Deleuze’s “Letter To A Severe Critic” is one of his richest and most beautiful texts. It can be seen as a treatise on alterity, so it is only fitting that Zizek misreads it, and Deleuze’s work generally, as avoiding any encounter with Hegel, who he (Zizek) claims represents “absolute Alterity”. Of course, Deleuze’s constant complaint about Hegel is that he gesticulates in the direction of alterity but that he misses it entirely. Deleuze condenses his critique of Hegel into the rejection of Hegel’s “triads and negativity”. However, this critique is more subtle than Zizek is prepared to admit, or even recognize, as, contrary to a popular opinion, Deleuze’s work is full of “triads and negativity”, and even death, but in a sense that Zizek is not equipped to perceive or understand.
As it plays a crucial role in his imagination of his “refutation” of Deleuze, I would like to retranslate the famous buggery quote to bring out some neglected aspects. I am indebted to Naxos’s series of posts at Schizosophy (beginning with his own “Letter to a Harsh Zizek”, and continuing with the series on “Deleuze’s Intensive Reading” I, II, III, and IV and beyond).
Preliminary note: I have translated the title “Lettre à un critique sévère” as “Letter To A Severe Critique” to keep the word “severe” with its Latin etymology visible in its literal form “severus” from “verus” – truth, and “se” – refexive pronoun. So the severe one imposes his truth first on himself and then on others., which is a good summary of Deleuze’s reproach to Michel Cressole in the body of the letter.
“But, above all, my way of coping at that time was, I am inclined to believe, to conceive of the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or, which amounts to the same thing, a sort of immaculate conception. I imagined myself as arriving in the back of an author and giving him a child, which would be his and which nevertheless would be monstruous. That it really be his is very important, because the author had to really say everything that I made him say. But it was also necessary that the child be monstruous, because it was necessary to go through all sorts of decenterings, slippage, breakage [NB: the slang meaning of burglary, breaking and entering, is also relevant], secret emissions that gave me a lot of pleasure”.
Zizek ignores all the attenuating or de-realising that goes on in this excerpt: the subjunctives, the conditionals, the impersonal obligations, the uncertain “I am inclined to believe” (je crois bien) instead of the more certain “I believe” (je crois), the fact that Deleuze does not say “buggery”, but “a sort of buggery” that requires a definition and explication that he then proceeds to give. The uncertainty is left out. The movement is left out: where the text says “arriver dans le dos d’un auteur – arriving in the back of an author, Zizek retains the erroneou translation of “taking the author from behind”. We know that for Deleuze everything important happens behind the thinker’s back: “The movement is always made behind the thinker’s back”. The imagination is left out: the text says “Je m’imaginais arriver dans le dos d’un auteur”, Zizek retains “I saw myself as taking an author from behind”. Decentering is left out, Zizek retains the more anodyne “shifting”. Yet uncertainty, de-realisation, movement, imagination and decentering are all important in the rest of the text – they are in fact basic operations of alterity, and contain far more negativity than Hegel’s triadic and sublimating operations, which remain at the level of formal negativity. Deleuze’s negativity, which can be seen in the abundance of negative prefixes (de-, as in decoding, a-, as in asignifying, in-, as in informal, non-, as in non-formed), is radically deterritorialising where Zizek always tries to return and reduce Deleuze to familiar territory.