Saturday, 23 August 2008

The transversal Subject group in Guattari's early work.

Guattari’s ontology is in many respects opposed to that of Sartre’s: it rejects the very notion of lack (either thought in terms of the empty surging self-transcendence of an intentional consciousness or a material situation determined by scarcity) and stakes out a position which allows a far greater role for the social and relation in general (for Guattari even an individual human is actually a group in the sense of being the result of a multiplicity of pre-personal machinic relations). However as Guattari himself puts it “I spent almost fifteen years of my life being saturated not only by Sartre’s writings but by his actions. Everything I have said and done is in some way marked by him.” Indeed as Gary Genosko has accurately contended, “if a single philosopher may be said to haunt Guattari’s work, it is surely Sartre.” This inspiration is especially pervasive whenever Guattari comes to talk of the group, markedly so in his earliest writings but this continues to be the case even in Chaosmosis and The Three Ecologies. As such we will consider his early work on institutional analysis and gauge how well Guattari’s new conceptual technology and psychoanalytic standpoint is able to overcome the challenges to the group which beset Sartre. Then we will critically assess what happens when transversality slips the bounds of this initial setting and comes to define every level of Guattarian thought. What is at stake here is whether this expanded relational ontology is able to produce the kinds of groups capable of agency in the practical matters of politics, and whether in taking transversality as the key resource from which to construct an ontology it is even proper to think of it as relational at all.

i. Opening the blinkers: the group in institutional analysis.
Transversality, originally a topological concept meaning an “extending over, lying across, intersecting […] without a resulting coincidence”, first enters philosophy via Sartre’s The Transcendence of the Ego. Here consciousness “unifies itself […] by a play of ‘transversal’ internationalities which are concrete or real retentions of past consciousnesses.” In this way Sartre is able to unite consciousness with its past instantiations without recourse to any kind of transcendent ego. Guattari’s re-formulation of the concept in his early essays of the 1960s ‘Transversality’ and ‘The Group and the individual’ alter this in three primary ways. It mutates from a device designed to connect the past with the present into a newly future-oriented one, it spatialises a previously purely temporal notion, and finally it is now crucially intersubjective in nature.

Guattarian transversality originates as the solution to a very specific problem: how to conduct psychoanalysis in an institutional setting (indeed the very specific setting of the Clinique de La Borde where Guattari developed his experimental psychotherapeutic practice). An institution can be thought of as a complex network of lines of unconscious force, relation, and desire. In such a setting the usual concept of a bilateral analyst-analysand transferential relationship become ever more complicated. As set out in the essay of the same name from 1964, transversality is applied as a way of conceptualising and manipulating this intricate networks of unconscious relation of which a psychiatric hospital consists. In this sense transversality is deployed as a coefficient of openness between institutional sub-groups and strata, illustrated by allusion to a horse’s blinkers, which can be more or less open. Institutional analysis uses transversality as a tool to “change the data accepted by the super-ego into a new kind of acceptance of initiative” (MR, p.13) and thereby circumvent the usual castrating forms of subjectivation. From a Sartrean perspective, we might consider this to be the creation of the conditions necessary for patients to begin to take responsibility, to get a grip on their situation and emerge from inert passivity into activity, the activity here being the creation of new forms of subjectivity.

In the essay “Transversality” Guattari identifies two (non-absolute) kinds of groups in operation: subject groups and subjugated/dependent groups. A subject group “endeavours to control its own behaviour and elucidate its object, and […] can produce its own tools of elucidation.” (MR, p.14) whereas the subjugated/dependent group is merely passive and fits into the hierarchical arrangement of other groups within an institution. Here we can see parallels with Sartre’s group-in-fusion/serial collective gathering schema, both in terms of the active nature of the subject group and the manner in which it produces techniques designed to clarify its own objectives (comparable to the progressive-regressive nature of the praxis of the group-in-fusion). The object of institutional therapy is to create the conditions amenable to the formation of such subject groups.

Guattari adds to this Sartrean schema the manifest/latent distinction from Freud, with the manifest content of the group (the things it says and does, the role played by its leading members) being set apart from the latent content, in other words the group’s unconscious desire. The structure of the institution itself, consisting of the organisational configuration of doctors, nurses, and other staff operates as a block to the free movement and expression of the group desire of the patients. What transversality works upon is not merely the manifest communicative/organisational structure, but the latent and unconscious system of flows of desire. As Guattari describes it transversality “tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizontality” (MR, p.18). The Sartrean echoes here are clear: verticality describes hierarchical structures, of exactly the kind formed once a group-in-fusion ossifies into a bureaucratic institution, and horizontality refers to the kind of structure of seriality, a sequential arrangement of isolated terms. Transversality as organisational tool liquidates both forms of structure, in favour of a more fluid and distinctively non-hierarchical system of intra-organisational unconscious relation.

Whilst Guattari certainly incorporates elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, his post-Sartrean conception of the subject group ought to be sharply distinguished from the kind of group psychology earlier developed by Freud. For Freud the group takes on a largely negative role as “a revival of the primordial horde”, allowing the individual to fall in love with a charismatic leader figure and hence fall into the mass psychology of fascism. The kind of group psychology he sketches is mediated through the libidinal bond to the leader, posited as the ego ideal of each constituent member of the group. Guattari certainly allows for such possibilities within the subjugated group, as set out in Anti-Oedipus (even if a group is revolutionary at the pre-conscious level, providing that they maintain a libidinal investment of a reactionary nature the “unconscious libido continues to invest […] the old form of power, its codes and its flows” ). However the subject group (like the group-in-fusion) is absolutely a figure of emancipation and empowerment, enabling the individual patient in question to attain new and more productive forms of subjectivity by joining the semiotic system of the subject group. Subject groups also depend upon the breaking down of precisely the kind of hierarchical mediation via the leader presented by Freud.

The group may remain couched in Sartrean terms, but the psychoanalytical context means that we are now dealing with a very different kind conception of individual consciousness. For Guattari the individual is no longer a closed system as seen with Sartre’s for-itself, irreducibly isolated from other such entities, but rather radically open, and hence always already a group phenomenon. As he puts it in the 1966 article ‘The Group and the Individual’: “beyond the Ego, the subject is to be found in scattered fragments all over the world of history” (MR, p27). As such alterity is no longer to be feared (and only redeemed via the mediated reciprocity of the group), but is rather the very property which guarantees transversal relations, and hence the possibility of creating new forms of subjectivity. Transversality is used to both set the conditions for the emergence of subject groups and to channel flows of desire so as to conjoin individuals with these new active groups. In so doing the patient “will be revealed to himself as he is beyond his imaginary and neurotic dilemmas.”(MR, p.20). As Guattari describes it transversality operates as “the unconscious source of action in the group […] carrying the group's desire” (MR, p.22). By breaking down pre-existing structural forms (for example by use of ‘the grid’ at La Borde to regularly shift all members of the institution, staff and patients alike, between diverse job roles) patients are exposed to multifarious new relations of alterity. This in turn enables a radical break with past forms of subjectivation, codings, and habits. This rupture with inherited models and forms of signification sets up the potential space within which subject groups can begin to produce themselves.


ii The transversal group in history and politics

In ‘The Group and the Person’ Guattari takes his institutional notion of the subject group and transversality and applies it to political movements. What is immediately apparent is that whilst we have moved from the domain of psychotherapy to politics, Guattari himself maintains a similar perspective to that demonstrated in the ‘Transversality’ essay. For him the actual efficacy of political group praxis, (in terms of achieving a concrete aim) is somewhat of a secondary issue. It is the kind of subjectivity which membership of the group fosters which is primary, and as such “whether there was real effectiveness hardly matters; certain kinds of action and concentration represent a break with the habitual social processes and in particular the modes of communication and expression of feeling inherited from the family” (MR, p.29).

Here Guattari emphasises the importance of group phantasy in a more emphatic manner than in ‘Transversality’, distinguishing between basic group phantasies and transitional group phantasies. Basic group phantasies serve to render the subjugated group the prisoner of its own phantasies, an example which Guattari gives is of the false territorialisation of the group-as-body, leading to racism and nationalism. Another example of basic group phantasies in bureaucratised societies is that of roles and career narratives, all of which in Sartrean terms serve to preserve a serial and inert existence. The transitional group phantasy on the other hand operates as a kind of internal process of subjectivation, enabling the reorganisation of the group structure and breaking with previously solid demarcations of roles. The transitional group phantasy seems to operate in a similar (though unconscious) fashion to that of the processes of mediated reciprocity which redeem the alienated third party from alterity in Sartre’s group-in-fusion. For when transitional phantasies are in operation, as Guattari puts it “everyone becomes ‘one of us’” (MR, p.42). Transitional phantasies enable the subject group to develop a transitional object, characterised as the constantly shifting and self-correcting aim of the revolutionary group that “keeps asking whether it is right, whether it should totally transform itself” (MR, p.39). This transitional object enables a kind of self-awareness, at the group level of phantasy, so as to oppose internal bureaucratisation with internal subjectivating forces.

In ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’ (1965) Guattari discusses in depth how the subject group at the centre of the Leninist breakthrough operated. Here he is interested in picking apart the relation between historical breaks and breaks in chains of signification. Ruptures of this kind, Guattari claims, act to disrupt the standard flow of historical causality of the kind modelled by deterministic historical materialism. In a manner which recalls Sartre in Search for a Method he is resolved to hold firm to the idea that subjective interventions are capable of surmounting the mechanistic theories propounded by the dogmatic forms of Marxism. Like Badiou he stresses that the nature of the breakthrough event must be defended against these who would in a Thermidorean manner seek to claim that the event never happened. However his chief concern is to think what network of signifiers enabled the breakthrough, and what then led to this breakthrough subject group to collapse into the nightmare of bureaucratic Stalinism. The fall into Stalinism is diagnosed as being the result of factors present from near the very beginnings of the movement, as the result of certain “collective phantasies of omnipotence” (MR, p.187) which created a simplistic sense of articulation between the party and the people. In turn this meant that no lasting institutional structural innovations were created, leading to the rapid sidelining of soviets and worker’s councils. The fundamental Leninist breakthrough is traced by Guattari to a single defining moment, at the second congress of the All-Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903. Here, in the split between Lenin and Trotsky and their previous allies Plekhanov and Martov, Guattari thinks a new kind of revolutionary semiotics was born, leading both to the success of the 1917 revolution and unfortunately to “the uncritical acceptance of slick-sounding slogans” (MR, p.189) and a contempt for the desire of the masses.

Guattari’s position in this essay remains intriguingly poised between denunciation and endorsement of Lenin and his methods. The creation of a separate institutional object (the party) composed entirely of revolutionaries is at the core of many of the problems which the movement faced, and yet is deemed to be the best response to the accurate diagnosis that “the working class, left to its own devices, tends to slip into trade unionism, in other words into the primacy of production over desire” (MR, p.200). In looking towards the contemporary political situation and the kinds of revolutionary groups required in the current moment, Guattari professes that whilst Leninism has absolutely run its course, there remains one sense in which we should continue to follow Lenin’s example

“I think one should still be a Leninist, at least in the specific sense of believing that we cannot really trust the spontaneity and creativity of the masses to establish analytical groups in any lasting way, though […] the object at this moment is to foster not a highly centralised party but some means whereby the masses can gain control over their own lives” (MR, p.202).

The aim of such analysis is to lay the ground for the autopoiesis of subject groups, to enable them to become open to desire. As such Guattari proposes “not permanent revolution perhaps, but permanent analysis” (MR, p.202). Though he attempts to guard against replicating the party form, denying the analytical corpuscle a role of leadership per se and always surrounding it with the necessary actual revolutionary praxis, it seems fair to say that there remains the considerable danger that in privileging this element over the subject group itself we run the risk of undermining the genuinely self-determining nature of the group. If as Guattari claims it is transversality which is the unconscious source of action in the group, then the analyst as engineer of this dimension comes close to a psychoanalytic version of the active party working to energise the essentially inert working class that Merleau-Ponty critiqued Sartre for cleaving to in the early 1950s. With transversality we appear to have a powerful and subversive tool with which to combat the problem of bureaucratic sclerosis, one capable of the kind of direct and intentional opposition to institutionalisation that we found was necessitated by Sartre’s model of group subjectivity. However, what we might also note at this juncture is that this conception is not without drawbacks, perhaps inherent in the psychoanalytic context from which it emerges. The aim of institutional analysis is to produce the subject group, requiring in turn the manipulation of the transversal coefficients of unconscious communication and flows of desire within the institution. Guattari acknowledges that the analyst, the one who engineers the opening of transversal relations, are themselves absolutely an element to be considered within this system (which is logical given both Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle and the creative and praxical dimension Guattari wishes to accord to the process of analysis). As such the transversalisation of any institution would require the analyst themselves to take part in activities like ‘the grid’. But they seem to retain a degree of privileged authority (at least to the extent that they are the one within the structure who possesses knowledge of the dimension of transversality). Whilst this raises the risk of replicating the active party/inert working class schema at the unconscious level, constant transversal analysis might be exactly the kind of process needed to oppose the collapse of subject groups or groups-in-fusion into paralysing hierarchical structures. But it also serves to demonstrates the cost inherent in the use of transversal analysis, which is the risk of the loss of the kind of agency which Sartre was so keen to preserve.