ATP reading notes 5 – the three types of strata

Picking up the 3rd chapter, the ‘geology of Morals’, from roughly midway through (from the paragraph that begins “Most of the audience had left…” – ATP:57) we find a typology of strata being outlined. Three primary types of strata are posited. These are what I would call (1) the ‘simple’, (2) the organic and (3) the alloplastic or linguistic (I will return to the ‘double naming’ of this last strata). Towards the end of the chapter the difference between these three types – D&G refer to them as ‘major groupings’ (ATP 60) – is identified as located in the particular organisation of the relation between content and expression. D&G claim the following:

“What varies from stratum to stratum is the nature of the real distinction between content and expression, the nature of the substances as formed matters, and the nature of the relative movements. We may make a summary distinction between three major types of real distinction: the real-formal distinction between orders of magnitude, with the establishment of a resonance of expression (induction); the real-real distinction between different subjects, with the establishment of a linearity of expression (transduction); and the real-essential distinction between different attributes or categories, with the establishment of a superlinearity of expression (translation).” (ATP 72)

This presents as a highly technical definitional framework and unpicking it should give some insight into the line of argument in Chapter 3. This line of argument has implications for at least two major problems that are more generalised and by placing ATP into relationship with those problems it should be possible to locate its specific contribution as well as its difference form existing responses. The first problematic is the human/animal distinction, which in many senses is a new kind of ‘humanism’ problem, whilst the second problematic is, broadly speaking, the nature of language. Both problematics are often addressed, albeit somewhat obliquely, through discussion of ‘normativity’ or a ‘nature / norms’ or ‘facts / norms’ distinctions. How so? Roughly and crudely, there’s often a sense of distinction between ’causes’ (facts) and ‘reasons’ (norms), a distinction that can be drawn as a dualism when these are posited as distinct phenomenal realms with their own laws. Similarly, there’s often a distinction drawn between ‘behaviour’ (animal) and ‘action’ (human), which is also a distinction that can be drawn as a dualism, one which often appears as a new form of the Cartesian dualism of minds and bodies (res cogitans versus res extensa in Descartes terms) relocated into the ‘political’.

When these dualisms appear, it is not usually in a ‘flat’ form but with an inbuilt hierarchy and transcendence, one which places the language user, the thinker, res cogitans – or whatever else, in effect, that we have used, since Aristotle, to name the human – above those who aren’t allowed to speak, think or have a mind ascribed to them. This is part of what D&G call ‘the State’ and in part motivates their attempt to produce a ‘rhizomatic book’. “The state as the model for the book and for thought has a long history: logos, the philosopher-king, the transcendence of the Idea, the interiority of the concept, the republic of minds, the court of reason, the functionaries of thought, man as legislator and subject.” (ATP 24). The State, in this sense, is not simply the political formation but a broader concept that often seems to be close to ‘dominant state of affairs’. Within such a dominant state of affairs, particularly in philosophy and psychoanalysis, we commonly find the supposed ‘centrality’ of language. Guattari’s call to ‘exit language’ is one way of thinking a major dynamic of the schizoanalytic project and involves what Lazzarato calls a ‘double decentring’, which is constituted by “detaching subjectivity from the subject, the individual and even the human; while taking care not to turn the unique power of enunciation into the exclusive domain of human subjectivity” (fn1, emphasis added). Thus, there are two things to bear in mind – the first is that the typology of the three strata, the way that typology is drawn, has implications for the human/animal/language problematic and, second, that the direction of travel for these implications is to reduce, remove or counter the ‘dualism’ that results from an illicit human exceptionalism.

Returning to the technical definitional framework in the quote given above, the three variables that are being deployed to construct the typology are (1) the kind of real distinction that exists between content and expression, (2) the kind of substances involved and (3) what are called the ‘relative movements’ of the strata. The first of these, the kind of real distinction between content and expression, is perhaps the most important to try and clarify precisely because it is the most obscure. The role of real distinction is integral to the description of a strata. “Each strata is a double articulation of content and expression, both of which are really distinct and in a state of reciprocal determination” (ATP 72). ‘Real distinction’ is a curious concept, deployed by John Duns Scotus, whom Deleuze draws on heavily in Difference and Repetition, as well as by Descartes who uses it as a means of underpinning his ‘substance dualism’. In general, we might say that ‘real distinction’ is posited to enable ontological claims, claims about the types of ‘things’ (res) that exist, in contrast to distinctions in how we might know things. So real distinction in Scotus is contrasted to ‘conceptual distinction’, although Scotus also has two other modes of distinction (formal and modal) which fall ‘in between’ the real distinction / conceptual distinction divide.

Scotus is concerned to work out the relation between ‘creator’ (God) and the ‘created’ and the relation of the Trinity to the unity, or singularity, of God. He adds to the real and conceptual distinction two other types, formal and modal distinctions, distinctions which are neither ‘real’ nor ‘mind dependent’ (i.e. conceptual). These formal and modal distinctions have some ‘degree’ of reality without producing separate things, enabling him to argue that God can be both a Trinity (formal distinction) and a unity. Without drifting too far into either the scholasticism of Scotus or Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, the role of ‘real distinction’ in Chapter 3 is similarly deployed to show how strata can be described through a ‘both-and’ strategy, that is, as both as a form and substance of content and a form and substance of expression. The thing we need to ask is (a) why do we need the content/expression double articulation and (b) why are different strata grouped according to different forms of ‘real distinction’?

To the first question we find the following answer – “there is a real distinction between content and expression because the corresponding forms are effectively distinct in the ‘thing’ itself, and not only in the mind of the observer” (ATP 58). Here it appears that D&G are relying on the idea of a ‘formal distinction’, the distinction being drawn in term of real distinct forms in content and expression. How does this play out in terms of the three types of strata? If we begin with the first ‘simple’ strata we find that the molecular content and the molar expression of the strata are found “wherever the molar can be said to express microscopic molecular interactions” (ATP 57). It’s difficult not to read this as a kind of basic physical determinism that is being referred to, albeit one that is trying to avoid any physicalist reductionism. The molar level is real, even as a level of expression of the molecular, and is not merely an ‘appearance’. Specifically, this view would hold that holistic effects of emergence are real, not reducible to more ‘fundamental’ micro-level laws of interaction.

‘Emergence’ will play a role in the chapter on the refrain, where the moment of the “emergence of expressive proper qualities” (ATP 322) is discussed. Overall, however, the concept of ’emergence’, understood as the arrival of a new level of ‘macro’ level properties and laws that are irreducible to the molecular level, does not figure explicitly as the motivating factor in the argument of ATP. Despite this, the problematics of emergence might be a useful way to understand the dynamic of the typology, the way that the three strata are laid out. There seems a prima facie case that what is being sketched out in chapter 3 is a system of emergence that accounts for both the organic and the linguistic as distinct from the ‘simple’ physico-chemical. There is a difficulty as the chapter progresses, however, which is that it seems we are presented with a story that goes from the ‘simple’ physico-chemical realm, through the organic to the linguistic. The problem of the chapter can perhaps be identified by suggesting that this story is difficult to grasp precisely because it misses the discontinuities it supposes to explain. In other words, simply restating or re-describing three different ‘realms’ of the physical, organic and linguistic in terms of strata and double articulation fails to account for how the difference between these realms arises. Is the real problem not how the three strata differ but that there are these three radically different strata formations? Is there some genesis of the one from the other or not? If there is, how does this genesis produce radical discontinuity? If there is not, why are there these just three strata and not ten, thirty, an infinity of strata? There is some possible response made to this problem when Challenger discusses the last of his ‘three problems’.

It’s worth remembering at this point that it is Challenger who is presented here as offering this account, and he is presented in such an ambivalent manner as to make it difficult to pin down whether the account is to be advocated for or against. The opening lines of the paragraph we began with this time, the paragraph that begins “Most of the audience had left…, reset the scene of the lecture the account of which comprises this chapter. It will be reset again, very briefly, once we’ve had the first outline of the three types of strata presented (ATP 63), next when Challenger moves to discuss his ‘three problems’ (ATP 64) and then finally as a coda to the chapter (ATP 73). Each reset operates a little like a ‘section break’, where the discussion moves to another line of thinking or another move in the argument.

In his discussion of ‘three problems’ Challenger offers some possible means of responding both to the problems of ‘why content and expression’ as well as to the need for the variable mode of real distinction in each strata. The three problems he wants to discuss are (i) the problem of the ‘sign’ (ATP 64-68), (ii) the problem of ‘base-superstructure’ (ATP 68) and (iii) the problem of ‘cosmic evolutionism’ (ATP 69). Taking the last first we read the following:

“It is difficult to elucidate the system of the strata without seeming to introduce a kind of cosmic or even spiritual evolution from one to the other, as if they were arranged in stages and ascended degrees of perfection. Nothing of the sort. The different figures of content and expression are not stages. There is no biosphere or noosphere, but everywhere the same Mechanosphere.” (ATP 69, emphasis added.)

On the face of it then if we were to read the account of the three strata as describing a kind of ‘development’ or progress we are being called to account. The claim appears to rest on this use of the concept of ‘mechanosphere’ – machines everywhere – as an all embracing ontological category so that we can then, presumably, assert formal distinctions without positing any kind of substance plurality. In other words, everything is ontologically part of the same world (in so far as everything is machinic, part of the mechanosphere) and yet real distinctions exist between the simple, organic and linguistic, real distinctions that derive form the organisation of the machines, the forms. Here we encounter that curious concept of the ‘plane of consistency’. “The plane of consistency is the abolition of all metaphor: all that consists is real.” (ATP 69). What is it for something to ‘consist’?

I never quite know what to make of the ‘plane of consistency’ since it is used with abandon so often I can only wonder whether I’ve simply missed something everyone else understands. The cake consists of…the human consists of… In these instances, the elements that are combined are obvious perhaps. The working image I tend to fall back on is one in which what we call ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ or ‘life’ is driven by a continual process that flows between the unformed through the formed and then back into the unformed as that which has form in turn deforms and reforms. The plane of consistency in this sense would be that which is ‘prior to’ the formed yet which is always there, surrounding formations with blur, fuzzy edges, decomposing lines. When the strata decompose, that which has become organised now becomes disorganised into the “unformed, unstable matters” that Challenger begins with (ATP 40). The trouble with this image is it smells too neat, it’s too ‘cyclic’ and subsuming, so there’s something a little revolting about it.

If we continue to read we can find D&G making clear that “we cannot content ourselves with a dualism or summary opposition between the strata and the destratified plane of consistency“, rather “the strata themselves are animated and defined by relative speeds of deterritorialisation” (ATP 70). They go on to say that strata are “thickenings on a plane of consistency” (ibid). This ‘thickening’ is a fascinating way to grasp stratification processes. I’ve argued, since my Phd research, that Deleuze operates with an ‘oceanic ontology’, one where ocean currents and formations such as the ‘plastic island’ offer the best model for understanding individuation through difference rather than identity. In such a situation there is a pluriverse rather than a universe, which is to say, multiple worlds entangled by power relations, not forming a singular whole but intimately connected or connectable (fn2). In this sense the ‘mechanosphere’ would map to the ‘pluriverse’ under the reign of the machine.

So, this realm of the mechanosphere, this reign of the machine, is a continually moving, breathing, heaving world of shapes, forces, objects, subjects. Multiple interactions at varying speeds and directions (vectors) producing specific forms, in different ways. This, the variable production of forms from within a seething movement, constitutes the process of stratification/destratification. Rather than a base / superstructure model with a relatively simple flow from base to superstructure (even if we allow for feedback effects) we instead have a collapse of such directionality of determination. Instead of ‘cosmic evolution’ which again posits relatively simple flow from past to future, from less to more, we again have a collapse of such directionality of determination. Yet as this story begins to seem clearer, the very individuations it supposedly accounts for – in particular, the individuation of language and norms, reason not causes – seems to slip away. Is there any space left for this distinction?

Here we can begin to see why there are three factors mentioned in the quote which started this section – “the nature of the real distinction between content and expression, the nature of the substances as formed matters, and the nature of the relative movements“. This last factor – the ‘nature of relative movements’ – makes more sense if it’s a mode of distinguishing types of flow or types of ‘dynamic’. The three types strata in this sense become three types of flow, and the typologisation of flows can be found all over the place – river, ocean, whirlpool; pahoehoe, aa, pillow; trains, planes, automobiles. The importance of the ‘directionality’ of the organic and then the alloplastic / linguistic strata begins to become clearer. In the organic stratum the “essential thing is the linearity of the nucleic sequence” (ATP 59, emphasis in original) and in the alloplastic / linguistic it is the fact that “vocal signs have temporal linearity and it is this superlinearity that constitutes their specific deterritorialisation and differentiates them from genetic linearity” (ATP 62, emphasis in original). Yet we’re still left with this nagging doubt, this worry that this story misses the discontinuities it supposes to explain, a discontinuity that might be located at the alloplastic/linguistic, but which is clearly indicated with regard the organic. I’ll finish this section by just indicating this worry.

As Challenger/D&G begin to explicate the organic stratum they specify that it ‘amplifies’ the relation between the molecular and molar that exists in the first ‘simple’ strata and that this stratum must have a ‘unique character’ that will account for this amplification. They locate this character quite dramatically. In the organic stratum, “expression becomes independent in its own right, in other words, autonomous. Before, the coding of a stratum was co-extensive with that stratum; on the organic stratum, on the other hand, it takes place on an autonomous and independent line that detaches as much as possible from the second and third dimensions.” (ATP 59, emphasis in original). Here, when this sense of ‘autonomy’ is deployed with regard expression on the organic stratum, is where there seems this problem – is it enough to simply assume such autonomy? Do we not need to account for it? And what, really, can be meant by ‘autonomy’ at this point? It seems hard to imagine how it could mean ‘self-giving lawmaker’, an auto
nomos, yet that is plainly what we are to conceive in some form (fn3). The difficulties of doing this take us directly into those problematics of nature, of animal/human/language and of norms and facts with which I started this section, but it’s still, as yet, unclear quite how to formulate and respond to the philosophical problematics presented in the descriptive framework offered by D&G.


  1. Maurice Lazzarato – ‘Exiting language’, semiotic systems and the production of subjectivity in Felix Guattari in Cognitive architecture: from bio-politics to noo-politics. Architecture & Mind in the age of communication and information, Rotterdam 2010, pp.502-521, accessed online.
  2. The ‘pluriverse’ is a concept that in large measure is taken from Walter Mignolo, see for example his brief note ‘On Pluriversality‘.
  3. The idea of ‘biological autonomy’ is strange but not absurd, as might be witnessed by its existence in contemporary scientific discussions, cf. Biological autonomy – a philosophical and theoretical enquiry, Moreno and Mossio, Springer 2015.

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