A Deleuzian View of Palestine (Contra Israel)

What is happening in and around Gaza at the moment — both on- and offline — is horrifying. In our contemporary media age, there is a sense that social media is on a constant gaslighting mission. Establishment journalism drags out the same old noncommittal and evasive reporting, talking about tensions from all sides, whereas citizen journalism has, for weeks now, been documenting Israel’s ever-withering patience with the Palestinian people as they don’t comply with passive or active attempts at eviction and displacement. In fact, for those watching closely enough, it is clear how Israeli passive aggression builds and develops into active aggression, but it is the response of the Palestinians who are to blame for the conversion, of course. Were this a relationship between two people, it would be a classic example of an abusive relationship. Instead, it is two “nation-states”, each contentiously defined, and an apparent case of his bombs versus her bombs.

On Instagram earlier today, an old 2014 conversation involving Fred Moten was doing the rounds, in which he speaks magnificently on this very contentiousness. Asked about the specificity of Palestine and broader conversations about settler-colonialism happening globally, Moten begins by saying that there must be a place for a wider definition of settler-colonialism than the all too historic definition we are used to. Though we focus on the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, for instance, the relationship between Israel and Palestine shows that this foundation can sometimes frustrate our capacity to identify settler-colonial projects in our contemporary moment.

Moten’s comment is long, but I’d like to transcribe it here anyway, before moving onto a more specific issue that I’d like to draw out of the current situation — that is, the relationship of Deleuze and Guattari to the present situation. This is largely inspired by Islam Al-Khatib‘s efforts to engage weird theory Twitter in the current situation online, as well as amplifying Palestinian voices in exile and on the ground. If certain sections of the Anglosphere have been slow to engage, it is no doubt because we are, by and large, quite parochial. But perhaps there is also an anxiety lurking around the fact that Deleuze and Guattari, in particular, are infamously beloved by the Israeli regime.

First, Moten. Talking about his decision to endorse the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, he says:

What I wanted to do was a couple of things: first, to recognise that the conditions of what people call “modernity” or “global modernity”… the conditions that make that up are settler-colonialism… And I think we can talk about settler-colonialism in ways that are broader than the normal ways that we usually think of them as a set of violent and brutal relations between Europe and the rest of the world…

Cedric Robinson pointed this out emphatically and in brilliant ways early on: that settler colonialism is also an intra-European affair. And it’s important to understand that. It’s important to understand this historical relationship between settler-colonialism and the enclosure of the commons, which is part of the origins of what we now call or know or understand as capitalism.

But if we understand that settler-colonialism, that the transatlantic slave trade, and that the emergence of a set of philosophical formulations that essentially provide for us a modern conception of self that has as its basis a kind of possessive, heteronormative, patriarchal individuation… That’s what it is to be a self, on the most fundamental level… If you ask anybody in the philosophy department, they’ll tell you that that’s true! And they won’t be joking… That these constitute the basis of our modernity… But for most of the people who live in the world — actually for everybody who lives in the world, although most of the people who live in the world are able to both recognise and say this — that modernity is a social and ecological disaster that we now… attempt to survive.

And if we take that up, then part of what’s at stake is that we recognise that feminist and queer interventions against heteronormative patriarchy; that black interventions against the theory and practice of slavery, which is ongoing; that indigenous interventions against settler-colonialism constitute the general — both practical and intellectual — basis for not only our attempts to survive but… to save the earth.

Moten continues, but it is worth pausing here for a moment, if only to nerd out on some of the specifics here… Not that anyone has asked this philosophy department, but this development of the self does indeed follow a trajectory of possessive individuation. However, not only is it ostensibly “modern” — we can date it to just before the start of the Enlightenment — it is also explicitly liberal.

I find this fascinating if only because we have retconned this particular sense of self back before the beginnings of philosophy itself. The Delphic motto “know thyself”, for instance, is one of the oldest and most enduring sentiments of Western philosophy, and understood as a pre-Socratic conception of self. Used repeatedly by Plato in particular, it nonetheless served as a cultural touchstone long before even he first put it on the page. Back then, however, to “know thyself” typically meant to know one’s place in the general order of things – a fact that could be as hidden within the machinations of society just as the unconscious was much later understood to be hidden within the machinations of the mind. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for instance, may be one of the earliest explorations of self-knowledge and its discovery in Western culture, but Oedipus’ true self is only uncovered when he truly understands his relations to those around him. It is not a question of who he is as an individual. At the beginning of the play, he could not be more sure of this — it is arguably his downfall. But the secret to be uncovered is, instead, who his mother and father are and his relation to them. It is Oedipus’s true place in the social order that has been obscured from him.

Later philosophical conceptions of the self differed from this considerably, instead arguing that the self is not so easily reconstructed from our social relations. Though it is influenced by those around us, it is essentially our understanding of those characteristics that are innate to us alone. The self is what is left of us when we strip back everything else that is otherwise shared. For philosophers and political theorists in the Middle Ages, the difference between the individual self and a collective identity was an important distinction to make.

It was Rene Descartes, writing in the 1630s, who first insisted upon this distinction between “self” and “subject” for philosophy. In his influential Discourse on Method, an autobiographical treatise on the very nature of thought and reason, Descartes hoped to provide a new methodology for separating truth from falsehood. To do this, he stripped back everything that, he believed, could not be trusted. Approaching reality with a radical doubt, he began to pretend “that everything that had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams.” This included information gathered by the senses and just about everything else that came into the mind from the outside world. When all of this was discounted, Descartes was left with one thing – that is, the “thing” that thinks. “I noticed that, during the time I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it was necessary that I, who thought thus, be something.” I think, therefore I am was his resulting declaration, and with that he established the self “as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.”

This foundation was soon extended into other areas of thought as well. The politics of liberalism were also formalised at this time, for example, and similarly built on a new conception of individual liberty and rights – the self as a first principle for politics also. A few decades after the publication of Discourse on Method, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke echoes Descartes’ philosophical position, writing that the “Self is that conscious thinking thing … which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” This Cartesian foundation nonetheless responds to certain political ideals. It turns out that, for Locke, this consciousness can extend quite far indeed, depending on your social status. As a result, though much of his work pays lip service to universal freedoms, this was not always true in practice.

Locke argues that the word person – his supposedly “forensic term” for the self – “belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery.” A person, then, echoing Descartes, is a form of consciousness that can reason with itself; that can reflexively ascertain itself as conscious. But, in Locke’s hands, this is not quite the same sentiment as “I think, therefore I am.” It positions the self as a reflexive being that thinks in accordance with reason. Rather than the reflexive self being a foundation upon which reason can take place, the cart is put before the horse. The self doesn’t just reason – it is fundamentally reasonable. Some of Locke’s resulting conclusions are relatively innocuous. Under his criteria, an animal is not a person, for example, because animals do not have laws like humans do. But neither, in Locke’s view, are supposedly uncivilised persons, whose rights do not warrant the same respect as more “reasonable” societies. This sentiment was particularly disastrous given Locke’s political influence over the colonisation of North America. In this context, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was soon extended into the realm of governance and property rights, making “I own, therefore I am” a more accurate founding doctrine for the politics of classical liberalism – and, a few centuries later, neoliberal capitalism as well.

It is this foundation that Moten takes firmly in his sights when he continues that a new relationship is needed with the Earth that is not liberal in a Lockean sense:

To not so presumptuously imagine that the Earth can be reduced to something so paltry and so viciously understood as what we usually call “home”. This is part of the reason why the queer and the feminist critique is so important. It’s a critique of a general problematic notion of domesticity. Often the methods that we use to claim the Earth as ours involve fences, borders, [and] this manifests itself on a private level from household to household, but it can also manifest itself at a national level, and at the level of a nation-state. And it’s not an accident that settler-colonial states take it upon themselves to imagine themselves to be the living embodiment of the legitimacy of the nation-state as a social and political form.

For me, there’s two reasons to be in solidarity with the people of Palestine. One is because they’re human beings and they’re being treated with absolute brutality. But the other is that there’s a specific resistance to Israel as a nation-state. And for my money, to be perfectly clear about this, I believe that the nation-state of Israel is itself an artefact of antisemitism. If we thought about Israel and Zionism not just as a form of racism that results in the displacement of Palestinians, but if we also think about them as artefacts of the historic displacement of Jews from Europe, in the same way that we might think of, let’s say, Sierra Leone or Liberia as artefacts of racist displacement… If we think about it that way — and the reason I’m saying this is just to make sure that you know that there’s a possible argument against the formulation that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, when we know that Donald Trump is a stark supporter, and people like Pat Robinson in the United States are stark supporters, that ought to help us to the fact that you can be deeply antisemitic and still support the state of Israel. These things go together. They’re not antithetical to one another.

The same is, of course, true of politicians here in the UK. With antisemitism and critiques of Israel becoming a political football in this country, for all the genuine examples of antisemitism, it is more often the case that Jeremy Corbyn constitutes a very specific form of existential threat for the liberal-left in this country — he didn’t threaten the right of Jews to exist but the right of liberals of all stripes and backgrounds to define their existence through ownership.

Moten continues:

So it becomes important for us to be able to suggest that resistance to the state of Israel is also resistance to the idea of the legitimacy of the nation-state. It’s not an accident that… when the defence of Israel manifests itself as the defence of its right to exist — this is important — it’s a defense not just of Israel’s right to exist but the nation-state as a political form’s right to exist. And nation-states don’t have rights. What they’re supposed to be are mechanisms to protect the rights of the people who live in them, and that has almost never been the case. To the extent that they do protect the rights of the people who live within them, it’s at the expense of the people who don’t…

It’s a fantastic speech from Moten, and one worth listening to in full, but the reason why I want to highlight this here, as a very recent philosophical and political argument for solidarity with the state of Palestine — and it is, of course, depressing that such an argument is necessary, but here we are — because it chimes with the radical politics at the heart of the work of Deleuze and Guattari, which have so often been abused by Israel itself.

This is an infamous fact now. I’m sure most are aware of it. Various high-ranking officials in the Israeli Defense League have, over the decades, drawn explicitly on the radical philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari and their influences, such as Gregory Bateson, Georges Bataille and the Situationists more broadly. As Deleuze and Guattari, in particular, have grown in popularity over the decades, becoming ubiquitous names within your average humanities school and in online autodidactic circles as well, this fact has often been used by some idiots as a “gotcha”. As unfounded as the suggestion that post-structuralists as CIA or IDF plants may be, this is not a critique to simply brush off. It is important to attend to it, and many have.

Eyal Weizman’s contributions are most noteworthy here. He has written on D+G’s popularity within the IDF for both Metamute and Radical Philosophy — and a number of other places, I’m sure, but these are the most readily accessible. Talking to a former IDF Brigadier-General called “Naveh” in an interview hosted by Radical Philosophy, the main takeaway is that the state of Israel deploys the various insights of post-structuralist philosophy and avant-garde European art practices in order to think like a guerrilla. They understand that, whilst guerrilla tactics can deterritorialise and perforate the supposedly solid boundaries of self and nation-state, the zone of indetermination around contentious spaces becomes a kind of no man’s land. Blurring the boundaries of the self and the state doesn’t just send these forms into a sort of fight-or-flight mode, as if their very existence were under threat, but also creates a space that these forms can expand into. To be threatened is to have the opportunity to expand yourself, like various animals will inflate their stature when scared. With nation-states, the problem is that they often stay like that, in these states of expanding awareness. And so it helps Israel to constantly provoke and brutalise and bully the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians are compliant, they just do as they wish and expand their state. If the Palestinian people resist, they create a zone of indeterminate threat that Israel can more openly and forcibly seize under the guise of self-defense. Guerrilla tactics, then, create a kind of political leeway, both spatially and rhetorically, that allows for certain ideas and forms of action to expand.

This is why the IDF uses Deleuze and Guattari. At the level of rhetoric, their conceptual engineering expands the mind of the Israel war machine. It allows it to conceive of itself in new ways, but from above rather than, as Deleuze and Guattari may have intended it, from below. On this, Weizman writes:

Theory may obviously create new sensibilities and may help to explain and further develop ideas that emerged independently within separate fields of knowledge. In terms of discourse, war, if it is not a total war of annihilation, is always a discourse between enemiesEvery military action is meant to communicate something to the enemy, to demonstrate, to threaten, to signal. Talk of swarming, targeted killings, and smart destruction may thus help the military communicate to its enemies that it uses only a part of its full capacities for destruction. In this respect a swarming operation is presented as a warning that ʻnext time we would indeed save ourselves many casualtiesʼ by being brutal without restraint – as was done in Jenin. Raids can thus be projected as a ʻlesser evilʼ, a more moderate alternative to the full devastating capacity that the military possesses, and will unleash if the enemy increases the acceptable level of violence or breaches some unwritten rule. In military operational theory it is essential that the military never uses its full destructive capacity and always keeps the ability to increase the level of atrocity. Without this relative ʻrestraintʼ, fear and thus threat are meaningless.

And this notion of rhetorical and spatial expansion — indeed, the “schizophrenic” relations between the two, where these specific theories are not disparate but can easily be traversed, as if to “cover it all with a pair of strides” — is directly related to Moten’s argument. Though his leaps and bounds between self and state, and their (often competing) ideas of home, may seem like flights of fancy to some, these are the very same tactics that the state of Israel is using to bolster its own sense of sovereignty and self. Weizman again brings Moten’s point about home to bear on the very notion of “homeland” and “homeland security”:

The domestic wall is conceptualized as a border, the home as enemy territory, and property intrusion as armed invasion. ʻHomeland Securityʼ (or what could now be dubbed ʻHome Securityʼ) is thus placed outside of democratic control. The military analysts exult at the possibilities offered by Deleuze and Guattari, Tschumi, and so on, because this inner domain – the subversive micro-sovereignty of privacy – now represents a potential extension of their power and sovereignty into places into which it was not previously extended. As such the invasion of the ʻhomeʼ – of intimate space, the space of subjectivity – has become yet another ʻlast frontierʼ.

It is quite obvious how this pans out, both spectacularly and innocuously. We’ve seen it repeatedly in recent weeks as Palestinians are ejected from Sheikh Jarrah, with complicit Israelis telling people “this is my home now”, and insisting that the Palestinians move. It allows them to relinquish responsibility, as citizens insist they are only doing what the state tells them, whilst at the same time believing that this interpersonal extension is their legal right, with racial displacement being framed innocuously as a change in rental agreement.

I saw a video recently of this very thing happening. A Palestinian family was pleading with an Israeli man not to take their home. He defiantly said it is not his choice, and what does it matter anyway? It’s not about him, as an individual, but the state. If he defied the government and said, “I don’t want to move in here”, they’d just send someone else in his place. He says this very explicitly, “If it wasn’t me, it would just be someone else.” Here a citizen utilises this same rhetoric of restraint. Here again, rhetoric and action, theory and practice, collide. The implicit suggestion seems to be, at least it will be lived in. As has happened over successive evenings since, the state of Israel has no qualms about demolishing homes instead. The dark side of his argument is, “either an Israeli lives here, or no one lives here”. We can easily extend the ideological viewpoint of this isolated citizen to the generalised view of the nation-state of Israel and its approach to the region as a whole.

There are clear echoes of Moten’s speech in Weizman’s analysis, specifically the argument that a critique of Israel is not limited to a critique of the actions of the nation-state but must extend into a critique of the very idea of home, of the “general problematic notion of domesticity“. But what’s more, the broader parallels with US politics are striking. Indeed, to think about Israel-Palestine in the same way as many philosophers have thought about America — well, except Locke… — could be useful.

When we studied the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” at school in History, the general message that I got from that class was that it was an impossible situation. We should strive for a two-state solution — that’s all we can do. But this solves nothing, because these two nation-states will always be entwined. Like conjoined twins, though they may be made one body, there would be risks, disadvantages and restrictions on what each can do. Such was the case with America and its peoples, itself a chimerical state of indigenous, colonial and stolen communities. Each has made a very unique sort of “home” within its bounds. And, of course, all continue in their fraught existence alongside each other ever since the states were founded.

America’s fraught stasis is, at base, the true legacy of liberalism. But the American dream, in itself, had so many more potentials, which Deleuze wrote on at length. If we cannot go back and undo the damage done, the least we can do is aspire to those first dreams — held by those who arrived in America for all angles, and even those who arrived in Israel-Palestine in the mid-twentieth century. Though we are talking about geopolitics here, it is something we have often explored through our own relationship with the natural world, which we also struggle to live in harmony with — and, indeed, resistance to settler-colonialism is essential to any theorisation of the climate emergency.

Walt Whitman knew this, or so Deleuze argues:

The relations between sounds or bird songs, which Whitman describes in marvellous ways, are made up of counterpoints and responses, constantly renewed and invented. Nature is not a form, but rather the process of establishing relations… Nature is inseparable from processes of companionship and conviviality, which are not pre-existent givens but are elaborated between heterogeneous living beings in such a way that they create a tissue of shifting relations, in which the melody of one part intervenes as a motif in the melody of another… Relations of counterpoint must be invented everywhere, and are the very condition of evolution.

It is through this sort of writing on the schizophrenic America, alive long before Ken Kesey documented its mid-century twists and turns, that the transcendentalists and the black radical tradition find points of resonance across space and time. Whitman and Thoreau writing on the rhythms nature begins to sound like Amiri Baraka or Val Wilmer (or, indeed, Moten himself) writing on the polyphony of jazz — and both have the same revolutionary political inflections. It is this persistent undercurrent that brings Deleuze to declare that “The society of comrades is the revolutionary American dream — a dream to which Whitman made a powerful contribution, and which was disappointed and betrayed long before the dream of the Soviet society.” So too for Melville — in his essay on Bartleby the Scrivener, Deleuze frames America not as

a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines — for Truth always has “jagged edges.”

This America — Deleuze’s patchwork America — is a flight from liberalism, which moves

against the European morality of salvation and charity, a morality of life in which the soul is filled only by taking to the road, with no other aim, open to all contacts, never trying to save other souls, turning away from those that produce an overly authoritarian or groaning sound, forming even fleeting and unresolved chords and accords with its equals, with freedom as its sole accomplishment, always ready to free itself so as to complete itself.

America was, instead, built on brotherhood, and “brotherhood is a matter for original souls”. Original in that they are souls who origin is themselves, not some dream of origin to be totally imposed. As such, Deleuze continues, brotherhood and its relations begin “only with the death of the father or God.” A new Earth must be built by orphaned peoples, who shake off their Oedipal curses, and do not going looking for some sacred beginning.

The resulting anarchic society is not without its faults or risks. Something must always fill the void. For Deleuze, such a space “requires a new community, whose members are capable of trust or ‘confidence’, that is, of a belief in themselves, in the world, and in becoming.” Israel, in its foundation, though it too may have fled the violence of liberal Europe and its (arguably inevitable) turn to fascism, failed to imagine this kind of new community. It was not built on a kind of “becoming-Jew”, in beginning a new way of life within a new set of relations, but fell into a kind of Robinson Crusoe fallacy — out in the desert, failing to see the lives already being lived there, they saw tabula rasa, and set about rebuilding the world they already knew: one of violence, fascistic sovereignty and racial displacement. There are dangers within “a ‘society without fathers'”, Deleuze concedes, “but the only real danger is the return of the father.” The birth of Israel had potential, as a flight from European failure, which only returns to dreams of a father- or motherland. The Palestinian people feel the brunt of this return. “The birth of a nation, the restoration of the nation-state”: it is against this backdrop, Deleuze writes, that “the monstrous fathers come galloping back in, while the sons without fathers start dying off again.”

Israel may appropriate the strategies of radical politics, but it perpetually betrays their foundation. They should read less of Deleuze’s smooth and striated geophilosophy and instead understand it in context, perhaps by reading his writing on America and its culture, which demonstrate how America, Israel’s strongest ally, nonetheless lost its way.

Though Deleuze may write of the literary, his clinical diagnosis fits the symptoms of twenty-first century setler-colonialism. Palestine, in particular, gives a violently literal form to his otherwise literary allegories. A nation of fatherless sons and motherless daughters, it is primed for revolutionary renewal and its struggle is all of our struggles. Solidarity with Palestine is to strive for a new way of life on earth, on which a home is not a foundation for humanity, as Locke would have it, but rather a space that humanity must itself build together in solidarity.

“My house in your house, and your house is mine.”


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