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Refrains and assemblages: Exploring market negotiations and green subjectivity with Guattari


This article uses the philosophy of Félix Guattari to explore subjectivity among environmental consultants. Drawing on his exploration of processes of enunciation in the context of a critical appraisal of ‘assemblage theory’, it looks at how one environmental consultant operates and makes senses of her world, how she understands her practices and beliefs, and how the world around her shapes her existence. In experimenting with refrains that are teased out of fieldwork material, it argues that Guattari’s examination of the production of subjectivity, his insistence on the variable relations between the material and the semiotic and the role that refrains have in disclosing complex territorial relations offer a useful counter to the homogeneous and abstracted register of meaning production that is presumed in much interpretation of qualitative interview data. The case of environmental consultants is developed as an example of the complex and contingent qualities of market action, contesting a view of the ‘market actor’ as the profit-hungry, value-free agent imagined by commentators on the nature of capitalism. Our Guattarian reading leads us to recognise the complexity of subjectivities formed at interstices of ‘markets’ and ‘nature’.

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  1. 1.

    British Academy Small Grant SG111072, held by Pettinger.

  2. 2.

    Texts by Genosko (2002), Watson (2011) and Alliez and Goffey (2011) address significant aspects of Guattari’s work and can be usefully consulted on some of the issues that we raise.

  3. 3.

    Considerations of space have made it impossible for us to address the question of the relations between refrains and affect. Suffice it to say here that there is one, and that it is closely linked to the issue of enunciation, which we have been insisting on. Guattari (2012) goes so far as to claim that affect is in fact the ‘deterritorialised matter of enunciation’ (p. 213). Rather than engaging directly in a discussion of affect here, we take the connection that Guattari makes between enunciation and affect to signal that one cannot abstract out forms of expression, such as language, as the bearer of purely ideal significations or information, from emotional, erotic or affective investment, and we ask the reader to bear that in mind here.

  4. 4.

    Leopold’s book was first published in 1949 but was most influential following publication of a paperback edition in 1970; Silent Spring was first published in 1962.

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    Plants and their agency recur across the range of interviews carried out, and although the orchids do not recur throughout the interview, when Jenny does mention them, in a ‘coda’ to the main body of the interview, where it has been a matter of discussing expertise, relations with clients, and the complexities of environmental work, they are mentioned repeatedly in quick succession. It is this change of ‘pace’ in the discussion and the sudden clarity it introduces that becomes interesting. On pace and rhythm more generally in relation to refrains see Deleuze and Guattari (2004 [1987], pp. 311–323).

  6. 6.

    This is an issue that Guattari discusses at numerous points in his work and stems from his not wanting to read desire as ‘lack’: making the orchid symbolise something else, making it a substitute for something else, effectively de-realises Jenny’s ecological concerns.

  7. 7.

    We note in passing that in his recent work on modes of existence Latour has started to address the problem of value, in recognition of the ways in which ANT descriptions of heterogeneous networks of agents all start to look alike, after a while. We further note that Latour’s (1987) new account, in this regard, owes much to the work of Stengers (2011, 2012), whose own work explicitly references Guattari’s account of the opening up of universes of value. A detailed discussion of these links, however, is beyond the scope of this article.


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Goffey, A., Pettinger, L. Refrains and assemblages: Exploring market negotiations and green subjectivity with Guattari. Subjectivity 7, 385–410 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2014.18

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  • Guattari
  • assemblages
  • market actor
  • environmental work
  • refrains