In a Minor Key

Erin Manning, ‘In a Minor Key’, pp.1-25, in:
Manning, E., 2016. The Minor Gesture: thought in the act. Duke University Press, Durham.

The minor gesture, allied to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the minor, is the gestural force that opens experience to its potential variation.

A minor key is always interlaced with major keys—the minor works the major from within.

The major is a structural tendency that organizes itself according to predetermined definitions of value. The minor is a force that courses through it, unmooring its structural integrity, problematizing its normative standards.

Yet while the grand gestures of a macro-politics most easily sum up the changes that occurred to alter the field, it is the minoritarian tendencies that initiate the subtle shifts that created the conditions for this, and any change.

The grand is given the status it has not because it is where the transformative power lies, but because it is easier to identify major shifts than to catalogue the nuanced rhythms of the minor.

The minor is a continual variation on experience. It has a mobility not given to the major: its rhythms are not controlled by a preexisting structure, but open to flux.


It is out of time, untimely, rhythmically inventing its own pulse.

The minor isn’t known in advance. It never reproduces itself in its own image.

The minor gesture works in the mode of speculative pragmatism.

And so the minor gesture often goes by unperceived, its improvisational threads of variability overlooked, despite their being in our midst. There is no question that the minor is precarious.

Despite its precarity, it resurfaces punctually, claiming not space as such, but space-of-variation. The minor invents new forms of existence, and with them, in them, we come to be. These temporary forms of life travel across the everyday, making untimely existing political structures, activating new modes of perception, inventing languages that speak in the interstices of major tongues.

The minor gesture’s indeterminacy, and even its failure to thrive, is what interests me here. For there is no question, it seems to me, that we put too much credence in that which persists, in the edifices rebuilt daily by technocrats. There must be other ways of living?

In its movement, the minor gesture creates sites of dissonance, staging disturbances that open experience to new modes of expression. In making felt the event’s limit, the operational interval where the event exceeds the sum of its parts, the minor gesture punctually reorients experience.


As Alfred North Whitehead emphasizes, it is the event’s atomicity, its capacity to be fully what it is, that ultimately opens the way for the potential of what is to come: without atomicity, in an arena of pure becoming, there would be no “elbow room in the universe,” no opening for the disjunctions through which difference is produced (1967: 195).

By making everything an event, by emphasizing that there is nothing outside of or beyond the event, the aim is to create an account of experience that requires no omnipresence.

From this vantage point of an ecology of practices, it is urgent to turn away from the notion that it is the human agent, the intentional, volitional subject, who determines what comes to be.

It is urgent to turn away from the central tenet of neurotypicality, the wide-ranging belief that there is an independence of thought and being attributable above all to the human, a better-than-ness accorded to our neurology (a neurology, it must be said, that reeks of whiteness, and classism).

Neurotypicality, as a central but generally unspoken identity politics, frames our idea of which lives are worth fighting for, which lives are worth educating, which lives are worth living, and which lives are worth saving.

Despite its role as a founding gesture of humanism, of individual- ism, neurotypicality remains for the most part in the background of our everyday lives.


Neurotypicality tells us what is in our best interest, and we tend to accept it wholesale. It is for this reason that neuro-typicality as foundational identity politics is rarely named as such.

When do we question what we mean by independence, by intelligence, by knowledge? When do we honor significantly different bodies and ask what they can do, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are simply deficient? When is the fat body, the immobilized body, the blind body, the deaf body, the old body, the spastic body celebrated?


Neurodiversity is the path I choose here to explore insurgent life. Encouraged by neurodiversity activism, I take neurodiversity as a platform for political change that fundamentally alters how life is defined, and valued. I do this with the neurodiversity movement’s call in mind: to honor complex forms of interdependence and to create modes of encounter for that difference.


The neurotypical, as real contributor to society and to humanity in general, is strongly paired with a notion of independence understood according to normative definitions of ability and able-bodiedness framed by what I call the volition-intentionality-agency triad.


Despite several decades of the Disability Act, what Guattari would call “normopathy” continues to rule, not only defining value in terms of normative criteria of functioning, but also reducing the importance of relation by placing facilitation on the side of lack: those who need facilitation demonstrate a lack of intelligence, a lack of will, a lack of agency.

The neurotypical is the very backbone of a concept of individuality that is absolutely divorced from the idea that re- lation is actually what our worlds are made of.

The neurotypical does not need assistance, does not need accommodation, and certainly does not need facilitation. The neurotypical is independent through and through.

Mobilizing the cleave of the event, its internal schism, agencement foregrounds not the agency of an individual acting on the event, but those very operations that “secrete their own coordinates” in the event, affecting how it comes to expression.

A schizoanalytic approach […] affirms these complex ecologies that could not come into existence without the schisms that radically alter the operational quality of the event.

[…] a schizoanalytic approach has a belief in the world. In this sense it is Nietzschean: “Was that life? Well then, once more!” (1954: 157).

The world it believes in is a world where to act is an inherently affirmative gesture that cannot be distinguished from the in-act of the event. What acts at the heart of the event is the minor gesture.

This is not to say that the minor gesture is inherently positive, or good. The minor gesture, like schizoanalysis, is operational. It shifts the field, altering the valence of what comes to be. It is affirmative in its force, emphatic in its belief.


The minor gesture is not the figure of the marginal, though the marginal may carry a special affinity for the minor and wish to compose with it. The minor gesture is the force that makes the lines tremble that compose the everyday, the lines, both structural and fragmentary, that articulate how else experience can come to expression.

The minor gesture is the activator, the carrier, it is the agencement that draws the event into itself.

This capacity to actualize, at the edge of the virtual where the actual is not-yet, is what makes the minor a gesture: the minor is a gesture insofar as it punctuates the in-act, leading the event elsewhere than toward the governant fixity of the major, be it the major in the name of normative political structures, of institutional life, of able-bodiedness, of gender conformity, of racial segregation.


The conjunction between the minor gesture and life-living is a political ecology that operates on the level of the in-act, asking at every juncture what else life could be.

The political opening that lurks here is built of a procedural architecture called the undercommons, a concept coined by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney.

The undercommons is an emergent collectivity that is sited in the encounter. Allied to the minor gesture, it is an activator of a tendency more than it is an offering of a commonality.

The undercommons is a tentative holding in place of fragile comings-into- relation, physical and virtual, that create the potential to reorient fields of life-living — a belief in the ineffable and its powers of resistance keep it alive.


Neurotypicality involves a hierarchization of knowledge, based as it is on a belief that favors normative forms of instruction and segregates knowledge according to accepted ideas of what serves society best.

In The Undercommons, Moten and Harney foreground the university as an institutional system that, in the neoliberal economy, thrives on a belief that knowledge can be encapsulated and marketed.

The mode of critique that operates as an academic trope stifles the very opening through which fragile new modes of existence can come to expression. What if knowledge were not assumed to have a form already? What if we didn’t yet know what needed to be taught, let alone questioned?


A solvable problem was never really a problem, Bergson reminds us. Only when a question is in line with the creation of a problem is it truly operational. Most academic questions are of the solvable, unproblematic sort. What the undercommons seeks are real problems, problems intuited and crafted in the inquiry.

The call made by the undercommons is that we refrain from taking on problems that are already recognizable, available, but work instead, collectively, to invent open problems that bring us together in the mode of active inquiry.

We must be careful, though, in doing so, not to create false problems.

False problems and badly stated questions maintain the status quo. Academic critique and debate are too often played out at the level of false problems and badly stated questions.


Research-creation is the term given, in Canada, to academic work that is evaluated both for a creative, usually artistic contribution, and a written, more theoretical or philosophical one.

How can we bring the different registers of art and philosophy, of making-thinking, together in ways that are capable of honoring their difference?

[…] I take research-creation as one of the most lively current modalities, in the academic institution, of problem-making, and I explore how it creates fields of inquiry for reframing how knowledge is practiced beyond typical forms of academic use-value, including the value we place on linguistic expression and language-based evaluation.


Whether we call it study or we call it research-creation and engage directly with knowledge as it is being reframed in pockets of academic discourse, what matters is that there is an explicit disavowal of method as generator of knowledge. For method, aligned as it is to the major, is what seeks to capture the minor gesture, what seeks to capture study, and silence it.

Study, like research-creation, refutes the “subject” of study, and in so doing it also refuses the “object of study.” It does so by always beginning with the creation of a problem that is truly productive of inquiry. In so doing, it opens the field of experience to the more-than of objects or subjects preformed. Study is an act that delights in the activation of the as-yet-unthought.

Study, research-creation—these are pragmatically speculative practices that, while absolutely entrenched in their own process of making-time, here, now, remain untimely.


What emerges will be another mode of encounter, another problem, another opening onto the political as site as yet undefined.

Artful practices honor complex forms of knowing and are collective not because they are operated upon by several people, but because they make apparent, in the way they come to a problem, that knowledge at its core is collective.

Practices that think multiply are many: they can be activist practices, environmental practices, social practices.

They can involve child-rearing, social work, teaching, playing. They can take place on a park bench, in the city, in the classroom, in the kitchen.

To think multiply is to think in the register of the hyphen, of the differential, in the complex field of study opened up by the undercommons.


The artful, in my reading of it, is aligned to what I have elsewhere called “autistic perception.” Autistic perception is the opening, in perception, to the uncategorized, to the unclassified. This opening, which is how many autistics describe their experience of the world, makes it initially difficult to parse the field of experience.

Rather than seeing the parts abstracted from the whole, autistic perception is alive with tendings that create ecologies before they coalesce into form.

There is here as yet no hierarchical differentiation, for instance, between color, sound, light, between human and nonhuman, between what connects to the body and what connects to the world.


Frameworks of everyday living are also of the event. And so, like all events, they can be modulated by minor gestures. They can be opened up to their potential in ways that intervene into capitalist time. They can become forms of resistance. They can do so, for instance, by altering rhythms, reducing our alignment to the homogeneity of capitalist speed.

This involves becoming more attuned to event-time, the nonlinear lived duration of experience in the making. For it is in event-time that the minor gesture tunes the event to what it can do.

Form and content are short-lived, and this makes them false starters. In a politics attuned to emergent difference, we must begin instead in the midst, where force has not yet tuned to form. In this middle, where the event is still welling, there is potential for new diagrams of life-living to be drawn.

Alternative diagrams for life-living must resist returning to a model of inside-outside where the human subject is situated as the motivator of experience. This is our habit: to make the work about us.


This is the problem with agency: it makes the subject the subject of the action. What if the act did not fully belong to us?

[discussion of Bergson and William James on agency]


Whereas in the nonconscious welling event, every shift caused a change in nature, in turn causing a qualitative transformation in the field of experience, with the on-set of consciousness the tendency is to backgrid effect onto cause, creating a solid accounting of change that organizes the event within a temporal grid. This solid accounting is quantifiable only because it can be said to be the same or different—in time, in space, in effect—from the last solid accounting of experience.

If the feeling of effort is tied to consciousness, it follows that it must be tied to volition.

A volitional movement, because it is intentional, and because it comes from us, must therefore already include within its parameters the knowledge of how much effort is necessary to carry it out. This effort is learned and comes through repetition. Once the movement becomes a habit it is practiced volitionally, that is, intentionally. We thus have agency over it.


We are taught that reflex, which is considered instinctual and therefore less refined than volitional movement, is a direct, nonconscious response in the event to a cause.

Directed, or volitional movement, on the other hand, is defined as strategized movement. Because it is considered to be beyond instinct, directed movement is said to be more free than automatic movement.

This differentiation between conscious and nonconscious movement, between so-called “free” movement, on the one hand, and automatic or reflex movement, on the other, is problematic for several reasons.

First, it hierarchizes forms of movement according to conscious behavior, ignoring the complex tendings within consciousness that open it to nonconscious inflections. Second, it classifies as primitive forms of movement that are alive in the event, thus situating autistic perception, for instance, on the side of reflex and neurotypical perception on the side of volition, thereby fur- ther cementing the hierarchy. It also confuses two levels of cause and effect in its account of freedom.


How we act is based on a continuous interplay of conscious and nonconscious movement with nonconscious movement playing a vital part, especially as regards movement’s creative potential.

In our everyday movements, especially in relation to movements that have become habitual, a movement might nonetheless feel completely volitional.

When this is the case, what has happened is that we’ve experienced a sense of déjà-felt, in the event. This déjà-felt occurs in the interstices of the conscious and the nonconscious, directing the event to its familiarity- in-feeling.

The feeling of volition is more aptly defined as a certain recognition, in the moving, of our having already moved “just this way.” But movement-moved is never twice the same: it is always altered by the ecologies that create this singular field of relation, and that influence how it will unfold this time.

Volitional movement understood as movement belonging to the subject and fully directed by the subject is, therefore, impossible. Such an account of volition, as suggested above, can only be narrated after the fact.

Major movements — movements that have a form that can easily be recognized, such as getting on the bus — are therefore more easily post-identified as “volitional” than are minor gestures.

Throughout, I consider movement as decisional rather than volitional, decision defined here not as external to the event but as the cut, in the event, through which new ecologies, new fields of relation are crafted.

Elsewhere, I’ve called the attunement, in the event, toward decisional movement, choreographic thinking, emphasizing the ability of movement to cue and align in spacetimes of composition in ways that open experience to new registers.

Movement-moving is at its most creative, its most operational, when not curtailed by the imposition of narratives of volition and intentionality.


Affect is one of the most habitual ways we experience the nonvoluntary in the act.

The force of the affective moves us.

In the case of affect, the involuntary tends to be recognized and even accepted, but only insofar as it is considered to have no real effect on our modalities of existence.

In transposing reason onto affect we are trying to have it both ways: we want to feel the ineffable, yet deceive ourselves into thinking we can sideline the ineffable and leave the bubbling ground of the welling event when it suits us. We want to believe we can decide where the event will take us. This is a mirage that underestimates the force of the nonvoluntary in our daily lives.

Yet nonconscious experience is full of knowledge: it is, after all, the site of decision.

Decision is not what happens after the affective opening of the event to its potential, but what cleaves the event, in the event. The minor gesture is a decisional cut.


I emphasize the nonvolitional in the act because so much is taken for granted in the name of neurotypicality, in the name of volition, of intentionality, of agency.

But for the autistic or anyone else for whom activation and impulse control may be an issue, the daily experience of not ending up where our movement seemed initially to be directed is not only deeply frustrating, but can also be taken as a sign of our lesser value as human beings: anything that makes us less independent in the eyes of a world that takes intentionality and volition as a normative standard tends to decrease our perceived value as contributors to society.

One reason we identify nonvoluntary movement as other to neurotypical movement is because we have a tendency to see movement as continuous, a view perpetuated by the habit of backgridding the event in consciousness, thereby introducing homogeneity into the activity after the fact.

Movement is of course anything but continuous, its activity constantly inflected by the improvisatory quality of a response, in the event, to cues and alignments.

Bergson uses music as an example. For some of us, it is very difficult to select out sensory input. To listen to music might be to hear it as a many-times-unfolding, untimely complexity.


For those of us less attuned to autistic perception, however, this is likely not how we hear it. What we hear instead is a more homogenized version: we consciously reduce the sensation of sound’s intensity to a quantitative magnitude that is averaged out.

To hear the differential of music’s immanent rhythms, to participate directly in the quality of its sounding, it is necessary to hold back the conscious ordering of sensation.

For Bergson, this means doing away with the idea that sensation can be measured, which also means: articulated, identified, parsed. Parsing, so allied with the neurotypical, not only reduces our capacity to feel the complexity of the event in the event, it perpetuates the hierarchy of conscious experience over nonconscious experience, reason over affect.

What if instead of parsing movement, we dwelt in movement-moving? This would allow us to be more attuned to the differential at the heart of the event, to its immanent contrast. If we did so, we would no longer be able to believe in pure continuity and would perhaps refrain from our tendency to homogenize experience. And we would begin to more easily perceive minor gestures at work.


Minor gestures recast the field, open it to contrast, make felt its differential. They do so by activating, in the event, a change in direction, a change in quality. The activation of a change in quality is what Bergson defines as freedom.

Freedom is here not linked to human volition, nor is it allied to intentionality or agency. Freedom is instead allied to the in-act, to the decisional force of movement-moving, to the agencement that opens the event to the fullness of its potential. Freedom is how the event expresses its complexity, in the event.

Bergson’s concept of freedom does not separate out activity from the in-act. In doing so, it radically repositions volition as an aspect of experience, active in the act, no longer the external director of experience mediated.

Without a hierarchy of conscious versus nonconscious experience, a more complex compositional field of experience emerges. Here there is still room for mutation, for difference, for an opening toward the as- yet-unseen, the as-yet-unthought, the as-yet-unfelt. In these interstices of the as-yet, minor gestures proliferate and can be harnessed toward the re- orienting of experience.

[The] more typical definition of freedom has us standing outside the event. We are free because we are rational, because we orient the act, because we have agency, because we resist the affective forces of those passions and desires that would steer us in the wrong direction.

Freedom, for Bergson, is dynamic, ecological. Freedom is a quality of the act, an ethos in the act’s opening onto experience. Not all events are free, but in every event we find the germs of freedom.

These germs must be tended, must be sown in ways that allow the act to create problems that will in turn generate modes of action, of activity, of activism that create new modes of existence. The minor gesture tends the germs of experience in-forming, opening the act to its potential.

In this sense, the minor gesture is a force for freedom.


For the gesture is only a minor gesture insofar as it opens the way, insofar as it creates the conditions for a different ecology of time, space, of politics.


The minor gesture, we must remember, is defined by its capacity to vary, not to hold, not to contain. It acts on, moves through, its gesturing always toward a futurity present in the act, but as yet unexpressed. This is its force, this is its call for freedom.

This poses a significant challenge: how to articulate modes of existence, to articulate fields of experience, that operate as much in the nonconscious as in the conscious realms, how to do so in a language that operates chiefly within the realm of the conscious. Perhaps the first step is not to be too certain of the frame that would separate the nonconscious from consciousness.

“Freedom” may not be a word to hold onto. For now, I use it as a place-holder to remind us that volition and freedom need not be thought of as complementary.

 A serious taking into account of the nonvoluntary aspect of freedom Bergson foregrounds might ultimately make the neurodiverse free, free to be different, free to need and receive facilitation, free to perceive the complexity of experience on their own terms, and free, also, to move, to live, to love in unpredictable ways.


Freedom is transversal to the human: it cuts across human experience but is not defined by it.