rhizomes.07 fall 2003

Carol Siegel

[1] In order to give coherence to sets of ideas used to account for extant social and cultural structures, to explain behavioral patterns, to describe fantasies and desires, theorists must exclude some possibilities.  Groups of assumptions that are not in apparent contradiction provide foundations for theorizing.  Trends in thought solidify specific sets of assumptions with proven explanatory power into standard approaches, which, in turn, are assigned hierarchic positions in the body of philosophical writings called "theory" within academe.  And so truth is constructed. This familiar process depends upon suppressing, ignoring, or discrediting other, perhaps potentially equally useful ideas and approaches.  This special issue of Rhizomes will provide access to some modes of analysis othered by the paradigms that dominate specific academic disciplines under the name of "theory."  

[2] I have chosen to conclude this issue with an essay, "What's Wrong with Posthumanism" by Ivan Callus and Stephan Herbrechter, that takes the opposite view, considering theory to be constituted by otherness, so that to discuss theory's others would mean "to include everything and exclude nothing according to a logic of such capacious comprehensiveness that differences between the proper and the other become almost obscured."   Callus and Herbrechter's position is attractive because it represents an ideal of what theory should be, what many of us thought it could be, and still hope it might be.  The aim of the theory revolution usually associated with the rise within academe, and English Studies in specific, of Derridean deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucauldian discourse analysis has been to finally shatter the scholarly grail of objective Truth, not only by affirming that knowledge and the truths it validates are subjectively constructed, but also by problematizing the concept of subjectivity itself through locating it in space and time in relation to particular power structures.  Yet, as most of us have had occasion to observe, interest in theory often plays out in forms that compartmentalize our readings of texts -- and society/culture as text -- dividing us from other scholars, and generating incompatible schools or branches of knowledge.  It seems a laudable ideal that knowledge develop not along such arborescent lines, but according to what Deleuze and Guattari call the rhizomatic, a simultaneity of random connections without an authoritative center or hierarchic structure.  But, in reality, theory often works against the sort of free proliferation of possible critical approaches that Callus and Herbrechter rightly valorize. 

[3] My own field, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has had an especially vexed relation to theory, beginning with early 1980s feminist reaction against poststructuralist theories, which many early feminist critics read as undermining the authority of women's experience by calling into question the fundamental assumptions of a political movement based on their biologically-determined identification as women.  Years of wars between "essentialists" and "constructionists" followed.  Judith Butler's massively influential text, Gender Trouble, is frequently regarded as having settled the issue through general academic acceptance of her radical contention that biological sex is as much of a construct as gender; however, as numerous historians of feminist thought, from Carole S. Vance to Alice Echols, have noted, what Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter named "the sex wars" still raged on, dividing feminist scholars according to their choice of theoretical approaches to interpretation of women's experiences of sexuality.  I have been acutely aware of the divisions in theory because, from the beginning of my life as a scholar, my work has always focused on representation of putatively perverse sexualities, yet I have followed the lead of Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari in rejecting psychoanalytic approaches to this topic. 

[4] As these theorists repeatedly assert, theory cannot be detached from application, nor from its function as the rationale for a specific approach.  And despite the desire of eclectic critics to treat the texts produced by theorists as a toolbox from which one can extract whatever works to allow a certain reading, all theoretical arguments are not compatible.  And the incompatibilities of various theories are most electrifyingly brought into relief by the world views that ground political investments.  The still not fully engaged central idea of the theory revolution has always been the realization that objectivity is impossible because we cannot see from nowhere.  The point of view that determines our theoretical perspective most commonly comes from the midst of our lives and daily practices.  Our sense of what is reasonable or logical continues to be, in most cases, generated by the logic and structural assumptions behind these practices.  

[5] For instance, to the extent that the United States dominates academic theory that theory is also dominated by a sense of each individual human's relation to external objects, other people, geographical space and movement through it that is almost entirely determined by being enclosed in a protected, private space: the privately owned suburban home, the guarded shopping mall, the guarded workplace, or the privately owned car -- or SUV.   Our national, generally held, view that the middle-classes are in great danger if they venture into any truly public spaces that lack the presence of armed guards to protect them, and our near universal, related, belief that privately owned motor vehicles provide the only reasonable mode of travel inform the theories Americans develop in ways that go largely unquestioned. 

[6] My hope is that Phil Smith's essay on walking as a philosophical and aesthetic experience will prove corrective of this blind spot.  Such "other" views have wide reaching implications, for if we can imagine a world through which we walk not only as part of an exercise regimen but as a means of getting to certain destinations, perhaps we could also imagine connecting to other people, things, and places in ways that might not be grossly exclusionary and destructive, that might not entail shutting out the poor and those we other because of race, that might not involve coating everything in our vicinity with poisonous "emissions."  As Deleuze and Guattari often insist, we must live otherwise to be able to think otherwise, and we must be able to envision alternative modes of being in order to live them. 

[7] Likewise my own dialogue with Paula Kamen represents an attempt on both our parts to get beyond the totalizing views of heterosexuality that increasingly divide feminists of my generation from feminists of hers and to reach an understanding of at least a few ways that changes in social mores and law can generate new visions of female desire and of feminist sex radicalism.  These views could work, in turn, to unsettle the certainties that currently underlie numerous interventions, authorized by mainstreamed popular feminism, into the sex lives of young women intended to protect them and foster their healthy development, but increasingly resented and fought against by feminism's third wave. 

[8] I could discuss each of the included essays similarly, but prefer to leave to the readers the discovery of what makes each one "other" to the voices that dominate theory today.   In choosing the essays for this issue, I have been largely motivated by my desire to provide Rhizomes 7's readers with a look at theoretical practices that seem in danger of being cut out of the academic conversation because their inclusion threatens the agreed upon ideas that make communication easier.  These essays challenge not simply accepted interpretations but also the assumptions governing them.   They are part of our rhizomatic movement to make possible new ways of knowing.