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What is the body without organs? Machine and organism in Deleuze and Guattari


In the two volumes which make up Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari propose new concepts of “machine” and “organism.” The problem of the relationship between machines and organisms has a long philosophical history, and this essay treats their work as a contribution to this debate. It is argued that their solution to this problem is found in their difficult concept of the “body without organs,” a concept that is given some much-needed clarification in the essay. The first section details Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the machine, examining the ways in which it differs from the traditional concept as described by Canguilhem: (1) their machines do not have predictable movements, but instead produce events; (2) they do not have a purpose; (3) they are able to reproduce themselves. The second section details their conception of the organism through their account of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: (1) organisms are bodies which normalize and which create hierarchies; (2) they also do not have a purpose; (3) they have a “unity of composition.” The final section argues that their concept of the “body without organs” shows us how to understand the relation between the two transformed concepts, and defines the body without organs as the becoming-machine of the organism.

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Fig. 1


  1. There is a lot of terminology developed within Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which can make it difficult to understand the ideas without making constant reference to the whole web of other concepts. In this essay, I try to keep the Deleuzo-Guattarian technical vocabulary to a minimum, sticking as closely as possible to the problem at hand. As such, I will leave the more intricate terminological issues to footnotes.

  2. Canguilhem (2009). For a very helpful reading of Canguilhem’s lecture, see also Hacking (1998).

  3. Canguilhem (2009, p. 46).

  4. Canguilhem (2009, p. 54).

  5. Canguilhem (2009, p. 55).

  6. Canguilhem (2009, p. 45).

  7. See Descartes (1998, p. 99).

  8. Canguilhem (2009, p. 47). See also Gasking (1967, pp. 167–168).

  9. Des Chene (2001, p. xi, see also p. 68). Canguilhem makes much the same point throughout his lecture.

  10. See chapter 2 of Des Chene (2001, pp. 35–52), which is devoted to this problem. See also the useful summary in Gasking (1967, pp. 67–69).

  11. Malebranche, for example, thought that Cartesian principles led one to a very different account of generation than the one proposed by Descartes himself. His Cartesianism led him to adopt a particularly extreme version of preformationism according to which each embryo already contains its whole line of descent pre-formed within itself, like a Russian doll: “the body of every man and beast born till the end of time was perhaps produced at the creation of the world” (Malebranche 1997, p. 27). This solution avoids the problem of generation even more ingeniously than Descartes’, in that it removes animal generation from the physical sphere entirely, explaining it instead as a pre-given and inscrutable act of God.

  12. Canguilhem (2009, pp. 63–64).

  13. Dosse (2012, p. 135), citing Guattari (1984) .

  14. Dosse (2012, p. 127).

  15. The example Deleuze gives at the opening of Difference and Repetition is Monet’s series of “Water Lilies” paintings; in each case, the subject is the same, such that the paintings constitute repetitions of one another, but these are repetitions which “make a difference” in the sense that the work produced is different each time (Deleuze 1994/1968, p. 1/8). When citing texts by Deleuze, or by Deleuze and Guattari, I will cite first the English pagination, then the French.

  16. A term Guattari uses many times in his essay.

  17. Deleuze and Guattari (2000/1973, p. 3/8).

  18. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 257/314).

  19. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 256/313).

  20. Borges (1964, p. 191).

  21. Borges (1964, p. 192).

  22. The notion of “event” is a crucial one not only in Deleuze, but also in other philosophers of his generation. These others also not only create a new concept of “event,” but also and perhaps even more interestingly, follow Deleuze and Guattari in connecting it to the concept of “machine.” In Derrida, for example, there is an attempt to think the apparently impossible thought of the “event-machine,” that is, a concept that would bring together these two apparently “antinomic” orders: “Will this be possible for us? Will we one day be able, and in a single gesture, to join the thinking of the event to the thinking of the machine? Will we be able to think, what is called thinking, at one and the same time, both what is happening (we call that an event) and the calculable programming of an automatic repetition (we call that a machine)?” (Derrida 2002, p. 72). For an examination of Derrida’s version of the concept of “event”, see my “An Event Worthy of the Name, a Name Worthy of the Event” (Smith 2015).

  23. Deleuze and Guattari (2000/1973, pp. 283–286/337–341). The following quotations are from Butler, “The Book of the Machines,” which is a section of his 1872 novel Erewhon. In these chapters, the protagonist is speaking to a mad professor, who is convinced that machines are “evolving” at an unprecedented rate (the book is, in part, a parody of Darwinism), and advocates the destruction of all machines to prevent what he sees as their inevitable future domination of mankind. Butler has the professor respond to criticisms of this theory, criticisms which mostly revolve around the “organic” capacities he seems to be illegitimately attributing to machines, one of which is their capacity for reproduction.

  24. Butler (1986, p. 188).

  25. Butler (1986, p. 188).

  26. Butler’s example is thus close to Deleuze and Guattari’s often repeated example of the wasp and the orchid.

  27. Butler, in a passage cited in Anti-Oedipus, makes the further point that the offspring of machines do not have to resemble their “parents”: “The truth is that each part of every vapor-engine is bred by its own special breeders, whose function is to breed that part, and that only” (Butler 1986, p. 190). Just because thimbles do not appear to directly produce other thimbles (to use another of Butler’s examples), does not mean that they do not have a reproductive system. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology, we could say that their reproduction is effectuated by the abstract machine of the thimble, which comprises everything that it takes for the thimble to be able to continue to reproduce itself. This abstract machine includes the concrete machines that work towards their production, the factory in which they are produced, the humans engaged in their use, sale and maintenance, but also all the related practices, discourses and histories: the aesthetics of the thimble, the political economy of sewing.

  28. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 45/61).

  29. As described in Protevi (2005, p. 200). See also Protevi (2012).

  30. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, pp. 158/196; 163/201).

  31. See Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, pp. 45–47/60–63). For a good account of the debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy, see Appel (1987). For a very helpful account of how this debate bears on Deleuze’s thought, see chapter 8 of Somers-Hall (2012).

  32. Somers-Hall (2012, p. 222).

  33. Somers-Hall notes that Hegel relied extensively on Cuvier in his philosophy of nature. See e.g. the following quotation from Cuvier, cited in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature §370 addition: “Every organized creature forms a whole, a unified and closed system, all the parts of which mutually correspond, and by reciprocal interaction upon one another contribute to the same purposive activity. None of these parts can alter without the others altering too; and consequently each of them, taken on its own, suggests and gives all the others” (cited in Somers-Hall 2012, p. 222). We therefore might want to read Deleuze and Guattari’s staging of the debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy as a coded critique of Hegel. Somers-Hall sees their respective theories of the organism as the key site of contestation between the systems of Hegel and Deleuze, the only one examined in his book where he takes Deleuze to have a decisive advantage over Hegel.

  34. In fact, the terminological history is slightly more complex than is represented by Deleuze and Guattari. In Geoffroy’s writings, “homology” and “analogy” are not carefully distinguished; Richard Owen was the first to strictly separate the two terms, although he does credit Geoffroy (and others, including Goethe, Carus and Oken) with having originally formulated the idea. Owen’s terminology is the one widely used both in Deleuze and Guattari’s time and today, so they are the terms I will be using here. For further details, see Panchen (1994, pp. 42–44); also Hall (1994, pp. 3–5).

  35. Appel (1987, p. 71), citing Richard Owen’s classic and widely-cited formulation.

  36. This diagram also makes it clear why Deleuze and Guattari say that Geoffroy “thinks topologically” Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 47/63): despite the size and shape of the bones being different in each case, one may move from one to the other by topological operations, that is, folding and stretching, but not cutting or joining. These kinds of operations allow one to change the size and shape of the object without changing its virtual form

  37. Appel (1987, p. 69).

  38. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, pp. 45–46/61). See also: ‘the organic […] does have a specific unity of composition, a single abstract Animal, a single machine […] and presents everywhere the same molecular materials, the same elements or anatomical components of organs, the same formal connections’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987/1980, p. 45/61).

  39. Deleuze (1990/1969, p. 99/120).

  40. Somers-Hall (2012, p. 235). It is somewhat surprising that, in this otherwise excellent and extremely illuminating chapter comparing Deleuze and Hegel’s theories of the organism, Somers-Hall doesn’t once mention that Deleuze’s aim is ultimately not to valorize, but to “blow apart” the organism (Deleuze and Guattari 1987/1980, p. 30/43).

  41. As is well known, the process of evolution relies on naturally-occurring mutations, and yet, as Keller interestingly observes: “the vast majority of naturally occurring mistakes are either harmful or neutral” (Keller 2000, p. 32). Mutations, one of the most important sources of change within organisms, are generally not useful, but harm the organism, by a massive margin: Keller reports that in bacteria, the estimated ratio of harmful to beneficial mutations is 100,000:1 (Keller 2000, p. 153n. 30). Of course, standard evolutionary theory says that the beneficial mutations are “selected for,” but Keller’s point is that this only makes sense when one is thinking at the level of the species as a whole. From the perspective of any individual organism, change is overwhelmingly harmful.

  42. On this point, see Young et al. (2013, p. 51).

  43. Holland (2013, p. 94).

  44. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 158/196).

  45. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 151/188).

  46. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, pp. 150–151/187).

  47. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 159/197).

  48. The other two “great strata” being significance and subjectification (see Deleuze and Guattari 1987/1980, pp. 159/197).

  49. “What does it mean to disarticulate, to cease to be an organism? How can we convey how easy it is, and the extent to which we do it every day?” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987/1980, pp. 159–160/198).

  50. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this connection.

  51. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 172/211).

  52. Canguilhem (1991, p. 200).

  53. It is on this point where, despite the great differences between Canguilhem and Deleuze and Guattari, their major concerns nevertheless re-converge. Although he is working with very different conceptions of “machines” and “organisms,” Canguilhem is just as implacably opposed to the statistical conception of normality, and for the same reason: concern over the ethical and political consequences of “pathologizing” deviations from the norm. The conception of health developed in The Normal and the Pathological combats this “normalizing” view using the very same strategy as Deleuze and Guattari do: rejecting statistical norms as a criteria, Canguilhem instead focuses on the production of the new, defining health as the capacity to create new norms in new situations.

  54. Deleuze and Guattari (1987/1980, p. 141/176).

  55. Although it should be noted that by “form” I here mean virtual form—that is, the “formal relations or connections” which connect the various concrete forms that existing organisms may take – and not the actual form taken by each individual organism.

  56. The reverse is also the case: one would not arrive at the precise structure of a bat wing from the mere idea of an “organ whose purpose is flying,” nor would one arrive at the geometrical properties of the knife-rest from the mere idea of “a machine whose purpose is to hold knives.” In both cases, there is a multiplicity of other ways that they could have been structured which would still have allowed them to carry out this same purpose. The reason why they have one structure rather than another comes not from their “purpose,” but from the specific process of actualization that produced them (the specifics of evolutionary history in the case of the bat; the personal taste of the designer in the case of the knife-rest).


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I wish to thank Leonard Lawlor for invaluable help with various drafts of this paper.

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Smith, D. What is the body without organs? Machine and organism in Deleuze and Guattari. Cont Philos Rev 51, 95–110 (2018).

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  • Body without organs
  • Machine
  • Organism
  • Deleuze
  • Event
  • Virtual
  • Canguilhem
  • Mechanism
  • Vitalism
  • Machinism
  • Inorganic vitalism