BY Erik Morse in Profiles | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143


Erik Morse on the translation into English of a 52-part French TV programme featuring philosopher Gilles Deleuze

BY Erik Morse in Profiles | 01 NOV 11

Gilles Deleuze, 1987. Courtesy © Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

It’s a little like Nietzsche said so well: someone launches an arrow into space […] and then someone comes along to pick it up and hurl it out elsewhere, so that’s how creation happens.
Gilles Deleuze in From A to Z (1988–9)

For the Parisian intellectuals and activists of the ’68 generation, the news of the death of Gilles Deleuze was less shocking than how it occurred. The author of Anti-Oedipus (1972) and Mille Plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980), who had suffered for years from both tuberculosis and lung cancer, leapt from a third-floor window of his Paris apartment in 1995, when deteriorating health necessitated his institutionalization. ‘There is too much to say about what has happened to us here,’ wrote Jacques Derrida: ‘With the death of Gilles Deleuze, with a death we no doubt feared (knowing him to be so ill), but still, with this death here, this unimaginable image, in the event, would deepen still further, if that were possible, the infinite sorrow of another event.’ There was a certain admirable morbidity to what could be described as Deleuze’s final gesture of what he termed ‘deterritorialization’ – the concept that he had traced throughout his career as a constant retreat of the body from familial space. At the time of his death, Deleuze – a different Deleuze, a pre-recorded Deleuze – who had once insisted, pace Maurice Blanchot, that ‘we never cease and we never finish to die’, had already begun to reappear on the French television show Metropolis, thanks to film director and programmer Pierre-André Boutang’s 52 episodes of L’Abécédaire (The ABCs, 1988–9).

Featuring Deleuze and interviewer Claire Parnet (a student and friend), Gilles Deleuze from A to Z – now translated into English in its entirety for the first time by Charles J. Stivale for Semiotext(e) – is a riveting, self-penned obituary of a sickly and self-reflexive philosopher, whose ruminations on bodies, space, art and knowledge constitute both an encyclopedia and an atlas. From the opening frames of the eight-hour interview, the viewer is treated almost exclusively to Deleuze himself, first in the frenzied, smoked-filled hall of a 1980 lecture and then in his private residence, where he lazes quietly at a sideboard table before Parnet and Boutang’s camera. Sallow, wrinkled and gap-toothed, Deleuze’s ex­pression is nonetheless avuncular as he shifts both his eyes and torso in a show of intellectual vim. As Boutang recalled in a 2004 interview with the film journal Vertigo: ‘It is a rare occurrence to shoot someone who’s so at ease in his body, in his voice, who’s completely present to what he’s doing […] He’s in the aquarium, he has chosen the water of his aquarium, and he does what he wants.’ 

Parnet initiates the tête-à-tête with the topic of ‘Animal’ (‘A as in …’) and Deleuze quickly moves the discussion from biology and taxonomy to one of existentialized geography. To be an animal, he claims, is, at the limit, ‘l’être aux aguets’ – the being on the lookout. The space of one’s territory is intimately intertwined in what Deleuze calls a becoming–animal – his emphasis on ‘becoming’ over ‘being’ is another trademark of his Nietzsche-inspired vitalism. Animals, first and foremost, must mark out their space through an emission of signs. ‘What intervenes in marking a territory is also a series of postures, for example, lowering oneself/lifting oneself up,’ he explains. ‘Colour, song (chant), posture: these are the three determinants of art: I mean, colour and lines – animal postures are sometimes veritable lines – colour, line, song – that’s art in its pure state.’ Such extraordinary, unexpected segues are the hallmark of Deleuze’s unique brand of conceptualization. When the interview turns to more explicitly political matters (‘G as in Gauche’), Deleuze extrapolates upon the animal’s perception of space by proclaiming the Left as less an ideology than a becoming–revolutionary or an aggregate of minoritarian becomings which perceive from the periphery, from the horizon. ‘May ’68,’ he asserts, ‘is the intrusion of becoming.’

These kinds of recondite descriptions often obfuscate rather than refine Deleuze’s bombastic declarations, but they also point to the colourful (another favourite qualifier of his) and cartographic poesy he employs in order to articulate a new language of concepts – those rooted in what he called ‘planes of immanence’. Throughout the film, Deleuze refers to the geo-spatial leitmotifs of world, earth and landscape, as well as some of their molecular counterparts – fold, ritornello (refrain) and monad – until he succeeds in designing an atlas of sorts. In ‘D as in Desire’, when asked about psychoanalysis’s misinterpretations of desiring as individual and familial, Deleuze tells Parnet: ‘We are frenzied about the whole world […] That is, one is frenzied about history, geography, tribes, deserts, peoples, races […] about the ends of the world, about particles, about electrons.’ Only a philosophy of the cosmos could satisfy Deleuze’s desire to unfold and refold its infinite layers into assemblages of meaning.

If space provides the fundament of Deleuze’s video dialogue, it does not prevent him from tackling other, more quotidian topics. When asked of his professional relationship with Michel Foucault (‘F as in Fidelity’), he responds, most evocatively of his friend, that: ‘He [was] a special gust of air […] It really was atmospheric, there was a kind of emanation, there was a Foucault emanation like someone who has a glow.’ Another figure to earn Deleuze’s approbation, singer Édith Piaf (‘O as in Opera’), invented a vocal ‘stammer’ and bilious grandeur that, in her popular dissemination, achieved two of the theorist’s critical passions – the musical and spatial refrain – which for him coalesce in the heterogeneity of style. ‘Style, for me, is the pure auditory,’ he offers, ‘for a musician […] renders audible forces that are not audible […] He makes audible the music of the earth, he makes audible the music in which he invents, almost exactly like the philosopher.’ The inclusion of British comedian Benny Hill (‘C as in Culture’) to this same reliquary is a more suspect choice for Deleuze, but perhaps it is linked to the TV funnyman’s over-stylized burlesque, which would often transform his body into a kind of physical stutter.

For their closing dialogue, Parnet returns to an appraisal of deterritorialization in its most primordial configuration – the becoming of the universe. With the mark of the zigzag (‘Z as in …’), Deleuze traces what he calls both the ‘infinite curving’ of dark space and the chaotic flash of lightning that makes the dark world visible. This chaos – full of potentials, brought suddenly into a luminous event – is also, he claims, what philosophy must be. It is poignant that Deleuze’s final conceit is a colourful mapping of sky, a defenestrated world that served as an intellectual, architectural and somatic portal from which he would leap again and again in joy and despair. When he concludes his thoughts with an eruption of laughter and the chant of ‘Posthumous! Posthumous!’, there is an unrelenting sense that he has just composed his own obituary in the void.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.