CFP: Deleuzian Geographies

CFP – Deleuzian geographies: problems and milieus

Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting,
March 29-April 2, 2016
San Francisco, California

“We do not yet know the thought of Deleuze. Too often, whether hostile or adoring, we act as if his concepts were familiar, as if it were enough that his concepts simply touch us in order for us to understand them without spelling them out, or as if we had already made a survey of their promises” (Zourabichvili, 2012: 139)

This session speaks to the ever-growing engagement with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze in geography and the social sciences. The session will take stock of how Deleuzian (and Deleuzeo-Guattarian) concepts – such as affect, assemblage, becoming, de/re/territorialisation, difference, event, individuation, the minor, and the molecular – have been taken up in geography, productively amplifying key problematics that stage both new conceptual openings and new points of contestation (Sharpe et al, 2014; Woodward and Jones III, 2005).

In particular, we seek papers that respond to Francois Zourabichili’s (2012) call to (re-)engage Deleuze’s philosophy not as a revolution already-made, but instead as a force of creative encounter. Following Deleuze, what are the evaluative terms and stakes of thinking currently emerging in the contact zones of, for example, politics, aesthetics, science, the economy, ethics, and ecology (Ruddick, 2010; Doel and Clarke, 2007; McCormack, 2007; Hynes, 2015; Bonta and Protevi, 2004). We welcome papers then from across the field of geography that explore how Deleuze’s concepts participate in events of thinking that displace extant fields of intelligibility, generating new terms for modifying the conditions of the problems posed by society today. We offer the following ‘conceptual problematics’ and ‘terrains of contestation’ as possible suggestions of some themes that papers might address:

Conceptual problematics:
– Vital materialism and ecologies of nonorganic life
– Dispositions, tendencies, inclinations
– Ethics and the affective production of bodies
– Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism and alternative theorizations of subjectivity
– Earth-thinking: geophilosophy and chaosmosis
– Space after Deleuze: the ‘fold’ of topological thinking and the critique of interiority
– Art after Deleuze: encounters in cinema, music, literature etc.
– Politics after Deleuze: micropolitics and desire

Milieus of contestation:
– Deleuze’s differential ontology: coherence in becoming as opposed to that in being?
– New materialisms and a philosophy of the event: theorising matter as tendency, disposition, inclination as opposed to object-oriented, phenomenological and networked theories?
– The politics of affect: thinking an affective politics through the evental lens of singularities, thresholds and individuations as opposed to those that think these politics through objects, conditions, and atmospheres?
– Deleuze and research methodologies: what is the efficacy in experimenting beyond representation, beyond recognition?
– Deleuze and philosophy: are there different Deleuzes (Deleuze- Nietzsche, -Spinoza, -Bergson, -Simondon, -Whitehead) and how do they marry each to the other?

Please submit abstracts of 250 words or less to by Wednesday 21st October, 2015.

For more information and more general expressions of interest, please contact the session organizers:

Andrew Lapworth, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

Scott Sharpe, School of Physical, Environmental & Mathematical Sciences, UNSW@Canberra,

JD Dewsbury, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol,

Chaos and Control 2: Deleuze & Guattari

In their book What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari tell us that “we require just a little order to protect us from chaos” (201). The book is an extended discussion of the proper uses of science, philosophy, and art that very much echoes my experiences with Rothko. D&G say that the three disciplines, each in their own way, are trying to help us commune with chaos without getting overwhelmed. Each “throws a plane over chaos,” or cuts a slice through it, carves out a little place for us to stand, a little eye of the storm. Or maybe the right image is that each provides us with a dwelling place, with an environment that is in the midst of chaos, and connected vitally to it, but it is nevertheless a “home” that we can make sense of and inhabit.

But I want to stress that I think we should not take them to be saying that both chaos and order are ethically equivalent, that we need to balance the two in order to live a good life. They are not making an Aristotelian argument, that the golden mean, the average, the middle road between chaos and order is best, most rational, most upright. That agenda is just a conservative lust for a stable status quo. At least that’s what it was in Aristotle, and I expect it was also in all those similarly conservative souls who third-wayed their way to the top.


D&G don’t want us to come to rest, fat and happy, in some sort of mean. Not at all. They want us to press on, always, out toward freedom, which is best. They want us to always strive to commune with chaos, as fully as we can, without going up in flames. Even if we must have a plane, some form of consistency that shields us from the pure motion/energy of chaos, that doesn’t mean the plane is an ethically good thing. It’s just functionally necessary. We should always leave it, push ourselves on toward the life-force of chaos. It is true that we cannot live in chaos, that we must always return to the plane, always “come home” from our travels. Home, order, the plane of consistency: these are all necessary, but they are not what is good. What is good is what we can do when we are “abroad,” what we can learn, what we can become. We must return home, but when we do we should make sure “no one will recognize us any more when we come back” (191).

Philosophy, and art, and to a lesser extent science, are obligated to give us just enough order to keep us safe from destruction, but their mission is to connect us with chaos. Their purpose is to allow us to draw from its life-force, to touch off as many becomings as possible. That is the ethical and political project D&G champion. Never come to rest, even if we must rest, never settle into order, even if we require a little order to survive.

From this perspective, Rothko’s pictures, with their frames protecting us from chaos, have to keep us from being overwhelmed, sure, but that’s their obligation, not their mission. Their mission is to plug us in to chaos.

I think something very similar applies to democracy, and that’s what I will try to write about next.

Chaos and Control: Mark Rothko

I have always been a Mark Rothko fan.

There is no telling why. That is part of the deal. It is supposed to be an emotional experience, reasons can’t be given.

(I have always thought it had a lot to do with the game Candyland, a game I think I played a lot growing up. In that game, you didn’t roll dice and use the total to know how many spaces to advance, you used color. Each square on the board had a color, and you would draw a card, which would have a block of color on it, and you would advance along the board until you arrived at the next square of that color. Sometimes, though, it seemed like only very rarely, you would get a double, a card with two blocks of the same color on it, and so you would be able to advance two instances of that color on the board. I suspect that Rothko’s paintings, on some very deep level, struck me as the world’s most gigantic version of the Candyland cards I coveted most.)

There is an exhibit of Rothko’s paintings in the Tate Modern in London. I have been lucky enough to visit London a fair amount of times, usually on my own, and I have been free to walk around wherever I chose. But every time I am there I go to the Tate to see the Rothkos. It would be easy to object to this, to say what are you thinking, there are an infinite number of things to see and do in London, don’t re-see something you have already seen. But I don’t even really think twice. I go straight to the Tate. Unlike most galleries, in which Rothko’s pictures are mixed in with others in a series of rooms devoted to a theme or a school of painting, at the Tate there are 9 Rothkos in one room, one very dimly lit room.


It takes time to see them, both because your eyes have to adjust to the low light, and because the paintings are very subtle. They are made almost entirely of blacks and maroons, and the forms on the canvas make themselves aware to you only gradually. At first the pictures look like mostly indistinct fields of dark. But over time, if you wait for it, the windows appear.

The windows. Or maybe they are frames. Or scaffolds of some kind. As I sat there at length, and the pictures presented themselves to me, it became clear that what was going on was that Rothko was trying to create for us a way to contact chaos without getting hurt. Let me try to explain that one. The paintings are huge, 8’x8′ or so, and the basic set up is that there is a field of dark red on which Rothko has overlain black rectangles, each of which is bisected, making them look like window panes. The dark red is clearly the background, and the black is laid down on top of the red. In the ones that struck me most, the red background is darker at the edges of the canvas and lighter in the center, so one has the clear sense of an almost infinite depth receding into the middle of the picture. It is like staring into the void, or looking into a blizzard, or peering over the edge of a very, very deep chasm. But for the windows. They provide a frame, a defense, a buffer that somehow keeps you safe, that somehow prevents the terror of the chaos from fully reaching you. The frames of the windows vary in thickness. In some pictures we are relatively more exposed to the chaos than others. Sometimes the frames take up most of the picture, and the sliver of red background is more occluded. Other times the frames are thinner, more delicate, and we feel far more nakedly exposed to the chaos.

I know from being a big fan of the movie Six Degrees of Separation that Kandinsky has a two-sided painting, with chaos on one side and control on the other. What Rothko is doing here is offering both on the same side of the canvas, setting down one layer that is chaos, and then making sure it is muted or mediated or moderated or by a layer of control, the latter of which is closer to us, protecting us, keeping us safe, standing between us and chaos. But at the same time it allows us to see chaos, to connect with it, to really *feel* it.

The drama here isn’t really one of good and evil, of the destructive force of chaos against the control that keeps us safe. That would be a Hobbesian imagination. If we are to believe Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari who followed in his wake, chaos is not evil, it is everything. It is both destruction and production. And it contains within it all of those forces, all at once, all in one place. It is all of life and all of death all mixed together. It is not a negative power, power as a threat, but power in general, force that can change the world. Chaos is the source of life, of energy, of creation, but also the source of death and destruction. We absolutely must have it to live, to survive. But of course it also brings death as well. If we confront it nakedly, without mediation, if we are immersed in it fully, it will overwhelm us, swallow us up into its swirl. But, again, we must contact it, must connect with it, must draw from its power in order to continue living and growing. We must figure out a way to draw creative/productive energy from chaos without getting so close to it, so immersed in it, that it swallows us up.

These paintings, if they were all frame, would lack any connection to the chaos, and thus lack life. If they didn’t have any frames, they would precipitate us into chaos, and shut us down. But they are neither. They connect us to chaos without overwhelming us. I sat in the room for an hour, and I was intensely alive emotionally the whole time. But I never broke down and cried, the way Rothko sometimes claimed people did when confronted with his paintings. I was always on the verge of that, but the frames always brought me back. I was feeling alive, as intensely as possible, without being overwhelmed by it. It was a powerful and sustained sense of wonder. Maybe these pictures are great pictures because they find that balance, a semi-stable mix between the inspiration and vivacity that comes from chaos and the calm and reassurance that comes from control. For me, Rothko got it just right because I felt exhilarated and secure at the same time, in a constant play of forces where one never overwhelms the other. It was an incredible experience.

Hobbes and the War Machine

Here is my take, from something I am currently writing, on how we might interpret Deleuze and Guattari’s war machine, as just another front in their resolute and consistent campaign to overturn Hobbes in every respect…


Deleuze and Guattari do not discuss the city or the urban much, if at all. But they do offer lots of ideas on the question of space. For example, their account of desiring-production fleeing the apparatuses and tracing out a new land parallels their discussion of the nomad, a free element who moves across smooth space and remains beyond the reach of the striated space of the State. The State and its striated space is a central concern for Deleuze and Guattari, especially in A Thousand Plateaus. They even theorize a whole concept, the war machine, designed to work in and through smooth space and in opposition to the striated space of the State. The war machine is a complex concept, but I think it is important to understand it as an instance of their desire to confront Hobbes.

For Hobbes, we agree to submit to the authority of the State in order to bring ourselves out of the state of nature, which for him is necessarily a state of war. That is because in the state of nature anyone can, at any time, kill anyone else. Hobbes calls our condition in the state of nature bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of each person against every other person. For Hobbes our life in the state of nature–that is, life outside of (or prior to) State authority–is necessarily a state of war, a miserable state of constant dread that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Chapter 13). For Hobbes we enter into a state of peace, of civil society, of commonwealth, only when we agree to surrender our own power, the power that is originally ours, to the State. Hobbes’ argument here forms the glowing core of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the war machine–it is a machine whose purpose is to generate war in this Hobbesian sense: war as a condition outside the State, a life in which we have not surrendered our power to the State. Of course, Deleuze and Guattari do not accept Hobbes’ argument that such a life would necessarily be a bellum omnium contra omnes. Rather ‘war,’ or life outside the State, is instead a radically open proposition. For Deleuze and Guattari, in our life outside the State we can choose relations of peace or war; we can choose to thrive or destroy ourselves. Hobbes thought we were naturally inclined to war. Locke, for his part, thought we were naturally inclined to reason and peace. Deleuze and Guattari, much more plausibly, suggest that in our life beyond the State we are capable of the full range of human relations. And so for them the question is: what kind of human community the war machine will build, what kind of life the nomads will trace out for themselves in smooth space. The only thing we know for sure is that they will be operating beyond the State and its oligarchical structure, its striated space, and they will be actively warding off the State’s re-imposition. They will refuse Hobbes’ contract, refuse to surrender their power to the State, refuse to be captured by striated space. Instead, they will retain their own power, and they will use it to move through smooth space, to create according to their desire, and to manage their affairs for themselves.

An Echo from the Forest: Clastres and Deleuze and Guattari

In 1972, in Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari make no mention, as far as I can recall, of smooth and striated space, or even of the nomad. (If there is it is hardly front and center).

Then, in 1974, Pierre Clastres publishes Society Against the State, wherein:

The space of nomad hunters [the Guayaki (or Ache) people of Paraguay that Clastres was studying] cannot have the same dividing lines as that of sedentary agriculturalists. The latter is structured into concentric circles, with a division between a cultural space comprised of the village and gardens, and a natural space occupied by the surrounding forest. In contrast, the Guayaki space is continually homogeneous, reduced to a pure extension in which the difference between nature and culture is seemingly done away with….

Then in 1980 in A Thousand Plateaus, we get the whole discussion of the nomad, smooth space, and striated space. I am only halfway through Clastres, but so far it seems pretty clear that he made a very big impression on D&G.

My Etymology of Democracy (so far)

A section from something I am currently writing that I thought sounded true…

When people use the word democracy, what they usually mean is the liberal-democratic State, with its enshrined constitution, system for electing representatives, established parties, and legitimated laws. That is not democracy. It is an oligarchical structure whose purpose is to organize a vast effort to prevent democracy from emerging. So at the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the way I understand democracy is different from that usual meaning. What is more, my conception is actively opposed to that meaning. When I use the word, I mean something most might call radical democracy. I mean a community in which people actively manage their own affairs for themselves. Democracy is a way of living in which people continuously and actively use their own power to decide the future of the community.

To dig a little deeper into that general statement about democracy, I find it is productive to creatively explore the word’s etymology. Democracy is made up of demos and kratia (see, among others, Weekly, 1952; Soanes and Stevenson, 2008; Harper 2014). The second term, kratia, is typically thought to mean something like rule, government, or authority. It even holds traces of the idea of domination. And indeed the root of the word does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in ancient Greece,1 and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (e.g. aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, that dominates. It is a “power over,” a power of one entity to control others, a power that Deleuze and Guattari often call pouvoir. And in fact kratia is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced to a more general word, kratos, which means strength or power or might.2 We can read this more general term, kratos, in the mode of Spinoza or Nietzsche, to mean something like the power that humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say our power to create, to invent something new, to produce. This meaning is quite close to what Deleuze and Guattari call puissance. And so if we go back to the first Greek word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning, insisting that while it does bear the meaning of “power over” or pouvoir, it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” puissance, or our human capacity to act into and change the world.3

I am not arguing that my etymology of kratia reveals that its true meaning is “power to” or puissance rather than “power over” or pouvoir. Rather I am saying that the word contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so we can choose to emphasize kratia‘s puissance meaning rather than its pouvoir meaning. We are already doing the opposite, favoring the pouvoir meaning over the puissance one. So I am suggesting merely that we have the option to see a different meaning in the word, one that emphasizes kratia‘s potential to evoke the meaning of puissance.

The other root of democracy, demos, is similarly complex. Certainly we think we know very well what it means, especially in the context of the word democracy: it means “the people.” And by this term, we think, we mean all people, everyone. However, for the Greeks, and in particular in Aristotle’s conception of democracy, demos did not mean all people. It meant instead the many poor, or, to be still more precise, it meant those who worked for a living and so lacked the leisure time necessary to devote themselves to political participation as citizens. Aristotle (1997) calls this class banausos technitēs, rendered as “vulgar craftsmen” by Reeve. They are “vulgar” because they spend their time working, doing the tasks necessary for the city’s survival, and so they do not have the leisure time (schole) to participate fully in politics and develop their civic excellence.4 For Aristotle, “democracy” means government or rule by the demos, which is understood to mean this class of laborers who lack civic excellence. As a result, he is not surprisingly quite critical of the idea.

However, in the modern era this classical, limited idea of the demos was expanded to include everyone. Hardt and Negri (2004, p. 240) think this expansion can be traced to Spinoza’s Political Treatise, and to his concept of democracy as the absolute political form, the form in which all people rule. But the idea is already there in Hobbes (1996, Chapters 17-18), for whom political society is established when each person contracts with every other person, so that they all leave the state of nature and enter together into the commonwealth. Even though actual political communities in the modern era restricted participation in political affairs greatlyrestrictions based on property ownership, gender, race, religion, age, and the likethose restrictions are not there in Hobbes. In his text, all persons, undistinguished by any social categories, are party to the contracts that establish the polity. And so in the modern era, at least since Hobbes, the word demos means all people.

If we put the parts of this not-so-simple etymology back together, we get a concept of “democracy” that joins the modern idea of demosall peopleto a kratia that has been returned to its roots in kratos, or puissance, or “power to,” or the capacity of people to act into the world to create something new. And so, if we choose to interpret democracy this way, it becomes a form of life in which all people are joined to their kratos, and use it together to directly produce and manage their lives in common.

This condition of remaining joined to their kratos is important, because the principle operation of the modern State, the State as it is imagined in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and right up to the present day, is to separate people from their kratos. This separation is most palpable in Hobbes, where in the contract5 that creates the State, all persons agree explicitly to surrender the kratos they have in the state of nature to a power outside themselves, a power that is separate from and other than the people: the State or Leviathan. The State’s purpose is to use everyone’s aggregated power to control them, “to keep them all in awe,” as Hobbes puts it in Chapter 13, and thereby achieve peace. This separation is baked in to the design of almost all such foundational political contracts: people are separated from their puissance, and that puissance is transformed into a pouvoir that is used to rule them.

This same operation that separates people from their puissance also turns democracy into oligarchy. That is because people no longer retain their puissance and use it to rule themselves. Instead they surrender their puissance to a subset of society, to a governing few that has been set aside to rule the rest. This is, in fact, precisely the meaning of the word “oligarchy,” a community in which the few (oligos) rule the rest.

So, conceived in this way, democracy means people retain their kratos and use it to rule themselves. But if we choose to think of democracy this way, we must be alert to the challenges. Perhaps the most apparent one is that if we want to realize this democracy, if we wanted to be democratic in this way, then we would need to fully retain and use our kratos. This state of being, it seems clear, would be exhausting. It is not something we could sustain for long. It would require too much activation, too much effort.6 It would overwhelm us and leave us spent. And so it is necessary to think of democracy not as a state of being, but as a process of becoming. Democracy is better thought of as a constant struggle to become democratic. A struggle by everyone, all of us, to refuse to surrender our kratos, to retain it, to practice using it together with others, and to learn to more effectively manage our affairs in common.

1Here I mean, primarily, the way it is understood in Plato’s and Aristotle’s political philosophy.

2Douglas Harper (2014) writes that this Greek word has even deeper roots, in the proto-Indo-European kre-tes, also meaning power or strength.

3Spinoza, by whom Deleuze and Guattari are greatly influenced, expresses similar ideas to puissance and pouvoir in his work, using the terms potentia and potestas, on which see Holland (1998), who refers the reader to Gueroult (1968/1974)). Hardt & Negri (2000, 2004), also inspired by Spinoza, conceive of something very similar in their terms “constituent power” and “constituted power.”

4This distinction between faded from our culture only very slowly. As late as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (late 16th century), Puck uses the term “rude mechanicals” to describe the workingmen who are staging a play for the nobles.

5It is really contracts, millions of them. This fact is important, but it is beyond the scope of the chapter.

6“It would take too many evenings,” as Oscar Wilde was supposedly fond of saying (about both democracy and socialism).

Aristotle. (1997) Politics. Translated by C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York, Penguin.

Harper, D. (2014) Democracy. The Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed July 31, 2014.

Hobbes, T. (1996 [1651]) Leviathan. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2008) Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Weekley, E. (1952) A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Secker & Warburg.

Oh, so you mean “Anti-SOCRATES”!

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together.  Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” The deservedly famous opening line of A Thousand Plateaus. The punch of the line comes from the at-first striking image of two people in a room constituting a crowd.

It turns out, though, that this idea is as old as the hills. In Book 4 of The Republic Socrates suggests that there are multiple elements that make up each person, that each of us is several. When Glaucon is unsure, Socrates spends several pages arguing the case. Take a thirsty person, he says, who decides not to drink. This person must have two different elements operating, since one element cannot do two opposite things at once (want drink and not-want drink) (439b). Socrates goes on to declare that there are three elements of the soul: rational, spirited, and desiring. And he badly wants to convince Glaucon of something more: that the rational element should rule the other elements. In the just (or good) person, Socrates implores us to accept, the desiring element will agree that the rational element is superior to the other elements and that the rational element should rule (442d).

And so Deleuze and Guattari’s opening line turns out to be less thrilling than it appears. We have known that each of us is several for thousands of years. What D&G have against Socrates is his passionate mission to bring the desiring element under the control of reason. The two of them wrote Anti-Oedipus together to do precisely what Glaucon and Adeimantus fail to do: raise a resounding cry against Socrates’ insistence that reason should rule desire.

Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me

Below is the (modified) text of the paper I just gave at the Political Geography Pre-Conference before the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.  It is drawn from my recent book (out any day now (sigh, Wiley is dropping the ball)).  It  is the first time I have talked publicly about Wallace in my work.


Democracy and the Literary Machine, or, David Foster Wallace and Me


In the last couple of years I have been writing about democracy. What I was doing, in retrospect, was trying to engage with a range of different writers-and-thinkers and to draw out the democratic flows in their work, and then to stream those flows together into my “own,” augmented, democratic flow.

I thought that the writers I should be engaging with, the writers that were appropriate to such a project, were political theorists: people like Lefebvre, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Rancière, Laclau & Mouffe….I didn’t imagine that literary of fiction writers should be a part of group of writers-and-thinkers I was engaging with.

But I was reading David Foster Wallace as I was writing, and he insisted on being included.

And so I was forced to begin thinking about how literature and fiction can play a role in political thought.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that:

reading a text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring-machines, a schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (Anti-Oedipus, p. 106).

I began to think, increasingly, that the “literary machine” is just anything that has been written and is being read. As I was reading and writing, it became clear that it was all making its way into my thinking: political theory, literature…and blogs, and journalism in magazines you’ve never heard of, and Twitter, and Facebook…I was discovering this revolutionary force in all of them.

One thing D&G don’t have quite right, though: it is not so much that you have to extract that force from the text, or at least it wasn’t for me, and especially with Wallace. It is more that this force presents itself to you. The desiring-machines in these texts “continue to make a hellish racket.” They insist. They stream their flows into your flow without you planning for it to happen. It is accidental, aleatory, emergent, what Badiou calls an event.

So this isn’t so much a rigorous exploration of method for the use of literature in political theory. It is more a story about how I actually did it. But maybe in presenting an account of how I actually used literature, I am making an argument for a particular way to approach it. Maybe my experience could be an example for others to follow. I guess that will depend on what you think of it.

So let me tell you about David and me.


As I said, I was writing about democracy. I understand democracy to mean this: a life in which we manage our affairs for ourselves, together. Directly manage our affairs, not manage them indirectly through intermediaries like the liberal-democratic state or unions or parties or banks. These entities are oligarchies, not democracies.  They are systems in which a few are set aside to rule the rest.  Democracy means something more, it means what Spinoza called “absolute democracy,” where everyone rules everyone, or, as I said, everyone manages their collective affairs together.

That idea may seem a bit too radical. Everyone managing everything together. Exhausting.  That’s why I came to believe that we need to think of democracy with Lefebvre (in State, Space, World especially). We should think of it not as an end state we expect to reach, not as a stable society called democracy.  Instead we should think of it as a movement toward a horizon, as a perpetual struggle, as a lifelong project of becoming-democratic.

So…a lifelong struggle. OK. But this conception of immediately raised the question of activity, of activation, of a necessary co-project to become active, awake, alive. And so the question of how we can do this, of how can we become active, came to pose itself as a central question for my way of thinking about democracy.

I needed help, and Lefebvre offered little.  His analysis of people becoming active leaves much to be desired.

Deleuze and Guattari (in Anti-Oedipus) were of some use here because they offer a negative insight: they say that we have within ourselves the desire to be inactive, to be ruled, to become oligarchic, the desire to let somebody else do it, the desire to be passive rather than active…this is what Foucault, in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus, calls “the fascism in us all.”

Rancière was useful too, because he makes an opposite point: he insists that when we encounter people who appear passive, we should learn to see the activity that is actually there. He talks in particular about spectators, about those watching the spectacle. He says they are not merely passive recipients of stimuli, rather they are people who are actively processing what they are seeing, and they are engaging with each other to make sense of it.

And so I learned that in thinking about becoming active, we should be attentive to both these insights: we want to be ruled and we want to actively rule ourselves.

Wallace, at last

Someone who combines both these insights relentlessly across both his fiction and non-fiction is David Foster Wallace. His work, and in particular Infinite Jest, is obsessed with the question of how we can become active and manage our own affairs for ourselves.  In the book he explores this question in the context of two different scenarios: “the entertainment” and drug addiction. “The entertainment” is a film that is so stimulating to the pleasure centers of the brain that people are literally unable to turn their eyes away. They die of starvation or dehydration, or if they are cared for they live in a catatonic state. Drug addiction is more mundane, but no less a struggle for survival. In both cases, failure to become active and take control of one’s own affairs will result in death.

[here I read a passage from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy]

One of the heroes of the book, Don Gately, is addicted to painkillers. In a pivotal scene, he has been badly injured and is lying in a hospital bed in excruciating pain. But he can’t take any sort of narcotic. He has no choice but to lie there and “abide,” to be in pain. The struggle goes on and on in the book, for pages. Wallace describes Gately’s every thought, and he specifies Gately’s pain in great detail. The reader gets to the point of hoping Gately will give in and take the painkillers. We can’t see why he would put himself through so much suffering, why he struggles so heroically against the substance.

The answer becomes clear in the last scene of the book. In his hospital bed Gately relives in his memory what we presume to be his precipitating event, the experience that got him to seek help. It is the most gruesome of scenes, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Gately is getting high with a friend, Fax, in an empty apartment. Fax has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a drug dealer and used it to buy a massive amount of drugs, intending to start his own distribution scheme in another city. But the drug dealer finds out about the theft, and the scheme falls apart. Instead of fleeing, Fax gives in; he goes to the apartment he and Gately are squatting and begins to shoot up. Gately discovers him slumped in a corner of the living room, where he has been for days., Gately joins him in getting high, telling himself he is only keeping his friend company. They stay that way for days, still there in the “little corner, belts around their arms, arms and noses red from scratching, still at it, the ingestion, on a hell of a tear, cooking up and getting off and eating M&M’s when they could find their mouths with their hands, moving like men deep underwater, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging…” (1996, pp. 934-935).

Gately and Fax continue on, not moving, getting high, hardly able to speak, with the TV on in the background, always on. They begin to wet their pants and just sit there watching the puddles of urine spread, occasionally rolling an M&M in the puddle to watch the dye corrode. At some point Gately tries to stand, but he crashes back down to the floor. Eventually, associates of the drug dealer Fax stole from arrive at the apartment. They are a whole entourage. They don’t merely kill Fax for his betrayal. They begin to have a party, drinking bourbon, everybody with their own personal bottle of Jack Daniels. They force Gately and Fax to drink with them, to join their party. Gately and Fax are so high that they have to be helped to find their mouths with the bottle. At one point the leader of the crew whispers in Gately’s ear that he knows Gately was not involved in the theft. They aren’t going to kill Gately, he says, and so all he needs to do is kick back and watch, to enjoy the party and let Fax face his own music. The leader puts on a CD of Paul McCartney’s band Wings from which all the tracks have been removed except Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. Everybody else starts shooting up. So that Fax can feel pain, they inject him with a drug to counteract the effect of the pain-killers he has been taking. Then they sew his eyelids open with needle and thread and begin dropping liquid acid into his eyes. While this is happening, they inject Gately with a pharmaceutical-grade painkiller to render him helpless. As Gately slides into unconsciousness, he watches Fax’s face disfigure, his friend’s screams mixed with those of Linda McCartney.

This horrific scene is the very last scene in the book. Wallace has taken us through almost a thousand pages, and we have worked long and hard to come with him. And he rewards us with this. It seems cruel. But even though it is the last thing we read, this isn’t the last thing that happens to the characters. It is a scene from Gately’s memory, something that is helping him to ward off the Substance, to remind himself why he is fighting so hard to remain sober, why he is subjecting himself to so much pain in the hospital. This last scene is therefore incredibly heroic. Gately is struggling courageously to continually renew his determination to stay clean, to not give in to the Substance, to govern himself. Wallace makes clear that Gately must find that courage primarily within himself. He cannot struggle by giving himself up to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to God. To be sure, Gately does draw on the support of others, on his AA sponsors, on Joelle, his developing love interest. But the source of Gately’s strength is not located outside of him, in an entity to which he submits. At the same time of course, his desire for the substance, the source of his addiction, is also within him. His desire to stay alive and to govern himself struggles with his desire to submit, to concede, to be governed.




I think Don Gately teaches us what is involved in the struggle to become active. What it would take. And he teaches us this in our bones, way down deep, in a way we fully feel.

We learn from him that the struggle is vitally important. It is literally life or death.

And we learn from him that the struggle is unimaginably hard.

But we also learn from him, I think, that we are unimaginably strong. That we have an enormous reservoir of potential to become active that we may be only dimly aware of. Gately is a product of Wallace’s imagination, but he is nonetheless an actual presence in the world, a character in our lives, an example we can try to follow as we fight to become active, and as we struggle for democracy.

Deleuze and Guattari: the State is a “Terror without Precedent”


Biblical Seamonster

Exciting moment in Anti-Oedipus (Part 3, Chapter 5) when Deleuze and Guattari first introduce their analysis of the birth of the modern state (and their scathing critique of it). They draw heavily on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, especially his discussion of debt in Essay II. Deleuze and Guattari write (p. 192):

It is here that Nietzsche speaks of a break, a rupture, a leap. Who are these beings, they who come like fate?. . . .They are the founders of the State. Nietzsche will come to establish the existence of other breaks: those of the Greek city-state, Christianity, democratic and bourgeois humanism, industrial society, capitalism, and socialism. But it could be that all of these–in various ways–presuppose this first great hiatus, although they claim to repel and fill it. It could be that, spiritual or temporal, tyrannical or democratic, capitalist or socialist, there has never been but a single State, the State-as-dog that “speaks with flaming roars” (OGM, II, 16). And Nietzsche suggests how this new socius proceeds: a terror without precedent, in comparison with which the ancient system of cruelty [that Neitzsche has been discussing], the forms of primitive regimentation and punishment, are nothing. A concerted destruction of all the primitive codings, or worse yet, their derisory preservation, their reduction to the condition of secondary parts in the new machine, and the new apparatus of repression. All that constituted the essential element of the primitive inscription machine–the blocks of mobile, open, finite debts, “the parcels of destiny”–finds itself taken into an immense machinery that renders the debt infinite and no longer forms anything but one and the same crushing fate: “the aim now is to preclude pessimistically, once and for all, the prospect of a final discharge; the aim now is to make the glance recoil disconsolately from an iron impossibility”(OGM, II, 21). The earth becomes a madhouse.

Nietzsche Now!


Here is a cluster of (not entirely organized) thoughts raised by my revisiting Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality this week.

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says he wants more philosophers of the dangerous maybe, more thought that unsettles the ground, that undoes the established wisdom (e.g. conventional morals).  This project will make us freer to act according to our own drives, our own will to endure.  The problem is (BGE 27) that even though we often think of philosophical ideas as being autonomous, they always grow up in relation to a system of many other ideas.  Thinking is thus more of a recognition, a remembering certain strains of what has already been thought.  And so it can be very difficult to break out of the established habits/channels/assumptions.  One can of course see the deep resonance with Foucault’s project here.  His is a very deeply Nietzschean approach to thought.

Moreover, Nietzsche says we are constrained in our thought by our language, a fact my students and I realized viscerally when we tried to speak after accepting Nietzsche’s argument that

a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.”  It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (BGE 24).

Immediately we started saying thinks like “I think…” or “Nietzsche wants…”, and we were not sure how to even construct a sentence if the subject is no longer the initiator of action, but is rather just an illusion we invent to help us make sense of a world where a thought or a desire just arises, or emerges, somehow, in the vicinity of our body.  Here, of course, as in Nietzsche’s idea of the multiplicitous soul, one can see the strong influence on D&G and their obsession with the process of subjectification (in TP) and the tyranny of the ego (in AO).

Nietzsche reiterates this desire to open up new forms of thought and action when he complains that Kantian and Platonic philosophy suffers from a will to truth, which “prefers a handful of certainty to a ‘whole carload of beautiful possibilities’ ” (BGE 16).  Here it struck me that his thought is important for inspiring, perhaps though Foucault, much of the obsession in contemporary political theory with the idea of possibility, or potential, with keeping possibility open, instead of settling on a certainty, on a fixed identity/determination.  Here I am thinking of Agamben’s whatever, but also Ranciere’s political ruptures, or the potentia of (Hardt &) Negri, or even Lefebvre’s own search for a path to the possible.

And lastly, I was struck this time by the remarkable resonances between these texts and D&G’s discussion of a breakthrough over into a new land (in AO (and TP)).  Nietzsche says that the dangerous ideas he seeks urge us to go beyond morality, to voyage past it, to cross over into a realm beyond conventional ethics (BGE 31).  Here we can recall the ubermensch crossing over, on his line, on his his tightrope, headed toward “an unknown country” or “new land” as D&G call it, toward what Nietzsche says is “a new domain of dangerous insights (BGE 31).

Nietzsche says his project is to “traverse…with new eyes…the hidden land of morality,” and thus “to discover this land for the first time” (OGM 21) which clearly echoes D&G’s approving description of Proust:

But the narrator-spider never ceases undoing webs and planes, resuming the journey, watching for the signs or the indices that operate like machines and that will cause him to go on further….Oh, the narrator does not homestead in the familial and neurotic lands of Oedipus, there where the global and personal connections are established; he does not remain there, he crosses these lands, he desecrates them, he penetrates them, he liquidates even his grandmother with a machine for tying shoes (AO 318).

Nietzsche prompts us to recall D&G’s lines of flight when he calls together those who want “to get–away.  A little more strength, flight, courage, artistic power, and they would want to rise–not return…” (BGE 17).  And things get quite unmistakable when Nietzsche says: We need “a new psychologist,” who “exiles himself into a new desert,” and “condemns himself to invention–and–who knows?–perhaps to discovery” (BGE 21).

Of course it is well-known that Deleuze loved Nietzsche; but it is worth remembering sometimes just how deeply Nietzsche’s thought is shot through the former’s work, not to mention the work of so much radical theory today.