Literary and Critical Theory Félix Guattari
by
Andrew Goffey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0053

Introduction

Pierre-Félix Guattari (b. 1930–d. 1992) is crucially important for understanding the intellectual scene of postwar France, a significant figure in the largely unstudied field of institutional psychotherapy, and a major political activist who was associated with significant developments in leftist thinking in Europe in 1960s and 1970s. Best known for his coauthored writings with Gilles Deleuze, the startling originality and importance of Guattari’s own thinking has often gone unrecognized. It has been said that he “couldn’t write,” and it is true that Guattari himself expressed some reluctance to do so. Nonetheless, in the course of his life he produced a significant and heterogeneous body of work, not all of which has been translated into English, and whose constitution raises significant challenges for scholarly research. Never holding an academic position, writing early in his adult life as a militant political activist under the name Claude Arrieux for the newspaper La Voie Communiste, and, for much of his time prior to the engagement with Deleuze, working as an analyst, a considerable proportion of Guattari’s work is circumstantial and interventionary in nature, addressing political events and conjunctures, institutional struggles, and an assortment of debates and discussions among and about now unknown practices and groups. Later developing a highly original reflection on what he called the “ethico-aesthetic paradigm,” Guattari sought to challenge the disciplinary strictures of research, and he contested well-entrenched divisions between theory and practice, the individual and the collective, analytic work and political militancy. By virtue of his close association with Deleuze, whose importance was quickly recognized in scholarly milieu and whose writings have been microscopically analyzed, Guattari is a thinker who is perhaps more frequently referenced than understood. Key terms from his joint work with Deleuze—that of “assemblage,” for example—have been pressed into service well beyond their clinical and philosophical origins, serving to offer researchers in the humanities and social sciences new ways of describing and understanding the world, but often at the cost of their critical potential and experimental tenor being overlooked. Unlike numerous French intellectuals in the wake of the upheavals that shook the country in May 1968, Guattari never “repented.” His close involvement with the events in Italy in 1977, with the autonomist movement and his international travels (including a notable engagement with groups in Brazil, on the cusp of the collapse of the dictatorship), was a marker of his very considerable political energies. While he came to refer to later political shifts (those of the 1980s in France especially) as the “winter years,” Guattari did not turn away from materialist thinking toward the liberal defense of human rights that marked much of what Dominique Lecourt has referred to as the “mediocracy” of French public intellectual life. Referred to in the media of the day as “Mister Anti,” a disparaging evocation of the title of his most notorious book—with Deleuze—Anti-Oedipus, Guattari can be understood as a crucial figure, if not the crucial figure, in the constitution of “68 Thought.”

General Overviews

One consequence of Guattari’s marginal position vis à vis the institutions of recognized intellectual endeavor—professional, academic philosophy, literary criticism, and so on—is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, his work has not generated a significant body of secondary literature. While there is a journal and an annual conference on Deleuze studies, for example, the same cannot be said for Guattari. This in turn has generated a tendency for commentary, where it exists, to have a somewhat “introductory” flavor to it. Framing discussions of themes and elements of Guattari’s work in this way is understandable. The net result, however, is that many secondary texts incorporate contextualizing elements of biographic and intellectual overview, without significant depth in the case of either. Fortunately, not all work on or with Guattari shares this characteristic. An additional consequence of Guattari’s particularly active position vis à vis the political movements of western Europe in the 1970s, as well as of the institutional contexts of the reception of “French Theory” in the United States in the early 1980s, and the receptiveness toward his schizoanalytic stance in Latin American countries (Brazil in particular), is that his thinking has flourished in nonacademic contexts. In the Global North, this has typically, although not exclusively, involved groups and organizations connected to the art world. In more recent years, however, a growing interest in the legacies of institutional psychotherapy, the movement with which he was associated from an early stage, has started to generate a body of writings and commentary that is making a more rounded evaluation of his work possible. There are several more than serviceable introductions to and overviews of Guattari’s work (Genosko 2002, Genosko 2009, Watson 2009). Useful biographical and historical contextualizing work is provided by Dosse 2010, Bourg 2007, and Berardi 2008. Querrien 2011, Cusset 2005, and Hess and Schaeplynck 2010 all situate Guattari’s later work well in terms of political concerns.

  • Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. Félix Guattari: Thought, Friendship and Visionary Cartography. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230584488E-mail Citation »

    Written by a close friend of Guattari’s, and a one-time autonomist, this text offers a highly personal, biographical, and conceptual account of the author’s friendship with Guattari. It offers an account of Guattari’s work, particularly with Deleuze, with a particular emphasis on his involvement with political struggles in Italy. Exploring the geopolitical context of the “winter years,” when Guattari was particularly involved in Italy, it also proposes a critical/clinical reading of the importance of depression in Guattari’s thinking, in largely tacit reference to his personal situation in later years.

  • Bourg, Julian. From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This historical account of the impact of the events of May 1968 on French intellectual culture offers a broad-brush discussion of Guattari, institutional psychotherapy, and the reception of Anti-Oedipus. Focusing on some of the less savory aspects of the “liberation of desire,” it locates Guattari within a general shift among French intellectuals from political to ethical thought. Offers anecdotal evidence for conflicts between Guattari and his La Borde colleague Jean Oury, and draws attention to gender politics issues.

  • Cusset, François. “De quoi passer l’hiver.” Preface to Les années d’hiver, 1980–1985. By Félix Guattari, 5–29. Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introducing a collection of interviews and journal, catalogue, and magazine articles from the first half of the 1980s, this text comments on the tone of Guattari’s writing, his shift in thinking following the publication with Deleuze of A Thousand Plateaus, his politics, the acuity of his insights into the forces of political reaction in play during this period, and especially the difficult issue of the pertinence of Guattari’s thinking in the early 21st century.

  • Dosse, François. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This biographical account of Guattari and his relationship to Deleuze offers a detailed discussion of many key elements of Guattari’s life. It reconstructs important aspects of his myriad research engagements—the work of FGERI (Fédération des groupes d’études et de recherches institutionelles) and CERFI (Centre d’études, de recherche et de formation institutionelles), for example—and comments on Guattari’s political involvement across Europe in the 1970s. The more biographical focus necessitates some simplification, particularly around intellectual context.

  • Genosko, Gary. Félix Guattari: An Aberrant Introduction. London: Continuum, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Genosko was one of the first scholars in the Anglophone world to address Guattari and his work without the obligatory mediation through Deleuze. This text remains a very serviceable account, with a good biographical introduction and a focus on key issues and concerns, including the concept of transversality, Guattari’s semiotic thinking, and his interest in Japanese culture. It also offers a useful, albeit brief, discussion of Guattari’s difficult later writings.

  • Genosko, Gary. Félix Guattari: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Updating and developing his earlier study, Genosko here makes important links between Guattari’s early biography and institutional pedagogy (Célestin Freinet and Fernand Oury), as well as between his theorizing of transversality, Foucault’s last writings on politics, and the historical context of the emergence of his ecological thinking. A discussion of cinema and an exploration of affect in the context of the use Guattari makes of phenomenological psychiatry point toward dimensions of his work that have often been overlooked.

  • Hess, Charlotte, and Valentin Schaeplynck. “L’hiver des années 80 n’est pas terminé: Entretien avec François Cusset.” Chimères 72 (2010): 61–73.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Guattari’s position in the intellectual climate of early 1980s France, the “prostheses and straitjackets” of sociopolitical domination that Guattari’s work diagnoses in this period, and the importance of his conception of the “winter years” as a problematic horizon for theoretical work of the kind Guattari undertook.

  • Querrien, Anne. “Maps and Refrains of a Rainbow Panther.” In The Guattari Effect. Edited by Éric Alliez and Andrew Goffey, 84–98. London: Continuum, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    While focusing in particular on Guattari’s later work and its movement toward thinking in terms of ecosophy, Querrien, who worked with Guattari for a number of years, offers an overview of his thinking in terms of groups and in terms of its experimental-practical approach to doing politics.

  • Watson, Janell. Guattari’s Diagrammatic Thought: Writing between Lacan and Deleuze. London: Continuum, 2009.

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    Looks at Guattari’s relationship to Lacan, and at the diagrammatic dimension of his thinking, and makes strong claims for his concern with ontology rather than language, situating his thinking on more directly philosophical grounds than is always the case. Takes the “machinic phylum” as key for exploring Guattari’s understanding of history. Watson is particularly attentive to the specificity of Guattari’s work, drawing in particular on the letters, notes, and diary entries published as The Anti-Oedipus Papers.

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