Becoming-Woman and Ontological Dismemberment: Reflections on women and animals
In those cultural areas where the place of women as political subjects has been defined from a Western perspective and from a contractual-related approach, philosophy has a great task to reflect and criticize. From these perspectives, the dichotomies: State-nature, animality-humanity, man-woman, acquire an undeniable relevance, and become material for thought, because it is from these ontological bases that it is possible to explain the place not only for women’s subordination, but also for other fellow travelers: animals’.
This article is interested in problematizing the ontological gesture that has put women in a subordinate and deprived situation. In this search, we will find that women and animals are closely associated: both are the product of an ‘ontological dismemberment operation’ that has naturalized dichotomies which we assume as obvious and universal. The same that occurs with the animality-humanity and State-nature dichotomies, happens with the woman-man kind and their respective inner properties – nature, feeling and instinct to the former; reason, good judgment and public space to the latter. But such a dichotomy is the product of turning on a machine that creates excisions, that divides a substance that we believe is original – the human, the man – that produces an inside and an outside, an original and a derivative. This movement has hierarchical effects on things. Women and animals are the product of such dismemberment work.
What is properly human? What role does the animal have in this feature? These two questions are problematic, because if there was something proper to the human, then it would not be necessary to account for anything outside to define him by, for example, appealing to the animal. The problem is that every time we try to define what is properly human, the animal always appears in a clear or veiled way. The animal not only as a living being, but as life, nature, wilderness, et cetera. When Plato defines human as a ‘featherless biped’, Diogenes of Sinope’s response can only be ironic: he plucks a rooster and presents it as a man. The mockery of the cynic is not mere humor, deep down he is expressing the weakness of the conceptualization of ‘human’, always in need of what is not properly human. These operations to catch what is inherently human have always encountered the problem that, despite the rational and social character associated with humans, they are still part of nature, part of life and animality.
Humans never cease to be animals, but if they want to somehow distinguish themselves from the rest of the living beings, they will have to go through a whole dismemberment operation, a kind of ontological excision. When Aristotle defines human as a politikon zôion (1988, I, 1253a), he recognizes that man is an animal, a living being that, nevertheless, is distinguished from others by its ability to establish political relationships and live in the polis. Because man is a rational being, he can make a cut to put his animality and nature aside. The soul’s division into three: vegetative, sensitive and rational, marks again the same dismemberment operation. The rational soul is superior to the other two, but this division does not cancel the unity of them, instead it marks the predominance of one over the others. Thus, the part that predominates in men is the rational soul, which does not exclude the function of the two other parts, which ensures the unity of the whole. The soul is a unit endowed with parts, but the fact that one of these parts dominates over the others reflects a certain division’s operation, a hierarchization. Western ontology assumes a principle of unity or origin that only when divided gives rise to three things: unity, difference, and hierarchy. From the Aristotelian perspective, although the soul is a unit, it is possible to recognize parts that do not cancel it, even though there are hierarchical differences between the parts. On the contrary, such a division guarantees unity, establishing what is nuclear – the proper – and what is subordinate. It is necessary to make an excision within the unity, which paradoxically helps to preserve it. We are facing a paradoxical excision, since it traces an exteriority that is interior at the same time, and that produces an outside that is the exclusion of an inside and vice versa, the inside is the exclusion of an outside, therefore, the unit is preserved. Such conservation is possible due to the circular character of the inside and the outside – in fact we could ask ourselves if there is a true inside and a true outside. For Giorgio Agamben (2002), this is the main feature of Western political ontology: assuming an original unit on which a hierarchical split can be made, that gives solidity and reality to this unit. This is precisely what happens with man and the task of defining him as a unit. Man is what results from assuming this unity, a substantial starting point that, once divided, acquires solidity. In this operation of ontological dismemberment, what is proper to man appears once animality has been excluded from his interior. This is precisely what Agamben calls the “anthropological machine”. This machine establishes a circular logic between man and animal, because we can only define the first if we separate the second from it, which leads us to suspect the lack of substance of each one. If we can only define one by excluding the other or by stating it negatively – the animal is not rational, it has no language, it does not work, it does not know that it’s going to die, et cetera – we are actually opening up a zone of indiscernibility between both, since we can only define one starting from the other. If dismemberment can only start from an internal excision, this excluded piece is part of the interior. Thus, man is something that only completes himself and can be defined through what he is not, he is always himself and something else, always complete and incomplete, belonging and not belonging.
It is owing to this zone of indecision between human and animal that Western philosophy has often found real trouble; when it tries to define what is proper to men, it paradoxically opens a space where the animal infects the human, animalizes it. That is precisely what happens in Heidegger when he speaks of profound boredom. In profound boredom, things are denied to us, the world vanishes and does not reveal anything; in the same way that the animal remains stunned in its disinhibitor – here Heidegger borrowed a concept from the Estonian ethologist Jacob von Uexküll –, losing the world’s thickness and meaning. The stupor of the animal and the profound boredom of Dasein are equivalent states, in both cases the world becomes thin, blurred, indifferent. Thus, the supposed ontological abyss between both becomes relative, opening a true zone of undifferentiation. In this way, the ontological difference between human and animal dissipates, it seems difficult to separate them. Although there are differences and limits between both, this should not lead us to suppose that these borders are substantial. As Dominique Lestel puts it: “[the borders] of man and animal, those of plant and animal, like those of artifact and animal, remain intrinsically problematic, in all cultures and in Western culture in particular”(2007, 67).
This lack of boundaries and definition between the animal and the human and the paradoxes derived from their circular character, are found again in another fundamental pair of Western political ontology: nature and State. In this couple, we find the same circular character, the same lack of substance and the same zone of indiscernibility. In these pairs – human-animal, State-nature – the artificial character of the excision and the fabricated substantiality of both poles involved can be seen. Such artificiality is repeated in the division of genders, since the properly human belongs to the State order and is therefore conducive to the male; while the proper to animal belongs to the order of nature, therefore, close to the female.
Women, nature and State
What does it mean to sign a contract? From a contractual-bound perspective, it implies abandoning nature’s state. Leaving nature means to put aside selfish interest, instincts, and animality. Man ceases to be man’s wolf when he renounces violence and selfishness and signs the contract. But not all individuals have a place in it. To belong, it is necessary to renounce nature and animality; those who can’t keep both dominated cannot be an integral part of the contract. As stated by Pateman (1988), the contract is fundamentally a male category, since it is only the male who is truly separated from nature. Women, instead, can never fully justify that they are out of nature, because a remnant of animality appears in their behavior and in their body. The animality, the reproductive sphere, should be contained in the private sphere, therefore, women not only are due to the private sphere, they are also subordinate to men. This status of subordination and domination is a consequence of the contract, in which the subject who has been able to tame his nature would have a prerogative over the subject who was linked to the natural world. In Rousseau’s perspective, domination of one sex over the other would not exist in the state of nature, because there is nothing outside of nature that can qualify nature as inferior.
The State, the contract, the law, can be seen as spaces whose substance is due to the fact that there is an ‘outside’ that would be, paradoxically, prior to them: nature. But in fact, there is no such exteriority and no such precedence. In the same way as the anthropological machine assumes that the humanly characteristic results from splitting its animality, which is possible because it assumes a unit of origin: the human. In the same way, between nature and State, no previous one can be declared, since both emerge at the same time, they are the product of an excision in a substance that we suppose is original. But as we have insisted, such precedence is an assumption that is only possible by excision; that is, a cut that produces something like the original. We could well say that splitting is the movement that gives substance to nature and State, and both do not exist before the cut.
Hence the paradox of sovereignty, since the sovereign is at the same time the force that allows us to leave the state of nature – that is why it is prior to the law – and at the same time it is that which is already within the law. Thus, the sovereign is not only the one who decides the exception, but the one who declares the excision: here nature ends, and the State begins. Like any system or circular argument, it is easy to fall into paradoxes. The State is only definable from nature and vice versa. There is no substance or property in one or the other. There is nothing proper to nature or something proper to the State.
Conceiving nature and State as substances with defined properties has implied an assumption of primacy of one over the other. But such a property, as we have tried to argue, is a product of a circular logic. From an ontological point of view, two terms that are defined circularly lack true properties and substance. Rather, they are the product of an excision that gives them the appearance of solidity. It is the same solidity that is found when nature has been deposited as proper to women, and the State and the public sphere as proper to man. The classic philosophical discourse gave multiple arguments to justify such properties; from this it derived that women should be placed on the side of the natural world, closer to the animal and instinct. For Pateman, modern political philosophy is full of arguments that try to support the subordination of women to men. Only through patriarchy is it possible for women to become part of society. The passage from animal life to the social one requires the imposition of patriarchal authority, since only men are in full control of reason and good judgment. In fact, the development of reason, language, and social life, goes hand in hand with the depth of sexual difference, a differentiation that means that women depend on, and are subordinated to men. Women are linked, more forcefully than men, to nature, to a certain animality that dominates them in the form of desires and passions, while the use of reason and the control of instincts are male characteristics.
The circularity of the terms nature-State entails another paradox: between both terms, the only way to define oneself is in terms of lack or excess. Thus, woman, tied to her natural condition, is a lacking being. Long before Freud spoke of the castration complex and the penis envy, for modern philosophers the phallus was the main object of longing and lack, but conceiving it in a broader sense, as reason, as rationality and government of instincts – a conception that we find later in Lacan. As Derrida remarks in his first seminar on the topic The Beast and the Sovereign (2008), the phallus becomes the highest representation of reason for two motives: because reason, like the sovereign, dominates before and after the law, that is, through violence and proper reason. For Derrida, the word reason denotes two things: the reason of the strongest, and here it is only enough to be stronger to be right, and on the other hand, it refers to the good and proper reason, which can be imposed without violence to assert superiority and dominance. Therefore, reason – like the phallus – governs where there is reason, and where there is none. Thus, reason is both the good judgement and the reason of the strongest.
The subordination of women is, according to modern thinkers, the product of the social contract. It is the application of the law and reason that would leave in a secondary place those who cannot completely be detached from nature – women, children, and ‘savages’ –, but this is possible because reason is not a stranger to the state of nature, on the contrary, nature arises from an excision within the State itself: the law arises where the animal has been suspended. We know the criticisms of this idea: the paradox of sovereignty shows us that the force of law and violence continue to be part of the State – from which the paradox between constituent power and constituted power follows. In this way, the state of nature would not have any substantial reality or priority to the State, but neither would the State have priority over nature. The zone of indiscernibility that exists between both shows the lack of substance of each one, since nature implies the State as much as the latter implies the former. However, in modern political discourse, the distinction between animality and reason, between nature and State, seems to be more than clear, but only because such clarity is possible through a circular relationship between the two terms.
The arguments used by modern philosophers to emphasize women’s subordinate condition revolve around lack and deprivation. Nature is at fault. “The sentiment of this deprivation, of this impoverishment, of this lack would thus be the great sorrow of nature” (Derrida, 2002, 388). Quoting Rousseau, Pateman finds that for many modern philosophers, “[w]omen lack the capacity to sublimate their passion and are a perpetual source of disorder, so they must ‘be subjected either to a man or to the judgments of men and they are never permitted to put themselves above these judgments’” (98). Submission implies both, subsuming oneself to good reason and subsuming oneself to the reason of the physically strongest. Rousseau does not hesitate to make reason the characteristic of man, while domestic life and taste correspond to women.
Reason is properly masculine, taste is feminine. In the same way that the State is the realm of reason and nature that of animality. It is clear that for modern philosophy the sphere that is assumed as superior and dominant is the State’s one, the empire of reason, because while in nature everything is given as it is, without any effort, in the empire of reason there is an effort to control instincts and inclinations. The subversive and dangerous character of women resides precisely in the fact that she is the way she is by nature, and that is why she puts her selfish interest above the general interest. In nature, in the midst of wild freedom, there is no work or effort. Life, nature, animality, woman, all bear the same sign, they overflow without order, because they only obey their own desire. According to Pateman, for modern political philosophy: “Women are what they are by nature; men must create themselves and public life, and they are endowed with the masculine capacity to do so” (176). For this reason, women cannot participate in public life, as they are unable to subscribe to the universal. Anyone who does not submit to the universal, who has enough by merely being alive, without submitting to reason, deserves to be subjugated. Hegel, another key figure in modern political philosophy, exposes it in Philosophy of Right: “As a living creature a man may be compelled to do a thing; his physical and other external powers may be brought under the force of another” (2001, § 91). Sufficient ground to allege the submission of women: “Women cannot enter into civil public life because they are naturally lacking in the capacity to submit to ‘the demands of universality’. Women, Hegel says, ‘are educated –who knows how? – as it were by breathing in ideas, by living rather than by acquiring knowledge’” (Pateman, 176). Men, on the other hand, dominate themselves and push reason to dominate nature, making an excision in him and mutilating his natural part. This dominance activity is real work, a struggle; to split is to take off a piece, a dismemberment that is not only painful but agonistic. This operation raises what is proper to man: his life within the limits of reason and the State. On the other hand, a woman does not have to cut anything, she only has to submit to her husband, but she does so guided by her feeling and sensitivity, not by the struggle and the work of reason.
In fact, the main representatives of modern political theory – Rousseau, Hobbes, Kant mainly – agree on this warning: women must be left out of the State because of their poor ability to separate themselves from nature, and to control their sexuality: “women are incapable of transcending their sexual passions and particular attachments and directing their reason to the demands of universal order and advantage. Women, therefore, cannot take part in the original contract” (Pateman, 102). Before Hegel, Kant contributed some arguments on the subject. For the philosopher of Königsberg, although each human being possesses reason, and, therefore, the ability to abide by universal laws, such aptitude is also sexually differentiated. Women do not have a full place in civic and political life, because they are trapped in the world of their feelings and desires, which prevents them from being subsumed by universal norms.
Reason must be dominant over nature. Animality, sexuality, desires, and instincts must be subsumed under reason – State, law, contract, men. And that who possesses reason and exercises it fully, in public and civil life, does not have to turn to anyone outside to govern himself: when he governs himself by reason, the man is his own master. “Kant states that ‘women in general have no civil personality, and their existence is, so to speak, purely inherent.’ They must, therefore, ‘be kept well away from the state, and must also be subject to their husbands – their masters – in marriage’” (Pateman, 169). The distinction between nature and State can also be read as a difference between women and men. Animality, life, zoē, that is, being tied to nature, represent a deficiency, reasons why women should remain subordinate. Is it necessary to overcome such a state to deny these natural and animal components? Or without giving up these components, could we connect them as arguments that can open another political perspective on women?
King Kong or how to become-woman
When Deleuze wrote about becoming and minority, he was looking for elements to problematize the figure of man in the Western tradition. When we ask: “What is it to be human?” it is probable that we think of the image of a white man, Caucasian, European, rational, heterosexual, and practicing a Judeo-Christian religion. This is the figure of the major, the figure that stabilizes the concept of man and that establishes an origin and a unit from which all differences can be cataloged: woman, indigenous, black, child, animal, et cetera. All that which does not reach the characteristics of the major must be subordinate to it. It is what Deleuze identifies as minor. The minor, unlike the major, can never constitute a substance. We’ve exposed above how many fundamental dichotomies of political thought start from making an excision in a substance that we suppose as original. The split results in the establishment of a hierarchy: something is original and something is secondary. The major is precisely the figure of the original, the unit that is taken as a starting point and as the principle of intelligibility for the rest. Thus, the major is reason, the minor is nature. The major is solid, well defined. Moreover, the minor is derived, the product of a dismemberment, dependent on what has been divided. But it is due to its incompleteness, its lack of solidity, that the minor is more allied of becoming. Becoming is not only changing, but it also rather means inhabiting a between, a zone of indiscernibility, in which the solidity of a substance does not take place. For this reason, becoming is always a becoming-minor, since in the major there is no full becoming, due to its fixed, complete and molar character. The becoming is always minor, since it draws lines of flight, of profanation on what we believe is safe and well established. Becoming excludes clearly defining oneself as human or animal, so as to become a singularity that blurs the completeness and substance of each term instead. Thus, everything minor is always a becoming and all becoming is towards the minor. There are many ways of becoming-minor: animal, woman, child, vegetable, et cetera. They are all figures of passage, zones of indiscernibility, ephemeral residences in between that question the solidity of the terms that we thought clear: animal-man, woman-man.
Becoming is not imitating, for Deleuze and Guattari it is the opposite. Instead, becoming would be not being able to adjust to any model. As Judith Butler thinks, when we try to adjust to the model, we end up inventing something else, we show no respect for the mold and expose its fragile and artificial character: “[…] there is a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, who do not resemble the woman or the child as very different molar entities. […] Now, becoming a woman is not to imitate this entity, nor to transform into it” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980, 337). In this sense, it is not only women who would become women, rather all becoming would have to begin with becoming a woman, since women are the greatest disruptor of the major.
Becoming-woman doesn’t consist of imitating women, but of emitting particles that allow us to express and experience a micro-femininity, a series of affects, that allows us to experience feminine verbs, without knowing exactly what a woman is. We know what a woman is according to the canon of the major, but we still do not know what a woman can do outside of that canon. From this perspective, the first ones involved in becoming a woman are women themselves, because it is precisely they who still do not know what a woman can do. And knowing what a woman can do does not mean searching for a substance, but it is rather a true exploration, the search for what can be done, before knowing what she is. To explore what a woman can do is to begin a work of profanation in the face of dichotomies that we believe essential, a work of relativization of properties that we believe to be immobile.
This work of exploration and profanation takes on the work of Judith Butler, the figure of performativity. Butler does not ask what woman is, nor what gender is, but what each individual can be when trying to characterize the idea of being a man or being a woman. Nobody embodies gender, nobody is woman or man in the ideal sense, each person opens creative possibilities with their body and their acts that will never incarnate man or woman as models, as substances.
Although we could accept that genders, male and female, exist as models, their reality is limited to their ideal character, since people in flesh and blood never come to embody them; rather each subject is their singular doing, and this performativity is what gives consistency to the gender. Here, we have four important consequences. In the first place, each subject’s gender does not precede its performativity; secondly, we can only get an idea of what is characteristic to each gender from individual and singular expressions, that is to say, the most improper; in the third place, each performance opens a zone of indiscernibility between gender as an ideal and as an individual manifestation. Each of us is an example of the impossibility of faithfully incarnating any of the two base genders, but each of us also exposes the content of those genders as ideals. Finally, such a performative conception tells us that these two generic poles are actually artificial constructions, which have supposed a first excision on a substance that we also suppose original. In this sense, criticizing the political-ontological discourse that justifies the subordination of women would not imply making her a new substance or a new major referent, nor is it an attempt for women to assume the properties previously assigned to men. It is not about reproducing old excisions. A true subversive practice would imply assuming that there are no substances or natural divisions, it implies exploring women’s possibilities without assuming that there is a well-defined inside and outside: reason-animality, nature-State. As Despentes (2019) puts it, we can only know these possibilities if we explore this area of indiscernibility, the one that opens when the division of genders is not assumed as destiny. Becoming-woman would be, above all, the exploration of this zone in which the characteristic of each gender is not a fatal excision. Despentes uses King Kong to get an idea of this zone. Becoming-woman would not seek to give rise to a new substance or to simply invert values. Instead, it implies refusing the sovereign gesture that makes permanent excisions and supposes an original. King Kong is presented in the movies as a mass of hair with no defined sex. We cannot be sure whether it is female or male, we know that it is an animal, it is sometimes aggressive, but in several scenes it is more sensitive and attentive than any human. It opens a true zone of indiscernibility between the female and the male, between the animal and the man. “[King Kong] is beyond the female and beyond the male, it is the hinge between man and animal, between adult and child, between good and bad, primitive and civilized, black and white. Hybrid, prior to the obligation of the binary. The island of the film is the possibility of a polymorphous and hyper-powerful form of sexuality” (Despentes, 130).
It is not about returning to a place prior to the excision, and to find a new origin or a new substance; it is rather about trying to think and experiment without assuming neither of the two. Thus, women would not have to deny animality or nature, they would only have to take them as becoming, not as fixed divisions. The most radical revolt would begin there, in becoming, avoiding both the hypostasis of genders, and the sovereign gesture that produces excisions as if they were natural marks. It is not a question of rejecting animality and nature, but profaning them, taking them to new uses, unsuspected ones, taking us with them to areas where it is not possible to discern whether we inhabit reason or nature, or if we are properly men or women, because we still do not know what a body can do when it does not allow itself to be fatally marked by the dismemberment machine.
Ontology has almost always functioned like a dismemberment machine, but all the excisions it produces have always been artificial. Yet, it is not about reversing things and proclaiming a new original. It is about not starting from the logic of property, but to recognize the improperty of all beings, including man himself. If everything is improper, if everything is lacking, then there is neither deprivation nor lack, since there is no essence or property to fulfill. This implies questioning the first gesture that constitutes ontology: the need to make excisions that seem natural and fixed. What does this say about women? Animals and women owe all of their characteristics – and therefore all their subordination – to the excision by which an inside and an outside, an original and a copy, were traced. The way to transcend such a state of deprivation is not simply by flipping the terms and restoring the lack. As with the animal, in women it would not be a question of asking what they are, what women are as such. But, rather, to explore what they can do. Not substance, but becoming, outside the dismemberment machine that has left them as derivative, lacking and subordinate. Man and woman would be equally deprived, and therefore, not deprived of anything, but whatever singularity (Agamben, 2000), without justification or privilege. Questioning the ontological dismemberment that has established substantial places and essential properties is a way of exploring indiscernibility and becoming: not what we are, but what we can, and also what we cannot. The task is then to give rise to an ontological scandal. For Žižek (2015) it is the gesture in which, after lifting all the veils that jealously guard the most precious essences, we realize that there is nothing there.
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