “multitude” and “network” as strategies of deconstructing biopolitical control.  According to Negri and Hardt, immaterial labor—“human affect, language, and cooperation”—serve as biopolitical dispositives which reformulate the social body as a commodity that is “subsumed into the productive processes of capital” (160).  Importantly, by commodifying immaterial labor such as affect and language, the neoliberal regime can construct any affect or language that is not successful in the market as part of the “contaminated” (non-vital) population.  Consequently, Negri and Hardt argue that by reorganizing human connections based on the ideas of “multitudes” and “networks,” people can take advantage of biopower’s attempt to “bring into being new forms of community, new power structures, and new avenues for creative cooperation” based on the creation of a vital population, in order to create “communicative networks that emphasize common goals” for all people, not just the vital population (159).

In Roach’s opinion, and I agree, reorganizing human connection is not radical enough because it works within the pre-existing, broken system that splits the population into vital and non-vital groups, rather than redefining the system entirely.  In opposition to the “network” suggested by Negri and Hardt, Roach offers the notion of “sense” postulated in the life writings of David Wojnarowicz as a productive strategy of resistance against the biopolitical regime:  “understood in relation to Foucault’s writing in biopolitics, Wojnarowicz’s ‘sense’ opens on to a politics against ‘sexuality’” (163).  In this politics against sexuality, sense is based in pleasure, it encompasses sensory experiences, conscious understanding, “the emotional…the signifiable…and a sensibility (a mode of being); sense “invent[s] relational worlds less amenable to the ‘morality’ of the market and less in step with neoliberalism’s march (165).  Analyzing Wojnarowicz’s writings about his anonymous sexual explorations with men around the country, Roach defines “sense” as the accumulation of desire—an “urgency to communicate ideas and feelings before they pass into neurological ether;” a “‘living sense of desire’ that…emerges through the production of ‘a series of movements’ that give rise to an extra-linguistic form of communication at the interstices of self and Other—a sensibility emanating from the sexual encounter but irreducible to one or the other lover” (166).

In other words, sense promotes a mode of being opposite to the way in which sexuality determines who and what a person considers pleasurable; sense locates pleasure in the possibility of rupturing one’s identity, of erasing one’s history to invent a new future and to invent a new self.  Anonymity, in the sensibility of sense, suggests a new mode of being—a new ontology— that privileges the communization of affect and pleasure over “privatized pleasure and normative relationality” (167).  Consequently, sense destabilizes neoliberal biopolitics by undoing the sexual socialization of the population and creating a rhetorical space for the creation of new selves.   Foucault terms this process “desubjection” or “desubjectifying” (166).

For the novels I’m currently working with—Fledgling, Apex Hides the Hurt, and Cutting Lisa—revisiting these ideas is particularly useful.  I see Fledgling as exploring politics against sexuality, such as Wojnarowicz’s sense, especially in the communal ethics of care and contemplation of affect and desire between Ina and symbionts.  More specifically, the term “desubjection” is very useful for contemplating Apex Hides the Hurt; revisiting Foucault’s ideas provided me the language to discuss the protagonist’s limp as a metaphor that examines ideas of mobility, visibility, and the rhetoric of self-care.  I think the limp is an interesting metaphor because it resists the dehistoricization called for by desubjection—the protagonist will always have the history of his injury.  I look forward to posting about this in the near future.

In the not-quite-so-near future, this essay also gave me some ideas to contemplate when I reach other novels on my reading list, particularly Zone One and American Desert.  In addition to his discussion of “sense,” Roach explores death as the limit of biopower—as the most private moment in a person’s life because the state no longer has power over their body.  Roach insists that neoliberal biopolitics mobilizes death as something to be escaped.  Illness, then, mobilizes death in an opposite fashion:  with terminal illness, death is mobilized as an immanency—and thus, opens a space for resisting biopower.  More thinking about this later—especially after I’ve read Zone One and American Desert.

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