One's always writing to bring something to life, to free life from where it's trapped, to trace lines of flight.
--Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (1)
This essay offers a genealogy and critique of the concept of inorganic life as it rose and fell in early twentieth-century German thought and reemerged in the postmodern political theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I trace this genealogy through the work of German art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965), whose pre-World War I publications were influential for both German and British modernism and later became a frequent reference in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (2) Worringer's work, I argue, is an important product of a late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century intellectual climate permeated by Lebensphilosophie, the philosophy of life, and it shows, in a rhetorically complex form, the possibilities and limits, or, in a word, the impasses, of thinking "life" as a concept. The impasses that Worringer encounters and the way he tries to avoid them found a huge resonance in various artists and thinkers of his period. They also found their most virulent critic in Georg Lukacs, who, in his 1934 essay "Expressionism: Its Significance and Decline," condemned Worringer's work for its specific conceptual flaws and for the symptomatic "flight from reality" that it shared with all the art, literature, and philosophy of the Expressionist movement and life-philosophical paradigm. (3)
Roughly forty-five years after this compelling, if heavy-handed, Marxist critique, Deleuze and Guattari appropriate a crucial concept from Worringer's life-philosophically inflected writing, namely, "inorganic life," in order to theorize the resistance to global capitalism. Through a close reading of Worringer, I pose the following critical question: How can a concept that was once condemned from a Marxist perspective as an ideologically suspect "flight from reality" later be, mutatis mutandis, celebrated as a revolutionary "line of flight"? In critically reading the concept of inorganic life in Worringer via Lukacs, I want to anticipate how exactly Deleuze and Guattari appropriate this concept, and to what end--indeed, to what dead end--they seem to do so. I do not mean to imply that Lukacsian Marxism is the "orthodox" version of Marxist thought, thereby taking Deleuze and Guattari to task with the same reductionism that Lukacs himself might have employed. Rather I aim to show how the discursive history of inorganic life implicates the intersection of Marxism and modernist aesthetics in the reading of Worringer's, Lukacs's, and Deleuze and Guattari's texts. My reading thus suggests that Deleuze and Guattari do not inherit a fixed, stable concept of inorganic life, but rather a concept that, since its "invention" by Worringer, has rhetorically figured its own instability at the expense of its claim to reality, to history. If Deleuze and Guattari mobilize such an ahistorical aesthetic concept into a Marxist project, then I question whether the vitality they attribute to inorganic life in their text does not ultimately coincide with the Worringerian deadness of a conceptual and historical impasse.
At a time when life appears to be an increasingly prominent...
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