Pascal Michon

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari and the Rhuthmoi of Language – Part 4

Article publié le 2 September 2020

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Discourse Singularity and Variation vs Universal Language System

The third “postulate of linguistics” discussed by Deleuze and Guattari affirmed that “there are constants or universals of the tongue [la langue] that enable us to define it as a homogeneous system” (pp. 92-100). Instead, they wanted to prove that “every [linguistic] system is in variation and is defined not by its constants and homogeneity but, on the contrary, by a variability whose characteristics are immanent, continuous, and regulated in a very specific mode” (pp. 93-94). In short, the tongue is not a persistent system, it is intrinsically changing, shifting, innovating, in motion.


According to Deleuze and Guattari, linguists claimed that human language [le langage] universally involves a series of distinctive “phonemes,” a series of “fundamental constituents of syntax,” and a series of “minimal semantic elements.” They similarly alleged that each “tongue” [langue] has specific phonological, syntactical, and semantic characteristics. All these constituents would be linked to each other by “trees” and “binary relations between trees.” Moreover, the implementation of this universal human capacity of language under its various specific forms (languages) would imply that each speaker would possess a “competence” which enables him or her to respect the grammatical rules of his or her tongue during his or her “performance” (p. 92).


All of these characteristics would, according to them, establish the theory of language on a much too narrow basis. Deleuze and Guattari pointed out that “abstract” does not necessarily mean “universal” or “constant.” On the contrary, language characteristics would always be local, singular, changing, and variable.

There is no reason to tie the abstract to the universal or the constant, or to efface the singularity of abstract machines insofar as they are built around variables and variations. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, pp. 92-93)

To support their view, Deleuze and Guattari cited the debate between Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar (1928-) and William Labov’s variationist sociolinguistics (1927-) on the nature of language and, consequently, of linguistics. While “Chomsky ask[ed] only that one carve from this aggregate [the heterogeneous nature of a language] a homogeneous or standard system as a basis for abstraction or idealization, making possible a scientific study of principles,” Labov insisted, on the contrary, that the “lines of inherent variation” were essential in any language. With the same idea in mind as Morin when he introduced the concept of “machine” which implied variation and creativity, to replace that of “system” which remained closed in on itself, Deleuze and Guattari concluded from that suggestion that linguistic systems were not closed wholes but open flows which continuously varied.

He [Labov] refuses the alternative linguistics set up for itself: assigning variants to different systems, or relegating them to a place outside the structure. It is the variation itself that is systematic, in the sense in which musicians say that “the theme is the variation.” Labov sees variation as a de jure component affecting each system from within, sending it cascading or leaping on its own power and forbidding one to close it off, to make it homogeneous in principle. Labov does consider variables of all kinds, phonetic, phonological, syntactical, semantic, stylistic. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 93)

However, the very last sentence of this quote showed that variation did not mean, in Labov’s view, getting rid of all formal features. On the contrary, those remained comparable from one language to another, even if in constant variation. Variation was meant of formal characteristics. Labov argued, for instance, that African American Vernacular English should not be stigmatized as “substandard,” but respected as a variety of English with “its own grammatical rules.” Whatever level considered, “phonetic, phonological, syntactical, semantic, or stylistic,” system and variations were not separate, the latter being exterior and secondary to the former, but variations were the real base of the system itself, which did not imply that the notion of system disappeared altogether. Similarly Benveniste thought that human beings are endowed with “the ability to reproduce certain models while varying them infinitely” (1974, p. 19).


Instead, Deleuze and Guattari wanted admittedly to “harden” Labov’s position (p. 93), even if it meant “overstepping the limits Labov [set] for himself” (p. 94). Unlike Morin, they ruled out any improvement of the concept of system, which should be abandoned altogether and replaced by those of heterogeneous assemblage and unorganized variation. In order to oppose structuralism and systemism—which they rather quickly amalgamated—they opted for the complete opposite perspective based on sheer disorder and chance.

Must it not be admitted that every system is in variation and is defined not by its constants and homogeneity but on the contrary by a variability whose characteristics are immanent, continuous, and regulated in a very specific mode. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, pp. 93-94)

Significantly, Deleuze and Guattari took musical tonality as an example of this kind of assemblages and free variations. Although music did not imply any articulation of sound according to phonemic rules, nor syntax, nor semantic content, in short although it was utterly foreign to language, they thought that musical variations of sound could be used as an illustration of the generalized variations which they were aiming at.


In the Western tradition, music was mainly based on “tonal or diatonic system,” however this basis had been successively enriched by integrating “the minor ‘mode’ which [gave] tonal music a decentered, runaway, fugitive character,” “tempered chromaticism” which developed “an even greater ambiguity [by] stretching the action of the center to the most distant tones, but also preparing the disaggregation of the central principle, replacing the centered forms of continuous development with a form that constantly dissolves and transforms itself,” and finally, a “generalized chromaticism,” which “turn[ed] back against temperament, affecting not only pitches but all sound components—durations, intensities, timbre, attacks” (p. 95). This brief history of sound in Western music was supposed to show that “highly complex and elaborate [sonorous] material” made audible “nonsonorous forces.” The world’s forces were directly expressed through human-made sounds.

It becomes impossible to speak of a sound form organizing matter; it is no longer even possible to speak of a continuous development of form. Rather, it is a question of a highly complex and elaborate material making audible nonsonorous forces. The couple matter-form is replaced by the coupling material-forces. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 95)

Naturally, Deleuze and Guattari recognized that this argument proved nothing about language which was, by their own admission, based on difference between phonemes and not on variation of pitch, tonality, or atonality. But they still argued that music rather than language should be taken as a theoretical model to account for the world in its constant becoming.

Once again, the objection will be raised that music is not a language, that the components of sound are not pertinent features of language, that there is no correspondence between the two. We are not suggesting any correspondence. We keep asking that the issue be left open, that any presupposed distinction be rejected. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 96)

They strangely imagined, without giving the slightest hint of what it might have resulted in, that, if “the Voice-Music relation proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau” had been taken seriously, “it could have taken not only phonetics and prosody but all of linguistics in a different direction.” (p. 96). Hence a very twisted reasoning: although this comparison of language with music had been rejected by all specialists at least since Saussure, they argued that linguistics could have been different if it had not rejected it, which naturally was true but of no theoretical consequence, precisely because it had not happened. Besides, it ignored Meschonnic’s current reflection on voice in poetic discourse as well as ordinary language, which clearly distinguished it from any musical consideration (see below the chapters on Meschonnic).


Deleuze and Guattari cited Luciano Berio’s (1925-2003) and Dieter Schnebel’s (1930-2018) works on voice timbre as examples of entirely “continuous variation” and “generalized ‘glissando’” freed from any linguistic concerns.

Only when the voice is tied to timbre does it reveal a tessitura that renders it heterogeneous to itself and gives it a power of continuous variation: [...] it belongs to a musical machine that prolongs or superposes on a single plane parts that are spoken, sung, achieved by special effects, instrumental, or perhaps electronically generated. This is the sound plane of a generalized “glissando” implying the constitution of a statistical space in which each variable has, not an average value, but a probability of frequency that places it in continuous variation with the other variables. Luciano Berio’s Visage (Face) and Dieter Schnebel’s Glossolalie (Speaking in tongues) are typical examples of this. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 96)

However, this was not what Berio himself suggested. On the contrary, he clearly intended to preserve a link between his apparently free reelaboration of the human voice and the ordinary spoken language. Anyhow, they claimed that Berio’s and Schnebel’s works attained “that secret neuter language without constants” that they imagined. Once again—as with Heidegger or Gadamer—the artist’s testimony about his own work, grounded in both practice and theory, was underestimated by philosophers who better understood the true meaning of his practice. The result of this condescension was to dissolve the relationship between music and language, however carefully described by Berio, into a vague and obscure notion implying secrecy and neutrality.

And despite what Berio himself says, it is less a matter of using pseudoconstants to produce a simulacrum of language [de language] or a metaphor for the voice than of attaining that secret neuter language without constants [à cette langue neutre, secrète, sans constantes] and entirely in indirect discourse where the synthesizer and the instrument speak no less than the voice, and the voice plays no less than the instrument. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 96)

Since the notion of “secret neuter language,” which suddenly arose in this argument, might recall Heidegger or even certain mystics, Deleuze and Guattari gave a few examples taken from ethnologists or sociologists. “Secret languages, slangs, jargons, professional languages, nursery rhymes, merchants’ cries,” they claimed, were supposed to develop into “chromatic languages, close to a musical notation.” According to them—but not to specialists—secret languages did not have any systemic form but were pure variation.

It is perhaps characteristic of secret languages , slangs, jargons, professional languages, nursery rhymes, merchants’ cries to stand out less for their lexical inventions or rhetorical figures than for the way in which they effect continuous variations of the common elements of language. They are chromatic languages, close to a musical notation. A secret language does not merely have a hidden cipher or code still operating by constants and forming a subsystem; it places the public language’s system of variables in a state of variation. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 97)

Based on these rather fantastic arguments, they called for a linguistics entirely freed from the notions of system or formal constants, “a chromatic linguistics according pragmatism its intensities and values.” Such a linguistics would consider each language not any more as a differential system but as a pure flow composed of variable molecular intensities.

Linguistics in general is still in a kind of major mode, still has a sort of diatonic scale and a strange taste for dominants, constants, and universals. All languages, in the meantime, are in immanent continuous variation: neither synchrony nor diachrony, but asynchrony, chromaticism as a variable and continuous state of language. For a chromatic linguistics according [qui donne au] pragmatism its intensities and values. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 97)

Since it introduced a rhuthmic perspective, the idea seemed at first quite innovative, but it had the fatal defect of unduly subjecting language to the physical paradigm. In fact, language could not be reduced to molecules and the articulation between the physical and the poetic rhuthmic paradigms could not be envisaged at the cost of the erasure of one by the other.


The second example of “continuous variation” given by Deleuze and Guattari was literature. Even if they still used the overworn concept of “style,” their take was, in this case, much more adequate. “Style” was not, they underlined, “an individual psychological creation” but “an assemblage of enunciation,” a “procedure” to implement “a continuous variation” and produce “a language within a language.”

What is called a style can be the most natural thing in the world; it is nothing other than the procedure of a continuous variation. [...] Because a style is not an individual psychological creation but an assemblage of enunciation, it unavoidably produces a language within a language [une langue dans la langue]. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 97)

Deleuze and Guattari took as examples a list of authors “they were fond of”: Kafka, Beckett, Gherasim Luca, Jean-Luc Godard. Each one of them gave to the German or the French language a new appearance, each had “his own procedure of variation, his own widened chromaticism, his own mad production of speeds and intervals,” in other words, his own manner of making his own language flow, which they characterized as “stammering, whispering or ascending and descending”—amazingly, one might add, a kind of stuttering was also a spectacular characteristics of Meschonnic’s poetic performances.

The essential thing is that each of these authors has his own procedure of variation, his own widened chromaticism, his own mad production of speeds and intervals. The creative stammering of Gherasim Luca, in the poem “Passionnément” (Passionately). Godard’s is another kind of stammering. In theater: Robert Wilson’s whispering, without definite pitch, and Carmelo Bene’s ascending and descending variations. It’s easy to stammer, but making language itself stammer is a different affair. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 98)

Each author invented his or her “own language – sa propre langue,” by giving it new “values and intensities.” The language then seemed to become “secret” or private but it actually remained open to ever new uses, performances and interpretations.

It was Proust who said that “masterpieces are written in a kind of foreign language.” [...] That is when style becomes a language [que le style fait langue]. That is when language [que le langage] becomes intensive, a pure continuum of values and intensities. That is when all of language [que toute la langue] becomes secret, yet has nothing to hide, as opposed to when one carves out a secret subsystem within language [dans la langue]. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 98)

Consequently, there was no such thing as a set of linguistic constants which one varied, as in rhetoric in which each figure of style was considered as a deviation from the norms of the language.

It is possible to take any linguistic variable and place it in variation following a necessarily virtual continuous line between two of its states. We are no longer in the situation of linguists who expect the constants of language [les constantes de la langue] to experience a kind of mutation or undergo the effects of changes accumulated in speech alone [la simple parole]. Lines of change or creation are fully and directly a part of the abstract machine. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 99)

On the contrary, each discourse set up a particular tension which occurred through “tensors.” The latter could be “atypical” or “agrammatical” expressions, as Cummings’ he danced his did, or more simply a repetitive use of the conjunction AND.

The atypical expression constitutes a cutting edge of deterritorialization of language [de la langue], it plays the role of tensor; in other words, it causes language [la langue] to tend toward the limit of its elements, forms, or notions, toward a near side or a beyond of language [de la langue]. The tensor effects a kind of transitivization of the phrase, causing the last term to react upon the preceding term, back through the entire chain. It assures an intensive and chromatic treatment of language [de la langue]. An expression as simple as AND . . . can play the role of tensor for all of language [tout le langage]. In this sense, AND is less a conjunction than the atypical expression of all of the possible conjunctions it places in continuous variation. [...] Tensors coincide with no linguistic category; nevertheless they are pragmatic values essential to both assemblages of enunciation and indirect discourses. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 99)

Deleuze and Guattari emphasized that this tensive and creative power was not limited to “poets, children, and lunatics.” It was actually the normal form of language activity, even in the most ordinary speech.

Some believe that these variations do not express the usual labor of creation in language and remain marginal, confined to poets, children, and lunatics. That is because they wish to define the abstract machine by constants that can be modified only secondarily, by a cumulative effect or syntagmatic mutation. But the abstract machine of language is not universal, or even general, but singular; it is not actual, but virtual-real; it has, not invariable or obligatory rules, but optional rules that ceaselessly vary with the variation itself, as in a game in which each move changes the rules. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 99)

Therefore, performing a discourse, what Deleuze and Guattari called an “assemblage of enunciations,” was not simply using the tongue (la langue), “the abstract machine,” in a more or less distorted way. It was not a violation or even a distortion of the language norm. It entailed “a come-and-go between different types of variables,” which “effectuate[d] the machine in unison, in the sum of their relations.”

We should not conclude from this that the assemblage brings only a certain resistance or inertia to bear against the abstract machine; [...] There is indeed braking and resistance at a certain level, but at another level of the assemblage there is nothing but a come-and-go between different types of variables, and corridors of passage traveled in both directions: the variables effectuate the machine in unison, in the sum of their relations. (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, trans. B. Massumi, 1987, p. 100)

Although sometimes in a somewhat obscure way, these analyses rightly pointed to phenomena that had been observed by many writers and a few theoreticians. In the most ordinary situation of speech, the language is used, or better yet, made flowing, each time in a new way. Each speaker invents his or her “own language” by giving it new “values and intensities.” His or her language may thus seem to become private but in fact it remains open to re-actualization, allowing intercomprehension and interaction.


Benveniste, for instance, in an interview dated 1968 in which he also commented on Chomsky’s generative linguistics, underlined the fact that, contrarily to Chomsky’s claim, “all men invent their own tongue [leur propre langue] at the moment and each one in a distinctive way, and each time in a new way.” This fundamentally regenerative process concerned sentences, as well as words, down to the most banal locution as “hello!” Against all structuralist views, Benveniste insisted that, in real pragmatic situation of communication, it is “no longer the constituent elements that count” but “the complete organization of the whole, the original arrangement.”

We apparently use a number of models. But, every man invents his language [sa langue] and invents it all his life. And all men invent their own language [leur propre langue] at the moment and each one in a distinctive way, and each time in a new way. Saying hello every day of your life to someone, this is each time a reinvention. A fortiori when it comes to sentences, it is no longer the constituent elements that count, it is the complete organization of the whole, the original arrangement [l’arrangement original], the model of which cannot have been given directly and, consequently, must have been made by the individual [que l’individu fabrique]. (Benveniste, 1974, p. 18-19, my trans.)

Meschonnic, for his part, had documented a similar phenomenon, this time at the text level, in his Écrire Hugo, Pour la poétique IV in 1977, a phenomenon whose theory he was soon to elaborate in detail in his fundamental essay Critique du rythme, Anthropologie historique du langage in 1982. To oppose any temptation to separate between linguistics and poetics, Meschonnic first argued against Austin, who considered poetry as “a parasitic use” of ordinary language (1962, pp. 21, 104), insisting for his part on the continuity between ordinary and poetic language. Having secured this relation, Meschonnic described how each author “re-produces” the language – la langue in which he or she writes in a way that is entirely specific to him or her, while still being fully sharable. Just as Deleuze and Guattari, who explained this rather surprising effect by the use of “tensors,” which escaped linguistic categories, established “pragmatic values essential to assemblages of enunciation,” and “effectuate[d] the machine [of the language] in unison, in the sum of their relations [toutes à la fois [...] d’après l’ensemble de leurs rapports],” Meschonnic described it as a particular form of “enunciation” which produced “values specific to one discourse and only one” through the global organization of its “prosodic and rhythmic system.” Although the example of “agrammatical expressions,” given by Deleuze and Guattari, actually still respected the banal rhetoric criterion of deviation from norm, Meschonnic could certainly have joined with them on their second example, “expressions as simple as AND,” which clearly pointed at the way of flowing—the rhuthmos—of the discourse. Indeed, for him, the “signifiance” of a poem is not carried only by the words articulated through syntactical forms but by the entire system of signifiers and the global resonance it entails. It is the result of a linguistic activity that doesn’t separate the signified and the signifier.

Poetic enunciation is not just a use of personal pronouns. It pertains to the whole discourse. This is why the analysis begins with prosody and rhythm, because what we already reduce by calling it the “materiality” of words is a semantics of the whole language [de tout le langage], a generalized signifiance which produces its paradigms as much as its concatenations [enchaînements]. The privilege accorded to prosody and rhythm does not make them distinct “levels” of “meaning,” a meaning then confused with lexicon, nor one of the functions of language [du langage] that would overcome the others, for example syntax. But, by encompassing the separate categories of syntax and lexicon in a new conception-distribution of the signifiance, prosody and rhythm are taken as the general functioning of value and poetry [de la valeur et du poème]. (Meschonnic, Writing Hugo, 1977, vol. 1, p. 216, my trans.)

As we can see, on many points, Deleuze and Guattari came very close to Benveniste’s and Meschonnic’s analyses of ordinary as well as poetic language, which, as a matter of fact, retrospectively, shed light on their rather abstract considerations. This is why it is so unfortunate that Deleuze and Guattari did not use these powerful insights in the particular ways of flowing of the language that they were precisely trying to understand. They totally ignored the two groundbreaking contributions that could have helped them to better describe their object.


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