We cannot understand the beginning of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? without having at least some idea of the conceptuality developed in order to answer the question embodied in the title. At first glance, and many readers seem to have been content with that, the text seems to refer to Deleuze and Guattari’s own experience: we are now old enough to ask the question with our whole being and personal history, with our oeuvre behind us, at an age when if one is lucky « all the parts of the machine come together ».
Old age, on this reading, would be the propitious moment, the « kairos », for at last dealing with the question seriously, no longer treating it as a simple « stylistic exercise » for the academic philosopher, but responding existentially. There is some truth in this reading, but as it stands it is perhaps too empiricist. This is not an academic question, one that one can (as « one » has in the past) treat superficially, not a question one can « dominate in passing ».
The question lurks in the depths, and we must be « seized » by it, as by a sea monster (by a White Whale, or in Zizek’s terminology a « Kraken »). It is not ours to pose and to resolve:
Instead of being seized by it, those who asked the question set it out and controlled it in passing (WIP?, page 1).
This response to the question is too superficial and too rapid (« in passing »). However fast the answer may be proffered, it remains within the domain of « relative » speeds and that of the thinking subject that « dominates » its questions rather than problematise them and be problematised by them. They do not attain the absolute speed of the concept and of the event, they only « simulate the absolute ».
No doubt these relative speeds may be very great, to the point of simulating the absolute, but they are only the variable speeds of opinion, of discussion or [of] « repartee, » as with those untiring young people whose mental quickness is praised (WIP?, 214).
Empiricism is the enemy, for Deleuze and Guattari are not referring to an objective state of affairs nor expressing their lived experience. As we have seen they were not « old », but only at the beginning of old age. The empirical experience or social status of old age is historically variable. For the reader today, old age begins in the early seventies, rather than in the early sixties, the age at which Deleuze and Guattari published WIP?
This illusion of empiricism crops up again in the middle of the first paragraph when they pass from the question « what is philosophy? » to « what is it I have been doing all my life? » This passage from one question to another is accompanied by a change of pronouns, by the transition from « one » to « I ». As already noted, the very first line, literally translated, begins: « Perhaps one can only ask the question ». The pronoun « one » is used twelve times before the passage to « I », and then the text continues with « one »:
Perhaps one can pose the question What is philosophy? only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely. In fact, the bibliography on the nature of philosophy is very limited. It is a question one poses in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when one no longer anything to ask for. One asked it before; one asked it ceaselessly, but too indirectly or obliquely; the question was too artificial, too abstract. One was not seized by it, rather one set it out and dominated it in passing. One was not sober enough. One had too much desire to do philosophy, one did not wonder what it was, except as a stylistic exercise. One had not reached that point of non-style where one can finally say, « What is it I have been doing all my life? »
I have modified the published translation to bring out the contrast between « one » and « I », which is quite striking in this passage. It would be a mistake to see the second question as a direct appeal to lived experience, the « I » in question is a conceptual character and as such is not a lived experience but a « transcendental lived reality », in the same way that the authors tell us, that the « friend » as it
appears in philosophy no longer stands for an extrinsic persona, an example or empirical circumstance, but rather for a presence that is intrinsic to thought, a condition of possibility of thought itself, a living category, a transcendental lived reality [un vécu transcendental] (WIP?, 3).
« Old age » is such a transcendental reality i.e. a concept, perhaps only a minor one, which finds its motivation as a component or sub-concept in the posing of the question what is philosophy. It determines, as do all concepts, a series of intensive traits, of conceptual landscapes, of moments, and of conceptual characters, and of examples that are themselves transcendental realities.
The pertinent intensive traits of old age are the « sovereign liberty » or creative freedom invoked in the first paragraph and an « immense fatigue » and « slow-moving thought ». The landscapes are the « desert path » and the « wild wind ». The conceptual characters are aged writers (example Chateaubriand), painters (Titian, Turner, Monet), cineasts (Ivens), and philosophers (Kant). And also the « witch laughing in the wild wind ».
We can see that « old age » is both a concept in itself, and also a conceptual timescape, (determining the question « what is philosophy ») which can be conjugated with diverse landscapes to determine other more-encompassing concepts and problems. Speaking of old age Deleuze and Guattari are not fleeing into a pure abstraction, they know and have experienced in their bodies that of which they speak, but they are accomplishing what we may call a « Stoic » act.
The discussion of old age is already taking it as an example of an event. It is a first case of trans-valuation, or « counter-effectuating the event ». To trans-valuate means to make the qualitative leap from experience or states of affairs to
One actualizes or effectuates the event whenever one inserts [enchains] it, like it or not, in a state of affairs; but one counter-effectuates it whenever one abstracts it from states of affairs so as to isolate [unchain] its concept. There is a dignity of the event that has always been inseparable from philosophy as amor fati: being equal to the event, or becoming the offspring of one’s own events–« my wound existed before me; I was born to embody it. » I was born to embody it as event because I was able to disembody it as state of affairs or lived situation. There is no other ethic than the amor fati of philosophy (WIP? 159, translation modified).
(Note: I have converted the passive forms back to the original active voice and restored the original subject « one » to highlight its omnipresence in the French text. I suggest the variants enchain/unchain merely to bring out the play between engager/dégager in the original French. No criticism of the published translation is intended on these points).
Deleuze and Guattari insist that we cannot philosophise creatively outside all experience, and we cannot simply transpose our experience into the conceptual realm. We need to make a qualitative leap, a noetic ascent, onto another plane. In the quotation above the authors take the example of the « wound », and they also mention the battle immediately before and after. « Old age » is another example and the Stoic imperative implies that we must be « worthy » of our age. To live it well we must disembody it as stereotype and re-embody it as event.
One could object to the dolorist quality of these examples, instancing a delight in pain or suffering. Another example of dolorism is the accent put on « shame » as one of the most powerful motives for philosophising. This objection paints a very incomplete picture, as the central importance of « dignity » and of « love » in the text above demonstrates, as do the « impossible values » of friendship, liberty, and the creative powers (of literature, film painting, and philosophy. Everything of value is impossible, until we make it possible.
Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is neither a dolorism nor a hedonism, but what one may call a cynical felicism, the impossible made possible.