The Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze

Posted by @ 10:00 am on June 7th, 2011

Over lunch, Christopher Higgs and I talked about Gilles Deleuze. I was saying how a lot of my friends–Chris, Blake Butler, and Derek White, to name a few–are really into his writing, especially the ginormous book A Thousand Pleateaus, co-written with Felix Guattari. I’ve tried to read it and get into it a few times, and kept putting the book up, scared off by not being able to immediately comprehend the text, not being able to decipher the numerous codes, terms, coinages. Recently, I changed. I picked up A Thousand Pleateaus again and flipped to a random chapter and read. I enjoyed it, and am enjoying it. Like my experience with Finnegans Wake, there are lucid swathes that I feel I understand, and then there are times when it’s packed dense or just orgiastically conceptual and I tune out a bit. But that process of coming in and out of lucidity is nice. Sort of trancelike.

I mentioned asking Chris some questions about Deleuze, his thinking, the books. I’m sort of acquainted with his ideas through the book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (amazing book!), and what Deleuze I’ve now read. But, let me ask you/Chris some maybe dumb questions.

Firstly: Why should we read Deleuze?

Deleuze is the future.  He is almost the now, but not yet.  Just out of reach, just over the horizon, he is akin to the force that makes the sky pink after the sun sets and pink again right before the sun rises.  He is both pre and post everything, like the feeling before a meal of being famished followed by the feeling after the meal of being stuffed.  He does what no other thinker before him could do: he upends Plato, he quiets Hegel, he puts all the little thinkers to bed.

Consider it this way: if we imagine the past as a hallway full of doors marked dualism, binary thinking, either/or, mind/body, transcendence, then Deleuze makes philosophy contemporary by drawing a series of escape hatches on the ceiling of that hallway and marking them multiplicity, schizoid thinking, both/and, non-dialectical materialism, immanence.  Deleuze is open, associative, connective.  Deleuze is digital, affirmative, productive, innovative.  In him, we have a blueprint for navigating the 21st century.

Okay, I better stop there for now.  I can get pretty wound up and easily begin sounding like a preacher – I think my wife mentioned to you how I am sort of like a proselytizer for Deleuze.

But to respond to something else you said: I think many readers share your experience of being “scared off by not being able to immediately comprehend the text, not being able to decipher the numerous codes, terms, coinages” when first encountering his work—individually, and with Guattari.  It’s a totally valid response, but it’s also a manageable hurdle.

Here’s the trick: do not bother trying to comprehend or understand the text.  A desire for that level of control will only hinder your ability to experience it, use it, think it, and become it.  To apply an analogy, I do not need to understand or comprehend my car in order for me to experience driving, to use the car to get to the grocery store, to think about the fact that I am sitting motionless while simultaneously moving rapidly through time and space, to become an extension of the car or vice versa.  (In this way, Deleuze has really helped me formulate my general approach to all works of literature: I do not care to comprehend them or understand them in any way.  I wish instead to experience them and use them and become them.)

Maybe I’m jumping the gun here, but I’ll share this great passage from one of my favorite contemporary thinkers/writers, Steven Shaviro, which serves as a great primer for understanding Deleuze’s approach and also frames an additional answer to your question, Ken, about why we should read Deleuze:

Deleuze’s treatment of the philosophers he writes about is a complicated one: one that is obscured more than it is explained by Deleuze’s flippant and notorious comment about impregnating the past philosopher from behind, in order to produce a monstrous offspring. Deleuze is always closely attentive to the words, and the concepts, of the thinkers he is writing about. He quotes them a lot, and paraphrases their points using their own vocabularies. At the same time, Deleuze never provides an interpretation of the thinkers he is discussing; he is uninterested in hermeneutics, uninterested in teasing out ambiguities and contradictions, uninterested in deconstructing prior thinkers or in determining ways in which they might be entrenched in metaphysics. All this is in accord with Deleuze’s own philosophy: his focus is on invention, on the New, on the “creation of concepts.”

It’s not a matter of saying, for instance, that Plato and Aristotle and St. Augustine were wrong about the nature of time, and Kant or Bergson are right. Rather, what matters to Deleuze is the sheer fact of conceptual invention: the fact that Kant, and then Bergson, invent entirely new ways of conceiving time and temporality, leading to new ways of distributing, classifying, and understanding phenomena, new perspectives on Life and Being. A creation of new concepts means that we see the world in a new way, one that wasn’t available to us before. This is what Deleuze looks for in the history of philosophy, and this is why (and how) he is concerned, not with what a given text “really” means, but rather with what can be done with it, how it can be used, what other problems and other texts it can be brought into conjunction with. Deleuze writes about philosophers whose ideas he can use, or transform, in order to work through the problems he is interested in (full text here).

Like the avant-garde or experimental or innovative artist/writer, Deleuze is a philosopher of the new.  He is all about thinking in new ways, which seems like a damn fine reason in-and-of-itself to read him, in my opinion.  Of course, that also makes him difficult, which makes your Finnegans Wake comparison truly apt.

How can we use his philosophy in everyday life? Does he supply new or preferred ways of not only thinking but being? In other words: if I was looking for philosophy to guide me ethically and aesthetically, how does Deleuze show me how to live?

Danger warning!  Deleuzian ethics are unconventional in ways that tend to piss people off, especially Marxists!

Prevailing wisdom would suggest that opposition is essential to change.  Put in Hegelian terms, a thesis meets its antithesis in order to create a synthesis.  Tit for tat.  Action is met with reaction. For example, the government or big business or whomever does something you dislike, so you protest.  They throw a punch, so you throw a punch.  Back and forth.  Eventually, this way of thinking tries to convince us, the tides will change.  Eventually my punch will be the knockout punch, and those aggressive forces that pushed me to react will meet their doom.  (“And the meek shall inherit the earth.”)

This is, unfortunately, a fantasy.  Action will always prevail.  Reaction will always fail. (Did protest end the war in Vietnam?  Did protest stop the war in Iraq?  Did protest stop the destruction of collective bargaining in Wisconsin recently?  — No.  It did not.  Why?  Because protest is reactive, not active; it is negative rather than affirmative; it assumes the subordinate position “I am against X!” rather than the dominate position “I am for X!”)  It is the myth Nietzsche exposes in his groundbreaking and devastating Genealogy of Morals, a book that is central to my understanding of Deleuze’s ethical applicability.  For Nietzsche, Deleuze, and myself, direct engagement is a mistake.  Diffuse or indirect engagement is preferable.  Diagonal rather than horizontal or vertical attack.  Non-Euclidean game plans. Rhizome rather than root, molecular rather than molar, dynamic rather than static: reroute the flow of power toward new creative constructions.  Think of it like a tug of war: the opposition relies on your engagement, on your antithesis.  Without it, they would fall on their butts in the same way a person would fall on their butt if you were playing tug of war and suddenly let go of your end of the rope.  By engaging with the opposition you merely serve to validate and empower that opposition.  The only form of power one can truly wield is the power of action, of affirmation, of creation.  Let go of the rope!  You’re tired of going to the grocery store and finding fruits and vegetables from overseas, which have been treated with cancer-causing chemicals?  Don’t bother fussing with the management or writing a letter to your congressman…let go of the rope and go build an organic community garden. Action.  Creation.  Do not be duped into thinking that you can win a battle against the powers that be – they are the powers that be because they took action, because they created something.

This also imbricates Spinoza’s view of ethics, which serves as the other major pillar of my understanding of Deleuze’s ethical applicability.  For both thinkers, affirmation engenders creation and negation engenders destruction.

In everyday life, this means reconsidering our actions.  It means asking oneself: am I acting or am I reacting?  Am I creating or am I destroying?  Am I affirming or am I negating?

That sort of speaks to the ethical issue.  In terms of the aesthetic, I think Deleuze can help us in everyday life by encouraging us to foreground difference, to find beauty in difference, to seek heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, to focus our desire toward the unfamiliar, the strange, the new.  A Deleuzian aesthetic is predicated, at least in part, on change, movement, transformation, repositioning, shifting, flowing, mutating, multiplying, generating, and, of course, magic.

If you could give someone a Deleuze bundle of five items, what would it contain? (It can include anything: any of Deleuze’s books/essays, anything Deleuze writes about often, other texts, other media, a desert root system, etc.)

Wow, tough question.  There is so much good stuff out there, so many options.  And it really would depend on what angle a person was particularly interested in exploring.  Thinking in general terms, here is a bundle of five possible entry points:

An Introductory Bundle

*First, I would give them Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche, because I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Hardt’s opening statement in his Forward to the revised edition: “This book is, in my view, the best introduction to Deleuze’s thought.” (You can read Hardt’s entire Forward here.)

*Second, I would give them Michel Foucault’s critical examination of Deleuze’s first two books of independent philosophy (Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense) called “Theatrum Philosophicum,” which opens with Foucault’s famous statement,  “Indeed, these books are so outstanding that they are difficult to discuss; this may explain, as well, why so few have undertaken this task. I believe that these words will continue to revolve about us in enigmatic resonance with those of Klossowski, another major and excessive sign, and perhaps one day, this century will be known as Deleuzian.” (You can read the whole thing here.)

*Third, I would give them the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, which contains Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the Rhizome. (You can read the entire introduction here.)

*Fourth, I would give them this lecture on Deleuze by Manuel De Landa, which elaborates lucidly on crucial concepts such as expressivity and morphogenesis.

*And fifth, I would give them Félix Guattari’s book Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972—1977, because one of the most effective ways of familiarizing oneself with Deleuze is by seeing him through the eyes of his longtime collaborator.

As an added bonus, I’ll offer three other useful bundles…

The Background Bundle

Five works to inform, expand, and enhance one’s engagement with Deleuze:

*Baruch Spinoza – Ethics

*Friedrich Nietzsche – On the Genealogy of Morals

*Henri Bergson – Creative Evolution

*Antonin Artaud – The Theatre and Its Double

*James Gleick – Chaos: Making a New Science

The Secondary Bundle

Five works that utilize or otherwise illuminate Deleuze in ways that I have found particularly provocative and/or useful:

*Steven Shaviro – Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics

*Bruce Baugh’s essay “How Deleuze can help us make Literature work” (which has been anthologized in the collection Deleuze and Literature)

*Gerald Bruns’s essay “Becoming Animal: Some Simple Ways” (published first in New Literary History, 2007, 38: 703–720, but also included in his newest book On Ceasing to be Human)

*John Rajchman – The Deleuze Connections

*Alain Badiou – Deleuze: The Clamor of Being

The Case Study Bundle

Five entries to get one thinking about the application of Deleuze’s philosophy:

*David Markson’s Author Quartet (Reader’s Block, This is Not A Novel, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel)

*William Burroughs’s Cut-Up Triptych (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express)

*Jean-Luc Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle

*Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica

* Ryan Trecartin – P.opular (section ish)

And finally, your favorite sentence or paragraph from Deleuze’s writing.

Okay, I’m not going to over think this or second guess my first impulse, which is this:

Writing has nothing to do with signifying.  It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come. (A Thousand Plateaus 4-5)

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