Deleuzian Politics? A Survey and Some Suggestions

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Gilles Deleuze famously described his work with Felix Guattari as 'political philosophy'. (1) And yet, the first and most explicitly revolutionary volume of their jointly-authored ouevre also insists that 'no political programme will be elaborated within the framework of schizoanalysis'. (2) From the outset, then, even the most apparently 'political' element of Deleuze's work contains an apparent ambiguity: is this is a political project or not? Could there be a 'Deleuzian politics' at all?

Any thorough engagement with the totality of Deleuze's work is only likely to leave the inquirer more perplexed than ever as to how to answer this question, as both political and dramatically anti-political gestures proliferate throughout that work from beginning to end. (3) At least two major studies of Deleuze's work--one in English, the other in French--have, within the past five years, concluded that the answer to these questions is simply 'no': Deleuze is a mystic, a nostalgist for elitist modes of avant-gardism which have no purchase on the present, at best an implicit conservative whose romanticism leaves no scope for rational calculation or collective action. (4)

If they are to remain credible, it is important that such studies refrain from placing simplistic and inappropriate demands on any given philosophical system. After all, why should such a system generate a singular and determinate 'politics'? Even Marx and Engels' work did not do so, as is attested by the disparate range of political theories to which their historical, philosophical, social and economic analyses gave rise, from Lenin to Bernstein to Luxemburg to Gramsci to Mao and beyond. So another way of posing the question of 'Deleuzian politics' might be to ask whether there is any form of political action or expression which could not find some justification in the broad metaphysical and analytical framework elaborated by Deleuze (with and without Guattari). Does this 'system' set any limits at all to its possible forms of political expression? Part of the value of the studies by Peter Hallward and Phillipe Mengue is that they try to address this question, although their conclusions are different and in both cases contentious. For Mengue, Deleuze's anti-populist distaste for democracy, debate and the free play of opinions proves an irreducible obstacle to the realisation of the radical/liberal democratic position that he sees as the only logical implication of Deleuze's most fundamental ethical and aesthetic priorities: (5) so Deleuze cannot embrace democracy, with its pluralistic production of what Mengue calls 'the doxic plane of immanence' (6)--the domain of the endless creation, contestation, emergence and dissipation of opinion--even though his philosophical points of reference ought to lead him towards a radical liberal embrace of just this phenomenon. For Hallward, Deleuze's emphasis on the value of the singular and the virtual--of becoming and 'creatings' over being and 'creatures'--ultimately forecloses the possibility of any thought of relationality, and as such of any thought of politics at all. (7) From this perspective, what is excluded from Deleuze's system is the possibility of any determinate political decision whatsoever. (8)

However, despite the persuasiveness and scholarship which characterises both of these books, they do both tend to deploy a rather narrow understanding of what 'Deleuzian politics' might mean in order to criticise this hypothetical entity. In addressing themselves to Deleuze's work rather as if it could be expected to deliver up a coherent system of values, consequent aims, and appropriate strategies--and in emphasising the distinctive normative preferences expressed in Deleuze's writing--they both tend to downplay the aspect of Deleuze's thought which has most excited those commentators who have seen in it a rich source of analytical concepts for twenty-first century political theory. …


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