The Machines in the Ghost

The Machines in the Ghost

Many important studies have been conducted, and contributions made, in the individual fields of psychoanalysis and philosophy that have led, and continue to lead, towards a better understanding of mental illness. However, it is perhaps only through the combined efforts across these disciplines and others, including politics, sociology, economics, and even motorcycle maintenance that the most valuable insights into the condition of the condition are unearthed.

The diagnosis of a mental illness is as challenging as it is important, but one could just as well look back to Karl Marx or Michel Foucault as to the medical profession to find the correct one. However, such complicated theory one could argue, is written by intellectuals for intellectuals, and the promise of the illumination of the intellect is its verisimilitude. It professes to have knowledge of knowledge and understanding of understanding, and yet it itself is often impenetrable and incomprehensible. This is a paradox, and when it is concluded that understanding cannot be understood then one is in murky waters.

A rhizomatic, cross fertilization and pollination of ideas is a salient feature of the work co-authored by Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. It seems that everything from quantum mechanics to the origin of species has been studied by the duo, and I would speculate that the influence of Marx’s theory of alienation is in there too – it is after-all implied by the sub-headings of both volumes, being Capitalism and Schizophrenia

The nomenclature that Deleuze and Guattari utilise is complicated and chaotic. They create a literary aesthetic from a de-stratified and hybridised vocabulary, a vernacular which leaves the reader in a state of semantic satiation – familiar words having lost their meanings begin sounding alien and other. In A Thousand Plateaus, in and amongst a bewildering array of complex terminology, neologisms, and juxtapositions, Deleuze and Guattari appropriate a conceptual model from Automata theory known as an Abstract Machine.

According to the Dictionary of Theories, Automata theory originated with the study of mathematical models of nervous systems and computer systems, and it concerns the capacity of abstract machines (information transformers) ‘to solve various types of problems by means of the algorithms available to them’ (Limber, M. 1993, p.40). The Turing Machine conceived of by Alan Turing in 1936, is an example of an abstract machine, and it is defined as a ‘transformer of discrete information’ (ibid., p.40). As indicated above, and self-evident in the name, it is not an actual machine comprising real and moving parts, but a diagrammatic, mathematical assemblage.

The machine is comprised, in theory, of sequences of functions that are executed according to a set of instructions. These operating instructions relate to a hypothetical strip of tape of potentially infinite length, upon which coded information (e.g. binary) is stored, written and re-written. In other words, the instructions determine the process of the processing of the code. To complete a process of processing, a set of operating instructions must be allocated a machine state and a subsequent state to transition to (Mullins, R. 2012). A finite state machine therefore, comprises its ‘operation set’ (Macura, W.K.), i.e. its read, write, and move left/right functions, and machine states which determine stop and repeat/revert functions (Mullins, R. 2012).

Just as automata theory concerns the study of abstract machines, psychoanalysis concerns itself with the study of the unconscious. The operation set of the abstract machine is its basis of logic, and it finds it’s equivalence in the sets of reasons, justifications and/or explanations that are present behind, and in, our actions and beliefs. Similarly, the organisation of thoughts and thinking into a diagrammatic structure or schematic is an algorithmic process, and as such, it’s understandable how one framework is so neatly transposable with the other.

Some interesting semantic antics that provide a segue from automata theory to psychoanalysis can be found in the descriptive terminology used above. An abstract machine as defined there is a transformer of discrete information, and one would think that this is a definition that is true likewise of the unconscious. The unconscious however, is also a transformer of discreet information. The definitional differential occurs in the spelling. Used descriptively of the abstract machine in relation to information, the word simply means individual and distinct, but the alternative spelling changes the meaning completely. This other is a processual word, and entirely within the realm of conventional psychoanalytic theory. It relates to mechanisms of confidentiality and the ‘circumspect’ and ‘guarded’ use of speech and action (OED Online, 2018). This demonstrates, albeit in a conceptual way, a slippage from one theory to the other, from automata theory and abstract machines, to psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Meanwhile the homonym acts in a similar way, as a meta-model, comparable to a 1:1 scale map of the kind found in On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges, and echoing once again a mapping of one abstraction over another as it coincides almost ‘point for point’ with the territory itself (Borges, J. L. 1946, p.325).

In 1992 Felix Guattari asserted that psychoanalysis was in crisis. He was critical of the psychoanalytic theory in circulation at that time, claiming it was ‘bogged down in routine practices and ossified conceptions’ (Guattari. 1995, p.58). In his major ontological work Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm[1] he sought to ‘revise the models of the unconscious’ (ibid., p.1). As he worked towards a psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious Guattari returned to the abstract machine, to ‘expand the concept of machine…’ and, ‘…free ourselves from a solitary reference to technological machines’ (Guattari. 1995, p.31). The application of the concept is kept alive in the text, it is often constructed and dismantled, circumventing the snare of tautology. The original model of an idea built by computer scientists to ‘allow a detailed and precise analysis of how the computer system works’ (Macura, W.K.) becomes the meta-concept that Guattari employs in the process of the ‘metamodelization’ of thoughts and thinking (ibid., p.58).

Defined in the Oxford dictionary, to modelize is to ‘frame or construct according to a model; to give a particular shape to; to organize; to analyse or describe in terms of a model’ (OED Online. 2018). The word meta is borrowed from the Greek μετα, and it’s use as a prefix corresponds to the Latin word trans meaning ‘on the farther side of, beyond, over’ (OED Online. 2018). Henceforth an already abstract model is thus a meta-model – an abstraction beyond abstraction. In Chaosmosis, the expression psychoanalysis is supplanted by Guattari’s own term Schizonanalysis, and it defines his method of probing the workings of psychological (dis)orders[2]. Guattari states that ‘the Unconscious is intimately connected with the concept: it too is an incorporeal construction which takes possession of subjectivity at the point of its emergence’ (Guattari. 1995, p.64). A condition for example, such as psychosis is, for Guattari simply a working title, not a thing-in-itself but an emerge-and-see[3].

‘Psychosis is not a structural object but a concept; it is not an irremovable essence but a machination which always starts up again during any encounter with the one who will become, after the event, the psychotic. Thus, here the concept is not an entity closed in on itself, but the abstract, machinic incarnation of alterity at the point of extreme precariousness; it is the indelible mark that everything in this world can break down at any time.’ (ibid., p.64)

The labelling of an already suffering individual it is thought, may increase their psychological burden (Ratcliffe, M. 2017) and lead to stigmatization, but by approaching a mental illness as a concept, the psychological condition is de-territorialised, and in so doing the individual is re-territorialized (Deleuze, G. Guattari, F. 1988). This amounts to the restoration of that individual’s subjectivity[4]. However, whist this may be true, it is often only with a label (as argued by Victoria Dutchman-Smith in a recent LSE public lecture) that care, i.e. disability living allowance, can be accessed (Dutchman-Smith, V. 2017). These real-life circumstances result in the reterritorialization of the condition and de-territorialisation of the individual.

The terms deterritorialisation and reterritiorialisation appear frequently in Deleuze and Guattari’s work. The territory is a contested one, and comparable to the region inside the closed curves of a Venn diagram consisting of two overlapping circles, and these circles are vicious circles. The left side comprises a conscious, subjective mind, in an infinite, incorporeal world of subjects, existing in a vacuum and governed by Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Whilst the right side comprises an unconscious, objective body in a finite, corporeal world of objects, existing in an atmosphere, and governed by Newton’s laws of physics. Within this contested territory, inside the closed curves, the combined interchangeable and reversible relation of the conditions of deterritorialisation and reterritiorialisation, is remindful of a cell on the verge of dividing. In this illustration the cell is ‘The machine … always at the junction of the finite and infinite, at this point of negotiation between complexity and chaos’ (Guattari, 1995, p.111), in a word, Brexit.

Consciousness and the unconscious routinely emerge out of, and disappear into one another, but they also bring one another in being. This relation between divergence and converge is not dissimilar to the labourer as she stands in relation to the means of production, the moment, figuratively speaking, when it’s ‘no longer the labourer that employs the means of production but the means of production that employs the labourer’ (Marx, K. 1867, p.162).

A plausible hypothesis is that at the core of schizoanalysis is the ontogenesis of Marx’s theory of alienation, and if one permits further conjecture, it’s even conceivable to posit that Chaosmosis is an antecedent or pre-cursor to Marx’s theory. What Marx identified in the 19th century as an aetiology born out of the industrial revolution, Guattari reaffirms at the end of the 20th, and rather than the later serving as panacea to the former, the condition reaches maturity and apotheosis in the digital revolution by embedding itself into even deeper areas of the human psyche.

The metaphorical framing of mind as software and brain as hardware used to explain consciousness is a convenient analogy, popular amongst proponents of artificial intelligence. In a 2016 symposium Roger Penrose suggests that it may be possible for sentient machines to exist but that they wouldn’t be computer controlled. There is an issue with artificial intelligence, but it is not in ascertaining whether it is real or true, it is simply that it is not intelligence. It has no intelligence because it has no consciousness (Penrose, R. 2016).  Machine learning is not the ghost in the machine, it’s just a machine in the machine. The ghost in the metaphor is Cartesian dualism, and for philosophers this is a hard problem because as well as being both subject and object, body and mind, consciousness is something else altogether.

It seems to begin below the surface as an inside, concealed and invisible, and it manifests at a surface level of speech, language and semiotics, and ends up above the surface as an outside, revealed and yet still invisible. 

Within the brain the cerebellum is responsible for performing the mechanical and computational functions and it does so unconsciously, it has no self-awareness, and no reflectivity. The unconscious is the cog in ‘cogito ergo sum’ (Descartes, R. 1644), it is perceived but it is not a perceiver (Brown, S.D. and Tucker, I. 2010, p.235). Consciousness is as elusive as a ghost, existing as a dialogue between interlocutors, it is both a perceiver and a perceived. Understanding and meaning are procured in the cerebrum, and the coming together of all the mental faculties is a negotiated and creative act. It is, to appropriate a phrase by Simon O’Sullivan (2016, p.17), ‘the production of the unknown from within the known, the unseen from within the seen’. It seems that subjects are immediately perceived in objects and objects are immediately perceived in subjects, and the relations between objectivity and subjectivity are entanglements comparable to the connections between artworks and audiences, and what O’Sullivan calls ‘odd couplings’ (ibid., p.9).

As I understand it, the abstract machine is outside of these relations, and yet it encompasses them, ‘for a true abstract machine pertains to an assemblage in its entirety: it is defined as the diagram of that assemblage’ (Guattari, 1992, p. 91), but then again, even a true abstract machine may end up as a ‘machine for fictions’ (Žižek, S. 2006). In his exegesis of the 1999 film The Matrix (Wachowski, A., Wachowski, L., 1999) [5], Slavoj Žižek’s discusses reality and illusion as it is presented in the film. Faced with a choice between taking a red pill (illusion) or a blue pill (reality), Žižek, in his commentary, opts for a ‘third pill’, a pill enabling one to perceive ‘not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in illusion itself’. Žižek goes on to assert that fantasy and illusion ‘already structure our reality’, and so, and so on (ibid., 2006).

The dialectic between reality and illusion develops as all dialectics do, as a sequence of over-turnings, thesis and antithesis become synthesis. If it were considered visually, as an anaglyph for example, then the offset red channel represents illusion (thesis) and the offset blue channel, reality (antithesis), and the reality in the illusion (synthesis) is seen through the 3D glasses. According to the dialectical method, each synthesis becomes a new thesis and so on, and as such, the dialectic now concerns reality-in-illusion and illusion-in-reality. Optical illusions reveal the relation between perception and understanding, and in the BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science, 2017 it is demonstrated how the priming of the light receptors in the eyes adjusts the way in which light is seen and subsequently how our brains interpret that information. In accordance with how the illusion operates, a dialectic relation consisting of the previous synthesis i.e. the new thesis(reality-in-illusion) would be represented as an idea in colour, copied and inverted with every nuance of colour flipped into its complimentary.

The inverted idea forms the antithesis(illusion-in-reality), and this idea stands in relation to a memory of the colour copy prior to its inversion. This memory is an idea in black and white, a copy with every nuance of colour removed from it, and this desaturated copy forms the thesis(reality-in-illusion). Dialectics can be understood as a mapping of an inverted idea onto the trace of a memory. It is made manifest in this example with an individual stopping, and staring, for approximately 30 seconds whilst thinking about the inverted copy (the illusion-in-reality). As the contemplation shifts to the desaturated copy (the reality-in-illusion), the synthesis between antithesis(illusion-in-reality) and the thesis(reality-in-illusion) is achieved.

Dialectics also corresponds (in uniformity at least) to the two states of a finite state machine. This abstract machine transitions from one state to another in response to some external data. This type of abstract machine is also known as a three-symbol, two state abstract (Turing) machine (Mullins, R. 2012). With some artistic licence granted, and a differential gear assembly in place to connect Hegel with Guattari, one might imagine this machine’s two states to comprise the thesis(illusion) and antithesis(reality), and an operating set of read, write, and re-write instructions commensurate with posit, negate, and synthesise.

In the illusion state, the machine transitions to reality … reality-in-illusion read … reality written … illusion read … illusion written … the machine transitions to reality … illusion read … illusion-in-reality written … the machine stops at a new a synthesis.

A suitable adjunct to end on is to be found in the correlation between the etymology of the prefix Bio used in modern science, and the acronym BIOS used in information technology and computing. Bio is taken from the Greek word bios meaning ‘course of human life’ (OED Online. 2017), and BIOS stands for (B)asic (I)nput (O)utput (S)ystem. It’s seems highly appropriate within the context of this discussion, that what emerges from the fallout of the fusion of this prefix and acronym, is the all too familiar ontology (rooted in Marx’s theory of alienation) that the course of human life is reduceable to a process of consumption and production, and to quote Guattari ‘The devaluation of the meaning of life provokes the fragmentation of the self-image’ (Guattari, p.12).


To accept the full responsibility for a mental illness, and for the behaviours made manifest as consequences of it, is a responsibility that no one can bear alone. Stultified and paralysed, the individual is weighed down by thoughts and feelings that she/he has been, and is, unable to express or process. Unable to change the situation, the situation begins to change the individual. A vicious circle develops, and a succession of misunderstood behaviour elicited by suppression and subjugation leads to real consequences and repercussions that reverberate into the future. When one gets too close to the unbearable truth(s) one must find a rationale, and a justification, because it’s only then, that it’s at all possible to disconnect from unwanted realities; to vindicate oneself, and to find a degree of separation from the condition. Behind every veil of ignorance, it’s usual to find a ghost in the machine, but inside every degree of separation, and connected to every unwanted reality, there is also a machine in the ghost. An abstract machine for transforming vicious circles in to virtuous cycles.


[1] Ethico-aesthetic; ethico, here understood accordingly as, in the words of Guattari ‘To speak of creation is to speak of the responsibility of the creative instance with regards to the thing created’ (Guattari. 1995, p.107); aesthetic in the sense that it is a creative work.

[2] parenthesis mine.

[3] neologism mine.

[4] Describing what one considers good or valuable about something i.e. a film, a gesture, or an artwork, would be an example of an expression one’s subjectivity.

[5] The Matrix is a science fiction film about a machine world populated by a race of sentient machines. The minds of human beings are connected to an illusion of reality which masks the actual reality that they are slaves to the machines. No longer born but grown, their bodies are used as the energy supply to power the machine world. After having seen that which lies hidden behind the illusion constructed by the machines (the matrix), The protagonist’s minds are freed, and they’re able to plug back into to the illusory world on their own terms.


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