By the end of his brilliant set of reflections on Deleuze’s very late work, and my own reservations (shared with many others) about the direction and tone of that work, Dan Whistler takes the risk of asking me some extremely blunt questions. He asks, if I perceive his explicit and implicit intentions, 1.) why I decided to write the book, at all, 2.) whether I perceive Deleuze to have either failed in or betrayed his own (disavowed yet on my view undeniable) hermeticism, and 3.) whether I might have been better off, in view of Deleuze’s possible failures and/or disavowals, having adopted a different starting point for thinking through the stakes and possibilities of contemporary hermetic iterations. If I am critical of Deleuze, that is, from an hermetic perspective, what should he have done, or said, and what might I still have yet to say or do that might re-iterate my questions and problems differently, with or without the company of Deleuze and his many concepts and multiple investigations?
These questions crystallize, for Dan, in a peculiarly intense and redolent meta-question, one that reaches into a meta-pragmatic dimension of his metaphysical pluralism that I claim Deleuze constantly points toward without ever explicitly avowing—a dimension of hermetic practice or spiritual science grounding his thought, a mathesis Deleuze’s earliest writings, suppressed in his official biography, are obsessively concerned with. The question Dan poses is, was Deleuze sufficiently cruel? More precisely, did he fail to remain sufficiently cruel with us, or with himself. To put this bibliographically, did he later betray his early conceptions of the force of the sign (in the Proust, Masochism, and Nietzsche books), and the force of thought, when we reach his late affirmations of concepts as creations, and his final meditations upon immanence as “a life” (une vie)? Does Deleuze’s work, over time, slip from the rigors or severity of transcendental empiricism toward a fatuous vitalist monism, or is there some more oblique synthesis of those two strategies permeating his work?
My thesis in The Hermetic Deleuze is that a possible source of the unity (the monist side of his monism = pluralism, explicitly “magic” formula, as he did aver) is a kind liminal, germinal hermeticism, an itinerant and pragmatic practical synthesis. I claim, however, that this unity is not meta-critical unless it is meta-pragmatic, for we are dealing not with an ideal principle but an actual-virtual series of indexes, types, or exemplars that are dark precursors to Deleuze himself and included in which are the work of the modern artists, in particular, whom Deleuze so deeply admired—above all Artaud, but also Klee, Kafka, Henry Miller, Stockhausen, Schubert, Varese, Cezanne, Matisse, and a number of film auteurs. Thus Dan is absolutely correct to pose the question for my work in the way he does, not in terms of whether Deleuze’s meta-critical principle was the correct one, but whether he ultimately belonged to or maintained his fealty to the series of avatars or “mediums” which I myself selectively affirm.
For me, the only book that approaches justice to the metacritical problem in Deleuze’s systematic thought is Christian Kerslake’s Immanence and the Vertigo of Philosophy from Kant to Deleuze. Christian understands the meta-critical problem of grounding the critique of reason far better than I do, from its rationalist and German Idealist origins to the mesmerizing and almost unplaceable work of Warrain and Wronski, and argues with matchless insight that Deleuze, especially up through Difference and Repetition, is focused explicitly on the post-Kantian problem of grounding. My investigations and Christian’s converge, however, at almost every point, and in the final, concluding response I will write to this book event, I will take up his questions for me explicitly. But it is worth saying, here, that I did not approach the hermetic Deleuze from this perspective, but from a longer, less obvious path through a more archaic alliance between philosophy and spiritual ordeal, one that animates the stranger and more obscure moments in the history of post-Platonic speculation in figures such as Iamblichus, Eriugena, Cusa, Bruno, and Pico. It was the period of the Renaissance, in particular, that seemed to resonate in strange and uncanny ways with what Deleuze was trying to do as he affirmed the work of art, the process or activity of the art work, as some kind of necessary aspect of thought itself. The importance of an irreducibly enigmatic dimension of images, signs, and symbols that one sees in someone like Bruno points to Deleuze’s own view of signs and concepts as both objectively indeterminate yet necessarily provocative for thought itself. Above all I was inspired by what I saw as the connection between a series of pre-modern philosophers who explicitly connected the possibility of knowledge, as such, to patterns and habits of transformation. Hence my emphasis on the meta-pragmatic.
Having done with the histrionics (which I hope is helpful for people who have not yet read the book and may still not be clear about what I was trying to argue), I now want to address Dan’s question: did Deleuze fail to remain cruel?
In one way or another, we might characterize many of the criticisms of Deleuze made since Badiou as affirming a “yes” to this question, in one way or another, and in one way or another attempting to maintain some perspective that is “more cruel” than Deleuze’s, which is deemed “not enough” to shatter the illusions of fulfillment foisted on us by the satiation of our petty needs and stupid drives under imperial capitalist consumerism. Badiou’s events, Žižek ’s dialectic, Hallward’s irreducible particular, Brassier’s annihilation . . . the list goes on of thinkers claiming to have finally delivered us into the theatre of cruelty to which Deleuze, despite the promise of his early, more aggressive style, failed to bring us.
“To Redouble the Cruelty” might also be a decent formula for the tactic of psychoanalysis, and another perspective from which Deleuze is often looked at askance. Deleuze spent much of his energy following the developments of psychoanalysis, and his perspective owes much more to an allegiance to Lacan, in particular, than many Deleuzians would like to admit (as my colleague Ed Kazarian has been arguing now for several years.)
But do we really need more cruelty? Is there really not enough cruelty, today, or yesterday, that we need the philosophers to introduce us to more of it, to turn up the heat on us, to put the screws to souls and bodies, to force us to confess, yet again, that we do not know what we think we know (and do not feel what we feel we feel)?
Is not what we call objective reality, the truth of existence, the cold hard truth about life anything more than an endless series of cruelties, visited upon us from Job and Arjuna to Abelard and Heloise to Artaud, Hiroshima, and Camden, New Jersey—to say nothing of endless imperial oppression, universal enslavement, genocide, and ecological holocaust? Is it really the case that philosophy’s answer to all this cruelty is yet more cruelty?
When Deleuze critiques the “image of thought” that domesticates philosophical cruelty throughout its history, it does indeed seem to be a matter of accusing the philosophers of not yet being cruel enough: the critique of the doxa in Plato or of the natural light in Descartes, or of reason in Kant or history in Hegel is ultimately sentimental. Philosophy, guided by the image of thought, justifies, in the last instance, the world as it already is: average states of perception, ordinary language, medium-sized physical objects are finally understood, accepted just as they are—thank God the philosophers are around to tell us things must be this way for a reason. And so philosophy has failed to be cruel, or as cruel as it thinks it is.
The problem of reversing Platonism, of overturning the image of thought, is not how to think multiplicity, but how to experience multiplicity differently at the affective level. The problem is not how to reconstruct a mind adequate to the shadows on the wall of the cave (simulacra), but how to be or become with those shadows. Obviously this changes the problem of knowledge altogether, since being able to change with something or change as something requires a suspension of judgment. But it is this suspension, this hiatus or caesura in judgment, that it remains almost impossible for philosophers since Deleuze to accept. We still have not yet had done with judgment. Let alone the judgments of God (with which Artaud identified the organs themselves), we are far from having done with the judgments of philosophers.
My book begins with Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, and with Derrida’s eulogy for Deleuze, a eulogy that proposes there is something secret, something left unsaid, in Deleuze’s concept of immanence as it related to Artuad’s theatre of cruelty. But what kind of cruelty was Artaud’s, and what was Deleuze’s, and to what end is this cruelty directed? I think the answer to this question, in the end, has something to do with Deleuze’s fascination with Masoch, and with the contract or agreement to cruelty which is entered into between the partners. But at the heart of this ordeal, this stylized ritual, this game, is an agreement to vulnerability, a willingness to be vulnerable, to surrender, to submit, to place one’s life in the hands of another.
Dan is right that there is tremendous danger in sentimentality, for all of us and not just those of us with philosophical ambitions. But it occurred to me, thinking over Dan’s observations of Dickens, that the opposite of cruelty is not sentimentality. The opposite of cruelty is vulnerability. An agreement to vulnerability that brings with it pain and suffering would thus not be cruelty at all, but something else entirely. And by agreement here I do not mean “choice.” One does not choose one’s master, or mistress, let alone ones’ sign, cipher, or symbol. One is compelled, one goes, one is driven, one finds oneself enmeshed, entranced, allured, seduced, mesmerized. And so my blunt answer to Dan’s profoundly direct, and profoundly vulnerable question, is that Deleuze did not fail to be cruel, but may have failed, like many of us fail, to have a chance to be truly vulnerable.
On the face of it, that claim has to sound ludicrous. How much more vulnerable could he have been—he, this discrete French rationalist, this darling of the great Parisian tradition, this family man, willing to write and teach about almost anything and everything from music to politics to sex to mathematics? Indeed! How much more vulnerable could Deleuze have been? How much more vulnerable can Deleuze become? Perhaps that is my question, and my problem. Perhaps it is the problem of what can be done, in philosophy, at all. Perhaps there is a real limit to how sweet, how close to the sap, philosophy can be, before it begins to get sappy, to sound sentimental. Having a reputation as a “nice guy,” in philosophy, which I think I am starting to get, is generally not a compliment. Philosophy is not kind, it is severe, it is incisive, it is rigorous.
Deleuze took his chances as far as he could take them. Or did he? Why was there nothing else for him to say, on TV, other than that he hoped the kids doing psychedelic drugs didn’t turn into pulp? Either this is not Deleuze’s problem, as a philosopher, or it is philosophy’s unstated problem, the problem of spiritual authority, the problem of how to be with and be in the vulnerability, rather than merely to observe it. If philosophy could learn to speak this non-philosophical language, would there then be something other to say, to Riderhood, other than cliché? Would a more vulnerable philosophy learn the mantras of “a life,” and if it did would it be able to say the words, to articulate?
From this perspective, Deleuze’s incompletely conceived or even ill-conceived later vitalism might not be a symptom of his becoming-sentimental, but of a becoming-invulnerable, a drying out, a crack up. Perhaps this tells us something, those of us investigating the labyrinth of the spiritual sciences: the problem of the meta-pragmatic is not how to avoid sentimentalism but how to deal with exhaustion. I have already indicated that spirituality, as I deploy the term, is a surival tactic. It is what to do when confronted with being out of breath. Deleuze ended his own life: he could no longer breathe. He did not breathe without pain, for years. What an ordeal.
But here we arrive at a truly meta-pragmatic question: what is the breath? As Christian Kerslake indicates in his earlier comments, the techniques of breathing, in relation to the development of “higher consciousness” and the expansion of possibilities of perception, awareness, and knowledge, are central in all esoteric schools. The breath is the interval, the breath is the waiting. And it is painful to wait, and what we wait through is attention to pain, when we do not fill it with cliché.
A different way of thinking the interval through which Riderhood briefly passes, between life and death, is formulated by Philip Goodchild in Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety.
For just as piety attempts to shelter from chaos without, it also encounters chaos within—as a loss of meaning, a collapse of established modes of piety, as a ‘murder of God’. Anticipation—whether of death, of the apocalypse, of eschatological consummation, of divine reward, or even of a return on investment—leaves an interval of waiting in which the cosmos has not yet been completed or sealed. Anticipated chaos may not yet have arrived, but there is a moment of indeterminacy, of hesitancy, where the laws of the divine economy or the laws of nature have not yet been fulfilled. (192)
Part of naming what I hope to do in the divination book is to extend the project of an apocalyptic philosophy of religion, the metacritique of piety as Goodchild has conceived it, into the critical theory of spiritual practices or spiritual sciences.
I have invoked Goodchild here for several reasons. One is the fact that Dan has written a brilliant commentary on Capitalism and Religion, and I know we both find Goodchild’s work brilliant. But more importantly is the fact that, as I explicitly argue in the book, it was truly Goodchild’s work, first on Deleuze, then on capitalism and religion, that first traced a line toward an “apocalyptic” philosophical perspective on spirituality as immediately political and practical. In my view the moment has finally come for Goodchild’s work to receive the full attention it has always deserved. Goodchild writes of the interval of waiting, of hesitation, where there is objective indeterminacy. That is the interval Riderhood occupies, briefly, in a dramatic way. Perhaps Deleuze sentimentalizes or fetishizes this “otherworldly” moment, but it’s not an otherworldly moment, at all, but an intra-worldly one. A transition. And transitions are moments of vulnerability. And if there’s anything philosophy hates it’s vulnerability. (Dorothea Olkowski has written perhaps the most important philosophical treatise on vulnerability to date, with her Universal (in the Realm of the Sensible), and she has long been critical of Deleuze for not being a thinker able to valorize vulnerability).
To conclude, for now, on cruelty and vulnerability. The hysterical, histrionic, and obsessive-compulsive need of philosophers to judge, to be able to pass judgment, to be ready with judgment, to articulate judgment, to inhabit an immediacy of judgment without interval, without hesitation, without delay—perhaps this alone is the condition that merits a cruel response. This insane (literally unhealthy) desire to be able to judge in advance, or to obtain in advance criteria that will enable judgment to ward off the chaotic interval or to dominate it in the quickest possible way—it is this unhealth alone for which a kind of cruelty is the remedy.
I can only quote Aldous Huxley, who saw this clearly in a truly hilarious passage:
In one of its innumerable forms music is a powerful drug, partly stimulant and partly narcotic, but wholly alterative. No man, however highly civilized, can listen for very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn-singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. It would be very interesting to take a group of the most eminent philosophers from the best universities, shut them up in a hot room with Moroccan dervishes or Haitian voodooists, and measure, with a stop watch, the strength of their psychological resistance to the effects of the rhythmic sound. Would the Logical Positivists be able to hold out longer than the Subjective Idealists? Would the Marxists prove tougher than the Thomists or the Vedantists? What a fascinating, what a fruitful field for experiment! Meanwhile all we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the tom-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages. (Aldous Huxley, The Devils of London (Chatto & Windus, 1970), p. 135.
What is at stake in this joke on the philosophers is crucial. For what the philosophers in the thought experiment resist, most of all, is the vulnerability entailed by being drawn by contagion into the discipline of the rhythm, the cruelty of the rhythm, the rhythm that does not so much destroy self-consciousness as it does open consciousness onto a collective mode of attention, a collective mode of awareness that will be directed by immanent imperatives rather than by any organon of principled conditioning. Goodchild has perhaps gone the furthest in articulating what is at stake here, naming the imperative of attention to suffering as the missing meta-pragmatic that could ground philosophical speculation in a local absolute:
Attention can only be spent; it cannot be hoarded or saved . . . Liberty consists in directing one’s attention through discipline, rather than having one’s attention captured . . . In so far as experience is shaped by the allocation of attention, then it is the mechanisms of attracting, distracting, and disciplining attention that form the conditions of possible experience. We shall call ‘piety’ any determinate practice of directing attention . . . Thought, formed by categories of objects or conditions, cuts itself off from its own power; it remains haunted by a nostalgic desire to recover lost experience. For experience is not found in the concepts of experience, but in experience itself. This is the source of the antinomies of pure reason, and of countless debates in philosophy: if concepts are born from the sacrifice of experience, it is easy for an opponent to point out the absence of the referent in the concept . . . The power by which suffering imposes itself on attention is the unconditioned within experience. Suffering attracts attention. Moreover, suffering is always singular—no one can undergo my suffering for me, on my behalf. Thus there are no possible substitutions or sacrifices which can retain the power of attracting attention in suffering. No experience can substitute for it. Then this power itself is not conditioned by any other experience, for the relation of conditioning involves shifting attention from a result to a condition. To shift attention in this direction is contrary to the power which directs attention to itself. (Philip Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, London: Routledge, pp. 210-211).
To this there is nothing more to add, but attention to where we are vulnerable.
But there is something to add, at this point, to my post (already long, I’ll be quick), because after posting it last night I realized that I had failed to answer questions 1.) and 3.) that I think Dan was asking, why I decided to write this book at all and whether I might have been better off writing a different book about contemporary hermeticism, one that ran less risk of sentimentalizing over Deleuze. I will try in a few sentences to answer both questions, because I think the answer is relevant to the theory of spiritual ordeals and unconditioned imperatives that I take to be critical to thought itself.
The short answer is that this book manifests something of my vulnerabilities, and something of contingent necessities. The book began, in germinal and liminal form, in the PhD thesis I wrote under John Carvalho’s direction at Villanova University. John’s generosity and intelligence toward his graduate students, and at the helm of the department, are equally legendary, and I owe him more than gratitude that I am even here, today. The thesis I wrote for John, who is an aesthetician, critical theorist, and expert in Ancient Greek Philosophy, was called “Gilles Deleuze and the Powers of Art.” I was already guessing that there was some parallel between the role of aesthetics in Renaissance philosophy and the role of art in Deleuze’s semiotics and ontologies, but I did not have the time or space to push that research into a book on Deleuze’s esotericism. The book that became The Hermetic Deleuze took a very long time to write and to research, because of how much I was teaching, looking for academic jobs, raising a young son, and going through many other ordeals personal and professional. (Don’t worry, I have no claim to uniqueness, here. We are legion). I suppose that in theory, in the abstract, I might have written a different book with a different framework for working out some the same ideas, rather than a long commentary on Deleuze, but perhaps the emptiness of that abstract possibility might be understood in this way: another book would not have been -this- forced choice, would not have been the situation in which I was vulnerable, in this way. It remains for me to work through other occasions, at the moment on divination, which has the added luxury of itself being the generic spiritual science of the occasion, as such.