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Deleuze & Guattari’s Friendly Concepts

Karen Parham explores the collection of curious concepts Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use in their organic perception of reality.

Philosophers are friends and creators of concepts. This was certainly the view of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (1930-1992). As they say in their book What Is Philosophy? (1991), “Philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts” (p.5). Certainly, no other discipline could have created concepts such as ‘tabula rasa’, ‘language games’ or ‘qualia’, but surely other disciplines have their own concepts? Well, according to Deleuze and Guattari, they do in the sense that they have concepts within a frame of reference – they invent concepts to label things already in existence – but they don’t create the thoughts behind them, as philosophy does.

Deleuze and Guattari
Portrait © Clinton Inman 2021. Facebook at Clinton.inman

Philosophical concepts are often tied up with personalities. The cogito belongs to Descartes, for example; whereas the concepts we’ll consider here – including ‘schizoanalysis’, ‘territorialisation’, ‘lines of flight’, ‘rhizomatic’, and ‘the plane of immanence’ – are some of the many concepts that belong to the long-running philosophical double act of Deleuze and Guattari. Possibly no other philosophers have been as creative as these two in creating new concepts, and redeploying others. This is due to their belief that language, like everything else, is constantly evolving, so words don’t have fixed meanings. Consistent with their own preference for movement, and for uprooting thought, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s philosophical concepts themselves never stood still and so the concepts explained below are each relative to one of the following four books: Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus, Kafka and What Is Philosophy?

Deleuze’s and Guattari’s fluid application and manipulation of language mirrors their view of reality. For them the real is the mind-independent world that consists of both the actual and the virtual. The actual is what has become manifested, whereas the virtual is everything that could potentially happen (for Deleuze and Guattari the virtual isn’t confined to computer simulation, though it includes it). Every organism unlocks the virtual as it partakes in the process of becoming by interacting with its environment. It is this becoming that is of specific interest to Deleuze and Guattari, and characterises them as process metaphysicians. In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), they use ‘becoming’ to refer to change that is neither necessarily progressive nor regressive. Deleuze and Guattari consider for instance the wasp becoming orchid, and orchid becoming wasp, as they interact in their symbiotic relationship. (p.9).

Becoming does not involve imitating or identifying with something; rather, the nature of reality is one of forever producing ever more becomings or multiplicities. ‘Multiplicities’ is a way Deleuze and Guattari have of describing the relationship of the elements that make up reality. D and G’s idea is that the multiple aspects that make up the world have no unity in themselves: for instance, there are multiple different cats which are nearly as different from each other as cats are from humans, so there is no unitary thing ‘cat’. The world, we might say, is a multiplicity of forms in which everything is fluidly connected, yet everything is different from everything else.

Nevertheless, the multiple nature of reality may produce coherent structures or arrangements of elements. These are known as assemblages. Assemblages for D and G consist of both things that act and react, and the expression of those acts. This article itself is an assemblage of letters that make up words on a page; the paper it’s printed on; you reading it; your response to it; and so on.

Assemblages can interact at various levels to produce an affect. This affect can be of the emotional kind (in the usual sense of the word); but may also be physical, spiritual, cognitive and intellectual. ‘Affect’ refers to anything where a process of becoming is evident in response to an interaction that has taken place. In What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari discuss affects in art. A work of art is the affect of the assemblage of the artist, his or her materials, and the finished product. Or, to take D and G’s example of the wasp and orchid from A Thousand Plateaus, a wasp and an orchid assemblage together affect a new assemblage of a ‘wasp-orchid hybrid’. Being themselves multiplicities, assemblages have no essential structure or unity. A wasp or a wasp-orchid hybrid has many other options to become some other assemblage. A wasp-orchid hybrid may become a starling-wasp-orchid assemblage as a starling consumes the wasp feeding from the orchid. Such becomings are entirely rhizomatic, in that they can move or grow in any direction.

Getting To The Roots With Franz Kafka

For Deleuze and Guattari, the term ‘rhizome’ refers to ideas, concepts or assemblages with no fixed starting or finishing points which allow for multiple interpretations and developments. The internet, for example, is rhizomatic, in that you can dive in anywhere anytime, and go anywhere within it. Bulbs, tubers, rats swarming over each other; potatoes, couchgrass, weeds, are also rhizomes. They spread out in all directions, performing many functions. D and G say that a rhizome has “no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” and “connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature” (A Thousand Plateaus, p.26, p.21.).

Fractal Tree
Fractal Tree image © Solkoll 2006

Generally, D and G employ the term ‘rhizomatic’ to describe anything that has no starting point and can go any direction. A Thousand Plateaus was intended to be read in just this way, such that the reader can open the book at any point and read on because there’s no linear narrative. Reality is equally rhizomatic, as it too lacks a centre, end-point, or any cohesion.

Deleuze and Guattari initially associated the term ‘rhizomatic’ with Franz Kafka (1883-1924), believing that his work has no linear structure, and many interpretative impasses. They suggest entering this rhizome of Kafka’s work by looking at the recurring presence of “the portrait or the photo, and the beaten and bent head” (Kafka, 1986, p.3). These motifs appear in Kafka’s novels The Castle, Amerika, The Metamorphosis and The Trial in various guises, and have many plausible interpretations. Yet Deleuze and Guattari detect optimism here. Contrary to standard interpretations of Kafka, for them the bent head, representing compliancy, can straighten. In The Castle, for example, the presence of a church steeple or tower of the castle indicates that there is room for the bent head to straighten (Kafka, p.4) This is just one of many ways of reading Kafka which is possible because of the rhizomatic or unfixed nature of his writing.

Against Control

It is desire that pushes subjects to create new assemblages. Deleuze and Guattari made the driving force of desire the focus of their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus. They are anti-Freudian at least in the sense that for them desire is something positive – a productive force within us all that should be free-flowing. It is not the result of lacking something, in the usual Freudian sense of desire. Desiring something we can’t afford, for example, is not true desire, as this impossible craving actually inhibits our flow of desire.

The powers that be in society tell us to contain our desire, or that we should allow others to contain it for us. For twentieth-century French philosophers there are two standard mechanisms that manipulate and/or suppress desire: capitalism and psychoanalysis. Capitalism channels desire, through advertising and controlling supply, rather than letting it flow freely. Psychoanalysis forces the conscious mind to control the seat of desire – the unconscious. The desires in the unconscious then might express themselves through myths rather than through real things – the myth of Oedipus being a notorious example. Yet to be truly alive is to let desire follow its own course uninterrupted and not let the conscious mind dominate. By freeing the unconscious, desire can then become productive again – can exist in a continuous state of becoming rather than just of static being. Then the person becomes a true desiring-machine – or in Deleuze’s and Guattari’s language, becomes a collective assemblage that in interacting with other collective assemblages freely becomes a further collective assemblage.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari admire the schizophrenic’s movement of thought: she allows desire to roam freely and transgress boundaries. The schizophrenic has thought patterns that are, to use their word, rhizomatic. Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, is cited in Anti-Oedipus concerning how he ‘becomes a woman’, and also about how he “lived for a long time without a stomach, without intestines, almost without lungs” (p.8). His desire roams freely within the realm of gender, and from the realm of the mental to the physical, and beyond. In the same way, Deleuze and Guattari encourage us to escape psychic and social oppression that tells us who we are and how we should behave. Instead, we need to be creative, let desire run wild as a schizophrenic would, and make unusual connections in our thought. As soon as we stop doing this, desire is captured, and full creativity is lost.

Alas, this happens more often than not. Desire is captured; it is coded and territorialised. ‘Territorialisation’ is Deleuze’s and Guattari’s word for the process whereby an assemblage represses desire by claiming it, and perhaps labelling it, in order to use it for its own benefit. The most obvious cases of territorialisation are when animals or humans domesticate an environment. Equally, a musician might territorialise notes to create a tune. Territorialisation is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it stifles desire.

In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari argue that although capitalism deterritorialises (that is, frees up desires) by exploring various avenues to capitalise on, it is itself controlled by the profit motive. Desire can never be truly liberated in such a system. Rather, advertising, for instance, traps desire so that it can reterritorialise it for the purpose of profit. More generally, capitalism makes creative projects commercial by producing them on a large scale and encouraging consumers to think that this is what they desire.

Psychoanalysis also territorialises desire. It does this by reducing desire to something psychological, sexual, or Oedipal. By contrast, a schizoanalytic approach is recommended by D and G. Here desire is understood not as something to be repressed, but rather, to be freed.

Fight & Flight

When desire or an assemblage becomes deterritorialised – becomes free from repression or control – it escapes that territory through following various lines of flight. Lines of flight are like mutations; they are potentials that become manifest, giving desire or an assemblage a different form.

A line of flight is completely fluid and follows no predetermined trajectory. As explained in A Thousand Plateaus, “The line of flight is part of the rhizome” (p.9). The schizophrenic follows lines of flight, and schizoanalysis encourages such breakthroughs in us all. D and G clearly themselves follow various lines of flight.

If desire follows lines of flight to become deterritorialised, it is unlikely to become reterritorialised. In other words, the desire evolves into something that defies characterisation or interpretation. Although this creative process is valuable, Deleuze and Guattari recognise that it can become ineffectual. It is better for desire to create ‘a collective assemblage of enunciation’ where the different fragments can form a dynamic system that speaks to people.

Lines of flight become significant when they are developed in a particular milieu, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a plane of immanence or plane of consistency. We might think of this as a zone of thought, or region of concepts. The plane of immanence is unlimited – presumably because it encompasses both the actual and virtual – operates at infinite speed, and is unthinkable without the concepts that resonate with it (see What Is Philosophy?, p.36). The concept of ‘rhizomatic’, for example, is incomprehensible without the presence of other concepts that make up the plane of immanence of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s own work – such as multiplicities, assemblages, affects and lines of flight. Should you confuse the plane of immanence with a concept, the result would be a universal concept and universals are stagnant, unrealistic representations of what philosophical concepts entail. Once you limit a concept to a universal, you limit it to the actual, and in so doing, you eliminate difference, change and the virtual.

When explaining the preferred free trajectory of desire in Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari also use the term ‘body without organs’ (corps sans organes) to stand for the plane of immanence. This refers to a structure or area without imposed organization, and can be sentient or inanimate. The term ‘body without organs’ was first used by Antonin Artaud, the French avant-garde actor and essayist, and was redeployed by Deleuze and Guattari to explain the nature of the plane of immanence. This plane is itself unproductive because it lacks the content, the desire. It is a body without organs because it lacks organisation into a structured body. The Earth too is a body without organs (A Thousand Plateaus, p.65) as is reality itself, for neither have organisation, despite what we like to think. Deleuze and Guattari encourage us to become a body without organs, in the same way that they advise us to think like a schizophrenic.

A body with organs – or ‘plane of organisation’ – territorialises those organs (meaning, those desires or concepts) as its own, even though in fact it is more advantageous to be deterritorialised. Desire, like philosophical concepts, is most productive when it is allowed to follow lines of flight in a continuous process of becoming – when it occupies a ‘body without organs’. The body without organs in this sense “serves as a surface for the recording of the entire process production of desire” (Anti-Oedipus, p.11).

The concepts with which Deleuze and Guattari are best friends seem to be those that express an openness to becoming for multiplicities and assemblages, concepts such as lines of flight, rhizomatic, deterritorialisation, schizoanalysis – as well as the platforms that allow such processes to take place: the plane of immanence or body without organs. This is consistent with a view of reality that includes the virtual, and acknowledges desire as part of reality.

© Dr Karen Parham 2021

Karen Parham is a teacher and examiner of philosophy, and a freelance writer.

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