The Poet and the Assassin: Control and Cosmos in “A Thousand Plateaus”

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The two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia have been read many ways: a critique of psychoanalysis, an exercise in nomadic thought, a foreshadow of chaos theory and the sciences of complexity, holistic texts packed with hermetic encoding. Anti-Oedipus in particular has been singled out as an exercise in dark philosophy in the debates raging over Accelerationism – its Nietzschean zeal for destruction and its prioritization of capitalism’s decoding flows. In this backwards-grafting of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy onto the text, A Thousand Plateaus often gets left out in the cold, more suitable for liberalized humanities studies as it is, particularly for Nick Land, a moralizing misstep and pivot away from Anti-Oedipus’s thirst for annihilation.

We should remember that the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project is first and foremost a radical text that makes its central concern revolution against state and capitalism, one that is looking for exit points after all the other options (from the Bolsheviks to the Maoists to the events of May ’68) has been exhausted. As such, both texts are correlated to their times and places. Anti-Oedipus was written against the backdrop of the crisis facing the Fordist-Keynesian regime of production, where command and control were centralized (and decentralized) in the factory, the dominant corporations, and the state; for a variety of theorists, from the Situationists in France to the Johnson-Forrest Tendency in America (and let us not forget that there is a connection between the Situationists and this Tendency in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, of which Lyotard was at one point a member), “leftist” revolutionary states like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were only perfections of the capitalist production. It makes perfect sense then why Anti-Oedipus would favor decoding capital’s flows: it breaks down this centralized command, shatters the brick walls of the state.

A Thousand Plateaus picks up where this decoding of flows has already taken place. It’s the first critique of the new network society, the megamachine that post-Fordist capitalism was crafting on a global level. The rhizome itself is a profound image of this (where any point connects to any other), while the ambiguities of cybernetics and other “cyborg sciences” is played out in their discourse on the dichotomies of Royal Sciences and Nomad Sciences. Important too is the notion of machinic enslavement, which teases out the very real structures of power imbedded in post-Fordistization: people “are no longer consumers or users, nor even subjects who supposedly ‘make it’, but intrinsic component pieces, ‘input’ and ‘output’, feedback or recurrences that are no longer connected to the machine in such a way as to produce or use it. In machinic enslavement, there is nothing but transformations and exchanges of information, some of which are mechanical, others human.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 458)

Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” is often considered to be Deleuze’s great analysis of contemporary world order, yet a close reading of A Thousand Plateaus reveals that many of these ideas were present and already imbedded in the text. The structuring of the “Postscript” revolves an updating of Foucault’s theories of the Sovereign Society and the Disciplinary Society with the idea of the “Control Society”. Deleuze correlates each to a particular ‘machinic envelope’ – the sovereign age was the age of simple machines, the disciplinary age the age of thermodynamic machines, and control the age of computation machines. In each age the body of the individual is targeted in a different way by which power organizes itself; in the disciplinary age the body experienced enclosures, ongoing succession of “molds” that the individual is always passing through. Control, by contrast, is “ultrarapid forms of free floating” systems that exist open-ended and without conclusion; this more gaseous state is not a “mold” but a “modulation,” “like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.” (“Postscript”, 4) In this modulating environment the body is not so much an individual but a concern of informatics and data, a “dividual”.

A Thousand Plateaus covers much of this same material. Early in the text Deleuze and Guattari ruminate on the supposed dialectic between the molar, which would be large organizations of power, and the molecular, the realm of the everyday and interacts between individuals and subject groups (and even more intimate and personal experiences). “…the molar form of expression,” they tell us, may be of the ‘mold’ type, mobilizing a maximum of exterior forces…” (A Thousand Plateaus, 58) These “exterior” forces are Foucault’s disciplinary institutions: the family, the school, the barracks, the factory, on and on, but at the same time, the molar aggregates operate through a different mode of expression targeted more on the interior, molecular level – the “’modulation’ type”.

This would indicate that “modulation” is not simply a bypassing of the “mold” form, but that both can exist side-by-side, even operating at exactly the same point, or serving the functioning of the system at differing plateaus or spaces. Indeed, the whole of sovereign/discipline/control is sketched out in the chapter on the refrain in A Thousand Plateaus, presented through as the procession of the three ages of the classical (the sovereign), the romantic (discipline), and, finally, the modern age (control). They do tell us, however, not to interpret this procession in a linear, necessarily historical mode of development: they “should not be interpreted as an evolution, or as structures separated by signifying breaks.” The veneers of classic, romantic, and modern only appear when a certain machinic paradigm moves to the forefront: “They are assemblages enveloping different Machines, or different relations to the Machine. In a sense, everything we attribute to an age was already present in the preceding age.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 346). This clearly anticipates the machinic dialogues of simple machines, thermodynamic machines, and computational machines in the “Postscript,” while also alluding to the whole paradigm of machinic evolution. We can’t discount the importance of the simply machines in creating the thermodynamic machines, which aimed to perfect and replace the simple machines, or the research into thermodynamics that birth both the cyborg sciences and its corollary, the computer. Furthermore, we can see how on a larger scale “disciplinary” institutions are required for the full functioning of control systems; sweatshops and autocratic governments, for example, form the laboring backbone of the West’s preoccupations with immaterial form of labor, finance economies, and speculation. The two are not antithetical but linked through dense rhizomatic networks of intermodal transport, modulations, governed by computer simulations on a globalized level. This is what Deleuze and Guattari would called the “Mechanosphere,” which they use to illustrate this non-historic assymetrical paradigm: “It is difficult to elucidate the system of the strata without seeming to introduce a kind of cosmic or even spiritual evolution from one to the other, as if they were arrange in stages and ascended degrees of perfection. Nothing of the sort. There is no biosphere or noosphere, but everywhere the same Mechanosphere.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 69)

This Mechanosphere is nothing less than “the plane of cosmicization of forces to be harnessed,” with the modern age itself acting as the “age of the cosmic… The assemblage no longer confronts the forces of chaos, it no longer uses the forces of the earth or the people to deepen itself but instead opens onto the forces of the cosmos.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 342-343) This cosmic forces point towards the new sciences that underscore the post-Fordist production modules; not only the sciences of information and feedback loops but the whole array of the self-organizing paradigm, wind and solar energy, the dividing of the atom, genetics as commodity, swirling electrons…

Anti-Oedipus seemed very sure about the revolutionary subject against Fordist state capitalism: the schizo, personified in a legion of avant-garde artists. This is a debt to the revolutionaries who came ambled the streets of Paris long before the events of May ’68; after all, it was Debord’s comrade Chtcheglov who pictured prefigured the schizo out for a stroll with his psychogeographical derive, and it was Chtcheglov’s first Henry de Bearn who hoped to write – but never finished – a work bearing the title The New Nomadism. Chtcheglov trended even closer to Deleuze and Guattari’s language: “The derive (with its flow of acts, its gestures, its promenades, its encounters) was to the totality exactly what psychoanalysis (in the best sense) is to language” (The Beach Beneath the Streets, 26)

Who are the revolutionary subjects of the early network society? Just as in Anti-Oedipus, they return to the avant-garde, citing the first artist of the cosmic age as Edgard Varese, the early electronic musician that Henry Miller once described as “the stratospheric Colossus of Sound”. Varese is a cosmic artist because he taps into the plane of consistency to craft his music, sounds that are not so much created by him but channeled by him through previously-inaccessible otherspaces. His works “molecularizes and atomizes, ionizes sound matter, and harnessed a cosmic energy” (A Thousand Plateaus, 343). To what end? For Varese it was an invocation of a New World or New Earth; escaping the ravages of Europe he travelled to New York City and settled into the seething networks of musicians, artists, and vagabonds, that flip-side of New York beyond the confines of the state and capital. His music, however, was to be fixed far less to his time and place, persisting instead to keep looking outside. “What Varese sought to develop,” writes David Toop, “was the superior capacity of all kinds of music to capture emergence in complex phenomena; transient, non-articulated feelings, or what Gaston Bachelard called the Poetics of Space, whether the ambiance of a room, the ribbon of a road or the boundless envelopment of oceanic space” (Ocean of Sound, 84)

A legion of artists have situated Varese as a key influence: Pierre Boulez and John Cage, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, John Cale, Can, Frank Zappa… Many of these, particularly the ones existing in the minimalist classic trajectory, are cited through A Thousand Plateaus. Boulez receives special attention, for his music indicates the Aeon, a “nonpulsed time for floating music” (A Thousand Plateaus 267). For Deleuze and Guattari it is Cage’s music, filled with chance and altered instruments, who “affirms a processes against all structure and genesis, a floating time against pulsed time or tempo…” This pulsed time is Chronos, marking the spot of absolute organization, the rhythmic time of capitalism’s operations. The names selected are telling: Chronos, the mythological personification of time, eats his children, consuming the totality of their bodies. Chronos is death, but the word “Aeon” itself means life, being. In Gnosticism the Aeon is the One; in this proto-Spinozist formula, it from the Aeon that all radiates in multiple guises. This is resurrected in Deleuze as the universe, forever in morphogenic flux, unfolding as a plane of immanence. Thus the “cosmicization of forces” to be harnessed, and glimpsed by these artists, is an opening to this space made possible, it seems, by the openings provided by the network society.

Yet these openings are not guaranteed. “The question,” they say, “then becomes whether molecular or atomic ‘populations’ of all natures (mass media, monitoring procedures, computers, space weapons) would continue to bombard the existing people in order to train it or control it or annihilate it – or if other molecular populations were possible, could into the first and give to the people yet to come.” Raoul Vaneigem once wrote of poetry as the goal of revolution and the process by which it continues – not poetry in the normally understood sense, but “the true mode of being of individual creativity,” unrestrained by the “cyberneticians” who “image that people can be persuaded to engage with  free experiment within bounds laid down by authoritarian decree.” (The Revolution of Everyday Life, 193-194) In a similar vein, Deleuze and Guattari briefly allude to two separate forms rising from the Mechanosphere: the Poet and the Assassin. The assassin is the figure who lords over the mass media and the monitoring procedures, the form of the state that persists in the free-floating forms of control, and even urges certain degrees of playful experimentation. The poet, by contrast, is the revolutionary subject: the “one who lets loose molecular populations in hopes that this will sow the seeds of, or even engender, the people to come, that these populations will pass into a people to come, open a cosmos.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 345)

It seems clear, given the time that has passed since Deleuze and Guattari published A Thousand Plateaus, that the forces of the Assassin have triumphed over the figure of the Poet, and that Control itself is moving into some kind of new, and utterly uncertain, machinic envelopes. Who are our poets of today?


David Toop Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds

Gilles Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

McKenzie Wark The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

Raoul Vaneigem The Revolution of Everyday Life

See also Steve Hickman/Dark Ecologies “Guy Debord: A Philosophy of Time” 

Deterritorial Investigations Unit “Metropolis, Media, Mechanosphere” 

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7 Responses to The Poet and the Assassin: Control and Cosmos in “A Thousand Plateaus”

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    Yea, this battle of assassin and poet, the cycles of chromos and aeon, war readies itself for the age of the Mechanosphere. I think this essay seems to be a watershed for you? Seems to crystalize a lot of the ideas your snippets and fragments of history of the various aspects of the twentieth century have come together in this. Good for you! Not sure why, but I feel like your ready to construct that book you’ve been essaying for a long while. Maybe Verso Books? They seem to like books of less than 200 pages… from what I’ve read of late you could fly by that easily. Either way glad you finally brought these insights into relief, set them out on a map of the mind that can engender future thought for yourself. Gratz…

    • edmundberger says:

      Thanks Craig! Yeah, after taking the little sabbatical (like anything, burn-out is something that must warded off), I was able to return the torrents of material with fresh eyes, and it all kind of fell into place. I’ve actually got a little something in the works now, beginning stages so I won’t spoil it, but I hope yourself and dmf won’t be troubled to take a look at it after I get it flowing!

      For me its all historical, but not history in the standard sense, an intersecting genealogy and cartography, on one hand the co-evolutions of capital and cybernetics and on the other the looks for escape routes, the intertwining of militancy, art, and philosophy changing as the production modes and technology ebb and flow. It really seems to me that we’re on the cusp of new transformation in the capitalist system, beyond neoliberalism, involving the many things you’ve been eking out on your blog, the leap of capital into space, etc. Changing paradigms in control will require us to adapt as well accordingly. Looking for the poets, or does the search make you one yourself?

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Yea, I’m a poet in the real sense… but adapting to essays, too. I figure on my fiction which I’m heavily into rewrites on novels now.

        Yea, throw it at me as you see fit on reading your work. Always love to comment privately on it for sure. 🙂

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