Over the past few days I’ve been reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus for more or less the first time (aside from reading the “Introduction: Rhizome” chapter once in a seminar).
I’ve been avoiding this book for a few reasons. First is the terminology. D&G throw a lot of new concepts at you at lightning speed: strata, deterritorialization, abstract machine, regime of signs, expression, content, various forms of assemblages, and so on. Usually these concepts are not explicitly defined, at least, not when they’re introduced. Perhaps this is due to Deleuze’s apparent commitment to the pragmatist semantic thesis that meaning is use. However, to their credit, Deleuze and Guattari do give explicit definitions, make lists of characteristics and features of the concepts they’re defining. It’s just that these definitions don’t feel final or, well, definitive. It’s just another use of the term among uses. But skimpy definitions is a characteristic feature of much French and German philosophy, so I’m not that put off by it. What does fatigue me a bit with the incessant concept creation is trouble seeing the necessity of the concepts. Do we really need the concept of an “order-word” when we already have the illocutionary? Perhaps it’s doing more work than that. It emphasizes, as Brian Massumi claims in a footnote, the utterance’s double action of imposing order and of giving orders. It also, as a common French term meaning “slogan” and occasionally “password” encapsulates the sort of work Deleuze and Guattari want the concept to do.
The second reason is the scope and size and complexity. At first it’s hard to see what ties the book together. A perhaps unfortunate blurb on the back describes the work as a “series of brief, seemingly random essays on hot topics.” And that is indeed what it seems to be. Though it can be hard to tell from the titles of the “plateaus,” the topics span psychoanalysis, linguistics, music, politics, semiotics, anthropology, religious history, geology, biology, and so on and so on. This initially appeared to me as a veering away from philosophy. It’s a commonplace that Deleuze and Guattari are philosophers of multiplicity so perhaps an enthusiast is tempted to say: “See? There is no unity. That’s the point!” But, at this point in my reading, I think that does a disservice to the book and misses one of its central preoccupations.
I should mention here that I’m doing a very superficial reading of A Thousand Plateaus at the moment, not getting hung up on what I don’t understand. And I’m only six plateaus deep so far. So anything I write here should be seen as manifestly provisional.
I believe there is a unity to the book. It’s a book of metaphysics and it’s carrying out a rather standard metaphysical programme, with two twists which makes it unique. First, it’s no secret that Deleuze expounds something resembling a process metaphysics: becoming is prior to being, or all being is becoming. Though this is a somewhat baffling and unintuitive idea (I still have not achieved the capacity to think difference-in-itself), it has a clear consequence of reversing the classical (meta)physical problem of motion or change. If we took a broadly Aristotelean perspective and saw the word as made up of self-identical individuals (what Aristotle in the Categories calls “primary substances”), then the conceptual problem becomes: can a primary substance change into a different primary substance? How is a primary substance destroyed? Or: how does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? How does an apple rot and turn into soil? This is a caricature of the problem, but the general question of the double tendency of things to both change and stay the same has been a metaphysical question since before Plato.
The standard history says, prior to Plato, there were two radically opposed answers to this question expressed in the philosophies of Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus viewed being as an illusion, and affirmed a world of pure becoming or flux. Parmenides viewed becoming as an illusion, and affirmed a world of pure being or stasis. Plato, famously, integrated the two ideas by positing an ontological division of labour. There is the realm of the sensible, the realm of sensory experience, in which things are always becoming other things, and the realm of the intelligible, or the forms, in which everything is always and only what it is.
We can see Deleuze and Guattari’s intervention here as taking a broadly Heraclitean starting point: the world is fundamentally becoming, and so much so that we can’t even say it’s made up of “things becoming other things” since to claim there are “things” that becoming other things is to presuppose identity and stasis as prior to change. The world is just always pure becoming. But, they seem to be less ready to accept the view that stasis is an illusion. The fundamental metaphysical question for them, which they are working through in A Thousand Plateaus seems to be: if the world is pure becoming, why is it not chaos? How is it that the constant flux of the world organizes itself and persists in that organization? Under what conditions is this persistent organization broken? It’s those questions which unify the book, and the central concepts they create: strata, assemblage, abstract machine, content, expression, are meant to be a terminology they can use to discuss the tendency of various phenomena towards stasis and change.
This brings me to the second feature that makes this otherwise traditional book of metaphysics unique. Due to the rejection of identity prior to change, Deleuze and Guattari need to take the stance of a certain openendedness to the project. They discuss a few strata: chemical, organic, technical. But they make it clear that this discussion is not exhaustive, and one gets the sense that new strata could emerge in the future. Likewise with regimes of signs. Moreover, the work is empirical in the sense that it is not simply applying these metaphysical concepts to phenomena, but exploring how the phenomena in question reconfigure the concepts used to describe and make they continuous with other seemingly desperate phenomena. For instance, each strata will have a unique relationship between its content and expression. This relationship cannot be known in advance prior to an empirical investigation of the stratum. This seems to be what explains the insane scope and bibliography of the book. They can’t just use stock metaphysical examples (Socrates is white, Theaetetus flies, the cat is on the mat, the morning star is the evening star) and generalize from there. They have to appeal to as great a multiplicity of phenomena as they can, using scholarly material from those who have actually studied the material empirically. Hence an interdisciplinary bibliography full of linguists, biologists, geologists, authors, musicologists, anthropologists, and so on and so on.
This attitude of appeals to empirical research is part of what I’m starting to think of as Deleuze and Guattari’s “bizarro-naturalism,” of which the basic thesis is something like: nature is all that exists, but nature is more than what scientists tell us it is.
Those are my initial thoughts so far. Once again, this is extremely provisional and I reserve the right to revise or disavow anything I’ve written here at a later date.