Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How transgressive ‘minor’ discourses can subvert hegemonic neoliberalism

We are in Madrid for a conference on “the posthuman”, and taking in the wonderful art and architecture in this capital city of Spain, including the treasures of the Prado, such as their Goya, Velazquez and Bosch collections. Several papers at this thought-and-action-provoking gathering of scholars committed to change in a world being suffocating by the excesses of the most eco-destructive economic system the world has ever seen, have convinced me that we are witnessing the emergence of what one might call “minor discourses” that hold the promise of subverting the hegemonic discourse of neoliberalism.

Anyone familiar with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work will recognise the resonance of this phrase with what these philosophers termed “a minor literature” in their book on Franz Kafka (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature; University of Minnesota Press, 1986). Through their study of Kafka’s literary output they characterise a “minor literature” in a way that is highly evocative of what I believe could be conceived in an analogous manner, to wit, a “minor discourse”.

In the Kafka book Deleuze and Guattari elaborated on the meaning of a “minor literature” by claiming that it represents a people (which would then also be a “minor” or emerging people) instead of a genre, that it has a directly political function, promotes collective rather than individual values and that it “deterritorialises” existing literatures, that is, “frees” them from fixity and being bound within generic and conventional boundaries. In what they conceive of as major literatures – like those of English, German and French, for example – one does not encounter these three markers, because the questions of a people or the collective and of politics are usually in the background, functioning as assumptions against the backdrop of which narratives involving identifiable characters unfold. In a minor literature, however, they comprise contested areas.

Here I would like to raise the question, whether their insights may be transposed to the broader field of language, specifically in the sense of discourse, to help one understand the possibility of “minor discourses” that would be “directly political”, as opposed to the dominant discourses of the present, which tend to disguise their normalising political effectivity behind an economic façade. Moreover, what are the chances that such minor discourses could deterritorialise existing, dominant discourses to the point where fissures may appear within which the contours of a “people of the future” might take shape?

To be able to answer these questions in a provisional manner one has to scrutinise Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation of Kafka’s literary work as instantiating “minor literature”. They observe that “a minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. But the first characteristic of minor literature in any case is that in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialisation” (1986, p. 16).

What does this mean? “Deterritorialisation”, for Deleuze and Guattari denotes the setting free of something like energy or creative motivation, and in the context of literature it entails liberating one from the hold that the canonical power of a major literature has on a writer. In effect it means a different way of using the “same” language, by subverting the grammatical and linguistic “constants” in it, for instance; in other words, by disrupting conventional linguistic certainties. Just as Kafka’s use of German deterritorialises, so, too, does the use of English by American blacks, according to Deleuze and Guattari (1986, p. 17).

The use of language with a minoritarian effect also means that it is directly political, even when it concerns issues that may not seem to be political – such as the relationship between a father and a son or daughter. While such concerns are treated in terms of relationships between individuals in major literatures, with the social milieu forming the background, in a minor literature they are intimately conjoined with this social and political sphere. The fact that everything in a minor literature takes on a “collective value” is related to this political intensity. In Deleuze and Guattari’s words (p. 17):

“Indeed, precisely because talent isn’t abundant in a minor literature, there are no possibilities for an individuated enunciation that would belong to this or that ‘master’ and that could be separated from a collective enunciation. Indeed, scarcity of talent is in fact beneficial and allows the conception of something other than a literature of masters; what each author says individually already constitutes a common action, and what he or she says or does is necessarily political … ”

This statement, which stresses the inseparability of individual expression and collective representation, is crucial for a project of articulating a “minor discourse”. This is so in light of the fact that discourse is, to begin with, the condition of possibility of being interpellated as a subject of language, and concomitantly of being discursively inserted into the social, collective fabric. It further comprises the basis of interpersonal communication as well as miscommunication. But how would a “minor discourse” achieve the effects of a minor literature which, after all, are a function of its literary qualities?

Ronald Bogue (in Deleuze and Guattari, Routledge, 1989, p. 115-123) casts light on this question by pointing out that, although Deleuze and Guattari do not give a clear indication of exactly how Kafka’s minor literature would function as such, clues to this effect are found in other works, such as Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981). Here Francis Bacon’s distinctive mode of painting is described as taking shape around what Bacon described as a “diagram”, or moment of “chaos” fortuitously introduced into the painting, which subsequently becomes the point around which the rest of the painting is assembled in a manner that disrupts, or “deterritorialises” the canons of all the varieties of representational art.

Taking this as my cue, it seems to me that, analogously, a “minor discourse” – that is, a discourse with directly political and collectivist implications, and which would deterritorialise the hegemonic neoliberal discourse – would have the effect of disrupting the major discourse(s) of the present by similarly inserting moments of discursive “chaos” (defamiliarisation, dislocation) into the latter. How would this be done?

I have already mentioned that I perceived elements of such minor discourses in the presentations at the conference on the “posthuman”, which is not surprising if one recalls that it represents a movement beyond “humanism” and “anthropocentrism”, both of which index a frame of reference – historically as well as theoretically – where human beings were put at the centre of things. Needless to stress, this state of affairs, where the capitalist economic system has been harnessed to serve human material accumulation (arguably accompanied by spiritual impoverishment), has resulted in the degradation of other beings, animal as well as vegetative.

This has reached the point where the vital links between them and humans are being eroded at an alarming rate – a process that posthuman thinkers place in the context of increasing evidence that the humanist separation between people, on the one hand, and animals as well as plants, on the other, is fundamentally flawed. Such evidence has many sources, such as the biological sciences and artificial intelligence research, which show that humans, animals, plants and artificial intelligence comprise a continuum, instead of being marked by a qualitative gap between humans and other beings. For one thing, ALL organic life-forms exhibit intelligence in its capacity of being self-organising.

This insight has far-reaching political and collective (let alone ethical) implications for the exploitation of nature as so-called “resources” by capitalist development agencies, whether these involve rain forests, animals used for industrial or chemical experimentation (to produce items such as shampoo), or the dumping of chemical waste in rivers and oceans. The political consequences are evident in the fact that such exploitation implicates all living beings, foremost among them humans (who are the only accountable species).

Other, related “minor” discourses display the same characteristics of being directly political and collectivist, including Naomi Klein’s transgressive discourse questioning the discursive legitimacy of big capital in her books – The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) and This Changes Everything: Capital versus the Climate (2014) – where she uses the English language in an intelligible, but simultaneously disruptive, “deterritorialising” manner regarding what most people see as the “common sense” of the pervasive neoliberal discourse. There are many other such instances of an emergent “minor discourse”, which are recognisable by the traits I have listed.

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