Brain Massumi’s preface to the Chinese translation of A Thousand Plateaus is work of art in itself. I reckon it would probably have saved me a few years trying to figure out some of the details in the book. I tried to read one of Massumi’s older articles called ‘Becoming Deleuzian’ but I was put off by his style of writing at the time. This article on the other hand is really clear. I wish I had seen this when I began my journey of reading ATP. As anyone one who has attempted knows, it is a bit like entering the rabbits hole in Alice in Wonderland. I really wish I had kept a list of all the texts that accompanied me along that journey, but at the time, the many references I followed up from the book were just a way of clarifying what Deleuze and Guattari were saying. Recently I have been trying to trace that journey back, and I came across this paper.
Massumi really gives you a ‘meta’ view of what Deleuze and Guattari were up to in that book. He starts with the philosophy practiced by the two authors. It is easy to get annoyed at the way that they wrote, but D&G were really ‘doing’ philosophy in an entirely new way. They spoke in a voice that was unlike the staid voice of university philosophy at the time. Massumi argues that D&G wanted to break philosophy out into the world:
Philosophy as Deleuze and Guattari practice it neither descriptive nor prescriptive. It is constructive.
Massumi shows how the creation of philosophical concepts turned into a form of conceptual art with D&G. Not concerned with engaging in a debate about the status of philosophy, they created new relations with non-philosophy to produce effects in the world with philosophy. Like the best artists, D&G stole their concepts from other disciplines such as anthropology, mathematics and music. Massumi points out that D&G never used those other disciplines as a source of support to give authority to confirm or validate what they are saying. It always bugs me when people start to question the argument made in ATP based on the validity of its cited sources, that was never the point.
What was the point then? Massumi argues that D&G use non-philosophical sources as a way of extracting ‘philosophical potential’ for another kind of project. They shape this potential ‘to lead in directions it could never have gone had it stayed where it started,’ where it would have remained trapped. The philosophical potential of concepts are freed so that it could go on to affect other lives and projects and join up with potentials of other concepts freed from the institutional captivity of their disciplines. D&G create transversal connections between concepts to form a ‘complex network of potential passages between spheres of activity at work in the world.’
What philosophy takes, it gives back, with a difference. Deleuze and Guattari call this freeing of travelling potential for making a difference in the world ‘deterritorialisation.’
Through their encounters with non-philosophy, D&G create new philosophical concepts. Massumi shows how the value of these new concepts can only be judged by the difference it makes in the world. This evaluation takes place in its events, it is a ‘lived judgement.’ An ethics which unfolds as opposed to morality which pre-judges. An ‘immanent critique’ acts from within the movement of the problem at hand,’ it is affirmative and participatory. What the lived experience of a concept does is what judges its utility.
Massumi argues that concepts contain tendencies, as these are relate back to the concept itself, they are self-referential. Concepts create difference in the world according to the tendencies it possesses. This view of the concept is used to tackle a common misreading of ATP—which is to mistake the text for empirical descriptions of things as they were in history to which they apply philosophical concepts. Massuimi says that D&G’s philosophy is ‘transhistorical’ because they were looking at tendencies—what concerns them is what these concepts were able to bring into being at certain moments of time. They were showing us how these concepts gave birth, or gave expression to certain historical transformations. For example, how certain conditions had given birth to nomadism in the societies of the Inner Asian Steppes. With the dates in the plateaus of ATP referring to dates when a tendency arrived in its highest degree in history.
According to Massumi, the philosophy practiced by D&G is speculative because they are proposing that these tendencies will carry forward into history and find new expressions in the people that will come to give birth to that concept in the future. The assemblage is the certain mode in which ‘a multiplicity of elements [will] come together in becoming and hold together in a dynamic unity of movement that makes a difference in history.’ Massumi makes these explanations of what the two authors were doing look easy, it’s stuff I have had a feel for, but never able to pin down exactly. He says that reading ATP is like a ‘performance of conceptual forces,’ this is definitely something that those of us who have read it as a group felt when we sat together to discuss sections of the book. Their concepts have had a profound affect on both my work and personal life over the few years that I have been reading the book. Massumi’s advice for readers of ATP is to participate in its conceptual performance:
To get the most out of the book, readers of A Thousand Plateaus must be willing to open themselves to the book’s performance of conceptual forces. Nothing, but nothing, comes of philosophy, unless its pragmatic sweep is allowed to wash through the reading experience. What this ‘means’ for the reader will co-vary. Only one thing is sure. It means taking the risk that the movement of philosophy will pass into your life and projects next, to new and unpredictable effect.
Brian Massumi, What Concepts Do: Preface to the Chinese Translation of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze Studies, Mar 2010, vol. 4, No. 1 : pp. 1-15