Milieu, Territory, Atmosphere: New Spaces of Knowledge

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos

we require just a little order to protect us from chaos

Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 201)


The three concepts of milieu, territory and atmosphere are examined here as spatialisations of knowledge production sites. The methodology of the chapter is situated in the writings of Gilles Deleuze, as well his work with Felix Guattari. The chapter begins in the middle (the milieu), namely without introduction but immersed already in the high velocity of the knowledge milieu. The milieu of the volume is seen here precisely as the space of the middle, which resists centrality, origin or hierarchy. The various milieus organise themselves in a spatial formation that can be called territory, itself organised by the emerging notion of refrain, namely the creative motif that streams throughout the spatial/territorial formation of the milieus. Refrains are open to the new, constantly changing yet informing of a particular knowledge variation, risky in that they might dissolve in the new combinations in which they throw themselves, yet displaying an order which is consistent rather than hierarchical. With this, the text reaches the point of atmospheric diffusion of the refrain. Atmosphere is a creative practice needed in order in turn to create the right conditions for further creativity. The text ends with a self-observation of its three 'passages' (from individual to collective, from conscious to non-conscious, and within space) and their effects on the notions used.

In the Milieu

We begin right in the middle, in the milieu of the text. This is not an absolute middle. It has no pretences of being located in the centre of the text, or of symbolising the golden middle of classical harmony. This middle is a messy, hyper-complex, high-velocity milieu, in an intimate yet differentiated connection to its own space, where two things are rehearsed: on the one hand, the epistemologies of observing empirical realities of knowledge-creating enterprises and innovative entrepreneurial practices are being performed; and, on the other, the ontological shots at theorising on these terms, themselves undoubtedly steeped in epistemology. The present text serves as a folding of what follows in the book, in the hope that it will open some further lines of thought while reflecting the processes of contributing in and editing the book itself. Although not an introductory chapter (we have reserved a more articulate, step-by-step discussion of the concepts for the introduction), it aims at introducing some of the complex concepts that can be used in rethinking the process of knowledge-creation and creativity in relation to space, and more specifically urban space.

However enticing the process of clarifying and contextualising might be, this text tries to resist by returning to the middle. This is very important both for the argument of this chapter, and this volume as a whole. To begin in the middle is to denounce the possibility of an origin, a centre and a boundary. To begin in the middle abandons, not without a certain nostalgia, modernist illusions of control as well as postmodern delusions of harmonious pluralities. To begin in the middle, finally, is hardly a beginning. Rather, it is the moment in which one discovers that one has been 'thrown-in', without trace of original momentum that can be linked to one's situation in any causal way. But mark this: this discovery is not linked to a consciousness in the traditional, more or less phenomenological way. The discovery may well be a pre-conscious one, or simply a non-conscious one. Such discoveries are best consigned to the domain of posthuman affective flows, of which humans are only one part, the others being the hybrid, the technological, the inorganic, the 'natural', and so on. We study cities after all.

So we begin again, without ever properly beginning. The milieu is no centre: it is a movement along movement, something equivalent to stepping out of a door and being carried away by a crowd irresistibly pulling this and that direction. One finds oneself right in the middle of things, surrounded by a movement that cannot be controlled and further, whose flow is more one of Guattarian chaosmotics than Elysian fields. There is nothing reassuring in the milieu, nothing easy and manageable in the praxis of beginning in the middle. As Deleuze and Guattari (1988, p. 28) write, “the middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed.” The milieu is no boundary: it does not separate, although separations, distinctions and territorial conflicts take place all the time. In fact, the milieu contains (in the double sense of the word as content and limit) eruptions of conflict, mitigated only by the surrounding flows. The milieu contains its boundary function within its medium function: for while milieu is the middle, it is also the medium that pushes a process to an end, its very own objective, which, in this case as we shall see, is territory and after that, atmosphere.

The middle does not allow for a perspective that calls itself an origin and from which all is centrally, panoptically surveyed. This chapter, and this volume as a whole, cannot offer the definitive point of observation that guarantees the way forward. At best, it adds another flow in what is already an overcrowded field. However, and rather emphatically, the offered flow is a parasitical one, in the sense intended by Michel Serres (1982): we offer a counter-flow, as it were, a parasite within the system, invited by the host yet always alien. We bug existing lines of communication and bring about a noisy fusion of system and milieu, firm and city, knowledge-creating process and creativity. We open up the dialectics of closure and openness, and see what happens.

Our methodology, largely based on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's writings,[1] is faithful to its milieu. Deleuze and Guattari (1988) use the example of the

grass in order to describe the process. The grass grows without a central part or limits to its expansion, horizontally, spreading from a multiplicity of rooting, a system that is not systemic, taking advantage of the terrain. The grass begins in the middle, thrown into a milieu, becoming part of it, becoming the milieu. To begin in the middle is to find oneself folded between the multiplicity of the world without a discernible origin, a specific centre and determined territorial limits. To be thrown into the mobile multiplicity of the grass is to follow the blades waving in the wind: one loses one's origin, one's preconceived ideas of location and destination, one's belief in the importance of the centre. One is lost in a horizontal plane of movement, and on this plane one begins by ebbing and flowing between knowledge and ignorance. So what do you do? You cluster around similarities, you institute affinities, you even, without perhaps realising, become part of a collective atmosphere. At the same time, you mark your territory, you find a way of communicating your presence to the others, you hum your individuality. You do not lose your initial fascination for the unknown, the wanderlust of your creative energy, yet you harness it, you do not allow it to throw you into chaos. You keep on flirting with it.

Compare the milieu to Doreen Massey's definition of space in her seminal book For Space (2005, pp. 10–12): space is a product of interrelations and embedded practices, a sphere of multiple possibilities, a ground of chance and undecidability, and as such always becoming, always open to the future yet taking place on a plane of simultaneity which occurs among “intertwined, openended trajectories” (Massey, 2005, p. 113), peculiar delights of the middle, a parallel presence of avenues and dead-ends. This seeming openness is firmly conditioned: multiple possibilities indicate lack of direction and possibly destination; continuous becoming means also instability and unpredictability; interrelations denote a difficulty in pinpointing causality, origin, actants; simultaneity indicate an almost Spinozan lack of freedom. Allow us to add a Deleuzian understanding of spatiality that assumes the guise of “the delicate milieus of overlapping perspectives, of communicating distances, divergences and disparities, of heterogeneous potentials and intensities” (Deleuze, 2004, p. 50). These descriptions of space are removed from the usual benign descriptions of geography or such simple binarisms between bad space (public) and good place (home), and rely instead on a complex, as yet value-free description of the space of milieu. For it is important to note the way in which space assumes the above characteristics of milieu: multiplicity rather than singular origin, unpredictability rather than the panoptical predictability of the centre, interrelation based on embeddedness rather than the separation of boundaries, and simultaneous interplay between chaotic spread and organised structure. These are all characteristics shared by both space and milieu. It is, I think, beyond doubt that milieu is thoroughly spatial. The question, however, is how the space of milieu becomes marked, becomes fully spatial, 'populated' by space as it were. We shall revisit this in the next section.

Let us return to our grass methodology. We opt for grass as opposed to tree, with its defined root, trunk and volume. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification.” (1988, p. 16). Instead, they urge us to “make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don't sow, grow offshoots!” (1988, p. 24). Offshoots and rhizomes are characteristics of the planar mobility with which Deleuze and Guattari describe the world. Rhizomes specifically encapsulate the ideas of horizontal, posthuman, heterogeneous growth that trammels Deleuzian/Guattarian thought, in that they do not constitute a linear, vertical construction but a surface where any modulation is absorbed, closed in and eventually spread in lake-like smoothness. However, even radical rhizomes have been routinely fetishised in the literature as the way to guarantee openness, flexibility and contingency. This marginalises the fact that rhizomes can also be co-opted, overcoded and used in ways that go against the very idea of rhizome.[2] This is an interesting example of the complexity of the middle: neither necessarily 'good' or 'bad', positive or problematic, the space in the middle is a space of struggle—in this case, against origins, boundaries, centres. Even better, the space in the middle is a space of encounters with other bodies, a space in which a body affects and is affected by other bodies. At this point, it is important to clarify two terms: first, that bodies here must be considered in the Spinozan/Deleuzian sense, according to which “a body can be anything: it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or idea; it can be a linguistic corpus, a social body, a collectivity” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 127). Bodies circulate in the milieu and might eventually be deemed 'good' or 'bad'. It bears repeating that the milieu is not a space of judgement, of secure values, of fixed constructions. Rather, the space in the middle is precisely in the middle: neither this nor that side; but then again, it is not a boundary and therefore is not flanked by sides. It simply is, a movement amidst movement. Likewise, it offers no direction: just as the leaves of grass move with the wind, the space in the middle consists of the encounter between the grass and the wind. Encounter is the second term that needs clarification: an encounter for Deleuze and Guattari pushes the encountered parties off their comfort zone of categories and identities, and throws them in a “mad becoming” (Deleuze, 2004, p. 141). The grass becomes wind and moves along the wind's breath, the wind becomes grass and spreads itself on the ground: becoming itself is pushed deeper in the middle, as it were. Finally, the space in the middle offers no chronology and no external causality: all is interfolded in simultaneity and immanence. The wind becomes the grass, the grass becomes tomorrow's grass, its beginning is in the middle, in the space of here, manically flapping around its movement.

  • [1] Indicatively, see Hofsess and Sonenberg (2013) and Honan (2007), for two fascinating takes on rhizomatic methodology
  • [2] Although Deleuze and Guattari specifically write that the rhizome cannot be overcoded. See Michulak (2008)
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