Using Bourdieu to critique Deleuze's style

Dave Harris 2013

We know Deleuzian style is a deliberate attempt to break with conventional thinking, but isn’t it also just elitist? You bet...


We can explain further characteristics of Deleuzian style by pursuing some insights developed by Bourdieu and his associates (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990; Bourdieu et al., 1994; Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies in Cultural and Education Studies, 1980) on the characteristics of academic discourse and the effects of its habitus, defined (in Bourdieu, 2000: 145) as:


the site of durable solidarities, and loyalties … an immediate agreement in ways of judging and acting which does not presuppose either the communication of consciousness, still less a contractual decision…  [and]…  is the basis of the practical mutual understanding, the paradigm of which might be the one established between members of the same team, or, despite the antagonism, all the players engaged in a game.



Although this work has been criticized as less applicable to modern Britain, it seems particularly relevant in the case of Deleuze, who wrote his books as a prestigious French professor of philosophy at the time, although the dates of publication of English editions can mislead.


Of course, even professional philosophers and academics have had formative experiences, even if it is only educational and organizational ones, which affect their thinking. They also work in universities, some more centrally than others, inevitably engaging in organizational micropolitics, and thus operating with motives which are not restricted just to pursuing the better argument—they want to pursue productive research programmes, for example.  There is no intention to condemn such experiences and motives in the name of some idealized academic culture of purity.  Academics themselves are not likely to be able to discuss these influences on their style, if we are examining an effect of an habitus, where mundane motives are never examined because they seem natural and universal, resulting from unconscious and socially supported commitments.


We can illustrate briefly the controversy about reductionism by examining Bourdieu’s (1986) critique of Kant.  Bourdieu argues that Kantian categories underpin the ‘high aesthetic’ embraced by the French bourgeoisie (including academics).  Kant’s definitions of ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime’ stress the apparently independent qualities of works of art that emerge despite the intentions or perspectives of the viewer and thereby transport us out of our own mundane concerns and interests.  This experience is contrasted to the effect of the merely ‘agreeable’ or ‘charming’ which immediately engages the viewer in an act of emotional seduction and thus strips her of autonomy. Bourdieu’s critique amounts to saying that this apparent disinterest in the specific content matter of artworks thereby becomes central to the project of maintaining subjective freedom.  However, the whole stance clearly depends on developing a leisurely, contemplative and theoretically informed attitude which is, of course, possible only for those who do not have to face excessive work demands and who possess considerable cultural capital. As a consequence, ‘pure’ pleasure, freed from all interest, becomes important in bourgeois strategies of social distinction (class closure): it is opposed both to the vulgar demands of ‘natural’ behaviour and to the claims of the aristocracy in exclusively possessing some intuitive grasp of civilization. These characteristics appear especially clearly in a 'typically professorial aesthetic' (Bourdieu, 1986: 493), which is why academics are so keen, I suspect, and, possibly, in Deleuze's philosophical ‘tastes’ discussed elsewhere.


The absence of any acknowledgement of a social context for academic work leads to a broader point. Scholarly philosophy in general claims disinterest and universal appeal, but it includes 'unending allusions that the vulgar do not perceive' (Bourdieu, 1986: 499). An inability to decipher these allusions shows that you do not belong to an elite. There are other professional interests at stake too.  Specifically, even critical philosophers 'have a life-or-death interest... in the existence of [a] repository of consecrated texts, a mastery of which constitutes the core of their specific capital' (Bourdieu, 1986: 496). Even the 'philosophical "deconstruction" of philosophy' is really a continuation, 'the [merely] philosophical answer to the destruction of [conventional] philosophy' (Bourdieu, 1986: 496). Objectifying the tradition one belongs to in order to launch some critical commentary draws attention to philosophy and places 'the person of the [commentating] philosopher at the centre of the philosophical stage' (Bourdieu, 1986: 497).


Among other critiques of Bourdieu’s stance, De Certeau (1984) has argued that the connections between habitus and thought in formal philosophy is only suggested, and really depends for its force on work in a different application – the sociology of education. Bourdieu also faces a paradox or possibly even a Kantian antinomy. If it is being argued that collective habituses linked to social classes affect all thinking, then Bourdieu’s own thought must also be affected. In that case, his work is not a disinterested analysis with universalist appeal any more than is Kant’s, and we must seek its origins in Bourdieu’s own habitus. If, however, Bourdieu’s work, or sociological accounts in general, are able to achieve disinterestedness and autonomy, we need to know how they have managed to overcome the constraints of habitus that affect everyone else. Bourdieu has addressed these issues to some extent in his later work, by discussing the contradictions in the habitus, for example (Bourdieu, 2000). He refers to his actual empirical work here too -- it's not just windy rhetoric as in Deleuze or Guattari.


Deleuze and Guattari themselves argue that social contexts have clearly affected the work of philosophers, and they do so with even less supporting evidence or explanation.  For Deleuze, Plato’s notion of essential Ideas was developed in the context of Athenian politics, where there was a need to arbitrate between the claims of various citizens wanting to participate in Athenian society (see, for example, Deleuze and Parnet, 1987).  The Platonic scheme, suggesting universal essences which are embodied in empirical objects as copies, helped to describe what a genuine claimant would look like: one in whom the essential was recognizable. Simulacra were inferior and offered only a surface resemblance to genuine copies while not sharing their essential qualities.


Deleuze also tells us (for example in Deleuze 1990) that his concept of the ‘immanent’ had overcome certain limits in both Kant and Husserl: even their notions of the transcendent still incorporated conventional assumptions about human or divine consciousness and how it works. More politically, Deleuze and Parnet (1987: 13) argue that ‘The exercise of [philosophical] thought thus conforms to the goals of the real State, to the dominant meanings and to the requirements of the established order’, although they identify as exceptions those who have received particular approbation in Deleuze’s earlier work (especially Hume, Leibniz, Nietzsche and Spinoza).


It is tempting to apply Bourdieu’s general critique of the French elite university immediately to Deleuze and his contemporaries, although Guattari was not a university academic. For Bourdieu and Passeron (1979: 42), academic discourse in the elite universities they studied was characterized by ‘professorial charisma…  The display of virtuosity, the play of laudatory allusions or depreciatory silences’.   Deleuze’s displays of virtuosity are evident, and he often alludes in a laudatory way to works from French and Anglo-American literature and poetry; he refers extensively to the work of Greek philosophers, especially Plato; he discusses more contemporary philosophers such as Nietzsche or Bergson; he also draws on his own earlier work in some of the later pieces, and, as with the other examples, often does not reference it according to modern conventions.  The work therefore leaves implicit a number of allusions to philosophy and to the wider culture, including depreciatory silences about rival philosophers. Readers, like elite students, seem to be expected to possess a ‘whole treasury of first degree experiences’, such as knowledge of literature and the arts, and to be accustomed to 'allusive conversations' (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1979: 22).

 Now actually, the online transcripts of Deleuze's lectures (here) show all these characteristics but in a fairly acceptable way (compared to the books). Deleuze does assume his audience will be reading the philosophers he criticizes (like Leibniz and Spinoza) and will be engaged in some sort of philosophical dialogue with him - that they will know that the idea of analytic reason championed by Leibniz was criticized by Kant, for example. He assumes they will be familiar with the principles at least of the calculus. But these allusions are explained as well (mostly). Deleuze does seem to be trying to communicate some basic ideas not just demonstrating academic discourse and hoping to produce some effects.

Some of Deleuze's written work seems like classic professorial discourse made deliberately obscure, though. I think the worst examples by far are the best-known, ironically enough -- AntiOedipus and Thousand Plateaus, written with Guattari.  As I argue below, these works are trying to demonstrate the free-floating 'rhizomatic' nature of thinking by writing in a disconnected and deliberately 'delirious' way. The point, according to Foucault's Intro anyway, is to avoid lapsing back into fascism, but the result is an appallingly indulgent pseudy, rambling recapitulation of earlier work with added political radicalism.

No doubt some elite French readers of the 1960s could grasp what was being argued, but even some of those might struggle: Bourdieu and his associates tested elite French students in their understanding of the words used frequently in the lectures they observed and found substantial misunderstandings: for example one student defined ‘epistemology’ as ‘the study of memoirs, journals and correspondence’ (Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies, 1980: 82).

Deleuze reports that his seminars at Vincennes were well-received, but it is important to note that they took place against ‘a background of a French intellectual life which is already becoming curiously dated’ (translators’ introduction to Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: xii).  Bourdieu tells us that some students in that setting did seem to enjoy professorial displays in lectures, as a pleasurable ‘initiation into the mysteries and an infusion of grace’ (Bourdieu et al., 1994: 107). However, Bourdieu also noted ‘[cultural] dualization or... resigned submission to exclusion’ (Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies, 1980: 47). Others could cope, but in uncomfortable ways—with a ‘rhetoric of despair’, ‘an illusion of understanding’ (Bourdieu et al., 1994: 15), emulating professorial discourse, producing work that offered ‘manipulation of the finite bunch of semantic atoms, chains of mechanically linked words’ (Bourdieu et al., 1994: 14). Some learned to defend themselves by playing academic games, deploying ‘professorial rhetoric…  false generalities…  echolalia’ to cover misunderstanding (Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies, 1980: 55- 56), or ‘prophylactic relativism’, where nothing is ever true or false and so nothing can be assessed as definitively wrong (Bourdieu et al., 1994:  88-9).  Nevertheless, students and staff worked to maintain the illusions necessary to academic work. These suggest that educational language is ‘natural’, that lectures are about inspiration, and that any unpleasantly discordant or sceptical dialogue is to be avoided. This permits professors and students to address each other as ‘fictive subjects’ (Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies, 1980: 63) apparently sharing universal interests and aptitudes. Both groups denied the importance of hard scholarly work, and saw success arising from ‘gifts’ (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1979: 65).

I am not suggesting that we simply abandon Deleuze and Guattari, tempting as that is. I think we should struggle on with it, just on the off chance there might be something in it. The elite have always excluded us by using absurd allusions and references to their own cultures. If only we could reconstruct this stuff  to make it more rational and less exclusionary.


Given the inaccessibility of Deleuzian work, the first task in putting it to work might be to reconstruct it in a more accessible form. Bourdieu’s work implies that Deleuze’s style is not wilfully obscure but nor is it fully self-sufficient and universal. At the least, Deleuzian texts require a systematic critical reading, one that attempts to extract the rational kernel from the contextual shell.


A briefly-discussed alternative in Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) is to reconstruct elite academic work as a ‘rational pedagogy’. We have little detail, but such pedagogy apparently would not assume universal interests or common cultural capital. This makes it different from other attempts to rationalize pedagogy by recasting argument in a form that is supposed to be universally rational. Bentham tried this in the 1800s, and educational technology at the OU repeated the effort in the 1970s. The problem would be to retain the complexity and openness of academic style and not reduce it to the banalities of, say, bullet points, behavioural objectives, study skill routines, or teaching to the test. It is not just a matter of simplifying and popularizing: Bourdieu (1993: 21) argues that  ‘In order to break with the social philosophy that runs through everyday words and also in order to express things that ordinary language cannot express…the [theorist]...  has to resort to invented words which are thereby protected…from the naďve projection of common sense’.


DeLanda’s commentary comes closest to this rational approach in the case of Deleuzian work, it could be argued. His (2002) work is addressed specifically to scientists and mathematicians, while DeLanda (1991) addresses military historians and DeLanda (2006) sociologists. However, non-specialist readers are still not entirely excluded. DeLanda (2002) attempts a ‘reconstruction of [Deleuze's] philosophy, using entirely different theoretical resources and lines of argument’ (DeLanda, 2002: 4). Inevitably, ‘There is a certain violence which Deleuze’s texts must endure in order to be reconstructed for an audience they were not intended for’ (2002: 8), but there is no alternative, since Deleuze himself often offers only a ‘compressed’ account of these issues, one which ‘assumes so much on the part of the reader, that it is bound to be misinterpreted’ (2002: 5). DeLanda also omits, or places in footnotes, almost all of the elite cultural allusions in the originals, thank heavens.


To give an example of DeLanda’s style, which we hinted at in the earlier section, Deleuzian ontology is identified as the central issue, and, without preliminary delirium, is depicted as positing ‘a relatively undifferentiated and continuous topological space undergoing discontinuous transitions and progressively acquiring detail until it condenses into the measurable and divisible metric space which we inhabit’ (DeLanda, 2002: 56).  The key inhabitant of this space is a multiplicity: ‘a nested set of vector fields related to each other by symmetry–breaking bifurcations, together with the distribution of attractors which define each of its embedded levels’ (2002: 30). The connections between the virtual and the empirical cannot be simply asserted or deduced but must be explained in a particularly rigorous way using ‘concrete empirico–ideal notions, not abstract categories’ (2002: 86). These are concepts in the full Deleuzian sense, themselves multiplicities, conjoining both the virtual and the preconceptual (see Patton, 2006). This permits the normal scientific explorations of actual events to continue, guided by the concept of the virtual as endless possibility, and also employing the usual variety of explanatory models, including mathematical ones. Philosophers can then use new scientific discoveries to speculate further about the nature of the virtual and force a break with the ‘objective illusion’ (DeLanda, 2002: 74) that the actualized is all that exists.


It is particularly relevant for this paper to note that, for DeLanda (2002), there can be no obvious empirical or political commitments in any rigorous ontology attempting to explain how the actual condenses out of the virtual, since that would be risking essentialism. We can't do this since Deleuze has already broken with it as an aspect of conventional thinking, as we saw.


Finally, DeLanda (2006) has done much to put Deleuze to work in a recognizably sociological way. There is no space to explore this work here, but the notion of an assemblage is used to good effect to grasp the complexity of social organization. However, the ontology is acknowledged but then left in the background, and the critique of conventional thinking is present but not foregrounded. The work is valuable as an introduction, however.

To speculate just briefly, it would be very interesting to see educational organizations, or indeed the whole educational system, as an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. This would contrast to the usual approaches which see it as dominated by a single principle -- liberalism, rationalization, capitalism patriarchy or whatever. Single-principle arguments simply miss complexity, tensions and points of change. Unfortunately, Deleuze  himself falls into this trap with his bland generalizations about schools as controlling agencies (in Deleuze 1995 but also online here), and so does Guattari in his populist throwaway view of universities (Guattari and Rolnik 2008: 138--45 ). Conventional  marxists like Bowles and Gintis came much closer with their (eventual) insistence that schools offer both controlling and critical potentials -- where did critical academics come from, after all?  Proper analyses of institutions, such as my own very wonderful piece on the UK Open University, (Harris 1987) which saw it as emerging from a number of different and contradictory trends -- a desire to offer a quick fix to labour shortages, an agreement between Government and teacher unions to make teaching an all-graduate profession, left-wing hopes for a rational pedagogy using the democratic potentials of mass media, right-wing agendas to expand higher education while leaving elite institutions untouched. Incidentally, I drew on 'critical theory' to launch my analysis, looking for inevitable contradictions rather than 'lines of flight' or anything else Deleuzian.

At the same time, the philosophical notion of an assemblage is too abstract and fails to consider  the possibilities that some trends might come to dominate the others, in modern social assemblages at least (the assemblages that make up chemical compounds might be different). Even DeLanda is keen to avoid having to make this step to a qualitative difference for human assemblages because he thinks that will mislead us into reasserting some 'social constructivist' notions of how physical reality is also dependent on human intentions, and judgments  but it is a heavy price to pay and reduces social assemblages to mere forms. Concrete analysis of social  assemblages is the essential next step in my view. In their public intellectual, radical politician role, Deleuzians are keen to try to build counter alliances to change institutions by tweaking the assemblage back to suit them, but how can they do this without thorough sociological analyses of the hierarchical relations and power bases of the strands inside assemblages? It is not enough to list the abstract elements-- we need to understand how they work in an actual hierarchy.

Concluding thoughts

The real problems with getting anyone to apply Deleuze is to help them gain access first. The works are absurdly inaccessible, especially the 'revolutionary' ones (like AntiOedipus and Thousand Plateaus) which by a cruel twist of fate, students are often invited to try first. Not only are these works suffused with all the elitist flourishes Bourdieu cites, they are deliberately infected with an avant-garde experimental style. You have no chance with them unless you can pin down some at least of the allusions (which might require a heavy diet of earlier Deleuze, not to mention Freud and Marx).  Do not be disheartened -- even Deleuzian scholars find them impenetrable and ambiguous: ‘We are still a long way from being able to say what a Deleuzian analysis...might... look like’, says Buchanan (2006: 147), and 'not one of [the dozens of books on Deleuze and Guattari] can tell you how to read a text in a manner that is recognizably Deleuzian’.  Without precision, Deleuze’s conceptual toolbox is useless, Buchanan says.  It is not enough to refuse ‘interpretation’ in the master’s name, and just take what you need,  since Deleuze himself says that we must return to actual problems. A lot of readers of Deleuze want to refuse attempts to find any kind of analytic programme of action, in order to be anarchic [or 'pragmatic'] but Deleuze himself said ‘that he wanted to create a practical, useful form of philosophy'(in Anti Oedipus!!)  .

Tangling with Deleuzians  will require a great deal of time and energy on your part - in other words, you have to see the task as a kind of elite leisure. I myself have been able to get this far only after retiring from work altogether (after having spent some thirty years reading social theory, so I can spot some allusions at least).

Deleuzian stuff is the worst example I have ever seen ( and I have read Adorno and Nietzsche) of this approach, but it does raise a general difficulty, nicely argued in Rancičre (2002). That article is about radical aesthetic theory but it fits any radical theory, including radical marxism or radical feminism. To be really radical you have to break with orthodox ways of thinking. Otherwise you end up just repeating stuff that has gone before -- and much of this has often been domesticated and incorporated into conservative options anyway (as in the usual stories that marxism and feminism are nasty, outdated and far too nerdy, for example). It has got to have some real implications for people's lives or else it will look like just a silly scholastic game played by philosophers. The trouble is that if you develop radical thinking like this, no other poor bastard can understand a word of it, and it becomes a silly and elitist scholastic game again, despite the good intentions of the theorists. Rancičre says all radical theories have faced this problem -- they are either incomprehensible or they become common sense and even journalists bat them about. Incidentally, Žižek (2004) says this latter option is exactly what has happened with Deleuzian terms that have become incorporated into capitalism's view of itself -- 'nomadic subjectivity' is the kind of ruthlessly disengaged selfish orientation that globe-trotting finance capitalists support, the virtual has been hijacked for the notions of 'virtual reality' that we find in electronic games , 'becoming' just means taking on another role, which is good since we all have to be flexible in capitalism.

So what can we do? How to bridge the gap between 'real' radical theory and easy commonsense? Actually, we pedagogues know about this paradox already. It is what we face everyday when we try to teach anything that is not immediately obvious to commonsense. Philosophers could learn a lot from us. Practice needs to be applied to theory! It is what Semetsky (2009) calls the 'learning paradox' whereby learning based closely on personal experience is limited in its capacity to accommodate anything new, while merely presenting a list of radically new concepts invites adverse reactions, including incomprehension and rejection, so that nothing new is learned that way either. Semetsky's solution lies in Deleuze’s triadic approach involving ‘percepts’ concepts, and ‘affects’. These terms are capable of different interpretation, as usual and Semetsky makes sense of them by translating them into familiar Deweyian terms to urge a full consideration of existing perceptions and emotional considerations as we seduce our students into seeing the world differently. I am not sure she is right to do this and I am sure we all have a wealth of experience to contribute to the debate: why doesn't anyone write about applying pedagogy to theory? If Semetsky is right, what a sad end to an exciting 'journey' : all that marvellous French philosophy and we end up with -- good old Dewey all along!


Buchanan, I. (2006).  Practical Deleuzism and Postmodern Space. In M. Fuglsang and B. Meier Sřrensen (Eds.) Deleuze and the Social (pp. 136—50).  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (notes here)

Bourdieu, P. (1986). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (no online notes yet -- I am working on it)

Bourdieu, P. (1993). Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications. (no notes here either)

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Pascalian Meditations. Cambridge: Polity Press. (online notes for this one here)

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J – C. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture,  2nd edition, London: Sage Publications. (notes here)

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J – C., and Saint Martin, M. (1994).  Academic Discourse, Cambridge: Polity. (notes here)

Bowles S and Gintis H (2002 ) 'Schooling In Capitalist America Revisited', in Sociology of Education, Volume 75, 2: 1 - 18 ,  and [online]
(I also have a summary here

De Certeau, M. (1984)  The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: Berkeley. (esp ch 3) (notes here)

DeLanda, M. (1991). War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Swerve Editions. (notes)

DeLanda, M. (2002). Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum. (notes)

DeLanda, M. (2006). A New Philosophy of Society. Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity.  London: Continuum. (notes)

Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press. (notes).

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (1987).  Dialogues. London: The Athlone Press. (notes)

Guattari, F. and Rolnik, S. (2008) Molecular Revolution in Brazil. London: MIT Press.

Harris, D. (1987) Openness and Closure in Distance Education. Barcombe: Falmer Press. (online version here)

Patton, P. (2006).  'Order, Exteriority and Flat Multiplicities in the Social'. In M. Fuglsang and B. Meier Sřrensen (Eds.), Deleuze and the Social (pp. 21—38). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (notes)

Rancičre, J. (2002). The aesthetic revolution and its outcomes: emplotments of autonomy and heteronomy. New Left Review, 14, 133—51. (notes)

Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies in Cultural and Education Studies (Eds.) (1980). Melbourne Working Papers 1980. University of Melbourne. (notes on this actually rather rare volume).

Semetsky, I. (2009). Deleuze as a Philosopher of Education: Affective Knowledge/Effective Learning. The European Legacy, 14 (4), 443-56. doi: 10.1080/10848770902999534 (I have some notes too)

Žižek, S. (2004). Organs Without Bodies. London: Routledge (brief notes only)