meandering thoughts on Elizabeth Grosz’s “Becoming Undone” and caves

by on Dec.28, 2011

Introduction to a variation on the cave:

“Here it is possible to give only a rough summary of what is involved, and Pierre Janet’s theoretical and clinical writings are moreover available to everyone. I will, however, briefly describe some personal experiences, but which are wholly in accord with observations published in the medical literature, for example with the invariable response of schizophrenics to the question: where are you? I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I’m at the spot where I find myself. To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is “the convulsive possession.” All these expressions shed light on a single process: depersonalization by assimilation to space, i.e., what mimicry achieves morphologically in certain animal species.” ~ F.P. Caillois “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia

A suspicion lingers among writers and thinkers of an ancient wisdom, that the whole of the universe is contained within each of its particles. Unique patterns in classical art, intuited by the “individual genius” are also redundantly elaborated in mathematics, discovered in the tiniest and oldest of fossils. See the foraminifera garden, which features enlarged replicas of 330 million years old organisms:

See the cell:


When I was a crazy, angst and acne-ridden teenager, I believed in the cheesy claim that the universe is made of song, that life is art, a mobius strip of imitation. I now also believe that my most sensationally intense years of existence were those as an adolescent. The madness of a teen girl is under-appreciated. I was both stupider and wiser than I am now. “Life has no meaning,” I told my religious love interest, “it’s just a big, huge concert.” Then, in college, realizing that this type of soft spirituality, (unfortunately contaminated by Disney and the like) was unattractive to the new scientifically-savvy, secular, rebound L.I., I was converted to alienated nihilism, the boring kind without even a vigorous existentialism. No more music, only meaninglessness, misanthropy, and quiet, masculine isolation. I acquired, along with my liberal education, tangible “disorders” and participated in the intersectionality of various mental illnesses and oppressions, which have become almost purchasable accessories to our cultural wardrobe of abstract statistical debilities.

Numbness does seem an appropriate response to the “hierarchy of misery” that has become life, or slow death, in late capitalism… Many people I know have some form of debilitating depression or anxiety in addition to other practical impediments. This is a harsh world for idealists and feminists. A given road or mode of criticism leads to more obstacles to overcome, and in the end the diagnosis of a thoroughly embedded inequality instilled at the origin of culture (see, for example, Gayle Rubin’s essays), requiring an overthrow of the whole thing, which seems almost impossible. Almost. As Elizabeth Grosz repetitively insists, such a milieu calls for strong creativity, for thinking alternative ways of being in addition to the labor of overcoming injustices. We must begin from the ground up, to reconsider our ways of knowing and our potential capabilities.

The tangent potato burrows quietly into the dark:

GEM Blue Fairy and Mannequin Mary adopted the potato(esque) under the auspices of our godmother, Grosz, and all the stars of our inspired inspirers. We have pulled out our plastic eyes, ears, limbs, etc., to allow our new found holes to perspire and feed. “The Potatoesque’s commingling, as I’ve written before, consists in loss of identity.” Not a loss to homogeneity, but a loss that dislodges into a whole other flow. This loss of static ego-identity opens to proliferation, a deluge of other identities as they are forming, molding, and morphing. We note that the potato was born along with other strange events…

What is exciting yet problematic about the occupy movement is its symbolic, simultaneous creation and reclamation of a dehumanized statistic. The 99% is unified, conglomerate, but constitutes a proliferative multitude in divergences of experience. All manner of human experience supposedly participates, but it’s easy to forget about the actualities of marginal populations within the huge majority, and what remains excluded (see link to WATCH via J Wang). But in its unrealized ideal, the spirit of “occupation,” to “occupy everything,” antagonizes capitalism itself. Its branches include the food system, borderlands, and ecosystems. Well, now I’ve gone off on a tangent, but since Lucas and I keep talking about potatoesque, it would be interesting to think about how capital is the opposite of the potato, and it does relate to all the stuff about art and magic that this post is about (in my convoluted mind). Capitalism commodifies everything and produces crises that it tries to cover through population control, or the privileging of heteronormative nuclear family. The potatoesque marries the night and becomes other-every-thing. If both forces are driven by voracious appetites, these are very different kinds of consumption.

Pure difference:

Let me bring this back to Grosz, who theorizes about the boundedness of art to evolution and life, how life cannot exist without the creativity that comes out of “difference.” I feel that the pleasure I’ve taken in reading her work lies in part in how her thoughts seem to vindicate, in a philosophical and nuanced way, the animal belief of my youth that art is fundamental to life. Bare life, mere survival, or “survival of the fittest” is not enough. Life requires more, not just more of itself, but more of itself becoming more and other. A life of quality is a life that participates in free acts of intensifying sensations/eros, experiences and attractions, (and in the context of current politics, one that is less possible under great economic and political inequalities).

Grosz writes against the reduction of sexual selection to natural selection in post-Darwinian thought, resurfacing the parts in his texts that have fallen through the cracks—parts that dwell on the unaccountable and immeasurable diversity of beauty in the natural world whose evolution and motivations lie separate from the phenomenon of statistically unambiguous natural selection. She devotes many chapters to the intricacies of sexuality and sexual selection as the production of aesthetic diversity. It is both Eros and Thanatos, neutral to survival, partial to intensification of the senses through experimentation with materiality.

In my reading, “sexuality” is not simply the desire to make babies, though it may “lead” to babies. It is also disconnected from natural selection. The sexual selection that hones intricate courtship dances also consistently produces non-reproductive diversity, queer being. It is a totally horizontal continual unfolding.

“The experiments of Judd and Foucher have definitely resolved the question: predators are not at all fooled by homomorphy or homochromy: they eat crickets that mingle with the foliage of oak trees or weevils that resemble small stones, completely invisible to man. The phasma Carausius Morosus, which by its form, color, and attitude simulates a plant twig, cannot emerge into the open air without being immediately discovered and dined on by sparrows. Generally speaking, one finds many remains of mimetic insects in the stomachs of predators. So it should come as no surprise that such insects sometimes have other and more effective ways to protect themselves. Conversely, some species that are inedible, and would thus have nothing to fear, are also mimetic. It therefore seems that one ought to conclude with Cuénot that this is an “epiphenomenon” whose “defensive utility appears to be nul.” -Caillois

Cross-dressing in cuttlefish: transient sexual mimicry leads to fertilization

Matter (space) engulfs us and we in turn engulf matter through creativity and art. In Grosz’s terms, “art” has a broad indefinition following “natural” tendencies for living things to extend themselves through the inorganic in the act of becoming “more and other,” which is born from sexual difference, the pure difference. I think of the tao (nonbeing) that begets one, the one that begets two, the two that begets three, the three which begets all things (Tao te ching). The “female” sex, according to Darwin’s analysis of the barnacle, is the first life form, after which the “male” sex was formed slowly, through degrees of mutation and change, and then, out of this difference, a music of infinite variation. In Darwin’s view, all genders and race (which are connected to sexual selection) are equal, with differences “governed by degrees rather than insurmountable gaps.” Each is implicated in all the others. This nature of difference is not one of essentialism but one of a field of creativity—not an origin or a history, but, as Irigaray would have it, a productive site.

Art is of the animal. So is magic:

Our potato’s voraciousness is the black ecology of Art. It is an obscure force of creativity and difference that drives life, and that rides the vibrating line between chaos and symmetry. The phenomenon of Mimicry is a far cry from Aristotelian reflection, and figures closer to the magical dispersal of becoming.

[If Mimicry is also the form of art and writing, if thought is metaphorical. If culture is the complication of nature.]

It was enriching to read Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse alongside Becoming Undone. Going inside the cave where the cro-magnons painted became going inside Dreaming, inside proto-shamanism, inside art. I like the passages about the synaesthetic sensations of being in the cave, of going backwards and underground, retreating to pre-consciousness… all were very similar to Callois’s description of the schizophrenic dissemination of the self into space, which he ponders alongside animal camouflage.

The magical hold (if one can truly call it so without doing violence to the language) of night and obscurity, the fear of the dark, probably also has its roots in the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and the milieu. Minkowski’s analyses are invaluable here: darkness is not the mere absence of light; there is something positive about it. While light space is eliminated by the materiality of objects, darkness is “filled,” it touches the individual directly, envelops him, penetrates him, and even passes through him: hence “the ego is permeable for darkness while it is not so for light”; the feeling of mystery that one experiences at night would not come from anything else. Minkowski likewise comes to speak of dark space and almost of a lack of distinction between the milieu and the organism: “Dark space envelops me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space, the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role.” This assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in the feeling of personality and life. It should be noted in any case that in mimetic species the phenomenon is never carried out except in a single direction: the animal mimics the plant, leaf, flower, or thorn, and dissembles or ceases to perform its functions in relation to others. Life takes a step backwards.” -Caillois

Psychasthenia is no longer used as a medical term, hence the “legendary psychasthenia” in Caillois’s title. I did find this article on the psychasthenia associated with internet use, yet another generalization of couch-potato internet culture as diseased. But the moment of undermined personality, or obliteration in space, can also be creative. I do not agree that assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in life. Perhaps it is a semantic distinction–what is “life?”

I also noted some of the “fall of man”-type speculations, which are also interesting (consciousness was the fall, and cave art illustrates the painful exorcism of the animal from the homonid):


           A rhinogazelgazeliongazelle
caterpillaring,   telescoping out and out

Disks sounding being in bounded space,
binding abyss leaping to the brain’s synaptic gongs

In the neuron orgy
            in cranial dark
to know thyself is to give a self to no”

“the human is indeterminate, initially unclosed”

It is an arduous labor of folding, enrolling, and that animates and distinguishes forms from no-form.

See how the antlers look like dendrites! (The above is a painting in the Lascaux)

Becoming Undone ends with an engagement with women’s art, indigenous Australian desert art and its expansive exploration of territory. Juniper Fuse begins with a return to the womb, to the crumpling of space. The labyrinth contains the unrolled thread.

I wonder if there is something to the “fall of man” paradigm. If the tragedy is “mind over matter” or the concept of hierarchy (man over animal, mind over matter), then the fall of man was also the initiation of sexism (woman as animal) and other naturalist oppressions. If the fall is connected to some kind of disconnection with animal or species being, then we have continued to fall very hard for a very long time, though not to no resistance. Are we becoming a “dark space where things cannot be put?” I think this is something that Becoming Undone unravels. The dark space of undone-ness is where things cannot be put, but unoriginal things transform.


5 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    I really like this…

    “A suspicion lingers among writers and thinkers of an ancient wisdom, that the whole of the universe is contained within each of its particles.” As if the whole universe was a mirror-image of a Warholian factory. A continual engine of reproduction and replications. No origin and no truth.

    And Grosz is great, one of the most subtle and original thinkers out there right now. She continually unties the trite binary between Art and Nature.


  2. Sarah Fox

    Brava Mary! I’m so glad you discovered Juniper Fuse–I love that book so much! Incidentally, recent theories about the art in Lascaux suggest correlations with astronomy and astrology–that the paintings are encoded with patterns of constellations, and also correspond to a lunar calendar: (e.g.

    One of my favorite rhymes: the dome of the sky & the dome of the mind. The caves and their paintings convey how these two outermost fields became consciously wed through the enactment of metaphor, of art. When I imagine the experience of this “fall” you refer to from Clayton’s brilliant analysis, I feel it as profoundly heartbreaking, such a painful, shocking transition. Certainly Cro-Magnon recognized the radical significance of that moment, or simply all former boundaries blew open and art–like great sparks or shrapnel launching out of the mind–revealed itself as alchemical vessel for accommodating the transmutation. The caves, perhaps, served as the astral temples. Yet the caves also, as you note, are uterine, and returning to that space to birth this work aligns, for me, with an exaltation of and intense security within matriarchy. The notion of maternal power as threat and the institution of sexism I think were later consequences of consciousness (“poison”) and its manifold complications. But I, utopically (Pisces people tend to be utopic I guess) maintain hope that anything therein can be undone, can transform.

    My own imagination has adapted for itself the landscape of the caves, which strike me as quintessentially mystical & polyvalent & primary…

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