A Complex Issue is Communicated With Admirable Concision In 'A Thousand Machines'

by Richard Elliott

14 June 2010

If the potentially hazardous relationship between pedestrian, motorist, and cyclist is one familiar example of machinic interdependency, another is the connection between social action and art.
cover art

A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement

Gerald Raunig

US: May 2010

Anyone familiar with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari will no doubt recognize the reference to the pair’s A Thousand Plateaus in this book by the Viennese philosopher and art theoretician Gerald Raunig. Raunig draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the machine not as a separate mechanism but as a process, one in which life itself is thought of as machinic.

Athough his ultimate goal is to give an account of the radical potential of this multi-part and infinitely precarious social machine, he begins his account with an entertaining look at an archetypal machine, the humble bicycle. He does so by offering readings of three different representations of the bike: Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman, Claude Faraldo’s film Themroc, and Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves.

The bicycle is a good example of a machine as understood by Deleuze and Guattari: on its own it is of little or no use, but once coupled with a human body, it becomes a machine. It’s not just the previously inert bicycle that is brought to fruition by this coupling; the human too is changed in the process, becoming a “cyclist”, something it could not have been prior to the interaction with the bicycle. It is the proto-machinic in the human as much as in the bicycle that allows the functionality of the cyclist to emerge.

The machinic for Deleuze and Guattari, then, resides in the endless stream of possible connections that make up life. As Claire Colebrook writes in her useful book on Deleuze, “Life is a proliferation of machinic connections, with the mind or brain being one (sophisticated) machine among others.”

In his opening case studies, Raunig is interested not only in asserting this Deleuzian notion, but in showing its relevance to the broader machinic workings of social life. In The Bicycle Thieves, for example, both the thieves and the bicycles are part of a larger social machine, one that runs according to a complex set of rules and operating procedures quite outside the control of the state apparatus.

The working of the latter are more evident in Themroc, where the subjection of workers’ lives to fordist operating processes is highlighted by examples of symmetry and synchronized actions: the contemporaneous running of an office supervisor’s pencil sharpener and a secretary’s manicure machine, the simultaneous emergence of Themroc and one of his colleagues from their identical houses and subsequent supporting of each other as they cycle to work. Each element relies on the other for the machine to work.

Film, as Deleuze showed with his books on cinema, is particularly adept at showing us this, by distorting time and allowing us to step outside of it. In the slow motion and time-lapse techniques of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, for example, or the frequently-used televisual device of sped-up aerial shots of urban commuters, viewers are made aware of both the machinic workings and precarious interdependencies of various parts of social life. Watching sped-up footage of commuters crossing a busy intersection, we are amazed that there are not more accidents, as individuals narrowly miss bumping into each other and vehicles stop just in time.

If the potentially hazardous relationship between pedestrian, motorist, and cyclist is one familiar example of machinic interdependency, another is the connection between social action and art. This was the subject of Raunig’s Art and Revolution, a book to which A Thousand Machines is closely related; it uses a number of the same examples and has at its heart some of the same core questions. However, where that book took the relationship between revolutionary practices and aesthetic goals as its main theme, this much shorter work is more interested in establishing the connections between various machinic configurations: human/tool, institution/worker, state/subject, and society/social movement.

If this listing seems to assert that the social only emerges at the conclusion of Raunig’s work, it should be stressed that, following Guattari, the machine is thought of from the outset as a social machine, of which human and tool (cyclist and cycle) are constituent and constituted parts. To highlight this, Raunig devotes a chapter to the evolution of the definition of “machine”, focusing in particular on Marx’s use of the term. Marx, like many others, presented the machine as an evolution of the tool, and its relationship to the worker as one in which the useful, labor-saving properties of the tool were replaced by the emergence of machinic enslavement, whereby workers’ relationships with the machinery that they operated (but which came to operate them) was paralleled with the manner in which they were enslaved to the workings of the state apparatus.

Against such a concept, Guattari stressed the difference between tool and machine as being grounded in the possibility of exchange. The tool does not exist in a relationship of exchange with its user in that, as an extension of its user, its function is already decided, delimited, and closed. What the machine offers, in contrast, is an open relationship that emphasizes flow between human and machine; it is a process rather than a thing. Guattari formulated this concept while considering the ways in which the machinic operations of revolutionary movements (such as those of 1968) needed to retain their openness and not move towards closure by emulating the structures of the state apparatus. What defines the machine here is its refusal to become an apparatus.

From this insight, Raunig reconnects with some of the core material from Art and Revolution by considering the role of the machine (and the machinic) in theater. From the deus ex machina of classical theater, in which problems raised over the course of the play were resolved by the mechanized appearance of Gods, through Brecht’s highlighting of the machinery of artifice in twentieth century drama, the machine has played a central role in theatrical work. Raunig chooses to focus again on the theatrical work of Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Tretyakov in the Soviet Union of the ‘20s. By examining the Theater of Attractions, in which audiences were made an explicit part of the theater machine, Raunig is able to suggest the possibility for an insurrectionist social machine.

As with the difference between the tool and the machine, what is highlighted by the theater machine is the refusal of closure, the keeping-open of the relationship between writer, performer, and audience. So too with the war machine, the subject of Raunig’s fourth chapter. This term does not refer to the apparatus of war associated with the state, defined once again by technological evolution. Rather, it relates to the inventiveness, cunning, and machinic organization of insurrectionary forces, imagined as those outside the seemingly impregnable city walls. Again, machines—and particularly machinic organization—are seen in a positive light here, quite in contrast to the technological distopianism of those who blame society’s woes on the incursion of technology into human life.

War machines, in the form of insurrectionary movements like the Viennese (and later transnational) PublixTheatre Caravan, are connected in Raunig’s analysis with the protestors of the Euromayday movements that have mobilized against globalization over the past decade. Raunig includes in his discussion an account of the so-called “precariat” of migrant workers, sans papiers, and the “digital bohème”. This precariat is seen as distinct from—both a result of and a response to—the increasing precarization of labor as seen in the millions of people in insecure jobs.

Where theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman have responded to the processes of globalization by highlighting the existence of distinct groups of relocated people—what Bauman calls the “tourists” and “vagabonds” of postmodern freedom and slavery—Raunig pursues the connections between Marx’s theory of the lumpen proletariat and the more recent precariat. However, he argues that the precariat does have an active role to play (unlike the lumpen proletariat) and that the processes of precarization can be turned against the state in potentially revolutionary ways.

Raunig returns to film (and bicycles) in his final chapter, with an analysis of the work of Jacques Tati. “Abstract Machines” is, in many ways, the most abstract part of the book, yet it is also the one where he outlines the possibilities for machinic insurrection by proposing that the very qualities that define the precariat—its “diffusity, virtuosity and monstrosity”—be used to its advantage, via a kind of disorganized working-against the state apparatus in a manner that both expands the body politic and avoids the closure of absolute identity and community.

It’s a positive end to a stimulating book, one that challenges outdated notions of a monumental state apparatus and the necessity for an equally monumental oppositional body (one which would, the argument goes, forever be in danger of merely adopting the closed structures of power were it to gain victory). Allied as Raunig’s work is to the No Borders network, it is also an invitation to resist the closures of nationalist enterprises that foster ethnic hatred and exclusion.

To a certain extent, A Thousand Machines is written as an intervention in an ongoing debate, one with which the reader is expected to be up to date and to have a position. That said, the clarity of most of the writing—particularly evident in the interesting examples drawn from literature, theater, and film—ensures that Raunig is able to communicate a complex issue with admirable concision.

A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement


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