Interview with Leonard Lawlor

© Leonard Lawlor and Figure/Ground
Dr. Lawlor was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 11th, 2017

Leonard Lawlor is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Continental philosophy. He received his doctorate from SUNY Stony Brook in 1988 and taught at the University of Memphis from 1989–2008, where he held the position of Faudree-Hardin University Professor of Philosophy from 2004 to 2008 before joining the faculty at Penn State, as Sparks Professor of Philosophy.[3] He is known for his writings on phenomenology and on the figures Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, and Jean Hippolyte. Lawlor’s most recent work concerns transcendental violence and possible responses to it. His recent From Violence to Speaking Out takes up the question of responses to violence. Although From Violence to Speaking Out contains precise expositions of important ideas in Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault, it is an original work of philosophy, extending ideas found in his 2007 This is not Sufficient. Somewhat disguised by the expositions, From Violence to Speaking Out is primarily a work in ethics.

Why did you choose to study philosophy?

I went to university as a political science major, thinking that I’d return to my home town and run for office. In fact, that’s what I told my father. But when I took my first political science courses, I really did not like them. They were mainly empirical and not theoretical. In my second semester, I took a philosophy course. Within weeks of it starting, I decided to change my major to philosophy. The ideas just spoke to me. My father, however, was unhappy with the change of majors, and worried that I would never have a career; and, therefore, worried that he was wasting money on my education. I did not want to make my father worry so much, so I dropped out of the university, got a job, and then went back when I could pay my tuition. Eventually, I earned a B.A. in philosophy. Of course, the ideas I studied when I was young still speak to me. I believe philosophy is important because it transforms thinking; it opens not only new ways of thinking but also new ways of living.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school? What did you learn from them?

I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from Stony Brook University. Hugh J. Silverman directed my dissertation; he taught me about post-structuralism. Hugh taught me how to read Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault. Another teacher who was important for me was Edward S. Casey, who taught me really how to philosophize spontaneously in the classroom. I have also always tried to emulate Ed’s boundless generosity. At this vantage point, however, I think the most important course I took was one in my very first semester of the doctoral program. This was taught by Donn Welton. The course was a cover-to-cover reading of Husserl’s Logical Investigations. I learned a lot about this book and about phenomenology. It was a great course, and it had a lasting influence on me since today I still identify myself as a phenomenologist. (By the way, I was Welton’s teaching assistant in my first semester of the doctoral program. Donn also taught me a lot about how to teach.)

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

I don’t want to just speak in clichés and truisms here. But, obviously, hard work is the key to any success. Thankfully, I have some comments that are less of a cliché. Three things really helped me reach the level of success that I’ve had (modest success, of course). First, while still a graduate student, I realized that, when I was struggling with ideas and with writing about them, the best way to make progress was simply to write. Writing allowed me to understand the ideas better, and even when my writing was confused, at least I had some raw material on which I could work. My advice is: don’t be afraid to write when you are struggling with the ideas. If you wait for comprehension in advance of writing, you’ll never get anything done. Second, when I was a beginning assistant professor, I worked on research projects successively. I finished one project prior to starting another. After I was promoted to associate professor, I realized that I was working too slowly. Then I started to work on projects in tandem, which resulted in me publishing three books almost simultaneously over 2002-2003. The advice is: try to work on projects simultaneously. Third, the other piece of advice I would give is take advantage of other traditions in philosophy. I benefitted greatly from the analytic philosophy courses I was required to take at Stony Brook. But, I especially benefitted from the excellent analytic philosophers I had as colleagues (Terry Horgan, John Tienson, Mark Timmons, and David K. Henderson) at the University of Memphis, where I taught for 19 years. Through the way my analytic colleagues approached philosophical questions, I learned that making sharp differences and thoroughly dissecting concepts allows one to think more clearly. Making differences and dissecting concepts of course is not all the work of philosophy. But, doing so lays the groundwork for the genuine work of philosophy which is creativity. Here, of course, I am thinking of Deleuze’s definition of philosophy as the creation of concepts.

One of your areas of specialization is contemporary French philosophy. Giorgio Agamben has identified two major trajectories converging into this field of inquiry, both of which pass through Heidegger. One the one hand, he speaks of a trajectory of transcendence, which includes Levinas and Derrida and goes back through Husserl to Kant; on the other hand, he mentions a trajectory of immanence, which includes Deleuze and Foucault and goes back to Spinoza through Nietzsche. This categorization may appear rather simplistic, but I think it can help us trigger some interesting discussions. Actually, your own work seems to defy this two-fold scheme: not only do you work with authors from both trajectories, but you also find common elements and interesting affinities across both camps….

This question goes to the heart of much of the work I have done. I agree that my work seems to defy this two-fold scheme between transcendence and immanence. I think the two-fold schema suffers from an initial misunderstanding. The philosophers on whom I have worked wrote, all of them, in the shadow of Nietzsche, and that means within the project of the reversal of Platonism. Thus, in a sense, all of these philosophers are philosophers of immanence (including Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida), because they opposed transcendent, other-worldly ideas. All of these philosophers start within experience. Think of Totality and Infinity where Levinas, following Descartes’ Third Meditation, speaks of “the idea of infinity within us.” “Within” of course is crucial preposition of immanence. But even if we clear up this misunderstanding, it’s still true that the relation between transcendence (as something beyond experience) and immanence (within experience) is hard to understand. It is hard to understand because of Deleuze and Guattari’s stubborn claim, in What is Philosophy, that transcendence is opposed to philosophy and that philosophy has always been concerned with immanence. But here, I think Deleuze and Guattari have added to the confusion, since they seem to be really defining transcendence as the transcendent (like Platonic ideas). For them in What is Philosophy (they follow Bergson in this regard), transcendence is a “stopping point” (un arrêt) in becoming. A stopping point is a goal for becoming; the goal makes the becoming stop there, at the model to be attained (some sort of ideal model of woman in becoming-woman); the model stops becoming from being creative. This model, therefore, is something that lies outside of and beyond the becoming. It functions like the idea of the Good in Plato, making becoming teleological. Now, if we look at becoming without a projected stopping point or model, we have to see that what makes becoming creative is its becoming-other. Now, we see that if immanence is becoming and becoming is becoming-other, then we cannot say that immanence is opposed to transcendence. We could almost say that immanence and transcendence are equivalent. And if we want to define philosophy, we could say that philosophy has always concerned itself with becoming. And now if one wants to question me about the idea of “beyond being,” I would say that becoming is “beyond being,” Becoming is not what is; it is not a substance or a subject. Lastly, I have to add that I have found Deleuze (and Guattari’s) statements in What is Philosophy that philosophy has always been about immanence hard to reconcile with Deleuze’s earlier claims, in Difference and Repetition and in Logic of Sense, about reversing Platonism and abandoning the old metaphysics.

You seem to be speaking of a transcendence-in-immanence which is neither the transcendent of realist (dogmatic) metaphysics, nor the transcendental of Kant’s critical project. Now, had not Husserl already overcome both these options in favor a kind of transcendence which is neither transcendent nor transcendental, but immanent through and through? As you know, Deleuze praises Sartre for positing an impersonal field of consciousness – a move which seems to overcome phenomenology’s implicit anthropocentrism. However, I wonder if this explicit compliment by Deleuze doesn’t underplay a more profound and significant affinity between Husserl’s genetic phenomenology and his own brand of transcendental empiricism. How drastic is Deleuze’s break with phenomenology, in your view?

This is a hard question, which seems to have several parts. First, I agree with your characterization of what I am saying as “transcendence within immanence.” It could also be characterized by means of a propositional formula, as “beyond-in.” But, as I said in response to the last question, the “beyond” part of the prepositional formula does not refer to an external (to becoming) stopping point which would determine becoming (determine the “in” part) from the outside. I think this non-stopping point kind of transcendence, if we want to call it that, it still requires conceptual work. The conceptual work probably requires more reflection of what Deleuze has called “the dark precursor.” The dark precursor in Difference and Repetition seems to be a memory, since Deleuze refers to Proust’s involuntary memory. However, when the time comes to act, the dark precursor is liberated from its particular content, becoming no more than an outline or a sketch. Being only a sketch, the dark precursor remains indeterminate, and thereby it provides a sort of guidance for action or becoming without being a model. Importantly, if we look at Chapter Four of Difference and Repetition, we see that the dark precursor is an idea, but the idea, in Deleuze, is always divided, or, as he says, “dispars.” Deleuze explains the disparity in itself of the idea by means of the differential calculus. But, we can simplify this explanation by thinking of an irrational number, which, being irrational, generate more and more numbers. The irrational number is an image of becoming. To continue this reflection, we also need to examine more closely the famous becoming chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, but doing so would take us far beyond the scope of an interview.

Another part of your question concerns phenomenology as such and, in particular, Husserl’s work. I agree again that, when Husserl takes up the idea of passive synthesis, he seems to be exploring, as Merleau-Ponty would say, the limits of phenomenology. Passive syntheses, such temporal synthesis, at least border on the unconscious. Therefore, in this investigation at least, Husserl seems to break free of the priority of consciousness. We know, of course, that Husserl’s lectures on time-consciousness were generally available in post-WWII France. But his actual lectures on passive synthesis were not. The Ricœur 1950 French translation of Husserl’s Ideas I certainly influenced the generation of Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault.

Finally, you ask about Deleuze’s relationship to phenomenology. Generally, Deleuze scholars have argued that Deleuze does not belong to the phenomenological tradition and that his rejection of phenomenology is absolute. In my works, I have not agreed with this assessment of Deleuze’s relationship to phenomenology. I have tried to show that, when Deleuze speaks of transcendental empiricism, he is extending the phenomenological tradition. Clearly, in Husserl and Heidegger, there is a move, via the reduction or being-toward-death, toward a kind of experience which discloses the very structure of experience. For phenomenology (unlike Kant), the transcendental conditions of experience are given in experience. Through the idea of an encounter Deleuze, like Husserl and Heidegger, are trying to lead us to an experience which would disclose the conditions of experience. Yet, phenomenology really seems to influence Deleuze when, in Difference and Repetition and in Logic of Sense, he speaks of the foundation not resembling or copying the founded. Husserl had argued against the circular reasoning of historicism and naturalism. Husserl recognized that one cannot use a region of experience as the foundation for all experience. This is circular reasoning because we are trying to explain all the regions of experience with one of the regions that we are trying to explain. Heidegger argues that Being (Sein) cannot be defined by beings (Seinde). Defining Being by one of the beings is also circular reasoning. Deleuze’s thinking always tries to break out of the circular reasoning that both Husserl and Heidegger has identified. In Difference and Repetition, he claims that Husserl, in Experience and Judgment, falls prey to a kind of circular reasoning when he tries to ground opinion on Urdoxa; that is, Deleuze claims that Husserl uses doxa to ground doxa. I think it is easy to wield Deleuze’s criticism of phenomenology in Difference and Repetition as a club against phenomenology in general. However, the elaboration of the criticism of phenomenology as circular, in Difference and Repetition, does not appear until Logic of Sense (when Deleuze discusses the Husserlian idea of the noema). Deleuze’s elaboration is extremely difficult. I have tried to explicate Deleuze’s argumentation in my contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Deleuze. But we should note, and it should make Deleuzians hesitate in their dismissive criticisms of phenomenology, that the Logic of Sense refers only to Ideas I.

I think there is something to be said – a clarification at least – with regards to that comment by Foucault, which says something along the lines that The Logic of Sense and Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception are as unlikely as they can be. I’m thinking it may be useful to address Foucault’s comment in the context of your attempt to build bridges between phenomenology and Deleuzian thinking…

This is an important point. Foucault’s comment, in “Theatrum Philosophicum,” supports the belief that Deleuze is not a phenomenologist. However, we should notice that Foucault compares Deleuze’s works to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. By the time he was writing The Visible and the Invisible in the late 1950s, Merleau-Ponty was already distancing himself from the Phenomenology of Perception. There several famous working notes to The Visible and the Invisible where Merleau-Ponty criticizes his earlier work. The criticisms basically amount to saying the Phenomenology of Perception is too subjectivist, especially when the book speaks of the tacit cogito. What distinguishes Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense from the Phenomenology of Perception is their anti-subjectivist positions. I’m relatively confident that it is this opposition between subjectivism and anti-subjectivism that Foucault has in mind when he makes his statement. More precisely, what we see in Deleuze’s important early works is, first, that the “I” (“the cogito,” whether tacit or not) is based on a more fundamental process of time, the three syntheses, the first two of which are unconscious (Chapter Two of Difference and Repetition contains a long discussion of Freud); and then, second, in Logic of Sense, that the agency of sense is based in a prior agency called non-sense. In his early works, Merleau-Ponty speaks a lot about non-sense, but he seems to mean something like the absurd (as in Camus). Non-sense in Deleuze is a structure that generates sense. The point I want to make, however, is that the later Merleau-Ponty – the one who works at the limits of phenomenology – is close to these Deleuzian positions. The final Merleau-Ponty is the thinker of silence, which resembles non-sense, and he is the thinker of institution, meaning a historical process or structure (Merleau-Ponty of course loves the cave paintings at Lascaux) that opens up a tradition, in other words, that opens up a sense or direction for thought. Therefore, I think Merleau-Ponty himself would agree with Foucault’s statement. But I think he would be more resistant to seeing a vast distance between the final form of his thought and Deleuze’s thought. There is no question in my mind that Merleau-Ponty’s “Eye and Mind” influences Deleuze in Difference and Repetition when Deleuze speaks of depth.

I find Deleuze’s relationship with Heidegger quite enigmatic. As you know, Deleuze wrote extensively about philosophers he loved (Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson) and equally about those he considered enemies or rivals, but nevertheless respected (Kant, Plato). Conversely, he also admired philosophers about whom he wrote very little, but who, nevertheless, influenced him a great deal (Whitehead, Simondon). Yet Heidegger remains a mystery. In a sense, all three figures of what could broadly be called “post-structuralist” thought (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze) had an equally problematic relationship with Heidegger. Indeed, much of the late 20th century could be characterized as an attempt to get out of the heideggerian paradigm. Do you think Deleuze, by thinking beyond (and not merely through) the ontological difference, and by re-working the notion of genesis he inherited from Simondon, was perhaps most successful in subverting Heidegger and the logic of constitution that dominates much of XX century thought from Husserl to Derrida?

I do not agree with what your question presupposes. I do not think the logic of constitution dominates Derrida’s thought – even though his relationship to phenomenology and to Heidegger is more direct than Foucault and Deleuze’s relationship. (We have not spoken a lot about Foucault, but I think it is important to recognize that his secondary thesis, his introduction to Kant’s anthropology, is inspired by Heidegger’s Kant book.) I have studied Derrida’s “deconstruction” or criticism of phenomenology a lot. It seems to me that when Derrida demonstrates that a kind of non-presence (which is not a presence to come) lies at the bottom of subjective constitution, as Husserl describes it, he is trying to invent a new mode of genesis called “différance.” Différance is a kind of genesis, which does not betray, as he says, “the potencies of repetition.” His criticisms of Heidegger can be found everywhere in his writings. But, as far as I can tell, his primary criticism (which appears primarily in the final pages of Memoirs for Paul de Man) is that the potencies of repetition outstrip any attempt at “gathering” (Versammlung), or, to speak more simply, any attempt at unity. Like Deleuze (and Foucault, I would say), Derrida sees difference within the foundation, an uncloseable difference within repetition. On the surface, I think Deleuze’s criticism of Heidegger looks somewhat different from that of Derrida. However, I think the two are essentially the same. In Difference and Repetition, we find the note on Heidegger’s ontological difference. In this note, there is no direct criticism of Heidegger, except at the end Deleuze asks this question: does Heidegger’s ontological difference revolve around the beings? This is not a rhetorical question. It is clear from the note (and from the all of Difference and Repetition) that Deleuze’s answer is “no.” Deleuze thinks that when Heidegger speaks of “being” (Sein), he is still making a kind of unity prior to dispersion. In other words, when Deleuze implies that the beings (Seiende) must be prioritized – and this priority he really asserts in Chapter Five of Difference and Repetition – he is really liberating repetition from its confinement within unities. Like Derrida, Deleuze is trying to liberate the “potencies of repetition.” This liberation means that, unlike Aristotle, individuals, despite their similarities, are really different from one another; they are really individuals. I’ve not studied much Simondon’s relation to Deleuze (although I recognize Simondon’s importance for Deleuze). This might be controversial when I say this, but I think Difference and Repetition (and this might distinguish it from the books co-authored with Guattari) is really a book about thought. Therefore, the kind of genesis that Deleuze describes in Chapter Five really depends on Chapter Four’s description of Ideas (the objects of thought). If this dependence is the case, then the biology of Chapter Five is idealistic. Living beings are the actualization of ideas. And, no, this priority of ideas does not mean that Deleuze (like so many in the history of philosophy) is restraining individuals under a general category. This restraint of individuals cannot happen because Deleuze conceives ideas to be fundamentally and internally disparate. All the mathematics of Chapter Four aims at demonstrating that the idea resembles irrational numbers, which, of course, generate more and more fractions because the ratio cannot be equalized. Again, while I have studied Capitalism and Schizophrenia a lot (and I greatly admires these books), I am still not certain how these books connect back to Difference and Repetition. Probably the long chapter on becoming in A Thousand Plateaus refers back to the earlier concept of repetition (becoming has to be repetition), but I am not certain how becoming really elaborates the concepts developed in Difference and Repetition.

I would like you to elaborate on the differences between Derrida and Deleuze. I suppose one way of contrasting their projects has to do with a similar –yet differing– way of reading and incorporating other thinkers into their systems. It has been suggested that Derrida’s deconstructionist method tends to be more disruptive in its repetition of other authors than Deleuze’s more constructive (positive, affirmative) approach. In other words, while Derrida’s deconstruction aims at arriving at the aporia of any philosophy, Deleuze’s reconstruction is supposed to bring forth another (differential) philosophy. Moreover, numerous commentators have also pointed out a tendency in Derrida towards a “textualization” or “linguisticality” of experience that would somehow limit the scope of deconstruction. Deleuze himself made it clear that, for him, the method of deconstructing texts is part of a much larger machinery…In light of this, perhaps the main difference between the two concerns their respective appropriations of a structuralist heritage?

Maybe the beginning of an answer to this question lies in stating that all great philosophers who have produced readings of earlier philosophers have distorted the work of the historical figure in order to create a new idea. This statement brings Derrida and Deleuze closer together. However, I agree with your basic distinction between the two. Derridean deconstruction intends to display a structure that lies suppressed or hidden in the text. This structure is even one that contradicts the philosopher’s stated intentions. Of course, I have spent a lot of time working on Derrida’s early writings on Husserl. In Voice and Phenomenon, which is perhaps Derrida’s first true deconstruction, Derrida shows that the structure of time necessarily includes non-presence; the irreducible temporal non-presence contradicts Husserl’s definition of phenomenology as the return to the things themselves, understood as the presence of an intuition. With deconstruction, one has the feeling that one is following the development of Derrida’s own thinking, but with the feeling that his thinking goes against the grain of the philosopher being deconstructed. Now, while you learn something about Husserl in Voice and Phenomenon, I think the deconstruction of phenomenology does not really aim at teaching. I think this aim of teaching really distinguishes Deleuze’s studies from Derrida’s deconstructions. I am thinking in particular of Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy and his Spinoza and Expressionism in Philosophy. When I read these two books for the first time – but this is still true when I read them again today – I always learn something about Nietzsche and Spinoza. In fact, I have to say that until I read Nietzsche and Philosophy, I never understood Nietzsche. How Deleuze connects Nietzsche’s genealogy to Kantian critique is incredibly illuminating, even brilliant. Similarly, how Deleuze relies on the scolia in Spinoza’s Ethics in order to show how expressionism in Spinoza differs from emanation is brilliant. With these two masterpieces, one has the feeling that one is following the development of Deleuze’s thought, but with the feeling that Deleuze’s thought flows along with or is within the thought of Nietzsche and Spinoza. Of course, Derrida and Deleuze are individual thinkers, so we should not be surprised if the texts they have written produce different feelings in the reader. There is, however, one clear similarity or even identity between Derrida’s readings (deconstruction) and those of Deleuze (bugery?). Both result in the creation of new concepts: différance and immanence.

Perhaps these different concepts can lead us to the second part of your question. The generation of French thinkers who come of age in the 1960s is reacting to the development of structuralism. I think Derrida and Deleuze’s reaction is very similar. Both try to conceive structure as generative. Of course, both Derrida and Deleuze were students of Jean Hyppolite, who wrote the massive Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In any case, both see structures as being based on a difference, which is irreducible. Not being the fullness of, say, a meaning, the difference allows structures to transform themselves in a non-teleological way. Since the structure does not have an original meaning, it is not able to project a final end. We have already mentioned the role of non-presence in Derrida, which he uses to criticize the very idea of an origin. But in Deleuze (appropriating ideas from Lacan), in Difference and Repetition, we have the partial object, which prevents the original love object from ever coinciding with the desired love object. Finally, I am less certain about the other difference you indicate between Derrida and Deleuze. But, I understand why you present this difference. It’s true that Derrida writes a lot about language – maybe Derrida always writes about language – while Deleuze (and Deleuze and Guattari) seem to write about language only on certain occasions and in relation to specific problems, like literary writing. I’m thinking here of the Kafka book. Even more, in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari criticize the hegemony of language, opening the way for considerations of materiality under their idea of the machinic. Perhaps the real difference in their thinking, however, lies in the consideration of form. It seems Derrida always finds a minimal formalism in every experience, which is the foundation, or better, non-foundation of language, while Deleuze stresses the in-formal (l’informe), which is the foundation or non-foundation of becoming. This idea of the in-formal clearly determines what Deleuze and Guattari say about flows in Anti-Oedipus and in A Thousand Plateaus.  Despite this difference of form and anti-form, I think both Derrida and Deleuze are unified in their concern to determine the nature of thinking. And for both, there is no thinking without language.

You stated -quite rightly, I think- that most philosophers tend to somehow ‘misinterpret’ other philosophers in order to go beyond them. This seems like a necessary requirement, in particular, when transitioning towards the development an original philosophy. However, the approach seems all the more necessary when dealing with an intimate kind of adversary for whom one has mixed feelings. In modern philosophy, for instance, it is often said that Hegel did to Kant what Kant did to Hume. Deleuze himself was ambivalent about Kant, whom he defined as an enemy. Nevertheless, the one philosopher he really hated seems to be Hegel. (This is not surprising, since both Hegel and Deleuze deal with Kant and Spinoza as recurrent sources of inspiration). Now, the Deleuzian critique of Hegel tends to be rather swift, yet there are interesting parallels between the two. In particular, their style of critique appears rather similar: neither of them refute other thinkers, but attempt to repeat them. Do you see any other similarities between the two? Joe Hughes has suggested that Deleuze proposes a new “dialectics”….

I respect Joe Hughes’ work on Deleuze a lot, so I am usually inclined to agree with him. But, in regard to this question, I would say that he is definitely correct. Deleuze himself speaks of dialectic in a positive sense in Difference and Repetition. Here he says that dialectic is the art of problems and questions (Chapter Three). The comparison to Hegel is difficult since it would require that we reduce the extreme complexity of Hegel’s thought down to a couple of slogans. Nevertheless, if we remain at the “swift” level, we can say that what is central to his dialectic is negation, mediation, and contradiction. The three terms are, of course, inter-related. Hegel’s dialectic works through contradiction. As Deleuze says in Difference and Repetition, Hegel always pushes difference “up to” (jusqu’à) contradiction. This “up to” means that Hegel elevates little differences up into general categories. Instead of round shapes, we have circularity. But to comprehend circularity, you have to think of another figure to determine it. Triangularity is able to determine circularity by showing what circularity is not. Here is the role of negation. Because negation links the two concepts, they form a contradiction. Nevertheless, because we cannot comprehend them apart from one another, they form a kind of system, which means that there is a third thing establishing the contradiction, mediating it. This third thing is of course space. Now it seems to me that Deleuze pushes big, contradictory difference down to little differences. As far as I can tell, in Chapter One of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze favors Leibniz over Hegel. We return from circularity to round shapes. These small differences are not contradictory; they are “compossible.” Finally, because they are not grouped under a general concept (where contradictions can be found), then they form a series. But the origin of the series and its destination remains unknown. As Deleuze says in Difference and Repetition, negation is transformed into a question whose answer remains unknown. It could be the case that the investigation of this question amounts to a new kind of dialectic. Or, more generally, understanding being as a question amounts to a new kind of dialectic.

I think two more things need to be said about dialectic in Deleuze.

First, the idea of dialectic starts with Plato, especially in his later dialogues like the Sophist, where the Stranger engages in a series of divisions in order to determine who the sophist really is. As you recall, I’m sure, in 1968, in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze associates this dialectic with Platonism. For Deleuze, Platonism amounts to rooting out the simulacra in order to find the true idea. Then, in the reversal of Platonism, the simulacra rise to the surface and are champions. But at some point after Difference and Repetition, Deleuze changes his mind about this Platonic method of division. Deleuze is explicit about this change in his 1993 Lettre-Préface for Jean-Clet Martin’s book on Deleuze, where Deleuze basically says that what he claimed about simulacra is rubbish. A couple of years earlier, he had published with Guattari What is Philosophy. There, Deleuze once more discusses the Platonic method of division but here Deleuze agrees with Plato that we need to root out the simulacra, the imposters who think that they are the “idea men.” Now in 1991, the Platonic method of division is positive; it helps us determine who the true philosophers are. As he says in What is Philosophy, true philosophers are the creators of concepts, but the concepts created must be tested. It is through the test of the concepts created (the idea of the test probably goes back to Nietzsche and Philosophy) that we are able to determine who are the true philosophers. They are tested by examining their consistency, both endoconsistency or consistency among its internal components and exoconsistency or consistency with other concepts. But the real test comes from whether the concept is interesting or not, whether it opens for us new variations and events that oversee us, opening us a new way of living.

Variations bring us to the second additional thing I’d like to say about dialectic in Deleuze. Dialectic basically means becoming, which is the central concept in Deleuze’s thought. Both in A Thousand Plateaus (the long chapter on becomings) and in What is Philosophy (the chapter on geo-philosophy) Deleuze (and Guattari) say that becoming is always double. This double becoming does not of course take place by imitation, as if there were an eminent object to be imitated; becoming does not take place, for example, by imitating a molar woman. The removal of becoming from imitation opens becoming to be truly immanent, meaning without a transcendent stopping point; there is no goal that one approximates. Instead of imitation, the double becoming means entering into a zone of proximity with something else, with, as they say, animals, women, and children. The zone of proximity is molecular. Deleuze and Guattari, somewhat obscurely I think, speak of speeds, rhythms, and particles or atoms. But they really seem to have in mind a zone of affects. In order to become woman, one must (whether one is masculine or feminine or other) enter into the affect of women, or more precisely, the affect of girls having their bodies stolen from them (as we would say today, being forced to construct themselves as women). In other words, in order to become-woman, one must undergo their suffering – so that – here’s the doubleness – women can become something other than their suffering. In What is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari criticize Heidegger’s political mistake because, as they say, he chose the wrong people. In order to bring about a genuine transformation, one has to choose a people that is suffering, an oppressed people: enter into their affect of suffering so that they become other than their suffering. I know here we are far away from the logical kind of dialectic with which we started. But I think this idea of double becoming might be the new dialectic we find in Deleuze (and Guattari).

I wasn’t aware of Deleuze’s dismissal of his own early inversion of Platonism. Perhaps Deleuze’s distancing from his own early take on Platonism signals a more significant distancing from infamous postmodern positions during the 80s and 90s. I’m thinking of Jean Baudrillard, who constructed his mature work around the notion of simulacra. We know post-structuralism and postmodernism aren’t quite the same thing (Heidegger, for instance, is, along with Nietzsche, one of the forefathers of post-modernity, yet he wasn’t a post-structuralist proper). And yet, Deleuze doesn’t seem to fit under any of these categories…

I wasn’t suggesting that Deleuze dismisses his early reversal of Platonism. In the text I mentioned (the “Lettre-Préface à Jean-Clet Martin”), he dismisses the idea of the simulacrum, and I’ve wondered, as you suggest here, whether Baudrillard’s negative use of the word “simulacrum” motivated Deleuze to distance himself from the idea of the simulacrum. Nevertheless, the simulacrum was a major component of his early discourse on the reversal of Platonism. But I’m not sure it is an essential component. To remove the idea of the simulacrum from the project of the reversal of Platonism does not make the project impossible. I think Deleuze remains committed to the idea of a reversal of Platonism throughout his career, throughout his writings. The reason for me saying this is his commitment to immanence. I spoke about immanence earlier. If Platonism consists in the positing of transcendent ideas (or a god), then immanence has to be an essential component of the reversal of Platonism. Moreover, as I also said earlier, if the transcendent ideas function as models for the things that become, then to liberate becoming from pre-given models (repetition for itself) reverses Platonism.

The words “post-structualism” and “post-modernism” do not have a lot of currency today – except as a tag for the philosophers we’ve been discussing. However, I’m not sure we should abandon the word “post-modern.” Yes, Lyotard coined the word, and Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault never took up the word. But if we think about the central meaning of the post-modern in The Post-Modern Condition – that is, the elimination of a grand or, more precisely, a big narrative as the basis for history (the grand or big narrative is a form of Platonism) – then it seems we are living in the post-modern condition. It’s hard to say today, despite globalization, that some big drama is being played out in the world. If anything, globalization seems to have to led to a new form of regionalism. In these different regions, we can say that little dramas are being played out, but not that there is an overarching one that unifies all the regions.

Although there is no direct connection as far as I know, the fact that we now have important non-Western, “small” narratives through which we understand history testifies to the post-modern condition. I’m thinking of the vibrant discourses – micro-discourses — in critical philosophy of race, in feminism, and in Latinx philosophy. Perhaps to be anti-capitalist, as Deleuze and Guattari were, amounts to living in the post-modern condition. But also, as Lyotard tried to explain (Le post-moderne expliqué aux enfants), the post-modern concerns the invention of new rules of the game. It concerns thought. And if this is how we must define the post-modern, then it seems Deleuze’s work falls under this category: invention or creation of new modes of thinking.

I would like to add one more comment: I think it is a shame that no one reads and studies Lyotard’s works. The Differend is one of the great works of 20th century philosophy.

To follow up on the previous question, perhaps Deleuze ought to be thought of as a thinker of the future, as Foucault suggested. His work, in fact, enabled us to break free of the Heidegger-Derrida paradigm. Some even claim that it presaged the new realism of the 2000s. Is Deleuze more of a realist than, say, Heidegger, Foucault or Derrida?

When I hear the word “realism” today, I’m really not sure what it means. I feel the same way when I hear “the new materialism.”  When I hear the word “materialism” now, it sounds more like vitalism, but a vitalism that tries to be different from the one we find in Bergson. People seem to conceive matter as if all matter is alive, even inorganic matter. Even though it is “alive,” matter here is not supposed to be based on conscious processes. In Bergson, organic matter resembles conscious processes, and he sees a difference between organic matter and inorganic matter. I understand that matter in the new materialism focuses on self-organizing processes. However, if these processes produce something new, then Bergson seems correct. Life creates, as conscious beings do.

You were asking about realism. If realism means that we seek the ontological conditions of consciousness, of the subject, then of course Heidegger is a realist. But if realism means that reality exists in itself, separate from experience, then I think this is a return to the “old metaphysics” (as I mentioned earlier). I guess if the debate now is between realism and transcendentalism, then I am a transcendentalist. Simply, I do not see how one can return back beyond Kant’s Copernican Revolution. As Kant showed, if there is a reality beyond the forms in which things are given to us, the noumenal, then we can say nothing about it. And to say anything about reality in itself amounts to falling prey to an illusion. While I find Meillassoux’s After Finitude to be an interesting work, the argument he makes for ancestral time is very weak. How could we speak about anything that is prior to givenness, when what we are speaking about must have been given to us somehow? If it was not given somehow, we would know nothing about it. Therefore, it seems to me that Meillassoux and his followers – object-oriented ontologists — are dogmatists. What must be explored first of all, as Husserl showed, are the modes of givenness. The mere fact that elements within what is given are repeatable provides an explanation of what we call objectivity, objective reality, something with some sort of permanence, and therefore something that would be ancestral to human life. As Hume already showed, objective science would not be possible if nothing within what is given is repeatable. But here, with modes of givenness, we find a truly important philosophical problem (how objective science is possible is not very interesting). If there is a reality other than what is directly given to us, then how can we speak of it? We need strategies of speaking (strategies of thinking) that are adequate to an experience that indicates something other than that to which we have direct access. I know that the discourse of alterity now seems hackneyed. But I still think this problem of how to speak – or, more precisely, “how not to speak” (comment ne pas parler) – of what lies beyond, but indicated within, givenness — the other — requires more thought.

Here too, one more comment: as far as I can tell, the object-oriented ontologists do not really understand what the transcendental is, especially as this idea develops in 20th century phenomenology. The transcendental and even the transcendental subject are not human. The whole 20th century discourse of anti-humanism develops from the recognition that Dasein in Being and Time is not human, not human existence or human reality. Fundamental ontology and transcendental phenomenology are not forms of anthropology. While not equating the two, Dasein in Heidegger and transcendental subjectivity in Husserl refer, respectively, to the conditions for human existence and the conditions for human subjectivity – but these two kinds of conditions are not identical with human existence and human subjectivity. If they were, they would engage in the kind of circular reasoning we discussed earlier. Already in transcendental phenomenology, humans are “actants,” as I think some of the object-oriented ontologists say, along with objects.

Recently, Alexander R. Galloway declared that “we’ve reached peak Deleuze” and suggested that we “institute a five year moratorium for anyone working in media and cultural theory”, because it’s “getting out of hand”. Moreover, Peter Wolfendale has used the term “irrational Spinozism” to denounce a certain rhetoric that uses Spinozian concepts (e.g., ‘affect’, ‘power’, ‘expression’, etc.), suitably laundered through certain Deleuzian phrases (e.g., ‘singularity’, ‘event’, ‘intensity’, etc) deployed more for rhetorical effect than any attempt at explanation, used to argue against attempts to “understand” general patterns of cause and effect in favor of “living” in the particular affective resonances of the moment. I suspect both critiques also imply that there is a hard Deleuze, which can be read through philosophy and science, and a soft Deleuze, which can be read through politics and aesthetics… In any case, do you agree with their diagnostics?

Well, since I have participated in several international Deleuze conferences in the last few years, I think I agree with this diagnosis, and even with a call for a moratorium on Deleuze studies. The work done by non-philosophers on Deleuze usually amounts to parroting Deleuze, with little understanding of the concepts to which the words refer. I hope this does not sound too ungenerous. But I find myself very frustrated at these meetings. I also agree that “living” in the affect (whatever that might mean) is not doing philosophy or even thinking. While I think the contemporary discourse on affect is sometimes interesting, I too think it seems to lean toward a kind of irrationalism. Finally, I’m not sure there is a “hard” and “soft” Deleuze. Certainly, the chapters in A Thousand Plateaus that concern politics or sociology are extremely difficult – at least I find them to be difficult. And clearly, Difference and Repetition is a difficult book even for someone like me, trained in philosophy. But the difficulty of Deleuze’s writings indicates what we know already: he is a great philosopher.

A commentator once said that Heidegger was the most important continental philosopher of the first half of the XX century, while Deleuze was the most important continental philosopher of the second half of the XX century. Supposing for a moment that this is so, we could perhaps add that the second half of the XX century is the story of how philosophy gets “out” of Heidegger, while the present time is the story of how we get “out” of Deleuze. Again, assuming this is true, where do you see continental philosophy heading in the next decade?

While I have devoted my entire career to the philosophy we’ve been discussing, I worry about the narrowness of this question. As an academic philosopher, I find it hard to ignore the fact that analytic philosophy dominates every philosophy department in every major university in the Anglophone world. I’m lucky to have a position at Penn State University, a major American research university, where continental philosophy is taken so seriously. But Penn State is an anomaly. I worry that continental philosophy will end up being an “also-ran” to 20th century analytic philosophy. Of the figures we’ve been discussing, only Heidegger seems to have really been taken seriously by analytic philosophers, but even then, they take only Being and Time seriously. Heidegger’s important later writings on language are never mentioned by analytic philosophers of language.

I know. I’m not really answering your question. When I first heard the phrase “get out of,” I reacted by thinking it must refer to a negative movement. But with a little more reflection, I think that perhaps the phrase means creation of new concepts. If “getting out of Deleuze” means creating new concepts, then, yes, let’s get on with it.

But how to get out? At least to start to think about an answer to this question, we can look at an example from Difference and Repetition that involves Leibniz’s thought. Again, Deleuze always favors Leibniz over Hegel. Several times in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze mentions Leibniz’s idea of little (distinct and confused) perceptions, like the sound of the roar of the ocean crashing on the beach. Again, I think Deleuze always favors Leibniz over Hegel. Deleuze transforms this Leibnizian idea of little perceptions. Fot Leibniz, the little perceptions imply that we have knowledge of the whole world. This claim implies Leibniz’ theological outlook. We know the best world but for us humans we know it only in a confused way. In contrast, for Deleuze, little perceptions imply that we have access to the sub-representational. (By the way, the phenomenology of the mode of givenness of little perceptions could ground object-oriented ontology.) Here we take the little as such without referring it back to something big. Perhaps, we can do the same transformation with Deleuze’s ideas of immanence and becoming. We could connect them with something implied, and lead it in a new direction. These little differences are, in Deleuze, singularities, events. But events can always be repeated. What sort of relation is there between event and repeatability? Probably, it is neither strictly material nor spiritual. Is it perhaps a violent relation?

In What is Philosophy, we find that the future of philosophy will appear when a new problem forces us to think and create new concepts and new ways of living. I cannot predict what this problem will be. For now, in the present, today, I think the problem that provides the most food for thought is violence.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leonard Lawlor
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2017). “Interview with Leonard Lawlor,” Figure/Ground. December 11th.
<  http://figureground.org/interview-with-gunter-figal/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com

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