Against Poetic Readings of Deleuze, and "Readings of the Actual Text" (eg of Thousand Plateaus)

Dave Harris

Deleuze is an extremely difficult read, and so is Deleuze and Guattari.  We know the reasons for this.  They are working in an elite French context, and display all the characteristics of elite discourse charted by Bourdieu.  They make frequent allusions to their own work and to the work of others, not just philosophers, but writers, scientists and mathematicians as well.  These are not always properly referenced: it is just assumed that we will recognize them as terms based in the work of Leibniz, Freud, Marx, or Proust. Thousand Plateaus (TP) is the worst example by far, trying to be clever, as my old Mum would say, or pursuing an avant-garde style to resist fascist interpretations, for Foucault.

Bourdieu tells us that the poor struggling students in French elite universities had to cope with discourse like this and pursued a number of unsatisfactory approaches.  Some just sat there in ecstasy, perceiving the mysteries of grace.  Some simply excluded themselves: professors often excluded them, if they did not seem to have 'gifts'.  Student work displays and desperate coping strategies— 'echolalia', the stringing together of semantic atoms without wondering what they might mean, and desperate 'prophylactic relativism', where the whole issue of what something might mean could be sidelined—nothing is finally true, and so we can take things to mean whatever we want.

There is an echo of the last strategy in current insistence that Deleuze was a pragmatist who also urged us to take what we wanted from his books. I think there are issues here though. In one case (here) he tells a 'harsh critic' to take what he likes from the book or then sod off and read another one if he doesn't like it, which is not exactly the same as tolerating multiple readings. I also think that when he says we should use his concepts in our own efforts he means we should use them to develop his philosophy: he does not discuss using them in educational practice, for example, and,  having made his own painful journey out of commonsense understandings, he is hardly likely to suggest we plunge right back in and use his terms in any other common sense ways.

Some of these tendencies are detectable in the strategies known as poetic readings.  Here, the poor struggling reader gives up trying to follow all the allusions in the Deleuzian text, and takes the mysterious words or sentences as poetry, containing metaphorical, metonymical, rhetorical or other poetic meanings.  The point is not to worry too much about what they might literally mean for Deleuze or Guattari.  And having detected poetry, the reader is then entitled to explore poetic meanings of their own.  In TP, for example, deeply baffling phrases such as references to  '4-eyed machine' appear, and there is even a diagram of one.  I am sure that for many people, the reaction would have been similar to mine, to read this is poetry, to think up, from my own imagination, what a 4-eyed machine might look like.  I might try to think of associations, such as when kids with spectacles were called four-eyes, or I might think of machines in science fiction that could survey people.  I might choose that second one is particularly relevant, because I know that Deleuze and Guattari are very fond of Foucault.

This tendency is closely connected to the approach that says we should read actual texts.  We take actual text in front of us, read sections, and speculate as to what they might mean, for us, right there and then  As we are all knowledgeable intellectuals, and fully entitled to our own point of view, we can produce personal, including poetic, meanings.  We don't necessarily want this poetry of ours to be limited or constricted in any way by considering commentaries, or, indeed, any explanations that the authors themselves might have offered in other texts.  The stance is supported by the assumed importance of reading 'originals', probably underpinned by current politics of university assessment where reliance on commentaries can lead to plagiarism.

Apart from anything else, this is clearly a ludicrous strategy because it assumes there is an actual isolated original text, and denies intertextuality.  We do not come innocently to the reading of an actual section of Deleuze and Guattari, with no influence being placed on this reading by anything else we have read or thought in our lives.  Nor did Deleuze and Guattari somehow spontaneously produce this isolated text as a direct expression of their immediate thinking, without having thought through the ideas in earlier formats, borrowed them from other writers, discuss them among themselves privately, anticipated what the readers might think, and so on.  To make the most obvious minor points, if we are working with a translated text, the influence of the translator is clearly also going to mediate between us and the actual text; other members of our reading group when they make comments are also mediating what we think.

There is also the problem of style. One technique evident in much of Deleuze is 'indirect free expression', a technique he admires in some cinema too (especially in the work of Jean Rouch).  What we do is to talk on behalf of the person we are writing about ( or filming). For dead people this might look like  empathy, but the trick is to make the work of the other into something coherent and graspable, by using current or personal insights to round out their arguments. Not just replacing their arguments with our own, of course. A bit like 'channeling' people but rigorously. One effect is obvious immediately -- is it Deleuze's own voice we are hearing or is he practicising indirectly the voice of another? It is not unknown for students to lose themselves in a lengthy summary of another's work and to forget who is actually speaking,and they can clearly lose track if they skip. Same with poetic readings of Deleuze focussed on particular bits of text.

For example, you might find all sorts of wacky and provocative sentences on p. 59 of Deleuze's book on Proust, including:
'Neither things nor minds exist, there are only bodies: astral bodies, vegetal bodies' . No doubt all sorts of support from Deleuze could be found here for the popular view that bodies need to be brought back into social science. But my view is that this is Deleuze expressing Proust not himself, and the clue is in those strange terms 'astral bodies' and vegetal bodies. These appear in Proust's novel (find them in my summary)  as a kind of poetic and metaphoric way to refer to the esoteric ways homosexuals communicate their interests to each other ( via 'astral signs'). The 'vegetal' bit is Proust trying to explain male homosexuality as something as natural as is the asexual reproduction of plants. Deleuze might be endorsing Proust's views here -- but I doubt it. The earlier bits about neither things nor minds existing follow a lengthy discussion about how Proust attempts to find meaning, especially the meaning of love, first of all in external physical terms ('things') , and then in purely subjective ones ('minds'),before realizing he had to focus instead on signs which are emitted by bodies. Now try this on another saying on the same p. 59 which would be very mysterious indeed if we had no context from the book on Proust:  'we must be Egyptologists'

My argument is that to try to grasp Deleuze or Guattari in any sort of way that might be adequate to his own thought there is no alternative but to do the hard work of checking as many of the allusions and sources that we can be bothered with, obviously drawing on the heroic labours of those who have gone before.  This is of course an endless task.  I'm not saying in any way that I have got very far with it, but here are some examples of what happens when you try and do this:

  1. Take the 4-eyed machine as an example.  I happen to be reading Guattari's The Machinic Unconscious, (MU) a series of texts that he wrote himself at the same time as collaborating with Deleuze, before the publication of the collaborative Thousand Plateaus, and after AntiOedipus.  Deleuze notoriously argues that when they wrote AntiOedipus, they merged into some symbiotically collective authorship, but a recent biography puts it rather differently—Deleuze insisted that Guattari should get on and produce copy, and send it to him every day, so that he could then make his own amendments.  They would discuss it when they met, apparently every Tuesday, but I can imagine Guattari actually getting a bit pissed off with this, and wanting to keep his own record of his thoughts, so he did.  In one of the sections, he refers to the 4-eyed machine, but gives it a specific referent—it is the system in Anglo Saxon psychiatry of two people sitting down face to face in order to do therapy as a kind of regulation of thinking.  It sounds rather aggressive and a bit dominating.  I'm not saying this is the only possible meaning of the term, but it makes sense to try and find out what on earth Guattari actually meant at the time, even if Deleuze was able to add some additional poetic meanings and a misleading diagram, or hide a specific meaning under a layer of bullshit, if you are a sceptic.
  2. Take another example.  In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is describing a strange universe made of vectors and forces, and inhabited by weird beasts called multiplicities.  There are also continuities between multiplicities, made up of a series of ordinary points and singular ones, which extend to the neighbourhood of the next multiplicity.  I just thought this was SF when I read it, but when I finally got round to reading The Fold, I realized it was based on Leibniz.  It might well have been Leibniz's SF, which is how Deleuze sometimes describes his ontology, but Deleuze was not making it up as poetry.  A sustained effort was required to understand what Leibniz and then Deleuze might have been trying to say using this terminology.  Again, it might be equally satisfying to see it all as an early script for The Matrix, but surely it is important to try and find out what the authors themselves might have meant?  Apart from anything else, I was forced to think of all sorts of new possibilities when I tried to tangle with the mathematical notions, whereas, a satisfying metaphor like The Matrix would probably have led to only a few and much more banal insights, without stretching me too far.  Incidentally, grasping the ontology, after a great deal of additional work, and by relying on the blessed Delanda's commentary, which uses more popular notions of complexity theory to describe the world of Deleuze, helped in all sorts of ways to understand TP, including what a plateau might be referring to. 
  3. Here is another one.  Guattari in MU, talks a lot about faciality and refrains.  There is also a 'plateau' devoted to faciality in TP. ( which is where you also find the stuff on the 4-eyed machine).  Guattari explains what he means, in a rather difficult way, and then goes on to illustrate the theme in a commentary on Proust's In Search of Lost Times.  Keen student that I am, I started to read this massive twelve-volume novel for myself (and as a Monty Python fan could not resist trying to summarize it here -- but not in 30 seconds) .  Again, it was able to see much more clearly what Guattari meant after seeing the structure of the novel as a series of commentaries about people (and landscapes), often symbolized by faces, the elements of faces, and how they combined into various conventional depictions. At the same time, this is an obsession based in the appalling world of continuous anxiety about minute aspects of social distinction among the bourgeois and aristocracy in France in the 1920s -- can we really say that 'faciality' is a major disciplining social force in contemporary societies?  Also, disappointingly, 'the refrain' seems to refer to a literally musical refrain which plays a part in Proust's story of Swann and his relation with Odette—I had seen it much more as a metaphor for any recurring theme, including ideological ones woven together into different hegemonic formats: excessive interpretation or poetry on my part perhaps, but at least I am now able to better separate what I have added, rightly or wrongly, to Guattari, in case I ever had to explain to anyone.
  4. The big concepts also have a hinterland. This is the case with Body without Organs especially. It does not appear out of  heaven in Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus, but is extensively discussed in Logic of Sense, although you would never know this, since the earlier work is not referenced. There it appears as part of a critique of Freud and of Klein in their attempts to understand schizophrenia ( see my additional comments on the BwO). It is fine if people want to take it as a metaphor or piece of poetry, and then 'apply' it, say to the Web, but it has a context. Let me be really controversial to end and say that the contextual meaning is far more enlightening for me than any poetry written about it since!

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