Catherine Malabou: Pleasure effaced; Clitoris and thought

The clitoris is an anarchist.

Through translated fragments, we share the work of a writer, some few words of Catherine Malabou.

We begin with a very brief summary of her essay, Le plaisir effacé: Clitoris et pensée [Pleasure erased: Clitoris and thought], followed by the transcript of a conversation (the original may be heard here) around the essay. And we close with two video-conferences.

summarising Le plaisir effacé

Philosophy has somatic power. “Contrary to what is believed, it forms bodies”, but not only “orthopedically” or by “training”. “It also sculpts an erotic that permits new connections between spiritual and libidinal energy. I am not speaking of an idealised or metamorphised sexuality, but rather of a sexualising effect of discourse.”

To enter philosophy and to enter my body ended up becoming the same experience. It is obvious that I no longer have the same body since I think … . Or rather I now have many. (108)

The words are Catherine Malabou’s and they appear in the essay, Le plaisir effacé: Clitoris et pensée, a work that traces the effacing and moulding of the clitoris and feminine pleasure by discourse, philosophical and other.

The clitoris is a minuscule stone lodged secretly in the large shoe of the sexual imaginary. … For a long time hidden, deprived of a name, of artistic representation, absent from medical treatises, often ignored by women themselves, for centuries the clitoris only had the scruple of an existence, in the archaic sense of the word, a grain that hinders walking and torments the spirit. … Clitoris: this little swollen secret that resides, resists, harasses consciousness and hurts the heal, is that of an organ, the only one, that exclusively serves pleasure – thus, “nothing”; the nothing, the immense nothing, the all or nothing of feminine enjoyment. (11)

These words are not meant to fetichise the feminine, the feminine gender, or to elevate it above history, above discursive or social “construction”, with the clitoris functioning as some kind of biological anchor.

The biological body is neither alone nor self-sufficient. It always displaces itself beyond its first envelope … , fashioned by discourses, norms, representations. A body is always an apparatus of transfer, of circulation, of telepathy, between an anatomic reality and a symbolic projection. If the body were only an anatomic fact, it would not survive its wounds. One must always keep within the world, and this work of accommodation assumes a release from the self, the assembly of a platform between the biological and the symbolic, the body and the flesh of the world. The symbolic is not matter’s tomb, it is its re-localisation. (114-5)

The clitoris has been the organ-place of femininity, a sign-reality of gender identity, and under patriarchy, the object of a politics of erasure and/or domestication (through a multitude of techniques). And yet throughout this politics, the clitoris has stubbornly remained unstable, discordant, deviant, dodging the instruments of capture, existing only in the écart [the distance, difference, movement of dis-identification] of its presumed identity.

The écart is not only difference – difference between the same and the other, or difference from oneself. Difference – including sexual difference – is only one occurrence of the écart. The écart fractures the paradoxical identity of difference, revealing the multiplicity that harbours itself within it. (17)

But why attribute to the clitoris this role of protagonist in the affirmation of multiplicity? For Malabou, the answer lies first in the fact that in the face of the celebration of phallic erection, the clitoris has been a silent symbol, serving thereby to silence women’s pleasure. And secondly, those women – philosophers – who have tried to reflect upon the clitoris have been criticised for doing so, often ridiculed.

The clitoris still bears, even today, the trace of a wound upon which words come to break like waves and from which they recede after only just having emerged. It is not to say that it is the place of the lack, of the signifier, of the letter or object a, b, c or z. No, it is both simpler and more complex. Even if it is not necessary that it be that of a woman, the clitoris remains the enigmatic place of the feminine. Which means that it has not yet found its place. (20)

Yet it is precisely for not having a fixed place that the clitoris opens onto a reality (of pleasure and desire) that allows us to think beyond the dichotomous duality of passivity and activity, with all of its disastrous effects for the thinking of virility and of the female “sexed” body, trapped between vaginal and clitoral identities.

The clitoris – like the feminine – is a relation to power but not a relation of power. In any event, it is in these terms that mine thinks.

The clitoris is an anarchist. (118)

(All references are to: Catherine Malabou, Le plaisire effacé; Clitoris et pensée, Paris, Bibliothèque Rivages, 2020.)


Chapter 15: Clitoris, anarchy and the feminine

(The last chapter of Le plaisir effacé)

An-archia, in Greek, literally refers to the absence of principle (arche), that is, of commandment. Without commandment also means without beginning. The arche determines a temporal order by privileging what comes first, in the order of power as in that of chronology. Anarchy means therefore without hierarchy or origin. Anarchy puts into question dependence and derivation.

For centuries, “anarchy” meant only disorder and chaos. Aristotle defined it as the situation of an army without a strategist; an army that suddenly scatters, that no longer knows from where it came nor where it is going. The soldiers look back and no longer see their general, they see only emptiness.

In the mid-19th century, the anarchists overturned these negative meanings, affirming that “anarchy is order without power.”(1) The soldiers without a leader must learn how to organise themselves. An order without command or beginning is not necessarily a disorder, not at all even, but a different arrangement, a composition without domination; of someone who proceeds only from themselves and waits for nothing except from themselves; an order of things without orders given.

The complicity between clitoris and anarchy has first to do with their common destiny as clandestine passengers, with their secret, hidden, unknown existence. The clitoris was also considered for a long time a troublemaker, an organ in excess, useless, scoffing at the social, political and anatomical order from its libertarian independence, its dynamic of pleasure detached from any principle or end. Such a thing as a clitoris is not governed. Despite all of the efforts to find a master for it – patriarchal authority, psychoanalytic diktat, moral imperatives, the weight of customs, the plumb of ancestry -, it resists. It resists domination by the very fact of its indifference to power [pouvoir] and the potential to exercise power [puissance].

The potential is nothing without its effectuation, its performance, as the application of a law, an edict, a judgement or even advice testify to. Potentiality always awaits its actualisation. Acts, principles, laws, decrees, depend in turn on the docility and the good will of their executants. Act and potential spin the inextricable web of subordination. The clitoris is neither potentiality nor actuality. It is not an immature virtuality waiting for vaginal actuality. Nor does it bend before the model of erection or of detumescence. The clitoris interrupts the logic of command and obedience. It does not direct. And it is this that renders it disturbing.

Emancipation needs to find the tipping point where power and domination subvert themselves. The notion of self-subversion is one of the defining notions of anarchist thought. Domination may not only be overthrown from outside. It possesses an internal line of fracture, prelude to its possible ruin. Every entity that shows itself to be indifferent to the act-potential couple exasperates systems of domination and at the same time its cracks. The clitoris introduces itself in the intimacy of the potential exercise of power – normative, ideological – to reveal the failure that ceaselessly threatens it.

Clitoris, anarchy and the feminine are for me indissolubly tied. They form a front of resistance, conscious of the authoritarian excesses of resistance itself. The defeat of domination is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Feminism is evidently one of the most active agents in this challenge, a very exposed spearhead precisely because it is without an arche.

Being without principle however does not mean being without memory. Which is why it appears to me to be vital to not amputate feminism from the feminine. The feminine is firstly a reminder, a reminder of the violence done to women, yesterday and today: mutilations, rapes, harassments, femicides. The clitoris is evidently, and in many respects, the depositary of this memory; it symbolises and incarnates simultaneously what the autonomy of women’s pleasure represents as intolerable. At the same time, as I said, the feminine transcends woman, denatures it so at to project, beyond the turpitudes of the abusers, big or small, the political space of an indifference to command.

The feminine unites this memory to this future.

1. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Les Confessions d’un revolutionaire, pour servir à l’histoire de la revolution de février, Paris, Hachette livre BNF, 2012.


Pleasure Effaced, Clitoris and Anarchy

An interview with Catherine Malabou

(lundi matin #289, 24/05/2021)

I remember Deleuze getting irritated when asked about his previous books because he said he was already somewhere else, so that bothers me a little. But this book could be an opus that serves as a relay for your work in progress, so it does not catapult us too far elsewhere. Maybe we can start there, where are you currently with your “philosophy and anarchism”? What are you currently working on in anarchist philosophy?

Catherine Malabou: When I was contacted by Rivages Editions to write a text, I thought about this subject and saw it as a sort of chapter of the book that I’m writing at the moment, which is called Philosophy and Anarchism. The basic question is very simple: philosophers have never really questioned anarchism conceptually. I am not saying that there were no anarchist philosophers, nor that there were no attempts to bring out the concepts of anarchy and anarchism. In general, while very beautiful and profound readings of Marx have been offered throughout the twentieth century, and this continues; one thinks of the works of Balibar, Negri, or younger Marxists today; it was never really the case with anarchism. That is to say that one can be surprised that there are not renewed interpretations, interpretations that go a little deeper, of thinkers like Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin or of the more recent Anglo-Saxon writers, like Bookchin for example. We do not yet have, it seems to me, an interpretation of anarchist texts which takes stock of the question, and which “adapts” it in a way – even if I do not like this word too much – to the current context. There are many texts on assemblies, the ZADs, activism, which claim to have a certain anarchist influence. I am thinking in particular of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee; but there is no real metaphysical questioning of anarchism, including the deconstruction of metaphysics. It is therefore my goal in this book to question concepts of anarchy which are very strong – this is also the paradox – among thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Agamben, Schürmann and by showing that strangely they are cut off from anarchism. Philosophy today makes us think of this paradox of an anarchy without anarchism. So this is the overall horizon of my work. I would have to write a second volume to give the floor to the anarchists, but I would have to have already finished the first. It is in this general context that I created this little parenthesis about the clitoris. The anarchist creed – even if there are several kinds of anarchism – is very simple: it is the radical rejection of all phenomena of domination. It seemed to me that we could consider the question of the pleasure of “feminine” pleasure (in quotes because I nevertheless open it to all genders), the question of clitoral pleasure, in this critique of domination, because it is an organ that has always been dominated in its history, whether by practices of medicine, religion and of excision, etc.; whether it be through psychoanalytic discourse, or through philosophy itself – moreover, I have devoted a chapter to Agamben. So that’s the connection I would make between my work in progress and this book.

And why, according to you, has there not been metaphysical questioning? In Tiqqun, for example, they often use the term metaphysics after deconstruction in particular, they speak of critical metaphysics. How do you interpret this usage?

You are right. But, on the one hand, I don’t consider the Invisible Committee books to be philosophy books; on the other hand, indeed, there is a philosophical reference, it is true, it is Agamben. I talk about it in my book, although I don’t agree with his view of anarchy. However, he too takes great care to distinguish the political anarchism that he will anchor in a fundamentally religious question, which is the difference between the Father and the Son. Theologians have had difficulty in agreeing on the fact that God – the Father – is somehow outside the world and is therefore deprived of acting, and Christ, who acts in the name of his Father but who does not have this external perspective on the world. There’s this kind of hiatus between a sovereign God and a son in government. This track is very interesting in Agamben, but my analysis is different. I am not saying that the Invisible Committee takes up this thesis; but all the same, the concept of anarchism in Agamben was inspired by it. I wonder if Tiqqun really question the metaphysical origin which is nevertheless fundamental in Agamben. So here is my frustration with the work of the Invisible Committee.

Do you think it is necessary to write a philosophy book?

Yes. It seems necessary to write philosophical texts but also to respond to a certain number of texts of anarchist thought. I have no problem with the word “philosophy”. Right now, I know it’s fashionable, I believe Judith Butler recently declared “I’m not a philosopher,” as if there was something shameful, outdated, or politically incorrect. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. Philosophy is what I do. I think that I have shown sufficiently that I am aware of the need to criticize it. You can’t accuse me of being conservative at this level. I have no problem accepting this label.

Is a philosophy book written by a woman important?

Yes, I think it is very important. Effectively, in this book, I take on the posture of the woman who questions six men, in fact – Schürmann, Levinas, Derrida, Foucault, Agamben and Rancière – and I wanted to try to thematise that, that is to say “what exactly am I doing?” This is where your first question is quite relevant: I believe that what I wrote about the clitoris and the feminine in general will take on its full significance here, since in a way my question is part of the experience of domination, male domination over the philosophy that I had to confront, overcome and work with; I hope this experience will come out in my book.

There is this sentence at the end of the book that really struck me: “Emancipation needs to find the tipping point where power and domination subvert themselves.”

It was sort of an interpretation of a phrase by David Graeber in an interview where the reporter asked him for a definition of anarchy. Graeber responds that the issue of anarchy was less about power than about domination. Anarchism seeks the point of self-subversion of domination. He puts forward the idea according to which in all domination there is a fracture (otherwise there would not even be any hope of overthrowing it), that it is a question of finding it and that, if we make it work on itself, it will self-subvert – that is his hope. I picked up on the idea of this point of subversion, of this fracture. The latter is temporal: domination consists – in its essential forms – in making something last which should not last. Graeber gives two examples of this that may seem naive but I find them to be very telling: it is the thesis supervisor who continues to impose his power and use his aura once the student’s thesis is completed. The second is the doctor who continues to influence his patient and assert himself as the “family doctor”, even after he is treated. It reminded me of Nietzsche, who says “throw away my book” in Zarathustra. Domination is basically that: the impossibility of saying “throw away my book”, always asserting oneself as the master, the person or the entity that one cannot do without, to which one must constantly refer. So the point of subversion is there, because I believe that this thing, domination, we all feel it. I believe that there is a certain awareness of domination. At some point the one who dominates can see very well that he is exaggerating – or at least hovers around this idea, even if he denies it, even if he buries it in his unconscious – because a whole strategy must be deployed to play the tough guy, it is not always easy to always impose oneself, it is necessary to find means, strategies, new forms of seduction, new weapons. This is the desperation of the masters: when you give them up, they are at the end of their “stuff”. In a way – and this is the fundamental question of anarchism – if we can put our finger on this line between power and abuse of power, then it is possible to think of a subversion of both at the same time.

You made the distinction between woman and the feminine, which are not fully assimilable to each other. How can the clitoris not be thought of as an excess of the feminine over woman?

Because of course today you have this famous “essentialism”, which is a term that annoys me enormously because those who use it do not take into account the philosophical meaning of the word essence. In any case, the word “essentialism” is the major weapon of criticism today, which is to say that as soon as you pronounce the word “woman” or “man”, you are accused of essentialism. There is something right in this story, otherwise I would not have preferred the word feminine to that of woman. Indeed, reserving the clitoris for the woman risks reproducing the gesture of domination that I denounce, namely: to enclose woman in a category of woman deprived of phallus or deprived of power, and of reproducing the old heterosexual pattern where the man has a penis and woman a clitoris, etc. In this sense, it seemed important to me to widen the concept of woman to the question of the feminine which includes woman but which also designates a form of being, a mode of being, which in a certain way touches the clitoris, that is to say, which offers itself to erotic or social relations which would no longer be relations of domination; it could affect men, transgender people (but here we are touching on other things). But I still keep the category of the feminine, because it seems interesting to me to designate a certain type of exposure to the relationship. By essentialism we imply that the essence is something fixed, that it is of the nature of a thing and in that sense it is believed to be something immobile and substantial. In fact, as you know, the Greeks have several words for being and essence – they are not the same thing! In philosophy, a distinction is made between being and essence. If it were just a matter of determining the nature of being, we would have one word. The Greek language is much more subtle, it shows that the nature of a thing is never really fixed once and for all, that is, it does not necessarily vary over time, but it does vary logically. And, it is not reducible to a subject, or else we must understand that the subject itself varies. For example, in the Sophist, Plato carries out a revolution: he begins with a theory of ideas from which we can deduce that the idea (eidos) of a thing is fixed, but in the Sophist he returns to this idea by saying that there is a circulation of kinds of being, and it is this circulation which constitutes the essence of a thing. There is the being of a thing, and the essence of a thing. The essence of a thing is the circulation within it of kinds of being: the other, the same, the identical, the different, the movement, etc. The nature of a thing is connected with a movement. Aristotle develops this idea with his great thought of movement in the Physics and his five kinds of movements, and this is what defines the essence of a thing. It is said that there is a plasticity of essence which is inscribed from the beginning of Greek philosophy. To say that the essence is substantial and fixed is nonsense, it is an enormous philosophical misunderstanding. We would have to use another term – naturalism, where then, yes, at the limit, we could be accused of fixity, but essentialism! I think Irigaray saw it clearly, since when she talks about the eidos of women – and you are right, it is very beautiful what she says – she does not have anything in mind at all like a fixity of the eidos of the woman, on the contrary! Her books say the opposite. In This Sex Which Is Not One, she says that this idea of a one should be suspended in favor of multiplicity. She understands that eidos does not mean something fixed.

Somewhat generically, you are no longer interested in the hunt for phallocentrism. There is a kind of calm in the exploration of the the way power shapes.

Yes, because phallocentrism has been a very respectable struggle by feminists against what is called “Phallocracy”, which Derrida renamed phallocentrism, phallogocentrism. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist anymore, but it risks confining us a little there too in the heterosexual matrix. Phallocentrism has been a feminist critique of male domination over women. But today, when you consider that you have to widen the category of woman, I think the fight needs to change a bit.

You speak squarely of “clitoral zone of the logos”.

Yes. What struck me is that men philosophers – since even today and since the 19th century, the majority of philosophers are men – identify in classical texts what Derrida called “neglected corners”, the loose stones of the system, something that escapes a bit of metaphysics in the traditional sense of the term, something that could open up a marginality, a new form of reading, but they never characterised it as a clitoris, that is, as another way to make or give sense. In no text, and this is particularly striking in Foucault, who nevertheless wrote a history of sexuality, is there any question of the female sex. It’s never about the clitoris. I believe that Foucault speaks of it only once in the famous example of Herculine Barbin. What I understand by “clitoral zone of the logos” are erotic areas of the text – and eroticism is very important in philosophy – which would not necessarily be architectural, to use Derrida’s vocabulary, not necessarily stones, corners, but which would be truly interventions of another type of exposure, calling for another type of intelligibility of the texts.

And then An-arche is still a negative A. How can one think of something expressive of positivity? And can you say a word about the last sentence of the book: “Being without principle however does not mean being without memory.”

Indeed, an-arche means literally “without arche“, and arche means both beginning and command and it has been translated into Latin by princeps [title accorded to a man of the Roman State whose personality and services rendered to the city conferred upon him a decisive role in the political life of Rome], “the principle”, which refers both to political command – “the prince” – and to the beginning – a principle is what comes first. An-arche has been seen for centuries as something negative, that is, as something which came to destroy principles, which came to spread chaos in the political order and in the conceptual order (no beginning…). In fact, the philosophers I read – Schürmann, Derrida, etc. – show that the an-arche is not at all a disorder, but on the contrary, it is inscribed in the arche itself. Because the arche, the principle, contains in itself a disorder, because the principle is incapable of founding itself. So anarchy is not something that would come from outside, but rather something that would come from within the arche, like a kind of defect that we are obliged to oversaturate by imposing an order that becomes authoritarianism, so as to prevent this internal anarchy from appearing. Bringing out the anarchism which is inside the arche is something positive as you say, because fundamentally it is a question of freeing the arche from its defect and to say that deep down, the political construction, metaphysical construction, let’s say human construction in general, perhaps does not necessarily need principles, but it must invent itself and invent its own rules as it “takes place”, that is, it must be “plastic”. Anarchy is the plasticity of the arche.

And it does not mean without memory?

No. Not without memory, because anarchy is inscribed in the arche, it remembers its origin. Basically, it is about freeing the arche from its defect. Anarchy is not a clean slate, nor a force of destruction, which emerges from who knows where. It’s something that shakes up the structure, the principles, from the inside, and is in a way its memory. This is what Schürmann will show in his book The Principle of Anarchy. He shows that anarchy is a question repeated from time to time in the Western tradition, which frees itself today, but which retains all of this memory.



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