Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Lives of Philosophers

So, there is a new biography of Derrida, reviewed in theLRB. I was reflecting on why I have little interest in reading this, or indeed any biographies of philosophers, including those I’m more familiar with (such as Deleuze).

We read that Derrida is rejected by his son and in his work there are reflections on paternity; that his work is ‘obsessed’ by the concept of secrecy and he had a ‘secret’ mistress. And so on. Of course, being rejected by your son might well be an enabling condition of reflecting on paternity, it might be the ‘shock’ that thought needs. But the ensuing reflections also have their intelligibility within themselves. The suggestion with biographies, and with their reviewers, is too often that the philosophical reflections help to somehow repair, prolong, compensate or ‘deal with’ the biographical fact. That is, the biographical approach tends towards psychologism. The intelligibility of the ideas resides outside the texts, outside the movement of words and concepts. These are attempts to ‘earth’ the philosophy, to bisect the line of thought with a biographical line.
Most of these attempts to ‘earth’ the philosophy work only by suggestion or insinuation. In the LRB review we get formulations such as:

But in his last two decades, he began to evolve into a different sort of thinker, a globally attuned ethicist, as if in response to the charges made by his adversaries.
He began to write more explicitly about his Algerian-Jewish roots, as if he wanted the world to know who he was after years of hiding from view.

Alongside the implication that philosophy is grounded in the life is of course frequently the reverse implication that the ideas are at variance with the life. This from a review of a Deleuze biography:

For someone who frowned on la vie d’intérieur, Deleuze led a life of unruffled domesticity, and rarely strayed far from the home he shared with his wife and two children.

Now the philosophical critique of interiority clearly has nothing to do with the amount of time one spends in one’s flat. But this is something other than a simple misunderstanding. The subtext is ‘the ideas don’t translate into practice, they are empty talk’. And this subtext in turn seems to repose on a certain received image of the philosopher or thinker as someone removed from even his own reality. At the same time, the critique of inner life is, by implication read as an ‘antidote’ to the enforced confinement of the philosopher due to illness. 

Indeed, behind the biography seem to stand a number of all too familiar personae: the unhappy philosopher, trying to repair personal failings; the idealist philosopher immured in a world of thought that has no bearing on life, his thought often hypocritically at variance with practice. It is these familiar personae that seem to be, time and again, the re-appearing subjects of philosophical biography.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Philosophy and literature: Ideas

Although concepts are specific to philosophy for Deleuze, Ideas are not, and painters or cinematic directors have Ideas in their own medium, not the medium of the concept.  

'Ideas' doesn't mean some kind of paraphraseable argument. The painter, for example, has Ideas - concerning tone, colour, depth etc  -which are immanent to what happens on the canvas. They can't simply or indifferently be transposed into concepts.

In this sense Deleuze doesn't share the philosophical hierarchy according to which the concept is a kind of superior language into which others, whether the language of paint, sculpture, or the figurative languages of literature can be translated, as if other languages are only silhouettes of the concept, as if the concept divulges the full truth of these other languages, languages which cannot yet know their own significance.
Philosophy’s relation to literature or to painting is, perhaps one of analogy: they are all - philosophy, paitning, literature - composing and creating but with different materials. They all operate through the necessity of style:
In each case style is needed – the writer’s syntax, the musician’s modes and rhythms, the painters lines and colours    
And "style in philosophy is the movement of concepts". And this movement, this 'mobilisation', is something which happens in philosophy, painting and literarture.

Friday, 16 November 2012


So I have a short play showing at the Miniaturists, Arcola Theatre in Dalston next Sunday 25th November. Details are here and tickets available here. Please come along if you fancy it.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Philosophy and Literature: Style

In his interviews with Claire Parnet, Deleuze says that “every great philosopher is a great writer”. Just on an anecdotal level, I think this is true of philosophers that have meant something to me. The 'prolix intensity' of Heidegger’s prose - incantatory, circling, before diverted into some neologism; the long pauses that punctuate the prose of Walter Benjamin, the brief insights marooned in silence; the conversational clarity, the 'user-friendly' sentences of the latter Wittgenstein (the terse austerity of the earlier); the stickiness of description in Sartre, closing the reassuring gap between subject and object. But this may be simply a question of taste. And there are too many philosophers with whom I’m wholly unfamiliar. And many would define a ‘great writer’ more in terms of clarity, transparency (and therefore exclude the likes of Heidegger and Sartre from the off).
So, beyond the anecdotal, the question arises of why it should be the case that a great philosopher is a great writer. Something of what Deleuze means can perhaps be clarified by a certain notion of style. Given that philosophy is about the creation of new concepts, then it is also true that the birth pangs of a new concept always take the form of a style:

Some concepts call for archaisms, and others for neologisms, shot through with almost crazy etymological exercises: etymology is like a specifically philosophical athleticism. In each case there must be a strange necessity for these words and for their choice, like an element of style. The concept's baptism calls for a specifically philosophical taste that proceeds with violence or by insinuation and constitutes a philosophical language within language - not just a vocabulary but a syntax that attains the sublime or a great beauty.

It is clearer from this why a great philosopher, for Deleuze must also be a great writer. The new concept cannot breathe inside the old language. The old language must be disturbed. The new style banishes and keeps at bay received ideas. Not only does style 'express' content (the new concept), it guards the space in which content comes to expression. 

It would seem that for Deleuze concepts are not easily extractable from their language-envelope. And he does not think that a great stylist is someone who expresses themselves 'clearly', the proverbial windowpane of prose through which we see, unadorned, the 'content'. For this would imply that content is simply delivered by a language which then dutifully disappears. We cannot from these stylistic innovators, these 'great writers,' simply skim off paraphrasable content over and above stylistic traits and changes in syntax.
Everything that Deleuze says, in the above quote and elsewhere, about style in philosophy, is of course very close to what he says about style in literature. Literature too sets up a foreign language within language, which makes the received language stutter, stall, twist and sing. Philosophy and literature in this sense both have this necessary element of style. Both of them mobilise and disturb language. What differentiates philosophy and literature is not so much their creatively antagonistic relation to language but their direction. That is, philosophy’s innovations are directed towards the creation of concepts, whereas literary innovation points towards the creation of affects [I’ll perhaps return to this in another post]. Similarly with conceptual persona. They are fictions internal to philosophy but they might also appear and function within a story. What differentiates them is the direction they are heading in. Again, facilitating concepts and creating affects respectively.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Philosophy and Literature: Conceptual Personae

The degree to which the 'literary' - metaphor, fictions, figurative language etc - inhabits and is necessary to philosophy is a question which Deleuze keeps returning to. The 'conceptual personae' is one response to this question.

To formulate the Cogito, the famous "I think therefore I am", Descartes needs the persona of the Idiot. The Idiot though, is pre-philosophical, or rather pre-conceptual in the sense that he is the prior condition of the concept. He prepares for philosophy proper. The Idiot, innocent or unlearned, disturbs the field of 'received wisdom'. The Idiot requires that we have to explain everything anew, from scratch, so that the world be available to the Idiot, who knows nothing, who lives without the overlay of learning. And in doing this, in having to meet the Idiot on his level, the gaps in  in 'what everyone knows' are revealed. We can no longer get round them. Suddenly we are stumbling and stuttering. The encounter with the Idiot makes us relearn how to think. The figure of the Idiot thus prepares the ground for this new thinking but also entails a new implicit picture of what thinking is. Deleuze's point is that every great conceptual innovation drags in its wake a new image of what thinking actually consists in. So it's not that thinking is an underlying constant that generates ever new concepts. In a way, the new concepts generate the thinking.

The conceptual persona can be explicit but often implicit. That is, the philosopher may make visible, as a fleshed out character, the persona who enables a certain kind of thinking. Nietzsche's Zarathustra is an obvious example. But not necessarily, the Cartesian Idiot is an enabling fictional position from which Descartes speaks without being directly visible. "'I think as Idiot"' (Deleuze). It as a mask but it is not Descartes in disguise. In fact, Descartes must supress himself in order to enter the mask and start thinking anew. The mask engenders the thinker.

It is clear that while a persona such as the Idiot may be necessary to philosophy, he is not confined to philosophy. It is perfectly conceivable, of course, that a novelist could use the Idiot in a fiction to create a world or to open up the existing world anew. Many have. Kafka certainly uses the figure of the Idiot in his fiction. But he seems also to claim it as his own, outside the text. He states in the Diaries [I can't remember the exact passage] that he knows nothing, certainly not in the sense that Men, typically, 'know things' (facts and how things work), and barely even in the casual everyday sense - the simplest things are for him impossible obstacles, inscrutable, closed. Milena, in an often quoted passage, puts it like this:
 life is something altogether different from what it is for ordinary people. Above all, things such as money, the stock market, foreign exchange or a typewriter are utterly miraculous (as indeed they are, only not to the rest of us). . . . Is his work at the office, for instance, anything like an ordinary job? To him the office, including his own part in it, is as mysterious and wonderful as a locomotive is to a small child. Have you ever been to the post office with him? Watched him compose a telegram, shake his head while he picks a window he likes best and then, without the least notion of why and wherefore, starts wandering about from one window to the next? . . . No, this entire world is and remains a mystery to him, an enigmatic myth.
But once again, as in Descartes, this figure of the idiot is enabling, generating something new, something radical - in Kafka's case a new kind of fiction, a new beam,  in light of which the world is transfigured, but also, for him personally, a kind of elective abstention from the world.