We were told to write down our clichés, that is, the words or phrases we hear ourselves saying all the time. Since I don’t typically think of myself as a self but as a context or a relationship, I was stuck for a few minutes. But then I thought, well, “I am not a self” is a kind of cliché that I carry in my bodymind, even if it’s not something I say very often. It then occurred to me that the stage of verbal repetition for me is pedagogical: classroom, reading group, or one-with-on mentoring. Instead of cliché, I thought I would do well to jot down all les mots d’ordre that tend to come out of my mouth on the pedagogical stage.

For Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the function of language is not to signify, to represent, or to convey meaning, but to promulgate “order words.” The phrase mots d’ordre is often translated as watchwords or slogans but since I am a major switching point of power in the pedagogical scenes that call me to the stage, I prefer the literal sense of order or command. Deleuze and Guattari write that “Information is only the strict minimum necessary for the emission, transmission, and observation of orders as commands. …Language is not life; it gives life orders. Life does not speak; it listens and waits. Every order-word, even a father’s to his son, carries a little death sentence–a Judgment, as Kafka put it” (A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi, p. 76).

Deleuze and Guattari here suggest that by gridding human interactions with order/s, language creates channels for thought, action, and affect. Language creates incentives to think and feel in certain ways and thus not in other ways. As such, order-words become an efficient technology for plugging bodies into predictable, controllable circuits in harmony with what Foucault theorizes as disciplinarity or governmentality.

All of this points to why pausing for some minutes to consider one’s clichés or order-words is such a productive exercise. The exercise requires us to remember the staging of these precious mots: the where, when, with whom, and why. The why is especially thrown into relief because it seems pretty clear that an order-word arises when I want to stop, coalesce, or torque the direction of a classroom conversation. In other words, the “why” of an order-word can be generative and can enact a productive tension, but most often it’s a powerful tool for shutting down and redirecting what is being thought/felt.

The slogan I wrote about is “liberal individualism is toxic and false.” It’s a good slogan and a horrible scholarly assertion. It arises on the pedagogical scene whenever a student’s manner of talking evokes things like privacy, choice, and agency that are owned, possessed and consciously managed by a body that is itself bounded and separate from other bodies. This bland, insistent frame that so many students cart into the seminar room with them so often feels to me like a refusal to ratchet down the analytical focus in order to see/hear/feel all the ways in which a self, a bounded body, also has loads of holes and seeps into its surroundings in very unbounded ways.

But of course, part of what is so frustrating is that this “refusal” has been inculcated simply by years of living as a subject in the United States. The students speak out of an established distribution of the sensible, as Rancière would put it.

And of course, at one level of analysis, it remains crucial to assert the integrity of a body. Sexual and gender politics against assault, rape, and harassment are just the most obvious examples here. Advocacy around reproductive health, maternity leave policies, and the right to carry or not carry what lies inside my body are others.

The toxicity lies in the success of this way of thinking/living subjectivity. Liberal individual claims a blanket and unargued connection between bodily integrity and the possessive individualism (C. B. MacPherson, 1962) that has been so thoroughly naturalized by white male patriarchy and every single iteration of capitalism (the body that sell his labor power on the market of industrial capitalism, the body coddled by the niche markets of consumer capitalism, the entrepreneurial self [Lazzarato] of late liberalism [Povinelli]). My order-word arises like a sucker punch to dismiss this claim in shorthand when really any seminar should take the time to respond to this ideological smirk. The claims of liberal individualism signal a broad, diffuse, and agonizingly powerful set of norms, assumptions, practices, that thinkers should pause with and dwell into, instead of trying to block their power with the thin blade of an order-word.

The core of my frustration, as anyone who knows me knows, is the quick default to individual “choice”. Each situation is distinct and boringly the same, but the rapid assumption of choice ignores (or denies) the thick webs of social structure and the layered currents of history, memory, trauma, shame, and hope that orient, mold, and guide the perception and selection of those choices. On the other hand, humans clearly do in fact make choices and simply are responsible. Choice and structure, action and memory need to be uncoiled and stretched out so that we can see how history and obstinacy, social oppression and personal generosity work in tandem (or in tandems of tandems).

My thanks to L. Berlant and K. Stewart who designed and delivered this critical practice exercise.