Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 1


Summary of Chapter 1: Introduction: Rhizome

[I guess they are supposed to be called “Plateaus” but I’ll just call them “chapters”]

D&G set out to introduce their key concept of rhizome, by talking about what their book is not: it is not an image of the world, with the author(s) as God(s), all seeing. This seems like an unnecessary thing to explain, until it is revealed exactly what sort of a theory of representation they are arguing against: a “tripartite division” between 1) a field of reality (the world); 2) a field of representation (the book); and 3) a field of subjectivity (the author) (23). Thus what they are quite keen to argue against is this kind of separation which, in addition to a [reified, objectified] world, posits a separate realm of representation and/or “signifiance”, and another distinct realm of the subject; each of these being able to connect and mimic or represent or know the other in some way (or in a hierarchical way, with the subject creating the representation of the world).

Next, they separate out three kinds of books. The first is the root-book, or tree book; “root” and “tree” are equivalent here because they involve bifurcation from a common stem, or “pivot.” The spoiler of sorts is that they are not really attacking trees or roots, but the way these are used as a model in human, particularly Western, thought. They discuss a second type of book, the radicle-system, in which the primary root has been aborted and replaced with a multiplicity. However, D&G claim that a unity is somehow restored; the multiplicity of the radicle has not fundamentally broken with the root. They seem here to be criticizing various modernist and post-modernist attempts at creating or representing multiplicity; Bakhtin’s thoughts on writing that incorporates other voices but orchestrates them and thus remains ultimately monologic, come to mind.

As the third type they posit the rhizome and delineate six characteristics: connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography, and decalcomania. In their discussion of connection and heterogeneity they criticize Chomsky’s tree-system of classification, and claim “there is no language in itself” (7). This again appears to be a claim against the separate existence of language (as a field of representation) and instead, language takes place in the world along with everything else; there is no bifurcation into another realm or field that stands against the world that is being represented. They point out that “language” (as in English, French, etc.) is connected with power and with political centralization [this same valid-as-far-as-it-goes observation is what iirc Delanda took a bit too far in claiming that Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, etc. are not “languages” but “dialects” of English, because they don’t have a sovereign nation-state].

They distinguish between the “substantive multiplicity” of the rhizome and the “arborescent pseudomultiplicities” of the radicle (8). They introduce the concept of assemblage, as relating to rhizomatic multiplicity; and their distinction between “points” (which are fixed and limited), and “lines” (which being multiple points, or more accurately relations between points, are about possibility or potential or the “virtual” [I forget which means which in this Deleuzian/Massumian terminology]). “All multiplicities are flat, in the sense that they fill or occupy all of their dimensions” (9). This means there is no other dimension, specifically of hierarchy, overlooking them (the way that the subject and representation overlook the world in the tripartite view which they are opposing). Multiplicities do have multiple dimensions, just not this hierarchical kind, thus they are “flat” from that perspective. Terms like “plane of consistency,” “plane of exteriority,” and “line of flight” are introduced, which I believe will be discussed in more depth later. In any event unity is overcoding, a “supplementary dimension,” (which brings to my mind an aspect of hauntology) which the authors oppose [though they do not oppose “abstract machines,” which here mean something else, perhaps because as machines they are physical, within the world rather than outside it].

With “asignifying rupture” and the image of the wasp and the orchid they introduce the concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, and their relationship. Presumably the point is that the relationship between the wasp and the orchid, the way they have evolved to interact, has nothing to do with signification or a field of representation. This leads into the subjects of “Cartography” and “Decalcomania”. The latter (which is not as much discussed as the “mapping” metaphor) is a better metaphor (or actually example) of what they mean, because it is a literal transfer of an image from one surface to another; like what I have tried calling an imprint when trying to think about the difference between the analogue and the digital. What they here call a “map” would be like the orchid’s map of the wasp, or the particular shape of the indents on the record, which relate to (but specifically do not mimic) the sounds being recorded; which then relate also to the sounds reproduced when the record is played [these all have some related shape which has been passed through these forms, but not as the same shape; nevertheless it is unique and has never been cooked down into binaries and built up again in digital manner.] To this idea of “map” (which is a good thing per D&G) they oppose the bad act of “tracing,” which relies on a pun with the French word, trait (as explained in the translator’s introductory Note). [Besides drawing or tracing, they view photographs as bad (examples of tracing), which somewhat imperils my interpretation above of what a “map” entails and how it differs from “tracing,” because photographs, at least as traditionally developed, involve also such a process of tracing (but don’t they also involve decalcomania, from negative to print?]. But in the end it has to do with a flat view of the world, with language, subjects, etc. all inside it, versus one in which there is some outside looking over: “The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing involves an alleged ‘competence’” (terminology derived from linguistics) (12-3).

From page 13 on, they start problematizing the dichotomy between maps and tracings (and later between rhizomes and trees, etc.) because after all, what they do not want to do is introduce new dichotomies. Thus, they are at pains to describe what they are doing, which involves the necessary use of anexact (not inexact) language, which is “the exact passage of that which is under way” (20). [“Inexact” would be no better than “exact,” because it would preserve the idea of an ultimate, objective or true “exactness,” which could be increasingly approached by less and less inexact language]. The root tree and the rhizome are not two opposed models: rather, the first is a model (which is transcendent and imposed on the world) and the latter is an immanent process that overturns the model – even though trees and rhizomes interact and rely on and produce each other. In reality these exist in all kinds of profusion and interaction, the point of separating them out and opposing them is just to enable another way of thinking which is not the so-long dominant, and limiting, tree model. This explication is very welcome and opens up a much richer understanding and usefulness of their terminology; some of their “anexact” language used along the way, as talking about “microfascisms” in all of us (and indeed in any tree-like structure in nature) was simply ridiculous. I would argue that the term “fascism” is overused when it is equated with the state or any kind of hierarchical relationship (which they repeatedly do); there are enough reasons to be critical of the State without reducing it all to fascism, a subcategory.

They explain the derivation of their term “plateau” from Bateson: “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end” (22). They add, “We call a ‘plateau’ any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome.” The connection with Bateson here invokes a lineage back to Wiener and his cybernetics (though neither are cited), insofar as Bateson is a more subtle and complex thinker who was nevertheless influenced by, and in conversation with, Wiener. Wiener’s insights are the system that self-maintains itself against entropy (seen by him as evil), along with the concepts of feedback and noise in communication (within systems but also presumably between them). The question, going beyond Wiener’s vision, is to what extent such “noise” and “entropy” are or can be actually productive rather than merely opposed. This also has not really been addressed by D&G, so far: to what extent tree systems do not just limit or misrepresent rhizomes, but rely on or exploit their creativity; to what extent such rhizomatic energy or creativity does not just tear down or resist the tree model, but powers or is used to power it.

They introduce their concept of nomadology, which will be the opposite of history, because the latter is sedentary and always “in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one” (23). This is unfortunately tied up with their orientalizing and exoticizing statements about “Nomads,” “China,” etc. (e.g., [American] “Indians without ancestry” (19). There is particularly an especially bad quote from Henry Miller equating “China” with “weeds” (19). They note that he seems to be talking about an imaginary China (“Which China is Miller talking about?”), but they also throw in references from scholarly works about the east, and seem to move back and forth between the “Orient” as a frightening, exotic, or mesmerizing Other in European thought, and its actual existence as a place with a history, culture, and so on, and to slip from one to the other in a way that equates them, at least implicitly. Perhaps they could reasonably argue that these aspects together form an assemblage in Western thinking, but this assemblage needs to be de-articulated, not re-articulated as philosophy. In a similar move they deny any claim that their book is “science,” yet they are happy to rely on scientific accounts and concepts, and the authority these convey.

There are various technological, and more disturbingly, military, metaphors used throughout. “Coding,” and “measurement” are used both when talking about tree-systems and rhizomes. “Automata” are discussed, but a distinction is made between “central” or pivotal automata, and [networked] automata functioning together in a rhizome. This latter is perhaps derived from Rosenstiehl and Petitot from whence they also get the question of whether a firing squad could operate without a general – the implication apparently being that it could, but why should it? D&G have earlier attacked the concept of language being discussed without its context of power, why should this not also apply to firing squads? This is linked again to their use of “war” and “war machines” and their need to see “war” (used in this way, in any event) as a nomadic invention in response to the state (and which the state captures?) rather than a foundational aspect of the state itself (“fascist” or otherwise).

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