Interview with Rosi Braidotti

 

 
 

In Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs you present monsters as the abject: they fascinate and repel simultaneously. How do you envision that a possible appropriation of a negative subjectivity - a 'monstrous' subjectivity - can be productive for the feminist project?
RB: Of course the idea of claiming identities that we have been taught to despise is an old one in feminism. In fact the idea of claiming an identity in feminism is already an heroic gesture, considering how negative the connotations are. Since the 70's the new wave [of feminism] has been claiming all sorts of identities. The idea to repossess them, and redefine them is the creative mimetic strategy that Irigaray -among others - theorises. In a sense Judith Butler, with her parodies, is also in that same tradition. You possess, you reoccupy, you revisit locations which they have coined negatively. By repeating the gesture you epurate them of their charge, and try to do something positive with them. So as a strategy it is nothing new. What is new with the monster, is the way it intersects with issues of science and technology. That is relatively new in feminism, although in the early phases there were major feminist texts on science; I am thinking of Shulamit Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. But that's still pretty much an isolated episode. In fact, the bulk of feminism is social science, rather than 'real' science, and it's technophobic, rather than technophilic. So it is only recently that we really try to look at what science had made of us, and what possibilties are within that for creating reappraisal and critical repossession. The monster has emerged in that context for me. It has the positivity in two ways: first of all monsters are very ancient categories. The book I am trying to finish now shows quite clearly the ways the monstrous and the feminine intersect. It goes as far back as you can think. You may know the work of Barbara Creed on the monstrous feminine, and how that plays out in cinema. But if you go back in history, you will see that the monster and the women are connected through several things: the fact that the woman can be the mother of monsters, she can produce them. Or, that there is something intrinsically monstrous about the feminine. The definition of monsters is historically variable. How the monstrous was defined in antiquity, the baroque era, the so-called scientific era, and in the post-industrious era differ tremendously. I am trying to find different forms of interconnection between this. The monsters have become incredibly popular since the nuclear era, in the post-nuclear imaginary. There is a kind of glorification of the age of freaks; there is an aesthetic of the ugly that has been triumphant since the 60's. You can look at rock 'n roll culture, record covers, comic strips and ninja turtles…there is alsthat post-nuclear imaginary which is in love with mutants. The monster as mutant then becomes another sort of metaphor for some type of deviant femininity. In that sense it is very rich. But all I want to say, is that this is the last historical variation on a very old theme, that I find particularly productive in trying to map out the intersections between female subjectivity, and how scientific discourse connoted femininity negatively by making it monstrous.

You express a concern that the etchnologies of bio-medical science, esp. reproductive technologies, "freeze out time". How does this "temporal dislocation" concretely manifest itself, and what dangers does it entail? In what way?
RB: I do think that it is a misnomer to call a lot of what is going on 'cyberspace'. It's a bit of a pity that they have metaphorised this event spatially. I think that time is much more central to the great transformations that we are going through. Whether it is time in the pursuit of eternal youth, or time as the suspension, the eternal flexibility...working days that go on forever: 3 shifts of 6 hours each, so that the factories can work day and night, which is a feature of post-Taylorist economies. Or whether it is time in the sense that we don't have any of it, or have too much of it because technology expands so many of our faculties and capacities. I see the temporal dimension as much more crucial to the whole exercise of 'being' in post-modernity, and all that. In bio-technologies the suspension of time dimension is absolutely blatant. Now all technologies 'freeze out' time. The recording of this interview, for example, is a frozen slab of oral history.

But what's so dangerous about this all, especially for women?
RB: I am in a very ambivalent position. What's so dangerous is not so much the dislocation of time, because that happens all over the place. There's nothing we can do to stop that. What is dangerous in the particular theme of reproduction, is that this new reification of reproduction through bio-technologies happened at the same historical time, in fact simultaneously with the feminist movement's attempt to have women redefine our relationship to reproduction…and to win very very basic reproductive rights, whether it is contraception, abortion…let alone euthanasia, or choosing the sex of the child: things we are, I think, completely entitled to considering the scientific means that we have to our disposal. But in a sense birth-technologies come in as a tornado in the middle of this enormous revolution. And they are so extreme that they make all discussion impossible. If you look at the bio-ethics committees and their composition, for instance, then you see the representatives of the major monotheistic religions plus a couple of professional philosophers. You get a good example of this is the film Contact. The people who have to select the representatives of mankind to go in outer space, are a very good parody on your classical bio-ethics committee. And if you consider the decisions they make, then they are busy bringing back Arestotelian paradigms of national order, which bring us back before the feminist revolution even started. It is that sort of preemptive strike on the part of legislators, who cut down the liberational potentials of bio-technologies. And confronted with this most feminists, being fundamentally techno-phobic, just give up on the whole thing. They are taking it away from us befor we even had a chance to define it! And it would have probably taken a whole generation more for the whole issue of reproduction to settle. Now the older generation fought for the basis, the younger generation has to reasses, a generation futher we could have come to some sort of middleground of a de-naturalised social constructivist approach to reproduction. That didn't happen, these things come in triggering a paranoia of a brave new world. And in the warp of that paranoia, we stand to lose very basic traditional contraceptive rights, that we fought very hard to gain. So the danger is not intrinsic to the technology, but is in the social use that is being made of them. When I look at the time scale of emancipation, I think what a pity that it has been short-circuited, that it is a preemptive strike. They moved faster than we did…perhaps that is in the nature of technology to do that, but the social use to which they are put is simply objectionable.

The female (reproductive) body is read as a monstrous text because of its mutability: it bleeds, lactates, dilates during pregnancy. But what about the demonisation of the sterile female body? The body in menopause? How is this particular body marked and pathologised by our culture? How does that feed into the ideology of women as uteruses, and the development of fertility technologies?
RB: Sterile bodies are very complex. If you look at sterile bodies in the context of aging, then in a sense it's easier, because the aging body is absolutely abject in a culture obsessed with youth. So the menopause as the end of reproduction is almost a category apart. But if we can stay for a minute with the idea of sterile bodies..that's a really contested zone! On the one hand sterility, male and female, is an enormous issue in the advanced countries. It is one of the excuses, one of the pretexts that justify the existence of bio-technologies. There is statistical evidence that sterility is an issue, and that our society wants babies, and they want them white and healthy and many. That would become a prime target for something that needs to be corrected. At the same time, culture flirts entirely with bodies, that I would call sterile in the sense of machine celebataire, bodies that are not functional, that are deeply malfunctioning. I am thinking of two paradigms of what I would call the celebate of the sterile body: the anorexic and the drug addict. If you look at the representations of these bodies in fashion, for example, then this culture is really completely schizoid!! Kate Moss and those Calvin Kline ads...all these heroin ads, as they call them, these bodies that are leaking…the junkie body leaks all over the place from the wrong fluids…the anorexic body stops menstruating…these are socially desirable bodies, because they fit in with the social imperative of slimness and elegance, and some sort of consumptiveness, which gives it the Nosferatu-look. These bodies would be sterile to all ends and purposes, and they are rather under-aged bodies. They pretend to be the youth category. So there is a very perverse discourse at hand. One the one hand, there's a panic that we have to make children white and healthy in the labs, because the women are not reproducing them, and are on procreative strike. The absolute commodification and sterilisation of youth under those images…and I would have a lot of quarrels with the hype around things like Trainspotting and the whole junk culture from that angle…we are playing with fire here..and Deleuze would have very hard things to say against this junkie thing. But then at the other extreme, when sterility comes in the sense of the end of the reproductive cycle, you get a different type of abject body. Recently an actress in Hollywood was talking about the fact that Marlon Brando was getting 2 million to play for 5 minutes in the latest Keanu Reeves film or so. I mean, he's old and fat and revolting, and he gets 2 million to play for 5 minutes!! Can you think of any old and fat woman who would get paid that amount of money for 5 minutes??!! The fat aging body in our culture, and the way in which class and race intersect with that, is an area that I would put in a different category. It is has less to do with the sterility/procreation thing, but is some new monstrifcation. For me it is not demonisation, but the creation of new monsters. Our culture IS aging; we are on zero growth…this has enormous economic, as well as aesthetic consequences. I think that we need to reappraise a lot more what we would do with that category of the 'new' monsters. Of course you have to be socio-culturally specific, coz in the States the fat body is racialised; it's usually the black single mother with a fat decomposing body. So you have to map them out very carefully. Although for me the real sterilisation is what is happening to a certain image of youth culture, and a certain flirtation with anorexia and heroin…that I find a real patriarchal plot!

In the Romantic period you would have these tubercular bodies, also as markers of consumption (consumption was of course the colloquial term for TBC, in the sense that the disease consumed the body). But somehow that representation of 'the body wasted'was conceived as having this artistic aura to it…do you see ananalogy with the present situation?
RB: It's possible. People talk about the gothic imaginary, you know, the vampire, the consumptive female…but for me a closer analogy would be the syphilitic body. There was an enormous mass epidemic that touched most 'good' men of most families, and consequently affected millions of women, who contracted it from their lawfully wedded husbands. And it was also a secret, and not talked about. It spread like rabies, and not only induced sterility, but also madness. Nietzsche died of it. It's at the heart of Dora's disease, if you read the Freud case. I think it would be interesting to do a comparison of this geography of diseases; it's a bit what Elaine Showalter does badly - in my opinion - in Sexual Anarchy. It doesn't really work; she's attempting these connections. Now TBC…I think you're right, but I would have to think a bit more about it.

When I was referring to sterile female bodies, I was thinking about the demonisation of tribades, for instance. And the obsession in 19th century art, which feeds in to 20th century filmic representations, of representing the lesbian body as monstrous and vampiric.
RB: In my chapter on monsters in Nomadic Subjects, I talk about the different historical periods wherein certain imaginaries come up. It is in the racialised anthropology of the colonial era, that you get the nationally African vampiric lesbian women. It's very distinctive. Ambroise Paré has a footnote on dishevelled and lascivious African degenerates, hermaphrodites that have sex with the same sex, and that is the 17th century. It has been there as one of the figurations of male anxiety about deviant sexuality. I always try to make a difference between the level of the imaginary, and what science came up with. For a long time science and the imaginary work hand in hand, but then they split. In fact this occurs with the making of the early theories of evolution. Then you get a long period that science tries to purify itself. Then the connection monstrosity and femininity disappears, because it was purely imaginary. Then it reappears after the nuclear disaster because of mutations, and because of the procreation of new monsters…most of whom are still not quite documented. I read in the papers yesterday, that they are raising 400 million dollars to put a great big sarcophagus over Chernobyl, to make sure that that doesn't leak. But in the meanwhile birds and species are changing colour and shape, and the damage has been done. I think that it is with the post-nuclear that there is a return of the connection monsters/feminine, which we lost in the period of pure scientificity, which is those 80 years when teratology [the science of monsters] is a real science. And before that it is free for all. I mean, the monster is just a sign of pejoration, and is interchangeable with the feminine. Although it is not only limited to women, it covers certainly all other 'others', especially the colonial. For Linnaeus African man is a monster, not of the human species…that's his classification system, and it is done without batting an eyelid. I think you have to distinguish the metaphorical level from the material foundation of the scientific discourse about science, because that's one that in the long run is more dangerous, because the imaginary goes on. We continue representing female cyborgs, riot grrls as witches, as dangerous. What science has come up with, and the way in which the reproduction of deviance has been absolutely repossessed by the techno-doctors, that's a different line, much more sober, much quiter and much more difficult to track. But in the long run the triumphant one. There people are not very metaphorically minded; they just need to reproduce white babies for the white species, period! And they are going to do it whether the women cooperate or not. And then you get to Gena Corea and the mother-machine argument, which is a bit techno-phobic, but there's a lot to it, in the extent to which the desire to reproduce the white baby at an age of demographic crisis, really propells an industry. I mean, they are really scared that we are growing old!

I want to touch again on the concept of time. What is your view on cyborgian figures, such as transsexuals/genderists who disavow, if not rewrite, their story of biological origin? Do think that their self-acclaimed cyborg subjectivities - as subjects in transit, never reaching telos, for once you reach that stage wherein you 'pass' as a woman or man, you have lost the transitory quality - might offer us useful strategies of resistance?
RB: In all the work I have done on nomadism, I have always been a bit more conservative on this point of sexual identity. I have a very ambivalent relation to it. On the one hand, if we agree that identities of all kinds, including the nomadic interstetials in-between are inter-active; they require other people; they are retro-spective - you reconstruct them a posteriori, but you don't know a priori where you are going - and they are floating or drifting. But they require you being embedded in a set of interactions. They are NOT about willful solipsistic self-naming. If we agree with that, then I can say OK…any experimentations with degrees of chopping up, breaking down, revisiting, cannibalising, metabolising, different degrees of inter-sexuality is fine…so long as it doesn't become this solipsistic self-naming exercise that would fit in the nihilism of contemporary culture. The entire youth of the Western world would be then on drugs, or video-drugs and call themselves cyborgs, and drop out of the production system, quite simply because there's no job for everybody…we need a total number of people to be unemployable, and to stay on welfare, and that's fine if it is a whole section of our youth. I am very very worried about the nihilistic potential of that part. If it is a creative, productive, collectively embedded set of experimentations, that wilfully target full termination, fixed identities based on the phallus etc..then go all the way! But so much of what I read about this flirtation, you know Arthur Kroker and this 'degenerative tumescent', or whatever he calls it..floating identities..well, that scares me a lot. Because I know from practice, and my years in feminism, that change is a difficult precarious thing, that identities are fragile. Some of my generation are drugged out, boned out, in jail, they committed suicide, cancer took them at the age of 35. I saw a whole generation just go into rot, because we wanted change so quickly, and we couldn't wait. Now before we rush ahead towards quick changes, I just want to take the time to say: changes are painful, difficult, fragile things. And there is where Deleuze has got a very strong ethical message: you've got to have systems that are sustainable. You have whatever changes you make,it must to be able to put up with it. It must be able to live a satisfactory life out of it. Happiness is a fundamental political ideal, and one that we need to bring back. Happiness in the sense of well-being, of being able to sustain the changes that are coming upon us, and not being destroyed by them. So that would be my warning,and this is why in Nomadic Subjects at the level of identity - which I call my level 3 of sexual difference - I preserve it and say: let each person choose the speed with which they are capable of entering the pursuits of vertigo and transformation. People have different speeds. We come after Nietzsche,we come after Deleuze, people are made of different intensities. Not everybody can enter the great mixmaster, and come out nomadic. A lot of people just need anchoring points. And we have to give them opportunity to pitch the itensity of the changes at different levels.