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The Normativity of the Creeks

All Or Nothing

There is a coastal tidal creek in Northern Australia where a young girl lies facedown. Called Tjipel in the language of the area, she came to this creek as a beautiful teenager who decided to dress as a young man, equipping herself with male clothes and hunting implements, including a spear and spear thrower. As she travelled down the coast, she did various things, including spearing a wallaby. But the heart of her story concerns an encounter she had with an old man. As she passed between two coastal points, a bird told her that an old man was approaching. And so she lay belly down in the sand to hide what parts of her body would reveal—that she was in fact an adolescent female. The old man, thinking she was a young man, insisted that (s)he get up and cook the wallaby. She put him off, claiming to be sick. He eventually tired of waiting and left with the wallaby. But as he walked away, another bird told him that the young man was actually a teenage woman. He rushed back and a fight ensued. He won. She remains there. But she doesn’t remain there by the creek. She is the creek. Tjipel’s encounter with the old man made, and is, the local topography. She now divides the two coastal points, marks the boundaries between two languages and social groups, and joins this region to other regions up and down the coast. This, and other parts of the story, is what Ruby Yilngi taught her kids and me. You would be wrong to believe, however, that in the beginning the earth was a formless void with darkness covering the surface of the deep and that into this void walked Tjipel. Tjipel came to where she now rests from the east, where she also remains although in a different form. And many of the people, things, and animals she encountered during her travels continued down the coast or cut inland and south, digging waterholes, raising mountains, hollowing out caves, and reddening swamps along the way. Moreover, by the time Tjipel arrived where she now lies, other beings may have already passed by—Wirrigi (Rock Cod), Mudi (Barramundi), Parein (Possum), et cetera. I am not sure if Tjipel came first and they followed or if they came first and Tjipel followed. It doesn’t matter who came first or second or third—or it didn’t when I began learning about the adventures of existences/entities like Tjipel from Ruby Yilngi, Betty Bilawag, Agnes Lippo, and others in the mid-1980s. The problems these women and other older men asked Tjipel to solve were neither how an initial emptiness came to have dimension; nor how something emerged from nothing; nor how the one (1) broke the grip of zero (0); nor how the beginning began? Nor was the problem that of which entity came first, second, or third—ordinal numbers did not subsume the coexistence of multiple entities. Tjipel’s birth and death were likewise not compelling questions—the questions “where was she born?” and “where did she die?” never eliciting heated discussion. The questions people asked when they asked about Tjipel concerned her directionality (the course along which she was moving), her orientation (the determination of her relative position), and her connections (her extension into other segments of local, regional, and transregional geontological formations). And, perhaps more important, they asked how and why she responded to different people and different human actions in this or that way—giving fish and crab or withholding them. Her existence was witnessed in indicative dimensions and activities. If someone wanted to know more about Tjipel they were told to interact more intimately with her and follow her topological coordinates elsewhere. There they would find other people, stories, and places. And they would find not only that there were multiple other forms and versions of Tjipel, but also that within each of these versions were multiple modes, qualities, and relations—depending on which Tjipel you encountered, you would find different ways and capacities to divide, connect, and extend geographies and biographies. And if you continued to find yourself obligated or worked to make yourself obligated to Tjipel the deeper your understanding of her possible modes of existence would be, including what and how she was herself indicated and what and how you were you.

While neither Tjipel’s birth nor her death was a pressing problematic, Yilngi’s family’s obligation to her continuing existence was, and vitally so. This shouldn’t be a surprise. While Tjipel never presented herself as iterating the problem of birth or death, she did exemplify how the arrangement of existence could radically alter in ways that would be disastrous for her human kin. And her human kin could alter their arrangement of existence in ways that would be disastrous for Tjipel. In other words, and according to Yilngi and her cohort, Tjipel and her human kin were internal to each other’s arrangement. Tjipel established an estuarine normativity that sought to compel humans to care about and for her—minding her legs by hunting in her mangroves, walking along her spear thrower, fishing in her creek, et cetera. If Yilngi’s family acceded to the watery norms Tjipel established, Tjipel would turn toward Yilngi’s family and care for them. If this rapport was broken, Tjipel would not die, but she would turn away from her human kin. After all, she had changed her arrangement of existence before—twice in fact. First, Tjipel was an adolescent girl who dressed up as a young man. Then she became a creek. These morphological mutations did not kill her. Quite the contrary. They allowed her to persist in a different form. If she changed for a third time, she would once again persist but this persistence might be in a form inimical to human forms. She would give Yilngi’s family her watery backbone, drying her riverbeds and withdrawing her resources. She would become the Desert to them, but not as something that is barren and inert but something that, through an active withdrawal of the conditions for the existence of those who have neglected her, turns those neglectors into something else as well: mummified minerals. […]


If she had ears, Tjipel might listen closely to the philosopher Georges Canguilhem’s critique of how mid-twentieth-century biomedical sciences defined normal and pathological states of life. As is widely known, Canguilhem sought to establish a philosophically grounded approach to life that would counter the positivist accounts of disease and health, the normal and the pathological then dominant in the biomedical sciences. Canguilhem rejected the idea that what was normal about any particular organism could be found in a set of the statistical distributions defining its kind. What is normal about organic life is not defined by how close or distant the individual is from the statistical norm of its species: say, the normal state of blood pressure and cholesterol of a fifty-four-year-old white woman or the normal pH level of saltwater creeks. What is normal about an organism, and about organic life, is an indwelling capacity and drive to seek to establish the norms that would allow it to persist and expand its powers of existence. Life is a creative striving (conatus) to maintain and expresses its capacity to establish a norm (affectus), not the reduction of its being to sets of quantitative data. Indeed, the truth of life and the range of its normality are not visible in the healthy organism. They are revealed in the activity of the diseased organism. “Life tries to win against death in all senses of the word to win, foremost in the sense of winning in gambling. Life gambles against growing entropy.”1

In finding itself disturbed by a disease, finding itself in a state of dis-ease, the biological organism struggles to maintain or reestablish itself by maintaining or reestablishing its milieu. And, ipso facto, all things that gamble against a growing entropy can be understood to be life. Canguilhem was quite careful about what he meant by the phrases “biological organism” and “milieu.” In his essay “The Living and Its Milieu,” for instance, Canguilhem carefully unfolds an intellectual genealogy of the meanings and relations of these terms in the physical and social sciences.2 Measurement, law, causality, and objectivity become the foundations of scientific reality, a reality (“the real”) that dissolves the “centers of organization, adaptation, and invention that are living things into the anonymity of the mechanical, physical, and chemical environment.”3 This account of milieu infects positivist accounts of life (biological organisms) such that life becomes what is statistically average across the varieties of organic beings. For Canguilhem, milieu is neither static nor homogeneous. “The milieu that is proper to man” and to all living things is “the world of his perception, that is to say the field of his practical experience in which his actions, oriented and regulated by values that are immanent to his tendencies, carve out certain objects, situate them relative to each other and all of them in relation to himself.”4 As a result a living thing does not react to his milieu, or environment, so much as originally and creatively form it and understand himself to be affected by his ability to maintain it. This original creative centering is what positivist science brackets, substituting “measurements … for appreciations, laws for habits, causality for hierarchy, and the objective for the subjective.”5

The influence of Canguilhem’s approach to the normal and normativity on his student Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower is well established.6 In the last decade of his life, Foucault outlined two broad lines of inquiry that engaged Canguilhem’s philosophy of life. On the one hand he began to elaborate a theory of biopolitics in which power was organized through a statistical understanding of the health of the population. On the other hand, he sketched a theory of critique that understood critique as a particular stance (ethics) against this statistical reduction of life rather than as any specific normative proposition (morality) about the content of what the good life is or might be.7 If, for Canguilhem, all things that gamble against the inert and entropic are life, for Foucault all that resists the uniformity of existence are critique. Critique is “the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability.”8 In some ways then, Foucault’s contrast between population and people was analogous to Canguilhem’s contrast between positivist accounts of life and his own. The differences between Canguilhem’s approach to life and Foucault’s understanding of critique and biopolitics are also significant, though. For instance, Charles T. Wolfe has noted that Canguilhem believed something that could be called life truly existed and this thing, life, animated the establishment and inquiries of biomedical knowledge. Foucault would make a slightly different claim—“Life” did not exist before the emergence of modern biology.9 This doesn’t mean that in pointing to the establishment of the modern science of biology and its affects of governance, Foucault rejected the idea that some things are alive. Still, the object of their work significantly diverged. Canguilhem was not seeking to expose the illusionary nature of the object of the biomedical sciences, but rather was seeking to correct their account of that object. It was in part for this reason that Canguilhem was not sure whether his conceptual apparatus could survive a shift from a biophilosophical focus to a critical social focus.10 Other scholars are less concerned with the distance between Canguilhem’s critique of the biomedical sciences and Foucault’s account of biopolitics and critique. Rather they wonder how a broader philosophical influence on both may have narrowed the power of the concept of biopower. Sebastian Rand, for instance, has argued that Canguilhem’s and Foucault’s basic Kantianism restricted their understandings of life and biopower, respectively. And he contrasts Kantian-backed notions of normativity to Catherine Malabou’s Hegelian-based concept of plasticity.11 Rand seeks to show how Malabou’s virtual encounter with Canguilhem advances the concept of normativity “beyond Foucault’s own too-Kantian position, while avoiding some of the traps of other prominent discussions of biopower and biopolitics.” Much of Rand’s discussion revolves around the question of whether an organism can receive new form and content from its milieu (environment).12 This ability matters to Rand because it provides him with a contrast between Canguilhem’s definition of normativity as the capacity for normfollowing and norm-establishing and Malabou’s Hegelian concept of plasticity as the capacity to receive form, give form, and destroy form.13

My purpose is not to take the reader through a select genealogy of normativity, but rather to give enough of its content to show why Tjipel might be listening to their conversation with some trepidation, no matter who wins this debate. On the one hand, Tjipel might worry that much of her “body” would not satisfy Canguilhem’s definition of life, but hope that the concept of plasticity might better match her powers to receive form, give form, and destroy form. While Canguilhem’s organism is capable of receiving content (that is, natural changes in its bodily state and the environment), it is not capable of receiving a new form—it is defined as that which manifests itself as extra-natural norm-establishing form in the face of any and all received natural content. Conceived of as ‘‘plastic,’’ by contrast, the organism not only gives form to a content, but can give itself form and receive form in a way that changes what it is: it subjects itself as norm-establishing to the possibility of transformation of its normativity, at its own hands or at the hands of something outside it.14

On the other hand, she may wonder whether she fits another aspect of normativity/plasticity common to Canguilhem and Malabou—their constant emphasis on subjectivity as a synthetic self-determining substance-structure. For Malabou this subject is a subject of anticipation (voir venir)—“an anticipatory structure operating within subjectivity itself” and through which the subject gives itself form.15 The exemplary figure of plasticity for Malabou is the Greek philosopher who was able to be universal and individual simultaneously—the Greek philosopher acquired his formative principles from the universal while at the same time he bestowed “a particular form on the universal by incarnating it or embodying it.”16 And, crucially, the Greek philosopher radically opened himself up, allowing his form to give way to a new form. In short, the Greek becomes “ ‘Da-sein,’ the ‘beingthere’ (l’être-là) of Spirit, the translation of the spiritual into the materiality of sense” by the preservation of its specific “synthetic structure (self-determination)” and the exposure of this structure to accidents.17

[…] Before having the ability to transform its form and content—plasticity or normativity—an organism must be that which can posit itself or be posited as a me, an it, a thishere that is seeking to persist and expand or is the locus of an anticipation. If we are claiming that Tjipel strives to expand her norm-expressing capacity or that she has the powers to give form, receive form, and destroy form where is the she (or it) that does so? Where does she begin and end—where the sands accumulate to maintain her breasts or further down shore where they drift off to sea? Are the oysters and fish and mangrove roots and seeds and humans, who come and go as do the winds and tides, karrabing and karrakal, part of her no matter where they may stretch or travel? Some might say that Tjipel is a “contingently varying” environment that can “restrict the range of possibilities” of the “contingently varying anatomies” that move within it. And these contingently varying anatomies also can change the form of her nature as environment. She is not, in other words, in any selfevident way an organism or a synthetic self-determining structure able to enclose herself in the skin of her birth, able to reproduce a form of life like herself, able to anticipate a new form, able to die or destroy. She is more like a lung in relation to its body. She is outside herself as much if not more so than inside.

A simple and straightforward way of addressing these problems is found in the concept of the assemblage. We might say that rather than a synthetic self-determining structure Tjipel is an assemblage and it is this assemblage that is the ground of Tjipel’s agency and norm-making capacities. As Jane Bennett has argued, the concept of assemblage allows scholars to correct against the “thinginess or fixed stability of materiality” and to understand the efficacy of any given assemblage as depending “on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces.”18 Thus it is not a problem that Tjipel is something other than a synthetic self-determining structure, because it is the assemblage composing her that has normative force—it is the assemblage that strives to persevere and expand. This seems a perfect solution for Tjipel. She may not be an organism but she seems to be an assemblage (a condensation and congregation) of living and nonliving substances—what the term “ecological” is meant to cover. But let us pause here. What is the concept of assemblage smuggling in as it is being deployed to solve the power of normmaking in a post-subject world? What are the temptations of the organism and the carbon imaginary that haunt the concept of the assemblage? Let me name three. The first temptation is the mirage of linguistic reference. Tjipel is the proper name that binds together the disparate elements that compose her. “Tjipel” and an “estuarine creek” create a synthetic a posteriori understanding of the unity underlying her multiple parts and determination. These names provide the multiple parts with a kind of semiological skin. Remember, according to Yilngi, what makes Tjipel “here” and “this” is the fact that all of the entities that compose her remain oriented toward each other in a way that produces her as a this hereness, as an experiential destination and departure—sand comes and goes from her sandbars; fish travel up and down her creek; oysters struggle to stay attached to her reef. All of these entities oriented toward each other become something. They become Tjipel from a certain point of view, a certain stance, involved attention, and obligation with the entangled intensities therewheresheismade. Tjipel thus does not refer to a thing but is an assertion about a set of the obligated orientations without an enclosing skin.

A related temptation is the assertion of intention and purposiveness. Many politicians and capitalists would insist that there is a self-evident difference between Yilngi’s daughter, Linda Yarrowin, and the former prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, on the one side and Tjipel on the other—Tjipel is subject to the decisions that Yarrowin and Gillard make, and the force with which they can make these decisions a norm. Yarrowin and Gillard seem able to decide how they will act and what they will allow. And, increasingly, mass subjects like corporations or markets are legally endowed with the subject-like qualities of intention, choice, and decision. Many naturalists and philosophers would contest this description of social politics. But many would also balk at the description of Tjipel as a decision maker. They would claim that she cannot decide because she does not have a mind and therefore cannot intend. Many philosophers of intention understand intention to be a mental state, and thus to have intention one must have a particular sort of thing and do a particular sort of thing with it. For instance, Elizabeth Anscombe, an analytic philosopher, has argued that to have an intention is to be capable of giving an account or to have an account of why, for what, and toward what one’s actions are oriented.19 For Anscombe, nonhuman animals and plants, let alone geological formations and meteorological, are incapable of such. To have intention Tjipel would need to be able to give an account of the reason for their actions and the future toward which these actions are a means to an effect. […] Is Tjipel the environment in which the intentional, purposive, plastic, and normative unfolding of life takes place (the fish that run through Tjipel’s legs act in order to eat and not be eaten; the plants that hold her muddy skin in place by taking and receiving nutrients from soil and air)? One way to get around these problems is to claim that assemblages like Tjipel can be vibrant even if they are not intentional or purposive. Another way is to challenge whether any organism can be the locus of its own intention and purpose. Even biological life seems increasingly to be nothing more than one way of looking at a series of intersecting and entangled substances.

The cells of very small aquatic animals use the water around them to provide internal nutrients, absorb their waste products, and provide a kind of skin by providing them with a relatively unaltered container. Larger, more complex, multicellular animals like humans have created an internal environment of “extracellular fluid.”21 […] Acid rains pour down into Tjipel. As the toxins in the acid rains concentrate in one area and spread to another, the shape and destiny of arrangements will change. As each of these arrangements absorb her, they open a set of otherwises unique to that arrangement, much as Michel Serres notes that each building builds into itself its own way of making noise, of decomposing or creating a parasitic inhabitation.22 In the future, Tjipel may be a natural gas depot; and the kind of human moving through her mangroves may not be recognized as human to us. That is, not only is Tjipel multiple things but what she could be is multiplied as each arrangement defines her as a kind of being, a kind of entity, or an object or thing (res). As Tjipel becomes a new form of existence, so do the humans swimming down her—they become rich, toxic, melancholic, hungry, evil, anxious, powerful. […]

Tjipel is a geontological, meteorontological, econtological statement that no life is sovereign in the sense of an absolute structural and functional compartmentalization and self-organization. Thus we can interpret the normative force they exert over Life and Nonlife as a de-negating force: they refuse to abide by any fundamental difference between Life and Nonlife. This leads to the final temptation of the concept of the assemblage, namely, the temptation to assert that, stripped of their linguistic indexes and the sense and reference they bestow, Tjipel disappears into nothingness. From one perspective each part of Tjipel, and Tjipel as a whole, is neither a part nor a whole but a series of entangled intensities whose locations are simultaneously where Yilngi pressed her foot as a young girl and far afield from where she ever walked. The mangrove roots and reef formations cannot be given anything except a fragile abstract skin because those are themselves parts of other entangled intervolved “things” that are far afield from Tjipel and thus Tjipel is nothing outside the play of human language. But Tjipel is not merely an empty mirage projected off a set of linguistic signs. Once the multiplicity of entities are oriented to each other as a set of entangled substances in the sense discussed in the last chapter, this entanglement exerts a localizing force. Tjipel’s river mutation establishes something like a norm for how other entities within her reach behave, thrive, and evolve—her form, for instance, enables and directs fish to run through her, and the tidal alterations of her salinity allow specific mangroves to hold her legs in place. If Tjipel is an assemblage, therefore, she shows the concept of assemblage to be a paradox—something that is here and this but without a clear extension, limit, sovereignty, or decisive reference as imagined in the biontological logos of western philosophy and critical theory. She is hereish as opposed to thereish. Tjipel is an intersection only as long as she is an intersection of entities oriented to each other—this was Yilngi’s point. But as long as Tjipel is the intersection of a habituated set of forces, she also exerts a habituating force. This is why our obligation to her is urgent, pressing, and ethical. We cannot attribute the same qualities to the assemblage that have been attributed to organisms like the human self. But by being unable to fold her into Life we allow her to stretch out her norm-making capacity, namely, that every location is unlocatable except as a focus of habituated attention. She peels the skin off the entire congregation and each of its parts and then insists that if she is to be as she is then she must be constantly kept in place—her skin must be constantly lent to her by others. Moreover, when trying to take her apart in order to use her for something else, we find that we did not lend her our skin. We received our skin as a consequence of being a part of the arrangement that is Tjipel. After all in being a composite being, she could, as Yilngi noted, recompose, transforming nourishing lands into a desert. And if we are also a composite, the assemblage-as-paradox, the content of our internal capacities and the force with which we can express them then we are also dependent on others lending us their organs and skin lest we change form as well.

This text is excerpted from the fourth chapter of Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism by Elizabeth A. Povinelli. Copyright Duke University Press, 2016.


1 Canguilhem, Normal and the Pathological, 236.

2 Canguilhem, Living and Its Milieu.

3 Canguilhem, Living and Its Milieu, 27.

4 Canguilhem, Living and Its Milieu, 26

5 Canguilhem, Living and Its Milieu, 26–27.

6 See Machery, De Canguilhem á Foucault.

7 Critique is “the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth.” Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” 47.

8 Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” 47.

9 Wolfe, “Return of Vitalism,” 6–7.

10 See Machery, De Canguilhem á Foucault.

11 Much of Malabou’s writing has focused on specific historical events where there is a constancy of the subject-substance and sensual and material accidents: Alzheimer’s, brain trauma brought on by the technologies of modern war, neuroscience and capital. And these explorations reveal a conceptual apparatus around plasticity that seems remarkably close to Canguilhem’s concept of normativity.

12 Rand first outlines Canguilhem’s exclusion of content from the definition of life, grounding organic life “around a single, original, authoritative, unchanging norm,” the preserving and expanding of its norm-expressing capacity. He does so in order to problematize this kind of Kantian abstract formalism via the concept of environment. As Rand notes, this “purely formal” definition of the norm-establishing capacity of organisms cannot be regarded “in the sense of its being wholly unlimited by any content.” And this is because all organisms “operate within contingently varying environments and with contingently varying anatomies that restrict the range of possibilities open to the environment, but which can also be changed by the activity of the organism itself.” Rand, “Organism, Normativity, Plasticity,” 346, 348, 348.

13 Rand, “Organism, Normativity, Plasticity.” Malabou was a supervisor on the dissertation “Canguilhem and the Play of Concepts,” submitted by Sergio Colussi, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London.

14 Rand, “Organism, Normativity, Plasticity,” 355.

15 Malabou, The Future of Hegel, 13. See also James, New French Philosophy.

16 Malabou, The Future of Hegel, 11. Later elaborated in Malabou, Ontologie de l’accident, and Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.

17 Malabou, The Future of Hegel, 10.

18 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 20–21.

19 Anscombe, Intention, 11–15.

20 Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority v. OM (Manganese) Ltd., 2 August 2013, 33–37.

21 Sadava and Hillis, Life: The Science of Biology, 833.

22 Serres, Parasite.


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