Chapter 10. The Philological Machine

Every attempt to understand something that is written, poetry for example, takes place within a philological machine. This applies especially for the modern discourse of language which can be slightly dated to the beginning of the movement called “enlightenment”.

What does philological machine mean? And why is it a machine at all?

Let me start by comparing the not yet explained philological machine with two other machines described by Giorgio Agamben and Furio Jesi. After that I will discuss the term machine regarding Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of desiring machines. 

Agamben uses the term anthropological machine to describe how humans are produced in opposition to animals: Yes, humans are a product of an intellectual machine using the modes of exclusion and inclusion. Sciences, arts, etc. decide and describe what a human is, and what is an animal. The line between humans and animals is drawn thinly. So, the anthropological machine uses the oppositions human/animal and human/inhuman1 and keeping a “zone of indeterminacy”2, where it is undecided if one is inside or outside of the human. The modern anthropological machine goes a step further: 

“it functions by excluding as not (yet) human an already human being from itself, that is, by animalizing the human, by isolating the nonhuman within the human:”2

Furio Jesi as Gustav Sjöberg explains identifies a mythological machine: and it works similar to what Agamben has described. The mythological machine is the object of knowledge as well as the mode of understanding that knowledge. It is epistemological and the object of such an epistemology3. Mythologies are not the “organic” outcome of myths4 but they signify the existence of myths outside of mythologies. Therefore, mythologies are historical, and myths are outside of history. It is the same mechanism as for the anthropological machine: something has to be outside, so an inside can be constituted which is related to the outside. But that what is inside is accessible and thus controllable. 

In both cases we do not know what a human is or a myth, but what we can know is how they were produced in history and in present: through anthropological and mythological machines.5 Our aim should be to deconstruct those machines, because those machines produce new concepts of the human subject as well as the myth (right myths or left myths to make the term more political). For Jesi those machines are deeply connected and for both machines we could argue with Jesi, that it is unclear if those machines want us to believe that what they produce is true (the myth or the human subject) or if those machines want to make us believe in their empty production itself6. In the case of Agambens analysis the machine makes us not believe in a human nor an animal life but in the bare life which can and will be used for dominating life itself.7

Agamben’s goal is to stop those machines. Sjöberg, who described Jesi’s mythological machine wants to destroy it. This means, “to advance into a territory beyond the borders of bourgeois/conservative culture, instead of trying to shift their barriers a bit.”8   

For such an endeavor Sjöberg wants to “affirm poetry’s contingency” instead of “increasing its value”.9

To help destroying those machines we have to destroy one more machine: the philological machine. The philological machine works exactly like the others, but its product is the book, which can be analyzed, and understood through hermeneutical methods of reading. For this the philological machine produced the male author10, technologies of interpretation and archiving4 All literature is autobiography without being autobiography – this is the philological mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. 

Therefore, the philological machine makes clear, what the other two machines tried to cover: they are desiring machines. The desire of the philological machine is to connect the individual to a pile of written and/or printed paper: philology is editing and vice versa. It is to determine whether a text is literature and whether a human being is a male author. 

Machines as Deleuze and Guattari describe have one main function: cutting into a “continual material flow”.11 Those flows can be bodies as in the anthropological machine or thoughts, narratives like in the mythological machine. The philological machine is a specification of the letter, because it cuts through books, paper, leather and ink. It also expands the mythological discourse with a psychoanalytical.12

“In a word, every machine functions as a break in the flow in relation to the machine to which it is connected, but at the same time is also a flow itself, or the production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it. This is the law of the production of production.”11

The philological machine is the break in the flow of literature. It produces a new flow, a flow of authors and books, which can be hermeneutically understood and described as to write about writing. 

But why do we have to destroy the philological machine which worked so fine until now, producing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Mann, Peter Handke (and for every other western country their own names representing literature)? 

So, dark hermeneutics is still a viable method because as Deleuze and Guattari write “every machine has a sort of code built into it, stored up inside it.”13 And as Jacques Lacan has pointed out even the unconsciousness has a code2. One has to aim at those “signifying chains”4 which are within all those machines. 

Dark hermeneutics would be the Go-to method not to destroy the philological machine, but to deconstruct and re-construct it. Sjöberg refers to Eduardo Vivieros de Castro to gather allies for his project of destroying the mythological machine. Our goal would no longer be in “explaining, interpreting, contextualizing, and rationalizing the other thinking/ thinking the other”14 but instead accepting and verifying the effects of the other thinking/thinking the other on “our” thoughts2.

This would also mean to understand that the philological machine produced our understanding of books, authors and literature and that we can change this discourse and its machine, because it is a white, male, and self-centered discourse: the philological machine stabilizes the “rightwing western culture”15 and its universal claim of being an a priori reference point.4

Literature and poetry are part of the mythological as well as the anthropological machine. They are also desiring machines giving codes which are written. And that material and ontological situation of language being written allows us to use dark hermeneutics to reconfigure those machines, to destroy or stop them. But for such a big goal we have to first deconstruct the philological maschine producing a specific code of poetry and literature which speaks for specific desires of a conservative bourgeoise culture. We have to listen to the other writing/ writing the other and adjust our dark hermeneutical discourse to a new philology. 

  1. Agamben 2004, 37 []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  3. Sjöberg 2020, 47 []
  4. ibid. [] [] [] []
  5. Ibid., 48 []
  6. ibid., 49 []
  7. Agamben 2004, 38 []
  8. Sjöberg 2020, 50 translated by M. B. []
  9. ibid., translated by M. B. []
  10. Kittler 2000, 57 []
  11. Deleuze/Guattari 1983, 36 [] []
  12. Kittler 2000, 72 []
  13. Deleuze/Guaatri 1983, 37 []
  14. Sjöberg 2020, 47 – translated by M.B. []
  15. ibid, 48 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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