Foucault's Queer Virtualities

Mikko Tuhkanen

[1] At Foucault's funeral, June 29, 1984, Gilles Deleuze eulogized his friend by reading an excerpt from the introduction to the recently-published The Use of Pleasure (1984). In the passage, Foucault explains his rationale for departing from the original plan for the remaining volumes of The History of Sexuality, whose first installment had appeared already eight years earlier:

[W]hat motivated me, it is quite simple ... It was curiosity—the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower's straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all ... [W]hat is philosophy today ... if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? (History 2:8-9; see also Eribon, 329-30)

In a study published two years later, Deleuze writes that, with these words, Foucault in effect sought a way out of a certain impasse in which he had found himself after writing the introductory volume to the History. The subsequent silence of some eight years marked "a general reshuffle," an attempt "to unravel th[e] path" that had led him to an "impasse" in his thinking of power (Deleuze, Foucault 96). [1]

[2] It appears that the "reshuffle" of his thinking was so disorienting that many readers have rather explored, or lamented, the impasse than followed the strange furrows Foucault traced in his ethics texts. As Arnold Davidson notes, the last two volumes of The History of Sexuality have remained "widely misinterpreted and even more widely ignored" in Foucault's oeuvre (115; see also Larmour et al., 34). The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (1984) do indeed appear as strange anomalies, frustratingly discontinuous from the first volume, published in 1976, and from the rest of Foucault's work. Whereas the projected volumes of the History were to map the genealogy of several concepts in the history of sexuality, [2] volumes two and three are detailed accounts of ancient texts concerning sexuality and management of self and household. Foucault notes in a 1984 interview that he did embark on the proposed volumes but abandoned them because he almost "died of boredom writing those books" (Politics 47). Despite such a close encounter with death-in-writing, what was missing from the venture was, according to him, a sense of "risk": the risk of failure, of not knowing whether one could complete the project or not (Politics 48). The project as outlined was devoid of the urgency of the kind of crisis that, according to Deleuze, characterizes all that is worthy to be called thinking (Negotiations 94, 104). The (re)turn to the ancients, on the other hand, exemplified the "zigzaggings" of what Henri Bergson calls intuition, a thinking-as-becoming that "loses itself, finds itself again, and endlessly corrects itself" (Creative 110). Clearly, the risk that Foucault took, the "games with oneself" (History 2:8) that he conducted in the ethics texts, was one that we as readers are still faced with: the risk of unintelligibility, the sense that these two books are out of place, anomalous, pointless. They do not tell us what we expect to be told.

[3] Neither is it easy to discern the connections between these theoretical texts and what we know of Foucault's political ambitions in the 1980s. Indeed, we must be careful in forging connections between theoretical interventions and the so-called practice: there is no necessary connection between them. But neither are they unrelated. We can detect this ambivalence in some of Foucault's own comments. In 1983, he notes how, having read his Madness and Civilization (1961), many hastily pegged him as a representative of the anti-psychiatry movement. He objects to this logic which makes sense of his work by reading it through the ready-made categories of contemporary politics. "I have done nothing other than write the history of psychiatry to the beginning of the 19th century," he says. "Why should so many people, including psychiatrists, believe that I am an anti-psychiatrist? It's because they are not able to accept the real history of their institutions which is, of course, a sign of psychiatry being a pseudo-science. A real science is able to accept even the shameful, dirty stories of its beginning. [Laughter]" (Politics 15). Unable or unwilling to defamiliarize their institutional knowledge by observing its "illegitimate" lineage, people rush to domesticate Madness and Civilization by making sense of it according to existing criteria. This linkage, forged between historical work and contemporary situation, pre-empts certain political effects. To understand what is at stake, we must note that, some years earlier, Foucault had suggested that critics who saw a connection between Madness and Civilization and a possible contemporary political practice were not entirely wrong: "reading history in that way [like is done in Madness and Civilization] meant, in essence, tracing within contemporary reality some possible paths which later became, with the indispensable transformations, paths actually followed" (Foucault 261). Yet it is a mistake to situate Madness and Civilization in the contemporary field of politics by embedding it into existing categories of political discourse (to assume, for example, that the book speaks for what we can recognize as the anti-psychiatry movement). Rather, what Foucault's "historical fictions" ("History" 193; "Interview" 243), as "histor[ies] of the present" (Discipline 31), allow is a game opening that may be followed by subsequent moves. What those moves are must necessarily remain undecided. The same holds true, he says, for Discipline and Punish. In this book, as well as in all his work, "the problem is that of knowing—but I don't resolve the problem—how these analyses can possibly be utilized in the current situation" (Foucault 261). The overall aim of his work is "to work out an interpretation, a reading of certain reality, which might be such that, on the one hand, this interpretation could produce some of the effects of truth; and on the other hand, these effects of truth could become implements within possible struggles" (261). His is a simultaneous "concern for truth" and "concern for the present" (see O'Leary, 96-104). He works towards "[d]eciphering a layer of reality in such a way that the lines of force and the lines of fragility come forth; the points of resistance and the possible points of attack; the paths marked and the shortcuts" (Foucault 261).

[4] With this in mind, we can begin to reread the ethics books. His interviews clearly tell us that Foucault was particularly interested in sexual politics at the time of his death. I suggest below some ways in which the ethics books can be related to his ideas on homosexuality, friendship, and ascesis. In this, I follow the work of such critics as David Halperin, Timothy O'Leary, Ed Cohen, Steve Garlick, and, of course, Leo Bersani. Yet, the way in which the queerness of Foucault's ethics harmonizes with Deleuze's work remains largely unconsidered. [3] In the final section, I propose a small way to open an inquiry that would allow the mutual contamination of queer theory and Deleuzian thought via Foucault's late texts. I suggest that in our effort to reformulate queer theory away from the Hegelianism of Butlerian performativity and the consequent (if often disavowed) politics of recognition, [4] we may want to read Foucault as a foreign body, pregnant with Deleuzianism, that already inhabits the center of queer thinking.

[5] Tracing the linkages between Foucault and Deleuze does not necessitate a stubborn deafness to their moments of discord; we are not seeking a heretofore hidden or overlooked pattern of identity in their works that would render all disagreements and discrepancies superficial, mistaken, or preliminary. The best-known dispute between the two theorists concerns the concepts of "pleasure" and "desire." Whereas Foucault argued that with "desire" Deleuze risked affiliating his theory with the ontology of lack, and Deleuze saw in "pleasure," as the term is used by Foucault, a stratification of desire's mobility, subsequent readers have not seen outright incompatibility in such friction. Elizabeth Grosz, for example, suggests that "the ways in which Foucault uses the term pleasure (as a wedge to oppose psychoanalytic and psychiatric theory with a more primordial and potentially resistant body) may be linked and cross-fertilized with Deleuze's closely related notion of desire as production and assemblage" (Time 191). The point, then, is not to identify Foucault's project with Deleuze's or to ignore the disagreements they voiced about one another's approaches and terminologies; the point, that is, is not to attempt a harmonious theoretical construction where points of conflict have been sublated to a synthetic whole.

[6] Yet, I do insist on important Deleuzian resonances in Foucault, particularly his later work on ethics. Central here is the inflection that Foucault gives to the Deleuzian question of becoming. Foucault comments on the intertwining of his academic and political work: "I would like to produce some effects of truth which might be used for a possible battle, to be waged by those who wish to wage it, in forms yet to be found and in organizations yet to be defined" (Foucault 262). I propose we take seriously his emphasis on the futurity of resistance, its as-yet unformed status, and that we understand homosexuality as a site of this production of futurity, of becoming. As he says in a 1981 interview, homophobia bespeaks a "fear [of] the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force" (309). Homosexuality, according to Foucault, may allow the production of new kinds of relationships; to attain its radical potential, "we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are" (308). It is this question of the futurity opened by gay ascesis that resonates with Deleuze's thought of becoming and suggests some ways in which we can begin to give queer theory a Deleuzian bent.

Open Games

[7] While we by now have learnt to reject as reductive the criticism that Foucault's concept of power pre-empts resistance, [5] we should note that, according to Deleuze, Foucault may have "trapped himself within the concept of power relations" he had constructed in La Volonté de savoir (Deleuze, Foucault 94; see also Negotiations, 83, 92, 98, 108-09 and "Desire" esp. section F). Even if "power does not take life as its objective without revealing or giving rise to a life that resists power; and [even if] the force of the outside continues to disrupt the diagrams and turn them upside down," it seems that power has the infinite capacity to absorb and normalize these resistances, to "restratif[y]" them, so that resistance itself contributes to power, strengthening its "knots" (Deleuze, Foucault 94). We can assume that it is this "anaesthetic effect" of his description of power (Foucault 283) that Foucault tackles in the subsequent volumes of the history of sexuality.

[8] In The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, Foucault explores an ancient ethics of the self as the subject's relation to himself, rapport à soi ("On the Genealogy" 352). He describes The Use of Pleasure as "a study [of] the games of truth in the relationship of self with self and the forming of oneself as a subject" (History 2:6). Foucault turns to ancient writings that aim to give advice to subjects on how to govern themselves in order to govern others. The source texts, as Foucault acknowledges, focus on a very small portion of the population of these ancient societies: free men. [6] Moreover, most of this textual production concerned itself on an even more specific object: the role of the adolescent boy in adult-boy relationships.

[9] These texts were concerned with the ethics of the self and the self's pleasures. To become an ethical subject, one had to practice "arts of existence" (History 2:10), "techniques of the self" (11), or "care of the self" (73). This technique, or ascesis, is a practice of moving towards the new; it consists of "those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria" (10-11). The ascetic attitude toward pleasure, toward hedonai and epithumiai, is one of battle and resistance: "Ethical conduct in matters of pleasure was contingent on a battle for power" (66). The subject must subdue pleasure, must master it; he must cultivate a reserve, a control over one's pleasures. In other words, the struggle around or for (not necessarily against) pleasure, which takes the form of asceticism, is a struggle around or for (not against) oneself, a "solo contest" (68). This care was a precondition of the rightful management of household and public life. Moreover, asceticism was "a practical training that was indispensable in order for an individual to form himself as a moral subject" (77). Unlike in Christianity, the enemy in asceticism "did not represent a different, ontologically alien power" (68), nor did ascesis, like Christian monasticism, aim at a complete evacuation of the subject from the clutches of desire (69). The goal of ascesis was the rigorous, conscious control of pleasure and desire: "the intensity of the desires and pleasures did not disappear, but the moderate subject controlled it well enough so as never to give way to violence" (69); "virtue was not conceived as a state of integrity, but as a relationship of domination, a relation of mastery" (70).

[10] Foucault is absolutely opposed to the idea that same-sex relationships were routinely accepted and condoned in ancient Greece ("On the Genealogy" 344; Foucault 363). On the contrary, the evidence suggests that it was the object of considerable anxiety, which expressed itself in "a whole agitated production of ideas" (History 2:192; see also Foucault 364). This discursive activity—the very production of the texts Foucault reads—should not be seen as a neutral description of acts and reality. Neither should the discursive production that same-sex relations elicited be conflated with an activity that sought to justify these relations nor with the establishment of repressive or oppressive codes and rules (History 2:193). We can begin to understand this discursive proliferation, and Foucault's attraction to it, by comparing it to similar discourses that arose around economics and dietetics. In the latter two realms, self-regulation was relatively simple because one had to negotiate relatively few variables:

In dietetics, it was mainly a question of mastery over oneself and over the violence of a perilous act; in economics, it was a question of the control that one had to exercise over oneself in the practice of authority that one exercised over one's wife. Here, where erotics takes the boy's point of view, the problem is to see how the boy is going to be able to achieve self-mastery without yielding to others. The point at issue is not the sense of measure that one brings to one's own power, but the best way to measure one's strength against the power of others while ensuring one's mastery over self. (212)

While dietetics and economics were battles mainly with one's self, in erotics "the game was more complicated" (203) since one was faced with a more variable opponent. One's relation to one's wife and to one's slaves, which constituted the realm of economics, was fairly predetermined. In the domain of erotics, the position of the other that one had to negotiate was to a larger extent variable. Men's same-sex relations in particular required "a special stylistics" (192). Relations between adult men were of concern as they posed the threat of passivity for one of the participants: "Passivity was always disliked, and for an adult to be suspected of it was especially serious" (194). [7] More specifically, however, this discursive activity centered on the figure of the adolescent boy and his relation to the adult man (195; Foucault 363-4). It is on this figure that we must concentrate if we want to understand Foucault's ethics and its intersection with his emerging political practice.

[11] Unlike adult-adult relationships, adult-adolescent relations, as "a culturally and morally overloaded domain," were discursively turned into "a whole social game" where numerous moves were envisioned to negotiate the possibilities and improprieties of these relations (History 2:196). According to the "principle of isomorphism between sexual relations and social relations" (215), being active was the honorable position in both one's private conduct and civic obligations. While it was acceptable, indeed natural, for inferiors such as slaves and women to be passive, free men were dishonored if unable to exercise active roles in any domain ("On the Genealogy" 344). Here the position of the adolescent boy in same-sex relations became difficult in that he constituted a kind of a fluctuating site in the hierarchy. On the one hand, because he was in relation to an older, free male, he could not but be passive. On the other, he must not jeopardize his future by being too passive, too yielding. Indeed, because of this ambivalence, "[t]he young man—between the end of childhood and the age when he attained manly status—constituted a delicate and difficult factor for Greek ethics and Greek thought" (History 2:213). As a result of this, the Greeks "elaborated a courtship practice, a moral reflection, and ... a philosophical asceticism" for man-boy relationships (214).

[12] What seems to interest Foucault in these relations and their discursive inscriptions (or, equally, these discourses and their non-discursive effects) is the fact that, unlike, say, matrimonial relations, they constituted "a game that was 'open,' at least up to a certain point" (197). There were a fewer number of outside constraints in the "open game" of man-boy relations than in marriage (202). For example, the position of the boy was not as clearly delineated as that of the wife; the man did not have "statutory authority over the boy" (198). Indeed, very little was codable within this relation, and, despite the proliferation of forms of techne, the possibilities of living within these relations remained fairly open and negotiable. These relations, in other words, constituted a site of intense scrutiny because of their unpredictability.

[13] We should note that Foucault finds this site worth examining because of the high investment power has on it. He is not interested in an open confrontation between discursive production and non-discursive practices: boys and men tried to live according to the discursive guidelines that were produced. Yet, these non-discursive acts remained to an extent undetermined by discourse—and, hence, we see the continuing proliferation of the latter. We can suggest that what interests Foucault in man-boy relations is specifically this relation of productivity, both on the side of discourse and the non-discursive way of life that was constantly negotiated. And here, then, we can suggest that he is beginning to open up the seeming dead-end into which he may have sealed himself at the end of La Volonté de savoir.

Homosexual Ascesis

[14] Foucault suggests that the problem of contemporary "liberation movements" has parallels with the situation that elicited Greek ethics: both operate in an historical moment when the telos of Christianity—immortality, purity—is inoperative ("On the Genealogy" 243; Politics 49). Nevertheless, he goes on to emphasize that he did not turn to Greece to look for an "alternative" way of thinking about current political dilemmas (Foucault 342). Neither does he see in the erosion of moral codes the emergence of a liberal subject; consequently, his question of "subjectification" does not in any way mark a return of the human subject whose death he had analyzed in his previous texts (see Deleuze, Negotiations 92-93, 95, 113-14). [8] He still adheres to his conception of subject that he put forward in "Subject and Power": "there is no sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject to be found everywhere ... . [T]he subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation, of liberty, as in Antiquity, on the basis, of course, of a number of rules, styles, inventions to be found in the cultural environment" (Politics 50-51). Indeed, elsewhere he locates the value of ascesis in its non-reliance on a notion of individuality or a free subject: he studied ascesis because he was "interested in how the subject constitutes itself in an active fashion through practices of the self [. Nevertheless,] these practices are ... not something invented by the individual himself. They are models that he finds in his culture and that are proposed, suggested, imposed upon him by his culture, his society and his social group" (Foucault 440-41). Ascesis, as a "personal work of art," is an exercise of immanence, where the artist of ascesis, like any artist, "is not a pure spontaneity, but a situated being who always works in relation to an already done" (Polan, 249). It is only through the ascetic practice of work that one can produce an opening onto the new.

[15] Despite Foucault's warnings against seeing parallels between his work on ancient ethics and contemporary politics, one can detect resonances between his discussions of ascesis and gay politics. For him, some aspects of contemporary homosexuality form, or can form, a kind of ascetic practice of the self: as he says, we must not dis-cover our homosexuality but, rather, "work at becoming homosexuals" (Foucault 308). [9] It is this potentiality, this work-at-becoming that he wants to see elaborated. Rather than continuing to look for the secret of our selves through sexuality, Foucault suggests that we should ask what kind of active work we can do with and for our sexuality: "'What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?'" (308). "[W]hat the gay movement needs now," he says in 1982,

is much more the art of life than a science or scientific knowledge (or pseudo-scientific knowledge) of what sexuality is. ... Sexuality is something that we ourselves create—it is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality: it's a possibility for creative life. ... [W]e have to create a gay life. To become. (382)

This ascesis denotes "the work that one performs on oneself in order to transform oneself or make the self appear that happily one never attains" (309). This emerging self, "happily," never reaches its completion.

[16] This emphasis on creativeness, on becoming, is something that Foucault repeats throughout his later interviews. He suggests that two forms of "gay styles" are particularly valuable in the effort to sustain this kind of creativity and openness of becoming, of the unforeseeable: s/m practices and friendship. He concentrates on these forms because they, like the man-boy relationship in ancient Greece, produce an open yet highly codified relationship: "What interests the practitioners of S & M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open," he says. " ... This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty which the simple consummation of the act lacks" (331). S/m makes explicit what all sexual practices should aim at: its practices "have [no]thing to do with the disclosure or the uncovering of S/M tendencies deep within our unconscious, and so on. I think that S/M is much more than that: it's the real creation of new possibilities of pleasure, which people had no idea about previously" (384). S/m practices are open, fluid, changeable (387)—and in this they begin to resemble ancient ascetic practices.

[17] Apart from the practices of s/m, this becoming-homosexual finds a zone of creation and multiplication in the realm of friendship: "The development towards which the problem of homosexuality tends is the one of friendship" (308; see also 332). Friendship names a "formless" relationship that is still to be invented: gay friendships perform a kind of "tying together of unforeseen lines of force" (309). This is one point of convergence with modern homosexuality and ancient forms of same-sex sexuality. Both were forms, albeit "in a different fashion," of open, uncontained sociality: today, "[gay male] sexual relations are immediately transferred into social relations and the social relations are understood as sexual relations" (344). Foucault sees such convergence of sexuality and sociality, of sexual practices and other forms of relatedness, as productive. We should note that ancient ascesis, too, was not only a practice whereby one intensified one's relation to one's self (History 3:41), but that "it constituted, not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice" (51): "The care of self ... appears ... as an intensification of social relations" (53). Similarly, contemporary homosexual relations, Foucault suggests, may allow a continuing reinvention of relatedness. Through ascesis, we can "use sexuality ... to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships" (Foucault 308). Consequently, according to him, the most phobogenic thing about homosexuality may be the possibility "that gays will create as yet unforeseen kinds of relationships that many people can not tolerate" (332).

[18] As Foucault says, "it's up to us to advance into a homosexual askesis that would make us work on ourselves and invent, I do not say discover, a manner of being that is still improbable" (310). Homosexual ascesis, as a mode of relatedness to oneself and to others, remains fluid and open to change. It opens the possibility for becoming-homosexual not as a program but as an open-ended techne. "One could perhaps say that there is a 'gay style' or at least that there is an ongoing attempt to recreate a certain style of existence, a form of existence or art of living, which might be called gay" (326). Foucault is after, in other words, a homosexual self-stylization, a homosexual ascesis, which bears some, but no necessary, relation to the Greek asceticism of which he writes in his ethics books. In this, it repeats the open relation that he saw between Madness and Civilization and contemporary politics. In the early 1980s, Foucault saw friendship and s/m, as modes of askesis, functioning much like the open game of Greek man-boy relationships:

these sexual choices [characterized as "gay"] must at the same time be creative of ways of life. To be gay means that these choices spread across a whole life; it's also a certain way of refusing existing life styles; making sexual choice the operator of a change of existence. ... [O]ne must use sexuality to discover or invent new relations. To be gay is to be in a state of becoming. (369-70)

As Keith Robinson writes, for Foucault s/m "is at once a regulated and open game of strategic relations that are fluid, indefinite and reversible, and this eroticization of power sources a pleasure-pain that is in a constant state of invention, response, test and re-negotiation" ("Passion" 129).

[19] Understanding precisely what Foucault means by s/m's fluidity may help us distinguish his position from the kinds of arguments that Leo Bersani critiques in Homos. Bersani notes that many defenders of s/m, writing in 1980s and 1990s, saw in its rituals a cathartic restaging of real-world relations of domination. Such practices were seen as salutary in that they exposed the violent hierarchies that more subtly structure our everyday relations and provided an occasion for refreshing role-reversals. Yet, as Bersani observes, neither of these options carry quite the radical power of critique and transformation that the more politically minded enthusiasts wanted to attribute to s/m. Rather, at best s/m, as it is characterized in these readings, may amount to nothing more than "a nonhypocritical acceptance of power as it is already structured" (85); at worst it is "profoundly conservative in that its imagination of pleasure is almost entirely defined by the dominant culture" (87).

[20] At times Foucault echoes such views. For example, he remarks of being interested in s/m "because it is a strategic relation, but it is always fluid. Of course, there are roles but everybody knows very well that those roles can be reversed" (Foucault 387). Yet, as Bersani notes, Foucault retained "a certain distance" from the most staunchly articulated and programmatic claims for s/m's political value (83). Arguably, he is not interested in "redeeming" s/m—in the precise sense in which Bersani uses the term (see Culture; "Is")—or in rendering its radical chic presentable, but sees in it a possible mode of becoming. As a mode of becoming, of course, it is transitory, liable to territorializations. Consequently, to sustain a productive reading of Foucault's texts of the early 1980s—to allow for the fundamental mobility of his thinking—our emphasis should perhaps not be on the specific examples of friendship and s/m as much as on the question of becoming. That is, we should understand the actualized forms of queer friendship and s/m as contemporary articulations of the problematic of becoming and deterritorialization that Foucault wanted to pursue. Proceeding thus, we can see that, despite the critique of Foucault and other theorists of queer s/m in Homos, Bersani's project, especially as it develops toward the late 1990s, is in fundamental agreement with the question of becoming that emerges as Foucault's focus in the 1980s. Here both Foucault and Bersani plug in with Deleuze's thinking, and Deleuzian philosophy of becoming emerges as already inhabiting the field of queer theory. [10]

Smooth Spaces

[21] In other words, the recurrent emphasis in Foucault's 1980s interviews on homosexuality as a possible work of becoming should alert us to the (musical) harmony and (intellectual) agreement—that is, the resonance encapsulated in the French term accord (see Deleuze, Negotiations 86, 196n7)—between Deleuze's and Foucault's approaches to ethics. In the crucial interview "Friendship as a Way of Life," Foucault argues:

Homosexuality is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities, not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the 'slantwise' position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light. (138) [11]

The "diagonal lines" that Foucault finds dormant in the non-normative relationality of gay ascesis can be understood in terms of what Deleuze calls "transversal relations of resistance" (Deleuze, Foucault 94). For Deleuze (and Guattari), this transversal movement characterizes the open, "molecular" connectedness of a rhizomatic environment, as opposed to the hierarchical "molar" patterns of the arborescent model (Thousand 11 and passim). Foucault argues, in other words, that ascetic practices may allow the reactivation ("re-open[ing]") of trajectories of escape and the actualization of virtual potentialities that have been arrested in the sedimentations of territorialized, disciplinary existence.

[22] These oblique trajectories take place in what Deleuze and Guattari call, after Pierre Boulez, smooth space. The terms of smooth and striate(d) spaces extend and elaborate the distinction that is constantly reinvented in Deleuze's work under the various names of nomadic and sedentary, rhizomatic and arborescent, qualitative and quantitative, nonmetric and metric, intensive and extensive, and (perhaps most importantly) virtual and possible. Striated space consists of lines that stretch between fixed, predetermined positions and "tend to be subordinated to [these] points" (Thousand 478). Coordinated according to Euclidean geometry (371), striated space is the space of the State, operating on the assumption of "objectivity." It allows the passing of majoritarian perspectives as universalities: the male experience becomes the standard of the human; white unmarkedness renders blackness, as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a hundred years ago, the "problem" (9); homosexuality's account of itself is always deemed too "subjective" or "partial" (Carter), while heterosexuality, like whiteness, "escape[s] becoming a problem that needs to be studied and understood" (Halperin, 47).

[23] As such, Nietzsche's perspectivism can be understood as a disruption of the logic governing Euclidean space, its replacement with the heterogeneity of smooth space. This space is constituted by interconnected localities that are not subordinated to, or determined by, a larger, global pattern. Rather, these "molecular" localities breed a network "characterised by a plurality of local directions" (Patton, 112). In smooth space, the intervals themselves are prioritized, their trajectories not merely connections between the predetermined points of a beginning and an end. They do not replicate any global design, nor allow a governing transcendent perspective, but follow infinitely variable local conditions ("invention, response, test and re-negotiation" [Robinson, "Passion" 129]). There is no larger blueprint or program that the connections between localities recapitulate. Instead, the line in smooth space will diverge, improvise, bend, curve, "due to the variability of the goal or point to be attained" (Thousand 479). Smooth space, in other words, is rhizomatic space.

[24] We can understand the importance of the errantry of the line in smooth space by comparing it to what, according to Henri Bergson, sustains invention in creative evolution: the interval between stimulus and reaction. The longer this interval, the freer and more conscious the organism (Bergson, Matter 32). In smooth space, the line, "involving changes in direction" (Thousand 478), allows this kind of improvisation, but without constituting a space of utopian flexibility. As Deleuze and Guattari warn, we should not think that "a smooth space will suffice to save us" (500), for the striated and the smooth always interpenetrate, having "abstract distinction" yet "concrete mixes" (477). As much as absolute deterritorialization remains, in its impossibility, an ethical demand, the transversal movement of smooth space may be achieved and sustained through the kind of relentless ascesis, a labor of becoming, that Foucault formulates in his 1980s texts. [12]

[25] If the concept of smooth space can be utilized in thinking anti-colonial struggles (see Patton, ch. 6), it is also useful, via Foucault's virtual potentialities, to the mapping of queer communities. For example, Michael Warner, in his carefully argued manifesto for the recognition of the ethical values found in queer counterpublics—an appeal that became all the more urgent during the reign of the current U.S. administration—writes that queer subcultures operate precisely on the coordinates of unexpectedness, of the openness of one's relation to practices and pleasures. The zoning laws of New York City's Greenwich Village that Warner discusses (ch. 4) [13] can be read as the reduction of the smooth spaces of queer counterpublics into the striated space of the State. To hear his accord with Foucauldian ethics, Warner is here worth quoting at length:

The naïve belief that sex is simply an inborn instinct still exerts its power, but most gay men and lesbians know that the sex they have was not innate nor entirely of their own making, but learned—learned by participating, in scenes of talk as well as of fucking. One learns both the elaborated codes of a subculture, with its rituals and typologies (top/bottom, butch/femme, and so on), but also simply the improvisational nature of unpredicted situations. As queers we do not always share the same tastes of practices, though often enough we learn new pleasures from others. What we do share is an ability to swap stories and learn from them, to enter new scenes not entirely of our own making, to know that in these contexts it is taken for granted that people are different, that one can surprise oneself, that one's task in the face of unpredicted variations is to recognize the dignity in each person's way of surviving and playing and creating, to recognize that dignity in this context need not be purchased at the high cost of conformity or self-amputation. (177-78)

The aim of gay ascesis, according to Foucault, is to render the body "infinitely more susceptible to pleasure" (Foucault 310). In Spinozan idiom, it is a work of experimenting what the body can do, of opening the body to joyful, if irreducibly dangerous, encounters (see Deleuze, Expressionism esp. ch. 14). Warner articulates this openness in what he calls the "remap [ping of bodies] by participation in a queer sexual subculture" (178). According to him, queer counterpublics' practices constitute "an ethic not only because it is understood as a better kind of self-relation, but because it is the premise of the special kind of sociability that holds queer cultures together" (35). Like Foucault, he emphasizes the crucial role that friendships play in the reconfiguring of relatedness: "in the way many gay men and lesbians live, quite casual sexual relations can develop into powerful and enduring friendships. Friendships, in turn, can cross into sexual relations and back. Because gay social life is not as ritualized and institutionalized as straight life, each relation is an adventure in nearly uncharted territory" (115). As Brady Thomas Heiner writes in an excellent reevaluation of Foucault's work, "the power of the homosexual consists in the potential he bears to constitute affections and relationships that exceed the framework of possibility drawn by contemporary institutions" (43). [14]

[26] Finally, the "austere, even dry" (Macey, 135) texts of Foucault's ethics books have remained largely inassimilable to established scholarship because, in themselves, they constitute a work of ascesis, with all the risks involved. For Foucault, writing the ethics texts was "a long and tentative exercise" whose "object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one's own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently" (History 2:9). Philosophy itself becomes a work of eliciting virtualities, "an 'ascesis,' askēsis, an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought" (9). Writing is a way of eliciting an immanent experience that nevertheless transforms the conditions of thought's possibility. Foucault's description of the experience of writing one's first book is thus applicable to ascetic practices in general: "one writes to become someone other than one is. Finally there is an attempt at modifying one's way of being through the act of writing" (Foucault 404). Foucault abandoned the proposed volumes of History because they would not have constituted an "open game" but the predictable fulfillment of a preformed program (Politics 47). Instead, he opted for the work of seeking to open virtualities, of an ascetic exercise that "aimed at pulling myself free of myself, at preventing me from being the same" ("Interview" 242). Ascesis is an experience of immanence, a practice that begins from that which exists, [15] yet elicits the unexpected, the unforeseen, from the plane of immanence. It is this experience that Foucault, echoing Deleuze, identifies as queer's potential for the activation and actualization of virtualities.


[1] References to Deleuze's monograph will be given as Deleuze, Foucault, while Sylvère Lotringer's collection of Foucault's interviews will be given as Foucault.

[2] As Davidson notes, the back cover of the French first edition listed the forthcoming volumes, which were to deal with "the problematization of sex in early Christianity," children's sexuality, sexuality and women's bodies, perversions, and the "biopolitics" of population and race (117).

[3] In "Thought of the Outside," Keith Robinson traces some points of convergence between Deleuze and Foucault, without considering at length the specificity of Foucault's late work. The best commentary on the resonances between their work is provided by Deleuze and Foucault themselves. See Deleuze, Foucault; "Desire"; Negotiations 81-118; Deleuze and Foucault; Foucault, "Theatrum."

[4] On performativity's reliance on Hegel and recognition, see Grosz, Time 189; Tuhkanen, "Judith."

[5] As always, Foucault himself provides the most eloquent formulation: "I'm very careful to get a grip on the actual mechanisms of the exercise of power; I do this because those who are enmeshed, involved, in these power relations can, in their actions, their resistance, their rebellion, escape them, transform them, in a word, cease being submissive. And if I don't say what needs to be done, it isn't because I believe there is nothing to be done. On the contrary, I think there are a thousand things that can be done, invented, contrived by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are involved, have decided to resist them or escape them. From that viewpoint, all my research rests on a postulate of absolute optimism" ("Interview" 294). David Halperin recapitulates this argument in terms of queer politics: see his Saint Foucault, ch. 2.

[6] Foucault cannot be blamed for being blind to this exclusionary aspect: he notices over and over again that women and slaves are not addressed in these texts; see History 2:22, 80, 252-3; "On the Genealogy" 346.

[7] Passivity was detrimental for both bodily and spiritual health (History 3:54). For the techniques of self, sexuality was important because it was so problematic: it presented the threat of the subject being reduced to passivity, to a state where self-control is lost in an "epileptic fit" (110-11). The "paradox of sexual pleasures" arises from the fact that they are essential yet likely to lead to loss of self-control, loss of one's self as an ethical subject (113).

[8] O'Leary (119-20) demonstrates how some of the claims about Foucault's return to the "subject" or the "self" stem from problems in translating the Greek terms.

[9] It is possible to be a homosexual in Christianity, but only if one "discovers" one's homosexuality; hence, in the United States, the gay rights debate has centered around the nature/nurture axis. See Whisman.

[10] I sketch some of the points of conjunction between Bersani and Deleuze in "Becoming Same."

[11] Johnston has here amended his original translation of this passage, which in Foucault Live reads: "Homosexuality is an historic occasion to re-open affective and relational virtualities, not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual, but due to the biases against the position he occupies [parce que la position de celui-ci 'en biais']; in a certain sense diagonal lines that he can trace in the social fabric permit him to make these virtualities visible" (311; "De l'amitié" 166). Indeed, to understand the term "virtuality" in this passage it is important to see that the French biais signals an "angle" or "perspective" rather than a "bias."

[12] Robinson's articulation suggests that Foucault's thought, especially as viewed through Deleuze's, can be seen as functioning according to the rhizomatics of smooth space: "Forming a rhizome between Foucault/Deleuze enables us to see Foucault's work as a complex open system, a machine that builds up in advance and produces a 'space' of thought, a 'thought of the Outside' in which to confront what's happening today. And this work of thought does not have the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end but continually starts up again au milieu, going off in new and unforeseen directions, making relays and connections elsewhere" ("Thought" 58).

[13] See also Samuel Delany's account of the reforming of Times Square in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Warner's and Delany's work suggests some ways in which Foucault's mapping of queer subcultures remains relevant even when, in the decades after his death, non-normative sexualities have increasingly saturated the mainstream marketplace.

[14] Heiner's work is important because it situates Foucault's work in its Nietzschean and Deleuzian context, which queer theory has largely neglected. Robinson's discussion of "passion" in Foucault ("Passion") intersects with Heiner's concern with the "limit-experience." On s/m as a limit-experience, see Robinson, "Passion" 130.

[15] "For one to be able to have that experience through the book, what it says does need to be true in terms of academic, historically verifiable truth. It can't exactly be a novel." Yet, "this experience is neither true nor false. An experience is always a fiction: it's something that one fabricates oneself, that doesn't exist before and will exist afterward" ("Interview" 243).

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