Deleuze and Guattari’s books defy our casual assumptions about what it is to read. So while it may seem like they’re trying to keep you out with esoteric jargon, that’s not it at all. They are not easy to read, sure, but not because they’re trying to be difficult but because they know how to party. They give you so much — so many fantastic invocations (birds songs, wolf packs, paintings, films, novels, science, philosophy) along with a delirious proliferation of figures and concepts, fancifully and playfully named. You can always snatch a figure, ignore the rest, and just go about your business. Or, if you’re enjoying the party, you can stick around. Deleuze & Guattari’s books are generous like that.
Reading as Event
Consider an image: you picking up a book that’s in your house and sitting down to read it. What is the relationship between you and this book? Between what, where, and how you are and what, where, and how the book is?
Who do you think you are when you pick up a book? What are your expectations of the experience? What do you want from that book? And you have to ask yourself: What does that book want from you?
What are your limits— of fortitude, both physical and emotional (books can be long, demanding, and intense)? Of patience (see previous parenthetical)? Of understanding (books can be complex—linguistically, rhetorically, and semantically)? Of willingness to go astray of yourself (books have been known to incite great change)? Is there a chance that this book, or any book, will unroot you, reorient you, inflect you to become someone quite different?
Will reading this or that give you pleasure? Health? Understanding? Knowledge? Insight? Emotion?
No doubt, sitting on your couch you read all kinds of things that don’t really affect you. A friend jokingly teases you in a text. Maybe you read an article and learn that someone in some country did something. Or that some famous person of yore had an odd childhood. You utter huh and carry on.
Sometimes, you read something and you don’t just carry on as you were. Your heart beats faster. You laugh, alone, out loud. You suddenly feel possessed by a new mood. Or, suddenly, you see your life differently, altering how you go about living.
Of course, the time of reading’s effects varies wildly. A book does not affect you only while reading it. That’d be absurd. (And I don’t just mean the knowledge from a book endures; I mean the experience in all its facets.) Sometimes, if not often, a book —or something the book proffered such as an image, idea, figure, mood—stirs you later. Maybe later that night. Maybe years later.
Sometimes, you read something and laugh—not quite hysterically—and stop laughing when you stop reading: a one to one temporal correspondence. (If you’d laughed hysterically, that event would most likely continue past your act of reading. Laughing makes an impression, even our own laughter. Especially our own.) Most communication operates like this: texts confirm, then dissipate. The texts of those texts is less important than their rhythm and tone: texts as cadence of the interpersonal, a rhythm and style of engagement between people.
Why should you assume that the book you just picked up is legible and meaningful—from the get go, no less—to you. Sure, text from friends and co-workers should, presumably, be legible and meaningful. But a book written by a stranger who has all kinds of desires, tics, memories, visions? How would you ever expect to always be in the know reading a book?
Disorientation, it’d seem, should be the default posture of readers picking up a book. Even if the book at hand is a newspaper article, tweet, or text from a friend, the keen reader asks: What’s going on here? What does this book, this experience, want from me? How might I go best with these words?
Books are not neutral. They do not exist on a common plane of rationality — as if every writer used the same medium and then put their ideas and prose into the world. No, every book is a choreography. You move your eyes according to it. Your eyeballs, your understanding, your emotions: all choreographed by the book.
My point is there are a lot of different relationships between reader and text. Deleuze and Guattari’s books defy our casual assumptions about what it is to read. So while it may seem like they’re trying to keep you out with jargon, that’s not it at all. They are not easy to read, sure, but not because they’re trying to be difficult but because they know how to party. They give you so much — so many beautiful invocations of things you know (birds, paintings, films, novels, cities) along with a delirious proliferation of figures and concepts, fancifully and playfully named. You can always just take a figure, ignore the rest, and go about your business. Or, if you’re enjoying the party, you can stick around.
Disorientation as the Condition of Reading Deleuze & Guattari
Deleuze, whether he’s writing with Guattari or not, tends to begin his books mid-conversation. (I think I’ll stick to the plural even if, at times, I refer to Deleuze or Guattari .) They don’t provide introductions to their books setting up what’s to come. There’s no balcony letting you see it all without having to get dirty, without having to participate (pace Matthew Arnold). They don’t try to give you mastery. From word one, you’re in the mix. In the deep end. Their books, you realize, have already begun. Just look at these first sentences:
- “Repetition is not generality.” (Difference & Repetition)
- “The Baroque refers not to an essence but rather to an operative function, to a trait.” (The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque)
- “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts.” (Anti-Oedipus)
French philosophers are often accused of being purposefully obtuse — and sometimes such accusations are apropos. More often, though, neither reader nor writer is very good at their job. In this case, however, Deleuze and Guattari are not being assholes. Their writing performs their philosophy. Which means operating without a common ground as their philosophy undoes the ground itself. What is it Emerson says — “Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand.” Such is reading Deleuze and Guattari (until you learn to operate in quicksand).
This of course confuses people who assume new ideas and new modes of thinking should be familiar. But how can you think differently if you’re never confused? How can you learn new ideas if you assume all ideas should be familiar?
In this world of Deleuze and Guattari, there are no standards—for anything, anywhere — that are not themselves in flux. Which, to be clear, is not the same as saying there are no standards. There are—so many, in fact, it’s dizzying. It’s just that standards are in flux, too, along with everything else. Including you. Including them. Including words. Including understanding.
There’s no absolute ruler to measure things. No firm and steady ground on which to stand and survey the world. It’s all—all!—in flux, moving, morphing, dissolving, enmeshing, intwining, relentlessly. Ideas, facts, bodies, identities, operations, concepts, truths, events, mountains, kisses, desires, feelings, black holes, nostrils, dogs, literature, asteroids, leaves, DNA, Harvey Keitel, commas, meaning: it’s all in motion.
To be clear, it’s all in flux, yes, but that doesn’t mean there are no modes of differentiation, no organizational forces, no distributive operations. For Deleuze and Guattari, the organizing of bodies and forces is relentless and inevitable. Which is to say, their world is not a matter of constraint or freedom as an on-off proposition. Rather, it’s a matter of operating in ways that foment difference and novelty.
So in their books there are no introductions where you can quickly grasp their ideas and move on. They make you step into their world. Reading Deleuze and Guattari is a pedagogy itself as you’re forced to surrender your familiar trappings of sense. Which, frankly, you should be doing when you read most things.
The philosopher’s task, they argue, is not to convey answers to big questions using the common medium of language—as if these questions and this language were fixed, eternal, and right. What is truth? What is good? What is the self? No, nothing is fixed— certainly not those inane questions! Everything is in motion, relentlessly —including big questions, words, grammars, concepts, and ideas. Deleuze and Guattari listened to Nietzsche when he said to smash all idols.
The philosopher must invent the very questions and, sometimes, the answers. A philosopher—like artists, scientists, writers—proffers a world with its own organization and operations, its own way of making sense —a world with laws, rules, ideas, languages, dialects, temperature, intensity, density.
So of course reading the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari seems like you’re trying to decipher some alien language. Which is half true: it is an alien language. But you don’t need to decipher it as if it were a code within your own language. No, you need to learn to operate with this other language, with its grammar and sense.
There is therefore no nifty introduction to their books written in your language. In the world of Deleuze and Guattari, there is no outside this living, no position that’s not in motion: we’re all in the midst of it, always and necessarily. And so Deleuze and Guattari positions themselves in the midst of it all much like Tom Wolfe with the Merry Pranksters or Hunter Thompson with the Hells Angels. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, the middle is where things pick up speed and get interesting.
It’s not easy to see things from the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left: try it, you’ll see that everything changes. (Deleuze)
So don’t expect to always know what’s happening. Sense will emerge, or not, as you continue reading.
Some Practical Tactics to Reading Deleuze & Guattari
- Don’t try reading from beginning to end as if their books are cumulative or linear progressions. At times they are but despite the formal constraints of a book — moving left to right on a line — their books often don’t move linearly.
- Skip around reading sentences and paragraphs here and there. Look for something that speaks to you, that pops from the fray. Then do that again and again.
- Let the scene emerge much as Cézanne painted: a stroke here, a stroke there, until the scene appears on the canvas. Like Cézanne before them, Deleuze & Guattari do not use outlines for their forms. Forms emerge; they are not determined from on high.
- Don’t expect, or try, to master Deleuze & Guattari. You will be confused, often. You will not understand, often. That’s ok.
- They don’t give answers to “big” questions. So don’t look for them. Ask yourself: what are they asking? Not what’s their answer.
- Take what you want — the rhizome or the Body without Organs. No need to take it all if you don’t want to. What would “all” even mean?
- They move relentlessly between disciplines, objects, and information — bird songs, wolf packs, psychoanalysis, philosophy, rhetoric, linguistics, drugs, novels, art, films. You will not know all their references. You can look them up. Or not. (Again, this is not a matter of mastery.)
- Have fun! Let it wash over you. The play is as much the “point” as anything they say.