I am thoroughly exhausted and should be falling into bed, yet somehow I won’t let myself rest. There are times, especially when fatigued or sick that I’ll will myself to stay awake as if I resent the implication or thought that life is being robbed from me. I stubbornly go on, as if in defiance of my physical limits. Or again, perhaps this stubbornness arises from knowing that next week I’ll be returning to classes and will be exceedingly busy.

In preparation for the After Music conference at University of Newcastle, I’ve been rereading A Thousand Plateaus, with fresh and excited eyes. The “Geology of Morals” plateau, while obscure in parts, is especially good… Or perhaps I only think this because it deals heavily with questions of individuation or morphogenesis, which seem to be my obsession. Deleuze and Guattari mobilize Hjelmslev’s linguistics, rereading it in a highly original fashion, to develop a metaphysics of matter undergoing morphogenesis. It seems to me that this particular schematization nicely thematizes a number of points N.Pepperrell has made about abstraction and her critiques of demystifying approaches and ideology critiques.

Read on

Hjelmslev introduces five categories to think about the nature of language (which Deleuze and Guattari then use to think about the nature of matter): Expression, Content, Matter, Form Substance. The two key terms are Expression and Content. Both Expression and Content have a matter, form, and substance, such that you get Expression (matter, form, substance) and Content (matter, form, substance). The relationship between Expression and Content is not one of correspondence such as we find in the relationship of the signifier and the signified, but of two heterogeneous yet reciprocally presupposing forms of organization. This can be schematically represented as follows:

Expression matter/form/substance
Content matter/form/substance

This schema shares some resemblance to Saussure’s famous diagram of the signifier:


However, it soon becomes clear that the relationship between expression and content differs markedly from that of the signifier and the signified, and that Deleuze and Guattari are far from restricting this relation to the realm of language.

In explaining this complex nest of terms, Deleuze and Guattari write,

[Hjelmslev] used the term matter for the plane of consistency or Body without Organs, in other words, the unformed, unorganized, nonstratified, or destratified body and all its flows: subatomic and submolecular particles, pure intensities, prevital and prephysical free singularities. He used the term content for formed matters, which would now have to be considered from two points of view: substance, insofar as these matters are ‘chosen,’ and form, insofar as they are chosen in a certain order (substance and form of content). He used the term *expression* for functional structures, which would also have to be considered from two points of view: the organization of their own specific form, and substances insofar as they form compounds (form and content of expression). A stratum always has a dimension of the expressible or of expression serving as the basis for a relative invariance; for example, nucleic sequences are inseparable from a relatively invariant expression by means of which they determine compounds, organs, and functions of the organism. (ATP, 43)

It is crucial to emphasize that the distinction between form, substance, and matter is a modal distinction or a distinction of thought (ATP, 44). Just as color cannot exist independently of some sort of shape but the two can nonetheless be distinguished in thought, similarly, we never encounter a pure unformed matter or a matter that is not a substance. The distinction between color and shape is a modal distinction or a distinction of thought, but nonetheless a genuine distinction for all that. Moreover, the relation between content and expression is a relative distinction, which is to say that something that functions as a content for one expression can, in turn, function as the expression of another content (emergent property relations and nested hierarchies). Similarly, something that functions as expression in one relation can function as content in another relation. This, for instance, would be the case with human beings, where humans are expressions in relation to DNA sequences and processes, but where they function as content with regard to larger social assemblages that are, in turn, themselves expressions.

The relation between expression and content can be thought as a sort of machine for the production of various types or formed matters (note the dynamic use of terms in the passage above such as “selection”, “choosing”, “ordering”, etc). The example of the nucleic sequence is particular illuminating in this connection. The nucleic sequence belongs to the substance and form of content. It has its own unique organization or ordering sequence, and it selects or chooses certain elements in its formation (presumably the DNA processes, that select from matter other than DNA in forming the DNA sequence). On the other hand, the actualized organism, with its specific bodily organization, various functions, etc., is the form and substance of expression (the citation above has to be a mistranslation when it says “form and content of expression”… “Content”, here, should certainly be “substance”). Somewhere DeLanda gives the excellent example of a distribution of seashells on a beach. Here we have a plane of expression. Why is it that all the shells are relatively uniform in their size and distribution? The answer to this question would have to do with the general intensity of waves, availability of shells on the ocean floor, etc., all of which belong to the plane of content. Through the wave currents we have a sort of selection-machine that produces a defined quality at the level of expression. What the relations between content and expression thus describe are the emergence of different unities, aggregates, or identities at different levels of scale, the organizations among these elements, and the sets of relations among these different levels of scale.

Now a key point here is that the plane of content and the plane of expression do not resemble one another. As Deleuze repeatedly emphasizes in Difference and Repetition, the virtual does not resemble the actual. Similarly, while there is reciprocal presupposition between the nucleic sequence and the actualized organism, there is no resemblance between the two. The processes that take place at the level of content are distinct from the processes that take place at the level of expression. However, we would be in error to suggest that somehow the plane of content is more real than the plane of expression. The actualized organism engages in the world in ways that micro-level nucleic sequences cannot. New things become possible at the level of expression. It is sometimes suggested when discussing ideology, for example, that the ideological formation is less real than the reality it masks such that it is merely an illusion to be torn away. This fails to explain both why anyone should then be concerned with ideology (viz. I cannot climb the mountain reflected in the pond), and how ideologies become internally determining and organizing such that they begin to develop along their own course in ways that cannot simply be explained in terms of the base. Indeed, it seems that an intuition of this sort is part of what has motivated Zizek’s somewhat clumsy introduction of the concept of the “parallax”, claiming that there is a parallax between economics and politics, such that when we view one the other disappears. Zizek here is, in part, underlining that both are realities that must be thought in the real of their difference.

This point can be elucidated by transfering all of this to Marx. In the opening chapter of Capital, the commodity belongs to the plane of expression, while all the complex labor relations belong to the field of content. The complex labor relations are virtual with respect to the commodity. Moreover, the commodity does not resemble the labor that produced it. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that the commodity is somehow less real than these labor-relations, or that it is a veil to be stripped away. Just as the actualized organism engages in the world in a way that the nucleic acids cannot and introduces new potentialities into the field, so too with the commodity. A whole cascade of consequences follow from the emergence primacy of the commodity form in exchange-relations. Social relations now take on new and unheard forms that cannot be found under previous forms of production.

This is a common move for Deleuze and Guattari. They never claim that something is an illusion or that something represents something else. Thus, for instance, in the rhizome plateau, they’re careful to argue that a book does not represent the world, but rather enters into relations with other assemblages, introducing new forces in those assemblages (“communication isn’t about something but is something”).

There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made. Therefore a book also has no object. As an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bodies without organs. We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own converge. (ATP, 4)

What we thus get are all sorts of hierarchies and difference in scale that must simultaneously be thought in their reciprocal presupposition or “double articulation”, while avoiding any sort of reductivism. An actualized organism is a different level of scale than a DNA sequence and thus enters into different material relations, but nonetheless presupposes those DNA sequences. The question is one of thinking the organizations, selection mechanisms, interdependences, and potentialities at each of these different levels of scale, without treating one as more real than the other.