ON MACHINES

 

Felix Guattari

 

Andrew Benjamin ed., Complexity, JPVA, No 6, 1995, p. 8-12.

 

The theme of the machine has concerned me for a long time, but perhaps less as a conceptual than an affective object. I have always been fascinated by the machine, and even re­member, as a student at the Sorbonne, giving a paper on Friedmann's Le Travail en miettes, and the startled look on the face of my professor as I railed against Friedmann. At that time I was scathingly opposed to the mechanicist visions of the machine, and thought instead that we could look forward to a kind of safety in the machine. Since then, I have tried to nurture this machinic object, although I admit it is not something I con­trol, rather it is a kind of core to which I am repeatedly led back. The last time I returned to it was triggered by Pierre Levy's book, Les Techniques de /'intelligence, in which I discovered a re­vival of the theme, but from within the author's own context of computer technology. Indeed, I would insist on the right to a form of thought which proceeds by affective axes and by af­fects, rather than a thought process which claims to give a sci­entific, axiomatic description. I would also like to emphasise that this is a question of a totally open set of themes (thematique), and I prefer if it could remain so when thrown open to discussion in order to see the responses that this type of thinking might provoke.

We are currently at an unavoidable crossroads, where the machine is treated as anathema, and where there prevails the idea that technology is leading us to a situation of inhumanity and of rupture with any kind of ethical project. Moreover, con­temporary history actually reinforces this view of the machine as catastrophic, causing ecological damage and so on. We might therefore be tempted to look backwards as a reaction to the machinic age, so as to begin again from who knows what kind of primitive territoriality.

Pierre Levy uses an expression which I find very useful: 'try­ing to break down the ontological iron curtain between being and things'. It seems to me that one way of breaking down that iron curtain - a preoccupation of all philosophy up until Heidegger - is perhaps through the machinic interface, or ma­chine conceived as interface, which Pierre Levy calls a 'hypertext'. Indeed, in order to overcome this fascination with technology and the deathly dimension it sometimes takes, we have to re-apprehend and reconceptualise the machine in a different way, to begin from the being of the machine as that which is at the crossroads, as much as being in its inertia, and

its character of nothingness, as the subject, subjective individuation or collective subjectivity. This theme can be seen in the history of literature and cinema, and in myth, where it takes the form of a machine inhabited by a soul and possess­ing diabolical powers. I am not advocating that we go back to an animistic way of thinking, but nevertheless, I would propose that we attempt to consider that in the machine, and at the machinic interface, there exists something that would not quite be of the order of the soul, human or animal, anima, but of the order of a proto-subjectivity. This means that there is a function of consistency in the machine, both a relationship to itself and a relationship to alterity. It is along these two axes that I shall endeavour to proceed.

Let us begin at the most simple, and already more or less established idea: that the technical object cannot be limited to its materiality. In techne, there are ontogenetic elements, ele­ments of the plan, of construction, social relationships which support these technologies, a stock of knowledge, economic relations and a whole series of interfaces onto which the tech­nical object attaches itself. From this, we can establish a link between a modern type of technological machine and the tools or the actual pieces of the machine, and think of these as ele­ments connected to one another. Ever since Leibnitz, the con­cept of an articulated machine has been available, which one would qualify today as fractal, with other machines which are themselves made up of infinite machinic elements. Thus the machine's environment forms part of machinic agencements.1 The liminal element of the entry into the machinic zone under­goes a kind of smoothing process, of the uniformisation of a material, like steel which is treated, deterritorialised and made uniform in order to be moulded into machinic shapes.

The essence of the machine is linked to procedures which deterritorialise its elements, functions and relations of alterity. Hence it will be necessary to speak of the ontogeny of the tech­nical machine as that which makes it open itself to the exterior.

Alongside the ontogenetic element is another dimension which is phylogenetic. Technological machines are caught in a 'phylum' which is preceded by some machines and succeeded by others.2 These proceed by generations - like generations of motor cars -with each generation opening the virtuality of other machines to come; and particular elements within these machines also initiate a meeting point with all the machinic descendants of the future.

The two categories of ontogenesis and phylogenesis applied to the technological object allow us to make a link with other machinic systems which are not themselves technological. In the history of philosophy the problem of the machine has gen­erally been regarded as secondary to a more general system -that of techne and technique (la technique). I would propose a reversal of this point of view, to the extent that the problem of technique would now only be a subsidiary part of a much wider machine problematic. Since the 'machine' is opened out to­wards its machinic environment and maintains all sorts of rela­tionships with social constituents and individual subjectivities, the concept of technological machine should therefore be broadened to that of machinic agencements. This category en­compasses everything that develops as a machine in its differ­ent registers and ontological supports. And here, rather than having an opposition between being and themachine.or being and the subject, this new notion of the machine now involves being differentiating itself qualitatively and emerging onto an ontological plurality, which is the very extension of the creativ­ity of machinic vectors. Ratherthan having a being asa common trait which would inhabit the whole of machinic, social, human and cosmic beings, we have, instead, a machine that devel­ops universes of reference - ontological heterogeneous uni­verses, which are marked by historic turning points, a factor of irreversibility and singularity.

Alongside the proto-machinic tool and technological ma­chines there are also concepts of social machines. For exam­ple, the city is a mega-machine; it functions like a machine. Linguistic theoreticians such as Chomsky have introduced the concept of the abstract machine inhabiting linguistic or syntagmatic machines. Many biologists today refer to 'machines' in relation to the living cell, to bodily organs, to individuation and even to the social body; here, too, the concept of the ma­chine is becoming established. In the domain of idealities -another universe of reference altogether - we are witnessing the broadening of the concept of the machine - that of the musical machine for example, an idea now being developed by a number of contemporary musicians. Logic machine, cos­mic machine; some theoreticians are even referring to the earth's ecosystem as a living being, or a machine in my own broad sense of the term. And looking back twenty years or so we might also evoke the desiring machines which take up the theory of psychoanalytical part-objects-the objet a as desiring machine - but in the form of elements which are not reducible to objects adjacent to the human body. It is, rather, a question of objects of desire, machines of desire, objects-subjects of desire and vectors of partial subjectification, which open up far beyond the body and familial relations, on to social and cosmic ensem­bles and all types of universes of reference.

In the field of biology, the concept of the machine has re-

cently been developed by such theoreticians as Umberto Maturana and Francisco Varella. Here the machine is defined by the ensemble of interrelations and its components, inde­pendently of the components themselves. They provide a defi­nition which is close to that of the abstract machine and which describes the machine as autopoietic, self-productive and con­tinually reproducing its component parts, rather like a system without input nor output. Varella has actually developed this theory quite extensively. He opposes autopoiesis, which he essentially attributes to living biological beings, to an allopoiesis in which the machine will search for its components outside of itself. Within this concept of allopoiesis, Varella arranges social systems, technical machines and, finally, all machinic systems which are not living systems. This concept of autopoiesis to me seems both interesting and fruitful. However, I think that we should go beyond Varella position and establish a relation be­tween allo- and autopoietic machines. Since allopoietic ma­chines are always to be found adjacent to autopoietic ones, we should therefore attempt to take into account the agencements which make them live together.

Another idea, borrowed from Levy, is that machinic systems are interfaces which are all articulated to one another - in what he calls 'hypertexts' - and which gradually extend throughout the whole of the 'mecanosphere'. I should like to join Varella and Levy's views in order to consider the machine both in its autopoietic character and in all its allopoietic developments, of interfaces, which grant it a kind of exterior politics and relations of alterity.

The machine has something more than structure. It is 'more' than structure in that it does not limit itself to a game of interac­tions which develop in space and time between its component parts; rather, it possesses a core of consistency, insistence and ontological affirmation, which is prior to the unfolding into energetico-spatio-temporal coordinates. This machinic core, which in some respects can be qualified as proto-subjective and proto-biological, possesses characteristics Varella has not completely taken into account. These are, on the one hand, elements of onto- or of phylogenesis, but also, on the other hand, elements of finitude. The machine is a bearer of finitude, of something of the order of birth and death, and from this arises the fascination that it can exert as an exploded, destroyed or imploded machine; a bearer of death around it but also of death to itself.

The source (foyer) of autopoietic insistence and of the de­velopment of a heterogeneous alterity (which develops regis­ters of alterity) is difficult to describe or define since it is not an existing thing which then affirms itself as it unfolds its energetico-spatio-temporal coordinates. How, then, do we broach such an object if not through myth or narrative - that is, through non-scientific means? I think that this machinic core is always linked in some way to systems of meta-modelisation which call for a development of theory. This theme is something I would rather not develop here as it will be taken up in a subsequent work together with Gilles Deleuze. This core of autopoietic and interstratic3 affirmation, of opening outwards, involves an idea of complexity that is thought out in completely 'extra-ordinary' coordinates. The complexity of the machinic object realises it­self and becomes embodied in the different machinic systems referred to earlier. At the same time, it is always haunted by the chaos that will separate it, dividing its elements into an alto­gether different kind of decomposition. It is as if this autopoietic being, this machinic proto-subjectivity, were simultaneously in the register of complexity and in that of chaos. I think that chaos should be considered not only as being 'chaotic' but also as being able, in its compositions of elements and entities, to de­velop new formulas of extreme complexity. Let us take an aleatoric system such as a game in a casino. In roulette the impression you have with each go of the game is that of a cha­otic system formed of aleatoric compositions. But if you play for long periods of time you will notice series, the statistical calculations of which allow you to locate complex compositions. In such a case this aleatoric system is dependent on certain mathematical descriptions; the same applies to chaos. Chaos is the bearer of dimensions of the greatest hyper-complexity. We all know the myth according to which, by picking letters at random, we can find the formula of Mallarme's poetic works. Although finding this would of course take a very long time, it can be said that Mallarme's work potentially inhabits this cha­otic universe of multiple combinations of letters.

How can we make these two dimensions of complexity and chaos inhabit the same site? Simply by bearing in mind that the entities inhabiting chaos are animated by an infinite speed. Thus they can compose the most diverse complexities but can de-complexify themselves just as quickly. The idea of infinite speed ' also leads us to a notion of chaos which could be the bearer of complexity. Proto-subjectivity can filter into these chaotic cen­tres and at the same time be adjacent to a chaotic dissociation with its own death and infinitely complex compositions. This is what I term a 'grasping chaotic' - a momentary grasp of com­plexity that is inhabited by all kinds of potentialities.4 Further­more, I would term 'hyper-complexity' that complexity which is taken over rather than truly dominated and which exists in a relationship of insistence and repetition.

In the structural theory of the signifier, the different compo­nents of a system can all be treated in terms of the economy of the signifier. We can always find a system of quantity of infor­mation or a binary system which inhabits different, heterogene­ous systems. In the model I propose there can be no transla­tion between the different levels of complexity, since each one is the bearer of its own ontoiogical substratum.

Let us take as an example the definition of fantasy in Freud's theory of the drive. This consists of a discursive element, which is the representational, fantastical and narrative element, as well as a non-discursive element - the affect. It is, moreover, difficult to grasp how Freud managed to deal with this contra­diction given that it was at the heart of his definition of the drive. The structuralists have themselves practically disposed of the drive's affective dimension, and only deal with its discursive elements; so the drive is treated here in terms of the economy of the signifier.

In the conception of the machine that I am evoking, I am not dissociating discursivity from this non-discursive foyer, which is that of its autopoietic affirmation. The split in the category of the signifier is perfectly clear in the economy of the image, of the imaginary or biological chains - domains to which the signifier remains foreign. It is thus that the economy of the signifier in Lacan's workalways develops in a linear and spatial dimension. We all know the expression 'A signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier'. The subject is there­fore 'in a relationship'. A given signifying locus, S1, exists in a relationship with another given signifying locus, S2, and the subject drifts in a sort of chasm between the two signifiers S1-S2. Linearity inhabits all notions of subjectivity, and the spatial characteristic is to be found in all of Lacan's work of the mirror stage, but also in his analysis of the ego which he developed in his later work. However, I consider that limiting ourselves to this coordinate is precisely to lose the element of the machinic cen­tre, of subjective autopoiesis and self-affirmation. Whether lo­cated at the level of the complete individual or partial subjec­tivity, or even at the level of social subjectivity, this element un­dergoes a pathic relationship by means of the affect. What is it, then, that makes us state phenomenologically that something is living? It is precisely this relationship of affect. This is not a description, nor a kind of propositional analysis resulting from a sense of hypotheses and deductions - ie, it is a living being, therefore it is a machine; rather, an immediate, pathic and non-discursive apprehension occurs of the machine's ontoiogical autocomposition relationship.

Natural codings develop in spatial categories which are dif­ferent from those of the signifying register. They are familiar with n-spatial dimensions - as occurs for example in crystallography. Coding cannot operate in an autonomy of its own; biological codings instead develop in complex spatial systems. The double-helix system of DNA does this from four basic radical chemicals and in three dimensions. In pre-signi-fying or symbolic semiologies, the lines of expression run par­allel. For example, we have lines of expression in cinema - the line of sound, the visual line, the line of colour - and there is no question of syntax or a key which would make the relationship between these lines homogeneous. There only exists a parallel relationship between them all. The same applies to all pre-signifying or symbolic semiologies. For example, in the rituals of archaic societies we can find forms of expression which are provided either by language or a form of myth or ritual, or by spatial arrangements such as geomancy or dance, or by mark­ings on the body. These_semiological lines have some kind of relationship existing between them as they possess a machinic unity which is that of the social machine of ritual, but they are not completely articulated to one another; they are, rather, ar­ranged in parallel.

With signifying semiologies, however, there prevails a linear­ity which controls all lines of expression. This relationship of linearity occurs in computing. A signifying line can work in order to take account of a verbal text, as much as an image or spatial relation.Thereisa'binarisation',which isaconversion in binary form of the totality of discursive systems. Yet, on the other hand, the different universes of ontological and autopoietic machinic reference are totally neglected.

There undoubtedly exists an over-linearity (sur-linearite) of semiotic chains by a-signifying elements which no longer articu­late productive chains of signification with chains of a-signifying signs. For instance there is a pure composition of a-signifying machines in scientific or musical fields. Another type of economy thus appears in relationships governing the expressive compo­nents to which we can attribute over-linearity.

Through these hastily sketched examples, we can see that the relationship to space which these various systems of semiological and semiotic codings possess is not at all homo­geneous. These days we may think that computers know how to realise these different components of coding and expres­sion and give a generalised translation of them; but it is in fact nothing like this. The different coding systems are always in­habited by foyers of affirmation and an autopoietic positionality of the system of expression. Because of this, it always comes second to the non-discursive foyer of the ontological nucleus.

We should now discuss the ontological heterogeneity repre­sented by universes of reference which are incarnated in dif­ferent systems of discursivity, and which to some extent are also dependent on them. How can we have access to these? We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation, for we are thrown intojdiscursive systems, relationships of time, space and ener­getic exchange, and at the same time we have to deal with foyers of existential affirmation which are not themselves dis­cursive. What is also paradoxical is that we should be able to present these foyers existentially through discursive material, rather than representation.

In the field of poetry, rhythm and elements of regularity, at the level of expression as well as in the content itself, will de­velop a poetic universe. These are the keys to the existence of an ontological crossroads between poetry and music. In the

psychoanalytical field, objects, repetitive and thus discursive systems are the existential supports of centres of subjective affirmation. In obsessional neurosis, for example, we come across an endlessly repetitive washing of hands which does not refer to any signification of the type: 'what does it mean to wash one's hands? And what about germs?' Everything is co-present. The individual recomposes him/herself in this way, carrying out this ritual. He/she reaffirms him/herself in a com­ponent of partial subjectivity; to-feel-that-one-is-in-the-washing-of-one's-hands. But obsessional neurosis is perhaps not the most simple example. Some types of behaviour have the same function, for example biting one's nails, or singing a tune in one's head when scared, or repeating a sentence (as if there were someone there to hear) - all of these represent a means of a 'grasp' of non-discursive relationships. This is what I would term an existential function.

This also appears in semiotic systems and linguists have described this function to a certain extent. I have in mind such theoreticians as Austin, Ducrot and Benveniste who have em­phasised the ^shifters' -those elements of language which ex­ist not to provide a meaning, but to mark the subject of the enunciation in the utterance. Lacan himself had also made use of this performative function. In a way, it is through this type of operator that he constructed his theory of full speech and the symbolic relationship.

We are confronted with an untenable paradox which we are nevertheless obliged to support - indeed, the whole world is in the same situation. Every society has to take this gamble, par­ticularly scientific and animist societies. It is from the elements of discursivity that we must pose universes of reference, qualitative structures and ontological textures. We therefore have to produce and develop incorporeal universes which, al­though they may be dated or marked with the name of their inventor, are in fact universal. These universes could evoke Platonic ideas, yet they are inscribed in history; they are cuts, mutations, which are marked by a factor of irreversibility and singularity.

Pierre Levy distinguishes between machines which come under the oral or written mode, and computing machines. In the universe of the word-processing machine - which com­pletely changes one's relationship to expression - he notes the interfaces which compose and singularise this new universe of reference: writing, the alphabet, printing, computing, the laser printer, Linotype, database, image bank, telecommunications... Thus we have a new machine. Today, children who are learning language from a word-processor are no longer within the same types of universes of reference as before, neither from a cogni­tive point of view (of how there may be another organisation of memory, or rather memories...), nor in the order of affective di­mensions and social or ethical relationships.

What does this kind of machinic delirium provide us with? Let us take an institutional object, for example an establish­ment for psychotic patients. We could completely reify inter-subjective relationships by saying that the psychotic patient is in search of care from individuals who have a specialised knowl­edge, who can dispense medicine, and provide interpretations and behavioural indications to treat the psychosis. This is, how­ever, a conception of subjectivity in which each person is shut inside a monad and is then forced to construct means of 'com­munication'. This is the universe of 'communicational reference'. This viewpoint must be reversed in order for it not to be possi­ble to begin from entities which are closed off in relation to one another, as this implies modes of 'communication' and of 'trans­fer'. Instead, the transfer has to come first; it must already be there. There will (or not) be a machine of subjectification ac­cording to whether there is a crossing of different thresholds of ontological and subjective insistence. At that moment in the autopoietic relation, there exists an immediate and pathic knowl­edge of the situation - 'something is happening'. When a love machine or fear machine is activated this is not due to the ef­fect of discursive, cognitive or deductive sentences. Rather, it occurs immediately. And this machine will progressively de­velop different means of expression.

The clinic at La Borde is an establishment conceived (in prin­ciple) as a machine of subjectification!which itself is composed of n-sub-wholes of subjectification.. From the moment the pa­tient arrives at the clinic, these relationships of subjectification have to function between patient and doctor. Further relation­ships will then be set up not only with patients and their coun­sellors, but with animals and machines as well. These must all be capable of producing or being vectors of care and of exis­tential strength for the psychotics, who are going through a phase of ontological imbalance. Can one be content with the passive statement: 'Everything is going well, we are not alone

in a face-to-face situation with the patient, there are other inter­relations'; or can one work instead on the lines of machinic virtuality, the lines of machinic alterity borne from different sub-wholes? If we consider for instance that the kitchen is an autopoietic foyer of subjectification, it becomes important to be aware of its space, and its architectural dimensions, to be able to engender further exchange within this space so that it does not become a little citadel shut in on itself. Today, ready-made meals are delivered by van to hospital kitchens; there­fore there is no machine of subjectification. A machine-kitchen, however, would not only involve a certain type of space, but also a certain type of training and exchange for the people who work in it. Cooks would be able to come and go in other service areas so that they could understand the positions of alterity that exist in other areas of work. This is, therefore, a complex machine, a system of interfaces. And the same can be said for the other services in the hospital. Learning to drive, for example, is a crucial moment for the psychotic, who may be totally incapable of having a conversation but is capable of driving a car. What takes place is therefore a subjective com­position according to the hold of consistency of these different ensembles. While some of them may lose their consistency, other forms of consistency will appear. It is here that the gen­eral loss of consistency one finds on entering into relationships of seriality of an ethological nature, which provoke the kinds of conditions of inter-human savagery that exist in traditional hos­pitals, is now able to be posed as a problem.

Th#\autopoiitic and 'hypertextual' position of the machine thus possesses a pragmatic potential, which allows for a crea­tive standpoint of machinic composition, occurring in the face of the ontological iron curtain which separates the subject_on_ the one side from things on the other.

Translated by Vivian Constantinopoulos   .

 

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Notes

Editorial Note Jhis paper is originally published in French in Chimeres, No 19, Spring 1993. We would like to thank the editors of Chimeres for permission to publish 'A propos des machines' in the Journal of Phi­losophy and the Visual Arts. The paper was originally given as a lec­ture in November 1990 at a conference entitled 'Cinema et Litterature: Le temps des machines', organised by the Centre de recherche et d'action culturelle de Valence. Chimeres thanks Mme Frangoise Calvez and Raymond Bellour for allowing the transcription of the recording.

1 Translator's note: Agencements is a term often translated in English as 'assemblages' or 'arrangements'. Henceforth the term will re­main in the original French.

2 Translator's note: See also Gilies Deieuze and Felix Guattari's defi­nition of the machinic phylum in pp406-10 of 'Treatise on Nomadology-The War Machine' in A Thousand Plateaus, tr Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987):

3 Translator's note: See also Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's '”1O.OOObc: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)' in A Thousand Plateaus, op cit, and Deieuze and Guattari's discus­sion of 'stratigraphic time' in What is Philosophy, tr Graham Burcheii and Hugh Tomlinson (London and New York: Verso, 1994).

4 Translator's note: 'grasping chaotic' is the term originally used in French.