Deleuze’s writing hasn’t found a suitable place within the archives of knowledge, or in the order of university education. When he comes up in discussion, that usually provokes vertigo. It’s no wonder people are not inclined to discuss this man’s philosophy in public. This is a case of lousy housekeeping, which fortunately can be overcome. It’s a matter of finding the correct perspective, and making the right connections with other texts. Tonight I’ll point my index finger around, to show where he sits comfortably.
I want to emphasize the style of his writing above anything else. Instead of considering what he literally says at face value, this concerns how he expresses himself. He take strange liberties, and all readers find him opaque in some places. There is apparently much inconsistency. He makes obscure references that baffle specialists. He contradicts himself. There is even suspicion that he intentionally deceives. The overall impression is one of flagrant disrespect for readers. I believe this esoteric style should be understood within a very specific historical predicament. I think it was a response to a particular situation, or an attempt to overcome a particular situation. That situation can be outlined rather simply, and it’s important to emphasize that we are no longer of that epoch. His philosophy responds to conditions which are no longer ours. He is not our contemporary. Setting his writing at the correct historical distance is the key to a more satisfying relation with him.
I believe the main feature of his historical context is the peculiar reception of Hegel in France in the 20th century, a topic breached by Bruce Baugh (2005). Bough says French Hegelianism was initiated by Deleuze’s teacher Jean Wahl (1926) when he introduced a certain concept – la conscience malheureuse, das unglückliche Bewußtsein, the unhappy consciousness. This concept was readily assimilated into the French intellectual environment, probably because the ground had been prepared by a long tradition of unhappy thinking from Pascal to Baudelaire. The concept spread rapidly and augmented, becoming a staple for famous 20th century thinkers like Sartre and Blanchot.
The unhappy consciousness was introduced by Hegel in the historical section towards the beginning of Phenomenology of Geist (1806), where it stands for the emergence of early Christianity. The master-slave dialectic of the ancient world is followed by stoicism, which is followed by skepticism, which is in turn followed by “the ascetic unhappy consciousness”. As is well-known, in the 1920’s Alexandre Kojeve brought the master-slave dialectic to forefront of Parisian thought. It seems that Wahl and Hippolite may have thought the (barbaric?) master-slave dialectic evolved into to the (Christian?) unhappy consciousness. Perhaps they proposed a philosophy of unhappy consciousness as a civilized alternative to what Kojeve was doing.
Consider this passage from the section on the family in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1820): “the necessity for education is present in children as their own feeling of disatisfaction with themselves as they are, as the longing to belong to the adult world whose superiority they divine, as the longing to grow up.” (Knox’s translation) This is how I propose to understand la conscience malheureuse – a pedagogical affect associated with the termination of classical barbarism and the emergence of Christianity.
The spread of Hegel’s thought into France has been described as a plague, and la conscience malheureuse was an intellectual virus and melancholy that fed the thinking of Deleuze’s mentor’s and forerunners. There is no question here of forcing Deleuze into some rigid Hegelian categories. The point is that he received this Hegelian flu as inheritance and as a pedagogical burden. I want to suggest that this burden forced his thinking, and that the unhappy consciousness was a motivating problem for his generation. This was a discontent of the child, an infantile unease that troubled the intellect. Its possible to understand his style and his concepts as responses to this problem, and as a struggle to overcome this condition.
In 1945, just after he read Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, at the age of 21, Deleuze wrote “the bourgeois is defined above all by interior life, and the primacy of the subject.” His entire philosophy was a sustained resistance to “bourgeois interiority”. But let me suggest this was not a resistance to some other bourgeois who were somewhere else. Deleuze, Sartre, Blanchot, and all the French philosophers of the last 300 years, they basically all came from bourgeois families. In his late interviews Deleuze specified that he hailed from the “uncultured bourgeois”. So I want to suggest that these thinkers were in a struggle against themselves – they were attacking some abstract interiority, but rather their own interiority. They were attacking the shell of their own bourgeois consciousness, and the esoteric, violent style of their writing is the signature of that personal struggle. This was a pedagogical struggle to become adults in the world as they understood it – to overcome their own particular self-imposed or inherited immaturity.
Hegel wrote of an inadequacy that children feel, a force which pushes them to join the adult world. This malaise is an engine of education. The child suffers certain privations – they are limited to the domestic sphere, and not represented outside in the adult world. They have not “made a name” for themselves. It’s the feeling of deprivation that drives them through the process of education – for example, to learn how to read and write.
When Hegel outlines the epochal phases of dialectical labor, la conscience malheureuse is the phase that follows stoicism and skepticism, and coincides with early Christianity. While this point is completely academic, my next point is not. I want to suggest another phase in the phenomenology of mind which Hegel did not anticipate (he didn’t write about the future) – that is, the destruction of bourgeois interiority by 20th century French philosophers. The violent style of Deleuze and company was aimed at destroying “the dogmatic image of thought”, and this was the intellectual aspect of their own bourgious interiority. Their style was the signature of a dialectical labor that can be placed within an Hegelian model of history. It’s along this path that we can find Deleuze in a comfortable domestic orientation.
In the mid-1800’s the Young Hegelians declared that Hegel’s philosophy was bourgeois, and that the next epoch would involve its dialectical destruction. Deleuze’s generation were proceeding with this program a century later. Consider a simple outline of this disdained “bourgeois Hegelian thought”: its a movement goes from thoughtless immediacy, to alienated exteriority, to mediated interiority. It was the conclusion in “mediated interiority” that radical European thought has resisted. This interiorizing pattern of thinking was promoted by more mainstream Frenchmen like Raymond Aron, and was perhaps becoming hegemonic in France. This thought rhythm was pervasive in the mid-20th century, and for Deleuze’s generation this pattern had to be challenged.
He searched everywhere for resources to break with the interiorizing direction of the dialectical philosophy. This was the consolidation of the interiority of the self-satisfied bourgeois subject. This was also national bourgeois – for Hegel, the mind was the state, and the interior mind had a national character. Naturally, Deleuze’s generation considered this struggle against the interiorizing “geist” as part of the struggle against the Nazis. But, I would emphasize instead that they were themselves bourgeois, and consider their philosophy primarily as a struggle against themselves, against their own Gaullic national satisfaction.
As the rhythm of the interiorizing dialectic was becoming ingrained in their national character, Deleuze and company were trying to intervene and interfere with that thought dynamic. Instead of a movement of interiorization, he wanted exteriorization and exposure to the outside. He wanted to break-out from the interior bourgeois mind by exposing it to the material forces of the cosmos. He begins with habit, the creature’s immersion in its immediate environment. Then there is disjunction, which is an alienation or exteriority, and which would later be called the plane of immanence and body without organs. But in the third movement, where Hegel places “mediated interiority”, Deleuze goes to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, a radical cosmic outside that he calls conjunction. He deploys Nietzsche as an explosive to reverse the interiorizing third phase of the dialectic.
I want to suggest that all this description no longer refers to any situation that we could call our own. We need to consider Deleuze’s writing from the proper distance, and from a perspective that is suitable for today. I believe one can only think under the force of their own situation, and we don’t have access to the situation of past generations of thinkers. If we go along with his externalization movement, then we are not thinking. This point has been made by Slavoj Zizek since the 1990’s, but despite Zizek’s popularity the importance of this point has not been widely recognized.
Simply put, the intellectual jail-break of Deleuze’s generation, this escape from bourgeois interiority, has since been thoroughly high-jacked by capitalism. Since the 1980’s, the bourgeois have abandoned national interiority, and adopted the escapist cosmic ontology as their own. This is what they call “globalization”, and it involves the betrayal of national elites by a global elite. So, to resist capitalism today, it’s necessary to adopt a more sophisticated strategy. According to Zizek, we should return to something more like the Hegelian dialectic which operates a more interior valence, but of course it needs a few extra twists. Where the bourgeois are now fighting on the externalization vector, the resistance should shift gears towards internalization. Deleuze needs to be coaxed back home.