Félix Guattari on Virtual Animism
“We cannot conceive of solutions to the poisoning of the atmosphere and to global warming due to the greenhouse effect, or to the problem of population control, without a mutation of mentality, without promoting a new art of living in society.”
Félix Guattari was a radical French psychotherapist, philosopher and political activist, a prominent thinker of modernity’s schizophrenia, famous for his collaboration with Gilles Deleuze. Before his death in the early 1990s and in his solo work, he came to grips with the environmental crisis threatening to destroy all biosphere. He understood it as crisis of subjectivity — of the collective psyché and of the global civilization's view on reality and cosmos in general.
Climate crisis is a catastrophic culmination of modernity’s existential crisis. As many other environmental philosophers have noticed, this crisis lies in a profound dissociation within the modern man — separation from the environment and non-human life-forms, which are seen as lacking subjectivity and consciousness, as well as from his own body and other people within the competitive capitalist society. It is a crisis of anthropocentrism and individualistic solipsism. To adapt to the new climate, we need novel modes of perception which animate the non-human environment and life-forms (similarly as in the indigenous, animistic cosmologies and ontologies). The post-capitalist and post-fossil new earth — utopia about which Guattari and Deleuze talked in their last book — would be psychologically and cosmologically based in a renewed animistic mode of sensibility.
As outlined in an essay of the same title by Guattari, there are three ecologies — environmental, mental and social. We cannot logically separate them from one another, and the crisis strikes them all at once, integrally. Earth crisis comes at the highest point of global culture’s madness and insanity, its nihilistic deterritorialization and chaotic dissolution of meaning. This unstable condition, as harsh and traumatic as it is, offers possibilities for creatively reshaping the chaos and envisioning novel modes of subjectivity that are no longer pre-given by a fixed tradition. To use chaos theory's terminology, the chaos contains unpredictable bifurcations into possibly utopian directions.
The millennia-old stable psychic forms have been dissolved and evaporated by capitalism. Against the backdrop of this nothingness and existential disintegration that always threatens to break out (as demonstrated by the contemporary mental health crisis, rates of depression and suicide), the collective psyché is managed and normalized by psychiatry and pills, by the narcotic informational feed of digital media. When this management breaks, we see political movements which take subjectivity, redemption of soul, as their main offer — let us only think of the rise of religious fundamentalism. But this can also be true, in a more positive way, for the new environmental movements with their endeavor to redefine the place of individual psyché in wider cosmos and nature. As Guattari put it:
“Among the fogs and miasmas which obscure our fin de milIenaire, the question of subjectivity is now returning as a leitmotiv. It is not a natural given any more than air or water. How do we produce it, capture it, enrich it, and permanently reinvent it […] all the disciplines will have to combine their creativity to ward off the ordeals of barbarism, the mental implosion and chaosmic spasms looming on the horizon.”
A Semiotic Approach to Animism
The uniqueness of Guattari’s contribution is in the way he conceptualized the modernity’s crisis — as well as the possible ecological modes of subjectivity — in terms of semiotics. Semiotics is a study of verbal and non-verbal signs by which we communicate, think and put meaning together. The modern semiotic regime — but perhaps more broadly the “civilized” one, since the inception of early city states — is dominated by verbal and linguistic forms of understanding.
Meaning is controlled by a despotic linguistic Signifier which subsumes and controls more unstable and bodily, fluid forms of communication. According to Jacques Lacan (a French psychoanalyst who combined Freudian theory with semiotics), the verbal order of Signifier corresponds to the psychic and political order of Law and control. It maintains a strict distance between the subject and the object. Object is seen as inert and dead, available for manipulation, while the subject suffers from detachment and solipsistic emptiness in a dead universe of “mere objects”.
According to Guattari, animistic sensibility does not privilege the verbal order — instead it melts and immerses the linguistic subject in molecular flows of more “bodily” meaning where none mode is privileged above others — where sounds and images, words and gestures mesh together in complex assemblages of enunciation. The subject and the object dissolve into each other. Animistic ritual, working with sound and the body, mind-altering substances, rhythms and gestures, can be seen as an instance of these semiotics par excellence. As such, these animistic semiotics are not exclusive to humans, but are spread across nature and cosmos, are available to various non-human entities including the proto-subjectivity of matter itself. Therefore, in animistic rituals, people communicate with animals or plants, temporarily become non-human life-forms.
Guattari dealt with the late modernity’s existential crisis and nihilism similarly as as someone like Heidegger before him. Both Guattari and Heidegger were like shamans thrown into modernity who tried to navigate the modern soul out of its cartesian and rationalistic prison. As important as the Heideggerian line of thought can be for sketching up ecological modes of subjectivity, it very often ended up romanticizing the pre-modern world, rejecting modern technology as such. It can be a fundamentally conservative vision of returning to the authenticity of the land, with eco-fascism threatening as its worst instance. Guattarian animism does not wish a return to pre-modern authenticity, but instead constructs schizo-creative ways of flight out of modernity.
Rather than the pre-modern, therefore, it aims at what we can call a non-modern space (to use Bruno Latour's term). Such animism (understood not as essentialist and folklorist return to nature, but as a semiotic mode which includes the non-humans), can therefore be future-affirmative. Rather than rejecting technology it tries to reshape it in ethical and aesthetic ways. This virtual animism is mutable and evolving, experimentally re-articulating the end of the world's chaos.
Schizoanalysis and the Universe of Emergence
Guattari arrives at his notion of animism through the critique of psychoanalysis and his alternative practice of schizoanalysis that he developed at the La Borde clinic in France. Psychoanalysis focuses on past trauma, normalizes bourgeoise familial structures which provide a model for how a “healthy individual” should look like. Schizoanalysis is supposed to heal through activating self-transformational potential in people. They creatively articulate new realities and enter unknown existential territories, finding ways out of the constraints of the old self. There is no privileged image of normal individual in schizoanalysis (standard working man), but an open-ended process of mutation by artistic and ethical means.
What lies at schizoanalysis' heart is the search for vital sources of creativity and existential expression; an attempt to localize the virtual universe of emergence which enables individuals and collectives to liberate themselves by articulating new worlds (as in the avant-garde idea that in post-capitalism, everyone will be an artist). The question of creation is, in other words, that of articulation. That is to say, it is a semiotic issue which concerns the possibilities of putting meaning and soul itself together. Capitalism at once destabilizes all forms of meaning and works to dissolve subjectivity in terminal entropy of an always-threatening schizophrenia; but it does so because it liberates semiotic elements from the despotic signifying systems (such as religious, familial structures). In its process of destruction it therefore enables to invent new subjectivities, like complex forms from chaos (in a process that Guattari called chaosmosis). Throughout this chaos, subjectivities resembling primitive animistic ones resurge.
The Eternal Return of Animism
What we might call a Guattarian virtual animism is neither an appropriation of indigenous folklore nor a sentimental “return to nature”. Rather it problematizes the Western distinction between nature and culture; it is not technophobic and rather reminds us of the McLuhan’s idea, according to which immersive new media resurrect oral culture's sensibility. The pre-historic and the post-historic are one, but not same. Animism is a semiotic mode — a polysemic multiverse where intensities emerge. As such, it is not structured like language but rather like sound or rhythm — more than rationality, it concerns modulations of pre-verbal affect. On this pre-discursive plane there is not yet a strict distinction between a subject and object, self and other, individual and collective, mind and matter.
In this sense animism is not a “stage” in a linearly understood history of human development (of collective history, or individual psychology where animist sensibility is relegated to first stages of infancy). It is rather something that never disappeared, not even within the modern context; the “civilized” and “adult” layers are only additionally stacked on it. In adults and in the moderns, the “primitive” kernel still functions at basis. According to Guattari, it remains at the core of one’s “existential self”, which is “the ultimate reservoir that can be dipped into for all creative experience.” The semiotic mode characteristic for primitive societies is still at work, according to Maurizio Lazzarato, through chaotic experiences such as “childhood, psychosis, drug use, and certain altered states of consciousness, but also through artistic creation, falling in love, political passions, existential crises, and, even discursively, through philosophy.”
Animism “returns” within the very dynamics of modernity and its avantgardes — one can only recall the cubist, surrealist and even futurist fascination with primitive art; work of artists such as Antonin Artaud; the 1960s psychedelia, 1990s rave culture, or contemporary net art hauntology. In all these instances we witness the weirdness of deterritorialized animism which constantly revives itself in an eternal return of novelty’s emergence. Virtual animism emerges like an uncanny face out of the chaos of digital culture, a cosmos that is animated beyond human scale — uncanny as it is enigmatic and unknown yet strangely familiar. This mode of perception was dominant for some 99% of human history, and only quite recently (a few thousand years) was domesticated by city states with their despotic and hierarchical modes of signification that strictly demarcate human and nonhuman, mind and matter.
The connection with animism is particularly interesting in the case of schizophrenia and psychosis. In these chaotic experiences the “civilized” consciousness (individually separated from the world) melts down. It opens up toward a transpersonal and pre-individual flows and intensities (the existential self stripped down). In the case of schizophrenia itself it merely collapses into a black hole of nothingness, into an impossibility of articulation and communication. On the other hand there is a well-known history of schizo-like experiences in the lives of great artists and mystics. This is what Guattari meant by schizoanalysis — affirming chaos while re-articulating it; falling neither into the black hole of schizophrenia nor into the trap of “civilized” normality. Schizoanalysis produces autonomous, “far-from-equilibrium” subjectivities that resist homogenization. Schizophrenia is not a goal, but there is a positive value to take from the non-standard mental states. Rigidly stratified structures are melted in the chaos while new lines of flight — into pseudo-animistic universes — open up:
“There is a certain very particular “animist” sensibility that one could call delirium. Of course it is a delirium by our standards; it is something that cuts psychotics off from a social reality that is completely dominated by language — that is, from social relations — thus effectively separating them from the world. But this brings them closer to the other world from which we are totally cut off. It is for this reason that Félix maintained this laudatory view of animism — a praise of animism.” (Jean Claude Polack)
The Semiotics of Immersion
Guattari called the semiotic mode characteristic for primitive societies as asignifying. It is a rhythmic, polyphonic and “acoustic” form of perception (to echo McLuhan again): an immersion where separation between the subject and object falls. As such it represents a Dionysian sensibility (in a Nietzschean sense); a semiotics of abundance (rather than the existential absence of the linguistically driven consciousness).
Asignifying semiotics are radically abstract and concrete at the same time: intensities and gradients of forces, thresholds, changes of speeds and mutations of flows. These signs (if they can even be called so) do not signify anything outside and beyond themselves. Abstract electronic music is the best example. It is a mind-altering and hypnotic technology (as the drum and rattle in animistic rituals), working on a direct level of communication where there is no official, dictionary meaning by which to interpret and translate. Nevertheless, the asignifying semiotics of intensities, gradients of forces and repetitions can help us understand abstract music.
This intensive plane — that precedes spacetime and ordinary “reality” — is the Lacanian real. Real is one and undivided — before the schisms of subjective and objective understanding, of the physical and the imaginary, rational and magical. A dreamspace, or a hallucinogenic space (like the one induced by psychedelics), in which there is nevertheless a lingering feeling that what is happening is somehow more real than reality (the ordinary, objective one).
Guattari arrives at the notion of asignifying semiotics by replacing the Saussurean model (Signifier representing a Signified) by Hjelmslevean model of Content and Expression. Guattari insists on the irreducible plurality of the modes of Expression — different materials of enunciation where verbal language is only one among many others, and none is primary (in the sense that others would be “translatable” into it, like it was often understood with verbal language in classical semiotics). There is no central Signified that would mediate the centralized game of Signifiers: intensive flows are in themselves autonomous and freely connect. Signs do not “represent” a pre-established objective reality, but mold and create new realities and universes of value.
Animism works on this plane of virtuality without an objectively fixed referent. Shaman (or avant-garde artist) conjure, using different semiotic materials, “power signs” that do not represent a pre-established reality, but transform the participants, shape affect and intensities in becoming-animals, becoming cosmic affects, becoming non-human machinic flows.
Each intensity is unique and there is no transcendental Signified, a single linguistic referent, to unite them. In this sense we arrive into an irreducible semiotic multiverse — that the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who analyzed South American indigenous cosmologies, calls multinaturalism. In multinaturalism, nature and reality themselves are inherently variable and pluralistic — different bodily senses and affects produce different realities, among both human and other-the-human persons. There is no transcendental single Truth (preferably written in a sacred Book and interpreted by the caste of priests). This animistic multinaturalism is remarkably similar to “perspectivism” that Nietzsche came up with after the Death of God. Yet multinaturalism is not relativism — it is a realism, as there is a physical reality, but if we are constituted by different intensities and ways of perception (themselves physically and physiologically rooted), this reality unavoidably varies.
Furthermore, in these animated semiotics, we cannot properly speak of an individual who would be the originator of his or her own words and thoughts, separated from the environment and other life-forms. There is no individual within the pre-discursive flows, but a dividual, a multiplicity, a legion, from behind whose voice speak many non-human voices of cosmic and geological, animal and vegetal, technological forces, affective flows animating the linguistic surface. Individual subjectivities dissolve across nature and cosmos:
“Objects constitute themselves in a transversal, vibratory position, conferring on them a soul, a becoming ancestral, animal, vegetal, cosmic. These objectivities-subjectivities are led to work for themselves, to incarnate themselves as an animist nucleus; they overlap each other, and invade each other to become collective entities half-thing half-soul, half-man half-beast, machine and flux, matter and sign.”
The Despotic Signifier
With the rise of what Timothy Morton calls a Mesopotamian Monotheism (first cities and states) the “civilized” semiotics erects a discursive transcendence of verbal language over the intensive polysemia. This transcendence can be understood as a controlling element of fixed meaning and law (true and false, good and evil). Words enunciated by a subject refer to an objective reality of a fixed Signified within an imposed system of language. Instead of a polyphonic ambiguity, Signified for each Signifier.
Therefore, as Viveiros de Castro puts it, the State reduces multiverse into universe — a polysemic jungle into one single reality. In this totalitarian claim, monotheism is same as scientism: instead of a plurality of expressive modes, there is now the one denoted objective reality. Within monotheistic religions, everything gains meaning from the single image of God and its divine order — a master-signifier that “represents” the truth of reality itself. Meaning itself is centralized, enforced. The despotic Signifier is like a King who organizes one single homogenized reality according to the authoritarian rule of his hierarchical transcendence. All the unruly, animated forces — semiotics untranslatable into one single referent — must subordinate to it.
Saussurean semiology establishes the signifying linguistic regime as the only possible one, and not only one that is possible and historically specific. In this sense it is political, even Hobbesean. According to Saussure, before the Law of the language, there is a mere chaos and entropy, “undifferentiated nebula”. As the language represents fixed law and order, this is akin to saying that before the State and its despotic order, there is only brute animal violence, disorganization and deadly chaos. The transcendent linguistic Signifier — like the king or the police — is the only one able organize, even as it commits violence and alienates.
But by the point of view of asignifying semiotics, the pre-discursive is by itself already richly differentiated in myriad complex shapes and textures. It immanently organizes itself in processes of a molecular autopoiesis and produces the transcendent superstructure only as a secondary effect. Neither the despotic Signifier nor the King produce reality, but rather contain it, and become powerless when the sustaining underground forces go dry.
Capitalism and Animism 2.0
As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism evaporates everything solid into air, levels all transcendence into immanence. Capitalism is a great nomadic uprooting force that disintegrates all stable values of the civilized era, all the ancient Signifiers, turns all elevated Gods into one equalized value of money. Thus the crisis of meaning, the existential crisis of modernity. Nevertheless, capitalism cannot afford to go all the way down into the schizophrenia and disintegrating chaos that it induces. Thus it artificially resurrects all the most archaic Signifiers of previous eras to re-inject meaning into the disenchanted market world. This is what we witness today across the East and the West — religious fundamentalism and “traditional values” that accompany the most brutal and uprooting right-wing economic policies. But at a fundamental level, the chaos and existential crisis of late capitalism resurrect animistic cosmos.
Even though capitalism still operates with transcendent Signifiers to keep the existential crisis in check, its fundamental operation works on the immanent and largely unconscious level of pre-discursive and asignifying semiotics. It directly shapes and models affects and drives, as we see for instance in the marketing of consumer desires. Contemporary capitalism seduces, works directly on the unconsciousness, forges pre-discursive intensities (which is why capitalism has so little to do with the “rational individual” of economic theory). More generally still, electronic media throw us into a space where linear text is no longer the primary medium, but meaning is decentralized into visual and sonic, immersive virtual reality. Capitalism dissipates the unitary individual within nonhuman flows of money and images, technologies and sex. This is what Maurizio Lazzarato calls the “machinic enslavement” and it is the reason why it is so difficult to maintain mental and social autonomy from the late capitalist system. But because of this, it also contains virtual possibilities for an unprecedented liberation.
This liberation would affirm the virtual animism contained (yet blocked) within the asignifying semiotics of capitalism. It would be what Guattari called a “molecular revolution,” an explosion of collective creativity and experimentation with social and psychic forms, equally ethical as aesthetic, rendering new existential territories. A re-animation of the perception of reality itself, reconnecting the human with non-human life-forms and environment.
The best example of an molecular revolution was the 1960s counterculture — with its artistic and communal resurgence. There the psychedelics played the role of a re-animating agency, dissolving dualistic and discursive consciousness within asignifying flows of pre-individual intensities. According to Timothy Leary, psychedelics induce a “molecular consciousness” — a radical awakening of bodily and sensual awareness — a notion that easily connects to Guattari’s semiotics of pre-discursive molecular flows. Animistic molecular awareness at once ethically connects human to non-human entities, while it also enriches subjectivity and rescues it from the trap of its solipsistic emptiness.
Guattarian animism is forward-looking and potentially futuristic, techno-affirmative; a hallucinogenic new earth inhabited by mutant human and non-human entities. These animated non-humans might include plants and animals as much as robots and AIs (even if in different ways). Guattari looked for animism in modern Japan where this tradition never disappeared (as it got transmitted through the Shinto religion). A mentality that animates non-human entities arguably fueled the Japan's technological progress.
As much as psychedelics played a key role in the 1960s molecular revolution — and may still do so with their rising popularity demonstrated by the psychotherapeutic “psychedelic renaissance” or Mark Fisher's notion of acid communism — other technologies of consciousness, digital or otherwise, may play an analogical role today. We can only speculate what post-capitalist experimental possibilities are hidden, for instance, within the virtual and augmented reality.
As we move into the new climatic regime in the 2020s, it becomes more urgent than ever to decolonize our thought and perception from enslaving patterns. A neo-animistic resurgence accompanying the struggle against climate breakdown — molecular revolution of which Guattari dreamt.