Deleuze for the Desperate #11 The refrain

Dave & Maggie Harris

This is little discussed by people like educationalists although it is important in the discussion of human subjectivity and its connection with all sorts of external forces. A lengthy discussion is found in Plateau 11 of ATP (Deleuze & Guattari 2004)  and in a rather similar chapter of Guattari’s The Machinic Unconscious (Guattari 2011).  Deleuze in Negotiations (1995) p. 136 says it is ‘one of our main concepts’. Deleuze uses the term ritornello – a musical phrase recurring throughout a longer piece .Deleuze also discusses the term in his TV interviews with Parnet as we'll see.

Initial thoughts

Let’s just consider some of the main points in the other sources before we focus in on Plateau 11 (Deleuze & Guattari 2004), just to set an agenda. In Negotiations (Deleuze 1995) he says ritornellos mark out territories, and some lead back to the territory, and others away from it. It also has a deeper philosophical significance, as we might expect. We can start to get at this deeper philosophical implication by considering a remark on p. 25: ‘ Ritornellos describe situations where people hummed tunes, faces have to be made but in what situations?’ I'm a sociologist so I began thinking of social situations -- socially insecure ones perhaps. But Deleuze has something much broader and more philosophical in mind. The ritonello ‘expresses the tension between a territory and something deeper, the Earth’(146). A song rises, approaches, or fades away and ‘That’s what it’s like on the plane of immanence: multiplicities fill it, singularities connect with one another, processes or becomings unfold, intensities rise and fall’ (146-7).

Let’s look at Stivales’s superb summary of the TV interviews involving Deleuze and Parnet: Gilles Deleuze's ABC Primer, with Claire Parnet’, usually shortened to the ABC. Here, Deleuze starts by defining the ritornello simply as a little tune, "tra-la-la-la." Deleuze notes three occasions when he sings little songs to himself:

when he is moving about in his territory, wiping off his furniture, radio playing in the background. So, he sings when he's at home. Then, he sings to himself when not at home at nightfall, at the hour of agony, when he's seeking his way, and needs to give himself courage by singing, tra-la-la. He's heading home. And he sings to himself when he says "farewell, I am leaving, and I will carry you with me in my heart," it's a popular song, and I sing to myself when I am leaving home to go somewhere else. In other words, Deleuze continues, the ritornello is absolutely linked ... to the problem of the territory and of exiting or entering the territory, i.e. the problem of deterritorialization. I return to my territory or I try, says Deleuze, or I deterritorialize myself, i.e. I leave, I leave my territory’.

Leaving your territory risks challenging your view of yourself as a competent subject, so humans carry with them a little bit of their territory where they are full human subjects.

However, when considering actual music Deleuze says he likes ‘ritornellos that will melt into an even more profound ritornello. This is all ritornellos of territories, of one particular territory and another that will become organized in the heart of an immense ritornello, a cosmic ritornello, in fact!’ Deleuze admires how Bartok ‘connects and reconnects local ritornellos, national ritornellos, ritornellos of national minorities, etc.’

I’d never heard any Bartok so I found a short bit on You Tube called Out of Doors and I can see how lots of refrains are indeed woven together, although my recognition of Magyar refrains is a bit second-hand – try for yourselves here ( So again Deleuze is showing how subjective refrains connect with much broader non-subjective refrains found in nature and indeed in the cosmos. Incidentally, we have 'the cosmic' defined rather oddly in Plateau 11 -- forces or qualities that work everywhere at the molecular level. These cosmic forces are ' immaterial, non formal, and energetic' we are told in ATP (378)  and they can influence our lives. This argument is even more fully developed in Guattari's own work. Music shows this particularly well.

[NB since doing this video, I cam across a good short article on Bergson/Deleuze on music --try it]

Plateau 11

So we have some philosophical implications to think about. Let’s turn to Plateau 11. Here we find the refrain defined  'we call a refrain any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes' (347). These matters of expression have already been gathered together less consistently in a 'milieu', something like a neighbourhood,  by the 'powers of the earth',which I take to mean natural forces at work on Earth. These may be connected with the curious notion of the 'natal' -- which might mean something coded into us all at a deeper level even than instinct - the capacities of salmon to return to their own streams to spawn  is the example (359).  Towards the end of the Plateau, we are told there are four main types of refrain:

  • milieu refrains, some of which split into parts that answer each other;
  • natal refrains, where parts are related to the whole in territories, or even the whole earth, sometimes made more specific as in the subsong of the bird or the specialised refrains of the lullaby;
  • 'folk and popular refrains'(383), referring to different kinds of crowds, groups or nations [these would include the popular songs hummed by Deleuze] ;
  • 'molecularized refrains' tied to cosmic forces [illustrated by 'the sea and the wind']. 

It’s a very long and rambling discussion so I have suggested three main topics to think about -- they're interconnected. First we try to explore the term refrain and its musical equivalent, the ritornello. We go on to try to see what this tells us about human subjectivity and its connection with non-human territories of various kinds.  Second, we use discussions of animal communication and behaviour –ethology – to further grasp human language not as unique, but as a part of general communication between all animal species. Finally, we see how the arts, especially music, can be seen as an aid to general philosophizing about the other two topics. D&G want to place human language and human subjectivity in a much broader context -- the animal kingdom and ultimately the entire material world.

That’s my take – only one option as always.

Topic 1. Refrain/ritornello.

Examples include children singing to comfort themselves in the dark, various rituals and chants for adults as well. What do these refrains do? They restore a centre to a threatening and turbulent situation, ultimately a chaotic one (which is what the universe really is – stabilized by nothing else, no God or essential structures). They do so by constructing a milieu, then a territory, enclosed within a boundary. It is still a fragile boundary – still threatened from outside and inside. A series of these territories form the basis of our normal position in the world, our lifeworld, our identities. It is rather similar to the idea of our subjective worlds as folds in external reality, hemmed in spaces that become personal – in Deleuze’s book Foucault (1999). 

The refrain is moveable, though, and this helps us territorialize again wherever we are. It all seems a bit confusing at first  – the refrain is territorial because it is associated with a territory, but we can extract it from that context as a little tune on its own. There is not just one territory, and we repeat our comforting little songs in any new situation. We have deterritorialised the refrain – taken it out of its original context.

I’m going to add a few bits from Guattari’s  (2011) discussion here (The Machinic Unconscious). This flexibility can provide us with the illusion of a universal capacity to make sense of anything, to be able to use our linguistic systems (generally speaking) to signify anywhere. This is going to be both something that preserves familiar thoughts and routines as in a repeated stereotype, say. Guattari talks about domestic routines. But there can also be new possibilities for thought – the start of a new abstract diagram of events. A diagram of events shows how events fit together, say for me how a 4-stroke engine works in a cycle of events – we can demonstrate this with little pictures of pistons, flywheels, valves and gas flows, or even more abstractly with physical forces represented in mathematical equations. Once you have grasped the principles, you can think of new options -- rotary engines, say, where a rotating triangle replaces the piston.  A thoughtful consideration of our collection of refrains and when we use them might prompt practical theorizing of this kind.

Refrains can even set off a rhizome to pursue all sorts of radical possibilities. In one of my own examples,  I have often seen managers performing little comforting rituals in meetings to reassure themselves they are doing a proper job – exhaustively and pointlessly going through the minutes of previous meetings is an example. This has prompted me to think of why management has to be like this, so ritualistic, hierarchical and threatening, and this might be the beginnings of a rhizome to break out of subservience I suppose (not that I need much prompting) .

Let's look at the possibilities of ritornellos in music. A ritornello is a familiar tune, a phrase returning to remind us of main themes or earlier stages, not always in the same key or sequence of notes. We can see how they work for thought In the example of Proust’s novel, where a catchy little tune makes recurrent appearances in the life and times of Swann. As well as citing Proust in Plateau 11, Deleuze has written a whole (small) book on Proust ( Deleuze 2008), and Guattari has a long closing section on Proust in The Machinic Unconscious so it is an important source. I think the whole discussion of faciality (in another video) makes much more sense if you see it as based on examples in Proust. Here is my take [NB I have summarized the whole Proust on my website -- here]

Swann (and everyone else in his social circle)  associates a particular little tune played on a violin with his great love Odette. It is playing when they meet. There is a familiar subjective meaning here – it is their tune, it means only their relationship , it is a ‘placard’ in the terms of Plateau 11. However, Swann has to manage his obsessions with Odette that threaten to take over his life. The little tune plays a part here. Swann eventually encounters it as a part of a longer piece, in a sonata, maybe even in a larger septet. It takes on additional significance there, relating to other components in purely musical terms – it counterpoints, harmonizes with, extends, and generally comments upon other tunes. This gives the little tune a non-subjective meaning – a machinic one, not just something that immediately signifies a human relationship but more to do with possibilities raised by theoretical combinations of elements in music. This growing understanding of music and how it develops meanings like this helps Swann place his relationship with Odette in context too.

We can now see the point of Deleuze's comments in Stivale above about the capacities of music to prompt philosophizing.

 Topic 2:  animal communication and ethology

Just to set this up, we must not be misled about the process of constructing territory – territorialization. It is not just a  human subjective process where human subjects carve out a territory according to their own interests and mark it, so to speak with a refrain.  There is an independent force that territorializes, an abstract and objective tendency found in the inhuman forces of the universe themselves, pursued in some detail by Guattari, which maybe is what Deleuze means by ‘cosmic ritornello’ or the ‘song of the earth’ in the quote above.

Here, we develop that first by considering animals. Animals territorialize too. Animals display territorial behaviour which in birds includes developing a particular song - -an animal refrain. There are behavioural refrains too – like rituals – birds laying out the nest or its surrounding territory, fish swimming in particular ways etc. There are references to studies of the behaviour of baboons and vervets, and of course, wasps and their relationships with orchids, mentioned umpteen times in ATP.  As usual, lots of animal studies are cited or just referred to – they might be good ones or not. The point is to show that animal behaviour is not just instinctive or biological – there are learned responses as well. Some chaffinches even develop highly individual songs, apparently – subjectivity if you like. Overall It would be wrong to see animal communication as just producing marks or placards produced by external stimuli - they can also organize them to produce consistency, sometimes borrowing other animals' marks. (ATP 363) [NB consistency here refers to qualities that connect heterogeneous elements. Consistency is a quality of the material world, produced by natural forces, not just something humans impose]

Territory marking in humans is not just some simple natural behaviour left over from our animal past either. There is no natural or inherent human drive to grab territory – the basis of many philosophical justifications of private property. There is no natural aggressive instinct – and here Konrad Lorenz is criticized especially [incidentally, Lorenz was a guru for the current UK Prince of Wales and his views have been used to justify fox hunting as natural]

Fascinating as these examples might be, the point is to develop philosophy again. A classic form of philosophical deduction is going to suggest some underlying process that explains all the actual forms of refrain. In the past that sort of deduction led to some transcendental principle – we could detect the hand of God at work in all these examples. Or it might be some ideal world partially revealed. It might show the underlying functionalism of all life. I’ve even heard animal behaviour used to identify an underlying universal ethic that we should all cooperate and work together in teams – unsurprisingly, that was at a management meeting, illustrated with a video of adorable meerkats.

D&G are quite different. They do not think there is some transcendental force at work . We do concrete analysis to grasp ‘forces that are not thinkable in themselves' (ATP 377)  Transcendental arguments all smuggle in some human qualities and attribute those to God or Nature or whatever. What lies underneath for D&G is the virtual, the cosmic,something beyond direct human understanding,something that can only be inferred, or developed in philosophical speculation. We can think of processes in the virtual as machines -- that is as combinations of forces that interact to produce something more concrete as one possibility. Thus human and animal behaviour in this case can be seen as products of an underlying 'whole behavioral - biological "machinics"' (362).  Communication by both humans and animals work as 'the synthesis of heterogeneities' (363). These syntheses include 'lines or coefficients of deterritorialization, passages, and relays towards other assemblages' (367). They also include heterogeneous 'molecules', the material bases for communication. The molecule here might refer to anything operating at a level below the social order: living creatures can convert these components into 'self consistent aggregates' (370), while non-living assemblages are just as complex but are 'stratified' only by outside forces.

Guattari (2011) is particularly insistent that there really is nothing exceptional about the origins of human language or subjectivity for that matter. We are not completely separate from animals and from the material world. Politically, we should not claim that our human subjectivity is the basis of our freedom and creativity.  'Freedom is not created with subjectivity!' (127). Instead freedom is a matter of 'the give and take of quanta of deterritorialization emitted by refrains, facialities, etc.  and carried by the ensemble of the components of an assemblage' (128).  Politics is a matter of negotiating degrees of freedom, especially in 'micro political confrontations', which involve all components, both molar and molecular and those of 'abstract consistency'. This is better than thinking of an eternal opposition between subjectivity and biological or economic destiny, or, between freedom and the innate

Machines are creative. They can open assemblages to other assemblages, sometimes even those belonging to other species, or they may escape all assemblages 'and produce an opening on to the Cosmos' (368).  Or produce closure, when an aggregate falls into a 'black hole': this can happen if there is 'sudden deterritorialization', with no lines to anything outside, especially no transversal ones.  A person becomes trapped inside their subjectivity, obsessed with themselves like poor old Swann, like the paranoids Guattari met in his psychiatric clinic -- and like some writers and artists.

We have seen also seen a connection between refrains and faces and landscapes -- that will be explored in a separate video

Art and music

The discussion then considers art, especially music again, as revealing this process of actual assemblages operating with cosmic as well as actual concrete forces, of course with political implications aiming to free ourselves from capitalist conventions. Art is defined as escaping earth and gravity, searching for 'the trace of creation in the created', immanent movement to explain the different aspects apparent in the world (371). Various artistic movements are discussed to see how they unleash creativity. Modern artists open themselves to the cosmic, trying to depict what cannot normally be represented . Modern music does this apparently by thinking of the whole of sound itself, bypassing conventions of rhythm and tone. 

There is a political implication in the middle of all this, from discussing the term 'dividual'. The dividual is originally a musical term, referring to 'musical relations and the intra or intergroup passages occurring in group individuation'Pass. We're told that it also refers to 'non subjectified group individuation' (376). In my simple way, I thought of the dividual as a kind of statistical unit rather than a person, something you get when you divide a group by the number of its members to get some average value.

There are some asides on the creativity of children which might be of interest to any teachers. First, a 'childish' approach is required to break convention and experience the cosmic (371). But on 379 we are told there is an ambiguity in 'the modern valorization of children's drawings, texts by the mad, and concerts of noise', and that this can lead to 'reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds'. 'People often have too much of a tendency to reterritorialize on the child, the mad, noise'.  There is no point just making things fuzzy -- instead we should think about how to represent what is already fuzzy.  Apparently, Klee used to get cross when people compared his work to the child's work, since he was rendering visible the cosmic forces, and not just multiplying lines. So 'Sobriety, sobriety: that is the common prerequisite for the deterritorialization of matters, the molecularization of material, and the cosmicization of forces.  Maybe a child can do that.  But the sobriety involved is the sobriety of a becoming - child, that is not necessarily the becoming of the child, quite the contrary' (380), and the same with madmen.  'Your synthesis of disparate elements will be all the stronger if you proceed with a sober gesture, an act of consistency, or capture, or extraction that works in a material that is not meager but prodigiously simplified, creatively limited, selected.  For there is no imagination outside of technique. The modern figure is not the child or the lunatic, still less the artist, but the cosmic artisan'.

a discussion about why sound is so important.  There is no need to deny the visual arts, but sound becomes more refined, specialized and autonomous when it deterritorializes. Sound illustrates better the machinic. I thought this might mean that you can combine many sounds in an overall effect, as when different scores for different instruments combine or that maybe music allows things like mathematical relations between notes. I am no musician,but I did come across the brief piece by JS Bach, the Crab Canon. This is a tune which can be played forwards or backwards -- or both at once, all with perfect musical sense.  There is a marvellous You Tube video if you are interested. However, sound offers the inevitable ambiguity.  Sound moves a people, while it can also become merely 'a sickly sweet ditty'.  It can even be used as a signature tune, anthems for political movements, illustrating 'the potential fascism of music'(384). The 'established powers' are particularly keen to regulate sounds, while painters are more tolerated.  There is more creative continuity between musicians, 'even if it is latent or indirect'[which implies more of a buildup of critical potential?].


There is a lot more stuff about refrains in Guattari's solo works. In the almost impenetrable Schizoanlytic Cartographies,the refrains do a lot of work in managing the various inputs to subjectivity from all sorts of domains, including the material. The refrain helps to 'smooth' various energetic inputs, add some
regularities into discourse. They also have a positive function to 'catalyse' enunciation, open up new possibilities for expression.


Deleuze, G.  (2008) [1964] Proust and Signs.  Translated by Richard Howard, London: Continuum
(my notes:

Deleuze, G.  (1999) Foucault, S. Hand (trans).  London: Continuum (my notes:

Deleuze, G. (1995) Negotiations. Trans Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press (my notes:

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. ( 2004) A Thousand Plateaus.London: Continuum. Plateau 11: 1837: Of the Refrain (my notes:

Guattari, F. ( 2013) Schizoanalytic Cartogrphies.  Translated by Andrew Goffey.  London: Bloomsbury Academic. (my notes:

Guattari, F.  (2011) The Machinic Unconscious.  Essays in Schizoanalysis, translated by Taylor Adkins.  Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents. (my notes here:

Stivale, C. ( last update 2011) Gilles Deleuze's ABC Primer, with Claire Parnet,  '"O" as in Opera'. Retrieved from