Bodies Without Organs: Deleuze’s Transcendental Materialism, its Legacy and its Antecedents

Yesterday’s post — an introduction I wrote for the XG Discord to the “Image of Thought” chapter of Deleuze’s Difference & Repetitionreceived a comment from Joseph Ratliff, the answer to which became far too long to leave below the comment line. I hope Joseph doesn’t mind me responding to him a bit more publicly.

Joseph asked whether we can say that Deleuze gives a certain “agency” to thought as a way to remove “the organs” of human thinking.

The short answer, I think, is “no” but this is also one of my favourite questions around Deleuze’s thought so I thought instead of something that I’d give a long answer, connecting the infamously misunderstood concept of the “body without organs” to a transcendental materialism that places Deleuze at the end of a controversial philosophical lineage most readily associated with the likes of Nietzsche and Bataille.

Nietzsche was a particularly interesting materialist for Deleuze because it was he who set the groundwork for affirming not only the freedom afforded by materialism but also its restrictions.

Much has been made of this part of Nietzsche’s thought but it is particularly interesting to consider from a biographical perspective.

Sue Prideaux’s recent Nietzsche biography I Am Dynamite! is exceptional on this. She begins, very early on, with a brief account of the life of Nietzsche’s father, his career as a pastor and his various health troubles, particularly in relation to the rest of his family.

Friedrich Nietzsche was famously a very sickly man but he was also from a very sickly family, on both his mother’s and his father’s side. His genes undoubtedly doomed him from the start.

Each member of the Nietzsche family going back generations seemed to be affected by disorders both mental and physical, and Nietzsche’s father was no exception. He is worth focussing on in particular for the affect bearing witness to his father’s demise probably had on the young philosopher.

Prideaux describes Karl Ludwig Nietzsche as a pastor who was “both pious and patriotic” but also as a man who “was not free from the nervous disorders that affected his mother and half-sisters.”

He would shut himself up in his study for hours, refusing to eat, drink or talk. More alarmingly, he was given to mysterious attacks, when his speech would abruptly cease mid-sentence and he would stare into space. […] The mysterious paroxysms were diagnosed as ‘softening of the brain’ and for months he was prey to prostration, agonising headaches and fits of vomiting, his eyesight deteriorating drastically into semi-blindness. […] Karl Ludwig’s sufferings grew worse, he lost the power of speech, and finally his eyesight deteriorated into total blindness. On 30 July 1849, he died, aged only thirty-five. […]

The cause of Pastor Nietzsche’s decline into death has been extensively investigated. Whether the pastor died insane is a question of considerable importance to posterity because Nietzsche himself suffered from symptoms similar to his father’s, before he suddenly and dramatically went mad in 1888, when he was forty-four years old, remaining insane until his death in 1900. The considerable literature on the subject continues but the first book, Über das Pathologische bei Nietzsche, was published in 1902, just two years after Nietzsche’s death. Its author, Dr Paul Julius Möbius, was a distinguished pioneering neurologist who had been specialising in hereditary nervous diseases from the 1870s onwards. Möbius was named by Freud as one of the fathers of psychotherapy and, importantly, he worked directly from Pastor Nietzsche’s post-mortem report which revealed Gehirnerweichung, softening of the brain, a term commonly used in the nineteenth century for a variety of degenerative brain diseases.

The modern interpretation includes general degeneration, a brain tumour, tuberculoma of the brain or even slow bleeding into the brain caused by some head injury. Unlike his father, no post-mortem was performed on Nietzsche and so it was impossible for Möbius or any later investigators to produce anything like a post-mortem comparison of the two brains, but Möbius, looking wider, revealed a tendency to mental problems on the maternal side of the family. One uncle committed suicide, apparently preferring death to being shut up in the Irrenhaus, the lunatic asylum. On the paternal side, a number of Nietzsche’s grandmother Erdmuthe’s siblings were described as ‘mentally abnormal’. One committed suicide and two others developed some sort of mental illness, one requiring psychiatric care.

This information is important not only because it fundamentally refutes one of the most persistent myths about Nietzsche’s life — that he went mad following the contraction of sexually-transmitted syphilis — although he may have had a habit for visiting brothels, it wasn’t the death of him — but it also gives further context to much of Nietzsche’s philosophy, specifically his materialism and infatuation with the concept of fate.

Prideaux gives a thorough account of this also. She notes how Nietzsche was influenced in tandem by the thought of Spinoza but also the scientific advances of his time. She writes that Nietzsche “read Robert Mayer’s Mechanics of Heat, Boscovich’s theory of non-material atoms, and Force and Matter (1855) by the materialist medical doctor Ludwig Büchner, whose bestselling book spread the gospel that ‘researches and discoveries of modern times can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings’.” Nietzsche also read F. A. Lange’s History of Materialism which, she writes, “asserted that man was only a special case of universal physiology, and thought was only a special chain in the physical processes of life.”

Prideaux continues by noting the explicit instances that the newly materialist thought of the day was influencing Nietzsche’s philosophy. The philosopher was very open about this, writing in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, that he was

in thrall to a burning and exclusive fascination with physiology, medicine and natural science. This is what he set out to explore in [his 1881 book] Daybreak: the idea that man is merely a bodily organism whose spiritual, moral and religious beliefs and values can be explained by the physiological and medical. Greater interest at that time was growing in the idea that man might control the future by controlling his own evolutionary development through diet. It is an attitude famously summed up by the philosopher and anthropologist Feuerbach, who had died only a few years earlier: ‘If you want to improve the people, give them better food instead of declamations against sin. Man is what he eats.’

The broader importance of this for Nietzsche’s thought is that he would not only become fascinated by the potentials of materialist “self-overcoming” but also the necessity of a certain amor fati. Man may be what he eats, but Nietzsche would also stress the importance of “becoming what you are, once you know what that is.” And the importance of this for Nietzsche was undoubtedly fuelled by the trauma of not only his father’s and broader family’s sickly demises but also his own perpetual sickliness.

Once we understand the innate sense in which Nietzsche lived with and amongst a knowledge of his own pain, suffering and mortality, we understand the importance of his thought for himself — the importance of not only affirming your limitations but also overcoming them in whatever way you can. For Nietzsche, that was perhaps more philosophical than physical.

It is here that we can see the initial tensions in Deleuze’s “image of thought”. For Nietzsche, this was changing quite fundamentally in his time. Thought was taking on a newly populist and anti-Cartesian bent in that the observations that thought was influenced by (subjectively if not quite bodily) “outside” forces were being given form within scientific understanding.

But rather than this freeing up thought — although it seemed to for Nietzsche — it was rather the beginnings of a new dogmatic image of thought that we still know well today.

We should likewise note, at this point, that this experience of familial sickness and ill-health was one shared by Nietzsche’s greatest philosophical friend, Georges Bataille. In fact, Stuart Kendall’s brilliant biography of Bataille tellingly begins from this point. He starts the first chapter by writing:

In 1913, when Georges Bataille was about fifteen, his father went mad. Joseph-Aristide Bataille’s syphilis was simply running its course. Contracted long ago, perhaps before he had abandoned his medical studies, certainly before he moved the family from Billom, in the volcanic Puy-du-Dôme, where Georges was born in 1897, to Reims where they now lived. Joseph-Aristide had been blind since before Georges’ birth and paralysed for more than a decade. The unhappy conclusion of the disease was inevitable.

Confined to a chair, coursed by tabes, Joseph-Aristide lurched in agony. Decades later, Georges would remember his father’s ‘sunken eyes, his hungry bird’s long nose, his screams of pain, soundless peals of laughter’. And he would remember the degradation of the old man, despite his own attempts to help.

Kendall proceeds by quoting from Bataille’s first pseudonymous novel (as Lord Auch), The Story of the Eye, drawing on what seem to be some of its most autobiographical elements. Bataille writes:

What upset me more was seeing my father shit a great number of times… It was very hard for him to get out of bed (I would help him) and settle on a chamber pot, in his nightshirt and, usually, a cotton nightcap (he had a pointed grey beard, ill kempt, a large eagle nose, and immense hollow eyes staring into space). At times, the ‘lightning sharp pains’ would make him howl like a beast, sticking out his bent leg, which he futilely hugged in his arms.

Kendall continues:

We can imagine the boy aiding the invalid in his agonies. As a youth, Georges loved his father, but as an adult, he found his love unnatural: most young boys loved their mothers, he thought in terms testifying to his recent psychoanalysis. But Georges loved his father, at least early on, even in his father’s degradation.

There are, however, various other allusions throughout Bataille’s writings that seem to suggest his father may have been abusive to him. However, all of these allusions, Kendall notes, are too shrouded in the cloak of fiction for us to draw any real conclusions. What is self-evident is that Bataille’s relationship with his father was deep, fraught and complicated, painting a far more difficult and violently honest picture of the terms of living with an invalid parent than Nietzsche ever did, but nonetheless vicariously illuminating the experiences of both philosophers.

For both thinkers, the experience of seeing parental men of God fall into madness must have been traumatically informative.

Kendall continues with an anecdote that firmly grounds Georges Bataille’s entire life and philosophy — his founding ordeal. This was during the spring of 1913 when Bataille’s father “lost his mind.” Kendall writes:

Georges’ older brother Martial had already moved out of the family home, so Marie-Antoinette bataille, Georges’ mother, sent him to fetch a doctor. He returned quickly. The doctor undoubtedly did what little he could for the raving patient, but Georges’ father was beyond help. When the physician stepped into the next room, Joseph-Aristide shouted after him, ‘Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!’

The inexplicable statement seared the son. Years later Georges wrote: ‘For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in.’ The statement carries the contagious taint of Bataille’s entire thought and style: it contrasts a split second and a steady and lasting obligation; an unconscious, unwilled or chance event and a necessity and, most importantly, it functions by means of extreme reversals of logic and perspective (what is demoralizing about a strict upbringing?). Everything follows from here.

Joseph-Aristide’s mad accusation ripped the mask off Georges’ youth, off propriety, off his parents’ and doctor’s faces; the respected, beloved faces of order and authority. The odious utterance opened a world of infinite freedom. Forever after, Bataille’s obligation, his necessity, would be to find an equivalent of that phrase in every situation throughout his life: not only in every story and erotic encounter but in every action, every experience, every word, every thought. That which previously has been held on high would be brought low, that which was low would be raised on high. This slippage would characterize every experience. He would submit all of life to a similar trespass, debasement and inversion: an endless irregularity, ceaseless turning and overturning; an endless repetition of the rule of lawlessness.

This is recognisably the very foundation of Bataille’s “base materialism” and here we can see the tension of Nietzsche’s own work struck in even more explicit relief. Becoming what you are, and knowing what that is, as Nietzsche put it, becomes for Bataille an encounter with (and indeed, the very embodiment of) an all too human horror.

This horror, however, is a “truth” — and to affirm it is a challenge necessary for us to undertake, precisely because it ruptures the moralism and restrictions of a wider society. We attend to so many beliefs about the body and what it can do but also what it should and shouldn’t do, and we will find that, despite society’s taboos, are bodies will do things irrespective of the morals of the day. The affirmation of this truth is, however, more nuanced than first appearances suggest.

Bataille’s father’s outburst was no doubt offensive to all present in the moment but, in attending to its root cause as a symptom of his neurological afflictions, we may ask ourselves how we can — materially speaking — “judge” it. It undoubtedly disturbed the young Bataille to no end and yet Bataille’s affirmation of this disturbance is not the same as the act of forgiving an immoral act by deferring to the material reality of his father’s existence as a kind of base-authority.

For Bataille, the task is to affirm the horror of human materiality without such deference. He would write that the challenge becomes not “submitting oneself … to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being.”

Here Bataille retains the subversion of Nietzsche’s original thinking in the face of a materialist progressivism. Whereas, for Nietzsche, the benefits of a materialist thinking were somewhat naive and sought simply to alleviate a persistent suffering with walks in the mountains and baths in Europe’s spas, in the 20th century the bodily materialism of “you are what you eat” or “what you do” began to carry with it a sort of dietary moralism.

You are what you eat… So eat better! You are what you do… So exercise more! The insistence that you should treat your body like a temple could not be a clearer indictment of the continuation of the religious moralism that Nietzsche despised taking on a new life in the materialism he openly embraced.

Bataille knew of this, however, refusing to give to the matter of which materialism is concerned “the value of a superior principle (which this servile reason would be only too happy to establish itself above itself, in order to speak like an authorised functionary.)” Instead, Bataile would speak of “base matter” as “external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, [refusing] to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.”

This is likewise the “raving mad” charge at the heart of Antonin Artaud’s vision of a humanity that has “had done with the judgements of God.” For Artaud, as for Bataille, scientific materialism has done nothing but imbue the insights of already well-established spiritualities and gnosticisms with the false authority of an apparently objective “scientific reason”.

Artaud would proclaim, without mincing words, that modern scientists

have reinvented microbes in order to impose a new idea of god. They have found a new way to bring out god and to capture him in his microbic noxiousness.

And so, Artaud sought to liberate humanity entirely from the patronising cruelty of scientific reason, writing:

I have found a way to put an end to this ape once and for all and that although nobody believes in god any more everybody believes more and more in man. So it is man whom we must now make up our minds to emasculate [by] placing him again, for the last time, on the autopsy table to remake his anatomy. […] Man is sick because he is badly constructed. We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally, god, and with god his organs.

It is in this sense, following Nietzsche and Bataille, that Deleuze would further affirm Artaud’s provocation, declaring, in the face of decades of scientific truth and progress, that we still do not know what a body can do.

Joshua Ramey, in his book The Hermetic Deleuze, begins with a wonderfully concise explanation of this point. He writes:

The decadence and debilitation of twentieth-century Western culture were, for Artaud, linked directly […] to the technoscientific apparatus — military, industrial, nutritional, and hygienic — continuously marshalled in the name of God and order to stultify the human body. Artaud’s theatre of cruelty was designed to disturb this docile creature, to shock and shatter its organs, and to force the body to react otherwise than in accordance with the habitual limits of sense and sensibility. As he wrote, “you have made him a body without organs, / then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions / and restored to him his true freedom.” For Artaud, humanity possessed a “body without organs,” a subtle body accessible at the extremes of experience — in suffering, delirium, synesthesia, and ecstatic states.

[…] Extending Artaud’s vision of a renewed sensibility into his own unique vision of thought, Deleuze argues that immanent thought, at the limit of cognitive capacity, discovers as-yet-unrealized potentials of the mind, and the body. That is to say, what connects Deleuze to Artaud is the conviction that what matters for life, and for thought, is an encounter with imperceptible forces in sensations, affections, and conceptions, and that these forces truly generate the mind, challenging the coordination of the faculties by rending the self from its habits.

To return to Joseph’s original question, we should be careful to note that this is not Deleuze’s way of conceptualising an independently agentic thought. Nothing about the processes at play here can be discussed in those terms. In fact, “agency” here becomes the sort of deference to authority that Bataille would routinely denounce. For him, speaking in appropriately scatological terms, this would be like applying agency to a turd when you find yourself needing to go to the bathroom for a bowel movement. The challenge to thought is recognising this movement for what it is, precisely devoid of agency and reason. (Because what is the attribution of “agency” but a way to give something a reason to exist.) (Again, this is something discussed last time — the tandem base-horror and affirmation of acknowledging that “the Queen poops too.”)

From here, we might note that Deleuze’s affinity with this thought was likewise an affirmation of his own fate as another sickly philosopher.

Like Nietzsche, Bataille and Artaud before him, Deleuze’s life was wracked by pain and suffering. Having undergone a thoraxoplasty and having one of his lungs in the late 1960s — in the midst of those months when he was meant to defend Difference & Repetition as his doctoral thesis, we might add — Deleuze was plauged by ill health and weakness for the rest of his life.

We may also note here the sorry fact that Deleuze committed suicide — a significant biographic event which is so often under-considered, perhaps because it cannot (or rather, should not) be thought in terms we are accustomed to when we hear that someone has taken their own life.

There is no evidence that Deleuze was depressed or mentally ill. He was just as physically ill as he always had been and, as an elderly man, aged 70, the mortal barrel that he had long been staring down was getting closer to him by the day.

Rather than allowing his body to have the final say, Deleuze chose to end his life on his own terms. In this sense, his death can be seen as the drastic affirmation of a man who chose no longer to live with the sickly body he had been lumbered with.

Without wanting to romanticise his death, Deleuze’s suicide nonetheless presents us with a fitting example of where a thought such as this libidinal materialism can lead us. Finn Janning would go so far as to call Deleuze’s suicide a “happy death” for the way it encapsulates the power of the Will to exceed the body in which it is contained.

Cybergothic posthumanisms aside, Deleuze pushed up against the edge of what his body could do, finding it at war with his Self and so he chose instead to undertake a spectacularly counter-intuitive attack on his woefully organ-anchored body. Janning writes:

A life worth living is a life that has the power to actualize its will to will. In relation to this definition, a happy death might be seen as the equivalent hereof, i.e. when a life no longer has this will, or simply accept that it no longer can act as becoming worthy of what happens. Such acknowledgement is the closest one can get to the Greek dictum: Know yourself by knowing your position, because such acknowledgement is fully knowing your place in time, knowing what is possible and what is not possible. — Acknowledging your limits in order to justify certain beliefs as being true, for instance, committing suicide as the only positive activity. Thus, let me stress: Know your location or position in life is not knowing your position in relation to pre-defined external categories or systems, like career-pattern, but a life’s position. The unique position of a life within the different forces of life, such a position emerges when encounters are dealt with: either in an active and positive way, or in a reactive and pessimistic way.


Deleuze didn’t kill himself because life was absurd or meaningless — as it obviously is for many who commit suicide. He didn’t kill himself due to a sudden emotional shock, e.g. loss of a child, divorce, et cetera — as it also happens to many. No, he committed suicide because his life had already ended. If life is an offspring of our will to do something, to create and such will can’t actualize itself, then you are not just dying, but already dead. In that sense he became equal of the event. He died with the event

It is from here that the “transcendental materialism” of Nietzsche and Bataille finds its next step in the thought of Deleuze and, later, Nick Land.

Land’s “libidinal materialism” is precisely another form(lessness) for this bodily overcoming, refusing to adhere to the tyranny of human anatomy and the sacredness applied to this flawed all-consuming and shit-producing machine which we insist on saying has been constructed in God’s image.

This all too easily opens out onto a cyberpunk landscape but contending with the abject realities of our present is far more prescient before we drift off into escapist fantasy.

Here Nyx’s gender accelerationism and its call to become a “body without sex organs” can be held up as a brilliant example of the contemporary political stakes of such a thinking.


  1. Thank you for the lengthy reply, Matt. I am (slowly) working my way through it now. I appreciate your taking the time to expand on my question.

  2. Alright, so, let’s see if I’m even any bit closer on one part of this…

    Deleuze’s transcendental materialistic “thought” (developed from Nietzsche and others) is a constantly evolving form(lessness) that is “developing” through via form of libidinal self-preservation to what may be Land’s “thought” of the same nature (but evolved further)?

    1. Essentially, I think the essence of the body-without-organs, as a more abstract concept, is that each generation will have to construct its own. The line of flight from Nietzsche to Artaud shows how the organs themselves have been folded into a dogmatic image of thought that dictates how we should act in the world. However, as time goes by, the impositions that require a nomadic and emancipatory counter-politics become more extreme and fundamental. Following Bataille they become more base and more high, hence Deleuze’s cyberpunk-like posthumanist inflections and Land talking about genetic speciation and the expanding universe.

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