A new year and a new reading for the London based group, with ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (ATP from now on) being this years choice. I skipped most of last year when they were reading ‘Difference and Repetition’, mainly because I’m very familiar with that book but also because it doesn’t currently play a central part in my research, so it’s interesting to be back in the space of that reading group.
I haven’t read ATP in a group setting before but as Guattari has increasingly come to be central to my own thinking, taking over from Deleuze in many ways, ATP and Anti-Oedipus have obviously begun to play more central roles in my work. These posts will aim to contain my notes and reflections as I work through the text.
For information I will be referring to the 1996 Athlone edition of the text.
This first chapter took us a couple of weeks to work through, in part no doubt because the first week was given over to introductions, some reading out loud and some ‘set-up’.
D&G begin the book with self-reflection and methodology, most noticeably with a discussion about what a ‘book’ is. The very first line of ATP refers the reader back to Anti-Oedipus, but also to the multiple authorship of that text. Unlike the other chapters of ATP, this one has no date, reflecting the methodological role it plays with regard the other ‘plateaus’ or chapters.
Methodologically D&G reject both the unified authorial role and what might be thought of as an established image of what a book is. The book is an assemblage (ATP: 4) but that’s hardly surprising, since assemblage seems such a generic term at this point that anything previously called an ‘object’ is now going to come under the term ‘assemblage’. What is specified is that assemblages have two sides, one that faces ‘the strata’ – which I suppose I read as that side of ontology that focusses on the more stable, fixed sense of things, where we can find ongoing identities and meaning – and another side that faces the ‘body without organs’ (BwO), that rather beautiful concept, derived from Antonin Artaud and developed in Anti-Oedipus. I suppose I read the BwO as something like that side of ontology that focusses on the more changeable, fluid sense of things, where we find something that has not yet entered the realm of identity but which is still fully material, real, bodied (my route into this was though the concept of ‘affect’ in D*G’s text ‘What is Philosophy’, so that’s the colour or tone to this sense of the BwO that I have). The assemblage is that nexus where flux and stability, BwO and Strata, are producing specific forms. Assemblage, then, becomes a concept in some sense analogous to ‘form’, although maybe more like ‘formation’. Perhaps we might substitute salva veritate ‘formation’ for ‘assemblage’.
One important principle, however, derives from the thought that the book is an assemblage, which is that assemblages are to be specified not in terms of meanings but in terms of ‘quanta’ or function. As such trying to understand some core ‘meaning’ to ATP would be a little bit like trying to describe the deep meaning of a Haynes manual, which is a category error. The Haynes manual either functions well, by enabling someone to fix an engine, or it doesn’t. In practice, however, Haynes manuals tend to be useful to a degree. If you have enough basic knowledge, if you have the tools, if the vehicle or engine you’re working on hasn’t been modified, and if you don’t have any problems in understanding the manual itself, then it is quite probably going to be useful – but that’s a lot of variables to consider. On the other hand, there are often few options available for the person wanting to fix their engine themselves rather than employ a mechanic, although the advent of YouTube tutorials has expanded those possible options. If the analogy is to be pursued, it’s not immediately obvious what role ATP is to play nor what variables are at work in enabling it to be successful.
Very soon after this first methodological point about books has been made D&G claim something which appears to many people to be problematic. They connect their comments on the book as an assemblage to the wider practice of literature – not, it’s worth noting, the wider practice of philosophy – and say the following:
“A book itself is a little machine; what is the relation (also measurable) of this literary machine to a war machine, love machine, revolutionary machine, etc – and an abstract machine that sweeps them along? We have been criticised for overquoting literary authors. But when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work. Kleist and a mad war machine, Kafka and a most extraordinary bureaucratic machine … (What if one became animal or plant through literature, which certainly does not mean literarily? Is it not first through the voice that one becomes animal?). Literature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and never has been.”
The thing that is often picked up here is the last couple of lines, in particular the claims about ‘ideology’, but this is to miss the far more curious claim at the heart of this passage. To begin with, ideology is simply not a concept D&G think useful and it’s discarded in Anti-Oedipus as a mistaken notion of truth imposed on the reality of desire. For someone who takes classical Marxism (particularly Frankfurt School stuff), Lacan or Zizek as their touchstone for radical politics this denial of ideology should indicate clearly why D&G are in many ways radically distinct from such positions. As a sidenote, this denial of ideology should also point fairly clearly towards why any ‘political theory’ that might arise from D&G is going to differ from the recent fashion for accounts that come under the framework of ‘political theology’. Explicating and understanding this denial of ideology would go a long way to clarifying the major differences in position and method between D&G and those other political-philosophical trends. Yet for me it would also miss that curious claim which is far more interesting than worries about political theory, the claim that is framed as a rhetorical question, viz. “Is it not first through the voice that one becomes animal?” In the context of the passage in which this question arises it is literature, or the literary machine, that is a rather important piece of the puzzle. I’d go so far as to think that the ‘literary machine’ is the most important methodological framework for understanding ATP.
If this sense of the literary machine is the core methodological mode of ATP, then I think it makes it clearer why the development of the concept of the rhizome, in contrast to the root and radicle, is first explicated in terms of forms of books. If the root book constrains multiplicity by fixing it to a single ‘root’ principle or unifying concept, producing the ‘classical book’, the arborescent model of a literary machine, then the “radicle-system, or fascicular root” (ATP: 5) continues to constrain multiplicity by maintaining this root through a process of withdrawal or supplementarity, which presents as fragmentation but which hides its unifying concept in the depths. This supplementarity is the place where D&G try to distinguish the rhizomatic literary machine from the most ‘radical’ forms of the book, those forms offered by Burroughs, Joyce and Nietzsche, forms where we might suggest that the ‘deep unity’, the ‘spiritual root’ is language itself. “A strange mystification: a book all the more total for being fragmented” (ATP: 6).
The next couple of moves lead up to the listing of the ‘characteristics of the rhizome’. The first move, having distinguished the rhizome from the root and radicle, is to claim that “the multiple must be made.…”, and this process of construction is described as ‘subtract the unique from the multiplicity’, which isn’t particularly helpful for me. I don’t have much of a response to this. After this claim regarding the necessity of construction, however, there is another curious move, one in which plant and animal life are brought to the fore, with some sense that the choice of the rhizomatic is one that intends directly to draw upon or learn from the ‘natural world’. There is a deeper problematic here, one which I’ll no doubt return to, but it would form around something like the following question: do D&G use the rhizomatic mode in ATP because they think this is a more ‘natural’ mode, that it somehow has less distortion effects on our understanding of the world? The root and radicle modes of the literary machine are rejected because they constrict multiplicity, with the rhizomatic presumably therefore allowing such multiplicity greater freedom – but does enabling multiplicity this greater freedom somehow better ‘reflect’ reality? Now this imposition of the problem of ‘reflection’ is a huge mistake as it seems clear, even at this early stage in ATP, that any understanding ATP can offer will not be through producing an ‘accurate’ picture, model or reflection of reality, rather it’s going to have a use in so far as it’s productive of becomings we wish to engage in (becoming animal or becoming plant for example). Those ‘becomings’ displace the need that underlies the question of reflection with an alternative route to solutions through the problem that ‘accuracy of reflection’ is trying to overcome. This maybe enables us to refine the question: is the rhizomatic literary machine capable of producing a greater range of becoming-X than the root or radicle literary machine? D&G seem to think so. It’s interesting to wonder why, however, because I think answering this question enables us to understand the role of ‘deterritorialisations’. Roughly, a rhizomatic literary machine, with a greater degree of freedom in its possible connections, a greater degree of freedom as a multiplicity, presents a higher number of vectors of connection with other multiplicities / assemblages, a higher number of lines of flight. This production of a greater range of lines of flight constitutes a better way of connecting (rather than reflecting) the world around. Connection rather than reflection is the mode here. Not ‘is it true’ but ‘is it a good connection’. After all, truth, if it isn’t simply deflated into triviality, is presumably just some kind, one kind, of ‘good connection’.
I’ll pause here and take up the ‘characteristics of the rhizome’ (ATP: 7) next time.