Deterritorialising Translation Studies

Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Mille Plateaux (1980)2 is by now an influential work, read in diverse fields such as literary theory, architecture, drawing, music and cultural studies. This discussion presents the structural philosophy of A Thousand Plateaus, for which its authors propose the image of the rhizome. This philosophy privileges multiplicity and spatial organisation rather than fixed states, and thus presents translation scholars with a discursive space in which to consider translated texts as active, and connected, on a plane of consistency with other texts and forms of cultural practice.

A Thousand Plateaus takes on Western metaphysics, arguing that, since the time of Plato, our thinking has been governed by the authority of law, specifically, the law of reflection : One becomes two. Or, in terms undoubtedly familiar to translation scholars, from an original a copy is produced : “Le livre imite le monde, comme l’art, la nature” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980 : 11).

Naturally, this form thinking favours hierarchical ranking and linear progression, and quite naturally this thinking is widely represented as arborescent, that is, a tree or root. Deleuze and Guattari argue

L’arbre ou la racine inspirent une triste image de la pensée qui ne cesse d’imiter le multiple à partir d’une unité supérieure, de centre ou de segment. […] Les systèmes arborescents sont des systèmes hiérarchiques qui comportent des centres de signifiance et de subjectivisation. […] Dans un système hiérarchique, un individu n’admet qu’un seul voisin actif, son supérieur hiérarchique. […] Les canaux de transmission sont préétablis : l’arborescence préexiste à l’individu qui s’y intègre à une place précise (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 25-26).

As a model of social order then, arborescent thought (our metaphysics, or “state philosophy”) is hierarchical, Cartesian, teleological and referential. And, the authors stress, it represents “[…] la pensée la plus classique et la plus réfléchie, la plus vieille, la plus fatiguée” (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 11). It informs western scholarship and its various disciplines, from botany to philosophy. Indeed, to enter the field of translation studies is to become familiar with the impact of such thought ; we learn in our history of the relentless dichotomy of writer-as-creator and translator-as-scribe, as well as the myriad instances of describing translation as mere copy, engraving, shadow, etc. of the original.

It is hardly my intention here to deny the basic reality that a source text precedes its translation, chronologically. Rather, I wish to stress that the text derived from the source, a translation, is all too frequently seen as necessarily derivative —in the disapproving sense of that word. Moreover, that this fact is a consequence of the inevitably reductive genealogy of the arborescent model —a metaphysics that is always reducible to the One, the point of origin ; a metaphysics that cannot accommodate, in plain terms, the concept of equal but different.

In response to this arborescent model, Deleuze and Guattari posit a radical revisioning of Western culture, describing it in spatial terms rather than in linear terms ; as well, they prioritise the multiple. To describe this philosophy they use the image of rhizome : a botanical term describing a tuber or a bulb system. They cite other rhizomes from the natural world :

Des animaux même le sont, sous leur forme de meute, les rats sont des rhizomes. Les terriers le sont, sous toutes leurs fonctions d’habitat, de provision, de déplacement, d’esquive et de rupture. Le rhizome en lui-même a des formes très diverses, depuis son extension superficielle jusqu’à ses concrétions en bulbes et tubercules (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 13).

Deleuze and Guattari describe the rhizome as functioning according to 3 main principles : connection and heterogeneity and multiplicity. They write,

Un rhizome ne cesserait de connecter des chaînons sémiotiques, des organisations de pouvoir, des occurrences renvoyant aux arts, aux sciences, aux luttes sociales. Un chaînon sémiotique est comme un tubercule agglomérant des actes très divers, linguistiques, mais aussi perceptifs, mimiques, gestuels, cogitatifs : il n’y a pas de langue en soi, ni d’universalité du langage, mais un concours de dialectes, de patois, d’argots, de langues spéciales. Il n’y a pas de locuteur-auditeur idéal, pas plus que de communauté linguistique homogène (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 14).

In other words, there is no fixed unit from which branches stem, language mutates, copies are derived, etc. There are only multiplicities. “[Elles] se définissent par le dehors : par la ligne abstraite, ligne de fuite ou de déterritorialisation suivant laquelle elles changent de nature en se connectant avec d’autres” (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 15) —to form, not a unit, but a collective assemblage. Deleuze and Guattari provide the following illustration, a useful image from the natural world, of the connection, movement and heterogeneity of a rhizome or collective assemblage :

Comment les mouvements de déterritorialisation et les procès de reterritorialisation ne seraient-ils pas relatifs, perpétuellement en branchement, pris les uns dans les autres ? L’orchidée se déterritorialise en formant une image, un calque de guêpe ; mais la guêpe se reterritorialise sur cette image. La guêpe se déterritorialise pourtant, devenant elle-même une pièce dans l’appareil de reproduction de l’orchidée ; mais elle reterritorialise l’orchidée, en transportant le pollen. La guêpe et l’orchidée font rhizome, en tant qu’hétérogènes. On pourrait dire que l’orchidée imite la guêpe dont elle reproduit l’image de manière signifiante (mimesis, mimétisme, leurre, etc.). En même temps il s’agit de tout autre chose : plus du tout de l’imitation, mais capture de code, plus-value de code, augmentation de valence, véritable devenir, devenir-guêpe de l’orchidée, devenir-orchidée de la guêpe, chacun de ces devenirs assurant la déterritorialisation d’un des termes et la reterritorialisation de l’autre, les deux devenirs s’enchaînant et se relayant suivant une circulation d’intensités qui pousse la déterritorialisation toujours plus loin. Il n’y a pas imitation ni ressemblance, mais explosion de deux séries hétérogènes dans la ligne de fuite composée d’un rhizome commun qui ne peut être attribué, ni soumis à quoi que ce soit de signifiant (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 17).

Imagine ! Deleuze and Guattari present us, in this example, with a vocabulary which can accommodate interrelationships, not based on imitation, resemblance, or derivation, but rather a capture of codes, an increase in valence, such that the becomings of the agents involved (in this case a wasp and an orchid… but why not a text and its translation ?) form “two heterogeneous series (for both actors are themselves, multiple) on the line of flight…”. The notion of valence should not go unnoted : in chemistry, it is the property possessed by an element, of combining with or replacing other elements, from the Latin valens : to be well, be strong ; thus the agent, or the text, is strengthened in its multiple becomings3. Indeed, this belief is held by several important writers : Suzanne Jill Levine reminds us that “James Joyce calls his originals ‘works in progress,’ which he continued to complete in the next stage, translation” (Levine 1989 : 32). Jorge Luis Borges also supports the concept of a text’s inherent multiplicity when he asks,

Are not the many versions of theIlliad…merely different perspectives on a mutable fact, a long experimental game of chance played with omissions and emphases ? […] To assume that every recombination of elements [i.e. the translation] is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H —for there can only be drafts. The concept of “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion (Borges 2000 : 69).

Thus, Deleuze and Guattari’s prioritisation of the multiple is consistent with current discussions of the text as an evolving and multiple entity.

The implications of this philosophy are many for translation studies, a discipline that, like any other in the west, has hardly escaped domination of the arborescent model. To name but a few of the oppositions systematically considered : faithful/unfaithful, original/secondary, source/target, word/meaning —and more recently, minor/major, dominant/dominated… the list goes on. The two dominant models in our field, the Polysystems theory and Venuti’s Foreignizing model, are each dependent on the binary oppositions the rhizome model disrupts.

Thus, Even-Zohar writes in his 1978 “Polysystem Hypothesis Revisited,”

one need only assume the center-periphery relation in order to be able to reconciliate heterogeneity with functionality. Thus the notion of hierarchy, of strate, is not only unavoidable but useful as well (cited in Gentzler 1993 : 120).

Clearly early Polysystem theory replicates the arborescent model and its hierarchical values. Gideon Toury’s advancement of the Polysystem theory is dependent on the distinction between Source and Target cultures, though he rejects static, source-oriented translation theories. Nevertheless, “Toury posits a Target Text theory for translation, [the eventual goal of which] is to establish a hierarchy of interrelated factors (constraints) which determine (govern) the translation product” (Gentzler 1993 : 130). The later Polysystems theory, even where it aspires to considering “external” factors influencing the translation, does little to disrupt the underlying arborescent hierarchical structure that starts with an original text and moves towards its off-shoots, the translated texts.

Similarly, Venuti’s focus on Foreignisation of the text, and his significant achievement in bringing to Translation Studies issues of globalization, economy and post-colonial dynamics nevertheless reposes on the fundamental binary oppositions of major and minor cultures. In his introduction to a special issue of The Translator, “Translation and Minority” (1998 : 2) he applies terms from A Thousand Plateaus (collective assemblages, deterritorialisation, lines of flight) to substantiate his argument, while neglecting the larger philosophical position. In fact, Venuti appropriates Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of “minor literature” — characterised by three features : ‘the deterritorialisation of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation’— in order to discuss

translation in a minor culture, where [these features] take on historically specific manifestations, always shaped and transformed by the contending forces in any cultural situation… A language [he argues], at any historical moment, is a specific conjecture of a major form holding sway over minor variables (1998 : 136).

While Venuti’s definition of translation in a minor culture incorporates the rhizomatous notion of multiple connections, relating the translation to historical and political forces that work upon it, he nevertheless insists on the binary opposition of major/minor. He defines minority as a subordinate cultural or political position (1998 : 135), and uses the term “deterritorialisation” quite literally intending it as re-placement, a movement from major to minor. Conversely, Deleuze and Guattari argue that deterritorialisation is co-existant with reterritorialisation, and are thus contra Venuti’s uni-directional movement, which seeks to underline the difference between major and minor in order to emphasise power relations. Instead, they underline the becoming of the implicated heterogeneous lines.

One area in which this model is beginning to be seriously considered is postcolonial studies. In the essay The Rhizome of PostColonial Discourse, his analysis of contemporary literary discourse, Bill Ashcroft argues for the use of the rhizome model as a means of critically examining the imperialist operations central to English literary study. Unfortunately, limitations of space prevent a full discussion of his project. Suffice it to cite here his argument for the use value of this model. Ashcroft writes,

the image of the rhizome is sufficient in itself to provide a very different concept of social reality than the centre/margin binarism which imperialism constructs…. The reason we do not normally think of power operating in [a rhizomatic] way is that structures of power characterize themselves in terms of unities, hierarchies, binaries and centres. But it is clear that power doesn’t operate in a simple vertical way from the institutions in which it appears to be constituted, it operates dynamically, laterally and intermittently (Ashcroft 1999 : 116).


To return then to the specific problem of translation, and to the question I raised earlier, what would happen if one were to substitute the translation for the wasp ? or the orchid ? Deleuze and Guattari stress,

À l’opposé de l’arbre, le rhizome n’est pas objet de reproduction : ni reproduction externe, comme l’arbre-image, ni reproduction interne comme la structure-arbre. Le rhizome est une anti-généalogie […] Le rhizome procède par variation, expansion, conquête, capture, piqûre (Deleuze and Guattari 1980 : 32).

Such an interpretation represents a striking departure from the traditional top-down approach of translation analysis. As exemplified by the illustration of wasp and orchid, the rhizome model allows for a dynamic co-existence of several heterogeneous texts co existing as part of a single rhizome. These becoming-texts disrupt the usual hierarchical predicament, in which one starts with an “original” text and examines it’s various (secondary) re-productions according to one of the dominant translation studies models mentioned earlier. The antigenealogy approach is significant : rather than focus on origin and movement away from origin, the rhizome approach seeks to consider interrelations, establish connections among variables that are themselves constantly variable. No text, translated or otherwise, would have a fixed status in a predetermined hierarchy in such an analysis. Again, the focus of such an approach is the process of becoming : recall the emphasis placed by Joyce and Borges on the progressive nature of all texts.

In my own research, the rhizome model presents a discursive space for bringing visual practice into the translation forum, and here I am specifically interested in the intermedia practices of visual artists whose work speaks in more than one tongue. The term intermedia is already widely used in the arts to describe hybrid practices that defy traditional disciplinary boundaries. In many ways, intermedia became the norm in the twentieth century : we are now accustomed to poets who appropriate plastic strategies (e.g. John Ashbery’s collection The Tennis Court Oath4); painters who make moving images (e.g. Michael Snow5) ; the integration of moving images into dance performance (e.g. Montreal’s LaLaLa Human Steps6). These artists push the limits afforded by their discipline, recalling Marilyn Gaddis Rose’s concept of the interliminal in translation, the study of which can enlighten our reading of the borders or thresholds of the text. However, I am concerned with reading beyond the liminal ; I argue that intermedia translation is a kind of Deleuzian multiplicity.

Intermedia translation can be thus characterised according to the three principles of connection, heterogeneity and multiplicity : it is a practice in which two or more “languages” or codes are engaged. The presence of multiple media creates a dynamic deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of the work’s component practices Intermedia translation multiplies the discourse of the component fields in a such a way that each gains increased agency through the appropriation of the other, in an endless network of associations and pluralisations.

As an example of such a practice and as a means not of closure, but rather, flight, I would like to recall an installation by Jean-Pierre Gauthier which was featured in the fall of 2002, in the contemporary project room at Montreal’s Musée des BeauxArts.

The room contained a rigging of suspended metal tubing, connected by springs, reposing on mirrors. Sensors ran through the tubing and transmitted information, which was broadcast through speakers. One walked into, through around and over the piece. Échotriste (SorrowfulEcho), as it was called, was described by curator Stéphane Aquin in terms echoing Deleuze and Guattari’s concerns :

the work is composed of a rootlike network of springs and mirrors, whose encounter, [is as] fortuitous as that of an umbrella and a sewing machine…Everything about this work, which is equally musical and architectural, contributes to the desired effect, creating a world of sound which we enter as if it were a haunted forest. Closer to poetry than to bricolage, this work suggests the enigmatic fable of a reality melancholically suspended between two orders of reflection, those of mirrors and echoes. (Curator’s text, SorrowfulEcho, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, June 6-September 22, 2002 ; emphasis added.)

In this installation, the movements of visitors activated a mechanism attached to the springs, which began to vibrate, causing the mirrors to revolve slowly. The haunting sound of the springs vibrating, scraping the mirrored surface, and resonating through the tubes were then magnified and transmitted through speakers. Thus the symphony was ever-evolving, a constant becoming-symphony, as it were. The heterogeneous material, sonic and spatial elements of the piece, created a symphony in complicity with participants’ physical response to them, or as they were deterritorialised and reterritorialised by them. (By extension, these elements direct simply prolific, our attention to sound and movement in a piece in a museum “traditionally reserved for visual contemplation”.)

SorrowfulEcho beautifully and resonantly illustrates possibilities afforded by the rhizome model : its motion is triggered by a reader whose very vibrations provoke activity in one area or another of this complex multiplicity ; though all parts are connected they variously emerge as active according to chance, to the reader’s attentions, to reflections. Indeed the notions of reflection and echo, necessarily stigmatised in arborescent thinking, here take on an active role as the very architecture and music of the piece itself : the becoming-symphony of a moment and its echo.

Is not translation as much ?

  1. 1A version of this text was first presented in the context of the 2003 Concordia University Graduate Student conference Odyssée de la traductologie.
  2. 2Available in English as A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism And Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi, trans., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  3. 3I should like to expand briefly on two important terms, the translation of which into English may inform our understanding. Firstly, lines of flight, or lignes de fuite, as Massumi explains, this term suggests “not only the act of fleeing or eluding, but also flowing, leaking, and disappearing into the distance (as in the vanishing point in drawing)” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 : xvi). One understands then that in a rhizome, movement is immanent and rupture constant. Secondly, agencement collectif, or collective assemblage. In his application of the term, David Kropf prefers the translation “adjustment”. He argues that an adjustment is a process : a multiplicity of things are adjusted and brought into alignment ; it is a result —as in having adjusted ; and it connotes instability “there is always the chance things will go out of whack” (1994 : 5). I call attention to Kropf’s translation as it underlines the instability and state of becoming of the multiplicity.
  4. 4For a discussion of this project, see David L. Sweet, “Plastic Language : John Ashbery’s Europe,” Word and Image, vol. 18, no. 2, April-June 2002.
  5. 5In her course description for Modern Art in Canada : The Work of Michael Snow (ARTH 617A) at McGill University (2002-2003), Professor Martha Langford writes : “The work of Michael Snow spans over forty years of intense production, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, books, musical recordings, performances, assemblages, slide projections, sound, holography, and essays…More than Snow addresses the differences between media, in terms of their nature and spectatorial response. As he has said, ‘my paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a painter, music by a filmmaker, paintings by a sculptor, sculpture by a filmmaker, films by a musician, music by a sculptor … sometimes they all work together.’”
  6. 6Choreographer Édouard Lock is known for his experimental, hybrid language. In Infante, cest destroy (premiered 1991), Lock began film incorporating in his work. He explains, “The film…acts as a destabilizer filter between the public and the dancer, it varies their relationship, destabilizes it”. Likewise, in 2 (1995), a cinema-scale screen is lowered on to the stage during a solo performance of his powerful lead dancer Louise Lecavalier ; a film is projected showing a diptych of her as a young woman and an old woman, thereby creating provocative multiplicity of this legendary figure. See