Anti-Oedipus

Above: Cover of the first English edition of Anti-Oedipus from 1977. Credit: Fair use.

Reading Anti-Oedipus

Anti-Oedipus was initially published in French in 1972 and it was written through 1971, forty-seven years ago--nearly half a century ago. The weird thing about both the books in D&G's Capitalism and Schizophrenia series (the second volume was published in 1980) is that they are still persistently perceived as recent--the newest, wildest, and coolest chapter in critical theory. A more reasonable way of looking at both books is as historical artefacts which use hippie ideology and 1968-inspired boldness as fuel in the creation of a philosophy that is neither reductive or prescriptive. As Foucault clarified in his wonderful Introduction to Anti-Oedipus, it is not valid to read the book as "a flashy Hegel," meaning to interpret it as a totalizing philosophy. It is a fun book in that it is in part an intentional parody or satire of over-arching theories-of-everything. The literary attack throughout is to render every innovation, new term, or idea, rather confusingly: examples of the concept will be loaded-up with disturbing images, but it will never be defined in straightforward language--the authors follow Lacan in this regard. (Try Lacan's "The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis," for an example of his arch impenetrability.)

Deterritorialization, for example, maybe the most famous concept in Anti-Oedipus, is never defined once and for all, instead, tens, if not hundreds, of examples of deterritorialization/reterritorialization are offered up, but each of these examples has the timbre of a dream or a fleeting bizarre vision. D&G's literary attack is intentionally comparable to a schizophrenic's discourse--by turns: wild, intense, somewhat believable, whimsical, elaborate, astonishing, appalling, unbearable. (Guattari was a radical psychiatrist treating in-patients with severe mental-illness at a psychiatric hospital at the time of writing the book.) Foucault described Anti-Oedipus as a piece of art. The concepts proposed are above all a hippie-era antidote and riposte to the rigid and sanitized totalizing hyper-rational systems set out by Lacan, Saussure, Barthes, Marx (i.e., the liberal-intellectual orthodoxies of the day ... a.k.a. structuralism).

The theories of those thinkers are so up-tight and specific!! D&G offer a less rational philosophy in which desire, multiplicities and the unconscious are generally to the fore. The system they set out (such as it can actually be called one) is not really different in quality to, say, the elaborate exposition set out by Schreber (tested souls make mischief with the living humans using a range of agonizing techniques, etc.). That being the case, it would be somewhat idiotic to read Anti-Oedipus and try to schematize it as a serious philosophy--although there are many inspiring ideas and images in it.

On the other hand, D&G's basic point is absolutely serious: totalizing systems like Lacan's are rather distressing, and horrifying. If Lacan recognizes the force of the unconscious polymorphous mind then why is his schema so dry and dull? ? ? ? Lacan leaves no place for multiplicity, diversity, creativity. His system is a sort of intellectual totalitarianism. Schreber's system of filaments and the judge's body-without-organs is far more appealing in many ways. At least the schizophrenic's system attests to some sort of human creativity being essential and inviolable. Compared to Schreber, Lacan's system is harsh, uncreative, and above all, inflexible. We should not be looking for one super-schema that will be so true that it will come to dominate all intellectual thought. Totalizing is a crap approach to theory--or, as D&G set out, if you are going to have any such then it would be good if it were a system that invites-in and invites-on all-comers and all are welcome as long as the end purpose is sparkling creative innovations that narrate desire rather than reducing desire to scientific diagrams and insisting that these diagrams are fundamental to all humans.

For D&G the best philosophy is one that could never become a theory-of-everything because it is local, individual, unique, beautiful, but also horrifying (something like the last reel of a Fellini movie in which many characters emerge and interact; a sort of empowering human carnival). For D&G, we cannot get anywhere if desire is reduced to Lacan's schemas; and Marx is even worse since desire (as the force or narrative of the unconscious mind) is not even mentioned. We have to admit and celebrate difference, multiplicity, randomness, that is really the unbreakable point in D&G--just as it is in Derrida. Totalizing masculinist systems are flawed and doomed, and this is evidenced by the notable paucity of liberated, desiring humans that these systems have so far realized, created, or thrown off (yes, D&G are quite like Wilhelm Reich in this). The structuralists have set-up a set of strictures that are really a dead-end if the cause or movement is the cause of joy and living-in-the-moment (not nihilistically though). The only worthwhile purpose in philosophizing is setting in motion desire, desire that is alive and authentic for each now-liberated person.

(20 November 2018)