American Cartographies

I think I’ve written about this before—and if not on the blog, then at least on twitter—but one of the bits in A Thousand Plateaus that has fascinated me for years now is a footnote to the introduction (on the rhizome). It takes place in the context of a short discussion of America, identified as a “special case” where the distinctions dynamic unfolding of arborescence and rhizomatics undergoes a stark mutation. Development ceases to unfold in a linear, straight-forward manner, but becomes an affair of offshoots, splits, underground connections, and strange happenings. Literary logic alters and strives to overcome the European inheritance. Directionality itself transforms: “the search for arborescence and the return to the Old World occur in the East… [America] put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circles; its West is the edge of the East”.

In the foonote to this section, these insights become the means to identifying a geographical schema (geophilosophy = schizoanalysis) for the unfolding of American literary history. Referring to the literary critic Leslie Fielder and his work The Return of the Vanishing American, Deleuze and Guattari write

This book contains a fine analysis of geographical and its role in American mythology and literature, and of the reversal of directions. In the East, there was a search for a specifically American code and for a recoding with Europe (Henry James, Eliot, Pound, etc.); in the South, there was the overcoding of the slave system, with its ruin and the ruin of the plantations during the Civil War (Faulkner, Caldwell); from the North came capitalist decoding (Dos Passos, Dreiser); the West, however, played the role of the line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome (Ken Kesey and his “fog machine”, the beat generation, etc.). Every great American author creates a cartography, even in his or her style; in contrast to what is done in Europe, each makes a map that is directly connected to the real social movement crossing America.

Amy Ireland’s textual exegesis [here and here] on the most mysterious of plateaus in ATP, the ‘Geology of Morals’, highlights how across Deleuze’s work, cardinality and the four points of the compass operate in a complex with the motif of the “revolving door” to illustrate a double articulation of time. On the one hand, it presents the great pre-critical models of temporality, bound to the arcing circles of the celestial bodies that marked the cyclical movement of time from Plato through the Middle Ages. Yet on the other hand, an esoteric meaning of the revolving door emerges. In the GoM plateau, the revolving door appear as the ‘drum-gate’ and ‘particle clock’ through which Professor Challenger slips on his stationary voyage of destratification. His destination is the plane of consistency, the planomenon

The American cartography in the rhizome footnote appears to adhere to this scheme. On the one hand, there is the fourfold cardinality of north, south, east, and west—but there is also the escape-path moving westerward.

The use of geographical orientation is deployed in another very odd passage found in the “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” plateau. Desire, Deleuze and Guattari write, can be ‘betrayed’ in three different ways, which they label “the negative law, the extrinsic rule, and the transcendent ideal”. This “triple curse” is executed by the figure of the priest through something of a banishing rite that is tethered to the cardinal directions. They write:

Facing the north, the priest said, Desire is lack (how could it not lack what it desires?). The priest carried out the first sacrifice, named castration, and all the men and women of the north lined up behind him, crying in cadence, “Lack, lack, it’s the common law”. Then, facing south, the priest linked desire to pleasure. For there are hedonistic, even orgiastic, priests. Desire will be assuaged by pleasure; and not only will the pleasure obtained silence desire for a moment, but the process of obtaining it is already a way of interrupting it, of instantly discharging and unburdening oneself of it. Pleasure as discharge: the priest carries out the second sacrifice, named masturbation. Then, facing east, he exclaimed: jouissance is impossible, but impossible jouissance is inscribed in desire. For that, in its very impossibility, it is the Ideal, the “manque-a-jouir that is life”. The priest carried out the third sacrifice, the phantasy or the thousand and one nights, the one-hundred twenty days, while the men of the east chanted: Yes, we will be your phantasy, your ideal and your impossibility, yours and also our own. The priest did not turn to the west. He knew that in the west lay a plane of consistency, but he thought that the way was blocked by the columns of Hercules, that it led nowhere and uninhabited by people. But that is where desire was lurking, west was the shortest route east, as well to the other directions, rediscovered or deterritorialized.

This is a rich passage, dense with allusions—take the reference to the ‘columns of Hercules’, for instance. While what immediately springs to mind is Plato’s description of the mythical isle-kingdom of Atlantis as existing beyond the columns of Hercules, in this case referring to the Straits of Gibraltar. It’s not far from here to the take-up of the myth in the annals of European hermeticism: Atlantis as both source (the primordial fount of civilization) and future (as in the understanding of the New World in the West as the ‘New Atlantis’), each illuminating a more fundamental sense of profound otherness, a beyond that lurks past the end of any temporal orientation. Seen from this point of virw, the columns of Hercules take on the symbolic significance of the gates towards the unknown.

The more immediate reference that Deleuze and Guattari are likely to be reaching for is the use of the columns of Hercules as a symbol used by Kant in the Critiue of Pure Reason. In the discussion on transcendental logic, Kant described the ‘pillars of Hercules’ inscribed with the words nihil ulterius, ‘nothing beyond’: it is beyond this point that critique is not to venture. The pillars themselves were “erected by nature in order that we pursue reason’s voyages only insofar as as the steadily continuing coasts of experience extend”. The Atlantean promise, following a Renaissance legend of the pillars, is inverted by Kant through this stark warning. If beyond the pillars, in the west, lay the plane of consistency, then Kant has fulfilled the function of priest who turns his back to this direction.

There is a clear correlation between the characteristics of the west in both the rhizome footnote and the BwO plateau passage. Perhaps, then, the other directions also correspond. This is clearly the case with the north: in the rhizome footnote, Deleuze and Guattari identify it most explicitly with capitalist social dynamics. While this might seem oblique in relation to the ‘sacrifice of castration’ that curses desire with lack, it proceeds quite smoothly from the argument staged in Anti-Oedipus. Desire as such doesn’t stem from lack, for lack is manufactured by the social field that desire is embedded within—and it is the social field generated by the capitalist mode of production in particular that induces this dynamic tendency.

The south raises a more difficult set of question. In the rhizome footnote, the south is linked with the overcoding of the slave system (pre-Civil War) and the ‘ruin of the plantation (post-Civil War), while in the BwO plateau, it is identified with the binding together of desire and pleasure, culminating in orgasmic discharge. Yet what has been the popular imaginary that has been so associated with the planatation system but the leisurely pleasureworlds of the landed slave-owning aristocracy? While this imaginary portrait—accompanied by the trappings of grandeur, chivalry and virtue—has fueled the ‘Lost Cause’ mythos, it does have a basis in reality: freed from labor, the aristocrat was indeed free to pursue his pleasures, which extended beyond leisure to culture and politics. That this transformed into a suicidal drive that culminated in violent war shouldn’t surprised readers of Deleuze and Guattari: the logic of pleasure is at one and the same as the fascist drive, understood as the state locked into the momentum of the most extreme sort of death drive, are one and the same (the pleasurable discharge and the black hole of death, which the fascist state is pulled towards, converge on this point as well).

I recently read an absolutely fantastic book by Richard Bensel: Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. What is novel about Bensel’s historical analysis is his discovery that, contrary to the long-standing notion that the North was the zone where centralized state power reigned supreme, the far-more laissez-faire inclined South actually built a more dominating, more centralized war-time state. It brings to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s own insight that the state becomes suicidal as precisely the point that it becomes taken over by the ‘war machine’, which then propels the whole of the population on the tragic path of total mobilization.

This leaves the question of the East, associated in the rhizome footnote with both the ‘search for an American code’ and a ‘recoding with Europe’, and in the BwO plateau with impossible jouissance and phantasy. While I initially read phantasy as fantasy, Matt/Xenogoth pointed out to me that the proper understanding of phantasy makes the alignment between the two much clearer. Phantasy, in contrast to fantasy, is the “state of mind of an infant child during the early stages of development”, where the boundary between ‘reality’ and the imaignation has not yet been established. In the psychoanalytic work of Melanie Klein, phantasy appears in particular as the place where the infant engages in experimentation with the world—”the baby tests out, primitively ‘thinks’ about, its experiences of inside and outside”. In a similar vein, the East is where American began its own infancy, and the ‘search for the American code’ corresponds to this developmental engagement that results in particular processes of  individuation.

When Deleuze and Guattari deal with the notion of phantasy elsewhere in ATP, it is to contrast it with the radical immanence of the BwO. The Capitalism and Schizophrenia project is an engineering manual designed, in Spinozist fashion, for ‘deprogramming’ and destratification—and the BwO is the degree zero of intensity, that which “remains when you take everything away”. What is removed to reach the BwO is identified as none other than phantasy itself, understood as the engine for “signifiances and subjectifications as a whole”. If the distinction between psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis can be boiled down to one point, it is this: psychoanalysis “translates everything into phantasies”. It also marks the point of the failed escape; Deleuze and Guattari cite the example of the drug addict, those individuals who “may be considered precursors or experimenters who tirelessly blaze new paths of life”, but “continually fall back into what they wanted to escape: a segmentarity all the more rigid for being marginal, a territorialization all the more artifical for being based on chemical substances, hallucinatory forms, and phantasy subjectifications”.

This same process—the bid for escape, the collapse back into the prison—is the same pendulum-swing as the ‘search for the American code’ and the ‘recoding with Europe’. It appears, time and time again in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, often accompanying the scattered discussion on America. A Thousand Plateaus, right at its outset:

America is a special case. Of course it is not immune from domination by trees or the search for roots. This is evident even in literature, in the quest for national identity and even for a European ancestry or genealogy (Kerouac going off in search of his ancesters).

…and earlier, in Anti-Oedipus:

Strange Anglo-American literature: from Thomas Hardy, from D.H. Lawrence to Malcolm Lowry, from Henry Miller to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, men who know how to leave, to scramble the codes, to cause flows to circulate, to traverse the desert of the body without organs. They overcome a limit, they shatter a wall, the capitalist barrier. And of course they fail to complete the process, they never cease failing to do so. The neurotic impasse again closes—the daddy-mommy of oedipalization, America, the return to the native land—or else the perversion of the exotic territorialities, then drugs, then alcohol—or worse still, the old fascist dream. Never has delirium oscillated more between its two poles.

[plz check out my blog post on America’s “Invisible Landscape” of intertwined experimental politics and esoterica. You can also read it at Cosmonaut if you so prefer]

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