Gilles Deleuze is widely regarded as one of the major postwar proponents of Nietzschean thought in continental philosophy. Over a period of forty years, he presented what amounts to a philosophy of vitalism and multiplicity, bringing together concepts from thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche and Hume.
In the first comprehensive English-language introduction to Deleuze, John Marks offers a lucid reading of a complex, abstract and often perplexing body of work. Marks examines Deleuze’s philosophical writings – as well as the political and aesthetic preoccupations which underpinned his thinking – and provides a rigorous and illuminating reading of Deleuze’s early studies of Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Bergson and Spinoza, his collaborations with Felix Guattari, and the development of a distinctively ‘Deleuzian’ conceptual framework. Marks focuses on the philosophical friendship that developed between Deleuze and Foucault and considers the full range of Deleuze’s fascinating writings on literature, art and cinema. This is a clear and concise guide to the work of one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers.
About the Author
Dr. David M. Berry is a lecturer in the Media and Communication department at the University of Swansea. He researches the philosophy of technology, medium theory, digital media and the social and political implications of the information society.
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Gilles Deleuze: A Life in Philosophy
It cannot be regarded as a fact that thinking is the natural exercise of a faculty, and that this faculty is possessed of a good nature and a good will. 'Everybody' knows very well that in fact men think rarely, and more often under the impulse of a shock than in the excitement of a taste for thinking. (DR, 132)
People will readily agree that intense physical pursuits are dangerous, but thought too is an intense and wayward pursuit. Once you start thinking, you're bound to enter a line of thought where life and death, reason and madness, are at stake, and the line draws you on. (N, 103)
Gilles Deleuze was a philosopher who posed the question of what it is to think, questioning the conventional mechanisms – the 'images' – that constitute thought. In short, thinking for Deleuze is a matter of experimentation and problematisation, of becoming something different. We tend to rely upon the fact that we speak and think as a coherent and relatively transparent 'subject', but Deleuze calls this assumption into question. Speaking 'for yourself' is not quite as self-evident as we might assume:
It's a strange business, speaking for yourself, in your own name, because it doesn't at all come with seeing yourself as an ego or a person or a subject. Individuals find a real name for themselves, rather, only through the harshest exercises in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them. (N, 6)
For these reasons, there is also an element of vitalism in Deleuze's work. He is interested in the force of life which passes through us as individuals: individuals are in fact multiplicities. Subjectivity is not a stable given; it is rather a 'collective' subjectivity which is to be produced. Deleuze admires the theme of 'subjectification' in the later work of Michel Foucault. Subjectification is not about returning to the subject, but rather the Nietzschean preoccupation with inventing new possibilities of life, '[...] a vitalism rooted in aesthetics' (N, 91). The production of a new way of existing is not the production of a subject, but of a 'specific or collective individuation' which is divested of interiority or identity: 'It's a mode of intensity, not a personal subject' (N, 99).
Deleuze committed suicide in November 1995 by jumping from the window of his Paris apartment. He had been afflicted by serious respiratory problems for many years and had become increasingly unwell as he entered old age. His death elicited a number of admiring obituaries in the world's press and in academic journals. These assessments of his work and influence speak frequently of the patient construction of a serious and challenging philosophical project. The glimpses of Deleuze that appear in pieces by friends and colleagues tend to reveal a modest, elusive character who seemed to share at least some of the ascetic tendencies of Spinoza, whom he so admired. Jean-François Lyotard, for example, recalls a solitary figure, in his '[...] modest student den, an armchair under a lamp for reading, a nondescript table for writing'. Deleuze's death was also seen in some quarters as yet another indication of the general decadence, or even madness, which has afflicted postwar French intellectuals. A certain received wisdom circulates: those – like Foucault, Althusser, Barthes and Debord – who have engaged in deliberately 'difficult' and inaccessible work, have paid the price with their own sanity, and even their lives. Far better, as Hume reminds us, to live a life of routine and order, only briefly and occasionally entering the dangerous and tiring domain of philosophy. There may be some wisdom in Hume's observations, but, as a general point, the reader who wishes to understand the importance of the particular period of the history of European ideas in which Deleuze took such an important part should bear the following points in mind.
Firstly, it would be simplistic to suppose that thinkers who actively introduce a principle of disorder into our habitual perceptions of the world should necessarily suffer a consequent measure of disorder in their everyday lives. Any life is characterised by order and disorder. Hume and Deleuze may not have been so different after all. As James Miller has pointed out, Deleuze did in fact, just like Hume, have a domestic life – married with two children – which was outwardly 'conventional' and, for both thinkers, this apparent conformity contrasted with their bold, unconventional intellectual lives. Secondly, Deleuze would most probably reject such a clear distinction between public and private, domestic and academic, life. He sometimes suggested that his intellectual life was a way of obtaining the extreme effects of experiments with drugs, sexuality and personality 'by different means' (N, 11). Thirdly, thinkers such as Deleuze in some ways reverse Hume's formula for philosophical work. Hume shared the general Enlightenment faith in the civilising processes of illumination, education and order. Deleuze, on the other hand, points out that just as we pay a price for disorder, we also pay a price for order. Finally, we must ask whether the privileged and unusual conditions that French intellectuals experienced – particularly in terms of their intensive philosophical training – might not have placed them in an equally privileged and unique position in their experiments with thought. Although some of the insights of intellectuals such as Deleuze and Foucault might now appear to be a product of the times, there is also something vital in them which perhaps anticipates things to come. There may be ways in which their ideas cannot be reduced to a historical context: something about them is 'untimely'. We should bear in mind Foucault's prediction that one day the century will be 'Deleuzian'. It is in this spirit that Deleuze's work will be approached. That is to say, there is always just a little more energy in the history of philosophy than we might think. Deleuze reminds us that real thinking is a rare activity, and that we are perhaps too often tempted to see order where it does not exist. Ultimately, we take what we need from an author; a book can be treated as if it were a box of tools. However, in order to find what we need, it is necessary to be open-minded, take on the work of an author as a whole (see N, 85–6).
Deleuze was born in 1925, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in the 1940s and published his first important work in the 1950s. Just as it is difficult to identify discrete strands in Deleuze's work – characterised as it is by a series of intersecting 'planes' of thought – so it is equally difficult to divide this work into periods. In part at least this is because Deleuze constantly returns to earlier themes, creating difference out of repetition. However, in an interview from 1988 Deleuze does agree to a provisional overview of his work as falling into three periods (N, 135). The first period concentrates on the history of philosophy, mainly by means of concise studies of individual authors. This period culminates with two books, Difference and Repetition (Différence et répétition 1968) and The Logic of Sense (Logique du sens 1969), which attempt to synthesise this work onto a philosophy of difference. He then moved on to a period of intense collaboration with Félix Guattari, producing the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Capitalisme et schizophrénie tome 1: 1972 L'Anti-Oedipe and Capitalisme et schizophrenie tome 2: Mille plateaux 1980). This collaboration aims at producing the outline of a materialist, 'universal' history which acknowledges, but also attempts to go beyond, Marx and particularly Freud. However, this collaboration is also theoretically interesting in its own right. The project of writing 'as two' is a practical experiment into the possibility of escaping from the confines of the 'subject'. Finally, in the third period, Deleuze is preoccupied with aesthetic themes, with books on Francis Bacon and two very important books on cinema. In this period he becomes concerned with the definition of philosophy itself. In his final work Deleuze evinces confidence and optimism with regard to the vitality of philosophy. Philosophy may have its rivals, in the form of advertising and information technology, but it retains a unique role in the world:
Philosophy is always a matter of inventing concepts. I've never been worried about going beyond metaphysics or any death of philosophy. The function of philosophy, still thoroughly relevant, is to create concepts. Nobody else can take over that function. (N, 136)
Of course Deleuze's work has formed an important part of one of the most creative and unusual periods in European, and particularly French, thought. That is to say, the growth of 'structuralist' and 'poststructuralist', and 'deconstructionist' theory in postwar France. However, movements and trends in areas such as art and ideas rarely demonstrate the coherence attributed to them in retrospect, and although Deleuze's work is closely linked to that of other French theorists, particularly Michel Foucault, it would be wrong to think in terms of these thinkers as constituting anything like a school. Deleuze's work is a singular contribution which combines notions of multiplicity and difference with a commitment to a certain vitalism; a belief that 'life' is frequently imprisoned and that it could be freed. However, it is crucial to understand that he did share with his contemporaries the fact of having come from a highly competitive and intensive education, which exposed them at an early age to the history of philosophy. In the early 1970s Deleuze reflected, with more than a touch of humour, upon this training: 'I belong to a generation, one of the last generations, that was more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy' (N, 5). Deleuze belonged to a generation of French thinkers who, by virtue of their education, were steeped in conventional philosophy. Several of them, like Foucault and Deleuze, attempted to take this training, which represented amongst other things a lingua franca of shared knowledge, and invent a 'new approach' which would bring philosophy into contact with important social and political questions.
Life and Work
Nietzsche had at his disposal a method of his own invention. We should not be satisfied with either biography or bibliography; we must reach a secret point where the anecdote of life and the aphorism of thought amount to one and the same thing. (LS, 128)
Actually, there is only one term, Life, that encompasses thought, but conversely this term is encompassed only by thought. (S:PP, 14)
In a recent article, the novelist Michel Tournier recalls the young Deleuze as a student in Paris in the 1940s, and writing Empiricism and Subjectivity (Empirisme et subjectivité: Essai sur la Nature humaine selon Hume 1953) in the 1950s. Tournier talks of attending a performance of Sartre's Les Mouches with Deleuze one Sunday afternoon in 1943. The performance was interrupted by an air-raid warning, and most of the audience sought shelter. However, Deleuze and Tournier strolled around a deserted Paris, observing at close quarters the mushroom-like explosions of German antiaircraft fire. Talking to Claire Parnet, Deleuze talks at some length about his childhood and adolescence in the 1930s and 1940s. He was born into what he describes as an 'uncultivated' ['inculte'] bourgeois Parisian family, who lived in the seventeenth arrondissement. He remarks with some amusement that his current apartment in rue Bizerte is in a somewhat more downmarket part of the same arrondissement. He claims to have few memories of his childhood, but he was struck by the atmosphere of tension that prevailed in the 1930s, with the general economic crisis which followed the Wall Street Crash, and the increasingly inevitable onset of war in the late 1930s. At this time, he began to understand the world in what might broadly be called 'political' terms, becoming aware of a deep-seated anti-Semitism in French society, which was often directed at Léon Blum, the leader of the Front Populaire. He was also struck by the antipathy of the bourgeoisie to the social advances – a reduction in the working week and annual paid holidays introduced by the Front Populaire, which came to power in 1936. In the period of the 'phoney war' ['drôle de guerre'] just before France was invaded, Deleuze and his brother were sent to a makeshift lycée in Deauville. It was here that Deleuze, a mediocre student up to that point, encountered an inspirational teacher Pierre Halwachs – who introduced him to Anatole France, Gide and Baudelaire, igniting a lifelong interest in literature. Deleuze returned to Paris for the duration of the war, and was a pupil at the Lycée Carnot. Here, he knew from his very first philosophy classes that he had found a subject that he wished to pursue. (He was not actually taught by Merleau-Ponty, the celebrated French phenomenologist, but recalls the latter's melancholy demeanour as he surveyed the daily throng of raucous pupils.) Deleuze's remarks on the political affiliations of his classmates, which ran the gamut from Vichy sympathisers to members of the French resistance, illustrate some of the extraordinary everyday tensions which characterised life under occupation. In some ways these memories appear to be the conventional coordinates of biography. However, on closer inspection, Deleuze's memories of his childhood seem to be deliberately chosen and presented in such a way as to show that childhood is not at all interesting if it is merely a question of 'intimate' autobiography ['sa petite histoire a soi']. One's own story is interesting in that it has something to do with a life that 'passes through' the individual: we are all collective beings.
This brings us on to the properly philosophical quesion of life and work. For some time now the notion of a 'psychoanalytic' reading of life and work – 'His work was motivated by an unresolved relationship with his mother', for example – has been seen as reductive. Deleuze himself rejects such a psychoanalytic approach to literature. However, this does not mean that the intriguing notion of authorship cannot be problematised. What are the relationships between life and work? What do we mean by life and work? What does it mean to speak in one's own name? These questions become much more interesting and productive when the notion of 'life' is as rich and as unusual as it is in the work of Deleuze. The problem is tackled in a characteristically bold way when Deleuze and Guattari propose a provocative reading of Kafka. Coventionally, Kafka's work is frequently seen as an allegorical expression of his own tortured isolation, but Deleuze and Guattari present him as a 'collective' writer, who is 'plugged into' the huge bureaucratic and military machines which will dominate the world in the twentieth century (see K, 70–1 and 83–4). The 'conventional' psychoanalytic reading is unsatisfactory, since Kafka deliberately exaggerates the Oedipalisation of his father to a global scale. The father is only a cog in the machine:
Thus, the too well-formed family triangle is really only a conduit for investments of an entirely different sort that the child endlessly discovers underneath his father, inside his mother, in himself. The judges, commissioners, bureaucrats, and so on, are not substitutes for the father; rather it is the father who is a condensation of all these forces that he submits to and that he tries to get his son to submit to. The family opens onto doors [...]. (K, 11–12)
Great writers are literally overwhelmed by social and political forces which they translate into fictional form. Consequently, the idea of writing a biography of such a writer is fraught with difficulties: 'All writers, all creators, are shadows. How can anyone write a biography of Proust or Kafka? Once you start writing, shadows are more substantial than bodies' (N, 134).
My Life: A Hole I Fell Into ...
Several recent biographies of Deleuze's contemporary Michel Foucault have tackled some of these problems, and have succeeded in opening up new and complex ways of thinking about the relationship between life and work. Writing can be the expression of a life which is itself an experiment with difference, with becoming something other. Writing can be imbued with the disparate elements which constitute the life of the author. Like Foucault, Deleuze must be seen as one who tries to write 'without a face'. In an interview from 1988 he initially attempts to avoid the question of an obvious relation between, as the interviewer puts it, 'bibliography and biography', by claiming that the life of 'teacher' is rarely interesting, and that he cannot be considered to be an intellectual since he has no general cultural reserve at his fingertips. It should be borne in mind that the French intellectual, from Zola to Sartre, was traditionally willing to pronounce judgement on any given subject, but Deleuze does not consider himself to be a 'universal' intellectual: 'We don't suffer these days from any lack of communication, but rather from all the forces making us say things when we've nothing much to say' (N, 137). However, the few comments that he does venture on the subject of 'bibliographie-biographie' suggest something of the ascetic approach to writing and thinking that Deleuze shared with Foucault. For Deleuze, to think is, like Foucault, to seize that which is nomadic, which escapes conventional categories. The interesting parts of our life are the points at which identity breaks down. There may be a point where we 'fall into a hole', or as Scott Fitzgerald puts it, we become a 'cracked plate'. For this reason, in discussing his biography, Deleuze chooses to dwell upon the period of eight years which elapsed between his first and second major publications. He retains only an 'abstract' knowledge of this period, as if the memories belonged to somebody else:
That's what I find interesting in people's lives, the holes, the gaps, sometimes dramatic, but sometimes not dramatic at all. There are catalepsies, or a kind of sleepwalking through a number of years, in most lives. Maybe it's in these holes that movement takes place. (N, 138)
Excerpted from "Gilles Deleuze"
Copyright © 1998 John Marks.
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