Guattari, Institutions, and … Utopias?

I’ve been thinking about Guattari and institutions a lot. More specifically, I’ve been thinking that part of what is interesting about Guattari is that a large portion of his thought is devoted to questions not only about the ways in which subjects are constituted by and in relation to institutions, but also about how relations between subjects and institutions can be rearticulated in order to give rise to real and lasting transformations of both.

Such questions are eminently practical for Guattari, arising out of his political and his psychiatric practice, both of which involve institutional relations at very basic levels—he was a hospital psychiatrist and an activist whose political work was always carried out within a network of highly instituted contexts (Trotskyist militancy, the Youth Hostel movement, various periodical publishing collectives and research groups, etc.).

What all these institutions have in common is that they are at least potentially revolutionary—though in both the case of the hospital and the case of the party, there is also the constant risk of stagnation, blockage, or constraint. As a result, working within institutions requires constant attention. But given this attention, and a certain amount of institutional skill, Guattari also clearly believes that the institution, as such, can function both as a site and an enabling condition for the emergence of new and better forms of life. In the psychiatric context, for instance, the transversal relations that can be set up within the institution allow it to function as a rich and flexible diagnostic and therapeutic instrument.

Guattari is by no means unique among his contemporaries in seeing the creative power of institutions with respect to forms of life.  Foucault, of course, must be credited with a similar insight.  And the very early Deleuze also seemed to have been thinking in terms of institutions as mechanisms of satisfaction, rather than exploitation or constraint.  But Guattari frequently inflects the point differently, and especially optimistically.

In this respect, it seems worth asking what might be gained by reading Guattari in relation to the Utopian tradition.  Already in More we can find envisioned a manner of organization in which the institutions of society should be capable of producing, at least in most cases, a profound alteration in the affective constitution of subjectivity—such that, for example, the desires for property, luxury, or visible status should be purged from the citizens of his island.  Moreover, the organization of work and the distribution of tasks in Utopia is clearly aimed at fostering in each individual a continual process of development precisely on the basis of maximizing his or her opportunities for intellectual, scientific, and creative endeavors.

But it may be less to More’s canonical text and more to the experimental communities that were set up by many socialists in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and which may have to some extent been consciously or unconsciously repeated in the hostelage movement, that it may be profitable to compare the relatively closed, or at least deliberately circumscribed and programmatically organized (and reorganized) space of the clinic to which Guattari devotes so much of his early theoretical energy.

At very least, this seems worth following up.