Childhood Blocks: Deleuze and Guattari’s Infant Affects


This project is really an essay about “adultomorphism,” a neat neologism I am borrowing from psychoanalyst Ken Corbett.[1]  Adultomorphism is what Deleuze and Guattari would call a “major” mode, a standard metric for the human, an order-word for the universe of Man.  Adultomorphism is defined by a system for the organ-ization of bodies through a field of mensuration whose logic is development.  Little kids grow, we say.  “Up.”  Up into what? Adults, and nothing else.  The purchase and power of adultomorphic thinking is incredible, it is nothing less than a fundamental anthropology: it subtends the concept of the child, the adult, the human itself.  It helps organize the concepts of life, death, time, progression, regression, arrest, and maturation.  Nearly every hegemonic account of the genesis of the child is adultomorphic; its operational grounding is the assumption that the child in question will either grow up into an adult or arrest at an inhuman stage that was on its way to that inevitable and singularly desirable outcome before something went horribly wrong.  In any case, no matter what the deviation, the only way to think a child is in comparison with the adult it is meant to eventually become, a relation of analogy.  Any other metric is unthinkable.  This is the reason why it seems nearly impossible to describe the child “on its own terms,” so to speak: as Irigaray perhaps best put it, we have no language (parole) with which to converse with children about their worlds, no form of subjectivity proper to children from which they could speak to us, to which we could listen, since children are definitionally defined as not-yet-subjects—not-yet-adults.  Children are defined by Western logic as incomplete by its fundamental terms of measure and so rational logic is unable to say anything about what a child does other than through an adultomorphic lens.

This essay so far has been a critique of adultomorphic thought of four types: that of a hylomorphic Platonic body politic in which the child is a tabula rasa (Protevi); that of the idea of instinctual child sexuality in psychoanalysis (Laplanche); that of the child as a sexualized property to be exchanged between adults (Foucault); and that of the replacement of an originary horizontal relation with the mother by vertical genealogy (Irigaray).  This week I am departing from critiques of adultomorphic thought, while also returning to the conclusion of week one, for it was Protevi who initially spurred us to turn to Deleuze and Guattari for a positive account of material self-ordering, an approach that would allow us to stop only noting the moments of rupture, failure, and supplement in the restricted economies of the texts regarding the generation of the child I have take up so far.  Rather than tracing an unthinkable substrate in its presence-absence—my weekly return to the vague “somatic attunement” of infants and children with their parents, a question of the affects—I want to read Deleuze and Guattari to think the generation of the child creatively, to experiment with thought that is not necessarily adultomorphic, that thinks differently altogether (precisely because of how it thinks difference).

This is an ambitious task and I offer here only the outlines for a much longer project that would realize this proposal.  I turn initially to Deleuze and Guattari’s first collaboration, Anti-Oedipus, which confirms and opens up much of the critique of my essay so far through psychoanalytic familialism, suggesting a different way of thinking through the infant’s participation in a desiring-production of nonsexual machinic connections with and worlding through part-objects.  I then follow the intensification of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought in A Thousand Plateaus, where we find the enigmatic proposition that “Children are Spinozists,” the invitation to consider the generation of children as a question of affect, the ontologically prior level of individuation that subtends all bodies—indeed, all matter, ultimately—resolving the undecidability of the adult-child binary and suggesting a way of thinking the degrees of power constitutive of the becomings-child of children.


The basic outlines of Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-oedipal thesis as it concerns psychoanalysis have already appeared in different forms several times in the course of this essay.  The “holy familialism” of the Oedipal triangulation in psychoanalysis, as the two authors put it, is in no way a fundamental operation of desire.  On the contrary, desire itself is nothing other than production, while production is therefore locatable in an auto-generated unconscious.  Desire is not linked to lack for Deleuze and Guattari, in contradistinction to Lacan; hence, from birth the infant’s body is quite capable of investing libido, through machinic connections with part objects, in ways that are certainly nonfamilial and anoedipal, if not nonsexual (at least not sexual in Laplanche’s sense).  This reading of Anti-Oedipus, to be sure, runs the risk of over-exposing the critique of psychoanalysis in the text that is in fact meant to be read with its critique of capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari’s unique interfacing of Freud and Marx in a non reductionist project; however, I will proceed in this slightly artificial mode of emphasis for simplicity’s sake—only one way of reading what is, after all, a very entangled text.

Deleuze and Guattari’s enigmatic declaration about the child in Anti-Oedipus is that “The child is a metaphysical being” (48).  That is to say, “the child” has little to do other than function to order a universe of logic, reason and man that would otherwise be undone by the actual becomings of infants and children, the completely anoedipal functioning of desiring-production.  The child is a “global person,” a metaphysical substitution of a whole that is in fact a misrecognition of what is only a part-object (73).  When Deleuze and Guattari speak of machines, they are referring to breaks in flows of matter-energy that subtend a body, breaks that constitute the connection, via a cut, to a different flow, which in turn is a break in a third flow, and so on (36).  This definition leaves out much of the intricacy of the three modes of synthesis they outline as the process of the organ-ization of bodies, but I want to focus especially on their discussion of the infant and the breast, since it builds on much of the discussion of the previous installments of the essay, a task which does not require the rest of their argument.

Deleuze and Guattari praise Melanie Klein for having “discovered” the part-object and its primacy for the infant, but berate her endlessly for having then relegated part-objects to a pre-Oedipal stage of fantasy, “since ‘pre-oedipal’ still has a developmental or structural relationship to Oedipus itself,” as if not real (44-45).  Rather, in their view, the infant and the mother’s breast exist at first in a real machinic relationship: the flow of milk from the mother’s breast is cut off by the infant’s mouth, a redirection of the flow of matter-energy into the infant’s body for nourishment; hence “the baby and the breast form a desiring machine; the part objects do not represent anything, least of all his parents” (47).  Herein lies the heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis; everything the child does is disregarded, supplanted by the question of what its actions represent, the meaning behind them being perpetually reduced to a question of the parental relation in order to organize its body to function in a stereotyped way.

If the child is a metaphysical being in that sense, then what else is there to be said of what it does? Deleuze and Guattari do not deny the fundamental asymmetry of an infant or toddler vis-à-vis adults, nor their dependency on adults for survival; rather, they simply point out that what psychoanalysis fails to see can be grasped as a question of machinic action: what an infant or toddler’s body, composed itself of part-objects, is doing with other part-objects in its milieu—real instances of desiring-production:

The small child lives with his family around the clock; but within the first days of his life, he immediately begins having an amazing nonfamilial experience that psychoanalysis has completely failed to take into account (47).

“It is amid partial objects and within the nonfamilial relations of desiring-production,” they continue, “that the child lives his life and ponders what it means to live, even though the question must be ‘related’ to his parents” (48).  In a stroke of acuity of thought, then, Deleuze and Guattari both critique the reality of the oedipalization of children (it does occur, after all), their becoming metaphysical beings, and suggest that they are also busy doing other things, relating to and within their milieu in nonfamilial, anoedipal ways that we ought to take note of.  This is, ultimately, because Deleuze and Guattari are building up an argument for the auto-generation of the unconscious in an incredibly wide sense as a field both natural and social.  “For the unconscious is an orphan,” they declare: it has no parents to speak of, it is generated and maintained by its own immanence of desiring-production (49).

This critique is important in completely dismantling the reduction of children’s experiences to sexual or familial triangulations of Oedipus, in that libido directly invests the social, as well as the natural and organic, from birth—indeed, it does not distinguish amongst them at the first stage of production.  Deleuze and Guattari cite Franz Fanon here, notably, to remind us that children also exist in a historical and social world, not in a nursery world of Oedipus to which everything can be reduced (98).  Children are more than aware, though perhaps not in the perceptions of adults, or at least psychoanalysts, that, from birth,

The father, the mother, and the self are at grips with, and directly coupled to, the elements of the political and historical situation—the soldier, the cop, the occupier, the collaborator, the radical, the resister, the boss, the boss’ wife—who constantly break all triangulations (97).

The incessant oedipalization of children by Western culture, which would reduce all of their experiences, reactions, and actions to mere representations to be decoded of a familial sexuality organized in a triangle, is constantly punctuated and broken by the political and the social: class and race, especially, we could say, are thereby involved in the generation of children.  And infants and children themselves participate actively in their own genesis via machinic connection with part-objects in their milieu.

As this reading of Anti-Oedipus implies, in a fidelity to the anti- of its title, however, what Deleuze and Guattari offer us here is weighted more towards a critique of Oedipus than a fully realized exploration of the child on its own terms, the positive account of material self-ordering being still somewhat nascent in my reading.  If we want to depart from the child as a metaphysical being, then, we can turn to A Thousand Plateaus, which greatly intensifies this primarily social analysis to scales encompassing the tiniest molecule to the geological or galactic, opening up an ethical thinking of individuation through affect.

A Thousand Plateaus

The enigmatic pronouncement of Deleuze and Guattari on the child in A Thousand Plateaus is that “Children are Spinozists” (256), and in this volume they rely more on the language of becoming, assemblage, and affect to consider the positive contributions of the child to its own individuation, a becoming-child eventually unhinged from molar children altogether.  This is not the ideal forum in which to elaborate at length on the operational definitions of Deleuzoguattarian conceptual vocabularies (for that, I have several good book recommendations[2]), but I will nevertheless weave a partial excursus of relevant concepts where needed in what follows.

Becoming is a particularly useful concept for thinking children differently, for it operates on a nonlinear, Bergsonian time (non)scale—what Deleuze and Guattari will term Aeon, in contrast with Chronos—and is hence nondevelopmental, nonevolutionary.  Becoming “concerns alliance” rather than filiation or descent, what we can call, following Deleuze and Guattari, involution: “to involve is to form a block that runs its own line ‘between’ the terms in play and beneath assignable relations” (239).  This suggests the outlines of a different way of thinking relationality, one that in the concept of assemblage further departs from anthropocentrism altogether to two radically inhuman zones at either end of an ontological plane: the plane of transcendence or organization at one pole, and the plane of immanence at the other; or, in the perhaps more readily identifiable language of Anti-Oedipus, the molar and the molecular versions of all individuals within their milieu, or better yet, the virtual and actual versions, depending on what vocabulary you are must conversant in.  The vital point for our purposes, anyways, is that “Becoming produces nothing other than itself” (238).  When we speak of a “becoming-child,” then, we will be talking not about molar children (i.e. those individuals we assign the identity of “child” to) or someone—an adult, for instance—becoming like a child, resembling a child or engaging in childishness, but something else, utterly singular, between its two terms.

This is to get ahead of ourselves, though.  I first want to move carefully through the ethics of diagramming becomings and individuation Deleuze and Guattari extract from Spinoza: an affective analysis.  “Affects are becomings,” after all (256).  The point of this type of analysis is that it diverges from the impasses of thinking individuals through identity and resemblance, or representational forms:

In the same way that we avoided defining a body by its organs and functions, we will avoid defining it by Species or Genus characteristics; instead we will seek to count its affects (257).

Why would we seek to count the affects of a body, rather than look at its organs or characteristics? Simply put, because affects subtend matter at all scales, from the molecular to the geological or cosmological; there is, Deleuze and Guattari would argue in a Spinozist vein, nothing more pervasive, ontologically, than affect, the ideality already inherent in matter itself, which is another way of saying that matter and energy are not ontologically separate (i.e., Spinoza’s single substance).  This is why affects become so central to what Deleuze and Guatarri are doing throughout A Thousand Plateaus.  Affects, after all, per Spinoza, concern ethics (257).  They offer a way out of the undecidable exclusions and partiality of the organism, the species, or the genus—all derivatives of a dialectics of identity that we know, per Derrida and deconstruction, are only metaphysical ways of defining beings to occlude difference (recall: the child is a metaphysical being).

Affects, instead, can be mapped as intensive increases or decreases of what a body can do: its relative ‘degrees of power’.  Affects concern the puissance of a body (puissance being the nuanced French term for “power” with a small “p,” in contrast to pouvoir, or “Power”—see Foucault for more on this).  A “body” here is a composition, a consistency, or assemblage of competing or unequal forces, forces that act differentially upon one another in their relations to produce a singular individual as a metastable system.  Affects concern puissance, properly speaking, then, in the relational encounter of two or more bodies.  Affects are therefore impersonal, not attached to any one body, let alone a subject, but rather circulate amongst them; in this way, relationality precedes and exceeds its terms (bodies, and much further down the chain of stratification, humans, subjects or selves).  Affects can be thought of as passageways between modes of being, the degrees of power that morph attributes of the single substance of being in its individuations as described by Spinoza.  Any individual is defined by its constituent affects, though they do not belong to that individual.  Therefore, Deleuze and Guattari speak of “optimal” and “pessimal” limits for the affects of an individual, which is to signal the metastable limits of their composition as a body (the optimal being the highest degree of power an individual can have to affect and be affected before it becomes something else), and decomposition (the pessimal limit being the threshold at which an individual is destroyed or disassembled by having its degree of power diminished to the point where it ceases to be at all).  This is my operational definition of affect, one that is extracted from a readings of A Thousand Plateaus, but which tends to put the accent especially on the strands of Spinoza and Gilbert Simondon in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought.

From this point of view, of an analysis that counts the affects, so to speak, of individuals in relations with other bodies, we can finally assess the proposition that “Children are Spinozists.”  Deleuze and Guattari revisit Freud’s infamous Little Hans case, one of their favorite whipping posts, and reread it in such an affective analysis, an instructive place to start.  Rather than Freud’s psychoanalytic logic, which remains in the plane of organization by focusing on identity, representation, and symbolization of a familial, oedipal sexuality that would be irreducible, Deleuze and Guattari treat the little boy’s affects as an experiment in solutions to the problem of his milieu: “The questions is whether Little Hans can endown his own elements with the relations of movement and rest, the affects, that would make it become horse” (258).  In other words, their reading of Little Hans’ becoming-horse attends to “the assemblages a child can mount in order to solve a problem from which all exists are barred him: a plan(e), not a phantasy” (260).  For Little Hans, the problems he confronts are not represented by the street, the horse buggy, or the limits placed on his movement by his parents; no, these are the very real problems he experiences as a diminution of his degree of power relative to his mother and father, as well as the larger Austrian socius.  Therefore, he engages in a becoming-horse as a way of attempting, via “unnatural participation” (258), to increase his relative degree of power, to collect the affects of a horse in order to escape the imposition of being a little boy by his parents, their attempts at making him a docile, molar child.  The same process of evasion and affective amplification, we could speculate in passing, is evident in Hans’ relationship with Freud in the original essay itself.  With an affective analysis, then, we note there is a more complicated relationship of struggle (in the Nietzschean sense) within this family and its middle-class Austrian milieu, including Hans’ otherwise neglected becoming-horse, a non-sexual and anoedipal becoming that psychoanalysis not only misses, but tries to replace with a sexual narrative in order to avoid its implications.

Still, Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Little Hans does not exactly answer the question of defining what is meant by “Children are Spinozists.”  In aligning children with their philosopher of affects, our authors are making a very calculated, if provocative, declaration about what children are doing that escapes the notice of us adults (although this distinction of age will soon slip away under the pressure of an affective analysis).  As adultomorphic thinkers, we perceive and plug children into molar categories of development and evolution by constraining them to the plane of transcendence, or an organ-ized body politic, in Protevi’s helpful formulation (HYPERLINK).  What is suggested in revisiting Little Hans is that, for all our attempts at molding children into little adults, to organ-ize them as it were, they are simultaneously attuned in a way adults are not to the plane of immanence, to their own becomings, animal and otherwise, that concern affects—busy doing things in a world we do not even participate in (recall Irigaray here).  In a passage making reference to their contemporaries in France, two underread thinkers of sexuality and children in the United States because of lack of translation, René Schérer and Guy Hocquenghem[3], Deleuze and Guattari make this point succinctly:

it is as though, independent of the evolution carrying them towards adulthood, there were room in the child for other becomings, ‘other contemporaneous possibilities,’ that are not regressions but creative involutions bearing witness to ‘an inhumanity immediately experienced in the body as such,’ unnatural nuptials, ‘outside the programmed body’ (273).

These creative involutions of children are of the category of the inhumanity of the body precisely because they are primarily affective: nonlinguistic, asubjective, impersonal, and indeed, neither “adultish” or “childish,” but some other kind of singularity.

Keeping these two poles of molar and molecular in mind, then, we can understand what Deleuze and Guattari say when they write that

The question is fundamentally that of the body—the body they steal from us in order to fabricate opposable organisms.  This body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you’re not a little girl anymore, you’re not a tomboy, etc.  The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, a prehistory, upon her.  The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too (276).

This is evocative and intentionally performative writing, but of course is not meant to be dialectical or juridical: the “they” who steals a body from “us” is not a conspiratorial mother and father, but rather the far more diffuse, Foucaudlian field of differential power relations stereotyping bodies into the binary of the sexes and an oedipal sexuality.  In fact, although Irigaray does not concur with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “becoming-girl” or their assertion that all becomings must first pass through a becoming-girl, I think this short passage, at least, authorizes us to emphasize the operations of phallocentrism and the moment in which sexual difference is problematized in order to secure a notion of children growing up into normal adults.[4]

This point actually leads us away from a sociological or epistemological consideration of what is “proper” to children, since the child is a metaphysical being, or at least, an opposed organism: little girl and little boy (and Derrida’s deconstruction of the idea of the “proper to” in the human reminds us that we ought to be wary of any such formulation, anyways[5]).  If the production of children begins by opposing them as girls and boys, as sexually different individuals, then for them, “The only way to get outside the dualisms is to be-between, to pass between, the intermezzo” (277).  Keeping with the example of the girl, Deleuze and Guattari write that “It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is becoming-woman that produces the universal girl” (Ibid).  Similarly, several pages later they write that “children must become-child” (291).  This is a difficult to understand move, since the words used in describing becomings can be misleading: if a becoming is actually a singularity produced out of the inbetween of its two terms, what a becoming-woman produces is not a woman, just like when Little Hans underwent a becoming-horse, he did not become an actual horse, nor did the horse become a little boy: instead a something-else was produced, a third (non)term of the middle (but we don’t have any words for that, so Deleuze and Guattari maintain “woman,” “horse,” etc.).

A clue to understanding this twist is that our authors write elsewhere in the same plateau that “the child is the becoming-young of every age” (277).  They continue: “Knowing how to age does not mean remaining young; it means extracting from one’s age the particles, the speeds and slowness [i.e., the affects], the flows that constitute the youth of that age” (277).  To undergo a becoming-child is not restricted to molar children; any adult could undergo a becoming child, and children do not automatically undergo a becoming-child.  Becoming-child denotes a consistency of affects, a particular degree of power, that does not resemble children as metaphysical beings, but activates something particular enough to be described as them: that children are Spinozists.  Becoming-child, in other words, means to relate to the world like a Spinozist would: by assessing the problems posed by its milieu and to find creative involutions in order to solve them, without becoming a (adult) subject.  To struggle against and aim to overcome (not oppose) the impositions of parents, of a normalizing social order, of an oedipal narrative of sexuality, and a schoolyard of hylomorphic pedagogy, by experimenting with different affects that might increase the body’s relative degree of power vis-à-vis those molar strata.  Of course, it might not work.  A body might tend toward its optimal limit of becoming-child, but it might also arrive at its pessimal limit and decompose: the death of the individual.  That kind of analysis, parenthetically, is how I would start to explain what is happening in the current “epidemic” of gay teen suicide, for instance, rather than moralizing about the tragedy of taking one’s life or musing about what is reducible to the sexuality of gay teens that explains their “choice” to end their lives.

Conclusion: A Positive Affective Analysis of Children

To summarize, then, what is the framework for thinking the child without adultomorphism that Deleuze and Guattari offer us? Simply put, they offer us a proposal for affective analysis, of counting the affects of children in their becomings, whether becomings- girl, animal, or otherwise.  As concerns becoming-child, we have a concept completely unhinged from the adult-child binary, outside of the linear strata of the temporality of “growing up,” that asks us to interrogate the ways all bodies—human or otherwise, young or old, girl or boy, plant or animal, alive or nonorganic—can become capacitated enough to relate to the world like little Spinozists.  This is not a capacity that is proper to children, for that would be a metaphysical claim, but it is a capacity that can be activated by actual children under the right conditions.  An analysis of the generation of the child, then, that worked through affects to dispense with adultomorphism, and attended both to how the body is “stolen” from children by normalization, while simultaneously engaging in becomings that would otherwise pass under our radar: that is the proposal I find in Deleuze and Guattari’s oeuvre, one that, insofar as it moves elsewhere than oppositional critique, elsewhere than simply pointing out the failures in our adultomorphic thought, offers a different way of thinking children, though certainly the implications of their framework extend far beyond my limited focus on children.

Next week, in my final installment, I will take stock of what each of my authors has allowed me to do and not do in thinking the generation of the child.  In a more synthetic register of evaluation, rather than primarily exegesis, I will give you my thoughts on how best to approach children and their genesis, theoretically.  As you can no doubt divine, I am going to give first prize to Deleuze and Guattari in the contest portion of this serial essay, but I also have a more complex point to make (so be sure to read the post!), for I think we need each of the thinkers I have mobilized in order to understand the genealogy of thought around children and their relations with the adults in their lives, even if the result is a dissolution of that conceptual distinction for its metaphysical limitations.

[1] Ken Corbett, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, New Haven Yale University Press, 2009.

[2] Notably John Protevi’s Political Affect and Claire Colebrook’s Understanding Deleuze

[3] There footnote in A Thousand Plateaus for this mention of Schérer and Hocquenghem is of the never translated special issue of Recherches written by the pair, entitled “Co-ire: album systématique de l’enfance” (1976).  I am currently researching this genealogy of thinking the child amongst Schérer and Hocquenghem, Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault, and hope to have a blog post on this important intertext, at least, once I can get my hands on a copy.

[4] Of course, Deleuze and Guattari’s account, by focusing on affects, suggests that sexual difference has no primacy in the way Irigaray conceives of it, since she remains firmly within the realm of the human and the subject.  That being said, I still think there is an avenue of possibility of reconciling these two ways of thinking difference, so that sexual difference as ontological is extended down to the affective scale of matter—but I’ll leave that to the other scholars working on the question.

[5] See Derrida’s volume I of his final lectures, The Beast and the Sovereign.

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2 Responses to Childhood Blocks: Deleuze and Guattari’s Infant Affects

  1. Pingback: What are Little Kids Made of, in Theory? | Those Tendencies

  2. Pingback: The Child’s Technicity: Simondon’s Hybrid Technical Knowledge | Ecology and Reverie

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