Notes on: Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. ( 2004) A Thousand Plateaus.London: Continuum. Chapter 11: 1837: Of the Refrain

Dave Harris

[The refrain is acknowledged as a major concept in the whole opus, as Deleuze says in Negotiations.  However, it is seldom discussed, especially among the sixties hippy readings of Deleuze.  Refrains, like faciality, are mechanisms that preserve order in the otherwise freewheeling razzamatazz, so they need to be discussed.  That is, they preserve order at the level of coding or semiotic.  Social order, as we sociologists would understand it, is discussed as forms of stratification, which are generally seen as bad or repressive.  Refrains seem to be natural, on the other hand.

Underneath all the hoo-hah, all the important points for sociologists have really been included in Foucault's notion of the discourse as articulating various components etc. D&G ( especially G) want to add a creative possibility in the transversal dimension of discourse -- well explained in his discussion of treatments of psychiatric patients in Chaosmosis. They also want to make it more general than human discourses to include Australian sparrows and lobsters, no doubt to help them found a suitably ambitious account of reality as such.Naturally, they also want to demonstrate the great power of all the new terms they have coined. There is also the usual excess -- they cannot resist bleating on about all sorts of things in endless digressions/delirious ramblings.

There are some bonuses at the end, inckluding bits about politics and the dividual,and some bits that will cause problems for the 'child-centred' readings of this volume .The realist ontology is also quite clear.

By the time I forced myself to come back to this volume, I had already summarized at some length Guattari's discussion of the refrain in his Machinic Unconscious, including a lot of the stuff about ethology, the strange habits of Australian sparrows, marching lobsters and the rest.  This seems to be a very similar discussion with a few additions, so I have mostly focused on the additions, insofar as I can tell where they are.  The ethology leaves me cold, I am afraid.  I can see the point, arguing that forms of communication are prehuman, and this helps them develop this very general notion of expression, which we will have met before.  But the whole discussion is really impossible to get involved in, referring as it does rather sporadically to various ethologists whom I have not read - Guattari's reading might be a complete travesty for all I know.  I must say it further raises doubts about the scholarship of the pair, which seems to skim over a large number of fields].

After several pages of discussion, we get to a kind of summary of the importance of the refrain in managing chaos.  Chaos is combated first by the 'forces of the earth'(355).  Milieus, which are themselves analyzed into different components, internal, external and intra, then turn into territories.  'Rhythm is the milieus' answer to chaos' (345). Some sort of natural 'functional' rhythms get territorialized, or even produce territories, at some loss of flexibility, for example when they turn into metric rhythms, but they can then also express something about the territory.  In their flexible state, they traverse a number of milieus, in  'transcoding', but when they settle on to territories, or produce them, they offer the chance of decoding.  It is not a matter of evolution, however, but something more complex - 'passage, bridges and tunnels' (356).  One thing that refrains do is to take elements or components from milieus, and turn them into 'territory components'.  These can then become a 'signature' (347 or even 'placards', putting a boundary around territories, which may be complete and exclusive, or open in particular ways to include other territories, as when animals mate.  Territories are 'the first assemblage' but it already has a potential to become something else, no doubt because of all these additional components.  These take the form of 'motifs and counter points' in refrains.  Thus 'we call a refrain any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes'.  The sonic or sound components of refrains is going to be particularly important [which leads us to bird calls, but also allows us to visit the role of the refrain in Proust, where it begins a simply as a placard to denote a relationship, but then reveals greater and greater complexity, including allusions to particular virtual sonatas.  We can also see that the notion of the refrain is going to be applied to human affairs 'such as 'profession, trade, and speciality' (359), which are based on territories, but also 'take wing [geddit?] from the territory'].

[Then off we go with Australian grass finches or wrens and their mating habits.] We encounter the concept of the 'Natal'[not always spelt with a capital.  I have consulted a number of commentaries here, and understandings range from the natal as something you are born with before it all gets territorialized, or, more generally, something inherently ambiguous with particular potentials].  The Natal is not at the centre of territories, but outside, so we do not get to it by deterritorialization.  It is more ambiguous and mysterious, and illustrated in animal behaviour by 'pilgrimages to the source, as among salmon'(359), in an activity that leaves all assemblages behind, indicating 'something of the Cosmos'[forces in the virtual which have not yet been actualized?  It is impossible to close with this because it is immersed in bullshit]

So refrains are linked to territories, and they can mark or even assemble territories.  They can also realize special functions for the assemblage, as with lullabies or professional refrains.  They are subject to deterritorialization and reterritorialization, for example when refrains differ in different neighbourhoods.  They can also 'collect or gather forces' (360), either to consolidate the territory or to go outside it.  They also become cosmic, they are 'rejoin the songs of the Molecules'[quoting Milikan].

Assemblages have a quality of consistency, and this may exist only on the cosmic plane.  More normally, it is a matter of holding together heterogeneity, including deterritorializing components.  Usually, consistency is seen in terms of 'a formalizing, linear, hierarchised, centralised arborescent model'(361) [citing the mysterious Tinbergen, who seems to have a kind of dendritic model of the nervous system, and wants to explain animal behaviour in terms of specific stimuli activating particular centres which in turn activate other networks.  This uses binaries which are oversimplified.] Ethologists are able to operate with larger units than ethnologists do [with their silly divisions into kinship, politics myth and so on], and it would be wrong to reimpose simple binary divisions and links.  Instead we should operate with a 'rhizomatic' schema, involving the activation of populations of neurons from the whole central nervous system, featuring coordination between centres but not hierarchy or dominance [DeLanda has some good examples from embryology].  This would offer 'a whole behavioral - biological "machinics"' (362).

Another term that might be useful is 'consolidation', where the properties of the fuzzy sector consolidate to produce life [in the case of someone called Dupréel].  Instead of beginnings and linear mechanisms we have rather 'densifications, intensification, reinforcements, injections, showerings', 'intercalary events'[literally, the extra day inserted into the calendar to make it conform to the solar year].  The whole thing is driven by [intensive] inequalities, which may have to be limited in order to consolidate.  The processes operate with 'disparate rhythms' which have to be articulated.  This is growth and creation [with a strange discussion of architecture, music and literature on the importance of creative consolidation and intercalar moments]. Particularly important are 'intercalary oscillators, synthesisers with at least two heads' to deal with intervals to synchronise rhythm without homogenising them. 

There are implications for expression which must allude to these characteristics producing consistency.  This is done by internal relations producing motives or counter points, and these together constitute 'a "style"' (363) 'elements of a discrete or fuzzy aggregate'.  Limits also introduced by the possibilities, say, of the sounds that the bird can make.  Thus chaffinches [sic] produce both limited sub songs [placards] which can be added together to produce a full song [motifs and counter points] - apparently, this addition cannot be predicted but depends on articulation.  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.

What the discussion illustrates is 'the synthesis of heterogeneities' in expression, a machinic utterance, involving all sorts of forms of expression.  More birds illustrate this, 365.  There are implications for conventional understandings of animal behaviour as a matter of inhibition and release, and how they learn.  Again we are warned against binaries and trees.  We want to explain 'the very particular character' of a particular song, and this requires us to consider assemblage [more ethologists are compared, 366].  The consistency of the refrain itself does not need to be explained by external factors, and we can see this in music as well.  This helps us break with the old distinction between the innate and the acquired [so lots of new research programmes for educationists, as I argued in my notes on Machinic Unconsciousness].  In the middle of all this, the mysterious term natal reemerges.  Now it is 'the innate but decoded, and it is the acquired but territorialized.  The natal is the new figure assumed by the innate and is acquired in the territorial assemblage'.  Apparently, it produces a particular affect, something that aspires to the unknown homeland.  It displaces the innate 'downstream' [ in the stream from affect to the act].  It affects expressions directly, offering a perception that selects them, using gestures that 'erect' them, impregnating objects or situations, regulating subsequent behaviour.  It is not just a mixture of the innate and the acquired, but itself accounts for such mixtures in territories, 'it cuts across all the interassemblages and reaches all the way to the gates of the Cosmos'[Jesus!  367].

[This is quite like the sort of transcendental arguments developed by Bhaskar -- apparently isolated even opposed statements, theoretical approaches or events are united by seeing them as variants of an underlying transcendental counterfactual reality -- 'the machinic' for these heroes].

In any territorial assemblage, there are 'lines or coefficients of deterritorialization, passages, and relays towards other assemblages'.  The flexibility of birdsong shows this again [!] What happens is that the territory can go on to release the machine [I take this to mean that the machine operates at the virtual level, and that territories are specific actualizations, constantly subject to the activities of the machine in developing alternatives.  Thank god for DeLanda].  Machinic effects are apparent in the ways in which consistency or expression occur.  They're not just symbolic but real.  Machines 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.  This can produce bizarrely individual effects [weird songs from isolated chaffinches].  Black holes inhibit and also prevent simple mechanisms of release.  Sometimes, however they can have a creative outcome [here is one of my examples from Guattari on Proust - poor old Swann recovers from his semiotic collapse].  Such collapse might even be necessary, although we can get a complete closure [no doubt a pathology even in chaffinches].  Machines are always at work though, not just in crises.

There is also a relation to the molecules of nature, since semiotic components are also material components.  [It seems to be possible to communicate at the individual atomic level, even when atoms are aggregated into molecules.  There is also a baffling reference to a certain Alembert who has suggested that groups of molecules can either head towards equilibrium or towards 'less probable states of concentration', 369]. Links between molecules can be arborescent and mechanical, or indirect and non mechanical [joined together by intensive bonds?].

This leads us somehow to a discussion of the distinction between matter and life, seen here as a matter of differences between two states or tendencies of matter, between systems of stratification and 'consistent, self consistent aggregates' (370).  It is not just complex life forms that exhibit consistency or stratification and hierarchies.  However, there are also some aggregated forms which are very heterogeneous and can display 'a destratifying transversality', produced by the machinic phylum.  Life implies a gain in consistency, some sort of surplus value, more scope for self consistency and aggregation.  It requires destratification in the sense that the code in any particular stratum becomes specialized.  But the danger is that this will lead us to think of life as just another stratum: it is both at once, both stratification and disruptive consistency.  Living things transcode milieus and territorialize, with the potential to deterritorialize. 

Ethology studies those complex crystalizations in assemblages held together by transversals.  A transversal is a component that specializes in deterritorialization.  Transversals can also hold assemblages together.  We see this in refrains, which are both deterritorialized, but still 'connected to biochemical and molecular components'(371).  Deterritorialized components are not indeterminate: some of their components can be highly determined, but when aggregated, play can result [sic -"play".  Primary teachers will love that, if they ever penetrate this far] [more examples from birds].  So assemblages are [emergent from environmental and other determinations, since semiotic components have material elements which do not determine them -- we said all that pages ago!].  Consistency is different from stratification, even opposed to it, but only in a relative way.  Assemblages actually 'swing' between territorial closure and deterritorialization [lots of philosophical distinctions can be explained by this swing, our heroes claim in a transcendental deduction again, alluding to bird behaviour, but may be even human behaviour as well?].  Strata add rigidity.

We can justify the use of the term Cosmos by reference to Paul Klee [oh good], describing art 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 [transcendental deduction again].  This apparently requires a 'childish' approach [primary teachers wake up!], but it also requires 'a people' to take it up as an issue.

In classicism, matter is seen as organized by a succession of forms, each of which can be seen as a code, with the sequence as transcoding.  Daring artists get creative by decomposing these forms and milieus.  Initially, chaos emerges.  New approaches lurk within, which explains why the baroque is entangled with the classical [of course!].  The artist has to imitate god by organizing this chaos, first differentiating forms, in this case using binary divisions such as masculine and feminism, and then looking at the relations between parts, for example, how musical instruments answer each other [with a reference to the little tune in Proust again].  In romanticism, the artist returns to the earth and to territory: the earth lies beneath individual territories, and so the artist does not confront chaos but rather 'hell and the subterranean, the groundless'(373).  Work has to be founded.  Somehow this is linked to the growth of criticism, even Protestantism, since the earth can serve to oppose the limits of the territory (374).  Music, and the singing of birds [which are interwoven throughout this discussion] now takes on a certain dissonance like the one between territory and the 'Ur-refrain' of the earth.  This gives romanticism a heroic but also a lost quality, and experience of deterritorialization. 

The natal reappears!  It is something that appears in the refrain referring to both the territory and the earth.  [More stuff on romanticism 375, treating matter as some creative force in itself, and seeing the relation between matter and former is a matter of assemblage rather than limiting chaos].  Romanticism also lacks a people, which appear at best as something subterranean, less than mythic [totally incomprehensible stuff ensues, referring to musical forms, and strange windy generalisations about 'the Latin and the Slavic countries' and their differences.  There is also a reference to nomads again, who accompany the earth somehow, and the connection between black holes and fascism, 376.  It is all hopeless, unless you know a lot about music and can participate in this stuff]. 

Among the topics that emerge, though, is the notion of the 'Dividual'(376). The context is a discussion of 'groupings of powers', some generated by the earth and some by the crowd.  The dividual here is a musical term, referring to 'musical relations and the intra or intergroup passages occurring in group individuation'.  We're also told that it refers to 'non subjectified group individuation' (376) [so this partly confirms what I have suspected when the term crops up in Deleuze on the society of control - the dividual is 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].  It is a matter of individualising a crowd, but 'not according to the persons within it, but according to the affects it experiences' [it is somehow connected to the concept of the 'One - Crowd', implying some kind of mass energized by nationalism in this case].  [Unfortunately, the whole thing is conducted using musical terms].

'If there is a modern age, it is, of course the age of the cosmic'(377), where assemblages apparently open themselves to cosmic forces [I'm not sure if this is just in the field of arts or generally].  Apparently, it now helps us address directly the relations between material and underlying forces which are harnessed by it, 'forces of the Cosmos'.  We no longer need the intermediary notion of form, and in art at least, 'the visual material must capture non visible forces'.  Philosophy 'follows the same order to capture forces that are not thinkable in themselves'[apparently, this is 'after the manner of Nietzsche', 378].  We cannot even talk about matters of expression, which imply some intermediary role for the earth as an expressive form, but we should focus instead on 'the forces of an immaterial, non formal, and energetic Cosmos'.  The earth becomes only pure material: painters like Cezanne saw rocks as a result of the various forces expressed in them, non visual forces.  If we see forces as cosmic, we must see matter as molecular, and in turn, focus on the issue of consistency or consolidation.  Again, music can do this and thus express 'forces such as Duration and Intensity'. The eternal return in Nietzsche is a refrain, but one 'which captures the mute and unthinkable forces of the Cosmos'.

We should thus focus our efforts on the machine, 'the immense mechanosphere', and again some musicians were on to this, apparently, with the concept of a 'sound machine' tapping into some cosmic energy, through synthesis, by arranging different intervals, by making the forces audible, uniting disparate elements and offering transpositions [I don't know if this expresses admiration literally for the synthesiser as a musical instrument].  Similarly, 'Philosophy is no longer synthetic judgment; it is like a thought synthesiser functioning to make thought travel, make it mobile, make it a force of the Cosmos'(379).

Some syntheses are better than others, it seems.  There is an ambiguity in 'the modern valorization of children's drawings, texts by the mad, and concerts of noise'[watch out primary teachers!].  They can be overdone and we end up 'reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds', and this can prevent 'any event from happening.  All one has left is a resonance chamber well on the way to forming a black hole'.  There is too much richness, and this reproduces excessive territorialization on the elements.  'One makes an aggregate fuzzy, instead of defining the fuzzy aggregate by the operations of consistency or consolidation pertaining to it'[in other words, we have to explain why we have combined particular elements, not just throw them all in].  We have to show how this opens on to the cosmic, 'instead of lapsing into a statistical heap', and this requires some simplicity in the material, a certain 'calculated sobriety in relation to the disparate elements and the parameters'.  Only then can we detect the power of the Machine.  'People often have too much of a tendency to reterritorialize on the child, the mad, noise'.  There is no point just making things fuzzy.  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.  We would do better to illustrate 'a simple figure in motion and a plane that is itself mobile'.

'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 [classic French view of creativity, not at all like the Brit one] .  The modern figure is not the child or the lunatic, still less the artist, but the cosmic artisan'.  [Take that you British progressives].

Matter is molecular, it relates to forces, and it has operations of consistency applied to it.  At the moment, the earth is extremely deterritorialized as we realise the size of the universe, and the people is 'at its most molecularized', oscillators rather than forces of interaction.  Artists should not resort either to the earth or the romantic notion of the people.  Instead, 'the established powers occupy the earth, they have built people's organizations.  The mass media, the great people's organizations of the party or union type, are machines for reproduction, fuzzification machines that effectively scramble all the terrestrial forces of the people'.  Artists and people like Nietzsche realized this.

The question is still whether molecular or atomic populations will be able to 'train... control... or annihilate' the existing people (381), or whether new molecular populations could 'give rise to a people yet to come'.  It is possible that pop music is helping to develop 'a people of a new type, singularly indifferent to the orders of the radio, to computer safeguards, to the threat of the atomic bomb' [hence Guattari's hopes for free radio?] .  Generally, artists need people even more, yet everyone seems to agree that they are missing.  Opening up to the vectors of the Cosmos might help overcome limits, 'then the cosmos itself will be art'- 'that is the wish of the artisan - artist'.  This is an issue for everyone, and we should reject the way 'governments deal with the molecular and the cosmic' largely through 'competitive means'.  Local, isolated artists should now 'take centre stage', referring to the cosmic 'to enslave the molecular' (382).

We can look at the sequence from classical to romantic then modern as a series of different assemblages, with different relations to the machinic, not a simple evolution.  All these assemblages have attempted to render visible or audible certain forces.  Even classicism attempted to free the molecular by destratification.  The problem is that these forces were sometimes misrepresented, for example in terms of relations between matter and form.  The task is still to deterritorialize matter, to reduce it to molecules, and to see how the forces of the cosmos operate.  This task had simply been perceived differently - 'in this sense, all history is really the history of perception, and what we make history with is the matter of a becoming'.  The machine offers the potential of becoming.

Back to the refrain [and finally close to the end of this very lengthy and dense chapter] we can now distinguish:
  • 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 sub song of the bird or the specialised refrains of the lullaby;
  • 'folk and popular refrains'(383), referring to different kinds of crowds, groups or nations;
  • 'molecularized refrains' tied to cosmic forces [apparently illustrated by 'the sea and the wind']. 
Why is sound so important?  We know there are visual elements as well in painting [and the yellow patch in a painting which has such an effect on the elderly academic in Proust is the example].  There is no attempt to prioritize sound over the visual, but sound becomes more refined, specialised and autonomous when it deterritorializes - colour clings more.  Sound illustrates better the machinic phylum [I think this is because you can combine many sounds in an overall effect, as in a symphony orchestra].  However, sound offers ambiguity, and can lead us into black holes - 'it makes us want to die'[applies to overexcited music buffs only?], Offering 'ecstasy and hypnosis'.  Sound moves a people, while it can also become merely 'a sickly sweet ditty'.  It can even be used as a signature tune, as Beethoven did, illustrating 'the potential fascism of music'(384). The 'established powers' are particularly keen to regulate to the phylum of sounds', while painters are more tolerated.  There is more continuity between musicians, 'even if it is latent or indirect'[which implies more of a buildup of critical potential?]. 

So the refrain is 'a prism, a crystal of space-time' acting upon its surroundings, decomposing it or projecting an transforming it.  The refrain is also a catalyst offering 'indirect interactions between elements devoid of a so-called natural affinity'.  It has a structure that augments and diminishes, adds and withdraws, amplifies and eliminates.  It can be concentrated or extensive and in this sense 'the refrain fabricates time'.  This also explains its ambiguity: a retrograde version forms a closed circle, usually from some kind of metric or controlled pattern of augmentation or diminution, 'false spatiotemporal rigour'(385).  However, these intrinsic qualities also depend 'on a state of force on the part of the listener'[again referring to Swann and his original attempts to use a refrain as a placard a until he realises the potential of music].

Music can even incorporate mediocre or bad refrains,  and use them as a springboard [the examples are inclusions of Frère Jacques, cow bells or birdsong].  Musicians here deterritorialize  such material and transform it to produce something far more cosmic [and this is been much discussed apparently how experimental music can relate to fulk music -our hero see as a matter of transversality again, I think, but the discussion is rendered in terms of going from chromatic to new forms of chromatic scales, from conventional tonality to more experimental types].  It is not that the earlier forms are not creative, because they contain the seeds of the later possibilities: 'deformations destined to harness a great force are already present' (386).  We can start with childhood scenes or games, as long as we see that 'the child has wings already, he becomes celestial' [back to support for English progressivism again!].  When a musician becomes child, they tap into this 'becoming-aerial', although this requires 'extremely profound labour' at both stages.  [Proper] music aims at 'a deterritorialized refrain', opening an assemblage to a cosmic force, to the machine.  There are many dangers en route: [the customary health warning so they won't be sued] 'black holes, closures, paralysis of the finger and auditory hallucinations'.  'We can never be sure we will be strong enough, for we have no system, only lines and movements.  Schumann'.

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