Aberrant Movements: Justifying Thought Without a Ground in Deleuze's Philosophy
Lapoujade's work on Deleuze attempts to come to grips with the ways in which our constructions of knowledge seek justification: how do we learn to think otherwise?
Imagine a group of some things. For the sake of our little thought experiment, let’s say that we have a cat, a dog, an alien from Alpha Centauri, a syringe, a VHS tape containing reruns of Matlock, a cloud of dust, and the concept of inadequacy. Now, these things are all rather disparate, rather different. We can’t imagine that we would somehow confuse the syringe with the VHS tape or with the alien. But now think back. When you were assembling this heterogeneous ensemble in your imagination, how did you do it?
More than likely, you attempted to conjure up each item in turn, fixing its identity in your mind and then adding the next item in and the next and the next, so that what you produced was a congeries of discrete identities set next to each other to form a group. In other words, your notion of difference was founded on the concept of identity.
Most of our thinking, and the great majority of western philosophical thought, involves the primacy of identity. We recognize the difference between the cat and the concept of inadequacy but we suppose that this difference is founded upon the discrete identities of these two things. First, we get a clear sense of what a cat is and then a clear sense of what conflict of inadequacy is, and then, and only then, are we ready to assess the differences between the two.
But now ask yourself: how are those discrete identities formed in the first place? I suppose, if you are Platonist, you may believe that those identities derived from real essences that are somehow complete, individual, and immutable. So, this individual cat is a cat because it expresses or manifests the essence of being a cat; that is, felinity as such. But you might also imagine that a cat is a cat precisely because it is not a dog, not a cloud of dust, or the concept of inadequacy, or any other thing it might be were it not busy being a cat. In other words, instead of difference being grounded in identity, the reverse would be true.
That is the say, we tend to see difference as a fluctuating byproduct of stable and persistent identity (because there are various identities, what distinguishes one from another is difference) but perhaps we might consider identity the unstable and evanescent byproduct of an ever-flowing but ever-present difference (so that difference is the deep ground of reality and identities merely crop up on the surface for brief moments before subsiding back into the tumult). But a problem immediately arises: for if difference is meant to ground reality then that ground is groundlessness because difference as such provides no terra firma.
Thus, what seemed like a simple reversal of the Platonic credo is actually a rather difficult thought to sustain in one’s mind. It requires an aberrant movement of thought -- “aberrant” meaning literally to “wander away from” something, in this case, our “given” mode of thought. The work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze was an attempt to sustain this difficult thought by -- as David Lapoujade describes in his magisterial overview of Deleuze’s work, Aberrant Movements: The Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze -- deliberately going astray from our typical modes of thinking logic, metaphysics, and ethics.
Lapoujade begins from a strikingly Deleuzean position: by seeking out “the most general problem of Deleuze’s thought” (23), which he manages through a deft sifting of the full scope of Deleuze’s output. Inevitably, certain texts are treated as primary resources -- Difference and Repetition(1968), The Logic of Sense (1969), and the second book of collaboration with Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980) -- but Lapoujade impressively brings in Deleuze’s many other writings as constellations around these texts, carefully and convincingly demonstrating that, while the vocabulary and the center of focus shifts from work to work, the Deleuzean project involves the tracing of these aberrant movements, their liberatory capacity, and the demands they make on thought as well as the conditions and affordances of thought.
If the point of aberrant movements is to defy (common) logic, then what logic do they obey (25)? Lapoujade is quick to point out that logic “doesn’t mean rational. We could even proclaim that for Deleuze a movement is all the more logical the more it escapes rationality” (27). This leads Lapoujade to an intriguing definition of Deleuze’s philosophy: the “irrational logic of aberrant movements” (27). Philosophy is, for Deleuze, the production of new concepts, and those concepts constellate into logics. Lapoujade seems to understand this as a strong reason not to attempt to define his philosophy by its general propositions (the mere contents of the writings) but rather to look to the question that Deleuze is continually endeavoring to answer.
To get to the nature of that underlying problem, Lapoujade claims that Deleuze’s philosophy asks three basic and essential questions (32-35): quid facti? (the question of fact -- what are these aberrant movements and what is the nature of their mode of being?); quid juris? (the question of judgment -- what is their philosophical legitimacy and how do we determine that?); and quid vitae? (the question of life -- what do such movements contribute to life and indeed, is it not possible that they are destructive, and dangerous, and better off proscribed?).
Chapter 1, “The Question of the Earth”, is a tour-de-force and probably justifies the purchase price all on its own. It begins with a seemingly simple but profound assertion: any fact is a claim. A fact is not simply something “given” by the world. I might look at my desk as I write this sentence and say that there are three objects on it: my computer, my cup of tea, and my cat. I, along with what we take to be common sense, would assert that it is a “fact” that there are three things on my desk. But of course, to say so is to make a claim as to what counts as a thing worth counting in this instance. I'm not counting the innumerable hairs that have fallen off my cat onto the desk (not to mention the innumerable hairs remaining on her -- as though somehow those are not things unless they fall off of her and are thus “individuated”); I'm not counting the particles of dust, any microscopic beings that I cannot see, nor my arm which is currently resting on the desk, etc., etc. Suddenly, my “fact” of there being three things on the desk strikes me as woefully insecure.
But if a fact is really a claim, then the question shifts from “what is it?” to “by what right is it?”. Philosophy for Delueze, Lapoujade clarifies, is always critical. It must ask by what criterion do we understand the claim that a supposed fact makes upon us. What leads me to believe initially that there are three things on my desk? By what right do I think that? And by what right might I think otherwise? These questions lead one to a search for a ground, something to support the claims that we or others make. Claims must be legitimized; not all claims are equal. Lapoujade writes: “According to Deleuze, that is one of the most important requirements of transcendental philosophy” (43). For those expecting in Deleuze the postmodern hyperbole of “Anything goes!”, this may come as something of a shock. Indeed, it contravenes the widely-held notion that Deleuze supported the creation of concepts (most notably in What is Philosophy?) merely on the basis of intriguing novelty (“anything goes as long as it is interesting”). According to Lapoujade, nothing could be further from the case. The entire point of the Deleuzean project, by these lights, is to answer the question “by what right?”. What legitimates a claim that presents itself as a fact?
As I alluded to above, however, a philosophy that takes difference as the ontological reality, that assumes that difference “goes all the way down” and is not founded on an underlying identity, will find that its ground is really a groundlessness. Of course, Deleuze is hardly the first to assume such ontological groundlessness; Heidegger asserts that Being reveals itself as the groundless abyss that underwrites reality and experience. But for Heidegger and others, groundlessness, in this sense, is still a metaphor for depth (unfathomable depth at that). Deleuze is far more concerned with surfaces; hence his fondness for planes (the plane of immanence, the plane of consistency, etc.).
A plane is a liminal entity, “neither an undiffentiated abyss from which nothing has yet issued nor a differentiated world in which everything has already issued, already been determined… it is the determination itself” (51). But planes are not pre-given, in some Platonic anamnestic Sublime; they are constructed (and not simply by humans). For Deleuze, reality is not some underlying ground that reveals itself by manifesting in actuality (that would be identity-thinking), but rather reality is a field (or better, an endless series of interlocking fields) of production. The wrong question then is “what is it?”; that question must be replaced with “what does it do?”. The concern with the planar and the constructed is also what makes Deleuze’s philosophy inextricably political and ethical because if facts are a claim that must be justified, then the issue of who gets her claim heard becomes central. Such a philosophy means “granting right to the non-rational, unreasonable voices of all the minorities inhabiting the earth, of all those who are unable to understand what everyone understands” (58).
Chapter 2, “The Circles of the Ground”, continues to explore the consequences of grounds and groundlessness. Grounds require a basis of fidelity (identity) and a manner of assessing claims (distribution). In the Platonic regime of representation, we have the Idea (the Platonic Form) that serves as the model of the True and then the circle of “Sameness” allows one to judge the proximity of given entities to that model. In Kant, there is the state of objectivity (arising from the a priori conditions of the possibility of experience) and the experiential judgments that appeal to objectivity. In both cases, some form of the simulacrum (that which appears the same and yet is not a copy of the model) reveals gaps in the system and the underlying groundlessness that gapes beneath them.
This leads to Deleuze’s two basic modes of inhabiting the Earth: “the smooth space of the nomos and the striated space of the logos” (75). But here Lapoujade makes a vital point: “No dualism is at work, however, since the two modes, while distinct in principle, never cease to combine, to interfere with, and encroach upon one another, or to compose new types of space according to the new, unforeseeable combinations they form” (75-76). While so many commentators and Deleuze enthusiasts extol the virtues of the smooth and nomadic spaces, Deleuze himself, Lapoujade reminds us, was far more circumspect, more cautious, more pragmatic. There is no (in Deleuzean terms) permanent deterritorialization. All moments of partial (and they are always partial) deterritorialization are necessarily followed by movements of reterritorialization. One of the great strengths of Lapoujade’s efforts here is his ability to dispel commonly held misconceptions of Deleuze’s most adulated concepts.
I have included some substantial detail regarding the first two chapters in order to provide a sense of what Lapoujade manages to accomplish in this remarkable survey of Deleuze’s thought. These chapters, in particular, are notable for their clarity of presentation, their ability to marshal (and compare) the elements of Deleuzean terminology without falling into confusion, and their penchant for drawing on a wide swath of Deleuze’s writings in order to show how these concepts developed and grew fecund over the course of his career. Later chapters explore the three time syntheses (Chapter 3 -- a difficult chapter on a difficult topic but not the model of clarity that many of the other chapters are); the notion of transcendental empiricism (Chapter 4); Deleuze’s analysis of sense, primarily from The Logic of Sense (the fantastic Chapter 5); the model of the schizophrenic (Chapter 6); the triad plane/ machine/ assemblage (Chapter 7); the nomad (Chapter 8); the attack on capitalism (Chapter 9); and the concept of the desert and populous isolation (Chapter 10).
Aberrant Movements is an excellent foray into the concepts presented over the course of Deleuze’s long career and wide-ranging literary output. Lapoujade includes generous quotations from the works examined, allowing the reader to mull over the original in light of Lapoujade’s reading and indeed, at times, to question Lapoujade’s interpretation directly through the excerpts from Deleuze’s own writing. The book is far too faithful to Deleuze’s thought to be an easy read; it's not an attempt to water down the concepts or reduce them to their most obvious characteristics. At the same time, Lapoujade mostly avoids the rebarbative language and cryptic manner of communication in which so many Deleuzeans (and indeed often Deleuze himself) engage. This is a book meant to be read relatively slowly, with copies of Deleuze’s own writings strewn around the floor surrounding your chair for easy consultation. It's a most rewarding book and will gratify not only newcomers to Delueze but also offer insights and clarifications to those already steeped in his thought.