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 over-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 to make use of 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 very interesting.

This quote 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 Guattari is criticising both Lacan and Derrida, so Dawkins should be happy about their agreement rather than treating Guattari’s prose as nonsense.

Guattari says that there is no mapping of Lacan’s and Derrida’s ideas of language onto his own idea of the « machine ». This is a key concept in all of 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 by Guattari of the same point, in a far more mature intellectual framework.

We may note also that 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 the language is interpreted and evaluated in terms of its function 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, and of their siding against Lacan’s and Derrida’s one-dimensional linguistic paradigms. This is something that Dawkins should should favour, even if he feels uncomfortable about the style.

This 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 and to unpack 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 easily see this is nonsense ».

Far from being needlessly 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 bi-univocal 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 abstractly and 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 concepts, theses, and literature, particularly with the ideas of Lacan and Derrida.

Conclusion: with a little attention to  (cultural, linguistic, conceptual) context, much of the supposed obscurity of French philosophy disappears.

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  1. dmf dit :

    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.

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  3. cergat dit :

    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.

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