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January 14, 2006

NOTES ON GILLES DELEUZE

Gillesdeleuze_smiling_large "There's no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons." -- Gilles Deleuze (from Postscript on the Societies of Control)

In my personal Pantheon of seminal intellectual figures in the second half of the 20th century, few rank higher than the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995, above left), perhaps the most original of those who are frequently classified as "post-modern" thinkers (the term "post-modern" has been so over-used and mis-used, vulgarized, and even  commercialized as to have been nearly emptied of its real and precise original meaning.) It's only a few weeks since the 10th anniversary of Deleuze's death, but I've been tardy in offering these few notes to try to convey why I thnk he's of such enormous importance.

With Deleuze'sSartre_iv_1  tragic death a decade ago, France lost the man who was, I think, the last of its great public intellectuals -- certainly there is today in France no one person of his intellectual stature and moral authority. Deleuze was more significant, in my view, Foucault_1 than his contemporary and friend Michel Foucault (left), and as a philosopher he was -- on the Continent at least -- for a time nearly as influential in intellectual circles in the '70s and '80s (or even moreso) as Sartre (above right), whose most important work had by then long been completed -- see my note for DIRELAND on "Sartre at 100: Still Relevant":).

Another contemporary and friend of Deleuze, Jacques Derrida (right) -- himself Derrida an important figure of post-modernism -- nicely captured the scope and meaning of Deleuze's work and life in his moving eulogy for Deleuze, "I'll have to wander all alone." Said Derrida:

"Deleuze was, of all those in his 'generation,' the one who 'did/made' (faisait) philosophy  the most gaily, the most innocently. Gilles_deleuze_negotiations_cover_1 He would not have liked, I think, the word "thinker'...He would have preferred 'philosopher.' In this respect, he claimed to be 'the most innocent (the most devoid of guilt) of making/doing philosophy' (in Negotiations, cover left). This was, no doubt, the condition for his having left such a profound mark on the philosophy of this century, the mark that will remain his own, incomparable. The mark of a great philosopher and a great professor. The historian of philosophy who proceeded with a sort of configurational election of his own genealogy (the Stoics, Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Bergson, etc.) was also an inventor of philosophy who never shut himself up in some philosophical 'realm' (he wrote on painting, the cinema, and literature, Bacon, Lewis Carroll, Proust, Kafka, Melville, etc.). And then, and then I want to say precisely here that I loved and admired his way -- always faultless -- of negotiating with the image, the newspapers, television, the public scene and the transformations that it has undergone over the course of the past ten years. Economy and vigilant retreat. I felt solidarity with what he was doing and saying in this respect, for example[when] he said: 'One should know what is currently happening in the realm of books. For several years now, we've been living in a period of reaction in every domain. There is no reason to think that books are to be spared from this reaction. People are in the process of fabricating for us a literary space, as well as judicial, economic, and political spaces, which are completely reactionary, prefabricated, and overwhelming/crushing....' This is, he said, 'much worse than a censorship,'and then he added, 'but this dry spell will not necessarily last.' Perhaps, perhaps....."

A Nietzschean of the left who was heavily influenced by Marx -- and was not shy about saying so -- Deleuze's hugely important 1972 study of Nietzsche (published here a decade later by Columbia University Press as "Nietzsche and Philosophy") was the single most important factor in the rehabilitation of Nietzsche's work in the last quarter of the 20th century (prior to which Nietzsche had been unfairly taxed with being a forerunner of Hitlerian totalitarianism,Michel_onfray_best_1  when in fact he was an immensely anti-totalitarian philosopher of libertarian tendencies.) Deleuze's book certainly changed radically my own view of Nietzsche -- so that today, my favorite among the younger French philosophers (and the most brilliant) is another Nietzschean of the left, the prolific libertarian hedonist and joyous atheist Michel Onfray.(above left)

Deleuze was an intellectuel engagé, who -- from his opposition to France's colonial war in Algeria until his death -- wrote brilliantly about political issues (unfortunately, not enough of Deleuze's political essays and articles are published in English). And I enjoy Deleuze's extensive writings on literature and film. I shall never forget the immense privilege of the afternoon I spent with Deleuze, who -- even though he was already quite ill, knew his days were numbered, and was conserving his precious time and energy for his work -- kindly accorded me a lengthy interview, thanks to the intervention of our Gilles_chatelet_1mutual friend,  the late Gilles Chatelet (left) (Chatelet was a very dear comrade of mine who was a world-class mathematical philosopher, gay activist, and brilliant political polemicist -- his scintillating essay, "Vivre et penser comme des porcs. De l'incitation à l'envie et à l'ennui dans les démocraties-marchés," Paris, Exils Éditeur, coll. Essais, 1998 [translation: To Live and Think Like Pigs: envy and boredom in market-economy democracies]  was a best-seller in France the year before his premature death, and praised by Le Monde as the book that, "of all the many books published for the 30th anniversary of May 1968, is the one that most closely embodies its spirit." -- I miss Gilles Chatelet terribly. You can get some flavor of his thought from an article he wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique, entitled "Re-lire Marcuse pour ne pas vivre comme des porcs," which you can read by clicking here.)

Fortunately for those who aren't lucky enough to be able to read Deleuze's strikingGilles_deleuze_deleuze  prose in French, there is a great deal of material by and about Deleuze (right) available on the Internet in English. There is a very competent, extensive, and detailed look at Deleuze's most important work in the Deleuze entry of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophjy. A website maintained at Wayne State University by Charles Stivale has a ton of texts and links. If you do speak French, WebDeleuze is a site still under construction that has audio recordings of some of Deleuze's course lectures. And you can find a list of all the books Amazon has available by Deleuze in English by clicking here.

Among the most important of Deleuze's books were two he co-authored with his Guattari friend, the radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari (left). First came Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which combines elements of the work of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche to develop a political analysis of desire as it is repressed or expressed in Western culture. I consider this one of the greatest books of the second half of the 20th century. Anti-Oedipus was followed by a second volume extending this work, A Thousand Plateaus. These two works, along with those of Marcuse, helped root and theoretically inspire the European student rebellions of the '70s. (for a summary of their views, see the interview in English of  Deleuze and Guattari by Sylvere Lothringer, "Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium.")

Moreover, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus were terribly important in Guy_hocquenghem_1 influencing the theoretical development of the gay liberation movement in France and on the Continent generally. My late friend Guy Hocquenghem (right), the founding theorist of French gay liberation in the early '70s, used to insist that Anti-Oedipus -- much more than Foucault's work , which came later -- had made gay liberation intellectually possible in France.

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Posted by: ds | Oct 25, 2006 5:33:15 AM

"as a philosopher he was -- on the Continent at least -- for a time nearly as influential in intellectual circles in the '70s and '80s (or even moreso) as Sartre"

This claim is, I think, nonsense. His great influence in intellectual circles has, on the contrary, been in English-speaking countries in the 1990s to today. Notwithstanding the specific instances of Deleuze's influence in France which you accurately cite.

The second comment here is also quite inaccurate - "recent developments"? As the first commentator points out, you miss out Deleuze's post-1980 output and in any case Deleuze has been dead for nearly a decade.

Posted by: mark | Jan 23, 2006 5:34:11 AM

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