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  • On the Uses and Abuses of Literature for Life: Gilles Deleuze and the Literary Clinic
  • Gregg Lambert (bio)

One day, perhaps, there will no longer be any such thing as Art, only Medicine.

—Le Clézio

Introduction to the Literary Clinic

The title of this essay recalls an earlier question from Nietszche’s famous “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life,” which I would like to take up in asking what are the uses and abuses of literature for life and, recalling Nietzche’s guiding question, what kind of health it may promote for “an individual, a people, a culture” (Nietzsche 63). In the various essays assembled around the “problem of writing” in his final work, Critique et Clinique, Gilles Deleuze responds to this question by outlining some of the components of a clinical as well as a critical use of literature, which we might summarize along the following lines. First, certain writers have invented concrete semiotic practices that may prove more effective than psychoanalytic discourse in diagnosing the constellation of mute forces that always accompany life and threaten it from within. Second, as a result of this diagnostic and critical function, certain works of modern literature can be understood to produce a kind of “symptomatology” that may prove to be more effective than political critique in discerning the signs that correspond to the new arrangements of “language, labor, and life” (to cite Foucault’s abbreviated formula for the grand institutions of instinct or habit); third, perhaps most importantly, literature offers a manner of diagramming the potential forms of resistance, or “lines of flight,” which may be virtual to these new arrangements.1

Taken together, these tasks must be understood as creative and even “vitalist” in the sense that Bergson had earlier employed this notion; or as Deleuze writes, “there is a ‘use’ of representation, without which representation would remain lifeless and senseless” (LS 146). The realization of this “use,” however, may require that we approach the question of writing from a point outside the critical representation this question receives in the institutions of literary study today. In fact, I would like to suggest that a clinical usage may radically alter the conditions of the practice of literature and emerge as a kind of Deleuzian “war machine” against how the uses of literature have been determined by the dominance of institutional criticism in the modern period. Is it simply a question of “style,” in other words, that Deleuze’s own commentaries on writers seem to pay no attention or even tribute to the field of criticism, but rather approach always from a point external to the historical representation of an author or given body of work? Moreover, could we imagine something like a “Deleuzian school of literary theory,” understood as one approach among others in a pluralism of critical styles and methodologies, preserving the relative stability of the field of literary objects and the integrity of “a set of individuals who are recognized and identify themselves practitioners of the discipline” (Godzich 275) of literature?2

For anyone familiar with Deleuze’s writings, and especially those works written in collaboration with Guattari, the response to the above questions might seem an obvious “no”; however, in the academy today where the principle of “marketing” is fast becoming an efficient cause determining the uses of theory, we must always hold out the possibility that anything can be perverted against its own nature. Yet, rather than speculating on the fortunate and unfortunate actualities that might flow from the proclamation, “one day this century will be known as Deleuzian” (Foucault), in what follows I offer a more preliminary discussion of some of the principles we might draw from Deleuze’s own manner of treating literary expression and, in particular, the questions and problems of writing that have been associated with the works by the modern writers who occupy a central role in his own writings, as well as in the works written with Guattari. This discussion represents my own attempt to come to terms with what might be formulated as the characteristic marks of what Deleuze had early on proposed as a generalized “literary clinic.” I hope to provoke creative dialogue about the...

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