June/July/Aug 2010

Psyched Out

Appraising the radical legacy of two French intellectuals

Scott McLemee

Bringing together Marx and Freud in a united theoretical front was an urgent task for radicals throughout much of the twentieth century, with benefits that would flow to historical materialism and psychoanalysis alike. The stakes were already clear in Wilhelm Reich's ill-fated efforts of the 1920s and '30s: The central but under-developed notion of class consciousness (about which Marx himself had written just a few suggestive pages) might be put on better footing by annexing a theory of the mind that was, after all, materialist in its basic assumptions. And revolutionary expropriation would be good for psychoanalysis itself—it would rescue the original radicalism of Freud's work, which was otherwise obscured by both the commodification of treatment and the founder's more conservative moods.

Reich's Sex-Pol movement was instrumental in the radical reclamation of Freud. Reich and his associates offered therapy and sex education in working-class neighborhoods in Germany and thereby created a bridge between the Communist movement and the International Psychoanalytic Association; but neither side really wanted such a bridge, and Reich was expelled from both in the early 1930s, within about a year of each other. He would go on to develop even more distinctive theories about how psychic energy worked and what you could do with it. But by that point, he had abandoned scientific socialism and was living within science fiction, via inventions like his renowned orgone box, which professed to harness libidinal energy for alleged scientific applications.

Just where Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari stood vis-à-vis this peculiar forebear was one enigma that loomed over their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), at least for some of us who read it in the United States during the decade or so after its 1977 translation. A few years hence, the question would seem anomalous. But as late as the second half of the Reagan administration, Reich's writings were part of the canon that we untenured radicals absorbed from those slightly older than us—along with the Marxo-Freudian syntheses of Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization (1955) and Norman O. Brown in Life Against Death (1959), and even a certain amount of R. D. Laing's work, with its rhapsodies on the deeper sanity of the psychotic break in a society that was itself insane.

These were important books in the 1950s and '60s, and we continued to read them, if not without misgivings. The deinstitutionalization of schizophrenics was mainly an effect of Reagan-era budget cuts, rather than of the counterculture. Either way, it was hard to see liberation on the faces of the people begging for change on the capitalist sidewalk. And that, in turn, made it more difficult to know what to make of Deleuze and Guattari's stated preference for "a schizophrenic out for a walk" over "a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch" as the model of subjective experience.

The crazy-salad system building of Anti-Oedipus was intoxicating, as was that of its sequel, A Thousand Plateaus (1980), but the implications proved ambiguous and not a little troubling. Reich, at least, believed in the fusion of Marx and Freud as a step forward in the struggle for both collective and individual happiness. Even when he went mad, he saw himself as defending mankind from pollution by atomic bombs and sinister UFO technology. It seemed as if Deleuze and Guattari were picking up where he had left off, in prose that was playfully delirious, where Reich's later ranting had been in terrible earnest. But it was hard to tell how their vision of human emancipation could be distinguished from a celebration of profound abjection.

In expressing these concerns, I date myself, no doubt. By the early 1990s, something changed in the context of Deleuze's reception, at least in the United States. Until then, he had been known mostly by way of Foucault's epochal logrolling ("perhaps one day, this century will be known as Deleuzean"). But by the time of Deleuze's death in 1995, the increasing pace of translation and interpretation had created its own well-regulated and institutionally disciplined plateau of meaning. Nobody would ever think to plug Anti-Oedipus into a "reading machine" cobbled together from leftover bits of New Left ideology. It had become a text inspiring patient exegesis, not worry.

At first reading, François Dosse's joint biography of Deleuze and Guattari, subtitled Intersecting Lives, seems every bit a product of this change in discursive regime. It takes the apotheosis very much for granted. Dosse is the author of several volumes on the history of recent French theoretical work in the humanities and social sciences. His new book is, like them, conscientious to the point of exhaustion. None could wish it longer. His accounts of each stage of Deleuze and Guattari's work (separately and in collaboration) are cogent and never indulge in the mimicry that can make commentary on poststructuralist thought such a exercise in terminal cuteness. It is, at times, curiously stolid. There are chapters describing how Deleuze and Guattari encountered various radical factions during the 1960s and '70s, when traffic between the street and the seminar room was often heavy each way. But in Dosse's telling, all ardor has cooled into so much historical data; he might as well be narrating disputes among the Saint-Simonians in the 1820s.

Such detachment has its advantages, however. The days when Deleuze inspired anything but gestures of reverence are long since over. Even Alain Badiou, who in decades past denounced Anti-Oedipus for its crimes against Chairman Mao Thought, has more recently conducted his polemic at the subtler level of suggesting that Deleuze's conception of multiplicity amounts to a surreptitious totalization. Beneath this politesse, the biographer hears echoes of the original battles, in which Badiou identified Deleuze and Guattari as "protofascist ideologues" whose seemingly anti-hierarchical notion of the rhizome was just a ruse of "the tyranny of revisionism." Digging up the old screeds, restoring the work to the scene of combat rather than insisting on pure celebration, is a kind of service.

But to do so while also giving Guattari roughly equal prominence . . . well now, that is revisionism of another variety. The consolidation of a Deleuzean apparatus over the past two decades has come somewhat at the expense of his collaborator, who died in 1992. Even then, Guattari seemed in his friend's shadow—a matter of some unhappiness to both of them, though this is now starting to lift with the increasing availability of his writings (including previously unpublished material) and a small body of commentary on his psychoanalytic and political thought.This work developed in the context of experimental psychiatric institutions and far-left "groupuscules" that lie well off the usual maps of postwar French cultural life. Dosse's reconstruction of the network of youth hostels, Trotskyist factions, and offbeat discussion circles adds a great deal to our understanding of the tone of Guattari's work, as well as of its implications.

Any sense that Anti-Oedipus is celebrating schizophrenia in some neo-primitivist way (or, conversely, deploying it as some purely theoretical construct) tends to vanish given the full extent of Guattari's activity in treating people afflicted with it. This involved both experiments in relatively egalitarian relations between patients and staff and the use of psychopharmaceuticals. The usual '60s antinomian he wasn't. He could recognize the realities of suffering and vulnerability; the revolutionary project involved opening oneself to the possibility of solidarity across vast differences in experience, with schizophrenia as an extreme. Guattari also seems to have been a calming influence on some of his violence-prone comrades—working quietly, behind the scenes, to persuade them to explore more creative options than armed struggle.

There are complaints to lodge against this biography. Deleuze had an exceptionally ardent relationship with British and American literature. So his marriage to Fanny Deleuze who translated D. H. Lawrence into French, seems as if it would merit some discussion—but it doesn't get any here. Nor is there any serious appraisal of his interaction with the journalist Claire Parnet, which resulted in two volumes named Dialogues (1987), as well as an eight-hour interview called "L'Abécédaire" (i.e., an alphabetical primer). Guattari's involvement in various Marxist groups is described; so are the pleasantries exchanged between Deleuze and the poststructuralist psychoanalytic theorist Louis Althusser. But the question of how Deleuze and Guattari engaged with Marx's own work goes strangely unexplored.

There are numerous mistakes that are, by turns, irritating and inexplicable. I have not tracked down the original to see whether Dosse actually thinks Khrushchev delivered his report on the crimes of Stalin to the Communist Party USA or that Derrida was a member of the Annales School. But given the otherwise exhaustive reach of Dosse's research, it's hard to see how he could. The translator ignores precedent by rendering the objet petit a (that sturdy item of French psychoanalytic jargon, usually left in the original Lacanese) as "the object o." For some reason, the Parti Communiste Français is abbreviated FCP, which just looks weird. Perhaps I am obsessive, but this is too important a book to have been copyedited by someone who isn't.

"There is a history of thought that cannot be reduced to games of influence," Deleuze said in a late interview. "There is a whole becoming of thought that remains mysterious." For all its tireless unearthing of texts and contexts, Dosse's biography isn't reductive, nor does the book try to interpret its subjects using their own conceptual idiom (creating a pastiche that domesticates ideas while pretending to radicalize them). For twenty years, we've had an academicized Deleuze—the totem symbol of a safe anarchism that would never do any thing too crazy. In these pages, he's paired up again with his co-conspirator, a strange figure who haunted all kinds of revolutionary circles and manic gatherings. Staid as he is, Dosse makes Deleuze and Guattari mysterious again.

Scott McLemee is a writer for Inside Higher Ed.


June 17, 2010
1:09 am

This is an admirable, balanced review, well-written. I'm curious where, when and how you (the writer) became interested in this time and these figures? I'm a retired English professor, finally reading French criticism and philosophy in the original. Much of it makes English criticism pretty staid, though some writers like Deleuze, from your description, or Derrida, seem to be swimming too far from shore.


July 14, 2010
10:52 pm

Just one comment: Althusser was a structuralist marxist theorist, not a poststructuralist psychoanalyst. He 'drank' from Lacan's well, but was not a psychoanalist...(unfortunately he ended up experiencing horrible and painful psychological problems) Perhaps, you know something that I was unaware of. That might be very possible. But, if I am correct, it should be clarified.


March 25, 2013
6:47 am

The fantastic article, Its really made my day to reading and enjoying this. Keep posting, awesome !


Comments are open to registered bookforum.com users only. Please login to post.
Don't have an account yet? Please click here to register for a free account.