Categories
Assemblage Theory new materialism

the politics of a molecular people: two paragraphs from A Thousand Plateaus

Material thus has three principal characteristics: it is a molecularized matter; it has a relation to forces to be harnessed; and it is defined by the operations of consistency applied to it. Finally, it is clear that the relation to the earth and the people has changed, and is no longer of the romantic type. The earth is now at its most deterritorialized: not only a point in a galaxy, but one galaxy among others. The people is now at its most molecularized: a molecular population, a people of oscillators as so many forces of interaction. The artist discards romantic figures, relinquishes both the forces of the earth and those of the people. The combat, if combat there is, has moved. The established powers have occupied the earth, they have built people’s organizations. The mass media, the great people’s organizations of the party or union type, are machines for reproduction, fuzzification machines that effectively scramble all the terrestrial forces of the people. The established powers have placed us in the situation of a combat at once atomic and cosmic, galactic. Many artists became aware of this situation long ago, even before it had been installed (Nietzsche, for example). They became aware of it because the same vector was traversing their own domain: a molecularization, an atomization of the material, coupled with a cosmicization of the forces taken up by that material. The question then became whether molecular or atomic “populations” of all natures (mass media, monitoring procedures, computers, space weapons) would continue to bombard the existing people in order to train it or control it or annihilate it—or if other molecular populations were possible, could slip into the first and give rise to a people yet to come. As Virilio says in his very rigorous analysis of the depopulation of the people and the deterritorialization of the earth, the question has become: “To dwell as a poet or as an assassin?” The assassin is one who bombards the existing people with molecular populations that are forever closing all of the assemblages, hurling them into an ever wider and deeper black hole. The poet, on the other hand, is one who lets loose molecular populations in hopes that this will sow the seeds of, or even engender, the people to come, that these populations will pass into a people to come, open a cosmos. Once again, we must not make it seem as though the poet gorged on metaphors: it may be that the sound molecules of pop music are at this very moment implanting here and there a people of a new type, singularly indifferent to the orders of the radio, to computer safeguards, to the threat of the atomic bomb. In this respect, the relation of artists to the people has changed significantly: the artist has ceased to be the One-Alone withdrawn into him- or herself, but has also ceased to address the people, to invoke the people as a constituted force. Never has the artist been more in need of a people, while stating most firmly that the people is lacking—the people is what is most lacking. We are not referring to popular or populist artists. Mallarme said that the Book needed a people. Kafka said that literature is the affair of the people. Klee said that the people is essential yet lacking. Thus the problem of the artist is that the modern depopulation of the people results in an open earth, and by means of art, or by means to which art contributes. Instead of being bombarded from all sides in a limiting cosmos, the people and the earth must be like the vectors of a cosmos that carries them off; then the cosmos itself will be art. From depopulation, make a cosmic people; from deterritorialization, a cosmic earth—that is the wish of the artisan-artist, here, there, locally. Our governments deal with the molecular and the cosmic, and our arts make them their affair also, with the same stakes, the people and the earth, and with unfortunately incomparable, but nevertheless competitive, means. Is it not of the nature of creations to operate in silence, locally, to seek consolidation everywhere, to go from the molecular to an uncertain cosmos, whereas the processes of destruction and conservation work in bulk, take center stage, occupy the entire cosmos in order to enslave the molecular and to stick it in a conservatory or a bomb?

These three “ages,” the classical, romantic, and modern (for lack of a better term), should not be interpreted as an evolution, or as structures separated by signifying breaks. They are assemblages enveloping different Machines, or different relations to the Machine. In a sense, everything we attribute to an age was already present in the preceding age. Forces, for example: it has always been a question of forces, designated either as forces of chaos or forces of the earth. Similarly, for all of time painting has had the project of rendering visible, instead of reproducing the visible, and music of rendering sonorous, instead of reproducing the sonorous. Fuzzy aggregates have been constituting themselves and inventing their processes of consolidation all along. A freeing of the molecular was already found in classical matters of content, operating by destratification, and in romantic matters of expression, operating by decoding. The most we can say is that when forces appear as forces of the earth or of chaos, they are not grasped directly as forces but as reflected in relations between matter and form. Thus it is more a question of thresholds of perception, or thresholds of discernibility belonging to given assemblages. It is only after matter has been sufficiently deterritorialized that it itself emerges as molecular and brings forth pure forces attributable only to the Cosmos. It had been present “for all of time,” but under different perceptual conditions. New conditions were necessary for what was buried or covered, inferred or concluded, presently to rise to the surface. What was composed in an assemblage, what was still only composed, becomes a component of a new assemblage. In this sense, all history is really the history of perception, and what we make history with is the matter of a becoming, not the subject matter of a story. Becoming is like the machine: present in a different way in every assemblage, passing from one to the other, opening one onto the other, outside any fixed order or determined sequence.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 345-7

Deleuze and Guattari famously recommend thinking of the plateaus as tracks on a record: play the ones you like. I say, why not do the same thing within the plateaus? So I’m setting aside the concept of the refrain, which is the primary interest of the plateau from which these two paragraphs come to just focus on what is here. (Which I dare say is more than enough for one blog post.)

The passage begins modestly enough with declaring “thus” that matter has three principle characteristics. So they’re beginning with ontology, but this passage is mostly a matter of art and politics, of people. I’m going to drill down into a few particular bits.

“The question then became whether molecular or atomic ‘populations’ of all natures (mass media, monitoring procedures, computers, space weapons) would continue to bombard the existing people in order to train it or control it or annihilate it—or if other molecular populations were possible, could slip into the first and give rise to a people yet to come.”

In Deleuze’s control society, the shift that occurs from the disciplinary society Foucault describes emerging in the early Modern period is from exerting power at the level of molar bodies to exerting power through modulation at the molecular level, at the level of desires for example. It’s the difference between the surveillance of Bentham’s panopticon to the subconscious manipulations of mobile social media where we learn the desire to snitch upon ourselves to the state. This is the training/controlling of people through the molecularity of digital media. But Deleuze and Guattari consider the possibility of that these machines might give use to a new people, a new molecular population. How might that happen?

They point to the poet “who lets loose molecular populations in hopes that this will sow the seeds of, or even engender, the people to come, that these populations will pass into a people to come, open a cosmos,” and suggest that “it may be that the sound molecules of pop music are at this very moment implanting here and there a people of a new type, singularly indifferent to the orders of the radio, to computer safeguards, to the threat of the atomic bomb.”

As always with Deleuze and Guattari, there is an ongoing process of de- and reterritorialization as new populations arise and face the prospect of capture by the state. This is not necessarily a bad thing if part of the aim is to change the state itself. This is familiar to us, right? Elsewhere in ATP, they mention “a thousand tiny sexes.” (“For the two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman and the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes” (213).) In recent decades, we have seen molecular multiplicities form populations that have become recognized broadly in our culture and thus become situated to participate and change the state as a population. (As probably should not need to be said–but I’ll say it anyway–populations organized by gender, race, class, sexuality, etc. also become handles by which the state (and various segments within the state) can identify and respond to bodies.) Art plays a role in forming these populations, of creating new people: musical styles and specific songs, dance moves, literary traditions, fashion, culinary practices and so on. It is one of a most familiar cliches: “the ______ that defined a generation.”

But here’s the part that interests me most from a media study perspective: “for all of time painting has had the project of rendering visible, instead of reproducing the visible, and music of rendering sonorous, instead of reproducing the sonorous.” Is it about creativity and artistic vision? Sure. It is also about technique and technology, which are intertwined. When we see and hear–when we sense–new things, we open opportunities for new populations, new people.

And the final bit: “In this sense, all history is really the history of perception, and what we make history with is the matter of a becoming, not the subject matter of a story. Becoming is like the machine: present in a different way in every assemblage, passing from one to the other, opening one onto the other, outside any fixed order or determined sequence.” So when we want to think about posthumanism or new materialism in terms of its politics, this is what we might find. As there is no essentialism, as new materialism is specifically anti-essentialist, there is no essential justice or Truth. It will not tell you what you must do. It will not pass judgment; it will not people the good and naughty lists. It can describe how such populations are peopled and maintained. And it can describe the processes by which new populations, new peoples, might be enticed to arise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.