Paul Elliott / Visual Culture

Felix Guattari’s Desiring Machine

Felix Guattari sought to transform the deadening homogeneity of contemporary existence, one way was by plugging into your desiring machine. We all have one, what is yours?

Guattari's Machine

For Felix Guattari, the binary distinction between the machine and the human was unsatisfactory. In an age where scientific discovery blurs the line between what is made and what is born, what is capable of self-reproduction (autopoiesis) and what depends on others (allopoiesis), the definitions of machine and human need to be re-drawn.

The intelligence of machines now outstrips most human beings and they have the capacity to reproduce without our intervention; in fact one generation of computers dutifully designs the circuits and diagrams for the next in an act that is the ultimate in generational suicide. Making themselves obsolescent for the sake of the future.

Guattari, and his long time collaborator Gilles Deleuze, saw the unconscious as a machine. Rather than the theatre of Freudian analysis, where plays and dramas such as Oedipus are played out, they saw it as a factory that produces desire and that attempts to plug itself into a variety of other machines and processes. Firstly, the breast machine of the Mother, then the various social machines – the school machine, the capital producing machine of the workplace, then the drug machine or the language machine. We desire to connect ourselves to our partners, thinking that we cannot be complete without them; we become sockets and plugs, coupling in the human and the machinic sense. However, desire, for Deleuze and Guattari refers not to sexuality per se but to the will of the machine to connect to others and to proliferate the flows that run through it; it is linked to sexual desire and certainly covers it but is not limited to it. Their form of desire extends far further into our unconscious and our very natures. We might think of it as the Nietzschian Will-To-Power or the pre-subjective libido of Freud.

We each have a series of desiring machines inside our heads. What is your thing? What links your desiring machines to others? Guattari formulated the idea of the machinic unconscious at the psychiatric institute, La Borde, where he saw the mechanical way that schizophrenic patients related to themselves and to the world around them. Psychotics, thought Guattari, exist outside of the general restrictive morality of the Oedipus complex, psychoanalysis cannot deal with them but they expose the processes of desire and desiring-production for all to see.

The cartoonist Heath Robinson created desiring-machines, machines that both ran and broke down in equal measure and that connected to others in an endless cycle of connectivity and synthesis. His fantastic contraptions facilitate the desires of the mind that sits in the middle of them; the desire to eat, to wake up, to carry out tasks but to us, the viewer, the delight is in the sheer sense of connectivity between the various elements of the assemblage. They move, they are movement and, somehow, this is beautiful.

In 2003 the motor company Honda produced the short film The Cog to advertise their new car, the Accord. The advert featured a Heath Robinson type assemblage consisting of various car parts linked together to form a continuous flow of movement, from the wiping of windscreen wipers on the floor to the kinetic movement of the stereo speakers. The tag line to the commercial was “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” Of course, what they meant was “isn’t it nice when things just flow?”

However, what is more interesting is that, a supplementary film detailed the trials and tribulations of the director and the crew to get things to work. Hour after hour, month after month was spent trying to get each of the parts joined up together because machines, as we all know, are as likely to break down as they are to continue working. This is also the same with desiring machines, they cut off flows as much as they allow them, they go wrong, break down, flows are allowed to disconnect and to form other, unheard of connections. The desire of the fetishist to connect to a partner is re-directed to an object – a shoe, high heels, a gas mask, a stocking top – the desire to connect to those around us is directed at the movie screen, the internet, the characters in a soap opera. We produce desire and we guide and direct it through other machines through a series of connective syntheses and disjunctions. The desire to connect is at the heart of Guattari’s materialist psychiatry, his schizoanalysis, which traces this process and attempts to cartographically map the flows as they appear. Don’t try to interpret the psychotic, he says, like Freud, much better to understand where their desire is taking them. Make a map of their desiring machines.

Machines walk through the work of Felix Guattari. They add both consistency and fluidity to his work, allowing him to unite the usually separated fields of Freud and Marx – the political and the psychological. Whether they are the surrealist sculptures of Jean Tingeuly or the blood machines of Saw madman John Kramer, machines cannot be separated from the desiring machines of the human unconscious. Better just sit back, and watch them work. ■

Image shows William Heath Robinson’s ‘Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Pauls.’

Guattari ReframedPaul Elliott is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Worcester and the author of Guattari Reframed and Hitchcock and the Cinema of Sensations.


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