NOTES ON DELEUZE’S “LETTER TO A SEVERE CRITIC” (1): against Zizek

This is a reply to Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Deleuze in his book “ORGANS WITHOUT BODIES On Deleuze and Consequences”.

1) DELEUZE AND NEGATIVITY

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. On this reading, the severe one imposes his truth first on himself and only then on others., which is a good summary of Deleuze’s reproach to Michel Cressole in the body of the letter.

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 in his ORGANS WITHOUT BODIES misreads it, and Deleuze’s work generally, as avoiding any encounter with Hegel, who he (Zizek) claims represents “absolute Alterity”. In fact, Deleuze’s constant complaint about Hegel is that he constantly 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 itself 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:

“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” (NEGOTIATIONS, page 6, retranslated by me).

Zizek ignores all the attenuating, modalising, or de-realising that go 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 erroneous 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”. (Note: I would qualify this: The real events happen behind the back of the thinker, in the sense of the reflective thinker. But they happen in front of the lover, the revolutionary, the artist, and the creator of concepts). 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 attenuation, modalisation, uncertainty, derealisation, 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.

2) THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION IS NOT THE VIRGIN BIRTH

In “Letter To A Severe Critic” Deleuze explains how he imagined his incursions into the history of philosophy as a “sort of buggery”, coming up from behind and giving a thinker a baby in his own likeness yet monstruous. A deterritorialised baby in sum. The baby, which is in fact the philosopher himself, is a paradoxical unity of likeness and monstruosity, a union of opposites. The identity of the philosopher must be subtracted, leaving the pure intensive alterity that subtended this identity.

Deleuze adds that this “sort of buggery” (i.e. arriving in the back and engendering a baby, a monstruous similitude of the thinker’s system) was also imagined by him to be a “sort of immaculate conception”. Zizek here makes the common mistake of confounding the Immaculate conception with the Virgin Birth and affects to understand this equivalence between buggery and immaculate conception in a simplistic way: the buggered philosopher gives birth virginally to his deformed yet similitudinous baby. But being buggered does not leave you a virgin, something which Zizek conveniently forgets.

[Note: Zizek confuses the two phenomena not just here, but despite his “religious turn” in the rest of his work too]

A more fecund approach would be to take Deleuze at his word (he is after all more erudite and much funnier than our Slovenian Super-Star). The immaculate conception is in no way virginal. Mary, the Mother of God, was conceived in the normal way (i.e. via the heterosexual genital intercourse of her mother and father) but without Original Sin. So Zizek’s elucubrations on his own fantasies of what Deleuze said are undermined by reading Deleuze’s actual words. The Original Sin is a thought based on identity, and so founded on representing difference, alterity, movement, becoming, multiplicity, rather than implementing and performing them. The Original Sin is Identity, and The Immaculate Conception is the subtraction of that identity and the engendering of thought in and as pure alterity.

Further, the Immaculate Conception embodies a strange temporality in which Mary is pre-redeemed by the future coming of the saviour. This fusion of the anticipatory and of the retrospective is an apposite description of Deleuze’s experiments in alterity begun in his treatment of the history of philosophy and extended in his encounters with Nietzsche and later Guattari. What Deleuze reveals is somehow already there (“the author had to really say everything that I made him say”) and yet a new birth because re-thought and re-imagined in terms of a new Image of Thought (“it was necessary to traverse all sorts of decenterings, slippage, breakage, and secret emissions”).

Zizek’s method is quite simple: wherever there is a heterogeneous assemblage of elements he “retains” the oedipal structures. I put the quotation marks around “retains” because in practice he often has to invent these oedipal structures and forcibly impose them on the text, before retaining them as the key. Deleuze makes only passing reference to Hegel and dismisses his triads and negativity as coarse and clumsy representations of real movement and becoming. Zizek has to inflate this into a total repression of Hegel (“the absolute exception”) to then “discover” the oedipal drama in Deleuze’s philosophical practice. He has to maculate everything with Oedipus, losing the text and henceforth only dealing with his own misconceptions.

3) AGAINST FREUDIAN FUNDAMENTALISM

We have seen that Zizek imposes an oedipal schema onto Deleuze’s “Letter To A Severe Critic” to make it conform to a structure that he can easily understand and criticise. Despite his neo-lacanian sophistication when he talks theory, Zizek’s default position in his interpretative practice is naïve Freudian fundamentalism. He even espouses this explicitly at various places in his work, a good example being chapter 2 of IN DEFENSE OF LOST CAUSES.

In commenting on the prevalence of familialist ideology in popular culture, Zizek feels the need to pretend that familialism is the real content of in particular various popular science-fiction novels and films. This is rather interesting as he complains that Deleuze is incapable of perceiving or supporting alterity, symbolised in Zizek’s case by “Hegel”. Of course, “Lacan” in Zizek’s work is in fact “Lacan-Z”, a conceptual persona that permits Zizek to think and to validate his ideas retroactively and to project them backwards onto Lacan’s texts (this is where Zizek’s own “buggery” takes place, in the retroactive maculation of Lacan). Thus, Zizek’s Hegel is a similar chimaera (Hegel-Z) preventing him from seeing anything other in Deleuze’s treatment of Hegel than the repression of alterity.

Zizek gives us “the key” to his own repression of alterity explicitly in his discussion of the recent remake of The War of the Worlds, where Zizek subtracts the aliens and retains only the oedipal drama:

“One can easily imagine the film without the bloodthirsty aliens so that
what remains is in a way “what it is really about,” the story of a divorced
working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children”. (p57)

Here Zizek is careful to qualify his oedipal reduction by using attenuations: expressions like “One can easily imagine” and “in a way”; quotation marks around his main thesis. But only a few lines down the attenuations disappear: “No wonder, then, that the same key discloses the underlying motif of the greatest cinema hit of all times”, James Cameron’s Titanic. In fact the key is not at all the same, and contrary to the simplicity of his treatment of The War of the Worlds (“I’ll just subtract the aliens”), Zizek has to go through some complicated slippage and breakage (but alas as usual no decentering) to “bugger” the film into saying what he wants it to.

Zizek goes on to generalise and dogmatise his oedipal key throughout the rest of the chapter. On page 59 he states blithely: “The same interpretive key fits science-fiction catastrophe films”. Darko Suvin famously defined science-fiction as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”, but for all his talk of alterity Zizek cannot endure the minimal doses of otherness that are contained in popular SF films. So it is no surprise that he was so vehemently critical of AVATAR, which confronted us with a whole new world, or STALKER which contains a “Zone” of alien production escaping from the basic laws of physics as we know them.

Zizek occupies the same discursive position as Michel Cressole, his critique of Deleuze is regressively identitarian. Zizek cannot stand alterity or estrangement, and imposes identity as forcefully as he can whenever he encounters it. The greater the dose of alterity, the more vehement is his reaction. Deleuze’s conclusion applies to Zizek as well: “You are doing everything in your power to make me become what you criticise me for having become”.

4) INTENSIVE CONNECTIONS VERSUS SIGNIFYING CUTS

“How far away is the “other”? If we can no longer be sure that we remember who we are, where do we make the cut between “me” and “not-me”?” (James Hillman, A Psyche the Size of the Earth)

I have been discussing Zizek’s critique of Deleuze in terms of the inability of his Hegelian and Freudian theorising to come to grips with, or even perceive, Deleuze’s espousal of alterity. Zizek has no idea of the trajectory of Deleuze’s “Letter To A Severe Critic” from identity to post-identity, from certainty to uncertainty, from literal reality to the power of the false. I argue that Zizek’s psychoanalytic tools prevent him from understanding what is happening in the “Letter” and more generally in the works arising from the Deleuze-Guattari encounter. Zizek can’t help imagining (i.e. mesuring and judging) Deleuze against a freudian-lacanian background and so renders himself incapable of comprehending even the simplest arguments in Deleuze’s post-encounter (with Guattari) texts. Hillman’s post-jungian psychology, in contrast, abounds in ideas and formulations that converge with Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical texts and with their movement towards an ecosophy.

To recap, Michel Cressole tries to get Deleuze either to come out as gay or to admit that he is a parasite feeding on the life-blood of the true marginals (schizos, homos, drug addicts, alcoholics). He wants to extort a confession. Deleuze’s response can only be understood as a letter that is not written by the identity “Deleuze”, the civil servant (profession: professor of philosophy, conjugal status: married with two children, bibliography: author of over 20 books), but rather by a post-identitarian assemblage. In his preface to the American edition of DIALOGUES Deleuze situates all his work from ANTI-OEDIPUS to A THOUSAND PLATEAUS (and, we can imagine, beyond) as happening “between” Guattari and himself. This is why Zizek’s claim that ANTI-OEDIPUS is “arguably Deleuze’s worst book”, is doubly erroneous. The problem is not so much in the use of “arguably” (Zizek does not argue against Deleuze and Guattari’s arguments, and is incapable of doing so) but in the expression “Deleuze’s worst book”. He wilfully blinds himself to the fact that ANTI-OEDIPUS was not written by Deleuze, but by Deleuze and Guattari, in the full sense of the Deleuzian “and”: the book, like the letter, is the embodiment of a multiplicity of becomings that happened between Deleuze and Guattari and many others, themselves multiplicities in a world of becoming.

All this talk of multiplicities and becomings is beyond Zizek. Deleuze’s letter traces a path from identity to post-identity, from psychoanalysis to schizoanalysis, from vengeance to love. He uses the image of “buggery” to induct, if possible, Cressole into a rhizomatic exchange, deterritorialising his vocabulary to help him escape the marginal trap: an identity founded on transgression is still an identity, “coming out” is no substitute for going outside, invoking multiplicity and becoming is not the same as creating them in an individuation that is not based on identity. Deleuze indicates that this “depersonalisation through love” initiated in his encounter with Nietzsche came to full incarnation when he began to work with Guattari, insisting on “how each understood and completed the other, depersonalised himself in the other, singularised himself by the other, in sum loved the other”.

Deleuze refuses the opposition between the impersonal observations of a professor, the paranoiac “frigid doctor of distances”, and the personal confessions of a transgressor, the hysterical “simulator of identifications” (DIALOGUES, p53-54). Both are only too happy to find the “dirty little secret” that they can propose as the key to a work. The alterity of the work is neutralised, its power voided, its love of the world travestied. The whole process of de-subjectivation, of individuation away from and outside of the egoic subject and of literal realities is re-translated into a dogmatic reductive grid. Deleuze is justified in exclaiming: “There is thus no risk of seeing the power of life which runs through a work”.

Zizek remains within the confines of oedipal decoding and interpreting, totally falsifying the text he interprets. Deleuze talks of leaving the history of philosophy behind and of speaking in one’s own name; Zizek retains: repression of an incestuous desire for Hegel. Deleuze speaks of love traversing the multiplicities and zones of intensity of another’s body and one’s own, discovering “its groups, its populations, its species”; Zizek retains: sublimated buggery and repressed incest.

But there is no sublimation and no repression here. We must reply with James Hillman: “Nothing is repressed, in fact, nothing can be repressed” (RE-VISIONING PSYCHOLOGY, ix). Zizek’s biggest mistake is literalism, a malady that Hillman attributes to, amongst many others, Freud and his followers. Deleuze likewise condemns “a deplorable belief in exactitude and truth”, and revendicates the right to express his individuation with its immobile voyages in oblique and circuitous ways. This indirect expression, or “power of the false”, is a type of language that eschews the “unidimensional literal report by and about a fiction called “me”” (RVP, xi), or indeed about any dogmatically imposed interpretation treated as self-evident “reality”. “What’s so great about your version of “reality”?, asks Deleuze, Your realism is unimaginative.”

This unimaginative realism confines itself to a world divided into stereotyped categories by “signifying cuts”. This is the realm of the great divide between self and world. Deleuze’s pluralism evokes on the contrary a metaphysical “rupture” where you are no longer a conforming or transgressive identity (in fact, all identities are transgressive, one cannot really conform to the Norm), but where

“You have become like everyone, but in fact you have turned “everyone” [and we must add “everything”] into a becoming”. (DIALOGUES, p127, translation slightly modified).

So it is that Deleuze can join with Hillman in crying “no cuts”! (Hillman, A Psyche the Size of the Earth). The “interior” is coextensive with the external world, and so innerness gets redefined as no longer signifying spatial confinement but as synonymous with an all-pervading dimension of depth and intensity.

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5 Responses to NOTES ON DELEUZE’S “LETTER TO A SEVERE CRITIC” (1): against Zizek

  1. JH says:

    Can one be a Lacanian and a Deleuzian? How do you receive Levi Bryant’s readings of Deleuze?

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    • dmf says:

      on paper you can mix and match anything you like but in Levi’s case one ends up re-producing structuralism via Niklas Luhmann, now can one make something useful/interesting in the form of a structuralist deleuze? nothing in principle rules it out, depends on one’s interests i suppose…

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  2. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

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  3. Keith Krugerud says:

    “In “Letter To A Severe Critic” Deleuze explains how he imagined his incursions into the history of philosophy as a “sort of buggery”, coming up from behind and giving a thinker a baby in his own likeness yet monstruous. A deterritorialised baby in sum. The baby, which is in fact the philosopher himself, is a paradoxical unity of likeness and monstruosity, a union of opposites. The identity of the philosopher must be subtracted, leaving the pure intensive alterity that subtended this identity.” But is this anything really new? How does this differ from the Lacanian aspect of coming up from behind the Representative of Representation and dwelling in its shadow, the shadow of dialectical materialism, being ever its own threat, that is traversing the Master Signifier that conditions the subject who is now behind its back seeing the nothing it hides?

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    • terenceblake says:

      You ask “But is this anything really new?”. I agree that too much has been made of this metaphor, which was conjunctural at best, and not enough attention has been given to the spelling out of its conceptual content.

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