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.

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.


“We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 4).


Review of François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. Trans. Deborah Glassman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus surely has some of the most remarkable opening lines of any work of philosophy or cultural critique. First published in France in 1972, just a few years after the demonstrations of May 1968, its stylish bravado immediately reminds us of the attitudes struck by student agitators, and proclaims that their radical energies persist: “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, as other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id.” The original French is even more striking, playing on the fact that “id” and “it” are both “ça” (“Ça fonctionne partout . . . Quelle erreur d’avoir dit le ça.”). “It” is a machinic unconscious that is defined not by what it represents, but by what it produces: “Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (Anti-Oedipus 1). The question “what does it mean?” gives way to “how does it work?” As Deleuze and Guattari go on to declare in their second enquiry into “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” A Thousand Plateaus: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier: we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed” (A Thousand Plateaus 4). They therefore refuse any attempt to derive meaning from biography, to reduce the work to its author(s). Indeed, they disclaim authorship as anything but a matter of arbitrary convenience and custom: “Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. [. . .] We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied” (A Thousand Plateaus 3-4).

Read more… (.pdf file)


The Wednesday quotation, part XV: Gilles Deleuze on immanence:

Very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face–not subjective qualities. Small children, through all their sufferings and weaknesses, are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss. (Immancence: A Life, 30)


Alexandr Zholkovkii’s short essay “Deus ex Machina” does not, rather fortunately, succumb so swiftly to the strange (and strikingly out of place) Romanticism that characterizes so many of the other texts that outline what he terms a “poetics of expressiveness”. Here, instead of praise for the accomplished and inspired author and his or her techniques for better self-expression, his focus is on the literary machine itself and its autonomic tendencies.

Zholkovkii’s thesis, he tells us, is that “any artistic text is a machine working on the reader: a ‘machine’ not only in the figurative sense, but in the strictly cybernetic sense as well–as a transforming device” (53). Soon enough, however, this definition has to be extended: there is no special privilege to the artistic text; all cultural productions and practices obey a machinic logic that amplifies, distorts, modulates, or transforms a whole series of inputs, often in unpredictable ways. Social and legal conventions, for instance, ensure that a contract is fulfilled (in one example that Zhlkovskii provides) even when one of the parties to the contract has, unknown to the other, suddenly died. Events have a logic of their own, that goes beyond individual agents. Plot consists in precisely such machinic logic that overtakes and determines the fate of individual characters.

In Zholkovskii’s vision, every instance of a literary, artistic, or social machine still requires some kind of external input: the machines do not run by themselves. This is the residual trace of the notion of “expressiveness”: the machinery is ultimately a form of expression. But the mechanism that enables such expression tends to become so dominant that individuals are soon subjected to the machine rather than its subject: Zolkovskii mentions the famous scene, for instance, in Modern Times in which Charlie Chaplin is physically “dragged into an assembly line” (57). “One is, of course, tempted” he therefore observes, “to think of a machine that would alone do all the plot work” (59).

A machine without some kind of prior input, however, is unimaginable: the whole formula of expressiveness would disappear and “such a machine would [. . .] completely replace and thus cancel the plot” (59); such a perpetual motion machine, that strictly followed its own logic and no other, would be the end of art and culture. The machine needs an external God, a supplement of some kind, to ensures that there is indeed God also in the machine itself. Zholkovkii’s Romanticism never quite disappears, though here we see its limit point.

But what if there were nothing but machines? Or at least, other inputs that were not themselves already human. This, of course, is the provocative opening of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. (1)

This would be a machine that, like Athusser’s “hailing machine,” produced subjects (rather than being driven by them), though also so much else. Indeed, the subject might be perhaps the least interesting of its many products. And if a God remained in the mechanism, it would be immanent, fully part of the machine rather than the mere trace of some transcendent vision.

Meanwhile, I’ve written elsewhere on the machinic unconscious of literary texts: “Arguedasmachine”.


The key to the difference between Bourdieu and Deleuze, and so to the specificity of the concept of habitus, consists in Bourdieu’s introduction of the related concepts of “field” and “symbolic capital.” For Bourdieu, habitus is always embedded in a prior social field, which itself is structured by symbolic power. In some ways Bourdieu takes more seriously than Deleuze, then, the notion encapsulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation that “politics precedes being” (A Thousand Plateaus 203). For if habitus is a set of “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (The Logic of Practice 53), it is not only generative but also generated. It is the product of a given state of power relations: the social field as a whole, and also distinct subfields (such as the artistic field, the journalistic field, the academic field). Hence, in Loïc Wacquant’s words, the relation between habitus, field, and capital is that “a field consists of a set of objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power (or capital), while habitus consists of a set of historical relations ‘deposited’ within individual bodies” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 16). Hence the dispositions of habitus are also depositions, both in the sense that they constitute a record of the state of the field that formed them and (to use now more Deleuzian terminology) that they are the sediments or deposits that form within a particular landscape of power. They are “conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence” (The Logic of Practice 53). And what they therefore generate or structure in turn tends therefore to reproduce the structures that constituted them, in that they generate practices that seem to call those structures into being, that take them for granted without the need of words or discourse.

Each field is structured by a competition for domination and capital. “The structure of the field,” Bourdieu argues, “is determined by the structure of the distribution of the distinct forms of capital that are active in it” (An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology 108). For there are different forms of capital, each of which has a different weight depending upon the field in question. Broadly, for instance, the field of culture is structured in terms of its differential distribution of cultural capital, while it is financial capital that counts in the market for economic goods. Yet Bourdieu downplays the direct influence of financial capital, and is interested above all in the distinct forms of symbolic capital that are subject to struggle in different subfields, and the ways in which the definition of capital (or what is to be accorded value) is at stake in these struggles, as well as the mechanisms by which one form of capital is converted into another. In the end, the most effective power is symbolic: “symbolic” here does not imply either representation or a power that is “merely” symbolic, but refers a mode of domination that achieves legitimacy in that its arbitrariness is misrecognized, so much so that it goes without saying. Bourdieu and Passeron present this as the fundamental axiom grounding their analysis of social reproduction: “every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations” (Reproduction 4; emphasis in original). What is reproduced through habitus, habitually, is our corporeal assent to the legitimacy of these power relations, and to the unequal distribution of capital that they secure.

Habitus is reflex and relay, product and producer, assuring social continuity by literally incarnating the principles of social order. In Bourdieu’s words, “it ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes and perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time” (The Logic of Practice 54). It ensures that social agents are attuned to their circumstances. It fosters the self-confidence of the “inheritor” who, rich in cultural capital, exhibits a confidence and flair that is rewarded with further social and cultural capital; and it also ensures that those dispossessed of cultural capital assent to their dispossession by rejecting what is culturally consecrated (be it higher education or high art) with the sentiment that it is not for them. Privilege is naturalized as though it were simply a “gift”; and subordination is taken for granted as though social difference were a question of talent or taste. The dispossessed are often the first to admit that they have only themselves to blame. And all this is legitimated and arbitrated by institutions and officials who have no need to be aware of what they are doing, who can be committed or even (increasingly) entirely cynical about the ideals they are upholding. For ideals are not at stake. Academic diplomas, for instance, attest to “gifts” and “merits,” and can do so objectively with no hint of bias, because the real work has been done in the conversion and so dissimulation of privilege as attitude. The source of these dispositions is concealed, all the more effectively in that the habits they generate are second nature. Hence, Bourdieu and Passeron argue, “the supreme privilege” of the privileged is “not seeing themselves as privileged,” which in turn “manages the more easily to convince the disinherited that they owe their scholastic and social destiny to their lack of gifts and merits, because in matters of culture absolute dispossession excludes awareness of being dispossessed” (Reproduction 210). There is no conspiracy because there is no hidden knowledge: the game’s winners as much as the game’s losers, as well as its arbitrators, can all act in perfectly good faith. The judgments that lead to social promotion or exclusion, such as the feeling that “he’s a good chap” or “she’s not one of us,” can be justified by transcendent principles whose legitimacy is assured by the fact that they resonate with immanent habits.


Something I’m working on, and I thought I’d put it up to see what the various Bourdieusians and Deleuzians make of it…

Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” is, in the first place, central to his intervention into the ongoing debate about structure and agency, “one of the key faultlines that runs through social theory” (Korczynski, Hodson, and Edwards, “Introduction” 12). On the one hand, there are theorists who stress the ways in which social structures constrain and determine individual or social agency. Marxism and psychoanalysis, for instance, in different ways tend to emphasize the ways in which agency is constrained by structures that are, respectively, material and psychic. On the other hand, other theorists stress the fact that agents can resist or overcome these structural determinants. The tendency of cultural studies, for example, is to point to the slippages by which (say) consumers determine their own responses and eke out a measure of agency even within contemporary capitalism. Or as Anthony Giddens (whose theory of structuration is an alternative bid to resolve the debate) puts it, those for whom “structure (in the divergent senses attributed to that concept) has primacy over action, and the constraining qualities of structure are strongly accentuated” are arrayed against those for whom “action and meaning are accorded primacy in the explication of human conduct; structural concepts are not notably prominent, and there is not much talk of constraint” (The Constitution of Society 2). Giddens goes on to characterize this difference as an “imperialism of the social object” facing “an imperialism of the object” (2). In short, these are two competing claims to transcendence; what is at stake, Giddens argues, is as much ontological as it is epistemological, as much about our models of what society is as about conflicting perspectives regarding the same model (2).

Bourdieu’s intervention is therefore also ontological, substituting immanence for the dueling imperial transcendences of structure and agency. He refuses both “mechanism” (an emphasis on structure) and “finalism” (a stress on agency), arguing that the debate between the two is “a false dilemma” (Outline of a Theory of Practice 72). If “it is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction” shaped by rules or structures alone, equally “rejection of mechanistic theories in no way implies that [. . .] we should reduce the objective intentions and constituted significations of actions and works to the conscious and deliberate intentions of their authors” (73). Mechanism and finalism, structure and agency, are each as reductionist as the other, seeking causes always elsewhere, in some other dimension, either the “transcendent, permanent existence” of objective social constraints and regulations or the “transcendence of the ego” equipped to make its own rules (27, 75). So Bourdieu turns to habit, or “habitus,” an embodied set of dispositions immanent to practice itself. Habitus is a system “of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations” (The Logic of Practice 53). These dispositions are “objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends” (Outline 72). Habit, our everyday activity, is therefore the product of a “scheme (or principle) immanent in practice, which [. . .] exists in a practical state in agents’ practice and not in their consciousness, or rather, their discourse” (27; emphasis in original). Regulation and practice are immanent to each other, rather than mediated either by consciousness or by external structures. Habitus is an attitude of the body. It is the unspoken, unspeakable, feel for the social game that generates the positions and actions that agents adopt in given situations, in regular if not fully predictable ways. In short, because it is immanent, habitus is both embedded, and so structured; and it is also generative, an immediate rather than external motor of action.

There are many overlaps between Bourdieu’s habitus and Deleuze’s conception of the “virtual.” Both are immanent and productive, intensive and affective, corporeal and immediate. The relation between habitus and practice is not unlike that between the virtual and the actual: an unfolding or differentiation that takes place in the event of an encounter with other bodies. Habitus and the virtual alike describe an ontology that underlies but is of a different order from the realm of representation, discourse, and ideology. Habitus, Bourdieu tells us, is like the work of art in that it “always contains something ineffable, not by excess [. . .] but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.e. on the hither side of words and concepts” (Outline 2; emphasis in original), while the virtual, Brian Massumi explains, is “the unsaid of the statement, the unthought of thought” (A User’s Guide 46; emphasis in original). Hence both theorists’ distaste for ideology: for Deleuze and Guattari, “there is no ideology and never has been” (A Thousand Plateaus 4); for Bourdieu, more measured, “I have little by little come to shun the use of the word ‘ideology’” (Pascalian Meditations 181). And yet, despite these manifold similarities, the tenor of Bourdieu’s work differs markedly from Deleuze’s. Where Deleuze emphasizes escape, and a flight towards the immanent virtuality of affect as an empowering realization of what the body can do, for Bourdieu the immanence of habitus is characterized above all by inertia. Bourdieu shows how habit enables social reproduction and works against radical social change, so much so that (as Bourdieu and Wacquant note) some even accuse him of “a politically sterile hyperfunctionalism” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 52). Though his “functionalist tenor” (Lane, Bourdieu’s Politics 116) does not exhaust Bourdieu’s account of habit, the contrast with the voluntarist tenor of Deleuze’s theorization of affect is dramatic. Yet the difference is not, as Massumi claims, that habitus is an “ideological notion” whereas Deleuze’s account “emphasizes that [habit] belongs as much to the organic stratum, to the productive, physiological capacities of the flesh” (“Introduction” xxxvii). Bourdieu’s habitus is fully as corporeal as Deleuze’s affect. Rather, we might almost say that the structure and agency debate is replicated in the difference between Deleuze and Bourdieu, but now as a contest between two immanences.


To return to my first post in this series… There I suggested that rights could be seen as “surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked.” I suppose I mean by this that rights discourse produces a series of texts within which can be read (albeit in coded form, perhaps) a history of struggle and repression. Those texts would include both rights declarations (the UN Declaration and so on) and also the reports produced by rights organizations (such as Amnesty).

Two issues therefore arise:

First, the mechanisms of encoding. These are perhaps successive. For instance, what happens as pain is expressed or transmitted first affectively (paradigmatically, in the scream; see John Holloway on this), then narratively (say, in testimonio), and then as a legal plaint (taking rights discourse to be a version of juridical deliberation)? How, in other words, is the discourse of rights produced? Looking at this would involve understanding the ways in which struggle and repression become encoded, enter into various types of representation. I think it’s out of a concern with this process that Deleuze argues for the importance of jurisprudence:

Creation, in law, is jurisprudence, and that’s the only thing there is. So: fighting for jurisprudence. That’s what being on the left is about. It’s creating the right.

One would have therefore also to think further about the theory of representation at work here. Deleuze argues in terms of “creation” rather than a perhaps more customary emphasis on the dislocation between referent and sign.

One would also consider all the various groups, institutions, and (in short) agencies in all senses of that word that contribute to the mechanics of rights discourse: the role of human rights groups, for instance; or the relays between international bodies such as the OAS or the UN; or the part played by truth commissions and the like.

Second, however, why think of rights discourse as the final text, as an end product? Indeed, though rights as often presented as goal as they are assumed as origin–hence the notion of “fighting for” or seeking to gain rights–it’s surely best to see them as an instrument, as one more cog or chain in a much broader arrangement. After all, does anybody really care about the right to (say) shelter, privacy, or free speech? No, they care for the achievement of those goals. In rights discourse, this is finessed as the distinction between an exercised and an unexercised right; but an unexercised right is dead, useless.

What then (and here I’m inspired by some discussion at Serena’s blog) of rights discourse as one part of a broader mechanism of social justice? Rights here (as Peggy implies) would be the abstract moment bridging two concrete practices: crime and its punishment.

A few concerns:

First, all this sounds worryingly dialectical, as the abstract universal mediates concrete particulars.

Second, would the above not also apply to law tout court? (What difference is there between rights and law? Are rights not just a (fictitious) model for an entire legal constitution?)

Third, such talk of mechanisms seems to obscure the importance of interpretation.

Fourth, we shouldn’t forget the sovereign instance (state or divinity, or even the idea of the human) that ultimately guarantees the possibility of any such mediation.

OK, for a moment there I thought I might be on the road towards salvaging rights, now as mechanism rather than discourse. Perhaps not.

Magnetic Aids to Skaters to be installed in the London Parks during the Skating SeasonBut it might be worth figuring out how the machine of rights discourse functions, and how it compares with the machine of state power or sovereignty.

Reading about the 1954 Guatemalan coup, I’m struck by how much what the CIA cobbled together was a Heath Robinson contraption (Rube Goldberg machine for North Americans) constantly in danger of breaking down, but finally anchored by US President Eisenhower’s say so.

How different is that from (what would be more charitably described as) the network by means of which human rights abuses are charted, publicized, and acted against? I’m thinking here for instance of Amnesty’s decentralized collection of letter writers, assiduously (as I imagine them) sending postcards off to jailors and generals throughout the Third World. But again, does this network not also depend upon a sovereign instance as anchor?