Events All the Way Down: On Deleuze & Guattari’s Delirious (Materialist, Ethical, & Ecological) Abstraction

Artist Marc Ngui drew an incredible series of images interpreting Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus.”

A Startling Speed of Thought

Anyone who’s read any of Deleuze and Guattari’s four books can’t help but notice the speed with which connections between wildly discrepant elements abound. In one paragraph, their books careen from the behavior of animals to political history to works of art to philosophical concepts. Their writing is relentless, finding and forging connections between things you most likely had not only never considered but never knew you could connect. And it all happens in one train of thought, often in the the span of a sentence, paragraph, chapter

It’s not just that they think faster than the rest of us —although Deleuze expressed some alarm over the speed of Guattari’s thinking. No, it’s not just their intellectual prowess: it’s that they open up a new domain of knowledge, of thought, that at once fosters the ecology of bodies and the proliferation of their interconnectivity. That is, they open up an entire plane of thought.

Bodies and Their Animation

Reading Deleuze and Guattari, you can’t help but notice the endless parade of references to all kinds of worldly bodies—birds, rats, dogs; oceans, rivers, estuaries; works of art, films, books; and the human body, with and without organs.

And yet these bodies are conspicuously bereft of heft, if you’ll excuse the rhyme. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari offer all these abstract forces—becoming-x, affect, desires, operations of all sort—that seem to animate bodies as if bodies were themselves absent any motivation. Throughout their books, bodies seem less to be self-directed than to be perpetually worked over. Think of Deleuze’s love of Francis Bacon’s paintings with bodies being worked over by sensations that tear the flesh asunder. For Deleuze, it’s all the logic of sensation—the invisible force that distends the pope’s face. The scream of the flesh is the work of sensation.

For Deleuze, Francis Bacon painted sensation and the way sensation distends human bodies.

Indeed, at times, their work almost feels like a weird version of Judeo-Christian duality—empty bodies animated by forces. Only instead of a divine soul, Deleuze and Guattari’s bodies are animated by a wide variety of invisible cosmic forces. If you’ll excuse a little Inside Baseball, there are no farmer’s shoes in their work.

This kind of abstraction runs through a lot of 20th century French writing. Read Maurice Blanchot’s novels and you’ll realize, half way through, that you have no idea what anyone or anything looks like. In Blanchot, there are relentless events that change the relationship between bodies. But we can’t smell, taste, see these bodies.

It’s an odd effect. It’s not unworldly, after all. On the contrary, it’s decidedly an experience, something lived through as a body—only the body doesn’t seem to have any weight of its own.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Will to Abstraction

Deleuze and Guattari make no attempt to mask their will to abstraction. They critique other modes of critique for not being abstract enough: “Our criticism of these linguistic models [Chomsky] is not that they are too abstract but, on the contrary, that they are not abstract enough, that they do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field.”

The abstract machine: that is a key mechanics of Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking. They abstract everything!

‘Nature is like an immense Abstract Machine, its pieces are the various assemblages and individuals, each of which groups together an infinity of particles entering into an infinity of more or less interconnected relations.‘ (D&G)

Take what is probably their most famous figure, the rhizome. When they’re done with it, this rhizome is no longer solely an attribute of certain vegetal life. No, Deleuze and Guattari run the rhizome through their abstract machine and it comes out a mode of assemblage that can operate across materials that are not vegetal. It turns out that along with grass, books and people can be rhizomes.

That is, rhizome has no disciplinary grounding. Instead, in Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract machine, rhizome — like the arborescent—is a mode of self-constitution, the way a body hangs together in its relationship to other bodies. Grass, Kafka, rats are all equally rhizomes.

They abstract the modus operandi of a body until they find an operation, a logic of going, that can be repeated. Grass is a rhizome, of course. But when they abstract it, a rhizome is no longer an attribute of grass per se but is a way of assembling and organizing visible and invisible bodies in a way in which there is an interconnection between the parts but no center (unlike trees which have a centralized root system on which all the other parts depend). As these ways of constituting oneself are not bound by material or size, we have as much to borrow and learn from mountains and moons as we do from cats, cocktails, and cilia.

There is a model for this category of knowledge—this accounting for and taxonomy of modes of relations that can be repeated: tropes. These modes Deleuze and Guattari identity are, basically, tropes. Please note: I am not saying “rhizome” is a metaphor as if the grass is really a rhizome but Kafka is not. No, rhizome is a trope in the same way metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony are: it is a repeatable mode of relationship between bodies, a mode of distributing and organizing sense that traverses bodies.

Modes of Constitution as Realm of Knowledge & Plane of Thought

Deleuze & Guattari’s relentless abstraction opens and articulates a delirious plain of knowledge, of information, of thought: the different ways a body organizes itself and is organized. Suddenly, grass, books, Kafka, bodies of water, political organizations, films, animals, musical concerts, human bodies are connected, sharing modes of assemblage.

This opens up a plane of knowledge and information that’s always flowing through the cosmos but which has been mostly neglected by purveyors of knowledge. One might even say that this plane of knowledge has been systematically ignored, pushed aside, bullied as it can’t be readily quantified and measured—at least by existing tools of measurement.

By opening up this plane of connection, Deleuze and Guattari shatter disciplinary discretion. After all, these organizing modes — rhizome, smooth space, BwO, striation, folds — are at work in bodies of wildly different sorts: plants, books, political movements, houses, films, galaxies. But our knowledge system is predicated on expertise within a tightly controlled domain. We study images of women in 18th century British literature, the physics of light, the mechanics of the inner ear in felines: institutionally controlled domains with severely policed borders. By abstracting to modes of assemblage, Deleuze and Guattari create connections and thinking that relentlessly zigzags across domains at near infinite speed.

Of course, one great effect of abstraction is that spatial limits—the extension of bodies—are not in and of themselves a limiting factor. The mode of a galaxy’s self constitution and the mode of a mitochondria’s self-constitution live side by side on the abstract plane where they are free to intertwine with each other as they are possible modes of life forms traversing the galactic, oceanic, and human as well as the philosophic, political, and linguistic. Abstraction is liberating!

This is not to say that quantified extension is irrelevant or that size doesn’t matter. Of course, it can matter. It depends on the situation and what you’re trying to make sense of. But extension is no longer an inherent limitation of thought and connection.

Abstraction as Materialism, or Bodies as Events

While it can seem like Deleuze and Guattari privilege the animation of bodies over the material of bodies, they are in fact proffering something much stranger: bodies as events. That is, all these modes of assemblage that they find via the abstract machine are nothing less than the bodies themselves. Only these bodies are never quite “themselves” as all bodies are endlessly constituting—and deconstituting—themselves. Such is becoming (rather than being): it’s an endless state of (de)formation.

For Deleuze and Guattari, there will never have been bodies that are not events (although there are events that not bodies). A body is—or, rather, a body becomes—in as much as it is itself an assemblage of modes of assemblage.

There is no base element that is strictly material. There are no bodies in need of animation. Rather, for Deleuze and Guattari, the universe is nothing but modes of assemblage all the way down. Events and nothing but events.

Modes of Constitution as Ethics, or The Ecology of Becoming

A key aspect to grasping—if that’s the right word for something so slithering—Deleuze and Guattari’s project is that these bodies are modes of constitution which means the very form of a body is its way of taking in, taking up, and interacting with other bodies.

For Deleuze and Guattari, we can’t separate what we might call identity and ethics (they’d never use the word “identity” as it suggests a fixed being rather than the flux of becoming). A body is a way of assembling other bodies: my body takes up blood, bone, desire, mood, bacteria, tequila, judaism, among other things. The manner of this assemblage at any given moment—a moment that is itself a fold of other moments—is, well, me. To be me, if you will, is to be this mode of interacting with all these other bodies in such and such a way. It is to be ethical in this manner—and always already enmeshed with others displacing any “me” per se.

Style, then, as both ethics and self-constitution.

I Want to Live on an Abstract Plane

By abstracting indefinitely, Deleuze and Guattari discover an infinitely rich field of knowledge and plane of thought. This abstract machine operates within the ecology of existence, taking a line of flight from the duality of self-other/identity-ethics in that all “identity” is always already ethical, always already constituted by other bodies.

Rather than allow a certain Enlightenment notion of knowledge to prevail while taking refuge in poetry and art—and rather than “deconstructing” rationality by revealing its limitation—Deleuze and Guattari discover, articulate, and conceptualize this vast realm of information that has gone unheeded as knowledge: the invisible world of events, moods, affect, styles, operations. Their work fleshes out this world by not stopping at the flesh but rather by abstracting and thereby revealing this swirling world of data and this delirious speed, and possibility, of thought.

I indeed want to live on an abstract plane—not as escape from the material world but, on the contrary, as a way to rediscover the material world and its rich array of interconnection.

I could sit on the roof / On top of that abstract house / See my abstract view /
An abstract mouse / I want to live on an abstract plain

I need a new address / Tell me I’m not insane / Is it up or down? / I want to live on an abstract plain

I’ve had it with this town / I never saw those shifting skies / I never saw the ground / Or the sunset rise /I want to live on an abstract plain

I’m building a frame / A place to put my ten-yard stare / Thinking of that paint / Painted in plain air / I want to live on an abstract plain

I need a new address / I want some new terrain / Is it North or South? / I want to live on an abstract plain

I could sit on the roof / On top of that abstract house / See my abstract view /
An abstract mouse / I want to live on an abstract plain

Frank Black



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