Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (5): Breakdown, Sickness, Negativity

One of the general themes, or rules of thumb, of Deleuze and Guattari’s (non-)philosophy is that one cannot just begin at the beginning. We « begin » in the middle, but this is not an invitation to a euphoric swimming with the current. The middle is the breakdown.

We begin with a breakdown, with multiple breakdowns, and the book is very clear about that. We begin with our faults. Of course, this notion of fault is to be taken in a geological sense, of a break or rupture in the strata. Nonetheless, we must not be too quick to reject other associations: ethical (but not necessarily moral), machinic (fault as malfunction), or aesthetic (fault as flaw).

The book begins by citing negative conditions, « late », « old age », « agitation », « midnight ». As we have seen Deleuze and Guattari were not « old » at the time of writing, but rather sick. This is a case when we can apply the criterion of « speak concretely ». Why do the authors speak of old age, and not of sickness, at this moment? They will do so later in the book, speaking of the « fragile health » that is characteristic of artists and philosophers (172).

Deleuze and Guattari situate themselves and this new book as breaking with, or being in rupture with, their previous way of doing philosophy, now seen as too abstract:

« Earlier, one posed it, on did not cease posing it, but it was too indirect or oblique, too artificial, too abstract »

The text reads:

« Auparavant on la posait, on ne cessait pas de la poser, mais c’était trop indirect ou oblique, trop artificiel, trop abstrait ».

The published translation reads:

« It was asked before; it was always being asked, but too indirectly or obliquely; the question was too artificial, too abstract ».

As usual I must insist that I am not criticising the published translation, but proposing a more literal reading in order to concentrate on certain points of interest.

NB: I translate « auparavant » by « earlier », in order to bring out the opposition with « late ». I keep the impersonal « one » as the subject (such constructions are quite often translated by the passive voice in English), to keep to the language of the event, which is described by Deleuze and Guattari as containing, explicitly or implicitly, the impersonal one. I read « it » (in French « la »), the object of the verb « posed », as different from « it » (in French « ce », contracted to « c’… »), the subject of the attributive « was » (« était »), and qualified by the four adjectives. These are different subjects, and what is indirect, oblique, artificial, abstract is not the question but the posing of the question.

Deleuze and Guattari see their earlier selves as having been too abstract, and indicate that the time has come to break with that, as this abstract approach itself breaks down under the conditions of old age, sickness, and « the discreet mark of death » (172). These seemingly negative conditions are the effects of « something » that is

« the source or the breath that make them live through the illnesses of the lived (what Nietzsche called health) » (172-173, translation modified).

In French:

« la source ou le souffle qui les font vivre à travers les maladies du vécu (ce que Nietzsche appelle santé) ».

The published translation reads:

« the source or breath that supports them through the illnesses of the lived (what Nietzsche called health) ».

I have translated « font vivre » awkwardly by « make live » (as opposed to « supports ») to bring out the relation between the infinitive « live » (ideal event) and the past participle « lived » (empirical state of affairs).

« Something » (a quality, a power, an affect, a colour) opens a fault in our lived states of old age, sickness, or death to extract and release the event within or covered over. This extract is encapsulated (contoured, configured, constellated) by the concept.

« The concept is the contour, the configuration, the constellation of an event to come » (32-33).

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