A Writer Beyond the Scope of the Classroom, A History Boy, 06/01/2014

Daniel Smith’s collection of essays about the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze arrived here at my mother’s house during my vacation, and I’ve been slowly working through it. I have a lot of things to do here in Newfoundland, most of which have involved too little light to read. So I haven’t gotten through that much. 

I have a complex relationship with Deleuze.* My plans for blogging about Smith’s essays include writing a post reacting to each essay, day by day (semi-regularly while I’m subject to the incompetence of Newfoundland Hydro and Nalcor, back to daily when I return to the relative sanity of southern Ontario). But today I just have some general reflections about Deleuze and his style of philosophy.

* This is something I say about pretty much every philosopher I discuss on this blog. If I have a simple relationship with their work, then it’s because I haven’t read much of them or I don’t find they have anything to say to me.

Deleuze is a philosopher that you can
relax with by the fireplace. Especially
if you're in Newfoundland and you've
lost your electricity on a -35ºC night.
Deleuze has a terrible reputation among wider philosophical circles; my own doctoral supervisor, until shortly before we began working together, considered him a hopeless obscurantist. I arrived at McMaster just in time for him to have started taking Deleuze seriously. See, I don’t think Deleuze is overcomplicated, as much as he’s a ridiculously dense writer. He includes so many ideas in his work, and his explanations are filled with allusions and references to so many different historical and scientific figures at once, that it’s hard to follow everything that’s going on. 

Reading through Smith’s essays, for instance, I’m struck by how the early chapters at least contain no references to the scientific ideas Deleuze discussed, but only the history of philosophy. Deleuze’s knowledge of mathematics, psychoanalysis, and ecology (as well as the further contributions of Félix Guattari to their collaborative works) similarly fills his writing. But Smith doesn’t seem to write about any of these notions and influences. A caveat: I haven’t finished his book yet. 

I think this makes Deleuze very rewarding, if sometimes difficult, to read. Reading a work of Deleuze, especially one of his original philosophical projects like Difference and Repetition, is a constant barrage of concepts and interpretations. More than almost any other philosopher, his works stimulate my brain with an incredible intensity. It’s almost boring reading anyone else after a long time spent with the works of Deleuze. A philosopher writing about only one or two ideas at a time? I’d be in danger of falling asleep reading something like that after an afternoon reading Expressionism in Philosophy or Bergsonism

As a philosophy teacher, this makes it very difficult to run a seminar on Deleuze. There’s simply so much going on in a single book that any lecture inevitably falls short of a comprehensive account. And because Deleuze wrote so many books and essays over his career at such a high rate, there is so much to say. One of Smith’s points in his essay on Deleuze’s concept of the univocity of being discussed how that concept never recurred in his later works after first introducing and exploring it in his 1968 works. He worked through the concept, and then transmuted it into a different form entirely as he moved on to new problems. Most philosophers, having developed such a radical and intriguing concept as this new take on the univocity of being, would ride it for their entire careers, and let it define all their works. I’m reminded of the works of Graham Harman, constantly riding one idea, even when it became clear that this one idea wasn’t working anymore. 

I’ve been working on a joint review project at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective for a book that criticizes the modern university system of knowledge production. Basically, the point of this book by Robert Frodeman is that the narrowing of knowledge production through disciplinary fragmentation damages the humanities by separating their research from the public and ethical relevance that gives these fields their foundational power. Philosophy in particular suffers from this problem in writing only for other university philosophers. 

Even though Deleuze is a very dense and difficult philosopher to read, I think his very density prevents his work from being forced into a disciplinary conversation. His works are so complicated that no lecture can contain all that they deal with. There are so many angles and perspectives in his corpus that a seminar conversation can’t comprehend all of it. More than many other philosophers, there is always more to discover in his work. The best way to understand Deleuze is not to read about or to listen to a lecture or podcast of his work, but to sit down and read it. That’s something that any reasonably intelligent person can do.

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