Sunday, December 28, 2003

Reading:: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Originally posted: Sun, 28 Dec 2003 05:16:43

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

by Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari

(Note: A later review of this book is available.)

A Thousand Plateaus is a deeply influential book which, though first published in French in 1980, is being increasingly cited in rhetoric, technical communication, science studies, educational psychology, and the like. In in, Deleuze and Guattari introduce themes such as rhizomes, deterritorialization, bodies without organs (BwO), and the like. Through their highly metaphorical language, imaginatively written explanations, and their attempt to write the book as a rhizome -- even inviting readers to begin reading at any point rather than at the beginning -- Deleuze and Guattari perform as well as describe an approach to language that relies on heterogeneous, multiply linked assemblages.

I found the book to be excruciating and abandoned it on p.178.

Is it worthwhile to review a book of which I have read less than half? Perhaps so, especially because I strongly suspect that most people who cite this thing haven't read it all the way through either. When I see references to Deleuze & Guattari, they almost always focus on the notion of rhizome discussed in the first (and most readable) chapter. In any case, I'll take the authors at their word when they say in Chapter 1 that the book is written as a rhizome, an organic structure (or rather anti-structure) that is so interlinked that any part is as the whole.

This notion of rhizome, as I hint above, is the best traveled and most used concept from the book, at least in the literature I've read. "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be," the authors tell us (p.5). Rhizomes may rupture in spots, temporarily, but everything is connected so these disruptions do not destroy the rhizome. The rhizome is an anti-genealogy: it does not rely on historical development, it links through and across states of being and ontologies. One can see how writers such as Bruno Latour and John Law, who have been applying the notion of heterogeneous networks to science and technology studies, would be intrigued by the concept. Frankly, I think they attempt to apply the concept much more concretely than Deleuze and Guattari do -- to actual empirical cases, not just to endlessly circulating semiotic systems -- and in doing so they expose some of the problems with the concept.

What problems? Here's Latour, from his chapter "Social theory and the study of computerized work sites":

Rhyzomes and heterogeneous networks are thus powerful ways of avoiding essences, arbitrary dichotomies, and to fight structures. But ... their limit is to define entities only through association. ... they become empty when asked to provide policy, pass judgement or explain stable features. ... Their dissolving power is so great that after having dissolved the illusions of critical postures, there is not much that is left and they even may turn into a somewhat perverse enjoyment of the diversity, perversity, heterogeneity and multiplicity of the unexpected associations they deploy so well. (1995, p.304).

The genius of rhizomes -- the point that we can put Cartesian distinctions behind us and examine the multiple and multiplying interconnections among people, practices, artifacts, ontologies, etc. -- is also its Achilles' heel. What do you do with them after you cry for the umpteenth time, "aha, there's no Cartesian divide!" You descend into the joyless, wearily self-indulgent spiral of deconstruction that Latour so rightly condemns as "perverse" here and in stronger terms in Pandora's Hope. Stability is lost -- or, rather, completely rejected -- as is any interest in or explanation of sociocultural development. The latter point is particularly corrosive to empirical examinations of work, and I think has fought against some of the more interesting work in science and technology studies.

Of course, Deleuze and Guattari didn't come up with the notion of rhizome with those studies in mind, and it's actually not very clear to me exactly what they want to apply rhizomes to. The examples in subsequent chapters, though, tend to be semiotic systems, endless regimes of signs forming infinite, infinitely circular networks (see especially Chapter 5). It seems to me that what the authors have given with one hand -- the notion of a rhizome composed of heterogeneous nodes across categories -- they take away with the other by immediately collapsing these heterogeneous nodes unto dreary, labyrinthine regimes of signs. We're back to the prison-house of language from which Latour, Law, Callon, and others worked so hard to release us. Behind our backs, Deleuze and Guattari restored the asymmetrical relationship between humans and nonhumans by insisting that the whole is interpreted. So we spiral back into an endless post-Freudian discussion of how pores resemble vaginas, a colorless set of instructions that a masochist might leave his dominatrix, and so forth.

That seemingly endless discussion involves a lot of neologisms and a lot of highly metaphoric language. Even some of the words seem endless, especially when you say them out loud. "Deterritorialization." "Bodies-without-organs." Frustratingly, it's very difficult to figure out these metaphors in spots, making the book read like a mystical text rather than an imaginatively constructed one. When Deleuze and Guattari say that language is not a map but a tracing, do they mean the same by trace that I do -- a sociocultural line of development? Who knows? As with any mystical, metaphoric text, A Thousand Plateaus requires the acolyte to read without immediate comprehension, to soak in the wisdom through multiple readings, to work out an endless regime of signs in his or her own life. Tons of words, teaspoons of insight.

I'm just not up for that, so I just stopped reading. Yes, I'll likely cite the first chapter as apparently everyone else does. But I can't imagine reading the rest of this excruciating book of my own free will.

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