Monday, September 10, 2012

Deleuze: "Desire and Pleasure" (1977)

If I'm not mistaken, this tiny text is stitched together from a bunch of notes that Gilles Deleuze wrote in response to the first volume of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality (The Will to Knowledge, 1976). There's an English translation of it in Arnold Davidson's nice anthology Foucault and His Interlocutors (1997). It's a little less than ten pages long.

A Little Preview

Deleuze is very open about the things in Foucault's work that he's uncomfortable with or doesn't quite understand. Unfortunately, he also writes quite telegraphically (as well as in his usual obscure manner). However, I think the main hypothesis of the text can be summed up as follows:

The "center" and the "margin" of a society are both defined by the kind of desire that's characteristic of that society. In Deleuze's vocabulary, "desire" can be glossed roughly as "will to power." It's the ups and downs of the universe, the sense of what counts as winning or losing. In some cases, this desire might appear to be a subversive force, but in reality, it only solicits a special, limited, and highly structured kind of anarchic rule-breaking.

However, Deleuze still generally sees desire as a good thing. It does cause some social turbulence, and we might appreciate that in certain cases. Pleasure, on the other hand, is the evil cousin of desire in Deleuze's world: This is a static and conservative force that only dulls down society.

What Does Deleuze Mean By "Desire"?

Deleuze and Foucault seems to have a kind of mutual uneasiness about the other one's use of the two words "desire" and "pleasure":
The last time we saw each other, Michel told me, with much kindness and affection, something like, I cannot bear the word desire; even if you use it differently, I cannot keep myself from thinking or living that desire = lack, or that desire is repressed. Michel added, whereas myself, what I call pleasure is perhaps what you call desire; but in any case I need another word than desire.
Obviously, once again, this is more than a question of words. Because for my part, I can scarcely tolerate the word pleasure. (p. 189)
So Foucault feels uncomfortable with the notion of desire because it seems to imply some kind of "natural," inner force. Since his whole project is concerned with demolishing the idea of suppressed sexuality, he obviously can't work with such a word.

Deleuze, on the other hand, likes the word. To him, it evokes something like the picture of a force field or phase diagram in physics. Under this interpretation, desire is the slope of the hill you are currently standing on. It's never about what you "are," but always about what you are about to be. This suggests that desire cannot be pinned onto any stable or coherent subject position.

A Tentative Opposition

Deleuze says this quite explicitly. In note G, he opposes desire to all the things that tend to go with coherent subject positions (territories, organization, layering). On the other side of the divide, he places all the weird stuff that is poses a problem for such positions (bodies without organs, deterritorialization, lines of flight):
For me, desire implies no lack; neither is it a natural given. [...] it implies the constitution of a plane of immanence or a "body without organs," which is defined solely by zones of intensity, thresholds, gradients, flows. (p. 189)
Personally, I also found Paul Fry's illustration of this distinction in terms of seasonal flu vs. inherited diseases quite useful: One thing is a dumb, blind, evolutionary machine that suddenly spreads in a population; the other is a reliable, solid, stable disease that attached to a single person, has a root cause and a history, and can be incorporated in your personal identity.

What Does He Mean By "Pleasure"?

Under this interpretation, however, pleasure is the boogeyman:
I cannot give any positive value to pleasure because pleasure seems to me to interrupt the immanent process of desire; pleasure seems to me to be on the side of strata and organization [the bad guys]; and it is in one and the same movement that desire is subject to the law from within [= "liberation," "self-realization," maybe?] and scanned by the pleasure from without [= expectations, normalization, discipline?]; in both cases, there is the negation of the field of immanence proper to desire. (p. 190)
So desire is flexible and dynamic, while pleasure is rigid and static (and thus an ally of normalization and yesterday's news). This doesn't entail that desire is unambiguous, though: As far as I can see, the strive for profit or the wish to get elected would also count as desire according to Deleuze's definition. It's not simply that desire is unconditionally good.

Two Reference Points

But pleasure is unconditionally bad, it appears. This brings Deleuze to make the following wonderful comment:
I tell myself that it is not by chance that Michel attaches a certain importance to Sade, and myself on the contrary to Masoch. It would not be enough to say that I am masochistic, and and Michel sadistic. That would be nice, but it's not true. What interests me in Masoch are not the pains but the idea that pleasure interrupts the positivity of desire and the constitution of its field of immanence (just as, or rather in a different manner, in courtly love there is the constitution of a field of immanence or a body without organs in which desire lacks nothing and refrains as lond as possible from the pleasure that would interrupt its processes). Pleasure seems to me to be the only means for a person or a subject to "find itself again" in a process that surpasses it. It is a reterritorialization [a bad guy]. And from my point of view, desire is related to the law of lack and to the norm of pleasure in the same manner. (p. 190)
I think this last sentence means that it would take the piss out of desire if we conflated it with "the norm of pleasure." This would turn its "field of immanence" into a dull, Dutch landscape.

In other words: Suppose you have just gotten yourself into some intricate system of, say, seduction, heartbreak, infatuation, etc. This allows you to experience a certain type of desire, because it defines new strategies, possibilities for rule-breaking, and striving for things you can't have. But if you were to find some kind of shortcut to pleasure, you wouldn't need to short-circuit or bend anything anymore, and all the positive potential of the desire would evaporate. In that case, you would just be a subject with a definite goal that happened to be fulfilled.

That's at least a guess at what he means.

Is Desire Subversive? Is Anything?

Since Deleuze wants to invest such great powers in his concept of desire, he is also at pains to convince us that it isn't just some crypto-Freudian life force:
[…] desire is never either a "natural" or "spontaneous" determination. For example, feudalism is an agencement [assemblage] that brings about new relations with the animal (the horse), with the earth, with deterritorialization (the knight's journey, the Crusades), with women (courtly love), . . . etc. Completely mad agencements, but always historically attributable. (p. 185)
Note than even the crusades count as a "deterritorialization," too. It should be clear, then, that there isn't necessarily anything subversive about desire. The way one succeeds or revolts or breaks down in a given society is rather an intergral part of its social landscape:
I would say, for my part, that a society, a social field, does not contradict itself, but what it primary is that it takes flight; it first of all flees in every direction; it lines of flight are primary (even if primary is not chronological). Far from lying outside the social field or emerging from it, lines of flight constitute its rhizome or cartography. Lines of flight are the same thing as deterritorialization: they imply no return to nature; they are points of deterritorialization in agencements of desire. (p. 187)
So "deterritorialization" involves the resourceful, central people in a society as much as anyone else. Politicians and top managers are after all the ones with the strongest will to power, and they are by no means engaged in a project of subversion.

However, Deleuze does muddle this point a little when he says that people on the margins of society have a tendency to gather at the lines of flight: 
I share Michel's distaste for those who consider themselves marginals; the romanticism of madness, delinquency, perversion, and drugs is less and less bearable for me. But for me, lines of flight, that is, agencements of desire, are not created by marginals. On the contrary, they are objective lines that cut across a society, and on which marginals install themselves here and there (p. 189)
But OK, maybe he just means that people on the margins of society are involved in the same games as everybody else. In that case, he is just making the negative point I proposed above.

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