restricted access Speeding Across the Rhizome: Deleuze Meets Kerouac On the Road
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 227-256

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Speeding Across the Rhizome:
Deleuze Meets Kerouac on the Road

Marco Abel

[E]verything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshots in immediate connection with an outside. [. . .] And directions in America are different: the search for arborescence and the return to the Old World occur in the East. But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American "map" in the West¸ where even the trees form rhizomes. America reversed the directions: it put its Orient in the West, as if it were precisely in America that the earth came full circle; its West is the edge of the East.

—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus


Reading a text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. [End Page 227] Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine [. . . . A]rt as experimentation.

—Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

. . . "I think of Dean Mo-ri-ar-ty"

—Kerouac, On The Road. As voiced by Kerouac on the Steve Allen Plymouth Show, 16 November 1959.

. . . and I think of Gilles Deleuze.

Despite having limited himself to what one might call merely sporadic references to Jack Kerouac, the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has proven himself to be the most insightful among all of Kerouac's commentators. 1 Akin to his more extensive philosophical engagement with the literature of Kafka (together with his frequent collaborator, Félix Guattari), Proust, Carrol, Sacher-Masoch, and Melville, Deleuze's allusive encounter with Kerouac constitutes a remarkable alliance with the latter's poetics—one that can be characterized as "minoritarian," despite the danger of evoking the very identity politics that this concept attempts to circumvent. That is, by using Deleuze's concept of "minor," I don't mean to engage in a literary revisionism in order to assert that "My guy is cool too!" Rather, "minor," as used in the Deleuze and Guattarian sense, characterizes a literature "in which language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization" (Kafka 16) and in which "everything [. . .] is political" and "takes on a collective value" (17). "Minor", in short, does not designate a specific literature or authors (that is, an existing and privileged identity) but "the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature" (18). Minor literature proceeds by "a willed poverty, pushing deterritorialization to such an extreme that nothing remains but intensities" (19), and it is the intensities that matter rather than the "author" him- or herself as a writerly subject. 2

Rejecting the standard interpretive approaches to Kerouac based on critical paradigms such as psychobiography, history, or ideology—all of which frame a text on the level of "representation" and search for "meaning"—Deleuze conceives of Kerouac's work as productive and is instead interested in what it does. 3 Asserting together with Guattari that "no art is imitative" (Plateaus 304), Deleuze responds to Kerouac's [End Page 228] spontaneous prose as constituting a literary machine that produces affects, not a signifying, representational system that requires an interpretative search for hidden meanings. 4 Thus radically disavowing the very basis of most literary criticism—the holy trinity of signification, Oedipus, and economical determinism—Deleuze offers the concept of "becoming," something that "is never imitative" (305), as a means of responding to a text such as On The Road. As Deleuze writes with his one-time co-author Claire Parnet, "To write is to become, but has nothing to do with becoming a writer" (Dialogues 43). That is, to use a different Deleuzean example, a becoming-dog does not require that one actually must bark or wag one's tail. Becoming is not about attaining an object or end. Instead, becoming is akin to entering a zone of proximity, "an encounter between...