Guattari and transversality

Institutions, analysis and experimentation

RP 195 () / Article

How, on the basis of what problems and concerns, in reference to what concepts, and in the light of what practices, can and should we understand the work of Félix Guattari? It is now fairly widely accepted that Guattari was not simply a junior partner in the two-headed exploration of capitalism and schizophrenia signed ‘Deleuze and Guattari’ and that there is a Guattari ‘effect’ that consists in more than the provision of clinical material and political experience, a heady rhetoric and a speculative interest in semiotic theory, for Deleuze to develop into well-formed philosophical concepts. [1] However, developing an exploration of what might be called the ‘plane’ of thought proper to Guattari is a task that remains for the most part still to be accomplished.

With the recent publication in English of a complete version of Psychoanalysis and Transversality, [2] anglophone readers are in a better position to appreciate some of the complexities of Guattari’s thinking and, in particular, the depth of its engagement with a set of practices organized as much in relation to the institutional realities of working with psychosis as with the psychotic institutions of leftist politics in post-World War II France. Not only did Guattari work in one of the numerous hospitals in the French psychiatric sector, but he wrote for a newspaper, La Voie Communiste, which was at the forefront of a shift away from the Stalinism of the PCF. In these respects, the questions of the institution and, more specifically, of ‘institutionalization’ form an interesting starting point for addressing some key themes in Guattari’s work, his relationship with Deleuze, and the nature of his lifelong engagement with clinical issues relating to psychosis, as well as his vindication of micropolitics, which is incomprehensible without some appreciation of the importance of the institution in his thinking.

Thus far, the institution and institutionalization do not figure that much in the few commentaries that exist on Guattari’s work. [3] The La Borde clinic is generally present, of course – unavoidably so – but typically as a contextualizing point of reference to frame discussions of concepts. How the institution and its possibilities were crucial to Guattari’s concerns can thus easily fall by the wayside. Philosophical readings that do not engage with this question of the institution, or which consider Guattari’s early writings from the telos of the collaboration with Deleuze, risk missing the ways in which Guattari’s work links theory and practice. Given the complexity of the developments around psychiatry in postwar France, ignoring the matter of how Guattari understood institutions and what is entailed by his notion of institutional analysis further risks missing the specific interest of his work in relation to the broader historical current of movements calling into question institutions more generally.

It is worth pointing out, in this respect, that the French term institution does not cover the same semantic field as the English term ‘institution’. As Jean Ayme has pointed out in his essay on the history of institutional psychotherapy,

contrary to Anglo-Saxon use, for which the institution is the hospital, from which ‘deinstitutionalization’, designating the taking in hand of the ill outside of the hospital, follows, in French, institution designates first of all the action of instituting, and then ‘everything that is invented by humans in opposition to the facts of nature’. [4]

What anglophones might think of as institutions, in French is captured by the term établissement. Jean Oury, following Tosquelles in his insistence on distinguishing ‘institution’ and établissement, remarks in a manner that is largely consistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of Guattari’s thinking:

the establishment is a structure that is plunged into global society, and which relates to state criteria: it must answer to a large quantity of necessary administrative conditions; whereas institutions are something that can develop inside the establishment: they are quasi-infinite in number and variety. [5]

In these respects, exploring the issue of the institution has broader resonances. It not only helps elucidate the well-known theme of micropolitics, but it can help in the development of a more detailed …