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.


  • 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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