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Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974)Review - Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974)
by Gilles Deleuze
Semiotext(e), 2003
Review by Alistair Welchman, Ph.D.
May 27th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 21)

Gilles Deleuze was the other postmodernist (poststructuralist) French philosopher -- the one who wasn't Derrida and whose work never quite caught on the same way in the Anglophone world. For most of the time period covered in this book, Deleuze certainly gave the impression of being something less than an enfant terrible. He wrote a number of academic studies on historical philosophers -- interesting, but not obviously revolutionary. And then in quick succession (in 1968 and 1969) he published the traditional European double act of two original books: Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. These were well received in France, but hardly seemed to move with the spirit of the times. They developed, in a decorous Gallic style, a distinctive, and sometimes witty, but still clearly academic philosophical position. Just before they were published, in an encounter reproduced in this collection, Deleuze was invited to speak before that august institution, the French Philosophical Society. In a long exchange, one of the luminaries comments, in a perhaps backhanded compliment, that he detects 'solid thinking' behind Deleuze's 'suggestive and poetic vocabulary'. If Deleuze hadn't written anything else, that would probably have been the verdict on him: an academic insider, at home among the French elite (unlike Derrida -- a Jew born in Algeria), albeit with a slightly temperamental 'artistic' streak. Certainly no one would have been writing scandalized newspaper articles about him, as they did about the structuralists and would later do about Derrida.

All that changed in 1972, with the publication of the first volume of the book (co-written with psychoanalyst Félix Guattari) that would make Deleuze's name -- and break his reputation: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. The book starts:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake every to have said the id.

And goes on for 400 pages, very undecorously attacking Marxists and Freudians while effectively synthesizing Marx and Freud. It was, and remains, the most sustained intellectual expression of, and response to, the events of May 1968 in particular and the emergence of the new social movements across the Western world in the 60s in general. The whole thing was perhaps even more outrageous in France, both because of the intellectual authority of psychoanalysis (there are still a number of university departments of psychoanalysis) and because of the political importance of the French Communist Party.

Since then almost all of Deleuze's works have been translated into English, and the enigma of the relationship between the mad revolutionary anti-psychiatrist and the eccentric esoteric philosopher repeatedly posed. (There are two interpretive grids: either the mad revolutionary is there in embryo in the philosopher; or conversely the revolutionary is just the philosopher using vulgar language).

This collection, originally issued in French in 2002, completes (sometimes with duplication) the publication of Deleuze's occasional pieces up to Anti-Oedipus and for a year or two thereafter. The first two thirds covers 20 years and comprises prefaces, journal articles, and other miscellania; the last third covers two years and comprises mostly interviews about Anti-Oedipus. The book is itself a curious mix of the radical and the staid: Semiotext(e)'s Foreign Agents series prides itself on being in the intellectual vanguard (hence the slightly samizdat san serif house style); but the collection itself is rather conservative, adhering to Deleuze's own surprisingly conventional desire to posthumously control his oeuvre. It excludes anything written before 1953, presents (with one exception) only what had been previously published and catalogued etc. This is a responsible position, but ironic in view of Deleuze's own reputation as a thinker of the unforeseen. The reader should not expect any surprising juvenilia or indiscreet letters.

Who might this book interest? Two groups probably: those who are already familiar with Deleuze's work and are curious about how the new material in this collection might shed light on his main works; and those who understandably put off by the difficulty of his main writings, want some kind of introduction to Deleuze's thinking but prefer to read something by Deleuze himself rather than one of the multiplying hoard of 'What Deleuze means' books. Both audiences will be partly satisfied, the experts largely by the 'pre-Anti-Oedipus' part and the novices mostly by Deleuze's increasing skill as a polemical interviewee in the 'post-Anti-Oedipus' years.

Of course it is never wise to think one has mastered a philosopher without reading some of their philosophy. And Deleuze is an unusually conceptually dense thinker. Nevertheless, the increasingly political turn of Deleuze's thought, particularly in his collaborations with Guattari, does permit him to give a pretty clear account at least of the motives of Anti-Oedipus in the interviews and roundtable discussions from 1972-3 that are translated here.

Deleuze's politics were clearly formed by the events of May '68 -- and by his encounter with Guattari. When push comes to shove, Deleuze thinks, the left betrays the people, just as the French Communist Party and Communist-led trade unions eventually sided with the reactionary President de Gaulle and helped crush the spontaneous protests in 68. His reasoning? The organized left might be consciously attempting to represent the interests of the people, but it is welded at a deeper, unconscious, level to reproducing a distribution of power that is identical in form to that of the state: hierarchical, top-down and in which a minority claims the right to speak for the rest. These unconscious reactionary investments doom the consciously revolutionary project from the start. Such investments also serve to explain the tenacity of reactionary movements (like fascism), which operate not by fooling people into acting against their interests (as in the theory of ideology, which Deleuze cannot vilify enough), but by inducing people positively to love what oppresses them. As Deleuze puts it: 'Hitler and the fascist machine gave people hard-ons' (p. 268).

The reference to the unconscious shows that Deleuze wants somehow to amplify Marx's analyses using psychoanalytic means. But the situation is still worse in psychoanalysis than in Marxism. Classical psychoanalysis thinks the unconscious in exclusively familial terms derived from the Oedipus myth, thus depriving it of any real social or political content. As Deleuze never tires of pointing out however, psychoses are chock-full of such content, all of which is ignored by analysis which treats it as nothing more than a colorful means of expression for the fundamental Oedipal structure.

This implies that psychoanalysis is not just theoretically misplaced but actually constitutes a way of producing reactionary unconscious investments. The family romance promotes hierarchy, the flow of power from top (father) to bottom (child) and the practice of analysis substitutes the analyst's voice for that of the subject -- the analyst is the one who knows what the subject really means: 'Whatever you say, you mean something different' (p. 275). In his preface to a book of Guattari's, Deleuze borrows from Clausewitz and puts the whole problem like this: 'The family is the continuation of the state by other means' (p. 200). On other occasions he invokes Nietzsche in calling psychoanalysts the new priests. Anti-Oedipus.

Naturally the whole thing is vastly more complicated than this, and these off-the-cuff remarks of Deleuze (and Guattari) could lead the reader in any number of directions. They could lead for instance directly to the central positive concept of Anti-Oedipus, desiring-production, which, as a fusion of labor and libido, integrates Marx and Freud rather than trying to reduce one to the other. Or the reader might be taken by Deleuze's hostility to psychoanalytic interpretation into the more radical direction of his refusal of any conception of interpretation ('Words are totally interchangeable' p. 278). But in any event, experiencing Deleuze's increasing facility with his own brand of conceptual agitprop provides a less cluttered entry point to his work than the Deleuze for Idiots type of introduction. Which is why collecting translations of these pieces in one place has definite value.

For the connoisseur, there are also a number of important articles (even if they are mostly already available in English) as well as some eccentric little gems, real occasional pieces. Included are significant pieces on Bergson, Kant, Nietzsche and Hume. But in some ways the occasional pieces are more interesting than the philosophical articles, most of which closely resemble the major published works of which they are the forebears. These occasional pieces lack Deleuze's characteristic conceptual density, but have instead a confessional feel. We learn for instance that Deleuze was a fan of Sartre's (although on second reading it's clear that Deleuze's enthusiasm is not for Sartre the philosopher; Derrida has made similar comments). We also learn that he likes pulp crime fiction (why not?). Typically Deleuzian is the form of argument in which an illuminating distinction between Cartesian and Hobbsian varieties of classical detective fiction serves only to introduce a more significant point -- that both have been supplanted in modern detective fiction, which is no longer epistemological at all, but rather a tragedy of errors resulting from a recognition of the class realities of crime. That is, the police detective is drawn from the same milieu as the petty criminal and the pretence of genteel disinterested can no longer be sustained. Lest this sound vulgar, Deleuze immediately dignifies its quid pro quo with a comparison to Orestes.

Among the academic pieces that are worth collecting are Deleuze's two commissions for François Châtelet's multi-volume history of philosophy (he wrote on Hume and on structuralism). Although the Hume entry follows his own earlier book on Hume quite closely, it does have enough charm to argue that this stolid mainstay of undergraduate philosophy syllabuses replaces the idea of error with that of delirium: 'We're not threatened by error. It's much worse: we're swimming in delirium' (p. 165).

The structuralism essay, although in fact already available in English, is a real tour de force in which Deleuze's own (post-structuralist) philosophy of spatio-temporal dynamisms is mapped point for point onto the canonical structuralist thinkers (Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Lacan) in a completely unexpected but disturbingly satisfying way. Also significant is a very early review on Hegel (strictly it's on Hyppolite, a teacher of Deleuze's and the leading French exponent of Hegel after Kojève). This is important since it modulates his apparently very hostile approach to Hegelianism (he describes Hegel as a 'traitor' to life in an early interview in this collection, p. 144). It provides some support for the now very influential Hegelian reading of Deleuze given by Michael Hardt, now of Empire and Multitude fame.

But anyone who is interested in the light this book sheds on Deleuze's major philosophical (and other) works, beware! The critical apparatus is extremely patchy and the translation sloppy and unreliable, especially on philosophical issues. I counted sixteen translation worries in 25 pages, after which I lost count. In the title of the Sartre essay for instance, it is unforgivable to render maître as 'teacher.' And in the Hegel review, Hyppolite doesn't investigate 'Logic and Phenomenology' but the Logic and the Phenomenology (two of Hegel's most famous books). The most frequent mistake, which isn't serious but is annoying, is to leave words in their French forms: 'Zarathoustra' instead of Zarathustra, 'Wurtzbourg' for Würzburg. But this shades over into the genuinely misleading when it concerns technical terms: I was surprised to read about the Kantian 'suprasensible' until I realized it was the supersensible. It also took me a second or two to realize that the 'obscure precursor' was in fact the same as the dark precursor in Paul Patton's English translation of Difference and Repetition and that Zarathustra's mule isn't a new addition to his bestiary, but his good old ass by another name. Eventually however I warmed to this tactic and was left feeling that Deleuze actually should have written about the 'seduction of esthetic judgment' (p. 66) rather than Kant's plain old deduction! Nevertheless, this is only one symptom of a quite general refusal to pay any attention to the existing English translations either of Deleuze or anything Deleuze refers to. This refusal goes to the absurd length of referring to books originally written in English only in the French translations that Deleuze uses as well as translating the French translation of e.g. Kant's German into English rather than consulting the existing translations. The result in that case is so mangled it's essentially impossible to trace Deleuze's quotations without having the French originals in front of you.

Those using this text as an introduction to Deleuze won't be so bothered by these problems; but they will find the notes at best a missed opportunity, and at worst, positively misleading. Confédération générale de travailleurs cannot be translated either by 'French Trade Union' (p. 210) or by 'Communist Workers' Union' (p. 265). But it should certainly be rendered consistently and could stand some explanation for the reader not acquainted with the intellectual and political scene in France in the 60s.

An honorable exception should be made for the translators of the structuralism essay (Charles Stivale and Melissa McMahon) who do an excellent job rendering Deleuze's prose and maintain a vocabulary consistent with existing translations of the many authors Deleuze discusses as well as provides a compendious set of notes referencing not just the English translations of the works he mentions, but also internal references to the sections of his own works where he further develops the ideas that appear in the essay. If only the rest of the translation and editorial work had been half so good.

Despite these drawbacks -- the conservatism of the textual choice, the duplication of material already available in English and the amateurish translation and critical apparatus -- this collection is however genuinely worthwhile for the pragmatic sense it gives of Deleuze as an engaged thinker, responding to a wide variety of provocations in French intellectual life, thinking not just about philosophy, politics and psychiatry, but also about gay life in France, about art, about the prison system, about feminism, about pulp fiction. In one of his very few comments on Derrida, Deleuze remarks: 'I don't do textual commentary. For me a text is nothing but a cog in a larger extra-textual practice' (p. 260). Perhaps one should ask why it is that Derrida has been received so much more enthusiastically than Deleuze in the Anglophone world -- and whether that might change sometime soon, perhaps even partly as a result of this book.


© 2005 Alistair Welchman


Alistair Welchman has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Warwick, and is teaching philosophy part-time at the University of Greenwich in London.


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