Is That a Philosophical Concept or a Doctor Who Story? Research Time, 04/05/2018

As you can tell from how many of his ideas influence my own thinking, Gilles Deleuze is a major touchstone for my own writing and related work. But I’ll always be the first one to tell people that he can be a damn difficult writer in a lot of ways.

For one, he’s prolific, and doesn’t always take the time to re-introduce concepts that he uses in an earlier book before blasting into some wild application. But that’s not really the most frustrating aspect of his style – it’s more of an annoyance.

There are always more things going on in a creative work
than we can say. Good quality communication of any kind
that involves ideas absorbs us in a feedback loop of
our own creativity in thought and reflection. Attentive
thought in that cycle can create some remarkably useful
insights. But not all our insights are useful, or even
all that reasonable.
Today I want to talk about a problem with Deleuze’s approach to philosophy that’s more central to how his ideas get taken up. Paul Patton displays an excellent example in his own account and interpretation of some of Deleuze’s political ideas in his work from the early 2000s.

Patton describes a particular kind of social-political transformation as a metamorphosis machine. The roots are clear in Deleuze’s own works if you look for them, and they’re easy to find. Let’s count those down first.

Kafka is all over mid-period Deleuze. He’s the central case study in his and Guattari’s major book on the concept of the minor. What is the minor or minority? Not a literal minority, but a culture, language, and way of thinking that’s pushed away from public acceptability in its explicit expression. Cultural ideas that have to go underground, or adapt themselves to a mainstream that doesn’t always fit them.

Kafka’s Jewish identity, heritage, and seeking was pushed out of public acceptability in late imperial Austria, and later Czechoslovakia. And the Czech language itself was pushed out of public acceptability – Kafka spoke Czech as his first language, but adapted his writing to German. Those cultural and linguistic schizzes inform his work, and contribute to the subtle ways his writing destabilizes the enforced mainstream of his country.

Patton combines the power of the minor to destabilize and rupture a suppressive mainstream with the concept of the war machine – a physical social assemblage which does the same thing, but more explicitly and violently. War machines are social assemblages and forces that break the strictly policed codes, laws, and institutions of states.

They’re important things / processes to have around, considering all the horrible things state institutions can do to oppress and control people. Every authority needs some kind of check on its power so it doesn’t use all the power it has.

What I immediately thought of when I first read the phrase
"metamorphosis machine." I feel like I want to watch some of my
favourite stories from the David Tennant years of Doctor Who
again. I did enjoy that feeling of exuberance throughout Davies'
years making the show, especially in the smaller, mid-season
episodes where there was less pressure for spectacle. The
story had time to smile for us.
Here’s where we get to the problem. Although Deleuze and Guattari describe the concept of the war machine in a lot of detail in A Thousand Plateaus, the description stays at a very abstract level of thought. So it’s really tough to apply a concept so abstract without twisting it too much.

Sometimes, twisting a concept too much can have really productive results – you end up with an equally interesting and useful concept. But you can just as easily mess up your thinking and end up just plain confused. And I think that’s where Patton’s concept of the metamorphosis machine ends up.

Patton’s concept moves in the same direction as my paper about process models of activist communication. A dispersed, but mutually connected, movement of people demonstrate in their publicly-displayed spectacles and daily conversations with the public that a mainstream way of life is unjust. As people in the mainstream understand it, they change their moralities to stop excusing that injustice and help correct it.

But Patton stays himself in a very specific context, while also speaking abstractly. He frames the metamorphosis machine as an agent of change through micro-movements, like I did. But when he gets specific, he talks about overthrowing the state.

Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the thinking that made overthrowing the state his priority was off track. See, the war machine concept in A Thousand Plateaus was described using a particular introductory framework – a nomadic army overthrowing the state.

For all the wide range of ways you can use their concepts, there will
always be some aspects of Deleuze and Guattari's work that were
very much peculiar to their own specific time and place. Their hair
alone should be sign enough of that.
Patton tied himself too much to the application that best suited the political priorities of Deleuze and Guattari’s time and place. In 1970s Paris, anti-capitalism meant aligning yourself, at least in spirit, with the communist urban guerrilla movements out to overthrow the governments of Western Europe.

In late-2010s Canada, putting yourself in the same political spirit as Deleuze and Guattari means embracing and allying yourself with movements of peaceful demonstrations that freer ways of life are possible.

Real freedom of religion, freedom to immigrate wherever you want, freedom from the cultural presumptions and hostility of systematic, atmospheric racism, freedom from the indignity of poverty and vulnerability of addiction. So you look at these oppressive structures that are matters of public belief, culture and enculturation, moralities that encourage hatred and disgust. Morality is today’s target. Maybe it’ll be more effective in building a more just society.

Given how the European communist guerrillas did, I’d say we have a pretty low bar to clear for a grade of "Has Shown Improvement."

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