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.
ON 4 NOVEMBER 1995, Gilles Deleuze committed suicide by jumping from his Parisian apartment window. He left behind a philosophical legacy that went on to influence numerous academic disciplines: continental philosophy, cinema studies, literary theory, cultural criticism, social and political theory, LGBTQ studies, art and architecture theory, as well as the growing field of animal studies and environmental theory. In part this is because Deleuze himself enjoyed such a broad and eclectic range of influences. He innovatively combined the thinking of Bergson, Foucault, Kant, Hume, Lacan, Leibniz, Marx, Nietzsche, and Spinoza with insights on artists such as Bacon and Artaud, novelists like Kafka and Carroll, along with filmmakers such as Herzog, Hitchcock, and Eisenstein. And this is just a brief nod to some of his deepest influences. There are many more. All the intellectual excitement and flurry over Deleuze may confirm the prediction made by his good friend and fellow philosopher, Michel Foucault: “This century [i.e., the 20th century] will be Deleuzian.”
What is becoming of Deleuze today, in the 21st century? To answer this question, it’s worth remembering some of Deleuze’s key ideas. There is, for example, his famous point that philosophy is the creation of concepts. Without the creation of new concepts, there can be no thinking with a difference, no line of flight in thought. Second, and closely related to this, Deleuze proposed that concepts are tools of analysis, not recognition.
True to his word, Deleuze left behind a vibrant conceptual apparatus — the “line of flight” is one of them — with some of his concepts (and the ones he coined with his friend and writing partner, Félix Guattari) taking the form of conceptual connectives: deterritorialization and reterritorialization, smooth space and striated space, the molar and the molecular, majoritarian and minoritarian. These are not to be confused with dualistic pairs. Rather each holds an immanent relation to the other, with the one contained within the other (where the majoritarian can turn into the minoritarian and vice versa). Indeed, Deleuze was a committed philosopher of immanence. One of his biggest contributions on this count was to resuscitate the concept of difference from the grip of identity politics. He developed a concept of difference that dismantled the hierarchical character of dualisms such as being/nonbeing, man/woman, human/animal, black/white, and so on. As a thinker of positive difference-in-itself (rather than the negative difference between, say, a man and a woman), Deleuze complicates how difference is thought, challenging along with it the status that nonbeing occupies in the Western philosophical tradition. Put simply, Deleuze affirms nonbeing. He pursues a positive nonbeing that is not understood within the negative parameters of lack or the absence of presence (a man is not what a woman lacks, and vice versa). Rather, he insists nonbeing is inherent to being. It is the creative potential of life (the life of a man and a woman) to exceed what currently is.
This subtle but nonetheless significant shift in thinking allowed Deleuze to develop a politically charged view of experience. He was less interested in understanding the conditions of possible experience and more intrigued by the conditions of actual experience. He referred to this as transcendental empiricism. The political implications of this idea are enormous. When the singularity of experience is freed from the abstract conditions of possible experience — when possible experience has become exhausted — then the diversity and productivity of experience is understood as arising out of concrete and contingent (actual) particulars, rather than universals that (in the traditional transcendentalist view) are believed to govern experience.
Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is supremely helpful as we set out to understand and respond to the violence unfolding before us at the beginning of the 21st century. One can think here of mass species extinction, climate change, increasing inequity, poverty, natural resource depletion, pollution, epidemics, civil and inter-state warfare that no longer discriminates between combatants and noncombatants, rising nationalism and a pernicious intolerance toward the growing number of refugees throughout the world, and of course religious as well as other fundamentalisms: thought and the world appear to lie exhausted in the face of this depressing list. It is important we don’t raise our arms in despair and give up. We urgently need creative responses that will transform what is seemingly hopeless into something hopeful. In this way, the transformative potential of reality is a transcendental operation. Transcendental empiricism makes empirical reality other than what it currently is. It is not outside of the realm of experience; rather, it is the differential operation underlying all experience.
If the rest of the 21st century is going to be different, we have to create alternatives. Problematizing what currently exists so as to break with habit is an exercise in transcendental empiricism. This is not merely a practical exercise consisting of policy changes, developing new technologies, introducing more social and environmental services, passing new legislation, and producing more transparent forms of governance, to name a few. We are also facing a theoretical, philosophical — conceptual — challenge, to pursue the transcendental, creative, and differential conditions of reality. The operation of violence, its modes of legitimation, and the imbrication of violence as part of everyday life demand clear-headed descriptions and analysis, if we are to really break with habitual ways of thinking and acting in response to the challenges societies face. This will help buffer practical responses from reinstating the very problem they are designed to combat.
In asking how a practice may enhance or diminish a being’s capacity or power to act, Deleuze was intrigued by the problem of autonomy. How are the flows of life — bodies, commodities, money, finance, matter, ideas, language — socially structured and unstructured (“coded” and “decoded,” in Deleuze and Guattari’s language)? What kinds of practices and forms of agency do such structuring and unstructuring produce? In the service of what? However, if philosophy is the practice of creating concepts, then the job of the philosopher cannot end at the level of critique. The current situation demands that new concepts are created. But make no mistake: as new concepts are put to work, they don’t explain contemporary practices and experiences — it is the concepts themselves that require explanation. That is, one must explain (transcendentally) the conditions that give rise to new concepts. And it is through this process that philosophers grapple with the potential of actual experience (empiricism) to create a difference.
Transcendental empiricism offers a critical tool when it comes to shifting the dial from the nihilism of despair to the richness of experience. Instead of using universals such as individual rights to assess how life is practiced, Deleuze invites us to creatively engage with actually existing conditions adequate to the production of real differences: for example, differences that generate an outside to the axiomatic of capital and the violent affects of capital’s movement; differences that come from a consideration for how agency works; experimental and untimely differences that break apart mechanisms of capture; differences that operate as a revolutionary force on the outskirts of history.
Problematizing is the form of transcendental empiricism because it calls into question habitual ways of thinking and acting. I am thinking here of the fierce and brave opposition many Greeks had to European-imposed austerity measures. I am thinking also of the two-day Greenpeace human blockade, when protesters hung suspended in harnesses under the bridge in Portland above kayaktivists in the waters below, all in an effort to stop the arctic-bound Shell Oil vessel from leaving Portland’s waters. In their different ways, both brought much needed public attention and debate over the use of “legitimate” violence in the name of democracy. Indeed they exposed the use of “legitimate violence” as constitutive of a violent assault on democracy.
What is becoming of Deleuze? The relevance of Deleuze today lies not with a static conception of Deleuzean philosophy. If anything, anyone inspired by Deleuze has to tirelessly resist reducing him to a dogmatic image of thought. Deleuze is neither another authoritative philosopher of the Western tradition, nor a figure to be revered. The singular nonbeing of Deleuze prompts us to rise to the challenge of thinking differently in an effort to create a future that differs from the present. Put otherwise, to embrace the futurity within our midst by affirming the potentiality conditioning the present. Because as Deleuze infamously declared: “If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are fucked.” It is time not only to dream our own dreams, but to get out of the trap they pose if they merely remain a dream.
Adrian Parr is Professor of environmental politics and cultural criticism at the University of Cincinnati.