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Journal of Theoretical Humanities
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Showing vital signs
Hélène Frichot Online Publication Date: 01 April 2006 To cite this Article: Frichot, Hélène (2006) 'Showing vital signs', Angelaki, 11:1, 109 116 To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/09697250600797971 URL:

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journal of the theoretical humanities volume 11 number 1 april 2006

n their last collaborative work, What is ´ Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari tell us that philosophy is ‘‘the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.’’1 Through this process the details of what we can identify as a creative philosophy begin to unfold as an activity of constructivism, or the simple act of making something.2 Creative philosophy invents concepts that are constructed out of the morsels of other concepts, such that, once surveyed, a collaged conceptual assemblage reveals an intricate history of emerging thought. Moreover, and this is something upon which Deleuze and Guattari insist, concepts refer to contemporary problems without which they would wander aimlessly. As well as answering to contingent problems, concept creation is preferably a matter of use and not necessarily one of meaning.3 The context for concept creation is what Deleuze and Guattari have named the plane of immanence, and so philosophical constructivism has two ‘‘qualitatively different complementary aspects: the creation of concepts and the laying out of a plane.’’4 This undulating and interleaved plane, or plan, also described as a slice, even a sieve, is articulated by a crucial concern, the question of a life. Deleuze approaches this question in his late essay ‘‘Immanence: A Life . . .’’, and makes a point of emphasising the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental, and the determination of singularities, neither general nor particular, that compose a life.5 Virtualities, events, singularities, constitute a vitalism that is exposed by an immanent life surveying a plane of immanence. As we discover in the closing chapter of What is Philosophy?, the busy activity of concept construction is attended by silent contemplations and the contractions


helene frichot ¤ ' SHOWING VITAL SIGNS The work of gilles deleuze ¤ and felix guattari’s creative philosophy in architecture
of sensation that tell us something of the pure power of a life. Since the early 1990s, if not earlier, this vitalism has been registered through a collection of vital signs reconfigured from Deleuze and Guattari’s creative philosophy into the discipline of architecture. Architects – who never stop talking about what they are doing, or trying to do, who explore terrains by means of dynamic trajectories, all the while drawing up maps and diagrams of their industry – have begun to investigate questions concerning the ongoing upsurge of life, duration, sensation, and the animate. In order to grapple with generative means of form making, determined by novel design processes, architects have turned to digital

ISSN 0969-725X print/ISSN1469-2899 online/06/010109^ 8 ß 2006 Taylor & Francis Group DOI: 10.1080/09697250600797971


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tools and algorithmic, rule-based procedures; in particular, architects have undertaken an investigation of the conjunction of the computational realm and the morphogenetic research of biological science. Paradoxically, the risk of such exploration involves the possible evacuation or reification of those elusive and fragile qualities of a life toward which Deleuze has directed our attention. An exploration of these questions and tensions will be the focus of this essay as a way to understand how the practice of creative philosophy intersects with contemporary architectural practice, thought and discourse. The contemporary milieu in which the discipline of architecture searches for problems so as to construct concepts that might inspire form generation has been denominated a digital, and even a post-digital era. Mark Burry suggests that it is a post-digital era we inhabit in that we have succeeded our initial wonder or horror in digital media. The design practitioner, in particular, has accommodated the computer into her everyday creative and practical practice. Most design practitioners are now fully aware that a form that once might have taken months to conceive and model can be ‘‘resolved digitally in minutes.’’6 Accordingly, so-called digital tools are in widespread use. There exists a curious discursive trajectory that has allowed architects to talk about, and even legitimise, their digital processes and resultant smooth, seamless forms in a philosophical manner. In the 1980s, when architectural theory, appropriated for the most part from a Continental philosophical tradition, held great currency, an associated machinery of canonisation occurred through conferences, exhibitions and journal publications. If one were to glance back through the archive one would discover structuralist or semiologically informed architecture, deconstructivist-inspired architecture, and folded architecture, after the motif of the fold discovered by curious architects in Deleuze’s book The Fold: Leibniz and The Baroque. In the field of architecture, the rapidity with which ideas have been territorialised, canonised, and subsequently demoted to the status of outmoded, is truly vertiginous. In contradistinction to its apparent material gravity, and the time-consuming activity of building,

architectural thought has proved itself quite a chimera, ever in search of the new and fantastic.7 Digital media and techniques have proved particularly promising as they explicitly participate in the ‘‘virtual’’ construction of fleeting and transitory ephemera. More recently an interest in the cost-effective and rapid manufacture of nonstandard architectural components, direct from a digital interface, has been aroused, as well as a great fascination in genetic models taken from the so-called natural world. Though the act of appropriating models from biology does not constitute a new phenomenon in the design disciplines, now that these models can be united with digital techniques a whole new world of architectural form generation emerges. The digital, translated in a straightforward manner, is composed of nothing but noughts and ones in countless permutations; the digital is the universe atomised numerically and electronically for our convenience. The digital, as Brian Massumi suggests, ‘‘is electronic nothingness, pure systemic possibility’’8 and should always be thought distinctly from Deleuze’s concepts of the virtual and the actual. What’s more, the analogical effects that are wrought from the digital are radically and qualitatively different in kind from the systematic code that composes the digital. What, one might ask, has this to do with Deleuze and Guattari’s creative philosophy and, in particular, Deleuze’s reflections on a life? Much of the architectural discourse which developed alongside a growing wonder in digital processes toward modes of form generation sought to liberate architecture from its formerly static and rigidly defined structures. That is, there emerged a desire to animate architecture and to give it a life of its own, not exactly to make it move but to create the effect, like effects of light, of movement. The architect-cum-theorist Greg Lynn suggests that more than mere motion, animation ‘‘implies the evolution of a form and its shaping forces; it suggests animalism, animism, growth, actuation, vitality and virtuality.’’9 An aesthetic developed, made possible by an expanding repertoire of digital tools, and, unsurprisingly, another addition to the canon, affectionately termed blobitecture. Rather than the historically determined polarisation between

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structure and ornament, architects wanted to return to the surface all that was either too deep or too far overhead. Deleuze’s immaculate conceptual assemblage figuring the fold transformed into a hypersurface, which, in turn, discovered a surface consciousness that owned an amorphous appearance.10 To animate an architecture of the surface, of fold upon fold (apt to be considered interchangeably with the largest organ of all, the skin), an artillery of terms and concepts was required. My contention here is that somewhere near the silent centre of this constellation the question of a life persists unheeded. Much of the conceptual groundwork requisitioned toward the invention of the digitalised, architectural surface can be seen to owe a great deal to Deleuze and Guattari’s work, despite the fact that this nominal conjunction is cited with decreasing frequency in the ever-shifting architectural canon. Deleuze’s work on the fold is exemplary in this instance. Not only did it provoke a renewed interest in the Baroque, in terms of a return to surface ornamentation, but the concept of the fold opened up an entire Pandora’s box of related concepts. The fold allowed architects to reconsider the relationship between material and immaterial domains, interior and exterior conditions, the role of the event (or what the American architect Peter Eisenman subsequently christened ‘‘eventalised architecture’’11), the interchange between the virtual and the actual, and, in turn, the question of duration, after Deleuze’s study of the work of Henri Bergson. An interest in temporal modulation led to what sounds very much like an early twentieth-century futurist manifesto, whereby Lynn suggests ‘‘rather than designing for permanence, techniques for obsolescence, dismantling, ruination, recycling and abandonment through time warrant exploration.’’12 At the same time as becoming managed more exclusively by digital media, the building takes on a life apt to decay; the architectural form begins to approximate a biological organism, and the bare life of architecture is exposed in preparation for its instrumental management. Toward the animation of the architectural form, Deleuze and Guattari’s compelling

conceptual landscapes illustrated in What is Philosophy?, populated by concepts arranged like dry stone walls, or connected by little bridges, articulated by planes of immanence and composition all seem to promise marvellous surfaces that await renovation. For the architect, the plane of immanence becomes a topological field fruitfully prone to self-deformation and thus the eruption of the architectural form. Topology is what Massumi has named ‘‘the science of selfvarying deformation’’;13 the form becomes animated across a shared field that operates much like the plane of immanence in that forms, like concepts, require a milieu of infinite possibilities to support them. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, ‘‘the plane is the breath that suffuses the separate parts.’’14 There is nothing inherently wrong with the activity of claiming certain of these features toward application in another discipline, for instance, architecture. Creative acts of appropriation and even misappropriation can be celebrated. ´ As Felix Guattari, self-confessed Idea-Thief has proclaimed, ‘‘instrumental word-tools are capable of opening up new sets of questions, of carrying them along and articulating various fields.’’15 Likewise, theory, according to Deleuze in a recorded conversation with Michel Foucault, ‘‘is exactly like a box of tools . . . It must be useful . . . we don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others.’’16 Though, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, we can only create the new out of what is already given, and the givenness of the given relies on difference, translated into architecture as deformation. As Massumi argues, ‘‘approached topologically, the architect’s raw material is no longer form but deformation.’’17 The conception of architecture as static form is challenged and instead given a live load. The vital signs I wish to address with this paper turn about an increasing interest that architectural theorists and practitioners have begun to show in models taken from biological science, specifically, models that account for the emergence and differential evolution of life forms in complex interactions with environments. This charted life force has been directly taken up through the matrix of a new interest in biological, chemical and mathematical models, which segue

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neatly with algorithmic models for computational environments, which, in turn, facilitate the invention of new digital techniques for architectural design. We are told that ‘‘complex adaptive systems,’’18 where the whole remains irreducible to its constituent parts, can be observed not only in nature, and within our very own bodies, but also in the Internet and the global economy. A divide between natural and manufactured systems comes to be blurred, and the processes of architectural design and its products can likewise enter the fray. The sentiment of emergence is everywhere, and all pervasive. An apparent shift in the disciplinary source of concepts from philosophy and the humanities to science would appear to have taken place, but the capriciousness of thought, and especially architectural thought, tends to be more complex than that. Vital signs constitute those indicators that account for life and its continuing functioning, the beating of the heart, the regularity of the breath. Within recent architectural discourse one term in particular has arisen to encapsulate what is perceived to be the force and organisation of life, emergence.19 Emergence as a new concept reconfigured for the use of architects was canonised in May 2004, in an edition of the architectural journal Architectural Design. According to its champions, the concept of emergence is both abstract and productive, drawing together the so-called natural world and computational models.20 Emergence is as much concerned with processes as end products, especially as end products are seen merely as departure points for further processes in ever concatenating networks across micro and macro scales, ‘‘an emergent whole at one level becoming a component of a system emerging at a higher level.’’21 As Brian Massumi argued some years earlier, seemingly pre-empting the trajectory of the Emergence and Design Group, ‘‘the building would not be considered an end form so much as a beginning of a new process.’’22 Emergence is about self-organising systems, exemplified in the behaviour of swarms of bees, flocks of birds, colonies of ants, in addition to evolutionary processes and their varying formal and differential iterations. Emergence operates through a morphogenetics as it maps and models the

processes of form generation. And morphogenesis facilitates ‘‘the creation of forms that evolve in space and over time.’’23 By displacing this analysis into the discipline of architecture, new techniques for the creation of novel forms can be, and are, proposed. The form, let us say the architectural built form, is identified as owning a life span. Much like a biological organism, architecture is animated, it is given the breath of life, becoming in the process deformed. Despite all this talk of amorphic deformation the paradoxical task that nevertheless remains for the designer is that of finding a form, or, as Massumi has argued, of flushing a form out of a seemingly infinite plethora of possibilities.24 With respect to emergence, the general tendency is toward adapting models from natural structures toward an architectural incarnation. The oftrepeated argument proclaims that architecture is now freed from its orthogonal, static, ‘‘signature building’’ legacy,25 and that the architectural form should no longer be considered an autonomous modernist box standing resolute upon an historical and cultural tabula rasa. Instead, architecture must operate in the midst of complex socio-cultural, economic, material, and ecological systems. While the architectural form is seen to become interdependent, to the point of becoming-imperceptible from its context or environment, proponents warn that it is not just a matter of making architecture look like something drawn from nature. Also, if it is now a matter of the design process having precedence over substance, a proposition drawn from the work of the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, then the material existence of architecture must be radically rethought, as must the role of the designer and her various collaborators. It follows that it is no longer simply a question of form but the interrelationships, or the relations between form, behaviour and environment. No one component takes precedence over another. Through feedback loops, interactions, and an ongoing upsurge of novelty, a frenetic dynamism is maintained that ever deforms form. Design is required to address the dynamic relations between form, behaviour, environment, rather than merely identifying what attributes typify the substantial form itself. Such are the

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contentions forwarded by the Emergence and Design Group. Deleuze and Guattari tell us that creative philosophy proceeds through serial crises, as a groping experimentation, much like the uncoordinated leaps of a dog. It is this variety of experimentation that the architect wants to emulate. Manuel DeLanda, well known for his conceptual translations of the more complex calculus at work in Deleuze’s The Fold, suggests that the use of genetic algorithms for architectural design is only of use if there erupts surprising and even shocking results. The foreseeable, for the designer, is quite useless.26 DeLanda argues that, given the current trajectory of digital architecture, the tasks left to the designer will be associated merely with the selection of a form based on ‘‘aesthetic fitness.’’27 Here DeLanda is explicitly using terminology appropriated from evolutionary science. By employing genetic algorithmic models toward architectural explorations, the generated form will tend to be different from that which is expected, especially if it is required to respond to contingent circumstances, unpredictable environments, and the changing profiles of populations over time, that is, if it is embedded in a matrix of outside or environmental forces. Not only will shocks and surprises manifest themselves through the form, but this is exactly what the contemporary designer should be prospecting for. DeLanda’s argument is also of interest here in that it explicitly claims that many of the ideas at work in the digital appropriation of genetic algorithms, taken from biological research and mathematics, can be traced back to Deleuze’s conceptual assemblage.28 For the most part the appropriation of genetic algorithmic models is engaged for the express purpose of creating unexpected formal results. The architectural avant-garde appears to remain as fascinated with the shock of the new as their forebears, the surrealists constructing their makeshift cadavres exquis. The cadavre exquis, which is based on a child’s game, allows a group of participants to generate an unexpected image incrementally by passing a sheet of paper around that is folded after each participant has completed their

graphic addition. It is a little like what Massumi would name a paper analogue computer.29 What, we might ask, is this persistent fascination in the exquisite corpse that results from both collaboration and the incremental acephalous development of a collaged assemblage? Is the life that is supposed to infuse digital architecture merely maintained by artificial means like a carefully preserved corpse? In terms of a collage-like assemblage, Deleuze and Guattari’s creation of concepts is directed toward the consideration of problems not in isolation but through a combinatory athletics conducted at the juncture of problems. Concept creation, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, is ‘‘selfpositing . . . from the living being to the work of art,’’30 or perhaps to the work of architecture. Certainly, architecture has undertaken a quest for autopoiesis that has a distinctly avant-garde genealogy.31 We also see how the influence of Deleuze and Guattari’s creative enterprise, which encompasses a field that transverses the organic and the inorganic, the material and the immaterial, the physical and the metaphysical, offers a means of legitimation for a mode of architectural activity that likewise seeks to be experimental. Nevertheless, each discipline, Deleuze and Guattari insist, has problems proper to its own domain. In an age of interdisciplinarity, Deleuze and Guattari present an apparently strict demarcation between the roles allotted the disciplines. For instance, where there exists an ‘‘exclusive bond between concepts and philosophy . . .’’ science instead operates by way of functions and propositions, ‘‘has no need of the concept and concerns itself only with states of affairs and their conditions.’’32 What’s more, science and philosophy have quite different attitudes to chaos. Chaos, which is not to be mistaken with absolute disorder, describes the realm of the virtual, containing ‘‘all possible particles and drawing out all possible forms, which spring up only to disappear immediately . . .’’33 Where philosophy and its plane of immanence maintains an infinite speed, creating consistency by way of conceptual assemblages, science slows down speeds in order to actualise the virtual by way of the function registered on a plane of reference. Science limits,

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frames or imposes borders on chaos. All the same, this is not to deny any of the disciplines a truly creative impulse. But that which unites the disciplines is chaos, and ‘‘Chaos is the infinite speed of birth and disappearance.’’34 Chaos: a life . . . But, finally, has a life within the folds become obfuscated with the explanatory models architecture borrows from the sciences, which slow down the chaos that animates Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence? Or is it exactly the task of architecture to frame the world and slow it down to enable our practices of inhabitation? A final gesture or question that I wish to propose with this paper is the question of a life as an active, creative practice, and how this ethos might be invested in what has come to be called digital architecture. When Deleuze approaches the question of a life he seems to pause at the brink of this investigation, unable to exactly locate its inner impetus, cautious of venturing any resolute claim. The task of imagining an ethics for architecture, or what Deleuze describes as ‘‘a typology of immanent modes of existence,’’35 animated by the question of a life, would prove equally if not more difficult, especially in a disciplinary arena so enamoured of the slippery, consumable image. When he addresses the difficult, elusive question of a life, Deleuze ventures that ‘‘a life contains only virtuals. It is made up of virtualities, events, singularities. What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality but something that is engaged in a process of actualisation.’’36 Whatever its form, or technique of generation, whether it borrows from biological science or philosophy, architecture is that which is perpetually involved in processes of actualisation. Surely the task for the architect is in recognising how the play of life intermingled with its forms is either restrained or enabled. In seeking to qualify itself through the inner workings of life as conceived through the sciences, architecture, specifically digital architecture, must recognise that it also unavoidably partakes in so many hidden and revealed machinations of power. The adaptation of the concept of emergence for the contemporary field of architecture would appear to promise so much, and would also appear to

partake in the practice of creative constructivism described by Deleuze and Guattari. An ethos of creativity must also allow for the slow time of contemplation, and in the case of architecture the daily rhythms of inhabitation appreciated not in an instrumental fashion but as mundane and simple life.

1 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What ¤ is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson (London and New York: Verso, 1994) 2. 2 ‘‘Constructivism requires every creation to be a construction on a plane that gives it an autonomous existence. To create concepts is, at the very least, to make something. This alters the question of philosophy’s use or usefulness, or even of its harmfulness (to whom is it harmful?)’’ (Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 7). 3 ‘‘We always come back to the question of the use of this activity of creating concepts’’; ‘‘all concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understood as their solution emerges’’; ‘‘A concept requires not only a problem through which it recasts or replaces earlier concepts but a juncture of problems where it combines with other coexisting concepts’’ (Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 8,16,18). 4 Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 36. 5 Deleuze, ‘‘Immanence: A Life’’ in Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New Y ork: Zone, 2001) 28. 6 Mark Burry, ‘‘Bridging the Digital Divide’’ in Digital Architecture, guest ed. Andrew Benjamin, Architectural Review Australia 90 (2004) 65. 7 See Mark Jarzombek’s discussion concerning what he identifies as an age-old distinction between two prevalent attitudes of thought, one sphinx-like and fixed to tradition, the other, like a Chimera, flighty and perpetually in search of the new. Mark Jarzombek, ‘‘Ready-Made Traces in the Sand: The Sphinx, the Chimera, and Other Discontents in the Practice of Theory,’Assemblage ’ no.19 (Dec.1992): 72^95.

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8 Brian Massumi, ‘‘Line Parable for the Virtual (On the Superiority of the Analog)’’ in The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, ed. John Beckman (New Y ork: Princeton Architectural P,1998) 309. 9 Greg Lynn, Animate Form (New Y ork: Princeton Architectural P,1999) 9. 10 I refer here to a selection of issues of the journal Architectural Design, which can be seen both to track and canonise a theoretical drift in architecture from Deleuze’s concept of the fold through to the idea of emergence, a conceptual series that can seen to be increasingly animated by digital tools. Greg Lynn (ed.), AD: Folding in Architecture, profile no. 103 (1993); Stephen Perrella (ed.), AD: Hypersurface Architecture, profile no. 133, 68.5/6 (May/June 1998); Mark Taylor (ed.), AD: Surface Consciousness 73.2 (Mar./Apr. 2003); Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock (guest eds.), AD: Emergence: Morphogenetic Design Strategies 74.3 (May 2004). 11 Peter Eisenman, ‘‘Alteka Office Building,’ Greg ’ Lynn, ed., AD: Folding in Architecture, profile no. 103 (1993) 28. 12 Lynn, Animate Form 13. 13 Massumi,‘‘Line Parable for the Virtual’’ 306. 14 Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 36. 15 Felix Guattari, ‘‘I Am an Idea-Thief’’ in ¤ Chaosophy, ed. Sylvere Lotringer (New Y ork: ' Semiotext(e),1995) 37 . 16 Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, ‘‘Intellectuals and Power’’ in Language, CounterMemory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by , Michel Foucault, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP,1977) 208. 17 Brian Massumi, ‘‘Sensing the Virtual, Building the Sensible,’ Stephen Perrella (ed.), ’ AD: Hypersurface Architecture 68.5/6 (May/June 1998) 16. 18 John Holland, Emergence from Chaos to Order (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998). Quoted in Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock (Emergence and Design Group) (eds.), AD: Emergence 74.3 (May 2004) 8. It could be argued that Massumi pre-empts much of the fundamental conceptual work that has gone toward the discourse deployed by such a group as the Emergence and Design Group. For instance,

Massumi writes: ‘‘Form follows the design process, far from enclosing it. Far from directing it, form emerges from the process, derivative of a movement that exceeds it.’ The key term here being ’ that of emergence, though the emphasis on process is also a key sentiment (Massumi, ‘‘Sensing the Virtual, Building the Sensible’’ 16). 19 Helen Castle, ‘‘Emergence in Architecture,’ ’ AA Files 50 (spring 2004): 50 ^ 61. 20 Hensel et al. (Emergence and Design Group) (eds.), AD: Emergence 7 . 21 Ibid.17 . 22 Massumi, ‘‘Sensing the Virtual, Building the Sensible’’ 22. 23 Hensel et al. (Emergence and Design Group) (eds.), AD: Emergence 12. 24 ‘‘The architect becomes a prospector of formative continuity, a tracker in an elusive field of generative deformation . . . New form is not conceived. It is coaxed out, flushed from its virtuality’’ (Massumi, ‘‘Sensing the Virtual, Building the Sensible’’ 16). 25 Hensel et al. (Emergence and Design Group) (eds.), AD: Emergence 17 . 26 Manuel DeLanda,‘‘Deleuze and the Use of the Genetic Algorithm in Architecture’’ in Designing for a Digital World, ed. Neil Leach (Chichester: Wiley, 2002) 117^20. 27 Ibid.1 18. 28 Ibid.117 . 29 In reference to Lars Spuybroek’s process of building a paper model to augment a digital investigation, Massumi suggests ‘‘The algorithms applied to the paper model make it a literal analogue computer’’ (Massumi, ‘‘Building Experience: The Architecture of Perception’’ in NOX: Machining Architecture, ed. Lars Spuybroek (New Y ork: Thames, 2004) 330). 30 Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 11. 31 See Detlef Martin,‘‘Bioconstructivisms’’ in NOX 362^ 63. 32 Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? 33. 33 Ibid.118. 34 Ibid.

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35 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988) 23. 36 Deleuze,‘‘Immanence: A Life’’ 31.

´` Helene Frichot 3/108-110 Moor St Fitzroy 3065 Melbourne Victoria Australia E-mail:

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