Sunday, May 3, 2009

Deleuze's Classes

I'm aware that most folks would question my sanity for (among other things) my continuing obsession with Gilles Deleuze. 

Deleuze gets a bad rap.  His books are really hard to understand.  He was (accidentally, I maintain) one of the founding fathers of a certain degenerate trend in French intellectual life -- the rock-star philosopher.  A number of other figures from that era (Derrida, Foucault, etc ..) went on to be big celebrities in the US and while they had some interesting ideas early on, I suspect the fame and followers finally went to their head.  Deleuze gets tarred with the same brush, and superficially it is easy to see why.  His most famous books are written in a convoluted and hyper-inter-textual style that borrows from other disciplines as he sees fit, the combination which makes people suspect he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Did I mention that he's French?  Anyhow, outside of the success he and other "post-modernists" have had in transforming academic life in American literature and cultural theory departments (nobody in the Anglo philosophy world can refrain from looking at their belly-button long enough to read him) I think most people who have heard of him think he's a wanker.  This is likely what these same folks think of the aforementioned literature and cultural theory departments, a view I mostly agree with.  In fact, the term postmodernism makes me grind my teeth at this point, and every time I hear the latest rock-star philosopher like Zizek give a lecture, I feel nauseous.

But I am here to tell you that Deleuze is the real deal.  Not only was he a great philosopher -- as great as Heidegger or Hegel or Kant -- but he was a mensch as well.  He came from that always tenuous line of philosophers like Spinoza and Bergson and Nietzsche who all believed that philosophy should have something to do with life.  They all believed that what was at stake was more than intellectual popularity or a game of concepts or even some sort of quasi-scientific investigation of the foundations of Being.  For all of them, philosophy was fundamentally about living the good life.  Philosophy as a form of therapy.  So I want to assure you that even if he may be difficult to read and you may legitimately question how effective this form of therapy would be for most people, he is not pulling your leg or talking in circles or simply mimicking the bullshit of an empty intellectualism.  Deleuze does have a sense of humor, but it is not at all at our expense.

This is all apropos of reading transcriptions of his classes about Spinoza.  The classes really shine because you can see immediately what I'm talking about.  They are very clear.  Actually they're almost slow.  He's not trying to dazzle or impress students, he's actually trying to teach.  I've read the ones about Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, and some about painting that don't seem to be translated to English yet.  The classes about Spinoza are especially good though, because he was Deleuze's philosophical hero.

After you read a few of these you instantly know that this guy was dead serious (not that I really required convincing of course).  You can see as well how all those wide-ranging connections have an immense erudition behind them.  Cryptic short passages in his books get several minutes of discussion, and suddenly make perfect sense.  Discussions of mathematics or biology that left you scratching your head turn out to be quite sensible and beautiful analogies.  And just in general, if you compare this to any lecture by Derrida or the execrable Zizek, you can see that the label "postmodernist" has nothing to do with Deleuze.

I'm sure this leaves everyone desperate for updates, and I will let you know when I finish the course about Leibniz.

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