What is a Territory?

The Mantle is pleased to present the second in series of blog posts by Cæmeron Crain exploring key concepts in contemporary political philosophy. In his previous post, Microfascism, Cæmeron introduced us to the concept of desire, and the work it does in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Here, Cæmeron picks up where he left off, following the analysis of desire from microfascism to Territory

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In L'Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (“A is for Animal”), Deleuze tells the journalist Claire Parnet that he and Felix Guattari created “something like a philosophical concept” with the notion of territory. This is significant because Deleuze defined the practice of philosophy as the creation of concepts. It is worth taking a moment to consider what this implies. First and foremost, if philosophy involves the creation of concepts, then concepts are not given as a part of the universe, nor do they sit in some Platonic world of Ideas waiting to be discovered. Rather, they are invented, and perhaps later ossify into “common sense” ways of thinking about the world. To be clear, what is meant by "concept" here is not reducible to the meaning of a word, but is rather a complex structure that does not admit of a neat dictionary definition. A concept is a way of organizing information that would otherwise remain chaotic, but the same chaos can be ordered in different ways.

Understanding a concept involves grasping the problem to which it responds. Deleuze often used Plato’s Ideas as an example on this point. "Idea" is a concept. The problem it addresses, according to Deleuze, is one of distinguishing true copy from the simulacrum. It is not a matter of purely trying to intuit the Idea of Justice—which would be only Justice and nothing else—but of using this Idea as a means of sorting the true suitor from the pretender. Thus, the Idea is meant to serve as a way of dealing with the concrete challenge of distinguishing what is just from what is merely legal, or an act of vengeance.

The important point here is that a concept is supposed to correspond to a problem. So, if Territory is a concept, the question would be: what is the problem to which it answers? Unfortunately, Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) are less than explicit about this. The concept is deployed in manifold contexts, drawing in examples from the lives of animals, from the history of nomads in relation to the State, from the development of various forms of art, etc. At its most general level, however, I would suggest that "territory" responds to the problem of Identity, whether this be of a person, or a place, or something else.

In a common sense way, one might not think that identity presents much of a problem. I, of course, take myself to be, at some level, the same over the course of time, and I expect that others do as well. All sorts of things about us change: a hair turns grey, wrinkles appear, and worldviews shift. I still think of it as my hair, my skin, and my perspective. But what secures this identity? In the 1998 cult sci-fi film Dark City, an alien race freezes time at midnight every night, putting all of the human inhabitants of the city to sleep, so that they may move memories from one mind to another, creating identities as they see fit, in an attempt to determine what gives humans their individuality. Our hero tells one of them at the end of the film that they were looking in the wrong place. Presumably, he means in the mind rather than the heart, or the soul.          

In a more philosophical context, David Hume raised the problem of personal identity centuries earlier. How do I know that I am the same person I was yesterday, or an hour ago, or a moment ago? The soul provides a certain way of answering this question, but one which Hume famously rejects as unfounded. Rather, personal identity, such as it is, is constituted through habit. According to Hume, the habit of contracting habits is a part of human nature. We expect the future to resemble the past, and through this form memories, a sense of self, and so on; but beneath all of these constructs there is nothing stable, just a flux of experience.

In contrast, Gottfried Leibniz, some years before Hume, insisted on starting with identity as a fundamental principle as he crafted a metaphysics which he referred to as the Monadology. A monad is precisely a principle of unity. It is something like a soul, but to create a consistent metaphysics, Leibniz extended these monads throughout all things: rocks, trees, animals, humans, and even at times to things like cities and armies. These latter examples should be particularly troubling. If monads are the simple substances of which the world is composed, what sense does it make to grant this kind of metaphysical identity to a city? Surely the city is an historical achievement, constituted through various operations, and not a pre-given entity.

D&G follow Hume on the question of identity, but do so by thinking about things like cities. The self is not simple, but a multiplicity of partial objects. These must be brought together, or assembled, to constitute something like an identity, which will itself never be fully stable. This is the process that is described in terms of Territorialization. Territory is not given, but constituted, and this constitution is likewise the organization of the individuals in it.  In thinking this way, D&G deny a strong distinction between nature and culture, and, like Hume, take the human to be one animal among others. There is of course a difference between how a wolf territorializes and how a human does. In both cases, however, it will be through a series of markings, or signs, postures, gestures, and sounds. It is only through the territory that an identity takes form. Without it, one would be in a chaotic milieu that is hard to even describe.

Imagine entering a bar, or café, that does not suit you. Perhaps it is too noisy, too crowded, or simply occupied by the wrong kind of people. You have entered a territory in which you have no place; somewhere you cannot territorialize. In other words, you cannot be yourself in this place. D&G’s point is that this “self” is not something that exists throughout time like a soul, but a rather a set of habits; an inhospitable territory would be one where those habits have no place. The bar has been territorialized by others, bikers perhaps, whose postures shift as you enter. They give you an evil eye, and perhaps yell something out to one another: a joke at your expense? In a truly foreign space, you might not be sure. The gestures employed may be incomprehensible; beyond your ability to decode. You become defensive and hunker down. Perhaps your shoulders contract and your eyes narrow; a defensive posture to protect the territory that is your body and “personal space.”

The point is that the territory itself is structured by some kind of nomos—custom, habit—where this is defined by forms of behavior and their function within the territory. Importantly, the territory has an outside. It must have an outside, and there must be a way out of it. But this outside should not be thought of in solely spatial terms; or, rather, space itself (as a term in D&G) should not thought solely in terms of physical space. What is more important is the outside in terms of the meaning of signs, etc.: these have one sense within the territory, but can take on others outside it.

This moves us to the concept of Deterritorialization, which involves detaching a sign from its context of signification. It is a move toward nonsense. This is the link with schizophrenia: it is a deterritorialization that involves a loss of “self.” D&G’s interest in schizophrenia is ultimately an interest in this move of deterritorialization more than it is a concern for the mentally ill (though they have the latter—Deleuze will say that the worst thing is for someone to become mush, and D&G present real criticisms of the effects of institutionalization on schizophrenics; nonetheless, they make clear at times that their real philosophical concern has nothing to do with such individuals). Deterritorialization tends to be followed by reterritorialization in another domain. The concrete worry with schizophrenics, then, has to do with the process of reterritorialization. D&G use examples of birdsongs,1 among other things, to get at this notion of de/re-territorialization, but ultimately expand it to articulate the logic of a kind of grand historical process. It might be helpful, however, to start with a much more banal kind of example.

Humans are not so much territorial as territorializing. Consider, for instance, a classroom situation, such as that which occurs at a college level, where there are no assigned seats. One will nonetheless tend toward a certain part of the room on the first day, and stake out a place for oneself that feels comfortable. It is hard to say why some of us might prefer a seat up front, while others gravitate toward the back and the side, but this is not the issue here. What is of more interest is that one will tend to return to the same seat throughout the course, and if someone else has taken it, to feel as though one’s territory has been infringed upon.

Now, within this classroom context, raising one’s hand is sign indicating that one would like to speak, or ask a question. As a form of behavior, the action functions because its meaning is defined within the territory. Outside of a context like this, its meaning would seem to be lost. However, one might deterritorialize it and reterritorialize it elsewhere. I am being berated by a friend and cannot get a word in edgewise, so I raise my hand to indicate I wish to speak.

This, however, does not go far enough, insofar as the sign has the same meaning in the new context which it had in the old one. Artistic examples are far better: using words to create poetry rather than communicate, images to express rather than represent, etc. Deterritorialization is a separation from a given purpose (itself only defined in terms of its territory), and reterritorialization a re-purposing in another domain. Kleenex moves from being a way to remove makeup to a means to blow one’s nose. This is nothing new, in itself. De/re-territorialization has been going on throughout history, but previous social arrangements tried to keep it under wraps. The deterritorialization of a mystic might be allowed, so long as the discourse created could be reterritorialized under the dogma of the Church, but too much deterritorialization makes one a heretic to be burned at the stake.

Now, we have entered the conditions of capitalism, and D&G contend that deterritorialization is at the heart of its logic, unleashing the forces of deterritorialization and even depending upon them. Their thought is similar to Karl Marx’s claim that capitalism is constantly revolutionizing itself, but perhaps a bit more general. Capitalism depends on deterritorialization. It disrupts established forms of meaning, uproots people, desubstantializes work and reinscribes it in terms of money. This is perhaps its ultimate reterritorialization: to give everything a monetary value. But even money has become deterritorialized in fluctuating global markets. Finance capitalism makes everything a matter of flows without fixed points of reference. Thus, while D&G often seem to present deterritorialization as offering the hope of some kind of political liberation, we should not miss the claim that the current system operates on this very basis.

Work is no longer something that one only does at the factory. One is expected to work from home, or at least answer work-related emails. Learning is no longer confined to the school. One is expected to continue a perpetual training throughout life. We have entered what Deleuze calls a “Society of Control”—there is an illusion of freedom, but everything is determined with reference to a certain code. The rules have become fluid, but rather than this freeing us from the strictures of the territory of the State, this diffusion of power places us all the more under the control of the forces of capitalism. It is hard to see an outside. Whether it is possible to take deterritorialization further, and whether this would open meaningful political possibilities, will be the subject of a future post.

  • 1. The birdsong serves a function in the constitution of a territory, but can also become detached from such a purpose in an almost artistic way. The details of D&G’s account are quite complex, and can be found in the chapter on “The Refrain” in A Thousand Plateaus. This is one of many instances in which D&G discuss animals. There would seem to be two big reasons for this. The first is their denial of any strong distinction between Nature and Culture. As Deleuze tells Claire Parnet, he sees all of the elements of art in the animal’s territorialization. The other is their deployment of the notion of becoming-animal, which Deleuze also mentions in his conversation with Parnet, in discussing, e.g., the way in which one might have an animal relationship with an animal.

Cæmeron Crain is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and teaches as an adjunct lecturer in New York City. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy, as well as a B.A. in Communications, from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.