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Isabelle Ruelland, "Review of Gary Genesko’s Félix Guattari: A Critical Introduction"

Review of Gary Genesko’s Félix Guattari: A Critical Introduction
Isabelle Ruelland

Félix Guattari, A Critical Introduction is Gary Genosko’s third book on this radical French thinker. In this volume, Genosko first addresses a contextual portrait of facts that mark Félix Guattari’s life as an intellectual and militant. He outlines the different forms of social and political practices he engaged in, his theoretical and conceptual creativity, as well as the social movements and a variety of personalities whom he often opposed or was inspired by. Through chapters organized around key dimensions of his life and thought, Genosko delivers contextual material, explanations of concepts, and how the concepts are still relevant. According to the author, “the question of reading Guattari today is embedded in a longstanding problem within the secondary literature of Deleuze studies” (p.13). While the contribution of Genosko work is that it demonstrates Guattari was not an eccentric post-humanist or simply a minor theorist in Deleuze’s shadow, it is a work that assumes extensive knowledge of the poststructuralist epistemology he worked in.

Guattari’s early transversal political practice and theory.
To understand Guattari we need to situate the fundamental problem he set for himself which was how to traverse multiple fields within his life and work. He crosses through numerous fields including pharmaceutical science, psychoanalysis, social struggles, institutional analysis, analytic treatments of psychotics in group settings and other patients in private practice and he wrote philosophy as well as fiction. All of this transversal political practice and theory produced a singular analytic mapping.

Genosko’s first chapter reviews Guattari’s early involvement in a host of left wing groups including the Youth Hostel Association, the Freinet movement, and Oury’s institutional pedagogy and psychotherapy experiments at La Borde. Out of these involvements Genosko shows the importance Guattari draws from the concepts of singularization as a “self-organizing process involving the constitution of assemblage of components (intrinsic references), relations with other assemblages, and the analysis of their effects on subjectivity” (p.35).

What is interesting about Genosko’s treatment is that he points this unique analytic mapping toward techniques (transversal tools as Genosko prefers) in the art of producing subjectivity through institutional practices such as the self-managed journal (editors, contributors, printers), cooperative councils, grids, and alternative timetables. Genosko presents each of these techniques treating their theoretical (especially those of psychoanalysis and its critiques) and historical bases as inspired by the anti-psychiatric movement of the 1960s and 1970s in France. Two concepts, inspired by Sartre that Guattari develops in this period are the subject-group (groups actively exploring self-defined projects) and the subjugated-group (groups passively receiving directions).

Chapter Two treats the theoretical development of transversality, his core political and critical concept. “Transversality is the measure of an institution’s influence on all its denizens” (p. 50) by the subject-group that looks to maximizes transversality in any kind of organizational or institutional context. Because transversality in institutions poses a “how to” problem, Genosko focuses on transversality tools. He uses the term tool “even though Guattari was certain that machines are more ontologically basic than tools because they determine the ‘collective dance’ of specific tools and certain human bodies under the conditions of related social and technical ensembles” (p.18).

Genosko then situates the difficult problem regarding the production of subjectivity within the clinical and institutional collective life at La Borde. He does this through the creative deployment of tools for transversality (grid, timetable, etc.) that also occur in the wider socio-political field. To develop his analysis he takes an example from the theory of network society and the rise of affective labor as develop by Hardt and Negri. In this way, transversality “jumps the rail of the psychiatric clinic and becomes relevant for political struggles against global capital” (p.64).

This raises the question of what is the use of transversality in global political theory. According to Genosko, transversality plays a central role in theorizing anti-globalization politics and techno-cultural realities. The author establishes as well that transversality is, for both Foucault and Guattari, a transformation focused on the production of new forms of subjectivity. Indeed, this “interest for the production of subjectivity points directly to the key role that tools for transversality can play in turning potential for change toward emancipatory ends” (p.67). In short, whether they are produced within an institutional framework or in a global political form of resistance, tools for transversality, “not only adjust to the changing conditions they help initiate, they may be modified in and through and by the processes in witch they participate” (p.68).

Production of subjectivity: ecosophy, a-signify semiotics, and informatics striation
In the third chapter, Genosko questions Guattari’s three ecologies in terms of their prospects for transformative thought and action: “there are three fundamental types of ecology: environmental, social and mental. These types --biospherical, social relations, and human subjectivity-- are also figured registers and ‘multipolar issues’ whose ethico-political articulation, as opposed to technocratic solution, is the proper concern of ecosophy” (p.74-75). As we see, Guattari uses the concept of ecology in a way that doesn’t restrict itself to a simple environmental meaning. As another “tool for transversality,” ecology and art (ecosophy) serve Guattari’s central preoccupation with individual and collective productions of subjectivity. At the same time he sees subjectivity as what holds art and ecology together. This double relationship between art and ecology, at the core of the production of subjectivity, is according to Genosko, “one of his most original theoretical innovations” (p.80).

Guattari also brings an original contribution to semiotics with his theorization of a-signifying part-signs, which Genosko takes up in detail in the fourth chapter. “Although this type of part-sign or sign-particle is akin to a signal, in that it lacks a semantic dimension of content and meaning and is non-representational, (…) Guattari adds that its molecular dimension, which is flush with material intensities, is marked politically” (p.20). In fact, “all molecular phenomena display a politics in lieu of a signified” (p. 105). To illustrate this idea Genosko uses the example of the magnetic stripe on banks cards. He sees in the card a new type of sign whose importance may be appreciated in the context of “info-capitalist” networks that integrate human and non-human actors. In others words, micropolitics is molecular and transversal and not a simple matter of finding the right representation. Hence, according to Guattari, even though a-signifying signs may be senseless, they can still activate micropolitics.

He uses Guattari in a critical way to demonstrate the originality and pertinence of his a-signifying semiotic to understand contemporary techno-culture (even if he didn’t live to know it fully), on the one hand, and his own early “cyber-enthusiasm,” especially with the plurality of possibilities that new-media offer to produce subjectivities, on the other. More precisely, a-signifying part-sign helps “reconceptualise sign-referent relations in a diagrammatic way” (p.101). New types of relations emerge between the sign and the referent as they are no longer tied to the binary relation. According to Genosko: “diagrammatism in Guattari’s hands, blazes a trail beyond the human and individuated subject into a collective machinic dimension” (p.103).

Striation, another dimension of Guattari’s conceptual arsenal, is especially promising in diagnosing the techno-material and cultural conditions of information society. In chapter five we learn that striation is a more complex mode of capturing subjectivity. It includes sedimentary assemblages of signifiers, techniques and strategies. The conceptual coupling of striation and smoothness is useful for an investigation of a phenomenon that Guattari call informatics striation: “the instantiation of fluxes in binary code, the digitization of images and messages, and sequencing operations are all relevant examples” (p. 110). Genosko develops the idea that there are elements of smoothness in the way First Nations, Inuit, and Australian Aboriginal cultures affront the striation of state bureaucrats and lawmakers. He introduces the smooth-striation relation, an informatics model of social sorting, as it pertains to indigenous experience, using comparative data from Canada and also from Australia. These latter cases are original applications of the concept of smooth-striation in social research. He shows the mutual imbrications of the smooth and striated within the domain of an identity-ascribing informatics.

Cinema and affect in Guattari’s praxis philosophy
Genosko explores a few choice cinematic examples from the early to mid 1970s that enable Guattari to shift away from the dogmatism effecting the anti-psychiatry movement of this period in France and in Europe. Cinema is a “privileged medium for minoritarian becoming that shows a specific orientation towards the progressive goals of alternative psychiatric practices linked to multiple progressive social and political movements” (p.134). We could say to become minor is to become molecular and so to enter in the realm of the political. For Guattari, to watch, produce and create minor cinema are tools that facilitate this micropolitical plane in the production of subjectivity. Guattari’s idea of minor cinema has affinity with a core idea of a “militant cinema that includes the democratization of means of production and overcoming the barriers of specialization, technical, and cost challenges as well as putting cameras into the hands of workers” (p.142). In this sense, a film camera «is a machine for proletarian subjectivity’s continuous reinvention» (p.142). Minor cinema in the hands of anti-psychiatric groups and the homeless movement are key examples that demonstrate how films can become political by expressing multiple molecular connections.

Genosko’s last chapter takes up Guattari’s concept of affect. He continues with further contextualisation and application of his analyses of minor cinema as a privileged medium for the exploration of minoritarian becomings. According to him, one film stands out within the context of alternative psychiatry: First in the Pocket (1965) by Marco Bellocchio. “This film explores the theme of epilepsy and «how epilepsy functions cinematically through depressing and distressing atmospheric viscosities that confirm affect’s autonomy, affect’s capacity to resist discursive and representational capture”(p. 160). Epilepsy is a metaphor for an “ethical-political-aesthetic” attitude that explodes affect and breaks from representations. Moreover, Genosko defines a “Guattarian epileptic’s subject” as a particular intensity of affect. He mentions how deriving affect from epilepsy is like creating schizo-analysis from the ruins of capitalism’s schizophrenia.

Genosko concludes his book by highlighting the trajectory of Guattari’s original contribution that shows a multiplicity of theoretical and practical tools for not only understanding but also engaging in the vast “machinic phylum” that constitutes productions of subjectivity. “For Guattari, micropolitics are about pragmatically intervening at the smallest molecular levels in order to ensure that the dominant kinds of subjectivity produced by Integrated World Capitalism do not win out” (p.25). Guattari’s thought “gave some hope that a new alliance with machines; and, most importantly, alliances to come, particularly through new cinematic minor becomings” (p.180) could offer a multiplicity and variety of transversal tools for a singular molecular political affect.

This third book by Genosko displays a wide comprehensive understanding of Guattari’s work. The reader dives into Guattari’s complex language from the introduction on and is provided with accompanying explanation of core concepts such as schizo-analysis, transversality, machinic phylum, informatics striation, minor cinema, and many others. An ironic problem with the book is that theses concepts are explained in a transversal manner that requires a very wide knowledge of poststructuralist thought. At the same time, he works very hard in each chapter to carefully select thoughtful applications and practical examples consistent with Guattari’s work that illustrate the inter-connections of ideas often discussed in other works at more abstract levels.

Still, it needs to be said that Genosko often affords a loose interpretation and elaboration of Guattari’s ideas, such that the introductory reader could be misled to the point of confusing his point of view on for instance the techno-culture of global-info-capitalism, cinema, aboriginal and many other social issues with Guattari’s original contributions. In this sense, the critical introduction is more of a free wheeling reflection on Guattari’s concepts reformulating them in an almost instrumental way but also in a pertinent way for pragmatic critiques of contemporary techno-cultural capitalism. The danger in this genre of a “transversal critical introduction” is that one can confuse Guattari’s ideas with some of Genosko’s formulations leaving the authorship somewhat unclear. Or perhaps this is not a problem but the authors intent, to show forth the wealth of possibilities and ideas contained within a becoming-Guattarian of thought.

Genesko, Gary (2009) Félix Guattari: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press.

Bio: Isabelle Ruelland is sociologist from Université de Montréal.