Within the pages of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative works recur images of the most unsettling kind. Writing of capital’s endless thirst for living labour, they remark that it “is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism” or the despotism of the vampire (AO 228). Of the State’s manufacture of pliable subjects they write that it “makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs them preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombielike” (ATP 425). Of their own virulent politics they demand that “we oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity, peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction. […] Bands, human or animal, proliferate by contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes. […] The vampire does not filiate, it infects” (ATP 241-2). For all their purported joyousness, and the assorted “vital materialisms” which today claim filiation from these dubious parents, the two volumes of Capitalism & Schizophrenia are undoubtable compendiums of darkness and terror.
And yet, it is apparent that Deleuze and Guattari’s most morbid imagery appears primarily in their most political statements: when they recall Marx’s account of capital’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” (1976, 367), when they revile the monstrosities of state subjugation, or when they posit a viral infiltration of the very arteries which feed state and capital alike. With this in mind, the object of this paper is to examine the radical politics of Deleuze and Guattari by way of their occulted images and monstrous figures. Specifically, and with reference to Margaret Cohen’s study of the phantasmic Marxisms of Walter Benjamin and André Breton, I wish to propose a “Gothic Marxist” approach to Deleuze and Guattari’s work.
The traits which Cohen identifies as typical of this proposed Gothic Marxism can be broken into three groups: firstly, “a notion of critique moving beyond logical argument and the binary opposition to a phantasmagorical staging more closely resembling psychoanalytic therapy” accompanied by an “appeal to the fissured subject of psychoanalysis to modify the conscious and rational subject dear to practical Marxism” (1993, 11; 6). Secondly, the emphasis upon a given “culture’s ghosts and phantasms as a significant and rich field of social production rather than a mirage to be dispelled,” in addition to “the valorization of a culture’s detritus and trivia as well as its strange and marginal practices” (1993, 11). And thirdly, the “valorization of the sensuousness of the visual” beyond the “accomplishment and/or figuration of rational demonstration” toward the goal of “the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities” suggested by Marx in The 1844 Manuscripts (Cohen 1993, 11-12; Marx 1992, 352).
In simpler terms we may put these three points like so:
(1) A mode of critique which does not merely correct falsehood with an apparent truth, but takes as its object the formations of desire which precede the rational subject and determine the beliefs which may rise to consciousness.
(2) The seeking out of the psychic and social underbellies of a given society, including an interest in the mundane, marginal, and forgotten elements which are often left unspoken or unacknowledged.
(3) A centring of aesthetics in the task of revealing the aforementioned libidinal structures of society and in either waking us from capitalism’s “dream-filled sleep” (Benjamin 1999, K1a,8) or else plunging us further into the phantasmagoria of late capitalism.
In what follows I will use Cohen’s formulation as a diagnostic to assess the possibility of a Gothic Marxism particular to the writings of Deleuze and Guattari. This reformulation of Deleuze and Guattari’s project as both Gothic and Marxist is not only an attempt to give answer to Cohen’s call for a rediscovery of the Gothic undercurrents of Marxist thought, but also an attempt to take seriously her positing of a Marxism which charts a path away from both Romantic idealism and Enlightenment rationalism. As I hope to make clear, the Gothic affix is not meant merely as an aesthetic qualifier—denoting a Marxism with spooky characteristics—but brings to the fore both the typical Gothic tropes of darkness and subterfuge which run through this radical tradition, and the critique of ideology and bourgeois subjectivity native to Gothic poetics itself.
I: Wars of Subjectivity
We shall begin with the most clearly Marxist component of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, namely the critique of capitalism, before moving on to the elements of that critique which set it apart from the methods of mainstream Marxism. For Marx as for Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism is defined by its “mobilizing and conjoining [of] flows of money and flows of labour” to produce a “radically transformative social system that is premised” on moments of breakdown and dissolution—what Deleuze and Guattari call “lines of flight” (Thoburn 2003, 29). As Nicholas Thoburn writes:
“The essence of capital is that it continually sets free its lines of flight—its mad scientists, its countercultures, its warmongers—in order to open new territories for exploitation. It is thus a perpetual process of setting and breaking limits” (2003, 29).
This is to say that capitalism functions like an ever-expanding machine, which simultaneously displaces its external limits while harnessing local crises, fluctuations, and disasters to slowly devour all that lies outside. To quote from Anti-Oedipus, this machine “can operate only by fits and starts, by grinding and breaking down, in spasms of minor explosions” (AO 151). As Deleuze and Guattari remark, “Marx’s black humor, the source of Capital, is his fascination with such a machine:” how it functions, how it codes and decodes captured flows of desiring-production, how it produces a class of owners to maintain its mechanisms (AO 373).
Working by fits and starts, capitalism produces, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, an “awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear,” but which nonetheless threatens to throw the entire system into a state of collapse (AO 34). This delirious acceleration operates not only on an economic or ecological level, as Marx had already made clear, but also on the level of the psychology of both individuals and groups. The critique of capital then hinges on this knowledge that the individuated subject is itself a product of psychic coagulation and privation, and that the mental travails of the private unconscious are overreached by the social on all sides. Within this system, writes Anne Sauvagnargues, “delirium no longer finds its depth in an individual origin, but flees instead, like a liquid pouring, seeping, and spilling into the entire social field” (2018, 89).
What is at stake in class struggle is then not only a matter of the socio-economic composition of class but the libidinal-material formation of subjectivity. As Guattari remarks, “one cannot understand the history of the workers’ movement if one refuses to see that, in certain periods, institutions of the labor movement have produced new types of subjectivity [in] veritable wars of subjectivity” (1996, 124). In writing Capitalism & Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari contribute to this struggle the critique of the modes of subjectivity available within the capitalist socius, and the querying of what it would mean “to place a liminal or ‘outlier’ subjectivity (whether it be of an artist, a mystic, or sorcerer) at the center of humanity” (Ramey 2012, 187). And so we move on to our second trait of Gothic Marxism: the uncovering and privileging of the marginal and the unspoken.
II: The Strangers Within
Writing of the stakes of historical thought, Walter Benjamin remarks that the task of the historical materialist is not to revive the past “the way it really was” but to seize a fragment of it that must be wrested “away from a conformism that is about to overpower it” (2007, 255). This seizure of tradition always happens by surprise and under pressure, in a moment of brief recognition which inverts the order of the day and reveals the barbarism hidden by the history of the victors. Similarly, for Deleuze and Guattari, what emerges from these cramped conditions is a form of minor creation which carves out its own space from within a major regime. Writing on this minor-politics in their book on Kafka, they state that to occupy a minor position is “to be a sort of stranger within” one’s own language—to move between its “distinct centers of power” and blur “what can be said and what can’t be said” (K 26).
The minor politics which inhabits these cramped spaces of culture is not to be confused with “a pluralist process of minority groups ‘speaking out’ [or] voicing an identity,” for the reason that a positive identity can only be outlined and reclaimed with deference to the major order of subjectivity and signifiance (Thoburn 2003, 20). In fact, Deleuze and Guattari go so far as to say that the people who would claim this minor position are missing, leaving all minor-politics without the closure of a fixed nation or identity. For this reason the minor is never merely a minority, but the process of becoming-minority, of being carved out from the population at large. As a floating signifier without a definable people, the Deleuzo-Guattarian minority is a kind of “proletarianised” mass, which like Marx’s proletariat is defined by its dislocation from economic and social stability and its ultimate goal of the abolition of self-identity (Sibertin-Blanc 2013, 244).
Like a “watch that is running fast,” minor-politics works not only to accelerate this process of escape from the powers that be, but also to anticipate the motions of “capitalist desire, fascist desire, bureaucratic desire,” or in a word: “Thanatos” (K 58-9). Echoing Benjamin’s remarks that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” so too do Deleuze and Guattari typify the position of the minor by its desperate fight against an enemy which lords over both the inheritance of past struggles and beckons toward a nightmarish future (Benjamin 2007, 255). To this end, art—and especially literature—takes on a new and urgent role.
III: The Delirium of Creation
As the voice of minor-politics, minor literature functions as what Deleuze and Guattari call a collective enunciation, which speaks not for an individual author or even a definable people, but for that negative space where individuation and identity break down. Rather than look to an authorial voice in literature to make sense of its meaning, Deleuze and Guattari insist that “there isn’t a subject” at its core able to hold the threads together: “there are only collective assemblages of enunciation” (K 18). Akin to what Anne Williams has called the “public dream” of Gothic horror, which disrupts and defamiliarises the language and ideology of the day, a collective enunciation speaks through the gaps of a major language to blast it apart (1995, 71). The delirium of the collective enunciation opens onto a crowd of new becomings, new compositions of subjectivity and society that are otherwise suppressed. As David Lapoujade writes:
“Only new deliria, new fabulations, make us believe again. That is why we must recreate the earth, bodies, languages, and memory, take molecular populations, packs, and bands as our starting point, and invent their schizophrenic genealogy” (2017, 309).
And so we return once again to the proliferating figures of horror and delirium in Deleuze and Guattari’s works, which do not speak to a simple aesthetic impulse toward the macabre, but set a dark and maddened aesthetics to work constructing images of a world outside this one. They pick from the pages of Kafka not only the becoming-minor but the becoming-animal, animals which put Kafka in contact with “underground intensities” which escape the forms thrust upon him by family, business, and state (K 13). From Virginia Woolf they quote Clarissa Dalloway’s insistence that she will never again say “I am this, I am that,” and seek to map out the becoming-woman which springs from his denial of simple womanhood, which is “capable of crossing and impregnating an entire social field, and of contaminating men, of sweeping them up in that becoming” (ATP 29, 276; Woolf 2000, 9). There are even becomings-imperceptible, of following a line of flight to the point where “there is no longer even any form—nothing but a pure abstract line” swept up in the inexpressible and unspoken flux of the world (ATP 197). Or in another direction, the subject is overrun by a swarm of becomings, as in the cosmic horror tales of H P Lovecraft where we discover the dread and ecstasy of an anomalous “multiplicity dwelling within us” (ATP 240).
IV: Another Damned Deleuze?
Having gestured toward the new conceptions of critique, subjectivity, and aesthetics presented in Deleuze and Guattari’s project and their overlap with Cohen’s Gothic Marxism, the question still remains: what is at stake in this re-reading? There are today whole schools of Deleuzianisms with their own canonical texts and sacred readings. There is a Joyous Deleuze and a Dark Deleuze, a Deleuze for the vitalist and a Deleuze for the materialist, we discover Deleuzes either democratic or hermetic, technocapitalist and environmentalist. Shall we add one more debased Deleuze to this list of factional pretenders? Perhaps, but only to clear the air of these presuppositions, and “escape the chapel choir of joy for the dark seclusion of the crypt,” where we may disinter another Deleuze so often hidden from prying eyes (Culp 2016, 2).
Counter to the many attempts to politically defang Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborative works, to make rhizomes into social networks and nomads into private military contractors, the current reading demands that we recognise the foundational place afforded to Marx throughout the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Following Fredric Jameson’s example, we must discover “to what degree the problematic of Deleuze includes the Marxian problematic and endorses Marxian problems and questions,” not so that we may add a Marxist Deleuze to our repertoire, but so that we may assess the validity of those Deleuzian formulations which conveniently ignore Marx’s constant presence (2009, 190).
What the Gothic prefix adds to this Marxist endeavour is a qualification of what exactly the Marxist problematic provides for Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy and in turn what Deleuze and Guattari’s own commitments do to this framework. Here we may return to Cohen’s formulation of the Gothic Marxism native to Benjamin and Breton, which couples psychoanalytic approaches to subjectivity with a Marxist awareness of the social constitution of the individualised psyche. Cohen writes that this Gothic Marxism aims “to break down the base-superstructure distinction with [an] appeal to libidinal forces permeating both,” and in this manner to fold the psychological and economic into a wider conception of the material forces which make up a society (1993, 6).
Similarly, writes Nicholas Thoburn, “Deleuze has no truck with a vulgar Marxist distinction between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, but rather he follows Marx into an immersion in the realm of the production of life—a production which is the plane of all of the processes, flows, and constraints of politics, economics, ideas, culture, desire, and so on” (2003, 11). In contrast to the post-Marxist shift away from questions of production, Deleuze and Guattari intensify that very question, and collapse the usual post-Marxist concerns for political culture and civil society into a widened understanding of desiring-production. For Deleuze and Guattari, the formation of political movements, the machineries of the state, and the circuits of capital always return to the “problem of desire, and desire is part of the infrastructure” (AO 104).
In this fusion of the libidinal and the economic, Deleuze and Guattari do not only tread the same ground covered by previous writers of this minor Marxist strain. Just as Marx before them deployed the vampire and werewolf as figures of capital’s ravenous thirst, and Benjamin adopted the personas of the flâneur and gambler to see capitalism from its darkest alleys, so too do Deleuze and Guattari populate their writings with figures of libidinal privation and predation: the zombie, the madman, the sorcerer, the packs of wolves and swarms of rats. This “Marxist Gothic” is one which, in David McNally’s words, “insists, amongst other things, on journeying through the night spaces of the capitalist underworld, on visiting the secret dungeons that harbour labouring bodies in pain” (2011, 138). Each figure, each hideous image, contains within it a reflection of the structures which cut through its body, the lines of escape which it charts, and the forces of libidinal production which form it as well as us.
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