In the beginning of the second chapter of The Return of the Vanishing American, Leslie Fiedler wrote:
For a long time, Europeans thought of themselves as inhabiting a world without a West: a threefold oecumene made up of Europe itself, Asia, and Libya, which is to say a ruling and redeemed North plus a subsidiary and redeemable East and South. The fourth direction they considered closed off to colonization and the hope of salvation by the impassable barrier of the River Ocean, which could be glimpsed through the terminal Straits of Gibraltar or from the shores of those peripheral European Isles, Ireland, and Iceland. This notion was present in the poetic cosmogony of Herodotus; the ancient mythologizing geographers passed it on to their Christian opposite numbers, who, finding it symbolically apt, converted it into an article of faith.
When I read the strange passages in ATP about the priest and the cardinal directions—discussed in the American Cartographies post as poetic cipher linked with Deleuze and Guattari’s earlier footnote on Fiedler and the mythic geography of American literature—I assumed that their reference to the Pillars of Hercules was a reference to Kant’s use of the motif to describe the acceptable limits in which reason is to operate. After all, beyond the pillars is the West, and in both Fiedler and Deleuze and Guattari the West is the land of hallucination, madness, and imperceptible escape—and in the aforementioned passage, the westward direction that the priest (who is not simply a religious figure, but a symbol of the philosopher and psychoanalyst alike) refuses to face points to the planomenon, the plane of consistency. This priest, at the same time, carries out his arcane rites by facing the North, South, and East; in other words, the rites are particularly bound to what Fiedler is describing here as the oecumeme.
The most familiar use of this term can be found in the description of the Catholic Church as having an ecumenical character, a institution holding together a multiplicitous arrangement of characters, places, times, and forms of expression under a universal position. Reaching further backwards in time, the term also appears as the definition of the Roman Empire’s own maintenance of a vast spatial terrain under a common political and military rule: in the writings of Strabo, for example, the limits of Rome are the limits of the oikoumene, the known and ‘inhabited earth’. As Daniela Dueck points out, Strabo’s understanding of Rome is that which became was immediately transmuted into something capable of being possessed by Rome—and in proper Deleuzoguattarian fashion, what was beyond the oikoumene was treated as the misty, desert landscape “inhabited by nomads and pirates”. Here we also find shades of Toynbee, for whom sedentary civilization, the thing which makes history proper, is fundamentally distinct from the mobile world of the nomad, devoid of history—as well as, once again, Kant, with his treatment of the ‘sceptics’ as “nomads who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil” and threaten to “shatter civil unity…”
Going further back: the use of the term oikoumene to define the ‘inhabited earth’ does, as Fiedler suggested, find its earliest articulation in the Histories of Herodotus. But Klaus Geus suggests an even earlier origin for the term, linking it the ‘globe-world’ theory developed around 500 BCE by the Pythagoreans and the Eleatics:
Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school, is even credited with astronomical and geographical research. For example, he divided the surface of the Earth into zones or belts (gr. κλίματα), which run around the globe. According to this view, there are five zones, two inhabited and three uninhabited. The details of Parmenides’s system—like those of so many of the Pre-Socratics—cannot be reconstructed completely, not the least because Aristotle, our main source, propagated his own theory of zones. But the basic outline may have looked somewhat like Figure 1 [below]. The limits of the zones are generated by projection of the course of the sun and of circles of latitudes onto the globe. The middle “hot” or “scorched” zone has its boundaries in both tropics (c. 24°)7 and is divided by the Equator. The two temperate zones extend from the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn to the north and to the south up to the so-called Arctic and Antarctic circles (c. 66°). Between these circles and the poles there are two cold zones (see, e.g., the description in Strabo 2.5.3, C 111). Only the two temperate zones were considered habitable; the others were perceived of as uninhabitable owing to excessive heat or cold…
After the invention of the globe-Earth theory, a new term was needed to distinguish the known parts from other, but theoretically habitable, parts of Earth. For this purpose, the word oikoumene was coined.
Zones, belts: when Deleuze and Guattari revive the notion of the ecumenon in A Thousand Plateaus, it is intimately bound up with these very terms. The site for this is the ‘Geology of Morals’ plateaus, with its odd descriptions of the strata—the inconsistent and the organized, as opposed to the unorganized flow of matter in the plane of consistency/planomenon—as “Layers, Belts”. Each stratum is both doubled (the ‘double articulation’ of substances and forms in order to produce organization) and layered (inducing ‘sedimentation’). At the same time, the stratum requires something that holds it together, a mechanism for producer a ‘unity of composition’. Deleuze and Guattari take this as a “central layer, or “central ring”, which is then identified as the ecumenon:
There is a single abstract machinethat is enveloped by the stratum and constitutes its unity. This is the Ecumenon, as opposed to the Planomenon of the plane of consistency….
In relation to the central belt ofthe stratum, the intermediate strata or milieus constitute “epistrata” piled one atop the other, and form new centers for the new peripheries. We will apply the term “parastrata” to the second way in which the central belt fragments into sides and “besides,” and the irreducible forms and milieus associated with them. This time, it is at the level of the limit or membrane of the central belt that the formal relations or traits common to all of the strata necessarily assume entirely different forms or types of forms corresponding to the parastrata. A stratum exists only in its epistrata and parastrata, so that in the final analysis these must be considered strata in their own right. The ideally continuous belt or ring of the stratum-the Ecumenon defined by the identity of molecular materials, substantial elements, and formal relations-exists only as shattered, fragmented into epistrata and parastrata that imply concrete machines and their respective indexes, and constitute different molecules, specific substances, and irreducible forms.
At the most general level, the broad movements of Fiedler on the one side, and Deleuze and Guattari on the other, is clear: in the former, the essential cleavage is between the oecumene and the abstract West, while in the former, the distinction between the ecumenon and the planomenon is paramount. Thus the identification of the westward direction with the planomenon binds it all together into a shared, mythic complex: the West as not only escape, but of forgetting, and thus the production of the new in a way that does not necessarily conform to past/present/future schematization of capital-H History.
Deleuze and Guattari return to the ecumenon in the ‘Nomadology’ plateau. Here the interest is with the State and capital: unlike the Roman empire, which was treated as being at least potentially synonymous (if not directly so) with the ecuomenon, the flourishing of states means that ecumenical space always evades the totality of the individual sovereign. “Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right, of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality. It is as if the sovereign were left alone in the world, spanned the entire ecumenon, and now dealt only with actual or potential subjects”. In this thought-experiment, the ‘particularity’ of existing states appears merely as ‘perversion’ and ‘imperfection’. The critique of Hegel’s conception of the state is clear in these passages: approaching the horizon in which this imaginal state is located is indeed the transit from the “spirit of the people” (the community) towards the “absolute spirit” (the “harmony of the universal”).
The rise of capitalism further complicates the relationship between the state and ecumenon. Capital for Deleuze and Guattari has two forms: striated capital, which is bound up with the state, which incubates it and empowers it, and smooth, which had ruptured forth from the state and comes to enwrap the whole of the globe. Smooth capital pierces the sides of the state, forcing the state to become evermore porous and traversed by the circulation of goods, money, and people (the classical definition of globalization, which Deleuze and Guattari augment by suggesting that the state paradoxically retains its most brutal forms of repression directly in service of this expansion). In this situation, capital sees the rise of institutions that “enjoy a large measure of autonomy from the state”: the multinational corporation, for example. Such institutions, given their global character, are “ecumenical machines”.
The capitalist ecumenical machine is one of two forms that escape the state:
The outside appears simultaneously in two directions: huge worldwide machines branched out over the entire ecumenon at a given moment, which enjoy a large measure of autonomy in relation to the States (for example, commercial organization of the “multinational” type, or industrial complexes, or even religious formations like Christianity, Islam, certain prophetic or messianic movements, etc.); but also the local mechanisms of bands, margins, minorities, which continue to affirm the rights of segmentary societies in opposition to the organs of State power. The modern world can provide us today with particularly well developed images of these two directions: worldwide ecumenical machines, but also a neoprimitivism, a new tribal society as described by Marshall McLuhan.
Given the short shout-out to McLuhan here, perhaps we can think of the polarity that is sketched between the ‘worldwide ecumenical machines’ and the ‘bands, margins, [and] minorities’ through the prism of his notion of reversal. In the context of the electronic media that Understanding Media is concerned with, McLuhan describes how the previous regime of specialization and centralization (produced by the mechanical-industrial revolution, precisely as Marx depicted it) was reversing into decentralizing tendencies producing a ‘retribalization’. The former is an explosive process and disaggregation, and the latter is marked by implosion and compression, distance rushing into the information-flow of the ‘global village’. In this dizzying social field, the ‘Analytic Man’ is swamped by precisely what he had attempted to repressed, the ‘Intuitive Man’—and alongside this process, myth re-entrenches itself. “…myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is a contraction or implosion of any process… We live mythically”.
In the epoch of ‘smooth capital’, ‘worldwide ecumenical machines’ and ‘machinic surplus value’ (surplus value understood at the societal level at the very moment that the mass-scale forms of automation and automatism come to dominate), it is cybernetic, information-communication technologies that allow the liberation of the content of this mode of production to be liberated from the constraints of time and space. From the march of computers from the laboratories of the wartime military-industrial complex to the finance trading floors to the management of the interwoven contact between global supply chains and just-in-time production systems to ubiquitous ‘big data’ systems, the aim is an integrated, simultaneous, world enveloped by the buzz of pure data. Yet, if McLuhan is right, this future beyond modernity, reaches a point of absolute saturation and excess and spews forth its polar opposite.
There’s certainly a similar, though not quite equivalent, dynamic that Fiedler finds as taking place in a specifically American register. That he’s writing of the counterculture that was flourishing at the same time that McLuhan was penning his tracts should give us pause.
It is easy enough to name the aspects of Americans defined by three… forms: the Northern, in which we become Yankees; the Southern, in which we are turned into Whitey; the Eastern, in which we are revealed as Tourists. But the transformation effected in the Western evades easy definition. Thinking of Natty Bumppo… and his descendants, we are tempted to say that it is the woodsman which the ex-European becomes beside his Red companion: the hunter, the trapper, the frontiersman, the pioneer, at last the cowboy—or maybe only next-to-last, for after him comes the beatnik, the hippie, one more wildman seeking the last West of Haight-Ashbury in high-heeled boots and blue jeans. But even as he ceases to be beatnik and becomes full hippie, the ultimate Westerner ceases to be White at all and turns back into the Indian, his boots becoming moccasins, his hair bound in an Indian headband, and a string of beads around his neck—to declare that he has fallen not merely out of Europe, but out of the Europeanized West, into aboriginal and archaic America.
It cannot be simple coincidence, then, that when McLuhan talks about the transition between dominant forms of media—the ‘extensions of man’ which flips back and transforms the human in kind—as the formation of a sort of ‘frontier’ zone. Deleuze, and Guattari, meanwhile, seem to hint at a similar kind of process. The description of the divergent “bands, margins [and] minorities” that populate this “neoprimitivism” calls directly back to a comment made in the ‘Rhizome’ plateau that “everything that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshoots in immediate connection with the outside”.
Yet there is also an ambiguity here. The ‘American way’ here is defined in terms of splintering cultures, subcultures, and countercultures, undulating waves of experimentation rushing their way towards the west. But in Anti-Oedipus the ‘American way’ is treated quite differently:
The death of the social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or disfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned the belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died of contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.
Reading this back into the statements made in the ‘Rhizome’ and ‘Nomadology’ plateaus, both the functions of the divergent, band-like movements and the ‘worldwide ecumenical machines’ appear aspects of the “American Way”—their common logic being the relationship between the strata and the destratified, the ecumenon proper and the planomenon (hence the enigmatic comment in the ‘Geology of Morals’ about the “third stratum” that exists as something like an “intermediary state” between the ecumenon and planomenon). Where they differ in logic is that one side captures, and the other escapes.
Indeed, the whole story of America and its westward expansion is bound up with the question of commercial expansion, natural resource extraction, and relentless development of the unknown world. It’s the story of countless forgotten boom towns and rushes, trails, roads, and railways. At the same time, it is not wholly reducible to this economic logic. When in 1697, decades before the revolution, the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness erected their astronomical tabernacle in the frontier regions of Pennsylvania, it was born out from the millenarian impulse, the flight to the wilderness in preparation for the end times (Fiedler spends many beautiful pages in The Return of the Vanishing American describing how, for the pre-modern European mind, the forbidden West was associated not only with the primordial past, but the apocalypse to come. Deleuze and Guattari, for their part, speak of the flight of deterritorialization as pursuing the place “where the decoded flows run free, the end of the world, apocalypse”—and identify this as what the American artist is always pursuing, but always failing to achieve).
This tendency radiates down through the years. In America’s Utopian Experiments, Brian Berry illustrates how the communitarian socialism that flourished in North America across the nineteenth century emerged directly from religious communalism, which was more often than not both millenarian in nature and pulled towards the frontier. Taking the ‘Second Great Awakening’ (a proliferation of religiosity that emerged in New York state’s burned-over district) as his context, Berry notes that “[t]he earliest utopian communities were built in ‘backwoods’ locations close to the expanding frontier of settlement. Later development was back from the frontier, where the settlement system was maturing”. He continues:
Before 1840 the new utopian settlements were built within a hundred miles of the frontier, although exceptions can always be found. As the frontier moved westward, so did the locus of utopian development… The utopians came to think that their settlements were not merely places of refuge where perfection might be sought; they could serve as models for the redemption of mankind. Utopian communities became the locus of social experimentation.
Commercial conquest and religious experimentation were not the only motivating forces in the westward push—but I think the latter is a particularly interesting way of looking at double task of flight and experimentation that Deleuze and Guattari see in connection with their notion of an abstract West. Berry adds to this by arguing that a unique tension underwrote this sudden swarming-out of all manner of sects and utopians. The incubator was the developing North-Eastern society, where the collision of “increasing materialism and growing secualization” and the religious revival was beginning to generate the idea of America as a ‘redeemer nation’—the notion that would later lend itself to all manner of imperial misadventures, right down through today. Part and parcel of this emergent ideology was a rekindling of the “Protestant ethic” based on individualism and work. The religious-utopian direction, by contrast, “preserved the idea of communal order”. The split here can be seen as one between the formation of the American ecumenon (defined by both Fiedler and D&G as the ‘hunt for American identity’ and the re-identification with a (neo)European perspective), and the bands and minoritarian movements that ultimately rejected it.
By the revolutionary decade of the 1840s, the religious-utopians had largely become socialist-utopians, though the split is often overstated in written histories (dig into the writings of these socialists and one will find all sorts of religious impulses, millenarian ruminations, and a ‘secularism’ defined by an attraction to science—albeit a science defined by its proximity to mysticism). The bulk of these utopian experiments were those of the Fourierists and their Associations; located not at the frontier, but mostly in the northern industrial belt, these were attempts to give rise not to a new understanding of American religion, but to develop an alternative program of industrialization. As these began to wane, more socialist communities—this time more Marxist than Fourierist—soon began to sprout up, often on the West Coast. These included California’s Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth, which lasted for six years before its demise in wake of the establishment of Sequoia National Park.
The history of religious and socialist utopianism—much less its relationship the complex of often bloody history of the frontier—is largely excised from the annals of American history. When it is mentioned, it is often dismissed just as quickly on the grounds that they were but aberrant countercultures. But as historians like Mark Lause have illustrated, there were direct lines linking many of the experiments of the 1840s (and thus the earlier waves issuing from the burnt-out district) to the free soil, abolitionist, women’s suffrage, and early labor movements that swirled on the eve of the Civil War. This is then something of a counter-history, anti-history even, that forces us to confront certain questions about the nature of America and the manner in which its own hallowed, official History has unfolded.
Are there linkages between these movements and the later countercultures and strange, underground formations that haunt the writings of Fiedler, McLuhan, and Deleuze and Guattari? Berry certainly suggests this is the case, using the rise and fall of economic waves as the scarlet thread running across this history. Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit, suggests another path by running encyclopedically through the annals of constantly splintering and mutating religious, scientific and metaphysical belief systems (which she finds as always integrating with outside influences). Erik Davis’ recent work can be read as the capstone to the trajectory, finding in the California of the 1970s an explosion of high strangeness: encounters with the unknown, prodigious mental experimentation, ecstasy and the creep of paranoia. We know what happened when this moment was done.
Through frameworks like McLuhan’s analysis of the effects of media systems and Deleuze and Guattari’s escape/capture dynamic of divergent, experimental formations and the capitalist machine, maybe we can find a way to hold these differing positions together. At any rate, it illustrates how the sudden presence of things that seemingly don’t belong constantly cuts at the roots of established history. And for that reason A Thousand Plateaus is, as Mark Fisher once observed, “in part a book of the American weird”.