John Protevi


[1] In the section on Geophilosophy in What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari call for "geohistory," following Braudel: a materialist history sensitive to the earth, a historical geography or geographical history (WP 95). In thinking about the "geo" of geohistory, we have to recognize first of all that terre in A Thousand Plateaus has various meanings which interweave ontology and politics in what I have elsewhere called "political physics." [i] I will explain the technical terms later, but let us note that terre has at least four registers, the first three of which are equivalent to the English "earth," and the fourth to the English "land." [ii]  In A Thousand Plateaus, "Earth" is (a) equivalent to THE Body without Organs, the virtual plane of consistency upon which strata are imposed (40); (b) part of the earth—territory [terre-territoire] system of Romanticism, the gathering point, outside all territories, of "forces of the earth" for intensive territorial assemblages  (338-9); and (c) the "new earth" [une nouvelle terre], the correlate of absolute deterritorialization, tapping 'cosmic forces' or new potentials for creation (423; 509-10). "Land," by contrast, is terre that is constituted by the overcoding of territories under the signifying regime and the State apparatus (440-1).

[2] When we look for examples of Deleuze and Guattari's interest in geohistory as the interweaving of ontology and politics, we find, among the more interesting references in A Thousand Plateaus, Karl Wittfogel's cold war epic, Oriental Despotism. [iii]  Wittfogel claimed that a particular form of social organization, "Oriental despotism"—characterized in its most intense form by the State being the largest landowner, by the bureaucratic organization of landlords, capitalism and the gentry, and by a form of "weak private property" allowing for "total power" rooted in the State—came from State origination and control of massive irrigation projects. Deleuze and Guattari refer to Wittfogel at several points in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus concerning the State as apparatus of capture. We cannot take Wittfogel at face value, for even the most superficial schizoanalysis shows that his libidinal investment was anti-communism; he left behind his geohistorical focus when he tried to show that Stalinist totalitarianism could be traced to cultural influences via some unspecified sort of contact with Oriental despotism. Although himself a victim of Nazism, spending 9 months of 1933 in concentration camps before being freed as the result of intense negotiation and family contacts, [iv] he never traced the "total power" of the Nazi regime (which certainly had no connection with irrigation), nor did he investigate power and stratification in American West water works (admittedly not "total" power, but power and stratification nonetheless). [v] Nonetheless, Wittfogel does point us to an important aspect of geohistory: the management of water leading to what we can call hydro-bio-politics. To see the contours of this complex arena, let us trace the ontology and politics of water. 


[3] For Deleuze and for Deleuze and Guattari, being is production. The production process (intensive difference driving material flows resulting in actual or extensive forms) is structured by virtual Ideas or multiplicities or "abstract machines." Multiplicities are composed of mutually defined elements with linked rates of change ["differential relations"] peppered with singularities. In mathematical modeling of physical systems, singularities are points at which the graph of a function changes direction. Singularities in models represent thresholds in intensive processes, where a system undergoes a qualitative change of behavior.  Being as production is symbolized in Difference and Repetition by the slogan, "the world is an egg" (251). What this means is that "spatio-temporal dynamisms" or intensive processes are that which actualizes or "differenciates" Ideas. These processes, however, are hidden by the constituted qualities and extensities of actual products. The example of embryology shows this differenciation of differentiation, as the dynamic of egg's morphogenesis implies a virtual Idea unfolding in such a way that there are things only an embryo can do or withstand. The world is thus a progressive determination going from virtual to actual. Thought, however, is vice-diction or counter-effectuation: it goes the other way from production. It is a matter of establishing the Idea / multiplicity of something—"constructing a concept"—by  moving from extensity through intensity to virtuality.

[4] Following water is a great way to think in the Deleuzean manner.

[5] 1. We can measure water extensively in its three forms: solid, liquid, gas: the thickness in feet of the Greenland ice shelf; the number of cubic kilometers of ocean water; the percentage humidity at one time and place, and so on. 

[6] 2. We can follow water flows as intensive processes. Differences in temperature, density, etc., provoke material flows, for example, the manifold ocean currents: to name only a very important one, the Gulf Stream brings equatorial heat north, warming Northwestern Europe, and sinking off Greenland as temperature drops, density and salination increase, and the stream plummets to the ocean floor to join the sub-surface ocean currents. (One of the real threats of global warming is that melting Greenland ice will dilute the Gulf Stream, inhibit its sinking, and rearrange the ocean current system so that northwestern Europe gets colder even as the average temperature of the planet climbs.)

[7] 3. And we can construct the virtual Idea of water. Among its dimensions would be that which governs the hydrological cycle: linked rates of change of difference-driven intensive processes of evaporation, precipitation, runoff with singularities marking phase transitions as events: from solid to liquid to gas. At all its points of transition, we see the "becoming" of water, its affects we can name: "to flow, to become denser, to expand while freezing, to float as ice, to boil, rain, snow, sleet," and so on.

[8] These physical affects are mostly of interest to us as they enter into bio-assemblages. Thus we have to see how water is "perplicated" with Ideas of other natural cycles, involving all the "spheres" that contemporary geographers talk about: hydrosphere of course, but also lithosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. [vi] But as Deleuze and Guattari delight in saying after explaining some very complex point, "this is much too simple." The spheres are de jure distinct, but de facto mixed. Not only are they composed of immensely complex nested sets of coupled cycles at many scales, but their intersection zones—their "zones of indiscernability"—are intermixed. For instance, the atmosphere is not a collection of gases, but is better thought of as "air," and air has plenty of organisms [spores, microbes], minerals [dust] and water in it. Similarly, the hydrosphere is not just chemically pure H2O but is "water," which has plenty of organisms, air, and minerals in it. The lithosphere in turn is not just minerals, but its top layer is "soil," which has plenty of air, water, and organisms. Finally, the biosphere's organisms are made of water and minerals and cycle air through them. In Louisiana, I can testify, the air you're breathing is an unholy mixture of soil, water, and organisms, the vaporized bayou wafting into your lungs: sometimes you just don't know if you're breathing, drinking or chewing.

[9] There are other linked cycles: calcium is a very important one (bones!), but let's just talk about the carbon cycle: photosynthesis and respiration. Photosynthesis takes CO2 and H2O and uses solar energy to produce carbohydrates and O2. Respiration takes O2 and releases the energy used in the chemical bonds of carbohydrates, releasing H2O and CO2 back into their cycles. Bio-energy is just hydrocarbon-mediated solar energy. So you can see the link of the water and carbon cycles. Organic life is just an eddy in the flow of these and many other elements. Organic life uses solar energy to tap into these elemental cycles, to capture and hold some of these flows in other, smaller and tighter cycles: the "organic syntheses" we see in the discussion of the first synthesis of time (Difference and Repetition, 73).

[10] But that's not a good formulation, "tap into the cycles," as if life were exterior to the elemental cycles. We remember that we need to avoid any "ridiculous cosmic evolutionism" (ATP, 49). Water is not just a support for organic life. In one sense, the creative burst of life on land IS water. Let's recall the dual definition of life in A Thousand Plateaus: (1) a set of beings ('organisms'), 'a particularly complex system of stratification' (336); (2) the creativity of complex systems, 'a surplus value of destratification ... an aggregate of consistency that disrupts orders, forms, and substances' (336; italics in original). In the second sense, then, life is not limited to the organism form: 'the organism is that which life sets against itself in order to limit itself' (503). No, life as speciation via alliance rather than filiation, as creative "involution" (238) is part of the cycles: the hydrosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere are coupled with the ever-changing biosphere. Let us also note here in discussing non-organic life that the Gaia hypothesis need not take the extreme position often attributed to James Lovelock, in which Gaia is an organism; rather, Lynn Margulis's "ecosystem" perspective coupled with her "serial endosymbiosis theory" stance on evolution is much more defensible—and much more Deleuzean for that matter, for it relies upon a notion of Gaia as an Idea or set of linked rates of change of differentially defined elements (the different "spheres") punctuated by singularities (the "events" of profound geo-evolutionary change: e.g., the oxygen explosion and the rise of the aerobic bacteria). [vii]

[11] More detail on bio-water will help us appreciate the way considering water can help us understand Deleuze and Guattari's call for geohistory. In A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari give as an example of a line of flight: "When the seas dried, the primitive Fish left its associated milieu to explore land ... now carrying water only on the inside, in the amniotic membranes protecting the embryo" (ATP 55).  This is an exemplification of the principle that "an organism that is deterritorialized in relation to the exterior necessarily reterritorialized on its interior milieus" (54). This development is non-organic life: instead of staying in its territorialized way of life, its habits linked to the milieus with which it interacts, the fish folding water inside itself is forming new habits and with them a new, internal, milieu. Again, we must insist that non-organic life is not always non-biological life. It can be simply change of living patterns: to use the terms of Difference and Repetition, organic life is locked into "bare" repetition while non-organic life is differenciation. But of course, returning to A Thousand Plateaus and following one of the theorems of deterritorialization, it's always on the most deterritorializing factor that reterritorialization occurs, even when in the case of the absolute deterritorialization of nomadism (ATP, 384) that reterritorialization is on deterritorialization itself (ATP, 381). We will see the way the portable water skin allows for this recursive relation of nomadism, how it enables the nomad to be at home while breaking habits and forming a new milieu.

[12] We see an interesting illustration of the interplay of re- and de-territorialization in the concept of "Hypersea," in which the environment of life on land is the deterritorialized sea. [viii] In a memorable image, the authors of the thought-provoking book Hypersea tell us that organisms are "lakes" of Hypersea, separated by membranes and connected by ingestion, sex, parasitism and other forms of communication: "The appearance of complex life on land was a major event in which a kind of mutant sea invaded the land surface....  The land biota represents not simply life from the sea, but a variation of the sea itself" (Hypersea, 25). What's different about the Hypersea organisms is that they have to stick closely together in tightly bound systems enclosed by a membrane to replicate in an enclosed space the organic functions that are distributed in the sea. "Organisms, which are all primarily water, can interact at arm's length, so to speak, only in water. On land, direct physical connections become essential. Overall, terrestrial organisms had to build for themselves structures and components that could perform the environmental services that marine organisms can take for granted" (Hypersea, 4). Land life is physically bonded capture—organic land life is an "apparatus of capture" or more melodramatically put, we're all vampires: thus a notion of geo-hydro-political physiology underlies that of the organism. Because of this self-contained structure, "bodies of macroscopic terrestrial plants and animals are the setting for extremely active, if miniaturized, ecological interactions. ... These interactions constitute Hypersea." (Hypersea, 13). The most elementary of those ecosystems, of course, is the eukaryotic cell, as we see in the serial endosymbiosis theory of Lynn Margulis. The mitochondria were originally oxygen-using bacteria that under the pressure of the "oxygen holocaust" came to live together with other cell elements, providing energy to the emergent unity, the nucleated cell (Symbiotic Planet, 42). A question then for a certain type of political physiology: are the mitochondria slaves or partners?


[13] We could go on in this way exploring physiology as politics for quite some time, but let's shift to think politics as physiology: the body politic as a body, a system of material flows. In both Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, the State functions as an apparatus of capture on top of organic apparatuses of capture. If animals are vampires, living off the photosynthetic capture of solar energy by plants, the State is a meta-vampire, living off human capture of that plant and animal capture. Now the two flows that the State must control are flows of organisms that capture solar energy—in other  words, flows of "food"—and flows of water, which allows for or even constitutes (as "hypersea") those organismic captures, as we have seen. Because water is such a great solvent, it dissolves rock and picks up minerals. Thus, unfortunately for land plants and animals, most of the water on earth—that in the oceans—is too mineral-laden. Although we are "hypersea," we're much more dilute than sea water, so we need "fresh" water; we'll supply the minerals in carefully controlled doses. [ix]  How humans have directed fresh water from where there's a lot of it—rivers and aquifers—to where we can use it for drinking or feeding to plants and animals (agriculture)—the process of irrigation—is an important story discussing hydro--bio-politics.

[14] To return to Wittfogel's highlighting of the State / water relation, we should recognize that despite his failings, he does point us to an important truth: aridity is the key to the connection of stratified societies and irrigation. Studies on the American West show how the large-scale state and federal investment in irrigation could only produce stratified societies in arid conditions, where control of water grants a key power position. [x] (Recall the plot of Chinatown!) Although Deleuze and Guattari affirm that "there is no going back on Wittfogel's theses on the importance of large-scale waterworks for an empire" (ATP 363), they do acknowledge that some parts of Wittfogel's work have been "refuted" (19). Although they do not enter the details of this refutation, when we do, we find they affirm some of Deleuze & Guattari's central theses on the State.

[15] Let's take the example of Egypt. Ancient Egyptian irrigation was basin irrigation rather than canal irrigation. In basin irrigation earth banks run parallel and perpendicular to the river, creating basins. Sluices would direct floodwater into a basin where it would sit for a month until the soil was saturated. Then the water would be drained to the next basin and the soil in the first basin would be ready for planting. This system sustained Egypt's remarkable continuity (the only ancient irrigated society to have a continuous existence). Once-a-year planting didn't deplete the soil, which was replenished by the next year's flood. Nor did basin irrigation result in salination, as the water table during the dry season was well below the root level, so that flood waters would push accumulated salts down into the water table, below the root level. [xi]

[16] Karl Butzer has shown how basin irrigation using the Nile floods arose as a decentralized, locally controlled system, and was later overcoded by the apparatus of capture of the State. Butzer writes:

All of the information that can be brought to bear on Dynastic land use in Egypt shows a simple pattern of winter agriculture, largely confined to the flood basins, with their crude but effective system of annual flood irrigation. Despite the symbolic association of the pharaoh with this inundation [my italics; read "overcoding"], Dynastic irrigation technology was rudimentary and operated on a local rather than national scale ... Perhaps the only centralized aspect was the traditional link between tax rates and the potential harvest [State as "apparatus of capture"], as inferred from the height of each Nile flood ... no form of centralized canal network was ever achieved in Dynastic times. (50)

In this same vein, we can also talk about Stephen Lansing's work in Bali, which also shows local, decentralized, control of canals in the mountains of Bali. [xii]

[17] With Butzer and Lansing, the contours of the bio-litho-hydro-political multiplicity begin to come into focus. There is more than one singularity and the role of chance is irreducible. The multiplicity behind the morphogenesis of political structure includes geological factors such as ground slopes, surface friction; biological factors such as type and strength of local flora and fauna; hydrological factors such as river currents, channels, and wave strengths; and social factors such as the speed capacity of available transportation assemblages, which are social / technical at the same time: man–sandal–spear–shield assemblages; horse–man–stirrup assemblages; and all the assemblages formed with chariots, wagons, sailing ships, rowing ships, etc. Wittfogel's mistake was seeing a single pathway—control of irrigation—in the morphogenesis of Oriental despotism. This may actually have been the pathway for ancient Mesopotamian empires, which needed flat river valleys, for irrigation-intensive agriculture and to install garrisons in outlying towns which can be quickly supported: the corvée supplies labor for roads as well as for irrigation and monuments. Once past a certain threshold, we find a positive feedback loop: the bigger the territory under control, the more solar energy is captured in agriculture and the larger the bureaucracy and the army that can be fed with the surplus. These can then enlarge and administer the territory and put more peasants to work producing and funneling surpluses and building roads for more expansion, and so on.

[18] Butzer, however, shows that in Egypt the key factor for Pharaonic absolutism was the ecological embeddedness of "nomes" or basic territorial / political social units. "These primeval nomes appear to have provided the necessary political infrastructure for the military ventures that over several generations of strife led to the unification of Egypt. In this sense Pharaonic civilization remains inconceivable without its ecological determinants, but not in the linear causality model [sc. of Wittfogel] of stress → irrigation → managerial bureaucracy → despotic control" (111). In other words, Butzer doesn't deny Egypt was united under a despot nor that its political structure was ecologically embedded. He just denies that irrigation control was the sole determinant of that imperial scale despotism. Here we see an important question of scale: for Butzer, the "nome" or local unit qualifies as a State—perhaps even a hydraulic state—but not as an empire.

[19] In fact, it's recently been argued that centralized national state control of Egyptian irrigation—based on a change from basin irrigation to a centralized canal grid system—is a 19th century phenomenon that was represented as a return to the supposedly centralized irrigation control of the Pharaohs. So the argument would be that with regard to Egypt at least, Wittfogel mistook modern propaganda for ancient reality. [xiii] Butzer (and by extension Lansing) thus contradicts Wittfogel, who stresses the State as the origin of large-scale water works, and confirms Deleuze and Guattari's theses that the imperial State overcodes local arrangements.

[20] We should recognize in conclusion however that the State has no monopoly on bio-hydro politics, for there is a "hydraulic model of nomad science and the war machine ... [which] consists in being distributed by turbulence across a smooth space" (ATP 363). We need to add to Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the nomad in order to bring ontology and politics more closely together in the study of hydro-bio-politics. For the portable water container, the animal skin, is as fully a part of the nomad assemblage as the more famous stirrup, and the machinic phylum had to encompass this technological supplement to Hypersea to allow the nomad occupation of the smooth space of the arid steppes.


[i] Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic (London: Athlone, 2001).

[ii] In translating Mille Plateaux into English, Brian Massumi uses two English words to translate the French terre, which can mean both 'earth' in the astronomical sense of our planet and 'land' in the geographical sense of a cultivated area. There is no consistency in DG's use of the majuscule in the French text; both Terre and terre are used in the sense of 'earth' and 'land'. The Anglophone reader should keep in mind the close proximity of terre ['earth' and 'land'] with territoire ['territory'].

[iii] Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

[iv] G. L. Ulmen, The Science of Society: Toward an Understanding of the Life and Work of Karl August Wittfogel (The Hague: Mouton, 1978): 162-169.

[v] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985): 28-29.

[vi] Denis Wood, Five Billion Years of Global Change (New York: Guilford, 2004).

[vii] Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998): 119.

[viii] Mark and Dianna McMenamin, Hypersea (New York: Columbia UP, 1994). See also the discussion of the concept of Hypersea in Wood, Five Billion Years of Global Change, 120-122 and Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, 109.

[ix] For example, Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, 94 notes that calcium must be 1000 times less concentrated inside cells than in seawater.

[x] Worster, Rivers of Empire; Marc Reiser, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993).

[xi] Karl Butzer, Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

[xii] J. Stephen Lansing, Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[xiii] Michael Kalin, "Hidden Pharaohs: Egypt, Engineers and the Modern Hydraulic," 2006 MA thesis, Wolfson College, University of Oxford. http://users.ox.ac.uk/~metheses/Kalin%20Thesis.pdf. Accessed 1 March 2007.