Daniela Gandorfer: Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Law, and Synesthesia

By Daniela Gandorfer

“How on earth do you read Deleuze and Guattari? How on earth do you read A Thousand Plateaus?” Posed as a rhetorical question by Michael Taussig, “the idiot question you can’t get away from” points to the elephant in the room. Without doubt, Deleuze and Guattari purposely evoked the elephant – whether in fact a rhinoceros or not – when writing this unique text. Indeed, when talking about A Thousand Plateaus – a text that performs its openness and, to a certain degree, cherishes its deliberate illegibility – the question of both, reading and text, verb and noun, present and past cannot be ignored. How are we supposed to read, that is, to make sense, to link syntactical parts, grammar, concepts, inter- and hyper-textual references, glosses, titles, structures, letters, paper or digital pages, to move through, within, and beyond what we are used to understand as a text and a frame?

Already in their introduction to the book, Deleuze and Guattari attest that “writing has nothing to do with signifying,” but “with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come.”  The book is introduced as an “assemblage,” which is “as such unattributable,“ in other words, an indeterminate multiplicity, without definable borders and exceeding its own form, and thereby bracingly rejecting subject and object alike. “It’s very hard to find a consensus,” Michael Taussig testifies, and this is precisely what is at stake with the form of reading Deleuze and Guattari introduce or at least adumbrate in A Thousand Plateaus, for it links and connects, reaches out towards the yet to come and seeks to provide an open space of difference that can be peacefully (co-)inhabited without necessarily presupposing consensus. Consensus, Erin Manning writes, is “the silencing of disagreement, the impossibility of disagreement.” It is “precarious precisely because it rests on the injunction not to err,” since it “ignores the fragility of an erring movement: it pretends that its displacements are always known in advance,” and thus lends itself too easily to acts of exclusion.[1] The readers of A Thousand Plateaus do not need to consent to, they need to read with – with whoever else is reading, with whatever is read. If “[a] book exists only through the outside and on the outside,“[2] and if our focus should not lie on the question of interpretation – let alone on finding the most probable, the most agreeable, the one interpretation, the one that is most likely to reach consensus – but rather on “what it functions with,” “other multiplicities” into which “its own are inserted and metamorphosed,”[3] we can no longer hold onto what we used to understand as reading.

In his foreword to the English translation of Mille Plateaux, Brian Massumi reminds the reader that this text must be imagined as a record, to which the listener is invited to lend an ear, in case the tune is her taste. He suggests that the best way to “read” A Thousand Plateaus is by reading it as a “challenge,” for the question is not “is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make it possible to think?“ and “[w]hat new sensations and perceptions does it open in the body?“ Not without some sense of disillusionment, Massumi admits that “[t]he answer for some readers, perhaps most, will be ‘none.’” Seen from this angle, the missing “consensus” to which Michael Taussig drew our attention might primarily manifest itself among those who are insensitive to a form of reading that not only exceeds letters, words, syntax, grammar, pages, and books, but even blurs the line(s) between subject and object, reader and text, and matter and concept. This is to say, at least in regard to A Thousand Plateaus, which provides instructions on how to not just read, the act of reading cannot simply be understood as making sense of a certain combination of letters, set in a specific order, presented in a syntactical formation, arranged according to a chronological order of chapters and fenced off from the outside by the book’s cover, but should also be seen as a mode of sensing and perceiving the translations, intersections, and materializations of thoughts in relation to their multiplicity. Reading A Thousand Plateaus always also means perceiving and sensing it, where sense, according to Manning, is “to world in all directions at once,” and “to challenge the interstices between insides and outsides, spaces and times.“[4]

A Thousand Theories of Reading. One of Perceiving.

While A Thousand Plateaus is certainly unique in its kind and form, its purpose is not. The question of what it means, or might mean, to read or write, has always been a burning issue across disciplines. I cannot provide a broad, chronological overview of these discussions here, but perhaps I can offer a glimpse into what is at stake in a different approach to reading at this moment in time, and especially in regard to legal theory.

Similar to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s call to forego subject and object distinctions,[5] Judith Butler, in her reading of Whitehead in On this Occasion, makes an interesting claim about the alleged one-directional understanding of the reader/text relation. Butler describes the relation between subject and object not in hierarchical terms, but rather as a curious “interaction.” Both “are animated in relation to one another … and in this sense the aliveness of each is dependent on a certain provocation coming from the other.” Since this consequently “raises the question of nonhuman modes of acting or . . . [of] acting on,” she suggests that “such non-human modes of acting and being acted on characterize the object – in this case, the text – and me.”[6] Accordingly, what traditional grammar calls an object and, analogously, the text, the non-human, the book, what is subordinated and always only thought to exist in reference to the subject, is in fact also acting upon, and performing the subjects, and in this context, the readers. Reading, then, becomes a multidirectional movement between two bodies of texts – the reader and the written – which cannot always be clearly distinguished from perceiving and which dissolves the notion of an inside and an outside. At the same time, this also breaks with the assumption that the reader is a passive consumer of whatever the respective authority writes and thus produces. Michel DeCerteau renders this “theory of consumption” – as well as the subsequent hierarchization of writing (as the production of a text) over reading as the reception of it from someone else, “without putting one’s own mark on it, without remaking it” – utterly “unacceptable.”[7] According to DeCerteau “one cannot maintain the division separating the readable text (a book, image, etc.) from the act of reading.”[8] To read means to travel, to wander and move through a text that is multiple, for every reading modifies its object while the reader “deterritorializes himself, oscillating in a nowhere between what he invents and what changes him.”[9] The reader’s place “is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together.”[10] Understanding reading as this multidirectional movement through and beyond the text, always on the blurry border between idea and matter, making sense and sensing, urges us to follow up Taussig’s question about how to read A Thousand Plateaus, and also leads us to DeCerteau’s question about who, in fact, reads: “Is it I, or some part of me?”[11]

If reading is in fact always situated somewhere between making sense and perceiving, if we cannot rely on the subject/object, producer/consumer distinction anymore, and if consequently the book is an assemblage of material and immaterial traces of thought and matter, Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory has a lot to contribute towards a theory of perceptual reading, especially in relation to the links it establishes between making sense and perceiving, between interiority and exteriority, part and whole, and in relation to what Bergson understands as bodies. For Bergson, the body – understood as the image at the center of an assemblage of infinite images and to which we refer all other images – is the “place of passage of the movements received and thrown back, a hyphen, a connecting link between the things which act upon me and the things upon which I act.”[12] Thus, a body, “in the aggregate of the material world,” is “an image which acts like other images, receiving and giving back movement,” which is to say that every image, at every given moment, is simultaneously the subject and object of movement. The distinction between interiority and exteriority is “merely the distinction between my body and other bodies,” and thus between “the part and the whole.” Accordingly, the separation between a thing and its environment “cannot be absolutely definite and clear-cut,” for “the perpetuality of their reciprocal actions and reactions is sufficient to prove that they have not the precise limits which we attribute to them.”[13] It is perception that outlines their form and it does so according to the bodies, carved out from all the other bodies with which they can enter into relations “as if with persons.” This is precisely how Bergson’s theory of perception allows us to take the outlined discussion of a radical (rhizomatic) form of reading (defying dichotomies such as inside and outside, subject and object, reading and writing) to the next level. If read analogically, the book and the reader become images among an infinite number of images. This allows us to imagine a reading that transcends words, pages, and books and applies to a critical perception of matter and matters alike. For Bergson, perception is always oriented towards action. It is a moving towards, a reaching out, and a setting into motion of images and bodies that are about to touch and be touched; “[d]irection but not goal-directed”, an “affirmation of a movement toward,”[14] sensing and thereby paving the way for what Manning imagines as a “politics of touch,” “the incommensurability of sense,” and thus a synesthetic reading of matter.[15]

Perceptive Critique – Critical Perception?

It is crucial to point to the critical implications we can infer from a theory of reading as always also sensing and perceiving. Bergson calls for a necessary “education of the senses” that would be able to overcome the gaps in our perception, since “between sounds, between odors, between tastes, there are gaps,” “there are intervals of silence.” This call becomes especially urgent and shows its highly political implications, when seen in relation to what Butler in Frames of War describes as a deliberate undermining, in the course of war, of the “sensate democracy.”[16] Arguing that “[p]erception and policy are but two modalities of the same process whereby the ontological status of a targeted population is compromised and suspended,” Butler points to the danger of our current perceptual regime, ultimately resulting from an inability or unwillingness to read new media technologies and affect, and writes:

A life is taken in through all the senses, if it is taken in at all. The tacit interpretative scheme that divides worthy from unworthy lives works fundamentally through the senses, differentiating the cries we can hear from those we cannot, the sights we can see from those we cannot, and likewise at the level of touch and even smell.[17]

This brings us back to yet another moment during the Nietzsche 4/13 seminar, when Taussig juxtaposed the bookness of academia with the lifeness of fieldwork; a juxtaposition that haunts academics by invoking questions of (academic) disciplinarity as well as social and political responsibility. When Taussig refers to his fieldwork – “talking to ordinary people” and “figuring out life” – he emphasizes that what he is talking about is precisely “not bookwork, not reading.” Here, reading refers exclusively to the production of what is considered a book, to writing and thereby remaining inside, within the closed world of the book and consequently of the elites, who are privileged to engage in this particular kind of “work.” Yes, this is the form of reading we – those who are granted the privilege to be considered and addressed as readers – are used to, a definition with which we are familiar, and against which DeCerteau has warned us. It is also an activity that neither fosters nor engenders activism. On the other hand, the mode of reading, outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, in accordance with what De Certeau understands as a “politics of reading,” sketched out by Bergson in his thoughts on perception, and put into a political context by Butler, obliges us – and not just us – to perceive and sense critically. It is rhizomatic and thus radical.

Reading Law

If the book is never just a book, a text never just a text, and reading never just reading, if the clear line between subject and object, reading and writing, is in fact not that clear at all, it is inevitable that we also rethink our modes of reading law. Building on Bernard E. Harcourt’s exploration of the “radical potential of writing” in his article on the Nietzsche 3/13 session, and following DeCerteau’s claim that “[a] politics of reading must thus be articulated on an analysis that, describing practices that have long been in effect, makes them politicizable,”[18] I wish to draw attention to the necessary reconceptualization of what it means to read the law in its (multi-)materiality. This is precisely where the inherently political and critical potential of reading lies; a potential that is so beautifully presented in A Thousand Plateaus, since it brings with it the reversal, and in some cases the dissolution, of the obdurate dichotomies already mentioned.

Similar to what Deleuze and Guattari term “book,” the law too cannot be restricted to a single form; it takes on various material and immaterial shapes, it acts on bodies and is enacted by bodies, it produces excess and simultaneously reproduces itself as this very excess – an excess that goes far beyond the written, and that nevertheless needs to be recognized as belonging to the law’s text. While it is, by now, already broadly accepted that the text of law exceeds its written dimensions, its papers, documents, court decisions, law codes, and constitutions, our skills to read and perceive the law’s texture remains neglected.

Law is both multi-medial and multi-sensual, and therefore – in principle – perceivable. This perceptibility is not necessarily restricted to the human senses, but points to the law’s materiality – the often overseen, overheard, untouched, forgotten or ignored parts of law. Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos describes what is at stake when he warns that “[i]n the legal system, the withdrawal of matter is an everyday occurrence. Law presents itself as immaterial, abstract, universal, non-geographical.”[19] As a consequence, it is important to realize that “the law is not just the text, the decision, even the courtroom. Law is the pavement, the traffic light, the hood in the shopping mall, the veil in the school, the cell in Guantanamo, the seating arrangement at a meeting, the risotto at the restaurant.”[20] Law, for that matter, “does not dwell on the textual (that too) but expands on the space and bodies that incorporate it and act it out.”[21] We have to challenge a law that “is quite comfortable with fiction, fabrication, abstraction, and an entirely relational dynamics.”[22] We must rethink what it means to read the law in its multi-dimensionality, because what gets lost, what gets dispossessed, deprived, contaminated, hurt, and even killed, erased, effaced, is by no means just fiction, abstraction, words, texts and ideas, but bodies (whether human or non-human), organisms, and environments.

Like the modes of reading discussed by Deleuze and Guattari as well as by Butler and DeCerteau, the question of how to read law is closely tied to the relation between (legal) subject and object, producing/writing law and consuming or being consumed by law. Who or what reads, and to what extent is this reading active or passive? Who or what performs the reading and who is privileged enough to make sense of the text we used to call law? What can and should be read? In the name, or on behalf of whom? What can and should actually be read? How, for example, to read a drowned refugee body or the materiality of the Mediterranean Sea, which so conveniently serves as a gigantic disposal site for ungrievable – that is, in relation to reading and the book, unquotable – lives?  How to read it in context, in relation to the texts of law, and at the same time out of context, apart from what we are used to read and understand as law? In other words, how to read this particular assemblage – of water, temperature, depth, lack of protection, fishes, weather conditions, boats, distances – its parts, its structure, its material particles, its interrelations, its discursive practices, as what exceeds the law but at the same time is always already part of the assemblage we so confidently call “law”?  To respond, or to at least attempt to respond to these questions, bears a political and critical potential for an alternative encounter with law – in theory as well as in practice.

Synesthesia of Law

The Synesthesia of Law conference that Harcourt mentions in his epilogue and at the end of the Nietzsche 4/13 session engaged precisely these questions: How can we read and perceive a law that constantly exceeds its material and immaterial forms? How are we supposed to respond to its acoustic, visual, palpable, hurtful, pleasurable, in short, sensible dimensions? In doing so, the conference, in which artists as well as scholars from various disciplines participated, stressed the “interdisciplinary of law.” As Eduardo Cadava put it in his closing remarks:

each talk opens the law to its presumed others – art, history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, religion, economics, literature, gender and sexuality studies, media and politics and shows that the law, always inhabited by these others can always only exceed itself. As a consequence and in the relation to the question of synaesthesia in particular it is in the oscillation between the senses, in the coupling of seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, touching and not touching, smelling and not smelling, and the human and the non-human that responsibilities form.

Harcourt also emphasizes the concept’s critical and political dimension and the interdisciplinarity of law when he states that:

Exposing the synaesthesia of law . . . is a radical act. It goes against the grain of the seriousness of the law, of what it means to be a legal scholar, a philosopher, a thinker. It embraces and simultaneously challenges the so-called-ness of our discipline. And that, I think, is the critical dimension of synaesthesia. It is precisely to challenge the rationality and the seriousness of law and of ourselves and nowhere is this more true and more sharp and more extreme than at the point of pain, suffering, and torture.

In fact, it was at the end of Patricia J. Williams talk, the very first talk of the gathering, that this critical and deeply political potential of reading law, of reading the synesthesia of law, fully unfolded, became legible, and petrified critical minds and emphatic hearts alike. Not without hesitation, some questions were addressed to Williams, who confronted herself and the audience with perceptible atrocities of police violence and racism, and although every remark would have been worth “a thousand questions,” the only response possible was silence. A silence that, as Cadava describes it, awoke “a world that is both opened and closed, not only to many laws but also to what cannot be assimilated to any familiar concept of law, to another law and to something other than law.” A silence that, as Harcourt puts it, felt like falling into the abyss with Nietzsche again. When Williams performed a reading of a law that tends to escape our perception, namely a reading of the material, acoustic, visual, haptic dimensions of law, a critical reading of law in its synestheticity and, in this case, a reading of brutality and violence, she read them against and with us, she read them out loud, she read all the bodies, the corpses left behind, lying on streets, in prisons, in spaces we do not yet know and with which we will probably never be forced to get acquainted. Silence – evoked by a reading with that invokes a language yet to come and a law yet to be perceived. In the course of his talk, the day after Williams performance, Jesús R. Velasco helped us further understand what might had happened in this moment of utter silence. By meticulously tracing synesthesia back to Aristotle, he reminds us of its “profoundly ethical and political” implications, since “life is in fact perception through the senses and knowledge (in this moment).” At least for Aristotle, “social life is nothing else than communality in the acts of perceiving through the senses and knowledge.” Accordingly, Velasco points out that a “social and political existence require a certain communality of perception and thought,” that is to say “a communality that is not just about creating consensus but rather about becoming conscious of the other by trying to sense with the other senses and know with the other’s thought – sensing with, or thinking with.” A reading with that, as Cadava suggests, offers the potential “to invent laws anew, to invent a discipline that would be open to the future, because it would be open to its own alterity.” In order to accomplish such a reading, Emanuele Coccia reminds us that we have to understand “how deeply law is embedded in sensible life, [and] how much law itself is made out of synesthetic, sensible elements and not just of written words.” It is precisely a different understanding and reading of law that were encountered, explored, critically observed in the course of the conference: “The emphasis on law’s relation to the senses, with each sense never just one, asks us to reread an entire lexicon of the law.”[23]

Conclusion – Becoming Book, Booking Law.

In the opening of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the narrator of the book is introduced falling asleep while reading a book with a title that is kept secret from us. When he wakes up memory and perception intermingle, reflections and imaginations, dream and reality become inseparable, and he is incapable of making sense of his environment:

I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.[24]

We too should be aware of the power and ubiquity of the law’s texture, of the legal text that we are part of, some of us privileged enough to reside at its center, others pushed to its margins, rarely accepted as footnotes or glosses, if not redacted, or rendered unquotable form the very beginning.   What remains to say is best uttered as an imperative to perceive, to read critically, to not let law expand its grey zones so far that we cannot see anymore, to not overhear the calls of those whose voices are silenced; to step outside the twilight zone of law, where colors and shapes blur the images we need to keep intact, and to listen to the whisper that noise threatens to fade into mute; it is vital – on earth – that we sharpen our senses, that we read against the loss of our perception.



Bergson, Henri, W Scott Palmer, and Nancy Margaret Paul. Matter and Memory. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT press, 1991.

Butler, Judith. “On This Occasion,” In Butler on Whitehead: On the Occasion, ed. Faber, Roland, Michael Halewood, and Deena Lin, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2012.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Davies, Margaret. “The Consciousness of Trees.” Law and Literature, vol. 27, no. 2 (2015).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch : Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota press, 2007.

Proust, Marcel, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Prendergast. Swann’s Way. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2004.

Proust, Marcel. A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Paris: Gallimard, 1954.

Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere. London: Routledge, 2015.

Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. “Critical Autopoiesis and the Materiality of Law.” Int J Semiot Law International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique 27, no. 2 (2014).



[1] Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch : Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota press, 2007, 15, 48, 70.

[2] ATP, 4

[3] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014, 4.

[4] Manning. Politics of Touch, 155.

[5] Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 3.

[6] Butler, Judith. “On This Occasion,” In Butler on Whitehead: On the Occasion, ed. Faber, Roland, Michael Halewood, and Deena Lin, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2012, 4.

[7] Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 169 and xx

[8] Certeau. The Practice ,170.

[9] Ibid., 173.

[10] Certeau. The Practice,

[11] Certeau. The Practice,173.

[12] Bergson, Henri, W Scott Palmer, and Nancy Margaret Paul. Matter and Memory. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT press, 1991, 151-2.

[13] Bergson. Matter and Memory, 209.

[14] Manning. Politics of Touch, 155.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Butler, Judith. Frames of War : When Is Life Grievable? London; New York: Verso, 2009, 29 and 52.

[17] Butler. Frames, 51.

[18] Certeau. The Practice, 173.

[19] Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. “Critical Autopoiesis and the Materiality of Law.” Int J Semiot Law International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique 27, no. 2 (2014): 410.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere. London: Routledge, 2015, 3.

[22] Davies, Margaret. “The Consciousness of Trees.” Law and Literature, vol. 27, no. 2 (2015): 231.

[23] Eduardo Cadava. See all videos oft he Synesthesia of Law conference here: http://synesthesia.princeton.edu/videos/.

[24] Proust, Marcel, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Prendergast. Swann’s Way. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2004, 3. See original: “[J]e n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et de Charles Quint.” Proust, Marcel. A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Paris: Gallimard, 1954. 5.

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