Review of Félix Guattari, Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan

logo95x95Review of Félix Guattari, Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan, edited by Gary Genosko and Jay Hetrick (Univocal, 2015), 154 pages, £18.50


Reviewed by Dario Lolli

front_machinic_erosAbstract: This review aims to assess the new collection of Guattari’s writing on Japan edited by Gary Genosko and Jay Hetrick. The book shows how Guattari’s encounter with Japan originated from his commitment to politics and interest in asignifying semiotics, non-human subjectivities and processes of singularisation – something Guattari saw at play in the work of a few Japanese artists, architects and performers. By locating these writings in the context of French intellectual life and in relation to Japan’s booming economy of the 1980s, the review will show how Guattari’s ‘Japan’ is exempt from both Orientalism and uncritical celebrations of Japanese ‘uniqueness’ (nihonjinron). Although this collection represents a precious accomplishment for the study of Guattari’s thought and philosophy, the review will conclude by arguing that a few debatable editorial choices prevent the book from fully exploring the Guattari-Japan assemblage with the same ‘transversal’ attitude so important for the French thinker.

Keywords: Félix Guattari, Japan, Japanese arts, Japanese architecture, Orientalism, nomadic thought

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As his Japanese ex-student, friend and translator Kuniichi Uno once remembered (1995), Deleuze’s nomadic thought was never matched by a likewise nomadic life. ‘Nothing is more immobile than a nomad’ – Deleuze had already clarified in another occasion – ‘Nothing travels less than a nomad […] In a sense, I feel no need to move. All the intensities that I have are immobile intensities…’ (cited in Hetrick, 2015, p. 146). True to this attitude, Deleuze never accepted Uno’s invitation to deliver a talk in Tokyo and enjoy with him the flow of intensities amongst blossoming cherry trees (Genosko, 2002: 135). A very different approach towards travels, encounters and indeed Japan characterised instead the biography of his lifetime collaborator Felix Guattari. As a counterpoint to Deleuze’ sedentary life, Guattari’s tireless networking and travelling instinct famously brought him to countries as distant as Italy, Palestine, Poland, Mexico and Brazil. Probably less known than these travels, however, is Guattari’s experience with Japan, a relationship developed through not only a series of writings but also through the invitation of Japanese artists to Paris and frequent visits to the country during the 1980s. This new collection of Guattari’s writing on Japan edited by Gary Genosko and Jay Hetrick reconstructs the key moments of this encounter, confirming the image of Guattari as a restless traveller and returning us important fragments of his thought as emerged from the direct engagement with Japanese intellectuals, places and texts. More than that, however, this book presents us with an intriguing scenario: what happens when a revolutionary critic crosses the path of an enduring Orientalist tradition?

The question is intriguing, above all, as it has been rarely picked up elsewhere. The field of Japanese studies, for instance, has long produced and reproduced its own self-unified language of power by means of a widespread aversion to theory and a vigilant territorialisation of its ‘object of study’ (Harootunian and Sakai, 1999). In this sense, (Deleuze and) Guattari’s concept of nomadology promises a suggestive strategy to ‘deterritorialise’ the putative unity of ‘Japan’ in alternative lines of flight more attuned to difference and ‘the singularities of desire’ (Guattari, 2015: 30). Yet, this endeavour has to be contextualised in Guattari’s own time of writing – the 1980s of Japan’s apogee in world economics – as well as against the background of a shared fascination with Japan common to many French intellectuals in those same years. In the wake of the new orientalism of late 1960s’ countercultural movements, Japan somehow emerged as a recurrent topic in 1970s’ French intellectual life. The decade had just opened with the publication of Barthes’ semiotic reading of the country in The Empire of Signs (1982 [1970]), registered Lacan’s visit to Japan with relative study of its language and writing system (Kazushige, 2010: 264), and then concluded with Michel Foucault’s exemplary stay in Uenohara to practice zen under the guide of a Buddhist priest (Foucault, 1999 [1978]).[1] While many thinkers like Guattari looked at Japanese culture for a potential metacritique of Western thought and institutions, only a few managed to escape an orientalist binarism grounding an essential difference in the Asian Other. Lacan ended up considering Japan as a radical place impervious to analysis (Kazushige, 2010), while Barthes had famously made of it a ‘deliberate’ system, a ‘fictif’ place for the wonder of the transhistorical semiotician (Barthes, 1982). Neither, however, represented viable options for Guattari: his concern with asignifying codes, affects and desires inevitably dispelled any quest for a system ‘Japan’ into the more indeterminate question of ‘becoming Japanese’.[2]

In these eleven translations of previously published and unpublished writings, Guattari’s understanding of Japan emerges – in the different form of essays, poetry and conversations – from the singularities of his encounters with artists, performers, architects, urban planners, writers and activists. In the far gone times of Japanese economic prosperity, rampant commodification and too ready celebrations of postmodernism (Miyoshi and Harootunian, 1989), Guattari is not immune – as it is clear from the very first lines of the book – to the appeal of technological innovations or the excesses of certain Japanese techno-utopian architecture. Far from an excuse for an exotic territorialisation, however, Guattari locates multiple becomings-Japanese both in the singularity of these creations and in the minoritarian condition of women, children, the elderly or marginalised people (like homeless, ethnic minorities, or the outcast group of burakumin). As such, Guattari’s Japan resolutely breaks free from the nihonjinron discourse, or ‘theories of Japanese uniqueness’, a particular mode of representing Japanese self-identity through the erasure of all signs of social heterogeneity especially in vogue during the 1970s and 1980s (Befu, 2001).

This inclination of offering to minoritarian openings the crushing homogenization of capitalism or the apparent monolithic unity of national power formations drives the most of these writings. Contrarily to today’s cultural studies’ fascination with Japanese popular culture, it is not in the ‘vibrating zones of collective hysteria, such as the syndrome of puerile cute culture (kawaii), [or] the reading-drug of Manga comics’ that Guattari locates the potentials for the emergence of new minoritarian politics (Guattari, 2015: 14). It is rather through the field of contemporary Japanese arts that Guattari develops his interest for Japan. In different ways, radio artist Tetsuo Kogawa, butoh performer Min Tanaka, photographer Keichi Tahara, architect Shin Takamatsu and artists Toshimitsu Imai and Yayoi Kusama put into action ‘deterritorialised machines’, new values of creation and invention able to redraw not only the legacy of Japanese traditions and the subjectivation of capitalist modernity, but also the central role conventionally attributed to human subjectivity and signifying enunciations.[3] This is, for example, the praise Guattari draws of Min Tanaka’s performances in the poetry ‘Butoh’ and the conversation with the artist entitled ‘Body-Assemblage’.[4] Tanaka’s is a dancing body that not only resists performing ‘Japaneseness’ but that, through a fluctuating transversality – never completely satisfied either in standing or creeping on the ground – deconstructs any form of anthropocentrism by opening its senses, and conversely those of its spectators, to multiple non-human becomings. In this way, Tanaka’s performance works as an ‘abstract machine’, a collective assemblage of asignifying intensities connecting the body-without-organs of the dancer with the surrounding space and all the other bodies gathered in the theatre. A ‘body-weather’ in a perpetual state of becoming, as Tanaka himself describes it to the French philosopher (51).

In the two essays about Keichi Tahara, art’s potentiality to give voice to asignifying affects is further explored in connection to photography and the photographic portrait. Guattari comments on the idea of ‘faciality’ in relation to Tahata’s photographic project consisting of about one hundred portraits of artists and personalities.[5] What is important to Guattari is how Tahara achieves ‘a radical deframing of the photographic act’ by means of sophisticated technical arrangements (67), the ‘weapons’ of what he calls the ‘Taharian machine’ (55). Light, shadow, blurring and the accurate choice of angles deterritorialise both the frames and the faces, opening the compositions to a proliferation of becomings that contrasts to, albeit in a relational and productive way, the meanings associated with the famous identities of the portraits’ subjects (59).

If affect and the decentering of human subjectivity is also the topic of two brief fragments about the work of Toshimitsu Imai and Yayoi Kusama, it is to politics, the urban space and architecture that Guattari dedicates most of the remaining writings in this collection. His interest here is especially centred on the question of ‘how subjectivation establishes itself’ (38) in complex urban environments like Tokyo. In this sense, Guattari is intrigued by the Japanese ‘new wave’ architecture for what he sees as a break with Western modernism through a new aesthetic not even completely at ease with the label of postmodernism (77-78).[6] Transversally placed between Le Corbusian architecture sitting in continuity with a highly rationalised urban fabric and Mies van der Rohe’s functionalism standing out from its surroundings (80), the architecture of Shin Takamatsu is particularly praised by Guattari as, by a wise play of correspondences of scale – between outside and inside, the façade and the rest of the city – and a destabilising usage of architectural elements – slits and openings, ocular structures or the simultaneous use of two different styles for the same building – it is able to turn its buildings into a ‘characteristic fantasy’ (94) crossed by animal, vegetable or machine becomings.

In his last essay of this collection, ‘Ecosophical Practices and the ‘Subjective City’’, a similar aesthetic of singularization of urban architecture is more broadly wished for by Guattari to allow ‘a new poetry, a new art of living’ to emerge (112) in contrast to the homogenising subjectivation of the capitalist city only based on profit, productivity and inequalities. To counter the problems of capitalist urbanism, however, aesthetics alone is not sufficient; it should be coupled by a collective transdisciplinary process involving ‘the mobilization of socio-politics, ecology, and ethics’ (104). It is in this spirit that we have to read Guattari’s visit to Sanya, a district of Tokyo notoriously functioning as a social ghetto for homeless, immigrants and poor day-labourers. As a symbol of social segregation and refusal of the existing order, Sanya is invoked as the hope for future molecular revolutions against oppression and exploitation: ‘Vertigo of another Japanese way:’ – Guattari foretells in his delirious opening essay – ‘Tokyo relinquishes its status as the Eastern capital of Western Capitalism in order to become the Northern capital of the emancipation of the Third World’ (16).

Complementing Guattari’s writings on Japan collected in this edition closes with a commentary section constituted by two critical essays authored by the editors. In ‘Pathic Transferences and Contemporary Japanese Arts’, Genosko takes the complex and somehow paradoxical relationship between non-discursive intensities and representational discourses to explain Guattari’s understanding of the subjectivation process. This is illustrated through Guattari’s fascination with those Japanese artists that similarly explored in their works the concatenations of ‘discursive complexity and non-discursive chaos’ (Genosko, 2015: 134). In the other critical essay, Hetrick analyses Guattari’s fascination with Japan clearing it from the accusation of Orientalism, a criticism especially received by his writing on nomadism with Deleuze. In contrast to exoticism or Orientalism, Hetrick explains how Guattari’s writings on Japan are not concerned with speaking for the Other, but rather ‘in mapping the space of the encounter itself’ (Hetrick, 2015: 139) in its complex singularity made of signifying as well as asignifying semiotics.

At the end of this fascinating journey to Japan with Guattari, Genosko and Hetrick, we are now able to come back to our initial question: What happens when a revolutionary critic crosses the path of an enduring Orientalist tradition? This collection presents the undeniable virtue of showing how Guattari’s interest in Japan was profoundly intermeshed in his political view and philosophical development, something that helped him to refrain from common orientalist reductionisms so fashionable at the time of his writings. As his dissatisfaction towards structures and the subject-object couple brought him far away from Barthes’ semiotics or the analysis of his former guide Lacan, Guattari’s ‘Japan’ constantly refuses to be contained in the signifying cage of representation. This does not completely frees Guattari from the seduction of exoticism, as his praise for Japan seems at times to spring from a fascination with its ‘hypermodern cocktail’ (cited in Genosko, 2002: 126–127) of high technology and archaic values and structures – namely, different processes of subjectivation than those found in ‘Western’ capitalism. At least, this is a mode of exoticism that does not favour fixity over social change: ‘Imai remains fundamentally Japanese because he constantly betrays Japan’ (Guattari, 2015: 73), while Sanya even emerges as the world capital of molecular forms of emancipation (16).

Yet, the only blind spots one can find in this book have probably less to do with Guattari’s utopian exoticism than with this edition itself. In spite of the beautiful packaging and solid critical commentary, the interest of the editors is clearly focused on Guattari’s thought, not on the Guattari-Japan assemblage. Regrettably, no space is given to Guattari’s friends and collaborators to add their personal recollections about Guattari and his time in Japan. Uno Kuniichi, Akira Asada, Toshiya Ueno… These names arrive to the reader only in the form of indirect references, not as valuable and informed contributions. In a book about Guattari, Japan and critical nomadism, this is a self-killing choice. There is also little room for historicity here, and little background is offered to contextualise Guattari’s writing in a very particular moment of Japanese contemporary history. In this respect, it is hardly sharable the decision to include the exegetic essay on pathic transferences in this collection, as the book would have better benefited from Genosko’s previous reconstruction of the complex relationship linking Guattari to Japan (2002). As a result, these shortcomings undermine the appeal of this collection to a broad readership outside the circle of Guattari experts, affecting the very possibility of transdisciplinary opening that lies at the heart of Guattari’s nomadic experience.

Overall, the eleven writings by Guattari and the two critical essays by the editors make this collection an indispensable addiction to the expanding literature on Guattari available in the English language. In terms of style, theoretical illuminations and personal experiences, this collection somehow reminds Guattari’s previous book on Brazil (Guattari and Rolnik, 2007), which it ideally complements as a shorter companion. Similar to the other book, this one clearly shows how Guattari’s interest in other countries cannot be severed from his philosophical thought and commitment to activism and revolutionary politics. Furthermore, its mixed style of essays, commentaries and conversations presents the noteworthy advantage of deploying complex theoretical aspects of Guattari’s thought alongside the explanatory assistance of concrete examples from Japanese arts and architecture. As such, the book represents an extraordinary resource for researchers working either on Guattari or contemporary Japan, although the editorial choice of excluding Japanese contributors and privileging exegesis to contextualisation will not allow the book to be as nomadic and transversal as Guattari would have probably hoped for.

Dario Lolli is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is writing a thesis concerning the globalisation of Japanese transmedia franchises. At Birkbeck, he also lectures in his co-designed BA module on Japanese animation and organises international academic events as a member and administrator of the London Asia Pacific Cultural Studies Forum. His joint book chapter (with Shinji Oyama) on Japanese media convergence will appear in Galbraith, P. W. & Karlin, J. G. (eds.) Convergence and Divergence in Japanese Media Culture (2015, forthcoming). [email:]


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Befu H (2001) Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne : Portland, Or: Trans Pacific Press.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (2004) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Continuum Impacts, London & New York: Continuum.

Foucault M (1999) Michel Foucault and Zen: A Stay in a Zen Temple (1978). In: Carette J (ed), Religion and Culture, New York & Manchester: Routledge and Manchester University Press, 110–114.

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Genosko G (2015) Pathic Transferences and Contemporary Japanese Arts. In: Genosko G and Hetrick J (eds), Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan by Félix Guattari, Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Publishing, 119–135.

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Hetrick J (2015) Towards a Critical Nomadism? Félix Guattari in Japan. In: Genosko G and Hetrick J (eds), Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan by Félix Guattari, Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Publishing, 137–154.

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[1] Also important is 1976, the year of Nagisa Oshima’s film Ai no korīda (In the Realm of the Senses, 1977), a sexually explicit French-Japanese production bound to exert lasting impressions in European intellectual milieus. Not casually, the film was released in France with the Barthesian title L’empire des sens.

[2] With a similar attitude, Foucault increasingly tried to deprive any of his references to ‘Oriental’ thoughts of any fixed geographical oppositionality against a putative ‘West’ (Schaub, 1989).

[3] In the list of Japanese artistic expressions considered by Guattari in this collection, it is quite striking the absence of cinema.

[4] Butoh (earlier called ankoku butoh, ‘dance of darkness’) is an avant-garde dance form developed in the late 1950s by Kazuo Ōno and Tatsumi Hijikata. Butoh tries to avoid as much as possible fixity and the crystallisation of forms and themes, and it is now practiced and experimented all over the world. Its ever expanding repertoire is often concerned with the exploration of dark existential conditions, metamorphosis and non-human subjectivities by means, for instance, of grotesque gestures, sexual innuendos and the recourse to nonverbal vocalisations (Sanders, 1988; Sas, 2011).

[5] Guattari and Deleuze had already considered the issue of faciality in A Thousand Plateau (2004).

[6] In this article, originally published in 1994, Guattari is probably referring to the book New Wave Japanese Architecture, an introduction to the Japanese metabolist movement edited by its founder Kisho Kurokawa just one year earlier (1993). In his enthusiastic judgement, however, Guattari is probably overlooking too quickly the strong utopian, modernist and centralised rationale driving most of metabolist architecture (see Tamari, 2014).

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