Adventures in Jutland

Milieu, rhythm, refrain, territory

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Wolfgang Tillmans “Memorial for the Victims of Organized Religion, 2006”. Image by David King Some rights reserved

(something we cut from the chapter of the Affect Theory Reader (edited by Mel Gregg and Greg Seigworth) I wrote with Lone Bertelsen)


The basic elements from which refrains assemble are milieus and rhythms. From chaos, ‘Milieus and Rhythms are born’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 313). What is a milieu? Massumi suggests that it is a technical term. It combines all three of the regular meanings in French; ‘”surroundings”, “medium” (as in chemistry), and “middle”‘ (in Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: xvii). It is, like chaos, composed of “middles” which are not units or yet territories in any sense, but ‘dimensions, or rather directions in motion’ (21). The difference is that in the milieu there is a significant shift in organisation – this being a form of cyclic durational organisation. ‘Every milieu is vibratory’, which is to say that a milieu is a direction in motion that forms a ‘block of space-time constituted by the periodic repetition of the component’ (313). This is why Milieus and Rhythms are born from chaos together – ‘Rhythm is the milieus’ answer to chaos’ (313). Think of the waves of the sea crashing on the shore. Rhythm, or what Deleuze and Guattari also call ‘rhythm-chaos or the chaosmos’ occurs between the sea and the shores, or the many other milieus that constantly transcode and transduce each other. This is why a milieu is totally relational – not a thing in itself. Deleuze and Guattari write here of all a living thing’s rhythms as they move over and through each other –

… the living thing has an exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substances, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-perceptions. (313)

All these milieu need to be taken into account in cultural theory (thus the importance of a return to science, although not to scientism – a difficult balancing act for both science and cultural theory). A milieu is ‘coded’, although in the basic sense that code arises as code – that is as ‘periodic repetition’ (this is one way to understand what Guattari means by an asignifying semiotic). Again however because this periodic repetition is neither metrically exact nor static – the codes here are constantly shifting as milieus themselves constantly merge and transform – ‘each code is in a perpetual state of transcoding and transduction [the constant transformation of forces through each other in ongoing differentiation and individuation]’. Waves and shore. Ships and state.

Milieus are not themselves territories. A territory organizes milieus. It is not so much a place for Deleuze andGuattari as an ‘act that affects milieus and rhythms, that “territorializes” them (314). It is worth repeating – territory is an act of territorialization affecting milieus and rhythms. Any territory is made up of – or more correctly acts within/upon a multiplicity of milieu – in the ocean for example, the energy of the sun, the forces of current, the nature of water, osmotic membranes, schools of fish, sand and geological formations, etc, all different milieu – as ‘directions in motion’ overlapping and intersecting. What defines the territory is the very act of definition – or ‘marking’ or ‘indexes’ (314). With territory the ‘directional components’ become ‘dimensional’. In short, the milieu components, which might be the like of ‘materials, organic products, skin or membrane states, energy sources, action-perception condensates’ (315), ‘cease to be functional and become expressive’. The ’emergence of matters of expression (qualities)’ defined the territory. This is therefore an unusual definition of territory – one not to do with place, or even the defence of place, as these already assume a formed territory. Neither is it a question of which functions bring a territory about – for functions ‘presuppose a territory-producing expressiveness’ (315). For Deleuze and Guattari the question is one rather of how territory comes about initially, before it can lend its mark to “places”, or to subsequent aggressions and transgressions. It does so when new matters of expression arise.

There is a kind of double becoming between territory and marking – which is ongoing (a territory is a pacing – it does not stand still). Apart from anything else, this explains that territory is not slow, but can be amazingly quick in ‘this becoming’ (315). In all this, ‘the territory is not primary in relation to the qualitative mark; it is the mark that makes the territory’ (315). The red ship on the horizon becoming-expressive. This is to be found in the emergence of qualities of expression (‘color, odor, sound, silhouette’ [316]) – take a colour and “make it my standard or placard’ (316). This transforms both politics and the analysis of politics (for one thing, this explains why the right’s focus on affective manipulation – via the extremity of work on qualities of expression – the voice of the shock jock on radio, the singing of “When the eagle soars” etc – is so politically effective. It territorializes via seizing hold of milieu – radio waves and other media milieu for one thing – and transforming them into new qualities of expression). It is something very well understood by some of the pioneers of contemporary politics from Edward Bernays to Erwin Piscator. It is perhaps no surprise that Guattari’s political paradigm – even in the moments it accepts science – is ethico-aesthetic (remembering that ‘art is not the privilege of human beings’ [316]).

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  1. Pingback: Andrew Murphie on Deleuze and Guattari’s Milieu | Drops of Experience

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