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Desire, democracy and Deleuze/Guattari

Escaping for a while from the suffocating Turkish summer in a beautifully carpeted teashop in Istanbul near the Hagia Sophia, we marvel at the unbelievable flows of energy exuded by one of the most vibrant and variegated cities in the world. It is as if every nook and cranny of this metropolis of 13-million people has been harnessed to capture the attention of visitors, and, of course, their dollars or euros. Istanbul makes Johannesburg look tame, and seems to exemplify the process of energy-flows described by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus.

Deleuze/Guattari encourage us to stop thinking substantialistically, as if the world comprises discrete entities, unconnected to one another. Following the thinking of Spinoza, and more recently Bergson, their world is one of perpetual process, where entities and individuals are the illusory productions of flows of desire. What we think of as a concrete individual is a concatenation of what they call desiring machines — eyes, noses, ears, tongues, hands, sexual organs, organs for excretion, and so on.

At any given moment, desiring machines are linked to one another — the hand picks up a teacup, the nose smells the tea aroma, the eyes see its brownish colour — according to the law of binarity, and this extends in all directions, so that multiple connections between desiring machines extend rhizomatically everywhere. The illusion of existing things and individuals arises when a third event interrupts binary couplings: for a moment, intermittently, when flows of desire are interrupted by other such flows (when the eye is attracted by a beautiful woman walking past, and the tea-sipping stops temporarily), and something resembling identity is produced. An undifferentiated thing, seemingly unchanged through time.

They call this illusory entity the body-without-organs, which is unproductive, but itself produced by flows of desire. What Deleuze/Guattari describe here is a process-conception of the world, which is accurate when one is able to suspend all the usual prejudices that construct the world as a collection of objects and bodies. The latter are experienced, after all, in a series of events, all of which are a function of need or desire, but which are endowed with attributes of permanence. (In physics, too, the illusion of things is replaced with the notion of the world as a totality of perpetually transforming energy.)

Interestingly, Deleuze/Guattari see capital as exacerbating the process nature of reality, in so far as it is constantly striving to set free the productive flows of every possible domain of experience. It can only do this by “deterritorialising” these domains — breaking them into different desiring machines, the way that speculators unbundle large unwieldy companies and sell each part for profit, before the parts start functioning again by unleashing new flows of productive desire.

However, capital can only do this in so far as its deterritorialising strategy is matched by the reterritorialisation of society by state bureaucracies and laws which prevent society from collapsing into pure exchanges of energy. Workers and consumers bear the brunt of such an alternating process. They are colonised, first by capital transforming their own desires into exchange value, and secondly, by bureaucracies and laws which restrict the avenues of their flows of desire.

But perhaps the richest hermeneutic potential of Deleuze/Guattari’s process-ontology of desiring-production lies in the political domain, specifically in the understanding of democracy. If democracy is always “still to come” (Derrida), it means that the “deterritorialisation” of the body politic — the breaking up of dormant, torpid political bodies-without-organs, and the liberation of democratic potential in the form of flows of desire — is an urgent imperative, lest the truly democratic potential bound up in torpid representational structures remain untapped forever.

What happened on Tahrir Square recently exemplifies such a setting-free of the desiring-production process of deterritorialisation. By their refusal, even, of elected leaders (which would enable their adversaries to force the process into stagnation), the protesters were able to conduct democracy along the avenues of Deleuze/Guattari’s flows of desiring-production: grouping and regrouping in different configurations from day to day, thus unleashing the democratic power inherent in people considered as concatenations of desiring machines.

By refusing so-called “representative democracy”, with its inherent tendency towards manipulation of the populace, and construing the body politic as an aggregate of desiring machines, the flows of democratising desire can be harnessed against the forces of political and economic repression.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.