Oscar Cabezas, Postsoberanía

Oscar Cabezas’s Postsoberanía: Literatura, política y trabajo is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Not that Cabezas’s view is a rosy one: though he ends with a rousing homage to Communism as the “irreducible horizon of emancipatory thought and social justice” (281), the rather more lasting impression this book leaves us with is of the extent to which the logic of the market has so thoroughly permeated and colonized everyday life. As he puts it in his final chapter, which is essentially a phenomenology of the contemporary labor process by means of readings of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Sergio Chejfec, what he calls “post-sovereignty” is far from sovereignty’s demise but rather the “total, totalitarian, and totalizing sovereignty” of money as general equivalent (277). Not only our everyday experience but language itself is subject to the colonizing principles of money and calculation such that “language communicates nothing beyond instruction functional to the relation between capital and labor” (265-66).

This is, then, a somewhat apocalyptic book that, despite its historical range (from 1492 to the present), argues that capital has already abolished history in a “bad infinity” of perpetual production and absolute depersonalization in which the “eternal worker” is absolutely alienated by being pressed into service as organs without body (261-62). Despite the centrality of alienation to Cabezas’s argument, there can be no relief in humanism, which is merely the “aestheticization of poverty, of differences, which are transformed into mercantile cult” (270). Little prospect here for cultural studies! Moreover, the talk of “organs without body” shows, perhaps more interestingly, that however much he draws from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cabezas up-ends many of their categories and gives us a kind of perverse version of posthegemony in which nothing escapes. This is, in other words, a Deleuzoguattarianism without any line of flight, or a dystopian recasting of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire in which Empire is all, the multitude nothing. “We know,” he says,” that there is no community outside of capitalist society”; and yet the (would-be) communitarian subject within capitalism is absolutely dependent upon an eternal spiritualized debt, an “effect of neo-imperial domination” (272). Any such community “under the neo-imperial dominion of post-sovereign capitalism is community of debtors” (272; emphasis in original). Cabezas thus also gives us a thesis on the primacy of debt à la David Graeber in which, however, “occupy” is unavailable as a slogan for resistance.

Cabezas may argue that all this is precisely the point. For the main argument that links the four essays that comprise this book is a protest against political theology in all its forms. The opening line of its introduction notes that it is inspired in part by Jacques Derrida (who, however, scarcely gets a mention thereafter) and in part by Carl Schmitt’s famous observation that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (13). Cabezas then presents himself as absolutely anti-Schmittian: drawing above all on the work of Argentine theorist Leon Rozitchner, he sets out to extirpate political theory of every residue of the sacred, wherever it is to be found. As such, we should not then be seeking anything resembling redemption. And it is precisely the desire for redemption that therefore damns cultural studies and even such unlikely bedfellows of cultural studies as Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri. Hence perhaps Cabezas’s absolutism, his condemnation of just about every aspect of the contemporary worker’s (and consumer’s) experience: our alienation is absolute; “within the space of post-sovereignty, capitalism administers and controls from heterogeneity or, to put it more precisely, from language made up of residues, of transnational mixtures, of mercantile innovations, of fragments of erased memories and incomplete legacies that even so do not escape the production of surplus value” (238). This indeed is the novelty of post-sovereignty, the means by which sovereignty becomes absolute: difference and hybridity proved an obstacle to modern, more conventional forms of sovereignty; but they are no bulwark against the post-sovereign. Quite the contrary, post-sovereignty thrives on difference. And again, there is no escape: post-Fordist language (and presumably also literature) is now “completely subordinate to the [. . .] post-sovereign accumulation of capital” (239; my emphasis).

It may be too easy (if still warranted) to point out that Cabezas’s apocalypticism and absolutism remain wedded to a quasi-religious eschatology that posits Communism as a City of God utterly distinct from the City of fallen, post-sovereign Man. Indeed, Cabezas’s recourse (via Rozitchner) to a mater-ialism that plays on the notion of feminine embodiment (mater/matter) as what is repressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition draws on a long religious lineage that is not entirely foreign either to Judaism or to Christianity. Perhaps more significantly, I find Rozitchner’s version of cultural psychoanalysis unconvincing, picking up as it does on the least interesting aspects of the late Freud, and Cabezas’s exposition (which seldom if ever takes any distance from Rozitchner) does little to make it any the more compelling.

By almost any measure the best chapter of the book is the final one, in which Cabezas finally finds his own voice. Even here, however, he maintains the habit of incorporating long quotations more or less undigested from the texts that he is discussing: as such we have not so much discussions of the texts as recapitulations and extrapolations from what is too often treated as holy writ. The first part of the book would have benefitted from more and more sustained readings, both in quantity and in closer attention: the opening chapter on the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Spanish Jews is particularly skimpy on the historical archive, and doesn’t even cite the text in question; the second chapter’s approach to (anti-)Peronism is similarly unsatisfying. But as I say, the final chapter’s engagement with Chaplin’s Modern Times, Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Chejfec’s Boca del lobo is provocative and important. Still, however, the ghost of Derrida perhaps haunts the book even here, as these texts are not so much deconstructed as presented as evidence for thesis of the modern (non)subject absolute alienation. In the end, Cabezas’s methodology is strangely reminiscent of cultural studies, albeit that rather than seeking traces of resistance to celebrate, he is instead combing these works for proof of the awful situation we find ourselves in. But I am not sure that the (post-)sovereignty of capital is so total: look simply to the state’s interventions following the financial crisis of 2008 and since, for example. For me, the crux of posthegemony (and this is a posthegemonic book) is neither celebration nor condemnation per se, but ambivalence. These are dangerous times, and Cabezas does signal service in pointing to some of the tendencies inherent in capital’s real subsumption of the social, but these tendencies are not the whole story. Absolutely not.

Update: This post has now been translated into Spanish at Lobo Suelto.

Circus Philosophicus

Philosophers, particularly Anglo-American ones, have a penchant for little stories designed as thought experiments to test or illustrate some hypothesis or another. I still remember from high school the tale of the fat boy stuck in the cave: a group of people go to the seaside and enter a cave system by the sea. At some point they realize that the tide is coming in and threatens to engulf them all. There’s only one small outlet up top, but it turns out that the first person to try to get out is too big for the opening, and he gets stuck. If things stay this way, he will live (his head is above the high tide mark), but everyone else in the group will drown. It so happens that they have a stick of dynamite. Hence their quandary: do they blow up the fat boy and save each other at his expense; or do they refuse to take his life, and sacrifice themselves instead. There are, for whatever reason, no other possible alternatives. The point of the fable was to illustrate the difference between deontological and utilitarian ethics. A utilitarian will light the fuse, based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A deontologist will believe that it’s always wrong to take another person’s life. (As I recall, the only person I talked to at the time who would refuse to blow up the fat boy was my grandmother; she said she’d prefer to wait for a possible act of God to rescue them all.)

There are many similar fables: of violinists with a shared circulatory system (in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument for abortion), of children drowning in a pond (in Peter Singer’s case for charity), and so on. But this is a long tradition, and not restricted to ethical dilemmas. Think, for instance, of Rousseau’s Emile, which is essentially a book-length philosophical parable. Or of Plato’s Republic with the “Ring of Gyges” and, most famously of all, the “Allegory of the Cave.” Indeed, Plato’s dialogues as a whole are in some ways as much literary as philosophical–certainly more literary than the tale of the fat boy, though in all these cases narrative and the imagination and invoked for the services of reason and argumentation. In fact, there are few thinkers, however rigorous, who do not find themselves indulging in some such artifice not only to embellish but also to undergird the tenets of their philosophical systems. Even Spinoza has, say, the man who “because he does not believe that he can by wholesome food sustain his body for ever, should wish to cram himself with poisons and deadly fare.” And Wittgenstein has his ladder, however much he urges it needs to be thrown away once his propositions are finally understood.

Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus

So when Graham Harman is said to be trying, in Circus Philosophicus, “to restore myth to its central place in the discipline” or to be resurrecting “the long-abandoned style of Platonic myth” (77), I’m not quite so convinced that myth has ever really gone away. Nor, on the other hand, is it obvious to me that what Harman offers in this short book are “myths” at all. Myths, after all, imply some kind of collective belief–and it is in the name of revealing the presuppositions of such beliefs that myth-making has rather gone out of fashion in theoretical circles, and understandably so. (Think only of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies as one of the founding texts of what we might call cultural studies, or one of the points at which French Theory and cultural studies most nearly intersect.) Harman’s myths are designed rather to explicate his own, rather particular, beliefs about the world around us. It is better then to see the six brief vignettes that he offers us simply as stories, parables intended to shed unfamiliar light on familiar topics. The fact that he resorts so unabashedly to literary forms to advance his agenda is neither novel nor all that exceptional. But it does allow us to evaluate these short texts as stories as much as for their philosophical content. Or to ponder the relation between form and content here.

What’s striking is a certain flatness or affectlessness, even when the matter narrated by Harman’s stories is otherwise full of drama or pathos. Take the way in which death is treated, for instance. This short book is surprisingly saturated by death, but at the same time remarkably free of mourning. Sometimes this is understandable enough: when, as in “The Bridge,” we are asked to imagine a series of pre-Socratic philosophers being thrown by devils one by one into a molten lake, it is clear that it is really ideas that are being dispensed with, not people. It is at best cartoon violence when, for instance, Pythagoras is dispatched: “The demons drag the geometer to the edge of the lake. They add a final insulting touch by scrawling numbers on his cloak, both integers and his hated irrationals, before pushing his soul into the void” (23). Still, here the philosophers’ demise is at least the point of the story. Elsewhere, death is a little more unexpected and inexplicable. “Offshore Drilling Rig,” for example, is a story that takes Harman and the novelist China Miéville to a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Their chaperones are (unbeknownst to them) killed in a helicopter accident, leaving Harman and Miéville to debate the nature of being as a hurricane passes through. The fate of the oilworkers, however, is here unlamented; if anything, the accident is the condition of possibility for the conversation it enables, though presumably it could have been enabled by means other than a ditched helicopter that kills off “a blunt but sensitive name of Jonas” (41), among others.

The oddest death is the one that Harman inflicts in “The Haunted Boat.” This story is in fact misnamed: it is less about a haunted boat than a haunting one, concerning as it does a ghost boat rumoured to plough the Sea of Japan. By means of a comparison between the actual ferry, which he takes between Hiroshima and Matsuyama, and the parallel one that haunts it, Harman illustrates his “fourfold” conception of objects in terms of time, space, essence, and eidos (62). But Harman’s ferry is haunted not only by its imagined double, but also by the ghost of the fellow traveller who first tells him the story of a mysterious second vehicle: “a pleasant native of Osaka, roughly [Harman’s] own age, who said that his name was Kenji” (54). Later, we are told in rather desultory manner that “Kenji is now dead (or so I read recently on his suspended Facebook page” (55). Again, however, no mourning or other affect ensues: Harman merely tells us that “reports of Kenji’s death have only heightened [his] interest in the [haunted/haunting] vessel” (55). In short, this is the strangest kind of ghost story, in that it seems almost oblivious to the question of life and death except in that death poses the practical problem (against the whole ghost story genre) of cutting off access to the living, of now precluding rather than enabling conversation.

The affectlessness of Harman’s stories is, moreover, frequently combined with notably mannered stylization. Consider the treatment of love or romantic relationships in “The Bridge,” which is framed as a conversation between Harman and his fiancée. But it is written in the voice of a rather repressed minor man of eighteenth-century letters: “My Olympia, this image may seem only obliquely related to our disagreement. But you know me well, and can guess the trend of my thinking” (17). This odd mannered and half-strangled voice is also presented as Harman’s elsewhere: in “Offshore Drilling Rig,” he tells Miéville “Your thoughts are known to me” (47), for instance, rather than the more obvious twentieth- or twenty-first-century idiom, “I know what you’re thinking.” And when we discover that Harman’s fiancée breaks off their engagement, though this is presented as an outcome of philosophical or even religious differences, one feels one’s sympathy tending towards a woman who would have otherwise to endure a man who describes his “jovial bonhomie and backslapping ways” leading to his being “lionized by jaded scions of the East” (13, 14). Frankly, he sounds insufferable.

Now, none of this need reflect on the philosophy itself. There are very few philosophical tales that can make much claim to literary value. Besides, there are perhaps some who enjoy these strange hybrids of travel writing with a dash of steampunk and a side of one of Jane Austen’s country parsons. And yet Harman seems to think that they should delight as well as instruct: with his first story’s concluding image of the cosmos as “a vast series of interlocking ferris wheels” he says “Let these trillions of wheels spin in your mind. Let them sink into your heart and enliven your mood” (12). Well, they may have that effect on some. But me, if I want my mood enlivened, I’ll look elsewhere than this stilted fictional universe, this dull circus whose equanimity towards death is symptom of an entrenched and pervasive absence of life.


Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography

“Does a philosopher have a life? Can you write a philosopher’s biography?” So opens Benoît Peeters’s book on Jacques Derrida, a figure about whom a biographer has particular reason to be circumspect, not least because of all the ways in which Derrida’s work problematizes our notions of the relationship between writing and experience, or between language and being. Peeters answers his own questions in the affirmative by proceeding to give us almost six hundred pages on Derrida’s journey from Algerian childhood as the son of a travelling salesman to his death in Paris as perhaps the most famous (and the most controversial) thinker of the past fifty years. He also, however, finds solace in his task from some of Derrida’s own comments on the importance of “put[ting] philosophers’ biographies back in the picture” (qtd. 1). Indeed, this is probably as close to an “authorized” biography of Derrida as we are likely to get: Peeters thanks Derrida’s widow, Marguerite, for “placing her confidence” in him, and has talked to many members of the philosopher’s family as well as to schoolfriends, colleagues, collaborators, and others who knew him well. So while this is far from being a “Derridean” biography, for Peeters argues that “mimicry, in this respect as in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today” (6), and while it is not exactly devoid of criticism, it is undoubtedly a work that aims to “serve” Derrida. So then the question becomes: how well does this biography serve him?

Derrida: A Biography does little to explain very well why its subject was important. It is particularly uneven when it comes to explicating the key points of his thought, or their contribution to the philosophical tradition. Peeters avers that he “will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida” (3). But absent that, and given that (frankly) the life of a philosopher is not all that interesting in itself, what we are left with are what can otherwise seem to be rather petty struggles for advancement within the academic institution and/or rather excessive, even fawning, expressions of loyalty and partisanship. We are left, in short, with friendships and enmities whose basis or whose stakes are almost impossible to determine or judge. Derrida comes to seem important simply because others thought that he was–although it also becomes clear that there is nobody who has a higher regard for his work than Derrida himself. In one of his few critical moments, Peeters notes the consensus, even among the man’s friends, about his narcissism, adding the peculiar comment that “Derrida practiced it to excess, thereby questioning the boundaries of narcissism and turning it into a philosophical gesture” (421). But what were the terms of this gesture? On what grounds, if any, was it made? On this Peeters is, almost stubbornly, silent.

Meanwhile, about the life itself: I have said that it was not all that interesting, but it was not completely uneventful, either. This is a tale of quite dramatic social mobility in the context of one of the more violent episodes of twentieth-century decolonization. It is also the story of a quite unconventional family life, including an illegitimate son whom Derrida officially recognized but essentially never met, and who was adopted by a man who went on to be Prime Minister of France. Yet, perhaps because of the semi-authorized nature of this biography, Peeters shows no great desire to probe: he indulges in neither gossip nor speculation, instead allowing Derrida’s own, often exceedingly elliptical, words to stand almost on their own. For instance, on paternity: “The father is someone who recognizes his child; the mother recognizes her child. And not only in a legal sense. The obscurity of the question lies entirely in this ‘experience’ that is so hastily called ‘recognition’” (qtd. 357). In similar fashion, Peeters repeatedly calls attention to Derrida’s profound sense of anxiety, and though this was presumably in part the other face of the too-obvious narcissism, he never really describes or stops to ponder these anxieties at any length. The biography thus falls between several stools: it is far from being a rigorous account of its subject’s intellectual development and theoretical work; but it also stops short of either titillation on the one hand or anything resembling an analysis of the psyche on the other.

If anything, this is then a political biography, in the rather limited sense (drawn from Carl Schmitt) of the political as founded on the distinction between friend and enemy. This is true as much of the academic politics (the blocked career advancements; the quarrels and reconciliations with colleagues and competitors) as of the increasingly evident commitments to political causes such as human rights or anti-racism. Perhaps particularly for Parisian intellectuals, these two forms of the political go almost hand in glove: Derrida is repeatedly moving between publishers or journals, for instance, based on his assessment of their political line, or theirs of his. Moreover, the same themes (as Peeters puts it, “justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying” [486]) loom large in both arenas. And though he often portrayed himself (sometimes justifiably) as a victim, especially of the official French university system, it becomes clear that Derrida himself was fully invested in the complex maneuvers that are often described in alarmingly martial manner. Here, for instance, is Jean-Luc Nancy’s take on Derrida in the USA: “He always saw battles to be fought, fortresses to be taken and alliances to be made or consolidated. [. . .] It was important for him to maintain links with certain potential allies, even if they weren’t intellectually all of the first order. He knew he needed a lot of people to pass on the torch for deconstruction” (459-60). Nancy is a friend–one of Derrida’s oldest and most loyal–but his is a surprisingly cynical account of deconstruction’s transatlantic success. True, Nancy may equally be aiming a swipe at America and Americans, but for one Frenchman to call another “a kind of Prussian general” (qtd. 459) is hardly a compliment at the best of times.

Above all, the impression we get from this biography is of Derrida’s remarkable energy. In the first place, the man was a writing machine, producing endless books, essays, and talks. And the talks themselves were increasingly of almost frightening length: two hours, three hours, or more; of a paper in July 1997, he himself reports “I inflicted a twelve-hour lecture on them!” (qtd. 484). At the same time, he was perpetually teaching (the concept of a sabbatical seems to have been foreign to him), not just in his home institution but also at up to three others each year. He jetted in and out of conferences and speaking engagements around the globe. And apparently he was still available to students and others for casual conversation, as well as having time to keep up a prolix personal correspondence and running up what must have been a formidable international phone bill. No wonder Peeters should make the otherwise odd observation that “he had the heart rate of a sports cyclist or marathon runner, less than fifty beats per minute” (420). Again, however, I wonder how much this truly “serves” Derrida. After all, one of the criticisms of deconstruction is the way in which, among Derrida’s followers if not for the man himself, it too soon became the almost robotic application of a voracious new set of techniques for reading. Or to put this another way: if Peeters’s aim is to humanize Jacques Derrida, I’m not sure he’s done such a good job.

But perhaps, on the contrary, the problem here is that Peeters hasn’t gone far enough in giving us a truly inhuman or posthuman Derrida. He provides glimpses of the machine, without really showing us its workings. For it may be that a philosopher doesn’t have a life so much as he or she puts together (and becomes part of) a machinic apparatus. What we’re really waiting for, then, is less a biography than a machinography of an always excessive system, which encompassed but went beyond the proper names of (to take Peeters’s section titles) “Jackie,” “Derrida,” and “Jacques Derrida,” to recast and reformulate many of the fundamental propositions of academic writing and conduct, beyond the pseudo-hegemonic (and frankly banal) campaigns of alliance and filiation to which this book too often reduces its subject.

What is Philosophy?

Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? is in many ways quite a departure from their previous joint-signed books. I say “joint-signed,” rather than “joint-authored” because François Dosse in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (which I reviewed for H-Madness) makes it clear that the book “was manifestly written by Deleuze alone”; he included Guattari’s name “as a tribute to their exceptionally intense friendship” (456). But even considered within the lineage of Deleuze’s solo output, it is somewhat anomalous. If anything, it hearkens back to his seminal texts of the late 1960s, Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense, not least because it is not dedicated to any particular individual (unlike his books on Foucault, Bacon, or Leibniz) or any particular genre (unlike his books on the cinema). It is, almost, pure philosophy.

I say that it is “almost” pure philosophy because, first, as the title indicates What is Philosophy? is better classified as meta-philosophy. Deleuze is as interested in the “prephilosophical” or even the “nonphilosophical” that subtends philosophy. Regarding the latter there are a couple of interesting references to the work of François Laruelle, who is right now somewhat in vogue. Deleuze tells us that “Laruelle is engaged in one of the most interesting undertakings of contemporary philosophy. He invokes a One-All that he qualifies as ‘nonphilosophical’ and, oddly as ‘scientific,’ on which the ‘philosophical decision’ takes root” (220n5). The fact, however, that he finds Laruelle’s equation of the nonphilosophical with science “odd” indicates the second reason why Deleuze’s book is only “almost” pure philosophy: it is as much concerned with answering the questions “What is Science?” and “What is Art?” Indeed, the book as a whole might have been better titled “What is Thought?” For Deleuze is above all concerned to delineate the nature and specific domains of what he calls “thought in its three great forms–art, science, and philosophy” (197). And while it would therefore be tempting to say that the book therefore develops a philosophy of science and a philosophy of art (as well as a philosophy of philosophy), Deleuze is careful to warn that these three practices are very different and can only intervene in or interfere with each other in particular ways and within certain limits. Of the relation between philosophy and science, for instance, he claims that “The two lines are therefore inseparable but independent, each complete in itself [. . .] Philosophy can speak of science only by allusion, and science can speak of philosophy only as of a cloud” (161). Perhaps it would be best to describe Deleuze’s intent as an attempt to think about thought.

In most concentrated, telegraphic terms, Deleuze sums up the differences he discerns between the three forms of thought:

plane of immanence of philosophy, plane of composition of art, plane of reference or coordination of science; form of concept, force of sensation, function of knowledge; concepts and conceptual personae, sensations and aesthetic figures, figures and partial observers. (216)

Essentially (and still more telegraphically), these differences revolve around modalities of multiplicity: different forms of multiplicity, different means of organizing or navigating multiplicity, and different operations performed on multiplicity. What they have in common is that they each constitute a particular relation to chaos. On the one hand, they “want us to tear open the firmament and plunge into the chaos. [. . .] The philosopher, the scientist, the artist seem to return from the land of the dead” (202). On the other hand, they “struggle against chaos (203) and work to extract something from it: respectively, variations, variables, and varieties. As Deleuze puts is of art: “Painters go through a catastrophe, or through a conflagration, and leave the trace of this passage on the canvas, as of the leap that leads them from chaos to composition” (203). Chaos itself is unbearable. But the passage to or through chaos is (quite literally) vital, as it arms us in the still more important “struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself” (203).

Thought continually risks catastrophe–as Deleuze says, “what would thinking be it if did not constantly confront chaos?” (208). It even risks death, or a form of death, as the brain becomes “a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us” (216). But this is the risk we must take, for in fact there is nothing more deadening than opinion, with all its vapid discussion and dreary clichés: “the struggle with chaos is only the instrument of a more profound struggle against opinion, for the misfortune of people comes from opinion” (206). Opinion is the death of thought, but it will also be the death of us: a suffocating, weary, anticlimactic demise. Deleuze claims at the outset of the book that the very question “what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely” (1). Faced with the possibility of death as a life-sapping “weary thought” incarnated in “those weary old ones who pursue slow-moving opinions and engage in stagnant discussions [. . .] like a distant memory of their old concepts to which they remain attached so as not to fall back completely into chaos” (214), it is as though Deleuze were striving instead for what Jorge Luis Borges describes as “The Other Death”: a passionate death willed upon the past that negates the present. For Deleuze, far better than unthinking cliché is the “nonthinking thought” that plunges the brain in chaos so as to extract “the shadow of the ‘people to come’ [. . .] mass-people, world-people, brain-people, chaos-people” (218). This sounds like a Nietzschean gesture to something like the Overman; perhaps it’s the particular utopianism of (non)thought, “revolution” as the “absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people” (101). Still, it’s a reminder of the dangers of this line, or a certain ambivalence in Deleuze, that this book should end with a discussion of the negative, of “the three Nos” of nonphilosophy, nonart, and nonscience, described as collectively constituting “the same shadow that extends across [philosophy, art, and science] and constantly accompanies them” (218). Here Deleuze almost seems to be affirming the power of negation in quasi-dialectical manner. Almost.

Machiavelli and Us

Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and UsLouis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us is a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its long germination. It originates in a lecture course given in 1962, which was cut short by Althusser’s nervous breakdown and hospitalization. The notes for that course were apparently lost, and rewritten from scratch, we are told, “very probably after 1968” (vii). These led to a new course, given in 1972, but Althusser continued to work on the manuscript “on and off up to the mid 1980s” (vii), although he never published it in his lifetime. It finally saw the light of day in 1995, five years after his death. Hence the version we have (in the translation by Gregory Elliott) has numerous footnotes indicating some of the major handwritten revisions, correction, and addenda, often of very uncertain date. One can only suspect that there is a reason for this difficult history, and perhaps also a reason why Althusser kept on returning to Machiavelli, seemingly obsessed but at the same time dissatisfied with his analysis. As he himself notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4).

On the one hand, the book does its darnedest to present Machiavelli as a theorist of hegemony. No wonder, in that Althusser takes much of his inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s reading of The Prince. Machiavelli, Gramsci and Althusser argue, is not so much a thinker of the principality, of the many principalities that dotted the Italian peninsula: he is a theorist of the nation state. More particularly, Althusser grants “Gramsci’s master theme,” that Machiavelli is a theorist of “the political question of Italian unity–that is to say, the political problem of the Italian nation’s constitution by means of a national state” (11). So the prince’s task is to found a state that will both expand and endure: it has to expand until it is coterminous with the limits of the Italian nation; and it can only endure so long as it wins the “friendship” of the people, siding with them against the nobility to overturn the legacy of feudalism. The successful prince, Althusser argues, employs both coercion and consent to fashion a people who fear but do not hate him. Hence the role of ideology, both “a basic ideology” and particular ideologies; it is religion that takes on the role of basic ideology, “a general, constant ideology,” while particular ideologies relate to the specific attributes of the prince himself, expressed “in the form of the representation of the Prince in popular opinion” (92). Althusser therefore concludes that “to appreciate this policy of ‘fear without hatred’ properly, it must be called by its name: it is an ideological politics, politics in ideology” (101).

On the other hand, many of Althusser’s revisions reveal another side to the book. Here, instead of the telos of the nation state, the historical destiny of Italian unification, what is stressed is rather the conjuncture defined by its “aleatory” singularity and unpredictability: “Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture or the first thinker [. . .] to think in the conjuncture: that is to say in its concept of an aleatory, singular case” (18; the phrase “aleatory, singular case” is a late addition); “There comes a moment when Machiavelli can no longer ‘gamble on’ classical theory, or play it off against another, to open up his own space: he must leap into the void” (42; “into the void” is a late addition). Systematically, Althusser shifts the emphasis of what he had previously written such that what begins to emerge is what he elsewhere terms “a materialism of the encounter, hence of the aleatory and of contingency” (qtd. xiii). Here what counts are not so much the means by which the prince binds the people to himself by “establish[ing] Italian unity from the standpoint of the ’populare’ [. . .] gaining the people’s friendship–that is, to speak plainly, an alliance with the people against the nobility” (129). Rather, what’s at stake are “the forms of the encounter between fortuna and virtù” and the undecidability of the tension between concrete actuality and an aleatory future, “the discrepancy between the definite and indefinite, the necessary and the unforeseeable” (80). From this perspective we might turn from thinking about ideology in terms of representation to a consideration of how the army, for instance, acts more like what we might call (drawing on Althusser’s famous “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay) “ideology in general” by interpellating and constituting subjects through habit and affect. Rather than taking the “people” (and its hostility to the nobility) for granted, we would then turn instead to the prior process of “the becoming-people of the people” (102).

In short, there is a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli that is constantly escaping and perhaps threatening to overwhelm Althusser’s otherwise Gramscian insistence on hegemony. There is, we might even add, an ontological dimension that undermines Althusser’s contention that Machiavelli’s singularity is his insistence on “the primacy of politics tout court” (99). Or rather, there is a “primitive political accumulation” (125) that precedes the establishment of any space or institutions onto which hegemony can be projected as though it were politics, and as though politics were hegemony.

Nietzsche and Philosophy

Deleuze, Nietzsche and PhilosophyAs with most of his books on the History of Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy is in large part a work of ventriloquy. Deleuze is speaking through Nietzsche, or making Nietzsche speak for him, as part of a series of debates and concerns that are perhaps more properly “Deleuzian” than they are “Nietzschean.” This is no doubt clearest in the book’s excoriation of Hegelianism and the dialectic: “There is no possible compromise between Hegel and Nietzsche,” Deleuze tells us (195). Written in 1962, Nietzsche and Philosophy is then part of a broadside within French thought against the prevailing postwar interest in Hegel (very much as mediated by Alexandre Kojève). A few years later, Louis Althusser would also join in the fray, with his attempt to construct a Marxism in which all indebtedness to Hegel had been absolutely excised.

The war against Hegel and Hegelianism is also a war against negation. In Nietzsche, Deleuze claims to find a philosopher of pure affirmation: the affirmation of affirmation against the dialectic’s famous negation of negation. The dialectic can at best produce “a phantom of affirmation” (196). In Hegelianism, “everywhere there are sad passions; the unhappy consciousness is the subject of the whole dialectic” (196). By contrast, for Deleuze,

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is the difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns. Multiplicity, becoming and chance are the properly philosophical joy in which unity rejoices in itself and also in being and necessity. (190)

At every turn, Nietzsche chooses activity, life, the will, over against the forces of reaction and ressentiment. The only negativity in his work, Deleuze says, is in fact positive: it is always in the service of creation; it is a total critique that enables the new to manifest itself. Hence “destruction as the active destruction of all known values is the trail of the creator” (177); in Nietzsche, “the whole of the negative has become a power of affirming” (179).

Deleuze’s book, as though intoxicated by Nietzschean affirmation, ends with rather a flourish, heralding the powers of Zarathustra, Dionysus, and the Over-man. We a presented a vision, that can’t help but seem a little mystical, of the triumph of dance, “laughter, roars of laughter,” and a sense of “play [that] affirms chance and the necessity of chance” (194). All well and good. But the fact is that, if we look around, all we see is the supremacy of reaction, the ubiquity of ressentiment, and the ascendancy of nihilism. How can this be? Is it conceivable that reactive forces are in fact stronger than active ones? If not, what explains their triumph? How does action, activity, affirmation, and the will to power give way to the tyranny of the negative?

This is a question that Deleuze will never stop asking. Indeed, in some ways it is the central question of his philosophical career. In Anti-Oedipus, he and Félix Guattari put it in more strictly political terms:

Even the most repressive and the most deadly forms of social reproduction are produced by desire within the organization that is the consequence of such production under various conditions that we must analyze. That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” (Anti-Oedipus 31)

In short: if activity and affirmation are primary, how are they so easily overcome? What goes wrong? Are reactive forces of the same nature as active forces? Do active forces somehow become reactive? If so, how? How does joyous creation end up so badly?

Deleuze’s argument is complex. It all begins when the strangely positive power of forgetting is itself forgotten. Forgetting is “an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression” (113). After all, the first distinction between the noble soul and the slave is that the noble soon forgets any slights; the slave, by contrast, broods and breeds resentment. Ressentiment is only possible once the traces of past ills are preserved, even harboured and nurtured. When this happens, “reaction itself takes the place of action, reaction prevails over action” (114). But what Deleuze wants to stress–indeed, it is vital that he does so–is that “reactive forces do not triumph by forming a force greater than active forces. [. . .] Everything takes place between reactive forces” (114). Then, in a second stage, active force is itself disarmed by being “separated from what it can do; or rather, we find this fiction is propagated. Here we see also the birth of the subject, a fictional entity separated from its own powers of action and activity. But what is most important is that in the forgetting of forgetting and in the construction of the fiction of the subject alike, “in neither of the two cases do reactive forces triumph by forming a greater force than active forces” (124).

Deleuze has again to push further: How for instance does fiction gain a hold over the reality of force? Indeed, this question will soon be redoubled as the ascetic ideal itself is likewise founded on fiction, on the “projection of debt” and the internalization of guilt. How does fiction gain the upper hand? Why would a narrative about the way things are trump our sensation and experience, our affects and bodily investment in the world. Essentially, this is the question of hegemony–or rather, of the hegemony of hegemony. Why did we come to believe in the superiority of reactive forces? Why did we take their omnipotence for granted, so much so that we became habituated into submission and subjection? And with what effect?

I’m not sure that Deleuze is entirely satisfied with his answers here in Nietzsche and Philosophy. He does after all return to the problem over and over. Is this a symptom of some anxiety? Or is it simply that he feels that we need as many answers as possible: later, the figure of the fold will come to the fore in his consideration of how interiority and subjection develop. Or perhaps it’s the power of the return itself that Deleuze wants to affirm.


Nietzsche, Genealogy of MoralsThere’s no doubt that that Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is, as its subtitle announces, “a polemic” (13). Nietzsche rages against Western (so-called) civilization and the palpable sense of claustrophobia, defeat, sickness, and enervation in which we find ourselves: “Enough! Enough! I can’t take any more. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are manufactured–it seems to me it stinks of so many lies” (47). Hence he rails also against the various forces that have led up to and keep us in this dire situation: slave morality and its inversion of values such that what was once good is now pronounced evil; ressentiment and its negation of all that is “different” that is “not itself” (36); the cult of guilt and “the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom” (85); the ascetic ideal and its priesthood that, by making us feel that our own sinfulness is to blame for our predicament, seeks “to exploit the bad instincts of all sufferers for the purpose of self-discipline, self-surveillance, and self-overcoming” (128).

No wonder Nietzsche’s style is so impetuous and abrasive. To wake his somnolent readers and alert them to the damage they have been doing themselves for centuries, let alone to carve out a different path, requires “a kind of sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge that goes with great health” (96).

One can almost feel the ebb and flow of his emotions as Nietzsche writes: disbelief, anger, impatience, frustration, irritation, annoyance, exhaustion… and hope. Yes, hope, not only because his belief in mankind’s potential as great as his dismay at the ingeniousness with which we have perversely tortured and hobbled ourselves, but also because even the ruins themselves have something that can be salvaged.

First, there is the fact that even the immense disasters that afflict us (that we have inflicted on ourselves) have their own value. The sick body, too, has its own perspective and there is no perspective so misguided that it should be summarily eliminated. Or to put this another way: the sick body, too, knows something; we cannot deny the body even in its weakness and its suffering. And all knowledge should be welcome to those who really seek to know. The various “reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness”–note that word again–“and futility, raged against itself for so long” allow us “to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently” (119). They add to the stock of human experience and discovery, and against the poisonous ideal of a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” we should welcome even this hobbled perspective in that “the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing” (119). Even the sick and the weary, the defeated and the self-defeating, have their contribution to make.

(Note by the way that it is this impulse to see value in ruination, this accommodation of impurity and difference, that makes Nietzsche very far from the proto-fascist he is sometimes lazily assumed to be. Nietzsche is engaged in a war, that’s true, but in his view the noble spirit always learns even from his enemies. And ultimately Nietzsche’s goal is more variety, not less; more life and more different kinds of life rather than the death and destruction upon which the Third Reich became fixated.)

Second, the very stubbornness and ingenuity with which we have turned against our better natures is, Nietzsche believes, itself a sign of hope. He concludes the book by noting that mankind’s self-abasement, its “rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life,” indicates our nihilism, our “will to nothingness.” But precisely the fact that we struggle so hard for our own oppression shows that at least we are still struggling: “it is and remains a will!” The final consolation that Nietzsche offers is that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” (163). There is life in the old brute yet, however much that life may be turned against itself. We may be weary, we may be suffering, but the very effort we invest in perpetuating our own degradation shows that we are not dead yet. Now if only we could put the same amount of affective energy into a battle for life, rather than against it. What a wonderful sight that would be!