Even Our Heroes Go Too Far: Body Without Organs, A History Boy, 09/07/2013

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.


  1. I don't mean to comment every day, but then I read the post and want to respond. Hopefully more the sign of a good blog than an intemperate reader.

    Nice intellectual self-examination here -- I've never locked in to Deleuze but your description of bodies without organs strongly reminds me of another Newfoundland philosopher, John Scott on Aristotle. He viewed Aristotelian necessity as a form of function being expressed characteristically, organs growing from cells to serve a purpose that lacks meaning but has existence and thus is only fully realized when expressed by the entity in its characteristic way. Deleuze I suppose sets up the more extreme case that the organ is secondary to (rather than separate from) the meaning -- you have an actual body, it has actual organs, but the fact that these organs express a coordinated existence in you is secondary to the fact that you self-spin webs of meaning to make that matter. So it's a stronger form of existential ethics? Whereas Scott's Aristotle would have it that you exist in your characteristic way, which is neither good nor bad, but it is lightly determining. The political side of this is for Scott's Aristotle, if you're born to cut the Gordian knot, go cut it; whereas for Deleuze, even as you stand with your sword poised to cut the Gordian knot, maybe ask yourself, should I really cut this??

    1. Deleuze's idea is that everything is assembled from physical movements. They aren't random or determined, but have tendencies. So an organism comes together from the proclivities of its constituent bodies/particles. I knew John well, and loved sitting in on his discussions of Aristotle. But I can't really follow it into this territory because Aristotle didn't know any of what we know about embryonic development. Even our narratively-ordered/ing consciousness is the tendency of organisms like us, once we're assembled, to make sense of the world by narrative rules, and to treat structures as if they were designed by an intentional consciousness like ours. There are few principles in philosophy more deeply opposed to the ontology of tendency Deleuze developed (and Deleuze didn't even believe in true opposites) than Aristotelian teleology.

      Eventually, there'll be another History Boy post about my mixed feelings on philosophy's relationship with its ancient Greek heritage.

    2. Looking forward to the next posts on these issues. I still don't quite see the practical distinction between Deleuze's position (which seems to me provocatively ambivalent) and a sort of skeptical stance that the part does not equal the whole and the whole is both more and less than the sum of the parts. I'm therefore interested to see how these notions which you obviously respond to have filtered down into your philosophical and artistic projects.

      I'm always thinking of war and militaries and so need ideas very practical and concrete indeed before I pounce, but it is refreshing to dip in to the non-purpose driven intellectual life.

    3. I prefer to think of it as intellectual life with an indirect purpose. My conceptual engineering projects are designed to be politically and socially relevant. It's just that they're indirectly so. Creating concepts that work as conditions of new movements.