Deleuze and Guattari on cultural politics.

Dave Harris

I have written this as a collection of thoughts which can overlap. The sections are like blogs -- I read something then think of the implications for politics.I cold justify this as a Deleuzian method of writing in plateaus -- but I won't

Section/blog 1

This was inspired by reading Rancière on the dilemmas and difficulties of radical cultural politics.  He has highlighted a central tension between the need to preserve the autonomy of art in order to guarantee ist radical opposition to capitalism, while managing its ‘heteronomy’, that is its distance from politics and everyday life.  Radicals have always seen aesthetics as holding out some hope as a grounded alternative to capitalism and its reductions, but the danger is both that art can become too heteronomous, wanting to announce its freedom from radical politics, and likely to become incorporated as entertainment. if it is not autonomous enough.  Rancière offers various alternatives, all of which end in ‘entropy’ or contradiction.

It struck me throughout that Deleuzian cultural politics display many of the same problems.  The radical stuff in AntiOedipus and Chaosmosis holds out the possibility of a radical subjectivity that overcomes various repressive forces and allows the free play of desire.  There is an awful lot of hesitation and procrastination about this, however.  Nevertheless, these political options are not just the personal beliefs of Deleuze and Guattari, but have a ground in the underlying ontology.  The possibilities are real, since chaos underpins all actual empirical systems, heterogeneity underpins all apparently simple empirical forms, existing notion of the subject, including the obedient subject of capitalism, is in fact one product of complex processes of subjectivation which can be reenergised to generate much more open relationships with others and with the world. 

All radical politics need such a ground or else they look like special pleading for the groups that will benefit from them (Marx insisted that the revolution would benefit the working class but thereby all humanity, since the victory of the proletariat would end all class struggle). The same goes for radical educational politics too – is progressivism merely the cult of the restless petit bourgeoisis or is it somehow ‘for everyone’?

Guattari’s route to liberation involves a constant form of therapeutic encounter with otherness, other people and other universes represented by the arts.  Deleuze’s route is a more classic scholarly one, and we have to abandon conventional thought, at some risk, eschew the company of others, and engage in solitary philosophical inquiry of a profound and radical kind.  Such enquiry is only possible after wide scholarly reading of developments in arts, sciences and mathematics, especially the unconventional and experimental ones.  Avant-garde cinema in particular is valued as a stimulus for such philosophical inquiry, for Deleuze personally, and as an educational route for others.  The same goes for his own lecturing and writing, especially when pursued as a form of délire.

One obvious problem emerges soon into reading this work in the form of Deleuze’s elitism and esotericism, which clearly contradicts the allegedly universal claims made for his philosophy. This problem is apparent in Badiou’s insistence that the real priority of Deleuze’s work, the one he has spent most time on and which he values most is the scholarly philosophical quest for a grasp of Being.  The ‘applied’ work is at best a constant demonstration of the philosophical inquiry, the reductive, endless and repetitive discovery of the univocity of being: the immensely detailed work in the books on cinema end by confirming what Deleuze had thought all along – that Bergson’s concepts are very valuable. Even a sympathiser can see the temptations Deleuze must have faced, having spent his life and built his career on philosophical inquiry to preserve that as the main aim, with cultural politics as a kind of optional ‘application’. 

I am reminded of Fraser’s sad but hilarious account of the failure of followers of Derrida’s work on deconstruction as a political device.  The followers set up a centre in Paris to pursue the project, but they spent far too much time philosophising, and failed even to organise a straightforward political struggle to defend their own organisation against an aggressive takeover. I don’t suppose activists can rely very much on philosophers for help in practice—as the police charge, would you turn to Deleuze for advice? Would you be comforted by his revival of Stoic philosophy and any attempts to see being beaten to death as ‘deactualization’?

In Guattari’s case, it is different, and we face the contradictions of the therapeutic total institution—you have to be incarcerated in his clinic before you can begin to be treated with a new regime of openness and creativity, and, presumably, the therapists continue to police the explorations of relations with others in order to steer away from pathological ones. Creative freedom for the inmates seems to be one of those always postponed promises.

The same applies to progressive education, possibly – you MUST cooperate and not compete, play parachute games not football etc. You MUST follow teachers’ background guidance and discover what she wants you to discover, and probably avoid the kind of classic scholasticism pursued by Deleuze until, one day, you might be empowered enough to make ‘your own’ choices. Chances are, progressivism will also develop its own mundane version of practice, leaving behind the philosophical groundings offered by Dewey (or Freire! – no ‘theory’ is allowed in Education) and turn into a way of coping with the day, especially in conventional schools, managing challenge conservatively and so on.

In Rancière’s terms, both Deleuze and Guattari are arguing for an initial act of radical separation from everyday life (the empirical world and conventional thought) in order to preserve the autonomy of their virtual levels which act as a necessary ground.  But this very separation runs the risk of too much autonomy, so to speak, an effective closure of the virtual realm to those who have not followed Deleuze and Guattari.  There is another problem too with excessive autonomy – of all the possible forms of subjectivation, of all the possible complex actualizations, why should the virtual prefer liberating and creative ones?  Maybe [especially early] Deleuze suspects the deep indifference of the virtual to the mundane world in his stoicism, his belief that all people can do, when faced with the prospect of death for example, is to deactualize and celebrate Fate. [It seems to me that chaos theorists in organizational management face the same sorts of dilemma. Chaos has to be separate enough from the actual organization to serve as a source of critique, but it clearly threatens all forms of organization not just outdated forms. What mysterious mechanism will guarantee that chaos will meekly actualize as a reformed capitalist organization specifically? I think this affects the more ‘democratic’ version of chaos theory – chaos is as external to liberal professional politics as it is to authoritarian hierarchy, surely? Chaos theory helps dereify - -but so do lots of other approaches].

At a more political level, we can explain the constant hesitation between the prospect of liberation and the dreadful developments of the society of control: in a way, both are products of the operations of the virtual, both must be equally well grounded.  It requires a non- philosophical preference for subjective liberation to develop radical politics, which weakens the claim of some sort of compulsory and obligatory grounding in the first place.

There is also the danger of recuperation. Capitalism will meet all our conceivable desires, and people will shape their desires to what the system can offer. This is the basis of Zizek’s critique of Deleuze – the rhizome has become the elusive flows of international capital, the virtual has become the Web etc. This is the problem with very abstract/autonomous cultural politics again, that a mundane, popular version must take the place of the esoteric demand for unconstrained desire, and it ties in with the elitism issue – only proper philosophers can tell the difference and they are soon ignored. Philosophy is too difficult and remote for ordinary life, and there is always a temptation to develop a soft working alternative based on common sense – describe your lack of structured lessons as ‘rhizomatic’ and away you go.

This is not to take the piss but to recognize the inevitable ‘entropy’ that haunts cultural politics, in Rancière’s terms. The mistake made by Deleuze and Guattari was to put everything behind a particular 60s version of cultural politics -- they (or rather their disciples) can’t see anything in current popular culture, for example? Educational progressives are too wedded to the romantic stuff of the past, when we all did face to face in small groups, before electronic communication. Rancière doesn’t give up hope but advocates constant renewal and reinvigoration, especially with an eye to anything approaching recuperation. This is how we should approach the debates about MOOCs, for example?

Applying some intensively philosophical analysis like Deleuzian ones to more concrete political situations has additional problems.  The most obvious one is that the philosophical work is excessive so to speak.  I argued this once with gramscian work that claimed to have been based on a concrete political struggle over the pretty obviously vindictive injustice handed out to black ‘muggers’ in Brimingham, and turned in to pages of discussion of Althusserian theory and Poulantzas on the media in Policing the Crisis... We see this excess with attempts to use Deleuzian concepts in arguments for progressive education, or non hierarchical organisations.  Ignoring the technical difficulties for a moment, discussed briefly below, such applications seem to carry almost too much power and weight.  Do we really need to have waded through Deleuze before we can offer criticisms of the traditional curriculum in Britain, and the exam and teaching system based on it?  Do we need to have read Deleuze before we can identify such trends and processes in organizations that threaten organisational stability as well as preserving it?  Do we need to see exactly how this analysis relates to debates with Bergson or Nietzsche (which occupies many pages of the actual work). My own view is that we can get enough insight into these mechanisms, or into processes of rationalisation or reification in general, from reading much more accessible critical sociology.  Activists encountering Deleuze are likely to quail at the prospect of having to penetrate his esoteric analyses: even brief summaries of his main concepts are baffling to the uninitiated.

Anyone turning to Deleuze, less so Guattari, for assistance in performing any applied analyses or political activities are likely to meet a technical objection from the master himself.  The normal concepts of application belong to the conventional image of thought which is to be rejected.  They imply, for example, some subjective process of recognizing an analogical link between a Deleuzian concept and an empirical practice, or between, say, the concept of ‘rhizome’ and the practice of organisational deviation from the official norms.  This would not be proper philosophy, according to Deleuze, since his concepts are more than generalisations about empirical practices, but refer to some non empirical virtual elements as well, beyond the normal processes of subjective recognition pursued by the rest of us.  Exactly how empirical practices are incorporated into Deleuzian philosophy is far from clear.  DeLanda shows that he has clearly read some modern literature and poetry, and some mathematics and science, as we argued above, and in my view, he has borrowed of the claim that these have empirical applications.  I think there are other assumptions based on empirical practices, especially the practices of elite universities, that have crept in their too.  However, there is nothing systematically discussed about matters such as how empirical social sciences actually do attempt to understand empirical practices—instead, we have a constant critic based on his own conception of the virtual which must exceed these ‘applied’ efforts.

Guattari is different, and bases his analysis on his own practice as a psychotherapist, allegedly at least.  I raise doubts because those practices again seem insufficient to generate all the philosophical concepts of which he is the proud co-author.  It is clear that he has also read philosophical works, and both Deleuze and Guattari talk about how their writing emerges from their own creative collaborations.  Guattari does offer some useful implications—that modern education might be understood in the same way as his own therapeutic practice (as a matter of reconnecting people with various kinds of otherness)—but these are only speculative.

As usual, I think the main interest in Deleuzian work as a source for politics is likely to lie in the academic world.  The student upheavals of the 1960s were one ‘application’ that Deleuzians acknowledge, and it is the heirs of those upheavals (which include me) who are likely to be still interested.  The university is also the ideal location, perhaps the only location, for a cultural politics with extensive philosophical baggage, since it operates with the mythical notion that rational argument is supposed to be decisive. It is probably the only location where an extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return is likely to gain any political advantages, say in promotion or in gaining research funding.

For everyone else, it is tempting to revive the analysis of Hindess and Hirst. After a long critical discussion of various Marxist and sociological theorists, they concluded that none of them were very helpful in engaging in actual politics – not surprisingly, since the object of theory, they argued, is to produce theoretical knowledge, not political programmes. What positive politics needed was some analysis intended to help people, the working class if you insist, calculate their best interests in concrete situations. Sometimes that might be Trade Unionism, sometimes Marxism, possibly even sometimes Deleuze, but the point was not to investigate the relative philosophical merits of these positions or explore theoretical implications: if you want to act politically, put effective politics first.

[Another eg –P Smith’s counter-tourism. Just fun really no need for heavy phil?] Situationnism does not need surrealism. Progressives not interested in whether Dewey or Rousseau’s conceptions of creativity the better one – which one opposes Gove best etc. Politics is calculative, not a branch of philosophy]

Also important essay by Alliez (Fuglsang). Sees Deleuze and Badiou as offering pole positions on how philosophy informs politics. Badiou stands for analyzing the structure of Being in order to uncover possibilities.Only theorists can do this though and activism is in vain, easily recuperable etc. Deleuze used to believe this (as in  Lof S with its eternal neutral being etc) but then concretised the concept in politics. There  is not just an opportunist response to 68 and Guattari for Alliez but new work on desire and flow etc as basis for politics, philosophy as politics etc. NB DeLanda probably in Badiou camp?

Support for Althusserian structuralism in D&R, but that changes, says Alliez, to support for the wild Marxism of the Grundrisse, esp Mx on the ‘general intellect’, and there is convergence with Negri too.

Section/blog 2

I have been reading Deleuze, Guattari, and the critics like Zizek, and in between, I have been reading bits of Rancière.  As a result, I have begun to think about the mechanisms that produce revolutionary politics, not in a very systematic way, at the moment.  Here are some thoughts:

Revolutionary politics can be produced by revolutionary thinking, utopias, dreams, art, and ideas in general.  These are important because they open alternatives to existing social formations, and can acts, even as Christianity once did for Marx, as the 'sigh of the oppressed'.  Both Rancière and EP Thompson, in their different ways, have pointed to the importance of such ideas, even religious ones, in the formation of working class political movements, both reformist and revolutionary.  However the problem is that these ideas need to be grounded in something real, in material social conditions which make them possible, or even explain why they are impossible at the present.  Without this, idealist revolutionary politics looks like 'cultural chitchat' to quote Rancière's dismissive phrase.  At the analytical level, it leads to overdiagnosis, where situations are analyzed as examples of the essence of revolutionary movements, in a tautological way: we are not far from those millenarian enthusiasts who see the end of the world in every rise in the price of oil.  This is why we need the second option.

Materialist analysis indicates revolutionary and conservative possibilities by looking at the tensions and contradictions in current social formations, either those of the base or the superstructure, depending on your take.  We have analyses of the revolutionary possibilities of global capitalism in the construction of a disaffected multitude in Negri and Hardt, which drew inspiration from Deleuze and Guattari esp. Thousand Plateaus, as well as the practices of Italian Autonomism. Hardt offers a thoroughly political reading of Deleuze, denying it was Guattari who added the politics ( see Zizxke)   We have the much more gloomy analyses of capitalist reproduction in work like Bourdieu, or possibly Althusser, if we take Rancière's reading of both.  Materialist analysis has taken different forms, and offers problems of its own.

One option, for example, takes the well-known form that social potentials and possibilities have become stultified, one dimensional, or reified in capitalism.  There are ambiguities, however.  One option sees reification as limited to a capitalist form specifically, driven forward by commodity production, market relations and bureaucratic administration of a mode of production.  Others would see reification as a much more general category, a constant tendency, whenever productive forces achieve some sort of stasis or equilibrium.  This is the position produced by Sartre in his attempt to provide a philosophical foundation of praxis for Marxism, according to Rancière.  The snag is that it is difficult to choose between particularly bad forms of reification, since become dangerously close to the argument that capitalism is ultimately simply a natural form of human society, just human 'business as susual' to cite Rancière.  Various people have tried to get out of this difficulty, notably Berger and Pullberg, in their famous attempt to distinguish between 'objectification' which does happen in all human societies, and 'reification' which is the specific capitalist form.  Politics aimed at dispelling the forces of reification have to examine the historical processes through which reified forms have arisen, and suggest concrete alternatives and possibilities. 

This is one way of reading the massive efforts by Deleuze and Guattari to generate new possibilities through various forms of philosophical analysis—tracing back to particular singularities to the multiplicities that produced them in order to point to a number of alternative and equally possible singularities.  Guattari in Machinic Unconscious particularly recommends this 'diagrammatic' form of politics as genuinely realistic, not starting from some utopian point, and not ranging off into impossibilities (and realistic in the sense that the virtual, where the multiplicities live, is also real).  The particular device that Guattari recommends lies in his view that semiotization is also a multiplicity, and that what we have to do is to think of alternative ways to semiotize our existing material positions, in particular, drawing on the wide ranging forms of semiotization, including 'asignifying' systems like music and art.  In this, he is in the same tradition as those Marxists who also recommended a form of cultural politics based on 'immanent critique', like Adorno.

This sort of analysis also raises an claims to solve, another problem with conventional materialist analysis.  Again, Rancière provides an excellent summary, but it is also taken up by Zizek.  The problem is that the more successful materialist analysis gets, the more it is capable of analyzing all the social effects and practices.  Everything can be explained by materialist analysis.  This can lead to 'lazy theorising' in Sartre's phrase, offering quick short cuts to grasp everything as merely ideological or whatever.  It also struggles to explain the new.  If everything is adequate to the material factors that cause it, how does anything new arrive?  This issue is rendered slightly more philosophically by Zizek raising the old problems with causal analysis in general: if causes translate exactly into effects, then there can be no substantial difference between cause and effect.  This leads him to suggest that those interested in revolutionary politics need to operate with a form of causality that produces a kind of excess in the effect, some potential that is not exhausted by the immediate causes, something which emerges.  Again, Deleuze and Guattari have suggested something exactly like this in their concept of a singularity, which has an emergent and unpredictable effects, a contingent one outside of the play of rigorous causes. 

Zizek discusses those particular approaches that suggest this excess is also responsible for the ability of human beings to reflect on effects and their potential.  The same sort of analysis is offered by Badiou, who suggests that there is something left outside even of mathematical set theory, and that what is left outside can be the basis of revolutionary politics, if it can be analyzed and specified correctly as of universal significance: again we are back to the importance of being able to semiotize outside of the conventions.  It is this potential which justifies his own view of revolutionary politics.  It can only take the form of carnivalesque periodic challenges to the capitalist order, ranging from Zapatistas to student demonstrators.  These will count as revolutionary if they can be semiotized as such.

In any event, there is no alternative.  Zizek particularly rejects that form of anarchic hedonistic cultural politics based on Deleuze and the idea of a pulsating eternal desire representing the energy of the universe in actualizing itself, often in the form of some dynamic vitalism or human conceptions of a life to be led.  Zizek's objection here is a philosophical one, turning on a well worn argument about the difficulties of linking the two levels of explanation in any overall system.  Sociologists will be aware of the difficulties, for example in linking the base with the superstructure: we need to avoid the twin problems of rigid determinism and the recourse to strange philosophical mechanisms like structural determinism in Althusser (which is borrowed from Spinoza, as is a similar idea in Deleuze).  In a famous early critique, Hindess and Hirst traced Marx's writings on precapitalist modes of production to see how the privileged concepts from his science were actually applied.  They found it was impossible to apply concepts deriving from a philosophical analysis of the base without dogmatism or incoherence. 

The same sort of argument might well be made against Deleuze, to extend the problems identified by Zizek.  We are back to a similar problem like that identified with the concept of reification.  We have to decide whether this concept applies to capitalist politics, all politics, even our own politics, or to make some sort of choice—and the issue here is whether this choice can be anything other than dogmatic and incoherent.  The same sort of issue arises with Deleuze and the virtual, says Zizek, although again in a rather philosophical way.  There is an incoherence in linking the virtual and the actual.  The normal understanding is that the actual represents congealed or reified possibilities of the virtual.  However, there are sections, especially in Logic of Sense, where it seems to be the other way about, that actual processes, including causal ones, produce the virtual.  Zizek's argument is that Deleuze never actually made up his mind about this, and so it was possible to turn with some relief to Guattari's  politics, to choose commitment rather than stick with ambiguous analysis.

 Zizek's argument then goes on to say that what the analysis lacks is some mediating operation between the virtual and the actual: Deleuze glosses this with notions like 'the dark precursor', and other mystifications including 'quasi-casues' and the almost ubiquitous 'resonances' [I am trying to read Deleuze on Leibniz to track down this particular term -- DeLanda uses more familiar forms of correlation between signals etc]. All the while,  there is a perfectly understandable mechanism in the work of Lacan.  It is rather similar to Guattari's notion of semiotization, but it is described as symbolization.  There is an analysis of how it works, and an account of the energy that drives it in Lacan's analysis of Freud.  Deleuze notes the analysis of the phantasm is being particularly significant as a way of joining bodily and biological drives to the symbolic order, but then that is only in the earlier Logic of Sense.  For Zizek, phantasms are not confined to the infantile state, but represent an adult way of doing symbolization as well.  The process is driven by desire, but not the vague and general universal desire of Deleuze, rather  the specifics of human sexual desire, which, uniquely, are excessive and cannot be confined to the bodily level, but are channeled instead into cultural activities.

Section/blog 3

I think that diagrammatic micropolitics is actually a pretty limited kind.  It seems to be helpful in unblocking people who are unable to perceive alternatives, even where they are oppressed by the existing forms.  This obviously covers psychiatric patients who are blocked by neuroses or psychoses, and in Chaosmosis, it is clear that there is  possible therapy for them to reconnect with otherness.  In the psychiatric clinic, it is possible to mobilize enough local power and resources to put this kind of liberating micro politics into effect, but whether power and resources could be mobilised more generally must be in doubt. 

Guattari seems to assume that the power of writing alone will offer some sort of breakthrough, a typical academic delusion.  It is also worth pointing out that the audience is likely to be other academics as well—who else would be able to deploy different semiotic registers drawn from arts, literature, philosophy and politics: has anyone normal ever read Proust?  Academics are also unlikely to be 'blocked' in a peculiar way too, if their departments are dominated by charismatic figures able to set agendas.  Bourdieu says, for example, that sociology was dominated by Levi Strauss.  Foucault complained that if you wanted to do any research in France it had to be within the limits set by structuralist linguistics, Freudian theory, or Marxism—it's no surprise that the first two are the particular targets of Deleuze and Guattari, and they are occasionally spiky about the last one as well.

Who else might be blocked like this?  Victims of really oppressive regimes which are able to overcode everything—the victims at the Moscow trials spring to mind, where the poor old Bolsheviks were so dominated by a Stalinist philosophy that they even saw that they were guilty themselves.  There are arguably victims are among those oppressed minorities who are dominated by majoritarian thinking to such an extent that they cannot see a way out. Women might be included here, victims of a dominating male imaginary of a Lacanian kind.  Black people who are unable to break out of the options offered by white discourses—noble savage, clown, sportsman, criminal, stud.  Or, of course, the working classes dominated by a sophisticated hegemony that effort mostly manages to cope with all the contradictions thrown up by their experience.  Both Deleuze and Guattari come close to this later option, with their foucard in suspicions about the sequence of controlling agencies from families to barracks, and with a constant sinister role played by the media.

But does this paranoid society of control actually exist?  As with the gramscians, there are always formal possibilities of resistance, and these are introduced so frequently that it becomes easy to see why Negri got fed up with Deleuze's constant undoing of analyses by thinking of additional theoretical options.  I also think he loses his bottle when thinking about how people might escape, by pursuing rhizomes developing bodies without organs, especially if they used drugs.  He urges us to be so cautious that he reads more like a concerned social worker.

What about actual possibilities?  We have constant reference to May '68.  We have some dalliance, especially in Guattari, with Italian autonomism and the French free radio movement, and Rolnic persuades him to encourage the Brazilian workers party.  But this is still pretty thin, and there is no commentary with what might be called conventional politics: no attempts to persuade the communist party to do diagrammatic politics, no commentary on strikes, riots or conventional political disputes.  No doubt this is beneath elegant philosophers, and Rancière is probably right to suspect that all radical academics still preserve the idea of a passive, instrumentalist working class (perhaps they are right).

There is very little cultural exploration either.  Classical literature, but not popular literature, little to say about popular culture, even though youth cultures were apparent in France at the time.  Nothing much to say about electronic potentials either, of course, except for the ability of free radio to give minorities a voice.  No sociological analysis, of course, which might have been used to check some of the excessively paranoid analyses.  An example here is the condemnation of the conventional school system as controlling and limiting creativity and rhizomatic thinking.  This just must be so, and although there are abstract possibilities, since it is always possible to find lines of flight, there's no exploration of any.  Presumably Deleuze and Guattari themselves had a conventional education but did manage to escape? Compare this to Gintis and Bowles on the contradictions of liberal education.

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