Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2012  



Aliens To Autonomy
Gauging Deleuze And Guattari's "Ridiculousness"


by Edmund Berger



"I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best -- one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis." —H.P. Lovecraft

"...one might say that Anti-Oedipus is an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life" —Michel Foucault.


(Swans - June 18, 2012)   Michael Barker's recent contribution to Swans, an examination of the underground cultural stream that links the gothic horror of H.P. Lovecraft to the wide proliferation of new age belief systems and "alternative history" cottage industries, (1) was thought provoking and rather exciting; between the looming American elections, heightened sabre-rattling towards Iran and Syria, and the ongoing eurozone crisis, seeing a critique of the more "non-political" aspects of culture is a breath of fresh air. New ageism is an excellent place to look for the shortcomings of postmodernism, though it is woefully glossed over by most. It is market-oriented, lacking in any and all substance and depth, it represents a watered down amalgamation of any and all societal belief systems, and it is the repressive and hierarchal orders of traditional religion redressed to fit the ego-driven mentality of the current era.

That said, I was a little more than dismayed to see Mr. Barker's short, off-handed treatment of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattarri, two of the most important critical theorists to emerge from the post-1968 maelstrom that seemed, for a moment, to have doomed the militant Left. Deleuze and Guattari are one of the classic odd couples of theory, the former a philosopher deeply entrenched in unconventional interpretations of Kafka and Nietzsche, and the latter a radical psychiatrist who dabbled in experimental treatment methods that sought to undermine the "dictatorship of the therapist" in patient recovery. (2) Both were members of the same far-left circles in Paris, alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. All played instrumental roles in bringing Paris to a standstill in the revolts of May 1968. It was only in the aftermath of the failed insurgency that many of these writers and thinkers began to move beyond traditional modernist thought forms (such as Marxism) in order to find new passageways for revolution. This intellectual trend culminated for Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), two dense and difficult works that have left their legacy on the left by giving fuel to anarchically-minded radicals like the Italian Autonomists, "black bloc" collectives, and various forms of "post-left" anarchism, not to mention the extremes of feminism, queer theory, and environmentalism.

Michael Barker makes two small references to Deleuze in his piece, the first of which reads "...Lovecraft's fictional work has served to fortify, and provide sustenance to, all manner of ridiculous beliefs, including not least the French theorists of postmodernism (like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)." The first thing I would like to clarify is the difference between "postmodernism" as an age and theory and practical application that is often designated as "postmodern." The postmodern epoch is the movement beyond modernism, both negating its principles and retaining them in strange forms. It can be explained by reducing the core of each age to their logics of production: modernism, the era of the factory assembly line, and an extended centralized society that revolves around it, demanded conformity, standardization, fixed social and personal identities. Its hallmarks were the strong national state accompanied by a deep cultural setting -- it was the age of the New Deal, Italian Fascism, and Marxist-Leninism. Perhaps James C. Scott best defined modernism when he wrote that it

...is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. (3)

Postmodernism, by contrast, coincides roughly with the changes in production models in developed countries at the dawn of globalization. Economics became unhooked from their national anchors, and as labor and capital flows rapidly overcame their traditional border-based boundaries, the power of the nation states themselves declined. Cultures collided and produced new hybrids, and as information technologies and financial services became the prevalent base for neoliberalism, advertising and consumption became more and more important, penetrating every sector of society. Rampant commodification and privatization created a "depthlessness" in all of culture.

The theorists of postmodernism (the majority of whom never refer to themselves by that name), Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Jameson, Foucault, etc., examine these changes from a very critical point of view. For them, postmodernism is an all pervasive prison, differing from the closed prison of the modernist era. In this sense it is the logical extension of the modernist project -- and it is this reason why the "postmodern" theorists never look backwards for answers to today's exploitation and repression. We can only critique and resist power in its current incarnations. It is probably for this reason that postmodernism and its discontents are folded into a single bloc, and with this in mind, I would like to examine what I believe to be a fundamental understanding inside the Lovecraft-based discourse.

Barker's second and final reference to Deleuze and Guattari comes in a quote from Colavito's The Cult of the Alien Gods: "the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote in praise of Lovecraft's use of radical theories in their treatise A Thousand Plateaus." To my knowledge, Plateaus contains only a small handful of allusions to Lovecraft's fiction, the most well-known of which is a reference to the story of Randolph Carter, (4) a scholar who gradually transcends ordinary reality and is propelled into a horrifying confrontation with truth that all things are part of larger, collective whole. Deleuze and Guattari's interest in this story is indicative of the greater trend of relying on literature in their work; they also frequently quote Henry Miller, Kafka, Jack Kerouac, Marcel Proust, and many, many others. However, they seldom take these authors at face value: like a revolutionary grappling with the mechanics of capitalism, they appropriate what they need and use it to their own ends. In this case, they are utilizing the contents of Carter's realization to help explain on of their larger frameworks, one that helps to shape the basis for much of their misunderstood work.

Deleuze and Guattari draw on a sort of "schizophrenic logic" throughout their work, based upon the neurotics' reoccurring conception of reality as being a large, interconnected system. The opening of Anti-Oedipus illustrates this in its opening pages in a series of proclamations that, at times, can be rather vulgar:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks... Everywhere it is machines... An organ-machine is plugged into the energy-source machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth is the machine coupled to it... Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machine. (5)

Like the schizophrenic, they conceive of nature as a series of interconnecting processes. These processes (defined as "assemblages") move beyond societal model of dividing human nature from other forms of nature: the human is dependent on his surrounding environment, be it the food that must be consumed or the oxygen, expelled by plants, that is vital to life. It is easy to see then why the two chose Carter's experience in Lovecraft's story as an allegory for this kind of world system.

While Anti-Oedipus is primarily focused on capitalism, mental disease, and the state, A Thousand Plateaus ventures further into this ecological realm by asking big picture questions about how one can properly define "life" in a completely symbiotic world structure. Because of this, they (or at least Guattari) have been accused as perpetuating a bizarre form of environmental holism or ecosophy that imparts a form of consciousness to non-conscious entities such as the plant, yet their work is nothing of the sort. They are pointing out a basic truth (man needs nature), one that is reiterated every day by people in all walks of life. This criticism is mainly furthered by Slavoj Zizek, the well-known Marxist philosopher and cultural critic. (6) Though Zizek's anti-Deleuze and Guattari crusade is far too complex to discuss here, it is interesting to briefly consider the intellectual gulf that exists between these two planes of thought. Both owe a large debt to Lacanian psychoanalysis, and both rely on pop culture to illustrate their points. However, Zizek's critiques are out of step with the current postmodern era: he is reliant on Marxist (and at some disturbing moments, Marxist-Leninist) thought to analyze the world, thus grounding himself in a purely modernist methodology. Most importantly, he is strongly Hegelian and a proponent of the dialectical process. Meanwhile, Deleuze and Guatarri have gone beyond Marxist and most certainly beyond dialectics, something that, in my opinion, is their most important contribution to critical theory.

It would be wrong to accuse Deleuze and Guattari as celebrating insanity in their employment of schizophrenic logic: they view the neurosis as a manifestation of the contradictions and repression of desire present in capitalism's ability to regiment, privatize, or block the important natural processes of existence. But they do see a kind of resistance in the schizophrenic form; namely, their lack of a singular identity. Like Sartre's equation that existence precedes essence, (7) their belief is that identity is shaped by the surrounding world, and is thus mutable and flexible, subject to change. But they don't stop there. These singularities, they argued, are binary modes of thought that are inherently dictatorial to the self by demanding a conformity that might not be true. The processes of selfhood become like the modernist factory: completely standardized. These binaries, a divided and totalizing worldview, find their compliment in Hegelian and materialist dialectics, both of which attempt to regiment history to a certain linear path with a scientifically ordained "end of history." Nothing could be worse! Experience is too rich, creativity too uncontrollable, mankind too ever-shifting to reduce down to one complete mode of being. They pose, in contrast, the idea of multiplicities, which exist everywhere in the symbiotic world system and inside the plural self. It is in the midst of this discussion that they bring Lovecraft's Randolph Carter into play, but to ascribe a literal belief in the author's lore would be tantamount to deriving truth of the fictions he wrote.

Up to this point we have seen only one side of Deleuze and Guattari, the world-systems side. What of the practical and political, the one that contributes so much fertile soil to the militant left? I would like to summarize two of their important concepts before closing. The first is the "rhizome," an ecological analogy that reflects the interconnected reality in which we live. The rhizome is a network system, one that lacks any clearly defined center or important passageway, and it branches out in all directions, creating new connections and burrowing onward. Most importantly, Deleuze and Guattari envision it as horizontal and utterly decentralized, and they hold it up as an ideal model for society. "We're tired of trees," they write. "We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They've made us suffer too much." (8)

Another important concept is that of the "war machine," which they contrast with their analysis of the state. For them, statehood is a process that monopolizes the social field of its constituents. As everything for them is interlocking "machines," the state is a despot that imposes a fixed system on the machines that otherwise would operate as multiplicities. Furthermore, things that could be multiplicities are gobbled up into the state and standardized along those lines; one could find an analogous situation here to grassroots social movements that are co-opted into moderate, state-enforced reforms that are beneficial to capitalism's survival.

The war machine operates outside of the state, even if its operations consist inside the state's borders. It is above all other things autonomous and thus completely antagonistic; icons of resistance such as the Mexico's Zapatistas, and the Occupy Wall Street movement are examples of the war machine in practice. Deleuze and Guattari's relevance can be felt even more in the fact that these movements, which are decentralized, horizontal, and network-like, also embody the concept of the rhizome. Ceasefire magazine's Andrew Robinson also finds the war machine principle in action with the squatter movement:

Think for instance of squatters' movements: in themselves they do not aim for conflict, but rather, seek different kinds of arrangements of space by forming new combinations of unused geographical spaces with otherwise "spaceless" social groups. Yet such movements are often forced into conflict with the machinery of state repression because the state ignores, or refuses to recognise these new articulations. (9)

In closing, I would like to point out that Deleuze and Guattari saw that by being theorists and writing books urging truly revolutionary change, they became in a sense figures of power in their own fields. This was something to be avoided if their project was to be completed. Thus, all these concepts and methods laid out in their works are often left open to interpretation, allowing spaces for individuals or war machines to appropriate them and use them to own ends. The concepts themselves are freed from binary restraints, made plural, and made truly applicable when articulating radical transformations of society. Most importantly, the nature of these concepts and their strange appearances force the reader, the theorist, or the activist to think outside the box, prompting them to find new mental and physical spaces to create autonomy. Even for these reasons alone, I think we can dispel the notion that Deleuze and Guattari are just another ridiculous pair in the parade of postmodern drivel.


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1.  Michael Barker, "H.P. Lovecraft's Alien Legacy," Swans Commentary, June 4, 2012. http://www.swans.com/library/art18/barker108.html  (back)

2.  Felix Guattari had been a long-time employee of the famous La Borde clinic in France, established by Lacanian psychoanalyst Jean Oury. The clinic continues to receive acclaim in both mainstream psychology and anti-psychiatry movements for its "breaking down" of the barrier between the staff and patients. Individual psychotherapy is eschewed for collective group therapy, the "boarders" are granted as much autonomy on the grounds as possible, and each year the entire body of the clinic comes together -- without hierarchies or centralized command -- to perform a play together.  (back)

3.  James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1998, pg. 4.  (back)

4.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (reprint edition) pg. 264.  (back)

5.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Penguin, 1977, pg. 1.  (back)

6.  Leslie Dema, "Inorganic, Yet Alive: How Can Deleuze and Guattari Deal With the Accusation of Vitalism?" Rhizomes, No. 15, Winter, 2007 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue15/dema.html  (back)

7.  It is commonly thought that Deleuze had rejected Sartre's existential philosophy, but as Raymond van de Wiel has argued, Sartre's work can be seen as the soil from which Deleuze's project as a whole grew from. Deleuze himself acknowledged his debt to Sartre's Being and Nothingness: "It was like a bomb [...] it was dazzling. An enormous book full of new thought. [...] I remember, I was with Tournier, we went and bought it. We devoured it. [...] I was fascinated." Michel Tournier has also recalled the impact the book had on Deleuze, referring to it as "our new bible." See Raymond van de Wiel "Deleuze and Sartre: From Praxis to Production" Paper presented at the First International Deleuze Studies Conference, Cardiff (UK), August 13th, 2008 http://www.raymondvandewiel.org/deleuze-sartre.html.  (back)

8.  Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pg. 17.  (back)

9.  Andrew Robinson, "Why Deleuze (still) Matters: States, war-machines and radical transformation," Ceasefire, September 10th, 2010 http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-deleuze-war-machine/.  (back)


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Published June 18, 2012