In this two part interview Andrew Robinson introduces the political philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. In this first part Andrew discusses Deleuze’s political concept of ‘desire’; its radical promise as well as the dangers of cooptation.
Gilles Deleuze is famous for the statement ‘desire is revolutionary’. Presuming that Deleuze was not championing the politics of consumer capitalism, what did he mean by the phrase and how could a politics of desire promise to reshape our political landscape?
The phrase “desire is revolutionary” has different connotations today from what it had when it was written. Today, it sounds like it could be an advertising slogan! But when it was written, it was really mouldbreaking. Deleuze was part of the ‘68 generation, the extended conduits for the most recent great revolutionary wave. The Deleuzian vision is very similar to what the Situationists call “non-renunciation”. We shouldn’t surrender our desires to the system, or renounce them to become a good subj
In what sense mouldbreaking? What came before it?
The dominant stance before ‘68, was a kind of authoritarianism which was radically opposed to desire. Not only the right, but a lot of the left were like this. Authoritarians reject desire and identify with various images of order and propriety. Because they repress their own desire in order to conform, they become afraid of desire. So they look for scapegoats—other people who they think are having too much enjoyment, not renouncing enough. In Deleuzian theory this is associated with reactive desire, fixed identities and ‘microfascist’ tendencies. A quick skim through the comments on news sites will show how active this type of personality still is.
But, at least on the surface, desire is something which capitalism seems keen to embrace.
Yes. Today, the dominant stance of the capitalist system is a bit different. Capitalism has used the aesthetics and language of ‘68 to elaborate new forms of domination. People are told to be empowered, to be who they can be, to make the most of opportunities. People are meant to be rational subjects, aiming for “success” in terms of conventional goals. In many ways, it’s a recuperation of the outburst of ‘68.
But scratch the surface and it’s at least as repressive as the old authoritarianism, because there is no space for difference past a certain point. Not only is difference not recognised, but it’s seen as a threat, a disruption. It has to be excluded absolutely from public spaces, or even from life itself. This is still a renunciation of desire. The underlying desires are subordinated to the ‘self’ and its life-project, they’re suppressed in the name of the person (the good subject) someone is trying to become. Whereas the desires should be deciding what kind of people we’re trying to become.
So what is presented as a ‘liberation of desire’ is really nothing of the sort?
No. At the moment, for most people, the system is deciding. So desire is allowed, but only if it’s a recognised desire. Not to desire squats where there are empty buildings, graffiti where there are blank walls, or free parties where the cars are meant to be. Not to desire land rights in Chiapas, electricity in Soweto. Deleuze is looking for a world composed only of networks. Capitalism uses networks, embedded within hierarchical structures of knowledge and power.
Desire is revolutionary because, when it follows its course, it leads outside the various social apparatuses such as capitalism and the state. It causes people to form combinations, points of energy, configurations of force which aren’t accountable to dominant social norms or systems.
‘Configurations of force’ sounds more ontological than subjective (ie. to do with the nature of existence rather than perception)
Deleuzian revolutionary desire isn’t the same as conscious desire. It’s about specific desires people have, but it’s also a kind of general force, like the Force in Star Wars. And it’s a term for ‘assemblages’, for the production of connections. All the specific desires and assemblages are expressions of the underlying force of desire, its ‘differenciation’ as Deleuze says, its splitting into difference. But some of these expressions flow smoothly from the underlying force, and some of them turn against it, or get trapped in fixities which block it. At the base level, desire is always revolutionary, because flows of becoming escape particular orders – desire as force is always revolutionary. But desires can be turned against themselves – turned into a desire to suppress desire.
Desire is revolutionary when it is:
[The] schizorevolutionary type or pole that follows the lines of escape of desire; breaches the wall and causes flows to move; assembles its machines and its groups-in-fusion in the enclaves or at the periphery” (Anti-Oedipus)
There’s something about this which feels tremendously revolutionary to me. It’s almost possible to feel horizons opening up, other worlds becoming visible. It implies that everyone matters. We’re all part of the great flow of desire. We shouldn’t be valued by how closely we conform to some particular model. Each of us is a ‘singularity’ as Deleuze calls it, a unique point in the flow of desire, and at the same time part of this flow.
It sounds quite individualistic.
On the one hand, it’s an ‘egoist’ stance, a bit like Stirner. It’s a middle finger to the people telling us to conform and fit in. But it’s also a deeply compassionate stance, looking for the magic of desire in others, the combinations of affirmative power, rather than their usefulness or social position. And it’s a stance which allows us to embrace change and becoming, but at the same time, to reject unwanted changes, to distinguish becoming from capture. It’s not simply the replacement of one dominant system by another. It’s a world where all worlds fit, a world where everyone makes their own world.
This is a theory which speaks to those of us on the outside or on the margins – those of us who feel radically alienated from the dominant system – that our desires matter, that what we are matters. It cuts like a scythe through the ideologies which say that we only matter if we’re productive, or conformist, or successful, or law-abiding. And against the common view that life can’t go on without renunciation, it offers a vision of a different world, a world without renunciation, without hierarchy or control, without hatred for difference, without exclusion or marginalisation.
Is there a danger with a desire that is necessarily parochial rather than universal? For instance it is quite possible to imagine a desire that is not reactive (it affirms newness, makes novel connections, is horizontal, etc) but is nonetheless one that is more or less indifferent to the plight of the powerless and dispossessed.
I think you’re right, that it’s possible in a Deleuzian approach for someone to actively desire something which is unsustainable or unjust, or at least indifferent as you say. It’s possible but not common, because Deleuzian theory rejects a lot of the dominant configurations as reactive –I guess we’d be getting into issues of the extent to which desires constructed through mass consumer society are active, and whether they’d persist in the absence of capitalist machineries for managing desire.
There are several resources in Deleuzian theory for addressing these kinds of things. The first is that Deleuzian desire constructs a kind of meta-ethics of supporting active desire. In a sense, an active desire which is educated, which is aware of the forces which threaten it, will form a general opposition to hierarchical forces and to forces which produce scarcity. Secondly, people are seen as divisible, molecular selves with connections to other people, objects and so on. Compassion therefore is most likely part of desire. It isn’t something counterposed to our desires. Thirdly, there’s a critique of desire within capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t really believe in desire. It believes in preferences and self-interest. Capitalism tries to manipulate desire, to turn it into self-interest or market demand. Of course this means that there’s always scarcity, that people are always competing, and that people will consume unsustainably unless something stops them. Deleuze rejects this view of desire. He thinks desire is primordially abundant and affirmative, not scarce. It’s about forming connections, not possessing.
You may have partially answered this question but what about the argument that addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems (global warming, the unequal distribution of wealth etc) necessarily entail people in the first world being prepared to give up their desires for certain luxuries?
I think Deleuze would expect liberation to come from the rebellions of the excluded and oppressed, not from the in-group renouncing its privileges. Deleuze is in favour of diffuse, decentralised forms of power, which are focused on local intensities and not on “power-over” – the band or pack, the war-machine and so on. When power takes this form, the local group will defend itself militantly from exploitation and inequality, and from the destruction of its environment, which is a site of lived intensity. Look at the Mapuche, the OPM or the Zapatistas, or the Bougainville revolution, or the Chipko movement. This is what happens when local groups act on intensities using diffuse power. On the other hand, Deleuze is all for the in-group renouncing its privileges – it’s called “becoming-minoritarian” in his theory – and sees this as a broadening and liberation of desire, an escape of desire from fixed categories.
I think the problem is mostly apparent rather than real. Deleuze rejects renunciation, and therefore rejects the line of response which sees a law, a normative code, a generalised repression as the guarantee that desire will not exceed what is just or sustainable. Again in capitalist theory, we’re assumed to be self-interested first of all, and any kind of concern for others has to be imparted later – through market forces or deterrent punishments or some other controlling force. I’m not convinced that this works for a number of reasons. One of these is, once certain people have the concentrated power in their hands to force others to conform, why wouldn’t they use this power for self-interest instead of the common good? Another is that this kind of attitude—the constant suspicion of others, the vigilance of constantly looking out for free-riders and shirkers—is actually corrosive of compassion. It produces reactive closure. Think of those authoritarians in the comments sections again. They go on and on about concern for others, about not doing what one wants, but they don’t seem to have much compassion for anyone else. This might be because their worldview has misanthropy and scarcity built into it.
But scarcity from an environmental perspective is real.
Deleuze and environmentalism might seem a bad fit, but there are radical ecological theorists whose concepts are very similar to Deleuze’s—Feral Faun and John Moore for example, or Derrick Jensen’s “Beyond Hope”, or the article “Desire is Speaking” in the Earth First! journal Do or Die. It all depends where one situates the locus of active desire. If we think of desire in terms of forming connections, living the intensity of lifeworlds, creating spaces of existential abundance, then there’s a lot of overlap between Deleuze and deep ecology.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in September 2009 by Routledge.