- The Humor of the Problematic: Thinking with Stengers
Thinking with Stengers
In the chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and The Baroque where Whitehead makes a surprising and crucial appearance, Deleuze chooses to introduce the English mathematician and philosopher as the successor, or “diadoche,” of what he describes as a somewhat secret school. The reason for the secrecy of this school is itself something of a mystery. Even when Deleuze alludes to the question “What is an Event?” as a thread weaving its members together, it cannot be a coincidence that the term he uses to characterize these connections is that of an “echo.” For its secrecy speaks not of a desire from its members to remain unknown, isolated, hermetically closed upon themselves, but rather of the fact that the school itself remains somewhat secret even to those who have partaken and continue to partake in it. When has it been instituted as such? Who has ever succeeded in precisely identifying its members, in delineating its borders, listing its tenets, or endowing it with any authority of its own? What is it a school of? How can one join in?
That this secret school without name is formed through echoes of questions and problems that bring it and its members into existence suggests that, indeed, what its members undergo is no ordinary schooling. For it is never simply a case of putting someone else’s thoughts to work in relation to one’s own concerns. To be sure, we are too often taught, perhaps regrettably, both to think in this way and to accept that this is how one must learn to think. We sit or stand in classrooms, and we are often faced with problems that are not our own, in which we cannot participate—despite how often we are called upon to participate, or to make others do so—save through the thoughts of someone else, unless we do so only in the form of transposing what somebody else has thought to this or that situation; or, vice versa, to find, in every situation, in spite of its singularity, its novelty and its immanent requirements, the thoughts of this or that thinker.
Somewhere along the way, such forms of schooling may surely give one certain rights of participation in other spheres of academic or intellectual [End Page 29] life, but they will not, in and of themselves, grant one membership to this secret school. For again, in the institutional mode, participation often refers to the progressive “authorization” to partake in what Judith Schlanger in Penser la bouche pleine would call a professional economy of seriousness, by which academic disciplines, forms of expertise and judgment, sources of funding, as well as criteria of publication and employability, become established. My point here is not to deny that there may be some value in this kind of training, particularly when the cultivation of such habits succeeds in being performed with enough generosity, and with enough contrasts, to populate our thinking with differences and alternatives, forming a cultural memory in relation to which, in response to which, one might begin the task of attempting to think. But being let in on this school’s secrets, learning to appreciate its existence and to develop a certain affinity with the problems that animate it—enabling, in other words, the echoes to resonate and reverberate once again (but always differently, as echoes do)—turns “thinking” into an entirely different practice: one of learning to think not from, not against, not just after, but with.
If the practice of thinking-with poses a different kind of challenge, it is because it belongs to the intimate question of whom one is learning to think with, and as such, situates this apprenticeship as a demand to resist an unthinking participation in the way in which seriousness circulates in thought. To recall the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, who is perhaps the school’s most secret member and who once asked, “Who will save us from seriousness?” (La Vuelta al día, 54), the difference is between citing others in order to be right, in order to seek authorization, and citing others because we...