Some Thoughts on a First Reading of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus
by John David Ebert
Published in France in 1972, Anti-Oedipus was the first of several collaboartions between Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A few years later they would go on to write the even larger and more complex A Thousand Plateaus, perhaps Deleuze’s most famous work. Zizek argues that Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari represent his weakest work, and that his best books are actually The Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition, works written in the years prior to Anti-Oedipus. Since I have not yet read these latter two books, I cannot judge their merits, but I must say I was very impressed with Anti-Oedipus, though I think A Thousand Plateaus is the better book.
Whereas A Thousand Plateaus ranges through the disciplines, Anti-Oedipus is more narrowly focused upon psychoanalysis and its relationship to capitalism. Provocatively, they argue that schizophrenia is embedded in capitalism, a sort of by-product of its axiomatic political metabolism. The schizophrenic out for a walk, they point out, is a better model for their ‘schizoanalysis’ than the neurotic stretched out on the psychoanalytic couch. The schizophrenic is immune to neurosis, they insist, because he has already transcended it: the desiring machines within him link him to the outer world in a series of assemblages and flows that it is normally the job of psychoanalysis to repress.
Deleuze and Guattari substitute polyvocality and multiplicity for unity: not the Id or the ego, but machines and many of them. Their model for the unconscious is that of a factory of production, as opposed to the Freudian theater enacting the tragic dramas of Oedipus. The individual is not a true individual but a multiplicity of desiring machines, which are always coupled with other desiring machines: the breast machine, the anal machine, the phallic machine, and so forth. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari imagine the body to be full of organ machines motivated by desire, and it is precisely such desire that gets repressed in capitalist society as well as in Freudian analysis, which attempts to reduce all psychological problems to the mommy-daddy-infant triangle.
This is also where they first flesh out their interesting idea of the Body Without Organs. The BwO is no mere metaphor, they insist, but actual matter, a sort of virtual phase space that the actual body presupposes as a zone of potentialities across which flows are directed. Indeed, it is not all that dissimilar from Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields or Waddington’s chreodes. In A Thousand Plateaus, they will call the outer correlate to this idea in the physical world the ‘plane of immanence,’ which is a zone of zero intensities upon which all flows are played out. The partial organs of Lacan and Freud constitute the degrees of the Body Without Organs.
Heidegger may have pronounced metaphysics dead and philosophy to be over, but Deleuze and Guattari proceed to build an ontology with a very complex cosmology built up out of metaphysical planes and strata of varying degrees of intensity. We have to imagine them thinking and inhabiting a mental field that would be the equivalent of a Paul Klee painting: that is to say, they see through reality to a formative realm of self-organizing metaphysical singularities that are at work to shape matter everywhere. In this respect, Deleuze is closer to Aristotle than to Heidegger, who wasn’t interested in ontology, since that very thing had been bracketted by his mentor Husserl.
But the main insight of Anti-Oedipus is its sketching out of what they call three distinct regimes of representation that civilization has passed through: the primitve territorial representation; the despotic imperial representation; and the capitalist representation. Each of these regimes constitutes an internally complete structure that very much reminds one of the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser’s structures of consciousness: the primitive territorial mode codes flows on the full body of the earth (which, note, is not the full body without organs, but a differentiated socius, now, upon which social production is recorded and played out); the imperial representation, which is more or less equivalent to the rise of the first city states and empires, overcodes flows on the full body of the deterritorialized despot; while in the capitalist regime, flows are not coded at all, but rather decoded and deterritorialized on the full body of capital.
In each of these structures, there is a different medium of communication, a different form of paranoia and a different mode of synthesis. In the primitive regime, for example, which is dominated by the voice, it is not that writing does not exist but rather that it exists in the form of inscriptions on the body in the form of tattooes, scarification, mutilation, initiations, etc. Writing is not aligned with the voice until the next regime, the despotic regime, in which inscription shifts to the media of clay tablets, stone and other surfaces, all of which receive their authority from the deterritorialized body of the despot himself. By the time of the rise of the capitalist regime, however, Deleuze and Guattari (rather originally, I think) insist that writing is now an archaism, despite the printing press and McLuhan’s Gutenbergian Galaxy, for it is something that capitalism as such no longer needs.
In A Thousand Plateaus, these three regimes will be expanded to five, and in this respect, Deleuze reminds me of a sort of French equivalent of Jean Gebser, a neglected Swiss philosopher who modelled history in terms of internally consistent structures of consciousness. But it’s all in the discourse: whether you call them ‘structures of consciousness’ in the old-fashioned style of the German master narrative, or ‘sign regimes’ in the French philosophical schools of the 1960s depends on whether you are in or out of po-mo theory. Gebser’s out; Deleuze is in. A shame, because Gebser in his way is just as brilliant.
In the concluding section of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari insist that schizoanalysis, by contrast with psychoanalysis, does not try to interpret the subject’s neuroses, dreams and images, but rather the task is to find and identify his or her particular desiring machines, find out what they want, why they want it, and help to clear a path for them. Their vision of the unconscious is analogous to abstract art; Freud’s unconscious to Symbolist art. “A pure abstract figural dimension” composed of “flows, schizzes” as opposed to statues, images, dreams and signifiers. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari recall James Hillman’s famous insistence in Revisioning Psychology not to interpret the images of the unconscious, since to interpret them is to pin down and kill them with a pre-fixed meaning.
The book is Anti-Oedipus because it is, of course, a thorough critique of Freudian psychoanalysis which is far too restrictive, repressive and dogmatic for their taste. The psyche is much more polyvocal, alive and full of desiring machines attempting to forever link the psyche of the individual to one assemblage or another in the outer world around him. Capitalism, with its bourgeois ethos, merely serves to repress these desires and keep the individual in line, manipulable and in servitude to the machine.
Of course, their vision of the body as a kind of desiring machine, a plenitude of micromolecular structures that go to make up the molar aggregation of the social machine (or “megamachine” as they term it, borrowing from Mumford) is mechanistic, but it is mechanistic not in an unpleasant way, but rather in the way that William Gibson in his novels see the body as one machine that is inserted as a component amongst many other technical and electronic machines. Indeed, Anti-Oedipus is almost the philosophical equivalent of cyberpunk. Everything, for Deleuze and Guattari is a type of machine: there are social machines, celibate machines, miraculate machines, organ machines, etc. Everything is flowing and producing, motivated by desire, and it is the social machine of capitalism that checks and dams all the flows.
The schizophrenic, for Deleuze and Guattari, is an ideal only because of the multiplicitities, the many egos and machines, that inhabit him, and not because of any romantic idea that the madman is more truly sane than the rest of us. The schizophrenic is more interesting than the neurotic simply because he is plugged in to so many more assemblages than the neurotic, who is too blocked up to plug into anything.
Admittedly, I cannot pretend, on a first reading, to have understood all the subtleties and complexities of Deleuze and Guattari’s arguments. I don’t think anyone can. The writing is so dense and complex that each page would have to be examined with a magnifying glass, like a page of Finnegans Wake, in order for all its meaning to be wrung out.
But if you like complexity, and enjoy moving about in a mental phase space that is dazzling with fresh ideas, you might wish to try Anti-Oedipus. Save A Thousand Plateaus for later, for it is even more forbidding and complex.