"Inorganic, Yet Alive":
How Can Deleuze and Guattari Deal With the Accusation of Vitalism?

Leslie Dema

What is Inorganic Life?

[1] Deleuze and Guattari are interested in the question of what life might be if it is not confined to the organic sphere. In A Thousand Plateaus they claim that "the organism is that which life sets against itself in order to limit itself, and there is a life all the more intense, all the more powerful for being anorganic." [1] It is not so much that organisms are not alive, but that life can be articulated in all things. Oblivious to the organism's wisdom and limits, the inorganic life of things can assume a frightful power:

This streaming, spiralling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line of variation liberates a power of life that human beings had rectified and organisms had confined, and which matter now expresses as the trait, flow or impulse traversing it. If everything is alive, it is not because everything is organic or organized, but, on the contrary, because the organism is a diversion of life. In short the life in question is inorganic, germinal, and intensive, a powerful life without organs, a body that is all the more alive for having no organs. [2]

This is not the easiest concept to digest. How can something be: "inorganic, yet alive, and all the more alive for being inorganic"? [3] In the course of this paper I aim to defend the legitimacy of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of inorganic life from one of the strongest objections to it: that inorganic life is nothing more than a naive neovitalism or an empty emergentist theory of life. This is an accusation that is spearheaded by Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou. I will attempt to demonstrate that Deleuze and Guattari do not succumb to the characteristic weaknesses of vitalist philosophical positions; on the contrary, their concept of inorganic life thrives as a compelling and defensible reimagining of life.

[2] I will begin with a brief overview of how Deleuze and Guattari characterize inorganic life. Deleuze and Guattari have chosen the oxymoronic term 'inorganic life' because the deliberate juxtaposition of contradictory terms calls attention to how their theory of life directly challenges the idea of organic life that we find in contemporary biology.

[3] The best way to understand inorganic life is through Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the assemblage. This concept is most thoroughly explained in the "Geology of Morals" chapter of A Thousand Plateaus. [4] For them the "minimum real unit" of inorganic life "is not the word, the idea, the concept or the signifier, but the assemblage." [5] Assemblages are the symbiotic or sympathetic co-functioning of heterogeneous elements. They are formed through a rapport between partial objects that enter into monstrous couplings, experimental alliances, unnatural participations, and rhizomatic structures.

[4] What does it mean to say that assemblages are the basic unit of inorganic life? Just as biologists once spoke of life by appealing to organisms or species, Deleuze and Guattari wish to speak of life by appealing to assemblages. Unfortunately this introduction is too brief a space in which to develop a proper exposition of the rich concept of assemblages. I will offer a taste rather than a fully developed argument because, with all of their enthusiasm for creating concepts and neologisms, Deleuze and Guattari have built their theory of inorganic life and assemblages upon a very complicated system of their own invention. So, for example, the processes and parts that compose assemblages are not 'like' organs. There is no equivalent to a heart that pumps blood or a chloroplast that digests the sun. Instead, an assemblage is animated by coding and decoding, deterritorializations, and lines of flight; it is composed through doubly-articulated connections between various strata; it effectuates an abstract machine; its nonpersonal segments flow from a plane of consistency. There is a rapport between parts, but no organs in the sense of parts subordinated to a whole. Wrought by both actual and virtual dynamics, assembling is about the interruptions and connections of the flows of the mechanosphere. There is no biosphere or noosphere, only the mechanosphere, which is to say, the sphere of inorganic life.

[5] Assembling involves no soul, no death, and no reproduction. Assemblages do not produce more of their own kind; they do not belong to a kind; they are not sustained by an essence. Assembled relations are infinitely more productive than conjugal relations. With organic life reproduction arises from a single centre; DNA is passed on through conjugal coupling. But organic reproduction runs into a puzzle when faced with sexual symbiosis; such is the case with the orchid whose sexual organs are not directed to appeal to its own species, but to attract the wasp, without which the orchid cannot reproduce. This forms the wasp-orchid assemblage which operates via inorganic, rather than organic, life. Symbiosis is by no means limited to persistent and highly specialized co-adaptations of two species; other assemblages may involve transgressions between different spheres. For example, with ergonomics we see workers from the anthropomorphic strata involved with physical apparatuses such as chairs and keyboards from the technological strata.  Life is diffused through symbiotic relations until it is no longer recognizably linear and strictly organic: it is assembled inorganically.

[6] Assembling is so simple. It is the striking up of a rapport: "the assemblage is co-functioning, it is 'sympathy', symbiosis." [6] At least two parts find some basis of attraction, a method of working together, a shared stylistic technique. Assemblages are not alien or unusual structures; they are types of interactive relationships with which we are already very familiar.

[7] Among friends, assemblages of sympathy form. Between you and your friend, what is there? Your friend has a certain charm. She captures you with her "vital stammering," and this charm marks a "delicacy of health." [7] Her own contingencies make her all the more alive, and the various subtle ways in which she is out of place turn out to be opportunities for the two of you to meet. But where is your friend's charm? Is it found in her reactions to stories, her slightly awkward gait, her insecurities, her attentiveness to others, or in the pride she feels regarding her own good taste? It is a mistake to think of her charm as a tool of flattery or merely as a thing in her possession. Charm "gives life a non-personal power," it is what facilitates the rapport between the two of you; it is the formation of assemblages that, as Deleuze and Guattari describe, involves an affirmation of chance:

Charm is the source of life just as style is the source of writing. Life is not your history—those who have no charm have no life, it is as though they are dead. But the charm is not the person. It is what makes people be grasped as so many combinations and as so many unique chances from which such a combination has been drawn. It is a throw of the dice which necessarily wins, since it affirms chance sufficiently instead of detaching or mutilating chance or reducing it to probabilities. Thus through each fragile combination a power of life is affirmed with a strength, an obstinacy, an unequalled persistence in the being. [8]

Many are the ties that bind friends together, but not all successfully assemble. Charm does not make you want to be 'like' your friend. Your friend's charm does not capture you through identification; you do not want to imitate her mannerisms or step into her shoes.

[8] Nor should we fall under the false impression that sympathy is limited to human relations. There are certain methods that are generalizable and applicable outside the social sphere. One such method is the logic of becoming. When Deleuze and Guattari speak of A becoming B, its not a matter of A imitating or turning into B. Instead, it is a matter of A becoming B at the very moment that B is itself taking a line of flight and becoming something else. When two elements enter into a sympathetic becoming "it is not that the two are exchanged, for they are not exchanged at all, but the one only becomes the other if the other becomes something yet other, and if the terms disappear." [9] For example, Deleuze offers several memorable examples of sympathetic blocks of becoming in which inorganic life unfolds:

As Lewis Carroll says, it is when the smile is without a cat that man can effectively become cat as soon as he smiles ... with Mozart's birds it is the man who becomes a bird, because the bird becomes music. Melville's mariner becomes albatross when the albatross itself becomes extraordinary whiteness, pure vibration of white." [10]

Never entirely alive nor entirely dead, we always talk of health, the quality of life. Assemblages do not die; they are most alive when broken down; they live by continually breaking down. [11] Though it is possible that a line of escape might turn into a line of death, the far more common threats are the various kinds of sickness and destruction wreaked by excessive stratification or, alternatively, the lack of connectivity. Health is not a mysterious force; it is a concrete and sympathetic struggling together; "we can only assemble among assemblages." [12] Practical advice on becoming, or proliferating your desiring-machines, is offered by Deleuze and Guattari in the terms of assembling: experiment with deterritorializing this bit; try to capture the substance of expression from that strata; adopt a different speed into your abstract machine. According to Deleuze and Guattari we engage with inorganic life at the level of assemblages, and the art of living is the art of composing assemblages.

Responding to the Vitalism Objection from Žižek and Badiou

[9] With all of this talk of "assemblages," "symbiotic or sympathetic co-functionings," and a life that is "inorganic, yet alive, and all the more alive for being inorganic," [13] an obvious and important objection must be raised: does this theory not rely on a naive neovitalism or empty emergentist theory of life?

[10] It is now typically considered an insult to call a philosophical position 'vitalist'. Implicitly, to call someone a vitalist is to accuse them of positing an unknowable factor in their explanation of life. Whether the witholding of this factor is attributed to the vitalist's mystical tendencies, her inability to distinguish between real and pseudo-science, or simply her intellectual laziness, the implication is always that she is sorely lacking credibility. Bracketing some aspect of the living as either intellectually or empirically unaccessible is considered unnecessary, because biology has for a long time been able to explain life in its own terms. Despite having fallen out of fashion, the historical importance of vitalism should be recognized fairly uncontroversially. Little more than two hundred years ago, 'life' was first posited as an ontological state that was unique from the inorganic. At its inception, and in order to gain independence as a unique discipline, biology asserted there was something 'vital' about life that was irreducible to the terms of chemistry and physics. Which leads to the question I would like to investigate now: are Deleuze and Guattari relying on the discredited vitalist argument and claiming that there is something vital about life that is irreducible to the terms of contemporary science?

[11] Slavoj Žižek places Deleuze and Guattari in the hylozoist camp, amongst those who ascribe to the theory that matter is endowed with life. Unlike other vitalist theories in which life is produced via an immaterial force or a mysterious vital principle, what is unique to hylozoists is the idea that matter and life are inseparable, or that life is a property of matter. Žižek argues that for Deleuze and Guattari "there is no death ... Life goes on," [14] and certainly, this does appear to echo Deleuze's contention that "it is organisms that die, not life." [15] Žižek locates Deleuze and Guattari's position within a more specific 'idealist' tendency of hylozoism, namely, the autopoietic tradition championed by contemporary thinkers such as Lynn Margulis and Francisco Varela. [16] Autopoiesis tackles a problem that is variously described as self-production, active self-limitation, or the separation of the interior from the exterior. He criticises autopoiesis as being a pseudoconcept that merely names our ignorance. In living organisms a sort of order appears to emerge out of chaos, and, not knowing how this occurs, it is labelled as the 'emergent properties' of autopoiesis. I assume that in his book Organs Without Bodies Žižek is painting Deleuze and Guattari with the same brush, accusing them of having an empty or pseudoconceptual theory of how matter is endowed with an emergent life, though he does not do a lot of work in terms of directly relating Deleuze and Guattari's writing to his criticism of emergentism. [17]

[12] I would argue against Žižek that not all theories of emergence are empty. A good theory of emergent properties does not serve to name our ignorance; it might simply serve to resist the idea that all properties are reducible to lower level characteristics. It is also not clear why Deleuze and Guattari's use of the idea of life could be considered either autopoietic, hylozoic, or emergentist. Certainly, inorganic life's fundamentally impersonal orientation means we must reject the idea that it is autopoietic, because this theory is primarily concerned with how self-distinguishing entities produce themselves. Neither could inorganic life be categorized as participating in the hylozoic tradition, because at its most basic level inorganic life is not found in matter but in the more complicated system of assemblages. One could imagine characterizing inorganic life as a sort of emergentism, not in the sense of matter that is endowed with an emergent life, but only in that life 'emerges' out of the special sort of rapport or becoming that is called an assemblage. Significantly, inorganic life can be exhaustively explained by the dynamics and processes of assembling (such as abstract machines and double articulations): an additional unknowable factor need not be posited. I would argue that inorganic life is reducible to processes of assembling, and is therefore not an emergent property.

[13] Unlike Žižek who sees Deleuze and Guattari as relying on a unfounded vital principle emerging from an essentially biological definition of life, Badiou is concerned with a more philosophical abuse of vitalism. Badiou fiercely rejects their philosophy of life, suggesting that it is in fact a philosophy of death masquerading under the banner of vitality.

For, if the event of thought is the ascetic power of letting myself be chosen (the Deleuzian form of destiny) and being borne, qua purified automaton, wherever hubris carries me; ... and if, therefore, powerful inorganic life is the ground both of what arrays me in my limit and of what incites me, insofar as I have conquered the power to do so, to transcend this limit: then it follows that the metaphor for the event of thought is dying, understood as an immanent moment of life. [18]

Badiou is antagonistic to the deterritorialized and nonpersonal state of participation in assemblages, what he refers to as 'the power of letting myself be chosen and borne away by a purified automaton'. Assembling is not an affirmative form of engagement, he argues. Badiou considers assemblages to be rapports that are simultaneously absolutely impersonal and absolutely intimate. This, he believes, entails that they must be synonymous with death.

[14] This criticism has two aspects. The first is that Deleuze and Guattari are confused in claiming that inorganic life is both an ontological and a prescriptive theory. Inorganic life cannot be both what limits me in an ontological sense, and what incites me in a prescriptive sense. This is a common vitalist error: sloppily allowing rhetoric to obscure the distinction between the actual mechanisms of life, and the ethical or creative uses and abuses of life. The second aspect of Badiou's criticism is that he reads 'the Deleuzian form of destiny' as the triumph of pure chance, a triumph that renders any form of productive relations impossible. The rapports which compose inorganic life are described as consisting exclusively of unnatural relations and monstrous couplings. Does this rejection of so-called 'natural relations' not render impossible everything from digestion to ethical agency? In other words, Badiou is concerned that the valorization of chance and de-individualization within Deleuze and Guattari's vitalist philosophy entails a purely virtual destiny, a wholesale disengagement with reality.

[15] In response to these objections I would like to begin by saying that it is to his credit that Badiou recognizes the pivotal significance of inorganic life within Deleuze's greater philosophical project. It is commendable that Badiou takes seriously the danger presented by the severely machinic nature of the 'automata' or assemblages, in contrast to some of Deleuze's more laudatory commentators, who tend to gloss over how radical this claim really is.

[16] In contrast, however, to Badiou's objection that the ontological and prescriptive aspects of inorganic life are irreconcilable, I would argue they are in fact complimentary. A good way to think of this inconsistency is as a tension between two agendas. On the one hand, Deleuze and Guattari are trying to advance a complex and refined ontological thesis about assembling and inorganic life: this is their descriptive agenda. On the other hand they are also mounting a campaign to promote assembling as a practical and simple-to-implement way of participating in the world: this is their practical or political agenda. Deleuze and Guattari are explicit about what assemblages should aim to achieve. The point is always to bring more life into assemblages, and to vitalize the whole system of assemblages. "All I have written," claims Deleuze, "has been vitalist, at least I hope so." [19] Deleuze and Guattari conceive of life as variable in intensity, rather than a property that is either wholly present or wholly absent. For them vitality is both an ontological and an ethical category. This means that the proliferation or the vitalization of assemblages is not a merely mechanical function: it is a prescriptive injunction. Vitalization makes assemblages more ethically and politically viable, therefore, learning about how inorganic life proliferates carries a practical significance, in addition to its ontological importance.

[17] In response to Badiou's second criticism (that Deleuze and Guattari celebrate chance and de-individualization at the expense of a disengagement with reality) I do not think that Badiou makes enough effort to imagine the profoundly symbiotic nature of the production of life. We must consider the extent to which we are animated at a most intimate level by that which is most heterogeneous to us. Deleuze and Guattari want to take ecological revelations about the coexistence and interdependence of all things one step further. With their theory of inorganic life Deleuze and Guattari want us to imagine the possibility of a life that, despite its radical exteriority, and despite being driven by the affirmation of chance, can be fantastically productive and engaged in reality. Regarding how this de-personalization effects the possibility of political engagement, Michel Foucault also disagrees that Deleuze and Guattarian de-individualization threatens ethics by robbing us of agency. In fact he considers this as one of the essential principles of their guide to everyday non-fascist life:

Do not demand of politics that it restore the "rights" of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to 'de-individualize' by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization. [20]

Rather than a philosophy of death, the deterritorialized and nonpersonal state of participation in assemblages is a vitalism that Deleuze and Guattari argue ought to be embraced.


[18] In pursuing the question of what life might be if it is not confined to the organic sphere, Deleuze and Guattari have opened themselves to accusations of vitalism. I have detailed the negative implications of such a vitalist philosophical position as they have been expressed by Žižek and Badiou. Nonetheless, Deleuze and Guattari enthusiastically embrace the idea that their philosophy of life should be considered to be a kind of vitalism. I hope that in the course of the paper I have shown that their concept of inorganic life is a defensible vitalist position, despite the dangers of falling into a naive neovitalism or an empty emergentist theory of life.

[19] It is defensible because Deleuze and Guattari use vitalism strategically. This strategy can be broken down into four parts. They aim to: 1) break from one paradigm which defines life biologically; 2) argue that there is some important aspect of life that is being missed in the organic paradigm; 3) open a space in which new theories can gain independence without being required to be reducible to the pre-existing biological framework; and, 4) introduce a novel way of conceptualizing life though their theory of assemblages.

[20] So, finally, how are we meant to make sense of this life that is "inorganic, yet alive"? In objecting to how the discipline of biology has appropriated life, restricting it within organisms, Deleuze and Guattari offer an alternate theory in which life pervades many diverse modes of existence. The organism is no longer the paradigmatic unit of life, nor is the cell, the genetic code, the population, the species, or the ecosystem. The authors of A Thousand Plateaus are proposing an ontological theory in which everything is inorganically alive, everything is assembled. When a person walks into a room, when a new fabric touches a finger, when a star wobbles, when a molecule falls apart, when a mayor feels threatened, when a recipe approaches a critical threshold: in all cases the laws of assembling are operating and are universally applied. If we want to know more about how inorganic life works, the next step is to learn more about the mechanisms of assembling. I hope that through this paper I have helped the reader get past initial qualms about a contemporary vitalist philosophy, and that I have whetted your appetite for the pursuit of active participation in assemblages and inorganic life.


[1] Deleuze, Gilles; and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. [1980]. Trans. Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 503.

[2] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. 499.

[3] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. 498.

[4] 'Assemblage' is the English translation of the French 'agencement'. Key passages explaining assemblages: Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 71-3, 503-5; Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 69.

[5] Deleuze, Gilles; and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. [1977]. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 51.

[6] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 52.

[7] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 5.

[8] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 5.

[9] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 73.

[10] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, 73.

[11] Deleuze, Gilles; and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. [1972]. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 8.

[12] Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues,  53.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. 498.

[14] Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences. (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 120.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations: 1972-1990. [1990] Trans. Martin Joughin. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 196.

[16] Margulis, Lynn; and Dorian Sagan. What is Life? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995); Varela, Francisco, and Humberto Maturana. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980).

[17] Žižek, Organs Without Bodies, 111-123.

[18] Alain Badiou. Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. [1997] Trans. Louise Burchill. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 12, 3.

[19] Deleuze, Negotiations, 196.

[20] Foucault, preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, xiv.


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. [1995] Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Badiou, Alain. Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. [1997] Trans. Louise Burchill. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. [1990] Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles; and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. [1972]. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

—. A Thousand Plateaus. [1980]. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles; and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. [1977]. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj. Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.