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Becoming Imperceptible (1)

Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly stress the importance of becoming imperceptible, but the idea remains poorly understood.

When this phrase gets tossed around today, especially on the internet, it's often to glorify obscurity. Deleuze and Guattari are used to justify a certain kind of hiding. Consider, for instance, the number of anonymous Twitter accounts emitting Deleuzian takes with esoteric usernames and illegible digital avatars. I take no issue with such stylistic preferences, and there are often good reasons for them, but they don't follow from a Deleuzo-Guattarian politics of imperceptibility. In fact, as I'll explain below, Deleuze and Guattari are clear that a characteristic of becoming imperceptible is having no need for masks and nothing to hide. This is only one example of how the notion of becoming imperceptible is widely misunderstood.

More importantly, though, I should begin with why becoming imperceptible is such an important and attractive idea. Not for Deleuze and Guattari, or even for their audience, but for everyone — including readers and listeners here who perhaps have no interest in — or possibly a deep skepticism or even contempt with respect to — French poststructuralism. The way I see it — and I must admit I am introducing some idiosyncratic elements already, but I will try to make good on them — for Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible names the peak experience of an agent in a process of liberation. It is the pinnacle stage of escape or releasement, to borrow a Heideggerian phrase, from everything that seems so good at dominating, confusing, and capturing our potential energy and capacities.

These forces of domination are called by many names in the Deleuzo-Guattarian register: the molar, the rigid segments, the strata, etc., among others. One of the reasons why the models of Deleuze and Guattari are so difficult to understand is that they seek to pinpoint the operation of these forces at a very fine resolution, but in the most general and abstract terms they can find — to capture a lot of conditional variances without getting lost in the weeds, remaining maximally applicable to diverse situations. The cost, of course, is an infamous cornucopia of unwieldy terms.

For shorthand, I prefer to call these various mechanisms of domination, as a set, the institutions. Everywhere we look today, we see perverse institutions, often ancient institutions in path-dependent zombie modes; these institutions are often characterized by obvious and extreme deceptions, internal and external; they often malfunction regularly in predictable ways, in ways that are easily solvable, and yet structurally prohibited by the very functioning of the institutions at some higher level.

Schools, criminal justice systems, pathological families, corporations, universities, media, etc.: all of these institutions are molar aggregates that require our participation and capture our possibilities, in ways that appear increasingly insane and undesirable to increasing numbers of people (if for extremely different reasons, or rather reasons stated in extremely different languages). For instance, a leftist may say the primary institutional culprits are labor markets and "institutionalized" racism and so on, whereas conservatives may point to the university, labor unions, etc. One of the reasons for the bizarre vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari is, I believe, to sidestep these ideologically conditional forking paths — not in some wish to be bipartisan but simply because these are institutionally captured pathways which foreclose access to the very problem we would like to solve.

At stake here is figuring out how to live under the weight of increasingly complex institutions that are increasingly good at reproducing themselves — to understand them not just philosophically but empirically — in order that we may outsmart them and maneuver with increasingly greater freedom. Something like this is what I mean when I use the term "liberation." In my own view, the scientifically valid identification of the mechanisms of liberation, and their diffusion throughout a culture, is all that "revolutionary politics" could ever mean. And while Deleuze and Guattari are somewhat coy about their ultimate stances on what a successful revolutionary politics would look like, I remain convinced that their theoretical project is essentially to map and model the mechanisms of what I would call liberation. In any event, no matter what register one might prefer today, almost everybody is interested in some kind of escape, exit, or liberation from some kind of opaque institutional pathology.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible is the crucial final stage of any genuine escape path. Not final in the sense that everything is completed once and for all, but final in the sense that it's the zenith of a particular, repeatable mechanism — the famous "line of flight." If they are correct, then everybody should be interested in what it means to become imperceptible. Indeed, if you wish to live at all today, rather than merely survive, increasingly you must become imperceptible. So we would do well to get this right...

In an upcoming post, I will explain the problem with being perceptible. After that, I'll move onto explaining how becoming imperceptible works, and what it looks like.

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