Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?
As the first book I have read from start to finish from Deleuze and Guattari, the following comments are meant to be tentative observations gleaned from a first quick and dirty reading. However, I read this text with a critical eye since I sought to engage with their project in terms of what I know of the ‘history’ of philosophy, including primary texts by Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. Overall, like many others, I found the book relatively ‘clear’ compared to some of their other works. D&G seem to clearly outline their project in a straightforward manner. However, I believe that this may have backfired as I find many of their distinctions problematic.
As someone who closely follows the critique of metaphysics found in Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger, I found that D&G’s work may be a step in the wrong direction, unconcerned with the problem of multiplying ‘real’ substances, qualities, and sensations so that they may use these to distinguish among the tasks of science, philosophy, and art. Although these modes of thought are all intertwined and related, D&G affirm they are on separate planes. In a sense, it seems as though they are trying to carve out a space for philosophy ‘proper’ in an age where philosophy has become either poetic meditations or mind-numbing)analytic distinctions.
Part I: Philosophy
Philosophy, according to D&G, is the “art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts” (2). The authors are very clear about what philosophy is not: “contemplation, reflection, or communication” (6). As many recent philosophers have acknowledged, the authors point out that concepts are only created as a function of problems—we create concepts in order to answer to particular problems and situations. One might argue also that we create problems in order to prepare the way for the concept. The particular nature of the concept is that they are “fragmentary wholes,” but they render its components “inseparable within itself” even though they may relate to other concepts on the same “plane” (more on the ‘plane’ soon). The components of a concept are distinct and heterogeneous, but through the concept they are rendered inseparable. For D&G, concepts are NOT discursive in the sense that they are not propositions (I will go into detail about this later). Propositions, as well as their truth value, belong to the reference of the state of affairs--the realm of science. Concepts, on the other hand, are “intensional” and are self-referential. I keep trying to think about what this means in terms of a given text or term. Take, for instance, the (concept?) of Dialectic: is dialectic consistent in itself? What happens when we consider the drastic difference in signification among Plato’s, Kant’s, and Hegel’s use of the term (of course, this is also a translation issue—Plato’s would be in Greek; Kant and Hegel in German)? Are D&G suggesting that this is the same “concept,” but with different variations? It seems as though D&G create a kind of (albeit contingent) telos of the development of the concept.
For instance, if concepts, such as the cogito have not yet “crystallized” it’s because they were tied up in other problems, on another plane of immanence. Keeping with the example of the formation of the cogito, D&G speculate that in order for the Cartesian concept to crystallize, the concept of “first” must undergo a different meaning, and become subjective. Although the cogito may have been figured in previous philosophers, it could not become a concept proper until Descartes (recognized) a new problem—a problem of the position of the ‘first’. For the Greeks, the “first” was linked to an anterior Idea, but with Descartes it becomes subjective. Kant “criticizes” Descartes, according to D&G, only in the sense that he formulates a plane and a problem that Descartes never really took into account: time. Kant makes time a form of interiority (see D&G 30-34). I’d like to ask if this same thing could be said for ‘concepts’ like Dialectic. How precisely do philosopher’s appropriate this ‘concept’? Are they merely using the same word for a completely different concept, and, if so, does this word retain a ‘trace’ of the previous contexts/”conceptual personae” (more on this later). Does it merely add another component to the concept, transforming it into a new concept, or is it ‘haunted’ by the traces of its past? For instance, is not Husserl’s “phenomenology’ haunted by Hegel? Just because we have formulated new problems and planes, does it mean that these ‘components’ that philosophy has made ‘consistent’ are equally parts of the newfound concept? D&G acknowledge the intersection of concepts and planes, etc. but do they acknowledge that some ‘forces’ of a particular word or concept are placed in a hierarchal relationshipnot only because of the relevance of the problems they relate to: components and concepts are not created equal.
It might sound here that the ‘concept’ is D&G’s substitution for what Derrida calls the ‘trace’, but whereas the trace disseminates, D&G ‘s concept intensifies. The positions of Derrida and D&G may seem at first to be similar, and indeed, many have used both of their work to interpret texts or write academic papers. For instance, D&G claim that philosophy is “becoming, not history; it is the coexistence of planes, not the succession of systems” (D&G 59). Derrida too is skeptical of this idea of a linear history of philosophy, but Derrida seems so much more interested in looking at the particular texts—including their production—that give us the history of a concept. As he says in Positions, perhaps rather than looking at the essence of history we should look at the history of essence (Derrida 59). For Derrida, a term/concept/word cannot be determined to escape metaphysics ‘in itself’. Rather, it requires attention to the particular (con)text of the term. When asked by his interlocutors if Marx’s “dialectical materialism” and ‘contradiction’ escapes Hegel’s metaphysical baggage, he writes “I do not believe that there is any ‘fact’ which permits us to say: in the Marxist text, contradiction itself, dialectics itself, escapes from the dominance of metaphysics” (Derrida 74).
Unlike Derrida’s nominalism, we see that D&G give a status of ‘being’ to the concept: “the concept is real without being actual, ideal without being abstract—it is self-referential” (22). D&G seem to think that there is a way to go beyond “images” and “abstractions” (read: ‘metaphor’, trope, language(?)) in order to get at the concept: “to arrive at the concept we must go beyond both of these and arrive as quickly as possible at mental objects determinable as real beings” (D&G 110). This makes me think there is a kind of noumenal realm of beings that can be grasped in itself. D&G no longer base their philosophy on language, because this is the realm of ‘communication’ (and scientific/logical propositions). But then, we are asked to entertain as ontological claims about art--claims that have only been offered as analogies. For instance, they argue that in true “aesthetic composition” the “material passes into sensation” (D&G 193). How can we evaluate and judge art based on this idea? (more on this later) How can we know whether or not a particular artwork passes into sensation? Here D&G fall into saying that all “great artists” have done this and then go on to reaffirm a traditional canon of aesthetic works, without any concern for setting up criteria. Of course, this kind of aestheticism is present in their reflections on what a “concept” is as well: the concept is a concept because it is intensionally consistent. Consistent for who? For what? I’m not sure.
The chapter entitled “Geophilosophy” is interesting, but seems to be a bit of a digression into the political implications of D&G’s transcendence/immanence distinction. Whereas “empire” was ‘transcendent,” modern capitalism/city is “immanent”: “the social field no longer refers to an external limit--but "to immanent internal limits that constantly shift by extending the system" (D&G 96). In other words, the limits are within the system rather than some sort of transcendent entity. To me, this sounds like a leftist version of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. The chapter ends with the hope for a ‘new earth, and new people’, with reference to utopia and revolution (all stuff Frederic Jameson might agree with; indeed, knowing his prolific output, has probably written about). D&G end with some really trite observations about how nationalism limits our ability to philosophize/think:
The French are like landowners whose source of income is the cogito. They are always reterritorialized on consciousness. Germany. . .wants to reconquer the Greek plane of immanence. . .it must also consistently clear and consolidate this ground, that is to say, it must lay foundations. (104)
These observations about the philosophical tendencies of a particular nation could be clear to anyone who has read German philosophy. Kant: The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals; Husserl: a philosophy to ground science. If this is “Geophilosophy,” it is basically an analysis of the tropes a given nation tends to use. Thus, we are back not to “concepts” or “beings,” but rather to language and text.
Part II: Philosophy, Science, Logic, Art
At the end of Part I, we are left with D&G claiming, along with Nietzsche, that the object of philosophy is to “diagnose our actual becomings” (112). I point this out because diagnosis involves the process of recognition, which the authors will claim is a low level of thought (more on that later).
The chapter begins with a distinction between functions/functives and concepts. Science works with functions in reference to the external world. Earlier, D&G claimed that philosophical thought travels at infinite speeds, but science slows down this infinity in order to see how its functions correspond to the state of affairs. Agreeing with Kuhn, D&G write that science is paradigmatic, whereas philosophy is syntagmatic. Thus, philosophy does not create paradigms and models that must fit within the external world, but rather concepts on a plane of immanence. Whereas philosophy “extracts a consistent event from the state of affairs,” science “actualizes the event in a state of affairs, thing, or body, that can be referred to.” (124-127) The ‘event’ will be discussed more later, but I’m not sure how philosophy “extracts a consistent event.”
In this section, the authors also distinguish between “conceptual personae” and “partial observers.” For D&G, partial observers in science are not partial because they are limited by their subjectivity: “as a general rule, the observer is neither inadequate or subjective” (129). The partial observer is much more akin to a Leibnizian monad, that does not, strictly speaking, act directly on other monads. In Deleuze, monads are rethought as forces: not forces that act on others, but rather “what perceives and experiences” (130). By analogy, conceptual personae (in philosophy) are “philosophical sensibilia [. . .] through them concepts are not only thought but perceived and felt” (131). However, this is not to say that conceptual personae “live” whereas scientific facts do not. As we will see, D&G want to claim that this appeal to lived experience is the limit of phenomenology. They prefer again, following in a Leibnizian spirit, to argue that the perceptions of conceptual personae “does not transmit any information” but “circumscribes an affect,” whereas perceptions in science do transmit information. This is a confusing section to me and I’m still trying to figure it out, but these are my preliminary thoughts.
The next chapter, “Prospects and Concepts,” takes on propositional Logic. D&G come right out and say: “in becoming propositional, the concept loses all the characteristics it possesed as philosophical concept: its self-reference, its endoconsistency and its exoconsistency” (137). Thus, as they continually say, a ‘concept’ is not a proposition. I believe they may get this idea from Heidegger, who recognizes that a statement/proposition is derived from an already implicit understanding (see Being and Time). However, Heidegger stays on the level of “lived” phenomenological experience, arguing that it is because Dasein has a lived understanding of the world that statements are already impoverished. In contrast, for D&G, forming propositions makes a concept lose its self-reference (138). This is because a propositional truth value is ‘in itself’ empty—truth must be related to a state of affairs, which according to D&G impoverishes the concept. The transition from scientific statement to proposition involves a “recognition of truth,” a form of finite thought that “goes the least far and is the most impoverished and puerile” (139). This seems to imply that recognition (we might even substitute the word ‘diagnosis’) involves a lesser form of invention than the creation of philosophical concepts. Do we not need to recognize in order to diagnose our “becomings”?
Once they establish that propositions are an impoverished form of thought, they use this understanding to critique phenomenology, claiming that the phenomenology’s appeal to ‘lived experience’ is an “Urdoxa,” or “original opinions as propositions” (142). Basically, the lived subject (Dasein, in Heidegger’s terms) becomes what everything is immanent to rather than residing in immanence. D&G wish to make a clear distinction between the philosophical concept and a proposition of opinion. Opinion is “a function or proposition whose arguments are perceptions and affections” (this will be different from percepts and affects, which we will explore in a bit) (144). Opinion is closest to that impoverished form of thought—recognition. D&G relegate all three forms of nonphilosophy into the realm of opinion: contemplation, reflection, and communication. Another tacit attack on phenomenology and the hermeneutics ranging from Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricouer, D&G seem to think that philosophies of communication are all tied up in the search for a “universal liberal opinion as consensus,” which seems to frame all philosophies of communication as a version of Habermas! In one of the many examples peppered throughout the text, D&G compare Phenomenology’s pointing to a piece of reality and making it the ground of thought to the Greek’s choosing of the Beautiful and Good. This reminds me of many lectures of Greg Ulmer, who claims that the Greek’s basically invented substance by saying “there—that! That is reality.” Phenomenologists, according to D&G, say “there! That lived experience! That is reality!” In a way, D&G’s claim that “phenomenology needs are as art needs science” seems to have some truth to it. After all, much literary theory and hermeneutics comes out of the phenomenological tradition. While I don’t disagree with D&G’s critique of phenomenology per se, I am not sure I agree with their own own ur-opinions.
As in the late Heidegger, D&G want to move away from the lived experience of a transcendental subject to thinking the concept as event. After a quick critique of Badiou’s concept of the Event as a singularity, they argue that there must be at least two multiplicities, which they call the state of affairs and the ‘virtual’ (152-154). D&G seem to have externalized the phenomenological distinction between the ‘possible’ and the state-of-mind (facticity) from the transcendental subject. Or, alternately, it seems that we are back to a kind of Aristotelian idea of the “agent intellect,” except that the agent intellect is not prior/first to the actualization, but a pure event. This idea of the “virtual” also moves away from science. Science passes from “chaotic virtuality to the states of affairs and bodies that actualize it” (155-56). In contrast, philosophy goes back up from the state of affairs to the virtual, but D&G claim that this virtual is not the chaotic virtual of science, “but rather virtuality that has become consistent, that has become an entity formed on a plane of immanence that sections the chaos” (156). According to D&G, the event is “immaterial, incorporeal, unlivable: pure reserve” (156). The event is related to the concept: “It is a concept that apprehends the event, its becoming, its inseparable variations” (158). They try and reframe the event in terms of time—the event is the “meanwhile” of philosophy.
D&G conclude from this that science and philosophy, because they have two different realms of virtual, are interrelated but separate, which is why it is a shame when philosopher’s try and do science or scientist’s try and do philosophy. We will come back to this point.
Art: On the chapter “Percept, Affect, and Concept”
Perhaps this is incorrect, but if I were to summarize this chapter, it would be to say that D&G attempt to ontologize artistic sensation. According to them, what is preserved in a work of art is “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects.” These percepts and affects, for D&G, are beings “whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived” (164). To me, this sounds remarkably like a reversal of Locke’s primary and secondary qualities. However, I would need to (re)read Locke in order to point out more specifically what I mean.
What D&G call ‘affects’ are “nonhuman becomings of man” and ‘percepts’ are “nonhuman landscapes of nature” (168-69). For D&G, the artist goes beyond ‘lived’ experience and “becomes” nonhuman things (171). This framework of art is peculiar, considering D&G’s insistence that phenomenology needs art like logic needs science. Furthermore, this framing of art as a way of becoming nonhuman things also sounds exclusively Modernist. D&G agree with Virginia Woolf that we must “Saturate every atom,” “eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity” (172). How is this different from Joyce’s claim that he wants to transubstantiate everyday life? What does D&G’s conception of art do to their philosophy? How much more canonical can their perception of art be if they claim that these great novelists are considered great precisely because they were able to create “new affects”?
This narrow view of art/literature is revealed when D&G claim that art does not have opinions. They narrow the art of literature to the genre of the novel:
“what matters is not, as in bad novels, the opinions held by the characters in accordance with their social types and characteristics but rather the relations of counterpoint into which they enter and the compounds of sensations that these characters either themselves experience or make felt in their becomings and their visions” (188).
Why must this be the only function of art? What about other genres? D&G reference Bakhtin, but do not acknowledge that, although he is one of the most important theorist’s of the novel (modeled on Dostoevsky), he also takes genres into consideration. For instance, in Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin talks of the Menippean Satire as the “adventure” or “test” of an idea. We may also look to Northrop Frye who, rather than denigrating the genre of Menippean Satire, regards works such as Rabelais, Petronious, etc. as part of its own genre—and should be evaluated as such. Why must Art consist only in Modernist intensities? Furthermore, D&G completely ignore the complexity of language and text in the formation of style, arguing that “aesthetic figures, and the style that creates them, have nothing to do with rhetoric. They are sensations: percepts and affects, landscapes and faces, visions and becomings” (177). As poetic description, this works well. However, I find that aesthetic figures do have something (perhaps everything?) to do with rhetoric/tropes. Why do Deleuze and Guattari insist on multiplying beings in order to escape the limits of language? Is it because they wish to distance themselves from phenomenology and its other critics?
This seems to be a main task of their text. In order to distance themselves from phenomenology, D&G move into a discussion of Flesh as inadequate in itself for sensation. Rather, they use the metaphor of a house/framework to expand the realm of sensation. Two things come to mind with this description. The first idea is again a Leibnizian monadic feel to this metaphor, but in this case, monads may have windows (or at least doors): “the flesh is no longer the inhabitant of the place, of the house, but of the universe that supports the house (becoming). It is like a passage from the finite to the infinite” (180). The second idea that comes to mind is Heidegger’s claim that Language is the House of Being. It seems as though D&G are trying to move beyond Heidegger here, but I’m not sure they succeed because they seem to want to claim a conceptual universe separate from the referential one, but a universe that is not limited by philosophy as communication.
Forgive me for my incessant critique of D&G’s metaphysics, for there are ideas in the text that strike me as useful--as long as we understand some of these ideas as figurative language rather than ontological truths (even ‘virtual’ ontological truths). For instance, “is this not the definition of the percept itself—to make perceptible the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become?” (182). This attention to the “forces” of the world can be given more concrete expression by something that Greg Ulmer pointed out to us in lecture: gravity is a force on human beings. Accidents have a particular “force” that we may be able to describe or present aesthetically, etc.
However, I must return to my critique because of another distinction the authors make that I do not think holds up under scrutiny: that between technical art and ‘aesthetic composition’. In technical art, sensation is realized in the material; in aesthetic composition, the material passes into sensation. For D&G, in these works of literature/art, “words and syntax rise up into the plane of composition and ‘hollow it out’ rather than carry out the operation of putting it into perspective” (195). Is this not an abstract way of characterizing a certain way literature affects the canon? A great work of literature, because its material ‘passes into sensation’, hollows out the language of the canon and forces us to re-conceive the canon or create a new one? What canon does it hollow out?
A final comment on D&G’s reflections on art: What happens to their conception of art when it is not a manner of material, but of action? Where is the room for performance art? What material in this case passes into sensation?
Conclusion: “From Chaos to Brain”
I think that this conclusion is the part of that reveals a kind of detached, Kantian perspective on philosophy—without the transcendental Kantian cogito. However, D&G’s language here sounds very similar to Kant’s disinterested interest. Furthermore, it is not clear to me if here D&G are speaking of art or philosophy: “the contraction that preserves is always in a state of detachment in relation to action or even to movement and appears as a pure contemplation without knowledge” (213). Thus, knowledge is “neither a form nor a force but a function” (215). I feel as though D&G have relegated philosophy to a realm of contentless contemplation—divorced from reference--a kind of Western formulation of Zen or a Kantian formalism. Something critiqued extensively by Hegel and, following him, Derrida.
By relegating philosophy to a separate mode of thought, I think that D&G foreclose the possibility of truly interdisciplinary work. They write, “the rule is that the interfering discipline must proceed with its own methods” (217). For example, “the function must be grasped within a sensation that gives its percepts and affects composed exclusively by art, on a specific plane of creation that wrests it from any reference” (217). I think this claim can be refuted. It seems as though they merely defer to the authority of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, as if this was the last word on aesthetics. Perhaps this makes me a believer in a “liberal consensus of opinion,” but I think that the planes of disciplines should not be separated into ontological realms. It seems that we are moving backward, toward ideal meanings with language/writing as the great disturbance. If this is true, I do not agree with this, but I look forward to exploring Deleuze and Guattari’s work in greater depth at some point and time.
But I do not know when that time will be, as I have many works I wish to read. I think my aversion to Deleuze and Guattari, as said above, is my attentiveness to the critique of metaphysics. I do not understand why D&G feel the need to create another great system of philosophy that describes real beings. I am tempted to read Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition next, but this is a massive work that would require a lot of work.
As mentioned in the footnote, my next project is Randall Collins’ Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Network Theory. Look for some preliminary thoughts on the first few pages in the next couple weeks.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and
Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia, 1994. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
 I may add here, that the lack of respect for “communication” and “discussion” in D&G’s philosophy is frusturating to me—it seems as though the concept is formed outside of particular interactions and connections. I am curious to compare their refusal that communication (which is the realm of opinion) is part of philosophy to Randall Collins’ work Sociology of Philosophies, my next massive undertaking that I probably will only be able to scratch the surface of before my current semester’s work.
 It should be said that, like Derrida (and. . .Nietzsche?) D&G are interested in getting rid of the illusion of “transcendence” by invoking immanence. However, their notion of “becoming” suspiciously seems to me like transcendent movement, particularly in their conceptions of art. They argue that art tries to create a finite thing without losing the infinite. Furthermore, their description of what good art does seems to talk about how it lifts itself beyond the mere ‘words’ of a text to something else: "it is characteristic of modern literature for words and syntax to rise up into the plane of composition and 'hollow it out' rather than carry out the operation of putting it into perspective" --is this the same thing as saying that it changes the canon? or, rather, changes what x may become/be? Joyce changed what we meant by "novel"--or created an artwork that needed a new name/description” (195). To me, this seems like saying that great texts alter the criteria of the canon or create a new canon altogether. Again, it seems that we can remain on the (materialist?) level of the text. . .