Promising Ashes

Discover The Secret Of Immotality

Discover The Secret Of Immortality

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Yet although there is much in Foucault's writings that is unacceptable from a queer feminist perspective, I also find in them resources and strategies that can take us forward. It is after all Foucault who has, perhaps more than anyone else, fostered the tactic of listening to that which has been silenced and thus retrieving the marginalized past. It is Foucault whose example of painstaking archival research has shown just how illuminating the development of a genealogy can be, just how unsettling to our "certitudes and dogmatism" it can be to expose "the history of various forms of rationality" (Carrette 1999: 151). Discovering such a history unsettles the notion that the categories of our conceptual symbolic are fixed essences. It shows them, rather, as social constructions, built up of many layers of sedimentation, but not inevitable or rooted in "nature." By such a strategy of liberating ourselves from fixed ideas, by queering the categories of our thought, it is possible to move to new and more creative ways of looking at our selfhood, finding queer openings.

Feminist writers have been using Foucauldian strategies in this way to queer gender. Judith Butler, for example, in Gender Trouble, which has become a manifesto for queer theory, shows how both sex and gender are inscribed on the body by endlessly repeated ascriptions and performances. They are not natural or biological essences. The hegemony of normative heterosexuality, which presents itself as "natural" or as a fixed essence, is thus exposed as a regulatory fiction. Thus gender can be troubled, and the oppressive heterosexual matrix revealed to be the technology of power that it is. Though Butler in many particulars takes issue with Foucault, not least with the implicit misogyny in his representations of women, her highly significant and influential work in queering gender is unthinkable without him.

I suggest that an even more radical destabilization of hegemonic categories can be brought about by queering death. Foucault, as I have said, hints at the need for a genealogy of death. Such a genealogy would show that while death, like sex, is at one level a physical reality, it is no more simply "natural" or part of a biological essence than sex is. Rather, it is multiply inscribed, its meanings and implications sedimented into our subjectivities. The first premise of many a logic lesson, 'All men are mortal," is taken to be a platitude; but it is a platitude which preoccupies Western culture and saturates our symbolic structure. However, once we note that the category of death, and indeed what it means to be mortal, has a genealogy, this insight queers death and reveals the heavy regulatory hand that preoccupation with salvation, mortification, other worlds and immortality has laid upon us, especially through Western Christendom. This genealogy remains to be written; but it is not difficult to discern some of its contours, from Plato's prisonhouse of the soul and the Christendom of late antiquity to the medieval emphasis on the mortification of the flesh and the preoccupation with heaven, hell, and the pains of purgatory, to the modern versions of death and other worlds ranging from colonial conquest and space exploration to cyberspace.

Most particularly, such a genealogy allows for new openings, openings which I have called natality. It is after all not in virtue of our mortality but of our natality that we are capable of new beginnings. Foucault in his efforts towards and aesthetics of the self after the death of God and the subject makes much of liberty, transgression, excess; but as we have seen, he locates it with de Sade in sexual practices which involve the degradation of women. With the queering of mortality and the opening of a category of natality as a locus of freedom and new possibility, I suggest that an aesthetic of the self need not be located in oppression. To be a natal is to be one who has come into new life, one who has openings for growth and flourishing. The flourishing of natals depends on care for one another, and on justice in the distribution of material and social goods. As I have argued elsewhere, it is different in its emphasis than is a symbolic of salvation (Jantzen 1998: 171-203). Rather than looking to immortality or to a life after death it looks to the conditions of life on this earth. Rather than depending on a heroic savior coming to the rescue, it emerges as gradual growth, as a plant grows and flourishes from within, drawing on its environment for its resources. Thus the flourishing of natals is not solitary, as death is, but is part of a web of life. An aesthetics of the self that looks for new possibilities of freedom and beauty and mutuality is better signified, I suggest, in a symbolic of natality opened out by a queering of gender and death, than in Foucault's fixation on mortification, mortality, and masculinity. As with the growth of a plant, there can be no fixed certainties, nor is there any uniform pattern or hegemonic ideal; but the conditions of flourishing can be ascertained.

The development of such a queer aesthetics of the self is opened by Foucault's strategies of displacing hegemonies by genealogies, even if he did not always carry them through himself. As he said, it is "a simple choice, but a difficult work. It is always necessary to watch out for something, a little beneath history, that breaks with it, that agitates it; it is necessary to look, a little behind politics, for that which ought to limit it, unconditionally" (Carrette 1999: 134). And perhaps it is also necessary to look a little beyond Foucault, at genealogies that queer gender and death, in order to sweep up these "promising ashes" (Carrette 1999: 60) and breathe into them a queer language of life.

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