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.

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OLD AGE AND (NEG-)ENTROPY: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY (5)

Old age is usually thought of as a state of greater entropy, differences of potential are reduced, making change rarer and more difficult. Ageing progresses under the law of increasing entropy, until a final state is reached, one that can no longer support life.

Against this modern idea of old age Deleuze and Guattari juxtapose the idea of old age as one of those pathological moments that can open a breach in the roof of the Cavern and that allow us to bring through some part of chaos, a breakthrough of neg-entropy.

(These breaches in the firmament that is painted on the umbrella that we use to shelter us from the chaos are described in the conclusion to the book).

Another image of old age is given in paragraph three of the introduction: that of the Sage or Wise Man, who has attained Wisdom conceived as adaptation to a pre-existing realm of knowledge. For Deleuze and Guattari Wisdom is pre-philosophical, philosophy proper begins with the death of Wisdom and the corresponding death of the Sage.

Philosophy supposedly begins in Ancient Greece, with the invention of concepts and of the figure of the “friend” of the concept. Wisdom has changed: no longer knowledge of the immutable laws of the cosmos and of our adaptation to its course, it has become the potential in concepts, conceptual potency.

Something strange has happened between the first two paragraphs and paragraph three. In paragraphs one and two we encounter concepts such as old age, the friend, the limits of thought and art, the transgression of these limits in creative acts. Thought is defined in terms of imaginal schemes (characters, landscapes, spaces and moments, circumstances and examples) and of affects (agitation, seizure, sobriety, laughter, trust and distrust). All this is close to the figure of Wisdom which speaks in parable and fables, which addresses the heart as well as the mind.

Suddenly in paragraph three we have a series of strong claims of the origin of philosophy and of its demarcation from wisdom, and of the separability of its plane of immanence. It is perhaps necessary here to stop, to step back and to distrust this conceptual portrait of philosophy’s origin. We know from modern Superhero comics (and from Derrida, and also from Deleuze) that the origin story is often a fabrication, and that behind every such story there is often another one, or that other origins were occurring elsewhere in the world, unknown to us.

A first problem is that it is a strong claim to affirm that there is historically no Chinese Philosophy, no Indian or African Philosophy, etc. and that all that is comparable and that existed elsewhere than, or before, the Greek “miracle” belongs to the category of Wisdom rather than Philosophy. Deleuze and Guattari seem to be applying the first level of the concept that we saw in the previous post, the level of the separability of planes, in an arbitrary, overly exclusive and circular way.

Deleuze and Guattari talk about old age and the undoing of limits, of their transgression, yet they give us the traditional picture that was taught in every high school textbook. The question then arises: what is the status of their answer to the question. is it a universal answer (despite their rejection of universality)? is it circular (being based on a particular selection of previously valorised examples)?

This is the typical problem of demarcation criteria – circularity. The examples are offered afterwards to validate the criteria, but they are pre-selected at the beginning as the basis of the criteria of selection and validation.

A second problem is that according to Deleuze and Guattari a form of wisdom, what they call “non-philosophy”, accompanies philosophy at every turn. This non-philosophy is in an essential relation with a shadow, that of the “people to come”, and with chaos. Yet this grouping of wisdom, shadow, a people, cosmos and chaos characterises the traditions too quickly characterised as “Wisdom” as opposed too Philosophy.

A third problem comes from the insistence on the separability of concepts. Do these older traditions not contain concepts of all sorts of things within their Figures, as Deleuze and Guattari characterise their thought. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the 18th Century BC, long before the Geek miracle. Yet it contains an imposing reflection on friendship, old age, struggle, trust, and death.

The question remains:

Have Deleuze and Guattari in their old age attained to a new sobriety and liberty, to a thought unbound from its previous limits? or have they regressed to their childhood, to memories from their schooling?

The answer is probably a mixture of both, just as they warn us of this very problem of the errors and illusions that surround the plane one is tracing.

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THREE SHADES OF CONCEPT: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (4)

Philosophy, for Deleuze and Guattari, begins with a pathology, or a pathological process: a jolt, a shock, a malfunction, a wound, a delirium, a crack-up, sickness, old age. The task is extract the event in the state of affairs and to be worthy of the event.

The shock, we will learn explicitly at the end of the book (but we already know it), opens a crack in the ordered world of opinion, a crack onto chaos and disorder. The task is to meet something negative (the shock or the crack) with something positive, to bring back something from the chaos.

Anyone who thinks that Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy has no place for negativity is certainly missing a fundamental and omni-present transcendental condition of thought.

For the philosopher this means to create concepts insufflated with chaos. The question is one of dosage: how much chaos do you need to create your concepts? how much chaos can you stand?

Sometimes we need only a little chaos to accomplish our goals, sometimes we need a lot, and sometimes we have no need, we are struck by chaos and have to make of it what we can. In this book Deleuze and Guattari try to take old age as an event, as an opening onto chaos, and they try to produce its concept.

On the last two pages of WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (217-218) Deleuze and Guattari give us a sketch of a typology of concepts. They distinguish concepts that come from

1) extrinsic interference – concepts of something from another domain, from science or art, for example the concept of a particular space. One could call them inter-disciplinary concepts. They are however subject to purely philosophical criteria. The sensation or the function is “wrested” from its original plane and “seized” in conceptual form. The planes remain separate, or separable.

2) intrinsic interference – concepts are not wrested from one plane to another, rather they “slide” between planes, introducing aspects of one plane in another, inducing a new sort of “mixed” or “complex” plane, that is “difficult to qualify”. They give the example of “Zarathustra” in Nietzsche’s work. One could call them trans-disciplinary concepts. The planes are entangled

3) non-localisable interference – concepts are on a plane of immanence “in an essential relation with the non- that concerns it”, in essential relation with the negative. Concepts are “undecidable”, they are undecidably also sensations, and/or functions. One could call them a-disciplinary. The planes are non-local. Here no example is given, but I think that old age as employed at the beginning of the book is an instance of a non-local concept.

(The published English translation reads “in relation with a negative”. It omits “essential” and “that concerns it” and it translates the “le Non” in the French as “a negative”, which only partially captures the sense). 

This typology permits us to reply to the objection that Deleuze and Guattari’s thought is too abstract, too “conceptual” in the academic sense.

All three types of concept are needed, none is inherently inferior or superior to the other two. A philosopher’s style can be characterised by the relative proportions of each type of concept.

Michel Serres for example, who claims not to write in concepts, seems to be thinking of only the first sort of concepts. It is true that in Serres’s earlier phase, e.g. in his Hermes books (1969-1980), this sort of extrinsic concept dominated. A break came in 1981 with THE PARASITE (1980), when the second type of intrinsic concepts on a mixed plane came to dominate.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work the first type of concept is used quite frequently (black hole, multiplicity, intensity, etc.). The second type is very frequent in a book like ANTI-OEDIPUS (schizo, body without organs, desiring machine, etc.).In Deleuze’s development a similar break to that of Serres occurred when he began his collaboration with Guattari.

WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? begins with non-local concepts, comparable to the style employed in Montaigne’s ESSAYS (old age, friendship, trust and distrust, etc.). An important difference is that Deleuze and Guattari do not limit themselves only to this third type, ranging over the whole gamut of concepts and feeling free to invent new words and new senses for old words.



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MISTRUST THE CONCEPT: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (3)

Chateaubriand published his Vie de Rancé in 1844, only four years before his death, at 80 years of age, in 1848. He lived to explore the continent of old age and taught us to distrust “old age in power”. This is the impotent power of those who cannot transform the world, but can only interpret it, and confine themselves and others to their interpretation. It is the power of abstraction and of the abstract concept (which is not a concept in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms).

There is another power, which does not abjure interpretation (that would be impossible), but that renews and transforms existing interpretations and that contributes, however slightly to the project of transforming our world. We have seen that Chateaubriand’s art trusts in the potency of that power, “affirms only the power of writing”. We can read: the power of writing, of speaking, concretely.

Deleuze alas did not live as long, measured in years of chronological time, he was too ill. He published WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? in 1991, at the age of 66 (Chateaubriand published Vie de Rancé at the age of 76), four years before his death in 1995. Deleuze explored only the beginning of the continent of old age, he was much more familiar with the continent of bad health and sickness.

Deleuze, like Nietzsche, taught us to mistrust sickness, but not to judge it or condemn it. In sickness lies an “impossible value”, if we can elaborate its concept (Deleuze is ever the philosopher), if we can create new concepts by means of it (perhaps we shall explore the use of “pathological” means in a later instalment). In this book Deleuze takes a step back. He looks on old age with mistrust, and with hope, but more importantly he wants to, and wants us to, mistrust the concept:

trust must be replaced by distrust, and the philosopher must distrust concepts the most, as long as he has not created them himself (WIP? page 6, my translation)

Mistrust of the concept has become an important theme of philosophy, and Deleuze has been criticised for his conceptual, or perhaps we should say “hyperconceptual”, style.

In a recent conference Michel Onfray critiques Deleuze’s definition of philosophy as the art of inventing concepts, comparing it unfavourable with the philosophical practice of Montaigne, who he claims invents no concepts, does not write conceptually at all. Onfray claims that there is no concept specific to Montaigne, like the body without organs for Deleuze or the eternal return for Nietzsche, but only themes open to everyone: life, old age, death, the friend.

There is something to be said for this criticism, but we cannot exclude that Deleuze has already thought about it, and has at least attempted a solution. The fact that this book is signed by both Deleuze and Guattari places it under the sign of friendship. We have also seen Deleuze and Guattari begin with “old age”, and the second paragraph begins a long reflection on the “friend”, that will crop up regularly in the course of the book).

In a similar vein, Michel Serres fills his books with characters, but refuses them the label of “conceptual”:

Why aren’t these characters conceptual? Let us take a little detour to understand… [Serres uses the example of the hip as illustrated in an anatomy textbook from 1950 and from today. In the former we find a generic schema, in the latter we find specific MRI scans of a young girl, of an adult sportsman, etc]…All my books are constructed like the anatomy textbooks of today: they do not contain concepts, but singularities. Here there are two totally different manners of thinking: on the one hand the concept, on the other the singularity (Michel Serres, Pantopie: de Hermès à Petite Poucette, page 83, my translation).

Serres too has a point. I personally do not subscribe to the the maxim “Deleuze can do no wrong”. However, we cannot exclude that Deleuze has given thought to this problem as well. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic” Deleuze admits that his writing was too erudite, too academic:

too full of things that remain erudite and that resemble concepts (my translation)

He claims that it was his reading Nietzsche and his collaboration with Guattari that freed him from all that, and this is surely at least in part true. WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? is not a book written by Deleuze alone, but co-written with Guattari. Together they wish to speak concretely, both take concepts as “singularities”, but do they succeed in their endeavour?

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CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)

Academic “normal” philosophy is much concerned with distinctions and determinations, classifications and demarcations, and rightly so. All thought is impregnated with theories and concepts, and we could not even get started if we were not already categorising and norming the world and its knowledge procedures.

As remarked earlier, we already know the answer to the question “What is philosophy?” before we begin the book, the answer being “philosophy is inventing concepts”. This answer is given in the first paragraph of the book, but we are also warned that one can  understand the question and the answer abstractly, as we did formerly, or concretely, as we are beginning to do so now.

Formerly, one asked it, one did not stop asking it, but this [asking] was too indirect or too oblique, too artificial, too abstract (my translation)

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”.

I explained in the previous post why I prefer to keep the active form with “one” as the subject (although “we” would also work here). Here I have interpolated “asking”, put between square brackets as it is not really necessary, to specify the reference of the demonstrative pronoun “this”, which refers to the questioning rather than the question. The translators have preferred to interpolate “question”.

In our abstract knowledge of the answer we are like the novice to Zen Buddhism who wonders why they would need to meditate for years, living frugally and performing menial tasks, before they can find the answer to their koan, when anyone can buy a cheap paperback containing the “official” answers to all the major koans.

In both cases the answer is useless without the long years of practice, an abstraction of merely academic interest rather than the concrete response of the whole being. Perhaps we also know the end of the book, where this answer is both maintained and sublated by the shadowy chaos or chaotic shadow of undecidability.

The undecidability, in the last instance, of the different elements (concepts, sensations, and functions) and the indiscernibility of their respective disciplines that the book so painstakingly seeks to demarcate from each other is enounced quite clearly in the last sentence of the book (page 218):

It is here that concepts, sensations, and functions become undecidable, at the same time as philosophy, art, and science become indiscernible, as if they shared the same shadow that extends itself across their different nature and constantly accompanies them.

This shadow is present unannounced at the beginning of the book and we need to keep it in mind as we read. Philosophy is cinematography, and the question of lighting, of light and shadow is all-important.

The question is do Deleuze and Guattari get the lighting right in this final book?, do they illuminate the scene, the characters, the surroundings with the appropriate interplay of light and dark in every shot? (We should not forget that the French word “plan” in “plan d’immanence” is usually translated as plan or plane, but is also used in the cinema books with the third sense of “shot”). This question is still an open one for me.

To even begin to answer the question we must look into the shadows and ask “when is a concept not a concept?”, or rather “when is a concept a non-concept?”. In other words we must ask the shadow question that “constantly accompanies” the enlightened question of “what is philosophy?”. We must also, and at the same time, ask “what is non-philosophy?”

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IS OLD AGE A CONCEPT?: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (1)

We already know Deleuze and Guattari’s answer to the question “What is philosophy?”, and they knew it too, for many years before writing the book. Now, however, they place themselves in an existential drama occurring in a particular life situation (“old age”, but one must not take this too literally) and in a particular mood (uncertainty: the title is a question and the first word in the French is “Peut-être”, “Perhaps”).

For more on this non-literal or intensive use of “old age”, on the interrogative mood, the modality of uncertainty and the status of the the virtual see the post on the incipit to the book.

Deleuze and Guattari are already casting themselves as conceptual characters, before they begin to explicate their vision of philosophy in novelistic, pictural, and cinematic terms characters, landscapes, visions, struggles, circumstances) at the end of their first paragraph and in the second. We are introduced from the beginning to a style that has no time for abstractions. Philosophy is more cinematic than academic, the philosopher “speaks concretely”. Philosophical writing is a cinematography.

We know the answer to the question, but our knowledge is too technical, too abstract, too academic. The answer should allow us to revolutionise our thought, not just once but in many situations, on multiple occasions, over and over. Instead of revolutionary thinking, the quest for meaningful function, we get normal philosophy and operational sufficiency:

“It’s a question that one poses in a discreet agitation, at midnight, when one no longer has anything to ask for” (my translation).

cf. the published translation: “It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask”. I have already discussed my variant translation in my earlier post, but here I wish to push my analysis a little further.

It is perfectly correct to translate an expression with “on” and a verb in the active voice (“une question qu’on pose”) by a passive form (“a question posed”), but here I maintain the active form because of the ambiguity of “one”, which corresponds to the double use of “on” in French, referring either to an impersonal generic subject and to the personal “we”, or both. The whole of this first paragraph is systematically ambiguous between the two acceptations.

I say “systematically ambiguous” advisedly, because the whole book is an exploration of the ambiguity of philosophy, and of its well-known definition as inventing concepts, torn between meaningful function and operational sufficiency. Laruelle himself was blind to this double language, and retained only the reading in terms of sufficiency. Laruelle was also blind to the dramaturgy (or cinematography) of the book, and one may regret that the published English translation effaces it to some extent (Laruelle, being French, has no such excuse).

The drama of the two languages (abstract and concrete) and of the philosopher’s struggle with the doxa, including in her own life and practice, is present from the very first page. An important instance of this is the duplicity of the expression “old age”. Deleuze and Guattari cite Chateaubriand’s Vie de Rancé (published when he was 76 years old, i.e. a decade older than Deleuze and Guattari). They then quote from a critical appreciation by Pierre Barbéris, containing a crucial distinction for their enterprise:

Rancé, a book on old age as impossible value, is a book written against old age in power; it is a book of universal ruins in which only the power of writing is affirmed.

What Barbéris calls “ld age as impossible value” is old age as transcendental condition of thought, as virtual event, not to be conflated “old age in power”, the sufficient power of operational repetition, that can reign at any age. It is also to be distinguished from the chronological fact of old age.

Aging in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? has the same function as the “schizo process” in ANTI-OEDIPUS. Both are instances of pathogenesis in Canguilhem’s sense, the power to create new norms out of the pathological disorganisation of the normal, to extract a virtual or “impoossible value” out of an all too real decline.

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DREAM AND PHILOSOPHY (1): a democracy of dreamers

As a philosopher, but everyone is or can be a philosopher, my way is the way of dreams and of their dialogue. Arguments and analyses are important, but they take their place in the light of the dreams they express or criticise.

Dreams can be used to criticise the world but this is not a one way exchange. There is no dictatorship of the dream, and even dreams need to be expressed and explored, shared and confronted, confirmed and revised.

I find nourishment and inspiration for this composition of dreams and philosophy in the works of Deleuze and Guattari, François Laruelle, Slavoj Zizek, and Bernard Stiegler, and also in the work of post-Jungian analyst James Hillman.

Laruelle invites us to dream, to enter the dream time and to dream our own dreams, to move freely from the dream to the day world and back.

I have criticised his spatialising of “non-philosophy” on this blog, but there is much to like in Laruelle, once you remove the dogmatic shell.

In dreaming we re-temporalise and re-symbolise the spatialised and literalised world in which we live.

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