Something is coming through from the outside.
Click here to read part 4.
To recap, dear reader: a small number of the diaspora of the CCRU, who happened to follow their drug-fuelled, academic trajectory to the gates of Birmingham University, had convinced me to read Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. I hoped that reading this tome would help me understand what the fuck the first edition of Collapse**** magazine had been all about.
Some alien desiring-machines had taken over a part of my mind. And so I found myself, not for the first time, reading French philosophy.
The cultural and historical differences between the United Kingdom and France are, contrary to all appearances, negligible to non-existent. This is sufficient reason, for the average inhabitant of each country, to not cross the channel. It’s hardly worth the effort, especially as the UK and France look exactly the same, and each national identity is entirely structured around slavishly following the dictates of Capital.
Differences, or rather différances, may always be sought out, of course, which excites petit-bourgeois travel writers, journalists, food critics, cultural commentators etc. Yet these differences are rarely entertaining or significant. A bag of perfectly engineered nails looks identical in the hand but markedly different under a microscope. An autistic treatise, by an actual horny-handed, retired machinist, on the irreducible uniqueness of individual nails, on how the specific pattern of striations upon each head identify which now defunct tooling shops produced it, would be pointless — but at least express a great love for and pride in the production of useful things. In contrast, a similar level of autistic obsession with fine-grained cultural differences in the sphere of consumption, especially fine wines, foodstuffs, literature, philosophical production etc. is similarly pointless, yet lacks such innocent love and warmth, and typically reduces to the jaundiced and judgemental eye of very spoilt consumers that sit and expect to be served.
A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference. And so, for the purpose of hammering some truths to the wall, then the successful level of abstraction will yield nails that are perfectly fungible, interchangeable and essentially the same.
And so it is with the UK and France from the perspective of getting human progress done. Both are wealthy, bourgeois, nation states, who continue to engage in imperial misadventures with lethal consequences for the poor of the world, and where the Left in each country props up the capitalist order, whenever it is asked to do so, while bleating about the very iniquities and injustices of the system it supports.
If forced to identify significant differences between the UK and France, which I am very loathe to do given their overriding similarity, I would first point out that it’s highly probable that the average IQ in France is higher than in the UK because a significant proportion of the UK population do in fact admire the Queen. The French, as we all know, beheaded their monarchs long ago, and ever since the French state has adorned itself with a veneer of modernism and cultural superiority that the UK both completely lacks but studiously ignores.
And second there is the catastrophe of French philosophy. This is a catastrophe in the dual sense of being both a cause of great noise, confusion and commotion, but also in the sense of being indeed something of a disaster for all concerned. In contrast, UK philosophy does not even constitute a catastrophe.
When I say French philosophy I should really say French postmodern philosophy. But since French non-postmodernist philosophy is also not even a catastrophe, and hardly merits a mention, then French postmodernism has essentially become the all-encompassing brand image of French philosophy.
And French philosophy is typically different from UK philosophy. This really is a différance. Why?
I propose a simple explanation: French philosophy lacks all psychological repression whatsoever. The insane monsters of the id are visible on the surface, entirely loose and causing havoc. UK philosophy, however, is entirely psychological repression, and so the insanity, which of course exists, is bound, gagged and hidden away in dark recesses.
This accounts for some of the popularity and cultural cachet of French philosophy: it has yielded a parade of out-of-equilibrium, unrepressed personalities full of motion and whirlwind charisma, like cool kids at school, who smoke, do drugs, fuck around, and give the finger to all authority.
In comparison, the repressed personality, who keeps their thinking in a vice-like equilibrium imposed by the dictates of justified inference, is the quiet dull kid at the back, who no-one wants to talk to, even if what they say makes perfect sense, because this is boring. Lacking spikiness, scandal, and therefore entertainment, they lack all motion and vitality. The density of thinking may be higher, the truths more meaningful and lasting, but all the fun and action is elsewhere. Everyone wants to hang around with cool kids.
Post war French philosophy is therefore less repressed, which has its advantages for exploring the terrain of possible thoughts, but also disadvantages, specifically the absence of a superego to interject and whisper a self-critical remark from time to time. So lacking all restraint, some French philosophers gleefully traverse the space of possible thoughts unheeded, picking up novel and hitherto un-thought truthful treasures along the way. Yet by travelling so far and so fast and adventuring even beyond the avant garde they become lost in immaterial and dubious lands where, by willful fiat, the rules of reason have been abrogated, and the requirement to provide even the semblance of justification for the most startling and counter-intuitive propositions may be cheerfully ignored. The freedom to philosophise with the main aim of producing a glamour, to produce magical states in the enraptured, is intoxicating. It is truly a catwalk of Parisian marvels. Some intrepid explorers have returned with golden chalices filled with puzzling and exciting wonders, truly scandalous propositions replete with sceptical assertions that ontology reduces to epistemology, that scientific truth is always and merely a convenience for the powerful, and that any universal and progressive content of the real movement of history is a hopelessly, naive and authoritarian illusion. If any voices of dissent should arise, any working class jeers raised from the docks upon the return of our coiffured adventurers, then the peculiarly French methodology of obscurantisme terroriste may be marshalled: when the oiks disagree with incomprehensible philosophy it’s simply because they’re too stupid to get it.
An element of the catastrophe is that post war French philosophy, particularly some that enjoys currency amongst the radical left, is irredeemably compromised by committing the error of believing philosophy can be cool. Contemporaneous British philosophy has never fallen into this error, not due to superior wisdom or even (admittedly) straightforward incapability, but rather from simple-minded earnestness. A typical British philosopher wants to get it right. A typical French philosopher is too distracted by their reflection in the mirror to care. In consequence, British philosophy is typically right but unexciting, whereas French philosophy is typically wrong but full of stylish pizazz.
But I am identifying differences, which can always be denied with reference to specific examples of sameness. So let’s return to identity.
Other than monarchism and philosophy, I cannot think of any other significant differences between UK and French culture. With the imminent arrival of real-time translation devices, and the expected but delayed arrival of the communist revolution, we might even dare to imagine that, in the future, these two populations will actually interact beyond mutual trade and tourism, and actually cross the channel, mingling freely and becoming truly equal, if not identical.
The schizo as revolutionary subject
Deleuze is not a typical French philosopher. He is better than that. Nonetheless, who can fail to be influenced by their culture?
Anti-Oedipus is a stand-out example of post-war French philosophy and a completely different kind of philosophical object compared to a standard Anglophone monograph. I can only give a quick flavour of its contents, which is insufficient for anyone to form a judgement. Plus my reading is a not-reading. This isn’t an obscure or profound metaphor or neologism. I’m not French so I just mean I didn’t read it properly. It would be polite and politically astute of me If I heartily recommended it.
Anti-Oedipus quite rightly thinks Freud’s reduction of all psychological stress to the oedipal relations between child and parents to be entirely wrong. Wrong because our psyches don’t actually work that way, and wrong because the oedipal conflict is a historically contingent artefact of our current mode of production.
Our mind is a collection of virtual machines that supervene on a huge collection of neuronal machines that supervene on chemical machines, all prone to unavoidable mechanical breakdown. Equally, capitalism and its profit-seeking psychotherapeutic-industrial complex is the cause of specific types of historically contingent mental illnesses. As Deleuze and Guattari eloquently express, it’s machines all the way up and all the way down, and so malfunctions can arise from any direction.
Deleuze and Guattari take as their starting point a specific mental illness that they propose holds the key to our psyche and its eventual liberation. That victim is the schizophrenic individual.
According to Deleuze and Guattari, the Schizophrenic’s disorderly mind more clearly reveals what we truly are, which is a chaos of contradictory desires. We are a collection of contradictory things: machines composed of sub-machines composed of machines that innovate entirely new desires. And these desires flow beyond the psyche and breathe life into circuits of material reproduction, and back again yielding pleasure or displeasure. Desire is that which changes what is, and thereby reveals new possibilities for living that previously were hidden. The schizophrenic substance is the source of all innovation, of change, the ultimate and irreducible site of resistance, not wholly the Aristotelian unmoved mover but certainly the source of new moves.
But we are not the only things like this. Everything is a desiring-machine. Machines are of course machines. But also animals, and plants. Deleuze and Guattari paint an ontological picture of the universe, a universal libidinal economy, full of joyous desiring and tragic contradictions and conflict, where circuits of desire are identically circuits of material exchange, where we humans just happen to be constructed from a particularly dense and complex arrangement of desiring-machines, with a little conceited consciousness floating on the top, buffeted this way and that by far greater forces of subterranean desires and social rules, which are themselves reducible to the desires of others.
Deleuze and Guattrai, to their credit, adventured far and became lost in strange lands, but on their return they did not proclaim, like some of their compatriots, that ontology reduces to epistemology.
Anti Oedipus was deliberately aimed at young adults who, due to their inexperience are incorrigible romantics in every sense of the term, and therefore more likely to conflate mental illness with heroic resistance to the established order. Our intrepid authors clearly realised, in order to avoid universal approbation, that they needed to distinguish between mental illness and their revolutionary not-subject. Hence Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between the revolutionary form of schizophrenia, which they label the “schizo”, from actual mental breakdown, such as real schizophrenic illness and debilitating paranoia. But nonetheless mental illness serves a model for a thing that resists all alien representations, all control, all appeals to reason, or authority. Actual schizophrenia is an existence proof that we can be the source of our own values, that we can be, if not Gods, then little gods that also hold the secret fire of creation.
We may indeed be so. For Deleuze and Guattari the uncontrollable is sublime anarchy. The actual schizophrenic is held as an existence proof of an ontological substance with the power to smash through all oppression, including the capitalist mode of production, and exit to new unexplored vistas.
The inference exists so I have to state it. The organised working class failed to overthrow capitalism and therefore disappointed post-68 French intellectuals. A strategic retreat to the disorganised psyches of individual workers, which are held to be axiomatically rebellious and unconquerable, an ultimate site of resistance, preserves the revolutionary spirit.
Defenders of a philosophical faith will resort to highly disingenuous strategies. Neoliberals deny that neoliberalism exists. Neoclassical economists deny that neoclassicism exists, and with a straight and innocent-looking face claim there is just modern economics, and nothing else. Some Marxists claim, quite heroically if irrationally, that Marx did not hold a labour theory of value. And partisans of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus deny they glamorise mental illness.
But they do a bit.
I’ve known two people who have stumbled and fallen victim to clinical schizophrenia. In both cases they were sectioned. In both cases the illness caused significant unhappiness for themselves and their families. I had read dry definitions of the disease in clinical handbooks, but the reality is deeply unsettling, sad and tragic, especially when the victims are young students eager to find their first independent footing in the social world. Mental health professionals won’t thank me but I believe that our fear of the extremely deranged or irrational is built-in. Irrationality is unpredictable, and therefore we are on guard. One friend fell into confusion and believed themselves to be Jesus, which is quite typical, and obsessively and unsuccessfully tried to corral others to their revolutionary and historically important cause. Another got stuck in the environs of the student union building, for days and nights, not eating or sleeping, and grabbing anyone who would listen to talk hyper hyper hyper about this and then that, desperately trying to connect and communicate hidden and profound truths, which explained it all, rapidly switching from coherence to incoherence, proving on pen and paper that 1 plus 1 equals 3, repeating the demonstration, again and again, look, look, look at the revealed Truth, only to be found days later naked shouting in Broad Street.
The reality is far from glamorous. The schizophrenic state may indeed be a window onto the deep, contradictory machinery of the psyche, the chaotic Many of insatiable protean desire that is the source of all novelty, the direct polar opposite of the mystic’s meditative and orderly union with the One: Dionysos versus Apollo. But schizophrenic episodes are typically apophanies not epiphanies. The victim directly sees the truth of portentous relations between unrelated things. The unity of phenomena that the schizophrenic perceives is typically a solipsistic and private affair, which, in moments of extremity, is entirely immune to any feedback or public tribunal. And the unity is typically paranoid: strangers know, whisper just out of earshot, but you know what they’re saying, they are conspiring to get you, they cannot be trusted. For if you are the most important being (revolutionary Jesus) then quite naturally everyone is watching you (the Fascist order).
We must discover with others how reality is truly connected. We cannot do it on our own.
True epiphanies have an aspect of Truth. Apophanies have an aspect of not-Truth. And falsehood can only accidentally lead to actions that satisfy desires. Which is why mental illness is so debilitating and dysphoric. The schizophrenic typically fails to satisfy their desires.
But this is only philosophy after all, which is not to be taken too seriously. As Guattari stated his desire was to “Say stupid shit. Barf out the fucking-around-o-maniacal schizo flow.” Anti-Oedipus, at the very least, satisfies this particular desire.
I didn’t read Anti-Oedipus in full. I read the first bits, until I got overwhelmed and bored by its repetitiveness. Aficionados are therefore genuinely welcome to put me right on my impoverished, incomplete and unfair summary.
As an excuse, my not-reading was influenced by the CCRU diaspora, who were not the most reliable transmitters of knowledge. And I surely wasn’t the most reliable listener. As a student I was uncomfortable when soberly discussing intellectual matters, as others seemed to with ease. I could get by in tutorials, where the parameters, the social framing, was clear. But in less time prescribed and more ambiguous settings I typically avoided or awkwardly bailed out prematurely. My upbringing made it difficult to view conversation as proper work. But I had an urge to talk and discuss, an insatiable intellectual appetite. In consequence, most of my philosophical interaction happened in moments between drinking pints, sucking on roll-ups or joints, shouting over loud music in club corners, snorting lines of speed, or in more private and intimate moments such as relaxed ecstasy or semi-paranoid LSD comedowns.
So my attitude to Anti-Oedipus is formed by a not-reading plus randomly cut-up Burroughsian conversational snippets with a tiny group of UK students who’d been exposed to a mixture of Deleuze and Guattari and cyberphilosophy, under the tutelage of the quasi chaos-magician and philosopher, Nick Land. Talk about Chinese whispers.
But my not-reading cannot be solely blamed on Anti-Oedipus itself. I was not a disembodied mind, but a machine with autonomous desires that were materially plugged into a topology or network of other desiring-machines in a specific time and place: Birmingham, UK, early to mid-90s. And here there were opportunities for drug-fuelled fun. Basically, I had better things to do. I decoded the imperative to read French philosophy and, through my own disorderly and rebellious desires, managed to avoid its attempted territorialization of my psyche.
I put the book down, and escaped, or so I thought.
But I had been exposed to some kind of virus. Not as powerful as exposure to Marxism. But still an infection of a kind. My unbounded desire for fun, as it turned out, didn’t lead directly away from CCRU themes, but towards direct experience of actual schizophrenic and paranoiac states, a partially successful attempt to construct a computational libidinal economy — that is, an actual (not-living and not-breathing) desiring-machine — and a schizo infiltration of issue 2 of Collapse**** magazine.
Click here to read part 6.