Stefa Govaart

Sentence / Essence / Woman / Negation / Sex

_Series of dialogues organized by Marija Cetinić and Stefa Govaart. The conversations, taking place in person across Europe and in New York, are recorded, transcribed and edited, and will culminate into a publication. Can woman’s negative essence and desire perform as a methodology that is not premised on positivities to ground its negations? The essence of woman is to be sentenced to a negation that feels like sex_



The project is structured around five concepts: it asks a methodological question (sentence), an existential question (woman), a question on desire (sex), on refusal (negation) and on materialism/materialist practice (essence).

Claire Fontaine
Palermo, July 6, 2021

Marija Cetinić and Stefa Govaart:
Here are some ways Claire Fontaine and those she reads articulate how woman has been articulated:

Woman is a biopolitical category
woman is a sex and a sex is an organ
woman is metonymic with her sexual and reproductive function
is an obscenity
is the dialectical carrier of the shame of her own obscenity
is the dressing up and disguise of her own obscenity
is the no which is taken for a yes
is the impossibility of the no
is she who is raped in the guise of “sexual intercourse”
is she whose nudity is covered over by ideology: depilated, faked, mystified
is for the benefit of the sex of the man
is the being projected upon of every contradiction man has caused
is sexual object
is prey
is a double mind
is the acceptance of the unacceptable
is mute
speaks with words that negate her
dies in obscurity or lives demeaning adventures that are such because they are made by and for men”
exist intellectually by sterilizing themselves or live a mutilating motherhood
is the embodiment of a problem
is pathetically invisible and inaudible
crushed, unrealized, oppressed
cannot reach adult life

Against the logic of self-preservation of identity, CF describes Carla Lonzi’s intervention as the “transformation of herself into the embodiment of a problem” (237). Such is the double bind of feminine subjectivity: its absolute boundedness to the conditions that determine her is also a boundedness whose proximity to her own nothingness renders her particularly attuned to the potential for desubjectivization.

We are interested in thinking woman as a form of internal undermining, as a formal contradiction marked by both 1, her complete givenness, her total receptivity to the predication that violently determines her, and 2, the impossibility and failure of her capture. In other words, she is instrumentalized totally; and, in her total devaluation she has learned to “practice against the economy of recognition and renumeration.”

Can you speak about women’s disposition to human strike [see Human Strike, Semiotexte/Active Agents, 2020) as something immanent to her condition?

Claire Fontaine:
The phrases quoted above we or others like Carla Lonzi have written are painfully true. The history of human strike is a feminist history. CF has particularly focused on the question of “Wages for Housework” as a form of paradoxical struggle. Writing its manifesto, Silvia Federici was well aware that the very function of money would be undermined if women were to be paid for their unpaid care and reproductive labor. The refusal to pay women or attribute value to their precious work is one of the tools capitalism uses to render illegible the resources it relies on and, at the same time, destroys. The destruction of the planet comes from the obvious fact that these resources have not been valued before being monetized. It is true that being on the side of that which is not––those who are not––monetized is a great place to be. If our theorization of magic materialism is true, then we can say that the attribution of value is functional to the systems of accumulation in place, preserving an economy that is in fact destroying the planet. It is a good thing to not be on the active side of these destructive processes. We need to revalue everything and everyone that has been destroyed from within the long history of Western destruction that is now coming to an irreversible point of contradiction. Western democracies come to irreversible points of contradiction because of the ideology of human rights premised on a supposedly semi-controlled (but in reality uncontrollable) form of liberal capitalism.

The categorical position of women is marked by being excluded from certain but not all valorization processes. What is valued is one part of their double or triple labor, the part that is compatible with the symbolic system of extraction and exploitation, the part that is complementary to the form of patriarchy we are currently living, including one part of the me-too movement that focuses on calling out misbehaved men, falsely believing that the law will save us, that by taking care of these rotten apples, it will solve the rottenness of systemic contradiction. Obviously, the law will not. These cancelled men are mere scapegoats. Their cancellation does not grapple with the more profound, systemic, problem, the one formulated in your question: the deep contempt and global devaluation of women.

In developing countries the position of women is different because in some cases women are symbolically speaking much more independent from men. They have non-mixed spaces that have disappeared all across Europe, the US, Canada, and so on. These spaces have to be re-instated. 

Human strike is a process of trans-valuation catalyzing a movement of people who start behaving according to an entirely different system of values. For the current one is intolerable, as I said earlier. If, for instance, I begin educating my children in a different way, because I find the current education to be unbearable, there is nothing you can do about it. If I don’t want to eat in the way you suggest to me, there’s nothing you can do about it. There are of course strong limitations to forms of civil disobedience. But the sense that the values according to which we live are wrong is very present, especially in women. Women have historically developed a very strong sense of what and who is exploited. I expect a lot from them, despite the fact that at the moment we only see little sparks here and there. Today’s forms of struggle may remain rather traditional, but the side women are on houses an immense potential. I do think that it is possible to oppose the inhumane machine of governments and the economy with this surplus of humanity that women have provided for free––at a pure loss––for millennia. They will not have any problem with providing it collectively, as a form of struggle. Channeling their forces in collective formations (which they do already), they could cause a real threat to the system. They have more power than they think. The paradox is that devaluation systematically applies to those who are most fundamental to the preservation of the economy as it is: care workers, front line workers, and so on. Those who are essential to the system are badly paid, are denied existence, while people who are paid the most, who occupy the most parasitical positions, do not have a key role in the infrastructure of the current system.

Catherine Malabou
Paris, May 6, 2021

MC and SG:
Gender theory’s obsession with the de-sexualization of gender presupposes that beings and bodies only benefit from deneutralization and endless fluiditization (by missing an original biological malleability). Your re-thinking of the sexed-ness of being gendered challenges the claim that precedes that presupposition, i.e.: that the sexed body cannot have any meaning outside of a heterosexual matrix.

We are interested in the re-sexualization of gender (after its complete de-sexualization) in relation to the question of the body and its “outsideness”. If the structure of the body is “outside itself” to the extent that it is always partially (never finally) fulfilling the demand to be outside, then it remains, even if in an evasive way, partially attached to itself. You ask, in a dialogical essay with Judith Butler titled “You Be My Body For Me," if the body can get out of itself, that is, detach itself from itself. You write: 

The problem is that, for Hegel, when self-consciousness interiorizes its own bodily and mortal condition, when it understands that it forms its own mortality, that finitude is a plastic process, this interiorization and understanding cause a dissolution of self-consciousness itself. In this way, I think, Hegel challenges the structure of auto-affection. The self that transforms itself does not coincide with itself; it becomes alien to its own body, to its own “I.” This is not a single event, but a structure. Self-transformation is always a hetero-affection. Such is the meaning of this “letting go,” of this absolution, this Aufgeben. A plastic subject can only be detached from its own form. I wonder if the Foucaultian self is capable of such an explosive detachment from itself. Is it not exceedingly attached to its transformation? (636)

You end your remarks with the following question to Butler: 

To what extent are you attached yourself to the Foucaultian articulation of self-transformation, that is, to his possible stubborn attachment to (self-)attachment? (636)

Is your insistence on the plastic essence of sex a form of detachment that challenges Butler's all-pervasive matrix of power marked by substitutability and ambivalence (a matrix that Butler explains so well, but that also seems to mark the limit of their thinking, as it remains attached to the subject's (self)attachment)? How is the plastic essence of sex different from the ontological givenness of never being done with being undone (by this matrix of power)? Is the apriori metamorphosis of sex the body’s explosive detachment from itself, and hence from givenness?

Catherine Malabou:
Thank you so much for this precise question. My problem is that I have to constantly prove that I am not a conservative thinker. You are right that I resist the critique of essentialism as well as theoretical elaborations on ever-changing, polymorphic, always flexible and malleable, identity. I am not a thinker of “becoming.” I have always thought, and have put great effort into attempting to articulate, that plasticity is both a thinking of transformability, a concept that opens the capacity to be outside of itself, as well as, and at the same time as, a thinking of containment. Plasticity has always been at pains to show how it is made from resistance as well. Plastic means both malleable and resisting an excess of deformation. Once the sculpture is done, it cannot find its original form anymore. The problem is to articulate a concept that captures both change and resistance to change. Obviously, this has oftentimes been wrongly understood as a regressive attachment to identity, fixity, etcetera. It would take time for me to develop this. 

MC and SG:
We are with you. 

What puzzles me in the entire discourse on the malleability of gender and identity in general, the ever-changing body, is the lack of an account of the biological being of the body. It is as if the malleability of gender is entirely symbolic, and as such premised on the split between the biological and the symbolic. Take, for instance, Gilles Deleuze’s “body without organs.” I am surprised that no one is denouncing the conservative implications of this notion. If I remember well, he says somewhere about the anorexic body, that is, about his partner Denise Paul “Fanny” Grandjouan who was said to be anorexic “She is free because she chose not to eat and she is fabricating her own ‘BwO’ out of her biological body.” For Deleuze, to be anorexic, or schizophrenic for that matter, is a kind of freedom, a reshaping or remapping of the body. Yes, our bodies are to a certain extent malleable, that’s for sure, but Deleuze puts all his faith in “becoming” which my work challenges.   

I do not think Judith Butler aligns with Deleuze’s argument for bodily malleability. In Bodies That Matter Butler precisely tried to show that the body has a specific matter. However, it’s rather unconvincing in her struggling to say something about chromosomes, a discourse she does not master. Returning to my point, and here I rely on Hegel again: there is no split between the biological and the symbolic: Hegel never separates the former from the latter. At the end of the Science of Logic he writes that life is a triple concept: natural, logical, and spiritual. And the three meanings are circulating into one another, and this is dialectics, that is, the dialectical notion of life. I tried to show that plasticity resists its own de-plasticification, its own dissolution into becoming. To have a plastic body does not mean to have a body without organs, for this is not possible. I am not saying that gender is not constructed, but to dismiss the category of sex, to say that anatomy does not play a role, that it is not resisting its own malleability or fluidification, is inarticulate. 

I like the shift in grammar you suggest: from “sex playing a role in” to thinking sex as “resistance to,” that is as a material phenomenon that is resistant to that which it is formed by. Rather than the conservative view that holds that sex is an undeniable, active agent with unambiguous causal force, a determinant tout court, you think sex as something that has causal force to the extent that it is resistant to itself. Perhaps one could say that the materiality of sex materializes against itself. 

What do we know about sex? No one knows what the role of epigenetics is in the development of sexual characteristics. I don’t think we can say “sex is anatomical”, nor can we say “gender is social.” Who knows? The problem of transgenderism is not only the illustration of the malleability of gender but also a return to the question of anatomy. What is surgery about? What is a body even? I don’t want to appear as a strict Hegelian, but when you look at something, try to look at it from both sides. Contradiction inheres within the thing. 

There is a provocative second part to this question.

It was initially written as a provocative addition to the question on woman. But it is a question on sex too. Reading your development of a conceptual grammar of the vulva’s theoretical anatomy, we were wondering how to characterize the theoretical anatomy of the anus. If it is true that anal sex follows a more causal logic marked by “first on hold, then release” (first you cannot go and then you can go), as distinct from the vulva’s inviolability because only violable, then how to describe an ontology of desire from the perspective of the anus? As you point out via Nancy: there are different kinds of mouths: What is particular about the mouth of the anus?  

If I enlarge the category of woman in my last book on the clitoris, then I surely agree that it can include something that is ungovernable or non-governable. I like your metaphor of no-go-then-go. 

The different mouths or different orifices of the body constitute distinct thresholds of resistance to form, being formed, being interpellated, being violated, being done to, and so on. The many ways in which these multiple gates to anatomical materiality resist and also respond to their outsides interests me.

There is clear link between the violence against women and the violence against homosexuals. You should write about that, it’s interesting.