Understanding the work of Gilles Deleuze

Capitalism, Schizophrenia, and Transcendental Empiricism: Sensemaking for the 21st Century

a lee
Complexicated Assemblage
38 min readOct 12, 2020


Gilles Deleuze

Despite Michel Foucault’s declaration (of which Deleuze claimed was a joke) that the last century was to be a Deleuzian century, Deleuze’s work is still largely a mystery to the general public.

When I started to research on Deleuze in college during the early 2000s, there was only a handful of books on him. Using the interlibrary exchange, I was able to read them all. Since then, a quick glance at Questia currently shows around 2700 books on Deleuze. There is probably more, so I can no longer claim to have read them all.

At that time, the books I read on him often contained more than one chapter analyzing literature (fiction) using Deleuze’s concepts. A given book might only be half full of analysis about his work, with the other half using literature to expand on that analysis.

Today I might pick up one or two books about him. The analysis tends to be better quality but there still might be a few chapters of literary analysis. In my opinion, such analysis is often “filler” as the author wants to make a point about Deleuze but chooses an easier subject matter to make the point with.

Granted, Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read, although I do not feel that he is understood. What follows is a brief exposition of Deleuze in comparison to more traditional forms of philosophy, which I have not really seen with the reviews I have been exposed to.

After all, Deleuze is, first and foremost, a philosopher and as such, his work comments on the tradition he comes from.

Before we dive into the subject matter here is a shortlist of topics we will be covering:

  • The dark precursor
  • Transcendental Empiricism
  • Multiplicity
  • Desiring-machines
  • Societies of control
  • Schizoanalysis

The topics are in a loose order. What follows immediately will probably be the densest portion, as I will both (briefly) describe the philosophical tradition using mostly the work of Slavoj Žižek. After that, understanding Deleuze will be easier in the last section.

1 Transcendental Empiricism and Haecceities

Slavoj Žižek has been highly successful at propagating his work, in part because of his off-beat humor and his signature catch-phrases and behavior. At his core, however, Žižek is highly traditional with his philosophical structure.

Let’s start with an extreme, one sentence, rendition of Žižek’s philosophy:

For Žižek, any formation of a universal transcendence requires the object petit a.

Žižek borrows the concept of an object petit a from Jacques Lacan. While Lacan was the self-styled heir of Sigmund Freud, both Lacan and Žižek worked within the Western philosophical tradition. Traditionally transcendental philosophy is related to subjectivity, in that the transcendental is posited as the effect of mental processes central to consciousness. The process that relates to the rendition above is that the object petit a functions as a capstone to unify the transcendental.

We can use the structure of the Renaissance linear perspective to illustrate this idea.

Raphael’s School of Athens with the linear perspective outlined.

In Renaissance painting, the vanishing point acts as a projection opposite the idealized viewer, who is in the subject position. Neither the idealized viewer nor the vanishing point is depicted in the painting, as the vanishing point is beyond the surface of the painting, at an infinite distance away, just as the idealized subject is somewhere behind the actual viewer’s head. In this visual metaphor, the vanishing point acts as the object petit a, suturing the imaginary three-dimensional space captured on the actual two-dimensional plane of the painting.

In this structure, it’s significant that the positions of the subject and the vanishing point is suggested through the orthogonal lines but never depicted (as it is impossible, both are beyond the field of vision). It is in this sense that traditional Western philosophy oscillates between Being and nothingness / negation / lack / “sublime object” as the transcendental structure requires a reference to both positions in order to stabilize meaning.

Of the object petit a, Žižek writes in Less Than Nothing:

being and lack-of-being coincide, they are two sides of the same coin — the clearance of the horizon within which things fully “are” only emerges on the condition that something is excluded (“sacrificed”) from it, that something in it is “missing at its own place.” More precisely, what characterizes a symbolic universe is the minimal gap between its elements and places they occupy: the two dimensions do not directly coincide […] which is why, in the differential order of signifiers, absence as such can count as a positive feature. This brings us back to Lacan’s basic “ontological” hypothesis: in order for this gap between elements and their structural places to occur, something — some element — has to be radically (constitutively) excluded; Lacan’s name for this object which is always (by definition, structurally) missing at its own place, which coincides with its own lack, is, of course, the object petit a […]. The object petit a is that which should be excluded from the frame of reality, that whose exclusion constitutes and sustains the frame itself (668).

While Žižek has written thousands of pages of philosophy, the essential notion is that the object petit a is functional. Whatever object is in that position loses its content to suture the field of meaning. To illustrate this concept, here are two examples:

  1. In Vertigo, Žižek’s favorite Hitchcock movie, a former detective is hired to watch the wife of a friend who is acting strangely. The woman the detective is charged to observe is actually a look-alike who fakes suicide. The detective then discovers the body of the murdered wife after witnessing the faked suicide. In the second half of the movie, the detective accidentally runs into the woman who was pretending to be the wife. They start to date. The woman makes a mistake. She wears the same necklace that she wore when she was pretending to be the wife. The detective spots the necklace and then suddenly understands the woman he is dating was pretending to be the wife he was hired to watch. He confronts the woman and accidentally causes her death. The role of the necklace is an object petit a. Functionally it isn’t a necklace, it’s the thing that enables the detective to realize the position he is in; the necklace as object petit a makes everything coherent for the detective.
  2. In psychoanalysis, the object petit a is the thing that makes a personality coherent. Imagine that aliens kidnapped me and replaced me with a clone that had my brain patterns imprinted into it. That doppelganger then replaces me in my life, acting like me, looking like me, knowing what I know, and saying the things that I would say. Then one day someone very close to me, say a lover from the past, or my business partner meets this doppelganger and then feels that this doppelganger isn’t me somehow because something is missing. That something he is missing might be very specific, such a nervous habit that I have, or an attitude or a weird laugh that I possess. That specific thing that is missing would signify to this person that the doppelganger is a fake. That specific thing is functionally the object petit a.

Now you have a very brief summary of object petit a. Back to Deleuze.

Žižek accuses Deleuze of having such a concept, claiming the dark precursor is the same as the object petit a. Žižek uses this claim to jump to accusing Deleuze as being a secret Hegelian. Žižek is wrong if you take Deleuze literally, but first, let’s talk about what a dark precursor is.

One of the metaphors Deleuze uses for the dark precursor is lightning as an intensity.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze introduces the idea of a dark precursor, some quality that is the essence of a particular difference or a particular repetition of differences that is its own difference. That quality is an intensity that is unique to that difference, allowing one to recognize that difference. That difference is not like identity. Philosophically, identity is a metaphysical uniqueness that reinforces the entirety of the transcendental field through negation. Deleuze writes

In all cases, however, the foundation of sufficient reason employs the infinite only to lead the identical to exist in its very identity. […] Hegelian contradiction does not deny identity or non-contradiction: on the contrary, it consists in inscribing the double negation of non-contradiction within the existent in such a way that identity […] is sufficient to think the existent as such. Those formulae according to which ‘the object denies what it is not,’ or ‘distinguishes itself from everything that it is not,’ are logical monsters (the Whole of everything which is not the object) in service of identity (49).

This form of identity secures the entire field by unifying all phenomena as meaningful in terms of that identity (as x / not-x). This identifying unity is how the phallus works as a “Master-signifier,” that is, a stand-in for the subject. As Žižek notes, like the object petit a, the phallus operates as “the point of the subject’s symbolic identification, identification is ultimately always identification with a lack” (591). The position of the subject, its stand-in, the position of the object petit a, and its stand-in is always characterized as metaphysical, expressive but fundamentally absent.

The concept of identity as lack is opposite that of the dark precursor. Instead of being a metaphysical entity that is used to mark other phenomena, the dark precursor as immanence unifies a series into a difference unto itself. Deleuze writes

every system contains its dark precursor which ensures communication of peripheral series. […] There is no doubt that there is an identity belonging to the precursor, and a resemblance between the series which it causes to communicate. This ‘there is’, however, remains perfectly indeterminate. Are identity and resemblance here the preconditions of the functioning of this dark precursor, or are they, on the contrary, its effects? If the latter, might it necessarily project upon itself the illusion of a fictive identity, and upon the series which it relates the illusion of a retrospective resemblance? Identity and resemblance would then be no more than inevitable illusions — in other words, concepts of reflection which would account for inveretate habit of thinking difference on the basis of categories of representation. All that, however, would be possible only because the invisible precursor conceals itself and its functioning, and at the same time conceals the in-itself or true nature of difference (119).

Given the example above of the object petit a, it is clear the object petit a, like that of the subject, is an identity as through the position of the object petit a (or the subject) one understands how to organize other phenomena. In other words, the subject and the object petit a are identities, which mark everything as belonging to a transcendental field. In contrast, the dark precursor is only something that marks the immanence of unity.

Identity (in the Western tradition) and dark precursor are opposites, although there does appear to be some conceptual overlap. One could try to put the two concepts together and see that if the transcendental field was understood as a unity as seen from outside, the transcendental unity could be seen as a kind of immanence.

Fundamentally, however, this is incorrect, although there is a nice paralleling. Their difference is that the object petit a and subjective positions are characterized by lack. The Renaissance painting underscores this point best as neither the vanishing point nor the subjective position appears on the actual surface of the painting qua transcendental field. The dark precursor does appear as immanence, but as a positive quality that is wholly invisible from the outside. Essentially, object petit a and subjectivity are structures within phenomena that comment “externally” around them in the transcendental field. The dark precursor is an “internal matter”, something that does not extend beyond the thing it unifies.

Deleuze does acknowledge that the dark precursor could be understood as a kind of identity or a type, but, in the quote above, he also states this is an illusion, a consequence of thinking in terms of categories.

This is also why Deleuze rejects representation. Representations are fundamentally a kind of identity-typing that is imposed upon each unique phenomena, obscuring the unique potential inherent in each.

While I am using the word phenomena, which suggests a kind of Kantian or Husserlian framework, this is only to tie the two concepts together. Deleuze would not agree with the transcendence that appears within phenomenology — he would claim this is also an illusion.

This illusionary nature is also why he rejects the way philosophy in the western tradition tries to unify knowledge in terms of Being, Ontology, or the Being of Beings.

Of course, when one rejects seeing the world in terms of types, there cannot be One, only multiplicity.

1.1 Haecceities: Starting in the Middle

Philosopher Alain Badiou in Clamor of Being argues that Deleuze was a philosopher of the One, that the rhetoric Deleuze employs can be used to support a mathematical unity of countability. To tackle this deeply would hijack this article into Badiou’s philosophy, but this claim does need to be addressed to provide further contrast to Deleuze’s offers. Badiou’s project is to reproduce Ontology mathematically in the form of the Being of Beings. Deleuze has a different conception of the One. From the last essay Deleuze wrote, Immanence: A Life, Deleuze writes

The One is not the transcendent that might contain immanence, but the immanent contained within a transcendental field. One is always the index of a multiplicity: an event, a singularity, a life… Although it is possible to invoke a transcendent that falls outside the plane of immanence, or that attributes immanence to itself, all transcendence is constituted solely in the flow of immanent consciousness that belongs to this plane. Transcendence is always a product of immanence.

With this, we can see that for Deleuze even at the largest scale, the One appears, but the One is not, for Deleuze, a totality that is more real than its parts. For Deleuze, such totalization is how Western Philosophy became poisoned with representationalism.

In chapter three of Difference and Repetition, called The Image of Thought, Deleuze explains how the Western Philosophical tradition became trapped within representation, categories established in terms of identity. The metaphor Deleuze uses is that philosophy became trapped within an image of thought, so philosophy became about working on “Plato’s farm,” farming Platonic forms. Deleuze writes

The ‘I think’ is the most general principle of representation — in other words, the source of these elements and of the unity of all these faculties: I conceive, I judge, I imagine, I remember and I perceive — as though these were the four branches of the Cognito. On precisely these branches difference is crucified. They form quadripartite fetters under which only that which is identical, similar, analogous, or opposed and be considered different: difference becomes an object of representation always in relation to a conceived identity, a judged analogy, an imagined opposition, or a perceived similitude. […] For this reason, the world of representation is characterized by its inability to conceive of difference in itself […] (138).

Deleuze is not interested in celebrating past forms. It’s not that he would say such focus is necessarily wrong, but rather, he is more interested in unleashing the potential of the empirical multiplicity. As such, the majority of Deleuze’s concepts are qualitative, poetic, and non-representational. The One is possible with Deleuze, but Badiou’s treatment would be antithetical to Deleuze’s free-for-all aesthetics.

What then, is the nature of Deleuze’s exploration? Consider Deleuze’s notion of the virtual.

The virtual is not a matter of possibility but rather a way of denoting all configurations of what is actual. The configurations may or may not be actual. Using Henri Bergson’s idea of duration as a model (a kind of temporal being), Deleuze writes in Bergsonism:

In reality, duration divides up and constantly: That is why it is a multiplicity. But it does not divide up without changing in kind, it changes in kind in the process of diving up: This is why it is a nonnumerical multiplicity, where we can speak of “indivisible” at each stage of division. There is other without being several; number exists only potentially. In other words, the subjective or duration, is the virtual. To be more precise, it is the virtual insofar as it is actualized, in the course of being actualized, it is inseparable from the movement of its actualization. For actualization comes about through differentiation, through divergent lines, and creates so many differences in kind by virtue of its own movement (42 -43).

To use a mathematical analogy, if you consider the real number line as actual, the virtual would be the angle from which we can consider every scale and quantitative arrangement inherent in and through the number line. The virtual is a way of referring to all the ways that numbers can group.

As stated before, the dark precursor is a unitary difference. Differences overlap in varying degrees, often with various immanent differences being incompossible (that is, existing in different worlds), such different values of numbers can be considered a unit (like 1 household having 2 parents and 2.5 children). The virtual has not only all possible configurations but also all the configurations which are not possible.

This domain of the virtual is the domain of the subjective, but it is also the Plane of Immanence.

Deleuze speaks of this domain as a transcendental field. In his last essay, Immanence: A Life he dubs navigation of the Plane of Immanence as transcendental empiricism:

What is a transcendental field? It can be distinguished from experience in that it doesn’t refer to an object or belong to a subject (empirical representation). It appears therefore as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self. It may seem curious that the transcendental be defined by such immediate givens: we will speak of a transcendental empiricism in contrast to everything that makes up the world of the subject and the object.

This is why Deleuze approaches things “in the middle” through Duns Scotus’s concept of haecceities. While Scotus treats haecceities as a way of talking about the “thisness” of objects, Deleuze uses this concept in recognition that any conversation or consideration has a pragmatic context in which it is embedded, which also have their own “thisness”-es.

Thus, instead of representation, Deleuze approaches from the middle by recognizing experience as a matter of expression. Unique compositions of multiplicities always express new haecceities. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and his thinking/writing partner Felix Guattari write

A degree, an intensity, is an individual, a Haecceity that enters into composition with other degrees, other intensities to form another individual.

The compositional play of all these multiplicities and how they interrelate can be understood with examples from early modern mathematics.

Leibniz’s figure of the monad is, in some, an early example of dark precursors. Leibniz conceived of monads as a kind of metaphysical point connected with his concept of calculus. The proof of derivates in calculus relies on a limit. In order to answer the question “what is the slope of a tangent line to a curve” Newton and Leibniz both developed the same formulaic process pictured below.

From here.

Essentially the slope is derived from a curve by continuously calculating the slope of two points on the curve as one point approaches another. As the difference between the two points (∆x) approaches zero, a limit is reached. Eventually, the limit is at zero in the equation pictured below.

However, historically there was a conceptual disparity. At some point, h gets infinitely close to zero to be effectively zero, which is a violation of the rules of math, as one cannot divide by zero. While Leibniz and Newton’s methods both got the correct answer, for over two hundred years, mathematicians had difficulty accepting the formulas (modern conceptualization was later formalized by Karl Weierstrass, but that is a topic for another article).

To justify his findings, Leibniz developed the idea of monads, claiming that as the limit is reached, one isn’t dividing by zero insomuch as one divides by a monad (Newton had the idea of the fluxion). Monads are a strange concept. Leibniz conceived of monads as both a counterpoint to ontology and as disconnected from the world. From Monadology 7, Leibniz writes:

There is no way of explaining how a monad can be altered or changed internally by some other creature, since one cannot transpose anything in it, nor can one conceive of any internal motion that can be excited, directed, augmented, or diminished within it, as can be done in composites, where there can be change among the parts. The monads have no windows through which something can enter or leave. Accidents cannot be detached, nor can they go about outside of substances, as the sensible species of the Scholastics once did. Thus, neither substance nor accident can enter a monad from without.

The quality of being separateness yet part of the world is significant. Deleuze writes in The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque that a monad “is, the determination of a being-for the world instead of being-in the world” (26). For Leibniz, monads coexist in a universal choir singing as if alone, in perfect harmony as in a Baroque fugue, where each melody is separate and yet they interlink as a whole despite their separateness. The specific harmonies themselves lie outside the monad, just as the monad lies outside the harmonic relations. Deleuze explains the harmonies as a vinculum that

itself is a “reflecting wall,” and it is so because it comprises this form of the outside that depends on the dominant or constant; monads, then, are “emitters,” which the echo is a modification of the whole. In this way the vinculum takes up its variables in a massive effect and not in their individuality […]. Then, if the vinculum acquires monads en masse, it thus causes an inversion of appurtenance. […] Fixed or attached to an individual dominant [monad], the vinculum in fact determines an individual unity of the body that belongs to it: this body that I have is not only the body of a man, a horse, or of a dog, it is my own body. Further, there would be no specific unity if individual unity were not already presupposed in this first function of the vinculum. If so many material parts can at all times disperse in order to be replaced by others, it is not only because they can be specifically replaced, it is because the body to which they belong in passing remains individually one, a unified body, by virtue of the monad of which it does not cease being a part (112–113).

This is another way to explain the Deleuzian metaphor of a two-storied house. On the lower floor, we have monads, which we can consider as a mass of individual clutter. On the upper floor, we have an airy echo where there is no stuff, only a web of foam. Likewise in math, we can understand the curve of a number line as infinitely many points or we can understand it as a smooth relation independent of the points. The two floors are interlocked yet separate. They need not even acknowledge one another and yet are unified. The houses themselves, like the stories, are unified through a monad that is also the unified body.

As an example, the Banach-Tarski Paradox pictured below.

“Can a ball be decomposed into a finite number of point sets and reassembled into two balls identical to the original?”

This conception of these two orders only appears paradoxical because mathematicians might think of the relations on the one hand, as independent of their constituent parts, and yet on the other hand as necessitating parts. If the ball only “exists” at the level of the relation, then two new balls, arranged in the same overall relation should be identical to the original. If the ball exists at the level of the parts, then the two new balls would only have half the parts, and thus not be identical to/resembling the original. How many point sets are needed to support the relation?

We see in this paradox the tension created when we frame understanding in terms of identity and representation. If the relation is an identity than any other representation of that same relation must be identical, regardless of the parts (which are, also their own sets of relations). If we reject identity, then each ball may resemble one another, but they are still their own unique expression.

Badiou saw in Deleuze a philosopher who was able to think mathematically. Their aesthetics, however, are different. The concept of identity, celebrated by Badiou as a kind of mathematical One misses, for Deleuze, the deeper potential that different scales will have different logics involved. By thinking in terms of identity, Badiou eradicates this potential, judging variances in terms of being inferior.

Let’s consider a non-philosophy example. Consider modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky’s second book on art aesthetics, Point and Line to Plane. Kandinsky describes a minimal geometry to frame how tension is created in visual arts, in particular, painting. What is significant with this framing is that Kandinsky considers all points, lines, and planes to be the same, as all points are the same point, and so on. Yet, when we look at his point paintings, like Composition VIII, below we can see that the lines, points, and the planes implicated in his painting are not the same, as, in the Deleuzian sense, each enters into new harmonies with other parts.

Kandinsky has made the same mistake as Badiou. He considers the typology of his language (points, lines, and planes) to be identities. He stops short of considering how both each expressive unit (point, line, or plane) is both a composition of their unique qualities while also entering into independent relational expressions with their local and total context.

In that sense then, the Badiou’s One can only be totalizing if one considers it in a transcendental framing, where there is a privileged point of view that sees all the members of a set be of the same set. There are potential expressions in mathematics that can also be of use here, but I think we can wrap up our consideration of the transcendental with a Deleuzian commentary.

Earlier in this article, we looked at an Italian Renaissance painting. Let’s consider a Northern Renaissance painting, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

From here.

This is a fairly typical Renaissance painting, one that works pretty much every surface of this painting (except the skin of hands and face) with texture. What makes this painting unique is the distorted skull included across the bottom, one which is only viewable from a high right or low left side. This skull challenges the Renaissance perspective, one that privileges a direct view treating the painting as a window. This painting, however, has more than one view, one which is the standard Renaissance perspective, and another which is not.

From left to right, the painting from a traditional perspective, painting from the skull’s perspective, and then the skull itself. From here.

This example completes the philosophical tradition in relation to Deleuze. At this point, it may seem fairly artistic or academic (depending on where you are coming from) to consider Deleuze in this way.

Some challenges remain. How can we make meaning if everything is meant to be individualized (considering them as monads, difference, haecceities, or even dark precursors — depending on the context)? From the extreme opposites of the two floors, how can we understand what is true, or what matters? Is it possible to move away from representationalism?

The next section discusses the consequence of rejecting the transcendental frame and building understanding from a pragmatic context, and why it is necessary today.

2 Schizoanalysis and The People to Come

We’ve already considered Deleuze’s thoughts on life. His thoughts on literature and philosophy also are about the hidden potentialities within thought. But what about the hidden potentialities in philosophy?

In a letter to Michel Cressole, Deleuze wrote

But I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed.

This kind of buggery becomes more obvious after surveying the books Deleuze wrote about various authors. He read their entire output and then extracted from their words, the inner melodies that drove their expression. Such close readings require a unique form of love and care as Deleuze sought not to outright lie about the author while also leaving the reader with something new.

Deleuze started with this internal view, of finding authorial haecceities. This exploration changed when Deleuze met and began collaborating with Felix Guattari, a post-Lacanian psychoanalyst.

Felix Guattari

Before Guattari, Deleuze wrote in a highly analytical manner. Afterward, Deleuze realized that it was not enough to write about the multiplicity and flow inherent within thought. In Dialogues, written with Claire Parnet, Deleuze pontificates on how Guattari effects his writing

In my earlier books, I tried to describe a certain exercise of thought; but describing it was not yet exercising thought in that way. (Similarly, proclaiming ‘Long live the multiple’ is not yet doing it, one must do the multiple. And neither is it enough to say, ‘Down with genres’; one must effectively write in such a way that there are no more genres’, etc.) With Felix, all that became possible, even if we failed. We stopped being ‘author’. And these ‘between-the-twos’ referred back to other people, who were different on one side from on the other. The desert expanded, but in doing so became more populous. This had nothing to do with a school, with processes of recognition, but much to do with encounters. And all these stories of becomings, of nuptials against nature, of a-parallel evolution, of bilingualism, of theft of thoughts, were what I had with Felix (16–17).

What was to emerge was no longer just philosophy, but it was also highly philosophical. Deleuze left speaking about the tradition and instead began to ground the variance available within thought on the pragmatic situation of the here and now. The representationalism of philosophy locked thought in past forms, by making the present a bad reflection of past salience criteria instead of enabling one to find new salience criteria. At its worst philosophy as traditionally conceived has nothing to say about the present. Philosophy, at its most academic, is written for the past, the people who have gone. By unleashing what was current, the writings of Deleuze and Guattari talk to the future, the people to come. In their last collaborative book What is Philosophy they write:

Heidegger lost his way along the paths of the reterritorialization because they are paths without directive signs or barriers. Perhaps this strict professor was madder than he seemed. He got the wrong people, earth, and blood. For the race summoned forth by art or philosophy is not the one that claims to be pre but rather an oppressed, bastard, lower, anarchical, nomadic, and irremediably minor race — the very ones that Kant excluded from the paths of the new Critique. Artaud said: to write for the illiterate — to speak for the aphasic, to think for the acephalous. But what does “for” mean? It is not “for their benefit,” or yet “in their place.” It is “before.” It is a question of becoming. The thinker is not acephalic, aphasic, or illiterate, but becomes so. He becomes Indian, and never stops becoming so — perhaps “so that” the Indian who is himself Indian becomes something else and tears himself away from his own agony. We think and write for animals themselves. We become animal so that the animal also becomes something else. The agony of the rat or the slaughter of the calf remains present in the thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other. This is the constitutive relationship of philosophy and nonphilosophy. Becoming is always double, and it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth. Even such a well-respected philosopher as Bishop Berkeley never stops saying, “We Irish others, the mob.” The people is internal to the thinker because it is a “becoming-people,” just as the thinker is internal to the people as no less unlimited becoming. The artist or the philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can only summon it with all his strength. A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common — their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present (109–110).

This view relates to the direct trajectories of the present. When speaking of the present in terms of the multiple intensities occurring in the present, the future becomes omnipresent in consideration.

This multivalent framing unleashes consideration from what has happened to what is happening. Representational categories no longer constrain consideration. Our smiling is no longer frozen for the camera, for history. Instead, actions blur into becoming as we look at contextual expressions, where things are going, what they are doing — instead of the pre-figured ideas, given to us in reference to some authoritarian truth, some status quo.

The general authoritarian truth of representation generates knowledge structures that are arboreal in nature. That is, there is a central organizing “trunk” of knowledge from which there arise branches, which are themselves smaller trucks. The central trunk is the identity in form, a central episteme that forces one to consider all phenomena fitting that representation in this category-subcategory manner. To combat arborescence, Deleuze and Guattari promise rhizomes, which “flip” the tree upside-down. Instead of focusing on centralized trunks, we look at the subterranean connections which are unique and follow no specific pattern.

This view of rhizome/arborescence is why Deleuze has been included with Foucault as philosophers who speak of “societies of control”. While Foucault discusses power and epistemes as the effects of large institutions and their totalitarian perspectives (such as the panopticon); Deleuze (and Guattari) went in a different direction, noticing how epistemes as code were encoded through what they called desiring-machines.

We might think of desire in terms of sex but desire here refers to a philosophical context. Kant conceived of desire as a force that we have no agency over. Desire is the background of Kantian philosophy as desire forms/structures our experience and awareness.

In the same way, desiring-machines form the larger structures that create our lifeworld. It is important to understand that Deleuze and Guattari are not talking metaphorically. They define a machine in terms of its internal flow — which, for human organization, operates language, money, information, and other forms of social exchange.

Corporations are a type of desiring-machine. General Motors might make cars but they also create automotive design, jobs, all the while commenting (and being commented on) regarding the nature of being American (with their trucks, advertisements, sponsorships, and other forms of participation).

Desiring-machines operate on the surplus energy that is available when humans refocus their awareness and behavior. Desiring machines will re-align this energy as behavior that services the desiring-machines’ internal indexes often re-coding the effects of other desiring-machines.

Political parties are desiring-machines, but those parties themselves are part of larger assemblages of desiring-machines and so on, so that in politics today, the Republican and Democratic parties circle each other, each with their own territory of coded language that partisan communication all the while stabilizing each party. Each party promises their own ideology as a unique territory with ontologically real consistency so that their territories are incompossible with one another. Members can’t make sense of each other’s points of view and concerns. Likewise, the territory of politics is also constantly under threat, as other abstract assemblages (perhaps like QAnon or Russia), seek to re-territorialize the very internal coding that makes a particular political party operate.

Other desiring-machines include the industry of marriage, the institution of science and scientism, sub-cultures, sports, sports teams, and all kinds of viral and memetic behavior. Everything is up for grabs, either created for or made by desiring-machines seeking to colonize new frontiers.

You can begin to see how Deleuze’s consideration of haecceities, of starting in the middle, is useful. There is no position that is not somehow already embedded in a context that is in some way also connected through rhizomatic tendrils to some other remote context internal to a completely different abstract machine. Haecceity is why Deleuze and Guattari present their language in the way to do. Each concept (rhizome, abstract assemblage, machinic index, territory, plateau) is in some sense incomplete, as the terms only refer to one kind of relation. Together, the terms overlap, although not all abstract machines embody territories in the same way.

Rather than introducing the concepts in an analytic manner, as I am seeking to do here, Deleuze and Guattari develop their concepts as they use them so that one gets a sense of the potentiality of what else could be said instead of looking at these concepts as metaphysical categories that are somehow unyielding, unconditional and representative of universal truth. Rather the surface effects are the truth, expressed by desiring-machines as they code and re-code through, on, above, and below us.

The radical development that happens within how their work is navigated, through various figures like the nomadic war machine or the striated territory of the state apparatus highlights the very pragmatic considerations they have in deploying their language the way they do. Any desiring-machine worth its salt seeks to territorialize all the world in its image, to perpetuate its own productions. Yet at the same time a given desiring-machine, like say, a religious church, is merely the expression of all the various intensities that arise through the contextual form it produces and is produced by. That church could shame its members into joining it. That church could provide an indexical code, such as purity, that leads people to both self-organize a hierarchy and to regulate their socialization so that more church context is formed (small groups, church camp, weekend family outings). Whatever the effect, the church as desiring-machine redirects surplus human energy into further colonization by the church, perhaps forcefully converting or birthing more members.

The Holy Roman Empire changing throughout time, as context and religious dogma changes.

The release of language from representationalism leads directly to pragmatism, where the language is no longer a representation of a message but a performance for pragmatic (here-and-now situational) concerns.

Deleuze and Guattari’s first collaboration, Anti-Oedipus can provide more elaboration. Despite the highly abstract manner in which they wrote, this book is essentially not a post-structuralist text, as much as it is structuralist, looking to build an abstract structure from which to explain everything all the while being a particular philosophical view, that of the late 60s and early 70s. There are 3 main theses.

  • The internal struggle of every society is to control the “surplus” energy (capital/linguistic direction). Oedipus/psychoanalysis is one form that has worked to do so, to mold individuals to fit a superstructure of capitalist consumer/production. In that sense, Anti-Oedipus, as much as being a structuralist text, is also a rebellion against structuralism.
  • Capitalism works as a new transcendental territory to over code individual desires in service of the ruling economy. In this way, Oedipus/psychoanalysis works to fit individuals into capitalism, by obscuring their unique desires and personalities so that they can be more directly molded by capitalist interests.
  • The way to analyze/uncover this deep impulse is to adopt schizoanalysis, to follow the flow of that over coding as it works through social desiring-machines. This will reveal the core codes that form the overarching capitalist regime in which psychoanalysis has worked to keep buried.

This last point is where I will end this section, as schizoanalysis is a direct consequence of the critique of transcendental philosophy.

From here.

2.1 Immanent Flows

Schizoanalysis is often understood by people in a categorical manner; as representing some aspect of schizophrenia, or as seeking to do some kind of analysis for schizophrenia. This misses the point of Deleuze and Guattari’s wordplay.

In Anti-Oedipus they critique psychoanalysis as creating an arborescent image of mental health, one that is centralized on the empty identity of the “phallus”. Recall the Renaissance painting’s use of the subject and vanishing point as an analogy for the transcendental field? Phallus as “Master-signifier” works in the position of the subject as a reference point to create absolute meaning. In the passage below, Deleuze and Guattari note how Lacan utilizes the structure of transcendental philosophy in order to universalize the Oedipal code through the phallus as a “Master-signifier”.

There we have a curious paralogism implying a transcendent use of the synthesis of the unconscious: we pass from detachable partial objects to the detached complete object, from the global persons derive by an assigning of lack. For example, in the capitalist code and its trinitary expression, money as detachable chain is converted into capital as detached object, which exists only in the fetishist view of stocks and lacks.

The same is true of the Oedipal code: the libido as energy of selection and detachment is converted into the phallus as detached object, the latter existing only in the transcendental form of stock and lack (something common and absent that is just as lacking in men as in women). It is this conversion that makes the whole of sexuality shift into the Oedipal framework: this projection of all the breaks-flows onto the same mythical locale, and all the nonsignifying signs into the same major signifier. “The effective triangulation makes it possible to assign sexuality to one of the sexes. The partial objects have lost nothing of their virulence and efficacy. Yet the reference to the penis gives its full meaning to castration. Through it, all the external experiences linked to deprivation, to frustration, to the lack of partial objects take on meaning after the fact. All previous history is recast in a new version in the light of castration” (73).

Psychoanalysis is arborescent in its coding, as all meaning passes through the phallus as “Master-signifier”. This empty term is then used to break the unique internal flows of people and their (un)conscious desires so that they can be recast through the psychoanalytic process into a consistency more easily interfaceable for other abstract machines (ones in the capitalist domain).

A little further along, Deleuze and Guattari unleash their critique of psychoanalysis in the next passage as an illegitimate metaphysics:

We deny that these are productions of the unconscious. What is more, castration and oedipalization beget a basic illusion that makes us believe that real desiring-production is answerable to higher formations that integrate it, subject it to transcendent laws, and make it serve a higher social and cultural production; there then appears a kind of “unsticking” of the social field with regard to the production of desire, in whose name all resignations are justified in advance. Psychoanalysis, at the most concrete level of therapy, reinforces this apparent movement with its combined forces. Psychoanalysis itself ensures this conversion of the unconscious. In what it calls the pre-oedipal, it see a stage that must be surmounted in the direction of an evolutive integration […] or organized in the direction of structural integration. […] In what [Kant] termed the critical revolution, [he] intended to discover criteria immanent to understanding so as to distinguish the legitimate and the illegitimate uses of synthesis of consciousness. In the name of transcendental philosophy (immanent criteria), he therefore denounced the transcendent use of synthesis such as appeared in metaphysics. In like fashion we are compelled to say that psychoanalysis has its metaphysics — its name is Oedipus. And that a revolution — this time materialist — can proceed only by way of a critique of Oedipus, by denouncing the illegitimate use of the synthesis of the unconscious as found in Oedipal psychoanalysis, so as to rediscover a transcendental unconscious defined by the immanence of its criteria, and a corresponding practice that we shall call schizoanalysis (74–75).

This passage is pretty thick. Essentially they state that psychoanalysis utilizes a transcendental argument in order to claim that jurisdiction over people’s unconscious processes. Through this rejection of this singular form as universal, the door opens to uncover the desiring-machines haunting our lifeworld. In abstract, this is also a rejection of the structuralist mode, in the name of all the contexts robbed of their uniqueness by universal structures. From there, Deleuze and Guattari begin to trace a materialist revolution, one that has many natures, embedded in capitalism. The practice of tracing material flows as they create territories and manners of knowing, both transcendental and pragmatic are what schizoanalysis is.

From Kaoru Yamaguchi’s Money and Macroeconomic Dynamics, which is a systems theory approach to money and macroeconomics. Yamaguchi’s approach is a unique understanding of economics as a cyclic flow.

The term for schizoanalysis is through the schiz-flow, through the rhizomatic connections that appear subterranean when one is anchored on territories coded in terms of identity and representation that reach to the sky. As psychoanalysis creates subjectivity structures that are arboreal in nature, Deleuze and Guattari use the image of schizophrenia, to oppose the arboreal. They describe the image of schizophrenia as

the absolute limit that causes the flows to travel in a free state on a desocialized body without organs. Hence one can say that schizophrenia is the exterior limit of capitalism itself or the conclusion of its deepest tendency (246).

The desiring-machines, if arranged in a traditional organization, one that is centralized in an arboreal institution, will limit the schiz-flows through capital/the social body. Language will be officiated, controlled, and regulated through the illusion of representationalism (which enables the determination of which expressions are legitimate). Likewise, capitalist transactions will be officiated, captured, and legitimatized through the axioms of taxation and regulation. Nonetheless, in reality, there are a variety of rhizomatic connections occurring everywhere, as people buy and sell according to their individual needs. New connections are forged, just as novel uses of language form. Slang will arise just as the black market always exists, even if the black market is one schoolchild selling an individually wrapped piece of candy that is “not packaged for individual sale” to another schoolchild for a dollar.

[I]t is impossible in such a regime [of free flow, like capitalism] to distinguish, even in two phases, between decoding and the axiomatization that comes to replace vanished codes. The flows are decoded and axiomatized by capitalism at the same time. Hence schizophrenia is not the identity of capitalism but on the contrary its difference, its divergence, and its death. Monetary flows are perfectly schizophrenic realities, but they exist and function only within the immanent axiomatic that exorcises and repels this reality. The language of a banker, a general, an industrialist, a middle or high-level manager, or a government minister is perfectly schizophrenic language, but that functions only statistically within the flattening axiomatic of connections that puts it in service of the capitalist order. […] Then what becomes of the “truly” schizophrenic language and the “truly” decoded and unbound flows that manage to break through the wall or absolute limit? The capitalist axiomatic is so rich that one more axiom is added (246).

In this way capitalism is more than just another desiring-machine, it is a machinic assemblage that is able to create more desiring-machines, hence there arises a deep connection between capitalism and schizophrenia, which is why the two-volume series of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus has the subtitle capitalism and schizophrenia.

These desiring-machines, released into the world operate on their own. They seek to overcode each other, to take the resources from each other and other machines or they mutate one another in the process by overcoding parts of other machines, sometimes creating new machines that will splinter off.

With neoliberalism we have reached the point where many of these desiring-machines are bigger than the State, more powerful than entire countries, able to bend countries to their will, although it’s unclear what is in the driver’s seat, or if there is a driver’s seat. I will close this section off with some thoughts from Deleuze as he moves towards a consideration of the future.

The differences do not pass between the individual and the collective, for we see no duality between these two types of problem: there is no subject of enunciation, but every proper name is collective, every assemblage is already collective. Neither do the differences pass between the natural and the artificial since they both belong to the machine and the interchange there. Nor between the spontaneous and the organized, since the only question is one of modes of organization. Nor between the segmentary and the centralized since the centralized is itself an organization which rests on a form of rigid segmentarity. The effective differences pass between the lines, even though they are all immanent to one another, all entangled in one another. This is why the question of schizoanalysis or pragmatics, micro-politics itself, never consists in interpreting, but merely in asking what are your lines, individual, and what are the dangers on each. […] In a certain way it is very simple, this happens on its own and every day. The mistake would be to say: there is a globalizing State, the master of its plans and extending its traps; and then, a force of resistance which would adopt the form of the State even if it entails betraying us, or else which will fall into local spontaneous or partial struggles, even if it entails being suffocated and beaten every time. The most centralized State is not at all the master of its plans, it is also an experimenter, it performs injections, it is unable to look into the future: the economists of the State declare themselves incapable of predicting the increase in a monetary mass. American politics is forced to proceed by empirical injections, not at all by apodictic programmes. What a sad and sham game is played by those who speak of a supremely cunning Master, in order to present the image of themselves as rigorous, incorruptible and ‘pessimistic’ thinkers. It is along the different lines of complex assemblages that the powers that be carry out their experiments, but along them also arise experimenters of another kind, thwarting predictions, tracing out active lines of flight, looking for the combination of these lines, increasing their speed or slowing it down, creating the plane of consistence fragment by fragment, with a war-machine which would weigh the dangers that it encountered at each step.

What characterizes our situation is both beyond and on this side of the State. Beyond national States, the development of a world market, the power of multinational companies, the outline of a ‘planetary’ organization, the extension of capitalism to the whole social body, clearly forms a great abstract machine which overcodes the monetary, industrial and technological fluxes. At the same time, the means of exploitation, control and surveillance become more and more subtle and diffuse, in a certain sense molecular (the workers of the rich countries necessarily take part in the plundering of the Third World, men take part in the over-exploitation of women, etc.). But the abstract machine, with its dysfunctions, is no more infallible than the national States which are not able to regulate them on their own territory and from one territory to another. The State no longer has at its disposal the political, institutional or even financial means which would enable it to fend off the social repercussions of the machine; it is doubtful whether it can eternally rely on the old forms like the police, armies, bureaucracies even trade union bureaucracies, collective installations, schools, families. Enormous landslides are happening on this side of the state […]. All this constitutes what can be called a right to desire. It is not surprising that all kinds of minority questions — linguistic, ethnic, regional, about sex, or youth — resurge not only as archaisms, but in up-to-date revolutionary forms which call once more into question the entirely immanent manner both the global economy of the machine and the assemblages of national States. […] For, once again, the world and its States are no more masters of their plane than revolutionaries are condemned to the deformation of theirs. Everything is played out in uncertain games, ‘front to front, back to back, back to front…’. The question of the future of the revolution is a bad question because, in so far as it is asked, there are so many people who do not become revolutionaries, and this is exactly why it is done, to impede the question of revolutionary-becoming of people, at every level, in every place (143–147).

3 Closing Aesthetics Statement

There is, of course, a great deal more. The intention of this article is to serve as an introduction to contextually open navigation developed by Deleuze.

The image used at the start of A Thousand Plateaus.

Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read. His concepts are unique and individualized. He does not offer rigid categories that many builders of systems of thought would offer. He does not ascribe the qualities of identity and universality as necessary to thinking. He asks that we move beyond it, to a more fluid recognition of the shifting pragmatic needs of thought and communication.

To a degree, I have written this article in a highly analytical manner, even as I incorporate and explain some of the concepts he and Felix Guattari offer. Whether or not Deleuze would agree with this kind of “plain speaking” approach or not is open to debate. I wrote this article to offer education on the approach he took. Ultimately that choice is largely a pragmatic one. Interestingly enough, when I employ the language Deleuze and Guattari employed, the prose shifted slightly, perhaps bringing to my mind a deeper understanding of the nature of how language, culture, and thought all interconnect as a manner of how we embody those domains.

Technology and our lifeworld are changing with accelerated fluidity. We seem to be approaching additional shifts in our shared paradigm, so subtle that for most of us, we don’t yet understand how to embody the paradigm we are currently in. This is why contextual lag happens. This is why the buggery is important; we often work with the language we have, even as the pragmatic concerns we have defamiliarize and distort that context. Can we find a path through? Can we express ourselves with only axiomatic language, or is it as Deleuze and Guattari have said, that axiomatic language will always be mixed with rhizomatic language, and that enforcement of the axiomatic will always be but an illusion, seeable only from an artificially limited point of view?

Perhaps some of these approaches will be useful in helping you understand the larger contexts we all share. This article is just another step in your journey, as tomorrow you will end up elsewhere. At some foundational level, the pragmatic concerns of yourself and those around you are where we always already are even as those concerns shift and blend.

Deleuze offers a toolset to uncover those concerns in their haecceities. Whether or not you find these concepts to be of use is up to how you use them and how you decide you want to create your life.

A creator is someone who creates their own impossibilities, and thereby creates possibilities.

Gilles Deleuze, from “Essays Critical and Clinical”

If you like this article, leave a comment, clap or better yet, share. What would your friends think? Let’s find out together by sharing.

First published here.