EME 15 (1) pp. 55–72 Intellect Limited 2016
Explorations in Media EcologyVolume 15 Number 1
© 2016 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/eme.15.1.55_1
University of Cincinnati
Grand Valley State University
The authors argue that Gilles Deleuze can be read as a media ecologist, extending many insights of Marshall McLuhan’s including the idea that the medium is the message, that the content of any medium is another medium, and that media extend and alter human faculties. Yet since McLuhan preferred to write in axioms and probes, Deleuze provides a more robust theorizing of these issues. Specifically, Deleuze advances on McLuhan by providing a more complex notion of media as assemblages, avoiding the dilemmas of technological determinism, by developing a more robust way of under-standing affect and desire, away from McLuhan’s notion of sensory ratios, and by establishing power and ethics as central concerns, against McLuhan’s primarily descriptive scholarly approach. We conclude that Deleuze thus illustrates the continu-ing relevance of McLuhan’s foundational work, yet his advances on McLuhan offer many prospects for improving the study of media from a media ecological perspective.
The vast corpus of Gilles Deleuze has recently found significant uptake inthe wide world of critical theory. The corpus’ sheer volume helps explainthis widespread interest, since Deleuze theorizes on issues relevant to a broad diversity of topics of central concern for critical scholars such as power,desire and affect. Furthermore Deleuze’s concepts, such as smooth and stri-ated space, deterritorialization, control society, the rhizome, the molar andmolecular, the refrain, and machinic assemblages, seem particularly relevantfor today’s postmodern capitalism and digital media age. Arguing that this isthe proper role for the philosopher, Deleuze seeks to develop concepts thatmight spark new ways of thinking. As such, Deleuze frequently borrows fromand refines concepts from other thinkers, especially those either ignored orexcluded from mainstream western philosophizing such as, in the twentiethcentury, Alfred North Whitehead, Gilbert Simondon, Paul Virilio and William James. Tracing Deleuze’s intellectual heritage further into the past, Todd May(2005: 26), one of his most lucid interpreters, elucidates how Baruch Spinoza,Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche represent the Christ, Father and Holy Ghost of Deleuze’s thinking.
In this article, we would like to add another theorist to this list of Deleuze’s forebears – Marshall McLuhan. This is perhaps a surprising addition since, unlike these other theorists, Deleuze’s references to McLuhan are sporadic and brief. Nevertheless we argue that Deleuze can be envisioned as a proper heir of McLuhan’s, that is, as a media scholar with an ecological perspec-tive. This is, of course, not an exclusive claim, since Deleuze is also concerned with many issues not directly relevant to communication media, at least in McLuhan’s conceptualization. Yet many of Deleuze’s concepts have relevance for media studies, and his theorization often proceeds from insights originally developed by McLuhan including, as we illustrate in the first section below, the idea that the medium is the message, that the content of any medium is another medium, and that media extend and alter human faculties.
Despite these shared insights, Deleuze develops a more rigorous and complex theoretical perspective than McLuhan, who preferred to write in axioms and probes designed to innervate thought, rather than elaborate an entire framework. As such, we also make a second major claim, namely that as a media ecological scholar Deleuze refines and advances McLuhan’s initial explorations. Deleuze does so in three ways, thereby fine-tuning McLuhan’sthoughts in ways that mitigate some significant criticisms. First, Deleuze defines the hazy concept ‘media’ with a turn towards ‘machinic assemblage’, addressing the widespread indictment of McLuhan for technological deter-minism. Second, although both Deleuze and McLuhan recognize that media generate different affects and hence desires, Deleuze provides a more exten-sive understanding of affect and desire that grounds and warrants McLuhan’s, at times, hasty proclamations. Finally, Deleuze directs attention to power and ethics, issues that McLuhan only briefly touches upon and that, due to their submerged role, risk turning McLuhan’s scholarship into a purely descrip-tive and hence politically debilitating enterprise, as evidenced by McLuhan’s work as a consultant for advertising firms. In sum, we argue that Deleuze, as an heir of McLuhan, takes up the work of his forebear in ways consistent with a media ecological perspective but in a manner that greatly advances that perspective.
Media and assemlages in McLuhan and Deleuze
Although Deleuze prefers the label ‘philosopher’, one can envision Deleuze as a media theorist in much the same vein as McLuhan. For one example,Deleuze’s (1995) description of the transition from disciplinary to control society relies upon the shift from analogue to digital technics, and his (Deleuzeand Parnet 2002: 112–15) distinction, borrowed from Henri Bergson, between the actual and the virtual gains enhanced relevance with the onset of the digital age. Furthermore, Deleuze’s canon includes works explicitly focusing on cinema (1986, 1989), the art of Francis Bacon (2005), and The Logic of Sense (1990), in which Deleuze theorizes sense as the faculty with one side turned towards actuality (the thing or the state of affairs) and the other turned towards the proposition. In Deleuze’s (1990: 22) words, sense is ‘exactly the bound-ary between proposition and things’, and, in McLuhan’s language, we could see this boundary as a medium, which, for McLuhan, extends and translates human senses. Indeed, in Cinema 1, Deleuze (1986: 7–8) sounds a note similar to McLuhan’s emphasis on media as extensions of human faculties when he remarks that cinema is ‘the organ for perfecting the new reality’, an ‘essentialfactor’ in a ‘new way of thinking’, or when he and Félix Guattari (1987: 61) write, ‘The hand as a general form of content is extended in tools….’
Deleuze is often concerned with other media topics discussed by McLuhan, such as language, music, literature and, especially, different types of space. In addition, many of Deleuze’s major concepts hold direct relevance for the study of media. Peter Zhang (2011) has illustrated how Deleuze’s notions of striated versus smooth space map onto McLuhan’s distinction between acous-tic and visual space, a distinction Stanley Cavell (2003) portrays as central to McLuhan’s corpus. The connection is not lost on Deleuze, who makes positive remarks about McLuhan and other media scholars such as Lewis Mumford and Paul Virilio.1 Although Deleuze rarely uses the term ‘media’, preferring to discuss assemblages, modes and machines, his use of these terms remains consonant with McLuhan’s emphasis on media, since both are concerned with how different modes of thought, perception, language, affection and action shape society. D. N. Rodowick, one of the best interpreters of Deleuze’s cinema work, thus describes Deleuze’s fundamental task as to ‘understand the specific set of formal possibilities – modes of envisioning and represent-ing, of seeing and saying – historically available to different cultures at differ-ent times’ (1997: 5).
McLuhan, on the other hand, may seem more narrowly focused on media than Deleuze, especially since his chapter headings in Understanding Media (1964) are all different media technologies such as movies and television. Such a seemingly narrow focus has led to many criticisms of McLuhan’s supposed technological determinism. Yet careful consideration of McLuhan’s work reveals a broader focus than media alone since McLuhan is also concerned with the interfacing of culture with media, something that Deleuze’s terms machine, assemblage, and modes point towards. Indeed, McLuhan’s (1967: 159) later work frequently employs the concept of modes, stressing that the study of media is the study of modes: ‘All that remains to study are the media themselves, as forms, as modes ever creating the new assumptions and hence new objectives’. McLuhan’s use of the term modes resonates with Deleuze’s, indicating their shared concern about how culture interfaces with media. As McLuhan states, ‘Vivisective inspection of all modes of our own inner-outer individual-social lives makes us acutely sensitive to all inter-cultural and inter-media experience’ (1969: 64). Here, McLuhan under-stands modes as the manner of interfacing with media, as things that make us sensitive to inter-cultural and inter-media experience. This quotation seems to make clear, then, that McLuhan understands modes as liminal, in-between media and culture, just as Deleuze’s conceptualization of modes, assemblages and machines understands human experience as a coupling of media andculture, of human faculties and technology. A focus on how culture inter-faces with media denies the frequent accusations of McLuhan’s technologicaldeterminism. Like Deleuze, McLuhan is well aware that, to generate an effect,a medium first needs to be taken up by a social matrix.
Although the accusations of technological determinism may be based in a less than generous read, they remain a necessary cautionary note and their existence is far from surprising. McLuhan’s predilection for axioms and probes, part of a writing style he saw as an adaptation to an electronic media environment, produces claims that may seem, to the more deliberate scholar, to be overstatement, hyperbole, or a gross generalization. Take ‘the medium is the message’. McLuhan’s famous axiom seems to dismiss any socio-cultural effects from message content. Other statements supporting this axiom seem to confirm this extreme position, such as when McLuhan remarks that ‘the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’, or when he earlier claims that the assembly line altered our ‘relations to one another and to ourselves’, and it ‘mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs’ (1964: 24, 23). The automobile certainly had a major impact on society, and elsewhere in the same work McLuhan treats things like the wheel, the bicycle, and the airplane as media, seeming to contradict his earlier dismissal since, with Cadillacs, the content of the assembly line is another technological medium.
Yet, despite his hyperbolic style, McLuhan’s basic claim that media intro-duce changes of scale, pace or pattern into human affairs remains undeniable. Furthermore, McLuhan’s notion of medium at least points towards a more complex understanding than just the material technology. Indeed, it is McLuhan (1964: 23) who first recognizes that the content of one medium is ‘always another medium’, such as in our assembly line and Cadillac example. If media shape human affairs, and the content of a medium is always another medium, then McLuhan’s position on the effects of media form versus their content is more complex than the accusations of technological determinism entail. The warnings against a simple and direct technological causation should be heeded, but McLuhan can be read more generously without infer-ring such a notion of causation.
In fact, we can see McLuhan’s axioms and probes as the first volley, necessary to shake free some encrusted biases towards content analysis, and Deleuze's work as the more sustained ground strokes. Deleuze and Guattari(1983: 240) cite McLuhan’s realization that the content of one medium is another medium approvingly, in their extended criticism of Saussurian linguis-tics’ emphasis on the signifier. Whereas Saussurian linguistics stresses content(the signifiers, which mean only in relation), ‘the significance of McLuhan’ analysis’ is to have shown the import of ‘decoded flows, as opposed to a signifier that strangles and overcodes the flows’. They continue:
In the first place, for non-signifying language anything will do: whether it be phonic, graphic, gestural, etc., no flow is privileged in this language, which remains indifferent to its substance or its support, inasmuch as the latter is an amorphous continuum… (A) substance is said to be formed when a flow enters into a relationship with another flow, such that the first defines a content and the second, an expression. The deterritorialized flows of content and expression are in a state of conjunc-tion or reciprocal precondition that constitutes figures as the ultimate units of both content and expression. These figures do not derive from a signifier nor are they even signs as minimal elements of the signifier; they are non-signs, or rather non-signifying signs, point-signs having several dimensions, flow-breaks or schizzes that form images through their coming together in a whole, but that do not maintain any identity when they pass from one whole to another. Hence the figures… are in no way ‘figurative’; they become figurative only in a particular constellation that dissolves in order to be replaced by another one. Three million points per second transmitted by television, only a few of which are retained.
Some elucidation is necessary, since Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical vocabulary is quite different from McLuhan’s. Basically, Deleuze and Guattari argue, against linguistics, that content does not determine or ‘overcode’ the communication. In other words, similar to McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message, Deleuze, and Guattari stress that the signifier is not what is signifi-cant. The quotation begins by calling attention to media besides language –non-signifying languages – and, based in their understanding of machinic assemblages, calls attention to the flows that compose these languages, like the flows of gestures, graphics, and sounds on television. They are argu-ing that we cannot understand all media communication on the model of language, as Deleuze also concludes in his cinema books. Instead of the dialectical linguistic model based upon signifier-signified relations, they draw upon Louis Hjelmselv’s four-part model, which recognizes a substance and form of a content and an expression. A substance (say a television show) is formed when the flows of content (the gestures and sounds and images) and the flows of expression (the video camera and the editing, cuts and montage)are combined. The form is the arrangement and structuring of the substance; on a television show, the form is the order of the shots and the linkages between them. Hence why Deleuze and Guattari cite McLuhan’s recognition that the content of any medium is another medium; the content of a television programme is the flows of gestures, sounds, and images. Only combined with the flows of expression (the televisual flow, its camera, and editing techniques), does a figure or a whole (something with both substance and form) emerge.
This four-part model emphasizing couplings or combinations lead Deleuze and Guattari to refer to what McLuhan would call the medium with the term-machinic assemblage. Drawing on the insight that the content of any mediumis another medium, Deleuze and Guattari prefer to describe this media coupling as an assemblage. This assemblage is machinic in the sense that it works like any machine, combining flows and breaks into a whole operation. As Deleuze and Guattari explain,
An organ machine is plugged into an energy-source machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it… For every organ-machine, an energy-machine: all the time, flows and interruptions.
Lest the reference to breast feeding leads us astray, think of television again. There are flows of gestures, images and sounds that are interrupted or broken by the television camera, through such devices as editing and montage. The coupling of the two produces the whole, a machinic assemblage.
As the last line of the quotation above indicates, the assemblage and its machinic couplings do not end here but have another component, another break – the viewer, who sees only a few figures from the three million points per second transmitted. At this level, the content of the television programme (the flows of light) become coupled with the viewer’s senses to constitute a new assemblage, one that may evoke significance and affect. Once again, in this assemblage the content of one medium is another medium; indeed, what was once the flow of expression (the tele-visual flow) now becomes the flow of content that the viewer’s sensory system processes into expression, into figuration. In other words, the expression (the figures perceived) only emerge from the tele-visual flow, which only emerges from the flows of gesture, image and sound and their coupling by the camera and in the editing booth.
This notion of humans plugging into other machines to become machinic assemblages seems consonant with McLuhan’s idea of media as extensions, such as the wheels and the accelerator of a car being extensions of our feet. As McLuhan (1964: 272) remarks about television, ‘With TV, the viewer is the screen. He is bombarded with light impulses that James Joyce called the “Charge of the Light Brigade” that imbues his “soulskin with subconscious inklings”’. Shortly thereafter, McLuhan continues, further illustrating his like-mindedness with Deleuze and Guattari: ‘The TV image offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these, he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image’ (1964: 273).
The existence of the machinic assemblage (or what McLuhan would call medium) of television means both that the dialectical signifier-signified model is inadequate to understand media, with their non-signifying semiotics, and that this model must be expanded to include both content and expression. Precisely because the content of any medium is another medium, precisely because all media are machinic assemblages, we must pay attention to the coupling of content and expression, of flows and breaks, not simply to the linguistic content alone, the chain of signifiers that so occupies Saussurian linguists and rhetorical critics. Recognition of assemblages of content and expression also means that a linguistic model that only addresses content (signifiers) cannot adequately describe the production of communication and, as we will see, desire in the social. Asking what signifiers are present on tele- vision, for instance, misses the sensory intimacy of the televisual experience, which McLuhan describes as ‘cool’. This intimacy can explain why Nixon flops on television while Kennedy soars, whereas attention to their string of signifiers offers no insight (as the radio listeners who thought Nixon won this famous debate attest).
Indeed, this televisual intimacy has dramatically transformed political discourse, which now prefers the cool stylings of a Reagan and Clinton to the hot Nixon or McCain, which now demands political oratory characterized by sound-bytes, narrative form, and self-disclosure that Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1990) deems the ‘effeminate style’. In politics, television has certainly been the‘message’; the change in content can only be explained by consideration of the media constituting the social environment since, considered apart from their machinic assemblages, political signifiers lack significance. With John McCain and Barack Obama equally and fervently appealing to the American Dream, for instance, consideration of only their signifiers cannot account for the vast differences in affect and desire innervated by the coupling of those signifiers (and images and gestures) into a televisual assemblage. Obama emerged as the preferable figure in this media environment. This is not to discount party loyalty, ideology or other factors for causing some voters to prefer McCain but only to say that Obama crafted the more attractive televisual image.
Shifting the critical focus from the content to assemblage entails examin-ing the perceptual and affective aspects of media experience. In other words, it is not so much because of their content (since the content is mostly full of repetitive, generic promises anyway) but because of how they feel and seem that some politicians make better images for television. Thus McLuhan bases his claims about how television has changed politics on an explanation of the viewing experience. To do so, McLuhan depicts the tele-visual experience as a primarily tactile perception, one innervating a syn-aesthetic affect. In this depiction, McLuhan offers a typically eccentric notion of tactility, closer to what people mean when they say they were touched by art. As McLuhan (1964: 67) remarks, ‘It begins to be evident that “touch” is not skin but the interplay of the senses, and keeping in touch or getting in touch is a matter of a fruitful meeting of the senses, of sight translated into sound and sound into movement, and taste and smell’. Since the television image is profoundly participatory and in-depth, it touches viewers by causing a sort of synaes-thetic interplay among the senses. The cool medium of television involves the viewer in the image construction, engaging an in-depth interplay of all the senses. McLuhan states, ‘The TV image requires each instant that we “close” the spaces in the mesh by a convulsive, sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses, rather than the isolated contact of skin and object’ (1964: 273). For McLuhan, we are ‘touched’ by the televisual image, affected by flows of sight and sound to not only see and hear but to feel and think.
Needless to say, McLuhan often brings on criticisms of technological determinism with such claims. Indeed, unlike Deleuze who describes differ-ent regimes of the cinematic image, McLuhan treats television and cinema as distinct media with dissimilar image qualities. To do so, McLuhan (1964: 273) must dismiss anything like high-definition television as simply not television: ‘Nor would “improved” TV be television. The TV image is now a mosaic mesh of light and dark spots, which a movie shot never is, even when the quality of the movie image is very poor’. McLuhan’s argument here is defensive and belies the history of cinema and television, including the advance of technol-ogy and the evolution of image forms, readily apparent from today’s perspec-tive. In contrast, Deleuze’s emphasis on assemblages allows him to recognize different cinematic images, some of which are closer to McLuhan’s depiction of television than cinema. For instance, Deleuze (1989: 6, 59–64) describes the moments in musicals where characters break into song as pure sonsigns. Pure sonsigns are part of the time-image regime in cinema, which presents a moment in time directly, like a musical performance the audience pres-ently enjoys (instead of a representation of a musical performance that the characters enjoy). These sonsigns are participatory, involving and non-linear, possessing the same characteristics that McLuhan attributes to the televisual image.
Lest we wander off into an extended discussion of Deleuze’s cinema theory, let us summarize the conclusions of this section. Deleuze and McLuhan shared a concern with media, directing our attention to media and away from the content focus of early media studies and linguistics. Deleuze presents an advance over McLuhan, however, by conceiving media as a machinic assemblage, the coupling of flows and their interruptions. Conceiving media as assemblages helps avoid some of McLuhan’s more totalizing claims about media considered as stable categories, claims often evoking accusations of technological determination. The assemblage concept is more nuanced than simple technological determinism, and, as we will see, leads directly into a more developed theory of affect and desire, whose basic precepts can be unearthed in McLuhan’s writings. Again, however, Deleuze provides the theoretical backing for McLuhan’s probes, spelling out in more detail the scholarly task – to perform a mapping of assemblages and their modes.
Affect and desire in McLuhan and Deleuze
Affect and desire remain consistent concerns shared by Deleuze and McLuhan, concerns pointed to by McLuhan and further developed in Deleuze’s work. To illustrate these concerns for McLuhan, let’s stick with television. McLuhan (1964) seems distinctly concerned with how media alter cultural attractions and desires, claiming that, among other effects, television led to preferences for cool stars like Ed Sullivan, for skin diving and the wraparound spaces of small cars, for westerns and their ‘varied and rough textures’, for the beat-nik sensibility, for football over baseball, and for different forms of fashion, literature, music, poetry and painting. The warrant for each of these claims is basically the same. Television is low-definition, fragmented and disconnected, requiring images that are iconic and in-depth. Such images demand a high-level of audience participation to complete, and therefore creates attractions to cool, participatory forms and qualities that allow viewers to participate in their construction. For instance, viewers must interpret a cool, rounded, diverse character instead of being directly shown how to understand an easily classifiable character. Football is a collaborative, in-depth sport whereas base-ball is mano-y-mano, an individualized challenge of batter versus pitcher. Yet, setting aside the correctness of these claims, the point here is that McLuhan remains primarily concerned with how media spawn differences in cultural attraction and desire.
Furthermore, at least with television, McLuhan attributes these changes in attraction and desire to alterations in experiential sensation, which Deleuze will describe as affects. In other words, both McLuhan and Deleuze understand desire as a production of affects that are enjoyable. Media become desirable because they produce affects such as fear, surprise and joy that ‘touch’ audiences. Such a view sees desire as a surface phenomenon, rather than resorting to a depth explanation as does psychoanalysis, which relates desire to some more fundamental longing such as the desire to mend the split in subjectivity from the entrance into the symbolic, or as a representative of the Oedipus myth. Both McLuhan and Deleuze and Guattari (1983) stridently criticize psychoanalysis, faulting it for, in part, ignoring mediated experience. Psychoanalysis must focus on content to portray it as a representation of some more fundamental desire, thereby dismissing the production of affect as irrelevant at best or at worst as a cover for this somehow more real source of desire. In contrast, Deleuze, Guattari and McLuhan conceive desire as machinic production that generates pleasurable affects. Such a conceptualization requires no deep mystery – unlike in psychoanalysis, which often reads in a compelling manner but tends to lack any empirical support (how do we know the Oedipus myth is fundamental, universal?) – and instead allows the scholar to focus directly on media and their affect-laden experience.
Yet while McLuhan senses that media spark affects that thereby alter desires, Deleuze provides further theoretical refinement of affect and desire. Following Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari (1987: xvi) define affect as the body’s ability to affect and be affected. Affect designates a pre-personal, embodied intensity experienced in the transition from one state to another. Affect accompanies and provides the texture for all of experience. At particularly sharp moments, we experience it as a spark or shock (see Jenkins 2014) but it persists throughout lived experience regardless of its degree of intensity. Affects are thus pre-conscious, continuous flows of intensity that accompany experience. As pre-conscious, they take place before their cognitive processing into the separate sensory channels – I saw this, or I heard this. In this sense, affects are like the synaesthetic touch depicted by Deleuze and McLuhan alike. As one of Deleuze’s interpreters and translators, Brian Massumi, explains, ‘Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in … the actually existing, particular things that embody them’ (2002: 35, original emphasis).
As intensities, affects are the flip side of the extensions McLuhan associates with media. That is, affects are the experienced impingements that rebound onto the mind-body from its mediated extensions. Without using the term affect, McLuhan evinces a similar conceptualization, especially in his retelling of the Narcissus myth. McLuhan (1964: 51) argues that Narcissus did not fall in love with himself but instead mistook the image in the water for another person. This is because Narcissus indicates a state of narcosis or numbness, and self-love does not evoke such affects. Instead, Narcissus experienced a shock from the extension of himself that he mistakes for another person, and that shock sparks a physiological response of numbness, similar to battle shock or auto-amputation. As McLuhan explains,
We speak of ‘wanting to jump out of my skin’ or of ‘going out of my mind,’ being ‘driven batty’ or ‘flipping my lid’… In the physical stress of super stimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function.
Thus Narcissus’ narcosis is a defence mechanism, and McLuhan perceives a similar defensive numbness in response to electronic media that extend central nervous systems. Just as Narcissus responds with shock and numbness to seeing himself extended, extending central nervous systems exposes and makes vulnerable that system, thereby inducing a similar narcosis. This numbness is a particularly strong affect (intensity) resultant from the mediated extension, one with potentially dire results according to McLuhan. In shock, we risk mistaking media as something other than ourselves extended and hence become ‘servo-mechanisms’ of technology (McLuhan 1964: 55). Such surrendering of ‘our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves’ leaves us without ‘any rights left’, McLuhan (1964: 73) continues. Thus for McLuhan awareness is the solution to narcosis, ‘As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin pirouette and collapse’ (1964: 73, original emphasis).
McLuhan describes such affects via reference to sensory ratios. He contends that when one sense faculty (like vision) is super stimulated, human beings respond with narcosis, unable to perceive their mediated environment. Television stresses the sense of touch to such an extent that cultural desires alter in favour of the tactile and participatory. Thus McLuhan bases his ontology upon and begins with a pre-organized human body, with certain sensory faculties whose ratios are re-ordered by media. Such a perspective often leaves readers wondering how McLuhan knows these changes are effected, such as in the television examples above. The equation that television is a tactile medium and thus evokes tactile desires seems too simple, and reduces tactility (and vision, hearing, etc.) to a single mode. In contrast, Deleuze, following Spinoza, begins with an ‘I do not know’, one more open to differences and the vast possibilities of becoming. Thus Deleuze repeatedly quotes the famous passage from Spinoza that reads, ‘Nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do’ (1992: 105).
Instead of beginning with an organized body, with particular sense organs and their faculties, Deleuze starts with the Body without Organs (BwO). The BwO is the unorganized body, prior to its extensions and couplings in machinic assemblages, the body conceived as a glutinous mass of potential rather than a solid substance and form. Deleuze thus often compares the BwO to an egg, a soup of undifferentiated cells prior to its organization into limbs, organs, and the like. From the perspective of the BwO, the body only has potential affects, virtual affects, affects as yet unactualized into various assemblages. Massumi offers one of the clearest explanations:
Call each of the body’s different vibratory regions a ‘zone of intensity.’ Look at the zone of intensity from the point of view of the actions it produces. From that perspective, call it an ‘organ’… Imagine the body in suspended animation: intensity = 0. Call that the ‘body without organs’…. Think of the body without organs as the body outside any determinate state, poised for any action in its repertory; this is the body from the point of view of its potential, or virtuality.
Where as McLuhan begins from bodies presumed to be structured by certain sensory organs, Deleuze begins from the BwO and asks how the body becomes organized through various machinic assemblages. Such a perspec-tive allows Deleuze to recognize difference, to leave open the possibility for a wide variety of becomings. Rather than a visual medium necessarily producing visual ratios, affects and desires, beginning with the BwO allows scholars to recognize becomings where an eye is not just an eye, an ear not just an ear, a hand not just a hand. Massumi (1992: 93–94) offers the example of a man who wishes to become a dog who wears shoes, only to discover that, walking on all fours, he has no hand left to tie the final shoe. The man employs his mouth-as-hand, tying the shoes with his teeth, in the process of becoming this strange monster. This example may seem to lie at quite a remove from media studies, yet it is only by beginning with an ontology that conceives the body as a pool of liquid potential, rather than a pre-organized sensory apparatus, that scholars can account for the differences in the translations and actualizations of media form, such as the shift from movement-images to time-images in the cinema. McLuhan’s ontology requires that he envision cinema as singular, a highly visual and hot medium, rather than recognizing the potential for cinema to become otherwise, to become aural, or tactile, or many other admixtures of percept, affect and cognition.
Beginning with this different ontology beckons a different scholarly gesture, especially with regard to affect. In his work on Spinoza, Deleuze describes this different scholarly gesture as an ethology. An ethology does not describe bodies according to their form, function, or organs, as does McLuhan, but according to their modes, that is, their manners of becoming, their capacities to affect and be affected. As Deleuze remarks, ‘Every reader of Spinoza knows that for him bodies and minds are not substances or subjects, but modes’ (1988: 123–24). Bodies are thus not bundles of sensory ratios but capabilities or capacities, such as the capacity of the hand to act like an eye. Such a perspective precludes McLuhan’s gesture, which confidently predicts the effects and affects of the senses, but instead presumes difference and that we do not know what a body can become in different combinations or assemblages. The scholarly gesture changes because bodies are not conceived of as organizations of form but as complex relations with other bodies, as assemblages, or as modes, those manners in which these relations become organ-zed. As a result, the scholar sees life differently. Thus Deleuze writes,
Concretely, if you define bodies and thoughts as capacities for affecting and being affected, many things change. You will define an animal, or a human being, not by its form, its organs and its functions, and not as a subject either; you will define it by the affects of which it is capable. (1988: 124)
Deleuze’s advance upon, and difference from, McLuhan’s implicit notion of affect does not end here, however. Again following Spinoza, Deleuze also gives us clues into how modes produce different affects. Modes produce affect in two primary ways, by composing a relation of speed and slowness and by composing a relation between affective capacities. In Deleuze’s terms, ‘For concretely, a mode is a complex relation of speed and slowness, in the body but also in thought, and it is a capacity for affecting or being affected, pertaining to the body or to thought’ (1988: 124). Deleuze employs the example of music to describe the relations of speed and slowness. Beginning from form and substance, one can describe a musical piece as composed of notes, arranged in a particular order. Yet such a perspective misses something fundamental in music – the rhythm and tempo. The same order and notes can produce widely variant songs based upon the speed of the playing. As Deleuze (1988: 123) explains:
The important thing is to understand life… not as a form … but as a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles… In the same way, a musical form will depend on a complex relation between speeds and slowness of sound particles. It is not just a matter of music but of how to live: it is by speed and slowness that one slips in among things, that one connects with something else. One never commences; one never has a tabula rasa; one slips in, enters in the middle; one takes up or lays down rhythms.
Ethology first of all studies relations of speed and slowness, organized via modes. Second, ethology asks how the modes relate different capacities for affect. Deleuze often employs the example of the wasp and orchid, conceived collectively as an assemblage. The wasp’s capacity to fly, to smell, and to gather pollen combines with the orchid’s capacity to flower, to produce pollen, and to emit scents. In combination, the orchid reproduces and the wasp feeds, forming a complex assemblage that studying either the wasp or orchid in isolation would miss. To return to a media example, HBO employs television’s capacity for home broadcast and episodic organization combined with cinema’s capacity for high production value and epic narrative to produce many shows that are closer to McLuhan’s depiction of cinema, yet that still take place in private, intimate locales and via the lower-definition television screen. With these shows, we have a hybrid becoming of cinema and television, a cinema made for television, that shapes different modes of production (such as elongated narratives told episodically) and consumption (40-minute viewings without commercial interruptions).
In this sense, Deleuze’s conceptualization of assemblages, modes and affect is fundamentally based upon an ecological perspective, just as McLuhan repeatedly beckons for ecological thinking about media. For the media scholar, each such modal relation, each assemblage, must be mapped independently, rather than reduced to global categories such as cinema or television as McLuhan is wont to do, since each relation of speed and slowness has, to quote Deleuze, its own ‘amplitudes, thresholds…, and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them’ and since each relation of affective capacities remains unique due to ‘circumstances, and the way in which these capacities for being affected are filled’ (1988: 125–26).
Deleuze depicts these two functions of modes as a longitude (speed and slowness) and a latitude (affective capacities). Ethology entails depicting these longitudes and latitudes, drawing a map of the embodied modes as they actualize from virtual potential of the BwO. Ethology constitutes a major theoretical advance over McLuhan’s earlier probes, although one with many similarities to McLuhan’s thinking. Primarily, the advance occurs because the theory of modes and affect are more open to flexibility, becoming and the acknowledgment of difference. Instead of a pre-formed body with certain sensory ratios, beginning with the BwO allows scholars to recognize a wide variety of virtual potentials whose becomings offer more possibilities than McLuhan’s static understandings entail. Furthermore, conceiving modes as manners of relating speed and slowness and of relating affective capacities backs away from McLuhan’s more general and totalizing claims about media forms, such as television or cinema, considered as whole and static. Doing so allows us to better understand the transformations of media over time, as television becomes cinema and cinema becomes television and they both become some-thing else. This is especially important in a digital age, which has created the capacity for any content to be translated across a wide variety of mediums. Ethology also entails a final advance over McLuhan because it offers not only a prescription for a scholarly approach but also an outline of an ethics.
Ethics and Power in McLuhan and Deleuze
The practice of ethology is based in an ethics that offers guidelines for becomings in process, not a morality that proffers proscriptions from above. According to Spinoza, an ethical becoming or mode is one that produces joy and heals whereas an unethical becoming produces sadness and illness. Similar modes (say, drug use or a certain sexual practice) may be ethical for some and unethical for others depending on the situation, illustrating why ethology constitutes an ethics and not a morality. Besides providing this criterion for discerning ethical versus unethical modes, the ontology behind ethology represents an ethical gesture, in part by rejecting the imperializing and totalizing gesture of morality. As Deleuze elucidates:
Spinoza’s ethics has nothing to do with a morality; he conceives it as an ethology, that is, as a composition of fast and slow speeds, of capacities for affecting and being affected on this plane of immanence. This is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does; you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or a mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination.
By starting with an ‘I do not know’ about the body-mind instead of a confident and imperializing ontology of what the body-mind can do, ethology constitutes an ethical gesture because it remains open to difference and to the possibility of things becoming otherwise. Doing so also demands that the scholar begins in the middle, amidst embodied experience and its assemblages, rather than passing moral judgement and attempting, through force of word or often law, to make worldly actualities fit into those boxes. Ethology, then, offers guidance for a mode of living, one that begins in the middle and asks what new modes can be thought and produced which might spread love instead of hate, might heal instead of make ill, might produce happiness instead of sadness.
Thus ontology and ethics fuse into ethology in Deleuze in a way perhaps best described as an interology. The ethics of ethology is entirely Other-oriented, since it is based in an ontology that rests on percept and affect. Per this ontology, the becomings of humankind are no longer finished but radically open-ended. It is a matter of what assemblages or environments take him up, what assemblages or environments he is capable of being taken up by, what Others – human or non-human – he enters into composition with. To live in an intensive mode means to have a good encounter, to compose a good interality, to be taken up by a good assemblage, to unblock life so the mind-body can do what it is capable of doing – affecting and being affected, so it can enter into composition with what suits its nature, or what affirms its elan vital (roughly, life force).
What makes humankind virtuous is precisely our radical unfinishedness, our affinity, affectability, versatility, empower-ability, extendibility, composition-ability, or assemble-ability. Horseman-armour-lance-entourage-land makes a knight assemblage, which embodies the social posture of chivalry and courtly love. Archer-bow-arrow-mark-air-distance-gravity forms either a Zen assemblage of self-cultivation and satori or an assemblage of hunting or belligerence. Fiddler-violin-serenade-night-window forms a courtship assemblage. To live an ethical life entails switching from a ‘to be’ mode to an ‘and… and… and…’ mode, that is to say, from a subject orientation to an assemblage orientation, from ontology to interology, from being to becoming.
When we imagine humans as machinic assemblages, ‘I’m watching TV’ no longer makes sense because TV is me at this moment. The person-remote-TV-couch assemblage is my mode of being, which means I’m not in another mode of being. When I multitask, e.g., when I drive a Penske on the super-highway while listening to the news on radio plus some music on MP3 and also having a phone conversation with someone who’s trying to follow the vehicle I’m operating, I’ve composed a busy and dangerous assemblage, and invented a schizophrenic mode of being, which is nothing like the mode I’min when I’m meditating while washing dishes. Neither assemblage is evil but one is potentially bad and the other good. Bull fighting and petting your dog involve two very different assemblages (spectators form an important element of the former) and two very different modes of being, which should not be conflated as ‘interacting with animals’. The one catalyses the bull-becoming of the bullfighter, whereas the other catalyses the pet-becoming of the one who pets. This is not to deny the possibility of fighting the bull in a petting mode –bringing the two assemblages together makes possible a strange becoming.‘I’ am capable of doing very different things depending on whether I’m in the ‘Penske and…’ assemblage or the dishes-water-meditation assemblage. As such, ‘I’ is more a function of the assemblage than the organizer of it.
While McLuhan occasionally seems concerned with ethics, as in the earlier quotation about becoming servomechanisms of media, or in his promotion of art and games as anti-environments indispensable for awareness and survival, more often than not McLuhan’s project remains descriptive, assiduously avoiding issues of power. The chapter on TV in Understanding Media (1964), for example, speaks of TV as a new cultural ground that reconfigures people’s tastes. It is not, however, interested in the fact that many parents leave their children in front of the TV set not by choice but out of economic necessity. If there is an ethics in McLuhan, for the most part it remains implicit and ambivalent, to be derived by the readers for themselves. The telos of McLuhan’s explorations is laid bare in the title, Laws of Media: The New Science (1988). The subtitle gives it away; although McLuhan subtilizes what he means by ‘science’ so it is synonymous with what Vico means by ‘poetic wisdom’, it is nevertheless a descriptive enterprise, rather than an explicitly ethical and creative one. If there is an ethics in McLuhan, it is a power-blind ethics that ends with understanding – like the artist, the critic’s role is to promote under-standing so we can change course. Thus the scholar’s task becomes merely descriptive, an attempt to promote understanding. Yet this purely descriptive enterprise is surprisingly humanist and elides power, since it fails to attend to the assemblages of understanding and description, including the scholar’s role in regimes of power. In short, McLuhan fails to comprehend power-knowledge as a machinic assemblage, one that enables and disables certain forms of understanding, description and awareness.
This descriptive project leaves McLuhan without a politics or ethics, unlike Deleuze who makes these concerns front and central. For instance, McLuhan (1964: 199) contends that ‘the Gutenberg technology and literacy… created the first classless society in the world’. For ‘[t]he highest income cannot liberate a North American from his “middle-class” life. The lowest income gives everybody a considerable piece of the same middle-class existence’ (McLuhan 1964: 199). The way McLuhan (1969: 140) sees it, Marxists were thus wholly misguided because they did not understand the media environment: ‘The Marxists spent their lives trying to promote a theory after the reality had been achieved. What they called the class struggle was a spectre of the old feudalism in their rear-view mirror’. Sociological realities of the time and of the present day strictly deny McLuhan’s claims, and ignoring the realities of economic inequality and oppression leaves any critical philosophy without an ethical and political grounding. Consider, in contrast, Deleuze’s treatment of class and capitalism. Deleuze, with Guattari, ponders how people can desire fascism, and calls for a close examination of power in connection with desire, thus extending Marx’s work. In A Thousand Plateaus (1987), while promoting nomadism as an ethical posture for the multitudes, he and Guattari also suggest that capitalism itself has operated as a nomad war machine that betrays and dominates society. In Anti-Oedipus, just before the extended quotation above with the reference to McLuhan, Deleuze and Guattari (1983: 240) point out: ‘Capitalism is profoundly illiterate’. Following a non-linear, acoustic, disor-ganized organizational pattern, capitalism has made of the world a smooth space for itself, a control society for the multitudes, and a miserable place for millions of people.
In short, Deleuze is directly concerned with power and ethics, and this concern represents his final advance over McLuhan, one that is necessary to make any revived media ecological scholarship critical and relevant to the challenges facing our world. Deleuze’s concern with power is evident in the tonality of his concepts, such as striated space, smooth space and the control society, as distinguished from McLuhan’s descriptive, apolitical terms, such as visual space, acoustic space and the global village. McLuhan describes visual and acoustic spaces as products of media, whereas Deleuze understands them as elements of assemblages that can always break down or reverse into the opposite. While McLuhan says the phonetic alphabet and print media create visual space, Deleuze recognizes that ‘visual space’ can come in a wide variety of assemblages, or arrangements of power. This notion of McLuhan’s there-fore makes a ‘badly analysed composite’ since it is too homogenized, too inattentive to the multifaceted, heterogeneous assemblages of media and power. Thus Deleuze suggests that we use the analytically more rigorous ‘striated’ and ‘smooth’ spaces, the implication being that a visual space can be striated or smooth depending on the actual assemblage. For example, McLuhan would say that the cityscape of Manhattan, having been rationally laid out, makes a visual space, and that electronic media turn it into an acoustic space, an echo chamber, Time Square being an arch example. Deleuze would say that the grid-like cityscape of Manhattan enacts state power and makes a striated space typical of a disciplinary society, which is behind us. Disney World better represents the new spaces of control society, giving people the semblance of freedom within a framework in which space and time are regulated in a far more intricate way so it makes a striated space typical of a control society.
In short, McLuhan tends to depict social changes as exclusively the prod-uct of media, leaving little influence for the changes that come with differ-ent power dynamics. Visual space does not necessarily create unawareness and oppression anymore than acoustic space creates community. Instead, for Deleuze, any becoming is always a risky operation. What promises to be a breakthrough may turn out to be a breakdown. A line of becoming may end up being a line of micro-fascism. These are concerns starkly missing in McLuhan. Although McLuhan recognizes, in Laws of Media, that media often reverse into their opposites, his inattention to the interaction of media and power leads him to downplay these possibilities. Likewise, McLuhan seems unconcerned with alternatives that might develop new ways of thinking or new tactics for resistance. If power is the result of changes in media, then attacking or resisting power is a misguided effort. Seeing power and media as a more complex assemblage, following Deleuze, entails a different scholarly and ethical task.
Deleuze’s analytics of power encompasses and entails a poetics of active power, which is synonymous with the techné of life, or the practice of the self as an ego-less, non-organic, machinic assemblage. It inspires us to imagine resistance as none other than the affirmation of elan vital, the mapping of lines of flight, the invention of new possibilities of life – an active operation that betokens the innocence of becoming. As such, resistance precedes (reactive) power (which striates the life world and blocks becoming). It is self-defeating to imagine resistance as derivative of, as a reaction against, (reactive) power. The telos of resistance is the free spirit, one that inhabits striated spaces in an imperceptible, smooth mode, that accomplishes becomings regardless of control, that opens up conditions for different becomings.
As a result, the (ethical) task for the scholar radically shifts in the move from McLuhan to Deleuze. McLuhan primarily envisions his role as providing a descriptive account of the media environment in order to raise awareness that might provide a better social map, a role he compares to that of the artist. For Deleuze, in contrast, the scholarly task does not end with mapping but must include a creative gesture, must seek to create new concepts for thinking new modes of existence. Basically, he asks: in a late capitalist or a control society, how do we make becoming otherwise possible? In contrast, McLuhan’s faith in awareness as solution smacks of a naïve humanism impossible to adopt in Deleuze’s interology and ironic given McLuhan’s simultaneous call for ecological thinking. The ethical and hence scholarly task remains not just to analyse media or machinic environments so that we have a better under-standing, since this very notion of understanding elides what mode of under-standing, what assemblage of knowledge this understanding finds uptake in. As Deleuze surely ascertained from Foucault, knowledge is only ever existent in an assemblage with power, power/knowledge. Thus following a Deleuzian ethology, the ethical and scholarly task becomes creative as well as descriptive – to invent new concepts fruitful for different modes and different assemblages. Much of McLuhan’s work contributes to this creative fruiting of concepts, yet by ending with the descriptive and downplaying the issues of power and ethics, McLuhan remains an insufficient precursor to Deleuze’s more robust and elaborated alternative.
Although scholarship on McLuhan and Deleuze has been proliferating, efforts to render visible the implicit resonances between the two are still scanty. This article has been called forth by this gap. We have suggested that Deleuze can be read as an heir of McLuhan, as likewise a theorist of media guided by ecological thinking. Yet our understanding is that Deleuze has been inspired by McLuhan but not constrained by him. Instead, Deleuze always transforms McLuhan’s insights even as he uses them. If McLuhan is poetic, provocative, and full of potentials, Deleuze allows those potentials to come to fruition with his rigorous theorizing. Among all the resonances that can possibly be articulated, we have foregrounded three closely interconnected ones that are restated below.
First, McLuhan’s understanding of media as extensions of humans often treads near the trap of technological determinism, despite McLuhan’s more complex understanding of media as ground and formal cause. McLuhan’s suggestive, heuristic style of writing only aggravates the situation. Deleuze absorbs the thrust of McLuhan’s understanding but completely reverses the point of departure. His notion of machinic assemblage is no longer human or technologically centered, giving no determining priority to either. Rather, the assemblage comes first. Second, whereas McLuhan coaches us to attend to percept and affect and shifts in people’s taste by bringing into focus the human-technology interface, Deleuze enables us to home in on issues of desire since his machinic assemblage is also a desiring machine, a plane of immanence in which desire is produced and circulated. McLuhan lacks the rigorous theorizing of desire and affect developed in Deleuze, based in the uplifting Spinozan notion of affect as a matter of affecting and being affected.
Third, Deleuze’s notion of assemblage also entails an ethics – one that is based on ethology and interology – and an understanding of and posture towards power. To be ethical means to care about what assemblages to enter into, to organize one’s encounters, to map out new possibilities of life, to enhance one’s capacity to affect and be affected. In McLuhan’s work, the concern with ethics is implicit and ambivalent, and issues of power are elided, as required by his pseudo-scientific and descriptive scholarly endeavour. In contrast, Deleuze calls the scholar to the creative task of creating new concepts for thinking new, healthy modes of life.
Lastly, we’d like to reiterate that Deleuze’s ontology is an open ontology, an interology, one that befits the radically unfinished form of life known as humans. If the point of philosophizing is to contribute adequate concepts, then Deleuze has transformed a whole volley of McLuhan’s suggestive, ethically ambivalent probes into concepts and ethical precepts useful for understanding – and perhaps changing – the mediated environment in which we all float.
1. In Anti Oedipus,Deleuze and Guattaricite favorablyMcLuhan’s insight thatthe content of anymedium is anothermedium (Deleuze andGuattari 1983: 240–41).For references toMumford, see Deleuzeand Guattari 1987: 428,457. For references toVirilio, see Deleuze andGuattari 1987: 231, 345,395–96, 480, 520–21
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Explorations in Media Ecology,15: 1, pp. 55–72,doi: 10.1386/eme.15.1.55_1
Eric S. Jenkins is Assistant Professor of Communication at the Universityof Cincinnati. He is author of Special Affects: Cinema, Animation, and theTranslation of Consumer Culture as well as numerous articles in national andinternational journals. His research focuses on the interaction of media andconsumerism.
Contact: 144-A McMicken Hall, 2700 Campus Way, Cincinnati, OH 45219,USA
Peter Zhang is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Grand ValleyState University. He is author of a series of articles on media ecology, rhetoric,Deleuze, Zen and interality. He has guest edited a special section of China Media Research and guest coedited two special sections of EME. Currently heis spearheading a second collective project on interality.
Contact: LSH 290, 1 Campus Dr, Allendale, MI 49401, USA.
Eric Jenkins and Peter Zhang have asserted their right under the Copyright,Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the authors of this work inthe format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.
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