I’m not exactly sure how I landed on this, again, but, be that as it may, this time I’ll be looking at a short text (some 35 pages) by Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, ‘A Conversation: What is it? What is it For?’, included in ‘Dialogues’, co-written by the two, in two parts, I and II. Part I is indicated as written by Deleuze, whereas part II is by Parnet.
I think I was looking for something else, but, for some reason, I landed on the first page of this and started skimming it, only to end up reading it properly. There are some bits that reminded me of other texts and I appreciate how are expressed here, so I just went for it and kept going.
So, starting from the title, this is about conversation, which is only fitting, considering the book title is ‘Dialogues’. It shouldn’t take much to figure out how this is going to pan out. Anyway, to get things started, Deleuze (1) states that:
“It is very hard to ‘explain oneself’ – an interview, a dialogue, a conversation. Most of the time, when someone ask me a question, even one which relates to me, I see that, strictly, I don’t have anything to say.”
Firstly, for me, he is pointing out that explaining oneself, who you are, what you do, what you did, why you did, what will you do, why will you do, is particularly hard. Why? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment. Secondly, he turns his attention to questions. This needs some elaboration. He (1) adds that:
“Questions are invented, like anything else. If you aren’t allowed to invent your questions, with the elements from all over the place, from never mind where, if people ‘pose’ them to you, you haven’t much to say.”
Only to clarify that (1):
“The art of constructing a problem is very important: you invent a problem, a problem-position, before finding a solution.”
This is straight out of from his book on Henri Bergson, in reference to the ‘The Creative Mind’, in which Bergson states that (58):
“[A] problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated. By that I mean that its solution exists then, although it may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up: the only thing left to do is to uncover it. But stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing.”
The emphasis here should very much be on inventing, creating something, not referring to something pre-existing, ready-made. Bergson (58) continues:
“Discovery, or uncovering, has to do with what already exists actually or virtually; it was therefore certain to happen sooner or later. Invention gives being to what did not exist; it might never have happened.”
Conversely, inventing question or constructing problems are very unlike what people are used to. Bergson (58) points out that:
“In order to form [objects] society has cut out reality according to its needs.”
Only to challenge this (58):
“Why should [we] accept a division which in all probability will not correspond to the articulations of the real?”
Yet, he (58) acknowledges that this tends to be the case:
“This division, however, [we] do usually accept.”
So, for him (58), as the world is thus divided according to the needs of the society, there is an overwhelming temptation to take things for granted, on an as is basis. This results in predefined questions that have predefined solutions, as he (58) points out. There may be multiple solutions, but these alternatives are, nonetheless, fixed in advance. He (58) elaborates how this works:
“[We are] therefore condemned in advance to receive a ready-made solution or, at best, simply to choose between the two or three only possible solutions, which are co-eternal to this positing of the problem.”
Make note of eternal here. It’s there to indicate how fixed the problem-solution formula tends to be. In other words (58):
“One might just as well say that all truth is already virtually known, that its model is patented in the administrative offices of the state, and that philosophy is a jig-saw puzzle where the problem is to construct with the pieces society gives us the design it is unwilling to show us.”
But, if that’s too general, he (58) rephrases this in more concrete terms:
“One might just as well assign to the philosopher the role and the attitude of the schoolboy, who seeks the solution persuaded that if he had the boldness to risk a glance at the master’s book, he would find it there, set down opposite the question.”
Now, for me, this example is wonderful because it is connected to schooling, which is something the vast majority of people have gone through in order to become so called competent members of society. I don’t know about others but at least I remember how this worked in school. You typically had a text book and an activity book. The former was for reading, the latter was for writing. For example, you read the relevant chapter in the text book and then switched over to the activity book, to complete certain tasks. These tasks might have consisted of answering questions. So you were quite literally faced with this question-answer formula. The thing is that the teacher had this third book that had not only the questions, but also the solutions. This is exactly what Bergson and, to get back to the topic, Deleuze are objecting to. Deleuze (15) summarizes this in ‘Bergsonism’:
“[T]his prejudice goes back to childhood, to the classroom: It is the school teacher who ‘poses’ the problems; the pupil’s task is to discover the solutions.”
He (15) adds that the problem with this is that:
“In this way we are kept in a kind of slavery. True freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute the problems themselves.”
Note that he isn’t saying that posing a problem is an issue, but rather that others posing them to you is. In other words, when you don’t get to come up with them yourself, they are fed to you, like in the school example. As he (15) points out, there is a certain prejudice, in the sense that the questions or problems are prejudged. He (15) also refers to order-words (mots d’ordre) in this context. He also refers to order-words with Félix Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. They (76) state that:
“The elementary unit of language – the statement – is the order-word.”
Their translator, Brian Massumi (523), indicates in the notes that order-words (mots d’ordre) should be understood as, on one hand, as orders or commands, as in making people do something, and, on the other hand, as creative or constitutive of order, how things ought to be. As they (76) point out:
“Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”
They (76) also exemplify this by stating that:
“We see this in police or government announcements, which often have little plausibility or truthfulness, but say very clearly what should be observed and retained.”
Indeed, I reckon this tends to be the hallmark of announcements or public statements. It’s usually very hard to assess them, whether they hold or not. They seem like they are just made up, yet you can’t really say. You are left to take things on an as is basis, something to believe in because, well, that institution or its representative says so. There is this expectation that people just go with it, or else.
It’s worth clarifying that an order-word is not just a command, an imperative. As indicated by them (76), it’s a matter of function. So, it can be a simple assertion, involving affirmation or negation, but it can also be a question, as they (76) point out. For example, you can put people on the spot by simply stating something like ‘tell me when you’ll be done with this project’ to someone or by asking that person ‘when you’ll be done with this project?’. Now that may or may not function the same way. It depends on factors that have not been covered here, like who we are dealing with, the intonation, facial expression, gestures, how close people are standing to one another etc. I won’t get into detail with that here as I’ve covered this in past essays. The point is that the order-word is a function.
Anyway, they (76) emphasize that this is not about the words themselves. It’s rather how they come to be used, hence the order-word is a function. They (76) elaborate this by stating that:
“Words are not tools, but we give children language, pens, and notebooks as we give workers shovels and pickaxes.”
To make more sense of this, they (75-76) point out that:
“The compulsory education machine does not communicate information; it imposes upon the child semiotic coordinates possessing all of the dual foundations of grammar (masculine-feminine, singular-plural, noun-verb, subject of the statement-subject of enunciation, etc.).”
To exemplify this, they (75) state that:
“When the schoolmistress instructs her students…, she is not informing them, any more than she is informing herself when she questions a student. She does not so much instruct as ‘insign,’ give orders or commands.”
This leads us back to the issue of how schooling plays a key role in presenting questions as having predefined limits, something that have right (correct) or wrong answers. Now, this is, of course linked to discipline and punish, how this is ingrained into people as they ‘progress’ through the school system, but, I won’t get tangled up in that either as I’ve covered that in the past as well.
So, back to ‘Dialogues’, to ‘A Conversation: What is it? What is it For?’, where Deleuze (1-2) argues against how questions are typically posed in this problem-solution or question-answer formula. It’s worth going back a bit, to the issue of identity, how “[i]t is very hard to ‘explain oneself’”, as he (1) points out. When people ask questions, they “are generally aimed at a future”, for example at “[t]he future of women, the future of the revolution, the future of philosophy, etc.”, or the past, as he (1) goes on to elaborate the issue. What is missing here is the present, here and now. That’s what’s important. In his (1-2) words:
“But during this time, while you turn in circles among these questions, there are becomings which are silently at work, which are almost imperceptible.”
In other words, it’s very hard to explain oneself, who you are, because you already are and when you attempt that, you are actually speaking of something which no longer is or, well, strictly speaking, I guess, never even was. It’s the same thing with speaking in terms of future, what you’ll be, because, again, you are constantly changing, becoming, in flux, or so to speak. What you’ll be has the same underlying issue tied to identity, attempting to explain yourself in the present, assuming that you are something fixed, something stable, that can be defined, just like that. Anyway, he (2) continues:
“We think too much in terms of history, whether personal or universal.”
How we always are, how things always are, is never stable. He (2) adds that:
“Becomings belong to geography, they are orientations, directions, entries and exits.”
To be clear, what’s important here is that this is open-ended. He (2) exemplifies this by stating that:
“There is a woman-becoming which is not the same as women, their past and their future, and it is essential that women enter this becoming to get out of their past and their future, their history.”
The point here is that fixed identities, fixed questions-answers, fixed problems-solutions, make it seem that people are like this or that and that things are like this or that (albeit the emphasis here is on people). They limit people. This is why he (2) emphasizes that it is crucial to understand becoming as open-ended:
“To become is never to imitate, nor to ‘do like’, nor to conform to a model, whether it’s of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at.”
He (2) rephrases this, explaining it in very blunt terms:
“The question ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid.”
Why? Well, because (2):
“For as someone becomes, what he [or she] is becoming changes as much as he [or she] does himself [or herself].”
So, as I already point out, it’s very hard to explain oneself because while you are doing that, attempting to explain yourself, you’ve already changed. You are constantly changing, hence the stupidity of asking what one is becoming. Again, to be clear, becoming is not something definite, being or doing this or that. He (2) further elaborates becoming:
“Becomings are not phenomena of imitation or assimilation, but of a double capture, of non-parallel evolution, of nuptials between two reigns.”
In more simple terms, nuptials are connections. We are always connected to various heterogeneous elements which, in part, define us, and we them, inasmuch as we do and they do, of course. Another way of explaining this is to understand becomings as encounters, where one encounters the other (that is to say one another) but does not become the other, something else, as explained by him (7-8). What one and the other become is a single becoming, something in between the two, taking them into some new direction or orientation that is irreducible to one or the other, as he (7) goes on to explain. He (7) also adds that encountering is about finding, capturing or stealing, but sort of accidentally or unintentionally. It just sort of happens, which is what an encounter is, a matter of chance, not probability. It’s also important to really emphasize that chance is not reducible to probability, as he (5) points out. When you think of it, an encounter is not about probability because if you reduce chance to probability, you no longer seek to encounter the other by letting things happen but seek to predict that this or that will take place. You force it, when, in fact, finding the other in an encounter has no other method than a long preparation, as he (7) points out. In other words, you end up adding ‘what’ into becoming, giving it a goal, an end, which is wholly contradictory to becoming, hence the particular stupidity of it.
He (7) also clarifies that, for him stealing is not the same as “plagiarizing, copying, imitating, or doing like.” Simply put, “[c]apture is always a double capture, theft a double-theft, and it is that which creates not something mutual, but an asymmetrical block, an a-parallel evolution, nuptials, always ‘outside’ and ‘between’”, which, for him (7) is what a conversation is. Now, if you think of it, this is what happens when you encounter people, rather than setting goals to your interactions with them. For example, if I interview someone, utilizing a set of questions that that person is expected to answer, I’m not having a conversation. I’m steering the person to give the answers that I want, the answers that I expect, or, rather the answers the person expects me to expect from the person. That is not a conversation. There is nothing that takes place between me and the other person, no new direction, no new orientation. A conversation is something open ended. You’ll notice it when it happens. It just starts going to places, or so to speak, but without having a predefined direction or a goal. It just flows. It most definitely involves stealing, a double-theft. You take, but the other person also takes. But, importantly, you do not know what you’ll end up stealing, nor does the other person. I like to think that you are then not learning from the other person but with that person, even though you do end up getting something from that person, by stealing from that person. But, remember, it’s a double-theft. It works both ways and, most importantly, unforeseen ways.
He (7-8) exemplifies this with a Bob Dylan poem, ‘11 Outlined Epitaphs’, in which it is stated that “Yes, I am a thief of thoughts”, “not, I pray, a stealer of souls”. Anyway, you can look that up yourself, in case you are interested. He (8-9) indicates that Dylan, the songwriter, and Jean-Luc Godard, the filmmaker, are not authors, but rather producers, not in the sense that we typically think of producers, as these people who oversee and manage projects, but rather as the where the production takes place. To be more specific, the person is not situated in a production studio, overseeing and managing a project, but the production studio, as explained by Deleuze (9). I guess another way of expressing this is to say that the person functions like a mixing board, in itself good for nothing, but with the right inputs, something other than the inputs comes out. Be your own DJ, mix it up!
To avoid being too specific, he (9) rephrases some of this, stating that, in a sense, you are never alone. I mean, yes, you are alone, it’s just you, but, what makes you you, is not you. You are rather “like a conspiracy of criminals”, a member of a gang, of people who hang out, every once in a while to pile up the loot, but also do their own thing, as he (9) points out. For me, reading and writing functions like this. I engage with others, taking a bit of this and a bit of that, using them as I see fit and mixing it up the way I see, producing whatever happens to come out, which may or may not be useful to others who do the same thing. This is, more or less, how these essays are supposed to work. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. You are missing the point if you read these essays in order to value them, to judge them. I have little interest in being an author, so you are missing the point if you spend your time attempting to pinpoint what I am like, who I am. It’s not that you mustn’t do that. All I’m saying is that it’s just unproductive. Everyday conversations are like this as well, as I already pointed out. There’s just these encounters, these engagements, which take place and alter your course. There is, of course, the risk of turning a gang into what it is not, a fixed group, a court, a school or a family, as he (9) goes on to add. A fixed gig is a fixed gig; a rig. There is always a temptation to try to turn chance into probability, to min/max, to make things more efficient.
He (11) also explains this by stating the people are deserts, but they are populated by tribes of people, as well as by flora and fauna, all kinds of things really. What matters is the arrangement of all these components, their mixture. They come and go. The desert is thus our only identity which permits “experimentation on oneself”, “our single chance for all the combinations which inhabit us.”
He (8) also noted that encountering, finding, capturing and stealing should not be confused with regulating, recognizing and judging. In the first instance, there is only preparation for encounters, which may or may not occur, whereas the second instance there are all these methods, rules and recipes, as he (8) points out. He (8) specifies that recognizing is the exact opposite of encountering, which only makes sense when you think of this in terms of chance and probability. When you deal with probability, you have already recognized something and attempt to predict when it takes place, whereas with an encounter it’s not specified what the encounter will be and where and when it might take place. With regard to judging, he (8) points out something that advocates of peer review won’t like:
“Judging is the profession of many people, and it is not a good profession, but it is also the use to which many people put writing. Better to be a road-sweeper than a judge.”
Haha, I agree! How dull to put writing in the service of judgment. But, this only gets better, when he (8-9) subsequently ramps it up even further:
“The more one has been fooled in one’s life, the more one gives lessons: no one is as good as a Stalinist in giving lessons in non-Stalinism and pronouncing ‘new rules’.”
Something makes me think of Friedrich Nietzsche in this context, how ressentiment functions, but I won’t get tangled up on that either. Anyway, Deleuze (9) continues:
“There is a whole race of judges, and the history of thought is like that of a court, it lays claim to a court of Pure Reason, or else Pure Faith … This is why people speak so readily in the name and in the place of others, and why they like questions so much, are so clever at asking them and replying to them.”
It gets even stranger, as he (9) points out:
“There are also those who demand to be judged, if only to be recognized as guilty. In justice they demand conformity, even if this is to rules which they invent, to a transcendence which they claim to reveal or to feeling which motivate them.”
This is something that is also discussed in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. Deleuze and Guattari (130) call this “the paradox of the legislator subject”, “being slave to oneself”: “the more you obey the statements of the dominant reality, the more in command you are as subject of enunciation in mental reality, for in the end you are only obeying yourself!” In ‘Dialogues’, Deleuze (9) indicates that this is a very, very bad idea: “[j]ustice and correctness are bad ideas.” He (10) further elaborates this:
“You should not try to find whether an idea is just or correct. You should look for a completely different idea, elsewhere, in another area, so that something passes between the two which is neither in one nor the other.”
I think I’ve forgotten to point out that this is not dialectics, despite there being one and the other. One is not an argument, a thesis, and the other is not a counter-argument, its antithesis, the negation or the contradiction of the thesis. What comes out of it is not a synthesis of the thesis and the antithesis that resolves their differences or contradictions. Neither does one wholly subscribe to one or the other in the end but rather neither. Anyway, he (10) indicates how one might find an idea:
“Now, one does not generally find this idea alone; a chance is needed, or else someone gives you one.”
Note how this already broadens the issue, how one might find an idea. It’s not only people who give you idea, but also, or, rather the encounter itself. As he (10) points out, in a moment of wonder, “[t]his is an encounter, but with whom?” He (10) isn’t sure himself: is the encounter with a person, “with a field, with a word, with a gesture?” He (10) likens this to when signals from two lamps cross. He (11) also attempts to clarify this by pinpointing this with “an encounter with someone you like”. Think that for a moment, what is that encounter like? Do you like something about that person? Or, is it that you like the encounter with that person? Now, the person is, of course, highly important in that encounter, but that person is not the encounter. In his (11) words:
“Is it an encounter with someone, or with [those] who come to populate you, or with the ideas which take you over, the movements which move you, the sounds which run through you? And how do you separate these things?”
I reckon you don’t separate them. You can’t separate them. Or, rather, if you do separate them, that’s no longer the encounter, but something else. As he (11) goes on to elaborate, there is this “unique combination” when one deals with people, marked by their proper names (ask yourself, what does a certain name really mean to you, what is it in reference to?), marked by all these “sounds hammered out, … decisive gestures, … ideas made of tinder and fire, … deep attention and sudden closure, … laughter and smiles which one feels to be ‘dangerous’ at the very moment when one feels tenderness”.
He (10) explains that all you need to do is to pick-up ideas, once you encounter them. He (10) also states that this not about expertise or know-how, that only certain people can come up with ideas in some very restricted field or discipline. I reckon it’s rather the opposite. A specialist tends to be a specialist only in a narrow existing field or discipline and, most likely, unwilling to go outside the boundaries of that field or discipline. To be clear, he (10) contrast this picking-up with cutting-up. The point is not to take various existing bits and pieces and then rearrange them. As he (10) points out, that’s a matter of probabilities.
There isn’t much else to cover in this first part of the first chapter of ‘Dialogues’. Of course it’s all worth reading, with all kinds of anecdotes, but they are there more for the sake of flavor. I mean, this text is more like a conversation, like someone speaking, rather than tightly composed text, so it only makes sense that it’s a bit frothy. If you ask me, best conversations tend to be frothy, going all over the place, having no particular order. There is, however, an interesting remark that he (12-13) makes about people who take themselves seriously while others don’t really take them seriously. He is referring to philosophers by profession but I reckon this applies to most academics, regardless of their field or discipline. People don’t take them that seriously. They have this ivory-tower aura to them, so people are unlikely to take them seriously, as in ‘what do they know about everyday life?’ However, that’s not what concerns Deleuze (13):
“But that doesn’t stop [history of philosophy] from having its own apparatuses of power – or its being an effect of its apparatuses of power when it tells people: ‘Don’t take me seriously, because I think for you, since I give you conformity, norms and rules, an image’; to all of why you may submit all the more as you say: ‘That’s not my business, it’s not important, it’s for [them] and their pure theories.’”
So, in a way, it should be the other way around. They should not take themselves so seriously whereas people should take them seriously. Because they do and people don’t, the result is complacency. The image he is referring to here is the traditional, dominant or moral image of thought that goes all the way back to Plato. It’s so ingrained in people, so taken for granted that people don’t mind, only academics do and that’s exactly the problem. People take it for granted, which privileges the academics who then get to exercise power over people, more or less unquestioned. I’m telling you, it’s a sweet, sweet gig! I mean it is a sweet, sweet gig, unless you happen to be one of the heretics, one of those people who takes issue with it. He (13) exemplifies this:
“The history of philosophy … has played the represser’s role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant and Heidegger, and so-and-so’s book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought – but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despite. An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking.”
Ah, yes, here we have that image of thought that I was referring to. He uses the example of philosophy, but, as he (14) goes on to point out, this is no longer an issue that is just limited to philosophy. Any field or discipline will do just fine. I mean, for those of you, my dear, dear readers, who happen to be academics, of a certain field (unless you happen to embrace transversalism, happily going all over the place as you see fit), this ought to be very familiar to you. When was it that you engaged with any of the works of the philosophers mentioned in this in essay? It might even be that the random non-academic who happens to stumble upon this essay is more familiar with philosophy than an academic. Now, I’m not saying that either is, in itself, a bad thing. It doesn’t matter really. What matters is that while what stops people from thinking is rooted in philosophy, it also affects other fields or disciplines, regardless of whether people in those fields acknowledge it or not, “[h]ence the importance of notions such as universality, method, question and answer, judgment, or recognition, of just correct, always having correct ideas”, as he (13) points out. It is sad really. People don’t even notice how they rely on such notions. The world just speaks through them. When I get peer review comments, much of it revolves around such notions, with very little awareness of where they stem, how they are historically formed and how they contribute to preventing people from thinking for themselves. For him (13), the issue is that:
“The exercise of thought thus conforms to the … dominant meanings and to the requirements of the established order.”
What goes against this, what does not conform to this way of thinking “is crushed and denounced as a nuisance”, as he (14) goes on to clarify. How dare they think for themselves! Who are these people? They must be swiftly disciplined and punished! Denounce the heretics! Crush them! He (17-18) also mentions something that angers a lot of academics, using ideas from fields or disciplines that are not deemed to be your fields or disciplines. However, what they miss is that that’s how a conversation works. You steal ideas, make them your own. In his (18) words, you deterritorialize and reterritorialize them. You make them work for you, or, rather the conversation makes them work for you, and, perhaps, to the other person, inasmuch as it does, of course. The point here is that this way you cease to be an author. The ideas are what matters, not who came up with them. It’s not that people don’t matter, but rather that the ideas should serve the people, no the other way around.
The next time I’ll look into the second part of this text attributed to Parnet (unless I come up with something else, of course).
- Deleuze, G. ( 1988). Bergsonism. New York, NY: Zone Books.
- Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ( 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Deleuze, G., and C. Parnet ( 1987). Dialogues (H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Dylan, B. (1964). 11 Outlined Epitaphs. In B. Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ (T. Wilson, Pr.). New York, NY: Columbia Records.