Monday, May 2, 2022

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 3


Summary of Chapter 3: 10,000 B.C.: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)

This chapter is famously intimidating both for the number of concepts that it throws out, and for the incredibly nuanced and complicated relationships established between these concepts – a reader might justifiably worry not only how to learn and keep track of all the relationships between kinds of strata, machines, and so on, but how much of this detailed understanding will remain important in future chapters – how much of Challenger’s lecture will “be on the test,” you might say. But this close interrelation between building and tearing down is in fact a key aspect of what D&G mean by double articulation, in the first place.

[In any event I have relied heavily on Bonta and Protevi’s Deleuzoguattionary.]

My approach to grasping double articulation is to do the opposite of what D&G are trying to do in this chapter – namely, to root it in linguistics, where the concept originated (with Martinet). In this chapter D&G are tilting strenuously against several of their favorite windmills – hylomorphism, structuralism, and most importantly for this point, the “tyranny of the signifier” and the “linguistic turn” whereby, under the influence of structuralism, linguistics becomes the model for understanding everything else. So when D&G borrow the concept of double articulation from linguistics, they want to resist this pattern of the linguistic turn, and show instead that double articulation is a broader phenomenon, of which the linguistic version is merely an example, rather than the model; thus they start with geology, go through biology, etc. before they even come to double articulation in language.

However, the concept of double articulation in language is much simpler, so it forms an easier starting point than D&G’s approach (imho). The two articulations in this case are phonemes (sounds recognizably distinguished from each other, like the sounds for D, O, G) and morphemes (meaningful units of language, like “dog”). The sounds are combined to make words, and the words are combined to make sentences in an open-ended process. Phonemic articulation selects and differentiates a set of sounds out of all those possible, serving as the basis for morphemic articulation; only the second, morphemic articulation expresses meaning. Leaving the proper Deleuzian terminology aside for a moment, we could say that the first articulation draws on the vast outer world of sounds, to create something like a kit of building blocks for language; the second articulation turns those building blocks into meaningful expressions. D&G will massively complicate this scenario, but I think it serves as a useful (and might I say, anexact?) starting point.

With D&G the two articulations become coding (per B&P, “the process of ordering matter as it is drawn into a body”), and territorialization (“the ordering of those bodies in assemblages”).

Professor Challenger starts his lecture with an opposition between the Earth as a Body without Organs, or originary Chaos, and the processes of coding and territorialization that draw matter from the BwO to form strata. He infamously and cryptically announces that strata are “judgments of God,” which is reminiscent of the opposition/interrelationship of Sky (God) and Earth (Mother) in ancient mythology (40).

This opposition is immediately complicated by noting that strata in fact decode and de/reterritorialize each other – each stratum gets its matter from a substratum that it feeds off of or draws from. To stray again from the proper terminology, the Earth does not exist as a BwO in reality so much as in potential, because it is already completely stratified, but these strata continue to feed off and re-stratify each other, thus recreating the BwO as a “plane of consistency” that forms the permeable borders of the strata. D&G distinguish between, and give provisional [and anti-Aristotelian] definitions for matter, substance, form, and content and expression (40-1, 43). Challenger attributes these to the “Spinozist geologist” Hjelmslev, who was in fact a linguist (whose ideas were the foundation of the linguistic concept of double articulation). The point being that this way of speaking about substance/form and content/expression has “the advantage of breaking with the form-content duality” (43). Matter (plane of consistency, BwO) is unformed, unorganized, unstratified; content is matter that has been formed through the first articulation, having both substance and form particular to content; expression (the second articulation) means “functional structures” which also have both substance and form. In other words the old Aristotelian distinction between substance and form has been turned into a movement from matter → content → expression (though this movement in turn will be further complicated and even reversed; the main point is to make the old substance/form dichotomy unworkable).

As a first indication of what the “function” of expressions are, they discuss the “relative invariance” of a stratum which these “expressions” create. In note 5 on page 43, they reference the “linguistic model of biology” of François Jacob, who aligns the reproduction of genetic material with the first step of articulation, and its expression as it shapes the actual form and function of the organism, with the second. “To express is always to sing the glory of God. Every stratum is a judgment of God” (43-4). The concept “God” is annoyingly absent from the deleuzoguattionary but seems to mean some overarching unity, in this case of the stratum, which the expressions function to maintain. Of course, this is the ancient Sky God of myth, separated from and opposed to the Earth, and involved with the Earth in an eternal and unending solve et coagula.

In a discussion of the simultaneous unity and diversity of any given stratum, Challenger introduces another round of terminology [which proliferation of terms appears to be part of his role: note how he had given his new invented discipline “various names: rhizomatics, stratoanalysis, schizoanalysis, nomadology, micropolitics, pragmatics, the science of multiplicities” (43). At several points D&G indicate the anexact character of Challenger’s lecture: the point is to avoid positing some single signifier which can claim to be the exact or precise truth or name.] The simultaneous unity and diversity of composition starts with the fact that matter is drawn in from elsewhere (from a substratum); as material it retains aspects of this previous territorialization/organization (which affect/channel the ways in which it can be coded, or rather the form its coding takes), and is thus an exterior milieu, external not to the stratum which it has been drawn into, but to the form of organization (second articulation) of that stratum [what we might simplistically think of as the “outside” will be called the associated milieu]. The interior milieu, in turn, refers to the substance that matter/material has become when organized by the abstract machine at the core of the strata and its unity/organization, which Challenger now terms the Ecumenon, distinguished from the Planomenon of the plane of consistency/BwO (49-50).

More concepts are introduced in order to further complicate and problematize such concepts as center and periphery, interior and exterior, etc., and to show that these can be used only in a relative [and anexact] sense. Epistrata are intermediary layers or forms between the center and periphery, that take different forms in the different kinds of strata; the annexed or associated milieu is basically the Umwelt, with which the stratum is involved in a give and take or mutual reshaping/affecting; the parastrata are the means by which the stratum interacts with the associated milieu (and acc B&P, forms assemblages with other strata). “A stratum exists only in its epistrata and parastrata, so that in the final instance these must be considered strata in their own right” (52), setting up an infinite regress which means that we can only take the concept of stratum itself as anexact or relative.

They embark on their description of three distinct groups of strata: molecular-molar (of which crystalline formations are used as the key exemplar) (57-8), organic (i.e., living organisms) (58-60) and a third, which they are at some pains not to call “language,” “symbolization,” “technology,” or even [culture], though it pertains closely to all of these. [The resistance to allowing this strata group a name of course counters the “tyranny” by which language seeks to name everything]. There is a growing degree of deterrioralization along the course of this list, which allows for an increasing freedom in the shaping of strata: the crystalline strata can only grow outward from their surfaces, while the independent linearity of dna allows organisms to be reshaped in their interiors, as well as to reproduce themselves.

The “third major grouping of strata” they insist is not really about humans so much as about a “new distribution of content and expression” impacting or shaping the outside world/Umwelt (hence “alloplastic”). “What some call the properties of human beings—technology and language, tool and symbol, free hand and supple larynx, “gesture and speech”—are in fact properties of this new distribution” (60). [“gesture and speech” being a reference to Leroi-Gourhan, one of their primary sources here.] They discuss the hand’s manipulation of content, and expression via the face, and by language; the “temporal linearity” of vocal signs; the difference between language (third strata group) and genetic code (second strata group). The “superlinearity” of language, or overcoding, opens up “certain imperialist pretentions on behalf of language” via the power of translation: translation is more than just the power of language to represent [aka symbolization] but “the ability of language, with its own givens in its own stratum, to represent all the other strata and thus achieve a scientific conception of the world” (62) aka the scientific Welt, a translation of the Umwelt into a ”sufficiently deterritorialized system of signs.” This subordination of everything to representation by one imperial stratum is “the illusion constitutive of man,” (63) but the new forms of content and expression produced by the abstract machine of this stratum are not illusory. There is a link to the Foucault book with discussion of technology as a “technical social machine,” language as a “semiotic collective machine” and “regime of signs,” and “formations of power.”

Challenger then states that there are three problems he wants to discuss in the remaining time: through these D&G will dispose of linguistic imperialism, Marxist assumptions about economic determinism (and psychoanalytic variants, as an aside), and evolutionary ideas about mind and matter.

The first is the question, “Under what circumstances may we speak of signs?” (64) Are signs something that is found in all strata, or are they specific to the third group of strata? Making an interesting link between symbol, icon, index and deterritorialization, reterritorialization, and territory, D&G then resist an expansionist usage of “sign” and relegate the term only to the third group of strata. The question shifts to “are all signs signifiers?” by which they mean, are all sign-relations locked into a “globalized” signifier-signified couplet, in which the signified is dependent on the existence of the signifier. Put crudely, such a relationship poses an assumed essential quality of the sign/ifier, which would give it the sort of eternal or universal character that could be applied to all strata. D&G instead draw in terminology from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to argue (again in my crude simplification) that sign relationships are always-already caught up in specific relationships of power and regimes of signs, and so never really have this universally applicable essence. They advance their transformed and malleable concepts of content and expression as more apt for describing the different strata and their differential actions of de/re/te.

The second “problem” is the idea of reducing content-expression to the base-superstructure relationship of classical Marxism, according to which the economic activity of the base determines the whole, with the superstructure playing a secondary role; D&G have been at pains to demonstrate that their content-expression relationship does not have this simplistic one-way determinism, so they dismiss such thinking quite quickly, with a few pointed remarks on the concept of ideology, e.g., “ideology is a most execrable concept obscuring all of the effectively operating social machines” (68), a criticism that both Foucault and Latour would each agree with strongly in their own ways.

The final problem is that of the presumption of evolution or increasing order or complexity: the impression they want to avoid, that these three kinds of strata are an evolutionary model, from matter, to life, to mind. To the contrary, no group of strata is more complex or advanced than any other, and after all the influence and interaction works in all directions, not in a unidirectional flow. They spend the last several pages summarizing and recapitulating several of the key concepts, including the plane of consistency, abstract machines, and the three different forms that the distinction between content and expression takes in the different strata.

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