Physicists constantly struggle to explain the void that exists between the phenomena that we see. First, there was gravity, and the impact of gravity’s discovery on philosophy was huge. (It is no coincidence that Newton’s discoveries are parallel with Kant’s.)
Most recently, we saw the discovery of the Higgs boson, helping to explain why particles have mass. I won’t pretend to be familiar with the particulars, but it was clear even to the layman that the Standard Model of physics did not account for everything. Until that moment, we seemed to exist within a void, but that void could not be absolute, otherwise it would surely collapse in on itself. And so we developed theories like dark matter and the like, to potentially explain why nothingness nonetheless has a mass.
Perhaps it is useful to think of Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence in a similar way. It is not enough to say “I think therefore I am”, because we are yet to fully understand how thought is manifest and how our vast array of (often conflicting) conceptions of the world around us are able to coexist without reality collapsing in on itself. The plane of immanence becomes a kind of apperceptive field; perhaps similar to what Kant called “transcendental apperception”: our present understanding of “the pure, original, unchangeable consciousness that is the necessary condition of experience and the ultimate foundation of the unity of experience.”
However, even this scientific analogy is a limit on thought. In many ways, it is putting the cart before the horse, as we are all too prone to do. How can we think of thought in a way that isn’t limited by what we presently know?
To feel like a body without organs is surely easier than being a body with organs? It is just harder to articulate, because language is a regime of thought attached to the organ of the mouth and we still struggle to vocalise that which we are unconscious of — or should that be “disembodied from”? After all, who walks around with a consciousness of their lungs, heart, brain as they actually are? “I think therefore I am” takes the body for granted.
When we exercise, and find our body in a state of revolt, to understand that our heart is pounding to deliver blood and our lungs are straining to deliver oxygen, may make us feel better about corporeal experience but to understand the body as a machine is nonetheless to imagine a different kind of apparatus to the one we lug around with us. An organ(is)ed body is a utilitarian body — so, what is a BwO? What is a body beyond the heart and lungs? To finish a race and think about how the machine-that-we-are has managed to complete it says nothing of why we were impelled to run in the first place. To have sex is an even more complicated example. The desires that drive the body into action remain elusive. We are long past the point of believing we have sex only to reproduce, but that hardly clarifies matters. It is through the BwO that we can begin to uncover the reasons as to why. A body without organs is, at the same time, a body beyond organs; beyond the regimented biological understanding of what a body can do. Plenty that we do is bio-illogical. The BwO reaches out to that which is beyond the logic of sense.
Slough off your organs — what are you left with? What is the body that lies beneath, this surface, this substance and limit? Certainly not a concept, we’re told, but rather a reality that is always with us. The BwO is always in reach, we can always invert ourselves and slip towards it, down past the strata, gaining speed before impact. Be careful though, this is a dangerous place, this surface upon which organs embed and strata erect and events slide across. You can find schizophrenias and catatonias, masochisms and cancers and fascisms.
BwO as raw possibility — not all possibilities are good possibilities. Tear down your strata too quickly and you end up like Burroughs on a bad day, shuddering, wondering when your ass will stop stealing your voice. Keep your strata in reach, climb up if you need a rest, sleep a while and in the morning step back down onto your BwO. Be intrepid, but don’t be stupid.
Billie Eilish deploying Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” in the chorus to her new single doesn’t seem to warrant too much thought. But, accompanied by a video in which she runs around a shopping mall picking up fast food, during a year when her figure has frequently been the subject of tabloid thinkpieces, there’s maybe something to be said for her allusion to the seventeenth-century’s mind/body dichotomy.
At first, the song’s lyrics appear to be directed at the haters and those clinging onto her name for clout, but I see another reading. There’s a deeper sense of alienation here, beneath the pop cultural politics — a kind of schizoid monologue wherein multiple Eilish’s are scattered to the winds by conflicting parasitic agents. First, there are the two Eilish’s being discussed in the press — artist and celebrity — and there are two Eilish’s being discussed by Eilish herself in her songs — projected self and introjected subject. There are multiple Eilish’s vying for attention but each can be place into two broad categories: one of mind and one of body.
Lyrically, consider how, at first, the mind takes swings at the body — I’m more than I appear to be, I’m more than my body; the mind comes first (or should) for an artist of my stature. But then, there’s a recoil, as the world’s bodily ideals conflict with Eilish’s own sense of herself. By the end of the first verse, it’s hard to know who is addressing who. For example, when Eilish sings:
We are not the same with or without Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel Top of the world, but your world isn’t real Your world’s an ideal
… I hear a body calling out a mind, afflicted by an unwelcome superego.
It soon becomes apparent that this schizoid vortex of voices and perspectives is where the spectre of Cartesianism cashes out in the twenty-first century. Descartes melds with Freud. We become familiar with the mind and its internal structure of sugerego, ego and id and find ourselves ventriloquising each perspective. Presented to us as angel and demon on each shoulder, bracketing an egoic consciousness somewhere inbetween, but what about that which lurks below the neck? That which Eilish embraces and finds to be a battleground in equal measure? There’s a body without organs lurking under the surface here, trying to make itself heard over the tabloid gossip and Eilish’s own internal monologue.
Psychoanalysis clearly has a lot to answer for. For Deleuze and Guattari most famously — both tangentially involved in the anti-psychiatry movement — Freud’s stratified structure of the mind is nothing but a cage for who we really are and could potentially become. As they write in A Thousand Plateaus, psychoanalysis “royally botches the real” in this regard, “because it botches the BwO.” Deleuze and Guattari were far more interested in bending social rules to better accommodate the divergent subject.
In “Therefore I Am”, Eilish seems to be flexing her line of flight. There’s a sense that she’s doing whatever she wants in an empty shopping mall, that grand temple to desire, but also that she is able to get away with it because she is Billie Eilish. Is this a defiant individualism? Or something else?
“I think therefore I am” soon becomes a loaded statement. Think how, exactly? Or think what? It is telling that the “I think” of Descartes’ phrase is jettisoned from the title itself. “Therefore I Am” gives new meaning to the phrase “immaculate conception”. No thought, just the BwO. Eilish conceives of herself, divested of pop-cultural influence, from her own mind or outside. After all, the BwO “is what remains when you take everything away”, Deleuze and Guattari write. Is there a hint, below the braggadocio, of an Eilishian program of desire; a “motor program of experimentation.”
“Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication“, Deleuze wrote in Difference & Repetition.This is precisely why the body without organs is better expressed, for Deleuze, by a schizophrenic out for a walk than by a neurotic on a couch. The psychoanalyst explores and deploys symbolisation, that “unconscious mental process whereby one object or idea comes to stand for another through some part”; the schizophrenic finds truth in the infinite intermingling of things.
In practice, for Eilish, this is expressed through singing a song to the haters in an empty shopping mall bouncing around to her heart’s content, following desires without recourse to any of her conflicting selves. In the twenty-first century, does the schizophrenic out for a walk still resonate? Or is a media-hounded pop star in a shopping mall just as good an analogy? “Therefore I am” — here Eilish is all explication.
If you would like to read along with us, this discussion was primarily based on the sixth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, entitled “November 28, 1947: How do you Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”
The Buddies Without Organs podcast theme tune was written and recorded by George Rennie.