04 Jul How to Read Deleuze
CHIANG MAI. In my last entry I wrote about my appreciation for the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. A few people asked me how to begin reading him and that spurred me to write up this entry. Keep in mind this is a personal account. One of the beautiful things about reading him is that, because of his openness, he can be read in a variety of ways. Others read him as a way of thinking through materialism, politics, or technology and networks. I do not. I’m not an anarchist, nor postmodernist/post-structuralist. I read him as an empiricist and a metaphysician and as a way to think through themes of life, becoming, ecology, experiential semiotics, cinema, and his specific concepts of virtual/actual relations, transcendental empiricism, expression and immanence. My path is for this reason probably somewhat unusual.
As to the question of where to begin reading Deleuze, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind: First, there is no real beginning possible; you just have to find a point of entry. Another thing to keep in mind is the title of his first great work of metaphysics: Difference and Repetition. These two words are also indicators of how he writes. His approach to writing is also his philosophy. Every book is itself a repetition of themes under a different set of problematics. Reading him requires a repetition. In reading one of his books, you should be able to draw a host of thoughts about the topic in question, even more so if you take from this and write something about what you’ve read. There is no outcome that one “should” get from reading him because he wants you to think it and apply it toward the creation of your own concepts. So write while and after you read. But to really get a sense of Deleuze, you’ll have to read him again, in a different book riding a different plane of thinking. This will give you a repetition of his philosophy. The more you read, the more you repeat him, the more his thought will seep into your thinking about things. These days, twelve-plus books later, he’s sort of always with me, not as any dogma or “philosophy,” more in the way I think about everyday events.
My reading of him began with Proust and Signs, which is a beautiful, mind-blowing work. But with some time and reflection, I would recommend a new reader consider what I offer below. Were I to do it again, this is how I would read him:
1. Start with some essays. Negotiations is a good source because it’s a series of interviews. Just do a scan to follow some ideas and dig into what grabs you.
2. Bergsonism. To me, Bergson is the one philosopher Deleuze is kind of exhaling in his own writings. This book mostly works through Bergson’s concepts of memory and images, which are so important for Deleuze.
3. If Bergsonism offers a way into memory and images, Proust and Signs is a way into the importance of signs in Deleuze.
4. With a background in images, memory and signs, you can move to the two Cinema books. Even if you’re not that interested in film, there are a few reasons for going here next. First, cinema for Deleuze is comprised of images and signs, which is why the previous two books lead us here. Also, cinema as a form helps to situate his philosophy within a particular medium of expression. Lastly, to me the two cinema books are some of his clearest prose on his metaphysics as a whole, helping to bring a reader into the works that follow below.
5. From here, choose another of his monographs depending on whom you like and what topics you’re interested in: I would recommend his big book on Spinoza, one of his most lucid works, emphasizing epistemology, God and essence, and the immanence (non-transcendence) of expressions. From there his Nietzsche book addresses concepts of forces, power, repetition/recurrence. If you have some background on Kant, and only if you do, read his monograph on him. It is not an easy read and is one of his least enjoyable, but it does help set up Difference and Repetition.
6. With two or three monographs under your belt, move to one of his two great works of philosophy. Difference and Repetition is, again, something of a response to Kant (and, implied, Heidegger as well), covering Deleuze’s complex, nonvisual metaphysics of process, becoming, change, activity, ideas… There is far too much to mention here, but it is a must-read even though it is a chore. The Logic of Sense is a bit more clear and to me (perhaps in part because I read it after D&R) more enjoyable. The importance of sense in Deleuze is huge and here he offers an empiricist epistemology on the emergences of life and the processes of thinking. His writings on the interrelations of sense/nonsense and depth/surface are wonderful here.
7. From here one could move to Deleuze’s concept of the fold. The Fold, which is “on” Leibniz but not really a monograph, and Foucault work well together because both are in part about his folding/unfolding conception of art and subjectivity. Foucault is also one of his most clearly written works, and would make a nice back-to-back with the Nietzsche book, since there are similar themes of power and forces.
8. A nice way to wrap up Deleuze is to finish with What Is Philosophy?, co-written with Felix Guattari.
OK, so what about his other works with Guattari? Other than WiP, I have not read them. I’ve tried. I don’t like them. One day I’ll read A Thousand Plateaus, but in all my prior attempts I’ve simply gotten bored. It’s not that I dislike Guattari (I enjoyed his Three Ecologies), but ATP to me is not a work of philosophy; it’s a work of performance. This is fine, Deleuze needed to do this, to give a kind of freeform musicality to his prose. But I prefer his works of philosophy.
Books I have not mentioned here are those that I have not read in full and therefore I cannot place in a timeline. I’ve read about a third of Empiricism and Subjectivity, about three-fourths of his smaller book on Spinoza, in a random way, and about a third of A Thousand Plateaus, read very quickly and with less care compared to others. Others you may want to consider, which I have never opened are his book on the painter Francis Bacon and his collaboration with Guattari on Kafka. Both of these are on my personal “to-read” list.
The only Deleuze book I’ve read in full but not mentioned is What is Grounding?, which is an anomaly, being as it is a series of early career class lectures. It is interesting in that he discusses philosophers he later abandons, such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre (there is in Deleuze a suppressed, or perhaps recovered, existentialist), but it’s hard to place this book into any recommended flow.
Finally, what about secondary sources on Deleuze? I have personally avoided this, with some exceptions, because I don’t want any writer to explain Deleuze to me. Another reason is that I honestly don’t much care for many readers of Deleuze who on one hand tend to get bogged down in the complexity of explaining his terms and neologisms and on the other hand fetishize his fetishes from A Thousand Plateaus. That said, I’ve scanned Clair Colebrook’s text, I’ve scanned the Deleuze Dictionary (avoid this source; it’s more explanation; come here only if you’ve worked your own way through a concept but still feel lost). Perhaps my favorite secondary source, the only one I’ve read in some depth, albeit only in parts, is Daniel W. Smith’s Essays On Deleuze. He is a marvelous writer himself and is very clear, avoiding the obfuscation of many Deleuze writers. I’ve also read Badiou’s book The Clamour of Being, but I don’t consider that a secondary source on Deleuze; it is very much Badiou’s book, much like Foucault is Deleuze’s book. I’m sure there are others well worth reading, but again I would rather read Deleuze himself or writers influenced by Deleuze like Agamben—I consider myself one of these types—rather than trying to find some source to tell me how to understand him. You don’t need to understand him; instead take some care to try to live the writing and the reading.
And then repeat.