Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

deleuze and california

los angeles
french theory
gilles deleuze and california

text by JOHN JEFFERSON SELVE
translation by PETER BEHRMAN DE SINETY

Gilles Deleuze boards the red-eye, the night flight from New York to Los Angeles. The philosopher’s eyes are already red and tired after an intense week of lectures and debates, with Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault at his side. It is 1975. At the initiative of Sylvère Lotringer, editor of the review Semiotext(e), New York has just held the first conference on schizoanalysis, created by the pair Deleuze-Guattari. The great French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is still barely known in the United States. French Theory, in 1975, is basically Jacques Derrida or Roland Barthes. The debates have been lively, tiring, captivating. And so, Gilles Deleuze is exhausted as the plane lifts off for California. But he appears to be happy. He attends a Patti Smith concert in Berkeley, goes to San Francisco in the footsteps of Kerouac, stops at Henry Miller’s house in Big Sur. He has always said he doesn’t like to travel, but he seems to want to keep crisscrossing the West Coast forever.

It must be said that California is the terminal or dream version of his predilection for the West that he picked up from American literature, which he deeply loves. “Anglo-American literature constantly shows these ruptures, these characters who create their line of flight, Melville, Malcolm Lowry, Fitzgerald, Kerouac,” says Deleuze in his Dialogues with Claire Parnet. “In them everything is departure, becoming, passage, leap, daemon, relationship with the outside. The flight towards the West, the discovery that the true East is in the West, the sense of the frontiers as something to cross, to push back, to go beyond…” Deleuze saw American literature as a place where the greatest speed and the greatest slowness coexist; he experienced the American territory as a driving force of writing where faces could disappear amid perpetually moving lines of flight. This “becoming-imperceptible” was dearest of all to him because it was an occasion to “make a clean break,”
as Fitzgerald put it.

California, therefore, is writing’s line of flight. It’s also a clean break, a becoming-imperceptible. Thus, it is the reverse of the French novel and its craze for the “dirty little secret,” which Deleuze condemned in the Dialogues: “Signifiance and interpretosis are the two diseases of the earth, the pair of despot and priest. The signifier is always the little secret which has never stopped hanging around mummy and daddy.” It’s the French sickness, the opposite of the great secret: “When you no longer have anything to hide, and thus when no one can grasp you.”
He senses something ungraspable in American literary thought that constantly links it to landscapes in flight. For Deleuze, this puts an end to the semiology of the family and the spirit of land-surveying peculiar to French history.
Deleuze thinks that many artists make poor use of their history because they are blind to this geographical
and territorial becoming — perpetual mutation — which he draws from the American novel and territory. Against this vertical thought, this “root-thought” peculiar to France, he places horizontality and a rhizome assemblage process where nothing ever stands fixed, except in the instant before it spreads still further. For Deleuze, this is more than a critique of his country; it is an aesthetics that shakes the foundations of thought and makes it spread outward. And an entire epistemology of space shakes alongside: a different way of seeing, where the “selfless eye neither reveals nor illuminates, it travels along the line of the horizon,” as Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Capricorn, which Deleuze constantly cites. Deleuze writes: “On lines of flight there can no longer be but one thing: life-experimentation.”

After this California voyage, Deleuze’s thought gradually took hold on the West Coast. The Internet is crammed with studies devoted to him. The advent of networks, cyborg theory, Silicon Valley, New Age transhumanism — everything passes his way. In his wake, and under his influence, another French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, wrote a masterpiece, America: “Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses. The direct star-blast from vectors and signals, from the vertical and spatial. As against the fevered distance of the cultural gaze. Joy in the collapse of metaphor, which here in Europe we merely grieve for. The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation.” California, for the French intellectual, is a matter of fascination, reflection, imperceptibility. And across these incredible landscapes, Gilles Deleuze doggedly followed every last inclination of his perpetually moving thought. 

END

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Los Angeles issue #30

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