Rowman and Littlefield International

Félix Guattari on Our Machinic Futures


Published on Monday 21 May 2018 by Gary Genosko

In the mid-1960s French philosopher Félix Guattari’s original intuition about machines was that they exposed the relationship between subjectivity and desire by introducing disequilibria into structural relations. Machines introduced an impure element into an otherwise pure, abstract, objective, and movement-less domain.

“Machines introduced an impure element into an otherwise pure, abstract, objective, and movement-less domain.”

Getting structure to wobble exposed its effects on subjectivity and allowed Guattari to begin to untangle his complex relationship with structuralism. The large-scale loosening of the subject from structure takes an event on the order of a profound and audacious historical moment, perhaps on the order of the emerging world of artificial intelligence and the effects it will have on our mental, physical, and social worlds.

Guattari’s conception of machines expanded into an evolutionary phylum containing numerous kinds of devices, some abstract, some mechanical, a range of which obsolesce and are replaced, while others stall and later restart at some point. As the phylum assumes the role of creative historical force, and its rhizomatically assembled objects, processes, and diagrams, possess the power to manufacture subjectivities.

A machine is at its simplest just a component that connects with another component or not, that sits at the switching point between what came before and what might develop

"A machine is at its simplest just a component that connects with another component or not, that sits at the switching point between what came before and what might develop."

The production of subjectivity becomes more and more artificial. The urgency of the matter is underlined by Guattari with reference to the information revolution, which is the strand on the phylum where the real stakes are. For Guattari, relations of a human subject with alterity must account for the impact of a machinic, non-human enunciation: the enunciation of the non-human and the performativity of platform, algorithm, companion robot, and wearable. 

Subjectivity establishes itself by taking the complex interactions between the molecular and molar scales as opportunities for realizing autonomy.  This is not merely happening at the level of personal choice, but before and beyond the category of person. Social and technical machines impinge upon processes of subjectivity and arrive from everywhere and at all times.

Machines have the capacity to both subjugate and liberate subjectivity as an individual and collective phenomenon, crossed by any number of processes and corporeal and incorporeal, non-human components. In spite of the risks of subjugation by a homogenizing mass media and neo-liberal info-capitalism, the very thing that Guattari thought gave some hope were new alliances with machines. 

We can see the subject-machine connection in Guattari’s strategy of talking about machinic ecology. This is ecology for a machinic subject. The unity of biosphere and mechanosphere meant for him that that biological life, including human being, is involved in the vast techno-informatic infrastructures in the era of planetary computerization and the IT and AI revolutions. Subjectivity is thus dependent on machinic phyla (telecommunications; synthetics; new temporalities brought about by increasing processing capacities; and biogenetic engineering of life forms) and engenders itself with machinic components from ipods to iris scans.

Although Guattari was an early cyber-enthusiast, he understood that its promises were easily corrupted by the intrusion of corporate mediocrity into the medium at every level, as he had witnessed with the free radio and television movements in France, Italy and elsewhere. Post-media promised a number of key innovations: personal programming through media convergence; a new kind of literacy in a post-linear communicational paradigm characterized by hypertext and the interactions of multiple users; redefinitions of producers and users as mutually dependent creators who were neither public nor private; unanticipated social practices arising from the use of new information technologies; and a call for a critical media education program arising from the distortions of  big news. He thought that miniaturization was a way for capital to equip individuals with devices that would manage their perceptions by plugging them into strands of the machinic phylum concerned with consumer electronics, making them crazy for self-medicated highs of the kind that come from games, scrollable knowledge, and updates. This drug of wired consumerism inserts subjectivity into incorporeal networks sometimes requiring detox by disconnection. The courage to unplug became for Guattari a kind of ethical necessity.

“Although Guattari was an early cyber-enthusiast, he understood that its promises were easily corrupted by the intrusion of corporate mediocrity into the medium at every level …”

Machinic subjects swim in the heaving technomateriality of the infoverse, swiping bank cards, texting children, posting holiday photos, shopping online, conversing with artificial devices. Guattari understood that the technical and material substrate of information did not require meaning. His vision of post-meaning tells us that what makes info-networked life work are signals and not so much signs. Moreover, Guattari’s lesson is to appreciate how sticky affects accumulate around brandished plastic cards, mobile phones, laptops, and soon, companion androids. Yet one is not merely tributary of specifically battle-hardened hardware and software, but always on the lookout for opportunities for dissident subjectivity’s drawing of new diagrams that exceed the pre-programmed encodings of user manuals, at unforeseen points along the silicon face our expanding machinic kingdom.