2022-01-08 - What is Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization?

What is Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization?

When you first hear about Deleuze and Guattari, one of the first things you ever hear about is “Deterritorialization” and “Reterritorialization”. But what is it? What things can it describe?

Well, it might first help to have the basic understanding of what a “Territory” is. To Deleuze and Guattari, structures are separated into different territories. For example, when we look at a video game, it not only is just the “video game” in itself, but it’s also many different territories inside of the video game - territories for example, for where certain parts of the game’s code or values are stored, territories for various game components, such as a score counter, or the position of a character, or even the territories of the user interface where a player can see the territories of maps, platforms, enemies and other game elements.

But if everything is a territory, how does it change over time? That’s where deterritorialization comes in. When deterritorialization occurs, all of those structures spontaneously disappear. Thats why it’s called “deterritorialization”. And immediately afterward, something amazing occurs - Boop! The system reterritorializes itself again, forming slightly different territories than before.

But why is it important that the system deterritorializes in the first place? Why can’t it just change? As you noticed earlier, territories in of themselves can’t really change their structure on their own. When they deterritorialize, parts of that structure disappear, and anything can happen. That’s right - literally anything. And because of that, the structures that defined that thing do not restrict how the system evolves over time.

What ends up happening over time, then, is that structures across lines of deterritorialization are made more and more invisible to the observer - they are integrated heavily into other parts of the apparatus. We can think about this kind of like how as a game is updated over time, certain parts of the code become more and more integrated - imperceptible - into the process, hooking itself up from more and more angles as it continues to deterritorialize. This can make the game over time hard to manage and understand what’s going on, because the old territories are no longer there.

What are some real world examples of deterritorialization… well, besides video games?

We can look at labor unions as an example of deterritorialization. Before labor unions, power in a company was fully concentrated in the owners of the company. This lead to a lot of problems for workers, like excrutiatingly long work days, dangerous environments that mass produced horrible disabilities, the exploitation of child workers and the oppression of any attempt for workers to be treated better. But because of all the hard fighting of many union activists across the industrial world, the power in a company was shaken and reterritorialized into a form that now included labor unions, representing workers. While this wasn’t a perfect compromise, its hard to imagine a world without some rights in the workplace, an expectation that has integrated itself heavily into many people. It’s important to remember though that there are forces that can change the tide of that power.

For example, we can look at Direct selling, or the practice of marketing directly to consumers, deterritorializes advertising and marketing. Think about it - Advertising is this huge structure that broadcasts the products to a wide audience, but direct selling transformed the territory of the advertiser from a big, alienated entity to an integrated form where sellers advertise a product on the scale of individuals. This has a few advantages for a company. For example, the company, through its distributed model, can overstep the rights of workers by treating them as contractors, making them work hundreds of hours with little pay. Additionally, the company is far less responsible for making irresponsible advertising claims because it’s often not the company making these claims. If a company posts a notice and fires consultants who make these claims, that is all that’s necessary to stay in business - allowing a lot of questionable advertising to get through the cracks. The distributed model allows a company to have much more direct access to the interest and values of their consumers, allowing them to heavily specialize in targeting specific loyal demographics. This combination of tactics allows many of these companies to become extremely successful in the marketplace - even if you’ve never heard of them!

Another example is colonialism. In colonialism, people from the colonizing state invade other places for resources, and believe they are granted right over the land, which they reinforce with guns and violence. Instead of simply having their land as a “father land”, they extend across oceans and even the world to spread this ownership of land across new territories. This network splits up this state into a complex system of territories to form the empire. Because they believe they have full right over this land, they reinforce to themselves a narrative, a history, to the right of ownership, which replicates and reinforces this network. Now the original state can own an incredible amount of land in the form of an empire. Even after the empire recedes, it can deterritorialize further - now it can be a set of companies influenced by these principles, who violently isolate operations of the valuable extraction of labor and resources from the original people.

So as you can see, deterritorialization and reterritorialization aren’t too complicated. They help explain why and how systems change over time. Instead of evolving linearly and predictably, they spread out and make their systems more disperse and difficult to isolate and trace.


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