Nov 282012

Félix Guattari and Suely Rolnik, Molecular Revolution in Brazil. Trans. Karel Clapshow and Brian Holmes. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008; 496 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58435-051-4.

Review by Matthew R. McLennan, University of Ottawa and Carleton University

Guattari and Rolnik’s 1986 collection of texts, interviews, and transcripts, recently available for the first time in English translation from Semiotext(e), presents a comprehensive look into the comparatively rare phenomenon of a philosopher in the field, gathering information and commenting in real time on unprecedented social upheavals. Far from being a quaint, exoticizing travelogue, and quite unlike Michel Foucault’s more controversial and politically problematic flirtation with the Iranian Revolution, Molecular Revolution in Brazil finds Guattari testing and retesting his concepts in more or less fertile, receptive ground, via situations of collective political discussion and engagement. The context of his 1982 trip to Brazil was the erosion of the dictatorship, the first multiparty parliamentary elections in decades, and the popular ascendency of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (note also that parallel events in Poland are constantly in the background). Brazilian psychoanalyst and cultural critic Rolnik constructed the book from a mass of source material gathered from the trip, and although essentially a Guattari text, there is much in it which could be said to have been the product of two or even multiple voices. In fact, since Rolnik paints the Brazil of the 1980s as a land already quite hospitable to Spinozist, Nietzschean, and vitalist currents of French theory, one gets the distinct impression that a vast assemblage of the Brazilian machinic unconscious is resonating with, or at times even speaking through, the nominal authors. Far from alienating, the overall effect is quite in keeping with Guattari’s usual authorial self-effacement.

Guattari’s Brazilian journey has obviously sustained the interest of many Brazilians; the original Portuguese version went to seven editions before finally appearing in French in 2007, and then in English (Semiotext(e)’s translation) in 2008. The moment has certainly come for an English edition, given Guattari’s increasing popularity as a philosopher in his own right (i.e. subtracted from Deleuze), as well as the considerable topical interest one would expect from an admittedly dated philosophical encounter in a growing world superpower; nonetheless, Molecular Revolution in Brazil has provoked little commentary in the English speaking world. Why is this? At least two possibilities come to mind.

First, even by Guattari’s standards—see on this score the recent Semiotext(e) editions of The Machinic Unconscious, The Anti-Oedipus Papers, Chaosophy and Soft Subversions—Molecular Revolution in Brazil is a dense and imposing volume. There is a mass of material to pick through and unfortunately much repetition (witness on this score the recurrent and ultimately redundant discussions of the subversive potential of pirate radio). This being a readerly rather than a philosophical strike against the text, however, we can afford to leave it by the wayside. Second, and more substantially, there is the pertinent question of what Molecular Revolution adds by way of conceptual clarification or novel perspective to Guattari’s corpus. Would-be readers might pass it over on account of its “occasional” nature, its strange authorship (“is it really Guattari’s book?”) and the impression that it comprises mere sketches of ideas more fully worked out in later texts.

This I believe would be a mistake. Molecular Revolution should be required reading regarding Guattari for the very reason that his philosophy is best approached as a dynamic, living, and provisional system. Seeing him smooth out certain concepts, or test them in the field, is both rewarding and, in a certain respect, speaks to the very point of his body of work. For Guattari, concepts are only as good as the uses to which they can be put; for this reason, insofar as he is able to shed any light on the situation in Brazil, or have it shed light on his own theoretical practice, Molecular Revolution should be standard reading alongside Capitalism and Schizophrenia and other major theoretical statements (much as—if you will forgive something of a strained analogy—Marx’s Civil War in France and Eighteenth Brumaire should be read alongside Capital). Apart from incisive insertions of Brazil (and Poland) into Guattari’s discourse on Integrated World Capitalism, we find penetrating discussions on a whole host of topics such as Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores and political mass movements, the reactionary potential of the concept of culture, various becomings-minor (one of the few male philosophers of the era, I reckon, to engage in political meetings with lesbian feminist groups), pirate radio, Kafka, mental illness, and, most significantly to my mind from a theoretical vantage point, Freud, Lacan and the history and legacy of analysis. I would venture to state that some of Guattari’s discussions on the latter topics here are among the clearest to be found anywhere in his corpus. In sum we find what Rolnik deems in her preface “a slow-motion picture of his thought at work,” replete with many familiar as well as many new themes that warrant, to my thinking, more than casual consideration. (13)

Though my comments above about the text’s unruly length would suggest certain editorial failings on Rolnik’s part, this is certainly not the full story. Her appendix, “Notes about Certain Concepts,” is a welcome addition; it should certainly help more novice readers to enter into the discussions, but also no doubt interest more seasoned and hermeneutically-minded readers of Guattari for the reason that the definitions in question were hammered out between he and Rolnik in the course of a lengthy correspondence. Moreover, a case could be made that the seeming unruliness of the text and the mass of content is simply a more or less faithful formal reflection of Guattari’s process. In this case, there would be little to begrudge a text to which, nearly three decades after the fact, the Anglophone world finally and happily has access.