Sunday, August 13, 2023

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 5


Summary of Chapter 5: 587 BC – AD 70: On Several Regimes of Signs

In this chapter D&G discuss four regimes of signs, then discuss their concept of the diagram/abstract machine, and finally lay out a fourfold pragmatics. The dates refer to the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

The four regimes of signs are signifying, presignifying, countersignifying, and postsignifying; the first three correspond at least initially to the despotic State, foraging societies, and pastoralist societies, respectively; the third begins with the ancient Hebrews, developing through Christianity to modern subjectification. They of course then deny this historical or evolutionary scheme, and have only laid out the different regimes [as sort of maps, at least how the term was used in the previous chapter]; they only ever actually exist as mixed or hybrid regimes, interacting with and translating each other [they are strata, after all.]

They start off with the signifying regime, in which signifiers always point to other signifiers, in an endless cycle they start referring to as circles. On page 114, they add a new level; the first had corresponded to the despot, the second one, interpretation, to the priest; interpretation expands the circle and fights entropy, but just results in another endless cycle of signifiers. “The ultimate signified is therefore the signifier itself, in its redundancy or ‘excess’” (114). They coin the word, “interpretosis,” [evidently a synonym for apophenia, and of course relevant to the “post-critique” debates.] They introduce several concepts which will remain significant touchpoints throughout the chapter: Peirce’s icon, index, and symbol, and the concept of faciality which in this first RoS refers to the Despot, but which shifts in meaning through the later regimes. The face of the despot here corresponds to the relation between the bodies of the sovereign and the condemned from the beginning of Discipline and Punish, a text they will remain in conversation with throughout the chapter.

They conflate and dismiss several competing perspectives somewhat at once, by asserting that the signifier is “pure abstraction,” and thus “nothing,” so it does not matter whether the signifier is lack, or excess, or if there is some “supreme signifier” (115). On page 117 they list the eight aspects of this signifying regime of the sign (here verbatim but spaced for easier parsing):

(1) the sign refers to another sign, ad infinitum (the limitlessness of signifiance, which deterritorializes the sign);

(2) the sign is brought back by other signs and never ceases to return (the circularity of the deterrito-rialized sign);

(3) the sign jumps from circle to circle and constantly displaces the center at the same time as it ties into it (the metaphor or hysteria of signs);

(4) the expansion of the circles is assured by interpretations that impart signified and reimpart signifier (the interpretosis of the priest);

(5) the infinite set of signs refers to a supreme signifier presenting itself as both lack and excess (the despotic signifier, the limit of the system's deterritorialization);

(6) the form of the signifier has a substance, or the signifier has a body, namely, the Face (the principle of faciality traits, which constitute a reterritorialization);

(7) the system’s line of flight is assigned a negative value, condemned as that which exceeds the signifying regime's power of deterritorialization (the principle of the scapegoat);

(8) the regime is one of universal deception, in its jumps, in the regulated circles, in the seer’s regulation of interpretations, in the publicness of the facialized center, and in the treatment of the line of flight.

After this they go on to posit two other semiotics. The three are all tied to different society types: presignifying semiotic to hunter gatherer nomads; countersignifying to pastoralist nomads; and signifying to state systems. [Much later these will be called lineal, numerical, and territorial.] They introduce the ideas that the pre-signifying semiotic is based on segmentarity, and the countersignifying one on “numbering number,” which is a mode or use of number very different from that of the state; this is linked to the idea of the war machine opposed to the state.

“In this countersignifying regime, the imperial despotic line of flight is replaced by a line of abolition that turns back against the great empires, cuts across them and destroys them, or else conquers them and integrates with them to form a mixed semiotic.” (118)

They spend a paragraph on page 119 walking back their claims so far: all the semiotics are probably really mixed all the time, and they do not really belong to specific periods, societies, etc.; they don’t want to give the impression of evolutionism, rather they are creating [anexact] “maps” that help them identify the assemblages that produce each semiotic. Shifting their approach a bit, they say they will now delineate the difference between a “paranoid-interpretive ideal regime of signifiance” [aka, the signifying RoS they started off with), and a “passional, postsignifying subjective regime” (120). They then give definitions of each:

The first regime is defined by an insidious onset and a hidden center bearing witness to endogenous forces organized around an idea; by the development of a network stretching across an amorphous continuum, a gliding atmosphere into which the slightest incident may be carried; by an organization of radiating circles expanding by circular irradiation in all directions, and in which the individual jumps from one point to another, one circle to another, approaches the center then moves away, operates prospectively and retrospectively; and by a transformation of the atmosphere, as a function of variable traits or secondary centers clustered around a principal nucleus. (120)

The second regime, on the contrary, is defined by a decisive external occurrence, by a relation with the outside that is expressed more as an emotion than an idea, and more as effort or action than imagination (“active delusion rather than ideational delusion”); by a limited constellation operating in a single sector; by a “postulate” or “concise formula” serving as the point of departure for a linear series or proceeding that runs its course, at which point a new proceeding begins.

[I tried constructing a table to lay out the differences in those two descriptions, but was thwarted by the non-parallel sentence structures. In any case one important point is that interpretation has been replaced with proceeding.]

These two semiotics are linked to two kinds of delusions in the history of psychiatry, which are discussed for a few pages. The signifying regime is despotic, the postsignifying is authoritarian; the Egyptian pharoah, versus Moses and the Hebrews, are given as exemplars. The dates for the chapter are the two stages of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem; the Hebrews are significant as nomads who founded a state, and thus created a mixed semiotic.

At the bottom of page 127, they delineate three differences (or “three diverse realms”) between the two semiotics; these three realms are then illustrated (p. 128), thus making a table much easier this time:

Signifying Regime

Post-Signifying Regime


a center of signifiance connected to expanding circles or an expanding spiral

a point of subjectification constituting the point of departure of the line

The Jews as opposed to the empires

a signifier-signified relation

a subject of enunciation issuing from the point of subjectification and a subject of the statement in a determinable relation to the first subject

So-called modern, or Christian, philosophy [Descartes’ cogito is discussed in particular]

sign-to-sign circularity

a linear proceeding into which the sign is swept via subjects

Nineteenth-century psychiatry

D&G now proceed to throw Lacan and Althusser together with a dash of Foucault, to produce their own theory of subjectification. They begin with Lacan’s concept of the doubling of the subject in language, as a subject of enunciation [sujet d’énonciation], i.e. the speaking subject, and as a subject of the statement [sujet de l’énoncé], the “I” referred to in language [and as is later made clear, corresponding to or enabling the subjection aspect of subjectification]. The second is not really the speaking subject, it is just a shifter, a word that continually changes reference depending on who uses it; and confusing the second for the former is Descartes’ error according to Lacan, in what could be considered a more updated and sophisticated version of the old “lightning flashes” criticism going back to Lichtenberg and Nietzsche. Add to this the point of subjectification which derives from Althusser’s Absolute Subject of interpellation; the difference is that the point of subjectification, for D&G, does not have to be the State, a police officer, or some other speaking subject, it can be anything: examples they give include food, clothing, a loved one, physical beauty, etc.

It must only display the following characteristic traits of the subjective semiotic: the double turning away, betrayal, and existence under reprieve. (129)

This is because we are still in that passional, post-signifying semiotic governed by betrayal and anxiety. The dominating and inescapable faciality of the ancient despot, or of a god like Zeus, has become a lack or betrayal, a turning away, in the Christian worldview, such that the ancient Christian mystic suffers endless anxiety in trying to prove themselves to an unknowable, faceless God, whom they at the same time betray by having doubts, remaining sinners, and so on. (The “existence under reprieve” means that the end is put off, instead of meeting judgment there is a continued time for suffering, remorse, penance, and hope). The argument is that this model or relationship applies to the relationship between any modern subject in the passional regime, and whatever point of subjectification they are fixated on, including lovers, psychoanalysts, capitalism, etc. One might say that to Foucault’s panopticon model of modernity (the prisoner internalizing the surveillance of the invisible guard), they have added an element of anxiety (indeed, passion) which could be linked to their critique of Foucault (that it is really not about “power,” but desire; this is buried in an important footnote to page 141 (529n39)). They describe these as two axes of the passional regime, on page 131.

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. 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. (129, emphasis original)

To take Althusser’s “You there!” example, you as a consciousness/subject of enunciation “recoil” into the “you” of the officer’s statement, that is, “you” as subject of the statement. Your mental reality thus “recoils” into the dominant reality of the capitalist state, etc.

[An interesting set of relations and contrasts could be explored here in relation to Bakhtin’s distinction between authorititive and internally persuasive discourses. D&G’s concept of a regime of signs is more specific than Bakhtin’s concept of “language” or social language, though the latter does bear a reference to a unifying national language which [overcodes] social languages while they de- and re-territorialize it.]

One point they make sure to emphasize several times throughout the chapter is that the subject does not predate and thus somehow found language:

... a subject is never the condition of possibility of language or the cause of the statement: there is no subject, only collective assemblages of enunciation. Subjectification is simply one such assemblage and designates a formalization of expression or a regime of signs rather than a condition internal to language. (130)

They now relate the signifiying and postsignifying semiotics back to the concept of strata, by identifying them as two of the three “principal strata binding human beings”: 1) the organism; 2) signifiance and interpretation [aka the signifying RoS]; and 3) subjectification and subjection [the postsignifying RoS] (134). These strata bind us by separating us from the plane of consistency: D&G now lay out what could be called, perhaps somewhat simplistically or reductively, their liberatory or revolutionary agenda, a sort of post-humanist manifesto:

The problem, from this standpoint, is to tip the most favorable assemblage from its side facing the strata to its side facing the plane of consistency or the body without organs.

Subjectification is this “most favorable assemblage” because it “carries desire to such a point of excess and unloosening that it must either annihilate itself in a black hole or change planes.” Subjectification could thus be used as a means for abolishing subjectification:

Destratify, open up to a new function, a diagrammatic function. Let consciousness cease to be its own double, and passion the double of one person for another. Make consciousness an experimentation in life, and passion a field of continuous intensities, an emission of particles-signs. Make the body without organs of consciousness and love. Use love and consciousness to abolish subjectification ...

The diagram or diagrammatic is their means for going beyond signification, subjectification, and the other regimes of signs; it is itself not a fifth regime of signs, because it is on the level of the virtual, the plane of consistency, the abstract machine, etc. They mention some concepts/examples from earlier and later in the book: becoming-animal, becoming-woman, stammer language. They distinguish between three types of deterritorialization:

1. relative deterritorialization, that used in the signifying regime of signs;

2. negative absolute deterritorialization, in subjectification; and

3. positive absolute deterritorialization, “on the plane of consistency or the body without organs.”

The first two are linked to the ways that those RoSs recapture or dispense of [whatever the right term would be] lines of flight (the first through the sacrifice and scapegoat, the second through the endless, segmented beginning-again procedure of the subject).

On pages 135-6 they summarize their main arguments so far, listing the different RoSs, and reiterating that every semiotic is a mixed semiotic, always translating, feeding off and capturing bits of each other [because this is what strata do, after all]. They distinguish different ways that translation occurs between the different semiotics/RoSs:

1. analogical transformations into the presignifying regime;

2. symbolic into the signifying regime;

3. polemical or strategic into the countersignifying regime; and

4. consciousness-related or mimetic into the postsignifying regime.

finally, transformations that blow apart semiotics systems or regimes of signs on the plane of consistency of a positive absolute deterritorialization are called diagrammatic.

They discuss how transformations or transformational statements (in translation between regimes, a condition of hybridity) are distinct from statements having meaning solely within one regime; this could easily be related to Bakhtin’s discussion of interpenetrating social languages (though D&G are stating this at an implicitly higher “regime” level, they have also made clear that what really exists are hybrid assemblages (like Bakhtin’s dialects and social languages), and the regimes they articulate are a kind of map or typology, not a pure or deeper form). “There is no general semiology but rather a transsemiotic.”

Though they take the concept of the diagram from Foucault, they use it in a much more positive and open manner than it appears in his work. IIRC for Foucault, the diagram is an aspect of the disciplinary mode of power (or presumably of other modes as well); Bentham’s panopticon, for instance, is a diagram of the disciplinary mode, helping set in motion a number of reforms, etc. which bring about the “disciplinary archipelago” of prisons, schools, military discipline, and so on that imperfectly and incompletely substantiate the diagram. The failures of disciplinary society are referred back to the diagram, such that the way to improve education, or prisons, is to make them more education-y or more prison-y, in an endless cycle.

For D&G, in contrast, the diagram is an abstract machine, something openning up and de/re/territorializing strata. It is thus something more like a condition for the existence of the disciplinary society (to stick with Foucault), than a mere aspect of how it works. And, like subjectification (or rather, because the diagram is a part of the process of subjectification), it forms a sort of possible opening or Trojan horse, a part of the system which could be turned against the system and used as a means to transform it. This again seems to have to do with their insistence that “desire” is more basic or important than “power” in the Foucauldian sense; this is something that will be discussed in future chapters.

[In notes to earlier chapters I was wondering when the rhizomatic etc. was going to be seen as something fed on and captured/exploited by fixed strata of power or whatever; now we see the abstract machine/deterritorialization is 1) in fact inherent to the way strata etc. operate, and 2) is the key to their defeat/overthrow. I can’t decide if it is surprising or unsurprising that, after all this verbiage, bending around and thinking and looking at things differently, the underlying argument bears this key resemblance to Marxism.]

The transsemiotic is all about figuring out where a given utterance fits within the interplay of fixed and translating semiotics.

For example, it is relatively easy to stop saying “I,” but that does not mean that you have gotten away from the regime of subjectification; conversely, you can keep on saying “I,” just for kicks, and already be in another regime in which personal pronouns function only as fictions. (138)

Turning Chomskyan linguistics somewhat on its head, they delineate the generative (“how abstract regimes form mixed semiotics” (139)) and the transformational (“how these regimes of signs are translated into each other”) as two components of pragmatics, thus continuing their repositioning, outlined in a previous chapter, of pragmatics as being at the core of language, instead of being treated as peripheral, as they accuse traditional linguistic theory of doing. On page 140 they discuss semiotics/regimes of signs from this pragmatic perspective, and revisit the content/expression relation from earlier chapters.

They discuss the difference between a “semiotic,” or “regime of signs,” and language; the regime of signs is a particular assemblage which forms the condition of possibility of a language or multiple languages, but is not reducible to it; the RoS is “simultaneously more and less than language” (140). “Regimes of signs are thus defined by variables that are internal to enunciation but remain external to the constants of language and irreducible to linguistic categories.”

They reiterate the difference between, and independence of, contents and expression, and note that their interaction needs to be explained by something that is “still more profound,” namely, the abstract machine (141). In a footnote (530-1n39) they attribute their inspiration here to Foucault, who explained the relation between content and expression by appealing to an abstract machine, which took the form in DP of the “diagram,” and in HoS of a “biopolitics of population.” They state their two differences with Foucault, namely, 1) desire is more fundamental than power, and 2) “the diagram and abstract machine have lines of flight that are primary, which are not phenomena of resistance or counterattack in an assemblage, but cutting edges of creation and deterritorialization.” (In other words, they hold promise for transformation.) They delineate their position from that of Chomsky and other linguists who want to propose an abstract machine at the level of language; however, this is not abstract enough, being trapped in the opposition between content and expression, instead of being open to the plane of consistency. Returning to some of their previously-introduced terminology, they explain that the abstract machine operates by matter and function, which are primary, not by substance and form, which are derived.

"Substance is a formed matter, and matter is a substance which is unformed either physically or semiotically” (141). Function, in turn, has only “traits.” D&G differentiate the abstract machine from various other concepts, most notably Peirce’s icons (“which pertain to reterritorialization”), indices, (“which are territorial signs”), and symbols (“which pertain to relative or negative deterritorialization”) (142). (In a note (531n41) they discuss their inspiration by, and difference in position from, Peirce.) Abstract machines or diagrams are the Real-Abstract, and have proper names and dates, “which of course designate not persons or subjects, but matters and functions."

Lest the abstract machine/diagram be confused with some kind of fifth RoS, they make the distinction very clear: “... there are no regimes of signs on the diagrammatic level, or on the plane of consistency …. There is nothing surprising in this, for the real distinction between form of expression and form of content appears only with the strata, and is different on each one” (142). They distinguish between the diagrammatic, on the plane of consistency, and the axiomatic, the “program of a stratum” (143). The axiomatic is the attempt to block and subordinate lines of flight, to the program of a given stratum. The history of science, physics in particular, in the 20th Century is described as a contest, or rather as shaped by the competing forces of? axiomatics and diagramatics (though this is not a simple opposition, as axiomatics appears to recuperate diagramatic creativity; “We shall see in what sense this is the ‘capitalist’ level” (144).

Naturally, D&G throw this “dualism” out the door as soon as they have delineated the distinction. Abstract machines exist, not only on the plane of consistency, but within strata, in which they organize forms of expression and content:

Thus there are two complementary movements; one by which abstract machines work the strata and are constantly setting things loose, another by which they are effectively stratified, effectively captured by the strata.

Strata, in turn, could not organize themselves without captured, relative deterritorialization (which makes te and re possible); every RoS remains a “diagrammatic effect.” Strata must always remain open to the plane of consistency and of lines of flight which they need to capture and “prolong themselves following these lines” (145), but they “at the same time open out onto a properly diagrammatic experience” beyond the stratum. Both these recuperated and [liberatory] “states or modes” of the abstract machine are actualized or exist in the machinic assemblage, which has two “poles or vectors,” one toward the strata, and the other toward the plane of consistency. Along its stratic pole it appears as a “collective assemblage of enunciation” and delineates forms of expression, and as a “machinic assemblage of bodies,” which delineates forms of content; these are the two sides of the machinic assemblage, facing strata.

But along its diagrammatic or destratified vector, it no longer has two sides; all it retains are traits of expression and content from which it extracts degrees of deterritorialization that add together and cutting edges that conjugate.

They now delineate an expanded concept of pragmatics, as the approach to understanding four components of any RoS. These four are generative, transformational, diagrammatic, and machinic. This last is “meant to show how abstract machines are effectuated in concrete assemblages,” in other words, moving on from the abstraction of the diagrammatic, to the concrete actuality of the machinic (146). They illustrate this fourfold pragmatics with a circle, with “four circular components that bud and form rhizomes.” Pragmatics studies each of these components, in turn, through tracing, map, diagram, and program. They illustrate this by taking an analysis of the propositions “I love you,” and “I am jealous” through these steps. In conclusion, they dismiss approaches such as Chomsky’s or Russell’s that seek to transcendentalize language and subordinate pragmatics, etc. to it.

The opposite is the case. It is language that is based on regimes of signs, and regimes of signs on abstract machines, diagrammatic functions, and machinic assemblages that go beyond any system of semiology, linguistics, or logic. (148)

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