Soft Subversions by Felix Guattari

Philosophies are always products of their own historical moment, borne out of specific times, influenced by the conventions of their environment. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile Aristotelian thought with a monotheistic, Christian dominated medieval society. If their ideas are potent or accessible, or coincidental enough, they can make Marx’s point about philosophy changing the world. More often, however, philosophers seem to predict a shift, or preview one.

Radical psychoanalyst and thinker Felix Guattari, as well as his writing partner and more illustrious collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, qualify here. Their anti-psychiatric ideas articulated in Anti-Oedipus reflected moves away from the hegemony of shrinks, and Guattari’s own concept of transversality — ideas crossing over and intersecting from traditionally different subject areas — has anticipated moves towards similar inter-disciplinary research in the humanities.

Likewise, his embrace of the life altering and consciousness changing possibilities of technological innovation mark him out as a very current thinker. Soft Subversions‘s “texts and interviews” separates the man from his theoretical double act work with Deleuze (to pursue the analogy, Laurel without Hardy, perhaps), and looks purely at his own individual contributions and musings, be it in interviews or essays delivered in a more abstract style, interviews with semi-popular contemporary publications or essays inspired by dreams.

Guattari, after a period of attempting to cope with his nascent consciousness , came under the influence of structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan at the La Borde clinic, where, as he puts it in the biographical essay “So What”, “psychiatry and psychoanalysis converged”. From an initially psychoanalytic perspective, Guattari became disillusioned with the rigidity of some of its credos and became convinced of a need for a more wholistic analysis of mental disorder. At the same time, he resisted co-option into a political cause and adjacent dogmatism, always resisting convention.

This volume is composed of five parts, and each part has to deal with this balancing act. “Guattari by Himself”, sees the focus is on interviews and writing where he gives a sense of telling his own story. “So What”‘s autobiographical account of his young development is told in a pretty straightforward prose, and really draws you in. There’s exciting accounts herein of French philosophy, and the culture which gave birth to an attitude which questioned dogmas, encouraged interdisciplinarity (in Deleuze and Guattari as well as Foucault, Barthes and others) as well as a revolutionary ethic epitomised by the Situationist inspired student protests in May 1968.

This is no rose-tinted revisionism, however — “Everywhere At Once” finds Deleuze lamenting the “heaviness” of 1968, and the splintering of intellectual viewpoints in the aftermath, with new movements leading to new culture icons and “demagogery”, as he puts it. Likewise, “I Am An Idea Thief” has Guattari explaining his belief in ideas as concrete machines, whilst acknowledging his tendency to pick and choose beliefs in a magpie like fashion to shape his own works.

The next selection is perhaps the most dated. “Why Italy?”, which centers around his preoccupation with Italian culture and the possibilities of political change and communism there, contains references to his (anti) psychiatric ideas, but and discusses the movements of capitalism towards fuller globalisation. Yet there is also much talk of extreme left versus right conflict, which is very of its time and not all that relevant to modern politics, even though he himself restricts such definitions.

This is not to mention references to “German/American domination”. “Micro Revolutions”, on the necessity of small scale action in a localised, informal context, to trigger ructions and thus wider societal change, is a lot better. Guattari’s views on the constructedness of sex, and the importance of the microscopic act (in the sense of a person in a relationship acting outside a traditional gender role) over a more all encompassing, generalised view of sexual politics.

His tendency to invent concepts that are unique to his (and, certainly, Deleuze’s) thought can be tricky however, but it is just another example of the man seeking to avoid rigid definitions of his thought; like Foucault, he sought to escape from the domination of intellectual structures. However, this desire can obviously translate into a different kind of structure.

The final two parts juxtapose key intellectual concerns of the man. “Psychoanalysis and Schizoanalysis”, on his divergence from more traditional Freudian theory and into an idea of behaviour formed from the study of the schizoid, is somewhat theoretical, and is probably more of interest to the psychoanalytic scholar. Here, Sylvére Lotringer’s endnotes are useful, but could be more comprehensive for a more general academic reader from a cultural studies background, say.

The final section, “Integrated World Capitalism”, focuses on the possibilities of technology for changing the consciousness of man, and the “organized minorities” he writes of pretty much foreshadows the explosion of the blogosphere. One essay analyses the looming figure of Foucault and is a little uncritical, but they are similarly original and iconoclastic thinkers, and their respective concepts of the “real, non corporeal soul” and the “body without organs” are similar.

Deflatingly (and rather brilliantly) the closing piece is a miniature of anti utopia, winding up humanists in seeing the future of the city as comprised of “machinic mutants”just as in Tokyo.

The themes which recur in each section are mutable and not restricted; Guattari’s transversality permeates his writing as a whole and does not restrict the flow of thoughts. A good chunk of the interview entitled “The Adolescent Revolution”, for example, deals with his disregard for the crucialness of the age of six to human development in more traditional psychoanalysis, and much of the autobiographical side talks about his experience as a jobbing psychoanalyst. An anti-establishment political bent is evident throughout.

The eclecticism is never boring, however, and Guattari would certainly have wanted it that way. Recommended.

RATING 7 / 10