A Reader: A Thousand Plateaus

Holland, Eugene W. Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘a Thousand Plateaus’: A Reader’s Guide. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Print.

I read several sections of “A Thousand Plateaus” by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. French philosophy is a pretty hard row to go. So, to get a better understanding I read through this “reader”. It helps, but also gets dense and difficult. Meanwhile, I did grasp the basics of the idea of having a rhizome world view.

The following are several particularly interesting quotes:

Part1: A Thousand Plateaus in Context

But in Anti-Oedipus, territorialization is accompanied by processes of coding, de-coding and re-coding, which help guide the investment of energy. Thus the act of marrying may de-code a young man of his status of eligible bachelor, and re-code him as off-limits for the investment of others’ desires; advertising, in a similar way, guides consumer tastes and purchases by de-coding last year’s styles and re-coding this year’s as “in fashion.” Capitalist society is distinctive, according to Deleuze & Guattari, in that it is based on markets, and therefore de-codes—”strips of its Halo” as Marx and Engels had put it in The Communist Manifesto—everything that had intrinsic value and replaces it with strictly quantitative, monetary value. The process of commodification contributes to exploitation, to be sure, but it also frees desire from capture in Social codes, thereby releasing huge amounts of free-flowing energy that capital cannot always re-capture for the sake of private accumulation. (p. 7)

… In philosophy, privileging identity over difference, fixed Being over fluid becoming, can be likened to a form of neurosis, inasmuch as Being constrains repetition to operate with a minimum of difference, and subordinates what already is different or could become different to what is always the same. Creative repetition, by contrast, promotes difference over identity, and the greater the decree of difference in repetition, the identity, and the greater the degree of difference in repetition, the freer human behavior can become—with schizophrenia designating the absolute upper limit of freedom.
For example, learning to play a musical instrument involves a significant amount of bare repetition—such as practicing scales. Once a certain level of proficiency is reached, a piece of classical music can be played from a pre-composed score; this also involves a significant degree of bare repetition, since a composed piece is supposed to be performed more or less the same way every time, with only a small degree of “expressive freedom” allowed to the performer. Once another critical threshold of proficiency is reached, however, improvisation becomes possible, and here the ratio of difference to repetition increases exponentially, so that creative repetition replaces bare repetition. Jazz musicians will take a familiar tune, and de-code it by playing it a different way each time—sometimes to the point of making the once-familiar tune almost unrecognizable. So-called “free jazz” goes so far as to improvise without starting from a familiar tune in the first place—thereby coming that much closer to the outer limit of schizophrenia. In A Thousand Plateaus, the term “de-territorialization” tends to replace schizophrenia: jazz musicians de-territorialize a tune by improvising on or around it. What Deleuze & Guattari call relative de-territorialization entails improvising on a familiar tune’s chord sequence (or “chord chart”) in a specific key. To adapt the language of complexity theory, the musical key represents a “basin of attraction” specifying which notes and chords (such as the tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, the minor seventh and the tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, the minor seventh and minor third) serve as “attractors” around which the improvisation will take place. But it can also happen that jazz musicians will unexpectedly change keys, or indeed suddenly switch from one tune to a completely different one (with its own chord sequence)— that is to say, change basins of attraction—in the middle of an improvisation: these are instances of absolute de-territorialization. Free jazz, operating at the extreme without chord charts and even without respect to recognizable key signatures, is an instance of continuous absolute de-territorialization, a creative line of flight. The challenge of improvisation, in such circumstances, is to maximize the degrees of difference in repetition, to maximize the absolute de-territorialization of a song, while nevertheless maintaining its consistency as a piece of music. Indeed, maintaining or creating consistency without imposing unity, identity, or organization—without resorting to bare repetition of the same—might be said to constitute the holy grail of all of Deleuze & Guattari’s work, in ethics and politics as well as aesthetics. While they acknowledge the advantages of habit and the importance of institutions, both of which constrain the degree of difference in repetition, their ideal is to maximize difference and to experiment with variation, to leave the comfort-zone of home on the thread of a tune, as they put it, [311], in order to improvise with the world, as we will see. (p. 8-9)

Even more explicitly than Deleuze’s study of Proust’s literary machine, the collaborative study of Kafka will produce the rhizome as an image of thought: from the very first page, Kafka’s work is characterized as a “rhizome, or a burrow [terrier]” [K 3], just as A Thousand Plateaus will be characterized as a rhizome, from its very first plateau. In the world Kafka depicts, every room is connected to innumerable other rooms, by means of doors and passageways, some of them hidden or subterranean. Any room, it seems, can connect with any other, depending on circumstances. Particularly in the novels, the arrangement of space in Kafka is like a cross between a bureaucratic organizational chart showing lines of power or desire and a blueprint or roadmap showing the actual (fictional) locations of buildings and offices within them; more an organizational chart, though, the connecting lines can change at any time, for unknown reasons, as relations of power and desire themselves change. Where Proust’s patchwork was a temporal multiplicity, Kafka’s rhizome is more of a spatial multiplicity. A Thousand Plateaus, too, should be understood as a spatial multiplicity, with innumerable passageways connecting various concepts examples beneath the unavoidably linear arrangement of words forming sentences, sentences forming paragraphs, and so forth. (p. 11-12)

Part 2: Overview of Themes

… The fact that such a quilt does not have to take the shape of a rectangle or a square, but can become totally lopsided and develop in any direction or many directions, doesn’t mean that there can’t be colors or textures that repeat here and there, creating patterns: the book definitely has conceptual motifs or refrains flowing through it, resurfacing re-submerge and then reappear elsewhere. In this respect, the book could re-submerge and then reappear elsewhere. In this respect, the book could be said to resemble a musical score; and it is true that music occupies a special place in Deleuze & Guattari’s conceptual repertoire. But it is more than that: music expresses the highest coefficient of de-territorialization of any medium in the universe, while at the same time the dynamics of “music of the spheres” being perhaps the least of it. A musical score, “music of the spheres” being perhaps the least of it. A musical score, however, bears too great a resemblance to a piece of fabric to serve as an adequate image of thought for this book: like fabric, a musical score, too, is bounded on the top and bottom edges, so to speak, by the number of instruments in the orchestra, and it unfolds in only one direction (from left to right). So I prefer to think of the book along the lines of a chord chart, of the kind jazz musicians use to improvise by. This image has disadvantages of its own: a chord chart still implies a linear progression of chords saving as common scaffolding for the musicians’ contributions, and A Thousand Plateaus is emphatically not linear, as we shall see. Deleuze & Guattari indeed say that the plateaus of which the book is composed
may be read in any order whatsoever. Any single reading of the entire book, however—provided that the whole book does indeed get read, as is the intention here—will arguably produce something of a linear reading, in much the same way that improvising from a chord chart will on any single occasion produce one linear performance of it among many possible performances. (p. 15-16)

But then the question becomes: is this true only of our experience of the past?—or is it true of the past itself? In other words, how do you get from phenomenology (or how things appear) to ontology and how things actually are? To be sure, past events co-exist in memory—we can scan the past and access this event or jump to that event, without having to replay the entire succession of moments between them. But how do we get from this psychological experience/recollection of the past to the notion that past events themselves co-exist ontologically? (p. 18)

… This means not merely that each and every thing has a history—rather, each and every thing simply is its history: apparent being is always the temporary but actual culmination or expression of real becoming; it is the present actualization of antecedent conditions contained in the virtual past. In the terminology of A Thousand Plateaus, the process of actualization is called “stratification.” (p. 18-19)

… Determinate being does emerge occasionally from becoming, but it arises always from a broader context of non-linear indeterminacy. Therefore— and this is crucial—the determination of every actual being by the virtual past in its entirety remains contingent for Deleuze: it only has determinacy when read retroactively; it could always have happened otherwise. That is why a process like evolution can only be studied retroactively, and why repeating evolution one hundred times could produce up to one hundred different results. (p. 19)

On the basis of this understanding of the past as the virtual repository of multiple potentials and the present as one actualization of such potentials among many, the third synthesis of time, the future, appears as the unforeseeable selection, from among the inexhaustible set of virtual conditions, of one sub-set of conditions that will become relevant through subsequent actualization. Not only is the present only one actualization among many, but its relation to the past is not exhausted or determined in its actualization alone: its relation to the past will have been determined by future actualizations, each of which successively alters the relations between that present and its relevant pasts. This synthesis can be considered a pragmatics of the future because, to invoke a key term from Anti-Oedipus, desire is a force that scans the past from the perspective of the present in search of possible combinations to actualize. And philosophy, as I have said, is an explicit mode of such a pragmatics: it scans the virtual realm from within a problematic actual state of affairs in order to map its potential to become otherwise, in order to re-submerge inert islands of apparent being in the oceanic flux of becomings with a view to actualizing something else, something different, something better. In this way, a new, non-linear conception of time ends up suggesting a quite novel role for philosophy, compared with older, more conventional views of linear time. (p. 20-21)

A self-organizing chaosmos
ne key result of this difference is that for Deleuze & Guattari, the cosmos is self-organizing, whereas for Kant it had to obey laws. The idea that order could increase rather than decrease over time may seem to contradict the second law of thermodynamics – the law of entropy – but this law presupposes that the universe forms a closed system; it does not apply in an open system with positive net inputs of energy. Since Deleuze & Guattari view the cosmos precisely as an open system, its tendency toward self-organization taken as a given—and was in addition readily observable in the evolution of life on earth, an open system with very clear positive net energy gain, coming in this case from the sun. So where Kant replaced God with Man, Deleuze & Guattari replace Man with Life, and beyond Life, with a self-organizing “chaosmos” [cosmos + chaosj whose modes of organization emerge from matter immanently instead of being imposed from above as form or law. (p. 21)

… In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari divide the chaosmos into three major sectors that I will call “mega-strata”: the inorganic, the organic and the alloplastic. As a first approximation—but only an approximation—we can think of these mega-strata as corresponding to matter, Life, and culture respectively. (p. 22-23)

The alloplastic stratum
Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alloplastic_adaptation (assessed 8/31/2015)
“Human evolution: Alloplasticity has also been used to describe humanity’s cultural “evolution”. Man’s ‘evolution by culture…is through alloplastic experiment with objects outside his own body….Unlike autoplastic experiments, alloplastic ones are both replicable and reversible’. In particular, ‘advanced technological societies…are generally characterized by “alloplastic” relations with the environment, involving the manipulation of the environment itself.”

… “Art does not wait for humans to begin,” Deleuze & Guattari famously say somewhere in A Thousand Plateaus [320]. And as I have already suggested, many of what may appear to be distinctly human Solutions to the Intra-Species Social Organization Problem have approximate equivalents in other life forms. Many, many animals not just birds—mark and defend their territory; and in much the same^way, humans living in tribes and in nation states alike mark and defend their territory. Similarly, just as there are herd and pack Solutions to the ISSO Problem among some animals, there are sedentary and nomadic Solutions to the human ISSO Problem, which Deleuze & Guattari discuss in terms of the sedentary State-form and the nomadic war-machine. (p. 26-27)

But there is another distinctive feature of the way humans address the Problem of survival compared to the ways other animals (and plants) do: humans actively produce their means of life in ways that few other animals do, in a historical variety of what Marxists call modes of production. Deleuze & Guattari call the cultural mega-stratum the “alloplastic” stratum partly in order to highlight the fact that humans (along with just a few other species, to a lesser degree) actively shape their environment, rather than merely consuming what the environment has to offer way most species do). Yet Deleuze & Guattari pose the life in terms very different from the base-superstructure model of orthodox Marxism; they pose it in terms of virtual Problems and actual Solutions. (p. 27)

Given this understanding of modes of production as different ways human society self-organizes to address to the Problem of survival, Deleuze & Guattari go on to delineate (in Anti-Oedipus) three actual historical mechanisms of self-organization, which they call “coding” in the “savage” mode of production, “over-coding” in the “barbarian” mode of production, and “axiomatization” in the “civilized” or capitalist mode of production. Significantly, these Solutions all revolve around the management of debt; whereas Marx considered production to be primary, Deleuze 8c Guattari draw here on Nietzsche more than Marx, and instead consider debt to be the primary organizing element in any social formation. So how does society manage the Problems posed by economics? By organizing systems of debt relations that drive production and exchange: a patchwork of finite and temporary debts in the case savagery; an infinite and one-way debt owed to the despot, head priest or king in barbarism; an equally infinite debt owed to capital in capitalism. These Solutions may be false (illusory, or “ideological”), but they are nonetheless effective in organizing production and exchange relations to address the Problem of survival in a distinctly human way. (p. 28)

So the Problems posed in the fifteen plateaus of A Thousand Plateaus ultimately break down into five kinds:
• epistemological: how can thought operate in such a way that it thinks with the cosmos instead of about it, and is therefore able to accelerate the relative de-territorialization of the milieus it is sometimes fortunate to inhabit to the point of reaching the infinite speed of absolute de-territorialization, or pure immanence? The plateaus on the “Rhizome” and “The Smooth and the Striated” address this Problem most directly, along with the portions of the Nomadology plateau dealing with royal and nomad science and the differences between axiomatics and problematics. The point here is to develop an image of thought best suited to mapping being in terms of becoming, and the actual in terms of the virtual.
• ontological: how can the cosmos and Life within it exist in such a way that they are the result of constant change yet are also always susceptible to further change? How can we understand being in terms of becoming, in terms of difference rather than identity, as a function of the dynamics of open systems? And most importantly, what is the payoff of understanding the world this way? How does it improve our prospects for social change? It is the Geology of Morals plateau along with the Refrain plateau that address this Problem most directly and comprehensively—the first mostly for the inorganic stratum, and the second mostly for the alloplastic stratum.
• anthropological—a third kind of Problem could be called anthropological, but only in the structuralist (and anti-humanist) sense involving the Symbolic Order: how does the human Life-form occupy the alloplastic stratum Symbolically; how is human social self-organization accomplished through and reflected in signs—through language, money, and images? Here the plateaus on the Postulates of Linguistics, Regimes of Signs, Faciality and the Apparatus of Capture are the relevant ones.
• ethical: how can human individuals self-organize so as to maximize their chances for productive and enjoyable de-stratification with others? “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” is the plateau of most obvious relevance here; but “One or Several Wolves,” “Three Novellas,” and the Becomings plateau also address ethical Problems.
• political: how can the human life-form be understood to self-organize socially in a way that accounts for herd as well as pack behaviors, for repressive despotic tyranny as well as expansive economic imperialism, for the constraints of rigid stratification as well as flights of de-stratification? Along with the plateau on Nomadology, the Micropolitics and Segmentarity plateau addresses this Problem most directly, although many other plateaus do so in less obvious ways. (p. 30-31)

Part 3: Reading the Text

In other words, the question of philosophy is never “What is it?” (the question of being), but “In which direction is it going?” “How fast?” “Along with what else?” Ultimately, the core philosophical question is not “What is it?” but “What can become of it?” And what specific tendency or becoming a given philosophy detects in and extracts from the outside depends crucially on the image of ‘ thought by which that philosophy operates. Every philosophy has a specific orientation that distinguishes it from other philosophies, by selecting the Problem(s) it will address, constructing its manner of addressing them, and determining what kind(s) of Solution(s) to propose, if any. And that image of thought will select what tendency or tendencies its concepts extract from the outside under consideration. Of course, this presupposes a minimum threshold of correct understanding of states of affairs and of other disciplines on philosophy’s part: the outside tendency must in some sense really correlate or connect with the philosophical orientation—so that a double-becoming can take place between them. But tendency- selection nonetheless remains more of an art than a science—one have a nose for it, as Nietzsche might say. (p. 35)

In order to pursue double-becomings with the world, or to think with it, as I have said, a rhizome-book must be cartographic rather than photographic—and this is a fifth feature of the rhizome: mapping is distinct from—and preferable to—tracing. Tracing merely reproduces its object fixed in representation; mapping indicates its tendencies and potential for change. “What distinguishes the map from the tracing,” Deleuze & Guattari explain, “is that [the map] is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real” [12]. And they are expressly critical of genetic and structural models of tracing, which predominate in psychoanalysis and linguistics. What such models do is stabilize and neutralize the predetermined axes and coordinates inherent in the model, so that instead of reproducing the object in all its indeterminacy and mobility, the tracing simply reproduces the model itself. (This is a procedure Deleuze & Guattari target throughout the psychoanalytic literature, from Freud to Klein to Lacan.):
“That is why the tracing is so dangerous. It injects redundancies or rhizome are only the impasses, blockages, incipient taproots, or points of structuration. Take a look at psychoanalysis and of the unconscious, and the latter of language, with all the | betrayals that implies (it’s not surprising that psychoanalysis tied its fate to that of linguistics). [13] its fate to that of linguistics).” [13] (p. 40)

The Problem: The Problem: How can the Cosmos and Life within it exist in such a way that they are the result of change yet also be always susceptible to further change? How can we understand being in terms of becoming, in terms of difference rather than identity, as a function of the dynamics of open systems? Most importantly, what is the payoff of understanding the world this way? How does it improve our prospects for social change?
The Primary Sources: the Geology of Morals plateau and the Refrain plateau
As we saw in the previous chapter, Deleuze 8c Guattari understand the real world to encompass both virtual conditions of existence and actual existence, and they construe the realm of the virtual as an open-ended set of Problems to which actual existence is a set of temporary or meta-stable Solutions. Another way of putting this is to say that the Problems of the chaosmos express themselves in a set of diverse Solutions, without those contingent Solutions ever exhausting the potential of the chaosmos to actualize or express itself differently. Contingent Solutions are all that are given (in is the Problems that are primary, because it is they that give rise to and express themselves in the various Solutions in the first place. If, as I suggested in the preceding chapter, the fundamental question of Deleuze & Guattari’s philosophy is not the definitive “What is it?” but an open-ended “What can become of it?,” then there would seem to be no place for ontology. Indeed, the Rhizome plateau ends with praise for American and English literature’s ability to use the rhizomatic “logic of the AND [to] overthrow ontology” [25]. (p. 53-54)

Strata, stratification, de-stratification
… Hjelmslev renames signifier and signified “expression” and “content,” and crucially adds that each of these two elements is itself articulated or composed of both form and substance: the first articulation correlates form and substance of content; the second correlates form and substance of expression. Hjelmslev also adds a fifth term, which—because, unlike Saussure, he maintained a communicational framework for his linguistics—he called matter or “purport”: that is, the for his linguistics—he called matter or “purport’: That is the sense that the double-articulation of content and expression was intended to convey. In extending Hjelmslev’s quadripartite schema beyond linguistics to the chaosmos as whole, Deleuze 6c Guattari counterpart to his fifth term: double-articulation is the abstract machine that consolidates being in strata of all kinds by coding and territorializing the unformed and non-localized matter of the plane of consistency. Matter can thus be said to express or self-organize itself via double-articulation throughout the chaosmos. Indeed, one reason to call double-articulation an abstract machine is precisely to underscore how consistently it operates in a wide range of fields: not only linguistics, but also geology, chemistry, biology, and so forth. (p. 57)

This principle of parity among strata, substrata, parastrata and epistrata is extremely important, for among other reasons as a safeguard against transcendence. And this is particularly so in light of the distinction Deleuze &c Guattari make among the “three major types of strata” 164J which I am calling “mega-strata”: the inorganic, the organic and the alloplastic. These mega-strata are to be distinguished not in terms of their levels of complexity or degrees of organization, but rather in terms of the distinctive mode of double-articulation that characterizes each of them, and it is to these that I will turn shortly. (p. 61)

The coefficient of de-territorialization exponentially increases yet again on the alloplastic stratum: here, the spatial linearity of the genetic code is superseded by the temporal linearity of the linguistic code, and this form of expression has become even more independent of the contents it presupposes. Indeed, Deleuze & Guattari call this mode of double-articulation “translation,” in order to highlight not just “the ability of one language to ‘represent’ in some way the givens of another language, but beyond that… the ability of language [itself], with its own givens achieve a scientific conception, of the world [62]. At the same
time that the form of expression becomes linguistic, and hence is subject to modification from the outside (unlike the genetic code, until recently), the technological elaboration of forms of content facilitates the modification of the external world. The double-articulation of the third mega-stratum thus correlates technologies (as content) with symbols (as expression)—as we saw in the case of Foucault’s exemplary analysis of the social technology of incarceration and the discursive formation of delinquency. (p. 64)

Rhythm, milieu, territory
The territorialization threshold can be very difficult to discern; it can even pass between different populations of a single species of bird, as when the species contains both colored and uncolored members, and the colored ones have a territory while the uncolored ones are gregarious and do not: color serves no purpose here other than to mark territory [315]. In a similar vein, a given rhythmic function may be re-purposed when it is part of a territorial assemblage: aggressive impulses, for example, take on different or additional functions for a territorial animal, inasmuch as they can be directed against members of its own species, whereas with predatory animals they are functionally directed against their prey. (Of course, nothing says a species can’t be both territorial and predatory.) The essential thing is that specifically territorial aggression has become expressive, expressive of territory—and no longer has anything directly to do with the need for nourishment, for example; indeed it usually no longer even entails killing (unlike predatory aggression, which always does). (p. 68)

“Art does not wait for human beings to begin”
… Territorialization is a way of addressing the Intra-Species Social Organization Problem, for humans and other animal species alike: territory establishes a critical distance among members of the same species. Just as animal territories “ensure and regulate the coexistence of members of the same species by keeping them apart” [320], so do sales territories ensure and regulate the coexistence of members of the same company’s marketing department by keeping them apart. At the same time, Deleuze & Guattari suggest, territorialization “makes possible coexistence of a maximum number of species in the same milieu by specializing them” [320], just as territorial specialization enables salespeople to coexist with engineers, drill-press operators, and other specialists in the same company—and, on a larger scale, it enables a company specializing in one product or service to coexist with companies occupying what are tellingly called other “market niches.” “In animals as in human beings,” DeJeuze & Guattari conclude, “there are rules of critical distance tor competition: […] a territorialization of functions is the condition for their emergence as “occupations” or “trades.” Thus intraspecific or specialized aggressiveness is necessarily a territorialized aggressiveness; it does not explain the territory [but rather] derives from it. [And in fact, art is the] territorializing factor that is the necessary condition for the emergence of the work-function. [321] (p. 71-72)


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Scroll to Top