All systems go

Okay, so finally, let’s do this. Let’s cover Félix Guattari’s ‘Machine and Structure’, which appears at least in two of his compilations, ‘Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics’ and ‘Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955–1971’. I’ll be referring to the latter, in case you wonder about the pagination. Now I’ve mentioned all kinds of things about it already and hyped it so much that I can’t be bothered to do that again. Instead, let’s get to it.

The great thing about this text is that the crucial things are already indicated in the title: machine and structure. From this you should already be able to figure out that they are not the same. That said, while they are distinct, they are, nonetheless, inseparable, as he (318) points out:

“I want therefore to make it clear that I am putting into parentheses the fact that, in reality, a machine is inseparable from its structural articulations and, conversely, that each contingent structure is dominated (and this is what I want to demonstrate) by a system of machines, or at the very least by one logic machine.”

It’s also worth noting here that this works both ways. So, on one hand, a machine is tied to its structural or, should I say, structured articulations, but, on the other hand, a structure is structured by a machine or, rather, a set of machines which act in concert. In addition, there are various logic machines. Now, I can’t be sure, but something tells me that what he means by machines here is what he and Gilles Deleuze later came to refer to as desiring machines and assemblages. I also think that the logic machines are what they came to refer to as abstract machines.

I think it’s also worth noting here how he explains this in terms of structure or structures, as opposed to stratum or strata, which makes sense, given that, unless I’m mistaken, this before he was familiar with Hjelmslev’s work. My general understanding is that he and Deleuze got a bit allergic to using the word structure, not because it couldn’t or wouldn’t work for them, I don’t think it’s that, but rather because it had that structuralist baggage to it, because it made people think of it in ways that simply didn’t mesh with their train of thought. It reeked of totality and transcendence, I guess.

Anyway, Guattari further elaborates what he means by machine and structure. He (381) adds in the notes that he defines structure as Deleuze uses it (or used it) in his work (this being an early work that comments other early work, namely ‘Difference and Repetition’ and ‘The Logic of Sense’), as about generality, having these positions of exchange, which allows the exchange or substitution of elements. In other words, I guess we could say that, for him, a structure is entirely relational. To be more specific, he (382) states that, firstly:

“Two heterogeneous series, one defined as the signifier, the other as the signified.”

Again, note how this is an early text. He hasn’t familiarized himself with the works of Hjelmslev. So, instead of referring to them as the form of expression and the form of content, he is referring to them as the signifier and the signified. Secondly (382):

“Series one (signifier) and series two (signified) only exist if both exist at the same time.”

This is also applicable in his (or their) subsequent Hjelmslevian take on this, how he and Deleuze (57) insist, for example, in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ that content and expression are always in a reciprocal presupposition, i.e., how does not appear without the other. So, in summary, combining these two, for there to be a structure of sorts, what they refer to as stratification in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, there needs to be content and expression which never appear in isolation.

He (381-382) contrasts structure with machine, noting that it is, in turn, about the order of repetition that pertains to what is non-exchangeable and singular, as opposed exchangeable and general. In other words, machine is never simply explainable as the sum of this and/or that, as these and/or those parts, as like a list of interchangeable components, but as that which makes this this and not that, and that that and not this, even though, at a glance, they may appear to be identical.

So, for example, we can two things, let’s say something mass produced like pens, which consist of certain parts that are interchangeable. This means that we can disassemble them and reassemble them as we see fit, without there being any noticeable difference to us. We could say that they are virtually the same, even if we swap parts between them, and even if we introduce more of those pens to swap more parts between them and the newly introduced pens, but they are not actually the same and never will be, no matter how we swap the parts. They will always remain different. Each pen is certainly composed of a number of parts that are, in this case, interchangeable, but each of them is a composition that retains it singularity, as this or that pens, regardless of the composition.

This might be difficult to understand, but the point here is that it is that composition of parts that give them their singularity, how they come together in this or that way, which is never exactly the same as it is with the others. Now, you may wish to object to this, noting that ah, but aren’t the parts identical? Well, sure, if we assume that the parts themselves are actually the same, not merely virtually the same. The thing is, however, that that’s never actually the case. Nothing is actually the same, nor does anything remain actually the same, except difference itself, which leads us to where Guattari got this idea.

Deleuze explains this quite neatly in ‘Difference and Repetition’. He (1) starts by stating that:

“Repetition is not generality.”

He (1) reinforces this statement by taking issue with, one one hand, common sense and, on the other hand, science:

“Every formula which implies their confusion is regrettable: for example, when we say that two things are as alike as two drops of water; or when we identify ‘there is only a science of the general’ with ‘there is only a science of that which is repeated’.”

Now, as you can see for yourself, he (1) laments on how there is this tendency, tied to the dominant image of thought, i.e., way of thinking, to mix repetition with resemblance. To be fair, he (1) does go on to give science its fair shake:

“[G]enarality expresses a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another. The exchange or substitution of particulars defines our conduct in relation to generality. That is why the empiricists are not wrong to present general ideas as particular ideas in themselves, so long as they add the belief that each of these can be replaced by another rother particular idea which resembles it in relation to a given word.”

This is what he (1) means by exchange and how one thing can qualitatively resemble another thing or be quantitatively equivalent to another. There is this exchange or substitution that Guattari also mentions in his text.

That said, that being all well and good for Deleuze, he (1) still objects to equating repetition with resemblance. Why is that? Well, the problem for him (1) is that:

“By contrast, we can see that repetition is a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced.”

Now you must be thinking like: wait what? Don’t worry, he (1) goes on to further explain this:

“Repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities.”

If this feel familiar to you, it’s because I’ve already kind of covered this, because Guattari is building on this, quite evidently, in explicit reference to this book. Anyway, Deleuze (1) exemplifies this:

“Reflections, echoes, doubles and souls do not belong to the domain of resemblance or equivalence; and it is no more possible to exchange one’s soul than it is to substitute real twins for one another.”

Again, you might be tempted to think that a reflection is about resemblance. Your mirror image is certainly like you, and I think he would agree with that, but the thing is that you cannot exchange yourself with your mirror image, nor anything else with its mirror image, for that matter. It’s the same with an echo. You cannot substitute the sound with the echo. They are not the same, which is why it is so fun to shout in places where you get a proper echo. It sounds nothing like you. The echo has its own singularity. I don’t know if anyone would be dumb enough to suggest that the echo is your voice, because it isn’t. The soul is also rather obvious. You literally cannot swap a soul with another soul, because that’s literally what’s considered to be singular about something, it’s soul! I’m not sure about what he means by doubles, but he does make a good point with the twins. You literally can’t swap one with the other in hopes of it being the same, because, duh, it isn’t, not even if the twins are identical. That’s exactly what he means by singularity.

He (1) summarizes this by adding that:

“If exchange is the of generality, theft and gift are those of repetition. There is, therefore, an economic difference between the two.”

Ah yes, couldn’t put it better myself. Just think of it. In the first instance, it’s all about the exchange, about interchangeability. You replace this with that. In the second instance, it’s about giving or taking. There’s no back and forth. If I give you my pen, I no longer have that pen, my pen. Sure, it’s just a pen, fair enough, and I can easily replace it with another pen, which is why a pen is, generally speaking, not a great gift, unless, unless, of course, there is something highly specific about it, some very me about it that you appreciate. It has that singularity. To be honest, even if its not very me, to you, as general as it might be, it does have its singularity. We are just in the habit of overlooking it. That’s why his (1) twin example is so good. If someone you know is taken away from you, let’s say, kidnapped, comatosed or killed, it’s not like that person’s twin can simply substitute in that person’s absence.

But what does he mean by theft and gift pertaining to repetition? Well, if you take or give something, the act is repeated, but not what is taken or given. Conversely, if you exchange something, there is no repetition, only resemblance. How to put that in another way? If you swap something with something else, that’s synchronic, whereas if you take or give something, it’s diachronic. If that confuses you, I think I may have failed you and it’s better to have him (1) explain it to you:

“To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent.”

To give you an example, that, somehow, I think I may have already used in the past, think of an athlete. What is training? Well, usually training is considered to involve repetitions or, in short, reps. What are they? We are tempted to think that they are monotonous drills in which the same is repeated and, in a sense, that is correct. It is, however, not the same action that is repeated, but the drill itself that is repeated. What do I mean by this? Right, so, it’s the drill that is repeated, but the idea of the drill is to change you, to make you better in some way. If you wouldn’t change between the reps, if you performed the drill the same way, each time, the notion of reps would be pointless. Get it?

He (1) exemplifies this with festivals.

“This is the apparent paradox of festivals: they repeat an ‘unrepeatable’. They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power.”

And, to add a bit more specificity to that example, he (1) adds that:

“With respect to this power, repetition interiorizes and thereby reverses itself: as Péguy says, it is not Federation Day which commemorates or represents the fall of the Bastille, but the fall of the Bastille which celebrates and repeats in advance all the Federation Days; or Monet’s first water lily which repeats all the others.”

If that makes no sense to you, think of any contemporary festival. The festival is never the same as it was before. I mean, why would it even strive for that? What would be the point of a festival that had the same place, the same time, the same lineup, the same schedule, the same everything? The odd thing is, however, that if you’ve been to that festival, you’ve been to that festival, no matter when it was. It’s the same, but different.

Anyway, he (1) summarizes this:

“Generality, as generality of the particular, thus stands opposed to repetition as universality of the singular.”

And that (2):

“Repetition can always be ‘represented’ as extreme resemblance or perfect equivalence, but the fact that one can pass by degrees from one thing to another does not prevent their being different in kind.”

So that (2):

“The head is the organ of exchange, but the heart is the amorous organ of repetition.”

Now, to be clear, this bit is a bit too cutesy for my taste, as it kinda repeats an old adage that has it that we think with our brain, which is considered to be the right thing to do, think, think, always think, and act with our heart, which is considered the wrong thing to do, because it doesn’t involve thought, but, okay, I get it. It’s about just going with it, not thinking about it. It’s what I’d call intuition. You just sort of know it, just like that, and there’s no need to think it over. That’s why he (2) adds that:

“It is true that repetition also concerns the head, but precisely because it is its terror or paradox.”

He (2) then moves on to note that the problem with generality is that results in “an empty form of difference” or in “invariable form of variation.” If you are familiar with sociolinguistics, you’ll note how he is trying to give variation its due. Generality presents variation as something that is subordinated to a constant. So, instead of constants and variants or variables, as he (2) calls them here, there’s just variation, a bounded infinity, which, of course, in terms of generality, appears to us as a great of number of varieties.

To exemplify this, he (3) explains how scientific experiments get this wrong:

“[E]xperimentation constitutes relatively closed environments in which phenomena are defined in terms of a small number of chosen factors (a minimum of two – for example, Space and Time for the movement of bodies in a vacuum).”

To which he (3) adds that the problem is that:

“Consequently, there is no reason to question the application of mathematics to physics: physics is already mathematical, since the closed environments or chosen factors also constitute systems of geometrical co-ordinates. In these conditions, phenomena necessarily appear as equal to a certain quantitative relation between the chosen factors.”

The point here being that in such experiment, you’ve already set the rules, i.e., the laws, according to which you experiment something, but aren’t willing to admit it. Simply put, this amounts to cheating. Here physics is piggybacking on mathematics, as he (3) points out. He (3) continues:

“Experimentation is thus a matter of substituting one order of generality for another: an order of equality for an order of resemblance. Resemblances are unpacked in order to discover an equality which allows the identification of a phenomenon under the particular conditions of the experiment.

Which, for him (3) means that:

“Repetition appears here only in the passage from one order of generality to another, emerging with the help of – or on the occasion of – this passage. It is as if repetition momentarily appeared between or underneath the two generalities.”

But, he (3) isn’t buying this:

“[T]here is a risk of mistaking a difference in kind for a difference of degree.”

So, in summary, for him, the problem is that difference is primary, and identity is merely secondary, but this ends up turned on its head. To really hammer this home, he (3) adds that:

“For generality only represents and presupposes a hypothetical repetition: ‘given the same circumstances, then…’.”

Ah, yes, there is that presupposition, what I called cheating. You aren’t really starting from scratch. You aren’t really experimenting. Instead, you presuppose this and/or that, so that repetition, this and/or that has the appearance of occurring in the same way, i.e., this resembling that. Anyway, he (3) continues:

“This formula says that in similar situations one will always be able to select and retain the same factors, which represent the being-equal of the phenomena.”

In other words, this is about repetition, but about attempting to explain it by subordination it to resemblance, as he (3) goes on to add:

“This, however, does not account for what gives rise to repetition, nor for what is categorical or important for repetition in principle[.]”

As that can be a bit difficult to grasp, he (3) clarifies that by noting that:

“[W]hat is important in principle is ‘n’ times as the power of a single time, without the need to pass through a second or a third time.”

Note here how it’s about a single time, about singularity, not about multiple times, not about assessing the singular through a definite number of factors and thus subordinating it to generality. This is what Deleuze and Guattari mean in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ when they (24) reject the opposition between the one and the multiple:

“Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities!”

Which they (32) elaborate:

“Let us return to the story of multiplicity, for the creation of this substantive marks a very important moment. It was created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics, to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state, to cease treating it as a numerical fragment of a lost Unity or Totality or as the organic element of a Unity or Totality yet to come, and instead distinguish between different types of multiplicity.”

I’ll get to multiplicity in a bit, but, to further elaborate this, they (21) note that:

“[It] is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five, etc. It is not a multiple derived from the One, or to which One is added (n + 1).”

Their (21) point here being that:

“[T]he One is always subtracted (n – 1).”

So that (7):

“[T]he only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted[.]”

In other words, multiplicity or singularity deals with something that can’t be explained as one or multiple. There is no reference to something that it is not. It is what it is. It’s not an image of something, which the one and the many presuppose, as they (16) point out.

To explain multiplicity, in relation to singularity, the point here is that singularity is multiplicity, kind of like one and the many being the same thing, one always consisting of many, which consist of many, without any general unity of one which is subdivisible to the many, or the multiple, whatever you want to call it. They (99) exemplify this, as well as the previous point I made about variation being about variation, not about constants and variants or variables:

“It is possible to take any linguistic variable and place it in variation following a necessarily virtual continuous line between two of its states.”

Note here how they (99) work with the terms. Here they start with rejecting the constants and variables by noting that variable is not tied to a constant but to variation itself. In other words, a variant or a variable is not tied to a constant, according to which it deviates from it to this and/or that extent. This means that we are dealing with variables or varieties whenever we are dealing with variation. They (99) exemplify this:

“Agrammaticality, for example, is no longer a contingent characteristic of speech opposed to the grammaticality of language; rather, it is the ideal characteristic of a line placing grammatical variables in a state of continuous variation.”

The point here is that what we think as ungrammatical is tied to something that presuppose as grammatical, i.e., as something that we think is a constant. This is that point about cheating that I mentioned earlier. They (99) continue:

“In spite of [Nicolas] Ruwet’s structural interpretation, we should avoid taking the view that the atypical expression is produced by the successive correct forms.”

Note how they are going against structure here. Like Guattari (318) points out, structures are there, yes, but they are always contingent. They never fixed. Why? Because they are always dominated by the set of machines and at least one logic machine, as he (318) points out. Deleuze and Guattari (99) also point this out:

“It is instead the atypical expression that produces the placing-in-variation of the correct forms, uprooting them from their state as constants.”

Simply put, no constants, only variables in continuous variation, which produces contingent structures, what they (100) like to call optional rules, as opposed to invariable or obligatory rules. Okay, okay, sure, we may reckon that rules are invariable or obligatory, that you cannot get around them, but, well, they’d (99-100) counter that by noting that they only appear as such, for now, until they don’t, which means that they are merely contingent or optional in the broader scheme of things, only appearing as invariable or obligatory in a certain context. This is why they (99) argue that:

“It assures an intensive and chromatic treatment of language.”

As neatly exemplified by their (99) treatment of something as simple as the conjunction ‘and’:

“An expression as simple as AND … can play the role of tensor for all of language. In this sense, AND is less a conjunction than the atypical expression of all of the possible conjunctions it places in continuous variation.”

Now, you’ll be puzzled by what they (99) mean by tensor. Let’s start with a dictionary definition, in this case from the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that it (OED, s.v. “tensor”, n.) is a term borrowed from mathematics:

“An abstract entity represented by an array of components that are functions of co-ordinates such that, under a transformation of co-ordinates, the new components are related to the transformation and to the original components in a definite way.”

They (99) elaborate their take rather briefly:

“The tensor effects a kind of transitivization of the phrase, causing the last term to react upon the preceding term, back through the entire chain.”

To which they (99-100) add that:

“[T]hey are pragmatic values essential to both assemblages of enunciation and indirect discourses.”

They don’t really provide a clear-cut definition of what tensors are, but they (141) certainly link them to tension and intensity. They (511) also refer to them as nonformal functions. This doesn’t help us much.

In their book on Franz Kafka, ‘Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature’, they (23) refer to them as intensives, which, by all logic, means that they are not extensives, i.e., they lack form, even though, I’d say, that they act upon form or, rather, within form, within all that is extensive, segmented, articulated or stratified. They (22) also state that:

“[W]e might call the linguistic elements, however varied they may be, that express the “internal tension of a language” intensives or tensors.”

So, simply put, tensors are what express internal tension. A tensor is what get us outside the structure, for example in language, providing room for creativity, as they explain this in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (99):

“[I]t causes language to tend toward the limit of its elements, forms, or notions, toward a near side or a beyond of language.”

And in ‘Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature’ (22):

“It is this sense that the linguist Vidal Sephiha terms intensive “any linguistic tool that allows a move toward the limit of a notion or a surpassing of it,” marking a movement of language toward its extremes, toward a reversible beyond or before.”

Here they (93) refer to Sephiha’s article ‘Introduction à l’étude de l’intensif’. I’m not going to get stuck on this, at least not now, but what I find interesting about it is how he (114-115) notes that the intensive, what Deleuze and Guattari call the tensor, covers everything, including but not limited to “reinforcement, emphasis, superlative” and “expressiveness”. He (115) clarifies this by stating the this has to do with how, for example, we can have different intensities of ‘loving’, such as ‘adoring’ or ‘worshipping’. If you’ve ended up worshipping someone, it clearly surpasses the notion ‘adoring’ or, in general ‘loving’. There is another interesting bit in the text where he (118) states that this is not all there is to this as words can change meaning, i.e., in what sense we understand them, but retain that intensity. He (118) uses the example of bikini, which used to be about a large explosion, as a dictionary (OED, s.v. “bikini”, n.) will tell you (in refence to the Bikini atoll, where atomic bomb tests were carried out), but it (OED, s.v. “bikini”, n.) is nowadays understood as “[a] scanty two-piece beach garment worn by women.” It can, however, also lose that intensity, like it did with bikini or atom, originally trademarked for that purpose, for that intensity, to make a bang, if you will, and it did, albeit only to lose some of that impact as it gained popularity, to the point that misconstrued its origins, as noted by him (118).

Deleuze and Guattari (93) mention in their Kafka book that they got the term tensor from Jean-François Lyotard’s work, where it is used “to indicate the connection of intensity and libido.” He deals with it in his book ‘Libidinal Economy’. There’s a handy glossary, in which it is stated that by, I presume, the translator (xiii-xiv) that Lyotard uses it to counter “most directly the nihilism he takes to be inherent in all semiotics (structuralism in particular), the issue being that there is a certain semiotic or structuralist subordination of intensities, e.g., actions or emotions, to a lack whenever one approaches them in Saussurean terms. It is noted that (xiv):

“The sign refers, or defers itself, to an elsewhere, constitutively replacing something (absent) for someone.”

This is the problem with signification, as also noted by Deleuze and Guattari (112) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:

“There is a simple general formula for the signifying regime of the sign (the signifying sign): every sign refers to another sign, and only to another sign, ad infinitum.”

In other words, signs end up on an infinite deferral, so that everything is just a representation of something else, hence the nihilism opposed by Lyotard. They (112) continue:

“That is why, at the limit, one can forgo the notion of the sign, for what is retained is not principally the sign’s relation to a state of things it designates, or to an entity it signifies, but only the formal relation of sign to sign insofar as it defines a so-called signifying chain.”

So, in this configuration, what you have is not a sign, signifier and signified, but endless signification or a signifying chain. They (112) further clarify their position:

“When denotation (here, designation and signification taken together) is assumed to be part of connotation, one is wholly within this signifying regime of the sign.”

To be clear, this is how language works, no doubt about it. This is, however, only part of the story. I think that you should mash denotation and connotation together, making no distinction between them as argued by Valentin Vološinov (102) in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’. That said, you should retain these notions in order to indicate that denotation has to do with usual or central meanings, whereas connotation has to do occasional or peripheral meanings under certain conditions. There is nothing given about them. That’s the point.

Deleuze and Guattari (112) explain what’s missing here, that other part of the story:

“Not much attention is paid to indexes, in other words, the territorial states of things constituting the designatable.”

Note here how they object to ignoring the things, what it is that we point to, what it is that is supposedly signified. Anyway, they (112) continue:

“Not much attention is paid to icons, that is, operations of reterritorialization constituting the signifiable.”

Here the object to how there’s this tendency to not only ignore what it is that we point to, but also the underlying process that allows us to point to something that is then, supposedly, signified. They (112) still have something to say about this:

“Thus the sign has already attained a high degree of relative deterritorialization; it is thought of as a symbol in a constant movement of referral from sign to sign.”

So, in Peircean terms, it just all about the symbols, while ignoring the indexes and icons. They (112) explain this in Saussurean terms:

“The signifier is the sign in redundancy with the sign.”

This means that it’s just signifier that a signifier signifies, which is why they (112) reiterate that:

“All signs are signs of signs.”

And, to be more elaborate about this (112):

“The question is not yet what a given sign signifies but to which other signs it refers, or which signs add themselves to it to form a network without beginning or end that projects its shadow onto an amorphous atmospheric continuum.”

For them (112), this means:

“The atmospherization or mundanization of contents. Contents are abstracted.”

They (112) clarify this by noting that the signified has no content, i.e., it lacks its referent, that index or icon, so that, oddly enough, the signifier never signifies anything signifiable. For them (112) this results in a paradox:

“The sign that refers to other signs is struck with a strange impotence and uncertainty, but mighty is the signifier that constitutes the chain.”

It’s like you need to know, so that you know, but once you think you know, you realize that, after all, you don’t know, which makes you want to know, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. They (112) a number of examples of how, following Claude Lévi-Strauss (61), in his ‘Introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss’, “the world begins to signify before anyone knows what it signifies”, so that “the signified is given without being known”: a woman who looks at her husband with a certain expression, a mailman crossing his fingers after handing over a letter from tax authorities, stepping in dog shit, seeing two sticks that look like they are clock hands and someone whispering at the office. What does any of that mean?

Their (112) answer to that is that it doesn’t matter what it means, because can’t know what it means as meaning is always deferred. It’s like yeah, but…? The tragedy of this is exactly that, the deferral of meaning, as they (113) point out. It’s a loop, as they (113) go on to add:

“A sign refers to another sign, into which it passes and which carries it into still other signs.”

So that (113):

“Not only do signs form an infinite network, but the network of signs is infinitely circular.”

So, yeah, it’s a loop alright and it has that “hint of the eternal return”, but, yes, only a hint of it, like they (133) put it. It’s like a botched version of the eternal return, where what keeps returning is more of the same, as it fails to be a creative force, as Deleuze (xi-xii) points out in ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’.

Right, back to Lyotard’s ‘Libidinal Economy’ in which it is indicated (xiv) that he wishes “to reintroduce into the sign a tension”, i.e., the tensor, “that prevents it from having either a unitary designation, meaning or calculable series of such designations or meanings (polysemia)”, in “an attempt to block this movement of referral and remain as faithful as possible to the incompossible intensities informing and exceeding the sign.” It is also clarified (xiv) that it should not be mistaken for what Lyotard calls a dispositif.

What is a dispositif or a dispositive? Well, it really depends on who you ask. According to the same glossary that is included in this book, for Lyotard, it is (x) a combination of dis and positif or positive. It is stated (x) that positif or positive is about the production or the positing of libidinal investment, whereas the dis is about the disparity and the exclusion that is produced. Together, you have (x) this “disposition to invest, a cathexis.” If we look at some dictionary definitions of it (OED, s.v. “dispositive”, adj.), we get a better idea:

“That has the quality of disposing or inclining: often opposed to effective, and so nearly = preparatory, conducive, contributory[.]”

And (OED, s.v. “dispositive”, adj.):

“Having the quality or function of directing, controlling, or disposing of something; relating to direction, control, or disposal.”

It can also be used as a noun (OED, s.v. “dispositive”, n.):

“Something that disposes or inclines[.]”

It is also worth distinguishing it from disposition (OED, s.v. “disposition”, n.):

“The action or faculty of disposing, the condition of being disposed.”

And, more specifically (OED, s.v. “disposition”, n.):

“The action of setting in order, or condition of being set in order; arrangement, order; relative position of the parts or elements of a whole.”

In more specific uses, such as in architecture, in military and in naval contexts, it (OED, s.v. “disposition”, n.) pertains to some sort of an arrangement, a schematic or a plan, how something is to be arranged, administered, allocated, constituted, distributed, or destined to be, as well as how they are or tend to be, as in disposed or inclined to be in a certain way.

For Lyotard (xiv), dispositifs or dispositives are what make signs possible in the first place. Tensors are also not signs, but signs are also tensors or, rather, what conceal or disguise them (xiv).

I’d love to stay on the dispositifs or dispositives, to investigate how Lyotards’ definition differs from Michel Foucault’s definition, but I’ll leave that for another day as that seems like a lot of work, having to do with works that are only in French and/or not available to me right now. Anyway, I haven’t fully explained Lyotard’s take on tensors, so I’ll switch back to it.

The translator (xxi) indicates in his introduction that proper names are tensors. Some of them are low intensity tensors, meaning that they are capable of “attracting to themselves phrases belonging to different regimens and to heterogeneous genres of discourse”, whereas high intensity tensors are capable of doing much more, “melting fragments that never were a totality into unheard of configurations”, which he (xxi) reckons infuriates “logicians and other nihilists” as it “is the name of impropriety.”

What about Lyotard’s own take? Well, before I delve deeper into this book, I think it’s worth noting here what he himself has to say about proper names and tensors. He (55) indicates a thing that puzzles smart people like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell:

“It is primarily of this name that … poses the logician a problem since it refers in principle to a single reference and does not appear to be exchangeable against other terms in the logico-linguistic structure: there is no intra-systemic equivalent of the proper name, it points towards the outside like a deictic, it has no connotation, or it is interminable.”

Indeed, that’s the thing with proper names. They mess up generality as they are not mutually exchangeable. It’s like with the twins. This Mike is not the same Mike as that Mike. He (55) notes that the logicians like to think they’ve got it when they explain it as a matter of existence, but he isn’t buying it. This is because a name does not just someone’s name, indicating someone’s existence, but their singularity, as he (56) goes on to point out. Mike is Mike, in his singularity, to me and someone who knows Mike and it doesn’t matter how we know Mike and what Mike is to me or to that other person, or to someone else. The intensity of that tensor sign may vary, of course, because that’s how singularity works.

Anyway, moving on, I think he (27) puts it quite well by stating that:

“The symptom, or at least the syndrome, will be able to be read, analysed and reconstituted as a structure, a stable composition of elements; intense passages, tensors, are then no longer singularities, they take on value, as elements, from their continuation, from their opposition, from a metonymy without end.”

Note how explaining things in terms of structure ends up making it all static, as he (27) goes on to add:

“The unconscious is structured like a language, let’s speak of it in this way, that’s all it demands. It is in fact, and is only so when intensities are in decline, when the incandescence of the bar makes way for the glow of what is discriminating, when the dream is exchanged for the dream­narrative, when the traveller has just lain down and sold images for an ear which would relieve him of them.”

What’s worth noting here is that the unconscious is not structured like a language, as, I believe, Jacques Lacan would put it, but it is libidinal or machinic, as Guattari would put it. As he (27) points here, it is structured like a language, but only inasmuch as we let it be defined in such a way that cuts it off from desire or constitute desire as a lack.

He (43-94) a who chapter of his book to tensors, but I’ll leave it up to you to read it, unless, one day, I get around to covering it. I’ll just riff on it, including what I find interesting about it. Anyway, he (43) starts by taking a stance against signification, not unlike Deleuze and Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. The problem for him (43) is that hollowing, that substitution, replacement or exchange, which results in “anything but references”, so that there’s that infinite deferral of meaning. That in turn ends up explained by a so-called great signifier, which is never there, always absent, hence my earlier remark of defining desire as a lack. Deleuze and Guattari (306) also point this out in ‘Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’:

“For a structural unity is imposed on the desiring-machines that joins them together in a molar aggregate; the partial objects are referred to a totality that can appear only as that which the partial objects lack, and as that which is lacking unto itself while being lacking in them (the Great Signifier ‘symbolizable by the inherency of a -1 in the ensemble of signifiers’).”

Unless I’m mistaken, the great signifier is the same as the master signifier as it also invokes lack. In their (208) words:

“But this master signifier remains what it was in ages past, a transcendent stock that distributes lack to all the elements of the chain, something in common for a common absence, the authority that channels all the breaks-flows into one and the same locus of one and the same cleavage: the detached object, the phallus-and-castration, the bar that delivers over all the depressive subjects to the great paranoiac king.”

They (208-209) refer to it as the despotic signifier, but what’s central to it is lack, something that was considered to be there, but no longer is, like “the empty tomb, the dead father, and the mystery of the name!”

Attributing this to Lacan, they (209) add that:

“Lacan accompanies the signifier back to its source, to its veritable origin, the despotic age, and erects an infernal machine that welds desire to the Law, because, everything considered … this is indeed the form in which the signifier is in agreement with the unconscious, and the form in which it produces effects of the signified in the unconscious.”

So that, oddly enough (209):

“The signified is precisely the effect of the signifier, and not what it represents or what it designates.”

What are these master signifiers then? Well, I think Deleuze and Guattari (208-209) put it quite aptly when they mention that it is a “transcendent stock” or a “transcendent signifier on which the [signifying] chain depends” or, rather, appears to depend. I think Mark Bracher provides some good examples of master-signifiers or “identity-bearing words”, as he (23) calls them in his book ‘Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism’. They could be anything, but they tend to be what people come to desire and ally themselves with, such as God, nature and society, as he (23-26) points out. The problem is that they are merely signifiers, just like any other signifiers, referring to other signifiers, as he (25) also points out. They are despotic because they are erected into a high position, i.e., given that transcendent status, ruling over every other signifier, which is great inasmuch as one desires one’s own repression, being defined in this way, as also noted by him (26), but not so great if you aren’t into that.

There is, however, a greater underlying problem. It’s already being implied, but, yeah, the whole logic of this is twisted. Note how the master signifier is not what is desirable, as it is just a signifier among signifiers, not higher or lower in status, but what come to find desirable, i.e., what they come to think as worth identifying with. Deleuze and Guattari (129-130) explains this quite neatly in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, noting that you have this doubled subject:

The subject of enunciation recoils into the subject of the statement, to the point that the subject of the statement resupplies subject of enunciation for another proceeding.”

As that is quite tightly packed, it’s worth letting them (129) further clarify this:

“The subject of the statement has become the ‘respondent’ or guarantor of the subject of enunciation, through a kind of reductive echolalia, in a biunivocal relation. This relation, this recoiling, is also that of mental reality into the dominant reality.”

The most messed up thing is that it’s all you! You are part of this process. You are at fault for the normalization of yourself, as they (129-130) point out, so that, paradoxically:

“[T]he more you obey the statements of the dominant reality, the more in command you are as subject of enunciation in mental reality, for in the end you are only obeying yourself!”

Lyotard (48) also discusses this, noting how the ‘I’ is constituted as both the addressee, i.e., as the slave, and the addressor, i.e., the master who comes up with the codes and the procedure of decoding the messages. I don’t think he explains this that clearly, but, yeah, it’s there.

Simply put, giving primacy to certain signifiers, setting them up as master signifiers, gets you nowhere. You only end up being the master and the slave at the same time. What’s even more messed up is that, if didn’t already notice it, it’s not just you. It’s everyone! You didn’t come to this world, readymade. No, no. It was all already there. Sure, it has changed to some extent and you may have changed a thing or two, maybe, but that’s not much. This means that what you desire is not your desire, but what you’ve come to desire. It’s a fine distinction, but it is worth emphasizing. This is why, in the past, I have clearly indicated that people desire what they come to desire, not what they have chosen to desire.

Oh, and that really riles up people! Why? Well, because they take their autonomy for granted, because they’ve come to desire it, because it is a common master signifier. Bracher (26-27) also points this out, noting that when you point out their beloved master signifiers, what it is that they’ve come to identify with, what they’ve come to take as transcendent, as simply given, it produces a great deal of “alienation and anxiety” in them, as well as “responses of aggression”, including its immediate rejection, or indifference to it. He (26) is also dead on when he adds that you can test this quite easily by observing what happens when people insult us or, rather, when we take something as an insult, going against “our sexual, racial, ethnic, religious, class, or political identifications.”

The problem here is, however, and I think it’s worth adding, that genuine criticism of the whole logic ends up being mistaken for criticism of who they are, which it is not. It’s about going against the contemporarily relevant mixed regime of signs that relies on both signification and subjectification, as Deleuze and Guattari (129, 179) explain it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, so that the master signifiers come function as points of subjectification, as what one comes to identify with and, to be clear, is often expected to come to identify with. Simply put, it’s about opposing the way they’ve come to think, not what they think. It is also why the reaction tends to be so quick and aggressive. This explains what they (179) have to say about this:

“The mixed semiotic of signifiance and subjectification has an exceptional need to be protected from any intrusion from the outside.”

To which they (179) add that:

“In fact, there must not be any exterior: no nomad machine, no primitive polyvocality must spring up, with their combinations of heterogeneous substances of expression.”

Now, as already noted, what’s so tragic about this is that what people have come to desire, at any given moment, is not what they have chosen to desire. Bracher (27) points this out, noting that this is not about individual authority and, on top of that, whatever it is that you’ve come desire, that master signifier, is always linked to what else is considered desirable, that is to say a whole host of other master signifiers. He (27) uses the example of masculinity and how it is associated with strength, virility and large size, so that desiring it results in also desiring what’s linked to it. If that doesn’t convince you, his (27) example should. Think of what it is that you really subscribe to when you identify with a flag of your nationality.

Right, where was I? Tensors? Ah, yes, back to Lyotard (44) objects to all this by stating that:

“See what you have done: the material is immediately annihilated.”

Which is true. That is the crux of signification. It’s all signs, signs, signs, and the infinite deferral of meaning, as he (44-45) laments it. He is also right when he (45) argues that as there are, no longer, any simple givens, you know like God, all you have is that redundancy, that looping, that you need to stop somehow. That’s why, for him (45):

“There is no sign or thought of the sign which is not about power and for power.”

How so? Well, as already established, the master signifier is just a signifier that has set up as such. The relevant question to ask is not, no longer, what that is, but who set it up as such. When it is just a matter of exchange, it doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s way more important to address who is in the position to make this and/or that something that we are expected to identify with.

To be clear, what I think is even more important than challenging this regime is to challenge how that regime is constituted and to provide an alternative to it, which is exactly what Deleuze and Guattari do in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. That’s the point of that book! Otherwise, it’s just replacing those master signifiers with other master signifiers, so that all you change are the points of subjectification, and/or rearranging who gets to do all that. That amounts to nothing.

Moving on to another interesting point where he (46) gripes about how this also results in neglecting the present, here and now, by giving primacy to “an always past and a still to come”, as well as “an even now and a not yet”. Yeah, that does sound about right, how the past is the past, but also the past in the present, and the future the future, but also how the present is not yet the future, which then ignores the present.

Hmmmm, where was I with Deleuze and Guattari? Right, the bit where they (100) elaborate the general and the singular.

“But the abstract machine of language is not universal, or even general, but singular; it is not actual, but virtual-real; it has, not invariable or obligatory rules, but optional rules that ceaselessly vary with the variation itself, as in a game in which each move changes the rules. That is why abstract machines and assemblages of enunciation are complementary, and present in each other. The abstract machine is like the diagram of an assemblage.”

Here we have the abstract machine and the concrete assemblages, what, I believe, Guattari (318) used to call the logic machine and the system of machines. To further elaborate on the variation bit, they (100) add that:

“It draws lines of continuous variation, while the concrete assemblage treats variables and organize[s] their highly diverse relations as a function of those lines. The assemblage negotiates variables at this or that level of variation, according to this or that degree of deterritorialization, and determines which variables will enter into constant relations or obey obligatory rules and which will serve instead as a fluid matter for variation.”

I think it’s, finally, time to get back to Guattari (318) who states in ‘Machine and Structure’ that:

“We may say of structure that it positions its elements by way of a system of references that relates each one to the others, in such a way that it can itself be related as an element to other structures.”

Right, that’s structure for you. But what about you and me? What’s our part in this? Well, for him (318), it’s in the mix:

“The agent of action, whose definition here does not extend beyond this principle of reciprocal determination, is included in the structure.”

So, in others words, as you may have guessed already, the subject is always structured. He (318) continues:

“The structural process of de-totalized totalization encloses the subject, and will not let go as long as it is in a position to recuperate it within another structural determination.”

That may seem a bit confusing (de-totalized totalization), but this is simply about how the subject is tied to the structure, i.e., how it is always structured, at least to a certain extent. To use explain this in the he does alongside Deleuze in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (67), “[w]e are stratified”, “never signifier or signified.” While he (318) indicates that the subject is always to tied to the structure, whatever that may be, it is not that he (319) is saying that the machine is not relevant to the subject. We’ll get to that, eventually, but I’ll let him (319) continue:

“The machine, on the other hand, remains essentially remote from the agent of action. The subject is always somewhere else.”

Yes, you won’t find the subject in the machine, at least not as such. He (319) elaborates this point:

“Ternporalization penetrates the machine on all sides and can be related to it only after the fashion of an event.”

Again, yes, the machine pertains to the event, whatever it is that happens, here and now, which, I’d say is beyond the subject. Events may involve subjects, but that’s not the point here. He (319) further elaborates this:

“The emergence of the machine marks a date, a change, different from a structural representation.”

How to put this differently, well, it is what it is, it’s just what happens, for better or for worse. Some things come, some things go, as he (319) goes on to add:

“Every machine is the negation, the destroyer by incorporation (almost to the point of excretion), of the machine it replaces. And it is potentially in a similar relationship to the machine that will take its place.”

To explain what the machine has to do with the subject, to skip some bits here, he (319) states that:

“The unconscious subject as such will be on the same side as the machine, or better perhaps, alongside the machine. There is no break in the machine itself: the breach is on either side of it.”

Which amounts to saying that the unconscious is machinic, hence the title of one of his books. I’m going to skip some things here, again, because he (319-322) goes on to explain how there are machines within machines and how, in a sense, humans are also machines within machines, like little cogs in a system of machines, or, at least, being fated to being integrated to such machinery.

The next interesting bit has to do with how he (322) states that:

“The essence of the machine is precisely this function of detaching a signifier as arepresentative, as a ‘differentiator,’ as a causal break, different in kind from the structurally established order of things.”

Why is this interesting? Well, because he (322) goes on to add that:

“It is this operation that binds the machine both to the desiring subject and to its status as the basis of the various structural orders corresponding to it.”

If you go about this the other way around, i.e., not from singular to the general, but from the general to the singular, it won’t make sense, as he (322) points out:

“In trying to see things the other way round, starting from the general, one would be deluding oneself with the idea that it is possible to base oneself on some structural space that existed before the breakthrough by the machine.”

This goes back to the initial point about how the machinic has primacy over the structural or stratified, regardless of the reciprocity, of how you need something structural or stratified to make any sense of it. Following that lengthy tangent, it is only fitting that he (322) goes on to state that:

“This would lead to wrongly locating the truth of the break, the truth of the subject, on the level of representation, information, communication, social codes and every other form of structural determination.”

This is also exactly the point Lyotard makes when he argues that proper names are tensor signs. Mike is Mike. That’s it. That’s singularity for you. If you attempt to define Mike by listing all these things like male, muscular, blonde, smart and what not, you are missing the point. Sure, Mike might be all those things, but not just those things. Also, it’s not that you can get to the bottom of it, what makes Mike Mike by expanding that list. It doesn’t work like that. Anyway, he (322) continues, adding what might be of interest to a linguist:

“The voice, as speech machine, is the basis and determinant of the structural order of language, and not the other way round.”

As you can see, he (322) is not a fan of structuralism. That said, he (322) isn’t giving it its due:

“The individual, in his bodiliness, accepts the consequences of the interaction of signifying chains of all kinds which cut across and tear him apart. The human being is caught where the machine and the structure meet.”

Aye, there’s no escaping language, as such. We are structured, yes, but we aren’t bound to a fixed structure. It doesn’t take much to figure out why he ended up preferring the Hjelmslevian terms stratification and strata, being stratified to this and/or that extent, unless you destratify, to this and/or that extent, only to stratify again. It just makes it easier to avoid making it seem like you are bound by something it is fixed. Anyway, he (322-323) goes on to explain what the problem for us is:

“Human groups have no such projection screen available to them. The modes of interpretation and indication open to them are successive and contradictary, approximative and metaphorical, and are based upon different structural orders, for instance on myths or exchanges. Every change produced by the intrusion of a machine phenomenon will thus be accompanied in them with the establishment of what one may call a system of anti-production, the representative mode specific to structure.”

So, as I pointed out already, we can only make sense of it all through some semiotic system. It just so happens to be that language and, more broadly speaking, signification is a dominant system. At this point he (323) also wants to specify that anti-production has to do with the machine, not with the structure, even though it is tied to it. You’ll find him and Deleuze (346, 373) explain this in more detail in ‘Anti-Oedipus’, the gist of it being that the system can and does turn on itself, so that it is indeed possible to repress desire and to desire repression or, rather, to channel desire in ways that some desires are fine, whereas others are not.

He even addresses the stuff they discuss together in ‘Anti-Oedipus’. Notably, you’ll find him (323-324) discussing part objects or partial objects, i.e., Lacan’s objet petit a, connecting to machines, resulting in him calling then objet machine petit a:

“The existence of this objet-machine petita,’ irreducible, unable to be absorbed into the references of the structure, this ‘self for itself’[.]”

He (326) also calls them “the objets petita’ as the unconscious desire machine”. Anyway, he (324) adds that:

“The object of desire decenters the individual outside himself, on the boundaries of the other; it represents the impossibility of any complete refuge of the self inside oneself, but equally the impossibility of a radical passage to the other.”

Now, to make more sense of these bits, it’s worth taking a closer look at what Lacan means by objet petit a. He (62, 180) explains this in his seminars, namely in ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’, as an object of desire that is lost or unattainable. Deleuze and Guattari (27) address this in ‘Anti-Oedipus’:

“Lacan’s admirable theory of desire appears to us to have two poles: one related to ‘the object small a’ as a desiring-machine, which defines desire in terms of a real production, thus going beyond both any idea of need and any idea of fantasy; and the other related to the ‘great Other’ as a signifier, which reintroduces a certain notion of lack.”

Note how they give credit to Lacan for pinpointing what’s crucial about machines, these, in themselves, unattainable or, should I say, rather nonsensical units that only make sense as parts of a whole or as wholes that, in turn, consist of parts, which, in turn, consist of parts. This is about production or, rather, desiring-production, which they (4-6) define as the production of production. That’s also what makes it machinic., the coupling of partial objects, machines connecting with other machines, as they (6) point out. Note also how they acknowledge the signifier, only to give it a negative spin, as already discussed in great detail. That’s the deal with anti-production.

Guattari (324-326) details what happens in anti-production, when desire is defined in terms of lack, as opposed to in terms of affirmation. In summary, you’ll be stuck in representation, because that’s the deal with signifiers. There’s that looping. In his (325) words:

“This relationship of the structures sets going a mad machine, madder than the maddest of lunatics, the tangential representation of a sado-masochistic logic in which everything is equivalent to everything else, in which truth is always something apart.”

There is this a search for the truth, as he (325-326). The problem is that such search is pointless because there is no truth, inasmuch as you approach this in terms of signification as there is that never ending chain of signification. As Lyotard (45) points out, it’s not even a search for the truth, just a search, and, as Guattari (326) points out, the problem is not only that truth has somehow disappeared, that we are not stuck in phantasy, but that it was never to begin with, as it’s not attainable through signification.

He (326) moves on to point out that this is the same for the individual and the group of individuals as both will be unable to grasp the unattainable, the desiring-machines or assemblages. He (326) is quite adamant about this:

“The essence of the machine, as a factor for breaking apart, as the a-topical foundation of that order of the general, is that one cannot ultimately distinguish the unconscious subject of desire from the order of the machine itself: On one side or other of all structural determinations, the subject of economics, of history and of science all encounter that same objet petita’ as the foundation of desire.”

To give you an example of why this is also relevant on the level of groups, he (326) argues that, in structural terms (later on in stratified terms), “the black community in the United States represents an identification imposed by the white order.” In other words, black people identify or, rather, come to identify as black, whatever that is supposed to mean, I leave that open, not on their own terms, but on the terms of the white people. That’s the problem with signification mixed with subjectification, what he and Deleuze discuss in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’.

Moving on again, he (327) reiterates the initial point that machines are not structures. He (327) is also clear about the point that machines pertain to production, whereas structures pertain to anti-production, what we could also call the desire and the desire to be repressed, the affirmation and the lack.

The last point I want to make is that, in his (327-328), the problem with revolution is that while it involves desire and production or, desiring-production, it also tends to involve the desire to be repressed, that anti-production. In his (328) words:

“The problem of revolutionary organization is the problem of setting up an institutional machine whose distinctive features would be a theory and practice that ensured its not having to depend on the various social structures-above all the State structure, which appears to be the keystone of the dominant production relations, even though it no longer corresponds to the means of production.”

As he (327-328) points out, there’s always that anti-production that creeps in, which seeks to retain or re-establish the previous social order. It’s a trap! Ah, comforts of the past! This is what happened in communist countries, as he (328) goes on to add:

“The revolutionary socialist intention to seize control of political power in the State, which it sees as the instrumental basis of class domination, and the institutional guarantee of private ownership of the means of production, has been caught in just that trap.”

Now, this is a major problem for him (328):

“What entraps and deceives us is that it looks today as though nothing can be articulated outside that structure.”

Which is why he (329) reckons that the revolution requires reformulation:

“The revolutionary program, as the machine for institutional subversion, should demonstrate proper subjective potential and, at every stage of the struggle, should make sure that it is fortified against any attempt to ‘structuralize’ that potential.”

This is the end of his text and my text. It’s fitting, really, because what he says here is exactly what he set out to do, on his own, and in collaboration with Deleuze. That’s exactly what, for example, why in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ they are not merely content to do more of the same, just explain things, in theory, but also provide a way out of that structural impasse, in praxis, as he (329) puts it. That’s what attracts me to their work. It’s useful, to the individual and to the group. It’s not theory for the sake of theory, thought for the sake of thought. It’s about being applicable. It’s not about legitimating oneself and one’s work, but about providing people tools do what they do and what I do themselves, without any need to ask for any permission to use those tools.


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