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INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH GROSZ

by Robert Ausch, Randal Doane and Laura Perez

This is the text of an interview with Elizabeth Grosz, Professor of Comparative Literature at the
State University of New York, Buffalo, by Robert Ausch, Randal Doane and Laura Perez, three
members of the Found Object editorial collective. It followed a talk presented by Grosz at the
City University of New York Graduate School and University Center and sponsored by the
Center for the Study of Culture, Technology, and Work. The interview considers several
variegated themes, including the significance of Deleuze’s philosophy; Lacan, psychoanalysis
and feminism; humanism, biological systems and complexity theory; and a reconsideration of the
dominance of identitarianism in feminism, queer theory and a radical politics. Grosz is the author
of numerous works, including Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism; Jacques Lacan:
A Feminist Introduction, and Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory and Futures.

Robert Ausch Welcome Elizabeth Grosz, and thank you very much for meeting with us. We’re
going to start with a broad question. In your work, one of the things that seems to come up is that
it has consistently shown a major Spinozist and Deleuzian influence. For instance, in your work
on the body you turn to Deleuze. In your most recent work on time you look to Deleuze and the
three figures that inspired him–Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche–to rethink time as it has been
conceptualized by the natural sciences. What do you think draws you to these authors? How does
it shape our understanding of ontology and epistemology and where do you see it taking us?

Elizabeth Grosz Good question. What they share is first, an anti-Cartesianism, a refusal of the
mind/ body or nature/ culture oppositions. Second, they share a dynamic rather than a static
ontology, an ontology rooted in becoming rather than being. And third, they share a privileging
of questions of ontology over questions of epistemology. This means that these various,
historically-linked figures form a kind of counter-history to the dominant theoretical strands
making up the history of philosophy. There are, of course, other figures that could be included in
such a counter-history, but Deleuze has provided us with a powerful starting point from which to
work backwards to claim such a history.

Robert What about Deleuze specifically? What do you think he adds to the equation?

Elizabeth Deleuze is an incredibly intelligent, careful reader of exactly what he calls the
wayward texts of the history of philosophy: his readings of these and other figures (Kant, Hume,
Leibniz, to mention a few). Although most readers are primarily attracted to his later and
collaborative works with Guattari, it was his earlier works and particularly his reading of those
three philosophers that drew me to him. What he managed to do at one and the same time was to
show the intent and systematicity of these various philosophies, the fact that each of them
created a nugget of a system that was a machine that worked perfectly coherently, and yet each
of them had something in that machine that veered off from the very tradition that it initiated.
Although I was very attracted to Deleuze’s writings, it took me a very long time–over twenty
years–to feel more confident with reading him: it involved sorting out the systematicity of his
work from its waywardness, and thinking the wayward as the productive rather than decaying
element. What Deleuze showed is that there were other philosophical methodologies than what
had prevailed in the mainstream texts and emanated from Cartesianism.

Robert Do you want to say more about that different philosophical methodology?

Elizabeth Well, what Deleuze does so well is a two-fold maneuver: he provides a close
reverential analysis of the integrity and cohesion of the philosophical system he is analyzing; and
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at the same time, he indicates the play of concepts, forces, relations, that the text produces
beyond its systematicity which can be used elsewhere, outside that systematicity. He refuses
what is conventionally understood as philosophical critique: he does not present a system in
order to see what is wrong with it, how it fails, how it can be criticized. Although, for example,
he is not particularly Kantian, you will not see anywhere in his work a critique of Kant, although
he presents a patient and meticulous analysis of Kant’s major writings. He has a reverence and
respect for the text while at the same time being different and distant from it. I’ve never seen
anyone write like that. What remains attractive about Deleuze’s position is that it shows the
allure of the text under analysis, and a refusal to identify with it. He is arguably one the best
readers of Nietzsche today; and there is no one who reads Bergson better. The same is true of his
reading of Foucault and all of the figures that he deals with. He’s a very smart reader and he’s a
very politically and ontologically astute reader.

Randal Doane Moving away from the Cartesian notions of being in favor of a more
ontologically open idea of becoming, I wonder if you could talk about where you’ve been and
where you’re going, in terms of your own work. In Becomings, you’ve added Darwin to the mix
of Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze, and for me, your intellectual project recalls Althusser’s idea
of the future anterior, in terms of the impossibility of seeing where you are from where you’ve
been...

Elizabeth Which is Irigaray’s idea too.

Randal Certainly. I’m interested in particular in your turn away from Lacan. Can you talk about
that in terms of the ways in which Lacan served you and the post-feminists so well. And why
that isn’t the case for you, at least for the moment.

Elizabeth That’s a very good question too. And it’s one that I must admit I enacted more
through gut-level feeling than through careful reflection. It is good to be given a chance to reflect
on it now. Lacan was very important for me, but psychoanalysis has always been quite limited in
its scope and relevance. This is something that Freud himself understood very well. The limit of
psychoanalysis is that of Oedipus, as feminists have known for a long time. This is both its
usefulness for feminism and its limit, the point beyond which feminism can’t go. As a bedrock of
psychoanalytic theory, I don’t know how to get around Oedipus or, in Lacan’s formulation, the
Name of the Father. There is no psychoanalysis without Oedipus. Lacan rendered it much more
complicated, less biological, and more linguistic and cultural. But it ended up in the same dead
end, the same intractability, which is as unmoving in the biological form as it is in lingustic
formulations. The linguistic is as difficult to transform as the biological! There is no logic
outside that which is given by the phallus; there is no identity other than that given by the
phallus. In the long run, this is an unlivable position for both men and particularly women. I
don’t disagree that patriarchal civilization is such that all subjects are phallic, oedipalized,
structured by family logics, but psychoanalysis has no way of conceptualizing how this might
ever change.

Randal Along those lines, I’m thinking of two things: the turn to notions of pre-oedipal non-
identity, and in terms of Lacan, having to go back to Freud, again for your own purposes. There
is almost a recuperation of the biological Freud and I’m thinking of Beyond the Pleasure
Principle in particular.

Elizabeth The biological Freud is much more interesting than most of his readers realize, and
much more than the linguistic Lacan allowed. There are elements in the later Lacan, where
Lacan uses models and concepts derived from fields within the sciences, like mathematics,
biology and genetics to illuminate the question of linguistics and psychology, and here he comes
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much closer to the early Freud’s insights about the biological and psychological threshold. There
is a lot in Freud that connects him to Spinoza and Nietzsche, and there are some remarkable
convergences between Freud and Bergson (they both, for example developed not unrelated
theories of dreams and humor or laughter), who were contemporaries. Freud’s biology, his
neurophysiology, the early texts of Freud that most people, especially feminists, don’t look at as
psychoanalytic, texts like Project for a Scientific Psychology connect his work quite directly to
these predecessors. These early texts are fascinating and deserve careful rereading–indeed there
are some feminists now doing this kind of rereading. Nonetheless one of the problems with
psychoanalysis, which is where it departs dramatically from the Spinozist/ Nietzschean history,
is that the only way forward is the way back. That revolution, transgression, production
always involve a return to the past. What Deleuze says about the Freudian story, and I think
he’s right, is that psychoanalysis is fundamentally boring: it is the same story all the time,
Oedipus everywhere. It means, for example, and to be reductionistic, that we’re all going around
wanting to sleep with our mothers and kill our fathers, which, frankly, is boring. It doesn’t have
any explanatory value in the long run.

Randal But doesn’t this speak to the way Oedipus doesn’t "take"?

Elizabeth The point is that it’s the template by which we measure either our success or failure
and that is the problem. I agree, Oedipus doesn’t take for most of us, or it takes only to some
degree. But if that’s the model of transgression–the degree to which it takes or does not–then
we’re incredibly limited in the terms by which we understand transgression. It means that all
transgression is really familial in origin, and projective in operation. Every struggle is really a
struggle about something else! We’re always trying to get back to our mothers at some basic
level, which I don’t buy as a model for politics at all. I want to be clear about this. I think
psychoanalysis is incredibly important in its sphere, which is exactly the one Freud delimited,
the sphere of psychotherapy, subjective identity, the wishes, desires, dreams and symptoms of
private individuals. I think it is an important, perhaps even indispensable, discourse. But, it has
become the discourse, or one of them, that now inscribes the political and I don’t think that it is
able to carry that burden. I’m also not sure that either Freud or Lacan would want to see it
carried that way. And this is one of the problems I have with ‡i‡ek. I don’t know if we can, for
example, derive a theory of fascism from psychoanalysis. I don’t want to because fascism is
more than a psychology, more than psychoanalysis, more than economics or any one discourse.

Robert What about the Frankfurt School?

Elizabeth I have the same problem with the Frankfurt School and also with Althusser and the
French tradition of Freudo-Marxism. It seems to me that this is exactly the problem of linking
psychoanalysis to politics. Psychoanalysis is exactly about micropolitics, if we want to call it
that. The structure of libido, identification, desire. It is not unconnected to macropolitics, but it is
different from and irreducible to it, as it is in turn irreducible to the larger political order. So
Hitler’s psychology might well be a very interesting question to ask but it doesn’t explain
anything about Nazi Germany. And Freud or Lacan might well be useful might for asking the
question, "What is his psychology?" or even, "What is the psychology of those who followed
him?" But it still doesn’t explain anything that we need to explain: the structure, force and form
of fascism, its capacity to take many forms, to appeal to many individuals and social groups in
quite different ways in different contexts. I don’t want to rule it out as irrelevant, but it is
relevant in a much smaller place than many of us had previously thought.

Randal Do you think this move almost happens too quickly?


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Elizabeth It is not mediated enough. I’m quite sure that there is a link between the psychic and
the political, there’s no doubt. But it is highly mediated, indirect or oblique, which is what
Deleuze reminds us of frequently. Which is why transformations in subjectivity don’t
generally affect political changes in themselves or vice versa. There is a lag between them and
this is, in a way, something that has explained why psychoanalysis has always been so useful in
feminism, given the critique of patriarchy and given that, even as feminists, we still have a
patriarchal unconscious. Psychoanalysis has explained that whatever social structure we have,
our unconscious is going to be at least a function or two behind. So, yes, I think it’s very useful,
but I think it’s very difficult. I still teach psychoanalytic theory to students. I vowed to give it up
many years ago but I can’t largely because its still frames the terms by which we today
understand sexual politics. It is my hope that we may some day be able to move beyond this
formulation of subjectivity, of Oedipus and the phallus to something more open and
indeterminate, something in the order of Deleuzian desire.

Randal Along those lines, as we talk about the possibility of feminist paradigms, and thinking
about how you contrast Butler’s ideas on recognition and performativity with anti-humanist
theories of imperceptibility, forces wielding power, and the problems behind that. Can you talk
about that problem, that possibility?

Elizabeth There are two ways in which we can describe existing politics. First, through the
notion of an agent or a subject, who performs an act which produces a certain kind of identity.
Butler, I think, is probably its best proponent but not its only one. Eve Sedgwick also develops a
similar notion of performativity and, of course, it is closely linked to both Derrida and J. L.
Austin. What we agree on is the idea that identity is performed or produced through action and
not simply, as psychoanalysis suggests, through identification. But I don’t think we can ignore
that there is a distinction between an action and a performance. An action doesn’t require an
audience in the way that a performance does. What I understand or have called the politics of
imperceptibility is a politics in which it is not the subject who acts, is an agent, produces its own
identity retroactively, but forces in and through the subject. It is a theory of agency which
situates it below the level of the subject, as Nietzsche suggests, on the level, perhaps, of cells
themselves. What acts are forces, and these forces are not the effects of a subject but its causes,
they are not the intentional object of a subject, but something altogether outside the subject. This
philosophy of imperceptibility is about the capacity to act, whether or not it is received by
someone as its audience or addressee. I think that I have shifted from Butlerian performativity to
Deleuzian impersonality primarily through the rejection of both psychoanalysis and
Hegelianism, two very powerful sources of influence on Butler. Acts have their effects even if no
one receives them.

Randal And always positing that imagined or real other.

Elizabeth Yes, I think the thing is that acts don’t have an "other." Only Subjects have an "other,"
and in a way, that’s partly the advantage of the Deleuzean model over the Hegelianism or
psychoanalysis, in which there can’t be a self without an "other." Therefore the "other" has a
peculiar control over the subject and the subject has to negotiate with the other as its compromise
for existing in a world peopled by others. The beauty of Deleuze’s model is that it’s not clear that
we need an "other" and, if there is one, we have no capacity to master this "other."

Robert But, isn’t there a problem with trying to move Butler and others in that camp away from
an the idea of an "other" because, for instance, they already don’t deal very well with the
question of nature and this shift might have the effect of exacerbating this already problematic
tendency?
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Elizabeth I don’t see that the other is in any way necessary for considering nature. To see it in
terms of otherness, is already to anthropomorphize it, to make it our counterpart, our equivalent,
to give us the right to see ourselves in it. This is why nature is neither other nor ground. It is
openness, resource, productivity. You’re right, I think, there’s an elision of the question of
nature and of matter in Butler’s work. Mattering becomes more important than matter! Being
"important," having significance, have a place, mattering, is more important than matter,
substance or materiality. That’s exactly why the other and the audience are so crucial to her
framework, and why the Other is reduced to a human other in her writing and in that of most
feminist theorists. Most, or at least many, feminists working in the post-humanist tradition,
ironically, date themselves from a sort of Hegelianism: there are some exceptions, but not very
many, who are Nietzscheans.

Robert Why do you think it’s so hard to move beyond humanism or this supposed "post-
humanism," which is, of course, still a humanism?

Elizabeth Because subjectivity is very much at stake, so that this isn’t just a discourse about
abstract ideas, it’s also a discourse about us. This is particularly strong in feminism, where the
desire is to produce discourses that talk about us directly, that represent us in our personal
intimacy. This is part of the Hegelian heritage, the lure or trap of recognition, the irresistably
appeal, it seems, of the other offering a way of understanding ourselves. The discourses in which
we recognize ourselves, those that pander to the narcissistic structures that Lacan talked about
are the ideal force of this impulse to reveal and to identify. I'm not interested in self-revelatory
discourses, in confessional discourses, in talking about myself in this revelatory kind of way or
in hearing about others. It doesn’t really tell me very much about them. In fact, it tells me a lot
about their conscious self-representation, but not much about them. So I don’t suggest for a
minute that Butler was doing this in her work, but I think she is above all committed to asking
the question "How can women make a difference?" My suggestion is that we maybe sometimes,
in some situations–perhaps more than we can bear–we can’t make a difference, that the situation
is larger than our capacity to contain it.

Laura Perez This leads to the question of the challenge that you’re making to the project of
feminism– that it can no longer continue to be simply about liberating women, but about
redirecting the forces that produce feminism. Can you talk about how that differs politically from
what Butler or other radical and/or queer feminisms have done?

Elizabeth What I’m interested in doing is not as disconnected from Butler’s position as it may
sound. But there is a major difference between us: I take Irigaray’s work as the most powerful
version of feminism, and I know that she is someone who Butler is very critical of. You know, it
occurs to me that part of what Irigaray is saying is that we can’t really say what woman is. At
best what we can do is produce a terrain on which experiments can be undertaken, so that that
question can remain open. The interesting question is not who am I, what am I, how am I
produced, or how is my identity stabilized–although these aren’t irrelevant questions. The more
interesting question is how do I act, what enables me to do this, what acts in me when I act? And
in switching to the question of acting from the question of identity is a powerful shift. It’s a
different way of understanding how we organize, what in us is organized, whether we require a
plan, and whether we require a certain intentionality. These things are all at stake. She’s very
interested in things like legal rights and a certain kind of legal egalitarianism which I find very
problematic. Things like gay marriage…

Robert To be fair, she might object to that characterization of her work. I think that she would
distinguish herself from, let’s say, the mainstream gay and lesbian movement which is interested
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in those kinds of things. Her work is focused on a more subversive and anti-normative sexual
politics…

Elizabeth No doubt. But, I think what she wants to say is something like, "its important to
legalize gay marriage–not in order to sanctify gay structures by those proposing heterosexuality–
but the reverse, in order to unhinge the apparent naturalness of normative marriage and
normative heterosexuality." But nonetheless, I think as a strategy it does require that one get
access to the very thing that has been naturalized in order to denaturalize it. And in some sense
she’s not wrong, denaturalizing is important . But it is not my project. We have, by now, been
denaturalized as much as we need to be. What I’m much more interested in sort of renaturalizing
that which was taken away, redynamizing a certain kind of nature. I’m not interested in equality.
I’m much more interested in the project, although I haven’t written on it at all, of producing
sexually differentiated ontologies rather than rights, and thus of refusing a common ground
which is the refusal of that capacity to take on a mimicking denaturalization.

Robert I’m going to ask the horribly reductive question that I would never ask under any other
circumstances, but because the question is begged: What about the gay couple that is denied
health insurance for their spouse, or who doesn’t get to see their lover in the hospital…

Elizabeth As far as all of that, I agree, I’m not against equal rights or domestic rights or the right
to marriage. But, for me, it’s not the basis of political struggle. I certainly wouldn’t want to say
to a gay couple that you can’t get married. The more interesting question is why you want to,
what’s at stake, what has everyone else invested such that you want to. And this question is even
more clear if you look at gays in the military. I don’t want to join the military. I don’t want to
stop anyone else, but it seems to me that it’s quite a dubious line.

Randal This comes up in the first two essays of your latest book, Becomings, the idea of a
different kind of ethics, of a new productivity without being limited by having these goals. Once
the goals are achieved if there is nothing to sustain you beyond getting to a certain point the idea
of, as you suggested, direction without destination.

Elizabeth That’s right. It is a scary idea, direction without destination, because what it entails is
that we never finish struggling. There is this wish on the part of every political activist and I feel
it sometimes very strongly myself that "lets just win this, lets just get it over with." We would
like to win on that particular issue …

Randal It’s a desire for closure.

Elizabeth But the problem is that struggles like these are never over. Not in our lifetime not in
our children’s or their children’s. The struggles against homophobia, racism, patriarchy, poverty,
etc. are not resolvable. It is kind of depressing to think that I’m not ever going to lie in the sun
and relax and forget about patriarchy. Its true, though, I’m not. So we want destinations, we want
final results. Of course we never accomplish the final results we want. We accomplish some
other results. I’ve always thought that political actions are never effective. I mean the protests
against the Vietnam war didn’t stop the Vietnam war, the military campaign stopped the
Vietnam war. The Vietnam war protests served another purpose that produced something else
than the successful end of the war. They were very well organized protests, they had very clear
cut goals, clear cut ends, but they never achieved them. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t
successful. They were successful but in doing something else. And that’s always the case, that’s
always what politics are about. You never quite know what it is you’re accomplishing until
afterward, and its never what you set out to achieve.
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Randal ... an endless struggle?

Elizabeth The idea of endless struggle means that you can’t be innocent about the struggles in
the past; endless struggle entails that you have to pace yourself, you have to negotiate between
pleasure and pain, between winnable and unwinnable strategies and struggles and so on. But I
think that there is also this other idea that we have to activate now, that we have to have this goal
now. I agree with you that the more we abandon the specific goal, the more we have the right to
live life politically, but not always. We have to introduce more pleasure into politics, and that’s
why I think in a way the kind of Y2K version of the Vietnam War is not the World Trade
Organization riots in Seattle, but computer hackers, the guys that are bringing down eBay, CNN
and the CIA. They’re very sophisticated right now, and bring with them a very different
understanding of politics.

Robert Now we have a couple more questions and these are going to be more specific and a
little bit more interrogative. This question is a sort of hybrid one that another member of our
collective, Michael Menser and I had and it has to do with the concept of forces that you use in
your most recent work. One of the things that seems to be clear in Deleuze is that, if you look at
the development of his work from Nietzsche and Philosophy to A Thousand Plateaus, at least on
the surface, he seems to really drop the language of forces that he used very elaborately in
Nietzsche and Philosophy, and moves to a new set of concepts, ideas like assemblages, strata,
and territorialization. Another way of looking at this transformation is a move away from the
language of Newtonian physics which Nietzsche was sort of steeped in, and more toward
Darwinism, molecular biology, geology, and mathematics.

Elizabeth Nietzsche was very well steeped in the language of science including the language of
evolution, if not Darwinism.

Robert Absolutely, yes. But there is a transformation in Deleuze.

Elizabeth Yes. He puts Nietzsche’s work into the force-field of physics, and geophysics if you
like, and allowed this notion of force to become ramified, complex, divergent, articulating itself
in terms of self-organization and the asystematicity of elements of all systems. He uses that
Nietzschean concept of force and puts it into the idea of a field, which is then stratified, which
then structures and desediments organization, producing assemblages, etc. In other words, he
renders it both dynamic and three-dimensional.

Robert Is there not a mechanism and a Newtonianism that comes with the concept of force that
Nietzsche uses that might introduce some problems?

Elizabeth I don’t think so. Nietzsche is already beyond that Newtonian model. There is no doubt
that Descartes understood the idea of force mechanistically and as external: force is what
intervenes from outside. While Nietzsche continued to use the language of mechanics, it is from
a post-Newtonian understanding of physics, from the growing orientation of physics, following
Boltzman, towards populations rather than individual units, and tendencies rather than laws.
Nietzsche’s mapping of the forces of action and reaction provides a certain model of territory
and of power, whose language, in the hands of those who followed Nietzsche, both in philosophy
and in science, becomes more and more sophisticated. I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the more
primitive language of Nietzsche. I’m not sure that I don’t prefer Nietzsche to Deleuze just as I
prefer Freud to Lacan. There is an added sophistication and complexities, new torsions and
tensions, that happens when the contemporary theorists read the older theorists which makes it
more directly useful, at least to the non-expert, in a way that it wouldn’t have been. However, the
richness is already in the older theorists, in potential, as it were. Nietzsche is contradictory in a
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way that Deleuze isn’t; Freud is incoherent in a way that Lacan isn’t. Lacan is incoherent in
another way, but it’s that richness that allows post-Lacanian readings or post-Deleuzian readings.
I find Nietzsche more useful than Deleuze partly because Deleuze himself is so bounded up in a
sort of hermetic terminology. I think we in the present really haven’t yet absorbed what late 19th
century thought at its most complex has to offer us today.

Laura I have a question about classificatory systems. Your work problematizes but seems to
maintain a distinction between the categories of the living and the non-living, and I’m wondering
if you could talk more about that. I’m thinking of Deleuze’s notion of the machinic phylum,
which makes a direct linkage between the organic and the inorganic, as does Keith Ansell
Pearson’s Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition. Pearson refers
to the strange status of the virus as alive and dead at the same time, and organic and inorganic at
the same time.

Elizabeth This is something that’s been fascinating to me for a number of years, partly because
of my recent interest in Darwin. And there is a conundrum in Darwinism that Darwin himself
didn’t really raise and that is, if life has evolved, from what, out of what, has it evolved? It’s a
very simple question and the answer is very simple too: life evolved from something non-living.
It’s a question that’s coherent: it implies the possibility of various research strategies. Biologists
have been working for a very long time on trying to simulate these pre-biotic conditions of
biological existence, the moment of transition from matter to life that enabled life to emerge with
the complexity it exhibits today. There are two ways in which we can think this border between
the living and the non-living. Historically, that is, it terms of a theory of the origin of the
universe, or conceptually, in terms of different types of systematicity. The historical model has
dominated the first seventy years of the twentieth century, but now, with theories of self-
organization, such as Stuart Kauffman’s, we have accounts of the spontaneous generation of
order from the mixing of complex chemicals. How did the emergence of the first life-form, the
proto-ameba, happen? That’s the biological question which is now being addressed to a large
extent by various experiments.

Laura Isn’t there is an assumption that the Earth itself is non-living?

Elizabeth Its clearly not living at the moment in which its being generated through the big bang;
in other words, before it is an Earth. However early you want to put that question, you can
always put it earlier. So, let us say the Earth was living, we can still ask the question, the
Darwinian question, what was it before it was living? Right now, many cosmologists are
occupied with this same question in their own field: what happened before the Big Bang? The
big contraction must have been there before the big expansion. The moment you raise questions
in those historical-physical kind of ways, you’re always able to ask the question of what
occurred before? The second way that this question is being addressed is through computer
modeling, which has only been possible in the last 50 or 60 years, particularly since general
systems theory and the development of the computer models of systems, including biological
systems. One of the key figures here is John Von Neumann. But more recently, one of the key
figures working on the computer simulations of life, evolution and emergence is Christopher
Langton, whose name is now closely associated with the new field of ‘artificial life’, or ‘a-life’.
He is looking at the distinction between inorganic and the organic, or what he and others have
paradoxically described as inorganic life. He has a definition of life which links it to growth,
self-organization and reproduction, which makes it relatively substrate-neutral. In his
understanding it remains an open question regarding the degree to which various informational
structures that are growing, self-organizing and reproductive depends on a particular chemical
base. Life as we know it is carbon-based. Langton has been developing what he understands are
silicon-based life-forms, life-forms that are computer generated and regulated by software, by
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silicon-chips. His work demonstrates that it is at least conceivable that we could think of life
outside the form of the carbon-based existence that we know.

Laura These questions have been asked about artificial intelligence.

Elizabeth It is significant that many of the resources for a-life emerged from the earlier research
on artificial intelligence. But the latter is preoccupied with a simulation of the brain and
cognitive functions that still divides the brain from the rest of the body. A-life takes as its object
something broader and more inclusive, life, and its inherent potential for intelligence. Among
some of the issues at stake in this difference is the status of mind or brain, and its links to the
evolution of the body. A-life theorists have a number of interests, among them, interest in
borderline cases, cases of existence that are not quite living, nor simply chemical. This may
explain why one object of fascination for a-life is the status of the virus. What is a virus? To
what extent is a computer ‘virus’ simply a metaphor dependent on biological viruses? Is it really
a virus? The answer is quite complicated partly because we tend to believe that there is a clear-
cut characterizable entity, a definable organism, a biological virus, which we know and
understand already, and because we know it, we can simply make an analogy between the living
body and the computer, and thus between what may imperil the organism, and what may imperil
the machine. But this picture is misleading. We are as mystified, if not more so, by biological
viruses as we are by computer viruses. Perhaps we know even more about computer viruses that
we do about biological viruses! The same obscurities are there at the biological level that exists
at the computer level: it is not clear whether the virus is a self-contained organism or a part of
code that has unanchored itself from the organism to enable it a more ready access to copying
itself by invading a host. One of the current theories of biological viruses (which are basically
strings of RNA) I’ve just been reading is that they are part of the detritus, the junk or residue of
genetic material found in every living cell. As much as 95% of a cell’s genetic material may be
composed of what scientists now think is junk, material not used in coding the development of
the organism. And some of this redundant matter was expelled from the cells of these organisms
millions of years ago. In other words, its organic or living residue that has returned, now as
invader, from the organisms from which it was expelled. This explains why they are not entirely
parasitic and not entirely autonomous. They are somewhere in between because they’re expelled
parts of organisms. There is some wild speculation, not altogether surprisingly, that they might
have come from outer space, but many scientists suggest that they are ‘living’ genetic material
that has been cast off from living beings. Now that is not actually all that dissimilar to a
computer virus which is also a little bit of a program and then takes over a host program. In both
cases, the boundary between the living and the non-living is relative. The only thing that contains
the computer virus is the screen and the network itself. The viruses can’t jump, we can’t catch it,
just like cows can’t catch human viruses. They have a life of their own, a logic of their own.

Robert You make it very clear that you’re trying to set epistemology aside and that you’re trying
to develop an ontology. But then the very difficult question becomes what are we all doing here
in the university system? In other words, the system of publishing books, tenure, all of that stuff
is fundamentally based on epistemology and so…

Elizabeth Except that every epistemology carries ontological assumptions.

Robert Absolutely, but as long as there is a mask of epistemology all these systems make sense.
If we really were able to move away from epistemology, where would the university be?

Elizabeth That’s a good question. I think you’re probably right: as knowledge-producing


machines, their orientation is largely epistemological, and the more closely the university linked
with the epistemic project the more easily it is able to accommodate industry and corporatization.
10

Robert Where would our privilege be?

Elizabeth Our privilege would cease. We may actually get more salaries by working in the real
world! I think there are two issues to raise. The university is an institution designed to produce
epistemology, yet I think it is contested precisely because what’s at stake is always a certain
ontology. It remains political precisely because it is about ontology, about a real. Now, I don’t
think we can or should abandon epistemology. We can’t have any access to ontology except
through epistemology. Epistemic questions always mediates our relationship to ontology. The
solution for the last 50 or 100 years–since logical positivism if not before–has been to pretend
we’re not really making ontological claims, we can’t really invest ourselves in any project
apparently linked to metaphysics. We cannot continue that pretense anymore because we make
ontological commitments every time we make epistemological ones. We need to have a fantasy
of the representation of the world in order to act in the world. And, following this, knowledge is
our way of acting in the world. Its not just simply conceptual. It’s always pragmatic. It is our
way of living off the non-living, of being in the world, which is an ontological existence,
basically rendering this real, the world, to our own needs. It is not as if we can act differently:
one of the very purposes of knowledges and of sciences is their ability to generate reliable
practices in the world. But we must at some political level understand that that knowledges,
epistemologies, are a kind of theft from ontology, from the real. We have to take from the world
what our knowledge of it allows us to. This is really hard to think in political terms precisely
because politics is always trying to fight itself out over epistemology, but it is in fact ultimately
grounded in ontology and what I would call an ontological debt. The first person to do this in a
really comprehensive way is Derrida. He made it clear that whenever we think that we are setting
up an opposition, we’re actually buying into the very terms we’re trying to eliminate.

Randal It seems to me the idea of ontology, at least when we’re talking about the academy, is at
stake with the possibility of distance learning, information technology and the new networks.

Elizabeth It’s what the politics of education has always been about, the ontology at stake.

Randal And I think here is what is really crucial in terms of work like yours. It suggests what we
can do to keep up with Capital in this way.

Elizabeth Well, I don’t think the question is posed in the right way as far as capitalism’s speed.
The example someone gave me the other day is computer applications. We need a new one each
year, we need to update. Yes that’s true, and there is a kind of in-built obsolescence; but on the
other hand each new update is recognizable; you wouldn’t use it, you wouldn’t by it, if it was
completely new system that you’d have to learn all over again. So the thing about the rate of
change of capitalism is that its already built in to the capacity of the consumer to absorb it. If
Microsoft brought out a completely new system, unrecognizable in terms of the previous system,
every 3 months they would have gone out of business.

Randal I went up to Windows 2000 just for that reason.

Elizabeth You’re right, insofar as if you are to keep up with the current rate of change, you need
to have all the mediating steps. The market changes at exactly the rate of change that it is able to
keep up with. Not every one of us must, of course, indulge in this up-to-dateness, but those who
have a pressing need have little choice.

Robert What about the question of ethics? If we’re starting from Spinoza, then clearly
epistemology is always a mask for ontology, but isn’t, on some level, ontology a mask for
ethics? Or, better yet, don’t develop an ontology in order to develop an ethics?
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Elizabeth If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have said "Yes, ontology
is the second philosophy after ethics." But having thought about Levinas a bit more in the last
couple of years, it doesn’t make any sense to me now to consider ethics as the first philosophy.
The Levinasian model of ethics states that I’m indebted to an other before I know who the other
is. I want to say, no, it depends on the ontological structure of the social in which I live, how I
see the other and how the other affects me. Ontology is primary. Ontology always has both an
ethical and a political dimension. It’s not as if we have ontology and ethics, ontology and
politics. Ontology is about what there is and what debts we owe to it. It always entails an ethics,
a debt, obligation, responsibility. However, ontology does not have a moral dimension, it’s not
the order of imperative, ought, or law, only an ethical dimension of debt and obligation.

http://web.gc.cuny.edu/csctw/found_object/text/grosz.htm