“The Body as a Political Structure. The aristocracy in the body, the majority of the rulers (struggle between cells and tissues).” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 660)
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) is perhaps most famous for reviving interest in Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). At the height of the structuralist movement in post-war France Deleuze’s book Nietzsche and Philosophy (1965) marshals Nietzsche’s thinking on the will to power to reinterpret the body as a political entity or intensive space.
Both Deleuze and Nietzsche live their own complex relation to the body mediated by their painful experience of illness. Before he can defend his doctoral theses, Deleuze is diagnosed with tuberculosis resistant to antibiotics and receives a thoracoplasty or the surgical removal of a lung (Dosse 2007, p.178). When he is older, Deleuze is too ill to type, and asks for help in order to continue writing. On the other hand, Nietzsche is sickly since childhood, and into adulthood is often bedridden for months at a time. Prevented even from writing, the intermittently immobile Nietzsche crafts his literary form by contemplating in such depth that he composes sentences overflowing with meaning. A dense sentence is for Nietzsche a hammer with which to do philosophy, since “it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book, — what everyone else does not say in a whole book” (Twilight of the Idols, section 51. trans. Ludovici).
The embodied experiences by these two philosophers each contribute toward a perspectives on the body that is social and political. A body is so often gendered, racialized, coded into a territoriality that is alien to it. Every social system has for its stable coherence a stock of bodies to which a code is applied. Stable identity is a form received to the detriment of bodily autonomy. Which bodies are incarcerated? And what does the carceral reveal about the perspective of the code? It becomes vital which bodies are excluded form the social norm, and politically made subordinate in law and practice.
The effect of critical bodily philosophy is that the most “self-evident” identity is far from an organic whole without contradictions. To the contrary, the body has a multiplicity of status that is constantly in flux. The status of gender, race and class vary according to the social context of historical assemblages in convergence. For our intervention in the body through Deleuze and Nietzsche, the status of ability and disability is a social and political assemblage. In our own lives each of us need help like Deleuze and Nietzsche because none of us are excluded from becoming disabled at some point in our lives.
In The Will to Power Nietzsche writes, it is “Essential: to start from the body and employ it as guide. It is the much richer phenomenon, which allows of clearer observation. Belief in the body is better established than belief in the spirit” (section 532, trans. Kaufmann). Nietzsche considers the quantity and quality of forces that take hold of a body. Then each body varies according to how productive or anti-productive it is. The evaluation of forces analyzes effects, asking what organs operate on this body? Which forces affect this body? And most importantly what are the limits to which this body can be relatively stratified or absolutely deterritorialized? The absolutely disorganized body is the “body without organs,” temporarily unfastened from the strata that lace up the body to its productive role in the organic or social continuum. Deleuze pivots on the radical revaluation of the body as a site of historical struggle and political contestation.
According to the literary theorist Ronald Bogue, “bodies” for Deleuze “comprise alien, non-rational domains that defy common-sense understanding” (Bogue 1989, p.152). Rather than the organically bounded wholeness intuited by traditional Western metaphysics, each body is unique and permeable. The set of possible articulations is open. The Deleuzian body is not prefigured with a replicable set of organs but is a pre-personal whole, an unfolded surface on which organs are grafted or detached. Organs function to produce some flow or they stop altogether to produce the body without organs. The person can reach their body without organs only as a limit. This surface of the body without organs subsists alongside the person like a shadow. Deleuze ascribes ethical value to exploring the limit by rearranging and experimenting with the body and its multiplicity of parts.
The unity of the body is constantly contested by forces in conflict. “Every relationship of forces constitutes a body — whether it is chemical, biological, social or political” (Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 40). Deleuze finds bodies everywhere. The revaluation by Nietzsche actually deterritorializes the body from the purely human stratum, transposing it with the bodies of animals, plants or minerals.
Humans are only one narrow application because Deleuze is as much a philosopher of animals and insects as he is of humans. The tick for example is an insect whose body can be defined by the variable speeds of three affects, the tick body being nothing but “a result of the relationships of which it is composed, nothing but a tri-polar world! Light affects it and it climbs on to the end of a branch. The smell of a mammal affects it and it drops down on to it” (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, p.60). Next, the tick responds to the warmth of bare skin under which it burrows to feed. The body for the tick responds to the intensity of light, of smell and heat.
Deleuze’s understanding of the body diverges radically from the traditions in Western philosophy since Descartes and Kant. Any relation of forces constitutes a body. Bodies themselves can be related in an assemblage. An assemblage is itself another body or an asymmetrical arrangement of bodies as parts. The same way a body’s unity is constantly contested, the unity of any assemblage is constantly being assembled. The body is reproduced continuously, so the assemblage is recombined out of disjointed milieu of disassembled parts, selectable bodies in close proximity or “un ensemble de voisinage” (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues, p.125) which we could translate to neighbor-age or proximity. Elsewhere Deleuze and Guattari substitute the word “agencement” since each assemblage functions as an agent whose “pilot role” is anonymous, imageless, and collectively sustained by the arrangement of parts. As an assemblage human agency is widely distributed throughout the body rather than localized essentially to the privileged half of the mind/body dualism.
The agency of the body is dark and nomadic, migrating according to the arrangement of non-organic parts and external forces. The darkly opaque and open body prompts Deleuze to repeat Spinoza that the body exists with the mind, not separately as a distinct substance. “When Spinoza says that we do not even know what a body can do, this is practically a war cry” (Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, p.255). The relation of a body to any other effectively multiplies its capacity to affect and be affected. The resulting space of possibility affectively destabilizes the Cartesian dualism of extension/thought attributes of substance. To Deleuze, the fundamentally irreducible multiplicity of the body prompts an ethical revaluation of its possibilities toward a radical political intervention. Precisely who is to say what a body can do?