On the 20th anniversary of the death of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, LARB’s philosophy/critical theory editor Arne De Boever and Brad Evans invited several Deleuze scholars to reflect on the continued importance of Deleuze’s life and work today.
ON 4 NOVEMBER 1995, Gilles Deleuze committed suicide by jumping from his Parisian apartment window. He left behind a philosophical legacy that went on to influence numerous academic disciplines: continental philosophy, cinema studies, literary theory, cultural criticism, social and political theory, LGBTQ studies, art and architecture theory, as well as the growing field of animal studies and environmental theory. In part this is because Deleuze himself enjoyed such a broad and eclectic range of influences. He innovatively combined the thinking of Bergson, Foucault, Kant, Hume, Lacan, Leibniz, Marx, Nietzsche, and Spinoza with insights on artists such as Bacon and Artaud, novelists like Kafka and Carroll, along with filmmakers such as Herzog, Hitchcock, and Eisenstein. And this is just a brief nod to some of his deepest influences. There are many more. All the intellectual excitement and flurry over Deleuze may confirm the prediction made by his good friend and fellow philosopher, Michel Foucault: “This century [i.e., the 20th century] will be Deleuzian.”
Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is supremely helpful as we set out to understand and respond to the violence unfolding before us at the beginning of the 21st century. One can think here of mass species extinction, climate change, increasing inequity, poverty, natural resource depletion, pollution, epidemics, civil and inter-state warfare that no longer discriminates between combatants and noncombatants, rising nationalism and a pernicious intolerance toward the growing number of refugees throughout the world, and of course religious as well as other fundamentalisms: thought and the world appear to lie exhausted in the face of this depressing list. It is important we don’t raise our arms in despair and give up.
Transcendental empiricism offers a critical tool when it comes to shifting the dial from the nihilism of despair to the richness of experience. Instead of using universals such as individual rights to assess how life is practiced, Deleuze invites us to creatively engage with actually existing conditions adequate to the production of real differences: for example, differences that generate an outside to the axiomatic of capital and the violent affects of capital’s movement; differences that come from a consideration for how agency works; experimental and untimely differences that break apart mechanisms of capture; differences that operate as a revolutionary force on the outskirts of history.
Problematizing is the form of transcendental empiricism because it calls into question habitual ways of thinking and acting. I am thinking here of the fierce and brave opposition many Greeks had to European-imposed austerity measures. I am thinking also of the two-day Greenpeace human blockade, when protesters hung suspended in harnesses under the bridge in Portland above kayaktivists in the waters below, all in an effort to stop the arctic-bound Shell Oil vessel from leaving Portland’s waters. In their different ways, both brought much needed public attention and debate over the use of “legitimate” violence in the name of democracy. Indeed they exposed the use of “legitimate violence” as constitutive of a violent assault on democracy.
What is becoming of Deleuze? The relevance of Deleuze today lies not with a static conception of Deleuzean philosophy. If anything, anyone inspired by Deleuze has to tirelessly resist reducing him to a dogmatic image of thought. Deleuze is neither another authoritative philosopher of the Western tradition, nor a figure to be revered. The singular nonbeing of Deleuze prompts us to rise to the challenge of thinking differently in an effort to create a future that differs from the present. Put otherwise, to embrace the futurity within our midst by affirming the potentiality conditioning the present. Because as Deleuze infamously declared: “If you are trapped in the dream of the other, you are fucked.” It is time not only to dream our own dreams, but to get out of the trap they pose if they merely remain a dream.