by Pietro Siena
“The world is neither true nor real, it is living” — G. Deleuze
Gilles Deleize © Flickr.com
The famous French philosopher Michel Foucault stated, “one day, perhaps, this century will be called Deleuzian.” Foucault’s moving tribute to his friend and fellow French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is a sign of the potential impact that Deleuzian ideas can have in the world today. Some philosophers argue about abstract themes such as Platonic ideals, the existence of God and moral law, but Deleuze focused on the concept of life. To him, being alive is the only inescapable fact, and it demands a mental presence that people today are not disposed to give. But once an individual decides to embrace this, the political effects are well worth the trouble. On the twentieth anniversary of his death, it is useful to reconsider why, according to Foucault, the twentieth century could be referred to as Deleuzian.
To start off in a Deleuzian manner, Gilles Deleuze’s life began on January 18, 1925 in Paris, France. As a philosopher, he was particularly active from the early 1960s until his death in 1995. Although classified as a post-structuralist, an intellectual movement difficult to sum up succinctly in only a few words, his ideas influenced other fields such as psychology, literature and cinema. Starting with his early works on the history of philosophy, Deleuze created his own form of literature which merged the ideas of prominent authors like Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume and Nietzsche. Much like these authors, in order to make sense of universals, Deleuze’s philosophical reasoning flowed from the individual, the singular elements of the world. He was also strongly influenced by the entire intellectual ambient of 1960s France which included Jean Paul-Sartre, Vladimir Jankélévitch and particularly his friend Michel Foucault. His most important texts, the Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), were written in collaboration with psychotherapist and fellow philosopher Fèlix Guattari, but his real philosophical masterpieces were Difference and Repetition (1968) and The Logic of Sense (1969). These are where he builds on the philosophy that Foucault praised so highly.
The leitmotif throughout his philosophy is the concept of life. Life is not simply understood as physical existence, but it also includes the abstract concepts and ideas that are produced by individuals and which shape their understanding of the world. In short, life is the mutual relationship between individuals and their individual concepts or histories. Due to interconnections between different elements, the real essence of life is change. Change is caused by the mutual influences that each actor, or concept, has on others. Metaphorically, life is a stream by which everything is crossed. Because of this constant influence nothing can be defined once and for all. The only way to do so is to stop life, to kill life by positing a superior ideal that suppresses relations into one single predetermined path. By prohibiting change, the consequences of such an idealistic attitude would lead to the end of human evolution because nothing new or unexpected could be born. Progress is nothing more than the result of new interconnections and relationships, but this requires change, which again is at the essence of life.
Another concept that is very strongly related to life is identity. As previously mentioned, Deleuze’s philosophy starts with the individual. But identity is something that cannot be permanently defined. In his view, “the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities.” With this statement Deleuze invites us to see our identity as a process of destruction and reconstruction. Most of all he is trying to explain how an individual’s identity is not decided simply by the individual but is also shaped by the presence of others.
The more one participates in this relational process, the more elements one adds to their identity, their life’s narrative. Deleuze developed a view of political philosophy defined as micro-politics, or the politics of life. Of all the human constructions, politics is the one that is most related to life. Life is essentially interrelation between actors, and politics is the science that studies human relations. The uniqueness of his particular view of politics is that it does not give normative statements. Instead, it warns every single political actor that she is always redefining the identities of herself and others through every individual decision.
There is a darker side to this process, however. In one of his posthumously published works, Two Regimes of Madness, Deleuze demonstrates how the imposition of a superior ideal can be the origin of inhumane behavior. Superior ideals, such as a supposed national identity, often come from rational calculation instead of the flow of life. When individuals become deeply immersed in these ideas, they form regimes like Nazism and Fascism that are unable to see the connections and the relations that truly shape identities and communities.
Nowadays individuals no longer seem to consider themselves political actors. They have left the task of defining their identity to populist policies and extrinsic national identities. The end result is often a sacrifice of the individual in order to protect a dead national identity. This identity is dead because it is defined by the actions and decisions of deceased forbearers instead of relations between the living. The great flow of people from Arab countries to Europe is an opportunity for the entire continent to enrich its identity with new stories. It offers the potential for unpredictable growth. This growth is possible only if each individual is ready to accept this relation and to start living the process of co-definition at the micro level.
Deleuzian philosophy argued that the world is not about finding facts or defining reality, but rather it is about living. His conception of life placed emphasis on being mentally present in order to make individual decisions that are always the cause and result of other people’s decisions. His acknowledgement of the burden that this creates can be summed up as follows: “Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy.” Perhaps his philosophical goal was to sadden or to annoy the masses who serve a pre-established State or Church. That way, individuals within those masses would realize their power to shape their own personal relations, and they would be moved instead to take action through individual decisions that shape the living world.