This post initially began its life as a sequel to “TERF Tactics” — just when you thought the cringe quota had been reached for online idiocy, there was plenty more to despair over. However, as I found myself up late in a compulsive writing mood, and as I watched the clock tick past midnight, I realised it was suddenly the eve of the US election. There were suddenly bigger fish to fry than Twitter TERFs.
Nevertheless, it’s fair enough to wonder how we got here. Perhaps it all went down as the culture warriors say it did — we’ve offended ourselves into impotence; we’ve lost our minds to disinformation and Protestant moralism. There’s certainly some truth in that, but it says nothing of how the right similarly lost its mind. “It’s political correctness gone mad” has been a right-wing talking point for decades at this point. It doesn’t explain the very particular form of paranoia that has afflicted the right over the last five or so years. You can’t blame the left for everything.
The same is true of our little corner of philosophy Internet. For all the talk of reason and rationality, and an endemic over-confidence in our own wisdom, we have seen ourselves just as afflicted by madness as the rest of the world. Despite all the signalling to the contrary, we remain a microcosm of the mainstream. But I think I have a provocative suggestion as to why…
Things have gotten too French around here.
It’s an occupational hazard, really. Everyone spends so much time reading the French, we’re bound to start thinking like them. This may be true philosophically, but it is true at a more mundane political level as well. As much as President Macron and his near-identical neoliberal predecessors — Hollande, Sarkozy, Chirac — seem like a world away from the post-structuralists that hold a special place in our collective heart, the critiques made by the post-structuralists of France’s deeply reactionary political history echo down the years.
I’ve been left wondering: perhaps we should pay more attention to how this situation has developed in an explicitly French context? We constantly turn to the French for advice on how to get out of this mess but seldom consider their writings within the long context of their own national history — that is, beyond their momentary successes. We take these observations ungrounded and throw them against our own walls of reaction to see what sticks. In truth, our generation is only just coming to terms with what many of the post-structuralists felt themselves at war against. We are only just emerging from the long amnesia that the dawn of neoliberalism instigated in the collective imagination.
This is to note that, despite how the rest of the world may see it, France has never been a bastion of freedom and revolt. Accumulatively, its reigns of terror far outnumber and outlast its revolutionary flourishes. The freedom with which it expresses itself and its (particularly pornographic) desires says little about how politically progressive it is as a nation. The French themselves have wrestled with this false narrative for decades; it feels like the US is only just beginning to have a similar conversation.
Our response to France’s exported failures shouldn’t be cynicism, however. There remains plenty to learn from those French writers who distrusted their own nation’s moral character. Deleuze especially preferred the cultural output of Anglo-Americans to that of his own countrymen, precisely because he believed Anglo-Americans were more vigilant to their own reterritorialising tendencies than the French.
Deleuze’s vigilance against such tendencies is arguably the defining concern of his output. From his 1953 essay “Desert Islands” to 1993’s Essays Critical and Clinical, he consistently stalked and attacked our collective tendency to Robinson-Crusoe ourselves — to sail out to new territories to indulge our discontent, only to rebuild the world we left behind on new ground.
I find this argument from Deleuze to be resonant. More than anything, it reminds me of the conservative declaration that they are the new punks and radicals. It is they who now lead the resistance against the leftist’s fascistic cultural hegemony.
It is a declaration that is often ridiculed but I have yet to see an argument that deconstructs where it comes from. Indeed, in some ways I think it lingers and troubles the leftist imaginary. After all, plenty of our old heroes have revealed themselves to be sad reactionaries in their old age. Punk and post-punk might remain models to turn to for inspiration but what are we supposed to do with the knowledge that those who first inspired us have now undermined their own lines of flight? How are we supposed to respond when those figures who remain our key cultural touchstones, in our age of retrospection and pastiche, now agree with those they initially came out in opposition to? And how are we supposed to combat their insistence that, in continuing to piss people off, they’re clearly on the same path they were on previously? I haven’t changed — it’s the world that’s changed! they cry. And, in this instance, that is apparently a virtue.
What Deleuze attempts to uncover in his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”, from Dialogues II, are the contradictions found within our understanding of “lines of flight” and the exact ways that old punks become new fascists. It is clear, then as now, that we can’t just embark on a new voyage and then become complacent about our bearing. Soon enough, we will Robinson Crusoe ourselves and fatally undermine the principles we set sail with.
It is worth turning directly to the text here. It is Deleuze at his most inspiring and effervescent. He begins:
To leave, to escape, is to trace a line. The highest aim of literature, according to Lawrence, is “To leave, to leave, to escape … to cross the horizon, enter into another life … It is thus that Melville finds himself in the middle of the Pacific. He has really crossed the line of the horizon.” The line of flight is a deterritorialization. The French do not understand this very well. Obviously, they flee like everyone else, but they think that fleeing means making an exit from the world, mysticism or art, or else that it is something rather sloppy because we avoid our commitments and responsibilities. But to flee is not to renounce action: nothing is more active than a flight. It is the opposite of the imaginary. It is also to put to flight — not necessarily others, but to put something to flight, to put a system to flight as one bursts a tube.
I find in Deleuze a subtle swipe at those writers who retain, like the rest of his nation, a reputation for transgression. Even before he mentions him by name, I can’t help but read a critique of Bataille into this. But it is Blanchot, perhaps, who best understood Deleuze’s sentiment. His trajectory, from French nationalist to communist, seems to epitomise the struggles and contradictions of French intellectual thought over the course of the twentieth century — warts and all. And Blanchot loved Bataille, of course, but because he knew that Bataille’s writing, at its most successful, was always in crisis. Bataille, at his best, wrote questioningly.
Deleuze takes a less sympathetic view of Bataille at this point. “Georges Bataille is a very French author”, he writes.
He made the little secret the essence of literature, with a mother within, a priest beneath, an eye above. It is impossible to overemphasize the harm that the phantasm has done to writing (it has even invaded the cinema) in sustaining the signifier, and the interpretation of one by the other, of one with the other. “The world of phantasms is a world of the past”, a theatre of resentment and guilt. You see many people today one after another proclaiming “Long live castration, for it is the home, the Origin and the End of desire!” What is in the middle is forgotten. New races of priests are always being invented for the dirty little secret, which has no other object than to get itself recognized, to put us back into a very black hole, to bounce us off the very white wall.
The “dirty little secret” is a notion Deleuze despises. Secrets are, in many ways, exceptional things to have, but only when held collectively. To laud a personal secret — through guilt and shame — is an travesty. The paradox of much French literature — like Bataille’s own pornogrpahic novels — is he voices his personal secrets so loudly. Deleuze has little time for such masturbatory pearl-clutching. He writes:
Lawrence condemned the craze for “the dirty little secret”, which he saw as running through all French literature. The characters and the authors always have a little secret, on which the craze for interpretation feeds. Something must always remind us of something else, make us think of something else. We remember Oedipus’ dirty little secret, not the Oedipus of Colonus, on his line of flight, who has become imperceptible, identical to the great living secret. The great secret is when you no longer have anything to hide, and thus when no one can grasp you. A secret everywhere, no more to be said. Since the ‘signifier’ has been invented, things have not fallen into place. Instead of language being interpreted by us, it has set about interpreting us, and interpreting itself. Signifiance and interpretosis are the two diseases of the earth, the pair of despot and priest.
It surprises me little that, while I continue to admire Bataille’s Summa Atheologica — his middle period, where he attempts to come to terms with his own self under the pressure of a Nazi occupation, and struggles under the weight of his own secrets to the point of rupture, indeed describes his own bouncing of the white walls of reaction around him with a self-aware terror like a monkey in a cage of invading fascism, through which his dirty little secrets manifest themselves in the whole national unconscious — Deleuze’s Bataille reeks of Nina Power’s reactionary ilk, who have their thinly-veiled secrets revealed all the time, and surely enjoy being seen, only to feign victimhood and proclaim all critique to be fake news.
It is this trap, where transgression meets reaction, that Deleuze describes with an astounding acuity here. Indeed, whilst the superiority of Anglo-American literature may today be a disputed declaration, this is only because America — as it is always wont to do — has replicated the European “dirty little secret” but bigger and more ostentatiously than we could ever have imagined possible. The Frenchest novel of America postmodernity, in this sense, is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho — but now the American psycho is president. And rather than the secret finding itself everywhere — and it is everywhere — Trump attempts to hide it at every opportunity. Trump reveals himself, in this sense, to be an incredibly “French” leader, and the prescience of Deleuze’s critique, even in its literary nature, feels uncanny when read today.
The question remains: how do punks become fascists? Or, as Deleuze puts it: “What is it which tells us that, on a line of flight, we will not rediscover everything we were fleeing?” He continues:
In fleeing the eternal mother-father, will we not rediscover all the Oedipal structures on the line of flight? In fleeing fascism, we rediscover fascist coagulations on the line of flight. In fleeing everything, how can we avoid reconstituting both our country of origin and our formations of power, our intoxicants, our psychoanalyses and our mummies and daddies? How can one avoid the line of flight’s becoming identical with a pure and simple movement of self-destruction?
Deleuze does not have much in way of simple answers to his own questions — of course he doesn’t — but he does believe that the answer lies in assemblages. “The minimum real unit is not the word, the idea, the concept or the signifier”, he writes, “but the assemblage”. It is the assemblage where secrets proliferate. They only hide in the other units. This is because an assemblage “is always collective, which brings into play within us and outside us populations, multiplicities, territories, becomings, affects, events.”
Assemblages, in this sense, are frontiers. A frontier is where populations, multiplicities, territories and becomings all meet. (It makes perfect sense, then, that Trump would focus so much attention on building walls — pouring as much concrete on the frontier as he can, both literally and ideologically.)
We need frontiers — all of us, and America more than anyone. Because we need assemblages. We need to understand ourselves as assemblages — as people and as nations. This is not only essential because we are bleeding-heart lefties but because thought itself requires it, otherwise it will atrophy. Deleuze again:
There are many neurotics and lunatics in the world who do not let go of us until they have managed to reduce us to their state, pass us their poison, hysterics, narcissists, their contagion is insidious. There are many doctors and scholars who offer us a sanitized scientific observation, who are also true lunatics, paranoiacs.
We might argue that this describes the worst of all of us — all sides of the political divide — in our present moment. But, in my bias, I know who is worse. I know who attacks assemblages at every opportunity. It is not the left. But the left struggles to articulate assemblages under the ideological flood of neoliberal individualism. As Deleuze writes: “One must resist both of the traps, the one which offers us the mirror of contamination and identifications, and the one which points out to us the observation of the understanding.” The right likes to observe, in this regard, and trap us in its image, but we trap ourselves in mirrors of identification; in identity politics.
This is why Mark Fisher called for a new “group consciousness”. He did not agree with the right’s cynicism around self-identification. He just wanted to the left to move away from such limited understandings of itself. He did not want the left to be subsumed under the business ontologies of demographic charts and focus groups. He believed, as Deleuze did, that we “can only assemble among assemblages.”
We only have sympathy to struggle and to write, Lawrence used to say. But sympathy is something to be reckoned with, it is a bodily struggle, hating what threatens and infects life, loving where it proliferates (no posterity or lineage, but a proliferation…).
We can hate what denounces our assemblages — our multiplicites — but we must also continue to proliferate and build. A left that does one but not the other is doomed to sail about in circles. Such is the bitter pill to be swallowed this election night. Biden knows that being not-Trump is a strong platform to stand on, but relying on the sentimentality of being an Obama-years-throwback is not. Trump already won on a ticket of returning America to the Reagan years and ended up surpassing them. Biden cannot rely on a left version of MAGA, which looks back but not as far. If Biden depresses it is because, at best, he offers the opportunity to pretend the last four years never happened. But the world needs more than that. The world needs a new vector. It needs a new line of flight.
To end on this note would feel too much like a hollow affirmation. This is not enough. It is necessary, again, that we consider just what Deleuze hoped to flee from. Without that kind of rigor, we have little hope of establishing what always sounds nice on paper.
To consider the France from which Deleuze’s own thought was fleeing, for example, we can unfortunately see that it hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, it is clear that it has only gotten worse, and Deleuze’s beloved America has begun to suffer the same fate.
We can turn to Alain Badiou for some insight into how France has seen itself over the decades since. In the English language introduction to his 2007 book The Meaning of Sarkozy, for example, he begins by reminding Anglo readers of France’s history on the very first page. “Many of my friends abroad still have an image of France drawn from the most glorious episodes of our political and intellectual history”, he writes. “Each time I have to remind them that France is a deeply conservative country, which responds to the revolutionary episodes in its history with long sequences of black reaction, and that those who have come to power in these painful sequences have never lacked the support of numerous and well-established intellectual cliques.”
To read Badiou in 2007 from the perspective of 2020 is to read a man still vigilant against the reactionary tides. To read Badiou now, however, is to read a man who has seemingly doubled down on his own Frenchness, as the nation finds itself utterly humiliated by the geopolitical complexities of postmodernity in a way that even he can’t seem to compute. Once again, we must begin the hard process of reckoning with a thought that has fallen into disrepute.
But what does it mean to lose one’s reputation? The cancelled should know but, ironically, they don’t. One’s repute is, by definition, the general opinion held about one’s person, and it is never fixed. It comes from the Middle English reputare — meaning, to “think over”. A reputation is always a becoming. To lose one’s reputation, then, is always to stop. It is to put down roots, to become stuck in one’s ways.
Deleuze, then, on the reputation of France:
The French are too human, too historical, too concerned with the future and the past. They spend their time in in-depth analysis. They do not know how to become, they think in terms of historical past and future. Even with the revolution, they think about a “future of the revolution” rather than a revolutionary-becoming. They do not know how to trace lines, to follow a channel. They do not know how to pierce or plane down the wall. They are too fond of roots, trees, the survey, the points of arborescence, the properties. Look at structuralism: it is a system of points and positions, which operates by cuts which are supposedly significant instead of proceeding by thrusts and crackings. It warps the lines of flight instead of following them and tracing them and extending them in a social field.
The French often treat us English folk with a deep cynicism. We tell ourselves it is because, oh so ironically, English that has become the lingua franca. The French, understandably, hate this. And yet, whilst this may be true, it is the French political imagination that now occupies the West’s collective consciousness. French modernity is our politica franca.
This was readily apparent back in 2016, not long after the US first elected Trump to the White House, when France was still enclosed within a mournful pit of despair following the various terror attacks it suffered over the two years prior. Two essays on the Urbanomic website from Nick Land and Mark Fisher remain an interesting time-capsule of where we were at, before the hysteria of the culture wars extinguished any compelling narrative regarding how we got there.
Land writes, with a characteristic hint of glee as he casts his eye over the chaos:
To be French is to understand — with peculiar lucidity — what it is to have been defeated by modernity. The world’s first modern nation, enthralled beyond all others by the call of the universal, has been cropped back to a nexus of untaken paths, over the course of two centuries.
Mark Fisher, in less gloating terms, makes a similar point but in his own way, focusing less on kicking the French whilst they’re down and more on the cybergothic outside they have folded within themselves.
“ISIS holds up a mirror to twenty-first-century capitalist nihilism”, he says,
a boring nihilism: an existential poverty that accompanies the material poverty into which capital plunges so many. A tiny minority escape material poverty, but only capital’s most devoted addicts can evade existential poverty.
Both these arguments take on a sick prescience on 3rd November 2020. Last night the news was not dominated by US election chatter but rolling coverage of a terrorist attack in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Nevertheless, terroristic unrest on the streets of another European capital might prefigure all too closely the anticipated unrest to follow the US election — a double articulation of the same boring nihilism.
To look upon the US election with all of the above in mind, we see little to be hopeful about. The future of the revolution looks bleak, no matter which way you spin it. But what of our revolutionary-becoming? I’m not sure I even know how to begin to answer… It is a question never really asked.
What is to be done? Tonight and, more importantly, tomorrow? Will a Biden win signal the end of this period of “black reaction”? I doubt it. Then what do we need to do to make it so? That’s the question we ask tomorrow.
Elections are stopgaps. That’s all. We can use this moment to gage how deep the rot goes. It is our opportunity not to end or begin a new era but see ourselves in the middle of things. Only then, after the fact, can we ask how to end this black reaction, and kickstart our revolutionary-becoming. And, to do that, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what exactly we want to become. We need not judge ourselves based on what we currently are, but we must insist on the image we construct being so utterly different to where we are now.
Deleuze once more with feeling:
A line is traced, the stronger for being abstract, if it is quite restrained, without figures. Writing is made of motor agitation and inertia: Kleist. It is true that one writes only for illiterates, for those who do not read or at least for those who will not read you. One writes always for animals, like Hofmannsthal who used to say that he felt a rat in his throat, and this used to show its teeth, “nuptials or participation against nature”, symbiosis, involution. Only the animal in man is addressed. This does not mean writing about one’s dog, one’s cat, one’s horse or one’s favourite animal. It does not mean making animals speak. It means writing as a rat traces a line, or as it twists its tail, as a bird sends out a sound, as a cat moves or else sleeps heavily. Animal-becoming, on condition that the animal, rat, horse, bird or cat, itself becomes something else, bloc, line, sound, colour of sand — an abstract line. For everything which changes passes along that line: assemblage . Being a sea-louse, which sometimes leaps up and sees the whole beach, sometimes remains hidden, its nose against a single grain of sand. Do you know which animal you are in the process of becoming and in particular what it is becoming in you, Lovecraft’s Thing or Entity, the nameless, “the intellectual beast”, all the less intellectual for writing with its wooden clogs, with its dead eye, its antennae and mandibles, its absence of face, a whole mob inside you in pursuit of what, a witch’s wind?