18 06 08

Learning from porcupines: Analytic war machines and an ethics of intervention

Rodrigo Nunes

The collaborative work by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari has, since the 1970s, served as inspiration for a politics 'of movement' – of flux rather than stasis, but also one pitching social movements against institutions. This has a grounding not only in explicit statements made by the two, but also in their political commitments to the extra-parliamentary left (in France as in Italy), and practices such as the ones developed by the La Borde clinic or with the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons; more importantly, it finds substantial, systematic support in the series of dualisms that organise their work, with oppositions such as major/minor, molar/molecular, dispositif/line of flight, sedentary/nomad, macro-/micropolitics. Guattari's and Suely Rolnik's Micropolitical revolution in Brazil[1], only recently published in English, gives us a glimpse into both the activist and the thinker Guattari – the-activist-as-thinker and the thinker-as-activist –, through a series of encounters with different elements of that went into the composition of a then young and militant Workers' Party (PT).[2] In the thought in movement that is conserved in the book, his position often appears as far more cautious than many readers of L’Anti-Oedipe could suppose, and, working within a well-defined conjuncture rather than at a high level of abstraction, with much more nuanced contours.

The context of the book is located at the intersection of two series: a reawakening of political life in a country reaching the tail-end of a military dictatorship that had already lasted over fifteen years (and would survive for six more), preventing various micropolitical transformations brewing throughout the 1970s from entering into compositions that lent them a new consistency and urgency, and whose main point of convergence would be the creation of the PT; a Guattari processing the sometimes tragic defeats of the previous decades  (the cautionary tale of Italian Autonomia seems never far from his mind), the repentance of the nouveaux philosophes in regards to 1968, the double edge of the electoral victory of Mitterrand’s Socialist Party (which had incorporated agendas raised by the extra-parliamentary left), the onset of the années d’hiver of neoliberalism and Integrated World Capitalism.[3] It would be easy to put the caution and nuance shown in Brazil down to the descendent curve of the experiences closest to Guattari; and it is easy to hear the difference in tone in his collaborations with Deleuze, from the immediate post-1968 heat of L’Anti-Oedipe to the exhortations to restore faith in this world in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?. This would maybe account for an exchange as seemingly out of character as when an interlocutor praises ‘what I understand of what Guattari thinks’ – that there is a need for ‘various molecular revolutions (…), a multiplicity of feminist, lesbian-feminist, black, and other groups, questioning patriarchal or phallic structures’; since ‘the party reproduces the patriarchal structure’, she believes a better use of energy would consist in trying ‘to construct new forms of performance, assemblages that seek to question those power structures.’[4]

Guattari: (…) If the movement works like that, OK. But there might also be situations in which it falls apart. I’ll give a historical example: all the different components of the Autonomia movement in Italy broke down, and often because of this kind of discourse. (…) They organized themselves in structures — very interesting ones, actually, such as publishing houses and cooperatives — which within a few months became completely depoliticised. (…) No doubt this process would have appeared at some point in history, one way or another. Nevertheless, a different script could have been written: the autonomisation of the feminist members operating as a factor to reinforce the effectiveness of movements [instead of their] collapse into a black hole. Just imagine if all the women in the PT (whether or not they were feminists, or lesbians) suddenly decided to say: “That’s it, we’ve had enough of Lula and all that, we’re off.”

Comment: And then they’d organize themselves into women’s groups. I think that would be great!

Guattari: Maybe. But to think it great that a movement like the PT should disappear is debatable, to say the least.

Yet already in his introduction to Guattari’s Psychanalise et transversalité in 1972, Deleuze had praised his friend for exposing the false alternative between ‘spontaneism and centralism’, ‘guerrilla and generalised war’, proposing a third option that would correspond to the task of effectuating ‘a unification that must operate transversally’.[5] ‘It is evident that a revolutionary machine cannot be content with local and punctual struggles: hyper-desiring and hyper-centralised, it must be all at once.’[6] But the first characteristic of this unification does not seem all that promising: it must be a ‘war machine’; the latter, in the way Mille Plateaux would later define it, seems precisely to confirm the purely movementist picture of a Deleuze and Guattari who turn their backs on institutions – it is by nature distinct in everything from the State; its primary object is to flee, to follow its lines of flight, and only secondarily to wage war on the State (when lines of flight are blocked); it is captured by the State the moment when its object becomes war.[7] So much for being ‘more centralist than the centralists’[8]… Immediately, he adds: ‘unification must be done by analysis, must have a role of analyser in relation to group and mass desire, and a not a role of synthesis proceeding by rationalisation, totalisation, exclusion etc.’[9]

‘Analysis’ must be understood in the psycho- or schizoanalytical sense: to relive, to unearth, to address the flows and blockages of desire that compose a given situation or group in its relation to other groups and to economic, political, libidinal determinations. Of course, the position of the analyst in this case is not analogous to that in psychoanalysis: not separated from the outset by a differential of knowledge and authority; not an external party, but interested, involved, partial. But who or what exactly can or is supposed to occupy it?

The text gives the example of the March 22 movement that coalesced around the spark (the Nanterre protests and their repression) that led to the ‘events of May’, in which Guattari and the likes of Daniel Cohn-Bendit took part. While an ‘insufficient war machine’, it had managed to constitute itself as analyser ‘“of a mass of students and young workers”, with no hegemonic or vanguardist pretension, a simple support enabling transference and the lifting of inhibitions’.[10] Notwithstanding any concrete evaluation of the groups’ success or otherwise, it is clear here that ‘transference’ should be read in the sense of its reworking in the hands of Guattari, departing from, or exacerbating the tensions of, Freudian orthodoxy. The libidinal bond between analysand and analyst that Freud (at least originally) saw as the necessary therapeutic moment allowing for the re-hearsal of past trauma towards its resolution (and thus the resolution of the analytic relation itself) ceases to be a dyad and becomes a triangulation between analysand, analyst and group/institutional context, always necessarily on the brink of dissolving even further into the relations of the group with its outside. In the institutional-analytic context, a loop is created whereby an analysis is always of the institution itself – practiced by, and fed back into itself. ‘The analyst is no longer the mirror; rather, it’s the group. This places the group in the position of the analyst, thus making it an analyser.’[11]

We are obviously faced with a regression – a group like March 22 served as analyser for a mass; but if the transference itself stopped at a libidinal investment by the mass in the group, that would mean March 22 would be the mirror, the analyst; for the relation to go beyond transference towards transversality, it was necessary for the mass itself to become an analyser. This is what Guattari seemed to see in that moment of Brazilian history: the PT, as a process of convergence that intensified the different desires and groups that went into its constitution, while managing to maintain the entropy of the system at a low level, preventing differences from just being annulled; and Lula, the charismatic figure of the outsider relayed by the mass media, ‘not “the Father of Oppressed” or “the Father of the Poor”’, but ‘the vehicle of an extremely important vector of dynamics in the current situation’, for ‘nowadays one can’t consider the struggles at all the levels without considering this factor of the production of subjectivity by the media’[12]; not (or hopefully not) the mirror that would become the fixed other of transference, but a ‘transitional object’ allowing for the analysis to be reappropriated by those projecting themselves on him.[13] And so Guattari is less out of character after all: his interest in the unique experience of party- and movement-building that Brazil was going through was concerned with the molecular or micropolitical potentials that it could intensify and give consistency to; the party itself, and its leading figure, as vehicles of transformations that would cross it in different directions, but not be exhausted by it. A ‘transversal unification’, working by analysis rather than synthesis: the creation of a consistent, common territory through a feedback loop between the point of convergence and the lines that cross it that works by transforming instead of stabilising, by creating instead of imposing an identity, by resonating instead of delimiting, by forming libidinal rather than rational ties. Guattari borrows from Freud (who had borrowed from Schopenhauer) the example of porcupines dealing with the cold: they come together, but prick each other with their quills; they move away, but feel cold; eventually they hit upon a distance that provides warmth without causing pain.[14]

These two examples, however, point to a problem: situations such as 1968 and the Brazilian early 1980s are rare; the very nature of this feedback loop begs the question – is the ‘analytic war machine’ simply an epiphenomenon of such unique moments? How much does it produce, and how much is it produced by these conditions? Is the regression in fact a circularity?

What is more, as with the porcupines, these moments eventually hit upon a stable form, their molecular potentials less intense, trapped in molar stratification. Of course, Guattari the soixant-huitard knew it as well as anyone. His pragmatic formula throughout the Brazilian days seems to be: ‘what you are living is quite unique; seize the opportunity, make the most of it; it will not last forever’; a lesson undoubtedly not lost on those living after the cycle of struggles of the last fifteen years. As for the circularity, it is in fact the question of transformation itself – of the event –, in Deleuze and Guattari as well as Foucault. If immanence is both entropy and negentropy, stabilisation and rupture, action is always hard to locate; if it does not come from outside, it requires conditions; the production of difference requires difference to always be there, enveloped by stasis; yet the conditions are only effective when acted upon; every action, however analytical, is immersed in a passivity it does not master; but every passivity is, in principle, transformable by action.

In one of his late returns to Kant, Foucault poses the question: ‘if we limit ourselves to enquiries and experiments that are always partial and local, do we not risk to let ourselves be determined by more general structures of which we have neither conscience nor control?’.[15] The answer is direct: there can never be a full knowledge of our historical limits; however much we try to dig into the conditions of our passivity, the very fact of our passivity guarantees that such a knowledge can never be exhausted. This is why critique is not so much a defined practice or a method, but an ethos, a ‘limit-attitude’ which is experimental: not a speculative exercise in interpreting the world, but a practical experiment in exploring ‘in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what is the part of the singular, contingent and arbitrary.’[16] Any critique, any action, any intervention, must start from an analytic rather than synthetic position: a search for the conditions of a situation rather than the establishment of a law, a break down into constituent elements rather than a ‘view from above’ that discerns a definite partition between activity and passivity, an objective telos of historical development, or the narcissistic projection of a boundless subjective power. But the search for conditions can never be exhausted – and for there to be action, it needs to stop at one point: critique is always a partial interpretation, and as such a violence; the analyser as analysand, and vice-versa. It is no surprise to see as creative a metaphysician as Guattari state that it ‘is an illusion to think there is something to read in the order of Being’[17], if the problem is indeed ‘to follow the flows that constitute as many lines of flight in capitalist society, and to operate ruptures, impose breaks at the very hear of social determinism and historical causality’.[18]

There is, in the end, far more to be learnt in seeing this kind of procedure in action within a limited context (as in Molecular revolution in Brazil, or many of Foucault’s interviews) than in its general outlines, for the very good reason that, if it is primarily experimental, its generalities can only ever be too general. From both, however, it is perhaps possible to draw out elements of an ethics of intervention that may be of use to those today who intend to practice a critique of some practical use.

Firstly, a commitment to the present. Not as ‘unique, fundamental or eruptive moment of history where everything comes to an end and starts again’: ‘one must have the modesty to say to oneself [that] the moment in which one lives is very interesting and demands to be analysed, decomposed’; it is a ‘a day like every other’, but ‘a day that is never really like any other’ nonetheless.[19] The lesson of Kant’s ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ concerns ‘today as difference’[20]: the Baudelarian effort to grasp the unique in the fleeting, the analytic attempt to identify and giving voice to the differentials that constitute a situation without yet being visible/sayable as its elements, and the experimental effort of a ‘critical practice in the form of possible transgression.’[21] An active, selective and practical commitment to the present is necessary for a commitment to the future: ‘[t]he philosopher must become non-philosopher so that non-philosophy will become the land and the people of philosophy.’[22]

Secondly, if analysis will usually restrict itself to the local and partial, it is because its material and experimental effectiveness depends on a more delimited domain whose variables it can more safely ‘control’, and where it is inserted – again, a matter of feedback. And if it moves towards a ‘unification’ which is more or less possible and wide-ranging according to its historical conditions, it should be by working towards the distribution of the analytic function – learning from porcupines. To read in Deleuze and Guattari an unqualified ‘preferential option for the small’ is to mistake extensive and intensive multiplicities: the latter, being the systems of differentials that become actualised in an extensive ‘situation’, precede extension, and so can be neither big nor small. This is what is called ‘molecular’: the potential of difference enveloped in any being or group, big or small. And while the history of PT shows the impossibility of sustaining a high level of openness and bottom-up democracy for a long time, a blind fetish of the small group or action, built through identity and closed to the outside, is a short path to molar stratification. Corollary: a breakdown into constituent elements concerns the flows and transversal lines across a ‘mass’, not the already constituted identities that populate it. Transversality, not horse-trading: it works to draw dots at the end of lines, instead of drawing lines between dots.

Thirdly, critique/analysis is a material process, demanding an ethics of involvement. There is more to this that is easily lost in the monotonous refrains of ‘everything is interpretation’ or ‘there is no outside’. An effective intervention must share the conditions of a situation, and the outcomes it brings about; if it is to be experimental, it must not only be ‘interested’, but involved; which means that it cannot be blind to the conditions of its own production, the systems of relations that grant it credence (and can make it into the fixed mirror of transference), the material conditions of its circulation (among real, material bodies), but must make them into objects of experimentation and transformation. If it is not for its own sake, it is because it does not have a temporality of its own, but only that of what it feeds back into.

Yet the work on conditions can never be finished, and experiments always happen against a background of uncertainty. An intervention offers no guarantee, and this is particularly clear if the question of cooptation is posed:

Will Lula’s PT coopt the whole dissident movement that can be seen in part of its grassroots support? I hope not. I only know that among the final points of the PT program there’s one that speaks specifically about “respect for autonomy.” This kind of affirmation in a political program is extraordinary. (…) To reject this attempt because of a fear of cooptation isn’t justified in the name of an incapacity to completely express our desire in the situation, in the name of a mythical ethics of autonomy, in the name of the cult of spontaneity. [I]f there is some justification for a fear of cooptation, it is simply because, if a movement plunges into this kind of relation, it loses its efficiency, it loses its capacity for openness, it ceases to be a channel in which singular traits of a mutation of subjectivity can be affirmed. In such circumstances the movement ages very quickly, it becomes deaf and insensitive.[23]

The movements of molarisation/stratification in Deleuze and Guattari, and of recuperation in dialectics are the same phenomenon seen from two directions, distinct at the properly philosophical level of the choices that are precede and organise any system. Zizek, to name but one, has decried an immanent logic that will always stay too close to the given, so that its resistance becomes in effect celebration of and participation in what it opposes: an atheism become theodicy of passive acceptance and rejoicing in ‘the small things’.[24] This position, taken to its extreme conclusion, requires theory to remain untainted by any involvement with the world; to celebrate the external authority of the analyst/master as the true condition of critique, as Adorno saw in the autonomy of art; to intervene sovereignly when the occasion arises, and retreat into itself at the first sign of cooptation, recuperation, ‘betrayal’. It is in every way opposed to an ethics of involvement; like phenomenology, it can only conceive the event as the purely external, messianic rupture, or ‘the possibility of impossibility’. While Adorno’s pessimism is unwavering, Guattari’s texts are traversed by the fluctuations of their conditions, and can seem to suffer from bipolar disorder. He could offer few concrete prescriptions, and spoke knowingly of the ‘small mornings’, even while celebrating the ‘great nights’. Negative dialectics is at once always defeated, and always right, the first to see the ruse of reason and say ‘I knew it’: from the distance it inhabits, it can be sure its hands will always be clean from betrayal.

The difference? A wager.

[1] Guattari, F.; Rolnik, S. (2008) Molecular revolution in Brazil. Cambridge, Mass.: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press.

[2] The trip took place in 1982, year of the first direct elections for state government since the coup d’Etat in 1964, and the first contested by PT, founded in 1980 after a long national process, set in motion by the metalworker strikes of the late 1970s, which agglutinated most sectors of the non-communist left, independent unionism, progressive Catholics, peasants, Afro-descendents, feminists, gays and lesbians, artists, public intellectuals etc. Lula, leader of the São Paulo metalworkers’ union, was the party’s candidate in that state.

[3] ‘The winter years’ is the title of a collection of texts written in the 1980s; cf. Guattari, F. (1992). Les années d’hiver. 1980-1985. Paris: Barrault Bernard. ‘Integrated World Capitalism’ is the name with which he wished to capture the transformations that would soon become known as ‘globalisation’. Cf. also: Guattari, F. (2004). Plan sobre el planeta. Capitalismo mundial integrado y revoluciones moleculares. Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños; Alliez, E.; Guattari, F. (1984) Capitalistic systems, structures and processes. [].

[4] Guattari, F.; Rolnik, S. Op. cit., pp. 124-5.

[5] Deleuze, G. (2004) Trois problèmes de groupe. In: L’Ile déserte. Paris: Minuit, p. 278. (All translations from original texts are mine.)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Deleuze, G.; Guattari, F. (2004) Mille plateaux. Paris: Minuit, esp. p. 518-27.

[8] Deleuze, G. Op. cit., p. 278.

[9] Ibid., p. 279. (Italics in the original.)

[10] Ibid., 279-80.

[11] Genosko, G. Introduction. In: Genosko, G. (2002) The Guattari reader. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 15.

[12] Guattari, F; Rolnik, S. Op. cit., p. 240. If one of the main thrusts of his collaboration with Deleuze consisted in a semioticisation of material flows, there is, in the later Guattari’s attention to the rising importance of mass media, a renewed emphasis on the semiotic ‘proper’; Lula’s mediatic role is highlighted throughout. 

[13] The issue of this identification, in societies mired in a history of slavery and racism, cannot be overlooked. Lula’s 2002 victory has been analysed by Suely Rolnik along these lines; cf. Rolnik, S. (2003) O acontecimento Lula. Glob(AL), 1(0), January. In 1989, Lula’s main electoral strength lay in the social movements and urban, mostly white, university-educated middle classes; the view, constantly put forward by the media, that he was too ‘ignorant’ and ‘underdeveloped’ to be president seemed to find resonance with large portions of the poor population. The phenomenon was inverted in 2002, when he became a symbol of empowerment, entitlement and social mobility. In 2006, when he was under heavy attack from Brazil’s oligarchic media (which, also for reasons of prejudice, does not regard Lula as ‘theirs’, regardless of what they may think of his economic policy), the gap between them and popular opinion grew even wider; Lula was re-elected, and mainstream vehicles – now under the impact of a more plural ‘blogosphere’ – suffered a huge loss in credibility.    

[14] Cf. Guattari, F. (1972). Transversalité. In: Psychanalyse et transversalité. Paris: Maspero, p. 80.

[15] Foucault, M. (2001) Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?. In: Dits et écrits. Paris: Gallimard, 2001, vol. II, p. 1394.

[16] Ibid., p. 1393.

[17] Guattari, F. Transference. In: Genosko, G. (2002) The Guattari reader. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 64.

[18] Deleuze, G. Op. cit., p. 279.

[19] Foucault, M. (2001). Structuralisme et post-structuralisme. In: Op. cit., p. 1267. Foucault admits it is ‘only fair’ that he should condemn this mistake, ‘as I have happened to make it’.

[20] Idem. (2001) Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?. In: Op. cit., p. 1387.

[21] Ibid., p. 1393.

[22] Deleuze, G.; Guattari, F. (2003) Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?. Paris: Minuit, p. 105.

[23] Guattari, F; Rolnik, S. Op. cit., p. 226. Asked about the legalisation of free radios by Mitterrand, Guattari replies that there is no necessary contradiction ‘between institutionalisation and creative capacity’ (p. 169); later, he poses the question of ‘creating devices that oppose the micropolitics of cooptation’ (p. 218), i.e., of working at the level of the desire for cooptation.

[24] Such is the main thrust of: Zizek, S. (2003) Organs without bodies: on Deleuze and consequences. London: Routledge. I hope to have contributed to clearing some of the confusion (among detractors and supporters) around the ‘small things’.

Rodrigo Nunes