Richard Dawkins wrote a very eulogious review of Sokal and Bricmont’s INTELLECTUAL IMPOSTURES, which criticises recent French philosophy, a subject that Dzwkins knows nothing about.

Let’s begin with Dawkin’s first quote, taken from Guattari’s late work CHAOSMOSIS:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.

Guattari is not a particularly good stylist in French, his prose style is full of abstract jargon, and is rather bookish. He is something of an auto-didact in philosophy. He is just one of those people who think differently from others and who need very abstract language to express their thoughts. I heard him talk once at Deleuze’s seminar on cinema, and he talked using much more jargon than Deleuze, but it was interesting.

This seems rather obscure. First, as I discussed in the previous post, there is the erroneous translation of the expression one-to-one correspondence as “bi-univocal correspondence”, at the beginning. Then he goes on to talk about “linear signifying links” [implicitly referring to Lacan] or “archi-writing” [referring to Derrida]. Thus, here he is criticising both Lacan and Derrida, so Dawkins should be happy about that.

Guattari says that there is no mapping of their ideas of language onto his own idea of the “machine”. This is a key concept in Guattari’s work, alone and in collaboration with Deleuze. We must note that the use of the word machine as a metaphor is far more common in French than it is in English. People compare the State, or a company, or school to a machine quite readily, in ordinary conversation. Guattari took up this popular metaphor and gave it a new sense in his attempt to free himself from the linguistic metaphors favoured by structuralism, and also by Lacan and by Derrida.

“Machinic” used as an adjective seems quite abstract and ugly in English, but not as much in French, which quite likes Latinate words ending in the suffix “-ique”(“-ic” in English). On a historical note, we should keep in mind that Lacan dominated the intellectual scene in France for a long time, and Guattari began to break free of that influence in 1969 in a little text called “Machine and Structure”, that Deleuze found quite important. Dawkins’ quote (1992) contains a late reaffirmation of the same point, in a far more mature intellectual framework.

French favours the use of abstract adjectives, where English would use a noun phrase (“machinic” instead of “of machines”).

Guattari’s conception of language is different from the Anglophone, not aiming so much at semantic transparency as at a pragmatic freeing from clichés. Hence the expression “machinic catalysis”, which is awkward in English, but not incomprehensible in context. It’s machinic because ithe language is interpreted and evaluated in terms of its fuction in a particular context, and it’s a “catalysis” because it makes ideas and interventions possible that would not otherwisehave been possible without great effort and special preparation.

“Machinic catalysis” alludes to Austin’s “How to do things with words”, in opposition to Lacan’s “linear signifying links” and to Derrida’s “archi-writing”. This sentence is the declaration of Guattari’s  (and of Deleuze’s) pluralist theory of desire, against Lacan’s and Derrida’s one-dimensional linguistic paradigms.

It is a very compact sentence, condensing a number of theoretical allusions: signifying chain- Lacan, archi-writing – Derrida, machinic – Guattari and Deleuze, catalysis – Austin. My argument against Dawkins is that one needs a lot of background to understand the allusive density and to see its beauty. Dawkins sees none of this, he just blindly trusts Sokal’s opinion that it is nonsense, strings together unrelated quotes, and laughs. Dawkins’ argument is “I don’t know anything about the subject, but I can see this is nonsense”.

Far from being obfuscating, allusive density is one of the principles of good style in French, and it is not easy to carry off well. However, If you can follow the allusions it makes for great clarity. Guattari’s allusions are not at all obscure here. He alludes to the work of Lacan, of Derrida, and of Austin, and to his own work with Deleuze, whch everyone reading Guattari in French would have read. Even the mathematical allusion to a mapping or “one-to-one correspondence” is high school maths, nothing abstruse.

I do not want to go too far and legitimise everything. Laruelle for instance is unforgiveably obscure. Certainly, Guattari could have been helped to write more clearly. But he does not write nonsense. French philosophers write more poetically than their Anglophone colleagues. True, it can be done more or less well. I have shown that Guattari’s sentence does make sense, and why it is written as it is. To appreciate it fully, one needs to familiarise oneself with the relevant literature, particularly with Lacan and Derrida. With a little attention to  (cultural, linguistic, conceptual) context, much of the obscurity disappears.

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  1. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.


  2. Not the first time that Dawkins takes a shot at things he does not understand. Sokal, too, while his particular ruse was not half bad, when placed in the wider philosophical arena, cannot be said to understand much of it. But, their argument basically comes down to a very unsophisticated statement: we (scientists) speak objectively, while you (philosophers) speak subjectively. We speak the truth, you don’t.

    As for Laurelle, while I cannot say to be able to understand anything of what he writes apart from the book titles, which oddly resonate strongly with me, and force me to buy them only to be continually disappointed (at him or at my self, I am not quite sure), I have heard, either from Ray Brassier, Robin Mckay, or one of their cousins, that it is quite easy to understand once you grasp a few key concepts. What the key concepts are is, of course, a well kept secret.


  3. cergat says:

    These medieval instructions for learning come to mind, and seem to apply perfectly in this case:

    “…the beginning of discipline is humility. Although the lessons of humility are many, the three which follow are of especial importance for the student: first, that he hold no knowledge and no writing in contempt; second, that he blush to learn from no man; and third, that when he has attained learning himself, he not look down upon everyone else.
    Many are deceived by the desire to appear wise before their time. They therefore break out in a certain swollen importance and begin to simulate what they are not and to be ashamed of what they are; and they slip all the farther from wisdom in proportion as they think, not of being wise, but of being thought so.”

    –From The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 94-5.

    It appears that after convincing themselves that it was science which killed God, the empiricists are now moving into another area they do not understand. Apparently, they still have something to learn from religion, which they thought they had left behind. Every field is easy to dismiss if one takes only the crudest examples of what one thinks that field is all about.

    Liked by 1 person

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