THEORY | Notes from The Three Ecologies – Felix Guattari

Posted on 08/01/2010


Guattari’s writing often seems fraught, even dangerous. He proposes ideas such as dissensus, dissidence, resingularisation, break up and multiplicity. In The Three Ecologies (Continuum, 2000, Trans by Ian Pindar & Paul Simon), he proposes such ideas as strategies or processes towards a reconstruction of social and individual practices of ecosophy.  In presenting a problem of ecological disequilibrium, which threatens the continuation of life on the planet’s surface, he notes a deterioration of individual and collective modes of human life. Towards the end of the book he says, “there is at least a risk that there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself”.

Ecosophy, he argues, provides for an ethico-political and ethico-aesthetic articulation in three ecologies or three ecological registers: the environment (or nature), social relations and human subjectivity. For Guattari, the “ecosophic problematic is that of the production of human existence itself in new historical contexts” (24). Thus, the three ecologies of the book’s title are:

  • Social ecology
  • Mental ecology
  • Environmental ecology

These three ecologies not only present as sites of negotiation and reconstruction, but also in Guattari’s parlance as interchangeable lenses or styles. They are not distinct territories but formed relationally and transversally. He states that

“they are governed by a different logic to that of ordinary communitcation between speakers and listeners … It is a logic of intensities … or eco-logic,  [which] is concerned only with the movement and intensity of evolutive processes. Process, which I oppose here to system or to structure, strives to capture existence in the very act of its constitution, definition and deterritorialisation.”

This invokes a search for dissident vectors that run counter to the ‘normal’ order of things, particularly potential vectors of subjectification and singularisation. Capitalism’s power and reach is so extensive and intensive that it has infiltrated ‘us’ by extending over all aspects of social, economic and cultural life as well as by ‘intension’ into unconscious subjective strata. For Guattari, consensus is not the appropriate response; instead, a dissensus and singularisation will need to be cultivated. In other words, this alleviation of heterogeneity requires a processual activation of “isolated and repressed singularities that are just turning in circles”. Early in the book, he talks of the patient who walks endlessly in circles, until the day that s/he decides to stop it, to break the repetitiveness, to do something else or to go somewhere. This act of subjectification and singularisation somehow exemplifies eco-logic – it is a break. Heterogenesis is a process of continuous resingularisation – individual and collective subjectivies ‘pull out’ without a thought for collective aims, for creative expression.  Resingularisation means that individuals, organisations and professions become more united and increasingly different – difference multiplies – and creatively autonomous.

“Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the last decade.”

In his formulation of the principles of the three ecologies, Guattari, he identifies the principle common to each being that it is

“not given in-itself, closed in on itself, but instead as a for-itself that is precarious, finite, finitised, singular, singularised, capability of bifurcating into stratified and deathly repetitions or of opening up processually from a praxis that enables it to be made ‘habitable’ by a human project.”

Mental ecology – drawing on ideas of the ‘clinical session’, he presents considerations of the pre-objectal and pre-personal, the fragment, the ‘included middle’; radically decentre social struggle and ways of coming to one’s own psyche;  grasping points of rupture of denotation, connection and signification; promotion of innovatory practices; expansion of alternative experiences centred around a respect for singularity; continuous production of an autonomising subjectivity that can articulate itself appropriately in relation to the rest of society; agencies and dispositives that will simultaneously analyse and produce subjectivity.

Social ecology – concerns the development of affective and pragmatic cathexis in human groups of differing sizes; corresponds to a specifically qualitative reorganisations of primary subjectivity as it relates to mental ecology; favour processual semiotics (diagrammatic rather than iconic i.e. it can escape from itself to constitute discursive chains directly in touch with the referent); challenge to transition from mass media to post-media; reterritorialising the family; assemblages; group Eros principles.

Environmental ecology – anything is possible; national equilibriums will be increasingly reliant on human intervention e.g. regulation of carbon, machine ecology; much more than the simple defence of nature; creation of new living species; needs new stories of permanent recreation to replace the narrative of biblical genesis.

In summary, he says:

“Rather than remaining subject, in periphery, to the seductive efficiency of economy competition, we must reappropriate Universes of value, so that processes of singularisation can rediscover their consistency. We need new social and aesthetic  practices, new practices of the Self in relation to the other, to the foreign, the strange – a whole programme that seems far removed from current concerns. And yet, ultimately, we will only escape from the major crises of our era through the articulation of

  • A nascent subjectivity
  • A constantly mutating socius
  • An environment in the process of being reinvented” (p 45)

I am particularly interested in Guattari’s ideas about multiplied difference and creative autonomy as integral to ecosophical praxis. His final comments in the book address the need for a gradual reforging and renewal of humanity’s confidence in itself in order to ‘reconquest’ various domains. Throughout the text, he makes references to art and urban planning, indicating that relational – albeit tangled – pathways across the three ecologies are possible; for Guattari this is tranversality, which presents as a potential for interdisciplinarity, and a critical trajectory for new forms of practice.

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