The Body in Theory

In a notebook entry dated September 15, 1972, Félix Guattari writes, “Bread soup—a throat infection—letting myself go. No guilt: except that Gilles is working like a madman on his nomads.” The theorist with a cold, unable to work properly, imagine it? A month later on October 6th, in a much longer notebook entry, Guatarri speaks to his working relationship with Deleuze,

He always has the oeuvre in mind. And for him this is all just notes, raw material that disappears in the final assemblage. That’s how I feel a bit overcoded by Anti-Oedipus. I have to account for volume I and volume II looms on the horizon. Deadline all the worse since I know what to expect now! Have to be accountable. Yield to arguments. What I feel like is just fucking around. Publish this diary for example. Say stupid shit.

Deleuze takes professionalism seriously. Don’t we all, though, if we want to make it in this economy? He has the oeuvre in mind, the multiple books to publish, the legacy to leave behind on the brain. No funny business. Just business. While little old Guattari has some jottings in a notebook, scatterings of thought, feeling hemmed in by the need to articulate an argument, to produce cohesion. How often do we slip and say Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome, Deleuze’s this and Deleuze’s that. Guattari falls to the wayside so frequently, so lost to the text, to the collaboration, to Deleuze. Citing one becomes an act of forgetting the other. 

These notes are taken from Guatarri’s notebooks outlining and thinking through what will become, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and collated into a book published by Semiotext(e), The Anti-Oedipus Papers. In these pages we get a sense of Guattari, or, rather, the person Guattari wants us to think he is. He’s fussy, all over the place, going down routes of thought sometimes intelligible and other times not. He crosses words out, he doesn’t end sentences. Ideas come as lists, ideas come as tables. We see Deleuze, his writing collaborator, as a bit overbearing, that friend that gets mad at you if you are even one minute past the appointed time scheduled to meet. On October 13, 1972, Guattari writes of Anti-Oedipus, “Keep my penmanship, my style. But I don’t really recognize myself in the A.O. I need to stop running behind the image of Gilles and the polishedness, the perfection that he brought to the most unlikely book.” Collaborators, and friends, but two different temperaments, two ways of writing and thinking. Guattari, a little less put together, and cast behind the shadow of the efficient and productive Deleuze.  

The theorist as presented in the notebooks is brought to bear as just a man: overworked, irritable, and jealous. The theorist gets a body.

We’re not supposed to think of theorists as having bodies. Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Foucault, and the plenty of other well-cited theorists are just a set of ideas, concepts, and arguments. Names and citations across scholarly articles that we all agree to read and know. We aren’t supposed to think of them as feeling anxious to produce, as seeing arguments as detrimental to thought, or overwhelmed by another theorist’s demands as Guatarri does. We must elevate them and their ideas, speak of them seriously and intellectually. We all know the “theory guy” in our graduate seminars who speaks about Foucault or Sartre with such straightforward fidelity to their work you would think it’s Scripture. The cheap wine and cheese after a lecture where everyone is regurgitating watered-down Freudian or Marxian know-how, each trying to one up the other so the star scholars of the night will take note of them, hoping against hope some perk or opportunity may arise from such a demonstrative standing out. The quoting of Lacan or paraphrasing of Althusser might be the difference between you and another candidate who does not demonstrate such intellectual savvy and bravado in a twenty-minute job interview done through a glitchy video conferencing service.

Yet, “seriousness” Jordan Stein writes in his essay, “Silly Theory,” “is an attempt to guard against the queer material of which theory is made—that big, difficult idea which always threatens to turn into a puddle of soft and ridiculous goo.” Graduate students are the first to internalize this seriousness, mimicking it in our work, and continuing to do so in order to be read as intellectually sophisticated, as masters over our area of expertise. Looking at memes and word play made from the names and ideas of prominent theorists, Stein’s essay reminds us of how important silliness is to being and learning with theorists, to our contexts and everyday experience, which “enables readers of theory to relate theoretical ideas to the very world in which they encounter those ideas, to see how theory does and doesn’t illuminate their realities, and to begin to put the pieces together.” Theorists are brought down from their high horses to fit the contexts readers occupy, to suit our meme-filled and clever-trying-to-go-viral tweet lives. 

Guattari’s notebooks let us see the theorist outside of the completed and well-known texts like Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. We get to see him not as two, as Deleuze and Guattari. His notebook jottings resemble the work of Simone Weil and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Their aphoristic theorizations, compiled together sometimes in sequences of linear intelligibility, and sometimes not, feel like a notebook. But there is no mistaking it: Guattari knows these notebooks are going to be published. He knows there will be an audience for these scraps, knowing they will not fall into archival obscurity. He is staging himself here before us, as one in contrast and in distinction from Deleuze, staging Deleuze as the tyrannically productive theorist. Guattari gives us a show, intellectual reality TV. Isn’t that what notebooks are for, after all? To be showy and punchy in brevity, a moment in time dramatized as a behind-the-scenes exposé, presenting intimacy and proximity to those of us who both desire and are repelled by such a prospect?

The ruse of the notebook is that it is personal, for one set of eyes, too particular, and, in knowing this, Guattari presents prose fragments, the banality of the notebook, as theory. The form of the theory, and how that form shapes the content, is what Guattari gets us to pay attention to Theory as drama, theory as petty, theory as everyday quibbles. Theory as bits and pieces of prose, as incompletion, as a mind and body undecided about this or that idea. Guatarri’s staged ambivalence towards Deleuze’s demands to produce, to hurry up, to formulate an argument, to publish reminds us that there is a body behind all theory. All theory is body: bodies that tire, that desire, that dramatize. Bodies that possess their own particularity, possessing race and gender and ability. The particular bodies of particular men in particular places of the world which have made the high theory we have all come to know, to study, to love and to hate and to question. 

Maybe what Guattari is doing isn’t even theory. Maybe this is why we cite Deleuze much more, and continue to read his many books. Maybe there is no use in even carving out such a genre distinction as theory because theory can be anything we want it to be if we can make the case for it. Guatarri eating bread soup with a throat infection. The writer pressured by his co-writer to get his act together. The irritable therapist writing in his notebook. The theorist who isn’t the stuff of Theory, but sure does put the body in it.

Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist and scholar living in New York City whose memoir, Pedro’s Theory, is forthcoming with Melville House. His essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Inside Higher Education, Catapult, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere. Find him musing and daydreaming over on Twitter: @MarcosSGonsalez.

Featured image by Karl Flinker