- Politics and OntologyA review of Nathan Widder, Political Theory After Deleuze
It’s no coincidence that Gilles Deleuze’s most sustained discussions of politics dwell on its plurality; politics is not given any clearly denotative sense, nor do we find its determinate abstraction (“the political”), except insofar as particular instantiations give rise to “many politics.” In an eponymous essay, Deleuze begins by explaining, “Whether we are individuals or groups, we are made up of lines,” and he elaborates each line according to a different political dimension (Dialogues 124). The most recognizable and rigid of lines determine our lives according to the institutional segments through which we pass and to which we return (family, school, the military, one’s profession).1 Nevertheless, these lines are liable to give rise to encounters which detour us into more supple lines, aberrant paths and anomalies (the bourgeois housewife who, by some contingency, confronts the factory: “I thought I was seeing convicts…” [qtd. Negotiations 178]). Finally, Deleuze says, there are lines of flight that carry us beyond the thresholds of both rigid segments and supple movements—delirious and insurgent lines whose destination we cannot predict (“Instead of being bombarded from all sides in a limiting cosmos, the people and the earth must be like the vectors of a cosmos that carries them off” [Thousand 346]).
Given these varied lines, which Deleuze will only divide and multiply, it’s hardly surprising that he never wrote a master-work of political philosophy—no theory of justice, sovereignty, or democracy. Like Nietzsche, he regarded the task of Bildungsphilosophie with suspicion, if not distaste: the earnest questions asked of these “big concepts” and the architectural lines they inspire are grounded in the presupposition of the state-form (above all, the reasonable subject and rational consensus). Forgoing the thick geometry of such segments, Deleuze and Guattari devote themselves to the most slender of lines, the most oppressed but also the most vital, which effectively disappear into molecular movements. From their analysis of the compulsory system of grammatical instruction (“all children are political prisoners”2) to their elaboration of Kafka’s political conjecture (“a literature of small peoples”3), Deleuze and Guattari affirm the power of what has been subjected to domination—the “minoritarian”—to create forms of life, expression, and politics that elude the stratifications of the state.4
Thus it’s strange to read critics who condemn Deleuze as the advocate of a radically totalizing politics when, especially with Guattari, he writes to escape the overcoding elements of the state-form (A Thousand Plateaus notoriously begins by declaring that its “plateaus may be read independently of one another” [xx]). Far from a “grand politique,” Deleuze devises a “micro-politique” that insists on the modesty of power and the multiplication of its lines into ever finer gradients. Politics is capillary, and the same ought to be said of Deleuze’s own “political theory,” which forgoes the model of state-form for the profusion of lines, a garden of forking paths: so many politics! For this reason, the real problem of Deleuze’s political theory has always been: which one? Do we consider Deleuze’s explicit political interventions, such as his devotion to penitentiary reform or the letters he published in protest of Antonio Negri’s imprisonment? Should we begin, instead, with Deleuze’s philosophical interventions into recognizable domains of political theory, where he and Guattari analyze the conditions of the Greek polis or the capitalist state-form? Perhaps we ought to return to the concept of minorization as the revolutionary political project of painting, literature, and then cinema to invent a “people who are missing”? Alternately, we could focus on Deleuze’s devotion to a lineage of “minor philosophers”—above all, Spinoza and Nietzsche—in whom he discovered the most intimate relations between politics and life. Or should we rather start with Deleuze’s enduring engagement with Michel Foucault, from whom he derives a remarkable account of power-knowledge and develops a critique of our new “control society”? Where do we begin?
In Political Theory After Deleuze, his smart and tightly argued new book...