Moving the goalposts

I’ve been reading a bit of this and a bit of that, mainly some Proust, but I’ve also been wondering what to write on. There are a couple of essays that are somewhere there, halfway done, but I wanted to do something short for a change. So, I landed on ‘Instincts and Institutions’ by Gilles Deleuze, as included in ‘Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953–1974’. It was first published as the introduction of ‘Instincts et institutions’, a collection of texts presented by Deleuze. It’s only some 80 pages, and the introduction is only three pages, so this ought to remain aptly short.

The way I read this is that this is an early account of some of the stuff he discusses with Félix Guattari in, for example, ‘Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ and ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. So if some this, what will be covered in this essay, seems familiar to you, having read his later works, with or without Guattari, it’s because some of the stuff was already being worked on by him decades earlier. For example, milieu crops up quite a bit in this text, in the same way that he and Guattari (50-51) also discuss it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ as a matter of interiority, exteriority and association.

Deleuze (19) starts by stating that there are instincts and institutions, which both function to “designate procedures of satisfaction.” To make sense of instincts, he (19) clarifies that they pertain to how “an organism reacts instinctively to external stimuli” in order to take what it needs from it’s surroundings, to “satisfy its tendencies and needs[.]” What’s important here is that “extracting from the external world the elements which will satisfy its tendencies and needs” results in creating a world that is specific to that organism. So, each organism, of course, has different instincts, as he (19) points out. To simplify this, each animal has different tendencies or needs (he uses these sort of interchangeably in this text) that it seeks to satisfy, which also results in a world specific to that animal. In other words, each organism reacts to certain elements in its surroundings. This is all instinctual, what one might be tempted to call natural. It just happens.

To make sense of institutions, he (19) clarifies they have to do with the process of “institut[ing] an original world between its tendencies and the external milieu, developing artificial means of satisfaction.” He (19) states that the subject institutes this, but I’d say that’s this is actually the moment that the tendencies and the external milieu give rise to it. Then again, that’s just my take. Anyway, he (19) adds that these artificial means transform the organism, liberating it from its existing tendencies and needs, not necessarily whole sale, not from all of them, but to some extent nonetheless, by transforming them, by “introducing them into a new milieu.” Of course, if we think that a transformation always results in replacing what was, then, well, I guess you could say that they are all replaced. Then again, that’s debatable. I guess it depends on how substantial the transformations are.

To make more sense of how instincts and institutions function, he (19) exemplifies them with hunger and money. So, an organism, let’s say you, is hungry. It needs to satisfy that hunger. There are, of course, many ways to satisfy that hunger. It doesn’t matter what route one takes, as long as that problem is solved by some means. As an animal, you eat. It’s as simple as that. Now, of course, in the world of instincts, hunger is a recurring problem and solving it takes considerable effort. Introduce money (and all that comes from it, really, as that’s what I think he means by money) and you no longer have to feel hungry. You are liberated from it! Hurrah! The instinctual problem seems to be solved, once and for all, true, but it is solved and remains solved only inasmuch you have money, as he (19) goes on to add. Your problem now really isn’t hunger, as such. It’s money. You no longer need to hunt for food, quite literally, but do you need to make money. If this doesn’t convince you, he (19) provides another example, sexuality and marriage. You seek a partner, which is, of course, a task that is by no means easy as people come and go and there’s also competition. Marriage fixes that by introducing fixity to that arrangement. People no longer come and go when they are fixed to one another. There’s also less competition that way. It’s a solution to a problem, which, of course, leads to other problems, which he doesn’t specify. Simply put, the solutions to existing problems have introduced new problems that need to be solved. In summary, he (19) states that:

“[E]very individual experience presupposes, as an a priori, the existence of a milieu in which that experience is conducted, a species-specific milieu or an institution milieu. Instinct and institution are the two organized form of a possible satisfaction.”

This configuration is, however, a bit simplistic, as one is presented as taking place or being in place before the other, the institutional being considered secondary to the instinctual. He (19) acknowledges this by noting that:

“[Institutions] already presuppose institutionalized behaviors, recalling a derived utility that is properly social.”

In other words, while he retains that institutions are secondary to instincts, institutions feed into behavior, conditioning it, hence the earlier point he makes about something that liberates you from something else comes to subject you to other tasks. I reckon the point he is making or trying to make is that you cannot neatly separate one from the other, to argue that people are like this or that by nature, considering that people owe themselves to others who have inscribed in them all kinds of institutionalized behaviors. You can distinguish one from the other, as he (19) clearly does in this early text, yet we can’t even talk about instinctual behavior without being inscribed with institutionalized behaviors, i.e. without being properly social. He (21) emphasizes this aspect on the last page of this short text, arguing that, in fact, “humans have no instincts” as “they build institutions”; “[t]he human is an animal that decimating its species”, that is to say that it’s species specific to the human species to replace its instincts with institutions.

The clearest distinction between two is to be found in how a need or a tendency is satisfied. In his (20) view, if a need or a tendency is satisfied directly, it’s instinctual, and if it is satisfied indirectly, it’s institutional. So, if we are dealing with instinct, it always direct utility, with no prohibitions or coercions, only repugnancies, as he (20) goes on to add. He (20-21) clarifies instinct as a matter of “double causality” involving individual psychological factors and species specific factors that pertain to the bodily constitution of this or that species. It’s not about “of reflex, of tropism, of habit and intelligence”, even though it sort of is, nor about “the framework of an advantage to the species”, even though it sort of is as well.

He (21) doesn’t go into detail about this, where to draw the line between instincts and institutions, which it a bit hard for me to say much about this. The way he (21) puts it is about whether something is a mere reflex, a trope, a habit or about intelligence, how first three are already instinctually “perfect”, done without hesitation, albeit to lesser and lesser degree and thus less perfect or more imperfect, I guess, whereas the fourth, intelligence, is thus the most perfectible or “imperfect”, done with a great deal of hesitation. I guess another way of explaining that would be like a slider between the unconscious and the conscious. He (21) states that the more perfect ones are more species specific, whereas intelligence is non-species specific and thus appears individual. That said, he (21) reckons that intelligence is always social, i.e. that consciousness is always social, presupposing it.

Anyway, be as it may, as already pointed out, he (21) does reckon that humans do not, no longer have instincts, as such, because such direct instinctual behavior is always replaced by indirect institutionalized behavior. So, as I also already pointed out, we can’t even say much about that because to talk about that, in itself, involves institutionalized behavior. We can, however, infer that animals or, more broadly speaking, other organisms appear to exhibit instinctual species specific behavior and we can also transform some of their behavior, by, for example, domesticating them, which allows us to observe this distinction between the two, as he (21) goes on to point out. Then again, I don’t know what to think of certain animal behavior, such as hunting in packs. Isn’t that a socially instituted way of addressing hunger? Wouldn’t it be more direct to just go after the prey on your own?

He (19) moves on to distinguish institution from law. For him (19), an institution is “a positive model for action”, whereas a law is a negative model for action. In other words, an institution is what seeks to make you do this and/or that, whereas a law is what seeks to prevent you from doing this and/or that. So, when something is institutional, institutionalized or an institution, it functions “as an organized systems of means”, to achieve this or that, as he (19) points out. To use the example of sexuality and marriage, the latter is an institution, because it is what he (19) calls “an organized system of means” to addressing the former. It’s a positive solution to an existing problem, albeit not the positive solution to an existing problem, as indicated by him (20) later on. It’s one among many of society’s positive and inventive ways of fixing a problem, to satisfy certain tendencies or needs, as he (19-20) goes on to point out.

In other words, he (19) argues that in this view of institutions are seen as positive. In stark contrast, the opposing view designates the positive outside the social, so that, conversely, the social is always the negative, the contractual limitation to the positive natural rights, as he (19) goes on to add. In short, when it comes to solving problems, he (19) views institutions as positive means and laws as negative means. The former seeks to push people to do this and/or that, whereas the latter seeks to limit people from doing this and/or that. The opposing view presents everything as given, as naturally and universally applicable law, and institutions as what set limits to it all in some ways. I guess it’s not that one starts from the positive in that view, but that what is seen as negative comes to present what’s already taken for granted (rather underhandedly if you ask me) as positive.

He (20) moves on to emphasize that tendencies or needs are not necessarily satisfied by only this or that institution. In other words, as aptly put by him (2), “the institution is not explained by tendencies.” This is because an institution is only a means to an end, not the means to an end. To exemplify this with what was mentioned earlier on already, marriage is only a specific solution to a specific problem, which could also be solved in other ways, through other means. So, as he (20) points out, “[t]he same sexual needs will never explain the multiple possible forms of marriage” or, should I say, arrangements that seek to satisfy those needs as marriage itself can be seen as a form of arrangement, although I do acknowledge that marriage can and does take many forms, which, in turn, may result in different kinds of other problems that need to be solved, one way or another. This lack of telos, of inherent purpose, can be quite confusing, which he (20) acknowledges:

“This is the paradox of society: we are always talking about institutions, but we are in fact confronted by procedures of satisfaction – and the tendencies satisfied by such procedures neither trigger nor determine the procedures. Tendencies are satisfied by means that do not depend on them. Therefore, no tendency exists which is not at the same time constrained or harassed, and thus transformed, sublimated – to such an extent that neurosis is possible.”

It can indeed be confusing, to the point that you lose your shit, or so to speak, because, well, the sudden realization of this having no inherent connection to that, that is to say there being no necessity of it, only contingency, can result in quite the headache. He (20) further clarifies this lack of dependency between the two by adding that not all institutions satisfy the tendencies or needs of everyone as we are not all alike. In other words, as he (20) goes on to emphasize, it’s very important to investigate institutions because they may seek to satisfy the tendencies or needs of some people, but not all people, while possibly also appearing as if they served to satisfy the tendencies or needs of everyone or, at least, more people than they actually do. In his (20) words:

“[O]ne must still ask the question: useful for whom? For all those who have needs? Or just for a few (privileged class)? Or only for those who control the institution (the bureaucracy)?”

Simply put, don’t just ask what, nor where and when, but also who, for whom and to whom, as those help us to figure out why. To go back a bit, it’s worth keeping in mind that he argues that institutions are always positive. That said, now ask yourself, to whom they are positive? Does this and/or that institution exist to satisfy the needs of the people, or just some people? Does the institution even benefit the people or does it sort of exist for the sake of existing, for itself, for the bureaucrats, for the functionaries whose current livelihood depends on it, on selling the idea that the institution that they are linked to is absolutely necessary even though that’s simply not the case. To exemplify this, in the previous essay I covered how a political party can make it itself appear as an absolute necessity, as the only way to achieve a positive change in society, while, in fact, it only serves the interest of the party members or, more likely, a select few central party members, the vanguard, the party elite, the privileged class who also control it. In his (20) words:

“One of the most profound sociological problems thus consists in seeking out the nature of this other instance, on which the social forms of the satisfaction of tendencies depend.”

To link this to an earlier essay that I wrote on dispositive analysis or, as I would call it, diagrammatics, this is also what fascinates Michel Foucault, as discussed by him in an interview between him and a number of psychoanalysts, subsequently published as ‘The Confession of the Flesh’. I won’t go through all of that as that’s what I did in that essay, but, I’ll briefly cover the main points. So, as I pointed out in that essay, for Foucault (198), institutions are non-discursive formations because, according to a dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, they involve the act of instituting, establishing, founding or ordaining something, to introducing it and bringing it to use or practice (OED, s.v. “institute”, v.), that is to say giving it visible form. That said, as acknowledged by him (198), to make sense of the non-discursive formations, i.e. institutions, one also needs to take into account the discursive formations, as one cannot be defined without the other, as they are in reciprocal presupposition. He (198) exemplifies this with a specific military school, the building being the non-discursive formation, i.e. the institution, and the architectural plans being the discursive formation (albeit the actual plans for it, drawn on actual paper are, of course, yet another non-discursive formation, an institution, in the sense that paper also needs to have been instituted, formed into being as that thing, as paper). These are, of course, linked to other discursive and non-discursive formations as well. So, to make sense of a military school, one also needs to have knowledge of military and architecture and what roles the play in a certain society, at a certain point in time, which, in turn, may require one to know a lot more about other words and things (and so on, and so on, and so on).

Anyway, institutions interest Foucault (198) for the same reason as they interest Deleuze (20), because the institutions are supposed to have a certain function, to satisfy certain this and/or that tendency or needs, yet there may well be a mismatch between the two. As Foucault (198) points out, when one deals with dispositives or diagrams, the discursive and the non-discursive are supposed to be aligned (yet distinct), but they might also not be aligned and it’s then when things get interesting, when things are supposed to be like this, yet, in actuality, they are like that, having been instituted in a way that results in a mismatch. So, for him (198), a military school is not that interesting if the building conforms to the architectural plans and serves the function it was built for, for training the military the way the military intended it. It’s like yes, okay, what about it? There’s hardly anything surprising about that. It functions as means to a certain end, as a solution to a problem, for training the untrained, and as a building, it functions to create a regulatable indoor environment, solving the problem of being outdoors. It’s as simple as that.

It gets interesting if there are other discursive formations at play, let’s say homosexuality or delinquency that, for some reason, come to manifest themselves in the military school, as homosexual or delinquent soldiers. It’s not intended to be that way, for it to be like a gay bar or a shop for stolen goods, where you’d expect homosexuals or petty criminals to appear, but if it functions like that, then that’s interesting. It would also be interesting if the building itself didn’t conform to its plans, if changes had been made to it, for whatever reasons not intended by the architect(s). This is what you find in Foucault’s work (no, not homosexuality or delinquency in the military, as I just made those up), how an institution may have been instituted to satisfy certain tendencies or needs, to fix this and/or that problem, which may have worked, at least to a certain extent, but it may also have had unintended consequences, feeding into the creation of new discursive and non-discursive formations. For example, the way madness is understood right now is not how it used to be understood in the past, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone, really, but it’s not that it just involved a gradual change in discourse, that new, more accurate, knowledge was produced, which, unlike before, then allowed knowledgeable people to recognize the mentally ill. Instead, it’s that when certain people were grouped together and locked up in the same place, in the same building, they ended up appearing to others in a certain light, as if highlighting how different they are from others, which wasn’t the case when they were allowed to live among everyone else, just like everyone else. In other words, while mental illness is a discursive formation, a systematic set of statements, no doubt about it, the non-discursive formations, the institutions that functioned to confine people in order to treat them, to cure them, came to inform how madness came to be (re)defined as mental illness. That’s exactly what’s so fascinating about institutions (not that I necessarily agree with how they function though).

None this, what I’ve added from my previous discussions of Foucault’s work, in a summary form, takes away from what Deleuze has to say about institutions. It adds to it. One must still ask why this and/or that institution exists, what purpose it serves, who controls it and whose interests it serves. Institutions may also have been created for a certain purpose, only to end up functioning in another way. An example of this is how prisons were supposed to function as the solution to crime, like a silver bullet, yet, as you can gather by reading Foucault’s work, namely ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ in which he (264-268) clearly points this out, or by watching some prison documentaries, prisons ended up creating more of it, by confining people as part of their punishment, lumping them together so that, inadvertently, a prison becomes more like a school of crime than anything else. So, instead of dealing with just petty crime, confining people into an institution known as the prison for various minor offenses tends to result in turning these people into hardened career criminals, which is the exact opposite of what you’d want as a result from a punishment.

Anyway, it was interesting to go through something so old, yet so familiar. That said, I’d still rather check out Deleuze’s later texts, with or without Guattari, or, alternatively, read some Foucault, as the stuff that’s covered ‘Instincts and Institutions’ does leave you hanging a bit if you aren’t already familiar with what it deals with. It’s still totally worth reading though, considering it’s only three pages.


  • Deleuze, G. (1953). Instincts et institutions. Paris, France: Classiques Hachette.
  • Deleuze, G. ([1953] 2004). Instincts and Institutions. In G. Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953–1974 (D. Lapoujade, Ed., M. Taormina, Trans.) (pp. 19–21). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1972] 1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. R. Lane, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1977] 1980). The Confession of the Flesh (C. Gordon, Trans.). In M. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Select Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977 (C. Gordon, Ed., C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham and K. Soper, Trans.) (pp. 194228). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Foucault, M. ([1975] 1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.