ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)

A Naïve Optimism -- A Review of Felix Guattari (2008). Three Ecologies. Continuum Press.

Dr. Bradley Kaye

(Philosophy, Broome College, Binghamton, New York, USA)

According to Felix Guattari, the three ecologies (that which forms the terrain for all revolutionary praxis) are: environmental, social relations, and human subjectivity. His concerns are broad in scope, and he calls for activism against “unemployment, oppressive marginalization, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and neurosis,” while advocating in favor of, “culture, creation, development, reinvention of the environment, and the enrichment of life” (20). Guattari often strikes me as uniquely naïve and enthusiastically optimistic in the midst of such bleak news that the world is in shambles. It reminds me of a passage from Jean-Francois Lytoard’s The Postmodern Condition where he wonders, and I’m paraphrasing, will we ever be cultured, civilized, and developed, the answer there was no.  For Guattari however, the answer is yes, and ironically, he believes in social change – he is no nihilist.

More often than not he claims we may be headed down the path to ruin, and he clings to the belief that there is still time to change the course we are on and save the planet. I think it is already too late, the destruction caused by our indifference towards the environment and each other has created a situation where no salvation can be accomplished in the foreseeable future. As William Haver once wrote, “Not even a God can save us now” (1996) All too often Guattari makes bold claims in more vague terms than I prefer, and then drops the train of thought for another tangential point related to something else.

For instance, early on he claims that radical fundamentalism is a huge threat to civilization, elsewhere he claims we are moving back into a totemistic, animistic situation.  I can only wonder when did these forces go away, and at what point did they return? Fundamentalisms are as old humanity and modernism never fully eclipsed totemistic semiotic impulses, it merely repressed these urges until they violently erupt, as in war, or the drives behind fascism. This text, while completely useful as a guidepost for deep ecology work, strikes me as too simplistic at several points, and interestingly enough, Guattari must have been attempting to bring his work to a wider, untrained public audience, because this text is extraordinarily accessible, to the point of being almost completely devoid of his usual theoretical musings.
Guattari notes that class composition in the 19th century created the working class almost entirely homogeneously, whereas in the 20th century new resistances have emerged to break down this tendency. Guattari is no historian but is a wonderful thinker with insights into the concept of subjectivity, and praxis, but not accurate depictions of 19th century class formations. The main thing which inhibited the formation of a revolutionary proletariat in the United States was the diversity of the subjects within that class.  It is clear upon any subsequent reading of historical documentation on labor that ethnic, religious, gender, and racial differences were utilized by factory owners to bust up unions and turn workers against one another, and this repeatedly worked.
Mental ecosophy will lead us to reinvent the relation of the subject to the body, to phantasm, to the passage of time, to the mysteries of life and death (24).  Turn to Freud as a novelist, and not a scientist, which would be a creative act, based on interpretation, expression, and aesthetics, not truth, correctness, and stodgy conceptions such as Veritas (virtue).  This is the side of Guattari that I prefer, and love. His call to create new subjectivities, and to create ethico-aesthetic paradigms, instead of truth, a concept that needs to die among more myopic philosophers, disrespectful departmental colleagues, power-hungry journal editors, and pesky undergraduates. 

The main thesis of this book concerns how we need to think transversally. Connecting eco-systems, and individual universes of reference is the only way of dealing with the exigencies posed by contemporary use of the environment, and the beating down of human creativity, and dignity, brought about by contemporary capitalism in its most nefarious forms. To do this, we must enliven a spirit of play that can break out of the phenomenal realm of objects, into the domain of the incorporeal, to see how aesthetics, rather than science, can be the path to our salvation. In taking Guattari seriously, if there is time left, we must turn to the artists, cultural critics, and intellectuals on the left rather than acquiesce into the drudgery of status quo objectivism offered by reactionary forces that want to explain human nature in a fascistic-totalizing essentialist framework.

The last thing to note, according to Guattari there are four fundamental semiotic regimes in place within Integrated World Capitalism (IWC): Economic semiotics (monetary, financial accounting and decision making mechanisms), Juridical semiotics (title deeds, legislation regulations, etc.), Techno-scientific semiotics (plans, diagrams, programmes, studies, research, etc.), and Semiotics of subjectification, coinciding with several mechanisms  already mentioned amounts to relating with each other in public space. A key issue Guattari deals with is the way mental ecology configures itself through the introjection of repressive power by the oppressed. If we can solve the riddle of why people desire their own oppression we can begin to unravel the methodologies of power working upon the subject from within. This text gives us a starting point, and in that regard, serves as a nice accompaniment to Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2011)

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