Becoming-Receptive or, how to give it up without giving up

By Oli Stephano

Perhaps it is simply a peculiarly perverse reading on my part, but when I first came across Nietzsche’s description of inspiration in Ecce Homo, it struck me as a kind of erotic ethos. “One hears, one does not seek; one accepts, one does not ask who gives,” Nietzsche writes. “I never had any choice.” Here is a strategy of almost indiscriminate openness and attentiveness. Inspiration, for Nietzsche, seems to mark a moment of promiscuity, in which one accepts what is given without bothering to ask or even being able to identify its source, in which one’s body is attuned in a mode of wide-open receptivity. One cannot decide to quarantine oneself; one has no choice but to receive.

The challenge here is to become open to otherness in an affirmative mode. For Nietzsche, affirmation is an evaluative and selective process by which active forces go to the limit of what they can do. As he notes in On the Genealogy of Morals, this “aristocratic mode of evaluation…acts and grows spontaneously, it only seeks out its antithesis in order to affirm itself more thankfully and more joyfully.” The radical receptivity suggested by Nietzsche’s account of inspiration only works if it can carry bodily forces to the limits of what they can do. This is a question of affectivity, that is, the links between bodies and the shifts in their respective abilities to affect or be affected under particular relations. It is therefore a question of ethics, for, as Rosi Braidotti makes clear:

Ethics is a thin barrier against the possibility of extinction.  It is a mode of actualizing sustainable forms of transformation. This requires adequate assemblages or interaction: one has to pursue or actively create the kind of encounters that are likely to favor an increase in active becomings and avoid those that diminish one’s potentia [enabling creative power]. It is an intensive ethics, based on the shared capacity of humans to feel empathy for, develop affinity with and hence enter in relation with other forces, entities, beings, waves of intensity.

In a Nietzschean vein, Braidotti proposes an ethics of affirmation that cultivates those active forces that push body-subjects to the very limit of what they can do, sweeping up and overcoming reactive affects along the way.

As Braidotti notes, affirmative ethics are intrinsically bound up with affectivity. They involve experimentation with bodily relations and the various capacities enabled or disallowed therein. Inspired by Nietzsche’s rhapsodic account of radical receptivity, I want to inquire into the delicate task of becoming-open while nevertheless becoming-active, that is, how congealed personal/bodily boundaries might be dissolved without thereby resulting in self-destruction or dissolution.  I do not take it as a given that more permeable boundaries are desirable; instead, I engage with Nietzsche’s analysis of self-preservation in Ecce Homo to inquire into the links between bodily dissolution and endurance. I will approach this through the lens of sex and susceptibility. What kinds of sexual self-fashioning produce the body/self as porous, permeable and open to otherness?  How do these practices allow impersonal forces to circulate promiscuously, without seeking to domesticate alterity via identification? In considering these questions, I will examine what queer theorist Tim Dean names an “impersonal ethics” founded in “the failure to identify others as persons.” Putting impersonal ethics to work alongside affirmative affectivity, I wonder whether it is possible to think becoming-receptive beyond the sacrificial logic of autoimmunity.

According to the sacrificial logic of autoimmunity, a body dissembles its defenses in an act of self-annihilation. Bodily integrity is sacrificed as forces previously other-than or external to the bodily assemblage come to proliferate in its place. If immunity marks a principle of inviolability or exemption, as Jacques Derrida among others has made clear, then autoimmunity inaugurates a self-induced susceptibility to what is foreign to the body proper. As Derrida notes in “Faith and Knowledge,” in autoimmunization a body “must protect itself against its own protection, its own police, its own power of rejection, in short against its own, which is to say against its own immunity.” Indeed, immunity carries traces of autoimmunity within it. “Nothing in common, nothing immune, safe and sound, heilig and holy, nothing unscathed in the most autonomous living present without a risk of autoimmunity,” Derrida writes. There is then a double relation that needs to be examined: first, the constitutive contamination of immunity by its own impulse to defend against its own defenses; and second, the relation between sanctification and sacrifice that inheres in the logic of autoimmunity.

While Derrida gives an extensive analysis of how immunity turns back on itself in the piece referenced above, his meditations elsewhere on autoaffection are even more pertinent to my inquiry here. Autoaffection can be understood as the movement of life’s return upon itself, or microcosmically as the ways in which the subject touches itself in self-fashioning. It is a process of self-elaboration and differentiation. In Rogues, Derrida describes autoaffection as “the circular or rotary movement of the self’s return to itself and against itself, in the encounter with itself and countering of itself.” Autoaffection is an encounter but also a countering; its touch both cuts and sutures. In autoaffection the body-subject lays itself bare and with this self-touching explores what it can bear and endure. Autoaffection is thus an always-ongoing experiment with affectivity.

The circular movement of autoaffection is not, however, closed. The self (re)turns upon itself not in airtight solipsism but in a movement of difference which implicitly emerges from and opens a space of alterity. The identity of the body-subject is itself a framing or capture of multiple forces and differing intensities. Furthermore, self-touching is always touched by the spatial conditions of embodiment. Can there be any pure autoaffection, Derrida asks in On Touching, any experience of the body as purely proper and living? Or perhaps, he writes:

this experience is at least not already haunted, but constitutively haunted, by some hetero-affection related to spacing and then to visible spatiality– where an intruder may come through, a host, wished or unwished for, a spare and auxiliary other, or a parasite to be rejected, a pharmakon that already having at its disposal a dwelling in this place inhabits one’s heart of hearts as a ghost.

If it is the case that heteroaffection always intimately infects and haunts autoaffection, then autoaffection “would already presuppose a passage outside and through the other, as well as through absence, death, and mourning…” Any immunizing impulse of autoaffection would then harbor this pharmakon at its heart. Hence Derrida can argue in Rogues that “autoimmunity is always…cruelty itself, the autoinfection of all autoaffection” where it is “the self, the ipse, the autos that finds itself infected.”

Autoinfection operates with a sacrificial logic to the extent that it is taken up in the reactive spirit of self-abnegation. In other words, the autoimmune defense against one’s own defenses can unfold in either a reactive or active mode. As Gilles Deleuze notes in his monograph on Nietzsche, there is a difference between reactive turning-against-oneself and active self-destruction or self-overcoming. “In the reactive process of turning against oneself active force becomes reactive,” he writes. “In self-destruction reactive forces are themselves denied…active destruction is the state of strong spirits which destroy the reactive in themselves.” The problem here is how to take an active, affirmative approach to self-overcoming.

Nietzsche’s discussion of self-preservation in Ecce Homo offers an ascesis of radical receptivity as one such approach. Rather than a reactive defense mechanism against ‘outside’ incursions, self-preservation here becomes a means of transforming such tendencies.  Self-preservation for Nietzsche marks a certain strategy of becoming-active. Instead of expending energy keeping the world at bay, Nietzsche recommends remaining open but detached.

His argument is by no means clear-cut. On the one hand he seems to advocate a sort of passive contraction of one’s senses aiming “not to see many things, not to hear many things, not to permit many things to come close.” This is a selective, evaluative technique whereby the body-subject filters the influences with which it comes into contact.  On the other hand, Nietzsche warns against this sort of shuttering of the senses. “Warding off, not letting things come close, involves an expenditure,” he insists, “energy wasted on negative ends. Merely through the constant need to ward off, one can become weak enough to be unable to defend oneself any longer.” Self-defense is reactive to the extent that it recruits bodily capacities in constant defensive response to perceived threats. “Having quills is a waste, even a double luxury when one can choose not to have quills but open hands,” Nietzsche affirms. How does this injunction to greet the world with open hands fit with Nietzsche’s recommendation that one deploy one’s senses selectively?

The answer, curiously enough, seems to lie in a strategy of detachment. Becoming-active and becoming-open necessitates a detachment from reactivity. If one is to “say No as rarely as possible,” then one must “detach oneself…separate oneself from anything that would make it necessary to keep saying No.” This is not a scornful posture; the point is to overcome ressentiment, which Nietzsche identifies as superfluous to a strong active nature. One conserves and concentrates one’s active capacities by refusing to react. One negates negation and so, according to Deleuze’s interpretation, “expresses affirmation and becoming-active as the power of affirming.”

Nietzsche identifies this strategy with a “Russian fatalism” whose goal is “no longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything- to cease reacting altogether.” This defense against one’s own reactive defenses seems to bypass the sacrificial logic of autoimmunity. This call not to absorb or take anything in should be understand as another way of saying: do not internalize suffering, do not enslave oneself by fostering endless resentment against that which one cannot change. Detachment actually turns out to be a strategy for active, affirmative engagement with life.  Detaching oneself from saying No means:

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility…Not in order to get rid of terror and pity…but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity– that joy which includes even joy in destroying.

In lieu of rigid defensive boundaries, Nietzschean self-preservation inaugurates a kind of permeability or receptivity without reserve. It dissembles the body-subject’s defensive boundaries in order to unleash active, affirmative becomings. Detachment is a means of becoming-open. Nothing is internalized. Indeed, the bodily motif invoked is not one of psychic interiority but of open hands: open palms that touch and receive without clutching, without closing.

An affective analysis of receptivity might begin by considering bodies not as bounded entities so much as embodied events, defined by active exchange of intensities. “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do,” Deleuze and Guattari insist: “in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.”

What kinds of affectivity animate techniques of sexual self-fashioning that emphasize permeability and boundlessness? What bodily (in)capacities are forged by these practices of “impersonal intimacy”?

Responding to Tim Dean’s recent work on high-risk sexual practices and impersonal ethics, Leo Bersani argues that the cultivation of impersonal intimacy through sex often echoes an ascetic “ethic of sacrificial love” marked by “a saintly hatred of oneself, a perfect passivity toward God’s will, and une entière désappropriation de soi, total self-divestiture.” In dialogue with both Dean and Bersani, I wonder whether kenosis is the ideal model for sexual self-fashionings that emphasize impersonal intimacy. Are such practices best understood as an emptying out of the body/self’s powers and capacities so it becomes a hole for the passage of some awesome impersonal power?  To this end, I will turn to Mario Perniola’s exploration of “the sex appeal of the inorganic” as one attempt to think impersonal intimacy and becoming-open beyond a reactive sacrificial logic.

First, what in the world is impersonal intimacy? In his study of gay men’s subcultural practices of casual, anonymous high-risk sex, Dean identifies it as an affective field composed of shared durations of sexual intensity and sensation, rather than more putatively respectable knowledge of the other.  Against the common opinion that casual or anonymous sex is a defensive attempt to shield the body/self from the vulnerability of interpersonal intimacy, Dean insists that such practices actually open into qualitatively different kinds of intimacy characterized by “a profound exposure to the other and thus an experience of vulnerability and trust with complete strangers.” Without valorizing risky sexual practices as somehow exemplary of impersonal intimacy, Dean suggests that anonymous sex engages a particular kind of ethics of alterity. This impersonal ethics does not rest on empathy with the other; it does not enlarge the ambit of ipseity to understand the other on the self’s terms. In lieu of personal knowledge of the other, this ethics maintains otherness as ultimately unknowable, impersonal, and anonymous. As Bersani notes, this kind of intimacy “has none of what we usually think of as the humanizing attributes of intimacy within a couple, where the personhood of each partner is presumed to be expanded and enriched by knowledge of the other.”

In lieu of personalization and epistemological enrichment, impersonal intimacy emphasizes the body-subject’s capacity for connection. Once the imperative to know the other as a person is suspended, different considerations become paramount. What can a body do? How much can it bear? What conjoinings will prove pleasurable, sustainable, shattering? Drawing a parallel between the self-divestiture of heretical mysticism and that embodied in risky anonymous sexual practices, Bersani identifies both as “disciplines in which the subject allows himself to be penetrated, even replaced, by an unknowable otherness.” In each, the body-subject is sanctified through self-sacrifice. “At the ideal limit of their asceses,” Bersani argues, “both their individualities are overwhelmed by the massive anonymous presence to which they have surrendered themselves.” While I find Bersani’s analysis insightful and fascinating, I worry that it reinscribes the equation between radical receptivity and reactive self-dissolution.  Is it possible that becoming-receptive proceed in an affirmative and endurable manner? Can the kenotic model do justice to this possibility? Again, this is a question of whether practices of self-overcoming and deep receptivity are bound to a sacrificial logic of autoimmunity. If, for Nietzsche, affirmation is an autoaffective process by which life rejoices in its own inexhaustibility, then it seems somehow insufficient to suggest that this is the case.

The identification of radical receptivity with kenosis hinges on a topography of depth where the body/self’s interior is evacuated and replaced by an anonymous, overwhelming alterity. By contrast, Mario Perniola’s exploration of impersonal intimacy in The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic privileges surfaces and artifice.  Perniola begins by positing humans as things that feel.  This situates feeling as more than a faculty of the bounded self, and implies that sensation is passed on an impersonal level between things that feel. “The sentient thing that I am perceives in a neutral, impersonal, anonymous way,” he writes. “It is not I that feel, and it is perfectly indifferent to me to feel this or that, because the sentient thing that I am is all in the here and now, and in the continuous sliding from a this to another this.”  This strange sensibility is possible because there is no separation between the thing that feels and the sensation itself.

According to Perniola, the thing that feels is like sentient clothing:  “The fleshy clothes of our bodies are just like those that we leave on the armchair at night before we go to bed.” By establishing a continuity between flesh and fabric, Perniola means to extend sexuality beyond the realm of personal subjectivity and into “the anonymous and impersonal territory of things that feel.” Becoming a thing that feels entails:

the offering of one’s own body as extraneous clothing not to pleasure or to someone else’s desire, but to an impersonal and insatiable speculative excitement that never tires of traversing it, penetrating it, wearing it, and that enters, insinuates, sticks into us, opening us toward a complete exteriority in which everything is surface, skin, fabric.

On Perniola’s model, becoming radically receptive has little to do with saintly self-abnegation. On the contrary, it involves unfurling along a “neutral and impersonal territory of a sexuality without subject” as a thing that feels.

Perniola wants to claim that human self-fashioning is immanent to the autoaffective elaboration of life itself. “Don’t bank on a life that comes and goes, but on a tissue from which none can separate you,” he writes. “Perhaps you are afraid that this tissue now listens, now does not– that something could anaesthetize it. If so, you are still imagining yourself as an organ that lives or dies, is awake or asleep, and not as clothing.” Perniola’s claim is that fashioning oneself as a thing that feels, as a fold of fabric, is a kind of self-dissemination that establishes continuity between one’s own autoaffection and the autoaffective processes by which life elaborates and differentiates itself.

Perniola’s somewhat disorienting emphasis on surfaces, artifacts and artifice provides an alternative model of receptivity underscoring the anonymous, expansive quality of touching and being touched:

To give oneself as a thing that feels means asking that the clothes that make up the body of the partner are mixed with one’s own…To take a thing that feels means asking that one’s own clothing be welcome everywhere and for always, to the point of no longer being recognized either by oneself or by one’s partner as belonging to someone.

This is an experiment with impersonal intimacy that does not fall prey to the sacrificial logic of autoimmunity.  Giving oneself or taking another as a thing that feels requires receptivity to the others with whom one weaves. It demands a subtending generosity, a capacity to become im-proper, to distribute oneself across and as an intensive surface.

Becoming a thing that feels is one articulation of becoming-receptive. Becoming-receptive is characteristic of becoming itself. This is because qualitative transformation, as Deleuze and Guattari note, is a process of “opening the body to connections that presuppose an entire assemblage, circuits, conjunctions, levels and thresholds, passages and distributions of intensity, and territories and deterritorializations measured with the craft of a surveyor.” Becoming entails opening to this flux of forces. Affirmative ethics are an attempt to create and sustain those encounters that increase a body’s capability to affect and be affected joyously.

According to Rosi Braidotti, such ethics take up the challenge of receptivity and interconnection in good faith: “To be an individual means to be open to being affected by and through others, thus undergoing transformations in such a way as to be able to sustain them and make them work towards growth.” This desire for sustainable transformation drives body-subjects toward the cultivation of active forces. Braidotti identifies endurance as an ethical principle because it demands that a body push to the very edge of its capacities in an affirmative cultivation of active capacities. Braidotti explains:

The desire and the flair for potentia is a way of stretching the subject to the outer boundaries of his or her capacity to endure, pushing them so that they turn into thresholds of becoming. Another name for this process is in-depth transformations or metamorphoses. Being or not being able to take it, becoming speechless with it all, is the beginning of wisdom and of affirmation. What it expresses is the depth of interconnection that makes us into subjects.”

Pushing at a boundary so it can be reconfigured as a threshold of becoming does not mean entertaining arrogant illusions of ignoring or transcending limits. Instead, this striving is a means of experimenting with the limits immanent to the body at hand. What is a body-in-becoming capable of affecting as it is affected by a given flux of forces? How far can it push its capabilities in an active mode before it simply cannot take any more for the time being? For Braidotti, the task is to negotiate these limits not as fixed borders or irreparable wounds but as thresholds that mark the very potential of sustaining a flux of becomings. The body-subject, understood as a specific portion of forces bounded by the spatio-temporal frame of a ‘self,’ aims at its own endurance and the actualization of its active creative power (potentia). With this intensive model, limits are an imminent and immanent concern. “The containment of the intensities or enfleshed passions, so as to ensure their duration, is a crucial prerequisite to allow them to do their job,” she writes. “The dosage of the threshold of intensity is both crucial and inherent to the process of becoming, in so far as the subject is embodied and hence set in a spatio-temporal frame.”

Braidotti’s affirmative ethics concerns the selection and composition of active forces capable of creating and sustaining encounters which increase a body’s capacity to act. If becoming is to proceed affirmatively, she argues, it must aim at the sustenance of body-subjects capable of meeting and holding the affective onrush of life in its raw, often overwhelming vitality. For Braidotti, life is an immanent force that challenges “the specific slab of enfleshed existence that single subjects actualize” to confront and affirm its intensity. “It is a constant challenge for us to rise to the occasion,” she continues, “to practice amor fati, to catch the wave of life’s intensities and ride it on, exposing the boundaries or limits as we transgress them.” The limits immanent to a given line of becoming are not impenetrable borders or blocks, but rather potential points of transformation and connection. This is because limits delimit the highest potency that can be effected in a given context, and such are points of transformation that serve as opportunities to evaluate a course of becoming.

Becoming-receptive in an affirmative mode, then, might not entail becoming-limitless. Instead, it could signal a kind of becoming-open that stretches limits in order to maximize the body/self’s capacity for action. Radical receptivity might enable the dissolution of congealed boundaries without thereby necessitating the dissolution of those limits that sustain bodily endurance and potentia. In the sacrificial logic of autoimmunity, dissembling one’s defenses results in self-debilitation. Yet an ethic of self-divestiture, of open engagement with fluxes of forces that disrupt the boundaries of contained personhood, need not entail kenotic self-sacrifice. “Perhaps self-divestiture has to be rethought in terms of a certain form of self-expansiveness,” Bersani suggests, “of something like ego-dissemination rather than ego-annihilation.” Such self-fashioning could thus take up Nietzsche’s call for “the highest affirmation, born of fullness, of overfullness, a Yes-saying without reservation…” and so gesture to the possibility of becoming-receptive without thereby self-destructing.


Bersani, Leo and Adam Phillips, Intimacies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Braidotti, Rosi, Transpositions. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Dean, Tim, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections of the Subculture of Barebacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Derrida, Jacques, “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar. New York: Routledge, 2002.

——— On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry. Stanford, CA:

Stanford University Press, 2005.

———- Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and

Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

——– On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. RJ Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

———Will to Power, trans. RJ Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.

Perniola, Mario, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic. New York: Continuum, 2004.



Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), III “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” §3. Herein chapter titles from section three of Ecce Homo will be cited according to their standard abbreviations, ie, TSZ for “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” BT for “The Birth of Tragedy,” etc.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. RJ Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), I §10.

My understanding of affectivity is primarily informed by the Spinozist reading provided by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987; as well as Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Braidotti, Transpositions, 217.

Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections of the Subculture of Barebacking. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 25.

Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 80.

ibid., 82.

Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 109.

Jacques Derrida, On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 180.


Derrida, Rogues, 109.

Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 70.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, II §8.




ibid., I §6.

Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 70.

op. cit.

ibid., III BT §2. Emphasis added.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 257.

cf. Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 47.

Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 51-52.

op. cit., 174.

Bersani, Intimacies, 53.

Indeed the question of how to access this impersonal realm of sensation guides my engagement with Perniola’s work. I would even suggest a Nietzschean basis for this analysis of impersonal forces, thinking not only of Nietzsche’s description of the body as an assemblage of forces in On the Genealogy of Morals, but of his insistence in The Will to Power that “all unity is unity only as organization and co-operation.” The Will to Power, trans. RJ Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), §561.

op. cit.

ibid., 54.

I am indebted to Diana Mattison for pointing me toward the language of kenosis.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo,  III BT §2.

Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 51.

ibid., 11.

ibid., 21.

ibid., 12.

ibid., 48.


ibid., 10.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 160.

39 Braidotti, Transpositions, 162.

ibid., 202.

ibid., 157.

ibid., 216

43 Bersani, Intimacies, 56.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, III BT §2.