The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) is best known for the two volumes Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1977) and A Thousand Plateaus (1987), co-authored with Félix Guattari, and considered by many to be central post-1968 texts. However, Deleuze's philosophical work had started already in the 1950s. He wrote numerous monographs on philosophers (Nietzsche, Kant, Bergson, Spinoza, Foucault, Leibniz), all of which, at the same time as being rigorous considerations of philosophical concepts, are at an angle to received wisdom about these subjects. In addition, he produced a handful of books on artists and writers (Proust, Kafka, Sacher-Masoch, Bacon) as well as a two-volume work on cinema. All of his oeuvre shows a preoccupation with similar metaphysical ideas, adding up to an eclectic but consistent philosophy most coherently articulated in his two central philosophical theses Difference and Repetition (1994 ) and The Logic of Sense (1990).
Deleuze was born, and lived most of his life, in Paris. His secondary school years coincided with World War II, when he attended the prestigious Lycée Carnot. He went on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1944-8 under Fernand Alquié and Jean Hyppolite, among others, and then taught at various lycées. Deleuze published his first monograph Empiricism and Subjectivity, on Hume, in 1953. In 1957 he took a position at the Sorbonne, followed by various academic positions including a professorship at the University of Lyon. In 1969 he was appointed to the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes, known for its radical philosophy department established by Michel Foucault, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. During the last years of his life he was severely debilitated by respiratory disease, and, unable to continue his work, took his own life in 1995.
From a contemporary perspective Deleuze's philosophy emerged in contrast to the French existentialist and phenomenological thinkers of the 1950s such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose thought drew on Husserl, Heidegger, and Hegel. Inspired instead by the development of Saussure's linguistic ideas by structuralists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, Deleuze, like his contemporaries Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, rejected phenomenology and developed ideas and theories that came to be known as poststructuralist. However, the term “poststructuralism” implies a far more coherent school of thought than these thinkers ever represented. Therefore, it is perhaps more useful to consider how Deleuze's philosophy developed from an historical perspective. He explicitly defines himself as an heir of the “outsider” philosophical tradition of the Stoics, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bergson, and Nietzsche, against the thought of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel. Indeed, a large proportion of Deleuze's philosophical work is devoted to attempting to correct the persistently erroneous “image of thought” of this, according to Deleuze, “orthodox” Western philosophical tradition, and articulating a truer metaphysics, based on the voices of dissent that have always been present in philosophical history. Deleuze's clearest consideration of this “image of thought” is to be found in his Difference and Repetition.
Deleuze's use of the term “image” in identifying erroneous thought is indicative of his philosophical stance. Deleuze positions himself in opposition to any mediation of being such as the Platonic distinction between ideal forms and their copies in the world. In the place of these concepts of original ideal and copy, Deleuze suggests difference and repetition. This difference, which is not predicated on identity - that is, not a difference-from or not-x, but a self-differing difference or dx - forms the basis of Deleuze's ontology. In the absence of the hierarchy of ideal and copy, every instance of being is just another repetition of Being as difference. The central tenet of Deleuzian ontology, traced by Deleuze to medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, is “Being is univocal” (Deleuze 1994), where Being is a non-totalizing One and each being is singular at the same time as existing in the same way as every other being. This means that there is no transcendent ground or privileged thinking subject, both concepts which are part of the erroneous “image of thought.”
Deleuze, however, states that these errors are explicable, since at the point when univocal Being becomes a multiplicity of beings, its pure difference appears as merely the difference between beings, reintroducing identity and representation. Deleuze therefore distinguishes between a pre-individual transcendental field of Being, called the virtual, and the realm of beings that exists in time and space - matter and form, but also ideas and thoughts, and subjectivity itself-called the actual. If we attempt to understand reality by considering merely the actual, says Deleuze, we are bound to be deceived. Since the actualization of the virtual leads to error, Deleuze's philosophy, or what he calls his “transcendental empiricism,” centers around affirming the transcendental field of the virtual in a vast range of contexts. Such an affirmation allows for what he calls a “counter-actualization” implying not only liberation from error but also the freedom to create new thought in the unrestricted field of the virtual. Indeed, Deleuze states that the imperative to counter-actualization constitutes his only ethics.
This imperative is also exemplified in his work with Félix Guattari. While using a dizzying array of terms and approaches, Deleuze and Guattari in fact continually and coherently pit that which is determined, “rigid,” “segmented,” or “territorialized” against that which is undetermined, “fluid,” “smooth,” or “deterritorialized.” They use these and other similar terms to describe a range of structures or “assemblages” - sociological, economical, linguistic, biological, psychological. The idea of the assemblage allows Deleuze and Guattari to describe relations between beings without any subjective agency, hierarchy, or organizing principle, but rather as presupposed only by the transcendental field of difference-in-itself. Such assemblages thus have to be described by their relative ontological “orientation”: toward the virtual or toward the actual.
To Deleuze, structures in the actual tend to be territorialized, limited, and organized in rigid segments. In contrast, the virtual is entirely deterritorialized, without organization, identity, or limits. The aim of Deleuze and Guattari's project is an articulation of the possibility for any given assemblage of moving from a rigid actual orientation towards a fluid virtual one, which they see as a deterritorializing and despecifying movement toward greater freedom from determination, whether it be psychological or physical, subjective, collective, or even entirely nonhuman. However, assemblages are reterritorialized as well as deterritorialized in a continual dual dynamic that they trace between such terms as molar and molecular, macropolitical and micropolitical, sedentary and nomadic, and so on.
To Deleuze, the highest form of affirmation of the virtual lies in the very process of Being itself, its repetition, or creation of the new. While his own field, philosophy, is the creation of new thought, Deleuze also privileges art in general, and literature in particular, as paths to “counter-actualization,” since they constitute the creation of new sensation. Deleuze's work on art and literature must be seen, then, not as mere criticism, but as an integral part of his philosophical project. In Logic of Sense (1990 ) Deleuze develops a theory of language based on his metaphysical stance. It is here he appears most closely related to the poststructuralist rejection of representation and subjectivity. To Deleuze, language is another instance of the actualization of virtual Being. Difference-in-itself allows language to produce rather than re-produce sense, thus it is never a copy but always a unique being. However, when removed from this virtual, language appears a mirror of the world, reflecting precisely the rigid and territorial actual.
In response to such rigid language, Deleuze and Guattari (1986) develop the concept of minor literature, predicated on a deterritorialized use of language. This is an inherently political use of language, insofar as deterritorialization always implies an undoing of the territories necessary to politics and power. It is also necessarily collective, insofar as deterritorialization also implies an undoing of the particular territory of a single subject. Literature ceases to be an author's utterance or communication, and becomes an independent, collective, “assemblage of enunciation.” In terms of literature, then, the work is an assemblage with, not an image of, the world. The work does not represent the world; instead, it interacts with and affects the world.
In his Proust and Signs (2000 ), an influential work only relatively recently translated into English, Deleuze offers a reading of Proust's In Search of Lost Time that demonstrates how, at its best, literature, through so called “signs of art” becomes a pure affirmation of Deleuze's metaphysical system. The process of art is revealed to be analogous to that of Being: the creation of the singular and unique through an affirmation of difference-in-itself.
Many readings of Deleuze, taking their cue primarily from his two influential works with Guattari, focus on Deleuze as a revolutionary philosopher of plurality and freedom. The multifaceted character of his work with Guattari itself seems to inspire such a reading, which Constantin Boundas in the introduction to his Deleuze Reader (1992) sees as a “ritornello” of deconstruction and radical pluralism. Influential works on Deleuze from this perspective include Brian Massumi (1992) and Michael Hardt (1993). Massumi interprets deterritorialization as essentially a proliferation of imaginative possibilities in the social field, and Hardt sees Deleuze's project as a fundamentally political task, a construction of a new positive and inventive society, leading toward the articulation of a “radically democratic theory.” However, Hardt notes that to arrive at this political theory, Deleuze requires an extensive “ontological detour.”
While these readings remain influential, the decade after Deleuze's death has seen two key works which privilege precisely this “ontological detour.” Both Alain Badiou (2000 ) and Peter Hallward (2006) consider Deleuze's proclamation of the univocity of Being as central to his project, a project which is therefore essentially metaphysical rather than political. Badiou argues against what he sees as the commonly accepted image of Deleuzian thought as centered on the anarchic liberation of desires, and suggests that Deleuze's fundamental task revolves around a renewed concept of Being as One. To Hallward, this implies a philosophy which is explicitly apolitical, where the constant drive to affirm the virtual, univocal Being precludes the possibility of a practical engagement with the real world.
SEE ALSO: Badiou, Alain; Derrida, Jacques; Foucault, Michel; Grosz, Elizabeth; Heidegger, Martin; Lacan, Jacques
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