Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Travels through Schizoville

On a recent trip to the Netherlands we had a first-hand experience of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari mean when they claim that the typical “malady” of today is schizophrenia — what Ian Buchanan calls “an everyday schizophrenia in which the absurd is simply ‘how things are’ ”.

Once you have been alerted to it, it’s not difficult to perceive it in the guise of multiple absurdities around you, and overseas travel is particularly conducive to the manifestation of such absurdities. First there is the matter of air fares. Anyone who would argue that the supply and demand system of capitalism is rational, needs his or her head read, as it were, considering that air fares quoted by travel agents fluctuate, not merely from day to day, but from hour to hour, if not minute to minute. This incessant fluctuation of price is itself schizophrenic in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, particularly in light of the fact that “airport security” now accounts for about half of an air ticket’s price.

Then, to be able to travel overseas as a South African, one requires a visa for the majority of countries. When South Africa finally became a so-called “democracy” in 1994 we were told that we had become part of the “free world” again. Free world my foot. We can hardly go anywhere “freely”. And to add insult to injury, if you live in Port Elizabeth, as I do, you have to travel about 780 kilometres to Cape Town on our dangerous roads, or spend a hefty amount on air fare, to visit a consulate for an “interview”, to be able to get a visa, which costs you more. The fact that most people accept this absurd practice as a matter of course, and would offer “rational” explanations for its necessity (framed in terms of “security”, no doubt) confirms the schizo-nature of our world.

When you embark on your journey by entering what Manuel Castells calls the “space of flows” you have to steel yourself against the proliferation of absurdities. This is nowhere more apparent than when you enter the security area at airports. On our way back from Holland we encountered, for the first time, the “latest” electronic security cubicle, installed at Schiphol Airport by the ever-efficient Dutch. Unlike the older contraption, which looks like a gate of sorts that you have to walk through once you have taken off your watch, belt, shoes, emptied your pockets, etc, this circular “cubicle” has to be entered, and once inside, you have to raise your arms while standing with your feet on the indicated marks, waiting for the machine to scan your entire body.

Nothing absurd about that, most people would respond — the world is full of cranks and terrorists who have to be smoked out, as it were, and you just have to bear with it. The absurdity of the situation is highlighted by the banter the security personnel sometimes engage in with you. (Not always; it depends, I guess, on whether they have a sense of humour, and this differs from country to country — the Dutch certainly have a good sense of humour, and of the absurd.) On this occasion the joking was about whether tooth fillings, or the pacemakers that some people have buried in their chests, would set off the alarm. The humour serves, of course, to deflect the suppressed knowledge that we don’t live in a “free” world; quite the opposite, in fact.

If, in the interest of buying tickets at the most “competitive” prices, you have been booked on an airline like Emirates or Qatar, and you have to spend some time in a terminal at Dubai or Doha, the absurdities pile up even more. Before landing you watch a promotional video about the kind of “shopper’s paradise” that awaits you in these cities, while not an inkling of the suffering that has gone into their construction is revealed. Think of the “kafala” law, in a country like Qatar, that compels workers from the Philippines and Indonesia to relinquish their passports on arrival, so that they are virtually kept captive for the duration of their contract, in addition to which the salary they were offered before arriving is drastically reduced. The absurdity here is that no so-called “democratic” country that I know of protests loudly about these patent “human-rights” abuses, nor about the fact that countries like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are undisguised autocracies — in the new terminal building at Dubai this is proudly proclaimed by referring to Dubai’s “ruler” in a history of Dubai printed on the wall.

Again, people would react by pointing out that I should respect the exigencies of “realpolitik” in the world — how can the UN, for instance, object to these blatant malpractices, if the whole world is dependent on the oil from these countries? See the absurdity? Let alone the fact that the playgrounds for the rich in Dubai and Qatar have been built on the extraction of fossil fuel that has catapulted the planet into an unprecedented, unfolding climate catastrophe. And yet, a city like Dubai is hailed as a “model 21st-century metropolis”. The schizophrenic absurdity is obvious: it should be called a “necropolis”.

I am not using the term “schizophrenia” in a clinical sense here. For Deleuze and Guattari it has to do with endless production of meanings, with no regard for coherence or symmetry, and they link it firmly with life under capitalism. They give one a pretty good idea of the relation between capital as a process and schizophrenia, and simultaneously explain the source of absurdities like the ones I have elaborated on above in terms of the tension between capital’s schizophrenising tendency and its need for laws and restrictions (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 1983: p34):

“The decoding of flows and the deterritorialisation of the socius … constitutes the most characteristic and the most important tendency of capitalism. It continually draws near to its limit, which is a genuinely schizophrenic limit. It tends, with all the strength at its command, to produce the schizo as the subject of the decoded flows on the body without organs — more capitalist than the capitalist and more proletarian than the proletariat. This tendency is being carried further and further, to the point that capitalism with all its flows may dispatch itself straight to the moon: we really haven’t seen anything yet! When we say that schizophrenia is our characteristic malady, the malady of our era, we do not merely mean to say that modern life drives people mad. It is not a question of a way of life, but of a process of production … nor is it merely a question of a simple parallelism, even though from the point of view of the failure of codes, such a parallelism is a much more precise formulation of the relationship between, for example, the phenomena of shifting of meaning in the case of schizophrenics and the mechanisms of ever increasing disharmony and discord at every level of industrial society.

“What we are really trying to say is that capitalism, through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear, but which nonetheless continues to act as capitalism’s limit. For capitalism constantly counteracts, constantly inhibits this inherent tendency while at the same time allowing it free rein; it continually seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit. Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families. That is what makes the ideology of capitalism ‘a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed’. The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.”

For more on this, see my paper: “The subject: Deleuze/Guattari or Lacan?” Phronimon, Journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and the Humanities, Vol. 15 (1), 2014, pp. 46-66.

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    • Richard

      But is this really an extrusion from capitalism? In the case of Saudi Arabia, is it not in fact the sensibilities of the Left obviating criticism, with the paradigm that every culture is the equal of every other culture? In other words, it is not possible to criticise other value-systems because they are the equal to every other value-system. So, for example, if in Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden from driving – something that would be illegal in the West, as it would contravene human rights legislation in most countries – that is considered an “own affair” within Islamic culture. This applies to Islamic communities within Western countries, too. Why else is it is acceptable, for instance, for women to wear the veil even when that may be forced upon them? Under the laws of the countries involved, this would not be acceptable in general, but is acceptable if the people involved profess another religion, or are from immigrant groups. This is considered normal to the populace, because it falls under the aegis of “non-racialism” and “sensitivity”. This has nothing to do with capitalism, but is certainly an example of the simple acceptance of “how things are”.

      With the advent of a shift to Leftist social organisation in the Western world (in the sense of more instances of representative government, the identification of nation with the people rather than the rulers, bills of rights, etc.) it appears that the need for social stability trumps all, possibly even…

    • Richard


    • Jon Low

      “When South Africa finally became a so-called “democracy” in 1994…”

      Good one! Were we a “so-called democracy” between 1910 and 1930? A small handful of black and brown men could actually still vote back then, although only in the Cape and Natal. But no woman could vote, whether white, black or brindled. People didn’t agonise awfully about the absolute disenfranchisement of females and declare that “democracy” was absent until they could vote.

    • Bill

      For your next article, I would like to see you explore the reasons WHY South Africans are now ‘Sans Visa Non Grata’ post ’94.

      Be thankful that the Dutch Security Personnel have a sense of humour, this is not common in security circles.

      I try to avoid the airlines that require spending many hours in the Dubai ‘Duty Free’, one usually has a choice in these matters. Often means a higher price, but ‘it is a price I am prepared to pay’.

      Sadly cannot understand the conflation of capitalism and schizophrenia, would not do well in your classes Prof.

    • baz

      Think the remote chance of foreign investment & improved relationship with the international tourists abroad has gone up in smoke !!!!

    • CatHeader

      Please, PLEASE find another word. Honestly, you do not have a right to take a genuine medical condition that seriously impacts the lives of millions of people and use it for your political theory. People with schizophrenia face terrifying amounts of societal stigma and financial insecurity, a large part of which is the result of widespread ignorance as to what schizophrenia actually is. When you take that word and you use it for something like this, you are making the world a little bit harder for the mentally ill community.

      We are not your props. We are not your toys. Stop stealing our language.

    • CatHeader

      Do you understand why calling someone ‘retarded’ when they do stupid or careless things is wrong? Do you understand why we teach schoolchildren not to tease other children by saying things like ‘you’re so gay, dude’? Do you acknowledge that using words that pertain to specific and vulnerable subsections of our community as metaphors for things you personally don’t like helps to create an extremely unwelcoming atmosphere to members of those communities?

    • Bert

      Richard, your comment reinforces the Deleuzian impression of a state of ‘schizophrenia’ in the extant world. Sure, the postmodern discourse of respecting alterity plays a role here too, but have you forgotten Fredric Jameson’s persuasive linking of the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ with the postmodern? Or Hardt and Negri’s remark, that the world market flourishes on difference? Or you could add another schizophrenizing comment, that global society is simply hypocritical by exempting the Arab countries from the ‘democratic’ standards they expect everyone else to uphold. Why has no country (that I know of) complained about evidence that workers employed in Qatar for the construction work needed for the 2022 World Cup (if I recall correctly) are treated harshly? I’m afraid the argument regarding ‘sensitivity’ for local cultural customs does not cut it – it is capitalism dictating priorities here. But it is no less part of the general schizophrenic social condition.

      Bill, I don’t think D & G ‘conflate’ capitalism and schizophrenia; the two are not identical, but capitalism promotes a set of schizophrenizing circumstances where every nook and cranny of human experience is subjected to the profit motive, no matter whether the different capitalist colonizations of the human life-world actually pull in opposite directions (promoting fitness and sugar-consumption together, e.g.). Think of Buchanan’s examples referred to in the earlier article (linked above)

    • Bert

      Catheader, words shift their meanings somewhat when used in different contexts. This context is Deleuze and Guattari’s widely recognized and RESPECTED charactreization of our own era as ‘schizophrenic’. If you don’t like it, read something else.

    • Richard

      @Bert, I had considered that, but in the most hyper-capitalist country of all, the USA, such sensitivities do not much exist. Perhaps that is because it is the font and arbiter of late capitalist culture, and like an absolute monarch, above the law. I also find it puzzling that there is, for instance, far more acceptance of the prevailing situation in Zimbabwe than there ever was of the old South Africa, even though sanctions against the latter had far greater economic impact globally. The exemption of economically-important Arabs from behavioural norms is certainly evident in London, where they race up and down Knightsbridge in cars with Arabic number-plates which are illegible, even though legibility of number-plates is a legal requirement. I suppose it is like a membrane: actions that affect the market are to be avoided, but sometimes they build enough pressure to burst the capitalist membrane.

    • GenaSap…

      Bert i do find your occasional drift back to undergraduate naiveté an enjoyable break from the more usual, almost platitudinous concoctions that proliferate. Your first excursion into this idea of a Schizo society as presented by Ian Buchanan was provocative and useful.

      Like some of your other critics though i find your almost pathological need to ‘blame Capitalism’ [whatever that word means] tediously trite. The outcome is that you are yourself demonstrating this ambivalent ambiguity for which you have appropriated, as a fashionable new ‘buzzie’, the word “schizophrenia”. The absurd is not a ‘new thing’ … consider for instance the ancient idea of a “confessional”, where one could [still] be forgiven for ‘sins’ [sometimes ghastly crimes] by making some simple reparation.

      And then your mutter in paragraph three about the hell of getting a visa to travel… why travel at all if it is such a hellish thing … the only way capitalism can be blamed for that is due to the propensity of civil servants to ‘sell’ passports to dodgy people who, for instance, blow up shopping centres in places like Nairobi… So that is presumably a capitalist endeavour?

      While on the subject of the Eastern Cape: You have a King who says he was born into the job and cannot be “fired”… so keep paying his salary and that of a 1000 other ‘Royals’… And we are a democratic republic of alleged equals ?… There’s schizophrenia for you without ‘capitalism’.

    • herrfrei

      M. “olivier”
      1. you have no right to insult the families of patients and patients as well to reinforce your political claims, from what one understands against arab countries.
      2 a quick check indicates that the one and only reasons citizens of south Africa are required to submit visa application is the extremely huigh rate of fraud executed by you and your country fellows against other countries.
      you are certainly welcome to read idiots, but you are invited not to take readers for your friends

    • Richard

      @Bert, I was also thinking about feminists’ refusal to condemn the subjugation of women in Islam by using relativist arguments. Many of these people are vehemently anti-capitalist.

    • Rene

      @Catheader: You seem to assume that there is no relationship between social circumstances and mental disorders. In fact there is a strong relationship – mental disorders are rooted in social conditions, and schizophrenia is no exception. If I were schizophrenic in a clinical sense I would feel better to know that the kind of society we live in contributed to my condition. Read Bert’s post on “Why it is important for our health to get rid of the neoliberal regime.”

    • Bert

      Thank you, Rene.

      Gena Sap – You have merely confirmed my (and Deleuze/Guattari, and Ian Buchanan’s) argument about the ‘schizophrenic’ nature of our social world.

      herrfrei – Read what Rene has commented, above. And the rest of what you wrote also confirms the impression of a ‘schizophrenic’ world.