“I am the author of The Coming Insurrection”

My Desiring-Machines

Translated from the original French on Verso’s blog.

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Occupy Wall Street, Part Three

This is part three of my reflections on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement: the first one was on war machines; the second one was on ahistorical becomings.  Part Two ended with the claim that Occupy Wall Street had both a long-term or systemic large-scale target (Wall Street) and an immediate small-scale goal (instantiating democracy). Satisfying this double requirement is one aspect of what I have called (in my book on Nomad Citizenship) the slow-motion general strike, which is discussed below. But it poses some problems for the politics of the war machine, as discussed above, which lead us to ‘the minor,’ the topic of Part Three (below): How do you make political action that is not obviously revolutionary into something contagious? How does the felt need for social change become urgent? In the 1960s United States, it was anti-war protest, and the prospect of dying in a war we didn’t believe in, that lent the counter-culture movement its sense of urgency; in 1960s France, however, there was no such focal point, and yet the French student movement proved far more contagious than its American counter-part, and ended up mobilizing a far greater proportion of the French people than were mobilized by the American counter-culture and anti-war movements combined. The Occupy movement certainly became contagious, but despite the name ‘Occupy,’ it never had concrete long-term ambitions: what will become of ‘Occupy 2.0’ is a pressing question that so far remains unanswered. One of the unfortunate difficulties of the war machine and non-linear history is that they are so unpredictable – practically by definition. It is just as impossible to produce enthusiasm or solidarity at will as it is to predict the timing or extent of a bifurcation point in advance. But it was certainly no accident that ‘ground zero’ for the Occupy movement was none other than Wall Street.

The Minor

And it may be just as revealing that the single most enduring, significant and vigorous off-shoot of the Occupy movement has been the (inaptly named) ‘Occupy Student Debt’ movement. To help explain why this might be so, we can turn to Deleuze and Guattari’s adaptation of Marx’s analysis of capital, which I call their ‘minor marxism.’ The key difference between most ‘major’ or dialectical Marxism and this minor or structural marxism is that while the former focuses on the results of the dialectical process of capital accumulation, the latter focuses on the structural preconditions for capital accumulation – also known as ‘primitive accumulation.’ The watchword of major Marxism follows from the dialectical precept of the negation of the negation: expropriate the expropriators; confront the power of accumulated capital head-on, and wrest it from its illegitimate private owners by force. The approach of a minor marxism is different: address the structural preconditions for capital accumulation rather than the power of accumulated capital itself; disrupt and reverse the process of primitive accumulation. This is the basis of the strategy I call the slow-motion general strike. It is a general strike in that it is not directed against a single industry, but against capitalist industry as a whole; and indeed, following the example set in France in May 1968, it could be considered to be a strike against many or all facets of social life, not just industry – and in particular a strike against a nominally democratic political system that, then as now, has clearly not served the interests of the majority (the 99%). But the slow-motion general strike is also distinctive because, unlike the traditional or major general strike, it is not punctual and not confrontational: it unfolds gradually over the long haul rather than provoking (or hoping for) immediate wholesale changes in social life; and rather than confronting the power of accumulated capital, it seeks to undermine that power by subtracting greater and greater areas of social and economic activity from capitalist markets through the development of alternative economies and social networks that provide alternative means of life outside the circuits of capital. As the work of Gibson-Graham has amply demonstrated, economic activity already actually takes many different forms, even ‘under’ or ‘within’ capitalism, and many of them are in fact non-capitalist, if not explicitly anti-capitalist. The political strategy of a minor marxism thus centers around people gradually extricating themselves from dependence on capitalist markets, goods, and means of life, by instead relying on and further developing alternative means of life – community-supported agriculture, open-source software, DIY (do-it-yourself), fair trade, the list goes on and on – until a tipping point or bifurcation point is reached where capitalist markets begin to starve and then eventually wither away. This is what it would mean to reverse the process of primitive accumulation from which capitalism first emerged and on which it continues to depend.

As Marx points out – although he waits until the concluding part of Capital, Volume One to do so – the process of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ (called so by Adam Smith) is better understood as a combined process of accumulation and destitution. For capital investment to emerge, there must be a prior accumulation of wealth in liquid form (not land), available to be invested. But equally or even more important, there must be a population stripped of their traditional livelihood, who thus have no way of surviving other than by selling their labor-power for a wage. ‘So-called primitive accumulation,’ Marx insists, ‘is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’ (1887: Ch. 26, Para. 3). Capitalism emerges on the basis of this fortuitous encounter between liquid wealth and destitute labor, which Deleuze and Guattari call the primary axiom of capital accumulation. Innumerable other axioms can be added and subtracted – consumer tastes, production technologies, state forms, and so on – but the axiom that converts wealth into investment capital and work into dependent wage labor remains at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. Major Marxism focuses on accumulation; minor marxism focuses on dependency. In the course of capitalism’s historical development, dependency has taken three basic forms. The first form of dependence to predominate was work: destitute workers were forced to sell their labor-power to survive. But this form was from the start inextricably linked to a second form, involving consumption: workers were obliged to buy means of subsistence from capitalists (rather than producing them independently). Availability of non-capitalist ways of procuring the means of life would aggravate capital’s ‘realization’ problem: capitalists can’t make a profit if the goods they produce are not bought back in sufficient quantities. As brute starvation (in some parts of the global economy) declines in importance as a way of enforcing dependency, marketing and advertizing intervene to make people psychologically dependent on the purchase of capitalist commodities. Even leisure time gets commodified, as people become increasingly unable or unwilling to entertain themselves and purchase mass-produced entertainment instead. Even worse than the subsumption of production, consumption and leisure time by capital, however, is the third form of dependency, which is debt. As Deleuze puts it in his prescient essay on ‘control society,’ ‘modern man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt.’ This context renews and heightens the significance of the fact that the first known word for freedom is an economic rather than a political term: it meant freedom from debt peonage. Trading the unfreedoms of disciplinary confinement for the unfreedom to go into debt in neoliberal society of control is hardly a bargain: while capitalist production and consumption certainly subsumed huge portions of social life, the debt to capital weighs ‘like a nightmare’ on every decision in every minute of every day, 24/7/365: for those in debt, each and every moment of their entire life must enter a calculus of whether it reduces, merely defers, or actually increases their debt burden.

But modern debt itself takes several different forms. Modern debt-financed capital investment, of course, dates back to the early days of mercantile capitalism, and continues unabated under industrial capitalism. ‘The public debt [was] one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation’ from early on, Marx notes (1887: Chap. 31 Para. 15). But as capitalist production develops and massifies, the ‘realization problem’ emerges, as we have seen, and debt-financed consumption arises alongside debt-financed production. Indeed as long as profit gets extracted from the entire sum of exchanges between wages and commodity prices, capitalism requires debt-financed consumption in order to survive. But debt-financed consumption itself takes two very different forms. The first was the great Keynesian-New-Deal-Fordist-welfare-state gambit, whereby states would go into debt in hard times to bail out capital through deficit spending, with the expectation, supposedly, that the debt would be repaid in good times. Except that, as we know, the debt never does get repaid; instead, it continues to grow and grow and eventually goes through the ceiling – until or unless the ceiling itself is conveniently moved, as it has been repeatedly in the United States by bipartisan acts of Congress. But the debt ceiling can’t be moved forever, at least not without exposing the whole capitalist accounting system as a massive hoax or Ponzi scheme. The inevitable conclusion is that capitalism has been living on borrowed time for at least the last 83 years – or on borrowed money, which as we know is more or less the same thing. Nation states around the world, and not just the United States, face this long-term ‘sovereign debt crisis,’ as it is called – Argentina, notoriously, a decade ago; Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland more recently – with no final solution in sight. As the Occupy movement spread around the world, it often focused on this form of debt. But in the United States, the ‘original’ OWS focused on the other form of debt, which we can call neoliberal debt or indentured debt peonage – the kind that Deleuze associates with what he calls control society. In this form, some of the debt required to keep capitalism afloat gets displaced from sovereign states onto private individuals (home mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card retail debt, and so on). While private consumer debt is hardly new, the scale of predatory abuse of consumers perpetrated by finance capital, including most notably in home mortgages and student loans, went through the roof, and were a key motivation for OWS, and for the choice of Wall Street as the place to occupy in the first place.

Minor marxism offers another kind of explanation for OWS choosing Wall Street as its prime target, which has to do with the nature of debt to begin with. Marx likens the role of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ in bourgeois political economy to that of original sin in theology: it is crucial to everything that follows, but it itself remains unexamined and/or unexplained. Deleuze and Guattari offer a very different account of ‘primitive accumulation:’ on their account, pre-capitalist accumulation is responsible for the appropriation of surplus-labor long before the rise of capitalism, and the consolidation of capitalism as a mode of production entails the transfer of what had been an infinite debt from gods or despots to capital itself. What had been owed to them in various forms of tribute or taxation is henceforth owed to capital in the form of interest. This means that finance capital has not just a historical precedent (as most Marxists will admit, from the period of mercantile capitalism), but a theoretical precedence as well. For major Marxism, credit becomes possible because of, and out of, the surplus generated by capitalist production; the dialectical account occupying the first few hundred pages of Capital, Volume One shows how through a process of increasing abstraction money emerges from in-kind exchange, and then how the commodification of labor-power enables money to become capital, and finally how interest on money represents a share of the surplus-value generated through the production process owed to finance capital. Deleuze and Guattari, by contrast, insist that finance capital is prior to industrial capital not just at the historical emergence of capitalism, but in principle and throughout the history of capitalism. This is so in principle because Deleuze and Guattari follow Nietzsche in understanding money to be primarily a vehicle for debt and the establishment and enforcement of unequal power relations rather than a vehicle for the exchange of equivalents among formally equal parties. For minor marxism, then, ownership of capital is first and foremost the power to create value ex nihilo, if only for the purpose of subsequently introducing it into the production process in order to appropriate even more surplus-value. Modern state regulations, it is true, require what’s called a ‘cash reserve ratio’ – which means that banks must hold some modicum of assets against which to make loans; recently, these ratios have been found to be scandalously low, and have in some cases led to bankruptcy: but the point is that the cash reserve ratio for banks is never anywhere near 100% – so even if technically speaking capital is not being created completely ex nihilo, it is nonetheless the case that most of it is, and that a major function of the finance sector is, in the strongest sense, to invent or create fictitious capital for investment in productive enterprises, with the expectation that surplus-value will be generated and some of it paid back in interest. With Wall Street’s development of complex derivatives and markets for insuring them, the disparity between actual ‘industrial’ value and fictitious ‘financial’ value became too great and too obvious – yet another reason for choosing Wall Street as the prime target for the Occupy movement.

Minor marxism focuses on the dependence (or ‘precarity’) generated by so-called primitive accumulation, and particularly by the degree of dependence accompanying the wholesale fabrication of ubiquitous debt relations by contemporary finance capital, among which the home mortgage and student debt crises became the most visible, and therefore became precipitating factors in the Occupy movement. A student debt-strike is one of the most important ideas to emerge from the aftermath of OWS – but there is no reason to limit such a strike to students, when practically everyone suffers from the imposition of debt in one form or another. But eliminating or reducing debt is by no means the only laudable goal of the Occupy movement: its sights were set on far more than that. By modeling post-capitalist and post-representative social relations, OWS points to a more far-reaching and thoroughgoing transformation of contemporary society, which perhaps only a slow-motion general strike, based on principles similar to those instantiated in OWS, will be able to bring about.

Occupy Wall Street, Part Two

This is part two of my reflections on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement: the first one was on war machines; this one is on ahistorical becomings.  Part One ended with a discussion of Deleuze & Guattari’s quip that, in a sense, “May ’68 did not take place,” suggesting that in a similar way “Occupy” could be said not to have taken place – inasmuch as neither event had the kind of historical impact or uptake we would have wished for.  Part Two starts by explaining the notion of “historical uptake) behind such claims.

Ahistorical Becomings

In order to better understand the sense in which Deleuze and Guattari can say that May 1968 did not take place and yet call it a pure event, we must learn, along with them, to distinguish between history and becoming, that is to say, between linear history and the potential alternatives to historical development they call becomings. History for Deleuze and Guattari is always a mixture combining linear development that is causally determined with bifurcation points that are unpredictable both as to when they occur and where they will lead. May 1968 in France, as we have seen, was a potential bifurcation point that could have led French society in a very different direction, but it didn’t (or hasn’t yet) because the requisite collective agencies of enunciation weren’t available. One of the important roles for political philosophy is to diagnose the becomings inherent in historical events, to extract what is ‘untimely’ (as they say, borrowing the term from Nietzsche), from linear historical determinacy. If Deleuze and Guattari were able to extract a concept of micro-politics from May 1968, is it possible today to extract concepts from OWS? We will return to this question below. But first we need to further examine the relation of becomings to history.

Conceiving of history as non-linear poses at least three kinds of problem. One is that historical achievements are never permanent. Deleuze and Guattari contrast May 1968 in France with the mid-twentieth century American New Deal, inasmuch as the New Deal was able to institutionalize the solutions it envisioned to address the Great Depression. Yet those institutions have not survived decades of Republican attacks, so that now, even when confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a new New Deal has not been possible. A second problem arising from non-linear history is the impossibility of identifying bifurcation points, or even assessing their potential when they are recognizable. May 1968 may have set in motion deep-seated transformations in French society that will take decades to become visible – and the same may be true of OWS: perhaps it will have been a bifurcation point, and we just don’t know it yet. Finally, in the context of non-linear causality, effects may be wildly disproportionate to causes – as in the famous (if fanciful) illustration of a butterfly flapping its wings and thereby contributing to a hurricane on the other side of the globe. Such disproportionality adds to the difficulty of identifying bifurcation points in the first place, and to the impossibility of assessing their future potential with much confidence. What all this suggests for political strategy is a new way around the hoary reform–revolution conundrum. Given the non-linear view of history, there is no point in waiting around for the right moment to make the revolution: we might miss any number of opportunities because we didn’t recognize them as tipping points. At the same time, there is no reason to shy away from reforms, even those that at the moment seem unlikely to produce widespread change, because with effects being disproportionate to causes, any one or combination of them might be or become a tipping point before or without our realizing it in the short-term. Political action must be worthwhile in its own right, in the short-term, as well as hold out reasonable prospects for contributing to significant and wide-ranging social change in the medium-to-long-term. This was one of the most striking features of the Occupy movement in practically all of its incarnations: rather than simply calling for a more democratic society, as many political demonstrations tend to do, it actually enacted one. Food was collectively prepared and distributed; lending libraries and small discussion groups were established; most important, a whole set of informal discussion and decision-making procedures were developed for the General Assemblies (particularly in the face of police injunctions against the use of megaphones and PA systems). OWS tried to instantiate and illustrate what true – participatory – democracy looks like, rather than merely make demands of a supposedly democratic system that it knew to be hopelessly corrupt. Yet at the same time, its propensity was emphatically not to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ (as it was for a portion of the 1960s counter-culture movement), but rather to take the example of more truly democratic social relations to the very ‘heart of the beast’ – Wall Street. So OWS had both a long-term or systemic large-scale target (Wall Street) and an immediate small-scale goal (instantiating democracy), and satisfying this double requirement is one aspect of what I have called (Holland 2011) the slow-motion general strike, which we will discuss below. But it poses some problems for the politics of the war machine, as discussed above. How do you make political action that is not obviously revolutionary into something contagious? How does the felt need for social change become urgent? In the 1960s United States, it was anti-war protest, and the prospect of dying in a war we didn’t believe in, that lent the counter-culture movement its sense of urgency; in 1960s France, however, there was no such focal point, and yet the French student movement proved far more contagious than its American counter-part, and ended up mobilizing a far greater proportion of the French people than were mobilized by the American counter-culture and anti-war movements combined. The Occupy movement certainly became contagious, but despite the name ‘Occupy,’ it never had concrete long-term ambitions: what will become of ‘Occupy 2.0’ is a pressing question that so far remains unanswered. One of the unfortunate difficulties of the war machine and non-linear history is that they are so unpredictable – practically by definition. It is just as impossible to produce enthusiasm or solidarity at will as it is to predict the timing or extent of a bifurcation point in advance. But it was certainly no accident that ‘ground zero’ for the Occupy movement was none other than Wall Street.

 

Nomadology of Institutions revisited

Toward the end of Part Two of this essay, I suggested that institutions embody what Lyotard calls “language-games” – institutions, in other words, include what Deleuze & Guattari refer to as collective assemblages of enunciation.  One of the critical advantages of Deleuze & Guattari’s formulation is the distinction they draw between two forms of collective enunciation or language-games: the oedipal or state-form and the anti-oedipal or nomadic form of the war-machine. One instantiation of this distinction is the ethological differentiation of herds from packs.

Herd animals form an undifferentiated mass, and they all follow a single leader; this for Deleuze & Guattari is the epitome of the State form of social relations. Pack animals such as wolves interact very differently: for wolves on the hunt, there is a significant degree of role specialization, and the pack operates via the collective coordination of members’ activities rather than via obedience to a single leader. The kinds of change produced by mutation machines, meanwhile, vary widely. Deleuze & Guattari even go so far as to say that the war machine ‘exists only in its own metamorphoses; it exists in an industrial innovation as well as in a technological invention, in a commercial circuit as well as in a religious creation’ or ‘in specific assemblages such as building bridges or cathedrals or rendering judgments or making music or instituting a science, a technology’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 366). Finally, and perhaps most important, mutation machines operate via contagion, enthusiasm, esprit de corps, and solidarity (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 241–9, 267–9, 278, 366–7, 384, 390–93) rather than strict obligation or duty.

Another important aspect of the distinction between nomadic and state-form language-games involves the kinds of authority pertaining to each; this aspect was covered in Part Three. Yet another aspect involves the relation of institutions to (their) death, which was also addressed in Part III – but only incompletely. I would want to add this: Just as the destitution or precarity visited on most people by primitive accumulation perverts the psychological “instinct” of self-preservation by giving it exaggerated important in psychic dynamics, so the “instinct” of institutional self-preservation has a similarly inflationary effect, such that instead of dying constant “little deaths” by continually transforming itself in light of new circumstances and indeed new objectives, institutions operate above all to preserve their existing form and chartered aims.  This is part of what Deleuze & Guattari mean by the perversion of death (its transformation into an instinct) attendant on its repression under capitalism.

Occupy Wall Street from a deleuze-guattari perspective

Although I will be posting further installments of my series on “Nomad Citizenship revisited” devoted to developing a nomadology of institutions, I was asked to reflect on the relevance of Deleuze & Guattari’s political philosophy to the Occupy movement – and will share those reflections here in a series of three posts (including this one), on war machines, ahistorical becomings, and the minor.

Given that their first collaborative work, Anti-Oedipus, emerged at least partly as a reflection on the unanticipated political events of May 1968, it would be very surprising indeed if Deleuze and Guattari’s perspective turned out not to be relevant to the equally unforeseen resonance of the Occupy Wall Street movement throughout the United States (and indeed around the world) some forty years later. And it is the unforeseen quality of both these political movements that leads into the first two of the three topics under consideration in what follows (war machines is this post; ahistorical becomings in the next one).

War Machines

Although the term itself is in many ways misleading, the concept of the war machine is central to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of politics and society, and especially to their conception of micro-politics, which is one of their most important contributions to political theory. While it is true that war machines do in certain specific circumstances make war, their essential characteristics are that they operate by means of a very particular kind of social cohesion, and that they produce change: in this respect, they would be better known as ‘mutation machines’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 229) or, as Paul Patton (2000) has suggested, ‘metamorphosis machines.’ In order to evoke the kind of social relations characteristic of mutation machines, we can draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between pack and herd animals. Herd animals form an undifferentiated mass, and they all follow a single leader; this for Deleuze and Guattari is the epitome of the State form of social relations. Pack animals such as wolves interact very differently: for wolves on the hunt, there is a significant degree of role specialization, and the pack operates via the collective coordination of members’ activities rather than via obedience to a single leader. (While it is true that the dominant alpha-male and alpha-female of a wolf pack unilaterally determine the distribution of food after the hunt – as well as the distribution of mating opportunities, for that matter – they do not serve as leaders of the hunt itself, which operates instead via spontaneous or horizontal coordination.) The kinds of change produced by mutation machines, meanwhile, vary widely. Deleuze and Guattari even go so far as to say that the war machine ‘exists only in its own metamorphoses; it exists in an industrial innovation as well as in a technological invention, in a commercial circuit as well as in a religious creation’ or ‘in specific assemblages such as building bridges or cathedrals or rendering judgments or making music or instituting a science, a technology’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 366). Finally, and perhaps most important, mutation machines operate via contagion, enthusiasm, esprit de corps, and solidarity (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 241–9, 267–9, 278, 366–7, 384, 390–93) rather than strict obligation or duty.

Certainly much of what happened during the events of May 1968 in France can be accounted for only in terms of enthusiasm and contagion rather than duty: a small student protest against corporate sponsorship of war gradually spread to become a general strike against the dissatisfactions of French society as a whole. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 (OWS), in a similar way, spread rapidly to cities and campuses around the country, and eventually to groups and places around the world. It operated by contagion rather than by obedience to a single leader or even a single platform or program. OWS also quickly developed both a remarkable degree of role specialization and very effective horizontal modes of cooperation and coordination. And although it was initially conceived and organized by an identifiable group of activists (as was the initial French student protest), it very quickly grew beyond the bounds of anything they had imagined, and certainly grew far beyond anything they could control. Yet the fact that OWS can be said to have taken the form of a mutation machine does not make it a panacea: the contemporaneous right-wing Tea Party movement operated according to quite similar dynamics – although it did benefit from funding by the likes of the Koch brothers and from media hype provided by the likes of Fox cable news. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the Nazis operated as an autonomous war machine before they took power and integrated that machine into the apparatus of state rule. Ultimately, then, the form of organization or of the social dynamics of a given group says relatively little about the content of their positions or activities. The value of the concept of the war machine is rather that it directs our attention to the manner in which these social groups or movements actually operate. And in OWS and the Tea Party movements, we have chosen rather extreme examples: it may be that elections in so-called liberal or representative democracies are always won or lost on the basis of which party can mobilize more numerous and more energetic war machines operating on its behalf – from student volunteers going door-to-door, to volunteer housewives stuffing envelopes, to donors and campaign operatives themselves. Much like the stock market, electoral politics depends far more than is usually recognized on the kind of enthusiasm and contagion that are key elements of the war machine.

Since war machines operate on the Right as well as the Left, and everywhere in between, the fact that OWS took that form, or started out that way, cannot be considered decisive in evaluating its impact. But the same was true of the events of May 1968 for Deleuze and Guattari: within the span of a few months, the French movement had been re-absorbed into macro-politics as usual, with President de Gaulle receiving broad-based and strong support in the ensuing elections. But that doesn’t mean nothing changed on the level of micro-politics. Deleuze and Guattari describe deep-seated effects on countless individuals, for one thing – in a portrait that might just as well suit a generation of young Americans who would soon participate in OWS:

The children of May ‘68, you can run into them all over the place, even if they are not aware who they are, and each country produces them in its own way. Their situation is not great. These are not young executives. They are strangely indifferent, and for that very reason they are in the right frame of mind. They have stopped being demanding or narcissistic, but they know perfectly well that there is nothing today that corresponds to their subjectivity, to their potential of energy. (Deleuze 2006: 235)

And for another thing, the kind of movement that May 1968 was gets registered in the concepts (such as the war machine, micro-politics, etc.) that Deleuze and Guattari (and others) created in order to better understand it and hopefully relay its potential to future generations. Finally, even when a social movement produces no apparent immediate results – as was the case with May 1968, and appears to be the case with OWS as well – it may have produced what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘incorporeal transformations’ whose real or corporeal effects only become apparent at some later time. Thus a judge’s sentence doesn’t in and of itself physically kill a condemned person on the spot: it produces an incorporeal transformation, changing that person’s social and legal status from accused to condemned, which only later, barring unforeseen mitigating circumstances or disruptions, leads to corporeal death. But history is rarely (if ever) as clear-cut as a judicial proceeding: incorporeal transformations may occur without our even being aware of them at the time, such that it is only later that we ask ‘What happened?’ – what must have happened x months or y years ago, to lead up to the unforeseen changes we are witnessing today? In a famous 1984 magazine article (later re-published as an essay in Two Regimes of Madness (2006)), Deleuze and Guattari even went so far as to claim that ‘May 68 did not take place’ (‘Mai ‘68 n’a pas eu lieu’); they characterize it instead as a ‘visionary phenomenon’ and a ‘pure event’ whose realization depends on society’s ability to develop ‘collective agencies of enunciation’ to institutionalize the changes foreseen by the event: ‘French society has shown a radical incapacity to create a subjective redeployment on the collective level, which is what ‘68 demands’ (Deleuze 2006: 234). But the fact that no such agencies were found in the two decades following May 1968 doesn’t mean that they couldn’t develop in the future. And in the same way, incorporeal transformations put into motion by OWS may yet bear fruit; there can be no question that the movement has at least already completely transformed the social meaning of an otherwise anodyne figure, ‘the 99%.’

Next up: “ahistorical becomings”

Nomad Citizenship revisited, Part Three of Three

This is the conclusion of my nomadology of institutions; its first paragraph is a slightly rewritten version of the last paragraph of Part Two.

In a purely nomadic, purely self-organizing group (were such a thing possible), the mantle of authority would fall on whoever happened to express the becoming best suited to the event or situation at hand (even if what is “best suited” to a given situation is subject to experimentation).  Although in a sense all groups are self-organizing, groups become institutions by fixing a certain organizational form in an explicit and more or less permanent structure (by means of a charter, for instance), and as often as not by assigning specific individuals to more or less permanent positions of authority – regardless of the situation and of their expressive capacity or incapacity in relation to it.  Relative to a nomadic group, an institution run the twin risks of subordinating the pursuit of the aims for which it was founded to the preservation of the institution itself, and of sacrificing its flexibility in responding to novel events and changing circumstances to the maintenance of the established power-structure and the power-status of its current appointees.  The unusual organizational charter of the Orpheus Symphony Orchestra, let me say in passing, is instructive in this regard: rather than appoint their conductor, artistic director, business manager, and so on, on a permanent basis, the group selects whoever seems best suited to each position according to what piece they are preparing to perform, so that authority repeatedly devolves to different members of the group in line with their differing expressive capacities in relation to the group’s changing repertoire.  The contrast with Orpheus is instructive precisely because institutions as a rule tend to lose such flexibility and responsiveness, and end up forfeiting their real reason for existing in order to perpetuate their existence for its own sake.  This perverse “institutional self-preservation” is one expression of capital’s repression of death in its legitimate forms, which then returns as an “instinct” in the worst forms: vainly battled against with every medical technology imaginable, for “us”; cruelly visited on “them,” on all those we consider “other” than us – for reasons of nation, religion, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and so on –with every military and surveillance technology available.

Legitimate authority, then, according to both Mary Parker Follett and Deleuze & Guattari, rests with those individuals and groups within an institution – its nomad citizens – those who detect or register its becomings and thus strive to continually adjust its real aims (besides or beneath self-preservation) to changing circumstances.  What transforms mere institutional citizens into nomad citizens is their refusal to take the chartered norms of its language-game as their reference, and their insistence – like Badiou’s militant – on connecting even their institutional activities creatively with world-historical circumstances and events, instead.  This very different and crucially broader horizon of reference involves making moves in the institution’s language-games that go beyond mere disobedience (as per Althusser), that go beyond mere transgression (as per Butler) – by experimenting with moves that change the rules of the language-games themselves, and thereby actually break institutional bad habits and create new ones, as Roberto Unger recommends in his program to “realize democracy”.  One major impediment to the realization of democracy is precisely the transcendent structure of organization for the sake of self-preservation as adopted by most institutions, wihch serves to fix its aims and activities and reduces flexibility and experimentation to almost zero, making the practices perversely serve the organization rather than the other way around.  Nomad citizens, by contrast, strive to keep institutional organization and norms subordinate to aims and practices, and can do so by diminishing the ordinary moves by which we reproduce institutions in favor of extraordinary moves by which to transform them in light of ever-changing circumstances.  Whether you take those circumstances to center on the Anthropocene, neo-liberalism, patriarchy, racism, or some combination of those or others, there are always many reasons for and ways of enacting nomad citizenship even in the institutions to which we are subjected every day, in the very heart of the beast.

In turning this conference paper into an essay, I intend to add more on Badiou (his mobilization of Lacan’s Real/Imaginary/Symbolic triad for fidelity to the Event) and a section on Judith Butler’s discussion of Althusser in terms of the Law.  Other than Butler, de Lauretis, and Zizek, are there additional reflections on Althusser’s concept of ideology I should take into consideration?

Nomad Citizenship revisited, Part Two of Three

This is the second installment of an essay on “Nomad Citizenship revisited” (announced and outlined in a post here at the beginning of February).  It includes most of the first installment, here rewritten and expanded.

Deleuze and Guattari’s fundamental agreements with Althusser are numerous: the attempt to salvage Marxism from Hegelianism by drawing instead on Spinoza; the “Problematic” status of the economic as a virtual structure both expressed and masked by actual solutions; the importance of the division of labor as social multiplicity (relative to class struggle); and the “becoming-necessary” of a mode of production as a result of machinic processes, rather than the mode being given as a point of departure.  Yet despite these fundamental areas of agreement, Deleuze and Guattari vehemently rejected the notion of ideology – even the new and improved version Althusser proposed, drawing on Lacan, in his famous essay on Ideological State Apparatuses.  They rejected standard notions of ideology for overemphasizing cognition and ignoring the primacy of desire: ideology would not be an instance of “seeing is believing” (empiricism), but of “believing (desiring) is seeing”: people see what they want to see, what they desire.  But Althusser’s Lacanian version of ideology does center on desire: desire as desire of the Other.  Althusser thereby ingeniously redefines ideology as the constitution of the Subject through interpellation by what Zizek (following Lacan) calls the “big Other” – a composite and ultimately fictitious figure based on such real-life authorities as fathers, teachers, preachers, leaders, the police, and the boss.  Crucial for Althusser is that all these figure-heads operate within various Ideological State Apparatuses, and that these Apparatuses all align to reproduce the capitalist mode of production, which is the core function of the State. While recognizing the preponderance of (usually State-run) school-systems in fulfilling this function, Althusser dramatizes the structure of ideology by staging a scene where the Subject emerges through interpellation by turning around when a police officer shouts “Hey you!”

Deleuze and Guattari would agree that a kind of chain of equivalence links the various figure-heads ranging from father to boss as Oedipal authorities, since the father’s authority within the Oedipus complex is itself derived from various forms of despotic authority within social institutions such as the church and the State to begin with.  But what Althusser actually describes is not the ideological constitution of the Subject, but only of the citizen.  This is most dramatically evident in the scene of interpellation with the policeman; but insofar as the function of ideology in all institutions is to reproduce (or challenge the reproduction of) the State, what Althusser indentifies as subjectivity is actually no more than citizenship.  Subjectivity is in fact far more polymorphous than this: the subject qua child, sibling, student, worker, hobbyist, parent, lifestyle-consumer – don’t all align on the citizen-subject, which exists alongside them rather than subsuming them.  The State is not, in other words, the “big Other” from which other instances of institutional authority derive, nor does it found or guarantee their coherence or alignment: just as much as the mode of production, the State only tends toward consistency or is always only becoming-necessary as a result of machinic processes which are themselves disparate, heterogeneous, multiple.  (This is to say, in a very different idiom, that subjectivity is always “intersectional”.)

Yet schizoanalysis never denies that the nuclear family contributes to the constitution of subjectivity.  What schizoanalysis does deny is that the nuclear family is the only or even the most important factor in the formation of subjectivity: rather, the family operates alongside of other institutions; and indeed, it serves to relay determinations from these other institutions to emergent subjectivity in its earliest stages of formation.  And schizoanalysis also denies, perhaps even more importantly, the Oedipal precept that the relation to the Father or the name-of-the-Father is ultimately the most important axis of intersubjectivity within the nuclear family.  For placing the Oedipal Father at the core of the nuclear family privileges relations of obedience/disobedience in the constitution of subjectivity – precisely the relationship that is central to the Subject’s interpellation by the police and the other big Others in all of Althusser’s ISAs: citizen-subjects either consent or refuse to contribute to the reproduction of the mode of production at the behest of the State.  (Notice that the relationship to the big Other and the binary alternative obey/disobey situate the Father-relation predominantly in the Symbolic and Imaginary registers.)  What’s more, focusing on the Father obscures relations with the Mother, which Deleuze and Guattari consider more important and more fundamental.  Originary maternal relations are comprised not by the binary alternative between obeying and disobeying, but by an exceedingly complex admixture of pleasure and nourishment, of desire and need.  They are part-object relations situated in the body, rather than whole-object relations defined by meaning.  They are Real relations that subsist even while getting over-written in the Imaginary and Symbolic registers, and even when the placenta and then the breast get displaced by other, more worldly sources of nourishment and gratification, as the Subject moves beyond the breast and the nuclear family through other institutions such as school cafeterias, grocery stores, and restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, and online dating sites – each and every one of which contributes in some degree to the polymorphous constitution of subjectivity.

Importantly, such institutions do so not by means of interpellation alone, but also by a process of “solicitation” or attraction promising some measure and form of nourishment and/or gratification, however attenuated, sublimated, varied or perverse.  Following Bergson and Jung, Deleuze considers institutions as the key site where “instinctual need” gets mapped onto objects.  Grocery stores and restaurants, for example, both respond to the basic need for nourishment, but in differing admixtures of the satisfaction of real need, the gratification of interpersonal desire, and the sheer enjoyment of eating – distributed differently, of course, over the various subject-positions involved, ranging from the interpellation of the waiter by the boss, whom he obeys, to the satisfactions of working as a team (or a pack) with other members of the wait-staff, to the consummate enjoyment of the customers enjoying their meals (while also satisfying, at some level, a real need for nourishment).  So the originally “maternal” relations are not “pre-Oedipal” in any strict chronological sense: they remain in effect, as Real and as necessary, throughout life; in this sense, they are as much “post-Oedipal” as they are “pre-Oedipal”.  But in a more important sense, they are anti-Oedipal: as part-object relations, they defy all logics of identity and unification, denying the (Imaginary) authority of the big Other, the (Imaginary) coherence of the Symbolic order – and any (equally Imaginary) alignment of institutions on the sole State function of reproducing the mode of production.  In reality, then, what Althusser calls “ideological state apparatuses” are neither ideological nor state-centric: what they constitute is not a citizen-subject – or not only a citizen-subject – but a polymorphous, intersectional, schizophrenic subject in continuous, though continually-changing, contact with the part-object Real through a whole variety of institutions.

Against the kind of whole-object personification involved in subject-construction according to Sartre, Lacan, and Levinas, the schizophrenic subject is constituted through interpellation and solicitation not in relation to a person or even the figure of a person (father, police officer, sujet-supposé-savoir), but in relation to a set or series of institutions and situations, which include people (as part-objects) but also include real things, material processes, and institutional arrangements.  The authority denied to the Symbolic Other gets displaced onto actual institutions and situations, which (as political theorist Mary Parker Follett has argued) contain authority immanently as assemblages of what she called “related difference” (as nomadic multiplicities).  In this respect, subject-constitution in Deleuze & Guattari is closer to Badiou than to Lacan and Althusser – inasmuch as Badiou’s militant subject gets constituted in relation to an actual historical Event (with a capital E) rather than a person or authority-figure.  But there are at least two crucial differences: first of all, whereas the commitment of Badiou’s militant to history is a matter of steel-willed fidelity to the Event, the engagement of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic subject is a complex combination of attraction to and responsiveness to the prospects for the satisfaction of needs and the gratification of desire as conditioned by adherence to institutional rules and recognition of situational opportunities and limitations.  Equally important, while truly historical Events for Badiou are rare, for Deleuze & Guattari, it is historical coherence and continuity that are rare, while signal events within it are practically ubiquitous: they are called becomings.  For Deleuze & Guattari, then, schizophrenic subjectivity at its most productive is constituted not in relation to a single authority-figure or a singular Event, but in relation to (some of) the multiple becomings inherent in any institutional situation.  Crucially, these becomings open institutions to the entire social field (if not to a singular History with a capital H, as in Badiou).  Just as much as the nuclear family, institutions are situated within the force-fields of society at large, whose flows cross their permeable boundaries in both directions.

I say “society at large” and not “society as a whole” because, given a fractured Symbolic order, society does not form a whole.  Neither Deleuze & Guattari nor Althusser, however, go as far as Gibson-Graham in denying society law-like or deterministic behavior altogether.  Drawing on Deleuze (though using the term in a quite different sense), Althusser ultimately describes structural determination as always “becoming-necessary” rather than always-already necessary.  And in the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze & Guattari reject the primacy of the mode of production, which had figured so centrally in the first volume, insisting that the mode of production is determined by machinic processes rather than the other way around.  In this light, the perpetual “becoming-necessary” of a mode of production depends on the degree of consistency attained by the multiple institutions comprising a social formation – not just on the degree to which members of a given institution enact or resist obedience to its authority functioning as a stand-in for the State, nor on the number of institutions that obey compared to the number that don’t.  At one pole of a spectrum, an institution will tend toward “becoming-consistent,” with its formal power-structure and/or the substance of its practical activity aligning with and reinforcing  those of the State and of capital; at another pole, an institution may tend toward “becoming-revolutionary,” as its structure and aims challenge the continued reproduction of the State and capital; and there are many other poles.  But with respect to society at large, each institution embodies what Lyotard called a language-game, whose relationship to other institutional language-games is indeterminate, just as within each institution, there are multiple incommensurate language-games operating in tension with one another – the obedience-game with respect to the boss, for example, in tension with the teamwork-game of the wait-staff.  These disparate language-games must achieve a certain degree of coherence or consistency for the institution to survive or thrive, just as institutional language-games at the next level must maintain a sufficient degree of consistency for the mode of production or social formation to continue “becoming-necessary”.

In a purely nomadic, purely self-organizing group (were such a thing possible), the mantle of authority would fall on whoever happened to express the becoming best suited to the event or situation at hand (even if what is “best suited” to a given situation can ultimately only be determined by experimentation).  Although in a sense all groups are self-organizing, groups become institutions by fixing a certain organizational form in an explicit and more or less permanent structure (by means of a charter, for instance), and as often as not by assigning specific individuals to more or less permanent positions of authority – regardless of the situation and of their expressive capacity or incapacity in relation to it.  Relative to nomadic groups, institutions thus run the twin risks of subordinating the pursuit of the aims for which it was founded to the preservation of the institution itself, and of sacrificing its flexibility in responding to novel events and changing circumstances to the maintenance of the established power-structure and the power-status of its current appointees.  The organizational charter of the Orpheus Symphony Orchestra, let me say in passing, is instructive in this regard: rather than appoint their conductor, artistic director, business manager, and so on, on a permanent basis, the group selects whoever seems best suited to each position according to what piece they are preparing to perform, so that authority repeatedly devolves to different members of the group in line with their differing expressive capacities in relation to the group’s changing repertoire.  The contrast with Orpheus is instructive precisely because institutions as a rule tend to lose such flexibility and responsiveness, and end up forfeiting their real reason for existing in order to perpetuate their existence for its own sake.

The next step will be to suggest what nomad citizens working within existing institutions can do to regain some of that lost flexiblity and responsiveness.