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.

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