‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines’ (some notes & comments on Brassier’s talk at the ‘A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy’ London Workshop)

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[What follows is a summary of, and some comments on, Ray Brassier’s talk regarding the final chapter of A Thousand Plateaus. Delivered in London, 2015, at the A Thousand Plateaus and Philosophy Workshop]

At the very least one can confidently say that the reputation of A Thousand Plateaus precedes itself. At times, its reputation even precedes a reader’s first encounter with the text itself. And in light of ATP‘s repute, one of the features of this text that is known by all is that its authors have written the book in such a way that a reader can skip ahead or begin from the middle of whatever plateau grabs their interest. We are told that ATP is a book written to liberate its audience and to affect us so that we feel free to pick and choose where the story begins and ends. As Massumi himself notes in his translator’s forward, reading ATP is best done in the same way one listens to a record:

“When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don’t approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business. A Thousand Plateaus is conceived as an open system…The author’s hope…is that elements of it will stay with a certain number of its readers and will weave into the melody of their everyday lives” (ATP, xiv).

Despite the kernel of truth in Massumi’s record metaphor (the element of truth being that it is the case that throughout the chapters of ATP Deleuze and Guattari remain consistent in their use of specific terms and concepts and thus develop a unifying thread throughout all the plateaus that renders a one’s decision of abrupt beginnings and endings of little consequence), to overemphasize this staggered and haphazard approach to ATP is to elide one of it’s most fundamental features; a feature that Brassier will seek to highlight in his reading of the final chapter, ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines.’

For Brassier, there is in fact a fundamental or privileged plateau: namely, the chapter on the Geology of Morals. Why? Because when Deleuze and Guattari conclude their text with a set of concrete rules for effectuating specific abstract machines, they base this final chapter on the very logic of double articulation develop in the Geology of Morals plateau. For Brassier, what’s striking when one reads ATP is the consistency with which Deleuze and Guattari use their vocabulary. Thus, despite the appearance of a proliferation of concepts tied to particular sets of practices (art, science, philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis, etc.), the concepts developed throughout ATP in fact constitute a unified logical system. Thus, says Brassier, it is the logical and conceptual relationship between double articulation and the final chapter that gives the lie to the kinds of readings of this text that fall in line with Massumi’s prescribed approach. However, before directly engaging with the relationship between double articulation and the final chapter of ATP, Brassier spends some time clarifying Deleuze and Guattari’s text in relation to other philosophical positions, and specifically in relation to those philosophies that lay claim to the title of materialism.

I). What is it that makes rules ‘concrete’ and machines ‘abstract’?

For Brassier, Deleuze and Guattari’s materialism is neither a contemplative representation of a pre-existing material reality, nor a series of practical imperatives that presupposes and yet disavows a theoretical representation of the world. For all its idiosyncrasy, ATP is a very classical work – where ontology is at one with ethics. This is not to say that it is a conservative work. Rather, it is a contemporary reactivation of the classical task of philosophizing: a fusion of understanding what there is and how to live (what we should do). The title of the last chapter, ‘Concrete Rules and Abstract Machines,’ gives Brassier a hint at how Deleuze and Guattari reconceive of this classical aim of philosophizing. Namely, by developing what Brassier terms an ‘abstract materialism’ (unformed matter) in tandem with a ‘concrete ethics’ (practical prescriptions for action selected independently of universal law). Thus, the question Brassier aims to clarify and explain is this: how can concrete practices engage formless matter? This is another way of asking about the relation between the ABSTRACT (machine) and the CONCRETE (actions); or, in Deleuze and Guattari’s language, between the UNFORMED (i.e., matters/flows that characterizes the plane of consistency) and the EFFECTUATED (i.e., how concrete rules develop the abstract machine enveloped in the strata/stratification).

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