You Can’t Do What Deleuze Did Only by Studying Deleuze, Research Time, 10/01/2014

After one day of flu-nursing, one day of flying, and another day of flu-nursing, I’m able to get back to work. My thoughts on Daniel Smith’s compendium are growing a little disconnected from the essay-by-essay approach I had originally been thinking of. Part of the reason is that because these were all originally published independently, there’s a little conceptual overlap between some of them, using the same examples and arguments (and sometimes even the same phrases) to serve different goals. That’s all fine; academic writers are expected to reuse older data and ideas where applicable. But it makes it easier for me to see Smith’s ideas about Deleuze as a fully formed whole that hasn’t much changed in all his years of writing on them. 

This strikes me as a very un-Deleuzian way to write about Deleuze. I’m writing this while part-way through an essay called “On the Becoming of Concepts,” where Smith describes how Deleuze conceives of philosophical concepts. Philosophy isn’t entirely a meditative activity, but is ultimately a production. That product is a philosophical concept. But these concepts change over time. 

One of Deleuze’s key concepts is his use of the distinction between extensive and intensive quantities, yet this idea dates back to Plotinus and the philosophical traditions of Medieval Europe. Smith describes how Deleuze’s concept of intensity changes from its first articulation in Difference and Repetition, changes in The Logic of Sense, appears again in relation to the body-without-organs in Anti-Oedipus, and eventually recurs one last time in What Is Philosophy? in his analytic of how philosophy itself works. 

This is a very unusual way for a professional academic philosopher to work. And we should remember that Deleuze was only ever employed as a philosophy teacher throughout his adult life, whether in university, or as in the early years of his career, in high schools. Most academic philosophers behave in a very disciplinary manner, developing a single set of related focal points and developing these to a remarkable precision. Those who do create concepts usually simply intensify their own ideas or develop them in more detail. As I’ve mentioned in recent entries, Graham Harman is a philosopher I’ve encountered recently who has created an interesting concept, and pursued the latter path.* Changing how you use an idea or bringing it to debates outside your previously established expertise is a rare move in professional philosophy today.

* Harman’s concept of the withdrawal of objects from relations is interesting, even if it does constitute a philosophical dead end. McMaster University’s Dr Nick Griffin once delivered a fascinating lecture on Bertrand Russell’s substitutional theory of logic, a completely different approach to quantificational logic than what eventually became mainstream, and why Russell abandoned it as a dead end unable to avoid his self-inclusion paradox. It was still a beautiful system from which we can learn a lot. As for Harman, I think a central reason why he refuses to abandon or radically modify his concept of withdrawal is rooted in his worshipful attitude toward Heidegger. 

When studying philosophy, we often forget that not
everything a philosopher says is intended in seriousness.
You see, Smith’s essays present a unified vision of Deleuze that remains constant in his writings from the mid-1990s to the current era (a vision that is strongly and disturbingly Kantian, but more on that in the future). It seems part of his goals as an academic philosopher was to stake a single, original position in the field of Deleuze studies. He has certainly done that, and done so with flair and skill. But such an act strikes profoundly against what Deleuze saw as the purpose of philosophy: creating concepts and adapting them to various new problems that arise in the course of social and intellectual inquiries. Smith has become one distinct voice among others arguing for the correctness of their interpretation of Deleuze at conferences of specialists in Deleuze Studies. That isn’t the kind of philosophical work that Deleuze thought was productive for the tradition of philosophy itself. 

It seems that Smith has devoted himself too much to Deleuze himself, rather than his practice. What’s more, he’s devoted himself to a particular vision of Deleuze, one single Deleuze among many possible ones, given emphasis and interpretive tendencies. This focus can be dangerous for a philosopher, as it falls too easily into over-fidelity, worship. The irony is that Smith himself describes Deleuze in “On the Becoming of Concepts” as a philosopher who has his central influences, but never worships any of them. He instead collaborates with them on new projects and new explorations. Writing about his key figures is an act of becoming-Spinoza, becoming-Bergson, or even in his living collaborations, becoming-Guattari.** Yet in these essays so far, Smith gives no sign that he is embarking on a project that would create any concepts himself.

** A wonderful note in this essay: Deleuze says that he and Guattari never understood the concept of the body-without-organs in quite the same way, despite collaborating in two massive books where this concept was central. This makes developing a textbook-simple, accurate interpretation of the concept immensely difficult, if not impossible. This would be precisely Deleuze’s goal: the concept is philosophically useful and productive not despite of this tension in its meaning, but because of it.

One sign of worship is that you take everything that your favourite philosopher said absolutely seriously, as fodder for philosophical interpretation. There is a key moment in “On the Becoming of Concepts” where Smith quotes from Abécedaire, an alphabet-based interview Deleuze recorded late in his life where he discusses various ideas from his work and the history of philosophy. Some of his answers are very profound and thoughtful, but some are delivered as if they were little more than jokes. When thinking about Deleuze, we must remember that he was a very sarcastic man. As a sarcastic man myself, I can say that we get the most amusement out of people who take our jokes as if they were serious.

No comments:

Post a Comment