Gilles Deleuze’s “Letter To A Severe Critic” is one of his richest and most beautiful texts. It can be seen as a theoretical and practical 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, or rather of “Hegelianism”, into the rejection of the Hegelian “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”, but in a sense that Zizek is not equipped to perceive or understand.
“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, slippages, breakages [“cassements“: breakages, the slang meaning of burglary, breaking and entering, is also relevant], secret emissions that gave me a lot of pleasure” (my translation).
In his book on Deleuze’s philosophy, ORGANS WITHOUT BODIES, Zizek quotes from the published English translation of the letter, which reads:
“I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed” (Deleuze, NEGOTIATIONS, page 6).
Zizek’s analysis reflects the conceptual defects of this translation, as he ignores all the attenuating, the modalising, the de-realising operations 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. All 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 “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” (literally: I imagined myself arriving in the back of an author”, Zizek retains “I saw myself as taking an author from behind”. Decentering (the text talks of “décentrements“) is left out, Zizek retains the more anodyne “shifting”.
Yet uncertainty, movement, modalisation, de-realisation, imagination and decentering are 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, whereas Zizek tries to return and reduce Deleuze to familiar territory.
In his “Letter To A Severe Critic” Deleuze explains how he imagined his incursions into the history of philosophy as a “sort of buggery”, arriving 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 fixed identity of the philosopher must be subtracted, leaving the pure alterity that subtends this identity.
Deleuze adds that this “sort of buggery” (i.e. arriving in the back of the thinker and engendering a noetic baby, a monstruous similitude of the thinker’s system) was also imagined by him to be a “sort of immaculate conception”. In commenting this text, Zizek, despite his religious turn, makes the common mistake of confounding the Immaculate conception with the Virgin Birth and proceeds to understand the link between buggery and immaculate conception in a simplistic way: the buggered philosopher gives birth virginally to his deformed yet similtudinous baby. But being buggered does not leave you a virgin nor does it make you pregnant, something which Zizek no doubt knows, but here conveniently forgets.
A more fecund approach would be to take Deleuze at his word. 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. “Buggery” is no essential part of the process, anything goes in terms of method as long as the result is conception without identity.
Zizek’s elucubrations concern his own fantasies of what Deleuze actually said, and are undermined by reading Deleuze’s words. “Arriving in the back” means approaching the thinker from outside the categories of reflection, that stop the movement and enforce identity. The Original Sin is a thought based on identity, and so based on merely 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 that were begun in his treatment of the history of philosophy (and then extended in his encounters with Nietzsche and later Guattari). What Deleuze reveals is both 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 in his commentary on Deleuze’s letter is the exact opposite: wherever there is a heterogeneous assemblage of elements he “retains” the identitarian structures. I put the quotation marks around “retains” because in practice Zizek often has to invent these structures and forcibly impose them on the text, before retaining them as the key.
Deleuze makes only passing reference to Hegel and Hegelianism, 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, losing the text and henceforth only dealing with his own misconceptions.
In these remarks Zizek occupies the same discursive position as Michel Cressole, his critique of Deleuze is regressively identitarian. Zizek does not perceive the alterity or estrangement present in Deleuze’s text and method, 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”.