The Art of War and Geopolitics

In Sun Tzu’s military classic from ancient China The Art of War we get an early work of geopolitics. The text is well known for providing insights into commanding a military, maintaining discipline within ranks, and emphasizing the right mind-set for victory but a large part of it is devoted to classifying and evaluating terrain. The relationship an army has with the earth upon which it travels is one of the key aspects that leads it to victory or defeat, perhaps the key. The word geopolitics evokes control of resources, topographical access routes and choke points, and alliance-building amongst nations and states (or lords and chiefdoms) – all of which are discussed in the Art of War, only in the context of war in the ancient world instead of economics.

Modern warfare has grown far more complex and broadened its scope to include every vital component of a nation’s industrial output, with economics and international trade flows entering the military picture. What Sun Tzu’s famous work does in its military exposition of terrain is foster the image of the earth as a place or ground upon which forces both human and non-human are moved in certain predictable ways. It is in properly adapting one’s forces to the formations of the earth’s surface that victory is assured. A general’s success requires correct decisions but a great deal of the preparation for making those decisions is in analyzing the earth’s terrain. This mindset allows the reader to more easily imagine how power is established on earth and become primed to understand what is called in modernity geopolitics.

The meaning of Earth in The Art of War is contrasted with Heaven, although the two do not constitute different worlds as they historically have in the Christian West. Earth is typically used when referring to the ground that is walked on while Heaven refers to the greater constraints surrounding the earth up in the sky but also the state and its rule by the despot. Much of Chinese history is a succession of divine emperors with a special relationship to Heaven and from which the state derives its authority. The contrast is stark in the case of China: the emperor rules the earthly kingdom down below from the center of the state and with the authority of Heaven from up above. According to Sun Tzu, what unites them into a harmonious state is the Tao (Way):

“The Tao causes the people to be fully in accord with the ruler. Thus will die with him; they will live with him and not fear death.

Heaven encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons.

Earth encompasses far or near, difficult or easy, expansive or confronted, fatal or tenable terrain.” (Chapter 1, Initial Estimations)

The ever-important and always sought after Tao is the unifying glue that keeps ruler and people, general and soldier together. It also ensures that warriors and aristocracy are bound together in a common cause, but warfare is conducted under different circumstances than state administration. The state is stationary and is located on a fixed territory whose borders can expand or shrink so long as it doesn’t dissolve or become subsumed. It’s duty is administration and it is from here that the decisions to go to war are made that the military then carries out. The military, on the other hand, is mobile and ruled by the generals orders as they maneuver through the terrain of the earth. These are two different and opposed organizations of a social body that have allied, or we could say, with Deleuze and Guattari, that the military’s war machine is captured by the state apparatus. The Tao in all of its glory and prestige is here viewed as a tool for capture. As Sun Tzu makes clear at the beginning of chapter seven, the despot is in control but then let loose: “[From the time] the general receives his commands from the ruler, unites the armies, and assembles the masses, to confronting the enemy and encamping, there is nothing more difficult than military combat.” He also notes at the end of chapter three that the general’s military is on a campaign it should be left alone: “One whose general is capable and not interfered with by the ruler will be victorious.”

Heaven is also not merely invoked as a province of the state but denotes the sky and wind which are not so far above the ground. When the army moves and strikes with fury, Sun Tzu often describes this as the force whose “speed is like the wind” (ch.7) or that crashes down “from above with the greatest heights of Heaven.” (ch.4). This is to say that the Heaven of Sun Tzu and his time is above the ground and soars high but doesn’t constitute another world unto itself. Earth and Heaven are natural forces that can be manipulated by the army and the state. It is something greater (not higher) than Heaven in the Tao that brings with it the unity of military and state, ruler and people, and general and soldier – the glue that creates cohesion. In a way, the army seeks Heaven by gaining the high ground from which it can attack using less energy and with the force of gravity on its side. Obviously high ground is still ground and so part of the earth but the meaning is clear: the strategic advantage is gained by properly utilizing the elemental forces of both Earth and Heaven.

While an irresistible attack force bears down from Heaven high above, good military strategy is built from the ground-up. As the general plans the movement and positioning of his troops he must master surveying the terrain. It is the earth that dictates the right decisions for the military; though the general must ultimately make the decision, he must observe the configurations of the terrain and plan in accordance with it or perish. This is made clear in chapter 4, ‘Military Dispositions’:

“As for military methods: … Terrain gives birth to measurement; measurement produces the estimation [of forces]. Estimation [of forces] gives rise to calculating [the numbers of men]. Calculating [the numbers of men] gives rise to weighing [strength]. Weighing [strength] gives birth to victory.” (ch.4)

So the general begins with assessing the terrain, which then leads to measurement, then estimation, then calculation, then weighing, then victory. Going backwards in this logical series, the stronger army will be victorious, but this (weighted) strength requires men. Attaining a superior number of men requires calculation. This calculation (dealing with numbers) relies on estimation, which is further distinguished from calculation in a footnote as follows: “‘Estimation’ is variously described as referring to types of forces suitable for segments of the terrain, such as crossbowmen for the hills, or the quantities of materials required to sustain the battle.” (p.312) Estimation, or matching the type of forces with the corresponding advantageous terrain comes from measurement of the terrain where the general should begin. In another footnote, we learn that “‘Measurement’ is generally understood by the commentators as referring not only to the extent and dimensions of the terrain but also its classification according to the categories advanced in the various chapters that follow.” (p.312) So measurement, like estimation, does not involve numbers but is like surveying the terrain to best determine how to deploy ones army. It comes down to the terrain, or the varieties of the earth, with regards to “military disposition” and “method.” Excepting the last two chapters on incendiary attacks and spies, respectively, the last part of The Art of War is about how to deal with the variety of terrains and the army.

In chapter 11, ‘Nine Terrains’ we learn the classification of terrains and gain advice on what actions to take with respect to them.

“When the feudal lords fight in their own territory, it is ‘dispersive terrain.’

When thy enter someone else’s territory, but not deeply, it is ‘light terrain.’

If when we occupy it, it will be advantageous to us while if they occupy it, it will be advantageous to them, it is ‘contentious terrain.’

When we can go and they can also come, it is ‘traversable terrain.’

Land of the feudal lords surrounded on three sides such that whoever arrives first will gain the masses of All under Heaven is ‘focal terrain.’

“When one penetrates deeply into enemy territory, bypassing numerous cities, it is ‘heavy terrain.’

Where there are mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes, wherever the road is difficult to negotiate, it is ‘entrapping terrain.’

“Where the entrance is constricted, the return is circuitous, and with a small number they can strike out masses, it is ‘encircled terrain.’

Where if one fights with intensity he will survive but if he does not fight with intensity he will perish, it is ‘fatal terrain.’” (my emphasis)

The main goal for an army is to seize the focal terrain. This is to seize the enemy’s capital and gain control of all of the people in the state, their resources, administration, and, to use Sun Tzu’s parlance, “the masses of All under Heaven”. This being a text written for generals of state-deployed armies (and it is hard to imagine a text written by barbarians for the purpose of military strategy as opposed to oral stories), the objective is to acquire another state’s territory and assume rule for one’s army’s ruler. Focal terrain takes on a geopolitical significance when it is seen as the central node in the network of state distribution. It is terrain without which one could not rule and administer a great many people in the largest territory possible – the territory within the borders of the state. This is ground where the concentration of power is the greatest.

The location of focal terrain and so the state capital is not arbitrary but a matter of defense and accessibility. It too is predetermined by the shape of the earth in terms of being such an important location that one must choose a spot that will be difficult to overtake by an invading army. But it is easy to see why focal terrain is associated with Heaven in that it is the place where the ruler can rule over all his subjects. It is a state-decision made by men that determines focal terrain and its purpose is to allow for the state to endure as long as possible. A state is meant to persist as long as possible and its borders must retain integrity. It’s capture is then a long-term goal of a captured military (by the state) and redirected by the state to follow its dictates. Focal terrain is the nexus that connects a mobile military force with a territorial state: the military flows towards the focal terrain with this alliance and receives the glory bestowed by the state for its services.

Light terrain and heavy terrain are both defined with respect to the borders of the state. Sun Tzu’s advice on light terrain is to “not stop” and “have [the troops] group together”, presumably because the opposing army will quickly reinforce their border’s integrity and troops will be inclined to return to the safety of their own home territory. His advice for heavy terrain is to “ensure a continuous supply of provisions” though “plunder.” “When the troops have penetrated deeply, they will be unified, but where only shallowly, they will [be inclined to] scatter.” To be deep inside an enemy’s territory is to be in a hostile environment and that common experience pulls the troops together in fear. From here on to the focal terrain it is a matter of not falling into entrapping terrain, encircled terrain, and, of course, fatal terrain. An army must occupy and hold contentious terrain first and then is told “do not attack”, on traversable terrain “focus on defense”, because the field is open on all sides.

Sun Tzu’s advice for entrapping terrain is to move quickly, not to encamp or do battle. These places are the marshes, forests, mountains and so forth that restrict movement. A very important principle is to not become trapped, channeled into a narrow space where the enemy can attack you with a small force (encircled terrain), or otherwise be forced into restricted spaces. It is here on encircled terrain that a general’s strategic prowess is most put to test, for Sun Tzu simply says “use strategy.” Here is where the complex configurations of flanking, surrounding, and holding lines comes into play, that is, as long as one general hasn’t thoroughly out-prepared the other. When you are on fatal terrain, it is win or die. This should of course be avoided, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the troops that they must to battle with the utmost ferocity – leave it all out on the battlefield. A fatal battle is not necessary in a war but is the worst case scenario. This is roughly how to “[r]ealize the appropriate employment of the hard and soft through the patterns of terrain.”

Since a general cannot have a superior knowledge of a foreign territory, he must gain that knowledge with help. Sun Tzu advises using the locals to explain their terrain, for this information is paramount. “One who does not know the topography of mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes cannot maneuver the army. One who does not employ local guides will not secure advantages of terrain.” So again geographical tactics are the way to keep one’s army moving and successful. It is rather interesting to note that Sun Tzu seems to be speaking to the generals of invading armies rather than ones in defense, although one could easily reverse these principles and try to restrict a foreign army invading ones home territory with entrapping, encircling, and disrupting their alliances.

In the preceding chapter, ‘The Configurations of Terrain’, we get another category of terrains that are even more specific to the relationship between two armies confronting each other. These terms operate as simple directives so I will only touch on them briefly:

“If we can go forth and the enemy can also advance, it is termed ‘accessible.’ In an accessible configuration, first occupy the heights and yang [sunny] [side], and improve the routes for transporting provisions. Then when we engage in battle, it will be advantageous.

If we can go forth but it will be difficult to return, it is termed ‘suspended.’ In a suspended configuration, if they are unprepared go forth and conquer them…

If it is not advantageous for us to go forth nor advantageous for the enemy to come forward, it is termed “stalemated.”…

As for constricted configurations, if we occupy them first we must fully deploy throughout them in order to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first and fully deploys in them, do not follow them in…

As for precipitous configurations, if we occupy them we must hold the heights and yang [sunny] side to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first, withdraw [our forces] and depart…

As for expansive configurations, if our strategic power is equal, it will be difficult to provoke them to combat. Engaging them in combat will not be advantageous.” (ch.10)

It is maneuvering within these configurations and terrains that the advantage is gained, with a preparing eye always focused on the moves ahead. It is important to add that even when the advantage is lost or one is under-prepared, the soldiers can also overtake the opposing soldiers with better training or the simple and unpredictable element of battlefield luck.

As testified by the still present popularity of The Art of War, the conduct of war has not changed in its most fundamental aspects. War is fought by the proper control of the flow of humans and goods over the diversity of the surface of the earth. An army is an easy to distinguish force of humans who must act in a disciplined and hierarchical manner. Ancient warfare is conducted at a much different scale than modern warfare, but the close attachment to the earth remains. War has changed its shape drastically over the recent centuries with the invention of guns and explosives, production of greater vehicles, ships and so forth with steel, and the greater complexity of forces of economic production. Colonies have long been an objective of military might but the increase in technological innovation has enlarged the scale of resource extraction, leading empire to become something different in form and justifying the new word imperialism. British imperial control of sea-routes for its mercantile trade and subsequent American control of petroleum and international finance are examples of warfare taken to new heights. These developments extend the earth-dependent theater of war into politics with the aptly termed geopolitics.

Modern war is less delineated between military and civilian, with the twentieth and early twenty-first century seeing unprecedented civilian deaths and tactics that blur the line. The theater of war seems to have spread throughout the globe along with the ever refined image of the map, which is strangely enough the view of the earth from the Heavens. With these new tools like the map, and a standard mass education with which to read them, a great many more people are able to think and understand the strategies and tactics of war and geopolitics. The state is, at least in theory or through struggle, capable of fulfilling its modern quality as a nation-state and allow the people to have more decision-making power than the despotic rulers of “All under Heaven” of the past. In this way, through nations and international bodies, people ought to be able to influence the actions of the state in a way that only a ruler and his court could before. Just as the operations of war have expanded into civilian and economic realms, so those realms can influence the decisions to engage in war or not – provided political power is actually attained.

To better influence the right course of action (or Tao if you will), a public would be advised to use the achievements of the nation and become educated in the ways of geopolitics. Adding the earth to political opinions is not only a better way to predict and impose one’s will within the political but has been emphasized in the methods of warfare since at least ancient times.


I used Ralph D. Sawyer’s 1994 Basic Books edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for all quotes.  The image is the book cover.


On Cowboy Bebop, part two

The next time we get to peer into Spike’s journey is the two part Jupiter Jazz. Here we learn more about the Vicious vs. Spike dynamic, the politics of Spike’s old syndicate, and we even get a fragment of a cosmology fit for the world of Cowboy Bebop.

By the time of Jupiter Jazz, the Bebop crew has become pretty well established and settled into the ship. So much have they grown as a team, they all split up and run away from each other. Faye takes off with the crew’s common fund and Spike and Jet “break up” in a fight over what to do about it. Spike is off on his own with a loose tip that his dream-girl is out on a moon of Jupiter called Calisto. Calisto has got to be the most depressed looking town you’ve ever seen depicted in an animated show, and their is slow, lulling jazz saxophone playing over the shots we get of it.

We hear it’s in the midst of a financial depression and it is constantly snowing (I guess the weather regulation workers quit). The mood of the place perfectly reflects the characters mood; having grown accustomed to their living situation on the Bebop, the banality of life together has settled in along with them and they can’t take it. They’ve reached that decision point where it’s a future of comradeship or taking their separate ways and they do what they’ve been doing their whole lives: flee. When Spike wakes up at the beginning of the session he asks where everyone is and gets a non-reply, he then remarks dryly, “what a depressing group.

It’s here on Calisto that Spike runs into Vicious again, but we don’t learn much from their exchanges. Instead we get a look into the psyche of Vicious via his relationship with an old war friend. With the Bebop crew scattered in their sad, frustrated city without any women, the entirety of Jupiter Jazz is centered around an old comrade of Vicious – someone named Gren. It is in their “friendship” that we can understand the contrast that Vicious offers to Spike.

Gren reaches out to Vicious for a drug deal, a deal that has brought Vicious out to Calisto. They were in the same squad in a war that took place not far away on Titan. It was there that they met and Vicious gave him a little music-box during a break in the fighting. Vicious never actually says anything to Gren that we hear, but he cuts down a scorpion walking right next to Gren’s face. During the shot, there is a moment where the viewer thinks Vicious put the knife through Gren’s face until we switch up to see that he has helped him. Anyways, they have their comradely moment and Gren thinks he’s made a friend.

Vicious however doesn’t remember things so warmly. Gren was put in military prison after the war and he learned that Vicious testified against him. Distraught by a betrayal from someone he trusted and considered his comrade, Gren reaches out to make a deal. When they meet back up for their drug deal after so much time has passed by, Gren wants answers:

“…We were comrades, risked everything together in that battleground of death. I trusted you. I believed in you.”
Vicious: “There is nothing in this world to believe in. There is no need to believe.”

Vicious shows his true colors here and why it is Spike’s destiny to cut him down. He shows no remorse and will kill anyone who gets in his way towards more power. His old war buddy is easily thrown away to the dungeon despite being friends. Vicious is saved by his bodyguard, a person whom Spike knew from the syndicate at a young age, when he jumps in front of Vicious to take the bullet. When Vicious leaves he takes the huge drug score and looks over his bodyguard’s dead body and says to himself (all alone mind you): “There is nothing in this world to believe in.”

This scene paints Vicious as a thoroughgoing nihilist. It’s not just his own statement that there is nothing to believe in that makes him so: his unflinching stare, his cold eyes that are compared to a snake, and his unhesitating use of violence without changing his expression all demonstrate his lack of care for anyone who stands between him in his search for power. No friend or lover is spared, not a comrade from war nor a best friend. He turns on Spike in the past, as we recollect from memory fragments, and calls him “a beast whose lost his fangs” who now deserves to die – must die. Vicious’s world is one of competing powers slaying each other until one reigns supreme and then must keep that power. It’s the Hobbesian world of constant war, all against all until you get to the top of the chain and subject everyone else to your will. Some might also call him a ’realist’.

Gren fell prey to Vicious’s snake-eyed beast not so much as a combatant as a romantic who believed in his old friend, wondering desperately what could have become of a relationship forged under the most trying of circumstances. He was withering away in a snowy city with no women and no future trying to make sense of what happened to him and why a friend could do such a thing and break the bond that he had thought was so strong. The cold heart of Vicious was underestimated by Gren, but he wanted closure above all else anyways – Gren knew that he was going to die soon because of an illness) so he chose to chase after the dream of his old friendship, fond memories of the bonds from war camaraderie, the old fraternity.

The state of war has effected the two characters in different ways and pushed them in different directions, despite their becoming friends for its duration. Vicious never really left a state of war. He continued to aggressively work his way up the commander’s hierarchy afterwards as a member of a syndicate. Friends are a mere stepping stone towards victory, including comrades, mentors (both Spike and Mao), lovers, and bodyguards – his own troops. The closest we ever get to a reason for his relentless pursuit of power is here in Jupiter Jazz: “There is nothing in this world to believe in.” Gren is the opposite. He covets his comrades and is “attracted to that very word.” Gren appears as a woman for the moment of exchange and represents a kind of feminine disruption of the male-fraternal military order. As a result of Vicious’s betrayal, Gren was forced to undergo some experimental drug therapy that scrambled his hormones and gave him female breasts as well as other feminine qualities. He tells Faye “I am both and neither one.” His transgender status was not his choice though, it was more of a consequence of Vicious’ willingness to throw his friends away into the dungeon for personal gain. It’s as if the feminine side of life had to be embraced to counter the affects of Vicious.

Gren meets up with Faye before the drug deal and they have an tender exchange of their own. The intervention of Gren’s story and his position as trans offers a nexus within the show that allows the two men and their woman comrade to get along without so much bickering. Whereas in previous episodes they were at each other’s throats and making essentialist claims about men’s honor and women’s sensibilities (especially in session 6), from now on they are far more lenient with each other as they explore their own personal pasts and catch bounties with efficiency. This isn’t to say they stop yelling at and complaining about each other, but their attacks are much more comradely and much less vicious* from here on out (another subtle shift you can pick up in the duration of the show). The conversation between Gren and Faye stands out in the show and deserves to be quoted in full:

Gren: “So you came all the way out here all alone?”
Faye: “I am alone. I don’t need any comrades. They’re not worth it. I end up worrying about things I shouldn’t, you know me being such a prize and all that. All the guys end up fighting over me Like dogs.
They say people are social animals – they can’t live alone. But you can live pretty well all by yourself. I swear, when I’m dealing with them it’s nothing but trouble. And I get nothing out of it, so it doesn’t matter if I’m there or not, right?”
Gren: “Your were just afraid they would abandon you, so you abandoned them. You distanced yourself from the whole thing.”
Faye: “Your a strange one aren’t you?
Gren: “I guess so.”
Faye: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I feel like I’m in a confesion booth, You’re not a preacher by any chance are you?
Gren: “No.”

Faye clearly had things to get off of her chest. As she was settling into a living situation that was oddly comfortable and just the right fit for a high-risk-high-reward person, she took off for fear of intimacy. She claims that the boys keep fighting over her, as I’m sure those in her past have, and that she’s getting no benefits from the relationship, but she’s called-out instantly by someone who actually has no one to call a comrade and knows exactly how that feels long-term (rather than merely running away from it). Gren tells her that she is the one with abandonment issues, that her disregard for comrades is bogus. She’s so taken aback that he comes off as a preacher bestowing wisdom upon her in her moment of vulnerability. And it is with this advice from a lonely trans person with a rough backstory that the Bebop crew gets over their petty squabbling and becomes a genuinely capable crew of bounty hunters. Post-Gren and post-Callisto (those embodiments of abandonment, loneliness, and depression) the Bebop crew learns to appreciate each other and solve some major (and minor) problems for the people they encounter.

This is made even more clear by the immediately following session (again) when they quit the solo search for a bounty head (with a “friendly competition” incentive) and pool their own heads together to solve a major crime. They end up getting to the bottom of a corporate cover-up that explains why the great catastrophe that ruined earth was allowed to happen. The world again undergoes a kind of symbolic healing when the man who invented the hyperspace gate technology is put to rest. The bebop crew learns who was at fault and a once brilliant old man is allowed to rest in peace.

The journey of Faye helps highlight what has happened to the world in Cowboy Bebop’s future. Her story begins when she is awakened from a long frozen slumber with no memory of any part of her past life. One might think she is like a blank slate without a past, thrust into the world to try and fend for herself in her mid to late twenties. But there is one big thing that looms large: the medical debt that has accrued from her cryogenic treatment after all of the decades. So she never really had a blank slate: her massive debt that she has no means to pay back demonstrates how nobody gets to begin their life from a neutral position in this world. Her debt is not to any community or family (whom she cannot remember and are likely long since dead) but a numerical debt that must be paid for a service she never agreed on. Her life is dominated by what modern images of human culture always seem to leave out: debt. She has been made responsible for the cost of the machines that have kept her alive. Bereft of any cultural, familial, or personal memory and dropped into this cybernetic solar system, she still must pay.

Faye’s backstory offers a complement with Spike’s: she is not tied by her past in the same way that Spike is but burdened by it nonetheless. She is tormented by her lack of memory whereas Spike is tormented by a memory that will not will not disappear from his sight. We learn in the last session, when Spike tells Faye no less, that he has one prosthetic eye that only sees the past, splitting his very perception of the present into past/present. Half of Spike is stuck in the past by his very vision; his own body’s functioning has an imprint of the past inside of it, surgically engineered into one of his eye sockets. Faye on the other hand has no memory of past but spends her time searching for a way for it to come back to her – her dream of rekindling whatever life it was that she lost.

When Faye woke up from cryogenic sleep, she ran into some bad luck. A con-artists tricked her into falling in love with him, faked his death, and subsequently placed all of *his debts on top of hers. Now she is carrying around a ridiculous amount of debt that could never be repaid. When we are first introduced to Faye she is we learn that she is a freewheeling gambler who has learned herself how to swindle and cheat in order to survive and she has no desire to pay back such massive debt. Her auspicious start to life in the predatory solar system capitalism of Cowboy Bebop has taught her how to survive such a hostile environment: cheat or be cheated. She lives the fast life of high stakes, high risks, and lavish consumption, with an unashamed addiction to gambling. Although, such a lifestyle precludes settling down anywhere legally and necessitates avoiding the police at all times, so she ends up fills in nicely in a world full of wandering souls.

Faye’s transition to bounty hunter and her addition to the Bebop crew is rocky though aided by Gren in Jupiter Jazz. She might have a long-term goal of filling the empty place in her memory and finding a place to call home, but as soon as she remembers her past in a flood of images towards the end of the show she comes to see that her old house on earth has been obliterated and nothing of her old family ties enduring into the present. Her memory comes back to her, but no connections or life remains there in the ruble. Her old home, like the rest of earth, is a disaster zone that nobody wants to clean up. People have instead settled for continued expansion into outer space with the memory of the past being to painful to sit and dwell on for very long. Faye hasn’t had the time to adjust to this new life, waking up suddenly into the inter-solar system (like the viewer), so her quest for a past ends up in the place people have long since forgotten. The home that was once earth for every person has become like Faye’s memory (initially): desolate.

The end of Ed’s story also brings her back to earth. The oddball hacker kid isn’t exactly on a quest to locate anyone in her past so much as surfing the endless sea of the internet with total mastery. Ed is not searching for anything in her past, only new websites and databases for hacking, but she runs into old family nonetheless. As soon as she helps Faye locate her old home on earth though, Ed finds her father still traversing the earth with his own obsession. Ed’s father (we never learn his real name, Ed makes one up though) is as quirky as Ed: he spends his entire life roaming around the earth’s surface and mapping the changes as they occur to it as soon as possible. The constant barrage of meteors that hit the earth’s surface change the makeup of the landscape every few hours, making a clear geological picture of the surface very difficult to keep track of. The amount of will and labor involved in mapping such a landscape is borderline insane, which adequately describes Ed’s father.

Ed’s Father: “Since the gate accident, chaos rules the earth.  How do you regain peaceful peace and non-chaos in the cosmic sense?  Only through maps, that’s right! The earth has changed so we map those changes to understand them.”

Assistant: “We’re creating maps of the newly altered planet earth so we can save it!”

Ed’s Father: “… then we update those maps, thus changing chaos to order.”

His dream of reestablishing “cosmic order” with the earth through maps will seem futile to someone whose already taken flight from the earth and into the rest of the planets, but this guy stands like a giant rock on the ground, unflinching. Throughout the show, Spike pretty much handles all of his opponents skillfully and is never outmatched by even a dozen guys, but when he starts fighting Ed’s father he is torn to shreds. His powerful kicks have no effect and his punches all flail off course. A sweep kick lands on his legs but moves it not an inch – like he was kicking a giant tree trunk rooted in the ground. This guy brushes aside Spike with ease. His strong and sturdy stature is the perfect foil for Spikes nimble dance-fighting. He holds his ground and will continue with his with project despite anyone trying to get in his way.

The desire for a reestablished earth, with a well-ordered map that will provide the ground for a more ordered “cosmos”, is certainly a monkey-wrench thrown in at the end of the show. Here someone in the show that finally has some optimism and enough charge to go right through anyone who tries to stop him. His quest consumes him entirely though; he leaves his newfound daughter behind to go chase after another meteor strike (even forgetting her gender). The dream of reordering a chaotic geology in persistent flux and a fully charted earth is intriguing but born of the chaos resulting from the mad dash into outer space. The manic obsession with order is a reaction to the haphazard colonization of anything and everything now reachable by the new technology of hyperspace travel. Mapping out the constant changes to the earth’s surface is a way of coping with the chaos of humanity’s new era of synthetic environments in the darkness of deep space. The desire for a perfectly represented surface of the earth and the stability of that old home is the same desire for the perfectly planned cities that inhabit the other planets and moons, only here it works on rubble. It’s a bit reactionary, the more and more I sit and think about it, yet another dream to add to the list in the world of Cowboy Bebop. And yet, still, his eccentricity for an earth forgotten by everyone else is charming. Unlike most eccentrics in Cowboy Bebop, Ed’s Father’s fantasy isn’t interfering with anyone else’s livelihood either.

Comparisons could be drawn with session nine, in which Ed first joins the Bebop crew. It is presumed that someone is hacking into a satellite and drawing old patterns on the surface of the earth from orbit. However, as our protagonists discover, the satellite system itself is taking its lasers and burning imprints into the ground in the form of primitive sketches of extinct animals. Since the accident that destroyed much of the earth, much of the former life on the planet has disappeared. The satellite computer (which Ed gives the name EMPU, like CPU but with empathy perhaps) has grown lonely at the absence of activity and forms it once observed. After the destruction of the earth, it seems that even the machines once used to monitor it are trying to recreate the way it used to be. EMPU’s crude drawings of animal migrations and other patterned behavior from the perspective of a satellite in orbit are similar to Ed’s father’s dream of an earth restored to order with maps. Both are using the the same point of view in looking down on the earth as a map does (order in the comic sense), while one is creating a digital, real-time representation and the other is using its memory to make primitive art of the way things once were. The computer intelligence is reconstructing the things it once observed on earth’s surface from rough memory, while Ed’s father, the human, is reconstructing the surface of the earth in the purest accuracy he can achieve in the ever-present. His dream is the image of the perfect picture of the earth, an exact image of an earth that refuses to remain true to the image.

The two-part Jupiter Jazz session described above opens and closes from the first scene to the last with an old wise man speaking with a youth out in the secluded mountains. Old Man Bull is first spotted by Spike in session one and is visited by Jet in the last session. He gives words of advice in all of his lines throughout the show and in Jupiter Jazz he speaks of Gren:

Youth: “A star just fell from the sky.”

Old Man Bull: “That is not an ordinary star, that star is the tear of a warrior. A lost soul who has finished his battle somewhere here on this planet. A pitiful soul who could not find his way to the lofty realm we here the great spirit awaits us all.”

The star was indeed Gren in his spaceship burning up on its way to the surface of Calisto. Gren wanted to go back to the battlefield of Calisto to rest in the place where he made his friends, where the intensity of combat produced his cherished bonds of comradeship. A star that has fallen. If Gren’s story has one more thing to tell us it’s that, despite the benefits of friendship and the increased joy and strength that such a bond makes, the pining for lost connections can drag us down. Gren’s old wartime bond became a kind of fetish he could not let go of, that pulled him down like a meteor is pulled down to a planet. We see this reflected in Spike’s desire for his dream-girl Julia, Faye’s longing for any memory of her past at all (a time and place where she be-longs), and Jet’s desire for a just police force. It’s the desire to fill a void with something spectral, a fantasy that one’s life will be absolved of its problems once it is reached – the void occupied. It causes a comet bursting with energy and momentum to be attracted to a massive object and burned up during the descent.

A warning coming from the wise, but once that longing for a lost dream is avoided, what comes next? We don’t get to see that until the end so sit tight and enjoy the ride. The sense of belonging that the Bebop crew has in the present is not the answer either; it would only be a further fetishizing of the crew that one has established and is a part of, that is, if the way to keep burning bright is to remain in place. Becoming satisfied with what we’ve already got and counting our eggs or blessing or whatever only transfers the wayward dream into the here and now: domesticating desire as it were.

Old Man Bull’s metaphor of life as a star is a perfect fit for the solar system world of Cowboy Bebop, where the only ones left on the home planet of earth are maniacs. A life now burns like a star to eventually burn up by the acceleration caused by a nearby moon, planet, or asteroid. Released from the bounds of the home that was the earth, we are left shooting around a constellation of space-stations at light-speed, each of us more like shooting stars than earthly creatures. Giant spaceships zip through a lightly-sparkled abyss. No longer bound to the earth and destined to be recycled into the earth’s ecosystems, we instead burn up and burn out in space.

On Cowboy Bebop, part one

Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.

It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh.

If you prefer not to be spoiled, then here: *spoiler alert*. Now go watch the show asap and come back. This essay would better be read after watching the whole show, but I’ve tried to write it for those who haven’t as well. Many will not be familiar with Japanese anime, but those put off by cartoonish things are missing out on a true piece of art with Cowboy Bebop.

The world of Cowboy Bebop is post-catastrophic. Written before our era of post-apocalyptic over-saturation, the world of Bebop drags on much like our present does but does so in the greater theatre of the solar system. “Hyper-space gates” have allowed for travel to other planets and asteroids for human colonization. The science fiction imagination that stimulated thoughts of outer-space exploration in the dark uncharted sea of black has pushed people as far as the (once)planet-turned-prison Pluto and the terraformed planet of Venus. Though we travel to exotic locations, much of the scenery doesn’t change that much – we still have the same airports, slums, skyscrapers, and cars but now with flying ships fit into the grid. The only thing to indicate a difference in the city environments is greater and lesser degrees of poverty. It is as if the future has come and only made things worse: more homelessness, a greater disparity between rich and poor countries (now planets instead of earth-regions), and mafioso “syndicates” that routinely infiltrate the police force and extort the local neighborhoods. The main characters are self-employed bounty hunters who scrape out a living by catching criminals wanted by the police and chase the dream of that big payoff for that big bounty head. From a macro perspective, this is a system by which a corrupted police force (the beyond global ISSP: ’Inter-Solar Special Police’) sics poor people on wanted criminals who don’t have the means to pay them off. Welcome to the future of Cowboy Bebop, 2071.

The new hyper-space gate technology mentioned above was developed when people were still earthbound, but they quickly found a way to travel to the moon and back with relative ease. As we learn in Session 14, the still young invention was pushed into production prematurely and caused a massive disaster that marks the beginning of the new era. An explosion of the first hyper-space gate near the moon destroyed a large chunk of the earth’s only moon and sent its shards hurling toward earth. The moon rocks killed many people on earth and formed a thick asteroid layer in earth’s orbit that pelts its surface repeatedly with meteors. The entire planet earth became a disaster zone – a place where the memory of a great catastrophe lives on everyday. Rather than tend to the planet of their origin, the earthlings of Cowboy Bebop chose to double-down on their new space-travel technology and transform the rest of the solar system into synthetic earth-like environments. Like with most characters and the general mood of the show, the home that was once earth has been lost and we are left as drifters wandering the great empty expanse of outer space. Everyone seems haunted by some demon of their past; a missing sense of belonging pervades the atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop and nowhere is this more obvious than with the loss of the earth as home.

There are those that still remain, but throughout the show they are depicted as “weirdos” – the only ones crazy enough to still remain there amidst the rubble and meteor showers. So we are in a situation in which those with a home (planet) are the crazy ones and everyone else who is opportunistic enough to move towards greater wealth and prosperity are homeless. The homeless are well-adjusted and sane, while those that remain are crazy.

One of the most important devices that Cowboy Bebop employs is the transitional shots between scenes set over the moody soundtrack. These landscapes, cityscapes, slum shots build up the world without doing too much work And give the viewer a respite from the high-octane battles and chase scenes. They are mostly still-shots that give the viewer a sense of what ordinary life is like in this new world:


This bleakness pervading the societies and the tightly controlled environments they are set in is reflected in the main characters of the show. Spike Spiegel is a former syndicate member searching for his beloved Julia, hoping that when they reunite they can start over and live free: “it’ll be like watching a dream.” Faye Valentine is a woman in massive debt who is constantly worried about authorities trying to collect on her, while simultaneously unable to remember anything at all about her life before she woke up in this future in her mid-twenties. When Faye wakes up, she is immediately conned into taking on somebody else’s huge debt load before she can even get acclimated to this new world. Welcome to the future Faye. Jet Black is an ex-policeman of the ISSP, who quit in a quiet protest of its intractable corruption. Jet owns the spaceship that the Bebop crew makes their home for a few years, turning his sense of justice towards catching criminals in a non-institutional setting. It is in investigating the circumstances around bounty heads that the theatre of justice takes place in Cowboy Bebop, where the crew members must decide which characters should be pursued and captured and which ones should be assisted. All of this, of course, so long as they have enough food to eat.

Then there’s Ed, the child genius hacker from earth whose personality is as wily and chaotic as the internet screen which she is constantly looking at and a master at controlling. Coming from earth, Ed is reminder of the manic, ecstatic earthlings together with the hyper stimulation of the internet, where one’s attention can be pulled in many directions at the speed of light. They also have a dog, his name is Ein.

Together the Bebop crew becomes rather successful, as each one of them is extremely talented in their specialties. Everyone can shoot firearms and pilot aircraft very well, Spike and Faye are top-notch hand-to-hand fighters with Jet being no slouch, Ed’s hacking gives them almost unlimited access to information, and Jet has many useful contacts from his old police-force job. Though they are able to tackle the most dangerous and difficult cases, they always seem like they are just barely earning enough to get by. While they are likely the most adept bounty hunting crew in the solar system, the threat of running out of food and fuel always looms, making you wonder just how difficult it is for everyone else. And we don’t have to guess too much either, the bounties they go after and side characters they meet along the way are usually in a desperate situation and trying to get out if not seeking some lost connection of yesterday. They generally earn the sympathy of the Bebop crew, in contrast to the scammers and thugs who do the grunt work of keeping these dreamers locked into their place in the system and/or extracting tribute. That job falls on the syndicate henchmen, small-time crooks, and the police.

Nearly everyone we meet including the main crew has a dream for how their life will be resolved and their fortunes reversed. Between the constant presence of the syndicates, the ISSP, and the bounty hunters, improving one’s life is a high risk endeavor and often means moving to entirely different planet. Migration from the global South to the global North is dangerous today on earth, so imagine having to get off your economically depressed colony in an expensive spaceship, fly through space, then enter only a handful of guarded gates and you get the picture. As the Bebop crew witnesses the failed dreams of the people they meet it starts to dawn on them that this rag-tag living situation they have going on right now with each other isn’t as bad as they think. Faye’s dream for finding and remembering her past life is dashed when she discovers the rubble of her old house, Spike comes to terms with Julia and his’ entanglement with the syndicate, and Jet becomes resigned to carry out a little justice on the fringes of the inter-solar system instead of root it out entirely as a hero-cop. The glitter of their lost dreams starts to fade as time wears on but rather than let it drag them down, they learn to make good use of their exceptional skills by relying on each other. Most episodes are a lesson in the dangers of lofty dreams of distant place, with the occasional nod to the comfort of friendship, that is, if they are not about how irredeemably corrupt the solar system is. By putting their camaraderie to good use and getting over their illusions the Bebop crew actually ends up helping a few people their struggles and ridding the world of some nasty ones.

There are hints of our characters progressively breaking free from the grip of impossible dreams as the show progresses, but the subtlety of it is what makes the simg_0844how so endearing. You can go back and watch the series a second time (or nth time like me) and look for the slow transformation that the characters go through; doing this will only increase your affections for the characters and their little crew. The in-your-face gushing of energy from all of the fighting, musical jamming, and noir-style case-cracking becomes almost a distraction from how the main characters learn to face-up to their fate.

The first session, Asteroid Blues, sets the thematic standard for how the show will operate. Broke, hungry, and angry with each other, Spike and Jet set off for a new bounty head on a slummy border-town asteroid. They chase after a man named Asimov Solenson who stole a lot of a potent drug that the syndicates cooked up. His plan is to sell enough of it with his girlfriend and run off to Mars – where they can be happy. Breaking with their gang and taking the drug-selling business on all by themselves creates a ripple in the fabric of their town – a colony called Tijuana situated on an asteroid. Their attempted break with the crime business norm has got not just the gangs but the police and our protagonist bounty hunters all chasing after him. Asimov and his lady make their play to improve their lives, following an new form of the American dream we could redub ‘The Mars Dream’, and end up the center of attention.

The runaway couple escaping their troubled life for a safer, more prosperous one elsewhere perfectly mirrors Spike’s motivation. His own attempt to abscond with his beloved Julia was cut off when she stood him up at the meeting place. A deflated Spike is now cast adrift around the solar system looking for her: his lost dream. This gives him more time to contemplate the prospect of escapist dreams, which he does by interacting with the colorful characters that the Bebop crew comes into contact with in their bounty hunting adventures. The nameless woman that looks very much like a Hispanic version of Julia befriends Spike for a brief conversation. She tells him of their dream to go to Mars: “ I hear there are parks, festivals – people are happy there”, to which Spike replies “Sure, if you’re rich.” “Then I’m sure we will be quite happy.” She seems to think that they can be rich too and start a nice family in their better place: she looks about eight months pregnant. This suggests she is looking forward to idyllic family-life you see in advertisements from the nineteen-fifties, but the swell under her dress is actually a hiding spot for the drug vials they need to sell. Spike follows them to the end of the line – a police line that lights up their spacecraft and ends the couple’s dream at the same moment she makes eye-contact with him and says: “Adios.”

Though Spike may be sympathetic to the couple’s plight, his goal was to chase after them and collect a reward for putting them in jail. Watching the two go out together he is no doubt reminded of his own dream-girl and the danger that comes with trying to get out from under gang rule. The ’better place’ in this solar system has massive barriers to entry and requires, for the majority of people anyways, an escape that sets off alerts in the systems of control headed by the syndicate-police corruption alliance that Jet so despises. Even here, in the outer space that once filled children’s dreams with wonder, social mobility is only more risky – in proportion with the size of the society that has grown out into space. Everybody dreams though, so what’s a person to do? Much of the progression of the show shines forth in those moments when the characters alter their dreams to fit the realities of their situation. This is not merely say they quit dreaming and get real, but, as we will see, reevaluate their expectations and make the best of the powers that they have.

We finally meet characters from Spike’s past in session 5, Ballad of Fallen Angels. Spike’s old boss, his mentor Mao Yenrai, has been killed and goes to investigate a bounty that’s been placed on his head, though he knows there is far more behind the story. He returns to his old neighborhood to get more intel on the situation and visits his old friend Annie who then begins drinking big glasses of hard alcohol in front of him.

“What’s bad for my health is seeing you come back from the dead;” she says, “it’s a shock to the system.”

“But I’m alive” says Spike.

“No you’re not, you died three years ago. That’s how things work around here.”

There is an awkward silence and then they exchange some warm words about Mao. Spike gets filled in with what the viewer already knows: Spike’s old friend Vicious has killed and replaced the two’s old boss Mao in a power play. He wants to keep the syndicate fierce and resents the way old men are forging peace with other syndicates when they should be fighting for more and more power. This turns out to be Vicious’s sole motivation: achieving power through violence.

Spike returns to the Bebop and immediately gets into an argument with Jet. He is going to face off with his old friend Vicious to get some revenge for his murdering of Mao. He cannot resist getting back involved with the politics of the syndicate from wence he came. The syndicate keeps attracting him back; the old social web of friends and enemies asserts itself. He justifies his fight with Vicious by saying to Jet: “Let’s just say my past is catching up with me.”

When he arrives at the meeting spot, a giant church on a dark hill, Vicious refers to Spike as an angel forced out of heaven become a devil, to which he replies “I’m just watching a bad dream.” Later, the middle of a standoff, Vicious refers to Spike as a “ravenous beast” like him: “The same blood runs through both our viens – the blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.” To which Spike replies, “I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.” The haphazard use of a mix of religious and “wilderness” imagery highlight a greater confusion about dreams coursing through the show. Spike sees his life as if he is drifting around in a purgatorial dream-land. After his affair with Julia fell through, he is still caught in the prospect of a better life with Julia (his dream-object) but in a hazy limbo of dejection. As an soul he is in purgatory, as a beast he is a wanderer no longer hunting other beasts, as a human body he has lived through death with no concern for his future survival anymore (a corpse not yet dead); but in a way, it doesn’t even matter.

The mixture of types of imagery itself does the work of turning Spike into a character stuck in a dream. We will get more imagery in the Spike-centered episodes about snakes, dragons, and stars (on top of angels, beasts, and corpses) but the important point is that Spike is lost and his life is itself a dream. Is Spike stuck in a dream or is he dead? Is he an angel forced out of heaven? Is he an anime character? In the world of Cowboy Bebop, where cybernetic cities are littered across dark, empty space, life goes on as if in a dream that doesn’t get anymore real by fleeing from one side of it to another.

It is between the fantasies that pull us outward and the forces playing on us in our immediate environments that our futures are foretold. A dream imbued with enough desire becomes fantasy, and a fantasy’s merit is determined by where it leads us – its destination. The image of perfection in an entirely different social and environmental situation is a powerful attraction, but all too often the result is abandonment. A dream is just a heap of images upon images upon images, flashing one after the other in an only semi-coherent form. Following an image and placing all of your hopes and wishes into it is not necessarily futile: this is how some of the most intense of human dramas are played out. What Cowboy Bebop demonstrates is the harm that comes to people when they are separated from their formative relationships and the difficulty that comes in reconstructing a place one can call home. The bounty hunters of the Bebop create their new home reluctantly and carry with them a dream that no longer inspires but haunts their lives. Each brief montage of our character’s memories is a patchwork of shots put together without a narrative and layered in a kind of nonlinear hallucinatory sequence. The past buggers every character in Cowboy Bebop like a puzzle that won’t ever accept completion. Our protagonists ease this jumble of painful memories by solving cases and catching bounty heads during their time in their makeshift home. Together and with not a little bit of animosity, they help reground each other in what they have been missing: genuine human relationships.

This situation with our main characters is resonant with the greater solar-system-capitalism or cybernetic-capitalism-in-outer-space of Cowboy Bebop – humanity’s new condition. People have lifted-off from earth and “escaped” its bounds* only to end up with more of the same: consumerism, corrupt authorities, and different, more restrictive bounds*. One can jump from planet to planet, through spectacular and expensive hyperspace gate tunnels, only to end up in the same technocratically controlled cities and terra-formed environments. It’s like the progressive fantasy of jet-propelled innovation already sent us to the stars and our dreams are only left to wander around looking for anything better. The poverty never left, we (as humans living with security-capitalism) just took it right along with us in our mad dash to leave it behind. In this ordeal, the dream of life on another planet is within reach but offers no reprieve: it’s the same as life on earth except more technically integrated with human inventions.

Ballad of Fallen Angels ends with Spike getting thrown off of the church balcony through a window, falling down next to shards of glass as a dream-montage kicks in on his way down. The images of key moments from his past are interspersed with his view falling away from the broken window over a haunting song.

He wakes up looking like a mummy with all of the bandages from the damage. He will continually skirt death throughout the show, only to end up right back on the Bebop crew. Spike just can’t seem to die until he faces Vicious and makes his move at the old powerful syndicate of his past. The immediately following session, Sympathy for the Devil, hits this home with the antagonist being someone who can’t die. As a result of the first hyperspace gate accident on the moon that sent the earth into perpetual turmoil, a boy was infected with some kind of substance that prevents him from aging and always regenerates any bodily harm done to him. This near-immortality has made him totally indifferent to the lives of others. He kills people without care and just moves from one person to use as cover to another, never with any friends to grow old with. This time spent all alone has given him time to perfect the blues harmonica and he wails beautiful sadness throughout the session. Spike takes it upon himself to find the cure and free the boy (now at least seventy) who then thanks him for lifting the curse off of him. Death is something that Spike is going to have to earn. His life itself is a long dream that he will only wake up from when he reconciles with his past. A fallen angel does not get to die so easily.

We get more than a mirror of Spike’s predicament in the immortal child though; we witness a kind of healing of the world with this death. Since the great catastrophe on the moon, nothing has been able to halt humanity from expanding into the solar system or even alter its course. The child is like a painful memory of a human-wide traumatic event that has finally been exorcised. If only symbolically, a different future not wholly stained by the mark of a ruined earth becomes possible with the death of this child who hasn’t aged since the catastrophe.

Two more posts to come!

Geopolitics and Ecological Spirituality in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The last Airbender gives us a stylistic and colorful look at a fictional world of warring nations together with a sharp focus on the planetary and even cosmic elements. The problems and conflicts of nations are interwoven with the quest of a group of teens or pre-teens as they try and right a world that is on the verge of total domination by one nation. These kids have no problem taking on a nation imposing its will on the rest of the planet, primarily using their powers to manipulate the elements but also teaming up with other nations to mass attacks and engage in war. This American cartoon with a decisively Asian stylistic influence, despite its heavy use of spiritual abstractions and flashy battle scenes, highlights some of the most important aspects of global geopolitics for us to learn today.

The imagined planet we begin on is one populated by four different peoples, each representing one element of nature as they were conceived in ancient times: water, earth, fire, and air. The first three nations are locked to a continent, with the air people being monkish nomads inhabiting mountain-top temples and the water nation having territory at both of the planet’s two poles. Keeping these nations each with their disproportionately weighted qualities from invading other territories and assuming power over them is the avatar, a Dali Lama like character that reincarnates upon death and wields enormous power. The avatar alone can learn the power to “bend” the element of each nation, while a select number of people can learn to bend the element from their own nation of origin. It’s an international system that weaves together martial-national ambition with individual spiritual enlightenment into an icon in such a way that nations can be nations, monks can be monks, merchants can be merchants, farmers can be farmers, etc., while a mechanism exists to keep empires from rising. The avatar is like Buddha and Sun-Zu mixed together, as if attaining enlightenment also granted this single great figure a god-like fighting power.

This scenario is an enchanting thought experiment and I’m tempted to ask: “who are the avatars today?” To quickly answer that question, no individual has that power nor should they. But rather than musing on the avatar as inhabiting a middle-place between this fictional world and the real, what I’d like to turn your attention to the way that international politics and forces of the earth work together in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is particularly effective in making the personal/emotional trials and tribulations that most everyone faces in their life blend together with the grand scale of nations and the problems afflicting each. The disruptions and excesses of individuals, villages, and nations, felt by each other when they come into conflict with friends, our travelers, and other nations are all indicated at the same level and with similar affects gone astray. The difficulties of keeping the crew together and on task, moving toward their goal and not at each other’s throats, etc. are reflected in the deficiencies of nations in maintaining an international balance of power. For instance, the leadership and resilience that water bender Katara learns in rallying the band is reflected in the qualities that the Water nation lacked in beating back the Fire Nation, but have had traditionally: resilience and adaptability.

Isaac Yuen has already pointed out many of these connections in his ekostory of the show, so I’ll just link you to his great piece here: []. And there’s two more pieces on Avatar lying that way.

Our heroes eventually pick a member of each elemental to form the final version of their team, but thanks to the main protagonist, the new Avatar Aang, and his giant flying bison (that’s right) Appa the group itself operates nomadically in their quest to “restore balance” between the nations and reestablish harmony. The absent peoples of the show is the air tribe – not only has the Fire Nation killed them all but Aang in an act of genocide but of the three seasons (Books) of the show the book of air is the only one missing. Seeing as the crew we follow on their adventure is always moving from place to place and they are led by the only airbender Aang, we can say that they represent the missing element themselves: the nomadic opposition to the ascendant empire.

The fire nation is in the midst of a conquest of the rest of the nations, having pacified the Water nation more slowly by capturing its water benders and is in the process of laying siege to the Earth Nation. In the finale to season 2, we are taken brilliantly through the stages of a coup in the vast capital of the Earth Nation, Ba Sing Se, with the rest of the war to be fought in clandestine fashion with sneak attacks by the cobbled together rebels met in past episodes. They will attempt an invasion of the Fire Nation and all those left willing and able to fight are accepted, regardless of nationality (or age), in this teenage (at best) militant resistance force.

It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain the balance of power between nations, and she/he is not restricted by the nation in which he/she was born. In season 3 we are told of a particularly significant recent Avatar who was born in the Fire Nation and grew up best friends with the Fire Lord (king), who also happened to have started the fire nation’s dream for expansion and conquest. He was born in the Fire nation and trained together with the soon to be Fire Lord in adolescence, remaining friends until a turn of events allowed the Fire Lord to cross him and begin his multi-generation plan to spread the Fire nation influence and control over the rest of the planet. This cultural superiority was justified by the time of unprecedented technologically-infused prosperity that had to be “shared”. No culture is judged here in its entirety. The ambition of a nation is to be expected; it was the avatar’s inability to foresee the danger of his expansionist fiend and his untimely death due to a natural disaster that disabled him from preventing it. Luck and lack of precaution by those with power seem to be the holders of blame for the war rather than the Fire Lord alone, should blame need be assigned.

The real strength of the show lies in its planetary perspective of warring nations and their continental territories. When the Fire Nation attacks, the Earth Nation loses the will to fight (falling to authoritarian propaganda, fear tactics, and class dissension), and the Water Nation gives way to eking out an existence as scattered and relatively disempowered tribes, the cause is attributed to a lack of harmony. The guarantor of harmony in the Avatar was simply absent, and, in his youthful anxiety in the face of his destined the role, he hid himself away in a kind of bad faith. A lopsided spike in the forces of the planet results from a similar imbalance in the psyche of the main character. It’s as if the show is saying that, in a world where the planet is fully charted out and populated with regional powers, the burden for the excesses of an erratic nation falls with personal make-up of certain well-placed individuals. While the idea of the Avatar is a product of fantasy, people with intentions toward global stability could be inspired to maintain a similar balance within themselves in their rise to a position of influence on the geopolitical stage.

As we look for answers to the question of how such historical atrocities were able to happen we are invariably led to the decisions of some politicians who either scheme on the behalf of others and interest groups or are motivated by their own ambitions toward power. Granted, some obvious imbalances of power can be identified as causing such horrifying effects, such as when technologies are developed and manipulated for war sooner than others (Europeans, the Fire Nation) or when a glut of natural resources are discovered in regions that damn them to strife or obedient subjugation (the Middle East), and not the aspirations of individuals. There are always forces beyond our control on one side and those that we can influence on the other. What Avatar is telling us is that for those decisions that we can make for situations within our ability to exert influence over, it would be better off for all those considered to make those decisions in a state where we are not ourselves under the grip of one passion at the expense of another.

It is much more difficult for someone to excuse something like the Fire Nation for an act of genocide against the people of the Air Tribe. This is the case of a planetary extinction decided by an individual (the Fire Lord) in order to eliminate the next Avatar and consolidate his power. The people of the Air Tribe did not have a standing military to withstand the threat of invasion on their temples. They led their lives as concerted monks living to pass on their wisdom detached from “worldly concerns”. This mode of living puts them at an obvious disadvantage as they lacked the affect of anger and a strategic instinct for survival, opting instead for the pursuit of knowledge and practices of self-mastery. This deficiency of the Air Tribe does not doom them but is symbolic of a ripped apart world where hyper-aggression has eradicated that which would be the very thing that would prevent domination and empire – understanding and composure.  The self-criticism that the Air Tribe has got in spades doesn’t stop them from being bulldozed by the Fire Nation, but the Fire people are capable of self-criticism too – it was a result of bad luck, a turn of the wind, that the Fire Lord was able to act in the absence of the Avatar.

When such an outside force is felt, one that seeks to destroy merely for the sake of power, expansion, and triumphal cultural superiority, the only way to defeat them is head on with an opposing force. The show understands this and our heroes and heroines use whatever is at their disposal to defeat the Fire Nation. Anger is often the best way to mobilize that force which would fight and topple a domineering force headed your way, but it also can quickly turn into that which it is fighting against, as that other force is using the same affect against you. The self-mastery of such a wide array of affects evidenced in the Avatar’s mastery of all four element bending, so that each one can be drawn on as the situation calls for it, can keep the body (as well as the planet and the nation) from being contaminated by a single force, dominating all of the rest. Although, we are admittedly still within the realm of power and forces with the word “mastery” as in self-mastery and not the tranquility of ascetic contemplation.

Nowhere is this struggle better displayed than in the character of Prince Zukko of the Fire Nation. He begins at the outset of the show with the single goal of finding and killing the avatar to restore his lost honor. His sole goal in life is winning back the favor of his father the Fire Lord. But with some good life coaching from his uncle Iroh (vs. his father) he comes to despise his father for the destruction and fear which he has wrought upon the people of the planet. Due to his transformation and his decision to join the avatar in his quest for peace and “harmony” in season 3, his uncle gives him one last piece of advice: he must disrupt the coronation of his sister Azula and assume the throne to better lead the Fire Nation. It is a change of rule at he highest possible level of political power, with a 180 degree change in policy that is required to seal the transformation and complete the revolution *within* the imperial Fire Nation. Princess Azula took his place as the enemy that the crew fights most often after season 1 and her ruling style is based on fear; she consequently alienated her own friends and servants leading up to her coronation, ending up alone and full of frustrated rage. The Fire Lord himself attempted a jump up from the throne of the Fire Nation to the throne of emperor of the world: the Phoenix King, with new totalitarian symbols and everything.

It is the transformation of Prince Zukko in the later part of the show that demonstrates best the personal/political trajectory of its message. The harmony sought between nations, those great powers set against each other in differing, competing interests is mirrored in the competing emotional drives of the individual and the band of traveling friends. Zukko has a tough time convincing the crew to accept him, being their former enemy number one, but once he does join he helps each of them confront their past demons and clear current barriers. [For the record, Toph didn’t need him. She’s as solid as a rock.]. He is ideally placed to reverse the disastrous policies of three generations of Fire Lords and his internal struggle between the imperial ambition of his father, motivated by aggression, and the advice of his uncle, no slouch in battle himself. Uncle Iroh was once a conquering Fire Nation general himself who turned another leaf after his own son died in battle. The shear force of anger represented by the Fire Nation is an undeniable fact of life; it can be a great ally when unleashed at the right time, but mustn’t be allowed to continue unchecked.

The question of holism in a world of nations fighting geopolitical battles with each other remains. The figurehead of the avatar with its ultimate power to control the elements of the planet/cosmos holds a super-national position with respect to everyone else, and the viewer is led to believe that the avatars are always balanced and harmonious themselves because of their training from the greatest masters of each respective nation. In a world where one elemental people is entirely eradicated, it is hard to see how a balanced avatar could ever arise. The avatar receives not just military training but spiritual training from gurus. They teach them to meditate, that “everything is connected”, and to let go of all worldly desires. After achieving a kind of enlightenment, avatars become “one with the cosmos” or whatever the religious equivalent be in a culture’s spiritual/metaphysical tradition. How could such concepts born of an ascetic eschewing of the material world *also* be the great liberators of military oppression having turned away from such existential commitments? This is not so much a problem within the logic of the show as one for the reality that we face.

The recent actions of Pope Francis could be mentioned when he derides nations and industries for imperiling the life-producing capacities of the planet with carbon emissions resulting in global warming. []

His position as spiritual leader of a large chunk of the believing people around the world puts him in the unique position of letting his voice on such crucial matters. Millennia of entrenched religious practices cultivated from the power of the pastorate have placed someone like this (and other similar religious leaders) in a privileged position to let these global matters be explored by their subjects. The scientific community as well, especially when there is as much consensus as is healthy for an organization of skeptics to have [], has an authoritative voice that is heard when looking for support for creating policy and action. The religious wisdom of the avatar could also be understood as the very forces of the biosphere itself as it responds to the threat of human activity by vanishing until, many thousands of years later, it is time for the life inducing complex ecosystems to emerge again. But let’s not get too confused.

The avatar is shown in various flashback scenes manipulating the very substance of the planet itself in a bid to alter the consequences of other human’s actions. An avatar uses her powers to create an island and isolate her people from a different conquering Lord generations earlier, killing him in the process, and another avatar limits the damage done to a village by a volcano by controlling the elements around it. These are actions performed *on* the earth by a privileged person in the context of human dramas. Such talk invokes geo-engineering – which may become necessary after, or during the time we pull together and put a *gigantic* dent in carbon emissions. But this must be in conjunction with a major effort to severely limit carbon emissions largely resulting from market actors and their allies in nations.

What Avatar: The Last Airbender can teach us is the importance of keeping oneself on an even keel affectively, with the sentiment it provides being extractable onto nations whose actions have a more direct effect on the planet. The cosmic-spiritual aspect of Avatar does a great deal of good in connecting itself to the planetary elements of earth, air, fire, and water – as dated as those natural elements are claiming the status of ’substances’.  This makes Avatar an excellent ecological fantasy – a rare blend of grounded spirituality *and* rough and ready international warfare.

As for the issue of idealistic holisms and realistic political forces, the wonder that springs from holistic contemplation should not be divorced from the planetary and human forces those ideas effect. Avatar does this extremely well. Even when extra-terrestrial phenomena like a solar eclipse and a comet come at key plot points in the narrative, they do so not as transcendent forces from another world but as immanent forces effecting the elemental powers of people on the planet. Planetary-natural and national-political forces intermingle in the narrative seamlessly, as displayed by the threat of Fire nation imperialism and its ecosystem destroying weapons factories. The closest we get to transcendent other-worldly phenomena is when the avatar meditates himself away into the “avatar realm” and there are other problems with having an avatar around. But the avatar is best thought of in relation to one’s own choices, even though a select few people have vastly more power over the masses. There’s no telling what a committed and balanced individual can do, however, especially when taught at an early age with good works of fantasy that they can change the face of the earth.

The Boy the Earth Talks to: Gold and Progress in Deadwood

I gave a show called Deadwood a chance a few weeks ago and was swiftly plunged into television series binge-mode. The addicting nature of Deadwood comes from the carefully worded script illustrating the political forces acting on and inside a town that suddenly emerged and rapidly expanded its commerce on the borders of the American federation. The show depicts a camp out in what will soon become a part of South Dakota where people flock to mine gold during America’s westward expansion era. The economic-political dynamics of a not-yet-town in a “lawless” region are interesting enough, but what lit my curiosity up was the end of season 2 when a major capitalist finally came to Deadwood in order to establish scaled-up mining production with an imported labor force. Until then, men had mostly paned for gold and spent the plentiful bounty in the camp on food, alcohol, tools, clothing, property, and whores. But with the coming of the gold-mogul George Hearst, the times of freedom from the law and riches for all (European men) would come to a close.

What gives these people the drive to set off on a journey across the continent is the prospect of riches: the officially recognized currency is just waiting to be plucked from the earth. People say “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but it was once freely gathered from rivers, streams, mountains, and the ground. Gold is advantageous to be used as money for many reasons, and American expansionists lucked out when a commodity that would spur commerce appeared in its desired territories. Take away the convertibility of American and European money into gold and the movement westward, with its instantly flourishing commerce and activity, would never had been accomplished so rapidly and with such excitement. The people of Deadwood find money so easily that exchanging goods and services is intensified, simultaneously spreading the American population throughout the continent and increasing the money supply for fortunes to be made. The possibilities for furthering both Capitalists’ interests and American imperial ambitions in their bordering territories were overwhelming and after the first wave of entrepreneurial miners and military battles against Indians, the next phase of large scale production and low-waged labor now seems all but destined to spread across the continent.

George Hearst first sends his close advisor and chief geologist Wolcott to oversee the purchasing of other’s claims, drawing the land under his ownership and away from the less sophisticated miners. One character remarks, “Pretty soon, this’ll be a company town,” and that’s the design: one town owned by one company owned by one man. Wolcott sees this coming and repeatedly speaks about “inevitable change”, which he helps move along by working for Hearst. In challenging the current manager of the largest gold producing comstock in the camp on its site, he says “the noise is terrible isn’t it… like fate.” Wolcott is the agent of the transformation in America that the viewer already knows will happen: the frontier adventure in the edge of civilization will give eventually way to streamlined production and tightly managed labor.

As the character representing this transformation, Wolcott must be a truly horrible man. He speaks not as a common, “low-born” man with the usual outpouring of obscenities and the ease of transition from casual encounter to a heated confrontation. He holds back his expression without a hint of his inner feelings, but not with the aristocratic elegance of the other characters who fit the sophisticated model. When other well-schooled, upper class characters speak they speak in an excess of coded language to make conversation a game and an art. The dizzying flurry of pretty words with an accompanying sensitivity to inflection conceals the simple meaning of the sentence and forces the interlocutor to carefully decipher it. This is a major marker of class difference between those who can follow the train of thought in the conversation and those left dumbfounded by all of those long and confusing-sounding words. The tensions that so easily boil over with the lower classes and their readiness to project their emotions onto the other party is channeled by the upper class into word-play and a kind of conversational poetics. This dynamic is handled beautifully in Deadwood, with the rapidly spoken obscure words contrasting with the angry crude words, a distinction that signals who is capable of planning ahead and likely scheming in one direction or another.

Wolcott fits in an odd place in this dynamic: he speaks much more like a sophisticate, but also directly and without the radiance of the others. He gives simple commands that speak exactly to his interests without any of the masks that must have made conversation so enjoyable. He does not visibly express himself and offers very little bodily gestures to hint at his meaning. He prefers to speak only to other individuals and not in crowds or groups, giving instructions or listening to new information. He only wants to work with a selection of individuals with major stakes in the camp on a singular basis as he does with his employer. He is merely an officer sent to perform a task for his extremely wealthy employer.

The worst instance of Wolcott character comes in the violence he unleashes upon women. It seems all of the reserve he maintains in his affairs becomes concentrated, and when he becomes frustrated or disadvantaged he takes it out on whores by slitting their throats. It is one of the more gruesome scenes in Deadwood when he takes out three women without any cause other than his own pent up rage. It has happened before in Mexico, so we know this is a character flaw that recurs: he is overcome by an urge to inflict death and dominance over those he can without conflict. His cold and unflinching disposition is suddenly reversed in an explosion of violence.

Might this dangerous flaw be connected to his occupation under the capitalist Hearst? Or perhaps his knowledge and foresight of the direction of the macro-level of the economy brought him to a resigned despair? His murderous actions themselves where predictable – a matron of a high-end brothel knows of his propensity to kill women, but cannot stop him from accessing his favorite whore. He eventually kills her along with the matron and another woman, suggesting that the fate of Wolcott’s favorite whore was already sealed. But is the doom of the young and beautiful whore connected with the foreseeable expansion of mechanical production and proletarianization of the population?

I’ll leave that question unanswered and point to a conversation that Wolcott has with Hearst when Hearst arrives to Deadwood to take control of it. Hearst proclaims an interesting relationship with the earth: he believes the earth speaks to him and that “she tells me where to dig into her.” Spending his life mining for gold has made Hearst extremely wealthy, and his fame is enhanced with such sayings like this. He believe he is listening to the earth and that this intimate relationship with it allows him to find “the color.” When Hearst learns of Wolcott’s murderous tendencies he confronts him:

Wolcott: “As when the Earth talks to you particularly, you never ask its reasons?”
Hearst: “I don’t need to know why I’m lucky!”
W: “What if the Earth talks to us to get us to arrange its amusements?”
H: “Sounds like god-damned non-sense to me.”
W: “Suppose to you it whispers: “You are king over me. I exist to flesh your will.””
H: “Nonsense.”
W: “And to me, there is no sin.”

[Hearst then severs their relationship]

Hearst: “Does some spirit overtake you, is that what you mean by the talk?”
Wolcott: “No.”
H: “Tells me where the color is, that’s all it tells me.”

There is a great confusion about the Earth and God in this conversation. Hearst has personified the Earth in his labors as a miner, propagating the myth that it speaks to him and tells him where to find gold. Wolcott observes Hearst’s relationship with the Earth as one of subjection. In the absence of The Lord God in heaven above, the Earth below becomes for Wolcott the replacement God, yet one that is vulnerable. A wealthy man like Hearst can listen to the Earth and digs into it, extracting its precious metals and in effect becoming lord of the Earth by freely picking at it.

The relationship between a single great God with all power and knowledge and creation in it and the individual human worshiper is a relationship that could only be one of dominance. The voice of the Earth is taken by Wolcott to be like the voice of God, yet also the voice of a slave-body to be drilled into and harvested for its valuables. In the absence of a master-God (which in the later 19th century was becoming a greater cause for concern in European culture than it had been before) the great voice in the cosmic sky above fell mute with but only the Earth beneath our feet to remain attached to. The relationship of power, however, remains only reversed: the great Capitalist owner of the land and producer of goods becomes The Lord of the Earth. The Voice can no longer speak of correcting wayward souls or offering guidance, instead the security of God is replaced with the subdued body of the Earth. He will not talk to the sinners and provide assurance of the moral value of actions, instead, She will be dissected and exploited for what is universally valued in commerce: gold/money.

So is nihilism and the disgust at the sight of a subdued Earth the cause for Wolcott’s horrifying murders? The unstoppable force of Capitalist progress? His inability to take pleasure in the conversational habits and games of the well-to-do? One is about a great loss of meaning both personally and culturally, the next is about the sweep of history and the material conditions that seemed inalterable, the last is about the simple enjoyment of other’s company – the little twists and turns of the conversation that could either enflame our body into passionate action or create lasting bonds in the face of another’s skill and grace. In understanding the death of God, the subjugation of the Earth, and the coming age of mechanical production, Wolcott finds no comfort in the company of others. He repeatedly tells people not to touch him. These issues are connected in Deadwood as a show and as a artwork; stepping outside of it, we can say that keeping up the pleasures of our bodies in the company of friends (verbally and with proximal remove as well) can have an effect on the other issues that would drive a man to death and despair.

befitting his character, Wolcott hangs himself at the end of season 2 after being fired and during a wedding. Nobody seemed to notice.

John Protevi: Earth and Terra


From John Protevi’s Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences:

“Now in thinking about the geo– of geohistory, we have to recognize first of all that the French word terre in A Thousand Plateaus has various meanings that interweave ontologically and politically in what I have elsewhere called political physics (Protevi 2001). Terre has at least four registers, the first three of which are equivalent to the English “earth” and the fourth to the English “land” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In A Thousand Plateaus, earth is (1) equivalent to the virtual plane of consistency on which strata are imposed (Deleuze and Guattari 1987); (2) part of the earth-territory (terre-territories) system of romanticism, the gathering point, outside all territories, of “forces of the earth” for intensive territorial assemblages (333-39); and (3) the “new earth” (une nouvelle terre), the correlate of absolute deterritorialization, tapping “cosmic forces” or new potentials for creation (423; 509-10). Land, by contrast, is terre that is constituted by the overcoding of territories under the signifying regime and the State apparatus (440-41).” (p.43)

I am not so sure about that one bit from the second sense of terre – that it is “outside all territories”. As I recall, D & G repeatedly call it the “close embrace” at the “heart” of the territory. This would make it inside but also intensive; in fact, “pure intensity.”

Studying Geophilosophy

The following is the result of a close reading of ’Of the Refrain’, a middle chapter from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. It is in this chapter that I believe the most thorough and detailed terminological outline of what they call Geophilosophy is given. The basic project is to draw a diagram that allows for a better understanding of the relationships between geophilosophical terms. I will mostly let the quotes to the heavy lifting. There is inevitably a process of selection in determining which quotes stand out as useful for the task and the copious marks I left on the pages of ATP hopefully brought the key passages forth. I believe this diagram stands up to the text, but it is the result of a singular reading.

After a series of chapters on language and linguistics, where the symbol, sign, signification and the ‘body without organs’ have been elucidated, territorialization comes into play along with the process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization on the surface of the earth. Rhythm and the wave-nature of existence integrates with the territory-making impulse, which produces assemblages of lived bodies in a complex process of motion with respect to their surroundings. Both the rhythm and the territory are like conditions from which social forms may develop and interact with each other: the geographic landscape is brought into consideration in an abstract way that identifies the background of artistic expressions, modes of thinking, and philosophical commonalities in their emergence – their coming-into-being. Geophilosophy is their attempt to dig into the conditions on the earth required for forming societies/assemblages and the complex processes they undergo, as well as the character of the their motifs and manners. What comes out of this study is a diagram that I believe is very helpful to understanding the importance of Geophilosophy for any project involving assembled masses of people.

In this story we begin in the middle, as Deleuze has always been fond of saying. Though the chapter must begin with an opening sentence, there is never any pure beginning free of forces that contort and influence one in this or that way. That said, D & G are describing a process in the form of a writing exercise as they are well aware, and this process, this story if you will, begins in the middle with the milieu. We actually begin with a little scene of a boy lost in the woods. With chaos creeping all around him, he sings a song for the sake of comfort and establishes what little order he can out of the chaos. In the beginning it seems there is only chaos and the rhythm of the song, maybe hummed or whistled or skipped to, to protect oneself from it.

“From chaos, Milieus and Rhythms are born. This is the concern of very ancient cosmogenies. Chaos is not without it sown directional components, which are its own ecstasies… Every milieu is vibratory, in other words, a block of space-time constituted by the periodic repetition of the component. Thus the living thing has the exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substances, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-repetitions. Every milieu is coded, a code being defined by periodic repetition; but each code is in a perpetual state of transcoding or transduction… The notion of the milieu is not unitary… The milieus are open to chaos, which threatens them with exhaustion or intrusion. Rhythm is the milieus’ answer to chaos… Chaos is not the opposite of rhythm, but the milieu of all milieus. There is rhythm whenever there is transcoded passage form one milieu to another, a communication of milieus, coordination between heterogenous space-times.” (p.313)


“Meter, whether regular or not, assumes a coded form whose unit of measure may vary, but in a noncommunicating milieu, whereas rhythm is the Unequal or the Incommensurable that is always undergoing transcoding. Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical; it ties itself together in passing from one milieu to another… It changes direction.” (p.313)

Territory is introduced as an act, the process of territorialization affecting milieus by settling them, at least for a moment.

“The territory is in fact an act that affects milieus and rhythms, that “territorializes” them… There is territory precisely when milieu components cease to be directional, becoming dimensional instead, when they cease to be functional to become expressive. What defines the territory is the emergence of matters of expression (qualities)… It becomes expressive on the other hand, when it acquires a temporal constancy and a spatial range that make it a territorial, or rather territorializing, mark: a signature…
Territorialization is an act of rhythm that has become qualitative. The mark of a territory is dimensional, but it is not meter, it is a rhythm. It retains the most general characteristic of rhythm, which is to be inscribed on a different plane than that of its actions.” (p.314-315)


“What we wish to say is that there is a self-movement of expressive qualities. Expressiveness is not reducible to the immediate effects of an impulse triggering an action in a milieu: effects of that kind are subjective impressions or emotions rather than expressions…
In effect, expressive qualities or matters of expression enter shifting relations with one another that “express” the relation of the territory they draw to the interior milieu of impulses and exterior milieu of circumstances*. To express is not to depend upon; there is an autonomy of expression.” (p.317)

Every matter of expression is necessarily linked with a territory – the taking on of a territorial aspect of matter that then gains/makes an expression.

“The territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance. What is mine is first of all my distance; I possess only distances. Don’t anybody touch me, I growl if anyone enters my territory, I put up placards. Critical distance is a relation based on meters of expression. It is a question of keeping at a distance the forces of chaos knocking at the door. Mannerism: the ethos is both abode and manner, homeland and style” (p. 319-320)

So, we have a relationship with milieu and territory… Now we get to an explicit appearance of the earth. After all, this is all about geophilosophy:

“… The territory groups all the forces of the different milieus together in a single sheaf constituted by the forces of the earth. The attribution of all the diffuse forces of the earth as receptacle or base takes place only at the deepest level of each territory… Moreover, although I extension the territory separates the interior forces of the earth from the exterior forces of chaos, the same does not occur in “intension,” in the dimension of depth, where the two types of forced clasp and are wed in a battle whose only criterion and stakes is the earth. There is always a place, a tree or grove, in the territory where all the forces come together in a hand-to-hand combat of energies. The earth is this close embrace.” (p.321)

Pause and let that sink in. After gaining dimension and losing direction (and expression over function) they posit a depth that is irreducible to graphic dimension, a special “intension” counter-posed to extension. I take extension to be continuous with the notion of the “external world” and the bare, objective world we subjects (with our new mind-space) contemplate or inquire into. The separation that extension makes between earth and chaos must be a direct result of the sectioning off of the ground in territorialization and the displacement of chaos into those “non-secured areas out there”. The earth as ground was the ground of chaos – chaos and panic were everywhere to be found on the earth – before the staking of one’s territory, before a domestication of extension. Or perhaps the earth is only constituted as this intense center located in at the very core of the territory upon the phenomenon of territorialization. Conntinuing on:

“This intense center is simultaneously inside the territory and outside several territories that converge on it at the end of an immense pilgrimage (hence the ambiguities of the “natal”). Inside or out, the territory is linked to this intense center, which is like the unknown homeland, terrestrial source of all forces friendly and hostile, where everything is decided.” (p.321)

Let it sink in even farther. The depth of intension is why the Earth should be placed below, but this is not a vertical downward. This demonstrates the limits of diagraming this idea of the earth in “intension” – a place that is at once the scene of battle, convergence, and decision. This is one of the great passages of Deleuze and Guattari’s writing that has kept me hung up for a number of months now. It is over fast and they move farther on down the diagram briskly, but what a claim! The intense place where all things are decided, the coming together of forces hostile and in serious deliberation: Earth. And there’s is a Geophilosophy.


“We always come back to this “moment”: the becoming-expressive of rhythm, the emergence of expressive proper qualities, the formation of matters of expression that develop into motifs and counterpoints. We therefore need a notion, even an apparently negative one, that can grasp this fictional or raw moment. The essential thing is the disjunction noticeable between the code and the territory…. It is because there is a disjunction between the territory and the code that the territory can indirectly induce new species.” (p.322) [my emphasis]

What is this necessary notion that appears negative, fictional, and raw? It is a tenuous motion that plays on the boundaries between margin and center. It does not change the coding of a species or alter the genes in a mutation, but it does change bodies with respect to their environment or territory. The fictional moment considered here is not a genetic mutation or deviancy from a norm, it is act of “differentiating” that the variations in territory prepares the way for the act of decoding.

“Biologists have stressed the importance of these determined margins, which are not to be confused with mutations, in other words, changes internal to the code: here, it is a question of duplicated genes or extra chromosomes that are not inside the genetic code, are free of function, and offer a free matter for variation.” (p.322)

The necessities of a sustaining life, the nourishment of the gene with its structurally sound code that only replicates or mutates, are not under examination but the expressions of the outer layers. With that base level of stable coding, the variations of the rest of the body in conjunction with its surrounding environment take on much more interesting and territorially specific traits.

What isn’t being mentioned here but is lurking like a giant elephant in the room is evolution. D & G are trying to emphasize the propensity for species to change, differentiate, and adapt to their environment without a “natural selection” as the operative concept but instead a transformative creation in concert with its territory and irreducible to mutation. The genes are kept the same, while the species morph into something else to fit with the critical distances included with the terrain features. “It is less a question of evolution than of passage, bridges and tunnels.” (p.322)


“The territory itself is a place of passage. The territory is the first assemblage, the first thing to constitute an assemblage; the assemblage is fundamentally territorial. But how could it not already be in the process of passing into something else, into other assemblages?” (p.323)

“The first question to be asked is what holds these territorializing marks, territorial motifs, and territorialized functions together in the same intra-assemblage. This is a question of consistency*: the “holding together” of heterogenous elements…
But another question seems to interrupt or cut across the first one. For in many cases, a territorialized, assembled function acquires enough independence to constitute a new assemblage, one that is more or less deterritorialized, en route to deterritorialization. There is no need to effectively leave the territory to go this route; but what just a minute ago was a constituted function in the assemblage has become the constituting element of another assemblage, the element of passage to another assemblage.” (p.324)



“It is no longer adequate to say that there is interassemblage, passage from a territorializes assemblage to another type of assemblage; rather, we should say that one leaves all assemblages behind, that one exceeds the capacities of any possible assemblage, entering another plane. In effect, there is no longer a milieu movement or a rhythm, nor a territorialized or territorializing movement or rhythm; there is something of the Cosmos in these more ample movements. The localization mechanisms are still extremely precise, but the localization has become cosmic. They are no longer territorializes forces bundled together as forces of the earth; they are the liberated or regained forces of a deterritorialized cosmos.” (p.326)


“This being the case, in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form of correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within, as if oscillating molecules, oscillators, passed from one heterogeneous center to another, if only for the purpose of assuring the dominance of one among them. This obviously excludes any linear relation from one center to another, in favor of packets of relations steered by molecules: the interaction or coordination may be positive or negative (release or inhibition), but it is never direct, as in a linear relation or chemical reaction; it always occurs between molecules with at least two heads, and each center taken separately.” (p.328)

“Consolidation is not content to come after; it is creative. The fact is that the beginning always begins in-between, intermezzo. Consistency is the same as consolidation, it is the act that produces consolidated aggregates, of succession as well as of coexistence, be means of the three factors just mentioned: intercalated elements, intervals, and articulations of superposition.” (p.329)

“Consistency necessarily occurs between heterogeneities, not because it is the birth of differentiation, but because heterogeneities that were once content to coexist or succeed one another become bound up with one another through the “consolidation” of their coexistence and succession…
What we term machinic* is precisely the synthesis of heterogeneities as such. Inasmuch as these heterogeneities are matters of expression*, we say their synthesis itself, their consistency or capture, forms a properly machinic “statement” or “enunciation.”” (p.330-331)

Assemblage is not to be confused with machine: “That in fact is the distinction we would like to propose between machine and assemblage: a machine is like a set of cutting edges that insert themselves into the assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, and draw variations and mutations of it.” (p.333)

The Natal:

“The natal is the innate, but decoded; and it is the acquired, but territorialized. The natal is new figure assumed by the innate and the acquired in the territorial assemblage. The affect proper to the natal is the lied: to be forever lost, or refound, or aspiring to the unknown homeland. In the natal, the innate tends to be displaced…” (p.332)

The natal stretches from what happens in the intra-assemblage all the way to the center that has been projected outside; it cuts across all the interassemblages and reaches all the way to the gates of the Cosmos.”


Black Hole:

“Thus the black hole is a machine effect in assemblages and has a complex relation to their effects. It may be necessary for the release of innovative processes that they first fall into a catastrophic black hole: stases of inhibition are associated with the release of crossroads of behavior. On the other hand, when black holes resonate together or inhibitions conjugate and echo each other, instead of an opening onto consistency, we see a closure of the assemblage, as though it were deterritorialized in the void: young chaffinches. *Machines are always singular keys that open or close an assemblage, a territory*.” (p.334)


Life and Matter. Stratum and (de)stratification.

“The very words, “matters of expression,” imply that expression has a primary relation to matter. As matters of expression take on consistency they constitute semiotic* systems, but the *semiotic components are inseparable from *material components and are in exceptionally close contact with molecular levels. The whole question is thus whether or not the molar-molecular relation assumes a new figure here. If general, it has been possible to distinguish “molar-molecular” combinations that vary greatly depending on the direction followed. First, individual atoms can enter into probabilistic or statistical accumulations that tend to efface their individuality; this already happens on the level of the molecule, and then again in the molar aggregate… Second, it is clear that the distinction to be made is not between the individual and the statistical. In fact, it is always a question of populations; statistics concerns individual phenomena, and antistatistical individuality operates only in relation to molecular populations… Third, the intramolecular internal forces that give an aggregate its molar form can be of two types: they are either covalent, arborescent, mechanical, linear, localizable relations subject to chemical conditions of action and reaction or to linked reactions, or they are indirect, noncovalent, machinic and nonmechanical, superlinear, or nonlocalizable bonds operating by stereospecific discernment* or discrimination*, rather than by linkage.
… it is, in effect, a distinction between matter and life, or rather, since there is only one matter, between two states, two tendencies of atomic matter… Stating the distinction in the most general way, we could say that it is between stratified systems or systems of stratification on the one hand, and consistent, self-consistent aggregates on the other. But the point is that consistency, far from being restricted to complex life forms, fully pertains even to the most elementary atoms and particles.”

“There is a coded system of stratification whenever, horizontally, there are linear causalities between elements; and, vertically, hierarchies of order between groupings; and, holding it all together in depth, a succession of framing forms, each of which informs a substance and in turn serves as a substance for another form. These causalities, hierarchies, and framings constitute a stratum, as well as the passage from one stratum to another, and the stratified combinations of the molecular and the molar…
If we ask ourselves where life fits into this distinction, we see that it undoubtedly implies a gain in consistency, in other words, a surplus value (surplus value of destratification). …both at once: a particularly complex system of stratification and an aggregate of consistency that disrupts orders, forms, and substances. As we have seen, the loving thing performs a transcoding of milieus that can be considered both to constitute a stratum and to effect reverse causalities and transversally of destratification.” (p.335-336)


“We have gone from stratified milieus to territorial assemblages and simultaneously, from the forces of chaos, as broken down, coded, transcoded by the milieus, to the forces of the earth, as gathered into the assemblages. Then we went from territorial assemblages to interassemblages, to opening of assemblages along lines of deterritorialization; and simultaneously, the same from the in gathered forces of the earth to the deterritorialized, or rather deterritorializing, Cosmos.” (p.337)

By the geophilosophical process laid out in ’Of the Refrain’ we have been taken through Chaos, Earth, and Cosmos as resting places of a sort, or as concepts representative of certain limits reached in the flow of matter. Chaos is the scary prospect that must be warded off with the proper comforting rhythm. The empty disorder that one reaches when contemplation approaches chaos is the result of the totalizing “milieu of all milieus”. Earth is a depth that is irreducible to dimension, an “intension” that gathers all of the forces in a single place. The intensity of the moment or the event (so often expressed to qualify a particularly momentous past experience) is “the close embrace” of the Earth in its act of drawing forces and bodies together at the heart of the territory. Cosmos represents the perpetual motion of an assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, not yet closed upon inside the inescapable black hole. Opening onto the Cosmos is to remain in motion – even if just in expressive semiotic/aesthetic way – as a both stratified system of horizontal causalities, vertical hierarchies, and framing forms holding it together, and a destratifying action of passing. A nomadic machine on the move, but towards what? The Cosmos… still not there yet.

This becomes a bit easier when in the next part of the chapter, D & G fit these three different motifs into loose art history categories: Classical, Romantic, and Modern (for lack of a better term). This will be dealt with later. We have still not yet explained what they mean by ‘Refrain’.

Cleaned up a bit for the finale: