Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies,
or the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics


[The following will soon become a full-length text. Wish me luck! – BH]

Deleuze insisted that you have to seek out the problems to which concepts respond, if you want to understand their meaning and potential. These problems present themselves in the immediacy of social life – in aesthetics, therapeutics, politics, technics, etc. – but also at more abstract levels of articulation. In this text I will analyze cybernetics as a problem to which A Thousand Plateaus, and later, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, offer responses. In particular, I’ll examine Guattari’s attempt to create a “metamodelization” of the ways people join experimental assemblages in order to escape the behavioral patterning of cybernetic systems.

Cybernetics should be understood as the most broadly applied social science of the postwar period. This is due to its origins. Like information theory, cybernetics springs directly from electrical engineering. However, its scope is much wider, it is a system theory, with links to Bertalanffy, Luhmann, etc. Cyberneticists create models of feedback relations between the heterogeneous elements of a system. Yet because they are engineers they use these models to build technical systems, within which human beings will have a limited range of options. In this way, they construct the parameters within which the elements of complex systems evolve over time; and thus they try to realize the normative idea of homeostasis which in their eyes is the defining characteristic of a stable, predictable, useful system. The classic figure here is the engineer Jay Wright Forrester, the inventor of the Whirlwind computer, the key figure in the early development of Cold War defense systems, and subsequently the theorist of Industrial Dynamics and Urban Dynamics (computerized techniques for modeling the interactions of psychological, technical, logistical and economic factors in an industry or even a city).

Guattari, who was more directly involved with the applications of the human sciences than Deleuze, was particularly aware of the ways that behavior is patterned and environments are constructed. His lifelong preoccupation with delirious machinism clearly has literary and artistic roots in the French avant-garde tradition (Roussel, Duchamp, Tinguely) and is clearly posed against the normative universals of Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian structuralism; but it is also an attempt to respond to the construction of homeostatic environments and the patterning of behavior within them. The key concept here is “overcoding.”

Overcoding is defined in A Thousand Plateaus as the expression of the capitalist axiomatic, resulting in “phenomena of centering, unification, totalization, integration, hierarchization and finalization.” But far from being just a linguistic phenomenon, overcoding works through the built environment, which must be conceived as inseparable from its many language machines (billboards, speakers, televisions, computers, etc.). The desire to formulate collective enunciations through participation in deterritorializing flows is an attempt to speak another kind of language, and more than a language. It’s here that Guattari rejoins Deleuze: in the engagement with experimental literatures and their geopolitical deliriums, expressed in the books they wrote together. In their assemblage, resistance to the sociological problem of cybernetic behavior-patterning rejoins the deeper philosophical problem of resistance to cognitive science paradigms, or what Jean-Pierre Dupuy has called “the mechanization of the mind,” emerging from cybernetics and information theory – and present in the linguistic structuralism of Levi-Strauss and his followers (including Lacan). However, Guattari in particular would always insist that semiotics extends beyond language, to embrace all signifying systems, whether visual, affective, gestural, volumetric, musical, etc. Thus his call for the creation of truly complex machines, simultaneously aesthetic and logical, pathic and rhizomatic: paradoxical vehicles of an embodied attempt to escape the overcode.

Now, how could that be done? Again we must refer to cybernetics. The bugbear of early cybernetic engineers was positive feedback. It was conceived as a danger for homeostasis; and any correctly designed cybernetic system had to have damping mechanisms, to keep excessive feedback from causing the system to oscillate out of control. However, what Heinz von Foerster dubbed “second-order” cybernetics was interested precisely in positive feedback, and thence, in the passage of critical thresholds and the event of phase-changes. The Anti-Oedipus can be conceived as an experiment with the subversive effects of positive feedback, in the form of an excess of self-catalyzing desire (probably inspired more by Tinguely’s self-destroying machines than by any philosophical or scientific source). A Thousand Plateaus, on the other hand, consciously partakes – though on its own highly idiosyncratic terms – in a larger, counter-cultural shift toward second-order cybernetics, a shift which is signaled in the very title of the book by the reference to Bateson (a transitional figure between the two periods of cybernetic theory). Shortly after the publication of A Thousand Plateaus, Guattari became aware of the sociological effects of Bertalanffy’s system theory via its applications in so-called “family therapy” (also decisively influenced by Bateson). Around the same time he was powerfully affected by the work of Stengers and Prigogine, who established the paradigm of chaos theory in physics, and formalized the scientific concept of phase-changes. From the early 1980s, Guattari’s theoretical and experimental practice articulates a deliberate opposition to the environmental overcoding imposed by the models of first-order cybernetics.

Guattari’s Cartographies schizoanalytiques remains practically unread in the English-speaking world, due to its linguistic and theoretical difficulty. It is a work of “metamodelization.” In other words, it is an attempt to invent a diagrammatic matrix that can indicate the ways different models are put to work in existential and social worlds. It is based on four coordinates or “functors”: existential Territories, which appear in the form of cutouts; Universes of reference, which appear as constellations; energetic Flows, which appear as complexions; and Phyla of abstract machines, which appear as rhizomes (T, U, F, Φ). The interrelations of these four functors map out a self-overcoming system oriented toward the event of the phase-change, in which Guattari sees the possibility of collective speech. What’s being sought is the capacity, not only to describe, but above all, to experiment with a process of becoming. And this is what has made the schizoanalytic cartographies such important tools for the experimental assemblages of artistic practice.

The beauty of Guattari’s metamodelization is that, unlike the models of cybernetics or cognitivism, it leaves ample room for a pathic core of endo-referential subjectivity. This subjectivity is grounded in its own intensities; but its actual cutouts of territory are linked to the virtuality of artistic constellations via the continual echo in embodied consciousness of refrains, or “blocks of content,” which have the effect of deterritorializing the experience of an existential territory. What the metamodelization aims to reveal, however, is the movement from the content of this subjective, enunciative field into the expression of objective social process, from which concrete enunciations emerge. Thus it places the pathic or a-signifying nuclei of subjectivity into relation with the actual flows of techno-energetic-discursive assemblages, themselves continually destabilized by the virtualities introduced through the rhizomatic development of abstract phyla. At stake here is the overcoming of the divide between what C.P. Snow famously referred to as the “two cultures,” art and science, subjectivity and objectivity – not through the reduction of the former to the latter, as in contemporary cognitive science, but instead through the dynamic interaction of fundamentally heterogeneous realities, whose interplay orients the unfolding of individual and social existence.

Guattari considered that every model should be abandoned when it no longer produces anything of vital interest – including his own metamodelization. In that spirit I will ask two questions. The first is, what in Guattari’s metamodels (if anything) can still resist the veritable rise to power, since the mid-1990s, of the prolongations of second-order cybernetics, which have now been codified, particularly in managerial and financial circles, as “complexity theory”? But a second, perhaps more important question is: how has the original goal of cybernetics (instrumental mastery over the dynamic interactions of a complex system) been further developed by contemporary cognitive science, and what kinds of built environments are now coming down the governmental and corporate pipe? Does the pathic core of Guattari’s schizoanalytic cartography offer any clues as to how such built-and-informationalized models could be subverted or subsumed? Or should his metamodelization be cast aside, as no longer useful for the problems of the present?

5 Responses to “ESCAPE THE OVERCODE”

  1. Networked_Performance — [iDC] how long is a piece of string? Says:

    […] would seem to reflect Brian Holmes’ post on his blog of an abstract for an essay on Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies: although knowing Brian (at least though his posts here and elsewhere) I’m sure he’ll […]

  2. Book Materials « Continental Drift Says:

    […] –Escape the Overcode: Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies […]

  3. Taylor Adkins Says:

    Hey Brian, I really enjoyed your post, especially the emphasis on his untranslated cartographies and his concept of metamodelization. I know you aren’t looking for notes, but one thing I would suggest is to look at how overcoding under the despotic regime and the axiomatic of capitalism are not at all the same and proceed through different means. You seem to conflate them in paragraph 4–in fact, D+G argue that overcoding isn’t important for capitalism, and this is precisely why it is a threat to the State (which proceeds through overcoding).

    Not a really big deal, but something that I caught myself slipping on. Since you’re interested in the cartographies, I’d also just like to let you know that I’ve got a deal with Semiotext(e) to translate the Machinic Unconscious which should come out sometime early next year. This is great stuff man, check out the work my friend and I do over at if you’re interested.

  4. Recapturing Subversion « Continental Drift Says:

    […] –Escape the Overcode: Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies […]

  5. Book Materials « Continental Drift Says:

    […] 20-Escape the Overcode: Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies, the Pathic Core at the Heart of … […]

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