Deleuze’s Metallurgic Machines

A roundtable on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the 20th anniversary of his death.

November 8, 2015

    On the 20th anniversary of the death of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, LARB’s philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever and Brad Evans invited several Deleuze scholars to reflect on the continued importance of Deleuze’s life and work today.


    IN GILLES DELEUZE FROM A TO Z, a series of filmed conversations with Claire Parnet, Deleuze presents his thoughts as evoked by words related to each letter of the alphabet: A as in Animal, B as in “Boire” (Drink), C as in Culture, D as in Desire … These interviews offer a great entrance point into Deleuze’s philosophical universe — not because the eight hours of loosely framed dialogue offer a systematic overview or even a summary of Deleuze’s concepts and ideas (they feel more like a jazz improvisation of two skilled players). Rather, Deleuze’s reflections in his exchange with Parnet put us in the middle of his thinking in a very colloquial way. Deleuze, who was weary of any personality cults, consented to the project (filmed in 1988 when he was already ill) on the condition that it would be broadcasted posthumously: “I speak after my death,” he says at the beginning of the interviews. While it comforted Deleuze to be reduced to “pure archive,” as he calls it, and while he was conscious of the heritage of his ideas in the future, he could not have foreseen that 20 years after his death his work, and the books he wrote together with Félix Guattari, would speak to an ever-growing group of academics and non-academics. Philosophers, chemists, mathematicians, painters, physicists, filmmakers, poets, scholars in literature, media and languages, ecologists, architects, musicians, dancers, and designers are among participants at Deleuze-events all over the world. Deleuze never wanted to establish a school of followers; but in all its complexity and density, his philosophy is generous and allows different kinds of ideas to meet, different kinds of people to make their own connections to his thought.

    Like rhizomatic plants such as grass and weeds, the connections to Deleuze (and Guattari) can be found at many unexpected places. The connection between (seemingly) disparate entities or potentialities is perhaps even the basic question of philosophy, says Deleuze in From A to Z. In any case, he is very pleased when Parnet proposes the letter Z as in Zigzag. While Parnet half-jokingly emphasizes that there is a “Z” in the names of many of the philosophers that are important to him (Leibniz, Spinoza, Nietzsche, even Bergzon — and of course the z in his own name), Deleuze, while gesturing a “Z” pattern in the air, indicates that the zigzag is actually an originary movement. Not only does it bring him back to the letter A, and the zigzag patterns of the trajectory of the fly and other animals discussed in the letter A, it is also the elementary movement of the creation of a thought, a world, and even the universe: it is the zigzagging movement of lightning that makes one see how things connect (“l’éclair qui fait voir”). Deleuze tells Parnet that he is just reading about “le Big Bang” but that this term should be replaced by “le Zigzag.” Again and again, Deleuze refers in the interviews to connections between unexpected entities and potentialities. Against the traditional division between man and animal, he proposes the concept of “becoming-animal” and affective relations between human and nonhuman entities; in N as in Neurology he discusses his fascination for the materiality of the brain as an uncertain system where synaptic connections between different regions can produce new, often unpredictable patterns and perceptions, feelings, and thoughts; he discusses resonances between philosophy, art, and science where knowing and not-knowing meet at the border between the disciplines, the only place to discover (or rather create) something new. Deleuze’s universe is full of ideas that challenge our received conceptions of traditional oppositions between materiality and immateriality. His thoughts are eco- or geophilosophical in that they allow the earth to be expressive; animals to be the first artists that work with postures, color, and chants; matter to be intensive, with metal as its prime conductor. This may all seem rather esoteric, but the zigzagging movements of thought that Deleuze, together with Guattari, proposes allow us to understand non-linear, non-causal, and complex relations between seemingly disparate elements. They allow us, for instance, to see how the materiality of the earth is connected to our digital screen worlds and thus to our collective consciousness.

    In this respect, I want to draw attention to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of metallurgy as a “machinic phylum.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari propose the concept of metallurgy as a basic conductor and transformer of both material and immaterial practices. While they elaborate this idea in connection to the concept of the war machine (in short, all forces that undermine the capturing confinements of the state apparatus), it is possible to elaborate the metallurgic lineage in connection to contemporary media culture. All films and other mediated art forms and information need to be seen in connection to a “machinic phylum,” a technological lineage from the earth to our screens. Just as Jussi Parikka reminds us in his book A Geology of Media, the materiality of media is very metallic. Ranging from metallic silver for photo chemicals to coltan and other elements that compose our mobile phones, computers, and electronic devices, there is a material lineage that we can trace back to metal and metallurgy. All our digital devices contain many different noble and base metals, to the point that in our contemporary media-saturated age, the raw materials are getting scarce. The ores grow thinner, the mining machines need to dig deeper; some metals such as europium and terbium have been depleted and can only be found in small quantities in China. Coltan is mined in the Congo and is sometimes referred to as “blood coltan” because of the exploitation and conflicts it involves. In this sense, all our media are closely connected to the history, ethnography, and geopolitics of mining.

    What’s interesting here are not only the resources that are directly connected to the earth, and the geopolitical dynamics this implies. At the other end of the chain, when our electronic devices have become broken or obsolete, there are enormous quantities of e-waste that we have been producing since the second half of the 20th century. The world is littered by mountains of rubbish dumps, often covered up as parks or recreation zones. (In Europe alone there are about 150,000 of such rubbish mountains.) Moreover, Africa is not only a resource for copper, coltan, and other metals — it is also the biggest e-waste dump in the world. Slowly but surely, however, new ways of dealing with all this waste in more sustainable ways are emerging. In Europe, landfill mining is a sort of re-mining project, where waste is transformed back into both green energy and material resources such as plasma rock that is obtained by metallurgic processes such as forging and quenching. And in so-called “urban mining,” e-waste is bought back from African countries in order to be re-transformed into noble and base metals. So before we can see anything on our screens, there are many zigzagging techno-geological movements to be considered as the first aspect of cinema and other media practices. As metallurgic machines they are connected to all kinds of other political, economic, and social assemblages that keep on transforming and influencing these practices. Deleuze and Guattari are careful in pointing out that there is a constant communication between the destructive and creative potentialities of metallurgic practices; depending on the constellation of assemblages of other forces they can be tools or weapons. Here one can consider the many apparatuses and machines of perception that are used in both warfare and media industries.

    In addition, the material ecology of cinema and other media is connected to two other ecologies: social and mental ecologies. This concept of ecology as a triple enfolding of the environmental, the social, and the mental that always belong together (but again, not always through straightforward, causal connections) is developed by Guattari; as a rhizomatic “ecosophy” it can also be found everywhere in A Thousand Plateaus. Related to the immaterial aspects of cinema and media practices, it is possible to argue that an ecosophy of cinema also includes a social ecology. Not just as the representations of social life on screen but also, as Adrian Ivakhiv puts it in Ecocinema, the social and cultural practices and transformations cinema can bring about in the contexts of festivals, cineplexes, living rooms, social media; as well as in gestures, postures, fashion, behavior, and interpersonal relationships. Mental ecology leads us to perceptions, understandings, and interpretations of the world; movies and other media take part in the formation of individual and collective consciousness. Cinema is not just a second-order representational practice; it is a world-making practice that like the book and other art practices makes a rhizomatic connection with the world. Deleuze wrote two books on cinema, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, in which he developed the particular ways in which filmmakers, like metallurgist, have shaped and formed the material world in images and sounds. Light, colors, shapes, grains, and pixels transform and translate into affects and understandings in a multilayered constellation of matter and meaning.

    And so from the mines, via the movies (and other media), we have arrived at our minds and our social and mental ecologies. Deleuze can still speak to us today, as “pure archival material” and “pure spirit” captured on 16mm film: transformed by many other machinic phyla into digital files, he can reach us from the geological depth or from somewhere between the stars, provoking perhaps “flashes of insight” about the profound and unpredictable ways in which we are connected to the materiality and energies of the planet and of all other entities that inhabit the earth.


    Patricia Pisters is professor of film studies at the Department of Media Studies of the University of Amsterdam and director of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA).


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