Issue 2/2013 - Net section

The infra-quark universe

A project by filmmaker Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson on a science-fiction-script by Félix Guattari

Rahma Khazam

Best known for the philosophical writings he co-authored with Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari was also a noted psychoanalyst and a militant whose research into subjects as varied as global capitalism1, animism and even cinema has been garnering increasing attention in recent years. Most intriguing in regard to the latter field is the discovery of an unfilmed script for a science fiction film, whose plot can be summarized as follows: a young biologist makes contact with an infinitely small alien intelligence known as the Infra-quark Universe (UIQ), which proceeds to disrupt global communications systems. Aided by members of a squat, the biologist sets up an interface with UIQ who soon falls in love with a young punk called Janice, but is separated from her when government forces destroy the squat. UIQ retaliates by turning millions of humans into mutants, only agreeing to stop if Janice undergoes an implant operation to merge her brain with its consciousness. Guattari worked on the script on and off during the 1980s, initially in collaboration with the American filmmaker Robert Kramer, giving it the title Un Amour d'UIQ (UIQ in Love).

Filmmakers and artists Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson, who recently brought the script to light, answer questions about their own UIQ project, which comprises a film about Guattari's unfilmed screenplay, In Search of UIQ, as well as performances, talks, a group exhibition, a radio trailer and a book containing the screenplay and accompanying essays.2 Their project explores different ways of 'producing' Guattari's script, without actually filming it.

Rahma Khazam: How did Félix Guattari come to write the script of a science fiction film?

Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson: Guattari’s adventures in cinema didn’t exactly begin with Un Amour d’UIQ. Like Deleuze he was interested in cinema, though less systematically so, and from a different, more pragmatic angle. In addition to a couple of really important essays on cinema he wrote in the 1970s, he was involved in video workshops at the La Borde Clinic and counted among his friends people like Jean-Pierre Beauviala, inventor of the 'cat on the shoulder' 16mm sound camera that became a mainstay of Nouvelle Vague and free cinema, and the actor Jean Pierre Léaud. A number of his comrades from the period who we spoke to confirmed that he had always nursed an ambition to become a filmmaker. The earliest script we discovered in his archives was for a short film on free radio (inspired by Radio Alice), set amid the 1977 Italian Autonomia uprisings. A couple of years later, he worked in collaboration with Robert Kramer on another project, Latitante, about two Italian fugitives living in France, a semi-fictional film project partly inspired by his own experience of assisting persecuted autonomist asylum-seekers. What interested us was the shift from these more directly political film projects to the science fiction film. For us this shift was symptomatic of a larger reorientation of the progressive political imaginary between the 1970s and the 1980s, which, in the wake of the repression of social struggles on the ground, underwent a gradual detachment from the world towards more remote horizons of the possible. This unconscious yearning for other ‘forms of life’ was projected, in Guattari's case, onto the figure of an invisible, protean alien intelligence.

Khazam: This is also the central claim in the essay you wrote for the book – where you point out that, for Guattari. UIQ was both an expression of mourning for the political optimism of the 1970s and a refuge from the more repressive atmosphere of the 1980s. Are there other connections between UIQ and Guattari's oeuvre as a whole?

Maglioni and Thomson: There are very clear connections. In fact, UIQ helps us to understand the transversality that is key to Guattari's thinking, which nearly always combines a political, clinical, philosophical and aesthetic dimension. The machinic subjectivity of UIQ – which is capable of infiltrating human minds and bodies, communications systems and machines, even natural phenomena, at will and thus lacks temporal and spatial limits and a fixed sense of identity - has quite obvious connections with the experience of psychotics in establishing a liveable territory of existence. But it might also relate to the pathological workings of supposedly 'normal' subjects entangled in the designs of a multinational corporation for domination of global markets, or in the plans of the US military for 'total spectrum dominance', both scenarios that exemplify the ways in which limits are transgressed. For us, one of the most fascinating aspects of UIQ was that its problems of ‘embodiment’ were also those of Guattari’s script, which went through three very different versions. It was as though the subject of the Infra-quark Universe was at once too infinitesimal and too far-reaching to find an adequate frame.

Khazam: How did Guattari come to conceive of the Infra-quark Universe ?

Maglioni and Thomson: Guattari’s idea of an Infra-quark Universe owes something to the appearance in physics of superstring and membrane theory, which posit the notion of parallel universes existing in other dimensions, perhaps only a millimetre removed from our own. For us, one of the most exciting discoveries related to such theories is that as much as 74% of the universe is composed of dark matter. In terms of a Copernican Revolution of thinking this has profound implications, for it suggests that the universe is only a quarter visible, which means either that an image can only show us a quarter of what it purports to make visible, or that we see only a quarter of what any image contains. It also means that every image constitutes a field of forces and intensities which, in another universe, could have a different equilibrium, a different potential, through the displacement of as little as a single element. For us this has something in common with the shadow-bearing minimal differential posited by Duchamp in his ready-mades – the dimension of the infra-thin – which we try to apply to thinking cinematographic images by looking for the potential that any film contains to be minimally different from itself. This is especially relevant with regard to UIQ who might affect the very consistency of images and make them slightly different – images that in our universe would normally be supposed to contain UIQ as a representation. In a way Guattari was anticipating what has become a fairly normal aspect of contemporary cinema, the virtual plasticity of being able to manipulate every aspect of the image.

Khazam: Robert Kramer collaborated with Guattari on the screenplay. How would you define their respective contributions to UIQ?

Maglioni and Thomson: Kramer seems to have worked on and off on the project for around two years, from 1980 to 1982, collaborating on the first two versions of the script. The difference in their approaches is instructive: as a filmmaker, Kramer finds Guattari somewhat heavy-handed in his desire to incorporate theoretical notions about processes of subjectivation into the script through the character of UIQ. He wants to strip away a lot of this scaffolding and says he can’t see the ‘movement’ in the movie. But the fact that Guattari comes from outside of cinema enables him to think in terms of a cinema to come, which will be a shifting hybrid of different art forms that could incorporate elements of theatre, performance and video art. In his notes he talks about a processual cinema that would involve enlisting the collaboration of artists from different disciplines – he mentions Piotr Kowalski, Laurie Anderson, Roberto Matta, Minami Tada. So the movement for Guattari is a question of multiple intensive movements that are possibly decentred from the main action of the film.
There’s a kind of fold between Kramer and Guattari along the line of this question of movement, and it raises the question as to where exactly is the ‘movement’ in a movie. How does it move? For us, movement can happen in all kinds of ways that may not be immediately perceptible to the viewer. In any image all kinds of movement are present, even in things which don’t appear to move but we are programmed to give them secondary importance to the movement of the story.
But there are also parallels between Guattari and Kramer: strangely, in Kramer’s own cinematic trajectory we see a similar desire to open out the possibilities of cinema to other art forms – for example in his dance film Maquette – and movements. Consider the increasing presence in his films of intervallic shots of machines or natural organisms that come to constitute a kind of machinic animistic circuit with the movements of the characters.

Khazam: Why did you choose to make a film about the non-making of UIQ, as opposed to actually shooting Guattari's script?

Maglioni and Thomson: What struck us about the script was the way it tries to release the delirium that for us is constitutive of cinema from the signifying structures (story, psychology etc.) that reinforce normative patterns of desire. We felt that in order to make this delirium proliferate we had to produce ‘manifestations’ of the Infra-quark Universe, a book, performances, etc., that would enable others to realize this universe for themselves without having a particular vision imposed on them. These manifestations function in the manner of a relay: each is partially taken up by the others and given a new twist that opens up avenues for its further transformation. Our film is in part a reconfiguration of fragments of these previous manifestations, which in turn become components of a new and hopefully more complex assemblage of enunciation – to use Guattari’s phrase.

Khazam: What do the three parts of your film correspond to?

Maglioni and Thomson: The first part of In Search of UIQ is called “Cinebacteria”. It concerns the prehistory of Guattari’s 1970s political cinema projects in relation to the explosion of big-budget science fiction movies which represented a new, purely imaginary, and in many ways infantile and regressive, horizon of the possible. The second, “Distant Encounters”, is a part-documentary, part-fictitious re-enactment of Guattari’s attempts to investigate possible avenues of production, especially in Hollywood. The third, “Porteurs d’ombres” (“Shadow-bearers”), is an attempt to imagine and narrate the virtual dimension of the UIQ scenario, in the context of contemporary global techno-capitalism. So the three sections roughly correspond to the three key phases in the UIQ script’s life.

Khazam: How in your opinion does the UIQ script compare with other science fiction films?

Maglioni and Thomson: Although the script does replay a number of tropes that seem borrowed or stolen from other science-fiction movies, from Close Encounters to Blade Runner or even a curio like Demonseed, it does so in terms of a distinctive tonality that blends a kind of insouciant Gallic populism with moments of extreme rarefaction. Like UIQ itself, its mood is protean, wholly unpredictable. One moment you are in a Tati gag, the next in a Lynchian nightmare. Or there are passages that combine the special-effects laden thrills of Cameron and Spielberg with the desolate poetry of Tarkovsky or Rossellini. But perhaps Guattari's achievement is to have eluded the binary logic of mainstream science fiction, which figures the alien as either hostile or 'good', and therefore comparable to us. He derails this ideological binary, underscoring instead the incommensurability of alien life-forms and the shift in world view this implies.
For us, the interesting thing about science-fiction is precisely the ambivalence that attaches to the alien and the monstrous, which enables us to read a film like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers as both anti-Communist propaganda and anti-McCarthyite critique. Is Ridley Scott’s Alien the explosion of the repressed life force of the social body in an age of emaciated, bloodless technocracy or the life force of capital itself that eats through everything in its path? Through writing Un Amour d’UIQ, Guattari is able to create such a sense of ambivalence, by dreaming up a schizoid alien consciousness beset by the problem of its own and others’ existence, a kind of Odradekian lungless laughter in the dark.

Khazam: In what way does the UIQ film reflect the socio-political context of its time?

Maglioni and Thomson: It evokes the enormous shift in horizons of subjectivity that took place during the 1980s when the politics of identity and difference really began to take hold, despite being framed within a logic of individualized consumer culture. On the one hand, Fellini’s Ginger and Fred showed how the media machine of the avant-spectacle was able to incorporate just about every form of deviant subjectivity as part of an ever-expanding freak show that could be safely consumed from one’s armchair. On the other hand, the 1980s, in the form of squats and temporary autonomous zones, was also a last stand for the kind of Autonomist culture inspired by Situationism that sprouted in the wake of 1968, as well as the moment that culture went implosively underground. Then, towards the end of the 1980s, there was the brief spring of the rave scene that was immediately criminalized and that now looks like a swan song for Autonomous culture on a mass level. Privatisation, along with health and safety legislation, dealt the final blow to those spaces of expression, in which a new social body could intermittently constitute itself. There are intimations of all these 1980s developments in UIQ.

Khazam: In your essay, you point out that for Guattari, science fiction was a springboard for conceiving new modes of existence and perhaps even a means of liberating desire from social norms. Yet such a state is not necessarily beneficial, as we realize at the end of the script, when the heroine loses her freedom of thought and expression as a result of having irrevocably merged with UIQ's machinic consciousness.

Maglioni and Thomson: The ending of the film looks forward to a horizon that it intuits but can't quite picture. It anticipates, both through the UIQ-Janice merger and the amphibian mutation that UIQ unleashes on the planet, the immersive, aquarium culture of the digital, from which, as we now see, people rarely come up for air. The heroine’s immortality is similarly a kind of merging of her brain with UIQ’s infinite machinic consciousness, a becoming of pure data flow. Guattari was extremely ambivalent about this horizon. On one level he saw the potential for a revolutionary techno-sociality no longer bound by the structures of language and identity. On the other, he realised that the chronic inflationism of the digital could have catastrophic consequences. We are now beginning to realise how right he was on that score.

Khazam: In “Assemblages: Félix Guattari and Machinic Animism”, Jean-Claude Polack discusses Guattari's view that there is a permanent exchange between the different aspects of nature, i.e. vegetable, mineral, animal and so forth and that a tree or animal must be granted the capacity to modify us, just as we modify it. I wonder if this idea is expressed in the film, and if so, in what way?

Maglioni and Thomson: For Guattari, when one enters into a zone of proximity - whether with an animal, a plant, an octopus or a technical machine, or, more crucially, with the complex assemblage of different components that constitutes a territory - things happen that go beyond the structural level of subject-object relations and the crystallisations of identity and difference. There is a kind of fluid relay between components, none of which takes precedence over the others, and which continually modify each other. The communication between UIQ and the different members of the squat, which passes through odd kinds of relays from the flight of birds or the movement of water to the behavioural complex of a monkey or the vibrations of a washing machine would be a good example of this. There’s a constant interchange between the machinic and the organic. The cables that proliferate as the squat is gradually transformed into a lab and UIQ’s machinic interface becomes more complex, and begins to resemble the tentacles of a giant octopus.

Khazam: Is your UIQ project a follow-up to your previous film Facs of Life (2009) which was centred around the work and continuing influence of Gilles Deleuze?

Maglioni and Thomson: Our encounter with UIQ came about through Facs of Life, and there are certain thematic similarities, particularly the idea of beginning from an unfinished archive of ambiguous status within the oeuvre of the thinker. Is Marielle Burkhalter’s video footage of Deleuze’s seminar at Vincennes a film or just rushes? What place does Guattari’s unfilmed screenplay have among his other writings and to what kind of cinema can it give rise? Rather than making a film 'about' Deleuze or 'about' Guattari, we focus on questions such as these. Our next feature film will also explore the invisible universes that are latent in any manifestation of the image – its starting-point will be some orphaned characters from the late Nouvelle Vague.

Silvia Maglioni & Graeme Thomson website:



1 Max Jorge Hinderer, Fließbandarbeit der Subjektivität, in: springerin 1/2013, S.32-37.
2 Félix Guattari, Un Amour d'UIQ – Scénario pour un film qui manqué, Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson (ed.) with the collaboration of Isabelle Mangou