The first time I ever heard the phrase “body without organs,” my friend M had been reading some of A Thousand Plateaus, and in our friend S’s house, he was just yelling this phrase at me over and over again. I think he was drunk. This was around late 2006 or early 2007. A few months later, I sat in on a course where the reading list was the Ethics essay collection by Michel Foucault, Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben, and Immanence: A Life by Gilles Deleuze.
My engagement with Deleuze pretty much went backward, with a few exceptions, over the next year. I had read his book on Kant in 2002 when I took a third-level course on the Critique of Pure Reason. Jim Bradley, the Memorial University professor who ran the course, assigned Deleuze as reference material. But I only realized what kind of philosophy Deleuze had four years later. When I dove in, our department library had copies of Bergsonism and Empiricism and Subjectivity (the Hume book), which I breezed through. I bought What Is Philosophy? and wasn’t nearly as confused as nearly everyone who isn’t me tells me they are. Then I read Anti-Œdipus, A Thousand Plateaus, and his Nietzsche book just before moving to Hamilton for my PhD. Then came Difference and Repetition and damn near the whole rest of the bibliography over the next five years. I still haven’t read the Francis Bacon book, but I read the Cinemas earlier this summer.
But the Body Without Organs, man. Body Without Organs. The poetry is seductive, and the concept is actually very easy to understand. You just need a bit of an ear for poetry, and how poetry can explain science. In philosophy, this is very rare today. Philosophers tend to disrespect poetry with about the same frequency that scientists disrespect philosophy. I speak of tendencies and stereotypes, but stereotypes wouldn’t hold if they didn’t have some unfortunate anchor in reality.
The Body Without Organs: The architecture of human life assembles itself without an inbuilt purpose, and without any direction from consciousness or intentions. A life begins from an embryo, assembled from the tendencies and proclivities of its constituent chemicals. Is that so hard to understand? Did M really have to be so mystified? Or drunk?
The problem is one of extremes. An interesting note Katherine Hayles makes about Félix Guattari is that, even though he was a fervent anti-Lacanian in his most famous works, his own thinking still shares a great deal with Lacan, particularly on the matter of life as an assemblage. In the same way, I think because Deleuze and Guattari composed their work in opposition to mainstream ideas (like the essence of a human life being his rational consciousness), they swung too far. Their conception of subjectivity as a body without organs, physical proclivities constitutive of subjectivity, denies consciousness, self-awareness, or selfhood any role in identity at all. They gave us a tool to put an alternative forward, but fought so hard for their new idea to be taken seriously that they gave not an inch to consciousness having even a minor role in subjectivity’s creation.
I mean, I can understand their reticence to compromise. Philosophers are a persnickety bunch. One concession that consciousness might be part of subjectivity from them, and opponents will either attack them as hypocrites, dismiss them as inconsistent, or stop taking their critiques seriously because one compromise is often interpreted as throwing in the whole towel.
It’s hard enough being taken seriously in contemporary philosophical circles just if you’re French. Let alone if you write with such a strange style as they did in their collaborations. And it’s hard enough to avoid being attacked when Alain Badiou is sending his toadies into your seminars to scream at you for an hour when you’re trying to teach, because you don’t measure up to his standard as a Maoist revolutionary.
Body without organs. We, and all other bodies, are plural, assembled from non-conscious forces into a body that, once put together, can achieve more and different things than the forces when they were on their own. That’s all.