Subject to change

If my previous essay on the subject didn’t go down well, well then this is going to even worse. Anyway, as an alternative to Michel Foucault, I’ll be looking at how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari handle the subject. The previous essay drew in part from Deleuze, but that had more to do with his view on Foucault than his own views. I would argue that Deleuze and Guattari dig deeper, way deeper than what Foucault does, but at the same time one can’t really say that they dig anywhere as their approach is more of a creative endeavour rather than an excavation. They do what they do in their very, very peculiar way that probably makes one’s head hurt quite a bit, well, at least initially. It is so very different, so grasping it will likely remain out of reach no matter how much I try to open it up here. It’s not that it isn’t hard to understand, but rather that understanding it is a gradual process and hardly a linear one. That’s actually the reason that I’m bound to fail trying to explain it here … in a linear fashion. Maybe it will help someone though. Their thought will open up to you if you let it. Forcing it on yourself won’t help. Things will start to unfold eventually and I think that’s the whole point. There’s also the matter of it being some 600 pages in total, so condensing it to short essay length is hardly going to work too well. Anyway, I’ll start from the main concept(s), then try to move to the question of the subject eventually.

Now, where to begin on Deleuze and Guattari? I guess anywhere is a good start if you are familiar with ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. To spoil it for you, the idea is that you can read the book in any order, start from any chapter. The book it itself a concept. It is sewn together in a way that it is supposed to help you understand their line of thought, eventually. It’s not going to be easy. You’ll be tempted to abandon it for being incomprehensible. Where is the logical order, you’ll be asking? I think that it’s meant be that way. It’s meant to come with the, sorry for the only appropriate pun, territory. The concepts are weaved together so that it is hard to comprehend and/or to explain them in the absence of the other concepts. All the fibers are tangled. It would defeat the purpose if they weren’t.

The key concept is the rhizome, which they (6-7) characterize as “a subterranean stem” that “ceaselessly establishes connections.” In stark contrast to Noam Chomsky, Deleuze and Guattari (7) argue in favor of understanding structure, or rather, I guess, at best, structuration in terms of the rhizome rather than a tree or a root (arborescence):

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive: there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community.”

You can easily gather from that that Deleuze and Guattari are hardly fans of constants and universals. The opposition of Chomsky is apparent. However, for them (7) it “is not that [linguistic models] are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough[.]” Later on the authors (265) have a go at arborescence in a segment titled ‘Memories of a Plan(e) Maker’, referring to such as the plan(e) of organization and/or development, the structural plan(e), the genetic plan(e), the teleological plan(e), the plan(e) of analogy and the plan(e) of transcendence. What is suggested here by the two (265-266) is that the structure, or whatever you want to call it, is “concluded from its own effects”, “exist[ing] only in a supplementary dimension to that to which it gives rise.” Simply put, they (265) state that it is a principle, a hidden one, that “causes the given to be given[.]” The title itself suggest that it’s a plan, rather than a plane, one that is made rather than there. Relevant to the topic of the subject, they (265, 267) argue that the plan(e)s are inferred from their forms, which in turn form and develop subjects. Here I find myself thinking of the individual/mass pair of disciplinary societies presented by Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, as discussed by Deleuze in ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’. I also find myself thinking of Jacques Derrida’s 1966 lecture on structuralism titled ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, which Paul Fry aptly portrays in the first part of his February 12, 2009 lecture on deconstruction as the dethroning of Claude Lévi-Strauss at his own coronation. Reflecting on this, I find it puzzling, albeit not surprising, when people explain themselves and/or their behavior as based on the supplementary dimension. You could say that it’s a handy cop-out.

Going back to the introduction, Deleuze and Guattari (7) continue by stating “that [linguistic models] do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic content of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field.” You’ll probably already be asking yourself, the abstract machine, the what now? That’s a good question, but luckily I already covered that (at least in part) when discussing Foucault’s work.

In short summary of the abstract machine, Deleuze and Guattari (142) state that it is not an infrastructure that determines, nor a transcendental idea, but rather a pilot; it “does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.” Anyway, in summary the point is that with the emphasis on the machine, albeit abstract, is that it is not what is, but what does, what makes things happen, constructing a type of reality.

What else is there? Well, in opposition to linguistic models, Deleuze and Guattari (7) make note of assemblages. In the introduction they (4) summarize their thought through the example of books:

“A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. … All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.”

Now you are, I reckon, utterly lost with this, in the introduction, mind you. If you’ve delved into ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, you probably aren’t lost at all. That said, you can pick from this already that Deleuze and Guattari stand in opposition of universals and superstructures. The part on geological movements should help you to see that. Anyway, it is perhaps wise to move on to assemblages. They (22-23) characterize them:

“An assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily acts on semiotic material flows, and social flows simultaneously (independently of any recapitulation that may be made of it in a scientific or theoretical corpus). There is no longer a tripartite division between a field of reality (the world)[,] a field field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author). Rather, an assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from each of these orders, so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one or several authors as its subject. In short, we think that one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside. The outside has no image, no signification, no subjectivity. The book as assemblage with the outside, against the book as image of the world.”

That probably does little for you, except perhaps it should now be clear already that their position on the subject is very, let’s say, decentered for the lack of a better word. I think it’s worth noting first that the word used for assemblage in the French original is agencement. Now I think assemblage is an apt word for the purpose, as it brings together or assembles multiplicities. It works well to present the mishmash. Deleuze (177) clarifies this in an interview on the book, conducted in 1980 and published as ‘Eight Years Later’ in ‘Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995’:

“In assemblages you find states of things, bodies, various combinations of bodies, hodgepodges[.]”

That said, I think it’s easy to think it as a mere static collection of multiplicities, of this and that. I find it that it lacks the sense of agency present in the French original.

Anyway, before explaining assemblages in any greater detail, I think it’s worth explaining the hodgepodge better. Multiplicity keeps popping up, so what is it? They (8) clarify the principle of multiplicity:

“[I]t is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, ‘multiplicity,’ that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world. Multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject. There is not even the unity to abort in the object or ‘return’ in the subject. A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows).”

Now we return to the rhizome, which stands in opposition of the arborescent, the trees and the roots found in linguistic models. They (8) add that “[t]here are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root.” There you go, if it wasn’t clear already, structures are a big no no. Instead of points or positions, they (8) argue that “[t]here are only lines.” Returning to the assemblage, they (8) state that “[a]n assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimension of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands it connections.”

The lack of subject, you know, the one writing this text, here, word by word, appearing on the screen, keystroke by keystroke, probably comes off as nothing short of preposterous. Deleuze and Guattari (8) make note of this:

“Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions connected to the first: ‘Call the strings or rods that move the puppet the weave. It might be objected that its multiplicity resides in the person of the actor, who projects it into the text. Granted; but the actor’s nerve fibers in turn form a weave. And they fall through the gray matter, the grid, into the undifferentiated… . The interplay approximates the pure activity of weavers attributed in myth to the Fates or Norns.’”

Now, how to best explain this? Well, using the example of a puppeteer with strings works as analogous to the nerve fibers and the actor. You should also notice that Deleuze and Guattari (8), let’s be clever here, weave in another actor, Ernst Jünger, in the form of a quote or quotes (304, 218) from ‘Approches, drogues et ivresse’. Remember how they just a page ago (7) defined rhizome as ceaselessly establishing connections. I think weaving, with its warps and wefts, is an apt choice of word for establishing how the rhizome works. If this is too much to comprehend at a go, perhaps it’s easier, as a sort of an intermediary here, to think of Jacques Lacan’s mirror-image, in which illusory control is assumed. Deleuze and Guattari clearly go further in their views and likely wouldn’t approve the use of Lacan here, but perhaps the comparison helps a bit. They’d surely come up with something better to explain it, but sadly they are no longer around for me to consult them.

What I take from Deleuze and Guattari, the gist of it, is what you are always you, but you aren’t what you think you are, as there is no stable you. Instead there is only becoming or multiplicity. I’ll let them (249) further explain this:

“[B]ecoming and multiplicity are the same thing. A multiplicity is defined not by its elements, nor by a center of unification or comprehension. It is defined by the number of dimensions it has; it is not divisible, it cannot lose or gain a dimension without changing its nature. Since its variations and dimensions are immanent to it, it amounts to the same thing to say that each multiplicity is already composed of heterogeneous terms in symbiosis, and that a multiplicity is continually transforming itself into a string of other multiplicities, according to its thresholds and doors.”

The last bit here is perhaps a bit tricky to get unless you read the previous bits a paragraph earlier, in which they (249) state that “[a]ll so-called initiatory journeys include these thresholds and doors where becoming itself becomes, and where one changes becoming depending on the ‘hour’ of the world, the circles of hell, or the stages of a journey that sets scales, forms and cries in variation.” Simply put, becoming is highly volatile, also depending on other becomings, or multiplicities. They (249) reiterate that “[i]n fact, the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities.”

Let’s return to the fibers or strings for a moment. How are they then organized? Deleuze and Guattari (250) emphasize that:

“The error we must guard against is to believe that there is a kind of logical order to this string, these crossings or transformations. It is already going too far to postulate an order descending from the animal to the vegetable, then to molecules, to particles. Each multiplicity is symbiotic; its becoming ties together animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy. Nor is there a preformed logical order to these heterogeneities[.]”

How to explain this in other words? I guess what they mean here is that there is no preordained structures that make, for example, the things (for the lack of a better word) listed what they are in isolation of the other things, regardless of how we’ve come to categorize them, typically by some order, such as resemblance, descent, filiation or scale. Multiplicities are in relation to other multiplicities.

What is individuality to Deleuze and Guattari? Working on Duns Scotus and Baruch Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari take up the concept of haecceity, or ‘thissness’, which they first (253) determine as “[a] degree, an intensity” and elaborate it in relation to bodies (260-261):

“A body is not defined by the form that determines it nor as a determinate substance or subject nor by the organs it possesses or the functions it fulfills. On the plane of consistency, a body is defined only by a longitude and a latitude: in other words the sum total of the material elements belonging to it under given relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness (longitude); the sum total of the intensive affects it is capable of at a given power or degree of potential (latitude).”

What we have here is that the body is material, consisting of, well, multiplicities. Deleuze and Guattari (256) open up it by stating that “[w]e call the longitude of a body the particle aggregates belonging to that body in a given relation” which “are part of each other depending on the composition of the relation that defines the individuated assemblage of the body.” However, that’s not all. They (256) add that “[t]o the relations composing, decomposing, or modifying an individual there correspond intensities that affect it, augmenting or diminishing its power to act[.]” In other words, the body not only is, as composed of multiplicities, but also becomes or keeps becoming as it is affected, which affects the body’s capacity to affect other bodies. They (256) clarify that these intensities are either from within the body or outside of it. What is important to them (256) is that this Spinozist characterization avoids defining body by its organs and by species or genus. What they mean by this is that they (257) can, for example, then argue that “a racehorse is more different from a workhorse than a workhorse is from an ox.” Both horses may share the same longitudes, or nearly so, but they differ by latitude, whereas an ox is similar to a workhorse not by longitude, but by latitude. It’s clear from this that their definition of the body is very function oriented. Indeed they (257) make note of this: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do … what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, the affects of another body[.]”

Returning to haecceity, Deleuze and Guattari (261) state that it is not what is understood as a thing, substance, person or a subject, but rather “a perfect individuality lacking nothing[.]” The very word individual should be an eye-opener here. It is often understood as relating to a person, but Deleuze and Guattari emphasize it as that something that cannot be divided. To further emphasize this point, in the ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ Deleuze points out to what is understood as individual, a unique single person, is rather a dividual as people are divided by this and that, this and that. If people truly were individuals, they would not be talking how they are this or how they are that. They would not be able to do that as they’d be indivisible. After explaining (261) that, for example, a season, a time of the day, weather condition or temperature is a haecceity, they (262) state that it would be an oversimplification to argue that there is a harmony of formed subjects, things or persons, on one side and those of haecceity type on the other side. You probably saw this coming already, but anyway they (262) argue on the contrary that “a haecceity [does not] consists simply of a décor or backdrop that situates subjects, or of appendages that hold things and people to the ground” and that “[y]ou are a longitude and a latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between unformed particles, a set of nonsubjectified affects.” Instead, they (262) state that “[i]t is the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity[.]” They (262-263) go on to emphasize that while it could understood that bodies are separate from the milieu, they are in fact inseparable: “[s]patiotemporal relations, determinations, are not predicates of the thing but dimensions of the multiplicities.” Finally, they (263) summarize it:

“A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points or lines. It is a rhizome.”

What is an interesting remark, particularly with relevance to linguistics, is that Deleuze and Guattari (264-265) note that proper names are, in fact, non-indicative of subjects, designating a haecceity instead. There is nothing to them beyond that. They don’t characterize their referent. So, now, when I think of it, my name on my passport is not such a big deal as it means nothing beyond designating me. Sure you could say that it is of Greek origin and means a certain thing. That said, it does not characterize me. Anyway, not of great importance here, but an interesting tangent nonetheless.

Deleuze and Guattari delve deeper in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, deeper than what is worth attempting to explain in a short essay. Even that is an understatement. I have to admit that I appreciate it when something is tackled by stating that the issue is not that whatever is at stake is too abstract, but that it’s not abstract enough. I could go on, and on, and on, but I have to stop somewhere. It’s also an understatement to say that this took a couple of hours in a couple of days to draft. Well, it did take only that little time, but getting grips with any and all of this has been a process, if not a becoming. It’s also so very different that it’s almost as if it’s somehow hard to put into words, one after another, in succession. That said, it would make sense for it to be that way. The complexity of it all would be otherwise undermined. I don’t think rhizome can be neatly made compatible with landscape, unless what is understood as landscape is reconfigured and I think it would take a lot more than just a bit of tweaking to make that happen. Their project is hardly a mere tweak on thought, so it’s hardly just plug and play to apply. It is clear from Deleuze and Guattari that they are opposed to totalizing structures and landscape appears to be of that nature, despite being a mere projection rather than out there. What I mean is that landscape seems rather unnecessary and contradictory to multiplicity. That said, and I don’t think Deleuze and Guattari would disagree, landscape matters, not because people think it does, but because people don’t, and not because it is inherent to reality, but because people seem to think otherwise. At least it keeps cropping up, often in support of some argument related to subject and the related matters of propriety. Would it be better to be without it? From what I gather, perhaps, but one should convince others of that as well.


  • Deleuze, G. ([1990] 1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7.
  • Deleuze, G. (2006). Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995 (D. Lapoujade, Ed., A. Hodges and M. Taormina, Trans.). New York, NY: Semiotex(e).
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Derrida, J. ([1967] 1978). Writing and Difference (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1975] 1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • Jünger, E. (1974). Approches, drogues et ivresse. Paris, France: Table Ronde.
  • Lacan, J. ([1966] 2007). Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg, Trans.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.