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The Two Meanings of Reaction (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

The following is an excerpt from my short book Based Deleuze, which will be published on September 20th. Pre-order here and you’ll receive it by email as soon as it’s released.


Discussing the ideological valence of great thinkers is difficult because they have little use for the crutches of ideology. The difficulty is particularly acute today, when ideological labels are used so loosely, and often with ulterior motives. I should therefore clarify, at the outset, what I mean by "reactionary" in the subtitle of this book.

In some sense, Deleuze was explicitly anti-reactionary. He was anti-reactionary in the sense that he was anti-reactive, in the spirit of Spinoza and Nietzsche. To be a reactionary, in this pejorative sense, means to be always responding to active, superior forces, instead of becoming an active force; to be captured by sad affects, to be resentful, and to think and act with these as one's motive forces.

This common sense understanding of reactionism partially maps onto the modern political-ideological sense of the word. The data show that conservatives are more reactive to disgusting stimuli, for instance (Inbar et al. 2009). Experiments have shown that even just the presence of foul odors can make people slightly, but measurably, more conservative (Schnall et al 2008). Conservatives are more likely to see threats and reactively demand "law and order." Edmund Burke watched the French Revolution with horror, and famously wrote about his reactions. Henceforth, we'll refer to this aspect of reactionary or conservative politics as reactivism. I prefer reactivism to reactionism because it will remind us that left-wing progressive activism is much closer to this sense of "reactionary" than we are accustomed to thinking. Reactionary politics in this sense, reactivism, can be a failure mode of left-wing politics no less than right-wing politics.

Things get confusing because modern society also calls reactionary whatever transgresses left-wing or progressive norms. Nietzsche, for instance, is seen by many as a reactionary, even though one pillar of his whole life's philosophy is a contempt for reactive tendencies. Since World War II, any sufficiently disagreeable and strong-willed individual eager to avoid reactivism — who wishes to constitute an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence — will generally be coded as reactionary. Even if their political beliefs are ideologically ambiguous or ambivalent. Strong and uncompromisingly active drives get coded as "reactionary" if the individual is not plausibly linked to the larger collective liberation struggle of some officially marginalized group. It is only in this sense of the term that we will find a "reactionary" component in the philosophy of Deleuze.

This latter sense of "reaction" is a recurring, subterranean tendency that can arise from the Left as well as the Right. It is most likely to emerge from the Right, but in periods when "the Left" becomes especially, excessively decadent - the responsibility to transgress "The Left" occasionally falls to an otherwise proper leftist.

This is how we will understand Deleuze's “reactionary leftism.”

Deleuze’s Troublesome Inheritance (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

Now that the book is a little more than 75% done, I figure I should start posting some excerpts. Did you know Deleuze’s parents were both fascists? Good son that he was, though, he never disavowed them. Very naughty, today’s Antifa would say, but very based. Not because fascism is cool — Deleuze was unambiguously anti-fascist, as am I — but because honoring your mother and father is far more important than signaling games. Your mother and father are immanent, molecular parts of your life, whereas public signaling games have only to do with molar institutions. Verbal statements can significantly and advantageously affect interpersonal relationships (what Deleuze and Guattari mean in their discourses on collective “enunciation”), but as soon as you start making statements for the purpose of manipulating public consequences — you're captured. So it would never make sense to throw your father under the bus, even if he is a literal fascist, just to show some random journalist you’re on her team. Get it? Probably not! That’s why I’m writing Based Deleuze.

I’ll also paste here the current table of contents, as of today.

Current Table of Contents

  1. Bearing One’s Cross
  2. A Troublesome Inheritance
  3. From Christ to the Bourgeoisie
  4. Becoming Imperceptible
  5. HBDeleuze
  6. Accelerate the Process
  7. Becoming Minority
  8. Deleuzo-Petersonianism
  9. Autocracy, Capital, Bureaucracy

Excerpt from A Troublesome Inheritance

Let us consider a psycho-biographical approach to understanding the ideological valence of Deleuze’s thought. Political ideologies are known to be heritable — probably somewhere between 30% and 60% heritable (Hatemi et al. 2014) — so an author’s family background must provide at least some hints about an author’s ideological center of gravity. Most attitudes show a higher correlation with parental attitudes later in life, suggesting that individuals early in life experiment by deviating from their inherited center of gravity, before eventually settling their viewpoints somewhere closer to that center of gravity.

According to the joint biography of Deleuze and Guattari by Françoise Dosse (2011), both of Deleuze's parents were ideologically conservative. Louis Deleuze was an engineer and small-business owner, before he closed-up shop to become an employee of a large aerospace engineering firm. Louis disliked the Popular Front, the left-wing coalition that came to power in 1936, instead favoring a relatively small paramilitary party known as the Croix-de-Feu. Originally consisting of World War I veterans, this faction was financially supported by French millionaire and benefactor of Mussolini, Françoise Coty. The party had a Catholic bent because the Catholic Church prohibited Catholics from supporting the monarchist Action Française. The Croix-de-Feu was essentially a French equivalent of the Nazi party in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy, although this tendency in France was much weaker (the party enjoyed only about a million members at the height of its popularity).

After the Popular Front came to power, Louis and his wife, Odette, were horrified by the empowerment of working-class people. The Popular Front passed policies such as mandatory paid vacations for all workers. Gilles recalls Louis and Odette disgusted to find working-class people on the beaches of Deauville, where the Deleuze family vacationed in Normandy. “My mother, who was surely the best of women, said that it was impossible to go to a beach with people like that on it (Dosse 2011, 89)." Notice that Deleuze does not disavow his mother or her disgust, prefacing his recollection with an emphatic endorsement of the woman.

§

To be clear, I don’t argue that Deleuze was sympathetic to fascism, but his writings and interviews are filled with ideologically devilish statements such as this one. Why? Nobody really knows. Now that I'm about half-way done with the book, I'm more convinced than ever that I have the answer. If you haven’t already, pre-order now. You know you want to!

Based Deleuze (Podcast)

On my new short book project, Based DeleuzePre-order here!

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The Second Problem of Being Perceptible Is Motivational Highjacking (Becoming Imperceptible III)

Another problem with being perceptible is easy to understand in our current digital context. It is a problem we might summarize as the motivational problem. Being perceived triggers dopamine, and dopamine hits train you to do more of whatever got you the dopamine. The more your motivation relies on dopamine via perceivability, the more surely you are not creating original and longer-term projects, because such projects require long periods of zero perceivability. When Deleuze and Guatarri say "bring something incomprehensible into the world," this is what they are saying. They're not saying that any old nonsense should be brought into the world, or that ideas or artworks should be impenetrable by design. Deleuze and Guattari are saying that nothing worth thinking, saying, or making will pre-fit the perceptual schemas of others, in advance. All worthy creative projects are incomprehensible at first, when they are brought into the world. Any project that is immediately comprehensible is the product of someone opportunistically filling currently existing schemas of perceptions. That is the opposite of creation, that type of work is taking orders from arbitrary social opinion dynamics (and guess where those opinions are most likely to come from, guess the higher function those opinions are most likely to serve). They are not railing against clear communication or transparent self-presentation; they are railing against anyone who creates in order to be valued from within already existing schemas of perception. Perfectly normal communication and self-presentation can totally scramble perceptions, and the most esoteric, anonymous, scrambled communications can be slavishly pre-fit to pre-exisisting perceptions.

If one is not creating on the fuel provided by immediate recognition, how is the work of creation motivated in the period of zero perceivability? To create anything other than reproductions of the status quo requires a different kind of motivational system. Lo and behold, Deleuze and Guattari offer one, which at every point is contrasted to capture by perceivability. In their language, they advise one to rather construct a plane of immanence (a "DGAF" gesture of creative violence, which is intrinsically self-rewarding) and then working on it as a labor of love. "The secret always has to do with love" (ATP 97). But this is no cliché; while half of their analyses are about the mechanisms of domination, the other is dedicated to modeling in exquisite detail what the labor of love involves, and how to do it. If you can't access such a state, it is because you are captured, if not by perceptibility then by some other trap ("Is it good? Is it worth it?" Questions which usually veil a "What will people think?"). Thus, becoming imperceptible is about constituting a different kind of project, on a different motivational system — a system of immanent, intrinsically self-motivating creative productivity, rather than a mediated, extrinsic, alienated toil, the satisfaction of which is always out of reach even if temporary recognitions are won.

To make an irresistible reference back to the Twitter Deleuzians with which we began, it is some vindication of my contention here that the digital masks of these individuals do not seem to help in the slightest with this problem of capture by perceivability. For many of these people are prolific with short bursts of creative possibility, so long as they receive a perceptual payment of dopamine; but very rarely can these individuals bring such creative bursts to the constitution of a plane of immanence. This is because, as we will see, the mask is the face.

So the problem of being perceived is capture, susceptibility to manipulation, and losing the ability to create and execute works of substance.

Becoming Imperceptible (1)

Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly stress the importance of becoming imperceptible, but the idea remains poorly understood.

When this phrase gets tossed around today, especially on the internet, it's often to glorify obscurity. Deleuze and Guattari are used to justify a certain kind of hiding. Consider, for instance, the number of anonymous Twitter accounts emitting Deleuzian takes with esoteric usernames and illegible digital avatars. I take no issue with such stylistic preferences, and there are often good reasons for them, but they don't follow from a Deleuzo-Guattarian politics of imperceptibility. In fact, as I'll explain below, Deleuze and Guattari are clear that a characteristic of becoming imperceptible is having no need for masks and nothing to hide. This is only one example of how the notion of becoming imperceptible is widely misunderstood.

More importantly, though, I should begin with why becoming imperceptible is such an important and attractive idea. Not for Deleuze and Guattari, or even for their audience, but for everyone — including readers and listeners here who perhaps have no interest in — or possibly a deep skepticism or even contempt with respect to — French poststructuralism. The way I see it — and I must admit I am introducing some idiosyncratic elements already, but I will try to make good on them — for Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible names the peak experience of an agent in a process of liberation. It is the pinnacle stage of escape or releasement, to borrow a Heideggerian phrase, from everything that seems so good at dominating, confusing, and capturing our potential energy and capacities.

These forces of domination are called by many names in the Deleuzo-Guattarian register: the molar, the rigid segments, the strata, etc., among others. One of the reasons why the models of Deleuze and Guattari are so difficult to understand is that they seek to pinpoint the operation of these forces at a very fine resolution, but in the most general and abstract terms they can find — to capture a lot of conditional variances without getting lost in the weeds, remaining maximally applicable to diverse situations. The cost, of course, is an infamous cornucopia of unwieldy terms.

For shorthand, I prefer to call these various mechanisms of domination, as a set, the institutions. Everywhere we look today, we see perverse institutions, often ancient institutions in path-dependent zombie modes; these institutions are often characterized by obvious and extreme deceptions, internal and external; they often malfunction regularly in predictable ways, in ways that are easily solvable, and yet structurally prohibited by the very functioning of the institutions at some higher level.

Schools, criminal justice systems, pathological families, corporations, universities, media, etc.: all of these institutions are molar aggregates that require our participation and capture our possibilities, in ways that appear increasingly insane and undesirable to increasing numbers of people (if for extremely different reasons, or rather reasons stated in extremely different languages). For instance, a leftist may say the primary institutional culprits are labor markets and "institutionalized" racism and so on, whereas conservatives may point to the university, labor unions, etc. One of the reasons for the bizarre vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari is, I believe, to sidestep these ideologically conditional forking paths — not in some wish to be bipartisan but simply because these are institutionally captured pathways which foreclose access to the very problem we would like to solve.

At stake here is figuring out how to live under the weight of increasingly complex institutions that are increasingly good at reproducing themselves — to understand them not just philosophically but empirically — in order that we may outsmart them and maneuver with increasingly greater freedom. Something like this is what I mean when I use the term "liberation." In my own view, the scientifically valid identification of the mechanisms of liberation, and their diffusion throughout a culture, is all that "revolutionary politics" could ever mean. And while Deleuze and Guattari are somewhat coy about their ultimate stances on what a successful revolutionary politics would look like, I remain convinced that their theoretical project is essentially to map and model the mechanisms of what I would call liberation. In any event, no matter what register one might prefer today, almost everybody is interested in some kind of escape, exit, or liberation from some kind of opaque institutional pathology.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible is the crucial final stage of any genuine escape path. Not final in the sense that everything is completed once and for all, but final in the sense that it's the zenith of a particular, repeatable mechanism — the famous "line of flight." If they are correct, then everybody should be interested in what it means to become imperceptible. Indeed, if you wish to live at all today, rather than merely survive, increasingly you must become imperceptible. So we would do well to get this right...

In an upcoming post, I will explain the problem with being perceptible. After that, I'll move onto explaining how becoming imperceptible works, and what it looks like.

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