By queer atonality we mean the notion that queerness can be abstracted to mean deviation as such, aleatoriness as such, or openness as such, and thus, through such extreme abstraction, queerness may be assigned as a proper monicker for biological and even ontological systems. In other words, if biology is that thing that works via difference and radical openness, then it is, by definition, queer. Or if ontology is a scenario of swerves and deviations, then it is, by definition, queer. As Rosenberg puts it, on the one hand “biology [is understood] as a kind of sheer queerness (or, aleatoriness),” and, on the other, matter “is coded as ontologically ‘queer.’”
But “do we truly want to be unleashed into pure aleatoriness?” wonders Rosenberg. Such is the Pyrrhic victory of queer atonality: “If queerness is nothing but the productive force of matter, then why continue to call it queer?” As a deviation from normality, queerness has typically carried a kind of ethical or political force simply by virtue of intervening and resisting. We’re here, we’re queer demands acknowledgement, and thus a disruption of bourgeois morality. In this sense, queer means essentially “queering.” As Nicholas de Villiers writes in his book on queer opacity, queering is a tactic aimed at appropriating, transforming, or deviating from a particular normative category. In this way, queer might have no ontological dimension per se, but rather might be defined as that thing unable to be integrated into existing symbolic economies, be they sexual or otherwise. But if today, following in the wake of the new queer metaphysics, matter and organic life themselves are queer, then the queer intervention becomes as atonal as anything else: the queerness of quantum superposition, the queerness of interspecies viral transfection, the queerness of non-carbon-based life forms. What started as a process of strategic intervention, has now congealed into a state of “sheer” queerness.
Further, ontologizing queerness produces a number of secondary effects, not all of which we can discuss here. One important additional issue though–and this parallels some of my previous commentary on Catherine Malabou, whose work I find tremendously useful–is what might be called the “morality conundrum.” In short: if ontology is pure aleatoriness and if ontology has no particular political or moral valence, then, barring the kind of unmitigated nihilism that makes all politics impossible, one is obligated to graft on a secondary moral theory to supplement the primary ontological one. Consider Malabou: if all is plasticity, then how can an individual judge good plasticity from bad plasticity? By what criterion may we assert, with confidence, that capitalist precarity (one form of plasticity) is odious, while neuronal adaptiveness (another form of plasticity) is not? Such is the curious irony of queer atonality. What began as a movement that, in part, sought to purge itself of the priggish prejudices of sexual moralism, and the bigotry and oppression that goes with it, must now author its own treatise on morality! Having been elevated to the level of being, queer theory must demonstrate its own deviation from being. Having been neutralized, queerness must now un-neutralize itself.
The potential of early, text-based internet culture for countering repressive gender regimes, generating solidarity among marginalised groups, and creating new spaces for experimentation that ignited cyberfeminism in the nineties has clearly waned in the twenty-first century. The dominance of the visual in today’s online interfaces has reinstated familiar modes of identity policing, power relations and gender norms in self-representation. But this does not mean that cyberfeminist sensibilities belong to the past. Sorting the subversive possibilities from the oppressive ones latent in today’s web requires a feminism sensitive to the insidious return of old power structures, yet savvy enough to know how to exploit the potential. Digital technologies are not separable from the material realities that underwrite them; they are connected so that each can be used to alter the other towards different ends. Rather than arguing for the primacy of the virtual over the material, or the material over the virtual, xenofeminism grasps points of power and powerlessness in both, to unfold this knowledge as effective interventions in our jointly composed reality.