The Communion of Clouds: Becoming-Woman in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians


In her well-read work on contemporary feminist theory titled Nomadic Subjects (2011), Rosi Braidotti gets to grips with the Deleuzian notion of ‘becoming-woman’. Noting that the concept has experienced a good deal of criticism in feminist circles (and from some important feminists too, such as Luce Irigaray), Braidotti argues that there is still something of extreme importance in this concept for the feminist to recover. For Braidotti, ‘becoming-woman’ allows for ‘a nonunitary and multi-layered vision’ of the subject. That is to say, it allows for the description of ‘a dynamic and changing entity’ (5) – one that challenges the striated formulations of ‘woman’ found in phallo- and Euro-centric master codes. Importantly, however, it does so not by posing an essentialised subject position of ‘woman’ for others either to mimic or aspire to (often the grounds for the misreading of the concept), but rather by referencing ‘woman’ as an intensity of sorts, an intensity that is the pre-condition for both revolutionary thought and action (249-250).

This paper takes the Deleuzian concept of ‘becoming-woman’ and uses it as a way to understand the enigmatic relationship that develops between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl in Coetzee’s early novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Beginning with a brief characterisation of the barbarian girl as an agent of transformation, this paper goes on to offer an explanation for why the encounter between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl necessarily results in the Magistrate’s turn away from the State.

There are, of course, many ways to read the enigmatic figure of the barbarian girl in Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Teresa Dovey’s early account of the barbarian girl is as ‘the figural embodiment of the Magistrate’s desire’ (224); George Steiner’s rendition posits her as a participant within the Hegelian parable of the master and slave; while Sue Kossew has written of her as the ‘archetypal Other’ that one is accustomed to meeting in postcolonial discourse (92). However, while each of these accounts may speak in some implicit way about the transformative or catalytic power of the barbarian girl over the Magistrate, I want in this essay to draw out this particular quality of her character. Like other critics, I think the barbarian girl is best understood as a horizon of transformative energies, but the way in which I arrive at such a reading is by bringing Coetzee’s novel into contact with one of the most misrepresented concepts in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: becoming-woman. For me, thinking of the barbarian girl in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-woman not only helps the reader to understand the profundity of the relationship that emerges between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl, it also gives account of why this relationship must inevitably lead to the Magistrate’s fall from his central position within the halls of institutionalised power.

First, though, let us agree that the barbarian girl is indeed an agent of transformation. At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to the Magistrate as somebody who is quietly and casually seeing out the last few years of his employment in an unimportant frontier town of an unnamed empire. Early in the novel, the Magistrate describes himself as ‘a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire . . . I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times’ (8). However, it is into these ‘quiet times’ that the fearsome Colonel Joll of the Empire’s Third Bureau strides – he whom the Magistrate will eventually come to characterise as the ‘truth that Empire tells [itself] when harsh winds blow’ (148). Tasked with assessing the threat of local barbarian populations to the Empire, Joll’s first act is to strike out into the hinterland in order to round up local people for interrogation. And it is this act that is responsible for bringing the barbarian girl inside the walls of the Magistrate’s town.

Somebody who has both witnessed and suffered the brutal interrogations of Colonel Joll, the barbarian girl comes to the attention of the Magistrate as she sits quietly collecting alms from passing strangers. In that first moment, the Magistrate thinks of her as yet another body upon which he can focus his well-known libidinal desires. ‘If there was anything to be envied in a posting to the frontier’, the Magistrate recalls, ‘it was the easy morals of the oases, the long scented summer evenings, the complaisant sloe-eyed women. For years I wore the well-fed look of a prize boar’ (48). Bringing her in from the cold, the Magistrate offers the barbarian girl a job attending to his quarters. But he can barely contain the ulterior motive to his proposition. ‘I know I am beating about the bush’, the Magistrate admits to himself. ‘I can offer you work. I need someone to keep these rooms tidy’, to which he adds ominously, ‘She understands what I am offering’ (28). However, the relationship between the two fails to give itself over to the simple dynamic that is seemingly being developed in these early exchanges – of the man in power preying on a disadvantaged young woman. From the first intimate encounter between the two, the Magistrate recognises that the contact is not motivated by sexual desire. He states, ‘I feel no desire to enter this stocky little body glistening by now in the firelight’ (32). Again, a little later, by way of insight, he announces, ‘from the beginning my desire has not taken that direction, that directedness’ (36). Yet, the barbarian girl continues to fascinate him.

Indeed, it is the attempt to reconcile a fascination for the barbarian girl, despite an announced lack of sexual desire for her, which insists that the girl quickly becomes an enigma for the Magistrate. Left disfigured and maimed by her encounter with an imperial force that he himself serves, the girl’s broken body acts as an object of allure for the Magistrate. Attempting to rationalise his inscrutable yet growing attraction to the girl, the Magistrate tries first to uncover some intellectual interest or import to her presence before him. To this end, the Magistrate turns to the marks on the barbarian girl’s body, the marks which, although the obvious residue of her brutal encounter with Colonel Joll, continue in some profound way to resist his grander efforts of interpretation and therefore elucidation. ‘It has been growing more and more clear to me’, the Magistrate proclaims, ‘that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her’ (33). For the Magistrate, then, to understand the marks on the barbarian girl’s body is at the same time to understand the girl herself. In this way, the barbarian girl stands before the Magistrate as an intellectual puzzle of the same order as that presented by the marked poplar sticks that his amateur archaeological digs have recovered from the desert sands near to the walls of his frontier town (15–16).

Importantly, it is then precisely this attempt of the Magistrate to solve the riddle of the barbarian girl – which is to say, his attempt to understand the root of his curious desire for this broken body – that ultimately begins his transformation. Indeed, when the Magistrate realises that if he is to finally ‘know’ this girl, he must approach her in a way that is not conditioned by the colonial gaze, he changes forever.1 He does so because he understands the significance of being in the presence of an ‘object’ that the supposedly totalising gaze of Empire is demonstrably unable to elucidate. The figure of the barbarian girl stands as something that the Magistrate realises the colonial gaze, as a hegemonic but culturally and ideologically warped way of seeing the world of others, can only make sense of in the broadest and most brutal of terms – as the body of an Other which can supposedly be compelled to yield, to reveal its secrets, to divulge its desires. Indeed, the Magistrate begins to understand that Joll’s interrogation technique is merely a programme to be completed: ‘First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth’ (5). As such, Joll’s ‘truth’, which is to say the ‘truth’ by which Empire positions itself in the world, is shown to be nothing other than self-fashioned. All that is revealed by the archaeological action of penetrating the surface of the Other’s body is the fact that at its core Empire is, and has always been, a sadistic enterprise to exercise control and power over the bodies of all of those Other to it (and Othered by it). In order to understand the allure of the barbarian girl then, the Magistrate recognises that he must step away from this model of relations instituted by Empire. That is to say, he must begin thinking of her in a different way; she must become more than just a body to be controlled and (re)coded.

It is therefore the fact that the gaze of Empire lacks definition when it is brought to bear on the particular that encourages the Magistrate’s early flight from the comfort of State thought.2 Something that embodies what might profitably be thought of as the processes of stratification and organisation which necessarily lie anterior to Roland Barthes’s notion of the Doxa,3 State thought can at best only see its Others as broad shapes, outlines of forms, or ‘auras’ (52) as the Magistrate says. Commonly, however, such Others are all but invisible, which is why the Magistrate struggles to remember seeing the barbarian girl when she first enters his town. ‘I know that my gaze must have passed over her’, he reflects, ‘when, together with the others, she sat in the barracks yard waiting for whatever was to happen next. My eye passed over her; but I have no memory of that passage’ (36). The problem here is that the Magistrate is trying to remember the individual rather than the crowd, but the individual Other is something that the colonial gaze simply cannot see. As Frantz Fanon understood, the gaze of Empire eviscerates the individual in a violent moment of objectification that ultimately belies the unconscious sexual fantasy resident in realising the domination of a people. It is in this sense then that the Magistrate’s colonial gaze prowls over this crowd of Others, and the reason why he later finds himself ‘hunting back and forth’ across the barbarian girl’s body, ‘seeking entry’ (46).

Indeed, the observation is not lost on the Magistrate, who seems all too aware that his early encounters with the barbarian girl merely repeat the actions carried out by her interrogators. Initially thinking of the girl as a mere surface to be penetrated – and, because of that, an object to be possessed – the Magistrate comes to be appalled by the fact that his actions (and intentions) are drawn straight from the channels of State thought: ‘I prowl around her talking about our vagrancy ordinances’, the Magistrate explains, ‘sick at myself. Her skin begins to glow in the warmth of the closed room. She tugs at her coat, opens her throat to the fire. The distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible; I shudder’ (29). But, regardless of whether the actions are those of the Magistrate or Colonel Joll, the result of such ‘interrogations’ remains the same: a body that does not yield and does not disclose its secrets. The ‘mistake’, the Magistrate finally comes to realise, is ‘to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other!’ (46). One cannot. And so, from this moment onwards, the Magistrate begins to sense the limits of the supposedly totalising nature of the colonial gaze. In its quest to posit every facet of the world in relation to the stance of Empire, the colonial gaze is seen to only return a jouissance, or ‘a pleasure that is excessive, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed or disgusted, yet simultaneously providing a source of fascination’ (Fink xii), which does nothing more than point back towards its subject (rather than make known the object of enquiry). Thus, the girl’s scarred body responds to the Magistrate ‘only inasmuch as it offers his doubled image cast back at himself’ (Hamilton 60).

In order to begin to understand the barbarian girl, therefore, the Magistrate realises that he must attempt a very different mode of engagement to the archaeological method offered up by the State thought of Empire. To this end, the Magistrate replaces the failed process of intellectual enquiry with a confidence in the experience born from privileging the affects and passions released in his encounter(s) with the barbarian girl. And in experiencing the barbarian girl in this way, which is to say as an assemblage of various zones of intensity that produce ‘phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture’ (Deleuze and Guattari 4),4 the Magistrate approaches a private knowledge that ultimately contests the cogitatio universalis of State thought. One gets an immediate sense of this through the washing rituals that the Magistrate begins. In the voice of the Magistrate, the reader is told, ‘I begin to wash her feet. She raises her feet for me in turn. I knead and massage the lax toes through the soft milky soap. Soon my eyes close, my head droops. It is rapture, of a kind’ (31). Through such physically intimate actions as these, the Magistrate actively learns to unthink the barbarian girl as the archetypal Other of the colonial gaze. She instead becomes for him the impossible, an instantiation of the radical Other – that which stands unconditioned by a relationship to Empire and is therefore encountered on undisclosed terms.5 Indeed, the Magistrate begins to uncouple the bonds by which the barbarian girl had been made to serve not only as his objet petit a but as the objet petit a of Empire itself, which is to say as the intimate figuration of the Empire’s desire to make known (even if only in brutal terms) ‘the unknown.’6 Released from the role that allows Empire to fantasise itself as a singular and coherent structure which stands proud from a chaotic world, the barbarian girl introduces the Magistrate to an infinitely more rich and complicated world in which bodies encounter each other upon an a-personal sea of desire that is understood best as ‘a process of production’ that requires no additional reference to an exterior agency, be that ‘a lack that hollows it out or a pleasure that fills it in’ (Deleuze and Guattari 154).

Put another way, the radical otherness of the barbarian girl announces what Deleuze and Guattari call an ‘absolute Outside’ (156), which is to say a plane of experience that in refusing to entertain the common illusions or ‘phantoms’ of desire – namely, the notion of lack; the idea of transcendence; and the apparent exteriority of supposedly desired objects (156–57) – collapses the equally illusory sense of a distance between subjects and objects. The reader sees this in the way that the Magistrate describes both his own body and that of the barbarian girl, and what happens to him as he washes her: ‘I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present’ (30). It is as if, he says, ‘these bodies of hers and mine are diffuse, gaseous, centreless, at one moment spinning about a vortex here, at another curdling, thickening elsewhere; but often also flat, blank’ (36). The effect of this is profound: ‘I know what to do with her no more than one cloud in the sky knows what to do with another’ (36), the Magistrate admits. The sentiment here is significant because what this communion of clouds describes is the encounter of equals, of beings experiencing themselves as an endless wave of becomings that nonetheless belong to the same order of things (rather than subjects encountering objects); no more; no less. Understood like this, the Magistrate’s encounter with the barbarian girl is to be thought of as the most equal encounter possible – the encounter of the same.

It is this sense of things that leads to the Magistrate’s confronting epiphany: any attempt that he makes to understand the barbarian girl intellectually, which is to say by reinstating her as the objet petit a of his own and a wider public discourse, is only ever going to result in a programme of self-discovery.

I am disquieted. ‘What do I have to do to move you?’: these are the words I hear in my head in the subterranean murmur that has begun to take the place of conversation. ‘Does no one move you?’; and with a shift of horror I behold the answer that has been waiting all the time to offer itself to me in the image of a face masked by two black glassy insect eyes from which there comes no reciprocal gaze but only my doubled image cast back at me. I shake my head in a fury of disbelief. No! No! No! I cry to myself. It is I who am seducing myself. (47)

That fundamental desire for recognition by others, which for Jacques Lacan was the mechanism by which the existence of the self was guaranteed, is forever undone here.7 The Magistrate’s horror is therefore an understandable reaction to a profound moment of ontological destabilisation. This radical Other does not, because it cannot, guarantee the existence of the self. The Magistrate’s horror is therefore the expression of his realisation of the veracity of Arthur Rimbaud’s infamous dictum, ‘I is an other’ (101).

The consequences of this realisation, of course, spread further than the Magistrate’s personal milieu. For precisely the same reasons, the radical Other can no longer serve to guarantee the existence of Empire. In fact, if the Magistrate’s realisation that the self and other are so intimately related in the intellect that one cannot even begin to prise them apart, and that the radical Other is forever distanced from a public knowledge, then the very raison d’être of Empire – which is to say its existence conditioned by its stance towards the real or imaginary threat posed by those like the barbarian girl – fails, too. In this heady climate, everything to do with Empire begins to assume the character of fiction and myth for the Magistrate. ‘I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy’, the Magistrate adds to the observation that Colonel Joll is ‘the truth that Empire tells itself when harsh winds blow.’ ‘Two sides of imperial rule’, the Magistrate concludes, ‘no more, no less’ (148–49). Yet, the point of significance here is not only that Empire is fabricated (in both senses of the word) by and through narrative, but that the ‘I’ by which the Magistrate thinks of himself is also just as mythical (‘I . . . the lie’).

So, the Magistrate’s attempt to ‘know’ the barbarian girl (that is, the radical Other) results in him becoming-other. And it is this that marks the full import of the Magistrate’s encounter with the barbarian girl: the division between subject and object, and the modes of knowing that are dependent on just such a difference, collapse. This is the consequence of wallowing in the devotion that one must display towards an object of enquiry if the goal is to try and fully understand it rather than simply position it within a ready-made conceptual schema. One must encounter the object, allow it to consume one’s thoughts, be empathetic and perhaps even sympathetic towards it, and in this way give oneself over to it. Understood like this, to truly engage the Other is at the same time to be overcome by it, something which sounds very much like wilfully submitting oneself to the devils of repetition that code trauma.8 And, of course, this is exactly what one sees the barbarian girl become for the Magistrate. Over time, she consumes all of his thoughts, she dominates (in one way or another) his imagination – he sympathises with her plight, empathises with her pain, and in so doing his sense of them as discrete bodies evaporates.

This, though, does not explain why it is the Magistrate who is seemingly most affected by the encounter between the barbarian girl and himself. Indeed, while the barbarian girl seems little changed by her time spent with the Magistrate, the affects of this ‘communion of clouds’ for the Magistrate reverberates for a long time after the girl has been returned to her people. The question left to ask then is why it is the Magistrate who is transformed and radicalised by the barbarian girl rather than the barbarian girl who is ‘domesticated’ by the Magistrate.

One compelling way to explain this puzzling consequence of the relationship between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl is to be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-woman. It is a concept that is open to radical misreading, and so it is worth prefacing a closer discussion of the concept with a brief sketch of what becoming-woman means for Deleuze. Perhaps the best way to do this is to state explicitly what a becoming-woman is not. It is not an act of imitation, and so it is not about trying to act like a woman (whatever that would mean). In fact, Deleuze tells us that it has no mimetic qualities whatsoever.9 Indeed, for Deleuze and Guattari a becoming-woman actually has nothing to do with ‘woman’ as an empirical referent at all. Rather, as Rosi Braidotti puts it, the ‘woman’ of a becoming-woman should be understood as ‘a topological position, which marks the degrees and levels of intensity and affective states’ (‘Woman’ 307). That is to say, the woman of a becoming-woman should be understood as ‘the marker for a general process of transformation’ (Nomadic Subjects 250). ‘Woman’ here then is shorthand for a space that lurks on the periphery of a patriarchal system, a space that has always been home to the marginalised of society: be that the dissident, the immigrant, the unemployed worker, or the woman.10

However, in order to understand how one traverses the distance between the centre(s) and the margins of society, one must also understand the equally misapprehended Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of becoming. In short, a becoming describes the result of the encounter between two or more bodies. Obviously annoyed by the constant misreading of the concept, Deleuze once told an interviewer, ‘The question “What are you becoming?” is particularly stupid’ (Deleuze and Parnet 2). It is ‘particularly stupid’ because the concept of becoming specifically negates the teleology upon which such a question is premised. As a present participle, becoming refuses the notion of either an explicit or implied end-point, destination, or moment of arrival. Thus, one is never becoming anything; rather, one is just becoming. The point is clarified in A Thousand Plateaus:

Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation. Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, ‘appearing,’ ‘being,’ ‘equalling,’ or ‘producing.’ (239)

Perhaps the clearest way to think of a becoming then is as a conversation. Indeed, just like a conversation, a becoming takes place between the terms of an encounter (two or more ‘bodies’). However, even though both a conversation and a becoming share the curious position of a relationally-defined autonomy, neither can be reduced to a property of one (or both) of the terms. In fact, each claims its own kind of life, residing simultaneously between and outside of the encounter. That is to say, just as a conversation evolves, involves, and transforms in a manner that is largely independent of the intention of those holding the conversation, so too a becoming develops outside of the terms of the encounter. For this reason, just like every conversation, every becoming is unique – something that can never be repeated even if the terms of the encounter are identical.

As such, what a becoming-woman describes is not a kind of mimicry but rather a product of an encounter – a product that inevitably instructs a movement away from the dominant ideological forms and practices of a particular society. Given this, if ‘man’ is the privileged referent of subjectivity, ‘the standard-bearer of the norm/law/logos’ (Braidotti, ‘Becoming’ 49), then he is the force of standardisation, of stability, of staticisation, of the cogitatio universalis, of the status quo. And to this extent, ‘man’ is adversarial to the creative process of becoming. Put plainly, in this arrangement ‘man’ figures ‘the cold heart of the system’ (49) that is invested in locking every aspect of itself into a specific and, for that, immutable place. Becoming-woman signals a challenge to this ossified sense of things, the attempted contravention of this circumstance. It does so because as soon as one steps away (in any way or direction) from the standardised and dominant forms of a structure or system one is necessarily moving towards the space of woman – which is to say, the space of the marginalised. Not to do so would be like trying to step away from the North Pole by moving east. It cannot be done. And so, in the same way that all directions away from the North Pole are inevitably south, all movements away from State thought are inevitably a becoming-woman. This is why for Deleuze and Guattari becoming-woman is ‘the pre-condition, and the necessary starting point’ (Braidotti, ‘Becoming’ 49) to all the challenges to what we might as well call in the context of Coetzee’s novel, ‘the thought of Empire.’ Put simply, becoming-woman is the first position of minority.11 Thus, to become-woman is to immediately radicalise. It is to think and act in a way that is other to the thoughts and actions necessary to further the continuance of the status quo of the State.

This then is why the Magistrate’s relationship with the barbarian girl can only result in his anti-Empire mien. To be clear, it is not because he chooses to put himself into opposition with the Empire, but because he must – his becoming-woman instructs it. In this way, the Magistrate is cast to the ‘outside.’ But this is Gilles Deleuze’s ‘outside’, which is to say, not an outside characteristic of a neglected wasteland, but an outside of unrivalled productivity and creativity (Deleuze and Guattari 379). Here, thinking is liberated from the terrain of the already-known and the already-said. It is the realm of what one might like to think of as the private thinker who rejects the image of State thought ‘and does things differently’, even if this is to be understood properly as a thinking that belongs to a ‘horizonless milieu’ (379) that stands before the (disappearing) universal thinking subject.

In this way, the Magistrate literally becomes one of Empire’s others, and, in so doing, also a profoundly creative disruptive force. In this space of the outside, the Magistrate is no longer bound by the structured desires demanded by serving Empire. Here, on the outside, he is, according to Colonel Joll, ‘the One Just Man . . . a clown, a madman’ (124) – after all, each epithet returns the Magistrate to the same (othered) space. But what Colonel Joll does not realise is that each of these appellations also describe a person who is recognisably free to restructure desire without a return to the notions of lack, transcendence, and exteriority that code Empire’s desire to possess everything other to itself in search of an (always illusory) sense of a coherent self. In the space of the outside, in communion with the barbarian girl, the Magistrate experiences an affective terrain that reveals a very different image of desire – a desire that is non-personal and non-intentional and for that a desire that traverses every relation in the social field. It is a desire that is not concerned with possession but with drawing bodies together so that the new assemblage experiences an increase in its capacity to act.

Put another way, since the Magistrate is caught within the swell of a desire that proves to be ‘the a priori condition for thinking’ (Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects 257), he can do no other than let it position him at odds to the concerns of Empire. This is why the Magistrate gives the narrative over to a number of ideas that have grown to concern him at the conclusion of the novel:

I think: ‘I wanted to live outside history. I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them. How can I believe that that is cause for shame?’

I think: ‘I have lived through an eventful year, yet understand no more of it than a babe in arms. Of all the people of this town I am the one least fitted to write a memorial. Better the blacksmith with his cries of rage and woe.’

I think: ‘But when the barbarians taste bread, new bread and mulberry jam, bread and gooseberry jam, they will be won over to our ways. They will find that they are unable to live without the skills of men who know how to rear the pacific grains, without the arts of women who know how to use the benign fruits.’

I think: ‘When one day people come scratching around in the ruins, they will be more interested in the relics from the desert than in anything I may leave behind. And rightly so.’ (Thus I spend an evening coating the sips one by one in linseed oil and wrapping them in an oilcloth . . .)

I think: ‘There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it.’ (169–70)

The passage is worth quoting in full because it can be read as a programme by which the Magistrate can live a (new) life after Empire: to abolish Empire; to recognise one’s own ignorance; to share the fruit (literally and metaphorically) of labour and technological understanding; to respect the past; and, that which has been staring the Magistrate in the face, to live in a productive mutual association with all, since ‘I is an other.’ However, if there is a truth to be told (169), then the Magistrate knows that it is not one that can be found in private narration for that is always destined to be ‘devious’, ‘equivocal’, and ‘reprehensible’ (169). Rather, such truth will emerge from communion with the outside – that is, by giving one’s private obsessions over to a social field that makes clear the fabricated nature of an original subjectivity that can only function through possession of the Other. For this reason, the Magistrate’s avoidance and denial of odious colonial practices early in the novel – ‘Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing . . . the noise that all these souls make on a warm summer evening, does not cease because somewhere someone is crying. (At a certain point I begin to plead my own cause.)’ (5) – gives way to a character that can no longer bear to look away. Put simply, his encounter with the barbarian girl has stripped from him the ability to assert a distance between himself and others, to wallow in the neutering passivity of being ‘just a man’ (in the face of the colonial behemoth), to accept a life lived through habit. In other words, the Magistrate’s becoming-woman marks a reinvigorated life, one for which he must take responsibility. Nothing could be more radical or more revolutionary than this.

This then is the becoming-woman of the Magistrate: an encounter with a barbarian girl that results in both a radical observation (‘I is an other’) and, because of that, a radical transformation. Coetzee may have literalised the Magistrate’s becoming-woman at points – ‘Then one day they throw open the door and I step out to face not the two men but a squad standing to attention. “Here,” says Mandel, and hands me a woman's calico smock. “Put it on’’’ (128) – but it is not necessary to have done so. Once the Magistrate had decided to understand the girl who stood before him in his chambers, he is swept away by a process that undoes the subject/object relation that lends gravity and coherence to the forms of both Self and Empire. Inevitably moving away from the dominant ideological forms and practices of the very society he once led, one witnesses the Magistrate being propelled into a profoundly different way of thinking about the world to that conditioned by State thought. This is his revolutionary becoming-woman.


  1. The colonial gaze is, of course, central to postcolonial criticism. Rendered early on in the work of Frantz Fanon as ‘the white gaze’ (90–95), the colonial gaze is perhaps given its fullest treatment in Said’s notion of Orientalism. See Said.

  2. I borrow this phrase from Deleuze and Guattari as shorthand for what is in its simplest iteration an accepted and public way of thinking which is endorsed and promoted by the State. I have elucidated some of the other salient aspects of State thought elsewhere, see Hamilton pp. 53–54. Eugene Holland adds yet another interesting dimension to the concept when he talks of its emergence from ‘the double-articulation of State power and universal reason, each of which enables and augments the other: the power of the State provides reason with a reality and a proper space of its own, an “interiority” . . . and the universality of reason grants the state its universal justification’ (45). However, for a full account of the concept, see Deleuze and Guattari pp. 351–423.

  3. Barthes deals with the notion of the Doxa in his interesting book, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Here, he thinks of the Doxa as ‘Public Opinion, the mind of the majority, petit bourgeois’ (47). However, as Graham Allen notes, the whole of Barthes’s better-known text, Mythologies (1972), can be thought of as a critique of the Doxa (96).

  4. Deleuze and Guattari are actually discussing the assemblage of the book in this passage. However, the analogy seems particularly apt given the context of the Magistrate’s attempt to ‘read’ the barbarian girl.

  5. For a powerful description of the ‘radical Other’, see Nikulin, p. 133.

  6. I refer, of course, to Jacques Lacan’s work on the subject. As Bruce Fink notes, Lacan devoted many thousands of pages – most of it unpublished – to developing the concept of the objet petit a (83). It should be somewhat unsurprising then that I am hesitant to offer a definition of the term here. For an excellent discussion of perhaps the most salient aspects of the concept, see Fink, pp. 83–97.

  7. For example, according to Lacan it is the image captured in the mirror which the parent willingly asserts, ‘Yes, baby, that’s you!’ that begins to crystallise the ego. See Fink, p. 36.

  8. On the way in which the traumatic event/image comes to dominate the conscious mind, see Caruth.

  9. Deleuze and Guattari write, ‘What we term a molar entity is, for example, the woman as defined by her form, endowed with organs and functions and assigned as a subject. Becoming-woman is not imitating this entity or even transforming oneself into it’ (275).

  10. This notion of ‘woman’ as ‘topological position’ is the root of the feminist objection to Deleuze’s concept of becoming-woman. It’s an interesting discussion but one that does not quite belong to this essay. That said, for a very clear explanation and exploration of the feminist critique of Deleuze’s becoming-woman, see Braidotti.

  11. However, ‘minority’ is not to be understood here in terms of number, but rather in terms of a particular position in relation to institutionalised power – typically a marginalised position. See Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 469–71.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Colonialism & imperialism, Gender - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee.

Cite as: Hamilton, Grant. ‘The Communion of Clouds: Becoming-Woman in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.