9.23.2017

What It Is to Read Philosophy with Reference to Deleuze and Derrida (and others!)

 I've been publishing less of late. 
If you must know, you prying perverts, I'm in love and my attentions are elsewhere. Make of that what you will!

 
My bookshelves with a Nietzsche doll — a gift from students decades ago — and various tchotchkes from my kid. The point: philosophy lives amidst a life, always.


Philosophy is not trying to answer the same old big questions. It might or might not care about what's good, what's true, whether subjectivity impedes or allows for understanding, if suicide is freedom or fear. Philosophy is creative (see Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy? or my podcast on it, ahem). Philosophy creates a world, a more or less elaborate ecosystem of ideas, images, mechanisms, and words.

In this sense, a book of philosophy is like a novel or film: it creates a world and its ways. These worlds can be more or less fantastical, more or less familiar. But, as with all great films, it can be rough getting in as you're entering an alien world whose laws and beings you don't yet know. Some novels, like some books of philosophy, pull you in from the first sentence (A screaming comes across the sky (Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow); We are unknown to yourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason (Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals) only to toss and turn you once you're in. To read philosophy is not to find answers; it's to discover alien ways of going.

Surveying the field of philosophy, we don't find different answers to the same questions (although some philosophies overlap, of course; Derrida and Deleuze, for instance, both seek logics and behaviors of a world without a center; Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Deleuze all find repetition at the absent heart of things). We find all these worlds — Nietzsche's body and its will(s), Kant's structures of judgement, Kierkegaard's angsty will to self, Plato's irony, Wittgenstein's relentless uncertainty within his games. They're not trying to answer the same question as if the question already existed! Each creates its question and its answer.

These questions and answers come from someplace, though: they come from some image of the world, of how things go. Bergson says to read a philosophy is to have an intuition of what this guy — and it's usually a guy — is up to, what he saw. Once you see this image, the questions and answers begin to make sense. What was Descartes seeing when he isolated himself in a room with a ball of wax? What view of things had Nietzsche writing in those bombastic snippets? What universe did Plato inhabit so that he saw writing Socratic dialogues as a way to make sense of it? Bergson says the writings of a philosopher are all attempts to explain that first image they saw, that flash: This is what I see going on. No, let me try again. And again.

Philosophy doesn't offer answers. It offers images, moving images, akin to movies, a stream of images with conceptual and affective causalities and relations (in film, we call this plot). But unlike a movie, a philosophy is not driven by characters, a story, or even a mood. It's carried by an image of how things go.

As with films and literature, philosophy takes up other philosophy. They refer to each other, nudge each other on, poke at each other, share lines of interest or affect, indulge a common tangent before veering this way and that. It's a cosmic phenomenon, worlds colliding, colluding, orbiting, melding, gliding on by. This makes it possible, if often silly, to talk about movements. Sometimes, when I don't know what to say to certain people who ask about my degree, I say I studied a strain of European 20th century philosophy often referred to as "Postmodern." That's not entirely untrue. In fact, the way one talks about movements — their possibility, their inevitability, their impossibility — is in and of itself a way of going within a philosophy. But then I'm getting pedantic in a way that appeals to very few, if any, other than myself. Ahem. So Derrida and Deleuze are two philosophers who seem to address the same things — repetition, decentered worlds, readings texts as multiplicities. Both make prominent appearances in my dissertation; both continue to show up in my thinking, my words, my image of things. And yet, to me, they are so different it's odd to ever bring them together at all.

Anyway, when I read philosophy, I'm reading for that image, that flash of the world, that made this writer think and write this way, ask these questions, choose these points of focus, write in this tone. What, then, is Derrida's image of the world? Well, he sees structures — and structures that can't and won't hold up, despite their often creepy best efforts. And it's this moment, this moment of their collapse, that excites him. The raw is always cooked! The cooked is always raw! To have a structure means having a center and something outside the structure that can see the structure — so the very terms of the structure are the structure's unstructuring! There's a delight he finds in the a-ha! I caught you moment — a moment taken up with the resentful will of a million academics. But there's also a great, almost impish, joy he finds in the way things undo themselves. It's a comedy, not un-Hegelian, in which the world is always falling apart and finding itself in the same breath, a double gesture of slip and slide.

Derrida's image of the world is tight and impish, playful and pedantic.

The pleasure of Derrida, especially when I was 19, was that he sees this whole narrative of "Western metaphysics" and its will to suppress and marginalize. To perform his deconstruction seemed heroic, noble, important: we stand at the limits of repressive structures and undo them! (I even wore a black turtleneck: oy!).

Deleuze is up to something else entirely. He sees a different world. He doesn't see structures coming undone. He sees this flow and flux of lines of force and intensity all streaming through each other in this near-chaortc swirl of endless becoming. When I first read Deleuze, after the profound confusion, it felt like I'd seen his image of the world before: junior year of high school, sitting on Jeff Mayer's bedroom floor, both of us stoned out of our minds and listening to Jethro Tull's "Minstrel in the Gallery," the two of us explaining in harmony to the other the way the flute line at once lead and was lead by the syncopated morass that always teetered. All I saw as that record played were swirling lines, none in the center, and yet there was an order, a structure, that kept it all from becoming formless nonsense. And it's this image — this image of the great teem, this great flow and lines and vibrations — that motivates, propels, defines Deleuze and Guattari. 

I see Deleuze and Guattari seeing what Matthew Ritchie sees: swirls and lines.

So, yeah, sure: Deleuze and Derrida share a certain sense for the decentered. But they are worlds apart; they see and occupy different universes. Derrida, famously, lurks at the limits of things — the margins of philosophy, its footnotes, its slips of the tongue. Deleuze likes to dive on into the messy middle where he says things pick up speed and get interesting. For Derrida, there is a Western Metaphysical tradition that we must deconstruct. For Deleuze, there're just shapes in motion, flows and fluxes, metaphysical or not. He finds other histories of philosophy, ones that speak dialects of his alien tongue — minor languages, if you will: Leibniz, Duns Scotus, Nietzsche, Foucault.

Deleuze explores and proffers different logics of cosmic constitution. Birds, oceans, Kant, Kafka: all these different ways of going are flows within the great teem. Can you imagine Derrida writing about bird songs? Why not? Because they never even show up in his image of the world.

9.05.2017

Derrida, Proximity to Presence, and the Joy of Vertigo (with reference to Deleuze)


Arkady Plotnitsky who taught me Derrida in Philadelphia in 1989.
When I was in college, I took a class on Derrida taught by the impeccably named, Arkady Plotnitsky (I couldn't make that up; his whole shtick was pitch perfect for teaching Derrida in 1989, a parody without an original). It seems that Platonism, as well as the rest of "Western Metaphysics," is premised on a proximity to presence (one of those great phrases that has remained with me lo these many years), a primal or final place which we are closer to or farther from. Plato posits an ideal Form of, say, woman. There are then different concepts of women derived from this Form; this is followed by actual women; then sculptures and pictures of women; then the word, woman. Each thing is another step removed from that Form of Woman that is eternal, that predates any instantiation of any particular woman, a Form that is and has been forever outside the fray of time, unmarred and pristine.

My silly illustration of a parody of Platonism.
As we move to the right — from concept to person to image to word — we move farther away from the Form.

Derrida finds this proximity to presence everywhere he looks, notably, in Claude Lévi-Strauss' distinction between the raw and the cooked. Raw is natural, we imagine. It's literally primal. The cooked, meanwhile, is the stuff of man, of time, of culture, putting us at a remove from the natural order of things. This "raw man" didn't yet have language; then words came along, cooking us, as it were, moving us closer or farther from that raw state.

If you think about it for a moment, you'll see the many ways in which we like to imagine Man as a creature who was pure (for better or worse) and has become removed from the natural way of things. All this cooking, all these words, all these gadgets! Of course, we might see it a progress. We can cure diseases now! And have food that is super yummy! But whether we see it as progress or regress, we still  think of the movement from ape-man to whatever we are now as a movement towards or away from some kind of there — a fixed point, a presence.

Derrida argues that the distinction between the raw and cooked breaks down as does the distinction between man without language and man with language (for those of you who care, breaking down this distinction is what Derrida calls deconstruction, a word that is widely used in a variety of forms, all and none of which are right. I offer Derrida's definition here not as the definitive one but as a point of interest. Which is all there ever are: points of interest without a fixed original or true). All food is somehow prepared, somehow cooked. What is more contrived — what is less natural — than today's obsession with raw food? Just as  there is no such thing as raw per se, there was no time without language, no time without writing. As Derrida argues, a road is a writing on the land. We are always already writing, always already in language, always already cooking.

And yet we cling to this notion of a proximity to presence. It even creeps into our mindful practice: I am getting closer to being mindful, I tell myself, as if there were a final state of mindfulness. Even when meditating, I'll tell myself: Oh, I was there for a moment but then it slipped away. Damn! As if there was a spatial difference between meditating like this or meditating like that. As if there were somewhere to be going! As if it could be measured!

Proximity to presence is fundamentally spatial thinking. In order for us to be closer or farther from something, we need to measure the distance. And if that there there — the origin, the goal, the ideal state is moving then our distance from it becomes unclear and we are unable to assess. So we fix it in place and make ourselves move while the universe remains still. In this scenario, we are actors on the stage of the universe rather than us actually being part of the universe and rather than the universe being an actor alongside us.

But it seems to me the Big Bang was not a primal event. There was not stillness and then, Bang!, everything started moving. Rather, the universe was always already big banging, everything going this way and that, ricocheting, colliding, colluding, melding, passing in the night. All these rocks and gasses and emotions and glances: they are hurtling through space at different rhythms and rates. There's nowhere to go and nowhere we're coming from; it's all just going, relentless change, movement from the get go. Isn't this what yoga and meditation teach us — that we're already there? That there is no path, nothing to search for?

Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I picture the universe.

Every time I realize this — that there is neither an origin nor a destination, that it's all just movement this way and that, not quite a free fall as gravity is only one force among many — every time I realize in my cells that all is flux (are my cells a kind of presence I can be closer to? What about DNA? I see DNA as just another form of tea leaf reading; what do you think? What do you picture? Is my DNA closer to being me? Are my cells? Or my laugh, my smile, my douchebaggery?) — every time I let go of all my there theres, I experience a resonant rush, a vertigo of delight, and I love it.

When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed at night and picture the infinity of space. My mind would hurtle out of the house, through the sky, past the clouds and atmosphere, past the moon, the stars, and the sun and keep going and going until I reached an orgasmic state of release, my skinny little body shuddering as I sensed the infinitude of it all. I loved this feeling, craved this feeling, sought it out.

Presence functions as kind of internal — as well as external — fascist. We hold ourselves up to an internal standard, some true self, and then assess, judge, berate ourselves for not being there, not being that, for not being mindful. Think about how hilarious that is! To berate yourself for not being mindful!!! To be mindful is to be present to whatever is happening. The moment you're assessing whether you're being mindful or not, you're not being mindful. Which is ok, too! It's all ok because there is nothing else! There's just all this! (This is it, says Alan Watts, and I believe him.)


Imagine all the yous without any one being real. They're all just you. It's not that each is discontinuous; it's that each you is what Deleuze would call a repetition — a repetition without an original.  Everything is a version without an original — a cover of a cover of a cover of a cover. There's no closer to or fatrher from; you are where you are, always and necessarily. You are versions all the way down (and up and sideways and along every possible axis). And it's beautiful.