In truth, the nature of the abstract machine is the most general problem: there is no reason to tie the abstract machine to the universal or the constant, or to efface the singularity of abstract machines insofar as they are built around variables and variations.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (92-93)
Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of the Chomsky-Labov debate exemplifies a well-developed but perhaps under-emphasized aspect of their thinking — namely, their theory of semiotics — and in particular the curious relationship they argue holds between language and the abstract machine. The debate between Labov and Chomsky concerns linguistic variation — an issue which, as we shall see, helps illuminate an important aspect of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the abstract machine. Chomsky’s position is more or less what you would expect it to be: linguists isolate from an essentially heterogeneous linguistic reality a standard and homogenous system, thus grounding abstraction not in aggregations but in positions, roots, and linearity. In fact, he claims, it’s only in this way that one can get at real principles, and that science can operate in no other way… — and so on. D+G summarize:
“Chomsky pretends to believe that by asserting his interest in the variable features of language, Labov is situating himself in a de facto pragmatics external to linguistics. Labov, however has other ambitions…” (A Thousand Plateaus 93)
What does Labov do (according to Deleuze and Guattari)? He refuses the very alternative which Chomsky presumes exists between linguistic constants and pragmatic variability. Labov asks us to think about lines of pure or inherent variation. It’s not difficult to see why Deleuze and Guattari like Labov so much; it’s also not difficult to see see why they must move definitively beyond this particular debate, and challenge its very pretext. But let’s slow down, what do these lines mean in the first place — these lines of “inherent variation”? Deleuze and Guattari clarify that, on the one hand, we ought not to think of these simply as “free variants” already in relation to a given style or pronunciation (that is, whose features would still lie completely outside the system, thus leaving its homogeneity intact.) On the other hand, these lines of variations are not a “de facto” mix of both systems — in other words, we shouldn’t think that each system is homogeneous in its own right (“as if the speaker moved from one to the other,” write D+G.)
What, in other words, is the alternative which Labov refuses? It is precisely the one which linguistics wants to set up for itself: the practice of assigning variants to different systems or relegating them to a place outside the structure. Labov’s critical objection to Chomsky — and quite brilliant insight — is that it is the variation itself which is systematic. Deleuze and Guattari explain: “Labov sees variation as a de jure component affecting each system from within, sending it cascading or leaping on its own power and forbidding one to close it off, to make it homogenous in principle.” (A Thousand Plateaus 93) Isn’t it ultimately the abstract distinction between two systems that proves the most arbitrary? The majority of forms belong to one or another only by chance…
Quite close to this question of variation is that of pragmatics, which Deleuze and Guattari argue quite passionately ought to be thought not only as an “external” science involving “nonlinguistic” factors (88-89). In fact, linguistics “itself” is inseparable from an “internal pragmatics” — variables of “content,” they argue, in perpetual interaction with variables of “expression”:
The only way to define the relation [between expression and content] is to revamp the theory of ideology by saying that expressions and statements intervene directly in productivity, in the form of a production of meaning or sign-value. The category of production doubtless has the advantage of breaking with schemas of representation, information and communication. (89)
But they recognize that this too is ambiguous, even if only in that it appeals to an “ongoing dialectical miracle” by which matter is transformed into meaning — in other words, the social process itself into a signifying system. Here there is a semiconductor, or transducer, which reminds us of Serres’ diagrams of guests who are also hosts themselves — that is, always “cascaded” by a parasitic chain, already interrupted, by the noisy third.
This self-miraculation of the primary transformation announces a key shift in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, towards an understanding of the material interactions of bodies not in terms of the production of goods — but rather in terms of machinic assemblages, rhizomes, multiplicities: “a precise state of intermingling of bodies in a society, including all the attractions and repulsions, sympathies and antipathies, alterations, amalgamations, penetrations, and expansions that affect bodies of all kinds in their relations to one another.” (90)
The relation between the rhizome and the body without organs is mapped out “structurally” through the refinement of the notion of an abstract machine. The key shift they make here is analogous to the shift in the very first plateaus (One or Several Wolves?) where they recommence the discussion of abstract machines, marking a shift from the inflection placed upon these ideas in Anti-Oedipus. Let’s return there just for a moment before we continue:
“There are no individual statements, there never are. Every statement is the product of a machinic assemblage, in other words, of collective agents of enunciation (take “collective agents” to mean not peoples or societies but multiplicities.) The proper name (nom propre) does not designate an individual: it is on the contrary when the individual opens up to the multiplicity pervading him or her, at the outcome of the most severe operation of depersonalization, that the or she acquires his or her true proper name. The proper name is an instant apprehension of a multiplicity. The proper name is the subject of a pure infinitive comprehended as such in a field of intensity…” (25)
In some sense there are two sides to all of this, two non-symmetrical but reverse operations (capitalism and schizophrenia…) One of the important consequences of the “rhizomatic shift” is a complication of reductionistic or essentialist theories of media and technology, always beholden to this static myth of studying tools “themselves,” somehow in isolation from the world they’re used in! The Deleuzo-Guattarian challenge is to go even more abstract than this — to find the real-virtual abstract machines operating in every register and dimension of human and non-human activity.
The point is that tools exist only in relation to the interminglings they make possible or that make them possible. “Similarly, generative trees constructed according to Chomsky’s syntagmatic model can open up in all directions, and in turn form a rhizome.” (15) But even if the links proliferate, we never get beyond fake multiplicities, hierarchical systems with definitive centers of signifiance and subjectification. This poses particularly urgent challenges with respect to information science because
“[i]n the corresponding models, an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only receives a subjective affection along pre-established paths. This is evident in current problems in information science and computer science, which still cling to the oldest modes of thought in that they grant all power to a memory or central organ.
Pierre Rosensthiehl and Jean Petitot, in a fine article denoucing ‘the imagery of command trees’ (centered systems or hierarchical structures,) note that “accepting the primacy of hierarchical structures amounts to giving arborescent structures privileged status… The arborescent form admits of topological explanation… In a hierarchical system, an individual has only one active neighbor, his or her hierarchical superior… The channels of transmission are preestablished: the arborescent system preexists the individual, who is integrated into it at an allotted place…”
The authors point out that even when one thinks one has reached a multiplicity, it may be a false one — of what we call the radicle type — because its ostensible nonhierarchical presentation or statement in fact only admits of a totally hierarchical solution.” (D+G, A Thousand Plateause 15-16)
It is nonetheless the case that intensity also works itself; the hegemony of any signifier is always shaken loose, challenged, mutated. Semiotic systems can regain their freedom and shake off the “traces” of the tracings: a minimal event can upset the entire balance of power, flip the parasitic chain inside-out. This is why, in producing pragmatics, it is not enough to construct a semantics, to take into account signifiers and referents — because these very notions of significance and reference are themselves bound up with “supposedly autonomous and constant structure” (91) — a pre-treatment by a standardizing phonetic, semantic or syntactic machine:
“For a true abstract machine pertains to an assemblage in its entirety: it is defined as the diagram of that assemblage. It is not language based but diagrammatic and superlinear. Content is not a signified nor expression a signifier. Rather, both are variables of the assemblage.” (91)
The problem with Chomsky is that he cannot really conceive of variation or pragmatics. His abstract machine retains both linear ordering and an arborescent model: but what about pragmatic values, or internal variables? Once these are taken into account (especially with respect to indirect discourse,) one is obliged to construct “abstract objects” or bring “hypersentences” into play. D+G argue this implies “superlinearity,” or as they would have it, a plane without linear order, a rhizome:
“From this standpoint, the interpenetration of language and the social field and political problems lies at the deepest level of the abstract machine, not at the surface. The abstract machine as it relates to the diagram of the assemblage is never purely a matter of language, except for lack of sufficient abstraction. It is language that depends on the abstract machine, and not the reverse. At most, we may distinguish in the abstract machine two states of the diagram, one in which variables of content and expression are distributed according to their heterogeneous forms in reciprocal presupposition on a plane of consistency, and another in which it is no longer even possible to distinguish bewteen variables of content and expression because the variability of that same plane has prevailed over the duality of forms, rendering them ‘indiscernible’…”