PRINT March 1996


Gilles Deleuze’s ABC’s

ODDLY ENOUGH FOR FRANCE, where literary-chat shows are prime-time staples, Gilles Deleuze managed to make it through a lifetime as a philosopher without ever appearing on TV—well, almost. In 1988, nearly exhausted by the serious respiratory problems that led to his death last November, Deleuze agreed to work with the French/German cultural channel Arte. But he categorically refused either to submit to an interview or to sanction a documentary of his life and work, insisting instead on designing his own broadcast with Claire Parnet, his former student and his interlocutor in Dialogues. Together they produced an epic-length film L’Abécédaire, which was cut into six- to ten-minute segments—each beginning with the last sentence of the previous installment—to be broadcast separately over the course of several months. The film itself is simple. Sitting by the fire with Parnet, Deleuze presents his own version of the ABC’s, each letter corresponding to a particular topic: “A is for animal,” “D is for Desire,” “K is for Kant,” and, of course, “Z is for Zorro.” The latter leads Deleuze from Zorro, the defender of justice, to the Z of bifurcation; from the zigzagging flight pattern of a fly to its signature buzz; from Zen to the lightning flash that makes things visible. Deleuze sets the stage for his allusive, fragmentary journey into a life’s work by declaring at the very start, “What saves me is the clause that [guarantees] none of this will be used until after my death. As a result, I already feel reduced to the state of a pure archive belonging to Pierre André Boutang [the film’s director] . . . almost to the state of pure spirit . . . and it is enough to have attempted a séance to know that a pure spirit is not someone who gives very profound and very intelligent responses, but, rather, something more like a summary.”

Beneath the irony of this pronouncement lies Deleuze’s defensive strategy, a posture that derives from his rejection of the media and the forums of the “intellectual” (public speaking, interviews, colloquia), from his very conception of the role of philosophy. “Not being a power, philosophy can’t battle with the powers that be [religions, states, capitalism, science, the law, public opinion, and television], but it fights a war without battles, a guerrilla campaign against them.”

It was only last January, when he was no longer able to speak without stopping for breath, that Deleuze agreed to the broadcast of L’Abécédaire, a few months, as it turned out, before his suicide. (A “best of” aired in December shortly after his death.) Watching the rebroadcast today (every two weeks at the end of Boutang’s half of the Franco-German culture program Metropolis), one discovers in Deleuze’s broken voice the spirit of his thought. As he said in 1977, “It is strange how great thinkers have a fragile personal life, an uncertain health, and at the same time they carry life to a state of absolute power or of ‘Great Health.’”

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.