November 14, 2010

A few plateaus out of thousands

A recent short response to reading a few chapters from "A Thousand Plateaus" by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari:

In the “Compiler’s Note” of the introduction to his book “The Atlas,” William T. Vollmann wrote: “What you hold, then, is but a piecemeal atlas of the world I think in. I hope you like it, in spite of its omission of a continent or two. And if you were to keep it by you as a pillow-book, reading through it in no particular order, skipping the tales you find tedious, dozing amidst somniferous paragraphs, I’d feel as that at last I’d done as much good in the world as the manufacturers of our drowsiest codeine syrups” (1997 xv).

In the translator’s forward to Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus”, Brian Massumi lucidly encourages readers to approach the book as a challenge: “to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist” (xv). Massumi tells readers to play the book like a record—replay the bits and pieces we like, and skip the rest. In the end, Massumi argues, the point is not whether or not the book is an absolute account of truth, but whether or not it works. The more important question is whether or not the book has enabled or sparked—in one way or another—some new ideas, thoughts, and sensations. If nothing happens, so be it: “it’s not your tune,” says Massumi. Considering the fact that only a few straggling astrologers, archaeologists, and other scattered individuals were still willing to submit themselves to Professor Challenger’s erudite proclamations by page 57, it seems clear that Deleuze and Guattari A) have a pretty decent sense of humor, and B) realize that this book isn’t going to speak to everyone. Not everyone is going to buy this record.

On to 1000 Plateaus (just a few points before I run out of words): While the first two chapters were quite clear (well, relatively clear), incredibly humorous at times, and definitely thought provoking, chapters three and six were, well, metaphorically dense, to put it nicely. Chapter three’s title gives a little hint of the level of allegory that is about to take place: it’s a play on Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” of course. Regardless, here are some of the points that I did get out of the readings…

The discussion of the rhizome starts on page six. I think it’s fair to say that one of the main points of this opening chapter to is challenge and move away from totalizing narratives, binaries, dichotomies, and other such nonsense. Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome—which is non-hierarchical, full of multiplicities, and unordered--as a metaphorical illustration (6-7). Deleuze and Guattari contrast the rhizome with trees, which are rooted in history, symbols of rigid binaries, and “overcoding” (9). This argument attacks both linguists AND psychoanalysts throughout the first two chapters for over-coding and over-determining their conceptions of language and reality (13).

On page 17 there is just one example of this critique of psychoanalysis. According to Deleuze and Guattari the process of psychoanalysis “subjects the unconscious” to a whole series of predetermined (“arborescent”) ideas about childhood, memory, the phallus, and so on, and then ultimately ends up silencing the actualities and multiplicities of thought and experience that exist within subjects. “Psychoanalysis cannot change its method in this regard: it bases its own dictatorial power upon a dictatorial conception of the unconscious” (17). My issue with the categories and explanations of both Freud and Lacan are similar: why should everything boil down to childhood, to some father-complex, and to sex? Why is always about the father? And why should everything come down to sex—why should we assume that this is a primary and traumatic factor throughout humanity? How or why should anyone assume that these themes resonate with a universal human consciousness? Instead of taking account of the multiplicity of selves, thought, experience, and perception, it seems to me that psychoanalysis rams a particular conception of the world upon its subjects and then prescribes treatments and remedies that happen to fit this tyrannical model. It seems that subjects are bent and formed (according to particular western notions about self and psyche) so that they can then be “diagnosed” and “treated” properly. Count me out.

I particularly like the idea of using the nomad as a way to illustrate the differences between the tree-like power and history of the State (23-25). Deleuze and Guattari write, “History is always written from the sedentary point of view in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one, even when the topic is nomads” (23). All of this has to be understood, as I see it, in purely allegorical or metaphorical senses—this isn’t about presenting an anthropological study of pastoral nomads and comparing their political organization with state systems. It IS, but not in such a literal sense. I get that. Nomads roam, they are unattached, somewhat unpredictable, bound by affiliation, and often seen as dire threats to sedentary populations (this is true even in a literal sense in many cases…mobility is threatening to people who wall themselves and their crops off from the world around them).

To wrap this up: the critique of Freud in Chapter two is damning and hilarious: “On the verge of discovering a rhizome," Deleuze and Guattari charge, "Freud always returns to mere roots” (27). Psychoanalysis, according to Deleuze and Guattari, works to neutralize and SILENCE subjects (38). The Wolf-Man howls about multiplicities, about individual and unpredictable experiences, about sensations and perceptions, about “packs of wolves”…and Freud responds, “How’s that? Goats, you say? How interesting” (38). A complete erasure! An explosion of possibilities and multiplicities, and Freud, the over-coded scientist, gives us pre-packaged answers about memories, fathers, and repressed sexualities. Here Deleuze and Guattari provide a phenomenal critique of science, of the ways in which "arborescent" thinking can vastly limit how we approach and describe human experiences. The lesson: don’t let your structures, theories, and preconceptions turn your packs of wolves into lame, bleating goats.

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