Deleuze for the Desperate #10 War machine

Dave Harris

Discussion of this term is found in the very long and rather rambling Plateau 12 of A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) called Treatise on Nomadology – the War Machine.  As we might predict, the first discussions of the war machine in this Plateau  refer to the characteristics of the nomads who, among other things,  construct war machines.   The writing is typical of Deleuze and Guattari, with all sorts of offhand references to things like anthropological studies of the Bantu people of southern Africa, an  epic poem by Kleist, and articles on the development of technology by Serres, unfortunately still in French. The discussion is punctuated with various axioms, propositions and problems, but I didn’t find them very helpful –perhaps you will. Overall, it is an exhausting read and you will need to take it easy and stay tightly focused. For us, the topic here is the war machine rather than nomads and their fascinating practices. Forgive yourself if you can’t follow all the dazzling detours yet – you come back to them in time, as I did with Kleist. There is a more extensive set of notes on the whole Plateau on the website:

There is a much more readable book by DeLanda (1991) which uses some of the concepts in Deleuze and Guattari to explain war machines, mostly in a military context. There are some brief notes on the website More generally, the term war machine is also frequently used in Dialogues, (Deleuze and Parnet 1987) (notes here) in the context of resisting the state and capitalism, largely through the cultural politics of the 1960s. Incidentally, those political themes are well described overall in Chapter 4 of that book.

As usual, what we're going to do is to try to manage the labyrinth by pursuing some of the examples first and then get to the underlying principles. You might find it useful to have looked at the work on smooth space first, since many of the characteristics of smooth space can be transferred to the nomads who produce war machines. They are flexible and creative because their interests is in joining up points not following conventional paths, they challenge the forms of geographical and social organization introduced by the state and so on. So you might be led to think that nomads are necessary for war machines to develop – only in the last section are we told this is not always so, that artists can also create war machines although they have a more philosophical task to do so, constructing smooth spaces by investigating abstract possibilities in various systematic ways, using deleuzian terminology like the plane of consistency and the  machinic phylum (we stick with Latin with the plural in this case -- phyla) (which is discussed briefly below).

Let's start with some examples, and these are pretty variable. The game of chess is compared to the game of go for example (no good if you don’t play both, but there is quite a lot of detail). There is some anthropological stuff about warriors and their historical detachment from social order and the state. The German tribes who once defeated the Roman legions are admired, and so is Kleist's poem Pentheselia, which portrays the great warrior Achilles as a dangerously undisciplined, unpredictable and volatile person, not at all happy to accept the orders of the Greek Kings (just like Homer says – and like Brad Pitt plays him in the film Troy). In the poem, incidentally,  Penthesilea is Queen of the Amazons who meets Achilles on the battlefields around Troy. Instead of capturing a normal warrior and taking him home to breed new little Amazons, which is what was supposed to happen,  she falls in love with Achilles, and abandons the culture and strict social and military rules of the Amazons as a result.

Back to ATP. We get to some general characteristics of war machines in terms of 'secrecy, speed and affect' (392), and these appear to guide the discussion sporadically in what follows. Moving in smooth space is explicitly suggested early on as a characteristic as well.

Let's consider some other examples first. There is the difference between ‘royal’ science, which is state sponsored and institutionally established,  and nomadic science. Nomads here are those creative free thinkers in mathematics, science and engineering who were always a bit marginal to officially recognized science and engineering. They were outsiders, at first anyway. The obvious example (not actually mentioned in the text) would be the young Einstein working the Swiss Patent Office before doing his famous work on relativity. There have been creative military thinkers too, like Napoleon Bonaparte, a classic outsider, who developed the first people's army and forms of popular involvement in military campaigns, as well as thinking up some novel tactics according to DeLanda.

There are also heroic philosophers as private thinkers, not employed in state institutions. The obvious example here is Nietzsche, who famously argued that we should take a hammer to the official icons of philosophy. He wrote in a way that was quite unlike official philosophical work. His unorthodox forms included mythical characters, metaphors, homely aphorisms. and folkish songs. Nietzsche is also a good example to remind us that even the most nomadic private thinker can eventually be incorporated into a state apparatus. He became a Nazi hero, or just another philosopher on the syllabus of middling English universities, a model for others to follow.

We are told that early stonemasons (also classic itinerants) saw the task of building cathedrals as a kind of craft, using an informal kind of working geometry rather than a fully mathematical one imposed on the designs by later architects. I am reminded that my favourite novel, Moby Dick, also says whale hunters divided up whale corpses using their own geometrical forms -- one is the 'quorn'. We also find praise for early metal workers and metallurgists, who were often nomads or at least itinerants, and to learned to work metal as a form of art, noting the important qualitative changes in the material as it is worked, the properties proper to the metal as well as human intentions imposed from outside.

In particular, nomadic metal workers were alert to the possibilities in things called 'machinic phyla'.

These are particularly well explained in Delanda's book. We normally think of machines as actual devices to do work, a washing machine or a motorbike, but there is an abstract definition – an abstract machine is a form of productive organization of forces, sometimes expressed as an equation or formula. The term is sometimes applied to social or linguistic structures too. A phylum generally is a grouping of objects or in this case machines that have a similar basic structure. The term also implies some notion of a kind of evolutionary development (phylogenetic development) between machines with a similar structure, perhaps in the direction of developing more and more sophisticated possibilities. DeLanda gives the example of propulsive weapons that use the same basic notions of propulsive force and ways to constrain it in a cylinder to provide a linear direction. Once you have the basic idea (in the form of a diagram in deleuzian terms) you can pick up on any new inventions and move from blowpipes to cannons and eventually missiles. Steam engines are another byproduct. It's an important part of the development of human capacity to realize the existence of machinic phyla of all kinds and access them through abstract diagrams of all their dimensions. Again early metal workers were particularly adept at realizing the possibilities as they pursued various combinations of heat, chemical composition, force, working techniques and so on.

There is an implication for the use of numbers in various nomadic organizations which follows. There they do the useful task of counting so as to estimate forces and sizes, of warrior bands, say, but did not develop the abstract capacity of numbers to subdivide, classify, striate and therefore specialize, as in modern armies or states. Nomads probably knew how to do this, but possibly chose not to since that would bring about stifling top-down organizational forms. The original use of numbers in this way was crucial to the later developments however, so that nomads more or less invented the social uses of numbers.

Political examples

At the end of the plateau we get some political examples that I think have probably been quite influential from the beginning. The first mention of ‘war machine’ I came across was in Guattari's’ Psychoanalysis and Transversality, (Guattari 1972 -- notes here) where he is discussing the sort of organization socialist militants ought to develop. The trick was to organize effectively to take on capitalism, without getting too stratified and rigid (Like the then Stalinist French Communist Party) or too sectarian and defensive, which was the tendency for Trotskyite groups. Maoists were too keen on the uncritical cult of personality of Chairman Mao. All these options were around in France in the 1960s and Guattari debated with most of them and formed or joined all sorts of other groups too. He argued we had to open channels of proper ‘transversal’ communication with other groups as well as militants – students or normal workers. We had to listen as well as speak. We needed an effective but flexible and open war machine.

The other example was provided by the modern guerrilla forces that were proving to be militarily pretty successful in China, Cuba and of course Vietnam. Guerilla or people’s war had caused a great deal of ferment in theoretical circles too, since they seemed to offer a new way to smash capitalist states outside of bolshevik revolution or election campaigns. Guerrillas are obviously loosely organized, flexible in their choice of weapons and locations, and able to flow through territories rather than having to occupy particular specialized positions like ranks in an army.  We mentioned this a bit in the video on the rhizome. The tactics and theoretical implications for the French Communist Party of the successful guerrilla war in Cuba are well described in an influential book by R Debray if you are interested. Deleuze and Guattari warn us that guerrilla warfare is often combined in practice with more orthodox warfare, however, classically in the final stages of the campaign

M Harris section

The most sustained discussion of the political aspects of war machines is found in Dialogues, though. This was written before ATP and it rehearses some of the points met already. It is probably more readable It doesn't bang on about nomads so much. So we are told that the war machine originates in a different way from the State.  It was originally developed by nomadic people against sedentary people. It features a focus on problems not theorems. The State itself persists through the exercise of binary machines and overcodings of space and social life . But the war machine is run through with various kinds of becomings. These include ‘the becomings–imperceptible of the warrior’ (141).  The war machine follows lines of flight and deterritorialization. This is compatible with its strategy when it turns to military action The example is the nomad army of Genghis Khan. Incidentally the date which appears in the title of Plateau 12 is 1227. This is the date Genghis Khan died.

Dialogues is not advocating immediate military action, though. It is more optimistic about resisting states with war machines in cultural politics . States actually have a problem of integrating the war machine and  institutionalizing it. So there is always a residual tension between the two. Even ‘the most centralized state is not at all the master of its plans, it is also an experimenter’ (145-6 ). It must adapt to change. So there is room for local and opportunistic forms of resistance. The question for resisters doing oppositional politics is organizational, not ideological. That is, we should not wait until we develop a full political programme. Instead,can we think of an organization which does not mirror state apparatuses? Can we assess assemblages in terms of how close they are to the state apparatus?  Can we develop a suitably modern war machine which will avoid becoming fascist. And divert its own powers of destruction? Perhaps we could try out these thoughts on universities? In the radical 60s it all seemed more likely. I quote, ‘In a certain way it is very simple, this happens on its own and every day’ (145). There was no need to organize a revolutionary apparatus on the scale of the state. Those were happy optimistic days!

End of M Harris section

Back to ATP

We find more caution in the later work. As usual. actual examples in each case are likely to be mixed. There is a constant struggle between war machines and states for example. Royal science is always looking to build on the achievements of nomadic science, craftsmen are always likely to be incorporated into more regular structured occupations, nomad mathematics is always likely to be systematized, warriors and their fighting groups are always likely to be incorporated into state armies.

As usual then we need to think of some pure definitions, because after all we are philosophers. Maybe in the glorious 60s  it was less important to philosophize. We flirted with this a bit earlier with the notions of secrecy speed and affect, for example. These are not developed very systematically, especially the notion of secrecy, which implies being able to operate outside the state’s organizations and systems of surveillance, to be private.

Affect is a bit more interesting, taking the term to mean human reactions, emotions in the most general sense. It is obvious that actual wars release all sorts of powerful affects as state organizations break down, and people lose their normal sense of being a responsible citizen and normal human—they become 'desubjectified'. These affects can be so powerful as to produce creative and unusual effects, including various kinds of becoming. Becoming-animal is quite straightforward—warriors become not only brutal but cunning, resourceful and adaptable. Becoming-woman seems to be rather unlikely, but there are cases cited (I think in the Plateau on becoming, and in Dialogues too) where warriors disguised themselves as women, not only to hide but to adapt, and learn from the activity.

Speed refers to that rather strange special usage that crops up quite a lot in ATP and elsewhere. High or infinite speed really refers to a capacity to make connections instantly, and that happens best in smooth space. It is that capacity that explains qualitative differences and deviations from the normal. The state is constantly attempting to regulate these high speed connections, to slow things down, and this is one reason why the state always attempts to striate space and to impose other forms of regularity and generalization. High speed connections are associated with singularity, flow and deterritorialization. Of course, active organizations, including war machines, find variable speeds useful: perhaps the most common example here is the counterattack, where patient slow defence suddenly turns into rapid attack.

So we have seen general characteristics here which help us distinguish the pure war machine. It's the same sort of exercise that we saw trying to develop the pure smooth space. We end with an abstract or ideal war machine. You will note that we've not focused exclusively on military activity or even militant politics in some of the examples we cited like science and metalworking. The ideal war machine can also describe innovative practice in the arts, in painting, in politics and philosophy. It will be a set of activities that closely parallel those found in the invention of smooth space -- taking a plane cut through a multiplicity to explore it is how we described it there.

As usual, the plateau ends with a warning that like smooth space, war machines are very attractive to capitalist states because they are so innovative and flexible. In the video on smooth space we saw that the smooth unregulated dimensions of the sea proved to be ideal for the modern free- roaming nuclear submarine. Current notions of total war also show how a state can harness the flexibility and dangerous affects of war machines to develop a total war, a war without limits.


Debray, R (1967) Revolution in the Revolution?. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
DeLanda, M  (1991) War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, New York: Swerve Editions

Guattari, F.  (1972) Psychoanalysis and Transversality.  Texts and interviews 1955-1971.  Introduction by Deleuze.  Translated by Ames Hodges.  South Pasadena: Semiotext(e)

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