[I]n Vietnam it was the culture of capitalism which played the nomadic role....the American soldier was the nomad, and not so much because he wanted to be, but because that is what the technology demanded of him....It is this nomadic movement, this production of the plateau disarticulated from all others that capitalist industry made possible in the skies of Vietnam...a boundless cushion experienced as if without limits and which produced the sense of a landscape at every point accessible, penetrable, and nonrestricted
—Herman Rapaport “Vietnam: the Thousand Plateaus”

On the one hand, war clearly follows the same movement as capitalism: In the same way as the proportion of constant capital keeps growing, war becomes increasingly a “war of matériel” in which the human being no longer even represents a variable capital of subjection, but is instead a pure element of machinic enslavement
—Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus

Capitalism...decodes and deterritorializes with all its might
—Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus

I. Introduction: Rhizome

[1] It is a decidedly dubious claim in an age when individuals and constituencies are enduring the hardships of political exile, cultural displacement, inner-city homelessness, and the unfulfillment that comes from diaspora, to promulgate nomadism as a viable alternative to structures of dominance and hegemony. The theoretical nomadic border transgression of “deterritorialization”—highly attractive to scholars in academia wishing, in part, to seek “disciplinary advancement”1 by cleverly anatomizing categories of essentialism—is of questionable merit to those forced for reasons of personal liberty, poor income, or other factors to migrate across national and geographical boundaries. It is even a more dubious claim, given the material conditions mentioned above, to champion theories of nomadism espoused by two French theorists who deploy a battery of abstruse metaphors and tropes such as “rhizome,” “Body without Organs,” “desiring-machine,” “plateau,” and “haecceity.” Still more dubious is the professing of theories that seek to advance various forms of nomadology at a moment in the development of various disciplinary fields of knowledge when “nomadism” has become not only a hot topic, but a type of vanguardism as well. Major figures such as Edward W. Said, Robert Young, Rosi Braidotti, and Frederic Jameson all have advocated, in the past decade especially, the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.2 On the other hand, not everyone has found their work to be valuable. Caren Kaplan, Christopher Norris, and Gayatri Spivak in turn have criticized their theories of nomadology, capitalism, desire, and deterritorialization as being “antihistorical,” “nostalgic,” “mechanical,” a high-modernist game of “language experimentation,” and symptomatic of a “pathological disorder.”3 Depending on what discipline you prefer to call home, their nomadism may read as having very little to do with historical reality when it comes to conventional discussions of nomads in strictly anthropological and archaeological terms.4 There is no arguing that Deleuze and Guattari cultivate the concept of the nomad philosophically. Though in doing so, I do not believe that their approach mechanically condemns them to some ultimately meaningless, ahistorical play of signifiers that does not speak to the political exigencies of our current occasion. They strategically cull ideas and insights from an array of disciplines—the sciences in addition to the humanities. That this contributes to the crusade for interdisciplinarity speaks less to the fact that their terminology, though sometimes abstruse because of its disciplinary diversity, reflects a considered attempt to develop a philosophical vocabulary materially inhabiting the conditions of our present global world order—with words and phrases such as “territorialization,” “itinerancy,” and “State apparatus” expressing the concrete geo-political conditions of early twenty-first-century transnationalism.

[2] Regardless of whether or not theorists advocate or oppose the nomadology of Deleuze and Guattari, most who invoke it hand over highly distilled versions of what are long and complicated texts. This structure of distillation—commodified précis incorporated for purposes of launching an analysis promptly and efficiently into its next phase—has resulted in an elision of the rich and indispensable textual unfolding of their nomadology. This is, I suggest, symptomatic of the movement of capital itself, and not just a necessary evil attributable to the onerous length of their texts. Now that Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism has become a marketable commodity, these précis have come to contribute to a number of terminological inaccuracies currently in wide-spread use. The best example of this is their pivotal concept “deterritorialization,” which has received a great deal of attention and heavy criticism. The term is understood to signify exclusively a liberatory movement away from the demands of a centralizing polity. This reading of the term has come to be taken as self-evident, and offers “proof” for opponents of their work to conclude their entire thought to be too romantic (“Deterritorialization idealistically posits the ability to be unanchored from any specific historical obligation”). In fact, the word is used so much that it now stands as something of an equivalent for “deconstruction.” But as we can glimpse from the passages quoted at the opening of this essay, deterritorialization does not always refer to the liberatory breakdown of some sovereign territory; it can also be the most powerful tool available to an empire and the movement of its capital, as we shall see more clearly in what follows. Even proponents of their work that attend to the unfolding of the term in the texts themselves seek to pacify its complexity by asserting that we should give less attention to the many sections in their work that explore the potentials of deterritorialized “singularities” and “affects,” and focus instead on those moments when Deleuze and Guattari emphasize “unity.”5 These and other examples have made it profoundly difficult to genuinely come to terms with what their nomadology offers. This essay focuses precisely on the contradictions surrounding Deleuze and Guattari’s term deterritorialization, in the hopes of offering a sharper understanding of the differences between nomadic movement and the movement of capital.

[3] Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “rhizome” has become popular among contemporary critics in recent years. The term is a development of their theory of movement as first espoused in Anti-Oedipus. In addition to conceiving discursivity as being essentially connected to a materiality and producing material effects (“not mere metaphors”), Deleuze and Guattari’s critique is directed against the classical understanding of objectivity, which considers objects in a habitual manner as indicative of a phenomenal reality grounded by some “central root” that supports and stabilizes all that comes into existence in its wake. They consider this widely held perception of objectivity—as having some essence in an obvious solidity which everyone can “clearly apprehend”—to be superficial. Solidity for Deleuze and Guattari is something of a ruse, and causes us to forget the source, the “flow” from which the object arose. The familiar conception of objects as solid evidence of “things in the real world” belies the more fundamental process of a “machinic movement”: the foundational flow of energies or directives out of which objects have come to be: “Every ‘object’ presupposes the continuity of a flow.” They make clear their debt to Marx here, and find fruitful his development of the nature of production and consumption. Standing behind the presumably disinterested, fully formed product lies the assembly line of production, which furnishes, in the exertion of the workers and the demands of the capitalists, the pattern for future possibilities. The product carries with it an entire history of that which has been allowed to come to perception, and that which has not, and it vibrates with an intensity that can only come from the constraining demands of its adherence to the ground plan of perceptions that have come to be.

[4] In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari extend this originary thought of movement, and of how objects come to be through the interactions of a machinic process. An object such as a written text does not exist in and of itself in a positive, enclosed space; it is an assemblage of many machines consuming and producing flows originating and leading to other, equally complex “machinic assemblages”: “A book is an assemblage...and as such is unattributable....Therefore a book also has no object. As an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages....We will never ask what a book means...we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with....A book itself is a little machine” (ATP 4, emphasis mine). Their mandate here is to think Meaning solely from the flows of consumption and production put into play in these machinic assemblages. Meaning “flows” out of an object only from the manner in which it functions when “plugged into” an assemblage: “What is the relation of this literary machine to a war machine, love machine, revolutionary machine....[T]he only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work” (4). Meaning as movement—drawn entirely from the relation of assemblages—signals a refusal of phenomenological positivism and its extension of a metaphysical conception of space. Understanding meaning as movement means that one can’t attribute or “root” movement to an outside, obligatory rule that lies somewhere above the singular act of movement itself: hence “unattributable” and “only itself.” The implications here are significant: if movement cannot be attributed to something outside its own performance, then it essentially restricts commodification. Movement carries with it the trait of a refusal.

[5] Such a collection of moving machinic assemblages is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as a rhizome. The rhizome operates by transgressing (deterritorializing) rigid and obligatory lines of communication, rules of governing, and structures of power. The fact that it is an activity means that it is also a form of agency. As an enterprise marked by an assiduous subtraction of a central referent, it opens up referentiality to heterogeneous complexities, codes production to differential flows, and unfolds totalitarian power to micropolitics. It enacts a politics of multiple reference—developed purely out of referential assemblages, and the struggle to break free from the demands of these assemblages. In terms of language—of who has the right to speak, and of which language spoken will be deemed the “official” language—the rhizome offers a basis of multiple, contingent interests in opposition to unitary root schemas of language (as seen, for instance, in Chomsky’s linguistic system). In terms of humanism, the movement of the rhizome does not stand “fully present” before us; it is in no way available for our subjective acquisition and mastering. The rhizome is abundantly “crowded,” and reflects more interest than could any epistemic ideology.

[6] However, a number of questions arise concerning the specific character of the movement the rhizome offers, especially in relation to the movement of capital. For if capital, as Deleuze and Guattari warn us, “decodes and deterritorializes with all its might,” how does that differ from the deterritorializing movement of the rhizome? What, if anything, distinguishes the two machines? For if “everything is a machine,” then so too must capital be the product of a machinic-assemblage. If the rhizome actively works against the “power takeovers” that seek to root differential subjects to the rigid channels of an identity politics, might it also be paving the way for a capitalist assemblage to pierce the nomadic body from any direction it desires? How can a nomad gain defense against the massive plateau of global capital, an assemblage constantly deploying flows-bridges in every direction to constitute and colonize new territory? Is the rhizome’s nomadic deterritorialization not what gave the machinic-assemblage of capital in Vietnam the freedom to constantly expand its limits, producing “the sense of a landscape at every point accessible, penetrable, and nonrestricted”? These are no longer questions of pluralism. Nor are they the “ideology versus positivism” wagers of a speculative philosophical recreation. At risk are the potentials for resistance and the possibilities for constructing postcolonial alternatives to the realities of empire and capital. The chapter from A Thousand Plateaus on the “nomadic war machine” offers a more concrete analysis of the rhizomatic deterritorialization we have been questioning.