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Undigesting Deleuze by Brian Massumi


On the 20th anniversary of the death of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, LARB’s philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever and Brad Evans invited several Deleuze scholars to reflect on the continued importance of Deleuze’s life and work today.



Or so it seemed.

The uptake of Deleuze’s work in the world of English-speaking academia was remarkably slow. A first flurry of interest was occasioned by two key publications in 1977: the translation of Anti-Oedipus, co-written with Félix Guattari, and an eponymous special issue about that two-headed book from the renegade journal Semiotext(e). The excitement these two publications inspired was for the most part felt outside the academy. Where it registered was on the political and artistic fringe (remember that this was a time before the internet, and the recuperative powers of neoliberalism’s data-mining and niche-marketing of all aspects of emergent existence, had robbed that concept of its force). Within the academy, the least amenable corner was Deleuze’s own home discipline of philosophy. A tentative welcome was extended by literature departments, the traditional landfall site of the successive waves of European thought that swept through the late-20th-century Anglo-American intellectual landscape. Deleuze’s thought did not sweep so much as drizzle. Sweeping were the Foucault power wave, and Baudrillard simulation wave, the Derrida deconstruction wave, the Lyotard postmodern wave, waving to Deleuze as they passed him by.

To illustrate part of the reason for the pass-by, imagine what epitomizing qualifier could have been inserted between “Deleuze” and “wave.” The candidates that come to mind — micropolitical, rhizomatic, virtual, singular, becoming, superior-empirical, asignifying-semiotic, anorganic-vitalist, affirmative — seem more apt to have sealed his marginal position than transform it into swell. This was not so much because these keywords were more jargony than others (any new term is jargon before it becomes a new term). It was due more to the fact that the theoretical and political stakes they carry were not immediately readable, for the simple reason that the background against which they figured was unfamiliar. Deleuze was working at crosscurrents to the dominant tendencies of the time. He chose nondialectical Spinoza over Hegel; spurned the all-powerful “linguistic imperialism” of structuralism and its semiotic inheritors; aligned with the forgotten anti-Durkheim of early sociology, Gabriel Tarde; championed a nonstandard reading of Nietzsche with as yet little currency outside of France; critiqued both the French Freudianism of Lacan and its nemesis, American ego psychology; remained in constant dialogue, implicit or explicit, throughout all of his works with such then-unknowns as philosophers of science Gilbert Simondon and Raymond Ruyer; throughout carried the strongest affinities with the then seriously out-of-fashion A.N. Whitehead; and perhaps worst of all, proudly wore the badge of his everlasting love of metaphysics, in the face of many a solemn declaration of its death. His dedication to drawing on “minor” figures to forge his own unique philosophical synthesis, and the sheer diversity of these largely unknown antecedents, rendered his positioning uncomputable.

In the absence of an understandable background against which to read him, a contextual straw was grasped: May 1968. The student-worker revolt that shook the French Fifth Republic to its Gaullist roots and set the scene for Deleuze’s fateful meeting with Guattari was commonly invoked to explain — and dismiss — him. Deleuze was known primarily through Anti-Oedipus, and Anti-Oedipus was seen as an intense but parochial expression of the culture of May ’68. No significance was generally accorded the work or its authors beyond being symptomatic of that time in France. What being symptomatic of that time often boiled down to was being representative of an increasingly irrelevant (as Reaganism crested) “infantile leftist” spontaneism. The book was fun to read, and it was often repeated, but it was just a babble of ideational free association, succeeding at best in generating a striking metaphor or two. As late as 1987, it was still possible for a major Ivy League university — the one most known for its openness to French thought, no less — to refuse, on first submission, a dissertation on Deleuze on the grounds that he was not a serious enough figure to deserve that level of scholarly attention. I speak, unfortunately, from personal experience. It was an experience that solidified in my mind the (not entirely unself-congratulatory) notion that the radicality of Deleuzian thought was such that it was by nature unassimilable to the academic institution. How wrong I was. The situation began to turn not long afterwards, as more of his work became available in English translation.

Fast forward to the present. Deleuze is one of the most cited authors around. He is everywhere, to the point that Deleuze fatigue is palpable in many quarters. One is as apt to hear his surname preceded by “The Church of” as by “Gilles.” The publication of scholarly volumes whose titles begin with “Deleuze and …” has reached industrial proportions. The “minor” figures Deleuze drew on have been rediscovered, largely through his work, and each has spawned a mini-industry of its own (with the exception of Ruyer, and he is coming). The Deleuze Studies journal is finishing its ninth year, and the annual international conference associated with it is preceded by a weeklong “Deleuze Camp.” Seriously. It is actually called that.

Deleuze the assimilated.

Or so it seems?

How could it have come to this? What allowed Deleuze to be digested by the institution that spat him out with such distaste for so long (and still does, ironically, in his home country)? Is there any sign of indigestion, or food poisoning, that might offer Deleuze’s thought an expectorant hope of a vivid postprandial afterlife?

It is not that the copious Deleuzian literature has not corrected the misperceptions of the initial reception. And it is not that the literature is of low quality. To the contrary, Deleuze has been blessed with a great many commentators of the highest quality who have skillfully elucidated the finely honed complexity of the conceptual web he weaves, in his solo writings and in tandem with Guattari, and clarified the place of his/their work in the history of thought. What has enabled the academy to swallow Deleuze is more subtle and, because of that, more insidious and powerful than any defect of ideational content or error of interpretation. The incorporation hinged on a change in manners — that is, of manner, as in “way” or “mode.” What happened is that the mode of Deleuze’s thinking underwent a conversion as it poured into the academic gristmill. Deleuze wrote repeatedly of what he called “the image of thought.” This refers to the way in which a movement of thought enacts itself: how it goes about creating concepts, and to what effect.

There are two terms that can be used to sum up the traditional image of thought of philosophy, which has infected thinking in general (or was it the other way around? Probably both at the same time). These terms are “generality” and “critique”: the idea that ideas are general, and that their most potent use is to pin something down as “merely a case of (fill in the blank),” the better to dismiss it. The (blank) of which the phenomenon in question is a case is a generally known category. The specific case is judged by the general category to which it belongs, wielded as a norm. The value attributed to the category (and there always is one) is visited upon the case, which is either disqualified or celebrated on that basis. The logical form this takes is the syllogism. Example: Deleuze is a poststructuralist. Poststructuralism is babble. Therefore, Deleuze is babble. The effect is triage: forget Deleuze. The problem is that each of the terms in the syllogism is a general idea. Each is assumed to be one thing, and what that thing is is assumed to be already known. Nothing new can be arrived at by daisy-chaining already-knowns (other than an exclusion or an endorsement, depending on the bent). This procedure neglects the fact that everything is alive, in the sense that it continues to move through the world in a way that continually generates new variations on itself, ever reincluding itself in the world anew. Everything is in process. There is no “Deleuze.” There are deleuzes, proliferating as fast as readings happen. “Deleuze” continues, always under construction, variably in process. The effect of the general idea, coupled with critique, is to deaden. It simply misses process and the ungovernability of its going on regardless. In so doing, it smooths the way for the incorporation, critical or celebratory, of anything and everything. Protestations to the contrary, critique, as allied with the general idea, is a profoundly institutionalizing gesture.

There is a different image of thought based not on the general idea and critique, but rather on singularity and affirmation. Its procedure is not syllogistic triage but mutual inclusion.

On the most basic level, singularity refers to the fact that everything exhibits characteristics that do not fit its already-known category. A little detail, an almost imperceptible tic, an errant disposition. These anomalies inhere in the thing, which would be other than it is without them: each thing, a species of one. Since a thing’s singularizing traits inhere in it, while evading its nominal category, they are not called to order by any general procedure based on that category. They persist, and insist on themselves. They resist, with a residual energy of potential variation. Their way of insisting upon themselves might become amplified, suddenly taking on new energy. Even with minimal energy, they may imperceptibly begin to take the lead, to draw the thing after themselves, instead of being dragged along by it. Think of the way a tic or previously unacted-upon dispositions can turn into a habit, and how a habit can turn around and dominate everyday life. Or the way something that presents itself as a simple whim, a trifling captivation, might cascade into major changes in a life’s direction. These most mundane of little anomalies are in fact the stock and trade of metaphysics, if metaphysics is to honor process. For what is the concept of a thing without the aspects of it that may potentially lead it, and especially lead it elsewhere, perhaps over a threshold at which it becomes other than it was? The concept has to be pliable enough to wrap itself around the singularizing traits redolent with potential and becoming. It has to be more flexibly abstract than any general idea, by nature sclerotic, can ever hope to be.

What this is all about are basically tendencies. A thing is a bundle of tendencies holding potential, and drawing that potential out in becoming. What procedures are adequate to grasping tendencies, as movements of potential, beyond categorization? How do we understand things in this way? To begin to answer that question, it must be taken into account that tendencies do not mutually exclude each other. This is almost a cliché. What falling-in-love is without glimmers of what might well prove to have been seeds of hate? Answer: a general idea of romance that answers in detail to no actual experience. Or again, what is love without a generous helping of friendship, the very category it purports to cleave away from? Tendencies always include each other, even their opposites, in potential. They are in a state of mutual processual inclusion. Their nature or proportions — the quality or quotient of friendship to be found in a love, for example — cannot be evaluated with reference to any generally applicable category, and therefore cannot be puzzled out in advance. A tendency proves to have been how it comes to express itself. In other words, what something “is” can only be got at by accompanying its process of becoming. This invites experimentation: tweaking the thing into expressing its potential further. Paradoxically, metaphysical understanding that aspires to be flexibly abstract enough to grasp a thing in its singularity necessarily proceeds pragmatically. This implies participation (if only virtually, in thought experience or thought experiment). But since the limits of any given thing’s potential variations are never played out in advance, the parameters of the participation are not pregiven. Any a priori assumptions can only short-circuit the process. The thinking of the thing must be open to the unplayed-out in advance: it must be speculative. The image of thought at issue here is an odd bird: a speculative pragmatism. Speculative pragmatism must actively affirm — accompany — the potential of what it thinks. The philosopher cannot take a seat of judgment outside or above. She must take the plunge. She must mutually include her own thought/activity in the process at issue. This provides a good candidate for the missing qualifier: the Deleuze speculative-pragmatic wave.

Take the plunge: an ethics of engagement. One that contains, among its tics and dispositions, political tendencies that are anything but spontaneist in the way the word is thrown around to mean anything goes and nothing really matters. For speculative pragmatism, anything potentially goes. But precisely because of that, every little thing matters — more than we can ever know in advance. Everything matters; but everything also matters on, following the singular trail of potential’s unfolding. To prove equal to the import, to follow the trail of the mattering-on, to honor the potential of the process, it is necessary to participate with great pragmatic and speculative care — and just as much artfulness. There is by the nature of this activity a political element to it. The art of mutual inclusion, with care: that could stand as the very definition of the political.

Nothing is more foreign to the modus operandi of the academic institution than this. Its model of inquiry is slave to the general idea and its associated ideal of critique. It purports already to know, as if the stakes of understanding came ready made. Such a thing would be possible only if everything were played out in advance. The academic institution mistakes the active process of understanding as the expression of potential for the transmission of acquired knowledge. The potential force of Deleuze’s thought will survive its incorporation of the academy only where that alternative image of speculative-pragmatic thought revives. For Deleuze to become unassimilable again, that image of thought must be turned back on Deleuze’s own corpus, from whence it came — so as to hoist it on its own singularity. Wrap thinking anew around the singular contours of the texts’ residual energies. Mutually include in the corpus its own as-yet-unknown variations, deleuzes to come, already contained in the smallest details. Matter the deleuzian corpus into becoming again, rebel to digestion. Tweak it, tic it forward. Make it decamp.


Brian Massumi is professor of communication at the University of Montreal. His most recent books include Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (Duke UP 2015), Politics of Affect (Polity, 2015), and What Animals Teach Us about Politics (Duke UP, 2014).

Thu, November 12 2015 » future cinema 2015

One Response

  1. Alison Humphrey November 15 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    Love this! “‘Deleuze Camp.’ Seriously. It is actually called that.”