In my article “Ethics Without Aρχή” in Deleuze and Ethics, I argue that ethics is a rare event that occurs when the norms and habits inhabiting a collective break down by virtue of the appearance of a new actant that problematizes relations within this collective. Our tendency is to think of ethics or moral theory as that branch of philosophy that investigates the norms or principles that underlie “right action” as in the case of Kant’s categorical imperative or Mill’s greatest happiness principle. Here the question of ethics is the question of 1) which principle provides the ἀρχή or ground for ethical deliberation, and 2) how this ἀρχή or principle is to be applied to concrete cases. In short, the ἀρχή is a principle or foundation we have in advance that allows us to decide what to do in situations.
In my view, this conception of ethics– dominant throughout philosophy departments –completely trivializes what’s at stake in ethical encounters. When we undertake a “phenomenology” of the lived experience of ethics, we discover that far from a question of norms, questions of ethics arise precisely when norms and/or habits fail. It is precisely when we don’t know how to proceed, when our habits, techniques, and principles no longer hold, that the question of ethics arises. Ethics thus refers not to an investigation of principles, but rather to moments of problematization that occur within a world. Ethics is what is demanded when a bit of the earth, that bubbling anarchy that underlies every substance and organized collective, emerges, disrupting that habitual negentropic functioning of a collective. The question of ethics is thus not “how do we decide the case according to a given principle?” (e.g., what does Kant’s categorical imperative tell me about whether or not I should use silverware?), but rather, “how must this collective, this world, be reorganized in light of the appearance of this foreign actant, this strange stranger, from the earth?” Ethics does not begin with principles precisely because it is that moment where principles fail, but rather ethics is generative of principles, new habits, new collectives, and new forms of life.
The same point holds for politics. Recently I argued that politics occurs outside of the state or governments. While politics can indeed address governments and various elements of governments, no politics is to be found within governments or among statesmen. Government, instead, is that which strives to erase politics. Government, whether in the form of workplace administrations, state governments, family structures, political parties, etc., dreams of the end and destruction of politics.
Why is this the case? Like ethics, politics is an essentially rare occurrence. Just as ethics only takes place or addresses us when there is the appearance of an excess of the earth beneath a world. Earth refers to the bubbling anarchy of other objects beneath and within any higher scale object. Earth is the fact that the objects contained within a larger scale object are always greater in magnitude than the object that contains them. It is the fact that the parts of an object (which are themselves objects) are always greater than the sum of those parts. Every object is simultaneously a substance or unity and a swarm. And it is for this reason that each object faces the problem of entropy from within, or the manner in which the sub-multiples or objects within the larger scale object threaten the endurance of that larger-scale object’s endurance through time. Earth is that excess of objects that bubbles within any and every object.
By contrast, world is the manner in which an object counts and constitutes its parts or sub-multiples, constructing them as elements of itself. Take my college. Collin is a higher scale object (perhaps in the process of splitting into a few distinct objects), of which I, like the students, grounds keepers, administration, etc., am an element. As an element, this object constitutes me in very particular ways. There are only particular aspects of me that “communicate” with this larger scale object. In other words, there’s a partition of the sensible or perceptible within this object that both defines what I can communicate to this larger scale object and how I can communicate. The grades of my students, whether or not I show up to teach, whether I attend meetings, only particular aspects of what I say at meetings, etc., are registered by this higher scale object. By contrast, what I ate for dinner last night, the casual conversation I have with a colleague or student about last night’s episode of Outcasts, whether or not I use mouthwash before bed, my sock preferences, etc., are invisible to this object. This higher scale object is structured by a code that determines both what counts as an element for this object (the jogger who runs across campus is not an element) and what speech-events this object can register. This is world. World is the manner in which an object is both open to its outside and the elements that compose it. Earth is always in excess of any world.
The manner in which an object relates to its internal and external environment is what I refer to as “governance”. The internal environment of an object consists of the elements that compose it. The external environment of an object refers to objects outside the object that it is able to resonate with but which are not elements of the object. If an object has an internal environment, then this is because objects are composed of objects that are themselves objects in their own right. Environment, both internal and external, perpetually poses the problem of entropy for an object. How will the object, as a dynamic system, maintain its organization across time? The external environment of an object poses the problem of the destruction of the objects by threatening to dissolve its internal order. The internal environment of an object threatens the continued existence of an object insofar as the parts of an object are never mere elements, but are entities in their own right that often struggle to move off in their own direction. Like a man spinning multiple plates that threaten to come crashing down at any time, every object is threatened from both within and without in such a way that it risks dissolving like so much morning mist.
The operation by which autopoietic objects maintain themselves is thus governance. Governance refers to the manner in which autopoietic objects (it’s different for allopoietic objects) constitute or form their elements and maintain their ordered organ-ization over time. Put differently, governance is the manner in which an autopoietic object minimizes entropy from within and without. It is the negentropic operation within objects that enlists other objects to constitute them as elements. Negentropic operations which, in Deleuze & Guattari-speak “organ-ize” other objects into elements is the operation or process by which an object carries out its adventure across time. If governance dreams of an end to politics, then this is insofar as it strives to reduce the objects that necessarily compose it to their status as elements, entirely erasing any excess they might contain and that might potentially threaten the integrity of the object they compose. And, of course, as can be seen in the case of cancer where the “earth” of various cells and strands of DNA discloses itself against the “world” of the organ-ism, governance is often a good thing.
Nonetheless, governance is not politics. Governance generally strives to erase earth so as to reduce parts to elements in world. Yet the minimal condition for politics is a strife between world and earth. If politics is at odds with all governance, then this is because politics, as that moment where earth appears, reveals the contingency of every world or system of ordering organs or elements. Politics is that moment where organ-ization becomes a problem by virtue of the appearance of a part or aspect of an element that does not fit with the contingent regime of the larger-scale object to which it belongs. In and of itself, this appearance of an object that refuses to be reduced to an organ or element is not itself politics. Rather, the appearance of this element becomes politics when it calls for the re-organ-ization of the entire object to which it belongs… Perhaps destroying that larger-scale object or more modestly calling for a thorough reconfiguration of that larger scale object. Above all, the appearing of this element is always the appearing of a part that is not counted as an organ or element, of a part of no part, and a disclosure of the fundamental contingency of the organ-ization of the larger-scale object within which it appears (i.e., that there’s no necessity or inevitability to this way of organ-izing things).
It is for this reason that all genuine politics deserves to be called “queer”. The etymology of the term “queer” is interesting. From the Online Etymology Dictionary,
c.1500, “strange, peculiar, eccentric,” from Scottish, perhaps from Low Ger. (Brunswick dialect) queer “oblique, off-center,” related to Ger. quer “oblique, perverse, odd,” from O.H.G. twerh “oblique,” from PIE base twerk- “to turn, twist, wind” (related to thwart). The verb “to spoil, ruin” is first recorded 1812. Sense of “homosexual” first recorded 1922; the noun in this sense is 1935, from the adj.
As Michael O’Rourke has noted, queer theory has suffered a bit of a crisis, being unsure of whether or not it’s dead, whether it’s time has passed, but, above all, suffering from questions of what its object is. What, precisely, is queer theory about? I see this absence of identity, this question of what queer theory and politics might be about, not as a symptom of its failure, but as a mark of its truth. Far from being a discourse “merely” about “alternative lifestyles” and sexual orientations, we should instead see queer politics as borne of the “turn, twist, or winding” of worlds by the earth. If queer theory and politics initially takes its orientation from “deviant sexualities”, then this is no doubt because the organ-ization of sexualities is one of the primary mechanisms by which worlds and governance are reproduced. What queer theory and politics discovers beneath these organ-izations is Freud’s “polymorphous perversity” or the anarchy of sub-multiples and their ability to relate to anything and everything– all the way up to the “unnatural” couplings between an orchid and wasp and viral transmissions of snippets of DNA across species –that violates the negentropic functioning of various regimes of governance in larger scale objects.
Yet queer theory and politics should not be restricted to these meditations on sexuality (though it shouldn’t abandon them either). Rather, queer politics should be expanded to refer to any torsion, and twist, any knot that emerges in the relation between world and earth. It should be taken to refer to the appearance– and the procedures or operations that emerge as a result of that appearance –of the part that is invisible from the standpoint of elements or organs. Here “queer” proves to be a far more apt term than “proletariat” proposed by Ranciere. Ranciere wishes to reserve the term “proletariat” as the political subject marking the part of the uncounted from the standpoint of larger scale objects. The problem with this is that all too often “proletariat” serves to subordinate all politics to economic struggles, ignoring race, gender, various religious orientations, environment, etc. If queer is here superior, then this is because it captures the universality of the excess of earth over world, capturing the sense of the political as referring to the appearance of the uncounted, whether that uncounted refer to bees, transsexuals, atheists, Amish, workers, etc., etc., etc..