Earlier this year, I read the whole of ‘Anti-Oedipus’ by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, from the beginning to the end while also making notes, some 30 pages or so (and yes, I’m that kind of a person, and that’s not even that much for me…). I commented on it as well. There was this bit in the book that I wondered about, where they (56) state that bringing a tape recorder to a discussion changes everything.
To give you a bit of context, how I ended up writing this short essay, what pushed me to it, there was this scene in a recent trailer for a new Matrix film. In that scene you have this typical set up of a patient and an analyst. It is not specified what kind of session it is. It could be about a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, or a psychoanalyst. I don’t know. To me, it’s just an American film or TV trope. Anyway, it has this one-on-one superordinate-subordinate dynamic to it that got me thinking about that little thing in their book.
To give you the context that this appears in their book, they (55-56) are examining and criticizing, or, dare I say, analyzing, psychoanalysis. To be clear, they (55) do give some credit to psychoanalysis. They (55) credit it for being aware of what they call desiring-production or, I guess, what they generally refer to just as desire. It’s just that psychoanalysis somehow managed to botch it along the way, Oedipalizing the anoedipal, just like all revolutions end up failing at some point, becoming reactionary, even though they seem like genuine revolutions, as they (55) point out. In their (55) words:
“The anoedipal nature of desiring-production remains present, but it is fitted over the co-ordinates of Oedipus, which translate it into ‘pre-oedipal,’ ‘para-oedipal,’ ‘quasi-oedipal,’ etc. The desiring-machines are always there, but they no longer function except behind the consulting-room walls. Behind the walls or in the wings, such is the place the primal fantasy concedes to desiring-machines, when it reduces everything to the Oedipal scene.”
Now, to link this back to those two fairly recent longer essays, the one on Louis Hjelmslev’s work and the following one that expands on it through the works of Deleuze and Guattari, you’ll notice a familiar concept here, well, assuming you’ve read those essays or just happen to be familiar with their work (which is even better!). Long story short, they (55) are talking about assemblages here. Anyway, they (55) continue:
“They continue nevertheless to make a hellish racket. Even the psychoanalyst can’t ignore them.”
Indeed, the desiring-machines or assemblages, whatever term you want to use for them, whatever works for you, I don’t really care, don’t just suddenly disappear, just because you say they don’t exist. La-la-la, I can’t hear you. They (55-56) go on:
“He tends therefore to maintain an attitude of denial: all of that is surely true, but it is still daddy-mommy. Over the consulting-room door is written, ‘Leave your desiring-machines at the door, give up your orphan and celibate machines, your tape recorder and your little bike, enter and allow yourself to be oedipalized.’”
This is where I was like … hmm … that tape recorder! Why do they (56) mention a tape recorder, what we’d just call a recorder, a portable recorder or a handy recorder, because it’s not like we use tapes anymore, except when we haven’t digitized existing tapes (and then there are those tape aficionados, of course). I’ll return to this shortly, I promise! They (56) keep going:
“Everything follows from that, beginning with the unreliable character of the cure, its interminable and highly contractual nature, flows of speech in exchange for flows of money. All that is needed is what is called a psychotic episode: after a schizophrenic flash, one day we bring our tape recorder Into the analyst’s office—stop!—with this insertion of a desiring-machine everything is reversed: we have broken the contract, we are not faithful to the major principle of the exclusion of a third party, we have introduced a third element—the desiring-machine in person.”
Note how they (56) are saying, yes, very clearly saying, that a tape recorder is a machine that functions like an actual person. Is a tape recorder, or, nowadays a recorder, an actual person? No, of course not. Don’t be silly. But, but, it does function like an actual person. In other words, it’s like a person, without being a person. Think of it as like a virtual person. It functions like an actual person, so that, in a sense, it is, as if, there was a person there, yet, in actuality, it is not an actual person, as there is no one else there.
They mention a tape recorder again later on in the book. In this context, they (312) want to emphasize how the analyst, or, to be more specific, the psychoanalyst, presents him- or herself as neutral, as if there wasn’t any superordinate-subordinate relation between the analyst and the person undergoing the analysis. In their (312) words:
“In actuality, the benevolent neutrality of the analyst is very limited: it ceases the instant one stops responding daddy-mommy. It ceases the instant one introduces a little desiring-machine—the tape-recorder—into the analyst’s office; it ceases as soon as a flow is made to circulate that does not let itself be stopped by Oedipus, the mark of the triangle (they tell you [that] you have a libido that is too viscous, or too liquid, contraindications for analysis).”
Note here how, once more, a tape recorder is enough to derail the whole thing or, should I say, the whole arrangement, the whole assemblage. Now, let’s imagine that scenario or a similar scenario. Anything that involves a superordinate and subordinate will do just fine. It could be you and your boss. It could be you and your teacher. It could also be you as a child and your parent, be it your mom or your dad, or, in their absence, someone else who functions in that capacity, albeit not necessarily in the familial sense, as that’s what Deleuze and Guattari would most certainly want to avoid reducing this into. The point here is to come up an example that helps you to make more sense of this.
When you are all set, ready to go with it, think of that situation. How does that relationship work? Now, of course, when someone is your superordinate, you don’t really get to have a say about anything if you happen to be a subordinate. There should be nothing difficult about that for you to comprehend. Your superordinate is going to have the upper hand, just because that’s how that person is positioned, above you. There may, of course, be rules set in place. Your superordinate is not supposed to make you do just about anything, but, speaking from experience, that’s not how things work, as I’m sure you know if you have even just a bit of life experience. The problem for you is that there is very little that prevents your superordinate from taking advantage of that position. That’d be against the rules, yes, but it’s only likely that you have very limited options as to what you can do about it if your superordinate takes advantage of that position. Simply put, you’re fucked!
Now, imagine all that and add a recorder to that. Imagine your superior calls you to an office and ask you to do something which would be out of the question. It could be a little thing or something that’s considered appalling. Now, ask your superior what your superior would think about you having the conversion on the record. That’s the difference between off the record and on the record. What’s the deal with that? Well, if there’s a recording of it, of that conversation, regardless of whatever it may pertain to, the person, your superior, is unlikely to take advantage of that superior position. That’d be just dumb, plain dumb.
I realize that you might be confused by this, asking yourself, why is this relevant or, rather, what is this relevant to? What is really interesting here is that a recorder, a thing that can record sound, or something appears to be a recorder, a thing that appears to record sound, even if it doesn’t (maybe it’s just a recorder without a tape or, nowadays, a memory card), changes everything in this arrangement or, to explain this in their terms, in this assemblage. The superordinate is suddenly stripped of the capacity to act in any kind of way that could be understood as taking advantage of that superior position.
Guattari commented this over a decade before the ‘Anti-Oedipus’ came out. This can be foind in a psychotherapy report dated to 1958, written by him, subsequently referred to in publications as the ‘Monograph on R.A.’. In summary, there was this patient at La Borde, where he used to work with Jean Oury. The patient had troubles establishing a relationship with others. I’d say that there was this deeply rooted distrust, especially when dealing with others one-on-one. Anyway, long story short, he (37) mentions that they, he and Oury, agreed that his conversations with this patient, referred to only as R.A., would be recorded. In his (37) words:
“Ostensibly, l started the recording when the dialog entered what l considered to be an impasse, or when something ‘bothered’ me. It was then as if a third person had appeared in the room.”
In other words, he had the tape recorder there, with him, and he only put it on when it appeared to him that something was off. Anyway, he (37) continues:
“Two bodies psychology [analyst and analysand] and the associated perspectives of the imagination disappeared; an objectivation of the situation took place that had the effect, most often, of deviating, if not blocking the dialog.”
The point here is that a third body was introduced into this arrangement. This introduction of an extra body, of a third party, change the whole thing. This had the effect on the patient, this R.A., that allowed the patient to trust not only Guattari, but others as well. Guattari was no longer this person who was in a superior position. It was the tape recorder that made the patient trust him. How is that possible? Well, Guattari had nothing against the patient. Of course, the patient didn’t feel like trusting him. But if their conversations were to be put on record, Guattari would have to act in a way that others would find acceptable. This is not to say that he did, nor that he would act in a way that others would find unacceptable. Ah, but see, the patient had no way of knowing that. Having that third party there changed everything.
If you’ve paid attention, you may have noticed that the tape recorder wasn’t always even on. It was only on when they got stuck, when there was this distrust. He (40) also notes how, later on, things changed to the extent that it was doubtful whether it was necessary to even turn the recorder on to record their conversations. He (40) replaced it with a notebook. Now, that might seem suspicious. I get that and, I assume, he got that as well. The thing is that instead of making notes (or appearing to make notes) and keeping it all to himself, he gave the notes to his interlocuter, the patient, as he (40) points out. At this point he didn’t even need to make any notes as the patient made the notes for him, as he (40) goes on to add. I like the way he (40) explains this:
“[D]uring our conversations, I would interrupt him to say, ‘you could write that down,’ and I would repeat what he had said word for word (he was usually unable to remember it himself). I took on the role of the tape recorder (or the mirror), but in a more human way, the ‘disautomatization’ of the machine was correlated to the tact that he was now the machine recording the words circulating between us.”
In other words, he allowed his interlocutor to make notes, covering whatever it is that they’d talk about. He gained the trust of his interlocutor by making it so that the records that they kept were not kept by him. It doesn’t matter how those records are made as long as only the superordinate gets to keep that record. If the subordinate doesn’t get to keep that record or have access to it, if the subordinate cannot demand it to be provided for evidence, it is, as if, there was no third party. It’s then just back to where it all started. It’s just the same thing where the subordinate needs to do everything possible to make sure that the superordinate stays happy.
Now, what I like about this, the way Guattari explains this, is that not only does it explain a certain problem, what William Labov calls the observer’s paradox in his book ‘Sociolinguistic Patterns’, how awareness of being observed affects people’s behavior, how the presence of another person alters the arrangement, some 14 years before Labov, mind you, but also how it can be utilized as a solution. In other words, what I really like about this is that Guattari doesn’t address it first as a problem, as something that we ought to overcome, followed by offering us some solution to it, but rather gives it his own spin. He is keenly aware of how his presence alters the behavior of others, how there is a certain arrangement or an assemblage, which, in turn, changes remarkably once you introduce a virtual interlocutor into the mix. What’s great about this is that, in a way, he overcomes the underlying issue by giving up his role as a superordinate. He isn’t there to tell how things are, followed by telling how things ought to be, while making a record of everything that is said by his interlocutor. Instead, he is there to do the exact opposite. He is there just for his interlocutor to bounce off some ideas, as that tape recorder or as that mirror, as he (40) points out. Nothing about that is fixed. He isn’t there to judge his interlocutor, nor to keep a record so as to make sure that judgment is passed on his interlocutor. He isn’t there to make records that could be used against his patients, at least in their view that is, nor to make them to serve his own interests.What matters is the change in the assemblage and wherever it goes from there. It’s all open ended, as intended.
Anyway, that’s that, for now, something that just came to me. I thought it’d be interesting to take a closer look at this. It was. Time well spent.
- Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ( 1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. R. Lane, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Guattari, F. ( 2015). Monograph on R.A. (R. Sheed, Trans.). In F. Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955–1971 (A. Hodges, Trans.) (pp. 36–41). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
- Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.