November 12, 2019, by criticalmoment

Making Sense of Deleuzian Problematisation

Last night, the Centre for Critical Theory had the pleasure of hosting international visiting speaker, Jeffrey Bell, Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University in the US.

Professor Bell is a well-known scholar in the field of Deleuze Studies. Among his book-length publications are The Problem of Difference: Phenomenology and Poststructuralism (University of Toronto Press: 1998); Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Difference (University of Toronto Press: 2006); Deleuze’s Hume: Philosophy, Culture and the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh University Press: 2009); and the co-edited collection – with one of our previous invited speakers, Claire Colebrook – Deleuze and History (Edinburgh University Press: 2009).

Entitled ‘Making Sense of Capital’, the talk emerged from Professor Bell’s current research project on the metaphysics of problems in Deleuze’s philosophy. His paper critically and creatively juxtaposed three thinkers not often associated directly with Deleuze: Hume, Bourdieu and Marx. One of the richest implications to come out of this unusual juxtaposition was the notion of problematisation which encourages us to think of a specifically Deleuzian model of critique.

To summarise Professor Bell’s paper very schematically then …

The first part brought out the threat to the distinction between ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’ central to Humean empiricism posed by what Hume himself calls ‘delirium’. In certain states – such as sleep, madness or fever – Hume concedes that the link between perception and experience can be broken, so that the ‘sense’ we make of the world becomes hallucinatory (a later psychiatric tradition would call this the ‘flight of ideas’). Deleuze, Bell argued, was particularly sensitive to the ways in which thought in fact always involves this possibility of a delirium that at once founds yet threatens determinate ‘sense’. While Hume stresses habits of thought accumulated from empirical sense-impressions, Deleuze identifies a more radical potential in thought’s delirious side (echoing, of course, the valorisation of a certain figure of the ‘schizophrenic’ in Anti-Oedipus).

Professor Bell then moved from Hume’s ‘habits of thought’ to Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ and the related concept of ‘fields’. Otherwise very disparate thinkers, it is possible to discern a shared interest in the question of agency and determination. In some ways, Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ occupies a mid-way point between structuralist accounts of top-down social determination on the one hand, and more phenomenological bottom-up accounts of individual consciousness on the other. Habitus describes sociologically stable, if contested, ‘fields’ which are partially determining, but also a ‘feel for the game’ which allows individuals to deploy an emergent agency within, but also by virtue of, those same fields. Nonetheless, the differences rather than supposed similarities between the two thinkers are crucial. Where Bourdieu, the sociologist, thinks of fields as actual stable entities ‘out there’ in the social sphere, Deleuze, the philosopher of immanence, thinks of fields as virtual which, given his work on the virtual-actual couplet, does not imply that they aren’t real. In this sense, fields also have a kind of inherent delirium for Deleuze, such that the sense they make of the world simultaneously provides the conditions of possibility for other senses, other sensibilities.

In the final section of his talk, Professor Bell turned to the ‘field’ of economics. For champions of neoliberalism like Friederich von Hayek, the economy is presented as an impersonal machine that should be left to determine social behaviours, since the invisible hand of the market solves all social problems. For Hayek, problems only arise when this solution is not given free reign but stymied by paternalistic states – Keynesian just as much as socialist. Now, the by no means accidental resemblance between Deleuze and Gauttari’s ‘plane of immanence’ and late capitalism has led some to criticise their work as, effectively, an apology for the deterritorialised flows of free market globalisation. However, Professor Bell stressed an important difference. Neoliberal propaganda about the market as, effectively, the field of all fields or an Ur-field presents it also as impersonal and machinic (in a very un-Deleuzian way). Yet as Marx argued, the kind of freedom offered by capital is really a form of unfreedom disguised as entrepreneurial autonomy. Particularly pernicious in neoliberalism is its capacity to present capitalism as a solution essentially divorced from particular problems. This image of the market as an abstract and universal panacea, and thus as a solution which has no particular problem, has become a dangerously closed ‘common sense’ today.

Professor Bell therefore ended his talk with an appeal to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notion of problematisation, as elaborated in their last collaborative book project, What is Philosophy? Whilst What is Philosophy? is well-known for advancing the view that philosophy is a matter of inventing new concepts (which on its own sounds dangerously close to a commodified marketplace of ideas), it is less often noted that their more fundamental move is to present concepts as functions of problems. Philosophy is required – rather than some more technical utilitarian science – precisely because these are not clear and distinct problems amenable to representation. Only philosophy is able to endure with the question of the right question rather than rush to answers to problems that often are not true problems at all. Problematisation, in the transitive, involves laying bare the often obscure conditions that gave rise to a particular solution, but crucially and in the self-same movement, also exposing what other potential solutions are virtually present within the actualisation of this (problematic) solution.

In a very obvious way, the Deleuzian problematisation outlined by Professor Bell is a timely concept for our era. Take the planetary environmental crisis we face today. Taken from the perspective of problematisation, the true existential threat does not come from the deniers of climate change, who more and more have roughly the same credibility as flat-earthers. Rather, the true threat lies in the apparent consensus now not just that there is indeed a grave problem with the environment, but that we know exactly what it is. It is a short step from there to the perverse idea that capital can be the solution to the problem it has itself created (hence measures around carbon markets, the incentivisation of green entrepreneurialism, and corporate fines for breaching environmental regulations which can all-too easily be budgeted for).

Just as rigidly fixed or determinate ‘sense’ needs to be brought up against its delirious potentialities, so we, as subjects of late capital, need to cultivate Deleuze’s “higher taste for problems” in order to resist neoliberalism’s ready-made answers.

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