One gets a clue regarding the status of the capitalist subject in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987: 457-458) where the downside of capitalism is put in clearer perspective than in Anti-Oedipus (where capital is depicted as a gigantic “body-without-organs” to which “desiring-machines” attach themselves intermittently, at different points – something that lends itself to an interpretation of consumers drawing on the giant dynamo of capital in diverse acts of consumption).

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari argue that, while the modern state has taken the subjection of people further than ever before by means of technological development, it is capitalism that has radicalised subjection, by taking it beyond the slavery and serfdom of previous ages to the subjection of the “naked” or (ironically) “free” worker of capitalism. They point out (p457) that “capitalists” and “proletarians” are both subjectified in terms of the flows of capital, that is, constituted by capital as subjects, but the former are “subjects of enunciation [that is, speaking subjects] that form the private subjectivity of capital”, and the latter “subjects of the statement [that is, ‘spoken subjects’, at the receiving end of capitalist discourse], subjected to the technical machines in which constant capital is effectuated”.

Subjectification and subjection are flipsides of the same process, but the workers and the consumers, as the ones being “spoken” in a capitalist universe, are infinitely worse off than the capitalists. This is especially apparent from Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of the relation between consumers and the new informational or “cybernetic” machines, of which humans as consumers are said to be “constituent parts” (p458), instead of merely users. Here a new kind of enslavement, concomitant with subjection, enters the picture. While it may appear as if “consumers” such as television audiences are in the privileged position of “speaking subjects” of enunciation – after all, are the programmes not designed specially for them (that is, “by” their tastes)? – they are already, according to Deleuze and Guattari, beyond that, in the position of being “component pieces” of a production process of information-exchange. It seems that the field of “schizophrenic” capitalist production is not exempt from repression and subjection – on the contrary.

The subject of capitalism, according to my reading of Deleuze and Guattari, is therefore in an ambivalent position. Like all subjects for them, it is “peripheral” to what are the most fundamental “elements” of their ontology, namely, desiring-machines. It is as if the subject is the shadow of the flows of desire produced by the desiring-machines on the “recording surface” of the body without organs. As such, the “subject” is nothing as self-identical as the “ego”, and “identity” only enters the picture, in my reading, with the “body without organs” – the “undifferentiated object” that comes into view when desiring-production stops intermittently, before resuming again. The (seductive) illusion of Oedipal “identity” arises when one confuses the product of one’s desire with desire as a process. The subject, to the degree that it may be apprehended at all, floats like a shadow alongside of desiring-producing, desiring machines, such as ears, mouths, tongues, eyes, hands, arms, penises, vaginas, brain-function (that is, minds), and so on.

What is different about the subject of capitalism, then? To be sure, given the way that capitalist production, according to Deleuze and Guattari, exacerbates productive flows, this subject would remain in the position of being a kind of appendix to the processes involved, garnering pleasure with each act of consumption that simultaneously marks its intermittent, ephemeral genesis. That is the one, “schizophrenically” productive (and enjoyable) side of the capitalist subject, the other side corresponding with Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the repressive agencies that prevent capitalism from ever attaining the schizophrenic limit that it strives to actualise.

Here the subject is constantly subjectivised (that is, constituted) as subject of capitalism, either as “capitalist”, or as “worker/consumer”, the latter two positions also marking the site(s) of subjection. In sum, whether one is in the commanding position of the “capitalist” (who “speaks”), or in that of the worker/consumer – and capitalists are also intermittently consumers, such as when they watch television – the subject of capitalism shares in the ambivalence of capitalism itself, being productive and subjected (repressed) at the same time. Because it occupies this position, it lends itself, no less than other subjects, to the liberating effects of what Deleuze and Guattari call “schizoanalysis”, which works by the motto (firstly), to destroy all vestiges of (Oedipal) ego-repression through “deterritorialisation”, and (secondly), in the process, to free schizoid desiring-production optimally (Anti-Oedipus 1983: 310-382).

It is interesting to note that in Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari (1983: 366) attribute a revolutionary function to schizoanalysis, to wit, a “schizoid revolutionary pole”, which is distinct from its opposite pole of “libidinal investment”, namely “the paranoiac, reactionary, and fascisizing pole”. In their discussion that follows, it is apparent that schizoanalysis leads, along this trajectory, to the overthrow of (a certain kind of) power, which would exhibit, in varying degrees, the structure of “fascism”. Their observation (p367) is telling, that the “fascisizing pole” of libidinal investment is “defined by subjugated groups”, while the “schizoid revolutionary pole” is marked “by subject groups”.

They grant that this distinction is still problematical (the schizoid investment could prove to be utopian, instead of being capable of “real[ly]” investing the “sociohistorical field”), but their intent should be clear: schizoanalysis is conceived of as overthrowing the social and psychic shackles that all kinds of “territorialisations” and “(re-)codings” of social life imposes on people, subjugating them to the weight of some or other “body without organs” or anaesthetising “identification”, from the tentacles of bureaucracy and overt political totalitarianism to an ostensibly “free market system” which ensnares and subjugates people no less through the mechanisms that are inseparable from it. One may understand Deleuze and Guattari as saying that the subject’s “freedom” comes at the price of intermittent, fleeting moments of “identification”, which are constantly subjected to new acts of schizoanalytic destruction of these would-be, potential “identities” – liberating the subject’s desire in the process. Needless to say, their stance on this has implications for revolutionary political praxis, too.

The tension at the heart of capitalism can be expressed in different terms, as Žižek does in Violence (2009: 67-68) where he points to one of the “dangers” inherent in this hegemonic economic system. On the one hand, as a global phenomenon, it encompasses the world, and yet, ” … it sustains a strictu sensu ‘worldless’ ideological constellation, depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful cognitive mapping”. “Capitalism”, he goes on to say, “is the first socio-economic order which detotalises meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’ … capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations … ) … ” Its global aspect, which Žižek thinks of along the lines of what Lacan calls the (inaccessible) “real”, would correspond to the abstract level of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of perpetual capitalist “flows”. On the other hand, what they conceive of as the repressive face of capitalism via impersonal bureaucracies and laws, is consonant with the “detotalisation” of meaning that is capitalism’s shadow

This is an excerpt from my paper, “The subject: Deleuze-Guattari and/or Lacan (in the time of capitalism)?” which is forthcoming in Janus Head (Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts).


  • 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.


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...

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