Paul Earlie: Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis

Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis Book Cover Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis
Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs
Paul Earlie
Oxford University Press
Hardback £60.00

Reviewed by: Alessandro Guardascione (KU Leuven University)


Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis is an ambitious book written by Paul Earlie that aims at measuring Derrida’s contribution to contemporary critical thought by exploring his encounter with Freud. Earlie does not only offer a systematic, in-depth account of Derrida’s understanding of Freud’s legacy by a close reading of often overlooked or marginal texts. He also attempts to confront Derrida with contemporary philosophical problems through his writings on psychoanalysis. The book is a welcome addition to Derrida studies. It challenges a still prevailing “textualist” reading of Derrida’s works and examines in fine details Derrida’s relationship with Freud. Earlie offers a quite comprehensive exploration of several psychoanalytic concepts found in Derrida’s oeuvre.

The relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction is described according to an aporetic sense of inheritance that will be at the centre of Paul Earlie’s analyses until the very conclusions of his book. By reactivating the critical message of Derrida’s philosophical style through his confrontation with psychoanalysis, Earlie reconstructs many classical arguments that characterize Derrida’s thinking. As he shows, investigating Derrida’s encounter with psychoanalysis essentially means responding to a whole series of general questions like: What does it mean to interpret Freud’s psychoanalytic theory? How does psychoanalysis survive to its founder? Who is behind the “proper name” “Freud”? In what sense can we affirm the existence of a Freudian legacy? Or, more importantly, can there be a legacy at all?

Already in the title, it is possible to appreciate the fil rouge that connects all the chapters. The etymological meaning of the word “legacy” finds its place in the polysemic variety of the Greek-Roman culture. At a closer examination, a complex historico-cultural background constitutes its horizon of interpretation. Legō, from Latin, has many senses: gathering together, to collect, but also, to extract, to choose, to entrust, to read. These are some of its main usages. The expression “legacy of psychoanalysis” could be translated by replacing some of the Latin meanings of legō. However, arguably, gathering together several items to form a set is the very opposite of extracting from a set. Apparently, it seems that legō hides a contradictory logic of inclusion-exclusion. It potentially means both collecting and extracting. Could it be possible to think about a collection of thinkers gathered together around the proper name “Freud” and, at the very same time, through a selective enumeration, restricting the set to very few trustworthy authors? It should be possible only at cost of a decisive criterion grounded on Freud’s textual truth or, better, on the original source of his thought. However, as it is widely known, since the beginning of his confrontation with phenomenological themes, Derrida has always been critical to the notion of simple, pure, transparent origin favoUring and developing the consequences of his logic of contamination — as he writes in the preface to his Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl. Derrida often shows his resistance to any interpretative closure, as is witnessed by the studies on Mallarmé, Artaud, Nietzsche, just to name a few. Freud is no exception and Earlie shows us why.

Rightly at the beginning of his book, Earlie claims that Derrida reinterprets the problem of Freud’s legacy into the general question of inheritance. This strategy mirrors Derrida’s classical myse en abyme. Indeed, in the same vein, Earlie’s book follows a similar strategy. As he defines it, the book tackles the “double bind of inheriting Derrida inheriting Freud”. Although comprehensible to a broad philosophical audience, to be fully appreciated an understanding of Derridean philosophical path and his main notions is warmly recommended. Without claiming to exhaust the rich variety of analyses presented in the text, I will limit myself to pointing out a few key passages.

Aporetic Detours

The first chapter is dedicated to the problematic reception of Freud in France. The central thesis of this chapter is that Derrida has never attempted to appropriate Freud’s legacy as much as he has tried to “show how this legacy survives by means of its structural inappropriability”. In order to justify his claim, Earlie discusses the meaning of Freud’s legacy through specific conceptual tropes found in Derrida’s many essays and conferences. These introductory analyses run through the concepts of “aporia”, “myth”, and “proper name” that, de facto, constitute the essential margins of this book.

Earlie exemplifies the problem of Freud’s legacy by referring to the ambiguous judgment of Lévi-Strauss on psychoanalysis. While Lévi-Strauss sometimes praises Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries recognizing a “formative influence” on his speculation, as in Tristes tropiques, sometimes he does not, as in La Potière jalouse. As Earlie shows, in this text Lévi-Strauss does not only denounce the absence of Freud’s influence on his structural anthropology, he even calls into question its originality. However, instead of discussing what is the debt of anthropology to psychoanalysis, Earlie aims at demonstrating that, actually, Lévi-Strauss’s relationship to Freud remains caught into the aporetic logic of debt, best expressed through the Freudian figure of “kettle logic”. The “kettle logic” is a Freudian trope that essentially refers to the internal logic of dreams and it describes a rhetorical expedient consisting of the use of contradictory arguments to defende a unique thesis. Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the logic of debt actually reminds us of the Freudian notion of kettle logic, since repudiating or assuming a debt always results in opposing statements. One of the clearest examples is found by Earlie in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s indebtedness with the concept of writing as pharmakon.

Earlie illustrates what he calls the argumentative strategy of the “fort-da” also with Lacan’s relationship to Freud. Instead of denouncing the absence of Freud, like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan leads a firm and allegedly transparent appropriation of Freud’s textual truth. For Earlie, this logic of fort-da consists of renouncing and assuming, including and excluding. This general strategy is for Earlie “an insistent feature in the inheritance of Freud’s legacy”. The first chapter is essentially a demonstration of this thesis. Other seminal figures populating the French freudisme, like Laplanche and Pontatis, Abraham and Torkok are passed in review, including important critics and detractors of Freud’s psychoanalysis, like Onfray and Sulloway. A special attention is dedicated to other influential authors like Foucault and Sartre.

Through these authors, Earlie explores the idiomatic appropriation of Freud’s psychoanalytic themes. The aporetic logic behind any kind of inheritance or legacy results in depicting, each time, a different, contradictory image of “Freud”. For him, Derrida’s method of reading Freud’s legacy leads to reaffirm and relaunch the impossible appropriation of his textual truth. Derrida “resist[s] the temptation to mythologize” by limiting the negative, sclerotic effect of a hermeneutic dispositive of appropriation, or interpretative closure. In this sense, Earlie aims at showing the difference, for Derrida, between “Freud’s open-ended textual legacy” and freudisme. Broadly, he shows that no “intellectual lineage” can oppose the resistance of Freud’s textual corpus to BY being reduced to a single interpretation, since any appropriation is only the result of a hermeneutic decision. In this regard, for Earlie, Derrida preserves an important ethical responsibility, even if only in critically restating the difference between Freud and freudisme.


In the second chapter, Earlie focuses on Derrida’s understanding of “psychical spacings”, investigating the relationship between space and psyche in some of his most important works. By turning towards his writings on phenomenology, in particular to La voix et le phenomene and Le toucher, Jean Luc Nancy, Earlie sets the stage for discussing the role of Derrida’s encounter with some of Freud’s main psychoanalytic concepts, reflecting on the importance of the issues of spatiality, surface, and touch in his philosophy. In a sense, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida uses the category of space for deconstructing the classical metaphysical notion of subjectivity. In particular, I am referring here to the idea of pure, immediate self-identity and the idea of psyche as a kind of internal space as opposed to an external world. In other words, this chapter is dedicated to deciphering Derrida’s classical thesis concerning the characterization of classical metaphysics as phono-logo-centrism.

In the chapter, Earlie confronts Derrida’s notion of spacing as it is presented in La Voix with that found in Le Toucher. He notes that while in the first book spacing describes the condition of possibility of temporalization as spatial inscription of a trace, in the latter, Derrida is more interested in spacing in relation to spatiality and self-touching. The theme of spatiality is introduced by a close reading of the fifth chapter of La Voix. Earlie discusses Derrida’s strategic interpretation of the Husserlian analyses on the temporal flow of the Living Present. In this chapter, Derrida is steadfast to show the relationship between time and auto-affection in Husserlian phenomenology. In Le Toucher, instead, Derrida directly tackles the problem of auto-affection in relation to self-touching, no longer focusing on the temporalization of the flow of the Living Present. Earlie illustrates how, for Derrida, self-touching or the chiasmatic, double apprehension of the touching-touched, describes the phenomenon of auto-hetero-affection, the contamination of sameness and otherness.

In both cases, spacing represents the condition of (im)possibility of the subject, since it describes, on one side, the subject as an “effect” of temporal deferral and spatial inscription, and, on the other side, the impossibility of a pure, immediate auto-affection. Through these analyses, Earlie finally discusses the role of the Freudian concept of Nachtraglichkeit (afterwardness) and his interpretation of the psyche as topographical space, as it is expressed by the famous sentence Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nichts davon (Psyche is extended, knows nothing about it). In this sense, Earlie shows how Freud’s conception of the psyche has been reworked by Derrida for deconstructing the classical metaphysical idea of subjectivity attributed to Plato and Descartes.

Freud et la scene de l’écriture constitutes the other fundamental text explored by Earlie in the second chapterFor him, this text is an exemplary work for discussing Derrida’s analyses on the “space of unconscious”. Earlie finds this text quite interesting since it presents a critic of any interpretation of memory as “localizable anatomical space”. According to him, by speculating on Freud’s histology of the psyche and his critiques to the empirical account of memory and perception, Derrida challenges any materialist account of memory since, as he writes, memory finds its space only “in the difference between one inscription and another.” By comparing Freud’s persistence in representing the psyche through physical writing – for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams – in relation to Husserl’s characterization of psyche as “spoken word, e.g., interior monologue, Earlie signals the “sympathy between psychoanalytic regression and écriture”. He shows again that Derrida reworks the Freudian notion of unconsciousness as a process of spacing that challenges the idea of self-identity accompanied by a “linear structure of verbal discourse”.

This chapter also constitutes a defence of the recent materialistic interpretation of Derrida’s deconstruction. In particular, Earlie is critical of Catherine Malabou’s interpretation of the relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, and between deconstruction and neuroscience. He criticizes the opposition between “material space of neuroscience and intangible spacing” claiming that for Derrida “it is never simply a question of choosing one over the other”. Earlie’s reconstruction demonstrates that Derrida has never considered spacing in a materialistic or idealistic sense and his approach cannot be a positive one and cannot be confused with the contemporary neuroscientific approaches to psychoanalysis.

Science and Fiction

The third chapter is dedicated to showing the relevance of Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis to understand for understanding his position in relation to science and the scientific method. In this respect, Earlie complements Derrida’s reflections on epistemology in his famous introduction to Husserl’s supplement to CrisisThe Origin of Geometry. Earlie’s objective is to defend Derrida from recent readings of deconstruction such as poststructuralism. Instead of reducing Derrida to just a figure of the philosophy of language, Earlie wants to demonstrate the significance of his reflections for any scientific discourse, even defending Freud from some current neuropsychoanalitic trends of research that aim at freeing psychoanalysis from fictive or speculative elements.

Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’Mes ChanceTélepathie, and Foi et savoir constitute the main texts of this chapter in which Earlie reconstructs Derrida’s discussion upon the scientific “credentials” of Freud’s psychoanalysis. As he shows, it is the very definition of psychoanalysis as A “border-discipline” that allows Derrida to characterize Freud’s recourse to the scientific method as always contaminated by irreducible elements of fiction. By discussing the influence of Comte’s notion of positive science on Freud’s scientific method, Earlie already presents a general Derridean thesis. Positive science cannot eliminate its ties to theoretical conjecture, speculation, or fiction, otherwise, it would be mere positivism. The scientific discourse remains irreducibly permeable to other fields of knowledge that, de facto, participate in the definition of its margins. Science can only proceed by trial and error and it is always exposed to the risk of failure. In a long passage, he summarizes as follows:

“While it is always possible to speculate on what new evidence may become available, it is structurally impossible for future data to be entirely foreseen or predicted. Every context, and thus every description of context, is always already punctured by an unconditional exposure towards the to-come, the alterity, or difference of an à-venir which may come to displace all previous hypotheses.”

As Earlie shows in Grammatologie, an account of science solely grounded on immediate empirical observation is impossible for Derrida. This is exemplified in Derrida’s account of structuralist linguistics. How can writing can be the object of science if writing, as already shown already in the Introduction to The Origin of Geometry, is the very condition of ““all scientific inquiry and of the épistémè more generally” ? Is not this a vicious theoretical diallele? By passing in review Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’Glas, and La Carte Postale, Earlie presents interesting elements for reconstructing Derrida’s understanding of scientific method. He reconstructs the tensions between psychoanalysis and phenomenology and exposes Derrida’s reading of Freud’s “speculation” in relation to that of Hegel. Earlie shows how Derrida opposes Freud to Husserl and Freud to Hegel. While Husserl intends the telos of scientific progress as an infinite task grounded on the Living Present, Freud conceives science as “limping” on risky unknown paths that can be completely replaced. Whereas Hegel’s speculation absorbs for his own profit and consists of “a positive reappropriation of the negative” (Aufhebung), Freud’s speculation is always at risk of failing and the Freudian concept par exellence, the unconscious, is all but the name of a positive principle.

However, for Earlie, Derrida’s interest in Freud’s “speculative procedure” derives from the recourse of the latter to fictive arguments not supported by positive evidence but still, defended against any accusation of metaphysics, paradigmatically in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At the core of Freud’s speculative procedure, Earlie exposes Derrida’s interpretation of a classical Freudian scene, “the child’s game of fort-da”. This scene is of paramount importance in the economy of Freud’s psychoanalysis since it is used to describe the child’s initial mastery of identity. In relation to Spéculer, Earlie mainly intends to show two things: a) that Derrida reads this scene, again, to critique the idea of classical subjectivity; b) that Derrida uses this scene to show a type of incompleteness affecting any scientific discourse.

a) Earlie reflects upon what seems to be Derrida’s main interest for this game: the child’s “double movement of distancing and return” from the object. For him, Derrida interprets the game as an example of spacing. In his reading, Earlie remarks that for Derrida this figure of spacing cannot be accomplished without” either the boy’s playthings or – and this is another version of the game – his verbal discourse. Distancing and return describe the prosthetic condition of the subject to the “external world”, the “self affecting itself through technical re-presentation”. In other words, Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the child’s fort-da is possible only by means of an “originary technicity” represented, in this case, by an object or by the child’s voice. This “originary technicity” has many names in Derrida’s vocabulary, for instance, it is all called “archi-writing” in La Voix and Grammatologie.

b) Another important point signaled by Earlie is that, for Derrida, the problem with this game does not only concern the variety of its possible interpretations but the very description depicting a number of different versions. As Derrida shows in Spéculer, on a closer examination, the game’s description depends on either fictive elements or Freud’s autobiographical details. Derrida is interested in the fact that Freud diverges from the frames of scientific positivism by exploiting the resources of fictive speculation. For these reasons, the value of fiction is, according to Earlie, the very reason for Derrida’s interest in Freud’s work: “Freud’s more speculative writings emphasize the fragility of psychoanalysis’s scientific foundations, a fragility he paradoxically concludes only strengthens psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials.”

Archival Effects

In the fourth chapter, Earlie takes the occasion to introduce Derrida’s Mal d’Archive (1995) by reflecting on the recent digitized version of the Library of Congress’s “Sigmund Freud Collection”. In this chapter, Earlie’s deflationist reading of Mal d’Archive is intended to show the structural limitations of the archive’s technicity implied in Derrida’s aporetic speculation. In particular, Earlie aims at showing the archive’s double bind, namely “the possibility both of preserving the trace and the simultaneous exposure of this trace to forgetfulness, finitude, or destruction.” In his exposure, Earlie shows the role of Freud’s notion of repression and his topographical image of memory in Derrida’s text.

According to Earlie, Mal d’Archive continues to offer a twofold lesson to archive studies. First, it shows a way to think about the role of the archive that is at odds with, on one side, the proponents of a “neoliberalization of the university”, and on the other side, those who critique a supposed “dishumanization of the liberal studies”. In other words, Earlie intends to show that Derrida does not take the part of one of these two sides, since he for him any techné can be read through the aporetic logic of Plato’s pharmakon. It is both enabling and threatening, and it is erroneous to stigmatize or praise any archive fever. Second, it enlightens the hidden relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on our desire for archiving and archive, and on the general problem of any calculable science of the archive.

In Mal d’Archive, Derrida ironically observes that the Greek origin of the term “archive” is forgotten by most who use this word nowadays. In this sense, Earlie starts reflecting on the word archive as the very “archive of a structural forgetting”. Yet, the archive stands as an external, often distributed space of memory. Indeed, the most interesting aspect Earlie signals of Derrida’s reflections on the archive is its relevance to the understanding of “psyche’s relationship to more recent techno-scientific developments.” More than ever, our contemporary interaction with technology is characterized by an increasing dependency. The archive stands as an example of the outside on which memory depends. Just think about the role that search engines have today. For Earlie, Derrida uses the archive to discuss the prosthetic account of psychical memory connected to his general thesis of the originary technicity as condition of (im)possibility of subjectivity.

Earlie’s reading of Genèse, généalogies, genres et le génie: Les secrets de l’archive (2003) and Papier machine is centered instead on the paradox of consignation. In these texts, he explores Derrida’s analysis on the possibility of archiving. The argument goes as follows: archiving practices are hampered by the undecidability of the cataloging process and by the work of indexing. The limitations of consignations consist in the impossibility for the archivist to frame once and forever the complexity of a text. The aporia of archiving rests on the resistance to the categorization of the secret of the text. In this context, Earlie shows that the secret, for Derrida, is a non-synonymous substitution for dissemination. Dissemination describes the generative possibilities resulting from semic drifting constituting any semantic corpus, that exceeds any calculable economy of the text.

The final part of this chapter is related to the relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie turns again to “Freud et la scène de l’écriture”. In this text, he indicates the general relationship between the thinking of the trace and passions, the relationship between the subject and death. Expressions like “mal d’archive” and “pulsion d’archive” witness the affective side of Derrida’s thought of the archive. The chapter ends with a discussion on the meaning of our desire for the archive as “anxiety in the face of its destruction.”

Affectivity and Politics

The last chapter is dedicated to measuring the influence of Freud on Derrida’s reflections on affectivity and its relation to political themes. Derrida’s initial hesitation for political speculation is explained by the fact that, for him, political philosophemes are often obscure and heavily loaded with metaphysical conceptuality. In this chapter, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida’s reflections on the political are grounded on the aporia of affectivity. Against the prejudicial judgment of a dismissive treatment of emotions and affective experience, Earlie argues that a text like Passions depicts the image of Derrida fully interested in affectivity. For Earlie, Derrida deconstructs the classical concept according to which passions indicate external forces that drive passive subjects. He shows that Derrida’s reading of Freudian narcissism is an example of his aporetic account of passion. For Derrida, narcissistic auto-affection is countered by an irreducible inappropriability, the “non-self-belonging of technicity”, namely, the fact that writing exceeds subjectivity by constituting it, and trace is not the name of a circular movement of appropriation. In this sense, narcissism is (im)possible, caught in a mutual relation between sameness and otherness. The example of narcissism shows the double bind of affectivity in general. Broadly, for Earlie, if Derrida’s conception of affectivity is “always interwoven with […] possible-impossible auto-affection” then the political is (im)possible for it is grounded on the (non)coincidence of the auto-(hetero)-affection.

In this sense, for Earlie, Derrida articulates the political from the impossibility of pure auto-affection. The aporia of affectivity results in the consequent aporia of the political as “the anxiety-inducing exposure of […] bonds to incalculable otherness (à venir)”. Through a comment of La Carte postale, Earlie presents a convincing account of Derrida’s theory of anxiety that is the result of his reading of Freud’s Beyond the pleasure principle. According to this reading, anxiety is generated by the doubleness of binding, the “process in which a calculating desire for the object is accompanied by anxiety faced with is incalculable loss”. Anxiety is a condition that belongs to auto-hetero-affection since the self is constituted by what threatens him. This double bind of affectivity also explains the (im)possibility of bonds of friendship.

For Earlie, affectivity described in Derrida’s philosophy as the “structural non-coincidence which both constitutes and impedes, […] any stable bond between ‘self’ and ‘other’”. In this sense, it is easy to see why Derrida contrasts any account of the political grounded on supposedly natural or immediate bonds ultimately affective. In this chapter, Earlie demonstrates that Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis are fundamental for understanding the role of auto-hetero-affection as the condition of (im)possibility of any politics. In a sense, for Earlie, Derrida develops the extremes consequences of Freudian thought by showing both the aporetic relation between the self and the other and the contradictions hidden in affectivity. Earlie notes that Derrida reworks the Freudian concepts of binding (Bindung) to describe the irreducible affective tensions underneath the social bonds that unmask the fictive illusion of a peaceful civilization.

In the final part of the chapter, Earlie focuses on the later Derrida works centred around autoimmunity (auto-immunité). He illustrates how this concept has been developed by Derrida in La Carte postale through a reading of Freud’s vesicle allegory, the fictive image describing the sensory reception: “Freud’s fictive vesicle protects itself against external dangers by deadening its outer layer (or ‘shield’) and allowing small, immunizing ‘doses’ of dangerous excitation to filter through its semi-porous membrane”. This allegory does not only show the autoimmunitarian logic at work in the fictive vesicle. For Earlie, this also describes the continuity between auto-affection and auto-immunity. The auto-affection is ultimately auto-hetero-affection, since the subject experiences what is other than itself by affecting itself, as it is shown in the self-touching. Auto-immunity follows from the constitution of the self in the spacing of the self from its other. The danger of the other that it is already hidden in the experience of the self, is then a consequence of auto-hetero-affection. The subject and the vesicle are constituted only by means of a technicity that it is their condition of (im)possibility. In the first case, it is the trace or writing or supplementarity, in the second case, it is the deadening of the vesicle’s outer layer.

Earlie finally addresses the presence of Freudian themes in the Auto-immunités, suicides réels et symboliques and in Voyous, especially in relation to Derrida’s understanding of trauma and technology. By focusing on Derrida’s analysis concerning “September 11th”, Earlie comments on the originality of Derrida’s account of trauma. Derrida does not understand trauma according to the classical mechanical concept, a state of anxiety that is grounded on the recurring reappearance of calculable intensity of a past event. Rather, he shows that “September 11th” essentially exemplifies for Derrida a trauma that rests on the incalculable danger of an event-to-come that fuels the state of anxiety. The chapter ends with a discussion on the role of the technologies of communication in determining the affective impact of terrorism. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on television in Échographies de la télévision. The repetition of live footage of the towers’ collapse is compared with the “compulsive repetition” aimed more to guarding against the unpredictable future of potential violence rather than to mastering the traumatic, past experience.


Derrida, Jacques & Bernard Stiegler. 1996. Echographies de la télévision. Paris: Galilée, lnstitut national de l’audiovisuel.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Seuil.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. La Voix et le phénomène, introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Derrida, Jacques. 1980. La Carte postale. De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Flammarion.

Derrida, Jacques. 1990. La probleme de la genese dans la philosophie de Husserl. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Mat d’archive: une impression freudienne. Paris: Galilée.

Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée.

Derrida, Jacques. 2003. “Autoimmunités, suicides réels et symboliques.” In Giovanna Borradori, ed., Le “concept” du 11 septembre, Dialogues à New York, 133-96. Paris: Galilée.

Earlie, Paul. 2021. Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1964. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by J. Strachey. Macmillan.

Malabou, Catherine. 2007. Les nouveaux blessés. De Freud à ta neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. Paris: Bayard.

Gilles Deleuze: Letters and Other Texts

Gilles Deleuze: Letters and Other Texts Book Cover Gilles Deleuze: Letters and Other Texts
Gilles Deleuze. Edited by David Lapoujade. Translated by Ames Hodges
Paperback $19.95

Reviewed by: Ralf Gisinger (University of Vienna)

“Don’t think I am a compulsive letter writer or that I have a sense of dialogue. I hate it.”/ „Denken Sie nicht, ich sei ein gewissenhafter Briefeschreiber oder dass ich einen Sinn für Dialog habe. Ich hasse es.“ (72, an Gherasim Luca; Übers. RG)[1]


Die lange erwartete englische Übersetzung des 2015 im französischen Original erschienen Buchs Letters and Other Texts ist der dritte und letzte von David Lapoujade zusammengestellte bzw. herausgegebene Band mit posthum erschienen Sammlungen von Deleuze-Texten nach Die einsame Insel (2002) und Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft (2003).[2] Daneben existieren noch die zu Lebzeiten Deleuzes (1925-1995) von ihm selbst arrangierten Textkompilationen Unterhandlungen (1990) sowie Kritik und Klinik (1993).

Zum 20. Todesjahr Deleuzes publiziert, bietet der Band neben den Briefen vor allem schwer erhältliche sowie einzelne noch nicht erschienene Texte, aber auch ein längeres Interview (zusammen mit Félix Guattari) und 5 Zeichnungen von Deleuze. Während die beiden vorhergehenden Anthologien chronologisch und zeitbezogen strukturiert sind, kommt dem vorliegenden Band mehr die Rolle eines „Restbestands“ von noch unveröffentlichten (oder lange nicht verfügbaren) Schriften zu, wenngleich dies die Lektüre abwechslungsreich und immer wieder spannend gestaltet. Trotz der ausführlichen und gelehrsamen Einordnungen von Lapoujade (besonders in den Briefen) ist eine Kenntnis der Werkgeschichte von Deleuze eine Voraussetzung, um die tour de force an Zeitsprüngen und Textgenrewechseln inhaltlich mitzuvollziehen. Und doch liegen die Vorteile der kurzen Texte, wie schon in Die einsame Insel sowie Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft auf der Hand: in Briefen, Interviews oder Essays wird den schwierig verständlichen philosophischen Konzepten manchmal mehr Leben eingehaucht indem beispielhaft erklärt, pointiert zusammengefasst oder fast schon entstellend verkürzt wird. Sollten Die einsame Insel und Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft (aber auch Unterhandlungen), die damit schon seit über 15 Jahren fester Bestandteil des Forschungskorpus rund um Deleuze (und Guattari) sind, demensprechende Erwartungen an Letters and Other Texts geweckt haben, lässt sich dieser Anspruch natürlich nicht gänzlich erfüllen. Jedoch gibt es, neben tatsächlich eher belanglosen Briefen, immer wieder interessante Korrespondenzen (vor allem mit Guattari, Villani, Klossowski, Foucault oder Voeffray), die sowohl philosophische als auch allgemeine Einblicke in die Lebenswelt von Deleuze und seinen Adressaten über eine Zeitspanne von nahezu vier Jahrzehnten geben. Das Highlight des Buches ist sicher ein erstmals publiziertes gemeinsames Interview mit Guattari (geführt von Raymond Bellour im Frühjahr 1973) über den Anti-Ödipus (1972), aber auch die Unterlagen für einen „Course on Hume (1957-1958)“, der Einblicke in Deleuzes pädagogische Herangehensweise in Bezug auf Hume erlaubt, oder das zwar schon länger kursierende, aber erstmals seit 1946 wieder abgedruckte „From Christ to the Bourgeoisie“ empfehlen sich für eine durchaus lohnende Lektüre.

Der Anspruch auf Vollständigkeit der Edition von Deleuzes Schriften sowie die damit einhergehende Nachvollziehbarkeit, Auffindbarkeit und Übersetzung ist ein hoch zu schätzender Verdienst Lapoujades. Aus diesem Grund wird das „Patchwork“ bzw. der mangelnde rote Faden des Buchs nicht nur in Kauf genommen, sondern bildet sogar dessen notwendiges Grundgerüst, wird es eben als Ergänzung zu den bisher erschienenen Sammelbänden verstanden. Gleichzeitig muss konzediert werden, dass viele dieser Texte ohne den starken Aufschwung und die zunehmende Popularität von Deleuze in den letzten Jahren – insbesondere im englischsprachigen Raum – sonst wohl nicht nochmal abgedruckt worden wären

So reicht Letters in Bezug auf die Erschließung des Gesamtwerks (sowohl für die Deleuze-Forschung als auch zur allgemeinen Verständlichkeit von Deleuze und Guattari) nicht an die vorhergehenden Sammelsurien heran, die deutlich reichhaltigere Quellen an kurzen Texten in der Form von zumeist autorisierten Interviews, Zeitschriftenartikel, Gesprächen und Briefen, beinhalten, welche sich vor allem um zusätzliche Erläuterungen, konzise Zuspitzungen, konkrete Anwendungen oder Verteidigungen der eigenen Theorien drehen. Damit sind sie von herausragender Bedeutung, um die Intentionen, Abläufe und Prozesse von Deleuzes Denken und Schaffen nachzuvollziehen. Dafür wird mit dem Fokus auf Briefe eine persönlichere, ja geradezu private Ebene erschlossen (wobei stets in einem professionellen Rahmen verbleibend), die eine gewisse theoretische Kraft entfalten kann, auch wenn dies kritisch betrachtet werden sollte.

Das Buch ist in drei Teile gegliedert:

Der erste Teil beinhaltet Briefe an Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, François Châtelet, Pierre Klossowski, Jean-Clet Martin, aber auch an außerhalb Frankreichs weniger bekannte Personen wie Jean Piel, Arnaud Villani, Alain Vinson, Clément Rosset, Elias Sanbar, André Bernold, Joseph Emmanuel Voeffray und Gherasim Luca. Dabei wurden einzig einige der Briefe an Arnaud Villani und Gherasim Luca sowie der erste an Alain Vinson vorher schon veröffentlicht.

Wie schon in den vorangegangen Textsammlungen bettet Lapoujade zu Beginn jeden der chronologisch geordneten Briefe in die jeweilige Zeit ein und gibt anderweitigen Kontext zu den Adressaten sowie zu Ereignissen, Umständen, Texten oder Personen, auf die in den Zuschriften referiert wird. Auch ein Namensindex am Ende des Buches leistet Hilfe bei Einordnung und Recherche. Leider befinden sich in der vorliegenden auf Englisch übersetzten Ausgabe in den Fußnoten einige kleine Fehler (z.B. 27; 29; 69 oder 97), die im französischen Original so nicht vorkommen.

Auch für langjährige Deleuze-Leser:innen dürften die 5 Zeichnungen überraschend anmuten (101ff.), die von Karl Flinker 1973 in einem Heft zu Foucault und Deleuze unter dem Titel „Faces et Surfaces“ [Seiten/Gesichter und Oberflächen] veröffentlicht wurden. Diesen Illustrationen folgen im zweiten Teil des Buches die „Other Texts“, diverse Texte, die entweder lange nicht verfügbar waren, zu unterschiedlichen Zeiten in Zeitungen beziehungsweise als Rezensionen oder noch gar nicht erschienen sind, was auf den „Course on Hume (1957-58)“ (119ff.) sowie ein Interview von Deleuze und Guattari mit Raymond Bellour (auf Vorschlag Foucaults) über den Anti-Ödipus (195ff.) zutrifft.

Des Weiteren sind im dritten Teil des Bandes fünf als „Jugendwerke“ deklarierte Schriften enthalten, die Deleuze zwischen seinem 20. und 22. Lebensjahr verfasst, allerdings später wieder zurückgezogen hat.

Wie im Titel programmatisch angekündigt, liegt das Hauptaugenmerk von Letters and Other Texts auf von Deleuze gesendeten Briefen, die zwar nach Personen chronologisch angeordnet sind, jedoch keine Antworten inkludieren, weshalb auch nicht von vollständigen Briefwechseln gesprochen werden kann. Dementsprechend erscheinen die Briefe trotz der ausgezeichneten Kontextualisierung Lapoujades teilweise zusammenhangslos beziehungsweise mit vielen Jahren Abstand. Gemäß dem Titel werde ich mich auch in folgender Rezension primär auf die Briefe konzentrieren.

Dass die im Buch versammelten Briefe keinen Anspruch auf Vollständigkeit erheben können, ist zwar evident, wird aber auch nicht explizit erwähnt. Lapoujade gesteht in der Einführung zu, dass die Briefe im Œuvre Deleuzes keine zentrale Rolle einnehmen, da Deleuze diesen keine Wichtigkeit einräumte und sie nicht als Teil oder Erläuterung seines Werks ansah (7). In dem Band sind ausschließlich von Deleuze geschriebene Briefe, nicht aber von den jeweiligen Adressaten enthalten – begründet wird dies damit, dass er keine Korrespondenzen aufbewahrte, wobei nicht ganz klar wird, ob vom Herausgeber eine solche Rekonstruktion von Briefwechseln überhaupt angestrebt wurde.

Es ist davon auszugehen, dass Deleuze außerdem die vollständige Veröffentlichung seiner Briefe nicht vorsah und wahrscheinlich auch nicht erwartet hätte, da er bei der Autorisierung (so etwa bei der auszugsweisen Publikation seines Briefs über Kant an Alain Vinson (17f.)) äußerste Zurückhaltung an den Tag legte. Die Diskussion um Deleuzes Verhältnis zu Briefen flammte posthum schon mit dem Nachruf Clameur de l’être (1997; Geschrei des Seins) von Alain Badiou (*1937) auf, in dem dieser nicht nur seine eigenwillige Interpretation von Deleuze niederschrieb („Metaphysik des Einen“), sondern freimütig sein (Nicht-)Verhältnis zu Deleuze aus seiner Sicht schildert, welches sich jedoch ausschließlich anhand des Narrativs von Badiou nachvollziehen und einschätzen lässt. Nach einer jahrzehntelangen Distanz und offenen (vornehmlich politisch induzierten) Kontroversen begannen die beiden Anfang der 1990er-Jahre einen kurzen, aber intensiven Briefwechsel über ihre theoretischen Divergenzen. Nach Badious Darstellung brach Deleuze, schon in seinen letzten Lebensjahren und durch Krankheit geschwächt, die Korrespondenz 1994 abrupt ab, teilte Badiou die Vernichtung der Briefe mit und verbat sich eine Veröffentlichung ebendieser (Badiou 2003, 14).

So interessant dieser Austausch für Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit wäre, wird Deleuzes Wunsch natürlich entsprochen und es finden sich keine Briefe an Badiou in Letters and Other Texts. Die beschriebene Episode wirft allerdings die Frage auf, nach welchen Kriterien die Briefe in Letters zusammengestellt wurden, was in dem Buch leider nicht ausgeführt wird: anhand der Verfügbarkeit und Zugänglichkeit oder des Ausbleibens eines dezidierten Veröffentlichungsverbot? Das editorische Problem, über keine Antworten der Empfänger zu verfügen, wird zwar in der Einleitung angesprochen, das moralische Problem der Veröffentlichung jedoch nur auf Deleuzes Frühwerke bezogen. Wenn Lapoujade in der Vorbemerkung Deleuzes allgemeines Verhältnis zu Briefen thematisiert, erkennt er zwar eine Ambivalenz an, lässt die Leser:innen aber nicht an weiteren Überlegungen zu diesem grundsätzlichen Dilemma teilhaben.

Ein ähnlich gelagertes Problem wie die Briefe betrifft die frühen Texte „Description of Women“ (1945), „From Christ to the Bourgeoisie“ (1946), „Words and Profiles“ (1946), „Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy“ (1946) sowie „Introduction to Diderot’s La Religieuse“ (1946), die vor 1953 erschienen sind, von Deleuze allerdings wie schon erwähnt später zurückgezogen wurden. Argumentiert wird dies durchaus überzeugend damit, dass diese (teilweise in veränderter/verfälschter Form) schon in Deleuze-Zirkeln kursiert seien und deshalb auf dieses Faktum nur mehr mit der Edition reagiert werden könne. Somit geht es Lapoujade und den Rechteinhaber:innen Fanny, Émilie Deleuze sowie Irène Lindon darum, eine autorisierte sowie originale Form dieser Texte zu gewährleisten. Die vorangestellte provisorische Bibliographie (11ff.) – von Deleuze wahrscheinlich 1989 erstellt – beginnt mit Empirismus und Subjektivität, seinem Hume-Buch 1953, was nicht einer gewissen Ironie entbehrt, wird somit die in Letters and Other Texts vollzogene Unterminierung der bewussten Auslassung seiner Frühschriften gleich von Anfang an ins Werk gesetzt.

Die Warnung, die Deleuze an Arnaud Villani 1981 ausspricht – „Don’t let me become an object of fascination or headache for you.” (80) – kann jedenfalls für die akademische Auseinandersetzung schon lange (zurecht) als überholt gelten. Mit dem vorliegenden Band dringt die Faszination in noch deutlich weitere Bereiche vor, die Deleuze selbst wahrscheinlich besagte Kopfschmerzen bereitet hätten. Obwohl Deleuze jungen Doktoranden in einer Mischung aus Bescheidenheit und Sorge um ihre universitäre Karriere rät, den Fokus ihrer Thesis nicht hauptsächlich auf ihn zu richten (an Villani, 80; an Voeffray, 91; an Martin, 94), nimmt er spätestens mit diesem Band einen Platz im historisierten Kanon ein, wo jedes jemals geschriebene (sowie gesprochene) Wort seziert und akademisch verwertet wird, was selbstredend auch auf den Autor dieser Zeilen zutrifft. Gerade die (immer auch, aber nicht nur) privaten Briefwechsel legen Zeugnis davon ab, wie sich die Deleuze-Rezeption diesbezüglich intensiviert und auch historisiert hat, sodass Letters nicht nur inhaltlich, sondern auch in der Form über die vorhergehenden Die einsame Insel und Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft hinausgeht. Deleuze formuliert in diesem Sinne an Joseph Emmanuel Voeffray reuevoll: “I should never have read a book on me at all.” (91).

Wie bereits ausgeführt, sah Deleuze das Medium „Brief“ einerseits nicht als übermäßig bedeutsam an, weshalb auch keine seiner empfangenen Zuschriften erhalten sind (denken wir an die vorher geschilderte Episode mit Badiou), andererseits auch nicht als eine Erweiterung seiner im Entstehen begriffenen Arbeiten, sondern entkoppelt von seinen Publikationen. Direkte, wenn auch kokettierende Verweise auf sein Verhältnis zu Briefen aus Letters and Other Texts sind etwa das eingangs zitierte: “Don’t think I am a compulsive letter writer or that I have a sense of dialogue. I hate it.” (72, an Gherasim Luca) oder an Pierre Klossowski: “I can no longer write a letter, it’s terrible. Effect of the solitude I nonetheless love.” (66)

Dies spiegelt sich zum Großteil auch in den Briefen selbst wider, die zwar spannende Einblicke in das Leben von Deleuze geben, so etwa in seine Lektüren, Aufenthaltsorte oder auch seinen Gesundheitszustand – dabei stets mehr beruflich als privat. Allerdings geht Deleuze in den Schreiben kaum philosophisch in die Tiefe oder gibt Erläuterungen für sein Werk bzw. seine Konzepte – mit faszinierenden Ausnahmen, auf die ich zurückkommen werde. Nur folgerichtig, wenn man bedenkt, was er Clément Rosset 1981 als Entschuldigung, Villani nicht in Paris getroffen zu haben, mitteilt: „[…] philosophical conversations are a pain” (23).

Begeben wir uns jedoch auf die Ebene der Entstehungskontexte, so ergeben sich interessante Zusammenhänge, von denen wiederum Rückschlüsse für andere Werke gezogen werden können.

So schreibt er im April 1968 an Jean Piel, dass ein Artikel zu Lewis Carroll derart den Rahmen von Umfang und Fragestellung sprenge, so dass es sich zu einem Buch entwickle (33). Betrachtet man das daraus entstandene Logik des Sinns (1969) unter dieser Voraussetzung als aus einem Text zu Carroll entstanden, lädt dies zu einer dementsprechend gewichteten Re-Lektüre durch diese Brille ein.

Der allgemeine Duktus der Schriften orientiert sich an einem Vorsatz, den er an François Châtelet im Jahr 1966 so formulierte: man benötige eine gewisse Wertschätzung um über etwas zu schreiben. So sei es ihm (Deleuze) lieber, gar nicht zu schreiben anstatt eines Verrisses (27). Diese Haltung scheint über weite Strecken auch in den Briefen durch, die geprägt von Höflichkeit, Anerkennung, Wertschätzung und Zuneigung sind, auch wenn dies sicherlich einer stilistischen Komponente geschuldet ist.

In den vorhergehenden Textsammlungen erschienen bereits Briefe, die in Letters nicht mehr aufgenommen wurden, so etwa an Jean-Clet Martin, Kuniichi Uno, Dionys Mascolo (Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft) sowie der „Brief an einen strengen Kritiker“/Michel Cressole  (Unterhandlungen), wobei insbesondere der Brief an Cressole (aber auch an Martin) durchaus eine Öffentlichkeit über den eigentlichen Empfänger hinaus adressiert – siehe auch den Verweis auf Cressole im Schreiben an Villani (77). Die Briefe ermöglichen einerseits die Erläuterung von schwer zu fassenden Begriffen [concepts] seiner Philosophie in einem einfacheren Stil, andererseits geben sie Innenansichten über Enstehungskontexte, Arbeitsweisen oder Methoden. In der Polemik gegen Cressole findet sich neben den Hinweisen auf seine philosophische Evolution etwa die berühmte Stelle über Deleuzes eigenes philosophisches Lesen und Produzieren, nämlich klassische Philosophen „von hinten zu nehmen“ und ihnen ein monströses Kind zu machen, das trotzdem ihres sei (Deleuze 1993, 15f.). Aber auch die Darstellung der ödipalen und repressiven Funktion der Philosophiegeschichte für das Denken stammt aus dem Schreiben an Cressole. Dagegen beleuchtet Deleuze in der Korrespondenz mit Uno besonders das Kennenlernen sowie die Zusammenarbeit mit Guattari in einer detaillierten Ausführlichkeit, wie sie sonst nicht bekannt wäre (Deleuze 2005, 223ff.). Und in dem Brief an Martin beschreibt er konzise die philosophische Operation der Begriffsschaffung [création], die sich stets am Konkreten zu orientieren habe, um erst von diesem zu Abstrakta vorzudringen (Deleuze 2005, 345).

Es ließe sich jedoch vermuten, dass die schon publizierten Briefe (in Unterhandlungen und Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft) inhaltlich begründet, d.h. aufgrund ihrer theoretischen Relevanz bereits in diesen Bänden erschienen sind, weshalb Letters and Other Texts ein wenig wie ein Residuum anmutet, wenngleich auch daraus wichtige und interessante Passagen für die Deleuze-Forschung zu extrahieren sind. Neben den bereits erwähnten Exzerpten sind dies vor allem:

  • Nachträgliche Werkeinordnungen, wie zum Beispiel in einem Brief an Arnaud Villani 1981, in dem Deleuze die Wichtigkeit seines Textes über den Strukturalismus (Deleuze 2005, 248ff.) sowie Teilen von Logik des Sinns relativiert, welche noch zu sehr der Psychoanalyse verhaftet bzw. in Bezug auf die Serien zu strukturalistisch gedacht seien (79).
  • Ein Schreiben an Joseph Emmanuel Voeffray 1982 primär über transzendentalen Empirismus (88f.), in dem Deleuze einen Bogen von den Problemen seiner Hauptwerke Ende der 1960er (Differenz und Wiederholung; Logik des Sinns) zu seiner aktuellen Beschäftigung (kurz nach Tausend Plateaus) spannt und besonders auf die stattgefundene Verschiebung zum Komplex „Abstrakte Maschine—Konkretes Gefüge“ verweist. Gleichzeitig deutet sich schon die Wiederaufnahme des transzendentalen Empirismus im Spätwerk an (89).
  • Die Selbstbezeichnung „pure metaphysician“ (78) aus einer Beantwortung von Fragen an Arnaud Villani 1980, die sich bereits zur Chiffre in der Deleuze-Forschung verselbständigt hat. Der Kontext dieser Charakterisierung liegt darin, den Schluss von Tausend Plateaus als Kategorientafel im Sinne Whiteheads (nicht Kants) zu verstehen (Deleuze/Guattari 1992, 695ff.). Im Anschluss an Bergson gehe es darum, den modernen Wissenschaften eine Metaphysik zu geben (78). Etwa in der Interpretation von Bonta/Protevi gelingt Deleuze (und Guattari) dies mit der Geophilosophie, allerdings beschreiben sie es als Deleuzes Ontologie, nicht als Metaphysik (Bonta/Protevi, 2006, viii).
  • Besagter Fragebogen von Villani, welcher allerdings zuvor schon in dessen Buch La Guêpe et l’orchidée (1999) erschienen ist, bietet auch sonst interessante Gesichtspunkte, so etwa die Philosophie als Wissenschaft zu klassifizieren, wenn sie die Bedingungen der Problematisierung bestimme (78).
  • Ausgesprochen informativ ist ein Verweis auf von Deleuze selbst ausgewählte kurze Textauszüge seiner Schriften (nur 2-10 Seiten) in einem Brief an Elias Sanbar im Jahre 1985 für eine Anthologie auf Arabisch (92f.). Ohne diese Selektion zu einem „Best-of“ erklären zu wollen, wirft sie ein Schlaglicht auf Passagen, die Deleuze selber (aus der Sicht von 1985) als essentiell oder paradigmatisch für sein Werk einstuft.

Besonders hervorzuheben ist ferner der Austausch mit Félix Guattari (1930-1992), Deleuzes langjährigem Freund („I also feel that we were friends before meeting“, 35) und Ko-Autor: „Es gibt nur ein Rhizom zwischen Félix und mir.“ (78; Übers. RG) Die beiden lernten sich im Frühjahr 1969 in der Region Limousin kennen und kurze Zeit später begann der erste Briefwechsel, welcher recht schnell den Beginn der Zusammenarbeit für den Anti-Ödipus (1972) einleitete. Die Briefe geben Einblicke in die erste Phase des Entstehungsprozesses des Anti-Ödipus, allerdings maximal als Ergänzung zu dem bereits 2006 erschienen, hauptsächlich auf Guattaris Beiträge fokussierten Buch The Anti-Œdipus Papers (hg. von Stéphane Nadaud), wo vornehmlich die Textentwicklung des Anti-Ödipus aufbereitet und dargestellt wird. Die in Letters gesammelten Briefe an Guattari (sicher nur ein Bruchteil der tatsächlichen Korrespondenz) zeigen jedoch darüber hinaus den Duktus und Ton der Kommunikation von Deleuze gegenüber Guattari – wie genau er dessen Texte ab ihrer ersten Begegnung 1969 liest und dessen Thesen (zum Beispiel den Maschinenbegriff) aufnimmt bzw. verarbeitet. Auch zwei Briefe im Rahmen der Vorbereitung für Tausend Plateaus sind im Buch enthalten, wozu bislang im Vergleich zum Anti-Ödipus deutlich weniger Quellenmaterial veröffentlicht wurde. Grenzwertig private Aufschlüsse ergeben sich aus einem dieser Briefe außerdem über die Art und Weise, wie bzw. über welches Medium die Auseinandersetzung mit den so genannten „Neuen Philosophen“ um Bernard-Henri Lévy Ende der 1970er Jahre am besten stattzufinden habe (51ff.).

Auch in anderen Briefen wird Guattari natürlich immer wieder Thema, so etwa im wiederholten Insistieren von Deleuze gegenüber Villani (immerhin im Abstand von drei Jahren), in dessen Texten bzw. Buch über Deleuze der Rolle von Guattari für die gemeinsamen Schriften zu seinem Recht zu verhelfen und diesem eine größere Relevanz für ihre gemeinsam erarbeiteten Konzepte einzuräumen (82; 84ff.). Deleuze stößt sich insbesondere an Villanis (verfehlter) Interpretation, Tausend Plateaus beruhe vornehmlich auf seiner Philosophie bzw. sei hauptsächlich von Deleuze verfasst.

Dies ist selbstredend eine der zentralen Fragen, die sich für die Deleuze&Guattari-Forschung in Bezug auf das rhizomatisch verflochtene Tandem stellt und die nach wie vor extensiv untersucht wird. Diesbezüglich ist wiederum eine Stelle aus dem Villani-Fragebogen von Interesse, in dem Deleuze bemerkt, dass die Mikro-Makro-Unterscheidung in Tausend Plateaus mehr von Guattari komme, wobei Deleuze die Unterscheidung zwischen zwei Typen von Mannigfaltigkeiten (die sich von seinem Bergson-Buch bis zu Tausend Plateaus mehr oder weniger durchzieht) dieser vorgelagert sieht und den Begriff der Mannigfaltigkeit [multiplicité] für wichtiger als die Mikrophysik (mehr ein Konzept Foucaults als Guattaris im Gegensatz zur Mikropolitik, Anm.) erachtet (79). Tausend Plateaus zeigt, wie diese verschiedenen Aspekte nebeneinander als Plateaus ko-existieren können, da einerseits die Mikro-Makro-Unterscheidung in diesem Werk ihre höchste Wichtigkeit erlangt (vor allem im 9. und 10. Plateau: „1933 — Mikropolitik und Segmentarität“ sowie „1730 — Intensiv-Werden, Tier-Werden, Unwahrnehmbar-Werden…“) und andererseits Deleuze/Guattari das gesamte Buch als „Theorie der Mannigfaltigkeiten“ (Deleuze/Guattari 1992, II) zusammenfassen.

Daran anschließend passt dazu das (neben den Briefen) meiner Ansicht nach zentrale Element des Buches – ein sehr ausführliches, aber auch aufschlussreiches Interview über den Anti-Ödipus mit Raymond Bellour, welches aber nie publiziert wurde, da es in der eigentlich angedachten Zeitschrift Les Temps modernes auf Intervention Guattaris aus politischen Gründen (wahrscheinlich die maoistische Prägung der Zeitschrift Anfang der 1970er) nicht erschien. Das Interview ist aus mehreren Gründen lesenswert sowie lehrreich:

1. Die Atmosphäre des Interviews schwankt zwischen locker-belustigt und angespannt. Besonders Guattari scheint von Bellours Fragen eher genervt zu sein („your question is lousy“, 200; „he’s going to say something stupid”, 205), was allerdings sowohl Guattari als auch Deleuze viele Erklärungen, Umschreibungen und Beispiele ihrer Thesen entlockt, die insbesondere für das Verständnis von Strömen [flux] oder ihrer Kritik an der familialen, reduktionistischen, ödipalen Psychoanalyse zugunsten eines sozialen und politischen Feldes gewinnbringend sind.

2. Wirft es ein Schlaglicht auf das Verhältnis von Deleuze und Guattari, ihrer (humorvollen) Kommunikation, gegenseitigen Vorlieben, aber auch Differenzen. So betritt Deleuze nach einem Telefongespräch wieder den Raum, worauf Guattari ihm mitteilt: „I said the opposite of what you said.“ Deleuze antwortet lapidar: “Good. Very good.” (231) Im Speziellen sticht der Fokus auf die politische Dimension hervor, die insbesondere Guattari immer wieder einbringt. Eine oft vorgetragene These, dass Guattari das Politische, wenn er es doch nicht in Deleuze hineintrage, so doch mehr zum Vorschein bringe und einfordere, zeigt sich in diesem Interview paradigmatisch.

3. Die starke bzw. umfassende Beschäftigung und Auseinandersetzung mit der Psychoanalyse, die Ende der 1960er/Anfang der 1970er noch eine viel breitere gesellschaftliche Rolle spielte. Noch vor dem Erscheinen über den Anti-Ödipus richtete Deleuze an Klossowski die Prognose: „either silence or war with psychoanalysts” (61) Auch in besagtem Interview vertreten Deleuze/Guattari ihre zentralen Thesen, wie etwa, dass das Begehren/der Wunsch [désir] nicht auf die Erfüllung eines Mangels zu reduzieren, sondern Produktion sei. Durch die beharrlichen Nachfragen Bellours entstehen bemerkenswerte (aber auch zugängliche) Passagen, beispielsweise die Forderung (sowie auch praktische Anwendung), konsequent in Strömen [flux], Intensitäten und Mannigfaltigkeiten zu denken und nicht einfach von präexistenten Fixpunkten (Subjekt/Objekt) auszugehen (200f.).

Zu guter Letzt geht es mir passenderweise um die Frage nach der Wirkung eines Buchs. Beklagt Deleuze im Interview 1973 noch den akademischen Aspekt des Anti-Ödipus als Ärgernis, wenn auch damit kokettierend (Guattari: „Exactly, it’s Gilles‘ fault.“ (208)), so klingt dies im Brief an Villani 1986, also 13 Jahre später, deutlich anders, man möchte sagen (wieder) deutlich akademischer. Deleuze nennt dem jungen Freund drei Aspekte, die ein existierenswertes Buch ausmachen sollten: In bisherigen Studien zum jeweiligen Thema 1. einen Fehler zu korrigieren (polemische Funktion), 2. etwas Übersehenes zum Vorschein bringen (erfinderische Funktion) sowie 3. einen Begriff [concept] zu schaffen (schöpferische Funktion). Interessanterweise steht dies in einem Spannungsverhältnis dazu, was Deleuze und Guattari im Anschluss an den Anti-Ödipus nicht müde werden zu betonen und auch im in Letters enthaltenen Interview immer wieder ansprechen (198f.; 207f.). So werden sie nicht müde zu betonen, das Buch nicht als Buch zu verstehen, sondern vornehmlich auf die (politischen) Effekte außerhalb und transversale Verbindungslinien abzuzielen sowie Äußerungsgefüge und Gefüge des Begehrens zu schaffen. Funktion des Buches sei dabei, nicht zu überzeugen, sondern abzuholen, wer die Psychoanalyse, aber auch das Subjekt, das Ego satthabe (207). Dass sich diese Hoffnung nicht erfüllen sollte, zeigt sich insbesondere in der Einschätzung im Vorwort zur italienischen Ausgabe von Tausend Plateaus. In einer seltenen Rückschau über die unterschiedliche Rezeption der zwei Bände ihres Opus magnum zu Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie ziehen sie Jahre später (1987) ein gänzlich anderes Fazit  noch im Interview 1973, weshalb ich ausführlicher zitiere: „Tausend Plateaus (1980) war die Fortsetzung des Anti-Ödipus (1972). Aber beide Bücher hatten objektiv ganz verschiedene Schicksale. Das lag sicherlich an den Umständen: die bewegte Zeit des einen, die noch unter dem Einfluß von 68 stand, und die Zeit der seichten flaute, der Gleichgültigkeit, in der das andere erschien. Tausend Plateaus ist von all unseren Büchern am schlechtesten aufgenommen worden. Wenn wir es dennoch besonders mögen, dann nicht so, wie eine Mutter ihr mißratenes Kind liebt. Der Anti-Ödipus war sehr erfolgreich, aber dieser Erfolg wurde von einem noch größeren Scheitern begleitet. Der Anti-Ödipus wollte auf die Verwüstungen Hinweisen, die Ödipus, das ‚Mama-Papa‘, in der Psychoanalyse, in der Psychiatrie und selbst in der Anti-Psychiatrie, in der Literaturkritik und im allgemeinen Bild, das man sich vom Denken macht, anrichtet. Wir haben davon geträumt, Ödipus den Garaus zu machen. Aber diese Aufgabe war zu groß für uns. Die Reaktion auf 68 hat gezeigt, wie stark Ödipus noch in der Familie war und wie er weiterhin in der Psychoanalyse, in der Literatur und überall im Denken sein Regime der kindlichen Weinerlichkeit ausübte. So blieb Ödipus für uns eine schwere Belastung. Tausend Plateaus hat uns dagegen, zumindest uns, trotz seines scheinbaren Mißerfolgs, einen Schritt weitergebracht und uns unbekannte und von Ödipus unberührte Gebiete entdecken lassen, die der Anti-Ödipus nur von ferne sehen konnte, ohne in sie vorzudringen.“ (Deleuze/Guattari 1992, I)

Auch in Letters reflektiert und resümiert Deleuze in einzelnen Passagen über intendierte, aber auch unerwünschte Effekte seiner Bücher. So bemerkt er in einem Brief an Voeffray (1983), dass die Schriften über Proust und Kafka keine Wirkung in seinem Sinne entfalteten (im Gegensatz zu dem Buch über Masoch). Indes waren Konzepte wie „Tier-Werden“ oder „Rhizom“ umgekehrt so erfolgreich, dass sie in einer Weise bar jeder Logik (!) verwendet wurden, die Guattari und ihn abstoße: „I sometimes feel like I’m being roasted by idiotic parasites.“ (91) – eine im Vergleich zum allgemeinen Duktus der Briefe seltene sprachliche Schärfe. Bei aller Kritik am vorliegenden Band könnte die nun vollständig vorliegende Edition der Schriften und Briefe im besten Falle einen Beitrag zum Schutz gegen idiotische Instrumentalisierungen von Deleuze liefern.

Wer darauf hofft, in Letters and Other Texts neue Theoriebausteine oder Verbindungslinien zu finden, welche fundamental andersartige Perspektiven auf und in Deleuzes Philosophie erschließen, muss enttäuscht werden. Das Buch beinhaltet jedoch wertvolle neu publizierte Texte und eröffnet in seiner Gesamtheit neue Ebenen, auf denen die Mannigfaltigkeit an deleuzianischen Strömen [flux] ineinander übergehen und sich verknüpfen lassen.


Badiou, Alain. 2003. Deleuze. »Das Geschrei des Seins«. Diaphanes: Zürich/Berlin [Deleuze. »La clameur de l’Etre«, 1997].

Bonta, Mark/ Protevi, Jon. 2006. Deleuze and Geophilosophy. A Guide and Glossary. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh [2004].

Deleuze, Gilles. 2020. Letters and Other Texts, hg. von David Lapoujade. Semiotext(e): South Pasadena [Lettres et autres textes, 2015].

Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Félix. 1977. Anti-Ödipus. Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie I. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main [L’Anti-Œdipe, 1972].

Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Félix. 1992. Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie. Tausend Plateaus. Merve Verlag: Berlin [Mille plateaux. Capitalisme et schizophrénie, 1980].

Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. Logik des Sinns. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main [Logique du sens, 1969].

Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. Unterhandlungen 1972-1990. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main [Pourparlers 1972-1990, 1990].

Deleuze, Gilles. 1997. David Hume. Campus Verlag: Frankfurt am Main/New York [Empirisme et Subjectivité. Essai sur la nature humaine selon Hume, 1953].

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Die einsame Insel. Texte und Gespräche von 1953 bis 1974, hg. von David Lapoujade. Frankfurt am Main [L’ile déserte et autres textes. Textes et entretiens 1953-1974, 2002].

Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Schizophrenie und Gesellschaft. Texte und Gespräche von 1975 bis 1995, hg. von David Lapoujade. Frankfurt am Main [Deux régimes de fous et autres textes (1975-1995), 2003].

Guattari, Félix. 2006. The Anti-Œdipus Papers, hg. von Stéphane Nadaud. New York [Écrits pour l‘Anti-Œdipe, 2005].

[1] Seitenzahlen ohne weitere Angabe referieren auf Letters and Other Texts (Deleuze 2020).

[2] Ich verwende in dieser Rezension, wenn vorhanden, die deutschen Übersetzungen, allerdings das jeweilige Ersterscheinungsjahr im Original.

Gilles Deleuze: Letters and Other Texts

Letters and Other Texts Book Cover Letters and Other Texts
Gilles Deleuze. Edited by David Lapoujade. Translated by Ames Hodges
Paperback $19.95

Reviewed by: James Cartlidge (Central European University, Budapest/Vienna)

It is hard to overstate the effect Gilles Deleuze had (and continues to have) on academia. For someone who defined philosophy as the creation of concepts and devoted himself to the task so prolifically, it would surely be pleasing to him that people working in every corner of the human sciences have engaged with his creations. Deleuze’s philosophy is multi-faceted and complicated, but had a constant emphasis on thinking reality in its flux and becoming – and concepts are no exception. As Daniel Smith points out: “concepts are not eternal and timeless (true in all times and all places), but are created, invented, produced in response to shifting problematics”[i], and subject to change. Deleuze’s concepts have been given countless applications, developments, revisions, interpretations and reinterpretations, and they continue to resonate with many, philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Alas, Deleuze is no longer around to develop them himself, but the hive of activity around his work and the fascination it elicits for many shows no sign of abating. Two posthumous volumes of his work have appeared so far: Desert Islands and Other Texts and Two Regimes of Madness. Collected in them are numerous essays, interviews, conferences and other texts published in French between 1953 and 1995, which do not appear in any of Deleuze’s books. Letters and Other Texts is the third and final volume of this project. While it may not be as substantial as the previous two, the letters offer us a fascinating glimpse into Deleuze’s personality as a friend and academic, and there are some very interesting additions among the ‘other texts’. Academically speaking, those familiar with Deleuze’s work will find valuable resources for chronicling the development of some of his ideas, and the uninitiated will find useful texts to read alongside some of his major works – especially the long, hitherto-unpublished interview (with Guattari and Raymond Bellour) about Anti-Oedipus.

The book is structured into three parts, as David Lapoujade clarifies in his brief introduction:

  1. A set of letters addressed to different correspondents out of friendship or circumstance;
  2. A series of texts published or circulated during Deleuze’s life that were not included in the two previous volumes of posthumous texts;
  3. The four texts published before 1953 that Deleuze renounced although their publication can no longer be avoided. (7)

The book comes with some warnings. Many of these texts were either published but renounced later by Deleuze, or unintended for publication. Some of them he was thinking about publishing, but did not necessarily prepare them for it. There are texts here that are only being published at the wishes of his family, since they are being circulated containing errors and without authorization, and the letters (with one exception) were never intended for publication. Deleuze considered them to be private and not part of his work, even though he discusses his work in them. There are also significant gaps because Deleuze did not keep his mail – we do not have the responses of his correspondents, and many of the letters are not dated (though helpful approximations are made by Lapoujade). But these are only factors to bear in mind, and should not deter anyone from engaging with this valuable collection. From the perspective of studying his work and being interested in him as a human being, there are some brilliant pieces in here. Anyone familiar with the L’Abécédaire interview with Claire Parnet will know first-hand what an engaging and articulate speaker Deleuze was, and this also comes out in the letters (and the Anti-Oedipus interview). L’Abécédaire is essential viewing for those studying Deleuze because of its depth, breadth and brilliance, but also its relative straightforwardness compared to his published works. In Deleuze’s published work there is a commitment to the idea that a philosophical concept should not necessarily be easy to grasp, and must be wrestled with, thought about, thought about again, struggled to be comprehended. This is much less obvious in his interviews and letters, which are exceptionally clear and engaging, and nowhere near as much of a struggle to understand.

Let’s begin with the letters, and especially on the point of what they tell us about Deleuze as a person and professional. They are a very pleasant read, revealing Deleuze’s amiability at every turn and his deep admiration for his correspondents, especially Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault and the poet Gherasim Luca. From the perspective of his philosophical work and his intimate, most personal thoughts, they do not reveal too much – but there are some notable exceptions. Most of these correspondences are of a professional nature, and the minutiae of academic life found in them are charming. Apparently his course on cinema was his most worrying and difficult, which was a surprise to  him. (81) He didn’t seem to be a big fan of conferences or speaking at them – not entirely a surprise coming from someone who “insist[ed] that the activity of thought took place primarily in writing, and not in dialogue and discussion.”[ii] His two favourite parts of A Thousand Plateaus were the intimately-connected ‘Becoming-animal’ and ‘Refrain’ plateaus, which deal primarily with music and territorialization. (84) Dryly, he claimed (probably in 1970) that he’d “rather have another tuberculosis cavity than start over at Lyon.” (29) “This thesis pursues me as much as I pursue it” (31) he wrote to Jean Piel. To Guattari: “as usual, after my enthusiasm, doubt sets in.” (51) (Who hasn’t felt this way when writing a thesis at some point?) There are refreshing sections where Deleuze imparts advice on those that ask for it, like when Clement Rosset asks about writing his thesis (20-21), or Arnaud Villani considers writing about Deleuze.

Don’t let me become an object of fascination or a headache for you. I have seen cases of people who wanted to become the ‘disciple’ of someone and who definitely had as much talent as the ‘master’ but who ended up sterilized. It’s awful. […] You deserve much more than just being my commentator. (80)

There is one tension of significance to be found in the letters, and it also comes in the correspondence with Villani. The latter published a review of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s texts that substantially downplays Guattari’s role, much to Deleuze’s annoyance. Deleuze vehemently sticks up for Guattari in multiple letters: “remember that you have often taken my defence without me asking for it and here I am defending Felix who is not asking for it either.” (85) Many of these letters seem to show Deleuze to be self-effacing, often eschewing recognition and downplaying his achievements in favour of those he writes to, always giving credit where credit is due. Nevertheless, when the spotlight is directly on him, he takes it with grace: it is hard not to smile at his veritable elation at getting a positive review from Foucault, and how genuinely pleased he is with how he engages with his work: “I have both the impression that you understand me fully and that at the same time you have surpassed me. It’s a dream.” (68)

But what do the letters have to tell us about Deleuze’s philosophy? There are a few exchanges to look out for here. In a letter to Alain Vinson, for instance, Deleuze answers questions about Kant’s critical philosophy and his book on the subject. In the only portion of the letters that was published, Deleuze answers a questionnaire about his work sent by Arnaud Villani, where Deleuze’s well-known characterization of himself as “a pure metaphysician” (78) appears. Villani also asks Deleuze to summarise his disparate texts at some point, leading him to wonder if there is any kind of unity between them. His answer describes what he takes to be the three principal characteristics of any useful book, which might provide some readers with some guidance:

a book, if it deserves to exist, can be presented in three quick aspects: you do not write a “worthy” book unless: 1) you think that the books on the same subject or on a neighbouring subject fall into a type of overall error (polemical function of the book); 2) you think that something essential has been forgotten in relation to the subject (inventive function); 3) you believe yourself capable of creating a new concept (creative function). (86)

These aspects of his texts are exemplified later with some references to his books on Proust and Sacher-Masoch. (An essay on Sacher-Masoch is also included in the diverse texts.) Elsewhere, the letters to Jean Piel include some descriptions of the development of The Logic of Sense, and there is a very helpful and clear discussion of ‘transcendental empiricism’ in the letters to Joseph Emmanuel Voeffray.

But perhaps most important is the correspondence between Deleuze and Guattari, which mostly consists of discussions about the development of what would become their most well-known and well-read work: the two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Of especial interest are the letters about Anti-Oedipus, which contain early attempts to work out the exact direction and questions of their inquiry, and to formulate their concepts, such as ‘machine’. I would emphasize that seasoned students of Deleuze and Guattari may not find anything new or surprising here, but those struggling with the undeniable difficulty of reading Anti-Oedipus for the first time may find helpful the more concise and clear propositions about the aim of the text that appear in these letters. For instance:

as long as we think that economic structures only reach the unconscious through the intermediary of the family and Oedipus, we can’t even understand the problem […] what are the socioeconomic mechanisms capable of bearing directly on the unconscious? (37, 39)

In fact, Anti-Oedipus is probably the text that comes to the fore more than any other in Letters and Other Texts, owing not just to this correspondence, but the long interview conducted with Deleuze and Guattari by Raymond Bellour, which I will come to later.

I will not go into too much detail about the ‘writings of youth’, not only because Deleuze renounced them later on, but because they are not of as much interest as the letters and ‘diverse texts’. Suffice it to say that there are some early essays and book introductions here, including the first essay Deleuze published: ‘description of women’. It is understandable, given Deleuze’s later writings, why he distanced himself from work like this. Not to say that the essay is bad, or uninteresting, but it is of a completely different style and orientation than his mature philosophy. It clearly bears influence from Sartre and phenomenology, and is of a decidedly existentialist bent both in style and content, as passages like this show:

Major principle: things did not wait for me to have their meaning. Or at least, which comes to the same from a descriptive standpoint, I am not aware that they waited for me. Meaning is objectively inscribed in the thing: there is something tiring, and that is all. This big, round sun, this climbing road, this fatigue in the lower back. I do not have anything to do with it. I am not the one who is tired. I do not invent anything, I do not project anything, I do not bring anything into the world, I am nothing, not even a nothing, especially not: nothing more than an expression. I do not attach my little meanings onto things. The object does not have a meaning, it is its meaning. (254)

Again, this is by no means a poor essay, but the kind of work Deleuze would go on to do and the philosophers he would later most associate himself with are completely different. He goes on to criticise phenomenology and place importance on philosophers that were at the time not studied that much in France. Deleuze was working in a time where ‘the three Hs’ – Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger – were prevalent in French philosophy education. Deleuze eschewed this tradition and the major philosophy of the day (existentialism, Marxism, phenomenology) in favour of what he sometimes called the ‘minor’ history of philosophy, which he found more productive: Hume, Spinoza, Proust, Nietzsche, Bergson. Deleuze’s mature work would amount to a criticism of the movements, styles and philosophers he shows more allegiance to in his early essays  – but they are nonetheless of interest for the topics he discusses.

Philosophically and academically speaking, the ‘diverse texts’ are the best in this collection. Of interest are the two texts on Hume: a course Deleuze was thinking about publishing, and an essay submitted as part of his agrégation exam on the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – “undoubtedly the only example of real ‘dialogues’ in philosophy.” (183) Hume was a particularly important philosopher for Deleuze – his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity, is devoted to the interpretation of his work, and anyone interested in tracing this aspect of Deleuze’s career will find much worth in these two texts. The course is excellent, but consists of notes that Deleuze would presumably have expanded on at length in class, so it reads very densely and can be difficult to connect the dots at times. The Dialogues text is much more polished, contains brief summarizations of some of the text’s key arguments and offers reflections on the significance of the Dialogues and their correct interpretation. Deleuze explains nicely how the problem of religious belief becomes a problem for Hume because of the consequences of his wider theory of knowledge:

Hume finds belief at the foundation of knowledge. At the base of knowledge, there is belief […] The problem of religious belief then takes on greater urgency because one can no longer appeal to the heterogeneity of the two domains, knowledge and faith. […] Since everything is belief, the question is knowing under what conditions a belief is legitimate and forms true knowledge. (184)

And he is absolutely strident on which character represents Hume (which is Philo):

There is […] a common interpretation that says Hume put some of his thought into each of the characters: it is an untenable interpretation because it neglects both the originality and the essential of the Dialogues, that they go entirely against the idea of natural religion. (184)

Also in the diverse texts is a short, remarkably positive book review of an ethnographic text by Pierre Clastres, a French anthropologist Deleuze admired greatly and whose importance in relation to Deleuze and Guattari is perhaps underappreciated. Clastres is cited approvingly a couple of times in Anti-Oedipus but referenced more often and substantially in A Thousand Plateaus, which appeared three years after his untimely death in 1977. Part of the ‘war machine’ plateau is written as a tribute to his memory and makes use of his fascinating work on the Guayaki Indians, and his anti-evolutionary theory of so-called ‘primitive societies’, expressed by Deleuze and Guattari as follows:

Societies termed primitive are not societies without a State, in the sense that they failed to reach a certain stage, but are counter-State societies organizing mechanisms that ward off the State-form, which make its crystallization impossible.[iii]

The reason so-called primitive societies don’t have a state, on Clastres’ account, is because they put mechanisms in place to make sure it never arises, as though they unconsciously ‘saw’ ahead of time that this would be necessary. Given the power that Clastres’ ideas seemed to have for Deleuze and Guattari, it is interesting to see Deleuze engage with Clastres’ ethnographic text. He describes his style as one which “attains an ever-increasing sobriety that intensifies its effect and turns this book, page after page, into a masterpiece. […] In truth, it is a new ethnography, with love, humour, and procedures formed on location.” (192-193) Though the review was published in 1972, there are parts which arguably seem to anticipate the language of ‘lines of flight’ and ‘rhizomatic connections’ that would feature more heavily in A Thousand Plateaus, such as when Deleuze is describing Clastres’ method:

He enters his tribe from any direction. And there he follows the first line of conjunction that presents itself to him: what beings and what things do the Guayaki place in conjunction? He follows this line to the point where, precisely, these beings or things diverge, even if they form other conjunctions…etc. Example: there is a first line “manhunter-forest-bow-animal killed”; then a disjunction woman-bow (the woman should not touch the bow); from which a new conjunction “woman-basket-campsite…” starts; another disjunction “hunters-produce” (the hunter should not consume his products himself, in other words the animals he has killed); then another conjunction (hunter alliance-food prohibition, matrimonial alliance-incest prohibition). (193)

Clastres was clearly an influence on Deleuze and Guattari to some extent, though exactly how influential is unclear. But Deleuze’s review of Clastres, despite its brevity, is a welcome addition to the English translations of his work because it highlights an interesting (and perhaps underappreciated) intellectual, and his connection with Deleuze’s philosophy.

But the most substantial text to be found in this collection, from a scholarly viewpoint, is the Anti-Oedipus interview with Deleuze and Guattari, conducted by Raymond Bellour. Anti-Oedipus is the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (arguably Deleuze and Guattari’s most important text), so reading it is essential for anyone wanting to get to grips with their work. But reading it is a challenge for anyone: it is dense, bizarre and erudite in equal measure. The number of psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and artists it refers to is dizzying. Concepts are often deployed without their meaning being explained – either until later or not at all. It seems determined to overwhelm the reader, confuse them and shatter their expectations of what an academic book on psychoanalysis is supposed to be. It is often ironic, makes plentiful use of foul language and takes delight in mocking its targets. It’s a brilliant text, but one that requires a lot of hard work on the part of the reader.

Some of the initial difficult to understand the main points of the book, and its arguments, can be lessened by reading this interview. It covers some of the book’s main points, the motivation behind it, the response it received, and includes some helpful questions from Bellour[iv] about the books central concept that provoke clarificatory responses from Deleuze and Guattari. They explain that the point of the book was to help a certain class of people for whom psychoanalysis, as traditionally practised, does not work.

There is a whole generation of young people in analysis, who are more or less stuck in analysis, who continue to go, who take it like a drug, a habit, a schedule and, at the same time, they have the feeling that it is not working, that there is a whole load of psychoanalytic bullshit. They have enough resistance to psychoanalysis to think against it, but at the same time, their thinking against it in terms that are still psychoanalytical. (195-196)

Deleuze and Guattari want to criticise and rethink psychoanalysis and the practise of therapy from the ground up. But doing this requires overcoming the psychoanalytic language and categories we are used to, which the authors attempt by deploying a cornucopia of new concepts. But their biggest targets, by far, are the dominant psychoanalytic conceptions of the unconscious and desire. They contend not only that these conceptions are wrong, but that they have been used to repress people and reinforce the capitalist hegemony. Desire and the unconscious contain great revolutionary potential which psychoanalysis, as usually practised, suppresses. The Bellour interview focusses more on desire, but the gist of their argument about the unconscious can be well illustrated by a quote they cite from D. H. Lawrence:

the unconscious contains nothing ideal, nothing in the least conceptual, and hence nothing in the least personal, since personality, like the ego, belongs to the conscious or mental-subjective self. So the first analyses are, or should be, so impersonal that the so-called human relations are not involved.[v]

Psychoanalysis mistreats the unconscious and obscures it because it conceives of it as ‘slightly-less-conscious’ rather than un-conscious and as a mere passive receptacle for repressed thoughts and drives. The crucial idea that motivates Anti-Oedipus –  as Foucault explains in the preface – is that we have been made to desire our own repression. The key to overcoming this is unlocking the potential of the unconscious as an active, productive machine through which desire flows.[vi] The flow of desire has been perverted such that people actually want to be oppressed, but if we could better understand the mechanisms by which this is possible, we can reprogram ourselves and begin to get out of this lamentable condition. Desire is suppressed when we treat it as a lack of something that one wants, it is rather an active force that flows through everything we do and produces our thoughts, behaviour and society itself.

One of Bellour’s strengths as an interviewer is that he, as Deleuze puts it, concertedly ‘plays the role of the simpleton’ (200). His questions and comments about desire are the sort that anyone would have on first hearing Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of desire, especially: why would we call this desire, when we always understand it in terms of lack? This provokes some helpful clarificatory responses from both authors. I have largely focussed on Deleuze here, but Guattari, though usually harder to understand, has moments of  exceptional clarity, such as when he expresses one of the key conceptions of  ourselves (that we have clear, well-defined identities) he and Deleuze are seeking to overturn.

It is an incredible illusion to think that people have an identity, are stuck to their professional function, father, mother, all that… They are completely lost and distressed. They flow. They put some shit on television, they look transfixed, caught in a constellation, but they are adjacent to a bunch of systems of intensity that run through them. You really must have a completely rationalist intellectual view to believe that there are well-built people who preserve their identity in a field. That’s a joke. All people are wanderers, nomads. (204-205)

Letters and Other Texts is the final part in a trilogy, the conclusion of an admirable project to bring the remainder of Deleuze’s texts to publication. It should be understood in context and read alongside Desert Islands and Two Regimes of Madness. Compared to the previous two volumes, Letters is much less substantial from an academic point of view, but there are still texts in here that will be of interest to Deleuzians of all stripes. In many ways, Letters is a fitting conclusion to the oeuvre of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers – in the letters, we see not just Deleuze the philosopher, but some of Deleuze the person: friendly, helpful, self-effacing, sincere, funny. Seasoned scholars probably won’t find much here that will be new to them, but students wanting to become familiar with Deleuze’s more difficult texts – especially Anti-Oedipus – will have a lot to go on here. Taken together as a unified project, Desert Islands, Two Regimes and Letters stand out as essential reading for anyone interested in Deleuze’s thought – and each has its place.

[i] Daniel W. Smith. 2020. “The Deleuzian Revolution: Ten Innovations in ‘Difference and Repetition.’” Deleuze and Guattari Studies, 14, Issue 1: pp. 34-49; p. 36.

[ii] Daniel Smith and John Protevi. 2020. “Gilles Deleuze.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 2019. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (‘Apparatus of Capture’ plateau). Translated by Brian Massumi. Bloomsbury Academic: London/New York, p. 499.

[iv] Although Guattari certainly didn’t think they were helpful, and sometimes calls Bellour’s interventions ‘stupid’ and ‘lousy’.

[v] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 2019. Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Bloomsbury Academic: London/New York, p. 139.

[vi] Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we see a glimpse of what a completely unfettered unconscious would look like in schizophrenia.

Rajiv Kaushik: Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology

Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Rajiv Kaushik
SUNY Press
Paperback $25.95

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production.[1] Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.

Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.

In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.

The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.

Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:

Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.[2]

The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:

An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”[3]

Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.

In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:

The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.[4]

The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.”[5] That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.

Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:

His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.[6]

If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.”[7] In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:

The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.[8]

The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.

“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:

The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.[9]

The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:

In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.[10]

Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”

The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.

Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:

The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.[11]

The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.”[12] If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.

If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.

[1] Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.

[2] Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.

[6] Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., xix.

[8] Ibid., xx.

[9] Ibid., xxii.

[10] Ibid., 64-65.

[11] Ibid., xi-xii.

[12] Ibid., 128.

Mark Leffert: The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd, Routledge, 2020

The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd: Existentialism and Phenomenology in Contemporary Psychoanalysis Book Cover The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd: Existentialism and Phenomenology in Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Mark Leffert
Paperback £23.99

Emmanuel Falque: Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher, Leuven University Press, 2020

Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher Book Cover Nothing to It: Reading Freud as a Philosopher
Figures of the Unconscious
Emmanuel Falque.
Leuven University Press
Paperback €25.00

Matthew Sharpe, Maciej Kałuża, Peter Francev (Eds.): Brill’s Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers, Brill, 2020

Brill's Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers Book Cover Brill's Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers
Brill's Companions to Philosophy, Volume: 5
Matthew Sharpe, Maciej Kałuża, Peter Francev (Eds.)
Hardback €150.00 $180.00

Elizabeth Rottenberg: For the Love of Psychoanalysis: The Play of Chance in Freud and Derrida, Fordham University Press, 2019

For the Love of Psychoanalysis: The Play of Chance in Freud and Derrida Book Cover For the Love of Psychoanalysis: The Play of Chance in Freud and Derrida
Elizabeth Rottenberg
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Jacques Derrida: La vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)

La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976) Book Cover La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf
Paperback 24.00 €

Reviewed by: Mauro Senatore (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile)

“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.

By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.

§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.

From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).

Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).

In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.

In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.

§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).

§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.

In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.

In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.

The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.

Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.


Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.


Lode Lauwaert, Laura Katherine Smith, Christian Sternad (Eds.): Violence and Meaning, Palgrave, 2019

Violence and Meaning Book Cover Violence and Meaning
Lode Lauwaert, Laura Katherine Smith, Christian Sternad (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 90,94 €
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