Adrian Parr’s essay about what it means to create and employ concepts cuts to the heart of what makes Gilles Deleuze a brilliant inspiration for our era of political, social, and economic tumult.
The basic idea is that when you do philosophy at its most powerful, you're creating concepts. New ways to think, new ways to understand the world. They let you perceive and activate potential in the world and yourself that you never knew existed before.
Sounds pretty utopian, and a little hippie-dippie. But that’s the idea.
She lists a bunch, and I like lists. Not ranked lists, or ordered lists, just random lists that you can find your own order in.
“Deterritorialization and reterritorialization, smooth space and striated space, the molar and the molecular, majoritarian and minoritarian.”
That’s just a few. If there's a common theme, it's becoming. How what was becomes what we are, and how what we are contains the potential to change completely. And all of that potential for flux is in us, and everything, every day. It’s ordinary.
And if there's a more specific theme to most of Deleuze’s concepts,* at least as it relates to politics, it's that everything about human identity and existence has the potential for complete transformation. That potential is in us every day. It's ordinary.
|Reading a good book is like speaking
with a ghost. Sometimes, writing a
good book feels like channelling
* I’m including, of course, the concepts that he created along with his collaborator, Félix Guattari, because when they worked together, they were practically the same person and a huge crowd all at the same time. One of the sweetest gestures Deleuze ever made in his life was giving Guattari a co-author credit on What Is Philosophy?, when he was too sick from heart disease to take part himself. The freaky thing is, What Is Philosophy? still reads in the style of their actual co-authored books.
That's an idea we should think about in our era of campus and student politics today, especially if you're looking at the American situation. There are many ways to think about today’s campus demonstrations, University of Missouri and Yale being the most notable.
Some of their most visible critics think of these protestors as against liberalism, against free speech. Sympathetic analysts have more complex interpretations, like when Jeet Heer described the rise of trigger warnings as a legitimate politicization of the language of trauma.
Popular discussion of PTSD, through which psychology developed a new understanding of memory, experience, and trauma, gave us a new political language. Where and when the philosophy happened depends on how you want to trace the concept's history. I don’t really have time for that right now.
But a common critique of the campus protest movement is that it’s a resurgence of political correctness and identity politics. Which is wrong, but interesting.
I own a fantastic biography of Deleuze and Guattari, Intersecting Lives. Among its many wonderful stories about the two men, it includes their fascinating and horrifyingly awkward collision with the feminist activists of American universities in the early 1980s.
This is when identity politics was genuinely huge. Deleuze and Guattari held a panel at a conference in Columbia, and many young feminist scholars and activists were in the audience. They reacted with rage to how they presented their concept of becoming-woman.
|A reality TV star becomes an icon of a new definition
of human existence. That's mass media for you.
In modern language, we'd call it mansplaining, with a concept that seemed to deny the validity of the female experience. But Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about how gender can fluctuate beyond a binary seems much more ordinary today.
Because we’ve had three decades of development in trans activism since then, an intellectual field where gender and sexuality fluidity is the norm. Binary talk about gender and sex is now understood to be itself discriminatory, violent language.
Look at the bile about trans people that spews from Germaine Greer's mouth whenever she gets the opportunity to vomit it out. She denounces, for example, trans women as men trying to appropriate women’s experiences and identities.
When what's really going on is that the conception of gender as fixed is being thrown out the window. Trans activism and philosophy is teaching us that the material reality of gender has so much more potential than a fixed binary framework can make sense of.
Like all visionaries, the world has caught up to the strange expressions of Deleuze and Guattari. The next step is to push thought forward again into strange new directions. And our reality will follow.