Todd May on a new political ontology


” One way to approach Deleuze and Guattari’s politics is to see them as offering a new political ontology. Deleuze cannot accept the dogmatic ontology offered by traditional political theory. To begin our political thought with individual human beings, each of which comes with his or her own (chosen) interests, is already to give the game away. It is to concede the stability of the already given that is the foundation of the dogmatic image of thought.

The problem is not only that individuals’ interests are intimately bound up with the society in which they live. It is true, as the communitarians2 have pointed out, that liberal political theory’s isolation of individuals from their societies often paints a distorted view of people’s interests. Individuals are far more subject to their social surroundings than liberal theory would have us believe. But the problem Deleuze sees is deeper. It lies in the very concept of the individual.

Why should we assume that individual human beings are the proper ontological units for political theory? Is it possible to start with some other unit? Or better, is it possible to start with a concept that is not prejudiced toward any particular unit of political analysis, whether it be the individual, the society, the state, the ethnic group, or whatever? Is it possible to conceive politics on the basis of a more fluid ontology, one that would allow for political change and experimentation on a variety of levels, rather than privileging one level or another?

In the collaborative work Deleuze and Guattari perform together, they offer a variety of starting places, a variety of concepts that are agile enough to insert at different political levels. One of the con- cepts they rely on the most is that of the machine. “Everywhere it [what Freud called the id] is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: ma- chines driving other machines, machines being driven by other ma- chines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. . . . we are all handymen: each with his little machines.”3 The machine is a concept that can be situated at the level of the individual, the society, the state, the pre-individual, among groups and between people, and across these various realms. It is a concept that offers ontological mobility, and thus can capture what overspills the dogmatic image of political thought. ” p. 121

“Colebrook offers this example. “Think of a bicycle, which obviously has no ‘end’ or intention. It only works when it is connected with another ‘machine’ such as the human body….But we could imag- ine different connections producing different machines. The cycle becomes an art object when placed in a gallery; the human body be- comes an ‘artist’ when connected with a paintbrush.”5 Here there are seven machines: the bicycle, the human body, the gallery, the paint- brush, the bicycle-body, the bicycle-gallery, the body-paintbrush. Let us take two of these. The bicycle is composed of a series of connec- tions among its parts (each of which are, in turn, composed of a series of connections among their molecular parts). It is their connections that create the machine that is a bicycle. The bicycle-body is another machine, formed from another set of connections: foot-to-pedal, hand- to-handlebar, rear-end-to-seat.

If we think this way, then the concept of a machine becomes agile. It applies not only to bicycles, but also to parts of bicycles and to things of which bicycles are themselves parts. There is no privileged unit of analysis. We will go on to apply this concept to politics. But even now, before we do that, we can see one of its virtues. Liberal political theory’s reliance on the concept of the individual as the pivot of political anal- ysis forces it to approach politics mechanistically or organically. The relation of individuals to society is one of a specific set of connections or a self-organizing whole. To think machinically is to consider the relation of individuals to society as only one level of connections that can be discussed. One can also discuss pre-individual connections and supra-individual connections.” p.123

“Moreover, these connections can be seen in their fluidity. Indi- viduals, in the liberal tradition, are pre-given. They come with their (chosen) interests, wearing them like sandwich boards. “I am Bob. My interests are: skateboarding, eating Chinese food, reading cyberpunk fiction.” But individuals have changing interests that emerge from their changing connections to their changing environments. Machinic thinking recognizes these changes. Machines are not mechanisms; they evolve, mutate, and reconnect with different machines, which are themselves in evolution and mutation.

A third point. Machinic connections are productive. They are cre- ative. Deleuze and Guattari emphasize this point in Anti-Oedipus as a contrast to psychoanalytic thinking. For psychoanalysis, desire is con- ceived in terms of lack. I desire what I want but do not have. If we think of desire machinically, however, it loses its character of lack. Desire is a creator of connections, not a lack that must be filled. To desire is to connect with others: sexually, politically, athletically, gastronomically, vocationally. “The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of an anorexic wavers be- tween several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing machine (asthma attacks).”6 Machines do not fill lacks; they connect, and through connecting create.” p. 124

““We define social formations by machinic processes and not by modes of production (these on the contrary depend on the processes).”7 In contrast to Freud, there is no organizing element to “desiring- machines” that imposes specific modes of connections from outside or above. In contrast to Marx, economic modes of production do not define machinic connections. Rather, it is the other way around: economic modes of production are defined by the character of their machinic connections. The machine is a concept that can be developed to form a Deleuzian political ontology that avoids the dogmatic image of thought that structures liberal political theory.” p. 126

“To embrace the concept of the machine is to move from a focus on the macropolitical to the micropolitical, from the molar to the molecular. The distinction between these two pairs of terms is one of the most misunderstood in Deleuze’s thought. It is only when the concept of the machine is grasped that we begin to understand the role they are meant to play.

The misunderstanding of macropolitical and micropolitical, or mo- lar and molecular, goes like this. The macropolitical concerns large political entities or institutions or historical forces. Liberals who focus on the state and Marxists who focus on the economy are macropo- litical theorists. They overlook the small elements that comprise our political lives. They are fascinated by the grand scheme of things. In order to understand how we are constructed and how power works, however, we must turn from the grand scale to the smaller scale. We must focus on the little things. We must exchange the telescope for the microscope. Only then will we see the political power at work.” p. 126

“To think machinically is to recognize that the given identities of our political thought are more fluid and changeable than we have been led to believe. It is to seek not for the eternal nature of traditional political entities: the nation, the state, the people, the economy. It is instead

to seek for what escapes them. This does not mean that one seeks for what lies outside of them; it means that one seeks for what escapes from them and within them. We no longer look for a transcendent or an outside. What escapes is of the same order as that which it escapes. There is only immanence. What Deleuze calls a line of flight is not a leap into another realm; it is a production within the realm of that from which it takes flight.

Political thought conceived in terms of the state or the economy is inadequate. It is inadequate because it is macropolitical thinking. But it is not macropolitical thinking because the state and the economy are large rather than small. They are large. But the inadequacy lies else- where. It is that thought oriented around them tends to be rigid. It lacks the suppleness that allows us to begin to recognize machinic pro- cesses. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the state and the economy. They discuss them at length. But only later, only after having established the primacy of the machinic, which is to say the micropolitical.

Are there no macropolitics? Are there no established identities that have bearing upon our political lives? There are: “everything is polit- ical, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micro- politics.”9 We must be careful here, however. There are not two realms, the molar and the molecular, that intersect or collaborate to form a political creation. There are not even two separate levels. There is both a macropolitics and a micropolitics, but the micropolitics comes first. It is primary. ” p. 127-128

“Traditional political thought has ossified. It can only reflect upon the identities it sees as eternal: the state, the nation, the economy, the mil- itary, and behind them all, the individual. But suppose these identities come later. Suppose they are not the primary items of politics. Sup- pose the world is indeed a world of difference. Then the individual, the state, the economy would be particular actualizations of a differ- ence that need not be actualized in these particular ways, or that may be actualized in these ways but in many different ones as well.” p. 129

Applying this to the anti-globalization movement:

“Consider the antiglobalization movement. If we look at it through the lens of traditional political theory, we may see something like this. Individuals have come together to resist certain effects of global capi- talism on their lives and on the lives of others. Pollution, exploitation, destruction of natural resources, corruption of governments are all effects of global capitalism. By demonstrating, circulating petitions, raising awareness of the issue, the antiglobalization movement hopes to mitigate or perhaps end those effects, perhaps by ending capitalism as it has evolved over the past forty or fifty years.

This is not a mistaken view. There is something right in looking at the movement this way. There are, indeed, individuals coming together in the manner the description portrays. The problem is not that the account is false but that it is inadequate.

The first layer that this view fails to see is that people are connect- ing in ways that cut across traditional political categories. For example, organic farmers and antiglobalization activists are thinking about and practicing different ways of treating the earth and different approaches to eating. In this context, vegetarianism is a political activity. For an- other example, activist groups think about internal group dynamics. They ask how to relate to one another in ways that avoid domination or a repetition of traditional oppressions (of women, blacks, and so on). Rather than reproducing the traditional group structure of (usually white, male) leaders who create the agenda and followers who carry it out, they seek to allow for various or novel expressions, consensual decision making, and more active participation.

If we look at the antiglobalization movement strictly from the view- point of individuals forming organizations in order to intervene in standard political ways, we miss these other ways of connecting. Ma- chinic thinking allows us to see them.” p. 130

On Categories:

“The task is not one of replacing a single set of categories with another set. It is one of being able to create and move among various sets of categories, and even to cross between them. A political thought of difference recognizes that whatever categories we use, there is always more to say. We need to be prepared to switch perspectives in order to say more, in order to see more.” p. 132