Why Deleuze (still) matters: States, war-machines and radical transformation

By Andrew Robinson

The usefulness of Deleuzian theory for social transformation will vary with the selection of which conceptual contributions one chooses to appropriate. Studying Deleuzian theory is complicated by characteristics of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical method. In What is Philosophy?, they define the function of theory in terms of proliferating concepts – inventing new conceptual categories which construct new ways of seeing. In common with many constructivists, they take the view that our relationship to the world is filtered through our conceptual categories. Distinctively, they also view agency in terms of differentiation – each person or group creates itself, not by selecting among available alternatives, but by splitting existing totalities through the creation of new differences. This approach leads to a proliferation of different concepts which, across Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborative and individual works, total in the hundreds.

Instead of seeking to trim their conceptual innovations and neologisms (new words) for simplicity and necessity (an efficiency model of theory – “just in time”, like modern production), they multiply concepts as tools for use, which, although possibly redundant in some analyses, may be useful for others (a resilience model of theory – “just in case”, like indigenous and autonomous cultures). They encourage readers to pick and choose from their concepts, selecting those which are useful and simply passing by those which are not. This has contributed to the spread of diverse Deleuzian approaches which draw on different aspects of their work, but also makes it easy for people to make incomplete readings of their theories, appropriating certain concepts for incompatible theoretical projects while rejecting the revolutionary dynamic of the theory itself. As a result, a large proportion of what passes for Deleuzian theory has limited resonance with the general gist of Deleuze and Guattari’s work, which is not at all about reconciling oneself to the dominant system, but rather, is about constructing other kinds of social relations impossible within the dominant frame. The proliferation of concepts is intended to support such constructions of other ways of being. Another effect of the proliferation of concepts is to make Deleuzian theory difficult to explain or express in its entirety.

In this article, I have chosen to concentrate on the conceptual pairing of states and war-machines as a way of understanding the differences between autonomous social networks and hierarchical, repressive formations. Deleuze and Guattari view the ‘state’ as a particular kind of institutional regime derived from a set of social relations which can be traced to a way of seeing focused on the construction of fixities and representation. There is thus a basic form of the state (a “state-form”) in spite of the differences among specific states. Since Deleuze and Guattari’s theory is primarily relational and processual, the state exists primarily as a process rather than a thing. The state-form is defined by the processes or practices of ‘overcoding’, ‘despotic signification’ and ‘machinic enslavement’. These attributes can be explained one at a time. The concept of despotic signification, derived from Lacan’s idea of the master-signifier, suggests that, in statist thought, a particular signifier is elevated to the status of standing for the whole, and the other of this signifier (remembering that signification is necessarily differential) is defined as radically excluded. ‘Overcoding’ consists in the imposition of the regime of meanings arising from this fixing of representations on the various processes through which social life and desire operate. In contrast to the deep penetration which occurs in capitalism, states often do this fairly lightly, but with brutality around the edges. Hence for instance, in historical despotic states, the inclusion of peripheral areas only required their symbolic subordination, and not any real impact on everyday life in these areas. Overcoding also, however, entails the destruction of anything which cannot be represented or encoded.

‘Machinic enslavement’ occurs when assembled groups of social relations and desires, known in Deleuzian theory as ‘machines’, are rendered subordinate to the regulatory function of the despotic signifier and hence incorporated in an overarching totality. This process identifies Deleuze and Guattari’s view of the state-form with Mumford’s idea of the megamachine, with the state operating as a kind of absorbing and enclosing totality, a bit like the Borg in Star Trek, eating up and assimilating the social networks with which it comes into contact. Crucially, while these relations it absorbs often start out as horizontal, or as hierarchical only at a local level, their absorption rearranges them as vertical and hierarchical aggregates. It tends to destroy or reduce the intensity of horizontal connections, instead increasing the intensity of vertical subordination. Take, for instance, the formation of the colonial state in Africa: loose social identities were rigidly reclassified as exclusive ethnicities, and these ethnicities were arranged in hierarchies (for instance, Tutsi as superior to Hutu) in ways which created rigid boundaries and oppressive relations culminating in today’s conflicts…Read More

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

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