I’ve been spending some time recently grappling with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophical magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus. This is partly because of a seminar group at NCAD I am involved with, and partly because, well, there’s not really that much of interest on the telly these dark winter evenings. A Thousand Plateaus (let’s call it ATP for short) was published in 1980 and is the second part of a two-volume project by Deleuze and Guattari (let’s call them D&G for short) which they titled Capitalism and Schizophrenia (the first part, Anti-Oedipus, came out in 1972).
It’s a confusing, demanding and difficult read – over 600 pages of dense prose that careers wildly through philosophy, history, biology, psychoanalysis, geology, political theory and mathematics. One minute it’s pack behaviour in wolves and the next it’s structural linguistics. One moment it’s cell formation and the next it’s Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s replete with perplexing and recurrent terminology whose meaning is not always apparent – multiplicity, stratification, de-territorialisation, faciality, abstract machine, assemblage, striated space, nomadology, becoming. To make matters worse the book is structured as a rhizome.
The rhizome is one of their key concepts and refers to a form of plant growth that is non-hierarchical in nature. So, unlike a tree, which has a root from which all else descends, a rhizomatic plant spreads laterally, like a weed or a grass, with no central source from which everything else springs. You can’t kill a rhizome by removing one part of it, there is no hierarchical structure to speak of, and any one part of it can potentially connect to any other. What this means for the book is that the chapters are to be read in any order. There is no gradual building of concepts from chapter to chapter, no linear train of thought to follow, but instead ideas appear and disappear throughout the book, leaving the reader to connect them as they see fit.
In one sense this is all very frustrating but in another it is somewhat liberating. It frees you from that sinking feeling that occurs when you embark on reading Chapter 3 without really fully understanding Chapter 2. Is there any point in going on? With ATP you might as well do so – nothing that happened in Chapter 2 might have any bearing on Chapter 3 anyway. In spite of its difficulty though it manages to suck you into its world. I sometimes find myself completely engrossed in the act of reading it – thinking that this makes perfect sense, this really is how things are – and then putting it down and saying to myself: “What the fuck was that all about?”.
I won’t be so foolish as to try and summarise what ATP is about – even if I was capable of doing that it would seem somewhat against the spirit of the enterprise anyway – but I will attempt to sketch some core topics that crop up. One of the recurring themes is a resistance to hierarchy. They seem to set themselves in opposition to fixed structures of all kinds: be they structures of power or structures of knowledge (Foucault would say these are the same thing anyway). Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that hierarchy and structure do not constitute the fundamental essence of things, they may exist but they are not fixed, and they can dissolve as easily as they can form. In fact, in D&G’s world nothing is fixed, everything is in flux, everything flows. Something solid is merely flowing over a much longer timescale than something liquid.
I thought of this when watching Werner Herzog’s film Encounters At The End of the World the other night. One scene shows a scientist demonstrating a visualisation of the shifting form of the polar ice caps, created using a form of time lapse satellite photography. Several years of growing and shrinking (mostly shrinking) were compressed into 20 or 30 seconds. The ice cap was revealed to be something constantly moving, constantly flowing, constantly de-assembling and reassembling itself, something more akin to a living organism than a giant continent of solid ice. The fact that the ice caps are in flux might well be obvious, but it’s less obvious that rocks flow as well, they just do it over geological time scales rather than human ones.
However this fluidity goes far beyond ideas about how things can evolve over time. It encompasses not just how something can mutate into a new form, or even completely transform itself into something else, but also how things are in constantly mutating relationships with each other, forming and re-forming so-called assemblages, and continually engaging in what they call deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. When you think about this in political terms, it becomes quite an optimistic philosophy. It suggests that since nothing is fixed, everything can change, and even those elements of the assemblages that wield oppressive state and/or corporate power (what Deleuze and Guattari call war machines) can theoretically be deterritorialised into tools for liberation and progressive politics.
Another key idea is what they call the body without organs (BwO for short). This is a slippery concept. It refers to a practice of resistance to imposed forms of subjectivation, a process by which one strives to attain some sort of pure pre-subjective state that consequently is liberated from imposed psychological and social constructs. Deleuze and Guattari identify various negative aspects of human behaviour – masochism, drug use, paranoia and schizophrenia – as being driven by this innate impulse to “make oneself a BwO”, to effectively escape from these strictures of the self into some sort of zone of pure intensity, or as they would put it, pure immanence. Whereas traditional psychoanalysis would attempt to cure the patient of these impulses by explaining them away in terms of childhood development or trauma or whatever, Delueze and Guattari suggest that we should embrace them. Not in the destructive manner of the masochist, the drug addict, or the schizophrenic, but in a cautious, controlled manner where we constantly look for lines of flight or “moments of deterritorialisation”, probing and exploring the boundaries of our own subjectivity.
Or at least that’s what it seems to mean. One of the frustrations of reading the book is how the meanings of concepts seem to fluctuate from chapter to chapter, or at least one’s understandings of these concepts fluctuate. But I suppose that’s somewhat in the spirit of the thing as well.
To finish off for now, the following rather ridiculous list appeared a few weeks ago on the Flavorwire website – Incredibly Tough Books For Extreme Readers. Reading is apparently now some sort of macho endurance sport. I don’t see A Thousand Plateaus in there but I do see Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Surely that’s just tough because it’s rubbish?
The photo at the top is of the excellent Dinah Brand playing at the House Presents event back in November of last year. As usual the photograph was taken by opening the shutter at the start of the song and closing it at the end. I think there are lots of interesting connections between Deleuzian philosophy and this sort of photography. File under – “to be explored”. House Presents is a monthly arts/music night that takes place at Annesely House in Fairview, Dublin. The next one happens on March 7th and the full details are here.