One of the major innovations of Onto-Cartography is the introduction of incorporeal machines. While incorporeal machines were already implicit in my treatment of Luhmann in The Democracy of Objects, I wanted to make this more explicit in Onto-Cartography so as to account for how a machine-oriented ontology might think about signs, discourses, narratives, etc. I draw the concept of incorporeal machines from Deleuze and Guattari’s account of expression and content in “The Geology of Morals” and ”Postulates of Linguistic” chapters of A Thousand Plateaus (they also discuss it in Kafka, and Deleuze uses it to organize his reading of Foucault in Foucault). Drawn from Hjelmslev’s glossematics, but significantly reworked to articulate a general, ontological schema, Deleuze and Guattari are careful to argue that the planes of content and expression are independent, autonomous, and heterogeneous, functioning according to different principles. In other words, content cannot be equated with the “signified” and expression with the “signifier”. Both signifier and signified are variants of expression. They don’t belong to the plane of content at all.
Under Deleuze and Guattari’s account, the plane of content is composed entirely of bodies– what I call corporeal machines –affecting and being affected by one another. The relationship of a smith to his hammer and anvil, for example, belong to the plane of content. The way in which the interaction of these three machines affect one another differs from the way in which signifiers affect bodies. The perpetual hammering on the metal of the anvil produces corporeal changes in the smith’s body. His muscle structure, bone structure, and way of holding himself change over time. This is not the result of expression or signs.
The plane of expression, by contrast, is the domain of signs. These signs– what I call incorporeal machines –can be of the linguistic or non-linguistic variety and extend into the animal and, more recently, the technological realm. Deleuze and Guattari claim that expression brings about incorporeal transformations in corporeal machines. What does this mean? When material beings interact with expressive machines, nothing physical or material changes in their being, but how other beings relate to these machines that have undergone an incorporeal transformation does change. When a person is found guilty of a felony, nothing physical has changed about their being as a corporeal machine, but their social status has changed. They’ve gone from being an ordinary citizen to being a felon. This brings about all sorts of changes in what they can and cannot do. Take Lacan’s famous doors from “The Agency of the Letter” in Ecrits. There is nothing materially or corporeally different about these doors, but the signifiers “ladies” and “gentleman” introduces a semiotic difference that, in turn, transforms how we relate to these doors. Now we only go through one door. The doors have undergone an incorporeal transformation. So the key point with expression is that it changes nothing in the material being of a corporeal machine, but does change how we interact with that machine. Our smith, of course, was submitted to all sorts of incorporeal machines pertaining to metallurgy as a discourse when he underwent his training.
So what’s valuable for the machine-oriented ontologist in Deleuze and Guattari’s account of expression and content? First, in emphasizing that these two planes are autonomous, we are able to retain the insights of various semiotically and semiologically driven models of inquiry without reducing corporeal bodies to how they are signified. In other words, we avoid the perils of linguistic and semiotic idealism, while still retaining the analysis of sign-systems, discourses, narratives, etc. Second, we are able to avoid base/superstructure models of society found in certain forms of Marxist thought, as well as forms of reductivism found in fields like evolutionary psychology and sociology. Because the plane of expression is autonomous and functions according to its own principles, it can’t be treated as a mere effect of the base or of biological hard wiring (a mistaken view of biology anyway).
The two planes, of course, interact in all sorts of complicated ways. Sometimes one of the planes can develop faster than the other such that it is not yet registered by the other plane. Technology might have transformed social relations or contain the potential to do so, for example, while this is not yet registered by the plane of expression. Likewise, the plane of expression can be more advanced than the plane of content as in the case of the Enlightenment, where thought was able to envision a new sort of society, yet social relations lagged behind because of how they were organized by agriculture. Events in the plane of expression can significantly catalyze new vectors at the level of the plane of content. This is the case when governors declare natural disasters, leaders declare war, or activists declare revolution. These incorporeal transformations mobilize bodies in all sorts of ways. Part of the aim of onto-cartography is to map these complex relations, to draw virtual maps of potential alternatives to existing assemblages, and to trace the imbrications of these planes in social systems.