<i>Anti-Oedipus</i> and the politics of the schizophrenic sublime

Angela Woods

in The Sublime Object of Psychiatry

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780199583959
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754692 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Anti-Oedipus and the politics of the schizophrenic sublime

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Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1982) is one of the most notorious philosophical works of the late twentieth century.1 A collaboration between French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Italian psychoanalyst and activist Félix Guattari, it was, as Ian Buchanan so beautifully puts it, an ‘intellectual cluster bomb’ lobbed into the fray of post-1968 French theory (Buchanan, 2008, p. 21). Deleuze and Guattari claim to have written their book for 15- to 20-year olds (Deleuze, 1990, pp. 7–8), and offer it as a tool for political struggle rather than a philosophical tract to be digested in its entirety. Whether Anti-Oedipus reached, engaged or mobilized into action its intended teenage audience I do not know, but it did succeed in sending shock waves through the academic establishment. Quite apart from its sensationalism—the scandalous treatment of Freud and Marx, striking but difficult style, intellectual hybridity, and almost manic exuberance—it played a decisive role in promoting schizophrenia as a paradigm through which to understand subjectivity in the late capitalist era.

Anti-Oedipus capitalized on the momentum of the antipsychiatry movement, extended its critique of psychiatric and psychoanalytic practice, and intensified its valorization of ‘the schizophrenic’ (or ‘schizo’) as a revolutionary and revelatory figure. Deleuze and Guattari’s work marks a new moment in the history of revolutionary struggle, a moment in which all forms of social order (including class-based oppositional politics, identity politics, and even identity itself) are rejected as covertly totalitarian (Plant, 2001, p. 1097). In order to be true to its naturally rebellious state, desire had to be freed from the systems which sought to contain and redeploy it in the service of capitalism. Rather than reinvigorate or even redefine the revolutionary subject of Marxism, Deleuze and Guattari therefore advocated abandoning the notion of integrated subjectivity altogether, mobilizing instead the micro-political, machinic productivity of the unconscious in the struggle against capitalism.

Enter schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, in Anti-Oedipus, is a process of psychic deterritorialization which liberates desire from the straitjacket of Oedipus, a process that is simultaneously the realization of capitalism and its potential undoing. Schizophrenia provides the primary conceptual vehicle for Deleuze and Guattari’s articulation of a radically decentred, desiring, and revolutionary form of (non)subjectivity, as well as the basis for a ‘materialist psychiatry’ that views desire in terms of production and production in terms of desire (Deleuze, quoted in Deleuze and Guattari, 1990, p. 17; see also Deleuze and Guattari, 1982, p. 5). Breaking with the psychoanalytic fixation on Oedipus, neurosis, and psychic interiority, Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis aims ‘to de-oedipalize the unconscious’, ‘to demonstrate the existence of an unconscious libidinal investment of sociohistorical production’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1982, pp. 81, 98) and ‘to get revolutionary, artistic, and analytic machines working as parts, cogs, of one another’ (Deleuze and Guattari, quoted in Deleuze 1990, p. 23).

Rather than locate Anti-Oedipus within its usual contexts—post-Marxism, post-modernism, the events of May 1968, and the oeuvre of Deleuze—this chapter approaches the text from the perspective of the interdisciplinary debates about schizophrenia that have so far been the focus of this book. With the publication of A Thousand Plateaus (volume two of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), but a tome in which references to schizophrenia are practically non-existent), and the end of the antipsychiatric era, academics have evinced little interest in Anti-Oedipus’s many and complex representations of schizophrenia, and to my knowledge no one has engaged in any depth with the question of why Deleuze and Guattari assign this specific psychopathology such a central role in their analysis. My reading of schizophrenia in Anti-Oedipus considers how Deleuze and Guattari use schizophrenia strategically, but not unproblematically, to reconceptualize a revolutionary (non)subject, and to challenge psychoanalytic, antipsychiatric, and, by extension, psychiatric models of psychic health.

It is now not uncommon for Deleuze and Guattari’s use of schizophrenia to be dismissed out of hand as deeply misguided or even something of an embarrassment.2 Examining the portrayal of schizophrenia in Anti-Oedipus in the detail it deserves, however, enables us to identify two major tensions in their account of its subversive potential. The first concerns the relationship between the revolutionary form of schizophrenia distinct from its clinical counterpart. Deleuze and Guattari’s thesis depends upon drawing a hard and fast distinction between a revolutionary form of schizophrenia (‘the schizo’) and its pathological correlates (‘the paranoid’ and ‘the schizophrenic’). Focusing on the internal contradictions present in Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Schreber’s Memoirs (1955), I will argue that because the differentiation of these three forms of anoedipal subjectivity is in fact highly unstable, it is almost impossible to safeguard dynamic modes of schizophrenic (non)subjectivity from descending into paralysis or pathology. The second area of tension is found at the level of metatheory, in the way Deleuze and Guattari make their model of agency contingent upon schizophrenia’s association with the sublime. Schizophrenia’s political efficacy—its capacity not simply to represent capitalism but to destroy it—is for Deleuze and Guattari a function of its sublimity, of being outside and beyond representation, capitalism, Oedipus, identity, and psychoanalytic reach. The key question here is how effective a politics founded on the sublime could be. In what follows, then, my aim is to demonstrate that in its proximity to clinical accounts of psychosis, Deleuze and Guattari’s model of a revolutionary form of schizophrenia is doubly problematic: first because it cannot be defended against becoming ‘mere’ pathology, and secondly because its political efficacy is dependent on, and I suggest limited by, its association with the sublime.

Chapter.  7347 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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