Machinic Oedipus, Machinic Multitude

Every technical practice is a social practice, every technical practice is soaked in social determination. But it doesn’t present itself as such: it claims autonomy, innocence, a technical rationality founded on science. This rationality subtends the ideology of faith, which imposes itself on our society as morality; wherein technical practices, separated from social reason, become a technique of the social, and more precisely of social manipulation, and therefore a technics of power.

-Utopie, “Technics as Social Practice”1 

All technics in the service of everyday life!”

-Henri Lefebvre (member of Utopie)


Thinking Machines

During the Macy Conferences, where the groundwork for cybernetic theory was first laid out, a psychoanalyst by the name of Lawrence Kubie took to the podium. In a series of papers with titles like “Neurotic Potential and Human Adaptation,” “The Relation of Symbolic Function in Language Function and in Neurosis,” and “The Place of Emotions in the Feedback Concept,” he attempted to bridge the gap between the blossoming science (particularly the side emphasizing the neurophysiology” and the Freudian school that he had been trained in. Unfortunately for Kubie, this attempts would not be warmly embraced by the conference’s other participants. John Johnston describes this in his excellent The Allure of Machinic Life: “…he was put on the defensive by hard-line experimentalists who sneered at the unscientific status of the Freudian unconscious and relentlessly questioned the tenor of psychoanalytic interpretation.”2

Kubie himself had already been an influential figure on the school of thought even before it had coalesced: in 1930, after being trained in neurophysiology, he had urged a visual of the central nervous system as place where waves flows pathways in circular motions, eventually returning to their point of origin. Warren McCulloch, who had first put together the Macy Conferences, had built upon this image and reworked it as the neural networks theory, posing that the transmission of neurons, calculable in mathematical algorithms, was the functional answer to the question of how the brain logically operates. But McCulloch was not pleased with Kubie’s transformation into a Freudian; before the conferences, he had already gained some notoriety as an prototype for anti-psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Dennis Cooper. At a 1953 presentation to the Chicago Literary Club, he had offered a polemic against Freudian psychoanalysis:

McCulloch ripped into Freud, suggesting that Freud had turned to psychoanalysis because he had wanted to make more money than he would have as a Jewish medical doctor. McCulloch recounted Freud’s sex life, intimating that Freud put sexuality at the heart of his theory because he was sexually frustrated himself. McCulloch denounced psychotherapy as charlatans who, motivated by greed, kept treating their patients as long as those patients had money to pay. He sneered at the empirical evidence used by Freud and other psychoanalysts. In his ironic conclusion, McCulloch cautioned his audience not to try to argue with psychoanalysts. All they would get for their pains, were psychoanalytic interpretations of their objections as evidence of their own unconscious hostilities.3

Across the Atlantic, however, other attempts were being made for the unity of cybernetic theory and psychoanalysis. At the forefront of this was Jacques Lacan, who had quickly familiarized himself with Kubie’s work and had corresponded with the MIT-based linguist Roman Jakobson, who had attended at least one of the Macy Conferences. This output is generally excluded from the normal Lacanian canon, and his sporadic writings on cybernetics are omitted from the English translations of the Ecrits. Johnston digs up this forgotten discourse, and reveals that is it really a shame that it has been relegated to the dustbins of academia: developments in cybernetics, it seems, were an instrumental foundational base for the overall trajectory that Lacan would take in ever-evolving theories.

In June of 1955, Lacan debuted his paper, “Psychoanalysis and Cybernetics, or on the Nature of Learning Language.” In it he insisted that “cybernetics was a new kind of ‘conjectural science’ that for the first time made it possible to understand the autonomy of symbolic processes.” As traditional Freudian interpretation was collapsing under the pressures of scientific development, psychoanalys had to catch up. Lacan saw much truth to found in many of Freud’s theories, particularly on the symbolic. What had to be explained,then, was how these functioned within a brain that was firing neurons into circular networks.“If movement of a symbol dictates the correlation between a place in a structure and a state of the subject,” he writes, “this is because the symbolic order operates as a machine – a new kind of machine that cybernetics first brings to light.”4

At the same time, Johnston argues, with Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter in mind, the transmission from the standard issue Freudian psychoanalytic approach to the Lacanian cybernetic approach are also based in the transformation of subjectivity itself. In Lacan’s time, the years following the end of the Second World War, there had been a massive influx of complex informatic technology, which manifested itself not only in the methodology through which war was waged but also through the popular media platforms that relayed information through the population. This shifting world was bound to have an equally incredible shift in the ways that the world was perceived and how the individual perceived itself. Subjectivity (or more properly, the production of subjectivity) was becoming machinic. Johnston writes:

In Gramophone, Film, Typerwriter, Kittler considers both Freud and Lacan in relation to modern technical media and understands Lacan’s methodological distinctions between the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic as the ‘theory (or merely the historical effect)’ of the differentiations brought about by technical media around the beginning of the twentieth century, when nature became a series of data flows that ‘stopped not writing themselves.’5

Lacan had already re-conceived of Freud’s Oedipal triangle (father-mother-child) as a triangle consisting of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real, which in turn became based partly on these “modern technical media” platforms. The real came to correspond with the gramophone, the imaginary with film, and the symbolic with typewriter, but it is not the simple construct of the typewrite that the symbolic reflects – it’s the entire brave new word of computation technology radiating from Alan Turing’s machine and the WW2 codebreaking devices onward. Through these examples Lacan, Johnston argues, rebuilds Freud’s theory not in an attempt to fundamentally rework his theories, but upgrade them for the era of the machinic subjectivity.


Example of a Markov chain showing market fluctuations over the course of a given week

He also cites the example of the utilization of the Markov chain, a mathematical system that changes from one finite state to another in a series of random processes, in Lacan’s paper. The classical illustration of the chain is the stumbles of a drunk on his way home from a bar: as he makes his wobbly journey, there is equal probability as to which step might be the next one taken (will he veer to the left or to the right?), but the outcomes on either side are entirely dependent on his current footing in the street. But there are also practical and wide-reaching applications of the Markov chain. Claude E. Shannon’s 1948 A Mathematical Theory of Communication, attributed as being the primary catalyst for information theory, models the English language as a Markov chain in order for information processes to take place. Today, Google’s page ranking system is based on Markov chains, and in complex finance, the chains are employed to study the patterns of asset returns. In each case, the Markov chain is used to grasp the transmission of data produced in series of symbols and codes. For Lacan, studying the flow of messages from the unconscious mind, the model of the Markov chain provided an entirely new format of examination. This is the reason, Johnston tells us, that Lacan’s graph models of these transmissions so closely resembles “the transition-state graphs found in textbooks on computation and automata theory”.6 He gives us two illustrations:


From Lacan’s “Ecrits”


Graph of the possible transitions for an ‘automaton,’ or a self-operating machine

Lacan’s lecture further affirms his insistence on the machinic nature of the symbolic order through the example of the door or gate. The door has a real function – it opens and closes, grants entry or denies access. As such, the door’s function is akin to an electrical circuit, which either lets flows through or blocks them depending on whether or not it is open or closed. But the actions of the door generates a symbolic register as well: regardless of what is on the other side in a given circumstance, the door takes on the thought-image of a threshold, which becomes the universal application for what the door is. Lacan argues that the data transferred that births this symbolic notion is routed in syntax, a logic understood through computational binaries of 0s and 1s.

Machinic Social

Its now easy to understand why, even this very surface level glance there is first and foremost the presence of the machine in Deleuze and Guattari’s work. “Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven with other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections… we are all handymen: each with his little machine.”7 Of course, their machinic model extends far beyond the traditional machine (entity of mechanical thinking) and the individual (entity of biochemical thinking) into the realms of nature and culture – but this too is following the train of thought after living systems were recast in a complex cybernetic light.

We find ourselves inside the mechanosphere, the realm of the machinic world, where the human and its cybernetic prostheses operate in unison on a physical level and mental level, stratas whose points of demarcation are found no longer to be applicable. Deleuze and Guattari remind us that the mechanosphere is interchangeable with the rhizosphere, the spaces where rhizomes – physical and non-physical flows that connect and disconnect from one another beyond the dictates of hierarchical order – proliferate. Connected with this is their idea of the “machinic phylum,” later to be unpacked by Guattari’s solo as work one of the four nodes of the schizoanalytic cartography; Brian Holmes writes that this phylum is “the realm of the symbolic, of code, of formalized concepts: rhizomes of abstract ideas whose destiny is to complexify forever, like science, philosophy, mathematics, law, and everything that fills the Borgesian Library of Babel.”8 If the phylum is machinic it is because these factors, essential to the production of (post)modern subjectivity, are forever becoming more complex as they crystallize through machinic processes.


It would make sense that the machinic phylum is one of the spaces most prone to Oedipalization: what becomes the sources of control more so than science, philosophy, law? (If mathematics is to become a dispersal point of power formation, it is only through its application in control procedures such as modeling, wartime logic, etc) Lacan maps out how the machinic becomes the logic of the symbolic order, the name of the father; schizo-analysis aims itself directly at these productive processes that are overcoded by this order and unleashes them. We also should visualize Holmes’ selected categories on their own non-linear trajectories through history: the strands of science that became philosophy and the strands of philosophy that became science, the annals of philosophy that became law and the questioning of law on the basis of philosophy, the mathematicalization of science and the usage of mathematical systems in philosophy, so on and so forth. Assemblages join together from one to the next, they break apart under certain conditions and come together in higher unity in others, without any rhyme or reason other than the material formations of their time and space. They became separated, divided into their own hierarchical disciplines and shut off into differing ivory towers, coming together sometimes and other times standing in complete opposition – the reterritorialization of previously deterritorialized knowledge flows. Then came that “conjectural science,” cybernetics, which breathed new life into the Spinozist concept of matter and life existing in overlapping formulations of one another. Disciplinary boundaries in the wake of the machine crash to pieces– can we talk of artificial intelligence without paying just as much attention to biology and psychology as we do to high mathematics and engineering. The same interdisciplinary sweep applies to all realms of technotropic information, computational theory – again, the deterritorialization of knowledge: “…there is always a nomad on the horizon of a given technological lineage.”9 Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge this in a discussion of weaponry, the prosthetic tool-machine of the State. It is pertinent to see this, for the nomadic technological lineages, deterritorialized in the flows of time and intellect and raw materials, are reterritorialized into the machina of control, and are then wielded against the bodies of those who first brought these flows into creation.

The flows of the machinic phylum are none other than the fluctuations of the General Intellect. It permeates the whole of transnational society; it shifts and mutates, fragments and re-conjoins. It makes law and it makes philosophy, it builds machines. Evolutionary in nature, the General Intellect too moves further and further into the realm of cybernetic technology. As Antonio Negri explains, the General Intellect can be read as “the linguistic body become biopolitical machine… It forms the content of the present mutation.”10 The exists a dualing nature of biopolitics,, as Hardt and Negri take a somewhat different route from Foucault, who first posed the idea. Foucault argued that biopolitics constituted the “new technology of power” that control operates along, as opposed to the modernist apparatuses of discipline, spread out across the entirety of the social and beyond – the “global mass.”11 Hardt and Negri, on the other hand, also apply biopolitics to the revolutionary potentials of those toiling in the transnational Empire: “the multitude is biopolitical self-organization,”12 and what they are capable of self-organizing is their own counter-power and General Intellect. Both definitions can co-exist with one another, for both feed off one another and latch into cyclical spirals of reterritorialization and deterritorialization.

A little on these cyclical spirals: the General Intellect is born from experience and innovation, yet it is essentially communicative: its affect circulate through the ability to relay ideas and concepts between individuals through spoken word, gesture, pictures, drawings, schematics, and the written word – in one word, codework. As computational technology increasingly enhances our world and our bodies, the ecology of all things, greater and greater primacy is given to these communicative abilities; capitalism, war and all forms of power only follow in the wake of these jumps and centralize them, grasping the codework and cutting them off, re-bundling them within their own overcodes. The General Intellect itself is Oedipalized, and its reproduction in the corridors of order replicates itself in each and every one of us. Attaching this to Kittler’s hyper-materialist reading of Freud and Lacan, we can see how they are caught up in the symptoms that they repeatedly identify. But what of beyond this? Could even the overall linguistic turn in philosophy be seen as part of the advance of communicative control?

Machinic Schizos (The Tribe)


In a previous post, I quoted from Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual, where he discusses the human body’s “fractalization” when it enters into feedback systems with machinic technology, which he identifies with the ‘posthuman turn,’ the becoming-network of the body and its subjective productions. This networked existence, he writes, “is characteristic of every perceiving thing, to the extent that it is capable of change. The extension into the posthuman is thus a bring to full expression of a prehumanity of the human.”13 Can we connect this thought, the bridging of the gap between man and his primordial nature and the controlled self and the free self? The more technologically advanced we become the more the “archaic” and the “primitive” return: McLuhan with his tribalism, the fusion of cybernetics and back-to-the-earth ethos in Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, Gibson’s deployment of voodoo in cyberspace, the shamanic fixations of so many in the early British rave scene. And today, at the frenzied moment of accelerated techno/semiocapitalism, concern with the science of the Earth is at a fever pitch, but the general slant of this dichotomy is not one that rejects technology on behalf of the environment. Instead, it aims to blend the two together.

A line running from Marx and Engels to Deleuze and Guattari illustrate that capitalism is forever building itself atop previous social formations, dissolving them into air or transforming their codes into its inner mechanics. But the neoliberal stage of capitalism is unique in that it finally reaches to the bottom of the social for its logic, the desiring-flows that most previous forms had aimed to repressed through what Freud and Lacan called Oedipus, the symbolic order. At the moment when Oedipus is overcome by the processes of becoming-network, it is transferred everywhere through the prevalence of modeling and control. We could argue that archaic tribalism is returning in part because the despotic signifier is deterritorialized as the reality of the ecological living-system is recognized (from a scientific point of view no less, whereas in early social forms such thinking existed in the domain of the mystical) for what it is. The flip side is that the complex or process that we still crudely call “Oedipus” is, as Baudrillard would say, molecular. It may be invisible, but it is everywhere.

Maybe we should see the quasi-tribal state of being produced by the becoming-network, the becoming-prehuman as corresponding to pre-Oedipalized state, which Deleuze and Guattari equated with schizophrenia. If this is true, then it is the thousand molecular-Oedipuses in the Control Society that capture these deterritorialized flows, using them to drive the thousands of capitalisms, the thousand of markets, the thousands of machines that we frequently and misleadingly identify as a singular, hegemonic bloc. What would a proper political response to such a state of affairs look like? So often we deal in this fluid plane of abstraction, but reproducing them in any sort of multitudal biopolitical program remains problematic. We could follow the route of reinforcing state power, seeking regulations to curb corporate excesses? A noble move, truly, but one that resists changing on a molecular level; we continue to move inside the boundaries allotted to us by the overcodes. Green capitalism? A capitalism following a particular desiring-flow, but the same power structures continue to reproduce. But let us not fall into the dialectic of revolution vs. reform, because becoming-network means that we must find points for exodus at precisely the spaces where reterritorialization can take root, those nomadic and schizoid moments of becoming. But how?

One possible answer (even though it is critical that there be as many answers as there are machines of control): to become schizo in the Control Society means to become viscous, to slip through the overcodes and to tap into the Body without Organs of capitalism: the physico-intellectual ecosophic living system of the human, nature, and machine.

1“Technics as Social Practice”, in Craig Buckley and Jean-Louis Violeau (ed.) Utopie: Texts and Projects, 1967 – 1978 Semiotext(e), 2011, pg. 209

2John Johnston The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI Bradford Books, 2010, pg. 66

3N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics University of Chicago Press, 1999, pg. 71

4Johnston The Allure of the Machinic pgs. 67-68

5Ibid, pg. 80

6Ibid, pg. 86

7Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin Books, 2009 (reprint edition), pg. 1

8Brian Holmes “Activism/Schizoanalysis: The Articulation of Political Speech” Continental Drift

9Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pg. 404

10Antonio Negri Time for Revolution Continuum, 2004, pg. 245

11Michel Foucault “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976 St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pg. 242

12Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pg. 411

13Brian Massumi Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation Duke University Press, 2002, pg. 128

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8 Responses to Machinic Oedipus, Machinic Multitude

  1. Naxos says:

    Another great post, Thanks. However, I would not say with Baudrillard that the Oedipus complex is molecular even if we understand it as a process. On the contraire: it is a bodily molar investment, a sedimentation/segregation/secretion brought by symbolic order and by its structures: it may be everywhere as symbolic as it is, and it may be also ‘invisible’, but it does not quite spread molecularly nor induce any change in experience far from the molarity it feeds. A broken, encysted, fixed machine that it is Oedipus complex: an ideological miniaturized apparatus that is still molar and always reterritorializing the strata, triangulating it and never escaping from what it organizes: say, an organic device of organization, all too molar with respect to the molecular schizo-flows that leak from it and repulse it.

    • edmundberger says:

      The reference to Baudrillard was directed at his “Forget Foucault,” which can be read as being concerned with Deleuze and Guattari’s output as much with Foucault’s… at that moment, all four were simultaneously trying to capture that massive shift that was happening (roughly – the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism/Keynesian to neoliberalism, or in their parlance the transition from a disciplinary society to the control society). Baudrillard’s point was that power was now operating on the micro-scale, and that the desires touted in AO was the new logic of this kind of power. Hence Deleuze and Guattari’s shift from AO’s fascism to ATP’s ‘micro-fascism’… Eliminating the ‘fascist within,’ fascism as a blocking structure, seems like woefully obsolete terminology when desire is actualized its very inception, when we are urged to fulfill every whim that may flow into our minds. Its a state where power isn’t only nestling itself on reterritorializing upswings of the macro, but on the deterritorializing fissures sprouting below. I think any loss of the intricacies of Oedipal triangulation that occurred above resulted from a mental balancing act of four (or do we count Deleuze and Guattari as one?) theorists who had extremely similar but also occasionally divergent points of view.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • Naxos says:

        Hey I just noticed that you are the one who writes this blog, cool, I was wondering what happened to your! Thanks for your reply, I think we agree with the main idea. But I admit that I am always watching myself out from splicing some of D&G’s terms together with other non schizoanalytical terms. This vigilance has been productive for me to dilucidate them more heuristically, so I try not to pair e.g the macro and the micro (which are still too objectivistic for me) with the molar and the molecular (which precisely were coined as to break with this sort of scale/spatial objectivism). That is why I felt motivated in first place to share my comment 😉

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  4. edmundberger says:

    Yeah, its certainly tricky trying to step sideways between multiple approaches – especially when those approaches include D&G’s, which seems to almost ooze between the cracks of other discourses. Thanks for bringing attention my conflation the macro/micro and molar/molecular; this is something I find myself doing more than I would care to admit.

    As for the edmund.berger wp – I found this set-up to be a lot more equitable to thought experiments and writing in general, but I dunno why. Something for me to probe, actually!

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  6. S.C. Hickman says:

    This one made me come back to Niklas Luhmann in his final volumes on Theory of Society, along with Levi R. Bryant’s last work on Onto-Cartography where is early investment in Deleuze comes back to haunt him in his update of an ontology of machines and media.

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