Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (17): Spectres and Personae (Deleuze and Derrida)

We are attempting to read Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? as it asks to be read, concretely, as a text about philosophy as mode of existence. Concretely, that is to say: in dramatised untimely terms of place, time, characters, landscapes, movements and affects. (The tension between concrete as actual and as untimely runs through the book).

However, abstraction has crept in to their highly selective definition of philosophy as the creation of concepts, in that they exclude « discussion », communication and debate. This demarcation between concepts and opinion (doxa) is essential, but it excludes too much. In particular the concrete context becomes simplified, and we are left to our own devices to construct the larger mega-text of discussion and intercession between their work and that of their contemporaries.

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? was published in French in 1991. Deleuze was 66 years old and Guattari was 61. Derrida published SPECTRES OF MARX in 1993, at the age of 63. As we have argued, the incipit to WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? has often been misread. This is not a work of « old age », nor does it claim to be. Nor is Derrida’s SPECTRES OF MARX. They are, rather, books of maturity, of becoming mature.

It is very interesting to see how the incipit to SPECTRES OF MARX is traversed by similar concerns to to those of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, to the point of seeming to be written in response to, or in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari’s book. For example, SOM seems to extend to life, living, and to live what WIP? expounds in relation to the concept. Perhaps it is the inverse, and WIP?’s concepts extend and deepen the shared problematic of a pedagogy of life. Each book spectralises the other, just as it is spectralised.

For Derrida this pedagogy is construed as « learning/teaching to live », while for Deleuze and Guattari it is a « pedagogy of the concept ». In both cases the transmission is not direct, but mediated by other, absent-present, spirits called « conceptual personae » (Deleuze and Guattari) or « spectres » (Derrida). Deconstructing the classical unitary subject, they share a subjective pluralism and a heightened awareness of what we may call the paradoxes of noesis.

Another paradox of noesis can be found in what Derrida calls a « strange » obligation, both « impossible » and « necessary »:

This is, therefore, a strange commitment, both impossible and necessary, for a living being supposed to be alive: « I would like to learn to live » (SPECTRES OF MARX, xvii).

In WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? old age is cited as a case of an « impossible value » that gives us a « pure necessity ». The paradoxical modality of impossible-and-necessary belongs to a common care for a demanding style.

In a later text, « LEARNING TO LIVE FINALLY The Last Interview », Derrida returns to and situates SPECTRES OF MARX in terms of the geopolitical context in which he was calling for resistance to the globalisation that was extending the State-form to the whole of the planet and in favour of a « New International » (this is an anticipatory notion, and has close ties to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of « the people to come »). He recalls that the subtitle of the book is

« The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International »

On the virtual (spectral) commonality between the two bodies of work, Derrida is quite clear, considering himself to be

the guardian of a differentiated and yet common heritage…to adhere, sometimes in opposition to everyone and everything, to certain shared exigencies, from Lacan to Althusser, and including Levinas, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, Blanchot, Lyotard, Sarah Kofman, and so on (LEARNING TO LIVE FINALLY).

This commonality is metonymised by these proper nouns, but it can be stated in more abstract terms:

I am referring here, by metonymy, to an ethos of writing and of thinking, an intransigent or indeed incorruptible ethos with no concession even to
philosophy, an
ethos that does not let itself be scared by what public opinion, the media, or the phantasm of an intimidating readership might oblige us to simplify or repress. Whence the austere taste for refinement, paradox, and aporia. This predilection also remains an obligation. It unites not only those I just mentioned a bit arbitrarily, which is to say, unjustly, but the entire milieu that supported them (translation modified by me).

Intransigent, incorruptible, uncompromising, unafraid, un-intimidated. A complex and unrepressed style. (Deleuze and Guattari speak of a « sovereign liberty »). An austere taste for refinement, paradox, and aporia. This is the spectral ethos of a preceding generation, to which Derrida wishes remain faithful in his very difference:

even if this fidelity still sometimes takes the form of infidelity and a parting of ways, one must be faithful to these differences, that is, one must keep the discussion going.

Derrida finds in this differentiated commonality a « discussion » that it is urgent to pursue. I think that in his work he did try to « keep the discussion going », just as Badiou, Laruelle, Latour, and Stiegler do so today. Deleuze too had an austere ethos of discussion, even if he reserved the word « discussion » for the doxic self-indulgent travesty of the free dialogue he sought.

Perhaps Deleuze was led astray by his own abstractions and neglected to engage in some of the discussions that would have been possible for him, if he had been more open. This was Badiou’s critique of Deleuze, that he engaged only in « convergent » dialogue and fled from more divergent discussions.

No one is entirely free from the illusions that the fall back into abstractions can provoke, and no one has done more to help us keep the discussion going.

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3 commentaires pour Reading WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (17): Spectres and Personae (Deleuze and Derrida)

  1. maylynno dit :

    Thank you very much. What is philosophy? Is one of my favourites of Deleuze, right after Mille plateaus and dialogues! I just reblogged your post


    • terenceblake dit :

      Thanks. I like WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? more now than I did when it first came out in 1991. I think that perhaps it is too easy to give it a one-sided reading. In this series of posts I am trying to express how reading it in terms of more recent works by Derrida, Badiou, Latour, Stiegler, and Laruelle can enrich our understanding of the book, and make it of contemporary relevance.



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