Gilles Deleuze the Liberal, Research Time, 17/01/2014

I consider one practical sign of a writer’s effectiveness to be when he makes you want to get another book. Daniel Smith had that effect as I read the last essay in his book about Gilles Deleuze, but it wasn’t another Smith book. It was Paul Patton’s book Deleuze and the Political. Patton does what Smith’s essays never actually accomplished: provokes Deleuze’s ideas in a creative way.

Another problem I have with Smith's essays is that they
give very little credit to Félix Guattari as a creative
philosopher in his collaborations with Deleuze and solo
work. Smith's omission does him quite an injustice.
For all that Smith’s book was talked up to me as a brilliant collection of essays in interpreting Deleuze (and they are), they ultimately aren’t the kind of philosophy that Deleuze himself thought the discipline needed. Smith is just one more Deleuze scholar trying to carve out space for himself in the field with his peculiar perspective. And I don’t even like his perspective that much, because he argues throughout these essays (and the 15 years of their original publication) that Deleuze is essentially a mutant Kantian. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of Deleuze’s ideas, and that it exists less to explore the philosophical issues Deleuze opened up than to stake out territory at Deleuze Studies conferences where scholars can yell at each other over their interpretive territories.

Patton achieves some philosophical originality because he does to Deleuze what Deleuze did to other thinkers: smashing their works and ideas into traditions and intellectual conversations in which they themselves weren’t involved. In Patton’s case, he applies Deleuzian philosophy to the problems of liberal political philosophy. Deleuze saw any political implications of his own work as continuations of the Marxist tradition: he would chuck concepts and frameworks that he considered obsolete, but ultimately focussed on describing the development of modern global capitalism. So oppositional concepts (the bourgeoisie-proletariat relation), dialectical methods, and the progressive conception of time were out. Analyses of capital flows, colonial military-economic structures, and the flattening of traditional social codes were in.

None of these sound like contributions to liberal political philosophy, and Deleuze himself held many central concepts in contempt. He was particularly annoyed with the politics of rights, which had become so banal as to have stripped away any positive content the concept of human rights could have had. He was particularly annoyed with liberalism’s focus on universal political norms: an unchanging set of human rights common to all. A philosophy based on the primacy of flux and change in existence can’t accept an immanent universal, an unchanging essence like a body of universal human rights. 

And Patton apparently manages it. Of course, he radically redefines the problems and core concepts of liberal philosophy to do it, and a hostile critic might say that he’s destroyed liberalism to throw Deleuze into it. But a reasonable critic might say that there’s something to be gained from a critique of basic liberal ideas. After all, one of the ways John Rawls revitalized liberal political philosophy in North America was in provoking so many criticisms of his own new version of liberalism. Communitarian, cosmopolitan, post-colonial, and feminist political theories all began fruitful developments beginning from their reactions to Rawls. This is actually why I tend to be bored with orthodox defenses of Rawls: the best English-language political philosophy that Rawls was responsible for were all the people who reacted to Rawls. The same goes for Jürgen Habermas. Habermas just seems to inspire more loyalty, or at least more commentary through the greater difficulty of his ideas and writing style.

Deleuze’s ideas themselves strongly critique an underlying premise of liberalism: that society is formed from stable, rational individuals who fully understand their needs and desires. Instead of stable subjects, people are ongoing processes of subjectivization, never complete because they’re always in flux, and are made from collisions of multiple underlying drives and processes anyway. So you can’t have a system of norms that remain stable and universal, given the possibility for human subjectivity to shift. 

Yet Patton argues that you can have normativity for creatures with fluctuating natures if it’s understood as the ability to produce norms in response to political problems. If anything, this produces a liberal-friendly response to my former colleague D’s critique of liberalism that a universal and necessary body of norms (like a constitutional bill of rights) can’t adapt to social changes that require new rights or render old ones obsolete. The Founding Fathers of the United States never thought of rights regarding sexuality or the environment, because nature was understood as beyond human legislation and sexuality didn’t have the same social expression and organization it does today. 

But opening normativity to flux and creativity gives this liberal concept a flexibility that it didn’t have when one focusses solely on discovering essentially universal rights that would be true for all times and social problems. It isn’t a relativism because it isn’t that anything goes willy-nilly. The charge of relativism is a stupid critique of this kind of philosophy anyway, because Patton and Deleuze also discuss how an essential element of politics is the ability to critique social and political norms and laws. Instead of our norms being determined by our culture, our activity as critical individuals criticizes, creates, and progresses our norms in the flux of history.

I really want to read Patton’s book now.

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