Root, Fascicle, Rhizome
Forms and Passions of the Political Book
There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
The book as an antiworld.
—Michel Foucault, “A Swimmer between Two Words”
The place of the medium of the book in the emergence of the political cultures and publics of the modern nation-state has been the subject of a considerable body of research. Much less attention has been paid to its role in extraparliamentary politics, or—and this is where my interest lies in this chapter—to critique of the forms and functions of expressly political books. A rare exception can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s experimental work of philosophy A Thousand Plateaus, the second of their two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia collective writing project. In a singular philosophical appreciation for the politics of textual matter, here the common understanding of the book as a generic instrument of secular enlightenment is supplanted with an image of the book as a fraught and ambivalent material entity, one entwined with a rather troubling passion, a passion that is often most manifest in books that lay claim to a revolutionary cause. Highly critical of the dominant mode of the book and its associated semiotic and subjective patterns, what they call the “root-book,” Deleuze and Guattari develop a set of concepts for a fully materialist understanding of this medium and its politics and point to the possibilities of a counterfigure, the “rhizome-book.” It is one of the most persuasive and developed of modern philosophies of the book, and yet it has received scant critical attention. This chapter proceeds as an investigation of that philosophy through the concrete mediations of specific books, as the problematic of the anti-book is taken up through an analytics of the root and the rhizome.
As is apparent from my argument in preceding chapters, the materiality in question is complex and emergent. Materiality is not a fixed property of books but a mutable product of their physical, signifying, temporal, and affective materials and relations, including relations brought to them in acts of reading and other forms of productive consumption. It is well known that a concern with the full complexity of material relations is paramount in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, and it is in bringing this materialism to bear on the politics of the book that their critique is most distinguished from that of other poststructuralist philosophers who have taken aim at the book. In Derrida and Blanchot, the most renowned of these, the “book to come” (as they frame the overcoming of the book qua total work) does address the formal properties of books, but it is text and writing that hold the singular power of transformation. In Of Grammatology, Derrida famously puts it thus: “If I distinguish the text from the book, I shall say that the destruction of the book, as it is now under way in all domains, denudes the surface of the text.” John Mowitt elaborates:
By opening a space where not only the “totality” can be named and summoned forth, but where this naming takes place within precise and thus secure borders (i.e., the physical dimensions of the printed manuscript), the book necessarily reifies writing, understood by Derrida, as that which marks every border as precarious and ill-defined. In this context the text designates that which, in its denuding, both precipitates the decline of the book and emerges as the monstrous technology that survives it.
True, in Derrida’s later essays on the subject collected in Paper Machine, the physical and formal features of books and other mediums of textual inscription come into the purview of deconstruction, often in inspired ways that I make use of in Anti-Book. And yet these are accompanied by a somewhat conservative attraction to books, as I noted in chapter 1, from which the politics of media form tends to fall away. As for Blanchot, he offers much for critique of textual media form, some of which I consider in chapter 4, and it is possible to detect an influence of his formulation of the book’s “outside” on Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome-book, and yet, again, it is in writing that his media politics lies: “The book: a ruse by which writing goes toward the absence of the book.”
Deleuze and Guattari’s materialism, then, opens new and unexplored avenues in the politics and philosophy of the book. And yet it too presents some problems. Despite Deleuze and Guattari’s materialist conceptual framing of the book—and, with A Thousand Plateaus, their own experiment in the rhizome-book—they in fact pay little attention to the concrete forms and materials of books and publishing, leaving their typology of the book too often in the domain of the concept alone. This is in marked contrast to Deleuze’s research on cinema and painting, where philosophical engagement proceeds through close attention the concrete specificities of the mediums of film and paint. It is not I think too bold a conjecture to find the cause for this lapse into abstraction in precisely the material and formal properties of the book that Deleuze and Guattari do so much to reveal. Against that tendency to abstraction, this chapter pursues these material and formal properties in ways that keep the rich materiality of books at the center of discussion, so contributing to an understanding of political books that is fully engaged with their concrete forms. As such, the chapter at once sets out the contours of Deleuze and Guattari’s typology of the book and mobilizes it to assess the material properties of four specific works: Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, Russian Futurist books, Antonin Artaud’s paper “spells,” and Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s self-declared “anti-book” Mémoires.
You may already be questioning the wisdom of considering together such disparate works, of which only Mao’s book fulfills the conventional criteria of a political book (the others sit more comfortably in the analytic framework of the cultural avant-garde). And one of these, Artaud’s spells, are not books at all but single-sheet artifacts, closer to letters or artworks on paper. Why, then, have I brought this heterogeneous group together? Mao’s book is included principally because it is a paradigmatic case of the political root-book, and yet a book about which very little has been written—curiously so, given its enormous sales and global impact. Investigation of the Little Red Book is also an opportunity for me to hone—by way of a negative image—the understanding of communism that inheres in Anti-Book, in this instance by presenting a critique of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, a politico-philosophical system and a historical sequence that has had not inconsiderable presence in contemporary efforts to revive a so-called communism for our times. The other works that feature here are all selected because they are at once singular experiments in the form of the codex book and textual matter and particularly enticing examples for thinking with the concept of the rhizome-book. The heterogeneity of the set is part of the appeal, for I in no way wish to compose a unified group of rhizome-books; Deleuze and Guattari, it is well known, are not averse to finding value in the open-ended assemblage of disparate elements. As for Artaud’s spells, they disrupt the classificatory schema of the bulk of the chapters in this book, a disruption that is awkward but not without some merit, because although I am keen to assert something of the specificity of the media forms of pamphlet, book, and magazine, I in no sense wish to impose strict borders between them. The specific reason for considering Artaud’s spells here is that they are extraordinary examples of textual matter as a “body without organs,” a concept that is central to Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy of the book, and yet they say nothing about the material forms of these spells, even when quoting from their text. It is an enticing lacuna.
The Delusional Passion of the Book
In naming the three components of Franz Kafka’s “writing machine”—the letters, short stories, and novels—Deleuze and Guattari exclude his diaries, for these they remark are “the rhizome itself,” they “touch upon everything” as the energetic milieu of Kafka’s work as a whole. I would not make quite such a claim for the recently published entries from Guattari’s diary, which cover the writing and publication of Anti-Oedipus. Nevertheless, The Anti-Oedipus Papers draws that book back into the psychological, social, and technical milieu of its composition and reception, providing insight not only into Deleuze and Guattari’s own writing machine—which is revealed to have been dependent on a complex and libidinally charged “text flow” of letters, book notes, theoretical writings, and intimate journal entries that Guattari passed on to Deleuze, somewhat compulsively, via the mediation of Fanny Deleuze—but also into the career of Anti-Oedipus itself. Amid reflection on such matters as the damaging effect of this book on Guattari’s relations with Lacan (“He wanted to see the manuscript. I retreated behind Gilles who only wants to show him something completely finished. . . . Impossible to back out. Dinner invitation, next week, to lay the cards out on the table”), or his fears at becoming an established author subject to his written word (“The plane of consistency of writing doesn’t let anything go, every blow is counted. It’s something that fucking sends death right up my spine”), Guattari makes this comment on the book’s reception: “Anti-Oedipus is being disseminated like a militant book.”
One intuitively knows what Guattari means by this formulation. A “militant book” would be taken up in the arenas of political thought and practice rather than, say, in exclusively academic circles or popular book markets, where its consumption would take an intensive quality, having effects of intervention and consolidation in politicized environments. It is clear that Guattari is not exactly lamenting this mode of consumption. With Anti-Oedipus, as is well known, Deleuze and Guattari sought to introduce a breach in “Freudo-Marxism,” and this at a practical level; as Foucault’s preface has it, “Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics.” Yet there is too I think some ambivalence in Guattari’s assessment. Certainly he should not have been too comfortable with the notion of a militant book, because the repressive subjectivity of the “militant”—a subjectivity bound to the semiotic, organizational, and libidinal structures of the social system it nominally opposes—is the object of much critique in Anti-Oedipus. Nonetheless, this critique did not reach so far as to overly challenge the book-form of militancy. Indeed, the militant consumption of Anti-Oedipus might be seen to have some correspondence with its textual form. Notwithstanding the brilliance of its critique of capitalism, Anti-Oedipus rather follows the standard structure of a manifesto, critiquing its object through its emergence in historical time and leading in linear fashion to its declared subject of revolution, in this case the nonsubject of schizophrenic desire.
By the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, however, Deleuze and Guattari had become fully cognizant of the problem. A Thousand Plateaus actively attempts to scupper any appropriation of itself in the mode of the militant book, both in its use of a nonlinear structure, where cumulative chapters are replaced with “plateaus” to be read in any order, and in its textual content, proffering as it does a fully developed critique of militant modes of the book, which are shown to be entwined with a religious model of subjection constituted less in the manner of inventive critical politics than in authoritarian monomania. As the image of politics here becomes decidedly complex, immanent to the organic, inorganic, and semiotic conditions of planetary life, it takes with it the form of the book, in a deliciously experimental conceptual turn.
From the first pages, readers of A Thousand Plateaus encounter a typology of three kinds of book: the “root-book,” the “fascicular root-book,” and the “rhizome-book.” These are tendencies or organizing patterns in the field of the book, not mutually exclusive categories; in any particular book, one would expect their copresence and interaction, albeit with varying degrees of prominence. But for Deleuze and Guattari, the dominant tendency, such that they call it the “classical” figure of this medium, is the root-book.
The root-book is a signifying totality, an enclosed and sufficient entity constituted as an image of the world—it is a “representationalist recapitulation of a reality external to it,” in Daniel Selcer’s description. Here the book stands as the agent of truth and location of authority and command, its encyclopedic pretensions attaining spiritual unity with the totalizing word of God. It is a formation immanent to the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though Deleuze and Guattari leave much assumed here, and so it is instructive to pursue the lineaments of the concept of the root-book in relation to research on religion and the book. I will limit discussion largely to Christianity, a religion of the book for which spiritual authority is intimately identified with the word (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” in the opening of John’s Gospel) and the codex. Here “the book received its highest consecration,” as Ernst Robert Curtius puts it, where “Christ is the only god whom antique art represents with a book-scroll.” Not that this was a neat and clean relation. For James Kearney argues in The Incarnate Text, a work that I rely on in what follows, that Christianity proceeds through a vexed relation to the book that proved to be highly generative.
Picking up again the notion of the book as an image of the world, we can sketch two of numerous sources. For Francis Bacon in his 1605 Advancement of Learning, God provided two books: the volume of the Scriptures, which reveals God’s will, and the volume of the creatures—more commonly known as “the book of nature”—which reveals his power. These books exist in an imitative relation of complementarity, where the essential forms found in nature are mirrored in the universal book of Scriptures. Earlier, in his 1550 Primera parte de las diferencias de libros que hay en el universo, Alejo Venegas conceived of the book as an “ark” and “depository” of divine knowledge. As Walter Mignolo explains, for Venegas, “the human book has two functions: to know the creator of the Universe by reading His Book and, at the same time, to censure every human expression in which the Devil manifests itself by dictating false books.”
The essential structure of the root-book is clearly evident in these two influential expositions of the book. As it creates an imitative image of nature, the book presides, through the law of reflection, over the split between book and world. Severed from the world and, as such, pristine in its spiritual autonomy, the book is also a vector of authority, as is clear in Venegas: the “ark” of the book both enjoins subjection to God’s Word and ensures against “false books.” In this structure of the book as spiritual authority, we can trace also a source for the split between text and material form, and the concomitant denigration of the latter, that has been so persistent a feature of modern book culture. It is very much a story of the Reformation. An influential feature of Christian veneration of the book in the Middle Ages was the Aristotelian coincidence of truth and being, a “quasi-synonymy . . . of pagina and doctrina, liber and scientia.” But with the Reformation, things took a different course. As Kearney shows, Protestantism, with its Lutheran slogan “solo scriptura,” was an intensification of the book within a religion of the book, as the word and the medium of the book were reaffirmed, against ritual and the trappings of the Church, as the source and means of Godly authority. And yet the Reformation book contains a “structural ambivalence,” in Kearney’s formulation, one that exacerbates a tension at the heart of Christian thought. For the physical book was at once the vehicle for spiritual transcendence of the material world and part of that fallen world, a sign that humanity had been exiled from direct communication with God’s Word. As Martin Luther put it, “if Adam had remained in innocence, this preaching would have been like a Bible for him and for all of us; and we would have had no need for paper, ink, pens, and that endless multitude of books which we require today.” The stage is set, then, for the denigration of the book’s media form in favor of its textual content, as Protestants negotiate “the impossible position of attempting to overcome their fallen state by placing their faith in an aspect of the fallen world.”
The Christian problematic of the book reveals further component parts of the concept of the root-book. It is apparent from Venegas’s notion of the book as ark that there is a mundane subject constituted in the book’s truth and authority, those who would be enjoined to God’s Word. It is a subject that is confirmed in its opposition to those who venerated the book as artifact: to Catholics, whose investment in splendid books as devotional objects is vividly illustrated by the sometime practice of incorporating the physical remains of saints into book covers and bindings, and to non-Europeans, in relation to whom the book serves as the “canary in the Enlightenment coal mine,” revealing as savages all those who “cannot understand how to read the book as anything but a fetish.” Yet if this subject of the Word is structured against the book’s sensory and material form, it is certainly not without its own passion, what Deleuze and Guattari call a “monomania” of “the book as origin and finality of the world.” They make this point about the book’s passional subjectivity through an assessment of the place of this medium in the semiotic system they call the “postsignifying regime of signs.” I present Chinese Maoism as an example of this postsignifying regime later, but it is useful first to sketch its principal characteristics.
We make an error in thinking that our linguistic or signifying system, where signs comprise an arbitrary connection between signifiers and signifieds in endless chains of relation, has any particular uniqueness or privilege in the history of expression. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari argue that there are numerous different semiotic systems, or “regimes of signs,” of which the “postsignifying” regime (also called the “passional, subjective” regime) is particularly pertinent to discussion of the book. As analytically distinct from the “signifying regime” (if rarely empirically so; all societies have a mixed semiotics), the postsignifying regime of signs is an “active” rather than “ideational” semiotic system. That is to say, it is characterized not by the endless cycle of interpretation of signs but by “concise formulas” conducive to passional, subjective action. In the signifying regime, the radiating network of signification is anchored in centers of interpretive authority (priest, despot, learned elite, political leader, media institution), its points of breakdown heavily coded with the negative value of the scapegoat. By contrast, in the postsignifying regime, this signifying network is loosened, and the scapegoat, he or she who is excluded, takes on a positive value of active flight or betrayal. In place of the centers of interpretive authority, local “points of subjectification” emerge that are constituted through the betrayal of dominant social relations and semiotic codes, a “monomania” that leads the subject on a passional vector through a series of finite linear proceedings, each drawn, as if to a “black-hole,” by the pursuit of its end. This is the semiotics of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the semiotics of Cain and Jonah, where the relationship to God is constituted through flight and betrayal, “in which the true man never ceases to betray God just as God betrays man.” Jesus, Deleuze and Guattari write, takes this furthest: “he betrays the God of the Jews, he betrays the Jews, he is betrayed by God who turns away (‘Why hast though forsaken me?’), he is betrayed by Judas, the true man.” But we are not dealing here only with God, for there are many instances of passional flight: the betrayal of food by anorexic subjectivities; the passional flight of the fetishist, the shoe, say, as his point of subjectification; the monomania of the amorous couple, “a cogito built for two” (indeed, Deleuze and Guattari identify the Cartesian cogito as the quintessential instance of passional subjectivation, a line of flight ever recharged by methodological doubt, that possibility of betrayal by a deceitful God or evil genius). As to the speaking subject of the passional regime, it is constituted through a doubling or enfolding of the “subject of enunciation,” the emitter of signs, the prophet (as distinct from the sedentary and signifying priest), and the “subject of the statement,” the people in flight, where the latter is bound to the utterances of the former and acts in a “reductive echolalia” as its respondent and guarantor.
Set off on flight, signification is now unmoored and mobile and so needs a mobile ground: the Ark of the Covenant containing Moses’s tablets of Law—“no more than a little portable packet of signs”—and no longer the Temple (Figure 3). By extension, in the action-oriented formulas of the postsignifying regime, the book emerges as the quintessential object of mobile signification—a development apparent in the movement from the Ark of the Covenant in Figure 3 to the tablets in Figure 4, and subsequently to the codex, as the vessel of the Ten Commandments diminishes in volume and gains in portability. Deleuze and Guattari argue that at this point the book moves away from an essentially oral, “nonbook” character with external referent in God or despot and instead comes to internalize the world as the origin and source of truth and authority:
in the passional regime the book seems to be internalized, and to internalize everything: it becomes the sacred written Book. It takes the place of the face and God, who hides his face and gives Moses the inscribed stone tablets. . . . The book has become the body of passion. . . . It is now the book, the most deterritorialized of things, that fixes territories and genealogies. The latter are what the book says, and the former the place at which the book is said.
I have elaborated on much of this passage already, but we need a little more reconstruction to ground the formulation of the book here as the mobile “body of passion.” I noted that the Reformation approach to the book held an ambivalent relation to matter that accompanied Christianity at origin, and it was not put to rest with the rise of Protestant veneration of scripture. As this ambivalence is worked over in Catholic and Protestant writing and teaching, the book as artifact and medium takes various forms, many of which suggest empirical referents for Deleuze and Guattari’s thesis. Let me take two instances. As much as it is a religion of the book, Christianity is a religion of the codex; though nearly all the books named in the Old Testament are in the form of the scroll, the codex replaced the scroll as the dominant medium of textual inscription in Christian cultures as early as the second century of the Common Era (and, in turn, the rise of Christianity played no small part in the gradual supplanting of the scroll as the socially preferred medium of textual inscription). Intriguingly, Christianity actively adopted here a somewhat humble and lowly object, an ephemeral medium of little economic or cultural value. Whereas the scroll was associated with elite culture, with sacred, literary, and juridical texts, the codex was the medium of trade and everyday transactions, familiar, that is, to more plebeian classes—associated with women and slaves more than citizens. As well as a means of differentiating this religion from others through its chosen medium, the codex simultaneously, then, articulated the central Christian values of identification with the excluded and debased, taking its pivotal place in the “repertoire of symbols” of Christian value: “just as a criminal executed by the state was revealed as the godhead, so the humble codex was exalted over the prestigious scroll.”
The Christian symbolism of the book does not stop there; it is most acute in the common conceit of identifying the codex with a symbol of no less importance than Christ himself. In one instance discussed by Kearney, Christ is described as a “book written within the skin of the virgin,” and the subsequent arc of his life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension are mapped onto the processes of production and reception of this medium. In another example, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, narratives Christ’s crucifixion through the parts of a book, pursuing the metaphor in boards, pages, lines, text, and including this image of Christ’s splayed body: “First I saye that a booke hath two boardes: the two boardes of this booke is the two partes of the crosse, for when the booke is opened & spread, the leaues be cowched vpon the boardes. And so the blessed body of Christ was spread vpon the cross.”
There is some evidence, hence, for understanding the Christian book as the mobile “body of passion.” How about Deleuze and Guattari’s point that the book becomes the locus of authority and command? We have seen God hide his face in the Christian trope of betrayal and, with Luther, the book replace the Church as the location of authority—a book whose independence from the Church is given material proof in the Protestant trope of the book as a simple, somewhat abject artifact, and affirmed as such against the ornate, illuminated books of the Catholic Mass. Granted, the turn to scripture is not immediately appreciable as the “pure and literal recitation” without commentary or interpretation that Deleuze and Guattari see as characteristic of the root-book and its commanding formulas. And yet Luther saw God’s Word as truth without history, leaving Catholics like Thomas More to see this as bibliolatry and radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer to claim it to be a reification of scripture, worthless without spiritual transformation: “The man who has not received the living witness of God . . . knows really nothing about God, though he may have swallowed 100,000 Bibles.” As to Catholic teachings, there is a clear seam that links passion for the book with devotional practice in direct contrast to reading and interpretation.
All that said, if the root-book is religious in origin, it is not limited to such formations. As Curtius shows, metaphors of the total book, as mimetic complement to “the book of nature,” are found first in the Latin Middle Ages and soon cross over from the pulpit to philosophy, where they have featured in Montaigne, Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Goethe. More pertinent for our purposes, the leading edge of culture and politics has often proven to be especially receptive to the “strangest cult” of the book, a point Deleuze and Guattari make in the strongest critical terms: “Wagner, Mallarmé, and Joyce, Marx and Freud: still Bibles.” Mallarmé’s formulation of the book as “spiritual instrument”—“all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book”—is the clearest expression of this tendency. But the degree to which Marx is subject to the passional form of the book is questionable; indeed, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels themselves make a direct critique of the religious mode of the book that is remarkably resonant with that of Deleuze and Guattari. Nonetheless, this defense of Marx cannot always be made of Marxism, for the regimes where Marxism became state doctrine were often characterized by a considerable cult of the book. It is to one of these regimes that I now turn to discuss a specific instance of a political root-book.
Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book
It would be hard to find a book more enmeshed in its immediate environment than Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, otherwise known as the Little Red Book. It has claim to be the second best selling book in world history, and although it trails far behind the Bible, it makes up for this in the astonishing concentration of its production: 1 billion official copies were published in a period of five years, between 1966 and 1971, with the second year of the Cultural Revolution, 1967, accounting for 350 million. The Little Red Book was not a cause of the Cultural Revolution, yet—as is indicated by its frequent and central presence in the iconic posters and photographic records of the period—it was an object with a considerable agential role in inspiring, distributing, and consolidating the collective passions of that upheaval (Figures 5 and 6; Plate 4). These posters and images also speak to the significance of its material qualities, as does its popular name, which foregrounds less the content, the “quotations,” than the physical dimensions of the book and its color.
Quotations was principally a means for the transmission of the politico-philosophical system officially known as “Mao Zedong Thought,” of which it is no contradiction to say that the book was at once an oversimplified distillation and an articulation of its essence, insofar as the book handled and extended the passional semiotic of Maoism. This semiotic was manifest in concentrated fashion in the Cultural Revolution, the mass movement with which the book’s fate was intertwined and the context of my discussion here. For brevity’s sake, in what follows, I have taken the passional structure of Mao Zedong Thought to be the principal “content” of Quotations, though I make occasional comment about its textual instantiations in particular works.
Figure 5. “Mao Zedong Thought is the magic weapon to victoriously combat all enemies at home and abroad!,” circa 1967. Courtesy of IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections, http://chineseposters.net/.
Figure 6. Red Guards holding aloft Mao’s Little Red Book: “Chairman Mao is the reddest red sun in our hearts,” 1967. Courtesy of the University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/.
Whereas Mao’s China comprised various semiotic regimes, Mao Zedong Thought presents a clear instance of the dynamics of the word in the passional or postsignifying regime of signs. Žižek is not alone in observing a wholly “cosmic” orientation in Maoism, one that bound the Chinese people to a transcendent trajectory of liberation that Mao’s Thought discerned in the movement of human and natural history. In Mao’s understanding of dialectics, the world was essentially composed of “two major forces, revolution and counter-revolution,” as he put it, a “struggle of opposites [that] is absolute.” It was a formulation that Mao might as equally use to appraise particular political conjunctures as he would the likely outcome of nuclear war or the evolution of humanity. For instance: “The life of dialectics is the continuous movement towards opposites. Mankind will also finally meet its doom. When the theologians talk about doomsday, they are pessimistic and terrify people. We say the end of mankind is something which will produce something more advanced than mankind.”
This prophetic reflection of the movement of human and natural history in Mao’s Thought was simultaneously a separation from it, one that protected the “purity” of the word against the “ubiquitous contamination” of the everyday, as Robert Jay Lifton describes it. Hence we find that the trope of purity and corruption is liberally peppered through Quotations. For example, regarding the practice of “criticism–self-criticism” (an ethicopolitical technique integral to the Cultural Revolution, as I consider subsequently), Mao writes that it “prevents all kinds of political dust and germs from contaminating the minds of our comrades and the body of our Party.” And in a variation of the trope, the purity of Mao Zedong Thought is elsewhere conveyed, intriguingly for our purposes, with the aid of a metaphor drawn from the realm of textual matter, as Mao assesses the apparent advantages of the “poor and blank” condition of the peasantry: “A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it.”
Mao Zedong Thought, then, was a pristine truth in separation from the world, but, in accord with the passional structure of the root-book, it was subsequently returned to the world as authority and action. As such, it constituted the Maoist “point of subjectification,” spiritualizing the word as substance, nourishment, and energizer of an immortal revolutionary cause. In the language of a 1966 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) newspaper, “the thought of Mao Tse-tung is the sun in our heart, is the root of our life, is the source of all our strength. Through this, man becomes unselfish, daring, intelligent, able to do everything; he is not conquered by any difficulty and can conquer every enemy.”
As to the means by which this passional subjectivity was embodied and performed, individual identification with revolutionary immortality was achieved in large measure through proximity with death. This is amply evident in the “three constantly read articles” of the Cultural Revolution period, two of which feature heavily in Quotations. “Serve the People,” for instance, discourses on a “worthy death,” a death of great weight and significance as a consequence of serving the immortal popular cause, in contrast to the insignificant death, “lighter than a feather,” that arises from assisting reactionary forces without attachment to the substance of revolution. The point was not to die, exactly, though this had a place as we will see, but rather, as Lifton puts it, “to cultivate such a death and thereby, during life, enhance [one’s] individual sense of immortality,” one’s intense affective investment in the cause. A worthy death might be cultivated while facing the enemy in the battlefield, as in “Serve the People” and “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” but it also applied to more mundane circumstances, where it evoked selfless dedication to the revolutionary cause even under the most inopportune circumstances. Hence the significance of the third of these articles, “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains,” the only text that appears in Quotations in its entirety. Drawing from folklore, it tells of an old man who strove to dig away by hoe two great peaks that obstructed his home. This impossible task was “foolish” by conventional wisdom, but the man’s unshaken dedication to his task, to which he offered his progeny “to infinity,” moved God to send two angels to carry off the mountains. In Mao’s version, God is brought down to earth, where now “the masses” convert the impossible into the possible. The story displays the intense subjectivism of Mao’s Thought, a position that in its extreme taught that the external world was to be appraised only as a function of subjective purity and revolutionary will. As one volume on the study of Mao’s Thought put it, a propos the attempted agricultural transformations of the Great Leap Forward, “many living examples show that there is only unproductive thought, there are no unproductive regions.”
Mao’s Thought also gained traction in its ability to function at the level of personal morality. As is apparent already, Maoism was as much a struggle internal to the self as it was oriented toward collectivity and external goals. In the words of Lin Biao, head of the PLA, “we must regard ourselves as an integral part of the revolutionary force and, at the same time, constantly regard ourselves as a target of the revolution.” This application onto oneself of the Maoist principle of “one divides into two” (the universal struggle of revolutionary tendencies against counterrevolution) took the principal form of criticism–self-criticism, but Mao’s Thought also presented a set of ethical criteria and ritual practices to evaluate and manage everyday behavior, some of which I consider shortly.
If the revolutionary subject was to embrace immortality through the ethical limit of a worthy death, disregard for death featured more directly in Mao’s socioeconomic strategies, as the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward (1958–62) confirms. Tens of millions died of starvation, overwork, torture, and summary killing as Mao sought an ultravoluntarist route to industrialization via the superexploitation of labor—its aim crystallized in the governing slogan “Catch up with and surpass Britain in fifteen years”—while exporting grain during the famine to fund the import of military and industrial technology. And Mao’s words are no less revealing than his policies, as in this framing of nuclear war, for example, from a letter to Nikita Khrushchev: “For our ultimate victory, . . . for the total eradication of the imperialists, we . . . are willing to endure the first [U.S. nuclear] strike. All it is is a big pile of people dying.”
Such were the postsignifying characteristics of Mao Zedong Thought that it is no surprise that, while an early essay by Mao called to “oppose book worship,” by the time of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s texts had become elevated to a fount of singular truth: “the best books in the world, the most scientific books, the most revolutionary books.” Or, in Lin Bao’s preface to the second edition of Quotations, Mao’s Thought was “a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power.” Thus sanctified, Mao’s words also took on the authoritarian function of the root-book that we saw earlier in Venegas, as is apparent in the command of the Communist Party daily, the Red Flag, to “establish with utmost effort the absolute authority of the great Mao Zedong’s Thought,” “let Mao Zedong’s Thought control everything.”
From the passional structure of Mao’s Thought, we can now turn to the textual and physical form of Quotations, a central means of its social articulation. Quotations was initially published on a restricted basis in May 1964 under Lin Biao’s direction as a vehicle for the political instruction of the PLA. The book comprised extracts from Mao’s works in thirty thematic chapters, extending to thirty-three in 1965, with 427 quotations in all. Short and abstracted from the political and tactical contexts of their initial creation, most of the quotations offered not “concrete political analysis” but “moral truths,” “trans-historical scripts for revolutionary praxis,” as Daniel Leese and Andrew F. Jones characterize them. In other words, the quotations lent themselves to the ungrounded and intensified subjectivations of Mao’s passional regime. More concretely, their textual structure enabled a pedagogical practice characterized by group learning and recitation of passages and slogans, an approach long practiced in the PLA that became pivotal to the book’s use following mass publication in 1966. Lin Biao described the benefits of such pedagogy thus: “Learning the writings of Comrade Mao Zedong is the shortcut to learning Marxism-Leninism. Chairman Mao’s writings are easy to learn, and once learned can be put to use immediately.” While such a group-work approach to the “shortcut” of learning clearly has progressive features, its proximity to authoritarian signifying patterns is also apparent. As an “active” rather than “ideational” semiotic structure, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the concise formulas of the root-book require only identification, as interpretation “gives way to pure and literal recitation forbidding the slightest change, addition, or commentary.” That this was a feature of Mao’s regime is often noted in the critical literature, but it was also actively affirmed, as is apparent from the words of a Shanghai newspaper from 1967: “We must carry out Chairman Mao’s instructions whether we understand them or not.” One might question the degree to which such rote learning could truly secure enduring identification, but Leese has argued that, combined with efforts to solicit strong emotional response from the text, rote repetition offered certainty and security amid the social disorientation that followed the Great Leap Forward. It may in fact have been the need to in this way contain the impact of the famine that was the impetus for Lin Biao’s adoption of this pedagogical practice, and hence for compiling Quotations in the first place.
The passional activation of Quotations was constituted, then, in the structure of its content and pedagogical mode of reception, but it also took shape in the book’s wider material properties. Jones argues that the pocket-sized portability of the Little Red Book, and perhaps even its “talismanic character,” was in part “an extension of the underlying logic of the quotation as a literary genre,” the promiscuous capacity of quotation to circulate as an integrated and autonomous unity abstracted from specific context. True, there is correlation between the book’s quotational and physical forms, but the determinations and effects of the latter, and the social dynamics of its reception and utilization, are not reducible to its textual mode. Designed to fit into soldiers’ breast pockets, and vinyl-clad as protection for use in the field, the portability of Quotations combines with its redness, and this is its most striking and alluring feature. Its red vinyl covers unify the book globally across its translations, perhaps with something of a universal appeal, but in China they carried particular semiotic resonance. Already a prominent signifier of prosperity in Chinese culture, red connoted a commitment to Chinese communism and was elevated into a foundational sign of passional struggle during the Cultural Revolution. One former Red Guard recalls,
At the time China was engulfed in a permanent red storm. . . . Chairman Mao was our red Commander-in-Chief. We called ourselves “his little red devils.” We read and quoted his little red book. Wore his red buttons on our chests. Red Flags. Red armbands. Red blood. Red hearts. . . . We could not tolerate anyone who was of a different color.
In this fashion, the redness of Quotations could be experienced as a collective flood of color. Describing Mao’s 1966 sunrise audiences with the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, one biographer writes, “Waved in the air, the red covers [of Quotations] made the square resemble a field ablaze with butterflies.” But the mass distribution of this compact object—with the rich sensory qualities that are germane to the tactile, portable medium of the book—was such that its compound of redness, struggle, and Mao Zedong Thought could also be experienced at an intimate, personal level. The endorsement leaf in Lin Biao’s calligraphy contributed to a feeling of intimacy with the book, a feeling no doubt entrenched by the emotional disjunction associated with the subsequent defacement or removal of this page by each owner, following Lin Biao’s death and denunciation. The book could also take part in everyday ritual. At the start of the work and school day, groups would line up in front of Mao’s portrait and wave Quotations while giving the “three respects and three wishes”; the same practices might also take place immediately on waking or before a meal. Rhythmic waving of the book also had a place in Maoist dance routines known as “loyalty dances,” and according to Xing Lu, there was even a correct manner of holding Quotations at such ceremonies: with the thumb placed in front and fingers behind, the book would be held over the heart to indicate loyalty and boundless love.
Quotations played a particular role too in the monomania of the Red Guards, the young passional agents of the Cultural Revolution, known for their nomadic mass movement across the country in the “exchange of revolutionary experience” and the violence that followed such injunctions as “Beat to a pulp any and all persons who go against Mao Zedong Thought” and “Long live the red terror” (to quote Red Guard wall posters from two elite middle schools in Beijing). It is a suitable moment to pause and underscore the role of “reception” or the “reader” in the social production of Quotations. The Red Guards complete the Little Red Book, but they also make it, for it only came to be itself because of the mass consumption associated with the Cultural Revolution and the particular role that it took therein. The Cultural Revolution shows too how complex is the phenomenon of readership, for the productive consumption of this book took many forms other than “reading”—including, as I have suggested, devotion, display, and ritual—as much as the nature of reading here, in the action-oriented semiotic within which it was manifest, was itself highly varied. But what about variation in interpretation, the fundamental feature of reader-focused theories of the production of text? There was in fact considerable variation in readers’ interpretations of Quotations, with different individuals, state functionaries, and Red Guard factions seeking to mobilize meanings in different contexts and to different and competing ends. And yet variation in the interpretation of particular texts (aided by the ungrounded nature of the quotations, as I noted earlier) was perfectly compatible with uniformity in the manifestation of their passional structure, in the monomania of Mao Zedong Thought.
Monomania, this central property of the postsignifying regime, had a specific articulation with the Red Guards’ mode of autonomy, an autonomy that was intrinsic to the unleashed brutality of the Cultural Revolution, following Mao’s call to “boldly arouse the masses” against the established authorities. This is the somewhat paradoxical autonomy of the passional mode of subjectivity, with its monomania and reductive echolalia, where “the more you obey . . . the more in command you are.” As Lifton argues, the autonomy of the Red Guards was characterized by a rare sense of “participating in a great moral crusade” and “of taking matters into their own hands,” but in a fashion constituted through a “totalistic attack upon any signs of the independent (non-Maoist) self.” Betrayal, that constitutive feature of the passional regime of signs, was endemic: the Chinese revolution was understood to be suffering betrayal by internal “capitalist roadsters”; revolution against this, the Maoist principle of “cultural revolution,” was formulated as a perpetual betrayal, as the Party and established authorities were figured as that which must be ever challenged and overcome; Red Guards were to betray themselves, splitting off any “black” or counterrevolutionary qualities; and traitors and capitalist roadsters were found in every corner of society, ever setting off passional subjectivities on their next proceeding. My interest here is in the monomania set loose, but, given the tremendous appeal the Cultural Revolution had among large sectors of the Chinese population and, indeed, among Western radicals, it is important to register first the particular delusion of this cause.
Though some trends in current philosophy after Badiou still claim otherwise, the Cultural Revolution was not a highpoint of global revolutionary endeavor but a power struggle resulting from a split in the governing class of a demagogic state capitalist regime, as Mao, utilizing his preeminent place in official ideology, sought to reassert his authority (and, ultimately, his recourse to industrialization through superexploitation and terror) following the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. Simon Leys (pen name of Pierre Ryckmans) is most insightful here. An ardent Sinologist, he was, along with the Situationist International (SI), one of the very rare voices on the Left not to succumb to Mao and the ideological representation of the Cultural Revolution. Leys puts it plainly: “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ had nothing revolutionary about it except the name, and nothing cultural about it except the initial tactical pretext.” Indeed, he suggests that the Red Guard phenomenon displayed some striking similarities with the Fascist movement of the Blue Shirts in 1930s Koumintang China, the two sharing the self-declared principles of unconditional allegiance to a supreme leader; anti-intellectualism; fixation on manual labor as a transcendent purpose; cultural conservatism, manifest as physical attacks on perceived decadent Western styles and forms; and the singular value of mass, popular violence. True, the Cultural Revolution claimed to be a revolution against the capitalist corruption of the Party, a movement for communism conceived of as perpetual revolution against establishment stasis and the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas), but this was merely Mao’s ruse to unseat his opponents in the bureaucracy. And it served precisely this aim, a churn of the bureaucracy rather than a challenge to the real conditions of hardship and exploitation, class conditions that Mao, in his efforts toward rapid industrial modernization, in fact sought to entrench and extend. Why, then, did it attract such astonishing emotional investment and mass political support? Leys speculates that it was precisely because the Chinese peasants and workers had every reason to believe the rhetoric, to feel that they were indeed barred from the promised classless society, that they seized the proffered route to revolution so vigorously. He presents his thesis thus:
The “class struggle” as understood in the Maoist system—that is, the denunciation by the masses of guilty parties who have been singled out for them by the powers that be—is the regime’s safety valve, its basic hygiene, a periodic bloodletting that allows it to eliminate the toxins in its organism. For the masses, this ritual exercise gives a very convincing appearance of reality. The violence and the blood that always flows in these operations, the high positions and broad powers that had once been the preserve of the bureaucrats now found guilty—all this seems to show that a true revolution is occurring. In fact, the double cross is perfect, for the essence of the bureaucratic system is the interchangeability of bureaucrats, and no mere change of personnel could alter the nature of the regime.
The point is aptly made also in René Viénet’s documentary détournement, Peking Duck Soup, from which I cite a passage that conveys the sudden transformation of the social regime as despotic signification gave way to passional monomania:
The Orwellian system built up over the years under which everyone had to be aware at all times of the police, the army, the party, the union, not to mention the factory bosses—the Red Guards transcend this system in a matter of hours. What had been jokingly called the “socialist ethic” disappears and is replaced by a new form of politics, which immediately evokes the unbounded admiration of the Western world. The entire population wakes up one morning to find itself subjected, without appeal, to the murderous caprices of Mao’s children, who have not yet drunk their Coca Cola. Of course, these kids have every reason to go on the rampage against the bureaucrats, but from the start they are barking up the wrong tree. Instead of doing a number on the bureaucracy, they do one on the proletariat.
Such, then, were the principles and realities of the Cultural Revolution. Its evaluative criterion was of course Mao Zedong Thought. Mao’s Thought was the means of assaying practice and of stoking the flames of passional flight, as was especially apparent in the technique of criticism–self-criticism (or struggle–criticism–transformation). Originally a formal procedure for confessing and externalizing offending acts, and so developing a redemptive integration of individuals with the Party, in the Cultural Revolution, criticism–self-criticism became entwined with the Red Guards’ destructive monomania. In other words, it shifted from an integrating, “collegial” relation to a postsignifying linear proceeding along a “principle of autocracy,” as Lowell Dittmer puts it, where “the indeterminacy of Mao’s Thought as a calculus of innocence or guilt meant that criticism had no intrinsic limits”:
Once someone came under attack, there was an inevitable dynamic to the criticism process which propelled it towards his destruction. The target was isolated, since any contact with him ran the risk of implication. His self-criticisms were indignantly rejected, for to be resolute and merciless was to be “Left,” whereas to accept self-criticism was to risk siding with a condemned man. This inherent dynamic vitiated the intended function of criticism as a sort of ordeal by fire for aberrant cadres, simply because no target could possibly “pass the test.”
What place did Quotations take in this passional monomania? Manifesting the root-book’s function as location and guarantor of truth and authority, the mass-distributed object of Quotations served to open a direct line of affective integration between Mao and the population that was unmediated by the Party’s interpretive authority. Moreover, the “reject[ion]” of “intermediaries or specialists,” as Deleuze and Guattari characterize the action-oriented modes of reception of the root-book, here enabled a recoiling of Mao into the masses, the subject of enunciation into the subject of the statement, a point visually displayed in Figure 6. Like a portable packet of signs, Quotations thus provided the Red Guards with a distributed and mobile set of points of passional subjectification and enunciation unmoored from, and in betrayal of, established sources of institutional power. If “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as Mao’s maxim has it, here the gun had a ready companion in the book.
The weaponization of words features heavily in Lin Biao’s textual packaging of Quotations and was taken up at the time in Harun Farocki’s early short film, The Words of the Chairman (1967). Structured “like a commercial,” as Farocki later mused—or, we might say, like a slogan or quotation—a figure wearing a Mao-style hat tears out a page from Quotations to the audio accompaniment of Lin Biao’s preface. This is fashioned into a dart and launched into a bowl of soup at the dinner table of two characters wearing paper masks of the Shah of Iran and his wife, spattering the Shah as if shot (Figure 7). A literal reading is encouraged by knowledge that the film was made shortly after a critical moment in German militancy when the police killed a student demonstrator protesting the Shah’s visit to West Berlin. (That the film’s cinematographer was Holger Meins, soon to be of the Red Army Faction, does not discourage this reading.) And yet the blunt clarity of the message also serves to ironize a literal interpretation, as does the rather kitsch scene that opens and closes the film, the close-up of a spinning Little Red Book accompanied by Chinese choral music. This twofold quality of Farocki’s film partakes of the Orientalist manner by which Maoist slogans and artifacts were adopted by European radicals as they failed miserably to understand the Cultural Revolution, while at the same time pushing that into parody. Yet this way of framing Chinese Maoism is a very Euro-American story. In China itself, the relation between words and deeds was far from playful; the volitional power of Quotations in popular violence (including violence directed against those who defaced or accidentally damaged the book) was clear and apparent. For how else are we to interpret the images of impassioned Red Guards in the heat of upheaval, at mass rallies, in criticism sessions, at beatings, waving aloft, of all things, these diminutive red vinyl books?
True, Mao did not “hide his face” in the direct sense that Deleuze and Guattari mark as constitutive of the passional regime of signs—11 or 12 million Red Guards came to Beijing for the 1966 rallies with Mao, and his image, as part of the official cult of personality, was famously ubiquitous. But then his role as despot was never far off and was soon to return in the restoration of order, once Mao’s position in the Party had been reestablished (and the army was subsequently mobilized to stamp out the movement that it had hitherto protected, curtailing the passional flight of the Red Guards—and the workers and soldiers who had started to strike and mutiny against the Maoist regime and the Red Guards—and reasserting labor discipline). Until then, at these mass rallies, Mao rarely spoke beyond a few words, for to do otherwise would have been to risk the distributed authority of the passional forces set loose: “The leader who used to lecture for hours to persuade his followers of the merits of a new policy now merely appeared before them with an upraised hand and a glassy smile.”
Moving from the root-book to the rhizome-book, Deleuze and Guattari set out their counter figure by returning to the relation between the book and the world. If, as we have seen, the root-book is in a relation of separation and imitation with the world—“The law of the book is the law of reflection”—it is based on a misapprehension of nature: “How could the law of the book reside in nature, when it is what presides over the very division between world and book, nature and art?” It is a quite different understanding of nature that informs the rhizome-book, a book not characterized by a pristine truth in imitative separation from the world but by an immersive transformation, an “aparallel evolution of the book and the world.” In this sense, the “book exists only through the outside and on the outside.” Using a related metaphor, the book here is a “little machine” that plugs into its outside not to reproduce the world in the book’s image but to construct a discontinuous series of intensive states or plateaus, in relation to which it has no identity, it is always “broken.”
The root-book does of course also exist through relations with its outside (as we saw in the Cultural Revolution), but in the rhizome-book, the outside is no longer framed by the book’s spiritual autonomy and truth. Rather, the outside floods into the book, as a condition of becoming between the two. Here the distinction between “root” and “rhizome” assists in articulating a certain mode of being qua difference. The root is an arborescent image of thought, as the tree and its root evoke a binary logic of identity and difference, the latter merely a derivation of the former in a series of bifurcations from a primordial unity, whereby “One becomes two” (or “one divides into two,” as in the Maoist schema that Deleuze and Guattari reference in this context). The rhizome, by contrast, models the world of grasses and tubers, which have no trunk or unity but grow opportunistically at any point and in any direction. In a rhizome, then, it is not that the one divides into two but that “the One is always subtracted.” A rhizome is an acentered and nonhierarchical system that has “neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills.”
In enumerating the qualities of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari display a profound feeling for the many materialities of organic and inorganic life, and this is foregrounded in their characterization of its book, whereby the rhizome-book is understood to be a complex and variable arrangement of heterogeneous materials: “A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds.” Yet despite these materialist conceptual framings, Deleuze and Guattari offer little significant insight on bookish materials, on how the specificities of textual matter might be expressed in the mode of the rhizome-book. This is understandable, given the radically open process that the concept seeks to name, for the lack of concrete specificity functions to affirm the proliferation of specificities, unencumbered by the attractor of a delineated model. And we should register too that a rhizome-book is defined as much by its endogenous characteristics, its mutable encounters, as by any conceptual, formal, or physical features that might inhere within it. However, this lack of attention to the specific materialities of books also has the unfortunate effect of allowing the rhizome-book to appear by default as a rather abstract or metaphorical entity and not something with concrete manifestation in the realms of textual matter. This description of the rhizome-book is indicative: “The ideal for a book would be to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority . . . , on a single page, the same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social formations.” For all the powerful evocation here of the immanence of the book to its outside (the “plane of exteriority”), as material form, it features only as a metaphorical “single page.”
Skeptical readers might at this point respond that the rhizome-book is fundamentally a figure of philosophical production, that it aims to push philosophy from a reflective relation of reciprocal identity with the world to an immanent relation of variation, that this is where its materiality lies, not in any serious or sustained relation to the concrete forms of writing and publishing. The preceding identification of the “page” with, for example, “lived events” would seem to indicate as much, and the thesis can also find some support in Deleuze and Guattari’s typology, in their concept of the “fascicular root-book.” Designating the botched escape from the root-book, the concept is designed to scupper modernist experiments in textual and typographic form. Evoking fibrous or adventitious root systems, clusters of fine radicles without a central taproot, the fascicular root-book has severed its principal root or unity such that it opens out to the world, where the world is now understood to be fragmented and chaotic. But the book remains, in root-book mode, as a totalizing image of the (now chaotic) world. Imitative complementarity persists between world and book, object and subject, matter and spirit, as the book compensates for chaos with a secret or supplementary unity of the work amid its fragmentary form:
The abortionists of unity are indeed angel makers, doctors angelici, because they affirm a properly angelic and superior unity. . . . Unity is consistently thwarted and obstructed in the object, while a new type of unity triumphs in the subject. . . . The world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world. . . . A strange mystification: a book all the more total for being fragmented.
As I indicated earlier, Joyce’s decentered narratives and Mallarmé’s book qua “spiritual instrument” are Deleuze and Guattari’s main targets, but they also bring William Borroughs’s “cut-up” method to illustrate this fascicular figure of the book, and Nietzsche, whose “aphorisms shatter the linear unity of knowledge, only to invoke the cyclic unity of the eternal return.” Here the critique of formal experimentation is made in no uncertain terms:
To attain the multiple, one must have a method that effectively constructs it; no typographical cleverness, no lexical agility, no blending or creation of words, no syntactical boldness, can substitute for it. In fact, these are more often than not merely mimetic procedures used to disseminate or disperse a unity that is retained in a different dimension for an image-book. Technonarcissism.
And yet Deleuze and Guattari are not wholly hostile, for the passage continues:
Typographical, lexical, or syntactic creations are necessary only when they no longer belong to the form of expression of a hidden unity, becoming themselves dimensions of the multiplicity under consideration; we only know of rare successes in this. We ourselves were unable to do it. We just used words that in turn function for us as plateaus.
These quotations amply display Deleuze and Guattari’s own tastes in method—“We just used words”—but there is no a priori rejection here of intervention in the book’s material form. Neither should we expect there to be. If an “assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily acts on semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows simultaneously,” then it would be wholly inconsistent to confine the assemblage of the book only to the former. And so, succumbing to their own argument, A Thousand Plateaus does in fact make some brief positive comment on concrete experiments in book form. In developing the concept of the rhizome-book, Deleuze and Guattari give some prominence to three modern works on the early-thirteenth-century Children’s Crusades, works that generate a nomadic expression in the flow of narratives, movements, and peoples. While these books are still said to be subject to the unity of the fascicular root-book, here there is nonetheless definite appreciation of formal innovation. In Armand Farrachi’s La Dislocation, for instance, Deleuze and Guattari note enthusiastically that the “sentences space themselves out and disperse, or else jostle together and coexist, and . . . the letters, the typography begin to dance as the crusade grows more delirious.” And there is one example of a “rare success” that stands unchallenged: Absolument nécessaire. The Emergency Book by Joëlle de La Casinière, which is credited in a footnote as “a truly nomadic book.” Deleuze and Guattari make no further comment, but it is a bookwork of graphic poetry, travelogue, and montage, expressive of the itinerant lifestyle and art-practice of its author. As Casinière reports, Deleuze arranged for the publication of this book after she sent him a photocopy of the manuscript, though once it was published, he remarked, revealing a taste for the formal qualities of works without unity, that he preferred the “pale and poorly made photocopy” to the finished book.
The task, then, is to consider the dynamics of the rhizome-book in a way that is attentive not only to the conceptual and textual features of books but to their full materiality, their heterogeneous “working of matters.” I attempt this here through concrete cases, for it would run counter to the spirit of this most immanent of concepts to either set out universal criteria for the rhizome-book or consider it outside of its empirical expressions. In what follows, each set of books is initially approached, as was Mao’s Quotations, through its linguistic structure and/or conceptual content. But against the spiritual autonomy of the word in the root-book, here the word is shown to be enmeshed with, and unsettled by, diverse materials and oriented toward expression that is not constrained by the semiotics of passional authority. I place attention on the singular ways the particular books break with the root-book mode—break, that is, with its encyclopedic pretensions to totalizing knowledge, its imitative relation to the world, its authorial authority, and its sufficiency as an integrated whole. In the course of discussion, I touch on some features of the root-book that I have not thus far considered: its relation to the sensory patterns of the State-form and to the structures of the capitalist commodity. The focus throughout is on how the qualities of the rhizome-book are manifest in the artifact of the book itself, in the context of the aesthetic and political concerns of each book’s immediate environment. Since Deleuze and Guattari provide only minimal tools for analysis of the concrete materiality of books, I sometimes draw on concepts that they use to explore material culture in other fields. And to make one more preparatory point, I would underscore that the books are presented here not as a cumulative account of the emergence of the rhizome-book but as a variable field of its expression, each book foregrounding one or more aspects of the rhizomatic tendency in the material form of books.
Polysensuality and the Russian Futurist Book
Given the cleavage the root-book enacts with the external world, it is appropriate to start with a set of books within which the physical and sensory properties of matter take center stage: the Russian Futurist books of the 1910s. In their foundational practice of “the self-sufficient word” and “transreason” (zaum), the Russian Futurists (or Cubo-Futurists, as they are sometimes known) took the word not as a transparent vehicle of truth and communication but as polymorphous object, placing emphasis on the phonic, graphic, hieroglyphic qualities of writing. Here the word as object is unmoored from chains of signification, in relation to which it has only passing and occasional correspondence. Instead, phonetic analogy, rhythm, raw verbal material, and obscure idioms become the substance and organizing principles of expression, as the word “passes into sensation,” in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms. I made much of the passional dimension of the root-book, but books of the rhizome variety are not without their own kind of passion. In the transrational word, as Aleksei Kruchenykh has it, one of the main exponents of zaum, this “not yet frozen” or “melted language” is fundamentally “emotional” in tenor, associated with intensive states: “when the artist wants to convey images not fully defined,” “when one loses one’s reason (hate, jealousy, rage . . .),” “when one does not need it—religious ecstasy, love.”
Hence, while Mao’s Quotations abstracted the word from the world in the purity of Mao Zedong Thought, in Futurist transreason, the word is drawn back into its many and various material fields. In this one can discern elements of Deleuze and Guattari’s “presignifying” regime of signs, a regime that “fosters a pluralism or polyvocality of forms of expression that prevents takeover by the signifier and preserves expressive forms particular to content.” But the important point for my purposes is that this Futurist approach to language is interlaced with the form and physicality of the books themselves.
Russian Futurist books were conceived of as active, polysensual objects in a fashion that undoes the root-book cleavage between world and book, as the book becomes a vital entity adequate to the intensive movements of the transrational word. This manifests in a number of ways. It is most immediately apparent in the exuberance of materials that are deployed in Futurist books. Developing from an interest in folk culture, ritual-related art, ideographic text, illuminated manuscripts, and the ornate objects of nomadic peoples, Futurist books have a wild tactility about them. In deliberate contravention of the fine-printing tradition of the livre d’artistes, they are often roughly hewn works assembled of cheap, disposable materials—an early example, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, was famously bound in burlap—and diverse print technologies, including lithographed manuscript, handwriting, linocuts, hectography, and rubber stamps. They were not to be read as such but, in all their variability, existed to “see, listen to, and feel.”
To this polymorphous array of materials there corresponds a specific aesthetic form, one that is manifest against the principal sensory structures of the root-book. The modern book, as it has developed from the Gutenberg letterpress, intensifies the abstracted optical function at the expense of sensuous complexity. The rigid linear text, uniformity of letterforms, and identical copies produce, in Marshall McLuhan’s words, a “visual technology of uniform time and uniform continuous space in which ‘cause’ is efficient and sequential, and things move and happen on single planes.” We might infer from this one reason why Deleuze and Guattari also name the root-book the “State apparatus-book.” It not only produces patterns of dogma and authority, as we have seen in Quotations, but also imparts a State-form sensorium. The Gutenberg book is a microcosm, if you will, of the State function to bind movement to ground and regulate it as such—the “gravity” of the State-form, its production of “striated space.” Granted, this case can be overstated. The poetical and philosophical complexity and multivalence of text is not prevented by the linearity of its printed instantiation, and the spatial and temporal dimensions of the codex, in contrast to the scroll, make it a random-access device from the start, suitable for nonlinear, discontinuous reading, as Johanna Drucker and Peter Stallybrass have argued. Still, the Russian Futurists understood the Gutenberg book as presenting much stratification to react against.
In contrast to the optical aesthetic, Futurist books have a strong relation to the “haptic” aesthetic Deleuze and Guattari associate with nomadic art (it is not incidental that a number of the Russian Futurists were heavily influenced by the art forms of the Scythian nomads). I have noted that these books are most tactile, sensual entities, but the haptic is a mode of vision, an immersive “close vision” that invests the eye with the property of touch, as it draws vision into a field that dissolves perspective and is grasped only through a local and variable integration of parts, where “orientations, landmarks, and linkages are in continuous variation.” In Futurist books, the interweaving and merging of image and text, the use of handwriting, transrational flight of sense, graphic wandering of words, unbounded color, variability of printed materials, and fluctuation in rhythm all pull away from the striated, optical mode of the book and attract an immersive perception, one that allows for an experience of sensory simultaneity in what we might, after Deleuze and Guattari, call “ornamental text,” with “weak communication value.” Gerald Janecek thus writes of Kruchenykh’s work: “a page of ‘text’ need not be read sequentially in linear time, but can be taken at a glance and absorbed by the same process of free visual exploration used in studying a painting.” It is a disorienting sensory experience of which Kruchenykh was well aware: “We can change objects’ weight (the eternal force of gravity), we see buildings hanging in the air and the weight of sounds.”
As can be discerned in Kruchenykh’s comment here, the haptic aesthetic combines with a quality of movement. For Deleuze and Guattari, the haptic aesthetic comprises a particular kind of graphic inscription or “line,” an “inorganic line” that breaks with the “organic” mode of representation. Whereas organic representation, through the principle of symmetry, limits variability in repetition by maintaining the domination of a central point with radiating lines (as in star-shaped figures), haptic aesthetic forms express a power of variation, a “streaming, spiralling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line.” Such art no longer constructs an organic empathy between representation and human subject but articulates a different mode of life—the traits, flows, impulses of an elementary life of matter, an “inorganic life.” It is an aesthetic form found especially in the animal motifs of nomadic art: “the twisted animals have no land beneath them; the ground constantly changes direction, as in aerial acrobatics; the paws point in the opposite direction from the head, the hind part of the body is turned upside down; the ‘monadological’ points of view can be interlinked only on a nomad space.”
It is no surprise that these motifs find their way into Futurist books, sometimes in simple iconographic fashion, other times in sophisticated adaptations of central Scythian principles. But we might more productively approach the haptic movement of Futurist books through another aspect of nomadic aesthetics, its artifactual form. Deleuze and Guattari argue that the nomadic, inorganic line is associated with certain kinds of mobile objects—jewelry and weaponry. These objects do not “work” in and for striated space, as do tools, component parts of a labor process legally and economically bound to property, but express variable movement undetermined by the striating “gravity” of the State-form. If Futurist books construct a haptic aesthetic, as objects they share also this nomadic quality of movement. For the itinerant property of the medium of the book—this “most deterritorialized of things”—is no longer articulated with distributed authority (as it was in Mao’s Quotations) or with the striated perceptual patterns of the State-form (as is imparted by the Gutenberg book). Rather, like paper jewelry, these “living entit[ies]” that defy gravity and “fly out” on publication serve to distribute a feverish, inorganic life of matter.
The Futurist book also raises a challenge to the root-book’s linear or teleological relation to the world. As Nina Gurianova argues, the temporal, spatial, and rhythmic dislocations of these books are such that, to employ the name of one of the most accomplished Futurist works, this is a world backwards. But there is still perhaps a danger of the book operating here (in the mode of the fascicular root-book) as an archetype, of “typographical cleverness” propagating a supplementary unity in the fragmented work. It is important, then, that the undoing of the book’s teleological relationship to the world is compounded by another aspect of the Russian Futurist book, the persistent troubling of its own unity, as is especially evident in Kruchenykh’s work.
Kruchenykh had something of a compulsive passion for publishing and was chiefly responsible for upward of two hundred publications. But it is a passion operative against any principle that would orchestrate a unity or model in the work; true poets, he proclaimed, “should write on their books: after reading, tear it up.” This destructive tendency took the somewhat inorganic aesthetic form of an insistence on “the necessity and the importance of irregularity in art.” For instance, Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards)—a book of poetry by Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and images by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Nikolai Rogovin, and Vladimir Tatlin—is a highly heterogeneous collection of materials and rhythms. But it is also internally irregular: the order of pages differs between copies; individual lithographed pages vary in the color and weight of paper; rubber-stamped sheets have inconsistent use of letters and decorative symbols; even the covers of the book (by Goncharova, in what is the first example of collage in book design) vary between copies. Kruchenykh was also in the habit of assembling materials across different books: reproducing manifestos and texts in different works; using pages from one book in another; even, in one case, publishing a new book, Zaumnik, from an older work, Iz vsekh knig (From all books), simply by adding a newly designed cover (albeit one by Aleksandr Rodchenko). In these peculiar practices, the book becomes an interminable shuffling of fragments, a looping movement as pages are assembled and reassembled like the discontinuous folds of the most rhizomatic of organs: “These books . . . smell of phosphorous, like fresh brain curls.”
Antonin Artaud’s Paper Spells
In formulating the figure of the rhizome-book, Deleuze and Guattari make use of a concept they draw from Antonin Artaud, the “body without organs,” a concept that is well known to have considerable significance in their philosophical repertoire. If the root-book is one tendency in the field of the book, the book “also has a side facing the body without organs, which is constantly dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate.” That is, as a body without organs, the rhizome-book undoes the sensory and signifying organization of its subject. The haptic materialism of the Futurist book moved in this direction—breaking as it did with the sensory patterns of the striated optical function—but it is in Artaud’s paper “spells” or gris-gris that we find the most singular concrete experiment in textual matter qua body without organs. Artaud sent these epistolary objects from Ireland and the Sainte-Anne Hospital and Ville-Évrard asylum in France in 1937 and 1939 as protective or imprecatory devices to friends, doctors, and public figures—seven are known to exist, including one that remained unsent to Hitler. Composed of writing, pictograms, and obscure symbols in ink and colored crayon, included with letters or sent alone, these spells are hacked, scored, and burned objects that defy any attempt to separate artifact and text, material form and signifying content (Plates 5 and 6).
As with Futurist books, Artaud’s spells are entwined with a particular mode or experience of language, one that Deleuze elucidates in his comparative assessment of surface and depth in the linguistic operations of Lewis Carroll and Artaud. “I do not like poems or languages of the surface which smell of happy leisures and of intellectual success,” Artaud writes of Carroll. Against Carroll’s incorporeal linguistic surfaces, language for Artaud is carved into the body. Yet there is no simple opposition here between surface and depth; the point, instead, is that surface and depth become immanent to each other. It is an experience symptomatic of schizophrenia, where the body is an “involution” of the world around—a “body-sieve,” as Deleuze describes it, a “membrane of infinite crevices,” for Artaud. “Things and propositions have no longer any frontier between them, precisely because bodies have no surface. . . . Every word is physical and immediately affects the body.” It is here, in the schizophrenic breakdown of the division between things and words, that Deleuze and Guattari’s claim for the indistinction between what a book is and what it says, a book as thing and a book as words, can be taken as a statement of fact, and not as a confounding means of forcing one to think the interplay between divergent textual and sociomaterial means of expression (as I framed it in the preface). But at this moment, one must guard against allowing the loss of distinction between words and things to become the ascendance of words at the expense of things. That Deleuze and Guattari make no comment on the specific materialities of Artaud’s spells might indicate a failing on that front, though it is quite possible that they knew little of the material form of these works, which only came to public attention in the mid-1980s. But I am getting ahead of myself, for there is a little more to say about Artaud’s linguistic practice before we move to its medial inscription.
The experience of Artaud’s corporeal semiotic is of language as wounding assault: “One may invent one’s language, and make pure language speak with an extra-grammatical or a-grammatical meaning,” Artaud remarks on Carroll, “but this meaning must have value in itself, that is, it must issue from torment.” And it is to counter such wounding torment that Artaud develops his specific procedures, as Deleuze elucidates. In brief, Artaud isolates words, stripping them of their signifying function, whence they are released as phonetic elements that are singularly wounding, “unbearable sonorous qualities” that affect the sensory organs of the body. Phonetic values are then in turn undone, converted into “breath-words” and “howl-words,” overloaded with consonants, aspiration, and guttural sounds, as anyone who has heard recordings of Artaud’s performances will not readily forget. Here “all literal, syllabic, and phonetic values have been replaced by values which are exclusively tonic,” values that correspond not to a subject of signification but to a disaggregated body, a body without organs, “an organism without parts which operates entirely by insufflation, respiration, evaporation, and fluid transmission.”
Now, the point for my purposes is that Artaud’s spells can be understood as artifactual manifestations of this relation between language and body. To borrow from Stephen Barber’s assessment of Artaud’s notebooks, the spells are a “prototype,” a “testing-ground” for the transformational process of the body without organs. Artaud writes: “I have the idea to put into operation a new re-assembling of the activity of the human world, idea of a new anatomy. / My drawings are anatomies in action.” This operation is at once destructive of the existent corporeal and signifying body and a generative practice—a procedure both “terminal” and “insurgent.” And it takes paper not as a mediating substrate but as a material immanent to its procedures; in these spells, Artaud constructs a paper body without organs. Let us see how.
Writing in 1947, Artaud conceived of his spells as exorcisms performed on the “objective inertia” of the page, on its striating, organizing gradients: “The goal of all these drawn and coloured figures was to exorcise the curse, to vituperate bodily against the exigencies of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension.” No inert support for the written word, then, the sheet of paper is fully a part of the procedure. Like a “body-sieve,” the gris-gris emerges as a dynamic membrane, a field of forces: sign, color, word, lettering, combine with the material of the paper, perforated and frayed with burns, to produce “a surface that is as much active as acted upon,” as Agnès de la Beaumelle describes it. And it is, too, a corporeal surface, an extension of Artaud’s tormented body in process. Artaud performed incantation in the spells’ construction, taken over by convulsive movement as he stabbed, incised, perforated, and burned the page—“he worked in a rage,” as an intern at Rodez recalled, regarding the “grinding out” of one of Artaud’s self-portraits. In this way, signs were captured and held with the violent force of bodily gesture, so preventing signifying circulation, depriving the word of “its power to draw together or to express an . . . ideational event distinct from its present realization.”
The subject undone on the body-sieve of the paper was not only its author, if we can use that inadequate word for this visceral and medial procedure, but its audience too. Beaumelle describes the spells as “graphic expulsions,” artifacts intended to act physically on their interlocutors, to have an immediate and destabilizing sensory effect. It is an effect well explained by Paule Thévenin:
Writing no longer has as its sole function that of transmitting a message or a thought; rather, it must act by itself and physically. Everything is studied, calculated so as to strike the eye, and through it the sensitivity, of the person for whom the spell is destined. . . . We can scarcely look at these objects without being contaminated by their vehemence.
A trace of this vehement contamination can perhaps be gained from Beaumelle’s evocative presentation of the 1939 spells from Artaud’s time at the Ville-Évrard asylum:
Their imprecatory violence now resides more in the physical state of the missive than in the words. Inscribed with a thick ink crayon in purple, the different signs (crosses, stars, triangles, spirals in the shape of serpents, the cabalistic significance of which Artaud knew well) proliferate in all directions, invade the center of the paper itself, break the continuous thread of writing drawn with the same ink crayon: fragments of writing and drawn pictograms henceforth form one body. Not only that: knots, amorphous clusters of crayon, seem to respond in counterpoint, proceeding from the same charge of aggression, to the holes produced by burning the paper (the edges of which are also ravaged); and traces of violent shades of yellow, blue, and red (Artaud also knew the symbolism of colors: these are the colors of death) intensify by their physical presence the imprecatory force of the words. These are no longer simple votive letters but true magical objects, to be handled while making ritualistic gestures . . . , which can “illuminate themselves,” like “gris-gris.”
The medium of the letter served Artaud’s graphic expulsions well, for the intimate affect germane to this direct and personal mode of textual communication is compounded by the letter’s frail and ephemeral form. If the Futurist book introduced the “worldbackwards” into the teleological dimension of the book’s unity and authority, Artaud’s spells also refuse existence as coherent and enduring works: “These are not drawings / they figure nothing, / disfigure nothing, / are not there to / construct / edify / establish / a world.” The spells are fragments, their audience—the addressees of these artifacts delivered by post—limited and temporary, and they exist, in their asubjective affects, only at the edge of destruction: “And the figures that I thereby made were spells—which, after so meticulously having drawn them, I put a match to.”
The last example I will consider emerges from an expressly communist environment, and as such it allows me to consider the material properties of the rhizome-book through a more overtly political lens. There is considerable justification for Guy Debord’s claim that his and Asger Jorn’s 1959 work, Mémoires, was an “anti-book.” The textual genre of the memoir typically serves to marshal the identity and historical significance of a public persona, of which General de Gaulle’s war memoir was a contemporaneous example, as Karen Kurczynski notes (and as Debord subversively acknowledges by including a snippet from that work in his own). Its adoption by a young avant-gardist was a provocation, clearly, and one that left little of the genre intact, though Debord’s anti-book was constructed through many other planes of material text.
Mémoires is at once a fragmentary recollection of Debord’s pre-Situationist milieu around the Lettrist International; an exercise in the techniques of détournement and dérive; and an unworking of its own points of identification, meaning, and narrative coherence. Its pages are filled with scattered text and image fragments usurped and uncredited from disparate medias and sources. Architectural diagrams; map fragments; lines from Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, and other literary and popular sources; fragments from Marx—it opens with Marx’s antimemorial statement “let the dead bury the dead”—cartoons, advertisements, scientific treatises, and so forth, all distributed without hierarchy to construct an impressionistic sense of events, atmospheres, ideas, and encounters (Plates 7 and 8). Interlaced with these are the “supporting structures” of lines, splashes, and planes of vibrant color provided by Debord’s artist comrade, Jorn. Confirming the anti-book valence of these arrangements, the plain wrappers of Mémoires were covered with heavy-grade sandpaper. On one hand, this might exemplify the more self-regarding dimensions of Debord and the SI, typical in this respect of the historical avant-garde; the sandpaper seems to signal a triumphant and self-certain book arrived to damage those against which it was placed. I touch on the limits of the SI later, but I seek here to concentrate on the aspects of Mémoires that pushed beyond them. On the other hand, then, the striking effect of the sandpaper covers is the way that when handled they foreground in a heightened sensory fashion the book’s physical form and external relations, an enforced appreciation of the book’s outside that is complemented by the almost translucent, rather fragile pages encountered within. This interpretation finds some support in the account of the book’s production. The material was actually proposed by the book’s Danish printer Verner Permild, of the firm Permild and Rosengreen, who also printed Jorn and Debord’s earlier bookwork, Fin de Copenhague. He was responding to Jorn’s request for a binding that would excite the senses—sticky asphalt, Jorn suggested, that “should be slightly uncomfortable to the touch but durable.”
The critical impact of Mémoires on the material field of the book includes two aspects that I have not directly considered in the rhizome-books discussed thus far: a critique of capital and the commodity and a specifically communist intervention in the problem of the root-book’s subject. I draw these out through aspects of the book’s content, but there is now a reasonable volume of research on the content of Mémoires, excusing me to concentrate on paratextual aspects and the sociomaterial forms and relations with which the book was interlaced.
As with Artaud’s spells and the Russian Futurist books, Mémoires breaks with the prevailing mode of communication, but it does this from a position specifically attentive to the function of language in capitalist society. As Frances Stracey notes in her discussion of Mémoires, language for the SI was bound up with an emergent cybernetic mode of production that integrated signification with command in an “informationist” paradigm that sought to eradicate all linguistic redundancies and ambiguous signals. This was a “universal language” of which, “since its advent, the triumphant bourgeoisie has dreamed.” More succinctly, “words work.” There is a striking relation here with Deleuze’s critique of the place of “universals of communication” in contemporary “control society,” with its distributed and continuous systems of regulation, as I touched on in chapter 1: “speech and communication have been corrupted. They’re thoroughly permeated by money—and not by accident but by their very nature.”
For Deleuze, politics cannot resist this situation with an alternative communication—a “counterinformation” or a “democratic conversation”—because what is required is a breach in the very modes of subjectivity and exchange constituted in communicational systems. Deleuze’s elusive term for such practice is “noncommunication,” one that also appears in Debord’s 1961 film Critique of Separation. Unlike Deleuze, the SI at times held to the future possibility of a liberated communication fully present to itself; in the same year that Mémoires was fabricated, the SI journal, for instance, declared that “all forms of pseudo-communication must be consigned to utter destruction, so that one day we may achieve real, direct communication.” It is a piece with the other figures of presence that mark the limits of the SI’s communism, most notably its notion of “radical subjectivity” (to be liberated and whole again after shucking off the chains of passivity) and the workers’ council (the SI’s totem of a future communist form of self-directed labor, the collective management rather than abolition of work). If the SI were only this, there would be little use in returning to it today. But it contains a good deal that pushes against these limits, not least with its politics of noncommunication.
The Situationists found their breach in the informationist paradigm through the method of détournement. As in the plundered visual and textual sources of Mémoires, détournement is the reuse of existing semiotic and aesthetic materials in new ensembles that seeks, in Jorn’s words, a “devaluation” of received patterns of meaning. The association with the category of political economy, “value,” is not accidental, for this was a devaluation of language to match that of social production more widely: “words will not cease to work until people do.” In a détournement, the new ensemble derives its “peculiar power” from holding together trace associations of the devalued elements with the new senses created. In Debord and Gil Wolman’s words, its effects are “dependen[t] on memory,” because “the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.” Why is this? As information cleanses the communicative channel of redundancies, it performs an individuation of speaker and auditor, consolidating their identities with each repetition, the memory of the auditor-subject serving to condense the repetitions into a coherent center, a subject “immobilized in the falsified center of the movement of its world.” Détournement introduces redundancy and ambiguity into the communicative channel, making meanings proliferate and scatter. But its effectivity lies in the degree to which this proliferation dislodges the integrating or subject-producing capacity of memory, as familiar and identity-confirming bits of information now appear strange and disarticulated, no longer providing their consolidating effect. If détournement is, hence, the first step toward a “literary communism,” it is so in its persistent wrenching of language from the paradigm of information and its subjective functions. “It is not ‘the nadir of writing’ but its inversion.”
The destructive orientation to language in détournement necessarily troubles the textual medium favored by the historical avant-garde. It can establish no unique and unified work in the manner of “some totalizing, Mallarméan Book,” as Tom McDonough observes. The works of détournement are of a different order, and Mémoires is one of these, “entirely composed of prefabricated elements,” as the title page notes. Its composition of usurped and devalued words and images undercuts the possibility of a distinct and self-expressive authorial subject, a move all the more powerful for its apparent location in the autobiographical genre of memoir. The referential object of the book, Debord’s Lettrist milieu, is similarly undone as a coherent world or political subject, something itemized and foreclosed in linear historical memory. Structured around three dated chapters that indicate significant points in the life of Debord and the Lettrist International—so establishing the book as a prehistory of the SI, which was founded two months before he commenced work on the book—moments of this “memory” come into focus at points. But it is an unstable and virtual historical field, at once charged with potential—comprising, as the first page warns, “lights, shadows, shapes,” “fringes of silence,” “full of discord and dismay”—and lost, irrecoverable, and resistant as such.
The technique of devaluation operates here not only in the redeployment of existing semiotic materials but also in their singular instantiation on the pages of the book. As the SI journal later noted of Mémoires, “the writing on each page runs in all directions and the reciprocal relations of the phrases are invariably uncompleted.” Such indeterminacy is compounded by the cumulative effect of the book, with concepts and meanings coming in and out of focus as they resonate, accumulate, and dissipate across its pages. And this is not only an effect of language but is accentuated by the dramatic pattern and spatialization of the work, as text and image are structured, counterposed, and overcome by Jorn’s variously lulling, violent, humorous, and vertiginous sheets, pools, and scratchings of vibrant color, what amounts to a “grammar of abstract form,” as Kurczynski describes it, “deliberate sensory provocations” that insist on active reading from the viewer. Jorn’s technique is in part an instance of his experiments toward an immanent, topological mode of aesthetic expression, what in a later text he describes by marking a distinction with the “Euclidean geometry” of Wassily Kandinsky’s paint dripping from a distance: “If you work very close to the manuscript, the flow of colours makes surfaces, blotches”; it is the painterly articulation of a “polydimensional cosmos at the surface.” As such, Jorn considered Mémoires, and the potentials it pushed in lithographic book production, to recall the medieval manuscript, but now in a new, post-Gutenberg form. And yet if Mémoires was to be such, it was not as an expression of the creative labors of the heroic artist. As Kurczynski argues, Jorn’s drips and pools of printed color, mechanically reproduced in glaring commercial gradients, are something of a pastiche of the abstract painting of Jackson Pollock, of the authenticity and rugged individuality that the American culture industry exported as his politically expedient global image. This is the context within which to understand Jorn’s remark to the publisher that the production of Mémoires—comprising, remember, entirely prefabricated elements—was to be a work of “total industrialization,” that “should be finished without us having anything to do with it.”
It should be underscored, and it is an astonishing achievement, that in the midst of these intensive, disorienting characteristics, Mémoires maintains a conceptual rigor and force. Indeed, this rigor is inherent to the book’s disorienting qualities, for it is found not in the conventional form of philosophical demonstration but in the practical performance of its concepts (which is not, as we will see shortly, to say that it sought or achieved the identity of theory and practice). Such performance is not limited to détournement; the book also invites its readers to engage with it in the Situationist manner of a dérive. Against the spectacular time of capital, the empty succession of equivalent units of time, which, as I argued earlier, the medium of the book models in its linear structure, in Mémoires, time is loosened from determination, opened to chance, nonlinearity, and irreversibility, as the reader drifts through its fragments and spatiotextual arrangements, making it anew with each encounter, as one might drift through a city, the more usual domain of the Situationist practice of the dérive. In fact, the form here exceeds the content, extending a practice and a sensibility of détournement and dérive that can work against the limits of their textual articulations in this book, which at one point carries an inexcusable misogyny, an index of the failure of the SI to adequately develop a communist critique of the sexism of itself and its times. One of the trace associations that Mémoires holds in its détournement is the popular fascination with the nineteenth-century killer of women, Jack the Ripper, the enduring nature of which is a persistent indictment of the sexism that inheres in the modern imaginary of the city. Granted, a détournement appropriates to unsettle and destroy, but Debord here merely adopts the misogynistic ambience that is constructed and consumed in the Ripper myth. For as Patrick Greaney has shown, Debord draws a simile between the Ripper’s evisceration and arrangement of the organs of his murdered victims and the cutting and montage that comprise a détournement, while allowing the Ripper, “that other night prowler,” to stand metonymically for himself as practitioner of the dérive.
We follow a more critical path when considering the effect of Mémoires on the structure of the commodity, a pivotal aspect of its anti-book character. The commodity form of the book is a feature strangely absent from Deleuze and Guattari’s assessment, as if on this matter they succumbed to the obfuscating power of the root-book. The book is a form of commodity that is especially effective at hiding its commercial nature, its capitalist structure obscured by its apparently universal value as a transcendent intellectual, moral, and aesthetic good. It is as if the generic capitalist power of commodity fetishism—to produce an autonomous artifact severed in consumers’ minds from its relations of production—is given a boost by the spiritual power of the root-book, these dual powers of dematerialization conjoining in something of a perfect commodity. For despite appearances, these industrial “goods which pretend not to be goods at all” have been entwined with the emergence and development of the commodity form. As we saw in chapter 1, not only was printing instrumental in the division of intellectual and manual labor that lies at the heart of capitalist abstract labor, but the book was itself the first standardized and reiterable mechanically produced mass commodity, the book industry being a prime mover in the division of labor, the hourly wage, new technologies, consumer credit, and privatization of language through copyright—and it remains today fully enmeshed in the latest industrial and technological developments.
In this realm of the commodity, or at least of monetary exchange, Mémoires has unsurprisingly become something of a rare item, changing hands today for upward of $4,000. But in its time, this anti-book had an intrinsic anti-commodity orientation. Jorn’s advocacy of its “industrialization” was aimed at the cult of artistic virtuosity; in the domain of industry proper, the abrasive material of the book’s sandpaper covers defies the commodity values of smooth industrial production and circulation, as the printers experienced quite literally, to the cost of the knife in their cutting machine. And the SI explicitly framed the book as a product of “anti-design,” an “unpopular book” against the popularity of the mass-market commodity: “There is too much plastic, we prefer sandpaper.” Of course, these apparently disruptive qualities could merely indicate a different circuit of commercial value, that of the livre d’artistes or artwork proper. It is significant, then, that Debord describes Mémoires as a book created not to be sold but to be a splendid or excessive gift, a “potlatch.” In his preface to the 1993 reedition, Debord explains, “Thus for thirty-five years my Mémoires were never put on sale. Their celebrity comes from only having been given out in the form of the potlatch: that is to say of the sumptuous gift, challenging the other party to give something more extreme in return.” Practiced by certain American Indian tribes on the Northwest coast, the potlatch is a circuit of inequivalent exchange where the prestige of each party is a function of the extravagance of its gift to the other, a gift that challenges the receiving party to outdo its extravagance in return. Exchange here does not obfuscate social relations, as it does in commodity circuits, but intensifies them, where relations are based not on scarcity and command but on abundance and waste, of giving without guarantee of return, the circulation of objects bearing an evental force of disequilibrium.
The practice gave the title to the Lettrist International’s bulletin, Potlatch, which was true to its name in being “sent gratuitously to addresses chosen by its editors, and to several people who asked to receive it. It was never sold.” Potlatch was an inexpensive, mimeographed typed text bulletin, not untypical of its time, though it has certain formal effects particular to its aims nonetheless. When contrasted with the experimental extravagance of much avant-garde publication, its stripped-back form evokes something of a clandestine newsletter, as Grail Marcus describes it, and its unauthorized break with official discourse was made all the more urgent and necessary by the apparent powerlessness of its medium, as compared with the “elegance of print,” which “empowers the most impossible of sentences” and thus delivers them to order:
In 1985 Debord republished the complete run of Potlatch in a brightly typeset, cleanly designed book with a purple cover; it gave a sheen of likelihood, of investment and return, to words that first trumpeted their messages of destruction and rebirth in a realm outside apparent possibility, dim and smudged on loose sheets of mimeo.
But notwithstanding these formal qualities, the gift nature of Potlatch, as Debord put it in 1959, concerned more its textual content than anything especially artifactual: “the non-saleable goods that a free bulletin such as this is able to distribute are novel desires and problems; and only the further elaboration of these by others can constitute the corresponding return gift.” Mémoires, by contrast, was a decidedly more multifaceted and material gift in the round. That said, it was in fact put on sale—the last page of Mémoires informs that it was distributed in the United States by Wittenborn and Company, a renowned New York art publisher and book shop, and Debord’s letters show efforts to secure distributors elsewhere. His 1993 recollection is inaccurate or a little disingenuous, then, but there is indication that the book’s place in commodity circuits was a function of the need to finance the SI’s activities, an inherently contradictory endeavor, and no suggestion that Mémoires did not also circulate as a potlatch.
If gift economies break with commodity exchange, they can introduce social relations that are themselves constraining, as the gift serves to bind and consolidate relations of obligation. And it is true that the circulation of printed matter had a significant role in maintaining (and breaking) the interpersonal and organizational relations of the SI, as Debord’s correspondence attests. But this is only part of the story, for the SI’s reading of the potlatch economy was more that of Georges Bataille than Marcel Mauss; if the excess affect or intensity associated with the gift-circulation of Mémoires was directed toward establishing relations of association, such relations were to manifest as a destructive effect on associational identity. That is to say, the patterns of association of the root-book—with its orientation toward establishing or molding an integrated collective subject within its regimes of truth and authority—have little presence in Mémoires, which in this sense we might characterize as something of an antimanifesto. Debord writes,
This anti-book was only offered to my friends, and no-one else was informed of its existence. “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my century.” I wasn’t too worried about being heard. . . . I proved my sober indifference to public opinion straight away, because the public were not even allowed to see this work.
His willful disregard here of this fundamental feature of the classical political book, its subjectivating function, has a somewhat aristocratic air to it, but it is by no means an apolitical move. Indeed, with a little work, we can interpret Debord’s remark in the context of what David Banash considers to be the most radical feature of Mémoires, namely, the breach it enacts in the instrumental passage of conceptual and aesthetic production into “activist” practice. The interlacing of theory and practice is foundational for political Marxism, and radical politics more broadly, and yet is too often ordered by a very limited understanding of both terms, whereby theory is to be applied in practice and valued to the degree that this is achieved. Rather than allowing theory to hold open a disruptive orientation to the social world, including to “practice,” the latter overwhelms the former, under the political imperative of “what is to be done?” And so practice, unproblematized, risks reproducing established identities and political forms, confirming the present rather than accentuating its limits.
The breach Mémoires enacts in such instrumental approaches to theory and action is enacted through the qualities I have been considering, qualities that make it a political book—intervening across linguistic, sensory, subjective, and associational conditions of being—in large measure to the degree that it is not an activist book. As to the specific theme of the “public,” to which I turn now, the breach works against the instrumental relation between a writer and his group, a group and its public or subject, where a political text more normally serves to confirm each pole and bind them in a relation of identity. The point can be teased out through reflection on another Situationist antiwork, the Hamburg Theses of September 1961, which Debord later recalls, not without some drama, as “the most mysterious and most formally experimental text in the entire history of the SI.”
The Hamburg Theses, which were evoked several times in SI publications, were the result of a theoretical and strategic discussion between Debord, Attila Kotànyi, and Raoul Vaneigem concerning the future conduct and critical orientations of the SI, held over a few days in Hamburg bars en route from the SI’s fifth conference in Gothenburg. There is nothing unusual in this, except that, though the Hamburg Theses are said by Debord to have “authors,” they have no existence as a text. They were never published, nor was any written record made, as Debord first publicly revealed in a 1989 letter to Thomas Y. Levin:
With the intention of not leaving any trace that could be observed or analyzed from outside of the SI, nothing concerning this discussion and what conclusions it reached was ever written down. It was found that the simplest summary of its rich and complex conclusions could be expressed in a single phrase: “The SI must now realize philosophy.” Even this very phrase wasn’t written down.
The content of the Hamburg Theses was pivotal in the group’s move away from the practice and self-conception of an artistic avant-garde to more overtly political–theoretical concerns (as came to a head in the 1962 split in the SI, with the exclusion of Gruppe SPUR and the associated exclusions and resignations of the Scandinavian artists, including Jorn, who resigned the year earlier, albeit while continuing for a period under the pseudonym of “George Keller”). But in its noninscription and nonpublication, the “striking innovation” of the Hamburg Theses, as Debord asserts, was not in their content but in their form, and in the relation between the two. In a letter to Vaneigem that revels in the paradoxical quality of this nontext, Debord writes, “We agreed not to write the Hamburg Theses, so as to impose all the better the central meaning of our entire project in the future.” How so? The political nature of this form is not to be explained only by the value of secrecy and confusion, though this is no doubt a feature. The “experimental originality” of the Hamburg Theses lies, rather, in their negative act of nonrepresentation, a blow against the informationist regime, against a society of incessant representation and communication. And this, moreover, took shape in the specific arena of revolutionary politics. The Hamburg antitext was a break with the expressive norms of the historical avant-garde, as Debord maintains, “which until then had given the impression of being avid to explain themselves.” Such eager self-representation, what Jacques Camatte calls “racketeerist marketing,” serves to perpetuate the capitalist psychological and organizational values of competitive self-promotion in nominally anticapitalist scenes, while also confirming and consolidating political identities as established in the present, for competition entrenches the secure boundaries of the competing parties. Against this self-marketing, the antitext of the Hamburg Theses performs a much more reflexive and elusive task of self-undoing—as Kotànyi put it, in oblique reference to the Hamburg Theses, “if, in spite of every appearance and all evidence to the contrary, the sweeping away of our existence is a possibility, then we will be the first to commit ourselves to this dissolution.” Here we come to this antitext’s deployment of Marx, for the undoing of group identity takes shape through the nonidentity of the proletariat.
Debord notes that the “single phrase” summary of the Hamburg Theses (“The SI must now realize philosophy”) evokes Marx’s formula in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” of the realization and suppression of philosophy, thus binding this antitext to the negativity of the proletariat, as Anthony Hayes elucidates. For in Marx’s formulation, philosophy will not be realized until it becomes adequate to the critique and overcoming of capital, becomes adequate, that is, to the proletariat. Until it does so, philosophy merely has a relation of identity to the world, it “belongs to this world and is its complement,” as Marx’s text has it. To be adequate to the proletariat is not to represent it but to be adequate to a form that has no identity to represent. The proletariat is “the total loss of humanity,” encountering itself only through the domination of labor—and the domination of the absence of labor, for those without paid work, and of reproductive labor, which only appears not to be determined by capital. As such, it can realize itself only in its own abolition. It is not a collective subject in a face-off with the bourgeoisie but a class that must fight against itself, against the identities—of work, industrial sector, gender, “race,” nation—by which it is bound to and reproduces capital, a class that realizes itself only in its own suppression: “When the proletariat proclaims the dissolution of the existing world order, it is only declaring the secret of its own existence, for it is the actual dissolution of that order.”
How can a text be adequate to this nonidentity? As we have seen, the Hamburg Theses are one response, embodying in expressive form the nonidentity of the proletariat, its “restlessness within its very self.” For this antitext develops the theoretical critique of capital as that which must be unbound from workers’ identity; it undoes the avant-garde group as privileged agent of revolution, refusing its identity-forming mechanisms of self-marketing; and it negates its own identity as a text by subtracting the means of inscription and publication by which it might otherwise become established in the world. The Hamburg Theses are a text that is not a text for “a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class [Stand] which is the dissolution of all classes.”
It might seem fitting that a text pivotal to the shift in the SI’s center of gravity from intervention in culture and the production of artworks took the form of a non-work, a text without physical presence. But if it is indeed apt, it reveals a flaw, a tendency in the SI after the split to magically solve the proletarian problem—of acting in nonidentity with society—by retreating into theory, transcending the awkward materialities of everyday life in the pristine clarity of the concept. As Howard Slater argues, it is an approach that, ironically, binds the group back into identity, as precision in its conceptual negation becomes the condition of its “idealized self-image,” “a self-image nurtured by the pursuit of written coherence.” And yet the physical absence of the Hamburg Theses is still an intervention in form, and their paradoxical quality is dependent on the fact that texts are in the main physically instantiated, as was the case for SI texts before and after the 1962 split. Here artful intervention in material form persisted. It is not only that the SI, despite the declared move away from art, continued to focus on the cultural arena and on the production of film—as others have noted—but it also directed considerable artistic effort toward the physical and formal manifestations of its theory. There are numerous instances, regarding which we can note in passing that the SI reflexively deployed a range of textual forms and mediums, including a photo-romance (Ralph Rumney’s 1957 psychogeographic report The Leaning Tower of Venice); a “filoform tract” (as Debord described the 1958 Adresse aux producteurs de l’art moderne, a single line of text printed on a band of paper 2 × 90 centimeters); telegrams (as used to great poetic effect in May 1968, most especially the telegram sent to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, which began, “Shake in your shoes bureaucrats”); a deluxe edition (Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s 1975 The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy, under the pen name “Censor,” whose success as a fake—in revealing the social elite’s credulity of the book’s theses concerning the state’s false flag operations against the workers’ movement, for example—was achieved by its convincing mimic of the cultured and lucid cynicism of a high bourgeois, among other textual means, but was aided by its appeal to bourgeois bibliographic vanities with its luxury paper and numbered edition); and encompassing leaflets, posters, maps, graffiti, cartoons, postcards, pamphlets, journals, and books. Then there is the carefully crafted page design of the SI’s self-published text, its spatial arrangement and graphic style by turns classical and modernist, and, of course, the metallic-look, colored covers to Internationale situationniste, regarding the material qualities of which Debord exercised close attention. It was a design coup that, as McKenzie Wark notes, packaged the journal as a rare and elusive entity even as—or because—the content was open to free and profligate appropriation, the journal defying the property form of text with the prominent anticopyright notice that readers encountered upon turning the title page: “All texts published in Internationale situationniste may be freely reproduced, translated and adapted, even without indication of origin.”
On the Scandinavian side of the split, the political aesthetics of print were given more autonomy by the nondisavowal of art. In Jorn’s impressive repertoire of aesthetic mediums, the book had a not inconsiderable presence, as Ruth Baumeister has shown, but print media took an especially inventive form in Jacqueline de Jong’s journal The Situationist Times (1962–67). A plus-A4 format comprising paper stock in varying textures, colors, weights, and opacities; fold-outs; and, in issue 6, lithographic art prints, The Situationist Times is flooded with diagrams, sketches, topological figures, and photographic images that break out from the confines of illustration to play a leading role in the journal’s morphological experiments and concepts. Indeed, in issues 3, 4, and 5, on labyrinths, rings, and knots, text often cedes its place entirely to the comparative juxtaposition of forms, “visual essays,” as Slater describes the method, “best suited to reveal the differences, the variabilities within similar forms and motifs,” and that could “override and draw attention to the overlooked ambiguities and unsuspected authoritarianisms of language” (Figure 8). One text in the first issue of The Situationist Times is of especial note here, de Jong’s “Critique of the Political Practice of Détournement” (Plate 9). It narrates and challenges the couplike manner of the 1962 exclusion of the German and Scandinavian sections and does so in a way that at once articulates and refuses the declared terms of that split by bringing art and text together, in an expressionistic, handwritten, graphic work of published writing. This intensive material text flows, spirals, tightens, and eddies across twelve pages, barely readable in many points, and is charged with a heightened emotion, with laughter and rage, as is the narrative and conceptual content of the work—quite the opposite of the SI’s ice-cold politico-aesthetics of exclusion, of “No Useless Indulgences,” as the title of Michèle Bernstein’s text on such matters has it.
Returning to Mémoires, it shares with the Hamburg Theses the SI’s enduring and deliberate political aesthetics of textual form, while making its own anti-book intervention in both textual and physical planes, the summit in book-form of the moment when the SI could confidently hold art and theory together. However, my discussion of the Hamburg Theses had a different initial purpose, to bring their formal critique of the self-present subject of revolution to shed light on the antipublic form of Mémoires. If the potlatch quality of Mémoires disrupted the community-binding circulation of objects, the unbound community to which it was offered was the proletariat—Mémoires was a proletarian gift. We can now say with more conceptual clarity that the aim of Mémoires was not to be “heard” by a public or existent political subject but to problematize such relations between book and public, and their respective identities, including the identity of avant-garde authors or groups who would present themselves as achieved embodiments of that problematization (and so are nothing of the sort). Here the disaggregating property of the rhizome-book—considered thus far in the form of the Futurist “worldbackwards” and Artaud’s unproductive body without organs—has a direct impact on the communist thematic of revolutionary subjectivity. Mémoires aborts its unity as a concentrated bloc of semiotic authority and relinquishes the role of group attractor—as site and means of self-marketing and subjectivation—all the better to affirm distributed, emergent, and self-critical composition as the proper substance of communist politics. If “literary communism” is a move against information, it is, then, also a move against community, to allow this shared trope of Jean-Luc Nancy and Debord to momentarily place them in proximity. Literary communism enacts an “inoperative” community that affirms the reciprocal constitution between writing and community only on the condition that identity be cut away from both, where literary communism is the “undoing”—or “interruption, fragmentation, suspension”—of any total “work” and any consummated collectivity.
There is also a temporal dimension to this antipublic form, on which I will draw this discussion to a close. In repelling the certainties and seductions of political subjectivity, Mémoires simultaneously suspends its temporality, the nonlinear and broken flow of the book’s pages unsettling the “now” of instrumental action—a necessary move if politics is not to be exclusively determined by the limited parameters of the present but remain open to the unforeseen, to the event. This point, which, as I have argued, is handled in the aesthetic form of Mémoires, is developed conceptually in The Society of the Spectacle and in relation to the theme of revolutionary subjectivity. The last lines of the latter book take the rather standard, manifesto-like form of an upbeat appeal to the final victory and its agent, in this case the organizational form of the workers’ council. But the penultimate passage has a decidedly more exploratory bent, suggesting that the demand for political immediacy serves in fact to excise the political from the immediate and leave it conditioned by the past, by what is already, rather than what may become. Here the “restlessness” of the proletariat combines with a certain revolutionary waiting, together constituting a communism not of action, as such, but of the event:
The abstract desire for immediate effectiveness accepts the laws of the ruling thought, the exclusive point of view of the present, when it throws itself into reformist compromises or trashy pseudo-revolutionary common actions. Thus madness reappears in the very posture which pretends to fight it. Conversely, the critique which goes beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.
A précis of my argument in this chapter may be helpful in underscoring what Deleuze and Guattari’s typology enables us to say about political books. Their approach requires that people of the political book recognize, and extract themselves from, the essentially religious structures and passions that regulate the book’s field. Each time a political book declares or implies its unique truth and total access to the world, the concept of the root-book invites us to consider how this truth is created from a cleavage with the world, truth as spiritual dogma that is then returned to the world as authoritarian passion. This critical approach suggests that we explore such formations with attention to the full materiality of books, even if Deleuze and Guattari do not quite do so themselves. I have done this here with Mao’s Quotations. Mao’s book was a wholly material entity, but its material qualities—color, portability, textual structure—fed into, and were governed by, the book’s spiritual autonomy and authoritarian regimes of truth.
If the political book is to break with this root-book structure, it needs a different relation to matter, a relation Deleuze and Guattari elucidate through the concept of the rhizome-book. This concept is useful less as a mechanism of classification than for what it encourages us to see in the experimental field of political books. As such, it is best approached through the properties of specific books, in their rich “working of matters.” It is possible to set out some shared characteristics of the specific rhizome-books considered in this chapter. In these works, language is unmoored from signifying chains and dogmatic compulsions, be that in the mode of Futurist transrational sensory blocs, Artaud’s howl-words, or Debord and Jorn’s devalued informational patterns. And this language is enmeshed with variable material fields in a remodeling of the object of the book: as a haptic sensory arrangement of eclectic printed materials; as a dynamic membrane of body-sieve paper; as an anti-book of appropriated materials, nonlinear structures, and virtual images. Just as the material world floods into these books, breaching their boundary with nature, so also is the book’s subject undone, most radically in Artaud’s spells, which operate as involutions of body and word in paper membranes of sensory intensity. Each set of books, too, undoes the book’s teleological authority and coherence: a “worldbackwards” of irregular and refolded materials; a fragment put to fire; an antimanifesto with an inoperative public.
Yet it is also clear that these books emerged from singular political and aesthetic contexts and problematics. In Mémoires, for instance, the conjunction of communication and authority is approached explicitly as a dimension of capital, unlike in the other works considered here, and this book’s disruptive properties are a unique aesthetic modulation of the nonidentity of the proletariat and the communist critique of avant-garde organization. These situated variations are such that the concept of the rhizome-book cannot describe a cumulative set or itemized aggregate of appropriate techniques. To take seriously Deleuze and Guattari’s “taste for matter” requires that the concept operate immanently to the concrete field it surveys. In any particular instance, one would expect the interaction of both root and rhizome tendencies. The books considered in this chapter push either tendency to extremes, so indicating the singular possibilities and variations of political books, but even here one could no doubt also find aspects of the opposing tendency, especially if these books were considered also in terms of their relations of reception—there is nothing exhaustive about my treatment.
The political book emerges from the works considered in this chapter, then, as a highly complex entity, where politics is operative in a book’s concepts and textual content, as one expects, but also in its passions and authority and in its physical, sensory, temporal, and spatial properties. If radical politics concerns transformation of the very conditions of being—not the “merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the building standing,” against which Marx posits communism proper—then evaluation of these latter properties is as important as attending to a book’s more overt political expressions. Indeed, it is attention to the breadth of the materiality of books that has enabled me to argue that some of the most apparently radical aspects of books can often be their most reactionary.