PRINT March 1996


Gilles Deleuze


THE SUICIDE OF PHILOSOPHER Gilles Deleuze at the beginning of November, after he had spent many years suffering from a terrible respiratory illness, was a gesture that struck many in France dumb. Deleuze’s thought, however resistant to summary, was above all an affirmation of the life force, of the will to life: “One’s always writing,” as he put it in Pourparlers (1990 [Negotiations, 1995]), “to bring something to life, to free life from where it’s trapped.” While there is something tragically unbearable about the willful death of a philosopher who always, in the final instance, exalted and summoned the forces of life, it would be a mistake to see a contradiction between Deleuze’s philosophy and his final, parting gesture.

One should not forget that for Deleuze life was in fact synonymous with weakness and fragility. “In life,” he declared in Dialogues (1977 [Dialogues, 1987]), “there is a sort of awkwardness, a delicacy of health, a frailty of constitution, a vital stammering which is someone’s charm.” It is perhaps in this same fragility, this “frailty” and “stammering,” that the possibility of innovation, invention, and creation is anchored. In Dialogues, he stated: “It is strange how great thinkers have a fragile personal life, an uncertain health, at the same time as they carry life to the state of absolute power or of ‘Great Health.’” The fragile health that pushed Deleuze to suicide was no doubt the very force that allowed him to produce a body of work whose importance we have only begun to gauge.


One must think of Deleuze in the plural. “There are always several selves in each of us,” he repeatedly maintained. “It is never the same person who writes.” The creator is a “shadow,” the shadow of all those different selves that emerge like so many echoes of the encounters, emotions, and affects experienced by the artist, writer, or philosopher. But above all one must speak of “Deleuzes” simply because Deleuze never stopped changing and transforming himself, trying to escape definitions, categories, and what he described as “territories”—that is, in the end, agencies of power. In the early part of his career, in the ’50s and ’60s, he was a rather traditional historian of philosophy (he liked to say he belonged to “the last generation . . . more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy”). But he had already chosen to work on authors like Hume, Lucretius, Spinoza, and Henri Bergson, figures who, although belonging to the history of philosophy, actually “escaped” it in various ways. In addition to his important 1966 reevaluation of Bergson (Le Bergsonisme [Bergsonism, 1988]), several noteworthy works were produced during this period: his 1953 book on Hume (Empirisme et subjectivité [Empiricism and Subjectivity, 1991]), a shorter 1963 work on Kant (La philosophie critique de Kant [Kant’s Critical Philosophy, 1984]), a 1968 study of Spinoza (Spinoza et le problème de l’expression [Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, 1990]). Above all, though, his philosophical target was Nietzsche. Nietzsche et la philosophie (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 1983), published in 1962, was to have enormous importance and influence among French thinkers over the next few years, as many of them attempted, under the sign of Nietzsche, to renew the work of thought, keeping their distance from the dogmatic and rigid Marxism that, along with Sartrean existentialism, had come to dominate the French intellectual scene. It was around the same time that Deleuze became friendly with Michel Foucault, who, a year earlier, had published his Madness and Civilization, a work written, as Foucault put it in his preface to the original French edition, “in the sun of the great Nietzschean [re]search.” We later came to realize the importance this friendship, and the intellectual exchange indissociable from it, was to have for the two philosophers.


As was the case for so many others (including Foucault), the events of May 1968 brought about a deep rupture in Deleuze’s life and work. He felt the need to move away from academic philosophy and the traditional history of philosophy in order to produce his own philosophy, to create his own concepts, and, ultimately, to invent his own thought. Meeting Felix Guattari was decisive. Together, they were to collaborate on a series of books—the hugely successful Capitalisme et schizophrénie (Anti-Oedipus, 1977) in 1972, Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 1986) in 1975, Mille plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987) in 1980, and Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (What is Philosophy?, 1994) in 1991, published not long before Guattari’s death in 1992—the impact of which was to prove momentous. Of course, it is quite difficult to reconstruct the strange alchemy of writing done in duet. The question is often asked, Which part belongs to whom in the books signed Deleuze and Guattari? But this is surely the wrong question. The pair spent many hours in dialogue and discussion, throwing ideas and concepts back and forth; each would then do something with what the other had said. Only then would the real work of writing begin.

During the period of their collaboration, the two wrote alone as well (Deleuze’s two influential volumes on cinema, L’image-mouvement and L’image-temps, came out in 1983 and 1985 [Cinema 1, 1986; Cinema 2, 1989], and his Foucault was published in 1986 [1988]). But it was the books cosigned by Deleuze and Guattari that catapulted the two authors, little known at the time beyond a narrow circle of specialists, to the center of the intellectual stage in France and beyond. This was especially true, of course, of Anti-Oedipus, which hit France like a bomb in 1972, at a time when psychoanalytic discourse had achieved a position of great prominence in Parisian intellectual life and Freudo-Marxism seemed the only possible instrument of liberation available to the various movements on the radical left. It is difficult today to convey the liberatory shock wave produced by Anti-Oedipus—which sold extraordinarily well for such a difficult book—and the extent of the political and theoretical fallout from it. One would have to recall in detail—and this would take a whole book—the atmosphere of the time, which now seems so remote. Let us simply (and briefly) say that rarely has a book of philosophy so profoundly come to grips with and acted on its time. In the last years of his life, Deleuze always insisted that he conceived philosophy as a “plane of immanence.” Philosophizing was not a search for transcendence but a way of fabricating concepts capable of entering into contact and resonance with what was taking place on the outside, with politics, culture, and social movements.

To give only one example, Anti-Oedipus played an important role in the early years of the French gay-rights movement. Although Deleuze was not gay, he took part at the beginning of the ’70s in the activities of FHAR (Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire), one of the first gay activist groups born of the events of May ’68. While the group had a somewhat ephemeral existence—no doubt because it was rooted in the politically revolutionary discourse of the far left—it was of capital importance for subsequent movements in the ’70s and ’80s. Deleuze attended meetings of FHAR, but more important, he collaborated, in particular with Foucault, on a 1972 special issue of Recherches, a journal edited by Guattari, devoted to homosexuality. Entitled “Trois milliards de pervers” (Three billion perverts), the issue was banned by the government, which ordered all copies seized, and resulted in Guattari being brought to trial and fined for violating a law on “obscene” publications. Deleuze saw in his involvement with FHAR one of the best examples of what he rather barbarously called “deterritorialization”: the escape from “territories”—effects of power—and “majorities” and the building of “minorities,” the continual striving to be a member of a minority. As a “process,” a minority should avoid being annexed into territories, an outcome imposed through the permanent identities proffered by all versions of essentialism or through the institutionalized functioning of movements that become victims of their own success. Here once again is the idea of the necessary “stammering,” “delicacy,” and “frailty,” which for Deleuze are synonymous with the idea of “minority.” If there is anything we might refer to as the political thought of Deleuze, it lies in his exaltation of the “strength” of the “weak” in the ability to escape the laws of majorities and continually forge new weapons in this act of “becoming a minority,” permanently and endlessly inventing new lines of escape. It would be interesting to reread Deleuze’s work in the light of contemporary queer theory and other developments in the gay-rights movement in France and the United States, as David Halperin did for Foucault in his recent Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (whatever reservations one may have while reading this work, which is as suggestive as it is debatable). While Deleuze may have devoted only a few pages—in truth, only a few lines—to homosexuality, his great deal of writing on what minority movements might be remains of paramount importance.


A decade ago there were those who campaigned to discredit the work of the writers associated with the generation of ’68, on the grounds that the “events of May” haunted their thought like some kind of intellectual bogeyman. Deleuze, Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida, along with a few others, were derided by conservative essayists and journalists as dated products of “’68 thought.” This ideologically informed ploy, in fact a backhand attack on anyone who practiced critical thought, didn’t get very far. Deleuze’s work remains at the heart of French intellectual life. A veritable cult has emerged around his writings, and books and special issues of journals dedicated to his work have become something of a cottage industry in France. Deleuze’s voice, the voice of an extraordinary teacher who fascinated generations of students, is even now being heard on network television. Segments from L’Abécédaire (The ABC’s), a long interview filmed with him a few years ago, are broadcast every other week on Arte, a cultural channel on French and German television. Who is read today in France? Whose work stands out, in discussions and research? To whom do students look? The answer is fairly clear: Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida—and Deleuze.


There will no doubt be those who will argue that Deleuze’s entire opus should be retrospectively reread in light of his suicide, in the same way that James Miller’s extravagant Passion of Michel Foucault (1992) attempted to explain Foucault’s entire output by what Miller somewhat deliriously dared to call the “final apotheosis” of the philospher’s quest: AIDS. They will likely use the same means as Miller: fabricated quotes, translations bearing no relation to the original texts, extravagant interpretations, willful ignorance of anything that contradicts their theses, and so forth. There will doubtless be opportunist academics willing to be heaped with ridicule by applauding such explanations, as some did without hesitation in the case of Miller’s book. But everyone knows—and the immense peal of laughter that greeted the publication of Miller’s book in France proves it—that strong works are able to resist such intellectual-police operations. They escape from the “territories” to which they are assigned. They endlessly discover “lines of escape” to undo the efforts of all those who wish to annihilate their subversive force, those who imagine they can discredit these works by revealing the supposedly “secret” keys—always worthy of condemnation, to be sure—of the few great books that today constitute the very grounds of our theoretical and political reflection.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.