First read your Proust…

Dave Harris

I have always criticized both Deleuze and Guattari for writing in an elitist and  allusive style, spattered with all sorts of references, often implicit, to workers that they assume their readers have already encountered.  Bourdieu says that this was the characteristic academic style in 1960s and 1970s France, and, of course, it helped both solidify the elite and to exclude those who were not familiar with the 'cultural treasury' that was being drawn upon.

I have argued that one response of the excluded is to desperately try to find some personal meaning in the dense material.  This is legitimated by some remarks of Deleuze and  Guattari that saying they're interested not in what their works mean but how they might work to provoke thought: the concepts and arguments become mere tools and a toolbox.  Deleuze himself takes a rather dismissive line on critics for example, saying there is no point in discussing work with them, since they would only repeat their own views, that they are often inspired by resentment, and that they should simply go off and read something else.  Guattari makes the same sort of point, and is rightly rebuked by his interviewer, Stivali, for this apparent indifference which would, if we took it seriously, mean that Deleuze and Guattari would be quite happy with fascist readings of their work.  There is also the fashion to treat their work as poetry, which again permits all sorts of interpretations, and, above all, avoids the massive effort of trying to understand what the fark they really mean.  Reading is seen as an encounter between a subjective person and something called 'the text itself', with an intention to unfold all sorts of poetic meanings from phrases such as 'the four-eyed machine' to take one of my own examples.

Reading some of Guattari's own work, written before Deleuze got hold of it and 'collaborated' by transforming it into proper philosophy, provides a number of clues as to what the authors themselves might have meant by some of their phrases, or what they might actually be referring to.  Guattari's Machinic Unconscious explains his understanding of the 'four-eyed machine', for example, which someone else used to describe the reliance on personal face to face meetings to do psychoanalysis in British practice.  That book also says that many of the implicit meanings in the discussions on faciality or the ritornello, which occupy a whole section in Thousand Plateaus make more sense if we read Proust's 12 volume novel In Search of Times Past (my notes on it here)   His discussion of Proust goes on to explain that we can also find demonstrations of what the pair mean by various additional terms such as 'semiotic black holes', or 'becoming woman', as well as demonstrating examples of some of the major terms such as multiplicity, a singularity, and rhizome.  I am sure that there are 'extra' meanings in the philosophical discussion itself, but it does seem plausible that Proust's novel offers a kind of common sense understanding of many of the vexed and problematic terms in Deleuze and Guattari.  The same, incidentally, follows, when you read some of the entries that Deleuze makes on other philosophers in more detail: multiplicity makes more sense once you have read the book on Bergson; terms like 'affect', 'body', or 'longitude and latitude' make more sense after reading the [short-term, easier] book on Spinoza; terms like 'singularity', and the general importance of the term 'fold'make much more sense having worked hard to get through the book on Leibniz. 

Just to pick up a few of the terms which Guattari says are exemplified in Proust:

The 'semiotic black hole' appears in Machinic Unconscious as a kind of semiotic excess induced by realizing all the possibilities for meaning implied by semiotics systems, including 'asignifying' ones.  Once we become aware of these excessive possibilities, they can be unmanageable, we can experience a kind of semiotic collapse, an inability to make sense in the same old ways as before.  When I read this first, I thought of Durkheim and the anomie induced by increased moral density: so many alternative ways of behaving become apparent, that it is difficult to know just what to do.  But Guattari's commentary on Proust uses the term to describe what is going on in the course of an intensive love affair between Swann and Odette (volumes one and two).  Swann finds himself increasingly obsessed with Odette, not really liking her, but realizing that he cannot live without her.  He gets appalling fits of jealously.  He develops pathetic forms of behaviour to try to bump into her 'by accident'.  He undergoes massive mood swings, declaring himself over her one minute, and then obsessively thinking about her the next.  His normal life and his normal ways of thinking collapse into a semiotic black hole.  Luckily, he manages to get out of it by discovering a new semiotic potential in music: briefly, he and Odette had a special musical phrase, and Swann is able to put it in the context of a wider musical work, and begin to understand rationally how it produces effects.  This helps him, in turn, put the affair with Odette in context, and come to terms with his feelings.

The term 'faciality' seems to be quite significant because it is mentioned a lot in its own section in Thousand Plateaus .  We can gather from the rather dense and allusive discussion there that we can understand human faces as a semiotic system, in particular seeing the face is the white screen, and the eyes as black holes (which may or may not invoke the astronomical meanings as in the discussion above).  And later, noses get a look in as well.  This might just be a way of saying that body language is important in communication, that we tend to pay particular attention to the face is to try to understand people, and this is where the reference to the four-eyed machine appears (we even get a silly sketch of one and some other configurations of faces: they are having a laugh).  However, when discussing Proust, faciality as a semiotic system becomes much more understandable, and Guattari sets out the stages systematically ( 307f) .  Proust is also interested in faces and so are his characters, and there are lots of descriptions of faces, but in a rather odd way - as components, separate eyes or noses, or in one case faces with monocles.  Swann, and the narrator himself, are splitting up faces into components - deterritorializing the components in Deleuzian language.  This helps them insert various facial characteristics into different forms of signification.  Odette's eyes remind Swann of the eyes in a portrait by Botticelli, and this helps his project of adding all sorts of aesthetic values to her. He needs to do this both because she is actually a courtesan, and because all the male characters in the novel find it necessary to add all sorts of romantic meanings to love affairs, including getting the setting and the atmosphere right, having the right sort of music in the background, trying to recall past romantic gazes and the like.  The closet gays like  particular features of the young men they fancy, like a cute nose on a footman. The components of faces have quite varied effects on our narrator - he loves the profile of Albertine, but is put off by her nose.  He likes young girls, both Albertine and her friends, and working class girls he sees in the street, because their faces are less definitely formed, and so he can vary them in his imagination.  Close examination of the girl's faces usually needs to disappointment, however.  Here, Proust might be making a philosophical point that actual facial components are a combination of singular and ordinary points, and that they can be seen as actualizations of a kind of virtual machine of faciality: that is what Guattari is suggesting.

Guattari also notes the importance of the 'ritornello' or musical refrain, the concept also developed in the section on faciality in Thousand Plateaus.  In Negotiations, both Deleuze and Guattari say that the ritornello, is one of the main concepts are they were interested in developing in the book, partly to show the important semiotic capacity of music with its combination of perspectives and affects.  In Proust, a particular 'little phrase' of music recurs. 
Music occurs throughout at crucial stages,and Guattari lists them all, showing how the semiotic possibilities increase all the time with the narrator but are blocked off prematurely by Swann. We have already noticed its appearance as the special tune associated with Swann and Odette, and how Swann is finally able to analyse its effects in order to regain his bearings in the affair.  This happens when the particular little phrase is put in the context of a whole sonata.  The composer is a certain Venteuil, and he recurs now and then as well, sometimes pretty indirectly, as when the narrator realizes that his daughter is in a lesbian relationship, and that Albertine was also an early 'friend'(he is insanely jealous of lesbians, as we shall see) .  The little phrase emerges in volume 10, where our hero attends a concept performing a new recently discovered piece by Venteuil, a septet.  At first, it is mysterious, but then he hears the familiar little phrase.  Here we see the full context, and our hero experiences the full semiotic power of music, to interrelate elements, and also to allude to whole sublime worlds.  He realises that his own love affairs have been simply versions of a greater love, that music fits into the romantic gaze on landscapes and memory.  He will turn to music to resemiotize after the hell of the episodes of Albertine's leaving him and her death. The Deleuzian virtual is being alluded to, perhaps,or in Guattarian terms 'the machinic'. As with Swann's escape from the black hole, a musical phrase contains machinic potentials,enabling other possible singularizations and actualizations, not least because it helps us connect transversally with other semiotic systems,including all the other stuff the narrator bangs on about. This is how revolutionary political semiotization is supposed to work too as we go beyond back into the machinic to get a persepctive on what exists now.

Guattari insists that the theme of the whole novel is Proust 'becoming - woman'.  This particular phrase and process, again had developed most in Thousand Plateaus, has been much taken up by feminist writers, as we might expect.  Becoming woman is the first step on the path to realizing that the whole world is a process of becoming, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, and once we have experienced it, we are in a better position to develop still more radical be Cummings—becoming - animal, for example, and ultimately, in a glorious merger with the world, becoming - imperceptible.  For some feminists, this is a final recognition that the straightforward concept of masculinity is very rigid and constraining, operating with ludicrous binaries instead of exploring the open possibilities that characterise woman.  Others have suggested that there is a political problem, in that becoming woman is only seen as a first stage.  At its most critical, Jardine has said that the whole notion is connected to an attempt to develop a male conception of the feminine as something that can be used to explain excess, and those things that escape modernity.  Rather comically, Guattari was unaware of any of this controversy when interviewed by Stivali, and even seems to have been mildly hurt.

If Guattari is right, Proust's novel will give us a rather precious example of what was actually meant.  We can certainly see in the novel a number of doubts and criticisms attached to conventional notions of masculinity and heterosexuality, and plentiful demonstrations of the absurdities of male emotions -- pride, resentment, posturing, faked coolness, obsession, denial, attempts at manipulation (all of them easily detected and rebuffed by the far more mature women) .  The narrator is undoubtedly rather a 'sensitive' male, prone to romantic gazes, and he does form homoerotic relationships with other men.  Some are the most remarkable passages in the novel discuss actual male homosexuality: the gay scene in Paris in the early 20th century seem to have been particularly flexible, with men able to hold down conventional heterosexual marriages, even taking other women as mistresses, while pursuing other men, often across class boundaries, and often for one night stands.  The most macho ones appear to have been interested in exploring feminine positions (!).  They talk and act in a very camp way.  The narrator sees them everywhere.  Women also collude with this gay subculture in a flexible way -some women are prepared to act as men in the relationship.  Flexibility sometimes seems to be driven by commercialism: Morel who is in a gay relationship with De Charlus, also wants to get married, to the niece of another person in a gay relationship, but one of his motives is to get her to procure some of her girlfriends for him, and then assist him in prostituting them to some lesbian aristocrats.  Some straight people tease the gay ones with double entendres: Mme Verdurin calls De Charlus 'tapette' which means both 'chatterbox'and 'nancy'; he reacts badly when only hearing part of the conversation about people with 'special interests'.

Proust talks about male homosexuality in a rather forgiving way, arguing that it was once widely accepted, say in Ancient Greek society, and saying that it is unfortunate that these widespread and normal tendencies can only be developed a clandestine way, by 'inverts'.  He also takes the mickey, but only by pointing out the embarrassments that are caused by double entendres and so on as above.  However, he is much less forgiving about female homosexuality, indeed positively hostile.  Again he sees it as widespread, he notices it going on in a paranoid way. Mlle Venteuil and her friend are at it in the hotel at Balbec, Lea, a well known actress, is of the 'gomorrhan' tendency, Odette is suspected of engaging in lesbian quickies in the park.  Above all, Albertine is suspect, and virtually admits that she has had lesbian encounters or would want some.  The narrator's response is dreadful - he decides he is going to police her activities extremely carefully, have her chaperoned and spied upon, dictate where she can go and where she can't, forbid her to go to places where she is likely to meet other lesbians.  Above all, she is to be held 'captive' in a live-in relationship, (he even considers marriage), so he can strictly police her activities, although he is still riddled with jealousy and paranoia that the thought that she might still harbour lesbian tendencies.  It dawns on him that a lot of bourgeois marriages are forms of captivity of this kind, but he sees no alternative. 

There seems to be no tolerance of multiple identities or nomadic subjectivities here - a rather serious limit to becoming-woman after all, I would have thought, unless you can see in this an implicit criticism that lesbian relationships are as restrictive as heterosexual ones? The narrator does finally give gay and lesbina relationships some credit as essential to creativity -- De C loves Morel and sponsors him to put on the full perfomance of Venteuil. and the narrator learns that his daughter's lesbian friend has been the hero who transcribed all the notebooks and pieces of work after Venteuil's death to assemble the Septet

There is some genuine admiration for the freedom, liberty and creativity of a band of young women which he sees on the promenade at Balbec—the 'little band' cited by Guattari.  They seem carefree, liberated, able to have fun, not caring at all what the more respectable people think about them.  They're even playful in confronting his own feeble attempts to isolate one of them.  He does end by prising Albertine away, but some of the other girls remain as delightful companions.  Again, though, I think he admires this feminine multiplicity as long as he can keep them in imagination only, and not have to deal with them as real people.

Deleuze's book on Proust is actually one of the clearest and most transparent pieces he has produced, although it helps if you've read Proust first.  He uses Proust to introduce some important philosophical concepts that are going to be developed subsequently, especially difference and repetition.  The importance of difference is discussed in Proust in a nice concrete way.  We have to try and understand what is going on in the social relations that we encounter, and the way in which we do this is by thinking of other occasions in memory.  However, we don't just search for things in the past that resemble the things in the present, but do something rather more ambitious, trying to think of the connections between things that do not immediately appear obvious.  Why should the taste of the biscuit remind us of a childhood in a particular town?  The challenge is to uncover what it is that connects them.  To refer to the more prolonged discussions, successive women we are in love with obviously resemble each other in certain respects, but are different in others.  What can we learn if we do not just see them as identical, but try to establish the connection between their differences and their repetitions?  Only when we have grasped both do we get to some essential understanding of women and love. Deleuze is of course going to develop this convincing argument into a whole subsequent discussion of difference and repetition, and in particular into his insistence that difference is primary, something that actually constitutes a series of repetitions in slightly different forms.  He goes on to explain that it is intensive differences that cause extensive ones, and lots of other things. [Having said that, Deleuze also discusses the weird assertion by Proust that sexual difference actually emerges from an original hermaphroditism. Deleuze uses this tactically to suggest that empirical sexual differences are not primary. I suppose we could see that as the original 'complication' in the virtual? ]

We also find a justification for a particular kind of inquiry in Proust, one which is not just empirical.  It is no good looking at the surface similarities (mere 'worldly signs') which produce groups of events people or phenomena.  At the most we're going to get some simple empirical generalizations, which will still be unclear, since worldly signs have not been distinguished from their essences.  Non empirical generalizations might be more important in helping us understand what is going on, as when Proust reclassifies some of the members of a particular aristocratic family in terms of their cultural interests.  He also says that they display many of the features of the petty bourgeoisie, so it is that that they really belong.  This is a matter of identifying not empirical laws but essences.  In general it's far more important to investigate not groups but series in order to understand what it is that is producing similarity.  Serial events themselves have to be grasped in their full complexity and contingency - Proust hero knows that things might well have been otherwise had he met different women.

This is the clearest argument I have yet encountered for Deleuze's rejection of empirical sciences and social sciences, and his claim that they are interesting, but do not actually produce concepts in the sense which he means (as a kind of attempts to characterize essences or the virtual).  It is not too difficult also to identify here a different notion of cause, not a series of empirical events linked in a sequence over time, but something resembling more the philosophical notion of 'sufficient reason', discussed best in the book on Leibniz (Leibniz is mentioned specifically once or twice in the commentary on Proust).  Again, something nonempirical is appearing in the empirical, as a form of actualization. The theme is taken on in discussions of Platonic essences ( also criticized at length in Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense). We also find the empirical/actual described in terms of disjunctive syntheses,providing a nice example which will help anyone struggling with the baffling sections on syntheses in AntiOedipus.

The issues are revealed in the discussion of Proust's hero's own attempt to decipher what is going on.  At first he is inclined to see matters in an 'objectivist' manner, as a series of impacts of events on his perceptions, as in the feeling of being overwhelmed by love.  Later, he tries out a more 'subjectivist' approach, seeing the role of his own consciousness as a matter of connecting up the different perceptions, with the apparent externalities of events residing in some transcendental subjectivity, something which exceeds his own personal subjectivity, but which is still subjective.  My commentary said that I thought Proust had got rather close to Husserl here, and noted an explicit reference to Bergson.  Deleuze is more careful with the latter, but his overall intent is to say that neither objectivism nor subjectivism offers the right sort of approach.  Instead, we need to combine our creative resources.  Things like memory and 'intelligence', are useful to sort out objectivist dimensions, while creativity and sensibility guide us towards the subjective.  What really helps us disentangle the meaning of signs is a judicious combination of intelligence and sensibility.

The discussion on Proust as an apprentice in deciphering signs also produces a discussion of processes that are to receive a great deal of attention in later work.  Deleuze talks about the need to 'dematerialize' signs, to extract them from their specific context in order to materialize them in a more general account, and this clearly foreshadows the famous notion of 'deterritorialization' which is to come.  It's worth saying the whole discussion of signs avoids any kind of structural linguistics, possibly indicating that the reservation about this approach had already emerged before the more extensive critique of it in, say, AntiOedipus.

We find a discussion of transversal communication and resonance, and both will play a major role in Diff and Rep to explain connections between components ( eg singularities) which are not empirical or extensive. Bogue says Deleuze first met the idea of transversality in Proust,although it was deepened on meeting Guattari and his attempt to find a way of communicating between the closed worlds of psychotics in La Borde (Chaosmosis describes the process in some detail -- sudden opportunities appear to connect with the otherwise remote worlds of cooking or literature etc). Resonance seems initially to describe a process of establishing partial connections in memory. Both terms also have a precise meaning in mathematics too -- DeLanda talks of resonance as a familiar electromagnetic phenomena.

Towards the end of Deleuze's book we find even more explicit language about the machinic nature of Proust's text. This is used to deny simple subjectiviity. Proust is not the author in charge of all the effects of the text (which would deny my realistr reading below), sice effects nnd insights emerge as the writes and works his way through. Effects on we readers are not just simple subjective ones either , like flashes of recognition. It is rather that we see the machine beneath the specific text and that offers the possibilities of explaining our personal meanings too. The machine here means what it does in DeLanda on war machines .He talks of a machinic phylum, meaning the (mathematical) model of a system (of explosives and engineering to direct them) that produces specific variants ( say of artillery) over time. The machinic directs us to the (virtual) whole underlying ( and in a philosophical way producing as explication)  the singularities.

This is the notion underlying the discussion of essences as well. These are not simple unities as in classical philosophy, but multiplicities. The discussion anticipates later stuff on planes of consistency because it is the writing itself  that produces and then follows the search through signs to viewpoints or sessences then to multiplicites as combinations of essences.

Finally, right at the end, the body without organs appears -- for the first time? It really isn't that mysterious here. Proust's hero kisses Albertine for the first time and finds himself unable to explain the overwhelming impressions he receives,nor to locate them in any specific organ. He means sense organs and is too polite to mention the obvious organ. Deleuze generalizes from this sentence or two to say narrators never have full organs. I think this is simply him puzzling out the role of the narrator in realism, the disembodied (geddit) off-page voice, the one who talks about emotions while never feeling any.  The strange nature of a narrator who can express his (usually) own views and expound them on behalf of one of the characters, usually the hero, is discussed much more clearly when Deleuze discovers 'indirect free discourse', in my view.  It all gets bound up with a strange metaphor about spiders, who apparently have no sense organs (only in literature -- correct when it comes to actual ears I suppose), live surrounded by webs and respond to signs with some mute intensity which prompts action. The spider and the web constitute a machine, and the characters in the novel are 'marionettes'  animated only by the sticky threads. The schizophrenia of the story thus constitutes the specific qualities, even the psychoses of the characters.  Usual problem -- helpful or bullshit?

Those are some of the concepts mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari.  However, it is also worth mentioning some of the themes in Proust which do not seem to have been noticed or commented upon.  For me, most of the novel really is about the practices of social distanciation, as Bourdieu would have called it, as various fractions of the bourgeoisie patrol the boundaries they have drawn around themselves in order to claim distinction, and exclude others.  The endless scenes of lengthy conversations and interactions at various salons and soirees are all about this, and these take up the major part of the narrative, as Proust introduces us to this anxious and insecure world.  Bourdieu actually refers to Proust as the ethnographer of salon life. People go to the theatre, but only so that they can see and be seen.  The traditional aristocracy are constantly at war with what might be seen as the cultural fraction, trying to cash in their cultural capital by sponsoring artists, writers, academics and musicians.  Even the traditional aristocracy are split between those who received their titles before Napoleon, and those who received them as a result of service with Napoleon.  Each group rationalizes its position in different ways, so that the cultural bourgeoisie claim to be embracing bohemian and avant-garde values, and can even support Dreyfus.  The traditional aristocracy spend their time sneering at the poor taste and upstart pretensions of the bohemians.  Distanciation is described in considerable detail, as 'innocent' exchanges turn out to have the ability to rationalize social boundaries - my favourite example turns on the traditional aristocrats who feel so secure in their superiority that they can pretend to be democratic, and show themselves far more at ease with the servants, or pretend they don't really like the others having to curtsy to them.  Proust gets quite acid here and says that some evil fairy must be responsible for encouraging these democratic people to insist their servants continue to address them in a formal way, or make sure that they marry only social equals, and that the various duchesses only really protest about curtsies and deferential behaviour, after it has taken place: they graciously raise people from a curtsey.  Husbands and wives engage in little pantomimes so they can reveal their wonderful wit and charm.  Tremendous backbiting and mutual contempt goes on behind the scenes - the Cambremers have rented one of their holiday homes to the Verdurins, and it is in both their interests to dine together to consolidate the contractual relation even though they despise each other's tastes.  Those aristocrats who have fallen on hard times pretend that they have an aversion to society, but really, it is the other way about.  It is as penetrating and detailed as Goffman, and an essential prelude to understanding Bourdieu on social distinction.

Our narrator is in a very good position to observe all this.  Indeed, he is a privileged observer, an omniscient narrator, and so the explorations are framed around a classic realist narrative, with its centred subject, not a nomadic one, and its dominant view of reality which is to be revealed to the reader by he curious figure of the narrator(s)/hero  Proust even addresses the reader now and then, to apologize for lengthy asides.  Some of those asides are quite pedagogic. There is therefore a conventional conservative reading available to normal readers who have not done philosophy.  I think much of what Deleuze writes about the 'ascending' process of grasping more and more general and essential meaning can be understood more specifically as a series of nested narratives with its own sense of time leading to realism. As with Deleuze's books on the cinema, there seems to be no awareness of this particular analysis of realism as ideology,  nor any particular understanding of multiple readings and multiple readers.  This raises the usual claims about what makes Deleuze's or Guattari's readings privileged in any way.  Of course, they are very detailed and plausible, but it is by no means clear that all this will lead to Art or philosophy  -- complacent self-congratulation at having the 'reality' of one's views confirmed about treacherous women or promiscuous male homosexuals seem just as likely.  Nor should we be fooled by the apparently surprising and emergent nature of the discussion as the text unfolds -- it is not an effect of the text as machine, as Deleuze supposes, but a well-known realist device to deny authorship and assert complexity (the 'taken by surprise' shot in docudrama, or that developed best in ethnographic writing in social science too).

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